If you want to feel good about L.A. and try to move beyond the ecology of fear, there could not have been any finer place to be a few nights ago than the cafeteria of the downtown headquarters of the Department of Water and Power, where I sat in on one of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan community workshops. The atmosphere admittedly felt a tad nicer at previous workshops I've attended, in a day-school gym in North Hollywood and at a neighborhood rec center in Atwater Village. The DWP, after all, has a moat around it. A moat. The architect seems to have modeled the building on the Rock of Gibraltar--I'm not the first to point out this aura of metaphor--and to each side, a big suspended lake in a concrete basin hovers in the air over a big parking lot, and big fountains spout-aculate from the big suspended lakes. There might as well be a big sign across the front--WATER IS POWER IS GOD--or maybe just a rooftop sculpture of a catapult aimed at northern California.
Still, the workshop was exciting. It was the 13th of the 19 planned meetings--to discuss what I have abundant company in believing is the most ambitious, right-minded, quixotic, and now ultimately doable vision to redress L.A.'s well-known troubles with air and water quality and with public space and with general livability. The project is really quixotic--it makes Don Quixote seem a bit timid.
But for the last year, the City of L.A. has been developing an aggressive master plan for its 32 miles of our notorious 51-mile Grand Sewer (and there are many plans in motion for the rest). By summer, the design team had zeroed in on five sites they plan to begin with. As they work to complete the plan by January, you can go to these community workshops to hear about it. And you can head to the tables in back with the maps, the magic markers, and the post-its, and you can draw and write in what you would like the plan to include. Sounds a bit hokey, but it's fantastic to watch people drawing and proclaiming, "Make connecting paths to the schools!" and "I want bridges to Griffith Park!" and "Soccer fields here!" and "Riverside cafes on Ventura Blvd!" And suggestions and counter-suggestions from these workshops are being realized in each new set of drawings.
Imagine turning L.A.'s ultimate symbol of Everything Gone Wrong into a 51-mile greenway through the heart of L.A. County. At these workshops, I haven't needed to call on superhuman powers to do that. I've just stared wide-eyed at the drawings (the warehouse district downtown could look like that?). In the near term, imagine walking paths, bikeways, promenades, pedestrian bridges, outdoor art, gateways, wildlife habitat, pocket parks, medium-size parks, large parks--all built to maximize our water quality and supplies and to ensure flood protection. And trees--a lot of trees. Next, imagine shops and cafes along the stretches of greenway that run next to commercial streets, and pedestrian and bike loops that lead out from the river through adjacent neighborhoods. For now, imagine some of the green pathways cantilevered into the walls, but in the long term, the city aims to do considerable naturalization of the channel itself.
In 1877, when the river was still the city's sole source of water, William Mulholland--the founding god of Water and Power--called it "a beautiful...stream...so attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven, I loved it so much." A hundred years later, his successors at County Flood Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it "a useful contraption" and "the river we built." In the 1980s, David Letterman (so I'm told) called it "the last two-lane river left in North America," and a state assemblyman famously called it "a [potential] commuter expressway and truck thoroughfare...[that] could result in a 20% reduction in traffic on the Ventura Freeway."
So I especially loved the moment at the workshop when the Army Corps spokeswoman got up and said, "We created the channel in the first place, so now we're going to go in there and try to naturalize it." It's hard to beat that statement for sheer jaw-dropping, though I love what D.J. Waldie has called the river--"the river the Anglo city misplaced"--and that Mayor Villaraigosa has called it "a way to unify the city, a way to connect the communities." And that every single elected or appointed official these days seems to support the river's revitalization. And that Senator Barbara Boxer came south to look at it a few years ago, and pronounced it to be exactly what the river's growing fan base now passionately believes that it is: "A diamond in the rough, a resource just begging to be restored to improve our environment, provide greater flood protection, and enhance the quality of life for residents throughout the region."
(To see the drawings, or to get info on the next set of workshops in November, go to the L.A. City Council's Ad Hoc River Committee website.)
The Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip ranks high on my children’s list of cool L.A. literary sites. It’s not because of the glamorous actors, rock stars and celebrities who’ve stayed there since the 1920s. To my eight and 10-year-old boys, the Chateau is famous because girl hypnotist Molly Moon spent time there in one of their favorite books, “Molly Moon Stops the World.”
Let me backtrack a moment. “Molly Moon” is a children’s series written by Georgia Byng, a British novelist with a wickedly funny imagination. In the books, impoverished orphan Molly discovers a talent for hypnosis that propels her into stardom and eventually to Hollywood, where she must save the world from evil hypnotist Primo Cell. After landing at LAX, Molly and her entourage, which includes Petulia the pug, assorted pet mice and parakeets, several other orphans, kindly orphanage employee Mrs. Trinklebury and another evil hypnotist who is now under Molly’s control, are whisked off to the Chateau Marmont for a long stay.
There are lovely descriptions of the French-inspired Chateau, its lobby, the restaurant, the bungalows, the jungle foliage, the pool and the meandering walkways. Molly Moon has lots of adventures and Petulia the pug has her own adventure at a doggie beauty parlor across from the Chateau.
You can imagine my kids’ delight when I told them that the Chateau Marmont was a real place. They immediately asked if we could spend a night there just like Molly. As much as I want to indulge my kids’ appetite for books, I wasn’t willing to shell out hundreds of dollars. But after calling to make sure the restaurant was open to non-guests and well-behaved children, I suggested a Saturday morning breakfast visit.
I figured if we arrived at 8 a.m., the stars and paparazzi would still be asleep and we’d have the place to ourselves. And we did. If the hotel staff was a bit surprised to see two children marching in, gawking at everything while their mother read aloud from something that wasn’t a script, well they did their best to roll with it.
“Molly looked up at a fairy-tale building with turrets and towers…the entrance was in a cavelike garage under the hotel…the foyer…was very smart and dark with tall ceilings and a stone floor…” Georgia Byng wrote.
As I read, the kids retraced Molly’s footsteps. Just like Molly, we walked into a garden with steel heaters “like tall stubby umbrellas.” There, we sat and feasted on chocolate croissants, scrambled eggs, bacon, breakfast pastries and milk for them, coffee for us.
Afterward, we asked if it might be possible to see the pool area and bungalows. The young man at hotel reception told us it was off limits to non-guests, but then took pity on the boys and said he’d see what he could do. Brandishing a key, he led us into the rarified area, where we meandered along a path overhung with rustling palm trees and lined with staghorn ferns and past a “sunbathing garden where a waterfall cascaded down from rocks into a swimming pool.” The only thing we didn’t see was the caged parrot Byng describes. The hotel employee said he didn’t think the Chateau had a parrot. Well I guess that’s why they call it fiction.
After thanking the young man profusely, we left, feeling like we had just strolled through a storybook. (And we kindof had). It was only once we were standing on the Strip that we had another pleasant surprise. In the novel, Petulia the pug crosses Sunset Boulevard to “Bella’s Poodle Salon and Dog Hotel.” Now we noticed “Hollywood Hounds” (The Ultimate in Canine Care) across from the Chateau, with a gate painted blue, just like in the book.
The kids wanted to visit Hollywood Hounds too, but it was closed. Taking the news in stride, they decided it was time to head home. That was fine with me. I’d gotten a very up-close and personal look at how a fellow author got her ideas. Had Byng’s publisher booked her into the Chateau for the first Molly Moon book tour? (The book featuring the Chateau is No. 2 in the series) While there, had she scribbled notes about the Hollywood landmark’s flora and fauna?
I would bet so! But even if she came on holiday from cold rainy England on her own shilling, it was a hell of a tax write-off.
First day of classes yesterday at UCLA and the place was packed. I've been doing some research on campus, learning about the earliest beginnings of the university and it's been useful, in a way, for the buildings and lawns and walkways (and parking lots - dear lord, is that ever a nightmare) to be quiet and mostly empty. But yesterday changed everything. Everything the founders had worked and schemed and fought for was alive in a way they probably never imagined.
Bruin Walk (thank you, Beth) had turned from a meditative climb to a marketplace, a gauntlet of students handing out leaflets and booklets and pamphlets of every kind. Free food, free football games, free shampoo. ("Don't make eye contact, baby," a girl behind me told her friend. "Nothing's free.") As the day wore on, handbills papered the pavement, a festive patchwork of safety orange and screaming lime green.
I stood for a while between CAL PIRG, the Christian Students Welcome Dinner Sign-up and the Japanese American Association. A girl playing guitar and singing in a reedy voice was drowned out by the thumping bass of the Philippino Students Association's boom box.
"My roommate's a freak," someone said.
"You can stay at my place," his friend replied.
"Hurry. If you're late at Royce, you gotta climb over everybody."
"Mom. Mom! Mom? Goodbye mom..."
"I always check out my professors ahead of classes on account of you gotta know where you wanna sit."
"Moore Hall? Dude, I know where Moore is."
"Hey, you want to help us save the world?" someone called out to a girl rushing by. She looked up, saw a handsome guy, slowed and then stopped.
"Ummm, yeah? But first, where's the Young library?"
Recently I stumbled upon an art exhibit at the Getty the general public will never see. Only museum employees and visitors with security clearance are able to view "Getty Underground," an in-house show of artwork by staffers which occurs every two years. Hung in a long hallway on a private level underneath the museum, the show includes works by everyone from curators to receptionists. There seemed to be little restriction on the media artists could use. I saw an interactive mosaic piece and a delicate cyanotype, a camera-less photographic process which dates to 1842. That was my favorite piece, since I had just come from viewing rare 19th century cyanotypes in the Getty's collection by Anna Atkins, the first woman recognized for her body of work in photography.
Some pieces were conceptual, some quirky. One impressive effort was a giant, digitally constructed photo collage of household cleaning products on store shelves. There were clearly different artistic and technical abilities on display, but the show struck me as a great equalizer — an expression of community within a big, intimidating institution. "Getty Underground" gives Kyle in accounting his one chance to show off his creative side in a great museum, even if it is out of sight to all but his colleagues. In a way it's an in-house metaphor for what any art museum should be — art should be for everyone. If only everyone were allowed to see it.
(Written in American Airlines security waiting line at LAX)
Here I sit, watching X-rays of your suitcase for six twenty-five an hour
If this is meant to be my life’s work I’d rather be pushing up flowers
So pardon me if I don’t smile, if I don’t go the extra mile
If I don’t care about your point of view
I hate my job so I’m taking it out on you
Here I sit behind the Post Office counter; two other clerks called in sick
There’s a line of twenty people at eight thirty in the morning
and they all want me to click
my heels and tell ‘em that they’re next in line
Well, I don’t get no overtime
So pardon me if I roll my eyes
If I treat your impatience as no surprise
If I act like I expect you to pay some dues
I hate my job so I’m taking it out on you.
Some people get ahead
Some people can't
Life's like a line
And now you're in mine
I need my vengeance, I need pay-back
So just stand there ‘til you have a heart attack
Well the airport and the Post Office didn’t work out
Now I’m a greeter at a Wal-Mart store
But I think I’m getting into a pickle for saying
things that greeters never said before, such as:
“Shoppers, you won’t find anything finer
Made for starvation wages by the people of China”
So pardon me if my sarcasm stings
‘Cuz I ain’t no butterfly; I can't sprout wings
and fly like a bat outta Hell from a world so cruel
I hate my job
I hate my job
I hate my job
I hate my job so I’m taking it out on you
So I went to the Lion's Club flea market in Malibu yesterday and the tiara I've been rendezvousing with for the last three years was gone. On the table where it had rested were a cocktail shaker, a candelabra, a silver comb, an empty perfume bottle and a scary-looking pair of red pumps, but no tiara. I hope it found a good home.
It's a strange thing, shopping at a flea market. Tiny fragments of all these lives, adrift and anonymous. Out of context it's all about the bargain. Twenty-five for the sky-blue Bauer bowl? See that scratch? Will you take twenty? And then you get it home and it looks good on the kitchen counter, looks great on the Thanksgiving table. Someone compliments your cooking, someone else admires the bowl and that's all it takes, the flea market bowl's got a new past. Your past. For a while, anyway.
A man selling snapshots added the Lion's Club sale to his circuit a few years ago. It's a small booth, just some aluminum tables under an awning. At the front are photos of celebrities, headshots and candids, often with autographs. Beneath the tables are vintage Playboy magazines. Talk about naive. At the back, in ratty boxes and used Von's shopping bags, in slippery piles that shift and dodge and seem to edge away from you are hundreds, no, thousands of family photos. Black-and-whites, Polaroids, Kodachromes.
Some still have those little black corners from where they were tacked into a photo album. Some are photo albums, whole family histories, mysteries without names or dates or narratives. Births and birthdays, proms and picnics, holidays, houses, war heroes.
I found a dozen letters written by Jim to his "Dear Folks" in California. Jim was off to the Korean war, hoping for lots of news from home. The matriarch of a black family from Inglewood took great care with her albums, writing in a careful hand the names and events in each photo. Dena 1953, Easter bonnets 1954, Our House 1955.
Ephemera, it's called. Traces of everyday life. Clues and hints and signals.
Okay, okay. I haven’t contributed anything to these electronic pages for weeks. Truth be told I’ve been editing my latest book, giving it a thinning haircut so that it looks virtually the same as before the edit, only, well . . . thinner. Good thing, too, because the original first draft was 2000+ pages and at the moment it’s maybe 850. That translates into an actual 600 page book – all of it totally fascinating, I assure you.
I’ll probably have to cut some more.
However, it’s not like I haven’t been thinking of stuff to write for this column. I take my responsibilities and good fortune seriously. As proof, here are some of the recent ideas I’ve had.
1. Ink Stained Wretch: A parody about Mel Gibson insulting the Jews, only I'm Gibson, and I claim that fumes from my ink-jet printer cartridges are to blame. Being Jewish myself, though, I thought maybe I should rethink this, or at least find someone(s) absolutely no one likes, to insult. Still looking.
2. In Search of the Cat: My new book is about the greatest surfing story never told: an oral biography of Miki “da Cat” Dora. So I thought I’d write about my struggle to remember the names of all the cats I’ve had since I was a child – not counting the kittens we gave away, of course. What a perfect tie-in! You see what I’m getting at? To show you that I’m just not pulling your tail, here’s the list: Katz. Melvin. Tux. Pudgy. Sarah. PeeWee. Norton. Smokey. Lucy. Buddy. Holly. Louise. Louie, Jr. Solid. Poot. (Don’t ask.) Patrick.
3. No Opinions, All the Time: I used to tell my wife that I had no opinions. That’s also what it says on my website. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to go through life, avoiding confrontation? Then I realized no one would believe me, and I don’t have the energy to argue about it. I also made some notes about whether principles and politics could co-exist, but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to keep typing.
4. When I moved to California in 1964, there were a lot more hydrangeas in the Valley. What happened to the hydrangeas?
5. I’ve always wanted to write about our city’s awful traffic situation. Every time I’m on the 101 between Tarzana and Studio City, I think of Los Angeles as the spoiled dream. I used to see the Coldwater Canyon off ramp sign and think, Hey, change the C to a G and it’s Goldwater. Ha ha. Now, if I look up, I’ll have an accident. I used to be able to make it from Granada Hills to Westwood in 15 minutes, in the middle of the day, in an underpowered VW bus. Yes, it was 1969 and I was going to see my girlfriend, but I still don’t think I laid that heavy on the gas pedal. Incidentally, this was a bus in which I got a ticket for getting on the freeway too slowly. I’m fascinated by traffic theory and how we get traffic jams for no good reason. But then I thought, Who wants more bad news?
6. Please Mr. Postman: I get so much crap in the mail I thought I’d log it all for a week. We get the usual flyers and coupon books and market clippers. Friendly real estate agents send us glossy postcards. I especially love the ad for Lasix surgery: “Special! Only $399.99 for one eye. $699.99 for both. I don’t think surgery should be sold that way. I’d sooner get my Lasix at Costco. We also get plenty of catalogs, and not just at Christmas. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t come in my name, my wife’s name, my first name and her last, and vice versa. Four copies of each. And each time I call to get off the list, they act like I’d just interrupted them at dinner time. And then there are the many, many credit card solicitations! Sometimes three a week from the same bank. Talk about wasting trees. Also, that gummy stuff they use to hold the pseudo-credit cards to the letter always screws up my paper shredder.
7. The Nightcrawler: Just on my stretch of Ventura Blvd in Tarzana there are, I think, eleven billboards for cars, TV shows, a gentlemen’s club, some sort of lube job. You can’t get rid of them, though, so I thought it would be fun to alter them at three in the morning. I’m just waiting for my ninja suit to come back from the cleaners. My new pet peeve is the Volvo billboard that asks, “Who would you give a Volvo to?” I used to have a Volvo, so I’d just fix the bad English. But really: Whom wrote that?
8. When is a Hump a Bump and Vice Versa? I think the proliferation of speed bumps, speed humps, and speed tables on residential streets has gotten way out of hand. They’re growing like kudzu. I itch to go fast just to get past them, but I can’t because it would crack my car frame. The only upside is seeing the word “Hump” in big block letters in the road. Come to think of it, when I’m through with the billboards, I could add “All night long!” right there in the street.
9. Hey, My Mom’s on Television: Not really. But my mom thinks she is. It’s old age. It’s living alone. She watches too much TV and now she thinks she lives in that world, and the real world is just TV. I’d get her out of the house if I could, but she won’t go. I’ve already told you how the Weather Channel folks offered her a job. Thank goodness she turned it down. Now, I hear she co-hosts Craig Ferguson’s late night talker. Well, at least the woman’s got good taste.
10. It’s Too Far, Let’s Go Back. This one began with an anecdote about how I realized I was washing my feet in the shower just fifteen seconds after I had already washed them. My hearing is also not what it used to be, because my wife later told me she saw it all happen in the mirror and was screaming, “No! No!”
The problem, of course, is that I’m a baby-boomer only a few long years from turning sixty, and I don’t think my generation, despite our narcissism and appalling fear of getting old, ever imagined we’d really live this long or come this far.
This reminds me of a little story.
When I was a kid and lived in the Bronx and then Teaneck, N.J. we had a running joke about my step-grandfather. His name was Leo Spindel, but we just called him Spindel (pronounced: Shpindel). Whenever we’d take a family trip, invariably, when we were within a mile or two of our destination he’d always say, “It’s too far. Let’s go back.”
It didn’t matter if we’d gone ten miles or 200.
We laughed then. I appreciate his anxieties now. What a perfect metaphor. What a long strange trip it’s been. There’s much I’d like to go back and do again; nothing like doubling your pleasure. There’s much I’d like to do over; take a mulligan of sorts. But it doesn’t matter how far we’ve come, only that we’ve come far.
So I’m focusing on the future, and what I might write about next.
As this column resoundingly proves: There is no going back.
It also proves that throwing out the garbage can be lots of fun.
Sometimes you have to face your fears. That’s why I took my bad old self down to Vroman’s in Pasadena Tuesday night to hear James Ellroy speak. I’m pretty sick of the Black Dahlia hype by this time, but I’m also a fangirl and I’ve got a first edition of “The Big Nowhere” that cost me $10 almost two decades ago at a quaint little bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard called Gene de Chene. And I wanted it personalized.
I also needed to chat with him about certain literary matters, and that’s why I was scared. I’d heard that Ellroy can be unpredictable, volcanic, arrogant, dismissive. That he’s a strange fellow. Vroman’s, which was clearly taking no chances, had stuck a big sign at the top of the stairs, letting people know that the event might contain strong language and adult themes and was not for the faint-hearted. But I’ve heard worse. And the way I see it, anyone whose mother was brutally murdered deserves to be cut some slack, even a half-century later.
It’s a fine line to walk between exorcising your demons and exploiting your tragic family history, but Ellroy’s done it by being brutally honest, much the same way Mikal Gilmore did. (His memoir “Shot Through the Heart” is about his brother, executed murderer Gary Gilmore). I bought Ellroy’s memoir “My Dark Places” at the signing because Janet Fitch had raved about it. I started it last night and she’s right.
Ellroy has vowed never to speak in public about the Dahlia and his mother’s murder after December 1, when a documentary about the topic airs. He’s sick to death of it, he told the 140-plus crowd, and it’s time to move on. He also feels it takes attention away from his other 15 books, many of which he thinks are better.
Ellroy’s quite a performer at the mike, literature’s bad boy rapper with his checked, short-sleeved shirt, tall kinetic gauntness and rimless glasses, reciting boastful rhymes and genial audience put-downs (panty-sniffer is one of the milder ones) quoting from Dylan Thomas, generally delivering such an over-the-top performance that one senses he’s dead serious, slyly ironic, and subverting his crazy tough guy image, all at the same time.
Somehow, it works, and you know that writing saved this man, that diving into the heart of his own personal darkness has allowed him to come out the other end, scorched and scarred, but alive and girding for the next battle. It’s an involuntary Faustian bargain that no one would wish for -- the murder of his mother was the dark crucible which forged him, made him the world-renown writer he is today. Had she not been killed, he would have experienced the world much differently, just another post-War, lower middle class kid running through the streets of the San Gabriel Valley. Maybe he would have become a surfer. Or a hippie. Just think.
At the reading, Ellroy was gracious and funny. He talked about how his Dad gave him Jack Webb’s book “The Badge” on his 11th birthday, shortly after his mother died, and Webb’s chapter on the Dahlia entranced him and fused her murder with his mother’s murder forever after. He encouraged the audience to ask him outrageous inappropriate personal questions. He spoke wistfully about his former wife Helen Knode, a onetime L.A. Weekly film critic and herself a crime novelist, and his ‘former dog,’ who lives with Knode because his place only allows small yappy dogs.
Ellroy says he doesn’t own a TV, a computer or a VCR. He writes his books out longhand and sends them to New York to be transcribed, a friend who accompanied him explained. At night he suffers from insomnia and lies in bed and thinks of dead women he couldn’t save, something he and his cop friends have in common.
Ellroy’s fiction is so thoroughly rooted in the past that he can’t imagine setting a book in the present, he tells me as we chat after the reading. And yet, contemporary L.A. is an intensely Ellroyian place to me, a teeming global crossroads where the First World and the Third World live cheek by jowl and people intersect across lines of race and class and geography, especially where crime and passion and secrets are involved.
When I ask him whether he finds elements of noir in today’s Los Angeles, Ellroy concedes that I’m probably right. Maybe that’s what drew him back to his birthplace. It’s the fount of both his inspiration and his sorrow. He aims to die here. But not anytime soon, he quickly adds, as the adoring crowd shifts and laughs uneasily.
It’s a singular life. The long strange journey of James Ellroy, reporting back from the dark side. We’re sorry fate dealt him such a raw hand. We're grateful it made him a writer. We welcome back a native son.
This is a great time to be living in California. With less than two months before the election, we’re about to go deep into Astroturf Season. Behold the radio and TV entertainment that awaits you.
“Astroturf” is short-hand for cynical, misleading political ads that use actors to portray just plain folks—i.e., synthetic grass roots. The term surfaced in the mid-90s after the health-insurance industry used kitchen table “discussions” between a Yuppie couple, “Harry” and “Louise,” to bludgeon the Clinton Administration’s proposal for a Canadian-style health care system.
Harry and Louise talked anxiously and skeptically about their fears of losing the freedom to pick their own physicians. The actual guts of the Clinton plan were never addressed. The health care industry, which had spent decades deriding any federal intrusion as “socialized medicine,” was able to hide behind the fears of these artfully created straw people.
With 13 propositions on the November ballot, we’ll be enjoying countless lessons in Astroturfing, always featuring “average”-sounding, tax-fearing, government-hating heroes. Just the other night I heard a brilliant Republican Party-funded radio assault on Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who is running for attorney general. The stars were a quartet of glib voters who were astrounded that such a liberal thinker should even be considered. They took turns impressing each other with bitter reflections on Brown’s opposition to the death penalty and his pledge to cut Oakland’s crime rate. Elegant demonizing, connecting with any listener who vows no "politician" will ever put on over on him again.
Astroturfing requires certain key phrases. When a no-nonsense-looking woman begins talking to you about why she fears Proposition 87, which would pay for alternative energy projects by taxing oil producers about $400 million a year, she doesn’t tell you what it would do: create California’s first severance tax on oil production, a technique used by other states. She complains about another TAX HIKE (never mentioning that this is a tax on oil companies, which are paying for this ad) that will give billions to an UNACCOUNTABLE BUREAUCRACY. This comes straight out of the playbook that capsized Rob Reiner’s universal-pre-school initiative last June. That, too, involved a TAX HIKE (albeit only on California’s wealthiest).
Astroturfing sometimes requires labeling your opponent with an epithet that more accurately describes you. The tobacco industry is spending millions against Proposition 86, which would raise the cigarette tax and use the money to improve hospital emergency rooms, provide health insurance to California children and fund a variety of other health causes.
The major financial backer of Proposition 86 is the hospital industry. So when tobacco companies drew up their attack ads, they made sure to describe the hospital industry as nothing more than a SPECIAL INTEREST. Cue the everywoman actress, who complains in this TV spot against Proposition 86: “Hundreds of millions go into the pockets of big hospitals and millions to HMOs. It’s just more taxpayer dollars to help special interests get richer.”
Sometimes you have to listen carefully because two sides can be simultaneously Astroturfing. Three years ago, advocates of cloning in medical research ran commercials with the same actors who’d played Harry and Louise.
“What’s with this stem cell research debate?” Harry asked Louise. She told him that a wrong-headed bill in Congress would put scientists in jail for working to cure the couple’s diabetes.” Harry asked: “But isn’t that cloning?” Louise: “Nooo...uses an unfertilized egg and a skin cell.”
In response, an anti-cloning group ran the same kind of commercial with characters they called Harriet and Louis. Said Louis of the pro-cloning ad: “But their ad says they’re only using a human egg and a skin cell.” Harriet: “Well, that’s how you make a clone.”
Where will this end? A friend of mine imagines a crafty Big Business ballot proposition to prevent the state from ever levying a tax on oxygen (i.e. the air we breathe). His scenario:
The tobacco companies, car companies and power companies get together and
form the Clear the Air Alliance and put a proposition entitled
"Breathe Free!" on the ballot. Their secret agenda: Hey, if you can't tax
the air, you can't tax what's IN the air. Like cigarette smoke.
Like pollution from a power plant. Like exhaust from a car.
The suburban couple in the inevitable TV ad would go like this:
Him (going through a stack of bills): “They tax everything! What's
next? The air we breathe!”
His wife glances out the window. An official truck is pulling up to the curb. Menacing music rises. On the side of the truck: "Inhalation Revenue Service."
A brutal looking man in what appears to be a Nazi uniform emerges. A
knock on the door. They open it gingerly. It's the Oxygen Nazi. He
has a device in his hand. He thrusts it forward as if it were a
weapon: “'We've come to install the air meter.”
“You can't do that,” the husband cries. “We've got our rights. The government will come to our rescue!”
“'Don't hold your breath,” the Oxygen Nazi snarls.
Then the announcer’s foreboding voice:
"First, they tax our air. Then, they ration our air. Finally, they cut off
our air. Don't let them take that first step! Vote for Prop 77!"
Reading the strange Internet saga of Lonelygirl15, I was immediately struck by how closely the real-life story resembled a major plot thread in William Gibson’s latest novel "Pattern Recognition."
Gibson’s always had his finger on the culture’s electric pulse. This is the guy whose 1984 ur-cyberpunk novel "Neuromancer" imagined virtual reality years before the Web made it possible. Gibson’s some kind of vortex, a divining rod. In ancient days, he’d have been a holy seer, prophesizing the future, or maybe they’d have burned him at the stake.
In "Pattern Recognition," Cayce Pollard is a coolhunter who spends her days ferreting out tomorrow’s trends and her evenings obsessing over a hypnotic, anonymous series of video fragments called The Footage that appear at irregular intervals on the Internet. The moody, DIY footage quickly develops a cult following as followers attempt to decode whether it’s a cynical corporate marketing ploy for an as-yet-unrevealed product or an organic, freeform expression of artistic creativity.
Pollard, who is hard-wired to tell the difference, is flummoxed because she can’t get a bead on it and wants to imagine an unsullied world where such a thing might really exist, untethered to commerce. When a megalomaniac millionaire marketer hires her to find out, she begins to question herself. If it’s real, and she exposes it to the harsh winds of consumerism, she will have killed something precious and rare and beautiful. But she’s got to know.
Enter Lonelygirl15. A week ago, this videoblog’s appealing blend of teen angst and reverse-slick production values had hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers transfixed as to her identity. Three e-sleuths thought they had it wired when they traced electronic footprints back to Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills and an Encino lawyer.
Yesterday it emerged that Lonelygirl15 was not an organic outpouring of teen life nor was it a CAA ploy, but rather the brainchild of three aspiring filmmakers “who dreamed of using the various technologies of the Web…to both build a rich identity for a character and to let fans influence the story’s direction.”
The scheme they hatched in a karaoke bar last April has now paid off with CAA representation, so I suppose they’re now launched on a lifetime of slick corporate manipulation that is all the more slick because it pretends not to be.
Bummer! And here I thought that someone at CAA or in the film world had actually read Gibson’s book and dreamed up a realtime killer ap. Sheesh. I should know better.
Tonight, trying to decide whether to watch the start of the ABC docudrama or the end of the Manning Brothers quarterback duel on NBC, I found myself remembering the night a few weeks after 9/11 when somebody at my newspaper found what might have been (but wasn’t) anthrax on a desk. The LAPD came over and, rather than throwing everybody out, it quarantined the place, locking everybody in.
Everybody at work was frazzled and tired from the insanity of anthrax scares that appeared to bleed out of the World Trade Center attacks, and I kept thinking of the word “madness,” thinking about it almost like a chant—if I repeated it enough, maybe it would go away. Madness…madness…madness…madness...
Lacking an immediate work responsibility—just wanting to go home and unable to do so--I found myself typing, desperate for catharsis, on a blank computer screen:
Every time I kiss you I’m convinced that it’s the last Time I’m ever gonna see you, ‘cause there’ll be another blast ‘Cause some stupid motherfucker had to make a point ‘Cause he couldn’t get his way, ‘cause his nose was out of joint All I think about are caskets when I see those flags unfurled Kiss your ass goodbye, there’s a madness in the world Madness in the world, madness in the air A billion little particles floating everywhere But it’s too late to say you’re sorry, too late to bolt the door Kiss your ass goodbye, there’s a madness in the world Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared When it comes to dying, they’re religiously prepared They cross the street on red lights, they don’t look the other way So confident they’re never gonna make it through the day They used to love to greet the dawn, but nowadays they hurl Epithets at sunrise; there’s a madness in the world Madness in the world, madness in the mail Buy another gas mask in case the first one fails But it’s too late to say you’re sorry, too late to bolt the door Kiss your ass goodbye, there’s a madness in the world
After a couple of hours the cops were convinced it was OK for people who wanted to leave the building to exit. I heard the word with every step I took down two flights of stairs: Madness…Madness….Madness….Madness. I laugh now at the disproportionality of that word--at how “madness” would be pitifully insufficient to describe what would later befall us, from casualities to casual torturing to tortured intelligence reports. If the collective experience of the first month after 9/11 was “madness,” what state of insanity do we find ourselves in now? What’s the word? What's beyond madness?
The Colts are killing the Giants. I think I’ll watch the docudrama. Maybe the right word will come to me. Until it does, I'll be watching with the rhythm track playing in my head: Madness…madness…madness…madness....
Ever since I lived in New Mexico, I have admired tarantulas. They have shape and heft and maybe it's all that fur, but they don't seem as menacing as black widows. One summer dusk in the Sandia Mountains, an enormous tarantula walked through our yard. Each leg swung an articulated arc, slow motion and goofy, like a bad Japanese monster flick. No matter how many times we tried to point her in another direction, she returned to her chosen path - through the herb garden, over the dog dish and out into the cholla and chamisa.
Tarantulas are rare in the city and Eric Estrin's daughter, though she may have a slightly different view, was actually pretty lucky to see one. (Luckier still to have a dad who would set it free.) They come in a rainbow of colors, red and brown and grey and even blue. Because they're so big and slow and scary-looking, they've been dealt a tough hand. Tarantulas are easily captured and, as they're not dangerous to humans, are often kept in cages and aquariums as pets. But they're marvelous creatures and deserve better.
They have eight eyes. The North American ones don't build webs - they're carnivores who chase down their prey, mostly insects. The females can live to be 25 years old. They're victims of urban sprawl and even without adding humans to the equation, they've got lots of natural enemies, including lizards, snakes, a tarantula hawk and - who knows? - maybe even Pepto Bismol pink.
For once I can recommend a fact-based melodrama that doesn’t have to dip into cornball fiction.
The film is called “Gridiron Gang,” the story of a football team formed in a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp in Malibu. I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t go see it when it debuts next week.
The reason: I saw it in real life 18 years ago, and it gave me goose bumps. I felt like I was watching a movie.
I was working as a Metro reporter for the L.A. Times when a guy I knew in high school and who was now working at Kilpatrick told me what had happened: Two probation officers and a camp teacher thought they could teach work ethic, pride and discipline through football. One of them was Sean Porter, who is portrayed by the movie’s star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Kilpatrick recruited some football talent from San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall. The Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs would compete in the California Interscholastic Federation’s 8-man football league, which catered to small schools. Everybody emphasized that winning was not important, but the team kept winning. The Mustangs were 7-1 by the time I caught up with them late in the season.
"I learned to feel respect and how to get respect," one of the kids, incarcerated for assault, told me. "What surprised me was that we got over the gang thing, learning to play with guys from other neighborhoods who'd be enemies where we grew up."
Another boy came to Kilpatrick with 298 pounds on his 5-foot-11 body. As the team practiced each afternoon, he began losing weight. He liked it. He started running on his own. He began dieting. He lost nearly 90 pounds, and told me that when he went home on a furlough he walked through his neighborhood unrecognized.
“This is the first time I've ever been good at anything,” one of the players told one of the coaches. “I didn't know I could do anything but gang-bang.' "
You never know how much of this is real when you interview somebody briefly. Lucky for me, I was able to watch the Mustangs in a CIF playoff game against a much better team from a private high school in Brentwood that charged tuition of $7,600 a year. Kilpatrick had started the season with 24 players. Now only 15 were left because of injuries, dismissals or releases.
Here’s how the story described it:
The Brentwood field is built into a bowl off Sunset Boulevard, below a charming side street. Some Brentwood students brought low-backed lawn chairs to sit near the sidelines. Brentwood had uniformed cheerleaders and enthusiastic parents. Camp Kilpatrick had Sean Porter, his face sunburned angry red, hollering at the silent, contemplative players in the tiny locker room before the game.
"Here and in the real world, the only thing you can control is you!" Porter bellowed. "As long as you give 100% you know who and where you are."
It was 6-0 Kilpatrick at half-time. Kilpatrick's players had started sluggishly but began to dominate the game with each series of plays. They were faster than Brentwood, and they were hitting harder. Brentwood's fans watched in stunned silence.
Hey!" [Coach Mo] Friedman exploded at the players after they had returned to the locker room at half-time. "This is the greatest thing in the world, because we--individually--are doing it."
Everyone was tired. Suck it up, the coaches said, the way football coaches always do.
The Mustangs held together through most of the third quarter. Then Brentwood surged and its star back, Jay Langan, ran for a touchdown. A two-point conversion put Brentwood ahead. Its fans were noisy and confident. The Mustangs looked ready to crack.
They didn't. They squeezed out several first downs, pushing the ball as far as Brentwood's 17-yard-line. Finally, though, the drive ended.
Brentwood had the ball again, and this time it drove the length of the field for a second touchdown. It was 15-6, and when the Mustangs got the ball back they might as well have run out the clock, but they didn't. With little more than two minutes to go they pushed it down to Brentwood's 16-yard line, but could go no further. Brentwood took over, ran out the clock and celebrated.
Earlier in the year, the Kilpatrick coaches talked about how their kids would accept adversity and success, whether they cared enough about either to be moved. Some of these youngsters had been so hardened by life on the streets that they took on the numbed, uncaring stance of much older men. It is a look that says they cannot be hurt because they do not care.
Now, on the Kilpatrick sideline, several players were crying. A few teammates embraced and consoled them. Several players' parents had driven out to see the game and to share a few moments with their sons after the final gun. One of them brought a player's baby girl onto the field so the boy could cradle his child.
The coaches were still bellowing at the players, but with a different message.
"You got nothing to be ashamed of!" Porter said.
A couple of days later the headmaster of Brentwood, who rarely writes letters about football games, wrote to Kilpatrick, complimenting the camp on the comportment of its players and inviting Kilpatrick to be Brentwood's 1989 homecoming game opponent.
On the bus back to camp after the game a Kilpatrick lineman who had probably cried the hardest of anyone, sobbing uncontrollably as he sat on the bench, tried to apologize for his tears to Mo Friedman.
"Coach," he said, "I couldn't help it. It just meant so much to me."
"Hey," Friedman said, "welcome to humanity."
As someone who writes often about nature in Los Angeles, I have a few favorite spots where I like to commune with nature here. I'll often head out to Broad Beach in western Malibu--or to the popular Runyon Canyon trail, well-known for dogs and celebrities and bird's-eye views. But some days, I'll drive way down to the L.A. and Long Beach ports on Terminal Island, off the far southern tip of the coast. Here, I can gaze back toward the mountains that shield L.A. from the desert, across our one lucky wedge of America that's been blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Pelicans fly low over the Pacific. Seagulls soar over the railroad tracks and old fish canneries. Scrap metal, lumber, and huge drums of petrochemicals are stacked hundreds of feet high. This 5000-acre manmade island--built out from a small mudflat since the early 1900s--is the busiest container port in the U.S. and ranks third in the world. Here, I can watch the indigenous cranes unload oil from Alaska and coal from the Rockies, and watch electronic waste from across North America head seaward in giant Chinese ships.
And that's not all--far from it. Terminal Island boasts L.A.'s second largest wastewater reclamation plant, which turns sewage into fertilizer. The island's two power plants incinerate garbage to generate electricity. And the new Green Shipping Terminal is an early project in the long-term plans to reduce the diesel fumes that make the port area the single worst source of air pollution in L.A. County.
How can any nature lover ask for more? I can look out across the landscape that L.A. inhabits, while I ponder energy production, water reclamation, and the use of raw natural resources. I can think about waste and pollution as well as the technologies to clean them up. Terminal Island is one of the finest spots I know of to wallow in my connections to nature in L.A.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world”: Thoreau’s most cherished line has long been a mantra for nature writers--and it's emblazoned on the t-shirt I got at my summer camp reunion. But as a "nature writer" (and like many of my brethren, I cringe at a term that's become synonymous with navel-gazing on mountaintops), I've become especially interested in exploring the not-so-wild nature in megalopoli such as New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh--and Los Angeles, which arguably right now is the most exciting place in North America to grapple with our connections to nature. How do we use nature as resources? How do we transform the landscape and its ecosystems--the air, water, plants, animals, land--to live here? How do we do all this for better and worse? How, in sum, do we inhabit nature--and how sustainably?
* * *
Broad Beach is a beauty of an L.A. County beach--a narrow strip of coast with dunes on one end and high cliffs on the other, and with tidepools on the western edge that get especially wondrous during the super-low tides in winter. A mile-long beach lined with private houses (sort of beach cottages on steroids, many of them), it also holds the California state record for the most complaints (to the Coastal Commission) about harassment of public beachgoers. It was here, just last summer, that homeowners bulldozed the public tidelands to build the infamous 8-foot-high berm between the houses and the public beach. The Coastal Commission had them dismantle it, but you can still see a remnant lower berm--and all the kind, gentle "Please Respect Private Property" signs that the homeowners had posted originally atop the barrier they'd built by purloining the public sand.
I come to Broad Beach to see sunsets, and to gaze at the seasonal grays and blues and greens of the sea. I can see dolphins just offshore, and curlews and dowitchers and sanderlings poking in the tidal flats, and dark-orange starfish as wide (nearly) as a kayak. And what a great place to think about who benefits the most, and also the least, from the management of our public lands. And who lives closest to the mountains and the beaches in L.A. And to ask how fairly--and not just sustainably--we inhabit nature in this city.
* * *
I have been told that Los Angeles began in Runyon Canyon, geologically speaking--that it's where the tectonic rumbling started that created the landscape of mountains and flatlands today. Now people stream up the trails in this pocket of the Hollywood Hills after work and on weekends. It's like we're on a mass hegira. Many of us seek relief from the buzzing stress and noise of the beast of the metropolis below. And we come to do what gorgeous wild places, and bird's-eye views atop mountains, do seem to encourage us to do, which is to ponder the meaning of it all.
So I ponder how my connections to a great deal of all the not-so wild nature support my soul-saving hike. The oil and metals in my Toyota allowed me to get here, and come from the earth. The leather in my hiking boots (with thanks to cows) makes the hike an easy dream. My farmer's market apple was grown on a ranch in San Luis Obispo, and traveled to Santa Monica in a petroleum-fueled truck. The city piped the tap water I'm carrying hundreds of miles from northern California. The water is in a bottle that's made with petroleum from, well, God knows where (though I should ideally know), and, once I recycle it, will become, well, I do not know what else (but shouldn't I ideally know?). The neighborhoods surrounding Runyon Canyon Park are decidedly wealthy, and royal battles rage often here over access, parking, and dogs.
In other words, my quiet wilderness walk is enmeshed deeply in how we use natural resources and divide up the landscape--and in how fairly and sustainably we do so. Or in still other words, I love to escape from the city to the wild nature in Runyon Canyon, but I can never escape how I inhabit nature in this city and elsewhere. And why should I want to? And what better spot than the top of the trail in Runyon Canyon to think about how we wish ideally to inhabit nature in L.A.?--where you can stand at L.A.'s geological birthplace and look out over what L.A. has become.
In wildness is the preservation of the world? Well, in nature, many of us have come to believe, lies much of the preservation of Los Angeles--since the quality and equality of life in any city depend so fundamentally on how fairly and sustainably we use and imagine nature. But also, in L.A. lies much of the preservation of nature and wildness--since how we consume and transform nature in the centers of population and economic power such as L.A. now largely determines the fate of ecosystems everywhere, from Venice and Vernon to the most remote glaciers in Antarctica.
So if the dog park in Runyon Canyon is a great place to ponder how, exactly, we inhabit nature in L.A., then it is, I'll venture, an excellent place to think about how we inhabit nature everywhere.
My daughter ran into the house the other night screaming that there was a tarantula on an outside window near the front door. I thought she was exaggerating, but no, there it was -- a tarantula, five or six inches across, including its hairy legs, crawling down the window. My wife felt we should call Animal Control or perhaps Homeland Security, but I ignored her pleas and captured the thing myself in a Tupperware container. Wasn't sure what to do next. so I stuck him in the mailbox of the guy with the Pepto Bismol pink house across the street and the trailer in his driveway. Actually, though that was my first inclination, I rose above it and decided instead to release the critter into a wooded area on the other side of the cul-de-sac. Maybe I should have given him to a pet store, but I didn't want to keep him overnight, even outside.
We see black widows around here all the time, and coyotes and snakes, for that matter, but nothing beats a tarantula for sheer attention-grabbing creepiness. Except maybe for that Pepto-pink house.
In 1938, my then fifteen year old mother and her mother fled Vienna a step ahead of the Nazis, and traveled to England where they eventually boarded the Queen Mary and came to America. My grandmother went to New York with her richer sister and brothers and started a little retail cosmetics dynasty. It never amounted to much, just three stores, separately owned, in Manhattan and the Bronx, good incomes for sixty years, and rubbing elbows with a young Estee Lauder.
My mother, an only child, went to live with a family in West Virginia and finish high school before joining her mother in 1940 at Lameé Cosmetics, their upper west side store on Broadway, between 89th and 90th.
My grandfather, however, never made it out of Vienna. For years my mother and grandmother wondered where he was, why he never got in touch. Anyone in their position would have assumed that he’d simply been exterminated by the Nazis in the Holocaust, but inquiries made went nowhere and they found no record of his death. Maybe he was still alive in Russia, they thought. They hoped. They waited.
The question lingered. My mother told tales of her father the actor, the hairdresser, the bon vivant who married at thirty eight a woman twenty years his junior.
My family migrated to Los Angeles on February 9, 1964 – the day the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, and not long after that my mother hit the wall. She’d lived without a father for too long and the missing and hurting and questions came crashing down all at once and she took to her bed to mourn. I understood, but not really, not deeply.
My mother more or less stayed in bed. Sure, she’d leave it to travel and work, to be with the family, but it still remained the center of her universe, the warm burrow to which she always returned for reasons of health or heart, the place where she dreamt, and her dreams often died.
My mother is a relentless optimist in a body only a pessimist could design. Nonetheless she pursued her life with an anything-is-possible attitude, especially when nothing seemed possible. After all, she’d escaped Nazi death; she’d prospered in business; she’d finally broken away from the provincial European family in New York and a mother who would rather play bridge than be maternal. She’d early-on developed a fierce independence and self-reliance and was a feminist in deed before it was fashionable. Once in Los Angeles, she become a real estate agent in the San Fernando Valley – that is until my father insisted she stop working. My father was burdened less by backward ideas, than insecurity. Maybe if my mother earned more than him she’d also find a reason to leave him. She never would have – this revealed more about him than about their marriage – but the only way to prove it was to quit and so she acceded out of love – and always regretted it.
My father had reason to be insecure. His mother had once told him how much the pain of childbirth had made her suffer. As a child, he’d cut out an eye on a broken bottle and gotten glaucoma in both. His greatest fear was not being good enough, not to mention going blind and being abandoned.
He compensated by over-achieving. Working in his father’s Harlem dry goods store, he paid his way to a night school Bachelors degree in electrical engineering that took eight years. A Masters soon after, and employment with various defense contractors, a profession with steadily diminishing returns in the seventies. After a series of reverses he finished up his career at Jet Propulsion Laboratories working on various planetary missions until he finally went blind. (After which he returned to school for a Bachelors in Psychology. A stroke kept him from writing his Masters thesis.)
My father was also an immigrant and an only child. Born in Berlin, he came to New York in 1941, by way of Palestine, where he’d lived ever since the Nazi’s took his father’s Mercedes in 1933. “Today my car, tomorrow my life,” my grandfather once told me, explaining that he'd immediately relocated the family to Haifa, where he became a farmer and apartment landlord.
My father also had his visions of independence, security, and success, and to both him and my mother California embodied them. Two visits in the Fifties convinced them, and thereafter the goal was in sight. They did a pretty good job of it, all things considered, raising two sons through generationally tumultuous times. We learned the story of our respective relatives and ancestors, and were taught to appreciate our good fortune at having been born in the United States. Even more so, we learned that having made it to California to carve out our own lives in the land of the permanent vacation and open-ended opportunity, represented the ultimate achievement. The rest was just gravy.
My missing grandfather, of course, had missed out on it all, and in 1983, when he would have been 100, my mother finally put his ghost to rest. Wherever he had gone, whatever life he’d lived – or not – time had run out.
Recently I traveled to Vienna with my family and, on August 30, visited my mother’s first cousin, Hans, and his wife Grete. His father had been my grandfather’s younger brother. Over lunch at his summer cottage on a section of the Danube called the Alten Donau (Old Danube), I learned that he’d spent many of the years since I’d seen him last in 1985, working on his family tree.
Hans pried open a thick notebook of pictures and statistics and told me more about my mother’s side of the family than I’d ever known. Then he emptied an envelope of documents, many of them with the Nazi letterhead, that he’d retrieved as research.
“Here you can see that your grandfather, Albert, wanted to sell his business,” said Hans, translating the German. “He tried three times, but the Nazis always denied him, saying the salon – he was a hairdresser – was scheduled to be liquified because he was a Jew, and so had no value.”
My grandfather, it turned out, had been trying to put together the money to buy his way out of Austria. My mother, who loved him dearly, had always and only told me that he’d had a chance to leave with his wife and daughter but for some reason had stayed behind. She seemed mystified and angry at his actions and sometimes made it seem as if he had simply been cavalier and willfully disbelieving of the imminent mortal danger. It wasn't true. After my grandmother, who'd been recovering from a broken hip in Los Angeles, died, I cleaned out her NY apartment and brought a suitcase of her effects west. In the papers, my mother discovered some letters that told another story: Albert had wanted to leave but my grandmother’s older sister - and head of the family - wouldn’t send the money, so Albert was forced to try and sell the business instead. That, and even more so the revelation that my grandmother had for decades withheld from my mother letters full of love that my grandfather had written to her, sent my mother back to bed, where she read them all and cried.
Unable to sell the salon, Albert had had to stay, and by August 1942 it was too late.
Through diligent digging, Hans was finally able to determine the course of events. He showed them to me in black and white, on a Swastika-adorned page. Name, birthdate, religion, destination.
Albert was taken on August 31, 1942 and shipped to a concentration camp in Minsk.
Five days later, on September 4, 1942, he was killed.
“Better than starving to death,” Hans said.
All my mother’s wondering and waiting and not being able to get on with her life; all for nothing.
My mother, the eternal optimist, of course had the last word. Just to be safe she found a way to make her father live on – and in her own home – in more than just melancholic memory.
She gave me his name, Albert, as my middle name.
This I’ve always known.
Last week I learned that today is the 64th anniversary of Albert’s senseless death.
Now I understand.
As editor of a short story anthology called “Los Angeles Noir” that’s due out in April 2007, I’ve been forced to think about this city in new and challenging ways which take me to places where mere writing can’t. For example, right now I’m scouring L.A. literature for a quote to place at the book’s beginning that would perfectly encapsulate, in a sentence or two, the edgy noir essence of LA.
That’s called the epigraph, as I’ve just learned, and it’s more tricky and mind-bending than it sounds. I’ve got a huge pile of books at my bedside and I’m spending all my spare time parsing them for those scant, elusive magical sentences that I hope will perform a kind of hyper-compressed flash fiction haiku shorthand for what it means to live and dream and die violently in the City of Angels today.
I’ve opted to steer clear of very appropriate but over-exposed authors like Raymond Chandler, whose “down these mean streets” quote has by now been ground almost into the asphalt. So Chandler and Cain and a few of the other usual literary suspects are out. But then again, my epigraph can’t be from someone so obscure that readers say huh? For example, Salka Viertel’s memoir “The Kindness of Strangers,” which recounts the exploits of European artists, musicians, actors and writers who settled in L.A. after fleeing Hitler, makes for absolutely riveting reading, but will it resonate with enough people?
On one hand, it would be nice to have a contemporary author, since Los Angeles Noir is a collection of all new writing from some of LA’s most intriguing voices. But I can’t use quotes from any of my contributors, people like Michael Connelly and Janet Fitch whose lyrical writing about LA is regularly acclaimed as making the city a 3-D character in its own right. That just doesn’t sit right. And then again, some of the older observations are so pithy, so timeless, that they show how the more the city changes, the more its elemental character stays the same, as another over-used quote in French has it.
Ideally, the quote would contain the words Los Angeles and would evoke something noir, sinister, desperate, moody or eerie. I’m an equal opportunity epigraphista, so I’ve even looked at songs. Initially I had high hopes for the X song “Los Angeles,” a favorite of my dissolute youth. But re-reading the lyrics 20 years on, which begin so hopefully with “She had to leave Los Angeles. She bought a clock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left,” Exene Cervenka and John Doe segue into a couple of line that manage to use the “N” word plus slam three other groups of people. I know that the song was written in the equal-opportunity-insult punk spirit, embracing demotic form and showing a world-weariness and irony. Still, I decided against pissing off African-Americans, Jewish Americans, gay Americans and idle rich Americans in one fell swoop before they’d even started reading the stories.
I’m quite fond of a 1949 book by Dorothy B. Hughes called “In A Lonely Place” which is told from the first person perspective of a male serial killer. Hughes is much lesser known than her contemporaries Chandler, Cain and Ross Macdonald, but she should be right up there in the pantheon. Could this omission be because she was a gasp! woman who dared to write noir more than a half-century ago? Undoubtedly! I love Hughes’ descriptions of the serial killer stalking a lone woman through the evening fog on the California incline in Santa Monica which launches the novel. While “Lonely” is a contender, I’m not sure it will make the final cut because it’s too generic and doesn’t scream “Los Angeles.” I don’t know if people outside of the Westside even know where or what the California incline is. (For the curious, it’s that short, steep street that takes you from Palisades Park just north of the Santa Monica Pier onto Pacific Coast Highway. At any rate, I’ve reread the whole book and don’t find any LA-specific descriptions or musings that strike just the right chord. Instead, Hughes focuses very tightly on the interior landscape of her serial killer. So the search continues!
Chester Himes is another possibility. After Los Angeles Noir contributor Gary Phillips told me that Himes set his 1949 book “Lonely Crusade” in LA, I read it with notepad in hand. It’s must-read literature for anyone interested in LA history, a social document as well as a fascinating novel. I’ve culled several possibilities from “Lonely,” but again, Himes is more interested in telling the complex psychological story of his doomed labor organizer than waxing lyrical about Los Angeles. Besides, with all the racism and economic disparity in late 1940s LA, the city probably wasn’t such a lyrical place for its minority residents.
Next up to peruse: William Faulkner’s collected letters, Jack Kerouac, Walter Mosley, Kate Braverman, Christopher Isherwood’s Journals 1939-1960, Mike Davis’ City of Quartz and others. I’ll keep you posted. And if you’ve got anything for me to consider, feel free to drop me a line.