Gawking in L.A.

Dan Rhatigan, your resident megalomaniacal self-publisher, wrote, lived, and photographed this shocking tale of disaster and wonderment.

Accommodations provided by Northwest Airlines and the sinister Dr. Lau.

This was my first time

I mean it — wow. Wow. Wow! Freakin’ WOW!

I just returned from my first trip out West — a brief week in Los Angeles
to visit my oldest pal Eddie and see what the whole West Coast thing was
like. It would be a criminal understatement to say that I got my money’s
worth from my discount airfare tickets. I got adventure, trash, sorrow,
glamour, nostalgia, chicken and waffles, and natural disaster. Bad omens,
however, started pouring in as I left Boston. I left work early so I could
get a head start to the airport for a six-thirtyish flight. I optimistically
(foolishly, whichever) ignored the warnings of snow, fiercely determined
to escape to the land of seventy-six-and-sunny come hell or high water.
The plane left a little late, but I wasn’t too worried, since I had a direct
flight, needing only to switch to a different plane with the same flight
number in Minneapolis. (You can see this coming, right?)

I packed my warmer layers into my tote bag and checked it once I reached
the airport. I patiently waited at the airport, eavesdropping on a conversation
between a jappy girl and a trashy family as they compared notes on their
respective trips to Portugal. This girl was sitting around reading, and
soon the thirteenish daughter from the family recognized her and started
interrogating her about her vacation. Soon, the whole bunch got into the
act, bombarding the slightly horrified young lady with ardent small talk.
At one point, she was struck dumb when the young son of the family started
asking her about her romantic life, and if she knew "Joe Escobar,"
apparently a friend of the family’s in Portugal. I left before I started
to suffer brain rot.

The plane ride itself was uneventful as those things go. The selection of music was catastrophically poor — the blandest possible assortment of inoffensive pop hits and country-western ditties. This was not the best assortment for someone who prefers music that’s a little more challenging. The in-flight news and travel show, a shameless promotional vid by the airline, was a paltry attempt to distract the passengers from the fact that we were getting no movie. Again, it was meant to be singularly inoffensive. Their little
travel info pieces on different cities like San Francisco and New Orleans
would suggest that every city in the country is a pleasant racial mix, straight,
and affluent. A lifelong city-dweller, I was skeptical. The news was little
more than entertainment dreck profiling Michael Bolton and some retail magnate.
Admittedly, though, I have never been one to enjoy lowest-common-denominator
entertainment. Craving distraction from that cultural vacuum, I scarfed
down free snacks (those honey-roasted peanuts aren’t as bad as standup comedians
would have us believe, don’t you think?) and Cokes (they’ll give you a full
can of Coke as opposed to a thimbleful of anything else) and struck up conversation
with the guy sitting next to me, a music scene guy from Minneapolis who
was visiting his sister in Beantown. We talked about the state of rock clubs
in Boston and junk like that, and I thought it was really wacky that you
can have a long conversation with someone while traveling without exchanging
names, since they’re largely unimportant. I started getting nervous when
the airline began to make announcements about which connecting flights had
already left Minneapolis, since they made no mention about the fate of the
flight I was on. I’m a pretty unseasoned traveler, so I had no idea how
these direct (as opposed to non-stop) flights operated.

The Pit Stop
Sure enough — BAM — I was stranded overnight in deep Minnesota six-degree
winter with nothing but a pullover shirt, a barely quilted leather jacket,
and the emergency toilet kit in my camera bag. Once settling accommodation
and rebooking issues with the airline, I set off toward a fabulous evening
in the posh Comfort motor lodge.

On the shuttle bus to the motel, I struck up a few more anonymous conversations,
this time with two girls from Rhode Island who were fiercely determined
to get drunk, and a Minnesota man who inadvertently proved that people from
that state are way too friendly for their own safety. Once at the hotel,
the two girls invited me to go to the Mall of America with them to a bar
called Hooters, and I agreed on the spur of the moment. I walked upstairs
to my freezing earth-toned room to drop my junk, and then back down to the
lounge to see if anyone else from my flight was there. "Cheers"
was on the TV, and I thought it oddly fitting that I was stranded en route
to my vacation only to be faced with a TV show set in the city I’d fled
earlier in the day. Placing my order for a really early wake-up call, I
realized that a trip to the country’s largest mall with two Rhode Island
townies who were probably trying to pick me up would probably cause me to
draw blood. I knocked on the door of their room and announced that I was
gonna bail. I decided to stay in and wallow in the injustice of my inability
to escape subfreezing temperatures and watch a goofy Mel Gibson movie. (A
date I’d had the night before mentioned a big crush on Mel Gibson, so I
thought I should ponder if that was a scary thing or not.) I couldn’t even
draw weird pictures and write unsettling messages on the backs of the prints
in the room because they were bolted onto the walls. I wrapped myself in
four or five blankets and went to sleep.

In the morning I commiserated with a guy who was on my flight the night
before. Boy, did the two of us switch into bitchy queen mode as we rehashed
every indignity forced upon us, from travel delays to bitter cold to Middle
America to generic toiletries. At least our new plane did provide me with
my first celebrity sighting of the trip–Olympic wash-up Scott Hamilton.
Other than that, the flight was largely uneventful–imitation Egg McMuffins
and dry cereal, The Good Son, lots of free beverages.

I was blown away when we flew over the desert, however. A lifetime in the
Northeast left me totally unprepared to see terrain that was so vast, colorful,
and empty. It was hard to shake the feeling that I was just looking at more
Timothy O’Sullivan pictures, not actually passing over this huge patch of
dramatic terrain with its monolithic landforms. The East is so godawful
round and bland — the mountains are so old and worn, too much green and babyshit
brown, everything blending into everything else. It was a real shock to
fly over a jagged mountain range and then suddenly see a huge, flat sprawling
metropolis nestled between the hills and the water.

Sparky in Venice Eddie

Finally. . .
Ed had to work the day I arrived, so his roommate Matt picked me up and
brought me back to the Chinese palace where they live. (Trust me, that’s
the best description.) If you’ve never seen L.A., let me assure you that
every description you’ve heard — good or bad — is totally true. The city is
trashy, beautiful, eclectic, hideous, smoggy, sunny, and just plain different
from any of the big cities I’d been to in the East.

Matt drove me around and I began my photo essay of an outsider’s view of
Los Angeles. We hit Hollywood Boulevard, with its old glamour degenerated
into kitsch-laden decadence; the Sunset Strip, with its info overload; and
Beverly Hills, with its hodge-podge of revivalist architecture. It’s like
the whole city buys into the notion that everything in it was built for
a movie set.

We drove up to Malibu and examined the fire devastation in the hills around
Topanga Canyon. Already I’d witnessed the effect of hitting beautiful, sparsely
populated nature minutes from a crammed downtown. To celebrate the fantastic
day (it had been a full 75 degrees colder when I woke up that morning),
we decided to park by the side of the road and jump into the ocean. I felt
remarkably uninhibited as I stripped down to my Calvins and frolicked in
the Pacific for the first time in my life. Damn, that water was cold. I
thought my willy would retract all the way back to my intestines. "Oh
that’s right," I remembered, "this is still January, isn’t it."
The "Baywatch" fantasy shot to hell, I suppose.

The next few days were filled with wackiness, as various sidebars will show.
On the whole, I had heaps of fun. I liked the city a lot, and seriously
entertained thoughts of life there. I was transfixed by the notion of a
city where the spirit of trash and pop culture is so alive, so ubiquitous.
Aside from every other sight reminding me of a movie or TV show, the L.A.
aesthetic is invariably misguided and amusing. I don’t know how to drive,
though, and have spent a lifetime growing to love walking in big cities
and seeing people all the time. Car culture like L.A.’s might well kill

Despite all my adventures, some things were just not in the cards. We didn’t
do much in the way of nightlife, since the fellas weren’t big club fans.
That meant I didn’t get to see if any notable celebs were secret closet
cases. We were refused service when we went to Trader Vic’s, since we apparently
weren’t classy enough for their Polynesian Revival theme. I never got to
plunder the costume and prop warehouse at the movie company where Ed works.
I never got to see how much Disneyland will tolerate before throwing someone
out. I would have liked to have done some serious shopping, but none of
us had enough money to justify reckless behavior like that. I would have
liked to have seen Weird Al’s house in Beverly Hills, but I didn’t get the
chance. I did, however get Burt Ward’s phone number, so if anyone wants
to wish Robin their best, call him at 310/376-8060.

Just Like an Irwin Allen Flick
The big event, of course, was the earthquake.

As fate would have it, Los Angeles was ravaged by a 6.6 Richter-scale act
of god whilst I vacationed. Truth be told, I was pretty oblivious to the
devastation that leveled the San Fernando valley (THE valley, of Valley
fame), but it was a pip just the same.

When the first bang hit, I woke up and thought it was one of those frequent
minor tremors that I’d seen so often in movies like L.A. Story. It
was a pretty cool rumbling (not unlike airplane turbulence) followed by
a distant smash of glass and lots of car alarms and barking dogs. Ed and
Matt both rushed out of their rooms and were amazed. It was apparently the
biggest they’d felt since moving there a year-and-a-half ago. The two of
them were stunned that I was so blasé about it. We didn’t know the
scope of the whole thing till later, since the power went out and there
was no transistor radio. All we knew was that Ed got a rug-burn scab on
his knee from crawling across his floor to the doorjamb of his room.

The damage we found was pretty much along these lines: a poster taped to
a wall fell down, a roll of linoleum toppled over, a mirror fell without
cracking, a latex severed head dropped off a shelf, and a lone champagne
flute cracked. Ed’s friend Brad was the first to call and check on us. From
him we learned that the tremor we felt was actually a really big deal. His
apartment windows shattered and lots of stuff flew off shelves and walls.
We all went back to sleep, often waking to aftershocks and phone calls.
Prompted by my panic-stricken mother in New York, Ed’s dad called to see
if we were okay, since they had heard on the news that there was this huge
quake which collapsed sections of the freeway and caused fires and floods
all over the city. News to us!

We had power and fairly reliable phone service a couple of hours later and
saw exactly what had happened. Basically, in Matt’s words, "the earthquake
hit where Whitey lived." Maybe the riots had claimed the inner city
in the past, but natural disaster had taken its toll on more affluent neighborhoods
and suburbs. Some major freeway sections collapsed, which will make commuting
utter hell for a while, and there was lots and lots of property damage.
The entire valley was almost sealed off from the rest of civilization. Heaps
of people died. Over seventy trailer homes went up in smoke. We watched
footage of fireballs shooting up from the street as water mains sent torrents
past them. The rumble was felt as far away as Las Vegas, and electricity
went out as far away as Portland, Oregon, because of the drain on the western
power grid. Blah, blah, blah — for a long time it was hard to watch the news
without hearing all the gritty details rehashed.

Let me digress and say that Los Angeles journalists are the biggest bunch
of yahoos that ever lived. Every time a scientist at CalTech issued a caution
about possible structural damage, a reporter would chirp in, "You mean
to say we’re seeing massive destruction on a cataclysmic scale?" One
newscaster was reporting on hospital crowding because of quake injuries,
and said that a particular hospital in the valley was facing a flood of
emergency patients &mdash so she leans into the camera and says, "So just
don’t go there!" Great way to keep the masses calm, cool, and collected,
eh? Another woman — in Northridge, the town with the dubious honor of sitting
on the epicenter of the quake — urged viewers to listen to the sound of gas
leaking from a collapsed house, while she poked her head into the rubble
from which a man just been freed. What kind of nimrod stunt was that? "Gee,
you can actually hear the gas, not just smell it! Let’s look into this pile
of rubble and see what’s there. Got a match, anyone?"

We soon started to find out what had happened to the people around us. Matt
scanned the Internet to see what news had seeped through. We called anyone
we could, and heard stories of collapsed wall units, shattered glass, near
misses, and overall disbelief that the whole thing had really happened.
Once we had contacted just about everyone we knew and either compared stories
or reassured them of our safety, Ed’s friend Laurie from work called and
said that their Beverly Hills office was trashed, so there would be no work.
Instead, she invited people to her house in Pasadena, where she and her
hubby hadn’t seen any damage. Basically, while parts of the city were engulfed
by cataclysm and catastrophe, a group of us basked in the sun, playing croquet
and drinking (there was no fiddler playing in the background). It was pretty
L.A. — pretty decadent and jaded — if you stop and think about it.

What’s with these people ?
The city of Los Angeles on the whole seemed to react in strange ways to
the whole catastrophe. Aside from the aforementioned loopy newscasters and
general panic, the city seemed to have some very peculiar responses. Lots
of people on the news seemed to feel no regret that they lost everything,
as if the climate made it all right to put up with natural disaster. The
other half of the people spoke of plans to depart immediately, with reckless
disregard about whether or not they had someplace to go. One of the city’s
first acts was to impose a citywide curfew, the fear of looting still fresh
in everyone’s minds. (It was definitely strange to feel that I might be
arrested if I even went to the convenience store for snacks. I never had
a curfew growing up, and suddenly stuff worse than being grounded could
happen.) Too many people seemed to worry about how soon the federal government
would reimburse them for lost property. I’m used to New Englanders whining
but stoically putting up with their own climate. Panic really surprises
me, but there’s a world of difference between a Nor’easter and an earthquake.

Off like a prom dress
There were no problems with the airport by the time I was supposed to leave
the next morning, so I got on the plane and resumed life as usual. I talked
to a girl sitting next to me who was a musical theatre major returning to
school in Boston. I managed to hold my end in a conversation about show
tunes and Barbra Streisand (Gee, where might a young fag have learned to
do that?), all the while trying to throw in more interesting tidbits about
myself in hopes of catching the interest of the really cute guy with the
shaved head and the striped shirt sitting in front of me. Hey, man, if you’re
out there and recognize any of this, don’t be shy!