From Joshua Tree National Park, we headed west on California 62 and caught Interstate 10. We had avoided 10 back in Texas, crossing it twice, once going south on Texas 17 toward Balmorhea, and again, heading north on US 90 at Van Horn. Can’t say I missed it much. Here in California, it left me white knuckled, a state of being to which I was soon to grow accustomed, if not fully acclimated. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, I grabbed the 605 south, until I drifted into 105 west. The 105 just sort of peters out south of LAX and becomes the Imperial Highway. At the light, we crossed Vista Del Mar, and after conferring with a county official, took a bend down a small rise and arrived at Dockweiler County Park. Dockweiler is an RV Park on the beach, little more than a parking lot with water, gas, and sewage hook-ups. Yet, it is remarkably inexpensive, when compared to the capitalist RV parks in the area. This time, I backed The Monster in fairly quickly and without high drama. We were settled for six nights.
|A View of Los Angeles|
We had arrived about 2:00, which is quite early for us. So Knightsmama and Dr. J headed off in the Big Ass Truck. They drove north on Vista Del Rey, took Culver to Lincoln into Santa Monica, where they left Dr. J.’s bike at the Performance Bike Store. They also accomplished some random shopping while I stayed in The Monster and caught up on my reading for the class I am taking. At this moment, it was The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Enlightenment France is the perfect counter-point to Twenty-First Century LA.
We had arrived at Dockweiler on a Friday, of Mother’s Day Weekend. Saturday morning, Knightsmama and I retraced some of her previous driving and gathered information at the Marina Del Rey Visitor’s Center, strolled around a bit and imagined, once again, a life on a sailboat. In the afternoon, we retrieved Dr. J.’s bicycle. At Dockweiler, the parties continued, and through deep breathing and faint memories of my reading from Tich Nhat Hanh, I survived the hubbub of several large family barbecues, twelve-packs of Bud Light, and very loud accordion polkas. Don’t get me wrong. I am not really complaining—it could have been revving families of tattooed bikers blaring 90’s L.A. Metal.
Sunday morning, my friend Francine and her two sons treated my two sons to a full day and night at Disney Land. Knightsmama and I took the 105 to the 405 and spent a lovely Mother’s Day afternoon at the Getty Museum, perched high on the hill. It’s a truly gorgeous museum, which I enjoyed more for the architecture than for the art. We did catch Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural, which he painted for Peggy Guggenheim. The Getty had studied and restored the painting, and in one room, through wall displays, took us through their analysis of Pollock’s technique, materials, and process. Another fascinating display, in context of this trip, was a series of Ansel Adams photographs, including several from Yosemite and other national parks.
|The Getty. photo by Knightsmama|
Leaving The Getty, on the spur of the moment, we decided to avoid the 405 and just ride along Sepulveda until we turned right on to Santa Monica Boulevard. We parked a few blocks from The Third Street Promenade. We strolled, watched jugglers and mimes, listened to Middle Eastern pop, male and female singer-songwriter types, and some lovely light jazz on guitar. This guitarist sat near George’s Bistro Restaurant, so I decided this was a perfect setting for our late lunch/early dinner. We sat cozily at a table for two in the sidewalk seating. Knightsmama enjoyed her fish, as I did my cobb salad and glass of Reisling. The crowd was thick with people worth watching. After dinner, we went in search of a light sweet and wi-fi, which we eventually found at the El Segundo Starbucks, a mile or so away from Dockweiler. Finding reliable, fast wi-fi is, sadly, always a goal because at most RV Parks, especially those run by governmental agencies, the wi-fi is neither. A case of you get what you pay for? Sometimes.
Monday, if memory serves, we avoided driving The Big Ass Truck completely. We biked up north to Santa Monica, where we made our third visit to Performance Bikes. This time the primary reason was to solve a shoe issue for Captain Crunch. Throughout this trip, he had been wearing his mother’s clipless shoes, because his needed the cleat replaced and we couldn’t get the old cleat out. (I don’t know why these shoes are called “clipless,” because with “clipless shoes” you clip in with a cleat and special pedal.) Our family is partial to the brand Eggbeaters by Crank Brothers, because that is the brand that Dr. J.’s mountain bike team tended to use. Well, nine months into the trip, we finally got the Captain’s cleat removed and a new set installed in the old shoes. He is now all set. Also, I purchased a new tire, since I had been getting lots of flats lately (including one riding up to Santa Monica.) We enjoyed a quick lunch at Shophouse, a new Asian-based fast food restaurant that I would invest in if I were looking for a franchise opportunity.
|Dr. J. Working on His Core|
Then we headed back south to Venice Beach. We hung out, quite literally, at the Muscle Beach area, watching some very handsome men, and one woman who was a dead ringer for Knightsmama twenty years ago. The boys found the rings particularly enticing. At one point, a very ripped, glistening dude strolled over to offer Dr. J. some advice. After an hour of watching the boys, I took off on my bike, first, to explore the back streets of Venice Beach, and next to add some miles to the day’s ride. After all, it was a beautiful day, the wind was light, and the beach bike trail is flat. Lately the rides I have been able to get in have at some point always proven difficult. At Canyonlands, the elevation change was quite difficult and required some stopping mid-climb before my heart jumped out of my throat. The wind at Joshua Tree caught me head-on a couple of times when climbing some slight or moderate rises, but it was enough to strain the legs. This day was an almost perfect day, so I left the family in Venice Beach and rode south past Dockweiler to Hermosa Beach, where a poet friend from Texas, Brady Peterson, often vacations. I can see why. In fact, on Wednesday morning, Knightsmama and I rode our bikes there for breakfast, and on Wednesday night we made the boys ride with us for a final dinner with Francine.
On Tuesday, Knightsmama, the boys, and I did our only really LA tourist day. We headed out on the 105, caught the 110 north toward downtown, then connected to the 101 and the Hollywood area. We had a fun morning just being tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Captain Crunch and Knightsmama had a good time in Sweets watching folks make hard candy. I enjoyed Grauman’s Chinese Theater (I am not going to call the theater by his new corporate name—I am sick of corporations buying everything and destroying history to highlight some fake civic spirit) and the walk of the stars. I learned I could not afford to hang out in the famous writers’ restaurant Musso and Frank’s. But I didn’t let that fact deter me from imagining a lunch with Scott Fitzgerald back in the day. Instead, we sat on stools outside Skooby’s Hot Dog Stand, enjoyed our dogs, and fried potatoes and cold lemonades.
|Lunch on Hollywood Blvd.|
We walked up and down several blocks. The boys peaked in windows and I read names of the stars. It made me think of a few things. First is how little my sons know much about things that happened, say, between World War II and 9/11. Second is how important Hollywood has been in my understanding of the world, even though, as an English major, I have traveled a fairly serious, somewhat highbrow track through life. The third is that I know that I have missed an incredible amount of life, and that there are so many accomplished people who deserve our respect, and we have no idea who they are.
So we strolled down the street and pointed out P Diddy or The Olsen Twins for Dr. J to notice. I see my contemporaries like Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Barbra Streisand. I guess Dr. J. will know who they are, sort of. But does he appreciate them in the way that I did/do Jimmy Steward, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Barbara Stanwyck, and Doris Day? And let’s step further back: Clark Cable, Hedy Lamarr, Betty Davis, James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin. How much do I really know of them? I know, fairly well, movies from the forties, but I am pretty weak on those from the thirties, and I am intellectually mute on those before the talkies.
So there is a way to walk Hollywood Boulevard in which one star gazes, in the way that I would watch the Oscars or Grammy’s and admire dresses, film clips, and various levels of real and faked sincerity. Another way is to remember our nation’s history, as reflected in the history of Hollywood, which includes the content of the films made, and the kinds of roles and actors and writers and directors that the American people elevated in fame and appreciation.
|A Star for America|
I mean it is a long way to go from Buster Keaton to Bob Hope to Lenny Bruce to Eddie Murphy to Adam Sandler. Or from Douglas Fairbanks to Clark Gable to Sidney Poitier to Tom Selleck to Matt Damon. Or from Lillian Gish to Carole Lombard to Dorothy Dandridge to Elizabeth Taylor to Susan Sarandon to Kristen Stewart. Of course, lists like these are always inaccurate and deceptive. There are always the great and the inconsequential, the over-rated and the under-rated. Here, though, are two themes that are haunting me in the Caravan of Wonder. One: How does the past relate to the present? Are we better off? Worse? Probably neither. But we are different. We see the world differently. Don’t we? I mean, at moments, Kelsey Grammer reminds me of Jack Benny. But I can’t see Jack Benny “making it” today. Two: who and what do we honor and how, and when. And who is the “we” doing the honoring?
So I had one bit of honoring to do. As I wrote in a previous blog back while we were in New York, Scott Fitzgerald is one of my heroes. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I obsessed over his writings and his life. One of my favorite books and movies was Beloved Infidel. The book was written by Sheilah Graham, who was a society writer in Hollywood. In the late thirties, as Scott attempted to make enough money to support his daughter and keep Zelda cared for in the asylum, he, like many writers, turned to Hollywood, where the pay was good. Sheila and Scott met and fell in love. Scott climbed on the wagon, fell off, climbed back on, and began his final book, The Last Tycoon. Sheila was generally uneducated in literature and art, so Scott developed a curriculum for her, which she presents in another book, College for One. I had always found this curriculum fascinating in that it said a great deal about Fitzgerald as a serious, well-educated, and ambitious writer, and because it helped guide my own outside-the-classroom reading.
|Sheilah Graham's Apartment|
I remember I watched Beloved Infidel on television. I suppose it was either on late at night—stations used to put on old movies after midnight—or on a weekend afternoon—stations used to do that also when they did not have a sporting event to broadcast. I remember first seeing The Razor’s Edge one afternoon in my father’s house. He couldn’t understand why I was in the back room instead of the den watching a ball game. But I was totally captivated by Maugham’s story and by Tyrone Powers and Gene Tierney. In the same way, I totally and fully romanticized Beloved Infidel with Gregory Peck, playing Fitzgerald, and Deborah Kerr, as Graham. I think I had recently seen Kerr in Tea and Sympathy and was temporarily smitten with her.
So I am telling you all this because I had a pilgrimage to make. Already this year, I had visited Scott’s and Zelda’s graves in Rockville, Maryland. I wanted to pay homage to Scott in Hollywood. Some web page listed where Scott lived and where he died. It turns out that he suffered his heart attack in Sheila’s apartment, 1443 North Hayworth Avenue. He lived elsewhere in Hollywood, but had moved in with her because he was having trouble with the stairs at his own apartment. When I read this, I had one of those funny flutters in the heart. Three years ago, it was climbing stairs at my office at Austin Community College that triggered my awareness that I needed to see a doctor. It was just a little tightness, a little twinge, but it slowed me down and caught my attention. I went in for some tests and by the end of the day, I had two stents in the Lower Anterior Descending Artery, the so-called “Widow Maker.” The doctor told Knightsmama that, if I hadn’t come in, the probability was that within two weeks I would have been mowing the lawn and pop. That would have been it. Well, that is basically what happened to Scott Fitzgerald, at age forty-four, in Hollywood, in Sheila Graham’s apartment, listening to music. You are here; then you are gone.
In Scott Fitzgerald’s case, he left a daughter, who by all that I can tell, grew up to be a wonderful lady who guided her father’s legacy well and who raised her own fine and happy family. Scott left several short stories and novels that will be read as long as people are reading. Back on Hollywood Blvd, all those people signified by all those stars and hand prints and foot prints and sloppy signatures, they, too, left or, as in the cases of the living, will leave something similar, a song, a character, a script, an invention, a technique, a film, a dance, a joke or two. I think I am past the point of having heroes. But I am not past the point to appreciating what they have created. I don’t need to see Brad Pitt or get his autograph or buy him a drink or snap his picture. I can watch him in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” or in “A River Runs through It.” That’s enough.
I suppose I should say the same thing about Fitzgerald. That I don’t need to visit his grave or the apartment where he died. I have his books and those terrifically honest essays about his “Crack up,” that state I have tried to avoid since I read about it. However, I think there is something substantially different about celebrity hunting and my little pilgrimages. While both activities are about me, not about the writer or celebrity, my pilgrimages affect only me. Scott and Sheilah do not have to draw the curtains, lock the door, wear hats and sunglasses to avoid me, or smile kindly but distractedly while I frame them in my iphone. Maybe their spirits are hovering somewhere, wondering when they will be free of fans. Just as likely they are held in purgatory until a certain number of homages are paid. But I doubt it.
My pilgrimages are for me, and I think, concern two things. The first is that I should continue to aim high. Most likely in thirty or forty years, when my last friend has died, no one will remember a single word I wrote. Still that doesn’t mean that I should not keep trying to hit the bull’s eye with the arrow of some sentence. I should have some goals. I should still strive to be excellent at something. Reminding myself about someone else’s excellence guides me toward my own. The second is that I believe that I am improved, educated if you like, when I acknowledge skill and achievement. It cleanses me of the shit of daily life, and replaces it with something beautiful or strong or courageous or sweet. I walk down Hollywood Boulevard and see Bing Crosby’s star and then I think of “White Christmas,” and that makes me think of the duet with Rosemary Clooney, “When I am tired and lonely and cannot sleep, I count my blessing instead of sheep.” Corny, sure, but it is a better thought to have in one’s head than “What’s wrong with me that I can’t afford to take my family for lunch at Musso and Frank’s?”
Anyway, I have drifted far off topic. (Even though, in the long run, I have not, since I am supposed to enjoy this adventure and learn from the wondering.) After taking a photo of what I guessed was Sheila Graham’s apartment (There is no sign announcing the importance of the address, and I have not done the scholarly work yet to double check on possible changes of addresses or razings and rebuildings.), we made our way over to Wilshire Boulevard and took the boys to Petersen’s Automotive Museum.
|Rolls Owned by Liberace|
This little adventure was solely a treat for the boys, especially for Dr. J., who is obsessed with automobiles, especially fast and expensive ones. While he took the extra guided tour of the “Petersen Vault,” Captain Crunch and I wandered the standard museum. Knightsmama met up with Francine at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. Captain Crunch and I wandered through the life-sized dioramas on the history of the automobile. As at The Henry Ford and Smithsonian, I particularly enjoyed the displays illustrating how the automobile transformed travel vacation and American Culture from motel architecture to kitchy roadside art and fast food. We also got to see a series of Town Cars, including Liberace’s silver mirrored Rolls Royce and Fred Astair’s 1927 Rolls. In addition, we caught the exhibit called “Mustangs Forever: 50 Years of a Legend.” I have to admit to being somewhat immune to the siren song of the Mustang. If I were to acquire an older car purely from love and affection, it would probably be a Woody Station Wagon from the late forties, or a mid-seventies BMW 2002, maybe a late sixties VW Hippie Van. What can I say? I am not cool. Yet, when across the crowded room I caught a glimpse of a powder blue 1964 Mustang Convertible, I momentarily fell in love, tripped over my cane, and began babbling nonsensical phrases. Here was the starlet, as fresh and appealing as young Farrah Fawcett, perfect in her innocent sex appeal. Oh, everything done to her over the years was just unnecessary surgery. Who cares if styles and cultures change? Just let the classics age naturally.
Meanwhile, Dr. J. received his own education in beauty and excellence and history, but for the life of me I can’t get him to spill the beans. He saw one of the cars that survived the filming of Thelma and Louise. When we were in Utah, we made him watch the final scene on YouTube. There were autos associated with FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, with Elvis and Saddam Hussein, with Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn, with Steve McQueen and Tom Selleck. Model T’s, Model A’s, Franklins, Packards, Volkswagen Beetles, Mercedes, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, Chevrolet Fleetmasters, Ford GT’s, Porsches, Jaguars, and more. He saw over an hundred cars on a tour limited to 20 people, which took two hours. For someone like Dr. J., I can’t help but think the tour was priceless. He loved it for the engineering and automotive style. I think I would have enjoyed the history and gossip. After the tours and such we met up with Francine and Knightsmama, enjoyed milkshakes at Johnny Rockets (I had coffee), and then let Francine return to her family.
We had had a complete day, but Dr. J. had one more request: Rodeo Drive. Dr. J. had wanted to see just one real life amazing car on the road, and I think Knightsmama just wanted to catch sight of just one amazing Hollywood star. But no luck on either count. We decided we would have been better off at Whole Foods. That’s where People Magazine gets all there discreet shots. Now it was time to head back to the trailer, in full on Los Angeles traffic. I wish I could tell you the route we took back to the trailer, but I can’t. Occasionally, Knightsmama gets a hankering to explore and lets her telephone guide her. Oh, boy. This is what I can tell you: we saw parts of L.A. we would not have normally seen from the highways. And we did make it back to the trailer.
On our final day, Wednesday, in Los Angeles, Knightmama and I began the day riding our bikes to Hermosa Beach for breakfast while the boys slept in. Then the entire family went in search for wi-fi. Our usual destination, Starbucks, was too busy, so we wandered over to the El Segundo library. Knightsmama took care of business for her dad back in Texas. I combed through JSTOR for articles for the essay I had to write by Sunday. The rest of the day was equally low key, hanging out on the beach. We ended the day with another bike ride to Hermosa Beach, this time with the boys. Francine joined us for dinner at Hot’s Kitchen. For our tight budget, it was a little pricey, but we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The basic idea is “Family Style.” Given the size of the portions, I think more of “Tapas.” The restaurant also has a terrific craft beer selection, with brews from all over the U.S. and several from the local area.Knightsmama and I enjoyed our time so much that we sent the boys home before dark. Then we lingered over a second beer and another plate of delicately flavored tacos. When we left Francine to make her way back to her home in Los Angeles, it was dark and nearing 9:00. For our five days and six nights, Francine had been an amazing and generous host. We all hugged, then Knightmama and I rode our bikes the five miles back to Dockweiler Park. The moon was almost full, and the bike path mostly deserted except for a few couples walking, speaking softly. It is amazing to think, but four months ago, the first week of January, the family was walking on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean at Wilmington. We had spent the entire fall working our way south from Bar Harbor to North Carolina. This night we are riding beside the Pacific. Tomorrow, we hit the highway again. But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, the wind is light, the air perfectly cool. We are just cruising along, going slow, enjoying the ride.
Soundtrack Triple Feature. Guy Clark: "L.A. Freeway."
Gladys Knight and the Pips. "Midnight Train to Georgia."
Randy Newman: "I Love L.A."