When I moved to Los Angeles a year ago, I swore that I would never be caught dead on a celebrity-homes tour. I couldn't care less whether the Kardashians lived in a mansion with an infinity pool or a gingerbread house constructed by sugarplum fairies. The buses cruising the streets reminded me of the way hawks circled the desert for jackrabbits.
I successfully avoided this dreaded fate -- until my lady's sister and her cousin from France came to visit. Suddenly, I found myself on a red Starline open-top bus, putting on headphones and buckling my seatbelt. That it was Memorial Day weekend made the excursion feel even more superficial. Weren't we supposed to be remembering at least one of the millions of soldiers killed in World War II, delivering food to homeless Vietnam vets or placing flowers on local monuments? And were we seriously paying $44 each to stalk celebrities?
Our tour guide, Mick, drove our group of 12 away from the madness of Hollywood Boulevard and into the hills. With his thick English accent, Mick told us he was a retired sergeant in the British army and a former Beefeater at the Tower of London.
Now we were climbing above the city. The farther we drove, the more it felt like we were entering another universe: Homes were their own galaxies, fire hydrants were not red but platinum, and every person was a potential celebrity. Below us, Los Angeles was spread out like the inside of a computer's hard drive.
Our first stop was actor Jason Statham's house, which was under construction. Mick said he saw Statham driving around in his Porsche quite a bit but never once witnessed Statham smile. Mick stopped the bus in the middle of the road, and we watched Statham's driveway, waiting for him to make an unsmiling appearance on the granite carpet.
When a car behind us beeped, we continued along the ridges of the hills. It was one of those too-perfect days in California; the sky was so blue, you would swear it was manipulated by computer graphics.
Mick went over some rules. First, whenever you see an expensive car -- Mercedes, Ferrari, luxury SUV -- make sure to peek into the tinted windows. Especially Range Rovers. (He never explained why Range Rovers in particular, but I imagined they were pushed upon celebrities by some mysterious and conspiratorial marketing firm, led by a Don Draper type.) Second, have your cameras ready. He also made sure we understood that celebrities are generally friendly, except for Al Pacino. Mick called him The Lion.
I found myself diligently peering into celebrity-esque cars. Despite my discomfort with the setup, I couldn't help but want to be the first to see someone famous and yell out, "Thar she blows!" And the French cousin, Audrey, was eating it up. I thought French people were supposed to like avant-garde jazz and hate Justin Bieber. But she loved every second of our tour.
Audrey started snapping pictures as we drove past Tom Cruise's fortress off Alpine Drive. We could see only the top of the buildings and an American flag.
"In Beverly Hills," Mick said, "the less you can see of the home from the road, the more famous the person is."
Then Mick started talking about Larry King, the former CNN host. He was the celebrity Mick saw most on the tour, and so far we'd had no sign of a celebrity. It was like going whale watching and staring into the ocean for two hours and seeing jackshit. So we turned on North Highland and stopped in front of Larry King's house.
Mick instructed us to peep into a Range Rover pulling out of the driveway. And so the entire bus of people leaned to the side -- somehow failing to notice the group of children and their fathers playing basketball in Larry King's driveway. They were laughing, screaming and shooting the ball with unbridled happiness, until they noticed us ... staring.
We looked at them, and they looked at us. And for a moment, our worlds collided. Then the basketball game went back to normal, and we drove away. It was totally awkward -- and we didn't even see Larry King.
I didn't think the tour could get any worse. But then Mick mentioned we were heading to one of Paul McCartney's homes. I love the Beatles. And "Hey Jude" started playing over our headphones.
We came to a bend in the road and stopped at a red light. Mick pointed to a room with one window above Paul McCartney's gigantic house.
"That room there," Mick said, "is where George Harrison died."
For all Mick's skills as a tour guide, there's little evidence that Harrison died anywhere near Paul McCartney's real estate. But that's still where it hit me.
We visit celebrity homes for their stories. We visit them to remember the tales of cold-blooded murder, adultery, psychotic breakdown, sexual abuse, fortunes won, fortunes lost. Think of how many people still drive to Brentwood to look at O.J. Simpson's home, or the 10,000 roses sent to Michael Jackson's grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
These tabloid stories feel as relevant to our lives as Abraham and Isaac, or Paul Revere and his midnight ride. What is the difference, really, between seeing Paul Revere's house in Boston and the room where George Harrison just might have died? Celebrity culture has become our mythology, and their homes our monuments.
On the rest of the drive, Mick showed us where River Phoenix died and where fans of Elvis Presley wrote notes on his security door. We never did see a single celebrity, but I found I could no longer turn away from the mansions, from the cars, from the people eating dinner in fancy restaurants on Sunset Boulevard. I now understood. But I still didn't want to be caught looking.Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.