I first flew into Los Angeles in December of 2006, and I found there the same glamorous, depraved desert city that has existed in the American mindscape in news and in fiction for more than a century. I was greeted at the luggage carousel by Eric, who had come to pick me up bearing a bus pass and a bottle of water. His hands were chapped, and I suddenly noticed the air was extremely dry and that the view out the window featured a view of palm fronds and cacti. I lived in a foreign country for a year, but I don't think flying into Edinburgh presented nearly the level of climate and culture shock flying into Los Angeles did.
Although it was much warmer in Los Angeles than in New England, the cold was surprisingly pervasive -- perhaps because there wasn't as much call for central heating in LA. There were fast food restaurants everywhere in LA, some of them chains that had long since shuttered their doors in New England: Little Caesars, Arby's, Sizzler. There also seemed to be an inordinate number of donut shops around. We went to a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place for lunch, it was a fast food place, and for some reason shared store space with a donut shop. The food was bland, but I hadn't eaten since five that morning, so I devoured it rapidly. When we went back outside, I noticed the roaches skittering down the sidewalk in a la de dah fashion. There were Christmas lights everywhere, looking rather forlorn in the glaring sun. I was on Mars.
The next day, we postponed our plans to go straight into Hollywood to checkout the vintage shops* in favor of stopping in a little dive on Vine to get burritos. I tried to order in my clumsy Spanish, but ended up merely pointing at a sign and nodding. Bean and rice burrito with hot pickled carrots. Si, me gustarlo. We sat at a chipped formica table and looked out into the parking lot. A homeless man was taking a pee on a cactus.
The thing that would intrigue me about California most was the seemingly infinite variety of Mexican food. The first time I tried cactus was on a later visit, in 2008, in a cafe on Olvera street called La Luz del Dia. I had a veggie enchilada and a cactus salad. It tasted like a really succulent pickle. It burst on my tongue when I gently sucked on it and cooled my mouth down from its encounter with the enchiladas' habenero fire. I loved it, but I loved it more the way it was cooked during my one and only visit to a Oaxacan restaurant: Guelaguetza in Koreatown. I had the Nopal Zapoteco sin bif. It did not taste like pickle this time, more like a fresh green pepper, grilled and simmered in cinnamon and mole sauce and Oaxacan string cheese: it was absolutely gorgeous.
I experienced other culinary adventures during the time I was in LA: I had a "Northeastern Style" pizza while laughing ironically. (It wasn't bad, but pizza really doesn't taste the same in California as it does on this coast.) I got to eat a surprisingly satisfying vegetable curry at a Japanese-owned fast food chain, Yoshinoya. Sadly, I could not find anyone to sell me corn-on-a-stick, although I tried mightily hard. I had a ginblossom at Musso and Franks, the way Buster and Mabel and Roscoe, those crazy kids in the crazy Twenties, might have done.
Not all our food experiences were gourmet. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside the Autry Museum of the American West, sitting in our rental car as a coyote looked on. I fell completely in love with the coffee sold at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Once in a while, I'd sit in Winchell's with the city's homeless and have a donut and fresh orange juice while everyone around me had complicated conversations with invisible people. I grabbed a box of granola bars at a dollar store and at them in the courtyard of LACMA just so I wouldn't have to leave the museum for lunch and therefore spend less time at an exhibit of German Expressionist painters.
Los Angeles is probably the most exciting city I've ever been in. I don't know if I ever want to live there, but I miss it so.
*LA has the best vintage shops I've ever been in. They've got everything: shoes, wigs, bakelite baubles. And they have so much of it -- I think all the wardrobe vaults in Hollywood must sell their stuff to these shops.