Conventional Los Angeles wisdom states that “No one is actually from L.A.” This is, of course, patently untrue, and I meet people who were born and raised in or around L.A. County all the time. But it’s one of those sayings that becomes commonplace because it feels true, and perhaps because it makes the displaced — I’m thinking of people who feel that they HAVE to be in L.A. to fulfill career goals, but who can’t or don’t yet feel at home here — feel like they are less alone. If the city is full of outsiders, than no one is an outsider.
Unsurprisingly, “Where are you from?” is a very common question in this city (perhaps this is true in all major cities, but I don’t remember asking or hearing it as often in Chicago). Most of us have a go-to answer for this query (mine: Chicago). But for me and for many, the full answer is more complicated than the one the questioner had in mind. Its variant, “Where did you come from?” is even more fraught, not least because it might also mean “Did you head over straight from work?” or “Do you live in this neighborhood?” or even “Did you take the 101 to the 110 to the 10 to the 405?”
Where am I from? Where did I come from?
Chicago is the appropriate go-to. After all, I lived there over half my life. If you say you’re from Chicago, you will have to answer a follow-up question, “Oh, where around there?” This implies that the questioner has been to Chicago or even has relatives in the suburbs and understands that maybe you’re from Waukegan or Downers Grove. While I’ll eventually get to my years living blocks from Michigan Avenue, I wear my South Side Pride on my sleeve, so I open with the Hyde Park years: lived there as a kid, went back for college. If the hearer knows anything about University of Chicago, they are now able to jump to a great deal of (likely accurate) conclusions about me and how many books I have in a pile on my nightstand.
But the answer has left a gaping hole in my life story. Where did I live from the ages of 8-18? Those are kind of, like, important years.
There was, in fact, a time in my life when I would have referred to Chesterton, IN (an hour’s drive from Chicago, where my parents still worked) as my hometown. There are many parts of me that come from Chesterton. It was and remains a small town. It’s where I made some of my most enduring and important friendships. It’s where I learned to love movies, and to think critically about them. It’s where I learned that I loved to write. It’s where I learned what it feels like to long for more — more to do, more to see, taller buildings, a greater variety of people, more shops open past 6pm. It’s where I lived when my mother died. It’s where I had to sort through everything I’d ever owned just as I was finishing college, and decide what to keep and what to throw away. It’s where the house we lived in still stands. The last I saw, it was empty. My father, who’s lived in the city for over a decade now, doesn’t visit.
But I already had a personality when we moved there. I already had liberal city values and a sense of rhythm. I’d already written my first play. I was already a performer, a beloved only child, a talkative, emotive know-it-all who loved the world and, out of that love, tried to keep the worst of those qualities in check.
Some of me comes from Chesterton. But I am not from there. Not anymore. Maybe I never was. I think we were visitors there, and that visit happened to fall at a formative time in my life.
My parents were both born and raised in New Mexico. I was born there, but lived there only as a baby. Yet, for much of my life, most or all of my extended family lived in the Land of Enchantment. The grandiose nickname always struck me as apt. We visited — typically making the drive from the Midwest over the course of 3 long days — only once or twice a year, but I went through a phase in middle school where I would return sullen from solo trips to stay with my grandparents, crying to both my parents and my diary that we had to move there. My hook was a tearful, “HOME…is where the HEART IS!” As I grow older, I’ve developed my own understanding of what it means to be “New Mexican,” and I feel that part of me pulse sometimes, as it bumps against my Midwestern practicality and demands more space in my person.
Chicago. Indiana. New Mexico. Parts of me come from all of those places. Occasionally, when someone in L.A. asks, I go ahead and tell them the whole list, hoping they don’t regret having asked what they thought was a simple question. But it’s not simple at all, is it? Life changes, we change, and the answer changes. I was in New Mexico recently and was surprised, when asked where I’m from, to find that I answered, without hesitation, “Los Angeles.”