Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nobody Walks in L.A.

I have long harbored a classic outsider's understanding of Los Angeles, namely that the city includes the vast humanity packed between San Diego to the south and San Francisco to the north (without any particular consideration given to where the borders are drawn in between).  Santa Monica?  Malibu?  Pasadena?  Its all Los Angeles to me.  Hell, I'd probably be willing to throw Santa Cruz into the mix.  Maybe even San Jose.  San Francisco has, after all, carved a more distinct and delineated identity into my psyche, extending only so far south as... Oakland?  Over the years I've spent time in the greater Los Angeles area—family trips to visit friends in Torrance and Long Beach, lavish Indian dinners in Artesia and Pasadena, exploring the great heights of frozen daiquiri bars in Santa Monica, a wedding (my own) back in Long Beach—but I have spent little time in Los Angeles proper.  Last December, with 14 hours on the ground at LAX, I decided it was time to get a taste of tinsel.

Los Angeles (and here I mean both the literal Los Angeles and the broader collection of surrounding cities), while justifiably famous for its freeways and car-centered culture, has taken big leaps in public transportation infrastructure.  It is pretty easy these days to find a “Los Angeles Without Wheels” article, coaching the tourist in use of the light rail system.  At the advice of a long-time friend in Pasadena, I ignored these many transportation advances and took the bus anyway.

I hit the tarmac at LAX shortly after 5:00 am., made my way to ground transportation, found the Fly Away bus, and settled in.  That early on a Saturday, I did not settle for long.  Some 30 minutes later, we pulled off the freeway, passed the neon glow of a strip club in what looked to be an otherwise desolate warehouse district, turned a corner and pulled up to Union Station, my destination.  I may have been taking the bus, but my gateway to the city would still be the train station.  First stop: tacos.

Olvera Street probably bustles at peak hours, but is shuttered tight at 6:00 on a Saturday morning.  Or mostly shuttered.  Luckily one of the food vendors was open with steam rising from pots of broth and meat.  Latinos are now the ethnic majority in Los Angeles, and my breakfast exchange was not so different from any exchange on past trips to Mexico: some pointing, my fumbling attempts at Spanish, a few smiles and nods, and before long the guy at the grill presents me with food and a cup of coffee.  Perfect.  Fuel for the walk.

The sun came up as I left Olvera Street with no destination in mind.  I passed some of the landmarks—City Hall and the Gehry designed Disney Concert Hall—taking pictures and stopping to look at the L.A. Philharmonic concert schedule.  Anyone up for the world premier of Gorecki's fourth symphony on the weekend on January 16?  I ended up at the uphill station of the Angel's Flight funicular, a narrow gauge railway covering a city block and maybe 200 feet of vertical.  The system was originally built in 1901, closed in 1969, and moved half a block south to its current location in1996.  It is now closed again following a derailment in 2013.  Luckily, a stairway paralleled the tracks, and dropped me down to the Grand Central Market and my second breakfast.

The Grand Central Market is a shrine to the hipster artisan foodie.   An operating market since 1917, the space “has always reflected the changing population of downtown,” according to its website.  Clearly the population of this portion of downtown has evolved then to include modern twenty-somethings intensely focused on all things artisanal.  If it means that the good folks at Belcampo are willing to serve me tongue and eggs for my second breakfast, I'm all for it.  The counter was not busy, and my server was chatty.

“You live downtown?”

“No, I'm pretty far from downtown.  I just got in from Anchorage.”

We cover the obvious follow-up, what brings you to town? what do you do?  I respond with the facts, and, maybe because I am unlikely to ask the same in return—after all, I know what she does, she works at Belcampo—she continues unprompted.  “I'm a dancer.  I'm studying voice and dancing.  I just do this,” sweeping her arm to indicate waitressing at a counter serving beef tongue, “you know, to pay the bills.”

Ha!  In town for a few short hours and I've already run across the stereotype Angeleno, an artist waiting tables.  I learned she had an earlier life as a real estate broker doing commercial deals but was now following her muse.  I wished her luck and moved on to an estate cold-brewed coffee from neighboring G&B Coffee to bring the meal to an end.  I have no idea what arts my barista was pursuing on the side, but the safe money is always on acting in this town.

I had planned to meet my friend at Unique L.A., a Christmas crafts market that is a bit more upscale—more style than craft—than the Christmas markets in Anchorage, but I had time to kill in the interim.  I continued my walk, down Broadway and into the fashion district.  The shop keepers all looked Egyptian, the signs advertised Italian suits, and the windows offered the best in toddler mariachi wear.  A few blocks over and I was on the fringes of skid row.  The good people leading the Underground Seattle tours will tell you the term originated in the Pacific Northwest, referring to roads originally used to skid logs and the camps that sprung up around them, but L.A.'s skid row is the visual archetype.  L.A.'s homeless have created cities on these streets.  I was a little uncomfortable, not so much in concern for my safety, but more so because it felt like being there by choice (albeit accidentally) subjected other's addictions, mental illnesses, and bad luck to zoo-like display.  So I headed back to the fashion district before meeting my friend and exploring a very different slice of life at the Christmas market.

We later went to his house in Pasadena, leaving Los Angeles behind.  And I ultimately did take L.A.'s light rail, making my way back to Union Station in order to again catch the bus to LAX.  Traffic was worse later in the day, and the return trip—rail trip from Pasadena included—took 1:40.  It makes the 15 minute ride to the airport in Anchorage seem enviable by comparison.  We may not have Gorecki symphony premiers or tongue for breakfast (and I acknowledge that there are those who might not consider that a plus), but we do have quick access to flight, the kind of access that makes a day-trip to L.A. sound like a good idea.  We'll have to wait, though, to see if I learned anything as a result of the trip.  Let's hope next time someone tells me he is from Huntington Beach I don't respond by saying, “Oh, that's in L.A. right?”

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Top Ten Nude Celebrities of 2014

Some of you may recall that I wrapped up 2013 with Cobras in Alaska's first annual top-ten list.  That post was a resounding success by any measure.  Subjectively, it was quite easy to write.  And objectively, it has proven to be a real driver of readership.  For one, unlike most other posts, the 2013 top-ten list generated a comment (with a riveting film recommendation).  And second, by titling the post the “The Top Ten Nude Celebrities of 2013,” I actually pulled in traffic.  I've noted before that Google (our benevolent keepers here at Blogspot) provide analytics on the back-end, though I have reason to doubt their accuracy.  Among other things, the analytics provide a list of search terms visitors to the site use to get here.  That list is usually populated (if at all) by “cobrasinalaska,” suggesting that the only people navigating here through the popular search engine are doing so deliberately.  But just this last month, the following showed up in the list: “topten nude blogspot.”  Fantastic!  I'm finally learning the important lessons of search engine optimization!

So, building on last year's success, I am proud to present the second annual Cobras in Alaska year end top ten list, which once again has nothing to do with nude celebrities.  I once again hope the list proves helpful to each of you as you either map out the details of the coming year or prepare to let chance again dictate your fate.

  1. Szechuan peppercorns.
  2. Dayton, Ohio.
  3. Reality TV shows based on musk-ox.
  4. Celebrating the pinnacle of modern pop-music by hosting a “Hits of 1984” dance party.
  5. Columbus, Ohio.
  6. Tibetan throat singers.
  7. Voodoo.
  8. Celebrating the pinnacle of modern film-making by hosting a “Hits of 1984” movie party.
  9. Popcorn.
  10. Clean teeth.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mele Kalikimaka

Hawaii has a good PR department.  Really, though, how hard is it to sell the place?  Tropical weather and beaches, volcanic geomorphology, sunrises with coffee, sunsets with Mai-tais... it is not hard to find a positive spin.  I would guess that the Hawaii travel bureau writers have one of the world's easier jobs.  But do you know what you don't read much about?  The public showers at Ala Moana State Park.

We spent Thanksgiving with a motley collection of family, sharing a house in Kailua, Oahu, living easy.  Nothing much to report, just food, drink, good company, warm weather, and salt water.  But due to a change in our flight schedule, C and I ended up with an extra day to kill at the tail end of the trip.  Homeless for the day, we made our way to Honolulu, ultimately claiming space on the sand at the Ala Moana State Park beach because, well, you have to get your fill of heat and sun and salt while you can.  A day at the beach, however, means sand stuck to sunscreen and sweat, a grim combination when staring down the barrel of a red-eyed flight back home.  But no worries, we thought, public showers offered a chance to legitimately bathe, change, and fly home in comfort.

Satiated on the sand, we ambled to the showers with shampoo and soap.  The space had a bench for changing, cinder block walls, stagnant water with other fluids floating (source best left unconsidered), ants, band-aids, hairballs, and two hooks offering space to hang your possessions, hoping against hope that you could keep your towel and clothes off of the floor.  There were two shower heads, one at regular height, the other—designed for pets? for feet?--stuck out at thigh level.  Guess which one was taken when I walked in?

No problem, though.  Disrobing without touching the ground required a complicated choreography, a dance that took some time to bring to completion, plenty of time for the other gentleman to finish.  Or rather what should have been plenty of time.  But this may have been his first shower this year.  He was going to town with the scrubbing.  Naked I had the choice of standing awkwardly watching the orgy of soap or turning to the ankle washer.  Lesser of two evils, I tried to lather my hair and soap my body, scooping water in cupped hands to toss over my shoulders and head as needed.  Half-bathed, I scurried back to my towel.  There was no slow down of activity under the other shower-head, and he was re-lathering as I left.

But at least he didn't talk to me.  Next door, C wandered into a similar physical space.  Both showers were open, but another woman was at the bench.  C stepped up, starting getting out of her two-piece.  The other lady exploded.

“I would appreciate some privacy!”

Privacy in a public shower in Hawaii's largest city?  Unsure how to respond, C stammered.  “I, um, will just be a minute.”

“Don't look at me!  This,” referring to her body, “is disgusting!”

C, flustered, only half out of her bathing suit, scooted silently to the shower and rinsed.  A quick pat-dry, then get the hell out of there.  Best not to try and reason with the other woman.

We walked back to the rental car, past the out-door showers on the beach which, in hind-sight, may have been the better option.

A few pictures from the trip (but none of the showers):


Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Welcome to the Cobras in Alaska post-mid-term election analysis edition of the blog.  The mid-terms are always exciting because no one shows up at the polls.  Anything can happen once the votes are counted.  I thought I would take this opportunity to run through the highlights in Alaska, like Representative Don Young proving, again, that you can insult an auditorium of high school students and still get swept back into office by a significant majority.  Young effectively blamed the entire student body for the recent suicide of a classmate and “used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage.”  It will take more than that for the good people of Alaska to turn him out of office.  I suppose proving yourself immune to corruption investigations gives a guy a certain amount of confidence when the vote count starts coming in.

Luckily, Alaska went on and made marijuana legal.  Presumably the voters anticipated another Young term and thought it wise to provide legal access to a wider range of self-medication options.  After hearing that the legalize it measure had passed, I decided to pull into the grocery store on the way home today from work.  I wandered around the produce section looking for a selection of pot strains.  It turns out that the grocery store isn't stocking weed, nor will they.  What was the point of passing that measure again?

It looks like I missed posting in October, which suggests I should have lots to summarize.  But sitting here now, I can't think of a thing.  Except that I found the Hells Angels' club house.  C was out of town, what was it?  Late September?  I ran a 10k, had a reasonably respectable result, and celebrated by going for a long walk through mid-town.  Out on some side street, I walked by this:

I thought about taking some pictures, but something about the pole mounted surveillance cameras made me think that doing so would trigger the release of burly guys in denim intent on smashing my Nikon... or worse.  So I just kept walking, finding the above picture on Google maps.  Curious, I later conducted a search of the interwebs, learning that the building is “fortified” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been the safe house for drug deliveries.  I guess it is just as well that I didn't knock and try to make friends.  Think legal marijuana will cut into their profits?  Hope they can continue to make rent.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Happens When Nothing Happens

This post is brought to you by two failures.  First, a failure to get out of the house, and second a failure to find a narrative thread.  As to the first failure, I expected to have some blog-fodder from the Alyeska Climbathon, an event that took place yesterday where participants have ten hours to ascend the North Face trail at Alyeska ski resort, a trail covering approximately 2,000 vertical feet over a little more than two miles.  Racers climb the trail as many times as they can in the allotted time, taking the tram back to the base between each lap.  I was signed up, and thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a day.  But I woke up yesterday to steady rain and a forecast in Girdwood of more of the same.  Driving 40 minutes south and slogging through run and mud all day sounded, well, less fun.  So I stayed home.

At home, I took a stab at drafting a blog post on a trip we took to Nome, Alaska earlier this summer.  But that just gave rise to the second failure.  After typing for awhile, I thought I had a decent lede, though perhaps a bit long for a blog post:

A group of us had settled into the living room, although it was a separate room in name only, sharing floor space with the kitchen, dining room, and hall of a small house in Council, Alaska.  Our host was in the kitchen, putting together lunch for the unexpected crowd.  We were at the end of one of the three roads that spill out from Nome, Alaska, getting ready to eat thanks to L, an old colleague and friend of my father-in-law D.  L was raised in Nome and, though she now lived elsewhere, was coincidently in the area over the same weekend as our trip.  She had dinner plans in Council, some 70 miles outside of Nome, but, rural Alaska being what it is, felt free to invite us along.  Our hosts, expecting three for dinner, came to have five extra bodies to feed.  Of course, rural Alaska again being what it is, our host was another D's old friends and colleagues.  And so we found ourselves in the midst of a reunion.  

With lunch preparations underway and the initial batch of memories calibrated for truth, we had settled alternately into couches, chairs, and on to the floor.  L's reminiscences moved further back to growing up on Norton Sound in far west Alaska.  “Oh, man!  We ate fish every which way you can think.  Baked fish, boiled fish, fried fish, dry smoked fish, wet smoked fish, stink fish, . . .”

“Wait. Stink fish?”

“Oh yea. Stink fish.  It is where you put the fish head in a jar, bury it, and come back after it's gone rotten.”

I looked over my shoulder with some concern into the kitchen.  Luckily the woman taking the reigns on lunch appeared to be slapping ground beef into patties.  She had lived in Nome and Council for many years, but was originally from Nevada.  At a glance, she looked to come from cultural stock likely to show up at a potluck with potato salad or deviled eggs.  The risk of finding rotten fish on my plate appeared minimal.  Relaxed again, I turned back to the group to find Lorena had moved on to fish eyeballs.  “Pop 'um out of the fish and pop 'um into your  mouth.”  Those burgers were starting to smell pretty good.

But at the end of the day, I couldn't find a story to tell to tie together the disparate tales from the trip.  So I scrapped the whole thing.  Well, except for the bit above, which I copied here to make this whole post appear longer than it really is.

So, without sore legs and muddy shoes and without a story to tell about western Alaska, I'll rely on the old standby of posting pictures.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

When the Lights Go Out on the Eighties

I'm pretty sure the pop duo Hall & Oates is stalking me.  They were stalking everyone in the early eighties, with hits spilling from any speaker loosely connected to a radio station.  When the fickle fame cycle had run its course and pitched Hall & Oates into the void, I would have thought I was done with them for good.  Then a few years ago I saw a ski-film clip featuring John Oates.  He had parlayed all those gold-records into a house in Aspen with a recording studio in the basement and had become a ripping tele-skier.  (I can't find the clip anywhere on the internet, but this 2008 article talks about his skiing.)  It looked like the guy spent his days skiing and nights playing music.  Huh.  That dude made some good choices in life, I thought, and assumed I was once again done with Hall & Oates.

Then I ran across the Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers van session cover of “I can't go for that."  The van sessions stuck me as a pretty clever way to market a band in the new digital world, and the Hall & Oates tune was good.  I ran across Fitz and the Tantrums doing their song “Money Grabber” with Daryl Hall, which sort of clued me in that the whole Fitz sound was just an extension of the Hall & Oates Philly soul thing.  I read about and found Daryl Hall's “Live from Daryl's House” show, where he basically just invites artists over to jam with a great backing band.  The songs performed, which include a healthy sprinkling of old Hall & Oates tunes, are good.  The Fitz clip above came from one of the Live from Daryl's House shows, though I didn't catch that at the time.  Were the light-rock and r&b stylings of a long-forgotten band suddenly becoming relevant to me?  And if they were, did that mean that I was losing all credibility as a punk and metal fan?  And why were Hall & Oates suddenly everywhere?

And by everywhere, I really mean Anchorage, because on Thursday the paper reported that John Oates was performing a benefit show (raising money for the American Cancer Society) the following Saturday.  This had gotten out of hand, and I figured the only way to put the Hall & Oates revival to bed was to go to the show.  There were only three-hundred tickets available, but the show was not sold out when I checked.  So, last night, C and I went to Chilkoot Charlie's to see what would happen.

What happened, it turned out, is that before John Oates came on stage Koots evacuated us from the building.  A staff member appeared on stage and started talking with some animation into a dead mike.  We ignored him.  He moved to a live mike.

“Um, I need everyone to leave.  Really.  Through this exit.”  Two emergency exit doors leading to the front parking lot were now open and daylight—still fifteen hours of daylight up here—penetrated the dark corners of the bar.  “Technical difficulties and we need you to evacuate.”

People continued to ignore him.

“This needs to happen now.  Start moving.”  Nothing.  “You can take your drinks with you.”  Ah, there was the trigger.  The room emptied.

I have no idea why we were evacuated in the first place, but when they let us back in all of the power was off.  The facility started lighting candles, and so long as you had cash kept selling drinks.  The woman next to us, two empty shot glasses and a full beer in front of her on the bar, was doing her part to keep the place in business.  She wasn't too pleased with the turn of events.  “I paid $100 [remember, this was a benefit] for this?!” she slurred to anyone in ear-shot.  Everyone else seemed to be having a good time.  

Eventually Koots fired up a generator to power some small PA and the amps, and put a lantern on the stage.  John Oates and his band came out and started to play.  Old songs and new.  The guy was an entertainer straight through, telling stories between ripping guitar lines like ski lines in that film I saw many years ago.  But I guess you don't make a multi-decade career out of music if you can't perform when called to.  After the show, they auctioned off a couple of guitars to raise more money, the lights came back on as if on cue, and we came home.

Now, in the cold-light of day, I'm puttering around our place and humming "Maneater." It looks like the Hall & Oates haunting will continue after all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Revisiting Recent Posts - Sounds, Reviews, and a Rigorous Quirk Analysis

Long time (or, frankly, brand new) readers may recall that C and I went to New Orleans last month.  Or they may not.  I forget most sentences I read before I reach the period, which makes comprehending a paragraph something of a struggle, and is why I pepper conversations about current events, literature, grocery lists, or anything else built upon the written word with a lot of strategic guess work.  Which is to say I would not blame you for forgetting that I recently wrote at length on the Crescent City.  In fact, I hardly remember doing so myself.  But to jog your memory, I have two (maybe three) follow up items to cover related to that trip.

The first requires me to really stretch the capabilities of the internet and enter the brave new world of multimedia.  Did you know you the internet is capable of transmitting sounds?  Yeah, me neither, but it turns out that it is.  I think it works a little like a record player, though I have yet to find the grooves.  But in any case, this allows me to stretch my interests in comparative urbanism by offering a sonic comparison of the Louisiana urban and rural environments.  To wit:

Exhibit A: Sounds, Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.


Exhibit B: Sounds, field , Loyd Hall Plantation, middle of nowhere, Louisiana


Make of it what you will.

The second involves the power of user reviews.  We stayed at a B&B in New Orleans and would not hesitate to return in the event we ever go back to the city.  At our departure, the innkeeper came "hat in hand" (as he characterized it) and asked, if we were so inclined, if we would post a review of his establishment on one of the many internet sites dedicated to such things.  As a small business relying in no small part on the tourist trade, it would seem their success ebbs and flows with their rankings.  Sure, no problem.  As stated, we enjoyed our stay, wished the inn great success, and were more than happy to do so.

Back home I drafted a review which C and I posted to both Trip Advisor and Yelp.  I also posted a review for a restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi that I thought was fantastic--creative and well executed cocktails, delicious food, historic setting.  However, I just checked and my Yelp reviews do not show up.  Neither business has many reviews on Yelp (just seven total each), so it is not like my review has been lost in the crowd.  Perhaps an algorithm quarantined them.  A new user claiming to be based in Anchorage shows up and posts two 5-star reviews of places on the Mississippi, then disappears back into the river mists.  Yelp probably thinks I'm a shill.  For whatever reason, the reviews are invisible.  So, I've decided to provide links here and my recommendation for good eats and good sleeps in the south:

La Belle Esplanade, (New Orleans B&B)
King's Tavern (Natchez restaurant)

The value of my doing so is negligible; the vast majority of my blog readership was with me on the trip and already has a pretty good idea about the places.  But I can't let Yelp keep me down.

The third item that will (finally) bring this now extended update to an end, wraps in Portland as well.  I described in earlier blog posts observations in both cities: a devil--red suit, horns, palatable desire to doom souls to an eternity of damnation--biking the streets of New Orleans and waving with some vigor as he passed a church; and Darth Vader in a kilt, on a unicycle, playing the Star Wars theme on the bagpipes in Portland.  But in the great quirkiness competition, I give the nod to New Orleans.  In Portland, you get the sense that the weird is a bit affected.  Darth Vader probably spent the last year learning the bag pipes and working on his unicycle balance for the sole purpose of taking it to the streets in order to out-quirk his neighbor.  In New Orleans, you got the sense that the devil was just headed to work and may not have even known what he was wearing.  Maybe it is the weight of all that sediment flushing out the Mississippi, but it seems the weird runs deep at the river's mouth.