I was born in California. Van Nuys, to be precise. It’s nestled pretty deep in the San Fernando Valley, and is mostly known for being the central hub of the porn industry in Southern California. When your cool L.A. friends talk about “the Valley,” they’re not usually talking about Van Nuys or its surrounding communities. They mean Burbank, Glendale, Studio City, Sherman Oaks. Spots that are just through a canyon or over a hill from Los Angeles proper. Those are all pretty nice places. Van Nuys? It’s, well, a lot like older parts of Las Vegas: Bleached-out strip malls, faceless apartment blocks, unassuming houses, not much happening (except porn, right?).
Or maybe that’s just my memory of it. My parents took me from the Valley across the country back to their hometown, Philadelphia, when I was 2, which means my earliest memories are not of Van Nuys but of lush, green, quiet Northeast Philly. I learned to read there, learned to speak with a wicked cool Philly accent, learned to ride a bike and make friends and torment girls.
But when I was about 9, we went back across the United States to California, and more precisely, again, the Valley. That’s where my memories of the bleached-out shopping centers and suburban blight come from. We didn’t move right back to Van Nuys, but next door, in Panorama City, which, well, not as amazing as its name would have you believe. But it was fine. I made new friends. I read comic books. I learned to skateboard. I sold newspaper subscriptions. I ran around the neighborhood playing soldier, riding bikes, shooting BB guns. I heard the Beastie Boys for the first time. It was the Eighties.
One thing I rarely did, though, was see the ocean. Hell, I don’t think I did at all. At least when we lived in Philly, my family would occasionally take us to Atlantic City, which back then was not as gross as I hear it’s become. We’d get salt water taffy and play games on the Boardwalk. It was fun enough.
Anyway, I don’t remember ever seeing the Pacific Ocean as a kid, though. We didn’t often venture outside of the valley, except for occasional excursions to Olivera Street in downtown L.A., which is kind of like a Disneyfied open-air Mexican market. (From Wikipedia: “tree-shaded, pedestrian mall marketplace with craft shops, restaurants and roving troubadours.”) Otherwise, it was south to Disneyland or north to Six Flags Magic Mountain, but for all I knew, the Los Angeles I’d seen in movies and TV shows may as well have been on the other side of the world.
When I was 11, we moved to Las Vegas (yeah, this was a repeating pattern in my childhood), which only lasted about a year and a half, long enough for me to start but not finish my first year of junior high. It was a short period of time, but fairly impactful. Vegas was really small back then (late ’80s), at least compared to what it’s like now. We lived at what was then the edge of town. I was fascinated by the whole place. The neon lights of the Strip. The gorgeous sunsets over the mountains. The smell of the desert after a rainstorm. Even as a preteen, I knew that shiz was lit.
But, sure enough, before I could plant any roots, we up and returned to the Philadelphia area again, this time to the even more suburban township of Bensalem, a hotbed of nothing, but at least it was green? This was another short stint: Just long enough for me to get my freshman year of high school done. But that was enough time to get a few more formative experiences under my belt: Hanging at the mall to scope out girls. Working as a stock boy at 7-Eleven. Having a real girlfriend. Becoming a comic geek when that wasn’t a cool thing. Going to my first rock concert.
So, on the cusp of 15, it was back across this hey-it-was-always-great country to Las Vegas again, which for me, stuck. For my parents, not so much: They were out again, back to Pennsylvania, by my early twenties. But me, you know my deal: I grew up to become Mayor of Awesome City, a dude who Bleeds Neon, etc. etc. 25-plus years spend breathing that desert dust, making lifetime friends, playing music, marrying, divorcing, fighting, winning, losing.
It was a love-hate relationship, to be sure. I threatened and/or planned to leave many times, going back as far as high school. After all, I had moved around my entire life. I hadn’t lived in one house or apartment longer than three years, most for less than a year a piece. First, I thought I was going to go to L.A. or San Francisco for art school. That did not happen. Then, after barely graduating high school, I was going to move back to Philadelphia. Possibly with one or another girl who I was dating at 17. That also did not happen.
After getting divorced, I went Full Vegas. I went in hard. All the VIP bullshit. Taking advantage of position, relationships. Lots of alcohol. Lots of, ahem, socializing. Buying into my own mythology. Acting like I owned the place. Almost killing myself. Then I needed out. In a big way. I had a plan. The plan involved maybe going to Seattle, where a lot of my Vegas friends had moved in the previous decade.
I didn’t go. I met someone, I fell in love, I got married. Bought a house. Built a new career. Stayed hooked in enough to the things I loved about Vegas without getting devoured by the things I shouldn’t love. It was good. But never quite enough. Sara and I talked about moving, often. Unlike me, she didn’t move around a bunch as a kid. She was born in Michigan, grew up in Michigan. Lived in two houses her entire childhood, I think. But once she left, she kept moving. Florida. California. Back to Michigan. Back to Florida. Las Vegas. Back to California. Back to Vegas. So, she had wanderlust, and I had 20-plus years of Living In The Same Place And Thinking A Change Could Be OK (Especially if that change were, say, in San Diego).
So, about two months ago, we moved to Southern California. Huntington Beach, to be precise. A mile-and-a-half from the ocean, to be even more precise. The same ocean I rarely (never?) saw living out West previously. It’s not San Diego. It’s quiet. People are nice, if unrushed. The weather is always pleasant. There’s sometimes fog in the morning. Everybody has a dog. Everybody is outside all of the time. No one dresses up. Everyone wears shorts, even when to this desert rat, it seems chilly. I can breathe. We sometimes accidentally leave the doors unlocked and don’t freak out about it.
We didn’t choose this place because it seemed super-cool. An opportunity came up, and we grabbed at it. We don’t really know anyone here. I apparently know a few people but have not seen them yet. The proximity to L.A. is nice. This doesn’t feel like home, but when I do drive the hour or so up to L.A., that somehow does. Even though I grew up on the other side of the hills and canyons that separate Los Angeles proper from the Valley, something about L.A. feels right, even though on the surface, I don’t like it. I hate the traffic. It’s dirty. People seem fake. But … the same could be said of Vegas?
I expected life to be different, somehow. I thought the better weather, the proximity to the ocean, the distance from the sometimes toxic atmosphere of Las Vegas would prompt some sort of positive lifestyle change. But for the most part, it didn’t. I’m not eating better. I’m not exercising more. If anything, I’m less active because now I don’t have a commute, I don’t walk to meetings all day. Weekdays, I stay inside our apartment, in front of my computer, save for the occasional dog walk. Weekends we try to explore the area at least a bit. But as married adults approaching middle age, it’s not exactly easy to make new friends. And it’s doubly hard for me, when I don’t even have an office to go to nor have yet to find anything resembling a cool place to hang out.
So, yeah, I don’t see this being a long stay. Friends have joked with me over and over “have you become a beach bum yet? Have you learned to surf yet?” Jokes aside, that’s not ever going to be me. California, yeah, I’m happy enough to be back here. Orange County? It’s fine, but it’s not me. To be honest, I don’t know if anywhere will ever be “me” as much as Las Vegas. That’s not to say I’m dying to go back. Although my heart aches to be with my city and my people this week in the wake of the awful shit that went down last Sunday, that’s temporary. I miss the people, yes. I miss the Bunkhouse Saloon. ReBAR. My co-workers. My friends. But I don’t miss the dryness, the dirtiness, the drunks, the hot wind or the drug addicts in the parking lots. (See: love-hate, above.)
For now, though, I’m here, in Surf City, U.S.A. And I’m going to make the best of it. If you’re in the area, hit me up. I’ll buy you a drink.