Memory Sickness

Perusing old Sears catalog photos a few weeks ago I tripped over this image and fell into a James Lileks-like nostalgia spiral. My childhood friend Donny had this exact bedspread, and you could measure my childhood by the longing it instilled in me for the working class normalcy of Perma-Press™ and Dacron. Also a room of one’s own.

My family pulled cast-off items from the “Free Box” in front of the Happy Belly health food store. This is to say I did the pulling, as my parents thought it entirely normal a 9-year-old should forage for his own clothes.  Also, to line up his own rides to school hitchhike to town. Or walk up the hill to the cousin’s house to use their shower, hot running water not being part of our familial equation until after I left for college.

Growing up, I assumed Donny was middle class.  NFL themed bedding! I was living in a plywood cabin. Anyone with plumbing and electricity was doing well. But Donny’s father did shift work in a local manufacturing firm and adjourned to the corner stool at Al’s Redwood Room at 5 pm until his wife collected him in the Ford Pinto station wagon when his money ran out. Their house was a 2br rental.  Donny’s room was a sectioned off area of the garage with faux wood paneling. He had a Nerf basketball hoop suctioned cupped to the wall.  We created our own hybrid sport with Whiffleball bats, a nerf ball and a twin bed as a trampoline.   After he and his sister moved away, his parents downscaled to a trailer. When his father drank himself to an early grave, his mother returned to her people in West Virginia.  I liked her. She gave us graham crackers after school and a vat of chocolate goo we could smear across them like cream cheese.  Somehow we remained skinny little beanpoles, the both of us. His were Sears people. I came from Free Box stock.  Nobody was fat then, despite our best efforts.

A few years later I saw Randy Weaver’s cabin on the news and realized I was looking at my parent’s house, only with the politics 180 degrees in reverse. When I think of 14-year-old Sammy Weaver dead on the ground, I know I would have done the same thing: run to defend my fathers fenceline. Boys are hardwired for that. Piss that away and a father can wander the blasted heath like Lear.

In Boomer fashion, my father pissed it away, and a small fortune as well, yet wandered not, lived his life as selfishly as he began.  In one of God’s delicious ironies, he finds himself in his seventh decade caring full time for my mother whose memory is composting by the week.

You only remember the bad things, she used to tell me when I visited. Now she and my father have dialogue like this:

Whose wine glass is this?
That’s your wine glass over there.
That’s my wine glass? Whose wine have I been drinking?
The wine in your hand.
I have two wine glasses?
You have three glasses going.
So which one is mine?
They are all your glasses. You keep starting new ones.

Since I left, the original plywood box (mounted six inches off the ground on buckets filled with hand-mixed concrete) has expanded horizontally and vertically in a style that can be characterized as Mendocino Gothic Ad Hoc.  They just kept adding rooms, then redwood siding and decks on three sides. A massive solar array.  Bizarrely, a Steinway grand piano.  If you think there are building permits involved here, think again.    Note the crumbling rock barbeque pit in the foreground.  This was our kitchen for the first two years in the country.  Yes, that was the plan, to the degree anything was planned.

When they realized they couldn’t have sex in the same room as their children,  a bridge too far even for them, they adjourned to the A-Frame, a plywood annex. This was their bedroom for 10 years.

But now, necessity demands my mother have an ADA compliant walk-in shower, the slip and fall deathtrap sunken tub they’ve used for 25 years having become a hazard.

So my brother in law, my nephew and I, last week converged to build another non-conforming addition to the house, complete with rain shower. This is something I once promised myself I would never do. Yet there I was, laying tile, while the others installed new wiring and pumping and drainage and essentially replumbed the entire house.  The parents paid for nothing. The moral of the story being the Boomers get everything they want.  Except time.

The Ouroboros Box

The glory days, before the fall

The Sears outlet at the Northridge Mall is no more.  The latest in a series of closures following the restructuring of the company in 2017.

Though it retains a shitty food court, the mall is now without one of its two anchor tenants.   We already kind of know how this will end.  Being the Valley, I don’t anticipate Google riding to our rescue.

Once the Amazon of its day, Sears has been a great declension a century in the unmaking, reflected in its architecture.

As it fell out of favor, the in-house brands and subsidiary businesses: Allstate, DieHard, Craftsman, Kenmore, and Discover Card, were sold off one by one in debt restructurings. The corporate headquarters in Chicago, once the tallest building in the world, was vacated twenty years after being built and downsized to an office park in the suburbs.

Starbucks Center, Seattle

Ironically, Sears leaves behind a terrific portfolio of civic architecture in the form of massive Art Deco mail-order distribution plants now rapidly being repurposed nationwide as live/works lofts, creative office space and in another irony, retail. Many of these buildings were vacant for decades.  Think how different it may have turned out if Sears had held on to the real estate. It was uniquely positioned to take advantage of re-urbanization.

Crosstown Lofts, Memphis

Izek Shomoff is developing the 13 acre Boyle Heights site as a 1000 unit mixed-use campus with predictable bells and whistles.

Sears’s lasting legacy will prove to be its timeless line of mail-order Craftsman houses,  pre-cut, delivered on railroad cars, and easily assembled by road gangs.  Most of them are with us today, 100 years on, a testament to indestructible aesthetics.  They spawned countless imitations.  Historic Los Angeles and Pasadena are fecund with variations on these designs. It’s the default residence of our collective dreaming, and thereby television locations: my life, we tell ourselves driving past, would be oh, so perfect if we lived in that house.

Just as an aside, how popular a housing solution would this be?  With small alterations for local codes, the plans are perfectly valid today.  Build them in clusters of six around a common yard. Cluster the clusters around a common greenway.  
If you could go back to the 1980s and tell the board of directors, get out of the malls, you will be replaced by an electronic mail-order catalog, your end is in your beginning, return to first principles. Your value is old real estate and love for your catalog and always will be. Would anyone listen, even if you gave them second sight? Or would the snake just keep eating its tail?

Deplorable Joe

Ever notice the eerie physical resemblance between 1970’s era Joe Biden and Peter Boyle in the “off-the-hippies” exploitation film Joe?   I was thinking about this last night, watching Iowa .

If you haven’t seen it, Joe was a pop waystation between Easy Rider and Death Wish. Cartoonish and heavy-handed, it flattered the conceit of liberals thus: after a couple of drinks, blue-collar white guys are homicidal bigots.  You know they are.

Fifty years on, this most comforting cultural template has moved from being an art-house movie plot to the factory setting for much of the American media.

Now both of these guys are now running for President, in a manner of speaking.

Joe (the character) is not Trump, but he is a stand-in for Trump supporters, as viewed from the ramparts of power.

Since 1972 Biden has positioned himself, less credibly with the passage of time, as a representative of the white working class.   Amtrak Joe.  Joe from Scranton, Pa, but with a facelift and veneers and family members living large by way of his connection.   Only now, in his emeritus years, there is little room left in his party for Les Deplorables, the very people who once put him in office.

In a last attempt at the presidency,  he seeks the blessing of an electorate that has been counseled to scorn what he represents.  He will be running against his own history.  Which is to say, not well.

Which might explain why the morning after the Iowa caucuses, we have no “results”, even with hard precinct numbers in hand indicating a fourth-place finish.

Bernie, on the other hand, has Jack White.  Whatever your politics are, this will be entertaining.

So You Want To Be A Juror?

Be prepared for roll call at 10:30 only to wait in the hall until 11:20 before they open the doors of the Chambre du accusation.  After 40 minutes of voir dire,  adjourn for lunch until 1:30.   Wait again in the hall until 2:10 for Mr. Serious, the courtroom manager, to poke his head out the door and call numbers. By the second day, we were fully institutionalized. Any murmurings from an official person and we queued up as submissively as lemmings.  We were on government time.

At least we were free of the rubber room downstairs, waiting to be assigned a case, listening to the Orientation Lady explain the Rules of the Hardship Exemption for an hour straight, like she was hawking cubic zirconia on QVC.  Five times she reminds us to turn in our forms, lest we not get credit for service. No certificate, no credit.  Understood.

Lunch is a blessing as Grand Park is rather grand at midday: yoga classes, futbol, and sunshine…

…and photoshoots on the City Hall steps.  A culinary cornucopia but a short walk away.  It’s the nicest public space in the City. Say this for the One-Party State, they spare no expense making downtown wonderful for public employees.

Then its back to the 11th floor and its unforgiving benches forged from the same material as bowling balls.  Confined in the brutalist aesthetic of the building, it’s easy to forget the rich legal history that played out here: OJ. Manson. The Menendez Brothers. The Nightstalker.   Remembering the acquittals, is there something about the confinement of jurors in such unforgiving architecture which causes them to bond with defendants?

The accused was frail and elderly,  a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh, down to the wispy grey beard.  Small, 5’2 at best, like Manson. Bespectacled, inexpressive.  He sat with bony hands clasped on the table in front of him, listening to his translator through earphones as though receiving a telegraph report from overseas.  During the sidebar, he rubbed each of his fingernails in turn, like worry beads.   He and his lawyer sat at separate tables, and she did not confer with him.  When the judge read the charges: sexual assault against a child, an audible shudder passed through the room.   There were no family or friends in the courtroom bearing witness.  He was as alone as a man could be.

We were in the Clara Shortridge Foltz building, named for the first female lawyer in California.  Both Public Defender and D.A. in the case were women, and looked like TV Lawyers; trim, well-coiffed, ready for a close-up.   They wanted to know we felt about memory, ten years after the fact.   How we felt about the testimony of teenagers, recalling events of early childhood.  Were they capable of lying?  The defense counsel offered a hypothetical: if I told you a man was eating a BLT sandwich, how would you really know it was bacon between the bread slices? The D.A. altered the metaphor to the example of peanut butter and jelly: if you saw a man holding a sandwich and there was jelly in the corners of his mouth, would you consider that evidence he had eaten a PBJ even though you never saw him take a bite? The defense tried a new tack in the voir dire:  If a witness states she doesn’t remember something are you willing to not fill in the blanks? I could sense the lineaments of the case take shape and realized I wanted no part of it.

As Juror No. 60 in the pool, I was never called into the box. After three days of feinting and bluffing and prodding of the jury pool, both counsels engaged in a late afternoon flurry of peremptory challenges, not unlike the call and raise cycle that finishes off a poker pot, and suddenly the jury was seated and sworn.

Spared another week downtown,  I saw the Valley as so many of my neighbors do: as a stream of taillights inching up the 405, our non-negotiable tax.  I tried a podcast, but it didn’t hold my attention.   I found myself thinking of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, the Japanese man who was swept out to sea on the roof of his house after the Tsunami and floated in the North Pacific for a week before discovery. In that scenario, you have nothing. Or you can have nothing, plus God’s mercy.   That’s up to you.  Maybe that’s why the defendant’s hands were clasped, facing twelve angry commuters who hated him the moment they heard the charges.

 

Vanderpumping the Valley

A new season of Vanderpump Rules is upon us, with a new twist. The cast members (who make $25K per episode) have decamped from their apartments in West Hollywood and purchased homes near each other in…Valley Village and Sherman Oaks and Valley Glen.  Mrs. UpintheValley is in ecstasy.  Practically neighbors.

If you’re a reality star in your eighth season, what do you buy?  What does $2 million get you?   Farmhouse modern, glossy white with black trim, newly constructed.   One of the houses, I noticed, actually abuts a major Valley boulevard. Who would pay seven figures to live next to traffic?  Bravo stars, that’s who.    It’s also possible they chose houses with a generic facade/motif to discourage fans from identifying their location and pestering them with vegan housewarming gifts.

This strikes me as a seachange in how the Valley will be viewed in pop culture terms, going forward. This is not Calabasas. This is the flatlands, north of the 101.  Adam Carolla-ville. Almost Van Nuys adjacent. This is us, albeit on a grander scale.  It’s the inevitable consequence of too much money chasing too few houses.   The little ones go down, and bigger ones take their place, to the limit of the setback.

Then there’s Cleveland, which has been rebranding for two generations in the hope bargain hunters from Californians and New Yorkers will head there in search of a price point too good to refuse.

After my last post, alert reader James noted an earlier Plain Dealer branding campaign from the 80s:  New York may be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.  

This sort of civic boosterism inevitably gets trumped by crowdsourced public branding. Healthy cynicism, like cream, rises to the top.   Shame can be a social glue, if not a left-handed expression of pride. It offers consolation without changing facts on the ground.  But in the end, King James will leave you, not once but twice.

In America’s great divergence between the boutique cities on the coasts and Everywhere Else, the New Urbanists keep waiting for people to respond to economic signals. Logic says move to the Rust Belt: big house, tiny price tag, short commute. Be a big fish in a smaller pond.  Locate your start-up here, cut your burn rate in half. California responds by saying, meh, I’d rather just move to my own personal Cleveland called the Valley, and turn that into West Hollywood.

Yes, please. Keep pumping.

Van Nuys, Rebranded

The city of Cleveland, which has lost half its population since 1970, once known as “the mistake by the lake” and the famed location of Ten Cent Beer Night has hired branding experts to promote its virtues to the outside world, New Urbanist style. The sales pitch they arrived at was World-class experiences without the world-class ego”.   

Well, hell. We could do that right here. If any place could use a re-brand, it is our lovely working-class Brigadoon in The Nuys. It makes for a good drinking game.

The first slogan which came to mind was: Van Nuys, not a damn thing wrong with it! which had the irascible defensiveness of a man defending his love for a forgotten brand of cheap beer.
Alternately, there is always the appeal to Low Expectations:
Van Nuys: Affordable, not cheap.
You know what you’re getting.
Van Nuys: Good enough!
Or passive-aggressive aspiration:
You’ll feel prettier here.

Half the house, half the commute.

Do more with less. 
Ironic:
Who said Hollywood doesn’t have a stepsister?
Futurist:
Back to the streetcar.
Bitter:
Skid Row without the juice bars.
Sardonic:
Millennial prices without the gentrification.
Obscure:
Free yourself of memory sickness. (Mrs. U didn’t get it either)
Misdirection:
Fifty food trucks can’t be wrong.
Convenience:
Here, be comfortable with yourself.
Bold:
The next Highland Park! 
(I stand by this, btw)
Alliterative:
Dollar stores and Dialysis, Payday Lending and Palm Trees
Comparative:
Cleveland, without the weather.

A call to action:
Look beyond the hedge.
Simplicity:
That’s right. Van Nuys, motherf@$#%*r.

That was fun.

E Pluribus Valley


2020: Rushing headlong now are we toward a conclusion half of us will dread.  A snap trap four years in the making.   There can be no happy ending, though there may be a divorce.   Too many of us have made friendships contingent upon the outcome.  We tolerate each other just so long as we consider the current ugliness to be transitory.  November will correct/affirm the wisdom/insanity of our neighbors.  I knew it all along! They really are that bad/sensible. That settles it. Let the celebration/vilification begin.

I suspect the underlying facts will prove secondary.  Dow 30,000, full employment, USMCA, handshakes at the DMZ, the Supreme Court, the public option, Iran, a looming recession, all background noise.

This is about who we are.  You can believe in the nation-state or you can believe in a borderless world.   Either the people are sovereign or corporations are.   Either we are sovereign or the media is. Either your vote counts or it is nullified by the administrative state.

America is closely divided, horrifyingly so, on matters only a short time ago not under question.

We’ve reached a point in Los Angeles where we are no longer telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves, so we unfriend our neighbors instead.  We threaten to turn each other into memes.

Politics until recently was played between the 40-yard lines.  Claims of catastrophe if the other side prevailed were generally bullshit.  Beneath the hyperbole on cable news, an undertow of bipartisan consensus held: on Wall Street rescue packages, trade with China, techno-utopianism,  deficit spending, the forever war in Afghanistan.  Not this time.  The competing claims are too irreconcilable.

So how to share space with each other after the shock of discovery?   We can start by practicing good manners now. That begins with listening well.

Vermont Descends Like Enchantment

The three weeks in December when the Valley impersonates New England are when I am most grateful to be here…as though I arrived by wisdom rather than necessity.

Then there are the oranges, our unique backyard superpower most unlike Vermont.   A week ago they were too tart, in another month they will slip into sweetness. For now they are just right but we can only eat six a day before our bellies distend like Bilbo Baggins so we drop them off at the neighbor’s house by the bagful. We are profligate.  We are having it both ways. A Mediterranean clime while God paints the leaves.

Six On A Bed

I discovered this digital Polaroid during an encampment cleanup off Sepulveda, put it in my pocket and forgot all about it, then re-found it in the laundry.

For most of us, Van Nuys means an affordable ranch house. But for others, Van Nuys means my weekend at the bail bondsman or my frustrating encounter with the Building Department. Then there are women for whom Van Nuys means my summer sweating for Leon at the Travel Inn.

You might presume (as I did) someone was awfully eager to pose them on the bed like chattel. How we feel about the picture depends on who we think the photographer is. We assume a male. Polaroids are keepsakes. But what if one of the women took the picture and it was meant for each other, the pose taken ironically, an artifact of their sisterhood in the fleshy trenches?

How did the picture make the journey from the motel room to the Favela?  Through whose hands did it pass?  Maybe no ones. Maybe one of these women is living in a tent next to the 405 right now. It would be the simplest explanation, but doesn’t feel like the right movie to me.

Rainflowers To Come

O’Melveny, six weeks after the wildfire:  Nature’s Civil War battlefield.  Light rain falling and no one about, like we were the last two people on earth, navigating an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament.

Come spring, the flowers will return in abundance.   We know this before we put our first boot print in the afternoon mud, which makes it fun rather than depressing. We take comfort playing tourist in nature’s cycle of wrath and renewal.

Here, on the charcoal side of the Urban-Wildlife Interface,  one realizes the only thing between the former and the latter is the forty feet of asphalt on Sesnon St.   Then you remember the Santa Rosa fire of 2017, which jumped a six-lane freeway.  Then you think of the Hollywood Hills, of Brentwood, of canopies of trees overhanging narrow streets, nearly shaking hands, and winds whistling up the canyons.

If we think we can live in this tension indefinitely, houses pushing in, nature clawing back, what happens when people begin squatting in the unclaimed spaces, cooking over open flames?  How does that change our calculus?

Unlike nature, Shantytown, Inc. has no opposing force.  Camping in the underbrush is incentivized. There’s no one at City Hall arguing for prudence, only subsidy.  More service providers dispensing free stuff. The rest of us carry on arguments in the privacy of our heads.

How long will this parallel world build up along the unclaimed spaces, along the freeways and rivers and storefronts before wrath enters the picture?

What form will the rain flower take?