A Tentative Ode to My City

I was sitting on the grass the other evening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, shaded by the opulent mausoleum of Los Angeles royalty — Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. — waiting for one of my favorite bands, Iceland’s Sigur Ros, to begin playing a concert… when I felt a bony tap on my shoulder.

Amplifiers playing ambient music as you entered Hollywood Forever

It was not the mummified finger of a famous corpse that I had feared, but a young couple from Canada sitting behind me. “Hello,” they said.  “Are you from around here?”

Born and raised, I said.

“I’m sure you get this question all the time, but we’re only here three days. What do you suggest we do?”

I asked them what their interests were, and gave them some recommendations. It’s difficult to imagine what people will like in one’s own city, because you see everything so often that it holds no unique appeal. (Really??? You want to see that!?) I feel about the Hollywood sign the way people in Paris must feel about the Eiffel Tower. “Yep. That’s the Eiffel Tower.”

A few days before, I had flown in from Portland, Oregon. Leaving behind that beautiful, intimate city and flying into Los Angeles was a stark experience. Looking out the window of the airplane, I was struck as I always am at just how ugly a city Los Angeles is compared to Portland, Honolulu, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo… well, just about anywhere. Living in a wooded mountainous canyon a stone’s throw from Malibu and the Pacific, we sometimes forget how depressingly unattractive is this metropolis we call home. But driving to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with my friend Mike, I got an up-close eyeful of the some of the city’s most grotesque mini malls, warehouses, crowded apartments and liquor stores. Even passing through Hollywood proper — the Bowl, the Capitol Records building, the spires of the Scientology headquarters, the palm trees and cypress — was nothing compared to crossing over a historic lift bridge spanning the Willamette River into Old Town Portland (much less, say, transiting the Tower Bridge into London.)

Before the show, sitting at my favorite Hollywood English pub, The Cat & Fiddle, eating fish tacos with Mike, I was already reflecting on all of this when a Cuban jazz trio sat down at the bar next to me, ordered salads and distracted me from my thoughts.

Even the best cities are strangely contradictory organisms, the result of planning and chance, places of inspiration and despair. I’ve always struggled with Los Angeles. It’s a city without a center; more a convergence of places and ideas in search of a city. Traveling to Paris and Rome and Geneva as a child, I became ever more puzzled at the place I lived. These were cities, with tall buildings and parks and rivers and cafés and people strolling. What was that weird urban confluence I had left behind, where those attributes were replaced by freeways and strip malls?

But for all it’s ugliness and many defects, at least it’s an honest city, not trying to be something it’s not. (Like San Antonio try to be Venice, Italy.) And without it, I wouldn’t have the cooking chops that I do — where else could I have learned to make sushi from a Japanese guy while working in a French kitchen? Without it, I wouldn’t have met my friend Saul who grew up on a farm in Mexico with a dozen siblings and had to poop in a field and find a smooth rock to clean up with, and when he visited home brought me back a big chunk of queso anejo that his mother made. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned to make gefilte fish and say the Passover kadesh from a Jewish grandmother, or discovered the proper way to lay out a spread of Middle Eastern appetizers from my Persian friend; I wouldn’t know the difference between Oaxacan cooking and Yucatan cooking, nor would I have been preparing my own lotus-wrapped sticky rice dim sum at 12 years old.

I guess more than anything, cities are places of stories. And as much as I may not like the physicality of Los Angeles, I do love the stories I’ve accumulated through the years — especially the ones that relate to food. It may not be much of a destination for strolling, but it is an exceptional food city. If, that is, you know where to look.

The day after the Sigur Ros concert, after enjoying a sopes at my favorite Mexican restaurant, I went to get my hair cut at my favorite barber shop. The middle-age Filipino hair dresser was talking non stop, and with the buzzer in my ear I could only make out every fourth or fifth word. A bit about the weather, I think, something about her husband’s car not working, something else regarding Volvos being “made in Germany.”

“Sweden,” I corrected her.

“Something like that,” she said, and continued with her monologue. She finished my hair, I gave her $20 and drove home along the shimmering Pacific Ocean, dolphins leaping from the sea, turning right into the winding glory of Topanga Canyon.

It’s an imperfect city, but it’s mine. It may not be the city I choose forever, but for now it is and I will enjoy it for all its ugliness and faults — like the most unforgettable women, a flawed beauty.

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 01:42:15

    What were you doing in a cemetery?


  2. pal-O
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 02:16:05

    Very nice Seamus. . .! Made me homesick for a visit to that flawed lady of a town of yours.


    • scolgin
      Aug 24, 2012 @ 14:30:00

      The flawed lady awaits you with baited breath.


      • pal-O
        Aug 25, 2012 @ 20:07:43

        In Raleigh with Jamaica and having a great visit. This is such a beautiful area filled with very delicious local mico brews and tons of very good places to dine $ to $$$. She had very special news for us!! Baited or bated breath?

      • scolgin
        Aug 25, 2012 @ 20:09:45

        Oop! Uncle Sean waiting with bay-Ted breath.

      • pal-O
        Aug 28, 2012 @ 01:13:30

        Yes indeed, it does seem, to keep things in a cooking vein, like there is a biscuit in the oven at 375 degrees for 7 more months. 8^)

  3. Andy
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 04:03:48

    Beautiful, dude, made me cry. I hate Los Angeles but it is the city of the angels and it is where we were born, brother.


    • scolgin
      Aug 24, 2012 @ 14:29:42

      Yeah, on the whole it’s pretty lame. But if you take it in your favorite pieces, it works out. And like you said, it’s our native land!


  4. Gray Black
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 17:54:57

    After being born and raisded in LA, I couldn’t wait to leave it 17+ years ago. However, I have a new appreciation for LA after reading S&M for the past year and a half. I now think of LA as an ex-girlfriend who once kicked me to the curb that I don’t mind running into, or perhaps having coffee with, once a year or so.


  5. jules
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 20:54:28

    i want to know more about this guy Saul pooping in the field LOL


  6. g
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 04:53:01

    We love the Cat and Fiddle nto for the food (which is mediocre) but for the fact that they are dog-friendly. Jack has enjoyed hanging out in their courtyard.


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