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Memoir, Nth America & Caribbean

California meaning: an epiphany in LA

"Marilyn Monroe" on Hollywood Blvd, USA © Sara Moss

In some cities the little black car and the diminutive black dress are made for each other. Los Angeles is one such place. I’ve no clout with couture but enjoyed my ride from LAX to Hollywood; no traffic snarl and the motor hummed as my friend and I compressed the past five years into sound bites. The colours and chameleon form of the city had settled under an afternoon heat haze. I had no immunity against the impending siesta.

Upon waking in my friend’s apartment, the California dreaming began in earnest. She had a lot to show me.

Hollywood Boulevard was awash with early evening light and all the hustle of the tourist trade. A look-alike with crazy hair and Kiss make-up had removed his prosthetic tongue and was sucking on a cigar instead. He was slouched in a chair outside the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café. Freddy Krueger leaned against a wall looking bored near Madame Tussaud’s, taking a break from making young children cry at the flash of his plastic claws. Stars flecked the pavement, not the sky: this was red carpet territory.

An upper level of the Hollywood and Highland Center showed hazy downtown skyscrapers; growing luminosity of the El Capitan Theater sign across the street; the beggar on the corner who must have wondered how he had nowhere to go in the place to be.

The attractive man behind the counter at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café proved to have a sense of humour but no ear for accents.
“Are you Scottish?”
“Australian,” I replied with a smile.
“I’m American, so I can’t tell!” he joked, “But thank you for the Mad Max movies and thank you for Heath Ledger — the best Joker ever.”

The brevity of my stay preserved the novelty of wandering the streets of a working movie town. I harboured a secret glee spotting street signs prompting associations with musicals and trashy television I watched as a teenager. Perhaps I’m easily pleased but turning a street corner to find pedestrian access blocked due to a film shoot in progress, never failed to delight. Serendipity can be an interesting guide but there’s a sure-fire way to get close to the action.

For a quick route from Hollywood to Universal Studios the subway is recommended. The Metro Red Line will take you to Universal City station in less than 10 minutes for under $2. We went to a taping of The Tonight Show but I didn’t know a human greenhouse awaited us at the studio lot. I assume the hundreds queuing for hours get a bit testy in warm weather unless they are sprayed intermittently with water vapour in a shade clothed waiting area.

While pleasantly damp I was bemused by the security screening — that would put several airports to shame — required before finally entering the studio. However, once inside we revelled in the hideousness of the comedian who was our entertainment entrée. The host was more palatable but The Tonight Show Band comprised consummate musicians who inadvertently put some of the guests to shame. This concurrently revealed the marketing power of Disney.

Far removed from Disney-style fame is LA’s Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits. On a portion of land south-west of Hollywood asphalt naturally bubbles to the surface and has trapped animals, including sabre-toothed cats, wolves and mammoths, during the past four Ice Ages. Archaeological digs since 1906 have revealed more than one million bones preserved in the pits between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The Page Museum is home to the famous ‘fishbowl’ laboratory where visitors can watch scientists and volunteers clean and catalogue recent archaeological finds. It gave me a whole new appreciation of these onerous tasks and the work behind the specimens already on display. But I didn’t expect to cry. This unanticipated outburst was prompted by suppressed laughter. A young boy’s enthusiastic attempt to get a closer look at a huge jaw bone was thwarted by an apparently-too-transparent display case. It’s okay — we all recovered reasonably quickly.

Emerging red-eyed and blinking into the sunshine we drove through the surrounding affluent neighbourhood of Hancock Park. It had instant appeal with its manicured lawns, mature trees and variegated architecture. Celebrities no doubt numbered among the homeowners in that little idyll but after heading to the hills to learn about real stars at the Griffith Observatory, a new plan was hatched. Road trip.

It wasn’t quite the extended California cruising we’d daydreamed about, however, at the crack of mid-morning the next day we set out along Freeway 101 North to Santa Barbara. The two-hour drive afforded views of a side of the Pacific Ocean I was unaccustomed to. There were also ragged ribbon-developments of malls, unremarkable housing and agricultural pockets backed by the stark relief of dusty looking mountains which didn’t so much as kiss the sky, but make a gesture towards it.

Santa Barbara Mission, USA © Sara Moss

Upon arrival we were lured to beachside market stalls and embarked on a post-lunch mission to the local Mission, founded by Franciscan monks in 1786. It proved to be a photographer’s delight. We made our way through the extensive complex with our cameras fixed to eye and heads swimming with light, line, colour and creation. A priest gave mass in the old church onsite.

Our return journey ran late into the afternoon and afterwards I couldn’t quite settle at my hotel. I sat briefly in my room on Sunset Boulevard but it was my last evening in town and I had to walk. I didn’t yet know these days had been precursors to the next part of my life. That would begin after the café.

Hollywood Boulevard was awash with early evening light and all the hustle of the tourist trade. Break-dancing street performers were encircled by a clapping crowd when, much to the delight of all, firemen in a passing truck also began clapping and made brief bursts of the siren in time with the performers’ music. Wet, half-expectant children wanted another turn to run screaming through the Hollywood and Highland Center fountain jets which now lay dormant.

In search of a warm drink, I stopped where the Gene Simmons look-alike had sat at with his cigar. I bantered briefly and bizarrely with the server about green tea, ‘jasmine dragons’, dinosaurs and mythology. With tea purchased and the need to wander unabated, I was soon at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and North La Brea Avenue. The sun hadn’t completely disappeared — light was just holding on as I rounded the corner onto North La Brea.

Two men in their mid-twenties speaking an Eastern European-sounding language walked in front of me. One was strikingly good-looking and the other was exceedingly plain. I could hear someone washing up through the open window of an apartment; someone else within the same building yelled a couple of words I didn’t make out.

I stepped into a narrow band of sunlight that squeezed itself between buildings and saw two cyclists riding along a tree-lined street to my left. They had the easy manner of friends who were comfortable in their surroundings, chatting as they rode. The street was so quiet by comparison to the boulevard just two blocks away.

I imagined other people a little way down the street, washing their clothes and waiting on the spin cycle at the laundrette opposite my hotel.

Miles from home, it felt so good to be out in the world, at dusk, in Hollywood, where everyone was playing out the grand stories of their lives — accretions of everyday things. I’d found the longest moment in the slipstream there on North La Brea, where life was effortless and glorious and pregnant with possibility. I’d finally felt everything was right, and life as I knew it was irrevocably changed.

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