The Loneliest City in the World

LA_Bus.pngI recently made some new friends. This may sound like no big deal, but they are the first friends I made on my own since moving to Los Angeles two years ago. In general, I am a pretty awkward person. I hate small talk, and I don’t know how to do it. In some cases I pretend I am interviewing someone when I have no idea what to say to them.

Send me to an event as a reporter, and I can rock the room and come away with a great story for your fancy magazine or newspaper. Send me as myself and tell me to network and I will most likely be standing in the back against the wall pretending to look at my phone or looking for the smokers. Even though I really don’t smoke anymore, I understand smoking small talk and prefer it to awkward networking chatter.

I have always wanted to live in L.A. since I was a little kid and I learned that’s where the movies are made and where all of the beautiful and glamorous women in the pages of my mother’s glossy magazine’s lived. I scrawled “Hollywood” in crayon in big block letters on the wall of my childhood bedroom in my blue-collar hometown of Toledo, Ohio, home of Jeep. I longed for the knowledge that Stevie Nicks, at least when she wasn’t on tour, would only live a few miles from me, and I vowed that one day I would get there, learn to surf and live a generally fabulous life.

I didn’t actually move to L.A. until I was 35 and I was in a relationship with someone who, by complete coincidence, lived in my dream city. I had recently left the frozen tundra of Maine after nine years and a divorce and moved temporarily back to Ohio to regroup. There seemed like no better time to finally head west.

My new beloved already had several groups of friends in the city. I was traveling almost every month for work or a meditation retreat or a friend’s wedding so there seemed no reason or time to make my own L.A. friends, which is always a huge mistake. When a relationship ends as ours eventually did, friends of a couple generally fall into two camps – the friends that each person brought into the relationship and the friends the couple made together. We only made friends with one other couple together, and they have since left L.A.

When I got divorced a few years ago, some of my ex-husband’s friends and family members immediately un-friended me on Facebook, which is fine. I really don’t need to be friends with my ex-husband’s mom.  But, I did find it surprising because my ex and I had parted on friendly terms, and I naively didn’t realize people might blame me for the failed marriage. Some people felt outraged on his behalf and never spoke to me again, but for the most part, we left the relationship with the same friends we entered it with.

This time, I was in a new city with no local friends of my own. I am a writer who works from home, so I really didn’t have many local work friends either. I started attending writing workshops, hoping to meet some people I would click with. In Maine I belonged to a writing group that was formed with people I met in my MFA program, so I missed that connection and feedback from people who “got” me.

Making friends has never been easy for me. If you’re dialed into Myers Briggs, I am an INFP, an intuitive introvert who bases most decisions on gut feeling and perceptions. I connect with very few people, and if there’s not a real connection, there can be no real friendship. Once I do connect with someone, which happens very rarely, I will talk a mile a minute. Spending so much time in my head, it’s exhilarating to exchange with someone with whom I can be myself around and who appreciates my affinity for general weirdness, sarcasm, over sharing, personal questions and doesn’t ask me if I will regret my tattoos when I am 70 (which is technically a personal question, but in my opinion an obvious one. The only things I will regret when I am 70 are risks I didn’t take and experiences I didn’t have).

My first few attempts at meeting new friends were a bust. In one workshop, a woman couldn’t decide if I was the next Mary Karr, or if my memoir was just begging for attention and sympathy. I was mortified. I had, for the most part, never had trouble connecting with other writers, and I had never felt so misunderstood by another nonfiction writer.

No one tells you how hard it is to make friends in your 30s, and maybe this is a new generation X problem as many of us are waiting to get married or have children or deciding to not do either, which opens up a whole lot more time for other activities and opportunities for human connection.

When my mother (also an introvert) was in her 30s, she asked me to go see a movie with her.  I was 13 and only concerned with spending every free second with my friends. I asked her, “Why don’t you just call one of your friends and ask them to go?”

“All of my friends are married,” she said. “They’re spending time with their husbands, they don’t want to go to the movies with me.”

I remember feeling sad that my mom, who was divorced and not yet remarried to her current husband, didn’t have any friends of her own. Sure, she has couple friends that she and her husband meet for dinner, but they stick to safe topics and current events. I can say with 100 percent certainty that they aren’t talking about their gay children, my brother’s drug problems, my divorce, the fact they have five kids between them and we have all failed to procreate (maybe subconsciously not wanting to pass this dysfunction on to the next generation) or anything else deeply personal. She does have a few friends now, and like me, it took her a long time to make them.

By the time we’re out of our 20s, the pre-set venues for meeting new people pretty much vanish. Most friendships are made through work or school. My two closest friends from childhood are from the fourth grade and we have been friends for 28 years. I have a few other close friends I met 12 years ago in a writing workshop, but none of these people live in Los Angeles and are free to go to readings, the beach or hike the hidden staircases of L.A. with me except for when they visit. One new friend told me that Los Angeles can sometimes feel like the loneliest city in the world, and it’s true. Between the car culture and general perception of entitled oblivion permeating the landscape, it can be hard to make a real connection.

Unless you’re a med student, getting an MFA or a PhD candidate, the reasons to be in school in your 30s are significantly lower. And, if you’re an INFP who works from home, meeting friends at work is out of the question too. Reasons to have a roommate, which can often result in a built-in buddy, also diminish in your 30s, either because you are finally earning enough money on your own (rare in L.A.), or you simply can’t stand to live with a revolving door of strangers who throw garbage on the floor instead of in the trashcan and you’re willing to spend half your income on housing to have a little something to call your own. And, if we’re being honest, I only became good friends with one of the 13 roommates I had in my 20s, and another was my cousin so we were already close when we moved in together. Most of them I wanted to kill in their sleep. One was such a slob that our other roommate and I used to empty the dustpan on her bedroom floor because that’s where she threw her garbage anyways. Yeah, I’m going to hell for that one.

So where did I meet these magical new people? I had to go all the way to a tiny island off the coast of Washington. I was trolling Instagram one night while watching SVU on the DVR when I saw a post for a writing workshop called Write Doe Bay. Someone I knew of who was friends with my family in Ohio was going to be one of the teachers. As I often do, I signed up impulsively without thinking it through. Then I read the fine print. Even though I spent much of my early childhood traveling around the United States in the back of a van, I am a city girl. It seemed like a logistical nightmare to get to Doe Bay. I would have to take a flight to Seattle and then transfer to a tiny plane or take a bus and a ferry or rent a car and then take a ferry. I get lost going around the block even with my GPS so figuring this out on my own seemed daunting, but I spoke to the program director on the phone, she talked me out of my panic and assured me it was worth it.

I emailed the list of people who were going and asked if anyone wanted to meet at the airport and travel together. One person responded and we met up in Seattle and took the shuttle to our tiny plane. I was immediately calmer having a travel buddy, and we quickly discerned we had no idea what awaited us on Doe Bay. She had signed up in a similar fashion, as did most other people I spoke with. It was as if an invisible net was cast to gather us all together. We were booked in the same cabin, which we coined the orphanage because it had two rows of beds, two “adult” rooms, no heat and no shower or tub.

Doe Bay was magical in a way that was painful for me, like getting a tattoo. It feels good at first, then that wears off pretty quickly and it hurts and you want it to end, but you know if you stick it out it you will have something beautiful to cherish for the rest of your life. I felt awkward and uncomfortable most of the time. I hadn’t done any personal writing in almost two years, so I felt like an imposter among accomplished and prolific artists. I sought out the smokers and I forced myself to have conversations with strangers I was sure were judging me. As it turned out a large number of the group, including my travel companion, were also from L.A.

When the weekend was over I was convinced I would never see any of these people again. I was so exhausted on the ride home from LAX that I cried and berated myself for my inability to connect with people; then I went home and crashed hard. Fast-forward six months and a handful of the L.A. people from Doe Bay, including me, have started a writing group. We all have several personal things in common, and these women have become my inspiration to write and to continue to pursue my dreams in L.A.

Two years after driving alone for three days with my dog and two cats, living in L.A. doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. I have not learned to surf. It’s hard for me to admit that I am scared of the ocean now (a fear I am determined to conquer). I was sucked under by a wave on Labor Day, and though I didn’t think I would drown, I was sure that I wouldn’t have the strength to climb out as the Pacific kept beating me down and pulling me farther from shore while pretty much ripping my bathing suit from my body. I am not a glamorous movie star or even a glamorous regular person. Most days I wear my pajamas all day and sit in front of my computer writing and editing articles about other people who lead much more interesting lives than me, but I am learning to take the subway and experience some of the magic of this city by hiking alone with my dog.

Even though I had to go to Washington find them, it’s comforting to know that there are so many inspiring writers close by, and of course I love knowing that Stevie Nicks is often watching the same sunset as me.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know one thing; there is no coming back from California.

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