Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860’s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of nearly bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.
It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.
There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.
At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff.
Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:
I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.
In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.
The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.
I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.
I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.
Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.
As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.
The things I like most about Los Angeles?
The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.
The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.
In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.
Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a damn which high school or college I went to or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.
My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.
A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.