One of my preconditions for the Los Angeles trip was a tour from a native. It would seem especially fitting, then, that I was able to meet up with someone from The Industry, no less– there is but one, of course. Wandering the hills of Silver Lake all afternoon after interviewing Chris Werthe to talk shop about the Department of Water and Power and having not eaten all day (this piece is coming up soon!), I was resolved to get up in some of the nasty food that contrasts wildly with the SoCal affinity for artfully prepared, avocado-bean-sprout-wheat-grass cuisine.
We have opted for the former after discarding an initial proposal for the latter at a “fancy vegan” restaurant near me in Silver Lake. In true California fashion, my ride arrives in a Toyota Prius.
The driver is 31-year old Jessica Cabot, a screenwriter and native Angeleno who is currently working on a Master of Fine Arts in film from the University of Southern California in central Los Angeles. Jessica created the series Shitty Boyfriends, produced by SAG Award nominee Lisa Kudrow (of Friends fame) and Dan Bucatinsky (best known to me for his portrayal of Cyrus Beene’s husband in the critically acclaimed Shonda Rhimes series, Scandal).
LOVE AND REGRET IN THE CITY OF ANGELS
Maintaining an approachable, good nature, Jessica embodies that particular Angeleno ennui, a pair of dreamy, steel-blue eyes complementing her pointedly casual, almost slouching aesthetic of a grey cardigan worn over an old Hard Rock café t-shirt. She describes a pervasive love-hate with the city that is, ultimately, though sometimes reluctant, ultimately defined marginally more by love.
Love with a city is different everywhere—in Chicago, for example, the city that doesn’t love you back, as Nelson Algren once wrote. Detroit will love you back if you let yourself love it, I think. Philadelphia loves you like a brother. I am not sure Salt Lake City loves anybody.
Indeed, Los Angeles love is not an intimate slow dance. Rather, it is more of a bachata, smooth, but strong, with ever-changing steps across a dirty, cracked dance floor bathed in colorful lights, a soundtrack provided perhaps from a bass-heavy Bluetooth speaker on a passing bike.
“I grew up here, so I have Stockholm syndrome, basically,” she tells me as we wind through the hills on Sunset. I’ve noticed that Angelenos frequently honk while driving on multiple-lane thoroughfares, not as a product of impatience but as a product of other cars inadvertently veering into their lane. Probably texting, I suspect. I have termed this the Angeleno Drift. Meanwhile, the California stop— rolling through a stop sign- is completely real. Jessica is a very good driver– though she does have the Angeleno affinity for heavy acceleration. I notice this fondness for revving later while I’m doing some nighttime photography and I think that it may have to do just not with impatience but the difficulty of conquering the city’s steep hills in a motorcar.
THE EASY MARTYRDOM OF GETTING AROUND L.A.
I had told her that I could take the bus to meet her somewhere, my place being located a less than ten minute walk from the well-trafficked 2 and 4 bus routes that go the whole way down Sunset.
But she insists on picking me up. A drive in traffic, surely– but no worries.
“L.A. is meant to be experienced by car,” she insists, and proceeds to derive this quote from the work of the late, great L.A. food critic, Jonathan Gold. Gold was the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer in 2007. (A hero of the scene, he sadly died far too young in 2018 of pancreatic cancer).
“I’m an L.A. guy,” Gold said in City of Gold, a 2015 film by Laura Gabbert about the food critic’s career. “I drive. I am my truck. My truck is me.”
Gold would have fit right in in Michigan.
I give Jessica my stock “but the planet” response, knowing well that convincing an Angeleno about the virtues of public transit is wholly futile.
There is a tweet-turned-meme that has been making the rounds, making fun of Midwesterners who say things like, “why would I fly? It’s only a ten hour drive!” This adage rings true in the middle states. But a similar one rings true in Los Angeles, where people would rather drive for an hour in heavy traffic than take a bus or a train five miles. “It’s just easier,” goes the drawling refrain.
It would appear to be built into the culture, in spite of a fairly well-developed transit network that includes intercity buses, Amtrak, Caltrans, the Metro, city buses, pooled rides from Uber and Lyft, and a thoroughly competitive landscape of dockless electric bikes and scooters. (I rode in pretty much every mode when I was there).
Infrastructure may be historically to blame. But it’s more a product of cultural inertia that comes with building something that can take a generation or more to get used to. LA’s Metro is the newest subway system in the entire country (unless you count the Tren Urbano in San Juan, Puerto Rico– 2004). Compare that with systems we now think of as long-established in Miami (1984), Baltimore (1983), Atlanta (1979), or DC (1976). LA’s system is notably the fifth most trafficked (passengers per mile), and the city is studying congestion pricing, which would have huge potential to fund ongoing expansion efforts while reducing air pollution, commuting costs, and lost productivity.
CRIMES AGAINST DENSITY: HOLLYWOOD’S BUILT ENVIRONMENT
While Sunset Boulevard traverses a broad range of urban landscapes as it winds its way toward the actual setting sun, Sunset in Hollywood is a singular beast. It should be differentiated from the Sunset Strip proper, the term usually reserved (though not entirely mutually exclusive) for a one and a half-ish mile stretch located in the separate municipality of West Hollywood. In Hollywood (part of the city of Los Angeles), Sunset is oddly different from how it is depicted in close-in shots of white girls dancing on top of their favorite subject on the Walk of Fame.
Cinematic portrayals in film or television make the strip seem like a contiguous urban environment, where one can walk from a well-placed apartment building to a well-placed restaurant to the erstwhile Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now actually partially owned by the Chinese government as the TCL Theater).
But a contiguous urban form it is not. It is a destination in and of itself, but one that eschews classic urban planning or wayfinding heuristics. Formless chunks of building are interrupted by suburban-style strip malls and fast food. Neon signs and LED marquees pepper a streetscape that is at once both lively, colorful, yet jarringly vulnerable. There is a lack of permanent and a lack of sense of “there” there. (Gertrude Stein said this of Oakland).
I suppose this is representative of the tenuous, constant state of flux, depravity, and glory in which the city of Los Angeles exists, ever shifting between phases of ruin and dreamscape.
“Can we see Donald Trump’s star?” I ask excitedly.
“I don’t know if it’s still there.”
“Didn’t some dude, like, take a sledgehammer to it?”
“Yeah,” she says, ponderously. “I think it happened, like, three different times.”
“What a hero. Heroes, plural, I guess.”
Indeed, she is correct. It is quite the tale. James Otis (incidentally an heir to the Otis elevator fortune) destroyed the first star with a sledgehammer. He admitted to the crime. Later, a man named Austin Clay vandalized the repaired star. He was arrested and put in jail. James Otis tried to bail him out, but a GoFundMe beat him to it. (God bless this great nation).
We arrive at Carney’s, a classic burger joint built into an old train car. We pull into a spacious parking lot that terminates at the hillside, and again I’m amazed at the taken-for-granted nature of free, plentiful parking. The Shoup was so right.
Jessica has promised me chili cheese fries, which we order (a large, to split). I order a Diet Pepsi and, to assuage my liberal guilt, a veggie burger, which is surprisingly not bad. After having eaten nothing all day, the cheese fries hit the spot.
She tells me about her current project, writing a screenplay for a film about a young woman who reconnects with her estranged grandfather. They will shoot it near the Salton Sea. I’ve never been, but it’s on my list. The shallow, saline sea, surrounded by a number of mostly depopulated settlements, is renowned for its remoteness, beauty, and desolation.
After a quick drive down Santa Monica Boulevard (over which, I sing to Jessica, all I want to do is have some fun until the sun comes up), we decide to take a circuitous route to Griffith Observatory via the Hollywood Hills. Bizarre in this particular district is the fact that you can be a 20-minute drive away from any environment recognizable as walkable and urban, and still be, as the crow flies, just a stone’s throw. Though I’m greatly enjoying LA, it is unfathomable to me exactly why this specific geography would be at all appealing as a place to live.
“Anyone famous you know that lives around here?” I ask wryly. I add quickly, with an air of incredulity, “The fictional Harry Bosch, mayhap?” referring to the stern, hardass detective on the eponymous Amazon TV show. While I looked at Six Feet Under as a good, proper introduction to L.A. at large as a real city with honest-to-god real human beings in real neighborhoods, Bosch was a good introduction to the Hollywood outside of the neon of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, given its portrayal of a diverse range of neighborhoods as well as some classic Hollywood spots that I added to my list for the trip (but ultimately didn’t have time to visit).
“I haven’t seen it,” she says. We drive through narrow, windy lanes without sidewalks– this, I learn, is quite common in the residential hills of the city- and narrowly avoid mowing down intrepid residents who have ventured out of their million dollar homes to take out the trash or await an Uber.
“Chris Pratt used to live here,” she says, as we drive by what appears to be an ultramodern, walled castle.
“J’accuse. Name-dropper!” I bark, grinning.
“That’s what we do in L.A.,” she grins back.
Another castle greets us around another corner, featuring a colonnaded balcony supported by utterly awkward, diagonal struts. Money, it should be said, cannot buy taste.
Next stop is Griffith Observatory. The stately, Art Deco building opened in 1935 at the bequest of Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy, Welsh-American industrialist who built his fortune from mining. On brand with LA’s affinity for pairing fame and fortune with the morally destitute and the macabre, he shot his wife in 1903 in a drunken stupor. He served a whole two years in prison and was allegedly a quite well-behaved inmate. After his release, spent the rest of his life drinking and advocating for prison reform. Griffith Park and its Greek Theater were also built from his bequest, though both were completed well after he essentially drank himself to death in 1919.
We arrive at Griffith and park on the long, nearly half-mile upward slope of street parking before getting to the mammoth parking lot at the top of the hill. A gaggle of eager, young Korean men pile out of an SUV in front of us and fiddle with the parking kiosk. Aromatic, exotic Cali weed wafts through the temperate, evening air.
Griffith is a stately, art deco complex facing south toward the city. Downtown is visible to the left from the vista, Culver City and the ocean to the right. Beyond that, everything else is sort of blurred into a continuous fabric of sodium vapor and the mix of headlights and brake lights, dots streaking into the night.
We have less than an hour before closing, so we step with purpose, wandering the stately halls and poking around some of the exhibits. In a new addition, there is a seismograph. The functionality of this machine is explained by an exceptionally jazzed docent, and you can set it off by jumping up and down. Again with the bizarre relationship Californians maintain with disaster, I think, as a racially and nationally diverse group of tourists excitedly jump up and down and watch as the needle inks a jet black zigzag onto the gently rolling paper.
Back in the main entryway, I am gently scolded by a young attendant for setting up my camera tripod to take the above photo, since, he says, the non-marring, rubber tips might well mar the floor. I mumble a sheepish apology and pack up to head outside.
We gaze out across the gently illumed grids of the city, watching as they butt heads with one another, their streetlights and car lights evanescing into the aspirational ether of the city’s pervasive smog. Couples and small groups huddle between the colonnaded southern façade of the building. Young men cleverly slide hands onto butts, couples take selfies, bros make broey jokes to uproarious guffaws from bro-kin.
We discuss the finer points of my astrological horizon. We both have north nodes in Pisces, which means that our life paths are walked between fact and fiction, striving toward generosity, service, and navigating creative truth alongside logic. I also learn that I am a Leo Rising, a “sun sign” associated with bold leadership qualities, strong social energy, and a bit of a Harry Potter complex. Certainly sounds about right for me.
Jessica appears to be very well-read on the subject.
“Do you believe in astrology?” I ask.
“I think it’s kind of like poetry,” she muses. “I mean, no one’s going to come at a poet for saying things that aren’t literally true, right? Because it’s art. It’s not meant to be literal. It’s all about what you choose to get out of it.”
(This article is Part II of a series on Nat’s recent trip to Los Angeles to attend the StartingBloc Institute and eat an unholy quantity of tacos– and chili cheese fries, of course. The first article, which addresses the idea of Los Angeles in the popular imagination, can be found here. This article will be updated to link to additional articles as they are added. Follow Jessica Cabot on her website).