My wife and I grew up in Southern California–metropolitan LA–and we each left more than 35 years ago. When we go back we find we’re flooded with memories while also feeling like we’re visiting a strange land.
Calling LA the homeland is, of course, a little misleading. The Los Angeles Basin is so vast that it encompasses a number of distinct areas that could be considered homelands. I hail from the mostly working-class San Gabriel Valley, and my wife lived in the more prosperous hills above the San Fernando Valley. So our recent trip to West LA was much closer to her youthful experiences than mine.
I have often thought if I had grown up on the west side–with its urbanity, glamour and coastal access–I may never have left. But I’m not sure of that anymore. It’s all too big; too crowded. I have come to remember that was pretty much the case all those years ago, and it was one of the reasons I left in the first place. Here are some other observations from our tourist jaunt:
1) Traffic ruins your life – Even though we managed to avoid a life-altering experience on the San Diego Freeway (the 405), the busiest highway in America, we spent more time in cars than at any other activity except sleep. Drives to Santa Monica and Malibu, relatively close locations, were marred by gridlock. A seven-mile trip between two points on Wilshire Blvd. took 45 minutes, even with our Lyft driver functioning at peak creativity with short cuts on side streets. On our last day in town, as we pointed our rental car in the direction of the airport at Burbank, we allowed ourselves enough time to stop at a Target in West Hollywood, or so we thought. It was four-and-a-half miles from our West LA hotel, and it took us an hour-and-15 minutes to get there. We ended up not going in and slogging straight through to the airport. The only reason we made it with a comfortable amount of time to spare was a flight delay.
2) Traffic signals and road signs need updating – LA has more than four-million people, more than two-million vehicles, and not nearly enough left-turn signals at intersections. That’s one reason it takes so long to drive places. And the road signage is confusing, at best. I managed to get lost along major thoroughfares like Santa Monica Blvd. and Coldwater Canyon Dr., even though I possess some actual skill when it comes to navigation in unfamiliar places. And yes, I looked at maps.
3) Drivers are quite good – Unlike Sacramento, where drivers are unpredictable and road rage always a possibility, the LA drivers we encountered were decisive and polite. They use their blinkers and will generally make room for you to crowd-in someplace. But they’re also super-aggressive and a little impatient. They have lots of practice navaigating through the muck, so they won’t hesitate to lean on their horns if you seem confused.
4) Walking in LA – When the band Missing Persons claimed in song years ago that “only a nobody walks in LA,” they probably weren’t talking about Beverly Hills. The downtown core is quite walkable and plenty of people are moving about on foot. You probably have to drive in, though. The same is true for the coastal strip of Santa Monica.
5) Everybody seems to have a plan and an attitude – But they’re often good attitudes, probably because folks are hustling. West LA is one of those places where lots of people are chasing a dream. One of our Lyft drivers said she was a London-trained stage actress. I met a young man in a bar in Koreatown who was probably half my age, well-dressed and stylishly-coiffed, and positively brimming with enthusiasm. He claimed he went to Stanford, had been a golf pro, and promised to run for governor in the future. But he was in a hotel bar at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. After our 10-minute chat he insisted on the thumbs-up handshake and half-bro hug I see my son employ all the time. It was a first for me.
6) People are welcoming and curious – Probably because they’re wondering if you can do something for them. Our bartender the night we hung out at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood must have taken one look at me and known I wasn’t one of her usual Rock-and-Roll clientele, but she was nonetheless very friendly and can-do. Just about everywhere we went, including the legendary Nate and Al Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, we were studied intently by people trying to figure out if we were someone they should know. And when they determined the answer was no they stopped looking at us.
7) Concertgoers are rude – We went to a pair of Van Morrison shows in West LA, and the crowd behavior was very disappointing. Too many people were acting like they might have at a Foghat concert 40 years ago at the Forum. There was far too much drinking and loud talking, and people were constantly in and out of their seats. Van is an artist who requires rapt attention – he is truly a European old master. I find it hard to believe the LA crowd would have acted similarly if they were seeing the Three Tenors, or Leonard Cohen, or Sinatra. Yet they felt it was appropriate in this case. As we left the venue frustrated after the second night we walked past a young woman complaining to her friends that she was shushed during the show. My wife and I said, “Good” in unison, loudly enough for her to hear us.
So those were some noteworthy moments during our trip. LA is definitely fascinating – a vibrant international destination and center of art and commerce perched on a fault that could one day grind it to ruins. But the gleaming megalopolis presses on, all optimism and sunshine – 284 days a year. I’m reminded of an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ in which the character Cosmo Kramer said of LA, “She’s a seductress, she’s a siren, she’s a virgin, she’s a whore!” He’s probably right about that. Los Angeles, the mythical Hotel California, is a helluva place to visit and–with apologies to Mr. Don Henley and the late Mr. Glenn Frey–you can in fact leave, and that’s a good thing.