Leaving Los Angeles
I LEFT THE BONES OF GHOSTS behind me on the road from Los Angeles to Chicago. I say the bones because the ghosts are still with me. I'd planned to make farewell stops in the Mojave before crossing the border-the desert I had despised at first glance twenty years before and then came to love, the way a man can come to love what makes him ache. Paul Bowles called the onset of this yearning for emptiness the baptism of solitude, borrowing a French expression. He was talking about the Sahara, but you don't have to travel that far to feel it. Anyhow, I never made the stops. Too sad. Leaving Los Angeles was like leaving the mistress you can't marry, the one with jasmine in her hair who forgives your trespasses.
I made an overnight detour to Scottsdale to see an old college friend. At least, that was the stated reason. Like a fever in the limbic core of my brain was the knowledge that the first great love of my life-Linda-had settled years ago in Scottsdale with a rich real estate developer. I'd convinced myself that she couldn't possibly be happy with such a man, that she'd be aching like I was, that I'd show up at her door unannounced and we'd re-ignite the adolescent lust we'd courted but never consummated, and my retreat from Los Angeles would be redeemed. Instead, I learned that Linda had died six months before. That evening, I couldn't look at the sunset.
Ten minutes after crossing into New Mexico, I saw a dead man on the highway. The troopers had just arrived and were pulling him onto the shoulder. There were no wrecked cars, no glass, no skid marks. Just a fresh corpse. I learned later that in the vicinity of Gallup, it's not uncommon for Native American men to stagger off the reservation after sundown, sit down on the still-warm asphalt, and wait to be pulverized. The thought of a despair that terminal took my breath away. In the long hours of driving afterwards, an awful inertia held the speedometer to a bare fifty, as if there was a giant bungee cord connecting my rear bumper to L.A. and I'd neared its maximum extension. I drifted into the slow lane, families in minivans shooting past and reaching the horizon in seconds. Ten miles shy of Albuquerque, I nearly turned around. The portents were not good. I had left the future and was headed into the dead past.
And in Los Angeles, a trace of me---left twinkling in the hazy Pacific twilight-had just turned off the PCH onto Sunset, looked back over his shoulder and smiled as if to say, "Yes, the road ends here. If my life ends here, too, that's cool."
My Parisian wife never took to L.A. the way many exiles do. I think she felt about it the way most people feel about Greyhound Bus Terminals: bleak refuge for 4 AM souls. Or as a vast, featureless internment camp for the gathering together of displaced persons, a Gaza Strip for would-be celebrities. She never embraced the beautiful estrangement which makes Los Angeles half-sister to Paris as a great writer's city. You have to embrace negation to see that. You have to forgive the dessicated brownness of the hills in trade for the way their wild sage and fennel perfume the air, and the way their coyotes yip maniacally when the sky turns purple. "No man loves the desert," said Alec Guinness to Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. But Lawrence did, and he was a poet. He was the oasis.
But if Paris and L.A. are siblings, they are at odds, for sure. Poles apart. The essential Paris is watery abundance; the essential Los Angeles (despite all the conspicuous consumption) is dusty austerity. L.A. is where you come when foie gras is too rich for your blood. How, the Parisian asks, could anyone love dust? I kept saying to my wife, "Don't look at the architecture, or the shabby storefronts, or the mock Tudor next to the French Provincial next to the ersatz Moroccan; don't look at the minimall that sprouted overnight like a wart at the end of our street. For God's sake, stop looking for design." And, of course, she'd regard me as if I were nuts, with an expression that said: what the hell am I supposed to look at? What, after all, is a city if not design? Here is how I should have answered.
I should have said: look at the way the light enchants that ordinary stucco wall over there, makes it beautiful, even numinous. Then look with lazy eyes at the shimmering space between you and the wall, and imagine yourself in that space, enchanted by that same light. Needless to say, she would have thought me even crazier. But that's just the thing. It is a kind of madness, a conjuration from dust. The thrill of the abyss. Los Angeles is on the edge of the cold sea, the edge of the unforgiving desert, the edge of a stark mountain wilderness. It's all edges. Not the place for a person with vertigo.
My first serious job interview in Los Angeles ended with these parting words-words that I cannot imagine ever being spoken by a prospective employer anywhere else in the world: "One day--if you stay here long enough-you'll wake up and you will be different. This place will be inside you. People won't see you the same way. You'll be able to walk into any office in any city and have any job you want. They'll want to give it to you, because they'll want your vibe around. Until that day, you're lugging old world baggage." Now, that may have been hype, and the skeptics will snicker when I reveal that the author of this quote went by the name of Sonny Blueskyes, but I'll tell you something. Sonny Blueskyes was a happy man, and a self-made multi-millionaire, to boot. Los Angeles is where the buoyant, snake-oiled optimism of America turns in on itself and becomes something like a national religion. Here's the twist, though: it's not just the blue skies and palm trees that account for this. It's the very precariousness of the place. It's the frisson of apocalypse.
Great cities have patron saints and poet laureates. It's been fashionable for too long to say that L.A. has neither. Yet Aldous Huxley, a British-born Brahmin who became the herald of a new consciousness, chose to die in a house up on Old Mulholland, with a megadose of LSD in his veins. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller migrated west, and so did Krishnamurti and the latter-day prophets who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, the Krotona Institute, and the movie business. I'm not going to argue that Jack Warner had anything in common with Aldous Huxley, except to say that you can't make magic in a place that isn't conducive to it. The making of a golem begins with dust. A living L.A. patriarch, Bishop Stephan J. Hoeller of the Ecclesia Gnostica, says of Los Angeles that it is "a city where the genius loci is sympathetic to the ancient visions." And this statetment points to the riddle of L.A.'s winking Sphinx: what's new and old, Eros and Thanatos, entrance and exit, eternally beginning yet very near the end? I suspect that L.A.'s "genius loci" may be the god Janus, grinning into life but ever-aware that its negation is only a rocky footpath away. In leaving Los Angeles, I left a place of gate-ways for the old world of cul-de-sacs. Safer, yes, but only by design.
At the end of my run, Hollywood went cold on me. Things got dicey, the work slowed; I'd played my string out. Choose any gambling metaphor: in the end, I had to leave the table. But no other city in the world could have offered me such a streak while it lasted. I stood sipping Tattinger between Lauren Bacall and Nicole Kidman at Morton's when I didn't have the money for valet parking. I made small talk with Madonna at a dance studio in Burbank and tried my damndest to remain nonchalant when her left breast slipped out of a skimpy halter-top. I procured a pretty cellist for Warren Beatty and flirted with Kim Bassinger. I got mud-plastered at Two Bunch Palms, rebirthed at Wheeler Hot Springs, and exorcised at the Annie Besant Lodge. I had crabcakes at the Ivy and Rocky Mountain Oysters at the Saddle Peak Lodge. I went to the Oscars, won a Grammy, wrote three novels and two screenplays, landed a cover story in the L.A. Weekly, and married a countess. And all of this happened as a matter of course. I was there to work, not to play. All of it came from dust, and a lot of it went right back there. In the end, my net was zero.
But then again, it wasn't, and that's the mystery of L.A.
The city reached its greatest luminosity for me after all the stargazing was over, when I began to glimpse it again through the eyes of the aspirant; when a ringing phone could mean redemption or disaster. When fear made me twenty-six again. I had a little condo on Beachwood Canyon Drive, acquired in the last days before my credit score dropped below 200. From its balcony, I could see the HOLLYWOOD sign against black chapparal in one direction and the rooftop neon of the Argyle against a sea of white light in the other. I wrote through the night, with a desperation that made for a better rush than any amphetamine. In the hours before dawn-usually around that time when they say the urge to suicide is the strongest-I'd break from the keyboard and walk up Vasanta Drive to Temple Hill, where the Moorish-style house that had once belonged to Charlie Chaplin overlooked the villa that had once been occupied by Andy Warhol and abutted the property that had once been sanctfied by Madame Blavatsky. And the coyotes would keen and the mockingbirds pipe sweetly and the jasmine would fill my nostrils, and all things would seem possible again.
There is a crack in time between three-thirty and four a.m., and if you slip into it, you can see some very unusual things. I am at the window as a light snow falls like a scrim past the lamp post on my patio. And as the backlight catches the perfect lattice concealed within a single snowflake, a great city unscrolls before my mind's eye, sprawling from San Bernardino to the Pacific, rising from the dust and shimmering briefly before falling back to earth. If I am very lucky, I will carry a bit of its enchantment into the coming dawn.
Causes A.W. Hill Supports