My First Trip to Los Angeles
From Culver City in the northeast to Venice Beach in the southwest, the immense concrete slab of Venice Boulevard runs diagonally through some of the least scenic terrain in all of Los Angeles, passing under Interstate 405 and bisecting the Mar Vista neighborhood until it reaches, after seven interminable treeless miles, the freakiest beach in North America where middle-aged men wearing floral pattern Speedos do drug-induced dances on the boardwalk with their 1980s boomboxes pressed to their ears and where thickly muscled acrobats hopping around on pogo sticks mesmerize large crowds of weekend sun-worshipers.
As I boarded the number 33 bus near Culver City I asked the driver, “How long does it take to get to the beach from here?”
The driver was strangely evasive. “Uh…maybe…oh…twenty minutes or so,” he said, and I knew he was lying.
“Really? But it’s only seven miles away.”
Standing behind me, swaying back and forth like a deckhand in stormy seas, a stout man of fifty tugged on his stylish el capitán mustache and slurred with indignation, “Twenty fucking minutes, my ass. We’ll be on this fucking bus for an hour before we get close to the fucking beach. Twenty minutes. Fuck. Ain’t no twenty minutes on this bus.”
Even though his breath already reeked of high octane gasoline and a carton of stale cigarettes, the poor fellow was probably parched and desperate for another cold cocktail, it being two in the afternoon and an unusually warm April day, but he seemed a far more reliable source of information than our duplicitous driver, and I appreciated his honesty. The man tipped his greasy baseball cap, and for the next seven miles he shouted insult and slander at anyone who dared cross his path.
His colorful language would have been a lot more amusing, of course, had it not been for the fact that accompanying me on this impromptu excursion to the sea were my retired parents, my wife and my impressionable ten-year old daughter who, I’m ashamed to report, began to weep after mile three. The bus was hot and overcrowded and stank of fast food. Passengers taunted and threatened each other. Infants wailed. A man in a wheelchair kept fiddling with his colostomy bag. A teenage couple molested each other with impunity.
All of this was my fault. I had been warned. Moments earlier, at the Metro stop, I had inquired about which bus went to the beach. A jowly police officer leaning against one of the turnstiles looked at me for a moment, his sleepy eyes slowly growing wide with mirth, and answered, “Oh, you wanna take the number 33, pal. I’ll tell ya what, you’re really gonna enjoy that ride. You sure will. You and your little girl.” As a college instructor I’ve come to abhor sarcasm from my eighteen-year old students, and I wasn’t especially impressed when it came from a cynical civil servant.
Over the weekend I attended swanky parties, participated in panel discussions, hobnobbed with scholars, signed a whole box of books, and gorged myself on the fantastic food in the so-called “green room,” which turned out to be an enormous banquet hall with beveled glass doors, crystal chandeliers and stained glass windows. Anyone craving humility in that ostentatious setting could find, conveniently located next door, the Little Chapel of Silence where for a small fee they could purchase white votive candles and beg God’s mercy for these neo-Gilded Age excesses.
My own lesson in humility came early on. Prior to the awards ceremony, the finalists and their guests were treated to an informal reception on the outdoor patio of the hotel where I imprudently imbibed in a glass or two or three of pretty decent red wine. I was giddy and spoke to a man at length about his biography of James Brown.
It was almost time to go when the Xanax started to kick in. Feeling confident that the prize was in hand, I marched with the other finalists along the cobblestones of the picturesque campus and turned to the genteel old lady walking next me and said, “Aw, to hell with this silly awards ceremony. Hey, whaddya say we sneak out and grab us a drink at the bar?” The scandalized septuagenarian pursed her already tight lips, adjusted her silver-stranded bouffant, and with a practiced flourish of her silk scarf (evidently she was used to dealing with bores and vulgarians) she pulled ahead of me by about ten strides. An omen.
That evening my novel did not receive the prize for First Fiction, and after two hours without an intermission the ceremony started to drag. I squirmed in my seat and loosened my tie. Jet lag was beginning to play terrible tricks on my mind. Finally, at the end of a very long night, a star-struck presenter introduced the recipient of the prestigious Innovator’s Award. “Ladies and gentleman, Margaret Atwood!”
Imagine my horror as the old lady who only hours earlier regarded me like some kind of insect took to the stage and quietly regaled the reverent audience with stories about her charmed life as a writer. “Oh, I do so love Loose Angeleeez,” she said. “Loose Angeleeez has been so very kind to me,” etc. I stewed in my seat, my cheeks burning with this ritual humiliation. I have a knack, you see, for always sticking my foot in it.
For the remainder of my stay I tried to purge from my mind all memory of this embarrassing encounter with Ms. Atwood, and I did all of those touristy things one is expected to do when in La La Land--the studio tours, a stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a guided tour in an open air bus to ogle and envy the homes of Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford, a drive through Beverly Hills with a quick stop on Rodeo Drive to admire a fleet of Maseratis parked outside the boutique shops and stylish cafés. We visited old friends who lived in the city and had cocktails in the hotel lobby and dressed up like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for an uproarious night on the town. But nothing seemed to do the trick. Until I boarded the number 33 bus for Venice Beach. And then nothing in the world mattered except the survival of my family.
The bus dumped us a few blocks from the beach, and from there things got progressively worse. Instead of the plentiful hyacinths that scented the palatial homes in the Hollywood Hills, the infamous boardwalk of Venice Beach reeked of urine and medical marijuana drifting from newly established dispensaries. As a twenty-one year old kid fresh out of college I would have been in heaven, but as a forty-one year old dad with a miserable little girl clinging to my arm, I thought I was in Dante’s third circle of hell. In Canto VI of his Inferno, the inimitable Florentine poet tells us that it’s in the third circle where, in the Robert Pinksy translation, “the triple sparks of envy, greed, and pride ignite the hearts” of the damned. And so it was for me.
Perhaps as punishment for my unwarranted pride, for daring to believe even for a single moment that I might have a real shot at taking home the coveted Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, I was transported to this madcap place so I could say to my whimpering daughter, “Look, honey, look what Daddy has accomplished.” The Festival of Books had been a fantasyland of celebrity writers, but here, on the cigarette-strewn boardwalk of Venice Beach, I had an opportunity to see the real stars of L.A., a spinning constellation of spaced-out drifters, derelicts and drug peddlers, a vast pinwheeling galaxy of bronzed bodybuilders, tattooed ladies and Spandexed drag queens gracefully shimmying in and out of pedestrian traffic on rollerblades, my kind of people, the same genuine and unpretentious characters who on sweltering summer days roamed the wicked streets of my hometown and who always managed to worm their way into my fiction.
Several days later, back in Cleveland and confronted by the blank pages of my novel-in-progress, I thought often of my bus ride along Venice Boulevard and how I inadvertently managed to offend a highly esteemed Booker Prize-winning author. My fifteen minutes were over, but still I craved celebrity, fame, recognition, and somewhere in the back of my disordered little brain I heard the unrepentant sinners of the third circle beckoning to me. Then I remembered. While in Los Angeles I reluctantly visited Madame Tussauds where my wife photographed me sitting next to an unnervingly realistic wax figure of Jack Nicholson decked out in a tux, bowtie and signature black shades.
Now I couldn’t help myself. I logged into Facebook and posted the picture with the caption: “Look who showed up to the L.A. Times Book Prizes ceremony.” Within seconds the comments started pouring in: “I am so jealous!” “That’s a definite framer for the living room!” “It doesn’t get any better!” “This is fantastic on so many levels!” “It looks like he’s negotiating a role for the movie adaptation of your novel!” “By far the most incredible moment of your trip!” Ah, yes, the timeless allure of stardom meets the brave new world of instant gratification.
I let the gag run its course for twenty-four glorious hours before guilt got the better of me, and then with my ego in check I meekly confessed to my Facebook friends the disappointing and unremarkable truth.