Thursday afternoon, I rented a station wagon from Budget at LA International and they gave me a Union 76 map of the city when I asked them how to get to Western Avenue. On the map it all seemed very simple and it was. Century Boulevard out to the San Diego Freeway, then north to the Santa Monica Freeway, east on the Santa Monica, get off at the Western-Normandie exit, then turn left — north again — and keep going until you hit the 700 block; simple.
Hell, too simple — I pass up the 700 block and keep driving. Traffic is clogged and sluggish, moving by fits and starts. I am inclined to fight it and then wonder why. I’m not going far, just back to 713 Western Avenue, and I’m not in a hurry, I just need to check in before they knock off for the day.
So I relax and let the traffic carry me, let the unfamiliar rhythm of the traffic lights catch me and hold me while the impatient locals force their way on through. LA is the first place I’ve ever seen five or six cars turn left against a red light, nose to tail, like circus ponies, daring the oncoming traffic to try to break in.
Los Angeles, California: Raymond Chandler country, if you’re a detective novel fan like me. Hell, Jack Webb country, if you grew up with a black-and-white television set for brains, like me. This is the city, dum de dum dum — Los Angeles, California.
I don’t work here. I’m not a cop.
I don’t even know what I’m doing here, driving a big clunky County Squire station wagon north on Western Avenue, rented so I can stack the rear with union campaign brochures designed to convince Los Angeles city workers that they need a union.
I never set out in life to be a PR man, and if I had, unions would not have been my first choice for which to do PR. On top of that, if I made a list of all the cities in the world I didn’t want to work in, LA would be right at the very top. Right there with New York City and Chicago and Washington, D.C.
So I interviewed for a union PR job in Washington, D.C., and they hired me — and sent me here. Life is what happens when you forget to pay attention. I may as well take a few minutes to look around my new neighborhood before I report in.
A traffic light catches me. A girl in greasy Kit Carson buckskins is standing on the street corner with her thumb out, hitchhiking down the cross street. She must not be doing too well at it. She’s leaning against the signpost like she really doesn’t have much hope. I look at the green street sign: Sunset.
“Well Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb,” I say through the windshield to the girl.
Her response is amazing. She comes to life, bounces off the curb, tries my right hand door. It isn’t locked; I’m just off the plane in LA, still careless.
She leans in the door. I get a flash of big dark eyes before her abundant hair cascades around her face, shutting out the sunlight.
“Hi there,” she says.
“I’m not going your way, kid,” I say.
“That’s all right,” she says brightly, and slips into the car. “I’ll go yours, Pops.”
Pops. I’m thirty years old.
Horns blare. The light has changed. I let the Ford wagon drift around on Sunset, up to the curb.
“Thought you weren’t headed this way,” she says.
“I’m not. I’m just turning around. I’ve got an appointment back there. I was just cruising because this is my first time in LA.”
“Appointment can’t keep, huh?” She turns toward me so the Kit Carson fringes gape open to reveal a T-shirt full of unbridled breasts.
“For God’s sake,” I say. “At four o’clock in the afternoon? Right here on the corner in broad daylight?”
She tightens up. “Look, Pop — you some kind of weirdo, maybe? Some straight, gets his kicks off just talking?” She looks back at the intersection. “Damn!”
“What’s the matter?”
“You’ve made me miss a whole signal change. You know how many cars go by that corner? I do. Probably a hundred thousand cars a day, that’s how many. And you still get the nuts. That’s what a billboard salesman told me.”
“That you still get the nuts?”
“No, about the cars, stupid. How would a billboard salesman know about guys like you?”
“How would anybody?” I say. “Look — you better get back to work now. You’ve probably missed at least five hundred and ten cars by now, and I’m blocking a driveway.”
“You’re really weird,” she decides. “Where you from, anyway?”
“It figures,” she says, and is gone in one nimble contortion, the door slamming smartly shut behind her.
I put the wagon in drive and move on down Sunset, looking for a street to swing back toward Western now that I have been officially welcomed to the city.
(This and previous post from Mean Grey Old Morning, a collection of short stories.)