Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Meandering Reminiscences of LA

The weather the last two days has been giving me flashbacks of living Los Angeles.

I don't know why weather that is above 30 C (that's 86 F) should cause that. That's not an unusual temperature in Ontario in the summer so I grew up experiencing it every year. In fact, last summer after we settled in Sudbury was particularly hot. The feel of the heat isn't even that similar to what you get in southern California -- it is rarely as humid down in SoCal as it can get here, for instance, and there are almost no thunder storms. And we've had a broader range of weather in the past week and a half than LA has all year -- it snowed here ten days ago, if you can believe it, and it is 31 C now -- so the feel is much different than a neverending string of days in the 70s or 80s Farenheit, with little chance of rain.

There is something to be said for LA's climate, I'll give it that.

But still, today as the hammer of the heat has beat down upon my heavily lotioned neck, as I have pushed L's stroller, as I carried his stuffed dog to free up his hands for throwing stones in a stream, I have been thinking of LA. Perhaps it is also relevant that it is about one month short of a year since the movers carted off our stuff and we checked into a hotel near LAX to allow us to catch a flight to Pearson the next morning. Okay, not exactly the anniversary, but certainly right now counts as being smack in the middle of the anniversary of the long-but-short stretch of stress that preceded the move.

In any case, I have been thinking about LA. I remember the cab ride from LAX to the house we initially sublet, how L's tremendous patience with travelling finally snapped and he yelled and yelled and yelled. I still feel a little bad about putting the cabby through that. On that trip, I remember driving down one street lined with trees heavy with pinky-purpley flowers. Fallen petals were dense enough to leave a little magenta drift down the middle of the road.

I have been thinking of my long trip down Hollywood Boulevard the day after we arrived. I had to pick up the truck we were renting to get all of our stuff out of storage at LAX. Palm trees and blossoming trees and a characteristic heady scent of flower-derived perfume and diesel had been enough to tell me I was Someplace New even though much of LA's built form looks like East Hamilton, but it was the presence of a group of Latino men hanging around at the entrance of the rental place and offering to hire out as movers that really brought it home that this was a smiliar place but not the same. I lived the previous decade in urban Ontario, so racialized class divisions are nothing new to me; this strategy for responding to being on the oppressed end of those divisions was.

Our first trip to the grocery store was full of similar little markers. Armed security guards patrolled the store, something I'd never seen before. Of course, the bank machines offered English and Spanish, not English and French, and spelled it "checking" instead of "chequing." And it became pretty clear, pretty quick that although Hollywood/West Hollywood is a relatively multi-racial community for a rich neighbourhood in LA -- much more so than Beverley Hills or Brentwood or the upscale section of Santa Monica, for example -- I would bet the people working at the store probably had long bus rides to get to and from work.

I remember a brutal double murder that occured two streets over not long after we got there. I don't remember being particularly freaked out about it, though I do know that the dominant response in this supposedly liberal neighbourhood involved calls for more cops, etc., etc., and that was a little freaky. It stuck in my mind mostly because one of the victims had been a famous screenwriter many years before and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the '50s drove him out of the business.

For some reason at the parent-toddler drop-in this morning, as I made a stuffed cat name, discuss, and eat the various plastic foodstuffs presented by L, I was marvelling at the number of movie theatres I went to in LA.

There was the one closest to our first place. Just a block north, to Hollywood Boulevard, then half a dozen blocks east to get to the theatres in the mall at Hollywood and Highland. That same complex contains the hall where most of the award shows are shot. A couple of times I took a bus farther east -- I don't remember if it was down Hollywood or Sunset -- to an extremely posh, quite expensive cinema that felt like a fortress on the outside but like a palace on the inside.

I could also walk a block south to Sunset Boulevard and then about twenty minutes west to get to a smaller mall with a cinema that showed mostly independent stuff. The mall also had a bookstore which specialized in books about music, film, and art, and had a sizeable and fascinating selection of graphic novels. And a large queer-focused section for a mainstream store, of course, given that we were in West Hollywood. The mall was just down the street from the Director's Guild of America headquarters, which was occasionally used to show films that the public could see, but I only went in once, for a panel discussion by writers and directors and actors of Six Feet Under during the gay and lesbian film festival that year.

South and farther west of us there was the Beverley Centre -- too far to walk. I don't remember if I ever actually went to a movie there or not, though I know I meant to once or twice and got distracted with writing or reading while I was lurking about in the food court. And even farther towards the ocean is Westwood, the community around UCLA, which is where my partner worked. I went to at least two different movie theatres in Westwood but did not end up going there as often as I had thought I would given the scarcity of human-scale neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. Probably the most memorable event I attended in Westwood was LA's annual book festival, one of the biggest in the world. I had hoped to attend a panel which included Tariq Ali but it was sold out, so I wandered through the countless stalls, chose my birthday present from my partner (a book on the history of hip-hop whose author I'd heard interviewed), people watched, and stressed about the move to Sudbury, which was either possible or probable at that point, I don't remember.

After three months we moved to university housing, which was a decent bus ride south and a little west of UCLA. While living there I once went to a cinema somewhere in the long, long stretch between Westwood and the downtown on Wiltshire, but mostly I stuck closer to home. There were the cinemas in the Westside Pavillion. I went to three different movie theatres in Santa Monica, on or near the Third Street Promenade. And a few times I took the bus down into Culver City to the big multiplex there.

I also have been thinking about the flowers. There isn't much I miss about LA, but I do miss the flowers. The complex we lived in had roses blooming in December, and even the humblest front yard garden displayed far more colour than most gardens in Ontario. I remember one Sunday we went for a walk through Beverley Hills. I suppose the houses were huge and beautiful, but I remember the gardens the best -- numbingly spectacular. And it was all kind of gross, too, of course, if you refused to ignore the relationship between the opulence and greenery there and the poverty and ubiquitous concrete in much of the rest of the city.

I remember how outgoing people were. Though I can't gauge exactly how my identity played out in that, of course. I experienced this gregariousness (compared to Ontarians) from both white people and people of colour, but I obviously have no way to assess to what extent being an early-thirties middle-class white man usually travelling with a cute baby/toddler made my interactions different than, say, an early-twenties working-class Black man wearing hip-hop gear. I have a feeling at least some of the west side white people that struck up conversations with me at bus stops and in grocery stores would've behaved rather differently.

I remember the beach. My early-life beach experiences were freshwater lakes in Ontario and the shores of the North Sea in Scotland, so during our year in LA it never ceased to amaze me that I could take a short bus ride and walk a few blocks and be on a saltwater beach that was golden sand several hundred feet back and stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction. We didn't end up going to the beach as often as I thought we might, but it was still a luxury I appreciated.

I remember the smog. I remember the the hills that framed the horizon to north and south always had a tinge of brown in front of them, even if straight up was brilliant blue.

I remember cars. Cars, cars, cars, cars.

I remember cavernous subway stations that were close to empty any time I went in.

I remember a great weight of isolation. As happened with my eight month stint in Ottawa as an undergrad, while I was experiencing it I was wishing it would end but after the fact I occasionally yearn for it. Occasionally. Perhaps it betrays some underlying anti-social tendencies that I should be ashamed of, but so long as I could have control over the dosage, being completely alone in a sea of hundreds of thousands or millions of strangers, with nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, is sometimes something that I crave. And then, of course, I would want to be able to snap my fingers and go out for pints and intense conversation with a group of friends.

I remember the suddenness of our departure. In mid-April I was still expecting to be stuck in LA for another year or more, but by the end of June we were gone. I had one last trek through pedestrian-hostile streets from our hotel to a courier depot to drop off our modem for return to the phone company. (Don't get me started on what I remember about that bumbling, incompetent utility!) The courier depot ended up being closed so I had a bite of breakfast at a fast food outlet. I walked back to the hotel, doing my best to ignore the passenger jets flying as little as thirty feet over my head on their way to the runway while I tried to figure out what to do. I ended up entrusting the modem to the concierge of the hotel. Verizon hasn't sent any hired guns after me, so I assume it got back safely. Not that assassins hired by Verizon could find a donkey if they were tied to it.

It's hard to believe it has been almost a year since we left. I continue to have my reservations about Sudbury, of course, and I was always ambivalent about Los Angeles. But I'm glad we went. It did provide some pretty cool memories, even if the rather flat prose of this posting doesn't do them justice. And it did start me blogging, after all!


rabfish said...

great post

Anonymous said...

Remember when we lived on Sawtelle and there were ALWAYS airplanes overhead, usually 4 or 5 of them ('cuz we were near the airport)? Remember watching the pelicans hunting fish off the Santa Monica Pier? Remember taking L to play on the squishy fruit at Westside Pavillion, and watching him climb up that giant slice of watermelon?

I miss Trader Joe's. And our apartment and the apartment complex. And taking L out to play 'chase' with B. And the amazing Mexican fast food.

Scott Neigh said...

Hmmmm...who could this anonymous commenter be? :)

Anonymous said...

Oops! I forgot to sign! It's me.


Unknown said...

Your post is really evocative. I visited LA quite a few times, as my relatives lived there. They have since moved to OC. The last time I was there, I stayed on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. To me, LA seemed like Vancouver, BC on steroids - with freeway anatomy, massive pollution, out of control neoliberalism, widespread alienation - but without too much rain.

The OC is more conservative than LA, yikes!

My relatives want me to move to So Cal. I said I would consider Northern Cal, when and if, after Bernie and AOC have four terms as president and eight terms of House of Rep. majorities, with universal healthcare, housing subsidies, and restored funding to public schools and university tuitions that are Canadian style.

UCLA is a neat place, though.

I am always quite surprised, happily usually, at the gregariousness of Americans. Emotional expressiveness seems to be a virtue for Americans. Things that usually only see in the movies I see in real life on LA subways, on the streets, and on Amtrak. Whereas Canadians are often reserved and quiet unless they receive an invitation to speak.