When I moved out of Los Angeles, I vowed to go back annually to not lose the connection I spent so many years creating, a vow commonly made when someone relocates. Fast forward to about a week ago and Ryan and I were headed south for only the second time in four and half years. We knew the trip was overdue. It had been two years since our last visit, but we had no idea how overwhelming the feeling of nostalgia awaiting us was going to be. After a 45-minute flight delay and a torturous 90 minute rental car pick-up, we left LAX, as fast as possible, and headed to Hollywood. Passing block after block of remodeled store fronts, the needed familiarity seemingly impossible, we eventually pulled into the parking lot of my former grocery store, Ralph’s, on Third. I was greeted by my old clerk who after all this time still remembered me and questioned where I had been. The two hours behind schedule gloom quickly lightened, I was finally back.
We checked into our permanent residence substitute, The Hollywood Roosevelt, as the early morning hours of Saturday were creeping upon us. Not a single cocktail-devouring attendant of the pool party outside our balcony slider seemed to care that midnight had passed or that our long day of work and travel was coming to an end. Guarantee, none of them cared that we had to be up in a short four hours to catch sunrise from Runyon Canyon. Enjoying a bottle of wine by the lights of the party (if you can’t beat them join them) we too became careless of what time it was or when we had to be up. The energy of the city had hit our veins and it suddenly felt like I had never left.
With the music finally dying off sometime after one, the anticipation of the impending morning hike took over. It made for a restless few hours of sleep. With both of us running on minimal fumes, mostly whatever nutrition our bodies soaked up from Zinfandel and granola bars, we dragged ourselves and all our camera gear up to the bench on Runyon Canyon that looks out over Sunset Blvd. Together, we stood above miles of city-scape, full of hundreds of thousands of sleeping Angelinos. Everything was grey. The few billboards that were big enough to be seen added pops of color like candy sprinkles. Dulling lights struggled to glow and everything had a misty film over it. After two hours it was obvious, the sun was not going to show up.
Despite a failed sunrise shoot, we returned to our room optimistic and anxious for what the rest of the day could include. Showered, dressed and back in the car, earlier than we are ever awake on a Saturday, we headed east to Fred 62 in the ever so hip, Los Feliz. Fred 62 was one of my all time favorite regulars in my local diner rotation. The extensive pancake menu for breakfast, baked mac n cheese for dinner, Bossa Nova Waffle Sundae for midnight snack, all made the red light saturated drive well worth it. For the most part, the neighborhood block around North Vermont and Russell Ave. hasn’t changed. World’s worst rendition of Johnny Depp still adorns the building across the street. Hipster aroma still pours from the local boutiques and coffee shops. Fred’s has remained pretty much the same as well, with the exception of some menu revamping. Seated in a vintage car interior designed booth, we ordered, with the intent to share, the Breakfast Burrito with chorizo and insane ranchero sauce, the Bearded Mr. Frenchy, cornflake covered french toast to die for, a side of bacon crisped to perfection, and classic diner coffee capped off our well-balanced meal. My soul was happy.
Breakfast had put us in the mood for a drive, which we did through the enormous homes of Los Feliz, highly recommend. Approaching standard brunch time, we redirected ourselves southwest, into the heart of the area I formerly called home. Technically Hancock Park adjacent, my old abode sits one block off of La Brea Ave., a very main street that slices through Los Angeles from Inglewood to Hollywood. A dozen or so blocks south of Sunset Blvd., or behind the prop guy on 1st, depending on how familiar you are with the area, I lived amongst popular local retailers such as American Rag and Undefeated, both of which are still there. Many of the areas design showrooms, that once lined the street for miles, have been replaced by well known chain giants like Orchard Home Supply, puzzling in an area with minimal yard space. Stopping to admire a new art installment and embracing the heat long enough to layer ourselves in sunscreen, we walked a quick block and hopped back in our trusty Hyundai. The tour was on the move.
I can’t go to LA and not go to The Grove. There is no story here. Just one of the best shopping locations in the world and where I have spent hours upon hours of my spare time for no other reason than to get some exercise around the outdoor fashion mall and farmer’s market. I have many a pair of shoes from their Nordstrom. We spent so little time getting our “Grove fix” in that the parking garage was free. Next.
The heat was practically unbearable for long amounts of time. It made our photo walking excursion difficult and draining. Babe had the brilliant idea of taking a drive over to Beverly Hills to indulge in our favorite guilty pleasure; follow around a tacky Starline tour bus to sight-see the most dominant and most historical manors of old and not so old Hollywood. During the days of long distance, when Ryan would visit me, we would spend hours driving around the narrow streets above Sunset, trying to catch glimpses of the million dollar views, peaking through the rooftops. With AC on full blast, we cruised by one-of-a-kind, custom-built mansions, previously resided in by entertainment legends like Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson. Abnormally mellow for a Saturday, there was barely anyone on the roads and other than the occasional gardener leaf-blowing a driveway, it was silent. We took it all in, some of it more than once, circled past the same gates a time or two. Just as we decided to head back to the hotel for an early afternoon coffee and midday recharge, we spotted bright yellow signs inviting anyone who happened by to an estate sale just a few streets over. Intrigued, we followed. Our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the inside of one of Beverly Hills historic estates had finally presented itself.
The structure itself had a strong Spanish influence, red tiled floors and terra cotta lined entry, held a beautiful originality to the property. However, the choppy floor plan with hodge-podge finishes and outdated hardware was overall underwhelming. A few authentic, one-of-a-kind features warmed my heart and made me feel compassion for possibly the most undesirable location on the block. First, the open-mouthed lion fireplace with carved stone maned mantel would probably be on a new home owners tear down list but oddly, it was my favorite feature. You can’t find that anywhere else. Second, the intimate swimming pool with bright, cobalt blue tile won me over with it’s access to both the living and master bedrooms. Third, the split-level master bedroom itself with multiple closets pocketed off of the sunken bed space and built in niches reminded me of the Walsh’s house on 90210, if it was sort of scrambled and then flipped upside down. The mannequin on the bed was confusing but we went with it. When in Rome. I somewhat regret not purchasing something just for the sake of a souvenir of the experience, but the only item I fell in love with was a $2,600, 1970s coffee table made of a lamented solid wood slab with lucite base. It will forever be my furniture unicorn.
Exhausted and in desperate need of caffeine, we took a timeout back at our hotel room. The wall had come, we hit it hard and the make it or break it moment was upon us. Either do all we could to stay alert or put our heads on our pillows and ignore the world. Despite the day party with DJ, cool shade, bbq chips and ice-blended, gourmet, espresso beverages, we knew if we put too much effort into rest and relaxation we would be counting sheep in seconds and we had a sunset to catch. To kill time we toured our way around the hotel lobby, ran into Randy Jackson, repeatedly, and held an impromptu photoshoot to experiment with inside lighting, just totally normal time-killer stuff.
By afternoon it felt like we were beginning day three. I had forgotten what it was like to be on the go for 12 hours after less than 4 hours of “sleep” and by whatever form of luck you believe in, my second wind had found me. Rejuvenated, we decided to shoot sunset in Venice Beach, the first area of Los Angeles I ever learned and one of the few places on earth that I have a soft spot for.
I worked once in Venice, I had a horrible job and worked for a horrible man. My employment was short lived. During my brief stint, I gained an immense amount of education you can’t get anywhere else, a type of education that teaches you nothing found in textbooks. Knowledge only made possible by experience. I learned compassion for people in situations far worse than my own. I learned how to navigate on streets that made no sense. I grew immune to Venice Beach-specific distractions, like a man on stilts dressed as a tree, rollerblading old-man Perry, playing his electric guitar, patriotic speedo guy, mixtape pushers, spray paint artist and skateboarders, everywhere. The anything-goes atmosphere puts vanity-take in the backseat. You can just be whoever you are there, nothing is weird and everyone is a stranger.
Noodle Note: Two years back, as we walked the alleys of Venice, we stumbled upon a mural on the side of a house that struck me emotionally. Randomly, we stumbled upon the same mural this year. It was good to see her again.
We hit the boardwalk hours before sunset and strolled amongst the herds of tourists. Nothing changes in Venice very much, its part of the attraction for me. It’s one of the few places I can rely on for consistency. Physically, there is no room to grow there and the anti-corporate outlook keeps local resturarunts and businesses, heavily supported by tourism, up and running. People have been walking the same sidewalks, telling the same stories, for decades.
Once we had reassured ourselves that the boardwalk was as we left it, we walked over to the graffiti walls and skate park, one of the beaches most notorious sections. We watched as a pack of obvious resident star performers, practiced tricks for the masses gathered around. Some skaters where far better than others. None of them seemed afraid to fall and after some minor accidents and a ton of successful runs, we had shot hundreds of photos. Some of which would turn out to be my favorites from the entire day.
Ryan’s collection, in my opinion, along with everything he did during this trip, was his strongest yet. I am envious of his ability to constantly grow with every outing. Street photography requires a personal confidence to put yourself and your subject in a vulnerable moment based on no previous encounters and still have your lighting and focus on point, all in a split second. It’s a challenge and he surpasses my expectations every time.
Between the skatepark and sunset we quickly stepped away from the madness of the boardwalk, onto the far less chaotic Speedway, with the intention of snapping some of the traditional murals that adorn almost every surface. Within moments we were reaping the benefits of our spontaneity. Down one of the many pedestrian allies, was a healthy-sized block party, complete with Tom Petty knock off band. People began welcoming us in as if we had graduated high school together and hadn’t seen in each other in ten years. We were offered free beer and loud music. Begrudgingly, with sunset as our primary focus, we were unable to stay long but absorbed enough to feel the love from what could have been a building full of new friends.
A dozen or more trips to Venice together and we had never photographed the iconic, southern California, lifeguard-towered, sunset. There was a great chance of dusk making up for dawn. Standing in the middle of the dirtiest sand in all of California, we silently photographed the sun vanish into the sea. The colors, the people-dotted horizon, feeling like the sky was privately ours despite being surrounded by hundreds. Venice Beach, be still my heart.
Our tanks were teetering on empty. It was time for a nightcap and real sleep. Making it back to the hotel a little after nine we wandered down to the lobby, unable to rest on an empty stomach. 25 Degrees, the hotels 24-hour burger joint, seemed like the easiest and simplest solution. Easy it was, the relaxed atmosphere was perfect and opting to sit at the bar made the order to serve time minimal. Simple, on the other hand, is not an adjective I would feel comfortable using. The sultry decor, primarily red, everywhere, with its long mirror-tiled bar, diamond-tufted leather booths and glass chandeliers, completely complimented the meticulously planned burger menu. With grown up toppings like, fried egg, prosciutto and gruyere, there was no need to keep things simple. It was all over the top and “over the top” done very well. I ordered a Number One which included caramelized onion, bacon, arugula, gorgonzola and thousand island dressing. Ryan built his own with multiple cheeses, bacon and avocado. We shared an order of their onion rings, which were good, just good, and had an evening cocktail to chase it all down. I tried the Dark & Stormy, basically a mule with rum. I wasn’t crazy about it but it was hard to tell if I was just too tired or if it just wasn’t the right drink for me. Fortunately, the burgers were so good and the experience was so exactly what we needed, the other stuff didn’t matter.
Sunday came fast but we left very well rested. The dark cloud of separation was hovering, leaving wasn’t easy. Los Angeles is a huge part of our lives. Spending the bulk of my 20s there, I went through immense personal growth there. Significant chapters of my life were created in my little spot behind the prop guy on 1st. It’s where Ryan and I built the foundation of our relationship. It’s where we fell in love. I don’t know if we will ever call it home again. I have learned in life to never rule anything out. I do know that it’s always there for us to go back to. Parts will forever change but the feeling will always be the same.