Superman in a Collection Bin

He was a bottom feeder, a man without talent.   He plied the tourists on Hollywood boulevard for tips. When I crossed paths with him five years ago, his costume was visibly grungy, like he’d slept in it for days. He hassled me for money for taking his picture.  I hadn’t been.  He just happened to walk through the frame as I photographed a mural.   He was missing teeth.  He looked exactly like what he was, a meth-head impersonating his former self impersonating a comic book hero, badly.

Earlier in his two decades on the boulevard, Christopher Dennis looked the part.  He had the length of bone, the jawline, an aquiline nose topped off with dyed black hair to evoke a reasonable facsimile of the DC comics version of the Man of Steel. Padding filled out the suit. By the end, he looked like Superman down to his last 50 T-cells.

During the descent, he managed to wrangle appearances on Late With Jimmy Kimmel and the Morgan Spurlock documentary Confessions of a Superhero.

He claimed to have lost his costume and his front teeth in a mugging. Crowdfunding appeals raised money for him to get his cape back and fund a web series about his life, neither of which materialized.  He told different stories to different people to explain his circumstances. Sometimes he would be slumped in the street, in a fugue state, babbling to himself, drawing in his notebook.  His decline was covered with uncritical sympathy by local media, heavy on the passive voice, always with appeals for assistance, as though his schtick was worthy of the character he was feeding off. His life became a meta-hustle of the public for the means to return to hustling the tourists for drug money.

Naturally, he ended up in Van Nuys, on Nury Martinez’s Skid Row North™.

Last week his body was discovered in a Goodwill collection bin.  He had climbed inside seeking to pilfer donated clothes.    This is his last known photograph, from the website People Helping People LA.

If you’re not sensing much sympathy for a dead man, I’ll tell you a story.  I picked up a stand-up comic at the Orange Line station not long ago,  on his way home from a gig in NoHo.  I’ll call him Doug. He’d been working out new material, he said. After much trial and error, he found a way to make it click. He killed his set, and now he was treating himself to an Uber ride home.  Not that Doug had been paid anything for his work on stage. Normally he would walk the two miles up Van Nuys Blvd. to his garage apartment off Saticoy. But tonight, on such a high, to navigate Nury’s Living Room for the walking dead, that would be asking too much of himself.  It would call into question his entire life in LA.

Doug was avoiding Christopher Dennis, whose superpower was self-indulgence.  I turned the app off and gave him a ride the rest of the way home for free.  It was the least I could do.

Los Angeles runs on guys like Doug, who keep the cocktails flowing and the cash register ringing to pay the headliner.  It takes balls of steel to get onstage and do original material. You can’t hide behind a cape. Even modestly successful road comics end their careers unmourned and little remembered.

That’s Sandy Baron second from left in a still from Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen’s sweetest work and a tribute to those on the fringes of show business.   Sandy started in the Borscht Belt, and would have faded from pop culture right about here, in a cameo role at the Carnegie Deli, and probably died broke, were it not for this:

His turn as Jack Klompus was so successful Seinfeld brought the character back in five episodes, and Sandy got to spend his final years in notoriety, with some extra money in his pocket.   He passed in 2001 in a nursing home in, where else, Van Nuys.

Pinchloafing

Because it’s Wednesday…and he has a plate of takeout at his feet, for which he needs to clear some room.

As of last month, any and all tickets for quality of life infractions in Los Angeles are null and void…if you are a street person.  The rest of us have to pay our fines.   LA is now operating with asymmetrical civilizational guardrails.

We need a new vocabulary for this since the old language of judgment is forbidden.

Jeff Spicoli Lived Here

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was on TV the other day…I was drawn in by nostalgia but stayed for the spectacle of teenagers working after school.   I couldn’t get past it.

Every character in the movie had a job, including Phoebe Cates, the Megan Fox of her time, dutifully served the public while draped in a corporate issue smock so unflattering it would never make it past the wardrobe assistant today.

First, the oddity: when do we see this anymore?  Then the deep memory: we all did this when were young.  Then the recognition: how completely we’ve restructured things.  White teenagers working at the Galleria? That’s what an open border is for.

A job used to be the first step to adulthood and freedom from parental constraints, the children of professionals just as likely to be slinging pizza as those of an auto mechanic.  Almost everyone today not explicitly rich claims membership in the middle class.  It’s the conceit at the heart of the 1%/99% formulation. But in 1982 it was mostly true if you viewed it aspirationally rather than by income quintile.

1982 was faux wood paneling, Formica countertops, cheap linoleum, tchotchkes, and self-maintained yards.  This could be Sherman Oaks as easily as Arleta.  All rather downmarket by modern Dwell standards, but perfectly in keeping with the aesthetics of the time.

Anyone whose house looks like this today is, well, probably “poor” or elderly.  Escaping…this… prison of dreck is the great motivator of contemporary LA.

The first commandment of Valley 2.1: all ranch houses shall be gutted and made Zillow-ready.  Better yet, they shall be replaced with more units. Which brings me to the condemned house in the first picture, in the shadow of an IMT apartment block on Sepulveda. I have it on good authority Jeff Spicoli lived there. Now it’s going to be six McMansions.   If they have kids, they won’t be working after school.   They will intern.  Peasants from Chiapas will man the espresso machine and pull the weeds.

The global south is on the move. The Red State high achievers are on the move. Both are coming here. Ambition leaves Cleveland as quickly as honorable men flee Chapo’s brigades in Sinaloa.

Chinese yuan is in search of a safe harbor. The Federal Reserve is printing money and handing it out at no interest to banks: start funding things, anything, spin the dials of consumption. Come pension fund apparatchiks, say the banks, come ye Central Asian strongmen, ye Israeli billionaires and Gulf sheiks looking to elude the virtue police, build an apartment block in Van Nuys, start collecting rent and citizenship is yours. Hedge your bets here, in the former land of hedges.

Stacy and Brad, Damone and Spicoli, Linda and Ratner, they had no idea what was coming.

St. Elizabeth of Fryman Canyon

In Fryman Canyon, they no longer allow you to park on the streets to the public trailhead, but they love their Harvard socialism.

There is a small pay lot on Laurel Canyon that has perhaps 1/3 of the capacity needed for weekend hikers. In the event of overflow, we would use one of the many empty streets nearby and partake of the public good known as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, an accommodation the gentry has done away with. First by guile, and now by civic order they’ve persisted.

There are three houses on this street for sale, all over $5 million. Is this in keeping with Elizabeth’s claim to be capitalist to her bones?  

The $2000 Studio Comes to Panorama

For that price, it better be Instagram about to happen. And it is.  The long-vacant Panorama Tower has, after 25 years, adaptively re-purposed and will open for leasing next week, Blade Runner views in all directions.

Infrastructure is minimal, in keeping with the live/work loft fiction.   At 600 sqft, units are generously sized for a studio,  but there is no getting around the one room problem. Two people who aren’t sleeping with each other are going to have trouble sharing it.

Clearly the developer wants white people to move here though I anticipate few will arrive with children.  The Era of the Vertical Valley has begun.

Little Doelger Boxes

The Sunset district in San Francisco is a quiet beach town 15 minutes from the urban core…

…and five minutes from miles and miles of off-leash sand. I have friends who live here and it’s always fun to visit. When I stay over I take their dog for a run in the morning mist.

Many of the houses were built in vast tracts over sand dunes by Henry Doelger, much in the same vein as Henry Kaiser built Panorama City.   They have a standard template: 2-3 bedrooms/one bath over a single car garage.  As the Sunset gradually slopes toward the ocean, the elevated configuration offers every house a water view.

They may look small from the outside but are actually quite substantial:  my friends have built two additional bedrooms and baths in the undeveloped downstairs space adjacent to the garage, fully within the footprint for the foundation.  Doelger houses may not wield the aesthetic pull of the Victorian but have stood up well over the years: old-growth timber, oak doors, coved ceilings, terrazzo steps rising from the street…

Doelger went on to develop the Westlake district in Daly City, immortalized in the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, later by Pete Seeger, and covered by just about everybody.  Cultural condescension notwithstanding, the little boxes of ticky-tacky have become a $1.2 million proposition. Our California moment can be summarized thus: the mockery of the boomers is now the desideratum of Gen Xers, and the reason Millennials must move to Texas.

You may know the song from the TV show “Weeds”, which was about rather big boxes in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley  (Amazing how many pop reference points have a Valley tie-in).   Though it went off the air in 2012, the transgressive premise was a widow dealing marijuana in the suburbs to pay bills.   Sunday night, ganja in the cul de sac!   Now they sell it off of billboards next to the convenience store. You couldn’t make this show today.

I met a guy last month who works in a weed warehouse in North Hollywood producing 100 pounds a week, all the workers with W2s. One of three jobs he had. The other gigs were downtown, tending bar. His wife worked at the swank Nomad Hotel.  A hundred hours of labor a week between them.  They were from New York.

“If you get your hustle on, you can kill it in LA,” he told me. They had a dream. The dream was to afford a condo. If they had a condo, no one could stop them from having a dog.  They loved dogs.

A little box was beyond their expectations.

Thrifty No More

Impractical, gorgeous, Jet Age modern Van Nuys Savings and Loan, more recently operating as La Tapultecha mercado, has finally met the wrecking ball.   In the 1960s it paid 4% interest on savings accounts.   Trying finding that today. Banks offer 1%, maybe, less monthly fees.

Usury was illegal then. Usury, meaning 18% loans. Anything beyond that was in the hands of the mafia. Now credit cards frequently charge 30%. Payday loans can run to 400%.  They offer them up the block at PL$, 24 hours a day, from behind bulletproof glass.

It was a different world, reflected in the architecture.

To understand just how shocking the idea of 18% interest was not so long ago, here’s a clip from the original Fun With Dick and Jane, set in the San Fernando Valley of the late 70s. The protagonist couple, middle-class and overextended, visit a clip joint looking to borrow their way out of trouble. The scene is an earth-toned bridge between the aspirational world of mid-century thrift, with passbooks, and the quantitatively eased may a billion debtors bloom electronic currency casino we enjoy today.

Guess who’s living inside the old safe?  You can’t blame them. The door was open, and it’s quiet inside.

A Darker Valley

Wasco, Kern County: Almonds, opiates, unbuilt subdivisions, and the Merced-to-Bakersfield High-Speed Rail line, still under construction, soon to be…
a) a carcass, abandoned for lack of funds
b) a fully funded anachronism offering service between farm towns
c) history’s most expensive bike path
d) the most Instagrammable spot in the San Joaquin Valley
e) Caligula’s horse

Beatdown by the 405

A masked brigade of thugs descended on a Van Nuys homeless encampment Saturday and administered an indiscriminate, day-long beatdown on garbage.

Wielding shovels and white uniforms they laid waste to waste, detritus of all forms: syringes, month old sweet and sour pork, used batteries and piss jugs fattened by sunlight.

No one invited them.  Some brazenly wore MAGA hats, in defiance of local codes.

“I figured if I was ever going wear mine in LA, this would be the day”, said a woman from Santa Clarita.

Patrick, a self-described “red-pilled black man” drove from Loma Linda to get in on the action.

Looking at moments like a post-apocalyptic religious cult, they shamelessly swarmed the garbage field in plain view of its creators, the people of the tent favela a short distance away.

By afternoon,  eight tons of garbage were dispatched into two giant containers.  The field was scraped down to the gravel.

As their eco-system shrank by the minute, newly homeless rats burst from bags and scampered in circles in search of safety. Fresh dank dark places were in short supply.

Looming over the fascistic process of cleanliness was a mysterious leader named Scott who exerted a Svengali-like hold on the garbage beaters. “Thank you for helping out”,  he would tell them as they removed their hazmat suits.  “Thank you, Scott, for organizing this”, they would reply.

Then they touched elbows in lieu of shaking hands, as though speaking in code.

*before photo courtesy of Pacific Pundit