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?”