Pray, Mantis

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I moved my grapefruit tree yesterday. Dug it out by the roots and dragged it across the yard. To create a space, I first needed to chop out the root ball of the elm tree I felled a few months ago.  With an axe and a pick. It took three days.

What do you mean, why?  Doesn’t everyone do it that way?

When I walked into the kitchen for my victory beer, I felt a tickle on my arm.  This little green guy was riding me into the house. I had destroyed his world, and now he was clinging to me like a branch in white water rapids.   We bonded over his new circumstances.

I say his, but I have no idea what the gender is here.  Female mantises are known to bite the heads off males at the apex of copulation. The death throes of the male provide a more vigorous delivery of sperm. Also, nutrition.

Meanwhile he’s been hanging out in the kitchen, making himself useful chewing through ceiling cobwebs.  I say he’s a harbinger of good tidings.

Biter, or bite-ee?

Head eater, or offerer? Better not to know

Last week, walking the dogs, I heard cries of distress from under a bush and found a 3-week-old kitten buried in bougainvillea leaves, eyes closed with goop.

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I took him home, put him on the couch and Trixie immediately licked him back to life, stimulating poop.  Then Trixie gobbled the poo.

Rinse, repeat

Rinse, repeat

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The kitty loves the interspecies tongue action and mewls for more. We’re all really comfortable with these new arrangements, this blurring of the natural order.

How soon before I turn into this guy?

How soon before I turn into this guy?

Patriot Way, Van Nuys

Stick a broom out the window, poke your neighbor while he shaves

Stick a broom out the window, scratch your neighbor on the shoulder

Garage intensive

As close to human interaction as you’ll get

Houses used to be oriented toward the street: front yard, then living room, then kitchen, then bedrooms. Implicitly your life was ordered in relation to the other people on the block.

Then for half a century, houses were turned around and oriented toward the back yard and the patio. As we re-order our family life yet again around the flat screen, and the mouse, new architecture dutifully reflects this.   Yards are dispensed with altogether.

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So is the street.  New housing is tucked behind hedgerows of landscaping which obscure solid barriers like concrete walls and metal bars. Private streets, off-limits to the public, are created within the enclosure and christened with aspirational virtues: Courage, Honor and Justice.  And Patriot.

Honey, I'm home

Honey, I’m home

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.

1099-Miscellaneous

It is possible in Los Angeles to list your apartment on AirBnB on Friday afternoon, crash with friends or lovers until Monday morning, pocket the cash flow, and in the right sort of neighborhood prize the rent without a day job.  That’s one kind of gig.

There’s an app you can use to clean the place and handle the next booking for you.  That’s a gig for the cleaners.  Also, the bookers.

If the guests can get hungry, they can scroll through their phone, and someone will shop for them, then dash to the door with food. That’s a gig for the dashers.

If your guest gets bored she can press a button on her phone and a car will arrive at the door in minutes and take her to the club. Driver gig.  Or side hustle, to borrow the corporate sales pitch.

Her boyfriend can beg off, stay in the house and go online.  “Take off your underwear,” he can text, and somewhere on the other side of the city or the planet a woman will remove her underwear, slowly, to keep the meter running.  The sharing economy, in action.

More of us are working, but fewer us are employed.  Our world is rounded in 1099 forms.

Uber has been extraordinarily good to me. So good I don’t have to consider renting a room in our house on AirBnB.   Everyone knows what it’s doing to the taxi business. Few know Uber has become so ubiquitous in the past two years it has displaced rental cars as the most commonly utilized ground transportation, even among corporate clients.  Last week Hertz disclosed massive losses, and may default on its bond debt.  Its fleet of aging cars are flooding the after-market. The inventory spike will put pressure on the dealerships to unload inventory, which makes for a buying opportunity if you want a new car to drive for Uber.

Whole Foods has been good to me, but its formerly dominant position in organic foods is under extraordinary price pressure from all sides and it may not survive another two years in its current form.   Uber has been selling rides at a loss  since arriving in LA, with no plans to stop doing so.  Amazon and Etsy are slowly strangling Fashion Square.   On the other hand, the Century City mall is expanding, upscale.  Our economy is bifurcating into hyper-luxury and dollar stores. Concierge service or waiting at bus stops with street people. UberPool is getting cheap enough to displace Metro riders. Soon, perhaps only derelicts will ride the bus.

Steve Jobs’ bicycle has democratized capitalism.  It means MacLeod Ale can rise out of an auto repair shop, find a clientele, and prosper where retail never could. It also means 100 people are simultaneously gripped by the same fever dream of selling biscotti made from their kitchen. Ninety-nine of them end in tears.  But they can console themselves by renting out the spare room.  Unless there isn’t one. Then they make themselves scarce while tourists cavort in their bed and rifle their drawers.

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It’s an extraordinary time to be grinding out a living in Los Angeles. Unless you’re not.

Perhaps we should hedge our bets, like my friend Johnny.

An Ikea State of Mind

From teenage runaway...

Our first apartment in LA, when she was a runaway…

Valley housewife

…and as a Valley housewife

The first thing we did when we moved to LA was go to Ikea. We bought plates and bowls, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but it was notable for being the first time we had spent over $300 on domestic arrangements. An astronomical sum for us, and a stealth commitment to marriage.

Our kitchen may be larger now, but I see commonalities with the past:  Ongoing clutter. An obsession with condiments and spices. Animals underfoot.

It was easy to go to Ikea then. We had little money to spend, so there was little to argue over.  Our spending was aspirational, and therefore abundant:  when we have X, in the mid-future, we will be able to purchase Y. Or we can get Z.  I love Z!  Z would do nicely in the house, when we are able to buy one. Meanwhile we’ll avail ourselves of some $5 candlesticks.

Ikea was a benevolent doting grandmother steering young couples toward the altar.  Then it became a shrewish spinster aunt lurking in the attic, scheming to deny happiness to others.

Buying a house simplified matters. It made us too poor to shop to Ikea, or anywhere else. For the first decade, anyway. Now that we can return to Ikea and almost -almost- entertain the possibilities of the catalogue, we march alongside each other in silence, and leave cheerlessly with a bathmat, some glass jars and a stool.  She annoyed with my annoyance we still, at this late date, dine off mismatched countertops. I annoyed she can’t see how much better the food would taste if the backsplash tiles complemented the room.  Behold the peevish first world troubles of Mr. UpintheValley!

So….yesterday we toured the Brewery Art Walk, its labyrinth of studios and zoo-like glimpses into the domestic arrangements of the artists, who welcomed the curious hordes into their lofts with the cheery announcement that “everything was for sale”.

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Like a vulture, I found myself drawn to the kitchens, more than the work itself.  Simplicity reigned, but Ikea lurked in miniature: dish racks, silverware holders, cutting boards.

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This one looked like a set for a stage play. A period piece of long suppressed family secrets. The artist dined at her own table as though hundreds of strangers weren’t mere feet away, auditing her life and its works, which was in itself as much a work of performance art as anything on the walls.

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Small sinks, formica countertops, vintage stoves, linoleum tiles. Cool, yet impermanent.

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“You gotta see this,” said Andrew, leading me into a portrait studio of Swedish landscapes.  I was surrounded by iterations of a Don Draper-like man lounging in Ikea showrooms, meticulously recreated from photographs.

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The man was by turns contemplative, and possibly fearful of leaving the world in which he found himself.  To leave Ikea, said the artist, Rikki Niehaus, one enters a fallen world. A dystopia of ruin.

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I was looking at a version of myself on the wall, one with his loves not rightly ordered.  He stared back at me over my wife’s shoulder, implacable, imprisoned by caution.

Here I am, she said. There, you are not.

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.