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Elon Musk's LA Loop spectacle left me dazzled and confused

At times rambling and meandering, Musk still managed to be engaging. Here's what it's like to watch him live.

Boring Company founder Elon Musk and director Steve Davis speak at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.

Boring Company founder Elon Musk and director Steve Davis speak at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. 

The Boring Company

Elon Musk has developed a strong cult of personality around him. But to see it in person is something else.  

He is, after all, the closest thing we have to a real-life Tony Stark ("genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist"), with nearly 22 million followers on Twitter and fans who praise him for his ambitious goals of sending people to Mars, building a cyborg dragon or just getting us into his sleek, status-affirming electric Tesla cars.

So it came as little surprise when, after Musk finished talking about his plans to create the Loop, a revolutionary underground transport system that'll start in Los Angeles, an audience member shouted, "We love you!"

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A little more unorthodox was the venue: the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, nestled next to the Interstate 405 freeway near the Getty Center. An estimated 750 people crowded into pews and folding chairs in the main sanctuary of the synagogue as Musk spoke on stage.

It was right around the time of the audience member's expression of unbridled admiration that it dawned on me: Holy crap, we're literally sitting at the altar of Musk. What more appropriate place to be as we listened to Musk transform how we travel and live? He even invoked biblical imagery in his description of the 405, saying that in the last 16 years since he's lived in Los Angeles, the freeway "varied between the seven and eighth levels of hell."

Ironically, Musk is not a religious person. When asked if science and religion could coexist, he once said, "probably not." The real reason we were at this temple: It sits on Sepulveda Boulevard, underneath which The Boring Company is digging its tunnel. 

That I find myself in such a unique situation befits Musk's reputation as a wild-card entrepreneur with grand ideas and the intelligence, willingness and money to follow through on them.

And this was an unusual affair. I'm no stranger to tech events, having attended everything from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' unveiling of the original Kindle in 2007 to Apple's announcement of the iPhone X in September. But this Musk event takes the cake, simultaneously engaging, befuddling, lacking in polish, but wacky enough to live up to the billionaire's eccentric reputation. 

Orange slices and Teslas

I arrived at Leo Baeck an hour before the event was supposed to start, only to spot a handful of local news vans and a few dozen people already crowded around a check-in area. At least initially, this seemed like most other product launches.

But after checking in, I walked into the temple's foyer to see the customary snack table, with a select offering of Capri-Sun juice pouches and orange slices. The man at the table smiled and gave me a thumbs up as I snapped a photo.

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Forget champagne. You're in Los Angeles, so why not partake in some Capri-Sun?

Roger Cheng/CNET

The next half hour was spent standing uncomfortably close to other people as we waited for the doors to the main sanctuary to open. I could spot a few people wearing black hats with the white The Boring Company logo emblazoned on them. Two men next to me conversed about the customer service experience with their -- what else? -- Teslas, and how they were slowly coming out as President Donald Trump supporters. 

We stood really, really close. 

Up front, an employee wearing a black The Boring Company T-shirt between the crowd and the doors, desperately trying to avoid answering questions. When asked later what he did at the company, he only responded: "We have fun."

Bricks and flamethrowers

The Boring Company presentation -- and Musk -- got off to a slow start (he blamed the 405, in perhaps the best illustration of the problem he was trying to solve).

Musk and Steve Davis, the director of Space X and The Boring Company, sat flanked by two large flat-screen monitors, which would break down their vision of creating underground tubes that would carry mini-transports capable of traveling at 150 miles per hour. In between them was Gary, a snail sitting in his tank atop a cinder block made from the rocks dug out by the Boring Company's tunneling machine. (Musk tweeted extensively about Gary after the event.) Behind them hung the Boring Company logo.

If the orange slices didn't tip you off, this wasn't your usual flashy Samsung event.

theboringcompany-627

The company put out folding chairs in the common space beyond the pews to accommodate the hundreds who showed up. 

The Boring Company

The conversation alternated between fascinating and meandering, with Musk randomly mumbling at times and speaking to Davis as if the audience wasn't even there. Other times, it didn't seem like he cared much about the audience at all. He went off on a tangent about his plans to sell bricks created from the tunneled rocks, and spoke with a tone that left it unclear whether he was serious.

"These are good bricks," he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. 

When answering a question about when the Boring Company flamethrowers would arrive -- don't ask -- Musk promised that they would be personally delivered by Boring Company vans. Again, it was unclear whether he was joking or if that was even feasible.

But Musk had an odd charisma that drew in the audience, even as he ping-ponged between sincere gratitude to the city for its cooperation to an odd tangent about Gary the snail. 

Ultimately, the main pitch was alluring: Small pods carrying 16 people at a time would whoosh you across the city, getting you from downtown Los Angeles to the airport in eight minutes, or the Getty Center to Union Station in 12 minutes. Dozens to hundreds of tiny stations would be littered around the city, giving you easy access to these tubes. Each ride would cost a buck. 

I would move to LA in a heartbeat if this existed at the scale he envisions. But the question is whether any of this will happen. 

The appeal here is his attack of a universal problem -- anyone who's sat in Los Angeles traffic knows that only someone with godlike powers could speed you through a rush-hour jam. My Lyft driver spent the majority of my ride back home complaining about the drivers in this city.

"When you come out to LA, you either learn patience or go crazy," he said.

And then there's Gary

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Here's me and Gary (in the top right corner of his snail tank). This may be my finest moment. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Once Musk wrapped up, he quickly left via an exit at the side of the sanctuary. There would be no follow-up questions. (Like, When is this thing actually going to launch? Or: Is this actually going to happen? How does $ 1even remotely make financial sense?)

That didn't mean the faithful turned away from the altar. The stage quickly filled with audience members snapping photos with the logo, and with the chair that once supported Musk's backside.

And there was Gary the snail, peacefully gliding up the translucent orange wall of his pineapple-shaped tank. When I went up on stage, I also slammed my fist on the brick. Yep, it seemed pretty solid. 

With Musk already gone and people filtering out, there was only one thing left to do.

I pulled out my smartphone and took a selfie with Gary. It's probably the closest I'll get to the legend that is Musk. 

The story originally published on May 20 at 5 a.m. PT.

Update on May 21 at 7:10 a.m. PT: To include additional background and to change the headline. 

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