Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oh, L.A., How I Heart Jew.

(a mash note from Sera)

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with a couple of exec-y types, chatting about movies. We'd narrowed it down to one movie in particular, a theoretical one based on some manga they'd sent me (that's "Japanese comic-booky-type novels" for those of you born before the year 1990). I said, "You know, I'd set the movie in Los Angeles." They were like, okay, cool, we were thinking the same thing, we want to shoot it here, but can we ask you - why do you feel it should be set here? And I was like, "Duh, L.A. is made of magic."

That's where I lost them.

They were nice guys, though, so they weren't all snide and elitist about it. The more recent transplant gave me a surprisingly candid, sad look and said, "If there's magic in L.A., please show it to me, because I haven't found it."

So I went off about, you know, blah blah, various iconic movies set in L.A. I referenced the many books of Francesca Lia Block, a Very Hot Jewess who made her name describing the flowering freeway vines, canyons and hot dog stands of the city in postmodern, punky fairy-tale terms. I talked about landing here at 17, in awe of Venice Beach, the turbaned roller-blading guitar player, the chainsaw jugglers, the entertaining crackheads, the murals, the punk girls with straw-stiff candy-cane hair, the surfers with impossible underwear-model bodies, the glittery red snake of Mulholland, the sculpture garden at UCLA that is awesome whether or not it is midnight and even if you are not tripping on acid. Basically, I blabbed until they shrugged and conceded the point so we could move on.

But their eyes were still clouded over all smog-like, and I don't blame them. Being a grown-up sucks ass, man. You get up, hit traffic, hit work, field a zillion phone calls, attempt to mitigate your stress level, then hit more traffic upon leaving. Especially city denizens like these two gentlemen I was talking to - they have to do drinks meetings all the time, so their evenings are clotted up with trips to trendy WeHo eateries on streets made perilous by paparazzi SUVs ready to kill for a single snap of Heidi Montag, whoever the high holy FUCK she is.

I know how those two gents feel, in that I live exactly one mile from the beach and have visited said beach exactly twice in the last three months. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that Los Angeles is just what those high-and-mighty people from, oh, everywhere else on planet Earth say it is: crowded, sprawling, smoggy, fake, centerless, cultureless, magic-free.

But they're wrong, and I'm right. I remembered this the other day, quite by accident. Here's how it happened:

Hiatus was ending. I was about to go back to work, whereupon I'd be expected to report to an office and act more or less like a grown-up five days a week until May of 2009. It was my last chance before the first day o' school to do the following: pamper myself; get a much-needed pedi; go to Barnes and Noble and sit on the floor flipping through lots of books I have no intention of buying (or, full disclosure, of reshelving); travel ridiculous distances by car to indulge random food cravings. So: I ventured deep into the wilds of Hollywood.

First, I went to the best Thai restaurant ever. It'll fool you from the outside - it's in a strip mall, next to a storage facility. But enter, and you are greeted by a ten-foot-high trash-metal sculpture of Elvis, and that is your first clue that you have come somewhere special.

I'd say go at night, for kicks, because a tiny, sexy man in a Nudie suit performs several shows each evening. He is known as Thai Elvis. I have a huge crush on him. There's also a guy who wears bowling shirts cut out of holographic-shiny material of the type most often used in the manufacture of stripper thongs. He does impressions, notably a poignant Kermit the Frog, all competent, all with the unwavering, morose expression familiar to everyone who calls L.A. home: the look of the failed actor. But anyway, enough about them; during the day it's all bright and sunshiny in there, a bunch of lightning-quick waiters talking to each other through secret-service earbuds.

I go there for this dish they call Morning Glory. I don't know if it's really the stuff that grows in your grandma's yard. It is green and stemmy and crunchy, made with lots of garlic and chili and I don't know what else, I can only assume sweet sweet crack because I will happily drive for an hour to get the stuff when the urge hits. Sometimes I'll mention to a friend or a coworker - oh, I'm thinking of going to this Thai place I like for some dinner, they have this vegetable dish ... and they'll get this dreamy look and go, "Are you talking about Palms Thai? The Morning Glory? Who the fuck knows what that stuff really is, but I ate it every single day of my pregnancy, and now the twins are geniuses."

So, that was lunch.

Then I went to a Korean spa to have the entire top layer of my skin scoured off my body by a small, brusque lady in a transparent black bra and panties who speaks zero English. In a room surrounded by naked old ladies, staring at my naked self.

Yeah, it's not the sexiest place to go for a massage, but you know what? Fuck that. I live in Schmancyville, I make a decent living, if I really wanted to I could go to one of those very very nice cushy hotel spa places. In fact, I do, once in a while; but when the classy, oh-so-corporate Burke Williams brochure talked about a treatment where they'd beat my ass with wheat stalks and I'd come out all smooth and fresh as a baby, I was expecting some kind of serious, borderline-kinky Russian-bathhouse exfoliation. Instead, a bored lady wisped soapy water on me with plastic car-wash fronds. Meh. I'm about the real thing, bitches.

Which you can actually get, in L.A. If you seek it. You receive my meaning? You getting the magic, yet? It's not everywhere in America you get to lie on a massage table and have someone leave no inch un-buffed (I betcha they skip the boobs at The Four Seasons - but don't boobs need scrubbing and oiling as much if not more than the surrounding skin? I mean, you gonna wax the car but skip the hood ornaments, people?), the chatter of half a dozen Korean ladies floating over your head? I love that - I love it when I don't speak a word of the language. No one will call an HOA meeting, or ask me to give them notes on their script, or fail to mention our dinner together is in their mind a date date, or on the other hand say they'll call and then never ever ever call, ever. My Korean buff lady is awesome, she makes no promises, she scrubs me, turns me over, washes my face with a little squirt of a cleanser called Naive, kneads my scalp so adeptly that I instantly forget I have anything in my life to stress out about, and hands me a tip envelope. Relationship over.

From there I was led to another room for a massage on my newly-exposed fresh and silky skin. Again, this massage was not polite. There was climbing on the table, and there were feet involved. Oh, don't be a pussy. Everything's clean, guys. And effective. Errant vertebrae snap back into line. I get off the table ready to produce twenty-two episodes of televised entertainment.

Are there Thai restaurants and Korean massage grottoes elsewhere on this green earth? But of course. Maybe there are even Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. If so - run, don't walk. I mean, you'll be risking a tummy-ache so intense you'll mistake it for organ failure, but it's worth it.

Sera and Dinda, suffering after a delicious meal at legendary Roscoe's.

These are just the outlines of my magical L.A. constellations. There are lots more, of course. I would do a whole series of posts about this, except... let's be honest, I totally won't get around to it.

Instead, I conscripted Simon into service. He's a lot cooler than I am. He lives on the cool side of town and goes to cool restaurants people like me haven't heard of yet because he has yet to email me about them. I called him and asked him to finish this post for me, which he has done in natty bullet-point fashion below. I like that. It serves to jog the brain. Inspires one to ask oneself, "what does my bullet point list look like, and why have I been ignoring it in favor of whining like a little bitch about traffic?" Maybe even nudge one to include one's Very Hot pals on one's next adventure into the secret heart of L.A., where celebs fear to tread.

Because ultimately our point here is that our city is a veritable onion of magic. There are layers galore, for anyone who is willing to drop the 'tude and embrace the perfect weather and beautiful light and vast ocean and 90-something languages and impressive cache of competent tattoo artists that is the city of angels. So, here's Sime's House Blend of magical goodness:
  • Red-tailed hawks, Griffith Park coyotes and twilight owls.

  • Ancient stone steps that lead up to overgrown, abandoned estates. (NOTE FROM SERA: Harry Houdini used to live in one of them!)

  • Seedy-looking, neon-lit clubs blasting live salsa music through the wee hours.

  • Snowy peaks and sunny beaches visible from the same hilltop.

  • The afternoon parade of dogs and owners on the winding hilltop streets.

  • Neighborhood bars that play old monster movies with the sound off and have a DJ spinning vintage hip-hop.

  • Tacos off the truck ... just outside the bar playing the monster movies.

  • Naked pool parties that somehow end up as philosophy seminars, and vice versa.

  • Funky little art galleries curated by chatty women who turn out to have been legendary punk rockers in the '80s.

  • Getting lost in some neighborhood and stumbling on a soccer game in progress: fierce Latino kids in uniforms flying at each other.

  • The sound of a train chuffing through the rail yard when the air is thick with night-blooming jasmine.

  • Sitting on a concrete ledge and eating kettle corn at the farmer's market between the pupusas bar and the kim-chee booth.

  • The way the downtown skyline powers up at night like a parti-colored electric grin.

  • Standing on Fairfax or Silverlake or Ocean with a cocktail buzz on, feeling a mellow breeze on your skin and not wanting the night to be over quite yet.

  • That sense of infinite possibility that swings up like the lantern moon just when you surrender your plan for a quiet evening.

So corny. So poetic. So outside the circuit of expensive car - expensive restaurant - expensive home. But the magic is there if you're ready to let it scrub you clean the way a fierce yet tender Korean lady works over a weary pilgrim from the distant shores of TV land.

All you have to do is get lost. In your own backyard.


Lizz said...

I am not really a blog responder, sure I'll lurk and sometimes even stalk a blog. This time I just had to speak up. LA is magic, I just don't think everyone can see it. Some aren't ready to see it but when they do, it's glorious. I don't live there, but it's where I daydream about running away to. I go to LA by myself and never feel alone. I love the town, my only worry is that in reality I'm suffering from the age old... The grass is greener syndrome.
You post has given me further proof that maybe, just MAYBE the magic is more than just my imagination.

Lucy Arin said...

your post reminded me that there are special and magical things about where I live too, even though I spend copious amounts of time bitching about:
the weather
the conservatism
the small-town-mind-set.

I needed that reminder. Thanks!

susannah eanes said...

Getting lost in some neighborhood and stumbling on a soccer game in progress: fierce Latino kids in uniforms flying at each other.

The sound of a train chuffing through the rail yard when the air is thick with night-blooming jasmine.

I swear it isn't because I am in mourning for Dean Winchester that this sentence made me cry.

It's because this made LA sound as raw and beautiful as South Carolina, and now I wanna visit.

Words. Haunt me.

Rachael said...

Wow! You make LA sound pretty... I am truly amazed!

My brother lives out there part-time working in the music industry and stays in Long Beach and he loves it... I, on the other hand, never thought of even going to LA to visit for all the down-side reasons you mention (plus, money - I don't have any). I need open green expanses in order to breath. Also: smog. But maybe, just maybe I might visit there one day.

Gerhard said...

Kim-Chee booth?!?! WTF! Why wasn’t I told about this?

For the record LA is indeed magic, and beyond the city, it’s the people I know who live there that make it so. Seriously though, I think this rotten cabbage component is an exponential multiplier.

Jo said...

Yeah yeah yeah, LA's magic, I totally agree. Right now I'm much more concerned about the lack of spoiler alert on Susannah's comment!!! I'm behind on my Supernaturals.


Naki said...

The most boring place can have a magic if ones own mind isn't just limited to what a person can see...

I am not saying LA is boring at all, in fact I think quite the opposite. I have never been, but am contemplating the idea of going there more and more; maybe even living there for a bit if I can make it work.

I like to think there is more to LA than what shows on the surface, your post has tapped into this nicely. Personally, I’d like to experience LA from the viewpoint of a crazed Ed Wood, old, nostalgic and as you put it “magical”. If there was no magic in LA, where the hell are all these movies coming from?

vikkitikkitavi said...

This post - ahhhh!!! The wait was so worth it, babies!

Ngaire said...

I've spent the grand total of about seven hours in LA. I was flying from Auckland to Atlanta with a long stopover at LAX - so a random Scottish guy and I decided to ditch our luggage and take a taxi to the nearest beach. I don't know which one it was, but we spent this crazy afternoon swimming in our clothes at this gorgeous golden sand beach, eating icies on the boardwalk and listening to this streetperformer guy play the guitar. I don't know if I'll ever go back, but for that one afternoon, yeah, it was magic.

So, that's my LA story. Now, if I can just learn to get over that image of Dean in hell.....

Laura said...

If you stick your fingers in a koi pond, the fish will nibble on them. It doesn't hurt and it's SO worth it- such a minor psychological hurdle.

Let us not forget Janet Fitch-- all of us who read FLB as teenagers grew up and read Paint It Black and fell in love again. Also: The Handyman by Carolyn See.

I've never lived anywhere else but here. When I travel I always want to come home; there is nowhere else like it on earth. Los Angeles por vida.

Simon Glickman and Sera Gamble said...

Vikki - Kisses!
Laura - your post about Janet Fitch et al reminded me that I went to the LA Times Book Awards a couple of week ago, as Francesca's date (second choice, but I'll take it). I should do a post about all the luminaries I met. Hello, GAY TALESE! What a fox.

Jen said...

Sera... I must know which Korean spa you go to! I've been cautiously sussing out a good one, and would like a rec.
Also... I agree. This fabulous city of ours positively trembles with Hope. People from all over the world pack their chutzpah and their suitcases and schlep out to LA with their dreams on their sleeves. It makes for a unique and zingy energy.

Anonymous said...

Los Angeles is the only major American city bisected by a mountain range. If mountains in the middle ain't magic, I don't know what is.

The Minstrel Boy said...

l.a. is really magic. although, usually its stage magic. . .smoke, mirrors, and poof! still, in the hills and canyons there are tiny little treasures.

god help me, i love it.

taco trucks are amazing. still, i love the quiet of my desert. i love being less than an hour's drive from two bunch palms (who are often very generous to a harper willing to play for his pummelings). in many ways, palm springs is like an extension campus of l.a.