In Beverly Hills, every day is The Day of the Locust

When I first moved to Los Angeles I had serious withdrawal pangs from New York.  In my adjustment period to LA a friend, a poet and former child-actor, gave me a copy of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust.  He inscribe the book to me and wrote:  “FAITH” is creation, Lit in big letters.

My book-giving friend was Todd; the protagonist of The Day of the Locust is Tod.  In German Tod means death.  Tod is a Yale-trained artist who plans to paint his masterwork, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” once he’s completed studying the garish denizens of Angelenos.

As an outsider, Tod is a bit of an Orpheus, an apt tour-guide for me as a newly transplanted soul adrift in city of nets.  Tod takes us into the world of trickster, hustlers and oddballs, of contrasts and facades, of yearning, pathos and the very dark swell of the collective.  West writes of Tod:

“He left his car at Vine Street.  As he walked along, he examined the evening crowd.  A great many of the people wore sports clothes which were not really sports clothes.  Their sweaters, knickers, slacks, blue flannel jackets with brass buttons were fancy dress.  The fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandanna around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court.

Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type.  Their clothing was somber and badly cut, brought from mail-order houses.  While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed.  When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred.  At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.”

While Chicago had its demarcated neighborhoods and New York certainly had its stark contrasts of limos and homeless people sleeping on steam grates, Los Angeles has the most haunting contrasts.  For me this brought me in and out of the surreal matrix of movie studios, agency office buildings and mansions, bungalows and apartments of the rich, the famous and the pathetic.

The most striking contrast for me was that which juxtaposed the lives of group home kids with those of private school kids whose families lived Gatsbyesque lives.

I’ve been trying to love our culture even as I cast a jaundiced and cynical eye upon its doltish follies, its cruel proclivity toward collateral damage.  Yet putting down my culture, our collective soup (polluted as it may seem at times, and at others teeming with life) is ultimately biting the hand that feeds me, attempting to deny the psychological womb that birthed us all.

Nevertheless, Tod and The Day of the Locust inform my experience of Los Angeles.  Although it was written in 1933 (an economic and political time more like our own than any time since then), the book still pulses with dark and heartbreaking life some 77 years later.

The book came rushing into my mind the other day as I stepped out of my office building to walk down the road to pick up a salad.  I emerged not into the quiet of a medical building rear-parking area, but into a mini-phalanx of camera-toting madmen, blaring horns and parking lot chaos.

The medical building that rear-faces my own medical building has a lot of allergists in it.  For five years my younger son and I would go on Tuesdays for our father and son bee and wasp venom shots, and we would routinely see a crowd of photographers waiting for… Eddie Murphy!  It turned out that Eddie got his shots at the same time as we did, only the image of him stepping into his Escalade could fetch a tidy sum at a tabloid (God knows why, especially after Dave).

For Eddie it was a cluster, but the other day it was more like pandemonium.  While one of the paparazzo was being yelled and honked at for leaving his car fully blocking the alley as cars stacked up and tempers rose, I asked him, “Who is it?”  With brows creased in the intensity of the big-game hunter and clutching his camera like a fat grenade launcher, he tossed off the golden info to my as he passed by:  “Reese Witherspoon.”

I really couldn’t see anything resembling Reese through the chaos of the crowd, and the swift movement of tinted windows.  But I thought of The Day of the Locust and a mob scene that becomes a riot as a crowd waits outside a movie premier:

“The police force would have to be doubled when the stars started to arrive.  At the sight of their heroes and heroines, the crowd would turn demoniac.  Some little gesture, either too pleasing or too offensive, would start it moving and then nothing but machine guns would stop it.  Individually the purpose of its members might simply be to get a souvenir, but collectively it would grab and rend.”

West says of the crowd who generally moved to LA as a fantasy of retirement soon becomes a hellish bore:  “They have been cheated and betrayed.  They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

Great writing has an odd effect on me:  it makes me want to write.  Yet Nathanael West makes me want to quit my whining about our culture, precisely because it makes it crystal clear that the inequities, the hunger for titillation and destruction, are part and parcel of not just our “modern” culture, but of the human condition.

Poor Reese Witherspoon, I thought.  She has allergies.  She probably got a shot.  I hope she got a lollypop to help take the double sting away of allergies and intrusion.  I thought about how when I had done yoga a couple of times next to Reese at a now-closed down studio—Angel City Yoga—I just gave her her space, legally blonde next to legally balding.  She had a nice energy, but then so did the non-famous person to my right.  And yet, if we all stopped caring about Eddy and Reese they might have to work at Pizza Hut, so I imagine that they have already made their peace with our culture, have already learned how to love it and deal with the fact that it loves them.

Having lived in LA for 22 years since I received Todd’s gift of Tod, perhaps it’s me who must let go of the defensive stance of my dark view and find my place in the crowd… not on the red carpet, not in the phalanx of photographers, not begging like the guy by the alley… just a working shrink equidistant between the movers and shakers of Century City and the big spenders hanging at Barneys, Saks and Neiman Marcus… and those who struggle so nobly on my consulting couch, spanning the range of economic and psychological circumstance, trying their best to make it all work, making up my little corner of humanity that I am blessed and honored to tend as well as learn from in a journey of mutual growth.

I blog as an extension of that same spirit, trying to learn and listen as much as I might strive to express or illuminate.  Ironically, as the blur of Reese stripped bare by her bachelors even unfolded I was on my cell phone with Andy, learning that Agnes too has allergies.  But let’s keep that on the down-low for fear the press will be hounding her at the Vet.  In Hollywood, stranger things have happened.

So, feel free to join me in my journey to love our culture, even if it has some issues—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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