Los Angeles Times Magazine, Sunday, September 2, 2001

Essay: Trying to Love New York

by Eric Pape

Seduced by Promised Charms, a Lifelong Angeleno Tries That Other Center of the Universe. What Could Be More L.A. Than That?

I MADE THE JUMP. Like so many other fair-weather fans before me, I gave in. I lost my faith in L.A. I did the worst thing an Angeleno could do. I moved to New York.

The urge built up gradually, over years of what seemed like Los Angeles' consolidating betrayals to a local boy. The city spurred me to act in kind. I fled, even if I told myself it was just a scouting trip. On the plane, I thought of the worst of times: that grim 18-month period in the early 1990s, when joblessness thrived and the earth convulsed. Hillsides crumbled, fires swept through neighborhoods, and a compendium of local evening news shows--all the same special report, in my memory--warned of passing cars raining bullets on sidewalk toddlers.

During those years, a confused L.A. started acting like New York. Fear had always been New York's sidekick, but here it was shadowing L.A.'s pretty people and pushing them to the pacifist northern coast: San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. I couldn't make that betrayal. I don't drink coffee.

I finally understood what our city had become when a lifelong New Yorker told me that she was returning to her hometown after six months in L.A. because, while New York was nuts, Los Angeles was completely out of control. It was clear that our city was losing its dreams. Humor darkened from sarcasm to cynicism. Strangers joked about wearing gas masks and toting guns for downtown drives.

And it got personal. Helicopter spotlights poked through my Venice neighborhood several times weekly. Police were everywhere, although security seemed little better for it. One day the boys in blue Tasered a man into cardiac arrest on my father's apartment floor. Police outnumbered the unarmed man nine to one.

Friends in New York beckoned, regaling me with accounts of their rejuvenated Manhattan, a thriving metropolis with a reclaimed crown as the capital of artistic freedom and cultural ferment. "Hel-LA," as they called it, lacked a heart. It was centerless, uncultured. It had lousy buses, a river with no fish or water, and a dire shortage of oxygen. The most virulent critics railed against the whorish seductions of the sun and celluloid and flesh.

I wander the clotted streets of Manhattan, but i don't find anyone swimming in their sacred river. I don't find fish there. I see buildings. They grow out from other buildings, different eras straddling one another, towering over me. It is awesome, and a little suffocating. Still, this city has a rough charm to it, a seductive quality like a jackhammer that, when listened to long enough, starts to seem rhythmic, hypnotic and perpetual.

After a time, I found that what at first had seemed like a flurry of excitement had dissolved into nothing more than a cacophony of street and sidewalk traffic. One day I head to the meatpacking district, where wholesale butcher shops and bistros elbow each other. Amid the chic loft apartments camouflaged in grimy 19th century warehouses, a door marked only by a sticker opens, and I step into a battered, graffiti-scarred service elevator that takes me to the top floor.

A $10 "donation" earns me admission to a room that is not only home and office to a fellow named Farshad Shahrokhi, but also the weekly setting for his covert nightclub. Shahrokhi was born in Tehran in the late 1960s, but it was in Los Angeles that he saw what seemed like the apocalypse. He videotaped the National Guard troops deployed downtown during the 1992 riots and designed a Malibu beach house as wildfires took turns sweeping through the frail coastline. The Northridge quake surprised him while he slept in an eighth-floor loft and sent him running "butt-naked" to the balcony to see fire escapes "wiggling like they were melting."

Eventually, he discarded L.A. for an architect's aspirations in New York. The Sunday scene Shahrokhi has created here is the epitome of hip Manhattan. The jazz band near the entrance inspires a woman to dance in an exposed shower stall next to a bar where I order a cocktail and try to mingle. Trendy NewYorkettes lounge on a couch, watching the French classic film "Breathless" with the sound off, while others glide through the room with wry mouths, challenging you to impress them with New York speed. One end of the loft, by a DJ booth, sticks out over the street like a ship's prow. A window opens on prostitutes and transvestites offering their wares. There is so much going on in so little space. It is alternately energizing and alienating.

I think that Shahrokhi must look back on Los Angeles as cultural purgatory, but he tells me these parties started in L.A. at his loft at 6th and Main. He has an architect's appreciation for L.A.'s angles, finding exhilarating sights where few would: on the freeway. "I was fascinated with the new 105 Freeway carpool lane," he says. As he speaks, I remember my own drive, in a blood-red 1964 Valiant convertible, from the airport to downtown on that slim, sharply elevated overpass, breath stripped away by the revelation of the flat Los Angeles maze, the sweep of downtown, ringed by mountains. New York's rigid grids of streets and avenues could never compare.

Shahrokhi tells of a helicopter ride up Sunset Boulevard, a journey over everything from kidney-shaped swimming pools to winding hilly roads, and their S-curves to the linear Sunset Strip. "That is how I like to remember L.A.," he says. "It's not about the shopping malls." As he rambles on about "New York density," where subcultures are physically stacked atop each other, I reflect on this strange edifice where he lives. I ask myself what lies under this peculiar space where he sleeps, works and socializes: butchers laying into a cow, people dancing the tango, a sex bar. I'd be at a loss to find all this in one place in Los Angeles. New York is all over you. L.A. is limited by what you've discovered.

These are the revelations that Shahrokhi is shoveling at me. I don't know if it's the 4 a.m. last call or his machine gun-like rattle of words, but I'm struck by the realization that New York and Los Angeles are, in fact, the same place. The flat landscape of ethnic mazes out West contrasts with the Tower of Babel-like growth of Manhattan. Is it just me, or do half the people in each city seem to come from the other?

Los Angeles-born sociology professor Mark Fishman says it sure seems that way. "It strikes me that there are many New Yorkers in Los Angeles, except they are driving better cars than they would in New York." In those West Coast cars, people need not screen out daily life as they would on New York's streets. Like the rats, I think to myself. I see more rodents in one Manhattan day than I would in a Los Angeles lifetime. Granted, I began searching them out after reading of the 70 million critters in Gotham, about nine per resident, for those who are counting. As Fishman talks, I realize that I am already learning to screen out other vermin as well.

There is the kid who skateboards into me in the supermarket, the locals who believe cell phones are merely an excuse to scream, and the audio advertisements set off by motion detectors in one-person restaurant bathrooms. There is no place where it is more awkward to hear a stranger's voice.

There's the lost rock star "performing" on the subway platform at the top of what remains of his lungs, alcohol having long ago stolen his singing voice. In Los Angeles, a windshield, a backyard fence or the LAPD might keep him at a distance. Maybe that is why I suddenly feel vulnerable on this island.

"I had never seen a dead body on a sidewalk until I came to New York," Fishman says with what sounds, disturbingly, like a laugh. "But since I moved here, I've seen many dead bodies." He speaks of a man under a sheet in Central Park and a drug addict on a stoop. "In Los Angeles, you just don't see it. The thing in New York--the reason it is so great for films--is that you can't screen it all out."

So if I understand correctly, in Los Angeles they fabricate fiction for the celluloid fantasy factories, while in New York they just film what's going on. Fishman's words echo days later when I nearly step on the crumpled form of a man lying on the sidewalk. Several people walk by without so much as a glance. There are no indications that the man is alive: no breathing, no snoring. I lean in closer, unable to detect life. Another man walks up, annoyed about the body on his stoop. Seconds later, a woman pauses out of curiosity. "Is he?" she asks.

Finally I detect a pulsing vein. "No, he is alive," I say. She shrugs and disappears. The man steps over the body.

My scouting trip to New York turns into an extended stay, although I hardly notice amid the distractions of life. Days turn into months, a blur of sped-up moments. I only notice the passage of time because of stark climate changes that seem to be based on dramatic, two-week weather cycles.

A double-parked van is gaining speed as it rolls backward downhill. The driver who got out to make a drop-off obviously isn't good with emergency breaks. The van rolls by, and I glimpse the increasingly disconcerted middle-aged woman trapped by her seat belt in the passenger seat as the vehicle hurtles down 96th Street toward the busy intersection at Broadway. It is like that Los Angeles moment when the earth starts to quake and longtime locals ask, "Is this the Big One?"

Mortality is in the air. Everything is happening quickly, but it seems like slow motion because those who are aware are helpless. This moment encapsulates Manhattan life: the chaos of humanity is contemplating its next victims. All of those people waiting for buses and walking out of delis have never looked so vulnerable, and they don't know it. This is the edge of the precipice. The passenger tries for the brake, but she can't reach it. She grabs the steering wheel. But the van won't slow down. It is clear that the crunch is coming. The passenger turns the wheel spasmodically--she must do something--and the van hooks 90 degrees, sending the hulking metal straight toward the sidewalk where a young man and woman stand. The woman doesn't see anything; perhaps he does. Onlookers avert their eyes. The van slams into a minimarket.

There are no cries of agony. Nothing. It is a chilling absence of sound, as if mortality is setting down. A crowd gathers as I look for the two victims. But they are gone. Beneath the van there is no blood, no bodies. I eventually find the agile young man who pushed the woman out of the way as the van winged him. He has a few drops of blood on his forehead. This might be So Cal during that silent pause when the earthquake ends and the air is suddenly warm and light, and you realize how close you have come to the abyss but have been spared. It is the moment for laughter unnerved by the realization that the worst almost came. In Los Angeles, such moments grow out of nature. In New York, they are man-made.

Amid the permanent sensory intrusion of Manhattan are clanging garbage lids, exhaust-spewing buses and gasoline fumes rising in the summer heat. Kids in the back of a pickup truck throw a basketball in my direction--perhaps at me. As I reach for it, they speed away. Is New York, in a rare act of kindness, offering me a gift? I get about half a block before a panting and sweaty kid taps my shoulder. "Hey, mister, can I have my ball?" Perplexed, I hand it over.

There is the man near Central Park who has elevated the concept of a "ghetto-blaster" to a new level. His full-sized battery-run stereo and foot-high speakers fill the shopping cart that he pushes around. For the first time in my life, I truly feel the bass. I feel like a delicate, drooping West Coast flower, desperately trying to take root in concrete. After a pickup basketball game with more contact than a rugby match, I head over to see my friend Stephen Kosloff, a former Angeleno, to use his shower. Steve, who went three years without leaving New York, lives in a tiny flat. The shower is squeezed into a mini-kitchen. In the actual "bathroom," which is half the size of a bathtub, Steve can brush his teeth over the sink while sitting on the toilet. He may have no choice. I didn't. He offers concise advice for those contemplating moving to the City: "New York is a wonderful and fun place to visit, but when you move here, it will crush you."

I contact Lisa Pratt Cohen, a childhood friend from Santa Monica, who worked as a diving instructor before moving to New York. Her native bay is at the core of what she misses about home. "I miss the Pacific," she says in a dreamy voice. She describes the ocean calling out to her and, while Manhattanites might bash such a California relationship to nature, it is hard not to empathize. "I don't care for the ocean here," she says. "The Pacific is my favorite ocean. I like the vegetation around the cliffs and diving with dolphins, the marine life and the kelp forest. It is like an underwater rain forest." The nostalgia for that water "pulls at me," she says. "It comes over me sometimes as I am traveling. I just start thinking about it."

When I meet Shawna Chow, i realize that the former Angeleno is magic. In the wee hours of New York night life, she can walk through velvet. She collects kisses from muscled doormen as she glides through gilded doorways, leaving the masses behind. After more than a decade in New York, she has cracked the secret codes to the city's night life. As though trying to keep up with the city, she never stops moving: to the bathroom to repair her makeup, bumming a cigarette, greeting acquaintances at power booths. Stillness is not an option. We are seated in a booth and free drinks are brought over, which is a good thing in a club where a bottle of cheap vodka runs $250. Tequila can be a cool $800. We are introduced to a bevy of "music producers" and a man with a macho rapper's swagger whom everyone refers to, with royal reverence, as "Puffy."

While Manhattan has become her world, Chow seems to carry around some residue of Los Angeles, like fallen ash on a sleeve. It quickly becomes clear that New York is catching up to her. The power naps aren't enough. Allergies have kicked in. She never had them before moving here. Regardless, she is off smoking a cigarette--indoors because this is New York, where, despite the laws, smokers are merely rebels, not pariahs.

Chow remembers another time, when there was space, sky and even, sometimes, a little peace. During a phone chat while I was in L.A., she had heard birds chirping in the background all the way from her windowless Chinatown apartment. In New York, car horns, mobile phone tones and craning delivery trucks are the cricket sounds.

The early 1990s and, indeed, much of her L.A. childhood was a time of isolation that included armed break-ins and her friends getting carjacked. She remembers the worst. Nonetheless, she reminisces fondly, offering a warm, almost poetic stream of consciousness that implies that laid-back Los Angeles is a counterpoint to her waves of manic New York energy.

"I stopped taking for granted privacy in cars, cleanliness, being able to escape out to the beach. I miss food tasting like food, clean food, light and healthy. A tomato tasting like a tomato."

In her better-world memories, there is always sand in her car and more groceries than she can carry. Children frolic in playgrounds--not behind police barricades or caged in on rooftops--and there are balconies and gardens--not a plant illegally perched on a fire escape. When she speaks of her skill at eating drive-thru food in her car, the luscious L.A. smog that colors sunsets red, and familiar gang graffiti tags, it becomes clear that what Chow really misses is the warmth and familiarity of a place to call home.

"When you uproot your life and you move somewhere, you can't bring people," she says, finally slowing down. "The time difference is only three hours, but this city takes up 24 hours a day."

I end up with a bicoastal life, living in Manhattan because I finally found affordable housing--and who would be crazy enough to give that up? I live in a converted garage in Venice because L.A. is the kind of place that you can just drop in on from time to time. In reality, I embrace neither city while embracing them both, like everyone else. But driving through Southern California, it now seems like an empire of peace. The voices echoing off the streets of New York --Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Jamaican and Brooklyn--metamorphose into the accents of Los Angeles: Mexican, Persian, Korean and Valley.

Such people remind me that New York has never been far away. It is fascinating and suffocating, like a family reunion. You wish you could select the relatives who come, but you can't.

I realize that if the cities are opposite sides of the same American coin, with so much of the same blood, what's the crime in taking a gander? Back in L.A., a vaguely spiritual Los Angeles moment occurs when my friend Catherine Ryan takes me to a poetry reading in a sterile corporate bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. A 50-something post-Beat poet scats over the familiar keyboard riffs of The Doors' Ray Manzarek. Manzarek, with a brittle nest of white hair, looks fit and cool as he tells stories about the old days. From the Whisky to Borders Books, Manzarek has seen countless shades of Los Angeles since he was lulled here by the sun, the sea and girls on the beach.

So I put it to this man of L.A. lore, this man who calls New York "the coolest" place. Why has he stayed in this City of Angels? His Kerouac-infused answer is full of joyful '60s expletives. Compared to the exorbitant cost of Gotham cool, he prefers L.A.'s Mexican food, leggy blonds and more Mexican food.

His affirming words are Angeleno poetry: the sands and bohemia of Venice Beach, where he and Jim Morrison began their journey together through the gritty corridors of Hollywood and the doors of perception. Being here with him reminds me, simply, why I am here with him. As I decide that I don't want to spoil the moment by thinking too much, Manzarek confesses that he, too, thinks of leaving L.A.

Strangely, my world is not shattered. I realize that it is all right to think about leaving L.A. What could be more L.A. than that? This city is a stark contrast to the prison-like grip of New York. We are free. Who cares if New Yorkers have the impression that L.A. is full of fair-weather fans? The thing they don't realize is that it's fine to be a fair-weather fan in a place where the storm never lasts long enough to force us out. I think of Shahrokhi, even if the New York Post reported months ago that he was arrested after police realized that he was using his apartment as a nightclub. When I last saw him, before his arrest, he offered a musical allegory to describe the main difference between our nation's biggest cities. Speaking of the competitive history of the East and West Coast jazz scenes of the 1950s, he explained, "East Coast jazz was a flurry of excitement, all in your face. While out on the West Coast, it was more about catching the spaces between the notes."

Eric Pape last wrote for the magazine about the Cambodian community, in Long Beach. [see his clips]