Friday, April 3, 2009

Los Angeles, California

Travel Dates October 9, 2008- October 12, 2008
Flight # NK706 Spirit Air from DTW to LAX

The Michigan summer was winding down, ushered in with cool Westerly winds and signified by the crisp turning of the leaves - from lively green to varying shades of sepia. I was determined not to let the hot summer sun leave me in such haste so I decided to go searching for it - in California.

I purchased a ticket through Spirit Air's $9 Fare Club for $35 and boarded the aircraft with my single carry-on bag. California flights are exceedingly long and thus require several miniature bottles of Cabernet in order to endure. I struck up a friendly conversation with my Canadian aisle mates as we shared a few drinks together, including a mixture of vodka and smuggled in Red Rain, the Canadian equivalent of Red Bull. We eventually parted ways at baggage claim as I hopped into a Super Shuttle on my way to Hollywood Boulevard.

I handed the driver my luggage and he tossed it in the back of the van with a sharp thud. I sat down in the middle bench-seat, directly ahead of a lithe, blonde girl. Her style was distinctly European and I expected her to have a Swedish accent when she spoke. A few other people began to pile into the van with us; a towering male whose skin was the color of dark roast coffee, hair piled at the crown of his head in twists of moplike cord, an older Latino man who carried no luggage and young guy in his mid-twenties whose arms were covered up and down in bright, fantastic ink.

The driver sauntered to his side of the van to get in. "Where to?" He asked, and we all gave him our respective addresses. After 45 minutes of driving, everyone was dropped off at their stops and I was the last one left. The tattooed youth was the first to exit, walking off towards a Taco Bell. We hopped back on the expressway for a few minutes and then the other two males got off in the same dismal area: rows of pink stucco houses with bars crisscrossing the windows. We continued to drive and finally turned onto what I knew to be Hollywood Boulevard. The driver cursed as traffic came to a complete stop.

"They must be shooting a movie or something," the Swedish-looking girl said. As it turned out, she was not Swedish at all.

Eventually, after several turns, we stopped in a beautiful hilly area just near Hollywood Boulevard in front of a very large vintage condo complex, complete with a doorman. The blonde gathered her things and stuffed a $50 into the hands of the driver. I got the sense that she was a reluctantly spoiled only-child who rebelled against her parents in subtle ways, such as taking the Super Shuttle home from LAX instead of a taxi.

After a short jaunt later, the driver pulled down a dimly lit road and stopped in front of a long maroon awning. "USA Hostels," he said. I slid the van door open and stepped out onto the street. After tipping the driver, I pulled my luggage up to the front of the building and looked at my new surroundings. Atleast a dozen people sat mingling around the patio, smoking and drinking Budweiser. A bulky boy wearing sunglasses, even though it was nighttime, welcomed me up the steps. He spoke with an Irish accent, the r's whirring in the back of his throat and he held a lit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, which were tattooed in black Old-English letters.

I checked myself into the hostel and followed the German hostess as she gave me the guided tour. First, there was the kitchen; large stainless steel cabinets sat clunkily along the wall and a breakfast bar jutted out near the door separating the cooking area from the small dining room. We then made our way up the steps to the lounge, which included a bar with a small booth and chairs upholstered in crushed purple velvet. Finally, she led me to my room. The steel door was painted an absurd blue and the door opened with the use of a plastic key card, punched with a specific combination of holes - the technology of which remains questionable.

My roommates were mostly sleeping by the time I arrived, so I softly opened the door to my locker, placing my valuables, including my Ipod, wallet and shiny black pair of $700 Christian Louboutin's inside. I didn't spend much more time than it took to haphazardly organize my things, before I gathered my ID and debit card and made my way back outside. My airport buzz was slowly wearing off, I decided that I needed a drink. I began to walk towards Hollywood Boulevard when I saw a long line of bodies snaking their way inside a building. The front of the building was inconspicuous, long vertical planks of lightly stained oak ran thirty feet up the walls and the doors slid easily open along long tracks - there were no windows. I walked past the long line and up to the doorman.

"What is going on here?" I asked.

"Are you on the list?" He asked. My first taste of the concocted self-righteousness only found in LA.

"No, I just got off a plane and I need a cocktail"

"Are you with these people?" He asked, motioning to the couple standing behind me.

"No, I'm by myself"

He lowered his hand and swiftly unlocked the red velvet rope, gesturing me inside. Wearing the same outfit I wore on the plane, I felt out of place. Skinny jeans, an off-the-shoulder grey sweater and grey platform booties did not mesh well with the sea of glitter, bottled blonde and Ed Hardy. At this point, I almost threw up. "People are still wearing Ed Hardy?" I asked myself. Apparently, yes. I needed a cocktail more than ever. I walked up to the bar and ordered a vodka-sugarfree Red Bull.

"We don't have Red Bull at Opera, we have Rockstar" the bartender informed me.

Ummm, what?

"Ok, I'll have a vodka-soda with lemon" I responded. I paid the $12 tab and grudgingly sipped my drink. Looking around, I picked through my clutch and lifted out a cigarette.

"No smoking in here" the bartender piped in.

Ummm, what?

I regretfully jammed the cigarette back into by purse and mingled around the bar area for a while, people-watching. I soon discovered that despite the non-smoking rule, there was an area inside the bar where people were lighting up, so I found my way through the thick crowd of gyrating bodies and slowly lowered myself onto a bench.

"Hej, do you 'ave a ceegaret I could barrow?" asked a tall (taller than me)blonde. He was attractive, dressed in a grey tailored shirt and grey slacks. I pulled a Parliament from my purse and handed it to him. We smoked and talked for a while - then I followed him over to his table. He was in town on vacation via Norway along with several of his friends whom he introduced to me. One was blonde as well, although much lighter - his face flushed with the obvious signs of drinking. The other was taller, skinnier with a mess of teased, backcombed and artfully mussed black hair. He was dressed in a full suit with a skinny black tie. It was an overly done - completely undone style. I liked them immediately, they were all fun - partiers, although the skinnier rocker type seemed annoyingly bemused with the flock of women invading their VIP space. The drinks flowed all night and then into the street as the lights turned on and people began to make their way outside. Girls tottered in their stilettos, fighting to remain stable. Guys flooded the streets, making cat calls and starting fights. We waited across the street from Opera, standing in line with a dozen others, waiting for a taxi. A petite blonde girl joined our group - I assumed she was with the guys from Norway but as it turned out, she was just another bottle blonde Californian.

The taxi arrived and we all got in, squeezing our bodies into the tiny seats. The taxi swerved up and down through the Hollywood Hills, the driver making sharp lefts, steep rights. Countless glasses of vodka now sloshed against the walls of my stomach, making me uneasy. Finally, we stopped in front of a complex with dark wooden fronts, brass number plates flashing from the lights of the taxi.

"Macapa Drive," the driver said and we piled out onto the dimly lit street.

"David Hasselhoff lives down there" said one of the guys. I wouldn't doubt it. The tall, skinny Norwegian opened the door and turned on the lights. The place was immaculant. The rooms where filled with modern furniture, but not the Ikea kind - more expensive, West Elm perhaps. The large kitchen and dining area was separated from the livingroom by a floor-to-ceiling double sided fieldstone fireplace. The back wall was made up of 8 large glass panels and several french doors that opened up onto the teak deck, overlooking the Hollywood Hills. The view was breathtaking, the air even smelled different as the smog settled amongst the streets below.

I made myself a drink, whiskey on the rocks. We talked politics, the Norwegian guys were equally as excited for the upcoming election and subsequent win of Barack Obama as I was. The conversation turned to my vegetarianism, in which the bottle-blonde California girl, in an obvious vodka-induced confrontation, began screaming obscenities. She left in a rage and we all breathed a sigh of relief as she slammed the door. We took a shot celebrating her early departure. The conversation eventually took us out onto the deck as the morning sun began to rise above the tops of the hills in graduated hues of yellow, orange and red. I decided that I should probably get back to the hostel so one of the guys called me a cab. When I got back to my room, I softly changed into a pair of pajamas and crawled under the itchy wool blanket just as I heard the ringing of an alarm clock and watched as a ray of sun pooled onto the floor.

I woke up sometime in the afternoon and dragged myself out of bed. Several of my roommates sat in their bunks, one typing on her laptop as the other scribbled thoughts into a journal. They introduced themselves. Australian and British. "Are you signin' up fo' the pub crawl at half nine tonigh'?" asked the Brit.

"Sure," I said, "You guys going?"

"Not 21 yet" replied the Aussie "Bloody American laws..."

"Yeah, I'm goin'. If you'd like ta meet us here la'a we can 'ave a pint before" said the Brit.

"Thanks! See ya then," I said as I threw on a pair of jeans, sandals and a tee shirt; making sure not to forget my extra large sunglasses, to hide the fact that I was out all night. I grabbed my camera and handbag and made my way outside. The sun was bright but a distinct breeze flowed through the streets, stirring up garbage as it moved. I walked down towards Hollywood Boulevard and turned right, onto the main strip. My eyes focused down at the sidewalk and I read each individual star along the Walk of Fame as they passed under my feet. David Bowie, Alfred Hitchcock, The Munchkins, Paul Newman. I stopped for a sandwich at a small deli above a gym. Two exceedingly tanned and toned men stood in front of me, each ordered a salad, fat-free dressing. Gack. I ordered my sandwich - double provolone with extra dressing, dripping in mayonnaise - and ate it outside; far away from the judgmental eyes of the gym rats.

I walked to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, snapping pictures of the large stone lions guarding the ornately carved doors. The massive crowd of tourists gathering in the area pushed me to the corners of the piazza. I watched as plump women crammed their chubby fingers into the handprints of Marilyn Monroe; their bottoms up in the air, the fat squeezing from the tops of their jean shorts. Marilyn was a size 16 you know, yeah right. I mistakingly responded to a man dressed as the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. "Dorothy, where are you going Dorothy?" I begrudgingly posed for a picture with him and then lied when I said I didn't have money for a tip. Sorry, but standing in the street wearing silver facepaint and a funnel on your head is not exactly deserving of my hard-earned money.

I continued down the Walk of Fame, snapping pictures as I went. Morgan Freeman. Edith Head. Johnny Cash, Zsa Zsa Gabor. I made my way into the Hollywood Toys & Costumes, a seedy costume shop with fabulous window displays. The store was dirty and slightly boring, considering Halloween was only weeks away. I walked through the aisles, poking through the shelves of false teeth, tangled wigs and stage makeup. I decided I needed to nap before another night on the town, so I walked back to the hostel, stopping at the information board to sign myself up for the pub crawl.

After a long and needed nap, I walked with my towel and toiletries into the bathroom. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised. The bathroom was clean with a white tiled shower, the top of which was lined with miniature bottles of shampoo, conditioners and body wash. The blue walls were faded with tiny flecks around the sink and mirror, no doubt from the many people who accidently flicked their whitening toothpaste onto the walls while brushing. I was interested to know just how many countries were represented by these tiny, bleached spots. What countries manufacture or import whitening toothpaste? I took a long shower, the hot water never ran out and I spent ample time applying my makeup in the mirror.

Once I finished dressing in a blue satin dress, black tights and black heels, I met my roommates in the hostel lounge. The Irish boy, who helped me carry my luggage inside on my first day, was opening beers behind the bar. He asked what I would like and I ordered a Miller Lite, since the well liquors were all Crystal Palace in plastic fifths. More and more people began to trickle into the lounge as house music boomed from the speakers above. We eventually organized ourselves and began walking outside. We made a left out of the hostel and another left onto the next street where we found ourselves inside a British pub. I ordered a water from the bar, as I found myself with an increasingly painful headache from the previous night's events. We eventually moved from the pub back towards the hostel, passing it and walking onto Hollywood Boulevard. Again, I saw a long line of bodies standing on the outside of another inconspicuous building, this one with an large wooden door carved with deep, decorative etchings and painted with a distressed white stain. One thing I noticed about the clubs in Hollywood is that there are no signs detailing the name of the bar or club. During the day, I walked right past this same building and never realized it housed a nightclub. Eventually, however, I learned this particular place was Mood, a club known for it's snobby clientele and ruthless entry policy. Thankfully, I did not have to endure any of this as our group was headed by a well-known LA party promoter.

I spent my time at Mood wandering from the bar to the smoker's patio and back again, occasionally stopping to chat with some of the people I recognized from the hostel. I eventually ended up back at the bar, standing near two guys from our Pub Crawl group. They were both slightly taller than myself and equally as slender. They exuded an obvious foreign coolness, typified by their trendy wardrobes and tepid expressions. They stood, hips cocked slightly as they swilled red wine from oversized glasses. We talked for a while and they convinced me to have a glass of wine with them, as my morning hangover was slowly dissolving. As it turns out, they were both visiting up from San Francisco where they were involved in an internship program through their University in Paris. They asked if I would like to join them as they visited Rodeo Drive and Venice Beach in the morning; I quickly agreed and soon after excused myself back to the hostel. It was only a little past midnight, but my minor jet-lag and exhaustion were easily catching up to me and I needed the rest. I walked out the front door of Mood and turned down Hollywood Boulevard, walking past the long line of day-glo tanned, peroxided and overly-dressed wannabes still waiting to get inside.

I woke up in the morning feeling refreshed. I pulled the wool blanket off my legs and opened the window at the foot of my bed to relieve the stuffy air that seemed to linger heavily throughout the hostel. After a quick shower, I met the two Europeans downstairs in the kitchen. We were also joined by a German couple and after a brief introduction, we soon walked ourselves across the street to their rental car. The greyish-green Pontiac was not exactly meant to hold five grown adults, but with the litheness of the Europeans and my small frame, we managed. I trust that five bulky Americans would resort to a cutthroat game of rock-paper-scissors to determine who would be staying behind.

We took the expressway towards Beverly Hills, exiting onto a tree lined boulevard. The homes of Beverly Hills were large, but not the expansive mega-structures with rolling gardens and multiple tennis courts that I had imaged. I found the area rather ugly to be honest. Dozens of homes were under construction on each street, the lawns decorated with orange construction fencing and the architecture hidden behind three-story wooden scaffolding. The dust from unfinished lawns swirled into the sky as cars drove past, choking us as we closed the sunroof. We eventually found a nice parking spot near Rodeo Drive between two Land Rovers; apparently the it car of the Greater Los Angeles area. We walked through the stores, pausing at Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Dior, Yves St. Laurent. Ralph Lauren exuded it's typical Connecticut cottage kitsch and YSL's white lacquer walls were the perfect showcase for the constant loop of runway video playing out across multiple 42 inch plasma televisions.

We had lunch at a small sandwich shop, not far from the concocted stuffiness of Rodeo Drive and then squeezed ourselves back into the Pontiac, headed towards Venice Beach. The weather dipped into the 60's by the time we arrived and the windchill made it feel in the 50's. I bought a cup of hot tea from a stand along the boardwalk as we surveyed the area. Street vendors spread their trinkets, widgets and nonsense onto Apache style blankets. They sat in low lying folding chairs, hidden behind tufts of white hair and yards of fabric. The native drumming of a half dozen strangers triggered an impromptu tribal dance. Shoeless people writhed together in a circle, seemingly unaware of one another; occasionally shouting unintelligible phrases as if invoking the rain Gods. A black man crushed glass bottles beneath his feet and panhandled for money from unsuspecting tourists. Venice Beach was a hippy haven, interrupted briefly by the non-sensical rantings of a few McCain-Palin supporters who pulled up in a black limousine, brandishing 'Vote Maverick!' signs.

My last day in Los Angeles, I rode a bus for the first, and notably last time in my life. I spent a rather enjoyable afternoon people watching at The Grove, a combination outdoor mall and market. I forked giant spoonfuls of The Cheesecake Factory's dulce de leche caramel cheesecake into my mouth while straddling a stone wall next to a fountain. The sun, which had been lost the entire time I was in LA, finally pushed past the dense clouds and coated the sidewalk in bright, warm light.

I spent an evening at the Kress Club, the only bar I actually enjoyed myself at. The thump of house beats knocked my vodka soda off the ledge and it dumped it's watery contents onto my dress. I saw a girl nearly break her ankle, attempting to sashay gracefully down the marble hallway, after slipping in the wetness. The bar itself was 4 levels, each with their own individual DJ. The third level offered a french baroque style, with lavender walls and white suede wingback chairs. I stayed until closing and truly enjoyed myself as I walked arm in arm with a friend from the hostel back to our room.

Los Angeles, your reputation precedes you. My whole life I have had grandeur visuals for Hollywood built into my mind's eye. I imagined glamorous movie stars, beautiful people who stalk the streets in designer furs, their toy poodles tucked bitchily under their arm. I thought the sun paced slowly when setting; to stay lingering above the city, casting it's bright lights onto the streets. What I found was quite the opposite, I don't feel Hollywood delivered what was promised, or did it? A city known for its creation of fanciful, imaginary worlds; where New York, New Delhi and Atlantis exist within minutes of one another, their boundaries clearly marked by blank plywood walls, supported in back with crisscrossed lumbar. A city whose notable inhabitants include storm troopers, bullwhip carrying adventurers and teenage wizards. A city in which even the Governor is a rogue cyborg assassin - so wasn't it all a bit fake? The imagined wealth, the false beauty and delusional importance seems to be engrained in LA culture. It must appeal to some, as droves of young, hopefuls flock to the city in search of their own star on the Walk of Fame. Most eventually flee back to their hometowns, hearts crushed, pockets empty and skin irreversibly weathered from years of neglected SPF application and Hollywood rejection.

Maybe some people need to live in the land of fantasy but my heart felt a little more free, a little more real as my the plane landed at Detroit-Metro, the skies grey with impending winter. Detroit is depressing at times, not ashamed to put its blight urban decay on exhibition; the downtown skyscrapers vacant, windows gaping and broken like the gory remains of a violent tragedy. Sometimes it resembles a post-war movie set, the kind Hollywood types would spend months preparing, artfully sandblasting freshly painted brick and burning timber frames until they are black and ashen. Some may choose the bright lights of Hollywood's paparazzi lined streets, but I prefer something with more substance, fewer charlatans and a big tall class of Faygo pop - damn I missed my Rock & Rye!

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