How a Black Eye Made Me Remember Why I Keep Going Back to LA
I usually visit Los Angeles a couple of times a year, returning to the hangouts I frequented when I lived in the city six years ago. I also make it a mission on each trip to discover new places and adventures. My most recent trip didn’t disappoint, as the good and bad of the town never fails to bubble up, like the ooze of La Brea Tar Pits.
It had been a year since my last trip to LA in summer 2021, which had started well with COVID’s dissipation but then ended badly with an unexpected surge in infections that sealed up the city once again. This time, the pandemic was almost a memory, as masks were the exception, tent encampments were fewer, and crowded public events were back in swing.
Not knowing what might happen with the COVID situation, I planned a lot of outdoor and open-air activities, which I figured were a safer bet for avoiding rubbing elbows with the unmasked masses. I also found a way to avoid waiting in line to buy tickets for attractions like Universal Studios and the Van Gogh exhibit by using Tiqets, an online booking platform. The service offers a flexible cancellation policy, in case circumstances change, and they offer special deals and packages, like express access passes for Universal Studios Hollywood, perfect for short vacations so you can skip lines and enjoy more of the rides and shows.
The incredible surround-sight-and-sound Van Gogh Experience was pleasantly uncrowded, especially since my group took advantage of the VIP access tickets with an hour early entry. Plus, we all got a cool poster and $10 for the gift shop, which I applied toward a Starry Night jigsaw puzzle, which I will put together, someday.
As I always do on my LA visits, I explore the touristy attractions. It only makes sense when you’re in one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations to enjoy cruising the Sunset Strip and strolling the Hollywood Walk of Fame — but also to do the things that makes LA LA, like hiking Runyon Canyon, and going to Cinespia, my favorite outdoor movie event, where thousands of movie lovers flock with their blankets, coolers and LED votives for an alfresco dinner to DJ tunes followed by a modern classic movie. While the Cinespia enterprise has grown exponentially since I first started attending 20 years ago, expanding into multiple cinematic locales, I still gravitate toward the original venue of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There I have enjoyed beloved films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Point Break, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Die Hard (yes, in December, because it is a Christmas movie), and Dirty Dancing (the latter on July 4th, complete with fireworks timed for Patrick Swayze’s climatic lift of Jennifer Grey, projected on Rudolph Valentino’s Mausoleum.
As has been my LA story, when I am in LA, something dramatic, and sometimes traumatic happens. This time, I had a bad fall, breaking and spraining my fingers, suffering a concussion-inducing face contusion, and banging and bloodying my knee, thanks to the dark alleyway and awkward steps leading to my Airbnb accommodations. After a trip to Cedars-Sinai Urgent Care, I was wrapped in a cast and doped up on pain killers. This is when my perspective became a little foggy yet clearer about what was different in LA this trip.
While many of my plans – like my favorite bike ride on the path from Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach — had to be scrapped due to my injuries, I carried on, as the show is apt to do in Hollywood. So I did what I could, which was eat and drink, at least a few times a day, at some of my favorite restaurants and bars, like Hugo’s in West Hollywood, Real Food Daily (where I never fail to see a celebrity enjoying the city’s finest vegan menu), WeHo Bistro (for to-die-for French onion soup), Sun Café on Ventura Blvd., (best vegan smoothies around), and the Abbey (where the burgers and fries are passable, but where else can you drink and watch nearly naked men dancing on the bar, surrounded by statues of saints?).
In a couple of days, I was cleared to drive, so my friends were relieved of taxi duty. Luckily, I had the next best thing to a chauffeur, which was a Jeep Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve 4×4. Of course, I was doing the actual driving, but it hardly seemed like it. Despite busted fingers and my hand bandaged up like Rocky, I was able to navigate the side streets like a champ. I’ve been driving SUVs for 16 years, so I am used to sitting up high, which is a definite advantage driving LA streets, otherwise known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. For instance, I was easily able to steer around a guy dancing in his underwear in an intersection (an actual event during my trip), and quickly react to the usual entitled LA drivers cutting me off to get one car length ahead. I felt insulated and protected by the heft of this car, such that if, heaven forbid, someone pulled out in front of me, I would probably plow through them War of the Roses style and be just fine. I was also thankful for driver assist and auto parking features that helped compensate for my compromised dexterity.
During every trip back to LA, I take account of what got worse, what stayed the same, and what changed for the better. For instance, my old go-to grocery store in Santa Monica, formally a Lucky’s, then an Albertson’s, is now a Gelson’s. Chalk one up for improvements. Other upgrades include my son’s old playground in WeHo by the public library, which is now the home of a spanking-new aquatic center; and new green bike lines that sprouted up throughout Santa Monica and West Hollywood – though even with these dedicated bike lanes, motor vehicle drivers still encroach on biking right-aways, but it has it helped improve biker safety by a degree. Another sign of progress was that almost every public bathroom was all-gender.
Things that have changed and stayed the same can be summed up in an incident that occurred when I was leaving T.J. Maxx in Santa Monica. A security guard tackled a homeless guy stealing a purse. That’s the usual thing. The new thing was that the guard was wearing latex gloves, presumably for COVID. Another stayed-the-same thing was that the Abbey was packed. The new thing was large screen TVs behind the bar flashing, “Warning. Beware of pickpockets. “Again, I presumed this was due to the COVID-driven pre-recession climate ratcheting up crime rates. There were fewer tent cities, especially at the beaches, though there were plenty of the usual vendors selling sage and crystals.
Despite my spill at the Airbnb, I felt lucky for the rest of my trip. Maybe because of my injury and not in spite of it, people treated me nicely. Like the woman at the Walgreens who looked at my broken fingers and my blackeye and whispered quietly to me, “Are you OK?” Others stared sympathetically at me, held doors, smiled and otherwise extended kindnesses to me, possibly assuming I was a victim of domestic violence. I experienced this kinder-and-gentler LA all the way to my gate at LAX, when the United Airlines boarding agent took a look at me and invited me to board early, gave me an entire row to myself despite a full plane, and checked my carry-on for free.
As I clicked my seatbelt around me, I realized I had forgotten my scapular, a religious amulet I wear on flights for the protection of the Virgin Mary. Usually, I would’ve considered this a bad omen and freaked out; but as I reached into my jean pocket, I found a scapular patch, which I had found lying on a bench during my visit to Universal Studios. I pinned the scapular to my shirt, over my heart, and I relaxed into my five-hour-10-minute flight back to DC. So went another typical, atypical trip to LA, where good, bad and the surgically enhanced come together in a way that happens “Only in LA.”