The View From Away: Absence from L.A. makes the heart grow colder
I am halfway through my most recent stint of TV consulting (“Instant Mom,” Thursdays on Nick At Nite; tell your friends). The part I thought would be hard has been easy, and the part I thought would be easy has been hard. The big worry, being back in a writers’ room, has gone smoothly. Going back and forth between two places as different as Los Angeles and Portland, however, has been surprisingly disorienting.
For instance, it was surprising to learn, as I have on this trip, that no matter how long you lived in big cities, if you’re away from them long enough, they can become intimidating again. Apparently, “long enough” is somewhere near the six-year mark.
During the first assignment, last December, there was no transition period. From the first day, I was driving as if I had never left town, by which I mean speeding up or slowing down on the freeway to keep cars from changing into my lane if they didn’t have their turn signal on, or they weren’t leaving enough room, or I didn’t feel like it. (On a side note, like golf, driving in L.A. doesn’t build character, it reveals it.)
Five months later, I really feel as though I am from away in L.A. I find myself driving the speed limit, letting cars in ahead of me on surface streets, using my turn signal even when I am in a turn lane – all the things that used to annoy me when people with out-of-state plates did them. I even slowed down at yellow lights a few times. Talk about out of touch with how people drive in L.A.: people looked at me like I was driving a tractor.
It also took a couple of days to get up to speed in pedestrian traffic. On one of the first days, I met some friends for dinner at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (think three Maine Malls stacked on top of each other). I had been there many times when we lived here and never gave a thought to the crowds.
On that night, though, it felt like I had fallen into a fast moving river of people, and no matter which direction I went, I was swimming upstream. I was also intimidated by the crowd’s appearance and sense of style. I used to scoff at friends who said they hated L.A. because everyone looked taller, younger, thinner, prettier and better dressed than they were. Turns out they were right.
When you’re surrounded by people who look like they’re on a break from shooting a workout video, and you feel like one of Frodo Baggins’ neighbors in The Shire, it’s embarrassing to ask for directions to The Cheesecake Factory. You expect somebody to say, “Take the next left and waddle until you’re out of breath. It’s just past that.”
Changes in places I used to know well were also disorienting. They reminded me of how you can never step in the same river twice. I had coffee with a friend in a little shopping area near my old house. I thought I really knew Montrose, as the area is called, a small strip of family-owned restaurants and small shops. It was one of my favorite places. I liked seeing pizza places that weren’t part of a chain, small jewelry stores and shoe repair places that had been there for decades and never redecorated. There was even an old-school foot doctor, the kind with a neon foot in the window.
Now, it is slowly being homogenized into an upscale strip mall. The foot doctor is gone, replaced by a frozen yogurt shop with a trendy name. The childrens book store where we used to take our kids is a Starbucks now, especially galling because it shares a corner with a nearly identical Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Is our thirst for overpriced coffee-like beverages really that unquenchable?
The Rocky Cola Cafe, a family diner with a vaguely '50s theme that was always busy, full of kids in soccer or baseball uniforms celebrating victory or soothing defeat with an Oreo milkshake, is gone, too, with paper over its windows.
I suppose it is inevitable. It does not bother me in most ways; time marches on. Still, I would hate to see Portland go down that road. Portland has it all over Los Angeles, and most places, in the character department. I don’t want to see paper in the windows of, say, Becky’s, while it is turned into a wine bar or yet another microbrewery with a menu that reads like a master’s thesis on yeast.
Nobody needs that.