Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Los Angeles, and the endless quest to get your beans (coffee)

"Compton, Long Beach, Inglewood". Dre's sweeping grouping ringing in my ears, I wonder whether there is enough California Love to spare me from a mugging, as a police officer orders a Japanese tourist to put away his iPhone before it gets stolen. Having taken the wrong bus from LAX I find myself sitting at the train station in Long Beach at a quarter to twelve, waiting for a connection from LA's mediocre train system. I need a coffee.

Eventually I found the hostel with no loss or personal injury sustained, but still without a coffee, or even dinner. I can see the Hollywood sign from my bed. I can also the the back of a nightclub, a parking lot, and a couple groping each other up against a graffiti covered wall. But that's by the by.

First impressions do count for a lot. Which might explain why the clerical error that led to me being put in an already occupied bed was never recovered from (get over it arsehole, it happens). I decided to start my acquaintance with LA more formerly than with my disgruntled roomie; Hollywood seemed a good place to begin. Around central Hollywood is a strange mix of theatres and malls, tattoo parlors and wig shops, interspersed with guided tour booths and the occasional shop window holding mannequins with enormous fake breasts. Not that any mannequins have real breasts of course.

Head west out of Hollywood and it starts to become rather nice. The Sunset Strip is small but showy, a range of bars and restaurants sitting perversely close to the multiple lane highway that constitutes Sunset Boulevard; the area is a fair contrast to the road's earlier offerings of motels, drive-throughs and slightly disheveled, purposeless buildings on uncertain leases. Head further along Sunset and you reach the city of Beverly Hills, which in this area amounts to little more than an enormous housing estate, full of equally enormous houses and driveways you could never pull out of, such is the traffic. Further west lies Bel Air and the city of Westwood, UCLA, and the sea, the road only punctuated by small, elite but nondescript commuter towns full of opportunities to sip a Starbucks and ogle the tanned, jogging women that pass you, and oddly, who ogle back.

Ogling is the only real activity to do for the tourist in LA. There are museums, and galleries, and of course the beach, but if you aren't eating, drinking or shopping you may as well find a Starbucks and sit yourself outside (and do find a Starbucks, it is the most reliable coffee in town, unfortunately). In a city so full of paparazzi there is surprisingly little to photograph, unless you love Downtown's handful of towers, are perving on Venice beach, or are doing a human interest story somewhere in South Central. When people think of LA they think of the city's powerful, almost unavoidable self-image, the area between Malibu and Venice beaches and their rows of fanny-magnet property, and east to Downtown. Moreover, as the city is more of a region than a cohesive unit, nobody comes to see all LA; the boulevards stretch out like brambles and in between the areas like Beverly Hills, Downtown and Hollywood lie thickets of patchy, meaningless, non-fruiting tangle. As a result, there is little to sightsee, and almost none of what there is can be done on foot.

Such is the predicament that I found myself in off Rodeo Drive, in Beverly Hills, pondering how to get to the beach without a car in the most expensive, exclusive and distinctly unbusworthy area of town. After another insipid coffee served by another melancholic waitress, and fighting the distractions of the parading plastic soccer moms, I did manage to find the right bus, but if I lived here I would have given up long before. If you have a car, or a taxi, and have the money and the time to shop, eat, club, drink and pardy, then LA is great. Except for the coffee. The problem occurs when it is the time of day for none of those things, and you must resort, again, to ogling.

In a last attempt to waste the half day before my flight, I went sightseeing, up into the hills, along Beachwood Canyon towards what was once the community of Hollywoodland. All I wanted was a better shot of the sign, and maybe, if possible, a decent coffee. There I found that the public land ended just inside the old walls of H-land, and that I could only get a marginally better photo here than from my bed. It was here that I also suffered the indignity of paying $4 for a woefully-served cappuccino delivered in a styrofoam cup, sans chocolate, by a waitress whose vacuous expression was matched only by the emptiness of the streets themselves. It seems that the celebrities left here long ago. Unfortunately, the waitress seemed to think otherwise: in the ensuing conversation with the next customer, a returning one it seemed (poor fool), it transpired that the waitress had some shows coming up on cable. Hopefully she wasn't playing a barista.

I do like LA, surprisingly. But much like any place where its main selling point is the weather, if you have time and money to waste it is great fun. If you grow weary of the search for decent coffee outside Starbucks, or can only handle two or three nights out a week, or one night stands, then you can get bored here easily. It's not that LA society is soulless, my cappuccino was soulless. But it is a bit frothy, which my cappuccino was not, and I'm not sure I could wake up to that kind of city every morning.

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