I didn't want to move to L.A. "I don't want to live anywhere where you have to be thin and tan," I told my husband when he turned up two job offers in Los Angeles.
L.A., they say in the East, is decadent. It is full of smog, traffic jams, cocaine-snorting movie stars, teenage girls with middle-aged lovers, crazy cultists, plastic surgeons, mass murderers, and every other kind of offense to sensible people's sensibilities. They tilted the country and everything loose rolled to California. And, my friends told me, in L.A. there are no bookstores.
But here I am, still neither thin nor tan nor decadent. Still buying books faster than I can read or shelve them. And I love L.A.
It helped, of course, that my favorite magazine happened to move here, too. But REASON isn't what made this southerner-turned-Yankee into a Californian. Los Angeles, you see, is the freest place I've ever been. Which is, no doubt, why it gets such bad press.
My previous city, where I never really felt at home, was built by Puritans and shows it. Rigid development codes deny Boston residents such luxuries as spacious, affordable apartments. (The mayor wants to cure the housing shortage with rent control and condo-conversion laws.) The sidewalks are old-fashioned brick—to which I owe six stitches and a scar above my eyebrow. Everything looks old and usually is.
The narrow, twisted streets have never approved of the automobile, and drivers are intent on waging the war of all against all. The winters are long, nasty, and dispiriting; night falls at three in the afternoon.
In that Athens of America, the intellectual climate is as intolerant as the winter winds. Sure, the bookstores are absolutely incredible. But to think other than politically correct, antimaterialistic, properly left-wing thoughts is to declare yourself a freethinker in Puritan New England.
No wonder Los Angeles seems decadent. It has sunshine. Wide streets, even freeways. Beaches—with real sand and real waves. A Museum of Neon Art. Aerodynamic, 1950s car washes that look ready to take off. Porsches everywhere. Storefront after storefront. Ads for doctors to fix fat thighs, impotent guys, near-sighted eyes.
Here, you can be thin and tan, blousy and bohemian, or intense and intellectual. You can be anything you damned well please, and nobody will bother you. L.A. is America's promised land, luring dreamers from every state and every continent.
In this city of free choice, people often choose dreams planners wouldn't approve. They tear down little houses to make room for apartment buildings. They brave the border patrol to work in "sweatshops." And they drive cars.
The automobile brings freedom that only someone who has depended on subways and buses can really appreciate. The planners determined to stick L.A. with a "Metrorail" have never endured the Boston T.
What is more telling than the fact that Angelenos love their cars is how they choose to decorate them. Vanity plates—HRDLIFE, NTICEME, REDY4LUV. Little yellow signs announcing babies on board, mothers-in-law in trunk, and so on. It is all so exuberant, so innocent, so personal. Even bumper stickers, the staple of the Boston Volvo crowd, tend toward the apolitical. "Born to Shop" beats "Split Wood Not Atoms" at least 100-to-1.
And then there are the fish. Every fifth car in Los Angeles seems to sport the outline of a fish. It is an ancient Christian symbol, reborn among L.A.'s many evangelical believers.
I had not expected Los Angeles, the reputed capital of sin and decadence, to be such a religious place. The L.A. Times seems to discover a new religion every week, many homegrown, California-style. But it all makes sense, from the golden angel Moroni soaring above the West L.A. skyline to the tiny synagogue wedged between a drug clinic and an apartment building on Venice beach to the insurance-office-like Scientologist center.
In a culture where people feel free to realize their own dreams and create their own characters, many will choose the traditional ways. Others will reject them, still others transform them. But these are positive choices, not merely the residue of personal history or social pressure. Los Angeles lets you choose your own life. If that's decadent, count me in.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Upfront: L.A. Dreamin’".