Why I Stopped Hating Los Angeles

I  hated Los Angeles.

Many years ago, it always seemed cheaper to fly between New Zealand and Europe via North America, rather than Asia. That’s far less true now, but back in the day, there was often several hundred dollars difference. Occasionally I’d find a unicorn flight that was affordable and went via Vancouver, but most of the time? Hello, LAX.

If you’ve only visited Los Angeles’s main airport in recent years, you may not think it’s too bad. There’s been a lot of investment, and now at least some of the terminals are vaguely modern, with a decent range of food, and even free Wi-fi and phone charging stations.

For the longest time, though, LAX was a dump. The shittiest part of that dump? The Tom Bradley terminal… which, lucky me, was where pretty much all the long-haul international flights came in and out of.

Immigration, even before 9/11, took hours. Checking in was no better, and food options were horrible even for an airport. Back then, you didn’t have to clear customs if you were transiting between international flights, which you’d think would be a good thing… until you saw the transit lounge.

Hundreds of people were jammed into a tiny, cave-like space, which you couldn’t leave until close to your boarding time. It was stuffy and hot, with high-volume announcements every few minutes, and nowhere near enough seats for the number of passengers rammed in there. I remember on one particularly-miserable extended layover in 2000, I got a meal voucher for $20. That seemed like a small fortune… until I saw the prices at the one food outlet in the lounge.

If I chose carefully, I could just afford a sandwich, bottle of water, and an apple. For twenty bucks. Seventeen years ago.

No matter how many times I flew through LAX after that, it never got better, and I developed a pathological hatred of the place. Even on the rare occasion I went outside the airport, I was underwhelmed. Driving into the city from both north and south during one particular road trip was just miserable. Huge traffic jams, aggressive drivers, highway junctions that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an Escher print. I couldn’t wait to get out.

Nope, LA wasn’t for me.

Last year, though, I was heading to Mexico for a month, and surprise, the flight from New Zealand went via Los Angeles. Lauren had always talked up her love of Santa Monica and Venice Beach, so I decided to stop being quite so judgemental about a city that, in all reality, I’d barely seen. If a few days beside the ocean weren’t going to change my mind, nothing would.

And that was how one sunny January afternoon I ended up in someone’s Airbnb room in Marina del Rey, playing with their cat while trying to decide whether to go find the boardwalk or pass out face down on the bed for many, many hours. The boardwalk won. Just.

I’m happy it did.

Surfing, Venice beach

Venice Beach is a madhouse, but it’s the kind of ever-changing madhouse I love. In the mornings, it’s all boot camps and running clubs, the “Hello! Hello! Hello hello hello hello hello” of a dozen passing joggers sounding like some kind of weird mating call. In Los Angeles, it probably is.

By mid-afternoon, once the hangovers of the previous night have worn off, it’s a very different place. The souvenir stores and medicinal weed dispensaries open on the city side of the boardwalk, while on the beach side, artists (and I use that term unbelievably loosely) have shown up to sell their shit wares to passing tourists. Need a bad painting of the sunset, or a driftwood frame to put it in? Want to pay a buck to hear a dirty joke, or think your wardrobe won’t be complete without a “Fuck Trump” t-shirt? How about the worst rap CD you’ve ever heard? It’s all there.

Ripped dudes work out at Muscle Beach, spending at least as much time flexing as they do pumping iron. The beachside bars are packed from lunchtime onwards, although with a mixture of luck and persistence, I did find a spot at the Venice Whaler one afternoon. It wasn’t quite the best burger or coldest beer I’d ever had, but upstairs, in the sun, with that view? Damn, it was close enough.

I stood watching surfers from the Venice pier, and tourists eating funnel cake from the Santa Monica one. Back towards my accommodation, sunset crept up on me while reading on the beach one evening. When I looked up, there was nobody to be seen except a woman walking her dog in the distance.

Mustang with a view

A friend was in town at the same time I was, and had rented a Mustang for his time there. Because of course he had. Looking for any excuse to drive it, he asked if I’d like to go on a sightseeing trip up into the hills surrounding the city. Why yes, yes I would.

Up the coast we sped, towards the mansions of Malibu, before flicking the car to the right and starting our climb. In a Mustang, on a sunny day, with the music playing, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been than speeding through those canyons and along those ridgelines. Goddamn it was fun, and on a random weekday lunchtime, we hardly had to share it with anyone.

This was not the Los Angeles I thought I knew.

Although I have to say, when we stopped for tacos at a non-descript strip mall, the name of a neighbouring shop still left no doubt where I was.

Pimp My Pooch

Skip forward to a few weeks ago, and I found myself back in LA once more. Needing to get to the west coast to start our US trip, we’d found a ridiculously-cheap flight from Copenhagen to the city of angels. There was no question where we’d be staying. We booked someone’s spare room in Venice Beach without even thinking about it.

It was a very long flight. Immigration was a slow-moving nightmare. Traffic was sluggish all the way from the airport. There was a miscommunication about getting into our accommodation. We bickered about nothing in particular and wondered why we’d bothered coming back here at all.

And then the Airbnb owner showed up to take us out for margaritas and the biggest bowl of guacamole I’ve ever seen, and suddenly, everything was right with the world again. Especially after the 12-hour nap that soon followed.

Our days slipped into a routine. Jetlag woke us up stupidly early, which was actually kinda great — all the popular breakfast places were empty when we showed up at opening time, and had lines out the door an hour later. Sufficiently amped on coffee, we’d walk the few blocks to the beach, then along the boardwalk. We had no real plans, and all morning to achieve them.

We’d often grab lunch from the Whole Foods a couple of minutes from our apartment, not only because we’re lazy, but also because eating out for three meals a day in the US is a challenge my stomach no longer accepts.

Venice beach view

In the afternoons I’d often head back to the beach, with a towel, a bottle of water, and a good book. We’d occasionally make a bit more of an effort — a bit of shopping in Santa Monica, perhaps, or working in one of the nearby coffee shops for a couple of hours — but really, we were just treating it as a holiday. The rest of our time in the country was going to be non-stop-movement. Los Angeles didn’t have to be, and so it wasn’t.

For three days, I worked on my tan, had more tacos, guacamole, and margaritas than can possibly be healthy, and reveled in the unashamed weirdness of Venice. The last remnants of my one-man anti-LA campaign drifted away on the ocean breeze. We met up with friends from around the world who’d all decided to make Los Angeles their home, and for the first time, I understood why they’d want to.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still vast swathes of the city I’d have no desire to live in — and I’m sure the parts I like would be insanely unaffordable. Even then, I could only handle it because I can work from anywhere, and wouldn’t have to deal with the endless misery of rush-hour commutes. Being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours sucks the joy out of anywhere in the world, and that’s the kind of traffic LA excels in.

None of that is really the point, though. I can’t live in the US even if I wanted to, and under the current political regime, I’m not exactly in a hurry to try and change that.

It’s the simple fact that, after two decades of despising the place, I’d changed my mind about LA. Friends, beaches, tacos, and weirdos had all done their bit to show me that there was plenty to like, maybe even love, about the city, and many, many reasons to keep returning.

Yes, even if I have to endure LAX to do it.
 

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4 Responses to “Why I Stopped Hating Los Angeles

  • I feel the same way about LA – I was never a fan but after a few visits, I started seeing its more redeemable qualities more and more. My last visit I stayed in the South Bay and it was my best visit yet. I loved Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. I also really enjoyed Long Beach, which I never ever thought of as somewhere I would want to go – such a great city!

    • Honestly, I’m kinda amazed its grown on me as much as it has. I never thought that’d be possible… which I guess just shows why I should never say never. 😉

  • Hajime Sano
    2 weeks ago

    I’m glad you now enjoy LA. I was born in Osaka, grew up in suburban Boston, and moved here in 1982 after graduating from MIT. Amazingly, I’ve never had more than a 20 minute commute to work.

    LA has certainly changed in the 35 years I’ve lived here. (The metro area has gone from 7 million to more than double that.) The secret to enjoying the city is to avoid mainstream things, the type favored by the zero-sigma people (a statistical reference). There are lots of interesting nooks and crannies here, and it would take a lifetime to explore them all.

  • Nice story! I have heard all sorts of nightmare stories about LAX and LA in general, but in some ways that has also made me more determined to go. Often the best places take a bit of searching for.

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