Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The L.A. Story, Part II

I have not had the privilege of traveling many places by myself, much less those that require a car, but my gander about downtown L.A. my second day in town was just delightful. Stationed in Little Tokyo, I had Japanese food for breakfast (also dinner the night before…and dinner later that night. I swear I've never eaten so much rice in my life.) and then took a walk around the area. The Japanese Village Plaza was right next to my hotel, done up in red and white lanterns, dotted with Japanese restaurants, and sprinkled with stores vending Japanese paraphernalia. So it was a little touristy, but I decided to embrace it because, really, I had no other choice! But it was a delight to roll up to a restaurant at around noon (yeah, breakfast at noon, I'm still a New Yorker at heart) and order Chicken Donburi, prefaced by green tea and miso soup. A couple from France next to me took pictures of their food as I sipped my earthy-and-wonderful-tasting tea. Seriously, I asked myself, why don't I drink proper green tea more often?

Innards warmed, I took to the street again to explore. To my delight, the Japanese American National Museum was free that day (thank you, Target!), and I decided why not have a bit of culture today? I explored the awesome street art installation on the inside, decked out in amazing pencil illustrations by Albert Reyes. I learned it was a part of the Giant Robot Biennale, the museum's third so far. Named of course for Eric Nakamura's famed "Asian American pop culture juggernaut," the Biennale featured a variety of vinyl toy sculptures, and works from a variety of pop artists. I was also quite taken with stunning watercolors and drawings by Rob Sato and teeny tiny sculptures by Sean Chao. There was even an awesome sticker vending machine where you could get stickers showing the works of artists in the show. The rooms of the Biennale were exploding with color in toy, painting, and sculpture form. 

"Go for Broke" Emblem on the monument

Upstairs, I also learned about the history of the Japanese people settling in America--their triumphs and tribulations, the culture they created for themselves in America and, sadly, about Japanese internment during World War II. An older gentleman took a group of young girls on a tour of the museum just in front of me, and I listened as he explained the plight of the Japanese with great emotional intensity. It's something we don't really learn enough about when we study American history. Not everything about America is butterflies and rainbows. One part of this story that really resonated with me was that of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (among others), the segregated portion of the military made of second-generation Japanese Americans, rescuing Holocaust survivors despite their questioned American loyalty after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Their motto was "Go for Broke," as in give it all you've got, and they did, not only proving their loyalty (and showing the government how wrong they were) but far surpassing expectations. I bought a magnet with the "Go for Broke" emblem on it and it's now on my fridge. Incidentally, the "Go for Broke" monument is just outside the museum, too. What a pleasant surprise, stumbling into a museum like this on a Saturday! And for free! 

And then, right next door, as if a gift from the culture gods, was the MOCA Geffen (aka The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA). MOCA Geffen is a contemporary art space that was once a former police car warehouse, revamped by none other than Frank Gehry. It has a variety of nooks and crannies for housing artwork, this time the large exhibition, "Blues for Smoke," which featured only work inspired by blues music and the culture of the blues. Not only were there fantastic pieces on view (Basquiat, photos by Roy DeCarava and Mark Morrisroe, Zoe Leonard's installation of a long line of blue suitcases) but music to listen to as if to give every piece of artwork a context beyond just the floating white walls. I walked around the 24,000-square-foot space with dreamy, wide-eyes, like a teenager stumbling upon the dressing room of her favorite pop star. Seeing this exhibition felt like that tiny moment when you exhale after a sigh and everything feels lighter. I am completely, unapologetically, an art junkie and "Blues for Smoke" was my cocaine.

Floating in my delicious art-coma, I returned briefly to my hotel room to drop off some museum goodies I had procured and found a bookstore not too far from my hotel called The Last Bookstore, featuring not only used books, but records, too! It seemed like my kind of joint. Having brought less reading material than was actually necessary, I realized today would be the only day I would have to make sure I didn't just sit and twiddle my thumbs on the almost 6-hour flight back to New York. Walking to the store, even though it was still light out, I was unsettled--absolutely nobody walks around the streets of downtown L.A. on the weekend, apparently. Though it did make for nice picture taking of some of the buildings around (the Los Angeles Times building and City Hall among them). Walking down Spring Street (ha, we have one of those in New York, too!), it looked like if you took a snap of Manhattan, set a pastel watercolor sunset behind it, cleaned up the streets 'til they sparkled, and took all the people off of it. How strange to walk down a street decked out in lovely buildings with not a person walking in front of them! But I arrived at the bookstore eventually (with the help of a French gentleman who ran a cafe), and was instantly in love. Enormous glass windows painted with 'The Last Bookstore' in gold let me know I was in the right place, as did the shelves upon shelves of books and CDs and records bathed in golden light. White columns held everything up, grungy vintage furniture strategically placed nearby. Raunchy romance paperbacks sat side by side with football stories and pulp novels, DVDs arranged by color. I laughed at myself a little--this is a place I would find. After much deciding on books, however, I settled on An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (yes, the Steve Martin) and The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson. By that time, though, it had gotten dark--would it be safe to walk back to my hotel? I asked the clerk and was pleasantly told to just walk straight up Spring to 1st, as to avoid "the apocalypse" of a not-so-nice area. I did as I was bidden, stopping first for a hot beverage to warm my chilly bones on the way home. 

And that was only the first part of my day. 

Though I didn't feel like I had particularly done much that day, I was pretty beat so it was off to the hotel again for a disco nap. Followed by, you guessed it, more Japanese food. I realized there were other restaurants I could have looked for, but by the time I had realized I was already seated at the bar at Suehiro, a friendly, diner-like neighborhood Japanese joint. To my right were two giggling teenagers and to my left was an older gentleman in a blue blazer, who was also by himself. Eventually this gentleman, Bert, and I began talking, about New York, about careers, about family, about Los Angeles. Though he was from the Philippines, he had lived in L.A. now for about 25 or 26 years. He told me about his family, and his late wife who I could tell he loved very much. It's times like these when the universe throws people together. Why didn't I find another type of food to eat tonight? Why didn't I sit somewhere else? "You make me feel young again," Bert said. I smiled, and he was kind enough to buy me dinner. We took pictures together and said our goodbyes. If even for a moment you can positively affect change in someone's life, then it's all been worth it. 

Post-dinner, I returned to my hotel and changed for another fabulous evening out with RE, punctuated by another disco nap. RE drove us out to West Hollywood, which I'm told is "the gay part of town" and we went to a gay club called The Abbey. Though it was outfitted like, well, an abbey, there was nothing holy going on in this place. Delightful! Go-go boys and girls (mostly boys) swung from poles and rails and did all sorts of muscularly things with their bodies. RE and I watched in delight whenever we need a break from shakin' our thangs to Gaga, Beyonce and Whitney or sipping our Long Island Iced Teas. West Hollywood is sort of like if Hell's Kitchen were pristine, spotless, and near one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America (Beverly Hills is right down the street). And then, just like the other night, 1:30 rolled around and it was last call. Then at 2am, all the lights came on in the club and all the boys (and the occasional girl) slowly tottered out of the club. Another freeway ride and a big hug goodbye to RE later, I was back at the hotel, ready to see what else L.A. had in store for me the next day. 

(to be continued…again)