Welcome to Cratchit-ville

Home sweet casita
Home sweet casita, only $900/month

Last week I gave a co-worker a ride home.

‘Pull into this alley here. Now turn into this service alley.  Now slow down…stop here. This is it.’

What, this?

I was looking at a pair of hinges embedded in a wooden fence, next to garbage cans.

‘Yup. This is it. Thanks for the ride.”

“Is there a crazed ex-boyfriend lurking around your life?”

“My landlady won’t let me use the front entrance.  She is very adamant about it.”

She reached over the wall, grabbed a string and the wooden slats parted about thirty degrees and she slipped through. The ‘gate’ closed behind her, Bat Cave-like,  then looked like an ordinary fence again.   There was no street address or unit number to mark where she lived.

A few days later, it got cold.

‘There’s no heat in my place,’ she lamented.   Ask the landlady to fix the furnace, we suggested.  It’s Christmastime.

‘There’s no furnace.’

No furnace?  No wall heater? 

‘My apartment is kind of attached to the garage.  I don’t think it’s legal. I wanted to buy a space heater and deduct it from my rent, but she won’t let me.  Arguing with her about it is like trying to grab water.’

The person of whom I am writing is a) white,  b) educated,  c) sober,  d) works two jobs, like everyone else north of Ventura Blvd.   Van Nuys may not be Vladivostok, but a heat-less domicile is her lot this winter and she’s resigned to it. One might consider her at a slight advantage to the other tenant, the one who lives in the garage proper, who also has no heat…plus no insulation. No kitchen, either. $600.

Turning right at the corner, I was back on a street of ordinary mid-century homes in White Van Nuys, otherwise known as Lake Balboa, lined with sweet gums shedding the last of the autumn leaves.   Nothing suggested the parallel world of Bob Cratchit-like cells, small, cold and dismal, concealed just beyond the hedge work, from which certain homeowners profited handsomely.

There is a deep sub-culture of illegal units in Los Angeles.  Historically it has served the needs of the extended immigrant family: second cousins tucked away in converted Home Depot tool sheds.  The City has never taken it on directly because this would mean addressing the larger issue of the vast population of undocumented laborers concealed within its borders, without which the Westside would cease to function.  The Problem which has No Name in Polite Society.  We can’t enforce laws relating to citizenship so we don’t enforce laws relating to those would exploit the legal disadvantage of the undocumented.  Once you carve out a zone of immunity in civil society, it doesn’t stop with Hondurans. We all take a step back in the direction of Dickensian London, toward a Manicheanistic world of the propertied and the un-propertied.

Welcome to Cratchit-ville.

To be Giada

'I just grab some thyme from backyard...'
‘I just grab some thyme from my backyard…’

This is how it goes on vacation days: Mrs. Upinthevalley comes home from yoga, makes something green and crunchy, assumes the lotus position in front of the TV, and watches the porn for women that is Giada De Laurentiis.

Giada! Isn’t she wonderful?

Giada makes crab ricotta cannelloni.  Giada has perfect orthodonture.  Giada shares her holiday recipes. She has a teeny-tiny waist. Giada makes lemon-smashed potatoes. Giada has gorgeous hair.  Even her stray tendrils fall in an orderly manner. Giada makes stracotto with porcini mushrooms.  Her kitchen has spotless glass tile and nothing drips on the counter. Ever. There are no animals underfoot in Giadaworld.  No oily finger stains surround the drawer pulls.  No mismatched countertops. either. No cobwebs lurk in the corners of the window to catch the light just so whenever anyone pulls out a camera. Giada’s pots and pans look like they’ve just emerged from factory shrink-wrap.    There’s no grease splatter behind her unscuffed stovetop. She cooks in outfits, without an apron.  Her outfits remain….unsoiled.  No flour smudges appear on her temple.  The forks goes in, the fork comes out, nothing sticks to her teeth.  Her lipstick remains unpreturbed.  She is unflappable. All her obscure yet useful utensils are available at Target!  Along with Giada-endorsed table wine.

Don’t you wish you were Giada?  You should buy her stuff right now.

Why should a show designed molecularly to make women feel bad about themselves maintain such a hypnotic hold?  Perhaps we Americans are an aspirational people. Perhaps it is because the kitchen she works from on TV is actually a soundstage. A replica of the kitchen in her Malibu home, with a rear projection of the beach outside a fake window and a surfboard placed strategically on a fake patio. A replica of the house she leaves each morning at 6 AM and returns home to, by her own admission, long after her daughter is tucked into bed. All part of her balancing act between work and family.  A balancing act which requires a well concealed squad of assistants to swat away life’s little uglinesses like misfit flies. A life which began as the granddaughter of a billionaire.

Giada is cooking for one now.  In sympathy, Mrs. U is watching a marathon of Everyday Italian and cooking up a storm.  She’s vegan.  She doesn’t eat 90% of what Giada makes. Doesn’t matter.  In Van Nuys, Giada can do no wrong.

'John Mayer? I don't believe a word of it.'
‘John Mayer? I don’t believe a word of it.’

One hundred narrative report cards

The cozy spot
Thirty-four down. Sixty-six to go.

Also one hundred papers to grade, and a few dozen thank-you notes to write.  Plus letters of recommendation.  Plus lots of e-mails to answer from parents who need status updates. Right away.  To keep abreast of any developments over vacation.

This is why man invented Facebook breaks and Scrabble moves.  Also, the cozy spot in the house.

Alternatively, one could be spending the Day after Christmas navigating the parking lot at the mall.

Yes, we’re finishing it…

Can I have some?
Can I have some?

Today I paid five bucks for a cup of joe at a discreet and cool industrial-looking coffee house, down in the Arts District.   Not some soda-sized caramel macchiato whipped cream extravaganza from Starbucks, just a plain cup of coffee in the type of cup they used to set in front of you at Denny’s at 3AM in the middle of an all-nighter. Five bucks.

‘It’ll be six or seven minutes to prepare. We need to whip the almond milk.’

Oh, okay….

I’m in no position to pay that kind of money for anything which fits in the palm of my hand.  This is my second consecutive Christmas of ‘oh, let’s at least have a tree.’  I service my debts….and I do so honorably. Beyond that, my fiscal horizons are brutish and short.  It’s no way to be living at this point in my life. So on Small Business Saturday, if I’m not going to be able to afford to window shop, we can put some miles on the Skechers and take in the city a bit.   Start in Echo Park and work our way down east of Alameda.  My day began with a re-habbing jury-rigging of the kitchen door with mismatched brackets I had dug out of a box of old construction materials.  A shameless piece of hack work I didn’t even attempt to conceal with paint, which succeeded in keeping the stiles and rails connected and allowed for the door to swing shut for another winter.  We watched Searching for Sugarman last night, so I was both in a poetic and appreciative frame of mind.  I did what I usually do when I’m in that state:  I left the Valley.

So out came the coffee.  My almond-whipped, individually prepared, fair-trade, put my feet out after a long week and savor the moment premium cassis.

Ghastly.

Sour.

Strange.

Imagine a rusty freighter hijacked by Somali pirates.  Now imagine a cast iron bucket at the bottom of the hold the hostages are forced to use as a piss pot during their captivity.  Then imagine that cast iron bucket being purchased on eBay by some fancypants collector of conflict memorabilia, which through a comedy of errors is mis-routed to Los Angeles where a hipster doofus decides to re-purpose it as a coffee pot. For authenticity’s sake.  Old camp stove coffee.  Almond-whipped.  And all those rich, brine-y flavors working their way into the foam….

Mrs. Upinthevalley, optimist.
Mrs. Upinthevalley, determined.

‘We’re finishing it,’ my wife announced, reading my mind, but setting down the cup with a grimace.

I went back inside for some sugar. A lot of sugar, which appeared to offend the staff behind the counter.

‘The cup is nice,’ she offered optimistically. ‘I like cupping a warm cup in my hands. It almost makes the coffee taste better. or would if it were better coffee.”

Maybe we just don’t have the proper palate, we decided. It can’t be as bad as it seems.

Until we sipped a little more.

We let Giles lick the foam off the spoon, which he did without complaint.   We considered the five bucks a sidewalk rental, and made the best of it. Slowly, steadily, working as a team, we drained the cup. Hell if we’re going to waste five bucks on anything.

On the walk back to the car, she posed for an album cover.  I thought: how could anyone look this good after 15 years of marriage?

Teacher as moody singer-songwriter
Schoolteacher as seraphic singer-songwriter

She can.   Yeah, we’re gonna finish this, too. I got all the sugar I need.

The Forbidden River

If it's the Valley, the answer is NO
Shaded, sort of landscaped and off-limits

As a failure of civic will, the Los Angeles River is a thing of wonder.

Fifty-one miles of contiguous watercourse snaking through the one of the world’s great cities…linking mountains, canyons, the Valley, the Narrows, the Basin, with the Port of Long Beach…and pretty much all of it, with some notable exceptions, off-limits to the public. For a progressive city, Los Angeles has few developed public spaces. No greater resource is more undeveloped than the River itself.

There are scattershot plans to redevelop industrial fields near downtown. Artist renderings have been on the books for decades.  Should they come to fruition, there might be -yes, for half a mile!- a fully realized greenway, with enough eco-restoration and bio-swales to bring the New Urbanists to a state of ecstasy.  Conveniently tucked away in the least populated, most inaccessible location, cut off from the surrounding city by both railroad tracks and San Fernando Road, an Omaha Beach-like kill zone for bicyclists.  If the Taylor Yards Restoration happens it will, like most things which get done in Los Angeles, arrive through the pathway of least resistance. Meaning few people were opposed to it in the first place.  Because we’re speaking of orphaned ground, permanently disconnected from any other part of the river or any path network.

Fortunately, up in the Valley, we have miles and miles of shaded, landscaped river frontage, lined on both banks with walking and bike paths.  A suburban Champs Elysees where one communes with nature in the purple evening air….oh, wait.

Let's take another look
Let’s take another look

We sort of, kind of, have something like that.

Except no one is allowed to go there.

We can take its measure through the chain link fence, as we drive past on the boulevard.

We can imagine it.  Not difficult to do, when it’s 80% built already.

Or we can be scofflaws. In the name of civilization we can hop the fence (Giles and I have done this many times.  Only in the interest of blogging of course) and prowl about and think: wouldn’t it be cool?  And the corollary: what the hell is wrong with liberals in LA? 

Somehow cities with far fewer resources than Los Angeles, and I’ll just say it aloud, conservative politics, have managed to not only develop their urban rivers and abandoned railways but put them front and center.  Let’s take a tour:

San Antonio
San Antonio Riverwalk
Charlotte, NC
Sugar Creek Greenway,  Charlotte, NC
Beltline Trail, Atlanta
Beltline Trail, Atlanta
Beltline Trail, Atlanta
Beltline Trail, Atlanta
Savannah, Georgia
Savannah, Georgia
Paseo Santa Lucia, Monterrey, Mexico
Paseo Santa Lucia, Monterrey, Mexico

This one really annoys me.  Even the narco-state of Nuevo Leon, the Bagdad-on-the-Border, headless torsos stacked by the on-ramp, modern-day Dodge City that is Monterrey, Mexico, has managed to offer the Little People something which looks suspiciously like a pleasant place to walk.

The Olmstead Plan
The Olmstead Plan

Not for the first time, I feel obliged to say it doesn’t have to be this way. Particularly in a city as geographically blessed as LA.  Few us know today in 1930 the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead drew up a master plan for Los Angeles County designed entirely around creeks, rivers and greenways, connecting neighborhoods from Palmdale to Palos Verdes.

Just so we can feel really sorry for ourselves
One more,  so we can feel sorry for ourselves just to make you angry

Up on Shady Oak Road

DSCN1412

Question: do you think you’re allowed to drive on this street?

Apparently not, right?   I mean, it’s…PRIVATE.   Clearly marked by signs.   In fact it’s so private, they had to tell us twice.

PRIVATE ROAD!

This means you, interloper.  All you little people from the grim wastes north of Ventura Blvd can turn around right now.  No trespassing, loitering or entry without permission.  Don’t make us call the police.

Why would anyone proceed any further?  What would compel such insubordination?

DSCN1409

Well, there’s this.  One of three trailheads into Fryman Canyon.  A public access point to a public park waiting at the end of a public street, paved with tax dollars.  And all the million dollar views beyond.

If you just tell people from Van Nuys they can’t drive there, they’ll never use it, right?  It will be privatized, effectively, for the benefit of the hillside gentry.   Like they did at Malibu, and Lake Hollywood, and Runyon.

There used to be something in America called a daily newspaper.   We even had one in Los Angeles.  I miss them.   They were staffed by middle class people, even working class guys occasionally, with a sense of civic pride and a keen moral barometer for public offense committed by the privileged. This is exactly the sort of petty outrage they used to feast on.  But that was a different country.

Portrait of working mothers on Sepulveda

DSCN1839

The Classy Lady was a valley institution for decades.  It would be difficult to imagine a sadder strip club.  There was no cover, which should tell you something right there.  There was no VIP room. You could buy a pitcher of Coors Light for $8.  Cheapskates would hang out by the pool table in the back, pretending to play while taking in the view free of charge.  Management didn’t seem to mind. The ladies would wander by with a tin cup and ask for money for the jukebox, and by money I mean coins.  They would clomp the two steps up to the pole and grind it out for a couple singles on the tip rail, or frequently nothing at all.    There were women working with fresh C-section scars and moonscapes of acne on their derriere.  The place was annexed to a gas station and a store which sold rims.  I can’t believe it’s actually a strip club, was the instinctive reaction.   Sort of like wandering in to your own private David Lynch film.  For the women it was not even a waystation on the road to perdition, but perdition itself, in which one panhandles naked without remuneration.

It shames me to say this, but a couple years ago, after regaling dinner guests with a description of The Classy Lady, they demanded to ‘see the ugly strippers’ for themselves.  Off we went. Only now the strippers were of an entirely different quality. They were thin. They were tone.  They had skills.   There was still no cover, and no one was putting money on the tip rail.  In the depth of the recession.

But you do what you have to do, when you’re a working mother.

Classing up the place
Classy no more

That’s all done with now. Sort of.  Classy has been gutted, expanded and replaced with Synn.  In keeping with Nury Martinez’s self-promoting ’45 day ban’ on adult business, all the strip clubs on the boulevard have renovated and enlarged, like the cup sizes no doubt, in the new, improved Synn Gentlemen’s Club.

Portrait of a working mother

He's so handsome, I can't speak properly
He’s so handsome, I can’t speak properly

Trivia question: How many working mothers were stuck on the Sepulveda Pass Thursday, the minutes passing like hours, waiting to get home to their kids? How many woman-hours were lost waiting for the 405 to clear?  How about all the working women trapped on Metro buses?   How many kids left at home to their own devices got into trouble while Gwyneth paced her Brentwood estate with a Marlboro Light and a glass of wine telling everyone to get their s*** together already because He Is Coming. He Is Almost Here, Bitches.

Yeah, the rich are different. They can make the entire city wait.
Yeah, the rich are different. They can make an entire city wait.

If you’re one of the swells who brought the city to a standstill for the 30th time in the Obama era perhaps it is easy to mistake the President for a Dictator-in-Waiting:  “It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass”.

Unfortunately for Gwyneth, (and Julia, and Ben and…) the power to pass things comes from the consent of the little people, the ones stuck in their cars on their way home to the Valley.  You can’t just write a check to banish their tacky, backward little majorities from the village square, as appealing as that might sound.  But I can understand how she might get confused. Having working mothers at your beck and call can do that to you.  

Verisimilitude

MARRIED -- Pictured: Nat Faxon as Russ. CR. Matthias Clamer/FX

There’s a new show on FX called Married.  It’s set in the San Fernando Valley, and I must admit, rather entertaining.  Look honey, I said the first time I saw a preview, that’s us! The mordant relationship humor, the quiet sexual desperation, the abundant use of familiar locales, a male lead who dresses like he looted my closet, it’s all a bit close to home, but in a well-written way.  Just to set the record straight, Mrs. Upinthevalley is hotter than Judy Greer.  I want to make that clear.

After watching Nat Faxon, the husband, wander through the first few episodes in cargo shorts and hoodies, I assumed he was unemployed.  But no,  oh no no, he’s a ‘freelance graphic designer’.  She’s a stay at home mom.  I know this because the plot lines of  recent episodes have turned on this point.   And they, a family of five, manage to live in a lovely house in what appears to be …Studio City or Valley Village…on his earnings from digital piecework.  There’s another word for ‘freelance graphic designer’:  barista.  Or stockboy at Trader Joes.  Actually that’s not true.  There are a great many freelancers in this city who would trade it in for a steady job at Trader Joes in a heartbeat.  Apparently this is how TV writers, many of whom live in the Valley, think people in the Valley live.

Don't we all live like this?
Don’t we all live like this, without working?

Normally this wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me. Television shows frequently depict families living beyond what is feasible in the real world.  Usually, however, the characters are at least portrayed as having a job.  Maybe because Married is set in the Valley and maybe because we have frequented the locales used in the show (Oaks Tavern, Starlight Lounge) there’s a verisimilitude issue for me.  No one lives south of Burbank Blvd by freelancing, part-time.  Mrs. Upinthevalley and I live in Van Nuys.  And by live, I mean we bought a tiny s**tbox with 1948 infrastructure we spent years fixing up. Our mortgage payment is $2500/month.  That’s thirty grand a year, right off the top.   Well, not exactly.  First the government takes about twenty grand, money we never see.  Then Wells Fargo takes its piece. Then we face the bills.  We’ve never taken a vacation. We still use flip-phones.  We have dial-up internet. We have one car.  We use coupons. We have no savings.   We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have survived the Great Foreclosure Flood of 2009.  Barely.  To not have to rely on roommates.   There are ten people sharing a three bedroom house to the left of us. Six adults,  all legal residents of the US,  working in the service economy.  Collectively, they can pay the mortgage, and make car payments and that’s pretty much it.  There are seven people living in the house to the right of us. Three generations under one roof.  That’s how it’s done. Unless you’ve lived here for twenty years, or inherited property or have a six figure income, this is the only way it is done.

We  grind it out and grind it out, all of us, month after month, and hope the edifice of cantilevered credit by which we keep it all going does not collapse upon our heads.   And that we don’t drive each other crazy.

We say a little prayer each evening and are grateful. Even as we slum it in that vast terra incognita north of Burbank. We, the invisible people.