Gaudy Los Angeles can be a badly disappointing town. For its critics, wrote William A. McClung, the city is "a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected." Even before Mike Davis bleakly ordered the city's apocalypses in "Ecology of Fear," the snarky authors of the travel guide "L.A. Bizarro!" wrote, "Any reasonably intelligent American knows that Los Angeles is a rotten, stinking dump."
Dump it is from time to time and a place where even the tinsel is simulated (Universal CityWalk comes to mind). The tourist fantasies of Hollywood and Vine turn out to be clip joints. The concrete in front of the Chinese Theater memorializes names you never heard of. And tours of the stars' homes take you past hedges behind which no star has lived since Gloria Swanson was driven off in her Hispano-Suiza.
Those of us here more or less permanently have become hardened both to the come ons and to the disappointments. We're pleased to define our lack of feeling as "sophistication."
That is, until the tourists reveal something else.
I had dinner the other evening at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. Musso & Frank's actually is "old Hollywood" -- from 1919 -- although today what the restaurant delivers -- and very well -- is the idea of old Hollywood.
I was with friends from Lakewood and their extended family visiting from Belfast, Northern Ireland -- Angela and Damian -- tourists, those disturbers of our cynicism.
After dinner and in the oddly cool July night, we walked up Hollywood Boulevard, Angela taking note of the stars and names at her feet while shouldering through and around the crowds and buskers. We wandered over the hand and shoe prints in the concrete in front of the Chinese Theater (always Grauman's to me).
The tourists from Belfast had a fine time. The rest of us did as well, innocently infected by their pleasure at being there (although we Angeleños know what kind of place Hollywood Boulevard really is).
Afterwards we walked back to the restaurant where the cars were parked, Angela picking up more names but not recognizing the local radio personalities of the 1940s, the cinematographers of the "golden age" of Hollywood, or the producers of B movies no one at all remembers.
Angela thought half wistfully, half seriously that mightn't we see a celebrity? This was Hollywood, after all. We walked through the restaurant to the parking lot.
And then the city perversely delivered on its ballyhoo as though we were actually supposed to fall in love with this place.
We ran into Jack Nicholson waiting for the valet to retrieve his car. A minute or two of conversation followed, Angela with a sweet Irish lilt in her voice, inquiring if he had enjoyed his dinner (it was sand dabs).
It was not our usual encounter with a star, which generally passes with much cool.
And then Warren Beatty turned up. Nicholson and he had dinner together with (it seemed to us later) Beatty's son and perhaps a friend. There was a moment or two of more conversation with the big stars. They were cordial, unaffected, almost ordinary.
The Belfast tourists beamed at what Hollywood had given them, thinking that its cheating myth -- that stars are met on every street corner -- must almost be true. The Angeleños grinned, thinking this never happens this way.
Angela has the story she might have hoped to get from her Hollywood evening. She'll tell that story for years. Damian has the story of his reaction to Angela's unselfconscious encounter with big names that go above the title. That's what he'll add to her story.
And we Angeleños have the big, untarnished reflection of their delight.
Don't you just (sometimes) love this town?