A Two-Hearted Billboard

Facing West…

…and facing East.

The trendlines of America are decidedly Eastward.    Only ten percent of Millennials mention faith when describing what provides them with a sense of meaning.  The desire for a betta butt™ is higher on the Maslow scale by an order of magnitude.

But in Catholic/Pentecostal Van Nuys, perhaps not so much.  Here is where desire for salvation and booty-molding denim overlap, frequently within the same woman.

Whether there was a conscious wit in mounting the two appeals on the same stick or happenstance, I was put in mind of the painting at the dramatic center of Six Degrees of Separation: 

“Oh, this is a Kandinsky!”
“A double – one painted on either side.”
“May I see?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Extraordinary.”
“What makes it exceptional is that Kandinsky painted on either side of the canvas in two radically different styles. One wild and vivid, the other somber and geometric.”
“My God!”
“We flip it around for variety.”
“Chaos, control. Chaos, control.”
“You like? You like?” 

The double-sided Kandinsky was an invention of the writer John Guare. In real life, the paintings exist as separate works. Putting them together was his own comment on the degradation of the arts into signifiers of social status, but also a reflection of the chaotic entry of the con-artist Paul into the Kittridge apartment.

What would the Apostle Paul make of the YMI sign?  If the Devil offered a proposition: “I will put a message of your choosing at every crossroads in the world, but in exchange…the other side of the sign will belong to me,”  would he accept the terms?

Brother Michael

Sunday morning I woke from melatonin dreams about a very specific black and white photograph I had once seen of a street urchin sitting in front of a gas station on Van Nuys Blvd in 1972.  Why that photo? No idea. Perhaps it was the meaning I projected on to it, but who understands the muddy river of the subconscious?

Later, in the afternoon, we took the dogs to Mt. Washington for a hike of the secret staircases. Descending a canyon, we ran into Michael doing concrete work in front of his bungalow, which was cantilevered into the hillside, obscured by shrubbery which enclosed it like a kindling pile.

Much of Mt. Washington is Small House Maximalist.  As the terrain limits expansion of existing bungalows an ethos of idiosyncratic beautification prevails in favor of square footage.   (*not Michael’s house)

In this spirit, Michael was engaged in his decades long labor of love, turning his parcel into as he put it, the Watts Towers of Landscaping.

Like Simon Rodia, he used only found materials. His work spilled down into the recesses of the hillside, embedded within the shrubbery, out of view, making any public recognition a bit of a long shot.

He bought his house in 1968, for $16,000.  He was 22.

In the fifty years of his residency he’d had three wives. On Saturday he walked his daughter down the aisle to Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, an anthem of the year of her birth.

There was a message he wished to convey.  He asked us if our parents were “still in their bodies”. They are. He wanted us to call them immediately to thank them for sharing that moment in space and time when they created us, without which neither of us would be here to grace Michael’s day.

He wanted us to know our meeting was a Buddhist gift.

Michael was a product of a high trust society: 50 years perched in the same canyon amongst the artistic set, a delightful aerie obtained with little effort, had given him a benevolent disposition toward his fellow man.

Also, he and his neighbors were but a careless tiki torch and a Santa Ana breeze from disaster.

This was the photo I remembered. In my dream the boy in the picture, with the Sears catalog pants and sack of belongings at his feet, came to a fatherless and unfortunate end.

I hope his life turned out like Michael’s. My Sunday wish was he didn’t fall through the seams.

Pride of the Piedadenses

In 1993, Club de Fútbol Reboceros de La Piedad won the Liga Mexico championship, which was rather a big deal at the time if you were a) Mexican; b) a soccer enthusiast.

Rebeceros means plasterer. The team was founded in 1951 by tradesmen.  La Piedad, a medium-sized city in Michoacan, was once known for its pork production,  but now for decapitationes narcotrafficantes.   Its chief export is American labor.

Somehow…in a chain of custody worthy of a novel I will never get a chance to read…the trophy made its way to an apartment in Panorama City.   This weekend it was put out on the sidewalk, peeling and chipped, along with a fold-out bed and linens.   If you’re aspiring to be the next Don Delillo, here’s your plotline.

In 2013 the Rebeceros’ sixty-year history ended when the new owners decided to liquidate the club to free the license for another team in Veracruz, making it a faith which no longer has a church.

La Piedad means mercy. Referentially, one mercy in particular.  There is a basilica in La Piedad older than the United States, the dome among the tallest in Latin America.   Beneath the plaster, the walls are pocked with bullets and cannon perforations from the Mexican revolution.

The peasants keep kneeling, over centuries. Given the world enough and time, the elites will mock everything.

NoHo, Alexanderplatz

In the beginning of the Valley portion of our lives, we almost bought a house on this street in NoHo, a few blocks from here, but we hesitated because the neighborhood was zoned for apartment buildings, which until recently meant 1960’s dingbat courtyards, two story, eight units. A cluster of tapia palms growing where the pool used to be.  A metal gate in the front.

There were maybe two buildings like that on the block.  That was too much for me. Think of all the people we’d have coming and going!  It wouldn’t be…neighborly.   So, Van Nuys for us.   Little did we know.

Now, NoHo is Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Extruded mid-rise transit oriented development, built to curb,  ground floor retail, six floors of windows and balconies, design schemes running from Bento Box to discount Art Moderne, varied enough to disguise the monotony of identical rooflines.    Low installation cost, high return on rent. Hundreds of people per lot, instead of dozens.

In Los Angeles the height limit on wood framing is four stories, so in the first years coming out of the recession, that’s what you saw in most places. Then the money got so good…the human tide of urban enthusiasts willing to drop the the annual salary of a midwesterner on a two-bedroom apartment so profligate,  the land values so overheated, it made more sense to drop the popsicle stick skeleton onto a two-story concrete podium and fatten the profit margins.  Two plus four is six, and a 50% markup.

An Instagrammable Life is the sales point. Live here, feel Adjacent to Something.    You know you must be part of something because there’s yoga downstairs and a pokè bowl at the corner. Everyone is pretty, near-pretty or pretty good at faking it and busy shedding the skin of their former lives.

People who live in these buildings don’t actually ride public transit. The people who pull shifts at the pokè bowl? They ride the Orange Line and live in squalorous dhimmitude behind metal bars at the Canoga Palms with telenovelas and Call Of Duty blaring from every window, box fans twirling six months a year, hot diapers and curry wafting through the courtyard.  The Valley primitive, loud and intimate.

NoHo Alexanderplatz is Disneyland for millennials. Few millennials can afford it, yet here they are. Someone’s paying their freight, because the math never adds up.   Another civic truth we don’t say out loud.

The most successful actor I knew, a guy who appeared on network television consistently, six figure income, an actual face on a billboard, he lived in NoHo, but it wasn’t in a building like this. He lived -for years- like a mouse on a ground floor unit without A/C, tin foil on the windows to reflect the sun, and saved his per diem until he could buy a condo. He knew how quickly it could end.

Lifestyle Porn may now be LA’s primary industry, since nobody pays for actual porn any more. What happens to NoHo when people stop subsidizing the pretty ones?

Valley Grace

Last night I learned about Hallway Sex from Byron, a handsome young orphan from the South.   It’s when you pass your Other in the hallway of your apartment and she says “F-you” and you say “F-you” back, and that’s the sum of your intimacy for the week.

I picked him up at The Liquid Zoo, five drinks down and two months deep into the Hallway Sex Diet, on his way back to Culver City, where his Other had summoned him with an enraged texting finger.

She left me alone in the house for two days while she did her thing. I mean what did she expect? She knows how tempted I am to be an alcoholic.

When he first came to LA, before he became a model for skateboard wear, when he was still doing scut work, he lived around the corner on Sherman Way, and the Zoo was his hangout.  It was the one place in LA he felt comfortable with himself.  Three years on, after a bit of success and a move to the West side, the bouncer and bartender in Van Nuys remained his true friends.  They remembered his name and didn’t mind if he crept up on them out of the blue. Nobody stood in judgment of him in Van Nuys.

When she got pregnant, he gave up on the modeling and the vague gestures toward acting and enrolled in a welding certification program.  They were going to get married. He wanted to do right by God, and there was reliable money in it.

And then one day, after consulting with her mother, who has three kids by three different men who don’t support them,  she went off and got herself an abortion while I was taking my welding exam and things really fell off.

Hallway Sex.

I’m trying to not have hard feeling about it, but it hurts, man. I won’t lie. It hurts. I’ve been on this earth for 29 years, minus two years in jail, but this is worse.  Some days I’m half a Xanax from putting a shotgun in my mouth.

Byron’s unanswered phone vibrated angrily all the way to Culver. He exited the car apologizing for oversharing.

Only Fiction can provide the true conversation which then unfolded in the apartment, but Life can put another passenger in the Uber, heading back to Sherman Oaks.

Donna was five years younger than Byron and by her own admission stupidly happy to be moving in with her boyfriend and out of her parent’s house. But for college, she’d lived her whole life in the Valley. She attended Buckley.  All her friends went to Buckley, Curtis or Harvard-Westlake.  Her Los Angeles was a small pond. Everyone Donna knew, knew everyone else Donna might know.

We talked about the musical re-make of Valley Girl, which she knew all about it without ever having seen the original or having any familiarity with the soundtrack. She was rather more excited about the re-make of Clueless, which came out the year she was born but which every girl she knew watched during middle school sleepovers.  Who couldn’t relate to Cher Horowitz?

She didn’t like that her childhood home was now on a Waze street, thick with cars seeking a shortcut in the morning commute. Nor did she approve of second floors on ranch houses.

But those were trivial matters. Mostly Donna was really, really ready to move in with her boyfriend, who she thought she met at a party, but soon realized wasn’t the case. When they exchanged numbers they discovered they were already in each other’s contact list…from middle school.  Every phone either of them had ever owned simply sucked up the old numbers.

It would have been creepy in any other context, but in our case felt like destiny. Like we had been circling each other for twenty years and these, like, electronic cherubs were steering us.

In the movie version, Donna and Byron would have crossed paths and this blog post would have a very different ending.  In millennial Los Angeles, orphans remain orphans and children of the upper middle class have their destiny forged by middle school.

Behold the Whore

Looking at this, I think:  if they could get away with it, the Social Justice Warriors would like nothing better than to shave the heads of Trump voters in the public square.

How far away are we from this in America?

Les poules a bouches, they called them in 1944. Hens with mouths.  Because the problem couldn’t have been the collapse of the French Army in three weeks in 1940, the men whisked away to labor camps as prisoners of war. Or a third of the population being openly Fascist at the beginning of WW II. Or the southern portion of the country being ruled by Vichy.   The women of Paris, left to fend for themselves, made accommodations with the conqueror women have made always. We can’t have that, can we?

Behold the whores.

The Pathé archives are filled with documentation of the shaving of the collaborators horizontale, none I found with the dignity of the woman above, who somehow manages to maintain poise when those around her are losing theirs, enobling herself in the most adverse of circumstance.   Does grace under pressure indicate innocence or a facility with deception? Did she love her paramour, or was she feeding her family?

After her hair grew back, for how long did she bear the burden of being that woman?

We are fast approaching a moment in American civil life when we are either going to be She Who is Sitting in the chair, or the guy wielding the clippers.   We will be told to be one or the other.    We may wish to be publically reticent in certain matters, we may long for the pleasure of a pint unencumbered by public declarations of fealty to one side or the other, but in the end, the culture war will sniff us out. It will scratch at our door. We will be made to care.

We’ll look back with nostalgia on a simpler time when head shaving was an act of personal renewal.

How much dignity we maintain then will be up to us.

Two Walks

Morning bliss, along the Eel River…

Inevitably, the return to the Pacoima Wash…

And yet, here I remain, urbanized.
Looking at in pictures, this strikes me as self-destructive folly.
What am I thinking?
Deep down, I would be bored living in the country, that’s what I’m thinking.
Lovely in doses, but far from the shifting tectonic plates of the once and future Americas.
Away from history.
There it is.

A Narrative of Displacement

This was the first tableau I encountered in the Mission District after parking the car.  Tech people chatting amiably next to a mural decrying the displacement of renters by tech people.   The afternoon was off to a very meta start.

When we were younger and rather prettier Mrs. U and I once lived near Valencia street when it was known primarily for taquerias.   Now you can buy retro sci-fi themed tchotchkes for $3200.  Is there a viable business model for this?  Probably not, but doesn’t matter.  The people who start stores of this nature have already made their money in you-know-what and are doing it for fun, which would be an example of loose capital not displacing labor, rather sober capitalism itself, as historically understood.

For the hyper-aspirational parent,  Valencia St. is also home to Aldea Baby and Paxton Gate Kids. In a city which has largely displaced young families, it is difficult to believe the register would ring often enough to pay SF rent. In the new paradigm one need not chase sales volume to be in the black, rather the loose money of a few undiscriminating uberwealthy couples who want their wunderkind to design rocket ships.

Staffing is an obstacle.  As my friend Johnny explained it to me: “unless you pay $20/hr, no one shows up”.

So much muraling in the Mission celebrates matriarchal themes…ironic for a city in which matriarchal power, otherwise known as procreation, has been forsaken by the women who live there.

San Francisco is not entirely motherless. I was hosted by a mother of two, a dear friend who lives in a house which dropped on her head as a marital dowry.    Inherited property and trustafarian arrangements are one workaround to the Google problem (the other being a time machine to 1992), but mothers anchored to paychecks tend to find raising children in communal rentals difficult and decamp for the outer commuter rings, or further.

SF is white AF now  (and Asian), far more so than we lived there.  The Mission is Latino no longer.   Black people…? Well, there was once a lovely movie made about the disappearing black population in SF called Medicine for Melancholydirected by Barry Jenkins, who went on to win an Oscar for Moonlight. You can no longer stream it on Netflix,  which makes the memory piece of black SF also now a memory.

And yet…the nouveau riche, Chewish San Francisco loves its narratives of third world oppression.

As though to illustrate the point for tourists from LA, this woman, who appeared to be about 60, wearing designer clothes that mimicked what one might pull out of a dumpster, parked her Mercedes in front of Delfina restaurant, turned up rap music and began dancing ecstatically atop her seat. She shouted things about “black and white together” and held up a special issue of National Geographic.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I loved it there. There are bike lanes everywhere, including through the freeway exchanges.  I made full use of them.

Unlike LA, the bike is king!  Befitting royalty, cars yield to you.  Entire auto lanes have been displaced, to use the word of the day, in favor of pedal pushing.  This is Market Street. Can you imagine LA City Council saying yes to this on Wilshire Blvd.? I can imagine it, but I wouldn’t bet on it.   SF may be an unpleasant city for driving, but there is a tradeoff. It is much, much quieter, even the commercial districts, when cars move at slower speeds.  As I had no job to which to commute I was free to ignore the annoyance of others, and live with entitlement for a few days.

You can also let your dog run off leash at the beach, from the Marina to Pacifica. As fate would have it I ran into Danny Glover, one of the last black men in SF (the other being Willie Brown) twice, jogging by himself on Sunset Beach.

It’s when you try to leave San Francisco fully reveals itself.   This was me, 3pm, wasting 40 minutes trying to get on the Bay Bridge.  Once you get through Oakland, you think…

Only when you get to Castro Valley do you realize your commute is not opening up, it’s just starting.   Eight miles ahead of you, the Silicon Valley traffic from the 680 is funneling into the 580. You are one hour from Livermore.

After Livermore, clear sailing, right? No more on-ramps. Nothing but windmills and cows until Tracy.  Wrong. Five miles an hour over the pass.  Three hours from the city, limping into the Central Valley, one tired lion among many, extending to the horizon.

Here is San Francisco, you realize, not Valencia Street. The place you left is a theme park for the wealthy and for tourists. San Franciscans, to broaden the definition…live out here.

Define fragility: one roofing nail in the road.

More fragility: Millennium Tower, eighteen inches out of plumb already.  The foundation piles do not extend to bedrock.  They are held up by friction and they have begun to torque, twisting out of equilibrium.

Displacement.

Are we going to look back on this era of millionaires bicycling to dinner and retail workers driving home to Stockton as a harbinger of the future or an obvious signpost of folly?