City Without a Soul

Trip Start Jun 05, 2006
Trip End May 03, 2007

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Flag of United States  , California
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

As emotionally bereft as I was at leaving Australia, the difference in the quality of films being shown on Qantas 11 months on from my arrival somewhat buoyed my spirits.  I was about to do the longest flight of my entire trip but I really needed longer on this particular plane.  There was Borat to watch, Miss Potter, The Holiday...a whole heap of films I'd missed out on.

The guy sitting next to me was part of a large group of Aussie farmers who were heading to Texas to stay on ranches and learn about farming Texan-style.  He was very sweet and (seemed) interested to hear about my escapades.  He also made me feel like an extremely worldly wise woman when one of his friends came up to us and said she'd just made her first trip to the toilet on a plane.  I shot back - rather wittily, I thought - that she'd either been crossing her legs for a very long time or had never been on a plane before.  It was the latter.  Well, I suppose they are farmers after all...

As we took off I kept telling myself I'd be back in Sydney before I knew it.  It was just a case of getting used to the real world again and then the time would fly past.  California-bound, we took the same flight path I took when coming in from San Francisco back in June.  This afforded us with a glimpse of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge as we flew north east from Mascot, the suburb Kingsford Smith Airport is in.  I remember dawn was just breaking when we flew in from San Fran and I could see the white sails of the Opera House flaring up from a very grey looking harbour.  It just didn't seem real.  This time it felt too real and was another strange mirror to my day of arrival.

The flight was very uneventful and peaceful.  Because it was mostly all daylight, I stayed awake for all of it, anticipating my hotel bed in Los Angeles.  A hotel!  My decision to up the accommodation budget came about because I feared I might be stabbed in an LA hostel for the last nickel in my wallet.  I exaggerate a little here, but I thought a hotel in a nicer area made more sense in this instance.

Anyway, I digress.  I very much enjoyed my last Qantas flight.  The food is always good, they give you a hot breakfast unlike crappy old BA and even produce a little menu, which is a nice little souvenir.  They also have more leg room and like most Aussies the staff are friendly and very pleasant to look at.

Besides the farmers we had another group on the plane.  These lot were a choir from somewhere in NSW and they were all wearing matching uniforms and doing that really annoying thing that all singing groups seem to do when out in public, which is....singing.  Everyone else on the plane seemed to enjoy it and applauded I begrudgingly joined in.  Bah humbug!  These lot were taking part in some sort of contest at Carnegie Hall so were changing planes for the Big Apple at LAX.  But of course you can't have about 50 people wearing bright red polo shirts on a plane without being aware of their presence throughout.  They provided us with a bit of drama when one member of the group turned into the girl from The Exorcist (just without the head spinning thing).  Her chain spewing had the more matronly members of the group clucking around all over the plane filling in the fellow choirees on how many times she'd thrown up.  Exorcist Girl's agony was probably prolonged by the fact that we had to circle round LAX a few times waiting for clearance to land.  This gave me a chance to see the City of Angels for what it really is - just one big grid.  There's no other way to describe it!  It contrasted heavily with the splendour of Death Valley that we'd just soared over as the sun was coming up.

Eventually we got our clearance to land and I was just struck by the size of LAX.  It was the biggest airport I'd been at since departing from Heathrow.  And there was a long old queue for us foreigners  to get through immigration.  Some Canadians behind me even got invited to their own made-up line for processing.  So there were three categories for passport checking - American (5 minute wait), Canadian (2 minute wait) and the Rest of the World (half hour wait).

Well, what can I say?  My welcome to LA wasn't quite as friendly as it had been to other places (what was to come would in the next country would more than compensate), but I got in OK.  And the Exorcist Girl even had her own wheelchair and wheelchair pusher on arrival.  I prayed to the God of Song that she would make a full recovery in time for Carnegie Hall.

I got an airport shuttle bus from LAX to Beverly Hills, where I was staying.  I was dazzled by the continual stream of traffic just running past the airport terminal for no apparent reason.  Every vehicle seemed to be a gas-guzzling 4x4 or a convertible with a sylph, robotic-like figure behind the wheel, sunglasses jammed onto the face and mobile phone glued to the ear.  I imagined one big Truman Show-style controller up above directing them to drive continuously round the terminal to convince sleep-befuddled arrivals freshly off the aeroplane that Bam!  'You've Just Arrived in LA! And this is what everyone does here - drives!'

The area around the airport was uninspiring, to say the least.  It seemed to be quite a poor neighbourhood with not a lot going for it.  It's quite ironic that you arrive in a city famed for showbiz, glamour and money and the first people you see are the homeless and the deprived.  There's also a number of derelict shops in the area, sending the message out that it used to be a thriving place but is now just the area surrounding LAX that everyone wants to get away from.

Once we got onto the freeway the the squat, uninspiring, beige buildings gave way to over-sized billboards and - shock horror! - a bit of greenery.  I've heard the famous analogy of LA's surfeit of cars being like blood platelets rushing around the arteries of a body and  I identified with that.  I felt like we were travelling from the dislocated left toe to the city's beating heart.

And if life is all about flashy stores, credit cards and filthy displays of extravagance, then yes, I'd found myself in LA's left ventricle by arriving in Beverly Hills. 

I was staying at a hotel where Marilyn Monroe herself stayed, just off Olympic Boulevard.  When I checked in, the hotel staff did a disgusting amount of fawning over me that actually made me feel quite uncomfortable.  I was asked if I was in showbiz, asked if I wanted a demonstration of how the iPod speakers worked and was phoned up about two minutes after the bell boy buzzed off to 'check if everything was all right'.  Hmph!  Julia Roberts-style (but without Richard Gere's credit card), I flounced off to Rodeo Drive to escape The Scary Hotel People.  I would have liked the chance to re-enact my favourite film here (especially the part where The Gere goes: "we're going to be spending an OBSENE amount of money.") but sadly I just had to play out the part where Julia has to make do with window shopping as no-one will serve her because she looks like a hooker.  (I had remembered to pack my fishnet tights on this occasion.) 

I next played out my Pretty Woman fantasy in full, just resisting the temptation to kiss the pavement outside the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel
 "Why the penthouse suite if you're afraid of heights?"
"Because it's the best."
Sorry, I just can't help myself when it comes to quoting that film.

I then passed another load of manicured lawns and came across a part of Rodeo Drive that seemed to be a hive of activity.  There were lots of people running around with clipboards and a big wheelie camera that kept going back and forth.  It all seemed to be fixated on a teeny tiny man who was being filmed talking into his mobile as he crossed the road.  I asked a rather rotund-looking couple next to me just what the hell was going on.  They were total embodiments of the brand I like to refer to as 'Americans On Holiday' (TM).  Think bum bags, white socks, baseball caps.  These two had the physiques to be familiar friends with their TV  - and lo and behold  - they knew what the Dickens was going on.  The clip board people were filming something called Entourage that's on the cable channel HBO apparently.  I didn't know who the actor was or what it's all about but took some pictures, just for the hell of it.

I then moseyed on down Rodeo Drive in search of a good lunch spot.  I have to say that the whole Beverly Hills area made me feel rather uncomfortable - not in a 'I don't feel safe' way but in a 'I'm being scrutinised' type way.  I really got the sense that everyone I passed on the street was peering at me to see if I was a somebody or a nobody.  I felt like donning a big sandwich board that said: 'I am a nobody. And I'm proud of it.'  Strolling along the street you see people emerging from cars who've obviously spent a lot of time prepping their outfit, hair and nails just to pop out for lunch.  And you've got to bear in mind that that's probably the highlight of their day.  Just to be seen.  Or to be mistaken for one of the Olsen twins.  I couldn't help thinking that in some ways the have-nots who live by LAX could even be the happier people.

How anyone plucks up the courage to venture into any of those Rodeo Drive stores is beyond me. Just walking past them in a $5 top was an intimidating experience in itself for me.  There's a couple of security guards right at the door, about three staff all immaculately made up and ready for action who have precisely nothing to do in their big old empty shops with about 10 products in.  And what do they do when they've sold all 10 items?  Shut up shop and go home?  It's quite far away from Andover and its merry old pound shops in the Chantry Centre.  A less jet-lagged me would have wandered in to Versace just for the hell of it, but I was feeling a little grotty and sleep deprived so opted to save the security guards the bother of frog-marching me out.  No doubt it would have been  a tricky struggle for them with someone of my ahem, girth.

I stopped at a French patisserie and had a delicious salad and then found a very exciting cupcake store off Sunset Blvd that everyone seemed to be diving into, so it had to be good!  By this time the jet lag was starting to kick in so I walked back to the Avalon and decided to unpack.  Best laid plans...I turned on the TV and discovered the rolling news coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech, Pennsylvania and found myself still there a couple of hours later.  In the end I gave up with the unpacking and headed to the hotel's Blue Bar for a Martini.  It was all very nice - mellow blue lighting, overlooking the swimming pool.  I was told by my waiter that apparently this is where all the Hollywood players come to make deals.  Hmmm...maybe the contract for the sequel to Showgirls was being signed right behind me!  The excitement, the drama, the frisson....still, I managed to contain myself and went to bed.

The next morning I was up bright and early to go 'do LA'.  Probably the best way not to start the day though is to be whisked through the streets of a still-to-be-roused city with Paris Hilton's  'song' blasting out of the speakers.  It was a pick-up for a whistle-stop tour of the city I was going on and for some reason the jovial woman who drove us at break neck speed past what at 8am was not dissimilar to a ghost town, thought Paris Hilton warbling Stars Are Blind would wake us up.  I was relieved when we got to the coffee place so I could get cappuccino and pain au chocolat.  Hooray for Hollywood!  They've actually heard of pain au chocolat there.  In Australia you just get a strange look when you ask for it that pretty much says: 'We speak English here cobber - and all breakfast stuff comes with a side of vegemite.'

So I boarded a bus that took me on a tour of downtown LA.  Downtown LA itself was a lot smaller than I imagined it to be and was really quite empty.  There are a fair number of skyscrapers but it really doesn't say 'city centre'.  There seemed to be a fair bit of building going on too with a re-development of the baseball stadium, also known as the Staples Center or something.

We drove past the church used in Sister Act on our way up to the Hollywood Bowl.  We also passed  the grotty apartment block where Julia Roberts lived in Pretty Woman.  The place is actually a cheapish hotel and doesn't really look that bad.  There it was  - the fire escape and scene of that classic line: "She rescues him right back."  Did I mention I liked that film?

The Hollywood Bowl has got a fair bit of history and atmosphere but is probably decidedly lagging far behind most mass capacity venues built more recently.  Despite its slightly archaic look it still hosts some big names and offers fabulous views right out to the Hollywood Hills.  While we were there a crack team of Mexican gardeners were setting to work on 'The Bowl' and readying it for the finale of The Apprentice.  They appeared to be busying themselves strengthening the stage - I suspect for the containment of the voluminous mass that is Donald Trump's hair. 

I got talking to some Trekkies from Birmingham who were in LA for some kind of big science fiction convention.  The accent seems even weirder when you haven't heard it for a while.  And why do all Trekkies seem to come from Brum?  And they all wear black too...

Next we were whisked off to the place where it all happens.  Hollywood Boulevard, home of the Kodak Theater where they hold the Oscars and home of Grauman's Chinese Theater, where they invite celebrities to stick their hands and feet in concrete outside a gauche, oriental-style theatre for no apparent reason.  Oh, except the fact that it allows hawkers to wander around trying to flog their maps of the stars' homes.  There are also a number of people milling around dressed as Batman, R2D2, etc just to get you to part with $5 for a photo with them.

We were almost marshalled straight into this crappy memorabilia store because it offered an exciting 10% discount or similar to people on the tour.  Pfffft!  I went for a wander down the 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' and was shocked by how run down it really is.  You see the Academy Awards on TV, the limos, the gowns and the blue skies and it all looks very glamorous.  But Hollywood Boulevard itself, one of LA's main drags, has lots of empty stores, graffitied buildings and a general feel of abandonment.  The red stars on the Walk of Fame stretch on for miles, but who'd want to have their star at one of the less desirable spots where you just get passed over by some wino pushing a shopping trolley?  And here's something I learned - if you're a 'star', then you actually have to request your star on the Walk of Fame.  So that's the reason why some celebrities don't have stars there - Julia Roberts for one.  It didn't surprise me though that one of the first stars I  found beneath my feet was that of Tom Cruise's.  After showing my love for the Cruiser, I wandered through the Kodak Theater complex and came across a chaise longue very artfully positioned for people to erm, lounge upon and have their picture taken with the Hollywood sign in the background.  I resisted the urge.

We next made our way to Beverly Hills, an area which I felt I'd pretty much already done.  But no!  I hadn't seen the most historic building the area had to offer - the police station!  Home of Beverly Hills Cop and the most ornate looking cop shop in LA county, we were told, this place gives southern Californians a building to be proud of.  I guess it gets a fair bit of exposure from the various shenanigans of Nicole Ritchie et al who are regularly hauled in and out of the police station.  And not only that, it looks like something Gianni Versace designed.  (If he was ever into architecture).

I did a bit more moseying around the Bev Hills shops while pressing my nose up to the windows and trying to work out how many hot dinners I could buy for a Caroline Ferrera dress.  We then drove on towards our lunch stop while passing the museum and art gallery.  That was one place I wanted to go to, but alas, I wouldn't have time.  It's got a pretty impressive pair of model elephants outside that appear to be enjoying a dip in an African watering hole. But look closer and, oh shoot! It's a museum!  I love the way they try so hard to disguise it.  You can just imagine the LA museum think-tank committee sitting round a large table scheming of ways to pull the punters in.  "Let's give them life-sized elephants - that'll fool them into thinking they're at Disney!"

I had some lunch at the Farmer's Market, which has a charming collection of cuisines from all over the world.  Around it, they've built up the usual array of shiny new Coffee Republics and Abercrombie and Fitchs, but the Farmer's Market retains a refreshing simplicity of tasty food stalls with little tables to eat it on.  And the smells coming out of that place are just delicious!  It was a relief at last to find somewhere in LA with atmosphere. 

We next made our way back to the city, passing Paramount Studios, which is the only major studio still basing itself in central LA.  It had some very ornate looking gates which drew admiring intakes of breath from the tour group.  I think we were going by the rule of thumb that if a place has got suitably large gates then it must be good!

At this stage the sun suddenly poked through the smog blanket that was hanging above LA that day.    I'd been speaking to the driver and he said it wasn't uncommon for the day to start off completely cloudy (or smoggy), then for the sun to suddenly appear as if out of nowhere.  Now I'm no weather expert, but I really hadn't seen anything like that before.  It was as though LA just has either one big huge cloud, or no cloud at all.  In seconds it had just gone from grey sky to blue sky.  Bizarre.

We passed by the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is a rather bold piece of architecture.  I liked it though, it kind of resembles the 'iron' playing piece on a Monopoly board.  We even learnt that they had to completely replace one side of the metal panelling because the people in nearby office blocks  complained the glare from the sun was too intense.

We then went to the original Spanish Mission area of LA, which had an interesting market and also contains the oldest house in LA.  (That'd probably be dating back to the 1970s then.)  No, seriously it's really quite charming.

After my history lesson for the day it was time to start getting really educated by familiarising myself with errrm.... more gates.  But this time they'd have big Hollywood stars behind them!  That's right - I was off to stalk celebrities on the Stars' Homes tour.  Well, it has to be done really, doesn't it?!!  This tour also took in such famous sights as: the store where Winona Ryder got busted for shoplifting, the fast food place where Hugh Grant was caught with Divine Brown; and the Viper Room nightclub, where River Phoenix shuffled off his mortal coil.  I really didn't know whether I was supposed to take my camera out at these places.  Luckily we had some Japanese on board to show us the way.

It was a lovely afternoon as we climbed the Hollywood Hills ready to inflict misery upon unsuspecting celebrities, who should really all just go and live in Bognor Regis if they want proper  privacy.  On our way out there we cruised past a house belonging to Gabrielle from Desperate Housewives.  It appeared to be adjoining a rather large motorway.  But still, it had big gates!  We stopped off for the requisite pictures by the Hollywood sign and took in a bird's eye view of LA.  It really is quite an amazing place.  The third major US city I've ever visited and worlds away from San Francisco and New York.  It certainly has its own charm - but, from my brief time in LA, I could tell that you have to look hard to find it.  It was a shame I wouldn't have time to make it out to  the beaches.  I suspected that the longer you stay in LA, the more it reels you in.  And just looking at the place on high, I could see that it doesn't really have a central hub.  You can see these massive, massive roads going off in all directions and scrubby little desert plants way off in the distance as a reminder of what the place once was - just flat desert.  Then, as far as the eye can see (through the smog) are buildings stretching out for miles and miles.  It's like an aimless urban sprawl.  I suppose that's really why people describe it as a city of counties rather than one city.

Next we traversed some windy roads to look at properties belonging to the great and good of Hollywood such as Jason Priestly, Angelina Jolie, James Dean and Tom Cruise.  (Pick the odd one out here - and it's not the dead guy.)  When we got to Tom Cruise's gaff, there was a revered silence from the driver, who whispered to us - as though he were David Attenborough and we were on the Serengetti Plains - "that might be Tom over there, behind the gate, in the white shirt, look, look, look!!"  It wasn't Tom in the end.  The guy was at least 2ft too tall.   We also saw such grisly sights as the place where Lana Turner was murdered.  Apparently on one out of every 10 trips the driver  makes, he sees a celebrity. Sadly this wasn't to be one of those.  But the driver did tell us a rather amusing story about Will Ferrell, who is one of the nastiest celebs going.  Mr 'Elf' himself was out jogging and saw the bus stopped outside and just kept walking away from the bus without so much as a 'hello' or a wave.  That's slightly on the rude side.

So all the fun and games were pretty much over for the day.  But - oh my - it took a long old time to get home.  The LA rush hour traffic makes London look like Alice Springs.  What didn't help was the fact that our driver decided to palm us onto another guy to drive us home and he seemed to go all the way into Nevada and then back into California before he got to my hotel.  Still, in that time I did a bit of British bonding with a family from Sussex, who also got the free aimless driving around tour.  We broke out the rations of tea bags and powdered milk to ease the trauma.

Back I came then to Beverly Hills.  It was time to pack up all my stuff ready for a 5.15am pick-up to go to Canada the next day. I was so exhausted I ordered a steak through room service.  I think the jet lag was just kicking in 48 hours later. 

I woke up at 4.30am the next morning and went through my usual bout of paranoia of checking I had all my stuff.  I wasn't used to having all that room to spread my stuff out and found myself looking for things in cupboards that I didn't even know existed in the first place.  Although the Avalon Hotel didn't have in-room coffee-making facilities, I was very relieved that they had a good old pot of black coffee brewing at 5am in the restaurant. 

As I clambered into the shuttle bus to head to LAX, I wasn't sad to leave LA, but I was glad I'd visited all the same.  Dawn was just breaking and there were twinkling lights and palm trees stretching in front of us for miles as we swept towards the airport.  A lady who appeared to live in a rather palatial Beverly Hills residence got on the bus and chatted away to me nineteen to the dozen about the Virginia Tech shootings.  She was on her way to New York, where all her family live and where she's originally from.  At last, this gave me the chance to ask someone.  Why would anyone choose LA over New York?  She came to LA for work and had stayed there since she retired.  That's more than 30 years she'd had to come to a conclusion about it.  And much to my chagrin, she just didn't know why.  This is all she could come up with - LA is big, noisy, crazy, polluted and infuriating - but there's just something about it.  And, I hate to concede it, but she's right.  After all, LA may be a complete s**t hole, but there is just something about it.



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