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Exposing the California dream Smoke-free bars and amusement parks may be the future By David Branigan Hollywood has always been Avalon to many. The conditioned expectation of something more is still ingrained in our psyche after decades of constant bombardment by the movie milieu. The California reality however is dirtier and greyer, much like the letdown when 20 minutes into a video rental we start to feel deja vu as another plot rehash emerges from the creative desert of America's burnt out mecca of filmdom. Without the lights, airbrush and editing process, LA is a sprawling, tawdry version of urban B.C., with all the class left on the cutting room floor. We are paradise found, where they are an incredibly well financed Oliver Stone facsimile. Nothing there is real but the money generated. LA is the epitome of self importance, where ego is king and appearance is everything. It is Howard Hughes’ brilliant rise and brutal fall into madness and paranoia personified in a city. In its prime the entertainment capital had all the magic and innocence of the post-war era, but now it ages gracelessly like a Dorian Gray or Dick Clark, those whose faces remain while their insides curdle. Superficiality here is taken to new depths. Los Angeles is the capital of the silicone, cell phone culture where everything is connected to the entertainment business and the entertainment business is all about connections. Yet there is constant contradiction between the glitter and the facade, as witnessed recently by the tragic Hartman murder-suicide. My wife Billie and I recently took our third American vacation, following visits to Las Vegas and Miami. This will be the last of three trips chronicled in Pique as I've exhausted America and crave the different cultures of Europe and Asia. Fortunately I've grown out of Speedo shots. My expectations of travel are always to exceed home, but it never happens — which is the ultimate indicator of our impressive quality of life. I expected the hotel experience in Los Angeles to exceed that of B.C. but such was hardly the case. At the Airport Sheridan we paid $89 US, which was $150 Canadian after the money wizards screwed us over at an amazing 1.43 rate of exchange. In a smoking room — Billie still regularly dances with the cancer stick — there were no windows that opened and no fans even in the bathroom. I called the concierge to get a copy of whatever the LA version of the Georgia Straight was so we could map out our strategy. The service standard of the hotel basically told me to go to bed. He was about as helpful as the butler Manuel in Fawlty Towers, and sounded eerily similar. The next day we started our vacation proper by taking a hotel shuttle to the rent-a-car shuttle to Alamo ($230 US for a Mitsubishi Galant for the week, unlimited mileage). Before heading out onto the LA Freeway system that morning I worked out on a boxed in Universal that passed as a gym. There I saw news footage of a man setting himself afire in the cab of his truck in the middle of the Santa Monica Freeway, using a bomb as a lighter before courteously walking to the meridian and snuffing his brain out like the Universal Backdraft attraction gone mad. There was much feigned soul searching by local media over whether this gruesome byte was too much for primetime media, but that debate took place over continual rerunning of the live death clip at every opportunity. "Live death on the freeway tonight at five, plus a report on movie violence; Are your children affected? Johnny Lobotomy gives us a look at how El Niño has kidnapped the spring sunshine and Ted Danson raps about Shaq, the Sonics and a groin injury in our Live at Five sports report." All that aside the freeways are one of the best things about LA. The freeways have all the craziness and freedom inherent in the American — capitalism at any cost — system. If you avoid potholes and flame-out suicides you can make wicked time. Road rage is another hazard but risk is an inherent factor in life. Drive courteously and your chances of being shot are less than the odds of winning the lottery. As Dennis Miller said: "People get cut off more on LA Freeways than Senator Ted Kennedy on a St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl." If you do manage to get on the freeway and over five lanes to the fast lane you can fly up to 80 mph without even considering a ticket. LA is huge but you can get from Hollywood to downtown in no time due to the one thing both Whistler and Vancouver are so sadly missing: a proper transportation artery. We settled in at the Days Inn on the Sunset Strip, due to its proximity to Universal Studios, the clubs and the Getty Art Museum — three must see destinations. Our first formal outing after driving around Bel Air and Beverley Hills was to the House Of Blues, where the future of Whistler hospitality was unveiled when Billie went for another cancer stick and the guardians of political correctness informed us that as of Jan. 1, 1998 there was no smoking in public places in California. Mark my words, Whistler will be smoke-free sooner rather than later and it will have serious repercussions for the local bars. Note to legislators: bars are not churches or gyms. People go there to sin. That's the idea. The state has no place in the lungs of the nation. The first thing I noticed after that was how clear the air was and how quiet the bar was. I walked up to the bartender and asked him how the new law had impacted business, but he was a health zealot — no doubt a wannabe actor. "Hey we all know smoking is bad for you, this just makes it easier for everyone to do the right thing." "But has it hurt your financial health? Has it hurt business?" "Well we're a showcase bar with big name bands. We open from nine to midnight so the smoking issue doesn't hit us particularly hard. We lost some customers but then others came on board who didn't come out to the clubs because they couldn't stand the smoke, so it kind of cancelled itself out. Besides, if someone is having a nic-fit they can go out on the porch." That explained why up and down the Sunset Strip the porches and doorways were so incredibly active. Once again government has enacted law where freedom of choice would suffice. If Workers’ Compensation has their way B.C. won't be far behind. The WCB has put a suit together on behalf of hospitality workers like yours truly who are forced to deal with second hand smoke. But I don't see any canaries dying in this particular coal mine, only tip revenue drying up while government tries to make the inherently unhealthy by choice pursuit of drinking and smoking another pristine venture in the name of health. Try using preventative medicine and having the population exercise and eat healthy, wholesome, unprocessed food instead and watch health care costs drop. But I digress. The real highlight of the night was the musical act El Vez — the Hispanic Elvis. Playing underneath a portrait of Deepak Chopra, who is apparently the patron saint of the Dan Aykroyd-owned chain of clubs, El Vez electrified the room with a mix of gospel fervour, post modern eclecticism which included hip hop samples and snippets from every musical genre of the past half century, plus a healthy dose of choreography and cynical humour. There was country, R&B, soul, gospel, rockabilly, blues and rock ’n’ roll all forged by the steely fire of the next coming of the King. His backing band included four El Vettes, who did a soulful rave-up version of the Doobie Brothers' Jesus Is Just Alright before segueing into Neil Diamond's Brother Love Salvation Sideshow. The El Vez show was the most powerful club performance I've ever seen. He featured the stop on a dime tightness of James Brown in his prime plus the sexual charisma of Elvis and the cheeky self deprecating humour of the Mexican, which he made sure to differentiate from the Mexi-can't. Throw in equal doses of Rocky Horror campiness and virtuoso playing with Broadway dancing and you have a tour de force genre blender which is by definition the heart of the new music. Yowsah! The next day we did the tourist walk in Universal Studio, which did it for Billie but this form of entertainment is too mainstream for this particular pop culture burn out. The Back to the Future ride impressed with its physicality, which actually made my stomach lurch, but upon reflection it was the exact same ride as Epcot's Human Body in Orlando, albeit with different visuals. Jurassic Park was bogus beyond belief until the final death drop into the break water wave wash. The papier-maché T-Rex head simulating attack wouldn't scare my grandmother out of a catnap. It looked like something out of a hand puppet play. Backdraft was all hype until the 90 second flame burst/stage crumple, which was impressive only for the sauna effect. Your inherently anti-social-unless-inebriated writer actually participated in the Harry and The Hendersons sound stage demonstration, which was funny only because the tech/mc had a nasty dry English wit with which he skewered the crowd mercilessly. The ET ride was as weak as white bread in water but the Beetlejuice Monster Revue was slickly entertaining, if in a generic fashion. The highlight of the day was the 20-minute Waterworld performance which featured Sea-Doos, plenty of pyrotechnics, a massive set and crowd interaction. With all the billions being spent the best part of Universal Studios was wondering whether you were going to get soaked by the Sea-Doo side spray at Waterworld. The human experience is all child's play regardless of age. The one thing that struck me about LA was how small-townish it felt outside of the downtown core. The second was the total lack of glitter. At Denny's you would look over and see a familiar face from some television show or movie rental chowdering down. Career fringe players whose faces have been burnt into our synapses through the overpowering dominance of American media walked by meaninglessly on the street waiting for the cell phone to ring for another walk on. The Hollywood Strip looked as run down as the dying industrial Northeast. The downtown core was a combination of the LA Law skyline and the end of Western civilization decay, complete with unspeakable pollution levels. On Broadway there was so much garbage on the street it looked apocalyptic. Crack heads shared the sidewalk with corporate suits. The much noted multi-ethnic population shared a universal disregard for their chaotic surroundings, as Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans and WASPs zipped around the dung pile like an industrious ant colony on Soma. Going out of business sales abounded. One almost expected Mad Max to go riding by. The ruling class elite live in high security estates in the Canyon, Bel Air and Beverley Hill's, while the merely affluent live in the burbs that sprawl out from the city epicentre in endless concentric waves of humanity connected by the entertainment medium and the ferocious freeways. The inner city rots to the core. The streets in the village of Hollywood felt fairly safe. We went walking one night after the El Vez show looking for more smoke free club action off of Orange and Sunset. Two blocks from the strip things were getting dark when we saw a pack of black folks up ahead. The heart started beating due to tales of gang banging and inner city violence. As we got closer we found it was actually the entrance to a funk-based nightclub with a predominantly black urban crowd. We couldn't get in because we didn't cut the dress code, which banned denim and required a jacket for men. Once again reality shattered stereotype. Our few days in LA proper included a trip to Venice Beach where a sign reading anybody caught "in possession of cocaine, cocaine based derivative, amphetamines, or marijuana will be immediately imprisoned" intermixed with head shops selling all type of drug paraphernalia, including cloud nine and herbal ecstasy. There was a parking lot outside with tire spikes on the exit side accompanied by a sign that read: "Do not enter. Severe tire damage will ensue." Most of the apartments near the beach had bars on the windows but the beach itself was lovely, if a cool 72 degrees on a lonely May Monday afternoon. There were no Baywatch babes to oggle, only vendors, cops, street freaks and the infamous Muscle Beach, where steroid giants pressed other weightlifters pressing huge stacks in some weird domino variation. We were intrigued by the mix of danger and excitement amidst the massive metropolis but to get to the real action you would need more time and an inside guide. Tourism is for tourists and Speedy says I'm a somebody, dammit. So, alienated by the Whistler-like weather, we headed into the desert to get some sun, leaving the City of Angels to an eternal invasion of starry eyed dreamers. Heading out on Interstate 10 we were into the big hard sun of Palm Springs in less than two hours, where the temperature was 90 degrees and the pools sparkled with come on smiles. Due to the temperatures in the desert, spring and summer season sees discount hotel rates. In August, with the temperature soaring to 110, rates plummet. The stereotype on Palm Springs is retirees and golfing, but apparently the old entertainment money has moved further into the desert, into the satellite communities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and Indio. We're talking seriously old and seriously moneyed. Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra both had residences in Palm Desert. One legend recently passed away while the other looked like a ghost when propped up for his 95th birthday. Apparently Palm Springs has become somewhat of a gay community, which wasn't readily apparent. Our rates doubled on Thursday when the artisans gathered from the big smoke, so we headed further east. If you like speed and freedom the Arizona highways make the California freeways look conservative. In Arizona the speed limit is 70, which means you can set your cruise control at 90 mph and watch for roadrunners to emerge from the metaphysically powerful canyonesque skyline. We got from Palm Springs to Phoenix in 3 1/2 hours — a distance of 300 miles, which would take five plus hours in crawling Canada, or a full day on the Sea to Sky. Phoenix is a desert metropolis of 3.5 million. It's also my new favourite city outside of Vancouver. It features suburbs of Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale — all with distinct, unique identities. We took a hotel room at the Comfort Inn for $35 US. It was new, clean and spacious with a lap-solid pool. Highlights of our visit to the decentralized city included a Steven Wright performance at the Union Hall, which actually left me with an aching side, at $28 US for a 70 minute set. The opening local comic painted a succinct picture of Arizonians as sun worshipping, pleasure seeking, apolitical, disconnected, new age hedonists. Like I said, my kind of town. Phoenix was clean, safe and beautiful with a sports fixation and two new franchises in the Coyotes and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sports pubs not only carried the NHL playoffs on par with the NBA but they took the CBC satellite feed over ESPN. Live music was alive and well and the transportation system was incredibly effective, much like California — unlike B.C. There are many other little stories to tell but the wife would prefer that I keep some semblance of our life private. Where's the fun in that? Suffice to say that California is expensive, all that is wrong with western culture, crime ridden and decaying unless you've got the money to allow yourself a reality pad, at which point it becomes paradise. The caste system is alive and growing as the millennium approaches. Arizona is the south of the future, but neither city compares to the paradise we live in, unless you're a speed freak. Beep Beep.