Flying out of Nadi, Fiji, my plane touched down in LAX after 12 hours of rumbling over the Pacific. I was sat next to a pretty Spanish girl who I’d been happily chatting to when we first took off the day before. She wasn’t talking to me anymore because I’d been uncontrollably farting throughout the night. The altitude or something, I don’t know.
I disembarked in the battering heat that is Los Angeles in July. Stepping off an aggressively air conditioned plane into the LA heat is like being strapped down and blasted with a hairdryer the size of a cannon. I followed the winding maze of silent airport corridors with the other few hundred passengers. In a bizarre irony, when you descend the escalators into the airport, you pass beneath a huge American flag, a photograph of Barack Obama, and a CCTV camera.
‘Welcome to AmericaDON’T DO ANYTHING WE ARE WATCHING YOU’
I was exhausted. Here are my flight times:
Depart Fiji at 2pm, Thursday.
12 hour flight.
Arrive in LA at 7am… Thursday.
Fiji is 19 hours ahead, and my body clock was telling me it was 2am on Friday. I was a zombie. I grabbed my backpack and asked the information desk for the nearest hostel. The little bald guy on the desk had no clue of any hostels. He told me to try Santa Monica and, not knowing any better, I set off. I followed his baffling list of directions, jumping on various buses, being ferried to and fro around the bustling airport, trying not to cry with exhaustion and confusion and frustration.
Eventually, several bus rides later, I found the right one, and paid a dollar to be whisked into the heart of the City of Angels. This old, beaten up-looking veteran guy spoke to me for a while on the bus. I didn’t say much, keeping my eyes peeled for signposts. We were sailing through sun bleached suburbs with blinding white pavement. I saw a sign for Santa Monica and got off the bus, and swiftly realised I had no idea where I was. I picked a direction and wandered off, eventually (somehow) winding my way to the beach.
I’d inadvertently roved my way to Santa Monica Pier, which was incredibly surreal. I’d just spent my third year of uni doing exactly three things: drinking awful cider, not going to the gym, and playing Grand Theft Auto 5. The game features an almost exact replica of the iconic pier, and I actually found I knew my way around from playing the game (compare the images below). I saw the rollercoaster and the rides, I trawled the shops, and I navigated to Muscle Beach purely from memory. I sat roasting on a bench and watched the beautiful people pump iron.
I bought some sunglasses and set about enquiring in the nearby hotels and B&B’s for somewhere to stay. They were invariably shit, and to my eternal horror, the cheapest room I found was $250 a night. $250 for one night in some Bates Motel replica, with forecourt covered in chalk outlines and police tape, and bedroom doors of flimsy plywood as the hotelier is too cheap to pay for a proper door due to their constantly getting battering-rammed by the FBI.
I backtracked to a McDonalds I’d seen, and fired up the free Wifi. I found a hostel not too far away, in Hollywood. I was amazed. $50 a night. I called up and booked a room, and told them I’d be round in a few hours. I was delirious with tiredness and the pounding heat, and grabbed a drink before heading out.
I knew a taxi to Hollywood would cost the earth, and LA is absolutely huge. Instead, I killed two birds with one stone. I trekked back to the pier and booked onto a bus tour of the city, about $25 for the whole day. The buses were regular, and within a half hour I was sitting on the upper deck of an open topped bus, cruising through Los Angeles, idly watching the legions of towering palm trees drift by. I plugged some headphones in and was treated to a running history of the city.
I passed through Rodeo Drive, and witnessed the obscene wealth. I saw street corners where various members of the glitterati been murdered or overdosed or set out on cocaine fuelled rampages or all three. I saw the La Brea Tar Pits, I saw the hotel from Pretty Woman, diners from early Tarentino flicks and vast movie studios. I passed old mafia-run clubs, and the green grass verges and shady suburbs of Beverly Hills. I saw celebrity houses, and hundreds of exotic cars as I breezed along the Sunset Strip. I got off the bus after almost an hour and a half. It’s 14 miles from Santa Monica to Hollywood, all within the same never-ending city.
I found my hostel thanks to a flimsy map that came free with the bus tour. The hostel was nice, just simple bunkbeds and a little outside bar, a small blip of familiarity in the nauseating alien sea of LA. I dumped my bags and headed to Hollywood Boulevard.
The Boulevard is long, packed, and everybody looks famous, although nobody is. Celebrities don’t go there –why would you? It’d be like a zoo. Every tourist walks the strip eager eyed, done up to the nines, sweating, always nursing that little spark of hope that they might get scouted by some studio exec and whisked away into a life of glamour. I was no exception. I’d changed into jeans and a shirt in the hostel to look cooler, because you never know. Ugh, I hate myself.
I walked along the hopscotch of stars names on the floor. I saw plenty of the greats. Marilyn Monroe’s immortal plate is, for some reason, outside a heaving McDonalds. Walking down the strip is a freakshow. Vast looming posters cover every surface, lights fizz, everyone has a camera shoved against their eye, and the wannabe oddballs litter the pavement. Some fat guy calling himself Mr Muscles was flexing and yelling on the pavement, and people were taking photos with him for a dollar. There were aliens and Jack Sparrows and Darth Vaders striding around in the heat.
At the Chinese Theatre, where celebrity palm prints are immortalised in cement, I found that I have the same size hands as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. I always thought I had small hands. That made me happy. Clint Eastwood’s fingers are like Cuban cigars. So are Sly Stallone’s. I saw Elvis’s star, and the Beatles. I climb a few flights of stairs in this weird multi storey outdoor restaurant complex, and got a great view of the Hollywood sign. It’s absolutely miles away, miniscule on a distant, barren hill.
I ducked off the street and sat in a dusky bar with dark wood tops, and ordered a Newcastle Brown Ale, just for the irony. Halfway around the world in the city of showbiz, and I sat there drinking a beer that was brewed in the town I’d set off from, two months earlier; a beer that I’d have turned my nose up at while I was a student in Newcastle. It was nice.
I didn’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t afford to go out, couldn’t afford a proper meal, so instead I went back to the tour bus stop and climbed aboard. I slumped on the top deck and spent the next couple of hours being ferried in a 28 mile loop around LA. I nodded off 30 minutes in, fading in and out to hear the same bit of recycled commentary I’d heard a few hours earlier. People gave me weird looks but bah, I was knackered. Back at the hostel later, someone told me they’d seen Angelina Jolie in the supermarket just off Hollywood Blvd. Guess I was wrong. Celebs do come here. Huh.
Next day I hiked up to the Griffith Observatory in the 35 degree heat and nearly died. Again, all I had was my little rubbish map with pencil markings drawn on it by the guy on the hostel’s front desk. I got lost more than once as I didn’t follow main roads, instead attempting to take shortcuts through various suburbs, past palatial houses and cars worth more than I’ll earn in three lifetimes, for I am naught but a wasteman. Mum, if you’re reading this, I have Googled ‘wasteman’ for you. Click here.
Anyway, the climb was was worth it; the view was spectacular. I had a weird thing about James Dean at the time, I just wanted to be him. Rebel Without A Cause was filmed at the observatory, and there is a gilded busk of the ill-fated icon there.
I stood where Dean stood in the film’s famous knife fight scene. It’s an odd feeling. LA stretches on and on forever in the distance, it’s rows of white buildings disappearing over the horizon in a vague pink-orange haze. I stood for a long time watching the city bake under the oppressive sun. I thought about every famous person, my favourite actors and bands and writers and directors, and how they were all out there somewhere, just a few miles away. I wondered what dark sleaze was right then occurring behind the huge frosted glass doors of the Hollywood Hills mansions. Addictions and porn shoots and grotesque splendour, violence and influence, it’s palpable.
Los Angeles scared me, to be honest. I’d never live there. I met a German guy a few weeks prior who had been to LA before me, and he had called it a ‘fake city’. I didn’t really get what he meant until I saw it for myself. Such image consciousness, such perpetual one-upmanship, it can’t be healthy to live in that environment. Everything is scrutinised and monetised. Pedestrians are wallets. Celebrities are products. Dollar bills and Pepsi cans, buy, buy, buy. It’s no life. Where’s the meaning? I don’t like cities half as much as I like the countryside anyway, and Los Angeles is the embodiment of much that repulses me about society. It’s the bottom rung masquerading as the top of the ladder.
Los Angeles is a city-wide high school that never grew up. Or at least, the more affluent, showbiz parts are, as I learned when I left Hollywood to head to Downtown LA for the Greyhound bus that would take me to San Francisco. I headed to the subway and got the Red Line, getting off at Union Station. From there, after 15 minutes lost, I got onto a bus that dropped me half a mile from the bus station. And Jesus Christ, it was bleak.
For this entire article I’ve been trilling phrases like ‘grotesque splendour’ and ‘obscene wealth’. Here’s why. Suddenly, just a few miles away from the palm trees and limousines and thousand dollar barber shops, everything stopped. No more shops, no more bars and restaurants and gold stars on the pavement, just another worn out McDonalds and dreary shops with half closed shutters, like eyes on the brink of sleep. I found I’d become an ethnic minority; a blatant reminder of the socioeconomic and racial divide that affects not only Los Angeles but America as a whole.
I sat for two hours or more in the Greyhound station, watching families come and go. The tell tale signs of wealth that were so evident earlier that day were gone. No designer labels, no expensive handbags, no razor sharp haircuts, no loud and frivolous conversations on mobile phones to people called Lance. Just tired parents shepherding tired children onto tired buses.
I bought food and waited, one of about ten caucasian faces out of two hundred or so. The coaches were a shambles, and confusion among staff and passengers alike meant it took about an hour to board. And then I was away, rolling up the coast towards San Francisco, leaving behind me the City of Angels, the city of a few winners and a million losers, the perpetual high school, the jocks and the cool kids sitting high in the hills, so far removed from reality that they can’t even see the little grey people on the other side of that monstrous wealth chasm.
I’d say I was disappointed by Los Angeles and its oil slick sheen, but that’s not entirely true. It’s more accurate to say that Los Angeles was exactly as I expected it to be. I’d just been hoping to be proven wrong.