Locust, Pass By

Panorama City, mon amour

Imagine making lattes for eight hours and coming home to this. Or crawling into the muck to snake a drain. Or changing bedpans, wearing a name tag  and a customer service expression all day, subject to Yelp reviews. Hanging asphalt shingles in the Palisades sun, then returning to a penitentiary: rolling gates of steel bars, begrimed stucco and a palimpsest of tagging thinly covered in beige.

It may not be the picture Americans have when the golden phrase California lifestyle is invoked, but for half a million people in our city this is reality, not the Potemkin village Los Angeles conjured by scripted content and advertising.

This is the California finger hold. The ten year waystation for essential workers, who might be grateful for the bars, their framework by necessity one of resource protection. A tenement with an unhappy face.

In 1964 the Dingbat was very modern, with spacious balconies, aluminum windows and crisp rectangularity stripped of ornamentation, unlike the bungalow courts of Hollywood, with their tiny portions and absence of parking.  Cheap and purpose-built, requiring no skilled craftsmen in woodwork or tile. Across SoCal the bedrooms-over-the-carport rent factories spread like kudzu, many of them built on former  ranch lots. It was affordable housing before there was a phrase for it. A good dingbat evoked a mood by way of a fanciful name: The Troubadour, La Traviata, the Something-Something Palms. A wink between landlord and tenant.

If you started life in a mud hut in Chiapas, it probably tasted like heaven for awhile. If you started in Riverside you might re-think your life choices. The dingbat fell out of favor as it descended the class structure. The neglected decor peeled away and now the buildings are unnamed and mute to the world but for notices from a management company:  Secure parking.  Premises under 24 hour surveillance. Section 8 OK.

Then there’s Sherman Oaks, where 1964 looks as timeless and inviting as an episode of Mad Men and one ascends the waterfall staircase like a minor deity. Beyond the double doors awaits a world of good taste and better appliances, and a view.

Most of these domiciles weren’t built as mansions, just larger ranch houses for the professional classes. An ambitious Boomer could climb from Panorama City to here in 20 years. The wealth effect has put paid to such notions now. A house above the tree line is mansion priced, even if only 1600 square feet. You’ll never afford it, but your cardiologist daughter might. She’ll be able to affect modesty. She’ll be sure to let you know she’s not one of those vulgarians in a Persian palace in Encino.

To be wealthy in America is to be exempt from aesthetic depravity. Or noise.  Or sweaty people lugging buckets of takeout past your open window while you sweat in front of the box fan. It is to have dignity in egress, always. It is to be far from the locusts. To quote Scott Galloway, it is to be loved.

It’s illegal to build dingbat housing now. Zoning. Earthquake codes. Fire laws. So we gets lots of upscale mixed-used development, four stories of Bento Box matchstick atop a two story concrete pour, with an AmazonFresh at street level, a good fit for the urban core. For the Valley, not so much.  The existing dingbat stock will be kept alive with soft story retrofits.  In Santa Monica and West Hollywood, where the juice is worth the squeeze, some landlords lean into the mid-century theme and trowel on a modern skin, restore the name, re-dingbatize their buildings.

But the Valley dingbat won’t get the 2.0 treatment. Nor will it age into shabby gentility, like the San Bernardino Arms evoked by Nathaniel West. It’ll look like a penitentiary.  In class terms, it kind of is one.

Day of the Locust, 1975

Night Work and Bitchitude


Los Angeles likes to put its feet out after sundown.  The roadways clear.   You can cross the twinkling plain of the city in 20 minutes.  You see it the way Nathaniel West did.

Thirsts are indulged. People become just like themselves, only more so.  They bring margarita belch and testosterone into the car. They bring reflective moods.  They confess to illicit behavior. They invite you upstairs to play Twister.  They withdraw into their phones, ghostly apparitions in the backseat, necks drooped like penguins, swiping, scrolling.  They over-share.  They pitch their sizzle reel and Soundcloud release.   They want you to tell them stories of other Uber riders.  They want to know how terrible they are.  Tell us about the drunks!  But the drunks are predictable, rarely a problem.  Entitlement and ingratitude are.  But you don’t say that, because the asker of the question is more often than not a white woman from the Westside, and white women from the Westside are the worst riders you encounter.

They love to make you wait, double-parked in a bus lane, while they say goodbye dawdle with their friends in the restaurant. In West Hollywood.  You circle the block and try again. Cars honk at you.  Other Ubers honk at you. Valet parkers wave flashlights. She emerges, texting, flops down with a weary sigh in the back seat, but doesn’t close the door.

Wah-ut?  I’m waiting for my friend. she’s in the bathroom.”

“I can’t double park here.”

“She’s in the bathroom. She’ll be right out, okay?  Jeez.”

Now an actual city bus is behind us, honking.

“You gotta shut the door. I’m gonna get a ticket.”

“Why is your car so dirty?”

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s a streak on the window.”

You just cleaned the windows, as you do before every shift, and there is indeed a streak on the passenger side window, incriminating in the glare of the sodium lights.  An LA Sheriff’s Dept. patrol car barks orders over his PA: Move your Uber, NOW.  Mercifully, he’s on the other side of the street and some other luckless driver is about to get ticketed.

The friend lollygags out of the restaurant.  They sink into Phone World on the drive to Santa Monica, scrolling, swiping…a monkish silence punctuated by the Snapchat feed, shrill, distorted bursts of music and random shrieks from friends somewhere in the city, doing Something Which Must be Shared.   Either they bore of it or the feed runs dry and they begin to whisper to each other.  Then the Alpha Girl of the two speaks:

“You should clean your car better. You should clean it every day if you want to charge people money. Seriously.”

And for less than the price of valet parking, I whisk them to their front door.