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 It is a mistake, I’ve learned, to mention to New Yorkers that you once lived in Los Angeles. They will question you, mock you, belabor you, desperate to understand why, in the name of all that is holy and full of garbage on every street corner, one would actually want to live in an empty-headed din of pomposity, a trivial piffle parading around as a real, living, breathing city.

And you’re in even more trouble, to be certain, if you dare, lo, have the audacity, to claim - wretched Lord, no! - that, believe it or not, you actually liked Los Angeles.

Honestly, people, what’s not to like? The freeway system carts you from anywhere to nowhere and back in less time that it takes to close an oxygen bar. (I used to joke there was an exit right off the 10 that said “Will’s Apartment.”) You’re just bathed in sunshine there; it’s like having Drew Barrymore smile on you all day. And, good lord, man, the women! I’ve enjoyed many happy Sunday afternoons lying around New York ogling, but heavens to Betsy, there is no place like Los Angeles. Every waitress is a would-be movie star, and they’re all friendly and accommodating and wearing tight clothes and, gee whiz, I need to get off this topic before I either start crying or make a quick, abrupt dash to the restroom.

That was always my problem with Los Angeles. Everything is so nice there. Everyone is comfortable and laid-back and so goshdarned happy to live in paradise, that they never really challenge themselves. Los Angeles is a city born for pot smokers; New York is a coke town, always will be. In New York, you’re rushing from one point to another, fevered, harried, gottagogottagogottago! We have much to prove in New York, and we have convinced ourselves we have little time to do it. In L.A., you can sit back in your cheap apartment in the hills, roll a joint, step out on the porch and enjoy the scenery. There’s no sense of urgency in Los Angeles; it is no place for a neurotic. What’s there to be neurotic about?

Which is why, among other ex-fiancée-related details, I left the place in May 1998. It was deeply sad to go; there were many acquaintances, a most healthy amount for a one-year stay. But most important, I bolted on my oldest friend in the world.

Tim was my best friend. We grew up together in Mattoon, the two “gifted” kids who confused our teachers by reading Tom Wolfe, by quoting Spike Lee, by listening to Bob Dylan. Tim was the son of a local lawyer (unfortunately, Mattoon has not been able to avoid the infestation of lawyers) and had Smart Kid stamped on him pretty much from birth. His looks didn’t help him out much either: He had that weird helmet hair that was somewhat popular in the early stone age, dark black and movable only when he walked briskly, hopping in a doofy way that earned him the nickname “Tigger.” He had a huge nose, absurdly out-of-place; it wasn’t that the nose itself was large, actually, just that it was so disproportionate to the rest of his face. He looked almost exactly like the nerdy Paul from The Wonder Years.

After high school, Tim enrolled at the film school at the University of Southern California and moved away. Four years later, fiancée in tow, I joined him in L.A., taking a job at a now-defunct magazine (not my fault, swear). We were best buds again, going to the movies every Friday and dissecting every morsel of each other lives and testing their density and surface area. Completing each other’s sentences, that kind of junior-high girl shit. When I had my going-away dinner on my last night in Los Angeles, I hugged him and told him we’d never lose touch, even if I had to call him everyday.

Well, it’s more than two years later now, and I just returned from a week in L.A., covering the Democratic National Convention for IssuePaper. My only real priority, job be damned, was to see Tim, along with a couple of other friends, and get caught up. As tends to be the case when you make the decision to join this fucked-up, sweet-Christ-I-blinked-and-a-year-just-passed grown-up world, we’d fallen a wee bit out of touch. Like me, he’s busy as shit, and hell, you know how it goes. You find yourself all wrapped up in your own world, all the stupid minutiae that makes us lose all perspective of what’s actually important, and you forget. It happens. You deal with it. Whatever.

I had last visited California in February 1999, and shortly after I left, Tim met an actress named Suzanne. They began dating, but I figured, heck, she’s an actress, she’s probably a loon, they’ll break up in a month. But it lasted, and they’re still together. That means, you little mathematicians, that my oldest, closest friend had been dating a woman for a year-and-a-half ... and I’d never met her.

Think about that. What good is having a best friend if you can’t whine about your significant others with them and have some sort of common understanding? I had no idea what their relationship was like. Is she bossy? Meek? Does she make inappropriate jokes? Does she burp at the dinner table? Is she overprotective? Does she hate people who like sports and Woody Allen movies? Most vitally, does she understand how great my best friend is? Is she worthy? And how about him? Is he different now? You know how some people are when they have a long-time girlfriend. Is he the same Tim we all knew and loved?

My first night in town, I went with comrade Eric Gillin to one of my favorite old bars in Santa Monica for a few drinks with Tim. (Side note: Is it a shock to anyone out there that L.A. doesn’t have the highest drunk-driving rate in the nation? I mean, they drink just as much there as we do here, but they can’t walk home.) We sat and looked at each other, somewhat uncomfortably. I mean, it was wonderful to see him, but it seemed like we didn’t have enough time to get each other caught up on everything, so we ended up caught up on very little. Tim hasn’t changed his hair, same helmet, but it’s weird, how, jeez, uh ... I ended up talking more to Eric than Tim. Logically, I suppose. I see Eric everyday. We have countless conversation topics to pursue.

With Tim ...well, we mainly talked about Mattoon, and old friends, and old things we used to do, back when we hung out. How’s Amanda? Hey, did you hear Donnie is getting divorced? Boy, that high school play, that sure was something, no? I’d ask him about Suzanne, but I got the same response you give when your great aunt asks you about girls at Thanksgiving. All’s well, yes yes, she’s good, life is nice, no problems. There was no minutiae, no Seinfeld-esque “she snores too loud” or “she tends to wet the bed” or “she often levitates above the bed and speaks in the voice of Lucifer.” I just learned she was fine, all was tip-top, nothing to see here. I got the answer someone would give a stranger. Because, when it came to her, I guess I was.

And it was all I could give him, too. Not dating anyone, no, just working all the time, devoting myself to writing, drinking a lot, nothing to see here, please disperse. We talked about Ironminds, and about my parents, and his parents, and about nothing in particular. Then we went home. Busy day, tomorrow, you know how it goes, busy busy busy.

I took Tim and Suzanne to the airport two days later (it was so nice to drive again). She was, well, she ... she was there. I was stunned about how little opinion I had of her. Nothing positive, nothing negative. She was just Tim’s girlfriend. She, and her life with Tim, was a complete blank to me. We were pleasant with each other, shaking hands and smiling, but she meant nothing to me, and vice versa. She was a stranger.

I let them off at the curb. We all hugged goodbye, good to finally meet you, hey, have a good trip, Tim, I’ll catch you in a few months, or something, sometime, somewhere. Be careful out there.

I think of Tim, and Matt and Chris in St. Louis, and Mike in Chicago, and Andy in Champaign, and Denny in Mattoon. I think of how much of their lives I’m missing, how much I used to know and how little I do now. They all have boyfriends or girlfriends, they’re all out there living, so much living going on. And I don’t know boo about it.

I didn’t sign up for this. This wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal. It’s so hard to find lifelong friends ... why does it seem even harder to keep them close?



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