Smog City Wonder

Los Angeles from the air:

It almost looks like a city immersed in clouds, until you realize that wait, forget clouds, it’s the infamous L.A. smog making an appearance. Which is decidedly less romantic, but whatever, from the ground the city’s still all palm trees standing starkly against cloudless blue skies, and that’s what matters, right?

These are the things I think about when the plane makes its descent, heading into the murky soup of the city’s atmosphere. The sun is hanging low on the horizon, and bold bands of orange and dusty yellow and reds are tempered into the violet haze of approaching twilight.

My gaze shifts to an aerial companion: There’s another plane nearby gliding through the sky. It seems awfully close, but perhaps I still can’t shake the “Breaking Bad” season 2 finale. No ominous one-eyed teddy bears for me though.

Whatever the case, the plane looks strange in the air, even though I know I’m in one that looks just like it, and that my plane (well, not MY plane, but you know what I mean) probably looks just as out of place, a hunk of metal drifting above a flat expanse of cotton candy.

The other plane turns away from mine. Its profile looks like an orca sliced diagonally in half, with only the head and dorsal fin surviving the slash.

I had just spent the last 10 or so days back home in New Jersey, partly in order to attend my sister’s high school graduation and partly in order to spend some time with my entire family together before we splintered apart again. I would be heading back to L.A., my father would be going back to work in Beijing, and this time, even my sister would be leaving the Jerz, as this fall she departs for her college of choice in D.C.

That would leave my mother alone to hold the fort in the quaint suburban bubble world I’ve come to call my hometown, even though I spend only a month and a half, max, of my year in it.

I feel bad for my mom. Lord knows it was hard for her to let me go across the country. Then, her husband lost his job and though he got another, it took him to the other side of the world. And now her youngest child is fleeing the coop too, another daughter swallowed up by the lure of a city.

Part of me wishes I could spend more time back home, if only to alleviate her loneliness. And then I think, no, that’s not what I want, and as much as my mother might wish for all of us to be back together, she understands that my father needs the work, my sister needs the exposure to real independence.

And me, what do I need? Before I came to Los Angeles, I was convinced that I would completely embrace the sprawl, would learn to love each neighborhood niche, would be able to go from the mountains to the beach to the Hollywood Bowl in the span of hours. I would see all my favorite bands at the Palladium, the El Rey, the Music Box, I would taste every flavor the city had to offer, I would strike out and take this beast of a place by the reins.

After having lived here for two years, I don’t think that so much anymore. The public transit, which is not as bad as many people say it is, still wears me down (hell is taking the 33 all the way from Abbot Kinney to downtown in rush hour). The dry heat makes my skin crackle and peel. My bank account heaves every time I go to buy groceries, let alone show tickets or museum passes or handmade trinkets at Art Walk. I am surrounded by people who are more beautiful, ambitious, and talented than I will ever be, and if not them, then I am surrounded by people who won’t give me a second glance because I’m not beautiful, ambitious, and talented. L.A. is a city that rewards its stars, but I’m stuck on the ground, unable to launch myself into the metaphorical night sky.

But there is that spark, something that ignites every time I see a congregation of food trucks, or hear the clang of the Expo Line shimmying up and down Flower, or see the spotlights dip and duck in the artificial glitter of L.A. Live. It’s not that I now understand this city, or the type of people who are similarly drawn to it — if anything, I understand less, am surprised more, and that, that is what I need, to be on my toes, to learn something new every day, to question my taste and loosen my judgment, to become a more voracious devourer of culture both low and high, to let this city inform me, drive me. You think you have hopes and aspirations?, it jeers, Justify your laziness and petulance as you make your way down the Walk of Fame, complain about your lack of creative inspiration in a city that’s birthed Joan Didion, the Dude, and Dr. Dre.

For those of you looking in at us through the smoky cloak of the city skyline, don’t think we’re all about being famous. We’re not. We’re about being infamous, about chasing the comet of a dream, whatever the dream, damn the consequences. We all strive to be the exception to the rule, to prove that we can hold onto ourselves and what it is we want in a place practically paved with shed identities and dried up desires.

And for those of you who call Los Angeles home, don’t fight the changes, man. L.A. is indeed a city of invention and re-invention, a place of both total anonymity and no anonymity: You can be anyone you want to be, and hey, do your best not to fuck it up once you’ve got your chance, but it’s ultimately up to you to seek out your own future. So keep fighting the good fight, fellow Angelenos. It’s not an easy going, but if there’s any place more suited to helping people lift off, it’s the City of Angels.

(Based on thoughts I had while flying in to LAX on June 26th.)

(Image: Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills by Trey Ratcliff)

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