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« In Which You Have To Ask The Price of Orange Juice »

The Keyboard Company


Los Angeles is large and spread out. It is impossible to see it as one entity. When you’re on the west side, it’s as if the east side doesn’t even exist. There is no big picture.

During high school, after a few of us got cars, we tried to see other parts of L.A. It was like we were lab rats let out of a cage, eager but blind, bumping into walls, stranded in the middle of a giant maze. My best friend Jeff would often make an effort to find new places for us to eat. He would research restaurants on Yelp — a website I had only heard rumors about — and drive me somewhere foreign for dinner. Jeff and I have always been similarly sized (size small, or XS perhaps.) At the time, we were sixteen and we both could have passed for twelve. Now that we’re twenty-three, we could both pass for sixteen.

We would kidnap his parents’ car and if Jeff forgot to make one of his famous mixes, we would have to listen to Celine Dion or Enya, or whatever his father was listening to that week. If Jeff did remember a mix, we’d groove to Dave Matthews and The White Stripes the whole way there (obviously an eclectic taste) — to a place that supposedly had the best chicken sandwich or the best fries or the biggest selection of hot sauces.

But even after our attempts at exploration, I still didn’t know which thing was Burbank and what was Los Feliz and where did the Valley even start and where were people who weren’t us hanging out? As a result of the myriad possibilities, most weekends were spent on my bedroom floor watching Sandy Bullock flicks alone, my car seldom seeing the outside of our garage except when I felt obliged to make cameos at high school house parties where boys named Josh smoked hookahs and pretty girls compulsively yanked at tube tops.

At eighteen, I handed in my driver’s license and my inability to parallel park, and moved to New York. A city full of culture, history, full of places where You’ve Got Mail I mean Manhattan was filmed, full of excitement, yet still accessible. I could walk the length of the city in a day. Streets formed grids, neighborhoods were named in a literal fashion — the Upper West Side was on the upper west side, exactly where it said it was going to be! Go figure.   

To celebrate my 23rd birthday, I decided to go back home for a few days to see my family. I was especially excited to see my grandmother, DeeDee, who I had heard was learning to use the Internet for the first time, something I definitely wanted to get recorded evidence of. My brother and I think everything she does is funny. She’ll offer us snap peas or watermelon in the middle of sentences, pull twenty-dollar bills out of her filing cabinet (M for Money!) and put them in our pockets, and there’s also her obsession with cartoons.  Most of her clothes have Snoopy or Tommy (of the Rugrats gang) sewn on them, somewhere.

DeeDee is the only person I know aside from Chase Bank and National Grid who still sends real mail. She uses a giant, old Xerox machine to make copies of articles from health magazines, then highlights names of vitamins or headlines that read, “Scientists Discover Laughter Truly IS The Best Medicine,” folds them up, and mails them to me. She also sends me pages ripped out of her Nordstrom’s catalogue, with “You’re so much prettier than her!” scrawled next to a model’s face.

So naturally, I thought that with the power of immediate mail and endless articles at her fingertips 24 hours a day, she’d grow to love the web. And my whole family would probably grow to hate it. I could already see my Gmail Inbox full of 100 unread messages. Messages with subject headings such as: Live Love Laugh, I Almost Forgot, Do You Drink Snapple? and 50 Ways to Cure Menstrual Cramps without Medication.

I arrived in L.A. My mother drove me home from the airport, only taking the side streets, as she finds freeways to be overwhelming. We got to the house and I walked through our jungle of backyard to our guesthouse, where DeeDee lives.


“Hi DeeDee,” I said and gave her a hug.

“A hug! How did I get so lucky!”

The first thing I noticed as I walked in was DeeDee’s new keyboard.  My mother had purchased a giant yellow keyboard for her, so that she could see the keys. It was appropriately called KEYS-U-SEE, obviously trying to integrate internet abbreviations into old people’s vernacular. Never too late to start, the KEYS-U-SEE manufacturer probably said one day.

I asked my grandmother what she wanted to look up so that I could show her how to use Google.

“Clark Gable!”

The rest of the night was filled with gasps of marvel and wonder. And stale licorice, loose in a drawer.

The next morning, Jeff and I decided to go to brunch at a place in Venice he had heard about from a co-worker. Jeff and I view things in a similar way and tend to have the same neuroses. We both read e-mails about fifty times before we send them. We both claim to hate bands we’ve never heard or movies we’ve never seen. We both spend twenty minutes looking at a pair of jeans in the mirror before we decide to buy them, and then when we get home we put them back on and realize we look stupid. And I know we have similar issues with L.A., so at brunch I was hoping to bounce some ideas off him for this L.A. article I was trying to write.

We walked in to the Venice restaurant and could immediately tell it was a few notches too nice for us. We had sneakers and cut-off shorts and phony Ray-Bans. They had real, white cloth tablecloths and fancy mimosa glasses. We sat down anyway.

“How much is the orange juice?” Jeff asked the waitress. She looked baffled.

“I’ll have to check,” she said, and backed away slowly. I slumped in my seat, embarrassed.

“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” I said. We ordered food that was too expensive. He gave the waitress a literal thumbs up on the $3 orange juice. I itched to get out.

“So do you like living here?” I asked him.

"Living at home is hard. And L.A. is a mess,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Everything here is just so confusing.”

“Literally or metaphorically?”

“Both. Everything about it. The layout of it all, what I’m supposed to do day to day.”

“Do you think you’ll leave?”


“Can I quote you on this?”

“Yes. I think it also has to be taken into account that I’m outrageously neurotic.”


I got back home and went over to DeeDee’s house. She regaled me with stories of Clark Gable’s life and did you know his mother died when he was ten months old, and did you know he was accidentally listed as a girl on his birth certificate?

“You know you can look up other stuff too,” I said.

“Such as…” she began, and squinted her eyes suspiciously, not understanding what I was getting at.

“Such as anything! Think of it as a giant library, with anything you could possibly want to see or read about.”

“I’m spending this week on Clark Gable. Maybe next week,” she said, stubbornly. “Now teach me how to make the print bigger. My eyes hurt. I can barely read anything!”

I showed her how to enlarge the print. She needed it to be so large that only twenty or so of these giant words were visible at a time. She’d have to constantly drag her cursor across the screen to finish a whole sentence. The borders to Firefox pages were lost. The toolbar was gone. It was disorienting, even for me.

That night, my mother invited me to a dinner party a friend of hers was having. I was the youngest person there by about 30 years. It has occurred to me that when a group of adults get together, they almost always form a panel discussion on the topic of Is The Internet Ruining The Way We Live? (See also: Is The Kindle Ruining The Way We Read?) All of these discussions and debates are inevitably a waste of energy and time. But we have them.

“Is Facebook replacing real personal friendships?” a man asked.

“Maybe Twitter is contributing to ADHD,” someone said.

“I have GPS and navigation and all that stuff,” one woman said. “But I miss just being able to get lost!  Remember when we would just get lost?!”

I wanted to tell her I still get lost even with all this technology. That Los Angeles will always be hiding something. It will still be just as scattered. There will still be streets that magically turn into other streets and sections meant to imitate other parts of the world and places named after what they aren’t. There will still be minimal parking so that you have to have to leave your car in another neighborhood, and towering homes that conceal everyone inside so you never know where the party’s at. L.A. is a city full of secrets.

And also, surprise surprise, there are hip parts of L.A. I didn’t find that out until about a year or two ago when someone let me in on it. That L.A. is hip. That hipsters even live there, and call it home, and have tattoos of the contour of California behind their ears and on their biceps. They wear skinny jeans and play shows together and buy “spaces” and turn them into “venues.” I had no idea I didn’t have to go all the way to Brooklyn for this. Thanks for keeping me in the dark for so long, L.A.  Thanks a million.

The rest of my trip went by in a blur. I had almost forgotten that my birthday was my reason for returning home. I had dinner with my father’s family. My stepmother bought me a polka dotted thong and I unknowingly opened it up at the table of the nice Italian restaurant. Something chocolate and mushy came with a candle in it. My brother and I watched Sweet Home Alabama and argued about whether it was good or not (spoiler alert: it is not). He got me a $50 gift certificate to Amoeba, a music store only on the west coast. I was leaving the next day. My grandmother shelled peas for me to eat as we played some game with tiles. She put twenties in my palm “for ice cream.” My mother got me to start taking acidophilus. I made a joke about it being a kind of dinosaur. It was all funny at the time.

Before leaving for the airport, I went to say goodbye to DeeDee. To see how she was doing with her new friend, The Internet.

“Phooey,” she said.

“Phooey?” I asked.

“I’m done. Get this thing out of here.” She motioned at the laptop and the KEYS-U-SEE.

“What happened?”

“It’s too much! It’s too confusing!  Everything is all over the place and it’s exhausting. I can’t even think of what I would want to look for, and when I can, I can’t find the thing to search them with! There’s too much information. And nothing is organized, I don’t understand it.”

“You don’t want to give it another go?  It will take some time, but--”

“Phooey,” she said. “I’m throwing in the towel. Now try this juice I made in my new juicer! It’s full of antioxidants!"

At the airport, I realized that my moving to New York wasn’t so different from my grandmother deciding she would just rather watch VHS tapes and organize her filing cabinet than try to figure out the internet. In a sense, I had given up on L.A. Neither of us could handle the overwhelming plethora of possibilities. We both lost our bearings while trying too hard to understand. I’m pretty sure DeeDee is done with the internet for good, but maybe I’ll go back someday and give L.A. another go.   

I texted Jeff.

Me: Do you think L.A. is like the internet?

Jeff: Lol. Internet is easier to navigate I think. No search function in L.A.

Emma Barrie is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York and one half of Paper Cone Stories. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.

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Reader Comments (8)

Dave Matthews Band and The White Stripes in the same sentence? Unacceptable. I have spoken.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterg-dizzle

I don't think any of this could be considered poor writing... Kumi is just not great at piecing together that his comments come off as "douchey".

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraubriane

I agree with what you said. LA can be a bit overwhelming. Basically living in LA, you're constantly in your car going from one place to another. That's a little different from New York where you can walk around and have each street having its own character. LA has that too, but they are not as within reach as NY is.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChloe

I really loved this article.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterair

Here's a clue: Get out of your stupid car & walk somewhere. Learn to read a map, & take the bus.

Get away from the West Side next time you come back.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM. Bouffant

Hm. You imply that New York is finite and fits in the palm of your hand compared to L.A. Holy cow.

June 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHugh

This is so great! I mean really it is and I see all the tie ins. Maybe this is what life would be like without ever getting wireless.

June 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWow

Happily, America isn't just L.A. and New York.

July 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdainys

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