Leaving Los Angeles

The year was 1990, and I visited Southern California for the first time. As I left LAX and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu, I knew that I had to live there one day. The way that the rugged mountains cascaded down to the Pacific Shore, the hazy tint of the sunlight I’d never seen in my native South, and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean stretched out in Santa Monica Bay all captured me in a way that no other landscape in America had to that point in my life. Though I’ve driven that same drive now for almost a decade back and forth to work, I’ve never grown tired of it. Los Angeles and Southern California are still magical to me.

When the opportunity came for me to move to the LA area in 2003, I welcomed it with excitement. I arrived in Camarillo on February 12, 2003 to find a beautiful town set against the green hills that reminded me, in the winter months, of Irish hills and set against a backdrop of snow cap mountains that could be seen from the top of the Conejo grade. Every time I drove somewhere, I had to pinch myself and say to myself, “I live in California. I can’t believe it.” I had waited almost half my life to be there, and I was finally there, and there to stay. 

It was just a few months later that I was awoken by my phone ringing in the middle of the night by an elderly woman that I knew who was crying and screaming on the phone, “Todd, Larry [her husband] is out fighting a fierce fire that is threatening our Ranch and our home, and I don’t know where he is or if he is coming back.” I raced over to their spacious ranch to find the whole ranch engulfed in flames and Santa Ana winds sweeping the fire over the land like a tornado of fire. Larry finally appeared, but the Ranch was burnt to a black crisp. I went home that night and realized that Southern California was a beautiful paradise, but a fragile one. And though its charms were apparent, there were dangers that lurked beneath the beauty. It would not be the last of the threats that would emerge on to my fantasy land life. From then on, there was always a sense of impending danger and disaster that seemed to accompany my otherwise good life in California.

Though I adopted to California ways eventually – I threw out my khakis and wore only jeans, I threw away my oxfords and wore more tshirts, I joined a gym and lost some weight, I wore sandals instead of shoes, and I put French fries aside for salad – there always was an unsettled feeling for me that California “just wasn’t me.” I don’t like tshirts. I like to dress well and preppy. I love to be healthy, but I’m not obsessed with it. I care about my body and appearance, but some people in LA seemed to be overly attuned to it. Though I know that this is a stereotype, overall I got the impression that most Southern Californians like pleasure, good times and beauty. There were exceptions, but after almost a decade, I’ve largely found this to be true. If you’re not that way when you move to LA, the town eventually molds you into its character. Of course, I eventually moved to West Hollywood where these things matter more than anywhere perhaps on earth. I love those things too, but ultimately they are not my priorities. I love ideas, books, faith, relationships, and people who value these things … and like to talk about them. There are a lot of intelligent people in LA. They just don’t want to look intelligent. That’s unfortunate.

I also came to observe that LA is a youthful town, and you can do really well in LA if you’re 23 and very attractive. In fact, for those who are in that age group and mainly want to live in a fun exciting city, I can’t imagine a better place. But once a person hits 35 or 40, it’s hard to fit into the Hollywood industry or the LA culture unless you’re either wealthy or unusually attractive. I don’t consider myself to be either. LA is unusually harsh when it comes to the way we make people feel about how they look and who they are.

Once I began to travel for work and experienced other parts of our country, I got a view of LA from afar that frightened me. I saw friends of mine who remained in LA unemployed and poor just because they could not bring themselves to leave paradise, though California is a wasteland of jobs and opportunity right now. I saw 50, 60 and 70 year old friends who are still single because they were captured by all of the charms of LA but they can’t bring themselves to leave a town that is insanely difficult for relationship formation.  And that “relationship” might last a month or two. But everyone just stays, hoping it will change, and for most people it never changes. Most of all, I began to notice that my friends and acquaintances on the eastern half of our country largely kept their commitments, did not flake when we made plans, mostly were in relationships, and called often to check on me even after 10 years. I would leave LA for a few months, and people I considered good friends in LA would never call. Too many distractions. It’s all about right here, and right now. And if you’re not right now, and right here, there are too many other rides in Disneyland.

I had been warned of these dangers of LA culture many times, but I chose to ignore them. I knew smart people in LA who cared about the things I love. I was blessed with the best church experience of my life. And I had the most diverse set of friends in terms of age, appearance and wealth that a person could ever want. But there was still something that seemed missing. So for the first five years I lived in LA, I dreaded returning every time that I left. I did not feel at home. Eventually, I came to love the City because I loved so many people there, but it was not because I felt at home. I never have. And like many Angelenos not native to LA, I always knew one day that I would leave. I believe that is one of the reasons that LA is so hard on relationship formation. Why commit to anyone if you really don’t know if you’re going to stay here?

Despite the most amazing experiences of travel and friendship in Southern California, the unrest never left me. But for two years, I struggled to find a new career and to survive financially. I often felt that some of the worst things happened to me in California over these nine years, and some times they were of my own making, and sometimes I just couldn’t seem to get a break. But it was that paradise tinged with constant difficulties that would define my whole nine years in LA, and I finally decided that it needed to change. God, the universe, or the tea leaves were telling me that I needed to leave. I needed to be in a place that was more “me.” And so, it was no surprise that I would begin to seek out a new place to be once my career and financial resources were in place. And that new place is the place I’ve always dreamed of being, even before California, and the place I feel most alive, New York City.

Why right now? All of my client work is on the East Coast, and I’m tired of 5 hour commutes each way every weekend. An hour commute to New York is much better.

I leave Los Angeles with tremendous gratitude. I came to know myself better here, and I feel like I “grew up” into adulthood here. I developed a confidence and integrity with myself and others that took me a half life to find. I enjoyed the play and the fun I did not allow myself in my twenties. I also learned to “put away childish things” when it was time. I made friendships by the hundreds with students, co-workers, and West Hollywood friends that will continue to bless my life. I fulfilled two life dreams: to teach at Pepperdine University, and to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. I entered into a career in corporate training and hotels that I would have never imagined if I had not come to California. I traveled to Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Yosemite and the Central Coast numerous times. I met Tom Hanks, had dinner with one of my childhood loves, Olivia Newton John, spent a day with Hal Holbrook, hung out at a movie premier with Reese Witherspoon, and worked on a film set with DeNiro. What more could one ask?  Despite my qualms with California, I’ll always be grateful for the way it has blessed my life.

Life crumbled here, and it came back together here. But it’s time for the next chapter, and time to close this one.

LA is many things to me. It had its demons and devils for sure, and certainly some flakes and some people who don’t know who they are. But mostly I will remember it as the place where I became the person I want to be and was created to be — if not because of the place, then because it showed me who I do not want to be. For roads taken that were the right ones, and for the wrong ones that taught me to find the right ones, I am grateful. I will remember the good life and the good people that came my way in this place. For me, it truly has been a City of Angels. Thank you, Los Angeles.

New York, how about we open a new chapter? Or how about a new book altogether? I am finally where I’ve always wanted to be, so let’s make a brand new start of it. New York, New York.

8 Responses to “Leaving Los Angeles”
  1. Larry Kaplan says:

    Congratulations and good luck!

  2. Phillip says:

    I think you will like NYC (not as much as middle TN, however). I still remember fondly at PTS when you, Mike, and Julia asked if I wanted to go to the city for dessert. At first, I thought you meant Trenton. I was amazed at how easily and comfortably you got around NYC. Peace and God bless.

  3. Zachary Wilson says:

    Good luck in NYC Todd. Excited for this new chapter for you. Hope to see you there someday!

  4. Dale Pauls says:

    A very thoughtful and honest reflection on life to this point, and of course brilliantly written (you do have the gift!). Indirectly, you’ve given us East Coasters a lot to live up to though. And while after 34 years of living in Connecticut and loving it, we are no angels!

  5. LAjournalist says:

    Being a transplanted Angeleno, too, I have to say that you nailed it. Los Angeles will never be home because there’s something ultimately temporary and superficial about it. I have made many dear friends here. Many have moved on to other cities and countries. It’s a great place to be in your 20s and early 30s, but it’s such a meringue. I long to live in a city with a soul….

  6. Al Rantel says:

    Truer words have never been written. I
    too arrived in 1998 and feel the same but starting over for me would be beyond daunting

  7. Cassie W says:

    I have read this blog a number of times since I moved from LA 6 weeks ago, and though I’m in Cleveland at the moment and not NY (maybe someday). This Blog reminds me that I’m not the only one who feels the same. I lived in West Hollywood, then Playa Del Rey and though only half the amount of time as you… the same realizations. I doubt people in NY would ever say “why would you ever leave LA” because it’s NY, but I often find people asking me this. As though there could never be a way that LA isn’t a fit forever.

    At times I would think to myself, “perhaps it would have been easier to just fail and resort to my only option of returning” I think the hardest part about it all was deciding to leave when in all honesty I had success to a certain degree. Upon my announcement I watched my boss’s interviewing excited and energetic new comers believing that this was an opportunity to die for. This left me wondering if I am missing something?

    So many people who just gushed about how amazingly happy they are to be there….to sit in traffic, to miss half the ball game trying to park at dodgers stadium etc. At one point I wondered did they some how get around traffic and I just didn’t know the “right” way to go.

    Trust me I understand that the world has many people who hate LA and they are not afraid to voice it. I was lucky enough to embrace the good things about it and there were many, but most importantly the lessons it taught me as a person. Those who are quick to bash it never learned what you or I learned. I usually ignore those people, but at the same time I felt as though maybe I was the ONLY one who felt like I just didn’t want to buy in or couldn’t.

    Thank you for this.
    Perhaps I will see you in NY someday.

  8. Darris says:

    Wow…I love these posts. I have been in LA for 16 years. The last five, I have wanted to leave and it has been so difficult because I have a well paying job where I work for myself. I have been very lonely here. I am 48 now, and it is indeed a youthful city. I mostly enjoyed it when I was in my early 30s. The last few years I wonder why am I still here after all of this time? I don’t have any great friends. I’m tired of being so self conscious about aging and losing my looks. Mostly, I just want to connect with people again and have an opportunity at a new chapter. As of March, 2013, I have nothing holding me here. I can save some money and leave. I am terrified because LA has been my Home/and not my home for so many of my adult years. However, I intuitively know that I need to make a leap of faith to be happy again.

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