Autumn in Los Angeles

Suppose we were to have a civil war in L.A.  Suppose the breakaway provinces north of Mulholland Drive declared a sovereign city.  Suppose the armies assembled in the Sepulveda Basin for the first pitched battle, Blackwater vs. the Valley Militia. Suppose after sustaining heavy losses to sniper fire Mayor Garcetti called in a napalm strike from the air to give his Hessians cover to retreat.

My question is: would the result look different than what the homeless army has done to the Basin this summer?

If I want to camp in a state park, I have to purchase a space and obey a long list of prudential diktats.  Squatting in dry brush with a gas grill and a crack pipe would be at the top of the NO list.

The line between civilization and a state of nature is drawn with butane.
And unlimited EBT cards.
And the right to shit on the pavement forever.
And loot store shelves.
And break windows.
And step off a bus from Ohio with a heroin habit, a bedroll, and an incontestable claim to residency.
All this is de facto legal now.
In fact, it’s a billion-dollar-a-year business.
Want to guess the budget for the Valley Audubon Society?

Enough gloom. Let’s take a peek on the other side of the dam.  Something seems to be happening on the spillway.  Some kind of roller skating party. A clandestine meetup of photographers and models and dance troupes. That’s not allowed!  No one is supposed to be there.

Breaking the rules, all of them. Until the park police chase them away, it’s all spinning girls and illicit smiles and the possibility of the city reclaimed from those who stole it from us.

Trumpstock Comes to Woodley Park

Trump tribes gathered on Sunday, in deep-blue Los Angeles, for a road rally down the 405.  Lots of honking, lots of flags, lots of “Y.M.C.A”.  Note to grad students: there is a cultural anthroplogy dissertation waiting to be written about the Trump/Village People convergence.

Good turnout. Perhaps the Valley is more conservative than I think. The parade went on for a good ten minutes. No counter-protest.

Defibrillator Man, Gunshot Guy and Dr. Slick

Me: Can I take my appendix home with me?
Nurse: No, no. If it comes from the body, it goes to pathology.
Me: Did I creep you out by asking?
Nurse: I’ve heard it all and seen it all. I once had a patient covered with swastika tattoos tell me he didn’t want a nigger to touch him. I say to him: Would you prefer death?
Me: God commands us to be colorblind
Nurse: This is what I think. He doesn’t exist.  I am from Africa. There is no explanation for the suffering of children you see in the third world.  American people don’t understand suffering. We quarrel over the smallest things.

Then she wheeled me into the operating room.

Last Sunday I woke with tenderness and discomfort in my lower right abdomen which spread outward during the day and grew more painful to the touch.  My belly began to distend.  As someone who goes to the doctor about once every 25 years, my first instinct was to wait it out.  Then I remembered my friend Paul.

Back in the aughts, he went to an ER in Los Angeles presenting with abdominal pain.  After a few hours, they sent him home with antibiotics and some medication.  His pain worsened. In the morning he returned to the ER, jaundiced. Overnight his appendix had burst and peritonitis had set in. They intubated him. A comic writer and actor, he entertained everyone with jokes on a small whiteboard. Five hours after walking in under his own power he was dead. His fiance was 7 months pregnant.

Mrs. UpintheValley remembered Paul as well and insisted on driving me to Valley Presbyterian which is how I came to lay in a gurney at 2 am listening to Defibrillator Man on the other side of the curtain bellow at the nursing staff for more Oxy 30.  D-Man is what is known in the medical trade as a frequent flyer. The fire department wheeled him in, along with his garbage bags, complaining of heart palpitations and squeezings and whatnot.

“It’s my own faults for skipping dialysis this week.”  He smoked Newport 100s up until his first heart attack.  He’s had four. Now he wheels his own defibrillator with him in his wanderings around the Valley.  Prolonged litigation ensued with the nursing staff over which arm to put the saline drip.

“Not the left. That’s where all the hard veins are.  You’ll never get the needle in. You have to use this one over here. It still good.”
“That one won’t work, sir.”
“You telling me I don’t know my veins? I asked for my Oxy 30 an hour ago!”

It had been about five minutes. This argument recycled itself.  There was a wet splash on the linoleum and a satisfied groan from D-Man.

“I told you so.”

Against my nature and my politics, I sympathized with him more than I should.  Pain changes you.  So does addiction.   It was not my finest hour, nor his. We were two men of similar age but very different lives separated for the moment by a wisp of curtain.

The nurse poked his head in to give me the results of the CT scan: acute appendicitis, not yet burst.

“I’m going to give you some morphine now. How much would you like?
“As little as possible.”

As little as possible flattened me to the gurney. For a precarious moment, I was Ewan McGregor falling through the carpet in Trainspotting.  A flash of paranoia: in all the mishegas they must have given me Defibrillator Man’s dosage by mistake. Yes, I must be O.D.ing. This is what it feels like. I am about to be a cautionary tale at a local nursing school. “This is why Kevin is working retail now…”

But no, it was just morphine doing what it has done for centuries.

They brought me upstairs to a private room with 12-foot ceilings and a window facing south, protected from the sun by a run of trees. Quiet as a monastery. Pleasingly asymmetrical. I was on the second floor of one of the two original circular pod towers designed by William Pereira in 1958, a groundbreaking innovation at the time.  The charge nurse was astonished to hear me praise my accommodation.

“Usually I have to apologize for putting anyone here. People hate this room. It’s too small. They prefer the new annex building. The bathrooms there are about as big as this room.”

What can I say? It was bigger than my bedroom. There were no bright lights and annoying beeps, no moaning effluence two feet away.  I was in God’s Hotel.

Valley Pres at its booster-ish conception was the epitome of mid-century modern cool. It was also, like the freeway system and the water pipes, woefully inadequate in size and scope for the city it served. A street grid for over a million people had already been laid across the Valley, and everyone pretended a hospital of this size was sufficient. Permits were easy then, planning negligible.  A third tower, twice as tall, was added in 1966, then support buildings, parking structures, the annex. Today the original building is stripped of its iconic metal shutters that kept the sun off the windows, a forgotten starter home dwarfed by larger McMansions, barely visible from the street.

Gunshot Guy was on the gurney to my left as we waited for our turn in the operating bay.   He lay fetally on his side, his foot poking out from the blankets, wrapped in a rugby ball-sized swath of bandages.

“Are you on cocaine right now?  It’s okay we don’t judge.”
“How much cocaine did you take?”
“How much heroin are you using?”
“Is that daily? The anesthetist needs to know before we operate.”
“We can remove the bullet, and reset the bones, but you will have difficulty putting any weight on it for a long time.”
“We have a physical therapist to help you re-learn walking.”

Gunshot Guy mumbled his responses from underneath the blankets.   The double doors opened and they wheeled in an obese woman, who recited her list of surgeries to a captive audience of nurses as though a reality show film crew were in the hallway with us, recording her every word.  First had been her ankle, then her hip, then her back, and now her neck. The injustice of human frailty was ascending her body like a clan of mountaineering trolls.

“This is so unfair. I’m only 48 years old. I’m too young for this shit.”

At this juncture, the African nurse bent into view to tell me with perfect colonial grammar and a baroque accent she would be shaving my groin. I wondered if she would use a straight razor. I considered all the comedic possibilities of my testes and Murphy’s Law.  Her face was filled with exactly the compassion one seeks at such a moment, and it was here we had our lovely conversation about God and suffering.

I was in the best hands, she assured me. Dr. Slick would be attending to me.

LBJ and his gallbladder scar
The day after Dr. Slick

I had heard of Dr. Slick from the E.R. nurse the night before. Also from the floor nurse upstairs and the attending physician. How lucky I was to catch him!  They all said how fast he was, a virtuoso with a laparoscope.  My only association with speed and medicine was Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons, and the creepy lobotomist in the film Frances, so it was a relief to be greeted by a guy who looked like an accountant but had a roll in his step like a professional athlete.  I was easily his most boring case of the day. He would be going through my belly button and a 5mm opening on my left side.

“Count backward from 100,” they said once I was situated on the table.  I decided to recite the Lord’s Prayer instead. I got as far as “our father, who art in…”

Al Fresco, Queens

My grandparents, walking home from the market with dinner, the 1940s. Sunnyside, Queens. Urban grocery shopping, the French way, daily, a short walk from the apartment.  This was how it was done in the icebox era.

They look okay for two people who never did a burpee or took a yoga class in their lives. He smoked unfiltered Camels for 65 years, drank martinis daily, and died at 85 with a full head of hair. She smoked Winstons and lived to 78.  They divorced in the 1960s, after their third kid.

Today America loads up the GMC Yukon like we’re preparing for the hundred-year storm every time we go to the market.  We have more condiments than we can fit on our shelves so we put them in the back of the lazy susan and forget about them. Years later we get around to that long-postponed deep cleaning and wonder why we have six bottles of red wine vinegar and pounds of expired wheat flour and rice.  Why does the freezer have so many opened bags of broccoli and frozen raspberries tied off with rubber bands?

Cause we can. We didn’t have to carry it up Sepulveda Blvd.

A Gloss for the Greater Good

Woke commerce, Abbot Kinney

To escape this heat without end, I took the bike to the beach yesterday.  After my ride, I topped myself off with a $20 kale smoothie on Abbot Kinney.

Twenty dollars! Strip club prices. Decadent. I’m sure I didn’t even spend that much on a premium cocktail at the posh Nomad Hotel last year but tis the season to do all we can to help small business.

The merchants of Venice are doing their utmost to bridge the distance between the necessities of commerce in a time of Wuhan, and paying obeisance to the woke mob, lest it erupt again in greater strength.

It’s a balancing act, meeting your monthly nut with limited customers while conducting socially performative capitalism.

Here’s the Abbot Kinney Straddle: make rich Wypipo as invisible as possible while marketing to said rich Wypipo.

Part of the gloss requires overlooking ironic facts…much of bungalow Venice was a black neighborhood not so long ago.  It was also single story. Here I shall invoke UpintheValley’s Second Law of the City: the further from the actual friction points of urban life, the louder the virtue signaling.

In a synthesis of the cognitive dissonance in summer 2020, someone converted a vintage Porsche into a planter as an artistic statement…of indeterminate meaning.   Guerilla marketing for a local garden store? Maybe.  The backdrop for a fashion shoot? People assumed it was some kind of pop-up Instagram and queued up to pose in front of it.

While not as badly hit as DTLA or Melrose, about a third of the stores have gone dark…

…which might explain this banner.  If the statement were true, though, would the banner be necessary?  I sense a whiff of desperation. I have a feeling things are about to get cheaper.

On other end of the economic spectrum, 72 years after being cut from citrus orchards as a whites-only landing pad for returning GIs, 50 years after man landed on the moon, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirteen years after the iPhone, my neighborhood this morning finally enjoys the benefit of street lighting.

We’re 17 miles from Venice. Hard to believe it’s the same city.  There’s an upside to this. In the shakeout to come, we have a much shorter distance to fall.  Our neighborhood doesn’t depend on $20 smoothies and sales of $150 graphic tees.  We aren’t glossy.  We are anti-fragile.

Witness

Standing alone for the blue, Ventura and Sepulveda.

The Sherman Oaks BLM chapter has been busking in front of The Galleria for 113 consecutive afternoons. On Sundays, Benjamin stands on the opposite corner and witnesses for the police.  Sometimes the BLMers cross the intersection and do a walk by.  Compared to scenes from Portland the exchange, or lack thereof, was civilized.  Score one for the Valley.  He gets grief from passing drivers sometimes but doesn’t mind too much. He says he enjoys it.

American Rhymes

Gus Chinn/Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection
Washington Post

“When they crowded around my table and started demanding that I raise my fist, it was their insistence that I participate in something that I did not understand that led me to withhold my hand.”  -Lauren Victor, diner and reluctant fist-raiser.

Top photo:  Sit-in at the lunch counter of the Cherrydale Drugstore, Arlington, Virginia, 1960.

Apart from the historical irony, I can’t help wondering which of these tableaus is worse.   That I should be asking this question in 2020 says a lot about how far we have strayed from e Pluribus Unum and where we are inevitably headed.

If one can only be either fully woke or stand accused of being a white supremacist then our public space has become awfully small in a very short window of time. Most of us choose the path of least resistance, which precludes sitting alone on principle.  The intimidators are banking on this.

115° in The Nuys

Feral Cat 1, Sun 0.  Basking in a survivors’ victory at 7 pm…
I have no idea how they do it with a fur coat on. Nature is a genius.

The ficus didn’t do so well yesterday.  Watered it on Saturday. Less than 24 hours later, the top third of the hedge withered before my eyes as though God had sent down pestilence.

All things green shall by sundown be green no more, sayeth the Lord.

Spectrum News

Inevitably, there was another homeless encampment brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin, the second of the past month.  We have normalized this like summer weather.

Feral cats and meth heads are anti-fragile.  Los Angeles may fall into perdition in the next six months and they will make a slight adjustment and continue as before. The rest of us, in our green and ordered life, anchored by our need for safety and sustainability, scan the horizon line and wonder what It Portends.

Under California Stars

This is what I saw en route to Lowes this week. I was buying concrete and a chair rail for the Moroccan wallpaper I ordered from Etsy and this guy in the next lane is fleeing Los Angeles.  Even the car he’s towing is filled with stuff.  So which one of us is the idiot?   I filtered it to look like an oil painting cause it felt like one: The Migration of 2020. Back to the Dust Bowl.

In a pinch, I could unpeel my pretentious Etsy-ish wallpaper, roll it into a tube, and find room for it in a U-Haul of my own, but concrete is another matter. That’s voting with my hands.  My existential debate about staying or leaving California is an idle one.  For now.

1600 Grand, by Gensler

This was DTLA in March, 3% unemployment and a futurist paradise of architectural renderings in waiting.  You can learn a lot about the culture of a city from its tallest buildings. They used to be churches. Then government buildings. Then banks. Now all the big stuff is apartments and hotels. Our most basic industry is lifestyle.  These lofty aeries sell aspiration as their core function. They are a place to dwell.  What do they dwell among?  The good life. Other dwellers, drawn to the same imperatives of, um, well, okay…cool things. Fabulous restaurants and preposterously priced craft cocktails and the sort of boutique that sells the sort of movables and knick-knacks that might appear in the glossy magazine Dwell.  It’s a virtuous circle of yoga and kale and above all beautiful women, this economy.  A certain species of woman, homo Instagramus, who fires the feverish designs of men. Concrete is trucked in by the ton to erect just the proper plinth for her.

Pygmalion and the Image

What is the nature of this plinth? It requires 1) physical safety and 2) lots of discretionary spending.  Prodigious spending, of a discerning, socially conscious nature, flattering to the spender.

What happens when these boutique businesses, the kind which punctuate the proper distinction between the glamour of Los Angeles 2.0 and the dreary but useful order of Santa Clarita, start dropping away?  How many businesses can you lose in one block before the gloss is gone and one is nose to nose with the feral world of the dispossessed, always a background character, now a co-star on the stage in a way you can no longer deny? Can a downtown with fewer amenities but a permanently subsidized army of street people exert the same magic hold on homo Instagramus, her suitors, and her imitators?

How many days can one spend on Zoom, ordering in, and binge-watching before concluding Amazon is the world’s greatest invention but isn’t it available in Tennessee?  What’s the 3BR price in Nashville? In a word, downtown teeters on fragility, though perhaps not so fragile as New York, being less dependent on Wall Street or the leasing of office space.

Opening of Van Nuys GM Plant, 1948
Last Camaro to roll off the line, 1992

Paradoxically, Van Nuys is actually rather anti-fragile.  The industrial union ship sailed in 1992. There are very few single-earner households here.  Three or four workers per domicile as a rule, if you include adult children, and they run the gamut from nurses to granite fabricators.  Los Angeles could take a pretty big economic hit, including the construction trades, and people in my neighborhood would be able to continue to pay their mortgages.  In the urban survivalist sweepstakes, four service workers trump one professional.  People who can’t easily pull up stakes for Nashville will stick around by default, paying bills.  Van Nuys has never been in danger of obtaining a Lululemon franchise, thereby is in no danger of losing one.  We already have plenty of empty storefronts.  Service gigs are abundant and pegged to the minimum wage, an incremental ratchet which only turns in one direction. We have achieved a kind of safety in modest expectations. Who knew?

San Francisco Chronicle

Then there’s this.  Answers to the viability question won’t be fiscal, rather they will prove civilizational. Will law and order hold?  Los Angeles hasn’t become Portland, yet, but that’s not due to bold leadership. Mayor Garcetti is in the same feckless vein as Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Jenny Durkan, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill DiBlasio.

Here’s my call: We have too many hard-working first and second-generation immigrants in L.A. grinding out shifts for political nihilism to take hold here.  In a city in which latinos outnumber blacks 5 to 1, there is a hard ceiling on how much street chaos BLM will be allowed to cause.

I think the jean short selfie on the 36th-floor garden balcony might have to wait a few years.   DTLA has an over-supply of inventory to work through. Applebook California has had a long run. Woody Guthrie California might be about to have its moment.

Erocide, USA

America 2020, waiting for tokens

Suppose you woke one morning to find yourself inside a sci-fi film…

…where no one was allowed to show their face in public. Everyone had to stand six feet apart and line up in rows for basic goods and services.  Most small businesses were closed by government policy but corporate chains like Target were declared essential and prospered.  People who couldn’t telecommute were paid to be idle.  Paid more than what they were earning before the movie started.

No one was allowed to name the virus or its point of origin. To say the words Wuhan or Chinese or was to self-denounce as racist and risk de-platforming.  The limits of speech were proscribed by three tech companies in San Francisco which made no apologies.  Without an ability to organize online, resistance dwindled.   People were bribed with their own money to be docile (TBC: their children’s future earnings)  and they accepted it.   They gave the minutiae of their lives to Chinese software.  They streamed webcams on 5G internet switching from Huawei. They made TikTok videos and attended Zoom cocktail parties.

Drug dealers and pizza delivery and porn prospered.  The fat and unhappy got a little fatter and unhappier than they were already.  Main Street declined, the stock market boomed. In the name of safety the media normalized this, then the rest of us. We agreed to be faceless in public.  There are no emojis IRL to hint at irony or dissent.

Schools were closed to in-person instruction.  Students pretended to attend online and were handed “diplomas” in the form of yard signs. They queued up in cars for graduation while teachers danced and waved goodbye.

On any given day only 36% of middle and high school students in Los Angeles participated, i.e., submitted work, took tests, posted on a discussion board.  Another 25% logged on, but didn’t participate.  40% never showed up at all.

Knowing the kill rate on distance learning was 64%, the teacher’s union refused to return to the classroom in the fall.   They had terms:

1% wealth tax
1% millionaire tax
3.3% income tax raise
$250 million federal bailout
A moratorium on charter schools
Paid sick leave for parents of sick kids
Defunding of police
Medicare for all
Homeless housing as a “right”

That these wishes were not politically possible, or virus related, was beside the point. With taxpayer money, UTLA erected hagiographic billboards to celebrate their refusal to report for duty.

In China, the teachers and students reported for class. In Sweden, they never closed.

If you are a really well-off Chinese businessman you fly your kid to Los Angeles and pay $40,000 to send them to the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches.   You get in-depth, hands-on instruction from her. You get an entire software package designed by her.  So do the children of the American professional classes and entertainers and professional athletes. The parents of unnamed prep school voted 70% to return to the classroom and were only prevented from doing so by Gov. Newsom. The minute waivers are allowed, the kids will return.   Until then, there is a brisk side business for private tutoring at $135/hr.

If you thought the country was divided by privilege before, what does it look like now?  Have another stimulus check. Consult Weedmaps. Buy porn tokens. Those girls in the top picture are America. They can be bought. It says so in their Twitter feed.  Tell me how this movie ends.