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L.A.’s No Place to Experience the Depression

For people who grew up hearing tales of the Great Depression over dinner, the current economic crisis is pretty disappointing. With things this bad, you expect to look out your window and see that the whole world is in black and white.

It’s not. Not here in hi-def Santa Monica: Lilac yoga mats still bounce off the buff, brown shoulders of a fifth tri-mester women hopping out of black cherry Escalades so huge they should come with a fireplace standard.

Really, this is no place to experience a depression. No matter what bleak news you hear on NPR, L.A. sedates the crisis. Your 401K turns into a 201K but you spot Jessica Alba at the Farmer’s Market. Unemployment hits record highs but the next joyously dumb license plate you see reads FLM EXEC. You ask a bunch of your friends if they’d take $50,000 to see "He’s Just Not That Into You" and they all decline, no hesitation.

Everything seems pretty fine.

As the attention-seeking capital of the world, L.A. tries to sync up with America’s miseries but never quite gets there. When the 9/11 terrorists chose New York and Washington, L.A. felt vaguely left out. What, the Hollywood Sign’s not good enough for you? To compensate, studio security measures were so over-the-top, any siege
mentality gave way to giggles when the same security guard who yawned your admittance everyday for years was suddenly flipping through the pages of your pilot looking for anthrax. Okay, the script has problems but it’s not lethal.

Now the financial meltdown has L.A. flailing to feel part of the United States of America. While CNN does features on Kansans dipping deep into their savings to get by, you can barely go a day in L.A. without hearing someone say, "It’s scary: I’m practically living off my residuals." Writing teams who used to rent office space now set up shop at The City Bakery which, in turn, is rumored to be going under.

While subprimed Floridians on CNBC report on the decimation of their credit ratings, L.A. newsradio reports that the rents that people charge families for guest houses have nose-dived from exorbitant to merely pricey.

While NPR reports on slashed city services from another city everyday, the most stinging deprivation here is CAA’s massive roll-back on parking validations. If you’re still viable enough to merit face time with an agent, you have to either pay $20 to
park for an hour in the building or park in the Century City Mall and walk (by foot) to Avenue of the Stars.

And that whole AIG mess. A company behaving like that when they have as fine an actor as Alison Janney voicing their commercials … it’s unconscionable.

Not that L.A. isn’t battered like everyone else. Subprime evil has stories wafting Westward about nuclear family squatters co-opting unsellable, over-built, voluptuously ugly townhouses in the San Gabriel Valley. Lay-offs are so massive that when you meet someone who still has one of those gossip-for-a-living job titles within some production company that seems to never produce anything, it’s fairly shocking. And while even people with jobs noticeably cut back, you can still walk your dog past Georgio’s and see valets opening the door for a studio exec who would make anyone’s short list of smartest invertebrates.

The difference is, in L.A., you have to look so hard to see what you’d rather not see in the first place. In your daily muddle, you only catch fleeting signs of crisis: one tree trimmer dangling from the eucalyptus instead of three; re-write contracts mailed out,
no fruit basket. Realtors knocking on your door instead of dropping business cards in your mailbox (and then, it’s rumored, going to their Mercedes dealerships and quietly handing over the keys to their leased C-Series).

So yes, things are bad here. Very bad. Bad enough to raise morbid doubts: Will money ever be unreal again?

But then "Knowing" opens strong; a greenlight is given for the re-make of a movie that bombed the first time; an agent, in all his comic seriousness, begins a sentence with the words, "See, the really high quality reality shows…"

… And life feels the same as it ever was.
 

Peter Mehlman started his career as a writer for the Washington Post, then wrote for and produced the TV series, "SportsBeat" with Howard Cosell. In 1989, he moved to Los Angeles and soon became a writer and later executive producer for "Seinfeld" -- most famous for his "Yada Yada" episode. In recent years, he has continued creating TV shows, writing screenplays and humor pieces for NPR, Esquire, The New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times while also appearing on-camera for TNT Sports and his own web program "Pete Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports."