I am newly returned from Los Angeles. Return baggage includes five tubes of whitening toothpaste and an entrenched jetlag that has had me heralding the dawn every morning this week. Why toothpaste? Because the US, despite a mulish devotion to rules, regulations and the rectally-restricted application of them, has no problem in allowing the general public access to dangerous and life threatening items, such as guns, easily acquired driving licences and over the counter medications.
The efficacy of American toothpaste is evident in the confident, pearly smiles of the Californians and the excruciating pain of my third day of using Crest 3D whitening toothpaste. I assumed, naively, that as the paste was readily available in the UK it would contain similar ingredients. I suspect that if I turned the light out, the tube would begin to glow with all the benign enthusiasm of radium. My teeth, considerably brighter now, are exquisitely tuned to speech, air movements and any food either side of room temperature.
Los Angeles is not quite a desert city. Its rainfall statistics and mean temperature place it confidently above the definition but its annual 15-inches of precipitation can’t supply a population of 10 million water guzzling, lawn and pool addicted residents. It is a hot, dry city, whose sprawl covers over 4,000 square miles (this refers to LA county, which includes the city). Forced by a growing population and over 44 million visitors every year, it has to pipe in sufficient water from the Colorado River basin.
Unfortunately, demand is rapidly outreaching the potential to supply and a sense of impending desiccation hovers over the city. Ironically, LA is lapped by a 75 mile coastline and it was here that I spent the first week, in an airbnb on Venice beach. My daughter and I arrived late in the evening, in what we believed was the general vicinity of the apartment. The email I had received from the owner Brad, was primarily a list of what not to do. The most critically important thing was not to inform any of the other residents that we were airbnb guests but rather declare ourselves to be his close, long-time friends (from England), who are here to feed the cat and water the cactus (sparingly). Apparently, several of Brad’s neighbours had expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the airbnb scheme and were likely to get ‘upset’. I really needed qualification as to how ‘upset’ they were likely to be and whether this would involve the use of small caliber firearms. Helpfully, Brad attached a series of eight photographs, some with the heading, ‘Do Not Use This Entrance’ and some, of an identical appearance, which bore the heading, ‘Safe Entry’. I duly printed these off, hoping that the two sides to the building would sport both titles in neon. The key to his apartment was going to be secured in a metal box, with a four number entry code on the outside of the building. So, after a day of blue whale watching off Dana Point, a taxi dropped us off at the putative address at around nine pm. With an accommodating flourish our driver bade us farewell, pointed to the key holder and drove off. My daughter stared at the adjacent building. “Why’s it wrapped in PVC?” she said, flatly.
“Aesthetic reasons,” I answered, using one finger to push in the numbers.
“It says it’s being fumigated. Why?” she asked.
The number, clearly marked on the photograph and memorised by myself wasn’t unlocking anything. “Urm, whose doing it? Pest control or Crime Scene?” I quipped, poking the pad with greater urgency.
“You think someone died in there?” she asked, elbowing me aside. Getting me to read off the numbers she stabbed in the key code. Nothing. “Oh my god, we’re going to die!” she concluded, with laudable teenage optimism.
“Ridiculous. This is an excellent neighbourhood. Stay here!” I said, confidently. “I’m going round the block to check if there’s a back to the building.”
“Really, that’s a genuine thought?” she spat. “You’re going to leave me next to the murder house, while you go off?”
“You’re right. Leave the bags.”
“Over my dead body,” she hissed. “They come too.”
Laboriously piling rucksacks, handbags and emergency winter coats onto our suitcases, we maneuvered ourselves into the alley. What I’d mistakenly thought were the rummaging sounds of small, inoffensive mammals, turned out to be those of an individual who could have blended into the cast of The Walking Dead without raising an eyebrow. He was leaning over the lip of one of the numerous dumpsters, presumably looking for a light supper to sop up some of the enormous quantities of alcohol he’d consumed earlier.
“Call Brad,” whispered my daughter. “Then Dad and then the cops.”
I nodded. Cautiously unfolding Brad’s sixteen page epistle, I managed to spot a contact number and dialled. It made a grim whirring sound and then disconnected. The rummaging came to an end and the dumpster wrangler saw us. We all three froze. I dialled my husband and explained, without the use of syntax, how important it was that he arrived quickly. You may be thinking that this reaction to a homeless person was excessive but Los Angeles is home to the most spectacularly intoxicated itinerant individuals I have ever encountered. On our first weekend in Hollywood, we watched in horror as one man, covered in vomit, his genitals exposed, staggered between the moving cars on Hollywood Boulevard. He let out the occasional whoop, presumably at his good fortune in not being reduced to roadkill. With this in mind we retraced our steps and I began to press the buttons to the keybox, with theatrical caution. A door opened across the alley and a voice asked if we were alright. “We’re Brad’s airbnb guests and we’re British,” I stammered, as way of explanation.
“Ok-aay,” responded the voice.
“And the keybox won’t open,” I added.
“Oh no! Would you like to come and sit inside while you wait for Brad?” he asked, solicitously.
I was about to blurt out that Brad wasn’t coming, when wise daughter reminded me quietly of the murder house. “He’ll be here any minute,” I said confidently.
“Well the offers there,” he replied, kindly.
My phone rang. It was my breathless husband. “Where are you?”
“Here,” I shrieked.
“Where? I’m here!” he said, wildly.
Our daughter snatched the phone. “We are standing next to the key box, about to be murdered!”
“So am I and I’m holding the key,” he said, calmly.
In my defence the rear of the apartment building did look practically identical to the front of the building, even down to the key boxes. Despite the horror of our arrival, the apartment was lovely, the beach divine and none of the neighbours shot at us… Not even once!