I’ve been in LA for about a day now. Technically, it’s been about 25 hours, but I spend the first hour (and a little more) looking for my bag at the airport. The first time I pay to check a bag is the time they hide it behind a partition and make me think they’ve lost it. But it’s found.
Which is good, because it was full of cookware and silverware and carving knives that I was carrying from my mother’s archive to my brother’s and sister-in-law’s house. Usually I like to pack light.
Anyway. My first impression is that LA is physically what I expected: large, sprawling, heavy on the highways and multi-laned boulevards and glowing signs. But being here feels weird, because I’m actually here, in it. I tend to travel far from home, but here I’m reminded of how different a place in the States can be from what I’m used to.
Today my brother and I drove out to see Watts Towers, the creation of an Italian immigrant worker named Simon Rodia. Though untrained as either an artist or an architect, Rodia had the idea to build “something big,” as he said, and he built it: a collection of looping towers and walls, every surface decorated with shards of glass bottles, ceramic tiles, rocks, seashells, and fragments of crockery. In the concrete he stamped curlicues and flowers and hearts and corncobs, and his own shoes and tools. The shapes and colors and clashing patterns are whimsical and kinetic. Rodia worked on his towers for about three decades and wouldn’t let anyone else help him. They’re almost a hundred feet tall, and he climbed them like a jungle gym, without ladders or scaffolds, with a bucket of cement on one arm and a pail of tiles on the other.
There’s a small building next to the towers where they show a hopelessly dated 12-minute film about Rodia and collect your $7 for the guided tour. I could tell after about ten words that the tour guide was intelligent and articulate. After about thirty seconds, I wondered if he also might be a little off the wall. After the tour, I decided that he hovers on the edge of brilliant and peculiar. But the tour is worth it to be able to walk around inside the towers and look at the details up close.
Watts is a rough neighborhood. Almost everything we saw between the freeway exit and the towers was bleak: collapsing tin shacks, a rotting truck with a flat tire, lean-tos that passed for garages, a sketchy bar, an even sketchier liquor store. It was this part of LA that made me realize how some parts of the US more closely resemble faraway countries than the part where I spend most of my days. Among the scraggly trees and signs of poverty, almost everyone I saw walked like a tired person. And there this colorful confection remains, a massive quirk in a dusty landscape.