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Reno, Virginia, & California

The City of Angels from jetty to Getty

by Thor Iverson

Tall tales

I stare out the window at a woman’s thigh. It’s not what one might think – she’s fully clothed – but it is rather remarkable: here I am sitting in a car, and there’s a woman walking by whose waist is actually above my sightline. Who is this Amazon? Someone from the WNBA, perhaps? I lean closer to the window, look up. Way up.

It’s Janet Reno.

OK, so it’s not quite the celebrity sighting I’m expecting. But then again, we are in L.A.

[Venice Beach]

Little to beach about
Sinking is Venice

Theresa’s long-time friend Jan is once again our tour guide for a relaxing preflight half-day in Los Angeles, and since we’re still pale escapees from a frigid New England winter, she takes us to the beach. The beach of story, song, and insanity. But for the locals taking every possible form of transportation along the endless line of cheesy trinket shops at Venice Beach, it’s a chilly day and there’s not much actual beach activity of any kind. While there’s no perceivable gap in the panhandlers, preachers and purveyors on the seaward side of the boardwalk, I have to admit that I’m somewhat disappointed by a general surfeit of noisy crazies. Too much television, I suppose, leading to unsatisfiable expectations. But then, this is the city that has perfected illusion.

Thankfully, I don’t entirely lack for street entertainment. “Hey,” mumbles a shaggy twenty-something mired in some indeterminate state of haze, halfheartedly handing us a leaflet. “Everybodysaysourpizzaisthebest.” No inflection, no eye contact, just the barely-audible and semi-decipherable fact. It brings a whole new meaning to the term “barker.” Well, at least it’s a start.

We do a little more strolling, then stop into VB institution Figtree’s Café for a casual lunch. Here’s another clue we’re in L.A.: the darkest meat item on the menu is turkey, and easily half the options are vegetarian. This suits Jan, herself a long-time vegetarian, just fine. My “Navajo corncakes” are pretty tasty, with zingy black beans serving as a sort of vivid meat analogue, but the Figtree quesadilla (in its vegetarian form) is a little bland, despite roasted poblano chilies, and not all that different from the corncakes in presentation. I wash it down with a few bottles of extremely nondescript Widmer Hefeweissen, which only adds to a developing chill from the strengthening sea breeze. Thus, it’s a relief to return to the sun-drenched boardwalk once more, soaking in the sound of the ocean and daydreaming in anticipation of a dozen ocean vistas to come…on the other side of the Pacific.

As we return to the car, a full-time boardwalk resident double-takes Jan’s fiery red hair and hollers back: “3.5% of all women are redheads!” Informative, or not, but maybe this is the guy that should be shilling pizza.

Getty see

Jan drives us along one of the endless straight boulevards of the city, with no particular destination in mind. We’ve talked over numerous possible options via email and now in person, and the current anti-plan seems to be aimless walking around some trendy area of…somewhere. But as we’re driving, we pass a giant sign advertising the entrance to the Getty Center – another activity we’ve discussed – and providence seems to take the wheel as we pull into the parking garage.

[Getty Center & gardens]

The smell makes us Getty
One pretty tram ride later, we’re at the top of a carefully-designed hill. It’s been said by more than one person that the Getty is more impressive as external architecture than it is as a museum. We’re not going to be here long enough to judge, but it is a striking building, glinting in shades of white and sand in cool isolation far above the urban din below. There’s a David exhibit in residence, however, and since this is Theresa’s favorite painter we make it our only internal exploration of the museum. Sketches, portraits, paintings and propaganda; it’s a nice presentation, but a little bit psychologically discontinuous, as we’re on our way not to Europe – with its art and culture and the oppressive weight of carefully-documented history – but to a pair of Pacific retreats as young and vibrant as they are removed from the immediate concerns of the Old World. In this sense, we view this small collection of David’s works through a sort of filter, not really connecting in the way we might were we in, say, the Louvre. Who needs the revolution, when there are kiwis and kangaroos in our future?

Outside, equilibrium is restored by a slow amble through the museum gardens. It’s a peaceful walk, despite a not-inconsiderable number of fellow amblers, and from tree-shaded groves to sculpted geometrics, all is covered with the thick, lurid scent of…something. It’s unidentifiable, at least to us, but it’s strong and vaguely artificial, and we wonder if the museum isn’t pumping potpourri into the air from a hundred hidden vents.

Perhaps not.

We settle into an outdoor table for coffee, taking a while to reconnect and chat about matters old, new, historical and futuristic, as the sun sets over the ocean and brings everything into rainbow-hued silhouette. But then, all too soon, we’re rumbling back downhill on the tram, packed into Jan’s car, and headed for the airport. The tingle of excitement has risen to a vibrant buzz. However, the tingle of deep-vein thrombosis is what’s actually imminent.

A sideways retreat

The extremely attractive blonde behind the Qantas counter gives me the bad news. As is usual these days, our “reserved seats” are not actually reserved, and we don’t get the leg-roomy front row of steerage we’ve booked, but rather seats six rows behind that. She’s so cute, it’s hard to get mad at her, and when she lays down the trump card – in our original row, we’ll be surrounded by infants – we accept the reassignment with no further complaint.

As engineering achievements go, the liftoff of a massive, long-haul jet airplane is one of the most soul-stirring. One moment you’re in a lumbering, vibrating, overlarge and overstuffed metal can, tethered to the earth by the relentless pull of gravity and taking up more than your fair share of real estate…the next you’re supported like a feather on a light breeze, simultaneously exhilarating the effortless glide of the wings and the fearsome power of the engines’ thrust. For all the combustion and propulsion and extreme application of Bernoulli’s magical and life-changing Principle, the largest commercial jets are the smoothest and lightest of all ways to travel. And even the basic fact of an uninterrupted journey from Los Angeles to Auckland is, itself, one of those modern miracles that no real traveler can ever truly take for granted.

[sunset at the Getty]

Sunset, no strip
Dinner – chicken in a vaguely Southwestern preparation of rice and corn – is much-improved by the use of better-tasting thigh rather than breast for the centerpiece meat, though the wine served to accompany it isn’t very interesting at all.

Penfolds “Rawson’s Retreat” 2004 Shiraz/Cabernet (South Australia) – Tastes like industrial New World gamay. There’s blueberry and plum, slight herbality, and grossly unintegrated acidity (one immediately suspects acidification) that’s partially volatile. Not good, but probably better than the alternative chardonnay.

I’m more interested in sleep than the extensive onboard entertainment options, but there’s one movie I can’t miss: Sideways. I missed it in the theater, and by the time I get back to the States the Academy Awards will be long over, so this might be my only opportunity. It’s a well-written and well-acted character piece, but the story peters out at the end – as if the narrative simply collapses under the weight of its own relentless negativity – and relies on some awfully predictable clichés in the denouement. Oscar material? For screenplay or acting, sure, but for Best Picture the notion is laughable. In other words, it’s a good in-flight movie. And, except for the misuse of the word “varietal,” they get the wine aspects (both technical and philosophical) almost exactly right; possibly a first in the history of cinema.

But fortified by bad wine, OK food, and decent cinema, I’m ready for nothing so much as sleep…which comes easily, no thanks to lingering visions of Virginia Madsen swirling in my head. But it could be worse. The alternative is Janet Reno.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.