This is a sidetrack about what is now my 6th month of being an Angeleno, if you please.
A preface, because I want to be perfectly clear about something: I love Southern California. I’m unclear on the machinations of how such a thing would be possible, but I feel a kind of genetic memory for Los Angeles; whether that genetic memory comes from my dad, who grew up here, or a science fictional solidarity borne from the fever dreams of Whedon, Dick, Bradbury, Huxley, Farmer, Heinlein and a half-thousand others, I cannot say.
Moreso than any other city I’ve experienced, Los Angeles feels like it’s holding itself together by a single grimy, necrotic strip of tissue. The most oft-cited point of degredation, the traffic, is a perfect example of this: any traffic “laws” are purely ornamental. Drivers adopt whatever method of traffic-navigation they choose, legal or otherwise, and with an aggressive edge. I thought about this today as a white BMW cut me off in what could have been a nasty little accident – I slammed on my brakes and had to steer out of the way to keep from skidding into his driver’s side – only to flip me off when I then honked in outrage. And this was no laissez-faire bird I was given, it was a pumping, rigid, infuriated FUCK YOU, pure hate-addled digust that I dare make a peep at his near-catastrophic driving. And this is totally normal. We are witnessing evolution in machine form: the herd-vehicles live in fear of the aggressive, faster predator vehicles. The predator vehicles blanketly ignore all basic laws of safety and courtesy – driving in parking lanes, running red lights, blocking lanes of traffic, forcing pedestrians to leap to safety – in pursuit of their way of life. The herd grumbles and sticks together, both protected and stifled by their lot.
The homeless in L.A. are financed by the recycling program. Long ago, the state of California decided to tack a refundable tax onto each recyclable beverage container. They called this clever plan the California Refund Value (CRV). It goes a little something like this: you purchase a can of soda priced at 75¢, a CRV of 5¢ is added, you pay the cashier 80¢. Theoretically, when you are done with the soda, you return the can to a handy recycling station and get your 5¢ back. Of course, that’s not how it ends up working. Twenty-three years later, recycling bins are behind every apartment building in Los Angeles, making it most convenient to just walk your cans out your back door and toss them in a bin rather than drive a sack of sticky cans to the recycling center once a week¹. So what happens to that 5¢ deposit you gave? Well, you can’t have it back, even though you recycled the can. Like most Californians, Angelenos just accept that soda costs them 5¢ more than most people in America and get on with their day. Except, apply this to every single bottle of water, can of Red Bull, large plastic jug of juice (which you pay a 10¢ deposit on), and before you know it you’re spending an extra couple bucks a month. No big deal. Except! The homeless, those ingenious entrepreneurs of the street, figured out that a little hunting and gathering can yield them a few bucks a day, and thus, the roving Can Stealers were born.
Luckily we have this stock photo of a Mexican going through your trash ².
On a weekly basis I watch a regular rotation of men with shopping carts violently root through our apartment’s bins, harvesting out everything recyclable before they trot off to the next house. However, I bring this up because I’ve heard other Angelenos in more suburban areas describe a more fascinating event: the dreaded Scavengers. Since most suburban dwellers keep their bins in private, inaccessible areas, the morning the bins are placed on the street is a free-for-all of industrious Can Stealers of the more professional sort: they troll the streets in trucks, one driver hauling one or two can-pickers. This of course raises whole new weird levels of classism and bigotry, since they have a tendency to be Mexican and many of the suburbs are white folks who want their hard-earned California Refund Values going to waste, not funding some dirty wetback’s bean-habit. I’ve read blogs of otherwise friendly Angelenos who grouse about the “safety” issues of having Mexicans driving around their neighborhoods one morning each week (I’m guessing they aren’t home when all the gardeners arrive every day, or they’d think it was WWIII: The Enmexicaning).
Something L.A. does well and somehow differently from every other city is the preoccupation with self. Los Angeles is obsessed with Los Angeles. This should not be mistaken with pride – San Francisco and New York are both examples of American cities that religiously groom themselves, congratulate themselves and tell themselves they are beautiful in the mirror every morning. Los Angeles has multiple personalities capable of surfacing at the same time, a critical, self-contradictory clusterfuck of weirdness. There are whole bushels of stereotypes I was unfamiliar with until fervent Angelenos insistently told me they weren’t true. But we have a rich history! Wait, why wouldn’t I think L.A. had history? We do too have culture! Of course it does, it has the most foreign-born population of any city in America. We need to be taken seriously! they shriek, while employers at entry-level office jobs request headshots³.
This is my last Los Angeles update. Why? Because after six months, you’re either in it or you aren’t. I find I can no longer easily muster up a sense of perspective. Last week was a rough one for me, with impacted wisdom teeth melting my brain followed by extractions the same week I started a new job. In the middle of it, during a consultation to an oral surgeon, I was yelled at by an angry valet in the parking garage of a medical building. You see, I hadn’t left them my keys. Why would I leave you my keys, I asked? It’s a parking garage. I parked the car myself. I was confused and in pain and perhaps shouldn’t have been driving myself around Beverly Hills, yes, but I still understand how parking garages work. Except, not this one. He finished it with a nasty, angry “You should know! You should know!”
I think perhaps I shouldn’t, sir. It’s Los Angeles. No one should anything.
¹ Of course, this will more likely read as “(…) rather than drive a dozen sacks of maggoty, reeking, moldy cans to the recycling center two or three times a year.”
² How do we know he’s taking a bottle from the bin and not putting it in? The mustache.
³ Totally. True. I sent a headshot along with more than one resume for a job that didn’t even interface with the public.