“LA is a great big freeway” sang Dionne Warwick in the 1968 classic Do You Know the Way to San Jose.
The lyric has stood the test of time. Outside the motel/hostel is an 8 lane highway. It’s as long to cross as my street at home is to walk down. The planes lining up for the northern runway use West Century Boulevard to line up their approach, and from 6am there’s the regular rumble of 737 spraying the ground with atomised unburnt fuel and melting droplets of blue ice melting from the frozen leaks of their toilet plumbing.
Along West Century Blvd, a series of low rise retail outlets enliven the concrete express way and the cube units on either side with a plink of colourful signs, sized for the speeding motorist, advertising cheap motel rooms, muffler repairs and a range of food for under a dollar.
Nothing ever costs what the price tag says here. If it’s not the service charge it’s the sales tax. Everywhere else in the world has sales tax and it’s included in the price. It’s not such a difficult concept to grasp. Everywhere else you tip if the service is OK, not because you know the waitress is hardly being paid.
I saw a man on the sidewalk of West Century Blvd who was holding a sign to advertise a mobile phone shop. It had a curved bottom edge and his job was to rock it around in an unpredictable way that catches driver’s attention. How much can that job be worth? He’s wearing shades on a cold but sunny day and plugged into some headphones that no doubt the music helps with his sign gyrations, but prevents me from asking him about his wages.
The 117 bus runs down W. Century Blvd. The driver is chirpy, chatting incessantly to the passengers, making terrible jokes that the ladies in the front seats politely honour with a smiling groan or giggle. He wears surgical gloves and tells me if I don’t have enough change he won’t be mad at me. I get off at the Mall where I can print some documents I need at Staples. It’s an open air mall with units surrounding a big car park. Not like the enclosed air conditioned marble palaces of Asia, reverently attended for special occasions and visited with guests and family. You have to work hard to pick up the waft of corn starch food here. But sure enough it’s there, just outside the In-N-Out fast food restaurant. I’m hungry but I don’t go In-or-out. I’m craving a meal but the universal rule seems to be if it is advertised with a picture and the price, then it will be inedible and leave me feeling depressed.
I get excited when I see Radio Shack. I’ve never seen one before and bound in expecting it to be full of quirky cables and nerdy gadgets, CB radios and SWR meters. It’s not. Digital cameras and mobile phones with 2 year contracts line the shelves. Bland Mallism. A mirrored bottomed American Airlines plane flies overhead. Next door is Jumla’s Juices. There are no big pictures of their freshly squeezed orange juices or bold posters showing you what you can get for a dollar (“plus tax” in small print). They have real oranges piled up behind the counter. They look dirty and inappropriate for the mall setting. A machine turns them into juice.
Having taken the bus to the Mall I now realise its close enough to walk back. My sandals are not the mode of transport LA invites. The occasional other pedestrians glance over their shoulders suspiciously at each other if the separation gets too close. I accidentally creep back up behind a man that’s overtaken me earlier. He looks like he’s about to grab me and throw me over his shoulders in self defence. Another lady gives me a cheery “Well hello?” as I overtake her. Friendly as she sounds her body language is tottering sideways braced in case I’m minded to punch her and steal her bag.
The endless straightness of W. Century Blvd is disaffecting, dehumanising, grim, soulless, washed up and washed out but it’s also compelling exotic Americana at it’s best and most modern. It's ripe for romanticising. Cars turn right on a red, I almost get run over stepping out while looking the wrong way at the enormous pickups. Traffic grinds to a halt around my J-walking while neon signs invite me to cash checks or buy cheap pizza. I’m so excited about driving here I'd planned to hire a car tomorrow to use for the trip to the customs office. Except that when you add in the tax and insurance in it comes to over $90.
Today Dionne would sing “Put a hundred down and rent a car”. I’ll take the 232 bus down town to Long Beach instead. Things will be great when I’m down town.