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.

Gratitude in Wuhantide

I’m eating steel cut oats this morning on the brick patio, fully nude, presenting my uncurated self to the sun,  and the new neighbor behind me, the one who doesn’t do autobody work or landscaping or hump boxes at TJ’s, the one who works in the music industry,  the one who peeked over the bamboo in April to say how much he admired my deck and with whom I made tentative plans to invite over for wine on said deck once, you know, the lockdown craziness had passed...is also on his patio this morning,  talking on the phone:

Do you know what the Magna Carta was? You think you do, but you don’t.
There were two. Most people don’t know that.
The secret Magna Carta was a way for the Royal family to collect money from countries the world over.
They’re richer than anyone knows. You are paying them money without knowing.
The Windsor family owns most of Los Angeles.  No, they do! Accept it.

It has been that kind of summer.  I wander naked, oatmeal bowl in hand, eavesdropping on conspiracy theories and call it Wednesday.

We can’t agree on the facts anymore, so we create entertainment to explain our world.   We burrow inward like the polyphagous shot-hole borer, lay our larvae, and let our fungus devour the tree from the inside. Two years after the pestilence, the sweetgums are falling all over my neighborhood this summer.

The Beautiful Young Man who Meditates could not be more at peace as he informs Mrs. UpintheValley, from a lotus position atop a car hood, the virus was invented for the purposes of installing tracking devices on everyone.

Los Angeles is getting a little autistic now, four months in. By robbing ourselves of facial cues behind our masks we can longer discern irony or return smiles. We fall into suspicion without exchanging words.   We make sport of denunciation.  We look inside our phones for the smoking gun proving the Other Side crazy.

The underlying facts remain unchanged, even if we don’t accept them. The virus will be lethal to 80-year-olds and obese diabetics.  The rest of us not so much, and on a declining scale of risk. Children not at all. So, by all means, close the schools. Let us have governmentally-inflicted entertainment; let’s put a tub of popcorn on the stove for Fear Porn II: The Return of Newsom.     

We deserve to be painted by Brueghel or Bosch.

What to do with this weird unrequested time-out?  Your early resentment at the induced economic coma is now a bit more philosophical. You decide to make a gift of it.  You make an abundance of your mornings.  There is nothing stopping you from creative projects. You are fertile in the afternoon, foraging for cuttings to propagate the yard, at least one per day.  You find rocks in the riverbed for the garden.   You finish the driveway and the retaining wall and it is glorious. You read Joan Didion, seeking a historical mirror, an interpreter of the weirdness, but can’t get past the fact she rented a 12 room mansion in Runyon Canyon on a magazine writer’s pay.  You try binge-watching House of Cards, and it already feels like an artifact of another era.  You shift to The Great, Hulus irreverent take on Imperial Russia, and huzzah, it hits the mark.  Portentously.

You ride your bike from Culver to Redondo -crowded beaches and wait time for patio tables- and note the general mask defiance. The following weekend you try the familiar haunts of downtown and find full mask compliance and a city on life support and mostly closed.   Skid Row remains in full bloom, giving the street parade a harder edge than normal. You wonder where the loft people are. Upstairs living off DoorDash, or out of town?  Has an exodus begun?   What of all the unfinished condo conversion?  You sense billions swirling the drain.

On the return home, you stop at MacLeod for a four-pack of Doubled Over Happy.  You adjourn to the upstairs deck, erected in a frenzy of inspiration only to be underutilized. The wisteria has grown over the trellis, providing full shade. There are always breezes. You have spent a good deal of time up there this summer, fertile and creative, closing a circle on a project started years before.

Tis a great bounty, this deck, prized by your own labor.  Unlike so many Sunday returns through the Cahuenga pass you are grateful for what you have. You feel advantaged to be living in the Valley. Gratitude snuck up on you while looking elsewhere.

Zillow Heaven Wants You to Know AmeriKKKa Sucks

Independence Day greetings from the Bird Streets in the Hollywood Hills.  Sorry for the blurry photo but I was in a moving car.

Normally, the variable message sign up in the canyons is a Bailiwick of Karen:  Slow Down!  No Park Access! No Parking!  Last night, in honor of our nation’s founding document it was a holiday whiskey shooter of contempt.

The bonus exclamation points are for Joy, Epiphany, and Piety. Also because it feels so good.

The least expensive house for sale in this neighborhood is $2.5 million.  The median would appear to be around $10M.  Let’s take a look around Zillow Heaven to see how they’re making do:

A small army of people, most of them brown, commutes from the Valley daily to tend to these homes and their white occupants.   Looking at this tableau I think of the scene in Cabaret when the kitchen women are listening to Hitler on the radio while making dinner and Sally, Brian, and Maximillian are too caught up in their own drama to understand the implications.  We are living through something like that today, but with the polarities reversed: the elites are revolting against the little people. We continue as though the old rules were still operative while a handful of billionaires control the public square.  Statements in the public square claiming AmeriKKKa does a few things other than Suck will be forwarded to the Human Resources department for your cancellation, and not in an ironic way.

But first, clean these countertops.

If you’re going to mock America, do it right.  Observe the masters:

*real estate porn courtesy of MLS

Rwandan Radio

If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn the system down and replace it, alright?  –Hank Newsome, BLM New York chapter, on FoxNews…just in case you were hoping for ambiguities.

So I picked up a guy in Glendale last year, from a Spanish revival house up in the hills that easily could have been Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity.  He was en route to a graduate program in Literature at Columbia University, and I asked him what he thought of James M. Cain.

Who?
You know, the author of Mildred Pierce. The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Never heard of those.
Really? You never saw the films?
Nope. Are they any good?

Glendale is James M. Cain-land. My rider had grown up in one of its historical neighborhoods, with literary ambitions, and had no knowledge of the man or his work. Now he was bound for the Ivy League, a certifiable cultural illiterate.  This amused me at the time, but no longer.  He was a harbinger of our frenzied anti-historical present.

Silence is not enough.

Last week I helped a friend in WeHo move his bed into storage. Driving up Melrose past miles of boarded-up storefronts he asked me what I thought about the Troubles. He’s a couch-surfing millennial and I figured I’d keep it friendly and meet him on safe ground. I told him I didn’t approve of looting. On that point at least we could agree, you’d think. My friend was having none of it.  The looting, the rioting, the assaults on police could not be separated from peaceful protesting.  They were on a continuum, merely left-handed and right-handed expressions of the same virtue, equally valid. It was not for us to question. He had contempt for the police:  “They were C students in high school.”

As we were talking we passed several dozen white people, mostly women, laying face down on the ground for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, under the instruction of black women. A month ago this tableau would have been shocking, but it already felt like just another afternoon in WeHo.

Now there’s this:

Raleigh News-Observer
Tony Webster, Flickr

Is there a limiting principle to statue-cide?  We went from toppling Robert E. Lee to Any Dead President Will Do in a matter of days. From there twas but a small step to Any White Man Will Do. Hans Christian Heg, who fought on the Union side and fell at Chickamauga.    Miguel de Cervantes, enslaved by Barbary pirates. Ulysses S. Grant, bulldozer of the Confederacy.  Inevitably, they now wish to topple Lincoln.

How the decapitators mimic the lynch mobs of yore! The chain around the neck, the sailor-like tugging, the great cheer as the bronze hits the concrete like a felled tree, the dragging and defiling of the corpse…this is the pleasure principle at work, an end unto itself.

Then, because it’s a day ending in Y, the Mayors thank the mob for its thirsts of anger.  White women in D.C. verbally degrade black police officers lined up to protect monuments. In Seattle, white volunteers unironically enforce a “Blacks Only” segregation zone in a public park.  America is now a perpetual Onion story but without the wry chuckle.  Nothing is funny anymore, especially the absurd.  Well, it is, but we are living in the time of You’re Not Allowed To Say So™.

How do we put the brakes on this thing?

Beneath the performative grief and the masochistic religious scenes of white contrition, a dark new normal is upon us: urban police are no longer handcuffing lawbreakers.  Gun crimes? Sure.  But anything short of that is an open question if you are proclaiming fealty to Team BLM. This is not intended to be a passing phase. This is a structural alteration.

What comes after statues?  Take a guess. Think of it as a dress rehearsal.

What is my Los Angeles breaking point?  What would drive me from my city? I don’t yet know.  Well, I sort of do. Kneeling, obviously, would be a red line. Self-denunciation I have pre-decided will not leave my lips.  But those things are easy to resist.  No, the tripwire will arrive sooner, and in a way I will not be prepared for.   What form will it take? This is something I wonder about.

I am blessed not to rely on the good political opinion of others for my income. Mrs. UpintheValley, on the other hand, can be fired at a moment’s notice merely at the insistence of someone tweeting.  I predict she will be asked in this coming school year to affirm the present madness.  One way or another, it will be demanded of her to assent to something she does not believe during a workplace struggle session designed for precisely that purpose. When she demurs, the clock will begin ticking on her employment and a chapter will close in a great teaching career.

The American media is now Radio Rwanda circa 1994: go forth and kill the Tutsis!  We are left with a question: am I a Hutu or a Tutsi?  To which BLM replies, choose wisely. To which social media adds, we can answer that for you.

Dhimmitude

Associated Press

Stop kneeling. Unless you intend to unzip his fly, get off your knees.   This will not satisfy the mob. Genuflecting is only the beginning. But you know that already.  You like the mob.  You agree with BLM. You’re modeling behavior for the rest of us to follow.  You’re putting yourself at the head of the parade.

If contrition is what you wish to express there are a whole lot of business owners in this city, including Van Nuys, you might kneel before. They have no interest in having their fly unzipped, but they’ll settle for a wee bit of law and order.

The Cavalry

This is what happens when the police show up in two minutes.  Thieves scatter like rats. Want to enjoy warm fuzzy feelings? Witness masculine virtues of honor, in action.

Kent Nishumura, LA Times

Lets back up. There was a canceled then back-on-again protest in downtown Van Nuys yesterday.  Canceled because the organizer was deemed not authentically a person of color, nor BLM endorsed, and as Twitter chat would have it Van Nuys was thought too poor and not white enough to deserve looting anyway. Somehow a small crowd showed up anyway and peaceably assembled for the afternoon to chant and placard at passing drivers.

This didn’t last.  Saturation news coverage summoned the locusts.

They hit the jeweler, the weed shop, then the cell phone store, but by the time they reached Walgreens, LAPD reversed it’s we’re allergic to handcuffs ethos that prevailed over the weekend and rolled up in force.  They stopped them at the entryway, hammers in hand.  A bus was waiting to haul them away en masse to the Pitchess detention center.  The mob fanned out across the neighborhood,  looking for softer prey.

Guess who happened to be walking his dogs on Raymer Street when the looters broke into the side door of Target and started hustling flat screens into waiting cars?

Police response was swift. Four undercover cars, six black and white, and a helicopter.   This is the way the world is supposed to work.  Following the disintegration of order this week, it felt like a movie from the VHS era.

This should have been Saturday.   It should have been last Thursday in Minneapolis.   But it wasn’t and here we are.