Once upon a time, along Roscoe Blvd, civic-minded people saw a concrete wall and imagined a mural. So a mural was summoned forth.
For years afterward, if one stopped beneath the 405, waiting for traffic to clear, one was treated to a tableau of rusticating California golden bears. Bears rubbing their backs against trees. Bears spearing salmon from waterfalls. Bears in mustard fields grappling one another in terpsichorean ecstasy. Bears watching enigmatically from their shrinking habitat, preparing for hibernation, while you sat in your car revving up for your day, or taking inventory of the ingredients needed for dinner, depending which direction the car was pointing.
It wasn’t Guernica, but it was an engaging piece of public art. A punctuation to your day, a yogic breath before the left turn to the on-ramp, where you could enter the forest for a moment and walk among the grizzlies. And then the light would change.
Set beside the civic artwork of the other great cities of the world, the Bear Mural is but a widow’s mite. A Valley-esque exercise in middlebrow taste.
Twasn’t much, but it worked. And until this past year, it was ours.
Then the shopping carts began to appear. Then mattress and sleeping bags.
Then the city, in its
ever-expanding need to fatten pensions wisdom, silently declared the mural and all its street frontage to be the responsibility of the state of California. Since it was ‘under the freeway’ it need no longer be policed by Los Angeles.
In short order, the carts and mattresses gave way to a fortress city of bagged crap which decanted urine in the middle of the day and bore menacing signs. In keeping with Wilson’s Law of Broken Windows, all the murals under the 405 are disappearing under heavy tagging.
I can think of a place this wouldn’t be allowed to happen: Sherman Oaks.
I can think of another: the City of San Fernando.
When there are 5,000 people per councilperson, calls get returned. When there are 300,000 people per councilperson, she never has to shake your hand. So she doesn’t.
The City of Los Angeles has more tax revenue this year than last, more last year than the year before that. It’s going somewhere, just not to Van Nuys.
More houses have been renovated in my neighborhood, gut-renovated, from the foundation up, in the past four years than in the past 50 combined. Move twenty feet off any boulevard and you’re standing in an urban Mayberry, self-sustaining, joyful, polite, and without crime. An embodiment of our finest virtues: hard work, parsimony, kindness to others, faith and family. Virtues which are shared across the many dialects of our neighborhood. Friends from other areas of LA doubt me on the crime part, but it’s true. I have no need to lock my house.
Step back on the boulevard and you’re looking at a slum mall with a PayDay lender, a dialysis clinic, and a convenience store feeding off EBT cards. The man who owns the strip mall doesn’t live here, but he extracts a fat dollar from blight. The city functionaries who dole out the EBT cards and Section 8 vouchers make a nice living doing so, but they don’t live here either. People in the public sector are paid twice the salary the citizens they serve, but when I went to Nury Martinez’s office her field deputy didn’t know where Sepulveda Gulch was until I showed her on a map.
Blight is the end result of policy choices. We’re having an election next week in CD 6, but if you do a little homework, you’ll notice that 98% of the money spent on mailers and signs is coming from sources outside the district. People with business before the council. People looking for Mayberry’s money. Mayberry keeps grinding it out, reliably, and the taxation which sustains the City is nothing if not regressive.
The city budget is $8 billion a year, but good luck persuading Nury to install a few sprinklers to revive dead landscaping on the ugliest stretch of Sepulveda Blvd. Or pay for a Levi Ponce mural. What would be the point of that? We’re a colony, after all. They can just hand us shovels and tell us to fill in our own potholes.
On Tuesday, a few hundred people are going to spend an obscene sum of Mayberry’s money to persuade a few thousand people to give a 12-year sinecure and million-dollar pension to a woman who couldn’t say, when asked, what the City’s unfunded liability is.
How were 80,000 British soldiers able to maintain dominion over 200 million Hindus? By persuading them to internalize their own inferiority. Burn all foreign dress, Gandhi advised. Don’t wear the white man’s colonial suit. Your mind will follow.
An adolescent impulse led me to bike down Sepulveda twice yesterday, under a bright/dark sky on a wet/sunny afternoon.
At Vanowen I crossed a swirling lake in the middle of the intersection.
At Oxnard, I was sweating under my hoodie.
Then the rain resumed, plunging in sheets while in another part of the sky, the sun broke brightly through a hole in the cloud bank.
By Ventura I was soaked through. And still sweating.
On the way back, the rain paused long enough for the streets to drain.
I felt a bit like Dorothy fleeing the approaching cyclone. Or Elvira Gulch.
Then I crossed Saticoy and reached our neighborhood pocket park, and the Pink Trumpet trees were aflame. I had left Kansas.
I awoke this morning from evocative dreams. I was stranded in New Mexico. I needed to get back to LA in time for work, so I started hitchhiking.
Joan Baez picked me up in her tour bus.
“I need a roadie,” she said. “You’ll do.”
This wasn’t the silver-haired grande dame le musique folk we know today, but the sultry St. Joan of the early 70’s, Vanguard Records It Girl and Dylan muse.
I got on the bus.
She had a gig in Tucson in a massive sports arena. Packed house. Half-way through the show, she walked away from the microphone and approached me backstage. She whispered huskily in my ear.
“My back-up player is drunk again. Help me out on this next song, will you dear?”
“But…I don’t know how to play guitar.”
“C’mon. It’s easy to play guitar. You’ll pick it up in no time.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Truth and beauty, darling. Don’t over-analyze. I’m calling you an artist.”
A roadie directed me to the remnants of a guitar leaning against a music stand. It was missing strings. The frets were broken in places. It looked as though Pete Townsend has just worked out his repressed homosexual rage on it.
“Here you go, maestro. They’re waiting for you.”
The show ground to a halt while Joan introduced me to a now restless audience. She smiled benevolently from the microphone and waved me onstage to a smattering of polite applause.
Then she began to trill her way through “Diamonds and Rust”.
I did the only sensible thing.
For the next five minutes I furiously played air guitar alongside her, complete with spastic head banging.
After all, I was an artist.
* * *
In an unrelated matter, there will be a retrospective of photos from this blog, an art show if you will, at the wonderful MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. in Van Nuys, starting tomorrow night.
SCENES FROM A WORKING-CLASS BRIGADOON
Photographs from Upinthevalley.org
Macleod Ale Brewing Co.
14741 Calvert St. Van Nuys, 5-10PM
There will be, as an inducement, excellent British ales, music, darts, lovely conversation, and probably a food truck. Mrs. Upinthevalley will be there, as will I. If you read this blog and want to unwind a bit after your week, I would love to meet you. If you can’t make it tomorrow, they’ll up for awhile.
Come for the beer, stay for the art.
Mr. Brown managed inventory at Tower Records for 20 years. He was there to the bitter end. The co-workers called him Mr. Brown. So did corporate.
When the chain folded, he cut his hair, took a new job at a different retailer, where he was re-christened by his first name. No one at his new job knows him as Mr. Brown. People see his high-and-tight haircut and assume he’s an ex-Marine. As he genially puts it, he’s the opposite of that. But he walks with a slight hitch in his step, like a gunslinger from a Western.
He still lives in Panorama City, in the house in which he grew up, under the shade of a massive tree. He drives a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, which rolled off the assembly line the year he was born.
It’s a little worse for wear, has no smog controls, no seats belts. But it runs. He’s owned it for over 30 years, all the way back to the hey day of Van Nuys cruising. And Tower Records. He gets offers to sell from time to time. But he’s not interested.
As long as he still kicking around, he’s driving the car.
I met a grifter on Sepulveda this afternoon, handing out prayer cards. She was blonde and pretty and dressed all in white and had two young daughters with her, dressed in gold lame stretch pants and white halter tops. The card offered conversations with God, through her, by which I could obtain success in life and win. Superimposed over the bleeding heart of Jesus was a photo of a fat guy in an afro sitting on some kind of throne beckoning with his fingers. From the picture, he appeared to be the father of the twin girls. The card had a long list of things they could summon forth for me: health, divine guidance and miracles.
On the other side was a picture of her which looked as though it were lifted from a back page advertisement for outcall massage. Call me anytime! God bless you!
After dinner, I went to the gym. On the way home, I stopped to take a picture of the creche in front of St. Catherine of Siena church. As a teenager Catherine cut her hair to ward off potential suitors her mother arranged for her to marry. They intruded upon her pre-existing mystical marriage to Jesus. “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee,” she advised. She is known as the patron saint of sexual temptation. Also, those who are mocked for their piety.
As I was laying on the sidewalk finding the best angle, a young couple stopped to talk to me. His name was Danny. Her name was Mary. She cradled a sleeping chihuahua-yorkie puppy. They got him for Valentine’s.
Danny said he wrote wrestling scenarios for the WWE. I couldn’t help but think of Barton Fink. He had a Coen Brothers-ish sense of humor. He wore a crucifix. I asked him if he was Catholic. He said he believed in a higher power. A blind watchmaker.
I suggested the first question is: why something, instead of nothing?
It was Friday the 13th. In another hour it would be Valentine’s Day.
They were a nice couple.
Nury Martinez has Good Hair. Even by lofty Latina standards, Latinas being naturally advantaged in all matters coiffure, Nury has gorgeous, telenovela quality hair. That’s my takeaway from last night’s ‘debate’ between her and repeat challenger for la jefa of Council District Seis, Cindy Montanez.
Cindy’s no slouch in the hair department herself, though. She’s abandoned the pantsuits of 2013 and adopted a kind of I-shop-at-Costco-just-like-the-rest-of-you-Van Nuysians look. And I can prove it, see? I just toss it carelessly over my shoulder along with my sensible bag and push my own grocery cart across the lot to my minivan.
If I didn’t know she pocketed over a million dollars in taxpayer money from a pair of political patronage appointments while waiting for the party machine to clear a seat for her, I’d almost believe it.
Now wait a minute, you might be thinking. What kind of misogynistic nonsense is this? These women are professionals. One of them is your councilperson. How dare you dissect their appearance. For shame.
Well, they didn’t leave us much choice in the matter. Because there wasn’t a whole lot of substantive distinction between the two.
They’re both Opposed to Street Prostitution. Opposed! Asked what they do in the way of interdiction both women emotively delineated the state of play on Sepulveda Blvd and left it at that. This re-describing the problem in lieu of answering the question would prove to be the operative template of the evening in all questions relating to Van Nuys. Budget shortfall? Tough decisions need to be made. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour? It’s hard living on $10/hour. It requires further study. Developing Van Nuys Blvd? It used to be nicer when we were growing up, now it’s blighted. We should work with the business community to improve it.
In matters pertaining to the Great Wide Realm Over Which the Council Has No Authority, they offered opinions freely. Alternative energy? Yea. Fracking? Nay. GMO foods? Double Nay. Free trade? We should be very concerned, but…yes. Er, unless it takes away American jobs. Then no. Sort of the way they both favor alternative energy mandates, as long as they don’t raise electricity rates, which of course they do and which have already locked in a 30% surcharge on every DWP bill for life.
These were not helpful questions for undecided voters, frankly, and the moderator would have done better to skip them.
Which brings us back to…presentation.
Cindy, I have to say, came off well in that respect. She grew on me as the meeting wore on. My ears pricked up at the mention of the civic impact of aesthetic improvements in San Fernando. It made me wish she showed up at my house as promised 18 months ago.
You can file this under condescending remarks from a white guy, but she’s articulate. Nury….I’m not sure what’s going on there. She’s hanging on to a rather baroque accent for a college graduate raised in the United States. This may be an entirely political calculation for all I know. In the absence of policy differences, each side appeared to be utilizing semaphores to hint at who they were and whose votes they were seeking.
As a side note, Nury packed the room with shills who punctuated her pablum with orchestrated clapping and cheering. This was off-putting, and toward the end of the meeting skirted the edge of outright intimidation. Not an attractive look for an incumbent. She would be well-advised not to repeat this if there’s to be a return match.
**Andrew Hurvitz was in attendance as well and, as always, has his own amusing take: Power For the People’s Own Good.