LA is a great big freeway, a famous song once said, and northern California was a place you went to escape its smog-filled alleys and valleys. The idea of this city – and I have been there before – to a non-driver such as myself was anathema to my very ideals. It was just too big (and this coming from a Londoner), too sprawling, too unfocused, too reliant on the dreaded automobile, too balkanised between violent ghettos and super-wealthy media-types (again, this from a Londoner). A terrible public transport system you’d only take if you were too criminally insane to be allowed behind the wheels of a car. A city that would swallow you alive. I’m glad I went down there for a visit by myself, because I think that finally my perceptions have shifted, just a bit.
Of course, the experience of getting from LAX to Disneyland didn’t help much. Stuck on a mile-wide freeway in a small shuttle bus in a vast densely populated plain south of the yellow-tinged hills and the tall towers of downtown LA that looked like so many tombstones. Lookng at the map, I was passing through areas of legend – Inglewood, Compton, South Central, Watts – it may as well have been, if popular imagination is anything to go by, Beirut, Gaza, Baghdad, Darfur. The freeway couldn’t get us away quickly enough. The only part of these areas I actually got to see however was a Taco Bell parking lot, while the bus driver was taking a leak, and to my surprise it wasn’t filled with boyz in the hood shooting each other on sight. I remembered when I first heard of drive-by shootings, and imained people going up to a little booth, winding down the car window, a gun coming out and shooting, then being handed a drink and some fries. Well they don’t do fries at Taco Bell, so no chance of that here.
I came back this way on the way from Anaheim to Santa Monica, where I was basing my little solo excursion to LA. I’d heard it was nice, one of the nicer parts of California, and being by the Ocean there was less chance of me getting lost. I got a public bus, through Marina Del Ray and Venice, and there was a guy on there I thought I recognised, conversing loudly with a couple of tourists about the hidden beauties of the area. after he got off, the other passengers excitedly said that he was from TV, he’d been in that show Deadwood (it wasn’t the Lovejoy guy, though), and that you get that sort of thing all the time. I, however, thought I’d recognised him because he looked a bit like my uncle Eddie when he was younger, so kept quiet. Anyway, at only a dollar, the public bus was perfect and finally got me away from the insulated reality of cars and freeways, taking me to the streets. I instantly felt a little bit at home – apart from the golden sunshine and the abundance of palm trees, I could have been in London – except people were friendlier.
Santa Monica hit me instantly. I see the world in pen and paint and every sight I saw I wanted to draw, every house, every tree, every shop. My motel, while still in Santa Monica, was probably more correctly located in Ocean Park, on a vibrant little stretch of Main Street, a couple of blocks from the immense perfect sandy beach, Venice to the south, Malibu to the north, and Japan many leagues to the West. Everybody I met was friendly and local, and yet I still got that big city feeling I’ve missed. I had a slice of one of the best New York style pizzas I’ve ever had from a little place where I overheard conversations between animators and designers, before going to a little cafe I’d seen where a small and seriously talented jazz band played incredibly soothing music to me while I ate a day-old croissant. I was the only customer – it was true don’t-get-too-popular jazz (and the guitarist had almost the same Ibanez as me). I followed this with a walk to the tourist-and-light-filled pier, before strolling back to try some of the Main St pubs recommended by locals. The only thing I could say agianst this place at the end of the day was that the beers in the pubs were too expensive. It’s probably an LA thing.
I took a bus to the posh Westwood, home of UCLA and on the cusp of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, from where I took another public bus up to the Getty Center. I had worried that my accent would be misunderstood when I got on and that I would end up in the centre of the Ghetto, but thankfully that didn’t happen. The Getty was incredible, overlooking Los Angeles like an acropolis. I saw only a small part of the actual collection – it was the building and the grounds that held my interest, especially the labyrinthine gardens. I took the bus back, and for a moment I was in north London, on the 210 going through Highgate across Hampstead Heath. It was a little jarring. The rest of my time, though I’d planned to venture inland again, was spent clinging to the Ocean. Santa Monica’s sunday morning farmer’s market was right opposite my motel, and while so many of these markets have disapponted me with their smugness, this one felt happy, sunny, with its aging Mamas-and-Papas type band, and though it sounds incredibly corny, I felt as though at last I’d found the mythical place called ‘California’. The place made me feel like a friendlier person – I started to let people watch me sketch (which I never ever do), and even realised I was singing aloud to my headphones as I was walking down the street, but it didn’t matter – it seemed like everybody else was, too. I only saw a tiny glimpse of LA as an auto-less traveller, but it was enough to dispel a few myths (and to be fair, a few realities), and while we won’t be moving to LA any time soon, at least now I see it as a place to consider.