A couple months ago, I went to Harvard and Stone in Hollywood with young Derek to buy him a round and wish him well on his first American tour. About 1:40 AM, we left the smokers patio and walked back to the bar to find a dozen young women dancing together while a DJ spun James Brown on vinyl. There were perhaps half that number of men scattered around the room. And by men, I mean people in their twenties.
Not one of them got up and danced.
No one made an approach.
Eventually the women gave up. They retreated to couches, curled up like cats, took out their phones and started swiping.
Admittedly, it had been more than a decade since I had closed down a bar in Hollywood, or anywhere, but the sheer absence of testosterone, properly channeled, was eye-opening. Then it was perplexing. James Brown, closing time, two chicks for every guy, grinding their booties in a hopeful manner, and the beta-males wouldn’t rouse themselves from their phones.
Something has changed.
As a coda, the Niece came out this week from Massachusetts for a visit and a sneak preview of her near future as an art student in Los Angeles. Her versatility at maintaining cross-country text conversations while simultaneously eating and talking to us was remarkable. An accomplished selfie-taker, she had a palette of poses she could comfortably try on and discard, like hats. She posed any way I wanted her whenever I pointed a lens in her direction. She spent much time on her laptop.
A diagnosis of teenaged narcissism would be misplaced. To my novice eyes, I saw not self-absorption but Gatsby-esque platonic self-conception on the female side of the phone. Personas being crafted and honed in the privacy of one’s room, where one can sort out the tension between how you see yourself and how you wish to be seen, bypassing the gatekeepers of family and frenemies before public presentation.
The male gaze is coming, and for centuries it has been on male terms. In the Americanized form, you got your prom photo, sitting on the swing against the same backdrop as every other girl in your class. That was pretty much it, unless you chose an acting career, in which case you got a portfolio created by men for the perusal of other men. The phone flips the power dynamic into female hands. Every girl can now be Cindy Sherman, in theory.
Mrs. UpintheValley, who I normally have to chastise into posing, was fascinated by that thing she does with her mouth. “How does she do it? It’s effortless.”
Except that it isn’t. She worked at it. It’s performance art.
To what end? In loco parentis, I can’t help but fast forward five years when she’s no longer a teenager, and she walks into Harvard and Stone with her art school friends. To what state of primordial adolescence will men be reduced by then? Will they be lined up at the bar wearing virtual reality goggles, texting interactive fart jokes to each other? Where is all this headed?
I think I understand what the women are trying to do. The men I don’t understand at all.
Riyadh and Los Angeles switched places overnight Monday, two months ahead of schedule. As is our wont during heat waves of this scale, Mrs. U and I fled the Valley, finding sanctuary in the air-conditioned pleasure palace of the ArcLight. Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan, awaited us. I hadn’t heard of it either. Who cares? It was 120 degrees by the dashboard gauge, and we had gift cards. There are fringe benefits to teaching in private school, and one of them is gift cards from parents at the end of the year.
We entered the Cinerama Dome to discover a gleaming lobby and no one behind any of the eight registers. No ArcLight employees in sight.
Finally a woman with a head set appeared and ordered us to “go to the kiosks”. Unfortunately, the kiosks didn’t take gift cards, nor cash, so we were shunted off to a nuisance line at the coffee bar. “He’s the only one who can help you.” Oh, nice.
The ArcLight charges $16 a ticket, and we the public pay this $3-4 premium in exchange for full staffing: lots of registers open at the snack bar and the box office, short lines, plush seats, no soda and gum on the floor. I’ve even seen expediters standing behind the cashiers, doing nothing but filling popcorn tubs and soda orders. In short, we pay Clipper class rates for a theater that won’t be run like the Regency or the AMC. We pay for good service, at a price point that’ll keep the riff-raff out.
Yeah, I know we had gift cards. But still…..it was my day off, it was friggin hot, and I was feeling a certain consumer entitlement coming on, like a flu.
We get upstairs to find one very harried guy running the snack bar. One. Half the audience for Jane Austen is waiting in line. The line is not moving. It’s not moving because a woman has decided her coffee was too cold. The Snack Bar Guy offered to brew her a fresh pot. This of course would take a couple minutes, and boy oh boy was that going to be a problem for her. “My movie is starting in a few minutes,” she proclaimed, as though the rest of us weren’t going to the same movie. “Unacceptable.” Flopsweating, he put out a distress call for the manager. She then parked herself at the register in a manner which suggested no one else should be served until she received satisfaction.
Here was a moment which called for an Austen-tatious riposte from someone in line, but no one said anything. Our world froze in suspended animation as the Kiosk Lady climbed the stairs, huffing, the weight of the world upon her underpaid shoulders, to issue a refund to the Coffee Bitch. Did I mention this was the hottest day of the year?
There I was, an over-educated working-class guy, looking to redeem a freebie bestowed upon my middle-class wife by upper-class Westside families as a tip for guiding their precious Lacey one rung closer to the Ivy League, and here was this bizarre collision of personal selfishness and corporate stinginess impeding my escape from the furnace of the Valley, and yet I did not act. Nor did I have a clever thing to say. Yesterday would prove to be one of my lesser works.
Love and Friendship would prove a lesser work as well. Made me feel sad for Whit Stillman, auteur of Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, the closest thing we have to Austen in contemporary film, a man whose creative output apparently peaked twenty years ago, and is now hanging by his fingernails at the cineplex, trading on Jane’s good name. We stepped out into the merciless sun, unsatisfied. It was only 5 PM. Hotter than ever. We took refuge at P.F. Chang’s.
I hadn’t been in years. I know it’s corporate and overpriced, but my sense-memory placed it at the upper end of the middlebrow taste scale. Comfort food, well-slathered, packing some heat. Perhaps a frou-frou drink to sip with a steady breeze of air-conditioning tickling the sweat hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve been living under self-imposed austerity measures for a long time. We buy ingredients at the store, we prepare them at home, and we declare ourselves well-fed. Now I had a $50 credit to burn, and I was going to take my full share of consequence-free eating, like everybody else. It felt like the American thing to do.
Then the Orange Peel Beef arrived.
Imagine a flank steak fell off the back of a truck. Then someone found it on a road, still in the cellophane wrapper, and brought it to a rendering facility, where it was re-processed as meat byproduct. Then it was sold to PFC, where it was dropped into a giant vat of breading and corn syrup and chili flavoring, and a button was pushed and the mixing blades churned and what emerged was plated, drizzled with yet more goo and sold for $17.95.
I know there was “beef” in there, somewhere, because the menu told me so. It was just a wee bit…ellusive. I kept shoveling it in my mouth, like cotton candy at the county fair, waiting in vain for the carnivore tickle spot that lives behind my pancreas to vibrate with joy.
It occurred to me the initials P. and F. could stand for anything, including Profit and Fool, and when you put them together and blow, you’re farting with your mouth.
Outside, it was still over a hundred degrees. Hurry, sundown.
After 17 years in Mt. Washington, Atwater, and Echo Park, grinding out a living at the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s, enjoying the musical and culinary feast of the East Side, biking every trail, biking everywhere, owning the city by leg and pedal, my golf and drinking buddy Marcus is decamping from Los Angeles. He’s going to run a bread bakery in Baywood, on the central coast. His beautiful Other, Allison, is going with him. She’s said goodbye to a private school administrative job and its attendant stress and annoyances and soon Mrs. UpintheValley will have to make do without her.
Baywood, rising at 3am, to shape the loaves. Living over the bakery. Running the store, working the farmer’s market. No Sunset Beer Co. or Mohawk Bend just a few blocks away. No commute, either. No unceasing demands of entitled parents. Long, quiet hours as the master of one’s destiny.
Cheaper rent is an easy explanation for this, but it’s not about the money as much as it is about a change in the course of one’s life.
Then again, cheaper rent makes the change in vector possible. Without it, you’re chained to your traffic slot on the 405 with the rest of us.
Next month a one-bedroom teacup bungalow on Allesandro St. will be going on the market for $2500/month. There will be a stampede of applicants. This is the way Los Angeles is now.
What if she went to the Mansion instead of grad school? Maybe she wouldn’t be writing report cards today. Maybe she would be living in Brentwood, surrounded by glass walls and maid service.
I would be out of the picture, of course. Then again, that might be a mixed blessing. Surely she would have found a paunchy real estate broker with a receding hairline to keep her in bon-bons and spa treatments. But then she would have to fall in love with him, or convince herself she had. She would have to bank some time in the dog pile on Hef’s circular bed along the way, which is sort of like going into nursing, an honorable profession in any other context. A fat allowance would have been nice. Also, never having to make your bed or clean your bathroom. Or having to wait tables.
Before she was a teacher, Mrs. U was a waitress. Before that she was a college student who picked her husband, from the across the quad, Jane Austen style. “I choose him,” she said, and drew her bow.
Little did she know. Good abs and long hair don’t last forever. Maddeningly, I turned out to be much nicer to her than she anticipated.
five, six, …er, a very brief shacking up period we eloped to Vegas. And then the roof fell in.
Two of the three worst tragedies which can befall a married couple were upon us like God’s judgement. In the deep dark Fog of Unfairness there are no candles, no trail of bread crumbs to follow, only a soldier’s honor to be strong for the other, not to let him wallow, not to leave her behind in a slough of despond. Grief and recrimination is a rabbit hole like no other. I have no explanation for why character comes to formation, as opposed to imploding, but this was where I became the man I am today.
Eventually, the sun was shining on our faces again, as though it always had been there, but we had been circulating around the dark side of the moon. Somehow, we still liked each other. Who knew? It helped we didn’t let go of each other’s hand.
Before she was a college student, Mrs. U had a paper route. She was eleven years old. The first day she had to deliver the Sunday edition, she collapsed in the middle of a cul de sac in Thousand Oaks, a little girl trapped under a mountain of newsprint. Eventually neighbors called her father to collect her. She didn’t ask for help. She sat there, summoning her strength, determined to see it through.
When she swanned out a decade later, the Holly Madison Option was never really something she considered. It wasn’t her nature. Character is fate.
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.