Letter from America
By William J. Furney
Someone was smoking in a toilet on the upper deck of the world’s largest passenger plane as it rocketed its way at close to the speed of sound towards California. I, and others, knew this not because any smoke alarm in the tiny loo had gone off but because the rancid smell of deadly tobacco smoke was starting to filter its way out to and around the dimly lit cabin. Soon enough a possy of perplexed crew appeared at the toilet door to investigate, and made a frantic call to the cockpit; but by then the cigarette criminal, who could have faced a lengthy jail term and hefty fine, was long gone and back in their seat.
A while later, cabin crew on this British Airways A380 flight from London to Los Angeles were banging on the doors of an adjacent toilet and making urgent, pitched requests. I glanced up from my nighttime seat and thought perhaps someone had collapsed in the cramped compartment. But in a moment the commotion was over and calm returned to the cabin. Not for long. Soon enough, the secret smoker was back in action and the miles-high charade started all over again.
And all the while and right throughout the 10.5-hour flight that took off from snakes-and-ladders airport Heathrow over an hour late, a youngish American man with a giant black hat who was in front of me drank red wine that flowed freely from the galley. Men who wear hats, and especially indoors, tend not to have hair. It’s the compensation technique of the follically challenged. And indeed this was true of this man, who, it turned out, was terrified of flying and practically crying when we were landing — hunched over with his head in his presumably sweaty hands.
Another bald man in our section of the huge aircraft was a distressingly camp Englishman, a steward on the flight who looked to be in his 40s. During the time we were aloft, we learned that that this airline employee — who appeared to be putting on a performance for the passengers and maybe at one time, I mused, might have had a desire to be in pantomime — would be in LA for three days and during one of them would be going to Disneyland. We also discovered, without ever wanting to, that the cartoon character Ariel was his absolute favourite, and he was so looking forward to seeing her in plastic at the tacky American theme park.
Unfortunately the divulgences did not stop there, as the bald and slightly portly steward started to tell any passenger — or “customers”, as fliers are now oddly referred to by airlines — who would listen about his past and “when I was younger”. At the end of the flight, he announced to our section: “Thank you! You’ve all been great!” as though we were an audience for his limp performance. Camp characters give me an immediate headache, as it’s all about vapid attention-seeking, and I felt ill from that point on. As we began our descent into the City of Angels, the excitable and demanding steward absurdly declared to everyone in our section: “Thank you! You’ve all been AMAZING!!!” Some gave a moist clap; I felt like throwing up. I don’t do theatrics, on the ground and certainly not in the air.
Even after the mighty beast landed in an elegant swoop down to the runway in the late September evening, the clandestine-smoking drama continued, with passengers quizzing cabin crew about what had been happening. I didn’t care about any of it; I was in LA. Even if it took around two hours to exit LAX, due to a painfully chronic queue at immigration. Dear US Customs and Border Protection, is it really, entirely necessary to have your papers scanned by a machine that also takes your photograph and fingerprints, and then have to queue up for hours to go through the same procedure with a human? “What is the nature of your business in the United States?” the officer boomed to me. All I could manage was a feeble “Excuse me?”
From my base in a lush apartment in a building in boho Venice Beach once owned by Charlie Chaplin, I cooked delish vegan fare, worked out, ran up to Santa Monica and back, and explored: so many homeless, some aggressive, including to me; motorised scooters from Lime and Bird are popular ways to get around: tap the app, scoot down the street, pay a few dollars; a mighty lack of convenience stores. The nearest supermarket was a Whole Foods Market about a half-hour walk away, and surrounded by dusty people living out of camper vans. On the steps, beggars begged and a sign proclaimed that lawyers might approach you in the parking lot, and while the supermarket didn’t agree with this business-generating approach, it was allowed under California law.
Rastabusians on Tour
The highlight of a trip to LA is surely a visit to Griffith Observatory, which sits majestically up in the Hollywood Hills and if it weren’t for the perennial fog that used to be smog would offer panoramic views of the city and out to the Pacific Ocean. I arrived there on a “Rastabus” tour that also included Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the downtown business district. Rastabus, as well as A Day in LA Tours, is run by Raman Rampal and pal Kevin Silberman, who, respectively trained as a lawyer and an engineer and when they were in their early 30s started what they thought would be something of a pet project in LA’s fiercely competitive tours sector.
“We thought about what we loved — partying and traveling,” Raman told me. “So we bought a little old bus and made it a tour bus by day and party bus by night. Within a few years this side gig turned into a real company and now we operate over 10 high-end, newer vehicles.” And driving the firm forward, he said, is no easy task, and they’re continually having to shift gear to stay ahead. “Ensuring we have a first-rate staff is key, down to ongoing driver training and safety protocol. Also, we’re constantly having to develop new marketing methods as the tour industry has become quite saturated in LA.”
The observatory (see my main-image photo), and an expansive park of the same name, came about due to a Welsh industrialist called Griffith J. Griffith, who donated the land and had a passion of astronomy, and who at one point tried to murder his wife and was jailed. The observatory is an incredible place and one of the most visited attractions in LA, and has gone through extensive, multimillion-dollar renovations in recent years. Longtime director Dr. E.C. Krupp told me about what’s happening:
Has there been a rise or fall in the number of visitors to the observatory in the last few years, and if so, what do you attribute it to? I mean people wanting to use telescopes and who are interested in space — not particularly visitors who want the LA view and to enjoy the grounds.
Although Griffith Observatory has enjoyed very high attendance — well over a million visitors annually — particularly since the 1980s, the current pattern of attendance dates to late 2006, when Griffith Observatory reopened to the public after a five-year closure to the public for a $93-million renovation and expansion. The attendance since that time has continued to rise steadily, from less than a million in 2007 to the current level of nearly 1.7 million.
Much of this increase was due to growing appreciation of Griffith Observatory’s renewal, but that phenomenon was fueled by the acceleration of use of social media. Through this time, Griffith Observatory has become more than the hood ornament of Los Angeles and a southern California icon. It is now an international attraction.
Several factors have contributed to that, including the dramatic growth of international tourism in Los Angeles and the attention that Griffith Observatory continues to attract from individuals and institutions that enlarge the worldwide audience for Griffith Observatory.
The increase in annual attendance has noticeably accelerated in the last three years, and some of this certainly is due to the Observatory’s high profile in La La Land. The foundation for that profile was already well in place, but the film added more.
We do not distinguish the various motives for visiting Griffith Observatory and have no way to demonstrate how the numbers of those particularly interested in astronomy has changed. All of the Observatory programming — planetarium attendance, telescope viewers, participants in large public events (like eclipses, the Space Shuttle flyover, and the transit of Venus) — have also increased. Griffith Observatory’s audience, however, is everyone, and the place is designed to transform visitors into observers, whether their motives are the Hollywood Sign or the universe.
The view, the grounds, the architecture, the exhibits, the telescopes, the planetarium programs, the special events, the livestream events, the Guides and more are all elements of an integrated and crafted approach to public astronomy. It seems to work. Griffith Observatory is the most visited public observatory on the planet. More people have looked through the Zeiss 12-inch refractor than any telescope on earth.
What is your view of the current race to Mars? Is it really feasible to establish human colonies there in the coming years? Elon Musk of SpaceX plans to do this in 2024. Is it necessary?
I have no doubt expeditions will go to Mars. I don’t think it will occur as soon as 2024. I don’t see the required mobilization for such a demanding enterprise in place. It is feasible to establish a research outpost on Mars but not, I think, soon. I don’t see colonization of Mars in the cards, and by colonization I mean establishing Mars as a place for permanent habitation by a large number of people. There has to be justified motivation for doing that, and so far that motivation has not been established. Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. The “Is it necessary?” question is a bit silly. It presumes we only do things that are necessary and that we always know what is necessary.
What do you think are the most exciting things happening in space right now — probably apart from Mars — in terms of exploration and getting people interested?
I don’t have an explicit answer for this third question. I don’t distinguish between one thing happening in space exploration and another. Each initiative is part of a greater whole, and the greater whole is profound. In the short run, the exoplanet observatories, the James Webb Space Telescope, the whole catalog of Martian exploration, the Europa mission, the upcoming New Horizons encounter with a Kuiper belt object, and more enrich our imaginations and grip our hearts. The commercialization of space is also incredibly important, and the success of private companies in this effort is compelling. That is another new driver to more ambitious endeavors. Finally, there is more to each mission than its prime objective. We are making and learning to use new tools. We are acquiring greater understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. These all affect what we do next. What we do next affects our survival. I’m interested in our survival.
My Uber from Venice Beach to downtown LA the day after my city excursion was driven by Santos from El Salvador. He had been in the city for 40 years, he said, and had been nowhere else in the world. He, a father of two and whose wife worked as a carer in a home, couldn’t find my destination — a parking lot where German firm Flixbus picked up passengers for its Denver, Colorado route. I was stopping off at desert oasis Palm Springs along the way — even with the help of his talkative satellite friend, and pulled into another parking lot and said that was the end of the ride. I hopped out, asked for directions from two elderly geezers sitting on a small wall and basking in the early Saturday morning heat, one of whom was so incredibly helpful that he didn’t stop talking, and I felt it rude to curtly say “thanks” and walk away; so I stood there for around 10 minutes, listening to unnecessary detail about where the nearby parking lot was, just to be polite and thankful. And then the Uber took me there (separate, cash fare) and it was beside an expansive men’s prison with many bail bonds shops across the street.
The sun blazed, the bus didn’t arrive and a young American woman sat and played her guitar and sang, just the way carefree, hope-filled people all over this great land do. They are not looking for an audience, or even busking for money; they are just strumming and singing for the hell of it.
Eventually the big, green bus turned up, and it had onboard wifi. Flixbus is a startup with major investor funding, and an app, and it’s absurdly cheap — just a few dollars to cities near LA, like Las Vegas. Low prices were not what drove me to book, but convenience, as Palm Springs is hard to get to from LA, on public transport. National bus service Greyhound doesn’t go there; there are trains, but you need at least two connections; and Palm Springs has an airport, but what should be a short trip takes hours and hours from LA as most flights go to San Francisco and elsewhere first.
“Please don’t use your cell phones; no one wants to hear the drama,” the friendly Flixbus driver said over the intercom. It only took around an hour and 45 minutes to get to Palm Springs — or to the drop-off point, which was a petrol station in the desert, and no taxis around.
Fortunately, an attendant at the petrol station stop let me use his phone to call a taxi. Half an hour later, a man from Pakistan called Abid turned up to take me to the desert town. It was September and he had been here for a decade. He had been back home in June — it was now the end of September — to see his family. The first thing he did when they picked him up from the airport, he said, was to go to a polling station and vote for Imran Khan as the troubled country’s next prime minister. Abid, who also taxied me the following day, from a supermarket, was a major fan of the former playboy cricketer who was married to British socialite and heiress Jemima Khan, and he was sure ex-PM Nawaz Sharif did not order the assassination of PM Benazir Bhutto.
Palm Springs was searing-hot and seemed stuck somewhere between the indulgent Hollywood Brat Pack era of Sinatra, Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr and others and a more down-to-earth, modern-day attempt at, well, modernisation. There were no convenience stores on the long main strip to buy such necessities in this desert area, or anywhere, as water, but there were three flower shops clustered in one space and lots of art and interior design shops. I later found water, way overpriced, at a run-down liqour store near my apartment complex, but the overall aura of Palm Spring was something of a Twilight Zone vibe.
After just over a week in this desert town I met a young Australian woman named Lyndall while waiting for a Flixbus back to LA. She had flown all the way, she said, from Darwin to attend a conference in Palm Springs on sex, love and relationships, and she hadn’t a clue how to get back to LAX for her uber-long-haul flight home. On further probing, I found out she was a psychiatrist who was married to a Malaysian man, and that most of her patients in Australia were the downtrodden Aborigines and also troubled teenagers. I helped her back to the enormous and chaotic airport whose immigration queue had taken me two hours to clear on arrival, and as I got off the second bus to say goodbye to Lyndall, as she was alighting a few terminals ahead of me, the black female driver roared at me when I asked where my terminal was to “GET BACK ON THE BUS!”
Taking a Bite Out of California
If there’s one thing you can say about Californians, and most likely Americans as a whole, is that they’ve got amazing teeth. This is not a secret — just as it’s pretty much common knowledge that the Brits have howlers of choppers: pearly non-whites that would stop a bus, such is their visual ferocity. In California, where plastic and plastic surgery rule, it’s not only TV newsreaders that have such dazzling teeth that they bedazzle the hell out of those who are not used to brash showcases of dental brilliance; many on the streets, shops, bars and elsewhere also have amazingly whiter-than-white smiles that, like me, all you can do is fixate on them and utter to yourself: “The teeth”.
Humans, of course, do not naturally have teeth the colour of this pristine-white page; unstained by tea, coffee, red wines and other colouring liquids, they’re more of an off-white, or even cream. In California, they real ones are hiding behind veneers or crowns — cosmetic procedures that cost many thousands of dollars — and because so many have them, ordinary teeth look like British teeth beside them, so the the peer pressure is on to have a truly winning smile. The collective result, then, is not so unnatural-looking, whereas in places like the UK, such an indulgent, winning smile would certainly raise eyebrows.
It’s hard to get into America, but it’s easy to get out of it. While it took a couple of hours to escape LAX and immigration on the way in, they were only too eager for you to leave, and it took just a few minutes to get airside.
I had a couple of hours before my nighttime flight to London Heathrow, again on the world’s biggest passenger plane, and I had a fine vegan dinner and succulent red wine at a pricey Chinese resto before saying farewell to one of the most exciting of places. Thankfully, no high-flying smokers on the way back.
- Title photograph, of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, is by William J. Furney.