Pedestrian in Los Angeles
It was cold and damp, and we'd been tramping up and down for the better
part of an hour, past houses, little restaurants, shops, and the Scientology
Celebrity Center twice when we finally asked someone where
the Hollywood Hills Café was. It was a mile back where we had
come from, hidden in a nondescript Best Western by the freeway. The
time was about nine on a March evening, we were idiotically underdressed,
and our sole motivation for seeking out the professedly downscale restaurant
was its reputation given by an article in the Globe and Mail
for being a celebrity hangout. When we finally got there, the
only celebrities were in autographed photos on the wall; our closest
brush with fame was the impressions left in the naugahyde booths by
their vanished posteriors. And a twenty-minute walk back to our hotel
awaited us. This was our Los Angeles. And it was good.
You shouldn't see Los Angeles by foot, of course; everyone knows that.
In this ridiculously expansive city, if you lack a vehicle, you are
truly among the dispossessed. So when Aina and I chose to try our fortune
without wheels, everybody thought we were out of our minds, especially
since Aina's a figure skater and needed to keep her legs in working
order. But we couldn't have had it any other way.
Why did we see Los Angeles on foot? This is a two-part question. The
answer to part two Why on foot? is straightforward enough:
money, and the challenge. The answer to part one, Why L.A.?, is that
we were enticed by its mythos, its hyperreality, its glamour. Aina was
touring with Disney on Ice, and I flew out to join her and to see a
great and famous city. Is not figure skating glamorous enough? No, it
only increases the appetite.
We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy
Awards, snugly ensconced in the walk of fame and right across the street
from Mann's Chinese Theatre with its cemented footprints. Shirley Temple
learned to tapdance on the stairs here. Step out the front door onto
Hollywood Boulevard and you're treading on the brass pentacles of Cybill
Shepherd and The Original Fifth Dimension. But the area is dining out
on the scraps of its past now it's mostly souvenir shops and
liquor stores and places you can't take children. Glamour has shifted
miles to the southwest. So, like Dorothy and Toto, we set off to find
our own Emerald City, not Oz but Beverly Hills. And our yellow brick
road went by way of the vaunted Melrose Avenue.
Everything happens somewhere. And one of the foremost somewhere everything
happens is, in the American culture of fame, Los Angeles. The very fabric
of the city is more real than reality. And more exemplary and varied:
the architecture is simply astounding in its incessant diversity and
its frequent luxury. Commercial buildings are almost invariably paragons
of style. Of course, that style was learned from seeing these buildings
on TV. But when you've seen the outside, there's little to do but move
on you're not invited in, unless the building is a shop. And
the streets are quiet; as we passed through at 10:30 AM, Melrose Avenue
might as well have been Fargo. We were glad when an open interior loomed
ahead: Beverly Center.
Beverly Center! By the very name one expects a top-quality mall. And
so it is top of the parking garage. One has to ascend by several
flights of escalators as though to a postmodern Aztec sacrifice. The
reward at the top is a mall much like many others. It's remarkable how
you can be anywhere and step into a mall and immediately enter an environment
that is utterly familiar. But how could we have been disappointed? We
were in the birthplace of the hyperreal America, the uniculture, one-size-fits-all,
Los Angeles and especially the minds quietly chugging away in
Beverly Hills and its satellites invented Generica. And
here, in Beverly, it has been elevated, placed on high, atop a stack
of the two things that have most shaped America and especially L.A.:
concrete and cars. But we wanted more. We pushed onward, peeling away
After our three-hour stroll, however, our glittering goal was an anticlimax.
Just as stars are shorter in real life, the famous stretch of Rodeo
Drive is a mere three blocks of high-fashion stores. And they're pretty
much the same stores we walk past almost daily in Toronto. So here is
fashion, in little boutiques, and those who shop in them arrive and
leave by car. Sidewalk sales are not in evidence. We were stuck on the
outside again why enter a store just to endure the quick humiliating
full-body glance and cold shoulder and we were hungry. Ferre,
Armani, Chanel, Manolo blah blah blah, give me a taco. The most striking
thing about Rodeo Drive for us, after its smallness, was the absence
of any place to eat.
The street with restaurants is two blocks east: Cañon Drive.
We cruised it, passing Chasen's, where a producer-looking guy (who probably
was a producer; how many people can afford to eat there?) was seated
alone on the patio perusing something or other (a script, perhaps?)
and was later, on our second pass, to be seen with an actress-looking
woman. If this was a near-brush with famous people, it didn't quite
match seeing Mike Myers in a pub in Toronto. We walked down to see what
Spago looked like, since it's apparently famous. Spago looked like a
building hiding behind greenery, an entrance deep enough to prevent
seeing into, and three orange-coated guys out front to park cars and
screen the riffraff. And at this point, Aina was Riff and I was Raff.
We walked back a block and had very nice and surprisingly affordable
Italian food at a busy bistro on a corner. I can't even remember its
name. Then we set out to the northwest.
Another hour and we were on the Sunset Strip. Although it is not short,
hills and curves give it a smallish feeling for much of its length.
The fact that many of the buildings are one storey and most of the rest
are two aids this effect. The architecture includes a green flying saucer
of a building (not a shop but someone's offices), an average-looking
high-rise touting its role in some TV series, and the House of Blues,
surely the most salient structure on the Strip for its thoroughgoing
adherence to the Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack style of design (and
rest assured that it is very well-maintained Crummy Decaying Delta Tin
Shack, looking ready to spew forth fresh swamp monsters every hour on
the quarter-hour). Also on the up-and-down middle of the strip is the
Viper Room, co-owned by Johnny Depp and site of River Phoenix's untimely
evanescence. We didn't go inside, but we were amazed at how utterly
unprepossessing the outside is a small sign, a flight of stairs,
a black wall of a building. Never mind the banality of evil; the banality
of the famous at close range is its most disarming feature.
The sidewalks are not crowded along Sunset, but it's not because people
don't go there. We had the peculiar experience of going down a mostly
empty sidewalk and walking into a perfectly crowded coffee joint. Where
did all the people come from? When I headed to the back to use the washroom,
I discovered the answer: a rear parking lot full of cars. In Los Angeles,
people even drive to coffee joints. The car-privileged many slip in
through the back entrance, and the closest they come to the sidewalk
is when they choose to sit out in the boulevard seating and watch the
passing of the pedestrians.
It was a long walk still to get back to the hotel. At Century Canyon,
we walked up to Hollywood Boulevard. And for more than a mile we walked
past houses and low apartment blocks. Not so much as one convenience
store, nor anyone else on the sidewalks, not even in later afternoon.
A block and a half from our hotel, Hollywood at last burst fully realized
before us. Returned to the room, Aina immediately ran a hot bath for
her suffering legs no two hours of skating could match six or
more of the L.A. concrete. And then, at my behest, we set out to find
supper and the possibility of stars at the Hollywood Hills Café.
If Los Angeles at close range had failed to lift us to the heights
of glamour, we could still try to elevate ourselves. Glamour had been
distant from us; perhaps we could claim that distance. How many movies
have had enticing mythopoeic vistas of Los Angeles from brush-covered
hills? Therefore, the next day I insisted that we go up to the Griffith
A good place to put a park is on land that you just can't do much
else with, and, indeed, a rather large percentage of Griffith Park is
chaparral-covered hills and ravines fit for little more than being backdrops
to M*A*S*H episodes. The road up to the observatory forms a wavy
incomplete paper clip of a line as it goes up first one side of a ravine
and then the other. It has no footpaths or sidewalks. As we gradually
ascended, the view developing by degrees, Aina reminded me that she
was going to have to skate. And she was wearing shoes with three-inch
Arriving at the top, we found the observatory closed until later in
the day. But the roof was open to all comers. The view from up there
is cinsecopic (Omnimax, actually). Aside from getting to see more haze
than you thought you'd ever take in at one sweep of the eyes, you can
see just about everything south of the mountains in L.A. You can take
in that lofty view the hill-dwellers have of the flatlands whereon dwell
their private security agents, valet parkers and domestic servants.
The view should be famous; you feel like you're in a movie. (Rebel
Without a Cause had some scene or other up here so I'm told;
I've never seen it.) We sat on the roof's concrete parapet and had our
picture taken with the Hollywood sign in the background. And we strolled
on the mountaintop and I wasted four bits in a broken telescope.
And then we had to come down. We attempted a shortcut down the other
side of the ridge. All was well as we followed the path, but when we
tried to descend into the neighborhood to the south, we were met with
fences here, impassible slopes there. Ahead of us on an asphalt road
was an attractive pink castle of a house we had seen from the observatory;
it was the crown of a lower hill, surrounded by trees, a sight out of
Disney or a 1980s drug gangster movie. But a high fence blocked the
road to it. We turned around and descended by dirt path to the park
gate, Aina's spike heels seeming less elegant by the minute. Our walk
back to the hotel was a long one decorated by houses large and small
followed by crumbling commercial structures.
That evening we cheated. We accepted a ride to a restaurant on a hilltop,
in a house once owned by film star Anna Mae Wong. The view was great,
the environs lovely, the atmosphere cordial. We left with our wallets
even lighter than our spirits.
The following day, Wednesday, Aina abandoned the quest. Disney on
Ice was having publicity; she had to show up and be a famous person.
Now I was on my own, and I headed to the old heart of the city. I took
a bus too far to walk and was humiliated by the driver,
who, seeing my map, asked loudly if I was lost.
I sought out two places I had seen in Blade Runner, the sci-fi-noir
vision of a dark and crumbly future that seemed so much more plausible
to me now that I had experienced the city in person. J.F. Sebastian,
the designer of replicants, factory-made humanoids with built-in obsolescence,
lived in the Bradbury building with its high atrium and wrought iron,
a 19th-century vision of the future, decaying in the movie as surely
as Sebastian's replicants. Off-screen, it's a clean and beautiful building
and inaccessible beyond the lobby except to those with business
in the offices above. Across the street is the Grand Central Market.
It looked so much larger in the movie. I was reminded yet again that
objects of fame do not have to be large; they can, after all, be made
to appear so by careful framing. Perhaps car windows help in that effort.
Then I wandered, through art galleries and Chinatown and past the
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion site of so many Oscar ceremonies
and finally sought supper in the historical birthplace of the city:
El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, across the Santa Ana Freeway
from downtown. It consists of a small set of narrow pedestrian streets
with restored buildings, mainly restaurants or shops selling purses,
cheap hats and other items like they sell to tourists on similar streets
just south of the border, down Mexico way. Some of the items looked
reasonably inviting; the atmosphere had that "authentic" stencil
on it. The buildings were actually old, and, for a switch, L.A. felt
cozy as I went down narrow, cobbled Olvera Street between the carts
and the restaurants, not a car in sight, and people actually walking.
I think they were all tourists, pretty much.
And then my time was up. I rushed off to the Art Deco Union Station,
its leather seats and dim lighting apparently unchanged since the "golden
age of travel." An unobtrusive side passage led down into the new
Red Line subway, the cavernous station and empty trains used only by
the carless few. I took it to MacArthur Park and, emerging from the
underground, sprinted across the street to catch a bus to the L.A. County
Arena for Grease on Ice, an evening of lights, swirling, jumping
and pre-recorded song, with Aina Arro in the chorus: our glamour that
we had come with and would leave with.
Going to meet Aina backstage after the show, I was carte-blanched
past the door guards by Cory, the show director, and led into the concrete
inner sanctum, the wigs, props and costumes all piled neatly in their
travelling trunks, and Nancy Kerrigan, star of the show, looking smallish
and pushing a baby carriage. From the inside, too, the glamour disarms
by being in small bodies like any other. But it's different when you're
in, not out. It's a privilege, not a disappointment, to see how small