Los Angeles County was my home for 3 1/2 years, and I’ve lived in West LA, Northridge, Marina del Rey and North Hollywood during that time. Born and raised in Deep South Georgia, I wasn’t sure how I was going to like living in a big city – and one over 2,000 miles away from home seemed even scarier, but I’ve now lived in Southern California on three occasions: I spent a year in Santa Barbara just after medical school and a year in Orange County (Santa Ana and then Garden Grove) just before my first deployment into the Iraq War. Then I moved back. To my great surprise – and appreciation – I enjoyed living there. My bias against big towns isn’t so much about growing up in a tiny farming town, population 5,000 (although that took some serious adjustment.) No, my bias comes from my first ever trip to a big city – New York City.
When I was in medical school down in Savannah, Georgia, I had to fly all over the country to interview for various residency programs. Based on my applications, I was fortunate enough to get interviews with various prestigious institutions. One of my interviews was with the Ivy League school, Columbia University in New York.
At the time, I was a typical 26 year old Southern girl – well, except I was also a lesbian with short hair and a couple of tattoos, which was not as typical… Nonetheless, I had led a relatively sheltered life when it came to “worldly” experiences, as my Grandmama might put it. I had never in my life been to New York City or anything like it, and the flight to New York would only be the third or fourth plane ride I had ever taken. Nonetheless, I had the confidence that I could compete, and the fact that they invited me for an interview reinforced my view.
One winter afternoon, my girlfriend (who had also never been to New York City) and I boarded a flight north. Bailey and I had a bit of a bumpy trip, riding in on choppy winds from a brewing blizzard. We were the last plane allowed to land at JFK International Airport that night.
By the time we got to where our hotel was located, it was full-on snowing. (I should mention that in addition to being first-timers in New York, Bailey and I were also novices when it came to snow having only “visited” snow on an occasion or two each. In South Georgia even when it tries to snow once in a blue moon, it doesn’t stick.) The cab driver managed to get to the correct address – or so we thought. We grabbed our bags, paid the cab driver and turned around to find… nothing.
As we shivered in the cold and looked at our paperwork, we were positive we had the right address, but we could – not – find – the – door. It looked like this blank grayish-white wall – no signs or anything. Eventually we did find a small door that blended in smoothly. It looked like the back exit of a restaurant, but we tried it anyway since that was our only option.
The door revealed a small entryway and an elevator… Bailey and I looked at each other, confused. Bailey pushed the button, and we entered the elevator unsure of what was about to happen.
It turned out, the elevator was actually glass, and as it rose up the floors, it opened directly into the lobby of the hotel – which was also the bar/ballroom/lounge of the hotel. On that night it was rented out by the hip-hop star Macy Gray for her big birthday bash. The whole place was packed with wealthy, well dressed yankees.
Enter a glass bubble with two girls that must’ve looked like they were straight outta Mayberry. My thought was, “Exit stage left. Immediately.” Bailey proved calmer, though, and we exited the elevator searching for hotel staff and a path out of the party.
I have no idea what I was wearing that night, but I can assure you that it was not New York hip or chic or stylish or whatever it should’ve been to even remotely fit in there. We stuck out like sore thumbs. Other than some confused stares, the people were polite and gave us room to make our way to the check-in desk in the corner. There we quickly signed in, got our room key and scurried away.
We walked down the hall both excited and horrified by what had just happened. Grateful to be safe and warm, we opened our door to find – the absolutely smallest hotel room ever constructed. We had bigger bathrooms at the Stop-N-Shop gas station back home than the one in that hotel room. The bed was up in the corner against two walls and there were about six inches of space between the bed and a third wall. Another six inches were allowed at the foot of the bed so that if you were actually gonna use the dresser, you might could crack a drawer or two open.
Bailey and I were shocked. We were also exhausted. I grabbed a Coca~Cola from the mini-fridge, grateful they’d thought to stock it, and plopped on the bed to rest. I had an early morning.
The next morning as I was getting up and getting dressed for my interview, Bailey was fiddling through the hotel information and the New York City attractions brochures. She chose that time to inform me that the Coca~Cola I drank the night before cost me eight dollars. I was in too big of a hurry to complain much but told her that I would pick up another one on my way back from the interview to replace it. “You can’t,” she informed me. “They have it wired. So, they already know you took it.” I stared at her for a minute: it sounded like big city nonsense to me.
On my way to Columbia I was faced with a mix of snow, sleet and harsh winds. Bitterly trudging down the sidewalk, I was NOT greeted by anyone. Nobody said, “Good mornin’!” Nobody even seemed to notice my existence – so much to the point that I was even shoved around a bit on the sidewalk, unaware that I needed to treat it like a football field and plow my way through the masses.
I did take time to look up. I looked up because that was just about all I could do. There were so many gigantic buildings all over the place, there wasn’t really any place to look outward. Even then, there wasn’t even very much visible sky – with all the buildings and helicopters and planes… I saw a lot of billboards with fancy advertisements. I did look left and right at some of the buildings I was passing and noticed playbills and menus and other advertisements. It looked like the Coca~Colas weren’t the only expensive item in New York City.
By the time I arrived at the hospital for my interview, I was cold and miserable and a little disheartened. We began with a tour for that day’s group of interviewees, and it was good. I had been on other tours, and it was quite comparable. Columbia has a wonderful reputation, and for medical and surgical training, they often work in conjunction with Cornell. A residency there would combine both institutions’ knowledge, skills, research and resources. That part was very attractive.
The tour guides – who were senior residents in the program – gave us the practical information. They lauded the great opportunities for fellowships and jobs after training there. New York City’s highlights of entertainment, dining and culture were reviewed. They also told us about the various places to live and about getting around the city primarily using the subway – to avoid all the traffic jams, of course.
New York City rent was going to be three to five times as much as my rent in Savannah – and a quarter of the size. The neighborhoods they described as charming sounded decrepit and dangerous to me… and the subway? “Don’t people get mugged and killed all the time on the subway?” I thought. I had spent eighty percent of my life in a town that didn’t have a bus system much less a subway and one that only had traffic “jams” when you had to wait your turn to pass a tractor on the highway.
By the time I got to my interview with The Chairman I was completely relaxed. I smiled. We joked a little bit. We casually chatted. All of this seemed to unnerve him.
Eventually, he said, “You are the most relaxed interviewee I’ve ever seen. Why are you so calm and comfortable?”
“Oh,” I smiled. “That’s because I know there is no way in hell I am moving to New York City. I just didn’t want to be rude and stand you up for this interview.”
Now he smiled. We chatted a bit longer and then shook hands. I took the elevator to the street level and walked out of Columbia for good. Bailey and I slogged through snowy-slush for an overpriced Italian meal within walking distance of the hotel that night; we caught a show; and in the morning we happily said goodbye to New York.
So when moving to Southern California, that New York City experience was my only taste of a really big, diversified, international city. I was quite nervous about the move to Los Angeles. And, I was grateful to learn that those two cities are very different.
Down in Southern California, I found more space than In New York City (Central Park excluded, of course) and enjoyed the hills all over the area. In Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, you can see for miles from Griffith Park’s peak or Ojai’s Topatopa Mountains or Malibu’s cliffs. I enjoyed having a variety of trails and parks and beaches for jogging or lounging. Being from a warm climate, I am ever grateful that it didn’t snow in Southern California – at least not that I experienced. However, if I felt the need to be in the snow, I could drive up to Big Bear in less than two hours and have all the snow I wanted.
Los Angeles – and all of Southern California – is filled with new and exciting entertainment, has a wide array of dining experiences and is overflowing with diverse culture. I have been to high profile art openings, fresh film screenings, Michelin-starred restaurants, and to some of the best food trucks outside of Portland, Oregon. There’s a unique mixture of nature and industry, of nonprofits and corporations, of free-spirited thinkers and commercial giants. I felt safe riding the Metro and was not afraid to stop somebody on the street for directions. I got involved with numerous volunteer groups like Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, Team Red White and Blue and Habitat for Humanity.
I actually enjoyed living in Southern California. I mean, it’s hard to one-up Southerners on their charm, but found the SoCal community welcoming and helpful. I made life long friends there – family, even. When I occasionally got homesick, and when I needed some of that comforting, savory, down-home cooking, I’d either do it myself or stop by one of the NoHo Food Truck Collective outfits – they know how to put a good scald on a chicken.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the history and culture of New York. I know many people believe it is the best city in the world. For me, though, I’ll take LA any day. I am proud and grateful to have been a part of the Southern California community and to have called it my new Southern home for a time.