Does everyone love the weather in SoCal?
The dry heat is an exquisite reason to escape Los Angeles. Southern California is not only experiencing a drought, it has always been a desert. Often when I mention this, fellow dwellers seem surprised. “I forgot this is technically a desert,” Tom said to me the other day. “We have been watering things for so long, it looks lush to me.” Lately, more people have changed their yards and gardens to either drought-tolerant plantings, or let their formerly green grass go to brown. There are some hardy ground-covers that take over naturally, and even they are mostly brown and patchy. Yet, I wouldn’t want water to be wasted for a lawn.
One can only forget the desertification of California when one is at the shore proper. The ocean seems our only natural atmospheric source of humidity. Curiously, I do not register the waves as containing salt spray, though—not like salt spray in the Atlantic Ocean, or further north near Monterey, where I can breathe in wet. Southern California sun is a broiler oven that extracts moisture mercilously. From March to December, people scurry from shade tree to fencepost to awning like Spy vs. Spy. At the bus stop, there may be a single telephone pole, and a line of five or six people standing diagonally in its shadow. Korean ladies are (and I am) known for the visor and gloves, umbrellas and bug-eye sunglasses to protect themselves. What puzzles me is why LA offers almost zero shade in parks and courtyard landscaping, when shade is vital against the constant sizzle. If you are carefree today, you risk resembling your leather wallet tomorrow.
People continually say, “You’re lucky we’re not in Death Valley, or Arizona, or Palm Desert, where the heat gets up to 105 degrees on a regular basis.” Yes, I am. In those places, they have adapted by extracting all the cool out of their indoor air with machines. States of emergency are called when the electricity poops out. People really die. “I don’t see why anyone would live there, either,” is my response. “I’d end up angry and cooked from the inside out.”
It’s a hard fact that I have begun to dread the sun, when there was a time I would have given anything to trade a bright day for the gloom of a Chicago February. Here and now, I realize that ‘bright’ and ‘prohibitively hot’ are synonymous, and you can’t choose one without the other, unless you live in a north-facing tower with air conditioning. The exception is a few weeks in May, June and January. Like lightposts, I hide behind those gray morning skies and celebrate the too-brief respites by walking outdoors. I sigh in relief, then sigh again as the sun reclaims the sky when everyone else gets their way and I tuck back in away from the relentless glare.
Despite the idealization of So Cal weather, there is just as much argument for the heat to chase you back to the winters of New England as there is for the snow days to chase you to So Cal. It depends on your constitution. I spend as much time avoiding the heat of day as I ever did in avoiding the rain or snow of the Midwest. As for the freedom of summer clothes: wearing short sleeves is impractical for my translucent-white skin, and there are precious few days in which I can. It probably amounts to the same duration as baseball season in Boston.
Light footwear, I have to admit, is a perk. My toes like to be bare, and flip flops are a lot less expensive than waterproof boots. Yet I miss being able to run on grass, and yes, in the rain. The ground is too hard and pokey –or too hot– to do that here, even if it rained. The entire city is an ashphalt parking lot to me, and even my calloused hooves can’t enjoy their freedom. Hipsters put tarmac-proof booties on their delicate chihuahua’s paws.
DIGGING THE STYLE
What I have gotten more fond of is the architecture in this city. There is a representative for every era and style here, just as Tom promised as he showed me around my first months. The modernity of Beverly Hills, with its gleaming chrome trims and invisible plate glass is offset a few blocks away by the early 1920s Spanish revival estates. The squat mini-marts in midtown are juxtaposed by large, 1930s hotels and warehouses. For every derelict neighborhood huddled around an overpass, you have an historic theater in Hollywood, complete with ornate plastering clinging to its better days. You have Spanish, Moorish, Egyptian–Aztec, for crying out loud! There are haciendas, bodegas, run down craftsman bungalows near adobe mansions that would make the Shah of Iran comfy on his visit.
A prolific use of tile is probably my favorite tradition in California outdoor design. Although the fountains are mostly not flowing, since the drought makes them wasteful, I’ve been delighted to find clumps of tiled brick on the trail at Griffith Park, embedded in the dirt. That they used to belong to someone’s patio is a bit of quaint historic color. They should stop using it for kitchen counters, though. Stained grout is torture. But ah, the Hearst Castle up the coast is replete with amazing terraces of Morrocan tile!
Come to that, what about the beautiful wealth in Los Angeles that the films portray? Well! The opulence shored up in Los Angeles is seen peeking out, high above the grubby blocks of adobes. The money is in the hills, where you see massive windows glinting in the sun. I know what time it is by which windows look like silver and gold flakes in rough ore. The corrogated box-on-stilts on that peak, and the Howard Roark-looking edifice on that ridge mean it’s Eleven o’clock. The shockingly white Italian Renaissance palace? Two forty-five. Each of these fortresses, owned no doubt by producers and lawyers to film and music, hides a grand infinity pool, tucked into a terraced garden (serruptitiously watered against regulations). I know a house with a great cement wall around a veritable jungle that contains more than one peacock. You can hear them crowing sometimes as you walk by.
HARD BY DESIGN
In design magazines, California is always portrayed through a Malibu fantasy: white tile floors, black leather plank-like sofas, glass coffee tables you could cut your knees on. All horizon with an expansive view of the ocean. I’ve never warmed to it, but now I understand it differently. Minimalism makes sense because you must ward off the heat. But I also believe there is no room here for the sentimentality of softer edges.
Needing to cuddle into our surroundings is a burrowing mammal behavior, appropriate in softer soil. Needing creature comfort makes us unsatisfied in these, more unforgiving elements. Maybe idealizing stark cleanliness is a way of coming to grips with our true situation as “guests” in this desert. We need to make peace with our surroundings, so we do one better to exalt them. If we need sentiment (as I believe we all do), we’ll build a faux Scottish pub or a plush velvet costume and play pretend inside a vast sound stage. At home, we need to go about the rugged business of carving out a lifestyle.
As anywhere, America is divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. I have wallowed in the great gap between them for years—in Los Angeles, there is a third category, the Not Yets, of which there are thousands all around me! If America is peopled with “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” (John Steinbeck), countless numbers are duking it out in LA. The air of hope and determination competes with the rigor of hard work and trying to micro-manage your luck.This is the energy I have discovered I am steeped in.
It’s the energy of the Hopefuls. The “Almost Theres”. The questions suspended in people’s minds: How-do-I-Make-It”? “Can I make it another year?” “How can I start a family if I don’t get a big break?” These folk crowd Hollywood–where there is still a decent rent price to be had, in crucial proximity to the Haves. Getting your foot in the door is an acknowledged matter of chance, but it is vital to continuing on with any ease. I am constantly wondering if the dapper youngsters in the hip café can afford the curated cocktails and craft beers they are consuming. Or are they, like me, using their debt to play the “be seen” game, trying to hide the scuff marks on their boots with a Sharpie?
From my vantage point as a healer, a.k.a. someone who is not in “the Industry”, there is a pervasive but also diffuse quality (in place of humidity?), called financial unsafety. We breathe this quality without even knowing it, and mostly without discussion. My friends here are the same actors I knew from Chicago, where we slogged away at unpaid theater and underpaid administration or service. We got together often for drinks and food, and bitch sessions about the parts we weren’t getting. It felt like a club, and there was the camaraderie to get us though. We had excuses in Chicago, such as the weather, and the ever-prevalent rules by which everyone seemed to confine themselves. But you could always salve your wounds by knowing you weren’t alone. There were only twelve people making money in Chicago in the arts, and you already knew whether you were one of them. That was a well-known quantity of every day life. You had to move to LA eventually to even qualify for your big break.
Once you’re here, you are surrounded by the possibility that you could get paid, at least this year, by booking a commercial, or walking onto a bit part. You could write a script and have someone interested in it. You could become a script supervisor for reality television. You could work at being a social media guru while you fundraise for your film. People are doing it all around you. Some of my friends are doing it. But I sense a whiff of the precariousness everywhere; even the successful folk aren’t relaxed with their success. They’re more “releived for now”. You could get toppled off your hilltop at any time. Everyone is freelance, and no one is ultimately guaranteed security. They get used to it.
Being not in the industry isn’t much different. When entertainment is doing well, there is success in the support industries throughout the city. Like any General Motors factory town, the main industry drives the lower classes as well. I see when people are doing well, because they pay me to keep their bodies or spirits aligned. When they are not, or are steeped in the struggle, I see no clients for weeks. We walk along the edge at all times. Others seem to embody the advice: “The view is great, if you don’t look down” and keep moving, like Tom.
And I have to say, most people are handling it very well. There are those who are happy to have afforded rent this month, whether or not they know where next month is coming from. They can form great friendships, and be generous and cheerful and believe in abundance. They can volunteer for charity functions and they can take care of each other when they are sick, or when their parked car gets smashed up again in a hit and run. The constant sirens of the fire department, police and helicopters are a direct reminder that there is an emergency somewhere right now in Los Angeles. Probably nearby. Yet, people are prone to smiling and speaking mostly of the bright side. The sun always comes out tomorrow, after all. Literally. It feels as if everyone is consoling themselves instead of feeling sincerely content. Or maybe it’s just me.
DESERT IS AS DESERT DOES
So the energy I’m trying to describe—the diffuse yet palpable struggle and the vision of betterment or “the dream”…it brings me back to the cactus, the succulents, the eucalyptus, the rocks, and the lizards. They would not describe their lives as less than. They make the most of the moisture, and they find sustenance as they can. This is how they do it naturally—they are built for the desert. They grow roots, however short or deep, and they hang on for dear life. They stay open to change in the weather and take advantage of every molecule as they can. It may only rain once this year, so drink deep! A palm tree will drop the leaves it can’t sustain, and we are smart to be that hardy, to pare down what we do not absolutely need. Nearby, a cactus flower will stubbornly bloom sometime soon.
I would like to think I am handling it all gracefully, but I know I’m not. Not nearly. I have been pretending, just for now, to be a cactus, when I am really a fern. Although I wish Los Angeles could grow on me, for the sake of being with the people I love, maybe there are those of us who simply never become drought-tolerant.