Monday, September 26, 2011

The Road To Somewhere: Secret Freeway Connector--Why Does The Government Keep It Hidden? (Because It's Governmentally Logical)

We're all familiar with the bridge to nowhere and it's symbolism as to government waste and incompetence. But even when there is a useful road to somewhere, the government is equally capable of showing its ineptitude.

When I started working in downtown Los Angeles, I noticed that while crawling in the evening rush hour traffic home north on the Hollywood Freeway, I would for a short stretch drive parallel to a usually empty connector ramp going in the opposite direction. I often wondered about such a lightly traveled road at rush hour in the midst of the downtown freeway interchange, but didn't bother to pursue it until recently. I ultimately discovered that it was effectively the direct connector road from the southbound Pasadena Freeway to the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway. Now you would figure that this connector road would be packed with traffic as surely a lot of people want to travel from this portion of the southbound 110 freeway to the eastbound 10 freeway. But it isn't, and the reason is that there's nothing at all to indicate that you can get to the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway using that road. The only signage indicates that the connector ramp will take you to the southbound Hollywood Freeway, which ends just a short distance ahead, and the southbound Santa Ana Freeway, which along with the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway, picks up where the Hollywood Freeway leaves off. However, if you're going south on the Pasadena Freeway, there are better ways to get to the Santa Ana Freeway which most drivers know about.

Actually, there is a technical explanation of why this road is not identified as connecting to the San Bernardino Freeway. Interstate 10, as it makes its way from Santa Monica, California to Jacksonville, Florida (I actually once sought out the eastern start to I-10 in Jacksonville), does not run continuously on a straight line through Los Angeles. Rather, it consists of the Santa Monica Freeway, running from Santa Monica to downtown, and the San Bernardino Freeway, which starts east of downtown and goes on to Florida. These two freeways are about a mile apart in latitude, with the freeways connected by a mile long north south portion of the Golden State Freeway east of downtown. Consequently, if you were driving on the Pasadena Freeway the governmentally correct way to connect from the Pasadena Freeway to the eastbound Interstate 10 would be to continue southbound (on the Harbor Freeway, which like the Pasadena Freeway carries the "110" designation) to the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway, up the Golden State Freeway and then to the San Bernardino Freeway. This way you have connected directly onto the 10 Freeway, as opposed to using the Hollywood Freeway as a one mile transition road. Of course, doing this probably entails driving an extra two miles, which doesn't sound like much. But during rush hour this officially mandated detour could well mean an extra 10 or 15 minute drive.

So the answer is that the government won't tell you the most direct way to get to the San Bernardino freeway because it has placed numerical correctness over logic and driver convenience. And isn't this how government usually works?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Chinese Restaurant Mysteries

Well we're not talking mysteries in the sense of those you see in movies or books, or the allegedly haunted restrooms at the old Hing Lung in the Park on 18th Ave. in San Francisco or the former Golden Palace location in Los Angeles Chinatown. Rather these are just head scratchers that I can't figure out.

Most notable and longest running is the case of Kai's Restaurant on San Gabriel Blvd. in San Gabriel. I remember stopping by there maybe 15 years ago, picking up a dim sum menu, with the intent of going back to eat there shortly thereafter. But when I went back, the restaurant was closed. And every time I went back it was always closed. But it's not like they went out of business. Over the years, there was a Los Angeles County Health Department grading placard in the window, and the restaurant's grade was changed from time to time. Once I went by and saw a worker inside. I tapped on the window, but he just shook his head. I thought perhaps they opened only late at night when I was seldom in that part of the world, so on the rare occasion when I was around there at night I would drive by, but it was still closed. I posted on the Chowhound board, but there were no responses. The first and only Yelp review merely asks if the restaurant ever opens. It now looks like it truly closed, so I guess I'll never solve the mystery.

More recently I have encountered a strange situation at George's House, a longstanding restaurant on Century Blvd. in Inglewood, just east of LAX. A few years ago they moved into a new location in front of a motel, just east of the 405 freeway, in a neighborhood I would describe as sketchy. There was nothing particularly unusual about this arrangement, and the motel was not unlike a number of low rise motels serving the LAX area. George's House makes terrific fried chicken dumplings, fried nice and crispy on the bottom, and fried almost in a single clump. There are four Yelp reviews of George's House, each one giving one star, but none commenting on the dumplings. But it's a little out of the way, so I don't go there regularly. However, having a hankering for their dumplings I decided to drop by last week. I didn't bother to check the address, just keeping a lookout for the motel and the sign that said George's House. However, as I approached what I thought might be the location I saw an abandoned boarded up motel, no restaurant signage, though there were hand drawn Chinese characters written on the building. Since I was coming from the other side of the street I turned at the corner so I could come back and drive right by the front. Turning my car around on this side street, I saw the abandoned George's House signage lying on the ground. Driving by the restaurant I also saw that the front entrance was gated off. Goodbye George, I thought.

But as I drove by, I did notice a car parked in the driveway near the entrance to the motel, so I turned into the driveway and the parking lot. There was a hand drawn sign pointing to the "4687 W. Century Blvd. mail room" so there were additional signs of life. Driving to the corner of the parking lot, while every motel room was heavily boarded up, what appeared to be the back door of the restaurant was open. Walking in, the restaurant indeed was open, though there were no customers inside. The man at the counter started speaking to me in Chinese, but I told him I didn't understand. I asked for two orders of fried chicken dumplings, and within a few minutes my food was ready.

My curiosity was really raised. How can this restaurant stay in business being attached to an empty motel (a sign on the motel's night window says "we cannot legally rent rooms"), with no exterior signage, and a blocked off front entrance? And why did the guy start speaking to me in Chinese, since in this part of town any Asian walking off the street (which would seemingly be an infrequent event) could just as well be Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese? Since the proprietor didn't appear to speak much English I really couldn't chat him up. I did notice Chinese writing on the blackboard on the wall, rather odd for a Chinese restaurant not in someplace like Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley. I did ask him if they were open every day, and he said yes, which only added to the mystery.

Now I do have a plausible explanation of what might be going on. There are Chinese restaurants whose primary source of business is visiting Chinese tour groups. While we've all seen tour groups dining at established Chinese restaurants, I'm talking about Chinese restaurants that have few customers aside from Chinese tourists. We saw this ourselves in the remote town of Golden, British Columbia, which served authentic Chinese food in the middle of nowhere, and which actually closes down once tourist season is over. There was a Chinese restaurant of this ilk near LAX, Capri Garden in what was the Howard Johnson Hotel on Airport Blvd. and Manchester. From what I could tell the Howard Johnson was a full service operation for Taiwanese tourists--most of the hotel guests were Taiwanese tourists and the restaurant served authentic Chinese food. However the hotel was recently sold and remodeled, and no longer has a restaurant. Perhaps George's House has filled this void.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Boron, Edwards and Jetliners in Mothballs

As travellers between the two cities know, there is only one practical driving route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Interstate 15 through the Cajon Pass. Under good conditions, which usually prevail, the ride is a little under four hours. However, at the start and end of holiday weekends like this, it can take twice that amount of time or longer as Angelenos queue to or from Vegas. Indeed last night we heard about somebody who took 11 hours to drive back from Las Vegas last month due to a combination of bad traffic and bad weather. We avoid Las Vegas if it is at all crowded, so when it once took a mere six hours due to highway construction I was rather upset at that extra travel time.

Before we headed back from Vegas to Los Angeles this past Friday afternoon I fortuitously noted a large smoke cloud in the distance to the north of Las Vegas. Grabbing my blackberry and searching "Las Vegas fire" I found out that it was a fire in the remote Sheep Valley, well out of the Las Vegas area. However, Google also picked up another item about a fire in the Cajon Pass that had closed I-15. Now since we were three hours away from the fire we pressed on, hoping that the highway would be open by the time we got there, but thinking about plans if it wasn't. Unfortunately I did not bring a California map with me so I had to visualize possible alternate routes. However, we were able to catch radio reports that described the best alternate routes. The reports also indicated that I-15 southbound would probably be closed overnight because the pavement had burned.

Arriving in Barstow after 5pm I headed straight for the California Welcome Center in the Tanger Outlet Mall. I was hoping they were still open so I could get a look at a highway map and see what our options were. The helpful clerk suggested a long route, Highway 58 to Mojave to Highway 14 through the Antelope Valley, or the shorter route of staying on I-15 and getting off at Pearblossom Highway, just before the closure point. Mrs. Chandavkl seemed dubious about the long way around, thinking that it would take us six hours to get home that way. (She doesn't have a very good sense of geography.) Also, southbound traffic on I-15 had been light through Barstow so while there would be a bottleneck approaching the closure point at I-395 the delay might not be longer than the extra time it took to detour on Highway 58, so I tentatively decided we would stick it out on I-15. However, before we left we stopped at the Van Heusen store. As we were leaving a woman comes in and starts talking to the clerk (who had advised us not to even try driving back to Los Angeles) that it had taken her hours to reach Barstow on northbound I-15, which had not been closed and that the southbound side was backed up for miles from the closure point. That made it easy to decide to take Highway 58. Mrs. Chandavkl freaked out, fretting we wouldn't get home until midnight because this route would also be clogged by drivers avoiding I-15. I assured her we'd get home at 9pm as most drivers wouldn't be aware of any problem until they got to Victorville, at which point Highway 58 would not be an option.

From my point of view, any time lost taking Highway 58 would be worth it as I had never travelled this portion of the highway before. While Highway 58 was generally flat and boring, we did pass Twenty Mule Team Highway, and drove by the town of Boron, where the raw material for Borax and boric acid was mined. We drove along the north edge of Edwards Air Force base, marveling at how many people would drive this far to see Space Shuttle landings in the middle of nowhere. And as we headed down Highway 14 we saw what looked like a large commercial airport, but which was really a parking spot for commercial airliners that have been removed from service.

As we headed through the Antelope Valley, where we hadn't been in probably a dozen years, we turned on the radio to hear that I-15 southbound had just been reopened. "See," Mrs. Chandavkl said. "We should have stayed on I-15." I told her we could have been delayed just as long by being stuck in traffic there, since the I-15 would still have been closed when we arrived there, though I don't think she bought that. The rest of the ride back was also interesting, too. Lancaster and Palmdale were modern communities with all of the amenities of urban living. We could not imagine how our neighbor's daughter would drive daily at 5am from the Antelope Valley to her mom's house to drop off her kids before she went to work in Shadow Hills. We arrived home a little after 8:45 pm, which I figured was an extra 45 mile drive taking an extra 40 minutes over normal traffic conditions. Certainly it paid for itself in an interesting ride and not having the uncertainty of being trapped in traffic.

As a post script I turned on the TV news at 10pm. There, standing on the freeway entrance to the southbound I-15 was a news reporter, showing that while traffic to Las Vegas on the northbound I-15 was flowing smoothly, the southbound I-15 was at a standstill, as the backup from the earlier closure had yet to clear out. I read in the newspaper the next morning about the traffic chaos at the I-15 southbound closure as there were no signs or directions of where to go. One driver said it took 2 hours to travel 20 miles. So if we stayed on I-15, we might not have gotten home until midnight.