hollywood signs

I’d grown up 55 miles away, and never seen it. We took family trips up to LA, and had done the touristy Sunset/Walk of Fame/theater thing; but mostly, I knew the old Los Angeles.

The fondest memory is lunch at Musso & Frank grill with my grandmother before a show at the Pantages. She regaled me with her stories of growing up in Pasadena, riding her mare through the largely undeveloped hills, going to Santa Anita to see her father’s horses run. When I was older, we’d go to that magnificent Art Deco haven for a late lunch, catching the day’s early races before hitting the freeway to get home before the traffic.

The new LA was dirty, rough-around-the-edges despite the polish the movie industry tries to impart upon the area and its throngs of tourists. I had never had any interest in seeing Hollywood’s great monument— a sign with more history than most would think, for a couple of tall, gaudy letters.

The freeways running through LA are eerily empty at 4am. Arteries that usually pulse with cars and semis moving seamlessly (sometimes) between lanes, onramp to offramp, are quiet. This made for a quick jaunt up to Runyon Canyon.

I coaxed the Jeep up winding roads to a dirt parking lot. There were a few people out, shrugging on jackets in the crisp pre-dawn mist. The wonderful thing about coastal California is that morning mist, a product of the ocean temperature mixing with warm air from the valley. Two hours later, the mercury would be sliding towards 90 degrees.

Carefully, we picked our way between rocks on a narrow trail, joking about stories from our childhood, reveling in our unique brand of sarcasm and inside jokes. We ran for a bit, feet thumping through a quiet canyon, until we reached the spot.

Below me, that city spread its arms as light began to wash over the grid of streets, freeways, buildings, parks. This was LA as I’d never seen it before — most notably, because the late summer smog hadn’t set in.

Sun began to bounce off the windows of buildings downtown, a surprisingly small cluster of high rises. I saw neighborhoods, pockets of shops and homes spreading out from the core city like a spilt cup of coffee. And to the right, still hazy from the fog, the Pacific began to wake.

We sat together on log bench, silent for a handful of minutes. To grow up in a place and feel detached from it is an odd feeling; an unsettling sense that maybe you’re not quite home. But in the blooming gold light, I felt my family roots, saw the way my great-grandparents and grandparents and parents lived their lives in this city, if only for periods of time. I saw the old LA, the city’s less shiny but more authentic persona.

“Turn around, dude.”

He poked me, cracked a joke. There it was. 9 letters. Unaligned, kerning off, a bit faded. The sunlight painted them a pastel yellow. They were smaller than I’d expected, but there they were.

This monument of sorts — originally a marketing ploy for a nearby real estate development — stuck around, perhaps because it’s so damn representative of Hollywood, and LA as a whole. I appreciated the odd tenacity of those weathered letters, their ability to evoke shallow wonder/iPad photos from tourists, and a deep sense of nostalgia from generations of Angelenos.

40 minutes later, we’d handed the car off to a valet (ugh), and were drinking cold brew on a sidewalk, eagerly awaiting breakfast. On the way home, we stopped by Amoeba, dreaming of the day we’d live in big cities and own record players (achievement unlocked), but being largely content with our current states of limbo.

Our 45-minute trip to Runyon took 2 hours on the way back, as land-locked residents flocked to the beach. The freeways were noisy, hot, and sluggish. Some things never change, but I smiled the whole way home, the addition of a new favorite memory spelled out across my face.