August 31, 2010


So much. I know of no other way to describe L.A. than in vignettes. There is no quintessential Los Angeles. So far, I have found no unified quality of place, unless one counts the endless concrete world called “the” freeway, which is more a void between places than a place itself. From Pasadena to El Monte to Long Beach to Santa Monica to Venice to Beverly Hills to Downtown, Los Angeles is the winged lady of a thousand faces both ugly and beautiful.

“There’s always something new to do in L.A.,” a friend of a friend explains as we walk past the trendy shops and restaurants on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, looking in the windows but never at the price tags. None of us felt we met the area’s requisite cool quotient, but we had a fun time people watching (and dog watching) from the well-designed cafes and peering into the artful shops.

A young neo-hippy naps in a the doorway of a couture shop, her cardboard sign asking not for money but for love. At the Mystic Journey Bookstore I chat with a beautifully accented woman while her coworker looks to see if they have the book I need. They could order it, but I’m only visiting Venice today, with no likelihood of getting back to the store. The Australian welcomes me to the area. At the Intelligencia coffee shop, the barista knowledgably explains the merits of various teas is language as complex as any good sommelier.

“This is a well designed space,” one customer comments to another.

“Yes, it is,” the other replies.

They were right.

A few doors down, I stepped into a converted bungalow I thought might be an art gallery only to be greeted and asked “Are you a patient?”

“No, I was just examining your space. It’s a lovely house,” I explained.

“Yes, it really is. The view goes through all the main rooms all the way to the back window,” the young man agrees with a smile.

The proprietor of the Bohemian shop across the street tells me I should be holding her cat, a long-haired black and white preening from atop an armoire, because she would look good against my black and red outfit. And we should come back next week for their celebration of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, she explains as I admire the bustiers and corsets on the nearby rack. And would I like to see the dressing room? She recently won an award for it! It was a lovely dressing room, with an array of antique mirrors, soft rugs, and a plush chaise lounge with dozens of soft cushions, all in aged shades of cream and pastel.

We left Venice without spending more than twice as much as we ought on a cup of tea, but enjoying the drink for all of that. The yuppie hipster culture of the district was distinct for its overflowing cheerfulness, not a bit of moody, disaffected angst in sight. (Though granted, our visit was brief.)

“I’ve lived here my whole life and there’s still so much I haven’t seen,” my roommate Harry tells me as we drive down Colorado Ave in Pasadena the next morning. He studies the changes that have happened since he worked in the area a few years ago. “The Huntington Library’s over there a few blocks. It’s a good place to take a date.” The area is one long shopping mall, bright, post-modern, mid-height, mixed-use buildings blending with well-preserved historic structures. Global chains nestle next to well-established independent businesses. Harry drives his BMW fast, making the trip to Pasadena fly in contrast to the public transit expedition of the day before. (Though both modes of transportation were appreciated for their own merits.)

Danny was in tour guide mode as he led us into Union Station. “Okay, I just want to point this out.” He stopped and faced us to make a strong clear hand gesture towards a bus waiting at the curb in a well kept civic square. “This is where you can catch the Fly Away bus to LAX. It’s seven dollars. When you get on you tell the driver what airline you’re flying with and he’ll make sure you get to the right terminal. And obviously there’s a big cargo hold under the bus for luggage. Okay, moving on …” He led us on towards the Trader Joe’s in western Pasadena.

By contrast to Pasadena and Venice, travelling the number 70 bus up Garvey should qualify one for a degree in multicultural education. Holly and I decided we could just hop on the bus and ride until we saw an interesting restaurant. There were so many to choose from, it would take a month to reach Union Station again by this method and we wouldn’t even have tried them all. About halfway there the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai signs give way to Spanish. Markets advertise piƱatas rather than incense. The quality of the neighborhoods rise then fall then rise again a half dozen times before we pass the massive, modern teaching hospitals on the edge of Downtown.

Some places are so poor they bring tears to your eyes to see, while others are so full of consumerism as to provoke disgust or rage, and yet others are both desperate and beautiful. Some are built with care and liberal resources for the enjoyment of all, like Union Station (both the historic and modern sections), and others for a select few, like the Mormon Temple in Westwood. All are dynamic and unique.

These vignettes of Los Angeles are just glimpses of a sprawling multicultural city I have only yet to begin to know.

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