Monday, March 23, 2015

California, Part 3: Los Angeles

I've visited Los Angeles approximately nine thousand times. Ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but I've been there more times than I can count, thanks to my grandparents living in nearby Murrieta Hot Sprints when I was a child, my Uncle Steve moving there when I was in high school, a failed attempt at moving there myself after college, and Mrs. Tires' family and friends living in the surrounding area. I'll break LA into a series of anecdotes and attractions in order to give you a full sense of what the area has to offer. 


The beaches in LA are outstanding. What else would you expect from a costal town with this much sunshine? The beaches along LA's coast is a diverse collection, and each offers its own charm. Here are some of my favorites: 

Santa Monica 

Santa Monica is one of the best spots in LA. My Uncle Steve lived there for a few years, and I crashed on his couch one winter break (the break that also brought me to San Francisco). This allowed me to explore Santa Monica thoroughly. I found it to be laid back and more accessible than the rest of the city. One of the highlights is the Third Street Promenade, which is lined with upscale shops, restaurants and movie theaters, and is blocked off from traffic, allowing street performers to entertain visitors. It's a rather touristy spot, but one that makes for a nice evening out. Just three blocks from the promenade is Santa Monica beach. The beach is separated from the city by Palisades Park, a long stretch of green space which is a site to behold in and of itself.

From there, one takes a pedestrian bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway to get to the sand and eventually the water. The first thing a New Englander notices about this beach is the amazing amount of sand that lies between the pedestrian path and the water. It has got to be a good tenth of a mile of sand, and it is soft, warm and feels great between your toes. It's a great place to try to walk on your hands, which I attempted for hours, usually going ass-over-teakettle as a result. 

Santa Monica Pier
During my extended stay in LA in 2001, I spent lots of time writing letters, reflecting, and inscribing things in the sand.

Venice Beach: 

Not too far from Santa Monica Beach is Venice Beach, another famous and alluring spot. It's a much different experience than its Santa Monica counterpart, as the boardwalk is the main attraction. It's also a bit skeezy. Here, street performers dot the walkway, some juggling fire or balancing people on their faces, some painted from head to toe in sliver and dancing or freezing in place for tips, and some simply imitating the gait and posture of passers by, including yours truly. 

Venice Beach is also home to an outdoor gym where ridiculously buff dudes pump iron while hoping to get stared at by passers by. A bit further down the beach is a series of basketball courts which were featured in the opening scenes of the movie White Men Can't Jump. Continuing down the beach, one eventually encounters a unique form of street art - a series of cement walls boasting detailed and vivid graffiti paintings that are so well done, it's hard to believe they came out of a spray paint can. 

Overall I really enjoyed my visits to Venice Beach, but I also got at least some sense of the meaning of the phrase that was written by Bob Dylan and painted on the boardwalk underfoot: 


The city of Malibu lies west of LA. While I haven't spent much time in the city itself, I have made a few visits to the coast to visit El Matador beach. This is easily my favorite beach in the LA area. It features huge, dramatic rock formations which join to create huge cliffs, and one must walk down a steep flight of stairs to get from the nearby parking lot to the beach. 

El Matador  has more dramatic waves than the beaches closer to LA, and if you visit, you'll most likely catch a glimpse of dolphins swimming by, their fins sticking out of the water not too far from the shore. If you're a beach lover, you've got to check this one out. 

Still trying to walk on my hands
Newport Beach:

Newport Beach is a good hour outside of LA, so it only loosely fits here. However, I have extensive experience in Newport, as Mrs. Tires' family has a house one block from the water. While much of my time at Newport Beach is spent hanging out on my family-in-law's huge sectional couch in a condo that houses all eleven family members at once over Christmas, Mrs. Tires and I occasionally venture out to the surrounding beach, where we swim and lounge, or borrow beach cruisers and explore the boardwalk and the series of piers along Newport Beach. 

Riding down the beach is a marvelous experience, as the beauty of the sand and surf to the right is matched by the variety of amazing houses to the left, many decorated with exotic plants and cactuses and some featuring interesting and inspiring architectural design choices. 

The boardwalk is broken up by a series of piers appearing every 15 blocks or so. Most of these piers feature their own clusters of beach-themed bars, ice cream parlors, surf shops and other beach staples. The piers themselves offer their own surprises, such as this perched pelican we encountered during our most recent visit over Christmas in 2014. 

Sweet ride!
During my last trip to Newport Beach, I made a time lapse video of the sunset with my new GoPro camera. Not bad for a first attempt. 

Hollywood and the TV and Movie Scene

I got a small taste of the aspiring actor scene during my brief attempt at living in LA in the summer of 2003. I frequented the iO West Theater, a sister theater to the famous iO Theater in Chicago (where I would later perform after my LA experiment fizzled out). I took a sketch writing class at iO West, caught several shows and met a few folks. The scene was as advertised, with people making connections left and right, sizing each other up to assess whether their newfound connection could help them out or if they were competition and generally being sticky-sweet to all for their own benefit. The same attitude was palpable on stage and in the class I took, with everyone looking to shine with the hope of being discovered - a concept that runs contrary to the team-first attitude that makes for good improv. The craft certainly suffered as a result, and it was clear why LA isn't known for its live theater scene. However, there's a silver lining here, as audience members are often treated to performances or cameos by big name actors. I was delighted to see Drew Carey and Ryan Stiles do some live improv, and a show by the original cast of the Upright Citizens Brigade was among the best I've ever seen. 

My trips to iO West brought me to Hollywood Boulevard on a regular basis. I always enjoyed my time there marveling at the big time business locales such as Capital Records that were littered amongst the gift shops, glamorous clothing stores and sketchy adult theaters. I was captivated by the palpable feeling that something important was happening there. However, nothing sums up Hollywood Blvd better than my brief encounter on the street in October of 2014. 

Mrs. Tires and I stayed at the Best Western two blocks from Hollywood Blvd when we went to LA to witness Mrs. Tires' friends Gary and Frank get married. It was the second worst hotel stay ever, but I'll let my Trip Advisor review do the talking on that one. Mrs. Tires got pretty sick right before our trip and mostly rested during the day to save her strength for the wedding festivities at night. That left me to my own devices. I had just conceived of this blog, so I started writing it while sitting by the pool. However, writing about travel and not actually exploring LA got to me, so I decided to go out for a fresh peek at the famous street. 

As I turned on to the boulevard, I noticed people dressed up as Superman and Iron Man milling about the sidewalk. Amused, I pulled out my camera to take a photo.

I was spotted while snapping the shot, and Superman invited me to get a shot with the two of them. Too amused to refuse, I took the bait and posed with the two of them for this photo: 

After the photo was taken, Superman not-so-casually requested a tip for the pose. He explained to me that that is how he and his friend make a living. I obliged, and handed over a dollar, which he deposited in his fanny pack, and then asked for another bill for his friend. I turned Iron Man's way. "Yeah man," Iron Man said, "It's really hot in this suit." I was starting to get the picture here. I handed over another dollar and said good bye to these heroes.

As I continued on, I saw many more characters. Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Spongebob, the Green Lantern, Spiderman and many other characters were set up along the sidewalk, requiring tips in order to get their photo taken and rebuffing photographers who wouldn't pay. A seven year old girl stared in wonder at her hero Cinderella (who I am pretty sure was played by a man). As soon as the little girl pulled out her digital camera, Cinderella broke character, waved her pointer finger back and forth to signal no dice, and then flashed a Johnny Manziel-like demand for money by rubbing her thumb against her pointer and middle finger. The girl teared up as she walked away. The whole scene stunk, and my fellow tourists expressed as much as they made their way down the sidewalk. One tourist vented his frustration to Batman, who retorted by yelling "For a dollar, you can take a picture of me flipping you off!" I was disgusted by the remark as I walked away, but after a few more steps I became amused. Actually, I did want a picture of Batman flipping me off, and I was willing to pay the fee to get it. I doubled back and explained to Batman that I wanted to take him up on his offer. He let out a resigned sigh, ushered a few kids out of the area, and then posed for this photo:

Best dollar I ever spent. And with that, I turned back, satisfied that I had received the true experience of Hollywood Boulevard. 

Los Angeles tourists and residents alike have a chance to see big name stars and other actors via live tapings of TV shows. During a family visit in December of 2000, we took in a taping of the Jay Leno show. Getting tickets to this event is a formal and time-honored process which involves showing up on the NBC lot early in the morning and waiting in line while tickets are released. After waiting for several hours and obtaining tickets in two batches so the whole family could go, I stupidly lost my half of the tickets, leaving my two uncles without entrance to the taping that night. Sorry, Steve and Gary! Despite the epic fail, the taping was a blast. Leno addressed the crowd before the taping, which got everyone buzzing. A guest appearance by Richard Simmons had us rolling. However, my clearest memory from that day was sitting next to my grandma while musical guest Shaggy performed his over-the-top hit "It Wasn't Me." Nothing like watching grandma tap her toes while Shaggy sings about bangin' on the bathroom floor. 

During a subsequent tour of duty in LA, I caught a live taping of Mad TV. I scored entry to this taping via a vendor at Santa Monica beach. These vendors look a bit suspicious, casually lounging on the boardwalk with spreads of tickets to different shows laid out in front of them. Fortunately, they're legit, and I was granted entrance to the taping. I was pretty excited, as I am big into improv and sketch comedy and considering pursuing it as a career at the time. However, this taping showed me that if I did pursue live comedy, doing sketch for TV was not the way to go. The sets and actors were separated from the audience by a sizable gap and tall railings, which interfered with the connection the actors and the audience have in a normal theater setting. What's more, the actors were reading from cue cards and generally did not seem like they were having fun. The audience is primed to laugh at the right moments by a host who uses a series of canned tricks so get the crowd amped. This got old pretty quickly. Furthermore, when the audience didn't laugh enough at a sketch, they'd attempt to pump us up even more so they could reshoot the scene with more laughter. Hardly the genuine, in-the-moment reaction I was used to from my time on stage. My initial enthusiasm for the taping fizzled out half way through the taping and I left early, vowing not to participate in this exercise again. 

Another way to experience the TV and movie culture in LA is through more commercial means, such as a tour of Universal Studios. Though Universal gives a less authentic experience, it's certainly enjoyable. I have distinct memories of the standard tram tour, which included me getting startled out of my mind when a mechanical Jaws leapt out of the water next to our tram, sending me leaping scared into my Aunt Di's lap. I also remember getting an extended view of the clock tower and other set pieces from the Back to the Future movies, and have fond memories of riding the Jurassic Park water ride. 

A trip to universal studios is enhanced by a visit to Universal CityWalk, an outdoor area with many fun novelty shops, a huge arcade, restaurants, street performers and more. This times square-esque area is a bit overdone, but it's still fun to visit, and it doesn't require an expensive Universal Studios ticket to enter.

Baseball Stadiums

California is lucky enough to host four different baseball teams, including two in the LA area. They're within driving distance of one another, a stadium chaser's dream. 

Dodger Stadium

My first visit to Dodger Stadium (home of the Los Angeles Dodgers) was the unofficial beginning of my stadium chasing days. I was in high school at the time, and up until then the only park I had ever visited was Fenway Park. Everything I experienced then was in comparison to Fenway, and boy was I impressed. The tickets were affordable - I think I paid $9 a piece for bleacher seats. It was very easy to park, as a trip up Chavez Ravine leads to a gigantic parking lot that surrounds the stadium and is affordable and easy to navigate, a far cry from fighting Boston city traffic and paying $30 to cram into a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot repurposed for game time. We were greeted with a fan giveaway we actually desired, a Dodger rally towel I still own. The seats were wide and comfortable, a big change from the wooden back-breakers at my home stadium. Overall the stadium was much more inviting and hassle free than any trip to Fenway I had ever experienced. Even at a young age, the upgrade was not lost on me. Famous features such as the diamond shaped scoreboard and the Dodger Dog add to the charm. Now that I've been to more stadiums, I can tell that Dodger Stadium is far more dated than I realized initially - it's one of the last cookie cutter stadiums from the 1970s that still stands. Additionally, the Dodger fan stereotype of showing up in the third inning and leaving in the seventh was created with good reason. Still, Dodger Stadium is an important and significant piece of baseball history, and it most certainly deserves a visit from baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike.

Angel Stadium of Anaheim

Located outside of LA in the city of Anaheim, Angel Stadium hosts the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It's the fourth oldest MLB stadium, but despite it's seniority, it's as new age as it gets. Blaring music, flashing lights and marketing gimmicks for the latest movie release are staples. These artificial attempts to get the crowd fired up are fun for the casual fan, but they make a true baseball fan cringe. Still, the stadium is not without its charm. The stately entranceway that's flanked by two size 649 1/2 baseball caps provides a pleasant welcome to the park. 

Beyond the left field wall sits a boulder and waterfall installation commonly referred to as "the rock pile." It adds some visual interest to the ballpark, though it's a bit random and doesn't really resemble the California coast it's supposed to represent.

Food-wise, Angel Stadium is way behind. One of it's most highly regarded dishes is the short rib grilled cheese from The Big Cheese. It's tasty and filling, but after having it once, I don't think I'd get it again. 

I was fortunate enough to catch three out of four games of the Angels vs Red Sox series at the stadium in July of 2004, the year my beloved Red Sox went on to win their first World Series in eighty-six years. Personal highlights from my visit include seeing my Uncle Steve almost catch a foul ball that came screaming towards us and then bounced off his outstretched hands, and seeing David Ortiz throw a massive fit after being ejected from a game and throwing bats, balls and other assorted equipment onto the field. While this park may irk baseball purists, it's definitely worth a visit.

Art Museums

While not known for its fine art, LA does house two art museums that offer interesting and varied experiences. 

The Getty

Located in the hills on the outskirts of LA, the Getty is more noteworthy because of the aesthetics of the museum than because of the art. Before you draw the inevitable comparison to LA's all-glitz-and-no-substance reputation, know that the architecture is completely deserving of such attention. One must park far away from the museum and take a series of trams just to get to the entrance. And while this is time-consuming, it enhances the sense of grandeur one feels when they finally approach the building. The architecture is truly unique, as it is almost maze-like and is decorated with intriguing gardens and gorgeous fountains and ponds. To get the true experience, one has to look at the building as the art and not just a place that houses the art. It's a good thing it has such an asset, because the art itself is sparse and uninspiring. That is not to say it is bad art, just that it's mostly Renaissance-style art and sculptures, a style I have trouble identifying with or caring about to any degree. The Getty makes for magnificent wandering. Just don't go with high expectations for art. 


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka The LACMA) makes for great browsing, even if you don't go in. That is, one can get a lot out of just walking the grounds, which Mrs. Tires and I did when we went to LA in October of 2013 for our friends Tommy and Michelle's wedding. There are several installations accessible to all that are fun to explore and interact with. They whet my appetite for a visit, and I hope to get the full experience sometime soon. As it was, we enjoyed swinging around the collection of lamp posts in front of the museum and swimming through the long, spaghetti-like rubber tubes suspended from the ceiling as part of another free-to-enjoy installation. 

Next to the LACMA are the La Brea tar pits, legit pits of tar that at one time housed a treasure-trove of dinosaur bones, and before then some legitimate dinosaurs. To mark these findings, odd and somewhat cheesy dinosaur statues emerge from the tar. This is a decent place to wander, though its popularity is somewhat perplexing - in and of itself the La Brea tar pits are decidedly 'meh.' 


All this in one city, and I still haven’t talked about the most famous attraction in the area: Disneyland! I’ve been to this wonderful, magical playland a handful of times. I was lucky enough to visit as a young boy. The details of those memories have faded, but we have some great photos firmly implanted in family photo albums. 

Pluto and three-year-old me
Riding the Dumbo ride with Mom, circa 1985
Riding the tea cups with Dad
More recently, Mrs. Tires and I celebrated my birthday there in December 2012. During the visit I was delighted by the return of Captain EO, the 3D adventure starring Michael Jackson. This forgotten gem was removed several years ago but revived after Jackson’s death. It’s a fun experience, and the 3D effects include lots of gimmick involving objects floating towards the audience in a way that makes you feel like you can reach out and touch them. That’s what 3D cinema should be, in my opinion. Bonus: it features this gem of a sequence: 

Staying in Tomorrowland, we went from Captain EO to Space Mountain, which is always fun but doesn’t hold up in comparison to more modern roller coasters. After rocketing into space, we met up with Gary and Frank for a ride on Star Tours (put Star Wars in something and I am IN, even though this one is akin to a shopping mall ride). After recovering the wallet Frank lost on the ride, it was off to several more rides, including a trip down Splash Mountain, where I was convinced by my compatriots that I wouldn’t get that wet on the ride (even though I knew better). Sure enough I got SOAKED, including having an entire shoe drenched in a tidal wave of water. Eventually I had to buy socks from the gift shop so I didn’t have wet feet all day. I still have the socks, so I guess I win in the end! 

After a nostalgic trip to the cult classic Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, we visited the Haunted Mansion, which had gotten a clever Nightmare before Christmas makeover (it being near Christmas and all). December is a funny time to visit Disneyland. On one hand, the park is decked out for the holiday, and Christmas charm enhances the mystique of this playground for all ages. On the other hand, it attracts a ton more visitors. All of these visitors seemed to be completely in love with the idea of it snowing there in Disneyland on account of the holiday. Personally I go to California to escape the snow, and the idea of replicating it for pleasure was almost too much to handle. Still, I slogged through the crowds to see it snow, and after an hour of waiting, we learned the snow was canceled for the day. If only it was that easy in Chicago.

Another distinct memory I have of that day is an outstanding meal at Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue. Normally I don't expect much from food in theme parks, but my low expectations were exceeded and then some. For a flat fee we got all-you-can-eat ribs, sausage, corn-on-the-cob, chicken, baked beans and cornbread, each more delicious than the last. I couldn’t ask for more out of a birthday meal. Highly recommended! 

We made one more stop before calling it a night, a fast-pass trip to the new Indiana Jones ride, an adventure ride that has visitors zooming around in giant hummers, dodging boulders and making narrow escapes from caves full of flames, all through intricately decorated sets and to the classic Indiana Jones theme music. Overall it was a fantastic trip to Disneyland, and one that cemented the notion that this park is truly fun for people in any phase of their life. 

Disneyland is a lot of fun, but it lacks the variety of attractions that its counterpart in Florida has. They made an attempt to change that by creating an adjoining theme park called California Adventure. Truth be told, it pales in comparison to Disneyland, and all the locals freely admit this. However, there is one ride there that is a must-see. Picture an IMAX theater with a ride smack dab in the middle of the theater. That’s what you get in the Soarin’ over California ride, which flies its riders over various sites in California, with a view that fills you peripheral while your legs dangle over the sites. It’s a worth a visit for this ride alone, even if your admission money is better spent at the original site. 

In-N-Out Burger:

With fast food referenced in the title of this blog, I would be remiss to exclude In-N-Out from this post. This California food joint is found all over the place in the state, and each one seems to have a line out the door at all times. The menu is pretty simple, mostly burgers and fries. The real highlight is the secret menu. Be sure to order your burger "animal style." This means special sauce and grilled onions on top of a delicious, freshly made burger patty. You'll wait a bit longer for your food than you would in a traditional fast food joint, but it's worth it, as the burgers are truly a cut above.  

All told, I think LA is one of those cities that perfectly matches its reputation. The glamorous facade is a real and palpable thing, and the traffic is enough to drive anyone mad. However, despite these flaws, the beaches, great weather and fun attractions more than make up for this in my mind. I welcome any opportunity to visit, and who knows - maybe I’ll even move there some day. 

Must-See in California: 
  • Road trip from LA to San Francisco up the Pacific Coast Highway
  • Golden Gate Park (San Francisco)
  • AT&T Park (San Francisco)
  • Joshua Tree National Park (Joshua Tree)
  • Santa Monica (LA)
  • El Matador Beach (Malibu)
  • Disneyland (Anaheim)
  • In-N-Out Burger (various locations)

Check It Out: 
  • Haight Ashbury (San Francisco)
  • Donner Pass (Truckee)
  • Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco)
  • North Beach (San Francisco)
  • The Mystery Spot (Santa Cruz)
  • Dolores Park (San Francisco)
  • Tomales Bay (San Francisco)
  • Venice Beach (LA)
  • Newport Beach (Newport)
  • Hollywood Boulevard (LA)

Skip It: 
  • Pier 39 (San Francisco)
  • La Brea Tar Pits (LA)

The "Next Time" list: 
  • Yosemite National Park
  • The LACMA (LA)

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