LA Love Letter

I’ve heard it said that people who move to LA hate it for the first six months before falling in love. I think there is a lot of truth to that and I also think that loving LA is like riding a bicycle – once you learn to love it, you never forget. But I will admit that upon my most recent return after being away for a year, there was a brief moment – a couple of hours or so – when I saw LA again through fresh eyes and was shocked by what I saw.

I arrive via Virgin America Airlines –Richard Branson’s self-styled nightclub on wings. Smooth techno jazz beats and purple “mood lighting” greet us, the slow moving, mellowly hungover passengers on the 1130 am flight from New York to LA – the flight of choice for people who don’t have anywhere to be on a weekday morning. Our group is definitely better looking than those found at most night clubs – there are even two bona fide “stars” in the mix, Jeff Goldblum and Smokey Robinson, as well as several others who look like they could be someone. And the general nonchalance suggests that everyone is used to this kind of scene. I’m the only one craning my neck marveling at all the perfectly sculpted bed heads, meticulously maintained facial scruff and designer dirt bag couture (one kick ass chick is wearing a vintage 70’s “The Who Tour” T-shirt emblazoned with a Union Jack and $300 jeans that are factory-frayed and stained with patches of faux grime.) By comparison, I feel like a suburbanite poser in my Patagonia pullover, Banana Republic jeans and generic Reef flip-flops – an imposter who’s snuck over from Continental.

But it only takes a tap of my personal Virgin America touch screen to feel hip again – I fire up a hilarious Brett Dennen video and order an Absinthe that is delivered to me in seconds with a smile. Later I email all of my friends from 35, 000 ft. Richard Branson Rules! And when I reach the curb outside the baggage claim at LAX, the tables have turned and I’m the one receiving the respectful nods and smiles of admiration. Even the 6’5” blonde haired stud who looks like an NFL quarterback (but only turns out to be an ex-college basketball player) raises his eyebrows at me as he hugs his six foot blonde model wife beside their black Mercedes. This is because my ride comes roaring up to the curb – a giant, boxy 1980’s Toyota Landcruiser with surfboards piled on the roof - piloted by my friend Linnea, a twenty three year old green-eyed, blonde-haired hippie/surfer girl in billowing, rainbow-colored jodphur pants she bought in Paris and an equally colorful silk headband and tank top she designed herself. Take that Jeff Goldblum!

We bounce down Imperial Avenue into North Manhattan Beach and the first thing out of my mouth is, “God this place is a shithole!” Smogstacks belch brown clouds into the air, chemical tanks crowd the shore next to the beach and tankers deposit fluids into mysterious pipes just offshore. But the surfers and sun tanners are oblivious to it all and soon I feel the soft glimmer of sunlight on the Pacific begin to work its magic (or is it the cold Coronas?) and I’m mellowing into LA mode – becoming one with the grunge, embracing my inner dirt surfer. The Mexican family swimming in their blue jeans and blasting mariachi trip hop next to us and the ultimate fighter training for his next bout by beating an old tire with a weighted sledgehammer begin to feel less like acts in a bizarro circus and more like members of my long lost LA family.

Later, we’re back on the road heading north up Lincoln Blvd through the Marina into Venice and I’m thinking this place is like Nicaragua or Mexico City. Its “Third World LA,” a giant refugee camp where most of the refugees just happen to have money, a war zone of pawnshops, check cashing parlors and fast food chicken joints. I see two tanned, fit cyclists pedal past a stumbling homeless dude with hair and clothes so greasy he looks like he’s been camping in the drain at Jiffy Lube. But without skipping a beat he steps politely aside and waves the cyclists past because they inhabit the same world, they probably even go to the same parties. I’m betting he has a greasy wadded up headshot somewhere on his person. Wait... didn’t that guy play Jamie Foxx’s buddy in The Soloist?

But before I can be sure he’s lost in the crush as Linnea muscles the Landcrusier across six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic onto Pico and then merges onto the Pacific Coast Highway where we are greeted again by that soft hypnotic glimmer spreading out towards Japan like a silk kimono with the purple silhouette of the Santa Monica Mountains dyed onto it. I smile and say, “I love this place.”

Our destination for the night is Topanga canyon – LA’s version of “the country.” Topanga is a steep, sparsely populated valley on the backside of Pacific Pallisades, a yuppified hippie enclave where rusted El Camino’s share driveways with shiny new Volvos and tin lean-tos share oak shaded hillsides with ornate multistoried treehouses that look like they’ve just been helicoptered in from Laurel Canyon. We stop for dinner in “town” at a cute little Mexican restaurant called Abuelita’s. There is a posse of distinctly local looking dudes (tattooed arms, Dickies clam diggers, trucker’s hats, Vans, wallets chained to their belts) ponied up to the bar drinking Tecates. They turn in unison and look us up and down. Their blank stares give no clue as to what they think of us, but its my guess that we’re nothing special, just two more LA mutts who’ve temporarily escaped from the concrete kennel.

As we sip Margaritas on the outdoor patio under a canopy of thick, snaking California live oaks, a little dark shape darts across the deck and I see the unmistakable bald tail of a rat sticking out from behind the waitress station. Then Mr. Rat is joined by Mrs. Rat and they happily share a corner of tortilla. I ask our waitress if the rat’s have names and she says, “No, but you’re welcome to name them.” Then she adds, “I can’t figure out if they’re mice or rats.”

I give her one of those “What you talkin’ bout Willis?” expressions. I’ll grant her, they are small rats, but I’ve never seen a long, lean, eight-inch mouse before. To be diplomatic, we decide they are “micerats” a special, cute Topanga breed that is unlikely to be carrying the bubonic plague. And in the spirit of “Ratatouille” we call them Mole and Tinga (though I have a sneaking suspicion that Chimichanga, Flauta and Empanada and the rest of the gang are right around the corner.)

Topanga’s roads are hard enough to navigate in the daylight. Now we’re powering the Landcrusier up Old Topanga Rd in the mararita-tinted darkness with an impatient Mercedes tailgating us relentlessly like he’s trying to get to the party before the coke runs out. We’re looking for number two thousand something and after rounding a sharp bend it suddenly appears, the numbers painted on an old, weather beaten surfboard nailed to a tree. The steep gravel drive brings us up onto a saddle overlooking an expansive mountain valley terraced with little private gardens. The peak above us is crowned with exposed granite spires that exude silent druidic energy in the soft moonlight. A far cry from the glass condo towers of Santa Monica.

Our home for the night is a silver Airstream trailer that my friend Dewitt is in the process of transforming into his home away from home (it’s an LA thing to have a second “beach” or “mountain” house minutes away from your primary “city” residence.) For now it’s a primitive dwelling, the lone amenities a beautiful deck overlooking the valley and a clay chiminea we’ve been instructed not to use because of fire hazard. Instead I hammer out a blues tune on an old nylon stringed guitar and we dance under the stars, the distinct glow of LA emanating from behind the steep mountains to the south. Its no wonder this place is the movie capital of the world. Here we are minutes from Studio City, Hollywood and Santa Monica and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a surly Clint Eastwood stalked down the hillside with poor bedraggled Sister Sarah and her mule in tow.

The rooster next door needs hypno-therapy, his inner rooster clock is all messed up. I don’t know if it’s a bunch of drunk teenagers racing past with their high beams on or the glow of the city over the ridge, but at 3am he’s convinced its dawn and crows every ten minutes until the actual dawn 3 hrs later. I might’ve have dozed off then but a herd of goats has wandered into the garden and is being shooed loudly away by our barefoot neighbor and her dingo-looking herd dog. I give up and take a freezing “sunshower” (a black rubber bag hanging from a tree with a hose attached to it) in the fog.

By noon the sun has kindly beaten back the June gloom and I’m back in Venice Beach where the Saturday crowds are out in full force (What is it with Mexicans swimming in jeans?) My friend Dewitt and I are coasting down Speedway (the alley behind the boardwalk) on beach cruisers and being the gracious host (cough) he’s hogged the bike with the surfboard rack so I’m holding onto my nine foot longboard for dear life, nearly mowing down tourists and taking the mirrors off of cars at every turn.

The water is surprisingly warm, seventy plus degrees, and everybody is “trunking” it (their wetsuits retired for the summer.) The two-to-three foot surf is just enough to keep us all happy and we are in and out of the water for session after session – Dewitt’s friends are a group of cocky Venice surf cowboys clowning around riding fin first and hanging ten on the tiny, crumbling waves. On the way home I manage to snake the bike with the rack and feel that old tingle of local pride as people turn and smile as I pedal past. They are so focused on the unusual sight of a nine-foot board attached to the side of a bicycle that they don’t notice the blinding white, Connecticut golfer’s tan I’m trying desperately to get rid of.

I’m trying to make up for a lost year in less than a week so I’m switching friends faster than substitutions at a roller derby. Now I’m with Nicole and we’re pedaling down Abbot Kinney (Venice’s bohemian chic main drag) towards the absolute hottest new restaurant on the West Side: Gjelina.
Gjelina is so hot that Nicole and I are asked mid-meal if we wouldn’t mind moving. I don’t think we really have a choice, but it’s nice of them to “ask.” Apparently our two-top in the center of the patio by the fire is an especially desirable table and we’re not really bothered since we’re now anxious to see who’s usurped us. Dennis Hopper? Julia Roberts? Susan Sarandon? (all west side locals.)

When it turns out to be two twenty-something guys in overstarched dress shirts who sit in nervous silence like they’re on a first date, I give Nicole (who runs a big deal graphic design firm right around the corner) a dirty look and say, “You got moved for them?”

She shrugs and smiles, “You never know, they could be somebody.”

We’re still in our beach clothes and on the bikes again, our sand wedgies soothed by three glasses of Cabernet. We race to catch the sunset at a loud, mixed bag of a beach bar, an airy second story glassed-in patio called “The Whaler” right above the boardwalk. Its one of the few places where you can see the sun go down in all its glory – they even ring a bell when the last solar flare disappears into the sea (in the winter) or mountains (in the summer.) But LA can’t decide what season it is today and a slight purpley gloom has crept back in. The gloom is beautiful in its own stark way, casting everything in shades of grey and turning the water into molten silver beyond the silent, shuttered lifeguard towers.

The people watching in LA is flat out second to none. People come here just to people watch and the Whaler is like an executive box overlooking the action at the junction of Washington and the boardwalk. This is not the Ivey at lunchtime, if there’s any olive chomping or name-dropping going on its lost in the beer soaked din. Venice Beach is full of up-and-comers, down-and-outers, behind-the-scenesters – it’s a college town for people who aren’t in college anymore or never were.

A pack of sorority girls who’ve traded their Greek letters for some hyphen-named Ad agency come bounding around the corner. They’re probably thirty-something, but their indie-designer dress and buoyant gait, the way they flip their hair and smoke cigarettes after spending an hour at the gym screams youthful defiance. And what the hell... thirty’s the new twenty, right? They think nothing of stopping to dole out a smoke to a tattooed, dreadlocked beach rat who hops Starsky-style out of a jacked up convertible Bronco. And the Chinaman sweeping the stoop of his Beach Bauble Emporium in the background thinks nothing of the whole crazy, colorful scene unfolding around him. He’s sold enough Lakers’ hats and superhero beach towels for one day and now he’s pulling the metal, graffiti-covered security door down on the darkened racks of two-for-one t-shirts and rubber flip-flops.

Venice is hovering in that wonderful bohemian half-light between destitution and gentrification, that fragile fusion of originality and consumerism where the soul still flickers in the fabric even as it hangs in the window with a price tag on it. Venice has emerged from the Dogtown days with a skateboard tucked under its arm, only now instead of poaching empty swimming pools and terrorizing Main Street in cut off jean shorts, the new generation of helmeted, knee-padded groms will be grinding a multi- million dollar skate park all decked out in Quicksilver and Vans. Likewise the surf scene has grown from territorial gangs of dare devil short boarders to include an equal amount of Patagonia-clad newbie longboarders. But the rollerskaters still boogie to disco down on the boardwalk, muscle beach comes to life every now and then in full oiled, Arnold- style spectacle and the nightly drum circle brings out every dumpster-diving soul leftover from the last Grateful Dead Tour.

The meeting of these two worlds unfolds operatically right before our eyes when a swarm of yellow Lifeguard rescue vehicles descend on the drum circle to resuscitate a drunk, homeless guy who’s passed out in the sand. The young tanned, square-jawed lifeguards lift him carefully into the back of a truck, take his pulse and shine a pen light into his eyes. All the while, hundreds of drummers continue to create their neo-tribal cacophony – a fevered syncopation of leather, wood and metal. On the edge of the swaying mob, the red lights of the emergency vehicles turn silently and the hobo nods solemnly to the lifeguards’ questions. I can’t hear them but I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“Have you swallowed anything suspicious or potentially poisonous in the last couple of hours?”

“Just a bottle of Southern Comfort.”

“An entire bottle of Southern Comfort?”


“That’s a potentially lethal dose.”

“Good. I want to die.”

“Nobody’s dying today buddy. The ambulance is on the way.”

I’ve only been back in LA for a couple of days and my mind is already working like a copywriter. I’m seeing the whole thing as a Republican attack ad that ends with the single punchline: “Your tax dollars hard at work.”

And then I’m thinking, why would a homeless guy want to kill himself in LA anyway? This place is like the homeless Club Med. There are showers every couple of hundred yards along the beach and the grassy, palm tree shaded bluff overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica is a perfect place to park your shopping cart and sleep off a hangover. Plus there are bazillion gullible tourists to fleece for dollars and a sympathetic police and medical force. In fact, with the price of west side hotels rivaling a month’s rent in most places, I’m considering the homeless option myself. But there’s really no need to find a place to sleep tonight because there are dance parties or “raves” happening all over downtown.

Downtown LA is bit of a misnomer in a city that’s really a collection of small towns, each with its own town center (Brentwood, Pacific Pallisades, Venice, Santa Monica, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Culver City, etc.) and most of the people I know don’t even work anywhere near downtown and only go there to see the Lakers or Dodgers. But the character of downtown (originally El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles: The Town of the Queen of Angels) is well suited to a city with an identity crisis. Situated at the nexus of the 10, 5 and 101 freeways, it’s odd mixture of government, business and culture is manifested in a mishmash of architectural styles – the stone edifice of City Hall, the gleaming glass and steel towers of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, Frank Gehry’s Picasso-esque Walt Disney Concert Hall and miles of warehouses in the huge fashion and jewelry Districts. City officials and real-estate developers apparently see downtown as a crucible for utopian urban planning and are nurturing a sort of bohemian resurrection, converting warehouses to residential and retail space and planning a huge park on Grand Avenue modeled after the Champs-Elysee. In seeming self-mockery downtown is also home to the world’s shortest railway: the Angel’s Flight – a one minute ride from Bunker Hill down to the business district. All of the other tracks that once criss-crossed the city were torn up to make way for the automobile and eventually bestow LA with it’s one unifying trait: horrible traffic.

But it’s past midnight and the highways are empty. We zoom from one swooping highway ramp to another and eventually exit into a non-descript commercial district somewhere east of downtown. Utopia is still on the drawing board and there is plenty of warehouse space available for BIG parties and I know of at least four going on tonight featuring world class DJs including our friend Harvey who is spinning the latest version of his famous “Sarcastic Disco.” Given recent events, it’s billed as a quasi Michael Jackson tribute, but ends up being more like Studio Fifty Four in its heyday. The hipsters gathered on the sidewalk look totally out of place in these generic surroundings, but a steep narrow staircase delivers us up into a series of creatively lit rooms – the dark dance floor is splashed with swirling droplets of silver light reflected from a disco ball and the bar glows a deep sensual red. Labyrinthine green hallways lead to bathrooms and quiet corners where young couples escape to “make out.”

There is a festive communal vibe to the whole thing, Dewitt knows half the people in the room and as the hours pass and the music deepens – throbbing funk bass lines, clattering techno backbeats and uptempo disco melodies – we become a single harmonious mass flowing in the strobing darkness, tethered to the lights of Harvey’s three turntables. The party continues uninterrupted right through the night and it’s quite a shock when we stumble out of the dark, windowless space into the sunlit street sometime after dawn.

Dewitt owns two luxury motor homes that he rents out to fashion photographers for photo shoots. They are decked out with every conceivable amenity: flat screen TVs, wireless internet, hot showers and foldout couches upholstered in leather that’s so soft it feels like veal. They’re parked in a commercial back lot east of Lincoln Blvd in Venice and Dewitt deposits me in one of them to get a couple hours of sleep before hitting the beach for another day of surfing. There is a residential neighborhood bordering the lot and when I’m trying to revive myself under the motor home’s outdoor shower a few hours later, a woman waves to me from a second story balcony like its nothing to see a strange man showering in the parking lot next to her house. I smile and wave back – all of my East Coast presumptions and personal boundaries washed away like the suds on the tarmac.

Before I’m even dry, Dewitt arrives in a station wagon with surfboards piled on the roof and we’re off to Surfrider Beach in Malibu, a world class right hand point break that faces almost due south and is therefore protected from the west winds that blow out the waves at the city beaches most afternoons. This means the surf is good all day and, making the most of it, Malibu is pure theater. The best surfers in the world hotdog for an audience of fellow surfers, photographers and surf groupies. There’s no swimming at Surfrider, but the sunbathing beauties don’t seem to mind, they just mist themselves with thirty-dollar bottles of designer “Sea Spray” instead.

On a big day it’s not uncommon to see the sports biggest names (Kelly Slater, Joel Tudor) out there slashing impossibly sharp cutbacks and hanging ten for an eternity. Even though the line-up is always packed the top guys get to pick their waves. For the rest of us mere mortals it’s like a demolition derby. But once again Dewitt knows half the people here (he knows so many people everywhere that I’ve dubbed him the unofficial “Pope of Venice”) and he surfs with such skill and authority that he too is able to take waves uncontested. My strategy is to wait for Dewitt to catch one and then drop in front of him and pretend I can’t hear him when he yells, “Behind you moron!”

I spend my last night in LA visiting an old east coast friend who married a girl from Palos Verdes. They live with their adorable, two-year-old, tow-headed daughter Charlotte in Redondo Beach in the South Bay. Tonight they’ve invited me to Anna’s parents’ house in Palos Verdes which means I get to experience an altoghether different aspect of this crazy, diverse city. PV’s quiet, winding streets are shaded by giant, old, deciduous trees and the houses have big grassy yards. Anna’s parents’ yard is so spacious that she and George got married under a big old oak tree in the back by the pool and then had the reception on the lawn in the front. Walking up the slate walkway to the white clapboard house with paned glass windows and wooden shutters I feel like I’ve been transported back to Connecticut and when Charlotte greets me at the door, I see a reflection of my own idyllic childhood in her sweet, blue-eyed smile.

But it’s not this staid, green residential oasis that I will miss when I leave in the morning. There’s plenty of that back in Connecticut. It’s the mad democracy. The goat herders in Topanga, the Mexicans swimming in blue jeans, the ultimate fighter training at the beach. Its a game of snakes and ladders where everybody is somebody and there’s always that chance that you’ll roll the dice and end up in the right place at the right time, even if that just means rubbing shoulders with someone famous or getting invited to an amazing party. Hope springs eternal in LA and the lucky ones are aware that the snakes can take you down as fast as the ladders bring you up. This fact has a way of punching holes in presumptions and class distinctions. There is always the awareness that wherever you and I stand today we could switch places tomorrow.

As the plane rises off the runaway at LAX and banks out over the Pacific, I’m glued to the window staring down at the long wide stretch of sand connecting the Venice and Santa Monica Piers and the steep Mountains of Malibu beyond.

The guy sitting next to me asks, “New York or LA?”

Not quite sure what he means, I say, “LA.”

He nods and says, “You know what the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast is?”

I shrug.

He answers, “On the East Coast the people are fake at being real and out here they’re real at being fake.”

After a pause he says, “I’ll take real at being fake any day.”

I mull over this unusual comparison. I’m thinking in stereotypes of course... like the lock-jawed woman with a glass of Chardonnay who cornered me at an art opening in New York to tell me about her collection of De Koonings and the charitable foundation her husband is on the board of. And I decide he’s right, I’d much rather share a drink and a story with the bleached blonde with huge fake boobs who dresses up as Marilyn Monroe on Hollywood Boulevard.

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