Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is known the world over, but mainly for that very smart T-junction where Rodeo Drive ends across the road from the imposing Beverly Wilshire hotel – immortalised in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.
But, like several other east-west LA arteries – Beverly, Sunset, Olympic, Pico, Melrose and Venice – Wilshire snakes all the way from Downtown to the coast. And in that near-20 miles it changes character several times, from the rundown Latino playground of McArthur Park to Santa Monica’s Brit-laden beach resort.
I like Wilshire. I use it a lot. Give or take the odd hold-up, it’s usually the easiest ride west, more interesting and less frenetic than the parallel 10 freeway.
I was driving back along Wilshire from a UCLA film show the other night when I was waiting at the lights by the Beverly Hilton hotel – Obama’s preferred LA base and the home of the Golden Globes.
In front of me was a gleaming, black, top-of-the-range BMW. While the lights were red the passenger door suddenly swung open. Out got a glamorous, pencil-slim brunette in a slightly tarty figure-hugging blue mummy dress and the obligatory high heels. With a scowl that would have put Cruella Deville to shame, she slammed the car door shut and waltzed through the parked traffic to the kerb.
The lights turned green. The male BMW driver moved off uncertainly from the middle to the inside lane before taking the next available right turn, presumably with the intention of doubling back to where his ex-passenger might be waiting – if he was lucky.
It was high drama, LA style.
Last Sunday I was heading in the opposite direction not far from there when I realised that the traffic had slowed significantly. For nearly all Wilshire’s length the speed limit is a comfortable 35 mph, which most drivers translate into a steady 40 or so. But we were doing not much more than half that.
I peered ahead, over the roofs of the cars in front, and saw a cyclist, helmeted and in full Tour de France gear, pedalling like fury – in the middle of the middle lane.
No one was hooting. Cars immediately behind took their opportunity to overtake, me included. I was tempted to hit the horn, but you can never be sure that you aren’t contravening some obscure traffic regulation so I restrained myself.
The next lights were red, the biker caught up with us and moved to the front, still in the middle lane. As the inside was free, I moved over there and trod on the gas as soon as we got the green. I checked my mirror and, sure enough, the strange procession resumed.
Was the cyclist trying to make a point? I’ll never know. But he was deliberately causing as much hassle as possible. A distinctively LA tableau.
The sights along Wilshire can be distracting. The LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) is only a couple of blocks from the La Brea Tar Pits, where mammoth skeletons were found.
In the fairly anonymous stretch known as mid-town, a huge aluminium bust of Lenin dominates a shopfront.
Further east is Koreatown, full of BBQ restaurants, travel agencies, yoga centres and Korean churches.
The south side suddenly opens out to reveal the site of the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Within minutes the drive east goes through Lafayette and McArthur parks, and upscale shops are replaced by a 99-cents store, a McDonald’s and a Home Depot.
Then I am dwarfed by the Downtown skyscrapers and it’s time to take a couple of left turns onto the slip road for the 110 freeway north to Pasadena – and home.