My hosts only accommodated my premeditated stint of sloth. The intent of the trip was to meet my girlfriend’s family. Plenty of good food and company. I must commend them for being exceptionally generous and friendly people.
As for my impression of SoCal, I was immediately impressed by the sun. I had forgotten what it looked like after days of endless gray. Don’t get me wrong. There’s something starkly beautiful about a winter sky and its crisp atmosphere, but it was nice to be able to slap on some shorts and go running without muttering a prayer to the elements for mercy.
Having never been to the West Coast, there was plenty of things to see. Most of my time was spent east of L.A. in the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga where the San Gabriel Mountains leap straight out of the earth. A fine place in its own right, devoid of all the glitz and oddity reputed of Southern California. But I wanted a taste of glitz and oddity. It seemed a shame to come within a few miles of L.A. and its famous surrounds to not glimpse some of what made it so flashy and unique.
My native guides were happy to oblige my requests and whisked me off...into hours of slow-moving traffic. However, everything was new enough to me it was easy to be patient with the aggressive constriction (that, and I fell asleep a few times when conditions got really viscous).
The first place I went was Huntington Beach because, having never seen an ocean other than the Atlantic, I wanted to witness the Pacific. It seemed a quintessential surfer’s beach, the kind that seems so lacking on the East Coast. Scores of surfers floated like colonies of kelp beyond the waveline, occasionally one or two drifting off from the pack on a cresting wave that ripped them to shore. Everything actually seemed pretty laid back here, but maybe it was because it was a winter weekday; although with the weather and casual mood of the place, it hardly felt like it. The brewery where we ate was aptly dubbed Huntington Beach Brewery (I think), and was thoroughly enjoyed through the prompt consumption of a heaping platter of fish and chips as well as a few home-brewed pints.
Hollywood was another stop on the tour. Many of the sights were so familiar (Hollywood sign, Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame) I felt like I had already been there before. Still, it was intriguing for how small it felt when compared to my initial conception of the place. Even though it wasn’t much of a tourist season, the street performers were out in droves. Break-dancers and chromatic mimes plied their trade behind tip jars. There were quite a few impersonators too. Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Gleason mingled with the crowd and the ghosts of Hollywood passed by in casual conversation. When I caught sight of Michael Jackson posing smug before his star for photos, I had to wonder, “Why only this Jacko?” Sure, I didn’t expect a swarm of look-alikes around Red Skelton’s star, but I figure a lot of people would want to play the Man in the Mirror. I expect impersonators have to get some kind of exclusive license for the day, or else a dance-off might break out between gangs of Michael Jacksons on Hollywood Boulevard. A quick shout out to the Hollywood Hard Rock waiter from Winston-Salem that was trying to make it as an actor. He brought home the idea that people had come to L.A. to make it big from all over the country.
Perhaps the most intriguing stop was Venice Beach. This place is truly a bazaar of bizarre. We parked at the beach in a small lot just a couple hundred yards south of Venice. A stroll up the beach sidewalk was frequented by rollerbladers, cyclists, skateboarders, and speedwalkers and flanked by debonair beach house architecture (jutting block floors, rock gardens, daring colors).
Soon we ran into a vibrant wall of humanity. The madness of Venice Beach erupted suddenly upon crossing a break in the sidewalk. Immediately sales pitches flew through the air for everything from buy-one-get-one-free tattoos to cheap tickets to a two-headed petting zoo. There were countless smoke shops offering medical marijuana licenses so that you could come in and purchase their product.
The diversity of odd was out in style. One guy went rollerblading by in a skirt and turban while attempting to serenade the crowd with a lyre. Clusters of homeless people rolled joints on the sidewalk while cops on glossy, beefed-up segways laughed in careless conversation. I also caught a chance to see the basketball courts where movies like White Men Can’t Jump were filmed. Right next to them was the original outdoor Gold’s Gym. All the muscle heads were pumping iron while banana-hammock wearing wannabes swarmed around them. You could almost catch the scent of steroid in the air.
I watched a scarred-up, middle-aged skateboarder who looked like he had been out in the sun for far too long and fallen way too many times tie a pack of cigarettes to his board with some hemp and then take off with it dragging behind him. Ten minutes later, we came across the same guy standing baffled over scraps of what was left of his smokes, blood drying down his savaged knees.
In truth, there were so many wildly eccentric people to see that I’ve already forgotten things that would have doubtless stuck with me if they had occurred in isolation. Southern California already felt like a pretty diverse place, but Venice Beach was perhaps the most diverse. And I don’t simply mean race. Every age and economic standard was out there mingling. It's not at all odd to see a man in his sixties walk by wearing the same cap and skinny jeans as the kid skateboarding past him. I’ve never seen anything like it, and though it’s not really my scene, it was definitely worth the experience.
The trip back to North Carolina was uneventful but relaxing in its own way. I suppose I haven’t flown enough to be jaded by the long waits and terminal mix-ups. To be honest, I enjoy it. I’m definitely a window-sitter. Watching red veins of desert rock stretch out below for hundreds of miles was pretty stunning. Even people-watching in the terminal was pretty amusing. Just from hanging out in the airport for a few hours, I think I could’ve made a coffee book of unexpected ponytails. You know, the kind worn lavishly long by men who look like average dads and grandpas at first glance, but almost take your breath away as soon as they bend over to grab their bags and it comes sliding over a shoulder in all its vainglory.
I hereby declare victory for this adventure. Thanks to my hosts for their gracious hospitality and making a small town kid feel at home under the big city lights.