USM8S Part I: LA & San Diego
The 2017 Oregon Eclipse Festival screamed Helena’s name and she answered the call. Then she wouldn’t shut up about it, so I booked a ticket, too. Scheming began. The destinations were chosen: LA, San Francisco, Yosemite, Portland. In July we set off for the Land of the Free, swapping the depths of winter for sunshine, hot dogs and stupid-large cars.
Helena managed to snag a ticket to San Diego Comic Con via our pals at Disburst, for which we are mad grateful. Growing up on Swedish kids’ cartoons and lacking an attention span long enough for a feature-length film, Helena’s pop culture references are very limited. She’s a strange pick for what is arguably the global pop culture event of the year. I imagined her floating obliviously around, asking strangers, “Are you famous?” Anyway, while I was still stuck in wintry Melbourne at my day job, Helena experienced every nerd’s ultimate wet dream.
The city of San Diego transforms for Comic Con. It is a huge deal. The gargantuan convention centre - bigger than anything Helena had seen in Australia - is apparently too small, and plans to build a larger space are in motion. Everything in America, not surprisingly, is super-sized. Like, unnecessarily bloody large. Helena showed up for preview night and spent it at the Disburst stand which displayed our pins. Her heart nearly exploded with joy. Tens of thousands of beady eyes would be landing on our stabby babies - surreal. Hordes of costumed nerds swarmed the screenings, panel talks, and merch stands. Here and there Helena could pick out a Power Ranger, a Dalek, a Star War, but most characters were unfamiliar. She finally hung out with fellow pin makers A Shop Called Quest and the legendary Big Bud. It was a three-day whirlwind of cosplay, comics, and nerds. “I had no idea what anything was, but it was fucking cool.”
Meanwhile, I got my first glimpse of America at 3.21pm on July 21, the Santa Monica mountains materialising on the horizon and LA sprawled beneath. Losing altitude over California’s Channel Islands, the sheer size of Los Angeles becomes overwhelming. The treeless city extends seemingly forever through the polluted haze, criss-crossed by multi-lane freeways jammed with their infamous traffic. There’s a joke that in LA everything is a 45-minute drive away. This is an understatement. We’d arranged an Airbnb on Venice Beach, away from the worst of the smog, and after a surprisingly pleasant and smooth transit through Customs and Immigration, I booked it there.
From home I’d always thought the ultra-feminist movement had gone a bit too far - what are they pushing back against? In the year 2017, aren’t we all human beings? Have we not moved past gender inequality? But on literally my first walk down an American street I was inundated with catcalls, comments, and leering. I was an object. The forwardness of interested men wasn’t all bad, mind you - just a cultural shock. Aussie boys are a little more reserved. Shy? Respectful? Less animal, maybe.
Things only got more bizarre on the Venice Beach boardwalk. This one-and-a-half mile stretch of beach is dotted with palm trees, smoke shops, shantytowns of tents, and more novelty t-shirts than anyone could ever need. The sun sinking into the Pacific felt so unnatural, like a morning in reverse. It was beginning to hit me: I’d escaped the bone-pervading Melbourne cold and jetted 12,000km across the world to a summer in July. Finally, California!
The human landscape on the boardwalk is something else - eccentric, charming, intense. There are no permits required to set up shop here, although you must be peddling art. And here the definition of “art” is bent and stretched, rewritten and expanded to include almost anything. After shouting at me about Carl Sagan, a stranger handed me his “business card”, a rigid A4 rectangle scribbled with unintelligible symbols, and Namaste’d into the crowd. We witnessed a brawl erupt between an artist and some street performers, two cops watching idly from afar, waiting until one party was unconscious before bothering to intervene. Signs everywhere screamed GREEN DOCTOR and YOUR NAME ON A GRAIN OF RICE. Robert Downey Jr. used to jog here in the mornings until an altercation with the Pet Rocks boys regarding his inability to wash his dishes. The demographic diversity in this tiny part of the world is nuts. We loved it.
On my first day in Venice I made it a point to get a medical marijuana card. I went full tourist, seeking the most obnoxious storefront smack-bang in the middle of the boardwalk. A big dude in green scrubs stands in front beckoning: “The doctor is in.” The hallway leading to the doctor’s office is plastered with helpful signs listing the symptoms Mary Jane relieves. I had a brief discussion with the physician, I outlining my symptoms and he advising he knew of “something that could help”. I spent almost the entire trip comfortably medicated. USA!
Helena’s dad, a bodybuilder and 10-time Mr Australia, had demanded that she check out Muscle Beach. This was the weirdest part of Venice for me; I didn’t understand the point. Absurdly ripped dudes lift, squat, flex, sweat - making gains, apparently - in an open-air gym, tourists ogling from the bleachers as they down deep-fried Twinkies. It was underwhelming and strange. We quickly agreed we’d had our fill of the vaguely homoerotic exhibitionism and skedaddled. Sorry, Tony.
Prior to my arrival, Helena had made friends with the Acting CEO of Pet Rocks Venice Beach, Mario. Mario is a king. His days are simple and easy. He wakes in his hammock on the shore, nestled amongst the other weirdos’ makeshift homes, and heads for the ocean. After gathering chi in the icy Pacific, he scours the beach for rocks, and spends the late morning painting, gluing, bringing them to life. Pet Rocks is open for business from lunch until sunset. The rocks aren’t for sale; you adopt one that tugs at your heartstrings, and make an optional donation of food, drugs, money, art - whatever. Life is pretty great on the boardwalk; transients like Mario fall in love and become locals. They call it the Venice Vortex.
The boardwalk folk lead an oddly idyllic existence in their insular bubble. A huge variety of characters make appearances: impossibly tanned girls in booty shorts and roller skates, crusty old junkies begging for change, dozens of street performers, top-heavy dudes who’ve skipped leg day, tourists grappling with beach cruisers, “artists” and their “art”. The wide stretch of sand hides used syringes, condoms, and darker paraphernalia. A haze of weed smoke is ever-present. The days are long and sunny, the conversations bizarre and rambling, the schedule nonexistent. There is a sense of boundless freedom to do and be and feel whatever you like. The pull of the Vortex is strong.
American food is pretty terrible. The coffee is horrendous. We come from a privileged position in Melbourne - you can pretty much wander into any dingy restaurant and the food will likely be delicious. We produce and consume world-class coffee. I am somewhat of a snob in this regard and I don’t apologise. What the shit, America? High fructose corn syrup is their sweetening agent of choice, as they produce a lot of maize and it’s so cheap. Australia uses predominantly cane sugar, which the US obtained from Cuba prior to their import ban on the country in the ‘60s. We pined for Melbourne’s dearth of food, particularly coffee. One cafe in Venice advertised a “flat white” and, feeling adventurous, I gave it a spin. I regret this.
We strayed away from the boardwalk only to collect camping supplies for the following week. REI, our store of choice, is an absolute goldmine; if I could get a boner, it’d give me one. Same with Whole Foods, an amazing relief from what seemed to be a blanket rule that Food Here Is Bad. We collected the rental car, Helena nervously sliding into left-hand drive. She gained confidence as we weaved through aggressive LA traffic on the wrong side of the road. I never got used to the reversed direction.
Mario had been in Venice around four weeks, well and truly ensconced in the Vortex, but had vague plans to head north. He was “waiting for a sign”, which we produced in the form of a silver Hyundai Accent and a road trip to San Francisco. It was a consensual kidnapping, despite the people of the boardwalk warning Mario he’d return only in hacked-up bits. Dark. A friend from Melbourne, Simon, hitched a ride with us, too. On 24 July the four of us said goodbye to La La Land and set off on Highway 1 for California’s central coast; sea lions, giant kelp and poison oak lay ahead.