Last week-end I attended a dinner at some friends’, in honor of an Italian writer currently visiting Los Angeles. This charming, witty and funny man could hardly conceal his disdain for the city: “It’s all the same. It’s horrible” were his exact words.
I get very protective towards Los Angeles: often misunderstood but much loved by me, my adopted home does not have the immediate impact of a city that can be easily navigated on foot. One has to go looking, often by car, to understand the beauty and the cultural make-up that make it a city like no other. Approaching it with European eyes, looking for interesting monuments on every block will only yield disappointment.
But my first American love was New York, on the surface a much friendlier city to the European tourist. We like to walk everywhere or take easy public transportation and, in that way, New York is indeed friendly. But it does lack the genuine welcoming attitude that Los Angeles has no problem displaying. “Everybody is so friendly here”, many of my first time visiting friends remark. Los Angelenos are friendly, or pretend to be but, generally, are much more laid back. It comes with the weather – we can afford to spend a couple of minutes talking to strangers if we are not bundled up and in the throes of polar vortexes. That would put anyone in a cranky mood.
I must have visited New York about a dozen times, either for business or pleasure, and, since that first lovestruck moment over 20 years ago, my affection is undiminished. I have become a true Californian but I married a New Yorker – I get this city; I could even live here, if it wasn’t for those polar vortexes.
As I was tooling around town, between the Upper East Side where I was a guest, and downtown, where I rented a little place to stay, it was impossible not to make comparisons with my current home. Here are some random notes.
- Despite my feeble protestations every time a New Yorker complains it’s impossible to find good bagels in LA, I have to concede the point. You can’t find good bagels in LA. I was reminded on my first breakfast which consisted of a perfect bagel, soft on the inside and crusty on the outside, with no need to reach for a toaster to improve that texture. They say it’s the water.
- Sitting at a French bistro somewhere on Madison and the 60s, I looked around at a number of Upper East Side female specimen: blonde, thin, Celine bagaccessorized and ivory faces as smooth as silk. Botox and plastic surgery abound here just as much but without the Californian abuse. No fat lips or oversized boobs were on display. On the other hand, all the women looked exactly the same,homologated to fit a Waspish look.
- On Friday night I wandered into a pizza place where I was, by far, the oldest person. It turned out to be a popular hangout with Upper East Side teenagers: the older ones were inside, able to afford $20 pizzas, while the younger ones were standing outside, licking Pinkberry cups. I couldn’t help but notice these fifteen year olds looked a lot more wound up than their Californian counterparts, not to mention pasty looking, a clear sign that NY neurosis come with the terroir. Our youth is tanned, relaxed and probably smokes a lot more dope.
- Waiters in NY are waiters, not actors. They will not introduce themselves, nor will they pour our their life stories. In LA, though, this faux friendship levels the field a bit: I might be your waiter and depend on your tip but we are all the same here.
- Taxi drivers in NY know where they are going; they don’t bumble around nor do they reach for their GPS. But, in LA, not even tourists have a reason to hop in a taxi and the drivers don’t get much practice.
- At 10:30 on a sunny Sunday, Los Angelenos will have already worked out, gulped a smoothie and finished brunch. When we entered the Upper East Side restaurant at 10:30, the place was half empty. An hour later, it was impossible to hear myself think the place got so packed. This town sleeps in.
- Central Park is always beautiful, the tulips that are blooming all over town are cheerful and the much talked about Highline in Chelsea is lovely and trendy (and packed). All reminders that nature is not an integral part of daily life the way it is in LA and, here, one has to go look for it.
Most of all, strolling from the Village to Chelsea to Tribeca, passing unassuming boutiques that sold Catherine Malandrino or Maison Margiela, it’s apparent that New York has become a playground for those who can afford it: the wealthy and the tourists. A couple of missions survive on the Bowery but very few gritty corners are still to be found in Manhattan. The make-up of the residents, whatever their race, is rooted in money. Los Angeles might be going that way too but, for now, the sprawl that characterizes it ensures that all sorts still mix together, even fleetingly, under our relentless sun. As I watch the Hudson go by from the window of my rental, I tell myself that I could live here. If only I could afford it.