I know, it's a story I've told before, but it bears repeating: Some years ago at a New York cocktail party, I found myself in conversation with a wannabe pundit and he asked me where I was from.
"Los Angeles," said I. He thought about this and then kindly remarked, "I've always thought of New York as the brains of this country and Los Angeles as its genital area."
It wasn't until hours--more like weeks--later that I thought of an adequate reply: "Well, what would you rather have, an orgasm or a headache?" And then realized, even later, he'd shown by the very fact of where he was living which one he'd rather have.
You can play around with this analogy a little bit: Bangor, Maine, as the country's industrious right hand, Key West, Fla., as its semi-indolent left, and if ever there was a nation whose right hand didn't know what the left was doing! Chicago as slaughterhouse stomach, Las Vegas as glittery, useless appendix. But the thing to remember is that this week, Democratic delegates from all over the country will be making an interesting trip; they'll be debating faults and real issues, preening sincerely in front of TV cameras, peering out of hotel windows to see if the riots have started yet, and all in a place that most Americans have an enormous amount of trouble taking seriously.
"I read your novel," a lady novelist who lives in New Hampshire phoned me last month to say.
"It's like Mars," she said, "out there."
"Well, good heavens, no," I wanted to answer. "It's like America here in L.A. That's what it's like," but no rhetoric on Earth will sway that mind-set. We can say, by way of defense and justification to our visiting delegates, that Los Angeles is the biggest book town in the country, that the new translation of Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma" stayed on our best-seller list for weeks. We can suggest that California, if it were an independent nation, would have the world's ninth-largest economy, and Los Angeles would be a major part of that economy. We can describe L.A. as perhaps the greatest port city in the world since Alexandria. We can go on at some length about the importance of Pacific Rim commerce (but most people are bored to torpor by the mere prospect of Pacific Rim commerce). We can talk about the vast flatlands of domestic respectability in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay area and everywhere else in the city you care to look, frankly.
But people who aren't from here will not believe it; they can't believe it. It would be like asking them to believe that Paris is dull, that Des Moines is exciting.
So, OK, esteemed visitors! What if you were right? Who knows, maybe you are right. This city has more enticing young women than all the brothels of Bangkok put together. (And, perhaps, as many handsome men.) This is a place where, like Jim Carrey, you can live in your car, write yourself a pretend check for $20 million, and pretty soon people in the real world are writing you real checks for $20 million. This is a place where the movie industry can change you, in a matter of minutes, from a poor person into a moderately rich one. (I have to admit it, because it even happened to me.)
And Los Angeles is not just the home of Warner Bros. and MGM but of the Rand Corp.: Remember the Pete Seeger song about Rand? "They sit and play games about going up in flames, for counters, they use you and me, honey bee; for counters they use you and me!" Every awful thing you can ever think of that can ever happen to humanity--you can bet they've thought about it over at Rand, and produced a well-written, extremely classified treatise on the subject.
And if you ever got your hands on a map of all the nuclear plants and installations in Southern California, you'd know you'd have a lot more to worry about in L.A. than a few measly rioters in the streets.
So I'm not going to waste my time saying L.A. is just like Cleveland, except with a better climate. It isn't like Cleveland at all. This attractive, center-less, seemingly affectless city is the focus of all our country's weirdest dreams and nightmares, but they're your dreams and nightmares. We're not Mars, we're America.
So I won't argue against the cliche that L.A. is "freaky." For a cliche to endure so long against demonstrable reality--all those copies of "The Charterhouse of Parma" so dutifully bought and read--there must be another kind of truth at work. Welcome, Democratic delegates, to your own dream life made manifest!
What are you looking for, here in town? This city may or may not be America's genital area. But L.A., more than any place on Earth, works like a mirror. What you're going to see out here is you, yourself.