Two women clasp their fingers through the rungs of a chain link fence. They’re all but salivating in anticipation as they watch a fiftyish man bent to the ground, working a pair of scissors through a red carpet. After cutting off a corner he schlepps over to them saying “I dunno what all the fuss is about, it’s just a carpet”, as he presents their prize. Eyes widening, pupils dilating, one accepts the fabric like a sacrament, while the other replies “It’s not just any carpet”. Together they cradle their burgundy baby and I swear I can hear cooing.
Directly in front of them, just beyond the fence, lies the Dolby Theatre where the Academy Awards took place the previous night. An Oscars statue is being pulled down while the famous star-trampled red carpet is being disassembled. To the left is a man hocking pamphlets for a guided tour of celebrity’s houses; behind them a shirtless man rummages through a trashcan, and there we are, to the right.
My teenage years saw me day-dreaming of Los Angeles: PacSun ads in my YM magazine featured the Santa Monica pier at sunset, black and white Billy Wilder films on my beloved Turner Classic Movies cast the city in a noiry light, and my high school guilty pleasure The O.C. was filled with palisades and pacific shores. Back then I wanted the romance, the mystery, and the glamor of LA. Now at 28 and finally arriving I just wanted to see what it was like to exist in this place without being rich or famous. Cause the way to get a true feel for any place is to exist among it and not stand against it. Here, just to blend into the wallpaper of palm trees and camparis.
My first hours in the city consisted of getting stuck in traffic, watching hummingbirds silhouetted by the sunset on the balcony of our Airbnb, and sipping cocktails on a rooftop while Taxi Driver was projected onto the building next door. Deniro silently mouthing his eternal you talkin’ to me?
Come morning we head to a diner and wait for bacon and eggs behind two 6’’ tall teenagers with Chanel bags, then venture up to Griffith Observatory. The observatory is perched on the highest hill, surveying the city below and the Hollywood sign nested in the nearby hills. Also perched high is a tiny pug in a pink vest and harness. His owner props him up like a puppet on the Observatory’s ledge as she takes a photo of the pooch and the skyline. Carl and I witness this in horror from a floor above. Don’t move we silently mouth, as it would result in the canine tumbling ever down. Luckily his owner got her shot in the first dozen takes, and he’s on solid ground within the minute. We breathe a sigh of relief.
Walking down the hill from Griffith we pass beautiful houses drowned in flowers and succulents, even passing a front door decorated with a massive Oscar decal (whether this is due to it being awards season or is a permanent fixture we’re unsure), prior to walking into Jeni’s ice cream in Los Feliz. Here we make our order standing next to Charlie Day which goes unnoticed to me until I make eye contact and my eyes go buggy for a second.
At Intelligentsia Coffee that evening a woman in an ornate rhinestone headband takes a look at her macchiato and upon seeing the foam flower smudged, sneers at the offending cup. Noticing this the barista visibly flinches, apologizes, and starts work on another, as if this were uncommon.
It’s been an odd day so far.
While sipping cocktails topped with edible orchids we discuss next day’s plans. It’ll be a day chock-full of tourist activities: the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where stars like Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, and Vampira are buried, the Bradbury building where Blade Runner was filmed, the LACMA (Los Angeles county museum of art) featuring installation art and immaculately groomed grounds, and finally a quick jaunt down Hollywood Boulevard.
During our planning we overhear the guy next to us talking about his boss’s money. Commonly overheard subjects in LA are someone else’s money and someone else’s misery. The trashcan on the street corner is overflowing with a black fur coat, and next to the trashcan rests a chalkboard sign stating “Breakfast and lunch: weekdays 11:30-4:00”. It’s la la land here indeed.
There’s peacocks in the cemetery; you’ll come upon one perched on a grave, or hear a far-off squaw while gazing at the tomb of Johnny Ramone. I’m unsure if this is an air of LA, or something stipulated in a will: “and my peacocks shall populate and prosper above the soil which contains me; for they are my children”. Cause here there’s the authentically weird whose oddities are sculpted by years of endless sun, or those whose mannerisms are adopted, borrowed from a magazine; who consist of affectations and Instagram likes. Either way, I’m not sure if the peacocks are here for the living or as a request by the dead, but the absurdity is welcomed.
Less than 24 hours after Leo has finally won his Oscar for screaming and crying hard enough we’re walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Contrary to 14-year old Gracie’s belief I don’t give a shit about the stars I’m walking on and I feel no need to dive my hands into the depressions left by Michelle Pfeiffer and Keanu Reeves. Do you know how much urine has accumulated in those stars? And it never rains.
Construction is underway to tear down the evidence of last nights festivities, and watching the Oscars statues falling down seems almost pagan, like watching false idols being sacked to the ground before being burnt on a pyre. Fences surround the wreckage, and since the sidewalk in front of the Dolby Theatre is closed off there’s a passageway leading off the street. Here you’re twisted and turned about to the point of complete disorientation. It’s the kind of path you’d take below ground in case of nuclear fallout, or attack by a Cloverfield-like monster; just as the claustrophobia is kicking in you’re spit into the Theatre building itself.
You know why there’s always a curtain hanging over the theatre entrance on Academy Awards night? It’s because prior to walking up those glamorous theatre steps you have to walk through a shopping complex first. Like, an actual mall similar to the one you shop at in Munsie, Indiana. So just know that next time you see Jennifer Lawrence walking into that marvelous and massive theatre, embodying all the beauty and extravagance of Hollywood, she’s really passing gelato-ries and Guess storefronts prior to sitting her Diored self in those plush red seats.
I find sanctuary in the LACMA. It has a room devoted entirely to 20th century erotic German sketches and a wall of Alberto Giacometti sculptures that will make you fall on your knees. Large scale installations like Richard Serra’s “Band” will distort your sense of reality as you weave around a ribbon of molded steel which curves and twists, enclosing the space around you till you’re confined, before finally and slowly opening once more, freeing you from your surroundings. No one’s actively trying to sell you anything which is a complete respite from our Hollywood experience.
That night we fall asleep watching Tremors on TV. Kevin Bacon is speaking in some sort of accent from nowhere, USA, while the window’s open and warm air’s flooding in off the balcony.
The following afternoon we decide to hit up Mumford Brewing. It’s new, it’s trendy, and it’s also on the border of skid row-where 3,000+ homeless people live within just four square miles. In a few minutes of walking we pass tents on sidewalks and overflowing shopping carts whose owners sleep nearby. Glaring out on these bleak blocks is Mumford. The exterior is painted shades of fuchsia and tangerine, and from its bright doors exit a group of twenty-something’s dressed in platforms and overalls. “Isn’t this just the perfect L.A. day??” a girl toting a balloon asks, as she nearly trips on a man sitting on the sidewalk. She walks in the street instead. Everyone in the party nods in agreement as they bounce down the road, red balloon bobbing as they go.
All this is too much for me and I’m almost crying as we walk inside and read through a menu of beers with names like Black Mamba and Koala Food; no tears come, but neither do words, and Carl and I do the New York Times crossword together in lieu of speaking.
Leaving Mumford we’ve dubbed the next area we’re walking through as “Bong Alley”. All storefronts are wholesale head shops, each filled with thousands of bongs and bowls – enough smoking vessels for all of Haight Ashbury’s past, present, and future. Past Bong Alley is Teddy Row: a block of teddy bear shops full of oversized stuffed animals clutching oversized stuffed hearts. In Teddy Row we watch a man step out of his worn out boot. He stops for some time, stares at the shoe, and then starts screaming. Not an angry scream, but an animal sound of someone who’s given up.
A few streets from this scene is The Last Bookstore, where thousands of used books reside, and in each corner is an artsy display of floating pages, flying hardbacks, and book sculptures. A complete land of whimsy. This city, it doesn’t make any sense from one block to the next, I swear. It’ll break your heart.
For our last day we decided to do something a bit more uplifting and journeyed to the Getty Center, an architectural marvel of an art museum off the Pacific Coast highway. Though I preferred the art of the LACMA, the grounds of the Getty are astonishing in scale and detail. Inspired by Italian villas, the facade is infinitely more interesting to me than the classical art inside. I can only look at paintings of boats and dead white men for so long, but I could look at these fountains and gardens for days.
We discuss the odds of whether or not we saw a Laker at the Getty as I’m burying Carl’s feet in Santa Monica’s sand. Cause just as we assume all the towering yet 110 lb women here are models or aspiring actresses, we assume all 7’ tall men are basketball stars.
During our half hour of lounging in the shadow of the iconic ferris wheel we watch a woman with black hair and skinny jeans take endless selfies. There was a pattern to her methods: a few minutes of photo taking followed by intense reviewing, during which time she’s shield her phone from the sun and lean in to assess her work. Finally, upon finding no attempts social media worthy, she’d ruffle her hair, position herself once more towards the incoming sea breeze for that wind-swept look, then begin the process again. Passers-by would even take photos of her, which after their leaving she’d deem inadequate and would snap on. Even as we left she remained, like Sisyphus rolling his stone ever up the mountain. Some say she’s there still.
At no point on our trip did I see the skyline clearly. There was always a haze between the city and I. Looking out from the Getty Museum or Griffith, downtown’s buildings were always obscured and the ocean was never within sight, suffocated in the air surrounding it. Ephemeral in the distance; temporal, fleeting, and always out of reach.
So on my last night here, the last night of a trip I’d visited and revisited decades ago before stepping foot in it’s limits, I stand on the balcony and look over the land before me. Lights silhouetting palm trees against a sky not truly dark, but illuminated by the city it shrouds. There’s no noise here miraculously, and the silence is it’s own lullaby. So lull me to sleep L.A. Play it out for me who no longer believes they’ll be quenched by this California mirage; the mirage that calls out; calls to others still, drawing them into the neon desert of sand and smog.