As the plane sweeps in low over eastern Los Angeles the heat of the engine exhaust smears the top portion of the view from my window. Everything warbles and blurs in the heat. It ends up looking like a natural, persistent, tilt-shift distortion, turning the building below into a miniature, toy world.
The effect is odd, transfixing and a bit disconcerting after a while, a feeling heightened by the Hare Krishna sitting next me incessantly chanting the Maha Mantra.
Later, outside the terminal a sign reads: Welcome to Los Angeles.
Around the time I was in high school Los Angeles built a subway system. I remember it showing up on page 15 of the newspapers. The universal consensus among those of us used to living under the constant threat of earthquake was that voluntarily going underground for extended periods of time would be tantamount to suicide.
Besides, Los Angeles is all about the car. Shiny, air-conditioned comfort, gliding you soundlessly from one place to another without the need to interact with anything in between.
Like most, I forgot about the subway as soon as it was done. The only time the L.A. metro system entered my consciousness was when a train accidentally hit someone crossing the tracks. Again, subway == death.
Then I moved across the country.
Just before I left to visit L.A., I stumbled upon some photographs of Union Station, which might well be the pinnacle of Moderne/Art Deco architecture. I decided I must see Union Station, and what better way to arrive than by subway?
So into the subway I went. It was uneventful, an ordinary subway — commuters sitting stoically, staring into space, a homeless man muttering in the corner, a older woman with a small trolley full of grocery bags, a fanatic handing out flyers for some cause. But Union Station is more than ordinary.
Coming up out of the subway into the passenger rail terminal at Union Station is a fantastically beautiful step back in time — back in time to moment when trains were travel, when building were more than containers for retail stores, when architecture mattered, even in otherwise dull places like a train station.
From the ceiling in the entrance to the heavy, ornate waiting room chairs, Union Station feels more like a cathedral than a train depot — inlaid marble abounds, backlit windows glow like stained glass.
L.A.’s Union Station feels like a cathedral in part because the architecture far exceeds the purely utilitarian function it serves — you can’t help feeling that there is some hidden message in its design. Walking under the magnificent heavy ceiling beams in the waiting room, you begin to feel the same sense of tiny insignificance you feel in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe.
It’s a strange thing to be a tourist in the area you grew up in. I didn’t grow up in L.A. proper, but many of my memories of the area are tied to L.A. because that’s where everything fun happened — live music, art shows, restaurants, movies… did I mention live music?
Aside from the beach, which was closer to home, L.A. was where everything happened and so it figures larger in my memory than in actual waking hours. And yet I’ve never really bothered to pay any attention to Los Angeles the city, the streets, the buildings, the people.
It’s an easy thing to miss. Los Angeles seems designed to be unreal, a land where everything is plastic and shrunken like set pieces in a toy train set.
I’m convinced that part of the reason behind the toy train illusion is to protect L.A.’s residents from certain unpleasant facts, like, for example, the fact that there is no ground below the ground in L.A — there is no real earth.
I don’t mean like a bit of earth showing where the lawn has been worn by foot traffic, but actual earth, large undisturbed expanses of it. It simply isn’t there.
I spent most of my life in Southern California and I could never find the ground below the ground. The actual earth. The sand at the beaches is trucked in from elsewhere and everything is paved. The roads lead to driveways, to kitchen floors, to backyard patio slabs with that strange pock-marked concrete. Even the riverbeds are poured concrete. Who paves a river?
You might think New york is the same way; it’s not. There’s plenty of earth in New York. Central Park, Prospect park, any neighborhood park. Subways leak water, betraying what is behind them, under them, around them. New Yorkers have plenty of reminders about the ground under the ground.
I still haven’t found the ground under the ground in Los Angeles (the subways don’t leak, the concrete tubes under the city are still unbroken), but I have discovered that if you get out of your car and walk, the toy train set illusion reverts at least to a life size city.
The tallest building on the west coast towers overhead; in the distance City Hall looms and the ultra-modern hideousness of the Disney Concert Hall glitters in the afternoon sun. Further up the hill the Department of Power and Water building seems to float, an island in the middle of a man-made lake.
Everything is very real. We walk down to a park, the tiniest park I’ve ever seen, but a park nonetheless. Everything seems very real.
But only for a moment. A few streets later we stop off for a pint at a pirate bar. Fake sailing detritus litters the walls — ships wheels, heavy braided hemp ropes, portals to nowhere, flags bearing the skull and crossbones.
Our table is a fake oak barrel, fake pirate insignia decorate the ceiling. The bar looks like a post-production yard sale from the Pirates of the Caribbean.
The illusion of reality collapses.
Los Angeles cultivates that aspect of itself, it enjoys the rest of the world seeing it as a completely unreal world. A world of pirate bars and movie stars. You either have to embrace it or get the hell out.
I went with the latter, but I enjoy returning, trying to find little moments of the real where L.A. drops its pretense and becomes a real city.
The next day I walk a mile or two down Wilshire Blvd to Lincoln where I catch the bus to the airport. I drop my change in the box and find a seat near the back of the bus. Someone has scratched the window, initials carved, then crossed out and more initials carved.
Out of the corner of my eye the scratched window makes the view turn blurry again, the building begin to look more plastic, shrunken. I’m back on the ride.
The tilt-shift world will go on without me. Nothing to do now but punch your tickets for the toy train and watch the shrunken madness as you slowly click home on the tiny plastic tracks.
1. Actually there is a better way: to arrive on some trans-continental train. Sadly, that was not an option for this trip. ↩
2. I know what you’re thinking, to talk about Los Angeles as singular entity is sloppy writing, sweeping generalizations being the number one fallacy of self-appointed prognosticators. Of course you’re right, there is no Los Angeles. And yet there is. ↩