“Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everybody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case.” ― Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict
In early 2005 I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles International Airport, wearing a pair of crumpled black pyjamas that made me look like a ninja who’d spent a night in the drunk tank. Across the aisle I could sense what I took to be the disapproval of an austere middle aged woman, hair scraped up in a severe bun, eyes bobbing over the top of her Dorothy B Sayers novel in my direction. At one point, looking over the top of my own book, our eyes locked, and she leaned towards me and whispered conspiratorially ‘I love that guy’.
That guy was Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s hard-bitten LA homicide detective. On the half dozen or so trips I’d taken to LA over the preceding 18 months, I’d thought it an appropriate opportunity to get reacquainted with my fondness for hardboiled crime fiction. In more than one hundred hours of flying I’d re-read much of Chandlers and James M. Cain’s work, finally got round to reading Chester Himes, and accidentally discovered Connelly’s modern take on the noir fiction genre. I still have all those books, and occasionally re-read them.
But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.
Forty-five minutes earlier I’d been sitting in a business class seat on a flight shortly to take off for London.
“Warm nuts, sir?”
Absolutely. Was it that obvious? I’m terrified of flying. The sheer improbability of it all. Several hundred tonnes of metal, plastic, fuel and flesh, hurtling down the runway and vaulting off the end in what to me is the ultimate leap of faith. The irony being that then, as now, I was working in the aviation industry.
“Glass of pre-flight orange juice or champagne, sir?”
“Complimentary in flight sleep suit for your travelling comfort?”
I immediately knocked back the champagne in a single, nerve-steadying gulp – a rather gauche action that no doubt signaled I was an impostor in this part of the plane and should immediately be dragged down the back to join the other serfs – and headed to the bathroom to change into my ‘sleep suit’. Rocky, I’m sure, would not have approved.
I’d met Rocky in London several years before. She’d come from northern Spain to study for a masters degree, a dark-eyed beauty with a steely-eyed character that didn’t suffer fools gladly. A shame really, otherwise things might have worked out between us. Rocky was the nickname one of my friends had given her. She was tough and determined. Plucky. Feisty. Even now when I think of her I hear the Running-Up-The-Steps music. Eventually she was offered an extremely prestigious job in LA that she couldn’t refuse, and that as they say was that. Except it wasn’t. Not quite. There was still perhaps some future to be salvaged, and I probably traveled to LA six or seven times over the following couple of years to see if we could find it.
Many people imagine that working for an airline is an opportunity to gallivant round the world for next to nothing, and actually that’s pretty much how it is. Back then I was travelling on what’s known as an ID90; an industry ticket that is discounted by 90% – you pay just 10% of the cost of an economy ticket. Often if the flight is overbooked you’ll get upgraded, or sometimes if you’re lucky someone will upgrade you just for the hell of it. After all, what goes around comes around. And that’s how I came to be sitting in a seat that might normally sell for up to £10K, clutching a ticket that cost £100. All this sounds great, and of course it is, but there is a huge caveat; you’re traveling standby. Space Available. Subject to Load. And it’s not just the paying customers who get on in front of you. There’s a whole pecking order just for staff. Are you travelling for work or pleasure? How long have you been an employee? Do you work for this airline or another airline? Are you flying from or towards home? Were you sleeping with the check-in agent’s sister who you ended up dumping by text but she had it coming anyway because she’d been seeing that knuckle-dragger customs officer behind you’re back and been spreading BLATANT LIES about your performance in the bedroom? Yeah, whatever. Anyway, all these play in to the decision of whether or not you get a seat, and you never really know until you’re on that plane. In fact, unless you’re an idiot, you should never really relax until you’re up in the air. Because although it’s rare, sometimes you can even be sitting in your seat when you are asked to leave.
Which is how this idiot came to be doing the walk of shame through LAX in a pair of black pyjamas.
It took me another two days to finally make it out of LA. That’s a long time to keep saying goodbye. It was twelve years ago now and I can still remember looking out the window and watching those winking city lights recede and wondering whether this is where I’d end up living.
I never went back.
But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.
In fact, I didn’t even want to think about any of this again. But I haven’t been able to avoid it. Because for the first time in twelve years I’m heading back to the States. Not LA this time, and for work not pleasure. But it seems to be a flaw in my character that I always look to the past, see the connections and coincidences in things.
Perhaps if I’m really being honest, what I really wanted is an excuse to finish the roll of film that’s been lounging in my Nikon FE for the past 6 months, so I’m all set for my trip. Because when you’re going on a business trip it’s important to remember that you’re there to do a job. And to pack accordingly:
“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little..” ― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
All photos: Nikon FE / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1