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ten feet off of Main

January 22, 2010

January is a bitch of a month, even in California.  January is the kind of month that sends a quick shot of sleety rainwater down the back of your neck as you dash out of the grocery store, and then snickers when you try to turn up your collar and instead bash yourself in the head with the keys you forgot were balled in your fist.  In January, if you’re not listing in a grey fog of ennui, you’re hopping through parking lots poking at the fresh cut on your ear and swearing at nobody in particular.  Which is why I insist on posting yet another fragment that actually dates to last August.

Want to know one of the Los Angeles clichés that’s absolutely true?  Nobody walks anywhere.  Ever.  It’s simply not practical; everything is far away from everything else and, as you may have heard, our public transit system is a joke for a city the size of this one.  (Although remind me, at some point, to tell you about my unexpectedly pleasant experience with the Metro Bus system, which started here.)  With a fifteen-minute daily commute, I am a local anomaly, but the amount of time I spend behind a steering wheel is still obscene by any normal standards.

This weekend, unusually, I went for a walk.  A real old-fashioned walk — not a run for exercise, not a toddle between my car and the office elevator.  It was a Sunday and I was on my way home from an ill-advised foray into the Valley, a place that Entourage once correctly referred to as Hell’s waiting room.  I was, almost literally, boiled.  Halfway down the 405, I also remembered that I’d been meaning to pick up a new journal, possibly at a little shop on Main Street that a friend had recently recommended.

Main Street is about three blocks from the beach.  It is one of maybe four places in the city with real pedestrian traffic, and it’s never more than 75 degrees there.  Caught between the devil of Santa Monica parking on a Sunday, and the deep sea of motionless, molten air that was lying all over the city that afternoon, I took my chances with the devil.

It turned out the shop was closed, but I’d fed the meter some extra quarters, having been burned before by the local parking gestapo.  I had nowhere in particular to be.  So I dropped my keys into my purse and started to stroll.

Here’s the thing.  I had been to this street a million times, but never alone and never once during the day.  I could have sworn to you that the place consisted almost entirely of bars, with some gift shops and the odd Starbucks.  Apparently I have the observational powers of a brioche, because there were about six establishments on every block that I had never noticed before.  Cool places, too.  Arts & Letters, the paper-goods store where I’d intended to search for a journal, had windows crammed with delicious-looking stacks of cardstock and vellum and onionskin.  Just beyond, I found several small, elegant furniture boutiques, the kind that are worth scouring now for items that IKEA might have knocked off, and will be eligible for further investigation after I become somebody’s trophy wife.  A nearby store was called Bike Attack;  I was sold on the name alone because it reminded me of Calvin & Hobbes.  One particularly intriguing spot had no nameplate at all, just a sign that said “OPEN. TACOS.” in neon letters.   (As any Angeleno knows, these are the best place to find good Mexican.)  A Max Azria outlet (!!!) was having a sale, which I ignored only by crossing the street and staring determinedly at a parking meter for a while.   Then there was a paint studio, with a deep, palm-shaded patio full of easels and a sign inviting beginners, making the ends of my non-artistic fingers itch.

For those of you who’ve read Harry Potter — which at this point really ought to be everyone, unless you’ve been trapped under a heavy object since 1998 — you know how the Leaky Cauldron and Number 12, Grimmauld Place seem to balloon suddenly between previously existing establishments, squishing other buildings out of their way?  I had the strong sensation that the same thing was happening on Main Street.  All of these places had appeared to me, in a very abrupt inflatable fashion, between the usual nighttime suspects:  World Café, Finn McCool’s, Lula’s, Circle Bar, Mor Bar, Patrick O’Brien’s.  I had never before noticed how out-of-place Circle Bar in particular looks.  It’s on a sunny stretch of pavement, surrounded by chic, carefully curated little stores, but the bar itself is one big slab of building, sloppily painted in red and black with a leering yellow sign.  It’s like a plot of land from Hollywood Boulevard was picked up and plunked in the middle of Santa Monica. Even at 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, the sidewalk out front reeks of cheap booze.

If you hurry past that one disconcerting spot, the peoplewatching is good, too.  Venice hippies and Westside yuppies carefully circumnavigate each other on the sidewalks; even their dogs maintain distance.  I watched the police dealing with a drunk homeless man who was shouting nonsensically at passersby, a reminder of the intrinsic problems that plague this warm, hospitable part of town.   The smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, patchouli, stale whiskey and expensive retail twined around all of us, wrapped in a rich waft of ocean salt.

It was only at the very end of the walk that I remembered:  I had been there once before in the daytime.  On a date – a Sunday morning brunch date, to be exact –  almost precisely a year ago.  I suppose it’s not surprising that I missed Max Azria or Bike Attack that morning; I was so nervous I thought I was going to turn inside out.   I remember noting the Hare Krishna festival that was going on (they were rolling a festooned triple-decker float down the street, ululating and pelting onlookers with flowers, so they were difficult to miss), but otherwise the place in my memory is just a colorful blur.

It’s amazing how much of this you can only register or appreciate when you’re alone and on foot.  Creamy pages stacked in a store window, or the scent of palm leaves mixed with acrylic paint.   If you’re with someone you’re distracted, talking, and if you’re driving you’re glassed in, moving through the space too fast in your own temperature-controlled capsule.  On Sunday I just stood there, my arms washed ochre in the late-summer light, and for a minute I could ignore the fact that it was going to take me another 45 minutes to drive the five miles home.  For a minute I could just look around a little, feeling the salt in my hair and the pavement beneath my feet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2010 10:58 pm

    This was just lovely. I felt transported to the sunny beach-adjacent strips of sidewalk in that particular area of Los Angeles, and I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

  2. February 7, 2010 6:00 pm

    I remember Santa Monica well; I dated a girl there for a while and remember walking to the beach and down the Promenade. This entry made me remember going there to visit my brother and the time I played hooky and lay out in the sun with my buddy on a Monday.

    Thanks! This is what I do while the world watches the Superbowl.

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