As some of you know, I came dangerously close to packing it in and moving to Los Angeles this winter. I’m from California originally, but the other California, up the Five a ways and then off to the left…. Where I grew up people speak of LA in the same disgusted, dismissive, and morbidly fascinated tones they used to talk about Michael Jackson before he died. The Bay Area is majorly creeped-out by the weirdo plastic-surgery-disaster-of-dubious-morals that is Los Angeles. We hate it for its car
Anyway, I’m getting a little off-topic here, but I wanted to give some background about my personal programming regarding Hell-A, and especially my horror of Hollywood and its spawn. People in New York are sometimes freaked out by LA but for sort of different reasons — or in a different way, in any case — and it was only when I’d tell old Bay Area friends I was moving that their visceral horror drove home the insanity of what I had planned.
“Why would you ever move there????!” they would cry. “The driving, ugh, and…. the…. the people…. the MOVIE PEOPLE! They’re all MOVIE PEOPLE!!!”
“I know, I know,” I’d say. “But I love the weather.” It was February in New York and I wanted to kill myself. “And I really, really, really miss…..”
“I miss the produce.”
This is the truth. I nearly moved to Los Angeles in large part because I haven’t eaten a decent fruit or vegetable in six years. This is one of those things you just take for granted growing up in California: that pretty much any produce you buy is grown reasonably close and fairly recently, and that large quantities of it can be easily procured, pretty much anywhere, all year round. This is simply not the case in New York City. The first time I saw lettuce in a supermarket here, I almost started crying. It looked like something that had been strangled by a serial killer in the Central Valley, stuffed in the trunk of a battered Impala, driven to Brooklyn the long way (via Mexico?), dumped in an alley behind the store, chewed on by some rats, rejected by them, then brought inside and offered for sale at something like $3 a head. This kind of lettuce is fairly standard here. Of course, if you’re willing to shell out serious cash you can get something prettier, but you’ll notice that will have been grown in California too, if it’s even domestic. I know how shitty I feel after traveling across the country, and I don’t want eat something that’s undergone that ordeal. My solution to dealing with this situation has been to stop eating vegetables, so I basically just survive on pizza and bagels (which are both way better here), and by smoking a pack of mentholated cigarettes whenever I get an artichoke craving.
Anyway, for reasons too unbearably shocking and sordid to get into here, I did not wind up moving to LA, so I’m still here in New York. This took some adjustment, especially since it’s been late March for about five months now: it just rains all the time and is generally shitty. I spend one-to-three hours every day in an underground tunnel, usually with my face pressed into some stranger’s reeking armpit. I trudge through the streets like a goddamn mule, with my bookbag over one shoulder, gym stuff on the other, feeling incredibly frumpy and oppressed. I stagger miles in my heels with my life on my back, usually in the rain, having graphic fantasies about what it must like to have a trunk. A trunk in one’s car, which one drives to the supermarket and loads up with Trader Joe’s junkfood and a bounty of produce…. fresh, inexpensive, delicious produce, full of nutrients and joy…..
Okay, so the other day I got off work, and you know what? It wasn’t raining. Finally. And I felt pretty good! I left work and stopped by my friend’s bar in Tribeca to shoot the shit a little on the way to my gym, then left him with a little spring in my step, thinking well, this New York City livin’ ain’t really so bad! It’s nice to be able to live one’s life on foot, to pay social calls and run errands in a glamorous neighborhood, and who cares it’s one so chichi I’d never be able to live there, no matter what unexpected turns my life happens to take? I can stroll from my office, stop and visit a friend, stroll onto the gym and then do a nice long run up alongside the Hudson River. Is this really so bad? It is not. It is not!
I felt some kind of something settle in me then, and at that moment I made a new kind of peace with staying in New York. You can have quality of life in this city, I thought, as the summer evening sunshine fell on the cobblestone streets…. and then there, as if to reward me, as I turned the corner, was a huge gorgeous sign for the Tribeca Farmers Market.
My heart actually did swell at this point, like it does when the music goes in some great old movie. I’ve never quite understood why there isn’t a Tribeca Farmers Market, seeing as how it’s um, the epicenter for well-heeled baby producers who live for just that sort of thing. And this was really the farmers market to end all farmers markets! Like pretty much everything in Tribeca, it gleamed with a patina of expensive specialness that made you just want to buy it. And because it was new, it wasn’t crowded at all, even though it was huge, and really seemed to have everything. I don’t really go to the Farmers Markets around here too much, mostly because they all seem to close down before I get off work, and then the ones that don’t — like the closest one to me, Saturdays in Park Slope — always seem to be some big clusterfuck of strollers and pushing, and require a lot more planning and stamina than I feel they’re worth.
But this Tribeca one was great. All the produce looked incredible, heaped up in these jewel-toned piles of locally-grown, organic goodness. Apples, carrots, greens, onions…. handmade honey, handmade cheese, handmade yogurt, handmade colorful signs in the stalls, all of it just real beautiful and so picturesque. And I strolled through this slowly, not stopping yet, just taking it in as I blissfully thought: “Oh, fuck you, Los Angeles! New York has it all. This place is amazing. Why would I leave, when everything’s here? I can live here no problem…. and I won’t starve!”
I was walking behind these two Scandinavian tourists who’d stopped a little ahead of me to talk to one of the farmers. And what a farmer this guy was! The loveliest farmer for the loveliest farmers market, he was straight from Central Casting: eyes twinkling in his kindly weathered face, greying hair peeking out from his slightly battered fruit-selling hat and curling down over his sun-reddened ears. I slowed down to hear what he was telling the women, who now seemed to be looking around in confusion. The farmer had just said something about Jennifer Lopez.
“Wait, what?” I interrupted. That’s when I noticed the lady with the clipboard who’d just started yelling. “Did you just say this is a set?“
The farmer grinned and shrugged apologetically. “We’re making a movie.”
“Of course you are….” I mumbled, shoulders sagging suddenly from the weight of my bags. “Of course there’s no Tribeca Farmers Market.”
“I wish there was,” the farmer said. “Try Union Square?”
“PLACES!” the woman with the clipboard shrieked.
The farmer headed back to his stall, and I split. As I stalked down the block, furiously spinning the ball of my Blackberry (the only fruit there’s no shortage of in this town, apparently) an LA-looking type clearly crapping his linen pants screamed in my face. “I’ve got a camera coming through here! Who’s letting all these goddamn people walk on this street?”
“Oh fuck you,” I snarled. “I live here. Go back to LA!”
So I was really mad when this happened, but pretty soon afterwards I decided I liked it. I decided something else, too, which is that LA is great because Hollywood’s great, and Hollywood’s great because it’s such a wonderful, durable, flexible metaphor. You know the cliche about how things become cliches? The Hollywood metaphor’s a great cliche. It’s like a basic formulaic plot that’s been used a thousand times, and actually a surprisingly large number of movies and books based on it are pretty fabulous. The Day of the Locust isn’t the best of them, but it’s notable in part because it was written fairly early — 1939 — but more because West’s own cocktail of sparkling style and abject nihilism is so well-suited to the topic.
This book has aged in a couple jarring ways — like that one of the characters is named Homer Simpson, which you’d think would be fun but for me was actually a terrible distraction. The story is the basic Hollywood-eats-your-soul plot, I guess, except it’s extremely bleak and depraved and hardcore and almost psychedelic…. and really lovely and beautiful in a certain kind of way. I didn’t think it was the greatest thing ever, and actually They Shoot Horses Don’t They? made a much bigger impact on me, though this take on Hollywood in the thirties was way more Literary and more specifically about Hollywood. The Day of the Locust is ultimately a weird but sturdy little black comedy that should be mandatory summer reading for anyone with an interest in Hollywood and riffs on its themes…. which should be most people, really.
Why? Because we were totally wrong about LA, growing up in the Bay Area. The entertainment industry isn’t a dull, fluffy, fun date movie that’s too dumb to think about. Hollywood is ten thousand times more fucked-up and fascinating than anything in Berkeley, and that’s why LA’s amazing. We didn’t get what Hollywood was, looking down at it from the North and thinking there was nothing there beneath all that surface. There’s shit crawling around like crazy under the glitter and makeup, which has been pointed out so many times because it truly is a great theme. Hollywood is a fake Farmers Market when you hate your life and you just need fresh greenbeans. Hollywood is fake sets and fake people and gorgeous canyons full of flowers, and aspiring slutty starlets and cynical desperate men and sleazy Racing Form dwarves and cockfighting cowboys and sexy Mexicans and bizarre out-of-place costumes and studios and tequila and rapes and illegal abortions and frightening stage mothers of psychotic child actors and riots and murders and fifty other kinds of insanity….. I’m flipping through and remembering this is actually a pretty awesome book. David Lynch could do an amazing adaptation of this. Why hasn’t he? It’d be deadly.
Okay, that’s enough procrastination for one night, or maybe even for a lifetime. I’m going to go eat some withered spinach out of a bag now, and cry myself to sleep.