Day 16. AZ/CA: heat haze, Prozac, popes, fatties

by Kevin May

Despite its name, it would be an exaggeration to say that there was much  of a view of the bridge from my motel unless you happened to have a large  periscope or had set up some other canny configuration of mirrors. I tried to  take a photo but ended up with the side of a building with a fluttering Union Flag just in view over its roof.

I took the road leading over the Parker Dam into California. Between me  and Los Angeles lay the small matter of the Mojave Desert, and this was to  outstrip in barrenness anything that I had seen in Arizona or New Mexico. The  next few hours were nothing but road, sand and searing heat. At points along  the way a railroad joined the highway and ran parallel to it. It was on a  raised embankment and bottles and colored stones spelled out messages in the  sand at its side. People with some serious drugs had passed by this way. To add  to the surrealism, I was listening to a debate on the radio that had been raging for about twenty minutes. The subject being discussed was whether taking  Prozac was consistent with being a Christian. One party felt that you had a problem if you couldn’t find adequate succor in the Gospel, while the other thought that perhaps it was God who had inspired the scientists to invent the drug, and so taking it was a way of fulfilling His will.

I was looking forward to seeing Bobby again. He was an Essex friend who  had given up his job in the City and come out to LA seven years previously to  pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter. After struggling for  some time, he was now making progress and was chipper because Meg Ryan’s  production company were showing a lot of interest in one of his film scripts. I  had already decided that the only reason to visit California was because it was  one of the 48. It wasn’t that there was nothing of note to be found there  (quite the contrary), but that so much is known and has been written about the  state that I doubted whether 24 days, let alone 24 hours, would allow me to turn up anything new.

From my previous visits, I would say that LA was the only town  in the USA that I didn’t really like. OK, apart from Detroit. I had found the  combination of aggression and insincerity very unengaging. If Bobby hadn’t  lived there, I would have gone somewhere else in California but, as it was, he was the main point of my next few hours and for the first time I felt as if I were on vacation rather than on a mission.

The desert went on and on. Despite what my map suggested, there were no communities along the way. Unless Rice was a town made up of a couple of  trailers by the side of the road, it had been vaporized since the last time the cartographers swung by this way. After more than a hundred miles of heat-haze,  signs promised the approach of Twentynine Palms, a sort of high desert equivalent of Sevenoaks. Before I drew into town, I came to the entrance to the  Joshua Tree National Park and pulled off to have a look around. I satisfied myself with perusing the photographs of the trees in the Visitors’ Center. I certainly didn’t want to go traipsing cross-country in those temperatures just to look at some idiosyncratic plants. The wrong attitude perhaps, but it was still 110°F.

Bobby’s house was to be found above a curry house in the San Fernando valley, which fashion ordained to be the “wrong side of the hill” for those with aspirations of breaking on to the Hollywood scene. It was easy to find the apartment from his directions, but impossible to park. I slotted the car in to a space marked exclusively for customers of the curry house on pain of fines, clampings and general destruction of the vehicle. Bobby thought it would be all right when he answered the door and invited me up to where the predictable beers were waiting. My previous experience of nights out with Bobby rarely featured anything other than excess.

There was a choice of entertainment for the evening. We could go out to LAX and see if we had any luck picking up any incoming BA stewardesses, a pastime that had recently become one of Bobby’s favorites. Or we could join a group for dinner in Santa Monica. The latter option sounded preferable, but I pointed out that I had no decent clothes if it was going to be somewhere swanky. With a “since when did you ever have any decent clothes, Kev?”, he said that it would be fine provided I could at least put on some long trousers. It was time to debut the jeans from Arizona.

We drove to Santa Monica in Bobby’s open-top jeep. He’d recently gone to Kentucky to see the Derby in it with my cousin Greg and had been horrified to discover how adversely the air-conditioning had affected fuel consumption. They’d spent almost $1000 on gas. I made a mental note only to put the air-conditioning on when it was really necessary, and asked him if he knew that the Kentucky Derby was the fourth largest sporting event in the world. He said he didn’t and that he’d had a terrible time, culminating in being abducted and threatened with sodomy by a couple of hillbillies. I could see how that sort of thing might color your perception of an event.

Our first stop was at a bar that was even more glamorous than I’d feared, right in the heart of Santa Monica. It was fashionable beyond normal human comprehension. Its one saving grace from my perspective was that it was very dimly lit inside and was decked out with nothing but black tiles and smoked mirrors. There were some small waterfalls trickling down the walls and about a million dollars worth of cosmetic correction standing by the bars. We went in and ordered vodka.

The party began to assemble and was mostly comprised of Brits, one of whom, Gareth, I’d met before. Normally he lived and worked in Jefferson City MO, but had come to LA for an interview with the INS as one of the final stages of getting his Green Card. He was with a girl who was introduced to me as either BK or “Beaky”, who turned out to be very nice. She worked in Austin TX, had an apartment in Amarillo (over 500 miles to the north) and, as part of the terms of her employment, got a courtesy flight to anywhere in the US every weekend. She was fascinated by what I was doing and pointed out that most Americans had not even been to all 48 states. Not even the ones who got free flights anywhere each weekend. Nobody was smoking and so I checked the form with Bobby. He told me that if I wanted a cigarette, I’d have to go outside but that I couldn’t take my drink with me. Californian law dictated no alcoholic consumption outside and no nicotine consumption inside.

Out on the street, there were a couple of fellow puffers, some ashtrays and a smoking bench. There were also streetlights, which suddenly illuminated the crapness of my garb. In stark contrast to the designer-labels on legs that were strutting in and out of the bar, I was there in a crumpled shirt, scuffed shoes and stiff new jeans that were so flattened out in the leg that they caused a breeze as I walked. I looked like someone whose mum hadn’t dressed him particularly well that morning before sending him out of the house. I was easily the least cool person in the whole neighborhood.

My only choice was to face it down and make out that I was some kind of cutting edge next-generation-Oasis-grunge-dude from the UK (if such a thing exists). I really needed lanker hair, indeed any hair, to carry it off but I thought that as long as I smoked my cigarette with attitude that I might just get away with it. I’d just got into the James Dean swing of it when BK came out to join me. I flicked open my Zippo and span the wheel half a dozen times with no result. She pulled a lighter out of her bag, lit her cigarette and handed the lighter to me telling me that it was OK because she had a spare. She sat down on the bench and noticed something on the back of my trouser leg. My humiliation was complete when she pulled off a six-inch strip of colored tape that was announcing to the world my waist and inside leg measurements.

The restaurant was across the road and was supposed to be a family-run little Italian with no pretensions. We supped up our drinks and began to move over. One of our number was a guy called Richie who was American. His job was selling The Weakest Link to TV stations. His previous job had been selling the Jerry Springer Show. They were both far more taxing jobs than they sounded, apparently.

He was with a facially fluffy woman who looked like she was about fifteen months pregnant. Either that, or she genuinely did like her food. I decided against enquiring which it was. They both became excited when we got to the restaurant because we were going to get a table in the “Pope’s room”. I had no idea what this meant, but it was clear that this joint was in fact a very large and popular place with the fashionable set.

We were led through the kitchens to our table in an enclave at the back of the restaurant. Now I could see the source of Richie’s excitement. This wasn’t the Pope’s room, it was the Popes’ room. It was octagonal in shape, with a side open to form a door. The wall was decked out with Vatican memorabilia.  There were photos of various Popes, framed letters, a painting of some rosary beads, a 3-D postcard of the Madonna and a shot of some nuns doing the can-can. In the middle of the table in a glass box on a rotating lazy Susan was a 2’ plaster effigy of John Paul II. The head of the circular table was designated by a throne instead of a mere mortal’s chair, and the dome shaped ceiling offered poor mimicry of the Sistine Chapel.

The waitress assured us that we need order no more than seven, perhaps eight, dishes between the twelve of us because they were each very large and that would be plenty. I left the ordering to others and got on with drinking my wine. It was at this point that I noticed something very peculiar. It appeared that we had sat down clockwise in order of fatness so that the tubbiest (Richie)  was at 6 o’clock and the thinnest at 5 o’clock. I wasn’t sure whether it was deliberate or not, but it seemed far too blatant to be an accident. It said something about the general plumpness of the party that I found myself at 2 o’clock.

My theory gained momentum when the food started to arrive. Every dish  was a platter to be shared by all and the waitress always put it on to the table at 6 o’clock for it to pass clockwise around the lazy Susan. The fatties had got it sussed. By the time each dish reached me, there was generally about an eighth of the food left on it while those before me were gorging themselves on increasingly mountainous platefuls the further right you went. It almost went without saying that the four Americans who were not BK were positioned at 6 to 9 o’clock and each had a gob like a skip.

Despite this there was plenty to go around and nobody left hungry, although it did seem to me that we also stopped eating in anti-clockwise order starting at 5. I went to the restroom and was interested to see the walls bedecked by photos of various men and boys having a piss in a number of situations (though none of them featuring a lavatory). I commented on this when I got back to the table and was assured by one of the girls that it was the same in the female restroom (only with photos of women). It all seemed oddly out of place in California, but then its dichotomies was one of the things that most characterized it I guess.

Back at Bobby’s we had one last beer and I collapsed on to the sofa. We wanted to be up in time to see the Chelsea vs Arsenal match that was being screened the following morning in a bar that Bobby knew. It was approaching three when I felt a duvet being thrown over my body and the lights being turned out. Kick off at Stamford Bridge was at 7 am Pacific Time.