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Los Angeles Without a Car (version 2)

It was cold and damp, and we'd been traipsing up and down for the better part of an hour, past houses, little restaurants, shops, and the Scientology Celebrity Center – twice – when we finally asked someone where the Hollywood Hills Café was. It was a mile back where we had come from, hidden in a nondescript Best Western by the freeway. It was about nine on a March evening, we were idiotically underdressed, and our sole motivation for seeking out the professedly downscale restaurant was its reputation – given by an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail – for being a celebrity hangout. When we finally got there, the only celebrities were in autographed photos on the wall; our closest brush with fame was the impressions left in the naugahyde booths by their vanished posteriors. And a twenty-minute walk back to our hotel awaited us. This was our Los Angeles. And it was good.


You shouldn't see Los Angeles by foot, of course; everyone knows that. The first thing most guidebooks recommend is to rent a car. This city lives and dies by the automobile. If you lack a vehicle, you are truly among the dispossessed. And how can you even hope to take in any of this ridiculously expansive city – the city proper is 467 square miles, and the five county area, with its 88 mostly contiguous cities, is 34,149 square miles – without a car? The place just doesn't end. See it on foot? Senseless. And when Aina and I did just that – walked from our Hollywood hotel to Beverly Hills and back, and subsequently explored Griffith Park and even Santa Monica without benefit of rental car – everybody thought we were out of our minds. They may have been right, too, especially since Aina's a professional figure skater and needed to keep her legs in working order for performance. But we couldn't have had it any other way.

Why did we see Los Angeles on foot? This is a two-part question. The answer to part two – Why on foot? – is straightforward enough: we had a limited budget, and we're used to seeing things by foot; we've both seen places such as London, New York and other great cities without driving. The answer to part one, Why L.A.?, is that we were enticed by its mythos, its hyperreality, its glamour. Aina was touring with Disney on Ice, and I flew out to join her and to see a great and famous city. Is not figure skating glamorous enough? you may ask. The answer is No, it only increases the appetite.


Glamour and mythos subsist not only in persons, and in fact not even primarily in them. Their traces, the posters and photos and other paratexts, are the real motors of glamour; the "ephemera" are more durable than the objects themselves. But the most solid and permanent objects belong to the realm of real estate. Everything happens somewhere. And the foremost somewhere everything happens – or at least used to – is, in the American culture of fame, Los Angeles, "Hollywood." This means the very fabric of the city is more real than reality. And more exemplary and varied: the architecture is simply astounding in its incessant diversity and its frequent luxury. Commercial buildings are almost invariably paragons of style. Of course, that style was learned from seeing these buildings on TV.

The houses are even better. There are a whole lot of people in this town with drawerfuls of dinero, and they seem to like owning utterly individual – often almost chaotically-designed – houses in numerous styles ranging from Spanish colonial to modernist to art deco to arts and crafts, every one apparently of the six-bedroom variety and many of them crazy-glued to the sides of cliffs and served by a wild vermicelli of climbing roads. But even in the seedier neighborhoods, of which there are quite enough, the architecture is exemplary: all the classic styles of the last six decades, many of which have been largely erased from other cities, exist here in their archetypes, every one lovingly decayed by sun, smog and insufficient maintenance.

If you drive around, you can see a lot more of these places, by quantity, but you can also see a lot less of each individual one, and you'll miss a number of them altogether. Pounding the pavement lets you get up close and personal, even if it means losing the TV-like frame of a car window. And it means that you won't have to be distracted by dealing with the traffic, the least laid-back thing about L.A. For that matter, pedestrian traffic is no problem either. The sidewalks are usually pretty empty; everybody with sense and money drives.


We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards, snugly ensconced in the walk of fame and right across the street from Mann's Chinese Theatre with its cemented footprints. Shirley Temple learned to tapdance on the stairs here. Step out the front door onto Hollywood Boulevard and you're treading on the brass pentacles of Cybill Shepherd and The Original Fifth Dimension. But the presence of the area is built on absences: absent stars, empty footprints, and only fading memories of Tinseltown's glory days. Now it's mostly souvenir shops and liquor stores and places you can't take children. So, like Dorothy and Toto, we set off to find our own Emerald City, not Oz but Beverly Hills.

We headed by way of Melrose Avenue, which we had been told was the trendy shopping mecca. But the stores had little we couldn't get back home in Toronto, and the neighborhood, at 10:30 AM, might as well have been Fargo. Admittedly, the ennui is relative. If you're from a town that's not long on funky accoutrements, and you'd really like to gussy yourself up in wonky sunglasses and pick up a few tribal artifacts for your retro coffee table, Melrose is a great place. You can also pass some innocuously seedy establishments and have a full helping of run-of-the-mill late-mid-20th-century architecture. But Aina and I just kept walking, past a lot of palm trees, residences and little shops, and one shopping mall, Beverly Center.

Beverly Center! By the very name one expects a top-quality mall. And so it is – top of the parking garage. One has to ascend by several flights of escalators as though to a postmodern Aztec sacrifice. The reward at the top is a mall much like many others. It's remarkable how you can be anywhere and step into a mall and immediately enter an environment that is utterly familiar. The Gap, the Sharper Image, all the usual staples of malls in areas where people have money to spend. But how could we have been disappointed? We were in the birthplace of the hyperreal America, the uniculture, one-size-fits-all, here-is-your-American-dream-do-you-want-to-supersize-that Generica. Los Angeles – and especially the minds quietly chugging away in Beverly Hills and its satellites – invented Generica. And here, in Beverly, it has been elevated, placed on high, atop a stack of the two things that have most shaped America and especially L.A.: concrete and cars. But we wanted more. On to Rodeo Drive!

After our three-hour stroll, however, our promised land was an anticlimax. Just as stars are shorter in real life, the famous stretch of Rodeo Drive is a mere three blocks of high-fashion stores. And they're pretty much the same stores we'd seen in New York and walk past almost daily in Toronto. So here is fashion, in little boutiques, and those who shop in them arrive and leave by car, their gaspingly expensive, excruciatingly designed vestments unseen outdoors or anyplace available to the uninitiated. We were quickly disexcited. Ferre, Armani, Chanel, blah blah blah. It was 1:00, and we'd been walking since 10:00. The most striking thing about Rodeo Drive for us, after its smallness, was the absence of any place to eat. We didn't bother stopping into the stores – what's the point? We went hunting instead for lunch.

The street with restaurants is two blocks east: Cañon Drive. We cruised it, passing Chasen's, where a producer-looking guy (who probably was a producer; how many people can afford to eat there?) was seated alone on the patio perusing something or other (a script, perhaps?) and was later, on our second pass, to be seen with an actress-looking woman. If this was a near-brush with famous people, it was the closest we got. We walked down to see what Spago looked like, since it's apparently famous. Spago looked like a building hiding behind greenery, an entrance deep enough to prevent seeing into, and three orange-coated guys out front to park cars and screen the riffraff. And at this point, Aina was Riff and I was Raff. We walked back a block and had very nice and surprisingly affordable Italian food at a busy bistro on a corner. I can't even remember its name. Then we set out northward.


As we walked north of the vaunted shopping district and cross Santa Monica Boulevard, the streets immediately became residential and curved gracefully and gradually upwards until Sunset Boulevard, which demarcates the edge of the real hills. And what residential! Every house a beautifully, often exquisitely, designed near-mansion, but all of them a mere lawn's-breadth away from the street. Very few of the homes in this stretch had big walls or blinding hedges. There were a few visible barriers. But the main barriers were the invisible ones: the usual boring socioeconomic barriers, the invisibility and inaccessibility of the inhabitants. And the private security companies that posted their warnings out front.

A quick word on private security. It must be one of the biggest industries in Los Angeles, right up there with valet parking. Cars, guards and signs are ubiquitous, especially in the neighborhoods that are the most beautiful to walk around, and also at many business establishments and in such places as Light Rail Transit stations. I have this image of dwellers in the hills on the northwest side of L.A. looking out across the broad level expanse of the city below and calculating that half the houses below house the people who guard their homes and businesses, and the other half house the people who park their cars. Oh, and somewhere in there are the people who clean their houses. I wondered what the point of a bus line along Sunset through Beverly was until I saw a Hispanic housemaid waiting at a stop.

We stopped for a rest at the top of Rodeo, at Sunset Drive, in Will Rogers Memorial Park, a nice raised triangle of palm trees and reflecting pool situated across from the pink – a very Angeleno color, pink, lots of striking buildings the shade of strawberry ice cream – as I was saying, the pink Beverly Hills Hotel. Then we headed eastward again along Sunset. Ahead: the Sunset Strip, and more famous places.

The Sunset Strip has a smallish feeling for much of its length due to its nestling into the side of a steepening hill and due to its constant curves, which restrict the forward view. The fact that many of the buildings are one storey and most of the rest are two aids this effect. The shops are a mixed bag of the funky and the functional for much of it – a nice bookstore, for instance, and a largish tchotchke shop with numerous Star Wars paratexts. The architecture includes a green flying saucer of a building (not a shop but rather someone's offices) and the House of Blues, surely the most salient structure on the Strip for its thoroughgoing adherence to the Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack style of design (and rest assured that it is very well-maintained Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack, looking ready to spew forth fresh swamp monsters every hour on the quarter-hour). Also on the up-and-down middle of the strip is the Viper Room, co-owned by Johnny Depp and site of River Phoenix's untimely evanescence. We didn't go inside, but we were amazed at how utterly unprepossessing the outside is – a small sign, a flight of stairs, a black wall of a building. Never mind the banality of evil; the banality of the famous at close range is its most disarming feature.

The sidewalks are not crowded along Sunset, but it's not because people don't go there. We had the peculiar experience of going down a mostly empty sidewalk and walking into a perfectly crowded coffee joint. Where did all the people come from? When I headed to the back to use the little boys' room, I searched for a transporter beam and found what was tantamount: a rear parking lot full of cars. In Los Angeles, people even drive to coffee joints. They materialize through the back door and exit again the same way, and the closest they come to the sidewalk is when they choose to sit out in the boulevard seating.

It was a long walk still to get back to the hotel. At Century Canyon, we walked up to Hollywood Boulevard. And for more than a mile we walked past houses and low apartment blocks. Not so much as one convenience store, nor anyone else on the sidewalks, not even in later afternoon. A block and a half from our hotel, Hollywood at last burst fully realized before us. Returned to the room, Aina immediately ran a hot bath for her suffering legs – no two hours of skating could match six or more of the L.A. concrete. And then, at my behest, we set out to find supper and the possibility of stars at the Hollywood Hills Café.


If Los Angeles at close range failed to match expectation, perhaps a great view from above, across the whole city, would restore the mythos. How many movies have had enticing mythopoeic vistas of Los Angeles from brush-covered hills? Glamour had been distant from us; perhaps we could restore it by claiming that distance. Therefore, the next day I insisted that we go up to the Griffith Park Observatory. The rest of the trip, I promised Aina, was up to her determination, just as long as she would grant me this one thing.

When you look at Griffith Park on a map of the Los Angeles area, you may well wonder how it is that such a large swatch of turf – 4107 acres, the largest municipal park in the U.S. – managed to be kept aside for so long in this infinity of urbanization. Go there and you'll know. A good place to put a park is on land that you just can't do much else with, and, indeed, a rather large percentage of Griffith Park is on those chaparral-covered hills and ravines that erupt all across the northern side of L.A. (beyond which is even more L.A., the San Fernando Valley). The road up to the observatory forms a wavy incomplete paper clip of a line as it goes up first one side of a ravine and then the other. It doesn't have any footpaths or sidewalks along it. As we gradually ascended, the view developing by degrees over the better part of an hour, Aina reminded me that she was going to have to skate that evening. And she was wearing shoes with three-inch heels.

But the top was our reward. The observatory was closed until later in the day, but the roof was open to all comers. The view from up there is cinematic, cinsecopic even (no – it's Omnimax, actually). Aside from getting to see more haze than you thought you'd ever take in at one sweep of the eyes, you can see just about everything south of the mountains in L.A. You can take in that lofty view of the flatlands whereon dwell the private security agents, valet parkers and domestic servants. You can see the downtown, which, contrary to what some say, is every bit as much of a downtown as many other cities have, tall buildings and all. You can feel like you're in a movie. Rebel Without a Cause had some scene or other up here – so I'm told; I've never seen it. We sat on the roof's concrete parapet and had our picture taken with the Hollywood sign in the background.

And then we had to come down. We attempted a shortcut down the other side of the ridge. All was well as we followed the path, but when we tried to descend into the neighborhood to the south, we were met with fences here, impassible slopes there. Ahead of us on an asphalt road was an attractive pink castle of a house we had seen from the observatory and set our eyes on as we descended; it was the crown of a lower hill, surrounded by trees, a sight out of Disney or a 1980s drug gangster movie. But the road towards it was blocked by a high fence. We turned around and descended by dirt path to the park gate. Our walk back to the hotel was a long one illuminated by houses large and small followed by crumbling commercial structures.


The following day, Wednesday, Aina was called to be a famous person: Disney on Ice was having publicity. We lazed around in the morning, and then parted ways in early afternoon. I was on my own, anonymous, and I chose to head to the highest concentration of guidebook-glamorized sights, downtown. I had only quickly passed through the downtown on my way to the hotel Sunday evening, having taken public transportation all the way from the airport, a multiple-hour multiple-transfer trek. I took public transportation downtown again – no time to walk it. I was well-prepared, having gotten my information in advance from the Metropolitan Transit Authority's website – – and the bus route finder on the Southern California Association of Governments site, My first two destinations were places I had seen in a movie: the Bradbury building and the Grand Central Market.

The movie that featured both of them was Blade Runner, the sci-fi-noir vision of a dark and crumbly future that seemed so much more plausible to me now that I had experienced the city in person. Sebastian Coe, the designer of replicants (factory-made humanoids with built-in obsolescence), lived in the 1892 Bradbury building with its high atrium and wrought iron, a 19th-century vision of the future, and was killed there by two of his own creations who fought but could not escape their own mortality. To the everyday sightseer, it's a clean and beautiful building – and inaccessible beyond the lobby except to those with business in the offices above. Across the street is the market, where a replicant and a human met their ends. It's very small compared to, for example, the Arch Street Market in Philadelphia, just two lanes of meat and produce counters entering on one street and exiting on the next. It looked so much larger in the movie. I was reminded yet again that reality does not have to be large; it can, after all, be made to appear so by careful framing.

As if to prove the point, waiting for me across the street from the Grand Central Market was the Angel's Flight. The Angel's Flight is a mode of transport more commonly associated with Switzerland: a funicular, a rail car pulled by ropes up an incline – or two cars, in fact, one descending as the other ascends. It sits on a bare piece of hill less than a block wide and just a few storeys high; its total length is only 315 feet. It's been on the side of Bunker Hill since 1901, ferrying the indolent and the curious. It has as much charm as San Francisco's vastly more famous cable cars; it's also less crowded (there was one other person on it when I took it up). And it's a small fraction of the price: you pay twenty-five cents at the top. I suppose if you take it up and haven't got the fare, you might have to take it down again. Or they could kick you out the back of the car – it has no safety gate or door, and one bad misstep at the top of the route could result in a stuntman somersault down the concrete and into the upper entrance of the lower car.

The remains of the afternoon were dedicated to seeing the smallish Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), walking past the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – where the Oscars were to be held the next weekend, behind closed doors and in front of television cameras – and on across downtown to the other half of the MOCA, surveying Little Tokyo, and finally seeking supper in the historical birthplace of the city. This cradle, carefully resurrected, is the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, across the Santa Ana Freeway from downtown. It consists of a small set of narrow pedestrian streets with restored buildings, mainly restaurants or shops selling purses, cheap hats and other items like they sell to tourists on similar streets just south of the border, down Mexico way. Some of the items looked reasonably inviting; the atmosphere had that "authentic" stencil on it. The buildings were genuinely old, and, for a switch, L.A. felt cozy as I went down narrow, cobbled Olvera Street between the carts and the restaurants, not a car in sight, and people actually walking. I think they were all tourists, pretty much.

And then I rushed off to the Art Deco Union Station, its leather seats and dim lighting apparently unchanged since the "golden age of travel." But an unobtrusive side passage leads down into the new Red Line subway, the cavernous station and the trains used only by the carless few. I took it to MacArthur Park. There I caught a bus to the L.A. County Arena for another evening of lights, swirling, jumping and pre-recorded song, with Aina Arro in the chorus. Going to meet her backstage after the show, I was carte-blanched past the door guards by the show director and allowed into the concrete inner sanctum, the wigs, props and costumes all piled neatly in their travelling trunks, and Nancy Kerrigan, star of the show, looking smallish and pushing a baby carriage. Now I know I'm a theatre person at heart, because it's more magical for me, not less, when I can see up the magician's sleeve. There, too, the glamour disarms by being in small bodies like any other, but it's different when you're in, not out. It's a privilege, not a disappointment, to see how small it is.

Our one non-absence in L.A., and we had arrived with it – and would leave with it.


At last, we just wanted to see something pretty and do some window shopping. The hunt for the hyperreal had run its course. Thursday was a day off for Aina, so we had plenty of time. The guidebook recommended Santa Monica. We took the bus along Wilshire Boulevard, past Beverly Hills and into the little hills just south of UCLA, threading through a neighborhood of expensive homes and chi-chi hotels. And then we crossed the San Diego Freeway into the more level middle-class city of Santa Monica, the same little bit of America that brought us such cultural high-water marks as Three's Company.

We found our gen-X version of "hip" here, on Main Street, two back from the beach, between Hollister and Rose. Here, in what one guidebook says is to L.A. as Queens is to New York, was at last what we had failed to find on the famous Melrose or even the storied Sunset Strip: shops that we looked in because they were interesting, not because we felt obliged, and items that we could see ourselves buying. I'm not saying that Main Street is the apotheosis of hip or funky; the denser cities of the east – New York, Boston, Philly, Toronto – have one or more noteworthy stretches each with much higher hipness-to-foot ratio than anything achievable in the dilute urbanity of southern California. But we perused nice dresses, interesting handicrafts, reasonably hip coffee joints, crafty stationery, arty moveables and the ever-popular pudenda-shaped pasta. There were no door guards or car parkers; there was a Museum of Contemporary Art shop and a volunteer-staffed candle-soap-and-other-counterculture-parvenu-luxuries store supporting the social projects of the Episcopalian Church.

And then we walked on the edge of the ocean, along the beach, towards the little burst of country-fair midway suspended above the water on Santa Monica Pier (yes, it's what you see in the opening credits of Three's Company). On our right were the waterfront hotels, done up with the styling and apparent class that one might associate with the twenties and thirties. Between and in front of them was Ocean Avenue; behind them, houses by the block. To the left, a bare beach, fallow in off-season, only dog-walkers, in-line skaters and joggers holding mostly to the path. Beyond the pier, cliffs grew above the sand and mountains curved northwest towards Malibu. We walked onto the pier, past the dormant roller coaster and down to the Ferris wheel, where for two dollars each we saw the city from the vantage point of high and low, far and near, earth and sky, up, down, up, down.

We had a romantic dinner in a restaurant on the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian mall like so many in so many cities, pantheon of the local avatars of chain gods. Then we took the bus back through the cooling night air. And as we were crossing Wilshire at Fairfax to make a transfer, a police car came along, sirens going. The driver stopped at the light, leaned out and asked us (we were at the median strip) whether we had seen a shooting there. We said we had not. The light turned amber, we scurried on to the bus stop for our connection back to Hollywood, and the cop car sat sedated awaiting a green.



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