There was so much weirdness packed into my short trip to LA that I’ll have to get to Tristan in a later entry. I arrived late Monday morning, got to my hotel, and noticed that my suitcase had been opened by the Security people. That’s just everyday oddness, these days. What was really odd was finding in my suitcase a palm-sized, pillow-shaped object wrapped in pink tissue that I hadn’t packed. I thought, Is this what I think it is? Sure enough – it was a menstrual pad. Some Dadaist in the Department of Heimat Security slipped a random unused menstrual pad into my luggage, I guess for some added security.
I walked around for several hours both Monday and Tuesday. I had heard that LA was trying to establish Grand Avenue as a cultural destination. There’s a cluster of theaters, but of course they’re not open except for performances. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it’s fairly small and closed Tuesday and Wednesday. I walked around the “historic downtown,” the “fashion district,” which is full of warehouses, the “flower district,” which is also full of warehouses, various streets that were probably an official part of some historic district but were mostly filled with dirty little shops and storefront churches (“Where Jesus Comes First!”). I walked through the central market and past the million dollar theater. There were street placards with information on these sites, left by one of the previous attempts to spruce up the area. You could date these attempts by the styles – here was the after-war attempt, here was the late 1960s urban renewal project, here was the 1980s mall. One of these was near my hotel, and boasted an “international food court,” which meant there was a Panda Express and a Sbarros as well as an Arby’s.
I resist the usual northern California clichés about LA, but I didn’t see a single bookstore in my admittedly brief visit. You’d think a Borders with a big CD section would brighten up a cultural district. I also didn’t see any of the newer healthier chain restaurants – just the usual places with fried stuff or flabby pale pastries, interrupted by the occasional GNC or Gold’s Gym to undo the damage. What I wanted was probably just in another part of town, inaccessible to a mere pedestrian. Downtown Los Angeles is not as dispiriting as downtown Detroit, but cities that give themselves over to the automobile rather than pedestrians have made a bargain with the devil. The streets are wide and lined with trees, but it feels odd to walk down them. You can walk for miles down the hot blank sidewalks and not come across anything except dirty buildings that have seen better days, filled with the junky fruits of low-level capitalism. It’s probably a matter of your outlook on life whether you find these stores hopeful signs of vitality or depressing evidence of doomed struggles to exist.
I ended my Tuesday walk in Chinatown, where I thought, forget it, Jake, it’s the 1950s and went back to my hotel. As I was walking down the extremely long corridor to my room I saw a food tray outside a door. It turned out to be outside my door. I hadn’t ordered any room service. There was a small pizza box on the tray so it was difficult to tell if it had been eaten or not. It remained for hours and hours while I wondered why it was outside my door and if I was going to have a problem with my bill. I did, but not the one I was expecting. There was a movie charge of about $16 for Monday night. I told the hotel clerk that I hadn’t watched a movie. He checked their records and said that they said I did, for half an hour on Monday night. He asked if there was anyone else in the room. Nope. I hazarded the possibility that someone on the staff had watched the movie, mostly because I couldn’t think of any other possibility. Oh, no, no, no. Eventually I asked what the movie was and – my astute or maybe just degenerate readers have probably figured this out long before I did – I was informed that it was “sexually explicit.” I immediately flashed on the scene in Fight Club in which the airport security guard explains to the narrator why suitcases might vibrate (“It’s usually a dildo. Always a dildo, never . . . your . . . dildo. . . .”). My problem in situations like this is that I’m reasonable and understand how rules work and can see the other fellow’s point of view. He was professional and polite enough and didn’t know me from Adam, and according to his records, I had watched this movie, and now I was not only claiming that I wasn't the porn monkey he clearly thought I was throughout the whole conversation, but I was suggesting that his staff of hard-working Mexican immigrant women might be. I fleetingly considered explaining that since I live alone I have no need to pay for a hotel room in order to watch porn, or possibly suggesting I have such specialized tastes that mainstream hotel porn would be of no interest to me, but it's usually best when I restrain my hysterical humor in these situations and I decided I would just cut my losses, of dignity if not of money. So I said, “Well, I didn’t watch this, but I understand your dilemma so I won’t argue it.”
So feeling freaky (and cheated) that I’d just paid for someone else’s porn, I arrive at the United counter of LAX. It’s an American corporation, so of course it’s understaffed by the overwhelmed. There are about three people for about twenty stations. We’re all supposed to use self-check-in machines, but since the security clamp down almost no one can get away without checking luggage, so the three are running around tying tags onto all the checked pieces. The five and a half years that have elapsed since the WTC attack have clearly not given the airlines enough time to rethink their approach to checking in customers. The self-check-in machines, once I got one to work, did not allow me to change my seat to the emergency exit row. I didn’t really mind the three noisy children around me in the back of the plane; their parents were behaving appropriately and noise is what little children do. I was more irritated by the constant hacking cough of the man next to me. At least he covered his mouth about a third of the time. But it wouldn’t really have mattered if I’d sat elsewhere – the plane was so small I bumped my head every time I stood up. At least it’s a short flight.
I didn’t leave all the strangeness behind in LA. Back at my house I found a credit card bill in the day’s mail, and there was a charge of almost $80 to a website called Friend Finder that I was sure wasn’t mine. I called them and dealt with a polite but bored man – they apparently get a lot of calls like this – who checked their database and told me that someone had indeed set up an account under my name, complete with a photograph, allegedly of me, in what appeared to be a pilot’s jacket or possibly a military uniform. Was I a pilot? Nope. Had I been in the military? Nope. Do I have friends who might have done this? Oh no, no, no. He made a big deal in a fairly condescending way about crediting the charges; I said thanks and immediately called the credit card company, who also apparently get a lot of calls like this, and they canceled the account. So, ladies and/or gentlemen, if you found this site by googling the name of that special someone you’ve started seeing, possibly an aviator or military man, please be aware that you are dating a con man whose real name you don't even know. Accept no substitutes!
After the pad, the porn, and the dating service fraud I was a bit jittery and it even freaked me out a little to receive two copies of my May issue of Men’s Health. I suppose it’s just a computer error. It’s not going to make me twice as healthy, even though I now can burn double the calories when I tear out all the cologne-reeking ad pages, crumple them into balls, and toss them into the recycle bin.