L.A. is for Lame
By Paul Gerald
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: I can't really figure L.A. out. Most people think it's this sprawling mess of a place, built out in the desert where we have no business building a humongous city, sucking up everybody's water and polluting everybody's air. And what are the images of Los Angeles? Wildfires, drive-bys, earthquakes, and mudslides. But then there's this other Los Angeles, some kind of a "la-la land" of bikini-clad beauties and big-name stars and perfect weather.
I spent a weekend there not too long ago, covering an event with the Flyer's music editor, and my conclusion is this: It's way too big, like about 14 cities in one, but it can be a real cool place to visit, especially if you know somebody there. It's loaded with stuff to do, it's got beaches and mountains and about 360 sunny days a year, and you can do it fairly cheap. But if you apply the test of "What would it be like to live here?" you arrive at the fundamental truth about L.A.: It's a joke, and probably a bad one, too.
My eternal impression of L.A., other than driving forever to get anywhere, consists of several basic characters I've met there. One is Mister Connected, who told me he could get me into any party, since he knows everyone in town. His basic phrase was, "I can hook you up, dude." Jane's Addiction was playing in town, and Mister Connected told me, "Man, blow off the show -- the VIP party is the place to be! Just go over there and tell the blonde at the door you know me, and you will be hooked up."
Another L.A. character is the Pretty Girl. The Pretty Girl is in L.A. because The Industry is there. She's in the restaurant business now, but she did a bit part in a Seinfeld episode one time as somebody's hairdresser. She was also "in a movie scene with Sandra Bullock," whom she says is a bitch, and she knows somebody who's hooking her up to be in "Quentin's" next movie. Her hair is perfect, her smile immense, her legs long, and she stands out in L.A. like a salmon in a migrating school.
The Pervert I have never met exactly, but he's obviously a mover and a shaker in L.A. I believe he feeds on the Pretty Girls. The L.A. Weekly, which the week I was there had 11 ads for liposuction or corrective surgery, also had page after page of what sure looked like ads for prostitution. "Exotic rich lonely girls looking for men for intimate pleasures!" "Sensuous session with sexy blonde!" "Swedish redhead centerfold!" My desire to talk to a real-live Swedish redhead centerfold was somehow resisted. There's a huge Web site with pictures of girls you can call to come over for massages/modeling sessions/dances, or something "more intimate."
I expected to meet The Fitness Freak in L.A., but instead I found The Burger Hunter. Specifically, the Burger Hunter was Dave, an old college friend we were staying with. Dave took us to In-and-Out Burger, which has just six items on its menu and claims, among other things, to make its buns "fresh daily from sponge dough." We inquired not as to the nature of the sponge dough. Dave told us L.A. is "the cheeseburger capital of the world" and proceeded to remark with confidence about the goods at Fatburger, Astro Burger, Johnny Rocket's "original hamburger," the All-American Burger, and Tommy's World-Famous Hamburger. And this is not to mention a chicken-and-waffle place, which disturbed me too much to be visited, and the well-known Big Pink's, home of the bacon-chili-cheese dog.
Seemingly floating above all the muck in L.A. is The Celebrity. The Celebrity has a magical glow about him, no matter how ordinary, or less than ordinary, he looks. We were actually excited, when we went to an all-night diner, to see Bill Maher and the guy who played RoboCop in there eating. Now, we were two guys from Memphis and one from Newport, Arkansas, who'd just spent their first big night in town drinking beer and driving around looking at lights and women, so our standards were low. It was like our first trip to the Big City.
We got nailed, in fact, by a classic, and perhaps definitive, L.A. character: The Hustler. We were driving down Hollywood Boulevard one night, and we saw Mann's (formerly Grauman's) Chinese Theatre. Oooo boy, we say, the place with the Celebrity handprints in the sidewalk! So we go see where Humphrey Bogart signed, "To Sid Grauman [who owned the theatre in the old days], may you never die until I kill you." And then we see Anthony, if I remember the name he gave us. Anthony has a broom and a dustpan and introduces himself as the Caretaker of the place. He looks at our hands and says to us, "Okay [to Mark], your hands are the same size as Jack Lemmon, and [to me] you're Jack Nicholson." And by golly, he was right! We giggled and gave Anthony about eight bucks. Then I got what I thought was a great idea: I asked Anthony if he could get us, dare to dream, into the theatre. This was at about midnight. "Why sure," says Anthony, "for a small donation, you understand." The now-richer Anthony then runs around to the door of the place, signals to us to come on, and then lets us in -- in the front door of a theatre with probably 200 people watching The Devil's Advocate. Anthony was last seen ditching the broom and running away laughing.
Actually, that theatre is something everyone should go to. It's a magnificent thing, humongous and totally ornate, with a reputation for having the best sound in town. There's also a Cinemarama Dome theatre in Hollywood. That one is a large round theatre that looks like a golf ball from the outside, with an extremely tall screen that wraps around the wall. We saw Seven Years in Tibet there, an instance of the venue showing up the show.
Being good tourists, we also made the pilgrimage to Venice Beach. One of the first people I saw there was a rollerblading Rastafarian guitar player who has been there all three times I have. Venice Beach on a good day is one of America's great people shows: Muslims preaching constantly through microphones and to nobody. An outdoor bodybuilding gym with an amphitheatre for flex-off. More people selling postcards and T-shirts than you can shake your wallet at. Roller-skate dancers. A sprawling, spinning drum circle on the beach that went berserk when the sun dropped into the ocean. An 8-year-old kid driving a miniature car around, stopping to watch a one-man-band play a bass drum with one foot, a bass guitar with both feet, a snare with one elbow and a cymbal with the other, and two saxophones.
Truth be told, I could have hung out in L.A. for a long time, just going to see stuff, and flying into it at night is just about worth the price of the ticket (insist on a window seat). L.A. is like New York in only one way, and that is that it's far too big to ever do everything in it. And if you're "hooked up," or better yet, pretty and hooked up, L.A. can be a blast.
I'm neither hooked up nor pretty, but I had fun there for a few days. Some of it was goofy tourist shit: cruising Sunset Boulevard, driving up Mulholland to look out over the city, seeing the house where the Menendez brothers lived and the hotel where John Belushi died, visiting the bar where Marcellus Wallace held court in Pulp Fiction, that sort of thing. Some of L.A.'s appeal, though, is the entertainment options, from live music all over the place to the whole club scene and places like the Laugh Factory and the Improv.
But I just can't get past thinking L.A. is lame. The bars close at 1 a.m., the live music advertised in the paper didn't look all that hot, and even though the radio has a station at every quarter-turn of the knob, there's still nothing good to listen to. Dave even told me that going to sitcom-tapings is lame, since they send out some cheesy comedian to "warm up the audience," then you can't see anything, and then they film every scene four times, so by the fourth time you're only laughing because you're supposed to.
That, to me, is the thing about L.A.: As soon as you think you're getting something real and satisfying out of it, you realize you might as well be eating cotton candy. L.A. is just a big, sprawling city, with no downtown (or with a bunch of them, depending on how you look at it) and no scenery at all except occasional panoramas of the city itself. It is eternal suburbia. It's just that it's got all this cool stuff to do, and all these celebrities you can bump into, and all these cuties that you want to stick around and meet. Try as I might to avoid it, I seem to keep winding up in that godforsaken town.
I think you have to take L.A. as being funny, like some dumb video game you go along with because it reminds you of being a kid. Just remember: The only way to "lose" a video game is to keep pumping your money into it. So go on out there -- round-trip airfares have been seen in the neighborhood of $200. Take a dip in the pool of oddballs and fantasy that is the City of Angels. Chances are it won't hurt you.
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