Friday, July 27, 2012
My life as a POV movie
Last night, instead of taking a cab or a shuttle from the airport to my office, I walked.
That's right, I walked right out of the city-sized behemoth known as Los Angeles International Airport, all the way back to my office.
Okay, so it was a trip of only about three miles. But they were three treacherous miles, involving several searches for acceptable pedestrian walkways, and traversing a dark expanse of landscape lit only by the lamps of the planes passing above.
But first, some background.
As I was returning from what was something of a disastrous business trip to Albuquerque, I became absorbed in the magnificent southwestern terrain below. This Means War wasn't holding my interest, so I stole frequent glances at the impressive rock formations and unyielding deserts in all their majesty. I continued to look down with the interest of a child as we approached LAX from the south, having become much more accustomed to approaching from the east. The game of trying to identify landmarks and freeways took on an unusual fascination for me.
It was in this contemplative mood that I decided I wasn't going to hail a cab or find the free shuttle that drops passengers off at the metro stop near my office. I was going to strike out and walk. It was only 8:10 when the plane landed, and there was a welcome coolness in the air. Besides, I was feeling a bit of undue guilt for having to change my flight and cost my company hundreds of extra dollars, both in the flight change itself and the late-returned rental car. (Undue because it was just a "shit happens" situation, not my fault.) Anyway, I couldn't conceive of adding a cab receipt to the rising total of expenditures they had to reimburse me.
By the time I decided I was really doing this, it was 8:29, and I emerged from the terminal amidst the sea of weary travelers trying to make it the last leg home. It was only moments later that I began to imagine them as a throng of extras in a movie, with my eyes as the camera. Each represented a story, only a two- or three-second snippet of which the viewers would get to see.
It wasn't the first time I had imagined my perceptions as some familiar type of art form. When I was maybe 12 or 13, I sometimes used to "write" what was happening in my life in my head, as it was happening -- as though practicing to write a novel told in the first person. This hobby, probably better described as a quirk, shows the roots of my interest in becoming a writer. Certainly, I wouldn't do it all the time -- there were times when I was too much of an active participant in conversation or other pursuits to be fiddling away with an internal narration. But in contemplative moments when I was walking somewhere or mostly just observing my surroundings, my inner narrator would document my life in detail.
Then there were times when I imagined myself to be in a video game. It was usually in a situation involving crowds, when navigating the crowd efficiently could easily be the object of a series of joystick moves. I think I first remember envisioning this video game aesthetic in a crowded grocery store or an airport, when I imagined being awarded points for degree of difficulty in squeezing my cart through a narrow opening, or avoiding a small child who suddenly thrust himself into my path.
But last night was the first time I can remember consciously thinking that my eyes would serve as excellent cameras in a wordless, real-time film. Something about embarking forth from one of the largest airports in the world inspired this in me.
As I progressed from terminal 4 to 5 to 6 to 7, completing the second half of the U that comprises the LAX arrival level, my camera caught the faces of all brands of humanity: solo young men smoking cigarettes, small families with young children dragging their luggage on metal carts, homeland security officers getting off duty for the night, a group of Japanese schoolchildren. They all passed me by, or I them -- first in the distance, then in the foreground, then disappearing away from my peripheral vision. Each with somewhere to go, and no idea that they were being filmed.
The outskirts of the arrival level brought the first transition of the unfolding scenery. I laughed to note that outside the airport police station, there was a "pet resting area," complete with a little doghouse and a sign at its doorway with the name of a presumably beloved police pet. As all the pedestrian traffic had died away, this was a sight that few ever saw, too busy were they speeding away to their destinations in some kind of motorized conveyance.
My aim was to walk down Century Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that feeds into LAX. But the car traffic reaches said boulevard by an upward sloping ramp which has no sidewalks. I needed to figure out another way to get there.
The sidewalk actually led me down Sepulveda Boulevard to the south, but I knew that was a dead end. Sepulveda goes under the runways through a half-mile-long tunnel not long after it leaves the terminal area, and I doubted there would be safe passage in that direction.
Fortunately, I found an alternate way in the opposite direction on Sepulveda that was totally pedestrian approved. Crossing Sepulveda and its many jersey barriers seemed like it might be an insurmountable obstacle, but there ahead, as a symbol of the legitimacy of my crazy scheme, lay a crosswalk which would bring me over to Century.
Century Boulevard is home to numerous sky-scraping hotels, restaurants and businesses that make their money on travelers, but also to a large number of industrial warehouses where the peripheral aspects of air travel are produced and housed. It was a thrill to see the large illuminated posts, which run down the median of Century and terminate in the airport, up close. They seemed more luminescent than usual, probably because I usually behold them through the windshield of a car, and only for a moment before looking away again.
As I proceeded west on Century, I continued to document the faces of the people I passed. They took on a different tenor from the faces I had passed earlier, as these people were not involved directly in the logistics and general exhaustion of travel. Some were back and forth from hotels and restaurants, looking hopeful about an exciting trip that might begin early the next morning. Others rode bikes home from their work in the greater air travel industry. Still others had no purpose I could immediately fathom.
Further down Century, the types of business became a bit more commonplace: fast food restaurants, parking structures. My camera took in the billboards that stretched along the thoroughfare, advertising essential aspects of the Los Angeles experience, from Hollywood to surfing to strip clubs.
As the illuminated columns grew shorter and eventually dropped off altogether, I knew it was time for another tonal shift in my film. I turned south on Aviation Boulevard, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Century Boulevard and beginning a stretch that would be dark and almost totally devoid of people.
Aviation Boulevard runs along the west edge of the LAX airfields, meaning that after a token business or two at the start, it quickly ceases to have any buildings altogether. Here is when I allowed myself to get a little spooked. The oddest sight my camera witnessed was a homeless man sleeping on the stoop of one of the last industrial buildings before the road gave way to barren land on either side. It wasn't that there was a homeless man sleeping there, but rather, that he was accompanied by a radio emitting loud, jarring, static-filled music that did not resemble any genre I had ever heard before. I moved on quickly.
Although I had given up the protection of regular street lamps and thrust myself into the unknown, I traded that for something truly enthralling: the passing of planes overhead. This part of the road was largely untraveled, especially at night, so I was out there alone, with just the planes passing over me. They came at intervals of every one to two minutes, and whenever they did, I would stop and look up as their impressive size overtook me, and I could feel the sound of their engines in my skin. I guess I haven't done things like this much in my life, as it left my totally awestruck.
At only one point did anyone else pass me, and before it was going to happen, I steeled myself for the unknown. But I quickly realized that it was an adult and a child, and let my concerns go slack. I imagine they were more worried about me, a solo man walking this godforsaken path in the dark of night. But I like to think I put them at ease as well with a friendly hello.
I looked back regularly to make sure no one was going to overtake me from behind, because that's where I felt most vulnerable. With cars speeding by in the dark next to me on one side and a barbed-wire fence on the other, I had little hope of escaping if someone had any designs on me, and they'd certainly have the element of surprise in their favor. And I did see a pair approaching from behind at some distance. I never lingered to admire a passing aircraft long enough for them to close the gap.
At last a beacon of familiarity materialized on the horizon: The Proud Bird. The Proud Bird is a restaurant frequented mostly by old folks these days, the kind of stodgy old eating establishment whose walls are festooned with black and white photos, in this case of the halcyon days of aviation. The food is fancy-terrible, but the place holds a certain fondness for many people, as its grounds are filled with all sorts of old biplanes that have been grounded for decades. As I passed, I saw a trio of post-dinner acquaintances looking up along with me at the impressive landings overhead.
Finally it was time to make the last turn of my journey, onto Imperial Highway, where my office is the first at the southwest corner of the intersection. As I made two crossings to get on the correct side of the road, I admired the mammoth concrete structure running above Imperial Highway, otherwise known as the 105 Freeway. Again I was seeing something I was unaccustomed to seeing when just traveling by car. I also took note of a funny little concrete sign reading "Welcome to El Segundo" along the south side of Imperial Highway. What was so funny about it was that not only was it really very small to be appreciated by the passing traffic, but it was facing the opposite direction from flow of traffic on that side of the road. In that case, I'm glad I was there to pay it heed.
At last I entered the parking lot, which was (to my surprise) not entirely empty. Three other cars joined my car, giving it company while it dealt with the emotional trauma of being abandoned by its owner 36 hours earlier. When I put my hand on the door handle, 59 minutes had passed since I began my walk. I'd hoped for an even hour, but I tell it to you like it actually happened.
Come to think of it, I doubt that many people would have the stomach for a 59-minute real-time movie about my walk back to my car from LAX.
But for me, it was one of the most strangely exhilarating things I have experienced in some time.