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south of Sunset

August 27, 2009

Erica Jong is supposed to have said “Every country gets the circus it deserves.  Spain gets bullfights.  Italy gets the Catholic church.  America gets Hollywood.”

I spend a lot of time arguing that Los Angeles is not really the vapid, plastic city it’s often made out to be.  I’m realizing that a big part of the trouble is everyone thinks Los Angeles and Hollywood are synonymous.  And they’re not, really.  I’ve spent my life in L.A., but Hollywood is still a foreign country to me.  Observe:

A few Sundays ago I was on my way to see a play at the Pantages, a beautiful old-Hollywood Art Deco theater that deserves its own post at some point.  There is simply no efficient way to get from my part of town to where the Pantages sits on Hollywood Boulevard; I try something different every time, and every time I swear that I will never use that particular *&$#!(% street again.  This time, I attempted taking Western north from the 10, a route that’s narrow and full of stoplights but avoids some of the white-knuckle traffic on the main arteries.  It does, however, drag you right through all the swelter and grime of Hollywood on a summer afternoon.  If you’re not a local, here’s a hideous secret:  Hollywood — I mean actual, physical Hollywood, the grid of streets between Melrose and Fairfax and Western and Franklin — is uniformly filthy, neon-washed, and crass.  It’s also one of the city’s epicenters for homelessness, particularly homeless kids.  It is probably the least-glamorous part of this whole town.  I was late, and getting impatient, and everything around me was hot and ugly.

But there’s this one place after Western has turned into Wilton, and it’s all peeling billboards and bare brick walls and grimy curbs.  On your left, there’s a huge dusty building that could be on any broken-down corner in any city in America; it probably makes you think idly of recessions and layoffs and other depressing things.  But suddenly, you get just far enough north, and the building slides to one side and there it is:

Los Angeles, Hollywood Sign, originally uploaded by Si1very.

The other week, a friend said to me, “I’ve lived here all my life, and I still feel like a tourist.”  I get that feeling every single time I see the Hollywood sign.  Those letters are Katharine Hepburn striding into a room, Clark Gable with a julep in his hand, Lucille Ball nose-to-nose with William Holden over the back of a booth in the Brown Derby, all while Columbia lifts her torch and the Metro Goldwin Meyer lion roars in his gilt frame.  In 24 years, it’s never ceased to make me catch my breath a little.  I’m HERE!  I’m where they make the movies! I still think, involuntarily.

And how bizarre, that you’re looking at a prostitute on one corner (even though it’s not yet 6 o’clock) and a wheelchair-bound homeless man in the other, across from a gas station that you’re pretty sure you’ve seen recently on the 11 o’clock news, and there’s this sign rising over the whole mess that somehow overrides your vision, makes you instead see red carpets and designer gowns under the soundtrack of a thousand violins.  What an odd juxtaposition.  What a circus, indeed.

Later that night, after the play, the traffic was all gone, so I took surface streets home instead of bothering with the freeways.  I cruised down Sunset, where all the sidewalks are paved with stars, past Amoeba Records and the Arclight Theater, turning south before I got to Grauman’s Chinese or the Kodak, and then shot west on Santa Monica.  At Fairfax I turned south again, and that’s where things start to change.

On Fairfax, the first recognizable landmark is Lola’s, a fantastic lounge where they serve every kind of martini imaginable in glasses the size of your head.  Then Canter’s, one of L.A.’s great 24-hour delicatessens — which, as Gridskipper says, “caters to the early bird special crowd as well as their drunk grandchildren.”  (Having imbibed many head-sized martinis at Lola’s, and been one of the drunk grandchildren at Canter’s on many occasions, I have warm memories of both.) Then you pass the Farmer’s Market at the Grove, a warren of odd stalls and delicious smells that has been there pretty much unchanged since my dad was tiny, in spite of the giant encroaching Caruso-land right behind it.  Then MOCA (austere, trying hard to look serious) and Johnnie’s Coffee Shop (a flashbulb-covered filming location that hasn’t served coffee in decades), and then this little Irish pub called Tom Bergin’s on your left where we all used to go for happy hours when I worked in that part of town.   Then the gauntlet of Little Ethiopia, where I have been meaning to eat for years only I was sidetracked last time by an insatiable craving for latkes, and wound up at Canter’s instead.  Then you hit Venice Blvd., and if you turn right you’re headed through Culver City, home of The Actors’ Gang, Tender Greens, Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop (colon intentional) and the best little dive in all of Los Angeles, The Backstage Bar & Grill.   Culver Blvd. is a few stoplights later, and that will take you southwest towards the wetlands and the beaches and home.

My landmarks are not the Hollywood landmarks.  My Los Angeles doesn’t involve handprints in cement or silicone implants or swishing velvet ropes.  There is life south of Sunset, everyone, I swear.  Stick around and I’ll tell you about it.

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