Los Angeles is not meant for everyone. Some people see a smog-choked crowd of hipster flakes pretending they’re wealthier and more successful than they are, orbiting the Kardashians like Jupiter’s moons. Others see only poverty, red-lining, and a gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
But, for those who see it as I do: complicated but full of truly determined people who aren’t afraid to try anything, explore every option, and don’t fear change, then perhaps Los Angeles is worth your perusal.
Los Angeles is not easy. Unless you have a six-figure income and a nest egg, this city will wring you as bone-dry as its autumnal Santa Ana winds and run you at a deficit of resources you didn’t even know you had until everything is in the red.
But if this city appealed to you the way it did to me, one day, everything just falls into place and you understand what all the work was for. There’s a day where you shift from “transplant” to “Angeleno” and the city will look wholly new again. Maybe it’s after the mass exodus that begins mid-November when all the tourists and rich people leave for twelve weeks and you can actually get a taste of the best fresh air we get all year during the rains.
But if that day comes to you in January, maybe it’s just the terrazzo sparkling after its yearly powerwash, so keep your wits about you.
December 18 marks my “Cali-versary.” On one biting cold, subzero morning in 2014, I left Minnesota and officially became a Californian. The past five years have challenged me in ways I never imagined, and taught me things I would have never learned if I didn’t make the jump.
Even if you arrive here with a partner or family, you are going to be on your own a lot. It’s a known phenomenon that newcomers have a hard time making friends and finding their people. Traffic sucks, workdays are long, and it’s not that easy to just swing around the corner to your favorite neighborhood watering hole at 5:06 pm.
Because of this, there are no advocates to help you, whether it’s to tell off the creep whispering about your skirt on the bus or office comrades helping you build your case for a raise.
I had to — and still have to — do everything solo here. Everything. And I’m one of the millions in this city in the same boat.
There is nothing in my life that is taken care of if I don’t do it myself. While that means I don’t have to answer to anyone, it also means that everyone answers to me if their action or decision impacts me in any way.
When I understood that and realized I had just as much power in any situation as the other person or system obstructing me, it lit a light in my head. I’ve always been tenacious and outspoken, but it’s something I have perfected here and encourage others to practice.
Self-advocacy has sometimes cost me things like jobs and friends which are equally valued here. But if something is out of place, dangerous, or morally objectionable (of which there is no shortage in L.A.) don’t let the bystander effect grab you. No one will swoop in and save the day. It’s going to be you. It has to be you. I promise it gets a little easier each time.
Expect the Best, but Plan for the Worst
This may single-handedly define exactly what Angeleno life looks like on the outside. Others scratch their heads, wondering how we afford our $4-per-square-foot rent and full-price avocado toast with oat milk lattes while brunching after the 3rd gallery opening in a fortnight.
The secret is planning ahead. I don’t necessarily mean budgeting down to the penny, though some of us do. Rather, we know that L.A. comes with a price tag most are not willing to pay but we are. Many of us live hand-to-mouth but we’re always looking for the next opportunity. Our primary source of income is never just our day job. Everyone moonlights here.
And somehow, we still value and prioritize social outings, art events, and face time with friends as best we can the way we do with work and hustle. Time is a massive resource here in a way unlike anywhere else in the country. It’s taught me how to stop selling every waking hour I have to anyone who writes a check and ensures I have some for myself.
I am acutely aware of how expensive and time-consuming L.A. is; I live it every day. I know that the very worst thing that could happen to me is homelessness and that it is always just around the corner (figuratively and literally). But I also know that one way or another I will always make things work, and I always do. I make sure I enjoy the moments in between.
Trust Your Gut
I’ve experienced a variety of, uh, characters in my time here. It’s not that I never encountered unique people or “big personalities” as we call them in my area of work before I relocated, but they were few and far between and stuck out. I distinctly remember the first person I encountered who the L.A. vibe dripped off of like cheap hair gel, and not in a good way. At the time, I had been saving for a move but hadn’t made a final decision, and I remember hoping I never emulated him or lost connection with myself.
In Los Angeles proper, those people are everywhere. They are not everyone you meet, but a sizeable portion of them. Fewer of them are famous or powerful than you might think. The more time you spend with them, the better you get at learning their games and manipulations. They will always make themselves clear from at the outset, deliberate or not.
I’ve despised almost every single one of these types I’m referring to, one way or another. Many of them screwed me over repeatedly for their own means. But as I dealt with them more, I started winning their games sooner than they could announce their rules, and I never once walked away without having learned something of value.
I’ve always been an intuitive person, but the only times I’ve ever been burned by indecision was when I ignored something my instincts told me. Always, truly always go with your gut. Intuition is a skill, you can practice it, and I’m thankful I’ve had so much opportunity to perfect it.
Time is a Construct
Los Angeles is a city that sleeps. There are pockets of parties here and there that run into the wee hours; namely, in West Hollywood and Koreatown, but even they are mostly not all-nighters. Maybe it’s the summertime heat wearing us down or frayed nerves after rush hour (likely both). But something I learned very early on here is that this place is not in a rush, ever. Your boss will send the check… sometime. It will happen, just not today.
Once, I interviewed for a personal assistant job. The would-be employer was Scandinavian and getting ready for a temporary move back to Europe. She recognized the origins of my name and we chatted about the climates we were used to. I mentioned I was still adjusting to not having four distinct seasons.
“Yes,” she glanced out the window next to us. The sun blazed high above and the sky was perfectly clear, a blessed smog-free day. “It’s as though time stops here.”
And it does. Boy howdy, things take forever. I’ve grown so accustomed to delays and long lead times for every meeting and assignment that they wound into my own life and sense of time. When my thirtieth birthday rolled around in 2017, I stopped panicking about how far behind I was in my 20s and joyfully welcomed the next stage of adulthood with open arms.
When I talk to my friends back in Minnesota, or really anywhere else in the country, I don’t share the same worry they do about the future versus the present. I know my future will look different, one day. Probably not today or tomorrow. But I continue plodding along, and just like that check will show up in the mail, so I keep adding to my work. Another connection or story, another anecdote to watch. Freezing all of it in time.
I reunited with an old friend not long after I arrived. I was only a few weeks in to my new adventure, already panicking about rent (a constant as sure as downtown gridlock on Friday night). We were still catching up on each others’ lives after a few years of silence and swapping stories. So many things had changed and I felt that every hour I was being whipped in a new direction. I was pretty terrified but in a good way. It gave me a thrill and energy to keep going.
She ended up giving me a bit of advice that she had learned early on, too: ride the wave. In some slang, this specifically refers to good fortune, but in L.A. some of the most challenging adversity is what produces the best rewards.
Things will rarely go according to plan. Often times, those changes will not be anything you could predict or control. But if everything else in place: you’ve followed your gut, taken care of yourself to the best of your ability, and otherwise self-advocated and owned your voice, that wave will usually move you in the right direction.
I moved out here to pursue a career in tourism. I haven’t even touched that industry in two or three years. I honestly never thought I’d realize that what I should be doing is writing, but here I am now: doing it. Things aren’t fantastic, but they’re improving day by day and in true L.A.-time fashion, I’m achieving something that makes me whole.
Because I can only juggle so much in my life, I’ve learned that sometimes riding the wave means letting go and let it take you and other times jumping up on the surfboard and reclaiming it.
Radical acceptance isn’t shrugging your shoulders and muttering, “it is what it is, I guess.” It means doing everything within your power and abilities and accepting what isn’t. It’s the ultimate form of asserting boundaries in every aspect of your life. When you’re a poor, single, queer woman in L.A. with a good head on her shoulders, you run into and re-examine those boundaries almost every day. If you respect and accept yourself, the wave will do that too, and you’d be pleasantly surprised with where it takes you.
If you enjoyed reading this today, consider my memoir, NORDISCO, which is available directly on this site or through Amazon. I’d be delighted to connect with you through my mailing list, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.