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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The 12-year Houseguest

He carried the Cross, now he wears the Crown
He carried the Cross, now he wears the Crown

Jack came to us as a two week foster care arrangement. He was lodging in the Glendale animal shelter at the time, and being eternally hopeful, extended his paw into the adjoining cage to say hello to a much larger dog.  So his leg was in bandages and his head wrapped in a cone when he arrived at our door.

“He’s not staying,” I announced. “He doesn’t fit the color scheme of the house. Our other dogs are brown and rust colored.”

I was in my Aesthetic Fascist period then.

He trotted in this weird sideways canter, probably due to the injury, one paw crossing over the other, ears flopping up and down like antennae. He had terrible breath. He wasn’t very bright.  The first time I let him off leash, at Runyon Canyon, he skittered straight down the hill, out the front gate, down Vista Street, and kept running until a samaritan intercepted him wandering Hollywood Blvd, “looking confused”.

Despite his apparent dimness, he knew instinctively to place his head on Mrs. U’s bosom whenever I tried to initiate a discussion of What To Do About Jack.

And so a third dog bed was purchased and he took his place in the menagerie.  He was already down to only a few teeth at that point. I figured a year or two, at most.  It was 2004.

Dogs and cats came and went at Chez UpintheValley, but Jack, like some canine version of Dick Clark, refused to age.  He outlived them all, even Woody. He remained eternally hopeful.  He proved to be the lowest-maintenance house member we ever had. No vet bills but annuals and teeth cleaning, which did little to assuage his halitosis.  When we took him to my parents house, he rode in the car all the way to Mendocino County standing up, staring out the window.  He jumped into San Francisco Bay. He forded the Eel River.  The first time he saw snow, he pranced through it like a gazelle.

Two years ago the arthritis set in and he began clicking around the house like Nosferatu, at all hours.  But he always gobbled the kibble.

To our amazement, there were another 30,000 miles left on his tires. He made it around the block with the others on the morning walk.  More recently, when he no longer could, he still gimped his way to the front door when you came home.  He yipped indignantly if he got stuck in the back yard. Even to the last week, he roused himself for a pepperoni stick.  When he stopped eating, it was time.

We have no idea how old he was. Our best guess was 17.

I’m glad we kept him.

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The Trouble with Larry

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Larry was clinging to the fence for support when we found him this afternoon, knees buckled, dog trembling at his feet. He professed bewilderment why he couldn’t stand, as though his own legs had been swapped out when he wasn’t looking and replaced with celery stalks.

Neither of us had seen him around the neighborhood before.

“I just need to get to Sepulveda. I can walk.”

But he couldn’t. I hoisted him to his feet twice, and he was unable to manage a step.  Purplish and gnarled toes poked from a pair of hospital-issue orthopedic slippers.  I asked him where he was headed to on Sepulveda.

He didn’t have a plan. A rolling suitcase and a tremulous whippet constituted his world entire.

A woman crossed the street and told us Larry had been staying at a sober living house at the end of the block. Today was his last day.  Larry, as you might already have guessed, was not sober. Yet one sensed his frailties were larger than could be resolved by a stay in a drunk tank.

On the way to the “sober house” the woman told us the neighbors had been discussing whether the facility was in legal compliance with residential zoning.  They were not happy to have it on their block.

A guy named Gary opened the door before we even knocked.

“Theres a guy collapsed on the corner…”

“Yeah, Larry.”

Gary offered to call the paramedics. The four of us walked back to the Dickensian tableau at the corner and I asked if Larry was being evicted for drinking. No, he was being evicted for non-payment of rent.

A fire department ambulance rolled up ten minutes later. They were weary of Larry at the sight of him. Not that they weren’t entirely professional about it, but you could see they had scraped one derelict too many off the sidewalk already on this tour and were in no mood for another.

There was just one problem: Larry didn’t want to go anywhere.  There was nothing wrong with him, you see.  He didn’t want to be billed. He didn’t want to lose his dog.   He was fine, and just needed to get to Sepulveda and didn’t know why everyone was making such a fuss, “why we were all doing this to him”.

“I’m going to ask you three questions Larry, if you can answer them, we’ll leave you alone.”

Larry didn’t know his own birthdate. He all also couldn’t stand.   They hoisted him on to the stretcher.  The dog climbed up into his lap and the firemen tucked them together into the bus.

Mrs. UpintheValley went into a minor panic about the dog. Would it be impounded when they got to the hospital? The firemen didn’t know.

Later she tracked them down at Valley Presbyterian. A kindly nurse explained Larry and the dog were fine, “Don’t worry. He’s here all the time.”

As a taxpayer, I was not happy to hear this.  As a Christian, I am conflicted. Many people seem to know a lot about Larry while wanting nothing to do with him.  After today, that would include Mr. and Mrs. U.  There’s a brigade of Larrys wandering the Valley now. Middle-aged, not elderly.  Bereft of family.  Unemployable, but not crazy.  Intoxicated, but not completely cracked out. My first inclination is to take a harsh stand against the shiftless and the parasitical. That might work when someone is 25. But these guys? I don’t know.

Perhaps the answer is a return of the alms house.   A place, neither hospital nor jail,  where the spiritually broken can tend to the garden of their own souls.  What the French called Hotel-Dieu. God’s Hotel.

Please Lose Faith/God Bless

A divided city, in two photographs:

Signpost theology, Brentwood
Theology of wealthy liberals, Brentwood
Affirmation, Van Nuys
Affirmation, Van Nuys

The first message I encountered in the parking lot of Whole Foods, where you can buy truffle Gouda for $33/lb.  The second I found in the weeds along the 405, after the favela exploded.

Allhallowtide

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Of all the rituals in the Valley, none, not even Christmas, commands our collective enthusiasm like Halloween.  We hang more skeletons in our yards than angels.  More cobwebs than reindeer.  More jack o’lanterns than Santa Clauses.

We do Christmas out of duty. Halloween we do altogether differently.

All Hallows Eve, before it went fully pagan, was once a Christian harvest festival not dissimilar to the Dia Los Muertos, a remembrance of the faithful departed.   Now it’s an orgy of joyful bloodletting and gluttony.  Not just witches and ghosts and Disney characters, but a happy parade of decapitated heads, chainsaws, machetes, serial killers and bodily entrails.

On the other side of our fragile world, Islamic militants are un-ironically hanging human heads on fence posts and rejoicing.   They’re separating the men from the women, devising elaborate public executions: by fire, by drowning, by explosive device -the more theatrical the better- then chaining up the daughters like pack animals and leading them away into un-ironic concubinage.

We don’t need Jason masks to symbolize the psychosis of evil. We have an actual army of Jasons afoot, advancing Westward by the day.

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The Quickening Signposts

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For the people who purport to speak on behalf of the American Blue Half….this is the answer to all social ills.  If we could just raise the marginal rate to….wait, wait a minute, is that child walking away?

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Why is it I'm seeing more scenes like this?
Why is it I’m seeing more scenes like this?
And this?
And this?