Paula’s Post #38 – If you haven’t noticed by now, “Tigger’ seems always to be writing on the run, blogging from some new outpost every other week. Maybe every week. This week is no different. This week I am coming to you “Live from LA”.
As I write this, I’m lounging by the roof top pool of the Ritz Carlton Hotel at “LA Live”, the vibrant new entertainment hub, anchored by the Staples Center and Nokia Theater, a hub that has risen from the ashes, so to speak, and breathed new life into what was once the very down-at-the-heels, ever so seedy streetscapes of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.
Here for a conference, I checked in early, intent on grabbing a little undisturbed quiet time to catch up on my reading of 5writers manuscripts in advance of our Critique Retreat, scheduled for two weeks from now in Whistler British Columbia.
LA Live, a glittering, monolithic complex not unlike OZ, features a 54 story, hybrid hotel with 1,000 rooms split between the Ritz Carlton and the JW Marriott. Below my hotel window, the Staples Center, home of the Lakers and the Kings, is waiting to welcome the road weary Kings back to the fold after what, thus far, has proved a disastrous road trip.
But one should never visit a city without venturing out to explore its neighborhoods, and after a half day of eating my way through the delicious offerings of the Ritz Carlton Club Lounge, I knew I needed some exercise. I knew I wanted to explore the Los Angeles of two of my literary heros. The Los Angeles of King-of-the-Hardboileds, Raymond Chandler and his modern counterpart, Michael Connelly.So off I set on my urban odyssey, armed with little more than my iPhone and unsuppressed curiosity.
“Gentrification” is the word urban planners like to use when a long neglected area starts to go upscale, and nothing says “long neglected” like downtown Los Angeles. I set off down Figueroa, then dodged over to Grand Avenue, heading north towards Union Station. The concierge had pointed out a couple of high points not to be missed, first off, the iconic Biltmore Hotel, now enjoying a ‘renaissance’ after years of neglect.
When the Los Angeles Biltmore opened in 1923, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago, and became renowned as the early home of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards – the “Oscars”. The architectural details are stunning, from the frescos and murals to the carved marble fountains and columns to the massive wood beamed ceilings. I’ve tried to capture the essence of this magnificient building with my iPhone, but the images hardly to it justice.
But my visit to the Biltmore reminded me of something my husband and I have discovered on our travels.
“Don’t forget to look up.”
Indispensable advice for travellers, but perhaps particularly for me and my writing colleagues. How much do we miss while our noses are buried in our iPhones and Tablets? So I craned my neck and shot photos of the ornate details, thinking all the while what a marvellous setting the hotel would make – the setting for a mystery.
A murder mystery.
And not far off the mark, since the hotel is reputed to be the last place ‘The Black Dahlia’ (the nickname given to murder victim Elizabeth Short) was last seen alive before her dismembered body was discovered south of town. Her ghost is still said to haunt the hotel today. Her nickname was given to her by the LA newspaper reporters after The Blue Dahlia, a 1946 film based on Chandler’s novel of the same name.
Leaving thoughts of Raymond Chandler behind, I continued south on Grand, dodging over to Hill Street and again heading north. The concierge had alerted me to the location of “Angels Flight” my ears perking up at the familiar name, the title of one of Michael Connelly’s early Harry Bosch novels.
Maybe you’re like me, but my near photographic memory of my youth has taken a beating in mid-middle age, my ability to remember the details of every novel sadly diminished. But I did remember ‘Angels Flight‘ as the exact location of one of Mr. Connelly’s fictional murders. Other than that, I didn’t know what to expect.
Though I’ve included a photograph of the rail car itself, I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the sad collection of drug addicts and down-and-outs congregated around the benches in the dismal little park below.
Some parts of downtown LA have obviously escaped gentrification.
But I boarded the little rail car and rode to the top. In a cool, perhaps-not-coincidence, the advertising banner on the funicular car even included a plug for one of Michael Connelly’s latest books.
Alighting at the top in Pershing Square, where the fare is collected after the fact, a young hispanic man took my dollar and started to make change for the fifty cent fare. But I stopped him. I asked him if instead if he could sell me another ticket. As a souvenir.
“I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly,” I explained.
“You know, the writer? Crime fiction? Harry Bosch novels?”
So I told him about the literary connection to ‘Angels Flight’, and he nodded, but I wasn’t sure he’d ever get around to reading the book. I couldn’t help thinking a lot of young people don’t read anymore. Too hard, compared to watching TV or playing a video game.
That thought made me sad. I mean he works there, for God’s sake.
But with the sun rising in the sky and Union Station still a long way off. I skedaddled on my way, stopping to snap a few more pictures at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, (if you look closely, you can see me reflected in the skeleton’s mirror).
and outside the Walt Disney Theater.
Soon, the iconic City Hall building, loomed on the horizon. Instantly recognizable from dozens of films. I’d intended to detour over to the old LAPD headquarters at Parker Center (another of Harry Bosch’s haunts), but the concierge had suggested making a stop at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, on Temple Street, and the Criminal Courthouse lay on this same route, a not-to-be-missed location for any mystery novelist.
The Cathedral was a surprise, I’d expected a monolithic, California Mission style of Architecture, but the modern design of this gargantuan church, large enough to hold 3,000 worshippers, caught me by surprise. On the day I visited, the courtyard was thronged with visitors, queuing up in two long lines. I thought perhaps there might be a line up to get in, like at the Vatican, but no, the lines were for people welcoming two new priests, each giving their first blessings to the faithful.
But no time to stop. It was already noon.
I pushed on down Temple Street until I found the Criminal Courthouse. Quiet on a Saturday morning, but for a dishevelled man, using the terrace that ringed the courthouse to shoot up. Ironic, I know. I couldn’t help thinking the scene would make a great scene in a novel. I shot his picture, his face in shadows, but he looked up and I shrugged apologetically and moved on, not sorry I took the photo. Just sorry it didn’t turn out, my junkie subject, cast in shadows.
But I’ve learned you can find some great stories in just a few hours. In historic Olivera Street, where old LA originated, I discovered amongst the crowds a hoard of baby guide dogs, on a ‘socializing’ expedition. Unfortunately, I fear this little fella may need a little remedial help… at this rate, he ain’t going to graduate.
By the time I hit Union Station, I was dreaming of lunch and the pool deck at the Ritz Carlton. Nothing wrong with a glitzy pool deck as a literary setting.
The return of public transportation to Los Angeles is a welcome event in a city notorious for clogged freeways, but at least based on my experience with the “Red Train” from Union Station, I doubt we’ll see the demise of car culture anytime soon. Maybe my first clue should have been the helpful subway sign, pointing out which way to exit to reach local landmarks, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility amongst those listed.
But how bad could it be? I was only going a few stops. Just one transfer, right at the end. Only the end turned out not to be the end. After I boarded the Blue Train, intending to get out at the first stop, Pico, I was horrified to discover the train did not… stop. LA Live and the Ritz Carlton tower receded in the distance as we blew past the Pico platform and kept on going. Fortunately, a gentleman standing next to me had also intended to disembark at Pico. We struck up a conversation, each trying to reassure the other that we were not about to embark on our own real life version of To Live and Die in LA.
The train did stop at the next station, and for an uncomfortable ten minutes, we stood together, two against the world, casting sidelong glances right and left at the collection of mumbling homeless people and gang-banger-wanna-bes who shared the platform with us. When a train finally did arrive, we boarded and passed through some of the most desolate urban streets I have ever seen, including an entire block lined with a tent city of shopping carts. All covered in the same blue tarps, making me think one of the relief agencies must have handed them out for free. So sad.
A few minutes later, I ducked through the glass doors and into the air conditioned sanctuary of the Ritz Carlton, and push the button that will take me to the pool deck.
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.
Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye, 1954