As a Scot visiting Los Angeles for the first time I felt it wasn’t all that far removed from my first visit to Glasgow as a youth except with palm trees and better dental care.
A Glaswegian friend tells of how he paid for his aged mum to visit him and his new home in the City of Angels. She stood on his flat roof sitootery and surveyed the house tops for miles around in heat close to 90 degrees. “What a waste”, she said. Bemused, and in mild disappointment, her son asked, “What do you mean, ma?”
“Whit a waste o’ thi’ weather. Naebody’s hinging oot their washin’.”
The City of Angels is vast, mostly one or two story properties – built low to avoid too much damage from frequent earth tremors and quakes – except Downtown, a carbon copy of New York, often doubled as such by television drama series. The sprawl spreads thirty-eight miles on either side of LA’s backbone mountain range.
Areas nearest the ocean, Marina del Rey, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Long Beach, are cooled by the sea breeze, sometimes shrouded in morning haar.
Over the mountains it’s serious desert, dust, tumbleweed, and 110 in the shade: Burbank, San Bernardino, and Thousand Oaks.
Pasadena is the exception, leafy, verdant, topiary gardens, a city within a city, an art deco time warp. Not for nothing does Pasadena house LA’s botanical sanctuary – the Huntington Gardens. It also has one of the best art and design colleges in the world.
Streets and boulevards go on for miles and miles till you get property numbers like 3854 and 5012. My first visit had me an hour-and-a-half late for a meeting. Edinburgh is built on a human scale. You can stroll across its centre in forty minutes. I assumed thirty minutes drive would get me to my LA destination.
There are only two roundabouts in Los Angeles, one in a suburb that the DVLA use to confuse new drivers taking their test, and one at my destination. Being a Scot that drives on the left I took the roundabout into my destination the wrong way. A brace of security guards ran at me waving their hands in the air – “Other way, dumbass!!!”
It’s nice to be recognised as different from the herd.
The Big Blue Bus
If you don’t own a car in LA you take a bus, a Big Blue bus, now mostly electric. One dollar takes you any distance. There’s a bike rack on the nose, and a gas strut platform lowered for those on wheelchairs. The drivers are always personalities, and without protective screens around them, for all the supposed stories of sin city muggers.
Like everywhere else in cosmopolitan LA you meet great characters on the Big Blue, Californians, Latinos, African-Americans, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russians, you name them and they’re on the bus. Unlike our British reserve, the kissy, huggy nature of Angelinos is rarely made uncomfortable when you sit next to them and your thigh brushes against theirs.
Do it too suggestively and expect a “Hey, you serious, or just joshin’ with me?” followed by a peal of laughter. Women are gregarious. “Hi there, big boy. I just love your accent.”
Angelinos don’t fear nudity, bare skin and near nakedness in the desert heat an everyday occurrence. You can open a conversation with anybody, you dressed only in boxer shorts and trainers. They won’t shy away from you.
A chicken tale
A poorly dressed guy unsteady on his feet boarded my Big Blue on Lincoln Boulevard clutching the neck of a large bulbous black bin bag. Whatever was inside filled it to the brim and more, and he wasn’t letting go. He was carrying something precious.
He got on the bus, rummaged in his pockets, and bargained with the driver-conductor.
“Man, I ain’t got a full dollar”.
An altercation sprang up between the impoverished passenger and the long-serving black driver who knew when he was getting conned.
“You is tellin’ me you never checked yo change before yo stopped dis bus?” said the driver, glancing into his mirror before pulling away from the stop.
The bag man looked annoyed. “You think I do this every day?” The conductor did think that. He tested the water.
“Okay. How much you got?”
“I got all of 70 cents, if you must know”, replied the down-and-out, as if the driver didn’t need to know. Bin bag man adjusted his foot in his old cracked shoe as he spoke.
“70 cents?” replied the incredulous driver. “70 cents. So yo did know what yo got.”
“What’s wrong wid my money, man? You can have all of it. I don’t care!”
He stamped his foot hard to fix it in his slack shoe, and in that moment loosened his grip on the bin bag. Ka-boom! A snow storm of white chicken feathers exploded from the bag and fluttered down all over the passengers and seats.
“Goddam it!” shouted the driver, keeping one eye on the traffic ahead and the other on his overhead passenger mirror.
“Who-da hell brings chicken fedders on a bus? My bus!”
The driver of the 3pm to Century City was a man proud of the clean ship he piloted. “Get the hell outa here – an’ take dem fedders wid you!”
The bin bag man gathered up what he could, an impossible task for the faster he grabbed at feathers the more a flock got swatted back into the air. He stuffed as many as he could into his plastic bag and jumping off onto the sidewalk, leaving passengers to pick themselves clean.
“Fuck you! I know my rights!” His last words got cut off as the driver slammed the automatic door shut and drove off.
“Who da hell does a half-assed thing like that?” repeated the driver, seriously annoyed. “Look at da mess of ma bus!”
Passengers guffawed and giggled, I included. But by then the bin bag man had succeeded in travelling a good two miles for free.
Walking – with my legs
Walking around town has its benefits too. You learn a lot more than if inured in your Cadillac with air-conditioning and ten cup holders. There’s a seething mass of entertaining street life to see lured by eternal sunshine.
Angelinos are highly adept at the one liner reply. Years of being tutored by comedy television shows have attuned their ear to the zinger phrase: Friends, Seinfeld, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, a few of the best known immigrants to these shores that junk dialogue for one-line put downs.
In Rodeo Drive, the haunt of the super-rich and plastic surgeons, lost again on one of my many searches for a film production office meeting, I asked in my heavy Scots accent directions of a pedestrian hurrying by. “Excuse me, I’m lost. Where am I?”
The reply was short and to the point: “Planet Earth”.
A show stopper
On another occasion in Santa Monica’s shopping centre I rounded a corner and chanced upon a woman of indeterminate age. She was engrossed in assessing shoes displayed in a store window. Everything about her was sartorially wrong.
She had dyed her hair pitch black highlighting a white powdered face in the middle of which was a blob of bright red lipstick, like a plum splattered on concrete. Her eyebrows were plucked to oblivion necessitating an eyeliner pencil facsimile. She wore a far too tight silk black top with a plunging neck line that exaggerated the spare tyres of fat around her waist. The tights were black; the legs ham shanks, shoes and handbag a matching faux crocodile skin.
The image was off an elderly ballet dancer gone to potato seed who had forgotten her tutu. With a bust a Triple-G, she was a veritable landslide of a woman.
My gaze travelled to her skirt; a ridiculous pussy pelmet. The skirt exposed her voluminous white panties to full scrutiny. This was no Victoria’s secret.
Whatever my expression was as I stood transfixed at the spectacle it caught the alert attention of a woman walking by. Without missing a beat in her step she whispered en passant, “Someone has GOT to tell her!”
A sad show stopper
Not all encounters are memorable for the right reasons. On a casting hunt I popped into a comedy stand-up venue on Sunset Strip, a street cleaned up since pornography went mainstream, corporate owned.
I was looking for an actor for a specific role that required comedic timing. A fair haired young man caught my attention. His ‘act’ was atrocious; the worst gags, in fact the worst material I’d ever seen anybody try out anywhere. It was astonishingly bad, yet he persevered amid hisses and boos until his fifteen minutes was over.
As his act was about to end he turned his back to the audience, dropped his pants, and did a moony. “Do you think I look like Michael Douglas?” he shouted over his shoulder. “Well, I’m his brother!”
It was then I realised he was mimicking Michael Douglas’s skinny bare arse bedroom scene in The War of the Roses. And I knew instantly he was speaking the truth.
Eric Douglas was the forgotten, sidelined, third son of Kirk Douglas. When I met him he was in his late thirties and unemployed, but not without an expensive drop-top Mercedes Benz and a silly lapdog as companion.
“I always thought you’d be the movie star, not Michael”, said his father with all the subtlety of a 22 stone wrestler.
A few years later Eric took his life in a lonely New York hotel room, after screaming at me down the telephone. He was desperate for work.
Had I work available I’d not have offered it. Eric was a deeply troubled man, drug addicted, paranoid, schizophrenic, that compulsive gene surely a gift from his father. He’d insult ten dollars a day waitresses without cause, or smash his drinks glass on the bar counter, snarling “Don’t you know who I am?” if given slow service.
Eric’s reputation around town was rock bottom. “His brains are fried”, said a knowing agent. I learned later he was gay. You try being gay in a hyper-macho home called the Douglas household.
Later I got to know Catherine Zeta-Jones really well and watched her stifle a promising career. She married Michael. There’s the rotten side of LaLa Land, and there’s the life affirming side. I’ve seen both, closely.
[A version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine – not bought a copy yet? Then you’re not a top person, and hiding somewhere in the Highlands in an old bothy]