Prisoners

A Zoom neighborhood, at rush hour

We have reached the one year anniversary of 15 Days to Flatten the Curve.    Which, let’s be honest, has been a nationwide exercise in poor people delivering pleasures to the wealthy and privileged. Indefinitely.

A year of “journalists” berating the little people on behalf of billionaires and government workers and the professional classes.

A year of dhimmitude and mask theater and gaslighting.

A year of Karen screaming at people going about their business, outdoors, bothering no one.

Having surrendered sovereignty to unaccountable and hypocritical actors, how does one bloom in the new Post-Constitutional America™?

I think about this when I encounter trees growing in confined spaces.  Some species do better than others. They reach deeper into the soil. They break the concrete around them. Consider this liberty in action. Reach deeper. Don’t ask permission.

The alternative looks like this.

Be anti-fragile.  Bloom from the weephole in the scorching concrete.  Don’t ask permission.  Stop submitting.  Don’t be a prisoner.  Reach for the light. Take your mask off.

Like this guy.

Breaking Apples


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.

Getty Images

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.

A more fearless America, during the 1969 Swine flu

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.

O, Little Town of Van Nuys

Our precarious present, where we invite people to light campfires under power poles.

Our near future, lifting her skirt.

We are an unfinished mural.

We are poised between decaying mid-century cool and someone else’s postponed development scheme.  We reveal unintentional beauty on a gust of wind.

But mostly we are too much of this.  For we are a ragged outpost of City Hall and Sacramento and Brentwood, mute, dependable and too disorganized to complain.

She won’t save us.   We can put the comic books down and save ourselves.  Merry Christmas, one and all.

A Love Story for Mayor Cancel Everything

She was on the upswing of happy drunk when they entered the Uber.   They had been Skyping for a week before braving a meet-up for drinks at the Venice Whaler. It was her first date since the beginning of Covid, and she had already made two decisions.

Her: We should totally disregard politics. We should do the kissing part and the sex part and the fun part first. Let’s wait a week or two to find out if we don’t like each other. Do you know what I mean? I’m just so glad you’re not 5’5”. I’m so glad you’re tall enough and I get to go to your house and meet your penis and we can have a good time together. Driver, what do you think?

I said there was wisdom in avoiding politics after 10 pm. We were rolling through downtown Santa Monica at night, a ghost town sealed in plywood.

Him: Is everything really out of business? Why are all these stores boarded up? The riots are not gonna happen, unless Trump comes back from the dead.  

Her: Don’t say anything more.  

Him: The media poisons everything.

Her: Yeah, but it also tells you things you didn’t know. You have to look for the silver lining. Like this is a weird analogy, but my best friend got black mold in her apartment and had to move out so now we get to live together. Or like breaking up with someone just before Covid and having to wait the rest of the year before going on a date. Then meeting you and Facetiming and praying to God you weren’t 5’5” and finding out you weren’t and you were really funny and now I get to meet your penis. We can wait a month to figure out if we hate each other. Or a couple of months. Or six months.  How does six months sound?

Yes, this conversation really happened.  When I left them they were standing in the street in front of his apartment building, holding hands. I choose to believe they made it up the stairs. I choose to believe they forgot all about the election. Someone should.

But this was two weeks ago when our collective pent-up need for touch was finding cautious release after eight months of Covidian restraints. The question then was: in our headlong rush to intimacy would we come to doubt our choices?

His right Lord Mayor of Thou Shall Be C*ckblocked has put an end to philosophical questions.  Thou shall not have dinner with friends. Thou shall not visit family.   Thou shall not go on dates.  Thou shall not have moments on the stairs.  A long hard winter is your lot, by proclamation.  Hunker down. All is canceled. Order a vibrator from Amazon, if you must.

“All persons living within the City of Los Angeles are hereby ordered to remain in their homes.”

Cancel everything is a rather advantageous arrangement for the richest man in the world and his armada of independent contractors in sprinter vans.  Pineapple Hill not so much:

What public health argument justifies this?

If someone said to you five years ago this surrender of sovereignty was not only possible in Los Angeles, but would be fully normalized in a matter of months, would you have believed them?

If someone said to you in March Jeff Bezos’ wealth would increase 56% before Christmas, while our national debt would increase by $4 trillion and we would behave as though this were the rightful order of things, would you have believed them?

More kissing, please.

Autumn in Los Angeles

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.

Trumpstock Comes to Woodley Park

Trump tribes gathered on Sunday, in deep-blue Los Angeles, for a road rally down the 405.  Lots of honking, lots of flags, lots of “Y.M.C.A”.  Note to grad students: there is a cultural anthroplogy dissertation waiting to be written about the Trump/Village People convergence.

Good turnout. Perhaps the Valley is more conservative than I think. The parade went on for a good ten minutes. No counter-protest.

Defibrillator Man, Gunshot Guy and Dr. Slick

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.

LBJ and his gallbladder scar
The day after Dr. Slick

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…”

A Gloss for the Greater Good

Woke commerce, Abbot Kinney

To escape this heat without end, I took the bike to the beach yesterday.  After my ride, I topped myself off with a $20 kale smoothie on Abbot Kinney.

Twenty dollars! Strip club prices. Decadent. I’m sure I didn’t even spend that much on a premium cocktail at the posh Nomad Hotel last year but tis the season to do all we can to help small business.

The merchants of Venice are doing their utmost to bridge the distance between the necessities of commerce in a time of Wuhan, and paying obeisance to the woke mob, lest it erupt again in greater strength.

It’s a balancing act, meeting your monthly nut with limited customers while conducting socially performative capitalism.

Here’s the Abbot Kinney Straddle: make rich Wypipo as invisible as possible while marketing to said rich Wypipo.

Part of the gloss requires overlooking ironic facts…much of bungalow Venice was a black neighborhood not so long ago.  It was also single story. Here I shall invoke UpintheValley’s Second Law of the City: the further from the actual friction points of urban life, the louder the virtue signaling.

In a synthesis of the cognitive dissonance in summer 2020, someone converted a vintage Porsche into a planter as an artistic statement…of indeterminate meaning.   Guerilla marketing for a local garden store? Maybe.  The backdrop for a fashion shoot? People assumed it was some kind of pop-up Instagram and queued up to pose in front of it.

While not as badly hit as DTLA or Melrose, about a third of the stores have gone dark…

…which might explain this banner.  If the statement were true, though, would the banner be necessary?  I sense a whiff of desperation. I have a feeling things are about to get cheaper.

On other end of the economic spectrum, 72 years after being cut from citrus orchards as a whites-only landing pad for returning GIs, 50 years after man landed on the moon, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirteen years after the iPhone, my neighborhood this morning finally enjoys the benefit of street lighting.

We’re 17 miles from Venice. Hard to believe it’s the same city.  There’s an upside to this. In the shakeout to come, we have a much shorter distance to fall.  Our neighborhood doesn’t depend on $20 smoothies and sales of $150 graphic tees.  We aren’t glossy.  We are anti-fragile.

115° in The Nuys

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.

Spectrum News

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.

Under California Stars

This is what I saw en route to Lowes this week. I was buying concrete and a chair rail for the Moroccan wallpaper I ordered from Etsy and this guy in the next lane is fleeing Los Angeles.  Even the car he’s towing is filled with stuff.  So which one of us is the idiot?   I filtered it to look like an oil painting cause it felt like one: The Migration of 2020. Back to the Dust Bowl.

In a pinch, I could unpeel my pretentious Etsy-ish wallpaper, roll it into a tube, and find room for it in a U-Haul of my own, but concrete is another matter. That’s voting with my hands.  My existential debate about staying or leaving California is an idle one.  For now.

1600 Grand, by Gensler

This was DTLA in March, 3% unemployment and a futurist paradise of architectural renderings in waiting.  You can learn a lot about the culture of a city from its tallest buildings. They used to be churches. Then government buildings. Then banks. Now all the big stuff is apartments and hotels. Our most basic industry is lifestyle.  These lofty aeries sell aspiration as their core function. They are a place to dwell.  What do they dwell among?  The good life. Other dwellers, drawn to the same imperatives of, um, well, okay…cool things. Fabulous restaurants and preposterously priced craft cocktails and the sort of boutique that sells the sort of movables and knick-knacks that might appear in the glossy magazine Dwell.  It’s a virtuous circle of yoga and kale and above all beautiful women, this economy.  A certain species of woman, homo Instagramus, who fires the feverish designs of men. Concrete is trucked in by the ton to erect just the proper plinth for her.

Pygmalion and the Image

What is the nature of this plinth? It requires 1) physical safety and 2) lots of discretionary spending.  Prodigious spending, of a discerning, socially conscious nature, flattering to the spender.

What happens when these boutique businesses, the kind which punctuate the proper distinction between the glamour of Los Angeles 2.0 and the dreary but useful order of Santa Clarita, start dropping away?  How many businesses can you lose in one block before the gloss is gone and one is nose to nose with the feral world of the dispossessed, always a background character, now a co-star on the stage in a way you can no longer deny? Can a downtown with fewer amenities but a permanently subsidized army of street people exert the same magic hold on homo Instagramus, her suitors, and her imitators?

How many days can one spend on Zoom, ordering in, and binge-watching before concluding Amazon is the world’s greatest invention but isn’t it available in Tennessee?  What’s the 3BR price in Nashville? In a word, downtown teeters on fragility, though perhaps not so fragile as New York, being less dependent on Wall Street or the leasing of office space.

Opening of Van Nuys GM Plant, 1948
Last Camaro to roll off the line, 1992

Paradoxically, Van Nuys is actually rather anti-fragile.  The industrial union ship sailed in 1992. There are very few single-earner households here.  Three or four workers per domicile as a rule, if you include adult children, and they run the gamut from nurses to granite fabricators.  Los Angeles could take a pretty big economic hit, including the construction trades, and people in my neighborhood would be able to continue to pay their mortgages.  In the urban survivalist sweepstakes, four service workers trump one professional.  People who can’t easily pull up stakes for Nashville will stick around by default, paying bills.  Van Nuys has never been in danger of obtaining a Lululemon franchise, thereby is in no danger of losing one.  We already have plenty of empty storefronts.  Service gigs are abundant and pegged to the minimum wage, an incremental ratchet which only turns in one direction. We have achieved a kind of safety in modest expectations. Who knew?

San Francisco Chronicle

Then there’s this.  Answers to the viability question won’t be fiscal, rather they will prove civilizational. Will law and order hold?  Los Angeles hasn’t become Portland, yet, but that’s not due to bold leadership. Mayor Garcetti is in the same feckless vein as Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Jenny Durkan, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill DiBlasio.

Here’s my call: We have too many hard-working first and second-generation immigrants in L.A. grinding out shifts for political nihilism to take hold here.  In a city in which latinos outnumber blacks 5 to 1, there is a hard ceiling on how much street chaos BLM will be allowed to cause.

I think the jean short selfie on the 36th-floor garden balcony might have to wait a few years.   DTLA has an over-supply of inventory to work through. Applebook California has had a long run. Woody Guthrie California might be about to have its moment.