When Jesus Cruised Van Nuys Boulevard

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The Star of Bethlehem Parade, a Valley tradition until 1971, when it closed due to lack of interest. Or lack of volunteers willing to assemble Church floats. Or lack of an audience to watch the floats. Or lack of parents willing to drag children by the ear to participate.  Or parents willing to miss Mary Tyler Moore or Gunsmoke. In the mid-60’s, it drew crowds of 200,000. A few years later, no one.

It’s one of those eternal civic mysteries, like why did cruising end on the boulevard?  Everyone has their own answer, and none of them match.  It’s my single favorite question to ask lifelong Valley residents. My doggedly idiosyncratic polling and probing over the years has yielded zero clarity.  People are touchy on the subject, and I’m left feeling a bit like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock,  stumbling toward an answer which concealed shame. People trail off into evasion, where two minutes before there was enthusiasm. But they’re adamant it has nothing to do with, you know… Mexicans.  

No one today wants to admit they refused to volunteer for the last Jesus float.    But the Holy Spirit, in keeping with 2,000 years of tradition, finds a way.  There may no longer be angels hanging from city lampposts, but there are storefront churches popping all over the Valley like kudzu, and megachurches where once there were empty lots.

The Mexicans have something to do with that. Also, the Guatemalans. And the Salvadoreans and Armenians and the Koreans….

All photos courtesy of Valley Times Collection

Feel Free…

To take your dog's poop home with you

…to take your dog’s poop home with you

To smoke heroin at the car wash

Or to smoke heroin at the car wash…

To waste away before an indifferent public

…and waste away before an indifferent public.

Our parallel worlds:  Civility in the neighborhood, enforced by gentle pleas and social shaming; feral disorder on the boulevard.

A state of nature and an oasis of calm separated by a distance as short as a frisbee toss.

The blessings of freedom may be enshrined in the Constitution but are enjoyed differently, depending on how you feel about personal responsibility and whether you act on it.

Would a billboard which read: “Feel free to smoke crack elsewhere” have a salutary effect? How about “Smoke faster, get it over with”?  Or “God loves you and wants you to be sober”?

Mark Zuckerberg has called for a universal basic income, welfare for all, offered unconditionally.  The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will, as a matter of technological determinism, eliminate many jobs currently held by Americans.  A UBI would preserve the Social Contract. “So that we may have roles we find meaningful…and that everyone may have a cushion to try new ideas.”

Would it?  If you were told you didnt need to go to work tomorrow because you were being replaced by a seven-armed anthropomorphic device wirelessly operated from a server farm,  but not to worry,  your paychecks will keep coming courtesy of the US government,  unto death, what would you do with your time?

“I’d go surfing every day,” said my coworker, when I put the question to him. “I’d surf and I’d bake and I’d take pictures.”  And why shouldn’t he? It would be free.

But for how long could this immunity from labor be sustained?  Binge watching Netflix might not feel like freedom after awhile.  One might begin to miss the leash. The UBI people may begin to envy the clock punchers.  Jobs might be hoarded like property, to be passed on to heirs like a family estate.  Because we’ll all be compelled to remove moral judgements about idleness (robotics!) anger will be misdirected everywhere.

We might drive up Sepulveda looking at the guys smoking heroin at the car wash and think….those aren’t derelicts, they’re Early Adopters.

Bulky Husband Pick-up

Exit ghost...

Exit ghost…

He cheated on her prolifically.  “Basta! You’re going to live in the casita now,” she told him. She bought him the bed you see here, and he began sleeping in a shed in the backyard.

He bought himself an iPhone.

If she hoped banishing him from the bedroom would chastise him, constructively, it only served to redouble his excursions on social media.

He concocted extravagant, multi-tiered lies, telling her he was going out of town on business, calling out at work due to the “flu”, and then would spend the next two days at the Lucky 777 motel on Sepulveda Blvd, carrying on with women who travelled to LA to meet him.

A woman he once knew from the same village in Guatemala, re-met him online and started visiting from Atlanta.  She got breast implants for him.

“I think I’m love” he told me, while we stood in line at Lowes.    I was his confessor.

A couple months later,  he loaded his belongings into a truck and moved out in the middle of the afternoon with Paul Simon-esque alacrity.   This shocked everyone, including myself.

For weeks, while he and his paramour hid out with relatives and rented rooms around the Valley, she stalked him.  She called down all manner of wrath upon the puta, the hooker, the witch, for snatching him away.  Normally a reticent woman, she clutched the fence between our yards and wailed in tearful stream-of-consciousness.

When she finally caught up with them, parked outside her adult daughters house, she pinned the other woman’s car with her own.  They drove through the front yard to escape her.  A high-speed pursuit ensued across the valley, lasting over two hours and involving the family entire: she chasing them, the children chasing her in their respective cars, lest she take take vengeance with her own steering wheel.  Eventually he called the police on himself, and the five car telenovela-meets-Dukes of Hazzard chase was brought to halt in a gas station in Reseda.

He moved into a small apartment with his paramour.  His wife started going to church.

Eventually she stopped crying about him when I saw her.   We started doing yard work together, she and I, just as he and I once did, when I lived vicariously though his tales.

When last I saw him, at the gym, he told me his paramour had been t-boned on the freeway, and was bed-ridden and on painkillers. For the time being, he was taking care of her.   He was also back to doing janitorial work to pay rent, which is how he started out in LA, in an earlier century.  I didn’t ask him if he regretted his choices.

This week a FedEx van delivered “the papers”, finalizing the divorce.  The house was now hers. Yesterday, I helped her carry his old bed out on to the sidewalk for bulky item pickup. She’d kept it for three-and-a-half years.  I didn’t question why.

A Thin Line Between Jackass and Hero

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong?

Well, this...

Well, this…

The UpintheValley Theoretical School of Home Renovation operates on the following principle:  a) get a book; b) read that book; c) do what the book says.  Voila! New copper plumbing. Honey, look at all the money we saved.

In practice, there is a learning curve: a) first time wrong, b) second time better, c) third time proficient.  ABC.  Always Be Climbing the curve.

This works, more or less, with tile setting, hanging windows, sweat-fitting pipes underneath the house. Piecework…things of that nature…offer margins for error.

Felling a tree is a different animal.

If the tree is 38 inches in diameter, and your saw is 2o inches in length, your margin of error is two inches.  If the tree is 12 feet from the house, but 18 feet in height, your margin is…let’s just say in a contest between two tons of hardwood,  dropping on a hinge, and stucco… stucco doesn’t win.

The Battle Plan

The Battle Plan

So I spray painted some cut lines in the bark, measured out a fall. I made the notch cut.  I stopped several times to check the face of the notch to see it was smiling directly toward the narrow window of space between my tangerine and grapefruit trees.  As a first time tree faller, I was confident hopeful I could drop it without damage to them. If you look carefully at the upper photo, you will see a scratch work of saw lines.  In homicide investigations, these are known as hesitation wounds.

So having done my “homework”, in this case not a library book, but a cursory web search, with illustrations, how did my rented chainsaw end up stuck in a tree that was 90 percent cut through? Why was it not leaning in the direction I wanted it to go? How was it I managed to overlook the use of shims?  If I stopped right there, and called 311, how much would the City charge me to remove this public safety hazard I created with my Van Nuys Can-Do spirit?  How would I explain to my neighbor why she couldn’t park in her driveway ever again, or at least until I got things sorted?

No longer fully in control of matters, I did what jackasses have always done. I improvised.  I grabbed a crowbar, the only plausible shim I could think of, jammed it in the cut, and told Mrs. U to pull very hard on the polyurethane rope I had attached, in my now alarmingly glib pre-planning, to the upper branches.   In the event of a stiff gust of wind in the wrong direction, about as useful as dental floss. Fortune favors the brave they say, and between her pulling on the rope and me pushing on the bar we were able to rock the trunk just enough to yank the saw out.  At that point, the tree felt a little wobbly in my hands. It was definitely going down now, but about 30 degrees off line.  Away from the house, praise Jesus.

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I pushed, she pulled, and over it went, straight through the trellis over the front of the walkway, which imploded like a house of toothpicks. Not a pretty landing, but never have I been so grateful for a fix-it project.

In my head I could hear the voice of Howard Cosell exulting: Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

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It’s a thin line between jackass and hero. If it goes your way, your wife looks at you like this. Glad I’m not living with the alternative.

Fail Sons, Rising

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Every month or so, a pantomime plays out at our neighbor’s house. Their estranged adult son, in his late 30’s, marches up to the front door and knocks, or in certain cases demands, to be let in.  His parents refuse him entry.  He persists. They ask him to leave. He loiters, arguing with them through the screen door. Following an established pattern, they call 911.  “He’s drinking again,” they say. Dispatch sends the EMT’s, though there is no pressing emergency.  A firetruck and an ambulance arrive, lights flashing, but sirens off. After a brief conclave in the front yard the EMT’s strap the failed son to a gurney, wheel him into an ambulance, drive him to a local hospital where he is pronounced sane and healthy and then released back into the wilds of the San Fernando Valley. Meaning, a motel on Sepulveda where he lives week to week at taxpayer expense.  It’s not a police matter because he is neither breaking and entering, nor making threats.

I have no idea how much this costs the city per episode, but it ain’t cheap, and it has gone on, cyclically, for years. They no longer want him in the house. He either needs their attention or enjoys the drama of confrontation.   “I’ll just be back tomorrow,” is his frequent line.

Sometimes when I’m walking the dogs, I encounter him sitting by himself in a parked car, staring balefully at passerby, a pile of beer cans on the sidewalk just below the window.  I’m never quite at ease as I offer an obligatory nod of recognition.

A single Failed Son, unemployed and aimless, by mid-life can rack up a considerable bill for a family, and then the city.  The People of the Favela, with their improvised tarp housing, panhandling and salvage work are strivers by comparison.

In the battle between indolence and virtue, the baleful tooth of indolence wins in a first-round TKO.

Boys are like border collies. They need purpose. They need the call of chivalry.   Without meaning there is crisis.

We have reached a civilizational tipping point in which both our needs and wants are met by the labor of a fraction of the population. What then, will become of the millions who are nonessential to the economy?  A monthly stipend will buy but a limited peace.

Sooner or later, the Failed Sons will find their purpose.

The Icon at the Estate Sale

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Before the candelabra and the Vegas residency and the rhinestone capes and the jewel-bedecked Rolls Royce and the coke habit and the poppers and the rent boys, few remember Liberace was once a Catholic icon.  Lest you doubt, I found him among the detritus of a decidedly Catholic household in Van Nuys, which once belonged to a piano teacher. In rooms filled with religious bric-a-brac and paintings of the pope, his is the largest image.

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With Pope Pius XII

With Pope Pius XII

His home in Palm Springs, The Cloisters, had its own chapel to St. Anthony, the special intercessor to ‘lost souls’, to whom he attributed the miracle of a death bed restoration from kidney failure after inhaling toxic chemicals used to clean his costumes.

Jesus, R.I.P.

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Jesus was driving on Willis Avenue Sunday night, when he was cut off by another car. At the stoplight on Roscoe Blvd., he exited his vehicle and approached the offending driver, intending to confront him.    In response, five shots were fired through the window, and the car sped away. Jesus died in the street. His family watched the craziness unfold from inside their car.

A father of two, reduced to a sidewalk shrine of novena candles in 30 seconds.

No words were exchanged.

Rage, rooted in the French Latin: rabies.

We speak of rage as something we fall into, or are thrown into,  like a pit. Perhaps it is somewhat different. Perhaps it is the moment the Holy Spirit leaves our body.  A wrinkle not only in time but an interruption in the flow of consciousness.  On any given day we might be triggered in some way, expend our rage in a Reichian moment, then come back to ourselves.  But on this day Jesus Alejandro Benitez Jaimez encountered someone more rage-filled and intemperate than himself, putting his soul at hazard. He threw caution into the void and from the void the Devil extracted his due.

There are those who disagree with a spiritual interpretation. Rage is purely chemical, they feel.  A chain reaction out of the hypothalamus. As random as weather.

Imagine a blue fin tuna swimming off the coast of Japan, ending up on a sushi plate.  Why that particular fish, out of all the fish in the world?  How did it wind up in that particular net, hoisted into a certain boat, sold at auction X, to distributor Y,  and put on a pallet to Long Beach, and not to Singapore? Was it destined for my belly, and no other?

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We may feel, and indeed be, very small on a planetary scale. But we retain moral agency over the forces of light and darkness within us. When a garden variety traffic annoyance triggers a fight-or-flight response, something else is going on. I submit the Spirit has been abandoned.

Honest Man, Union Man, Hungry, Alone

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Call me skeptical of curbside claims. Union man. Honest. Hungry. Looking for work. Ten seconds at a stoplight doesn’t give you a lot to work with. You do a quick read: sober or not?  Do they look you in the eye or not? Does the supplicants appearance match the narrative on the cardboard sign?

Mrs. UpintheValley keeps singles in the console of her car and hands them out to anyone who approaches the window.

I judge.

For years there was a guy who used to work the 405 offramp at Roscoe Blvd., waving an empty gas can.  He was respectably attired, and would point to a nearby station, implying he was a stranded commuter with an empty fuel tank.  He aggressively worked the red light, walking out into the lanes between cars, frowning and gesticulating at those who declined him.

I’ve seen crackhead mothers demand ‘food money’ for their children in front of restaurants, with their shell-shocked children in tow.   I’ve seen people claiming ‘hunger’ spurning fresh food, not leftovers, purchased for them by passerby. I know a reformed heroin addict whose hustle was setting up a card table in front of Home Depot and fraudulently collecting for Hodgkins disease.  Don’t get me started about claims of military service.

Alternately, I have another friend, who lives large in Bronson Canyon, who took a huge loss in the stock market, on margin, costing nearly his entire nest egg.   He recovered, it took years, but in the aftermath he decided to always give to panhandlers. That a person had been reduced to the state of degradation where he would beg in the street, this in of itself was reason for giving.

I’m not so sure. My sense of social order requires a Virtuous Mendicant.  So when I saw this guy last week,  the sun hit his sign just right, and what caught my eye was Teamster Local 831. Here, perhaps, was someone dollar-worthy.   Here’s the exception which proves the rule.   So I reached in my pocket. As I did so, in tandem with my own movements, as though in response to my thought process, he began to pitch forward, slowly, folding from the neck down, one vertebrae at a time, to the waist.

He wasn’t doing yoga.

He sagged over until his knuckles hit the sidewalk.   Then he raised his head slightly, but the effort was too much. His knees buckled and he hung there, in the arms of Morpheus,  his face hidden behind a magnificent mane of homeless hair. He swayed back and forth to an internal ebb/flow only he could feel.

He had cookies stacked on the sidewalk. He had some bills clutched forgetfully in his right hand.  There was nothing material I could offer he didn’t have already.  But I took no pleasure in cynicism so swiftly affirmed.  I would fail to give, and he would sin once more.

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