Archive for January, 2012

Down the Coast 6: All City

It had taken us a good part of the day to leave but eventually we set out in search of the beach, Calvin on his BMX, me on a borrowed, banana-seated cruiser from the warehouse. We found mostly city. On a hill by a school we saw it sprawling, stretching on and on in every direction. L.A. is a city of cars and our cycling took place with difficulty: on earthquake-ruined sidewalks, or nervously pressed to the gutters on the roads.

It hadn’t take too much convincing to get Nick to join us in LA. A few stories of drunken Santas and a place to stay and he and Alex set off down the coast road from San Francisco, where we’d left them. While we were searching for the beach, following the sun vaguely southwest and asking frequent directions, he was leaving Alex in a hostel and heading to meet us at Venice Beach. Calvin and I eventually found the coast – an equally uninterrupted sprawl, only this of flat sand and ocean – and rode north to meet him. Finally on a bike path, we rode through flocks of roller-skaters, past markets and drum circles, basketball games and impromptu parties, just as the movies suggest. We found Nick on sunset, then sat down for over-priced beers and bad burgers at a cafe fronting the beach.

When we got back to the warehouse, a couple of the guys were setting up a bike polo court. We set up at the bar and watched, helping when asked. There was a professional bike polo game going on nearby. The players were due later that evening.

We walked to a shop nearby and bought booze. The warehouse settled into its usual nightly state of chaos. The bar was declared open, which happens when there’s booze enough for everyone, at which point, people are permitted to smoke inside to avoid the social breaks going outside would cause. Bike polo games started up in the court and the night descended into drinking and bike polo and card games and conversation.

The next day, the three of us drove around to all the places Nick had heard about in rap songs. We drove through Inglewood, down Crenshaw Blvd, through Compton, then down to Long Beach. It all just looked like more city to me. Not even interesting city. Just sprawl. LA is the same as far as you can drive: we drove down two or three lane main roads, past auto repair shops and smog checks, fast food joints and petrol stations, supermarkets and cheap liquor stores, dissected regularly by numbered interstates. I couldn’t see much worth writing rap songs about, but I guess you’ve gotta work with what you’re given.

In the winter, the beaches are mostly deserted. But we found one anyway, walked along it for a while watching the waves.  Then we drove north to Bel Air, Beverly Hills; got lost a bunch of times and got to Hollywood on dark. We drove down the Sunset Strip, through the Hollywood Hills. It was all just street light, headlights, tails lights and more sprawl. Complicated collections of highways and exits. Suburbia just beyond. In the end, we drove for hours, the city another repetition of all the others, the only difference being the names, their fictional familiarity.

Back at the warehouse, people were playing bike polo on the left-over court and angle-grinding poles apart. Calvin and Nick joined in while I watched the game of bridge going on at the bar. On of the players was the guy who slept under the desk on the landing. He had great dreadlocks and I told him so. I usually don’t like dreadlocks but these were tight and thin, black and tidy. They looked good on him.
“Want one?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, mostly joking.
“Pick one.”
“Um. Ok.”
“Grab a hold of it.”
“I could go get some scissors or something.”
“Nah. Just grab hold of it.”
I did as I was told. Slowly, he pulled his head away from my hand I felt the vibrations of the chosen dreadlock being ripped from his scalp like a weed from dry soil.
“A souvenir,” he announced, re-shuffling the cards.
“Thanks,” I said.

After a while, Calvin, Nick and I went for more beer. After so much time in the car, I insisted on walking.
“We should drive,” Nick said.
“Nah man, it’s not far. Let’s just walk.” We were going to a different place, hoping to find a better selection of beers than what the little corner shop nearby had to offer.
“Really. Let’s just drive,” he said.
“C’mon dude. We’ve been driving all day.”
Eventually, reluctantly, he agreed. I though he was just being lazy, but as we got deeper into the neighbourhood, I began to realise why he had been so insistent. It took me a while though.
“Man, all the food places are closed,” I said as we neared the supermarket. I had left my watch at the warehouse. “They close pretty early, hey.”
“It’s not really early,” Nick said.
“What time is it?”
Nick checked his phone. “10:30.”
“Shit,” I said. “Really? When did that happen?”
Most places were closed. What few people there were left on the streets watched us go by. Car slid past slowly. Nick didn’t say anything, just gave a quick nod.
“Fuck, I didn’t realise. If I had known how late it was…” I said.
“This isn’t exactly a good neighbourhood,” Nick said.
We went quiet.
“We should have driven,” I said.
“Yeah.”

The walk back was nervous and quiet and quick. Suddenly the streets seemed very dark and very deserted. I became very aware of my wallet.
Finally, we got back to the warehouse. The entrance is down an alleyway, and there’s a gate to get back in, which requires an electronic clicker to get through. We were just pulling it out, when a figure appeared from the shadows.
“Give me your fucking wallets,” he said, low and serious.
We froze. I immediately started to panic.
Then the figure started to laugh.“You guys got a clicker?” he said. “I left mine inside.”

“Fuck, did you guys fucking brew your own or something?” one of the girls asked when we finally walked in, and everyone laughed.

Down the Coast 5: Los Angelope’d

I didn’t want to go to LA. My plan, vague as it was, mainly involved three things: getting to Mexico by Christmas, sticking as close to the coast as possible, and avoiding Los Angeles like the plague. But here I was, Calvin in the passenger seat, a strange, surly girl from Phoenix in the back, on our way into LA.

From San Francisco, we had hugged the coast down Highway 1, my little Volkswagon taking those Hollywood turns like a sports car. Or, almost anyway. At one point, there was a roadblock, one lane of traffic blocked off and road workers with stop signs, enough of a wait for people to start getting out of their cars to stretch their legs or take pictures of the view. When we were finally allowed to crawl past, it wasn’t an accident or torn up asphalt causing the delay, but a full film crew and a movie set.

When we hit Malibu, just North of the city limits, Calvin started recognising settings from BMX videos he had watched. Soon after that, it was all city. We had left Santa Barbara early to ensure we would hit LA in between rush hours, but it’s always rush hour in LA, so the process of penetrating in was long, though easier than I was expecting.

We were going to a warehouse run by a bike collective called the Los Angelopes. It was in Inglewood, a suburb that I later learned from Nick features heavily in rap songs. Calvin knew the people there through a friend of a friend, who had met one of the people involved through a rideshare, and then had stayed there while bike touring through. Or something like that anyway.

The Los Angelopes build what they call freak-bikes, or tall bikes. Mostly these are frames welded on top of other frames with chains, brackets and brakes modified accordingly. They are mounted by the rider in a similar way to penny farthings, with a run-up and a jump, and look pretty precarious to ride.

A freak bike

The people involved in the collective organise or participate in events and rides, throw or crash parties, play bike polo, make videos for YouTube, dress up in all sorts of costumes, and generally cause trouble. Their warehouse contains an extensive workshop with every tool you could ever need and a full welding set-up. There’s a sound-proof recording studio in one corner of the warehouse, a boat out the back, great piles of milk crates, a bar, and enough bikes and bits of bikes to furnish a medium-sized town. Plus, one of the bathrooms has a black light in it, so at night your pee glows fluorescent in the bowl.

Apparently, the warehouse had originally been built as a ball bearing factory for World War II. The guy who currently owns it – who’s a bit odd by most accounts – bought it with the dream of turning it into a boxing brothel. The idea involved having a boxing ring set up in the main warehouse section where the girls would have boxing matches, while the men decided on which one they wanted and would later take them upstairs to a room.

His dream never came true. Instead, he gave up half-way through the renovations and leased it to a bicycle collective called the Los Angelopes, who now have pretty much free reign over the place. There are ten or more of them living throughout the half-built rooms of the first and second stories. One guy sleeps under a desk on the landing. Another lives in a tiny room under the stairs. And then there’s the constant revolving cast of couch-surfers and friends of friends who sleep where-ever they can find a warmish space to lay their sleeping bag.

We arrived sometime around late afternoon, and most people were out. We unpacked, made some food, tentatively explored and talked to one of the guys about his wheatgrass collection. We settled in. Then, a little after dark, without warning, the place was suddenly descended upon by eight or nine very drunk Santas.

They flooded in, all dishevelled red and white, slurring and yelling. Before long they had all crowded into one of the downstairs bedrooms with a bong and a kitten and had started playing Beatles records as loud as they would go, singing along as loud as they could sing.

They had been at a Santa pub crawl all day, someone explained to us. They had started out sometime in the early afternoon, in two groups, one at either end of the train line. Then they had bar-hopped their way down, eventually converging in one loud, drunken, red and white mess somewhere around the centre of the line.

Soon, everyone was sitting at the bar, continuing to drink heavily. To one side of me, a Santa started lighting aerosol cans on fire. Over in the workshop, a girl in fishnets and welded something together. Somewhere else, a couple more Santas hurled throwing knives at a target on the wall. At one point, I lifted my bottle to my lips just as two wrestling Santas tumbled off the table and into my face, which was probably the best way I have every managed to get a bloody lip.

Then we were climbing into a car driven by one of the Santas, who was reasonably sober now, to crash someone’s work party in another part of town. It was more of a formal affair than we were expecting. Apart from us and the Santas, everyone was fairly well dressed. There was an open bar with three kegs of beer and all the spirits and mixers you could want. There we

Where we slept

re great mountains of pizzas on a table. There was a helium-filled, remote control, floating shark, which Calvin and both I got to have a go at steering.

Then we were back in the car and heading back to the warehouse. There, exhausted, Calvin, the girl from Phoenix and I all collapsed into our sleeping bags on the balcony overlooking the warehouse, which happened to be missing most of the railing that would otherwise have protected us from the drop to the concrete floor of the warehouse below. It was probably around 3 or 4am. The next morning, at 9am, we were awoken by singing.

Down the Coast 6: What I Expected to Find

Driving through America was like driving through fiction. All the names I had heard in movies and on TV shows, all the culture that had saturated mine, and here I was at the source, driving down the Oregon Coast, crossing the border into California, hitting highway 1, travelling through Big Sur and then into San Francisco, Roger’s poor transmission struggling up all those hills.

There’s so often such a big gap between the image you hold in your head of a place before you’ve been there – the  place as you expect it to be – and reality. Most of the time, these imagined places are eclipsed once you go and experience the real thing. I remember Prague being very different to how I expected it to be, but I don’t remember how. Same with Borneo, Berlin, Vietnam, Barcelona, the Balkans: most of the places I’ve been to. In my seven-year-old Canadian head, Australia was a very different place to what it turned out to be when we moved there. And I don’t remember how it was I pictured them before, but it seems to me that they are places all of their own: imaginary but somehow substantial. I wish sometimes that I could compile these places – these imagined lands –   preserve them somehow.

I expected the US to be a monster. I expected it to be big, gluttonous, ignorant, racist. I expected most Americans to be kinda stupid, and annoying, and probably rude. I was expected them to be fat and unhealthy and all of their food to be fried or sugary. In short, I was expecting to be disgusted by the States: by it’s grotesque commercialism, consumption and waste, by its insulation and self-absorption. I knew that there were good people too: the people’s whose books I had read or movies I had enjoyed, whose opinions and knowledge I’d read in magazines, but I wasn’t expecting these people to be in the majority.

I was right about one thing. It’s really big. It’s too big, in fact, for any single, accurate impression, except perhaps one of the sheer size of it. This was my first impression, and I was expecting my second to be desperation. But actually, despite all the broken systems, the crumbling economy and the the various wars on things we see form the outside, things are pretty calm in there. Business as usual.

In fact, culturally, it seems that American is pretty much Australia but bigger. Or Australia is pretty much America but smaller, with the main differences between the two countries mostly stemming out of this difference in size. Well,  the small part I drove through, anyway. Though I only really drove through 3 out of 52, each state of America seems to function culturally almost as different countries. There are different accents and different political slants, variations in laws and attitudes. So I’m sure there are the fat, rude, ignorant people out there somewhere. They just didn’t really hang out in the places I went to.

Nope, I just kept meeting interesting, intelligent, good, friendly people. For all the times I got lost – and there were many – there was some friendly soul to help me find where I was going. Most of the people I met had a sense of humour. Most I wanted to talk to. Geographically, the country was stunning, the coastline and landscape constantly changing, most of it well maintained. Not much to see on the interstates, but the coast roads sure did make for some fun driving.

Already, that imagined, expected United States has pretty much dissolved. Or at least the part that applied to Washington State, Oregon and California. All good places, by the way.

Down the Coast 3: Friday Night in Pacific City

(These photos by Nick Lynch)

It’s after dark by the time we hit the coast. In Tillamook, we pull into a supermarket carpark for supplies and a look at the map.
“There’s this little town down here where we could stop,” I suggest, pointing at a little dot by the ocean labelled Pacific City. “It’s on the beach. We can wake up by the ocean.”
“And the road from here looks pretty inland,” Calvin says. “So we won’t be missing much, driving there in the dark.”
Nick shrugs. “Sure.”

We buy bread and beer, tomatoes and cheese. The supermarket is as big as Bunnings. You can’t even see the end of it – it’s as if it’s been swallowed up by the curvature of the earth. I buy a jar of pickles as big as my head. It will pretty much be gone by morning.

Nick leads the way, his ’85 Landcruiser sounding its diesel grumble out of the carpark. A little ways down the road, the ocean appears at my window. I glance over at it.
“Hey Calvin…” I say.
“Mmmm?”
“Shouldn’t the ocean be on the left?”
“Um,” he says.”
“Because, if we’re heading South…”
“Yup.”
“…the ocean should be on the right.”
We go quiet for a minute, my headlights bouncing on and off of Nick’s license plate.
“There’s a big bay,” he says. “I think that’s the bay.”
“Ok.”
“So. Maybe it’s ok that the ocean’s on the wrong side.”
“Ok,” I say.

It’s Nick who finally pulls over. We roll up next to him and wind down the window.
“The ocean…”
“Yup.
I get out and walk up to a house for directions.

Pacific City consists of a service station, a short string of motels, and a small scattering of shops. After checking in, the man at the reception produces a map from behind the counter and gives Nick and me a quick tour of town.
“That’s it,” he says, after a few minutes. We’ve taken the particular notice of the local pub, now circled in red. There’s a diner for breakfast and a big rock off the beach called Haystack Rock. “Now, in the morning you’ve gotta go the Grateful Bread,” he says pointing to the little square indicating the bakery. “Diane, I tell ya, she makes the most amazing scones. Wow. I tell ya. Those scones are to die for, boy.”

Within minutes our motel room is cluttered with the contents of our cars. We make sandwiches on the top of the microwave, sawing the tomatoes apart with my Leatherman and cracking the beers open with lighters.
“You guys are going to thank me for these,” Nick says, pulling out some paper plates. “Shit. These are going to come in really fucking handy.”

One by one we are fed and showered and ready, a few beers down already. We all grab travellers for the walk, but there’s a cop car outside the pub, lights bouncing blue and red off the low windows, so, after some hesitation, we stash our beers in the bushes before walking the rest of the distance to the door.

Inside, the place is full of activity. Friday night in Pacific City. The atmosphere is that of a neighbourhood Christmas party. The barmaids walk around in tank tops and call all the old men slouched on the bar stools by name, a few people play pool. Christmas decorations litter the walls in clumps. Behind them hang deer heads and record covers, basketball hoops and names of beers in flashing neon letters.

When we walk in, it’s not exactly the silence of a Western saloon when a stranger walks in, but several people do stop what they’re doing to look us up and down.  Nick, Calvin and I make a beeline for the bar to order a pitcher of beer and four glasses.

Alex goes to find us a table. On his way to one near the woodheater, he’s stopped by a drunken old man on a computer chair. Calvin, Nick and I catch up mid-conversation. The man has some of the worst teeth I’ve ever seen but he grins like they’re beautiful, his bottom jaw fitting in over his top at the end of every sentence like a messy Halloween display. He wants to buy us our beer because we’re foreign. He loves Alex’s British accent and keeps getting him to repeat things.

“I love meeting people from different places, you know.” He grins, looks around at us. “I love hearing about other places.” He grins again. The effect is like one of those battery powered decorations with moving parts. “You know, I’ve never been out of the States. Never been out of here. But I’ve always wanted to travel. You know, it’s been my dream to travel. It really has. I love hearing about other places in the world. Love meeting people from different places.”

Unknowingly, we’ve ordered one of the more expensive beers and when the barmaid comes over with our pitcher, he hesitates at the price.
“Double-it-up,” he declares after a pause. Over our protests selects a hundred from the thick wad of them in his wallet. The barmaid reappears a few minutes later with another pitcher.

Despite professing his desire to hear about people from other places, he does most of the talking. The pitchers were mainly to keep us there. There’s something about an ex-wife and a son, about her slandering his name, about how bad that is in a small town.
“So, which of these men are yours?” he asks me. I tell him none of them and later there is a marriage proposal for citizenship. Then there are a few more, each becoming more serious with each passing drink.

The pitchers empty. We get drunker. Nick goes over for another. The barmaid comes over and speaks to the man sternly, warns him not to get like last time, and she is like a daughter to her dottering old dad. We buy him a new whiskey and coke. Other old men join us at the table. I sit there struggling to preserve this moment, here in some small bar in some small town, somewhere on the west coast of America, drinking away our Friday night in the company of old strangers.

There is a video on my camera from later in the night. It is of the three boys, cluttered around one of the beds in our small hotel room. Calvin, leaning against the wall, plays his little green ukulele. Nick sits on the room slapping on his legs and singing. Alex, on his knees beside the bed, bashes in time on a beer box. After a few seconds, Nick turns to Calvin and asks him to show his something on the uke. To their left, Alex keeps bashing absently on the box, though there is nothing left to keep time to. I hit stop on the recording, put down the camera, go and join them.