City of lost angels
Depression-era writer John Fante’s hapless protagonist Arturo Bandini threw himself at the mercy of Los Angeles. In Fante’s peerless Ask the Dust – the sparse, sharp novel a young and disillusioned Charles Bukowski once stumbled upon in the LA Public Library and vowed to better – Bandini implored the city like a hungry, spurned lover.
“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles, 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!”
One can only surrender to this concrete city of vast squares and plentiful, uber-tanned sex upon landing. The escalator that transports passengers from arrival at LAX beneath the shiny flag and framed portrait of whichever president the nation has had the dumb misfortune to elect – the last time I visited, this hallowed frame remained empty – serves as a gateway to both heaven and hell. Los Angeles is the best and worst of America – preening, self-serving, earnest, jarringly friendly, inviting, isolating, tanned, injected, whole-wheat. It sings out a chorus of clean living while shunning those on the dirty fringes of society it secretly wishes to be invisible. Los Angeles opens its warm arms and turns its cold back simultaneously.
And everybody has the urge to confess. From the moment you step into any vehicle, and then onwards, to happy faces in service employment, new friends on benign social occasions, a passing gentleman in the street who might like your hair, LA locals want you to know their secrets and passions and the fact their father never taught them to ride a bicycle. A mere “Hello, may I purchase a bagel?” can lead to you enmeshed in sobbing catharsis with a new and startling circle of apparent friends. It’s a mecca of stories, from those who are paid handsomely to present their film and televisual versions of life to the wider world, to the milk-fed wide-eyes stumbling from Midwestern buses with a pocketful of hope and a mouthful of straw.
It’s possible to waste time chasing the very best version of yourself in this squat, baking city, fragrant with syrup-sweet air. You attend classes that undulate your body, you duly eat kale, everything is served in a bowl, everybody smiles at you as though the two of you share a delicious friendly secret. Within a day or two you’re sauntering with a new fluidity, engaging with your perineal chakra, hearing yourself pasting additional exclamation marks onto sentences like the phoney you swore you’d never be when leaving home.
But as much as it prides itself on being a heartfelt, hands-stretched-out-in-cheery-welcome kind of place, LA is also a town based on grim facade. One must assemble a game face to fit in, an affected assortment of self-confidence, warmth, independence and chutzpah. Far too accustomed to the tall-poppy cynicism of an Australian upbringing, I clumsily began early meetings in Hollywood by giving po-faced executives several amusing and self-deprecating reasons why they wouldn’t want to hire me. After some urgent coaching I soon learnt to stroll into a boardroom – quietly despising myself – with the haughty grandeur of Nicole Richie in The Simple Life.
That game face extends to the open secret of surgery. Everybody you cross paths with in Hollywood is stretched taut like cling wrap over a crème brûlée. Everybody. Surgery is so breezily accepted, so much
a part of the city’s culture, that it is those who resist it who are viewed as puzzlingly freakish. The first time a stranger in a meeting pointed at my naturally lined, 40-year-old forehead and said in awed amazement, “You’re so brave – what is this?”, I dismissed it as an aberration. But the second time – whereby my choice to age in real time was excitedly announced as my “quirky brand” – was less easy to sidestep. We have no understanding of what this might look like in Australia. Imagine stabbing a finger at somebody in a think tank meeting and asking with earnest interest, “Why are you fat?” In guileless LA, it’s utterly acceptable to pass comment on those you see as different.
When I met Raphael I took in his face, that of an angel to match his name, and saw Los Angeles, where everybody is a delicious combination of model-slash-carpenter. We connected over a rare social occasion – somebody’s producer was introducing somebody else’s manager, something was put on a grill while the showy people took over with braying anecdotes, the rest of us awkwardly shoehorned into the evening as bit players. Raphael rolled out the usual LA story with the usual LA accoutrements: aspiring actor, actual craftsman, part-time joint roller, 13 months sober. We danced around each other kindly, seeing our introduction for what it was: a rare opportunity for friendship in a town of mouthy strangers.
Later in the evening he cornered me, with urgent fervour and sparkling mineral water in hand, confessing that his past was layered with a sort of relentless pain: a lost twin, a fractured missing father, a brutal and too-familiar tale of a Catholic priest welcomed into a family only to take advantage of the tiny boys in his care. We had known each other a matter of hours but Raphael crumbled before my eyes, seeking solace and redemption. It was my first experience of a lost angel reaching out personally and I painted myself as his rescuer.
In the days following, between aerobically energised meetings defending my wrinkled face, I spent precious minutes sitting forlornly in any number of Le Pain Quotidien franchises with ginger tea and vegan shortbread. Raphael began messaging me, at first just friendly how-do’s but the tone grew edgier and slightly more pressing. He’d felt a connection somewhere, a thread of human kindness he clung to like a life raft. I’d sit in his company while he smoked many joints, the air of Silver Lake foggy with legal weed, bitterly retelling the tale of the court case, the wrongly exonerated priest, his stolen, dear, kind boyish innocence. I didn’t feel equipped to hold his pain but I couldn’t let him down either. It seemed he had nobody else.
We parted on a muggy afternoon with long and fond hugs and I was released to my next destination, landing in Perth during one of those stinking, friendless heatwaves where the city crawlingly apologises for itself. The clashing time zones sent my nervous system trembling like a shih-tzu and I fielded texts from Raphael. He said he missed me, missed the comfort of my friendship, but before too long the messages grew prickly and defensive. He seemed angry that I’d left LA, angry that I’d left him and his story behind. I was due to walk into a local yoga class – the self-improvement mantras of California difficult to shake off – when he shot through the kicker: “I’m through. I can’t go on in this life. Goodbye.”
His messages stopped and he no longer returned my calls.
This man was a stranger I had met at a barbecue two weeks prior. I embarked upon a frantic quest to keep him alive, negotiating the WA/LA time difference, tracking down his neighbour, and then his mother via Instagram (“Hi, you don’t know me and I’m sorry to be contacting you like this but...”), anybody that might be able to kick Raphael’s bungalow door down and put a stop to whatever brutal choice he might have made.
In Los Angeles there is an expectation that one must hand their lives over to any random soul who asks for it, and even those who don’t. The urge to See and Be Seen permeates, resulting in a tangible jostling for air. In this sea of aspiration bob many drowned spirits, unable to play the game of transaction and validation. In this sea of aspiration bob broken humans simply trying their best.
We kept Raphael alive. Our sad flower in the sand. Communication is less frequent now, but he and I still stay in touch. I can’t leave him there on his own, surely. Los Angeles can be such a lonely town.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Friend me an angel". Subscribe here.