Rob Sato’s Los Angeles is As Good As It Gets

Illustration and Essay by Rob Sato

Rob Sato ditched the idea of moving to New York and moved to LA instead, for love. Shortly after arriving in the city he saw a guy snort coke off the side of his hand, bought groceries during an earthquake, and woke up late to the news of 9/11. If his chaotic, cathartic essay about life in LA doesn’t make you fall in love with this city, I don’t know what will. Read up.

Here is Home, an essay by Rob Sato

Towards the end of my time at art school in the Bay Area, my plan was to move to New York and fling myself into the illustration hustle. There were many flaws in this plan. One was that illustration as an occupation was undergoing serious instability because print media was experiencing a massive shift. Another flaw was that I didn’t actually like illustration. I had just received a degree in it but my temperament, at that time at least, was proving unsuitable for the profession. I was getting work, but ungrateful brat that I was I found illustration deeply unsatisfying. The other flaw with my plan was that I was in love with Ako Castuera, who wanted to move back to her hometown, Los Angeles, and I hated the idea of living anywhere without her. I had always liked visiting LA. It seemed great to me. We moved here together in 2001.

Rob Sato in his Los Angeles studio. Photo by Andrew Peters

We left Oakland at night and hit LA morning rush hour traffic. Sitting at a dead stop on the 5 we watched a man in a silver convertible next to us, his car and suit almost as shiny as his bald, pink, glistening head, snort coke off the side of his hand right out in the open. This little scene was so opposite in every way of what the Bay Area of the late 90’s/ early aughts was that we found it refreshing. As we passed downtown on the 10 freeway, Randy Newman’s “I love LA” actually came on the radio. We laughed incredulously. It was absurd. LA welcomed us with some real showbiz cliches. Our life together here had begun.

“The years ticked by and we set roots further into the rich soil of LA while time has moved around us and through us all.”

Then 19 years went by. Happy ones. I worked for 12 of them at a used bookstore, the legendary but sadly now closed Brand Books, happy to have a part-time job that left my nights and 3- 4 days a week open to draw. I felt I could work there until I dropped dead as long as I could have that schedule and that life. Heaven! I’ve very much enjoyed the bizarre jobs the art life in LA has had to offer. A friend called us over one night to paint spiders for the Disneyland jungle cruise. I think it was 100 bucks a spider. Another friend and I were hired to “recreate” the murals of the Facebook offices on the sets of The Social Network. I semi-regularly appear on a reality ghost TV show where my job is to draw ghosts and other supernatural spectres and events that the show’s star medium meets and sees during her visits to haunted places. I draw them police sketch style. Our next door neighbor of close to a decade now, Jesse, was Ako’s writing partner on Adventure Time, and he art directed The Midnight Gospel, a show I worked on as a background designer. His brother Justin, a writer, musician, and filmmaker, also lives in another house next door, and Ako and I sing in the latest lineup of their long running band, Make A Rising. My role is very small in this. I am a backup singer to the backup singers, but I enjoy being taking part. It’s a cozy little compound of artists. All the while I’ve been drawing and painting and accidentally having a kind of fine art and illustration and silly little TV career. I have no idea how this happened. The years ticked by and we set roots further into the rich soil of LA while time has moved around us and through us all.

“Two days later was 9/11. The 9/11. Ako’s dad woke us up around noon with a phone call.  ‘You’re still asleep? You two are probably the last people in the world to know’.”

Just over a week after we moved into our first place in LA, an apartment in Koreatown, there was an earthquake. I was in the K-Town Ralphs [a popular grocery store chain]. The shelves shook. Jars and cans rattled. One single box fell off the shelf and landed in the aisle. Everyone waited for the shaking to stop and then went back to shopping. Walking home a man was outside his apartment building freaking out. ‘Hey man, was that what I thought it was”, he asked me, terror in his eyes. “You mean the earthquake?” “Oh shit oh shit, I just moved in today dude. I’m thinking I’m going right back to Atlanta”. He was really upset. I hung out with him for a bit, trying to help calm him down. I made the mistake of telling him it wasn’t that big of one. Being from California, I said, “This size quake happens all the time. You’ll get used to it.” “Oh lord” he said getting up, dialing the cordless phone he’d been holding. “I wanna go home” he muttered as he headed inside. He was calling his mom.



Two days later was 9/11. The 9/11. Ako’s dad woke us up around noon with a phone call. “You’re still asleep? You two are probably the last people in the world to know”. One personal detail of that day I’ll always remember was that we had slept naked and after waking up we didn’t put clothes on until it was dark. We just sat there under a blanket on the floor in front of the fucking news. I went out for cigarettes when night fell, letting the silence of the city really settle in. The lack of air traffic noise rang in my ears. Walking over I found that same neighbor sitting out in front of his apartment again looking shellshocked. “Hey man” I said, “earthquakes and now this huh?” I don’t think he recognized me from the other day, but he sighed and answered “I tell you, signs and wonders.” “You still moving back to Atlanta?” He threw his arms up. “This is where the fuck we at now” was his response. I wonder if he’s still in LA.

I soon got the job at the bookstore, and one of the reasons a couple positions were open there was because a guy had quit to move to New York. He left LA on a plane the night of September 10th and landed in New York in a completely shifted reality. I never met him but I remember his name because he was another Japanese American dude named Eddie Fukui.

“The streets were filled with smoke, the fires were blazing, and helicopters were shrieking around overhead, dousing the hillsides with water and orange flame retardant. It felt like it was all happening on top of us.”

During the Hollywood Hills fire Ako called me to come rescue her. She often took the Metro home. “Can you come get me?! I got too high at work and everything is on fire and the train was full of cops and there was a clown making really inept balloon hats for a huge family of horrifically sunburnt tourists! Rob they are PINK. So pink! It’s too much!” She had gone a couple stops but fled the subway in terror. I got in the car and headed into the mess that is rush hour Hollywood even on a normal day. The streets were filled with smoke, the fires were blazing, and helicopters were shrieking around overhead, dousing the hillsides with water and orange flame retardant. It felt like it was all happening on top of us. Fire trucks and squad cars were rushing every which way and the noise was overwhelming. Throngs of people and Elmos and Spidermen and Shreks and Michael Jacksons were lining the streets gawking up at the hills. We didn’t have cell phones then so we had to arrange to meet at an intersection and cross our fingers. I drove slowly along Hollywood Boulevard, but the situation was so chaotic that I couldn’t find a place to pull over, circling around a bunch of times. Just as I was passing an apartment complex Ako drifted out of a row of bushes and floated dreamily into the car. Her face was streaked with tears but she had a big smile, her eyes shining with happiness and relief. “I had to be with the plants, down in the grass to breathe in the dirt!” she said.

“David is a nurse, a bartender and possibly some kind of demon.”

I was drawing at my desk the night of the 2008 election on deadline for an illustration, but mostly I couldn’t bear to sit around watching Obama lose to the other party of sanctimonious fools and hubris swollen trolls who had started the Iraq War. When the whole neighborhood erupted in cheers I knew things had gone better than expected. I put my head down on my illustration in relief. Ako called from an election party across the street from our house in Echo Park. She was at the house of some friends, one of whom she went to high school with, and who was also the brother of her high school ex-boyfriend who is also our friend. Ako’s connection to LA is strong and deep. I abandoned my assignment and headed over, and on my way my other neighbor, David, was celebrating with his family out in his yard. “Robert! You want a shot?” He sent me happily on my way full of whiskey and I went and drank more whiskey.

David is a nurse, a bartender and possibly some kind of demon. He is nice to the point where I question his sanity and he can convince anyone to have just one more drink. His method is to simply ignore when you decline. Every year he has a massive New Years party and invites the whole world so that he can make the whole world drunk. One year our friends got absorbed into his party and we danced until 4am. Most years the party has ended at 7am. Strangers off the street drift in and out. One year a limo covered in lights and sequins pulled over to pick up someone from another house, but lured by the noise and lights of David’s party, ladies in gowns and a dude in a ludicrous tuxedo spilled out of the limo and joined the crowd in the living room dance floor. We went down to look at the car. It was incredible. A classic 80’s stretch limo converted into the flyest car I’ve ever seen. There was a 100 dollar bill suspended in a fishbowl. There were actual fish swimming lazily about in another fishbowl. Neon lights, velvet, and more dazzling sequins lined the interior. A mirror ball spun from the roof. I wish I could remember the name of the car because it had one, shining in bright lights on the windshield. Like a filipino jeepney. Maybe it was Jackie? “Who’s Jackie?” I asked the driver. ‘My mom” he said. He had tricked the car out himself. Admirers stopped to gather around the car.

We spent the election night of 2016 at the bar in Taix. We were with neighbors, ran into friends, and met more neighbors. The room was packed and as the vibe steadily got grimmer free drinks started coming. A white woman stood up and screamed “Fucking white people!” at the TV. I was glad I was with neighborhood people that night. I was so hung over the next day I could barely speak, which was unfortunate because I was stopped during a walk at Echo Park Lake and interviewed by the local TV news about my thoughts on the election. I almost threw up. I probably should have. That would have articulated my thoughts better than the stupid shit that actually came out of my mouth.

Our landlords’ family throws a giant party in the front yard every year on opening day of baseball season. A live mariachi band starts playing at 8:30 am and around 50 people show up and start drinking. When the game is about to start they parade over to Dodger stadium, which is right up the street. Another neighbor, Freddy, lives in the house he grew up in. He’s converted his garage into a lounge where most nights a game is on and he’s drinking beers and laughing with friends. I don’t follow sports but every year I root for the Dodgers to win it for Freddy. “If you cut me, I bleed blue”, he told me once. Every time they’ve blown it in the post season the silence and dejection emanating from his garage is palpable. When the Dodgers finally won it all this past season, the neighborhood erupted. Ako and I went out to watch the fans going nuts in the street. Freddy was on his balcony at first. He yelled to us “Oh my god you guys, I haven’t been able to breathe all day!” He came down to Sunset, handed us each beers, and headed out into the street to shout with joy.

During the day of the 2020 election our friend Kris Chau came over to help me fold and assemble some zines I was making. We kept ourselves away from the news and ate some pizzas and kept each other company. Nothing like menial labor to take your mind off of things. We all met in art school 20 years ago and now we live a few blocks apart. This continuity of friendship and current neighborhood closeness is one of my favorite things about our entire life.

“Please, universe, Los Angeles, Tongva land, I would like to stay and keep drawing and try to be both a good gardener and a good plant.”

Incidentally, I’m writing this now from the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic. The paradigm shifting events of 9/11 and the 2020 pandemic as of now bookend my time here in LA. What’s next? I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere. I’ve lived in this current house longer than I lived in any of my parent’s houses, longer than they’ve lived in any of their houses. I don’t believe in “greatest cities” or “greatest places” in the world. There is only home. Here I am home, making art between and during earthquakes and fires and global pandemics and shitty and thrilling and weird jobs. I want to tend to the little garden of my life here and to help tend to the garden that is this place on earth. A life is a garden. A community is a garden. A city is a garden. Please, universe, Los Angeles, Tongva land, I would like to stay and keep drawing and try to be both a good gardener and a good plant.

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