"Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place
(Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year
(Any time of year)
You can find it here.” - The Eagles; Hotel California
I was born in Emporia, Virginia and raised in nearby Seaboard, North Carolina. Seaboard is a tiny farming community that sits on the Virginia state line, about two hours north of Raleigh. It’s a place drenched in southern hospitality, where people wave when they see you, and are always willing to lend a helping hand. The town’s chief export is cotton. When you’re driving into town you’re greeted by dozens of cotton fields. When my mother was a little girl she would spend most of her days out in the fields, tediously picking cotton. But that was 50 years ago. Today that job is done by John Deere tractors, which often greet you when you’re driving in and out of town.
My mom raised me as an only child. I would see my dad sparingly, usually on holidays and for a couple of weeks over the summer. I would stay with my mom during the week, and I usually stayed with my dad’s parents on the weekends.
My grandfather had a small farm, and he would wake me at 6 o’clock every Saturday morning in the summer to help him out in the garden. My grandfather grew a medley of vegetables in his garden: tomatoes, potatoes, corn, butter beans, etc.
Working in the garden with my grandfather was not my cup of tea. I literally spent all day in the blazing sun, soaking in air so humid that it felt like I was breathing through a sock, digging in the dirt for tomatoes and potatoes, while fighting an onslaught of dragonflies and mosquitoes. By the time I was finished, I was sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat, and my skin had gotten so dark from being out in the sun all day that I looked like I had been dipped in oil. It was manual labor, and me being the lazy daydreamer that I was, I hated it. And on top of that, my grandfather had hogs who had to be fed their “slop”, and boy did they smell, and chickens that had to be fed as well, and those little bastards would always bite my fingers.
I don’t want to make it sound like my childhood was joyless, because it wasn’t. I had a lot of friends growing up, mainly because I was the class clown. In medieval times, my official title would've been The Court Jester. I played sports, and like all the other teenagers, I made sure I participated in underage drinking Sunday morning church services. But I was also an only child growing up in Seaboard, a town in which there was nothing to see, and I was always bored.
So what does an only child do?
I was a voracious reader. Books provided me with an escape. I read comic books, graphic novels, didn’t matter. I was a huge fan of Judy Blume. I belonged to book clubs that would send me books through the mail. My Aunt Mae would always give me horror novels written by Stephen King and Dean Koontz. And like a crazy person, I would always read them in my bedroom at night. So it shouldn't come as a surprise when I tell you that I couldn't go to sleep until I grabbed a flashlight and checked underneath the bed.
You know ... just to be safe.
I remember how excited I used to get when the new shipment of Encyclopedia Brittanica came to the house. I would browse through the entire alphabet, from A to Z.
I can remember the day when I was reading the Encyclopedia and I came across the letter “L.” As I often did, I scanned through until something caught my eye. And on that particular day something did.
It was the city of Los Angeles.
I remember reading it and thinking, “There's a place where you can ski and surf in the same day! WOW! That place sounds cool.”
In reality, to do this in one day would be a helluva feat. But what did I know? I was 9 years old when I read that.
A short time later, I went with my mom and her date to the local movie theatre to see Beverly Hills Cop. At the time, I was a huge Eddie Murphy fan. I used to stay up late and watch old reruns of him on Saturday Night Live. Then I used to go to school and reenact all the memorable characters that he created. Like for example, Buckwheat ...
"Wookie pa nub in all da wong paces, wookie pa nuuuuub!"
I used to sneak into the living room while everyone was asleep and watch 48 Hours and Trading Places. In the 1980s, nobody was cooler than Eddie Murphy. Nobody! And here I was, sitting in the theatre with my mom, watching my hero in the role that made him an international superstar.
Everybody knows the plot to Beverly Hills Cop: cocky, wisecracking young cop from Detroit goes to Beverly Hills to avenge his buddy’s murder. The scenes that stick out to me the most are the ones when Axel Foley first arrives in L.A. He’s driving around Beverly Hills in his old beat-up Chevy. He's driving down Rodeo Drive. He's checking out the palm trees, the mansions, the attractive women, the old women with their impeccably-groomed dogs, and of course, all the guys who are dressed like Michael Jackson. He’s laughing and shaking his head with a bemused look on his face that seems to say “where the hell am I?”
Talk about a culture shock.
I was a big TV buff growing up (actually I still am). When I was a teenager some of my favorite shows were The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Saved By The Bell, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Baywatch, and MTV’s The Real World: Los Angeles.
Pop quiz hotshot: What do all of these shows have in common?
They’re all set in sunny Los Angeles, a city that is, culturally speaking, a million miles away from my home in Smallville, North Carolina. Watching on my little TV, I felt like Alice and Los Angeles was my Wonderland, full of sunny days and pretty girls, where there's the glitz of Hollywood and the grit of Skid Row, a place where you can lay on the beach and look up at the mountains. This city was unlike any other city, and I was smitten. I wanted to move there in the worst way.
I wanted to be Will Smith's character in The Fresh Prince, a teenage boy rescued from the mean streets of Philly by his rich uncle in Bel Air. And when you think about it, Los Angeles is the only place a show like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air could’ve worked. That’s why it’s called The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and not The Fresh Prince of Bismarck.
Although, in my head, I can imagine exactly how that network pitch would’ve played out ...
Unemployed TV writer: “The story is this: A young, street smart kid from Philly gets into trouble and his mom sends him to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle and their three teenage children. When he arrives his street persona clashes with everybody and high-jinks ensue. It’s the classic tale of the fish-out-of-water. What do you guys think?”
Network executive #1: “That sounds really interesting.”
Network executive #2: “I agree. I like the sound of that. Now tell me, where does this story take place?”
TV writer: “Bismarck!”
(A couple of seconds of silence as the executives give each other funny looks.)
Network executive #1: “Bismarck? That’s in Malibu right?”
TV writer: “Um, no. It’s the capital of North Dakota.”
Network executive #2: “I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass. At this network, we only produce shows based in America.”
“Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West
A state that’s untouchable like Elliott Ness
The track hits your eardrum like a slug to your chest
Pack a vest for your jimmy in the city of sex” - Dr. Dre; California Love
I left Seaboard in 1994, the year I graduated from high school. I didn’t move to Southern California. Instead, I’ve spent the last 20 years living in Atlanta, Georgia and in my current home of Richmond, Virginia. But I’ve always kept my eye on L.A., which hasn’t been the most difficult thing to do because the city is always in the headlines. And to prove my point, I created this action-packed timeline.
1991: The Rodney King beatings. The video of those four white officers who beat King to within an inch of his life, was the original viral video. It was brutal. King was hit 56 times! It's like those police officers were little Mexican kids at a birthday party and Rodney King was their piñata!
1991: Magic Johnson's stunning announcement. Johnson, superstar point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, shocked the world when he announced that he was retiring because he had contracted the HIV virus. I remember watching that press conference and screaming, “OH MY GOD! MAGIC JOHNSON IS GOING TO DIE!”
But au contraire mon frere! Magic got sick right as new antiviral drugs were making their debut on the market. Twenty four years later, Magic Johnson is healthier than 99% of the American public.
In fact, I often forget that he's HIV positive.
1992: The acquittal of the four white officers who beat Rodney King. Funny how this trial was suspiciously moved from the ethnic melting pot of Los Angeles to the lily-white suburb of Ventura County. This was the most shocking acquittal I had ever seen (although a much bigger one was coming three years later). This acquittal led to the infamous Rodney King Riots, the most destructive public disturbance of the 20th Century. It lasted six days, caused over a billion dollars in damage, killed 53 people, and injured over 2,000.
Here's an ironic pill for you to swallow. The single most calm person during the Rodney King Riots - was Rodney King, who stood nervously in front of a bunch of TV cameras and asked an angry public, "Can't we all just get along?"
Twenty three years later and it's still the best question anybody has ever asked.
1994: The Northridge earthquake. I remember waking up the morning of January 17th (my 18th birthday), and being greeted with the somber news that a 6.7 earthquake had rocked L.A., killing 57 people, injuring 8,700 and causing over 20 billion in damage.
1994: The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. On June 13th, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife and her friend were found stabbed to death in front of her home. The police suspected O.J. Four days later, as the world waited for the beloved former NFL star to turn himself in, Simpson went AWOL. His buddy Robert Kardashian (yes, Kim’s dad!) read a rambling letter from Simpson which sounded very much like a suicide note.
I remember watching TV with my cousin Lamont as news helicopters tracked down Simpson’s white Bronco, which was being driven by Simpson's buddy Al Cowlings. Television networks all interrupted their regular scheduled programming. Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters were covering it on ABC News. Dan Rather was covering it on CBS News. NBC interrupted Game 5 of the NBA Finals to allow Tom Brokaw to cover it. Ninety-five million Americans watched in suspense as Simpson’s white Bronco made the drive from Orange County to his home in Brentwood, while being followed by 20 police cars. To this day, it is still one of the most riveting things I’ve ever seen on TV.
1994: The Hollywood Madam. On December 2, 1994 an L.A. superior court jury convicted 28 year-old Heidi Fleiss on three counts of pandering. She would eventually be sentenced to three years in jail. But before she was convicted, Fleiss rocked Tinseltown when she told reporters that if she went to jail, she would release her little black book, which contained the names of all her famous clients (rock stars, movie stars, studio executives, politicians). That year, L.A. set the Guinness Book Of World Records for "city with the highest concentration of men pissing in their pants." Fortunately for those guys, Fleiss had a change of heart.
1995: The O.J. Trial. “The Trial Of The Century” was a circus and it had it all.
Celebrity. Sex. Murder. Race.
It was shown live every day on Court TV from January to October. O.J. was on the cover of Time and Newsweek. The Los Angeles Times published a cover story on the case for 300 consecutive days! The three major networks devoted more airtime to the case than the Bosnian War and the Oklahoma City bombings combined. The trial made household names out of people like Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Mark Fuhrman and Kato Kaelin. Simpson armed himself with a “Dream Team” of defense lawyers (F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, Robert Kardashian, and of course, Johnny Cochran). It featured the now-memorable scene of Simpson trying on the bloody glove found at the murder scene. The glove's failure to fit on Simpson's hand blew a hole in the prosecution's case that was so big, you could fit Los Angeles County in it!
This debacle encouraged a gleeful Johnny Cochran to drop one of the most famous lines of the 1990s: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
A whopping 100 million people tuned in to watch the verdict, and when it was announced, White America collectively said “WHAT???” Meanwhile, black folks kicked off their biggest celebration since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation!
1995: The NFL says goodbye. Not one, but two NFL teams (the Rams and the Raiders) packed up and left town. They left because they were unable to fleece the city, ahem, I meant "persuade" the city to build them new stadiums. To add insult to injury, the Rams would win the Super Bowl just four years later.
1997: The murder of the Notorious B.I.G. The legendary Brooklyn MC was shot to death after a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Seventeen years later and no one has been arrested, even though the drive-by shooting happened in front of dozens of witnesses, and even though dirty cops within the LAPD were widely suspected to have been involved.
Hey, speaking of dirty cops …
1998: The Rampart scandal. Thirty one year-old Rafael Perez, a nine year veteran of the LAPD, was arrested for stealing cocaine from an evidence room. As part of his plea deal, he implicated over 70 police officers in various degrees of severe misconduct (bank robberies, shootouts, beatings, drug dealing, framing innocent people, perjury). Several of these corrupt cops were on the payroll of Death Row Records. That label, home to gangsta rap icons such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and (the recently-murdered) Tupac Shakur, was led by Suge Knight, an intimidating 300-pound “associate” of the Piru Bloods street gang and, who at the time, was engaged in an ugly, violent feud with Sean “Puffy” Combs and the (recently murdered) Notorious B.I.G.
How corrupt was Rampart? They were so corrupt they inspired everything from Denzel Washington’s crooked cop in Training Day, to the acclaimed TV series The Shield, and to the popular and highly-controversial video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
2000-2004: Kobe Bryant vs. Shaquille O'Neal. The only couple who inspired more gossip than Kobe and Shaq was Brad Pit and Jennifer Aniston! The two Laker legends were the biggest soap opera in sports.
The good news? They would join forces to create a dynasty, winning three straight NBA titles.
The bad news? They absolutely hated each other. Their inevitable breakup came in 2004 after the Lakers suffered a humiliating loss in the finals to the Detroit Pistons. Next thing you know, Shaq is in Miami winning a championship with Dwyane Wade, a.k.a. "Kobe Bryant East."
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the real Kobe had just survived a sexual assault case, and with Shaq gone, was now free to do what he wanted to do all along, which was to shoot the ball 100 times a game!
I'm only half-joking. I'm a Lakers fan and I've lost count of how many times Kobe would try to score on three people, all the while his teammates are standing in the corner with their hands up screaming "I'M OPEN! I'M OPEN!"
2007: Paris Hilton. The socialite was in a car being driven to jail and the media covered it like it was the biggest story of the year. CNN broke into its regular programming all because a rich white party girl was going to jail, deservedly so, because of a ridiculous amount of traffic citations. It was an embarrassing media spectacle. On that day, respectable journalism, on life support for years, finally kicked the bucket.
“Cause All I wanna do, is have some fun
I gotta feeling, I’m not the only one
All I wanna do, is have some fun
I got a feeling, I’m not the only one
All I wanna do, is have some fun/Until the sun comes up on the Santa Monica Boulevard” - Sheryl Crow; All I Wanna Do
Los Angeles is a lot of things: It’s the entertainment capital of the world, the epicenter of American pop culture, and it has a GDP that makes it the third most powerful city on the planet. It is hilariously spread out, so much so that metro Los Angeles is larger than the state of Rhode Island! It's also the most densely-populated urban area in America, it's expensive as hell, and the further inland you go, the more smog your lungs will have to deal with.
In fact, my nickname for somebody who lives in the Inland Empire, which is a huge suburb east of L.A., is "Wheezy Jefferson."
"Wheezy" ... because of the smog ... and all the asthma.
All kidding aside, the Inland Empire, which is surrounded by mountains, was rated by the EPA as having the worst air quality in the United States. There's so much smog in the Inland Empire that we should just go ahead and rename it "Beijing, California."
Metro Los Angeles is prone to earthquakes, mudslides, and wildfires. It has racial tension that simmers just beneath the surface. It’s the Gang Capital of the World (1,350 gangs and counting), the Car Chase Capital Of the World, and it consistently has the worst traffic in North America.
That's the ugly side of L.A. But on the flip side of that coin, there's beauty too.
Los Angeles has the best shopping, the best weather, the best restaurants, the best entertainment, arts and culture galore, hiking, biking, surfing, skiing, and theme parks out the yin-yang. It's a place located within driving distance of America's two most gorgeous cities, San Francisco and San Diego. It's a place where yoga-praticing vegans live next door to barbecue enthusiasts. Thousands flock there every year. Many of them want to be in the entertainment industry (actors, musicians, writers, producers, etc), but a lot of people move there for entirely different reasons - like to start a business, to go to school, to start a new job, to start a new life, or simply because the act of shoveling snow every week for four months fucking sucks!
Los Angeles has an interesting reputation. We all love the entertainment that this city produces, but many of us don't like the city. And the snark that this hate produces sounds a little like this ...
"Everywhere you go there are stupid, surgically-enhanced fake people, eating stupid fake food at a three o'clock “brunch”, while they talk nonstop about their stupid screenplays, or their stupid auditions, or their stupid body cleanse, or the treatment they got at the spa. They get in their stupid hybrid car and drive to the gym so they can look great while they lay on the beach and get skin cancer. No one in Los Angeles is from Los Angeles. But hey, at least they look great in their stupid hybrid car while they drive 15 miles per hour on The 405."
"L.A.? More like Hell A. Ugh! I hate that place!"
These people who whine and complain are the recent transplants who hate that L.A. is not like the city they moved from. I never understood this. If you don't like the place, move back home and shovel snow.
In 1973 Gladys Knight famously sang, “L.A., proved too much for the man/He couldn’t make it/So he’s leaving the life/He’s come to know.”
Every year thousands of people leave L.A. and they go back home. Maybe I’ll move out there and L.A. will prove to be too much for me too. Maybe after a couple of years I'll say "enough", and I'll pack my bags and catch that Midnight Train back to Virginia. Or maybe I’ll love it and decide to live there until I die. The great thing is that I don’t know. I’ve never been scared of the unknown. And life is too short to be afraid.
I'm like Lena Dunham's character on Girls - I want to earn a living writing witty essays on American culture, preferably for one of my favorite publications (Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ). If this dream ever comes to fruition, I guarantee you that my first act would be to fulfill my own version of Manifest Destiny and move to "the City of Angels" - either to West Hollywood (for the nightlife), or Santa Monica (for the view of the ocean) or Venice (for the arts community).
Los Angeles has a long history with the written word. William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep there. But, not everything written is for the camera. There is a thriving literary community in Los Angeles with plenty of wordsmiths who are not at all interested in a development deal with Disney.
Speaking of wordsmiths, Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, once said this ...
"I know I couldn't function in reality. Los Angeles is a good place for me."
For a guy like myself, who grew up in a modern day Mayberry, just a small-town boy with big city ambition, I agree with her completely.
Hotel California, such a lovely place.