I grant that I’ve only been here for eight months, but my experience does not match a single stereotype of LA. Unless we’re talking about gridlock on the Hollywood Freeway (see how assimilated I am becoming?) or sunshine 300 days out of the year, the public perceptions of non-Los Angelenos bear more resemblance to Tea Party talking points than any reality that I’ve experienced.

“Los Angelenos Are Vapid Assholes”

Since moving to Los Angeles, I think that I’ve read more books than any time since college. What’s more, I’m able to discuss books with other people who have read them, or at least people who have read other, similar books. Like many misconceptions of Los Angeles, this is probably true of a very narrow layer of aggressively substance-free folks working in Hollywood. It bears no resemblance to reality when you’re talking to some Mexican skinhead from East Los who has all kinds of opinions on the book he just read about Zen Buddhism or the omnipresent homeless guys outside of the public library.

And the people here are nice. I don’t mean nice in the way that a 65-degree day or a sweater from your favorite aunt at Christmas is nice. I mean welcoming, friendly, helpful, “homely” in the British sense. Whether it’s South Bay gang members packing another bowl and asking me questions about what the hardcore scene was like where I grew up or the server at a local vegan restaurant putting on her best — best — fake smile before bringing me another refill of coffee, Los Angelenos know something very useful: In a metro area of almost 18 million people a little bit of kindness, deference and ability to laugh at oneself is what keeps us from degenerating into Rwanda.

“Everyone is Tanned / Has Fake Tits / Capped Teeth / Botox”

I live in Hollywood and even I don’t get this. While I’m sure that if I went on a plastic surgery disaster hunt I’d come back with some impressive big game, I don’t see how a stereotype of Los Angeles was formed that was so damned white and middle class. For starters, over half the city doesn’t have to tan. The issue, however, goes far beyond the obvious social marker of race. Los Angeles is a bit like a third-world country in the sense that you have grotesque opulence and abject, shit-eating poverty existing within a stone’s throw of one another. The plastic surgery industry no doubt thrives in Los Angeles, but I often wonder at what income percentile the number of people who’ve had a little work done sinks like a stone.

“Nobody Walks in LA”

While granting that 98 percent of the people ambling around Hollywood Boulevard on any given day are a plague sent here from Germany, Kansas and Australia, it’s simply not true that Los Angelenos don’t walk anywhere. For one thing, if you live in a halfway decent neighborhood you can get most of your errands done simply by walking if need be. On a Friday night it’s far easier to shuffle from one bar to another by foot than it is to get in your car and risk a DUI, and as anyone will tell you this is a drinking town with a football problem.

Los Angeles has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the country. This figure must, however, be taken with a small grain of salt. Remember the truly astonishing (and hard to quantify) number of Angelenos who don’t so much have a car as they have a museum piece that they rub down six days a week before driving half a mile to the 7-11 to show off to other guys with similar museum pieces. Put simply, a 51 Buick low rider counts as a car about as much as the 100-year-old straight razor owned by my great-grandfather Claude Pell counts as something I can shave with.

While we’re on the subject — our public transit system is extensive, clean and relatively safe.

“Everyone Is / Wants to Be in Movies”

While I do own up to knowing a former VP of Miramax and a guy with two AVN Awards, this stereotype is largely a product of selective attention. If your friend who moved to Los Angeles moved here to be a screenwriter, chances are they have surrounded themselves with assholes who are “in the industry” and have become the type of asshole that says things like “the industry” with an air of mesmerized awe. Some of the most interesting people in Los Angeles, however, are not those in The Industry ™, but those existing at its margins. For everyone ten people here trying to be the next Brad Pitt or Michael Bay, there is someone trying to be the next Tura Satana or H.G. Lewis. Considering the gobs of buffoons wandering the streets of LA who expect to be discovered, this is a numbers game I’m more than willing to play.

My Los Angeles

I see the world of Los Angeles through a different prism than those living in New York, Detroit and Seattle, and perhaps even many living right here. To me, Los Angeles is a hard-working, mostly blue-collar city filled with people from every nook and cranny of the earth, living every lifestyle, alternative and otherwise, possible. Our people are honest, straightforward and love a good joke as much as they love a day spent grilling in the sun. They love playing pool, shooting guns at the range, watching boxing at the bar and taking a drive up Mulholland at sunset while making jokes about how clichéd that is. They love shopping at the swap meet, chihuahuas and pit bulls, hamburgers and old movies.

For the first time in my life I have a home. Thanks, Los Angeles, for being everything that people say you aren’t.

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NICHOLAS PELL writes about the untold corners of popular culture just before they bubble over into the mainstream and become bowdlerized. His work first appeared in the alleged "punk rock bible" Maximumrocknroll when he was just 15 years old. Since then he has written for The Hit List and London PA. He is currently working on a history of the 1990s hardcore punk sub-genre known as powerviolence. When not writing, editing and researching he can be found dancing to soul and rocksteady or searching for the perfect pair of Levi Sta-Prest jeans. His personal website is nicholaspell.com.

8 responses to “Naked Los Angeles”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    Great piece. I love Los Angeles, too!

  2. I live in LA, read books, walk, AND work in the film industry. This is a fun mix and match game 🙂

  3. Becky Palapala says:

    Of course, what stereotypes usually seek to do is identify not what makes a place or a group of people the same, but what makes them different.

    I’m not convinced that stereotypes actually seek to assert that “All X are X.” I think the point is more like, “More X are X than Y are X.” Where Y is “most other people/places/things”

    That being the case, assertions that all–or even most–Angelenos don’t conform to a stereotype don’t do much to debunk a stereotype that never sought to assert so. If Angelenos, as a group, are indeed more X way than people in other places are X way, the stereotypes are to some degree founded.

    Stereotypes, alas, are rarely totally baseless.

    As a person from Minnesota, I cannot stress enough how much experience I have with stereotypes.

    For the record, though, Los Angeles consistently ranks poorly in literacy–where literacy is judged by how much people read, not how many people can read. According to at least one study this year, L.A. comes in at 61 out of 75 major American cities, so although your fondness for your adopted city is admirable, it may be skewing your perspective, at least on this account. Maybe you just have exceptionally literate neighbors, gangsters and all. http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/01/literacy_ranking_los_angeles.php

    You’re right about plastic surgery, though. As of 2008, L.A. fell squarely in the middle of the pack of (what looks like) 100 cities. Number 1 was San Francisco. Alleged hippie havens Portland and Seattle, funnily, were both in the top 10. All things natural! Except your face! Which is plastic! 🙂

    This is actually fascinating, digging around for this info. For example: Seattle is consistently in the top 5 most literate cities as well. A connection between reading and a fixation with keeping up an appearance?

  4. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Word. I live here too, and I like it too, and I wonder why everybody doesn’t live here because I’ve lived lots of places and this one is hands-down the best. The stereotypes are useful in that sense. I mean, the rest of the country might be empty without them.

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