Sitting in a café at the edge of downtown, I’m near the midpoint in my usual commute to work, at the edge of Los Angeles’s district of gentrified warehouses, the Arts District. A couple of generations of actual artists have lived around here. Some of them are now being edged out, by the successful marketing and sale of “artists’ lofts.” The café is a riff on postindustrial materials—concrete, steel and wood. The commodification of the aura of labor replaces actual factories. This, by now, is an old story.
It’s summer, so I can work at a café today. When I go in, I continue east on the 60, past the busted glass like missing teeth on the Pico Rivera High School scoreboard and the disconnected transmission tower and the old neon sign for Driving California School and Wendy’s and Paul’s Brakes and a billboard just as I merge onto the 605 dedicated to Jesus asking ARE YOU FREE FROM SIN?
I am not. And we use too much water. The world is ending, so all the post-apocalyptic settings on my screens… the genres that imagine a civilization in decay? Environmental catastrophe? Stories at the world’s end? They look like home. They remind us the damage is done, the horrors we have wrought upon this lovely planet are unforgivable and irretrievable. Post-apocalyptic stylings bring us into focus, let us imagine what it will be like to survive ourselves, my grandkids are so screwed…
And yet. Here in the warehouse district, it’s post-industrial, postmodern pastiche and I know it’s gentrification and I know it’s probably a sign of civilization’s decadence and decay, part of the end of something I care about and… it’s so gorgeous. This café is the size of a city block. Outdoor: a polished cement floor on the patio, hedges in planters on the sidewalk. Indoors: tiny two-seaters along the banks of windows, three or four different areas, a long communal farmhouse wooden table, a shop selling candles and scarves. Stainless steel and unvarnished wood. Another patio with a fountain and olive trees and gravel. Behind that: A bar, full of cool air and shadows in the daytime, too tempting for just now.
Outside, a girl twenty years younger than I am has dyed her hair gray. Her roots are light brown, with a hint of purple. It looks beautiful on her, the gray against her flawless skin. This is a trend, young people dying their hair gray. Like the fading signs for Deal or No Deal Discount Clothing Show Rooms.com, this trend strikes me as a sign of the apocalypse, of something that has run its course. I do not believe that it’s a reclamation of aging for women, or that it will make natural gray hair suddenly meet the beauty standard by comparison. But it does look great on her.
Also, they’re fixing the Pico Rivera sign.
The olive trees and gravel, behind the girl with the gray hair, remind me of Paris. I wouldn’t trade that for this. I wouldn’t trade Europe’s beautiful imperial nostalgia for Los Angeles’s confused longing. I’d rather this strange city always in the future perfect. Speculative fiction is set in California because fiction about the end of the world is just realism now, the end has already begun. I’m ashamed and terrified. I’m going to buy a six-dollar cold-pressed juice and a coffee and think about it on the patio.