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Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of the most interesting cities in the world for drinking. Forget Las Vegas and a trunk full of drugs -- a few bars in LA will show you the whole spectrum of the American dream: The fame of Hollywood, the fortune of the Financial District, the brutal concrete of everything underneath and bars full of people climbing as hard as they can. What other cities couldn't offer in years, LA can give you in a day. And I know, because with one spare day after a conference, I took that offer.

The first stop was obviously the Hollywood sign, and if you didn't already know that, welcome to our planet. I declined offers of a "Star Tour," because if I wanted to be driven around in a cramped bus and explicitly not allowed out to see people, I'd get myself sent to prison (where there wouldn't be as many tourists). And while the houses of the rich and famous are very impressive, it's not so easy to get a drink -- you get the strong feeling that anyone who's meant to drink around there has burly men in suits to get it for them ... men with shades and earpieces who spent a lot of time glaring at me, because in that part of town being carless is apparently worse than being homeless. I found a tourist bar whose drinks were a perfect match for the area: very pretty, very expensive and with ridiculously fake names.

But you don't really see a city from its landmarks, so I rode the Red Line downtown to see the real city. And if Hollywood was fame, this was the fortune. The office towers look like '90s computer graphics: simply too clean and perfect to be real. Wealth was everywhere, especially in the fruit juice shops selling wheat-germinated energy-boosting "intelligence guarana shot" kiwi swirl for $15 a glass. Which was a great argument for going to the bar a real drink -- LA is the only place I've been where whiskey is cheaper than fruit juice, and at least alcohol does what it claims to. After an invigorating refresher in a business bar and overhearing the word "networking" more times in one establishment than in the rest of my life put together, I continued my stroll. That's when the LA Tourism Board tried to kill me.

To boost the already impressive tourism, they've declared whole areas of the town "districts" -- the Jewelry district, Fashion District and Toy District. I saw some signs for the latter and needed a few gifts, so I headed that way and found that something hasn't been so badly misnamed since thermonuclear warheads were relisted as "landscaping tools."

The "Toy District" signs lead to peeling warehouses of the exact kind RoboCop busts into to shoot drug dealers. And half the traffic signs in the city are telling people this is where the toys are. I saw a couple walking around horrified with a kid who was exactly one wrong turn away from becoming Batman. I powered straight through, which was like cutting through Dante's Inferno by sledding downhill, into a district that doesn't have a cute tourist nickname because DC already copyrighted Crime Alley.

In four blocks, I saw 10 people just lying in the street, not in the artful handout "please give" pose but the direct "this is where I fell down" heap. In four blocks, there were three shelters. While passing a heavy shutter marked "GENERAL AUTO DEALING," I heard the circular saws and angle-grinders advertising its true name as "STOLEN CARS CHOPPED WHILE YOU WAIT." I passed two ambulances with staff working hard, but not in any particular hurry.

After swinging back uptown enough to sit down with a reasonable chance of getting up again, it was time for a drink. I'd just witnessed the entire spectrum of the American dream in one day, and that's the sort of thing that makes you think. And that's the sort of activity that could use a whiskey.

Whiskey is the thinking man's drink. It's everything beer is, but far more so, and notice how "everything" is never just "alcohol." Beer can be consumed to celebrate, but a shot of whiskey is an instant mood changer. It's like a stick shift for your mental gear -- pull one back and you're in a deeper, more powerful mode. It's also a great way to cushion mental shocks, so that's what I did. And then I moved on to the way all the best things should be used: slowly.

Sipping a beer can help you think, but whiskey is for full-on contemplation. Ordering a good whiskey isn't just a purchase, it's a commitment to spending the next little while doing nothing but sitting, savoring and speculating on what just happened to you. And drinking in a new city is like being in court -- you have to go to the bar to find people who really know what's going on. Just try not to do both in the same trip. Sitting at the bar invites a real education from the area, especially in LA. I hadn't been there a minute before another guy took down his own mood-shifter, and within seconds he was venting about his lack of auditions and how the restaurant he worked in was making him pull double shifts.

This was fantastic! I'd never met such a real-life cliche before, and as an Irishman who immigrated to America and drinks whiskey that's bloody saying something. This was a walking, talking stereotype. Questions leaped to my mind: Did he know he was a one-dimensional character? How did that feel? We got to talking, but every suggestion that he might maybe want to go and do something else was met with blatant incredulity. How would he make it as an actor anywhere else?

He told you everything you need to know about LA. You can achieve anything from the greatest fame to anonymous business-suited fortune, but the safety net is made of concrete, and people will still go for it. And no matter what they see, they wholeheartedly believe that they will still make it. Because the only alternative is not to try at all.

I won't just drink to that, I already have. And of course I obliged him. In one man he was more self-help course than a hundred empowerment-seminar speakers, and if he doesn't get ticket sales or an audition, I figured he should at least get something out of this. LA is a fantastic place to drink, but as for living there, results may vary.

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