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Lost -- and Found Again -- in Downtown L.A.

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Sometimes it seems like this city is out to beat us up, put us down, and lead us terribly astray. Even those of us who have lived here for years can't help but feel let down sometimes by L.A.'s impersonal and often contradictory nature. And we're just talking about transportation. But more often than you might expect, if you just open up and let the city happen to you, you'll find that L.A. is actually your most reliable -- and most exciting -- old friend.

I was pissed. Pissed, frustrated, and on the verge of tears. Downtown, my old foe, looked like it was getting the best of me -- again.

It was about six p.m. on a Thursday night, and my plans to check out the Murakami exhibit at MOCA Contemporary (free on Thursdays!) were going down the drain, thanks to a few stupid mistakes on my part. My "Downtown Curse" had struck again! Almost every single time I have ever gone Downtown, something annoying or panicking or infuriating has happened -- getting lost, fights with boyfriends, fouled-up parking situations, near-death driving experiences -- and now, just thinking about those one-way streets makes me a little short of breath. It's turned into such a THING in my personal psyche that it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- if I really believe going Downtown is going to be a pain in the butt, then it probably will be.

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But this time, I thought I was prepared. I looked again and again at maps online, wrote down directions, printed out more directions, got my geographical bearings through Google Maps, confirmed plans with friends, even took cash out of the machine. Cash! I was serious about getting there worry-free.

My first mistake, of course was driving. Why did I drive? I don't really know now. The Metro is right there, I wouldn't have to deal with parking or traffic, blah blah blah, you know the rest. But somehow I thought the night would go smoother if I didn't have to depend on the vagaries of public transport or my friends' arrival and departure schedules. Bad idea.

Even though traffic was pretty bad, I still navigated my way down Sunset, and pulled into the Walt Disney Hall parking lot with nary a hitch. The directions I had so arduously copied seemed to actually be correct. I rang up my friends just as we were approaching the MOCA entrance on Grand (yes, I think you know where this is going) -- "where are you guys?" "Just about there!" We approached the friendly guard at the door -- "is this the free entrance?"

Oh. No. In fact, we were at quite the wrong place, the Murakami exhibit was over at the Geffen Contemporary -- a simple fact that was all over the website, but since I've never visited either location, turns out I copied the wrong directions from the MOCA site after all. As in about two-miles-off wrong. (Don't blame me entirely, though, Google Maps doesn't recognize the Geffen Contemporary as a notable location. Foiled again by technology!)

Our friends were waiting, but in frustration, I gave them the go-ahead to check out the exhibit on their own. Now what? Do I move the car that I just (stupidly) parked for $8 and drive over to Little Tokyo, fighting more traffic and paying even more cash? Do I hoof it through Downtown streets and back, using up lots of time, energy, and precious early-evening hours? (I'm pretty comfortable walking around Downtown at night, but walking two miles in the dark after 8pm still isn't the most savory situation.) Do I give up? Do I cry?

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Bear in mind, this was now the fifth or sixth time I had done something stupid, usually car-related, in Downtown. (Also bear in mind I am given to irrational emotional outbursts from time to time. To time.) I was tired of getting beat, I was tired of always making the wrong choices, I was tired of studying maps over and over again, in a city where I've spend MY ENTIRE LIFE, in a city where otherwise I get around efficiently and quickly, a city that's supposed to be my buddy, my pal, my homie, my support system. If I can't beat Downtown, then what's the use? I was ready to get in my stupid car and fight stupid traffic and go to my stupid apartment and sit alone on my stupid butt all night.

Why did you betray me, Los Angeles? Why?

I was pondering these questions as I moped my way past Disney Hall. Aimless walking seemed to be a better choice right now than getting my butt in gear and checking in with my friends. As I approached the box office, I saw a cheeky-looking young lad leaning on his bike, dressed like a hipster who has learned to appreciate fine neckwear and proper pant tailoring. Could that be my good friend Adam, a former colleague in the UCLA English department?? Why yes it was! He was purchasing student rush tickets for the Concrete Frequency program, along with another good friend of mine, Austin. I hadn't seen the guys in a while, and jumped at the chance to catch up. Funnily enough, they were going to grab some drinks before the show, and would I like to come along?

How serendipitous! What a lucky break! One minute, I was pissed, hungry, in need of a pee and a cheap pint of lager, not to mention some companionship and empathy. Now here, in the middle of Downtown, against all odds, I just happen to run into some great friends, who had exactly what I needed.

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We adjourned to the nearby Redwood Bar & Grill -- a bar I had just walked by not ten minutes earlier, but had completely failed to see. Walking into the warm, pirate-themed space was a bit like walking into a pub in Diagon Alley -- nondescript and lonely on the outside, but bustling with noise, people, laughter, music, food, and BEER on the inside. Better yet? We had caught the tail end of happy hour. From 5-7pm, you can get $2 pints of PBR, $4 pints of Craftsman 1903 Lager, $3 Dewar's, and half off appetizers. The place was packed with Downtown business-types, as well as the odd hipster here and there. The crowds started to disperse after happy hour was over, but the bar maintained its bustling vibes. It's an awesome place to go with co-workers after hours, or to catch up with old friends, like I was doing.

We got our blessedly cheap beers and listened to Adam's story about volunteering at the new 826LA location in Echo Park alongside Laura Silverman -- one of those "only in L.A." stories. The plates of food going by looked so great we couldn't help but order some snacks. I got a bowl of mac and cheese for only $4, a substantial portion that tasted incredible -- oozing with several different types of cheese and a hint of sherry. I licked my bowl. The great taste and high quality of the food shouldn't come as a surprise, since this gastropub's menu was designed by Cobras & Matadors chef Jason Michaud. The menu is packed with traditional dishes like mussels, steak frites, a wedge salad, burgers, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a good variety of veggie options.

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The Redwood also has some awesome history, which the LA Downtown News reported on a few years back when the joint first opened:

at the foot of Bunker Hill, the newly refurbished and re-themed Redwood Bar and Grill opened its doors to a world vastly different than what its former Los Angeles Times regulars will remember as the old Redwood Saloon....Gangster Mickey Cohen and former presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy reputedly counted among the old Redwood Saloon's many patrons. But new owner Dev Dugal, who took over after a previous regime closed the spot at 316 W. Second St. last year, wanted to evoke an even more bygone era with the Redwood Bar and Grill.
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What had at first looked like a disaster of an evening turned out to be a great night, spent with good friends at a fun new bar. Downtown, it turned out, had so much to offer me, but because I spent too much time and effort planning out every single step -- I almost missed out on a great time.

I'm still pretty pissed that I missed out on Murakami, and I have a feeling that the friends I bailed on are still pissed at me for being such a dumb blonde about the whole thing. But now I can offer up a beer at the Redwood as a peace offering, and I can still catch Murakami for free on Thursdays until February 11th. And now that I've begun to unravel the secrets of Downtown (for instance: DON'T DRIVE UNLESS YOU WANT TO GIVE YOURSELF A PANIC ATTACK), I'm confident I can go back. Who knows what friends I'll run into next time, now that I know where the Edison is, where La Cita is, and where the LA Times folk like to spend their after-work hours.

So, thank you, L.A. It's good to know that even when it seems like the world's gone wrong, you've still got my back. And my beer.

Top photo by Carrie Meathrell/LAist. Bottom photo by skunks via Flickr