‘Do you remember back in old L.A, where everybody drove a Chevrolet…..’
Even typing that article title feels strange. Those that know me well would have assured you that there’s more chance of seeing Bob Crowe and Paul Dacre leading a conga line down Piccadilly than ever there was of me admitting to even a shred of affection for Los Angeles. And yet, after a few recent trips, some revised thinking is quite clearly in order. Hmmm- has that California wine- or maybe the sun- finally gotten to me? Maybe it’s both.
Whoa, sunshine. Focus and recap.
Let me count the ways… In the past, I always sneered that LA stood for ‘lacks atmosphere’. It was made of plastic and, if you kicked it hard enough, it would surely fall over. The pouting of simpering, intellectual black holes such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, plus all the platinum grade, fawning bullshit that goes with that whole celebrity culture, has always left me more than a touch nauseous. Add in the smog, the endless traffic, and the pathetic pretension of some of the city’s more upscale eateries, and you have enough fodder for a barf-a-thon of incalculable magnitude.
And then, two years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts, when I discovered a whole different side of Los Angeles. A kinder, more benign aspect that does not insist on seeing its name up in lights, Because of that alone, Manhattan Beach boasts considerable style, charm and- dare I say it- stage presence.
The background to the story goes something like this; I had to fly out to LA to pick up a cruise ship down to Mexico. And, being booked on British Airways, I had already spent twelve anxious hours in the air, wondering if my luggage and I would enjoy an emotional reunion at LAX or, for that matter, anywhere else. Add on the effects of passing through all those east to west time zones, and you’ll understand why I was pretty well fried by the time that we were on final approach to la-la-land.
I had been booked into the LAX Hilton hotel for the night, and that suited me just fine. I had stayed here before, and found the place to be eminently comfortable and businesslike. One of the perks attached to staying here was a free shuttle bus to Manhattan Beach, only some three miles away.
That first night, I was ready for nothing more than a shower and a quick meal. Both were achieved in record time, before sleep stole up on me and slugged me with a cosh. It was sayonara for a full eight hours. Truly relieved, my luggage and I enjoyed a wonderful night of welcome, mutual proximity
Next day, with a few hours to kill, I thought about taking the free shuttle bus to the beach. Turned out that it wasn’t free, but instead cost all of three dollars each way. Doh.
Still, that shuttle was a dinky little thing. A fire engine red trolley, filled with wooden benches to perch on, it clattered into life and left the morass of hulking hotels that clustered around LAX in its wake.
First impressions were not at all promising. A string of turnpikes and freeways, and an enormous petrochemical plant of such unremitting ugliness that it resembled nothing so much as a boil on a supermodel’s butt. But then, gradually, foliage began to soften the route, and then we found ourselves running parallel to a huge, honey coloured expanse of immaculate sand, drummed gently by the incoming rollers of the springtime Pacific.
This, then. was Manhattan Beach.
Wide, welcoming and virtually deserted on this spring Tuesday morning, the area around it was awash with all manner of local life. A handful of joggers of various ages, and a doddering old dear walking a pekingese along the flower strewn boardwalk that flanks the beach. There was a pair of lovers strolling hand in hand, and random cyclists, barrelling at a dizzying pace past the date palms. On the roaring Pacific rollers, a battalion of early morning surfers did combat with the sea, weaving in and out of the breakers like scores of veteran fighter pilots.
Centre stage, a good sized, almost deserted pier jutted out defiantly into the ocean. At it’s farthest end was a sealed up cafe-cum-aquarium, one reminiscent of any deserted seaside scene back in Britain. But there was no whiff of genteel decay here, no line of vultures doing a conga along the promenade. Instead, it was immaculate, and obviously just waiting for the warmth of the summer to bring it back to life.
Overhead, seabirds wheeled and screeched in an almost cloudless, petrol blue sky. I strolled between lanes of pretty, pastel shaded clapboard houses, their open patios already a riot of hibiscus and wisteria in the early spring sunshine. From here, i walked right onto the main drag of Manhattan Beach proper.
‘Bohemian’ was hardly the word. Here there were ditzy arts and craft shops, and a sweep of pubs, bars and restaurants. There was a kiddie’s toy shop and, most pointedly, not a skyscraper in sight anywhere, This was down at home stuff, right down by the ocean, and it was as charming as it was beguiling. More to the point, it was all completely, diametrically at odds with the LA that we all think that we know.
I treated myself to a succulent roast beef baguette the size of a Good Year blimp at Beckers, a local cafe and deli that has been here since 1942. With a cup of fresh coffee and a soundtrack of gentle Pacific surf kissing the beach, it was an absolute bargain at six bucks. Impressed? Yes, so much that I literally did buy the T-shirt.
Just then, the gentle clang of the approaching trolley bell jolted me out of this dreamy little stupor. It urged upon me the imminence of my appointment with my cruise ship, even then disgorging passengers just a few miles away at the port of San Pedro.
Manhattan Beach aquarium
I left reluctantly, and in the sure and certain knowledge that I would stay here next time I returned. But the real sea change was in the fact that I knew that, next time, i actually wanted to return a few days early, just to soak up the ethereal, gentle vibe here. Smitten indeed.
So what are the lessons in all this? Well, for me it’s the same as always- that there is always something new to be learned, and often savour, about almost everywhere and, once again, to always try and keep an open mind.
To my friends in LA, I mean no disrespect to either you- or your lifestyles- by illuminating some of the city’s less attractive qualities. To my friends in New York, Boston and Miami- no, I have not gone completely ga-ga; I am, and will always remain, an east coast boy at heart.
LA is not my lady. I remain much more enamoured of cool, classy San Diego to the south. But LA has served me notice that maybe, just maybe, I have been just as brash and instantly judgemental as other people in the past. She has thrown open another door, and a chink of very illuminating light has shone through.
It’s official; my curiosity has been awakened, and my reservations, while not yet buried, have certainly been placed in a state of suspended animation.
A bit like Miss Hilton’s personality, really. But Manhattan Beach- I truly am missing you already…..
In the interests of clarity, I should state that the bulk of this article was written in the summer of 2009. I have been back to Manhattan Beach a few times since, but my original observations- as noted in this article- still hold true.