To Live and Die in L.A. (Again)
by Meghan McCarron
In the summer of 2005, I moved to Los Angeles. In the summer of 2006, I left. In the summer of 2015, I moved to Los Angeles again. I wish this were some tidy story about striving and exile and triumphant return, but it all happened by accident. I moved out here after college on a whim; I moved back because of my girlfriend’s job. Now the weird, lonely person who lived here ten years ago, who I had mostly managed to forget, is my guide at every intersection and my companion at every restaurant. We compare notes a lot. It’s strange to bury a piece of your history; it’s maybe stranger still to exhume it.
My original move to Los Angeles happened like this: Two weeks before graduation, the head of my college’s film department randomly took me aside in a hallway. She told me she could put me in touch with screenwriters hiring assistants. But I could not wait! I had to move to Los Angeles immediately.
Up until that point my post-graduation plan was to go home to Philadelphia and then maybe move to San Francisco with my friend Martha (sorry, Martha). But the impulsive, zany urgency of moving to Los Angeles now was too hard to resist, so two days after graduation, I started driving across the country. My brother came for company and we crashed on friends’ couches and smoked weed with their high school friends and ate gigantic biscuits in Flagstaff, Arizona, and we drove until we hit the ocean.
I did not get those jobs. Does it even need to be said? Qualified professionals in their late twenties got those jobs. I spent the summer living in a dining room in Westwood and reading a copy of Story from the library. One of the screenwriters offered me an internship and promised to lie to prospective employers that I was his second assistant; my graduation gift money would last me a month or two, so I accepted. The production office was a tiny room in a giant backlot, where I was trapped alone with their real assistant, who could not stand me. I drank Diet Coke to curry her favor and listened to our boss’s calls, which mostly consisted of complaining about the cost of private school with other producers. When I got a real job in the industry, my new boss did me a solid by requiring I stay an extra hour each night so that I got an hour of overtime pay even though he had little for me to do. I spent an inordinate amount of time trawling the office in search of the gigantic, luxurious cupcakes that fancier departments were sent as gifts.
In other words, I was very lucky, but it did not do much to diminish existential dread. No one is happy the year after college, especially after leaving a coddled liberal arts bubble, but I had underestimated how much better it might have been to be miserable in Brooklyn with my friends than miserable in a surreal, sunny city where I knew no one.
A few months in, I got an apartment with a friend, but she and I were on wildly different schedules. When we did overlap, I was terrified to let on that I never, ever had plans on Saturday night. Or any night. Instead, I spent an incredible amount of time driving back and forth across the city. It’s quaint to think about now, but back then, only the fanciest people had GPS. To orient myself, I obsessively drove major arterial roads: Hollywood, Sunset, Santa Monica. I don’t remember why I kept driving these routes; I just remember it seemed the only possible way to figure out where I was. Astro Burger on Santa Monica, I decided, was the perfect restaurant, and I ate hamburgers there constantly. A small treat after was a stop at an open air car wash, feeding coins into the meter and covering the car with slick green soap before blasting it off with a hose.
I did find some friends, or at least people who were willing to hang out with me. At a temp job, my fellow receptionist turned out to know my friend Martha. They had gone to elementary school together in Moscow. Another college friend invited me to shows at Spaceland and matzo ball soup at Canter’s. Activities helped, too: Building a bicycle from spare parts, joining a science fiction writing group that met at a Denny’s, coaching a youth rugby team.
Sex, of course, was a disaster. At this point, I had one foot out of the closet, but one still very firmly in. I went on desperate dates with girls I met on MySpace (this was 2005!) and made out with random dudes I met at parties. At a bar during the Super Bowl, I found myself and a friend of a friend competitively flirting with a Suicide Girl. Two comics writers got me and another girl drunk and then told us they were sadists. A group of lesbian screenwriters adopted me and invited me to their weekly bar nights. I was horribly in love with one of them who later told me, “I only date hot people.” But in retrospect, I am hopelessly grateful for those nights sitting at plush outdoor lounges near the Beverly Center or standing around gay leather bars, hardcore military porn playing on the TVs above our heads while we made small talk about agents.
Under all that misery, I liked LA. I liked blasting Annie while crawling through Koreatown during rush hour. I liked the tall, elegant palms lining the streets in my neighborhood, liked the mountains surrounding the city, liked watching old movies in palatial theaters, and liked eating hamburgers in the same place Hilary Swank went after winning an Oscar, something I knew because a picture of her in a formal dress hunched over a burger was framed on the wall.
But beyond a vague urban satisfaction, there was nothing holding me in LA, and when the opportunity came to take a new job in a new state, I left as impulsively as I arrived. Nothing was holding me anywhere, in fact, so I spent my twenties teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire and selling books in New York and writing about restaurants in Austin. Out of all my moves, the only one I regretted was LA. I had done so many thirsty, entitled things there, and wasted so much time.
But perhaps I had just lunged toward the city too soon. When I was applying to college, my mom had a rule that I could not apply anywhere in California because I would meet someone and marry them and never come home. Somehow, I still found a girl from Orange County and years later, she kidnapped me to bring back to her homeland.
I’ve lost my obsession with hamburgers, and I no longer own a car. Instead, I am obsessed with tacos, which is embarrassingly on-trend but also true. When I move through Los Angeles alone now, usually it’s on my bicycle. Navigating the city by side streets and patchwork bike lanes, alone and vulnerable in a different kind of way.
I have no patience for sitting in traffic or finding parking, and driving on the freeway scares me, but when I do drive alone, that’s when I feel closest to the person I used to be. That long-gone past self sits inside me, or on top of me, the two of us moving through the same space in the same isolation. In those moments, I don’t want to go back and save her from her aimless driving or burger eating. Is there anything more obnoxious than an adult looming through the mists of time to say, “I went to therapy and met my beloved and also could probably finish a screenplay now and it gets better”?
Maybe, somehow, she will save me. You can’t save yourself without taking on some self-loathing, and perhaps someday we will drive around the city together, blasting music and wasting time, comfortable together at last.
Photo by Sarah Ackerman
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.