If you can survive the smog, the weird inhabitants and their crazy pets, Los Angeles can be fun, says DEBBIE KRUGER
I love L.A. It is highly unfashionable, I know, to declare a passion for the city of disasters. If the bushfires, landslides, earthquakes or riots dont get you, then the daily smog, traffic and phoniness will. Or so the popular line goes.
I have visited Los Angeles several times, from my first foray as a teenager under the wing of devoted parents who accommodated us in luxury at the Beverly Hilton and gave us free reign in Disneyland, to a series of solo visits in the past five years, staying in ugly low-ceiling cardboard apartment buildings in Hollywood.
I have endured heartbreak from a jilted love during two weeks of non-stop rain, walked amidst the ruins on post-riot Beverly Boulevard and been nauseous from heat and smog. Still, I love L.A.
Perhaps because my accommodation has often been less than comfortable such is the price we pay for imposing on friends I have always been eager to get in my car and wander, explore, often re-visiting the same haunts again and again. To drive in L.A. is to belong in L.A., to know it fully.
I rarely eat at trendy LA restaurants, I have never seen a band play at the Roxy, and the one famous movie star couple I know have never invited me to stay in their magnificent Pacific Palisades home. But with wheels I am immediately at ease.
I love arriving at LAX in jetlagged state and proceeding directly to the car rental depot to pick up my car. Within an hour of touching down, I am steering a left-hand drive vehicle on the right-hand side of the road. My friend stares at me in disbelief. Are you sure you dont want me to drive? she asks. No, I reply. I love L.A.
On this visit I am staying with my friend Judy. I hope you are not allergic to cats cause I just got a kitten she faxed before I arrived. Arriving at her Venice Beach apartment, I cannot help wondering why she hadnt mentioned the four caged rabbits, the bird and the second cat. I look at the sofa where I have been advised in the afore-mentioned fax I will be sleeping. It is right next to the fetid rabbits and the squawking parrot named Angel.
They all belong to my room-mate, Judy explains. An Eastern musician, he is clearly of far too artistic and delicate a disposition to concern himself with the day-to-day tutelage of these animals, so Judy is the carer. Ill clean the cages before your return, she promises.
My only consolation is that I have two weeks reprieve. Another friend is joining me for a drive up the west coast to Seattle, and after stopping in at Judys, my first jetlagged night is spent in relative luxury at the Malibu Beach Inn, an unpretentious boutique hotel with a soothing hacienda pink stucco exterior. Our spacious room, overlooking Malibu Pier and the beach from our private verandah, and its rustic Mediterranean-style bathroom with handpainted tiles, are worlds away from the zoo at Judys.
We dine at the quintessential Malibu restaurant, Geoffreys, watch the sun set over the Pacific and joke about the rabbits, a joke that haunts me throughout our two week sojourn. So with some trepidation I arrive back at Judys one warm Sunday afternoon a fortnight later.
Youre early! my American friend exclaims as I enter to find her on her knees, cleaning one of six rabbit cages. I wanted to have this done before you got here. Yes, six rabbits. The room-mate has acquired another pair. They had all belonged to his brother, but there is trouble at his brothers house. Ill explain it to you one day, Judy says, assuming I am interested. Its too much for me, so I don my swimming costume and head for the beach.
Judys end of Venice Beach, at the pier, is less busy and certainly less showy than the Muscle Beach end. Locals and stray tourists share the vast expanses of sand and murky sea. Few venture into the water, as ocean pollution is rife. On a clear day one can see perfectly to Santa Monica and beyond; trouble is, there are rarely clear days, as the insidious L.A. fog seeps from the Downtown and San Fernando Valley areas across the more affluent Beverly Hills to the beach districts. The sea and the sky are almost one, a hazy grey-blue tinged with pink in the early evening. Late summer in LA. I love it.
The pier end of Venice has the advantage of being less crowded than the Promenade, but a handful of eateries on Washington Boulevard ensures a lively scene.
The Cows End is the locals favoured caf, and across the road is the Cheese and Olive Trattoria, colourful by day (especially Sunday brunch) or night, when at a regularly appointed time the lights are dimmed and staff and patrons break out in song. The proprietor is Bobby, and everyone seems to know him, so just walk in, throw your arms around Bobby like an old friend, and youll be guaranteed personalised service.
This end of Venice borders the Playa and Marina del Rey districts, and nearby on Admiralty Way is Edies Diner, open 24 hours and at full capacity around the clock, if not for the above-average diner-style food, then perhaps for the free bubble gum. I buy Judy dinner there, that first night back in L.A., praying she will have mercy on me regarding the sleeping arrangements. She must see the dread in my eyes, for back at the apartment, she offers me her bedroom, volunteering to take the sofa in my place. I love LA.
Judys building is like Melrose Place. A swimming pool centres the small courtyard surrounded by two levels of apartments. Everyone knows everyone and everyones business, although everyone sleeps in his or her own apartment, or so they tell me. The blonde woman next-door even looks a little like Heather Locklear, only shes sweet. Her boyfriend likes Angel, the bird, and allows it to poke around in his mouth and play with his teeth.
The occupants of another apartment decide to stage an Elton John concert at around 1a.m. Elton isnt there, of course, but Daniel is over and over. I lie awake and long for the Malibu Beach Inn while Judy, sprawled fully-clothed on the sofa, sleeps soundly with the rabbits.
My week in LA is punctuated by the strange goings-on at Judys apartment. Her room-mate, Rankahs (or Rank, as he is coincidentally known), comes and goes at odd hours, and often has his brothers timid children over. They play with Judy, her computer, and the animals, as I sort through my daily shopping purchases.
[On this trip I am more intent on hanging out than sightseeing. Although I contemplate revisiting the stunning J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu and the bustling LA County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, they are forsaken for return pilgrimages to Rodeo Drive, Sunset Plaza and the Beverly Center.
And the idea of reacquainting myself with the charming Laguna Beach district is tempting, but I am lured instead back north to Zuma Beach, my favourite stretch of Malibu coastline. It could be because a member of my favourite rock band has a house there, or perhaps its just that the water is cleaner than at the L.A. beaches. There is major construction work going on in the carpark, the famous Zuma sign has been taken down, and loud Mexican music blasts from the beach kiosk. But Im there, and I love it.
I love LA mostly for the shopping. Rodeo Drive is everything its cracked up to be, and more. The nicest thing is its accessibility. Like everywhere else in LA, convenience is a priority. Try taking your car to Londons Bond Street, Pariss Champs Elysées or even Brisbanes Queen Street Mall. Forget it. But you want to drive to Rodeo Drive? No problem. Plenty of inexpensive meters on the street, or free undercover parking lots in the side streets.
Some of the European fashion houses might intimidate, but no-one can resist poking around in Giorgio Beverly Hills, sniggering at the aloofness of Ralph Laurens Polo store, or marvelling at the displays in the recently opened Guess Home Collection shop. Steam rises from a bath tub and the most vibrant and inviting bed linens and towels throw themselves at you. Buy me! Take me home! they cry out. I do.
No sign of Tori Spelling and her Beverly Hills 90210 offsiders, but people-watching is amusing. Getting a table outside at the Beverly Rodeo Hotel Café can be mission impossible, but I prefer the cool interior of the Emporio Armani Express Restaurant in Brighton Way. Or walking a few blocks to a deli-style establishment on South Santa Monica Boulevard. The Nosh of Beverly Hills serves its own house bagels (watch them created through a glass window next to your table) stacked with the freshest most delicious fillings known to man. The service is very un-Beverly Hills my waiter is decidedly stressed but a touch of New York in the heart of LA is refreshing.
The Beverly Center at La Cienega, San Vincente and Third Street is my favourite shopping mall in LA, chiefly because of its location. America, it can be said, is one big franchise, with the same stores in every mall in every city. But the Beverly Center entices me every time, even though a few of my favourite concessions have shut up shop.
Its a far more dismal scene on Melrose Avenue. Once the thriving hub of West Hollywood, most of its radical boutiques, cafés and galleries are gone, and the famed eyewear shop, LA Eyeworks, stands forlorn amidst the remains of a once exciting strip now overtaken by street gangs. Westwood Village, too, is a disappointment in its shabby state, hardly looking like the area that trendy young UCLA students would frequent.
There is now a Tower Records in almost every LA district, but the original and best is on Sunset Boulevard (with parking at the door). I spend a huge chunk of one day going through the store alphabetically, delighting at the cheap CD prices and variety of stock. Across the road is Book Soup, LAs funkiest book store, and I walk in to peruse. Immediately behind me is a young man holding a motor-bike helmet. I do a double-take. Its Keanu Reeves. His face is plastered all over billboards along Sunset, and there he is next to me in a book shop. I decide to play it cool, and retire to the Book Soup Bistro next door for some lunch, sure that hell have sensed the magnetism and followed me.
Good thing Id bought a book.
Caffe Latte on Wilshire and South Crescent Heights makes the best tea in LA, so it certainly warrants a return visit. And the decaf cappuccinos at Starbucks (any main street, Anywhere U.S.A.) have me hooked. My favourite gourmet food and kitchen store is Williams Sonoma, but Best New Discovery award goes to Trader Joes, a heavenly gourmet supermarket stocking the blissful Snyders of Hanover sourdough pretzels and an indescribably tempting array of foods and drinks made and packaged specifically for Trader Joes.
I feel proud to have discovered LAs best kept secret, and ask for a card. The young man at the check-out gives me one, along with a list of all the Trader Joes locations in California, Arizona and Oregon. There are dozens, and clearly theyre no secret. There is still so much to discover in LA. I love that.
Star-gazing is not really my thing, and Hollywood is a bit of a fallacy, anyway. A once grand concept, today somewhat intangible. Ive been-there-done-that on Hollywood Boulevard so I bypass the Walk of Fame, Manns Chinese Theatre and Capitol Records Tower. I do lunch with a New Zealand film director at Jones, a popular film industry restaurant across the road from the Warner Hollywood studios on Santa Monica and La Brea, but we dont see anyone famous there, although the conversation is peppered with references to Melanie Griffith and Nick Nolte, with whom he has just worked.
Judy and I go to an evening classical concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but thats for the masses, pleasant as it is, and the only stars are in the sky.
Another night Judy and I are at the West End bar in Santa Monica, listening to our friend Cecilia Noel, a Latin funk singer with a loyal following. We spot Weird Al Yankovic in the crowd. So does Cecilia, who hauls Weird Al on stage for some acknowledgement. He looks uncomfortable, hardly a star.
My week is capped off with two nights at the Greek Theatre, a 6,000-seat outdoor amphiteatre which plays host to many of the rock dinosaurs of the Seventies still touring the US circuit. Boston, Steve Miller Band, the Doobie Brothers theyve all been there this summer. My favourite band, Chicago, plays two shows. Judy and I go backstage and meet the band, mixing with lots of LA wannabes, proudly wearing our after-show passes.
Oh God, I love L.A.]
And what of Judys apartment, the menagerie and His Rankness? After my week in LA, Judy and I hit the road for ten days and Rankahs promises to clean out the cages before we get back. On our return, we find the contents of the cages have oozed all over the lounge-room carpet and the stench is unbearable. The rabbits seem oblivious, but the following morning I tell Judy that much as I love her, I need some space (read cleanliness) for my last two nights in LA.
I choose the nondescript, inexpensive and efficient Holiday Inn Express, one mile up the road on Washington. There is an Australian named Mike at the desk and he lets me check in at 8.30 a.m. (such is my desperation to escape the Melrose Place of Venice).
A good thing I leave when I do. That same day Rankahs facilitates his neices and nephews escape from their physically abusive father, and Judy finds herself accosted by the LAPD for aiding and abetting a felon. The backdrop for my last two days in L.A. is a police investigation into the childrens kidnapping, and Judys increasing fears for their welfare and her own safety.
On my final morning I sleep in, having been up packing my outrageously heavy luggage until all hours. Frantic knocking on my hotel room door wakes me, and Judy bursts in, throwing herself against the wall in suitably dramatic fashion. Theyre after me, theyre after me! she cries, and she really is crying. She has been warned to clear out before the evil brother has her kidnapped and holds her hostage in return for his children. Im going to disappear. Dont try to find me. Thanks for coming. Goodbye. She disappears.
I look at my luggage and wonder how on earth I am going to get to L.A. Airport and check in without help. I have a headache. I decide to take a walk from Venice Pier to the Promenade. Market stalls, rows of tarot readers seated at tables under umbrellas, sand sculptors, wheelchair-bound karaoke singers, and discounted OJ Simpson Trivia board games. The sky is blue, the smog has dissipated in the autumnal climate of late September. Ive been here on and off for a month and Im ready to go home.
I manage to get the luggage-from-hell to the airport, return my car to Hertz and be at the terminal with plenty of time to spare before my shuttle to San Francisco. I find the bar and sit down with a tall iced water and a packet of sourdough chips. A tall shadowy figure enters and I do a double-take. Its Michael Richards, alias Kramer from Seinfeld. Will I say hi or wont I? He buys a bottle of Evian and uses its contents to wash an apple, which he munches with acute concentration, then departs.
L.A. I love it.