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Monday, May 3, 1999
By Paul Ford
I used to live in New York. No more. I moved to LA, where the post-nuclear plague is even worse, in some ways
A 20-minute experiment in crossed signals.
I used to live in New York. Then I moved to Los Angeles.
No, wait. You may think you've read this essay thousands of times already. Just like the essay written by the woman who used to work in phone sex, or the confessional article by a man who had relations with prostitutes. But if you haven't read this essay in every Sunday magazine, every book of essays by a bicoastal writer, every "gone Hollywood" piece by a New York journalist, if this is your first time, and if you've ever sat down and asked yourself, "what are the cultural differences between Los Angeles and New York City, and when will I be able to read a lengthy essay on that topic?" today is your day. Turn down the lights and put on a bathrobe, get out a tub of real whipped cream, and get ready.
Disembarking from my plane, I showed the medical commision reps my papers. They waved me through. The first thing that boggled my New York mind was the sheer abundance of closet space. There is, in fact, a closet tour for tourists from the East Coast, where a double-decker bus drives you to the apartments and homes with the absolute largest closets. I have taken this tour several times, and even visited the Closet Museum, where the world's largest closet, which originally belonged to Charlemagne is reconstructed in stucco and linoleum. In this 40,000 foot closet, you are encouraged to race around in loops, whooping with pleasure.
In my closet in the East Village in New York City, I had only enough room for a pair of pants and a watermelon Jolly Rancher. That closet was originally a pre-colonial bread drawer. In contrast, here is a partial list of what I have in my LA closet: 324 suit jackets, 11 pairs of pants, a giant clam, books borrowed from the library at Alexandria, a terpsichord, a rolled-up wrestling mat with the skeleton of a Japanese student inside, a turtle breeding kit, and an orgasm.
In New York, people are gritty, those who remain. They smell like old butter and cigarette smoke. They vomit, and complain about their radiation burns as they mutely follow the Protestant work ethic. But in Los Angeles, almost no one works, at least not anymore. The women are still smooth and curved, and the residents wander from meeting to meeting, napping in restaurants, avoiding the small fires that light up the streets, foraging for grain and milk. On the avenue outside my apartment, bodies are piling up, those who couldn't find food or iodine. New York somehow managed to feed its starving, even when we were forced to eat grass from Central Park, but here, where the damage was not as great, the hungry are moaning and always weeping. Or perhaps they are merely thin. People often keel over from the heat, and are pushed away by the black post-government bulldozers. The plague is in effect here, killing indiscriminately, especially among the poor. The presence of the New Guard is omnipresent, and occasionally you hear a squabble over a can of soup--and then the burst of rifle fire.
The street names hark to the southern Spanish breeze. Gone from my mind are Houston and Canal, or the lyric curve of lower Broadway, now just a crater. They are replaced instead by El Diablo Blanco, and El Gato Malo, long, winding gray tours of strip clubs and office suites, many of these simply gaping holes and burnt shells, exploded, blackened plaster smeared everywhere, old fast-food signs hanging unlit by a single cord. The burnt husks of palm trees are omnipresent, and as oppressive as the remaining, bottom halves of World Trade towers were in NYC. In your travels, movie studios creep up on you--Paramount, Columbia, some still functioning, entertainment always a possibility--as you wander the roads. I have a meeting with Fox tomorrow. They're aggressively hiring after losing 45% of their staff to the post-incident fires. They pay in ration credits, fiscal units, and produce, and offer a shielded uniform to all essential employees. The cafeteria is lead-coated, so I am crossing my fingers that all goes well.
After the move, I considered using public transportation, but the fear that I would be subjected to Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves operating my bus while flirting forced me to reconsider. Also, on serious plague days, when the bodies block the intersections, the buses stop operating. Rather than be rendered immobile, I bought a car, a Sport Utility Vehicle, strange to my East Coast experience. In its function, it's similar to a cab, but not yellow, and it can be operated without a turban. I've been using it sporadically, mostly to drive.
In many ways, the entire city has recuperated well. The sunsets were always gorgeous, but now are unspeakable. The range of colors, the one-winged mutant birds flopping along the ground, the few remaining structures on fire--all add up to one of the most divine images I've ever witnessed outside of the (now destroyed) Metropolitan. There is of course no downtown, and the radiation sickness is terrible to witness, especially in the children. But it was always a horizontal city, a city that avoided elevators, so there was much less to clean up afterwards. The lack of potable water is frustrating to many, who gasp and expire in droves, but I have an in with the commissioners, so I am safe among the masses. And the climate is more acceptable, the heat instead of dismal cold, although I dislike the huge black mutant stinging flies, each the size of your hand.
I do think I will like it here. My neighbors, an old man and woman, have made me welcome, offering me some of their rations and protein tablets. I politely declined. And when I feel the moroseness we all share, the feeling of catastrophe and inevitable death, I simply enter my magical closet and bask in the silent space of its endless square feet.