Apr 8, 2007

Los Angeles


Southern California
On a wonderful middle-of-the-week venture, KT and I struck out for the Southern California Coast. Ventura, specifically, the home of (my cousin) Wally and (his wife) Heather Baker, and then Redondo Beach, where Katie's friend Julie (from Tanzania) lives with her husband (Jens) and new born baby (Katie). The visits to both friends were wonderful, but we were also fascinated by L.A.

We drove down I-5, the Magical Artery of Industrial Agriculture, where we saw irrigation canals the size of major rivers, feedlots where cows, packed in to dismal bare-ground pens stretch to the horizon, oil rigs amongst the grapes, and thankfully, a slew of windmills. Closer to Ventura we saw strawberry pickers, the same poor workers that people demonize as illegal immigrants. Katie though she recalled that her dad used to get paid by the flat when he picked strawberries in Walla Walla. These strawberry pickers probably do, too, because they were running.

We also saw a broccoli field that was abuzz with the activity of a full production chain. There were people picking the broccoli, and boxing it. Each box was then put in a crate, the crates were stacked into a 10 by 10 by 10 foot lot, then each lot was wrapped in plastic. Then each plastic-wrapped lot was then lifted by a heavy-duty tracked bulldozer forklift and carried to the waiting tractor trailers. The entire process, right before our eyes. It was something amazing to behold.

From Ventura, which has a year-round lovely climate of about 65, we drove south toward Redondo Beach. We passed "Malibu" and "Santa Monica," places whose names must be put in quotation marks due to their mythic nature. It turns out they aren't all that special, though. Malibu was kind of run down. Some neat houses, but a generally sloppy, poorly laid out town, with surfers. Santa Monica, from what I can tell, is just famous by chance.

LA is ugly. Small houses packed close together, concrete everywhere, but despite the hideous facade, we were still enthralled, if only for a while, by the diversity that it sports. We were boggled by the mix of wealth and poverty. Such a mix I had not encountered in the US before. A far cry from the highly segregated blocks of Philadelphia, for instance. The fact of this mix puzzled us for the rest of our trip, as we searched for explanations. Perhaps it is the proximity to Mexico, that habituates people to massive wealth differences, or perhaps it's because the landscape is so ugly to begin with. Scrawny hills are patchily covered by a few hardy shrubs. It's a harsh environment, naturally, and it shows. Maybe that's why rich people don't mind if their neighbors are disheveled, because the landscape always is. Or perhaps it's because there is no old architecture, and the distinction between old and new money has not solidified. We never really sorted it out, which is part of why another trip would be enlightening.

LA Trip--click for photos

Venice Beach
The first truly "LA" experience we had was in Venice Beach - a blossoming strip of exhibitionism. The turn out was impressive for a Wednesday morning in early April. We saw a man strutting proudly in a leopard print thong, a municipal body-building club, and ferraris and lamborghinis were relatively common. Neither the large sandy beaches, nor the ocean itself were the focus, but the sidewalk strip, where all the displays occur. Sometimes it's hard to tell if people are performing, or if they are just crazy, or on drugs. But those distinctions blend together so quickly that we realized it didn't matter. There were also lots of bong shops selling nothing but "vaporizers." I rather liked the bicycles we saw, especially the low-slung three wheeled sport bikes, and a crazy man with a huge parrot ("Turquoise Macaw"). My personal highlight of Venice beach was my experience in the public men's restroom. I went in looking for a toilet, and found a few in alcoves built intentionally with no doors. Scanning for one with a little cover I happened upon a pair of homeless guys who'd taken over a shower stall, and set up a comfortable, if messy, living room. They had a VCR and a TV and were watching a movie. I greeted them, and they me. Then I used a toilet without a door watching men go by in front of me. As it turns out, it was a perfect introduction to LA. Right outside of this bathroom I asked a young man if I could take a picture of his chest-wide tattoo that said, among other things "LA" in big bold letters. He agreed, as long as I didn't include his face. I obliged.


Next was Hollywood
Hollywood can be typified by the lunch that I ate on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a BLT, complete with a complementary side of macaroni salad and two hot peppers from a sushi joint that was playing Cher on a massive flat-screen TV. Hollywood was also less glamorous than we'd expected, despite the stars on the sidewalk. Lots of smoke and tatto shops, plenty of skank and surprisingly little gleam. Granted there was a movie theatre that appeared to be a highly accurate reconstruction of a medieval Mongolian fortress, and a couple of huge sphinx-like gates adorning another, but there was also lots of normal stuff. At one point Katie pointed up and said "is that the sun?" What a silly question I thought, and looked to where she was pointing. But then I saw it, a fuzzy, blurry, slightly brighter area of the sky, and wondered if indeed it was the sun. We scanned the sky for other such bright spots and determined that indeed it must be. That was a first. Then we saw a man drive by with a cat on this dashboard. "Okay," I thought "I get it. You can get away with all sorts of random shit here."

As we drove back north on I-5, trying to make sense of our last few days, we came to a bit of clarity. We knew we'd learned something. Even if we can't explain why, having been to LA, it is much easier to understand why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Governor of California.