Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 13, 2006. Los Angeles

I didnít have enough time in L.A. No one seemed to understand why I even wanted to go there in the first place, but I found there wasnít time to experience it as I would have liked to. I thought Iíd hate the place, find it an unbearable mess of sprawl and roads. But it wasnít as bad as Iíd expected. For one thing, itís not really all suburban sprawl. And while it doesnít have the urban feel of what I might call a ďrealĒ city, it has more destinations and centers than, say, the New Jersey suburbia where I lived for a year and a half.

Itís also perfectly bike-able Ė there are lots of reasonably normal city streets where one could ride from place to place. The real challenge on a bike is the size of the city, not the freeways. People who always drive, and always take freeways, seem to think that there is no other way to get around their city. But ignoring the freeways in LA is easy. The trouble is that people have too far to travel to do it on a bike, not that the roads donít permit it.

I splurged in LA, and camped in the most upscale RV park Iíve ever seen Ė and the most expensive one Iíve ever stayed at. It was in Long Beach, a block from the beach, just off the Long Beach freeway, and right on a bike path that runs along the shore. It was immaculate, from the manicured lawns to the clean pool and hot tub to the comfortable laundry room to the splendid showers with lots of hot water. I was glad to be there, even if I did pay more per night than some motels in town would have cost me. It gave me a comfortable base of operations, and I didnít have to worry about where I would go at night.

I got in on Monday afternoon, and left Matilda at the RV park to explore Long Beach on my bike. The LA coast isnít much like the coast further to the north. The beaches are wide and flat and sandy, stretching out from the city streets or the bike paths that run along much of the coast. Itís not like biking around Santa Cruz or Monterey, either; in LA there are few curves and dips in the shoreline, and none of the rocks and steep hills that make the northern coast so dramatic. Lots of runners, and a goodly number of roller bladers Ė the hills would make that rather tricky further north!

The Long Beach shore has recently been renovated, and the path runs among tidy patches of grass, fishing piers, an aquarium, and launching spots for whale-

watching excursions. I wanted to go on a whale watch, but as it turned out that was one of the things I didnít have time for. Past the park, I cruised along the beach, till the bike path spilled out onto city streets. The eastern end of Long Beach turns into a fancy development built around a web of canals and marinas, which they call Naples Ė not that the original Naples has canals. I rode along a footpath between houses and water, peering into living rooms and watching a few intrepid swimmers in the canals. I guess in that sheltered area, the water wasnít as cold as up north, because a fellow was lying on his surfboard in swim trunks, using his hands to paddle himself up the canal at a leisurely pace. It looked nice to be out there, but I didnít want to try it in my bike clothes. Instead I trailed my toes in the water at a stretch of beach, watching a pair of sandpipers and admiring the way a row of sailboat masts blended with the faÁade of an apartment building and were reflected in the water.

As the sun started going down, I rode back on a busy commercial street filled with restaurants, bars, beach shops, and ordinary neighborhood stores. I guess in that community the beach shops Ė bathing suits, towels, surfboards Ė qualify as ordinary neighborhood stores. They donít seem to be there for tourists, of whom I didnít really see any. Later, I got to talking to a woman who lived in Long Beach. She liked the community, because it was a real mix of rich and poor, Anglo and Hispanic Ė in that part of the country, all white American are considered Anglos, whether or not they have any English blood in them. But even within the community the streets are segregated Ė I was clearly in the Anglo parts.

Tuesday I began my tour to see some of the places Iíd heard of. I headed to Redondo Beach, which turned out to be a quiet residential neighborhood of houses and garden apartments, with an equally quiet blindingly bright palm-lined beach. I continued to Venice Beach, which certainly has character, though Iím not sure thatís a good thing. Away from the beach itself, it was a maze of tiny houses on even tinier streets, where two cars could hardly pass each other. I parked Matilda a few blocks away and walked to the beach to see what I could see.

The strip at Venice Beach Ė aside from the famous Goldís Gym where men of all shape and sizes publicly pump iron Ė is crowded with shops selling t-shirts, hot dogs, tattoos, jewelry, kites, more t-shirts, pizza, juices, sunglasses, beachwear, more t-shirts, luggage, drug paraphernalia, more t-shirts. Opposite

the shops vendors offered to tell fortunes, paint your portrait, or make you a pair of beaded earrings. An array of the homeless, drifters, or perhaps just down-and-out leaned on ledges, chatted with the vendors, and seemed to be trying out the drug paraphernalia. The buyers were mostly tourists, checking out the obligatory sights of this famous strip, plus a few locals out for a run or walking their dogs. The sellers were a dreadlocked, tie-dyed, turbaned lot, who seemed at home with the homeless, drifters, and down-and-out, but came from a different world from their customers. They looked like they would be at home at Burning Man Ė perhaps some of them are, in fact. I didnít feel at home along Venice Beach. I was there the first time I went to LA, and I donít remember anything like this. But then, that was more than thirty years ago, and places change.

My favorite part of Venice Beach was a painting on the wall of a building. Like many urban murals, it was political; unlike some, it was complex, and worked around the forms of the building in complex ways. One panel showed a row of men rummaging in trash cans, another showed a black woman, her face wrapped in a white headscarf, huddled behind a sign reading "will work for food." Chains stretched across one area of food, above which towered luxury homes, palm trees, and a marina. At the other end the painting showed a bird plunging into the sea in front of a dazzling sun, and two men lay on the beach reading newspapers. One of the newspaper headlines read "save Venice Beach," the other read "friends of the Ballona Wetlands." I'd heard about the Ballona Wetlands. They are one of the few - perhaps

the only - area of wetland remaining on the coast in the LA area. After a long fight against development pressure, the state purchased the land, but the battle is still on to protect them and ensure that they managed properly. Signs dot the Pacific Coast Highway about them. And there they were on the mural on this building in Venice Beach.

In a coffee house further up the coast where I settled to do some work, I eavesdropped as a rather pushy man tried to pick up a rather attractive middle-aged woman working on her computer at the table next to mine. He had no charm at all, and she was doing her best to give him the cold shoulder, but he was determined. She looked to be in pretty good shape, and he tried to talk her into visiting a new branch of Goldís Gym overlooking the beach, for which he had visitor passes. Checking out a fancy LA gym sounded amusing to me Ė more fun than tracking down the Y Ė so at some point I worked my way into the conversation and said Iíd be interested in one of those passes. His ears perked up Ė maybe he was working on commission and not really interested in the woman at the next table? Ė so I quickly made up a tale about being new to the community (true, in a manner of speaking) and being in the market for a gym (not true at all, but did it cost him anything for me to visit the gym?). Later that day I drove over there to have a workout.

I had to put up with more marketing from the pushy man, and a tour of the whole place, but eventually he took off and I could work out in peace. It was a great facility, of course; hundreds of machines, all facing picture windows that looked out towards the sea. The clients were predictably young, and reasonably fit, though by no means the intimidatingly stunning types I could have imagined in such a place. In fact, they seemed to be a pretty normal bunch of young, white-collar working people. No high school kids shooting hoops, no old men walking back in forth in the swimming pool, no plump Hispanic ladies with their children in tow Ė though they did

have a day care center, so the yuppies could park their tots while they worked out. It sure didnít look like the YMCAs Iíve visited all over the country Ė some gleaming and new, others old and weathered, but all of them filled with everyone from children, to high school swim teams, to middle-aged folks trying to stay healthy, to senior citizens, lots and lots of senior citizens. It was fun to visit that fancy gym, but if I really had been looking for a place to join I donít think that would have been it.

Next day I headed towards downtown LA. I wanted to check out the neighborhoods, so instead of hitting the freeway I worked my way slowly north through miles and miles of streets. I went through places of every different character; pleasant communities of single-family homes and garden apartments, industry, stretches of used car lots and body shops, strips of worn-down restaurants, gas stations, laundromats and tired clothing shops. A few areas looked like I might actually feel unsafe on foot, but most were just ordinary places, not very different from Columbia Pike in Arlington, or some other strip through a very mixed suburban community. You could pick out the origin of the locals from the signs on the storefronts - El Salvador, Mexico, Korea, Belize, Japan, China. In the Hispanic areas artwork bursting with energy graced the signs, of avocados and grilled fishes, towering hamburgers, bottles of wine, envelopes of french fries filled to overflowing, dancing couples surrounded by helium balloons. In a black neighborhood a mural graced a wall, a row of intense faces staring out at the people driving past, the whites of their eyes flashing. I stopped at a Mexican supermarket to

see what they sold, and found myself circling streets of modest homes and postage-stamp lawns, a quiet working class neighborhood. Closer to downtown, the signs were for Korean dentists and driving schools, Japanese tea and coffee shops, Chinese groceries. I stopped at the Hong Kong Supermarket to looked for the packaged shelled chestnuts that I used to buy in New Jersey. Instead I found fresh steamed chestnuts still in the shell, so I bought a pound to see what they were like, and nibbled them while I drank my morning coffee at a Starbucks along the way. It was all very interesting, a wonderful mix of people from all over the world, at many income levels (though none of those were wealthy communities). I wonder how often those folks

even realize that they live on the ocean, as well as in the midst of this buzz of humanity. Their neighborhoods reminded me of my friends in Cairo, who live in Heliopolis miles from the Nile, and almost forgot the charm and glamour that the river lends to the city itself.

My destination was the La Brea Tar Flats, which Iíd been told I really should visit. Parking was tight in downtown LA, so I left Matilda on a residential street a mile or so away, and rode my bike to the park and museum complex where the tar flats are found. After exploring the park and looking at the tar, I decided that art actually sounded more appealing than tar and prehistoric animals trapped in it, so I headed to the LA County Museum, which is also in that park. Alas, it turned out that Wednesday was their day to close to the public, so I couldnít refresh my spirits with paintings. So I headed back to the Page Museum and bought a ticket to see their displays of animal bones.

It all turned out to be pretty interesting after all. I was just in time for a tour of the tar pits themselves, which was a bit more informative than just looking at them. They are pretty incredible, actually. Tar just bubbles out of the ground in this part of LA, and has for hundreds of thousands of years. The tar is very sticky - if you step in it you are pretty much there for good. Over thousands of years, animals have made the mistake of treading too close, and they couldnít get out. They would struggle madly, attracting other animals, who were happy to tuck into such an accessible dinner. But of course, the diners would get stuck as well. And there they would all remain for ages. Slowly their bodies would sink into the tar still bubbling up, and be lost in the muck. Then sometime later the same thing would happen again. Over the millennia, the pits turned into an astonishing repository of animal bones, a complete

documentary on species change in southern California. The bones were found in the 19th century, the park founded, and eventually the museum built to house and display it all. Paleontologists still excavate at the tar pits, though they only work in the summer when the tar is softer and easier to work with. They lie on frames and beams suspended over the shiny black tar, reaching down to dig carefully in the muck without getting stuck themselves. But one fellow did accidentally step in the tar. Fortunately his colleagues were able to pull him out of his boots, so he didnít have to become the latest set of bones mired in his own excavation site.

The museum was modest and fun. They have millions and millions of bones, more than they could ever know what to do with. One exhibit showed about five hundred left shin bones from

some early species of horse Ė or perhaps it was a sheep? I canít remember. This wasnít one curious example of some extinct species, leaving us to wonder what it was like. Itís a whole population of them, many generations, letting us see the full variation among the individuals within the species. And they have that much for hundreds or perhaps thousands of species. Not only large mammals, but rodents and birds and ants and spiders and flies and all sorts of creepy-crawly things that got caught in the tar.

There's also a lab where they work on the bones, surrounded with windows so you can watch people at work. They have a staff of pros, of course, but also an army of volunteers whose tasks, among others, include sorting fragments to separate bone from rubble. And when I say fragments and rubble, I don't mean toe bones and pebbles - it all looked to me like a handful of sand. The volunteers when I was watching were all women in their fifties or sixties, with time and an interest in the tar pits and incredible patience. Their eyes glued to big magnifying glasses, they sorted through little piles of material with fine paintbrushes and dental pics, the white bits in one part, the black bits in a second, the brown bits in a third. Bone, tar, and soil, I think. And someone can tell what species those bones come from, though I don't know how.

But there's no dinosaurs here. They have a lovely movie in the museum, made by people with a great sense of humor and their tongues firmly in their cheeks. The first question they ask in the movie is whether there are dinosaurs in the tar pits. Or why there are none.

Dinosaurs lived millions and millions of years ago.

The tar began bubbling up fifty or a hundred thousand years ago.

Millions and millions years Ė fifty or a hundred thousand years. That means No Dinosaurs, kiddies. Got that? No Dinosaurs.

The movie also told us about the excavations, and the paleontologist who almost got trapped in the tar. And about the sad lack of funds that keep them from expanding their work.

No money? No excavations. Got that, tourists? Not enough money, folks. No More Excavations.

Fences surround most of the bubbling tar in the park to keep us from going the way of the animals, but thereís a little bit coming through grasses next to a stream that is accessible. I poked my fingers in gingerly, and they were covered with thick, warm, black goo. Later, when I left on my bike, I saw more of it creeping through cracks in the sidewalk bordering the park. I bet thereís more of it in basements all over the neighborhood.


I left LA the next morning to head to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and one of the biggest VW gatherings in the country, Buses by the Bridge. (London Bridge,

that is.) I was looking forward to meeting up with lots of vanagon friends, but sorry to have to leave LA so quickly, without having seen half of what I would have liked to see. Itís not my kind of city, but itís still a fascinating place. Someday Iíll have to go back and do it much more justice.

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