So, I took the little missus up to Los Angeles for the day. Left the sunshine and the safety of San Diego and ventured into that gloom and doom to the north. She’d never seen the place, and I wanted to find out if the air, the traffic, and the gangs were as I imagined.
We get so perfectly content down here on the beaches and boulevards of America’s Finest that L.A., with its nasty reputation, comes to represent the Evil Empire. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, coughing fits, and riots. How do people get along up there? I wondered. Well, let’s go find out.
“Now, remember,” I warned the little missus, “we don’t roll down the windows, we avoid freeways, and we don’t do anything weird with our hands.”
“What’s with the hands?”
“Accidentally flash a gang sign, and we could get shot.”
We drove up on Sunday morning. I circled a few destinations on the map — Chinatown, Hollywood, Walt Disney Concert Hall — checked the door locks, and made sure the first-aid kit was stocked. We followed I-5 north until the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles rose like monuments in the sunshine.
“I thought you said the air would be yellow.”
“Guess we got lucky. Where shall we go first?”
“Hollywood,” she answered.
We parked and proceeded down the Walk of Fame, reading the names on the stars embedded in the sidewalk. Hucksters touted bus tours for homes of the famous. I asked the missus: “How would you like it if buses pulled up and strangers peered into our living room?”
“Creepy,” she said.
“That’s L.A. for you.”
We stopped at stars we recognized, and many we didn’t. It seemed everyone who’d ever recorded or appeared on TV or in a movie now had a star. The once-famous were lost in the galaxy.
“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing to the well-worn star of Jay Silverhills.
“Tonto,” I replied. “How about this one?” I pointed to a star without a name.
“Why, that’s Casper the ghost, silly,” she laughed.
There were lots of blank stars waiting for the next generation of entertainment heroes.
“Hey, your name might be here someday,” I told the little missus.
But she didn’t hear me. She was already mesmerized by the celebrity impersonators in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
“Take my picture with Darth Vader,” she insisted. I did. Then with Cinderella, Spiderman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Chewbacca…even Michael Jackson. These guys don’t get dressed up to be blinded by flashbulbs all day. They want tips. When I ran out of cash, I told the little missus we had to find an ATM.
“Oh, let’s just go,” she said. “It’s no fun anymore.” Later, she told me that Michael Jackson had pinched her bottom and broken the spell.
Back in the car, I asked, “Where next?”
“I’m hungry. How about Chinatown?”
We agreed, and, avoiding the freeways, drove east on Wilshire Boulevard. What I thought would be a crosstown jaunt soon crawled. Stop-and-go.
“Should we walk?” she asked.
“And get mugged?”
Farmers’ markets, tar pits, pedestrian crossings, one very crowded park — “Reminds me of Balboa Park on Sundays,” she said. “Reminds me of a riot,” I opined — and then, just before Koreatown, traffic stopped dead. Cop cars and barricades stretched across Wilshire. Two policemen raced by on bicycles. I anticipated gunshots at any moment.
“Yeah, baby,” I said. “Now this is what I’m talking about. Gang warfare, and the police have ’em cornered. Now you’re gonna see the real L.A.”
Cars turned off the street, but I advanced for a front-row view. A policeman stood nearby, so I rolled down my window. “Must be pretty bad, eh, Officer? Gang shootings in broad daylight.”
He looked at me the way one looks at a dog that talks. Then he saw my SDSU decal and grinned. “Today’s the annual CicLAvia Bike Ride. Streets are closed off so people can ride their bikes through town.”
The first riders came into view. Then thousands. Street bicycles and racing bicycles and tandem bicycles, even unicycles and bikes pulling trailers. Extended families, couples, shirtless exhibitionists, and zealots in helmets and spandex. But most pedaled by in T-shirts and shorts, weaving from one side to the other like ducks on a stream. Red hair, green hair, no hair. Smiles and shouts and waves. They reminded me of San Diegans, multiplied by millions.
“We should ride bikes sometime,” the little missus said.
“We should. If we get out of L.A. alive.”
We continued east, into Little Tokyo.
“Looks like we’re in Japan,” I said. “How about sushi?”
“But we’re going to Chinatown.”
“I know. But I’m starving. Let’s have lunch here. Then we can go to Chinatown.”
“But I think we should go to Chinatown.”
The sushi was no more authentic than fish tacos in Tokyo. Obviously, something had been lost in translation. The little missus poked hers with chopsticks and finally gave up. “I can’t eat this stuff. It’s like rubber.”
I finished mine, and we paid the bill and left.
“You were right,” I told the little missus on the sidewalk. “We should have gone to Chinatown.” But she wasn’t talking. We were having a “disagreement.”
Back at the car, she broke her silence. “Give me the map, please,” she said without looking at me. In a few one-word commands, she had us on the freeway.
When we saw the ornate gate, she said: “Exit. There’s Chinatown.”
Rice and steamed vegetables and sweet-and-sour chicken and pork, and cups of green tea. She lunched while I digested my rubber sushi. The bill came with fortune cookies containing lotto numbers.
“Let’s play these when we get home,” she said.
“Suits me. If we get out of…”
We walked all the way to the Chinese Central Plaza and then back. Because we weren’t in the market for fresh fish heads or jade trinkets or Vietnamese videos, we bypassed the malls. At one intersection, an old Chinese man bowed something classical on his erhu. Across the street, another played something contemporary on his. Dueling erhus. Like Mozart through one earphone and Elton John through the other.
“Look!” she said. “What’s that?”
“That” was a bell tower on a hill.
“Let’s walk,” she said.
My feet hurt. “What about the car?”
“It’ll be there when we get back.”
We walked uphill toward the bell tower. “Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels,” she read. “Let’s go inside.”
“This isn’t on our map.”
“Neither was Little Tokyo,” she reminded me.
The cathedral was huge, empty, spectacular in its simplicity. Rows and rows of wooden pews like waves, chandeliers suspended like angels with trumpets. The atmosphere was incensed and hushed. Footsteps echoed. We circled the huge room on polished granite floors.
She whispered: “This is a neat surprise. Nothing like this in San Diego.”
Outside, she pointed down the street to a building with undulating metal walls. “Look. Let’s go see,” and she grabbed my hand. We followed Grand Avenue, past the Ahmanson Theatre and the cake-shaped Mark Taper Forum, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, all windows and surrounded by rhapsodic fountains.
“Now, this is the real L.A.,” the little missus said.
The undulating metal walls turned out to be the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the last destination on our map. We wanted to see inside this building without right angles, but a concert was to begin soon. So we stood on the sidewalk and stared. An Angeleno sat on the stairs and smoked a cigarette, eyes on us. His red combat boots were laced to his knees, where his black pants had been knifed off. No shirt; just a grimy leather vest and tattoos from wrists to chin. The spiked hair was chartreuse.
He stepped on his cigarette and came our way.
He’s not going to mug us, is he? I wondered.
I stepped in front of the little missus. I clenched my fists.
“Hi. Would you like two tickets for the concert?” he asked.
What? The guy spoke normal English.
“Maybe,” the little missus said over my shoulder. “How much?”
“They’re free. My girlfriend can’t go, so I’m just giving the tickets away. Yours if you want them.”
They were good seats, too. Side-center, and halfway up. A string quartet from somewhere like Lower Slabovia performed fugues and concerti, or so the little missus informed me.
Outside, she said, “Always nice to see something different.”
We strolled, arm in arm, lovers on vacation in a foreign land.
“I bet you’re hungry,” the little missus said. “Let’s have a bite.”
I didn’t argue. I now had a blister on my heel.
Kendall’s Brasserie and Bar, a fancy-schmancy place with white tablecloths and crystal glasses, was ready for concert-goers and tourists. The waiters wore tuxedos. The maître d’ wore a tastevin (a shallow silver cup) around his neck and shook hands with patrons stepping from their limos. I felt my wallet twitch. You’d never catch me in a place like this in San Diego.
“This looks great,” the little missus whispered as the maître d’ led us to our table.
So we dined in style as late-afternoon sunshine glittered off the pavilions and the fountains and the skyscrapers and the undulating walls of L.A.
Back at the car, I realized I hadn’t locked it. The little missus got out the first-aid kit and put a band-aid on the blister on my heel.
We merged onto southbound I-5, and L.A. receded in the rearview mirror.
“We ought to go back sometime and see all the stuff we missed,” the little missus said, yawning. And then, smiling, “Seeing as how we got out of there alive.”
She slept. I flipped through memories of the day. Lots to see, that’s for sure. Plenty of fresh air and sunshine, too. The worst thing that happened was my blister. The only warfare was the disagreement over lunch. L.A. was, I found out, manageable, not much different than San Diego, just millions more inhabitants.
“I’ll be back,” I said into the mirror, impersonating a famous movie star, then tuned in the Padres game and drove home.