I wheeled by Century City, one of many of the glitzy, gleaming conglomerations of corporate towers that had mushroomed all over the sprawling megalopolis. Then it was up Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills – home of the stars and their palatial mansions. Their luxurious homes looked as faraway and inaccessible as so many Taj Mahals. And then there were the highfalutin’ high-rises for the hoity-toity with high-sounding names to match their pretentiousness – The Beverly Hills Top, Pisa Towers (not at all leaning), Venus De Milo Arms (that was classic), and so on. Santa Monica Blvd. was divided by a median of grass through which I could see a vestige of a past travel mode. Yes, I was back on the trolley tracks. And once again, my mental projector was reeling off American movie classics, especially the slapsticks and serials in which there was the inevitable foot or auto chase through Los Angeles streets, all the time dodging those ubiquitous trolleys. I was also recalling a little southern California history.
It was truly unique American entrepreneurship. Just as the country’s expansive frontier had explicitly been developed concurrent to the continental railroads, the same held true for the vast viable valley between the San Gabriel Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean, only sort of in reverse. From San Fernando to Long(Away) Beach and from San Bernardino to Santa Monica, starting back in the 1920’s, the fore-sighted Pacific Electric Company constructed an elaborate network of trolley tracks for an interurban system that would have made even the folks in Texas envious. Once a terminus ad quem was established from downtown L.A., enterprising developers highballed down the tracks to purchase valuable land along the right-of-way. The interurban trolley system was the actual catalyst that spurred southern California’s development! It was truly amazing, but ironic at the same time.
By the 1950’s, with the burgeoning populus clamoring for freeways and the powerful oil companies erecting gas stations on every corner, it was the beginning of the end for the erstwhile reliable trolley. The apocalypse went something like this: “The first day the smog arrived coincided with the last day the trolleys ran”. Detroit and Exxon had their wish. That evening I did my best to contribute to the smog by cruising bumper-to-bumper Sunset Boulevard. It was madness. I felt like a forty-three year-old kid. It was a flash-back to “American Graffiti” (Was that Ron Howard in the white ’58 Impala?). “Low-Riders” were in vogue, the favorites being Japanese pick-ups and ’63 Chevys (the shocks and springs were torched so that the chassis bumped along barely three inches above the pavement). That was cool, man. I finally had enough of all that euphoria on wheels and made my way back to the beach where I spent the night near the Santa Monica Pier.
The next day I decided to see the seedier side of L.A. I was curious to find out if the Watts area had recovered from the devastating disturbances some fifteen years earlier. It had, and I was glad, but it was drab. The blanched streetscape was punctuated only by palm trees and power poles, both of which reached inexplicable heights that defied any sense of human scale. In a cryptic way, the spindling palms afforded no more shade than the gantry of poles and power lines. It was America the Ugly.
Suddenly, I remembered cycling around Zeist, a suburb of Amsterdam, where Mom and I were celebrating Christmas with the Helbigs in 1979. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but there was a pleasant absence of something that I simply accepted and tolerated as a necessary part of the cityscape back in the States. I cycled a few more blocks just to make sure that I was seeing what I wasn’t seeing… there was not one solitary power pole to be seen anywhere Every utility line was underground. In fact, the entire country of Holland was invisibly wired together. Now that was what I called “pride of place”.
From Watts I ventured over to the pre-dominantly Hispanic East L.A. where I spotted a small south-of-the-border eatery. I took a seat outside and had the best burrito ever. That made my day in L.A. I was ready to leave “Tinsel Town”. I figured the easiest way to get out of town was to peer straight down any street and I would be assured of seeing a freeway overpass which would eventually lead to another freeway which would… . Sure enough, there was the Long Beach which interchanged with the Pomona which cloverleafed with the Santa Ana which looped-the-loop with the Santa Monica which finally dead-ended at the blue Pacific, or more specifically, CA Coastal Highway 1. Through Malibu, Oxnard, and Ventura I meandered until finally deciding that I’d had enough freeway driving for one day.
I reposed next to the beach in a very pleasant park area with honest-to-gosh shade palms. I felt so released there as I reclined in my easychair (the shot-gun seat) and became engrossed in watching a canine retriever perform incredible acrobatics with a frisbee. And then along came Harry in his monstrous RV, docking his unwieldy Winnebago in three adjacent parking spaces. A native Californian, Harry was an engaging sort of fellow in his early fifties. His gregariousness made me feel at ease and our conversation was quick and lively, that is, until he had plied his tongue with an excessive amount of libation.
Then good ol’ Harry started asserting his homosexual tendencies. Well, I immediately elicited my time-honored and somewhat fabricated yarn about how I just happened to be at one of the heterosexual “in-places” the night before. To reinforce my position on the ticklish issue, I tactfully elaborated on how much fun I had “checkin’ out the chicks” and “scoping some Betty’s”. My closing statement was: “I couldn’t believe there could be so many fine-lookin’ foxy ladies in one place at the same time.” I was boring Harry to tears. By then, I figured that I had set him straight. Oops, guess that wasn’t quite the right word. Anyway, my polite ploy had worked again (the first time was in a Manhattan bar back in 1963). I graciously said good-night and double-checked my door locks before retiring for the night. I laid there kinda feelin’ sorry for ol’ Harry.
The next morning, the seaside saga continued. After a congenial cup of coffee, my Jekyll-headed neighbor suddenly mutated into Mr. Hyde. His rejection from the night before must have freaked him out. He confronted me with the outlandish and completely erroneous accusation that I had pilfered his precious purse: Holy felony!
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