This is an excerpt from A Parade of Streetlights, coming May 2023 from Read Furiously.
I wrote this on a rooftop. The stars were out, those specks of light dancing above the skylight. I didn’t know why I was there, what I was doing in that town. Something pulled me there, dragged me to that wasteland. Something pulled me here, and yet nothing was making me stay. I was stranded in a city of four million people. And I hated it. Every single second.
I just couldn’t figure out why.
It wasn’t the sunshine.
I was born in the sunshine; the October birthdate might make you think otherwise, but that’s only if you live in a place that experiences the concept of seasonal weather. Lagos, Nigeria is not one of those places, with 365 days of various brightness levels. I was born in the sunshine, and if I get my way I’ll die in it — asleep on some abandoned Caribbean beach. The beauty and power of the Sun has always been a fascination for us, the heat and warmth and life that this one, cosmically insignificant celestial body provides for the only intelligent life in the universe (so far). That seems like a natural level of respect and adoration for something that our lives literally revolve around, but when you put it in a larger context, it is something extraordinary.
All of that being said, moderation can sometimes be an overvalued commodity, even in regards to sunshine. Everyone loves a bright summer day, that big yellow star planted against a clear blue sky, but everyone also loves a Double Quarter Pounder meal with large fries (you can lie to yourselves all you want). Loving something doesn’t mean it’s something you should have every day. The cold builds character, and a little bit of darkness in the daytime keeps you on your toes. Call it an extreme oversimplification, but I believe there are certain fundamental parts of the human experience that can only come from miserable, god-forsaken weather.
If, however, an inhuman, detached, completely artificial version of reality is what you’re looking for, then I have the solution to all your problems: Los Angeles, California.
Maybe it was the expectation.
The firm had sent me out on the client team, one of my first company trips. The prospects of my journey were tainted by the prospects of work, but that wasn’t stopping me from dreaming of the beaches. During my seven-hour flight — an absolute denial of God’s will — I mostly just thought about how that trip would be in fact, my first ever trip to the West Coast, a place I’d only ever seen on a screen or in a history book. This state of non-visitation also would have (and still does) apply to most of the country as well, but there was something different about Los Angeles, something special. It was the land of oceans and fresh air; of beaches, of glamour and beauty and fame. Days never ended and dreams always came true; it was a concept built off a series of unbearably happy endings. In truth, after all those years of living in New York (even after the D.C. experience I received for university) I felt that being out there, even only for a few days, would somehow complete my American experience — if such a thing even exists.
Maybe it was the traffic.
Following a quarter of a day seeming to defy the laws of physics, I arrived in LAX airport at midday, and proceeded to encounter my first piece of California magic: Interstate 405. Due to the fact that some madman decided the best way to build a city was to maximize suffering, Los Angeles traffic can best be described as waterboarding but for drivers. The roads exist to be clogged — it’s their natural state; the collective psyche of the city might collapse under the weight of an easy commute. They make some claim to possess public transportation but upon further review, it turns out to only be true in the same way that an Instagram model’s photograph is technically of her real body. I was stuck in that taxi for three hours, a timeframe which my driver informed me was somehow better than the usual. As I sat there, for the first and last time inside that most self-satisfying of vehicles known as the Toyota Prius, I felt a sudden urge to break out into song and dance. I felt like maybe this was that scene in the movie where everyone gets out of their car and joins an extremely coordinated musical number, with bright clothes and random style changes, and then once it’s over they immediately go back to their cars and go right back to being miserable. That’s the part I always like about musical numbers — the after, the end of the song and the return to quiet, rhythm-less monotony. I think that’s where I’d thrive.
Arriving at the Lakewood hotel was a mercy a lowly sinner such as myself might hardly deserve, a gift from whatever god I’d been praying to in the form of whispered expletives. The place was nice, but not too nice; “economically enjoyable” might be the proper term.
The week of work came and went, as those things tend to do, and I found myself sitting on the lobby waiting for my airport shuttle. I don’t know why the thought even crossed my mind, but an idea started to form in my head that maybe, just maybe, spending the entirety of my “West Coast Getaway” in a series of client-site meeting rooms wasn’t ideal. It was a Friday mid-morning, I had no immediate weekend plans, and I had enough PTO to spare a Monday of jet lag recovery. I didn’t even consider how it would look to my colleagues before I was looking for flight switch options online, but by the time I was booking two more nights at the hotel it became apparent that no one cared anyway. I was just important enough to make the trip but not nearly important enough to be missed Monday morning. Right in the professional sweet spot.
Days never ended and dreams always came true; it was a concept built off a series of unbearably happy endings.
Maybe it was the Hollywood sign.
It was a no-brainer for my first stop, those nine golden letters standing as grand fixtures. Even for someone who had never given the performing arts so much as a glance, that sign was an institution, a monument to ambition and success, to fame and all the beautiful horrors that accompany it. I’d had a vague notion of their importance in my youth, a fascination with American films born from Disney magic and brought to maturity by every obscene action movie and dirty comedy I could pick up at the market.
I’d always imagined the kind of courage it must inspire, the desperate bravery that one needs to chase a dream that seems determined to outrun the hopeful. It wasn’t something I wanted to possess. I’ve always said that cowardice is only a detriment when bravery is required; it was a place people, people from all over the world, looked up at and saw themselves in, or maybe just that most fabulous version of themselves. It was… it was…
Just a sign.
Which, yes, I know, I already knew, but there’s just something intensely bizarre about the disconnect between your idea of a place and the reality manifest. All those things that sign had stood for were still connected to it, vividly, but as I stood there under the warm evening sun, all I could see was a lit-up sign slapped against the side of a mountain. In a weird way, it was more intimidating than inviting, a blinding reminder of fame’s heights and the climb required to reach them. For the first time, I found my lack of artistic ambition to be something of a blessing, thankful I hadn’t been tempted to make the long journey across the country and land there, below the bright lights.
The sign stood bright but under it stood a barren, golden wasteland. Every kid dreams of it, every adult dreams about dreaming about it, and those select few get to live it every day. All those people I’d seen on the screens — the beautiful people, the special, the seemingly immortal — could be found in the city, sipping iced coffees and scrolling through apps like everyone else. Maybe that’s what it all boiled down to, the fantasy of it all, how unattainable it seemed to me. Maybe I couldn’t enjoy the story of my Los Angeles getaway because I already knew the ending: a long flight back East and a few days of jet lag.
It’s one thing to not know any better, it’s another thing to collectively agree to ignore the obvious.
Maybe it was the water.
The next morning, I took it upon myself to spend the day taking in the Pacific. A beach trip hadn’t been part of the packing plans, but thankfully overpriced hotel shops exist to solve any and all forgetful guest needs. I was able to supply myself with all the trimmings: obnoxiously large beach towel, cooler (with the ice and beers to go with it), and sunscreen, an item I’d only found out I needed after a WebMD deep dive into skin cancer, melanin be damned. The trip to Santa Monica was a brutal one, and one that could have been avoided by heading to Long Beach instead, but I wanted to do it right and that required some suffering. After a few hours of growing very intimate with the voluptuous, sadistic curves of Interstate 405, I arrived at the pier, eager to embrace all the perfection I’d spent the entire last night researching on Google.
Santa Monica is the kind of place you can only imagine in your best mood, something pulled out of a picture book. The pier looked like Coney Island on dopamine, the fresh Pacific air a far cry from the aroma of the Atlantic. I swear the sand somehow looked cleaner, if such a thing is even scientifically verifiable. Hundreds of people, running around, enjoying the beachside bounty with family and friends and strangers. I set down my towel, cracked open my first beer from the cooler.
Falling in love with a day like that is easy but love always fades away in the end. Somewhere between my fourth and fifth Corona the blue in the sky started to lose some of its sharpness. The playful cheers of fellow beachgoers sounded more like the standard racket of Times Square. The magic was lost, not likely to be regained. I packed my belongings up and decided to take a walk, see what sights and sounds I could absorb.
Maybe it was the people.
There’s a remarkable difference between people watching in Los Angeles and doing the same thing back home in NYC. There’s nothing new in that revelation of course, the differences between the New York rush and the LA stroll being tried and true fact. People in New York have places to go, people to see, markers of institutional poverty to walk by and fights to get into; people in Los Angeles seem to have more relaxing things on their mind—like which of their friend’s improv shows to attend, what model of Prius they’re getting for their next car, and whether or not that funny-looking guy in front of them at Starbucks was actually Steve Buscemi or not.
Everyone I saw looked happy, happy in a way that only really exists when it’s sustained constantly and artificially. It bothered me for reasons that probably have a lot more to do with me than them, but that didn’t make them any less bothersome. Not all smiles are painted on or hiding something, sometimes people are genuinely in joyous awe at a beautiful day; I just don’t understand how you can do that every single day. I’m not even saying they do, but just the idea that they could — that the place itself seemed to expect it — was enough to turn me off.
[It] was a place where you found the version of yourself you wanted to be in someone else, someone better than you, someone you needed to be as good if not better than.
Fake smiles and faker noses, an Instagram wonderland. A bright and bold place, full of something resembling life, but not quite there. It’s an ephemeral city, a sensation more than a location. It’s a place that everyone wants to be but no one needs to be, empty but satisfying, like a fresh cigarette. Nicotine is far less addictive, but still more destructive; after all, there’s nothing wrong with beauty, with escape. There’s nothing morally wrong with superficiality, or the meaningless pursuit of beauty. There’s nothing immoral about losing time to nothing, illogical as it might be.
Positive energy, good vibes; maybe that’s what I couldn’t stand. Maybe that’s what it really all boils down to, that I’m just that much of a miserable sack of shit. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not the kind of thing anyone likes to think about, y’know? Pretty damn depressing.
I’ve been happy in New York. I’ve had great days, great weeks, even a few pretty great months sprinkled here and there. And New York can be a damn happy place, if you make it; for every overpriced, oversold experience that LA had to offer, the city surely offered something equal if not better. I’d wasted rent money to pop-up shops, influencer-approved restaurants, and every manner of niche bar I could be dragged to by Curtis’ guiding hand. The petit-bourgeoisie lifestyle I’d spent my whole life chasing is just as evident and corrosive in the Big Apple, but it doesn’t come with an all-expense pass to Disneyland.
Maybe I just hate everywhere, but the particular variety of bullshit one finds in New York just happens to suit me more.
[The] after, the end of the song and the return to quiet, rhythm-less monotony. I think that’s where I’d thrive.
My last day in the city of angels was spent on Rodeo Drive, sitting in a cute little cafe across the street from a yoga studio. It was a warm day, the sun soaking up all the energy from the pedestrians and transferring it into road rage. I was two iced lattes deep and determined to sit my way through the morning without a care or errand in the world, watching the people pass me by. I’d walked by a couple of trendy eateries, spotted what I could only assume to be one of the Kardashians looking at a watch, and been tempted to waste four hundred on a tee shirt I couldn’t possibly imagine wearing to a social function.
Again, any luxury offered there could be found back home, but what struck me was the lack of variety; everything looked the same. Everyone I saw wanted to be the same type of person. The celebrity. The dealmaker. The fashionable, the powerful, the exclusive. It’s a race to the top that happened to mostly run through the bottom, a contest made by and for a special breed of the nakedly ambitious. In New York people aspire; in Los Angeles they imitate. Even the creative spaces reek of fashionability, seemingly focused entirely on the pursuit of Warhol-esque fame despite their lack of requisite genius. It wasn’t a place where you discovered yourself, it was a place where you found the version of yourself you wanted to be in someone else, someone better than you, someone you needed to be as good if not better than.
This place was a bubble, wrapped tightly and resistant to all matters of external reality. There was a sense of unearned cultural exposure, a vapid insistence that everything the world had to offer could be found in the confines of this coastal enclave. They eat five-star authentic Southeast Asian cuisine and imagine themselves to have just come back from Shangri-La. They viewed their civilization as a refuge from the boredom of the outside world but in reality, they’re just content with their own blandness. It’s one thing to not know any better, it’s another thing to collectively agree to ignore the obvious. A grand lie.
New York’s bullshit stands upon centuries of stories, the sweat and toil of an urban culture laying the foundations for a metropolis. Los Angeles was fabricated out of thin air, an ephemeral sensation perched against sunlit beaches; New York was built up from nothing and rejects those who can’t find their role to contribute. You need luck to make it anywhere, but raw willpower is a baseline requirement to succeed in an environment designed to discourage settlement. People come to LA to chase dreams, but they come to New York to make their own reality.
You know what it really might have boiled down to?
I think I was just lost. At some point, it occurred to me that this wasn’t a place for me, somewhere I absolutely could not see myself. I’d known it as soon as I stepped off the plane, but it took a few days to rationalize the sensation. It was the kind of place where a person can live the ideal version of a life, with all the in-authenticities of manufactured pleasure. It was a manufactured place, standing on top of nothing and rocketing upwards to new heights. It felt like the whole thing could float away at any moment. I needed two feet permanently on the ground. I didn’t want to be in a place where everything’s happening but nothing’s going on. I needed to be somewhere with a pulse, a collective sense of mutually assured hassle, and an absolute, unyielding in disinterest in who the fuck you are, what the fuck you want, and how the fuck you get it.
I wrote this on a rooftop. I looked down on this city, this strange land, and felt nothing but disregard. The stars were out in the sky.
A beautiful night in a beautiful place.