From Liberty Street: The Metropolis

John Turner


I have been in Los Angeles for five days now and I’ve concluded it is not a place I would want to stay for more than five days at a time. There is much about it that is splendid. But the splendor is mingled with so much rush, tangle, raw ambition, aggression, envy, money worship, and poverty that the totality strikes me as a kind of strangulation. That’s not to say it would strike everyone that way. For many, the whole thing adds up to excitement. Youth, in particular will be drawn to it. But it is not a place for a man who wishes to think his way through to the meaning of things.

On Saturday night, I strolled among the throngs on the main avenue in Santa Monica. Much of the crowd was composed of dating couples -- or, at least, people who used to be thought of as out on dates. For the first time in my life I was terrified by the thought of how the young women were going to be treated by the men they were with. I had no evidence they would be treated badly. And, yet, they seemed to me astoundingly vulnerable. Maybe it was only my aging sense of protectiveness but I genuinely felt that many of them were in danger of being wounded in one way or another. And I felt also that if they were wounded they would have no place to go for safety. I suppose it was no more than the age-old story of the young woman in the big city. But it hit me in Los Angeles as it never has anywhere else.

I saw also dozens of homeless men crouched by their large bundles of belongings, staring out into the night. I have not before seen such blankness as was on those faces. What are they thinking about? I asked myself. And I realized, I had no answer. I suppose they had already settled in for the night, and though the weather was not harsh, I knew it would be uncomfortably cold as the evening wore on. I have heard people say it is their choice to be on the streets in that way. Perhaps it is. But that doesn’t lessen my sense that somehow, as a society, we have failed horribly when that number of men are spending the nights huddled by buildings, staring blankly into the dark. 

Earlier, in the afternoon, I had driven east from the vicinity of the airport along Century Boulevard in search of a place where I could get a CD made from the chip in my camera. Simple tasks like that are much harder to perform in Los Angeles than they are in my hometown of Montpelier, a city of eight thousand people. For one thing, you can drive for miles and miles without finding an establishment likely to be able to do the job. You can’t do the same thing in Montpelier because if you were to drive a half-mile, you would be out of town. There is no getting out of town in Los Angeles. It seems to go on virtually forever.

After making my way for six or seven miles and being nearly run over a half-dozen times by cars cutting abruptly in front of me, I came on a large shopping center and pulled into the parking lot. There was a Staples store there, so I went to it, thinking that they might be able to make me a disk at their copy center. But when I inquired, the young clerk at first appeared to be confused, and then told me it would take a series of steps with the total cost being more than twenty dollars. None of the steps he mentioned had anything to do with making a disk. I thanked him and left. 

After trying at several other stores and getting not much better results, I noticed a Walgreen’s at the far end of the parking lot. I decided to try there. On the way I had to thread my way though a crowd of teenage boys, who were screaming at one another and shoving pedestrians up against parked cars. I have no firm evidence about the future of those boys, but I couldn’t help feeling for them a worry similar to what I experienced about the young women in Santa Monica. It was impossible to believe that most of those boys had a chance for a sensible, satisfying adult life.

At the Walgreens, I did find someone who agreed to make me the disk, if I would wait an hour. So, there was a degree of success. I returned to my hotel, having used three and a half hours to get a simple CD made.

There are not just a dozen miles separating the young men in that shopping center from the guys crawling out of shiny convertibles to check their yachts in the slips at Marina del Rey, before driving on to consign their cars to valet parking at restaurants where the most inexpensive meal costs a hundred dollars. There is a wall. It may be breached by a tiny percentage of the inhabitants of south Los Angeles, but most of them, will get to the water only as menial servants.

This is what, finally, causes me not to be able to bear Los Angeles for long: the blatant excesses of wealth and poverty, the ignorance that usually goes with the latter, and air of threat hanging over virtually everyone in this gigantic human grid. I have not generally thought of myself as an egalitarian, but being in Los Angeles pushes me in that direction.



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Harvard Square Commentary, December 4, 2006