Eastern Stereotypes, Youth Culture and Pining for L.A.
By BILL STEIGERWALD
EIGHTY-FOUR, Pa. Woody Allen’s Los Angeles is in the news again Back East: Robert Blake’s murder rap. A secession movement in the Valley. Wild fires in the hills outside L.A. The recent marking of on NPR it seemed almost like celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Rodney King riots.
Everyone Back East, particularly media types who’ve never lived in California long enough to get a good tan, enjoys beating up on L.A.
But not me. I love L.A. and always will.
When I cruised into Hollywood 25 years ago (May of 1977), I was just one of several hundred thousand random migrants fleeing the Eastern Time Zone that year. Single, white, divorced, poor, under-skilled and 29, I had gone West to see what would happen to me.
Lots did. All of it good.
When I arrived my net worth was minus $3,000. Everything I owned was in or on top of my Toyota Celica. Everything I knew about L.A. I had learned from the usual reality-distorting media sources Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson and Rona Barrett.
I loved L.A. immediately. But it wasn’t because of its beaches, jazz clubs and laissez-faire lifestyle, all of which I took full advantage of while bartending at night and spending days learning how to be a fun-loving Southern Californian.
L.A. was the antithesis of life Back East. Instead of old, rigid and negative like my native, rusting Pittsburgh, it was young, open and optimistic. As the great city guru Sir Peter Hall says, L.A. was fueled on freedom and it showed. It was no accident the libertarian drugster Timothy Leary had landed in L.A. and declared it the hippest, happening city on the planet.
Believe me, I know L.A. wasn’t perfect. For five years I lived two blocks away and four stories up from Hollywood Boulevard. The sidewalks crawled with transvestites, prostitutes, drug pushers, runaways, bag ladies and homeless drunks. Half my neighbors were hacking out screenplays on noisy typewriters.
But within 18 months, I lucked into a choice job at CBS Television. Six months later I miraculously slipped through a side door at the Los Angeles Times, where I became a copy editor, fourth-string TV critic and free-lancer.
My good life hurtled on through the Decade of Greed. I met my Montana-born wife Trudi while playing softball in the Valley with her immigrant New York actor friends.
Before I knew it I was the father of three Hollywood-born kids and owned a modest house off the Pasadena Freeway. Squeezed onto a 45×90-foot lot, it cost $130,000 in 1983 exactly what I paid in 1989 for my spacious money-pit and 12 wooded acres 17 miles south of Pittsburgh.
For years I couldn’t imagine living in any city less hip or important than L.A. Then, as I hit 40, L.A. rapidly began losing her charms.
Traffic was noticeably thicker and meaner. Graffiti and petty crime were creeping up the hill from Figueroa Street. The family next door was operating a heroin den. Being able to play softball year round no long seemed so valuable.
It was time to seek a sleepier, saner corner of civilization. In early ’89, I returned to Pittsburgh to raise my family in boring tranquility and die of old age.
I’d like to say I saw the earthquake, the Great Real Estate Crash, the riots and the O.J. trial coming in 1989. But my decision to leave L.A. was as unconscious as my decision to go there had been.
I didn’t strike it rich or famous in L.A., obviously, but I did pretty well for a poor Eastern immigrant in a strange new world. I left town with a new family, a grownup job resume and $100,000 in the bank.
I don’t know what happened to that money. But I still have something more valuable a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences I could have had nowhere else on earth.
Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I’m a fool to tell my 20-year-old daughter to move to L.A., or to think life hasn’t changed dramatically for the worse there since I left.
Maybe I’m California dreaming again. But I know from experience that the real L.A. is nothing like the surreal, Woody Allen stereotype the media feed to us Back East.
And no matter what social, political or tectonic trauma you see next from the media, I know right now millions of ordinary Angelenos are doing what I did when I lived among them having the best times of their lives.
Bill Steigerwald, who worked at the L.A. Times from 1979 to 1989, is an associate editor and a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.