Wednesday, June 29, 2011

This house is not for sale

Los Angeles is impossibly big. It's almost as if town planners put about 40 reasonable sized cities into a bag, shook them up, and scattered them over the hills, valleys and shore. Everyone here is married to their car, without one it's nearly impossible to get around, but being two days off being able to hire one, I had to stick to my worn down Nikes.

My shoes took me through suburban Hollywood, the hipster scene on Melrose Ave, the pram pushers of the new apartment buildings near La Brea and the food carts on Wilshire Blvd. It took around 90 minutes, but on a few recommendations I finally made to the LACMA.

The building is typical of the area, massive and strewn all over the park. Burbank’s own Tim Burton was having an expensive exhibit shown, and since Ed Wood is a brilliant film that I may have watched without paying, I offered the universe some balance and checked it out.

Goth heaven aside, the sketches and models from films are pretty amazing. Batman’s cowl wasn’t on display, and there was very little from Ed Wood, but the exhibit was still a highlight of the entire museum. Richard Serra’s massive steel curves are an easy second.

The park that houses the LACMA is also home to the La Brea tar pits, where methane and asphalt come to the surface in a way that would only comfort fans of burnouts. The Mastadons they pulled from the pits are pretty amazing and their size would rival some tanks, however they’re overshadowed by the existence of such a phenomenon occurring in the middle of a city. Say what you want about how big and smoggy the place is,  but having that kind of history available while skyscrapers stand around you is impressive in any context.

I began a bit of a lucky streak in San Diego when I mashed the buttons on a vending machine and received two iced teas. This continued outside the tar pits when the same trick granted me two Dr Peppers for $1. However, the luckiest moment came after I walked up La Brea ave, and past the galleries and Jewish section. On a quick trip to Hollywood Blvd’s chemist for some sleeping pills (take that 17 hour flight) I bumped into Pim, my companion on that horrible Greyhound journey from Dallas to Albuquerque.

Our original plan to meet up was scuttled by an issue saving contact details on that bus trip, but through a bit of fortune I ran into him and his friend Pascal ahead of a hike. We stopped by their apartment building that sits just off the main part of Hollywood Blvd and grabbed a quick dinner before embarking on a guided tour of some of Hollywood’s lesser known parts.

One of the first stops was a dollar store, selling individual fighting fish in plastic cups that were half poured with a mysterious blue liquid. They were all available for a dollar, but that kind of cruelty had removed the fight from most of them. Without a doubt, those poor fish are easily one of the weirdest things I have ever seen on sale at a discount store, and I worked at one for two years.

Via some of the sketchier streets of Hollywood, Pim took me to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and though I’m not a fan of them at all (too many black metal photoshoots) he showed me the grave of Dee Dee Ramone and a large statue of his band-mate Johnny. It was certainly a surprising detour to the night, but definitely a cool way to spend my last night in Hollywood.

After what turned into hours of walking, I finally returned to the hostel and met a group of Kiwis on a quick tour of the States who are trying to get themselves as chemically challenged as possible. Two of them host one a radio show from Auckland and were on their way to London to interview the Foo Fighters. We stayed out until the bars began to close their doors, but on the walk home got to see some of that famed Hollywood ego, as cars with 26” wheels and a sense of impending gun crime took over the night. I called it a night around two, but the Kiwis were keen to keep partying like they’re Motley Crue.

Perla and her sister Cheese came by the next morning, and after a customary Denny’s stop we drove to the Elliott Smith wall on Sunset Blvd. I had tried to see it when I first arrived in Los Angeles, but due its poor state couldn’t, and ended up with some decent sunburn instead. This time it was apparent due to the hipsters that were already there to check it out. Tags, messages and posters hide most of the artwork (which has been repainted numerous times), but it was great to see one of the main things I’d come to see in Los Angeles – even if it had faded like an aging Hollywood starlet.
Listen to Elliott Smith - Twilight

That afternoon we drove through Beverly Hills on a visit to the Getty Center, where it’s hard to tell whether it’s the building or what’s in them that is more impressive. It’s one of the best places in the city, and the Saturday crowds really demonstrated this. As the sun set late in the evening, we drove through Koreatown and Downtown, where the real beauty of Los Angeles is apparent. The 1930s meets the modern world, and with a golden sun reflecting off the buildings it made me appreciate the city even more. To me, Los Angeles is one of those places I enjoy more and more the longer I am there. If you don’t like it, you simply haven’t been there long enough, or you’ve overstayed your visit by way too long.

When the sun had set we took to Mullholland Drive at night, being mindful of  possible David Lynch films and local rattlesnakes. On both sides of the hill, the city really puts it on at the night. The grid pattern of lights dominate the view of the valley, while the skyscrapers and bright lights of Downtown, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills give life to the view from of the other side.  It was another moment of being smitten by the city I feel too many visitors don’t get a chance to really appreciate.

Somewhere between laying my head on the air mattress and waking up the morning after, I completed my 25th lap of the sun. I’ve criticised myself before for being unemployed, unqualified and not having a permanent place to live at this age, but in reality I was pretty chuffed to complete the milestone on the other side of the world. Of course it would have been nice to spend the day with family and friends, but the place where you are born and grow up doesn’t determine where you should spend the rest of your days. The downsides of my current situation are nothing compared the brilliant year I’ve had, and I knew the risks before I left. In the end, rolling the dice and taking the chance proved greater than any of the consequences.

Perla and I visited the San Fernando swap meet, or as her and her sister call it, ‘the Mexican Mall’. Stalls are lined up in a large carpark and they sell anything you can imagine. For a few cents you can purchase vintage wrestling toys, maternity clothing, bootleg football shirts, stolen car stereos and even a casket. It almost made the aforementioned goldfish seem normal.

That afternoon Perla, her nephew, sister and myself headed to 6 Flags to spend the rest of the day on rollercoasters. Again, the significance of being away was lessened, as it was something unique to this being on the other side of the world. For hours we lined up to ride Tatsu, Riddler’s Revenge, Colossus, Goliath and some others before my brain was too shook up to continue. We missed X2 and Superman due to the line size, but I still managed to put a few inhibitions to the side and put some faith into engineers who are much smarter than I am. If anything, getting over a few fears and pushing yourself is just as significant about gaining a year as any present (though I did treat myself to a new Batman cape!(seriously, rollercoasters in capes is awesome)).

Staying with Perla’s family in Los Angeles proved a brilliant way to mix up my travelling experience. It’s a house with eight permanent residents, a dog, a visiting grandfather and for three nights, a smelly Australian. Her Mexican mother showed me how to make salsa, and her nephew tried to beat me at Fifa (good luck). Her two nieces did their best to teach me Spanish, but in wilder moments demonstrated that uniquely childish bravery and climbed and jumped off anything they could find. The whole stay was an absolutely lovely moment, and sharing the dinner table with the youngest members of the families and eating homemade Mexican food is one of the nicest experiences I’ve had this year.

My final day in the United States was spent in Koreatown, Los Angeles, exploring the district that has somewhat unknown to tourists. The hotel where Robert Kennedy was murdered has been turned into a school, but not without a memorial, while Art Deco theatres and office blocks make a strong visual impression on the area. The afternoon ended with a walk through MacArthur Park, where a pond and grassy hill area offers the nicest views of downtown from anywhere in the city. It’s one of the prettiest sites in the whole city, but as if it’s some sort of metaphor for the some of the America that I’ve experienced, the where the beauty of the park is somewhat overshadowed by the homeless people and shady types – not that I would change a thing about it.

The chance to say good-bye and thanks to Perla was rushed as I ran for a bus to LAX, the place where this magnificent year began. Jumping in a giant tin can and crossing the Pacific does carry some significance, and here’s hoping it’s nothing to do with closure. I love Wollongong, and as much as returning home is nice, no doubt leaving America is breaking my heart. I’ve had a brilliant year, but unfortunately it was always just that; a year. The time has been cut short, but my feelings toward the U.S.A. have only grown.

Pearl Jam - Man of the Hour
Sometimes, someone else finds the words for you.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go

Los Angeles is a late starter. The fog and smog that come in the morning mean every day starts with a bit of winter before the sun burns through the clouds around mid day. My postcard view in the morning was blanketed in grey, but by the middle of the day when Perla arrived the sun was typically Californian.

Los Angeles is so spread out that it is hard to remember that you're in the city when you wake up next to a quiet park by the sea. The aforementioned smog means the hills and skyscrapers are invisible unless you're right next to them. Still, Perla and I toured around San Pedro in her overheating car, driving around the harbour and the art deco streets before heading to Santa Monica.

I'd briefly been to Santa Monica before and all I remember is homeless people. This time however the place had turned the charm on. The streets were lively, my burrito was spicy and standing in the afternoon sun looking out onto the ocean was beautiful.

The morning cloud didn't leave at all the next day as I walked from Santa Monica's pier to Venice. I took the path that runs parallel to the beach, but temptations to swim were dashed when the wind also picked up. It looked like I was suffering one of those rare bad days in Los Angeles.

Venice is a clusterfuck of fake tits, steroid fans, stoners and tourists. You spend most of your time avoiding skateboarders on the footpath and people trying to drag you into shops. However, it's also my new favourite part of the city. There was so much going on my eyes never knew where to focus, but when I did want a break from the craziness of the boardwalk, the beach was right there waiting.

Muscle beach is as hilarious and vain as you imagine - with old men doing their best to show off to the masses. The basketball courts are like watching ants on a large scale, with lots of bodies making scattered movements. However, it was the skatepark that impressed me the most. Seemingly unemployed 30-year-olds spend hours dropping into the bowls while school kids do ground tricks in the area behind them.

Like the other Venice, there's canals running through the city just a few streets from the beach and tourists - only no one seems to go there. Unlike the Italian ones they don't smell, and while they're not as pretty, they still had a zero to the value of the houses that surround them. For the most part I was the only person walking up and down the canal, and it sure beat having people try to sell crappy art to me.

I walked up and down the Venice pier, where hippies were smoking pot and Mexican fisherman look like characters from a poor man's Hemingway novel. Next to the pier some surfers braved the cold, only to continuously fall off their board.

I took another walk back to Santa Monica and across the pier, noting the end point for the famous Route 66. I've only traveled on a bit of it, but it did feel somewhat symbolic that Los Angeles is the end of the line, and my last stop in the U.S. I walked through the theme park, then watched the waves batter the pier as rollercoasters whipped around overhead. The whole day had been an amazing mix of fantastic bits of nature and strange Americana and frankly, that's what I love about this place.

Though I was knackered from the walk, I still tagged along to a pub crawl running from the hostel. It was a last minute decision, and I was still barefoot as people were getting ready to go, but I didn't see the point in staying in and watching a terrible film.

I met Brett and Rosi, and with a group of 20 or so others we walked to some tiny bar for pints of Shocktop from the most distracting waitress I'd ever seen. Some Canadian jackass with skunk-like hair and an upturned crooked visor joined our group much to our embarrassment. He would ask a question, answer it immediately for you and in doing so took any chance I had to rip on him for his 'Simple Plan' shirt.

For some reason the pub crawl - complete with a bunch of British folk - took everyone to one of the numerous English pubs in the area. I guess if you're going away to the other side of the world you want to hang out with people from back home at pubs like back home. It sure makes spending all that money on an airfare seem worth it.

The final stop of the night started out as jazz bar, but very quickly turned into a hip-hop club. By this stage I was getting free drinks from Rosi and the Canadian jackass was falling asleep at the table. The hosts of the tour were doing their best to invite everyone back to their house for an after party, but when the ugly lights came on at 2AM a night time stroll to Santa Monica pier was a much nicer way to end the night. When I did make it back to the hostel at a mystery hour the Canadian was locked out of his room (How could this happen to him?) and I was struggling to find a way to open my locker without waking people up. In the end he remained locked out, and I stumbled my way into bed and woke up nice and hung over.

Now I've given up the sea for the hills, and I'm spending the next few nights in Hollywood. It's as strange as I remember and that's a great thing. The best record store in the world is round the corner and I've already had a burrito and Denny's fix. I've only got 5 nights left here, and it's a privilege to spend a few of them in a few steps from Hollywood Boulevard. This being Hollywood, here's hoping for some extravagant ending to what has been a magnificent year.

A Death In The Family - Vodka & Balconies
These guys are one of the best angry man bands in Australia. The last time I saw them was a week before I left, and on the drive home afterwards I spun my car across three lanes of traffic and ended up on a footpath facing the wrong way. It could have easily ended my trip to America before it began, but I was very fortunate. They're still one of the loudest bands I've ever seen, and here's hoping they play a few shows when I get back. As an added bonus you should check out their beardy guitar player Jamie Hay's Thieves EP. It's three songs are some of the best to come out of beardy Australians for a long time.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Trading sunrise for sunset

I remember reading a horoscope at the start of the year that promised a surprise romance in June. Six months on, that made-up prediction has come true. Mexican food, as you worked on stopping my heart, you won it over. This love was not evidenced more than in Phoenix, where I sat on a stool at 11PM putting on my shoes and getting ready for my overnight bus and managed to break one of the floorboards with my extra burrito weight. Still, that burrito wasn't enough to put me to sleep for my journey from the desert of Phoenix to the coast of San Diego.

I'd checked the forecasts and they all said San Diego was experiencing cool temperatures. I thought it could be some other San Diego, somewhere in South America or the arctic, but alas it wasn't. My view out the window as the sun came up was of fog and windfarms, confirming that my dream of sitting on a beach had been foiled by meteorologists and poor timing.

I was excited to see the Pacific again, as there is some comfort in knowing that my hometown lay on the other side of the waves. It might be California, but there is a sense of home that isn't shared with the East Coast of the USA. Those first glimpses of the water meant a lot of things beyond going home, it also marked the end of my coast-to-coast venture, and though I was chuffed to say I have done it, the significance didn't hit me immediately. When you uproot yourself every couple of days for a few hours on a bus, the journeys tend to gain a sense of monotony. I should have been cheering to be where I was, but all I wanted to do was get off the bus and check into my bed.

Eventually I did just that. With the knowledge that I had completed something I'd long set out to do, I let exhaustion take the better of me, and for a few hours I slept. I've been on the move since May 12, and those few hours of kip were a hangover of everyday since then.

The plan was to meet up with Sam in San Diego, it's his favourite city and the last leg of his stay in America. As 8PM ticked over, he and four of his friends checked into the same room as me, and the tiredness that had shackled me for the day had left.

Sam's mates are all completely sound, and before too long we went looking for a bar to spend some time and dollars in. Sam isn't officially 21, and his unofficial licence was not accepted in the bars near where we were staying. As a second choice, we all snuck a few beers into the room, and as quietly as we could, we slowly became acquainted.

It was late in the morning or early afternoon before I was able to touch the Pacific again. The East Coast had been cold, and save for a few days in Miami, swimming in the ocean was one thing I really missed about home. As rapidly as a hirsute white-boy can, I ripped off my clothing and ran straight into the water. Summer might be already be here, but the water temperature is stuck in the opposite season. Still, that chill wasn't going to stop me, and for the next 30 minutes the battle against the cold and current was more enjoyable than the same circumstances would have been at home.

As one of Sam's friends, Shaun, worked his English tan from white to a luminous red, Ali, Adam, Sam and I walked along the beach and up the pier as surfers rode waves and Mexicans caught fish. That forecast of terrible weather had long left us, and the afternoon turned into one that would make any Californian proud. As we left the beach to head for $5 pizzas, I could see why Sam had been banging on about this place for so long.

Morrissey fan

Having heard so much about the place, I was finally able to go to San Diego Zoo. We all made a beeline to the polar bear section, where the massive white creatures sit out in the unfamiliar sun for most of their life. As we sat looking at what was an empty water pool for a long time, one of the bears swam to the bottom of the surface to eat a waterlogged carrot that had been sitting there for some time. At its completion it resurfaced, walked along the rocks next to the water and took a giant crap in the same water it had just eaten from. It was animal majesty at its finest, and already the entrance fee for the zoo had seemed totally worth it. To make things better, one of his polar bear friends pissed in the same water from a different vantage. Hilarious.

It got even better as we saw two male zebras get overly friendly before crapping right next to their pile of food. However, the finest moment for the animal kingdom was saved for our jungle ancestors. The biggest silverback gorilla on exhibit did some digital inspecting of another chimp's behind in front of a crowd full of amused tourists. The animals may not have been at their finest, but they were definitely pushing for their funniest.

Not long after the zoo I had the pleasure of joining some family friends for dinner at Seaport Village. The Thomas family are the embodiment of hospitality and friendliness. A few years ago they were kind enough to host my sister on her first visit to the USA. After a returning visit to Australia, they again extended themselves and accommodated my sister and I in 2007. It was the first leg of my first year abroad, and it was absolutely wonderful. There aren't enough kind words to describe how generous they were to me then, and no doubt the experience of meeting people like them played a part in a return to the USA. Seeing them again four years on proved no different.

The restaurant they took me to overlooked the water, and the vegetarian pizza I ordered was brilliant. However, the finest part about the evening was the company. I mentioned how the Pacific reminds me of home, but the way the family spoke about my sister and the last time I visited gave me another remind to feel at ease in Southern California. A waiter came around offering desserts to the table, my initial decline was shot down by Joe, the patriarch of the family, and on his insistence I ordered the creme brulee, the smallest option available. It didn't matter how it tasted, it could hardly have been sweeter. The whole meal turned into one of my favourites from my time here, I just hope I don't have to wait another four years to experience it again.

In my absence the boys had hatched a plan to grab some drinks, a football and sit by a firepit at the beach. With some other hostel guests we stopped by the liquor store and I picked up some rum for the evening. Knowing very little about the stuff, I took the clerk's recommendation and grabbed some Bacardi 151. It was brutal when mixed with soft drink, and drinking it straight felt like I had been kissing an angle-grinder. With the night rolling on, Sam and I worked our way through the bottle and eventually realised the alcohol content was over 75%. It was not long after a walk up the jetty at night that the night took a bit of a turn.

I don't really recall a lot of what happened, but at midday the next day I was woken up by Shaun saying "Lewis, you legend". I was feeling rough, and had no idea what he was talking about, but as the day rolled on so did the stories - none of which I recall.

It started with some post-modern photobombing and moved to cigars. Drinking in public is a crime in the USA, but that wasn't a problem on the walk home. Nor was climbing a tree for more bombing. Abusing passers-by was a bit of laugh, so was trying to fight Sam's friend Adam after I spilled his beer. There was vomiting in two different sinks, and numerous times where I snuck off to bed only to return five minutes later. When I did eventually crash I left both doors of the room wide open, such was the concern for security of all of my belongings that were strewn across the room.

By all reports it was a shocking effort, but worst of all, the night beat out the next day, and we missed out on seeing killer whales at Sea World. With the gloom of a well-earned hangover, we all went to the Gaslamp area of downtown for the afternoon. It was another brilliant side to what was quickly becoming one of my favourite places in the states, and was topped off when the vending machine gave me two drinks for one.

Eventually, the hour of saying goodbye to the boys rolled around, and the four lads I'd just met and I went our separate ways. It had been a great few days, and it was a blessing that they were all such sound people. Seeing them off also meant saying bye to Sam, the smartest hobo you'll ever meet. The two semesters with him were nothing but a pleasure, and though there was a bit of an age gap between us, his maturity and my lack-of placed us somewhere in the middle. We parted at a Greyhound station, and he eventually flew back to London before immediately heading to Glastonbury for days of music and camping. I'm hoping it's only a short good-bye, and that for whatever reason either of us end up on the other side of the world before too long.

My final Greyhound trip was typical agony, and with a major traffic delay and the prospect of another 150 minutes of public transport, I bit the bullet and paid for a taxi in the ridiculously expansive city. Once I made it to the hostel, ate more Mexican food and watched the sun set into the sea I had no regrets for that bit of spending. With only 8 days left, time has become a commodity more important than money.

I came to San Pedro because of a Mogwai song and the fact that Charles Bukowski took his final breaths there. As is typical of Los Angeles, it has surprised me with what it has to offer. Downtown is 30 minutes away, and in between is Inglewood and Compton, famous through hip-hop songs, yet San Pedro is a beautiful seaport that feels worlds away. The old fortified hill that the hostel sits on is surrounded by the Pacific, and every vantage is one that invites beauty. Hollywood strip clubs aside, it could be the best $22 view this city has to offer.

J Mascis and the Fog - Same Day
I've written about how much I love the West Coast, but I still love the East. Already, there are plenty of people living there who I miss dearly. On top of that, Northampton's Calvin Theater is hosting Dinosaur Jr, Thurston Moore and Henry Rollins and I would absolutely love to be there for that. Alas, I can't, but I've still got some solo J Mascis to comfort myself with. It's not Dinosaur Jr, but it is definitely one of his best songs.