On a Weekend in L.A.

As I approached downtown L.A. from the south and became aware of its skyscrapers emerging from a heavy morning mist, I thought to myself, "By God, we're becoming a city."

Well, maybe it wasn't a morning mist, maybe it was a morning smog, but the towers did take shape and I did say to myself, "By God, we're becoming a city."

I could see the 73-story First Interstate World Center, piercing through a break in the overcast, giving the finger to anyone who thought L.A. was forever doomed to remain 100 orphaned suburbs in search of a mother.

Then the high-rise called Figueroa at Wilshire came through and the Wells Fargo Tower and the Arco Towers and all the others.

It was the skyline of a true metropolis against a background of distant mountains, impressive in its varied architecture, demanding to be noticed.

I felt as though I were driving into a place I had never seen before, and maybe I was. When you live in a town for a long time, you're inclined to miss what ought to be obvious.

It's like suddenly realizing the child who was 3 just a scant second ago is now 17, and the years had sped by unnoticed, like fireflies in the night.

What brought this to mind was the comment of a Westside friend who admitted to me one day that he had never been downtown.

The guy had been to Paris and London and even Nairobi, but never to the L.A. that is just up the freeway from where he has lived since 1968.

He looked at me and said, "What's it like?" and I had one hell of a time answering.

When I came here 20 years ago, downtown seemed more like a village than a metropolitan center.

There were no Arco Towers or Interstate Buildings then, nothing to make the folks visiting from Omaha look up at and gasp over.

L.A. wasn't Manhattan, it wasn't San Francisco and it wasn't Chicago. It wasn't even Cleveland.

The hotels were seedy, the restaurants were second-rate, and Pershing Square was peopled by bums and crazies.

You didn't go downtown unless you worked there or were kidnaped and forced to spend a night at 5th and Olive or die.

I remember my wife looking at me the first time we flew over a central district choking in smog and dreariness and saying in a voice filled with horror, "What have we done?"

Our attitude has changed a lot since then, a change more recently facilitated by a weekend holiday in downtown L.A., the place I once thought you had to be dragged to in chains.

I was trying to get a tourist's perspective of what has emerged as the new downtown. I had tried for a month to get it from the Los Angeles Visitors & Convention Bureau, but that was a monumental waste of time.

You know you're in trouble when your own visitors bureau can't come up with a list of hotels and high-rises in the city it's supposed to be boosting.

I finally got a good map of the New L.A. from another source. It was published in Canada.

I took Cinelli, which is to say my wife, with me because a woman's perspective is important and also because she said I was out of my wacko cholo mind if I thought I was going to live it up for a weekend without her.

We chose to stay at a small, elegant hotel called Checkers, which is named after Richard Nixon's dead dog.

I probably would have stayed there if it had been named Fala, after Franklin Roosevelt's dog, or Lassie, the famous movie dog. A hotel named after any dog has certain appeal.

Checkers is two years old and is right across the street from that 73-story tower. I would have looked up and gasped but, as Cinelli pointed out, it probably isn't wise to gasp when it's smoggy.

I'm not going to offer a primer on downtown living or a guide book on prices, except to say Checkers is expensive. If you are on a fixed income or make your living collecting aluminum cans, it's best you select another place to stay.

Were it not for an expense account and a corporate rate, I would not have stayed at Checkers. I also would not have eaten at Checkers, where the dinner tab was 3 cents higher than what I paid for the room.

I never dreamed free-range chicken served with zucchini blossom fritters could cost that much. I don't even know what a fritter is.

I thought about ordering a Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac after dinner, but decided otherwise. It was $55 a hit, and there's no way I would get that kind of expense account past people who celebrate important events at Bob's Big Boy.

I'm out of space, so the downtown fun will have to continue Thursday, at which time we will consider old clothes, Aztec dancers, chipped paint in Chinatown, the cleanliness of the Japanese, sex, pain, money and All That Jazz.

(To be continued...)

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