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A Trip Downtown

One Sunday morning, while I enjoy drinking my cappuccino and listening to the radio, I decide to drive into downtown LA. Even before I moved to Los Angeles, I had a vague premonition that such trips would not be unusual - perhaps even routine. (To buy the Sunday Washington Post at a well-stocked urban newsstand, I thought.) Since it's a sunny day (common here, but not a given) I slip in my contacts so I can wear my wraparound Ray-Ban sunglasses.

After 'battening down the hatches', I grab my hat and walk out to my trusty beetle, carrying the current novel I'm reading. I switch on and exit the parking lot. After a quick glance at the waves (the beach begins at the end of my street), the Pacific Ocean is lost from view. Up and down some hills, crossing the strip of parkland locals call 'the Greenbelt' (where the Sante Fe railroad tracks used to be), then I'm on the long boulevard called Artesia, headed towards the San Diego freeway.

If I stayed on Artesia, it would turn into the freeway that goes directly to Disneyland. Instead, I turn onto the southbound San Diego entrance ramp, and roar up it, gaining velocity to approach turnpike speed. Soon I'm near the Harbor freeway, which I'll take into the heart of LA. To the left is the field marked "Goodyear Airship Operations" on a big blue sign, and sure enough, there's the blimp Columbia, with its ground crew in attendance, holding it down by many cables. As I turn onto the Harbor freeway connector, they let go, and with its engines straining, the Columbia slides up into the air at an acute angle. (In order to cause as little driver consternation as possible, the blimp's launches and landings are made in as short a time and space as possible.) The drone of its approaching motors (usually heard at dusk) reminds me of the grand old airships of sixty years past, when passengers flying over the ocean slept in their own staterooms, with windows that could be opened. Some despise blimps, however - a flier of model airplanes sent one of his radio-controlled vehicles on a kamikaze course directly into the side of the Columbia last year, puncturing the exterior envelope, but not damaging the interior ballonets. They caught him; he paid a fine.

The journey north along the Harbor freeway cuts through the rougher parts of town, like Watts. Nobody wants to have car trouble here! I pass under the huge pieces of a future cloverleaf intersection, which, when joined together, will connect the new Century freeway with the Harbor. Instead of the usual elevated highway, most of this freeway segment is in a trench. Other construction - in the form of big concrete posts with wedge-shaped crowns (which remind me of popsicles) indicates that the Harbor is getting a new set of elevated lanes, called a 'transitway', for use by buses and carpools only. All this work makes me feel hopeful - like seeing young children, I'm once again made aware of the potential for growth and positive change. Then the road rises up from its trench, and the big sign advertising events at the LA Sports Arena dominates the right; USC, a museum complex, and the LA Coliseum appear on the left; and ahead, our own mini-Manhattan of the Los Angeles downtown. Another landmark to the left: Felix-the-Cat Auto (Chevrolet & VW). Many people like the large Felix neon sign.

Getting real close to the big buildings now, and their details grow distinct. Here's the new Coast bank building, one of the more hideous examples of post-modern architecture. Many smooth oblong skyscrapers in the International style are massed together, with names on top like ARCO, Union Bank, and Crocker Bank, or corporate logos I recognize as Security Pacific or First Interstate. There's a couple of paired towers - one set brick-red, the other charcoal gray. Are all these buildings banks? - no, suddenly the tubular Bonaventure Hotel is present on the right; then it, too, slides past. This part of the drive is very pleasant, because of what's absent: there's a major traffic slowdown here every weekday, morning and evening rush. When I was new in town, and living near Pasadena, I came to refer to this area as The Vortex - it made a quick post-work jaunt to the ocean impossible. I whiz past all of the big buildings towering overhead and drive up to the original cloverleaf, known as The Stack or the "4-Level", where the Hollywood freeway meets the Pasadena. (At this point, the Harbor becomes the Pasadena. Both are Interstate 110, but freeway intersections and naming logic are fairly peculiar right around here, due to the evolution of the system.) Curving around onto the Hollywood (which has really become the Santa Ana) I take the next exit, and I'm suddenly deposited onto surface city streets, waiting at a stoplight. I look over at the big, square, gray cube of the Justice Building, built long ago in the Federal style, very familiar to me from Perry Mason. (Picture it in black-and-white, cue his theme, and dissolve to a courtroom scene with Hamilton Burger.) I pass City Hall, also familiar to black-and-white Superman viewers as the Daily Planet building, and after a couple blocks I find a parking space on Alameda Street next to the big Buddhist Temple in the shadow of the Sumitomo Bank building. Other, similar establishments loom up here, too: the Mitsui Manufacturers and Mitsubishi Banks. I have arrived at Little Tokyo, my destination.

First I head towards Weller Court, an open-air, three-storey grouping of mostly restaurants around a fountain, adjacent to a hotel and a small department store. It's just off the pedestrian-only Onizuka Street, in which a large, colorfully-detailed Challenger model has appeared, up on a pedestal in launch configuration. At the entrance to Onizuka Street is the big, white, plastic-looking Friendship Knot sculpture. It's a square knot, dedicated to eternal Japanese/American friendship. A small group of Japanese tourists are posing in front of it, acquiring their kinen-shashin, or commemorative photographs. This is the practice of taking snapshots of your fellow travelers standing in front of some far-away landmark - they're getting the LA skyline into their pictures. I stand nearby for a bit, trying to look useful, in case one of them would like me to take a group photo, but they ignore me. So I venture in to Weller Court, to visit a specific place - a goal of this trip, actually - the new downtown branch of Kinokiniya Books. There's one of these in a small shopping center much closer to me, in Gardena, an LA municipality which contains a less well-known but maybe superior enclave of Japanese residents and establishments.

This store is up on the second floor, with nice, big windows. The selection is quite extensive, and it takes me a while to locate the precise section I seek. En route, I indulge in some tachiyomi, which means, literally, "while standing". This term describes the totally acceptable practice, common in any Japanese bookstore, of standing around reading the books and magazines, sometimes for hours...mostly what I'm doing, though, is staring in bewilderment, looking at the pictures. My eyes scan the spines of the books, getting more information from the background colors and patterns than from the hiragana characters. I select a slender paperback volume, and when I open it I discover that its contents are listings of company logos. Great, old-fashioned American and European logos, generally of anthropomorphic action figures - Mr. Fixit, Speedy Pizza, Zippy Plumbing! Most are black-and-white engravings, with much commentary (almost all in Japanese, unfortunately); but a few stray color pictures are interspersed - there's a photo of the Chicken Boy statue. I haven't heard of hardly any of these - I'm reminded of R. Crumb's comics. Famous ones like the Alka-Seltzer kid and EverReady Kilowatt get whole pages, like color plates - photographs of a bunch of varied Mr. Peanut dolls, for example. I think, I must have this book, until I look at the price: 2200 yen, or $30 - ouch! Not what I'm shopping for...and what I seek, they don't have.

Next I pass through the area called Japanese Village Plaza, the heart of Little Tokyo. When I came down here to explore one evening during my 1981 LA vacation, I had an almost mystical experience. The dark-blue noren curtains, which hang across the sushi-bar entrances, were flapping in an autumnal breeze; and I thought that this was what Tokyo might actually be like - in fact, I felt briefly like I was there. Now that I know what it's like, I can see the similarities, and I fondly recall some of the differences. A traditional wooden fire tower rises up at the entrance to another pedestrian-only passage, which meanders between shops to a central fountain where elderly people hang out under some Ginkgo trees. Across the street is the ancient Far East Chop Suey restaurant used for a scene in the 1975 film version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum. I pause at the entrance to a place called Bun-ka Do, which might seem more at home in Chinatown. They sell windchimes and ko (incense), gaudy golden trinkets and lacquered boxes, origami paper and flashy souvenir chopsticks. There is some good stuff here - this is where I get my Japanese castle calendars. Walking along, I come to the sushi bar called Frying Fishes, and watch the rectangular loop of its conveyor-belt going 'round and 'round. If you like what you see inching past, you serve yourself by grabbing the little dish. When finished, they calculate your check by counting up your stack of dishes. Then, opposite the intriguingly-named Modern Foods grocery store, I breeze through the place called Rafu Bussan, to handle their great ceramic items, but I don't buy anything. (One sees the word "Rafu" all over Little Tokyo - it's Japanese immigrant slang for "LA".) I meander on down the street a couple blocks, passing the Japan-America Theater (where I heard Brian Eno lecture a couple years back), until I get to the enclosed mall which used to be called Little Tokyo Square.

Now it's called Yaohan Plaza - the multi-storey Yaohan department store seems to be taking over. It contains many stores, and even a bowling alley, which has what I understand to be a totally automated scorekeeping system. A great movie theater, the Little Tokyo Cinema I & II, was also here - it recently closed, a tragic loss. I count some of the films I saw there among the many catalysts that actually got me onto a Japan-bound airplane. I buy socks ("Tokyo Studio" brand) at the clothing store called Peoples Place, marked down to an absurd price; and then I venture into the Yaohan. I inspect some great looking ties on the top floor, but I pass them by to head into the basement - the grocery floor. Here I find myself in an environment familar to me from the Japanese supermarkets I shop at in Gardena. I can only stand around salivating at the sushi section here, since raw fish would get kind of funky during the long ride home. But I can stock up on non-perishable food. So after walking down an aisle of multi-colored pickles, I grab a bunch of the "Nagatani En" miso soup packages, the ones with the trading cards. Unlike the cheaper, totally dehydrated brands, whose reconstituted soup I can only characterize as nasty-tasting; these contain three servings of pairs of sealed envelopes - one the dehydrated, dry ingredients; the other the squishy, moist miso, or fermented soy-bean paste. When mixed with hot water, the resulting product is of restaurant quality. When I exit Yaohan, I turn into the big bookstore by the mall's entrance, called Asihiya. Here I score big.

I've recently learned a rather obscure Japanese craft, which involves hours of precision needlework. The finished products are called temari balls, and the best way I can describe them is 'spherical embroidery'. I generally get two responses, when I show off a product of my labors: "You made that?!", and "What's it for?" Anyway, a series of eight detailed 'how-to' books exist (again, unfortunately, the text is Japanese; but the more I learn, the easier comes understanding of the diagrams - and the color photos are wonderful). I've found every volume except one in stores near me, and Behold! Here is the one I lack. I feel the collector's surge of satisfaction upon discovery of the one, missing unit. Also they have a couple from another set I've never seen before. While inspecting these, a group of male students cruise through the aisles, one fervently speaking in Japanese. I can only understand the name of the author he keeps repeating: "... Ken Kesey! ... Ken Kesey!" But I'm now making my way towards the cashier.

Once outside Yaohan Plaza, I realize that now I'm hungry. I head back to Weller Court - I want to visit a restaurant called Una-Shin that I haven't been to for a while - not for lack of trying. I've usually arrived there an hour before opening time, during my last few visits. Fortunately this time, their big aka-chochin (or red lantern), hanging outside by the doorway, is illuminated, so in I go. The hostess greets my Anglo face with the usual warning of "Only Eel!", but I smile and sit at the pleasant wooden counter. The specialty of this restaurant is eel, or unagi. After ordering, I open the current novel, and continue reading The Sheltering Sky. Hmmm...it's actually been quite a while since I was last here, I reflect; since the book I was reading then was The Bonfire of the Vanities. (No, I didn't see either recent movie.) As I begin eating a small salad, I notice the background music with some slight annoyance: not the desirable, tinkly oriental music, but old Motown. Well, that's what they seem to prefer, these days...American culture of any variety. Soon, the waitress reappears with another appetizer, and a small bowl of soup, a clear broth. Then, almost as an afterthought, she sets down the main dish: a lacquered brown box with rounded corners and a tight-fitting lid, about the size of a thick hardback book. I ignore it until I finish everything else, then I pull it over and remove the lid, releasing a cloud of steamy, fragrant vapor. Inside, it is almost full of rice, atop of which are three browned strips of grilled eel. This dish is called una-ju. Since I find it to be very tasty, my chop sticks attack with relish. Afterwards, artfully cut orange slices are served for dessert.

On the way back to the car, I can't help but notice the big mural (by Barbara Kruger) which covers a whole wall of the Temporary Contemporary (an annex of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art), a block away. On a red background, big white block letters in an American-flag format shout out the following set of short, pertinent questions:

I pass by the 'strip' mall called Honda Plaza, which contains a Japanese restaurant called Yoro No Taki. This was the first branch of this chain I ever visited, shortly after I moved to LA, and then I found the experience to be quite alien. I tell people it's like a Japanese Big Boy, or Denny's - not that the food bears any resemblance; but the interiors are always exactly the same, and one orders from a glossy, usually bilingual menu replete with color photos of the cuisine. Since this place serves many somewhat exotic Japanese dishes, the menu is quite helpful as the neophyte can choose food that looks good, and selection can be made by merely pointing out to the waitress. One orders a bunch of things, and then she hollers out your requests to the chefs behind the counter/grill. She then notes down your tab on these little clipboards which hang off the back of the chairs, vaguely reminding me of the chart at the foot of the hospital bed. When the food arrives, each item has its own little dish, distinctively shaped to enhance appearance. This type of setting is known as sara-kobachi, quite unlike western dining where all the food's on one big plate. Four branches are open in the Los Angeles area (the one I frequent now is a lot closer to home, in Gardena) but in Japan, there are thousands of them. (In fact, this is their motto: To open 5000 franchises.) Honda Plaza also contains a store I discovered early on called Pöny Toy-Go-Round - but what's this? It's closed! A sign on the door says they've consolidated with their other store, which was over in Japanese Village Plaza, in a new space in Yaohan Plaza I didn't notice. Well - that other store was like the girl's side - lots of Hello Kitty dolls, and all manner of frilly, pink things. This was the boy's store - full of stuff like monster movie models, plush and inflatable Godzillas, Ultraman toys, and posters from Space Battlecruiser Yamato. I remember my last visit: as I was perusing a line of poseable action figures I recognized from a show I saw on TV in Tokyo, a gang of youthful Asian boys burst in. One of them had a black, high-tech quiver strapped to his back. It appeared to be empty (its fish-mouth was unzipped), but I wondered what he carried in it. Seemed like a perfect place to store a sawed-off shotgun, some sectional pool cues, or even a bunch of truncheons. Although they clustered around the free Nintendo game setup, I split, since they seemed to fill this small store.

Then, on a whim, I decide to stroll over to the Museum of Neon Art (or MONA), which is just a couple blocks away. Since I'm a member, the tedious $5 admission charge is covered by my dues, so I can breeze in by merely flashing my card. Alas, the neon Mona Lisa over the door is not turned on! MONA, once closed on Sundays, is now open - but only until 5PM. I'll just have to imagine the various neon sculptures, glowing in the interior darkness.

As I return to my parked car, I gaze at the scene, illuminated by horizontal light from the sun, now low on the horizon. The mountainous mass of skyscrapers of the metropolis are glowing golden, surrounding the new First Interstate tower, higher than any other. I get in and drive away, noticing one of my favorites, the turquoise terra-cotta Eastern building, which has clocks on all four sides of its art deco tower. The decorations up top are highlighted in gold leaf. To get back onto the freeway system, I cut over to Central Avenue, heading south. I pass by many of the homeless, with their crude cardboard shelters staking out bits of sidewalk turf. Soon I pass an LA landmark - the Coca-Cola building that looks like a ship, complete with curved walls, portholes, and a bridge (where the tourist can allegedly find one of the more foolish observation platforms in Los Angeles). Then numerous long, older buildings border the street, all of a repetitive design that reminds me of the pierside structures alongside San Francisco's Embarcadero. Their functions are similar, for these are the Central Produce marts, where trucks and the railroad (instead of ships) unload their goods - mostly fruit and vegetables from California's Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys. Finally I get to 18th street, where I know to turn right. The Santa Monica freeway has been visible for several blocks now, as it passes right over Central Ave here, but the sign directing the motorist to the nearby entrance ramp is gone. The last time I was at this particular location, it was night and I missed the turn, since the ramp, leading upward and away from this semi-desolate zone, isn't visible from Central until it's too late to turn. Thinking of the problems Sherman McCoy ran into in just such a place, I congratulate myself on being savvy as I re-enter the frantic freeway traffic. As I head west, into the sunset, I wonder what it's like for the tenants who live in those big, old buildings that are right next to the freeway here - I mean so close it seems like a dislodged hubcap might fly through their window!

After a time on the Santa Monica, I get onto the southbound San Diego via one of those high-altitude curving connector roads my Dad calls 'spaghetti'. I tune in NPR for the old-time radio shows they broadcast Sunday evenings, and they are playing my absolute favorite: the Jack Benny program. I understand that Sunday evening was the traditional time for this show - I have read nostalgic accounts of it being unnecessary to turn your own radio on, since you could hear it playing on everybody else's. Eventually I leave our fun freeway system and come to the end of Artesia Blvd, at the top of the big hill leading down into Hermosa Beach, where I can barely make out the ocean beneath the last bit of the sunset's color on the horizon. I negotiate the turns and stop signs on the final approach to my apartment building, peering ahead with the usual minor apprehension to gauge car placement in our parking lot. Is someone in my space? (Occasionally, some alien vehicle is there, left by some inconsiderate inland-dwelling weekend-beachgoer, forcing my to see red, scream, and then seek out a street parking spot.) But no, my space is clear, so I pull into it and switch off. As I gather up my shopping loot and exit my vehicle, I notice my cat, Boris, running towards me. As I stomp up the outside stairway, he bolts passed me to wait at our threshold, because it's feeding time. I unlock the door and in we go - Boris to dine on his Tender Vittles, and me to enjoy my evening cup o' 'cino while perusing my new books.

© 1990
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