Suppose we were to have a civil war in L.A. Suppose the breakaway provinces north of Mulholland Drive declared a sovereign city. Suppose the armies assembled in the Sepulveda Basin for the first pitched battle, Blackwater vs. the Valley Militia. Suppose after sustaining heavy losses to sniper fire Mayor Garcetti called in a napalm strike from the air to give his Hessians cover to retreat.
My question is: would the result look different than what the homeless army has done to the Basin this summer?
If I want to camp in a state park, I have to purchase a space and obey a long list of prudential diktats. Squatting in dry brush with a gas grill and a crack pipe would be at the top of the NO list.
The line between civilization and a state of nature is drawn with butane.
And unlimited EBT cards.
And the right to shit on the pavement forever.
And loot store shelves.
And break windows.
And step off a bus from Ohio with a heroin habit, a bedroll, and an incontestable claim to residency.
All this is de facto legal now.
In fact, it’s a billion-dollar-a-year business.
Want to guess the budget for the Valley Audubon Society?
Enough gloom. Let’s take a peek on the other side of the dam. Something seems to be happening on the spillway. Some kind of roller skating party. A clandestine meetup of photographers and models and dance troupes. That’s not allowed! No one is supposed to be there.
Breaking the rules, all of them. Until the park police chase them away, it’s all spinning girls and illicit smiles and the possibility of the city reclaimed from those who stole it from us.
Me: Can I take my appendix home with me? Nurse: No, no. If it comes from the body, it goes to pathology. Me: Did I creep you out by asking? Nurse: I’ve heard it all and seen it all. I once had a patient covered with swastika tattoos tell me he didn’t want a nigger to touch him. I say to him: Would you prefer death? Me: God commands us to be colorblind Nurse: This is what I think. He doesn’t exist. I am from Africa. There is no explanation for the suffering of children you see in the third world. American people don’t understand suffering. We quarrel over the smallest things.
Then she wheeled me into the operating room.
Last Sunday I woke with tenderness and discomfort in my lower right abdomen which spread outward during the day and grew more painful to the touch. My belly began to distend. As someone who goes to the doctor about once every 25 years, my first instinct was to wait it out. Then I remembered my friend Paul.
Back in the aughts, he went to an ER in Los Angeles presenting with abdominal pain. After a few hours, they sent him home with antibiotics and some medication. His pain worsened. In the morning he returned to the ER, jaundiced. Overnight his appendix had burst and peritonitis had set in. They intubated him. A comic writer and actor, he entertained everyone with jokes on a small whiteboard. Five hours after walking in under his own power he was dead. His fiance was 7 months pregnant.
Mrs. UpintheValley remembered Paul as well and insisted on driving me to Valley Presbyterian which is how I came to lay in a gurney at 2 am listening to Defibrillator Man on the other side of the curtain bellow at the nursing staff for more Oxy 30. D-Man is what is known in the medical trade as a frequent flyer. The fire department wheeled him in, along with his garbage bags, complaining of heart palpitations and squeezings and whatnot.
“It’s my own faults for skipping dialysis this week.” He smoked Newport 100s up until his first heart attack. He’s had four. Now he wheels his own defibrillator with him in his wanderings around the Valley. Prolonged litigation ensued with the nursing staff over which arm to put the saline drip.
“Not the left. That’s where all the hard veins are. You’ll never get the needle in. You have to use this one over here. It still good.”
“That one won’t work, sir.”
“You telling me I don’t know my veins? I asked for my Oxy 30 an hour ago!”
It had been about five minutes. This argument recycled itself. There was a wet splash on the linoleum and a satisfied groan from D-Man.
“I told you so.”
Against my nature and my politics, I sympathized with him more than I should. Pain changes you. So does addiction. It was not my finest hour, nor his. We were two men of similar age but very different lives separated for the moment by a wisp of curtain.
The nurse poked his head in to give me the results of the CT scan: acute appendicitis, not yet burst.
“I’m going to give you some morphine now. How much would you like?
“As little as possible.”
As little as possible flattened me to the gurney. For a precarious moment, I was Ewan McGregor falling through the carpet in Trainspotting. A flash of paranoia: in all the mishegas they must have given me Defibrillator Man’s dosage by mistake. Yes, I must be O.D.ing. This is what it feels like. I am about to be a cautionary tale at a local nursing school. “This is why Kevin is working retail now…”
But no, it was just morphine doing what it has done for centuries.
They brought me upstairs to a private room with 12-foot ceilings and a window facing south, protected from the sun by a run of trees. Quiet as a monastery. Pleasingly asymmetrical. I was on the second floor of one of the two original circular pod towers designed by William Pereira in 1958, a groundbreaking innovation at the time. The charge nurse was astonished to hear me praise my accommodation.
“Usually I have to apologize for putting anyone here. People hate this room. It’s too small. They prefer the new annex building. The bathrooms there are about as big as this room.”
What can I say? It was bigger than my bedroom. There were no bright lights and annoying beeps, no moaning effluence two feet away. I was in God’s Hotel.
Valley Pres at its booster-ish conception was the epitome of mid-century modern cool. It was also, like the freeway system and the water pipes, woefully inadequate in size and scope for the city it served. A street grid for over a million people had already been laid across the Valley, and everyone pretended a hospital of this size was sufficient. Permits were easy then, planning negligible. A third tower, twice as tall, was added in 1966, then support buildings, parking structures, the annex. Today the original building is stripped of its iconic metal shutters that kept the sun off the windows, a forgotten starter home dwarfed by larger McMansions, barely visible from the street.
Gunshot Guy was on the gurney to my left as we waited for our turn in the operating bay. He lay fetally on his side, his foot poking out from the blankets, wrapped in a rugby ball-sized swath of bandages.
“Are you on cocaine right now? It’s okay we don’t judge.”
“How much cocaine did you take?”
“How much heroin are you using?”
“Is that daily? The anesthetist needs to know before we operate.”
“We can remove the bullet, and reset the bones, but you will have difficulty putting any weight on it for a long time.”
“We have a physical therapist to help you re-learn walking.”
Gunshot Guy mumbled his responses from underneath the blankets. The double doors opened and they wheeled in an obese woman, who recited her list of surgeries to a captive audience of nurses as though a reality show film crew were in the hallway with us, recording her every word. First had been her ankle, then her hip, then her back, and now her neck. The injustice of human frailty was ascending her body like a clan of mountaineering trolls.
“This is so unfair. I’m only 48 years old. I’m too young for this shit.”
At this juncture, the African nurse bent into view to tell me with perfect colonial grammar and a baroque accent she would be shaving my groin. I wondered if she would use a straight razor. I considered all the comedic possibilities of my testes and Murphy’s Law. Her face was filled with exactly the compassion one seeks at such a moment, and it was here we had our lovely conversation about God and suffering.
I was in the best hands, she assured me. Dr. Slick would be attending to me.
I had heard of Dr. Slick from the E.R. nurse the night before. Also from the floor nurse upstairs and the attending physician. How lucky I was to catch him! They all said how fast he was, a virtuoso with a laparoscope. My only association with speed and medicine was Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons, and the creepy lobotomist in the film Frances, so it was a relief to be greeted by a guy who looked like an accountant but had a roll in his step like a professional athlete. I was easily his most boring case of the day. He would be going through my belly button and a 5mm opening on my left side.
“Count backward from 100,” they said once I was situated on the table. I decided to recite the Lord’s Prayer instead. I got as far as “our father, who art in…”
Feral Cat 1, Sun 0. Basking in a survivors’ victory at 7 pm…
I have no idea how they do it with a fur coat on. Nature is a genius.
The ficus didn’t do so well yesterday. Watered it on Saturday. Less than 24 hours later, the top third of the hedge withered before my eyes as though God had sent down pestilence.
All things green shall by sundown be green no more, sayeth the Lord.
Inevitably, there was another homeless encampment brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin, the second of the past month. We have normalized this like summer weather.
Feral cats and meth heads are anti-fragile. Los Angeles may fall into perdition in the next six months and they will make a slight adjustment and continue as before. The rest of us, in our green and ordered life, anchored by our need for safety and sustainability, scan the horizon line and wonder what It Portends.
I encountered this guy around the corner yesterday. He had wandered into the neighborhood from Sepulveda, sweaty and disheveled, muttering on the curb as he loaded his crack pipe…unfettered by self-consciousness, so deep was he into the finger rituals of addiction.
Like my beloved Los Angeles, he was in a state of nervous prostration. A herald of self-destruction. It made me think of our three-month bender of submission to safetyism and power-tripping bureaucrats. So many of us remain insensible to reason. Hopeful data do not appease us. Hard facts of morbidity do not move us. We’re all Emily Dickinson now, cowering at the top of the stairs. We hide behind our duty masks and wait for someone else to be the first to defy authority, lest we are ratted out on social media.
When we take the full measure of the economic damage inflicted upon ourselves and face with clear eyes our willingness to swallow propaganda from a garden hose we will look back on this time as one of madness. We will tell our children by way of explanation for the debt we hand them, forgive us, it was sort of like we were smoking crack.
“I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have crowds of admirers…” When admirers failed to appear, roaring disappointment contracted Emily’s world. She ventured no further than the garden gate, then the sitting room, finally her bedroom, where she retreated for the remainder of her life. Amherst became that terra incognita signified on ancient flat earth maps by sea dragons.
“A prison gets to be a friend,” Dickinsonfamously said. As we emerge from the lockdown, will our pent up creative energies prevail, will the animal spirits of commerce revive fully intact, or will we find ourselves diminished somehow? Marked by a limp? Will we embrace a newly discovered weakness?
I discovered this digital Polaroid during an encampment cleanup off Sepulveda, put it in my pocket and forgot all about it, then re-found it in the laundry.
For most of us, Van Nuys means an affordable ranch house. But for others, Van Nuys means my weekend at the bail bondsman or my frustrating encounter with the Building Department. Then there are women for whom Van Nuys means my summer sweating for Leon at the Travel Inn.
You might presume (as I did) someone was awfully eager to pose them on the bed like chattel. How we feel about the picture depends on who we think the photographer is. We assume a male. Polaroids are keepsakes. But what if one of the women took the picture and it was meant for each other, the pose taken ironically, an artifact of their sisterhood in the fleshy trenches?
How did the picture make the journey from the motel room to the Favela? Through whose hands did it pass? Maybe no ones. Maybe one of these women is living in a tent next to the 405 right now. It would be the simplest explanation, but doesn’t feel like the right movie to me.
O’Melveny, six weeks after the wildfire: Nature’s Civil War battlefield. Light rain falling and no one about, like we were the last two people on earth, navigating an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament.
Come spring, the flowers will return in abundance. We know this before we put our first boot print in the afternoon mud, which makes it fun rather than depressing. We take comfort playing tourist in nature’s cycle of wrath and renewal.
Here, on the charcoal side of the Urban-Wildlife Interface, one realizes the only thing between the former and the latter is the forty feet of asphalt on Sesnon St. Then you remember the Santa Rosa fire of 2017, which jumped a six-lane freeway. Then you think of the Hollywood Hills, of Brentwood, of canopies of trees overhanging narrow streets, nearly shaking hands, and winds whistling up the canyons.
If we think we can live in this tension indefinitely, houses pushing in, nature clawing back, what happens when people begin squatting in the unclaimed spaces, cooking over open flames? How does that change our calculus?
Unlike nature, Shantytown, Inc. has no opposing force. Camping in the underbrush is incentivized. There’s no one at City Hall arguing for prudence, only subsidy. More service providers dispensing free stuff. The rest of us carry on arguments in the privacy of our heads.
How long will this parallel world build up along the unclaimed spaces, along the freeways and rivers and storefronts before wrath enters the picture?
That was last week. Yesterday, flames of a suspicious origin erupted from the lower floor of 7101 Sepulveda Blvd, a mile or so north. Vacant for 25 years, the building once housed a college for paralegals. With wood framing, the flames reached the upper floors quickly.
Directly adjacent is an empty lot at 7111 Sepulveda, site of the former Farmer’s Ranch Market. Permits were approved for 180 units almost two years ago, but ground was never broken on the project. The eyesore vacancy at 7101, a plinth for cell phone towers and Van Nuys’ most unloved structure, was rumored to be a hindrance.
Guess where the 405 encampment moved to? Guess how long it took them to crack open the back door of 7101 and pilfer wiring and play with matches? If you own the building, you get an insurance settlement. If you own the lot next door, you get south-facing light for your mixed-use development. If you live in the neighborhood, you’re quietly gratified to see something, anything, done with the place.
Everybody wins. Just how locked was that back door, anyway?
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.
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.
He stole my phone when I was kissing him! The guy in the pink tank top? Bitch, I knew he was going to do that. Why didn’t you say anything? Would you have listened? You were too busy eating his mustache.
True Sunday story, right here. One can’t say they weren’t warned. Signs over the bar warned of cell phone pickpockets like it was Dickensian London, but with glitter. In WeHo, the young pretty things boldly exploit middle-aged longing, the middle-aged dangle free drinks to pretty young things doubled up in rooms in Van Nuys, and there’s a great drag show to distract us from all the Darwinian undertow.
At the other end of CicLAvia, there’s this post-Dickensian tableau. Only one tourist bothers to look. Others step around her like she was topiary and figure out where the restaurant is. No literary genius will immortalize the addict in the sleeping bag. She’s part of the shrubbery now.
The city will not allow you to use a plastic straw but will defend the right to camp on the sidewalk like it was God’s commandment. Don’t Normalize Trump, we shriek, but oh how we’ve normalized this.
After a lovely CicLAvian day from Vermont to San Vicente and back, I biked back to the Valley, three cocktails deep and sweaty. Small civic detail: there is no bike lane in the Cahuenga Pass. None. So right at the point where Cahuenga becomes a freeway alternative and cars accelerate accordingly, one is shunted into the gutter. A dozen rotations of the pedals later, I hear this fsssssss…. and being in a happy frame of mind decided, oh, this must be some feral creature, some urban fauna lurking in the shrubbery, warning me away from his domain. I’m communing with nature. How loverly! It wouldn’t be a flat tire. Not in under a minute. Not me. I did the right thing. I didn’t park in the city. I’m one of the good ones!
Guess who pushed his bike back over the Pass, cars nipping at his elbow the whole way? You’d think there’d be a bike path by now. Didn’t we pass a sales tax? Twice?
You can pretend for an afternoon, but the First Law of the City remains unchallenged: the car is king. To believe otherwise is one of the 23 Lies we tell ourselves about LA.