Things To Do In The Valley When You’re Not Yet Dead

Here’s something you can do. Queue up at Whole Foods first thing in the morning and consider the novelty of economic martial law…only to find the bread aisle empty.   I have rather pointed thoughts as to the motivation of the hacks who diverted my beloved Los Angeles down this road.  In the spirit of shared sacrifice and heeding the counsel of Mrs. U, I am putting my inner Tom Paine to the side for the time being.

Shorter UpintheValley: Toilet paper is the new bottle of wine.

Instead, let us consider the glory of homemade bread.   Did you know you can make an entire batch of dough for $2?  I didn’t.  One batch = three or four loaves. Shape to suit your whimsy. Warm bread fresh from the oven tastes like nothing else, and for 65 cents a loaf makes the house smell like nostalgia for a childhood memory you never had.     Why didn’t we always do this? Free Time, our abundant new houseguest, that’s why.

Maybe overall health will improve, she said optimistically. Perhaps people will get tired of empty calories and consume less processed food from the market.  Maybe they’ll model reading for their children and both parents will tuck them in at night. 

And he replied: People will continue to be themselves, only more so, and in a righteous mood.

You can also do this:  rent a 20-foot bin, break out the sledgehammer, the pick, and the prybar and dig up your asphalt driveway.   House arrest is the panacea for long-postponed projects. Taxing on the lower lumbar,  restorative of the animal spirits.

You can take to the mountains with the dogs to discover five hundred other people were inspired to visit the same trail at the same time. Maybe I should try baking a banana cream pie, you hear a woman announce to her husband as she passes. No, you really shouldn’t, he replies.  I promise I’ll eat it, you butt in, to collective laughter, and for a moment our metropolis is a curious polite little village where everyone lives six feet apart.

You can read and read and read. I wanted to get back into John Le Carre but the Los Angeles public library has him under lockdown, so I’m settling for E.M. Forster, who has not aged as well as the film adaptations.

You can watch and watch and watch, and soon enough Narcos: Mexico and Mindhunter are done, and then one is left thinking of Nemesis and Hubris and their role in our self-inflicted moment.

Yeah, this guy. Mr. 56%. But that’s a whole other essay I promised I wouldn’t write.

Days of Wine and Slow DSL

When the sun returns we’ll feel differently, but for the moment it’s like we’ve fallen into the pages of someone else’s unfinished novel.   Our lovely week of rain has softened this unfamiliar oddity of mandatory hooky. We have new struggles, like remembering the Hulu passcode so we can watch Contagion.

We rediscover guilty pleasures and then realize our schedules overlap a bit too completely. I predict a spike in births around Christmas. Also divorce petitions.

Flowers will soon riot across the Valley, and our pent up cabin fever will shake us from this sheep-like submission to madness.

In the meantime, we teach To Kill A Mockingbird from the safety of the bedroom.

We expel all members from LA Fitness until April 1st. Effective in five minutes.

We flatten the curve in Echo Park.   Not so unreasonable. A happy middle ground.

Photo by John Sanphillippo

Thank goodness someone is flouting shelter in place orders in San Francisco.  Blessings be upon he who beta-tests.

The Distance Between Us

There are, as of yesterday, 39 Wuhan Coronavirus deaths in the United States, according to the CDC.  Twenty-two were in a single nursing home in Kirkland, WA.   The median age of victims: 80.  Most had correlated health problems. But now you can’t buy canned soup or bottled water in Van Nuys.  There is no rice left at 99 Ranch market.  Our answer to the long odds of infection is consumer-driven scarcity.

Since Wednesday:
-Broadway
-Disneyland
-MLB spring training
-and the NCAA tournament have gone on hiatus.
On Monday, LA Unified is joining them, setting the table for an unprecedented child care crisis among hourly wage earners.

We are in the grip of maximal measures.  We won’t be using any more toilet paper should the virus reach the San Fernando Valley than if it didn’t, yet we buy out every roll in the store anyway because it feels like we are doing something.  We are under the sway of cable news, where catastrophism prevails, everyone is a Fake Expert for Five Minutes, and all roads lead to the Oval Office, as though there was a special button underneath a desk called Pandemic Wing Attack Plan R, press here to release whup-ass.  

Wash your hands.  Cover your cough. Stop touching your face.  Settle in for some binge-watching.   First principles, from actual epidemiologists, now arouse scorn. That’s all?  There has to be more to it than that!   Don’t tell me about washing!  What’s happening? Who do we blame?  

Mrs. UpintheValley just poked her head in the door, greatly agitated, to announce the LA Public Library system will be closed for the rest of the month.  She gathered the books on the coffee table into her arms like Diego Rivera’s flower girl, assessing by touch if they were sufficient to last the duration.

This just in: MacLeod is no longer serving peanuts.   Social distancing has officially begun in earnest.

That looks to be about six feet apart.  Like contented canines let us disappear inside our homes…for the places we normally gather for solace are now off-limits. Let us use this crowded fortnight, after the diversions of wine, fornication and Netflix are exhausted, to consider how isolated we have become from one another. Maybe this contagion can be repurposed.

From Wuhan, With Love

In January, when I reported for jury duty there were a number of older Asian women in the pool wearing masks, which I found a bit paranoid, though polite.  I chalked it up to cultural differences, but now you can’t buy one.  My nephew this week is in the desert winds of New Mexico wiring a cooling tower without a dust mask in violation of OSHA regulations. Masks are great for industrial particles. They don’t do squat against the pandemic, but he waits on Amazon to fill backorders.

On Saturday I picked up a woman in Marina Del Rey a bit miffed at developments. She owns a condo in Palm Springs which she AirBnBs for Coachella.  It’s certain to be canceled, she said, and soon she’ll have to refund the $5000 she’s already collected. Was she worried about taking an Uber, a natural vector for infection? Of course not. “No one under 60 needs to worry about COVID-19”. Is she right?  Yes…but there are caveats.

Mrs. UpintheValley went to Trader Joes yesterday to discover a run on canned goods.  She settled for pasta sauce.   She went to Target to double our reserves of toilet paper and tissue.  They were all out of bacterial wipes.  I went to the gym and had to stand in line to use the treadmill. The Zumba class was full. All the dumbells were in use, one sweaty hand after another trading off on the same damp bacteria encased grip.  Tame Impala played a sold-out show at the Forum last night.  Snctm, the $75,000/year Beverly Hills sex club, will be proceeding with its scheduled orgy this weekend.

We are free with our fluids in month two of the pandemic, then we reach for bacterial wipes and wonder about our neighbor’s cough. We go to the Laker game and then blame the President for not doing….well, something more.  He stopped flights from China in January and they called him racist. Tonight he embargoed flights from Europe for 30 days and the media is in an ecstasy of sanctimony: Too late! Our American Chernobyl is upon us!  Get the widow on the set!  Get me B roll of people on ventilators!

Except…its not happening. Yet. The seasonal flu kills 50-80,000 people every year, mostly the very elderly. Wuhan virus, we’re looking at hundreds.  So far, all elderly.   But…the vectors have been established. The bacteria has breached our shores, and if the epidemiologist math is correct, its spread should peak on March 21.  If there was a time to self-quarantine it was now. Naturally, I went out for a beer.

MacLeod was not wanting for business. Andrew was there and confessed to anxiousness.  We had entered a time of madness, but there was no way to wash your hands of it, he punned. On cue, the bartender brought me a ten-dollar bill I had mistakenly folded into a pile of singles I had given him.  It was a gesture of honesty, and I accepted it from his bare fingers, which had handled dirty sweaty cash all day, and then I put my hands into a bowl of peanuts and helped myself.  Everyone who came to MacLeod before 7 pm was now in my mouth.

I stopped at Target on the way home, just in case there were provisions for the siege not yet obtained and was greeted by an exodus of carts piled high with bleach, the wipes having sold out.  Alternatively, you could simply sing “Happy Birthday” twice as you washed your hands and achieve a better result.  I happen to be both a thorough hand-washer and at the same time an indiscriminate muncher of free grub from sneeze bowls. That is my particular dementia.

The last generic DayQuil in Van Nuys…for now

Get some DayQuil, Mrs. U advised, you never know.  I’m not entirely sure what good that would do in the event of respiratory illness but I scrounged the very last box in the store, forgotten on the bottom shelf.  When I got home she announced school was canceled for the rest of the month, all the private schools in LA,  and she would be undertaking “distance teaching”.  The NBA was suspending games until further notice.  Coachella was postponed to October.

I texted my nephew. The power was out in the mountains. He was assembling an automatic rifle by headlamp.   No cough medicine for him.  To each his own prep.

So You Want To Cast a Ballot?

It might be a couple of hours…
Sepulveda Rec Center, 4:23 pm

We reported to our normal polling station today,  with the familiar poll workers and trays of supermarket cookies and easy parking and the short lines, to find it…closed.   I was vaguely aware the L.A. county polling system was undergoing a few changes, including early voting, but I didn’t realize this meant the neighborhood polls had been consolidated in favor of regional ones.

So we drove a couple of miles north to the new location only to find a line snaking around the building and no parking.   We walked a few blocks, and settled in at the tail of the snake, fell into civic conversation with the people next to us, (one of them a refugee from the long lines at Sherman Oaks) and after about ten minutes…we noticed something: The line had not moved at all.   I followed the snake around the corner and into the gym to find a dozen unoccupied polling machines and two poll workers doing intake, issuing ballots. Slowly. Only two people were voting.

Someone vaguely authoritative announced it would be a two-hour wait, and we might have better luck at Sepulveda Middle School, up in Mission Hills.

Goodbye Chad. 

Exodus, take three. To Mission Hills we raced, and as promised, greeted by a mercifully short line. We also found ourselves standing next to the guy from Sherman Oaks, to our mutual amusement. At check-in, they issued a blank paper ballot with a QR code that you feed into the machine, then complete by touch screen.

No more chads. No more ink dot. Lots of gooey fingertips caressing the names, sharing cooties.   Bacteria and democracy together at last. Not a germaphobe, I found it both recklessly intimate and weirdly impersonal.  Our ballot may be secret, but a pandemic we can share.  Here is a dystopian movie plot just waiting to happen.

The machine prints your ballot, offering a moment to double-check your answers, then you “cast” it by reinserting it.  Under the new VSAP system, the ballot is read electronically but retains a paper backup in the event of a recount. Suspenders and a belt, in theory.  There is a bit of wrinkle, though.  Your vote is converted to QR code in order to be counted. See that matrix of pixels on the left side of the page?  Those are your choices, all of them, squeezed into a 1.5 inch grid of dots.  Do the dots and names match up?  Let us hope so.  Does the printer ink ever smear, even slightly, altering your intent?   Could you recognize your own name in QR code?

A few things to consider as you fall asleep while wondering if anyone from your precinct recently visited China.

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.

So You Want To Be A Juror?

Be prepared for roll call at 10:30 only to wait in the hall until 11:20 before they open the doors of the Chambre du accusation.  After 40 minutes of voir dire,  adjourn for lunch until 1:30.   Wait again in the hall until 2:10 for Mr. Serious, the courtroom manager, to poke his head out the door and call numbers. By the second day, we were fully institutionalized. Any murmurings from an official person and we queued up as submissively as lemmings.  We were on government time.

At least we were free of the rubber room downstairs, waiting to be assigned a case, listening to the Orientation Lady explain the Rules of the Hardship Exemption for an hour straight, like she was hawking cubic zirconia on QVC.  Five times she reminds us to turn in our forms, lest we not get credit for service. No certificate, no credit.  Understood.

Lunch is a blessing as Grand Park is rather grand at midday: yoga classes, futbol, and sunshine…

…and photoshoots on the City Hall steps.  A culinary cornucopia but a short walk away.  It’s the nicest public space in the City. Say this for the One-Party State, they spare no expense making downtown wonderful for public employees.

Then its back to the 11th floor and its unforgiving benches forged from the same material as bowling balls.  Confined in the brutalist aesthetic of the building, it’s easy to forget the rich legal history that played out here: OJ. Manson. The Menendez Brothers. The Nightstalker.   Remembering the acquittals, is there something about the confinement of jurors in such unforgiving architecture which causes them to bond with defendants?

The accused was frail and elderly,  a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh, down to the wispy grey beard.  Small, 5’2 at best, like Manson. Bespectacled, inexpressive.  He sat with bony hands clasped on the table in front of him, listening to his translator through earphones as though receiving a telegraph report from overseas.  During the sidebar, he rubbed each of his fingernails in turn, like worry beads.   He and his lawyer sat at separate tables, and she did not confer with him.  When the judge read the charges: sexual assault against a child, an audible shudder passed through the room.   There were no family or friends in the courtroom bearing witness.  He was as alone as a man could be.

We were in the Clara Shortridge Foltz building, named for the first female lawyer in California.  Both Public Defender and D.A. in the case were women, and looked like TV Lawyers; trim, well-coiffed, ready for a close-up.   They wanted to know we felt about memory, ten years after the fact.   How we felt about the testimony of teenagers, recalling events of early childhood.  Were they capable of lying?  The defense counsel offered a hypothetical: if I told you a man was eating a BLT sandwich, how would you really know it was bacon between the bread slices? The D.A. altered the metaphor to the example of peanut butter and jelly: if you saw a man holding a sandwich and there was jelly in the corners of his mouth, would you consider that evidence he had eaten a PBJ even though you never saw him take a bite? The defense tried a new tack in the voir dire:  If a witness states she doesn’t remember something are you willing to not fill in the blanks? I could sense the lineaments of the case take shape and realized I wanted no part of it.

As Juror No. 60 in the pool, I was never called into the box. After three days of feinting and bluffing and prodding of the jury pool, both counsels engaged in a late afternoon flurry of peremptory challenges, not unlike the call and raise cycle that finishes off a poker pot, and suddenly the jury was seated and sworn.

Spared another week downtown,  I saw the Valley as so many of my neighbors do: as a stream of taillights inching up the 405, our non-negotiable tax.  I tried a podcast, but it didn’t hold my attention.   I found myself thinking of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, the Japanese man who was swept out to sea on the roof of his house after the Tsunami and floated in the North Pacific for a week before discovery. In that scenario, you have nothing. Or you can have nothing, plus God’s mercy.   That’s up to you.  Maybe that’s why the defendant’s hands were clasped, facing twelve angry commuters who hated him the moment they heard the charges.