“Well,” my Dad asked, “did you find what you were looking for?”
I sat travel-dazed and dirty-socked at the dining room table. I’d fought the coming home blues all 372 miles up the 101, driven straight to my parents’ house to eat dinner, tell stories and delay actually arriving home a couple more hours. My car rested in the driveway like a tired horse, bag-laden and dirt-covered. I couldn’t remember having ever wanted to come home less.
Of course, my dad meant Los Angeles, its gritty and unglossy underside—had I found it? I’d made quite the to-do over my mission to dig in, delve beneath and uncover buried, bloody gems of LA’s uncommercializable heart—the skeletons in its closets, its alleyways, the voices that came through tattered paperbacks and the shrieking distortion of old punk LPs. Had I gotten there, found there, held a bit of there in my hands like it could be mine?
I stayed mostly in Downtown, LA’s most un-LA area. Modestly tall buildings jangled with the light dancing off of cheap jewelry stores; young girls beckoned you to enter their stores, calling out the names of goods in Spanish; a legless beggar with perfectly combed hair occupied the pavement outside Clifton’s Cafeteria; Santeria markets abutted Art Deco theater marquees, sitting above boarded-up entrances and watching the street like purgatoried angels. Hipsters took morning strolls with their well-groomed dogs, past shopping carts and transient twitching, the encampments of misery that compose Skid Row. There were no Valley Girls, OC bros or Pilates-perfect MILFs. There was even a cafe that served Ritual coffee.
It’s called “Historic” Downtown, complete with markers and murals, and I crossed several groups of confused tourists, consulting street maps and looking up bewildered at the carcasses of LA history as if it say, “Huh?” You learn to take the term “history” with a grain of salt in California, but it went beyond that—this was barely even a Downtown. There were no bustling businessmen, no Banana Republics, no dudes hawking maps of celebrities’ homes on the street corner, no tourist facilities, not really any non-neighborhood locals. Working-class, non-white, unglamorous—this was Downtown LA.
I hiked over to Bunker Hill, a doomed and fruitless mission, I knew. It was once a down-and-out neighborhood that held, in the shadows of its slanted incline, flophouses and brothels, dive bars and cheap hotels, derelicts and drunkards and two of the best damn writers to come out of that cursed city. John Fante curled up in the liquor-soaked sweetness of the slum, while Charles Bukowski broke furniture and chased alcoholic insanity in its tenements. A 1950s revitalization project razed the ramshackle Victorians, paved over the shattered remains of lives and dreams and addictions, suffocating the howling ghosts neatly beneath office parks, wide streets and sterilized, sparkling sidewalks.
There was nothing to discover. I tromped up a San-Francisco-steep hill, glanced at the historical markers, cruised past the newspaper village of bare feet and cigarette butts outside the Central Library. I stood on a corner that will next week be renamed John Fante Square, and not a damn thing remained. Not a shadow, not an echo, not a ghost of a passing fit of madness. There was, to use a tired and perfect quote, no there there.
But of course, there never really had been. None of it was true, not all the way true, at least. Us writers and alcoholics are tragically skilled at romanticizing even the most sordid, harrowing of places and experiences—and in all likelihood, the actual Bunker Hill bore more resemblance to the modern-day Downtown than it did the gloriously gritty harem of passion portrayed in the novels I’ve loved. It was, most likely, a sweet little lie those boys told themselves, in their more tender of moments, when they ached for something to hold them, rock them, hum the lullaby of a childhood none of us really had. I know I’ve been guilty of rose-painting, perfuming the past, my own life, and it takes a photograph, something tangible, to jar me out of it, to remind myself how much it hurt, it bled, it puked and moaned; I saw people die, burn out, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
So in that way, what I sought was all a mirage anyway. The narrow alleys and sagging Victorians of Bunker Hill may have been gone, but had the illusory soul of the place ever been more than that, a fevered dream? There was a current-day incarnation, just down the hill—laced with more sinister, soul-eating of drugs, for sure, with the rattle of shopping carts and broken lives—but it was probably a more accurate representation of Bunker Hill than those exalted odes to insanity, like the moment of pure genius and bliss before the trip goes back and the come-down shatters in.
But maybe it was all a mirage, Los Angeles—an oasis that keeps glimmering just a little further out in the sand. Katie told me about a girl she’d met in a penthouse one day (“typical LA story—went out for a coffee, met the Del Taco guy, went up to his apartment with his friends…”): perfectly thin and gorgeous, a 22-year-old model who’d run away from her Midwest home at 15, found herself stranded in California when the boyfriend ditched out, came to LA, rose in the ranks and behind the flashing of cameras, sat now on a leather sofa doing rails of cocaine off a glass coffee table. “She was the total LA person—came from somewhere else, chasing this glamourous illusion, the LA dream. She knew it was a dream, she was totally aware of it, but still too addicted to the dream to disconnect.”
Here’s what I learned: LA is a place for seekers. It seems it always has been, at least for the last 100 years or so. The City of Angeles, of a fleeting fulfillment you can almost, but never quite, grasp. There’s an LA dream, that’s not too unlike the American dream, that this too can be yours, that you too can find it, have it, hold it. It’s a flickering projection of images, like on the backs of eyelids or clean white screens, that’s so close to being real you could almost weep, almost believe it.
So did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. It may have all been a dream to begin with, like the utopias of the almost-cults I visited. It had been bulldozed and redesigned with crisp corners and clean towers; it was living on in the ragged throats and stained clothes of Skid Row. It was a memory so old you don’t know whether it was a dream or not; it was a love song for the one you never really, but almost, had.