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AA's Culture Clash: NYC vs. LA

Having come into the rooms in New York, LA meetings first struck me as a jarring mixture of birthday cakes, random venues and star vehicles. It took a while to stop worrying and learn to drink the Kool-Aid.

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Up is down in La-La Land. Photo via

By Blake Nelson

06/11/13

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I’d been living in Los Angeles for about two weeks when I officially reached the 10-year mark of my sobriety. The stressful move, the alien city and the new AA meetings were pretty disorienting. So much so that I decided not to worry about celebrating my 10 years. In New York City, where I’d come from, AA anniversaries weren’t a huge deal. I had celebrated a couple of them at special once-a-month anniversary meetings, but more often I would just announce my newly acquired “year mark” at whatever meeting I happened to be attending. I’d take my applause and my coin and sit down.

Los Angeles, perhaps suffering from a second-city complex, had developed its own take on AA.

But 10 years being 10 years, I felt obligated to do something. So I went to a meeting I’d been to in my new neighborhood. I began asking around about anniversaries. How did they do that here? I was told I should talk to a certain woman. She was in charge of “cakes.” I found the woman and told her that today was my 10-year anniversary.

“Then you’ll want to take a cake,” she said.

“What’s a cake?” I asked.

“It’s a cake. To celebrate your birthday.”

“But it’s actually not my birthday,” I clarified. “It’s my AA anniversary. I have 10 years sober.”

“Right,” she said. “It’s your AA birthday. Who will be giving you your cake? When you take a cake, someone has to give it to you.”

“Okay…” I said, “So who usually does that?”

“Your friends. Your sponsor.”

“But I don’t have any friends,” I said. The woman stared at me.

“I mean, I do have friends, but not with me. I just moved here.”

“Well you still need someone to give you your cake,” she said, a bit of impatience showing in her face.

I didn’t even want a cake. I just wanted to say out loud, “I have 10 years,” and then I wanted people to clap, and then I wanted to sit down. I also didn’t want to talk to this woman anymore.

“Can you give me my cake?” I asked.

That was the wrong thing to say. Now the woman thought I was hitting on her.

I did finally get my cake. And the poor woman, who I’d never seen before, had to give it to me. We were breaking all sorts of local protocol, I could tell. The whole room seemed embarrassed. Where were my friends? Where was my sponsor? What was my problem?

And then worse still: After I was handed the cake, which I didn’t want, and which had 10 hot burning candles on it, I had to talk. All I could think to do was explain myself, how I really did have friends, how I really did have 10 years, how I had just moved here—the subtext being how sorry I was to upset their little birthday cake ritual, which I had secretly concluded was the dumbest thing I’d every encountered in AA.

The “taking of the cake” was only one of many differences I was to encounter between New York AA and its Los Angeles counterpart. You’d think with all the traffic between the two cities, there would be some uniformity in the meetings. That was not the case. Los Angeles, I came to see—perhaps suffering from a second-city complex, or maybe reflecting it’s own unique showbiz personality—had developed its own take on AA.

For starters, LA meetings are held in strange places. In New York, meetings are pretty much held in churches, conference rooms or schools. These official-seeming locations lend a certain gravity to New York meetings. In LA meetings are held on fishing piers, in the back yards of yoga studios and in underground parking garages.

The format of New York meetings is fairly consistent: A speaker tells their story for 20 minutes, followed by sharing from the floor. In LA, every meeting has its own format: Sometimes there are two speakers, sometimes there are three; sometimes the speaker reads, sometimes he or she answers questions. Sometimes there are free-rolling, debate-style conversations, sometimes there is no participation at all. Occasionally everything stops for a meditation. Or a coffee break. Or for further announcements (there are lots of announcements in LA). In many meetings the speakers are recorded so you can listen to it later in your car. In LA, you get the feeling that each new meeting feels obligated to add some new spin on the traditional format.

There are more private meetings in LA, held in people’s private homes. This is presumably to protect celebrities, film executives and CAA agents from having to mix with the common people. There are also larger “cool-people” meetings that are open to the public but not listed in meeting books. You find out about these meetings by word of mouth, like you would find out about an exclusive nightclub. And like a nightclub, once there, you feel instantly self-conscious because everyone is younger than you and much better looking.

Perhaps the most jarring difference between the two cities’ meeting styles is the way people decide who should speak. In New York, the object is to have everyone who regularly attends a meeting speak at some point, the idea being that even the least articulate person from your group might have some unexpected nugget of wisdom to share. Also, if nothing else, everyone should hear each other’s story, and thereby have a basic knowledge of their fellows.

But in LA, chair-people are more concerned with entertainment value—also with speakers carrying an “appropriate” message. This creates an inevitable reliance on circuit speakers and AA “stars.” The idea of putting someone unproven, or unknown, at the podium is frowned upon. Nobody wants to sit through amateur hour. In one way this is good: There are fewer dull meetings. But in another way, you could be sober in LA for several years and never speak at a meeting. Which is not good.

Another source of tension between the two cities is the idea LA people have that New York AA is “therapy-based”. Meaning that New York people talk about themselves too much. It’s too character-driven. It’s too personal.

In LA, they consider their program to be “solution-based.” In LA, members who talk about personal issues are told: “Your problems are for your sponsor; your solutions are for the meeting.” Which sounds good, but unfortunately results in the repetition of the same slogans and truisms everyone’s already heard a million times. In New York, especially in early sobriety, I found it helpful to hear the specifics of people’s problems and how they dealt with them. I found it interesting.

But in a way this difference makes sense. Individual predicaments, individuality in general, is not as valued in LA—a city dominated by the film and TV industries, where teamwork and consensus rule the day. In New York, the land of cranky eccentrics, novelists, artists, etc., a certain self-involvement is to be expected.

Of course, you always think the way you first learned how to do something is the best way. To me, New York AA will always feel like the correct AA, since that’s where I sweated and squirmed my way through my early sobriety.

But one of the most impressive things about AA to me is its indestructibility as a concept and an organization. No matter what its half-crazy adherents do to it, AA always survives and always delivers on its basic promise: to keep people who want to be sober, sober.

And so it eventually happened that after a year or two, I got used to LA’s quirks and variations, and in some cases began to prefer them. So much so that on a recent visit to New York, after listening to a woman from the floor drone on about her psycho landlord for 15 minutes, untimed (in LA there’s always a timer, thank God), I actually had the thought: People really do talk too much about their problems in New York.

Or maybe they don’t. It’s not up to me to decide. But either way, I was looking forward to getting back to LA, and my Sunday morning beach meditation meeting (official listed starting time: “dawn”).

Blake Nelson is the author of 13 books including Girl, Paranoid Park, Recovery Road and the upcoming Prince of Venice Beach. 

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