In a City of Manic Revision

This is my friend in San Francisco, five minutes after she realized she was going to fire her contractor.  Not this guy.   Another guy overbilling her for materials.

$60,000 to repair water damage in the bay of their living room, on top of $110,000 to replace the siding on the house. Heart attack numbers if you live in Van Nuys, but there is an entirely different math up there.

It is math that tells you to peel your house off the foundation and jack it up twenty feet on metal I-beams and slide two new units in underneath like a chest of drawers. So what if this costs you a cool million? You just raised the value twice that figure.  San Francisco Equity is a hammer insensible to caution.

It is a math that demolishes the venerable Sullivan Funeral Home on Upper Market, God’s Hotel of the AIDS crisis, and excavate deep enough for three levels of parking to accommodate the jewel box pied a terre above, to be leased by tech companies for their employees, who will live sealed from the wind and clank of the city by soundproof green glass.

Math which appropriates the narrowest triangle of ground at Church and Market, for years the location of a greasy spoon and a seedy bar and turn it into a jenga tower of extruded battlements, and in an admirable burst of developer inspiration name it Sonder.

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
SONDER: n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background.

Implicit in sonder is the labor of others without which the simple pleasures of the city can be summoned. Appeals for service work like this are ubiquitous in store windows.   Even if you found someone willing, how could they afford to live here?

The guys who are killing it in the construction boom, like this electrician I saw smoking a blunt in his van, can only contemplate the beauty of the city but never really drink from its well before driving back to the Central Valley or God knows where.

It’s all rather precarious if you consider the history of financial booms. But somehow being here in a city of facadomy and indestructible aesthetics, it doesn’t feel that way. Just because a building was born one-story, it doesn’t have to live so constrained forever. It can be reassigned another role. A spare-no-expense reach into the air can seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Prudent, even. You can smell the money before you even cross the bridge.  A bouquet can render one exuberant.

Memory Sickness

Perusing old Sears catalog photos a few weeks ago I tripped over this image and fell into a James Lileks-like nostalgia spiral. My childhood friend Donny had this exact bedspread, and you could measure my childhood by the longing it instilled in me for the working class normalcy of Perma-Press™ and Dacron. Also a room of one’s own.

My family pulled cast-off items from the “Free Box” in front of the Happy Belly health food store. This is to say I did the pulling, as my parents thought it entirely normal a 9-year-old should forage for his own clothes.  Also, to line up his own rides to school hitchhike to town. Or walk up the hill to the cousin’s house to use their shower, hot running water not being part of our familial equation until after I left for college.

Growing up, I assumed Donny was middle class.  NFL themed bedding! I was living in a plywood cabin. Anyone with plumbing and electricity was doing well. But Donny’s father did shift work in a local manufacturing firm and adjourned to the corner stool at Al’s Redwood Room at 5 pm until his wife collected him in the Ford Pinto station wagon when his money ran out. Their house was a 2br rental.  Donny’s room was a sectioned off area of the garage with faux wood paneling. He had a Nerf basketball hoop suctioned cupped to the wall.  We created our own hybrid sport with Whiffleball bats, a nerf ball and a twin bed as a trampoline.   After he and his sister moved away, his parents downscaled to a trailer. When his father drank himself to an early grave, his mother returned to her people in West Virginia.  I liked her. She gave us graham crackers after school and a vat of chocolate goo we could smear across them like cream cheese.  Somehow we remained skinny little beanpoles, the both of us. His were Sears people. I came from Free Box stock.  Nobody was fat then, despite our best efforts.

A few years later I saw Randy Weaver’s cabin on the news and realized I was looking at my parent’s house, only with the politics 180 degrees in reverse. When I think of 14-year-old Sammy Weaver dead on the ground, I know I would have done the same thing: run to defend my fathers fenceline. Boys are hardwired for that. Piss that away and a father can wander the blasted heath like Lear.

In Boomer fashion, my father pissed it away, and a small fortune as well, yet wandered not, lived his life as selfishly as he began.  In one of God’s delicious ironies, he finds himself in his seventh decade caring full time for my mother whose memory is composting by the week.

You only remember the bad things, she used to tell me when I visited. Now she and my father have dialogue like this:

Whose wine glass is this?
That’s your wine glass over there.
That’s my wine glass? Whose wine have I been drinking?
The wine in your hand.
I have two wine glasses?
You have three glasses going.
So which one is mine?
They are all your glasses. You keep starting new ones.

Since I left, the original plywood box (mounted six inches off the ground on buckets filled with hand-mixed concrete) has expanded horizontally and vertically in a style that can be characterized as Mendocino Gothic Ad Hoc.  They just kept adding rooms, then redwood siding and decks on three sides. A massive solar array.  Bizarrely, a Steinway grand piano.  If you think there are building permits involved here, think again.    Note the crumbling rock barbeque pit in the foreground.  This was our kitchen for the first two years in the country.  Yes, that was the plan, to the degree anything was planned.

When they realized they couldn’t have sex in the same room as their children,  a bridge too far even for them, they adjourned to the A-Frame, a plywood annex. This was their bedroom for 10 years.

But now, necessity demands my mother have an ADA compliant walk-in shower, the slip and fall deathtrap sunken tub they’ve used for 25 years having become a hazard.

So my brother in law, my nephew and I, last week converged to build another non-conforming addition to the house, complete with rain shower. This is something I once promised myself I would never do. Yet there I was, laying tile, while the others installed new wiring and pumping and drainage and essentially replumbed the entire house.  The parents paid for nothing. The moral of the story being the Boomers get everything they want.  Except time.

The Ouroboros Box

The glory days, before the fall

The Sears outlet at the Northridge Mall is no more.  The latest in a series of closures following the restructuring of the company in 2017.

Though it retains a shitty food court, the mall is now without one of its two anchor tenants.   We already kind of know how this will end.  Being the Valley, I don’t anticipate Google riding to our rescue.

Once the Amazon of its day, Sears has been a great declension a century in the unmaking, reflected in its architecture.

As it fell out of favor, the in-house brands and subsidiary businesses: Allstate, DieHard, Craftsman, Kenmore, and Discover Card, were sold off one by one in debt restructurings. The corporate headquarters in Chicago, once the tallest building in the world, was vacated twenty years after being built and downsized to an office park in the suburbs.

Starbucks Center, Seattle

Ironically, Sears leaves behind a terrific portfolio of civic architecture in the form of massive Art Deco mail-order distribution plants now rapidly being repurposed nationwide as live/works lofts, creative office space and in another irony, retail. Many of these buildings were vacant for decades.  Think how different it may have turned out if Sears had held on to the real estate. It was uniquely positioned to take advantage of re-urbanization.

Crosstown Lofts, Memphis

Izek Shomoff is developing the 13 acre Boyle Heights site as a 1000 unit mixed-use campus with predictable bells and whistles.

Sears’s lasting legacy will prove to be its timeless line of mail-order Craftsman houses,  pre-cut, delivered on railroad cars, and easily assembled by road gangs.  Most of them are with us today, 100 years on, a testament to indestructible aesthetics.  They spawned countless imitations.  Historic Los Angeles and Pasadena are fecund with variations on these designs. It’s the default residence of our collective dreaming, and thereby television locations: my life, we tell ourselves driving past, would be oh, so perfect if we lived in that house.

Just as an aside, how popular a housing solution would this be?  With small alterations for local codes, the plans are perfectly valid today.  Build them in clusters of six around a common yard. Cluster the clusters around a common greenway.  
If you could go back to the 1980s and tell the board of directors, get out of the malls, you will be replaced by an electronic mail-order catalog, your end is in your beginning, return to first principles. Your value is old real estate and love for your catalog and always will be. Would anyone listen, even if you gave them second sight? Or would the snake just keep eating its tail?

Deplorable Joe

Ever notice the eerie physical resemblance between 1970’s era Joe Biden and Peter Boyle in the “off-the-hippies” exploitation film Joe?   I was thinking about this last night, watching Iowa .

If you haven’t seen it, Joe was a pop waystation between Easy Rider and Death Wish. Cartoonish and heavy-handed, it flattered the conceit of liberals thus: after a couple of drinks, blue-collar white guys are homicidal bigots.  You know they are.

Fifty years on, this most comforting cultural template has moved from being an art-house movie plot to the factory setting for much of the American media.

Now both of these guys are now running for President, in a manner of speaking.

Joe (the character) is not Trump, but he is a stand-in for Trump supporters, as viewed from the ramparts of power.

Since 1972 Biden has positioned himself, less credibly with the passage of time, as a representative of the white working class.   Amtrak Joe.  Joe from Scranton, Pa, but with a facelift and veneers and family members living large by way of his connection.   Only now, in his emeritus years, there is little room left in his party for Les Deplorables, the very people who once put him in office.

In a last attempt at the presidency,  he seeks the blessing of an electorate that has been counseled to scorn what he represents.  He will be running against his own history.  Which is to say, not well.

Which might explain why the morning after the Iowa caucuses, we have no “results”, even with hard precinct numbers in hand indicating a fourth-place finish.

Bernie, on the other hand, has Jack White.  Whatever your politics are, this will be entertaining.