You land at LAX and the sky is gray. You feel cheated: it was sunny in Newark. The palm trees are skinnier than you imagined. They look kind of silly, swaying in the wind against a backdrop of so much concrete, like overgrown teenagers out of place at a school dance.
You take a Lyft to your short-term lease. “Welcome home,” the driver says, and you don’t correct him because you like the idea of being from here. You look out the window for a city. Everything together almost adds up to one: there are the billboards, yes, and too many cars, but even so, there’s an abundance of empty space.
The buildings are stucco, adobe, cement: no wood, no stone. They come in pastels and jewel tones. They look like they might wear caftans. Might daydrink gin fizz and call everyone darling. Might have acrylic nails and feathered turbans, might stick pink flamingos into the cracks on their patios, might buy cigarette holders and canned orange juice. (The driver points out the Hollywood sign, so maybe he’s realized you’re not a local after all.)
Your new roommate believes in crystals and astrology and collagen supplements and her lord and savior Jesus Christ. She believes in everything, really, everything at all, and it makes sense: with the city low to the ground, the sky takes up more space.. Of course there’s a heaven. Of course there must be something to put in all that sky.
To get to the nearest drug store, you pass L. Ron Hubbard’s literary agency. You buy soap and pick up a cold prescription and the cashier seems faintly surprised, like they don’t do a whole lot of business like that here on Hollywood Boulevard. You get used to it. It’s glamorous in its own weird way, the theater where the Oscars are across the street from a Hooters, touched indelibly (and yet, you have to imagine, somewhat reluctantly) by celebrity. Hawkers sell mixtapes and mango in tajin.. Poverty lives here, hugs to the shade. You get to know the rhythm of the street: which blocks are crowded with bodies, when to cross and when to stay the course..
One night in the middle of a heat wave, your air conditioner breaks. You walk down Hollywood towards the nearest movie theater, the TCL Chinese, seeking darkness and cool air, then keep walking. You end up at Grauman’s Egyptian. You watch a double feature in this grand and obscure movie palace, letting the black air cool the sweat from your skin, while a bushfire rages in Burbank. You walk home at midnight along the boulevard which is aglow in neon, somehow both sharpened and softened by the dark, and you understand how people can love it here.
To the south is Sunset. Every billboard announces something for your consideration. Men and women sleep fitfully in the shadows of bus stops. There’s a smoke shop at every intersection, a Starbucks on every corner. A strip club with the slogan LIVE GIRLS in glittering electric lights. It always makes you think of dead girls.. The boulevard is so broad and cracked you can’t quite believe it was ever something beautiful, but maybe that’s the point, maybe you should finally watch Sunset Boulevard, maybe that’s the myth that makes everything make sense.
You meet a boy at a Fourth of July party and go home with him. You get on the back of his motorcycle and ride east on Sunset towards Little Armenia and fuck in a brightly painted room that holds a bed and a bare bulb and almost nothing else.You stay the night even though there’s no air conditioning. You’ve started evaluating a lot of your choices based on whether or not they involve air conditioning. The temperature hits 110. Black air. Heat. Sweat. Salt. You’ve made worse choices. You’re about to make some more.
It makes sense to live an aesthetic life here. Everyone you’ve met seems to. You think about the motorcycle and the sunset and how you can see the Hollywood sign from your rooftop, and it makes sense to imagine how all these things add up to a Lana Del Rey music video or a David Lynch film. The line between the image of the city and the reality of the city always seems blurred.
The boy with the motorcycle works part time at a gay bar. He’s very beautiful. He makes a lot of money. He tells you about his sugar daddy over In-N-Out one night and you’re not sure if he’s joking or not, and you’re also not sure which possibility is more appealing. You want him so badly. You understand how an old man in a bar would want him badly too, badly enough to offer money and iPhones and badly enough to beg, to take scraps, to take whatever he can get. It’s nice, isn’t it, that you didn’t have to beg.
One evening after work, the bus doesn’t come. You’re left waiting on Santa Monica just outside the bland height of Century City, the street so wide and flat it’s almost a landscape unto itself. It seems to extend forever in both directions. It seems like you could step out into its center and the universe would radiate around you. You think about the hills pushing the city towards the sea. You think about the name itself, Los Angeles, “the angels” in Spanish but in English los becomes loss and the angels become gibberish. Dusk falls around you as you wait and wait and descend into language, becoming gibberish yourself. Then the bus comes and you ride through the neat even squares of Beverly Hills towards the shock and glamour of West Hollywood. The bus comes, and you locate yourself once more.
When the smell of hot concrete gets to be too much, you take a bus up the Pacific Coast Highway and sink your feet into the ocean. Seaweed wraps around your feet and cliffs rise up behind you. This ocean carries less weight than the Atlantic, you decide. Less baggage. You buy french fries and ice cream at the beachside cafe and eat them looking out towards the water. You feel yourself at the edge of a continent. You feel yourself in the middle of something you can imagine but do not yet understand.
Later that night, salt and sand still in your hair, you get a text from the boy with the motorcycle. He wants to take you out dancing. He knows a place where the bouncer will palm you a fake for twenty dollars. Gia Carangi was once spotted there, he says, but that was almost forty years ago.