Sat, Apr 19, 2014 ●
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The View From Away: 'If I could just get off of that LA freeway ...'

Opinion

The View From Away: 'If I could just get off of that LA freeway ...'

During my recent trip to the West Coast, I stayed in my friend’s house, a personal victory. I have had a phobia of being a house guest since college, when a mishap with a bathroom door led to angry stares and an awkward weekend from which I emerged a broken man.

A generation or so later, I decided to give it another try – with some success, despite a few “forgetting my pants at the dinner table” dreams.

It was my first trip in three years to Los Angeles, where everything changes and nothing changes. For example, many of the trendy eateries I remember on Ventura Boulevard are gone, replaced by equally trendy, equally forgettable restaurants. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which restaurants fail or succeed. Still thriving is Du-Par’s, a down-market diner where waitresses in white dresses and paper tiaras have served bacon and eggs for generations. Next door the equally unpretentious Winchell’s Donuts has given way to a sandwich shop with an arguably more clever name, Which Wich.

I was struck by Crave, whose name implies a desperate desire for its food, and whose design created a desperate desire for air conditioning. It had no front wall. The open-air-European-sidewalk-cafe vibe they were going for was a great idea. Except a) it was 95 degrees and stifling at 11 p.m., as it is all summer in the San Fernando Valley, and b) it is in a Trader Joe’s parking lot.

It is difficult to envision strolling musicians and moonlight when you feel like you’re in a sauna with car exhaust blowing directly onto your radicchio-and-goat-cheese salad. It made me yearn for the relative cleanliness of Paris, where I believe the words for “street” and “urinal” are identical.

By the way, it was crammed with beautiful twentysomethings talking about the movies they were trying to get made when they weren’t waiting on tables in places like Crave. Hashtag: what does the old man know?

L.A. may be the only place where you can reasonably expect to see somebody famous. Not super famous; the Tom Hankses and Brad Pitts of the world live behind walls, captives of success in the worlds they have chosen. But B List to D List celebs occasionally walk among us mortals.

In a restaurant, I ran into the ex-doorman at The Improvisation in Las Vegas, a great guy I hung out with when I was a comic. He went on to be a regular on "The Sopranos" and is all over television these days. I forgot he is a celebrity now and called out to him by name. He stiffened for a second before he saw me. I think he was afraid he was about to be accosted by a fan at 7:30 in the morning. It was a little sad.

Los Angeles is still dominated by car culture. I had forgotten how often you see somebody driving a Ferrari like it was a normal car. I don’t see the point. They look like go-karts when they’re doing 35, which they always are in Los Angeles, but you see a lot of them. The rudest drivers are still the guys in Rolls Royces. Los Angeles is still a place where you see enough Rolls Royces to know how their drivers drive.

The city is doubling the size of the major artery from the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles. If all goes well, in 18 months to three years there will be twice as many cars driving seven miles an hour through the Sepulveda Pass. Rush hour is still 5-10 in the morning and 3-7 in the afternoon. Unless you have a meeting, and then rush hour starts five minutes before you get in the car.

The car culture is a window into the city’s soul, too, and serves as a good contrast to life in Maine.

Every day, at an intersection near where I was staying, I watched a stream of people in luxury SUVs come down the hill, oblivious to the stream of gardeners and pool cleaners in pickup trucks going up the hill. The week before I left Portland, I passed a bald eagle and a heron, both oblivious to me. Later that night I had to brake for the fox that lives on my block.

Those are reasonable compensations for missing some of the juice of Hollywood.