Installment 4 of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun
As I drive into Santa Monica, I think of the old song from longer ago than my old set of furniture: All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun. There’s a line in the song that talks about driving along the Santa Monica Blvd. That must be what brings it to mind for the first time in years, perhaps decades. But it puts me in the mood to have some fun. And that is what’s on the agenda for the evening.
But first, a little work. My first reading of my California Tour is at the end of Santa Monica Pier—the final point of America’s Highway, Route 66. At the end of the pier, a middle-aged man sings tunes from the past, such as “Piano Man,” which feels appropriate as it’s about writers and artists and actors who long to live their dreams. I’m living my dream as I make way to the other side of the pier’s end and read from Tracks. Hundreds of people pack Santa Monica Pier as I read from my fiction. But few of them actually listen to me. Most of them are here for other amusements and just happen by to see the crazy guy reading aloud from his book. Like a street musician, unicycle juggler, or a guy with a bucket selling water at a stop light median. I sell a book, and go to my next event.
Reunited, and it Feels So Good
My next event: the reunion of old high school mates from Sasebo, Japan. Yes, Japan. When I was a teen, my father, a Navy man, was stationed in Sasebo, Japan. In the two years plus that we were there, I went to E.J. King High School. That was part of 9th, all of 10th, and part of 11th grade. My “graduating class” (although we didn’t graduate together) consisted of 12 students. There were 50 students in grades 7 through 12. And we were all in the same boat, keeping with the naval theme. Each of us were used to moving from place to place every few years, all of us were transplants from somewhere in America to a strange new land. Needless to say, there was really only one big clique, and we became a tight-knit student body. That’s why, for most of us, our couple years together in Sasebo formed tighter connections than the classes we graduated with.
We went about 25 years with no such reunions. Then, a few years ago a new tradition began when we reunited at Navy Pier in Chicago—the location chosen in part due to its central proximity, allowing visitors from each coast and in between to make it, and in part due to the Navy connection. That first reunion even took place on a dinner cruise ship. About 20 of us attended, and it was like a family reunion with people unseen for decades.
Unfortunately, this sequel to the Sasebo Reunion, on Santa Monica Pier, like most movie sequels, has lower numbers and isn’t quite the same as the first. Perhaps it’s due to the extreme location on the west coast, keeping out many people on the east coast. Or it could simply be the economy. Maybe the lure isn’t as strong since we just met a couple years earlier. More than 20 people said they were coming; only five of us showed up.
It reminds me of some book events! Plan for 50 and you get five. Plan for five and you get 50. You just never can tell.
But to be honest, we’re having a great time despite the low turnout. It’s always fun to reacquaint yourself with old friends, especially those you’ve virtually forgotten. When I meet James at the beginning of the evening, for example, there is something familiar about him, but I’m not quite making the connection. By the end of the evening, I remember specific moments from our time in Japan, classes taken together, his smile and laugh as a child, and I discover that old yearbook headshot in his face, in his eyes and smile. It’s almost embarrassing at first, when you feel like you should remember everything and don’t. But it’s a pleasure when unexpected memories return.
Nana, our ringleader, escorts us to a surf bar for colorful cocktails, then we wade to a seafood restaurant and gorge ourselves with fish, mojitos, and conversation. The easy flow of friendly conversation follows us as we roam the well-gridded streets of Santa Monica and wander from a live rock pub to a blues joint and finally settle into a comfortably rustic brick-walled bar that plays music just loud enough to allow us to talk without yelling. The music of the night, in most of the places we’ve gone, seems to be the hits of the 80s, as though our own high school soundtrack is being piped in for us.
Appropriate to our Japanese reunion, the drink de noir is a sake margarita. “Can we get a pitcher?” James asked.
“We don’t sell pitchers of margaritas,” our waitress lamented. We told her this was our reunion, that we’d all lived together in Japan, and this seems to untie the established rules. “Let me see what I can do about a pitcher.”
A moment later, we have a gigantic pitcher of sake margaritas that lasts well into the night.
“That thing is massive,” Nana says, her eyes widening to take it in. James pours the first round.
“Kompai!” we toast. “Banzai” may be more appropriate.
Our conversation doesn’t stall; we talk about everything from exploits we got into as gaijin in Japan, about old teachers and friends, muse over missing attendees, and even talk about the movies and music that defined the times. Even in Japan, it was all about American pop music back in the 80s. Right now, over the bar speakers, the artist then known (and once again know) as Prince is partying like it’s 1999. We party like it’s 1987.
“It’s funny that the 80s has become a genre in itself,” James says.
“Hard to believe,” I say, “but 80s music to high school students today is like 50s music was to us. Not even 60s or 70s stuff, but the real golden oldies.”
“Yeah,” Tina says to what both James and I have been saying about music.
“But more than that,” James expands on his thought. “There’s not a 60s or 70s genre. There are genres from those times—classic rock, folk music, oldies. And the 90s had grunge and alternative. But the 80s is the only decade that all of the music was lumped together and defined by the decade itself.”
It’s an interesting thought, I consider, as I pour another round of sake margaritas, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors rainbowing in the background. I think about toasting to the 80s. Instead, I toast to the future.
The Freaks Come Out
The next morning Nana and I hit some of the sights. On one hand, LA always seems to have a plastic feel to it. Many touristy cities have the Disney element to them. And I’m not knocking that, because theme parks and manufactured fun can be a hoot. But aside from the theme park element, there is usually another element, a history and culture to the pace. In LA, it seems as though the history and culture is the manufactured theme park. What is Hollywood if not spectacle? Walking along Hollywood Blvd or the Sunset Strip and not expecting a little schmaltz is like visiting Disneyland and not expecting to see a mouse.
We did Sunset Blvd and we did Hollywood Blvd. We walked the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is fun and good if you like walking city streets with crowds, and there’s the added interest of searching the names and stars in the sidewalk for one that you recognize. The usual suspects are all here—Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Angelina Jolie. But there were some surprises too: Dr. Seuss, Pee Wee Herman, Edward P. Murrow, Ray Bradbury, and Gene Autry. Gruhman’s Chinese Theater is a sight to see, along with all of the sidewalk handprints and footprints in cement. The Kodak theater is an interesting work of modern architecture, even if it’s namesake has gone out of business.
The song sings, “the freaks come out at night.” It seems that in Hollywood, they come out all hours of the day. We see men roaming around in sheets; a street dweller punching a begging woman apprehended by the cops; a four-foot tall lady dressed in the revealing attire of a stripper—despite her walker; men dressed as women; women dressed as men; men and women dressed as God knows what.
As we walk along the boulevard, our view of the sidewalk stars is obstructed by a passing parade—Brazilian dancers shake their bodies while a drum brigade keeps up. We watch for a bit, and then retreat to the museum area. When in Hollywood …
Plastic and Smog
Even the wax figures in the Hollywood Wax Museum appear to be plastic. All the better to be pictured with, as they’re more durable. We have some fun getting our pictures with Angelina Jolie (I swoop in for a kiss), Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr., Elvis, Lucy, and—one my son appreciates—Darth Maul. After the wax museum, we hit the other two parts of the three-ticket extravaganza: The Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum and the Guinness Book of World Records Museum. Both have just enough interesting display pieces to make them worthwhile. The most fun we have at the museums is standing behind a two-way glass and watching visitors try to make faces, curl their tongues, and pop their eyes in the mirror next to directions on how to do so. Laugh out loud funny … at the guest’s expense.
Nana’s camera batteries run low and she needs replacements. I’ve left my batteries back at the hotel. We stop in at one of the many souvenir shops along the walk, surrounded by cheap tee-shirts, magnets, key chains, caps, plastic Academy Awards for Best Son, Best Daughter, Best Lover, Best Bowler. Four AAA batteries are $8.99. Just last week I ordered almost 50 for a few dollars more thorough Groupon. Gotta love tourist traps.
It’s not fair to say that LA is all plastic and smog. There is a lot of culture here too. The Getty Museum is a wonderful way to spend a day. The five magnificent works of architecture that house the art are works of art in themselves. I remember a couple years ago, during my first visit to the Getty, one thing that impressed me was that I recognized some of the art visiting the Getty from Baltimore! Several paintings of Rembrandt were on loan from Baltimore’s own Walters Museum. And they held their weight next to the masterworks of the Getty. The Getty offers a refreshing contrast of outdoor gardens and architecture and mountaintop views and inside paintings and sculptures and photographs.
Back to the 80s
This day in LA is an extension of the reunion, and we are in tinsel town, so we continue talking about old times and old movies. The topic from our music conversation still plays in my head like an annoying song.
“Do you realize that the 1980s to our kids are like the 1950s were to us?”
“Hard to believe,” Nana admits. “The fifties were like prehistoric times when we were kids. The 80s seem so close you could touch them.”
“There was this movie that came out recently called Hot Tub Time Machine,” I say. She hasn’t heard of it. “It’s a time travel movie, and these guys get in a hot tub time machine and travel back to the 80s. It’s like a throwback to Back to the Future.”
“Back to the future was a classic.”
“In that, they go from 1985 to 1955—30 years. In Hot Tub Time Machine, they go back 30 years from now to the 1980s. It even has Crispin Glover in it! It’s like the Back to the Future of our kid’s generation. Only it’s rated R.”
We slip out of talk about hot tubs and into the local tar pits.
Tar Pit Time Machine
The La Brea Tar Pits—the oldest tourist trap in the area! In fact, it used to trap all sorts of animals as far back as 40,00 years ago—beasts like the American Mastodon, Saber-toothed cat, early camels and wolves, horses and bison, even giant sloths. Animals that so much as stepped in the tar would be slowly, helplessly sucked into the pit—a fate worse than quicksand. Slowtar.
In 1875, the first fossils were being discovered and recorded in the tar pits. Since organized excavation began in 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates. Also, 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. The on-site Page Museum holds about three million items from the tar pits. This number may soon double when the current “project 23” excavation is completed. That’s a lot of history. And it’s all well preserved, and on display. It’s like a tar pit time machine put us in touch with creatures from 40,000 years ago.
Another Japanese Find
Perhaps it’s like learning a new word you’ve never heard before and then suddenly you hear it everywhere; on this extended Japanese reunion in LA, we continue to find glints of Japan. Just next to the Tar Pits, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is an expansive collection of buildings housing an expansive collection of art. The Soap Bubbles and Goya, Monet and Renoir and Van Gough are great. But what most catches our fancies, because of our reunion frame of mind, is the Japanese pavilion of art. The calming, dimly lit structure is Zen-like, winding up one way and then down another. The ancient Japanese art (on rice paper scrolls) conjures memories of museum visits in Japan, and the stone gardens along the floor remind me of my own stone and banzai tree yard up those 71 steps to my Koten-Cho house.
“Did you paint Japanese characters, back in Sasebo,” Nana asks.
“Not much,” I admit. “I learned to brush my name in Japanese Culture class. That’s about it.”
“Me too,” she says. “I think we all had to do that. I wish I’d learned more.”
I do too. At the time, I was old enough to appreciate Japan, but to me it was a mystical land of adventure more than a mature society of culture. The scrolls on display here would not have interested my teenaged self half as much as they do now. I would have preferred to play pachinko or hit a rotating sushi bar. Now, the art and history and calm pavilion are appreciated. This is a fine end to our calm, simple reunion. And to LA.