Lovely Los Angeles on a winter’s day

Despite the song, even though our skies are grey, and I am very happy not to be living in Los Angeles.

The first thing I get asked when British people find out that I lived in California for 11 years, is if I met any famous people.  The answer is yes, quite a few.  I can tell you their stories, and describe lots of wonderful times with some of the most beautiful scenery, and inspiring people that I have ever encountered. That will be in the next post, though.

First I have to answer your second question, which is more important: ‘Why would you choose to come back here?’

Usually my answer is to reverse the question, as in, ‘Why didn’t you leave Los Angeles earlier?’  Because that is the question I ask myself, most often.

But that’s not enough, and I have three stories that serve as some examples of the reasons why I left.

  1. Commuting to work

Los Angeles is half the size of Belgium and over thirty per cent of its surface area is comprise of roads and car parks.  There is some public transport but in most areas of the city, it is dangerous to stand at the side of the road waiting for a bus after dark.  This means all but the poorest are forced to drive everywhere.  For my first year of living there, as a poor student, I did this, and it was only later that I realised how dangerous it had been.

The average commute is about two hours a day. That’s in a car, on a motorway, with the windows shut tight against the orange sky, the air-conditioning on and the air vents blocked in an attempt to breath more easily.  I lived at the beach in Play del Rey, but my commute to work covered over 100 miles a day, involved using four different motorways, and took over two hours. In good traffic. I had tried to commute on the train, but this involved driving to Los Angeles station, then parking, and extended my journey to a three to four hour trip.  Moving to the City of Orange, where I worked, was not an option. I knew nobody, it was miles inland from the sea and the friends I had made, and housing was impossibly expensive.

On top of this, the city is a sprawl. Imagine Belgium, but mostly paved over, bisected by hundreds of motorways. Imagine what London would be like if the Green Belt didn’t exist, and from the 1930’s onwards developers had built the suburbs all the way down to Brighton, and up to Cambridge, and concreted over the in the whole of Kent. Then ripped up all the train lines and installed lots of motorways.

Any social life at the weekends usually also involved a few more hours of driving around to catch up with friends scattered around the sprawl.

2. Guns and crime.

This is how I got back to my apartment in Playa Del Rey, (a beach town, considered to be a safe area, just south of Santa Monica).  Leaving the motorway for the ‘side streets’ I would stick to the middle of the road, because this makes it tough for criminals to ‘car-jack’ the driver.  If you are close to the kerb, you can become trapped by a car stopping in front of, and alongside you, and then get held up at gunpoint.  My car doors were always securely locked (the cars are set up to lock automatically as soon as you get in, to keep the driver safe while the car is close to danger e.g. a curb, your garage).  As I neared the sliding metal grid gate to my apartment’s underground car park, I would use a remote control beeper to activate the automatic gates to slide open, timing this to make sure that I could not be followed into the car park.

While the gates slid open, I would look carefully around, particularly at ’12 o’clock’ behind my head, as I had been warned that attackers favour coming from this angle, their victim’s ‘blind-spot.’ 

Once the gate was open I would drive straight to my parking spot and wait, in my locked car, for the electric door to click shut behind me. This was because whilst the gate to the street was open, it was not safe to get out of my car.  Before climbing out, I would thread my car keys through my fingers (a useful weapon to deflect an attack) and after carefully looking around, grab my handbag and any other possessions that I needed to take from the car, securely so that I had one hand free, key ready, to open the gate that led from the parking lot into my building.  As I hurried across to the gate, I locked my car, checking around behind myself at 12 o’clock again, and tensed as I got my keys into the gate’s lock.  Once in the lobby I would press the lift button and feel safe only when the doors slid shut and the lift moved upwards.

When the lift was at my floor the routine was repeated; I would hurry to my apartment, get in through the double locks, then quickly shut all the curtains and put lights on in all the rooms.

Remember this was in a safe area.

3. Crime and guns

The behaviour I describe is not neurotic, though it would sound like it to an English person.  It is the cautious, safe behaviour that I had learned from the natives, within months of landing.  We hear and share stories.  Here are a sample:

A recent graduate from my university, working for a charity in a ‘bad’ area, (Korea Town just half a mile from the university where I was working at the time) went to the cash machine at 7pm, was held up by a man who made her empty her account, got her at gunpoint into her own car, drove her off to some secluded place,  then raped and killed her.

A student got off a safe shuffle bus on the street where I was living when I was a student, was followed into his apartment by a man posing as a student, held up at gunpoint, and robbed.

My flatmate, a fellow British student, came into my office shaking uncontrollably one day, because armed robbers had just held up the bank across the road, where she had been queuing.  The customers were forced throw themselves onto the floor at gunpoint, in fear for their lives until the robbery was over.

My co-worker, Lisa, was likewise forced ‘hit the floor’ of an ice-cream parlour that she had taken her children to on the weekend.  Teenagers with guns were robbing the till.

So yes, I followed my routine.

I would take my daughter in her push-chair to the local shops while I was on maternity leave, past the Blockbuster on the corner.  A few weeks later all the staff there were made to lay on the floor at gunpoint, whilst some more teenagers with guns robbed the tills.  This is the freedom that gun ownership provides.  Guns were on sale in the local TK Max – the same chain that sells clothes in the UK.  Small local stores are free unlimited cash machines to any teenager with a gun.

Nobody really walks in LA. The number one complaint by students at my University, when taken to the UK on a summer trip, was that they could not bear the amount of walking they were expected to do. These were fit young undergraduates, who found a day’s stroll around Oxford too challenging. Because in Los Angeles the pavements are empty. Freedom to bear arms basically curtails the freedom of the population to roam or walk. Besides, it would not be feasible to walk the equivalent of half-way across Belgium, to meet up with a friend, or visit the shops.

Richer friends who lived up in the Hollywood Hills did not escape from this necessary due diligence.  They drove on the same streets and motorways, suffering the same gridlocked traffic and polluted air.  The difference was that their houses were equipped with sophisticated alarm systems.  When I was lucky enough to stay in one of these houses, in Laurel Canyon – home at some point to the Mamas & Papas, who wrote the lovely song, about missing LA – the routine was similar, just more elaborate.  Drive up to the secure gates; operate the remote control and wait in your locked car until the gates shut securely behind you.  Grab your keys and bags, unlock the car, and hurry over to the alarm, which would be shrieking or pumping out an escalating warning beep.  If the correct code was not entered within sixty seconds, an armed vehicle would be dispatched, and there would be a very large fee charged to ‘re-set’ the alarm.  I was told it would be hundreds of dollars. 

Signs on front lawns in the Hollywood Hills and wealthier areas proudly announce ‘this property is protected by Blogs Armed Response.’  The anxiety generated by the horrible whine of the alarm was as bad as the anxiety involved in entering an empty, dark flat secured only by a few deadbolts.

And for anyone famous, there’s an extra layer of security: the car they drive, if they can still drive themselves in public, has to be registered in the name of a security company, along with the home they live in, together with all utility and financial bills connected to them, to avoid attention from stalkers and ill-wishers.  They may have to use drivers, trained in kidnap avoidance, and have the windows of their cars blacked out, to keep themselves and any children they have safe. 

Think of this if you day dream about the lives of the rich and famous, living protected lives in the Hollywood Hills.  You might be a bit warmer if you were in LA, but you would not be safe.