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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

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Simply cannot go back to them

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Entries in los angeles (16)


In Which There's Nothing Like Looking At A Picture of A Haircut

On (Not) Leaving Los Angeles


Hollywood sweeps into your life in the form of Shelley Steinburger, a forty-year-old costume designer from the San Fernando Valley who sits next to you in Intro Spanish at the Amigos del Sol language school. She looks like your friends’ moms — bosomy and pear-shaped with a careless silver haircut — but she says "like" and "fuck" and does impressions of the pudgy tourists and retired old ladies in your class. You are eighteen and from Texas, studying in Mexico over winter break because someday you want to get a Ph.D. Shelley is here on a lark, the first woman over thirty you have met with no husband or kids. In your eyes, she is a unicorn.

Over coffee, Shelley complains about Los Angeles and drops hints about her resume, something you will find out later is an essential Hollywood skill. Shelley designed the costumes for The Virgin Suicides. That’s Shelley’s voice on the phone with Bill Murray in the bathtub scene in Lost in Translation. Shelley knows Kirsten Dunst. Knowing Shelley basically means you know Kirsten Dunst. You buzz around Shelley like a manic fruit fly, hoping when the two week class is over she will take you home with her. Your new life will start in a mystical place called Silver Lake. You, Kirsten and Shelley dancing around a big, light-filled kitchen making pancakes in your underwear: it is only a matter of time.

Over the next four years, you will think about Shelley every time Hollywood intersects with your existence, first via a fraught long-term relationship with a boy from Beverly Hills, then thanks to a University of Colorado drop-out turned American Apparel model who whistles at you on Brown's campus one day where he is visiting a friend. Later, you visit him in Los Angeles, where he spends a whole afternoon showing you pictures of his haircuts and snorting oxycontin. You convince yourself you are in love. You neglect to tell him about your relationship, but you do tell him you plan to move to California after you graduate. He offers you a room in his manse. He doesn't believe you are serious. You are serious.

In May of your senior year, when everyone sobers up and starts frantically searching the Internet for something to fill the abyss that will be the rest of their lives, you send out emails to everybody you know on the West Coast. You wind up with interviews for assistant jobs at three big entertainment agencies and you're surprised, but not that surprised, because it is 2007 and things like that still happen. You buy a blazer from Banana Republic and tell Human Resources at Major Entertainment Agency One that yes, you majored in Comparative Literature, but you’re also very business-minded. You're looking for a way to combine your two loves, books and business, business-minded person that you are. You are still young enough not to recognize how damaging such a lie can be, especially when it is believed.

"Yes, but what Important Book Agent really needs is an assistant he can look at every day," says Human Resources, whose name is Paul. You nod thoughtfully, as though you know exactly what he means. Paul seems satisfied. You are very good at this interviewing thing. Paul bares his teeth at you.

Waiting for your interview at Major Entertainment Agency Two, you hover by the reception desk trying not to stare at the girl behind it. The bones of her face are thin and lovely. You want to run your hands through her hair. A wiry blonde boy with thick-framed glasses walks out of the office next to hers. Together, they look like models in an advertisement for the future.

A thin older woman with poreless skin comes out to collect you. She introduces herself as Helene. Helene shakes your hand and looks you up and down and then says "she's so pretty" to the receptionist, as if you’re not there. She doesn't make "pretty" sound like a good thing.

"You don't want this job," Helene tells you in her office. "The pay is bad. The hours are long. Think about what you’re doing here." Because you have been taught to recognize tests when they present themselves to you, you tell Helene that all you want, all you have ever wanted, is to work at a Major Entertainment Agency. Truthfully, you’re still not sure what  the job you’re applying for entails. This is not something anyone has been able to explain, not even your friend who helped you get the interview and who already works there. Everyone keeps telling you to watch Entourage. Basically, you’re going to be Lloyd, they say. You do not want to be Lloyd.

What you want is to go back home to Texas and cry. Your fraught relationship has ended, in part because of the American Apparel model, and it is affecting you more than you ever thought it could. At night you cry, you wake up crying, you spend far too long on the phone yelling at your ex-boyfriend and crying. You are 22 and love isn't yet the warm distraction it will become later, when you are fully human. This love is something hard lodged in your chest. It feeds on pain. You feel it every time you breathe. You haven’t learned yet that the universe doesn’t revolve around your mood swings.

So you aren’t prepared when Paul calls and exclaims "You got the job!" The way he says it, you look up at the ceiling expecting balloons and confetti to fall down on your head. "Important Book Agent is very excited to work with you. And oh, would you mind coming in today for training? Like, right now?"

The building Major Entertainment Agency One owns is a cluster of busy right angles and glass that looks ready to shoot off into space. Inside, you feel compelled to whisper, as though you are in Notre Dame. You train for four hours, over the course of which you consume two diet cokes and one iced coffee. The assistant you will replace never stops moving and she never smiles.

"I’m leaving to work for Very Successful Screenwriter," she tells you in the kind of clipped English accent you thought only existed in movies with Hugh Grant in them. "It's imperative that I start tomorrow so pay attention. You won’t be able to call me for help after I'm gone." When she says Very Successful Screenwriter's name, she makes eye contact with you and pauses, the way people do after they tell you they went to Harvard. The name means nothing to you, and you will find out later this is also common in Hollywood, dropping production company titles and names of executives the way unattainable hipster boys in college referenced obscure literary theorists.

At the end of the day, you still have no idea what your new job actually is. You know it has something to do with answering phones, something you attempted once, and failed at. (You were supposed to pick up and say "Very Important Book Agent’s Office" but instead you said "Hello?")

Back at home, you call your mother at work and tell her the good news. She is thrilled. After you hang up, you crawl into bed and sob. You dial his number. He answers. You cry into the phone, he cries back, and then you get angry and he hangs up and then you fall asleep.

The next morning, you call the office number at Major Entertainment Agency One and connect to the extension that will soon belong to you. The whole idea of work, of having a career, seems so abstract and poorly thought out. I was looking for a job and then I found a job, Morrissey whispers in your brain, and heaven knows I’m miserable now. What you need, what everyone needs really, is a long nap.

A temp answers on the second ring. He has been waiting for you to arrive.

"I'm not coming in after all," you say. "I don't think I can do this."

"I completely understand," he answers, his voice cracking with envy. You hang up. Immediately the phone rings again. It is Paul.

"I thought you had it more together than that," he yells. You have no idea what gave him that idea. When you try to explain, he actually hangs up on you. It is a good thing. You didn’t have anything to say.

You are appalled at what you have done, but not as appalled as your mother. Luckily, Major Entertainment Agency Two calls you back, and you find yourself with a job starting at the end of the summer. Hollywood is a roiling anthropological experiment, and you set about learning the customs of the natives. You say "slammed" instead of busy and "batshit" instead of crazy. You don't get annoyed when waiters mess up your order because you get that they are sleepy from open calls. You learn to recognize plastic surgery without looking twice. You pick up the language of the rich, inserting the names of very expensive pizza restaurants into casual conversation. You pretend you went to the Barney’s Warehouse Sale. You brunch. You discover no amount of money will ever be enough.

After a while you find yourself folded into the city, lulled into a kind of daze. You stop reading books and talk about box office grosses instead. There's no need for philosophy in a place where the weather is this nice. Still, voices from the outside reach you every once in a while, make it hard for you to sleep. The people you went to college with are editorial assistants, non-profit coordinators, teachers, medical students.

One night, your friend Jesse tells you a story about leaving his own birthday dinner to remove a bullet from someone’s skull. At work, you write script coverage for a comedy about Abraham Lincoln's ghost.  You play on the Internet. You blog. You read magazines in search of ideas for movies the agency's clients might want to write. You begin to feel certain you will die there, in your swivel chair, typing out summaries of the next Miley Cyrus oeuvre.

Meanwhile, the boy from Beverly Hills stops picking up your drunk dials. The American Apparel model has, against all odds, established a film career. His face peers out from magazine covers and billboards. In music videos, he caresses faceless blonde girls. You saw him once after you moved to L.A. He played you his reel and you accidentally laughed out loud at his turn as a gay teen boxer in the made-for-TV movie Rope Burns. He looked at you, plaintive, and asked "Why can’t you just be nice to me?" Now he is in a movie with Beyoncé. Soon you will see his head every day, floating in space over the 10 freeway. You accept the sign for what it is: it’s time for you to go.

You take the money you’ve been saving, buy a ticket to Europe and quit your job. You visit friends in graduate school overseas, people who made better life choices than you. You leave L.A. feeling proud of yourself for doing something so many people say they will do, and then don't. When you come back to find yourself broke and jobless, it occurs to you that the reason they don’t do it is because it is a terrible idea.

You scramble and manage to get part time work at a tiny literary agency that sells the film rights for novels to studios. This one doesn't own a building, but you like its small, cozy offices and cultivated bookshelves. Your boss, the company's founder, is an elderly hustler stuck in an old-timey Los Angeles, when packages were delivered by messengers on bikes with one big wheel on the front. He is the first fundamentally dishonest adult you have ever met.

From him, you learn that fiction doesn’t sell, but neither does non-fiction, and neither do hard covers. Ebooks are the future, or maybe they aren’t. Nobody reads anymore, or people only read the Internet, or people will always read books, or they won’t. Nobody wants to read your memoir unless you are already famous. No one wants to read your screenplay, even if you are already famous, unless you are famous for being a screenwriter. No one who is not already a screenwriter should aspire to be one because, look, it is too late.  Also: everybody is over vampires. Don't even think about werewolves. The next big thing is children’s books, or it is true crime, or it is fantasy or it is none of these things.

You read terrible thrillers by the dime store novelists who are the agency's only real source of income. You spend a tremendous amount of time feeling sorry for yourself. Once you had dreams of translating Spanish poetry in a dusty university library. Here you translate schlock into the only language your boss understands, which is money.

"How is it?" he asks, watching you page dismally through a new manuscript.

"It's. Well. I think the pregnant coke-addicted black prostitute might put some people off. And later, when the angel comes down to smite all the gays... it's like, there’s just a lot going on here."

"Pretty impressive right? He wrote that whole thing in two weeks. You think I can sell it?"


"Good. Get me Random House on the phone. Who’s the editor at that imprint we like?"

You eye the ever-growing slush pile on your desk with disgust. When your boss leaves for the day, you recycle the manuscripts and make up fake synopses. Later, you start doing it while he is in the office. By this time, you’ve been working at the company for almost a year and you can feel bits of your soul drifting away. Still, you don’t look for a new job. Probably for the same reason your friends who swear they’re moving to New York never make it. The same reason everybody takes the same route to Beverly Hills each morning, even though they know they’ll hit mind-bending traffic. Something about living in a place where it is almost always summer inspires a comfortable inertia. The sun shines in January. In March, you spend whole weekends at the beach.

And then there is Mark, the merry, red-haired assistant/office manager who sits one desk over from yours. You love him with the fierce passion reserved for depressed women and their gay best friends. He trained to be an actor at SUNY Buffalo and when he senses you about to fall into a spiral of self-loathing, he slips into character as Mabel Lee, fading Southern belle. "Why as I live and breathe," he says when your hands start to shake. "Did you see what Beverly Jones wore to church the other day? I do declare. She looked just like a duck in a pillbox hat." The Old South by way of Manhasset, Long Island. Once a week, he visits his therapist over lunch and comes back armed with new survival tactics. "Every time something makes us sad, let's give each other compliments," he says one afternoon.

"What’s that?" Your boss peeks his giant bald head out of his office. Wisps of white hair cling to it desperately. "Did the First-Class mail come yet?" Mail time is your boss’s favorite. He sniffs out royalty checks in the piles of doomed query letters like a police dog sniffing for weed.

"Not yet,” You answer. “By the way, I love that scarf,” you say to Mark.

"Thank you. Your hair is very buoyant today,” he answers.

Your e-mail alert buzzes and you turn back to your computer. 

      Dear Agent,

      Attached please find a proposal for a novel based on Facebook status updates written by my cat. Enclosed also are pictures of my cat. If you would like to see the full manuscript please reply. I also have a screenplay. 

      Thank you,


      Dear George,

      While we read your query with great interest, we are not enthusiastic enough about it to represent it for commercial sale. Best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.

      Best regards,


You spend the rest of the day editing a manuscript by a bestselling YA fantasy author no one will admit is a pedophile. On your way out the door, you overhear your boss on the phone with Ashley Bulgaz, the company’s bookkeeper.

"Cut back on flower deliveries for the lobby? Sure, I guess. That saves us how much? Two hundred dollars? I'm spending four hundred dollars a week on flowers? What the fuck. Fine.  Do what you need to do. Just keep twelve-thousand five a month in my account. I can’t live on less."

$12,500.00 is more than half of what you will make for the year after taxes. You don’t have health insurance. Right now you subsist on a box of frozen burritos your roommate bought from Trader Joe’s and then abandoned.

Mark is gone for the day so you speak to his empty desk chair. "Hey Mark?" You say to it. "That tie you were wearing today? So chic."

Not all the query letters that come in are terrible. Some are even quite good, which, in a way, is even worse. Each morning, your boss dictates responses to promising ones, requesting e-mailed copies of novels from bright-eyed writers with freshly minted MFAs. In the afternoon you enter his office with a pile of manuscripts. He skims the first few pages and sighs.

"Who do these people think they are? Wasting my time with this crap. Tell them to go fuck themselves." You take them back to your desk and type out another form rejection. You hate to admit it, but you know he is right. Too many people who want to write don't read. Too many people who want to write should be gardeners or dentists or waiters or chemists or actuaries. You wonder, often, if too many people includes you.

Because though you have spent the past three years working actively against it, the only thing you ever wanted to do is write. Now you leave work every day with the truth heavy in your soul: no one deserves that kind of life. For every story about the acceptance that came after 100 rejections, there are millions about people who wrote for eighty years and died humiliated, poor, hungry and alone. You should have gone into banking, you should have been pre-med, you should have joined a cult.

Perhaps it is not too late to join a cult.

And yet, you keep working on your stupid short stories. Because you can’t help it, because it isn’t a choice, because if you decide to do a thing, why not keep doing it until you get better at it? Because in this shiny, impossible city, it is the only thing keeping you sane. The boy from Beverly Hills has moved in with the girl he will probably marry. Variety tells you the American Apparel model will star opposite one of the actresses from Mean Girls in her next feature. But if you can figure out how to build fictional characters who live and breathe and move around in space, then none of that will matter. Or at least, it will matter less.

Ages ago, when he interviewed you for the assistant job, your boss demanded to know your college major. "Comparative Literature and Literary Arts," you answered.  Five words that never get any less embarrassing. He winced. "You're not going to be, like, writing stuff while you're at work, right? I don't want to see that." You laughed, kind of, and changed the subject.

A year and a half later, when you tell him you're applying to graduate school he asks you with his customary tact, "What in the hell are you doing that for?" It’s a question you put to yourself often, and you want to answer him honestly. Working your way down the corporate ladder, you have come face to face with the fact that your only real skill, if you can call it that, is reading obscure literary fiction, talking about it and trying to imitate people who write it. Instead you answer in the only words he can understand. 

"Well."  You turn your voice into a question. "The classes will be free? Because. I mean. The University is going to pay me a…" You almost say the word “stipend” but then you catch yourself. "Money? To teach?"

He grunts at you but you don’t care because you’re feeling oddly confident. Lately, your life has been falling into place along a strange Los Angeles logic. That morning you got a $50 parking ticket, but last night you went to a party at Bret Easton Ellis’ house. The party was exactly what you expected, down to the minimalist monochrome décor, the celebrities famous for reasons no one could define. In an apartment overlooking Beverly Hills, you lived out the wildest dream of the college sophomore version of yourself. A gleam hovered over the fading film stars, the impeccable bartender, the party guests caught up in Bret's orbit as he circled the room, glass in hand, imitating perfectly the person everyone assumes he is.

To break the spell, you were tempted to light a cigarette even though you don’t smoke, or drop your glass over the balcony to the concrete below. But in the past few years, you’ve transformed from the type of person who destroys delicate things on purpose to the type of person who thinks about destroying them and then doesn't. Out over the city, fireworks flowered. The friend you came with lifted his glass and you clinked yours against it. Beneath you, Los Angeles shimmered like something jeweled and alive and you wondered for a moment so brief it was almost invisible how you could possibly live anywhere else.

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Animal Kingdom. You can e-mail her here.

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"All These Strangers" - Elvis Costello (mp3)

"The Spell That You Cast" - Elvis Costello (mp3)

"That's Not The Part of Him You're Leaving" - Elvis Costello (mp3)


In Which It Comes Off With Time

The Shine


1. Ari Gold

Maybe a year or so ago, or maybe it was closer to two, I got a phone call from Ari Emanuel. In case you’ve never heard of him, he’s a famous agent in Hollywood and the inspiration for Ari Gold, who is played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage. When I picked up the phone, a woman who sounded like she was Asian and maybe in an elevator said, “Will you hold for Ari Emanuel, please?” I said, “Yes,” because that’s what you do Ari Emanuel calls, or so I assumed. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time. Probably nothing. I was probably wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt with food stains on it. I am sure it was not glamorous.

2. Rollergirl  

I can’t remember what Ari said, but it was something like, “You’re the porn writer?” This was not exactly true. I had been writing about the adult movie industry on-and-off for a decade or so. I wrote about porn, but I was not a “porn writer,” per se. I think I said, “Yes,” because it seemed like the easiest answer I could think of. Then Ari started to speak very quickly about people named Mark and Lev and a famous director, and I had no idea who he was talking about or what he was talking about. I listened to him talk on at this speedy clip. I imagined him barreling out of an elevator with his frantic, frightened entourage of small, insignificant people in tow, and him climbing into a large car with blacked-out windows. He paused. I said, “Mark, who?” He said, “Mark Wahlberg.” 

photo by the author

3. Couple   

Ari explained that Mark Wahlberg and his production company partner Stephen Levinson, who is at least part of the inspiration for Eric “E.” Murphy, who is played by Kevin Connolly on Entourage, had a development deal with HBO, and they all wanted to make this TV show for HBO about the porn business. The way that Ari told it, they wanted to make it with this famous director, and, Ari said, the famous director, who I had the vaguest connection to on account of knowing one of his siblings, would only do the show if I was the one who wrote it. This seemed quite odd. It was hard to imagine that anyone important in Hollywood would only do something if they did it with me. I was not even fully dressed, or at least not dressed properly. 

4. James Joyce

The reason Ari was calling me, or he had my number, was that at the time I was represented by Endeavor, which is what Ari’s agency was called before it became William Morris Endeavor. Maybe six months or so before the phone rang, I had sent the first 30 pages of a novel that I was working on to a literary agent there, and he had signed me. The novel was about — well, frankly, it is hard for me to recall now. It was based in Porn Valley, of that I am sure, and I believe it was about a detective trying to find a killer on the loose in the porn industry. My agent thought it was brilliant. 

5. Citizen Kane

After Ari stopped talking at me, I got off the phone, and I called up my agent. Ari had been wanting to do a TV show about porn “forever,” the agent said. He was always shouting at people about it, telling people to go out and find him something that he could turn into a porn movie or TV show or what have you. Ari was into porn, from what I gathered. His interest seemed more than professional, to me. It was like a mission — it mattered. My agent got off the phone and called Ari. My agent called me back and said I had to write a treatment for my TV show about porn that I would be writing for Mark Wahlberg and the famous director. So I did. 

6. Academy Awards  

Somewhere along the line, I sent an e-mail to the famous director who was maybe going to direct my TV show. I told him what Ari had said. He e-mailed me back and told me to call him. Basically, what Ari had said the famous director had said was not exactly what the famous director had said, although the famous director had said my name when he was speaking to Ari about said project. I felt kind of stupid. It didn’t matter, in a way, in that we kept working on my TV show. The famous director said Ari does stuff like that all the time. The famous director said that he, himself, had done stuff like that too. I guessed that I had forgotten that this is how it works in Hollywood. Like: The way you can tell an agent is lying is if their lips are moving. That sort of thing. 

7. Marilyn Monroe 

I wrote the treatment, and I sent it to my agent, and he sent it to Lev, and then I had to call Lev, because Wahlberg was too busy, and I was to pitch the show. This wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. I called Lev, and it was pretty clear that he had not read the treatment. It sounded like he was at a kid’s birthday party, which made talking about a show about porn awkward, what with small children screaming in the background and such. The whole thing didn’t last very long, but it seemed like it lasted forever. It did not go well. In the end, they didn’t make my TV show, and when I finished my novel and sent it to my agent, he said it didn’t make any sense, and after that we stopped working together. And that was that. 

8. James Frey

Last month, I read online that James Frey, who wrote a fake rehab book called A Million Little Pieces, had been hired to write the porn movie show that I had failed to make. According to Page Six, "The plot will focus on a giant video company under siege from Internet competitors and a girl from the Midwest whose boyfriend convinces her to move to Los Angeles to become a star." Which I guess is one way to do it. I don’t know if the famous director is attached to the project being written by Frey. Reached by the New York Post, Frey said, “We're going to make a sprawling epic about the porn business in LA. We're going to tell the type of stories no one else has told before, and go places no one has gone before.” Reading that made me want to vomit, partly due to the fact that it wasn’t me saying asinine things to the Post, and partly due to the fact that James Frey is a total tool. 

9. Missy  

A couple weeks ago I sent Alex Carnevale, who is the editor of this site, an e-mail. I asked him if he wanted me to write something for the site. He e-mailed me back something like that he would like nothing more, but that he didn’t have the budget to pay me. I said, I’m offering to do it for free. He said something like, great. I sent him a few story ideas. The first one was about porn, and the other ones were about other things. He picked the porn idea first, because editors always do. I said I wanted to write about this dead porn star whose name was Missy. She was really blonde, and she was really beautiful, and she was really tiny. I met her on a porn set 13 years ago. She had this high little voice, and she was married to a male porn star who was having sex with someone else in the same movie, and she had this inarguable angelic quality to her, which is not something you see a lot of in the porn business: angels. She was one of those people you never forget. I think she had that thing Dick Hallorann, who was played by Scatman Crothers in The Shining, called the “shine.” In the movie, Dick says to the boy, “Well, you know, Doc, when something happens, you can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like, if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice, but things that people who ‘shine’ can see.” Missy had the shine. She kept on making porn movies after I met her. Eventually, she left the business and her husband, and she found God. She told the porn industry’s version of Variety that she “had a mental breakdown and went crazy." She said, "Lord God and Jesus never left me and now I will never leave them." Of her time in the porn industry, she said, “I met something that was pure evil in that industry,” and, she said, "I'm having premonitions of the end of time." In 2008, though, Missy died. She was 41, and she was living alone. Her family said it was an accidental overdose of her prescription drugs. They withheld the news of her death for a month so no one in the porn business would come to her funeral. I think about Missy sometimes. Mostly, it makes me sad. When you’re in the porn business, you have to see the shine amidst the shit. Some people can’t see it, though. There’s a lot of shine if you know where to look, but if you can’t see it, you don’t. 

Susannah Breslin is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her blog here. You can find her photographs here. Photo of Tori Black also by the author.

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photo by the author


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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