Space Shuttles, Apocalyptic Bookstores and Stardom: Los Angeles, CA

I’m moving north along the coast now, leaving my dear beloved pandas for the warm embrace of Los Angeles: City of Traffic. I might have bitched about Californians’ driving, and everyone who’s been to LA has complained of the traffic, but it really is something else to behold. An endless stream of cars (well, a sludge of cars at most hours of the day), crawling in and out and around the city. If only there was some other form of transport than a simple car, something out of this world. Is this an extraordinarily awkward segue to one of the space shuttles?

Space Shuttle EndeavourYes. Yes it is.

Look at that beauty. This is the second shuttle I’ve been near, but the first I’ve seen: Atlantis, residing at the KennedySpaceCenter, wasn’t on display when I was there as they were still building its housing. The CaliforniaScienceCenter, where Endeavour has come, is securing funding to build its own display housing for the shuttle, but in the meantime they’ve got it out back in a warehouse like it’s an ’87 Plymouth. As often happens with these things … it is strangely smaller than I expected.  It is a phenomenal piece of engineering though.

Endeavor Engines

The shuttle isn’t the only piece of space the Center has. Nearby, still in its original packaging, is one of the Apollo modules.

Apollo-Soyuz Module

This one wasn’t destined for the bleak, grey surface of the Moon, but a rather more strange environment indeed: the Russians. From the sounds of it, it was relatively easy to get the mission a political green light considering the era. In fact, it makes me somewhat hopeful to think that, of late, whenever there’s political tension on Earth, the astronauts on the ISS shrug and get on with it. They’re geeks though, so their main point of contention is calling each other’s technology crap: the Russians thought the Apollo module was too reliant on human involvement, being extremely complex and dangerous. The Americans thought the Soyuz had no redundancy, putting them in a weak spot if anything went wrong. But somehow, they managed to come together in a way that would make teenage kids (and me) titter for decades to come, by means of “an androgynous docking system between the two ships that would allow either to be active or passive during docking”.

Although the shuttle is obviously the highlight, the rest of the Science Center has a lot of interesting exhibits detailing different environmental conditions, an exploration of the human body to see how to keep it in balance, and a McDonalds, so you can see how the human body goes wrong. I’ve decided to head on, however, to downtown LA, a place that just screams “possibilities”. Or just screams, depending on the time of day you’re there. I’m headed to a place which Apocalyptically bills itself as The Last Bookstore. Downstairs there’s more alphabetisation and fewer roaming cannibal hordes than I was expecting, but upstairs it all changes. Upstairs has one rule: No Rules (and No Nudity). Everything upstairs is $1 and it’s organised in some of the common alternatives to the Dewey Decimal System, including:

Curved BooksCurved.

Flying BooksFlying

And of course, the most logical one:

Rainbow Books

Rainbow BooksOrganised by colour.

I’ve wondered in the past if there would be a pattern in the colours – you’d expect the pinks to be chick lit, that type of thing – but there wasn’t a hugely obvious connection between the reds and the blues. The black books did have a lot of murder-mysteries, but beyond that, this might require a more detailed study. Other sections are arranged just as chaotically. Behind this bank vault door is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. I can’t tell if that’s a tribute to how valuable they are, or a way to lock in anyone who tries to buy them, but still:

Safe Books

You’re probably thinking: it has random organisation, all the books are $1, this is a slush pile, right? There’s going to be nothing of real value here. Well take a look at these gems:

Contagious ChristianBe the Typhoid Mary of Christ

The Big HitsAnd who can forget Floyd Cramer?

I did find a couple of interesting picks amongst the shelves, including John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage. (For a buck, take that JFK Presidential Library).

Off the Walls

Downstairs, back in the on-the-brink-of-Apocalypse world I pick up Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent Slaughterhouse Five and get back to the traffic. Now, at this point I’m actually heading off to visit a friend in Pomona for a couple of days before heading back into LA, but it gives me an excuse to roadtrip over to Lancaster and to talk about the musical road. Back in 2008, Honda decided to tarmac over a portion of road in Lancaster, CA, with grooves which, when driven over, would play a possibly recognisable tune. This ended up annoying a lot of the residents and was, in fact, not that recognisable. So Honda moved it to a different stretch of road, far from the things of man, and now drivers can turn their car and the road into a glorious instrument. Which plays one tune, and again, not a hugely recognisable tune. Below is a video that Honda made of the making of it and what it sounds like. I’d show you the video I made driving over it, except (1) that would mean I was holding a camera while driving, which is obviously dangerous and so I obviously didn’t do it, and (2) my windscreen was pretty dirty at the time.


It’s meant to be the William Tell Overture, y’know, in case that wasn’t obvious.

Well wasn’t that a lovely detour? Back to LA: I’m heading to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood this time. The GettyCenter sits atop a hill requiring a funicular to access. Once there, you have a commanding view of the massive sprawl of LA:

Getty ViewThat bit to the left in smog is the bit in every LA-based TV show’s aerial shot.

The Center itself is an impressive array of buildings and gardens which is as far removed from anything else in LA that I’ve seen.

Getty Museum

Getty Museum Gardens

Inside, it’s got all, like, art and stuff. Paintings and that. A nice Turner and some Monet, including one of the marvellous Rouen Cathedral series. The museum has apparently had some awkward history with the Italians and the Greeks and the definition of “ownership”, but it’s hard to work up moral outrage when I’ve been a life long fan of the BritishMuseum.

Them MarblesHow you like them marbles, Greece?

Now from high culture (if you ignore the “how you like them apples” joke) to even higher culture: I’m heading to Universal Studios.

Universal StudiosThis is the picture with the fewest number of people posing beneath the sign.

It’s a somewhat mad place. Various rides commemorating current and past franchises – the Transformers rollercoaster, the Mummy ride and an entire Simpsons section. To get from the car park to the park itself you have to go through a shopping mall because… America? Not really sure. Either way, you also get to take a tour through some of the sets including an immersive King Kong 3D section, and some demonstrations of the practical effects (aka explosions and floods and everything nice).

Here Comes the Flood

It also takes you to some of the historic sets, such as the Bates Motel. No criticism of Norman, but it just doesn’t seem wise to have your murder motel next to a busy tour monorail.

Norman Bates

It’s almost time to go, but I would be cruel if I didn’t let Bertie meet some of his heroes:

Bertie and the Simpsons

I think it’s a testament to the professionalism of the Simpsons that when I, a strange loner, presented them with a teddy bear and asked them to pose with it, it didn’t phase them for a section. They just stared at me with their rictus grin and soulless eyes and got right on in there. As I’m heading away from the Studios, I see that the showbiz bug has bitten yet another: a racoon darts out from near the entrance to the Mummy ride, looks around, and scurries off towards the studios. Good luck, little racoon.

Universal Studios Walk

I hang in and around the area for a few more days and encounter one of the creepiest things on the entire trip. Yes, including the Clown Motel. I leave my hotel room in the morning, ready to check out, when I pass a little girl dressed up as Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz. Adorable, I think, and continue to the elevator. Except in the elevator is a Snow White. That’s a strange coincidence, I think. The elevator door opens in the lobby to a full child pageant. I’ve never been this close to this bizarre, creepy part of America and I immediately want to get the hell out of there. I pass a Pocahontas and her mom. There’s a photographer there who’s instructing the Pocahontas how to pose for the best shots. This is way too creepy. Just to reiterate: I, a loner man roaming around with a camera and a teddy bear always on hand, find this thing way too creepy. I feel I’m being put on a list just for being near this hotel. I jump into the car and get the hell out of there. Out of this city, out of this county, nearly out of this continent into the Pacific, but I manage to turn right onto the Pacific Coast Highway, which is up next.

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