A Short Walk From Emily’s House

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,” Dickinson famously 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?

Six On A Bed

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.

Rainflowers To Come

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?

What form will the rain flower take?

Favela Re-Development Agency, In Action

Darling, did you notice the homeless encampment by the freeway?  It’s gone.
I did.
Where do you think they went?
Not far.

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?

*photos courtesy LAFD

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.

Two Hollywoods, One Wheel

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.

Gagandeep in Basura

Yesterday I found a series of flashcards in the Sepulveda Basin discarded by a person who refers to himself as Gagandeep. They endeavor to explain the fetishistic relation between People of the Favela and trash accumulation.

After this card, the print becomes too small to read.

Gagandeep is a fairly common Hindi name, but in this context perhaps more satisfying as onomatopoeia.

Web search unearths many Gagandeep Singh: a heroic Indian policeman who saved a Muslim from an angry mob,  another who was a murder victim in Idaho, and a whole lot of doctors, including one on Van Nuys Blvd.  It could be the case this spelunker of diamonds in the trash is one of his patients and has appropriated the name.

Amidst the crusader tents of Bull Creek, medieval disease has returned, ass to mouth, to Los Angeles.

Oh, would a pan piper offer to lead them away. Who would ask questions? For ten million dollars I will blow my flute and you will suffer them no more, sayeth the Piper.  You may not know where I’m taking them.  

GoFundMe would answer the call in a day.   For the price of two lottery tickets per Angeleno, probably in an hour.   Then what?

What if an asteroid hit Los Angeles at dawn while the Favela danced around a Maypole in the desert? Our comeuppance.

Or, in the Black Mirror version, we are forced to watch the Soylent Green-like fate to which we have delivered them, and are so guilt-stricken we offer ten times the ransom for their safe return.

Or, we never find out, never see them again, and peaceably adjust to a civic mystery.  Untroubled, we begin to look at our ailing, inconvenient grandparents in a whole new light.