Champaign's Willard airport is not exactly a bustling travel hub, and its surrounding countryside is so perfectly flat that I'd imagine a pilot could land a plane anywhere within a 75-mile radius of the airport with no problems. Nearly all of Willard's flights are half-hour commutes to and from Chicago. Our plane took off on Wednesday morning at the same time that the "kids may enter the building" bell rang on the first day of school at Unity High School, where I used to teach. Even though over two years have passed since I was a teacher, I still keep track of this kind of thing. As our plane rose into the sky, I was able to see Unity, a beehive of activity, and I felt profoundly free.
Before we knew it, we were in Chicago. Our flight from O'Hare to LAX was uneventful, and after we passed the Mississippi River, I managed to sleep a little. I woke up and looked out at the amazing southwestern landscape peeking through the clouds. This eventually morphed into the massive sprawl of Los Angeles: its warehouses, neighborhoods, rooftops, and main arteries were a bland shade of greige. "I feel like the Joads," Jeff joked. No bumpkin, Jeff had visited L.A. something like twenty times for work, and it was his least favorite west coast travel destination. I was willing to give it a chance, but from my window seat I wondered where the trees were and knew my pale skin was in deep trouble. A stoned-sounding female voice in my head told me, "This is El Ay," and from that moment on this song plagued me.
I don't have a problem with Sheryl Crow. She has a few songs that I like, and she's faced some terrifying health issues with aplomb. But I do have a problem with her breakthrough hit All I Wanna Do. Here's why:
- The cloying strings/synths that begin the song seem to sigh "aww Sheryl" in an obsequious way that seems old-timey to me.
- Beyond the poor grammar, the "this ain't no" spoken section that also begins the song is unoriginal (Talking Heads did it better), and it clashes with her "apropos of nothing" line: who says "ain't" and "apropos" in the same breath?
- My classes listened to the radio in the mid-90s when this song was popular. It put my teeth on edge when I'd hear 15 year-old girls softly singing along to this drunk slacker manifesto, especially the line "I like a good beer buzz early in the morning" because some of them really seemed to mean it. I also hated the repeated references to bottles of Bud.
So that song was in my head for most of the trip. It was just the worst.
LAX was smaller than I thought it would be, and I was prepared to spend a nervous hour at the baggage carousel waiting for my painting in a gun case to arrive, and then what if it had been lost? Then what would we do? Luckily it was the first item to hit the carousel, and we were out of there in no time.
Determined to use public transportation while we were in Los Angeles, we took a bus to another bus to a sort of bus depot about a half mile from our hotel (the Four Points Sheraton) in Culver City. A passenger on one of the buses saw our gun case and asked what kind of musical instrument was inside. Jeff got a kick out of that: in the Midwest we're hunters/murderers, and in L.A. we're musicians.
The above map shows the three spots in L.A. that we needed to visit that day: the airport, Culver City, and Marina del Ray (home of the frame shop). And look at how convenient that cluster of blue circles seems: the hotel is just up the street from the airport, and the frame shop was a mere hop, skip, and a jump to the west.
That map came with no mileage legend probably because Los Angeles doesn't want its visitors to become clinically depressed. Jeff knew that the city was enormous, but I had no idea. L.A. is a behemoth of a city that reminded me of the final frames of this.
Miles and miles separated my map's cluster of blue circles, and for the next 72 hours Jeff and I were at the mercy of the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority's buses. Three different bus systems criss-crossed the areas we explored, none of which shared universal metro cards.
I consider the photo below to be the signature image of our little vacation:
The following film illustrates how we spent the bulk of our time out west. Disclaimer: the film makes it seem like L.A. is crawling with buses that magically appear every few seconds. This is untrue. If you want to experience what it's really like out there, hit pause after each bus and wait 30 minutes before you hit play again. It would also help if during those 30 minutes you stood outside under direct sunlight, because that way you'll get an even better taste of L.A.
On a positive note, I found the people of Los Angeles, including (and especially) the people on buses, to be altogther endearing. I saw examples of kindness on virtually every ride: new mothers were helped with strollers, strangers talked to each other about books, a rider called out "that was nice of you" when the bus driver pulled over to pick up someone who was late to the bus stop, etc. I saw people complaining to each other when passengers didn't say thank you. All races and lifestyles mixed peacefully. It was a joy to behold.
And even this guy seemed fun in his own way.
High, aging hippies were uniquely charming. One man noticed a zebra on a TV monitor playing some kind of bus news program. He pointed at it and chuckled knowingly, "Huh huh!...zebra." Another dude blatantly smoked marijuana at a bus stop and offered a hit to a man in a wheelchair. Later on the bus, he sat beside a similarly wasted woman, and I couldn't help overhearing this exchange:
Man: Wanna see something funny?
Man: [opens backpack, finds beaten-up spiral notebook, flips through it until he lands on a picture torn from an animal calendar that looks almost exactly like this:
Woman: [cracks up]
Man: [cracks up] I just thought that was funny!
We eventually made our way to the Sherman Gallery and dropped off my painting to Andy, a young, capable-seeming man who was a colleague of Mike, my main email contact for the shop (it was his day off). The shop was busy but had a casual, laid-back vibe that was typical of everywhere we went in L.A. Relieved that the painting was safe at the framers, we did what you're supposed to do when you arrive in Los Angeles.
We shared an In-N-Out burger and some "animal style" fries. The burger was like a Big Mac if the people who make Big Macs actually tried, and the fries were topped with thousand island dressing and minced, grilled onions. I wasn't a big fan of the fries, which were not fresh from the fryer, but the half-burger hit the spot. We had noticed a Five Guys burger place near our hotel, so we decided to hit that on the way back and share another burger.
We walked to Venice Beach (a long, long walk directly into the sun that left me with a burn on my chest and shoulders even though I used sunscreen). The beach was beautiful, though. We walked barefoot on the sand, and I shrieked with delight when the waves hit my toes.
We strolled along a couple of blocks of Venice Beach's touristy shops that sold sunglasses, hats, junk food, and medical marijuana. We did not buy any pot, as we do not do drugs, but I found some great $10 sunglasses to replace the ones I broke earlier this summer. For one brief, shining moment, All I Wanna Do left my mind and was replaced with this song, a favorite of mine for twenty years.
Exhausted after our day of travel, we broke down and took a cab back to the hotel. Our driver played international smooth jazz hits, such as Julio Inglesias' take on My Way and Sade's Smooth Operator. Along the way I enjoyed the different kinds of palm trees, including my favorites, the bushy ones (below):
They remind me of the guy on the right:
Second hamburger time!
Above: a Five Guys cheeseburger styled by Jeff. Simply put, it wiped the floor with In-N-Out. We shared it, and it was the best fast food burger I've ever had, made even better because I was exhausted and starving. It haunts us. I can hardly bear to look at the photo or talk about the experience today. This lovely soul does a much better job than I could.
So that concludes my long-winded account of our first day in L.A. Thanks for reading--more to come!
And if you've read this far, I'd like to ask you to do me a favor: please *like* my Facebook art page. I tried my best to make it likeable. In the photos section you'll see lots of paintings, sketches, photos from art shows, and random observations from me. Click here!