My first (micro)earthquake

Well, I guess this makes me an official Angeleno: After living here more than a year, I have finally experienced my first earthquake. I was sitting on my couch watching TV this evening when I felt a tiny, almost imperceptible rumble. I thought the vibration might have been the result of a big truck passing by on the street, though I didn’t hear anything, and I had almost forgotten about it when I came across this on the AP wire:

A small earthquake struck Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley on Saturday, and there were no immediate reports of damage or injury, authorities said.

A visit to the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake site confirmed that what I had felt was a magnitude 2.9 quake situated about 10 miles away, near Encino. According to the site, this is what’s called a “microearthquake,” a term that sounds glibly reassuring. Loosely translated, it means, yeah, the ground shook a bit, but no major catastrophes resulted, so who cares? Just so long as my future seismic experience doesn’t involve any macroearthquakes…

Eric and Neil crash ‘The Tonight Show’

My friend Neil and I managed to see a taping of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC studios in Burbank. Jay’s guests were actor Mark Wahlberg, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and one of my all-time favorite musicians, Sarah McLachlan.

This is something I suppose everyone who lives in L.A. should do at least once, and it’s been on my to-do list for a while. What surprised me is that it’s not all that difficult to get tickets — if you have lots of time to spare. I had figured it would be nearly impossible to get tickets on the day of the show, but Neil wanted to give it a shot, and his persistence paid off.

We arrived at NBC at 8 a.m. to stand in line for tickets. Because there were already enough people ahead of us to take all the confirmed tickets, we ended up with standby tickets, which required that we show up at 3:30 p.m. and wait in another line to get into the studio. We ended up with about the last seats in the house — a few people were turned away — but nearly everybody who showed up was seated.

End-of-semester frenzy

Well, I’m closing in fast on the end of my first semester at USC. I can tell you that it’s been (and continues to be) a lot of work, but I’m really happy with how things are going here. I am looking forward, though, to a little more down time this summer.

If you want to have a sneak peek at what’s taking up most of my time right now, look here. This is the class project for my multimedia journalism course, an in-depth report on the challenges of getting by on a small income in L.A. (which could apply to me, but our subjects are in somewhat more dire straits). This is still a work in progress, but it has to be finished by this time next week, because we’re presenting it to faculty and other interested parties next Thursday.

Hopefully I’ll have a little more time to blog once the semester’s over. Stay tuned…

Listening in on “reality”

So, I’m eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant last week (one of the few benefits of dining alone), and I hear two women in intense discussion about how this guy ditched this girl after she told him she once dated FabioI mean, like, was he just overreacting? Is that a legitimate reason to be mad at somebody? And, omigosh, where did she meet Fabio anyway? Etcetera.

Well, I’m thinking, in L.A. it must be pretty common to know somebody who’s dated a celebrity (if Fabio, the heartthrob-turned-margarine pitchman, even qualifies as a celebrity anymore). And I’ve pretty much forgotten the whole conversation when, a couple hours later, I overhear a guy telling his buddy the same story, and a red flag goes up. So I listen further and realize they’re talking about the previous night’s episode of Average Joe: Hawaii, the latest sensation in a long line of mind-numbing reality TV shows.

Curiously, I haven’t overheard any talk about the upcoming presidential election or California’s budget crisis. It’s good to know people have their priorities straight.

A prediction: Pretty soon there will be a reality TV magazine (a la Soap Opera Digest) so folks can read up on all the “important stuff” they missed. If only I had glimpsed such a publication in the checkout line at the grocery store, I might have had some idea of what all these people were talking about.

Update: Looks like my prediction is about two months late. Reality Check, America’s first (and, let’s hope, last) reality-TV magazine, hit newsstands Jan. 13.

My new shopping destinations

In my exploration of the L.A. area, I’ve discovered some great stores that I’ve never seen anywhere else. While they may not be unique to L.A., they are new to me. It’s just too bad they’re not all in the same place.

First, there’s Trader Joe’s, where “affordable, wholesome food” is not an oxymoron. The selection is sparse and the aisles are usually clogged with shoppers, but it’s one of the few places where you can find tasty foods made from natural ingredients — not hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup.

I also discovered Ikea. Yes, somehow I’d missed this chain of enormous Scandinavian furniture emporiums. I’d even slept on an Ikea bed for three months in Holland, but I hadn’t seen the inside of an Ikea store until a couple weeks ago. Now I have a desk, a dresser and a few other knick-knacks from Ikea. I even sampled the Swedish meatballs at the in-store restaurant. Scary, huh?

And I finally got to visit Fry’s Electronics, a west-coast chain I’d heard great things about for years. What sets Fry’s apart from Best Buy, et al., is how it caters to the geek niche with hardcore stuff like transformers, circuit boards and oscilloscopes. The long check-out corridor is lined with the kinds of goodies that weak-willed impulse buyers like me are apt to pick up — including plenty of snack foods made with corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and all the other dirty chemistry that Trader Joe’s saved me from. But I guess one little bag of gummy apple rings won’t kill me.

Rain, snow, sun: Which would you pick?

Compare these actual recent weather forecasts for my three “homes” and tell me which one looks best. (These are all from Tuesday, Feb. 10, but I am just getting around to posting them.)

Mandeville, La. (where mom lives):

Fly Creek, N.Y. (where dad lives):

Los Angeles, Calif. (where I live):

So, you see, I’m finding there are indeed benefits to being in sunny Southern California!

The left-turn phenomenon

There’s a funny song called Walking in L.A. — made funnier by the fact that I first heard it on the radio while walking in L.A. One verse goes like this:

Could it be that the smog’s playing tricks on my eyes,
Or is it a rollerskater in some kind of headphone disguise?
Maybe somebody who just ran out of gas,
Making his way back to the pumps the best way he can.
Walkin’ in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.

Nobody but me.

Of course, I do drive, out of necessity. But whenever it’s practical, I walk or take public transit. I get funny looks here when I tell people that. The truth is, L.A. sucks all the fun out of driving. Think about it: You can’t go fast. There’s no such thing as a “wide open road” unless you’re on the Glendale Freeway at 3 in the morning. You sit in traffic the whole way from A to B. And then you have to park.

Yes, there are many things about driving here that raise my ire, and I’m sure I will revisit this topic often. But let me gripe about just one factor today: the curious absense of protected left-turn arrows on traffic signals, even at major intersections. Arrows do exist, but only out in the newer suburbs and at the very busiest junctions in town.

Where there’s no arrow, the accepted procedure (here and elsewhere) is to plant your car in the middle of the intersection and wait until either: a) there’s a gap in the oncoming traffic (which is often wishful thinking here), or b) the light turns yellow, at which point the oncoming traffic (hopefully) stops and the crossing traffic has no choice but to let you turn, since you’re in their way.

Simple enough. But at high-traffic times (which in many places is pretty much always) this leads to the maddening phenomenon that only two cars in a given direction can make a left turn on each cycle of the traffic light. Because two cars is all that will normally fit in the intersection (though occasionally a third car will squeeze through, amid a chorus of horns, after the light’s red).

What this means is, if there are ten cars waiting to turn left, the driver of the tenth car has to sit through five green lights before it’s his turn to turn — by which time he’s forgotten why he wanted to turn in the first place.

The city you can never leave

Nobody’s actually from Los Angeles — or if they are they won’t admit it. So I suppose most people here, like me, have gone through the initial culture shock, denial, bewilderment and occasional delight of settling in Los Angeles.

Variety.com editor Travis Smith recalls a party he attended shortly after his arrival here, at which an attractive woman approached him and asked if he worked in “the industry.” When he replied, as an outsider might, “Which industry?” she did a 180° turn and marched off.

My conversation with Travis reminded me that I had been meaning to document my own experiences from the time I arrived here, about six weeks ago. But so much has happened, between starting school, apartment hunting and looking for a job, that I am only now getting around to it.

Travis, who came from Canada 14 years ago for college and got sucked in, relates living in Los Angeles to that line from the Eagles’ Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” “It gets truer the longer I stay here,” he said.

I hear this theme almost every time I talk to a fellow transplant, like Guillermina Molina, who came from North Carolina for grad school and never even escaped USC: She works in admissions now, recruiting more naïve, unsuspecting “guests” to Hotel California.

But why do people stay — despite the sprawl, the traffic, the pollution, and the expense? What keeps them here? I think I’m starting to understand now.

It’s not just the sunshine and the beaches and the mountains, though that doesn’t hurt. It’s also the amazing cultural and ethnic (and culinary!) diversity, which breeds greater tolerance and open-mindedness. It’s that unlikely fusion of laid-back cool and cutting-edge hip. It’s the prevailing belief in progressive government, despite its imperfections, as a vehicle for positive social change. It’s the fact that you can spend a whole evening in a bar and not come out smelling like an ashtray. And it’s the casual optimism people exude — almost as if the gold rush were still on and anyone could hit the motherlode at any time.

To my L.A.-skeptic friends who are reading this from elsewhere in the world, let me set your minds at ease: I have not gone soft, despite that last paragraph. I still have plenty of gripes about this place, and you will get to read some of them here. I’m setting up a new category in my weblog for L.A. stories, and I intend to write about some of my experiences and observations as a newcomer here. I don’t think I’ll run out of material — just time.