Essay: The Hater's Guide To Reading About LA In The New York Times
If you're a fan of the literary subgenre known as Condescending Think Pieces About Los Angeles, you're in luck. The latest cliché-addled entry comes from the New York Times, the same folks who brought us Bobagate.
Palm trees? Check. Traffic? Check. Supposed absence of pedestrians? Check. Ridiculous generalizations based on shallow assumptions? A facile reference to Los Angeles Plays Itself? Cluelessness masquerading as cleverness? You betcha.
Plenty of outlets publish these kind of stories, but no one does it with more fervor or less self-awareness than the New York Times.
The Gray Lady remains bafflingly committed to the practice of hiring people who've lived in Los Angeles for all of 3.2 seconds and paying them to write meretricious, pseudo-deep stories about the city's culture, geography and traffic. Extra points if they're novelists.
I know what you're probably thinking. "Wait! I live in Los Angeles. I can write sentences. How can I get in on this racket?"
Slow your roll, gentle reader. Living in Los Angeles and appreciating Los Angeles, with all its warts and aggravations, likely makes you ineligible to actually write about Los Angeles, at least for the New York Times. You wouldn't approach your subject with the proper level of sneering naïveté. And you certainly wouldn't be able to compete in the "How Many Clichés Can We Cram Into A Single Story?" sweepstakes.
Which brings us to "Finding Los Angeles," a 3,370-word opus written by Reif Larsen.
I want to believe that Reif Larsen is actually Fred Armisen performing an epic troll. But no. Reif is a flesh and blood human. A Brooklyn novelist, no less. He has come West to enlighten us savages while seeking "places of quiet contemplation far from the gridlock and glamour."
Let's dive in and see how many points his "think piece" scores on LAist's Clueless Meter. For those playing along at home, here's the drinking game:
- One shot of mezcal for every mention of traffic
- Another shot for every mention of suburban sprawl
- Two shots for every mention of how people don't walk
"I was already running half an hour late. This was because I am not from Los Angeles."
Or because Reif lacks time management. It's a bold move to open with this gambit but a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Here's one:
"I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens..."
Hey, that sounds cool! Where have I heard of that place? Oh, right! On LAist, which wrote about it a month ago.
"...as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city's endless suburban sprawl... places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so that they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss."
Tick tock. It's been at least three sentences since he's mentioned traffic. Better do it ASAP. Are you tipsy yet?
"These boulevards offer both the best and worst of the city: there are never any pedestrians..."
That was the sound of the needle scratching and dropping off the record player. Later, Reif will mention Los Angeles Plays Itself, a great documentary about the way the city is depicted in movies. Most people don't recall or don't watch the ending, where filmmaker Thom Andersen rips to shreds everyone, including Joan Didion, who has perpetuated the notion that "no one walks in L.A." He points out that people walk in Los Angeles, all day, every day -- especially in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. If you don't see these people, it's not because they're absent, it's because they're not important to you.
"If possible, try not to miss your appointment because of existential traffic jams."
Are those worse than regular traffic jams? Can I avoid them with FasTrak?
"What is strange is that many Angelenos I talked to echoed this view of interstate gridlock as a kind of contemplative lacuna."
You mean when people are stuck in traffic they think about other stuff? Mind = blown!
"For many, the car, that private palace of glass and steel, is now the place where we perform the majority of our essential business; the place where we make up, break up, wake up."
Stop it. This is the sort of writerly overreach that a good editor (cough, cough, Willy Staley) would put the kibosh on so quick you'd get whiplash watching it happen. Sure, important stuff happens in cars. Humans have fights, sex and intense, personal conversations in them. You know where humans also do that? In stores, bathrooms, gyms, offices and EVERYWHERE ELSE.
"Who am I to judge? A sanctuary for one can be a hell for another."
He's a guy who was paid by the New York Times... to judge. That's who he is.
"Aside from the strange liminal anomaly of downtown, Los Angeles is not a vertical city; it is a city of boulevards and interchanges, of 30-foot palm trees and drive-through liquor stores."
Reif came up with that during one of his existential traffic jams, didn't he? You know us Angelenos, always limning our anomalies and filling our lacunae with contemplation. It's thirsty work. That's why we drink so many pressed juices.
"Echo Park is a fairly unique locale in Los Angeles in that you can walk most places. I even saw other people walking on the sidewalk. We made the secret walker sign to one another."
I know this is tongue-in-cheek but the "Gee, aren't I clever?" tone is cringe-inducing. It's almost like Reif thinks he's saying something original and doesn't realize he's flat-out wrong. Tons of L.A. neighborhoods are extremely walkable. If he doesn't know that, it's because he hasn't bothered to visit them.
"As I walked, I noticed the self-contained worlds of people's forecourts: a petite bench beneath a prolific grapefruit tree, a strange flock of robot sculptures, what looked like the world's tiniest vineyard."
In other news, people have yards!
"My friend Rains took me to the many stunning gardens of The Huntington in Pasadena, where we wandered for hours getting our shinrin-yoku on."
The Huntington isn't in Pasadena, it's in San Marino, NY Times fact-checkers. We'll let that slide because Reif is getting his "shinrin-yoku on," a cue that he's down with The Kids These Days and their slangy ways. My bigger concern is "Rains." I don't think Rains is Reif's friend. I don't think Rains is real. I think Reif invented Rains because he wanted an imaginary best friend who makes artisanal mustache wax.
"To get downtown, I did what one normally does in a city: I took the subway. Except the subway in Los Angeles is not underground and it is, at least when I rode it, practically empty. There was a slight sense of metaphysical unease in the train car, as if everyone was looking around and wondering: Why aren't you in a car? And what about you?"
So much manure in these three sentences I don't know where to start shoveling. The last time I saw a nearly empty Metro car was at 5 a.m. I'm sure you can find them in certain parts of the city at certain times but they're hardly the norm on L.A.'s Metro. As for the "slight sense of metaphysical unease," maybe Reif's fellow travelers could smell the disdain wafting off of him and wanted to keep their distance. Or maybe they were exhausted and absorbed with their own thoughts while he was projecting his myopic worldview onto them.
"I emerged from the cavernous, Art Deco masterpiece of Union Station into a strange neighborhood where each shop seemed to be peddling only one thing: the shop selling Jesus statuettes was next to the shop selling giant stuffed bears was next to the shop selling soccer uniforms for babies was next to the shop selling piñatas. It soon became clear to me that these three blocks were the source of all useless items in the world."
Not even gonna bother unpacking the sadness and subtle racism of going to Olvera Street, the city's birthplace, and seeing nothing but junk.
"But in recent years there has been a big effort to rejuvenate Downtown Los Angeles. People now live there, work there, do Pilates there. If you go, you will see actual foot traffic! Crowds of humans walking around on purpose! I took pictures of these Southern Californian pedestrians as if I was on a safari."
LAist readers, are you hammered yet?
"In the past, Los Angeles had developed an unfair reputation for being anti-intellectual. In reality, the city is a vibrant, artistic, literary place; perhaps it is the sprawl that makes its various beacons of culture feel like stars in a distant constellation."
Nice job pulling a classic straw man debate move. That's when you set up a silly argument so you can knock it down while still trafficking in its stereotypes.
"My friend Dehn recommended that I go downtown to visit the Last Bookstore. Downtown Los Angeles, or "DTLA," as it is now referred to in real estate literature, is an uncanny place."
Ummm, we've all been using DTLA for a decade. People even live there now. Who knew?! Everyone except Reif Larsen.
"When my backpack was finally returned to me upon my exit, it took a moment to adjust to the idea that I would need such a bag again, that there was still a place outside where backpacks were useful."
This is what happens when Reif leaves the Last Bookstore. Imagine how exhausting it would be to spend an entire day with him.
"Not all places of retreat need be solitary or introspective. Some people recharge their life force surrounded by the cultural vibrancy of others."
Captain Obvious called. He wants his story back.
We haven't gotten to the part where Reif discovers the really expensive PB&J sandwich at Grand Central Market or mentions that U2 recorded at Joshua Tree or blathers on about how Charles and Ray Eames lived and worked in the same house. I could do this all day but I've got candy to snatch from babies, so let's wrap it up.
"As I was leaving, I overheard a couple arguing whether they could make it back to the city in time to catch their favorite yoga class. The traffic would be 'fierce,' said the man."
Traffic and yoga in the closing paragraph? Homerun!
Memo to the New York Times: I wrote most of this on a plane, coasting on three hours of sleep, which is to say I did it with half my brain tied behind my back. You know why? Because that's what it looks like when a Los Angeles writer does in less than 2,000 words what your hired hack couldn't do in twice that. Ciao. I'm off to yogilates and then a pitch meeting for my latest pilot, The Fermentalist, about a hard-drinking detective with incredible powers of perception and a disregard for protocol who solves crimes while making kimchi and kombucha.
P.S. And oh yeah, we don't need your apology.
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