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Unknowable L.A.

posted at 11:46 pm
on Sep. 14, 2004

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So I’m driving into downtown today to train one of our clients on how to use PhotoShop Elements.

The client’s office is on the east side of downtown, near 7th and Central Ave.

I’ve been around downtown lots, but this is my first time down Central in several years.

I see on my right, as I drive by, a restaurant, basically empty, with concrete tables and benches, tall iron fence, street parking.

The place is called “Fisherman’s Outlet Market” and there are a few fish distributors around, so I think, hey, maybe it’s fresh—I’ll grab some takeout there on my way home.  I like fish and chips, you know.

Later, I’m leaving training, I remember the place and I find parking and walk up.  It’s 12:30.

It’s totally jumping now. There are at least 150 people dining on the patio.  There are two lines, 25 people in each line.  The counter is a madhouse.  People are yelling their orders from tippy toe. Eight short Latinos jockey in white smocks for position in front of the patrons.  Fish in boxes is being passed through the crowd like grunge rock performers diving into the mosh pit.

The people behind me speak French, maybe Moroccan.  The people in front of me speak Japanese.  The people in the front of the line just grunt.

The menu, a large board suspended over the cash register (of which there are but two) includes: Swordfish. Orange roughy.  Giant scallops.  Catfish (whole, deep fried). Ceviche.  Lobster tail.  Mahi mahi.  Salmon.  Halibut.  Cod.  Tuna.  Tilapia. Shrimp.  Crab.  Three soups: bisque and two chowders.

The price was SO CHEAP.  Salmon for $8?  Mahi Mahi for $9?  Lobster for—I cannot repeat it here, there would be a riot.

The food was served on cheap squeaky Styrofoam plates, and I should have remembered to take napkins from the counter behind the entrance, but I didn’t.

OK. As a restaurant review, I’m basically recommending the place to you, that’s obvious.  But that’s not my point. Here’s my point: In every way, this restaurant is clearly in my top five of favorite L.A. places.  It’s gritty.  It’s fresh.  It’s unique.  It’s seafood.  It’s in a great setting.  The people watching is superb.  I’m trying to figure out how many times I can come back before we leave at the end of the month.

And I’ve been dining out in L.A. since I arrived in this city, what, maybe 5,000 days ago, give or take?

And, I lived at USC about 30 blocks from here.  And, I also lived North of downtown, about 25 blocks from here.  And, I worked at the L.A. Times, about nine (9!) blocks from here.  And, this place has been around for ages.  And, I buy L.A. tourist guides.  And, I read restaurant reviews regularly.  And I’ve NEVER EVEN HEARD of this restaurant.  It never even made my “One day I gotta try that place” list, which is about 30 restaurants long right now.

That, my friends, is what L.A. is all about.  It is never, ever, knowable, to anyone, ever.  It’s bigger than anyone can even understand.  It’s national-debt big, distance-to-Alpha-Centauri big, spam-messages-sent-per-year big, human-genome big.  You have to pretend that it’s possible to understand it, or else you could never possibly live here, never leave your house, never buy new shoes, never find a hair dresser.

Let me try to give you a sense of scale.  There are, in fact, 112 Payless shoe stores within 20 miles of my house in Pasadena.

Phil, the music editor at Variety, would sometimes be surprised when I told him I’d seen a band in town: “I didn’t know they were playing here now,” he’d say.  Let me repeat: The music editor of the entertainment bible isn’t able to keep track of all the concerts happening in L.A.

Debbie, a friend who was born in L.A., was often thrilled to find out about a shortcut that she didn’t know existed.  A 30-year L.A.-born native still doesn’t have the freeway system figured out.

My friend Rob loves barbecued ribs, having adventures and trying new things.  He has not come close to trying every BBQ restaurant in Los Angeles.  He’s been here ten years.

Los Angeles County is 4,084 square miles, an area 888 square miles larger than the combined area of the states of Delaware (1,982) and Rhode Island (1,214). Of that, L.A. city is 465 square miles.  In 1850, L.A. city was 1,600 people.  On January 1, 2004, there were 10,103,000 residents in L.A county, and a bunch more too hung over to drive home.

L.A. doesn’t have thousands of years of history, doesn’t have labyrinthine streets or canals. (Except that it does—La Brea Tar Pits and Hollywood Hills and Venice respectively—just like it has everything else you could possibly imagine, just like it produces, packages and distributes all the imagination you can stand).

Los Angeles isn’t deliberately mysterious like Paris or a collection of tiny burghs like London, or everything packed into one island, like New York.  No, the place L.A. reminds me of the most is actually Mars.

I feel like for the past 14 years, I’ve been travelling this city like Spirit, the Mars Rover, poking my head into one crater or another, drilling into this oddly shaped rock, finding out little fascinating tidbits, enough to fully occupy me for years, while all around me, an entire planet sprawls and storms and thaws and generally manages to do just fine without me.

So, the next time someone asks me what I think of L.A., I’m going to say, “I don’t know yet, I haven’t really seen enough of it to judge.”

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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