East vs. West Coast, Traditions vs. Trends - Debating the Merits

It is a glorious Friday morning in southern California - the kind of travel-poster day designed to make an instant convert out of a visiting New Englander. Smog? What smog?

In a trendy cafe near Rodeo Drive, two post-college friends are discussing the merits of each coast. The young man is a New Yorker who has moved here to find a job in the entertainment industry. "If I get in on the right floor at Universal, I'm a potential producer," he says bravely. The young woman, a Californian, counters that she had planned to move to New York for graduate school, until Columbia University turned her down.

"I really wanted to live in New York," she says with a sigh. "At least here I have family, and friends from camp and college."

"Yeah," her friend replies, "New York is great. But California has a lot to offer too."

Kipling was right: East is East and West is West. Still, he might have gone too far in asserting that never the twain shall meet. From would-be coast-swappers like these graduates to tourists and business travelers who commute between JFK and LAX as casually as others fly the Boston-Washington shuttle, more people are straddling two coasts and blending two cultures.

To an Easterner, a long weekend in Los Angeles offers a chance to test prevailing stereotypes of laid-back West Coast vs. uptight East Coast. Bicoastal differences appear everywhere.

Most obvious, perhaps, is the southern California preoccupation with beauty. So many gorgeous faces! So many tanned and toned bodies! In Beverly Hills, even boarded construction sites are attractive, painted in trompe l'oeil scenes filled with flower pots and sunshine. For style-conscious canines, Saks Fifth Avenue offers the Dog Toggery, a whole counter devoted to $110 jewel-studded collars and leashes. Even a beggar on Rodeo Drive appears neatly dressed.

Graffiti displays a certain California style as well. On a smooth-barked tree outside a cafe, someone has painted in neat letters: "Billyclub me. I need the money." Similarly, a yard-sale sign, tacked to a telephone pole in Hollywood on Saturday, seems quintessentially West Coast: "Cool sale. Furniture and stuff."

License plates further reflect a carefree attitude. "California" is written in airy red script instead of stiff block letters. Nice touch. Vanity plates also capture the spirit. One offers the optimistic message YNG 4EVER, while another hints at bicoastal ambivalence: LA TO NY.

An Easterner, accustomed to pedestrians who defiantly jaywalk and cross against the light, can only marvel at the way Californians, famous for their free spirit, go to the corner and meekly wait for the WALK light. Amazing!

That free spirit apparently faces other limits as well. At Ralph's Supermarket, a sign warns employees: "Wrong clothes will get you sent home." And as a clue that not everyone in lotus land is always polite, the Cheesecake Factory restaurant posts a hand-lettered plea: "Be nice. Bartender is stressed."

Which is better, traditional or trendy? Area code 212 or 213? ZIP Code 20021 in New York or 90210 in Beverly Hills? Choose your milieu - the Avenue of the Americas in New York or the Avenue of the Stars in L.A.

Who am I? Where do I belong? What climate and culture do I prefer? In a mobile society, the questions come with no easy answers. Anyone who has lived on both coasts knows the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Still, when the plane touches down at Logan, a returning traveler is glad to be back in Boston, with its small-city scale and slightly European mood. Just don't ask for a coastal preference a few months from now when the W word - winter - arrives. Bundled in a heavy coat against the cold, even a diehard Easterner doesn't want to imagine southern Californians heading for the beach, clad only in a teeny bikini and sunglasses.

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