It's the People

This blog is about human interactions and impressions. It isn’t a travel blog - an attempt to describe locations and landmarks in florid hyperbole. It's about one person’s encounter with a city that is expansive, often breathtaking and sometimes exasperating.

Of course, the risk of using such adjectives is they encourage hasty judgments and the drawing of shallow conclusions. While outsiders may characterize Los Angeles as shallow, I see it differently. Without a doubt, life can be hurried in Los Angeles, but beneath the veneer of brisk efficiency lies a complex city that warrants an unhurried and reflective examination. There are a multitude of layers here, and casual or cursory observations tend to perpetuate stereotypes and fail to do justice to the rich patina of personalities and places.
Some years ago I read Stephen Brook’s L.A. Days, L.A. Nights and couldn’t stop talking about it. Over lunch, at parties and sitting on the deck with my wife I would talk about how this book that I’d stumbled upon resonated with me. It was transformative and transcendental. Lying in bed at night and reading Brook’s work, I could picture the neighborhoods, hear the street sounds and smell the aroma of pork belly and chicken gizzards wafting from the Korean eatery just off Wilshire. This was my siren song, yet I had scant opportunity to succumb to the temptations of the City of Angels. The heart of this native Midwesterner longed to spend a lazy afternoon nursing a cup of coffee from Daily Grind while watching the world go by on Santa Monica’s colorful Main Street. But life’s events didn’t bring me to Los Angeles; I had few excuses to make the trip. Work and vacations always took me elsewhere – to some wonderful places, for sure – but the chance to truly experience LA? That remained a pipe dream for years.

By experiencing LA I mean living as a native or resident would live; not spending a weekend, sleeping in a hotel and visiting the only the locales inhabited by tourists. And just what or who is an LA native? Using the residents of our apartment building as an example, a standard definition upon which everyone can agree is elusive.
Here you have a reality TV producer originally from Rochester, New York, a roller derby queen, a trainer of service dogs, a comparative literature professor, a personal trainer to the stars (or so I’m told – never seen a celeb), several retired couples whose dossiers I have yet to fix, a young finance executive at a pharmaceutical firm and an extroverted landlady who hails from Glenview, Illinois. Some are native Californians, many are not. Each, I’m sure, would say they have had a rich experience living here. No two experiences are alike. The whole thing defies definition, if you ask me.

So, this is why I won’t attempt to capture the full spectrum of life of this entire metropolitan area. I won’t presume to represent this city in an exhaustive form. I write what I see with my eyes and know in my heart.
Each day within the boundaries of what many call The Southland has yielded experiences and encounters that could fill pages. It is a rich existence, for which I’m grateful. I’m not terribly extroverted (like my landlady) so I can only imagine what my days would be like were I chatting up everyone I meet. Yet, I’ve always savored the art of inquiry; that’s the journalist in me.

Example: The sofa we brought with us was too large for our cozy apartment, so we sold it on Craigslist to a charming young couple returning to the area after a stint in Portland. One day while walking to the hardware store I came upon an antique furniture store on Lincoln Blvd. called Courtney’s. My intuition, which usually doesn’t fail me, led me to picture a confident, attractive woman named Courtney buzzing around the store, bouncing from one customer to another with an air of superiority. I stepped inside, saw the place was barely half full of merchandise and eerily quiet. 

Approaching the back room I found a rather short, unassuming middle-aged man and another man fussing with an overstuffed armchair for a photo shoot. The middle-aged guy was Courtney. Mike Courtney, owner of Courtney’s. I told him I was looking for a sofa, attempted to describe our requirements and somehow found myself engaged in a fascinating conversation about the history of the store and Mike’s business prospects. Turns out Mike was being compensated to vacate his property to make way for the construction of luxury apartments – this being Santa Monica’s trendy downtown and a magnet for young, hip urbanites. For the time being, Mike planned to conduct his business online – selling to the “trade”, as he says: movie and TV set designers. In time he would look for a new property that would hopefully be more affordable.
I can’t remember how we abandoned the discussion of my sofa and got on the subject of Mike’s great uncle. Mike’s uncle was a cardinal, buried, in fact, at Notre Dame University. You a Notre Dame fan, he asked. No, I said. (In fact, I used to despise Notre Dame as a child – for no good reason – and bet against them every year in the family bowl game pool.)

“My uncle was a real character,” said Mike. “You’ll never guess who he was best friends with.”
I couldn’t begin to imagine, although for the sake of playing along I probably said something like “Bing Crosby.”

“Nope. And I’m kind of embarrassed to say. J. Edgar Hoover.”
“Wowww, no kidding?”

“I’m a gay man, and you know what they said about Hoover,” he said, with a wink. “So I’m wondering. Did he and my uncle have some kind of …” the voice trailing off but I knew where he was going.
The last couple of minutes of this conversational thread dealt with something about Hoover sending the FBI trainees through Notre Dame and how Mike’s great uncle was an operative in all of this.

This was not what I expected to find inside Courtney’s. I’ll probably never see Mike Courtney again, but that chance encounter made a memory. I could have had that encounter in Chicago or Philadelphia or Albany instead of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. When you think of LA, Mike Courtney doesn’t immediately spring to mind.
Guess there's no such thing as a typical Angeleno.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, John. Keep it coming. The Courtney story is pure Johnny No slice of life. Keep going there and you'll have readers clamoring for more.