Nearly a decade ago, I moved from New York to Lincoln, Neb. In that new land, I observed many strange things. For instance, workers showed up the same day you called them and usually started the job the day after that. Later, when I moved to a tiny house on 12 acres on the city's rural outskirts, I had a landlord who regularly called and thanked me for paying the rent.
I've been thinking a lot lately about that four-year interlude in nirvana, mostly because I've been detecting trace elements of it in Los Angeles. This is quite perplexing, since even just six months ago most people I know, especially the ones who carry toolboxes, were booked as far in advance as tables at Matsuhisa.
Not so last week, when a series of highly irregular events occurred. First, when I called my plumber about a leaky bathtub faucet and a clogged garbage disposal, he actually answered the phone. Second, he came over the next day. Third, he finished the job right then and there.
Suddenly feeling cocky about home improvement, I called my electrician. For months there had been a gaping hole in the living room ceiling where an antique light fixture I had bought had yet to be rewired and mounted because I was too daunted by the electrician's usual schedule to bother calling. To my shock, he came over almost immediately, took the fixture home and brought it back first thing the next morning with new wiring, new bulbs and a dimmer switch, all of which he promptly installed. He even complimented my exquisite taste in Art Deco lighting.
As disorienting as this was, the real Twilight Zone moment came that evening when, against all the hard-won experience of how to get where by when in this town, I got on U.S. Highway 101 at rush hour. There were so few cars that I made it from downtown to West Hollywood that's nine whole miles in 10 minutes.
What's going on here? Has Los Angeles, a city where usually merely attempting to park at a Trader Joe's can provoke uncontrollable rage and crying, been possessed by the soul of Jimmy Stewart? Has the magical efficiency and impeccable manners of my former home in the Midwest suddenly pulled into L.A. like an aspiring starlet on a Greyhound bus from Wichita?
Well, sort of. Except it's called a recession. That nearly empty freeway, of course, is a direct result of gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon. As for the uncharacteristic punctuality of skilled tradesmen, they both told me they were hurting for work. The plumber, who in the past averaged six or seven calls a day, was now getting just one or two. The electrician told me he suddenly had more time to surf.
There was a distinct nervousness in the way they explained their situations, but I also detected something else: a note of fleeting peace. Sure, things are going to get ugly very soon. Layoffs will increase, the housing market will go from dismal to awful, and pretending to be in a sci-fi movie set in the future (admit it, you've tried it!) no longer will be an effective coping mechanism for the trauma of filling up at the pump. But for the moment, I can't help but feel that this recession or at least the evanescent moment before it kicks into high gear offers a kind of coziness you rarely feel in a booming economy.
I'm talking about tranquil resignation the state of being grateful for what you have. Believe me, this kind of mind-set is not my forte, but during my tenure in the Midwest, I got closer than I ever had before or have since. Part of the reason was that even though I didn't have a lot of money (one year, I managed to earn a total of $12,000), hardly anyone else did either. While there were smatterings of affluence and a sizable middle class, the soul of the place was working class. Unlike life in New York or L.A., where the baseline emotional state is lifestyle envy, I found it difficult in Nebraska to waste energy being jealous of other people's kitchen remodels. And although I was bored some of the time, I was also the beneficiary of a specific brand of contentment, the kind born of freedom from the tyranny of wanting stuff.
This is not, by the way, an attempt to mount one of those "poor people are happy" arguments. Despite landlords who thanked you for paying the rent, there was plenty to be unhappy about in that place low wages, a struggling farm economy and factory layoffs not least among them.
Still, here in L.A., during these weeks of relative calm before what probably will be a long, damaging storm, I can't help but smile at these faint whiffs of my former life. Of course, just as that aspiring starlet will soon trade her screen dreams for a full-time career as a Pilates trainer, this wholesomeness will be eclipsed by cynical despair in no time.
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. E-mail her at [email protected].