Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Didion was among the first to crystalize the dull realization that you are not the red heifer you thought you were, and that as much as you love New York, she does not need or want your sacrifice


I never read Joan Didion in college. It’s a shame, really. I didn’t know that her essay “Goodbye to All That” was the archetypical farewell letter to New York City. I could see with my own eyes the countless numbers of artists that come to New York to offer themselves up to to The City’s merciless, loving arms, ready to be burnt offerings on the altar of her bosom. I was unaware, however, that Didion was among the first to crystalize the dull realization that you are not the red heifer you thought you were, and that as much as you love New York, The City does not need or even want your mundane sacrifice. For many who “come out of the West,” as Joan says, the metropolis is too much, and most are not rich enough, and cannot stay young enough, to bear its weight indefinitely.

So I left. Following the tide-like pull that once lured settlers into the unknown of the Wild West, I carried out my own Manifest Destiny. I was certain, like the gold miners who came before me, that I would find my fortune. But like many of those same starry-eyed young men and women, I was disappointed to find my hands grasping at pyrite and glitter. The state I had abandoned at the age of eighteen has not much changed since my youth, and my relationship to it, after having seen the wider world, is that much worse for the wear. Ways of being and worldviews that I once accepted (and even ascribed to!) as a younger man have become thorougly repellent to me, and analogs for the various types of people I went to high school with are now my colleagues and neighbors and are even more irksome to me now than they were then.

For months after moving to LA, I pined for my beloved metropolis. On the worst days, I simply couldn’t understand or remember why I’d left. The crowding and cost of living had certainly begun to take their toll, but in exchange, one received the vibrancy that comes with living in a big city, and the special brand of magic unique to New York City. When compared to New York on these points, Los Angeles is something of a dusty backwater masquerading as an urban center. Everything that people from east coast kvetch about regarding Los Angeles (the traffic, the subpar nightlife, the languid pace of life) are true, but what makes things more infuriating at times is that (A) this is not the image of glamour and refinement that Hollywood projects to the world, (B) the natives refuse to acknowledge these shortcomings, and (C) things don’t have to be this way. There is enough money and enough space for the city to be and aspire to better. But the truth of the matter is that people here, despite holding onto their urban fantasy, do not want the city to change. They like things just the way they are. I would argue that LA has more in common with Oklahoma City than it does with New York, Paris or London, and it is apparent, despite municipal efforts to bring LA into the 21st century, that that will not be changing any time soon.

What is the thesis of all this? For one, my grasp of the narrative essay is weak at best. Also, I’m an elitist asshole. (I’m working on both those things and will try to provide updates on my progress.) Secondly, I have actually found my sojourn west to have been invaluable in my discovery of self despite my severe frustrations. I have not gained any great appreciation for Los Angeles or California more generally, but I know now, in no uncertain terms, that the grass is not always greener, and that humility is a dish best served repeatedly and under duress (not unlike water-boarding). Additionally, the kindnesses that Angelenos have shown me despite the ill will I harbor toward this place is really nothing short of amazing, and it’s more than my little Grinch’s heart deserves. I need to get out, ASAP.

I fled New York thinking that my quality of life would improve, but although I have access to all the sunshine and pho a boy could want, I am probably more stressed and less happy than I was at any time during my eight years in New York. I make more money, but ironically I have less of it to spend. I have a car, but nowhere I really want to drive to. I have paid vacation days but little energy for vacations (combined with the sick but pervasive fear of using up all my days and being trapped until my next accrual). Worst of all, I am in something of a creative hub but have never felt further alienated from my own creativity. In short, this is not the place for me, and it is only a matter of time before I need to hit the road.

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