Only a Nobody Walks in L.A.

(Report on yesterday’s earthquake: Everything’s fine, of course. Just a few seconds spent standing in the doorway thinking, “Hey, this isn’t going to kill me or anything, right?”, followed by an afternoon spent reassuring my kitty that the world wasn’t ending.)

On Sunday, I went to a friend’s baby shower at a demure restaurant on the Sunset Strip. I hoofed it there and back, about three and a half miles each way. I stuck to La Cienega on the way out: a gradual slope up to Santa Monica Boulevard, then a dizzying incline the rest of the way. I arrived at the dainty, girlish soiree sweaty and frazzled, though I soon revived, thanks to the restorative powers of a couple of mimosas and some tasty chopped salad. I walked home on San Vicente, past the vivid green and blue glass monoliths of the Pacific Design Center, the cheerfully monstrous Beverly Center, and the ever-burgeoning sprawl of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

I’ve logged some serious miles on foot lately. I’m unemployed, and I tend to go stir-crazy if I’m cooped inside, so I’ve been doing a whole bunch of wandering. On Monday, I did a fifteen-mile loop to Silver Lake and back via Sunset and Beverly; the previous Monday was occupied by a meandering walk to USC and then downtown (fourteen miles). Tuesday: up to the crowded, cluttered weirdness of Hollywood Boulevard, then down to Sunset and over to Gower (twelve miles). Thursday: bucolic Westwood and UCLA via Wilshire (eleven miles). Saturday: the Westside Pavilion and Century City via Pico and Olympic (nine miles).

The walking’s nothing new. My folks didn’t have a car for much of my childhood in Spokane, so I missed the window of opportunity to take driver’s education; there’s little point in taking the class if you have no way to practice. Hence, I never got around to getting my license (this used to be a mere eccentricity, but now it’s starting to seem like a gaping character flaw). In my junior-year AP English class, I wrote an essay about my pedestrian status, which was published in the Spokesman-Review (oh, I used to be ever so smart).

Despite this, I didn’t walk much in college. At first, I was badly intimidated by the vast sprawl of Los Angeles and the common knowledge that walking is not a popular activity in these parts. (My unofficial theme song from my USC days: “Walking in L.A.” by Missing Persons, in which the lyrics are a series of speculations upon seeing a pedestrian on the otherwise vacant sidewalks: “I don’t know, could have been a lame jogger, maybe?”). USC was and is located in a rough area of the city -- South Central, since rechristened South Los Angeles to remove the stigma associated with the former name -- and that made the campus seem like an island, remote and removed from the rest of the city. I should have walked more: the neighborhood is less scary than advertised, and walking goes a long way toward making the city seem less daunting.

Here’s my advice to incoming USC freshmen, especially those from out of town and those without cars: take a stroll from campus to downtown Los Angeles. Start on Figueroa, the street bordering the campus to the east, and head north in a beeline approach toward the cluster of downtown skyscrapers. Downtown comes up much faster than you’d think (when I ran in the 2006 Marathon, which started and ended downtown, we approached the campus not long after the 1-Mile banner). Upon leaving the jumble of fast-food places in North University Park, you’ll reach the multi-block sprawl of the Staples Center/Convention Center complex. By the time you clear that, you’ll already be smack in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Easy, breezy.

There are drawbacks to walking, mostly in terms of too much sun exposure and too much wear and tear on body and soul. I seldom wear cute shoes: heels are out of the question, and I don’t often wear sandals, because I can’t stand having dirty feet. I douse myself in sticky, stinky, pore-clogging 50 SPF sunblock every morning, and it’s still not enough: despite my best efforts, this summer I’ve developed a deep surfer tan, and my left shoulder is an unhealthy red-brown from where my purse strap rubbed off the sunscreen.

People do walk in Los Angeles, more than you’d think, though I’m enough of an anomaly that strangers notice and comment upon me. Recently, someone approached me in the supermarket and, apropos to nothing, asked me if I had some grudge against taking the bus. He’d seen me walking, often and everywhere, and wondered why I bothered. L.A.’s public transit system is an essay for another time, but the short answer to his question is this: I have nothing against the bus, but I greatly prefer to walk. A few years back, the MTA adopted the slogan “It’s Getting Better on the Bus!”, which held an endearing note of apology and fragile optimism. They were right: It has gotten better, though the buses are still overcrowded and too infrequent. Walking avoids those hassles.

Apart from the simple elegance of getting from Point A to Point B with a minimum of fuss, walking also helps sort out my thoughts and soothe my demons. Last week was a crappy one: the job hunt is still going nowhere, and I received a form rejection letter from a literary agent in response to her request to read my novel. This is a bad trend: I’d never received a form rejection for solicited material before, and now I’ve received two in two weeks. I understand the use of form rejections to manage a deluge of unsolicited queries, but after an agent has requested material, the only acceptable response to that material is a personal one. A ream of paper wasted to print my manuscript, sixteen dollars in postage to mail it to the agency… after that, a form rejection is a punch in the nose. You know what I don’t need these days? A punch in the nose. So I’ve been unhappy and pessimistic. Walking helps work through the frustration.

I’ve got a few holy grails of walking: I’ve never walked to Burbank, or to Pasadena, or to Sherman Oaks or to anywhere in the Valley, because I’m not sure it’s possible. I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to walk to Universal City: the only direct route is along pedestrian-hostile Cahuenga, where the sidewalk vanishes for a nerve-wracking, precarious stretch. I haven’t worked out how to get through the Hollywood Hills on foot, as the only obvious options -- Laurel Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, and Beverly Glen -- all look serpentine and unfriendly to pedestrians. I’m still working on it.

I hated feeling isolated at USC, so reliant upon my car-owning friends, when a casual excursion to Westwood or Beverly Hills would be fraught with concern about how I was going to find my way back to campus. Tackling neighborhoods on foot makes the city seem small and understandable. It’s interesting to observe the differences between neighborhoods: some have firm boundaries (the 405 Freeway forms a pretty definitive barrier between Westwood and Brentwood), whereas others have permeable membranes (posh Hancock Park slowly bleeds into ragged Mid-Wilshire, until it’s impossible to figure out where one stops and the other starts). Hollywood is an entirely separate beast from West Hollywood; Culver City has a different energy than nearby West L.A.

I’m sitting in the Westside Pavilion as I write this (longhand, because that’s just how I roll). When I’m done, I’m going to drop down Overland to Culver City and stroll around the Sony studio lot, then take Washington or Venice back home, where maybe some good job news or good book news awaits me. And if not, tomorrow I’ll start walking again, somewhere unknown or somewhere familiar, over and over, until circumstances change.


MKD said…
But don't you think "I see you walking EVERYWHERE" is the best pick up line ever?

I think if, in recent days, you were to blog the miles you've been walking we'd quickly find you've been putting more miles on your shoes than I put on my car.
Now put ice on your ankle, please!
Morgan Richter said…
The best is when people tell me they see me walking everywhere, then offer me a ride, then get miffed/offended when I (politely) turn them down. There's a logical gap there somewhere: "I've seen you walking everywhere; ergo, you should know that it's perfectly safe to get into the car with me."

Ankle's doing fine. I don't think I re-fractured it; I just think the bone spur was giving me some grief. There's an important lesson in here somewhere about not running a marathon on a stress fracture, if only I could pinpoint it...
Anonymous said…
Here's just a thought. You do write well and you might want to fully document your walks as you have started to do and then use that as the basis for either a non-fiction on the experience or as the basis for one of your fictional characters.
Howard in Seattle via Spokane in the '70s
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you, Howard. I like your idea of documenting my walks in more detail. I'm never certain how much interest my walks are to outside parties, but there's no denying that I've learned a great deal about Los Angeles from them. Thank you for commenting.

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