Thursday, February 18, 2010

Los Angeles, by Joseph F. Mailander

It is possible to disappear, for months, even years at a time, even for a whole lifetime, into the city of Los Angeles, in a way that it is impossible to disappear into other cosmopolitan places.

In other great cities, you may become superficially anonymous: in other great cities, nobody may know you, and you may even be enough of a hermit to have your groceries delivered. But in these other cities you still walk your neighborhood, say hello to the same clerks, and occasionally escape into the kind of reassuringly madcap evenings that satisfy your predilections over time. However, in Los Angeles, where the clerks turn over every month, the madcap evenings are never dependable but disappear as marketing trends as soon as they are discovered, and where there is also a far sharper demarcation between commercial and residential property than exists in other great cities, you transcend anonymity, and truly disappear.

You are not merely comfortable with your anonymity in Los Angeles; you cultivate and brandish it as one cultivates and brandishes a talent. You wear clothes that announce your casualness, your incidental quietude. Perhaps this is why Los Angeles has such an intriguing relationship to fame and star-making—at bottom, fame is the polar opposite of the true Angeleno experience—perhaps fame only exists in Los Angeles to detract the city from its real business, which is enabling its citizens to disappear—and certainly the famous in Los Angeles are those citizens who most love to disappear of all. But it is not a wonder that in Los Angeles one finds the most Koreans outside of Korea, the most Egyptians outside of Egypt, etc. It is the place the world comes to disappear from the world.

In LA, you may disappear daily into the hills, into the flats, into the parks, into beach bars and the bookstores, along the surface streets, biding time until your next true disappearance. And your next true disappearance is the sacred disappearance that even goes beyond your vulgar quotidian disappearance. As an Angeleno, you strike up complicated, devoted relationships with farflung escapes: one may love Portugal, another Paris, another the Sierras, another the Sahel. These places are where the Angeleno feels most alive: it is always elsewhere. In this way, the native Angeleno is always the stranger in a strange land, one hundred percent of a lifetime.

An astonishing number of homes in Los Angeles are situated on healthy-sized lots, of a dimension more usual to rural communities. The demarcation between residential and commercial is much sharper here than elsewhere. The dimension and scope of the places people live permit even more disappearance, literal disappearance: an enveloping by trees that grow to stupendous heights, gates that keep one in as well as others out, and ivy and bougainvillea that enshroud a life.

The relentless sense of disappearance, of invisibility: because of this quality, for me, Los Angeles remains the most congenial place anywhere to perform the elaborate version of doing nothing, under the scrutiny of nobody, that is so necessary to creation, and especially to a writer’s life.

Joseph Mailander is a writer. raised in the South Bay in Los Angeles. He graduated from Hawthorne High and UCLA.
You can find on his blog:


  1. What a rewarding and delightful essay to read from the privacy of my rental cottage this early afternoon. This cottage, which is set at the back of a somewhat delapidated, anonymously brown on brown 1920s property on a skyline street in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, boasts a sheltered patio which permits doors and windows to rest open to our mild winter breezes. With my cats napping to the sound of my keyboard tapping, this native angelino only envies the snows of baltimore.

  2. Joseph, this is genius! For 18 years Koreatown was my cloister. I became a writer, a Catholic, pondered, wept, prayed, raged, inwardly argued, endlessly walked, shopped the grocery stores (primo soba! fresh kumquats! Rainer cherries for 99 cents a pound!), bought extension cords, birthday candles, and cut-rate hay fever medication at Big Bargain, made friends with the hibiscus, camellias, sea lavendar, birds-of-paradise, and all, for the last 7 years (after the divorce, almost entirely alone.And now that I've given up the apartment, and regard the birds from my casita in Taos, New Mexico, I in some ways finally feel "myself"--whatever that is--but am also now--never then--homesick...I used to think "I just don't want to die in L.A. Please don't let me die in L.A."...but more and more, I think: Where else?...

  3. Thanks much, Trina and Heather. I know your time dreaming of being out of town weighs as much on your psyche as those times when you actually leave and subsequently dream of a Los Angeles that is indeed a home. I was caught in the same steel bear trap all through college.

  4. Heather's comment really resonated with me. I, too, have cried out, "I just don't want to die in LA. Please don't let me die in LA." But every time I've had an opportunity to leave, I've fought it. My husband will say, Okay, let's move; and we've sometimes gone as far as to call a realtor...but then, every time, without fail, I'll panic and put the kabosh on the whole process. Suddenly I can't bear the prospect of calling another city home.

    Now, until I read Joseph's piece, I thought it was my friends who kept me here. I never considered that it might actually be the city itself...That the city is tailor made for someone like me, someone who craves "a congenial perform the elaborate version of doing nothing."

    Are those words wonderful or what?

    I was struck too by Joseph's comment about how Angelenos feel "most alive" somewhere else. For me, it's Italy. And again I always thought that my love affair with the country was because I have such a crush on Italians. But is it deeper than that? I now wonder. Is it because so many Italian villages and cities don't have LA's strict demarcation between residential and commercial areas?

    I'll be back in Rome and Venice this March. I know, as I step out of my hotel, walk a block or two and greet a vendor selling vegetables that I'll remember Joseph's thoughts.

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