Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angelese come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!
— John Fante
WE LIVED IN the Villa Carlotta the heart of Franklin Village, across from the Scientology Celebrity Centre. William Saroyan and Louella Parsons also lived there, plus some other famous people whose names I only vaguely knew. When we lived there, Rickie Lee Jones lived on the floor below us and down the hall was one of the less famous actresses from Suspiria — she had a thing for my boyfriend and had a habit of knocking on our door at odd hours, even 2:00 a.m. once. They had all found out my boyfriend was a fashion designer and they wanted in. I felt so lucky to live there. Fifty units, Spanish colonial, it was definitely one of those glamorous and haunted old Hollywood joints that people dream of when they imagine L.A. In that house, we drank bad wine — even though we were supposedly sober — and smoked weed out of apples and he made endless pots of kitchari, the go-to meal from his monk days. On our first date I almost passed out next to his altar for reasons I still don’t understand, but he had a spiritual explanation. He was a skater from Nashville who learned to make clothes for deities in the temples of Vrindavan — the only real job he’d had at that point — and his parents probably paid his rent in L.A. He smoked endless cigarettes and used to cry playing “The Girl from the North Country.” It was the only time I slept on a California King. I was a shopgirl on Rodeo Drive and he would visit me and we used to prank call the racist manager at the local Pinkberry and close the shop early if we could make sure the shopgirls at Etro wouldn’t snitch on us. Finally, when L.A. grew too much for me, as it always did, he followed me to New York, though sometimes I think if we had just stayed at the Villa Carlotta we probably would have been together today. It was a good thing we left. I was from L.A. A Valley Girl, but not that valley. The other Valley, the San Gabriel one. The Valley girls here were East Asian and Chicana maybe and even though they didn’t exactly sound like those Valley Girls, I can always hear it when someone is from my Valley. Still vocal-fried but unpretentious, hesitant, sweet, somehow confessional-sounding even if just talking to a bank teller — sometimes if my dreams aren’t in Persian, they are in this register.
When we came to America in the mid-’80s, the first celebrity I learned about was the Night Stalker. We lived in the San Gabriel Valley — Alhambra, Monterey Park, and later Pasadena, to be specific — and all around us he was murdering people in their homes. I felt guilty about how handsome I found him and when they said he had killed someone while playing AC/DC, the devil’s music, I felt doubly guilty checking out the music and loving it. New to America, the Marlboro Man was my first crush, but in some twisted way, the Night Stalker was second. When they caught him, I was so relieved, because by then I had decided that I was one of those girls serial killers seek out. What could be more L.A. than this kind of inverted exceptionalism, I later thought. Haunted kid in a haunted city, maybe I just wanted to be one of them — any of them, just a type you could call an American girl who people actually knew about. At that point, I felt too invisible to imagine anyone preying on us.
All the poor kids in South Pasadena lived in the Raymond Hill district. Immigrants and the POC who were not East Asian, because they also lived in the rich white areas. There were burglaries constantly, the sound of car alarms going off at all hours, police making their rounds at every odd hour. Everyone was wearing the wrong thing in this area — bad shorts and bad T-shirts, knockoff sneakers, budget gear. Everyone had bad haircuts, bad attitudes. All of us walked to and from school — this was an area for kids who had the keys to their house when they were still single digits, who barely knew their parents growing up because they worked so many jobs, who learned how to babysit when they were still babies as the siblings came in. This was the kind of area you wanted so badly to leave one day. It bred aspiration that way while the rest of South Pasadena was a wonderland everyone was a forever-citizen of; they all came back, but not the Raymond Hill kids, if we could help it. We were scared of the few white people who were our neighbors; anyone who was white who lived there had definitely done something extremely wrong in life. I made out with boys in their cars, made sure they parked uphill so my parents couldn’t somehow spy us from their bedroom window, worrying about why I was late. When it came time to leave, I went as far as possible, 3,000 miles away, and when I came back to visit, the greatest compliment I received was New York had really changed me.
In 1990, Los Angeles’s metro rail system began operating, though I never met anyone who took it until about a decade later. Even then, it was mostly out of curiosity. I started taking the Gold Line, one branch of the L.A. metro that ran out of Mission Street in South Pasadena all the way downtown. I learned to drive at 16 — a stick shift, because that’s all my parents had, as they cost less — but my confidence was low, so I had us drive to Fontana where it was rumored that they passed everyone on the driver’s license test. I passed too, but my confidence on the road was always a problem. The minute I learned what Xanax was, I took crumbs of it on the road until someone told me it could actually be debilitating for a driver and then I decided maybe driving just wasn’t for me. I had friends and partners pick me up and drop me off, but most of the time I just went as far as walking took me. I tried to tell people it was because of all that New York time. But when the Gold Line was established with a stop on our town, I started taking it at all hours. Sometimes I was one of three people in a car. In Union Station, everything felt sad and desolate, like people were there because they couldn’t be elsewhere. That feeling of not wanting to be there I knew well. I used to worry about earthquakes on those subway rides, especially when the train ran underground. The Northridge Quake had struck on my 16th birthday and was the first in a long line of disasters of my life, if you didn’t count war and revolution.
There was only one summer that I loved L.A. I was 19. I was dating an ex-MTV VJ exactly twice my age, who I had met interning at RayGun Publishing. I wasn’t sure about him, but he had given me a ride home — well, to his home — from their Santa Monica offices that turned into strip Scrabble and sleeping over and being told I was number 601. I also worked at Urban Outfitters that summer, my first of two summers there, and I was crushing on a co-worker, the first butch girl who really talked to me. We’d go to Canter’s when our shift was up at 2:00 a.m. and I’d have macaroni and cheese and a vanilla milkshake, and she’d listen to me complain about the MTV VJ. Later, when I wrote her a note confessing my feelings, she was good about it but probably was smart to stay away. There were several male editors at RayGun who’d been fired from SPIN for sexual harassment, and they didn’t seem to have learned anything. But there was a power in being 19 and having so many eyes — especially their eyes — on me. I felt dangerous. I’d wear long, tight white club dresses and black platform sneakers with silver glitter face makeup — the kind of thing that would be a hit at a rave, but I felt fine wearing it to work. I made sure you could see through everything. What’s the worst that could happen? People thinking badly of me, people wanting me? It was 1997 and everything seemed mostly okay. One night my friend from high school and I went to a bar/club in L.A. called Louis XIV and an older French man took us to a private room where there were platters of coke. I had tried some at Sarah Lawrence, so it was with confidence that I took the rolled-up bill. Before the end of the night, we were with him and his friend in a dingy motel room — dingy but historic — the Saharan Motor Hotel on Sunset, which I’d always driven by and wondered about. He played music videos on a dying TV, rewinding Enrique Iglesias over and over, and eventually he began groping me. We managed to leave and laugh about it for days, zero trauma somehow, just another night where we’d skim danger but be fine. That summer, I thought I would have no future but I didn’t care because I was happy to be in that moment, the one time summer in L.A. felt good to me. Ever been so happy you wished you could die? I asked the VJ one day after he fucked me behind the Hollywood sign. He was almost my age now, and didn’t look at me when he said, Never.
The worst summer might have been just before when I became a shopgirl on Rodeo Drive, after a massive mental breakdown. I had spent a few seasons addicted to pills of all kinds, but mainly sleep meds and hypnotic sedatives, and I had three psychiatrists who I rotated but who had no knowledge of each other. I had no idea what was wrong with me exactly, but my anxiety and depression had started becoming constant suicidal ideation and I was responding to nothing. My mother got the idea that a shit job would help me, just a regular old 9-to-5 I wouldn’t care about, something that didn’t involve writing or my brain or my heart. I didn’t feel like I had a brain or heart at all, I wanted to argue. So an old college friend mentioned his rich mom had a store on Rodeo Drive and they needed a shopgirl and I offered myself, mentioning that I had worked retail many times since I was 17. I knew nothing about Rodeo Drive culture other than it was a place we’d go when we first came to America, as wide-eyed tourists to see what the thriving Iranians were up to. One time, we had spotted Ed McMahon on that street; I boasted to kids at school about it, but no one knew he who was except our teacher. For a couple seasons that Rodeo boutique was my life, full of luxury bags that were made of mostly endangered exotic animals. I hated Beverly Hills; Faulkner calling L.A. “the plastic asshole of the world” was always on my mind out there. The boutique felt nauseating but it became a home for me. The other shopgirls would come and go and I would do my best to keep employed, as for some reason it did seem to keep my mind off my woes. One bag cost more than I’d make in a year. Sometimes I got so nervous ringing them up that I would tell the customers to come back next week when they would be on sale. They would thank me profusely but never come back and I never had to ring up a five-figure purchase, thankfully. At my lunch break, I’d get an extra-large Jamba Juice or a bang trim at Vidal Sassoon or wander by the sales racks of the few generic lower-end stores. I’d pretend that one day some rich person would come and whisk me and my pills away and everything would be okay. We’d live in a mansion in Malibu and I would know real happiness, the kind that was so hard to find in L.A. But all I got were other disappointed Iranians who immediately knew I was one of them, who wanted to know what went wrong to get me to that point. Everything, I wanted to tell them. Show me something that went right.
It feels like an L.A. kid cliché to talk lovingly of the beach, but I always loved the beach. In my younger years, it had an irony, like I was a beach goth or something, in my all black and jeans, hiding in a book under shade. I wanted to hate it, but I couldn’t. I would have these entire seasons of being sick with a chronic illness that it took ages to figure out, and the only place that made me feel okay was the beach. My mom and I would leave our native smoggy East Side and drive up to Zuma past Malibu and we’d sit there silently. So much silence in L.A. The loneliest and most brutal of American cities, Kerouac called this city. My mom would take photos of us, and I would beg her not to post them or show anyone. Sometimes I would cry until she promised me things would get better, that just like I’d grow out of certain things I’d grow into happiness, and sometimes I would believe her.
At some point, in my 30s, I became one of those adults who got into Disneyland. I had always loved it as a kid but the idea of going there, heavily stoned and maybe even drunk on top of it, as a grown-ass person, had never occurred to me. Then it somehow did and it became a ritual for my friends and I. I was always the ringleader. And there was such a joy on going over the same old rides, plus the ones I was always too scared to go on as a kid — the mountains, mainly. Disneyland seemed so outdated, so sad and pathetic, so expensive and unreasonable, so trying with all its long lines and crying children — and yet I loved it. Maybe it was an immigrant thing, but when I’d be there I’d genuinely feel like everything was okay. And it became a test of boyfriends, not unlike Death Valley which I also loved returning to time and time again, to see if they could stand me and some of my worst whims. This was the first time it really hit me you are from California, one said to me after a good 12 hours there.
Editors always want to commission pieces about L.A. from me. I always swear this will be the last one and there is always one more. At this point, I have lived in New York longer than I have Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is always home. During the pandemic, so many I know fled New York and moved to L.A. but just a year into it, almost all of them moved back. Who could say for sure, but it seemed like the spikes would hit New York first and just as everyone was convinced the situation would become hopeless the numbers would even out or even drop and then the other coast, especially L.A., they would spike even more hopelessly; for a certain class of people, maybe “coastal elites” indeed, this geographic demographic seesaw made up the core of their pandemic struggle, as if you could externalize this virus into some like a regional migration madness. I’m typing this from my first visit back to Los Angeles in two and a half years. It’s the perfect temperature — 70 degrees — perfect light, even the air is better than usual. Outside my window there is bougainvillea and hummingbirds, the sound of one neighbor singing a song in Spanish and another group of neighbor’s kids laughing in Mandarin. I’ll be leaving in a few weeks and I’ll probably be relieved to leave as the honeymoon will probably pass just before then, and I’ll begin hungering for the constant stimulation, the dirt and grit, the intellect and attitude of that other coast. Something will happen and L.A. will remind me, you’re not really from here. But I was raised here, I’ll argue, what more could qualify me as from here? But I’ll know what that means. It is redundant to die in Los Angeles, goes the famous Capote quote, and it’s possible that, even now, this sad reality is the only reason that I love the place.
L.A. was the first place to teach me that sometimes, sadly, love is like that, too — as heavy and dull and bleak and indifferent and sprawling as it is, you might barely feel it but it’s there, it has you.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of four critically acclaimed books. Her most recent, the essay collection Brown Album: Essays on Exile & Identity (Vintage, May 2020), has been praised in The New York Times, O: Oprah Magazine, Time, goop, USA Today, and many more. Her next book, Tehrangeles: A Novel, is forthcoming from Pantheon. Among her many fellowships is a National Endowment for the Arts award. Her other writing has appeared in many sections of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Traveler, Bookforum, Elle, Slate, and many others. She is a contributing editor at Evergreen Review and lives in New York City.