Under California Stars

This is what I saw en route to Lowes this week. I was buying concrete and a chair rail for the Moroccan wallpaper I ordered from Etsy and this guy in the next lane is fleeing Los Angeles.  Even the car he’s towing is filled with stuff.  So which one of us is the idiot?   I filtered it to look like an oil painting cause it felt like one: The Migration of 2020. Back to the Dust Bowl.

In a pinch, I could unpeel my pretentious Etsy-ish wallpaper, roll it into a tube, and find room for it in a U-Haul of my own, but concrete is another matter. That’s voting with my hands.  My existential debate about staying or leaving California is an idle one.  For now.

1600 Grand, by Gensler

This was DTLA in March, 3% unemployment and a futurist paradise of architectural renderings in waiting.  You can learn a lot about the culture of a city from its tallest buildings. They used to be churches. Then government buildings. Then banks. Now all the big stuff is apartments and hotels. Our most basic industry is lifestyle.  These lofty aeries sell aspiration as their core function. They are a place to dwell.  What do they dwell among?  The good life. Other dwellers, drawn to the same imperatives of, um, well, okay…cool things. Fabulous restaurants and preposterously priced craft cocktails and the sort of boutique that sells the sort of movables and knick-knacks that might appear in the glossy magazine Dwell.  It’s a virtuous circle of yoga and kale and above all beautiful women, this economy.  A certain species of woman, homo Instagramus, who fires the feverish designs of men. Concrete is trucked in by the ton to erect just the proper plinth for her.

Pygmalion and the Image

What is the nature of this plinth? It requires 1) physical safety and 2) lots of discretionary spending.  Prodigious spending, of a discerning, socially conscious nature, flattering to the spender.

What happens when these boutique businesses, the kind which punctuate the proper distinction between the glamour of Los Angeles 2.0 and the dreary but useful order of Santa Clarita, start dropping away?  How many businesses can you lose in one block before the gloss is gone and one is nose to nose with the feral world of the dispossessed, always a background character, now a co-star on the stage in a way you can no longer deny? Can a downtown with fewer amenities but a permanently subsidized army of street people exert the same magic hold on homo Instagramus, her suitors, and her imitators?

How many days can one spend on Zoom, ordering in, and binge-watching before concluding Amazon is the world’s greatest invention but isn’t it available in Tennessee?  What’s the 3BR price in Nashville? In a word, downtown teeters on fragility, though perhaps not so fragile as New York, being less dependent on Wall Street or the leasing of office space.

Opening of Van Nuys GM Plant, 1948
Last Camaro to roll off the line, 1992

Paradoxically, Van Nuys is actually rather anti-fragile.  The industrial union ship sailed in 1992. There are very few single-earner households here.  Three or four workers per domicile as a rule, if you include adult children, and they run the gamut from nurses to granite fabricators.  Los Angeles could take a pretty big economic hit, including the construction trades, and people in my neighborhood would be able to continue to pay their mortgages.  In the urban survivalist sweepstakes, four service workers trump one professional.  People who can’t easily pull up stakes for Nashville will stick around by default, paying bills.  Van Nuys has never been in danger of obtaining a Lululemon franchise, thereby is in no danger of losing one.  We already have plenty of empty storefronts.  Service gigs are abundant and pegged to the minimum wage, an incremental ratchet which only turns in one direction. We have achieved a kind of safety in modest expectations. Who knew?

San Francisco Chronicle

Then there’s this.  Answers to the viability question won’t be fiscal, rather they will prove civilizational. Will law and order hold?  Los Angeles hasn’t become Portland, yet, but that’s not due to bold leadership. Mayor Garcetti is in the same feckless vein as Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Jenny Durkan, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill DiBlasio.

Here’s my call: We have too many hard-working first and second-generation immigrants in L.A. grinding out shifts for political nihilism to take hold here.  In a city in which latinos outnumber blacks 5 to 1, there is a hard ceiling on how much street chaos BLM will be allowed to cause.

I think the jean short selfie on the 36th-floor garden balcony might have to wait a few years.   DTLA has an over-supply of inventory to work through. Applebook California has had a long run. Woody Guthrie California might be about to have its moment.

Gratitude in Wuhantide

I’m eating steel cut oats this morning on the brick patio, fully nude, presenting my uncurated self to the sun,  and the new neighbor behind me, the one who doesn’t do autobody work or landscaping or hump boxes at TJ’s, the one who works in the music industry,  the one who peeked over the bamboo in April to say how much he admired my deck and with whom I made tentative plans to invite over for wine on said deck once, you know, the lockdown craziness had passed...is also on his patio this morning,  talking on the phone:

Do you know what the Magna Carta was? You think you do, but you don’t.
There were two. Most people don’t know that.
The secret Magna Carta was a way for the Royal family to collect money from countries the world over.
They’re richer than anyone knows. You are paying them money without knowing.
The Windsor family owns most of Los Angeles.  No, they do! Accept it.

It has been that kind of summer.  I wander naked, oatmeal bowl in hand, eavesdropping on conspiracy theories and call it Wednesday.

We can’t agree on the facts anymore, so we create entertainment to explain our world.   We burrow inward like the polyphagous shot-hole borer, lay our larvae, and let our fungus devour the tree from the inside. Two years after the pestilence, the sweetgums are falling all over my neighborhood this summer.

The Beautiful Young Man who Meditates could not be more at peace as he informs Mrs. UpintheValley, from a lotus position atop a car hood, the virus was invented for the purposes of installing tracking devices on everyone.

Los Angeles is getting a little autistic now, four months in. By robbing ourselves of facial cues behind our masks we can longer discern irony or return smiles. We fall into suspicion without exchanging words.   We make sport of denunciation.  We look inside our phones for the smoking gun proving the Other Side crazy.

The underlying facts remain unchanged, even if we don’t accept them. The virus will be lethal to 80-year-olds and obese diabetics.  The rest of us not so much, and on a declining scale of risk. Children not at all. So, by all means, close the schools. Let us have governmentally-inflicted entertainment; let’s put a tub of popcorn on the stove for Fear Porn II: The Return of Newsom.     

We deserve to be painted by Brueghel or Bosch.

What to do with this weird unrequested time-out?  Your early resentment at the induced economic coma is now a bit more philosophical. You decide to make a gift of it.  You make an abundance of your mornings.  There is nothing stopping you from creative projects. You are fertile in the afternoon, foraging for cuttings to propagate the yard, at least one per day.  You find rocks in the riverbed for the garden.   You finish the driveway and the retaining wall and it is glorious. You read Joan Didion, seeking a historical mirror, an interpreter of the weirdness, but can’t get past the fact she rented a 12 room mansion in Runyon Canyon on a magazine writer’s pay.  You try binge-watching House of Cards, and it already feels like an artifact of another era.  You shift to The Great, Hulus irreverent take on Imperial Russia, and huzzah, it hits the mark.  Portentously.

You ride your bike from Culver to Redondo -crowded beaches and wait time for patio tables- and note the general mask defiance. The following weekend you try the familiar haunts of downtown and find full mask compliance and a city on life support and mostly closed.   Skid Row remains in full bloom, giving the street parade a harder edge than normal. You wonder where the loft people are. Upstairs living off DoorDash, or out of town?  Has an exodus begun?   What of all the unfinished condo conversion?  You sense billions swirling the drain.

On the return home, you stop at MacLeod for a four-pack of Doubled Over Happy.  You adjourn to the upstairs deck, erected in a frenzy of inspiration only to be underutilized. The wisteria has grown over the trellis, providing full shade. There are always breezes. You have spent a good deal of time up there this summer, fertile and creative, closing a circle on a project started years before.

Tis a great bounty, this deck, prized by your own labor.  Unlike so many Sunday returns through the Cahuenga pass you are grateful for what you have. You feel advantaged to be living in the Valley. Gratitude snuck up on you while looking elsewhere.

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.

 

To Live and Die in the Arts District

My encounter with the old Pacific Electric right of way on Parthenia put me in a railway frame of mind this weekend as I was walking down by the river.

Much of the Arts District sits atop a half-submerged grid of spurs to abandoned freight lines from the industrial era.

Before they were converted to lifestyle porn or subject to historic preservation, the James Hill Pickle Works, the Packard Building, Barker Bros., Edison, Nabisco, all had quotidian purposes.  The rail lines snaked right up to the loading bays.

Then, the world east of Alameda was wholesale.  Now it’s where you sample handcrafted gin made from tangerines.

Today all you see here below is retail.  There is a ten-story parking lot in place of the switching yard.

Only a generation ago, it was a perfect backdrop for a hard-boiled action film set piece.  If you’re familiar with the area today, this chase scene is a remarkable piece of unintentional found footage around Santa Fe and Mateo Streets when it was dirty, men were sweaty and everybody smoked.

There weren’t no murals then. No rescue dogs either. We soft now. About some things. When it comes to our American Civil War, the Sequel, we are pitiless with one another.

The Theater of Disappearance

Remember, we all must die.

Down at the Geffen Contemporary freezers run 24/7 preserving that which cannot be preserved… meat and driftwood and man’s creation, from birthday cakes to tennis shoes to bicycles, the vanity of earthly life arranged like bouquets…a memento mori for the anthropocene.    There is no heaven nor hell depicted by Adrian Villar Rojas, only the opulence of decay, and man’s fruitless quest for immortality. He is coy on the topic of the soul.  He places fish strategically, though perhaps ironically, throughout the exhibit, which is massive, 100 trucks of earthworks and salvaged pieces from prior exhibitions to form a stuffed timepiece, a man-made fossil. I suspect he doesn’t believe in divine judgment, though he trades on it.

What I really wonder is what Rojas would make of the Defenders of Boyle Heights. If they crossed the river to picket his installation, would he hand them bullhorns and cheer them on,  thereby defanging them?  Envaginating them, to employ a more proper metaphor, within his own work:

“Villar Rojas sees each project as an educational opportunity not only for those who visit the exhibition but equally so for himself. The institutions are given an opportunity, in turn, to reconsider the use of their own architectural assets, filtered or focused through the lens of Villar Rojas’s highly attuned sensitivities..this invasive dynamic allows Villar Rojas to develop an almost—in his own words—“parasitic relationship” with the institution; it is in this radical dialogue and exchange where both the artist-parasite and the institution-host explore the limits of what is possible and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not, what is negotiable and what is not. Ethics and politics, no less than agency and decision-making, are at stake in the project, opening a series of tough questions: When and where does a project actually begin?”

“Artist-parasite”…Adrian and the picketers are already speaking the same language, separated only by a million dollars in funding.

Remember, our disappearance will be theatrical.

Galatea

Who we’re told to be, who we pretend to be, and who we are, framed within a frame within a frame.  Faking it, loving it, and not caring.

Be pretty, I command, always with encouragement.  Turn your head into the light. 

We abandon the Valley on Sundays and forage the city for new locales. Stand here,  I smell blog,  and she peeks from doorways for me and poses Instagramably atop boats and in front of murals and descends staircases and makes faces until she gets bored with it (which is soon) but there is a window, a golden mean in an afternoon before the misty glow of alcohol hardens into caloric grumpiness and the dread of the looming work week when she’s eager to muse.  I am Pygmalion. We defy time.  We create our own mythology. 

Three Versions of the Life You’re Not Having in LA

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Why aren’t you living in this building? It’s only $24,000 a year, per bedroom.  You’re 26, you can afford it.  They call it adulting.

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Strong women love peeling potatoes in their under-lederhosen. Didn’t you know that?

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Your boyfriend is right around the corner, waiting to kiss you, and he’s dressed in a tailored suit.

When The Bike Was King

The first Arroyo Seco freeway
The first Arroyo Seco freeway

Imagine biking from Pasadena to downtown LA on a dedicated boardwalk, at rooftop level, then pedaling home in the evening under magic lights while serenaded by bullfrogs and crickets. Like the NYC High Line, but without pedestrians.

In 1900 you could do this. For about two miles.  The remainder of the California Causeway foundered for lack of paying customers, and the ungracious and untimely arrival of the automobile. Like so many magnificent wooden structures of yore, inevitably it would have burned to the ground at some point.  Instead the lumber was sold off, repurposed in local houses.

Oh, to have ridden upon it, even once!

A century later one is taken by the separation from streetcars and horse-drawn carriages. Here, in first conception, the bike fulfills transportation needs and communes with nature in equal measure.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying the condor was the most efficient creation in nature. It moved the greatest distance with the least amount of energy. Man, by contrast, was way down the evolutionary list. Until he got on a bike. A man on a bicycle was the most energy efficient creation ever. He moved at four times the speed of the pedestrian and used five times less energy. A computer, he added, was a bicycle for the mind.

Bicycles take less space, require less public infrastructure, impose less on the physical space of our fellow citizens. If unimpeded, a woman on a bike can cross the city like a wind deity. A boy on a bike arrives at school like a knight in training. Imagine if we had a whole network of cycleways like this connecting the neighborhoods of the Valley.  Oh, wait.

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So we are obliged in the absence of civic leadership to play Russian roulette on public streets, our laptops tucked neatly in our backpacks, spinning the pedals with Jobsian hyper-efficacy, masters of our own movement until a hit and run driver says otherwise.