A week or so ago, Millie and I spent six days in Los Angeles, a place where we’d never before dared to venture. This is Part 2 of some of my sober thoughts and contemplations about what we witnessed in this mind-boggling metropolis, taken from the perspective of an Indiana hick. Part 1 is here.
The notorious LA traffic seemed confined to the freeways; I didn’t see the side streets backed up even at five o’clock.
Parking was difficult, though it didn’t seem to bother my daughter and her family. They drove us all over the place, parking along back-streets sometimes 14 miles from our destination. We walked and walked, and I grew dehydrated with surprising swiftness, and we would reach the shop or restaurant or other destination, where I would find no peace and often no water. Then we would trudge all the way back, pausing from time to time while Millie shopped at unrelated stores. Sometimes I saw mirages on the sidewalks that looked like sweet Indiana, but the teasing illusions would evaporate to nothing as we approached. How anyone remembers where he parked is a mystery.
Probably the most popular car in Los Angeles is the Toyota Prius. Their drivers have earned a notorious reputation for incompetency, stopping or changing lanes at a whim or holding up traffic with their 22-point turns as they carve their own special parking spots between two Fiats. Prius drivers are very self-assured people, assured that their auto purchase is the righteous one, a fact that they will proclaim out loud if they feel that the information is pertinent (even if it is not). Owners of Mac computer products are also like this, and I suspect that the two groups often overlap, making a particularly obnoxious saint. Proud Prius and Mac owners could learn a lesson from the quiet fans of flushable wet toilet wipes, who use such an obviously superior but overpriced product but who never feel the need to put everyone else down.
A good many people rode bicycles around. Most of these dressed in hardcore bicycling androgynous frog suits and helmets, though a significant number of bicyclers wore regular clothes, and I suspect that these had gotten drunk at a juice bar one too many times and lost their drivers licenses. An odd bicyclist sub-group also regularly appeared: young ladies who swerved around on old-fashioned 1-speed bikes complete with fenders and bicycle bells and oversized baskets. Were these female “hipsters”? I never found out.
The Los Angelans, in order to make the world a more peaceful place, have added advice beneath their stop signs. For example, one sign said “Stop… and smell a flower”. Another sign read, “Stop… and make a friend”. Useful advice! Yield signs are not exempted from this. I caught one that read, “Yield… to your Dreams”. Crime has fallen in Los Angeles by about 20% in the ten years since these signs went up, and other cities across America are imitating L.A.’s sound example. It’s cheaper than hiring cops.
Every billboard in Los Angeles advertises nothing but upcoming movies and television shows without exception. The predominance of the entertainment media, which locals call “The Industry”, must drive this monoculture of signage. It’s much like the billboards of Houston that all advertise petrochemicals, or how Dalton, Georgia advertises only carpet.
Dozens of billboards, everywhere we went, ballyhooed some upcoming Fox television show called The Strain. The signs featured a giant woman’s eye stretched wide open by a surgical-glove-covered hand. Wriggling out of the bloodshot bottom of this gaping eyeball was some sort of brownish, segmented worm. Or possibly the worm was burrowing into the eye, it was hard to tell. These signs horrified Millie, and we all took to warning her of their approach so she could cover her face. So revolting is the sign that nearby workers of the Fox studio demanded its removal, and the company acceded. Public horror is so widespread that Fox is now rushing to remove the ads everywhere; they are replacing the objectionable signs with a picture of a crying baby who vomits an eel.
The Hollywood Sign
People flock from all over the world to see the iconic Hollywood sign. What a thrill! What glamor! The fact that the attraction is nothing more than generic block letters poorly lined up on a hillside does nothing to deter the eager tourists.
Some decades ago, Los Angeles built an entire observatory atop the next hill just so people could ogle the Hollywood sign. The Griffith Observatory attracts millions of pilgrims each year who walk for miles up the hill just to stare at the Hollywood sign for hours. I even saw a large group of Hollywood hajjis who formed a circle and prayed to the sign. The observatory also features a model of the solar system on its sidewalk, and I was told that the orbital rings of sidewalk actually rotate in real time to the movement of their corresponding planets, but I did not have time to confirm this.
The sign isn’t even lit up at night, much to my surprise. Apparently the rich homeowners are terrified that the unhinged tourists will lose all sense of restraint if they see a gleaming Hollywood sign at night, that these hooligans will clog the roadways and just stand there staring at the sign all night until the rise of the sun. The fears of the rich are probably justified. On New Years’ Eve in 1999 the city lit up the sign with lasers and flickering colored spotlights and fireworks to celebrate the new millennium, and euphoric fans tumbled to the ground en masse, writhing in seizures of sensory-perceptual overload. Local residents were stuck in their homes for days.
Trippy religious cults thrive in the Los Angeles area. New Age spirituality touches almost every aspect of the local culture, and I saw fortune teller shops everywhere. So great was the fortune-telling competition in Los Angeles that the psychics even hired destitute teenagers to dress up as gypsies or swamis and dance along the street waving their fortune teller signs, just as tax services and gold buyers do back home in Indiana.
The two greatest cults in Los Angeles, that we know of, are the Hare Krishnas and the Scientologists.
Orange-clad Hare Krishnas follow a commercialized form of Hinduism, and they often litter the ground with flowers and hold enormous gaudy parades with nightmarishly garish floats. Back in the 70’s and 80’s they handed out flowers at airports, but the Krishnas have grown way above that now. “It’s entirely possible these days that a Hare Krishna could be living next door to you and you wouldn’t know it,” threatens professor Burke Rochford. They could be working in offices with suits on and growing full heads of hair, just like regular people. Hare Krishnas convert the local populace to their cult through their hypnotic mantra-caroling, which they are encouraged to do in public, and through the sale of coloring books to impressionable youth. They claim that they’re growing by leaps and bounds.
The Scientologists believe that all human minds contain fragments of tortured alien souls that only Scientology can remove, for a price. Nowadays Scientologists compete with the Jews for the rule of Hollywood, and the Scientologists might be winning. Aspiring actors and actresses see the conversion to Scientology as a ticket to stardom; but once inside the system, the converts are brainwashed to become loyal followers. The Scientologists claim that they’re growing by leaps and bounds.
The visitor to Los Angeles dares not speak of the Scientologists in public; no one can know with certainty where a Scientologist agent might lurk. At the tourist’s innocent question voiced across a room, the terrified local will nervously look around, and he will whisper a warning that the subject is taboo. One panicked fellow from Morocco simply pushed me out of his tea shop and closed his store behind me.
Sometimes the Scientologists and Hare Krishnas clash. Scientologists, to get their kicks, steal Hare Krishna coloring books and burn them. The angry Krishnas retaliate by burning effigies of L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise. These turf wars occasionally erupt in violence. In 2007, mobs of Scientologists clad in white lab coats crashed a Krishna parade, screaming verses from Dianetics over the shrieking chants of the Krishnas. Riot police had to break them up, and local hospitals treated more than 200 cultists for minor injuries including hoarse throats. Hare Krishnas often lay on the steps in front of Scientologist conventions. Every year a particularly devoted Hare Krishna named Dhruva lights himself on fire to protest Scientology’s WISE International Conference at Los Angeles. Dhruva’s annual burning has become a popular tourist attraction.
I heard a prophecy that one day a messiah will arise in Los Angeles to unite the Scientologists and the Hare Krishnas into one harmonious group, and that their combined heavenly power will be so irresistible that all humanity must embrace them. I learned about this great vision from a very earnest bum sitting on a pigeon-feces-covered bench at the Venice Boardwalk; he also confided to me that Madonna was his (the bum’s) sister, and he had a crumpled photo to prove it. Madonna is cruel to shun her visionary brother in this way.
The Venice Boardwalk
“Go to the Venice Boardwalk,” she said! “You’ll get a kick out of the people-watching!” I will never follow my granddaughter’s advice again, bless her foolish heart.
The Venice Boardwalk attracts tourists from all over the world who want to see the fine beach, the gigantic monsters who pump iron in plain view at Muscle Beach, the talented feats of skaters at the skate park, and the “interesting people”.
Shabby stores and rickety tents sold T-shirts and junky tourist trinkets, greasy carnival food, foot massages, fortunes told, and bike/skate rentals. These latter businesses seemed the most respectable. Sometimes obnoxious barkers tried to scare us into buying their goods, but oddly enough, Millie didn’t enjoy shopping here, and we came away with even less than what we carried when we arrived.
A variety of street artists amazed us with their instrumental music, their tuneless song-singing or rapping, and with their painted portraits. A few street performers dazzled us with their tricks like juggling or standing on a ladder, but we didn’t witness as many as expected, perhaps it was an off-day. (Even street performers need days off, I’m sure.) Some of these artists and performers do possess talent, and all of them think they do.
As the sun began to set, my wife took a picture of some pop-can figurines that some dreadlocked hippie was selling. The filthy man shouted “No pictures without a tip!” I hurried Millie away from there, but the hippie’s Wookie friends followed, harassing us to tip. Then the sun dipped below the horizon, and the night people started coming out. Slithering from behind graffiti-covered walls and scaling down the trunks of palm trees from their leafy tops, the creatures of the night, fiending for drugs, stumbled after us. They managed to snatch my digital camera and my vented outback hat before we lost them to other prey.
We barely escaped. Others weren’t so lucky.
The ladies cried and I shook hands with Mark (clammy wet hand like a dead fish’s belly). Millie was sorry to leave, but I was in a good mood because the time to return home had finally arrived. Yes, I would miss Carol and Taylor, but a week was long enough.
Back in Indiana and on our way home, we stopped at a Cracker Barrel, a restaurant that doesn’t even exist in California, and I enjoyed a ham steak, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy. Real food, in other words. Finally.
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