..[Los Angeles without a car, work permit or superpowers]

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A View from the Front Seat

Return of the Blue Busrider

The Blue Busrider had English visitors.

That's not a euphemism -- there were two visitors, and they rented a car.

[pause for reverent silence]

Yes, a car. I've been cruising around LA in a car, betraying the very ideals that founded this blog. We went to Venice and Malibu and Westwood -- on the same day. We drove out to Pasadena. We got lost on the freeway, confusing east with west and the 101 with the 110 and the 10. It was splendid.

It was also like being on holiday in another city. Our local area -- of which I know every pavement crack, fig tree and psychic readings sign -- suddenly shrank to nothing more than a convenient junction. Left or right? We're already gone. Instead of viewing the LA metropolis as a tangled, fraying circuit-board of bus lines, it was long straight roads and freeways and parking lots. 

I didn't hoard dollar bills for busfare, although I was expected to remember that we were parked in level p4, area B, space 313. Certain things faded from vision, somehow filtered by our windscreen -- homeless people, crazy people, anyone waiting on a street corner in the rain. The bus itself was no longer a glorious steamship, bearing down and rescuing us from the desert island bus stops; it was more like a dangerously decrepit old supertanker, edging up the road in a tide of traffic, foundering over to the sidewalk every block to disgorge sloppy passengers. We drove past, thought no more about it.

On Saturday, our visitors returned to England, and our Honda to Alamo. They are all greatly missed.

- We really have to get a car,

remarks Dr Strangename, a sage observation we have only made a couple of thousand times in the last six months. I nod. But not too emphatically -- we're on dangerous ground. 

Contrary to the tagline on this blog, I am now in possession of a work permit. Oh, yes. It says DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY on it, and it's very useful when I'm being IDed buying liquor. Since the cashier at Vons often has doubts about the validity of my namby pink EU driving license, and I don't want to carry around my passport, I feel that this function of the work permit is very nearly worth the $400 application fee. Dr Strangename has more traditional views, i.e. that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a legal alien in possession of a work permit must be in want of a job.

Frequency of blog posts will increase in direct proportion to the amount of time I should be spending on my CV, which needs to be translated into American. Power verbs! Superlatives! Give me a job so I can buy a car!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

LACMA, Afternoon

Avocado Thieves

On the corner of Military Avenue, a bald man is kneeling on someone's lime-green lawn. He's holding a flower.

- Hello,

I say, on my way to the Westside Pavilion. He nods. His feet are tucked very neatly under him; for a moment I wonder if he's meditating, but there's a shopping trolley full of old Fanta bottles nearby. Beyond, a sign on someone's wall tells us that


which only makes me look at the tree above -- avocados. I steal none. At Barnes and Noble, I buy 'The Hollywood Economist'.

- Your accent makes me homesick. I was born in Britain.

says the girl at the till. I ask her where, because she sounds entirely American; I don't tell her that, though, because these things are complicated.

- London, she says. And I went to school in Marylebone.

I smile because I can't think of anything to say. I can't even spell Marylebone, and, like most other London names, it only reminds me of the Monopoly board. I grew up four or five hours away from the city, in the rural south west of England.

London? We went there a couple of times, usually on the coach, for West End shows (with the entire PTA: group discount, safety in numbers) and important birthdays. Always an expedition. 

Tableau of country mice in the city: my mother is holding her handbag with an iron grip , muttering prayers to Our Lady of Moral Order (Maggie Thatcher) and pretending not to notice tramps; my father is studying the Underground map; I am crying because it's my eighth birthday and I was promised a knickerbocker glory ice cream sundae. They make them in the village, but I want a London knickerbocker glory, and god damn it if we can find one. Then a punk spits chewing gum in my hair -- 1988, final years of the punk reich -- and that shuts me right up. Happy days.

Back here on the Westside, I walk around the shopping mall trying to find a bikini, but am disheartened when all the price tags indicate high and arbitrary numbers: $93.42 for the top, $88.57 for the bottom. I exit through the car park, the design of which does not cater for pedestrians and so obliges me to weave around dumpsters and climb over some bushes. I notice someone's convertible, with the bumper sticker


and yet successfully resist the urge to vandalize. 

(People from small villages rarely become vandals, or punks, no matter where they end up.)

I walk back to our apartment. It's that crushingly gorgeous late afternoon LA light: pouring from a cerulean sky, bleaching whites whiter than white, softening the long palm tree shadows, the pastel bungalows, the pile of rotting blankets and scattered trash by the 405 underpass. Ridiculous beauty and squalor all together. 

At the apartment building, they're watering the flowerbeds, and the fine vapour and smell of warm earth make it feel like a rainforest. Or some other exotic foreign clime. Now I want to go back to Barnes and Noble and tell the cashier she's made me homesick, too -- but, of course, it's nothing that simple.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Paper Cranes, Hiroshima


On Thursday night we learn that a massive earthquake has struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. The NHK helicopters transmit images: endless rushing swells of sea-water, choked with trees and roofs and cars and soil, are bearing down on cities, houses. The tide is barely recognizable as water, except by its motion -- so dirty and clumsy, just debris and force, a terrible dun colour dispassionately sweeping over everything.

We watch it from an aerial view, as distant as osmosis observed through a microscope. Then the camera pans in, and we see tiny people on the buildings, tiny cars racing.

The newscasters announce facts and figures, but they're clearly not facts and figures yet -- guesses and estimates, no more. Is it an 8.8, a 9? That's a train station, submerged. No, it's an airport. We're getting, we're getting reports --

You imagine tsunamis as a clean vast crest of blue wave, curling down over palm trees. Not this unmajestic, relentless squalor, moving and moving and moving up the country like extinguished lava.

In California, people are watching the shores. Experts tell us that it'll take ten hours for the ocean disturbance to reach the west coast of America. It sounds mythological -- these giant, terrible waves riding across the Pacific, the deepest waters, travelling for hours and hours -- gaining strength? losing momentum? -- before reaching California. As mundane as a letter, as immense as gods.

At nine o'clock on Friday morning, all our local news teams are poised at the harbour and beach. For a while, nothing happens. Then, at nine fifteen, the sea shades to sand and algae, water pulling out and out, and the reporters become excitable. Temporarily, they forget to pretend that natural disasters are bad things, and chatter over their shoulder to the camera: for a while there it looked like nothing was going to-, but here it is, here it is, can you see-? They smile.

The water bears back down on the beach, in long lines of white surf. But nothing here is destroyed or washed away. In the marina, some boats break loose, wedging themselves under bridges or slowly arcing into other boats.

- That’s gonna make some people very unhappy,

says the news anchor, but we know it's not a disaster. We know it's not like Japan, where you see cars crushed against walls, window-high in muddy frothing water, one lone windscreen wiper batting back and forth. Buildings silently collapsing. Unhappy boat owners don’t compare.


On Friday evening I hear that a friend's friend has died. Toshiko was studying English in New Zealand. It was lunchtime at her language school when the 6.3 Christchurch earthquake struck and the building collapsed. This was on February 22nd. On March 3rd the search for survivors officially ended.

- I will say a prayer at Todaiji temple, 

says one person.

- I'm going to the Kasuga shrine.

- I hope she's not lonely.

Of the one hundred and twenty-five staff and pupils at Toshiko's school, sixty are missing and presumed dead. 


I only noticed one earthquake while I lived in Japan. It was moderate, but we were on the fifteenth floor and could distinctly feel the building rocking back and forth on its heels, as if about to swoon. The blinds gently tapped at the window, clicking like teeth. It made us all nauseous, but when we cranked open the slats and looked down at the city, nothing had changed. No smoking ruins. Maybe there were calligraphic cracks here and there, widened faultlines, a few smashed cups. Unimaginable miles below us, beneath the skyscrapers, asphalt, foundations, packed dirt, fossils, and rock, one tectonic plate had inched blindly against another. For a moment we realized they were there, but pretty soon we forgot.

Kia Kaha, New Zealand and Japan.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Recent days have followed a strict schedule.

Drink coffee until nauseous.
Write until cross-eyed.
Become agitated: twenty minutes to sunset, and I haven't left the house.
Go for an aimless stroll (aka the Pensioner's Shuffle).

I should have another forty years in which to perfect my Pensioner's Shuffle, but the Escalade of Doom will surely get me before retirement does. Oh, people of Los Angeles -- won't you please check for Ped Xing when you turn right on a red? 

Taking the lift downstairs in our apartment building, I'm reassured to see they've removed the sign saying


and I'm almost reassured by the permanent plaque that tells me

Should the elevator stop,
Or become otherwise unresponsive
Do Not become Alarmed.
Press the button marked "Alarm"
And wait for assistance.  

Pacific, February