It was 3:30 p.m. Pacific time in Los Angeles and 6:30 p.m. in New York City, where I am from, when my Uber driver picked me up outside of LAX’s Kugelmass Terminal, in a car. I had come to the Pacific coast, like so many pioneers before me, to explore the image-obsessed, sun-drenched paradise that is Los Angeles for the benefit of my intellectual East Coast readers back on the East Coast in New York City where I am from—and perhaps, to bring back a few grains of sand from this vast, Blade Runner-esque cultural desert for East Coasters who would never stoop to visit. I instructed my driver, who was working on a screenplay, surely, in whatever time he could spare between the city’s obligatory Botox lunches and Tae Bo brunches—I don’t know for sure, because he refused to talk to me—to drive us immediately to the city’s geographic and cultural center: the palm tree-lined boulevards of Beverly Hills.
There’s no subway or public transportation out here in the sprawling land of the automobile, which means there’s no better way to see the City of Angels than out the window of a car driven by someone who knows how to drive a car, which I do not. As my driver slowly drove his way, drivingly, through the city’s legendary, Blade Runner-esque traffic, I did my best to pay attention to the strip mall soul food and barbecue restaurants of Inglewood scrolling by outside. But since I wasn’t conducting interviews for an award-winning documentary about the legacy of the L.A. riots, I ultimately decided my time would be better spent catching up with the city’s only industry—Hollywood!—by reading TMZ on my phone. Finally, we crossed Wilshire Boulevard and entered the city proper.
I’d chosen the week of Christmas to visit this sun-drenched paradise because I thought the contrast between the sun-drenched weather and the wintry, intellectual East Coast holiday would add a touch of sun-drenched surrealism to my visit. Chuckling to myself as I imagined how few of the city’s yoga-besotted denizens would ever have heard of Dalí, I took in the Blade Runner-esque architectural patchwork of Beverly Hills, where French houses sit next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese. Everyone drives in Los Angeles—I thought I saw Woody Allen, of all people, struggling to turn left in a rented Cadillac convertible—and I embraced the strange ways of the locals, politely ordering my driver to take the scenic route past landmarks like the Great Western Savings Building (8484 Wilshire Blvd.), Tail o’ the Pup (311 N. La Cienega Blvd.), Fatburger (450 S. La Cienega Blvd.), and the Gilmore Drive-In (6201 W. 3rd St.). Finally, we left familiar ground and struck out for the city that, along with Beverly Hills, forms one of the twin poles of Southern California’s intellectual life: Burbank.
But my attempt to take in some of the city’s thriving culture by attending a sitcom taping was a bust: I had a dizzy spell as soon as I realized that television shows out here in the artificial paradise of La La Land sometimes employ laugh tracks. Authenticity is very important to me, so I returned, shaken and unwell, to my home away from home, the Beverly Hills Hotel (9461 Sunset Blvd.) in the heart of the vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhood of Beverly Hills. The hotel doctor was no help at all—West Coast doctors aren’t familiar with the complaints of New Yorkers, presumably because of homeopathy or the Manson family—but I recovered my composure and set out, undaunted, on a quest to discover the city’s legendary street life. I knew just where to go, too: A Blade Runner-esque Christmas party at the lavish estate of world-famous record producer Tom Lacey. After a mix-up with my new Uber driver resulted in a horrifying detour through a grim stretch of Westwood packed with frightening-looking Persian restaurants, we finally arrived at Lacey’s long, oval driveway, where the reassuring sights of Jaguars and Mercedes and other people with drivers put me at ease.
Lacey’s home, in many ways, is Los Angeles. Crammed with saunas and Jacuzzis and screening rooms and tennis courts and white people, it is a crossroads of the world with a California twist, where you’re equally likely to run into a record producer, a movie producer, or even a television producer. The house was built for Nelson Eddy, and belonged to Legs Diamond and Charlie Chaplin before Lacey remodeled it into the sun-drenched, Blade Runner-esque salon it is today. The conversations were exactly as vacuous as I’d expected, although to be honest, I didn’t participate in any of them or listen very closely, and the celebrities were out in full force: Lacey, looking like a dead ringer for Paul Simon in his L.A.-formal Hawaiian shirt, was dancing with Diane Keaton, while over by the pool, lifelong New Yorker Woody Allen took in the scene with the same sardonic lack of interest I have spent my life affecting. And was that Jeff Goldblum talking on the phone a few rooms away? I had finally found a place in Los Angeles where a New Yorker from New York City like me could feel at home: surrounded by people I could just as easily have hung out with in New York City.
On my last day, I decided to check out the city’s legendary, Blade Runner-esque culinary scene by lying to an Avis agent about my experience behind the wheel, renting a car, and driving, Jonathan Gold-style, all the way from my hotel to the Sunset Strip. After overshooting my target by about eight miles while looking for a parking space (and, relatedly, trying to figure out where the brake pedal was), I eventually bribed the proprietor of a dodgy-looking taco stand called Guisados to let me leave my car where I’d crashed it, then took an Uber several miles west back to the heart of the city’s restaurant scene. The unexpected trip gave me the chance to take in the restaurant-free “food deserts” of Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Armenia, and Hollywood—the neighborhood, not the industry—as we headed back toward the center of town. A few hours later, I finally reached my table at the Source Restaurant (8301 Sunset Blvd.) a trendy outdoor cafe on Sunset Boulevard, right across the street from the Golden Crest Motel.
The Source, which has presided over the Sunset Strip since 1969, is a family-run establishment with a California twist: the bustling kitchen is run by benevolent patriarch Father Yod, his 14 wives, and his 150 “children.” While I waited for my alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast, I took the time to appreciate the beautifully maintained classic cars cruising the Strip—undoubtedly the city’s most important thoroughfare—none of which looked to have been manufactured any later than 1976. Cars are important status symbols in this sprawling town, I have learned, with its sprawling arterial freeways and venous highway sprawl and capillary side streets sprawling all over the place carrying the city’s rich, sprawling lifeblood: cars. Despite the avocado-heavy menu, the Source has gained a reputation among reluctantly-exiled New Yorkers like me—this trip is literally the first time I’ve left the city limits—as a necessary pilgrimage for those wanting to live like the locals do. Even confirmed New Yorker Woody Allen was there, deep in conversation with Diane Keaton. It was to be my last meal in Los Angeles, but I was confident I had seen everything worth seeing.
A few hours later, as my plane took me safely eastward to New York City, on the East Coast, where I am from, I reflected on all the things I’d learned about Los Angeles, this Blade Runner-esque desert mirage, filled with yoga and screenplays and yoga and screenplays and also yoga. Then I watched Annie Hall twice in a row on the in-flight entertainment system and took a nap.
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