Urban Adventure

My friend Powermove was celebrating her birthday. She invited me and a group of friends to go on an urban adventure in downtown Los Angeles before going to the Rhythm Room for the actual party gathering.

The adventure began before I even made it into the city. The woman sitting beside me on the train stood up to get off at the Hollywood and Vine station, but lost her balance and gently bumped my hair.

“Sorry.” She said.

I nodded: it was nothing. She stepped past me to get to the door, and then turned to me again:

“I had blood on my hand.” She said. “Now in your hair.” She held up her hand. “See?”

The whole palm was red.

She exited.

Adventure begun.

If there was blood in my hair, I couldn’t tell it, and there wasn’t much I’d be able to do about it anyway, so I twisted it into a bun and resolved to wash it thoroughly when I got home.

My first order of business in downtown was to return a book to the Central Library. I approached the entrance through a small park full of fountains depicting an unusual range of animals: snakes and lizards, not all of them living. I felt an eerie sense of slipping between realities into a slightly eldritch dimension in which I could see the blood and bones and snakes and skeletons that were normally hidden to the sunlit eye.

I found myself looking for some kind of sign in these sights. I wanted them to mean something. I hoped that the meaning that would come clear to me in time: a kind of urban spirit journey.

The rest of the group was already downtown and waiting at a place called the Tilt Cafe. The Tilt cafe consisted of a glassed in kiosk in the middle of a green courtyard hidden within a block of buildings on the edge of Skid Row. It was exactly the kind of cafe you’d expect to find in The Art Zone: the narrow band of creativity that inevitably springs up where the rents are cheap enough for artists to go about the business of creating culture. And then the artist culture gets trendy and rents go up and the artists move out leaving only yoga studios and boutiques in their wake.

Tilt Cafe was a gentry establishment with upscale coffee drinks involving foam served in real glasses. Overhead, a mesh lotus floated on airline cables. Namaste, Bourgeoisie.

“The first stop on our tour is… kinda… slightly illegal?” Powermove confessed as we left the serene confines of Gentrification Square for the wider world. “I mean, we’ll have to ignore some signs that say Do Not Enter.”

The group at large decided this was a worthy risk. Powermove scanned the skyline to orient herself and then began to lead the way towards City Hall. Because if you’re going to kinda slightly ignore Do Not Enter signs to do something mildly illegal you might as well do it on government property.

“There are all these old prohibition tunnels running under the city.” Powermove was saying up ahead. I trailed along behind the pack feeling out of place among her gregarious, opinionated friends who already seemed to know each other: the perils of hanging out with extroverts. “Some of them are still used.”

We made our way to a nondescript driveway leading downwards to a nondescript loading dock on the foundation level of an official looking building. Our way through the loading dock was blocked by a police officer sitting in a parked squad car. At a glance, it was clear he knew why we were there.

“You don’t belong down here. Go on, I don’t wanna have to chase you.” He shooed us away with the beleaguered sigh of someone tasked with upholding the rules even if it meant chasing lookie-loos out of bootlegger tunnels popular enough to have a Yelp page.

We drifted away and did a circuit around the park. Workers were setting up a series of small festivals in a succession of tiers: Our Voices. Local Music. Cultural Celebration. We made it as far as the Disney Concert Hall where our way was blocked by another more aggressive form of territory enforcement: wedding photographers. At least three of them for three different wedding parties. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We furtively made our way back down to the loading dock and scoped out the cruiser. The officer was gone. With as much casual confidence as we could muster, we strolled down the driveway, hooked the corner onto the loading dock, and made our way inside through doors that were standing open wide, blocking any signage which might have told us to keep out.

The hallways smelled of old paper and warm air and were visually unremarkable: wide, square, florescent lit with polished cement on the floor and a network of steam pipes overhead. Big enough to drive an ATV through. We approached an intersection where curved mirrors pointed off in either direction and turned right. The tunnel stretched out for about a hundred yards, descending slightly to depths unknown. Overhead the stream pipes knocked and hissed, making it impossible to hear if anybody approached. In one place the wall was pierced by the round mouth of an old coal chute. Other tunnels led off to the left, closed of with heavy metal grates. The air grew warmer the deeper we got. The sounds got louder. We reached the bottom of the slope to a place where the tunnels reached a dead end and we could turn around without feeling like we were chickening out.

We strolled back up to the surface, still trying to act like we belonged there. Along the wall somebody had painted a snake in silver paint: the only mark of graffiti I’d seen in the whole place. I wondered what it meant. Overhead the pipes knocked and groaned and failed to provide any answers.

We emerged back into the sunlight, satisfied that our need for an illicit thrill had been met, and wandered over to Little Tokyo. There was a block of shops that had once been the heart of the Japanese community in Los Angeles until World War II and the shameful business of the American internment camps. The sidewalks surrounding the businesses on this block were paved with ribbons of color representing various historical eras. On the threshold of each business was an inlay of the name of the businesses that stood there before the clearances. A few brass letters in a sidewalk doesn’t undo the wrongs, but it does at least acknowledge it.

We stopped in briefly to the oldest mochi shop in the city before proceeding to the pedestrian mall of Little Tokyo shops and restaurants where a languid weekend crowd drifted back and forth from vendor to vendor.

Here it was easy to forget the rest of the city. The sunlight cut through the leaves of blossoming trees outlining each leaf in a halo of gold. Wind socks painted like koi fish drifted on the breeze. Even the metal grates at the foot of each tree was cast with ornamental notes of grace.

But we couldn’t stay forever: hunger was beginning to twist up inside us, and since it was Powermove’s birthday, her vote for Vietnamese food was the only one anybody was planning to count. She picked a restaurant. We all agreed.

“Besides,” she said. “It’s near The Last Bookstore. That’s worth a visit.”

The Last Bookstore occupies a building that was once a bank. It is one of the largest independent bookstores in California, and it is more than a mere purveyor of books: it is an Experience.

The first floor is largely the expected sort of sales floor: new books, old books, rare books, comic books, and magazines. I searched for the shelf where I hoped my own book might someday live.

“We almost met in a bookstore.” Powermove commented to me as we drifted through the stacks. It was true: our paths first crossed at a book signing in Hollywood last year. I remembered her speaking up during the Q&A, but we didn’t end up actually meeting for another two months: a quirk of fate forcing us to walk a complicated path.

The second level of the Last Bookstore store is The Labyrinth.

The Labyrinth houses genre works: sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror and thriller. It also include a book tunnel, art installations, and a small gallery of artist run shops.

I found myself standing outside the vault where thehorror works are kept, pinned in a corner while a group of girls tried to get the perfect picture for their ‘gram. A square of yellowed paper was taped to the glass covering the locking mechanism of the vault door.

“Instructions for if you are trapped inside the vault” it read, and went on to detail the procedurethat would allow you to open a narrow vent in the door so that you wouldn’t suffocate to death. But it was quick to point out, in all caps, that the door could only be opened from the outside. I found myself once again thinking about my depression: it certainly felt like being trapped in a vault with the air running out. I might be able to open a vent on my own, but I was beginning to realize that I needed someone on the outside to open the door.

I did my best to push the thought out of my mind as we made our way out of the store and back onto the sidewalk. We passed a series of hidden alleys tucked away between the canyons of the buildings.

A hidden street of little shops, a wall of mysterious writing, the back sides of theatres, derelict alleys full of trash.

“One more stop,” Powermove said. “It’s along the way.”

She led the way to a diamond mart that was just closing up shop for the night. The display windows were empty but the sign in the door assured us that Yes, we’re open!

We stepped inside into a lobby lined with jewelry counters on either side. Powermove led the way to a short staircase leading to a mezzanine level slightly below.

“See those doors?” She pointed to a pair of ornate doors on either side of the room. “That shield on the top, with the WB. That’s Warner Brothers.” She gestured around. “It used to be the Warner Brothers theatre.”

Now that she’d said it, I could see it. The floor had been raised to the level of the stage, but the proscenium arch still stretched overhead, complete with an abandoned fly system. Overheadthe vault of the ceiling was painted with mythological figures around a dangling chandelier.

A wide balcony stretched up into the darkness.

“You have to come at this time of day.” Powermove said. “During the day with all the display lights going you wouldn’t even notice that it’s there.” And she was right: the forgotten theatre only became visible in the half-light, like a memory that only came to mind on the edge of sleep.

We left the bones of the theatre behind and at last made it to the restaurant. A trendy little self-impressed fusion establishment called Little Sister.

The food was Vietnamese. The music was slightly-too-loud hip hop. The aesthetic was Banksy-ruminates-on-LAPD. The walls were painted with helicopters.

Except for the bathrooms which were painted with guns.

Because art. *fingersnaps*

We came. We ate. We left. I spent most of the time making faces at a baby at the next table over and watching the street outside: a yellow sports car was parked exactly in the center of the storefront’s picture window: the only pop of color out on the street. The longer I watched, the more pops of yellow appeared as if some art director had chosen yellow to have some symbolic value to my story and was now laying the symbolism on with a trowel.

The adventure at last came to an end at the Rhythm Room: a low key jazz club with no obvious signage on street level, and a room full of ping pong tables and chess boards below.

I couldn’t say whether I found what I was looking for in my travels. It was a journey, not a quest. Somehow it seemed that the importance came from walking the path not in trying to accomplish anything in particular. Still though, I find myself in suspense: waiting for some answer to tip me in the right direction for the the next stage of my life.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on April 29, 2019.

One Response to “Urban Adventure”

  1. Blood in my hair? I’d lose it. I’d snap. I don’t know if I’d do anything other than spit flames at the woman who touched me…but I’d not go quietly into the afternoon. Gross!

    I would not be comfortable in a port-a-potty café that’s doomed to shut down and replaced with a yoga spot? That just sounds shady and questionable.

    I am both digging and laughing at the name Powermove. I picture an athletic woman bound by purple spandex like a human sausage/superheroine.

    Doubting the illegal factor is that serious, I am still turned off by the time you felt out of sorts among extroverts. I would have said, “Red? Let’s go somewhere else. This plan smells foul. And, even if it’s not, I doubt it will be worth the trip because we’re not ‘with it.’”

    The ivory tunnel of “warm paper” looks like some path to your doom in a horror movie; I expect an operating room with ghouls disguised as medical staff around some dark corner. ‘Perfect photo for my 5th book in my current series.

    Welcome to the “whispering garden,” a telephone bank above one portal to the underworld of California, not to be confused with the one in NYC.

    The silver serpent most likely was a warning of temptation. Do you eat from the tree of wisdom or say, “No thanks. I’m trying to cut down on my hazardous apple intake.” 😛

    I’m all for having small adventures off the beaten paths…but I felt safer in Nice, France. Every step of this rather random hike gives me a minor case of the shivers. I would come armed and without my wallet. 😛

    So, this whole trip was both a sort of quest for inspiration and a means for you to find metaphors to your madness.

    I also am getting the feeling you were traveling through the world of The Phantom Tollbooth. The “literate” alleyways scream the land of letters.

    Ugh, overly loud hip-hop music in an eatery….hard pass.

    Overall, a haunting experience worthy of some young-adult fiction I have surely read at some point. I just can’t think of the title. The Night Tourist, maybe. Check it out.

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