Report From La: Coming Home

The moment I remembered how to be an Angeleno came, appropriately, on the freeway. The car in front of me wasn't taking full advantage of what a freeway at midnight has to offer--that is, stupidly fast driving. I went for the lane change and glided left before I realized that my lane was about to merge with the one I'd just left, and that I was still behind the other car. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor; my rented Mustang leapt forward and, without noticing that I was doing it in any conscious way, I took the lane. On the freeway, doing 90, the interface between me and the car had disappeared. My brain filled with tactical maps, vivid displays of Los Angeles freeways and the cars vectoring around me on the road rendered onto my visual cortex

For most of the last year I've been on the road, covering the presidential campaign on assignment for Newsweek. I grew up in LA, but I've lived on the East Coast for most of the past decade. Now, I'm home, if only for the week of the Democratic National Convention. A few thousand of my colleagues came along with me, which puts me in the odd position of hanging out with people from the East Coast talking smack about my town. Their complaints are the old ones--the city's too fake, too spread out, too much traffic, the smog obscures the view. From a distance, I'd begun to agree. But driving around LA this week, I've remembered what I like about the place. And now that I've had some training as an Easterner, I think I can finally explain some of the things that creep non-natives out--and make me feel at home.

When people say that Los Angeles looks fake, what they often mean is that it's too pretty--too much blue sky, vast ocean, gray-green sierra and all that open-space stuff that makes people from Manhattan nervous. But sometimes that sense of the unreal goes even deeper. This week, a reporter from the Northeast told me that driving in Los Angeles reminded him of car chase scenes in 1970s TV cop dramas. Well, yeah. Those chases were all filmed in Los Angeles. See, people think LA looks fake, like a movie. They forget that the TV shows and movies they grew up on were shot in LA. Even we Angelenos get caught by LA's real/filmed duality. I chose my college, 30 miles east of the hall where the convention's being held, in small part because I thought one of the dining halls looked the way a dining hall was supposed to look, all dark wood and high ceilings with gothic windows. Then I realized that my main idea of what a dining hall should look like came from the movie "Oxford Blues." And then I found out that the dining hall scene in "Oxford Blues" had been filmed at my college.

Los Angeles is indeed geographically freaky. It's a vast urban foam punctuated by downtowns, some centralized and some linear. It stretches, unofficially, from the ocean to the desert and from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, and it's best seen from a car windshield. At worst, that means a lot of blank streets, long avenues without street-level retail. But it also means dozens of neighborhoods with their own character and attraction--cool boutiques on Melrose, movie theaters with perfect sound and giant screens in Hollywood, trendy clubs on the Sunset Strip. And when there isn't traffic--sometimes there isn't traffic--driving among those downtowns isn't just tolerable. It can be as centering as yoga, a glass-and-steel bubble on a thrill ride, with music from (if you're lucky) a decent stereo.

Does LA have museums and theaters as good as those in New York? Probably not. Are there buzzing centers of power and influence like Washington? Doesn't seem like it. But LA does have perfect fish tacos (sold next door to pretty good Korean barbecue), beaches that don't take hours of vacation time to get to, high schools where the kids speak 20 languages among them and Dr. Seuss-like rows of palm-tree tufts poking up above that urban foam. I have missed a city that doesn't just tolerate cognitive dissonance but embraces it, rewarding Hollywood for making billions of dollars through expert fakery, building subways in the essential car town, loving the smoggy days as much as the crystal clear ones (because hey, at least it's warm). The city has reclaimed me. I just hope that when the thousands of politicals and reporters finally leave Los Angeles to the Angelenos again, some of them will have gotten past the inability to see the city for the haze.