Lights, Camera, Eat

Backstage at the the most ostentatious grocery store in the history of San Fernando Valley, opening Wednesday….

Ralphs started out as a local chain in Los Angeles. If you wrote a complaint to the manager for bad service, he would come to your house with a fruit basket.   Alpha-Beta started in Pomona, and it ran cheesy ads with low end brands emerging from a bottomless paper bag and actor Alan Hamel urging viewers to “tell a friend”.

It was a different world then. You could smoke in the aisles and fill your cart with Sugar Smacks and Jiffy, and give your kid a shiner if he was making too much noise.

Now Whole Foods and Pavilions and Gelson’s are taking no prisoners, sparing no expense in the war of luxury. Little zings of moral affirmation will be found on every shelf. Local this. Fair trade that. No preservatives, no hormones, no trans fats. The gentry will be satisfied!   The little people can f*** off to Costco.  (Or they can shop at Amazon. Win-win, Bezos.)

Whole Foods employees have been told they will be ticketed and towed if they park in the surrounding neighborhood.   But they are expressly instructed not to park in the garage. Those spaces are reserved for shoppers.   In a metropolis where every public land use decision pivots on parking space requirements, this is a remarkable oversight. Unless of course it isn’t.

A Kind of Hush

At twilight last night on Sepulveda the LAPD set up traffic cones, parting the cars like the Red Sea…and into the breach walked the parishioners of St. Genevieve parish, murmuring the Lord’s Prayer.

I don’t think any of the delayed drivers were expecting this.  I was out walking the dogs, and I didn’t expect it either.  A quiet vigil was met with respectful silence from the inconvenienced.

America is decidedly more pro-life than when I was younger.  But quietly so. Simultaneously, it is also loudly pro-gay marriage.  These are thought of as being in opposition. In a narrow political context, perhaps yes.  But they are more complementary than one would credit.  The politician willing to straddle the contradictions within us has an ungrateful nation waiting to tear him asunder.

I say come to Van Nuys. We ground zero for understanding.

1948, In Shards

This is the first sentinel we encountered on our way to the fancy tile emporium in NoHo.


The second sentinel, awaiting our return. He shuffled over to us as though he were about to deliver a handwritten letter.  One grows accustomed to panhandlers at the intersections, conniving or addicted, but not hunched with calcium loss.  I’d say he looked about 70, the same age as my bathroom.

The bathtub was forged in cast iron by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Co., then dropped into the framing by a road gang in 1948, with no thought given to later renovation, leaving only one exit route, via sledgehammer.

This was the American Radiator Building in New York City, gilded icon of the Jazz Age, all Gothic turrets and coal-inspired black brick.

It once had a showroom in the basement for its useful, class-neutral products: radiators, boilers and bathroom fixtures. Now it’s a Moroccan-themed cocktail lounge called Celon where one can order a Lavender Oasis martini for an undisclosed price.   The Radiator Building is now the Bryant Park Hotel.

Because one cannot over-improve for the neighborhood anymore, even in The Nuys.  Because we are all hostage to whatever 1948 house we landed upon in the somnolent years before The Restoration.  Because no one can trade up to Echo Park.    Because equity trumps the purchasing power of a paycheck, so we bloom where we’re planted.

Because a white tiled bathroom would make Mrs. UpintheValley so very, very sad.

That world is in shards, now.

The Trap House We Live In

I’m fond of oppositional hypotheticals: Would you give up X for Y, if….

It might be my most annoying trait.

Lately, I have been given to propositioning people: for what would you be willing to give up your phone?

Would you do it in exchange for a free house in LA?  Say, for one year. Would you disconnect from social media, from search, from Yelp and Uber and Grand Theft Auto and Netflix streaming in your hand and all the other divertissements and useful gadgetry threaded into modern life?

I don’t understand, reply my interlocutors. What are we, Amish? What would be the point?

Because you’re getting a free house, that’s why. In Los Angeles. And I, the Grand Proposer of this particular Eden say: eat not of this technology.   It’s like Frontier House, except your only going back to 2007.

But I can’t fap without a phone. I can’t last without fap. Actually I probably could. I can’t last without video games. I need to behead something once a day to stay sane.  

Do we have a landline?
You can have a landline.
I still don’t want to do it.
Are you crazy? Free rent! Los Angeles at your disposal.  Find yourself for a year…

I take pride in paying rent, says my friend paying $1200 for a cell without light in the Casa Royale on Sepulveda.

You’d think there would be a lot of takers. The de-coupling of housing costs in Los Angeles from the underlying wage structure have reached such a point of absurdity (or market clearing price), people would step back into the recent primitiveness of the Oughts with, if not eagerness, then hopeful curiosity.  As in, what could it hurt?  It might even bring on an uptick of cognitive function.

Only one person responded affirmatively, and he’s Canadian.

Look, I get it.  I fixed a broken dishwasher with a 95 cent hose clamp after a five minute diagnosis at YouTube University.  Instant hacks, the democratization of knowledge is gratifying and addicting. How do I get dog blood out of my mattress? Why is there a traffic jam up ahead?  For how long? When is the next yoga class?  What are the tasting notes on this wine bottle in my hand? What’s the correct German translation of “I’m afraid of bats in the dark?”

These are useful things, so we feel we have earned the right to be shallow in other realms: Facebook when lonely, Instagram when bloated,  listicles when bored.     When we feel pretty we want the world to know. We issue press releases for ourselves and call it sharing.

People would rather be chained to two jobs, plus commute, rather than bear the idea of being disconnected from “friends”:  I need for them to be able to reach me.  I need to know what is going on.  I need to be in communication.   In the course of a decade, this unease with being “alone”,  rather than inconvenienced, has become insurmountable. Enter the Samsung Family Hub…

So, you’re telling me I can surf the web from my refrigerator?
Yes, and it shows you who is at the front door while showing you how to cook a soufflé. 
Does it tell me when we’re out of milk? 
Actually it tells your phone. 

The Hub is a 21 inch touch screen in the fridge door,  which operates as a convenience fairy godmother;  streaming music, offering apps, taking lists, alerting you to intruders in the yard, and crucially, operating as a microphone recording every word spoken in your kitchen and relaying that information to a great Metadata Repository to never, ever be used for anything but Benign Purposes.

There are several Family Hub commercials, and the common theme is atomization: children and spouses interact not with each other but through the refrigerator screen even though they are in the same room. The Mothers are doing More Important Things, like heading off to design meetings.

The expression on the actor’s face is meant to convey wonder. Unintentionally, I think it reveals doubt.  As in, is this how I’m going to pay my rent this month, by encouraging people to talk to their refrigerator?

Let’s talk about what’s possible.™

Van Ice is Nice, and Will Suffice

…on a hot day when you need something cold.  A little thin for my taste, but an improvement over 329 Lager from Golden Road, which is what it was intended to displace. Sales are brisk. I worry this may prove their best selling release, on strength of shrewd marketing alone, thus tarnishing the brand.  But what do I know?

Don’t let the picture fool you. This woman knows what she’s doing.  She’s running the only pub north of downtown that has people lined up on weeknights.  When we go full Highland Park in about 2.3 years, you’ll know who to blame.

Anyone remember Andy Black?  Not a Van Nice type of guy, and I think there might be a lesson in that.  Jennifer and Alastair put the truth in the label, even while using it ironically.  They’ve married Dale Carnegie to hipster-ville.  

Humble Origins

The original Microsoft headquarters, Albuquerque, NM. Annual gross revenues, $16,000.

The first ten employees, plus a pizza delivery boy who stepped into the lower left of the frame by mistake. Any one of them could purchase a small nation today, for cash. Original Intel HQ, Menlo Park. I happened across these pictures on a listicle and it struck me just how…Van Nuys-ian they were: low-rise, utilitarian and anonymous.

Could this mean genius is flowering in my neighborhood, underfoot yet unrevealed? If not genius, then a fresh, paradigm-crushing business model? Is someone quietly assembling the next Death Star just beyond my back yard? Let’s take a walk into the world behind Target and find out.

Empty, but I think they used to make furniture out of recycled wood.

“Deliveries in reap.” This building say go away and says it with unintentional poetry.

Looks empty, but was recently the production offices for Workaholics.

Full to capacity, but in the business of renting space for someone else’s dreams. That’s a very old paradigm.  LA 1.0.

Sketch Paper Design, a post-production facility.  Promising. Plus a pirate flag, which isn’t. Too self-referential.

Somehow I don’t think Document Engineering, Inc. is headed for the NASDAQ. Glover looks like B-roll footage for a crime story on the local news.

I found this logo plastered on a door to a windowless bunker and was instantly intrigued.  What the hell is The Lucky Hand, Inc? What is the significance of the hamsa, the eye in the palm?

Nothing on the exterior hinted at what lay within. The row of well tended roses only enhanced a riddle straight of Thomas Pynchon, like the Trystero society in The Crying of Lot 49.

Look closer, said the palm.  I ward off spirits.  I am known since antiquity as a protector against the Evil Eye.

Well…a little Googling tells us it’s an air freshener company.

Killing evil odors, that’s Van Nuys for you.  Better as a mystery than a product. But then mysteries usually are.  Humble score: 100.

To Be A Knight, 1976

When we think of Star Wars we don’t think of a parking lot near the Van Nuys airport. Such was the state of special effects in 1976. 

Industrial Light and Magic was invented on the fly for the purposes of making the film. It’s remarkable to look back on the mother of all action sequences improvised with rope pulleys and animation cameras mounted on the back of pickup trucks.  In the analog shire that was Van Nuys…

There was so little air circulation inside the warehouse a single kleig light would raise the temperature to 130 degrees, necessitating outdoor filming.

This is how the popcorn was popped, how Luke Skywalker, patron of fatherless boys everywhere, torpedoed the Empire like a womp rat.

Meanwhile, over in Burbank, also in 1976, Lockheed was developing Have Blue,  the prototype for the F-117 Stealth Bomber. This also was an improv of sorts, in response to the rise of Russian surface-to-air missile technology  utilized in Vietnam and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Nighthawk would prove a decisive tipping point in the fall of the Soviet Union.

GM was cranking out Camaros, the terrestrial equivalent of a tie fighter. To drop into the bucket seat was to cross into a kind of knighthood,  to aspire to greatness in your own life, however modest it may actually have been.

The Valley was badass, without apology.