Arcadia California. I'm sitting outside, by the hotel pool, listening to Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op 115 in the headphones. In the pool, two lovers cavort. I discreetly ignore their antics. We sheepishly grin at each other. This could only happen in California. I've seen more people kissing here, I swear.
Bob D arrived at my door yesterday at 4:30 PM. With some people, things simply do not change. Bob D is one of those people. I've observed some people change over the course of a year. Some people change over the course of a decade. Oh, to be sure, time changes us all: externally, predictably enough to where computer software can age a photograph to show us a child of four become a teenager. Internally, Bob D has simply not changed in ways I can detect. Though we've been in phone contact for many years, I've missed several opportunities to meet him again. At last, after more than a decade, we're going to have some fun.
I want to see the real Los Angeles, and I'm not at all sure I want to see Hollywood at all. This is the dream factory, I usually do not care about the product, and I could not care less about the factory. To me, Los Angeles is not the LA of the movie studios, but the cynical, jaded and perverse Los Angeles of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. I have no idea what to expect.
Los Angeles, at first view, late in the afternoon, through the smoggy haze, the silhouettes painted in the subtle dilutions of ink the Chinese use to paint distant landscapes on yellow parchment. Bob and I whizzing along in the carpool lane, watching the damned of West Covina in their cars, migrating in their tens of thousands, back to their ancestral breeding grounds.
Bob takes me by where he once lived, not far from downtown. Behind a high fence, embedded among high trees is a bedroom window under brown clay shingles. Bob tells me tales of an elderly woman he befriended. They would sit outside while she smoked endless generic 100 cigarettes and drank Cointreau.
First stop takes us to a three-dollar parking lot downtown, through the shadowy central market, the pleasant smells of corn and churrascos, I could swear I was back in Guatemala again, except for the blue and pink neon signs in the pleasant gloom, advertising fresh fish in Japanese. Here are to be found fruit and fish, trinkets and treasures. We emerge, blinking onto Broadway.
Our first stop is the Bradbury Building along Broadway. Externally, not much distinguishes it from its contemporaries, brick and terra cotta. I took a picture of Bob under the doorway.
As we enter the building, a Bach two-part invention is playing, arranged for brass. Five stories above, a skylight roof softly illuminates harmonious tiers of black grillwork and thin vertical columns. Two open elevators smoothly glide upward, their flywheels and cables silent. A mathematical perfection perfuses the interior of the Bradbury Building. Everywhere are subtle tones of umber, tan and brown, the glazed brick walls, and marble in the stairways, the floor tiles, and the woodwork.
The Bradbury building dates from 1893, but its internal harmonies place it among the Parthenon, Hadrian's Tomb, Fallingwater, and the Shrine at Ise. Its greatness is not external, but internal, designed not by an architect, but by a dreamer, a draftsman, a reader of science fiction novels. George Wyman's chief inspiration came from Edward Bellamy: "a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above… the walls were frescoed in mellow tints, to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior."
We walk down Broadway, indistinguishable from many third-world main streets. A long row of thriving Hispanic shops, a sign in Spanish descrying Descuento de Miedo, the discount of fear, ranchera music blasting from cheap speakers, past a heavily pierced goth girl on a pay phone, wearing a Psychedelic Furs t-shirt, ( strange to think the Furs are now become classic ), to Pershing Square, and through the Biltmore Hotel.
The Biltmore Hotel is a ponderous old dame of a building, justly famous, heavily decorated, its groined arched ceilings painted with a cornucopia of detail, it would take months to properly view all its paintings. I suppose someone has made a coffee-table book titled The Paintings of the Biltmore. We walk up a stairwell, past terra-cotta lions with cracked white glaze. Bob deftly leads me through hallways, down red-carpeted stairways, through the building, and through a doorway, we emerge into a working film set.
Extras in good suits lounging on cafe chairs, an earnest Oriental woman in a red dress and clipboard, a camera at the end of a truck-mounted dolly sweeps through its motion from fifteen feet above the street to eye level, a director on a megaphone calls everyone for a rehearsal. Snarled traffic merges grudgingly, past red plastic cones, squished into a single lane. Bob and I wait for the walk light, and cross at the walkway like good pedestrians, under the watching eye of a Los Angeles policeman working the set.
At the heart of Bob's Los Angeles is the newly renovated Public Library. Up decorated stairs, past tiered pools with bronze creatures basking on rocks, or half-submerged in the water. In the manner of Maya temple stairways, phrases appear in the verticals of the stairs, taken at random from all the world's literature. I walk over thirty digits of the number Pi and a snatch of Hegel, through the imposing doorway, and into the library itself.
I have not seen any tour guides to Los Angeles, but this library ought to be in them. In contrast to the Biltmore's dowdy grandeur, the ceilings of the library are archly funny and possessed of a innocent childlike humor. Through the hallways, we emerge into a tremendous skylight space, descending in long escalators. Overhead, enormous funky chandeliers remind me of the perverse charm of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Green columns with flaring bases, in the Egyptian manner rise fifty feet on either side. As we descend the escalators, the various sections of the library are seen on each side. Bob takes me into one section, and shows me the decor. Solid little square lamps bolted onto the wooden tables, with pyramidal white glass lampshades. Past a reading booth, Bob points out an elegant wooden chair.
We come back up the escalators, through the main doors, and down the stairways, past the pools. Every city has its unique spirit, after an hour of walking with Bob, I at last begin to feel this spirit. I suppose every tourist comes in search of his own Los Angeles, and thinks every other tourist has missed the point and gone looking for the glamour and not the reality. This Los Angeles that Bob is showing me, this is the uniqueness I wanted to see.
The Westin Bonaventure is a confusing and horrible building, a collection of five gilded cylinders, similar to a hotel near O'Hare. We walk past angular concrete wall slabs, grim bastion walls. The unfriendliness of the building raises my hackles. An external stairway emerges onto the street like a fire escape left down. The space below the stairway looks like an ideal place for a homeless drunk to take shelter, were it not for the presence of security personnel here and there, strolling about, looking upward, hands behind their backs.
Entering from street level, our way is immediately blocked by a raised pool, lit ominously from within, the white noise of the fountains obscuring the echoes of conversation from the bar across the pool. We are forced to go around the pool. High spaces overhead, cavernous, we are led in curving channels to a set of elevators, with a fatuous plaque commemorating their use in some Arnold Schwartzenegger movie. Up, up we go, to the fifth floor. We walk alone, past empty seating areas where no-one would ever sit, past small businesses, restaurants, currency exchanges, out onto a bridge walkway, over the street, toward the YMCA building.
Here, in the daylight again, are delightful statues of acrobats doing handstands, three women linked arm in arm. Bob explains how the Y works here, and points to the pool inside the building. In the windows above, earnest people on stationary bicycles pedal madly, every machine occupied.
The hills of downtown were once covered with mansions, now moved away at great expense, so high-rise buildings could be erected in their place. The sidewalks go down and around the buildings, I can sense the architects compromising with the landscape, the rectangles emerge from the ground like the Japanese compromise with the rocks they love to put in their gardens, leaving much of the base buried. In the Midwest, I am accustomed to seeing the flat base of the rectangle, and where it is not so, as in the sloping surroundings of the Sears Tower, my eye rebels. Here, all buildings must compromise with the hills, and no level line is parallel to the horizon. As we walk around, we comment on the discongruity of the buildings: next to the old Biltmore, the black Gas Building rudely refuses to harmonize with the rest of its neighbors along Pershing Square.
Bunker Hill, with its plush apartments, has a curious amenity, a funicular railway, rescued, restored and repaired. We walk past the tracks, no rail cars can be seen on the tracks. On the hill beyond are rows of squared-off apartment blocks. It must be a treat to live within walking distance of downtown Los Angeles.
I cannot help but notice Los Angeles, seen from the street, is a disharmonious city. Chicago and New York have a sense of place, lacking in this town. In Los Angeles, each building must be taken on its own terms, there is no context to any of it. All the buildings are solo players. Here and there are great buildings, but there is no equivalent of Michigan Avenue, or even Wells Street in Chicago.
We drive toward the Japan Town, a run-down shadow of its former self. On the right, an imposing nameless restaurant in the Japanese style is shuttered, and the ivy chokes the open spaces. I am not impressed with this part of Los Angeles. At street level, it is grubby, and scarred with graffiti. We drive past the Union Station.
Up into the hills, into a residential area, up and down, past Effie Street, where Anaïs Nin lived. At the end of a street, up a long stairway, is another place Bob lived, with his older brother. The ride is terrifying. I realize how much of a flatlander I have become in the Midwest. Bob tears around the curves in his Toyota with practiced abandon, past women jogging in headphones, by an old man walking a small terrier, up and down the hills he has known since he was a boy.
We drive past a Seventh Day Adventist church perched absurdly next to a freeway, a rounded profile with a dozen teeny-tiny windows embedded in the wall. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it, architecture in Los Angeles is one building at a time. It makes no sense to me.
Up towards Hollywood, here and there graffiti appears. Bob knows the streets. Gesturing up Vermont Street, he mentions Rebel Without a Cause happened up in that neighborhood. As we cruise through down the main drag of Hollywood Boulevard, past the tourist traps, Bob points out where the old movie studios used to be, in Gower Gulch.
Bob decides to stop for refreshment, on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. We enter the dim and delightfully tacky confines of the Formosa. Along the ceiling, like a crown molding of autographed photographs, hundreds of Hollywood stars. One un-autographed picture is of Ronald Reagan, in his salad days. Bob assures me they've been trying to close the Formosa for years. Behind the bar, in the gloom, stands a very un-Chinese statue of a Chinese woman, in that dreadful style of fake 1930's chinoiserie. A thin bleached blonde girl, with a black snap-brim hat serves us. I ask her how it feels to walk among the pages of Hollywood history here in the Formosa. She warms to the topic, telling us how she worked in Boston, and in the largest sushi restaurant. She likes Sinatra. The last CD she wanted was Dean Martin. She first thought Dean Martin was a second-rate Sinatra, but now she likes him on his own terms.
I take my CD player out of my backpack, set up the headphones, and play the first track of Walter Becker's 11 Tracks of Whack for Bob. "Down at the bottom of your wine-dark sea.", telling him this is my California. While Bob listens, I think of what influences shaped my own personal view of California, almost uniformly cautionary and negative. Bob tells me I belong here. My personality is suited to the transitory glories of this place.
We talk about old times, and I stop to savor the happiness of this moment. In the Japanese phrase, shogyo mutoh, all happiness is transitory. I am at peace for the first time in over a year. It is as if I have emotionally exhaled after five years of holding my breath. I've met Bob D after lo these many years, my dear friend, I take in every detail, like a detective taking notes, preserving this moment in mental amber. For I hope to return to this moment over and over again, I am as happy as I have been in many years.
We leave the Formosa, cross the street, and enter the unassuming Jones restaurant through a tiny door. Bob has dinner reservations for two. We sit in a tiny booth, I persuade one of the bus boys to take our picture. We both order the whole trout. It emerges from the kitchen, each fish on a wood shingle, filleted, head on, smelling of butter and garlic. Each bite was heavenly, I have eaten many fish, but this trout was sublime, and there was enough. Served with sauteed spinach and an Italian Pinot Grigio, Raffifi, it was surely food such as the gods atop Olympus must eat.
While Bob excused himself from the table, I summoned the heartbreakingly beautiful waitress, and attempted to pay for dinner. Bob returned to the table, but the cunning wretch had already warned the waitress I might attempt to pay. She came with the bill, with a knowing smile, Bob was already wise to my efforts, and had seized the bill himself. Ah, well.
Up into the hills, through heavy fog, we drove to the Griffith Observatory. Bob likes little details, he pointed out the lit sign leading to the 12 inch refractor telescope. That's Bob. He points out little details. In the darkness, groups of Hispanic couples on a cheap date, leaning over the railings, looking for Vermont Avenue, chattering and laughing, the voices in the dark are pleasant. The air is cool. We stand on the observing platform to peer at the planet Saturn through the refractor telescope. I suddenly think of Joseph looking through my own 8 inch telescope, in my driveway, and sharply long for my own home and children.
Leaning over the pit of the Foucault pendulum, we talk about this and that. The observatory is minutes from closing. At its full extension from the center, the cable shudders ever so slightly. Overhead, the murals symbolically depict the myths of the sky. We walk back to the car, talking of the movies featuring the Griffith Observatory.
Down the winding road, Bob finds his way to the Dresden Room. We lock the car, and walk past cigarette smoking people outside the nightclubs, past kissing couples, into the crowded jazz bar. The curve of the piano is rimmed by a long white bar, at which people were seated. Over the pianist's shoulder is a well-played upright bass, its veneer worn on its right hand side. A drum set nestled against the wall, with a microphone angled down toward the drummer, who called out for suggestions to be written on napkins. I mentioned to Bob I'd like to hear the Miles Davis standard Kind of Blue. Bob thought they wouldn't know it. Yet within a minute, I heard the familiar strains of Bill Evan's opening progression to Kind of Blue, and Bob's jaw dropped. Yes, it was Kind of Blue. Bob demanded to know if I had asked for it. I protested I had done no such thing. Bob flatly declared this sort of synchronicity could only be Los Angeles welcoming me. Though, he pointed out, Kind of Blue is the second most popular jazz album of all time. Bob's superstition is seemingly tempered with reason.
Dresden Room is a perfect expression of a town that takes itself either far too seriously, either that, or its seriousness is tongue-in-cheek. Overhead is a fusty old chandelier of lit globes at different levels, each globe inside a wrought-iron armillary. Behind the bar, flowing curved lines in a calligraphic style describe designs, a woman's head, in a late fifties style I have seen in my mother's Betty Crocker cookbook. Clever, good-looking people fill the room, the jazz is prosaic, nothing particularly straight-up, standards all. A synthesizer stands in for the horn line. It's mellow, no sharp edges. So this is a jazz bar in Hollywood. Though it's not the heights of spiritual Coltrane, it's jazz, and for a Thursday night, to fill a jazz bar in these fearful days is impressive. Chicago's jazz bars wouldn't draw like Dresden Room. Perhaps it's a meet-and-greet bar, there's more going on than merely listening to jazz, the conversation buzzes on and on, in a serious jazz bar people would be listening quietly, and applauding respectfully at breaks.
Earlier in the day, while walking down Broadway, I stopped and bought a converter, to play my CDs in Bob's cassette-only car, plugged into my Walkman CD player. I had played some Weather Report after dinner, and after our drive down from the Griffith Observatory. Feeling sentimental, I put on the CD Show of Hands by Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists. I forwarded the CD player to my favorite section, the 16th, 17th and 18th tracks, Circulation/Chiara/Asturias. This is rigorous music, not music for the faint of heart, angular harmonies and complex internal meters. Show of Hands is thirteen identical Gibson Ovation guitars, with no effects. Thirteen guitarists playing together sound like God's harpsichord.
I was not at all sure Bob would like it, but to my surprise and delight he wanted to hear Chiara again. When it ended, in a crabby obsessed tone, he said, "Again". We must have played that piece several dozen times, each time the song would end, Bob would crow, "Again", and again, as we drove around downtown Los Angeles in the fog. In my own mind, the three pieces go together. I don't know what Fripp et. al. might think of it, I always listen to the three pieces together. After a dozen times through Chiara, I let the CD player advance to Asturias.
Asturias is a piece I have reserved for very special occasions: I've listened to Show of Hands hundreds of times over the years since I first bought it. Music binds me to certain events. I remembered all the significant moments I had associated while playing Asturias, remembering overnights at Sears and Bethesda, moments in aircraft, moments on the rainy road to Louisville, moments of love and hate, loneliness and despair, boredom, misery, passion and grief, listening to Asturias, grieving for DH, holding Martha and the sobbing children to me, all at once. Sensory overload.
Years ago, I had grieved for months, accompanied by the Circulation/Chiara/Asturias sequence. If I ever meet Robert Fripp, I shall thank him. Show of Hands has gotten me through many a dark moment. Bob exclaimed, "this is Robert Fripp?!" Bob then astonished me by telling me he had also obsessively listened to King Crimson Red, though he knew nothing else by King Crimson or Fripp. Another sychronicitous Kind of Blue moment such as we had felt in Dresden Room. Plato was correct: some music is dangerous. What is it about Fripp's unique brand of uncompromising solidity that attracts such devotees as Bob and me?
So, despite my protestations, Hollywood had charmed me, seduced me utterly and completely. I had so wanted to hate it. I still want to hate it, it's a shitty town, it's nothing from the outside, nothing would ever convince me to love Hollywood Boulevard, and the gruesome graffiti, the tourist traps, or the hordes of pilgrims in search of the stars.
Los Angeles hides in plain sight, cryptic and fatalistic, holding out everyone's personal dream in her hand, daring those who see her to find where the illusion ends and the reality begins. The dream factory has its own myths to shroud it, the reality seems to be hard-working people, who labor long hours in post-production shops, and who let off steam in the pleasant confines of the Dresden Room. Sitting like the Pythoness in the vaporous and earthquake-racked hollows of the earth, Hollywood dared me to ask my question, and gave me my answer with unexpected speed. Someone once told me, "You write your own story", here, the joke is, everyone's writing a screenplay. What is this, my story am I writing?
We talk and talk, in the Dresden Room. Bob tells me how well I'd fit in here. I sit on my stool, like Odysseus tied to the mast, listening to the Siren's singing. It's all too much. If I ever came here, I sense I would never leave. Here, nothing is constant but change. In a land of such impermanence, memory is long. Here, waitresses in their twenties listen to Dean Martin, and people know where long-gone studios once stood. Though their only export is recorded dreams, here they embed people's names in the sidewalk.
Titans of manufacture come and go, their products of steel rust in the junkyards and coral grows on the ships at the bottom of the sea, buildings rise and fall, but Charlie Chaplin will live forever, if not on celluloid, on lovingly remastered DVD disks, and when the next level of technology arrives, the Little Tramp again will shuffle off towards the horizon, immortal in the transitory nature of the moving image and the people who labor to create and preserve them. To last through the centuries, it seems truth must wear the armor of legend, and those who would understand the lasting truths must first study the legends.
Back through the dark, going back to the hotel, Bob still obsessively demanding to hear Chiara over and over again. I cannot tire of the music. I've heard it too many times myself to ever tire of Show of Hands. Everyone has his own idea of a perfect day. This is mine. With no classes Friday, I slept in, woke up, and began to write this down, before I forget it all.