Every day in Los Angeles is, like, grilled-Tarmac hot, but on an especially hot day, I took a Lyft to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. Just for an interesting spot to wander a few hours while I talked on the phone to my friend. It was the middle of October, in 2018, and I paced the dig sites and museum exhibits, chatting Nosferatu and Suspiria over the phone. My schedule was such that I rarely had time for sightseeing, so La Brea was a treat. In L.A., I studied for my penultimate semester of undergrad, working toward a bachelor’s degree in cinema and photography. I went to L.A. because everybody in the film program goes to L.A. for a semester. They tell you you can study abroad anywhere you’d like, but if you’re in film, the truth is you’re going to wind up working in New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, so I decided to see the West Coast.
Pools of black, bubbling tar spot Hancock Park, but the main attraction is the big one. In it, a replica mammoth is half-consumed by petroleum goo. Crying out to its friends on the shore. Caught in its death throes. Trunk stretched upward as though desperately screaming for help. One of the mammoths on the shore is a child, reaching its trunk out at the doomed mastodon. The mammoth’s kid, maybe. It’s hard to sum up a city, any city, in one image, but to me, it makes perfect sense that one of L.A.’s main tourist attractions depicts a creature’s slow, agonizing death and the ancient, bubbling tar it’s sinking into.
This is not a happy piece about Los Angeles. This is about the city where I spent the five worst months of my life, where every day I sunk a little deeper into depression and alcoholism, where every night I was scared to fucking death that someone was gonna come out of the dark and stab me, or shoot me, or throw me in the back of a car and drive away. I don’t like to waste words talking about my writing process or “how a piece took shape” because I know it’s usually self-aggrandizing bullshit, and I know you don’t want to read that. But it’s been nearly two years since I left Los Angeles, and I have never written about it once. I couldn’t bring myself to parse through those five months and try to figure out what they meant, try to hold them down and exorcise some sort of meaning or moral out of them. I didn’t know which experiences to write about, or how many details to leave out, or even how to reconcile my time with the sunny “California Dreaming” paradise so many people associate with L.A. Because to me, that city doesn’t exist.
It’s summer all the time there, which gets old fast. It takes you two hours to drive across town. Everything is twice as expensive as it should be. The air hangs thick with pollution. City officials ignore the rampant homelessness crisis, which also conveniently gets left out of L.A’s most glamorous depictions.
One Thursday night, I took a Lyft across town to see Perfect Blue, a Satoshi Kon anime about a Japanese pop star who leaves music for a career as an actress. A male mega-fan stalker of hers, with dead grey eyes, pallid skin, and greasy, black hair falling over his face, follows her around Tokyo and tries to kill her. There are several rape scenes. The film synthesized all of my fears about the people I met in L.A. and the city’s culture, a Venn diagram of entertainment, wealth, and mania. My entire Lyft ride home, I didn’t speak a word; I was so shaken by the film. My fists were clenched tight. My arms were locked. I don’t remember blinking a whole lot. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have listened to My Favorite Murder so much while I lived in L.A. From the Hillside Strangler to the Black Dahlia, it seemed every other murder the show covered took place in the city. Hosts Karen and Georgia kept repeating like a mantra how L.A. draws some truly fucked-up people into its orbit.
There’s a pie shop on Hollywood Boulevard called The Pie Hole. The place is flanked by a vitamin and supplements store on one side and an upscale sushi bar on the other. Across the street, an empty lot was, in the fall and winter of 2018, filled with a popup “Yeti village” to promote Warner Bros.’ Smallfoot.
I picked up my rent-a-car on my first day in L.A. and went straight to The Pie Hole. I wanted my first California meal to be something right out of Twin Peaks, a coffee and a big slice of cherry pie while I checked my emails, hoping for a response to my many, many internship applications. Plus, the restaurant reminded me of the pie shop in Pushing Daisies, a cozy confectionary café also called The Pie Hole. Classic and specialty pies, quiches, cobblers, and cakes lined the display case, and a big tanker of coffee sat behind the counter. A slice of pie was $8. The bathrooms were padlocked and required a code to open. Across the street, the Yeti village towered over my rented vehicle.
I wish all five months were like that Pie Hole afternoon or my subsequent days at the Republic of Pie and Priscilla’s. The L.A. cafés didn’t hold my life together so much as they lifted me up from many late, drunken nights. It’s weird to think back on a time in your life and realize, whoops, you were an alcoholic for five months. But I also think the vodka, whiskey, etc., is what got me through my time in L.A. The unpaid internships, the mounting class assignments, the fear of always living in proximity to success but never actually having it—it’s all easier to cope with if you’re drunk, if you’re locked into a constant performance of “on the edge of a mental breakdown.”
I drank half a bottle of Jaeger on a student trip to Malibu. Another night, I passed out in the shower as it filled up with water. And another time, I brought a cartoonishly large 50-oz. bottle of cheap Barefoot white wine to the student center and drank it until I fell asleep; I finished it when I woke up at 4 a.m.
My barhopping was a blur of Uber rides, Tinder swiping, and late-night In-N-Out trips. One night, I visited the No Vacancy—a boozy Shambhala, the Haunted Mansion ride of cocktail bars. For one thing, Google Maps had no idea where the entrance was, so I had to follow a broad-shouldered Italian doorman through some back alleys and a vast parking lot to get there. The entrance looks like the facade of Norman Bates’ house. The bar is half-outdoors and half-in, more like a friend’s backyard party than a cocktail bar where an Old Fashioned is $18. Get drunk, desperately call your friends across the country, dance with a stranger — check, check, check. What an awful autumn.
There’s this literary bar down the road from the apartment complex, next to a gas station and a taco truck, called The Catcher in the Rye. Their cocktail menu is a deluge of literary references — The Don Quixote, The Raven, The Goblet of Fire, The Hemingway. I drank lots of Tequila Mockingbirds, with Arette Blanco and garnished with a jalapeño slice, mostly because it’s hard to binge-drink when your cocktails are incredibly fucking spicy. I decided recently that the most miserable I’ve ever been was on Halloween in 2018 when my day took me from the unpaid internship to class to the literary bar around 10 p.m. I passed out a few drinks in, exhausted, against the bar counter. I woke up to some dude in a prisoner costume asking me if I knew where the bathroom was.
The L.A. River runs just by the student center. It’s a barren concrete basin with a tiny stream running through it. When I walked by, it always crossed my mind how easy it would be to jump off the bridge. I always thought about whether the water was deep enough to save me, if I hit the water at all—the Ophelia of the L.A. River. But I didn’t think about it in a suicidal kind of way. There’s a distinction between actively self-destructive thoughts and thoughts that humor the possibility of suicide, and I spent most of my time in L.A. in the latter frame of mind.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire ripped through Malibu. When I left the apartment one morning, ash fell from the sky, and I thought, “This is what snow in Los Angeles feels like.” It’s not just the frequent wildfires — all of L.A. feels like a barely contained blaze. On my first day driving to my internship at Blumhouse Productions, I passed an SUV crashed into a Nissan or some shit, both cars bruised in the middle of the road, smoke pouring out of their frames and flames fanning the Nissan. In the office kitchen an hour later, I told my supervisor as we refilled the coffee machine. “Was it on Beverly?” he asked, scooping the grounds into the hopper. “There’s always a burning car on Beverly.”
I met some lovely people in L.A. Bless my professors, who listened to my exasperated rants and nodded and said, “Yeah, that about sums it up.” Some of my fellow Blumhouse interns drove with me to and from work, and we spent our drives talking horror movies and belting “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. But most of the people I met in L.A. were ladder-climbers and suck-ups, always throwing themselves at the feet of anyone with a name, so desperate to get a better job that they’ll kiss up to anybody with a pulse and a corner office. We were nobodies, so we overthought every interaction. You have no idea who’s going to be the one to save your ass when you’re out of the job. Or who’s going to be out sick or undergoing surgery in a month or two. Empty desks don’t fill themselves. It’s Los Angeles. Something’s always burning somewhere.
The other students went home in the first week of December when the program ended. I stayed an extra two weeks to look at graduate schools I knew I wasn’t even gonna apply to, but in those two weeks of living alone in L.A. and touring schools, something odd happened. I stopped drinking as much. And because it was December in California, I had a beach day.
At Santa Monica, pedestrian and bike paths line 26 miles of beach, and bike rentals are everywhere. Santa Monica’s shore has intermittent sewage drains, which produce these trash-filled, bog-like pools along the beach. So in one mile of biking, you can see three sewage drains, at least one wedding, and more than a few homeless people. Looking out over the ocean, California’s coast really does feel like the end of something.
Earlier in the season, I’d gone to the Laemmle NoHo 7 theater and seen Skate Kitchen, this gorgeous, intimate film from Crystal Moselle about New York City skateboarder subculture and the girls trying to make a name for themselves there. The film has these super-fluid, balletic shots of the girls skateboarding through the city and skateparks, filmed by a camera operator using handheld on a skateboard. The girls are all real-life Skate Kitchen group members, and Moselle wrote a script around them, cast them in the film, and got them acting lessons.
Skate Kitchen was on my brain when I parked my bike against a tree at Venice Beach Skatepark. A crowd was gathered there, at this little skating oasis in the sand. Folks with interesting hair and funky socks carved the bowls. I stood and watched them for over an hour, and I realized that they all knew one another. They were hyping each other up, cheering for other skaters when they fell off the board, and hollering when they pulled off an air trick. A little girl near me tore across the basin in roller-skates. Some tall white guy with blonde dreadlocks gave her a high-five.
All these teenagers and twenty-somethings were out here experimenting, trying new shit, and mashing up tricks and figuring out routines. If I were an asshole, I’d say it was like jazz. You know, how it’s all improvisation, how the same skater wouldn’t do the same routine twice in one day. Bikes, roller-skates, skateboards—they were all pros eager to try new material and practice tricks with their friends. I imagined Moselle’s camera floating after them as they sculpted the skatepark basins, bringing life to the concrete getting warm in the Venice Beach air. I felt like these people—well, aside from the literal child—had been here for years and will be here for years. If there weren’t a pandemic and I flew back out to L.A. tomorrow and went back to the Venice Beach Skatepark, I would see these same people. The same white dude with blonde dreads. The same little girl in roller-skates, now a little more grown-up. But due to COVID, the skateparks all closed, putting an end to some of the only places in L.A. that felt too communal, too free, and too loving to properly be in L.A.
After I left the skatepark, I swam in the Pacific. It wasn’t cold at all. A bride and groom took photos by some boulders as the waves broke against them. I know this sounds like a redemption arc for L.A., but really, it’s the only part of my internment where I felt like my head was above water. The pie shops still closed at 10 p.m., the nights still scared me, and the trail up to the Hollywood sign was always filled with horse shit.
Looking down on the San Fernando Valley obscured by smog, there’s an intractable feeling of falling. L.A. is a land of wells, graves, and pools. The valley and the L.A. River, the tar pits and the concrete skateparks, the coastline and the reservoirs. Gouges in the landscape and the soundscape as well — falling asleep in L.A. was hard at first but got easier, somewhat because of that emptiness. There’s not an absence of volume, but each sound is competing over white noise. The planes landing, the coyotes in the mountains, the frogs and cicadas in the trees: Every sound leaps at the chance to fill the void of the desert air, to creep into the cavity of time like tar into bone. A constant seeping that blackens the cartilage.
BIO: Clement Obropta studied cinema and photography at Ithaca College in New York. He has worked in Los Angeles and in New York City, where he wrote and edited for Men’s Journal. He mostly writes film criticism, published chiefly in Film Inquiry and The Slice, and also serves as a culture editor at MAYDAY Magazine. As he’s on a newly-grad-in-a-pandemic budget, most of his traveling is done vicariously through books, films, chats with friends in other countries, and submissions to Wanderlust.
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