I’ve never been to Los Angeles before. I’ve been to LAX airport any number of times and recently watched both Sharknado 1 and Sharknado 2, (while the sequel is not strictly set in LA, I feel the general coping mechanisms highlighted in the movie -i.e. chainsaws and super soakers filled with napalm- could still be applied to dealing with West Coast, shark-based weather patterns). These experiences were quite enough to leave me reasonably terrified of LA culture. Most of my assumptions about this little bit of California have been drawn from movies and books. As such, I assumed it to be a frantic, fickle and rather fake kind of city. I thought everyone would look supermodel perfect, everyone would be hankering after a career in film and everyone would drive absolutely everywhere, in very large cars. While I did see quite a few people who helped to reassure me that most of our European preconceptions about LA are not entirely ill-founded, (solitary Hummer drivers, very disturbing plastic surgery victims and any number of amateur actor turned bar tenders), and I have to say I could never get used to the prevailing culture of driving everywhere in barely moving traffic, I do think I experienced another, entirely more positive, side of Los Angeles during the three short days I spent in town.
The first thing which struck me about LA was just how enormous the city is. Unlike London which feels big and crowded, yet somehow centred, Los Angeles sprawls across miles and miles of coast and freeway with no clear sense of a downtown area so it’s impossible to tell whether you’ve actually arrived in LA proper or are still circulating round the peripheries in one of the very many LA satellite neighbourhoods which each have their own very distinct identities. The second thing which hit me, like a hundred full force hairdryers to the face, was the heat. I arrived into Long Beach airport, the tiniest, cleanest and most outdoorsy, (baggage claim is actually outside), airport I’ve ever experienced at midday. It was excruciatingly hot. I was wearing three layers of clothes and a coat. Having packed for an East coast autumn, I’m beginning to realise that i’ll be carrying most of my clothes around unworn for the better part of a month before I arrive anywhere warm enough to wear them. I instantly began to sweat all over, including my ears, which have never in my experience perspired before, and continued to sweat constantly for the duration of my stay, my excessive perspiration only occasionally pausing to give brief precedent to involuntary shivering brought on by the Arctic strength air conditioning.
The first thing we did upon leaving the airport was eat. Octavio, (my lovely and very stylish host), took me for tacos, after which I continued to eat constantly for the duration of the visit. It should be noted that LA people are extremely generous and, much like Mid Ulster housewives, will attempt to force vast amounts of the local cuisine upon their visitors every time they pause for breath. Much of my LA experience was therefore food-based: the best salad I’ve ever had at a restaurant where people leave poems tucked inside the table, something called a wacho, (I believe it to have been a hybrid waffle/nacho type construction), shaved ice in a cup with blue flavouring, (not your best effort, America), the best cheeseburger I’ve had in a very long time, and a pot luck which was so vast and varied in content I counted around nine different chocolate based deserts alone. You can get every variety of ethnic food you can imagine here and eat in a different place every night for the next decade. LA is, in this sense, very similar to the Harryville district of Ballymena.
We did a lot of driving around in the three days I was in town. Doing anything in LA requires a lot of driving. We saw the Hollywood Sign, Redondo Beach, Sunset Boulevard, Amoeba Records, the Capitol building and any number of other iconic sites which, when viewed in the flesh, rather than in their more familiar onscreen format, were so familiar that the whole city took on an unreal quality, like being caught up in one, giant, all-encompassing film set. Perhaps this isn’t so far from the truth, asI counted four separate film units out on the streets recording at different points in my weekend, I even stumbled upon the Spanish language newscasting version of our own Jude Hill, hanging out with her fluffy mic on Redondo beach. It’s a strange city, not a place I could see myself living, but absolutely fascinating for a visit.
Despite my reservations the people were the very best part of my visit to LA. I think I might have met upwards on 150 Angelinos in the last three days and each one of them was incredibly warm and incredibly generous, (apart from one bartender and a lady who nearly ran over me with a flat screen TV in Costco). One bouncer even knew that Belfast was in Northern Ireland. He remains the only American in thirteen years of scuttling backwards and forwards across the pond, to have understood the subtle difference between North and South and this alone might be enough to draw me back to LA. People drove miles out of their way in sluggish traffic to pick me up and drive me round, indulging my inner tourist. Tim and Miiko hosted a wonderful evening soiree in their backyard where I got to read Malcolm Orange Disappears to about four dozen of their friends, neighbours and family whilst, (of course), eating vast amounts of incredible food. I got to worship with the community at Mosaic Whittier and get to know a few of of them as we enjoyed the food trucks after church, (I definitely see food trucks as integral to the future of the church in Northern Ireland. Please note this those of you who have the power to make it happen). Best of all I got to go hear a lovely singer songwriter called John Torres perform in a bar off Sunset Boulevard and have him dedicate “Girl from the North Country” to me. It was a Dylan-shaped blessing over the first week of my adventure and only tempered by the stranger who approached me shortly afterward to ask after the book I was writing about Bob Marley. Oh LA, I couldn’t be living here. I don’t have the metabolism for it but one weekend was just perfect.