Summer: Time to vacate

Vacation, n. act of vacating, to cause to be empty or unoccupied.

I’m driving the worst possible vehicle to have on the streets of Los Angeles – a 1993 Chevy pickup with a manual transmission – and I’m stuck in a traffic jam, northbound on La Cienega near the intersection with Airdrome.

A motel sign advertises “Color TV” and a banner at a car lot promises I can “Re-establish credit, instantly.” This is a land of dreams, unlimited, golden opportunities.

The Hollywood Hills loom ahead, barely visible through a curtain of crud. A young goofball wearing his hat backward pulls up next to me in a battered Saturn, playing his Best of Public Enemy CD at 7,000 decibels. I am assaulted by a cacophonous barrage of cartoonish bravado as I watch a guy with long matted hair, clad in newspapers and four overcoats, push a shopping cart full of cans over the curb, scattering the contents of the cart beneath the wheels of an idling bus.

I am in hell.

Most of my vacations trap me on a circuit between heaven and hell.

Suddenly, the light changes, traffic begins to move, I swing off La Cienega to 3rd Street, drive a couple of blocks to Orlando and I am at my hotel – the Beverly Plaza. It is a snazzy “boutique hotel,” I have no idea what a boutique hotel is, but I know the moniker portends great expense. I pull to a stop beneath the front portico of the building, my Chevy truck quickly trapped in a phalanx of Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars.

A valet dashes to the truck, no doubt thinking he will have to shoo Kathy and me away to protect paying customers. I leap from the cab, careful not to slam the door and lengthen any of the cracks in the windshield, greeting my new friend with a smile and a five-dollar bill.

“Our bags are in the trash sacks in the back of the truck, my man. Take them to the lobby.” It is a moment of pure, transcendent joy.

I’m in Beverly Hills, just like Jed, Granny, Jethro and Ellie May.

I am on vacation, and I take the word literally. I vacate my environment in Siberia With a View, my accustomed expense budget and, most importantly, I vacate what little mind I have left.

I vacate and I am tabula rasa, my consciousness a malleable, blank clay tablet, ready to be inscribed with information from another world.

Beverly Hills and parts of West Hollywood are another world – more interesting than Mars. What do I learn in Beverly Hills?

First, people are taller than they are in Siberia With a View. And thinner. They dress in expensive clothing that makes them appear taller and thinner yet.

Second, this is a land of odd shoes: big shoes, high shoes, costly shoes.

Next, if you in the swing of things, there is no such thing as an old car. Everyone who is of any worth drives new and very expensive automobiles; there is not another Chevy pickup within three miles, unless a gardener drives it. Cars are clean. There is no mud here.

There is a legion of youngsters on the streets and in the malls wearing pants hung halfway down their hips. Older people wear exercise suits during daylight hours. Occasionally, the elastic on the waistband of an exercise suit weakens and the pants fall halfway down the hips. Oh, my.

Fifth, there is an abundance of paintings of whales here. The whale painting is the West Coast equivalent of the atrocious southwestern art that infests my homeland – the equal of clumsy, intellectually bankrupt, sentimental renderings of cowboys gathered around campfires, of grizzled frontiersmen, noble Indian warriors and Indian maidens, howling coyotes, bugling elk, mesas and mountain vistas. Bad art knows no boundaries.

Denizens of Beverly Hills seem locked in a solipsistic universe, but for connections via cell phones. Folks in la (I prefer lower case) have cell phones with earphones. There are people walking around la – on sidewalks, at shopping malls, in restaurants – looking like they are blabbering to themselves. In a way, they are. They also text, all the time. Even when behind the wheel of a new car. On the 405. At 65 mph.

You have to make a long distance call to reach someone in the same city.

Not all is dismal, though. There is an upside to a big city, even this one – something to offset the legion of self-absorbed geeks and their churlish pursuits. There is culture here. It is stored away in secure facilities, and does not include paintings of whales.

I am stunned at an exhibition of self-portraits by the elderly Kathe Kollwitz. She compensates for a million pieces of sappy Southwestern art.

There is an exhibition of rare Japanese woodblock prints and scrolls at LACMA, including Katsushika Hokusai’s waterfall series, with the wonderful “Yono Falls in Mono province.” I see Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji.” In one print, couriers ride from a village, all round hats and air-ripped robes, stylized garments and horses rendered to depict motion, speed. No crusty cowpokes here.

Back at my boutique hotel, I have a revelation: the first person to invent a hotel room door that closes quietly will be a millionaire.

I am growing mentally weak in hell.

Ah, but paradise is near.

There is food: the other positive gift of the massive urban megaplex.

For four consecutive mornings Kathy and I eat breakfast with daughter Ivy at a joint on Santa Monica Boulevard.

At first, Kathy is outraged by the expense, but she calms when she realizes she is in the same room as Sandra Bullock. She calms further when she spots Paul Sorvino at an outdoor table. She can return home and tell everyone she had breakfast with Sandy and Paul.

Lunch at the Farmer’s Market. A stop at Moishe’s for falafel and chicken shawarma sandwiches. The “Tuna Explosion” sashimi plate is on special at a nearby sushi outlet.

Two dinners are notable.

One night, Ivy insists we go to Le Colonial, a French/Vietnamese fusion joint, supposedly a favorite of the smart set. If price, darkly paneled walls and fawning waiters in zippy black outfits are requisites of popularity, we are at the epicenter of chic.

I have a chicken dish, the meat marinated in sweetened fish sauce, sauteed with onion and hot peppers. Ivy orders filet in satay spices, cubes of beef melt-in-your-mouth tender, buoyed by a wonderfully crafted, multi-layered mix of flavors. Kathy enjoys vegetables stir-fried crisp in a mysterious Vietnamese brew. She is unable to finish her entree because we are eating with Darryl Hannah. The actress appears and walks up the flight of stairs next to our table, on her way to a private party. She is tall. I realize money makes a person tall in la. Tall people in la are wealthy; short people are poor. Money is fertilizer.

Our next night’s dinner is taken at The Little Door – one of my favorite restaurants, anywhere.

The restaurant is located on 3rd Street, several blocks east of the Beverly Center. It sits in the middle of a block of nondescript cafes, furniture stores and nail salons. There is no sign; there are no windows visible from the street. There is nothing else to indicate a vendor of bliss does business beyond a heavy wood door but a flock of valet parking attendants hovering like carrion at the curb.

If reservations were made, paradise awaits.

For me, ecstasy involves a version of moussaka, made with lamb, artichoke hearts and a cinnamon-flicked bechamel graced with a dose of nutty, creamy goat cheese.

Kathy eats broiled mahi, done to a precious medium rare.

Ivy opts again for tenderloin, the massive filet covered with a gorgonzola sauce.

For starters, crab fritters with aioli and a beet salad with goat cheese. Breads are indescribably good – reminding me how spectacular the staff of life can be – rendered transcendent with a dribble of salted, fruity olive oil.

Ivy and I share a dessert and it is a revelation. I’ve eaten creme brulee in many places, in several countries. Never have I tasted anything like this – the caramelized sugar atop the custard micron-thin, brittle as glass, the interior rich and soft.

The meal is mind-boggling. No, wait, the tab is mind-boggling.

That’s the last thing carved in the tabula rasa: the price tag attached to pleasure when vacating in a major city. I’ve lived in big cities, I should remember – yet each time the reality hits me, I am stunned.

What starts as a minor economic abrasion at the beginning of the week becomes an uncontrollable hemorrhage. We spend money at a frightening pace – money we don’t have and will never make. We are short and getting shorter by the moment. I hear the cackling of collection department employees at my credit card company . . . all the way from Boston!

It is time to beat it. Flee. Get back in the truck, motor through the crummy smaze to the 15 then up and over the hill to Barstow; take the 40 to Flag, hole up for the night at some dump built with cinderblocks and asphalt siding. Cruise north, then east, past Tuba City, Kayenta, Teec Nos Pos, Cortez, up in altitude past the shapeshifters that huddle near the shoulders of the highway, hurtle through Durango and, finally, we’re home.

Monday morning, after a night in my own bed, back in Siberia With a View- that simple, place, populated by height-challenged folk – I drive downtown.

I stop at one of our two traffic lights, stuck in a line of cars.

A goofball wearing his hat backward pulls up next to me in a battered Saturn. On his bare arm, a crudely fashioned tattoo of a ghoul with a guitar. On the car’s sound system: Linkin Park, at 7,000 decibels …


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