“Stay safe, girls, stay safe,” said…well, pretty much fucking everyone, to be honest, when we told them we were headed to Los Angeles after Las Vegas. It’s funny, but being lectured about safety by complete strangers – and they were strangers: policemen, bus drivers, ice-cream scoopers – is a bit disconcerting, so we were sort of shitting our pants by the time we arrived at Union Station. Which actually would have been quite nice had we not been on high alert looking out for potential axe-murderers and gun-toting rednecks. Quite difficult to appreciate nice architecture, I’ve always found, when complete strangers keep telling you you’ve more or less got a 50% chance of getting shot.
Hollywood is a dump, and yes, it’s full of lunatics. Five minutes off the (surprisingly un-shit) Megabus from Sin City and we had already seen a man having a heated argument with the back of his hand and another who seemed completely sane except for the (definitely alive) tortoiseshell kitten he was wearing as a hat.
On the Metro, which is actually not as rubbish as everyone says, a swaggering youth in a purple tank top sat down and fidgeted distractedly with his left sock, which after a few minutes of quiet but horrified observation turned out to be a convenient hidey hole for a switch-blade knife.
The next day we went to Venice Beach, which may as well be called Shoreditch-on-Sea. Like certain areas of East London, it is renowned for its ‘alternative’ living, so there are tattoos and sugar-skulls and Godawful hair cuts as far as the eye can see. Many people were wearing trousers too short for them, apparently by choice. Street vendors selling everything from model aeroplanes made from Coke cans to custom toe rings lined the boardwalk between the beach and little shops selling treasures and tat. There were cute little cafés and medicinal marijuana stores (“Eligibility assessment only $40! Free samples!”) and bigger restaurants serving up huge baskets of fries and well-griddled ex-cow, enbunned and garnished with great dollops of Uncle Sam’s curiously flavourless yellow mustard. We sat on the terrace of one of these and watched the throngs of people go by. Say what you like about Los Angeles, it is fucking brilliant for people-watching. Chock-a-block full of weirdos.
Eventually, a stocky, retired beatnik-type sat down at a piano on the other side of the pavement and played it for half an hour with the kind of mad skills that kept us there for a good while longer than we intended. He could have been any age upwards of forty, but his skin was as creased and leathery as an elephant’s elbow and his long hair, the colour of old ivory, was tied back in a stubby ponytail. The piano man eventually gave up his spot to an ageing guitarist who smiled at everyone and played old folk rock songs. A skinny guy who looked both elated and eighty, the kind that might be described as ‘spry’, stopped his bicycle in the middle of the sidewalk and danced around solo for a full twenty minutes, waving his arms and swivelling his hips like a demented sprinkler, entertaining the crowd with all the enthusiasm and shamelessness of someone who is very definitely on LSD.
Because we were so knackered from Vegas (and scared shitless of leaving the house after dark), we spent most of our evenings in LA in our apartment, making healthy(ish) dinners and, er, remotely exploring California’s vineyards. Through taste. Because we were in LA, Maxine said, we should take the opportunity to watch some old Hollywood classics. Merce and I weren’t particularly enthusiastic – because, you know, black and white – but one night we sat down to watch Roman Holiday, which I’d always assumed was a predecessor for shitty romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock. I was actually getting proper in to it, because Audrey Hepburn is so beautiful and Gregory Peck is so debonair (in contrast to Hugh Grant, who is more runny than dashing), and was quite looking forward to them getting together at the end and living Happily Ever After, but no. She just fucks off home to carry on princessing when in fact she could be having a lovely time with Greggers, who frankly nobody in their right mind would kick out of bed. I’m so glad I don’t live in black-and-white times, it all seems so terribly disappointing.
Because we watched a bit of telly in Los Angeles, we also watched a lot of American adverts. The USA has no equivalent of the NHS; its healthcare system is privatised, and uninsured Americans seeking medical care often find themselves well and truly up shit creek if they come down with something dreadful. This is partially why there are so many homeless people; many people have literally bankrupted themselves paying their way back to health. There are Medicare and Medicaid programmes for the particularly old and/or impoverished and Obama is doing his best, but compared to our own comprehensive health service it’s every man for himself.
As though the odds weren’t stacked enough against the sickly public, the pharmaceutical companies also wield much greater power across the pond, and they use that power to extract every last possible penny. They aggressively lobby doctors to prescribe patients their drugs, even when the equally effective but cheaper generic alternatives are available. They sponsor ‘independent’ studies and conferences that will help boost their sales. They pour billions of dollars into direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing, trying to get people to badger doctors into prescribing them their products. It’s certainly unethical, but it also means the airtime is clogged with thousands of utterly RIDICULOUS adverts. Pharmaceutical advertising is allowed, but there are rules about not misleading people, so you end up with video montages of people enjoying golf or ballroom dancing because they haven’t wet themselves or got piles, but with sinister, long-winded voiceovers. Chantex, for instance, is an anti-smoking drug:
“Some people have had changes in behaviour, hostility, agitation, depressed mood and suicidal thoughts or actions while taking or after stopping Chantex. If you notice agitation, hostility, depression or changes in behaviour or changes of mood that are not typical of you, or if you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, stop taking Chantex and call your doctor right away. Talk to your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems, which can worse while taking Chantex. Some people can have allergic or serious skin reaction to Chantex, some of which can be life-threatening. If you notice swelling of face, mouth, throat or a rash, stop taking Chantex and see your doctor right away…The most common side effect is nausea. Patients also reported trouble sleeping and vivid or unusual strange dreams. Until you know how Chantex may affect you, do not drive or operate any heavy machinery.”
Bloody hell. So, take Chantex and you’ll save some cash not buying your fags and reduce your risk of lung cancer, but you may get a disfiguring skin disease, hallucinate, kill yourself or just lose the plot completely.
…Actually, given the level of crazy in Los Angeles, that may explain a lot.
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