September 21, 2013
I first met Harris at Syracuse University in sophomore year. We were walking back from a concert on campus, walking alongside each other in a bid to leave as quickly as possible. We both watched a drunk kid walk, facefirst, into a stop sign. Since we witnessed him hit the sharp edge of the sign and not the flat part, we immediately became friends.
Harris was lanky, rail-thin, incredibly Jewish, with a sardonically sarcastic voice he could never turn off—some called him “Giraffe,” while others more cruelly deemed him “Scarecrow.” We pledged Delta Chi Fraternity that semester, more out of coincidence than anything. I wanted to join the ranks of Theta Chi, he was ready to leave this whole Greek life thing behind. One wonders what would have happened if we had. But alas, after nights of commiserating in dining halls and, I eventually talked him into pledging Delta Chi (though he consistently maintains that he had reached this conclusion himself.) On the day we were initiated we celebrated with Keystones and Franzia alongside our new brothers, eager to embrace the college experience head-on with the audacity of barely functioning children. We spilled beers and screamed at each other. We fought over girls, we commiserated over different girls. We made racist jokes to each other (he was always good at that, even today, as if just discovering my own background, as if that phrase “love you long time,” more offensive for its overuse than its racial overtness, hadn’t been a curse inflicted by Kubrick all those decades ago). One ponders at what age a man can truly grow out of that phase. The mere fact that I’m still friends with him means that it may never happen.
We became roommates junior year, living near campus with our own separate rooms. He had a girlfriend, I was seeing someone. Neither lasted. But somehow, through constant grating and complaints, through clichéd joke after nonresponse, we stayed friends. It was a friendship defined by equal parts bickering and sincerity. It was one where I would tire of his racially-informed gags and he would ceaselessly complain about how fast I walked. “You guys fight like an old married couple,” observed a mutual friend, when Harris demonstrated his unique ability to overpower me with a joke at my expense and somehow bring another friend—my friend, dammit—one into the fold to join the chorus, the song where I’m the butt of all that can be said.
Just last month, he scheduled some time off to come to Los Angeles. We were all three years out of college, and while I had made it a habit to crash on his couch when I was in New York City for work, it’s a bit humbling when a friend decides to take some time off and fly 8 hours across the country to visit you. His real estate banking and private equity position at Citi was pushing him into long hours and nascent alcoholism. “I’m going to just drink this entire weekend,” he announced. Even the during time off that he had scheduled weeks in advance, his phone buzzed with emails.
I liked the prospect of two guys running around Los Angeles going on a mild bender. I picked him up in a 2013 Lotus Evora S: a car that hails from the low-volume British cottage industry, $92,600 of driving perfection that Lotus had wanted me to test for the weekend. From the airport, we went straight to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. “I really want a burrito,” he said seated in the outdoor patio at Barney’s Beanery.
“This, uh, isn’t exactly the place to get burritos,” I began. “Listen, if you really want Mexican…”
"You’re not gonna get the same burrito as me, are you? That’d be weird. Hey, why are there potatoes in here? Is that a California thing?”
We got beers, then drove home, then bought tallboys of Dos Equis in paper bags and drank them on the beach. It was thrilling. It was like getting away with shoplifting in middle school, or getting away with buying weed in high school—two things I hadn’t done, and two things I wouldn’t have done without an accomplice. Despite living next to the beach I hadn’t been there in months. It was overwhelmingly peaceful— bare feet in the sand, a spray of calmness over our slackened features, lying there in our blankets towards the cold and cerulean sea. We both drifted off into naptime. Then, I lost my keys on the beach, having fallen out of my pockets and into sand-strewn oblivion.
The Lotus, mercifully, still had its key intact. It took us to Griffith Park, 20 miles away but an eternity in Los Angeles. Distances in this city are forever changing, forever elastic: things that seem to take ages to get to are only 3 miles away, yet when pushed the average Angeleno won’t hesitate to drive 35 miles to Los Feliz for a fish taco and a comedy show. I’ve always maintained that if it takes one highway to get to, it’s half an hour away. If it’s two highways, it’s an hour. If it’s three highways, well—you never needed to go there in the first place.
We saw Los Angeles in its flat-plained splendor: the US Bank building, outlined across smog, the traffic on the 101 zooming by on an early Saturday afternoon. All you need to know about LA, I explained to Harris as he stared at the grid-like sprawl, is right in front of you. See, we do have a downtown. Over there is Century City, home of the building from Die Hard. I, like most Angelenos, live somewhere in the middle. Past the 710, thar be dragons. We learned about the stars and planets. We looked at the telescope on the dome of the Observatory, looking down at us. We took photos, we took photos for other people. We wondered why the hell James Dean’s bust was there. “Oh, well, you see, there’s a plaque here,” Harris informed a tourist. “Kinda explains everything.”
Neither of us went to the LA Zoo, so we went there in the worst possible weather to ever attend a zoo. It wasn’t clear who was more haggard—the animals from snowy climes, tucked away in the corners of their cages, or the humans overpaying for shaved ice. We went to go have a well-deserved beer, which somehow necessitated a drive to Pasadena.
That night, we went to the Laugh Factory, on Sunset, something else I had yet to do. “Hope Michael Richards doesn’t come on,” said Harris. The first two acts were straight Asian and Jew jokes, “so I guess they got us both.” The valet had asked us whether we wanted to pay double to have them park the Lotus out front. I was flashy, but I wasn’t that flashy; we waited for them to bring the car from the same parking lot as the ones who didn’t drive Lotus Evoras. In Los Angeles, that was a lot of people.
As we waited, a drunken middle-aged woman stumbled across the valet line and into the street. “Somebody move this fucking Ferrari!” she slurred. The car in question was a red C6 Corvette.
The last day, we went to Santa Barbara—but we took the long way there. Up Las Flores, around to Piuma, failing to stop and gawk at the ocean beneath us, over and past the stubby cliffs. We stopped at Mulholland Outlook with all the bikers, the car geeks, the girlfriends dragged there by flat-brim-capped boys in slammed Integras with NO FAT CHICKS, CAR WILL SCRAPE stickers on the back, a surer sign of virginity than Juliet’s bedsheets. “You know, Jay Leno comes here a lot,” I informed Harris as I pulled into the overlook in the Evora, next to a stripped-out, roofless Lotus Exige. Its rotund, bearded owner was busy explaining to bystanders exactly how much money he had spent on building the car and how much more he spent on divorce proceedings. “Usually with some weird-ass car.”
“It’d be cool to meet him,” he said. “I’d probably ask him, ‘hey—’” and his voice raised about 2 octaves—“‘whaddya think about Jimmy Fallon?’”
“’Hey! Well, this is my third Miura…‘”
“’Well, uh, don’t ask me about Conan, ok?’”
“I wonder if Jay owns a 1992 Taurus SHO like Conan?” I pontificated, in my regular (albeit still squeaky) voice. “That’d be awesome. Just to rub it in, you know?”
“Wait, Conan drives a Taurus? Why? That’s dumb.”
We met my friend Cory, who was on his way to Santa Barbara to meet his German girlfriend, who had been on the road with a friend on the Great American Road Trip for the past year. After bullshitting for about 20 minutes, we hit the road; we were to meet them at noon, an hour and a half away. And 10 minutes after we left, our friend—who was still there—relayed to us that he had just met Jay Leno, who showed up with one of his famous weird-ass cars—this time, it was another Lotus.
The Evora hummed and bleated its way up the 101 in relative serenity. We didn’t talk, drowning the silence with Harris’s iPod of gangsta rap, as we had done the last two days. By now, I assumed that he had adjusted to the novelty of tooling around Los Angeles in a rare, hand built, British sports car—the sort of car he would ogle on the street if he saw one in Lower Manhattan, but never would consider owning one even if he moved to the suburbs. It’s all the car you need, I told him, my fingers drumming on the Evora’s perfect steering column, steering with so much feel it could read Braille. The road to Santa Barbara oscillated between mist-strewn fog, blinding sunshine, and light traffic. The Evora pointed and squirted past Dodge Ram duallies and Toyota Siennas, the perpetual sea cows of the road, its 345-horsepower engine using every one of those modestly-numbered horses. Harris, to give the man credit, never flinched while inside the Lotus at all—he never feigned nausea as we drove across the Mulholland canyons, never complained or felt frightened or, at the very least, exhibited his own fear of death. He was quiet, without drama, like the Lotus: the perfect passenger. For some reason, and despite the jokes, despite the complaining, he seemed to trust me, me in my element, the only realm in which I deserved respect.
Cory took a liking to him immediately. Racial jokes flowed like water between the three of us. His girlfriend, Joanna, and her friend, a pink-cheeked blonde, talked amongst themselves in quiet, lilting German. We walked the length of State Street past the bland, stucco-walled boutiques and the unaffected preppies, as bland as bland does. We bought gelato. A homeless man hooted at Joanna. (We thought this was the funniest thing in the world.) Then, we went to the beach and once again, we dug our toes in the sand.
That night, before Harris flew out the next morning, we drove from San Pedro to downtown Los Angeles, which at night becomes one of the Seven Wonders of the World—an all-singing, all-dancing laser light show, dedicated to both the gutter and the stars apparent. The Lotus sang as it spun up the 110. We listened to Kendrick Lamar in the cool night air, nobody saying a word, getting off the freeway at the Convention Center then down Flower Street to Hope. We drove past beggars and partiers. We past the Library and the Library Bar, past abandoned cars in Skid Row and Maseratis in valet lines. We roared down the Second Street Tunnel, downshifting with the windows down, hitting the redline in 2nd gear, laughing like madmen.
“Honestly, don’t move anywhere else,” said Harris. “Why would you? This place is paradise!”
We were two friends separated across time and space and socioeconomics but cackling madly at the simple joy of an absurd car, an absurd city for the two of us. And from the beach to the night sky, from LAX down the 105 past the glittering rows of airplanes on approach, Harris—a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, someone who, like so many of his Manhattan proles, had all but written off the West Coast, who found it shallow and without substance like everyone else who comes here—well, I had an inkling that Harris had finally started to understand Los Angeles.