This blog is a bit unusual - it describes an experience I had while travelling round the USA and Canada in 1995 (22 years ago). A friend and I had arrived in Los Angeles on 4 June after a long overland trip from New York and stayed the night in a run-down motel in Santa Monica; the story on this page begins the next morning (a full description of our clockwise circuit of North America can be found here).
Bear in mind that in 1995 the internet was very new, most people didn't have email and cell phones simply didn't exist - all communication was by letter, fax or phone calls to and from land lines. However, public phones were everywhere in the USA and calls were cheap or even free.
Monday 5 June 1995 ... We checked out of the motel in Santa Monica and drove down to Venice Beach, home of the famed "Muscle Beach" open-air gym and well known as the hangout of students, dropouts and all manner of alternative types. Approaching Venice we saw several multi-story parking garages with signs advertising "All day parking $10. Free beach shuttle" and presumed these existed because the streets near the beach were congested with very little parking. But before committing $10 (quite a lot of money back in 1995) we thought we'd drive on and see, and were surprized to discover that the road parallel to the beach was almost empty of cars. "Why do they have all those expensive parking garages a mile from the beach when there's plenty of free parking here?" I wondered aloud. Gail shrugged.
So we parked in the street and walked down one of the alleys between the beachfront houses to the beach. Like many coastal towns in California, Venice has a row of shacky houses fronting the sea with a pedestrian promenade between the beach and the houses. The coast road is behind the houses; you get to the beach via a series of narrow pedestrian lanes from the coast road. Sometimes the houses are two or three deep, meaning that the ones nearest the beach cannot be accessed by vehicle, only on foot or by bicycle.
We left all our gear in the boot of the car and took only our valuables (passports, money, travellers' cheques and so on). Walking down to the beach we were amazed to see that many of the beachfront houses were decrepit and ill-maintained, a clear indication that we'd left the opulence of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles behind. The people walking, cycling and rollerblading along the promenade were similarly decrepit and, if not ill-maintained, certainly Bohemian and alternative - drag artists, skimpy bikinis, bulging muscles, tattoos, billowing caftans and tie-dyed clothes were everywhere. It was a like a carnival of weirdness, but it appeared to be just a normal day in Venice.
The "Muscle Beach" gym was exactly that - an open-air but fenced-off area on the beach filled with weightlifting equipment. Some spectacularly huge black men were lifting massive weights, their muscles bulging and glistening in the sun.
We had planned on having a swim, but the weather wasn't great, so when we got bored with strolling we headed back to where we'd parked. There was still plenty of space in the street as we drove north up the coast to Malibu, setting for many Hollywood movies and soap operas. "We just have to swim here" said Gail. Once again there was plenty of parking in the street near the beach.
I got out of the car and decided I'd better put on some sun screen, which was in my main backpack in the boot [Aside : Americans note - "boot" in this context means the trunk of the car, not my shoes]. "Do you need anything from the boot?" I asked Gail. She shook her head.
When I tried to unlock the boot I found that the key didn't fit properly. That was odd, what was going on? I jiggled the key in the lock and finally got it open ... and my jaw dropped in amazement. The boot was totally empty. No backpacks, no bags containing cheap CDs that we'd bought all over the USA during the previous six weeks, nothing. Where was all our stuff? For one insane moment I thought we'd taken the wrong car back in Venice by accident - I mean, the key didn't fit and the boot was empty so it couldn't be our car, right? The fact that I'd just used the same key to DRIVE the car ten kilometres or so didn't immediately register in my addled brain … Then I looked down at the registration plate and saw that it was indeed the right car, and slowly it dawned on me that we'd been broken into and cleaned out. It must have been while we were walking on Venice Beach - when we returned to the car we hadn't opened the boot, just got in and drove off.
Suddenly I understood why there had been so many parking garages near the beach, and why the street at the beach had been empty of parked cars. Clearly it was a high break-in zone and locals knew it, whereas we had acted like dumb tourists, ignored the warning signs and were nailed. The result - everything we had was gone, except the clothes we were wearing (shorts, t-shirt and towel) and our valuables. At least my policy of never letting my passport and money out of sight had paid off - if we'd lost those we would have been in REAL trouble.
We gave up on swimming at Malibu beach and headed back to Venice as fast as possible to report the crime in the very slender hope that perhaps we could recover our stuff. A friendly traffic cop directed us to the police station, which was a prefabricated hut on the beach itself.
"I'd like to report a car break-in and theft of luggage" I said to the fuzzy-haired LAPD cop inside.
The cop's bored expression didn't change. "Did you lose your passports?" he asked.
"No, we had all our valuables with us. They just took what was in the car".
"OK, fill out this form and hand it back". He pushed a yellow form across the counter, yawned and took another sip of coffee from a giant mug.
I was a bit irritated with his lack of urgency or interest. "The break-in couldn't have happened more than half an hour ago. Can't you put out a message to your patrollers or something? I mean, they took everything - all we have left is what we're wearing."
The policeman looked at me wearily. "Look buddy, it's not even midday and you're the sixth vehicle break-in report we've had today. Sometimes we get twenty or thirty in one day. You're lucky - I've had tourists standing here in their swim trunks, dripping wet, with nothing, not even a passport. Do you know how many times I've had to call foreign embassies to sort them out?"
I was shocked. "But if it happens so often can't you catch the guys who do it?"
"We try, but it's tough. The perps are gangs of Cubans and Guatemalens, usually three guys with a pickup truck. One guy walks along the street with a crowbar and forces the trunk of each parked car open. The second guy heaves the luggage from the open trunk into the back of the pickup, while the third guy drives slowly along, stopping at each car. They hit maybe four or five cars, then they all climb in and hightail it out of there. We sometimes get a call from somebody who says it's happening right now, but by the time we get there the perps have gone. They're slick and fast and we don't have a chance." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but there's absolutely no chance of getting any of your stuff back. It's gone."
This was pretty depressing. "So what's the point of filling in this form?" I asked.
"You'll need it if you make an insurance claim."
What more could I say? Gail and I sat on a bench and filled out the form, then went back to the counter to hand it in. The same fuzzy-haired cop was there, twiddling his sparse moustache.
"Our computer system is down so I can't capture this right now. But if you come back later maybe it will be right by then. Otherwise you can call this number in a day or two to get the case number." He scribbled a phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to me.
By this stage I was in a pretty dim frame of mind so it took all of my will power to restrain myself from saying "You're kidding, right? This is California, the most advanced state in the most advanced country in the world and you can't tell me what the case number is because your computer system is down?" But I managed to keep my mouth shut, realizing that there was no point in antagonizing the police. Instead I pocketed the slip of paper and we left with a meek "Thank you".
In a daze we wandered back to the rental car and spent the rest of the afternoon in a department store buying essentials like toothbrushes, toothpaste, trousers and shoes. I couldn't stop thinking of all the stuff we'd accumulated during our travels round the USA that was now gone - fifty or sixty CDs, Nike running shoes, several spools of film, postcards, books, momentoes. Not to mention all our clothes, backpacks, sleeping bags and my tent (which we'd only used twice on this trip).
We returned to Venice that evening to try and get a case number from the police. But after dark the streets had a menacingly eerie feel about them and the few pedestrians we saw looked like hoodlums. Very few cars were parked anywhere, all the shops and businesses seemed to be dark and firmly shut, and the streetlights were dim. So how were we to get to the police station? If we both went, we'd have to park the car somewhere and neither of us thought it would be safe. If I went on my own, Gail would have to sit in the parked car alone ... which she didn't want to do. She also didn't want to go to the police station on her own - it was a walk of about two blocks down a badly-lit and deserted alley then onto the darkened beach.
In the end we decided that Gail would drive, drop me at the corner of the alley to the beach and I would go to the police station on my own; Gail would circle the streets in the car, passing the intersection of the alley and the main coast road on each loop. If I wasn't there she would drive round and do another loop until I turned up. She felt safe doing that. There was always the chance that something would go wrong and we'd miss each other, but that was the best plan we could think of under the circumstances.
She duly dropped me off and I ran down the alley and onto the beach. The police station hut was a beacon of light in the darkness, but the news inside wasn't good. Our fuzzy-haired cop from earlier wasn't there but the policeman on duty simply repeated the same story we'd heard before. "Sorry pal, our system has been down all day. Maybe tomorrow."
"But we won't be here tomorrow - we're taking the train to San Francisco tonight".
"No problem - all the reports will be captured when the system is back up again. You can just phone to get the case number" he replied. He could see I was a bit irritated at this. "Sorry, but there's nothing I can do about it". He gave me another slip of paper with the same phone number on it as before.
I ran back up the alley to the main north-south road, wondering if I would ever see Gail and our rental car again, and what I'd do if I was truly stranded with nothing … but at least this plan worked well, because after five minutes I saw the car approaching and stepped into the street to wave her down. I climbed into the car and shook my head. "No luck. Same story as before - we have to phone these clowns tomorrow to get a case number".
This story of the elusive case number continued for the next week and a half as we travelled north up the Pacific coast - by train to San Francisco that evening then overnight to Seattle three days later, a ferry across the Puget Sound to Victoria on Vancouver Island in Canada and several buses and another ferry to Vancouver. We never got anywhere when we tried to phone the LAPD, and when we went in person to the main police headquarters in Seattle we were brusquely turned away. Nobody was interested in helping us there, or even listening to what we had to say. "This is Washington State and the crime took place in California. Can't help you" was the response we got.
Eventually, after countless phone calls we gave up on the original report and filed a completely new report with the LAPD, over the phone from our hotel in Seattle. Then we had to wait for the police to fax the confirmation details to us ... which they didn't do by the time we left Seattle. So we phoned them from Victoria in Canada and then again from Vancouver. And finally, TEN DAYS after reporting the crime, we received a case number from the LAPD - a fax, which we had to pay one Canadian Dollar to receive at our hotel in Vancouver!
The sheer incompetence and lack of interest of the police in California was staggering. We were shocked at how difficult it was and began to appreciate what Americans must go through when dealing with the police. For example, one of the many costly phone calls we made to the LAPD was terminated because the officer we spoke to said that he wasn't the right person and we should talk to some other guy. When I asked him to transfer the call he said that he couldn't because, believe it or not, the "transfer" button on his telephone was broken! Remember that we weren't in some backwater of a third world country - this was in Los Angeles in the United States of America!
You may be wondering why we simply didn't stay longer in Los Angeles to finalize the police report. There were several reasons - the pre-booked time for the rental car was up and we had to hand it back (it is virtually impossible to get around greater Los Angeles without a car), and we had pre-paid train tickets for the same evening from LA to San Francisco which we didn't want to lose. But mostly we never thought it would be so difficult to get a case number from the LAPD - every cop we spoke to assured us that everything would be sorted out, but none of them did anything except the guy we finally spoke to over the phone from Seattle, who suggested we forget the original report and file a totally new one. And that was what did the trick in the end.
Gail did indeed get a substantial payout from her insurance company after we arrived back in South Africa, so all the trouble we went to to get the case number was worth it. Unfortunately my insurance (apparently) did not cover theft out of rental cars in foreign countries, so I lost out. But on the plus side, it was good material for a story ...