|Jul/Aug 2008 Travel|
Photography by Carol Kaplan
I was standing on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting for a bus. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But it isn't, believe me. If you've ever caught a bus in Los Angeles you'll know that it's tedious. It seems Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was closer to the truth than many people would care to admit, and General Motors crippled one of the best public transport systems in the world in the 1940s in order to sell more of their vehicles. GM was found guilty in 1949 of "conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines," and fined $5,000. But the damage was done.
As Judge Doom says in Roger Rabbit: "I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night! Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see! My God, it'll be beautiful!"
As a non-driver, I found LA the only place in the world where walking felt pathological. Walking down Sunset Boulevard one evening to the Comedy Store, I had that familiar feeling of discomfort I experienced on my first walk down Quartz Street, in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in 1984. "Well you know, about 64 hookers work this street," my friend Elzabé had said. (I don't know where she got that figure.) A sign at an entrance off Sunset Boulevard read: "Pedestrians not allowed." Planners in the Sixties had declared that "The pedestrian remains the largest single obstacle to free movement," and now, according to the National Highway Capacity Manual, pedestrians are endured as a "traffic interruption." Apparently the only walking seen as normal here was the Walk of the Stars, on Hollywood Boulevard, where tourists read the names of celebrities as they hopefully walked in their footsteps.
Autopia is the only one of Disneyland's original rides that remains, dating back to their opening day on July 17 1955. But while each new freeway in LA promised to solve the growing traffic problem, gridlock became the order of the day, and Disneyland is probably the only place where "Autopia" still exists. There, however, not only pedestrians, but all humans, have been disposed of. In the new version of the ride, a giant video screen plays "animated scenes of cars discussing life's challenges while providing insights into the world as they see it... billboards along the highway advertise directly to the vehicle." As visitors circle the tower building, shaped like a giant piston, windows provide glimpses into a three-dimensional model city inhabited exclusively by animated talking cars. This paved the way for the feature film of Cars, where Paul Newman, along with all the other actors, was relegated to the soundtrack.
Anyway... I was standing waiting for the bus, with my best friend and guardian of my sanity: my walkman. The radio in LA was pretty good. So I switched on and heard: "There were things I said to my son as he grew into manhood. You want your laundry fast, take it to that Chink on the corner. When you go to buy that car, don't let 'em try to Jew you down. I don't want you to take any shit from that man you work for. You're not his nigger. I did not view these things as a mark on him. They were just a necessary evil of living in a hard world...
"This morning I went to his house to borrow his mower. Had it in the basement all winter, dad. Haven't brought it up, yet. You'll see it down there. In the basement, where I had never been, were all the things my son had learned from me. There were weapons. There were explosives. There were maps outlining a proposed White Homeland. There were newspapers: The Spotlight, The Thunderbolt, The Torch, The Way, The Aryan Nations Newsletter. There was a picture of Adolf Hitler. And beside it, also in a place of honor, was a picture of me."
It was a play called God's Country, on at the ACT Theatre in Seattle. Must contact the playwright, I thought. Sounds like a play we should do in South Africa.
The bus arrived.
After the Great Depression in the 1930s, and World War II, Americans were thankful for the birth of the suburbs, which enabled working class people to own their own homes. Government insisted on racially segregated developments, however, and the Federal Housing Authority Underwriting Manual stated that "if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be
occupied by the same social and racial classes." After 1950 this was outlawed by the Supreme Court, but divisions were already established, and the "white fright" of the post civil rights period caused more people to flee to the suburbs, to "places empty of anyone else's memories and rich with potential." Now everything was spread out and far away, and public transport was poor. And thus the sprawl began. Individual car ownership, which had become affordable to the majority, became the aspiration. It is said that in a poll during the war, 87% of Americans stated the first thing they wanted after it ended was a new car.
Anita Bryant, after being crowned second runner-up to Miss America in 1959, performed in Flint, Michigan—home to one of General Motors' biggest manufacturing plants—carrying a giant sparkplug, and singing: "You'll Never Walk Alone." There are 500 bus routes in LA, but the majority of Angeleños pride themselves on never having caught a bus, which they see as only for those who are too poor to afford a car. According to Anthony, the gangster in Crash, "they put them great big windows on the sides of buses" for one reason only: "to humiliate the people of color who are reduced to ridin' on ‘em."
I'm without the walkman today, and catching the bus with my friend Carol, a playwright, with whom I'm staying in LA. It is a sweaty, humid day, but on Hollywood Boulevard, outside a theatre advertising "Live Nude Show," "Peep Show" and "Adult Book Store," we encounter... a pile of snow. Where did it come from? This is Hollywood.
I am shocked to discover how rundown Hollywood is. It reminds me of Hillbrow. "But of course Hollywood is no longer a place," says Carol. "It's a concept. When you write for Hollywood, you're simply writing for a market. Where the movie gets made is irrelevant."
Finally the bus arrives. "You notice everyone's in their own movie," she continues. There's an old woman in a shiny green outfit—including tinsel—looking like an out-take from the Emerald City scene in The Wizard of Oz. And an old man in soiled pyjamas. "I suspect he checked himself out of a hospital," she says. I imagine how scary it must be to be old and poor in this city.
Carol explains how Reagan cut social programmes when he was governor of California. And we're now in the run up to the Bush vs. Dukakis election. A bumper sticker reads: "A Dukakis in the hand is better than a Quayle in the Bush." But this doesn't seem to stop them just a few months later. It seems Dukakis is too short, Greek, and his wife has a problem with prescription drugs, if the "debates" are anything to go by.
We visit an exhibition of Hollywood as it was in the Fifties, and even I feel nostalgic.
On the walk home, the Steven Cohen print I'm wearing prompts conversation with some strangers watering their garden under the H O L L Y W O O D sign. Turns out she's South African too (from Pietermaritzburg) and we have some common acquaintances.
Steven Dietz, the playwright, returns my call. The publicist of the theatre has given him my number. He sounds cagey: "Where would the play be staged?" I've no idea I tell him. I haven't thought that far. "Tell me about your country," he says. I send him three articles: a piece on director Mbongeni Ngema hitting the cast of his play Sarafina with a belt to discipline them; an interview with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, suggesting no whites are committed to change; and a piece on David Bruce, sentenced to two years in prison for refusing to do military service. I don't know why I brought them with me. It seemed like a good idea while I was packing.
He sends me a copy of the play.
My friend Phillippa—a native Johannesburger, but working and playing in LA for a while—always on the lookout for the odd and eccentric, takes me on some adventures... First stop, 3am to an old movie theatre in downtown LA. She has befriended the elderly Latino caretaker, so he lets us in to look around the empty theatre, which she has seen before. The ghosts of the past are almost visible. We imagine what it must have been like in this vast expanse of foyer, now with worn carpets, when the stars frequented it in their furs. Now the theatre screens Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood movies with Spanish subtitles for the local youth. And grafitti is scratched on the back of the seats. Its history has no meaning for those using it.
The next day is Sunday, and we visit the Superet Light Church. Its entrance is lit up by an eleven-foot purple neon heart of Christ. A brochure declares: "Dr. Trust gives lectures of the Atom Aura Light Science every Tuesday at 8 p.m. at 2512 West Third Street. (Los Angeles, California). All religions are welcome; and is free to all to hear and see facts on the screen."
This visit is Phillippa's first too. Unfortunately they will not let us in with bare arms, so we sit in an antechamber and listen to the service of Dr. J.C. (Josephine) Trust over a loudspeaker. We discover later that it was a recording: "Mother Trust" has been dead for decades. All of her followers appear to be Latino.
Their brochure states: "Dr. Josephine C. Trust, S.A.A.S. is the only Founder of this Superet Science, the Superet Light Doctrine and also the Superet Brotherhood with the P.O.P.M. Club—being the only Chartered Superet Atoms Aura Scientist of the Superet Science in the world, which started in 1925 with the Charter and the Name, Superet, Copyright."
The P.O.P.M., or Prince of Peace Movement, "is a non-sectarian Club of Peace composed of all denominations, religions, nations and colors—rich or poor—united in one thought: to create peace." Colour, it appears, is central to their philosophy, which examines "invisible spectrums and the spiritual significance" of favourite colours.
Later, in 1992, the Superet Light church building was declared a Historic Cultural Monument (No. 555) by the Los Angeles City Council.
Steven Dietz arrives on my doorstep in Yeoville. He is in Johannesburg for the opening of his play, which is being staged by the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, at the Windybrow Theatre, at the top of Nugget Hill in Hillbrow. He appears surprised as I open the door. Since we have never seen each other during our communication, it seems he thought I was black. He writes later: "...though I wanted to think I was different, I remembered boarding my plane in Frankfurt to fly to Johannesburg. And, as I watched each white person get on board, something in the back of my mind that I am not proud of pointed at them, one by one, and said ‘racist, racist, racist.'"
"Your trip," a friend had told him, "will be about one thing and one thing only: confronting your own whiteness."
It's been over half a century since Rosa Parks (who died in her sleep on 24
October 2005 at the age of 92) "stood up by sitting down" in one of the
seats reserved for white passengers on a bus, in Montgomery, Alabama. As the
Neville Brothers sing, because of her, "we don't ride on the back of the bus
no more." These days, in LA, local historian and essayist DJ Waldie observes, the bus is "an unstable, third world country on wheels." A middle-aged "not-quite-middle-class" white male, he is in the minority, and something of a curiosity. He uses the bus because, though he can drive, his eyes won't allow him to.
Information about bus routes, times, and stops, he describes as "mostly folklore." Some of this information you could learn "if you spoke Tagalog or Khmer," or at least Spanish. Since he appears both competent and harmless, he is often asked for assistance, but anything he has to offer—relying on the official version—could also be a myth.
There is a map. But the map is never the territory. And like LA's fragmentary stories—believed to intersect at certain points—one is often left with nothing but white space. "If you're smart and you must ride the bus," Waldie says, "the word of mouth of beauticians and factory hands will make bearable your powerlessness." Allow ten minutes for transfers, say officials; but travellers know half an hour would be safer. The bus is not for the impatient, or the incontinent: there are rarely public toilets along the way.
He tells his stories, says Waldie, because of a "longing for a sense of place." And this sense of place is most real to him in the "brown city"—in the words of memoirist Richard Rodriguez—that lives in the shadows of the glamour and wealth.
LA is a city where many go to be discovered, but as many go to get lost. Addressing the drivers cocooned inside the gridlock on the freeway, Waldie writes: "Public transit is almost invisible to you.... You won't ever see the civil gesture of the tall, young black man toward the old white man whose leg he must brush aside to pass down the aisle of the packed bus, a light double tap with the side of the young man's hand on the old man's shoulder and a low word of excuse answered with a nod and a word, and the old man's mild face half turned to the young man's."
"It's the sense of touch," says Don Cheadle in Crash. "In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."
Of the future of LA literature, Waldie predicts: "The standard for the excellence of our stories won't have been set in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but by women talking at a hearth baking chipati and men whispering in Spanish before slipping between strands of barbed wire across any border south of here."
Hillbrow, too, is finally a third world country; no longer reserved for whites, or sheltered from the rest of Africa north of its borders. I walk around the outskirts, rather than through the middle of it, when I can. The late Phaswane Mpe's novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, it has been said, "shows the complexity of blackness in a context in which race is no longer a defining factor and even ethnicity has been overtaken by the large movement of non-South Africans into Hillbrow." Now the questions about race seem as unclear as the answers.
These days the buses in Joburg still run, but they are erratic, so I prefer to use the less formal minibus taxis, the Zola Budds, which zip by every few minutes; named after South Africa's little barefoot runner of the Eighties, now most famous for accidentally tripping Mary Decker at the 1984 Olympics. Usually I am the only white passenger; just one amongst the carless masses moving from A to B. Despite precarious driving, I put my trust in this foreign country, where I do not understand the languages, the lyrics of the songs, or the news on the radio. Nobody asks me for directions. It's the one time when I'm forced to confront my whiteness.
Waldie, DJ. (2004). Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, Angel City Press.