California Dreamin’ and American ways. Travel musings in 10 chapters – Part I
Date : Sunday 26 March, 2023
One day in the late 1970s, my mum received a letter which had an American stamp. The addresser was a lady whose family had migrated to the US decades before, and she had been looking for ways to connect with her Polish relatives. The joke was that one of my mum’s favourite sayings was that she was certain about just one thing – the fact that she didn’t have an aunt in America. Until she got a letter from one.
My mum replied and thus began a decade long correspondence. And soon after the first letter exchange, a box arrived. Over the following years, Helen would send us parcels with gifts such as clothes, toys, food, and money. In the grim 80s and 90s, those boxes from America made Christmas look modest. There were jumpers with sequins and reindeers, magical snow globes, Hubba Bubba bubble tape gum, Cabbage Patch doll, a pink mechanical pencil case with multiple compartments, and many other utterly exotic things.
The America I knew was pink, shiny, glittery and happy. The American programmes I watched on the telly featured big houses with wooden staircases, fridges with colourful magnets and happy children playing in their bedrooms. Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros, The Simpsons, Sesame Street, Full House, and so on – I might have been a picky eater, but I was feeding off the American television.
And then I got older and America became many others thing. Lynch, Tarantino, Jarmush, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Robert Altman, Tim Burton. Sex and the City. Seattle grunge scene. Nu metal scene. Riot grrrls and third-wave feminism. Bojack Horseman and Hollywoo. Edward Gorey. Edgar Allan Poe. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath. The list is endless.
I read, watched and heard so many things about America that it felt incredibly close – yet faraway and exotic at the same time. I knew that sooner or later I’d go and visit the country but for a long time, this was not a straight-forward thing to do because until 2019 Polish citizens needed a visa to travel to the US. This meant that European destinations always took priority when it came to booking holidays. But finally last summer, having stumbled upon a very attractive flight deal, my fiance and I decided – we’re going to California in November.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people reading this will raise their eyebrows or roll their eyes at the hype I’m displaying here. What’s the big deal, it’s just the US, people fly to the most obscure islands these days. But going to a faraway place one has no connection with feels differently than visiting a place which to a large degree has shaped who we are.
Whenever people travel to another continent, there’s the notion that the trip has to be long. There’s no point going to Australia for a week if you live in Europe, they say. And from the environmental point of view, there’s logic in that because the less we fly, the better it is for the planet. But there are two problems with those long trips: time and money. Very few people can afford to take a month off and unless you’re going to a cheaper place, a long holiday will cost proportionally more. Again, not everyone can afford that.
Our Californian holiday lasted 10 days. And yes, we saw just a little fragment of a massive country, a small glimpse of an impressively vast culture but it was enough to get a feel of the place, see some iconic places and familiarise ourselves with the American ways. It was my introduction to America, but one that felt like a proper chapter rather than a few lines on a single page that we often find in books.
And to continue with the literary metaphor, I will break my essay into chapters too.
1 Nobody walks in LA
Ever since 1982 when the song “Walking in LA” by the new wave band Missing Persons hit the charts, Los Angeles has been infamous for its dependence on automobiles, as described in the song’s refrain: “Nobody walks in LA”.
You won’t see a cop walkin’ on the beat
You only see him drivin’ cars on the street
You won’t see a kid walkin’ home from school
Their mothers pick them up in a car pool
Los Angeles doesn’t score so badly on walkability, transit and bike usage compared to other American cities, but compare it to cities in Europe and the result is shocking. According to a study published in a paper by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, approximately one-tenth of daily trips in the US are by foot or bike, while more than half of all daily trips in the Netherlands are by walking or cycling.
Before our trip, I was told that renting a car is an absolute must as that is the only efficient way to go around the city. So we did. But on our first day in LA, we actually decided to do the apparently unthinkable: use public transport and walk.
It seemed to make a lot of sense – for a mere $3.50, which is less than the price of coffee, we bought ourselves not just a 24 hour ticket for all means of transport but mainly the freedom from having to worry about finding parking space. LA’s metro network covers a large area and takes you to most of the desirable places – Hollywood, Central LA, Downtown, Santa Monica etc. Why would anyone bother with a car, we thought. But the moment we walked down onto the station platform, we realised why a) the price is so low, and b) people prefer to drive.
First of all, the trains are infrequent, even during the rush hour. Second of all, both platforms and train carriages are filled with homeless people, drunkards, junkies and various strange-behaving individuals. I mean, REALLY strange-behaving people – during several years of living in London I did not encounter as many weirdos as during that first day in LA. The first group of people we saw on the platform were smoking crack. Ok, well, each to their own. At the next station, a man walked onto the rails – nobody stopped him, nobody called help, no security arrived. He finally climbed back onto the platform but the whole incident left me terrified. On the bus later during the day, there was another man smoking crack (seems to be popular there), while another fellow, who was also reading the bible out loud, was trying to talk sense to him (and possibly convert the rest of passengers to Methodism).
But once you’ve braved the menacing underground world and eventually resurfaced at your destination, you discover that walking in LA is actually very pleasant, at least in daylight. Wide streets, ever-present sun, blue skies, palm trees, and – surprise surprise – no crowds.
We also discovered that despite our mild prejudice (let’s say we did not expect much from the city), Los Angeles has a lot of extraordinary architecture. Sure, you won’t find medieval beguinages, but the 20th century architecture is incredibly impressive.
There is a scene in Marc Web’s film (500) Days of Summer, where Tom Hansen, the protagonist, is walking down the street with a girl he likes, showing her the architecture of the city – “There’s so much beauty here. Sure the street level isn’t much to look at, but if you look up…” – he points at the building they’re passing – “The Fine Arts Building. Guys who designed this, Walker and Eisner, are two of my favourites.” Cut to the next scene, Tom and Summer are sitting on a bench in Angels Knoll Park at 356 South Olive Avenue, and Tom is pointing at pre-war buildings, including the Continental, LA’s first skyscraper built in 1904 – “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff here too though. I just wish people would notice it more”.
I personally don’t think it’s so hard to notice the beauty in Downtown LA. Several of the buildings have made their way into films – the Bradbury Building (1893), for instance, featured in the iconic Blade Runner, as did the Union Station (1939). The Art Deco architecture can be found in many countries around the world, but the US is probably the only place where you have giant several-story high Art Deco mansions. And then there are theatres, many of which still operate as cinemas – and have been used as film locations too. Located on Sunset Drive, Vista Theatre from 1923 featured in True Romance; Aero Theater (1940) played in Donnie Darko; Fox Bruin Theater (1937) is where Sharon Tate watches the premiere of The Wrecking Crew in Tarantino’s Once Upon a time in Hollywood. And museums – there’s LACMA, the largest museum in the western United States, which holds more than 150,000 works spanning the history of art from ancient times to the present. There’s The Broad, which is famous not just for great art but also architecture – the building cost $140 million to make. A few minutes away from The Broad there’s MOCA, the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles, and Walt Disney Concert Hall which was designed by Frank Gehry. And there’s the Getty Centre, worth $1.3 billion, which at the time of my visit had 6 current exhibitions on top of its incredible permament collection (which includes 17th century Dutch paintings).
Many iconic sites have incredible views, such as the Getty or The Griffith Observatory, the latter being also a fantastic starting point for hiking. Which brings me to another point – walking in LA the city is already very pleasant, but walking in LA nature takes that pleasure to another level. Nature in California is at one’s fingertips and most hiking trails are suitable for absolute beginners.
But it is true that cars are still the default use of transport, with 3 out of 4 commuters driving to work – or getting stuck on the congested motorways (the city is as famous for its traffic congestion as for the iconic Hollywood Sign). Ironically, according to Matt Novak, back in 20s, the automobile was seen by many as the progressive solution to the transportation problems. And so it was the Roaring Twenties that set Los Angeles on the path to become a car-oriented metropolis, with a labyrinth of motorways and cars that crisscross the “72 suburbs in search of a city”, as Dorothy Parker put it.
And many people just love driving for the sake of it. In his book, Lawrence Weschler describes an interview with artist Robert Iwin who said: “To ride around in a car in Los Angeles has become like one of my greatest pleasures. I’d rather be doing that than anything else I can think of.”
When we visited Union Station, which is an absolute stunning building, it was disheartening to see how few trains run per day. Is there a chance for LA to cut down on the car traffic? Maybe. But without solid investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure, this is unlikely.
2 Compton ain’t Hollywood
We arrived at the LAX airport on a Wednesday evening absolutely exhausted. We hadn’t slept in 24 hours because the plan was to go to sleep at our destination to help our bodies adjust to the local timezone (and it worked). Our introduction to the City of Angels was a gritty airport and a hopeless search for a shuttle bus to take us to the car rental in Inglewood. When we finally got there, we spent a fair amount of time choosing a car and then, using a phone torch, photographing all the scratches and bumps, and once that was done, we finally set off to our motel in Koreatown. We were halfway to our destination when we noticed a hole in the windscreen, so we had to return to Inglewood and do the whole process again. We thus spent an hour driving in one of the dodgiest areas of Los Angeles, desperate for rest and sleep.
Now, in many cities, dodgy areas are marked by architecture and urban planning. When I lived in Amadora, Portugal, the roughest area called Cova da Moura which I had visited a couple of times is distinguishable even on Google Maps, its street layout is so messy and chaotic in comparison to the orderly layout in surrounding neighbourhoods. In London, Tower Hamlets (97 crimes per 1,000 people) is known for decaying brutalist tower blocks (remember Grenfell Tower?). In Warsaw, apart from poorly designed post-war high-rise blocks, the worst areas have dilapidated tenement buildings from before the war; there are streets where one could shoot a war film without having to do much set dressing. But in LA, the no-go areas are deceptively unobtrusive. I can now understand the dialogue between Ordell and Louis in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, when Ordell is telling his friend about one of his employees, a girl named Sheronda:
Ordell: Took her to my house in Compton, told her it was Hollywood.
Louis: She believed you?
Ordell: Hell, yeah. To her dumb country ass, Compton is Hollywood. Close as she’s ever been, anyway.
While its crime rate has decreased since the 1990s and 2000s (in 2005, Compton had the highest murder rate in the country), the neighbourhood still has a reputation for gun violence, drug activity, poverty, and violent crime.
But Compton is not the only troublesome place. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the city is home to 45,000 gang members, organized into 450 gangs. As I’m writing this, three people have been recently killed and at least four injured in a shooting in Los Angeles. This was the third mass shooting in California since January 21, when a gunman entered a dance studio in Monterey Park, in metro Los Angeles, and killed 11 people. When you look at the map on crimegrade.org, the city is mostly orange and red. Green spots are few and far between.
And then there’s the problem of homelessness. The official 2022 LA County Homeless Count is 69,144 people, and out of all the states in the US, California has the highest number of homeless people – 161,548 (well, I imagine it’s better to be homeless in winter in LA than Chicago). The increased homeless population in Los Angeles has been attributed to lack of housing affordability and to substance abuse. Mental health services in the US are insufficient despite more than half of Americans seeking help. According to the Wikipedia, almost 60 percent of the 82,955 people who became newly homeless in 2019 said their homelessness was because of economic hardship, and in Los Angeles, black people are roughly four times more likely to experience homelessness.
These are incredibly sad statistics. What is shocking is that a lot of those homeless people actually have jobs – a 2021 study from the University of Chicago estimates that 53% of people living in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people were employed, either full or part-time, in the year that people were observed homeless between 2011 – 2018. But if you realise that all it can take for someone to end up on the street in America is something as silly as breaking an arm, where the inability to work plus the cost of operation means that someone loses their job, house and accumulate debt, then you do appreciate the healthcare systems we have in Europe. One of the people we met during our trip was a man who had a very bad accident a couple of years ago, in which he lost a leg, a few fingers and spent weeks in a coma. Despite the fact that he did have health insurance, he had to pay – guess how much – half a million dollars.
I reckon that if you live in California, you become accustomed to the sight of homeless people setting up tents or occupying all the benches in parks, but for me it was heart-breaking every single time. The weirdest sight was the Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills – Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis waiting at the red light and right next to them on the pavement of the most expensive street in the city, a homeless man.
This sad snapshot, together with a visit to the stunning Tower Theatre from 1931, now home to Apple Store, where instead of Tennessee Williams plays you can watch presentations of the newest iPhone features – seemed like an embodiment of the soullessness of the city. Of course, you can see injustice everywhere in the world, but the contrast between the wealthy and the poor in the US really hits you hard.
3 LA LA Light
There’s something else that hits you too in LA, albeit in a radically different way: the light. If I had to pick the one thing that impressed me the most upon our trip, it would be the light — and I’m not alone here. The fascinating qualities of LA light have been the subject of numerous essays and studies, including the beautiful essays by Lawrence Weschler who has been pining for it “every day of the nearly two decades since I left Southern California.” David Hockney claims that it was the light that brought him to LA in 1964. In his memoirs, A Room to Dream, David Lynch shares a similar experience: “We got into L.A. after midnight on the third day. We drove down Sunset Boulevard, then turned at the Whisky a Go Go and went to Al Splet’s place, where we spent the night. The next morning I woke up and that’s when I discovered L.A. light. I almost got run over, because I was standing in the middle of San Vicente Boulevard—I couldn’t believe how beautiful the light was! I loved Los Angeles right off the bat. Who wouldn’t?”
On our first morning, when I woke up and saw the clock showing 6am, I could hardly believe it. I never get up that early, and after such a long trip I was certain I’d have trouble getting up. But I woke up, and as I looked through the windows and saw the sun and blue skies, I felt a sudden rush of energy. The energy stayed with me every day, from the early morning until sunset, its consistency mirroring the consistency of the light. In California, the sun rises in the desert and sets in the ocean. Every day’s daylight is the same on the sun’s 180-degree transit from desert to mountains to ocean, and it is this consistent unity that makes LA the phototropic movie capital. As ocean-cooled air gets trapped beneath the warmer deser air floating in over the mountains to the east, we get thermal inversion, beneath which the atmosphere is incredibly stable. Anne Ayres, the gallery owner at the Otis Institute, said that it “throws you into such a trance that you fail to realize how time is passing. It’s like what Orson Welles once told me. ‘The terrible thing about L.A.,’ he said, ‘is that you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up you’re sixty-two.'”
The fascinating thing about Los Angeles is that it is in fact a city of two contrasting side, the light and the dark one.
The light one is really bright — because of the haze that fractures the light, on many days it is so scattered that it has almost no shadows. At the same time, you get an open desert light with super black, crisp shadows — something that foreign cinematographers are dumbfounded by. So — shadows and no shadows. Then there are colours — the sky can be bluer, whiter, or browner as a result of sunlight scattered by molecules and particles from the smog, the dust, etc. which affect the light and colour that we see. Then there’s illumination and opacity; objects, shadows and reflections. LA light shimmers and mesmerizes.
But when the sun sets (and it sets quickly: “the sun can drop into the water like a nickel into a gumball machine, like a nickel into L.A.’s earliest Kinetoscope machines, in a parlor on Spring Street downtown, 125 years ago”, writes Patt Morrison for Los Angeles Times), LA becomes dark and foreboding. Each day we were there, we experienced the same uncanny feeling, coming back to our hotel in the evening. A sense of unease and tension, the desire to find a shelter and sleep.
And then the next morning, the sun would wake us up again, and fill us with new energy and excitement.
Lawrence Weschler quotes the American writer D. J. Waldie, who said that “The golden light starting in late October turns Los Angeles into El Dorado, a city of fool’s gold. It’s the light of Wiliam Faulkner — in his story ‘Golden Land’ — called ‘treacherous unbrightness’. It’s the light the tourists come for – for the light, to be more specific of unearned nostalgia.”
And we, the tourists, came indeed for that light.
End of Part I, Part II will be published in April 2023