Steven Axelrod remembers living on both sides of the social spectrum and following his dreams to Los Angeles.
There are some things you forget about big city life when you’ve lived in a plce like Nantucket for a while. It takes some adjustment to accept the fact that nobody knows you, nobody trusts you and nobody cares how you feel about it.
In Los Angeles it takes two forms of identification to open a bank account – a major credit card and a California driver’s license. I asked the nice lady behind the big empty desk to repeat herself – I was sure I had misunderstood. All I wanted to do was give them money. What was required if someone actually wanted to take money out? Retinal prints and dental records? The lady smiled at that in a way that made me nervous; I think she liked the idea. It was a frustrating moment for me, since I had no major credit card and only a Massachusetts driver’s license.
Back where I come from, I told her, banks will take money from just about anyone! We had a good laugh at that idea. But in order to make my deposit, I had to go down to the DMV and get properly credentialed. Visitors to the Registry of Motor Vehicles office on the second floor of the Nantucket Town Building would be ill-prepared for the acres of land occupied by just one office of its Los Angeles counterpart. The twisting, shuffling lines that snaked through the huge building seemed as long as jail sentences. Some of the people seemed to have been waiting since early childhood and were making arrangements to be buried there as well, in a convenient multi-service package not unlike the Beverly Hills abortionists that offer and free nose job with every D&C.
The stoicism of Los Angelenos approached that of Zen masters, old dogs and the severely brain damaged. No one really complains about anything, even the smog. “I don’t trust air I can’t see,” someone remarked to me light-heartedly a few days ago. They were on their way to the Beijing Olympics and expected to feel right at home. The freeway system rarely occasions a gripe, either, though it makes driving impossible. “Rush hour” is all-day affair. I’ve been caught in the 405 freeway parking lot at midnight, when everyone should be at home, asleep. One night recently, during the full moon, I began to suspect that these weren’t cars at all, but the ghosts of people who’d died on the road.
My writer friends in L.A. loved that idea. “Haunted Highway,” one of them effused. “You have to pitch that! IT’S A LONG COMMUTE – TO HELL!” A producer I actually mentioned it to suggested we take lunch and talk about it. I explained that where I came from, we don’t take lunch or do lunch … we actually eat lunch. We don’t push mesclun greens around a plate while drinking some un-pronounceable European bottled water. We actually stuff food into our mouths and chew and swallow, over and over again until we’re done. Then we eat dessert. He never called me back. I think I scared him.
Lunches can definitely be scary in Los Angeles. Schadenfreude is more than an emotion there: it’s an art, a form of ballroom dancing, a philosophy of life and a competitive indoor sport, like squash. The best drop shot wins. Failure is cheered, ruin is contemplated with glee. I asked an acquaintance about the forthcoming Jim Carrey film Yes Man. “It’s a total disaster,” he cackled. “Preview audiences hate it. You can’t keep them in the theatre! Heads are gonna roll on this one. It un-releasable! Peyton Reed’s career is over – just in case getting fired off The Fantastic Four didn’t send the message.” He chatted on this way for a while, eyes sparkling and appetite invigorated (He actually ate some of his salad) by the contemplation of a colleague’s upcoming catastrophe.
You might well ask at this point – why go this sick gaudy Xanadu of toxic personalities, where being corrupted by money isn’t the tragic end but the glamorous beginning, where the air is so sodden with chemicals you can practically grab handfuls of it and ball it up like damp toilet paper, where you have to drive fifteen miles just to reach the grocery store, where there are hundreds of miles of picture post-card beach but the ocean itself is off-limits, contaminated by human waste?
The answer is simple: Los Angeles is the only place in the world where people pay me to think. They pay me to make up stories, which I do all the time anyway. This is very much like a dream come true. Unfortunately my dream had to come true in a polluted desert 2,600 miles from home. In a few days I have to go back to that wasteland again, but for now I get to walk my dog beside the untainted Atlantic ocean and think about my home.
There are things you forget about Nantucket when you go away for a while. Despite the cobblestones and the old houses, despite its rich history, Nantucket is in many ways a transient place. No one with any real ambition can live here long, but the sheer force of the island’s beauty seems to trample your aspirations. Procrastination begins to seem like a solid choice, a gift, virtue. So many people are planning to go back to school next fall, to try and exhibit their paintings off-island next year, to try and make it in New York someday. But not right now; it can always wait a season.
Los Angeles is exactly the opposite. Everyone has come there from towns just like this one and the city hums with the charge of a million separate optimisms, most of them futile but all of them self-assured and tireless … including my own. You see the evidence of it everywhere –actors lugging their portfolios, guys in $5000 dollar suits yelling into their Blackberries, deals being made at the next table in any restaurant, screenplays being written on a million lap-tops in a million Starbuck’s outlets. It isn’t home any more, but I am still at home there, one more American guy in what is at this point in time the most American city of all – consecrated to commerce, inundated with immigrants, all of them dreaming their crass and greedy American dreams.
Few dreams prosper on Nantucket. For most of us the primary dream hs been whittled down to just being able to afford the place, being able to stay. We are far from cities here, far from the dangers and prizes that cities promise. I’ll always come back here, but I’ll always be leaving, also. Those departures and the felt absence that inhabits them tell a crucial truth about this town and my life here. With all the routine and habit and hassle pared away, simple affection re-asserts itself: the evening light on the boats in the harbor, a ring-tail hawk cruising for dinner over the moors, a pause for gossip at the Stop&shop; it’s like doing a spring cleaning and finding the other half of your favorite pair of shoes under the couch. And you say the same thing: this is terrible, I have to start keeping track of this stuff.
It gets lost so easily.
Originally appeared at OpenSalon.
—Photo Omar Omar/Flickr