By: Josh Leichter  | 

Oh, to Open the World and Send it Reeling

As the plane took off, I watched from the window as the buildings got smaller, the famous City of Stars twinkling out of sight as their celestial counterparts are prone to do in the face of morning sunrise. I watched until there was nothing more to watch to the point that the structures outside were not structures at all but puffy wisps of air and gases, delicately cut by the butter knife wings operated by fine engineering and mechanics. It was at this point that I closed the window and drifted peacefully, floating as though I was as weightless as the jet fuel and exhaust being expelled from the engines or wherever it comes out of.

I’ve been interested in the concept of hometowns for quite some time now. We hear of these ideas of state pride and flaunting a state’s perks such as produce, natural resources or no income tax. States market themselves to us throughout our lives like it’s “The Bachelor.” Our blueberries tell us they come from New Jersey and our apples are “proud New Yorkers” as if it means something to a shopper. Or every few years we hear about a new tourism campaign highlighting the splendor of vacationing somewhere like Arizona or Vermont. In a way, people see their hometowns as an extension of themselves like they are a part of some tapestry that has ceased to exist in an increasingly commercialized world. 

I come from Los Angeles, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world when the industry isn’t ground to a halt, and there are plenty of reasons that I should be fascinated by the city. From the seedy nature of Hollywood Boulevard to the countless movie studios, the allure of Beverly Hills and its endless array of palm trees and never-ending sunshine peeking its way through the now fire-kissed skies, it’s the stuff of dreams. For those who are familiar with the Dust Bowl era and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” they’d know that beyond the silver screen glamour and hopes of having it made in Hollywoodland, the state of California represented other new opportunities, in many ways a New World within the New World of America. Going back even further, there was the great Gold Rush of 1849, perhaps a twinkling precursor to the studio stage lights that would eventually replace them a little over seventy years later.

While there has certainly been this romanticizing of Los Angeles, I’ve always found it to be rather underwhelming. Maybe it’s because after spending nearly my entire life in the same spot, it’s not excitement I feel, but a sense that, like a mime, I’m stuck in a box trap with no way out. Sure, I spend fewer and fewer months there nowadays, but the idea that another place will replace it isn’t freeing. It’s as though every place becomes an embodiment of the saying “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” That at a certain point, tapping into the perks of a state causes it to run dry of any uniqueness it had when I first arrived or perhaps this is because of a broader problem of the idea of a Nomadic spirit. We look at our hometowns and at some point, look toward the window and wonder “What’s beyond that horizon line?” We crave to see the rest of the world, to chase the dreams that so many others are looking for just like us. So we leave. We move to cities across the country and take trips to anywhere but our starting point. We stare in befuddlement at the people that pepper us with questions or enviously bemoan the fact that we never have to worry about hurricanes or waking up in the early hours of the morning to go salt driveways. “Sure, you have fires,” they say, “but are they ever really near where you live?” And it’s true that my area of southern California is seldom bothered by the environmental eradication that our northern counterparts often endure, save for the long-term effects that forest damage brings to the world at large. But even so, there’s a sort of dusty dullness that falls over the city when I think about it, that the stars others chase, the ones they hope to attach themselves to, are the same ones that long ago burnt out trying to win me over.

I think about the past three years I spent in New York and with it the overhyping of Manhattan. Though not the place of my youth, its fulfillment as a (thus far) temporary hometown has been met with mixed success. While I would never be caught defending the city, after spending so much time here, some of the natives have knighted me as an Honorary New Yorker which just means that I’ve ridden the subway enough times without getting mugged. This is in sharp contrast to the leadup of my arrival in August of 2017 when I watched too many films that paint the city as the sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis — the original that can’t be beat — and was dumbstruck with a sense of confusion at the rather drab brick buildings still bearing the nuclear fallout shelter signs on their chests like hearts worn on sleeves as some sort of eerie foreboding that in a moment’s notice a blast is on its way condemning us to a life of basements, canned food and irradiated water. 

I can recall a time in the winter that I stood in Times Square, the epileptic lights flashing above the stores branded and embossed with iconography from all areas of culture, stalls selling the familiar “I Love NY” shirts get rained on and color fades away like the ability to have a clear night sky above the LEDs or my desire to remain. So I leave again.

Maybe there really is something wonderful about it all. Or maybe it’s just one more dream from which I cannot wait to awake.

Photo Caption: As the plane took off, I watched from the window as the buildings got smaller, the famous City of Stars twinkling out of sight.
Photo Credit: Josh Leichter