If you’d asked 10-year-old Ruth to name her dream holiday, I believe the answer would, unequivocally, have been Los Angeles. (Actually, it probably would have been California, because I doubt I had any understanding of the distinction between the two; but what I meant was LA). Movie studios, theme parks, the home of Beverly Hills 90210, Baywatch, malls, fast food, hip hop, California Games — in my shaky understanding of world geography, Los Angeles was America, and it was all amazing.
I think this is a fairly accurate illustration of my conceptualisation of America at the time:
(Though actually, I’m not sure I knew that they were on opposite sides of the country. I think I imagined them to be next door to each other)
Sadly, my family vacations tended more towards the Third World than Disney World. But one friend, whose family always seemed to go on much cooler holidays than mine, did make it to the promised land, returning with stories of swimming pools and movie stars. She also reported that the streets of LA were lined with homeless people and panhandlers, which I naively believed to be bullshit. My family had just returned from India, where this much was true, but how could it be the same in a rich and powerful country like America? It didn’t fit with my fantasy, so I dismissed it.
In Portland, people constantly shit-talk LA — either because that’s where they moved from or they’re angry that Portland is full of immigrants from California. It’s too big and you have to drive everywhere and it’s expensive and shallow and blah blah. But that’s how I feel about Sydney, and I wouldn’t discourage tourists from visiting there, so I held fast to my desire to make the pilgrimage. The only problem: The Boy did not share my desire. He’d been there for work, thought it was shit, didn’t want to go back. He does not share my love of tackiness, cliche and people watching.
So with a bit of time between office-bound employment, I decided to organise a solo sojourn down south. Despite the years of yearning, it was all very last minute, really. I booked on Monday and flew out Thursday, with very little planning.
I decided to stay in Hollywood for maximum touristy cachet and its vaguely central location between the beach and downtown.
I got in late, and walked to Hollywood Boulevard in search of food. It was exactly as I expected it to be: tourists, cops, preachers, Scientologists, impossibly thin people, impossibly fat people, pushers, spruikers and people dressed in tattered superhero outfits. Constant police and ambulance sirens. It was tragic and cheesy, but also kind of neat that it really was exactly like on TV.
With no concrete plans, I started Friday in a Starbucks-style coffee shop. The sad but universal truth of Starbucks and its copycats is that it is one of the few places you are guaranteed good free wifi, air con, a power point and a piss when travelling. All for about $1.50. It’s loud and smells like burning and the music is terrible, but when you’re using Twitter, Google Maps, Yelp and Instagram all day, these things are important. (Hot tip: if ALL you are after is the wifi, Starbucks’ wifi is so good, you can usually just sit across the road and still get full signal strength). I sent out questions about what to do in LA into the social media ether, and let the good citizens of the internet be my guide for the next three days.
First thing: Santa Monica. Now, when I told people I’d be public transporting around LA, all I heard was how bad/non-existant the public transport is. So let me address this myth: the public transport is fine. Maybe it sucks more when you get out into the boonies, but in your standard touristy bits, it’s fine. There are plenty of buses, they have TVs that play Spanish language programming, it only costs $1.50, the buses were as good/bad as buses anywhere, and they showed up on time. The problem isn’t the public transport. It’s that the city is stupidly large, and the traffic is awful. So yeah, it took a long freaking time to get to Santa Monica, but I doubt it would have been much more pleasant in a car.
I saw so many celebrities!
Once there, I headed for the beach. It looked like the beach from Baywatch. There was no surf, but an abundance of confused tourists being bused in in “Learn to surf!” vans. I hired a clunky bike and rode down the beach to Venice Beach, which includes a lengthy touristy market and many dubious looking medical marijuana “clinics”. I felt like I’d ridden right into the ’90s, when everyone wore board shorts and people still rollerbladed and bleached their hair. Venice Beach itself — the neighborhood, not the actual beach — held a little more charm. I had lunch at an overpriced macrobiotic vegan cafe while observing a group of teenagers from Orange County flirt awkwardly with each other. I rode back, feeling like I should have been more awed by the idyllic beach and the very attractive people with gleaming, heavily tanned pectoral muscles, but I found myself entirely dispassionate about the whole experience. I’m really not a beach person.
Another excruciatingly long bus ride back to Hollywood, and the day was basically gone. I wandered up to an area Google maps marked as “Thai Town”, which was mostly strip malls housing surprisingly decent-looking Thai eateries. I had a pretty decent pad makua yow for some criminally cheap price and was on my way. I had an hour to kill, and nearby, I saw the kind of faux-antique wooden sign and bullshit name that screamed “craft cocktails!” My spidey senses had not failed me: behind the understated Harvard & Stone exterior was a large, dimly lit cocktail bar — the decor was more wild west steampunk than the now tired prohibition-era speakeasy schtick and, refreshingly, the bartenders did not wax their moustaches or CosPlay (yes, it is CosPlay) in tweed, arm garters and pocket watches — with solid cocktails.
After passing the time with Fernet, I wandered up to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater. I was too early for the next show, but was entertained on this apparently hip little stretch between Hollywood and Los Feliz. Young, vaguely alternative things were spilling out of the bars and restaurants. It appeared a place to be seen amongst a certain crowd, though I was almost certainly not worth looking at, and slipped into a second hand book and record store until it was time for the show. A full house packed into the theater, most brown-bagging cheap wine and beer, to watch improv groups. I hadn’t watched improv in forever. It’s usually shit (OK, you’re a goat who likes pole dancing, you are trying to build a life-size replica of Yao Ming out of Graham Crackers, and YOU are cowboy with performance anxiety. Go!). This wasn’t. For $5, it was well worth going.
The Twitter provided me with my destination for day two: Universal Studios.
I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me. As you can probably guess from my earlier comments about family holidays, my parents did not take us to theme parks. Oh how I longed to go to a theme park. The closest we came was the Big Pineapple, a giant fibreglass pineapple in Queensland with a little train that takes you through fruit and nut plantations (and is tantalisingly close to WB Movie World, Sea World and Dreamworld, just to rub it in), which doesn’t count because the “theme” is fruit (at least they didn’t take us to Wobby’s World, I guess).
But I’m an adult now, mum and dad, and I can go to a theme park if I want! So I did. It was the middle of school holidays and a Saturday and a bajillion degrees outside, but I went. I went on the studio tour (meh), the Simpsons ride (awesome), the haunted house thing (meh), saw the Water World show (actually awesome; far better than the film) and some sort of special effects show (meh). By this point, the lines for each attraction were about an hour long and I was hungry and hot, so I bailed. I’m glad I went, though. It was cheesy and silly and the lines were priceless people watching. I imagined that all the children around me were poor little waifs whose families had scrimped and saved all year for this one day and that made me want to strangle them considerably less.
I went back to Hollywood and caught the underground train downtown. Again: good public transport. I hit up the Grand Central Market next to the station for a late lunch. I had imagined it to be, well, grander, but it was still a great little market, a mix of mostly Mexican and Chinese produce and prepared food stalls. I got a tamarind aguas frescas from a Mexican place and a cheese and basil papusa from a Salvadorian place. I don’t think I’d ever had a papusa before — they’re stuffed corn masa cakes and quite delicious. Mine came with a plastic pouch of vinegary cabbage Wikipedia tells me was curtido.
I wandered around downtown for awhile. It was pretty much a ghost town on a Saturday, which was kind of nice for a break but a bit dull. I guess I always envision cities like those I’m used to: with the central business district as a major cultural and social hub. Most of LA was exactly as I’m imagined it, but downtown was not. I made my way down to Little Tokyo, which was livelier. There were some newish looking apartment buildings there, and there seemed to be a community of some kind. In a courtyard between some shops, people were doing karaoke and dancing and eating and drinking in the sun. I had dinner at the Lazy Ox, which had been recommended by a few people. It was quite good; I couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what cuisine it was going for, but it reminded me of an Americanised Mod Oz, if that makes sense (by which I think I mean, Asian and Mediterranean influence, but more American and less French). The cook/owner/guy-in-an-apron-acting-important came out and told one table it was a “gastropub”, and I’m increasingly convinced that no one in this country actually knows what that means. It is the naked emperor of American dining.
I trained it back to Hollywood and decided to see a film. Twitter chose X-Men over Captain America for me, but the movie wasn’t on for a good hour. Yelp told me to go to a nearby Iranian ice cream parlour called Mashti Malone’s, and fuck me if this wasn’t the first time Yelp had actually picked a winner. It was in this dark, out-of-the-way strip mall and the decor clearly hadn’t changed a whit since the early ’80s, but I got this crazy dense scoop of rosewater ice cream with pistachios and saffron, and it made my night.
I had designs on more exploring the next day, but when I woke up, I was totally buggered. My feet were sore and blistered, my lips were sunburned, and just the thought of locating, waiting for and catching a bus was tiring. I shuffled down Hollywood Boulevard in search of breakfast, and stumbled across a farmers market leading off down a narrow street. It looked like a little one, but I figured some fresh fruit would be fine, so I walked in. And walked. And walked. Turns out it was not such a little farmers market — it stretched all the way down to Sunset Blvd, and broke off in several forks. I went nuts eating nectarines.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I went to the insanely large Amoeba Records LA before remembering that I don’t actually buy physical CDs or DVDs anymore, dug around some stores that were the same as stores everywhere but with a higher sales tax, finally spotted the “Hollywood” sign through a chain link fence, and saw Captain America after all (nice call, Twitter — X-Men was way better).
I ended up in some sort of laneway thing, where there was a vintage market and a DJ was playing, and as I sat in the afternoon sun watching very attractive people go about their Saturday, I concluded, “You’re alright, LA”. Over the preceding two days, I had been jumping wildly between disliking and enjoying the city. It’s sprawling, the traffic is ridiculous, the level of poverty is depressing, the conspicuos consumption is depressing, the miles and miles of neon strip malls full of fast food outlets are depressing. But it also has a rich artistic and cultural life, incredible ethnic diversity, historical importance, plenty of lovely people, and parts that are quite beautiful.
It also has a Starbucks on every corner, so you’re never without free wifi.