Los Angeles - Folks on the East Coast of the US – the hard-driving Noo Yawkers and the Ivy Leaguers – love to point out that the continental US slopes down towards the West… and that is why all the loose nuts roll down and end up in California.
Here, on the “boardwalk”, Venice Beach, Los Angeles, it’s difficult to argue with that idea. You could be in a bizarre music video… certainly in a place which makes the intergalactic bars in Star Wars (with their myriad strange creatures) seem mundane.
There’s a brunette (punk or Goth – who knows?) with the usual assortment of body piercings and tattoos (at least the ones you can see). But she has an unusual scarf wound around her neck – a cat. A living, feline creature as exotic as she is.
Further down sits a man in a deck chair (is he homeless?) wearing a denim jacket that has seen a few nights’ sleeping rough in its life. Next to him is a handwritten poster that offers “Shit advice – $1”.
Even as you wonder, a 70-year-old granny goes whizzing past on roller skates. In shorts. Skating sure don’t help cellulite, mama…
There’s no cellulite visible on the pair of lizards that are being taken “walkies” by two tanned dudes in baggies. They call them salamanders… but they look bigger than that. Hey – who’s counting?
As the Saturday morning sun starts to microwave the concrete, a shirtless black dancer is busting his moves, to enthusiastic applause from the crowd. A dead ringer for soul singer Seal, he’s got it going on… and he sure knows it.
Spinning his charm around volunteer women from the audience – “Now we’re looking for someone who’s Hispanic, please help me out here…” – he uses their clumsiness to accentuate (in the nicest way, you understand) his own lithe balletic skills.
Then comes a challenge from out of the crowd – a white chick. But everybody knows that no white chick, especially from an “uptight” place like Germany (which she announces with some in-your-face insouciance) is ever going to able to break dance better than an LA black dude… right? Wrong!
She blows him away with her moves and he concedes, crossing to his plastic donations tub and hauling out two $10 bills (R172)… “there you go, folks – I’m not just here to take money… when someone kicks my ass like that she deserves some too!”
As the applause erupts, his depleted earnings are rapidly topped up again.
Muttering to himself nearby, a dreadlocked man sits under a sign that says “F…k Illuminati” and next to that is another that proclaims “Hug a Jew”.
Not far along, there are a few Jewish outreach places, and a few Christian ones… part of the scenery in Venice, where the homeless have a home of sorts, on the grass or on the hard concrete benches.
As the song correctly says, it never rains in southern California, so it’s one of the best places in the US to be without a roof over your head. Or to live with the pungent smell of weed (you can get a certificate that will allow you to get prescriptions for medicinal marijuana… only 30 bucks).
Yet, in Venice Beach, nobody raises an eyebrow. It’s the original “live and let live” place.
Ruby, the founder and man who runs the Other Venice Film Festival (OVFF), says “You could wear a diaper [nappy] here and nobody would care. They’d just say ‘Oh, there’s the guy with the diaper’ and carry on doing whatever…”
Pop star Justin Bieber, according to Ruby, once went to Venice Beach in a gold mask: “Nobody noticed, nobody cared…”
I’m here for a few days chilling out with some people from an international company, Webtel.mobi, with whom I worked a few years ago on putting together the Webtel.mobi Intercontinental Challenge, where jetwing pilot Yves Rossy narrowly failed to become the first man to cross from Africa to Europe on a jetwing.
The documentary the company made of the event has been entered in the OVFF and, on finale night (when our movie closes the festival), we discover we’ve won the best documentary category.
So we get to stand on the red carpet while the official photographer preserves us for posterity and we get to talk to all sorts of Angelenos about the movie biz.
We’re not actually in that business, but we’ve won a film award and LA loves winners. Business cards are appearing from nowhere, people are pressing the flesh.
Back at the hotel (the Hotel Erwin – nice place, right on the beachfront), they know we’re from “the film crew” – and it’s an “Open Sesame” to places like the rooftop bar, where the burly bouncer clears out people from the prime seats to make way for us.
And, one night, when the others go up for a nightcap, the barman is closing up … but he leaves them with a bottle of whiskey, some Cokes and ice. All for nothing.
That wouldn’t happen in Joburg, dude…
Venice Beach is laid-back, but the hotels and restaurants, like those elsewhere in America, offer efficient friendly service. It’s the same story in LA, where we grab a breakfast at an Italian place just off swanky Rodeo Drive.
In Santa Monica, along the shore from Venice Beach, though, we have mixed fortunes. At an almost empty restaurant, we ask for a table for six. It is short notice, but we won’t be long because we’re heading back to the OVFF. No dice. And the woman behind the counter goes as far as telling one of us”I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me…”
Oh really? This is us leaving your restaurant, lady. It makes me a bit nostalgic for that typical “The answer’s no, now what’s the question?” sort of service we get back home.
Next door, at the Ivy Tree, another Italian place, we’re back to normal American “make a plan” attitudes. Even though it is packed with people, table for six… “No problem!”
And while we wait, we are served chilled champagne… on the house! Another wouldn’t-happen-in-SA moment.
LA is like that – friendly, efficient and, as one of my colleagues says: I could live there.
Everybody is, was, or wants to be, in the movies… and many of the these stars-who-never-were are, like the words of the song Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, parking cars or pumping gas. Or like Giovani, our cab driver, ferrying people around. Was he ever in the movies, we ask. Well, he says, he did have an agent once. He was going out with her, too. But it didn’t end well and… a shrug of the shoulders.
OVFF’s Ruby (LA is a first name kind of a place, by the way) says he was asked to be in the movies, but he refused, because, he says, he realised “I would just be such a ham…”
Still, LA is all about image: how else can you explain the fact that the symbol of the city – much more than movies or stars – is the Toyota Prius.
This hybrid electric-petrol vehicle is the most common object you will see in LA. I kid you not.
On the ride down from Mulholland Drive above to the city, back to Venice Beach, a distance of about 20km, I counted 148 of them. Some I missed because traffic was so thick. That’s more than Toyota has sold in this country in the past five years.
It is true that there is a rebate for hybrid cars and Prius has capitalised on that, but the reality is that the car doesn’t do any more to save the planet than an efficient small petrol or diesel-engined car.
And the other reality is that, while the Prius drivers are being holier and greener than thou, in the other garage they have a big 4x4 “truck”, which consumes more fuel than Uganda…
Giovani says there is no place in the world he’d rather live than LA. And a line from Joan Baez’s song Please Come to Boston swirls around my brain:
“Please come to LA and live for ever…” - Saturday Star