Los Angeles With Her Makeup Off

I was only here for a quick two days, thanks to a number of flight delays. L.A. was not my cup of tea, with so many celebrity-focused tourist attractions and theme parks, but I made the most of it.

I was staying right off Hollywood Boulevard at USA Hostels Hollywood. Not a bad spot: good atmosphere, lots of activities, and clean enough. The staff were amazing. One guy at the desk harassed the airline for two hours over my lost luggage, and my bags were promptly delivered to the hostel shortly afterward. It was hard to find an affordable grocery store around there though. Still, the location was great. Just steps out the door was the Hollywood Walk of Fame and beyond that the Kodak Theater and Grauman’s Chinese Theater. They reminded me a bit of Niagara Falls, sort of tacky beneath the tourist hype.

Walking is wishful thinking in this town. In a city this large, everyone drives. I did not rent a car and wanted to check out Santa Monica and Venice Beach. I opted to go for public transit and try out the bus system.

I was taken aback at the differences between public transit in L.A. compared to home. In Canada, many people take public transit because it is more convenient than driving. In L.A., people take the bus because it is what they can afford. Everyone who can afford to drive does.

While waiting for the bus, I had a chat with a friendly homeless man who eventually asked me for bus fare. When I explained that the airline had lost all my luggage and I only had seven dollars on me for the day, he laughed and told me to keep my money, since I would need it more than he did. I later found out what he meant: L.A. does not have a transfer system for their buses, so you have to pay every time you board a new bus. I ended up paying two fares each way to get to the ocean.

The buses had TV screens mapping where the bus was on its route, which was helpful. Unfortunately, I did not have much opportunity to keep track… a very concerned woman in her 50s who was a bit touched in the head talked to me for thirty minutes about the importance of literacy. She gave me a copy of 1960s Sociology textbook and an accounting guidebook to practice reading.

I learned that she regularly collects books the libraries were getting rid of and handed them out to strangers she met all day long to encourage them to read. She was carrying a big garbage bag full of old paperbacks. After I thanked her for my new books, she wandered the aisle of the bus, pushing books on all the other passengers and even on the bus driver.

I hopped off the bus near Santa Monica to walk along the beaches.

Santa Monica Pier

This picture-perfect view is misleading.

When I got closer to the Santa Monica Pier, there were signs everywhere warning that there might be needles hidden in the sand. I left my shoes on and ambled along the boardwalk from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. Venice Beach was full of people peddling different wares and causes. I stopped at a point where I could see both the ocean in the west and the mountains in the east from the same spot. On the way back, I risked going barefoot to walk along the water’s edge to cool off and relax. It was a gorgeous day and this had been the best time I’d had in L.A. on this visit. I reluctantly put my shoes back on and managed to find my bus.

On the return trip, I was free to gaze out the window and take in the city. Beyond a sea of Spanish colonial bungalows, there was a massive oil refinery that transformed into a slum of box houses with corrugated tin slats as roofs, which I could only hope were sheds and not residences. Seeing the drastic differences between neighbourhoods on the bus route revealed a part of L.A. that is not often shown on T.V. or in the movies. We re-entered the Hollywood District. This glimpse into the seedy side of Los Angeles disappeared from view as quickly as it had come.

Exploring L.A. by public transit showed me another side of L.A. A single bus ride outside of the major tourist areas taught a quick but indelible lesson that beyond the glamour of Hollywood, the mansions in Bel Air and the beach lifestyle, this is a gritty big city with pollution and poverty.