Sunday, March 09, 2008

There's Only One L.A.

I remember growing up like a lot of other kids in the 70's and 80's enjoying peace and prosperity and thinking quite astutely that the world was my oyster. Growing up in a town of 1000 people isolated me from the reality of what was really out there in the big world and how exciting it could be. Yes, until adulthood I had no idea that everybody in America didn't go cow tipping! We had to travel by car over 250 miles just to get to an airport with scheduled passenger service. We couldn't really consider old Paul Winters and his Super Cub "scheduled" passenger service even though he could boast at least four successful forced landings after engine failures. He only tore off one wing and knocked down one power pole during those emergencies. I think that record stands yet today.

There wasn't a hell of a lot of hustle and bustle to deal with in my farming and ranch hometown in eastern Montana except for the occasional traffic jam caused by old man Johnson at the one yellow flashing light in town, you know the one at the Corner Bar and the abandoned hotel. He'd start out into the only "downtown" intersection in that yellow 72 Ford pickup and invariably stop in the middle because in the distance he saw a farm truck meandering it's way through the middle of town destined for the grain elevator. So he'd sit there until the truck passed his precarious position in the middle of the intersection a couple of minutes later making its way at a blistering 20 miles per hour. Morning traffic was such a headache! Our morning commute to school never exceeded about 8 minutes and that encompassed the entire walk and a quick stop at the old fountain drug store on the way.

One of the fondest memories of childhood consistently remains the old theater downtown. It closed for a period of years before reopening and even now the interior looks exactly the same as it did when my parents went to movies there in the 1960's. I still maintain that regardless of the many home entertainment systems available out there, the only way to see a movie is to see it on the big screen and allow yourself to be drawn into the fantasy for the next couple of hours. The house lights darken as the smell of buttered popcorn wafts through the seating area. Your pulse quickens in anticipation as the sound booms through and beyond the flickering previews on the screen. Don LaFontaine, the voice of Hollywood, captures your entire attention as that voice of his pulls you into the images of the theatrical trailers presented on the screen with that signature and commanding speaking style. Nothing felt quite like going to the movies in that old theater.

I'd always wanted to go to Los Angeles as a kid but never had the means or opportunity. I wondered how neat it must be to wander through Hollywood or the streets of Beverly Hills. I'd only seen pictures of the mansions and palatial estates but wouldn't it be something to go there and meet a movie star or see the magic of a movie set! I guess it makes a mark on you knowing that L.A. represents the entertainment capital of the world (you New Yorkers can argue your point for NYC) and most of what mesmerized you in that old hometown theater had its origins in this city on the west coast. At any rate, Los Angeles seemed to me as much about the concept of fantasy as it did the pavement, people, cars, and beaches.

I finally got my chance to descend on the L.A. basin in 1990. Although it wasn't in the way I would have preferred as in being discovered as the next Clooney, Pitt, or Cruise, I at least got to see the city for the first time. I was working for a guy that hauled pigs, yes oinking pigs into a processing plant in Vernon in east Los Angeles. We loaded them at different Hutterite colonies in Montana and switched off driving sleeper team in the semi-truck so that we would make L.A. in less than 32 hours from Great Falls. I know, the jokes are just waiting to spring from your lips but I'll continue anyway communicating this redneck adventure to you as best I can. I remember looking around in Victorville thinking wow this must be it and was shocked to know that even the suburbs of L.A. still waited some 20 miles in the distance.

We dropped down El Cajon and past the San Bernardino split and continued south on I-15. Shortly after passing the entrance to I-10 we travelled west on 60 or the Pomona freeway. About 45 miles later I got my first really good shot of the Los Angeles skyline, kind of like that early morning scene featuring Richard Gere in "Internal Affairs." I guess Los Angeles isn't known for having the most domineering skyline in comparison with other cities but for a small town kid like me it was still pretty cool. I remember arriving in that area at about 2:00 in the afternoon and the term concrete jungle finally took on a reality it never had before that day. The 60, I-5, I-10, the 101 all came together and twisted over and under like cornonary arteries feeding pulsating heart muscle. One wrong move and we would have been stuck as some of those neighborhoods down there didn't afford a lot of room or patience for truck movement and emergency manuevering.

You had to be in the proper lane to make the Soto Street exit and God forbid if you missed it. California interstate exits and on-ramps aren't necessarily designed for large vehicles to make a quick exit and turnaround on. The pace of traffic and precise handling required force you to be at the top of your driving game. Some of the corners are tight to make with that trailer coming around and car traffic views you with contempt and disgust. We make a left on Slauson or Vernon I don't remember which and enter the cramped parking lot, back up to an unloading chute, and offload our smelly squealing cargo that by now are quite grumpy after having ridden in a trailer for 1500 miles. Yes, after unloading I donned coveralls and shoveled over 1300 pounds of pig waste from the trailer so that we could load a legal load of cattle later in the week. I remember leaving the Farmer John's plant and traveling north on I-5 up past Dodger Stadium and seeing all the signs along the freeway indicating the exits for Burbank. Up over the grapevine and into the south end of the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles is a distant memory in the past. It was exciting to see and a little scary too. I felt ill-equipped to match the pace with which people seemed to live.

Since that first trip in 1990 I've made many like it over the past 18 years into the L.A. basin. I've hauled flatbed loads of decorative moss rock into Rolling Hills Estates near Lomita and plastic pipe from Ontario to Yakima, WA. I've delivered onions in Commerce at 3:00 am and I've hauled malt barley from Spiritwood, ND to the Miller Brewing Company in Irwindale. I've delivered barley to Anheuser Busch and lumber to a small yard in Van Nuys and loaded roofing granules in Corona destined for Owens-Corning in Portland, OR. It's still exciting to see the city and it still is a little stressful to navigate a large tractor-trailer unit there but I find myself more confident having developed somewhat of a truce with the city and her traffic.

I still marvel that I found myself in the city I wondered so much about as a young person after some dangerous and tragic times. I remember going into Vernon in 1992 shortly after the L.A. riots and seeing a cop literally on every corner. I remember the network of concrete overpasses that collapsed just north of the Santa Clarita exit several years ago. I passed under what had collapsed only days before that quake. I was in the city the day the Alaska Airlines flight plunged into the Pacific after unsuccessfully trying to navigate the damaged plane to LAX. It doesn't really mean anything to anyone else but I've developed my own bond with L.A. I've yet to be discovered, meet a star, stare at the ocean from the Santa Monica pier, or wander the streets of Beverly Hills but it really doesn't matter. To me there will always be only one L.A.

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