Our journey to LA started with another repack of the car and, much to Freds delight, a breakfast of sweet muffins we had gathered from other motel breakfast bars. On the way we got another surprise wildlife treat. A packed car park on the coast signalled something worth stopping for. As we made our way to the crowds we discovered that Elephant Sea Lions spent the summer here. Laid out on the beach these huge creatures packed themselves tightly together, noses in the surf and tails flicking wet sand onto their bodies to cool them down. Two youngsters were outside the group, a quarter of the size of the other monsters. We learnt from the volunteers that all those on the beach were male. The females were out at sea for several months feeding themselves up ready for the next breeding season when they would come back to give birth and not feed for several months as they tended their newborns. On the beach in front of us couples of Alpha Males did battle, rearing up and roaring for supremacy. It was absolutely fascinating to watch stunning to watch more wildlife in its natural environment. We loved the enthusiasm of the committed volunteers. Topped up on nature and more beautiful wild scenery we continued on our way.
The sun shone brightly as we pulled into Calabasas, a suburb north of Malibu and West of the city centre. We’d got a bargain 3 nights in this lovely motel with a stunning pool. Early check in meant we were given a poolside room. We decamped all our stuff and I headed out to the supermarket next door to get supplies for our stay, whilst Fred and Dean took advantage of the pool.
The motel was home mostly to tourists, and travellers en route. However it was also home to two African American families who had uprooted themselves from Miami and Texas respectively. The parents were out at work and searching for more permanent accommodation whilst the children, on schools holidays, stayed back at the motel. Fred instantly had 4 playmates in the pool, it only took a short time for them all to connect and start playing ‘Sharks’, ‘Marco Polo’, and some very convoluted game of ‘Swamps’ which involved our two lilos being the base for 2 teams to commence a watery war. We ate dinner round the pool and the heat dropped from a searing 90F to mid 70s. Lots of play and swimming made for an early night.
In the morning we set off for a tour over the Malibu Canyon towards the eponymous Californian beaches. We came first to the millionaires paradise of Malibu. Along the pacific Ocean houses fronted the private beaches. Most had remodelled the original small dwellings, and in their place stood 3 storey glass constructions with decks that hung over the private sand below. Nothing could be bought here for less than $4M, with prices going up to $11M. We saw a couple of residents as we pulled over to look at these homes. A portly man paced his glass deck, mobile to his ear, a mother was the sole occupant of the beach with her young son. Big money busy your privacy round here, perhaps it comes with a bit of loneliness too?
We headed off to Venice Beach. This was a ‘must do’ for me. When we decided to stay a couple of nights in Miami I had mistakenly been under the impression that this was where the muscle beach was located, I guess we’re all improving our geography on this trip! We followed the coast line from Malibu to Venice Beach enjoying the landscape and curiosities of this rarefied part of LA. A game of ‘find a parking space’ lasted 30 minutes before we hit upon a free one 2 blocks from the heart of Venice Beach. Bronzed, toned, hair free bodies, pumped, stretched, balanced, climbed, boxed, shot hoops, and strutted on the courts and in the open air gym. We found a shady spot to sit and watch. Small groups worked out together, discussing the merits of a vegan diet full of protein to fuel hours of working out whilst not laying down any fat to hide the sculpted muscles of their naked torsos. Fred found a group of ginger haired local kids who let him join their game of basketball. We passed another hour watching Fred and his new mates play a competitive but friendly game.
As we watched Fred we had as a backdrop the constant dialogue of ‘Gerry’ (I’ll give him this name as I don’t know what it was). He was one of the many homeless living on Venice Beach. Gerry had a tidy encampment on the grassy knoll next to the basketball court 20 feet from where we sat. He’d found a shady spot under a towering old palm tree to pitch a sun protector tent that was his home. An open umbrella provided more shade for his al fresco dining room, a blanket carefully laid out. Gerry stood over his food supplies, set out in a line on a piece of wall that provided the boundary to his establishment. Swaying from side to side, with a Stevie Wonder rhythm to his movements, he obsessively counted and adjusted the symmetry of his supplies. After 20 minutes he had satisfied himself that his provisions were in order and decided to commence his rounds of his employees. Oblivious to anyone around him, and in a tight boundaried space that didn’t impinge on anyone else, he lived out loud the world that existed in his reality. A scavenged aluminium tube served as his microphone, he held it strongly addressing the employees of “…. Enterprises Incorporated” (I didn’t hear the full title of the corporation that he oversaw). After a stirring address, filled with giggles and anecdotes, he took his microphone and turned it into a baton which he tucked neatly under his arm. Like an Officer of the British Empire; upright, entitled, cane at 45 degrees to his midriff, he moved through his invisible troops, sharing jokes and offering encouragement. Dean and I were struck by his inspirational leadership style. A Chief Executive prepared to leave his Boardroom and move through his troops, connecting and sharing moments with them. This severely mentally ill African American homeless man, in the midst of a psychotic episode, showed more leadership than many Directors I have known…..
We left ‘Gerry’ and the basketball court, Fred in tow after goodbyes, and went down to the beach. The iconic lifeguard station served as a perfect backdrop for Fred and I to act out a ‘Baywatch’ moment. The ‘SloMo’ facility on Dean’s iphone had us giggling for ages, as we replayed it. We then took a stroll down the Venice Beach boulevard. To raised eyebrows I got played beautifully by a burly African American ‘rapper’ who stopped “you too cool family” (Fred’s hair is back in braids with a shaved undercut to set them off), placing headphones on Fred connected to an iplayer which was loaded with his work. He signed a CD to ‘Prince Fred’ and thrust it in our hand suggesting a $20 donation for the artist, whilst bringing in his son who was Fred’s age, to meet ‘Prince Fred’ and the “coolest family you’ve seen”. Dean settled on $10 claiming it was all he had. We parted friends with smiles, and Dean appeased by another story of my naivety to tell at my expense, and Fred bowled over that he’d met a real life rapper. Win win win! On our stroll back we saw another family enjoying the same experience, including the rapper introducing his son. Fred, less naïve than I, smiled and said “I think they’ve got a bit of an act going on” – yup!
Having enough of the seascape and beachside experience we decided to go back to Calabasas via Culver City, Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Canyons. It was a great drive. We passed the impressive studios of Sony / Columbia Pictures, rode through elegant Beverly Hills passing Chateau Marmont (Hotel California is our US road trip song which we now have word perfect), and took the steep Laurel Canyon Road (on which Frank Zappa had lived, Dean’s favourite musician) up to views across the city. Famous road names and sights made for a fun journey. We stopped right at the top of Mulholland Drive and looked across the city. A small tourist information display had pictures of the city in the 1920’s – all agriculture laid out in blocks. Made us realise how fast this city of 35M people has grown. Of course we couldn’t head back until we had found the Hollywood Sign, which we did within 10 minutes with the help of direction from some lovely local teenagers, with reality TV accents to die for.
After a long day touring the pool was a welcome relief. Fred’s 4 friends quickly joined him. I spent a bit of time talking to Mack. Mack was watching his 2 grandchildren, sporting an oversized Martin Luther King t-shirt, with a picture of the great man and his most famous quotes. He and his family were from Miami. His son had got a job in LA 2 months ago and moved up with his kids. Since the move the family had lived in numerous motels, whilst his son also searched for a long term place to root his family. This was the second time they had been in this motel, and they had a good 2 week deal that would keep them here for another week. It was now getting pressing to find a long term home as the kids (13 & 10) needed to enrol in a school in 10 days time. Mack had left his home to ‘sit the kids’ whilst his son and wife were out at work. He passed his days in the room or by the pool. He yearned to be back in Miami and was “sick of this place”. We talked of Miami, where we are going for 2 nights before we cross into Brazil, and how it had changed in the last 75 years. He’d been in the US Airforce, served in Vietnam, and then been stationed in the UK near Ipswich (Dean’s home town). The constant movement, different countries, and desire to settle down back home and have a family had led him to leave the Airforce. He wished he hadn’t. We chatted as the kids played, Fred the only white kid with 4 African American kids, in a motel staffed by Latinos with the rest of the guests white. We didn’t talk about current race issues or politics, his experience and values were there in his t-shirt, the political eras that his life covered, and that he had met his conscription obligations during the Vietnam draft – something a current presidential candidate managed to dodge….. Nevertheless, as we talked, there was a deference in his body language and eye contact. I don’t know if it was real or imagined. But for his formative years our exchange would not have been possible.
That night I planned our Downtown LA trip. Traffic in LA is truly horrendous despite the 12 lane freeways so I planned a route that would see us drive to the North Hollywood Metro park and ride and catch the Red Line into the heart of Downtown. The Red Line would let us stop off at the Chinese Theatre, with the cement hand prints of the Hollywood stars of the last 100 years, en route to the historic centre, and a self-planned walk around the old warehouse district that has been annexed by artists in search of cheap studio and exhibition space. A sceptical Dean let go of his inner control freak. What a day it turned out to be. We found a rare spot at the Park and Ride and got our Metro day passes. The train arrived and we stepped off the pristine platform into Rap heaven. A small but ear shattering boom box pumped out expletive laden lyrics, next to a group of 3 youths in their 20’s lolling across the seats in the carriage. They sang over the music, adding in some free styling, talked loudly, and swigged out of 3 gallon energy drink bottles. The music was good and the atmosphere was jolly. Unfortunately Fred and Dean didn’t want to join me in a ‘Repper Family Flashmob’ – I think Poppy would have if she was with us!
We got off at the Chinese Theatre stop and walked out to be met by Minnie Mouse, Batman, Spiderman, Marylin Monroe et al plying their trade on the Walk of Fame. Fred got a picture of himself with Minnie, who then held him to ransom refusing to let go until we responded to her hand written piece of paper saying ‘Tip for photo’. Funnily enough she hadn’t shown that to us before she grabbed him to her chest. Of course Dean was nowhere in sight, so it was Mum who had fallen for another play – yet again! We only got Minnie to release Fred with our own play, that Fred had to get his purse out of my bag, once he was out of her grasp we made a dash. I think I’m learning…….!
A few minutes’ walk over the iconic Stars of numerous actors and we got to the Chinese Theatre. I loved it. There was Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Rita Heyworth, Robin Williams, and all our favourites from way back. I took pictures a few of my parents’ favourites as well as mine, and Fred posed next to the newly moulded prints of the cast of ‘Hunger Games’. Touristy bit over we walked back to the Metro, dodged Minnie, and rode the train to downtown. Unlike the London Underground, only the working classes or those with nothing else to do, ride the train. A cast of unselfconscious characters boarded the train at different stops. We loved the aging rocker, covered head to toe in tattoos (‘HATE’ on one hand & ‘LUST on the over), in pork pie hat, piercings and goatee. He got on with his liver coloured Pit Bull, that he lovingly caressed as they sat together on the floor. I wondered at his mysterious bloody bruised knuckles and the bling pink diamante collar around his muscular pit bull’s neck.
We stepped into Union Square and the sweltering heat of midday. We had a refreshing stop at a funky café on Gallery Row. On small tables, in the shade, we sat next to a young svelte Mancunian actress devouring a cooked breakfast. She counselled a friend on the phone, who was experiencing a crisis. “You have to remember” she said “that overdoing it can really cause a dip in your Serotonin levels”, her friend was suffering the morbid anxiety that comes with a crashing hangover, caused by a night of letting loose after splitting up from her boyfriend. Drinking my iced coffee, I lived the moment of the stranger at the end of the phone, rather than my own. I love a good eavesdrop, and the young actress beside us was a patient friend, challenging convenient untruths when she heard them. Her friend was lucky.
Struggling to orientate ourselves on Dean’s iphone map, we stepped into a pristine boutique dog store. Two gorgeous young things decorated the desk, waiting for a customer. Joe, it turned out, was from Lincoln and was flat sharing with his mate from Grantham – it is a small world. We were not far from where we wanted to go, but Joe said not to walk, ‘skid row’ was between the store and the Warehouse Arts District 4 blocks away. We heeded his advice “It’s a tough, tough, city he said”, and instead walked via Little Tokyo. What a great village in LA. We chose a restaurant full of people speaking Japanese. Old wizened men sliced the sushi, and we were served by a waitress that didn’t understand our request for water, so loose was her understanding of English. In addition to the water, which we finally managed to order, I asked her to choose a Japanese larger. What great food it was, and Fred has become a real sushi fan. His hair again caused smiles and comments of appreciation, and a rather grand Japanese- American lady sat next to us saw him as she left. “Oh my goodness isn’t he the most gorgeous cutest thing ever!” she exclaimed to her elderly lunch guests. As we left we wondered if we should fly to Tokyo rather than Shanghai and squeeze in a couple of weeks in Japan. We’ll think on that one…..
So finally we came to our destination, as we did so we passed more stunning street art, which we’re finding in all large American cities. We walked up the steps of the ‘LA Arts Co-Op’ and were greeted by Terry. In his 60’s he sported a silver shoulder length bob, with the build of a jockey. He apologised that they were shut on Tuesdays. He took another look at us and said “Hell, you look interesting, come in and I’ll show you around”. What a great 2 hours we spent there. We met artists, saw the exhibitions, chatted, went through the studios, and learnt the history of the place. A painting, rather like ‘The Last Supper’ hung over the office entrance. It was of the artists who, in the 80’s had acquired this vast warehouse for $100k, its now worth $10M. The collective have run it as a not for profit space for artists. Terry asked Fred if he’d heard of Skrillex. Of course said Fred, he’s my favourite DJ. We had to pick Fred off the floor when Terry told us that Skrillex lived and worked in one of the apartments in the building prior to getting his $20M record deal. He still lives in the neighbourhood and you can see him skating around. Terry himself was fascinating. Brought by an aunt in the film business to Hollywood in the 60’s, he’d acted in films and on the stage before becoming involved in the artists co-op which he now heads it up. We had a great time with these generous people, and really felt we had got under the skin of this community who had reclaimed part of LA that had been lost to inner city industrial decline.
Tired and exhausted we made our way home. A well-dressed man with a bike entertained us on the journey. He got on a stop after us, with his bike, and belted out ‘Hey Jude’ at full volume, with passion, and in tune. The passengers stuck to the international public transport rule of pretending that nothing is happening, however wacky or intrusive. We decided he must have dropped one pill too many after a day at work. We worried that he would forget his bike, he broke from singing to search is back pack for something that was missing, but he didn’t. Despite being off his face, he deftly navigated the 150 steps, carrying his bike out of the metro to the road. If he got home safely it would be a miracle.
We rushed to the pool and Fred was joined by Mack’s 2 grandchildren. His other 2 friends, who were our direct neighbours, were not there. We then saw the room being emptied, cases appearing, their mother, who we had not seen until now was in tears on the phone. It transpired that, unlike Mack’s family, she had no one to sit the kids when she was at work. The maids had apparently entered the room and found them unattended. Fred’s 2 friends, that were our neighbours, had an older brother, who we had not seen, and had been left in charge. At 6pm at night they were being evicted. The family moved out with a silently, 3 kids and their mother, their entire life belongings packed up over an hour into an SUV that someone brought to help out. We got the story I’ve just told from Fred later that night, who had got it from Mack’s granddaughter. So here is the starkest reminder of a fundamental difference between the US and the UK / Europe. Here you have a woman working for her family, getting on ‘Norman Tebbit’s bike’ to find work in another part of the country, made homeless in an hour. There is no federal or state provided social net to catch these people, who are doing everything they can to maintain their independence. We pondered if it was a coincidence that the family was evicted on the day when the motel had reached full occupancy and rates had doubled, as we had found out when trying to book another night. It felt a bit flat after that, and Fred was in full agreement, out of sympathy for his evicted friends, that we were also ready to move on.
So that night we started to search for accommodation for our next 2 nights in LA. We had to stay in LA because we had secured tickets for the filming of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and access to the Sony Studio Lot which Fred, and all of us, were really looking forward to. Budget had been broken consistently for the last 2 weeks so we thought we really needed to challenge ourselves a bit. A Booking.com search turned up a few places under $100, then Dean stumbled upon a total bargain. In Long Beach (okay it was close to Compton and Torrence), but it was only $130 for 2 nights. The ratings were terrible but ‘Hell’ we thought, we’ve seen so many bad reivews of places we thought were ok. To be fair we’ve never stayed in anything with less than a 5 / 10, and this was 3.1. Statements like “Never ever book this place, its hell” made up the reviews. Emboldened by our great experiences to date, and our ability to cope with dirty, stinky, sketchy places, we booked it. I jokingly placed a FB comment “Dean found us a great bargain for the next 2 nights. Really looking forward to spending time in a little place called Compton…….”. It didn’t take long for more well-worn, wise travellers to message back concerned.
We enjoyed a great day at Rodondo Beach, this was a pilgrimage for Dean in search of places in Patti Smith lyrics. A lunch of fried fish on the ancient pier, untouched by modern development, served by Renee. In her mid 50’s with a long yellow blonde pony tail, short mini skirt and sneakers, and broad smile we wondered if she had had a shot at the role of ‘Sandy’, losing out narrowly to Oliva Newton John. Fred loved her. Next to the fish bar was the fishing shack. Faded pictures of sharks landed by the owner lined the walls. Fred was open mouthed and asked the owner about them. We decided he, and his establishment had been the inspiration for the shark hunter in ‘Jaws’. Taciturn but happy to inform, he educated us from his ancient leather recliner positioned behind the chip board counter.
Next to the pier was a water park, where we spent the afternoon. Toyota California were holding a corporate event in a part of the fake beach park, and we watched amused as they limbo danced under a pole. The tallest man beat the smallest woman in the final. So after a restful fun day we set off to find our bargain.
Pacific Highway 1 ran alongside our motel on the corner of 17th, so we took it away from the coastline into the industrial port area. We waited for the neighbourhood to perk up a bit, it didn’t. Instead, impoverished workshops and rackety houses sat in between run down motels. The hum of a helicopter circling overhead met us as we got 5 blocks away. Next to us we spotted a SWAT van on wasteland, police cars with flashing lights lined the road on one side. As we passed it, and sat in stationary traffic, a domestic took place across the road at a ‘Jiffy Lube’ (it’s a place you get your oil changed if you didn’t know!). A man held a mobile as if to throw it and a woman laid in to him with the full force of an irate woman. Men leaned out of cars laughing at the scene. Finally we came to our motel and pulled in. We were all muted. Rooms were laid out around a courtyard, a burly African American in black stood on the gate wearing a black uniform with Security written on the back. He wore a bandana, had an eye patch, and had 2 guns holstered at his waist. He was smoking an enormous spliff.
We went to check in. The owners seemed to have no idea what to do, with it not being a cash booking, and the process took an uncomfortable 20 minutes. During this interminable period, Fred and I browsed the brochures in the office, none were for anything nearby. Keeping a steady hand and a cool head, for Fred, I was conscious that we stuck out like a sore thumb. In the courtyard clusters of people were gathered, a dishevelled elderly woman shuffled along on a zimmer frame, children in nappies beyond the age that children wear nappies jumped in the dirty puddles made by someone washing down the courtyard with a hose. He wore an ankle tag. Check in over we went to our room. Mirrored from floor to ceiling we checked the linen, it was clean. Fred turned on the huge TV. A naked woman writhed naked on a bed moaning with, what I think was meant to pass for pleasure. I grabbed the remote from him with a “crickey she must be hot”. That there was a pool here was one of the things that had made me think it couldn’t be that bad when we were looking to book. In the hot tub, full of bubbles, a young girl of 6 or 7 was sat in the arms of a young man. We said hello and got no response. We left quickly.
Back in the room I picked up messages from friends we were due to stay with in Carlsbad. Both said to get out of the area we were in, I cheerily responded thanking them for their advice but saying we were ok. More cars pulled in. Pimped up SUVs in garish colours joined the beaten up cars already parked up. From the balcony we could see a studio room next to the office. Outside 3 young men hung out, when the door opened we saw into the chandelier lit opulent interior. My nerve was going; the incongruous mix of bling consumable wealth mixed in one place with the nearly homeless who had only this place to stay. We decided to go out to eat, somewhere far away and have a think. Without Fred around I said to Dean I thought we should leave. As we pulled out of the motel the road ahead was closed off. Police cars blocked the road and yellow tape was being dispensed. Up ahead the Motel 6 was clearly a serious crime scene. We found a place back on the coast to eat. My appetite gone I forced down some food and kept a sense of normality for Fred. I barely spoke, my response to extreme stress is pensiveness. Mind made up and out of earshot of Fred I said to Dean we needed to leave. He agreed. Within 5 minutes we had found the Rodway Motel. Dean negotiated a room rate and we left to pick up our things. Only then did we tell Fred that we weren’t staying at the Colonial Motel. We got our things quickly and silently, returning the sole plastic key card that would cost us $1 if we didn’t (the only place we’d stayed in that levied this charge).
We arrived back at the Rodeway and collapsed. The tension left us, and only the exhaustion that follows severe adrenaline peaks remained. Some self-soothing required, I put this down as a hard lesson well learnt and well timed. Next time I read a review that says somewhere is dangerous and “DO NOT BOOK THIS MOTEL”, I’ll take some notice and not assume they’re being a bit of a woos …..
So after some high drama for us, we set off to see others experience high drama for them. We got to the Sony Studios easily and drove through security onto the Lot. It is absolutely huge, staff getting around on bikes and golf buggies. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ set was an amazing homage to B&B’s as it was ‘B&B week’. It was filmed on Stage 12, where Wizard of Oz was filmed which we loved. We got great seats, enjoyed Jim Thompson the warm up comedian who does the cheesy voice over stuff for the show. Young production assistants took us through the cue cards which we would need to respond to. Everything is shot in tiny segments, but largely one take. It was great fun. Dean was the most enthusiastic of us all which was quite a hilarious sight for those of you who know him!
Pat Sajack and Vanna White have been the hosts for more than 35 years and are American institutions. We were the audience for 3 episodes filmed over 3 hours, and we were struck by what a dull job it must be after all these years. Vanna is famous for her elegant evening gowns and towering heels. With the 3 costume changes we got to see quite a lot of Vanna’s frame, there was nothing to her. In her mid 50’s she has maintained her UK size 4 build, iron discipline seeing off any middle aged spread. Of course she had not a wrinkle. We loved Vanna, Fred wanted to go home with her. Between segments Pat and Vanna took it in terns to talk to the audience and took questions. Vanna was by far the most interesting and ‘bright’ of the two. She showed real warmth and deftness when engaging with the audience. In one of her Q&A slots a boy about Fred’s age asked to come onto the set and hug her, to the terror of those that were sat with him, and she said he could. As he did so it became clear that he was on the Autistic / Asperger’s spectrum, he started to become chaotic wandering around the set, but she managed him with such gentleness and care that he followed her every instruction and he quietly returned to his seat after a very special moment for him, and us. Despite this, for 35 years, her sole task has been to look stunning, stand by a board and turn letters whilst smiling. We pondered if the next set of hosts would see a revision of the gender roles, we suspect not.
Fred got to ask a question, and also won a signed dollar bill from Jim Thompson who had been a voice on ‘Monsters Inc’ so he was a very happy boy. Dean and I enjoyed seeing people doing really odd jobs; the burly man in his 50s who just followed the cameraman holding his cord, the middle aged men who had to throw silver confetti, the military performance coaches that chaperoned each group of contestants drilling them in actions and voice building to the moment ‘action’ was called, the young woman sat next to us who was the social media manager and constantly tweeting / instagramming / snapchatting etc etc……. A couple of people had their dreams made with $90K winnings and a brand new Jeep. In all three shows the contestants showed a careful representation of diversity, but in each game the professional white women won having deployed more artful tactics.
Between shows we got to move through the Lot to get to the restrooms. We saw set builders, actors, and Sony Staffers. Fred got his picture taken with actresses in costumes who were filming ‘Masters of Sex’, I’m pleased to say that this is a fictionalisation of the story of Masters and Kinsey and not a sex show! So Sony Studios gave us an unforgettable experience and another insight into an iconic part of American life.
If I reflect back on LA, it gave us everything we could ask for, and some experiences that we wouldn’t ask for, but which we wouldn’t be without. I learnt some harsh lessons and, before I leave for more ‘dangerous’ countries, they are lessons that are well timed. Perhaps the only way I can sum up LA is to say that it reflects what we have seen of the rest of the USA, it’s a place of absolute contrasts, grappling with big issues. It’s a place of wonderful dreams and terrible nightmares, but I’m not sure how much true wakefulness there is here……..
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx