Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tom's LA: Spiraling in a Straight Line

My brother Danny likes to tease me for my lack of geographical nous. No matter how good I get at all manner of things, he says, no matter how much I learn and how worldly I become, his sense of geography will always be better than mine. This is true, because my geographical skills are the absolute worst in the entire world.

I can lose track of the points on a compass when walking in a straight line. Given the opportunity, I will always confuse East with West. I will reverse the locations of things based on the sound of their names - New Plymouth and Palmerston North, Napier and Nelson - or on the mental image they evoke. I discourage friends from meeting me at either Olive or Plum, popular Cuba Street cafes, because I know that I will invariably go to the small-purple-fruit-named location we didn't arrange to meet at.

So I don't have a chance in LA. Though, according to Will Self, no city is as rigidly gridded as this one, the traffic on that grid moves the opposite way to how I instinctively expect it to. I've not yet stepped in front of any cars, diligently scanning to my right as traffic bears down on my left, but I have boarded a bus operating under the assumption that it will carry me West, then been spirited several blocks East before I realise my error.

It was this keen sense of no geography whatsoever stood me in such good stead on Tuesday the 7th of July. I'd decided that it would be poor form to be in LA the day of the Michael Jackson memorial and not go downtown to check it out. Ticketing for the event was free but raffled; I didn't have a ticket. I decided to wander down Sunset, onto Hollywood, and check out the impromptu shrine that had been set up outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. All that was required was to make one turn, follow Silverlake onto Sunset, and proceed from there.

It was when I was about to cross Slauson that I realised I was headed in the wrong direction entirely. (Slauson is the South Central street where Max tells police he hit an implausible South Central deer. Thanks, Collateral!)

Folks back home had placed South Central pretty high on the list of places you don't want to end up. But my apocryphal-boiling-frog immersion had rendered it less frightening than it was depressing. There was no NWA video gangland swagger here: just lots of fairly nice folks looking fairly run-down and often gleefully ridiculous because nobody's paying them not to. A lot of folk laughed at each other on my walk through their neighborhood. (Nobody laughed at me.)

No, eagle-eyed Angelinos, this is not South Central. This is Los Feliz. I am not quite enough of a rube to wander South Central shutterbugging furiously.

A homeless black veteran asked me for a couple of bucks for a burger and told me about his military career. I told him I was roaming town looking at the Jackson memorial proceedings. He smiled and asked we had Michael Jackson where I came from. He asked if I thought Jackson was dead. He said the whole thing was probably a coverup.

"You're right", I said. "And Elvis is probably watching the whole thing going, 'He's not so great!'" I'd always thought I could do an Elvis impersonation as good as anyone's David Attenborough or Bill Clinton, but as soon as I started talking I realised I sounded more like a white person providing a disparaging approximation of Michael Clark Duncan. I gave the guy some money.

American money is ridiculous. Chief among the ridiculousness of American money is the continued insistence on pretending like physical bits of money carry value. In the Antipodes there's a clear sense that the money is in the bank and you can write a cheque or hand over an Eftpos card or - if you're backward - some bills, and that will communicate that the bank will recognise your purchase. But in America, everyone carries cash! As if the value of the money was in those little bits of paper! Not remote and universally accessible, like the trust of God, but immediate, weighty and materially-divisible, like the trustworthiness of Gold! Wealthy magnates tote huge billfolds of the meager scraps, dispensing them huffily in exchange for a too-large small coffee or a pornographic-size regular coffee; young men saunter the streets of Hollywood with dowried princesses in tow, slim of pocket but flush with a successful trade; farmers lead livestock, bells clanking, down Sunset Boulevard, fatted for the market to be exchanged for a heft of the wagon-wheels that serve as currency in backwoods outposts like Venice and Culver City.

Eventually I give up and take a fucking bus to Hollywood Boulevard.


someonefromsometime said...

Excellent recount. I saw when you posted those pictures the first time. It's cool to finally hear about the story behind them :)

I find it's always helpful to have some cash around just in case. In this case it helped you get a story out of a homeless guy.

all in all sounds like a good time, getting lost in new places is ha;f the fun!

Robyn said...

I was in LA in 1994, less than two years after the riots. I wanted to go to Compton and tried to trick my parents into taking a day trip but once they figured out where it was, that plan was nixed.

Instead we went to the Sherman Oaks Galleria, aka the mall from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Robyn said...

Oh, I like this one. I look forward to further tales of your travels.

And I wish I was there.

Homage said...

Dear Robyn, I am wondering if I can justify a trip to Century City for the sole purpose of standing in front of the Fox Plaza, aka the Skyscraper from that movie that was pitched as "Die Hard in a Skyscraper". (Die Hard).

maryyeahok said...

You are fantastic.

someonefromsometime said...

"Nakatomi Tower" ... if memory serves.

ontic5 said...

To find the right direction is hard for me too. When I´m in a city I don´t know I sometimes have troubles even when I have a map at hand.

Is it that common in NZ to pay by card? I always have cash with me when I leave the house. I use my card maybe 2-3 times a year.

Homage said...

@SfST: It's called Nakatomi Plaza in the movie. But I don't plan to visit Nakatomi Plaza, in the same way as I don't hope to see John McClane walking the streets or discussing his next part with his agent.

@Ontic: Oh yeah, there's very little point in carrying cash in New Zealand. When I was in retail only the white-trash shitkickers would carry lots of cash.

someonefromsometime said...

...Plaza!! close enough :)

ontic5 said...

@Homage Thanks for telling me. At least I´ll know the reason behind the pitying/distasteful looks I will be getting. I don´t think I can change the habit of a lifetime in just a few weeks.