Nothing happens except I tell you where I am.

I Am Trying To Understand Los Angeles

I’m sitting in the courtyard of our house, probably having the same delightful moments of discovery that every dumb New Yorker has upon being released from dry, cranky February into otherworldly Los Angeles. As the last of the sun beating on me crests over the tile roof (like are you even for real right now?) it occurs to me that I’m smelling something familiar — is it thyme? No, it’s rosemary. A three foot tall rosemary plant in a pot right next time, along with blooming geraniums. There’s a potted palm too; further out in the yard, some palms that are just my height, and at the edge of the property, much taller palms: the kind that took out the roof of a friend’s bungalow in Santa Monica last year during the Santa Anas, in an incident that became known as The Most California Thing That’s Ever Happened. I drove by a rug store earlier called “Lawrence of La Brea.” Los Angeles!

The closest coffee shop to our house happens to be a Blue Bottle, which is apparently a novelty here. The point is awarded to San Francisco, where superlative coffee only takes 5 minutes, not 30, and doesn’t constitute a destination. Here it does, and alongside it is the chance you’ll see someone more famous or more important than you (yesterday I saw both: the former, a supporting actor from a film that won an Oscar a few days ago, and the latter, a movie producer).

Everyone is constantly scanning the room, and it’s a blatantly different body language than New York. In New York, giving the fewest fucks is the currency. Using your chin like a plumb to cut yourself through a room is your best move. Looking around is for chumps, needy fucks wanting self-possession. Unless you really want to look at someone — then you drive straight at them, not one beat between the idea to assess and the assessment, scanning up and down, your decisionmaking plainly painted on your face.

LA’s whole metabolism is different: heads bobble around necks like gulls on a wave, scanning scanning scanning for famous, important. I act bored as a counter weight, refusing to use the muscles in my neck, but jerking hard at my peripheral vision. It is excellent. I am grateful.

I suspect I will come back from this trip much more Nuyorican than I left, backed into a side in the coastal supremacy war by dint of not knowing where my DC heritage fits into this mess. But for now I feel light. The inside of the house smells like cedar, like a cabin in the Adirondacks. The outside of the house smells like winter flowering plants, like getting away with something.

Later in the day I will be heading out for dinner with friends, my first time driving in Los Angeles. Traffic will be creeping along Beverly but I will blithely think “this is LA traffic.” Night will start to wander in and I will look up the buckling road and marvel that the taillights really do snake up to the horizon, distorted by heat shimmering off the pavement. I will look in the rearview and see that palm trees really do bracket the pamplemousse-colored sunset.

Until we get to two cars parked on the side of the road with their blinkers on. Then we will inch by a terrible tableau: two frazzled men standing on the sidewalk. A bike thrown up on the curb. A Magdalene figure crouched over a man lying on the ground, speaking urgently to him, her long brown hair streaming down like a veil to silhouette his face. It’s LA, so there’s always the chance I missed the filming notice flyers, but probably I didn’t and this is exactly like what it looks like — a stranger pleading with another stranger to stay with her, trying to gather his pupils up into her face to tamp down a rising concussion. I panic for a minute — do I stop, would I help or hurt? But then I see flashing lights in the rear view mirror and realize the most reasonable thing for me to do is to get out of the way. I mash off the Canadian art pop I’m listening to and involuntarily cover my mouth with my hand for two miles, not sobbing, more a desperate cawing, like a crow stuck in a fence. The next time I look down at my phone’s map, the interface has flipped over to black, indicating now, you are driving at night.