Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I have a strip mall in my heart that I'd never driven to until last night

strip' mall"
a retail complex consisting of stores or restaurants in adjacent spaces in one long building, typically having a narrow parking area directly in front of the stores.

"Los Angeles is one giant strip mall. You'll hate it." This was the assessment I got in advance of our move from NY to LA from a close friend in the arts.

She also, it turns out, had fled the world of suburbia for the streets of New York as soon as she was legally able to.

While certainly she wasn't completely wrong about the Los Angeles world of stores, what she was implying about the character of LA was completely wrong.

Which is a long way of saying that last night, while driving past Johnnies Coffee Shop (pictured somwhere below) and Bob's Big Boy and the 7-11 and a Hollywood Video, I realized that I did not hate LA because it was/is one giant strip mall.

Oh, contraire, my friend, I had in fact become a lover of this architectural and commercial sign of cultural blight.

Yes, that's right, I discovered that in LA, I think the strip mall is kinda amazing.

But perhaps that's because the strip malls in LA are, in fact, for the most part, amazing.

Sure, at first glance they seem little more than a series of stores laid out unimaginatively one after the other, but every once in a while you come across a place like Johnnies - which, while closed to the public, can still make you fantasize (while sitting at the light) about Caddies with suicide doors and women with hips and torpedo breasts that can take an eye out if you're not careful.

And closer inspection reveals that even in the malls with less spectacular architectural anchors, there are things that are mighty interesting. Like karate studios that promise to teach you weapon use (what weapons? does the president know about this?) right next to Armenian travel agencies where skinny women wearing hip chains and high heels smoke cigarettes right next to a taco stand run by a three foot high old lady who's hung a laminated almost-hologram like photo of Jesus over the salsas.

These strips are, in fact, socio-economic portraits of the neighborhoods that surround them. From the cars in the lots to the languages that dominate the windows, there are strong clues that tell the discerning where in LA they actually are. (50s structures like Johnnies are likely to be found in places that have been established longer, for instance, while strips populated by FatBurgers and Nextel stores are more likely to be found in newer malls and then the 99 cent stores, well, if you're finding a lot of them in your life, you probably can guess what that means.)

Of course, it all harkens back to the days of the Old West when a town was defined as a strip of stores layed out horizontally against the scrub and you rode up to the place where you were shopping and tied your horse to the post outside.

And that means the strip mall is, in its own way, a statement about the way dreams work out here versus Manhattan: Here, dreams expand outward, not upward.

So, yeah, that's right. I like the strip mall. I like it good.


Eric said...

My limited experience in LA showed me that some of those strip malls contain some amazing ethnic eateries. I can't remember the name of one of them but the other was Zanku Chicken. Find it and something with the garlic sauce.

D said...

I know only two LA strip malls intimately: one contains an Anusara yoga studio and the other, appropriately, a strip joint. I'm not a strip joint afficionado, but this place is something special. It's called Jumbo's Clown Room and it's in Hollywood. I think Michelle Tea has written about it. I went there with two friends and my cousin earlier this year.

We had a blast - Jumbo's is a dive where the women seem to be dancing primarily for their own enjoyment rather than for tips (which is to say that the numbers on the night we were there exhibited a charming lack of traditionally sexy choreography and veered more towards the goofy/lackadaisacal/drunken than the polished or even sleazy). One of the dancers was wearing stripey legwarmers (always a winner with me). And it had a very festive, rock-n-roll atmosphere.

Very close by (perhaps even across the street) was this exceedingly cheap and greasy Thai place that's something of a late-night legend...unfortunately, I can't remember the name.

janet said...

wow. Johnnies Coffee Shop. bring back the memories why dontcha.

Malachy Walsh said...

I'll look for these restaurants.

And Janet, yes, it does bring back memories. Even for me who has never had a cup of tooth-chipping hot black joe there.

I imagine it was like that from the first day it was put up, though.