Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.
And that old son-of-a-bitch jet lag.
The second I set foot in central London, I feel a wave of peace and happiness; the knowledge that I am, for a brief while, truly home. The second I arrive in Vancouver, I relax, because the city of Vancouver has taken the emotional place of “the house I grew up in” ever since my parents sold said house. The second I leave Cancun airport I feel… a reminder to chill because my resort is probably still like forty minutes away, and that’s after I find my transport.
Arriving in central Rome I felt… mild anxiety. Because I didn’t really feel… anything. I was in Rome. Rome. The Eternal City. Home of so much history, the setting of so many movies, the former hub of western civilization. After a year of planning, here I was! In Rome! With friends! And I felt… nothing. How could this be? I spent so much money on this vacation, now here I was, why wasn’t I happy?
Okay I know it sounds like I’m starting this new blog series on a down note so let me just cut to the chase and tell you what I told myself that first day… I was so tired. That was the problem. That’s all we’re talking about.
The problem with flying from North America to Europe is that it typically involves landing in what the clocks say is mid to late morning but your body is pretty sure is the very dead of night. If you can sleep on the plane, that helps, but as we’ve covered in the past, I cannot sleep on planes. So I arrived in Rome, having been awake for about 18 hours, very ready for sleep that would not come for many hours more. Because I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in Dublin (I’m not linking to it twice, I linked to it two sentences ago, click it or don’t) or Hong Kong and set myself into an untenable sleep schedule by napping mid-day. No, this time I would full-on bully my flesh cage into Italian time by staying up until at least 10 PM, then letting the fact that I’d been awake for 30 hours keep me asleep for the whole night.
So upon arrival, having stashed my luggage at my port of call for the night (I would not check into my actual hotel for another day, once my hotel mates Daisy and Ian had arrived), it was time to find lunch and wander the city to stay awake.
There were, in total, ten of us on the bulk of this trip. Myself, Ian (who I apparently have so many travel stories with that my Peru travel mates made fun of me for bringing him up so much), and Daisy; Daniel, in whose honour this trip was planned, and his essentially-wife Jenn; Daniel’s parents, Ruth and Hugh; his younger brother Noel; his youngest brother Matthew, and his wife Laura. Of these ten, only six of us were currently in Rome. And of those six, four felt they could use a break after the morning’s walking tour, particularly Jenn, who does not enjoy high temperatures, and southern Italy is very warm in June. So Daniel and I went for a stroll, got some pizza, and saw the local sights.
The local sights included the Colosseum. You know, THE Colosseum. If anything aside from a designated smoking area in the airport was going to shout “Welcome to Rome” to me, this had to be it. We had a tour booked in three days, so we just did an orbit, and I lapsed into something I cannot help… the need to play tour guide. Sure Daniel had been in town a day longer than me, but this was his first time in Europe, and my… um… fourth? Fourth time in Rome? Pretty sure it was fourth.
So, yeah, as memories kicked in, everything had a story. Over there is where we saw the Ancient Rome cosplayers hoping to get money for photos (and where we’d see them later), that’s the cafe where we got gelato and mocked Patrick, and that construction site is probably where the wall art depicting the rise of the Roman Empire used to be.
I’d really been hoping to spot those. Daniel is a history buff when it suits him, though I have not been able to lure him into joining me for a binge-watch of HBO’s Rome. I guess they’re now part of a light/projection show they do by the Colosseum at night?
We also discovered an entirely new (to me) scam for tourists.
Now, I know all about the people wanting money for photos. Back in the day I had a pricey encounter with so-called “gypsy” begging women hunting in packs in London. The jags with their mixtapes seem to be a US-only phenomenon, or at least not continental Europe. And the dudes selling cheap souvenirs… in particular an item I can only think of as “splat pigs…” aren’t typically pushy, so they’re mostly harmless. But this one I’d never seen before.
Near the Colosseum, where tourists were thickest, lurked a few black guys. They’d make eye contact, smile, and say “Hey, black and white! Africa!” then zoom in right next to you and try to get a handshake.
We don’t know what happens next. We treated this handshake attempt the same as I treated the mixtape jags after that first run-in… no eye contact, no physical contact, a brisk walking pace is your best defence. So I don’t know what happens if you accept that handshake, but I’m willing to guess it costs at least five Euro. More if you’re not great with confrontation.
Once returned to the hotel, there actually was something close to a nap as I drifted in and out for about half an hour, then dinner at a nearby restaurant, where I saw mozzarella and prosciutto in one dish and said “I’m having that,” and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
I cannot believe we never went back there.
Following dinner was a walking quest to find internet-recommended gelato, a quest well worth taking, because I’ve never had spicy ice cream before but this place had it, and man it delivered. They called it “Dracarys,” after Game of Thrones, something that will last shorter and age better than anyone who named their children “Daenerys” or “Cersei.” I didn’t think to get a scoop for myself that night, as I’d discovered the flavour “creme de leche,” or milk cream, which was like ice cream and cheesecake in one creamy package, and I would not be denied another hit.
By the end of that excursion, I’d done it. I’d stayed up (more or less) until 10. And faffed about until 11, so I was sure to acclimate to local time.
Of course no one can really know where the best slice in New York is.
I mean first you have to deal with the fact that taste is wholly subjective, if the ongoing and bizarrely fierce debate over pineapple on pizza teaches us anything.
(I’m personally against it, but instead of railing against the very concept, I just don’t order it, and then I don’t have to eat it. It’s 100% effective. Also works on other horrible toppings such as olives (gross), broccoli (vile weed), and that hollow shade of a pretender “Canadian bacon.”)
Second… there must be hundreds upon hundreds of pizza places in New York. Possibly thousands. What does Google say… 32,000. Merciful Zeus.It would take a lifetime to taste each and every one of them, test them against each other, develop a conclusive ranking.
Not, like, a long lifetime. But certainly the sort of lifetime one gets when one lives off pizza and only pizza.
Still… here I was. Back in NYC. And I certainly needed to eat while there. Matt might not have been with me this time (newborn children have a tendency to rule out spontaneous food odysseys), but I would finish what we started.
I would find the (probably) Best Slice in New York.
Sure, I’d been alone in New York… past trips had times when I was on my own for a while, but there were always people to link back up with later. Not so this time. Just me.
Every time I go somewhere, I’m choosing between going somewhere I’ve never been, and revisiting someplace I know I love. Each have their appeals… much as I might like to see Morocco or Miami or… Macedonia… alliteration is a terribly tempting trap… there are places I want to revisit. As an example, I never want to think that I’ve left London for the last time until the day I fly there to die. Or, for preference, until I watch the sun swallow the Earth from my immortal android body. Its luxurious, lifelike hair flowing in the artifical breeze.
Returning to places can have advantages, especially if I’m going with people. Much as I’d enjoyed all my past London trips, showing it off to Ian was nice. Being in New York with friends was an incredibly fun experience, something hanging out with them at home couldn’t replicate.
But the flip side is that once I’ve been somewhere with friends, new or old, when I go back the city can become haunted by their absence. I don’t want to go full “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” or anything, but when you come back to a place you’d been to with family or friends, it’s hard not to miss them a little.
This became clear in LA. Venice Beach was just a lot of sand, bars, and stores selling mid-level raunchy t-shirts and underpants without Diane, Peri, Allison, and all my other fellow FOLCs. Disneyland was a lesser experience after Dara and my parents had gone back north. All of this came into relief as I arrived in New York for my fourth visit.
Of course, there’s no guessing who you might miss when you arrive at a place.
My first two trips to New York, and my longest before this one, were with my parents. And both of those trips were great… there are always nightcaps at the hotel at the end of the day, and that’s always nice. But somehow, despite walking past both hotels we’d stayed in at various points, the people I missed the most were Matt and Kate. Maybe because we had unfinished business.
Back When: Pizza and Beer in the Big Apple
In 2016, I flew to New York for a Brooklyn pizza tour. It failed.
Three couples I knew… Chelsea & Tommy, Erin & Ted, and Matt & Kate… flew down to New York for a week and change. My thoughts were, at first, “Well, neat for them,” and nothing further, because when you’re my age and single, your couple friends do stuff without inviting you and that’s just how it is. But Matt kept talking about one thing he wanted to do that really resonated with me.
A Brooklyn pizza tasting tour.
But not just by reading food blogs or “Ten best slices” lists, which it turns out can actually damage the restaurants they name. Specifically, he wanted to find two guys lifting weights on a stoop, ask them what’s the best slice in the neighbourhood, and write down everything they said while they argued.
While that sounded less like a plan and more like a cutaway joke on Family Guy, the idea of seeking out the best slice in Brooklyn did sound like my exact idea of a good time, and the exact thing I would have done on my second NYC trip had I not bought into the myth of there being one, true Original Ray’s.
Spoilers for an upcoming post: I had one pizza in eight days that did not massively outshine my slice from Original Ray’s. By the end of the next post, see if you can name it.
I mentioned this offhandedly to my parents, who decided they had some spare Aeroplan points and I had a birthday coming up, and soon I had a long weekend in the Big Apple planned, and Matt had a partner in pizza crime.
It then turned out the rest of the collective also wanted in, which… well… it helped until it didn’t.
The first issue we hit is that the two places we’d initially identified didn’t do “by the slice.” Grimaldi’s, for example, which certainly belongs in any conversation about Brooklyn’s best pizza, and often ends up in them, judging by the lines to get in. So having seven people did make it easier to split up the pizzas… but evidently not enough, because when we arrived at our second stop, Dellarocco’s (more classic Neapolitan style, from which New York style evolved, better toppings than Grimaldi’s but overall the silver medalist), a third of our group decided they were full and that they wanted to explore Brooklyn instead of eating more pizza.
And with that, the tasting tour began to implode. One pizza from Dellarocco’s later, and the group position was to bail on the quest and head to Coney Island… despite the fact that the sun was setting and we were past prime beach time.
But hey, the rides were open, so… off we went. Matt and I opted against the rides, and, still a little annoyed to have had our pizza quest cut short, sought out beers.
Which led to my favourite moment of the weekend, a story I’ve told again and again.
Two years and two months earlier, my parents and I had visited Coney Island, and after a few hours of beach, aquarium, and one roller coaster, we wanted lunch somewhere indoors with drink service, which meant leaving the boardwalk and arriving at a certain mid-level restaurant chain nigh-synonymous with “Whatever, this will do, I guess.”
Flash forward to 2016, and Matt and I find ourselves on the same block, just behind the rides, looking for a bar. He sees a familiar sign.
“I suppose if all else fails,” Matt says, “Applebees serves beer.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebees for lack of better options,” I replied.
He stopped, turned, stared at me, and with a voice filled with incredulity, said “You’ve been to that Applebees?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s the Applebees of Last Resort.”
And so have I thought of the Coney Island Applebee’s ever since.
(It didn’t come to that. We found a bar mere seconds later.)
The Pub Crawl
We had a good time, Matt and I, wandering from bar to bar… sadly not the one that was no doubt the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn pad in her solo comic…
…and perhaps that was an inspiration for the next day. While the rest of the collective did… whatever it is they were doing, I don’t know… I headed north from my Brooklyn hotel to meet Matt and Kate at their home base brewpub, Beer Authority.
Well, okay, I grabbed lunch at Raclette, a cheese-based restaurant after my heart. Both in terms of food and cholesterol-murder.
Which, okay… Kate was pretty miffed at me for going there without her, but A) I needed to go to this place in the worst way, and after the previous day I was not willing to trust the collective with fitting it into their agenda; B) I would have gone back. I would have gone back that afternoon. I didn’t even care how full I was (very), I’d have gotten hungry again.
From there, we set off on a new mission… the Hell’s Kitchen Craft Pub Crawl. Which involved a faster and less stoop-intensive research method than the planned pizza quest… we googled “Hell’s Kitchen craft beer pubs,” found a list of the best ones online, and started wandering.
Because as I’ve said in nearly every Marvel Netflix review I’ve written, you can walk through basically all of Hell’s Kitchen in one afternoon.
We didn’t make it to all ten. More like three, because after opening drinks at Beer Authority (home of more draft beers than I could drink in a week) we were already a hint tipsy. Also one was closed, and only Kate wanted to hit Flaming Saddles.
“It’s a wild west themed gay bar with country music and dancing barkeeps!” she explained.
“No…” I replied. “…But I just want to be clear that it’s the country music I’m objecting to.”
I think deep down she knew that pitch was a lost cause.
And so it was that we discovered BarBacon. Craft beers and a bacon-based menu of delicious food. Even their kale salad had bacon.
(“You came here, and you’re getting a salad?” Matt and Kate asked me. “Lunch was a pound of cheese melted on potatoes,” I replied, “I need to eat a green plant today.”)
And of course, the best item on the menu, the bacon tasting flight. Four beers, four bacons. Perfect end to a fun afternoon/evening.
Except for not bothering to use the washroom before hopping in the Uber back to Times Square.
Not my best idea.
It’s a long subway ride back to Brooklyn. A long and less than comfortable ride that night.
These two days of food and drink-based fun in the Big Apple gave me a few spots to revisit… and a quest to complete.
Next time, an aborted Best Pizza Quest is resumed, two years later.
Hark now to the tale of my two trips to the 1920s, to unravel a mystery with a seductive PI in the making.
We’re spending more time on this than, say, The Lifespan of a Fact because in that case all I can do is give a synopsis and maybe try to recall the better lines, and that’s less satisfying.
Minky Woodcock, on the other hand, was an experience.
Minky Woodcock. Would-be private eye. Sharp mind, crafty in a fight, able to talk her way almost anywhere, and with a body that gets her anywhere else. Stuck in a time period that doesn’t appreciate her.
And the main character of the graphic novel-turned theatrical experience that lured me to New York eight days after getting back from LA.
Although Minky had some help getting my attention.
For the uninitiated, this is Robyn Adele Anderson.
The original singer for Postmodern Jukebox, way back when they turned contemporary hits into vintage ditties in a small apartment.
She has her own channel now, since Postmodern Jukebox now juggles many, many singers and possibly is based in LA now, not New York where they started.
I suppose my lo– chaste and respectful admiration for Ms. Anderson began the first time I saw Postmodern Jukebox live, June of 2015. All five vocalists brought the house down that night, but I became fond of Ms. Anderson in particular.
I was already quite fond of Ariana Savalas and this performance only solidified that so my above statement remains true.
A year later, I’m following the Twitters and Instagrams of both Ms. Anderson and Gracie Terzian, a jazz singer with a harp ukulele and a voice so beautiful it defies description, and she has nothing to do with this story, really, but here’s a video anyway.
Back on track… Both Robyn and Gracie seemed to be doing zero-cover gigs at jazz clubs across Manhattan, while I was stuck on the far side of the continent like a chump. That’s what got me thinking about a third New York trip back then… go to NYC, meet up with Maria, one of my Peru travelmates, then find some rooftop jazz bar and hear Robyn or Gracie sing live. Of course when I actually went to New York in the fall of 2016, for an ill-fated Brooklyn pizza adventure we’ll discuss another time, both were on tour and nowhere near the city and Maria was in Russia. So it goes.
Two years pass. As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Anderson plugs a show she’s doing with a group called Speakeasy Dollhouse. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The title has my attention, so I check out their page.
An interactive theatrical experience… based on a, let’s be honest, pretty sexy-looking graphic novel… about Harry Houdini… that uses true facts about his death to construct a conspiracy involving spiritualists and the creator of Sherlock Holmes… featuring one of my favourite singers as Bess Houdini.
Other than the “audience participation” of it all, this was ticking a lot of boxes for me. It seemed like, were it playing remotely near me, it was exactly the sort of show I’d want to see. The Kickstarter was a fair distance from its goal, so I thought, what could slipping them $100 hurt? Other than $100 plus exchange rate. That’s two or three nights at home instead of a pub. Maybe they wouldn’t make their goal and I wouldn’t even be on the hook.
Anyway a week or so later I get an email saying they’re funded and asking when I want to see the show.
An interlude in my travel diaries to cover the many shows I caught during my two trips to opposite corners of America. I’m glad I saw each of them, to varying degrees, but some were definitely better than others.
As we move from LA stories to tales of New York, I present, in order of preference, a summary of my theatrical experiences abroad.
Just behind Harry Potter world, down the closest thing a theme park has to a back alley, is the corrugated metal wall of the Atoll, a miniature recreation of one of the floating cities from Waterworld, a Kevin Costner movie people absolutely still talk about. I guess once you have a giant water-based stunt show with an elaborate set, you keep it.
Besides, stunt shows have always been a part of the Universal Studios experience, since the days when the only ride was the backlot tour. So who cares if Waterworld came out closer to the Vietnam War than today? There are fights and dives and aerial stunts, pyrotechnics and jet skis. A plane crashes in the middle of the set at one point. It’s a stunt show. You’re there for the action, not the razor-thin narrative of “The Deacon, who we all remember was the bad guy in the movie, attacks the Atoll, but iconic and not at all obscure action hero the Mariner arrives to save everyone! Well, most of them. Some of them. Okay, just the one woman.”
Some of the cast warmed up the crowd by demonstrating that the splash zone isn’t an idle threat. There were water cannons, pails of water hurled at the crowd, and audience members being selected to get buckets of water dumped on them. Which was pretty funny for all of us in the dry section, and before anyone says “Aw, that’s so mean,” they were pretty clear– sit in this section, you’re gonna get wet. They didn’t say how, but they warned it would happen.
Things went boom and splash and there were jet skis and the foley on the punches was well timed. Absolutely worth the 40ish minutes of my day it took up. As an express pass holder, I could have stuck around for a behind-the-scenes presentation by the guy who played Deacon, but I still had… I want to say… three rides left to go on, two of which were down a couple of giant escalators in the lower section, and the 3D Kung Fu Panda short to see, and the park closed at 6:00, so I had to hustle.
Fun. Simple, but fun enough.
6. King Kong
There were several shows I kind of had my eye on in New York, aside from the two I already had tickets for. I’d even put Network, starring Bryan Cranston, into my calendar, hoping that the prepaid Visa I’d recently received would cover a few Broadway shows. And it absolutely would have, except that the first one I used it on was hell of pricey and now there’s only $24 left, which is an awkward amount and this isn’t the point.
King Kong wasn’t on the list because I didn’t even know it existed until I walked past the theatre it’s showing in. And even then I had to investigate before I was sure this was a legit Broadway musical and not, like, a museum or a walkthrough thing, where actors lead you through a series of rooms simulating a giant ape attack.
No, legit musical, with the book written by the same guy as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I had nothing vaguely resembling the budget to see), and I thought I saw a connection to La La Land but I can’t find anything to corroborate that, so maybe I imagined it? A connection certainly doesn’t seem to exist. I did find out that this show originally debuted in Australia five years earlier, before getting some touch-ups to hit Broadway.
Man, I’m getting distracted on this one. Gotta focus, instead of segueing into wondering how, exactly, “City of Stars” won an Oscar for best song of the year when it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land and goddamn it focus right, here goes…
It’s King Kong, so I doubt I have to describe the story.
First off this was worth it just for the staging. The giant Kong puppet was incredibly impressive, with an expressive face, and arms capable of scooping up and carrying the female lead, and that was worth seeing on its own. But also of note is the way parts of the stage would lift up and become the front of a ship, or the way they simulated the top of the Empire State Building with a few smoke machines and a circular platform that rose out of centre stage. And then there were the multimedia screens in the background that created the locations, and the lighting effects that represented gunfire.
I also quite liked what they did with Ann Darrow, the female lead. Not only because they cast her African-American instead of the typical white and blonde, which added subtextual depth to her struggles to make it in 1930s New York. It’s best summed up in a line in mid-act one, when the male lead is trying to get her to scream on camera. After a few false starts, where she just gives startled but amused shouts, he tries to direct her into a huge scream of terror… but instead she delivers a powerful roar of fury.
“I know what you want from me,” she tells him, seeing his displeasure. “But I’m just… not a damsel in distress.”
It made for a fresh take, with a truly impressive and expressive giant puppet ape at the centre of it all. Some people snuck photos of Kong during curtain call. I guess I took the “No photos in the theatre” rule a little more seriously.
5. Grindhouse: The Ballet
If you can look at that poster and not think “I need to see what this is,” we see the world very differently.
We have multiple 70s exploitation genres all happening at once, all expressed through dance… and a few expository voice overs that played between scenes. We find ourselves in the seedy underbelly of a city under the grip of aerosol opioid the Scent, a few sprays of which is a quick and easy way to incapacitate someone or someones hostile, or boost the libido of someone, shall we say, friendlier.
The Scent is controlled by club owner Jorogumo, ruling over the underworld with her sexy and sinister lover Dixie Mason. Isis Aphrodite sings in Jorogumo’s nightclub while battling Scent addiction and earning the ire of Dixie, while Isis’ Shaft-looking lover Osiris Blaze tries to free her from that life. Cheerleader gang the Tough Cookies find themselves in servitude to Jorogumo after getting in trouble with the Fuzz, a popping-and-locking B-boy quartet of cops. And it all progresses to a violent, grand Guignol finale.
There’s mayhem and betrayal and revenge and death and the entire plot is conveyed so well through only dance and movement that I just described it thoroughly and accurately to you without needing someone to explain it to me. Well, I got the character names from the program, but I’d have to, wouldn’t I? Try dancing the name “Isis Aphrodite” into someone’s mind.
It was quite the spectacle, blending classical and modern dance styles, and it was in the same speakeasy-turned theatre as our next contender, which meant cheap Guinness before the show.
4. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini
This is why I was even in New York in the first place. Hardly the only thing I did, because I was in town a whole week after seeing it, but I never would have considered this New York trip if not for this show.
Set during the last month of Harry Houdini’s life, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was written and directed by Cynthia Von Buhler, based on her graphic novel. It sees would-be private investigator Minky Woodcock (played by burlesque performer Pearls Daily, who modeled for Minky in the graphic novel) hired by Bess Houdini to keep an eye on her husband, who Bess fears is being targeted by spiritualists tired of being debunked by the famous magician. Spiritualists that may include the famed medium Margery of Boston and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s an interactive theatrical experience: rather than just sit in the theatre and watch the show, you start there and then follow an assigned character through the events of Houdini’s last days. As a spiritualist, you follow Margery or Doyle or possibly the guy who punched Houdini, maybe? As a pragmatist you follow Bess or Houdini’s doctor or maybe the guy who was drawing Houdini when the other guy punched him, I don’t… look, I don’t know every possible path. With a VIP “friend of the magician” ticket, you follow Minky or her brother or maybe Harry, hard to know, I just know that VIPs started the show thirty minutes earlier and had more time with Minky, which I envied.
Bess Houdini was played, for most of the run, by Robyn Adele Anderson, the original singer for and ongoing contributor to Postmodern Jukebox. I am… a bit of a fan, let’s say. When her Instagram started plugging the Kickstarter for this show, I was quickly sucked down a rabbit hole. The show seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me. Minutes later I’d pledged enough to get a “Pragmatist” ticket, which boosted my odds of being around Bess Houdini, and before long I was being asked what night I’d be seeing the show.
“Excellent question,” I thought. At which point is was time to plan a trip to NYC.
Later, I found out that the day I was supposed to attend, Ms. Anderson was starting her solo tour in earnest, and would be in Niagara Falls. Her last performance in the show was going to be the night I arrived in NYC.
Which called for a second ticket (something I was actively considering anyway) and a mild race against time.
Okay. So. It’s turning out I have a lot to say about this show, so it’s probably getting a separate entry, because we still have three shows to cover. Suffice to say, it was an impressive experience, worth doing twice, although I wished I’d been able to get a VIP ticket, because neither group I was in encountered Minky as much as I’d have liked.
Stay tuned, we’ll be coming back to this. Moving on. Fortunately, this next one should be fast.
3. The Play That Goes Wrong
In the spring of 2013, as part of the trek known as Dan and Ian Wander Europe (the long-awaited sequel to which is expected in June of next year), Ian and I picked up tickets for a small show called The Play That Goes Wrong that was showing in the basement rehearsal hall of a West End Theatre. It was one of the best things we did, and one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
That was then. Now it’s an international hit, a full-on franchise in the UK, and is wrapping its run on Broadway in a couple of months.
This was the third time I’d seen it, and the third cast, and it’s never stopped being funny.
What a delight this show is. If whoever brings this show to Calgary for the first time isn’t me, they’d better be great.
We didn’t get off on the best foot, since they started about 45 minutes late and I did not have a chair, but man they made it up to me quickly, opening with a woman doing a burlesque striptease while singing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a song I’d heard of but never heard.
Soon enough, the intros were done and the wrestling began. I had to piece together who was the face and who was the heel strictly through context, as the announcer who introduced the fighters spoke only Spanish. And in fact was the only person who spoke Spanish. But it maintains the luchador traditions, so sure. Sometimes it took a while to figure out who I was supposed to root for, as someone I went with noted that the faces and heels all used similar moves. In other cases it was clear. If you can’t figure out that the guy using vampiric hypnosis on his opponent is the bad guy, I really can’t help you. However, I certainly didn’t guess that I was supposed to root for the two guys dressed as psychedelic chickens over the guy who entered to the Doctor Who theme, but I got there eventually.
I think even before they were joined by some Andy Warhol-looking “famous German singer” named Heino, who literally swung into the ring to lead them in the chicken dance, before hurling himself into the crowd to escape retribution from Lil’ Cholo and Dr. Maldad.
I don’t know why any of that happened but gosh I was somehow glad it did. I think even the ref hurled himself into the audience during that match. His name is Platanito, and he was celebrating 45 years as a lucha ref that night, and Lil’ Cholo was celebrating 20 years as a luchador.
And yet, for everything I just described, that wasn’t the “wacky” fight.
A little person dressed as a pinata, a second little person dressed as a devil, and a fighter named “Dirty Sanchez.” I was not expecting this match to be big on dignity.
It was not.
And of course the burlesque performers were great. Hoop tricks, aerials, a fan dance… all great.
It was just a spectacularly fun night, and only $40. I’d go all the time if I lived in the same city.
A lucky break I was able to see it this once… and not the only lucky break on this list.
1. The Lifespan of a Fact
A non-fiction author named John D’Agata submits an essay on suicide and Las Vegas to a magazine. The editor-in-chief tasks an intern named Jim Fingal to fact-check the article before they publish, knowing that D’Agata tends to takes liberties. Jim takes this job more seriously than she was braced for.
What follows is a knock-down, drag out fight between poetic truth and factual accuracy, as Jim digs deep into every fact, figure, name, date, and claim in the essay, from the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas to what constitutes a “traffic jam” on the Vegas Strip, to the exact origins of tae kwon do.
That’s a real story about a real essay, which was compiled in a book, framing the text of an early draft of John’s essay with Jim’s notes, questions, and suggested corrections… and where it existed, the debate between the two.
And now it’s an absolutely riveting play, as Jim (Daniel Radcliffe*) ends up at John’s (Bobby Cannavale*) Las Vegas home, with their editor (Cherry Jones*) playing referee between them.
*The cast when I saw it. Theatre being theatre, they won’t be playing those roles forever. In fact, not past mid-January.
Radcliffe was brilliant, bringing a twitchy, awkward energy to Jim, both eager to please but unrelenting in his pursuit of accuracy in every line. Cannavale brings a harder presence to D’Agata, menacing Jim from line one, making it all the more impressive when Jim digs in and stands his ground against his more respected opponent.
“Don’t try to stare me down,” he says, in a perfectly even tone of voice. “I have two older brothers. I will fuck your shit up.” Not a threat. Not bluster or posturing. A simple statement of fact.
Was there a scandalous pleasure in hearing Harry Potter deliver that line? No. Because Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen. Radcliffe nailed the role so thoroughly that there was barely even a trace of Daniel Radcliffe. There was only Jim Fingal: awkward, nervous, but ruthlessly thorough fact-checker.
I must also praise Cherry Jones, who consistently got laughs as her character becomes more and more frustrated with the situation between her intern and this star writer.
The direction was also excellent, and the script incredible. Frequently hilarious, powerful in places, deeply compelling, and leaving you unsure exactly who was right. John, and his fudging of the details in pursuit of a greater truth? Or Jim, and his claims that in these times of fake news, conspiracy theories, and cries of “crisis actors,” journalism must and can only be based on facts?
(I don’t recall the exact phrasing of the line where he says this, I wish I did, but I know they had to wait for the audience to stop clapping before moving on.)
(The audience also did that thing where they burst into applause as soon as a famous person enters. I find that tacky. Maybe they just want to do the scene, people.)
Not a moment was wasted. Every line, every transition, every moment was just riveting. I was glad it didn’t have an intermission, sad that it was only 80ish minutes. I savoured every moment of this story (live in the moment as hard as you can, remember?), every masterful beat of it. I walked out into the New York streets afterwards, bursting with gratitude that Robyn Adele Anderson had plugged a Kickstarter for her show, that my lack of impulse control caused me to back it, that my internet provider gave me a $300 prepaid Visa for sticking with them a while longer**, that Aeroplan is winding down and I had points to burn. For every twist of fate and lucky break that brought me here, to this incredible city, to be in that room, watching this amazing piece of theatre. For one night, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
**Which was very necessary, I spent more on my ticket to this show than both performances of Houdini combined… possibly including all the drinks.
Naturally I bought the book. It’s not the script, no, but the textual battle between real-life Jim and John is just as interesting as the dramatized version starring Radcliffe, Jones, and Cannavale. Well, almost. Those three really nailed it.
Every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, I’m blessed with a night like that one, with a show that leaves me walking on air for having witnessed it. May of 2013, seeing the original cast and creators of The Play That Goes Wrong bring down the house years before they became an institution. June of 2017, seeing David Tennant’s stellar closing night performance in Don Juan in Soho. 1993, the premiere of Blackpool and Parish. And now The Lifespan of a Fact. Nights that remind me why I love what I do, why I stay in theatre through all the tedious production meetings or thin crowds and the times when I don’t know if I have another script in me. Nights that prove the magic of theatre.
Also seeing the divine Ms. Sara Niemietz live in concert with Postmodern Jukebox but that’s less about theatre, soooo…
I had a play of mine open just in the last couple of weeks, a pocket-sized pantomime called Peter Pan and the Fairy’s Tale. I’m seeing what they did with it in a few days, as of this writing. My parents are bringing my niece out to see it. I hope my show can give her even a taste of the wonder I felt at The Lifespan of a Fact, a hint of the joy I felt when Bess Houdini shook my hand at The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, a portion of the laughs from The Play That Goes Wrong. If I do, I’ll have done my job one more time.
Next time, we dig deeper into The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini as my New York adventures begin. Or maybe I talk about Doctor Who a bit as a palate cleanser. We’ll see how the week goes.
In the summers of 1995-1997, I spent three amazing, magical, life-changing long weekends in Los Angeles. In October of 2018, once my memories of LA were old enough to get drunk there, I returned.
These are the stories of my return to the City of Angels.
And the sudden drop in temperature.
But First, a Flashback
I hadn’t been sunburned in years when I came to LAFF ’95. Once in all of high school, after an ill-advised hike through the suburbs from one side of Nose Hill and back again. That all changed on the day I joined a group trip to Venice Beach.
Not that there was any question that going to Venice Beach was the right call. First, it was pure fun, second, either right before we left the hotel or right after arriving at the beach, Peri, one of the female FOLCs in my age range, emerged in the bikini her friend (and now ours) had convinced her to buy.
“Look at what Diane is making me wear,” she complained. “Is it too skimpy?”
I have worked, in the last two decades, to be a better feminist ally, a great work that has had some stumbles, and which I see as never truly finished. That said. If you are not a blood relation, it is highly improbable I am ever going to say “Yes” to that question. I certainly didn’t that day.
(Even if I did know where my photos of that trip were I wouldn’t be putting one here, ya jerkbags. If you need to see a cute brunette in a bikini allow Google image search to see to that.)
There was lounging on the sand, there was splashing in the waves, and wandering the boardwalk. There was a group photo, where the fit FOLCs of the beach trip formed a kickline in the water and I’m sort of just behind them waving at the camera, because actually joining the kickline felt, it felt way too presumptuous. Yes, I was part of the group trip, but that doesn’t necessarily make me part of the group, just because this was a weekend of bonding and fellowship doesn’t mean I can just assume I’m welcome in group photos, that’s just, it’s just...
It is… a challenge going through life afraid to take up space.
Anyway. That afternoon on Venice Beach was one of the weekend highlights, so of course I returned for LAFF ’96, a beach day I recall as The Day I Accidentally Learned How to Flirt.
It’s a special place, that beach. So naturally, a nostalgia trip to LA would require a return visit. But there were a couple of stops to make along the way.
The Holy Quest
I’ve talked a lot about the nostalgia aspect of my LA visit. Like, right above. A paragraph ago. But that wasn’t my entire to-do list. I wasn’t just going to places I’d been during one of three LA FOLC Fests.
No no no. I was also visiting places from stuff I watch.
The first thing, the very first thing I thought of to do when my parents asked me to join the Disneyland trip (other than “Yay Disney!”) was “I need to go to the Cracked After Hours diner.”
For those unfamiliar, back in the halcyon days before the YouTube bubble burst, killing channels some of us really loved, the most popular video content Cracked.com put out was After Hours, in which four of their funniest people… Michael Swaim, Daniel O’Brien, Katie Willert, and Soren Bowie… hung out in a diner dissecting pop culture until their topic was ruined for all time.
It’s gone now. Been over a year since Cracked.com shut down its video department, as YouTube algorithms and Facebook interference and generally realizing there’s less money in YouTube than we thought led to mass layoffs. But even if that hadn’t happened, After Hours was still wrapping up. Soren and Swaim had both left the site. A series finale was filmed but never released, since the person in charge of post-production was fired before it “aired.” That fact angers me to this day. Anyway.
The bulk of the series filmed in Los Feliz Cafe. My path was then clear. If I was going to LA, I would have to make a pilgrimage to said Cafe. Get their table if I could. Get Daniel O’Brien’s chair if possible, because Daniel O’Brien is a comic treasure and of all the personae they played in this and other Cracked series, I connected most to his.
The second most popular Cracked series was apparently Honest Ads. That baffles me. It wasn’t nearly as good as Daniel O’Brien’s Obsessive Pop Culture Disorder. People. They confuse me.
As a bonus, the map I checked seemed to indicate that the cafe was right next to Griffith Park, another entry on my to-do list, and a not-terrible distance from Venice Beach! What a fun day that would be!
Turns out I had some lessons to learn about trusting the apparent distance on Google maps of LA. Nothing is that close to anything. Regardless, I made it.
And all the other chumps grabbing lunch there were sitting outside, on the patio, in the sunshine, like suckers. Leaving me free to grab the Cracked gang’s table!
Look there’s every chance they moved tables around for filming purposes but just let me have this.
Lunch completed, it became clear that hiking up to Griffith Park Observatory was not an option. Yes, Griffith Park was more or less right there, but it’s also entirely large hills of loose soil and scrubland. The walkable path to the observatory was an hour, mostly through neighbourhoods, and then really, really uphill for a while.
I opted to Uber. It was my driver’s first day on the job but we managed to find our way up.
Next stop, Griffith Observatory. Why Griffith Observatory? It’s a famous landmark. It’s one of the best views of the city. It’s chock full of space science.
And, yes, now that you mention it, it was home to a couple of key moments from BoJack Horseman. In one of which they point out the flaw in a classic movie…
And the other the endpoint for a lengthy bender between BoJack and an old friend, which I’m not posting anything from, because those who know don’t need a reminder, and those who don’t shouldn’t be spoiled watch BoJack damn your eyes.
But, you know… the other stuff. Mostly. Space science.
And there was so much space science.
And all of it free. Well, except for the planetarium show, a giant-dome-screen tour of the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, and the history of our understanding of all of these things. Which confirmed my theory that “dark matter” and “dark energy” are science speak for “We don’t know what’s doing this but it has to be goddamn something.” An impressive spectacle with just one minor tragic pop culture connotation.
That wasn’t free. It was a whopping seven dollars. I made it fit my budget, somehow.
The other advantage of the observatory being free of charge is that if there’s a bunch of other things you want to do before sunset and it’s already like 2:30 and everything in LA is so goddamn far from everything else in LA, you don’t feel guilty about maybe just browsing a few of the exhibits.
Upon arrival, my Uber driver told me that there was a hiking trail from the observatory right to the Hollywoo(d) sign. That sounded neat. So for the first time that week, I put water in the water bottle I’d been carrying around for three days, started towards the trail sign… and saw exactly how long a walk it would be to the sign. Four miles. In the fairly hot sun (high 20s, near 30 Celsius?). And this was not meant to be my last stop before sunset. I was still hoping to hit the beach, which was an hour drive from me because everything is an hour drive urban sprawl is a nightmare.
So, a hike through the hills of LA to stand near a sign, or Uber to the Santa Monica pier while it was still a lovely day out?
The answer, as it turned out, was “neither.”
Down to the Sea
Ha! “Highs and lows” referred to geography, not a blend of discovery, triumph, and the crushing realization that the past can never be recaptured, time’s arrow relentlessly moves ever forward, and those golden days on Venice Beach feel so far away it seems like another life for a reason!
Yup. Just geography. The only highs and lows we’re covering.
My plans for the beach were two-fold… see the Santa Monica Pier, which I never had before, and then maybe try to find the spot on Venice Beach where the FOLCs and I once hung out for two wonderful, burn-filled afternoons.
(LAFF ’95 I didn’t bother with sunscreen, foolishly thinking myself invulnerable. Burned. LAFF ’96 I remembered sunscreen, even found someone to do my back, and then forgot about my entire face. So burned. LAFF ’97 I and two others went to Catalina Island, not Venice Beach, I remembered sunscreen, I had a fiancee to help me with it, put it everywhere… but it wasn’t waterproof. Worst burn yet.)
And I suppose also lounge on a beach, if possible? I did pack a swimsuit just in case. So, three-fold, I suppose.
I’d picked Saturday for all of this because while a Saturday afternoon was, to my estimation, the worst possible time to be at a theme park, it seemed a great day for people-watching on the beach. The sun was shining, the Uber ride was under $20 despite the distance, everything was set for a great day at the beach!
And then as soon as I hit Santa Monica clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped ten degrees. In one car ride I went from hot and sunny to grey and very nearly chilly. I damn near regretted wearing shorts that day.
That’s… that might not be accurate. I remember thinking “Well the weather sure turned on me” but not “I am actively cold.” Even after wading into the water by the pier, because I did not come this far to not at least set foot in the Pacific.
Didn’t attempt any rides. Maybe buying ride tickets individually made the roller coaster and similar pier rides seem more expensive than they were. Maybe four straight days of theme parks made the pier rides seem less appealing. Whatever the reason, I just looked around and got an ice cream before starting my walk south along the boardwalk, in search of our old spot.
Which was a pipe dream and I should have known it was a pipe dream. The thing, right, the thing about Venice Beach is that there is miles of it and it all looks like beach. Meanwhile, the boardwalk is a series of essentially identical stores selling the same slightly risque t-shirts and underwear. I only sort of remember some of the people who were with me those days, what chance did I have spotting one stretch of beach?
I guess I remembered being near one of those muscle beach gym areas, and thought that if I could find that, I’d be in the general area. But the sun began to set, the night began to shine fall, my feet began to protest, and my priority shifted to finding a decent-looking place to have dinner while I waited for Uber prices to drop down from rush hour surge rates.
The place I found was attached to, and themed after, a second-hand bookshop. So, decent choice.
The Final Nostalgia
On my last day in LA, having weighed my options, I came to a conclusion. That conclusion was “No more hour-long Uber rides, they’re adding up.” I had not considered going back to Catalina Island until late Saturday, too late to book a tour with a shuttle to the ferry.
But Disneyland was right there. I could see the Incredicoaster from outside my room. And if I stuck to one park, it was not much pricier than round-trip Ubering to the far side of LA and paying admission for… whatever. Or for a ferry ride to and from Catalina. And so back I went.
But there was one final burst of unexpected nostalgia. As I made my way through not-terrible Sunday crowds, using the app to acquire fast passes (I paid the extra ten bucks to be able to do that, well worth it), I couldn’t help but think back to the previous week, when I was here with my family. Lining up for Space Mountain, I remembered how much Dara loved it. Riding Alice in Wonderland, I wondered if she’d have enjoyed it as much as the 100 Acre Wood.
It was still fun. I had a good time. The sandwich place in Downtown Disney where I got dinner as I said goodbye to the park was very tasty.
It just all felt a little bit hollower without Mom and Dad and Dara there with me.
I guess the happiest place on Earth is no place to be lonely.
That’s a decent end-line but it’s kinda bleak for a trip that was overall very fun and several different brands of good time. Too much BoJack in this entry, that’s the problem. Think, man. Final upbeat anecdote. We can do this…
The Trinity of Simpsons Snacks
Okay, so, back to Universal Studios on this one. As I may have mentioned, one of the areas they crammed into what real estate the park section is allotted is Springfield, with Simpsons themed restaurants and attractions, the most notable being the 3-D ride. Among the restaurants were three Simpsons brands that, like butterbeer at Harry Potter world, demanded to be tried…
Krusty Burger. Bonus points for including the ribwich, a couple of points deducted for not including “The One With Ketchup.” But, fine, they all have ketchup, they couldn’t actually make Krusty Burgers as comically unpleasant as the show sometimes suggests. It was a decent fast food burger. A Carl’s Jr level burger.
Duff Beer, available at Moe’s or Duff Gardens. For an American beer served at a theme park, it was a passable beer. Not too hoppy, not too weak, it wouldn’t be my go-to if it were available here but perfectly drinkable.
Lard Lad giant donuts. This… this was a bridge too far. The donuts were the size of a pie. This was a donut to be split among four people. Certainly not a donut to be tackled solo not long after a fairly filling lunch. I’m not even convinced I ate any of it at the park. I just threw it in my bag, hoped it would survive the trip back to the hotel, and saved it in my hotel fridge as an end-of-day treat for the remainder of the trip.
Never did finish that donut damn it this isn’t cheery enough okay, parting thoughts on LA…
The Universal backlot tour was supposedly “hosted” by Jimmy Fallon… meaning he recorded two videos of a combined length of about a minute and a half. One intro video where he threw things over to the actual guide, and one black and white video of him supposedly juggling, to play when we drove past a hot set and had to be quiet. The Warner Bros. tour, on the other hand, featured multiple video appearances by Ellen Degeneres. Sure she was clearly in front of a green screen but she “hosted” the tour/museum experience in a way Jimmy Fallon couldn’t be bothered to. Or maybe they just cut all of his material? Either way it’s a weird choice.
The hosts of Lucha VaVOOM kept up the audience’s energy with call and response: any time they shouted “LUCHA!” we were to respond “VAVOOM!” They would also do this any time one of their jokes flopped.
I misjudged who was the face and who was the heel at least once during Lucha VaVOOM, but in my defence, the intros were in Spanish, and if someone’s entrance/ theme music is the opening titles to Doctor Who, I’m gonna assume I should root for them.
I visited the Toon Town area of Disneyland for the first time on that final Sunday. Don’t… don’t actually have much to say about it. The ride was okay. I forgot it on the list earlier. Maybe that’s its review.
Night one of Disney we caught their big show Fantasmic, in which Mickey Mouse goes on a tour of imagination, aka every property they can wheel out, be it through projections or puppets or actors doing dances or acrobatic pirate battles on the river. It shouldn’t be that easy for a pirate ship to sneak up on someone.
Dara wanted to know who Jack Sparrow was fighting pirates with in Fantasmic for her journal entry. Mom felt that “gestalt generic female lead” wasn’t a good answer, so I said “Just say it’s Elizabeth Swan.”
In the summers of 1995-1997, I spent three amazing, magical, life-changing long weekends in Los Angeles. In October of 2018, once my memories of LA were old enough to get drunk there, I returned.
These are the stories of my return to the City of Angels.
And the jags with the mixtapes.
But First, A Quick Summary
I’m kind of skipping over a day of the trip, here, ’cause, well, it was two things that either require no explanation or utterly defy it.
In the afternoon I made a trip to Universal Studios, which I had visited in both 1983 and 1997, so, yes, this qualified for the “nostalgia tour” portion of the trip. The rides were decent, the crowds a fraction of those at Disneyland (I got into the biggest marquee ride in about five minutes, and that was with stops to watch videos by the Harry Potter cast), but as theme parks go, it’s still just a shadow of its younger sibling in Orlando. But that’s not entirely fair, since Universal Studios Orlando can spread out and be as lavish as they want, while Universal Studios Hollywood is a mini-theme park latched onto a working film/TV studio, so there’s really only so much space.
Rides and restaurants based on Harry Potter, the Simpsons, Transformers, Despicable Me, and a little bit The Mummy were fun, the Waterworld stunt show was impressive, but then there’s the studio tour, which now includes two 3D experiences based on Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the Fasts and Furiouses… and also the exact same animatronic shark from 1983.
I guess some things are just institutions.
That evening I made my way downtown… and isn’t rush hour LA traffic just a joy… to meet up with friends also in LA for a show called Lucha VaVOOM.
There is little point in trying to blog about that experience. I have only words. And words cannot do it justice. So here’s this.
Anyhoo. Our top story this entry.
Back When: LAFF ’95
Why is it that I’m devoted enough to comic book television that last season I watched and ranked 22 different shows, some of which were excruciating to get through? Because there was a time when seeing superheroes I loved on television was a rarity. Something rare and special to be clung to, no matter how dumb the villains could be. And so it was that I spent four years religiously watching, taping, and rewatching Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
I came to this show right before I started exploring these newfangled things my friends were on about called “email” and “webpages.” And so did I join an online community devoted to the show, the Fans of Lois and Clark, or “FOLCs.” A group that existed through email, because while discussion boards very obviously existed and had done for quite some time, the email list was less troll-infested, flame-war free, and a more positive experience.
Positive enough that in the summer following season two, many of us agreed to all meet in Los Angeles, see the Warner Bros. studio, and have ourselves a big, nerdy party.
It was a weekend of non-stop fun, where people who had been names on a screen became the closest of close friends, even if only for a few days. Groups of us hit Disneyland, went to Venice Beach. We had a costume party and a big fancy dinner attended by K Callan, who played Superman’s mother on the show. And of course, the Warner Bros. studio tour.
We not only saw all of the usual tour stops, they let us into two of the soundstages: Clark Kent’s apartment, and the Daily Planet.
Where we were met for a Q&A/meet and greet with the show’s producers, K Callan… and to our surprise, Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, and Justin Whalen, the second Jimmy Olsen. Which was bold, because the recasting was not met with the openest of arms. Justin made himself some die-hard fans that afternoon.
It was a magical three days that not even a sudden case of stomach flu or maybe food poisoning on the last morning could spoil. There was no question about going back the next summer, or the summer after that. I think they may have kept it going until 2000, or maybe that was just a reunion. And maybe the studio tour was never as awesome as that first trip, but each Los Angeles FOLC Fest remained magical. Each time was a reunion with treasured friends, and a chance to make new ones.
Friends I lost track of as the show ended and we drifted apart. This was the 90s. Social media was a decade away. Keeping up with people in other cities was a challenge. It was like summer camp… or what TV tells me “summer camp” was like, since all I have to personally base that comparison on is a drama camp called Artstrek I went to a couple of summers in high school–
I just admitted to going to a convention for fans of Lois and Clark. Thrice. You think you can shame me over drama camp? Bring it.
Anyway, you go to summer camp, you meet other kids, you promise to write each other, and then you don’t. Except in this case you wrote each other a lot, talked about a TV show, swapped fanfics– you’ll never prove I wrote one– but then the show ended and you just kind of… stopped. Most of us. The community never died completely, there’s still an active message board… including a thread on Supergirl, so hey, still active… but by and large, it’s just a treasured memory. Even if all I have are a handful of old photos that are… somewhere? Maybe in my house? I honestly don’t know.
But those three weekends were the heart of the nostalgia driving large chunks of this trip. Outside of Disney with Dara, almost everything I did in LA was connected to something I did at one of the Los Angeles FOLC* Fests.
And while it might not have been first, the most notable was a return to the Warner Bros. Studio.
Road to the WB
You don’t need to be part of a convention to get a tour of the Warner Bros. lot. You just need to show up and pay for the tour. Or, in my case, have your travel agent book it for you, and also include a shuttle because the studio is in Burbank and that is not close to Anaheim, nothing is close to Anaheim, but your hotel was picked for proximity to Disneyland so here you are.
The drawback, in my case, is that the shuttle was not taking us directly to the studio. First, there was a stop in Hollywood, for some individual sightseeing by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, right in the heart of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
I’d never been to the Walk of Fame. Not… not 100% due to lack of interest, because back during LAFF ’95, the OG LAFF, there had been talk between me and another attendee about trying to catch a movie at Grauman’s, which technically would have meant going to the Walk of Fame (the best Walk real estate is within a block of that theatre), but it is mostly from lack of interest.
Because Hollywood is kind of a dive.
It’s not even the heart of the movie industry if we’re being honest. Warner Brothers and Disney’s studios are both in Burbank, as Universal might be if they hadn’t declared themselves to be a separate division called “Universal City.” And all of that is a ways from Hollywood. But there was 90 minutes before my shuttle would depart for the studio, so I decided to explore.
The Mix Tape
The vast majority of the Walk of Fame is not exactly glamorous. It’s people’s names on stars in front of small car dealerships and apartment buildings and fast food joints. Really, there’s just one block that’s really noteworthy and touristy. It has Grauman’s, the theatre where Jimmy Kimmel records, two rival wax museums… can we agree that it was a dick move for Madame Tussaud’s to move in down the street from the Hollywood Wax Museum? All that city and they just…
And because all the tourist spots were right there, so were the Scavengers.
You know the Scavengers. They lurk in Hollywood, Times Square, the Las Vegas Strip, Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, downtown Havana… they wear pop culture costumes and pose for pictures in exchange for tips. In cities where they can get away with it, women wear as little as possible and offer pictures with them. They dress as Yoda or monks and pretend to hover or balance on a pole. On the Walk of Fame, they’ll put your name on a blank star and let you pose by it with an Oscar statue, and yes people did that in my presence, so I guess there’s a demand.
But the worst, to my current estimation, are the jags handing out their “mixtape.”
Sure, some of the costume folk don’t have the best outfits… some are downright unsettling…
…but most of them let you come to them. Sure they’ll wave and encourage you to come over, but they won’t chase you down. Probably? Damn, shouldn’t have put the image in my head, gonna have nightmares about Filthy Elmo loping after me…
The Mixtape Hawkers, on the other hand, will come right at you and all but shove a CD they claim contains their music right into your hands. Putting aside that this is the exact method a Chinese hacker army used to compromise a security company on Mr. Robot, they’re peak annoying because of that aggression. When the second hawkster approached me outside Grauman’s, I sighed and took the CD, thinking that maybe this was a Fringe artist handing out fliers situation, that he just wanted his music Out There. No. Oh no.
“Sir! Sir? Sir! Sir!” came his voice as he followed after me. “Want me to sign it for five bucks?” I did not, and told him so. “Sir! Sir? Sir!” He assures me he’s not a bum, he’s an artist. I try to keep walking. “Sir! Sir! Sir? Sir!” Will I share his music with my friends? Yes, I say, as I absolutely have friends I’m willing to torment with some mamaluke’s shitty rap CD. “Sir? Sir! Sir!” I turn back one more time, saying “I would really like to move on with my day now.” He asks for a tip. What he gets is his CD shoved back into his hands, and I depart.
I have learned the best defense from his ilk is a brisk walking pace. Don’t break your gait, don’t make physical contact with the CD, don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge them as people. Which led me, weeks later, to text my brother saying our father could no longer be allowed to walk Times Square unaccompanied. Without some combination of my brother, myself, and our mother, his genial and outgoing nature would leave him a target for the Mixtape Hawksters, who need only a friendly word to lock onto you with their pitch. And my dad has a friendly word for everyone.
I did not inherit this. I take after my more suspicious mother. Or perhaps eight years of dealing with bullies left me with a wary eye to outsiders. Who knows? Our lives are complex tapestries. Anyway.
To avoid this mope and his nonsense, I move away from Grauman’s for the next chunk of my mandatory 90 minute exploration of Hollywood. I follow one side of the Walk of Fame as far west as it goes, to see who’s on the end. The answer is no one. The western terminus of the north side of the Walk of Fame is a blank star. Can’t blame modern celebrities for not jumping at the chance to claim it, it’s basically by just a minimall. The last name, right before this blank star, is Spanky McFarland.
I suppose I could have seen how the other side of the street ended. Not sure why I didn’t.
I note that Lloyd Bridges is flanked by both of his sons, and that Charles Schultz is right next to his signature creation, Snoopy. A courtesy not extended to Walt Disney, a few feet from Mickey Mouse, or Chuck Jones, who is separated from Bugs Bunny by Lurene Tuttle.
From there I headed north, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Magic Castle, because I think it’s neat that place exists. I don’t know what one has to do to score an invite to a show there, but if the Netflix series Love is correct, part of the process is “wear a suit jacket,” and I did not pack one.
I went to a Walgreen’s to buy water and contact lens solution. That’s not exciting, it’s just something I did. I was worried about running out. Look, not everything is an adventure.
And finally, I paid homage to my first WB Studio tour. On the way back to the hotel, someone in my carpool said they were craving a milkshake. Within seconds, we all were. I don’t know what every other car was doing, but we pulled into a 50s diner down the road from the hotel for burgers and milkshakes. It seemed fitting, then, to seek one out now, since it was lunchtime and there was a Hard Rock Cafe near the Grauman’s hub, because of course there was.
I didn’t succumb to either wax museum, lacking both time and interest… I once loved wax museums, for reasons that I recall only vaguely, like a half-remembered dream, but lost interest in 2011. I didn’t pay anyone for a photo with them or a fake Hollywood star. And I didn’t take advantage of an offer our tour shuttle provided, a free gift with any purchase (presumably over a certain, unspecified amount) at the large souvenir shop across from Madame Tussaud’s. Because I couldn’t see one thing among the chintzy souvenirs, t-shirts, coffee mugs, or obligatory Funko Pops that I’d want to bring home and display. Or give as a gift. There is no one in my life who seems like they need a miniature director’s megaphone or a coffee mug with “Hollywood!” written on it. Or a tiny statue of a Walking Dead character with a giant, rectangular head.
I don’t really get Funko Pops. Yes I own three of them but not by choice.
And so, eventually, it was time to wait for my shuttle to the Warner lot… where a moment of utter joy awaited me.
Which we’ll discuss next time.
Complaining about the jag with the mixtape took up a lot of space.
In the summers of 1995-1997, I spent three amazing, magical, life-changing long weekends in Los Angeles. In October of 2018, once my memories of LA were old enough to get drunk there, I returned.
These are the stories of my return to the City of Angels.
And the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth.
Dara’s First Disney
The motivation for the trip, the reason for the season, as it were, was that when my parents were babysitting my niece Dara while her parents were in Seattle for a conference, my father seized the opportunity to take Dara on her first trip to Disneyland, now that she’s old enough to appreciate/ remember it but my parents aren’t yet too old to go with her. Which… was a tricky needle to thread. This year was kind of The Window.
Still, they felt some backup would be useful, in the form of their other son, who refuses to admit he hasn’t been 27 for some time, and thus is 100% ready to go on every ride with young Dara.
Except for It’s a Small World After All. I drew a line at that earworm nightmare factory. Which turned out not to be necessary, because it was closed for refurbishment. Score.
We arrived late afternoon on Monday, with three-day park-hopping passes that would allow us to Disney our hearts out until Wednesday. So while I had other things I wanted to tackle in Metropolitan LA, Monday until Wednesday were devoted to Disney. And also, as it turned out, the following Sunday, when it became obvious to me that getting anywhere else from Anaheim and doing something there would easily be as expensive if not moreso than just going back to Disneyland.
I could attempt a blow-by-blow summary of our visit, but instead, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to walk you through the rides we hit along the way, ranked in order of how badly they need an upgrade, least to most. And where there are stories, there’ll be stories.
Okay this one’s probably cheating. Because while Disney was celebrating Halloween, the entire Haunted Mansion ride was remodeled into The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was awesome because I love that movie. Dara… didn’t get the reference, but this ride typically had the second longest lines of anything in either Disneyland or the California Adventure (after that Cars ride that we didn’t go on due to long lines, with Space Mountain a competitive third), so clearly celebrating Nightmare’s 25th anniversary by taking over the Mansion was the right call. And while a Left 4 Dead Disneyland mod had had me nostalgic for the classic ride, it was a thrill seeing so many familiar faces brought to crude, animatronic life.
So I would say “No update needed.” And frankly the ghost effects they hadn’t changed basically hold up. So… no need for an update, shame they’ve probably changed it back. Or will after Christmas probably? I don’t actually know.
Side story… since Halloween was approaching, and both parks were celebrating it, the all-seeing eyes of Disney Security laid down arms on the whole “no costumes” rule. So it was like being at Disneyland and Comic Expo all at once. Super neat.
No I don’t have pictures. Don’t take cosplayers’ photos without their consent. Comic Expo 101.
Huh? Well why didn’t YOU just ask them for a photo, if you’re so damn smart? Moving on.
Located on Pixar Pier, one of their attempts to jazz up the less-popular California Adventure park, the Incredicoaster is one of the more thrilling rides in either side of Greater Metropolitan Disneyland, themed after the Incredibles franchise. It’s another ride that I suspect just received an upgrade, based on how muchIncredibles 2there was in it, and one of the two rides visible from our hotel just outside park grounds.The premise, because we’re in Disneyland so rides need a premise, is that baby Jack-Jack has gotten loose and the entire Parr/Incredibles family is out to catch him. The coaster goes through a series of tunnels, each of which contains a few Incredibles statues, with voice-overs from the cast playing through the back of your seat.
It’s a fun experience, and the only ride in either park where you end up upside-down, and Dara loved it. My only real uncle-failing in those three days was not going with her a second time, wanting instead to head back to Disneyland proper for Indiana Jones and maybe another go-round on Haunted Mansion. I don’t know, maybe the next window for Fast Passes* on the Incredicoaster was too far away. Pixar Pier is trying its best but there’s only so much to do there while waiting for your Fast Pass window.
Anyway, the Incredicoaster is basically perfect, change nothing.
*Those wanting to skip longer lines for the more popular marquee rides can get Fast Passes, but they’re for specific times, they only give out so many per time slot, and after you’ve gotten one they make you wait a while before you can get another. A decent way to make shorter lines possible for all without making the express line as long and slow as the regular line.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
I suspect this was formerly the Tower of Terror, but has now been re-modeled into the Guardians of the Galaxy, likelyas a first step into reclaiming Marvel-based rides from Universal Studios Orlando. Stark Industries fences surrounding the area behind this ride imply more might be on the way.
Anyhoo, on a visit to the collection of Taneleer Tivan, an animatronic Rocket Racoon enlists our “aid” in springing the rest of the Guardians from their display cases, which we saw in a video featuring the full cast (save for Mantis or Nebula and whatnot) that played in the lineup area.
This is my one complaint about this ride. The lineup area was so entertaining that it was the only time that week I felt a lineup went too fast. I kept not noticing it had moved because I was watching the video or getting a photo of an Ultron drone.
The ride boils down to being flung up an elevator shaft to a video of the Guardians, then dropped, then repeat a few times, also once instead of the video it was a camera for a souvenir photo. Pretty fun, though Dara enjoyed it somewhat more than me and much, much more than her grandmother.
Nothing to change here.
Before this trip I had only ridden Star Tours in French. My first trip to Disneyland it didn’t exist. My second trip was three days before it opened. My third… must have been closed for repairs? July hardly seems like the time for ride maintenance, but I know for a fact that until last month I’d only ridden Star Tours at Eurodisney, where an excitable French droid flew us through a few familiar sights and into the trench of the Death Star. I knew enough french at the time to follow what he was saying (he assured us that it was okay to be nervous on your first Star Tour flight, because hey, it was his first time too), but it wasn’t the same. And so on day twoI stayed in the park after everyone else had left for the hotel because I knew on day three we were at least opening with California Adventure and by God I was riding Star Tours in English.
Was the ride always “flown” by C-3PO and R2-D2? I don’t know. I only know that in 1994, outside of Paris, it was some French droid.
Anyway, I was briefed by friends back home that Star Tours now has a variety of locations that shift from ride to ride, so despite thinking it was still out of date (my first ride took us to Hoth circa Empire Strikes Back and Coruscant circa Revenge of the Sith, which is already an update from the 90s), later rides hit scenes and featured characters from both Force Awakens and The Last Jedi… which no doubt angers the worst kind of Star Wars fan but screw them. Toxic fandoms are why we can’t have nice things.
It’s fast, it’s fun, it doesn’t hinge on characters that aren’t popular anymore, what’s not to like? Dara loved it and so did I.
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
As our second day of Disney began (the first started in the late afternoon, since we all had to fly to LA and be driven to the far side of it from LAX before Disneying), we monorailed into Tomorrowland, where I was eager to settle a 35-year-old score. When I was a small child, I wanted to ride the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride, which had a giant squid in it, but my brother had gotten lost and to my great annoyance my parents insisted on finding their misplaced first born before we could go on any more rides.
So the first thing I pitched on day two was the submarine ride, which has already been upgraded. Instead of cruising past sea creatures and lost Atlantis maybe, the submarine now brings you through a hologram-filled summary of Finding Nemo. Which, yes, based only on how well Jungle Cruise holds up (it doesn’t), is a distinct improvement over the old version.
Dara may not have been thoroughly impressed by the experience, especially since I don’t believe she’s seen Finding Nemo either. I suspect this because we got off the ride and she said to me “…That’s the ride you wanted to go on twice?”
Still though… entertaining.
After the submarine ride, the plan was that Dara and I would check out the Matterhorn Bobsleds while my parents figured out Fast Passes and got us some for Haunted Mansion, then we’d all meet back in front of the submarines.
Well, the Matterhorn was also closed for refurbishment. Maybe it’s getting a facelift, maybe it just needed maintenance before the holiday rush, I don’t know. But we returned to Tomorrowland, to the agreed upon waiting spot. When we arrived I looked around, and thought.
“This is the spot,” I said to Dara. “This is the exact spot I had to wait until Grandpa found your dad. Well. This won’t do at all. Want to go on Space Mountain?” She did, so we did.
It was one of her favourites. Sure, they’d added some spooky space ghost videos along the way to Halloween it up into Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy, but it would still be fun without them. This one Dara got to do again, and was not having any protests from her grandparents about not joining us.
I could have put this over Finding Nemo Submarine but the stories flow better this way.
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
It might not be fast but you get to shoot things.
You get a car you can spin around, and lasers to fire at Buzz Lightyear’s nemeses. Dara and I did it twice at least, and I tried to beat my high score each time. She didn’t notice or at least chose not to comment on the fact that I was much better at shooting targets.
Frankly, I feel that their score chart has some unrealistic numbers on it. I shot targets like a mo’fo’ and sometimes the ride stopped but you could keep shooting, but still only made it to the third ranking. I call shenanigans.
I guess if you rode it enough to know where all of the highest scoring targets are you could get higher. I feel that takes devotion.
Indiana Jones Adventure
Various safety signs and the video featuring a John Rhys-Davies impersonator claimed this was a ride like nothing we’d experienced. Okay. Maybe in the early 90s, when it debuted, but that claim has gotten less credible.
I swear this one used to be a multi-track ride, where there were multiple ways it could go. Not so now. I could see there was only one track.
It’s fast and fairly fun, sure. In the 90s they must have known they’d have to move past slow rides where you drift past recognizable characters (or pirates or ghosts) in order to keep up with Six Flags and the increasingly aggressive push into the theme park business from Universal Studios.
Dara didn’t care for it, though. She kept her head down because the safety video said not to look at the eyes of the big idol and she took that very seriously. Also there were a few sections where it was just dark and kind of slow, and when I went back on my solo Sunday trip I confirmed that in at least one case it was from something not working. Specifically the giant boulder missed its cue. Should have just taken her on the Incredicoaster again.
This one doesn’t need an update so much as some repairs and maybe fewer dark corridors.
Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, that stuff
A car takes you through a series of animatronics based on a popular Disney story. There’s a bunch of them. None of them have Fast Passes as far as I know. They’re fine. Dara went on the 100 Acre Wood ride twice in a row, so clearly the kids still like them.
Soarin’ Around the World
You get on a big bench that raises into the air, then watch an IMAX video of swooping past or over famous landmarks from around the world, ending quite coincidentally at Disneyland of all places.
It’s… fine. A little overhyped but not boring. Don’t exactly know what they could do to improve it, short of Star Tours-ing it somehow.
Also don’t know why Patrick Warburton does the safety video, but there he is.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Now we get into the old-and-busted, people.
This ride has changed twice since I saw it last. First, I’m positive all the dead-pirate stuff used to be at the end of the ride. Like, the pirates looted and pillaged and, yes, used to be kinda rapey, and then they all died and we had a bunch of skeleton pirates pantomiming pirate life or just near treasure. Now the skeletons are all at the front. So the people in the restaurant that overlooks the start of the ride might have to listen to the booming voice saying “Dead men tell no tales” more often than the Geneva Convention should allow.
Second, the pirate voice-overs have been changed so that pirates occasionally utter complaints about or threats against Captain Jack Sparrow. And, yes, there is at least one, possibly more, robot Jack Sparrows scattered around, most notably one at the very end of the ride sitting on a pie of treasure and giving C-grade Sparrow monologues.
The issue is, they don’t want to replace all of the decades-old pirate robots for a more modern kind of animatronic… if such a thing exists… so the Jacks Sparrow are all designed to look just as old and jerky as the rest of the pirates.
Has this affected the popularity of this ride, based around drifting past pirates not lifelike enough to even approach the uncanny valley? Well, the line was rarely over 30 minutes and it wasn’t eligible for Fast Passes, so you tell me. It’s clearly beneath Splash Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain… all the mountains, really…and instead on par with Peter Pan’s Flight and Alice in Wonderland.
And Dara didn’t care for this one at all. Can’t say I blame her. The pirate ship battling a fortress was pretty cool, with the Barbosa-looking captain at the helm (I suspect Geoffrey Rush was made up to resemble this robot, rather than vice versa), but this was the one time I rolled my eyes at the tacked-on Jack Sparrow references.
You are in a cannon fight with a fortress, dude. Maybe Jack Sparrow’s location and current schemes aren’t your biggest problem right now.
I’m as shocked as anyone that Pirates of the Caribbean is still a movie franchise, but it is, so maybe this ride could use an overhaul to be a little more exciting.
Soon to be a movie starring DwayneTheRock Johnson (just “Dwayne” if you’re feeling familiar), I suspect this one might be due for an upgrade… but based on how little Pirates of the Caribbean changed, I’m probably wrong.
The problem here is that the fifty year-old animatronic animals aren’t as impressive as they were when the park opened, and there is no getting around this. They’re statues that move slightly, and that is not competing with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey over at Universal. So their method of making the ride more entertaining for attendees is to give the guides a series of jokes to tell along the route. Example… when we passed under a stone arch, our guide said this:
“Does anyone know what these two things that hold up the arch are called? Yeah, I don’t know what you column either.”
Stuff like that.
So it could probably use a new take. I worry that moving it away from “Slowly drift past robots older than disco” might be too much effort.
Okay. So. Splash Mountain. Where it seemed my job was to act as human shield between Dara and the titular splashes. I got very wet. She did not. So it seems she got her way on that one.
It’s an institution, clearly, so you can’t just get rid of it, but the problem, right, the problem is that in between splash descents, it’s all Brer Rabbit scenes. Brer Rabbit hasn’t been a thing in so long that even I can’t name most of what’s happening on this ride. Shenanigans from a movie that they’ve hidden from the public since the Reagan administration.
Maybe having a ride partially based on a movie they won’t even put out on video anymore isn’t the best plan? This one has clearly been coasting on the splashing.
Yes Dara liked Splash Mountain. But did she like the ride, or did she like the fact that Granpa and Uncle Dan got very, very wet? Because I suspect the latter.
Overall, though, Disneyland sure has its charms. Yes, the streetcar that made its way through the California Adventure playing “California Here We Come” over and over seemed like an unendurable hellscape for the poor staffers who had to ride it and wave to people, but the band on Pixar Pier that played upbeat versions of songs from Pixar movies (including this old favourite) was fun. Sure not every ride is a thrillfest, but the ones that are don’t hold back. And Dara certainly had a great time overall. In fact, she wants to go back soon, and when I heard that, I could only say…
“She wants to go back in July? She’s mad. Mad, I tell you.”
Next time… the nostalgia tour begins. Or continues? Not like Disneyland was free of nostalgia…
I’ve seen some things, in some places… the sun setting from the London Eye, the punk kids of Harajuku in Tokyo, the boardwalks of Coney Island and Venice Beach… I’ve also driven through Red Deer, but that’s unlikely to be relevant here.
Glancing over recent blog posts, it seems I’m overdue for something non-TV. And glancing outside at the winter that will not die, it is April, move along already… it’s easy to get into a travel kind of headspace. But since my next proper trip (excluding long weekends in Vancouver, which just sort of happen from time to time) won’t be for five to fourteen months, I thought I’d take you on a verbal tour of some of my favourite cities, and how they came to be so.
Let’s start with the April eighth, it is April eighth, stop snowing stop goddamn snowing and be springsorry, sorry, I’m very sorry, I’ll try that again…
Let’s start with the grand poobah, my number one, the place I will go to die if given the option.
The first time I went to London I was fourteen. My dad was heading to Germany for a conference, and he decided to bring me along with him. Just me, not my brother. Maybe because my brother was on the verge of his third school trip to Europe, maybe because he knew I’d been having a rough go of it in junior high and thought a trip would be a nice break. Whichever the reason, the thing that most stuck with me about that trip was starting and ending it in London. Who wouldn’t love that city? They had way more lax rules about nipples in newspapers and there seemed to be a Pizza Hut on every block!
(I have since revised my opinion on Pizza Hut and the necessity of having multiple Pizza Huts within sight of each other, look, I was fourteen, did I mention that?)
We went to a museum on film and television called the Museum of the Moving Image. I loved it. I wanted to go back so bad, but I never managed it. Tried once in 1994, but didn’t get there in time. Weirdly, I don’t think we made it to a play that first trip. One of only two times I’ve been to that city and not seen a West End show.
Two out of three of my high school trips (my time came) also went through London. Sure it wasn’t the only place we went, but somehow it became the only place that my brain translated into “happiness.” When tough times came in the late nineties, I’d have dreams that I was back in London, and the realization hit me like a wave of pure joy, happiness so overwhelming that sometimes I couldn’t stand, collapsing into a gift shop filled with Big Ben slow globes and belt buckles. When times got tougher in the early 2000s, I decided to chase that feeling, and started putting money away for a return visit.
I did not collapse out of sheer joy when I stepped off the plane in 2003, but it was close. How can I explain what this city is to me? Sure, there’s the culture. The West End can go toe to toe with Broadway anytime. Sure there’s the history. Castles, apartment buildings older than my country, landmarks like crazy, the kind you only get in cities that trace their histories back centuries. And sure there are the museums, so many museums… even if the Museum of the Moving Image shut down right when I started saving to go back to it, their most famous museum has been described in places as “an active crime scene,” and the National Gallery won’t let the public see its most important painting, but damned if there isn’t a museum for any taste somewhere.
But it’s really just how I feel the second I step into Leicester Square, or stroll along the Thames, or walk Westminster Bridge, covered as it is in tourists taking photos, street performers, and nut vendors. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I’m home. It’s a feeling that has eased heartaches, brought peace of mind, and been bright enough to overcome occasionally spotty weather.
Let’s go there sometime, I can show you around.
Look, you’ve heard songs and seen movies, so there’s not much I need to teach you about the charms of New York. But I had a good enough time there one day in 2016 that it almost single-handedly redeemed a summer that was coming to be shaped by failure, crumbling friendships, financial strain, and deep, deep blows to my own self-image that I lack time or interest to discuss here. Or elsewhere. But let’s talk about one good day.
As I had a landmark birthday that year, I was gifted a long weekend in New York, right when several friends were going to be there. Matt, you see, had long talked about doing a Brooklyn pizza tasting tour, wandering the pizzerias of a borough my two previous trips had largely neglected, save for Coney Island. It sounded like something I wanted in on. Also, I’d learned about a restaurant called Raclette that seemed custom-designed just for me.
Now, the pizza tour didn’t quite work. Turns out upper-tier pizza places don’t sell by the slice, and some of our companions lacked commitment to the journey. So we managed two thoroughly tasty pizzas before the gang decided to depart for Coney Island, where most rode the rides while Matt and I moved from bar to bar in search of beers.
“I suppose if nothing else, we can get a beer at Applebee’s,” Matt said.
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebee’s for lack of a better option,” I replied.
“…You’ve been to that Applebee’s?”
“It’s the Applebee’s of Last Resort.”
(It didn’t come to that. My only regret is that we didn’t drink at the bar with the freak show attached that is clearly the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn hideout in her solo comic.)
But the next day, now… the next day was special.
There’s something extra fun about being in a different city with friends. What would normally be just another night at the pub or the rehearsal space is now an adventure. And so this day would be. I was to meet Matt and his wife Kate in Manhattan at Beer Authority, a bar near Times Square so overladen with craft beer options we could have drank there every night for hours and not gotten through them all. But first… first I had a mission. I was going to Raclette and getting myself the cheesiest lunch I could.
Have you ever seen a video online for a place that seemed so cool you needed to go there, but it’s in some other faraway city or country? Have you ever made the pilgrimage there all the same? I’ve managed that on a handful of occasions. The Doctor Who Experience in London and Cardiff. Dismaland. Mr Fogg’s Residence, a Victorian speakeasy in London. Each time it’s been a triumph, a good experience made great by the journey to reach it. So it was with Raclette. It wasn’t just a delicious lunch of gooey cheese goodness, it was an accomplishment of gooey cheese goodness. I saw it, I wanted it, I found it, I rule. So, off to a good start.
I met up with Matt for the first of many delicious beers, and we decided on our course for the day: a Hell’s Kitchen craft brew pub crawl. Beers we can’t get at home, pub experiences that only exist here in Manhattan. We looked up the best in the area, found five to try out, and each one provided a delicious beer I’d never even known existed.
But we managed to save the absolute best for last… Bar Bacon. Craft beers and artisanal bacons. Sure, by that point we were tipsy enough that anywhere had a decent chance of being a good time, but man, I’d have lived in that bar if it were an option. They even made a kale salad tasty.
Yes I had a kale salad at Bar Bacon, I couldn’t just eat cheese and bacon all day.
That’s the kind of trip that makes a city special forever, even if it only lasted three days.
(Should have used the bathroom before I left Bar Bacon. That was an uncomfortable subway ride back into Brooklyn.)
Look, if you want to cut loose, if you want to have good times with friends no other place can provide, if you want to see a Cirque du Soleil show with a stage that turns into a pool as if by magic, accept no substitutes.
I thought I had a story for this one but what it comes down to is that even though I had the most expensive hospital stay of my life there, I still had a good time on that trip.
My best times in this city predate digital photos, and I don’t know if I could find and scan a photo that would sum this one up.
Until I was 18, LA was just that place where Disneyland was. We’d been twice, once when I was six and again when I was ten, the first stop on the long road to our seven months living in Australia. But in 1995, it became something else. A magical place.
One of the things I love about Comic Expo here at home is being at a place full of people with the same nerdy loves as me. The first place I got a taste of that experience was FOLCfest in 1995.
Okay. Let’s rip this bandaid off quick. I did not misspell “folkfest,” FOLC stood for “Fans of Lois and Clark,” an online community I’d been part of almost as long as I’d been using the internet, for fans of the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Look, you know I like superhero TV, you know that even today in the golden age of geek TV I even watch the bad stuff… to entertain YOU… but back in the nineties we didn’t have networks devoting half of their lineup to superheroes or streaming services cranking out other, often more adult fare, good or bad… so we enjoyed what we had. Yes, that show had its flaws, but it was also fun a lot of the time. Although there is a reason the first superhero show I bought on DVD was Arr– wait, Birds of Prey? Aw, man, come on past me… I know it was cheap and all but that thing is still in shrink wrap…
Anyway, the FOLCs, the preeminent online fandom for the show, decided to do an IRL get-together (we didn’t use the phrase “IRL,” people still used complete sentences online back then) in Los Angeles, including a tour of the Warner Bros. lot where Lois and Clark filmed.
This was a magical weekend. Names I had only seen online became real people I could laugh with, party with, drink with… not, like, alcohol, because I was underage in the States and actually I didn’t start drinking for another four years, but I did have plenty of lemonade and whatnot. Between that and the size of the average American cheeseburger, I was constantly full.
We went to Disneyland, and I not only had the best time, I kept “It’s a Small World” from getting stuck in my head by humming the Star Wars Cantina Theme to myself (I had also recently re-embraced Star Wars in a big way). I took my first trip to Venice Beach, and yes, there were, in fact, Lois and Clark fans who looked pretty damn good in bikinis. On the way back to the hotel from one of our excursions, someone in the same car as me said “I suddenly feel like a milkshake,” that craving spread like wildfire through the car, and before you could say “They should never have killed off Lex Luthor at the end of season one,” we were pulling into a cool fifties diner for milkshakes and cheeseburgers.
And coolest of all, our tour of the WB lot ended in the Daily Planet set, where we were greeted by the Lois and Clark showrunners and K Callan, who played Martha Kent… and who was soon joined by Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, and Justin Whalen (the second Jimmy Olsen, who was not immediately embraced, so it was ballsy for him to come chat with us), who didn’t just do a flyby, they stayed to chat and seemed legitimately thrilled to greet us. K even had dinner with us all at the hotel. My pictures didn’t turn out. Her head got clipped clean off. Annoying. But this was my first encounter with any sort of famous person, other than former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who is at best “cameo on Corner Gas” famous.
There was no chance of me not going back the next summer, none at all. There had been an entire summer’s worth of fun, friends, and good times crammed into one incredible weekend that couldn’t even be ruined by getting incredibly ill the last morning, or my failure to capitalize on being one of the prettiest guys there (damn you Tad Takara, that crown could have been mine!). The buzz didn’t die for weeks.
The following summer, at FOLCfest 2, now that I was in charge of doing the entertainment for the last night, I did capitalize on being at worst the third prettiest guy there (damn you Rob fromVancouver), somehow learned how to flirt, and fell in love for the first real time, enhancing the magic of the city, of the FOLC community, of writing entertainments, of devoting myself to shows about Superman. …Is that why I watched Smallville for a decade? No, no… must have been the lack of other superhero shows… Anyway, sure that relationship didn’t end great, but to quote V For Vendetta, for five years I had roses and apologized to no one.
But that’s a whole other story. Suffice to say, LA is a magical city to me. I should really get back there one of these days. Has it really been 21 years? Goddamn. My memories of LA can get legally drunk in LA…
I wish I was still in touch with some of the FOLCs, but our time as a fandom so well known to the producers that we got shout-outs in the final season (I met the co-creator of Firefly, you guys) came and went a decade before Facebook, and we all lost touch. Even the ones in my city.
Goddamn tragic. Let’s talk about wombats to take the edge off.
Not every quest works out. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth doing.
In 2010, the entire Gibbins clan went south for three weeks in Australia, the country that had been my home for half of 1987, which I had never made it back to. The only rule for the trip was that, in week three, we all meet up in Brisbane so we could go to Lady Elliott Island together. In the end, I stuck with my parents for most of the time, ’cause it turns out I actually like them, I wanted to do 90% of what they were doing, and doing it all one day earlier or later just to be contrary seemed a weird choice. There was but one exception. Two days when I took off on my own. For I had a crazy quest to see to.
This crazy quest did not involve returning to either city I’d lived in. Darwin was too far away, and I spent three months in Canberra and I’m pretty much done with that.
Back in ’87, we bought two books of an Australian author’s true bush stories too weird for his fiction, The Killer Koala and Wombat’s Revenge. The title story of the second book was about the author being asked to go to a Chinese graveyard filled with wombats, in order to acquire a bull wombat for a friend’s zoo. Like most of the stories in these books, he ended up fearing for his life when an unexpectedly large male wombat shredded his net like tissue paper. The Chinese graveyard full of wombats was said to be on the highway between two towns called Tumut and Jindabyne, not far from metropolitan Wagga Wagga (I swear I am not making any of this up). So my course, crazy though it seemed, was clear.
Drive the highway from Tumut to Jindabyne, find that graveyard, and commune with the wombats.
I rented a car in Sydney, and off I went. Five hours to the city I had chosen as basecamp, a mid-level city called Wagga Wagga. Why there and not Tumut or Jindabyne? Two reasons. First, Wagga Wagga was on the highway to my ultimate driving destination, Adelaide, and Tumut and Jindabyne were not. Second, I really wanted to confirm that Wagga Wagga was a real place. That real people, and not a series of Fozzy Bear impersonators, lived and worked in a town called Wagga Wagga.
I didn’t make it too far past Tumut. Turns out when you have to pull over and search any patch of land that looks graveyardy from a distance, it slows your progress a little. I found great bounding mobs of kangaroos, roaming emus, and a spectacular sunset behind a mountain reflected in a lake. This last thing, while pretty, was the breaking point of the quest. I did not love my odds of being able to spot a graveyard from the highway in the dark. Also I was in the Australian wilderness and was beginning to have real concerns about spiders. And so I made the choice to return to Wagga (as the locals called it, making every address read out over the radio delightful) before I’d completely burned my daylight. That evening I headed out into what passed for downtown Wagga in search of dinner, settling for Australian Subway. I saw the crowds of young Aussies gathering in the streets, which made me nostalgic for being young and… seeing other groups of youths having fun I would opt not to try to join. Being chronically introverted is the worst sometimes.
Maybe I should have found something more adventurous to do. Found a bar, had some beers, seen if locals were up for chatting. I certainly have friends who’d have done that. Who’d have succeeded at that. Not I. I bought my sandwich, went back to my hotel room, hunted and killed the crickets that found their way in (this is Australia, trust nothing that walks or crawls), and discovered that the fourth season of Doctor Who that I’d been neglecting to watch for almost two years was actually really good.
So I guess Wagga is a place where cool things almost happened, but always seemed just out of reach. And as fun as seeing David Tennant live on stage, Hell’s Kitchen pub crawls, Disneyland, or drinking one dollar beers on the way to a burlesque show in a casinoare, can they ever compete with the adventures that might have been? Yes, by and large, they definitely can, but the glimpse of potential still gives Wagga Wagga a place in my heart. Enough of a place that when pondering doing a road trip from Melbourne to Brisbane, I give serious thought to stopping in Wagga again.
Also I did confirm that “Hungry Jack’s” is just Australian Burger King when I was there. One 23-year suspicion proved correct. Go me.
So those are places around the world that have a special meaning to me. Places I’d be thrilled to return to, any time I can. But here… here is home. Here is where I made the best friends I’ve ever had, where I built a theatre company that’s my greatest accomplishment, where my plays received their first productions. So be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Jesus Christ it’s going to go above zero for three days then start snowing again on Thursday? FUCKING HELL JUST BE SPRING ALREADY!
Continuing some shorter reflections on Ireland before we get into some super-long nerd blogs.
My last proper solo vacation was Peru, last year. We’ve talked about it, you remember. No need to go back into it in detail. There was one large difference between these trips. Well, other than language. And amount of hiking. Local alcohols. Weather. Quality of hotel room and existence of night buses and pressure to eat guinea pigs–
Okay, there were a lot of differences. Obviously there is one difference in particular I want to talk about. Hint: it’s in the title. Compared to everything I did in Peru, Dublin was crowded, yo.
Maybe it’s a difference in time periods… Peru was in early March, Ireland was in early June. Those three months seem like they could have an impact on tourist volumes. Peruvian summer was just ending, Irish summer was about to begin. Maybe Dublin’s just a more popular city than Arequipa. I don’t know what exactly it was, I just know this… nearly every tour I went on in Dublin was packed, and nearly every tour I went on in Peru was mostly empty. Cliffs of Moher? Full bus. Dune boarding? Just me, Kate, Amy, and Tayla. Belfast? Nearly full. White water rafting outside Cusco? Just me.
Well, there were obviously exceptions. There were plenty of people condor-spotting at the Colca Canyon. And Machu Picchu is probably always crowded. That’s the one place that definitely had crowds to match the Guinness Storehouse. Yes, Machu Picchu had crowds the same size as the Guinness Storehouse.
I had to go to a world heritage site in Peru to find crowds that matched the Guinness Storehouse. People know what they like about Ireland, I guess.
The weird thing, though? I actually felt more alone in the larger groups. The more people in a tour, the easier it became to feel isolated. The bus to the Cliffs of Moher on day two hadn’t even left Dublin before I stared to miss Maria andKate and Amy and Tayla. Before I missed being part of a long-term group.
(I’d miss my same-city friends later, when I lacked people to drink with.)
I guess it’s not that weird. I didn’t invent the phrase “Alone in a crowd.” And it’s not like I was the only person on the buses not bonding. People don’t go on 40 person tours to bond with people. You do that on a 14 person hike up the Inca Trail.
Now don’t go thinking this is some prolonged pity party about solitude. It’s not like I never talked to people. I managed that just fine, albeit often with the assistance of the whiskey tastings that came with distillery tours. One of the bartenders at the Jameson Distillery was particularly delightful, and pushed me in the direction of one of the museums I visited.
I guess the point is, Dublin is a bit on the crowded side during peak season, and the smaller groups were always better. Easier to meet people, easier to chat with. Large tours, people stick with the people they already know. Or maybe they just want to read their comics or listen to their podcasts on the drive to and from places. Certainly some people on my tours did. Well, one. Minimum one on each tour. Doesn’t matter who.