In Pakistan, where I used to live up until about a month ago, reality TV was my soothie. Its predictable plot lines and generic music lulled me into a false sense of safety, as if I were being transported into the serene backdrops of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, an emotional escape from the very decidedly un-serene environs of the barely functional megacity where I’d chosen to live. I would silently thank the schedulers at Bravo TV for never leaving me without a current season of something (anything), and my patron saint Andy Cohen, for the salve that kept me sane over the course of a very lonely two years in my motherland.
Just a few weeks ago, the bright, cloudless blue of Los Angeles’ skies and its wide roads almost devoid of pedestrians were confined to my laptop screen, sitting at the edge of my bed as I flicked away monster-sized mosquitos. I hate them with a passion; I can’t count how many times I’ve drafted a tweet about how just one mosquito can wage psychological warfare at a level the interrogators at Guantanamo might dream of. The mosquitos of Karachi have ruined countless perfectly good nights of sleep. I’d type out my tweets at 4AM Pakistan time, when most of you are awake and sitting bored at your desks somewhere, then read them to myself and realize how deranged I must sound, tweeting about mosquitos when you guys were all tweeting about the Mueller Report or whatever.
I would stare at the draft, the one with a tasteless Gitmo joke, then slowly delete it and go back to staring at the Kardashian sisters hoping sleep would come. Slowly but surely, just as their vocal fry rocked me close to unconsciousness, one would buzz next to my ear sensing my slow exhales, reminding me I was not in Calabasas but Karachi, far away from my friends and family in a dusty city I was trying to convince myself I enjoyed.
Now the half-asleep vision of Hollywood glowing from my laptop screen is my reality. The real Los Angeles sky is bluer than how they show it in the transition shots; the city is always bigger than I think it is. It’s unsettling to be here. My current theory is that it’s too easy, that the people I know here and the ones I’m most likely to spend time with have such a high standard of living, there’s too little to complain about. It’s lots of people’s theory. I did not come up with it on my own.
It’s so easy it makes it harder to be happy, because every day is full of incredible feats. The sheer quantity of non-dairy cheese alternatives available in Silver Lake is a feat of science, of progress, of the logistical prowess of the first world. And that’s just a slice of cashew cheese. Are you supposed to jump for joy every time you eat one? Every time your shower delivers hot, pressurized water at the turn of the tap? Every time the stop light is red and the cars actually stop? You get used to it, and it grows to be unimpressive then utterly mundane.
I call my friends trying to figure out if I want to live here. One tells me it’s what I need right now, as if L.A. is my reward for surviving living as a yuppie in Pakistan, arguably among the most privileged people in that country. Another is from L.A. and warns me about the slow decay of faculties that comes with a lack of hardship. “It’s good to live in a place that kicks your ass sometimes,” she said. My ass has been kicked a lot lately, I tell myself, and go back to agreeing with the friend who assumes the worst of my homeland.
Part of this city’s eeriness comes from the silence. It’s spread out enough to where you don’t hear cheap motorcycles revving, or guards whistling in the night to warn would-be thieves like you do in even the most remote parts of Karachi. It’s dead silent, and it’s fucking creepy. Then the choppers come.
I love the choppers. It’s as if the lot where they filmed The Hurt Locker collided with the set of Vanderpump Rules. LA’s neighborhoods are surveilled by LAPD’s helicopter squad at seemingly all hours of the day. They hover above residential neighborhoods and weave through the air up above the lanky palm trees, so persistently that I keep joking they should use the leftover drones from Obama’s war in Waziristan instead, to surveil the car chases and traffic or whatever. The cameras on those things are pretty good these days and as I recall from interviews with survivors of the drone offensive in Waziristan, the sound is only frightening when they drop down low.
The majority of L.A.’s residents who actually face the wrath of the “ghetto bird” are far away, far enough to where it’s easy for affluent Angelenos to forget about them. They don’t run up to you on your way out of a grocery store begging for food. They don’t tap on your car window at stop lights for change, chasing after your car even as the traffic starts moving. They’re distant to where you’re only reminded of the bad things when the chopper is hovering above your storybook home.
In the relatively posh Karachi neighborhood where I lived, people build tall walls and drape them in flowers so when they look out their window, filth and poverty aren’t the first thing they see. They seal themselves in air-conditioned rooms so the stink and heat and dust stay outside too. But Karachi’s mosquitos are notoriously hardy (the theme of yet another set of deleted tweets). There’s always one that finds its way inside, and buzzes by your ear and whispers, “Things are still shit.”