No, here in L.A., drivers peacefully wait for you to look up (from your smart phone, most likely) and notice the left-hand signal is green. Once you do, you can take your time, inching forward like a glowworm. It’s fine if only one car gets through per green arrow. No one seems to care. And as for intersections without a left-turn arrow—and this is truly confusing—drivers don’t bother to creep into the intersection. They wait, like sedated animals, back at the light. One day during my first month here, I eased into the intersection, ready to blaze through a brief gap in the oncoming traffic—only to notice that the car trying to make a left from the oncoming side was still hanging back at the light. I consulted a fellow New York transplant to confirm that I understood the rules of driving. “Yes,” he said, “you understand them. But no one inches out here! It’s maddening. My response is to overcompensate—till I realize I’m in the way of the oncoming traffic.”
C’est la L.A. vie. Meanwhile, don’t expect such calm in the Hollywood Hills. Having been lulled by all this, you may find yourself drifting languidly through the undulations of Hollywood on a Saturday night, baffled by the roads’ twists and turns, trying to ignore the G.P.S. as it gets more and more insistent. (“Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating. Turn left at Sunset Drive. Turn left at Sunset Drive.”) The roads here are like snails, spiralling around. As you drive along, wondering where the hell to turn, a car may rush upon you, honk accusingly, and pass you dangerously on a turn, only to pull into a driveway two houses up. Be prepared, Easterners: L.A. traffic is calm except in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills, which are islands of suitably East Coast sclerotic impatience among the placid sea of the rest of L.A.
Get over the relaxed driving—perhaps it’s all that medical marijuana in the air, or the vegan lifestyle (too enervated to care?)—and take a walk, and you’ll realize that no one else, like you, is walking hurriedly down the street, arms akimbo, as if they really have to get somewhere; they stroll instead, sucking down a coconut-milk smoothie, yoga mat under the arm. On the East Side, where I live, life is languid and full of the sounds of barking dogs. Pitbulls abound, and Chihuahuas. Bring your earplugs if you wish to have a peaceful walk through the bougainvillea-covered streets, or, if you prefer, take some tranquilizers, so the dogs, ready for some diversion to give them a sense of purpose, don’t make you jump out of your skin.
One day, working in the coffee shop near my home, I overheard a shaggy-haired guy talking to a girl he was trying to impress. “Yeah, lately, I’m just trying to become consciously conscious,” he said. “You should try it. You know, when you get agitated by some work shit, or when that woman from school is bothering you, you have to ask what kind of opportunity lies here. It’s all about being consciously conscious. That’s the real goal.” I childishly began imagining all of us unconsciously conscious people as a kind of collective zombie life, wandering around with our eyes crossed and bodies drooping, only to realize this was probably exactly how he thought the rest of us were living. Unlike New York, philosophical differences abound here: a friend told me about a birthday party where the host nearly came to blows with a female guest; it turned out she was a Scientologist, and “he didn’t want any crazy here.”
It used to be the case that L.A. seemed utterly different from Eastern cities in one crucial way: it was already hauntingly apocalyptic, a place of steep hills, deep predator-filled canyons, terrible earthquakes, and winds bearing plutonium from Japan. The first month I lived here I cowered in my bed at night as the helicopters passed over, thinking there was an ongoing series of manhunts. (And there was, for a while—Christopher Dorner was on the loose.) One day, I told a West Coast friend about my night-terror and he looked at me like I was slow, then said, carefully, “They’re traffic helicopters.” Whatever those helicopters are, they give L.A. the feel of being constantly under siege, the way the coyotes that howl down in the ravine do, the way the wildfires, itching into flame as soon as the thermometer rises, do. One day last week, the smoke in Glendale was so thick that authorities shut down the highway I use to get home from work. California’s monumentalities still have a desperate, dangerous edge: it’s what you get living on a giant fault by the ocean.
But I’m struck, visiting this time, by how California’s apocalyptic ecology no longer feels absolutely foreign. Since 2001, that science-fiction feeling has migrated eastward. Last fall, Sandy drove home to all of us the folly and imperiled grandeur of our island existence, with its unprecedented flooding and winds. In March, I took my one trip back East—to Boston, where I stayed in a hotel just yards away from where the first Marathon bombing would occur a few weeks later—and later watched images of dazed Bostonites being interviewed and “locked down.” Given all this, L.A.’s soot raining down from a sky of sun seems relatively normal: a kind of pathetic fallacy for our climate-changing, end-days era. I’ll miss it. The other night, I drove home in the fog from a screening of an old David O. Russell movie at the New Beverly Cinema. In the mist on Beverly Boulevard, the palm trees stood out like strange lollipops, the sweets of a precarious Candyland.