The Loh Life

Secret Staircase

Sandra Tsing Loh finds a secret staircase.

Leave it to a visiting out of town friend to inform me, a Los Angeles native, of something in my hometown I'd never heard of.  And maybe you've never heard of this either.  Because LA is known for many things - smog, traffic, beaches, Kardashians, but... secret staircases?  How Nancy Drew is that?

But no.  According to a guidebook Rob is brandishing - Charles Fleming's Secret Stairs - circa 1920s, Los Angeles was host to an elaborate streetcar and trolley system.  In turn, a network of more than 200 hidden staircases was built.  They were put in all over town so pedestrians could negotiate the hills.  These too were foreign notions about L.A. - "public transportation," "pedestrians," "hills."  I thought it was nice Rob was becoming such a student of L.A. history - we could talk it over at brunch.

But no.  Rob informed me we were going to spend our Sunday morning climbing stairs.

L.A.'s Secret Stairs were so secret it took us 15 minutes to find the start of the one in Pasadena.  This was even with Charles' Fleming's directions in hand, which have scavenger hunt-like directions like "Turn left at the Vons, avoid power lines to your right and brace yourself for the barking dog behind the green garbage cans."  He's that specific, and also that wonderfully nosey - he encourages you to look over fences and into people's backyards - "Oh look, there's the miniature putting green he's talking about!"

Parting some jungle-like foliage beyond an ordinary looking driveway on an ordinary looking street, "Oh my God - stairs!"  Rising up the hill was indeed an impossibly long stone staircase opening eventually into a small porthole of blue sky.  In point of fact, the stairs didn't just go straight up, but up and down and up and down.  The effect was disorienting.  To your right, you looked down on somebody's wooden deck with a doll-sized Weber grill.  To your left, you looked up into the bottom of a carport, where a giant car appeared suspended and hanging.

You're also traversing streets whose homes have their own flights of stone stairs.  At one point, it's as if we'd stumbled into an Escher drawing.  We start to follow an elderly Asian couple climbing a staircase, and then stop when we see them open their front door, turn off their alarm, and enter their own home.  Whoops!

Anyway, by 10 a.m., the Secret Staircase has become a busy superhighway of singles and couples and groups of older ladies, all in safari hats, clutching Charles Fleming's guidebook.  So, Rob decides we've finally earned our brunch.

"Not quite so secret!" I say to Rob.  Apparently the book is a huge bestseller!

So, just between you and me, the secret is safe with us.  Quite a few of us!  Happy climbing!


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