American Novocaine

Mrs. U:  My day was incredibly frustrating.
Me: Do you want to talk about it?
Mrs. U: No. I just want to watch The Bachelor.
Me: I might have deleted it by mistake.
Mrs. U: Very funny. And most not forgivable. Does he send home Kendall? Don’t tell me. It’s Kendall, right? Don’t tell me.

Mrs. U: This makes no sense at all. Kendall is too good for him.  She won’t say yes. Tia loved him! What was he thinking? What was she thinking, telling him she loved him? Why was she wearing white? I hate Arie! Someone should beat him with a shoe.

Me: How’s your headache?
Mrs. U: Oh, I’m all better now.  I can’t wait to listen to the recap tomorrow.

If You Want To Be A Bird….

The Bird scooter, recently ubiquitous on the Westside.  You book one like an Uber, find it on your GPS, ride it to your destination, or until you get bored, or until the battery runs out, then you leave it on the sidewalk. Then the next rider hops on.  A lotus eaters version of the Russian Army in Stalingrad sharing the rifles.

The future of rideshare in Los Angeles?  I guess we’ll know Van Nuys has truly arrived when the Bird gets here.  Or we’ll know the Bird has truly arrived when it reaches Van Nuys.

Like, for example, the Barbie PowerWheels SUV with 12-volt motor, speakers, and faux leather seats.  This is the status and consumption marking kind of thing we love in girl-centric suburban America.

Until the older brother gets ahold of it and strips the drivetrain trying to spin donuts in the driveway.  Then he and his friends throw it into the Pacoima Wash to rid themselves of the evidence.

All  brightly colored plastic shiny things wind up in the Wash eventually, to be reclaimed and repurposed by the Favela.  Grab and go.  Leave it anywhere. Someone will be by soon enough.

Son of Carnage

There are no boundaries between them. She pushes him around the store in a stroller he’s two years too big for.    He grabs everything he can reach and throws it to the floor and she exclaims theatrically as though he hadn’t unveiled the same delighted gesture the day before.  She basks in the attention while brown-skinned people drop to their knees and attend to his mess.

She deputizes the floor cleaners into her circle of conversation as though they were a paying audience for her one-woman performance art show.  There are no class distinctions acknowledged in Brentwood, just people with nametags who can be pressed into service as loyal family servants but to whom there are no reciprocal obligations.

The boy shrieks and reaches for new things to topple, for levers to yank, for containers to spill.  He has worlds to conquer and a mother who needs drama.

“Look Nikolas, you’ve created an album cover.”

Barbed Wire, Bougainvillea and a Box of Bees

Van Nuys, simplified: Nature and utility at war.  Beauty is forever encroaching upon blight here.

Inscrutable dogs park their disembodied heads atop concrete block walls and stare at us as we walk past.

Funghi popcorns from tree bark to announce an early spring.

…and people leave their bees nests in a box by the sidewalk.

The bees don’t stay in the box, believe it or not.  They move five feet to the utility pole, and begin a new hive.  They wiggle furiously into the seams. Unless I’m mistaken, these are honey bees, a diminishing natural resource. Are they queen-less now? Will they survive to re-pollinate the neighborhood, or collapse?

In Van Nuys we say ‘meh’ to nature, and nature ignores our indifference in return.

Justin and Tariq

In three thousand rides, I’ve never kicked anyone out of my Uber.  I carry no weapons, no pepper spray, not even a strobing LED penlight, like the bouncers use to disorient testosterone-raging patrons. I have no dash cam.

Perhaps I’m shooting dice with fate. Or just rather blessed. Or possessed of a sublimely American faith in my fellow man. But I drive bareback, and so far it has served me well.

No man has tried to grab my steering wheel while driving on the freeway, praise Jesus, on the 110, down in the luge run south of USC, at late-night velocity. Can you imagine the sphincter-clenching craziness?

Women break the rules in rideshare, not men. Because they can.  They jump over the back seat to engage you in conversation.  They shriek in the middle of chaotic intersections, posing for selfies. They demand to be taken to the Taco Bell drive-thru. They put their hand on your arm, and say “you think I’m pretty, right? Right?”  

They fall asleep with their dress hiked over their hips, and don’t respond when you tell them they’re home, leaving you to decide whether to ‘nudge’ them awake, with all the potential liability that might entail.  They grab the aux cord and volume control and play their jams.  They stand with the door open, talking with their friends, causing traffic jams in front of nightclubs. They refuse to leave the car.   They overshare. They interrogate you with intimately personal questions.

None of them have reached for the wheel, however.  Deep in the limbic brain, they know not to.

So what to make of tragic, doe-eyed, all-American Justin Lavelle cruelly ejected from a Lyft on the Harbor Freeway by swarthy, villainous Tariq Rasheed, after being pepper-sprayed (allegedly) because he grabbed the steering wheel (allegedly) while having a panic attack, which he was prone to, though there is no way of knowing he was actually having at that moment?  Justin was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the shoulder, sobbing on the phone (also allegedly) with his mother in Virginia.

Who could do such a monstrous thing?   Would I?  Perhaps I might.

A 1 am ride from WeHo to Long Beach is a big, big moneymaker for a driver.  You have distance, plus a late-night bonus of 50-60%, plus open roads. One can earn an easy $50 in half an hour, and still have time to make it back downtown for last call. Rides like that make driving profitable.

It would take an extraordinary provocation to cut it short.

“I couldn’t move the steering wheel an inch. I could have died. I had no choice but to save my life”.

Only the two of them know why this ride went south in a hurry. Justin, sitting in the passenger seat, called his boyfriend to complain the driver wanted to drop him off.  A three-way argument ensued, then Justin “held” the wheel (twice, allegedly), forcing Tariq to continue on to Long Beach, rather than taking an off-ramp.  Bad idea.   That’s how you end up walking along the freeway shoulder, wiping pepper spray out of your eyes.

This is how far he had to walk.  Stay well to the right of the white line, and you’ll be okay.  So why didn’t he?  The mystery of human behavior is revealed in danger.

David Madson, Andrew Cunanan’s second murder victim,  watched as he murder his lover, Jeffrey Trail, in his apartment. Then he rode round with him in a truck for several days.  Given a number of opportunities, he didn’t attempt to escape. Friends of David saw him with Andrew, walking the dog, but he made no outcry for help.    Perhaps he was hoping, when the moment came, he could talk his way out of it. Watching the Versace miniseries, we root for him to slip away, but we know he won’t.     He was executed in a lonely spot by a lake where he allowed his captor to take him.  Don’t Be A Victim 101 says: never let someone else remove you to a remote location. Don’t relinquish authority over your destination. Don’t let them take the wheel.  Fight or flight begins there.

The circumstances in these two cases couldn’t be more different.  Intoxicated he may have been, Justin’s desire was to get to Long Beach. Tariq’s desire was to get home to his two sons.  He had no margin for error.  There begins the tragedy.

The driver of the death car, the person who didn’t stop? Now he’s in a fight or flight with his own conscience.   That’s a longer, stickier narrative.

Last Empty Lot in Van Nuys

Not quite, but almost.  At the current pace of redevelopment there won’t be a single weedy lot left, not one orphaned tree marooned between apartment buildings, bereft and wishing for the company of crows, the itchy scrape of feral cats.

Sprawl has flipped on its side and moves on a vertical axis now. Down two stories for the parking, then up four for the apartments. Four being the height limit for non-treated wood frame construction in LA.   This right here used to be the infamous Voyager Motel, which perished in a “fire” two years ago and is being replaced with a 160-unit building. Either it is going to be steel frame or the right people got greased, because the renderings indicate a structure six stories tall.

The Theater of Disappearance

Remember, we all must die.

Down at the Geffen Contemporary freezers run 24/7 preserving that which cannot be preserved… meat and driftwood and man’s creation, from birthday cakes to tennis shoes to bicycles, the vanity of earthly life arranged like bouquets…a memento mori for the anthropocene.    There is no heaven nor hell depicted by Adrian Villar Rojas, only the opulence of decay, and man’s fruitless quest for immortality. He is coy on the topic of the soul.  He places fish strategically, though perhaps ironically, throughout the exhibit, which is massive, 100 trucks of earthworks and salvaged pieces from prior exhibitions to form a stuffed timepiece, a man-made fossil. I suspect he doesn’t believe in divine judgment, though he trades on it.

What I really wonder is what Rojas would make of the Defenders of Boyle Heights. If they crossed the river to picket his installation, would he hand them bullhorns and cheer them on,  thereby defanging them?  Envaginating them, to employ a more proper metaphor, within his own work:

“Villar Rojas sees each project as an educational opportunity not only for those who visit the exhibition but equally so for himself. The institutions are given an opportunity, in turn, to reconsider the use of their own architectural assets, filtered or focused through the lens of Villar Rojas’s highly attuned sensitivities..this invasive dynamic allows Villar Rojas to develop an almost—in his own words—“parasitic relationship” with the institution; it is in this radical dialogue and exchange where both the artist-parasite and the institution-host explore the limits of what is possible and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not, what is negotiable and what is not. Ethics and politics, no less than agency and decision-making, are at stake in the project, opening a series of tough questions: When and where does a project actually begin?”

“Artist-parasite”…Adrian and the picketers are already speaking the same language, separated only by a million dollars in funding.

Remember, our disappearance will be theatrical.

Galatea

Who we’re told to be, who we pretend to be, and who we are, framed within a frame within a frame.  Faking it, loving it, and not caring.

Be pretty, I command, always with encouragement.  Turn your head into the light. 

We abandon the Valley on Sundays and forage the city for new locales. Stand here,  I smell blog,  and she peeks from doorways for me and poses Instagramably atop boats and in front of murals and descends staircases and makes faces until she gets bored with it (which is soon) but there is a window, a golden mean in an afternoon before the misty glow of alcohol hardens into caloric grumpiness and the dread of the looming work week when she’s eager to muse.  I am Pygmalion. We defy time.  We create our own mythology. 

Go Away, Coffee…

All you Betabrand-wearing white folks from the other side of the river, begone. Begone, gentrifiers, and take your french press and chocolate lab  with you.  Shimmy off in your skinny jeans  and spend your money  elsewhere.     Shoo, flies. Shoo!  The arabica shall not cross Cesar Chavez Blvd.

Begone artists!  Begone patrons apologists! We shall not be art washed! Safe spaces do not gentrify.

Meanwhile, the city is building, at fantastic expense, a modernist bridge literally marrying Boyle Heights to the Arts District, in which no artists reside. 

Artist-filled Boyle Heights watches the money bridge approach each day, like manifest destiny…

..and in the advance, seeding the ground before it, the bungalow teardown trend going vertical…Venice East, in motion, and the answer that pops into the heads of the Defenders of Boyle Heights is…no coffee, dammit!    No hanging your work in galleries. Yeah. That’ll stop it.

Mystère Femmes Aux Pieds Nus

So it’s 2:30am, and you’re heading home from the beach towns on the 405, listening to The Cask of Amontillado on the radio, headlights piercing fog banks at 80 mph, when a ping comes over the Uber app.  An easy pickup, right off the freeway.

Easy pickups are the Uber driver’s fool’s gold, particularly when you’ve already called it a night. Convenience has a way of luring you in, then sending you all the way to West Covina just at the moment you’re ready for whiskey and a plump pillow, to punish you for wanting one more.

The GPS location is a bar. The bar is closed. No one is hanging out in front of the bar. Not a pedestrian in sight in either direction. So you wait, and listen to a chain-smoking actor from the 1940s melodramatically recite Fortunato’s visit to the wine cellar. At the five minute mark, a young woman emerges from a service alley behind the building: no shoes, no purse, short black dress, clutching an iPhone and looking like bees slept in her hair, or worse.

She skips to the car on the soles of her feet, shivering.  She smells of alcohol, but she’s upright and near as you can tell, compos mentis.  Though she looks exactly like the nameless victim in the opening scene of a slasher film,  no one is chasing her.  The destination is the Airport Hilton.

Nobody goes to a hotel, shoeless, at 2:30am for a good reason.  Who goes shoeless across the pavement of an American city for any reason? Shoelessness is crisis in motion.  Why no purse?  The only thing which distinguished her in vulnerability from a deer in the forest was the glowing phone in her hand, which vibrated loudly every ten seconds, bearing urgency which had no explanation.

Was she okay, you ask. Yeah, why, she replies dismissively. Due diligence complete, you take her to the Hilton as she has paid you to do. You purloin glimpses of her in the rear view mirror.

She dashes across the bright entryway on dirty feet, flashing a glimpse of butt cheek as she pushes through the spinning glass door. You linger a moment to see if someone is there to meet her, but there isn’t.  Is she arriving, or returning? Fleeing danger or diving headfirst into a whirlpool of foolishness? The elevator door closes on her, and with it any clear explanation.

On Friday, Mrs. UpintheValley is walking the dogs at her usual hour: 5am, i.e., total darkness.

Thwap Thwap Thwap she hears to the left of her.  A blur, running past porchlights.   She turns the corner, keeps walking. Two blocks later, the thwapping returns, and another blur runs past her, moving in the opposite direction.

Mrs. U bends down to retrieve dog poop, and suddenly there is a loud thump directly overhead.

A woman wearing only a bra top and a pair of leggings has jumped atop the roof of the car next to her. No shoes.  No purse. No phone.

The woman waves her hands hysterically in front of her face. She’s terrified of pitbulls, she says.  Meaning Trixie.  Also, she’s just been pepper-sprayed.

She was a stripper at Synn, up on Sepulveda.  There was a misunderstanding about money another stripper accused her of taking from a purse. She didn’t have her glasses on, she explained, and might have been mistaken in whose purse it was. But she didn’t take nobody’s money. Plus, she’d been drinking.

She had to drink because she hated stripping so much but she needed the money to pay for kinesiology school.  But that didn’t mean she was stealing.

She had a long-winded, barely believable, non-theiving explanation for how she came to be running barefoot through the neighborhood in the wee hours with nothing on but a bra top and leggings and Mrs. U listened to it patiently until the police arrived, shined a flashlight into her blinking face and administered the Three Questions.

My life is boring, I think, when I consider these two night couriers, these harbingers of drama.  How predictable I have grown. You can set a watch by my responsiblity.  I’m a guy who lives in the Valley and pays his bills. Banks love me. People call me sir.

Oh, to heed the siren call of barefooted women, and swagger into the Mystery Elevator, careless and eager.