My old friend Andy Golebiowski, with whom I fought against wars and intolerance and stuff 30 years ago in Buffalo, posted a video on The Facebook last month. It’s a profile of Buffalo’s architectural heritage, gorgeously shot, and not even a little apologetic about its boosterism. Take a look:
I don’t spend a lot of time missing Buffalo. I haven’t been there for a decade. The last time I was there I couldn’t wait to leave. Every once in a while, though, I remember that isn’t Buffalo’s fault, but is more a reaction to my last few years there. A different person living a different life might well be able to live one well in Buffalo. Still, it’s been a long time since I thought of Buffalo as “home.” The video above made me think of Buffalo that way, for a while.
It’s an odd thing. Though we moved to the outlying suburbs from rural Central New York in 1967, I really only lived in Buffalo from 1972-82. I then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and lived there for almost twice that amount of time. I know the Bay Area far more intimately than I ever knew Western New York. In Buffalo my neighborhood was about five miles across. In Northern California my neighborhood stretched from Oregon to the Mojave. In Buffalo i was circumscribed, by parents and by circumstance but mainly by my doubts about my own value. Once I got to Berkeley those doubts started to dissipate.
Andy is a Buffalo partisan. He’s got one of the most robust senses of humor I have ever known, and he’s pretty good at self-deprecation — though he might argue with that. But trash Buffalo in his presence and he just might flare up. I get it. He’s stayed there, he’s made the city his lifelong home as others abandon the place in droves, all of them talking about how the places they landed are far superior. There’s a character judgment implicit in that criticism, an implied “why are you not smart enough to leave?” People who used to live in Buffalo are worse than most at trashing the Old Country, it seems. It has to get really old for people like Andy who’ve stayed committed to the place, worked for decades to make it better — or at least to slow the rate of its decline. The place has problems, to be sure. About four or five of the buildings I lived in during my years in Buffalo are vacant lots. Capital has fled. But if you like cold winters better than hot summers, and your income doesn’t depend on proximity to your employers, then I’d think Buffalo could be just a fine place to live. And you could pick up a stunning, slightly dilapidated Victorian for about 70K and move in. Of course it might take 35K to heat it every year.
People tend to fix their opinions of a place and hold on to them. It was only after 25 years of not living in Washington DC, when I finally went back in September to lobby against desert-killing solar, that I realized I loved the place and missed living there. Which would have shocked the hell out of me back then.
SoCal was another one of those places I prejudged, for a very long time. When I lived in Northern California, I adopted — without intending to even a little — the Northern Californian’s reflexive disdain for all things south of the Tehachapi Mountains. Maybe it was that old National Lampoon Neil Young parody I listened to in 1975 (on WPHD. Buffalo’s Progressive Rock Station, Quadraphonic 103!) or maybe it was just something ambient like Valley Fever or headlice. I caught it: the curled lip, the wondering why anyone would voluntarily choose to live here, the snap judgment of superficiality and airkisses. This despite the fact that my best friend, my dear ex-wife and the girlfriend who preceded her all grew up within ten miles of each other, in Central LA and South Pasadena. If the place gave rise to people who meant so much to me it couldn’t be all bad, you’d think I would have thought. But I didn’t. Not really.
When I first started spending time with The Raven, I had fled the Bay Area for the desert. I thought it certain that my path led out of California, and shortly. Las Vegas, maybe — closest city to the Mojave National Preserve, after all, and a place that to my surprise I found I liked. Or Tucson. I’ve wanted to live in Tucson since 1984 or so. I will eventually, I think. Los Angeles was a stopgap when my verbal lease ran out in Nipton. “How about I move in,” I suggested to The Raven, “and spend a little time looking for work and we see how it works with us living together.” Pretty damn well, as it turned out, but Los Angeles was never supposed to be anything more than a waystation. It didn’t help that one person who at that time appeared to be a close friend opined that Los Angeles was the ugliest city she had ever seen.
About a year and a half ago I was stuck in traffic heading from the 5 onto the 101, watching the late afternoon light slanting off downtown, inching forward little by little on a curly interchange by the LA River and it struck me that I was watching the afternoon play out as though I was watching a work of art. Something about the seedling palms and the concrete abutment, the massive brutalism of the Hollywood Freeway and the old brick hotels south of Downtown — it was all just unruly beautiful, a kind of landscape some secret part of me had longed for. The feeling took me by surprise. In the days after I began to wonder whether I might actually be able to live here.
It helps that so much of the culture I grew up in was shaped by Los Angeles, some of it in quite subtle ways. The last eighteen months or so have consisted of this fish learning to see the water. The names here are familiar from my childhood, as if they were from a neighborhood in which I grew up instead of gleaned from Tonight Show in-jokes. Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega. DuParrs. Mulholland Drive. For a year I drove The Raven to work each day right past the legendary Slauson Cutoff. When I caught my first really clear view of the Los Angeles River, forlorn and trickling in its culvert, I felt a rush of affection. I grew fond of the neighborhoods where the eastern end of the Hollywood Hills curls southward toward Downtown: Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz. I could live there happily for some time, I thought. I fit there.
But away from the hipsters and the espresso, away from the Industry iconic landmarks, there are many things about this city that I love. The architecture of modest flatland homes. The taco trucks. (Oh god.) The block of Fairfax between Olympic and Pico with ten Ethiopian restaurants. The municipal regulation that requires there be a Peruvian restaurant every three miles. The openness. The fact that I can walk out my door here and be at a farmers’ market in half a block, or at my choice of five grocery stores within a ten minute walk.
God help me, I love Los Angeles.
It doesn’t hurt that I’ve made some pretty close friends in my time here. Some of them were friends of The Raven’s first. Some of them I met on my own. Moving here would have been worth it just to meet these two jokers, for instance. I have never in my life had a broader circle of good friends within a year of moving to a new city, and I’ve got five other examples against which to compare LA. I had heard the usual stories, fake admiration and insincere affection from people afraid they might end up working for you someday, and those are true. Sometimes. In the circles in which people other than me travel.
I miss the Bay Area. I think idly of hiking the hills at Briones, of climbing Mount Diablo, of hanging out in those spots in the Oakland Hills where Zeke used to love racing through the redwood forest. The East Bay is where I was born, really, if you ignore that first pro forma 22 years spent in extended gestation. It’s home, and I think it always will be home. I flew into Oakland for a work meeting in September 2009, and looking out the airplane window I saw that the one spot in the entire Bay Area not covered in cloud was Zeke’s favorite swimming hole along Alameda Creek in Sunol Regional Wilderness. I left my heart — well, okay, a piece of it. And not in San Francisco but about 20 miles northeast of it, tamped down about three feet beneath the soil of my ex-wife’s yard. I will always belong there. But I belong in other places too, it turns out. Los Angeles is one of them.
Two days ago I left our apartment and walked into the Hollywood Hills into Runyon Canyon Park, a steep and dog-filled place. I felt my lungs as I climbed. I had not been since September, since DC. I saw the air. It was brown. I’m not claiming the place is perfect. If I live here for much longer I will likely develop asthma. Something to consider. But I kept climbing, and my lungs kept burning, and then I got to the top at Mulholland, touched the gate for formality’s sake, drank some water and turned around. A couple miles’ climb, 900 feet and change, and then a little ways back I got to the part of the fireroad where the canyon opens up and all of the LA Basin is arrayed before thee. Clouds’ Rest, the locals call it, about a thousand feet above mean sea level, and standing there I realized I could see one two three ohmygod how many mountain ranges is this? without turning my head more than a little. The Santa Monica Mountains I was on. The San Gabriels to the north and east, a great gray wall already capped with a little snow. Should I count the Verdugo Mountains? A range eight miles long with more than 2000 feet of relief? What the hell. The Santa Anas there on the other side of East LA, and then off toward the city of San Bernardino its own eponymous range, where The Raven and I had just the weekend before passenged through whiteout conditions to eat dinner. There’s Santa Catalina Island clear to the south, but as mountainous as it is, calling it a mountain range would probably be cheating. Wow. Not counting Catalina, that’s five mountain ranges.
Oh. Not five. Look over there. All the way at the edge of visibility to the east, a hundred miles away at the verge of the desert, stood Mount San Jacinto — one of my favorite Southern California mountains, and one I intend to get to know far more intimately. So. I can walk out of my apartment and get to a place in about half an hour where I can see six mountain ranges. On a good day, if the smog is relatively fresh. And not counting Catalina. Or the Palos Verdes Hills, either. That’d really be stretching it. They’re only a thousand feet tall or so. Of course they’d certainly call them mountains in Buffalo.