Cruel Summer

I took a bad walk yesterday.

The goal was to walk to Burbank. I didn’t make it there.

I’ve been in a funk. It’s August, which is my least favorite month of the year. Los Angeles is too hot and too bright and too dead, and everything smells like the tar pits, or hot metal, or curdled milk and uncollected garbage. I’m unemployed. I can’t figure out how to find a job--I’m living in a vacuum these days, firing off applications and résumés into a void. My book is dead in the water: my last batch of query letters to agents came back in a perfect wave of rejection. I’ve exhausted my list of potential agents, and, as much as the thought of giving up on it makes my stomach ache, I’m out of options. I’ve been struggling with the outline of a screenplay that’s going nowhere. I’ve also been collaborating with a friend on the script for a horror film he’s planning to direct, and while his ideas are flowing fast and furious, my contributions to the creative process have consisted of little more than endless variations on “yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” I promised to update my blog more frequently in August, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been pounding out a lengthy draft of an essay that, in its current form, is so pedantic and humorless and awkward that the back of my neck becomes stiff and prickly whenever I try to revise it.

My brain, in short, is filled with cold, overcooked ramen noodles these days.

Somehow I thought a walk to Burbank might help with this.

I’ve never walked to Burbank. I don’t visit Burbank all that often. I can’t remember the last time I was there. I don’t know what there is to see in Burbank (er… they have a nice IKEA?). But it’s different and unfamiliar, and maybe a change of scenery will give me a much-needed jolt of inspiration. Burbank is one of the cores of the entertainment industry--Disney, Warner, and ABC are all within blocks of each other, with the entire Universal lot only a hop/skip/jump away. Maybe visiting Burbank is just what I need to give myself a kick-start of ambition, a renewal of purpose.

This all hinges, of course, upon being able to make it there. Yesterday, I fell short.

Here’s how it went down:

7:45 AM: I leave my apartment. I’m wearing jeans, t-shirt, Converse, and a lightweight jacket. Too many clothes for mid-August, but I like having as much flesh covered as possible to reduce exposure to the sun and the elements. My face and limbs are liberally sprayed with pore-clogging, chemical-scented 50 SPF sunblock. I have a stupid canvas hat stuffed in my purse--I bought it specifically to shield my face from the sun on long walks like this, but I never wear it. Hats do not flatter me: I have a small body, a big head, and bigger hair, and the addition of a hat turns me into a walking sight gag. Thus, it remains wadded in the bottom of my purse at all times. I’m also carrying Maps 563 and 564, of Glendale/Burbank/Griffith Park, torn out of the 2000 Los Angeles County Thomas Guide.

The maps make this look like a breeze. I’ll bop up Highland until it hits Cahuenga, take Cahuenga to Barham, take Barham until it turns into Olive and runs into Alameda, and hello, beautiful downtown Burbank! But I’ve had problems with Cahuenga in the past, serious problems involving disappearing sidewalks, and from the onset I know this might torpedo my plan. I’m hoping I can make it to Barham before I run out of sidewalk.

This, as it turns out, is optimistic of me.

I’m walking fast. Walking is something I do well. I’m small and bio-mechanically efficient. As a distance runner, I’m slow to middling, but as a distance walker, I’m downright zippy. I don’t swing my arms, or pull my shoulders, or clench my fists, or point my feet in odd directions, or waste energy in any other way. It’s a gradual incline all the way up to Hollywood. The exertion feels good; the frustration ebbs.

9:00 AM: I cross through the Hollywood & Highland center and hit the restrooms, then get back onto Highland and head north into the hills. I make sure I’m on the west side of the street--Highland merges into Cahuenga here, and I remember this becomes sticky. Cahuenga dovetails with the busy 101 Freeway along this stretch. Cahuenga, in fact, is divided in two by the freeway: West Cahuenga and East Cahuenga. West Cahuenga runs alongside the Hollywood Bowl, whereas the sidewalk on East Cahuenga disappears just after the merge with Highland.

I pass the Hollywood Bowl, and it’s already decision time: there’s a crosswalk here in the middle of the street leading to a short bridge over the 101, with East Cahuenga on the other side. No stop sign, no light, just a half-hearted sign advising drivers that maybe they might want to keep an eye out for pedestrians, if they feel so inclined. It’s a bad, bad location to cross: as this is a pass through the hills, with no signals or cross traffic, the cars go fast. Plus, it’s rush hour. There’s no natural ebb-and-flow to the traffic, no pauses where I could conceivably scamper across without forcing cars to stop for me. I remember doing this walk years ago with my sister; we crossed here to the other side and still lost a sidewalk short of our destination. I don’t know if the sidewalk vanishes before or after Barham. The only way to find out is to scurry across.

Nerve fails. The traffic doesn’t pause. I don’t feel like playing Frogger. I continue on West Cahuenga for a short distance until I hit my Waterloo: a pedestrian underpass.

Los Angeles has a few of these scattered around the city: subterranean foot tunnels where pedestrians can cross without disrupting traffic. Most of these are now permanently closed off, the city having evidently reached the conclusion that, gee, this would be a mighty good place to get mugged, or raped, or killed. This particular underpass might or might not be closed; I don’t get close enough to check, because pedestrian underpasses terrify me. I don’t even know where this one leads--all the way under the 101 to the other side of Cahuenga?--and I have no intention of finding out. It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’m the only pedestrian I’ve seen since the Hollywood Bowl. I’m alone up here. I’m not climbing down into the earth, into a dark tunnel, all by myself.

Cahuenga’s a bust. I thought it might be, but now I have confirmation. With a lingering sense of personal failure, I turn around and head back down the hill, back past the Hollywood Bowl, back towards Hollywood Boulevard.

I’m frustrated. I’m angry, a kind of all-encompassing anger without a clear target. Am I mad at myself for not having a car, for being too scared to scamper across Cahuenga, for being too small and too defenseless to risk going into the pedestrian underpass alone? Or am I mad at the city for supporting a car culture to the extent that a major street--the only straightforward connection from Hollywood to Burbank/Universal City--is not navigable by means other than driving?

9:45 AM: Something happens. I’m not sure what, even though I probably saw it happen, but in the rush of ensuing chaos my brain overwrote the images before it had time to convert them into thoughts or memories. Either a car hits a motorcycle, or a motorcycle hits a car, or maybe nobody hits anybody at all, but there’s suddenly a squeal of brakes (I think), the ruckus of a collision (I think), and then there’s a motorcycle careening out of control, spinning across multiple lanes of traffic, and crashing onto the sidewalk about half a block in front of me. Here’s where my memory becomes clear: I’m running toward the fallen motorcyclist, fumbling for my phone to call 911. He’s sprawled across the sidewalk, the motorcycle on its side several feet away from him.

He gets to his feet and shoots me a thumbs-up. No harm, no foul. Relief tastes like stomach acid.

10:00 AM: Back to Hollywood Boulevard. Nerves are jangled, and I’m parched from the walk up the hill, so I duck into Famima!! for something to drink. It’s a shame to visit Famima!! and not pick up a tuna handroll or a steamy pork bun, but I’m not hungry, and sushi doesn’t travel well on a hot summer day. The friendly guy at the counter urges, “Tell all your friends about us!” This breaks my heart a little, because it makes me worry that Famima!! might not be doing well, business-wise, and I love Famima!! madly and would hate to see it disappear. So I’m taking his advice and telling all my friends: Famima!! is an adorable string of Japanese-based convenience stores (Famima!! is short for Family Market, the parent company, and yes, the double exclamation points are very important) that have sprouted up all over Los Angeles. If you pass by one, stop in for iced green tea and a chocolate banana parfait.

Established: Cahuenga is not a viable means to walk to Burbank, but there are other options. It’s hard to get through the Hollywood Hills on foot. Maps 593 and 594 are no help at all, because all I can make out are a tangle of unconnected short drives twisting across the face of the hills, impossible to navigate on foot. But there’s Griffith Park, not far away, and on the other side of Griffith Park lies Burbank. It could work. I head east on Hollywood Boulevard, toward the park.

10:15 AM: Once I’m past the tourist clutter of Hollywood, after the pink stars on the sidewalk have ended, I’m in an ugly stretch of abandoned buildings and convenience stores. Something’s being filmed here. I can tell this from the parked trucks, the beefy guys in shorts setting up lights, the competent young women with clipboards and walkie-talkies. I envy them.

10:25 AM: Thai Town. I can hear it from a block away: a man at a bus stop bellows obscenities at the top of his voice. His shopping cart blocks the sidewalk. A young man is talking to him, or listening to him, or tolerating him. The only way to pass is to cross between them, but I hesitate in the face of all that bellowing. The young man looks at me and smiles and waves me through. “You’re okay,” he says. He gestures towards the man. “He’s okay. He’s…” He spreads his hands--what can you do?--and shrugs, apologetic.

10:40 AM: Two teenage boys stand on the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind them, while two LAPD officers search the front seat of their SUV. Everyone involved seems remarkably nonchalant about whatever’s going on.

10:45 AM: When I put weight on my toes on my left foot, there’s a stabbing, slicing pain in my big toe. It feels like I’ve stepped on a tack, but there’s no way any street debris could penetrate the thick rubber soles of my Converse, so I figure it’s just an oddly-placed blister. If I don’t put weight on my toes, there’s no pain. Problem solved. Later, when I reach home and take off my shoes, I discover a shard of glass has somehow embedded itself in the tough, calloused underside of my toe.

11:00 AM: At Vermont, I head north, past the restaurants and shops of Los Feliz. Outside a sidewalk café, people drink frothy cappuccino and pick at Eggs Benedict and fruit cups, enjoying a leisurely brunch. Once I hit Los Feliz Boulevard, I head east. I’m just south of Griffith Park now, but Griffith Park is a huge, honking sprawl of land, and trusty Maps 593 and 594 indicate there’s no direct route through it until Crystal Springs Drive and Griffith Park Drive at the east end. This is starting to seem like insanity to me. By the time I reach the east end of the park, I will have overshot the city of Burbank entirely and will in fact be just due south of Glendale.

It’s hard for me to shake the growing feeling that I have botched this expedition beyond repair.

11:17 AM: I encounter a man coming down out of the hills. He’s red and flushed and frazzled, a mirror image of myself. “Do you know where Hyperion is?” he asks, with a touch of desperation. I stop and realize with faint horror that my brain is a blank, that I have no idea where Hyperion is, that all I can say for certain is that there is in fact a street named Hyperion somewhere in Los Angeles. I consult Maps 593 and 594. For not the first time today, they are of no help.

“I’m so lost,” the man says. Sir, I know exactly how you feel.

11:30 AM: I get the brilliant idea to veer north onto Griffith Park Boulevard, which sounds like a promising way to gain access to the park and which might even be connected to Griffith Park Drive. Griffith Park Boulevard turns out to be a beautiful little residential street. It meanders uphill and down, then comes to a dead end well outside of Griffith Park. I slump back down to Los Feliz Boulevard.

11:40 AM: The park! I reach Griffith Park, proper, at last. The pony rides are right near the entrance; on a hot afternoon the stench of manure is overpowering, but it’s fun watching the small kids having a wild time riding the ponies around the corral. I get rehydrated at the food stand and assess my options.

Here’s a stumper: There are no sidewalks alongside the major drive through the park, nor is there a significant shoulder to walk on. On the plus side, it’s not like Cahuenga: there’s not a whole lot of traffic, and it looks like it’s certainly possible to walk in the street without getting killed. Still, it’s a little hostile. It dawns on me that I’ve never been in Griffith Park without a car-driving buddy. Griffith Park is not the kind of park you walk through. It’s the kind of park where you drive to the pony rides and park, then you drive to the Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum and park, then you drive to the picnic grounds and park, then you drive to the hiking trails and park. It is, in fact, a very Los Angeles kind of park. There are ways through it on foot, I’m sure of it. On a better day, a day with less sun, a day that isn’t in August, a day where I hadn’t already walked twelve miles prior to reaching this point, I would be game for figuring it out. But right now, I can’t do it. I’ve been wandering in the midday sun for over four hours. If I keep going, the walk will turn into a spiral of exhausted despair. It’s time to call it in.

12:10 PM: I catch a shiny red Rapid bus headed for home. There are good bus karma days, and then there are bad bus karma days. This is one of the latter. It’s a bad bus: crowded and hot. A crazy man takes the seat next to me, moaning and muttering incomprehensibly to himself. He seems harmless enough, but I’m not in the best frame of mind for this. The bus retraces my path and heads down Hollywood Boulevard, past the glut of tourists outside the Chinese Theater, past people dressed like Captain Jack, like Charlie Chaplin, like Marilyn Monroe, like Supergirl, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, like Darth Vader, like a dueling pair of Batmans, all trying to make a buck by posing for photos with tourists. I wonder how profitable this could be. I’m unemployed, and quite frankly, I think I’d make a sterling Batgirl.

12:35 PM: Another crazy man gets on at Sunset, one who makes my muttering seat partner look sane by comparison. Something about August in Los Angeles--the heat and the brightness and the smell of methane--tests the boundaries of the formerly sane and makes the less-sane among us go further around the bend. The new arrival brandishes a cigarette lighter. He flicks it and thrusts the flame in various faces. It’s hostile and aggressive, and it’s building to something. I want off this bus. I want off this bus, now.

12:40 PM: Melrose. Fairfax High School. The bus stops. It’s standing room only, but about thirty or forty students are waiting at the stop, no lie. Claustrophobia mounts. I need to get off the bus. I’m still a couple miles from my stop, but I need to get off. The students stream in through the back door, bypassing the fare box at the front entry, pushing and shoving their way through the people trying to exit. A student shoves me to the side, hard, and calls me a foul name. I shouldn’t take offense--it’s not meant personally, not really. He barely even sees me as he bulldozes through the crowd, boasting loudly and trying hard to show his friends how much of a badass he is. These kids probably aren’t worse than any other large pack of kids, loud and crude and careless and desperate for attention--but right now, for a violent millisecond, I really, really, really want to punch him in the mouth and see him crumple.

Scratch that. Right now, I want to go home and forget about this walk.

I trudge home, exhausted and joyless. My toe hurts. I’m angry. I’m hungry. I probably don’t smell great. I detour to Whole Foods for comfort food: tandoori chicken, yuzu fruit-flavored sparkling sake, mocha soy ice cream. The comfort food options at Whole Foods are often wonky, yet still effective at boosting my spirits.

1:30 PM: I’m home. I don’t even stick my groceries in the fridge before stepping into a cold shower to wash off the salt and dirt and grease of Hollywood, the shiny chemical film of my sunblock, the stink of exhaust from my hair.

Burbank is still a pipe dream. Maybe if I try again, but this time steer clear of Cahuenga altogether, maybe if I walk around the Hollywood Reservoir on Lake Hollywood Drive, then somehow snake my way through the hills until I meet up with Barham further down the road… maybe something like that would work. Because it seems important right now to grab some little success out of the air somewhere, some distraction from the string of non-accomplishments: the book, the blog, the job hunt, the dueling screenplays.

I have trouble forming conclusions sometimes. Here is the point where I should draw all the threads of this essay together into a tidy summation of my themes, but for the life of me, I have no idea what it all means. Instead, I’ve come up with a selection of possible conclusions. Choose the one that best suits your mood:

a) Sometimes Los Angeles really sucks when you don’t have a car.
b) Sometimes I have difficulty telling the difference between erring on the side of caution and cowardice.
c) High school students are often mean little rat bastards.
d) Famima!! is an excellent and reasonably-priced source of tasty foodstuffs.
e) I should probably find a job soon before I lose what’s left of my marbles.

Here’s the one I’m going with, though: The coda to this story is that I arrived home to find a spirit-raising package from my sister waiting on my doorstep: Japanese coffee, Indian food, tubes of pesto and sun-dried tomato paste, a jar of roasted red peppers, the Death Note movie, and her beloved Duran Duran Rio t-shirt. Therefore, my conclusion is simply this:

f) Los Angeles may sometimes suck, but my sister is consistently awesome.

Thank you, Ingrid.


Ingrid said…
Aww, you're quite welcome, sweetie! Pesto in a toothpaste tube is enough to brighten up any day.

As an added note, our version of Famima!! out in New York is the less-enthusiastic, but still quite tasty, Family Market.
Morgan Richter said…
Pesto in a toothpaste tube is iconoclastic. I could frost cupcakes with it!

Family Market should consider a name change to Family! Market!, just to keep in the Famima!! spirit.

Thanks again for the package, hon. I tried the Japanese chocolate-hazelnut coffee dealie -- mighty tasty! You suppose Nescafe is going to start exporting it here anytime soon? Oh: mystery chocolates turned out to be dark chocolate filled with green tea. Go figre.
Morgan Dodge said…
It appears that I got the cliff notes version of this particular hike, and I can see why.

The real question is why doesn't Baroness Ingrid ever send ME pesto in a tube?

Oh, and I still owe you your Tuff Turf DVD back. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten that I still hold it, your sacred object.

In conclusion: Crazy is just a matter of perspective.
Morgan Richter said…
I'm sure if you ask Ingrid nicely, she'd be happy to send you pesto in a tube. She's good that way.

Yeah, the walk was along the general lines of monstrously unpleasant. It happens. Next one will go smoother. Maybe.
Ingrid Richter said…
"The lieges are revolting! The lieges are revolting!"

Boy Morgan, just say the word and the tube of pesto is yours. This particular italian brand also comes in sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic. Haven't tried the other two, but the pesto is awesome.

For everyone else, the pesto-in-a-tube is the Amore brand. A variety of concentrates can be found over at Amazon:

Good stuff!
Cordelia said…
I'm not a great walker, but I when I was in LA, I decided it would be perfectly do-able to live in Santa Monica and travel to Universal City by public transport. How wrong I was. And Santa Monica - LA Zoo by bus finally put me off buses in LA for good.

Horror in its purest, most simple, sense is public transport in Los Angeles.
Morgan Richter said…
The sad part is, public transit in L.A. has improved a great deal in recent years (the red Rapid buses, the subway, the light rails)... and it's still awful. If it's physically possible to walk somewhere instead of taking a bus, I'll walk. It's why I get so crabby when I can't figure out how to get somewhere on foot.

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