American Excess

The scene is St. Louis airport, gate 51. A herd of passengers is clustering near the exit to the plane for Los Angeles. Enter ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE DEPARTURE LOUNGE, an airline employee:
“We’re about to begin boarding, by seat rows, ladies and gentleman, so could you all please clear a space so that other passengers can get on”
She might as well have tried talking a beached whale into moving. The herd of passengers looked at her with a bemused expression and assumed she was talking to someone else.
“We’re not going to start boarding until you clear an aisle!”
Nothing. In a massive show of intransigence, no-one budged. Gandhi would have been proud at this display of passive resistance.
“Everyone take one step back!”
Zero. Perhaps she should have prefixed it with “Simon Says…”. The only people who moved were the people who weren’t blocking the desk anyway. Welcome to America, land of the free, home of the brave, and residence of the educationally sub-normal.

Los Angeles seems like half-a-dozen different places, without the coherence of London or Paris. Hollywood had all the feel of a seaside town – it just didn’t have a beach. Beverley Hills was EXPENSIVE. Malibu was reminiscent of Nice. And Downtown LA most closely resembled East Berlin, pre-unification. Guess which one of these we were staying in.

It can not be said loudly or often enough – perhaps it should be stamped in your passport at immigration. IF YOU’RE IN LA ON HOLIDAY, DO NOT STAY DOWNTOWN. From the comfort of Britain, it’s very easy to think that “downtown” is bound to be a cool and happening place. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It’s the business centre, so on Sundays, when we arrived, the only people who stay there are the residents. Unfortunately, there aren’t actually any of them, apart from the vagrants, and they’re not the sort of people you want to share any experiences with, being neither interesting nor cute. We have perfectly good derelicts in London and don’t need to fly 4,000 miles to see them… The best thing was a great diner, which is permanently open, to the extent that it doesn’t have locks on the doors. This 24 hour approach was a great boon to the jet-lagged, who find themselves in need of hotcakes, bacon and that great American invention, all-the-coffee-you-can-drink, at 4.30 am.

After a day of “Oh look – there’s a tramp”, we packed up and drove North in search of intelligent, or at least interesting/cute, life. We hired a car, a neat Toyota Paseo with a sun-roof, air-conditioning, and a stereo system with enough watts to dim the headlights when we turned it on. Unsurprisingly, it took some getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road and in an automatic, but the main problem was sitting on the left of the car. In Britain, you normally leave minimal room to your right, but in an American car, you’ve got a passenger seat to think about as well. I kept forgetting this, which led to Steve holding his breath as our Paseo slid gently into the next lane.

MikeJiroch, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Once I’d got the hang of this, it was a piece of cake. Most of the main roads in LA are straight and long, ith two, three or more lanes, so you’ve got plenty of room for error. Steve navigated – good thing too as my usual London technique of pulling up every 200 yards to check the A to Z would not have worked here. Though the Californians would probably have coped: despite pulling some very odd manoeuveres, I barely heard a horn in two weeks. Presumably, Angelenos either don’t mind or they spray your car with automatic weapons, there’s no middle ground. Speaking of carnage, the weekend we arrived, there were 15 murders. This came in about half way through the local news just before the weather.

We found a hotel on Sunset Boulevard (despite my pleas to be allowed to stay in the ‘Winona Motel’). The recession had clearly hit the trade – x went into it and asked about their rates. “How much do you want to pay?” was the reply. Our celebrations at wangling a $15 per day reduction in the room became rather muted when we returned to the car and found we’d picked up a parking ticket, which wiped out $53 of the saving.

Americans have 10 times as many TV channels as we do, so naturally have 10 times as much crap. However, every 7-10 minutes there’s an ad break, which makes it possible to avoid seeing any actual programmes. As fascinating alternative viewing goes, the adverts take some beating, right down to the plugs for the Toxic Crusader toys, a set of “hideously deformed action figures” based on ‘The Toxic Avenger’, and advertised with the slogan “They’re gross, but they still get girls”. Alas, all my attempts to track down a Phoebe Legere bendy doll were in vain.

Another highlight was the 30-minute plug for a set of animated Bible stories, which would “help your children counteract the violence and immorality shown on network TV”, accompanied by glowing testimonies from brainwashed children (believe me, the Moonies have NOTHING on American fundamentalists). I kept hoping they might do the interesting bits of the Bible, like Revelations, but there was nothing doing.

No.1 on the list of places to go as far as I was concerned, had to be the Miracle Mile, thanks to the movie of the same name. We drove along, looking for the diner featured therein, and quickly found it, despite it not looking QUITE the same. The inside was very similar, and eating breakfast in there lead to a highly un-nerving sense of “deja vu”. Had a phone rung, I’d probably have wet myself. [I did bribe the waitress into letting me take a menu away – above] The nearby La Brea tar pits were also very interesting (“mammoths” definitely live up to their name!), though I felt slightly conned to discover that the familiar ones with models of struggling creatures are actually artificial, being old asphalt quarries.

Apart from these, California doesn’t have much history. While we Europeans were having crusades, wars and the Renaissance, their main inhabitants were chewing grass, pausing now and again to sweep majestically across the prairie (I’m talking about buffalo here, in case you hadn’t quite grasped the literary nettle). Now, America feels the need to import the stuff, which is why they love our Royal Family, probably more than we do. However, it all gets twisted 90 degrees, warps under pressure and mutates into something…DIFFERENT.

Take, for example, The Cat and Fiddle English Pub, on Sunset Boulevard. It’s as if it was designed by people who’d never SEEN a real British pub, but only read about them. All the trappings are there: the wall mirrors, the bar towels, the surly and aggressive service – though the last of these only lasted until we remembered the American custom of tipping the bar-staff – but it’s all overdone, artificial and unmistakably alien. The pub grub was edible, for one thing, though one does not expect to travel 4,000 miles and see “bangers and mash” (with “home-made imported sausages”) or “fish and chips” (did they realise our chips were not the same as theirs?). I still remain utterly at a loss as to what the bizarre item described as “bread and butter custard” actually was.

Disneyland is probably the closest America comes to history and even there, the castle is based on Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and the other major feature is a 1/100 scale model of the Matterhorn. Like most things in the States, it’s accompanied by a ferocious hard sell: the aforementioned castle is jammed full of places like “Tinkerbell’s Toye Shoppe”. While the admission price of $30 dollars isn’t bad value, once inside, you’re assailed by endless incitements to purchase Disney goodies. Unfortunately, the only “Little Mermaid” T-shirts they had were designed for 7-year olds, so I didn’t bother.

No machine-readable author provided. Elf assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The rides were impressive: the queues were massive (and mostly concealed, so you couldn’t see how long they were when you joined them!) but moved quickly; the longest wait was about 30 minutes. The best one was “Star Tours” (“sponsored by M&M’s”), not least because the wait was enlivened by animatronic chit-chat from R2D2, C3PO and Number 5 from “Short Circuit”. When you got to the front, you were ushered into what was basically a state-of-the-art flight simulator: a large video screen at the front had you flying into space, crashing through a comet and bombing the Death Star while the cabin, and your stomach, moved in sympathy. Utterly convincing.

Stage one of the holiday finished, we flew on to San Jose for Stage 2. The excuse for this holiday was Animecon ’91, the first seriously big convention devoted to Japanese animation. This isn’t the place to discuss the Animecon – instead see ‘Anime UK’ number 8, available from Helen McCarthy, see Three-Pin Plugs for details. And as for San Francisco, you’ll have to wait till next time.