Luis, the Stone Cutter

Conundrum

Conundrum

There is so much construction and renovation going on in Los Angeles right now a 50 square foot granite job in Van Nuys qualifies as a nuisance, even if you’re waving cash like a drunken bachelor at a strip club. The normal laws of business are in abeyance when it comes to stone work.

The first contractor to visit told us he was in the middle of a 25 slab bathroom renovation in Pasadena, “but he would squeeze us in”.  Our kitchen was less than a single slab.

Of course we never heard from him again.  We went through a series of estimates ranging from $1100 to $3900, which meant fabricators were making up numbers and hoping suckers would bite.  Mostly, though, people didn’t call us back.

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After some gentle and persistent nagging we manage to prevail upon someone to pick up our slab at the yard. Then we waited for work to begin. And waited.

We were doing dishes in the bathtub.  Our leverage over the stoneworkers, even as paying customers, was effectively zero.

After six weeks the call came. The countertops were arriving in the morning.  The Luises, Juan Luis and Jose Luis, were standing on the porch at 8am.  Our finished pieces were in the back of their truck.

Complications ensued, as they say in comedy.  The biggest of the pieces, the crucial L shaped one,  had an overhang 3/4 of an inch too long.   The cabinet drawers couldn’t open.   Phone calls were made to the shop.  It was suggested I make the countertop 3/4 of an inch higher to accommodate their screw up.  I nixed the idea on principle,  while dreading the idea of the countertop leaving the house, to return to a nuisance pile to be dealt with by the fabricator at a future date, unknown.

After much negotiation in Spanish it was decided Luis (Jose Luis) would resolve the matter on site.

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They set up a table in the driveway, and he went to work, recutting and polishing the overhang in 106 degree heat.  It took four hours in the full sun.   I brought him water and chatted him up while he took breaks.    Turns out we were neighbors.

He lives with his wife and daughter in an apartment on Sherman Way.  He came from El Salvador 14 years ago, and started out sweeping floors at the granite yard.  He swept for three years before they let him use the tools.

Now he cuts and installs stone perpetually.  He doesn’t mind the dust.  He pays $2000 a month in rent and has a 14-year old who has to have the “good shoes”.  He told me it hurts him when she speaks English when she comes home from school.  He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t partake of drugs. To save money he drives a 2002 Mitsubishi.  Too many Latinos blow their money on cars, and partying on the weekends. “Good for the economy, but bad for us.”  Yet for all his el norte striving, he demands she speak Spanish in the house.

Sometimes other Latinos call him beaner. “Why can’t you speak English?”

In Central America he was picking cucumbers. In Los Angeles he has a trade which puts folding money in his pocket, and a daughter with a phone, surrounded by danger.  “Ai, peligro! Peligro everywhere”.  Spanish is his only hold on her.

Sons of Stone Cutters

Sons of Stone Cutters

Luis finished the edge detail by mid-afternoon. After a moment of suspense, our fancy new Ikea drawers opened with a perfect 1/8 inch of clearance, and with that, our upper-middle class pretentions for our working class stucco box were marginally closer to fruition, courtesy of El Salvador.

After he left I thought of the movie Breaking Away and wondered what would become of his English speaking, shoe-loving daughter.

Goodbye, Freasy

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Well, this is a blow. Fresh and Easy is closing all 97 stores in California this week.  Liquidation of inventory has begun. Mrs. UpintheValley took advantage of the markdowns to clear out the bulk items at the Sepulveda store, which was always so conveniently situated right on the way home.

Soon it will be another empty husk in a strip mall. Maybe the Dollar King next door will expand into it like an invading ant army.  Maybe it will sit empty for half a year, while the landlord sits on the property, watching its value increase by the minute. In Los Angeles, the real estate casino always wins.

I suppose a sudden arrival of Trader Joes would be too much to hope for.

Not sure why the Freasy didn’t do better.  While it didn’t offer the vast inventory of Costco, or priced as cheap as SuperKing or the Mexican markets, it had an interesting product mix; plenty of vegan and gluten-free options, pre-packaged semi-gourmet meals for singles, ample parking, easy self-checkout.  Also, it was the only place in the Valley open 24 hours, which made for a welcome 3 am pit stop after a long night Ubering.  Andrew at HereinVanNuys described it as like grocery shopping at Ikea, which was not an inaccurate assessment.   It was a store that made perfect sense on paper, but never got the trade to come through the doors.

Seeing the going out of business signs made me think of a different strip mall, at Selma and Cahuenga.  A decade ago it was just another shitty corner in a tacky, at times crime-addled, part of Hollywood.  There was the inevitable liquor store/laundromat combo, the impossibly tight parking spaces, insufficient in number. Crackheads and winos, puttering about. Trash.  Garish signage. A forgettable eyesore.

Today there are three, count them, three, gastropubs, a Pinkberry, and a couple boutiques.  In one strip mall.

The corner of Sepulveda and Vanowen a decade ago had a Ralphs, a Baskin Robbins, high traffic and good visibility.  It was surrounded by quiet leafy neighborhoods of mid-century homes populated by middle class people with jobs.  Dated, certainly, but a solid business investment, one would think.  Apparently one would be wrong.

The divergent fates of these two corners say a lot about what’s happening to this City.

Wither gravity?

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Is this really happening?

He’s boorish and says distasteful things about women and says them reflexively. He writes checks with his mouth America will not be able to cash, like announcing the Iranians will turn over all hostages before he assume the Oval Office.  Or the Mexican government will pay to build a wall between us. He, who never served, mocked John McCain for being a POW. He dismissed Ben Carson, pediatric neurosurgeon of renown as “an okay doctor, who hired maybe one nurse, but not great”. He dismissed Hugh Hewitt, with 25,000 interviews to his credit, as a “third-rate talk show host”, when Hugh innocently revealed through questions Trump could not distinguish between Quds and Kurds.

And yet! There he is, making the weather, defying all political laws. A Sun King, in waiting.  To quote pollster Stu Rothenberg:

 “I have been arguing that once Iowa Republicans start to see the caucuses as an opportunity to select the next president, rather than an opportunity to express their frustration and anger, they will turn away from Trump and toward politically experienced, mainstream contenders. After combing through the most recent surveys from the Iowa caucuses and talking with veteran Republican strategists, I can no longer say that with any certainty…”

My father, a George McGovern/Bernie Sanders liberal to the bone, loves Trump.

Over beers at Macleod last night, three of us confessed were the election held today, in a matchup between Hillary and Trump we would all vote for Mr. Bombastic, despite his baggage.  None of us wanted to. But given the choice….

Secretly we wished he would say or do something so terrible it would derail his candidacy once and for all, so we wouldn’t have to choose.  But hasn’t he done that five times already?

If nothing else, Trump is right about one thing: illegal immigration and how deeply it is resented in this country. What is resented even more is the institutionalized deceit with which it is protected by the political media.  I say this as someone who resides happily in a neighborhood of first generation Latino and Asian immigrants, strivers all. My beloved working-class brigadoon of Van Nuys.

Sometimes all it takes is one fundamental truth to ride to power. When the distance between what one is publicly permitted to say and what is privately felt becomes unsustainable, there’s a fissure, and the geyser erupts. After that, all bets are off.

What then, though? Suppose he wins? Having taken the prize, we are left with the man, and all his frailties.

Light and Dark in the banana republic of Los Angeles

Glendale has streetlights

Glendale has streetlights. How did they manage to do that?

Juan, a nice young man who works for a neighborhood advocacy organization approached me last week with a petition. ‘Sign here, and Nury’s office will ask for streetlights for the neighborhood.”

How wonderful.  Who could say no?  Sure I’ll sign…

Not so fast.  The streetlights are going to cost ‘only’ $6/month, per house. $72 a year, for life.

Juan was having difficulty collecting signatures.

Streetlights fall under the category of Things We Already Pay For.  That is, in the normal run of things in the wealthiest state in the country, from the vast pools of property tax revenue, income tax, sales taxes, utility taxes there are ample funds to light the streets.  Not so in the banana republic of Los Angeles, where we are now being asked to kiss the ring of jefa Nury, and pay a special assessment, to obtain what Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena,  even downmarket working class San Fernando already have by right of citizenship.  How soon before we are issued shovels and asked to fill in our own potholes?

In Van Nuys, $450,000 buys  moonlight

In Van Nuys, $500,000 buys moonlight

Hector Tobar, formerly of the Times, wrote recently the presence of a permanent caste of squatter communities is the signature characteristic of Third World cities. A life-long Angeleno, liberal, and son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar sees Los Angeles heading in this direction. This is true, but only half the story.  L.A. has its own twist on the formula: Swedish levels of taxation and Brazilian levels of service.    A two-tiered society with a narrow band of Beautiful People on the other side of the hill living in an urban playground of artisanal pleasures, and a vast workforce paying top dollar to live within commuting distance to serve them, then returning home to unlit streets.

All one has do is leave the city limits to see how different it can be.

Three slides of Cratchit-ville

The Casita

The Casita

The Trailer

The Trailer

The wild mustard weeds

The Tangled Bank

The person who lives in the casita recycles scrap. The person who lives in the trailer works at Wal-Mart. There are six rabbit-warren encampments burrowed within the sunflowers. I have no idea who lives there or where they go during the day.

Diamonds and Rust

Saint Joan is calling me

When Saint Joan calls…

I awoke this morning from evocative dreams.  I was stranded in New Mexico.  I needed to get back to LA in time for work, so I started hitchhiking.

Joan Baez picked me up in her tour bus.

“I need a roadie,” she said.  “You’ll do.”

This wasn’t the silver-haired grande dame le musique folk we know today, but the sultry St. Joan of the early 70’s, Vanguard Records It Girl and Dylan muse.

I got on the bus.

She had a gig in Tucson in a massive sports arena.  Packed house. Half-way through the show, she walked away from the microphone and approached me backstage. She whispered huskily in my ear.

“My back-up player is drunk again. Help me out on this next song, will you dear?”

“But…I don’t know how to play guitar.”

“C’mon. It’s easy to play guitar. You’ll pick it up in no time.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Truth and beauty, darling.  Don’t over-analyze. I’m calling you an artist.”

A roadie directed me to the remnants of a guitar leaning against a music stand.  It was missing strings. The frets were broken in places. It looked as though Pete Townsend has just worked out his repressed homosexual rage on it.

“Here you go, maestro. They’re waiting for you.”

The show ground to a halt while Joan introduced me to a now restless audience. She smiled benevolently from the microphone and waved me onstage to a smattering of polite applause.

Then she began to trill her way through “Diamonds and Rust”.

I did the only sensible thing.

For the next five minutes I furiously played air guitar alongside her, complete with spastic head banging.

After all, I was an artist.

*                 *                   *

In an unrelated matter, there will be a retrospective of photos from this blog, an art show if you will, at the wonderful MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. in Van Nuys, starting tomorrow night.

SCENES FROM A WORKING-CLASS BRIGADOON

Photographs from Upinthevalley.org

Macleod Ale Brewing Co.

14741 Calvert St. Van Nuys,   5-10PM

There will be, as an inducement, excellent British ales, music, darts, lovely conversation, and probably a food truck.  Mrs. Upinthevalley will be there, as will I. If you read this blog and want to unwind a bit after your week, I would love to meet you. If you can’t make it tomorrow, they’ll up for awhile.

Come for the beer, stay for the art.

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