California (09/2007)

2009 December 8
by Jon

FRI 09/07/07 – SAT 09/15/07
Written 09/17/07 – 09/20/07

Friday, September 7 - Beck and I braved the T at morning rush hour and made our way to Logan. Check-in at Delta there was a breeze and we made it onto a quite pleasant flight to CVG with no difficulty. We took the people mover out to the Small Plane Terminal and hopped onto a regional jet out to DTW. Now, I’m used to flying on puddle jumpers from my many trips into Charleston, WV (or “Charley West” as the aviation folk like to call it) – hell, at least it was a jet and not some ghetto turboprop. Becky didn’t fare as well, though, but managed to keep her Complimentary Snack down as we landed in the lovely main terminal. That place is so pretty and sometimes I like to ride the tram just because I can.

Lauren H. and her husband-to-be picked us up and took us to their home, where we set up to crash on the couch. Having not eaten anything substantial since the Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwiches we shoved down our throats at 7 AM, we walked down to the bd’s Mongolian Barbeque in downtown Royal Oak and proceeded to stuff ourselves. Man, if the Midwest isn’t synonymous to overeating for you, you ain’t doin’ it right.

On the way back we saw a statue in the government center of Royal Oak called “Star Dream.” I’m sure it was supposed to be inspirational. Or something. Becky thought so:

I, however, found it somewhat… lacking:

Very mature, I know.

Saturday, September 8 -we arose in the early morning and headed down to the Detroit Athletic Club after I pretended to be Matt’s dad:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Detroit Athletic Club. Sounds like a YMCA. Maybe an old, dusty gym, some medicine balls, and a couple of dilapitated Ping Pong tables. S’what I thought, too. But not so; this place was one fuck-ton hell of ritzy. Like the kind of place where men with handlebar moustaches used to go to smoke cigars and drink cognac and discuss the Irish Problem. Wood paneling. Everywhere. Many pieces of oak and cherry all over the place. Old Timey photos of said men with handlebar moustaches dressed for participation in a gentlemanly game of Sport:

Austere. In between bouts of feeling under-dressed from not having brought my suit jacket, I went out with Becky to tour the surrounding area. It seems that CoMeriCaWhatEverTheCorPorAteCrap Park – home of the Playoff Hopeful if the Yankees Would Ever Lose a Damn Game Detroit Tigers was a block away. Weird. Let me tell you, from living in the Northeast for so long, I didn’t expect to see a 50,000+ seat professional baseball stadium around the corner when we walked outside. That this section of Detroit has NO TRAFFIC WHATSOEVER in the middle of the day on Saturday made it even weirder. Oh, and they had a 7 PM game but, as of 3 PM, there weren’t 20,000 drunk people standing outside. There weren’t any drunk people standing outside. Maybe that’s just part of Fenway’s charm.

They did, however, have an enormous statue of a tiger which nearly ate Becky:

The Tigers – much like the Sox – experienced decades of mediocrity punctuated by the occasional season of unmitigated success. Somehow this earned them a beautiful new park with 30-foot statues in a lovely area whereas we still have a grungy, ugly 95 year-old park in one of the grungy, ugliest parts of town. And our local economy isn’t as thoroughly in the crapper, either. Someone dropped the ball on that one. Pun only sort of intended.

The ceremony itself was very short and very lovely. Both bride and groom dressed to impress and all went very smoothly by all appearances. On the way out, the piano player, a friend of the couple, played the “Legend of Zelda” theme song. For that Matt and Lauren definitely Epic Win. It got the giggles out of just about everybody in the house under 40 and those who didn’t get it soon started laughing anyway for fear they’d be outed as not getting what was clearly a very funny joke. Love it when that happens.

After a very nice brunch we boarded the Detroit People Mover – their closest thing to a light rail system – for the low-low price of 50 cents. There’s only one route, a circle, and it takes only about 15 minutes to make the complete circuit. Oh, and the train is run via computer. While I had my reservations on boarding an Evil Robot Train, everyone had a good time seeing the sights from above ground in the end:

We stopped off at one particularly well-designed station to take some pictures of the bride and groom:

Matt then graciously took us back to their place where we changed and napped a bit before heading out to Lauren’s parents’ house to chill out until the party there. Once that got going, there was much playing of Wii and far, far too much eating of pizza and snacks for my own good. Whoof. So tasty but so makey bloatey. We started to crash a bit before midnight and Matt once again was kind enough to leave his own wedding celebration to bring us back to sleep. I can’t thank him and Lauren enough for all their hospitality on their Special Day. So full of awesome.

Sunday, September 9 - in the morning we were taken by our groggy hosts to the airport, where we boarded American this time. Mistake. Delta was way better. We got stuck in the old, ugly terminal. There was a plaque that said it was dedicated in 1975, and I suspect not serviced in the least since. The new one is almost polemically better. We were glad to get out of that dingy, dark place and land in Chicago O’Hare, where our connecting flight was thankfully just a few gates away (considering that ORD is the size of a small city we could have easily missed it were it in another terminal). While there I tried to finagle seats that were actually next to one another, since American apparently didn’t want us flying in Sin or something. No such luck. Turns out the flight was overbooked (in this day and age there’s no excuse for that except doing it on purpose) so we were lucky to have seats, period. Becky also caught a display informing us that we’d have to pay for any sort of food – even a snack – while on the flight, so we scrambled to a nearby restaurant to get sandwiches for the 4-hour journey. In summary: kiss my ass, American Airlines.

Thankfully a nice gentleman gave up his seat next to mine for Becky’s and we were able to have our own space after all. So it worked out in the end and we landed in LAX where we were greeted by my Aunt Patty and Uncle Mike in baggage claim. If I haven’t stated it explicitly before, these are the only two people in my extended family whom I actually respect. I felt honored to be able to stay with them for our time there.

My aunt recently had Stage 3 ovarian cancer. She has made a near-complete recovery after a hysterectomy and years of chemo, radiation, and checkups. She is quite nearly her old self again, but it aged her a great deal. While she previously had nearly all black hair, even into her late 50’s, she’s now completely gray. Previously exceptionally energetic, she’s now a bit slower. Her wit hasn’t much dulled, though. Ultimately, I’m glad she’s still alive, period, as she’s proof that my genetic makeup can result in genuine intellectual curiosity and an undying refusal to fall into apathy. I sure hope the same is true of me when my years are twice their current number.

We went from the airport to pick up a rental car at the LAX Alamo. Now, it’s here that I had a bit of difficulty, but ultimately I’d stick with Alamo, as it was mostly first-timer’s ignorance. While check-in was pretty simple (and subsequent check-out was fantastically simple and fast) I was handed off my GPS transponder, a receipt, and told to go find my car in the Economy section. Probably should have asked, “which car?” Turns out, any car. I suppose, had I taken a larger vehicle I’d have been charged for it accordingly, as they scan the tags on each car and customer receipt upon arrival and departure. As it stood, after 10-15 minutes of trying to flag down someone who spoke English, I settled on hopping into a 2007 Volkswagon Rabbit and just trying to take the sucker. That, it seems, is what one must do. I was happy to get the Rabbit, too, as it beat out the Chevy Aveo (with no keys in the ignition) and line of P-O-S Saturns that were also available. Actually, the little sucker served us quite well during our trip and, aside from some electrical wiring problems resulting in the passenger-side window control not working and the trunk not popping on command (which we didn’t even discover until the last day), it worked out just fine. The A/C worked wonderfully, and that was the most important part. It’s hot in Southern California. In case you didn’t know.

Let me state right here and now that the Garmin StreetPilot is a wonderful, wonderful thing if you’re in an unfamiliar city. It never failed to find whatever I looked for, and only occasionally led me astray. When it did, it would quickly recalculate the route and get me back on course. And it did all that with a Jane Austenesque, detached British middle-aged woman’s voice. We called it “Jane Goodall” the entire time we were there. That, when recalculating a route, it would state, plainly, “recockulating,” was a neverending source of amusement for me.

We arrived at my aunt and uncle’s place in Winnetka-or-maybe-Canoga-Park-definitely-the-suburbs-though with the usual LA traffic and settled in, eating dinner with them and their next-door neighbor. I can’t imagine being that friendly with neighbors, but maybe that’s just me and my Northeastern sense of Personal Space. I struggled to stay up past 9 by watching MythBusters but didn’t make it very far, and such, our first day in LA came to an end.

Monday, September 10 - we woke morning well-rested but not much in the way of adjusted to Pacific time.

My aunt and uncle’s hospitality was fantastic, and Beck and I took to eating out more by ourselves just so they wouldn’t be paying for our meals as well as giving us housing all the time. And there were the dogs, too. No pictures of them because they wouldn’t stay still for long enough. Y’see, my uncle is a retired firefighter. Who serves as a reserve police officer now – in his early 60s – just to give him something to do. He leaves his guns (in a plastic safety lock) on the kitchen table. He was in Vietnam. He is not the kind of guy you screw with. His dogs, though, have been trained to play really rough. Super-lovable but really rowdy. There’s Roxy, a pit mix, whom we refered to as “Licky Dog,” and Boo, a retriever mix who looks more like an oversized Australian shepard, whom we refered to as “Barky Dog.” And that about says it all. Every morning, Barky Dog would bark at me until I chased him around the house several times, and Licky Dog would insist on licking everyone in sight. Fun dogs, for sure, but I think we’re happy with old, low-energy Buddy.

After breakfast and my aunt ensuring that we had enough water and sunblock for 8 or 10 people, we went out into the desert east of LA on Monday, since it was only supposed to get up to about 108 that day. Yeah, only 108. In mid-September. The desert is hot.

First we went to the Cabazon Dinosaurs about 20 miles west of Palm Springs. Perhaps you will remember them from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. A slightly younger crowd may better remember them from The Wizard. Well, while the 80s have passed on, the dinos are still there, preserved nearly perfectly like everything out in the moistureless desert. There’s the T-Rex who played the bigger role in Pee Wee and the Apatosarus (you might call it a “brontosaurus”) whose insides were featured in the latter, Fred Savage movie:

Now, unfortunately, T-Rex is only open on weekends these days, so we weren’t able to see if Pee Wee is memorialized on his insides. However, as for the other dino’s role, it did not disappoint:

What’s that yellow box in the back there? You guessed it!:

Seriously, how awesome is that? A lot more awesome than the dinos these days, I’ll tell you that much. Not that its their fault. But, y’see, Cabazon is in the middle of nowhere. Palm Springs isn’t far away, true, but if that’s your destination you’re certainly not going to stop off a mere 20 miles out. Bat country, I’m sure. So making money’s not easy. The original owner, after several decades, wound up having to sell them to the highest bidder. That was, unfortunately, a fundamentalist group who turned it into an Intelligent Design museum:

I so wish I was making this up but I’m not. It’s less a “museum” and more a gift shop with several laminated, poorly-designed PowerPoint slides posted around it:

I suppose if you’re not concerned with facts you don’t really have to put up much in terms of museum content, though. There was a video playing the entire time we were there explaining how dinosaurs got as big as they are because lizards never stop growing and so they’re just really old lizards. Oh, and Noah simply took them on the Arc when they were younger and therefore smaller. Convenient, eh?

Plus there’s also the part where they existed at the same time as us, naturally. Still exist, that is. Y’know dragons? Actually dinosaurs. Once again, what convenience. To illustrate how this works out, they built a diorama for visitors to see how a medieval battle between armor-clad knights and a rogue dinosaur might have gone down:

Once again, not making this up. This is America, people. Be very, very afraid for humanity.

After all seeing all these Intelligent Designosaurs we were ready for lunch. Becky indulged me in trying to find an In-n-Out Burger so I could get my fix that was 2 1/2 years coming. The nearest one was jam-packed so we wound up driving out to Indio to find one that wasn’t too busy. But it was worth it. For the only fast food endorsed by the author of Fast Food Nation, it’s worth a half hour drive through the Sierra Nevadan desert. Crazy delicious.

We drove up toward Joshua Tree to see some of the actual desert, as opposed to the stuff off I-10, on the way back:

Two things that don’t convey in those images:

1) It was, in fact, 108 degrees outside. After being out there for about 20 minutes, my body started to tell me that it might be a good idea to get back inside the air conditioned car. And that’s in the early autumn.

2) It was quiet as HELL. I felt like I had to whisper for fear that the people living a mile away might hear us. Kind of eerie, actually. Sort of makes me understand how people can take peyote and wander off and never come back; you feel like if you wait long enough, it’s quiet enough that you might hear God talking. Might explain why the Southwest accumulates so many “unique” people.

We made it back to my aunt’s and uncle’s place in time for dinner, no thanks to a lady in a pink convertible running a red light and hitting a bus. I really, really wish I had a picture of this, but sadly, I don’t. It was about the most stereotypical SoCal thing we saw in our entire time there.

In the idea of seeing what Young People do in LA and in trying to adjust to time zones, we went out to a local band showcase at the Echo. Sort of half PA’s, half TT’s, all not too out of the ordinary from something in Boston. It also reminded me of a mini-Avalon with better bar service. Point is, it was really nice to see that there was no fundamental difference between the culture we’d be attracted to in LA from that of Boston. Subtle stuff, yeah, but nothing huge. There was no door fee, but drinks were outrageously expensive. But we got drink discount tickets. So it evened out in the end, I figure. The show was good, for what we saw, but we only stuck around for the first act, as that was about all we could manage on the first day.

Tuesday, September 11 - I spent most of the morning on the phone with a travel agent trying to be as patient as possible in getting our flight back to Boston changed back to a reasonable time after it was changed to 6:30 AM without our permission. Despite really trying my patience, we wound up with a direct Delta flight at 10 AM, so it was worth it.

We then went down to Melrose Ave to hit up Necromance, upon Mary L’s suggestion. They had two stores: one full of stuff about death, Gashly Crumb books and poison vials. The other was full of taxidermed animals, x-rays of animals, and jewelry shaped like insects. It was Becky: the Store. She controlled her purchasing but was clearly very giddy.

On our way in, we noticed how close we were to Touristland Hollywood, so we figured we’d knock that one off before taking a late lunch. Saw the stars, put our hands in the cement, that whole thing. We also saw a Genuine Hollywood Action Movie being set up for filming:

I think that’s supposed to be an overturned cement truck but I assure you it’s quite fake. I think the movie is supposed to be called John Hancock (altough hopefully not, as that is a stupid name for an action flick) and stars Will Smith. So if it comes out sometime next summer, remember that we saw them set up the Cement Truck Scene.

We also took a trip into the Ripley’s Believe it or Not across the way from the filming. I had gone the last time I went to LA when I was 11 years old, but I didn’t remember much. Half of the museum appears to be dedicated to accidental impaling. Well, someone’s got to document it, right?

After lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen in Hollywood (because, if you’re going to be a tourist, might as well do it all the way) we drove down to the beach in Santa Monica. Everclear stuck in my head and Cheryl Crow stuck in Becky’s, we relaxed in the sand a short walk from the Pier and watched the sun set over the Pacific. I made a drip castle:

And Becky examined the local flora:

Later, before hitting the Pier, we watched some Bro-Dudes swing on the rings in the gymnastic playground near the beach and make guttural noises, thereby completing our Santa Monica experience. We decided to return to the beach, this time in Venice, later, for a contrasting experience.

The Pier itself offered a lovely view, cheap chili cheese dogs, but little else at the time. Unfortunately, they were filming some insipid WB pilot at the time and had the carnival completely closed off. While I enjoyed seeing the filming in Hollywood, this one vaguely insulted me, since I wouldn’t watch whatever WB crap show about Beautiful Teenagers having Feelings on the Beach even for free. Oh well. I suppose rogue film crews are one of the hazards of the environment. It was fun to sit eating what amounted to our dinner while watching Teamsters haul around lighting equipment, though.

We returned home and finished out the night by watching Shrek 2 on DVD in our room. All in all, a successful first two days in LA.

Wednesday, September 12 - Becky wanted to go see the Elephant Seal Vista up near San Simeon, a bit over halfway up to San Francisco from LA. I figured it’d be nice to see the countryside in California, so we made a day of the 500-or-so-mile round trip.

So, we went up Route 101, through Santa Barbara, up to San Luis Obispo where we picked up Highway 1 up the coast. Man, what a beautiful drive. We arrived in the early afternoon and, sure enough, there were some big ol’ seals there. Most of them were just lying on the beach being piles of blubber. Some occasionally flopped sand on their backs to keep warm (whereas it was 108 in the desert the day before, up on the Central Californian coast it was barely in the upper 60s with a high, chilly winds). That sort of seemed like something Buddy would do, were he to have flippers.

However, not too long after we arrived, a couple of seals indulged us by playing in the water near the vista:

The vista itself was decently built up with a good deal of boardwalk to bring visitors close to the seals without putting them in danger. Y’see, while we were there there were only female seals on the beach. Each was about 6-8 feet long and must’ve weighed somewhere around 500 or 600 pounds. However, during mating season, the bulls hit the shore, each 10-14 feet long and sometimes weighing over a ton. Not something you’d want to mess with. Still, the warning signs seemed to imply not so much “do not attempt to feed or touch the seals” as “do not attempt to teach the seals circus tricks:”

We stuck around for a bit but decided to high-tail it out when a tour bus parked in the vista parking lot. We both grumbled a bit, knowing it couldn’t be a good thing. Sure enough, a steady, zombie-like flow of Old People emerged from the bus. Funny thing about old people. They cease to believe in personal space. Seeing elephant seals? Awesome. Seeing elephant seals while some dude who smells like Ben Gay stands 6 inches behind you? Not as awesome. We bid the seals – and the ravens along the beach, all of whom we named “Matthew” – farewell and headed back down Highway 1 back toward LA.

We got lunch in a dingy cafeteria in nearby Cambria (with “A Favor House Atlantic” then stuck in my head). Cambria, it seems, is where all these Old People stay. There was an inn. One of them glorified roadside deals with maybe 2 or 3 dozen rooms, filling the space between a B&B and a Motel 6. Then another one. And another one. There were 18 of them. Within a 1 mile stretch. Cambria, California frightens me. We drove on.

Along the way we stopped in the unincorporated town of Harmony, CA. They proudly displayed their population as a steady 18. No more, no less. One imagines a situation resembling The Lottery should someone give birth or should a new resident move in. The town advertised a wedding chapel, pottery, and… there were a couple other things I don’t quite recall. Simple small town stuff. It should be noted that Google Maps points to another location about 100 miles to the Southeast when inquired about Harmony, CA. While we didn’t find any of these things they claimed to have, they did have a really neat old pickup truck – from the late 30s or early 40s, I figure. The kind of which is ripe for taking interesting pictures:

We continued down Highway 1, stopping before long to climb up a hill near the shore. The view from atop was the kind of beautiful that can’t really be conveyed in amateur photographs. It was just absolutely stunning, and probably the best view we had on our entire trip:

Atop the hill sat what I think was some sort of Buddhist monument:

Becky placed a pine cone and a shell she’d found inside the monument, which seemed quite appropriate and was probably perfectly in line with the departed’s (erm… reincarnated’s?) wishes:

We got back in the car and finished the long journey back to LA, fortunately not hitting terribly much in the way of traffic. Having had a late lunch, we just got a snack for dinner, and Becky patiently waited in the car with me while I got my second In-n-Out Burger fix of the trip (one for 2006, one for 2007; I’m all caught up now). We were too tired to do much productive in the evening and passed into sleep not too long after 9 in the evening while watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on DVD. Nice, peaceful day.

Thursday, September 13 - in the morning we resolved to head down to Universal Studios so we’d be able to actually do something with my aunt and uncle. While they seemed perfectly content to do their own thing and let us simply crash with them, I was starting to feel bad about that arrangement, and felt we owed them at least one day of us treating them. This was the plan, at least. This was thwarted when my uncle insisted on paying for our entrance tickets. Which were $61. Each. I tried to argue with him, but, you remember my description of him. Firefighter. Vietnam. Guns. On the kitchen table. I didn’t fare very well. Unfortunately he’s also been graced with an inordinate ability to understand technology for an early Baby Boomer (my aunt as well – they both wear BlueTooth earpieces for their Razr phones) so I couldn’t even beat him to the purchase by using the self-checkout, as he was on top of that, too. Drats. I still feel guilty about being such a burden – however involuntarily – and I’m trying to think of something to make it up to them. Still working on that one.

It was a Thursday during the day, shortly after school had started. Sure, there were some kids of tourists and locals who inexplicably had the day off, but it really wasn’t that busy. The longest we waited in line was for the first thing we did, the Studio Tour tram, for about 20 minutes. The wait times dropped thereafter until the afternoon, when we were able to walk right up and get on a ride. So that was pretty awesome.

After the Studio Tour – which was honestly a bit underwhelming but redeeming in its camp value – my uncle swung around and snapped the only picture I got of us with my aunt:

We then headed over to “Shrek 4-D.” On the plus side, it was totally not just for kids and quite fun for adults, too. On the down side, I still don’t know what the fourth dimension was, as we failed to travel back in time. Although they let in the next group before we were done, so maybe we traveled forward?

Which reminds me: I’m sad to announce that, earlier this year, they took down Back to the Future: the Ride, after 18 years of service. Sadness! It was the thing I was most looking forward to! While I rode it at least once each at Hollywood and Orlando when I was younger, Becky never got to experience it in all its hilarious splendor. Oh well. I can’t blame them for removing a ride that was for a movie franchise that ended two decades ago, I guess. The building still stood, though, behind a plywood wall, as it hadn’t been worked on much through the hot summer months, soon to be turned into a Simpsons-based attraction. *sigh*

After a quick lunch at the burger stand in the above picture that was… Flintstones themed, I guess? We proceeded to the Animal Actors show. The show was pretty darned funny, and I was surprised to see that it actually employed an orangutan. I’d have thought that the Animal Rights loonies would have been all over that, but I guess that all greater apes have an equal right to work. Good to see. It gives me hope that, by the time my kids are ready to see stuff like that, stupid hippies won’t have totally taken the fun out of everything.

We then went to the Backdraft attraction. Now, my uncle was actually one of the Fire Marshalls on staff during the Hollywood filming of the movie when he held that position in 1990, so he was actually allowed, along with many other fire fighters in Southern California, to tour the attraction as they made it and give them advice, which he claims they followed. That’s pretty darned neato. Consequently, it was the only thing we did all day that gave both Beck and I a genuine moment or two of “OHHOLYCRAPWEAREGOINGTODIE.” Neat.

After getting toasted inside there on a day that already topped 90, we decided it’d be best to cool off in the Jurassic Park water ride. My aunt and uncle opted to stay back and take pictures of Becky and I getting soaked. See if you can pick us out:

Around that second one just got silly. Y’see, remember the not-actually-real Spitosauruses that hawked up poison phleghm at Newman from “Seinfeld?” They have a lot of those along the ride that spray you as you go by – even after the plunge. It’s just sort of insult to injury. In a way I kind of really thought it was funny, removing myself from the situation, though.

The ride exit leads through the gift shop. Those Universal people, they ain’t stupid, y’know. Offered some interesting photo opportunities, to say the least:

After that we rode the new The Mummy ride with my aunt and uncle then headed on back home, having had our fill of amusement parks for the day. While I’d have never shelled out $61 a ticket on my own, both Beck and I are really glad we did get a chance to go and do all these things, as it was loads of fun.

In the evening we got in touch with LA’s newest Boston expat, Ms. Catherine Chop Chop. We met her at this little beachside bar in Venice called the On the Waterfront Cafe. We got there just in time to catch happy hour. Catherine and I split a pitcher of Bitburger for $9. The food was decent – not great, but decent bar food – and really cheap, too. All together it came in under $40 for 3 people including 2+ rounds of drinks, so that’s pretty fantastic. It cleared out after happy hour ended so we were able to actually hear each other, too. It was really good to see friends who have moved elsewhere, and she seems to be adjusting fairly well to life in LA now. After a couple hours of chatting and catching up we parted ways and Beck and I headed back home, ending all but our final full day in California.

Friday, September 14 - we awoke in the morning ready to cram as much into our final day as we could. First and foremost was heading down to East LA to see the Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. Becky has been a huge fan of “The Dog Whisperer” ever since it first aired in 2004, and I have to admit that I’ve been caught up by it as well. We often use whether or not someone likes Cesar Millan (he’s a surprisingly polarizing figure) as a sort of St. Peter’s Litmus Test; hate Cesar? You have a hate-filled soul. Works pretty well.

As you can plainly see from the last link, they don’t exactly advertise the location for all to come and visit. They instead prefer to keep it out of the public eye. Which, of course, is damned near impossible in LA. Several brief moments of googling got me the address. So, after breakfast, we headed down the highways, well past where White People Ought to Be and into a heavily industrial area in a large Hispanic neighborhood (which is to say, East LA). I wouldn’t call it the ghetto, as it could have gotten worse. The liquor stores were open and had no bars across the windows. So it wasn’t that bad. Something like you might expect in, say, grungier areas of JP, or maybe Roslindale. Definitely not as bad as, say, Dudley Square in Roxbury or 90% of Baltimore. On a Ghetto Scale of 1-10 I’d give it an 8. We didn’t feel unsafe, just unwelcome. But hey, we were stalking the guy, so it comes with the territory.

As we parked on a side street, it became clear that the entrance facing the street to Cesar’s compound was off of a private industrial way. I actually inadvertently drove through it before I knew I wasn’t supposed to. There was so much traffic in and out that it didn’t really cause a stir. When we got out of the car to walk back on foot to get a better look it was more evident that we were out of place, though, based solely on our complexions. Not only were we White People, we were pale enough to indicate Not From Around Here Status. However, there’s something I love about Mexicans – and this might be a cultural thing for all sorts of immigrants from Hispanic countries, but I don’t know – and that is, they won’t tell you you can’t do something. No one bothered to inform us we weren’t allowed to stroll up and check the place out. But they stared at us without an iota of shame for the duration of our time there. Somehow it wasn’t as bad, though, with the knowledge that that’s all they’d do.

If you’ve ever seen the show, you’d recognize the street from the opening credits as where he walks a dozen dogs wearing bicycle shoes. Except now there were a great deal more cars there. You’d also recognize the fence gate draped in a forest green tarp as the entrance-way. Except now it didn’t look quite as shiny and happy as it did on TV, with a few more uninviting “NO TRESPASSING” signs:

We could hear the dogs barking inside, though. Becky sidled up to the fence and peered in through a crack, reporting that the insides were unmistakably the right location. While Beck’s hopes of Cesar coming out to give his vees-it-ohrs a guided tour were dashed, we were glad that we were able to get up next to it, period, given the nature of filming locations to be fenced off at a block-wide radius. There appeared to be possible access to another entrance through an unpaved industrial alley a couple doors down, but we mutually determined that it wouldn’t be safe to go in that way as, in addition to it being private property and an arrest really putting a damper on our last day, it might be full of guys driving large trucks not expecting White Folk to jump out around the corner. Contented that we’d found the right place, we got into the car and headed on.

Our next stop was the La Brea Tar Pits. We weren’t expecting it to be so built-up, but it was actually quite a display. Becky was a huge fan of how they pointed out numerous times that the excavated prehistoric mammals from 10,000 – 40,000 years ago, and not dinosaurs:

That was from one of the ongoing excavations in the free display areas around the park called Pit 91:

You expect the tar (asphalt, actually, as they point out) to be buried under 20-or-so feet of soil, but no, it’s right there. We saw at least 3 places in which asphalt was bubbling right up to the surface right in the middle of the grass. I was vaguely reminded of the Super Mario Brothers movie.

The museum at the tar pits had only a $7 entrance fee for adults, so we checked it out as well. I discovered what it’s like to be trapped in tar:

It’s fun! We saw a Holocaust museum-like wall of hundreds of dire wolf skulls (the linked wiki page actually has a picture of it). Given that only several dozen other large mammals were extracted compared to the near 2,000 dire wolves proportedly found, we figured that dire wolves must not be that smart. Clearly, this is why they went extinct.

The museum also features a number of animatronic displays of various Pleistocene predators attacking various Pleistocene prey and a koi pond with the single largest koi we’ve ever seen. Suckers were a solid 2 feet long. They also had a “story room” in which they played for us a dated, deliciously campy video about the animals featured in the museum, complete with vintage low-budget animation:



After walking around a bit, we pondered the plight of the mammoths. Becky meditated upon life-size ones:

I instructed a small, plush one in how to not fall into tar:

Another baby mammoth was, unfortunately, not so lucky:

The juxtaposing of the cigarette butt there is unintentional but appreciated.

We got some lunch at a local place called “Johnny’s” claiming to offer “New York style pizza” before heading on. Apparently “New York style” means “small, with a cracker-like thin crust and covered in cilantro.” Nice try, Johnny’s, but you’re not quite there yet. We continued on to Venice Beach. While there I made an even better sand drip castle than before:

Becky stomped on my other one. She’s a bully, y’know. I got my revenge, though:

The Pacific water was too cold for me to swim. Becky gave it a shot, though. Turns out it’s too full of small sharks for her to swim. Eesh. The sand and surf were beautiful, but when it comes to ocean swimming, I’ll take my current-warmed, fauna-devoid Atlantic, thank you very much. But man was it nice to lie on that beach. So, so relaxing.

We took a walk down the oceanfront in Venice to take in the local culture. I’d love to have dozens of pictures of the various trinket-hawking stoners, homeless, and other Wayward Folk of all colors and creeds, but most seemed to, despite their free lifestyle, have enough of a capitalist streak to demand money for photographs. Boo. It was sure fun, though, and felt like everyone belonged there. Sort of the opposite of Santa Monica in that regard. A lot more, shall we say, “organic.” There were a lot of people smoking and not many cigarettes. Head shops. All over the place. Want a bong? Venice Beach is your place.

We pressed through traffic back home, quickly showered and headed out to dinner, once again struggling through epic (read: typical) traffic to our dinner reservations at La Fonda, a Mexican Mariachi restaurant. The food was okay but not great and a bit too pricey. The drinks were, it turns out, ridiculously expensive. I should have known from them not being listed on the menu, which is never a good sign. Still, hungered from our day out, we wolfed it down and waited for the show. And oh man, did that make it worth it. Nine mariachi came on stage – a guitarist, an acoustic bassist, two trumpeters and five violinists. They sounded fantastic and entertained us for a solid hour before we decided to cut out to head home:



They must’ve kept going for some time after that, but we had a plane to catch, so we couldn’t see it all. It was really funny to see how many people there (the audience was 90+% Spanish-speaking, but the waitstaff had no troubles understanding us English-speaking folk) would recognize a song based solely on the introduction and start cheering right away, much like an opening guitar riff might incite roaring applause from an American audience at a big rock show.

Unfortunately, the food was a bit too much on the authentic side for Becky and I. We had authentic mild-to-moderate GI problems for much of the next 24 hours. I suppose it comes with the territory, though, and it was worth it for the experience.

Saturday, September 15 - gassy and vaguely ill as we were, we bid my aunt and uncle and Los Angeles farewell in the morning. Getting to the airport at 7:15 AM on a Saturday was a snap, Jane Goodall directed us to the rental car place without incident, and I returned the car with ease. Within 2 minutes we were on a shuttle headed to the terminal. We felt a bit uneasy when we saw how very many people were waiting to check in at Delta. That said, a sassy, no-nonsense lady employee kept the line moving quickly and we were at our own self-check-in kiosk with not too much of a wait. Predictably, the kiosk displayed our old flight information, not our new, correct flight. Up yours, cheaptickets.com.

We flagged down another employee who, much to our relief, got us our seats – and next to each other, too! – with little further trouble. We dropped off our bags and pressed through security. It was there that I saw a fat, blonde-haired man whom I’m now 99% certain was Bruce Vilanch. Content that I finally had a C-list celebrity sighting, I feel that I accomplished all I needed to on this journey.

A sullen, pale man in his mid-to-late 30s wearing a Joy Division t-shirt beneath an old, black jacket passed by me in the news stand as I bought some Tums for Becky (who got the worse of the Mexican authenticity) and a TIME Magazine for me to peruse on the plane. A flicker of recognition fired through the back of my brain but I couldn’t place the name to the face. As he sat down in the gate area for the Boston flight it dawned on me that we were on the same flight as Ben Palmer. The Barbarians are officially everywhere now. One can no longer enter a major city without running into one, it seems. So well done there, guys.

So, there you go. Bruce Vilanch and Ben Palmer. Los Angeles International Airport, ladies and gentlemen.

The flight – other than a rather annoying delay in LA of over a half an hour – was perfectly fine. Delta likes to treat coach passengers like human beings – unlike American – so the 5 hours passed by quickly. We retrieved our bags in Boston quickly and headed over to the T station on the shuttle. It’s there that I saw trouble ahead as soon as I spotted a line of a half-dozen buses outside the station. Yep, it was everyone’s favorite T wankery, the track repair work shuttle. We endured a painfully long bus ride down to Government Center just barely. I was very close to swallowing the $30-40 needed for just getting off and taking a cab back home. The bus driver felt it necessary not only to drive to every T stop on the way there but to also go the most roundabout way possible. We crossed at least two bridges. We sat in a regular, non-Fast Lane toll lane on the Tobin Bridge for several minutes. Screw you, MBTA. Even that we were allowed onto the train for free at Government Center and therefore didn’t pay for the 90+ minute trip home from Logan offered little consolation. This is why I hate the T and avoid it in all but absolutely essential circumstances.

But, we made it home after all. And thank God for online ordering forms because I did NOT feel like talking to a human being any more than I had to to get our dinner by that point. Everything seemed relatively in order when we were home, thanks to Becky’s sister’s care of the dog. Buddy was happy to see us. The frog and the fish, lacking the CNS capacity for such displays of emotion, acknowledged our return by simply continuing to exist.

It was a wonderful vacation. I’m glad I got a chance to do all the things we did and it was loads of fun but I’m glad to be back in Boston. Now if only I could shake my jetlag enough to go out and do something. That’d be cool, huh?

Thanks for reading.

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