I originally wrote the piece below for LA Metblogs last year but I’m reprinting it here with my own permission for a good reason. As you read it, replace “Nine Years” with “Ten Years” but otherwise it all still stands. I’ll explain why I’m telling you this story as soon as I’m done telling it.
Goodnight Owen Taylor, Nice To Meet You LA
Nine years ago, I came to Los Angeles with a copy of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey. I wasn’t here for fame and fortune; I was here for a girl. She picked me up at the airport in her ‘68 VW and first thing we did was drive to the ocean while I shook off my jet lag.
Early in “The Big Sleep,” a chauffeur named Owen Taylor is found dead in his car. This is not considered extraordinary; the role of a driver in a mystery novel is a dangerous fictional occupation. What is exceptional is that the car is found beneath twelve feet of water. Witnesses claim to have seen Taylor drive off of the pier, but he was dead long before his Packard sunk into the Pacific. Poor Owen deserved better, as he was a good man whose only mistake was dreaming too big about the wrong girl.
Chandler neglected to solve the mystery of Taylor’s death. Even William Faulkner (who co-wrote the screen adaptation of “The Big Sleep”) once tried to unravel the mystery and failed.
Standing on the pier overlooking the ocean, I moved past Owen Taylor to the greater mystery of what I was doing here. People come to Los Angeles every day to chase their dreams but I arrived in Los Angeles dreamless and defeated. I was in LA because she was here and because we had known each other too long for me to say goodbye to her. I was here because I was dreaming for something that was hopeless. If I didn’t find something to hold on to it would only be a matter of time before I ended up like Owen Taylor, twelve feet beneath the Pacific Ocean.
We headed home and I took a good look at LA for the first time. Years of being told that Los Angeles was a cultural wasteland had conditioned me to expect the worst, but I found everything I saw to be absolutely perfect. By the time we turned onto the street I was going to live on, I decided that this was where I wanted to stay. For Los Angeles and I, it was love at first sight.
My relationship with the girl who took me to the ocean didn’t last but my love affair with LA is nine years strong. Despite spending two-thirds of my life elsewhere, this is the place that feels most like home. I can’t say exactly why, it just is. I’d have an easier time explaining who killed Owen Taylor in “The Big Sleep”.
So why do I tell you this story ten years later?
My love for LA was tested recently when I felt an uncontrollable urge to go home to Long Island. This urge itself is harmless enough but there was more to it than just homesickness. I was going home looking for some things: solutions to some family issues and to reconnect to my hometown. In my mind I would come up with some amazing plan to make everyone in my family happy and then we’d all skip down the street as the neighbors came out to greet us.
If you’re keeping score at home: Family issues remain unresolved and Long Island felt like another planet (albeit one populated by friendly faces). Of course, that alone does not make for a bad time but he’s what does: Unrealistic Expectations.
- I expected to be able to sit down with my family and solve every problem.
- I expected to feel like I had never left home.
- I expected everything to work out exactly as I had planned.
This, in retrospect, was dumb.
- Expecting to solve family problems is like trying to write the ending to someone else’s novel; it’s not your story to tell.
- Of course the place is going to feel different after being away for ten years.
- Nothing ever goes exactly as planned
Today, I can see things a little more clearly. Yeah, my family is crazy but I’ve known that forever and that’s why I love them. For me to go home and complain that my family is crazy is kind of like jumping into a pool and complaining it’s too wet. I know what I’m getting into with my family and I wouldn’t have them any other way. My problem was that I had been away to long and my expectations needed to be adjusted. This trip was never going to be like the quiet normal life I live in LA but I couldn’t see this. Instead of understanding that things were beyond my control and this was just my family being my family I took it all very poorly and I reacted by behaving like William Faulkner at a family reunion. This went about as well as you’d expect it to and like Faulkner reading Chandler, there were things I just couldn’t figure out. If I were a smarter man I would have stayed still and tried to figure things out but I didn’t do that: I slept too little, drank too much and wondered why I couldn’t make everything okay. I couldn’t make everything okay because I don’t have to fix anything, I just have to show up and say hello. My family doesn’t want me to fix anything, they just want to see me. Chalk that up as a lesson learned.
As for my hometown, I also learned something very important:
On a cloudy morning at I walked down a street I had been down thousands of times, counting every house that I used to be welcome in. Over the years the people had packed up and gone just like I had. As I thought of all of the people I’d probably never see again a car full of well dressed people pulled up and asked me for directions to a funeral home. I pointed them in the right direction and wished them well. As they drove away I thought of the may wakes I had been to at the place they were headed to. I realized that just like the people I could only dream about, the hometown I remember now exists almost completely in my head.
So what did I learn this trip?
- My daydreams may kill me. I went home with a time and place in mind and found the reality hard to swallow. The distance between my dreams and my reality made me want to sink into the water like Owen Taylor
- While the place may have changed, the people there are still pretty awesome*, my family included. Thanks to everyone who came to see me and who were there for me when I needed a hand. Instead of thinking of the place I’ll think of the people. Next time you’ll see a better side of me, I promise (you’re also all welcome to come see me anytime).
- Home, isn’t where I thought it was. I started this post telling you how I fell in love with Los Angeles many years ago but truth be told I still considered NY home all this time. Going back for a visit I know that it’s not anymore. It will always be where I’m from but it’s not home anymore.
- The only home that I need now is the one in LA with my wife and dog because I am truly lost without them.
I’ll see you again New York, but maybe not for a little while. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure things out.
*More about these awesome people in a later post.