In Los Angeles with Matt Welch

laLos Angeles is a city of a million stories, I think. There are stories in the people, stories in the old and the new buildings; there are stories even in the cracks of the sidewalks. Whenever I’m in L.A. I feel that way.

I used to hate L.A. I hated L.A. because the Dodgers are in L.A. When the Raiders played there, that was an even better reason to hate L.A. As a San Diegan, I was conditioned to hate L.A. because that’s what San Diegans did (and still do). We blame LA. for our our smog. We blame our gang violence on L.A. We blame losing season after losing season of our sports franchises on L.A. We accuse L.A. of stealing our railroad, our harbor business, our water and our good name. After all, Southern California is more than just L.A. and Orange County, but you would never know it from reading the Times, where there seems to be no geographic region other than the “Southland,” which doesn’t include San Diego.

My parents took me to Los Angeles when I was a kid, but that was to see places like Disneyland, Knotts, the Wax Museum and other tourist attractions. We didn’t go to Hollywood. I didn’t walk down Hollywood Boulevard or cruise the Strip until I was 19 and on leave from the Air Force. My friends and I made a weekend of a Hollywood romp, staying at the Tropicana and hitting places like the Whisky. We loved Melrose, which was still pristine and unspoiled by wannabe punks (plenty of real punks back then). We loved the used bookstores and the second-hand shops.

Some punk reached into my 1967 Mustang on Melrose (I forgot to roll up the window) and stole my fedora. But LA is where I heard some great music, bought a few great books and could pretend I was somebody else.

Even with those all of those experiences, I still hated L.A. When I first moved to Ventura in 1996, I hated L.A. When people would lump Ventura in with L.A., I resented it the same way I resented East Coast types who assumed San Diego was a suburb of Los Angeles.

I don’t know when my attitude toward L.A. began softening. It’s been more than a year at least. I started seeing L.A. as a vibrant city, as a symbolic city, as a city of dreams, dreamers and the ebb and flow of humanity. Yes, there have been something like 18 homicides in the last couple of weeks in L.A., and poverty is an undeniable aspect of life in the City of Angels, but like a well-drawn character in a novel, L.A. is the pure and good antagonist, but also contained in its strengths are the flaws that could be its undoing. L.A. is a city of hubris and humility. L.A. is a city that makes heroes of its criminals and criminals of its heroes. L.A., my friend, is a city that breathes in its own air (biting as it is with acids and filth) without a hint of doubt or condemnation. It relishes its faults more than it laments its flaws. And it celebrates its virtues with an enthusiasm unmatched even by New York, and trumps its East Coast rival by turning every vice into a story or a song.

L.A. is a city of possibilities, which is why it has surpassed New York as THE city of immigration. L.A.’s immigrant neighborhoods are full of hustle and bustle, but people from other countries aren’t the only people who travel far distances to see if they can make it in Los Angeles. Almost everybody in L.A., it seems, is an immigrant – from Kansas, or Chicago, or Oakland, or, even, New York. The fresh blood flowing into L.A. is what keeps the city alive.

And if you want to learn about L.A., there is no better tour guide than Matt Welch. I learned that this Sunday when I dropped by Welch’s Los Feliz apartment and took him for a ride. Ostensibly, we were on a trip to the Natural History Museum to see the baseball artifacts there, but the real event of the day was getting the Welchian take on a city he obviously adores. I learned where the good bars and restaurants are, how various neighborhoods developed, what the current and former demarcations were of various districts, why streets where mapped at different angles, where to find some of the prettiest old homes, and the beginnings of the movie industry – it was a cultural lesson I should have been taking notes on, but alas, I was driving and didn’t think to bring a notebook anyway.

If you want to know L.A., you can read Chandler or Bukowski, or you can ride around for a couple of hours with Welch.

Leave a Reply