Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

Right turn on a red light

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I was a tough sell. But the deed is done – I really, really like southern California.

I guess it all comes down to ego. We’re constantly showing other people who we are – or, more to the point, how we would like to be perceived – by proudly stating our preferences for one thing over the other. And especially when I was younger, I wanted it to be known that I very much preferred New York to L.A. I liked espresso, not Starbucks. I wanted everyone to know that I adored Nick Drake and Woody Allen and Andre Dubus. I also wanted everyone to know that I was going to live in Europe and study Italian film and Venetian painting. I wanted everyone to know that I didn’t own a television. Probably it follows that I didn’t want anything to do with southern California – and I wanted everyone to know that, too. (I must have been really great to be around.)

So when I was 19 – a student in Rome, as I’d promised – I applied for a summer job as a teaching assistant in creative writing with John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I requested the Stanford University location because, of course, I liked to think of myself as a Bay Area kind of girl. Johns Hopkins gave me the job, provided that I was willing to work at the Los Angeles site.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe now, but I almost didn’t take the job because I didn’t want to spend the summer in Los Angeles. I really must have been desperate to prove who I was. My younger sister said, ‘I heard LA is actually kind of cool in some neighborhoods. Don’t rule it out.’ I ended up on a plane to California.

When I arrived, I still did my fair share of complaining about the ugly strip mall buildings and the faux blondes standing in line for fat-free frozen yogurt and the fact that you can’t walk anywhere. But I liked the work and I liked the tacos al pastor at the Mexican takeaway counter. I loved riding a bicycle along the beach paths at sunset. So I decided to come back to L.A. the following summer – around the same time my older sister enrolled in a master’s program at UCLA and took an internship at the Getty Villa. Between work and family, I had a lot of reasons to keep coming back. I went to evening art events at MOCA and dive bars in Hollywood, fell asleep on the beach, saw the Indigo Girls play on the Santa Monica Pier, cruised down Sunset Boulevard at night in a friend’s vintage convertible, sailed in Newport Beach on a friend’s boat, shopped at Trader Joe’s for bread and cheese to take to a concert under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl.

At some point, I just started liking southern California. The people were relaxed. The sun was always shining.

Now, years later, Lonely Planet has offered me an assignment covering San Diego and Orange County for their California and USA guidebooks. So I’m on the Pacific Surfliner train between San Diego and Irvine, staring down at waves crashing along the coast and the little towns where people drink coffee out of large styrofoam cups and get in their cars just to drive seven blocks. Don’t get me wrong, I still like espresso, libraries and rainy days. But I can’t help thinking how lucky these people are to live here.