Bloodlands and Memory

Readers were wondering who the people were in this mural in an alley off Van Nuys Blvd.

Well…I have met the muralist, Arutyun Gozukuchikyan. The woman to the right is Kim Kardashian. The man to the left is Monte Melkonian, born in Fresno, martyr of the first war of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993.  The work was commissioned by the owner of the No Limit Auto Body shop.  Their clasping of hands is intended to illustrate the unity of the Armenian people across time and space.

Melkonian traveled far from the raisin fields.  First to Berkeley, then Beirut via Oxford and Tehran, where he spent the 1980’s in Armenian liberation politics.  He was imprisoned in France for the attempted assassination of a Turkish diplomat, a biographical detail the muralist omitted. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, he made his way to the Shahumyan province of Azerbaijan to join the battle to liberate Artsakh, a tribal feud that re-erupted this summer and is unlikely to resolve in our lifetimes.

There’s a whole lot of Los Angeles in that story.  Here’s two more:

The North Koreans put you in an execution line, the bullet passes through you, missing your heart. You wake up in the snow, stagger back to your village and find your mother praying in a church. You come to L.A, open a deli. By the time you’re finished, you have three. You bequeath them to your Americanized daughters who have no interest in the family business and spend your emeritus years doing missionary work.

You get in a fender-bender in El Salvador and the other driver executes you on the spot because he’s a member of MS-13 and you’re nobody…so why not?  Your siblings flee to Van Nuys and start cleaning floors, marry, have kids, then discover their brother’s killer is here, in town, less than ten miles away, also living a new life in America, schlepping to work with a name tag. The extended family huddles. What to do? Hire a hitman?  They vote to leave it behind them, in the old country.

I know both of these families. The receding tide of the bloody conflict of the world lurks in nail salon windows, washes up in corner markets and repair shops all over the Valley.

But what happens when America stops being America? Not a refuge of the dispossessed, but a bloodland unto itself, with its own irreconcilable claims on memory?

One week ago Parler was the #1 most downloaded app in the world.  It was intended to be a safe space for dissident thinking. Apple and Google (through its PlayStore) suspended all downloads and any developer access to the site on Saturday.  On Sunday, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, terminated Parler’s access to Amazon’s Web Services.

By Monday morning, Parler was gone.  Three days.

Let’s go back to say, 1969. Suppose J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes conspired to cut the NY Times off from all access to newsprint and ink in retaliation for its coverage of the Vietnam War.

Would you feel the fundamental premises of the nation had been called into question? What would you do about it? What sacrifice would you be willing to make to set that right?

Getty and Hughes were pipsqueaks compared to the monopolists we are dealing with now.

The cake is pretty well baked here.  A handful of billionaires control the information flow in the United States and they have revealed a shared agenda, leftist and monopolist at the same time. Effectively we now have a social credit system in place.  Instant China, if you will.

Americans are not Chinese.   They keep and bear arms.

O, Little Town of Van Nuys

Our precarious present, where we invite people to light campfires under power poles.

Our near future, lifting her skirt.

We are an unfinished mural.

We are poised between decaying mid-century cool and someone else’s postponed development scheme.  We reveal unintentional beauty on a gust of wind.

But mostly we are too much of this.  For we are a ragged outpost of City Hall and Sacramento and Brentwood, mute, dependable and too disorganized to complain.

She won’t save us.   We can put the comic books down and save ourselves.  Merry Christmas, one and all.

Our House of Special Purpose

The sarcophagus of Czarist Russia
Christmas shopping, 2020

So I went to the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square mall last night thinking I would buy a little something-something for Mrs. UpintheValley only to be the last to learn Williams-Sonoma had shut its doors at that location. Moving on,  I tried to buy a different something-something at the home furnishings department at Macy’s and found myself in an empty register line for ten minutes waiting for the cashier to return from an errand. He never did and I left the mall -the mall!- empty-handed the week before Christmas.   Some day, twenty years from now, an archivist of late-stage capitalism will find me there in the security tapes, a box under each arm, muttering in confusion. Perhaps I will become a meme: 2020 Man.

There were no piped-in carols, no piano player, no sugary bread dough smells wafting up from Cinnabon on the ground floor to tickle my pleasure impulse feedback loop.  Fashion Square wasn’t closed entirely, that would be a bridge too far, a decision had been made, the line had been drawn…it just wasn’t very…open. The skeleton crews keeping the lights on were indifferent to my secular holiday desires. I could have walked the items out the front door without encountering an employee or fellow shopper.  Jennifer Connelly could have shown up on roller skates at any moment.  This was retail in a medically induced coma and I was molesting the patient.

As one not inclined to seasonal affective disorder, I’m discovering the absence of happy people in close proximity can be surreptitiously, accumulatively, depressing. It’s not a matter of seeking meaning in gift-giving or trying to re-create particular shared anticipations of years past.  Tis the creepy normalization of surrender all around us.

Ten minutes away, Hollywood Boulevard without people is like a scene from Vanilla Sky, deserted in a cinematic sort of way. Disorienting.  Foreboding.  Yet somehow there were enough weed shop derelicts loitering under the eaves, puffing away their EDD money, to make the entire street smell of cannabis from Vine to LaBrea.  I used to be pro-weed. Now it’s becoming synonymous with the failings of national character.

A depressing glimpse into the near future in which fewer of us work, more of us shall be high, most of us will be obedient to diktats from a nomenklatura which does not practice what it preaches.

How fearful, obedient, and self-jailing is America now.

Tangentially, I’ve binged The Last Czars, and find myself identifying more than I should with the Romanovs during their time in Yekaterinburg, at the House of Special Purpose, where they were taken in the final months before execution.

Nicholas the II was an incompetent head of state, presuming the throne by a divine right achieved via court inbreeding, a royal autocrat with one foot in the pre-modern world, and very likely Rasputin’s cuckold.

Like he, I am cooped up in a house for weeks on end on someone else’s orders. Beyond our gates, we sense the rules of the world, the operating presumptions, have changed. Nicholas and Alexandra were led to believe there would be a public tribunal.  They were strung along by a series of notes from guards pretending to be sympathizers, promising an imminent rescue.  Notes authored by Bolsheviks for the purpose of pacifying them. It will not be long, only a few more weeks…

The parents may have had an inkling of what was in store for them when they were asked to gather in the basement for a portrait photograph but didn’t think the children would be murdered in the same lot.  Shooting unarmed girls, even in the direct aftermath of WW I trench warfare and revolution, was the moral beyond.  Half the execution team couldn’t go through with their orders, which came directly from Moscow but had no author.  Lenin himself made certain his name was on no paperwork.

Yet it got done. The deep state blooms in the shadow of accountability. It took Russia seventy years to come back from this.

In a few months, er, sometime next year…the administrative state will declare permit the public to resume its normal freedoms of assembly and commerce. Only they won’t be freedoms anymore, but privileges revocable at any time.  Because we let them. It won’t be 2019, plus one year. We will be in a different “America” altogether, one in which freedom of speech is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Facebook and Alphabet, subject to deletion if determined to be misinformation by a Trust and Safety Council staffed in part by contract workers from India and China.  A Los Angeles ruled by selective prosecution, with permission slips for woke mobs to loot businesses and intimidate the public, with salutary beatdowns of dissenters pulled from their cars to serve as an example.  An “America” with unenforced borders, few reciprocal obligations of citizenship, and a whole lot of people as well as corporations seeking some version of free money.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to come back from this.  We’re still on the downslope. Something we can reflect on this Christmas, each of us quartered in his own house of special purpose.

A Love Story for Mayor Cancel Everything

She was on the upswing of happy drunk when they entered the Uber.   They had been Skyping for a week before braving a meet-up for drinks at the Venice Whaler. It was her first date since the beginning of Covid, and she had already made two decisions.

Her: We should totally disregard politics. We should do the kissing part and the sex part and the fun part first. Let’s wait a week or two to find out if we don’t like each other. Do you know what I mean? I’m just so glad you’re not 5’5”. I’m so glad you’re tall enough and I get to go to your house and meet your penis and we can have a good time together. Driver, what do you think?

I said there was wisdom in avoiding politics after 10 pm. We were rolling through downtown Santa Monica at night, a ghost town sealed in plywood.

Him: Is everything really out of business? Why are all these stores boarded up? The riots are not gonna happen, unless Trump comes back from the dead.  

Her: Don’t say anything more.  

Him: The media poisons everything.

Her: Yeah, but it also tells you things you didn’t know. You have to look for the silver lining. Like this is a weird analogy, but my best friend got black mold in her apartment and had to move out so now we get to live together. Or like breaking up with someone just before Covid and having to wait the rest of the year before going on a date. Then meeting you and Facetiming and praying to God you weren’t 5’5” and finding out you weren’t and you were really funny and now I get to meet your penis. We can wait a month to figure out if we hate each other. Or a couple of months. Or six months.  How does six months sound?

Yes, this conversation really happened.  When I left them they were standing in the street in front of his apartment building, holding hands. I choose to believe they made it up the stairs. I choose to believe they forgot all about the election. Someone should.

But this was two weeks ago when our collective pent-up need for touch was finding cautious release after eight months of Covidian restraints. The question then was: in our headlong rush to intimacy would we come to doubt our choices?

His right Lord Mayor of Thou Shall Be C*ckblocked has put an end to philosophical questions.  Thou shall not have dinner with friends. Thou shall not visit family.   Thou shall not go on dates.  Thou shall not have moments on the stairs.  A long hard winter is your lot, by proclamation.  Hunker down. All is canceled. Order a vibrator from Amazon, if you must.

“All persons living within the City of Los Angeles are hereby ordered to remain in their homes.”

Cancel everything is a rather advantageous arrangement for the richest man in the world and his armada of independent contractors in sprinter vans.  Pineapple Hill not so much:

What public health argument justifies this?

If someone said to you five years ago this surrender of sovereignty was not only possible in Los Angeles, but would be fully normalized in a matter of months, would you have believed them?

If someone said to you in March Jeff Bezos’ wealth would increase 56% before Christmas, while our national debt would increase by $4 trillion and we would behave as though this were the rightful order of things, would you have believed them?

More kissing, please.

2020: Year of the Ostrich

We don’t know what we don’t want to know.

Half of us want to pretend we can have millions of loose ballots entering the system without a chain of custody, a point of origin, a signature match (in certain states), a valid postmark, or election day arrival (in certain states), and the result will be legitimate. Just like any other election.  Only unpersons who watch OANN would say otherwise.

The other half wants to pretend by pointing to implausible statistical anomalies, 4 am drop-offs of boxes of president-only ballots, fractional vote counting, disabled signature readers, count rooms without poll watchers…if we can just cleanse the outcome of its fraudulent elements, we will turn back time and un-ring the election.

Who or what is going to enforce this? The Pentagon won’t. The Supreme Court will only nibble at the periphery, on behalf of states to decide their own electors.  A state legislature can look at the evidence and decide to invalidate its own voters. Theoretically. Is this likely?  What would Lord Bezos say?

We are all ostriches now.

Fun fact: a hundred years ago, pre-Disneyland, you could rent an ostrich cart and take it for a spin on the streets of Los Angeles.  The collapse of feathered fashion in the Edwardian Era British Empire led to a repurposing of the flightless bird around the world.

Our relationship with animals was altogether different.  We were comfortable with intimate cruelty. Does it have legs? Tie off its beak and take a ride. And why not? Animals were living tools and locomotion.

Does it have feathers? Pluck them, make a scarf. Put them on a hat. Hungry? Put a sock on its head and grab a hatchet. I had an ostrich burger once, at Hamburger Mary’s in WeHo and it was delicious.  Ironically, it was a drag queen bingo benefit for a no-kill animal shelter.

Los Angeles once boasted ten ostrich farms, sourced from South Africa.  The largest of them, the Cawston Ostrich Farm, is now live-work lofts, of course. Because every structure formerly industrious shall now be a textured backdrop for an Instagrammable life.

Los Angeles also had an alligator farm.  A hundred years ago, this was us.  We had a different sense of safety. But also no factory farms.  We knew where our food came from.  We plucked our own chickens but we wouldn’t have understood Chicken McNuggets.  Unless one was rather well off, one ate meat once a week and gazed upon animals in the field and thought: protein. We didn’t think about writing a check to PETA.  Our diseases were of malnutrition. Now they are of gluttony.

One last irony. Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand to hide from the facts of the world. The sand is where they keep their eggs.  They are checking up on things. They are engaged in self-preservation.

The British empire is with us no longer, but we can taste the memory of it in cask-conditioned ale at MacLeod.  A century ago when ostriches trod the streets of L.A., communism was ascendant, yet the Soviet empire is no longer.

American collapse is within our grasp.  Telling everyone to stay home while the government prints money is a good start.  Creating parallel voting systems, one for Detroit and Philly, another for the rest of the country, is the next step.

*top photo: climate change protest, Bondi Beach

Tribal Preparations

Twenty-four hours to go and America is flexing and muttering to herself, spraying curses, shuffle stepping, arguing with unseen foes, sweating, farting, contemplating ancient enmities, and making haste to the fight club basement on this Dia de Muertos.

Downtown smelled like Home Depot today. Every contractor the merchants could obtain was humping sheets off trucks, putting them up as fast as they could…lest Hurricane Trump make landfall tomorrow.

Left unmentioned is who exactly all these preparations are for, or why….the people who no one is allowed to criticize or raise a hand against, even in self-defense.   No one is willing to admit publically Trump might actually win, but so many of us behave as though he already has, not fearing the outcome as much as the refusal of others to accept it.

Welcome to Plywood City.

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.