This Was Us

1958, when the Valley was quiet
1958, when the Valley was quiet

We built capacity because we knew what was coming, though not so white as we imagined. Now the future is here, it’s 12 lanes, and it’s not moving at all.

We were the outer limit of the metropolitan commute. Now you stop here for gas on the way to Moorpark.

As consolation, the food is a whole lot better.

People are prettier, when pretty is a professional aspiration. The rest of us are fat as f***.

Houses are unobtainably expensive.

Electronic gadgetry is cheap, ubiquitous, and wonder making in its power.

The air is cleaner.

Good manners have gone to hell.

Love of a beautiful sentence is going the way of VHS and polyester slacks.

A year of pop music is a pale facsimile of a month’s worth of output in the 1970’s.

Long form television is our Golden Age.

We are lonely in our crowds, in a way the man in the stepside pickup probably wasn’t.

We nest inside our Netflix queue and pronounce ourselves content.

We are growing childlike in our willingness to repeat propaganda.

They don't know what's coming. But neither do we.
They don’t know what’s coming. But neither do we.

A Thin Line Between Jackass and Hero

What could go wrong?
What could go wrong?
Well, this...
Well, this…

The UpintheValley Theoretical School of Home Renovation operates on the following principle:  a) get a book; b) read that book; c) do what the book says.  Voila! New copper plumbing. Honey, look at all the money we saved.

In practice, there is a learning curve: a) first time wrong, b) second time better, c) third time proficient.  ABC.  Always Be Climbing the curve.

This works, more or less, with tile setting, hanging windows, sweat-fitting pipes underneath the house. Piecework…things of that nature…offer margins for error.

Felling a tree is a different animal.

If the tree is 38 inches in diameter, and your saw is 2o inches in length, your margin of error is two inches.  If the tree is 12 feet from the house, but 18 feet in height, your margin is…let’s just say in a contest between two tons of hardwood,  dropping on a hinge, and stucco… stucco doesn’t win.

The Battle Plan
The Battle Plan

So I spray painted some cut lines in the bark, measured out a fall. I made the notch cut.  I stopped several times to check the face of the notch to see it was smiling directly toward the narrow window of space between my tangerine and grapefruit trees.  As a first time tree faller, I was confident hopeful I could drop it without damage to them. If you look carefully at the upper photo, you will see a scratch work of saw lines.  In homicide investigations, these are known as hesitation wounds.

So having done my “homework”, in this case not a library book, but a cursory web search, with illustrations, how did my rented chainsaw end up stuck in a tree that was 90 percent cut through? Why was it not leaning in the direction I wanted it to go? How was it I managed to overlook the use of shims?  If I stopped right there, and called 311, how much would the City charge me to remove this public safety hazard I created with my Van Nuys Can-Do spirit?  How would I explain to my neighbor why she couldn’t park in her driveway ever again, or at least until I got things sorted?

No longer fully in control of matters, I did what jackasses have always done. I improvised.  I grabbed a crowbar, the only plausible shim I could think of, jammed it in the cut, and told Mrs. U to pull very hard on the polyurethane rope I had attached, in my now alarmingly glib pre-planning, to the upper branches.   In the event of a stiff gust of wind in the wrong direction, about as useful as dental floss. Fortune favors the brave they say, and between her pulling on the rope and me pushing on the bar we were able to rock the trunk just enough to yank the saw out.  At that point, the tree felt a little wobbly in my hands. It was definitely going down now, but about 30 degrees off line.  Away from the house, praise Jesus.


I pushed, she pulled, and over it went, straight through the trellis over the front of the walkway, which imploded like a house of toothpicks. Not a pretty landing, but never have I been so grateful for a fix-it project.

In my head I could hear the voice of Howard Cosell exulting: Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

IMG_4829 (1)

It’s a thin line between jackass and hero. If it goes your way, your wife looks at you like this. Glad I’m not living with the alternative.

Katie Was A Free-Range Kid

In the typewriter era...
Back in the era of scary wallpaper and bowl cuts…

John McLaughlin had the loudest whistle in Van Nuys. At sundown, when the streetlights came on, he would put two fingers in his mouth and let it rip. From Kittridge to Archwood, the kids would report in on their skateboards and roller blades and bikes.  Katie, her brother Mike,  Samantha and Annie, all the friends.

“We were a pack of wolves.”

In the morning her mother would drop Katie and Mike off at St. Elisabeth’s Elementary. In the afternoon, she would walk home on Kittridge, a key around her neck, across six lanes of Van Nuys Blvd., past the Dearden’s department store and the 7-11. When Mike, who was three years older, transferred to Notre Dame High, she made the trek alone.  Creepy men would sometimes pull over and expose themselves to her.

When her father played in his softball beer league in Encino, the kids would run into the cornfield and down into the concrete wash.  There were no fences to stop them.

There was no phrase “free-range parenting”. That was just the way it was done in the Valley in the 1980’s.

Valley kids, 1980's
Leadwell St., 1986
Ice Skating, Laurel Plaza
Ice Skating, Laurel Plaza

Maybe it worked because there was strength in numbers. Or maybe it worked because there was little to command their attention indoors, but no so long ago a large cohort of children wandered, unleashed, without GPS devices or sunscreen, across Van Nuys.

Costello St, 1958
Costello St, 1956

Katie’s mother Jan also was a free-range kid.  She grew up two doors down from the house she raised Katie and Mike.   Her father, Frank, was a set painter at MGM studios. He painted ships for the Navy during WWII.


Frank and Madeline settled in Van Nuys and had three daughters. Jan was born in 1946.

Alemany High School, 1964. Cheech Marin second from right
Alemany High School, 1964. Cheech Marin second from right.

Jan attended San Fernando Valley State, married John in 1968, and began teaching English at Providence High School in Burbank. John also became a teacher, and later in his career, a principal.  In 1976, when Michael was born, they bought 6712 Costello, where Jan once played with her childhood friend Dolores.

They would both teach for over 30 years
They would both teach for over 40 years


The kids lives revolved around the ball fields at St. Elisabeth’s. John would chalk the field, seed the grass, man the snack shop, and coach.  Katie’s greatest fear growing up was that her parents would get divorced.


That, and being abducted by aliens.  There was a neighbor who lived across the street who claimed to have been abducted and probed.  In an era noted for the Night Stalker and the Freeway Killer, Katie sobbed hysterically when she saw E.T.   


In the summers, the families in the neighborhood would share a rental in Newport. John would surf. Katie smoked her first cigarette here at 15 with Samantha and Annie.

IMG_9740 (1)

She would attend Notre Dame High School, with her brother Mike. On the weekends she would go with her friends to Hollywood to see girl bands like Hole and Seven Year Bitch. She became a Derby Doll.  She met a boy from the East Coast with tattoos who worked with motorcycles and fell in love with him.  She moved directly from her childhood home into his apartment in North Hollywood, which was both a rebellious and very traditional thing to do.


In 2000, John would leave Jan after 32 years of marriage. He would spend time at the beach.  Things went a little haywire in the McLaughlin household for awhile.  Jan withdrew. Mike struggled. Katie decamped for Virginia with her boyfriend.

Costello Street, 2016
Grace and Katie, Costello Street, 2016

Grace saved the family when she came to the world in 2005.

After a brief marriage in Virginia, Katie returned to Van Nuys and moved back in with Jan to raise her daughter as a single mother.   As so often happens with the arrival of a grandchild, a rapprochement of sorts was effected between Katie’s parents.

Grace can put her foot behind her head. She played Danny Zuko in her school production of Grease.  She claims a photographic memory and has excited opinions on many topics. She talks with her hands, and can recite the plot of Carrie, though she’s not allowed to see it yet and is terrified of scary movies.  She sleeps in the bedroom her mother grew up in and loves her vinyl record collection.

What she doesn’t do is wander down the street.  There are no other children her age on the block. She doesn’t walk to school, either. Unlike St. E’s, her magnet school is well out of the neighborhood.  She’s the last 11-year-old in LA without a phone. Almost.

Like so many Valley children today, Grace is not a free-range kid.  She lives indoors. She loves her Marvel and her DC comics and YouTube channels and her Kindle. For Katie, this is the heartbreaking part of raising her, the inability to re-create for her daughter the freedoms of her own childhood.

By any statistical measure, it’s much safer for children alone on the street today than 30 years ago. But the heart doesn’t work that way.  One can’t un-know things once one has experienced them.  Creeps will lurk in cars. A cool priest will be deposited in your parish, mix jokes with his sermons and be very popular, until he wasn’t.  Men you love will fail to live up to the hope you invest in them.   There may have been no alien abductions, but Southern California played host to a cornucopia of serial killers.

And Grace is the only child. The last in the line of four generations living on Costello. The house hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. You cleave to her most tightly and you care for your aging mother and you hold down your job at the salon and occasionally you slip away to Macleod for a beer to nurse your heartaches.   You’re going to make it work.

Sisters. Frenemies. Valley Girls.
Valley Girls.

The Echeveria Thief


Someone was in the yard this morning.  I woke to Trixie pacing alertly on the bed, leaning toward the window.  Bright sun streamed through the curtains for the first time in days. The storm had passed. I could make out a gray-haired visage just past the front steps. She bent down and yanked an entire echeveria plant up by the roots, put it in her satchel,  then calmly walked away.


This woman, which might explain why she has such a terrific potted garden in her front yard.

I reached for my shoes to chase her down, but then hesitated.  What would I say to her?  I wasn’t sure, having seen her wander our streets for years, how compos mentis she was.    If plucking plants from neighboring yards and gathering them to her bosom gave an old woman happiness and purpose, who was I to deny the widow’s mite?

On the other hand,  she snatched the whole plant with a seasoned hand.  Remorseless!  And I just planted that echeveria, for which I paid cash.  This isn’t exactly picking fruit off the ground, or even from a branch overhanging the sidewalk. This was covetous.

There is a complicating matter. I am not exactly an innocent myself.  There are succulents in my yard, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, which were once upon a time spilling over the curb into the street in front of someone else’s house, and if a few branches just happened to snap off at the ends and fall into my pocket only to be repotted elsewhere, was that so wrong?   In my defense, I argue I was merely pruning, doing what the owner would have done for himself anyway, and look how much thicker it grows back.

Then again, if it was so harmless, why not just knock on the door and ask?  Why be shady?  Why place oneself on the road east of Eden?

Because there is a primal pleasure in picking a flower or a piece of fruit on the sly.   This is how we are made.

By Roman Law, pick away...
By Roman Law, pick away…

Perhaps I summoned the Echeveria Thief into our yard like Jehovah’s Curse. If so, I offer our tangerine tree to the commons in recompense. Anything you can reach from the sidewalk is fair game, with our blessings. We’ll never manage to eat all of them ourselves.