Posts Tagged 'california'



Dancing in the Fog: Weekend Wedding Part II

Everything grey. Not the soft, floaty kind of grey, but heavy, brooding, impenetrable—like being underwater, like walking through a dream: the landscape all sand and crippled trees, windswept by something that came before you, something you can’t see, some kind of endless passing of which the fog is only a part, only a symptom of a larger sadness—the solitary transience of the Northern California coast.

Destination weddings are fun, because the party doesn’t stop, isn’t confined to six hours in impractical shoes and unforgiving fabrics. And you get to feel like you’ve gotten away, vacationed, traveled. So it’s a two-for. Guests complain about them because they’re more expensive, discreetly accusing hosts of choosing distant locales to limit the guest count. Which could all be well and true, but my first experience at a destination wedding pretty much ruled.

To qualify, it wasn’t much of a destination—a two-hour drive down the Monterey Peninsula to Asilomar, what could have easily been a day trip. But something about it gave me just a taste of travel, a hint, like passing someone smoking a cigarette on the street—not the real thing, but enough of a whiff to remind you of the real thing, evoke some sort of not-so-secret longing you try to muscle through, distract yourself from, most days. Something about the weekend was twinged with longing (for what?), some kind of sickly bittersweet lonely. Maybe it was the fog.

Asilomar is a state beach and rustic conference grounds billed as a “refuge by the sea.” It’s got some history, some charm, some Arts & Crafts style flair. But the conference grounds/hotel was unfortunately bought out by some large hospitality chain in recent months, and the service has gone from homey mom-and-pop to corporate nickel-and-dime-and-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-quality. Whatever. The scenery is still beautiful and the wedding was still awesome.

The weekend started with a Friday afternoon BBQ and wiffle ball tournament that got froze out by the cold. We retreated to the bridesmaid cottage (which was more like a suburban home than a cottage, beige carpeting and all) for epic hanging-outage.

The cool thing about the whole weekend-long aspect of the wedding was that it really gave you a chance to meet people. Not just superficially, but, you know, to bro down. I suppose the destination wedding thing could be hell if you were trapped in some resort with someone’s insane family, but my friends Katie and Steven have pretty awesome friends. They’re scattered around the Bay, LA and NYC; the disparate groups had never really had a chance to meld, so the wedding served as the ultimate meeting (the whole reasoning behind having it be a destination affair). I’ve got a particular affinity for rad, smart, independent girls, and got to meet quite a few of them.

I also got to hang out with some super good old friends, the kind of people that have seen you grow, that you’ve seen grow—who you’ve walked through all sorts of brutal life shit with. The beautiful part is that we’ve managed to come out on the other side, all limbs in tact. (I’ve also got an affinity for survivors.) There’s not so many of us, you know, when it comes right down to it. And getting to hang out with a couple dope old friends that you’ve been through some shit with definitely serves to renew faith, lend some perspective, validate some small feeling inside you that everything might just be okay—almost like a small kind of prayer.

And then there was the dance party.

I like to get down; who doesn’t? But there was something different about this dance party. It wasn’t just the killer music (soul, 80s, old rock ‘n roll), and it wasn’t just the super cool folks. It was fueled by something within, some drive to… escape? That’s not exactly right, but close—a drive to push through a kind of pain, not just an immediate circumstantial sadness (checking the phone for text messages), but the deeper, desperate lonely beneath that (gone, gone, and left me here).

Whatever it was, I let loose like I rarely do, like I was trying to dance my way out of something. I thought of the kids that used to hang out the swimming pool I worked at as a teenager. It was North Oakland, an inner-city environment to say the least, filled with a bunch of little hood rats with nothing better to do than hang around the pool all day. Forget what they say about kids having no worries—a lot of these kids had pretty gnarly home lives. But I used to watch the way they’d play and find some sort of solace in it—the particularly child-like ability to shed all that shit and just play, find some small moment of release amidst the dysfunction and poverty and pain. Almost like a small kind of prayer.

Let’s just say at the end of the night, it was me, a dude who looked like Owen Wilson in Zoolander and danced like a gay stripper, and a ten year old girl who could break dance. Magical.

The next morning was all eggs and syrup and sleeping in. There’d been an after-party, then an after-after-party, and everyone was spent. We staggered around in the dream-like fog, hair half-curled and wearing sweatpants. People bundled up on the beach and ate the remainders of potato salad and cupcakes, wrapped in blankets and sleepiness and the grey, grey sky of California.

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A Woman in the Sun

I sat in the sun, butt naked and heat dazed, my starving skin soaking up all the UV it’d been hungry for since my trip to LA. The sulfur smell of the hot springs had stopped burning my nose, and I was in that drool state of relaxation where everything floats in and out of your consciousness like a dream. The bits of conversation from down the deck came to me in whiffs, like BBQ or the burning of some far-off fire.

“You know, Mark called me on Friday. And he started up again. And I said, you know, like we’d practiced, ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.'”

The words roused me a little. Not so much really the words, but the careful way in which they were recited—deliberate, practiced, the memorization of an actor who knows the scene but hasn’t quite figured out their character’s motivation.

The patter of bare feet and a sleek ripple of water. “Oh, Myra, I didn’t tell you,” the voiced repeated. “I got to use that tool we talked about, when I told Mark: ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.’ It felt so good!”

Wilbur Hot Springs is a retreat place, and that’s what I’d come for. That’s what we’d all come for, driven the two-line highway through pastoral postcards, past cheese-commercial cows, down a bumping dirt road where the dust plumed and twisted behind us like everything we’d meant to leave behind.

Wilbur is the kind of place that makes you lapse into cheesy cliches (partly because your brain is too full of steam to think straight). A Victorian mansion “nestled” into the “rolling” California hills, it’s an uber-NorCal experience, an “oasis.” Everything is solar-powered. The natural hot springs are directed into four flumes clustered around a clothing-optional deck. There’s a communal kitchen where guests cook their own meals, and instruments for evening jam sessions. Everyone talks in low, soothing voices, and the place smells like well-oiled wood. Sustainability and spiritualism; regrouping, reconnecting, getting off the grid and soaking in 114 degree water—you know, the kind of hippie shit a punk rock kid like me used to scoff at. Until I went up on a gift certificate a couple years ago with a similarly suspicious friend.

We’ve been jonesing to get back ever since.

Retreat is what these chatting women on the deck had also come for, and like retreat, they were something, a certain kind of woman, a younger incarnation of me would have scoffed at: middle-aged, middle-class, white, all-American. Bad hair and worry lines. I’ve grown less judgmental in my old age, and in my hot-spring-infused sedation, observed them detachedly, from an almost anthropological distance.

They’d come on day passes. They weren’t entirely comfortable, held their robes and towels around them self-consciously, seemed self-conscious about being self-conscious—they averted eyes, glanced this way and that before letting go and slipping naked into the steaming water.

I’d pieced together their conversations, about ex-husbands and astrology, how to figure your aura energy by the kinds of animals you attracted (“You got lizards and butterflies; I got bit by a tick!”). This day trip to Wilbur appeared to be the culmination of a healing workshop. The leader of the group was some kind of psychic—not a predictive one, she assured, but one that dealt more in energies, a kind of cosmic therapist. They weren’t super New-Agey about it, talked in a kind of down-to-earth tone that made them seem less like people on board some kind of bullshit train, and more like people genuinely seeking, genuinely lost and hurt and looking for something, some kind of solidity.

“I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.” The statement rang in my ears, plucking me out of my sun-drenched stupor. The speaker’s voice held in it all the excitement of a pupil who’d just felt a switch flip—who’d practiced the arithmetic but wasn’t sure the equation would work for them, with their own dull and trembling pencil. But it wasn’t a young voice and a glance at the body from which it issued revealed a gravity, breasts heavy and hips wide, a child-bearing body.

My God, I thought, to have lived that long and only now have learned to say that.

The woman’s comment, the thrill with which she yielded it, struck me as tragic, in a particularly female kind of way—that a woman could go that long in her life without having learned to say no before.

Boundaries. Standing up for yourself. Not taking shit. They’re vital things for us girls to learn. You flat out won’t make it in this world without them, I’ve come to believe, and I don’t just mean with manipulative ex-husbands. You’ve got to learn where the world stops and you begin, what is and is not okay with you, and how to be firm and true to that. Cause you’re not going to make it—ride the buses or walk the streets or, shit, travel the world—you’re not going to survive the barrage of shit hurled at you without learning the word “no.”

And there, on that sun deck, a wave of gratitude swept over me, like the spring breeze on my pink and steaming body, for my mother. My tough-as-nails, take-no-shit mother.

My mother, my model: pretty and blond and trained in karate. She worked in factories, held her own in the male-dominated world of politics, worked in West Oakland during the worst of the crack years, dared a scab to follow through with their threat to punch her on the picket line (they punked out). It stems from that: my childhood love of Tina Turner and my vow that if, when I was older, I ever went on a date with a guy who tried to make me do something I didn’t want to, I’d “kick him in the nuts with my high heels”; my busted-Converse affection for Riot Grrls, Le Tigre, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. And it stretches before that: my grandmothers, no-nonsense Midwest girls who endured Depression poverty and marched in Civil Rights protests.

I come from a long line of tough ladies. I can’t ever forget I stand upon the ground they forged for me. It’s a generational adventure, this learning of how to be a woman in the world, and what my mother and grandmothers fought for is in me, my blood. So much so that it still surprises me, blinking-eyed shocks me, when other women ask me how I have the “bravery” to travel alone. It simply never occurred to me to not have the bravery.

In that sun-drenched moment, any residual judgment melted away, just like the knots in my lower back unclenched in the hot, healing water. It may have seemed tragically late to learn how to make boundaries, she may have had to take a healing workshop with a psychic, but this woman had learned. And she sat now, naked and free, gently turning pink in the sunlight of it.

Painting the Town: Street Artists Bomb the Bay

One of the nice things about living in the Bay Area is that people come here. Just, you know, to visit. We’re coming up on the high season, when the streets swell with tourists, clicking their cameras and speaking their different languages, hanging limbs off cable cars and sharing undoubtedly brilliant commentary in the halls of museums. We don’t complain so much about tourists in the Bay Area—aside from the fact that they spend a shitton of money (and have hopefully read the part in their guidebooks about tipping), it makes us feel good: we live somewhere people want to come to.

It makes us feel especially good when those people are street artists who leave us little gifts.

The Bay Area has been freaking out over the past few days about 6 Banksy pieces that have surfaced in San Francisco. We’re a medium-sized city, so it makes us feel special that an artist that big would come out and leave his mark. I, for one, had to take advantage of a sunny spring day and go on a taco-fueled, MUNI-powered mission across the city (cause, you know, why not?) to see as many as I could. But here on the quieter, slower side of the Bay, a couple other street artists/collectives have made visits. They may not be as big as Banksy (who is?), but spotting their work made me feel, I’m not gonna lie, a little warm and cozy about my hometown.

The blogosphere has been abuzz over Banksy lately. With the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, everyone’s favorite British recluse has been hitting up spots where the film’s debuted. (His recent work in LA caused quite the stir when it was physically removed to be sold in a shady art gallery.) The San Francisco debut of the film went down recently, and we were all waiting, holding our collectively aerosol-stained breath, to see if any Bay Area pieces would surface.

They did. Warholian broke the news, spread the word and even got himself on TV:

I had to wait a few days, for a full day off (new waitressing gig = mucho trabajo) to embark on the mission. Luckily, Warholian posted exact locations on his Flickr stream (along with far better photos than I took). Oh, the digital age…

What was funnest about missioning around to find the pieces wasn’t really the art; it was seeing all the people come out. Folks were really excited to see the work, like a treasure hunt where the reward wasn’t some crappy Easter egg but sick-ass stencils that spawned social commentary—and a nice dose of civic pride. One guy I met was super stoked that a piece ended up abutting his soon-to-open bar (“It’s like free publicity!”). A group of European kids posed for photos by the Native American stencil while a hip dude explained in Spanish to a passer-by what all the fuss was about. On Haight Street, I met an old dude with a serious camera—miles of lenses and clicky gadgets—who told me, “I’ve never been that into this whole street art thing. Always looked like a bunch of scribble to me. But I read about this in the paper and thought, well, that’s pretty cool. So I wanted to come out and document it.”

Doubt this one will be winding up in a gallery

Yeah, my camera sucks. You should really just Google this shit.

Say what you will about Banksy—publicity stunt conspiracy theories and cries of being too mainstream—but that Bristol boy got San Francisco juiced, taking pictures and making missions and actually chatting with each other (usually a more Oakland phenomenon). And at least one cool old dude seeing street art as something other than vandalism.

But I’ve been noticing more cool pieces around lately, on my own side of the Bay. One of my favorite street art blogs alerted me to that fact that Feral was in town, and I spotted one of his pieces (now gone) by the MacArthur BART station.

Abandoned furniture and trash-feasting pigeons: that's my town!

And up on Telegraph, the epicenter of gutter punks and flip-flop-wearing bros, I spotted one of TrustoCorp‘s guerilla street signs. These have been making me giggle for months, and I was stoked to see some stuff locally.

I’m not sure who did this piece, but I liked the placement of it—a busy intersection across from a Whole Foods—and its stark insistence on being noticed.

I’m continuing to think a lot about street art and what exactly it is that draws me to it—what exactly it is that seems so undeniably related to travel. It’s got something to do with place, with the insistence of place, the immediacy and intimacy of interacting with a place on such a visceral, physical level (the subject of one of my first ever blog posts). The words are forming, the drooling gibberish shaping itself into discernible sounds under my wet pink tongue (“mama,” “dada”).

In the meantime, I’m thinking a trip to Italy for Fame Festival might answer some questions and cure some wanderlust. Just in case the Bay doesn’t receive any visitors for awhile…

Smog City Street Art

Second and Traction. I wouldn’t have ended up there if three degrees of separation and a vaguely pointing finger hadn’t sent me, the intersection pulsing on my iMap like a gleam off buried treasure. Does every town have a warehouse district—posed delicately between decay and revitalization, a hushed breath that sends the trash dancing ecstatically down deserted streets. Abandoned buildings, chain-link fences, art collectives, lofts, hip cafes on whose terraces a gothic bartender I once knew squinted her eyes against the LA sun (she never did get sober). Dogs and day laborers and cute girls on bicycles—and a shitton on graffiti.

I’m thinking this little tract of Downtown LA is something like the hill (or dug-outs or BART tracts) where the cool kids in high school smoked weed. There were pieces from big names like So-Cal native Shepard Fairey and the UK’s D*Face (who recently made a stir with his Zombie Oscars installations), as well as wheatpastes and stencils and tags galore. I came across a friendly crew of dudes painting a legit mural on the side of an abandoned building that read “Still Kicking Ass.”

Damn straight.

Shepard Fairey

A lot of the work was heavily politicized—making poignant to satirical comments on the imperialism, immigration, consumerism, commodification and other fun subjects not typically conjured in my LA stereotypes. Just more proof that there’s more going on than teeth whitening and Botox injections.

Interesting comment on the commodification of political figures--especially considering the man responsible for the oh-so-famous Obama image had a piece up a block away.

Mad skills

Reminiscent of Banksy mice, no?

D*Face: Siiiick

Word.

Dudes painting mural

"Can I get a picture of your bird tattoos?" "Sure." "Aw, dude, show her your Booger tattoo."

At work

More pieces on the same building

One of Nomade's Roman fellows

Down on 9th and Mateo, another abandoned building was getting seriously hit up by some bad-ass murals, part of the LA Freewalls Project. Local boy Saber had just completed an impressive piece, as had D*Face.

Saber's mural

Detail: buffed graffiti

And, why not, a couple more gems from elsewhere in the city…

Sherpard Fairey & Saber alley, Silverlake (thanks for the correction, Daniel)

Note the can: Campbell's Soup. How Meta.

If all taggers and graffiti artists looked like this, they'd have a much easier time.

Health care reform passed while I was in LA. Was delighted to see the Monopoly fellow around.

So what does it all tell you, these smears of paint and peeling papers, about Los Angeles? If street art and place really do have as much of a connection as I suspect they do, LA’s told me this: that even within the belly of mass culture and consumerism, pangs of outsider aches burn acidic. And they don’t sit quietly, politely, hands folded and waiting their turn. They’re illicit, guerilla and goddamn beautiful.

Take Me Back to Bunker Hill: Finding What I Came For in Downtown LA

“Well,” my Dad asked, “did you find what you were looking for?”

I sat travel-dazed and dirty-socked at the dining room table. I’d fought the coming home blues all 372 miles up the 101, driven straight to my parents’ house to eat dinner, tell stories and delay actually arriving home a couple more hours. My car rested in the driveway like a tired horse, bag-laden and dirt-covered. I couldn’t remember having ever wanted to come home less.

Of course, my dad meant Los Angeles, its gritty and unglossy underside—had I found it? I’d made quite the to-do over my mission to dig in, delve beneath and uncover buried, bloody gems of LA’s uncommercializable heart—the skeletons in its closets, its alleyways, the voices that came through tattered paperbacks and the shrieking distortion of old punk LPs. Had I gotten there, found there, held a bit of there in my hands like it could be mine?

Downtown mural

I stayed mostly in Downtown, LA’s most un-LA area. Modestly tall buildings jangled with the light dancing off of cheap jewelry stores; young girls beckoned you to enter their stores, calling out the names of goods in Spanish; a legless beggar with perfectly combed hair occupied the pavement outside Clifton’s Cafeteria; Santeria markets abutted Art Deco theater marquees, sitting above boarded-up entrances and watching the street like purgatoried angels. Hipsters took morning strolls with their well-groomed dogs, past shopping carts and transient twitching, the encampments of misery that compose Skid Row. There were no Valley Girls, OC bros or Pilates-perfect MILFs. There was even a cafe that served Ritual coffee.

It’s called “Historic” Downtown, complete with markers and murals, and I crossed several groups of confused tourists, consulting street maps and looking up bewildered at the carcasses of LA history as if it say, “Huh?” You learn to take the term “history” with a grain of salt in California, but it went beyond that—this was barely even a Downtown. There were no bustling businessmen, no Banana Republics, no dudes hawking maps of celebrities’ homes on the street corner, no tourist facilities, not really any non-neighborhood locals. Working-class, non-white, unglamorous—this was Downtown LA.

I hiked over to Bunker Hill, a doomed and fruitless mission, I knew. It was once a down-and-out neighborhood that held, in the shadows of its slanted incline, flophouses and brothels, dive bars and cheap hotels, derelicts and drunkards and two of the best damn writers to come out of that cursed city. John Fante curled up in the liquor-soaked sweetness of the slum, while Charles Bukowski broke furniture and chased alcoholic insanity in its tenements. A 1950s revitalization project razed the ramshackle Victorians, paved over the shattered remains of lives and dreams and addictions, suffocating the howling ghosts neatly beneath office parks, wide streets and sterilized, sparkling sidewalks.

There was nothing to discover. I tromped up a San-Francisco-steep hill, glanced at the historical markers, cruised past the newspaper village of bare feet and cigarette butts outside the Central Library. I stood on a corner that will next week be renamed John Fante Square, and not a damn thing remained. Not a shadow, not an echo, not a ghost of a passing fit of madness. There was, to use a tired and perfect quote, no there there.

But of course, there never really had been. None of it was true, not all the way true, at least. Us writers and alcoholics are tragically skilled at romanticizing even the most sordid, harrowing of places and experiences—and in all likelihood, the actual Bunker Hill bore more resemblance to the modern-day Downtown than it did the gloriously gritty harem of passion portrayed in the novels I’ve loved. It was, most likely, a sweet little lie those boys told themselves, in their more tender of moments, when they ached for something to hold them, rock them, hum the lullaby of a childhood none of us really had. I know I’ve been guilty of rose-painting, perfuming the past, my own life, and it takes a photograph, something tangible, to jar me out of it, to remind myself how much it hurt, it bled, it puked and moaned; I saw people die, burn out, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

So in that way, what I sought was all a mirage anyway. The narrow alleys and sagging Victorians of Bunker Hill may have been gone, but had the illusory soul of the place ever been more than that, a fevered dream? There was a current-day incarnation, just down the hill—laced with more sinister, soul-eating of drugs, for sure, with the rattle of shopping carts and broken lives—but it was probably a more accurate representation of Bunker Hill than those exalted odes to insanity, like the moment of pure genius and bliss before the trip goes back and the come-down shatters in.

But maybe it was all a mirage, Los Angeles—an oasis that keeps glimmering just a little further out in the sand. Katie told me about a girl she’d met in a penthouse one day (“typical LA story—went out for a coffee, met the Del Taco guy, went up to his apartment with his friends…”): perfectly thin and gorgeous, a 22-year-old model who’d run away from her Midwest home at 15, found herself stranded in California when the boyfriend ditched out, came to LA, rose in the ranks and behind the flashing of cameras, sat now on a leather sofa doing rails of cocaine off a glass coffee table. “She was the total LA person—came from somewhere else, chasing this glamourous illusion, the LA dream. She knew it was a dream, she was totally aware of it, but still too addicted to the dream to disconnect.”

Here’s what I learned: LA is a place for seekers. It seems it always has been, at least for the last 100 years or so. The City of Angeles, of a fleeting fulfillment you can almost, but never quite, grasp. There’s an LA dream, that’s not too unlike the American dream, that this too can be yours, that you too can find it, have it, hold it. It’s a flickering projection of images, like on the backs of eyelids or clean white screens, that’s so close to being real you could almost weep, almost believe it.

So did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. It may have all been a dream to begin with, like the utopias of the almost-cults I visited. It had been bulldozed and redesigned with crisp corners and clean towers; it was living on in the ragged throats and stained clothes of Skid Row. It was a memory so old you don’t know whether it was a dream or not; it was a love song for the one you never really, but almost, had.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA

 

Not my photo

 

Freeways are the subways of LA.

I had that realization as I ached red-brake-light through the afternoon traffic, slugging from Orange County to my sister’s apartment in North Hollywood. The New York City subway system seemed to me, on my first trip there, like a whole nuther underground world—its own city, separate from the other city, living and breathing and pulsing passengers just beneath the surface of the streets. And the freeways in LA are kind of the same thing, choked and crawling and lined with furry-necked palm trees—a world within a world, a sub-city. And it seems you could live your whole life within its concrete confines, going back and forth and never arriving, not needing to arrive, having come to a place beyond arriving. (And you may not be able to buy a hot dog in the middle of the LA freeways, but you could always pull off and grab some oranges alongside the exit ramp.)

It’s been a busy four days in Los Angeles, poking, prodding and trespassing into the underbelly of the biggest un-city of the US. I’ve got about 100 stories to tell, and even more poorly shot photos—marginal neighborhoods and abandoned places and esoteric cults, street art and Santeria markets and a female-run strip club. I’m debating how I want to organize and present it all and, as usual,chronologically seems the least linear, in terms of telling the story of it. The lines curve and arch and connect like the freeways, tangentially, seeming to move independently and with their own direction.

Most of my best finds and coolest adventures came as the result of totally serendipity and randomness. I dug for hours on the internet and then, three days before I left, I happened upon a not-quite guidebook in a bookstore: LA Bizarro (whose blog component can be found here). Cheesy in parts, genius in others and snarky throughout, the book brought me to some seriously hidden gems. And one that had fallen off the edge of the continent.

Sunken City was one of the coolest places I went to. A piece of San Pedro that had crumbled into the ocean during a mud/rockslide, Sunken City is the name given to the concrete, graffitied remains. Quardened off by a barrier wall and a couple of easily shimmied-under fences at the end of Point Fermin Park, Sunken City is technically off limits, but we found it full of about a dozen people—including a bunch of ballsy teenagers skateboarding the broken surfaces. Palm trees, grass and wild chard (from someone’s old vegetable garden?) punctuated the wind-swept rubble. It’s a wet dream for anyone who loves abandoned ruins, low-level trespassing, oceanside vistas—or anyone dreaming of the day California falls into the Pacific and floats away. Expect a photo essay soon.

I got word of another killer abandoned place from an old friend via Facebook. I drove into the green hill of Griffith Park, and poked around the rusty abandoned cages of the Old LA Zoo. Parts are a proper picnic/park area, while others lie behind a well-bent fence. The further into the hillside you go, the weirder and more graffitied the remains become. The zoo closed as a result of poor funding and animal deaths, and looking at the archaic cages, it’s easy to feel the suffering of the long-deceased captives. Especially since you can climb inside the cages.

Again, it was me and the teenagers—digging around behind broken fences is a fairly juvenile activity. We smiled and exchanged sunny day pleasantries, them choking on blunt smoke and remarking on all their friends’ tags, “Damn, blood, everybody been up here.”

I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon the MAK Center’s How Many Billboards project, but it totally intrigued me: artists taking over billboards in one of the most heavily advertised/commercialized/image-obsessed cities on the planet. I missed the bus tours and I’d feared the whole exhibition, but a bunch of the billboards’ leases got extended beyond the show’s original run. I hunted around town and found a couple really cool ones:

I also somehow stumbled upon the New Image Gallery, and found out legendary LA artist RETNA was having a solo show. I missed the opening reception on Friday, but stopped by today. Combining fashion photography with layered scrawlings, advertising with graffiti, glamour with grit seemed like the perfect collision of LA cultures. And it looked bad-ass.

Another thing I’m totally mystified as to how I found was Jetset Graffiti, my new favorite nerdy obsession. The site recently featured the latest Saber mural, part of the LA Freewalls project; I scurried down amid the warehouses and day laborers of 7th and Mateo to snap some photos. Expect a lengthy photo and word essay on LA street art I stumbled across, including stencils, wheatpastes and works by DFace and the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey.

Saber mural, "Pepper's World"

 

 

I discovered Esotouric by Googling “Charles Bukowski landmarks” (I said I was nerdy). Offbeat, indie and utterly obsessed with LA’s underbelly, Esotouric has an entire “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski tour—plus John Fante, Black Dahlia and Tom Waits tours, among others. They only run tours once a week or so; I wasn’t super stoked on the one they were running while I was in town, but figured entrusting myself to people so dedicated to the strangeness of LA would be a damn good way to spend an afternoon, regardless of the subject matter.

“Maja’s Mysteries” focused on spiritual sites—the truly marginal and counterculture ones. Some might call them cults, some might call them New Agey nonsense, but all had found a home in the City of Angels. Maja, the White Witch of LA—tall and blond and subtly doused in glitter—grabbed the bus microphone and instructed us on karma and grace as we toddled up the hills and along the highways. We stopped at historic spiritual centers, founded by estatics searching for Utopia. They were all evangelists and mystics and soothsayers that prayed into crystals, channeled the cosmos, allowed the voice of Jesus to speak through their voicebox, clogged the old streetcars with thousands of revelers on a weekly basis, and generally used the power of prayer to create oodles of good mojo.

Though I didn’t connect to the spiritual eccentricity, and was downright spooked by the haunting recordings of George King’s contact with cosmic voices, I realized something on the Esotouric tour: all these people had come to Los Angeles from somewhere else. All of them seekers, searching for something, looking to fill a void or answer a question amid the swaying palm trees and quivering fault lines. Long before Scientology, long before Hollywood, long before reality shows about struggling actors and wannabe models, the magnetic currents of LA had drawn these misfits into the sunshine, the skin-piercing, cancer-blooming sunshine. They found followers, built philosophies, perfected their teachings, erected buildings—and fell off, eventually, into obscurity, settling into the dust between the hills, just under the surface of all that pavement.

Seen in that way, Hollywood isn’t some departure from the true, wild spirit of LA—it’s a continuation of the soul-hungry-ness, the seeking lonely and the elusive mirage that almost, but never quit fills the void—that circles and circumvents, glittering hoods and gleaming break lights—touches on a tangent, an overpass, for a moment, then glides off along the concrete arteries, the highways of LA, never arriving.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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