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Episodes: The City and the City


Emily VanDerWerff

May 14 2016

6 min read



Living in Los Angeles, you see a lot of celebrities. And shortly after you move here, you learn to not see them, even as you acknowledge their presence.

For instance: I attended a Captain America: Civil War screening in hopes of gathering snippets for what became this piece, and as I exited the theater, I saw, coming down the steps from above, a familiar silhouette. Is that Conan O'Brien?! some part of my brain asked. So I lingered a bit outside of the theater to see. Late Night was enormously important to me as a teenager, and I wanted to catch a glimpse.

But once I did, I immediately regretted it. He didn't spot me. (I'm an old pro at this.) But others spotted him, and even though we're all Los Angelenos, and most of us are journalists, there's still that moment of startled recognition, and you could tell Conan felt it. He hunched over a little bit. He quickened his pace.

He was there with his kids, which I would hope kept autograph seekers at bay. (I didn't stick around to find out.) But he was still a celebrity, and we mostly weren't. (I say "mostly," because on my way out of the theater, I nodded to somebody I thought I recognized from press events, before realizing it was TV star Adam DeVine. Such is life in LA.)

But far more common is something that happened another time I visited that same theater, where I was headed downstairs to my screening, and somebody fell into line alongside me, and I could tell, just from my peripheral vision that it was model and sometime movie star Cara DeLevingne, who was out with some friends. I didn't look over. I just knew, and the best thing you can do when you know is pretend this person is just another person like everybody else, not somebody you see plastered on billboards.

But for the most part, spotting a celebrity in LA involves very quickly the act of unseeing them, lest they realize they've been spotted and have a moment of panic. It reminds me, a lot, of China Mieville's tremendous novel, The City and the City, a sci-fi detective tale set in a city where people have trained themselves to literally stop seeing each other, based on various attributes. (Technically, it's two cities that exist right on top of each other, but if I try to explain this too much more, it will take over the whole newsletter.) Mieville's idea can be tough to wrap your head around, but once you do, it's a great metaphor for class or race or the way that, say, Israel and Palestine can be in the same space but not believe they're in the same country.

Of course, it also works as a metaphor for how those of us in LA or New York deal with having famous people around us. Mieville even calls it "unseeing."

When I first read the book, I loved its plot and characters, without really being able to picture that central metaphor. I don't know why I was so literal-minded about it (I think because Mieville posits spaces that exist in both cities simultaneously, and that twisted my brain into knots.) But the reason I bring it up in proximity with celebrity is because that was what finally helped me understand what he was going for.

I finished the book on the plane to New York, and it was on my mind as I traveled around the city that week for the New York Television Festival. On my way to a screening, on the subway, a little girl, probably around two or three, dropped her ball, and it rolled across to my side of the subway. I stopped it with my foot, but didn't pick it up, since she was already on top of it. I smiled at her, then followed her with my eyes as she toddled back to her mother, then smiled at the mother, doing that thing you do where you nod to the parent of a child, to say, "Hey, cute kid. Way to keep the species going."

As I was about to nod, I realized with a sudden lurch that it was Maggie Gyllenhaal. And after I realized that, I could see her realize that I had recognized her. And her eyes filled with panic, and we suddenly couldn't be human. We had to be a famous person and a regular guy, and if I had nodded at her, it would have suddenly become not human but an acknowledgement of that disparity. I looked away and unsaw. And I understood, on some level, the book just a little bit better.

I've thought about this other times since then, like when I was eating dinner in a small Mexican village, and a TV star was at the table next to me, and I never looked over, because she was with her parents, and I didn't want to disrupt that, or when I went to Sur La Table and shopped right across the way from another famous person.

This is how it is, I suppose. Occasionally, because of my work, I'll enter a crosshatched space, where the two of us can sit down and talk to each other, because the terms of such a meeting are negotiated. But out in the wild, we have to pretend to be from different species, lest their life become a living hell.

Maybe that's not the case. My wife, certainly, has gone up to people she admires and said, "I love your work," and then walked off. Maybe that's a better way to handle it. (It's also how we have Sufjan Stevens's signature on an electric bill. He wrote "Dear Libby: Pay your bills! Sufjan Stevens.") But I also worry, sometimes, that for all the perks of fame, there's also the constant sense of being hunted, the feeling that you've been robbed of those moments when someone smiles at you in the grocery store aisle, or does you a kindness, or just says hello. It has to be lonely on the island sometimes, no matter how much you wanted to move there in the first place.


And hey, speaking of New York, I'm going there for upfronts next week, which means this newsletter is probably on hiatus. I may try to file one, but I wouldn't count on it. Upfronts are time-consuming beasts. We'll see you all the week after if not!


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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