The One Thing That Los Angeles Has Over New York

Photo: Carl Lyttle/Getty Images

In 1986, when I was a freshman at Columbia, I met a guy I’ll call Wade who looked a touch like Henry Rollins, the same hard stare and thin angry lips, but a foot taller, and who was always spittling away about how much New York City “fuckin’ sucks” and how “heavily duped” he had been to go to school there. Duped by whom I couldn’t figure out. I tried to press him on that issue many times, but Wade didn’t like being pressed. He had been the star of his high school in central Florida. A “triple threat,” as he put it: “Good on the field, good in class, good in the sack.” No one ever pressed him on anything. Even when I tried to press him gently — “Wade, I’m not understanding something. Did anyone force you to come here?” — he would deflect it: “Did anyone force you?” Which wasn’t to the point, because I wasn’t complaining.

When Wade got drunk, an increasingly common occurrence as our first semester wore on, reaching a perilous high of seven days a week by late November, he came close to opening up. His words would get lost in his mouth, and his face would get pretty twitchy, which made it hard to follow him, but from the bits I managed to glean, he had been duped by everyone. There was a reference to a college counselor in high school who was a “dumbfuck.” There was a reference to a Columbia “brochure,” occasionally an “admissions catalog,” that had “lied.” A commercial with Ed Koch in it was somehow responsible. His parents were also to blame. “Fooled by the glamour of the Ivies,” and giddy over the prospect of at least one of their children making it out of Florida, they had pressured him not to take a football scholarship to a place back home. At times, Wade’s anger, even the spittle flying out of his mouth, seemed noble to me. Or refreshing, at least. On my first day at Columbia three kids who had known each other for years at Horace Mann (or maybe it was Fieldston or Dalton or Trinity) informed me, “We’ve decided you’re intriguing and we’d like to adopt you for a day.” Between that and Wade, not a hard call.

But mostly, Wade’s act was tedious. I shouldn’t call it an act. It wasn’t shtick exactly. His anger was real. Deeply felt. But it was dressed up in an act that came right off the rack, right down to the cigarette behind his ear and the rolled-up sleeves. Do kids these days still idolize James Dean? In the early eighties they still did. I had my own phase for a few months in tenth grade, when I covered my walls with posters of him, slicked my hair back, and fantasized about driving a Porsche 550 Spyder, the car he died in. For a few months in tenth grade. But Wade, who had been held back a year at some point and so was at least nineteen by now, still hadn’t kicked the habit. Deep in his cups at a bar on Broadway near 111th Street called the Marlin (which closed in the late nineties and is now Mel’s Burger Bar), he was often heard to say, to whoever was sitting next to him or no one in particular, “Have you ever seen Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray?” People usually assumed it was some kind of devious rhetorical question, or mysterious mind-fuck, or just a trap to get them to admit to being middlebrow, and ignored it.

Was hanging out with Wade tedious? Absolutely. But it was also exciting in its way, because it was inconceivable that Wade could sustain this level of simplemindedness for much longer before people were onto him and something bad happened. How long can an angry young man for whom Rebel Without a Cause is an inspiration survive with his ego intact (and without assaulting someone) in a place where kids from New York private schools who have known each other since kindergarten are banding together and adopting people for a day?

The answer is less than one semester. Early one morning in early December of 1986, after punching a kid who’d called him “beyond ridiculous,” he called a number from the Village Voice classifieds, bought a used Harley from the man who answered the phone, a few days later got a tattoo of the Harley on his shoulder (and a few days after that the phrase “The bike stops here” tattooed in cursive beneath it), and then dropped out of college and took off. “The bike stops here” was supposed to be a pun on “The buck stops here,” but it made no sense. What he meant to say is the bike is starting here. Wherever I am is the beginning of an adventure. That, as he explained to me after sobering up and realizing his mistake, is what he’d had in mind.

And that’s just what he did. In December 1986 Wade embarked on a life of what most people (or at least those of us who don’t recoil from the hell of endless change) would characterize as endless adventure. And that’s just the life he’s been leading, give or take a few months here and there when he’s been in rehab and a few years here and there when he’s tried to go back to college in Florida, for almost three decades. No town or village or city or “hamlet” (a word he reserves for places where people are especially friendly to him) is off-limits. When you’re six feet four inches, 260 pounds, and good with your hands, it’s not hard to move around a lot, finding odd jobs wherever you go, and when you’re wounded-looking to boot (a little scary, but mostly cuddly), odd beds to crash in as well.

Photo: Amazon

What is Wade searching for exactly? I have no idea. I barely know the man. I spent a dozen nights at the Marlin during my first semester of college watching him gradually lose his bearings and have seen him only sporadically since then. All that I can attest to is a short attention span, a knack for mumbling, a love of women and movies and beer (preferably Beck’s or Heineken), and a need for affirmation, for whenever he arrives in a new place and sets up what he perceives to be solid stakes, he sends out a long letter, part screed, part manifesto, to just about everyone he knows, with lots of italics and underlinings and ALL CAPS, and some bold for good measure just in case you’re dozing off, proclaiming and protesting and pontificating about how happy he is in the place he’s moved to, and how much fuckin’ better the place he’s moved to is than New York City. And not just fuckin’ better but very often a HUNDRED TIMES fuckin’ better, and in addition to being a HUNDRED TIMES fuckin’ better there’s often a BONUS benefit that he tacks on just in case you didn’t get the point. “The music scene in New Orleans, not to mention the food scene there, is a HUNDRED TIMES fuckin’ better than the music scene in New York City, and the BONUS is that it’s more authentic”; “Driving the open roads of western Pennsylvania is a HUNDRED TIMES more soothing than a class at Jivamukti, and the BONUS is that it’s cheaper”; “The chicks in Vancouver are a HUNDRED TIMES hotter than the chicks in New York City, and the BONUS is that they don’t feel a need to act like it”; the club scene in Madrid, the subways in DC, the farmer’s market wherever, everything everywhere else is a HUNDRED TIMES fuckin’ better because New York City, for all the OBVIOUS reasons, fuckin’ sucks.

But there’s a catch. Within two or three years Wade’s always back. Back in New York City. And he always seems pretty happy to be here, going to free punk shows in Gowanus and free movies at the Museum of the Moving Image and more free movies in Bryant Park, and filling his belly on free hors d’oeuvres at Fairway and Zabar’s, and free beer at this or that opening or premiere or after-party. “New York rules!” he once screamed in a moment of weakness. “There is more free stuff here than anywhere else!” And then some girlfriend dumps him, and he has nowhere to sleep, and he takes off again. And then a letter will arrive from the “hamlet” of Seattle, where he managed to shack up for six months with a graduate student in biostatistics at the University of Washington, and where the coffee is a HUNDRED TIMES more pure and flavorful and reliably organic than it is in New York City.

Getting these letters from Wade over the years has been super soothing for me. Taken as a whole, they’ve been the best argument I’ve ever heard for why New York City, where I’ve lived off and on for the last twenty-eight years, and where you can get just about anything free if you really look for it, is a hundred times better than anywhere else.

Except for one letter, which he sent me eight years ago, and a very small portion of which I found surprisingly moving. Deeply buried in a few thousand words of dreck was a tiny nugget of profundity. Wade had managed, as if digging for gold with a backhoe, to come up with something beautiful and true, and what surprised me in part was that I hadn’t come up with it on my own. For over twenty years it had been staring me in the face, and yet I hadn’t seen it. I felt that I had been scooped. Not so much intellectually scooped as emotionally scooped. Even spiritually scooped. And by a guy who had no business scooping me on any level at all.

The subject heading of his email was HOUSE PARTIES IN LA BLOW DOORS ON HOUSE PARTIES IN NEW YORK. The email was divided into five categories: Bathrooms, Neighbors, Spending the Night, Hooking Up, and then a fifth and final catchall category that included Jacuzzi, Garage, Rec-Room; Patio; Lawn; Guesthouse; Driveway; and Eucalyptus Trees. Most of his argument for why house parties in LA blow doors on house parties in New York had nothing at all specifically to do with LA. Pretty much all he was saying was that parties in big nice houses are more fun than parties in small crummy apartments. Under the heading “Bathrooms,” for instance, he basically just said that partying in a house with lots of bathrooms is more fun than in an apartment with only one bathroom, because you never have to wait in line, and even if there were a line, the BONUS is that you could go to the bathroom in the bushes outside. Under “Neighbors,” he said that since there is more distance between houses than there is between apartments, namely a whole side yard full of tall trees between them and not just a thin wall, there is a much smaller chance the neighbors will call the cops.

The tiny nugget of profundity was located in the final, catchall category, specifically under the subheading “Patio.” The word meant a lot to him for many reasons. For example, he liked what the word did to his mouth when he said it. “PA-TI-O, PA-TI-O, PA-TI-O,” he wrote. “Look in the mirror. Say it slowly. Syllable by syllable by syllable. It starts with a smile, and ends with a kiss.” He was clearly proud of this imagery, but it was labored. Look in the mirror and say PA-TI-O slowly, syllable by syllable by syllable, and only by contorting your mouth into a rictus on PA, then pursing your lips on the letter O like you’re sucking on a gobstopper soaked in vinegar, will you get anything resembling a smile or kiss out of this.

The more inspiring part of Wade’s patio riff had to do with what he called the symbolic power of a patio. To communicate this power to the reader, Wade fell back on a free-associative style that I would normally find hard to take, but in this case, since it came from the heart and veered as close to poetry as Wade will likely ever get, I found myself, despite my best efforts to be irritated, in sympathy with him, at one with him, adoring him and in awe of him for letting himself go, for giving himself up to it, to love, and to the force of his lyricism (and to be frank, to the force of his logorrhea as well; I admire people who aren’t so clenched up and constipated that they won’t run at the mouth when the spirit moves them), and for unleashing on the world this wild, beautiful, soulful description of him weaving his way through the living room of a crowded party in Pacific Palisades, in the early evening of a Saturday in summer, drink in his left hand, and thinking that he had maybe exhausted all the party had to offer, that there was no one beautiful or cool or interesting left to meet and he would just cut his losses and go home, but then suddenly turning to my right, and seeing, through giant sliding glass doors, a big wide-open patio full of lots of new people, and how excited he is, like a high school kid sneaking out of his bedroom window to go to a keg party at the beach, at the promise of a whole other party outside, and how the patio is a LINK to the lawn beyond the patio, where there’s even more people, and a LINK to the sky beyond the lawn, a sky full of seagulls and treetops and fading sunlight, and when I grab hold of the handle of the sliding glass door with my right hand and slide it open, the sound reminds me of the LOW RUMBLE OF A DISTANT TRAIN and the warm promise of arrival at something fresh and new and wonderful, and yeah how the energy in LA is CENTRIFUGAL, because a patio pulls you out and through and beyond where you were before, as opposed to the energy in New York City which is so obviously CENTRIPETAL, like the flush of a toilet, and you’re tethered and you’re tight and you’re hemmed in here, you’re looking down at your feet instead of up at the sky, you hide in your buildings and your brownstones and your shitty walk-ups, buildings that block out the light and send you underground. New York City looms over you, shuts you down, while Cali opens you up. And why? Because of the PATIO!!!

Reading that letter from Wade made me really miss Southern California, where I grew up, and where I’ve been moving back to, from New York City, always saying goodbye, for about as long as I’ve known Wade. I always come back to the city, because it’s a hundred times fuckin’ better than any other place (free movies, free concerts, free hors d’oeuvres at Fairway and Zabar’s, so much stuff here is free!), but for the rest of my life I’ll keep moving back to LA, for as little as two weeks, whatever it takes to get a fix, and now I know why: because HOUSE PARTIES IN LA BLOW DOORS ON HOUSE PARTIES IN NEW YORK. And the BONUS? When you’re hooking up, you don’t have to take a cab home to seal the deal, like you do in New York, which so often kills the mood; you can just finish what you started right there on the lawn or in the guesthouse or in the Jacuzzi.

 Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted with permission. 

The One Thing That Los Angeles Has Over New York