Saturday, 28 February 2009

THE MUSIC IN MY HEART Chapter 11

THE NOT SO UNITED STATES OF LA Saturday 19th January 2008 Return to Table of Contents From my limited time in LA, I had the impression that instead of a melting pot where hundreds of differing nationalities, languages, religions, races, sexual orientations and lifestyles mixed together, LA was more like a tray with individual test tubes which really don't mix. The only common thread seemed to be the slightly surreal nature, or money or the lack of it. One minute you are in a fabulous neighbourhood, and three blocks later a dump. Sunset Boulevard is a microcosm of the place, where you can go from the up and coming (read multi-ethnic) Echo Park to Beverly Hills in a few miles, from Salvadoran pupuserias, a pupusa apparently being a stuffed tortilla (or slang for the female pudenda ) to Rodeo Drive, the mecca for conspicuous consumption. Of course you could argue that this is true of all cities, but having lived in a lot of the world's biggest (NY, Washington, Boston, London, Paris, Geneva, Tokyo, Seoul, Bogota, Caracas, and Hong Kong) I think that LA is perhaps a bit different.
And everywhere billboards, lights, neon churches, and signs in foreign languages (Spanish, of course, Korean, Russian) to remind you that this is a fount of a lot of the world's pop culture AND frontiers of human expression. What starts on the streets of LA can appear a week later in Shanghai, Lima, or Bamako. This is true for fashion, the vernacular, culture. Also, unfortunately, for Brittany and Paris.
My first impressions are at night, where the glitter and the glitz of the light shows gloss over the hard reality if you pass in the daytime. The next morning, however, Tobes and I set out on our quest to buy a car, the sine qua non of California culture. Without wheels, you are nothing.
We have a budget of $10k, $3k coming from Toby and the rest from me. I ask Joel for some help as to where I might buy a car for this amount. He laughs and says: "I have never bought a car for $10k."
Having done some research on the web from London, we have established that it is possible however, and quick research brings up a few possibilities at Carmax.com in Burbank, including one, a white PT Cruiser which caught both Christina and my eyes, but which Toby had sniffed at due primarily to the colour. We navigate out to Burbank, and arrive in the brilliant morning sunshine to be welcomed at the door of the pristine car lot by a shy Filipina named Sharina.
Carmax.com is the antithesis of a typical used car lot. Their salesmen (or women, as it happened) are masters of the soft sell, mainly because of their ironclad policy of NO HAGGLING. You pay what you see on the sticker. You have 5 days to return it and a month warranty. That's it.
Big point:
Carmax.com is one of those places that prefer cash, or at least a cashier's check.
We ask Sharina if she has any cars for $10k. Lo and behold, she directs us to the exact car I had seen on the web from London, the white PT. Upon closer inspection, it is not white but cream, potentially an important distinction. It is a 2004 model with only 35,000 miles on the clock.
Buying anything with Tobes, clothes, shoes, beds, etc. is a challenge because he comes in extra large: 6'6" with size 16 feet. The first question, always the first question, is: does it fit?
We get in. NO problem. There is a least six inches clearance and the steering weel tilts away from his knees and is adjustable. We take it for a spin. So far so good.
The only problem is the distinct smoker's smell.
We decide to press on and look at alternatives. We try Hondas, Pontiacs, Nissans etc. They all fall down due to criteria #1. They are also a) more expensive and b) have more mileage on the clock than the PT.
We kibbutz and then tell Sharina we like the car but "we would like you to do something about the smell." She says they will clean it again and use some magic potion (not really, but some stain/smell remover).
We provisionally agree to buy the car, and adjourn to the showroom.
One thing that America is really good at doing is separating you from your money....PROVIDED that you have ticked all the boxes.
This means that
a) you have a driver's licence in the same state
b) you have a prior insurance record
c)you have CREDIT in some form, or CASH.
Luckily we have all of the above, Toby having gotten a California licence the summer he spent with Charlotte.
We are informed of this fact by Sharina's manager, a black woman with a plastic smile and a paint by numbers hail-thee-fellow-well-met manner. "Good morning/afternoon/fill in the blank, Mr. Pettigrew (the NAME always the NAME), a pleasure to see you this morning/afternoon/fill in the blank."
Sharina is obviously new at this selling cars gig, and Ms. Friendly but Firm instructs her how/where to accompany us to get the aforementioned cheque (since I had no briefcase with unmarked bills, but more about that later).

We get into Sharina's car, a stolid Honda she did NOT buy at Carmax (but I would have had I been working here, she says) and we hurry over to the nearest BofA branch, a branch staffed by Russians, Armenians, hispanics, and blacks. I guess a mirror of their clientele.

GOOD SAFETY TIP. Always speak to people as if they are individuals and not drones providing you a service in WHATEVER capacity they are acting. I will elaborate later.

Our teller is Mary Avadessian. I ask her if she is Armenian, and then proceed to tell her our whole story of our trip, moving, Tobe's new career, and our car buying expedition while she withdraws the money from both of our accounts and prepares the cashier's cheque. She is very efficient and motherly and we emerge to go back to Carmax.

We give the cheque to Ms. Friendly But Firm, and put the finishing touches (together with Sharina) on their automated if slightly flawed computer system (it wipes out previous entries without saving them cumulatively, so each minor amendment effectively means starting over....oh those programmers are such cards aren't they?). This prolongs the process, obviously.

Suddenly, Ms FBF returns, her smile replaced by a regretful facial shrug. "I am SO sorry, Mr. Pettigrew, but there appears to be a minor glitch."

"Glitch? What glitch?" I ask.

"The cashier's cheque is dated the 22nd (ie. Tuesday)."

Today is Saturday. "But it is a cashier's cheque drawn on BofA," I reason. "Surely they are good for the money on Tuesday."

"Our system won't take it." There is a finality in her tone.

"So what are we going to do?" (I am flying out on Monday).

"You can go back and exchange it for cash," she offers up.

"Cash?" I say incredulously. "$10,900?" (By the time you throw tax, hidden costs, annual dues to the Scientologists, the original $10k has morphed into this figure).

She nods and shrugs her shoulders. It is the only way. "Your son can stay here and finish up the paperwork. You can go with Sharina." She gives Sharina the nod.

I have no choice.

Sharina and I trudge back to the branch, where there is (of course) a long queue.

Reasoning that I need to go back directly to Mary, our Armenian teller, I wait for her queue to clear.

"What happened?" shes asks. I tell her why I need real cash. She says : "Well, all our cheques are dated the first business day, which happens to be Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King day."

"Hmm. .." she says. "Don't tell anyone, but I will reverse everything and then redraw money from both your and your son's account."

I quickly understand her point. She of course has no authority to withdraw money from Toby's account without his card/pin or his orders. Otherwise I could easily fleece him if I weren't telling the truth.

And that is why treating people like people has paid off (unintentionally). This saint of a woman proceeds to reverse all the transactions, give me $10,900 is $100 bills, and then rebalance ALL of the money in her tiller to make sure she has done this process correctly. I can assure you that this is no mean feat. It takes about five minutes and I am very very grateful. Thank you, Mary Avadessian. May some day you take your right place in heaven. You have restored my faith in the kindness of strangers.

I then emerge nervously from the bank, clutching a fat wad of bills, and make a beeline for Sharina's car.

On the way back I ask Sharina her story. She fesses up to have only recently joined Carmax.com. She is from Cebu (where Steens and I had gone in 1981)and had arrived in the States three years ago with $100 in her pocket. She had worked as a caregiver for the elderly, a job which she really liked but which did not pay enough. She was a kind, gentle soul and pointed out where a horrible accident had taken place in the past week, sort of a gentle reminder for Toby to drive carefully.

Anyway, we arrive back for the final stage, handing over the readies to a team of a ditzy blonde and a fast fingered Mexican guy to make little piles of the $100s. "So," I offer, "either you guys feel like bank tellers or cocaine dealers." The Mexican looks at me sideways. Toby looks at me embarassed if not incredulous. Oh Eric. Such a wag.

All is in order, however, the next thing we know our car is delivered to us, the smoke smell magically banished.

We pick up the alternate key and Toby starts the engine. After 4 or 5 seconds it cuts off. He tries it again. Same result.

I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Toby looks pale.

We draft in Sharina for an explanation, and I begin painfully reversing all of the morning's steps in my head. She has no idea what is wrong, and scuttles off, reemerging with a technician (ie. mechanic).

He doesn't look bothered. "Oh. You need to reprogram that spare key," he says. "It stops people from stealing your car."

Toby tries the other set of keys. RELIEF all around as it starts and purrs along smoothly. We decide to leave the UHAUL in the parking lot while we search out lunch. Bidding farewell to Sharina, we drive along the streets of Burbank looking for eateries.

When we stop to park, Toby observes: "It's not really white, is it? It's more cream......like cricket flannels."

Perfect. The car fits him like a glove, and standing there in his sunglasses and van Dyke, it fits his persona. I take a photo.

In a morning, a car which called out to us in London has become his, and the Cricketmobile has been christened. He is now, presto chango, truly a resident of the City on Wheels.

THE CITY OF SHATTERED DREAMS

We adjourn to an Asian/fusion restauant called Wokcano, yes I know, dumb name, where we proceed to share bites of a delicious wonton salad, sashimi salad, and shu mai (pork dumplings). We rake over the coal's of the trip's campfire, congratulating ourselves and thank the Big Man up there for our good fortune and safe passage. The Cricketmobile just felt right.

Our waitress, a perky brunette with piercing blue eyes starts to chat with us, hearing (of course) about Toby's plans and his upcoming job with Didier, and confides wisely: "Well, if you find good people out here, stick with them. God knows there aren't many of them around."

She has been in LA three years, an aspiring actress working as a waitress (seen that movie?) and she has had just about enough. She came from a small town in Missouri. We told her a lite (sic) version of our thoughts about Lebanon, leaving out the gory details. She hasn't figured out what to do with her life, but my money says it won't be as an actress, and certainly not in LA. She says that she has found out about herself. She has obviously banished her illusions (and perhaps her dreams), but she at least retained her shining eyes and her soul. Good on her, and good luck.

Both of us listen intently; Toby as a new participant in the LA game and me as a more than just interested observer. A cautionary tale; no doubt the rule rather than the exception out here.

It is now Saturday afternoon and we are shattered. We decide to go to Joel's, who lives in the tallest building off of Sunset Bulevard, a condo on the edge of Beverly Hills and Hollywood with valet parking and a key that awaits us. Our plan is as follows: nap, dinner, movie.

We arrive at Joel's and everything goes as planned. The Cricketmobile doesn't look too out of place. Joels' place is on the 25th floor. In LA parlance: the VIEW OH MY GAWD THE VIEW. Hollywood Hills to the right, all of LA to the left. The flat   is pristine, tasteful, and slick. Uh oh, I think. We will have to take special care here. I call Joel, up in Palm Springs, and relay Toby's one word reaction to the apartment to him: WOW.

So this is what happens whe you stick it out and make it here. Joel is a lawyer, unmarried. Exquisite furniture, art, kitchen. Lucky we have always been a shoes-off in the house from our days in Japan. We find blankets (so much for the LA wardrobe I packed, it is chilly now). We collapse on the sofas and count ourselves damn damn lucky.

Upon Joel's recommendation, we head to Farmer's Market for dinnner. Tobes is comfortable in the CM, and I am firmly now just a navigator. Now then, forget frou frou restaurants in LA. Go to Farmer's Market. We did. Twice in the next two days. Even in this so-called winter, you sit outside under heaters and can have any manner of good wholesome food.

We have thin sliced corned beef sandwiches that would put a New York deli to shame. Just the right amount, a full meal with the pickle. No alcohol at this counter, but I stroll over and get a couple of draft beers in plastic cups. The next day we came back and went to a Brazilian Churrascuria called the Pampas Grill where you pay by the weight for fresh palmitos, okra, aubergine, collard greens, sausage, lamb, beef or chicken. We throttle back but my oh my it was good.

We discover one thing about this not-so United States of LA. Our good meal count starts to increase, and we are talking about GOOD, HEALTHY food. Lots of greens. Reasonably sized portions. There is no end of variety, and it is, by London's standards, cheap. I feel better about Toby's prospects. Because they are not trying to cater to middle America but perhaps to their neighbour from back home who is visiting from the old country (wherever...Laos, Peru, Brazil, Korea) or for their neighbour here who IS from the old country, you get the real McCoy. If the food has changed it has turned into fusion..what they have done to Japanese cuisine deserves the Mr. Oh* award for out-Babing the Babe.

(*Suduhara OH was the Yomuiri Giant who held the world record (in the days before steroids) for home runs. Never mentioned here, of course, in the place where the World Series doesn't include any other countries.)

Nicely refueled and now on HOLIDAY, we head off to the movie theatre in the Grove, a pedestrian shopfest adjacent to the Farmers Market. The movie theatre,as one might expect, is cutting edge, with God nows how many films. A sign of technology gone haywire is the computer screen you queue up to have to touchscreen your food order before having to queue up to fill up your own drink. All to save a few bucks or to prevent some high school kid (the old days) or illegal immigrant (nowadays) the chance to either earn pocket money or survive.

Sometimes I wish we could get the people who dream up this shit (like the automated phone systems which are the bane of modern life) to be caught in an endless loop of their own creations, or at least endure a five minute session with an amateur thug with a baseball bat.

Speaking of endless loops. We get caught up in one . Apparently Daniel Day-Lewis is going to be awarded an Oscar (he wasn't thankfully) for his portrayal of an oilman in There Will Be Blood, a three hour vehicle for his ego which ends with him beating in a guy's head with a bowling pin, by which point I had long since stopped caring about the character, the movie, the delicious meal, the will to live....anything but the foldout bed in Joel's flat under not one but two duvets and sleeping the sleep of the dead, which I gratefully did.

Go to Chapter 12

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