Two years ago, UTLA went out on strike for a 6% pay increase and Vista Middle School was selected as one of the sites for a picket line. As a neighbor and husband of a teacher, I walked up there in an act of skeptical solidarity, to see how the shakedown of Los Angeles taxpayers was progressing.
What struck me at the time was the amount of honking support they received from passing cars in working-class Latino Van Nuys.
The outcome was preordained. The union banged the spoon and L.A. surrendered everything it wanted. Plus seconds. And dessert. What followed was Soviet-era astroturfed propaganda from UTLA bathing in the adulation of a grateful public, paid for by…the same public, who had no say in the matter.
Fast forward to 2020, and to the Wuhan virus. In a time of shared sacrifice and difficulty, guess who didn’t want to report to work and had the power not to do so and to be paid anyway?
Only 36% of students in L.A. Unified regularly engaged in distance learning, i.e. turned in homework and completed tests, i.e., received an education. This is desertion in the face of the enemy. It would be bad to do this to kids for a semester. For three semesters in a row, across two academic years?
Suffice to say, this is not what schools are doing in China. Or Korea. Or Europe. Or Texas. This is not what is happening at the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches.
What if Wuhan isn’t killing people so much as breaking America as we once understood it? What if the pandemic is a political toxin in medical drag?
To judge it by its works, if you were told a year ago that one-third of small businesses would be put to death by government policy, would you have believed me? What if I said the richest men in America would see their fortunes expand by 50%, also due to government policy? That the educational divide between public and private schools would become unbridgeable? That the tectonic plates between those who could telecommute and the service class who delivered their comforts would shift to the point they no longer touched? That the chief beneficiary of these changes would be China itself, which would exercise a veto over the discussion of pandemic origins by dangling the carrot of access to its markets? That the infrastructure of think tanks and academic departments which might serve as a bulwark of market critique would be revealed to be funded by China? That Zoom would become indispensable to our work life and TikTok embedded in our play and both would be Chinese owned? That teenagers in Wuhan would be throwing Lollapalooza-sized pool parties while Americans cowered in masks in the outdoors, fearing a scold of Karens. That bureaucrats would presume extra-constitutional powers. That the first amendment would become fully fungible to corporate diktats. That every cable network would maintain a death clock that magically disappeared with the departure of Trump, the first president to renegotiate trade agreements with China in terms more favorable to American workers, if only slightly.
That’s a lot of damage for 12 months. We can’t do much about geopolitical arrangements, but we can do something about Vista Middle School. We know a few things we didn’t know a year ago. Children are not at risk and are low vectors of transmission. Teachers are not retail workers. They can temp check every child who enters the building. They can demand plexiglass barriers and daily disinfection of classrooms. They can also accept the reciprocal obligations of public service to the working-class Van Nuysians who supported them when they were banging the spoon for more money.
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…”
Suppose you woke one morning to find yourself inside a sci-fi film…
…where no one was allowed to show their face in public. Everyone had to stand six feet apart and line up in rows for basic goods and services. Most small businesses were closed by government policy but corporate chains like Target were declared essential and prospered. People who couldn’t telecommute were paid to be idle. Paid more than what they were earning before the movie started.
No one was allowed to name the virus or its point of origin. To say the words Wuhan or Chinese or was to self-denounce as racist and risk de-platforming. The limits of speech were proscribed by three tech companies in San Francisco which made no apologies. Without an ability to organize online, resistance dwindled. People were bribed with their own money to be docile (TBC: their children’s future earnings) and they accepted it. They gave the minutiae of their lives to Chinese software. They streamed webcams on 5G internet switching from Huawei. They made TikTok videos and attended Zoom cocktail parties.
Drug dealers and pizza delivery and porn prospered. The fat and unhappy got a little fatter and unhappier than they were already. Main Street declined, the stock market boomed. In the name of safety the media normalized this, then the rest of us. We agreed to be faceless in public. There are no emojis IRL to hint at irony or dissent.
Schools were closed to in-person instruction. Students pretended to attend online and were handed “diplomas” in the form of yard signs. They queued up in cars for graduation while teachers danced and waved goodbye.
On any given day only 36% of middle and high school students in Los Angeles participated, i.e., submitted work, took tests, posted on a discussion board. Another 25% logged on, but didn’t participate. 40% never showed up at all.
Knowing the kill rate on distance learning was 64%, the teacher’s union refused to return to the classroom in the fall. They had terms:
1% wealth tax
1% millionaire tax
3.3% income tax raise
$250 million federal bailout
A moratorium on charter schools
Paid sick leave for parents of sick kids
Defunding of police
Medicare for all
Homeless housing as a “right”
That these wishes were not politically possible, or virus related, was beside the point. With taxpayer money, UTLA erected hagiographic billboards to celebrate their refusal to report for duty.
In China, the teachers and students reported for class. In Sweden, they never closed.
If you are a really well-off Chinese businessman you fly your kid to Los Angeles and pay $40,000 to send them to the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches. You get in-depth, hands-on instruction from her. You get an entire software package designed by her. So do the children of the American professional classes and entertainers and professional athletes. The parents of unnamed prep school voted 70% to return to the classroom and were only prevented from doing so by Gov. Newsom. The minute waivers are allowed, the kids will return. Until then, there is a brisk side business for private tutoring at $135/hr.
If you thought the country was divided by privilege before, what does it look like now? Have another stimulus check. Consult Weedmaps. Buy porn tokens. Those girls in the top picture are America. They can be bought. It says so in their Twitter feed. Tell me how this movie ends.
How dispiriting it is to see people in the Valley wearing masks inside their own cars because Mayor Yoga Pants told them to. You would not know this from listening to local media, but he has ZERO statutory authority to do so. These are requests of the public presented to us as binding commands from the state. There is no municipal code called Thou Shalt Not Defy Garcetti.
The Wuhan regulations have little to do with public health and everything to do with our Liberty. We submit to them at our peril.
We snuck into Fryman Canyon over the weekend to discover a small fellowship of hikers edict defiers skulking on the trail with masks around their necks, which they hastily pulled over their noses when they saw us, lest we report them.
Every model of viral prediction has proved wrong, not by a percentage, but exponentially. As we descend the right side of the bell curve, the will to power has not been leavened by the fragility of prognosis or the absence of a tsunami of demand on the hospitals, nor the revelation the morbidity rate is far lower and seroprevalence far greater than assumed. Those details shall be memory-holed. Crisis is the order of the day. May the wealth-leveling panic continue, command the Clerisy. No herd immunity for you! A poorer electorate is a submissive one.
Sometimes an act so small as swinging from a tree can be restorative of citizenship. Where the feet go, the mind follows.
When the sun returns we’ll feel differently, but for the moment it’s like we’ve fallen into the pages of someone else’s unfinished novel. Our lovely week of rain has softened this unfamiliar oddity of mandatory hooky. We have new struggles, like remembering the Hulu passcode so we can watch Contagion.
We rediscover guilty pleasures and then realize our schedules overlap a bit too completely. I predict a spike in births around Christmas. Also divorce petitions.
Flowers will soon riot across the Valley, and our pent up cabin fever will shake us from this sheep-like submission to madness.
In the meantime, we teach To Kill A Mockingbird from the safety of the bedroom.
We expel all members from LA Fitness until April 1st. Effective in five minutes.
We flatten the curve in Echo Park. Not so unreasonable. A happy middle ground.
Thank goodness someone is flouting shelter in place orders in San Francisco. Blessings be upon he who beta-tests.
In January, when I reported for jury duty there were a number of older Asian women in the pool wearing masks, which I found a bit paranoid, though polite. I chalked it up to cultural differences, but now you can’t buy one. My nephew this week is in the desert winds of New Mexico wiring a cooling tower without a dust mask in violation of OSHA regulations. Masks are great for industrial particles. They don’t do squat against the pandemic, but he waits on Amazon to fill backorders.
On Saturday I picked up a woman in Marina Del Rey a bit miffed at developments. She owns a condo in Palm Springs which she AirBnBs for Coachella. It’s certain to be canceled, she said, and soon she’ll have to refund the $5000 she’s already collected. Was she worried about taking an Uber, a natural vector for infection? Of course not. “No one under 60 needs to worry about COVID-19”. Is she right? Yes…but there are caveats.
Mrs. UpintheValley went to Trader Joes yesterday to discover a run on canned goods. She settled for pasta sauce. She went to Target to double our reserves of toilet paper and tissue. They were all out of bacterial wipes. I went to the gym and had to stand in line to use the treadmill. The Zumba class was full. All the dumbells were in use, one sweaty hand after another trading off on the same damp bacteria encased grip. Tame Impala played a sold-out show at the Forum last night. Snctm, the $75,000/year Beverly Hills sex club, will be proceeding with its scheduled orgy this weekend.
We are free with our fluids in month two of the pandemic, then we reach for bacterial wipes and wonder about our neighbor’s cough. We go to the Laker game and then blame the President for not doing….well, something more. He stopped flights from China in January and they called him racist. Tonight he embargoed flights from Europe for 30 days and the media is in an ecstasy of sanctimony: Too late! Our American Chernobyl is upon us! Get the widow on the set! Get me B roll of people on ventilators!
Except…its not happening. Yet. The seasonal flu kills 50-80,000 people every year, mostly the very elderly. Wuhan virus, we’re looking at hundreds. So far, all elderly. But…the vectors have been established. The bacteria has breached our shores, and if the epidemiologist math is correct, its spread should peak on March 21. If there was a time to self-quarantine it was now. Naturally, I went out for a beer.
MacLeod was not wanting for business. Andrew was there and confessed to anxiousness. We had entered a time of madness, but there was no way to wash your hands of it, he punned. On cue, the bartender brought me a ten-dollar bill I had mistakenly folded into a pile of singles I had given him. It was a gesture of honesty, and I accepted it from his bare fingers, which had handled dirty sweaty cash all day, and then I put my hands into a bowl of peanuts and helped myself. Everyone who came to MacLeod before 7 pm was now in my mouth.
I stopped at Target on the way home, just in case there were provisions for the siege not yet obtained and was greeted by an exodus of carts piled high with bleach, the wipes having sold out. Alternatively, you could simply sing “Happy Birthday” twice as you washed your hands and achieve a better result. I happen to be both a thorough hand-washer and at the same time an indiscriminate muncher of free grub from sneeze bowls. That is my particular dementia.
Get some DayQuil, Mrs. U advised, you never know. I’m not entirely sure what good that would do in the event of respiratory illness but I scrounged the very last box in the store, forgotten on the bottom shelf. When I got home she announced school was canceled for the rest of the month, all the private schools in LA, and she would be undertaking “distance teaching”. The NBA was suspending games until further notice. Coachella was postponed to October.
I texted my nephew. The power was out in the mountains. He was assembling an automatic rifle by headlamp. No cough medicine for him. To each his own prep.
“I take no joy in cleaning, none whatsoever,” says Mrs. U. “But the state of cleanliness gives me calm. I’m very unhappy in clutter.”
I’m certain the men scraping the paint off the floor of Gustave Caillebotte’s studio by hand in 1875 took little joy in their labor either, but Monsieur Caillebotte, a man of leisure, found it rather erotic…and now they are immortalized in the Musée d’Orsay.
The bottle of wine on the floor fascinates me. Was this common among the Parisienne working class, or an indulgence he allowed them as compensation for modeling?
At 34, Gustave retired to the countryside to garden and be a patron of the arts. A strange choice in my book, for a man with at least one masterpiece to his name. He became a lotus-eater and grower of orchids.
He turns up later in The Luncheon of the Boating Party, seated lower right, his attention fixated on the other man in the straw boater and singlet, who as the proprietor’s son, is not exactly a member of the party himself nor dressed for it. Renoir immortalizes Gustave a second time, in longing.
Wish as I might, there is no eroticizing the floor in Chez UpintheValley. The robot does half the work. Flickers of recognition pass before me…momentarily I feel like Degas with an iPhone admiring the washerwomen, and then …no, darling. Just no. I really hate this. And it’s leading up to nothing. Finish the outlet box in the ceiling.
In a moment of kitschy pathos we encountered the defiled star of Lillian Gish on Vine Street Sunday afternoon, at the CicLAvia in honor of the LA Philharmonic centennial.
Fitting perhaps for an actress known for her doll-like, waifish fragility. Her oeuvre was one of purity in danger, seduction and abandonment, flight from lecherous hands, and being set adrift on ice floes.
I was in a Ride of the Valkyries frame of mind as we pedaled downtown. An afternoon of bike as king cranked dormant gears in my head, the ones which say why not?
Why can’t we always bike? Forget arriving to work in a timely manner. Think of the journey! Forget the supply chain, and the power grid. Practicalities are for sissies. This is how it should be! Yes yes! New rules! Clear the roadways! We all pedaling now. Everyone must pedal! We should ride by torchlight! Make way. A new age now begins! Here in LA, where so many utopias were discarded and dystopias foretold.
Why must the essentials for a deliciously stylish life require a four level parking garage? Rethink it!
Every mile or so someone would hold up a foam finger and pull a piece of yellow tape across the road, and just like that, hundreds of people would submissively cooperate. We were digital people in a digital age again, agreeable and rules oriented. My fever dream was bite-sized. My Lillian is sadly never in need of rescue.
With no blood and soil urgency at hand, I filed it away in a drawer in my head called Ironic Historical Feedback Loops. I kept the Wagner, but eliminated the KKK in my chain of association. See how easy that was? The mind is good at lying about what the heart knows to be true.
So I encountered this…in North Hollywood, 2am… sprouting majestically from a neighborhood of sad, small houses with attached single car garages…. Trippy. Transcendent. A mothership of American aspiration.
I stopped the car and let it swagger all over me. It was an appreciation.
Two generations of people lived in the Valley and let their houses crumble over their heads. Houses for which they paid less than $100,000.
They let water seep into the floorboards while they complained about busing. They sprayed popcorn foam over cracks on the ceiling but let the termites chew their way through the framing. They put bars over the windows, but kept the linoleum floors. Home improvement meant shag carpeting and flourescent tube lighting.
They left their houses to their adult children who were estranged from hand tools. They let the shrubbery die and replaced it with gravel. But boy did they ever expect to be paid off when it came to sell, and paid off they were. In time, preposterous sums.
California was once so abundant middle class people changed houses the way we change cars today, discarding small brightly colored ranch houses on big lots for larger split-levels on small lots in the exurbs of Ventura County, painted an HOA-defined gradient running from excrement to beige.
The Valley was Adam Carolla-ville. It was one of those places you left and told disparaging anecdotes about when you got to where you were really going.
The carcasses of Los Angeles were left for the dusky hordes and the urban hipsters foolish enough to put down roots and not move to Austin. People so determined to be here they sunk their assets into houses without good bones. Without any bones. Stucco boxes without a redeeming virtue save the ground they sank into a quarter inch a year.
Mrs. UpintheValley and I are Carcass People. We didn’t intend to be. We were going to to park ourselves for a few years in Van Nuys, build some equity into the house and then….trade up in an orderly fashion. Because the world of real estate was rational, if untidy, right? This was to be but a waystation. A five to ten year sentence in minimum security prison, then back to one’s pals in Glamorama, with earned street cred.
Who knew housing mobility in LA would prove to be as starkly defined as the British class structure? The Wealth Effect, when combined with tight land use restrictions, means even if you pay down your mortgage in 15 years, even if you climb to the top quintile of the income ladder, there’s nothing you can afford to buy that would be an improvement over what you already have. Absent a windfall of cash, there’s no trading up anymore.
Marginal differences in down payment ability in 2004 proscribe where and how you can live in LA today. One is obliged to bloom where one is planted. This was a lesson I resisted learning.
So when I see a house built out to the property line, a second floor added, and marble laid into the entryway, lit up like Halloween, I realize I have greater kinship with a family from Yerevan that I do with the kids I grew up with in California. They either inherited property, or they left. All of them.
This is the first sentinel we encountered on our way to the fancy tile emporium in NoHo.
The second sentinel, awaiting our return. He shuffled over to us as though he were about to deliver a handwritten letter. One grows accustomed to panhandlers at the intersections, conniving or addicted, but not hunched with calcium loss. I’d say he looked about 70, the same age as my bathroom.
The bathtub was forged in cast iron by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Co., then dropped into the framing by a road gang in 1948, with no thought given to later renovation, leaving only one exit route, via sledgehammer.
This was the American Radiator Building in New York City, gilded icon of the Jazz Age, all Gothic turrets and coal-inspired black brick.
It once had a showroom in the basement for its useful, class-neutral products: radiators, boilers and bathroom fixtures. Now it’s a Moroccan-themed cocktail lounge called Celon where one can order a Lavender Oasis martini for an undisclosed price. The Radiator Building is now the Bryant Park Hotel.
Because one cannot over-improve for the neighborhood anymore, even in The Nuys. Because we are all hostage to whatever 1948 house we landed upon in the somnolent years before The Restoration. Because no one can trade up to Echo Park. Because equity trumps the purchasing power of a paycheck, so we bloom where we’re planted.
Because a white tiled bathroom would make Mrs. UpintheValley so very, very sad.