Two Archivists, an SAA Annual Meeting, and How to be an Atypical Tourist in Los Angeles

by Nancy Sandleback, Monastery of St. Benedict Center


A colleague and I decided to tack a few vacation days onto the beginning of the SAA annual meeting in August to tour Los Angeles. We thought about renting a car, a red convertible in particular, since all the travel literature we consulted and a number of television shows/movies insisted that that was the only way to see the City of Angels. Then various scenarios started running through our heads—infamous L.A. traffic jams, driving the wrong way on the Santa Monica Freeway, reading the map upside down at eighty miles an hour, road rage (mine, not the natives’), speeding buses leaping over incomplete highways, Morpheus fighting bad guys on the top of semis, and . . . oh, wait, I think that might be from a movie or two.

Anyway, we decided to be bold, brave, and, some would say, cheap, and do something we were told was just not done. We decided to see Los Angeles via public transportation. That’s right. Public transportation. To make life more interesting, for our vacation we chose a hotel in Santa Monica, just north of the city.

We set off on our grand adventure from the Midwest and East Coast, respectively, arriving at LAX airport a few days before the SAA conference. Our luggage arrived at the same time, which is always a good start to any trip. We took the Super Shuttle from the airport to our hotel, checked in, then took a short ride on the hotel shuttle (yes, another shuttle) to the 3rd Street Promenade, where we stopped at the local cinema to see “Pirates of the Caribbean” (on pain of death, I will not admit how many times I’ve seen this movie) and supper at Wolfgang Puck’s Express.

For our first full day of vacation, we chose to tackle a trip to the dramatic hill-top campus of the Getty Center. After breakfast at the local IHOP, we made our way down to the Big Blue bus stop, a block from the hotel, to catch the Santa Monica #1 bus. Now I admit to being a bit of an organization freak. In preparing for this trip, I visited, the Los Angeles County Transportation Authority Web site, and used its handy trip planner. I was now well armed with color maps, bus schedules, and fee information. It’s a good thing, too, because as soon as my traveling companion and I planted ourselves on the bench at the bus shelter, the locals started asking us questions about the bus’s route. Keep in mind that we were dressed in our best tourist outfits—sensible shoes, sunglasses, khaki pants, cameras in plain view, a baseball cap in my case, and bags crammed with water bottles and maps—and we were still mistaken for Los Angelenos. Anyway, we didn’t wait long before our bus came along. We paid the fare and dutifully asked for a transfer. We soon fell into a routine that would last us the rest of our vacation. One of us would eyeball the passing street names, while the other followed along on a particularly good city map purchased from Barnes & Noble. Paranoia can be a good thing.

The Santa Monica #1 let us off near the UCLA campus. We then hopped on the Metro Rapid #761 bus. The first snag of the day came when we got off the bus at the wrong stop. We walked a few blocks, craning our necks to get a view of the Getty peeking out from the top of a nearby hill. After wandering about for 15 minutes, it became painfully obvious that the only thing separating us from the entrance to the Getty was the 405 Freeway. By chance, we found the delivery entrance to the Getty and attempted to throw ourselves at the mercy of the security guard. The guard was not moved by our performance. So much for my acting abilities. Better stick with my day job, I guess. We trudged back to the spot where we had originally gotten off the bus and waited for the next #761. A short time later we were at the entrance to the Getty tram station. I can summarize the Getty Center in one word—magnificent! The return trip to the hotel was a breeze.

For our next adventure in public transportation, we decided to travel to Long Beach. As we sat eating breakfast at the local IHOP (interesting decor, cheap food, and extremely close to the hotel) the next morning, we kept a close eye on the buses going by until we spotted our latest quarry—the Santa Monica #10 bus. We counted out exact change and walked confidently over to the bus stop. Again, we were in luck, the #10 bus arrived shortly and we were on our way to Figueroa Street and the 7th Street metro station. Once there we located our train on the red line without too much difficulty and for the next hour watched a lot of interesting scenery and passengers. We located a free shuttle not far from the train station and took a short ride to the Aquarium of the Pacific. We arrived in advance of the big crowds and gained entrance immediately. Being fans of “Jaws,” we had to stop at Shark Lagoon, a section of the aquarium where the audience can put their hands in the water and touch the sharks as they float by. (I felt compelled to count my fingers afterwards—yep, they were all there.)

The shuttle brought us back to the transit area and we dined at a local restaurant. The day was still relatively young, so we decided to tour the Queen Mary, a 1936 ocean liner turned historic attraction in Long Beach. As luck would have it, a free shuttle took us to the ship. We took a self-guided tour, which included (drum roll) a stop at the Queen Mary archive exhibit. (Yes, the sign said “archive,” not “archives.”) I was starting to go into withdrawal after a few days away from an archives. Besides the archive, the tour also included “The Ghosts & Legends Show,” which was not particularly scary. I’ve had phone bills that scared me more! We jumped on the free shuttle back to the transit area and had a knock-down-drag-out fight with the ticket machine before boarding the red line train. After we got back to the hotel, the last adventure of the day was another trip on the hotel shuttle to eat dinner at Santa Monica Place. (Okay, so maybe a Dairy Queen blizzard doesn’t come anywhere close to a nutritious meal. Is my doctor reading this?)

We cheated the next day and booked a tour to Universal Studios. We’d contemplated taking public transportation there, but concluded that if the guide books couldn’t agree that it could be done, maybe we shouldn’t push our luck. When we arrived at Universal Studios, I noticed something very bizarre. Every fifth adult was carrying a Sponge Bob, Square Pants water bottle. Now that was scary. My traveling companion convinced me to go on the Jurassic Park ride. Having seen all three of the movies, I had an idea what might happen on this ride. I had also heard about a sudden drop at the end of the ride (or to paraphrase, “a long drop and a short stop”). However, I did not realize that lots of water would be involved. After the final drop, as I sat in my exceedingly wet clothes, in my exceedingly wet seat, feeling like a drowned rat, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was how the staff got its yucks, particularly the person who developed the souvenir photos of the riders and plastered them all over the gift shop back wall.

The rest of our vacation is kind of a blur. Using public transportation, we managed to see the LaBrea Tar Pits and accompanying Page Museum; the Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards presentation was held; the $ signs disguised as stores along Rodeo Drive; the high points and low points of Sunset Boulevard; and the Beverly Hills Hotel. We walked around Mann’s Chinese Theatre looking at the handprints and footprints there. Then we strolled down to the Kodak Theatre (present home of the Academy Awards) and the Hollywood and Highland complex surrounding it. It reminded me of a Cecile B. DeMille movie set. A visitor’s center within this “entertainment complex” (as it was billed) provided me with a map of the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I enlisted my colleague’s assistance in locating a certain actor’s star. I shot half a roll of film of it, while my colleague did a lot of dramatic eye rolling. We also made a stop at the Beverly Center because I had read it was possible to get a good shot of the Hollywood sign from there. Not true. My colleague thought we should have settled for posing in front of the Hollywood sign at Universal Studios.

We made the transition to the SAA conference hotel with a minimal amount of fuss. Before we knew it, it was time to attend committee and section meetings, sessions and workshops, exhibits, and special events. It was time to put away the cameras and sunglasses and tennis shoes and pull out the business casual wardrobe. We had toured Los Angeles using public transportation and seen a good bit of the city. We had become intimately familiar with the names of streets, such as Pico Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Sepulveda Boulevard. When the conference ended and we were traveling back to the airport via the Super Shuttle (what else!), my colleague and I started hatching a plan for the 2004 SAA meeting in Boston next August. She’s going to make arrangements for our pre-meeting sightseeing adventures. Getting around town shouldn’t be a problem—Boston is a walking city!