For years I have read the likes of Raymond Chandler and John Fante and rewatched Chinatown in preparation for our occasional sojourns to Los Angeles (my wife is a native Angelena), but after the stupefaction induced by our last trip, I chose Charles Bukowski, the flophouse poet of hangovers, for our first post-Covid invasion.
“Los Angeles is a Cross, and we all hang here, stupid little Christs,” wrote Bukowski in a 1967 letter. That line seems off to me, self-consciously poète maudit, but I always cut poets of place a break.
Even an Eastern hick like me has been so soaked in the sights and sounds of Southern California-produced culture that our every visit is scored by songs and films and words, some effluvial and others effulgent, disgorged by the world’s entertainment factory.
As soon as our rental’s speed exceeds 25mph on whatever car-clotted route we’re taking, I growl, “Drivin’ down your freeway…” Lucine rolls her eyes at the limp Jim Morrison impression.
Skimming by Beverly Hills, I screech the Circle Jerks: “Beverly Hills, Century City/ Everything’s so nice and pretty/ All the people look the same/ Don’t they know they’re fucking lame?”
Going down Alvarado Street, past tent cities of the homeless, the drug-addicted and the mentally ill, Lucine and I trill the sardonic (at least I think it was sardonic) celebration of the City of Angels by the Go-Go’s: “This town is our town/ It is so glamorous/ Bet you’d live here if you could/ And be one of us.”
We spent our first night in Glendale, which boasts the second-highest concentration of Armenians outside Yerevan, so you’re never more than five minutes from a plate of hummus or a System of a Down fan. The friendly desk clerk at our low-rent hotel warned us that at night the hallways look like those in The Shining, but we avoided spectral tykes on trikes.
Instead I sat on the ledge of the pool, dangling my feet in the water, reading Bukowski and thinking about the days ahead.
Then the damnedest thing happened: we had a terrific time.
Hell, I didn’t even mind — too much — the grad-school wokeness that has crept into the captions at the Gene Autry Museum of the American West, of all unlikely places.
We came to town for the wedding of a beloved young friend. The affair was decidedly not low-rent. I wear a suit only under compulsion; my closet is bare. So two weeks before the trip, my wife picked out a real humdinger for five bucks at the Salvation Army. Hey, a dozen years ago I won second place in a Marcello Mastroianni lookalike contest at Lake Como, Italy, wearing a tux we bought at that same wrong-side-of-the-tracks Salvation Army for $7. (My competition in that contest was not stiff. And come to think of it, is there a Salvation Army on the right side of the tracks?)
Lodging next on South Broadway, we took a fantastic tour of downtown architecture given by a native Midwestern volunteer under the auspices of the Los Angeles Conservancy. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Our guide and I bonded over our shared and perverse love of Antonioni’s much-reviled tale of youthful anomie in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point (1970). It’s one of my many cultural mulligans.
Heading east, we spent half a day at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. The exhibits were tinctured with a welcome puckishness I don’t associate with presidential museums.
I should detest Richard Nixon, but I’m soft on Tricky Dick thanks to my late and great friend Carlos, whose job it was to vet the notorious Oval Office tapes and decide which ones Nixon should fight to keep private.
When they’d sit down in Nixon’s office to confer, the ex-president would say, with charmingly awkward humor, “Uh, Carlos, is there anything I can get you: coffee, tea… drugs?”
We ended the trip bunking with dear friends who live in the erstwhile home of Billy Preston, the “fifth Beatle,” whose hit tune asked, “Will it go ’round in circles?”
So giddy were we from the visit that on the way home we were more amused than annoyed by the LAX public-address commands to those of us age two and up to don masks. This nanny-state hectoring was disobeyed by three-quarters or more of the manswarm. The Karens and would-be Stasi informants who had their moment in the black sun over the last two years are on the run.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2022 World edition.