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"When I came to, it was in a cloud of disbelief mixed with the stale taste of morning breath," says Juniper Song, narrator and protagonist of "Follow Her Home", Steph Cha's 21st-century update on the Los Angeles noir novel. "I groaned and lay still with my eyes shut tight. As far as I could tell, I had been sapped." An underemployed twentysomething dropped into the role of a modern-day Philip Marlowe, Song ends the second chapter already chloroformed by a menacing, sharp-suited thug. Yet when she awakes, she does so in the morning light, dumped in a decidedly un-noirish setting: "The geometric head of a Koo Koo Roo chicken winked down at me from behind. Someone had seen fit to cart me unconscious to Larchmont, on the Beverly end." This branch of the chicken chain, in what I think of as the center of Larchmont Village, has since become a branch of the burrito chain Chipotle. Which, I wonder, would Raymond Chandler have given more of a stink eye?
Not that it matters now. The hybrid age in which we live permits nothing so straightforward as a Chandler noir, least of all in Los Angeles. Cha's book merges the sensibility of the subgenre through which Marlowe slunk with the modern perspective of the Korean-American identity novel, and I could think of few settings more suitable, even for such a minor scene, than Larchmont Village, in part because so much of its shape appears to date from Chandler's day. Had Song looked just beyond the Koo Koo Roo, she'd have seen the Larchmont Medical Building, the neighborhood's not-particularly-tall tallest structure and exactly what an Angeleno of sixty years ago must have envisioned when they thought of a trip to the hospital. On much of the rest of Larchmont Boulevard, you see one- and two-story houses, the likes of which Marlowe would have cruised past on a hunch, squinting with suspicion, in the middle of the night. But look closer and you find that they, too, offer medical services, especially of the oral variety, containing offices of dentists, orthodontists, and even something called a prosthodontist.
Larchmont does an even more robust trade in pseudo-medical services: spas, purveyors of "holistic treatments," general "wellness centers," all the way up to a place billing itself as "an urban sweat lodge." Operating under one of these (which itself runs alongside a Pilates studio), you'll find Bricks and Scones, a large dot on my personal cappuccino map of the city. Stopping in for one, I usually wind up pulling out my Korean-language textbook, not just because of the studiousness in the air -- the place has become, eight miles away from campus, an unlikely colony of UCLA -- but because I always hear Korean spoken there. The coffee shop, granted, seems to be Korean-owned, but its clientele looks like that of every other eatery along Larchmont, Korean-dense enough to come as a surprise outside Koreatown itself or certain distant suburbs. (In few other neighborhoods do I see Daily Sports Seoul newspaper boxes, and Larchmont's are usually empty.) This suits me; I need all the listening practice I can get, whether it comes from eavesdropping on a cluster of friends at the next table, or an unsuspecting mother and daughter chatting volubly as they stroll down the street.
Strollability can seem a scarce quality in Los Angeles, but Larchmont Village, if sometimes to a self-conscious degree, enjoys a surfeit of it. When I asked my girlfriend, Korean herself, what brings so many of her countrymen and countrywomen there -- far more, I notice, of the latter -- she guessed that its appeal lies in qualifying as one of the few "cute streets" in town. My mind immediately went to an interview I read in the Weekly with Korean pop star Yubin Kim of the group Wonder Girls. Asked to name her favorite place in Los Angeles, she replied, "The Grove. It's beautiful." We must remember never to judge the taste of a nation by the taste of its celebrities -- just imagine how poorly America would fare -- but I don't hear Rick Caruso's famously ersatz urban space, opened whole in 2002, praised very often. Still, we can perhaps think of The Grove and Larchmont Village, as two very different stripes of "cute street," with the former surely having its moments of authenticity -- not that the concept of authenticity proves illuminating, anywhere, in any sense or at any time, in Los Angeles -- and the latter sometimes coming off, from certain angles, a bit ersatz itself.
Yet, by local standards, Larchmont Village qualifies as downright venerable. Developer Julius LaBonte built it up before the twenties, when a Pacific Electric streetcar ran up and down Larchmont Boulevard (compare, I suppose, the trolley-to-nowhere that sometimes runs within The Grove), and where the Keystone Kops as well as the Three Stooges would shoot their slapstick. "The street, with its shoe repair store, restaurants, print shop, barbershop, real estate office, hardware store, book shop, parallel parking for cars, and unhurried pedestrian tempo, has a distinctly small-town, though affluent, midwestern atmosphere," says Leonard and Dale Pitt's encyclopedia "Los Angeles A to Z". "Visually charming," says Larchmont Village's Wikipedia page, which as of this writing looks as if the Chamber of Commerce got to it, "the area has some of the most well-preserved older homes in the city." Another particularly proud sentence announces that, "Among Southern California's most diverse communities, Larchmont Village is home to a true melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and socio-economics [sic]." Given eight more decades, maybe The Grove, too, will settle into the same kind of charm.
Better yet, maybe it will fall subject to the same fragmentary forces that have made Larchmont Village more culturally intriguing than I would have found in the era Chandler defined. Even the weekend stroller can benefit from the habit of Marlowe-like active attention, the kind that lets them see that which hides in plain sight. In my case, as I headed north on Larchmont toward the ur-Californian Cafe Gratitude, I looked to my right and noticed Thai script on the window of a print shop. (The same print shop, I wonder, praised for its homely virtue in "Los Angeles A to Z"?) I then looked to my left and noticed, standing in its own subtly block-dominating scale, the sharp-edged, early-seventies brick mothership that is the Thai Consulate-General, a silent, imposing piece of institutional exoticism that balances the taco joint down the street advertising "real Mexican food by real Mexicans." Maybe that would've read as an enticingly distinctive proposition in the Los Angeles of "The Big Sleep", but in the Los Angeles of "Follow Her Home"? Then again, the neighborhood does have that small-town midwestern atmosphere to preserve -- and I hear you'd have just as hard a time finding respectable Mexican food in Seoul.
Photos by Colin Marshall.