An awful lot of bull hockey has been written about Los Angeles: It has been called the ”City of Dreams” and ”the world’s storyteller.”
But I am not interested in that part of the city. You can keep all the actors (save those still waiting tables) and keep all the studios. Underneath and beyond is a Los Angeles that I love. It is the city of smog, freeways, barrios and signs written in Korean and Armenian. It is a city so alive that it actually buzzes.
When I tell my friends that I love LA, they look at me funny. But it is true. I love the traffic. I love the commercial clutter. I love the bad air.
The traffic gives me time to listen to music on the radio. The commercial clutter turns into poetry if read in the right mood, and the bad air diffuses the naked sunlight to bathe the city in a brilliant glow that makes house paint seem incandescent.
I’m not sure I would want to live in the city, but once or twice a year, it is good to visit the City of Angels just to have the voltage increased in my neurological wiring.
Just what is LA?
According to one writer, it is ”mudslides, fires, earthquakes, Santa Ana winds.” And to another, it is ”falafel joints, collapsible apartments, visible air.”
And for performance artist Ann Magnuson, it is ”cheap pedicures, perpetual sun, guilt-free careerism, seeing Vincent Price at the 7-Eleven, having a back yard, no cockroaches, true love and Disneyland. Every day is like Saturday.”
Of course, Los Angeles is more than Los Angeles. It is in Dorothy Parker’s words or H.L. Mencken’s — the saying is so apt, any wit might well have said it — ”27 suburbs in search of a city.”
From San Bernardino to Calabasas, from Costa Mesa to the Santa Clarita Valley, it is a sprawling, throbbing, thriving endless urban glory.
It is strip malls with Korean groceries and underground parking, and it is great Indian restaurants.
Or as demographer Kevin McCarthy puts it: ”Los Angeles is the new Ellis Island.”
And that means that you can find things in Los Angeles. Ethnic food isn’t confined to Chinese and Thai. You can find Armenian food, Sri Lankan food, Honduran food, and I have no doubt if I looked hard enough, I could find a place to eat the cuisine of the Fiji Islanders.
I can find books in any language, recordings of any music, clothing of any national origin.
Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.
Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.
Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”
You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.
As George Will put it, ”Some Americans despise Los Angeles, just as some Europeans despise America, and for the same reason. Los Angeles, like America, like freedom applied, is strong medicine — an untidy jumble of human diversity and perversity.”
It is also hazy sunlight and palm trees.
”The light in Southern California demands strong colors,” wrote Postmodernist architect Michael Graves. ”Here the sun plays a major role in modeling the texture and surface of buildings, making them sparkle and dance.”
Los Angeles is the most verbal city I know. Signs are everywhere and prodigiously redundant.
For Los Angeles, more than any city I’ve ever seen, is a city of small business. Sure there are chains and franchises, but butted up against one another like soup cans on a grocery-store shelf along any major street are small shops selling everything imaginable:
Teriyaki burritos — Shalom Hunan, Kosher Chinese Restaurant — Modern Prosthetics.
The smallest corner minimall has a rack of signs along the street with something like 25 small logos plastered on it. Then the stores themselves have signs over their doors and windows, and finally there are broadsheets taped up against the glass. It is an alphabetical bombardment:
Any plain garment cleaned and pressed $1.25 — 100 percent human hair and wig sale — Two-Star Bakery — A-1 Smog, pass or don’t pay — Tabu Tattoos.
What do you make of “Donuts and Chinese Food”?
They all add up to a kind of commercial poetry.
When I’m in LA, I cruise up and down Wilshire Boulevard, enjoying the Deco Moderne architecture; up and down the Sunset Strip, looking at the storefront restaurants; and up and down La Brea Avenue, looking at the art galleries and antiques shops.
I take La Cienega Boulevard over the Baldwin Hills, Mulholland Drive past the homes of Madonna and Jack Nicholson.
But most of all, I take the small streets with unremembered names past the one-floor houses with their front lawns and front porches, the tiny, unglamorized neighborhoods of the city — California bungalows and stucco homes on hillsides.
Children play in the streets, cars sit in driveways outside garages too stuffed with dunnage to be driven into, and on the corner a Burger King with exactly six (already full) parking spots.
It is the city’s great cosmic joke that everything depends on having a car but nowhere in LA is there available parking. It is like musical chairs. You can circle a block 10 times waiting to pull up to the curb to get your morning bagel.
Of course, there is that other LA, the one we know from television and the movies. That is the city where all the starlets have day jobs and the men all wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles.
You find this LA, too, in the trendier restaurants, where you can overhear people say things like: ”I’ve done a lot of second A.D. work” and ”My boyfriend keeps buying properties and he wants me to produce them.”
But that’s not the LA I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the Los Angeles River: All the city’s riverbeds are concrete troughs. You drive over them on bridges from the 1930s and see under you broad, dry expanses of concrete, with narrow sluices in the middle filled with flowing water — or is it sewage? The riverbeds are so evocative they’ve shown up in films ranging from Terminator 2 to Them!, in which giant ants live in the city’s underworld.
I’m talking about the cemeteries: Los Angeles graveyards are filled with stars. And Forest Lawn, the most famous, is filled with music. Smarmy string orchestras play Danny Boy over loudspeakers so that you feel like you are stuck in an eternal Lawrence Welk show. At the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, you can find the mausoleum with Rudolph Valentino’s ashes. At the L.A. Pet Cemetery, you can find the plot of his dog.
Oh, and then, there are the freeway flyovers: Traffic whirls around like a video game, up and over. Driving under the overpasses, you have a great sculptural, architectural sense of the space dissected by concrete. Driving over them, you have views of the city and its mountain borders. You are flying.
And there are institutions, like the Museum of Natural History. At Exhibition Park, it seems the badly-cared-for 80-year-old Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History is always under restoration. Whole wings are closed off for repair. But every time I visit the city, I have to go to see the great taxidermy and diorama halls of North American mammals. You stand in the darkened hall and imagine yourself at Yellowstone looking at moose or in Virginia looking at the possum.
And don’t forget the La Brea Tar Pits. There is a very good museum at the tar pits, which will explain all about the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf. There are mastodon skeletons and a working lab you can watch. But I just like to walk around the surrounding fields and watch the bubbles blurt up through the goo and smell the petro-stink. Once in a while you find a bird caught dead in the tar at the bottom of a small steaming pit. It tells you at least as much about the power of the tar as the museum exhibits.
Most tourists visit Hollywood Boulevard, and the walk of stars. But I like the Baldwin Hills. In the 1940s, a low-cost housing development modeled on a New Jersey project was built on the hills south of Venice Boulevard. It is 80 acres of one- and two-story homes with gardens and sycamore trees. It is one of the most pleasant neighborhoods to drive through when you feel the need to get off the screaming meemies of La Cienega Boulevard on your way south to the airport. It is bordered by fields of petroleum pumps, dipping their beaks up and down.
Tourists like the Santa Monica Pier, and so do I. The arch over the pier says ”yacht harbor, sport fishing, boating, cafes,” but this pier is better visited for skeet ball and cotton candy. There is a carousel and always dozens of people hanging over the edge with fishing lines. Underneath, the surf washes up on the sand and sunbathers stretch out on terry cloth. There is a seedy quality to it, which brings it to life, where many more modern and clean amusement parks feel synthetic.
There is great art at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), but there is also the Watts Tower. In 1921, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia began building a monument to trash. Using any scraps of pottery, glass, steel and concrete he could find, he put together LA’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. He worked on the tower for 33 years, and it rises nearly 100 feet over the neighborhood. Of his life’s work, he said, ”I had in mind to do something big, and I did it.” It is one of the world’s greatest pieces of folk art.
That’s Los Angeles. It is sui generis, and, if not always a delight for the senses, it is always a ripe and luscious source of sense data.
As Raymond Chandler said, ”Anyone who doesn’t like it is either crazy or sober.”
No, what I love is to walk along the grass on the beach side of Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and smell the heady combination of salt spray and bus fumes, watching the sun expire into the hazy horizon, knowing I’m on my way to a great souvlakia. Skateboarders squirt past and retirees sit on the benches and read newspapers. The hotel signs begin to light up and you know that the city doesn’t close down, it just puts on its night face.