The American City
The Grove: nuclear families stroll and high schoolers gossip at tables drinking lattes. Bored shop workers are at the thresholds, arms folded, looking up at the sky. Storm clouds are coming. People spill out of Sees' into a corridor. Sephora is getting all the action, the doors are virtually propped open by the constant stream of people. The fountain trickles but not in a relaxing way. The movie theater isn't obtrusive, it's nearly hidden. The stores are well-placed here.
I can't tell the tourists from the locals.
I go towards the Farmers Market, and make pit stops a the candy sellers and the old-school coffee spots and end up spending forever in a French grocery store. The wind picks up more and storm clouds cover the sun. I call an Uber because I imagine that the rain will really make them scarce.
I notice the shopping bags on the arms of the second-generation-somethings, the pep of voices in cell phones, mothers in capri pants and babies on their arms trailing husbands in baseball caps who are likely t-ball coaches. They're looking for the nearest chain for lunch. The princesses. So many princesses in labels with rare complaints ("I already told you dad, they are sold out of the gold Michael Kors. I knew this would happen"). The cell phones.
LA is the most American of cities.
On March 22 I turned over in bed to face a twelve-foot tall wall of glass, Marina del Rey on the other side. My friend Martine and her husband were gracious enough to allow me to stay with them on my short LA trip and their apartment was gorgeous. The guest room, a white carpeted little heaven. I've always wanted to be in a room made of glass. I woke up and sat on the carpet at the window, and watched the people go by. My first morning in LA. You could squint and see the Hollywood sign if you tried. I would be there, in a few hours.
I walked to Starbucks for breakfast, and already laughed at the guests in board shorts and flip flops. It was 60 degrees. I took my coffee out to the Marina and admired the boats. At 10 am, my friend Helena pulled her SUV around the front drive. We were headed to Griffith Park.
Helena had moved back to California last year. The New York to LA migration isn't new. I've been to four "I'm moving to LA" parties in nine years, and that's only including the ones I could make it to. It's easy to see why, California has everything in New York but with better weather and easier commutes. Helena had grown up in Newport Beach, so her migration from the city to California was a homecoming.
I try to get an assessment of the city. In San Francisco I knew I was in love with it immediately, but from any hill its easy to get the jist of it in one sweeping view. LA was different. The sprawl varied by neighborhood. You could see the trees, the water, the mountains, but "getting it" in a day wasn't going to happen.
Helena's car hit the freeway for a forty-five minute drive to Griffith's Observatory. The closer we get, the more the hills increased. We turn down a very gorgeous road, the houses are getting bigger.
"Who lives in these beautiful places?" I asked Helena. "Movie directors?"
We parked on a dirt road and started climbing. The Observatory was at the top of one of the peaks, a white building with little black domes, it looks like a temple. We walk up a succession of balconies around the domes, getting photos but a foggy cloud is covering most of the view. Helena points up to The Hollywood sign.
"There's a mountain lion who they photographed once sleeping in the 'O' in The Hollywood sign," said Helena. "And recently he just ate a koala at the zoo! I guess he wanted some exotic meat."
Photo ops were everywhere. Hikers appeared at the top of hills and balanced their way down the dusty narrow paths.
We hit the freeway again for lunch and Venice Beach. Helena wanted me to see the local chain of health food restaurants: Lemonade. I ordered a plate of four different salads: ahi tuna with red radishes, avocado and tomato, grilled cauliflower and vermicelli noodles with fried egg. I had blood-red-and-something-I-forgot Lemonade. Yes, this is what I imagined California to be.
We walked toward the beach and prepared ourselves for the "Coney Island of the West."
"But it's Monday," said Helena. "you might not see any crazy people."
There were t-shirts with vulgar slogans being sold, and lots of weed paraphernalia. Muscle beach was empty, save for one man being followed around by cameras crews. We walked out to the beach and sat on the clean sand.
"The Pacific is green," I noticed. "I want to do a surf lesson tomorrow. Something very California."
"I'm sorry my time is limited today," said Helena, who would have to depart back to Newport Beach.
"It's OK. I'm super easy. To me a 'good trip' means sitting on a different bed and eating chocolate covered almonds. As long as that happens, I'm happy," I said.
I always do quick trips because I'm always alone, I said by means of explanation to no one but myself. People don't know but I usually have a good hour of everyday of every trip that I regret having traveled alone and a few hours of everyday that I'm thankful I'm traveling alone. The meals are so hard. There's nothing worse than eating at a Starbucks or a McDonald's because you walked up to the hoppin', crowded place and you just don't have the courage to get that table for one. The bar facades! Nothing makes a solo traveler feel more lonely than a loud crowd spilling out of a bar. One doesn't imagine these things when they buy a plane ticket.
I looked over to Helena, I was so glad she was there.
Around 4 pm she dropped me back at Marina del Rey. I still had a few hours to kill before having dinner with my hosts in Santa Monica. What else was on the list? I could see the Hollywood Stars but everyone says it's in a really run-down part of town. I could go to the museum but it was closing in an hour. What about The Grove? It seemed like a good spot to kill time. I called an Uber driver who took me there, being sure to point out all the cool stuff.
He found out I was from New York.
"New York!" he shrieked. "That's a crazy place, man."
I didn't have many intentions besides picking up something for my hosts (I'd made the faux pas of arriving empty handed, and forgetting that florists aren't on every corner like they are in New York). I called my mother while sitting at the faux fountain. I was expecting her to do the usual Ariel-is-on-a-trip panic, which have produced a lot of gems over the years. In Paris she demanded I "bolt the door" and "stop talking to those mean French people." In Philadelphia she texted me that it was a "rough ghetto town" and to go indoors after nightfall. In San Francisco she kept yelling at me to give her the address of my hotel in case she needed to call the police. In Hong Kong she uttered her famous line: "Don't put your butt on any of the the toilets in China. And no talking to, touching or going anywhere where there are monkeys!" Later, when I'd arrive in Las Vegas, she'd warn me to "watch out for the sex industry."
When I called her from The Grove, she was so inundated with family health problems, she hadn't the chance to yell about anything. It was refreshing.
"Well, it might rain so I'm going to duck into the Farmers Market," I said.
"OK, have fun," she said.
That's all!? I marveled. No warnings about Uber drivers? No deadpan line of questioning about how much money was in my pocket, if my alarm clock was set for the next morning, if I was keeping my "wits about me", if I was "minding my alcohol" ("or better, just don't drink!"), or if any stranger had tried to scam me, or if I was eating a lot, or eating too little, or if I had a warm enough jacket tucked into my purse?
Aye. I put a finger to my chin. This is odd, this. Did that mean that my mother finally considered me a grown-up?
After admiring the American-ness of The Grove, I called another Uber back to Marina del Rey. I had a driver who delighted in learning about various subjects. He asked me all sorts of specific questions about working at a major consumer women's magazine. Then he pointed to all the unseen things in LA.
"Not a lot of people know there are oil fields out here," he said, pointing to the big oil pump jacks bobbing in the distance.
"Ever pick up any celebrities?" I asked.
"I picked up Tatiana Ali, with her family. She was nice," he said. Coincidentally, I had her autograph from writing her as a child. "I saw Drake in the mall once."
Back at Marina del Rey I went back to my friends' apartment and played with her cat. The sun was starting to set, the sky on fire. We decided to go meet my host at her office for dinner nearby. Her husband drove me down the winding roads in a luxurious white Jag and we listened to NPR. Dinner was phenomenal: fresh silken tofu with peanut sauce, blow-torched mackerel, fried chicken, and tuna tartare dip. We all went to sleep early, I had an afternoon flight to Las Vegas.
The next morning I rose, dressed, said goodbye to Martine's husband and thanked him. My Uber driver was an elderly man with a dirty car -- but he adored Las Vegas. I couldn't get a word in.
"Oh you're going to have a very good time. A VERY GOOD TIME," he drove with his hands at 10 and 2, shoulders up, neck hunched. "You should go to this spot I love. Write this down, write this down. It's called Hash House a-Go-Go, the best food I've ever eaten. And back in the day before I divorced I would go with my kids. I'd walk from casino to casino and get a dollar chip. I collect 'em. I have a chip from every casino. It's fun to do. And then of course, if you go broke you can take them back and get your dollars. I don't like to gamble. They can have it. You know, you should see some shows! Treasure Island used to have a good one. But now it's all, if you pardon the expression, T and A. But oh boy, you are just going to have the BEST time. A VERY GOOD time."
The car arrived at the Virgin America gate and I was off to the next thing; LA having been to fast. The plane ascended over the city and I was reminded of how many people I knew who had such soft spots for California. I remember all the long odes I got at parties, the stories, the photographs. I got the feeling I always get in California -- that I am visiting a friend-of-a-friend.