Indestructible

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Before we were married, Mrs. UpintheValley wanted to buy a new car to celebrate her new teaching job.  Also, to reliably get to work.

I was enlisted as her consigliere while we toured the car lots and she test-drove all the economy models.

“Get the Civic,” I advised.  “It won’t leave you by the side of the road.”

“But the Dodge Neon is sporty. And less expensive. And it’s made in America.”

“The Honda Civic is made in Ohio.”

“The Neon is $1500 cheaper, and it’s got power.  I want to support American cars.”

What could I say to that argument other than to wish her well?  The Neon was sportier. It did have more power. It also came with…quirks and deficiencies. For example, changing gears in the middle of the intersection of Beverly and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, the shift knob went loose in her hands.  By loose,  I mean it was, without warning, no longer connected to the gear box. It flopped helplessly like a dislocated arm while she gunned the motor, which was effectively in neutral and we coasted to a stop in the middle of the evening commute in a state of bewilderment.

I’ve owned a lot of beater cars over the years. I once crossed the country in a ’68 Buick Skylark on four tires so stripped of tread the steel belts were poking through. But the gear box separating from the shift lever on a car with less than 20,000 miles?  That was something new.  Chrysler was telling her something, and it wasn’t that it put great store in engineering.

Roll forward in time (and past a number of repair trips to the dealer) to the 70,000 mile mark. There we are, descending the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley on our way north to SF.  We have two dogs in the car.  It’s July and a 105 degrees.  The heat closes in on us. We hit the A/C button and —

Poof! – the engine comes apart.  Literally.  One of us said to the other, ‘gee, it’s hot,’ and then we pressed the button that said ‘Cool’, and the top half and bottom half of the engine separated. Every rod bent in an instant.  We coasted to the shoulder.   We had half a bottle of water in the car. The dogs sucked that down in thirty seconds and sat there panting, staring at us.

Chrysler, in its wisdom, decided it could put the timing belt on the same flywheel that turns the water pump.  So when the water pump broke down, as they are known to do around, say, 75,000 miles, snap went the timing belt, and with it, the engine.   What would normally be a $2oo repair became a totalled car.

After that, Mrs. UpintheValley bought a Honda Civic.   You don’t see Neons on the road anymore.

The Civic, along with the iPhone (and yes, the Samsung Galaxy), is one of the great design achievements of Western Civilization.  Here’s the report card after 145,000 miles: no repairs.  None.  No failures to start.  No strange noises, no breakdowns. Just maintenance. Last summer, the clutch pedal started sinking to the floor.  In the intervening years, the Civic had become the neglected middle child of our transportation arrangements, having been usurped by a younger, flashier Honda CRV and my love of bicycling. So we parked the Civic for six months until we had money to fix it.  Left it outdoors. Didn’t even start the engine once.

Yesterday we took it to Peruvian Ivan.  ‘It’s not the clutch. It’s just the slave cylinder. No hydraulic fluid. You need to maintain the fluids.’   He charged the battery. We turned the engine over….

Purrrrrrrr.  Idling at 700 rpm, like the day it rolled off the assembly line, as silent and loyal as Christine.   Like no time had passed at all.  I took it out on the freeway for a spin, just to shake the cobwebs loose.

Then a strange thing happened.  What should I encounter on the 405 but another Civic, same year, same model, same color, a veritable Jungian double of our very car,  in flames on the side of the road.  That’s the car you see in the photo above.

I don’t known how the fire started.  I can only guess at the oneiroscopy of such Jungian happenstance.  What are the odds? But setting it alight would appear be one of the few effective means of getting a Civic off the road. That car is nearly indestructible.

I started thinking about destructibility as intent.   Chrysler could have built the Civic, but it chose not to.  It’s not like American engineering hasn’t landed dune buggies on Mars.  Or built the Vitamix.  Or the Golden Gate bridge. Before the schematics are sent to Chinese sweatshops,  all i-Products are ‘designed in California’.    Yet somewhere in Detroit it was decided sound business sense was served by putting the timing belt on the same flywheel as the water pump. So what if if the car is done in four years? The warranty is only good for three. Then we’ll sell them another one. Better yet, lease.  Honda can only sell a car once every ten years. We’ll sell three and make more money.

If you think in three year product cycles, this sort of makes sense. But if you think in terms of greatness, of permanence, of leaving a mark upon the world, it’s a form of suicide.  Sort of like Apple during the years of the Steve Jobs banishment.

This world and all its works are perishable. Pursuit of greatness for it’s own sake may be the most noble response to our shared fate. Otherwise we’re just cashing checks.

Panorama Diptych

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Even disposable plastic crap from China has a backstory. The story begins with petroleum.

It doesn’t end in the Pacoima Wash.  This is but a waystation. The metal parts, the gears, the chain and spokes will eventually end up at the Raymer Street scrap yard, where they will be compacted, dropped into a container and trucked to Long Beach, then shipped back to China.

The Chinese will melt it down and make something new for us to buy.

Maybe, as Americans, we should make stuff for ourselves again.  We’ve done it before.  People who work with their hands tend to value what they make. They don’t so readily throw it in the creek.

Bikestock Comes to the Valley

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Earlier this week I was concerned my fever dreams of bike-centric development for the Valley would founder on the shoals of low turnout.  Ours would be the first CicLaVia in which no one from the neighborhood showed up.  In my more cynical moments, the Valley can be reliably disappointing.

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It didn’t take long to see my concerns were unfounded.

Really unfounded.  For a few hours Ventura Blvd was Beijing, 1972.

For a few hours Ventura Blvd was Beijing, 1972.

Except with more dogs

Except with more dogs…

And Go Pro cameras

…and Go Pro cameras

And street dancers

Street dancers.

Whole families with sno-cones

Whole families with sno-cones

Everybody got their freak on

Everybody got their freak on

Cigar, Big Gulp and gold rims.  Enough said.

Cigar, Big Gulp and gold rims. The 818, tableau vivant.

Rails of Future Past

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In 2008 Los Angeles County passed Measure R, a half cent sales tax, dedicated to public transportation.  The tax was to fund 30 years of projects: freeways, bus lines and rail.

Thirty years.

Six years later, the Unseen Hands Which Have No Self Interest But Our Greater Good are back, with another half-cent sales tax,  Son of R, or Measure R2, to augment the first one.  That would bring sales tax close to a dime on the dollar.

Why so soon?

Condensed version: They (UHWHNSIBOGG, inc.) spent most of the money already, borrowing against all those pennies to be collected decades into the future, to build stuff now.  On the Westside, mostly.  Like the Expo Line.  Now they need more of our future pennies to borrow against.

To soften up Valley voters, who are still waiting to reap tangible benefits of the last mordita,  billboards are going up around the Valley this week, touting the shiny rail projects to come, here, up in the Valley.  Soon.  Just as soon as we pass another tax increase.  “We’re building the future right now.”  We promise.

There is exactly one transportation project under serious consideration in the Valley, on Van Nuys Blvd. It might take the form of light rail. Or it might be a trolley. Then again it might take the form of a dedicated bus line up the median.  Then again it might merely consist of lane re-striping and synchronized traffic signals for buses running along curb lines all the way up to San Fernando.

Rail to San Fernando? This sounds oddly familiar.   Let’s take a trip down memory lane:

The Red Car, in Valentino's Day

The Red Car, in Valentino’s Day

In 1925, before talking movies, you could ride a trolley from the Mission all the way to Long Beach. You could ride as far east as Pomona. As far south as Santa Ana. You could ride West from downtown along Venice Blvd, to the beach, then along the coast to Redondo.  You could pack a picnic basket and ride to the top of Mt. Lowe and take in the view. Watts was a major junction. Amoco Oil had its own spur east of downtown, as did a place called Wingfoot off Slauson Blvd.  Panorama City was known as Broadmoor (!) and one realizes now the sweeping curve on to Parthenia St. in front of the El Super is paved atop old rail lines, as is the other sweeping curve on to Sepulveda right in front of Green Arrow.

Pacific Electric Trolley, 1947

Pacific Electric Trolley, 1947

I once worked a Habitat for Humanity project re-habbing an old boarding house in Venice which served as a getaway for women who worked in factories downtown.  They would tie a ribbon in their hair and ride the trolley out to the beach for the weekend. It was endowed by a benefactor who felt women who toiled in sweatshops were entitled to sun and light and space and joy, now and then. There was no charge to stay.

Why is this not a bike path?

Why is this not a bike path already?

In the spirit of CicLaVia, which is coming to the Valley on Sunday, I have a modest proposal.

Perhaps some of these billions in bonded future pennies,  a sliver of them, the spare change of our future change, the tip jar to the $15 lattes we will be buying 20 years hence, could be put to use developing greenway bike paths along the LA River System and its tributaries, the Pacoima and Tujunga Wash, Bull and Aliso Creek.  Here’s a little civic secret: the pavement is already there.  It’s  half-built already.

Because while much of the old Pacific Electric of Raymond Chandler Los Angeles may return in a modernist form on the Westside and Downtown, the only streetcar we will see in the Valley is the one on the billboard. The apartment blocks of Langdon Street will not be known again as Mission Acres.  That City is a memory.

Memory, to paraphrase John Le Carre, is a whore.

A Buddhist Gift

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There is something unintentionally discursive to riding a bike in L.A.

An absence of bike lanes in most of the city and nearly the entirety of the Valley means there is seldom a direct line between destinations. Nor is there, practically speaking, a direct zig-zag between points on the grid.

There exists in state law, but not in practice, a curtilage of three feet between cyclists and cars sharing a lane on city streets.  In a bizarro Los Angeles where the streets were ten feet wider, this might work.  In theory.  Some of the time.  In the el mundo real ciudad de Angelis one runs with the bulls even when one sprints down Sepulveda in full tuck and with great purpose.  Even in the Valley, on its abundant boulevards, there is not room for car, plus bike, plus three feet between the two, and this assumes a rather sporting cyclist gamely willing to play Russian Roulette with side view mirrors.

So the bicyclists get squeezed up on to the sidewalks at the choke points of the commute. Pedestrians are aggrieved when they see cyclists bearing down on them or feel them brushing past, gears whirring, as they take a post-prandial constitutional.

I will stipulate bikers can sometimes be jerks, but usually they’re just trying to stay out of traction. They’re trying to avoid this:

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So one learns the hard way (flipping over a car hood and picking asphalt out of one’s scab is instructive) that to safely go straight one goes left-right-left.  The pain-free route between two points can sometimes be one which leads you into residential streets. But even by-ways offer their own hazard, and there are days like today when a prudent, prophylactic left-right-left-right-left-left can still land one in a tangle of fuchsia bougainvillea thorns, bleeding from the forearms and cursing an indifferent getaway car.  Even on a residential street, way off the boulevard.

Now imagine re-mounting the bike and seeing the spire of a Buddhist pagoda peeking over the flowers, and a monk beckoning you into his driveway.  Like Alice through the Looking Glass you follow him through the gap in the hedge and you see this:

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And this:

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And he doesn’t speak a word of English and he smiles enigmatically and he gestures for you to walk through the garden and visit the statuary. He doesn’t care about the camera. He doesn’t care if you are Presbyterian. He doesn’t even ask. A half hour later, you get back on the bike, but you’ve forgotten your route. Then you remember it, but it no longer has the same purpose. So you abandon it.

You’re not going somewhere any longer, you’re just pedaling.

Pedaling is joy.  Pedaling is youth.  Pedaling is liberty, glad and big.  You pedal pedal pedal left-right-left-left-left-right-left-right-right-right-left-who-cares which direction. Because pedaling is your breath.

Silently, you thank the monk.  Pedaling is a Buddhist gift.

Echo Park Afternoon

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Man, I hate driving back to the Valley after a day like this, and what a lovely day it was.

Wait, what am I saying? I love strip malls! And dreary boulevards!

Let’s not forget fat people at Costco, living in their sweatpants!

But darling, don’t you like owning our own house?

Right now,  I’d rather rent and be one of the cool people again.   Just for a month.  

But what about the animals?  Where would they live? What would become of the garden?

What garden?  Hipsters don’t need gardens.  They have craft cocktails and art events to which they can bike.  They live in a world with actual bike lanes.

You’re being silly.

I’m being true to myself. I’ve been lying to myself for a decade. I see clearly now.

I think we had too much sangria.

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Even the ugly buildings are interesting. Look.

You can paint eyeballs on the side of the house if it makes you feel better.

Echo Park is my mistress.

You have no mistress.  And you like having lots of space.

I don’t need space. I could sleep on Allison and Marcus’s couch.  

And what would you do for food?

Who needs food? I could be a breathatarian.  I could trade my worldly goods for bike tools.

Darling, bike lanes are first world problems.  So are aesthetics.

What’s with this traffic? Shouldn’t we be home already?

Squeaky Wheel

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Last week, in the run-up to the city council election, I posted of the ongoing problem of the crackhead encampment blocking the Bear Mural on Roscoe Blvd.

Two days later, the crackheads were gone.

Whisked away, as though by some kind of municipal rapture.  Only tagging and little heaps of discarded clothing remained.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

To have a cranky blog post turn the gears of the City machinery in a helpful direction is…satisfying on the one hand.  On the other….really? Really? This has been going on for over a year. I tag Nury Martinez’s name on election eve and suddenly somebody who matters picks up the phone and calls Street Services?

Okay, I choose to be grateful.  Full props to whoever made the call, whatever the motivation.

I have keyboard, hear me squeak.