So long, suckers

How could anyone move from hip Seattle to smoggy LA? Let me count the ways.

I SENT IN MY CENSUS form today. If they’d done their counting a couple of months ago, I’d have been a Seattle resident, but now they’ll add me to the population of Los Angeles. I thought I was bucking the trend by heading south, but it turns out that the mass migration from California to the Northwest—the one that rendered Seattle natives so defensive through most of the ’90s—has dried up.

According to Census Bureau estimates, between 1990 and ’96, two million more people left California than relocated there. In the following two years, however, people began trickling back into the Golden State—and the current residents are getting testy, like Seattleites circa 1991.

While I was searching for an apartment last November, people shot me elaborate expressions of disbelief after I said I was from Seattle. “Why would you move here?” they asked. “I’m dying to leave.” Then they’d list their reasons: smog, earthquakes, corrupt police.

I understand their fear of natural disasters. And I’m appalled by the cop situation. But as a new California resident, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: LA is really very livable.

First, the thorny traffic issue. As long as you never take the freeway, LA’s traffic is no worse than Seattle’s. In fact, it’s better, because it never comes to a standstill for no discernible reason. This, despite the fact that turning left here is always illegal (i.e., impossible; there are too many cars, and the green lights are too short). LA surface streets are full of fairly reasonable people, so no one crosses an intersection as soon as the light turns green. It is an unwritten rule that you wait politely for one or two left-turners to make it through the red light. Imagine that during your next rush hour.

LA drivers are also adept; spending several hours a day in your car tends to hone your skills. Forget about cell phones, snacking, and makeup application: I’ve seen drivers here watching TV. Once I even saw someone reading a book as he was inching out of his driveway. (Yes, people in LA do read, and not just Variety or Billboard.)

The second notorious LA fault (leaving out San Andreas) is sprawl. The upside is that urban apartments remain relatively cheap. I pay $50 less for my similarly sized LA apartment, down the block from a Trader Joe’s, than I did in Seattle, where I lived across the street from a crack house.

The sprawl also gives LA residents an endearingly distorted sense of distance. They have no idea what a mile is. They measure traveling in terms of time (as in “I’d love to meet you, but I’m an hour away” or “It’s 30 minutes from my dealer’s house to the Viper Room”). This system arose to cover parking time. Angelenos are as obsessed with parking spaces as Seattleites are with the vacancy rate. However, in complete defiance of the law of supply and demand, parking is dirt cheap here. Most meters give you two hours for under a dollar. The Beverly Center, a popular mall, charges you a dollar for the first three hours in its garage.

Some other items that are cheaper in LA: laundry, groceries, manicures, sunshine. Angelenos are truly blessed when it comes to weather, but they won’t admit it, which is enough to make a transplanted Northwesterner want to impale them on a soggy umbrella. (That, and the fact that you get blamed, in a feebly joking manner, every time the weather sucks: “You brought the rain down with you, didn’t you!?”). You know that feeling you get at the end of February when you’re just counting the minutes till spring? LA people emulate that, like amputees feeling phantom pain. The other day, when it was 75 degrees and sunny, I actually heard someone say, “Only eight weeks till May!” as though that meant anything.

If you ever doubt that the weather affects your state of mind, compare a line of people waiting outside a cinema in Seattle and in LA. The former are generally surly, frowning, overcaffeinated, or drunk; the latter are chatting amiably to complete strangers about which route they took to the theater and how they scored a parking space.

IT MAY BE ONLY superficial, but people are friendlier here. They are also, contrary to popular belief, not all that healthy. I’m not talking about skin cancer, either. Quite a few people here are straight out of a John Waters movie. For every espresso joint in Seattle, there are two hamburger stands and a donut shop in LA. This doesn’t promote optimal fitness.

Sure, there are a couple of singles bar/gyms where people wear makeup to work out, but for the most part, Californians are in no better shape than the rest of the country. At an aerobics class the other day (I took aerobics when I was in Seattle, too, so don’t get any ideas) the woman next to me asked the instructor if she could skip the cardiovascular part, because it made her calves sore. Last time I checked, that was the point of the whole exercise thing, but I didn’t tell her that. At the end of the class came an even bigger shock, as the instructor had a vocal nicotine fit while we were all doing sit-ups. He revealed that he’d quit two months ago, after smoking for 20 years. The mind boggles. . . .

Smoking cigarettes is actually fun in LA, the way drinking gin probably was everywhere during Prohibition. Call it outlaw chic. Not only are there clubs and bars that don’t enforce the state smoking ban, but several of them actually sell cigarettes to customers.

One aspect of LA life has proven more disconcerting than I’d imagined: the “celebrities walk among us” phenomenon. Charlize Theron has materialized at my (cheap) nail salon. Margaret Cho, carrying a yoga mat and looking decidedly flushed, rode next to my husband in an office elevator. I have begun to think of my life as a sitcom (on good days) or a one-hour dramatic series (on bad ones). It doesn’t help that my gym is part of the building that doubled as D&D Advertising on Melrose Place.

Truth is, that unreal, tacky TV quality is what you expect from LA, so you seize on any positive element that you can. Seattle, by contrast, still harbors visions of past good times. Why does it take 30 minutes to get downtown, when it used to only take 10? Why can’t I find a house inside the city limits for less than $300,000, when 10 years ago, they went for under a hundred?

Yes, Seattle used to be really livable—but now, on top of the rain, the city’s got most of the same problems that New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and LA have. It’s the American way: If you want a booming economy, get ready to stand in line, wait in traffic, and pay way too much for the basic necessities of life. If you want everyone to think and talk just like you do, move to Idaho and start your own city. So the next time that BMW with Cali plates cuts you off on the freeway entrance ramp, don’t curse the poor shlub in the driver’s seat, have pity on him. He may be shell-shocked from one too many smog tests, but in every other way, he’s just like you.