March 10, 2015

Author interview: Mort Zachter on Gil Hodges

When Gil Hodges signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he began his Major League career as a catcher. But after the Dodgers acquired Roy Campanella from the Negro Leagues and directed Hodges to first base, his career took off -- and the Dodgers' fortunes were forever changed. With an infield of Hodges, Jackie Robinson (second base), Pee Wee Reese (shortstop), and Billy Cox (third base), Brooklyn began a glorious run that resulted in six National League pennants and one World Series title (1955) in the decade from 1947-1957.

gil-hodges-cover.jpgThe Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, of course, and although Hodges wasn't as effective a hitter as he was at Ebbets Field, his presence helped sell Major League Baseball on the West Coast even as he helped the Dodgers win their first World Series title in L.A. (1959). Hodges retired in 1963, only to begin a second career as manager, first with the Washington Senators and then with the New York Mets (which had replaced the Dodgers and the Giants as New York City's National League franchise). Hodges was one of the most successful players ever to make this transition, and his calming presence in the dugout was a major reason why the "Miracle Mets" cruised to their first World Series title in 1969. Sadly, Hodges died in 1972, of a heart attack, at age 47.

Despite his many achievements and impressive stats, the Baseball Hall of Fame has snubbed Hodges, most recently in December of 2014, while welcoming his Boys of Summer brethren: Robinson, Reese, Campanella and Duke Snider are all enshrined in Cooperstown. Now, author Mort Zachter has written a new biography, entitled Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (Univ. of Nebraska Press), that examines Hodges' life (including his traumatic experiences during World War II) and his playing and managerial careers. I emailed Zachter questions about Hodges' experiences with the Dodgers (and the Mets) and whether he deserves to be in the HOF. (Full disclosure: Zachter and I share the same publisher.)

LA Observed: Your first book, Dough, was a memoir about how your uncles accumulated a fortune that allowed you to leave your accounting job and pursue a writing career. Do you have any regrets about becoming a full-time writer?

Mort Zachter: No regrets. When I'm writing, I'm in heaven. I never felt that way when I was a CPA.

LAO: What compelled you to follow Dough with a biography of Gil Hodges?

MZ: When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Hodges was my childhood hero. He was also one of the most popular baseball players of his era. But because he was quiet and self-effacing, died young at 47, and didn't curse at umpires or gamble on baseball, he's been forgotten. I hope to shine a light on a mensch who is unknown to most people under forty.

LAO: Hodges started as a catcher, but moved to first base when Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers. How was Hodges able to make that transition so smoothly, becoming one the best defensive first basemen of his era?

MZ: Hodges was a great, and graceful, athlete. He played on the basketball, football, baseball, and track teams in college. Before that, in high school, he was a shortstop, so he brought a middle infielder's mind-set to first base.

LAO: Why did Hodges, a right-handed power hitter, struggle when the Dodgers moved to L.A. and played in the Coliseum with that short porch in left?

MZ: That season, Hodges especially tried to pull everything to left, even outside pitches, and it ruined his swing. It didn't help that he missed his family, who were still living back in Brooklyn, or that his father, whom he was very close to, had recently died.

LAO: Hodges brought the Mets their first World Series title, but you point out that, under his watch, Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan were traded away. Did Hodges not see the potential of both Otis and Ryan - or did he think that trading them improved the Mets?

MZ: After the Mets won the 1969 World Series, Hodges wasn't trading his centerfielder, Tommie Agee, a Gold Glove winner. This left no logical starting spot for Amos Otis, and they traded him for their greatest need, a third baseman. Hodges saw Ryan's potential. But two years after the Otis trade, the Mets, loaded with starting pitching, were in desperate need of a third baseman since Joe Foy (the player acquired for Otis) had not worked out, and Jim Fregosi, the player they traded for Ryan, had been one of the best infielders in baseball. Also, Ryan, who grew up in a small town in Texas, was not comfortable living in New York, and had requested a trade.

LAO: Was Hodges a better manager or a better player? How does he rank among all-time Dodger first basemen?

MZ: From what his players told me, I think Hodges was an even better manager than he was a player. And that says a lot. At the end of his last full season as a player (1962), his 370 home runs were tenth on the all-time list. At the time, only one other right-handed hitter in baseball history (Jimmy Foxx) had hit more. Hodges won three Gold Gloves, and would have won more had the award been established before his last three seasons as an everyday player. Hodges had more home runs and RBI's than any other first baseman in Dodgers history.

LAO: Does Hodges belong in the Hall of Fame? If so, what is the most compelling argument for inclusion? And, why do you think he hasn't been voted in for all these years?

MZ: Absolutely, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. The rules state that the veterans committee should consider a candidate based upon their "overall contribution" to the game. That means objectively considering both a candidate's playing and managerial careers. Hodges hit more home runs in his playing career than anyone else who also managed a World Series winning team. Every single player who had at least 300 home runs (the equivalent of 500 today) at the end of the 1962 season is in the HOF -- except Hodges. During his 15 years on the baseball writers' ballot [for the HOF], Hodges received more votes than anyone else not subsequently elected. But by the time he was up for consideration by the veterans committee, most of his peers on the Brooklyn Dodgers were gone, and he had no one with cachet lobbying for him.

LAO: What is your next writing project and/or book project?

MZ: I'm going to write a travel blog. It's time to get up from my desk and see the world.

March 8, 2015

The end of our outside in lifestyle

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: A very warm weekend in early March, even near the beach, two beautiful new books on architecture in Los Angeles, and the rise of two big-box homes on our block have left me in a melancholy mood.

Will we look back on late 20th century LA--often thought of as the worst of times, with the city's sprawling conquest of nature--as paradoxically the best of times, when a style of architecture briefly prevailed that invited the outside in, and the inside out? When a congenial climate enabled a modern style that opened up homes to nature through sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors and floors that flowed seamlessly from the living room to the patio, while the garden flowed back indoors too?

outside in.jpgThis style is lovingly documented in Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams, which celebrates the work of architects Whitney Smith and Wayne Williams, and Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia, which celebrates the LA neighborhood shaped by Smith and Williams, along with architect A. Quincy Jones. They were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum: "We have no longer an outside and an inside as two separate things. Now the
crestwood hills.jpgoutside may come inside, and the inside may and does go outside."

That's all over, I'm afraid. The new big-box homes on my block, like so many others around LA, have been built lot line to lot line. No outdoors survives on these properties.

California's climate and landscape made a modern "outside in" architecture and lifestyle possible. These new homes are designed for the climate coming our way. Unwittingly, to be sure, because maximizing square footage seems to be the main motive. But these are bunkers against a hotter, drier, harsher LA, designed to shelter in and keep the outside out.

Los Angeles is going to get hotter over the next several decades no matter what we do to try to stop climate change, says UCLA climate scientist Alex Hall, who has brought global climate models down to the neighborhood scale in LA. Increasing temperatures are "baked in," as they say, because of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already in the air.

The farther from the ocean, the hotter it's going to get, Hall's model predicts. Of course. We all know that. It's already true. But even near the beach, temperatures are rising.

June gloom may become a thing of the past. Our urban heat island--concrete and asphalt retain heat and remain warmer even at night--has been steadily pushing fog and clouds higher into the sky over the past 67 years, according to a study in Geophysical Research Letters.

So precisely during the time when "outside in" architecture flourished and defined the modern Southern California lifestyle, the building boom of the post-war era helped create the conditions that could make it unpleasant if not untenable in the future.

Add this to the ironies of our postmodern predicament.

At least we'll have these pretty picture books to remind us of the way things used to be when LA was modern.

Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia. By Cory Buckner. (Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2015. 177 pp. 200 photos and illustrations. $35 paper)

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams. Edited by Jocelyn Gibbs. (Los Angeles: Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara in association with Getty Publications, 2014. 192 pp. 221 photos and illustrations. $49.95 hardcover)

February 12, 2015

Chapter 23. Cafeteria

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Call me! Had been spray-painted in green on the double doorway that led into Lourdes' courtyard, one word on each door. The security lock had been replaced and the doors newly painted.

The words unsettled her--not because they were a new brand of graffiti, the work of artist types (though she did not know the difference, then, between anglos and artists) instead of gang-bangers and other taggers, the art types asserting their ascendance, no, their presence. No, they unsettled her because she had been calling Lourdes, repeatedly, and was either being ignored or the message wasn't being passed along. Usually, Lourdes called back.

Marisol rang the buzzer. There was a new lock on the double doors; they used to stay open. But no one answered. She knew there were people home--including Lourdes, almost certainly. There were always about twelve people in the two-bedroom apartment. They had a lot of visitors from down south, which was one of the reasons Marisol and Lourdes rarely hung out at Lourdes' place. There was nothing to do in an apartment filled with people, and she didn't like being appraised by strange men. Her stepfather, Frank, had told her not to go to Lourdes' home at all. But that was no reason to stay away.

She walked down to the main drag--where they still had drag races--hoping to see her friend at the bus stop. It had been two days since the bus ride when Lourdes had stomped off, tears in her eyes, because Marisol wouldn't say why she was riding past her home stop. And she hadn't seen her at school, or after, at Walgreens or 98 cents.

At lunch, Marisol finally spotted her. Her lunch buddy had not waited. She was up near the front of the cafeteria line. To get there Lourdes would have had to leave class early. Sometimes they didn't even get their food before it was time to go back to class. A couple of the teachers sold muffins for a dollar--a loss probably--because there were kids who didn't have time to eat. And they didn't have money to buy food outside of school. But Lourdes usually waited for Marisol.

She hurried to her--the other kids wouldn't let her get in line, but she could slip Lourdes some money to get her something.

"Lo-lo," she called out, "I've been calling you. Where--"

She stopped speaking and walking at the same moment as she took in Lourdes' stony expression--affectless, like one of the thugs. Lourdes raised her eyebrows in a blank what? Expression as another girl, whom Marisol recognized from the neighborhood and rarely noticed at school, turned and regarded her the same way.

"What, you're not talking to me? Just 'cause I--?"

The two new friends looked at each other and then both turned their backs. Other kids in line were staring at her now, hoping for a fight. She heard murmurs and mockery but didn't take it in as she stood in place, too stunned to speak, and feeling ambushed.

Lourdes turned. "What are you standing there for? A handout?" But her face was not so stony now. Her eyes were flashing anger, and Marisol thought she saw pain, too, before the other girl turned back toward her like a hoopoe bird, her chest stuck out. She had overplucked eyebrows. And now Marisol saw that Lourdes had plucked hers down further, too.

Looking at that pair of stripped brows, she saw the next weeks pass in front of her. She saw the hallway taunts, getting shoved in the bathroom, the escalation to threats as they tasted blood when she cried. She saw herself leaving school early and walking north on the boulevard to a different bus stop. She heard the edge in Frank's voice as he told her it was her fault--she should have stayed away from Lourdes to begin with. Section eight, he'd say, shaking his head and looking at Marisol. I told you.

And how could she explain that as much as she feared Lourdes and dreaded going to school, she knew that Lourdes did it because she was defenseless.

Marisol walked out of the cafeteria, wiping her eyes so hard she scratched the skin of her lower lid. She patted the pocket of her hoodie. She felt the hard shape in place.

January 7, 2015

Chapter 22. The word for Henrik

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Call him the slave, the WRDI, a lucky criminal. Whatever you labeled him, it made good sense to have him here, puttering the yard, tending the chickens and the pool. One successful placement could lead to more, and once she had three or four workers, her construction costs? They'd be mitigated.

Ayla hadn't expected such fierce opposition from Caleb to Henrik's placement here. She had expected queasiness, which is why she didn't tell Caleb she had applied to the county's mentorship program, and why she didn't mention it until the day before Henrik's arrival. But to leave her over it? Caleb, her love, had actually packed up, put his bags in the old gold Mercedes, and driven out the gate. It wasn't until then that she thought of how few of his possessions had come with him to her home. For a person who spawned clutter--wherever he went, piles formed, there was paper, little objects, he actually purchashed junk toys for fifty cents out of supermarket coin machines--he could travel light when it suited him. In fact, she knew that his most valued possessions were in his office at CalArts. Otherwise, what mattered to him were his camera and his laptop. He did leave special books on her shelves. But he'd left valuable objects at the homes of other women. He'd told her about them, not the women, except cursorially, but the lost books. His Don Normark book, signed. Lorna Simpson, with a beautiful inscription to him. His Buddy Bolin book. His book of Soviet Space dog portraits.

She asked why didn't he get them back? Take his ex out for lunch, give her a gift to compensate and get his space dogs or his Yetis back?

Forward momentum, he'd said, and she more or less accepted it, though...if he really needed to move forward why was he regretting the loss?

She could imagine those book spines on the shelves of his exes, how the effect they had on these women was not what he hoped. They'd see weakness, his frailty, how easily he had given up. Ayla walked barefoot on the ceramic tile down to the living room in the dark, looked at the shelf next to the fireplace, where Caleb's books were placed next to volumes owned by her parents, and she wanted him to come home. And if he didn't come home? She would send these to his mother. Or wherever he wanted them to go. She would not keep them. Whether he came home or not.

When Caleb left, she had been sleepless. Drunk. Weak and ugly. He didn't answer her texts, though she sent dozens. Nor her calls. In the meantime, she couldn't look at Henrik, who had been the cause of it all. He went without houselhold assignment.

And what had Henrik done during those sixteen days days? She'd see Henrik's backside moving out of view behind the chicken coop. Or she'd see his shadow--yes, his shadow--near the pool house. His shadow made her throat tighten as if Caleb had snuck up behind her and grabbed it. It made her sick.

Ayla and Caleb had bonded over the environment and distress over the waste of human resources in righting things. They stayed up long into the night on two different occassions sketching marsh systems, talking out aesthetic principles that would dovetail the utilitarian ends. On those nights, they didn't want to sleep--they didn't even want to fuck. They wanted to sketch, and plan.

So now how could Caleb not understand that it would cost money to create a water-saving marsh, even if they had been able to purchase flat lots for their property (which they could not afford to do anyway)? How could he not see that just as people had to be more resourceful in the way they designed landscape and used water, they--we!-- needed to be more resourceful in the way projects were funded and in the human labor that went into them?

This is what she'd said to him: Either you find a way to actualize (she'd used that word) the effort, or it's just all just talk.

He had blinked at her a few times, his face tightening into a grimace and then he'd gone and packed. He'd left her standing in the breakfast nook. It must have been 11 a.m. There were no shadows. It was winter. Outside the kitchen window the messy date palm--an exotic volunteer that decidely had not been part of the landscape her parents' residential and landscape architects devised--swayed in the breeze like a rough mop.

Did Caleb leave for those sixteen days because of Ayla's morals, or because he'd been insulted to be called "all talk?"

Or did he leave because he felt Henrik's presence was a challenge, the sexual dynamics too threatening? As if she would stoop so low as to allow that kind of dynamic to develop. If anything, it was James to whom Martin should object, if he couldn't tolerate the presence of another adult male.

Unconsciously she mimicked the way Martin had blinked at her, as she stood now facing the San Gabriel Mountains, which were blocked from view by rain clouds, which clung to their upper peaks.

And what had she seen as she faced that blinking, lovely man, who'd made such beautiful photographs and multimedia works. She'd come once to one of his classes at Cal Arts. He was a generous teacher. His students loved him. In the classroom he was morally centered, he said what he believed.

He had said he wanted to be part of a project that was real. He wanted to help her not just in designing the community of houses. He wanted to show his students that conceptual artists could be utilitarian workers too.

She blinked her eyes shut. The hidden mountains disappeared and she saw the inside of her eyelids.

She simply couldn't find the place where Caleb's vision and her vision clashed. But he was back now. They'd purchased the acreage. It was really happening.

December 21, 2014

What will you pack for 2015?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Heyday--an independent, nonprofit publisher--this year celebrated its 40th anniversary of publishing books, spawning magazines, and creating cultural events to promote widespread awareness and celebration of California's many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas. Over four decades, Heyday has created an astonishing catalog of California.

This spring Heyday will publish LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, containing 19 imaginative maps and infographics offering deep insights into our supposedly superficial city from the indigenous Tongva presence in the Los Angeles Basin to the cowboy-and-spacemen-themed landscapes of the San Fernando Valley, freeways that take the shape of a dove when seen from high above, lost buildings, ugly buildings, mustachioed golden carp in the LA River, urban forests, and much more.

Malcolm.jpgMalcolm Margolin is the wise, witty, and wonderful genius in the heart and soul of Heyday. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Malcolm for a long, leisurely interview in the winter issue of Boom: A Journal of California.

Sitting down to talk with Malcolm is like settling into the shotgun seat of an old pickup truck. You know you're in for a ride. You're going to go places you've never been before, explore back roads and byways, stop in on some old friends, and sit and chat for a while. Malcolm doesn't answer questions. He tells stories.

As I contemplate the environment and people in LA, the theme of this column, as the old year ends and a new year is about to begin, I keep thinking of Malcom's answer to a question that I asked at the end of our interview.

Thinking about the stories of ancient Polynesians setting out on boats to colonize Hawaii, and packing seeds of things to grow for the future, I asked Malcolm: "What would you pack for the future of California?" I was thinking of a shelf of books from Heyday. Malcolm had a different answer.

"I think what you would end up packing for the future are environments," Malcolm replied. "I think there are environments that need to be protected, and I think that what has to be protected is not the species that live on these places but the capacity of a place to change, the capacity of a place to be fruitful and fecund and healthy, and I think it's the underlying health of a place that has to be preserved. And I think that great areas of land have to be taken into the future. I think that we have to preserve the limited waters that we have. I think for California, the future is in the natural resources that have to be preserved.

"I would love to be able to preserve the literature of California. I once created something called the California Legacy Project over at Santa Clara University, to get that older literature out. Somehow, there's been no cultural interest in it. There've been no courses in it. The state of the new, this worship of the new, nobody wants to read this Gold Rush stuff anymore. Nobody wants to read these marvelous works from the past. And somehow or other, I would like to see these preserved. I would like to see these memories preserved of what places were like, what the tonalities of people's lives were like, what the hopes of the people that came here were, what their aspirations were, how these aspirations got molded and realized or obliterated. I think I would love to keep alive the lives of people.

"I would love to see more deep hanging out. This art of deep hanging out, it's not done too often. People have become like billiard balls on a table. They click against one another, and they bounce off into their separate worlds. I go into these Indian communities. I'll go to somebody's house. I'll knock at the door and somebody will open the door, and this old woman will look at me--this has happened recently--and she'll look at me and she'll say, "Malcolm. How good to see you." And you know you're in for a three-hour visit, in which nothing much may get said, but you sit there for three hours and you absorb each other's personality, and the bigness of their lives, the sadness of their lives, the humor of their lives, and this whole business of just getting to know one another. It's so essential."

Click here to read the rest of the interview in Boom: A Journal of California.

December 17, 2014

Chapter 21. Waiting

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Henrik could feel it, an awareness of himself. Coming from the big house--but not contained by it.

It was only a question of when Ayla would come to him.

He was lucky to be white. That's why he was here, in this comfortable assignment. The young, healthy whites were assigned, when possible, with upmarket supervisors (who were white, brown and otherwise--it was even better for the program's image better when the masters weren't Caucasian). The white incarcerateds were an argument for the program. See, it isn't racist, their presence said. See, it's modern, progressive punishment. There was a time limit, set by law. Mistreatment would not be tolerated. You served your time, you pruned some roses, you went free. You rejoined your fate. The upmarket keepers, they showcased the program, made it socially acceptable. Or so was the hope.

He stood in the nighttime shade of a lemon tree and took a slender, girlish joint out of his pocket and lit it. He'd lifted it earlier in the day from the master bedroom. Not because he wanted it so badly: He had his own very fine plant quick-growing behind the pool house. Or he could buy it--all he had to do was ask any of the service people who arrived at the house. One of them would have a connection. No, he took it because it was in Martin's rosewood box, next to the bed he shared with Ayla, where he kept his watch and an old car key and a couple of silver rings.

The match made its ripping sound, like a sheet being torn up for rags--it was such a pleasurable sound, the sulphur aroma reaching him a moment later.

The missing joint would irritate Martin. Henrik inhaled and followed with his eyes the upper edge of the San Gabriels off to the northeast. Sometimes waiting wasn't so bad. He exhaled.

December 10, 2014

Chapter 20. On the gravel path

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

After Betschart's performance, Eva unloaded the dishwasher, then went out to check the Henrik's to-do list and schedule for tomorrow, and see him off to bed.

Martin dropped into Eva's aeron chair, swivelling it. He saw a piece of card stock on her desk and tore it down to credit card size. In the center of the card, he drew a pendant-like picture of Eva's face with an angelic expression and at the top he wrote, I Am A Citizen Of The United States Of Eva. He was decorating the card with a eucalyptus leaf pattern when Eva came in.

She let her hair down and stepped close, turning the chair so she could sit in his lap. She was so light - it surprised him sometimes. He tended to think of her as larger-bodied until she did something like sat on his lap. Likewise, whenever she returned from out of town he was surprised to find her so small, like she had hollow bones.

"Have you lost weight?"

"I doubt it. But since when are you talking?"

"I don't know."

He handed her his United States of Eva citizen's card.

"I made this for myself."

There. He got a genuine smile out of her. He had conjured the sprite who ran into his arms on Ashton Park Avenue.

"In this house, this card will grant you many privileges." She pulled out of her sweater pocket a string of black, pastic beads with no clasp on the end.

"What are those?"

"She had a twinkle in her eye. She led him upstairs, she forgetting Betschart, the slave and everything except for Martin's new secret.

If Martin possessed a new secret, he was not yet aware of it. He closed the bedroom windows against the rain and sat on the bed, laying back as Eva unbuttoned his shirt and then her own. The beads came out soon enough, and he never forgot them.

After, he turned toward her with a cheshire grin that didn't look like his own.

"Well, we made a huge investment just yesterday, and it's natural to feel stressed about it."

"And I do." He turned toward her. "I've never done this kind of thing before. I don't go to auctions and buy acreage."

"Yes, you do."

"Well, I do now. That's true. I mean, I've done it now."

"Are you worried about the money?"

"It's the slave, Eva. We need to get rid of him."

Eva sat straight up. "I can't do that."

"You mean, you won't."

"It's okay," she whispered. "We're just dizzy."

But there was something she knew, a certain kind of information. And her knowledge, he was out there--on the gravel path, with thoughts, with power, and a mind she could not read.

November 30, 2014

LA needs a Department of Interstitial Spaces

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: There is nothing extraordinary about the space under the North Spring Street Bridge just north of downtown Los Angeles. But that has done nothing to diminish its power to suggest and actually become a refuge from gang violence, a no man's land where the regular rules of street life were suspended, a gallery for graffiti and other art, a stage for music, a performance studio, a workshop, a town hall, a place for weddings and birthday parties, and even a Garden of Eden for some.

AnotherCityThumb2.jpgIn the city of Los Angeles there are 12,309 blocks worth of alleys like the one that runs along the north side of the North Spring Street Bridge before it crosses the Los Angeles River--a total of 914 linear miles, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Each one could suggest, as a neon sign installed under the Spring Street bridge by USC professor Manuel Castells suggests: "Another city is possible."

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, a new book by Jeremy Rosenberg, chronicles the extraordinary history of the transformation of the space under the Spring Street bridge between 2006 and 2013--which brought people and plants and parties of all kinds to "Under Spring," as the space came to be known. With a project to widen the bridge underway now, the future of that space is uncertain. But Rosenberg's book does what the best histories do. It reveals the possibilities alive in the past. And it attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today--12,309 possibilities.

Under Spring came alive because of an unusual confluence. Artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio backs on to the alley. Ed Reyes, the city councilmember from the first district, took an interest in the project to clean up and "activate" the space, in the lingo of urban planners. And Al Nodal, president of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, ran the bureaucratic traps to make it work. The key was an aptly named but little used provision in city rules called an "alley vacation." Since the space was not needed for any commercial uses other than those of the Metabolic Studio, it could be closed off and used for more creative public purposes. Under Spring became an ongoing, evolving work of art, created and curated by Metabolic Studio.

"This place was not unique in this city or nationally," Nodal told Rosenberg, "there are lots of underpasses, cul-de-sacs and traffic triangles. All absurd and eminently creative spaces."

Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, told Rosenberg: "When things don't have a designated function, anything else can occur." He added: "One could imagine that Los Angeles, of all cities, might have some of the most real estate that is interstitial space. Either under bridges or as part of flyovers and cloverleaves and freeway exchanges where the ramps kind of soar up and create little triangles or circles of space that you can't really get to. It's in those kinds of corridors, those eddies, those incidental spaces, where things that aren't scripted activities can take place."

Unfortunately, Under Spring's "alley vacation" is over. But here's a suggestion for Mayor Eric Garcetti inspired by Rosenberg's book: create a new Department of Interstitial Spaces. OK, maybe not a department. Just a small team, with a czar, or better yet, a wizard like Al Nodal in charge. The mission: scout out emerging opportunities where artists, neighborhood organizations, and citizens are re-imagining neglected patches of public space in the city, and help nudge the bureaucracy to get out of their way.

"This site in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is so full of destitute people and destitute places that the effort to rescue these destitute places and regenerate them is probably one of the most crucial projects," Manuel Castells told Rosenberg, for "a new kind of city and a new kind of society. Because we have made too much use of a policy of scorched lands in our cities. We'll call it a disposable city. You use it and throw it away." But, Castells added, "another city is possible, and even in Los Angeles, another Los Angeles is possible."

Possible, perhaps. That's at least what Under Spring suggests. But Under Spring is history now, beautifully captured in the chorus--verging on cacophony--of voices in Rosenberg's book. And it's unlikely that the unusual confluence that came together under the North Spring Street Bridge can be replicated in the thousands of other interstitial spaces that Matt Coolidge notes were "never intended to be used" but "represent a kind of untapped resource" in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

But with a little help from city hall to clear the way, citizens might tap the great resource of public space for creative purposes in their own communities. Because if history shows us the possibilities alive in the past, and attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, it is so that we can act.

Note: I'm on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society, which awarded Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. The book was published this fall by Heyday in collaboration with the California Historical Society.

November 28, 2014

Chapter 19. Dear Reader/Corpse gets an assignment

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate--and opposite--expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this state of events that you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

The fact that he hadn't opened his mouth to try a lie on her--that in itself was almost unforgiveable. Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this state of events that you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

The fact that he hadn't opened his mouth even to try a lie on her--that in itself was almost unforgiveable. Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

November 20, 2014

Chapter 18. He holds the door

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

She declined the taco stand, and they ended up at the Marche Café. He usually avoided the Marche because of the ceiling-high lattice of wine. It was a tall ceiling, and even though most daytime people were here for coffee beverages, there'd be the young lady, the middle aged painter, at noon with a magic-looking glass of white or red, their healthy looks and prosperity so undermining to his own project.

"They have a great smoked mozzarella sandwich," he said, stepping ahead of her to open the big brass-edged door. It only worked as a joint effort, this gentleman opening the door for the lady business. They crashed into each other in the doorway.

He wanted to leave her there, in the doorway. He'd work around her. He knew the Hahn building inside out, even now. Even now, with no one getting paid until weeks after payroll, with some departments on point and others...on paper. The thing was, he understood the non-system better than most, because he'd been in prison--and when he was in prison he'd paid attention.


In front of Disney Hall he bumped into her, right on the street with plenty of room. She'd never known Jimmy to be awkward. It was as if someone had taken all the swagger, all the confidence, emptied it into the street drain below the fish skeleton where the stencil said, "This sewer drains to the ocean." They'd emptied Jimmy down there. And here, on the sidewalk next to her, between her body and the street was this dude with the expensive briefcase, shorter than he used to be. But even easier on the eye.

All she'd had to do was say no, I'm not taking lunch today. That's the message she had for the old Jimmy. No. But she was curious about this new incarnation. And curiosity trumped pride.

But he was not holding the door for her. Not in this life.


It took a while but a sloppy looking waitress finally came to their table and said they were out of smoked mozzarella. She muttered something about Cruz objecting on moral grounds. So he ordered a Cuban sandwich. And to his surprise Alicia did the same. The women at the table across from them were drinking white wine, both of them. It didn't bother him--in fact he noticed that he almost hadn't noticed. And then he became aware: these were beginner's thoughts. She had unnerved him. But that's what happened when he was faced with his past. His default place was to feel bad, to regret...anything, like that he hadn't thought to make reparations to Alicia. He'd been relieved to be rid of her back then, and his relief was deep. Did he have to be sorry about everything?

The woman across, the one who faced him, was getting anxious. Her glass had gone low, and she was looking for the waitress, while the other one kept talking, her shoulders moving, her whole body participating in the effort to win over her companion.

"So, what have you been up to?" Alicia was asking.

"Do you mean recently?" He really wasn't being coy. He had not yet decided on how to think about her, or engage her--in terms of the past they'd shared, however briefly,
or the present. He preferred the present, of course. But that's not why they were here.

November 12, 2014

Chapter 17. The Way Back Machine

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

The door was open and James stepped into the lighted room, glancing to the left and right, along the wall, as he walked through. He had mostly succeeded in getting rid of the habit--threat assessment--the habit of checking the room, starting with the blind spots. He worked hard to break the habits. He didn't want to act like a convict. Act the part, you are the part.

The room was empty. If there was one thing he did not like it was walking into an empty room, unless he was his own home. Maybe that's why he'd been drawn to population mapping (until he was fired that is): He wanted to know where people are. The last time he'd been in this office there'd been a short line. The chairs had asses in them. A couple of first-timers were filling out forms at the counter. That was a few months ago. People got word when the friendly types worked the counter. But James hadn't wanted to wait a week for his guy to be here. He wanted to get things rolling.

He stepped in, past the dingy chairs against the wall, and went to the counter and its old-fashioned ring-for-service bell. Behind the counter was an open space with several desks, then a hallway that branched left and right and had offices. He could hear the high-pitch of a computer and the low whir of computer fans. These were the sounds of silence. He knew this office could not have been de-funded, or de-mandated, because it was a major source of money for the county, and, besides, there were file folders on desks and only two of the chairs were pushed in properly.


He could feel the circles of sound widening to fill the space. It was embarrassing, this emanation, this cry for attention.

The woman came walking from the outer hallway on the left--his first thought was he'd seen her around here before, maybe not in this office; she was another clerk to win over, until she stopped, staring at him. He didn't understand at first. He's spent enough time in the building that he was not surprised when someone looked familiar, particularly an attractive woman.


He hadn't seen that coming. With the exception of family no one he wanted to know called him Jimmy anymore.

Shit. Yes, he remembered, sort of. From the early days when he had first started using. She'd been into him and got a little crazy, calling him a lot, back in Venice. But she hadn't even made his list for reparations, when he did the steps.

She looked different--like a type, the pretty Latina who is third or even fourth generation Angeleno and doesn't really speak Spanish, tallish, for a Mexican girl, with pale skin. She'd been kind of ghetto, but not wholly.

Apparently, by half.

"Darlin'! I knew I'd find you one of these days. But I didn't think it'd be here. Look at you!"

"Yeah? Look at you." She smiled crookedly, like she hadn't meant to smile.

She looked at his nice button-down shirt, made him feel he'd stolen it.

"I can tell you a lot has happened since those days back then. I been through a lot of changes."


She was still making up her mind. Yes, she held a grudge.


"You mean instead of working the counter at the mercado?"

"Yeah. Or home with the kids."

She shrugged. He leaned on the counter, trying to get closer, reminding himself not to cross the line, though he owed her some attention. She stayed back from the counter. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. No, no, no, that was not good. Don't do that. She looked great. But he needed to steer clear from the ladies in this building. At least while he was consulting. And he definitely needed to stay clear of women from his past, the big past. Besides, he had a girlfriend.

"I went to college," she was saying. "Northridge. I took classes for spring and the fall semester and then they let me in. I got married. That only lasted three years. I been here in this office two years."

"How come I've never seen you?"

She shrugged. "You came on the wrong days?"

"You're looking great." He reverted to the new grammar. "Really great." He leaned closer. "I was a dick--"

She held up her hand. "What can I do for you?"

She didn't want to know if he had kids--got married? He told her his business--he was starting the permit process for some connected lots in Ashton Park. He wasn't sure that his client was going to get financing--he lowered his voice, confiding--but if they (he tried to avoid saying "she") didn't get the money together to build at least they could sell the lots permitted. They'd make a profit.

She listened, impassive, hiding her interest. She looked better than back in the day, much better. She was asking questions. She knew the neighborhood, Ashton Park, she said. Not that she'd ever been there, but she knew the councilman to be responsive to neighborhood activists, who were hostile to developers, even for a single-lot project.

"That's why I need it done right."

"You know there's a backlog."

Backlog? It wasn't good when they used that word, backlog. It meant either they wanted a bribe or you were going onto the slow pile. The backlog was why he made more money than your typical consultant to small developers. But he didn't like to hear the word.

He didn't speak.

"You don't believe me? You want to see my desk?"

Her name came back to him. Alicia. Ah-lee-see-yah.

"Alicia," he said. "Can I show you some of what I have, preliminary sketches, photographs? I could use your opinion."

He was proud of his satchel, with his initials engraved on the latch, the nice leather, the fact that it was no longer new. But now he kept it mostly out of view while he fished for his manila envelopes. Suddenly it felt like someone else's pretentious accoutrement.

His mistake was showing her the photographs, the ones Ayla's boyfriend took.

Alicia looked at them attentively, her eyes tracing along the ridgeline to the wooded area.

"That a coast live oak," she said, hovering her index finger over the crown of a large tree. "You can't put a house there. And drainage is going to be a problem."

"My client knows about the tree. They're building around it."

"That's not what your drawings are saying." Saying, she emphasized the word so slightly, with such evil intent, calling him back.

"Those are preliminary. Listen, Alicia. Do you have plans for lunch? I'm starving. You want to come down to the street with me and get some fruit and tacos?"

October 29, 2014

Chapter 16. Tap Tap

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Tap tap tap, tap another hundred yards. Ten point oh-one million county residents--and even more human bodies--meant a very long stretch of linoleum. And somewhere off to the left or right, his permits cooled like hatchlings in the shade, just an inch long, the length of a signature. James could feel the gimme of them, their tiny lizard feet. He'd got the original door-address wrong. He'd left off a zero.

Sobriety, he thought, was beautiful. He could have these thoughts and not become crazed tossing zeroes into ether. The dial had been turned back to twelve at twelve, and the magic of the hour was simple consciousness, or... his. But he was aware of the mental traps of sobriety. Thinking that every bit of magic came from the subraction...of the love of his life. Maybe that was why there were so many beautiful breakup songs, or singles. Remove the essential, the thing you needed, and you arrived at beauty. That was sobriety.

He needed to net $4000 a week minimum. Otherwise, he'd be living beyond. And there were laws now. It wasn't simple embarrassment but criminal offense.

He was a criminal, of course. He'd been a criminal before everyone was.

CEQA the door said, lizard--he'd almost walked, or tapped his way, past it. He'd arrived.

October 22, 2014

Chapter 15. The Hallway

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

His footsteps clipped on linoleum in smooth, steady rhythm, pleasing to his sense of image--and false. Inside his head, his ears, it was a different, irregular kind of beat.

"Oh, pardon me." He moved to the right for a slow-moving clerk who lazing straight down the center of the hallway. You had to be respectful. Once the intruder passed, James moved back to the center. In front of him, hallway, hallway, hallway, the architectural embodiment of municipal centralization. The building was fifty years old.

"Excuse me." This time he held his ground at center.

After leaving Ayla's house, James had gone straight to work--hopped in his car and come straight down here. Later, he told himself, he'd take a break. He'd sit down at the Marche Café with his laptop and make a plan for Ayla, a plan for how he'd get her project off the ground. So to speak. He liked her sketches, had joked about getting a discount. And--tap, tap, tap went the feet--he'd meant it. A sweet little house in Ayla's built environment, subdivision, call it what you will. Those houses would sell quick, if they were built right (and he could make that happen). He'd add some color to the mix. He knew a good thing.

He was pleased with himself, the way he'd handled things. He'd been knocked off balance with that WRDI business, but then he'd danced right back into the ring. He got the job at a good rate.

"Hey bro, how you doing?" a lanky white guy with pock marks and a raspy voice, calling him bro. He couldn't remember which countertop they'd faced off at--it wasn't recent. The hallway would do that to you. It would throw someone up from the past and breeze them away before you could put it in place, before you could put your finger on this debtor-slave business of Ayla's.

Tap, tap. He stepped on black scuff marks on the patterned/tan tiles. So Ayla had one of those debtors on her place. It was hardly a human rights violation. She probably fed him seared tuna. It wasn't a shit-clogged toilet hole with curled barbed wire and sleeping shifts in Koreatown. There were rules and regulations, safeguards--and rights. But that was where it went bad, in legalizing forced labor, even if the dude was working for Ayla.

James didn't like it. He'd been in prison. But he'd never been sold to a white lady who told you where to sleep and when to eat--seared tuna.

He wondered if they were already bumping nasties.

He'd walked past his doorway: 640. He stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. That same whale man, who'd plowed down the center of the floorway just two minutes ago was making his way back in James's direction--the only direction from where he stood.

October 18, 2014

LA Observed interview: Toni Ann Johnson

Writer Toni Ann Johnson is very busy.The Inglewood resident's first novel Remedy for a Broken Angel debuted this summer and she recently joined Antioch University Los Angeles as a book coach and manuscript consultant for writers who need help finishing projects. A successful and accomplished actor, screenwriter and playwright, Toni Ann won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award in 1998 for her teleplay of the ABC Movie 'Ruby Bridges', the true story of the young girl who integrated the New Orleans Public School system. She won a second Humanitas Prize in 2004 for her Showtime teleplay, 'Crown Heights' about the 1991 Crown Heights Riots.

Now she has turned her talents to fiction. Kirkus Review called her novel "musically and psychologically acute." The novel traces how the psychological scars of abandonment are passed between generations in a family of Bermudian-Americans. Two characters narrate the story in alternating chapters: Artie, a young woman psychologically damaged after a lover's betrayal, and Artie's mother, Serena, battling her own demons after abandoning her daughter and husband years before. Set in the world of professional jazz musicians, the novel is buoyant and therapeutic. It even includes an appearance by Charles Mingus, who comforts Serena as a scatting spirit guide.

Hearing Toni Ann read her novel aloud is a delight as she's an exceptional performer who brings her characters to life with vivid dialogue and musical phrasing.

On Saturday, November 8th at 7:30 PM, she'll be reading from her novel at the Cirque Salon Fiction Reading Series, located at 5503 North Figueroa 90042 in Los Angeles.

She also headlines a reading at Antioch University Los Angeles' free Literary Uprising reading series on Tuesday, November 11th at 6:00 PM in Culver City.

Below, LAObserved interviewed Toni Ann via email.

Jazz powers this novel. Can you elaborate on how the music influences your writing style and pacing of the novel?

I'm not conscious of how the music influences the writing, and I didn't try to use the music to set the pacing, but when I was working on this book I did listen to jazz often, if not daily. I would take walks in the morning and listen as I walked. Sometimes I'd play it while I was writing as well. I was listening to Mingus, and also to Miles Davis, Coltrane, Gato Barbieri, Carlos Santana and to a group of young musicians who used to play in LA in the 90s called BlackNote.

I suppose the back and forth in chapters between the two main characters, Artimeza and Serena could be considered a type of call and response, which is associated with jazz. And I would say that there are some "riffs" in the book within chapters that one might consider similar to an "out there" solo wherein a player goes off and does something that's part of the composition, within it, but breaks away for a few minutes into something unique to him or her. For example, there's a sequence in the book where Serena has a dream and the content is surreal and intense, and involves sex and spirits. One early reader said that the surreal tone felt different from the rest of the book and suggested that it didn't belong. Well, that's an opinion, but in a novel with jazz as an influence, a few "out-there" moments isn't incongruent, and I never considered removing that because those kinds of heightened moments--surprises are meant to be there. When you go to hear live jazz, you expect to hear surprises; you expect the musicians to delight you with something you couldn't have predicted in their solos. In composing this book, I didn't want everything to have the same tone. There's variety in style, emotion, and ideas in the story and that's intentional.

Continue reading "LA Observed interview: Toni Ann Johnson" »

October 9, 2014

Chapter 14. The Sovereign Nation of Betschart

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

She talked James into the job by appealing to his vanity, which was the cheap way to go but worth it. James had a work ethic. He was fearless. He had many skills - the best of which was he could pull things together. James could pull a permit out of the nastiest malcontent--without a bribe. He'd had a number of brilliant starts - designer of video games and apps. Cartoonist. Then he had been a cartographer of human beings, mapping the movement of pedestrian units for a firm that sold the information to data miners. He'd been a hairdresser, too. Now, he needed the money, and he'd keep the contractors honest. And so Caleb and Ayla would be spared from managing the day-to-day of construction, the ugly parts of it at least. And James would, in fact, keep the guys on point. He was a present to them both. They agreed that morning on an ownership stake (tiny) and some money up front, and James agreed right then and there. Ayla was pleased with her morning.

At two o'clock in the afternoon. Ayla looked up, surprised to see Caleb. He had parked on the street outside the gates, so she hadn't heard the old clank and roar of the Mercedes, a sound that still made her fingers tingle.

He gave her an odd look, as if he were evaluating her. He looked as though he had traveled far that day.

"Is everything okay?"

"My sugar went low." He made a familiar gesture, bending both hands at the knuckles and making a downward motion in tandem.

She looked at him closely. "What time?"

"I took care of it."

"How do you feel?"

"You know how it is. Squirrelly." He held his left hand in front of his face and waggled his fingers. She went to him and gave him a long hug, her arms below his, taking in the salty, musty smell of his sweater, his breath, and lean frame.

"I hired two people -- James and a girl named Alice," she said.

"That was quick."

"Nothing to be gained from moving at a languid pace here. Speaking of which, Betschart's about to give one of his state-of-the-insurrections. Do you want to watch out by the pool?"

"Let's stay in here."

"Don't you want some fresh air?"

"It's raining."

"I meant under the awning."

He gave her an odd look. They had in fact watched two movies outside in rainy weather; it was romantic, snuggled under the blanket, the air cool, the rain dribbling off the awning's edge, reminding them of the comfort they took in one another. But Ayla decided against arguing any further for romance this evening (if such a thing were possible while watching Lawrence Betschart). Caleb seemed distracted. He looked as though he were trying his best not to spill a newly acquired secret. She was sure of it.

They sat on the couch in Ayla's office, in front of the tiny antique television. Ayla sipped at her first glass of wine, which had lipstick marks and then lip marks in just one area of the rim. For all her energy, Ayla was rarely sloppy.

Caleb lit what remained of the joint he'd started earlier. He'd tested himself twice since dinner, leaving the blood-stained strips on Ayla's desk, along with a scrap sheet of paper, where'd written down both numbers, though they were stored in the penlike device that read his blood sugar levels. He'd emptied from his pockets the glucose tab papers, a small snowfall of gray lint, a few pennies and a quarter, a book of matches from Prado, the bar he hadn't returned to someone was shot in front while he was inside, and a leaking black pen.

"--delivered!" Betschart came on saying, his thick silver hair flopping forward on his forehead. It was as though Betschart had timed the moment when Ayla switch on her TV - the man had magic.

He stood in front of a navy-blue-felt wall, on which was a stencil of glittering tall buildings, telling a special outdoor audience of the faithful that by 5 a.m. the next morning, Los Angeles would have its two million new trees:

Plant them! Care for them like your own children. They are your children, just as you belong to God, just as you belong to the Earth. Los Angeles! You belong to the Earth!

Sure some of them landed on the sidewalk. There were some mishaps. And we've had reports of a tree on the roof here and there. Some of you may not know what to do in these situations. Anyone who wants assistance can call my office - the number should be streaming along the bottom of your screens right now if this station is doing its job! Call this number, and we will work together to see the situation is taken care of, at no cost to you at all.

The look on his face said, Sold! This is my city now! Or, more precisely, Bought!

The live audience cheered wildly, whistling, the camera panning to catch a few tears.

"Now, most of my good people of Los Angeles are familiar with the program, which we began two months ago, when the Riverforest Commission's climate report first became public knowledge. That night after it was first released, when I read the report, I made my promise that we would plant over a million trees, we would do it now, and we would not wait for any reason. Well, Citizens, we have accomplished this - almost! The trees are in your hands, the future is in your hands. God loves you.

"Where is he delivering this message?"

"The Greek Theatre, Griffith Park."

"He's insane."

She shushed him as Betschart continued.

Part of our new initiative is to empower private citizen review commissions for the city agencies, which I have just mentioned.

"Which agencies did he--"

"Shh!" She squeezed his hand.

Our independent audit indicates certain tasks are not being performed by the agencies you have funded and expected to function. Of course, we considered the possibility of poking around the soft belly of these places, if you could call them that, these holding pens for payroll recipients. Or we can start fresh! Without waiting for any reason, without PERMISSION! For anyone who needs a building inspection, AND A PERMIT, we have set up an office that will attend to your needs immediately. Street repairs and lighting. These offices and their agents will have the power to issue permits and licenses. And they will have the authority, and the power to protect their implementation. If the grid don't work, go off it, is our motto!

The audience cheered wildly, shrieking with joy.

"Holy shit!" Caleb shouted.

"Shhhh!" Ayla waved him off.

"I don't know about tha--"


"This motherfucker has got to be stopped!"

This was the night when Betschart invited all residents of Los Angeles to visit any of his storefronts and declare citizenship. No proof of nationality necessary. They would receive an ID card, and with the card they would be eligible for a variety of expedited services - complaints review first among them.

"Holy shit."

"Listen to him!"

This is your city, and this is what you must tell yourselves. 'This is my territory. I am a citizen here. In Rome we had citizens, and so it is in Los Angeles.'

"He better say he was kidding before they start sending the National Guard."

The sovereign nation of Los Angeles.

"Why don't they just shoot him?"

"Who? Who's supposed to shoot him? Besides another one will pop up in his place. Like mushrooms."

"Well, if there's so many of them, where are the others?"

"Henrik's growing them in the shed."

Now it was Caleb's turn to look sideways at Ayla and wonder. She hadn't seemed surprised when Betschart promised to reopen the port of Los Angeles (still four months away, according to the "master plan"). And she didn't seem alarmed now. Do you think you're above this? He wanted to shake her and ask.

"Yeah, if one of those navy jacket canvassers comes and offers you a citizen ID card, would you take it?"

There was an ancient-looking sparkle in her eye and her right lip stretched back and curled up just slightly. "Of course not," she said.

October 1, 2014

Chapter 13. You Know I Don't Have All Day

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

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At 8:30 a.m., James rang the bell at Ayla's outer gate, and when no one answered he pushed the gate open and walked in.

In the driveway, a tall white guy was washing Ayla's car.

"Hey, man," James said.

No response.

James watched the dude slop a cloth around the rear passenger door. Then he looked up at rain clouds in the sky. "Is Ayla inside?"

The slave stared at him for a moment and then shrugged, the tiniest little dip of the shoulder and then lift. James watched him for a moment longer, registering a thick plastic-and-metal cuff around the man's ankle.

"James!" Ayla was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, and her hair was pulled back tight and put up in a bun. She wore large pearl-stud earrings, like a department store lady. "I'm glad you could come today. We bought the property yesterday at auction, as I told you, and there is so much to do. I didn't know the sale would actually go our way."

"Is that one of those work-release debtors you have out front?"

Ayla's face froze. "You're quick, aren't you? Yes, that's exactly who he is. His name is Henrik."

"Sweet deal. Do you feed him?"

Ayla looked at the tattooed man in front of her steadily. She had a couple of tattooes--one on her ankle, another at the small of her back. They were insignificant, but she could feel the ink under her skin when she looked at James.

"It's a good situation for everyone. Does this place look nicer to you than prison, which is where he would be? It's a lot safer, and cleaner."

James shook his head. "Wow. I never met one of those--" He gestured toward the front door. "Legal ones, I mean. I knew some slave-keepers in at Temecula Correctional, when I was in."

"He owed $100,000. They put you in an Arizona honor rancho for that."

"Like I said, I was incarcerated at one time. The guards shot bean bags at my naked ass."

"Then you see the benefit to Henrik in this arrangement."

"I see the benefit."

The stood in silence. Now was the moment for Ayla to invite James in, but she hesitated.
"I called you to discuss a project. Not to be judged."

"Oh, now, whoa. I was just surprised, darlin'. I don't judge. You have your reasons."

"There's nothing wrong with questions. But I know the difference between a question that's a question--"

"--that's a statement. I have always said you are perfect in all ways except one--you take things personal."


"Correcting my grammar is definitely a statement."

"It is? What kind?" She took a step toward him, onto the slate apron in front of the house.

James, who considered himself a boxer when it came to words--he wasn't always eloquent, but he knew how to cut off the ring, how to make the other person dance backward--had been cornered.

"What kind of statement?" He sighed, at a loss. Then he saw his opening. "It's a statement that you can pin me in a corner any time you want. You have those skills. And that's why I love you." He was going to win this round after all! "Now, what did you invite me here to talk about?"

But she hadn't heard the bell. Not yet.

"Certainly, I didn't ask you here to talk about Henrik."

"Ayla, Ayla. You're too sensitive. If you're going to have a ... Henrik around here, you have to stand up to a question here and there. That's why you want someone like me around. I talk straight. Now tell me what you have on your mind. Come on, girl. I know you don't have all day. Give me the spiel."

September 21, 2014

Chapter 12. Botanica

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

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Half a block from George Gershwin Junior High School, Marisol scanned Sunset Boulevard. At 2:45 traffic was fairly light--there was open space between cars. You could watch a car coming, then watch it pass, and then watch it go in one smooth turn of the head. The city bus was just finally rolling into view, seven minutes late, when Lourdes ran across from Fountain Boulevard, trying to catch up to Marisol, her backpack flapping around behind her, too light to be necessary--there were hardly ever any books in it.

"Why you're out here so early?!" She waved her student pass at the driver and then dropped her body like an unwanted sack into the seat next to Marisol.

"Do you have that book they gave us--the one about making houses out of plastic bottles?"

"I have mine, yeah."

"I can come to your house then?"

Marisol turned her head to look out of the window.

"You didn't answer me, gurrl. I can come to your house?"

"I can't today."

"What?! You have plans or something?"

Marisol considered. "Here," she pulled the book out of her own backpack. "You can take it, but give it back to me tomorrow."

Lourdes hesitated. "Why you're giving this to me? We do it together. You know, study butty!" She waited for Marisol to laugh.

"I already did the assignment."

"No you didn't."

Marisol nodded.

"You should have way-ted!" Lourdes always spoke emphatically and loudly. She came from a household where no one got any attention unless they shouted. You'd be sitting right next to her on the bus and she's still yelling as if you couldn't hear her.

"We had study hall, cause Mrs. Lewis was out and the sub didn't show up. So I already wrote my essay."

"You still could have way-ted! Why'd you leave school so quick? What you got to do?"

Marisol shrugged.

"Where you going?"

Marisol considered her answer. Then she decided not to offer one because for every word she uttered there would be five questions. And nestled inside each question there would lay an accusation that she wasn't loyal. Loyalty was the major value for Lourdes.

The bus pulled up in front of the Cache mural, which showed round cartoon chickens blasting off into space. The next stop would be theirs.

"What is wrong with you today?"

Marisol knew that if she didn't reach out there'd be a problem tomorrow. When Lourdes had her feelings hurt she brooded. And then she'd feed her hurt as if it were a hungry dog.

"I'll tell you later. I promise. Cross my heart promise. I have to stay on the bus, I'll call you later."

Lourdes rose, dropping Marisol's textbook on the seat, and hurried off the front door of the bus, without looking back, her expression halfway between tears and pure rage. She started walking away, ahead of the bus, then stopped, as if Marisol had called out to her, and faced the bus, staring it down. Marisol looked away from her. Tomorrow, she would placate her friend. She reassured herself: Lourdes needed her for school at least.

At Douglas, Marisol got down and headed toward Allison Street, her heavy backpack slung over her shoulder. She walked past the brown brick storefronts--one of them was Neuroticos Anonimos; another was an iron works shop, where they made fancy gates and security bars for windows; another was a marijuana dispensary--and the courtyard apartment complexes that worked their way up the hillsides, with a central staircase and apartments on either side, their front doors facing directly onto the cement steps. Their stairs served as a plaza on hot nights.

At the botanica, she shifted her pack to the other shoulder, hesitated in front of the door and then pulled it toward her, and heard the clink of goats' bells announcing her coming across the threshold.

She had visited the shop one time before--with her aunt Nohemi and her mother, when her aunt No-ey wanted to have a baby. Ordinarily, Marisol's brothers came when they made special trips somewhere--even her older brother sometimes. But this was a trip for girls. They all went to a back room and sat on a vinyl couch and on the chairs. There was incense. The old lady left them alone in the room for a long time, and while she was gone they had spoken in whispers, her mother admonishing Marisol to stay in her seat when the little girl wanted to get up. When the old lady returned, she had a tray with small bowls filled with hierbas and amphoras of oil. She showed each one to Nohemi. Then she sat and ground some of the herbs up in oil with a mortar, the odd, musty aromas getting stronger as she ground them. Then she pointed to the vinyl couch, and Nohemi lay on it.

"I told you to wear a skirt," she said in heavily accented Spanish, an accent Marisol had never heard before. One of the Mexican Indian accents, Mayan perhaps, or Nahuatl.

Nohemi gasped. "I forgot," she said.

"Take off your pants then."

She did, and Marisol couldn't help staring at her aunt's milky white thighs, the skin so much lighter than her mother's. Nohemi had been married and divorced before, and now had a second husband.

The old woman started rubbing the oily mash onto Nohemi's abdomen, getting some on her aunt's expensive shirt. She rubbed and rubbed, not even slowing down when Nohemi cried out that it hurt. Marisol and her mother stared as the old woman dug her thumbs into flesh, Nohemi's face squeezing shut with pain.

"Next time, a skirt," the woman said as they left. Nohemi, whose mascara had bled onto her upper eyelid and just below her eyes, too, carried a brown bag filled with medicinal tea. She had agreed to bathe with a specially blessed candle lighted next to the tub. There was a candle for the marital bedside, too.

Ten months later, Nohemi delivered a healthy baby girl, who was now about to have her first birthday.

Marisol entered the shop, approaching the counter slowly, though no one stood behind it.

She looked first at the things she had expected to find in the botanica, the things she remembered: the votive candles and the glass jars filled with brown hierbas, the framed newspaper stories in Spanish, yellowing though laminated, about a Mexican Wrestler called The Monk. Amulets under glass. Candles. Some silver jewelry that looked out of place. Tiny skulls tipped in silver, along with some ugly rings, and dozens of rosaries.

"Hola?" she cried.

"Vengo." It was the same old woman. Marisol had hoped someone else would wait on her. She could have chosen a different botanica. There is no shortage of them in Los Angeles. But she didn't know one.

The old woman, who wasn't as old as Marisol had remembered didn't recognize her. She took her position behind the counter and waited for Marisol to speak. Just as she had done with Nohemi, on her first visit.

Marisol froze. The woman turned around and grabbed a small green glass bottle with liquid in it and a label that was covered in tiny print.

"Try this," she said. "It will make the boys ... notice." She opened the cap, mimed dabbing it on her chest, between her breasts.

"Oh, no, that's not what--"

"You want the Santa, then? The red one, Santa de Muerte. She will bring you love."

"It's not about a boy."

The woman looked at Marisol with a careful expression. She clucked.


Marisol had to think for a moment. "Yes," she said after the pause. "It's my uncle. They took his land."

Now she had an audience.

"He didn't have money to pay his taxes on time, and now there's this lady and her husband who came up there and they told me they own it."

"I see." The woman's eyes softened.

Marisol felt a tear wetting the outer corner of her eye. She rubbed it away.

"It's my uncle Eugenio. He bought that land with the money he got in Vietnam. He said we were going to build houses there for my family. It's where we buried cousin's ashes. My stepfather doesn't like him..." She went on talking, talking. Why was she telling so much? This was more than the old woman needed to know. But there was something about her that opened you up, wide open.

"This is about your cousin really, his ashes," she said in English. "Tell me about your cousin now."

"He was good to me. He used to tell me you're smart, you're gonna go to college and be a lawyer like your tia. I said who says I want to be a lawyer? We smoked weed together, and sat in this big tree on my uncle's property."

"Was it los desagrecidos who killed him?"

"Yeah, they were from another neighborhood. They shot him in his front yard, underneath the lemon tree. He wasn't even in the gang."

"Estupidos. They will suffer."

"I want to protect him, my cousin. I want everything to stay the same up there on my uncle's land."

"Mi angelita, what would you like to do?"

"We put a curse on it a few weeks ago. It's a curse where anyone who messes with Chris's ashes, they will have bad luck for ten years."

"So, you have taken action already."

"It's not good enough. I want them to bleed."

"You mean, unless they sell it back to your uncle?"

"If someone disturbs the ashes. It has to be for all time."

"Of course it does."

Marisol nodded. Now tears started for real, big drops pooling in the corners of her eyes. She hadn't expected to be understood.

"Wait here."

While the old woman was gone, Marisol dried her eyes and looked around the storefront. On a shelf at the back of the room, there were books that had not been dusted in years. Behind the display case was a shelf with candles of so many kinds: votive, elegiac, some were a foot high encased in glass, the kind you find at shrines when someone has been killed. There were jars filled with roots and dry plants and flowers. Outside, Sunset Boulevard was now jammed with traffic. A bus slowed in front of the shop, it's breaks sighing as though a great beast had been kicked in the belly. It's a separate misfortune to attract harm to other people, and Marisol knew it, but she had made her decision.
After a while, the old woman came back into the room.

"Angelita!" She called Marisol to the counter and leaned toward her. "I ask for $20. It is less than my usual fee."

Marisol gave her a single bill soft from handling--the old woman took a few extra moments to inspect it before handing Marisol a large brown glass bottle filled with liquid. And a smaller green bottle also filled with a thick liquid. And a book of matches from the Super Eight motel down the street.

"Pour this around the place where your Chris is resting. Big, wide circle, you hear?" She pushed the green bottle forward. "Do it tomorrow morning before the sun is"--she indicated a height at her own shoulder. "And you light a candle." She pulled a small one in a glass cup out of a drawer. "Free for you." She continued with her instructions, holding Marisol's eyes with her own, but otherwise sounding like a dentist offering instructions on a different way to brush her teeth.

"And this one?" Marisol tipped her chin toward the larger bottle.

"You'll make a bigger circle with that one later. When you need to. Don't forget to pray to the saints."

September 11, 2014

Chapter 11. The Curse is Renewed

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

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Caleb could feel Ceci watching as he made his way down the steps. He wanted to turn, to try again to make his case, with a glance if that would work. But for once he stopped himself. What case did he have to make, after all? She liked the open fields and walnut woods that spread out below her house. What did he have to offer that would compensate for what he and Ayla were going to do to the fourteen acres here? Convince her that a better world was being engineered, no, enacted in her front yard? Convince her that she should sacrifice her home - that is, the fields immediately around it - to make the world a better place?

Nothing would compensate. But he could show her that he really saw the place. He could show he understood what they were taking. More importantly, he could take a close look at the place before the bulldozers came. He had turned off the staircase and onto the dirt track that followed the curve of the hillside. A click click click in his mind working at odds with the rhythm of his feet, shaking it out. He would do his working documentation for Ceci. And on his own, he'd create a second set of photographs, and these he would put together into a book. The idea quickened in his mind as he made his way downhill, regarding the place in his new way. The scene that now surrounded him was no longer the place where Ayla was going to build her houses - instead he saw a fabric of hills that had been shaped, written, slowly over time, through the efforts of people and through growth and decay, and it was on the eve of transformation, unknowing. Every volunteer shrub, crumbling sandstone boulder, and scrappy patch of desert buckwheat was now imbued with a new kind of integrity. The idea of ownership seemed absurd.

He began to take pictures. It was a perfect day for photography: overcast. The big coast live oak, he thought, that was one place to start. It did not occur to him that at heart his new documentary project was at odds with the new community he and Ayla would build.

The girl squatted beneath the tree, the same child who had told them to fuck off when Caleb and Ayla came to plant the olive sapling the day before. Caleb walked toward her, expecting her to look up, but she was absorbed with a little bottle she held over the ground, and she was singing quietly to herself. The wind picked up, whishing some of the dried oak leaves toward her and making the tree sing with her. She didn't notice as Caleb walked closer.

He watched as she took the small brown bottle, unscrewed the cap and poured some dark liquid onto the ground. She moved around the tree trunk, but stayed beneath the branches.

"Hey there, didn't I meet you yesterday?"

Her eyes jumped up, her shoulders jerking toward him. She held the bottle in front of her as though it offered protection.


"Weren't you here yesterday?"


"What are you doing?"
A long pause.

"I am putting a curse on this land."

"A curse. Yes, you mentioned that yesterday." Caleb waited to see if she would reply, but she didn't. She held her bottle tightly, out-waiting him. "What kind of curse?"

She stared at him.

"Would it be like a garden-variety curse, or is there something specific?"

Now he could really see her thinking. His focus sharpened. The girl had a long, straight nose, a few freckles on light skin, black hair, black-black almond-shaped eyes.

"I mean," he said, "Are you putting a curse on this fabulous tree, which looks to be what five hundred years old?"

"It's a curse on the land, like I told you."

"Why the land? Why not the people who use it?" Could he ever shut up?!

"This curse is for the land," she revised her syntax. "If you upset the land, the curse will be on you."

Caleb kicked the dried oak leaves at his feet. "So when does the curse start? Is it immediate? Is there a time frame?"

"It's bad luck to ask questions about a curse."

"No it isn't."

She said nothing, looked at him as if he were a rat in a glue trap.

"Hey, do you mind if I take a few pictures of you?" He started taking his camera off his shoulder.

"Yeah," she said. "I mind."

"Okay, then."

"There are trees everywhere these days. Do they get a lot of them up here in your neighborhood?"

The girl did not answer. She held her bottle tight in one small hand and stared at him. She held her ground.

Caleb left, shedding morning glory seeds, but there was an uneasy feeling sticking to him like aftermath. Once again, he felt himself watched as he departed, unwelcome.

September 3, 2014

Chapter 10. Here Comes Jim Dandy

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

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While Rosalyn checked fares...

Caleb arrived at the base of the hill to find the cracked cement steps freshly tagged. It was the fifth time he had been up here. There'd been three visits before the auction, yesterday's visit after they bought the place. And now. He carried the maleleuca.

He began climbing the stairs, mustard greens towering over his head, gray skies and the smell of wet sandstone in the air. Perhaps it was the stress of buying property: his levels had been all over the place the last few days.

He stopped to catch his breath. Once again, he checked the soles of his shoes for seeds.

At the third landing, the steps turned, and off to the side old path of desire began. He thought this place is beginning to make sense.

Still, it didn't matter how many times you had climbed. Each time you went up the Veronica Street stairs you were a different person at the top than when you started. You were not always better for it. There were thoughts lost on the way up. Purposefulness of a certain kind often blew away at about stair fifty. At the second landing, some people had a momentary psychosis, which they may or may not have noticed - part of the continuum of normal consciousness, a hallucination that sometimes blended so perfectly into the landscape of your consciousness it belonged there, like a go-go beat, like a profit, like dust.

Caleb arrived at the top of the stairs, panting in the sharp winds that followed the rain, and worried that his blood-sugar level was now rising, into the range where organ damage threatens--the kidneys, the eyes. He was losing conviction. The thought that he intended to take pictures, in order to better understand this landscape, in order to remake it, seemed to belong to someone else. It was ludicrous, in fact. The camera he had shouldered up here, almost to the top of the hill, was ludicrous, too. He sat down on the final landing and looked down at the bowl--a small canyon--below him. A hawk, with a ratty brown string tied to its leg, flew above him, navigating the wind, then circled downward--Caleb look down at the bird's great back, until it flew behind some eucalyptus farther down the hill. He was looking at a landscape shaped by the "neglect" (as Ayla would call it) of the last forty-nine years.

As he sat, one of the slave's morning glory seeds that had been stuck to the tread of his shoe, fell into earth and immediately started moving to its next logical stage, cracking its casing on an accelerated schedule, taking root in the damp, sandy soil. Another blew halfway down the hill before its flight was halted by a boulder. Caleb pulled out his syringe and prepared his shot. He preferred to manage his insulin the old-fashioned way, injecting himself, rather than allow the machine to handle it. Then he ate the pear, hardboiled egg and yogurt Ayla packed for him. The sapling, its roots wrapped in a plastic grocery bag--the kind that stores weren't supposed to give anymore--lay on the landing next to him.


Ceci Lockwood looked out of her north facing kitchen window, and there he was, like Jim Dandy to the Rescue. Trespasser. Man with a camera.

He had his back to her, facing the bowl of the neighborhood, he himself framed by the fanning pepper tree branches and one of the smaller of the old oaks up here at the ridgeline. He had pointy elbows, baggy brown pants, and hair that stuck out from his head in all directions. He was hunching oddly, taking his pictures.

"Can I help you?" Ceci called through the open window.

He turned quickly toward her. As if he had purloined his field of vision, and she had grabbed it back.

"Thank you. I don't need help."

She went to the back door.

"Just browsing?" she shouted.

"Excuse me?" He began to walk toward her.

Ceci toed the gravel at her feet, wet sand underneath. It had been quite a chore to get the gravel up the hill.

"I'm just taking a few pictures."

"And I'd prefer that you leave."

"I'm not in your yard, if that's what you're wondering," Jim Dandy called, surprising her with his petulance. Her first impression was that he could be run off with a scowl. "Your property line ends in the middle of the lawn here."

It wasn't a grass lawn. Just a flat area covered with weeds that she mowed.

"And how would you know that?"

He stepped closer a few feet.

"The parcel map says...."

"Are you saying half this yard is stolen?" She pointed with her eyes at the hedge of bougainvillea, which created the natural boundary.

He narrowed his eyes at her, as though he were trying to identify some kind of migrant bird. Then he adjusted his camera strap and took another few steps in her direction, stopping as he reached into his back pocket. He had reached a new landing in a staircase neither of them could see. He raised a small white rectangle in the air and came closer.

"Maybe we should start over. My name is Caleb, and I don't have any secrets. Can I give you my card?"

Now Ceci could see that he was young, younger than she was, most likely. He was pretty, with delicate features, black eyebrows and brown eyes. He looked nervous, walking with his hand thrust in front of him, holding out the little piece of paper as though it would protect him from whatever harm she might be prepared to deliver.

Ceci waited for him to get to the door. She stepped onto the entry-patio sandstone in her bare feet and took the card, though she didn't read it.

"What kind of pictures are you taking?"

"Large format, color--"

"For what purpose is what I meant. Your project?"

"This?" He looked around the yard. He took in the overgrown terraces, the places where the retaining wall was crumbling, the gravel shot through with wild geranium and cotton weeds. "Actually, right now, I am trying to document the demarcations of Veronica Street."

"There is no street up here." She looked around her.

"It's on the map. We may not know where it is, but it does exist."

"Veronica Street does not exist. Not here. ... You work for a developer."

He hesitated. "An architect."

"What's he planning to do?"

"She. And I would rather not say," he said, though he was dying to tell her all about it--she could see that.

"And you don't care."

"In fact, I do care. She has some really out-of-this-world ideas, the kind that will change our lives. Eco-friendly, self-sustaining houses. New ways of living together, which means new relationships. It's a big project. She wants to put up these houses made out of recycled airplane parts and other salvage. But make them affordable, not boutique owner-designed kind of stuff."

He'd only been here three minutes, and already he had told her way too much. He was a spiller. He talked when he should be silent, he dropped things. He was well-coordinated, but clumsy. He was always bleeding onto tables. Dropping apples. Keys and dollar bills fell out of his pockets. Even his winter coat was always shedding feathers. He left a trail of feathers. And now he'd tipped off this young woman, who was probably going to be on the phone to her councilwoman's office the minute after he headed downhill. He should have stayed off her property - as he'd been instructed.

Ceci read all of this in his face. Ceci was a good reader of faces, especially easy ones like this -- though when it came to predicting what actually would happen, she never failed to be wrong. She began to realize, she climbed a crazy staircase to the conclusion, that Jim Dandy now owned the property that surrounded her house and yard. The Cossack must have sold it. Goddamn it! He sold it! She'd said "please please please, if you're ever going to sell, come to me first. Let me buy just the one lot next to my house. This is my home." And he had owed her - he owed her that consideration at the very least. She was the one who got him a lawyer when he was arrested--twice. He'd gone to her, not to his relatives, not to his friends, assuming he had any. And he had beaten the rap. The Cossack owed his freedom to Ceci. At least, he'd owed it to her the day he walked out of the courthouse, in debt to the county for nothing more than an afternoon in an orange vest, some fire road maintenance.

That's what Ceci was thinking. But in front of her Jim Dandy couldn't stop talking. She put his card in her pocket. When he left she would start looking into the sale. She thought of her ex-boyfriend, placed him, visually, in the scene here. For a moment, it seemed he was really right there, eyebrow cocked at this dude in her yard. And then Buddy took his body and vanished.

"Do you climb these steps every day?" Caleb was saying. "You must be in great shape. You know, they never built the street, even though they mapped it. It looks like the hill was probably just too steep." He pointed farther uphill in the direction of Gables Street. "But, you know, I'm just doing this for information -- to see what it looks like up here," he said. Chasing words with words. It was like trying to climb a wall of crumbling rock. The wall kept moving. He had no footing, kept sliding downhill.

"You're talking about building houses right here?"

"What she's really doing is building a new way of life."

"Then I'm sure you need to get going."

"I can see why you would say that. But you know, I just saw this hawk. He flew over my head, and I could see a string was tied to his foot. It looked frayed like it was an old string. Then he flew lower, into some trees down that way. He pointed downhill.

"Right here in the middle of the city," he continued. "All of these acres. I mean I know there are hundreds of properties like this on this side of town - it's a young city. In a hundred years, people will look at 'old' photographs of these hills and they won't recognize them. That hawk, he's been to the other side."

Ceci knew that hawk. Everyone on this side of the hill recognized that bird and liked him because he ate gophers. In fact, the Cossack had been the one to tie him, in the hope he could keep him in his mother's vegetable garden. It took the hawk less than a day to get free. He stayed away from the Cossack's mother's yard after his escape. And none of the owls, hawks, or falcons would land anywhere near the Cossack's mother's vegetable beds. The news had traveled.

"I guess I should go, you're right. Okay, Cecilia."

"You already knew my name."

"It's public information. When you buy a property, or it gets transferred and you own this part of the hill..." He looked at her house.

"What natural right do you have to know my name? Tell your buddy this did not go well," she said.


And he headed for the stairs.

Ceci watched him descend the first ten steps, to the point where she couldn't see him. But, about a minute after his head bobbed out of view, she had an inexplicable impulse. She wanted to run after him, she wanted to return his business card and make him listen to the story of the old woman who had sold her the house. She stayed in place, barefoot on the gravel, her mistake confirming itself.

Ceci walked over lumpy, sharp stones to the edge of the patio. She waited to see the stranger on one of the lower flights of steps. It was in this spot where nights, Ceci listened to the mocking birds and the distant roar of the city's ever-quieter engine - the cars - and she hoped to hear the soprano who sang somewhere in the canyon below her.

August 27, 2014

Chapter 9. The News Travels

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Rosalyn had been trying to reach her son--she'd texted once and called three or maybe four times, on the off-chance he'd turned his phone on, finally. The night before, he had written her quite a long email--it was almost a letter--and, holy shit had that contained some news. It seemed he had cashed out all of the money he'd won in settlement after his motorcycle accident and gone and bought property with his new girlfriend (well, not that new, it had been eighteen months or so, but it's not like they were engaged, as far as Rosalyn knew).

The money had been in a fund that was doing quite well. And now this Ayla, who was almost five years older than Caleb, seemed to have talked him into putting every penny of it into her get-rich scheme--or was it a make-a-name-for-herself scheme?--regardless, it was a scheme, and she ought to have left him out of it. Rosalyn hoped that lady knew what she was doing, because one thing was for certain: Her son did not.

Rosalyn had met Ayla twice. Once when they came to DC to visit. The other time was Marla's, his sister's, wedding in the Catskills. Extremely pretty, this Ayla was; however, he was not Caleb's usual type. He liked them wispy and wholesome, which had pleased Rosalyn, though she had to admit she'd found his previous girlfriends lacking in ambition--one long-termer had been a dancer. Another wanted to make a career as a painter and did close-captioning in some kind of assembly line. They'd been part of his extended social circles, and though the painter, Ellie, had had an aggressive streak, Rosalyn had liked her a great deal, or so she realized now. The dancer had tried too hard to please--and she was bit of a scenester. But she'd been polished and peaceful, and Rosalyn sometimes enjoyed her company.

But Ayla. Apparently, Caleb had picked Ayla up on the street. And, yes, she was not like the others. She was a revved up little engine, narcissistic, and brutal. Extremely pretty, yes, but in such constant motion you'd never know it. Her skin glowed, her eyes were bright - people who didn't know her turned to look when she walked past. But she would never be beautiful. Too much nervous energy. Always wiggling, jumping up, leaning too close. Too, too, too. From what Rosalyn could piece together, Ayla had been too impatient to go to school for an architecture degree. She had to start building, so she did it. And who knew if what she told you about the garage door she invented were true, or the dog houses or whatever they were. Finally, it dawned on her how much energy it was taking to get things done without a certificate. Then she'd run out to get her degree. And now, just two or three years out of grad school, she was fancying herself a builder. With Caleb's money.

Rosalyn talked to both Caleb's sisters that morning, forwarding them the email Caleb had sent--read this!, she wrote in the subject line--as they spoke. They had both said she should leave it alone. It was his money after all. Though Danielle shared her mother's feelings of suspicion about Ayla; Danielle had been the first to come out and say she didn't like her. Meanwhile, Effie, unjudgmental to a fault, seemed to like her brother's latest girlfriend. And she was the more emphatic about "letting him live his life."

And she was right. Rosalyn sat back down at her desk. Her daughter was right. Her son was grown, and it was up to him to handle his money. There was only so much Rosalyn could do. He'd been an adult for almost fourteen years now, almost as long as he'd been a child. It was hard to get used to. She sat for a moment, tried some of her ashtanga, taking breaths, positive visualization - but of what? She and Caleb laughing together when he was ten, releasing butterflies he'd grown from caterpillars.

Mind cleared (or not) she opened her laptop and started checking fares to California. When the machine made her wait, the little wheel graphic twirling on screen, she pulled open her purse, got out a credit card and tapped it against the desk. American Airlines had just dumped Orbitz--that was a surprise!--and she wondered whether that would affect fares. She stopped herself from texting him again.

He'd written that they paid for the parcels with a cashier's check. That sounded final. But, of course, final is just a word. And, in this case, she decided, it had no context, no footing. It was a withering thing, a dying seed that would soon blow off and become part of the landscape as dust. So much for final.

Read all of Veronica Street, a novel of Los Angeles serialized weekly at LA Observed.

August 21, 2014

Chapter 8. How To Get Rid of Henrik

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

How to get rid of Henrik? Caleb drove down to Mikowsky Boulevard, toward Sunset, the cityscape blending with the question. It was not the first drive that had been filled with resolutions regarding the slave, silent speeches he made to Ayla, that evaporated and turned into dust on the dashboard.

Ninety-some days earlier, Henrik had been delivered by the two deputies to Ayla's house at six in the morning. Caleb was asleep when the doorbell chimed. Ayla had been in the shower. Just a year before, the county had made unpaid credit card debt over $5,000 a class-one offense, and under the new codes it had become much more common to have remandations, like Henrik. Ayla hadn't had the guts, or the consideration, to tell him about the slave until she'd already signed the final paperwork and the arrival date was set. During the week before the Sheriff's bus arrived to deliver their hostage, Ayla and Caleb had the two raging arguments, Ayla pleading that they were helping a person who otherwise would go to a private prison in Arizona.

"But he works for free. And he has to do what you tell him. It's slavery. We can't be part of it. It's like if someone is boycotting" - he looked down at the bowl of fruit on the counter - "pears. You don't eat them, even if they've already been picked." Caleb stood on one side of the kitchen counter, Ayla on the other.

"If a pear has been picked, I eat it."

"That's crossing a picket line."

"Are you going to close your bank accounts? Because the big banks and the association of credit unions are big supporters of the debtor-release approach to reducing the prison population."

"Ayla! That "program" is not about making prison more humane! It's profits for the banks."

"Are you going to go off-grid?"

He wasn't sure if she was trying to taunt him, or if she were hungry for a piece of fruit, but Ayla leaned over the kitchen counter and took a brown bosc pear out of the fruit bowl.

Caleb left her for three weeks. He hauled a duffel bag full of clothes to a friend's (he'd come back for the rest after he found his own apartment), first vowing it was over with Ayla, then waiting for Ayla to call him with news she'd canceled her slave contract. He knew she loved him, though he didn't look great on paper. Perhaps especially because he didn't look good on paper: His most tangible achievement was a coffee table book by Abrams of his photographs from the north of Chile. Still, Ayla didn't cancel the contract, she didn't apologize, and during the days he was gone she didn't try to find him.
It was Caleb who called, returning unconditionally, Ayla crying as he held her in the driveway of Ayla's house. The same house in which she had been raised from infancy to the age of nine (her father's house, which she inherited). The slave was already installed, and seemed part of the place, building raised vegetable beds at a steady, if slow, pace, digging holes for some reason Ayla didn't explain.

Henrik was a tallish blond guy from Minnesota. (Caleb had assumed the slave would be Latino or black.) He slept in the garage. He maintained the grounds and kept a quarter-acre vegetable garden and the chicken coop.

Now Caleb pulled up at a stoplight at San Javier and Berry Street in Ashton Park. It was just on the other side of the old Deco bridge, which dated from the 1940s; most of the traffic had to wait on the bridge for the light to change. His mind strayed, and Caleb was afraid his sugar might be going down. In every moment, it was headed up or down; he always trying to figure which way. And he was always running after the information. His mind was the dupe of his body; but his body depended on the workings of his mind. It was an absurd situation. He had an irrational, visual memory of the number 106. It was after breakfast that he'd tested, just before he left on his errand. One thing about Ayla: She could tell by looking at him whether his levels were rising or falling. And she could guess within ten points what his reading would be. She was almost as good as his test-kit. It was uncanny, actually. Caleb's own mother, who'd never let down her guard since he was diagnosed at the age of ten, could never guess his sugar readings the way Ayla could.

He was thinking back to what he had eaten when, suddenly, a maleleuca in a 15-gallon plastic pot flew off a truck, soared through the air and landed on the street in front of car, like an insult. Dirt sprayed onto the asphalt, decorating the crosswalk. The truck had continued across the street and now turned down a narrow alley-like passage.
Caleb backed up and drove around the maleleuca. At the following street, another maleleuca. This was the fifth tree since he left home, not counting the one he saw falling from a helicopter into Ashton Park Lake, where the splash had been accompanied by the panic of ducks, geese, and American coots. Caleb accelerated and ran over a sapling that lay in Sunset Boulevard. A young man in the truck pointed at Caleb with his finger and thumb and pulled the trigger, made a falling-back motion, then laughed.

At Echelon Street, Caleb made a U and returned to the sapling, just a baby, which lay on its side, dirt spilled out of its container like crumbling chunks of blood. Lifting the root ball and gently shoving it back into its pot, with as much dirt as he could scoop up with his hands, he vowed to see this one planted and cared for. One of the orphans. He put it on the passenger seat, tilting so its leaves blue-gray leaves splayed across the back window. He started down Sunset again, and as the shops blinked in and out of his side view, Caleb told the tree he was sorry he had run it over:

"I will never use you or your plight as a cheap metaphor about transplantation or reaping what you sow or love. I will respect your core dignity as a living entity. I know just the place for you. Perfect place. Next to an olive tree. The only things you have to fear are fire, too much or too little water, the wind, and the tides of human imagination. And root rot."

A streetlight turned red in front of them, and Caleb hit the brakes. Dirt flew.

The car was a mess. He had spilled dirt into his shoes and on the shaggy carpet floor of his car. The slave pulled Caleb's chain by constantly washing the car's exterior, but he never cleaned out the inside. Perhaps, Caleb considered, he should order him to do so. Then he turned his mind down a pretty side street that was thoughts of planting the sapling he'd just rescued.

His mind began to quiet. His breath slowed, though he did not notice. Misgivings about the project; misgivings about the slave; even the tree that sat beside him, all of these things stole away from his mind discreetly, like sober guests at a party where the host has passed out.

He pulled the car over, took out his test kit. Fifty-seven. Time for some M&Ms, then a stop at Cookbook Cafe; they knew what to make him there: some oatmeal with fruit. Then: to the acreage to take pictures. Ayla was already at her drafting table; she said the photography he'd done so far was not enough.

Caleb's hands were dusty. A morning glory sprout was just starting in the soil near the clutch. And then it came to him: how to get rid of Henrik.

Read "Veronica Street" from the beginning

June 15, 2014

When summer meant fun

pfsloan-grab.pngP.F. Sloan may be the most famous songwriter you never heard of. But for those who grew up in Southern California in the golden glow of the mid-'60s, back when the music really mattered (to us, anyway), for a brief incandescent moment he produced the soundtrack of our lives.

Sloan's range was phenomenal: starting with 1950's rockabilly, he cycled through a little R&B, short-order surf and hot rod tunes, British-invasion-styled pop songs and ballads, jangly folk-rock "protest" music, shimmering sunshine pop, and by the end of his run, had even wandered off into the garden of psychedelia. Sloan's output was prolific, and no genre seemed beyond his ability to master.

His songs have been widely anthologized, and many are not just good, or even great: they're certifiable classics, instantly familiar to even the most casual oldies fan. But Sloan was more than an unusually adroit young hack in Tin Pan Alley's West Coast branch:  besides writing or co-writing so many memorable tunes, he played electric and acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, sang both leads and high harmonies, produced and arranged with such polish that even his demos could become hits.

Sloan's career was meteoric in every sense - it flared as briefly as it did brightly before it suddenly burnt out. The bulk of his output spanned only four years, from 1963-1967, with only fitful attempts at a comeback since then. And despite his fantastic early success, when he had the Midas touch and his work seemed to be everywhere, within a few short years Sloan had faded away in the industry so completely that others could claim with impunity to have created his licks, written his songs, and in one bizarre case, even invented his very identity. By 1971, in fact, he'd become such a ghost story that fellow composer Jimmy Webb (By the Time I Get to PhoenixWichita Lineman) codified the legend in a poignant tribute song, P.F. Sloan:

Last time I saw P.F. Sloan He was summer burned and winter blown He turned the corner all alone But he continued singing

Now, 50 years after his first breakthrough hit, Sloan himself has re-emerged to reclaim his legacy in a new memoir, What's Exactly the Matter With Me.

Born in New York in 1945 to middle-class Jewish parents (his father Harry was a pharmacist), in the mid-1950s young Philip Schlein relocated with his family from Long Island to Los Angeles. They took an apartment on Crescent Heights just off Sunset and half a block from Greenblatt's Delicatessen. But almost perversely, the Schleins inaugurated the move into their new Fairfax neighborhood by dropping their Jewish surname in favor of the more safely assimilationist "Sloan."

Not unlike Jerome Felder -- the lonely and polio-stricken Jewish son of Brooklyn who fell in love with rhythm and blues and reinvented himself as the celebrated songwriter "Doc Pomus" -- young Philip became infatuated with popular black music. Encouraged by his family's supportive black housekeeper, Freddy, "Flip" Sloan won an audition with a tiny local R&B indie called Aladdin Records to cut his first record while still a bar mitzvah boy attending John Burroughs Middle School. A pubescent homage to his idol Elvis Presley (whom Sloan once chanced to meet at Wallichs Music City), it was cut in Presley's favored RCA Hollywood studio with some of the King's own session players, under the legendary producer Bumps Blackwell, known for his work with Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.

The record flopped, and not long after, so did the label. No matter: he was only 13, but Sloan was already on his way.

He spent the next few years listening obsessively to hundreds of records, seeking his own musical voice and trying to unlock the mystery of crafting a hit. Sloan formed a little band and started gigging at local teen parties to earn record money. He began hounding record labels for free promo copies of the latest releases, and dumpster diving for unsold discards outside Columbia Records ("That's where I got my first Bob Dylan album," he tells us), which also included albums by Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

By 1963, Sloan had wangled a gig as a young contract songwriter working for Lou Adler at Screen Gems Music, Columbia's publishing arm - which also happened to be the West Coast headquarters of Aldon Music, the legendary NY publisher founded by Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, whose Brill Building roster of powerhouse songwriting teams included Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Before long, Sloan and his new songwriting partner Steve Barri (born Stephen Lipkin) were writing and cutting several demos a week seeking that elusive payday. Many featured the cream of LA's session musicians, the legendary Wrecking Crew of Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Bill Pitman, Carol Kaye and others, who can be heard on literally hundreds of the era's biggest hit records. Increasingly proficient and gaining confidence, the budding Sloan-Barri team finally scored with Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann, a bouncy calypso number by a rotund black singer from South L.A. calling himself Round Robin. It was released on the tiny Domain label, whose offices were across the hall from Screen Gems, and intended to cash in on a short-lived local dance craze called "The Slauson."

Sloan writes that their song -- actually not an original, but a remake/remodel of an old mountain music tune first recorded decades earlier -- had previously been rejected by Harry Belafonte. But in fact, Belafonte had already performed the song "Shake That Little Foot" live at the Greek Theatre earlier that same summer, and he would later release it on a double album (the liner notes call it a traditional folk song, but Belafonte and his arranger took a publishing credit.) Sloan, a fan of Belafonte's, might even have attended. But graced by top notch-production and a swinging gospel arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, and powered by the Wrecking Crew, the Sloan-Barri team had cast their spell and racked up their first hit.

Round Robin on "American Bandstand," 1964 (from Los Angeles)

In short order, Adler bailed from Screen Gems to found Dunhill Productions (and still later, Dunhill Records), taking Sloan and Barri with him. Throughout the rest of 1964, the team were cranking out -- as well as singing playing on, and producing -- a staggering number of surf and hot rod hits for established performers like Jan and Dean, studio groups like The Fantastic Baggys (Summer Means Fun and Tell "Em I'm Surfin'), and various one-off cash-ins like The Wildcats, the Rally-Packs, The Lifeguards, and Willie and the Wheels.

But toward the end of 1964, something strange was happening to Sloan. As he describes it, he heard a voice, "perhaps an angel's," who began issuing songwriting instructions. A man possessed, over the course of one feverish night, he tells us, he wrote the music and lyrics to "The Eve of Destruction," The Sins of A FamilyThis Mornin', Ain't No Way I'm Gonna Change My Mind, and What's Exactly the Matter With Me? And just like that, folk-rock was born.

Over the next several years, Sloan's career accelerated into hyper-drive. Against Adler's better instincts, by 1965 his new Dunhill label found itself in the protest music business: former New Christy Minstrels lead vocalist Barry McGuire, who only cut Sloan's Eve of Destruction" as a reluctant afterthought during another session, suddenly found himself with a B-side that had become a #1 worldwide smash, leading to several follow-up singles and two more albums. While hanging out in a hotel room with Bob Dylan, Sloan was given Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" to record -- the Sloan-Barri team stripped it down and recorded the song as Mr. Jones under Adler's cooked-up name, "The Grass Roots." Adler may have intended little more than a fast buck, but the project proved so successful it spawned not only a subsequent Sloan-Barri "Grass Roots" album, but required them to go out and create a real group to tour and record behind the fake name. So they recruited a group called The Thirteenth Floor, christened them as the new Grass Roots, and built themselves another hit machine.

McGuire with the moody Hullabaloo Dancers in 1965.

The Sloan-Barri hits continued - Take Me For What I'm Worth by the Searchers, Let Me Be and You Baby by the Turtles, A Must to Avoid by Herman's Hermits, Secret Agent Man for Johnny Rivers, and others. A lucky contact with Brian Epstein early in the Beatles' career, long before Beatlemania swept the nation, led to Epstein packaging and underwriting a UK and continental tour for Sloan and McGuire. Paul McCartney's brother Mike was dispatched to personally show Sloan the sights in London. He hung out with the Stones.

Heady stuff. But increasingly, Sloan found himself in trouble, struggling to reconcile the two sides of his creative personality: Phil Sloan the commercial tunesmith, and P.F. Sloan the more introspective, politically engaged poet and social commentator who had leveraged his songwriting success into two albums of his own. Meanwhile, pressure was mounting from Adler, who was eager to dump McGuire for good, shed the waning protest-music fad that was becoming increasingly problematic for him commercially, and  concentrate on relatively safer, more promising commercial prospects like The Mamas and the Papas, who had originally come to his attention as McGuire's hippie background singers.

Greed and drugs, too, were taking their toll. At one point or another, the Byrds' David Crosby, "Papa" John Phillips, and even one of Sloan's Dunhill bosses, Jay Lasker, all threatened to kill Sloan over various business or personal perceived transgressions. It was getting to be all too much. And so by 1967, Sloan found himself washed up in the business.
Musical fashions were changing again: bright, happy sunshine pop had chased away the doom-laden clouds of protest music, and psychedelia, quivering with anticipation, was poised to erupt and completely engulf the pop scene. To save on royalty payments, Sloan suggests, Adler and his venal business associates decided to retain the more commercial and compliant Barri, but virtually blackmailed Sloan into signing away his royalties and fleeing town for New York under threat of violence. Musically adrift, emotionally fragile, and falling into serious substance abuse, heroin addiction, and eventually mental illness, Sloan plunged into decades of darkness.

Throughout the wilderness years, however, Sloan's music has never faded. The key to its enduring appeal is the combination of sunshine and shadows: loneliness, doubt and vulnerability wrapped inside a shiny, beautiful and irresistible package. When Sloan describes John Lennon refusing to be in the same room with him, or Pete Seeger declining to share a stage with him -- clearly Sloan wasn't considered "authentic" enough -- the pain is palpable. His prodigious talent and outsized commercial success only undermined his street credibility and lowered his standing among some of those he most respected.

But as Orson Welles used to say, "if you want a happy ending, that depends on where you stop your story." The P. F. Sloan story continues, and there's much more to it -- his eventual salvation, redemption, sobriety, spirituality and creative rejuvenation. Fortunately, Sloan himself is still with us to tell it -- offering a poignant remembrance of a vanished era when summer meant fun, and a gifted young songwriter could take a little ray of sunshine, a little bit of soul, add just a touch of magic and get the greatest thing since rock 'n' roll.

June 8, 2014

Sebastian Junger finishes with war in 'Korengal'

Sebastian Junger felt as though he had never been tested. Growing up in a "peaceful American suburb during the 80's" he needed to prove himself, to experience some adversity. So in 1990, approaching 30, the author took himself to Bosnia to cover the war. He survived and proved to be an astute observer. He went on to bring his observations to a wide audience through his first film, "Restrepo," the outcome of a year-long collaboration with photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded with the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Junger was in LA last week to talk about his latest film, "Korengal," and he remembered vividly an essential element of his lengthy visits to the war zone: the bone-crushing boredom.

sebastian-junger-iris.jpg"Monotony is an important part of war," Junger said. He and Hetherington spent the better part of a year documenting combat and life for their first film. "Korengal" is the companion piece to "Restrepo," done after the tragic death of Hetherington on assignment during Libya's civil war in 2011. Junger reluctantly revisited the footage shot for Restrepo to complete a second film that he and Hetherington had talked many times about making. And after Hetherington's death, he decided ("within an hour") never to cover combat again.

"Restrepo" showed what combat looks like. "Korengal" tries to show what war feels like. He recalled a period of several weeks on the mountain outpost where no fighting had erupted. "I felt a little guilty for finding myself wishing something would kick off. Then, the lieutenant walked by muttering 'Please, someone attack us today.' I heard that and thought--nothing to feel guilty about. We're all on the same page."

That anecdote seems to sum up the complexity of war, and the conflicts our military men and women live with every day. Junger knows that there are many reasons why they sign up for military service, from altruism to curiosity to adrenalin. "Korengal" gives the soldiers a chance to talk about those conflicts and complexities. It asks the audience to consider these questions: How does fear work? What do courage and guilt mean? Why do so many soldiers miss the war when they come home?

"Korengal" reflects the structure of an earlier book of Junger's called "War," which he divided into three parts: fear, killing and love. "There is a psychic voltage in the experience of combat, and you can absolutely grow to like it," he says. "But equally and more important than that is the true sense of brotherhood and close bonds." He feels that a big part of the re-entry problem that returning veterans experience occurs because "they are not coming back to a close-knit, tribal or agrarian community where as warriors they are welcomed back into the fold, but to Western society. And for all our technology and culture, we are a very fragmented and alienated society. We have the highest rate of suicide, and depression, child abuse and mass murder of any society. They are coming from an environment of extraordinary closeness and loyalty. So who is messed up, us or them?"

His explanation puts the re-rentry process into a different perspective and makes it easier to understand how a soldier can miss the war once he returns home. "Brendan (O"Byrne) misses the war a lot, but is also very damaged by it. This is the dilemma. He did a lot more thinking than some of the guys in the platoon and can be wracked with guilt over the killing of innocents during warfare, yet says he would jump at the chance to get back to the battlefield. He has all those conflicting feelings and is not landing on any one of them...he's stuck with all of them. That is the moral confusion of war," Junger says.

Indeed, watching "Korengal" does give you an understanding of the bond that was forged on that remote outpost. And no matter how primitive and dangerous the conditions are, the experience creates a closeness that pales in what we know as daily life for a civilian. Add a dose of PTSD, the physical and mental pain of war injuries and the stress of earning a living, and the tremendous difficulty of being a reentering veteran becomes crystal clear.

"Korengal" opens June 13 in Los Angeles.

Photo of Junger by Iris Schneider

May 3, 2014

Newest O'Malley bio looks deeper at the move from Brooklyn to L.A.

Andy McCue has devoted a good chunk of his life to working on a biography of one of baseball's most important, and perhaps, most divisive figures, Walter O'Malley. His book, Mover and Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball's Westward Expansion, came out from the University of Nebraska Press on May 1, although it was available in April in Kindle format, which is how I read it while vacationing in Denmark (where Dodger games were not blacked out on

The most important difference between McCue's book and Michael D'Antonio's Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley (2009, Riverhead) is that McCue's work did not receive any cooperation from the O'Malley family, while D'Antonio received the family's imprimatur.

A good chunk of the book, as you would expect, covers the Dodgers move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, which ends up telling you a lot about the political culture in New York in the 1950s and how politics in Los Angeles and California has always been, for lack of a better phrase, somewhat confusing.

McCue_cvr2-1.jpgSince I'm a friend of Andy's and listed in the acknowledgments, I don't feel right in doing a review of the book, but I will link you to Paul Dickson's review of the book in the Wall Street Journal.

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April 23, 2014

BritWeek Interview: Anthony Russell

In honor of BritWeek Los Angeles, a festival of all things UK, Native Intelligence will post a series of interviews with three different Brits who reside in the Southland.

russell-final.jpg Starting with Anthony Russell, an author, musician and aristocrat who now resides in Bel Air. Born into a titled family with their own fairy-tale castle in Kent, Mr. Russell shares tales of a privileged childhood in his memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. The book is a vivid read about a world resembling "Downton Abbey" described with precise and spirited prose. For example, Russell writes that his mother's "dazzling, alluring forget-me-not blue eyes radiated warmth and kindness, and her personality, though given to moods, was generous and imbued with a contagious sense of fun."

Eventually, Mr. Russell struggled to reconcile his privileged upbringing with his musical aspirations in the 70s but he triumphed in the end to become a seasoned performer.

Below, the writer shares his impressions of his adopted homeland.

Did you write your book while living in Southern California? If so, how did you recall the details of your family's estate in England?

I wrote Outrageous Fortune in Los Angeles and in France where my wife, Catherine, and I spend four to five months each year. All the events and descriptions in the book are culled from memory (including the pram scene outside Harrods aged two!) and needed no recourse to libraries or family records. I used the Web for historical accuracy when it came to corroborating what my English and American ancestors had been up to all those years ago; the origins and size of my Whitney cousins' vast wealth; and the smorgasbord of Russell titles, land holdings, Crown appointments and Parliamentary achievements over a period of some five hundred years.

What do you like about living in Los Angeles?

Everything! The weather, of course. London's gray skies and drizzle used to drive me nuts. Here you work and play under sunny blue skies. I love the 'look' of LA, from Downtown to the ocean. So many totally different neighborhoods seemingly at odds with one another which somehow succeed in forming a cohesive whole. I find the contrast between life in LA and life in France and the UK very stimulating. London and Paris have history, beauty and street life on their side. LA has a unique form of easy living. Life is casual. You dress up, or down, according to taste. It's not a hassle to get around. You go to the movies, park in the same building (for free), have lunch before, or dinner after, all without raising a furrow on your brow. My wife and I are foodie fanatics. We like to eat in the plethora of Japanese restaurants across the city, from Nobu in Malibu to Kiwami on Ventura Blvd. We also like Paiche in Marina del Rey and Hinoki and the Bird in Century City. I write in the morning (and sometimes early in the evening), have lunch with my wife, then we play tennis and have a Pilates session after. Before going home we run the vital errands. Every Sunday we go to the Beverly Hills Farmer's market. We'd never have this kind of schedule anywhere outside of LA - I don't think!

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March 8, 2014

Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project Plié, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.

Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.

Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.

Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC

December 1, 2013

Letter from Down Under: Welcome to the Homogenocene

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes from Australia:

I lost the day after Thanksgiving, but not in the usual Black Friday pursuits. I took off Thursday evening from LAX bound for Melbourne, Australia, and landed Saturday afternoon in a strangely familiar landscape, though I've never set foot here before.

With sunny blue sky, grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus, and tree-lined, car-clotted city streets running down to the ocean, it feels a lot like Southern California. Although the Pacific is east of here, not west, in a geographic coincidence, St. Kilda, the neighborhood where we're staying, faces Port Phillip Bay to the west, just as Venice does to Santa Monica Bay. And the nearby, rapidly gentrifying Prahran precinct could easily be the coolest neighborhood in LA on a hot Saturday night, with a few people even sporting Lakers gear.

Welcome to the "Homogenocene"--the rather worrisome title that some observers have given to our era of globalization, in which one increasingly finds a similar cosmopolitan mix of culture and nature wherever one travels in the world. As Buckaroo Banzai says: "Wherever you go, there you are."

I'm here with my partner, Ursula Heise, for conferences and meetings at the University of Melbourne with colleagues in what we call the "environmental humanities," a rapidly emerging global interdisciplinary field of study that brings together history, literature, philosophy, cultural anthropology and geography, art, media, and communications. Our concern is what the disciplines that study culture can contribute to understanding and improving our relationship with nature.

The environmental humanities take the Homogenocene as a subject to study, but you might also rightly conclude that the field is symptomatic of the era. In the Homogenocene local diversity--biological and cultural--is increasing in most places, even while the differences between places seem to be decreasing. Our global connections, while not new, are increasingly dense, and everywhere, nature and culture are inextricably entwined.

treesinparadise.jpgOn the long flight over I was reminded of this again and again while reading my friend Jared Farmer's enthralling new book Trees in Paradise: A California History.

Melbourne, it turns out, is an important node in the network of ideas and species that has connected Australia to California. The great nineteenth-century California eucalyptus promoter Elwood Cooper came by much of his knowledge about eucalypts through the U.S. consul general in Melbourne, who introduced Cooper to the work of the great Australian eucalyptus authority Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller.

Actually, there was a two-way exchange of knowledge and seeds. Eucalypts traveled from Australia to California, Monterey pines came the other way. A "tree culture" was shared across the Pacific, writes Farmer: "These 'improvers' believed they could accomplish good works through tree culture, a nineteenth-century term for a body of practical knowledge that includes afforestation, horticulture, and landscaping." They believed not only that the landscape could be improved--or even "emparadised," to use an old-fashioned term--but that good citizens would also grow among the orange groves, underneath the palms, protected by towering, fragrant eucalyptus trees.

We're skeptical of such ideas these days, and for good reason. This kind of "civic environmentalism" was often deeply racist and not subtle about it. It was white families this landscape was meant to create. This brand of environmentalism--propagated by Californian and Australian environmental reformers a century ago--has rightly been thrown on the trash heap of history.

But, perhaps, in this era of the multicultural Homogenocene, there is still something useful to be harvested from these "renovationists," as Australian environmental historian Ian Tyrrell calls folks like Abbot Kinney, who succeeded Cooper as the leading eucalyptus expert and promoter in Southern California. As Farmer writes, "to renovate means to repair and also to improve."

These days, we don't like to think of improving nature much either. The idea is filled with hubris. It's what gave us the LA Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the California State Water Project, all of which we feel ambivalent about at best. We'd rather try to return to nature. But there's no pure nature or culture to go back to. So as we try to figure out how to repair the damage that has been done by the hybrid human and natural systems that we depend upon, and adapt to a rapidly changing climate, we better get good at renovating again.

And maybe now, in the early twenty-first century, in the thick of the Homogenocene that Cooper, Kinney and many, many others set in motion, Melbourne and Los Angeles can play an important role again in the global network of trade in ideas, and, yes, species too--but this time as vibrant cities where people from dozens of countries, speaking dozens of languages, are all contributing their own creative ideas to shaping nature and culture and new forms of civic environmentalism. Listening to them might be a good place to start.

October 13, 2013

Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

erwitt-provence-boys.jpgBoys in Provence, 1959. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.

The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.

salgado-iceberg.jpgIceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.

Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.

salgado-nenets.jpgThe resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.

The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.

Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.

mccurry-mother-child.jpgMother and child looking through taxi window, Bombay 1993. Copyright Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.

The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.

For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.

Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.

erwitt-fashion-coat.jpgFashion shoot in New York, 1989. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.

October 11, 2013

In the autumn of my books

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI was sitting on the edge of an easy chair in my home office looking at books piled here and there when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't be giving so many of them away. It was beginning to feel like I was nudging unwanted children out the door.

I could see them in the rains of autumn, shivering against the inclement weather, looking back at the shelves they had occupied for so many years; where they had brought so much pleasure to me and to others who sought the comfort and emotional distance that books provide.

I was cleaning out my cave, which is to say my office, a chore I assume occasionally when the room becomes too cluttered even for me, and the hundreds of books and travel souvenirs and, well, this and that seem to be closing in on me. The electronic Nook and the Kindle were taking the place of books, I told myself, and I had to keep up with the new and hip digital age.

But as I was pretty much into the job of creating different piles of books to give away, to keep and to decide on, I took a break to see what was going on in Facebook. So doing, I came across the photograph of a man on oxygen reading a volume of Mark Twain stories.

He was sitting in what appeared to be his home library, perhaps recovering from surgery, seeking emotional comfort, transported from his own painful presence into the barefoot world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn along a trail laid out by the master story teller who created them.

I could understand that. During recovery from heart surgery and other critical operations, books were my attendants, easing me back into a reclining chair and being by my side for the moments it took for me to drift away from self-pity into landscapes of imagination. John Steinbeck was my main guide. I can't tell you how many times I read from "Grapes of Wrath," not sunny prose but the eloquent syntax of history seen through eyes of compassion, diverting me from the self-obsessions of my lesser griefs. The Joads suffered for a lifetime, I for a few days.

I lived in the magical words of Ray Bradbury too, picturing him at the center of his own clutter during visits to his home, calling him my friend, and mourning his passage from Earth to God's gleaming stars and to the eternal spaces of his own creation. Alex Haley was a friend and collaborator too, and I have read from "Roots" when my own distress needed comparisons to the hard worlds of others.

Poetry, memoirs, biographies, novels, non-fiction accounts—they all lay in piles around me. Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Alice Munro, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker... literary royalty intersecting to lift up their readers, to make us well.

I sat there for a long time, paralyzed by my own indecision, then I picked up "Grapes of Wrath" and read its classic opening: "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth..."

And I knew what I had to do.

August 22, 2013

Misquoting Dorothy Parker

Today is Dorothy Parker's 120th birthday. She was born on August 22, 1893, and her devotees shall observe the occasion by posting her quotations and poems on the Internets. However, a famous quip about Los Angeles may not be applicable.

As the president of the LA Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society and tour guide, I am asked on a regular basis if Dorothy Parker actually said that Los Angeles is "72 of suburbs in search of a city." The answer is...probably not.

The quote has been attributed to Dorothy Parker but it's really a paraphrase of Aldous Huxley's bon mot found his 1925 book, Americana. He wrote that Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis" and he was probably quoting someone else who initially said Los Angeles was seven or six suburbs in search of a city. The witticism expanded from there. At times it was attributed to H.L. Menken, Robert Benchely, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker.

Most likely it was Mencken who used the phrase in an essay published in the April 1927 issue of Photoplay magazine after visiting Los Angeles for three weeks in 1926. I cannot find the actual essay so I must reserve the right to be wrong. Thanks to Kim Cooper, I have found the publication online. But I still reserve the right to be wrong.

Regardless, Mrs. Parker's hatred for our fair city inspired plenty of other waspish quips.
I can verify that she once told a reporter that she loathed palm trees, calling them "the ugliest vegetable God created." You can tweet that.

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

Thumbnail image for paris-photo-paramount-iris.jpg
Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

paris-photo-3.jpg paris-photo-2.jpg

April 8, 2013

April in LA is for film and books

colcoa-poster-2013.jpgThe City of Lights, City of Angels Festival, celebrating the best in new and classic French films, will be held from April 15-22. Over 35 features will be screened at the Director's Guild in Hollywood and it's open to the public. While we know that a few of the films have already been picked up for release in the States, this may be your only chance to see most of these gems. Every genre of film is represented, but I am a sucker for French comedies so I am particularly looking forward to Daniele Thompson's "It Happened in Saint-Tropez," Christian Vincent's "Haute Cuisine" and Philippe Leguay's "Cycling with Moliere." There are opportunities to meet with filmmakers at the afternoon "happy hour" talks as well as classic films such as Louis Malle's "The Fire Within" and one my all time favorites, Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels," both starring Jeanne Moreau. Tickets and more information

With the guessing games over who the next owner of the Los Angeles Times will be heating up, we should rejoice every year the Festival of Books continues. Started 18 years ago by Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman, both now long gone from the paper, the festival is a gift to the community. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, April 20 and 21, USC will be host to over 100,000 people appreciating over 100 panels, stage presentations, music and children's programs. Admission is free as are all the outdoor events and most of the panels, but tickets are required for the indoor conversations, such as Joyce Carol Oates with Patt Morrison and Anna Quindlen with Karen Grigsby Bates. These are always popular and for thirty dollars you can buy a pass that allows you to reserve a spot at up to eight of the conversations.

Outdoor stage events this year include such big names as Debbie Reynolds, Paul Anka and Valerie Harper and there are dozens of panels focusing on history, biography, fiction, crime — you name the genre. The festival is akin to Queen for a Day for authors who toil alone to create their works and suddenly are surrounded by so many readers. They come from all over the country for this special weekend so it seems like the least we locals can do is show up and take advantage of it while we still have it. This year, for the first time, there is the added advantage that the Expo Line drops you right in front of campus. More details

The most recent addition to the April festival calendar is the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. We are so spoiled here in Los Angeles with the Academy, the Cinematheque and UCLA screening classic films all year round, but last year several thousand attendees from 49 states poured into Hollywood to remind us of the incredible pull the home of the movies has on the world. The Fourth TCM Festival will be held April 25th through the 29th and they take over the Roosevelt Hotel and the Loews at Hollywood and Highland for a packed schedule that gives audiences a choice of four or five films at a time, from early morning until late at night. Films are screened at Grauman's, El Capitan and the Egyptian.

Highlights this year include Jane Fonda immortalizing her hand prints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese theater and introducing "On Golden Pond" and stars such as Max von Sydow and Eva Marie Saint discussing their extraordinary lives and careers. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow will be in conversation with Carl Davis, the composer and conductor who has illuminated and elevated Kevin's restorations of films such as "The Wind," "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and the incomparable "Napoleon." Still, it is the simple joy of watching a great movie on the big screen that has to be the biggest draw of the festival. This year's sampling includes "The Great Escape," "Bonnie and Clyde," "On the Waterfront" and "From Russia with Love" as well as brilliant comedies such as "The Lady Eve," "Ninotchka," "Libeled Lady" and "It Happened One Night." A few passes are still available and tickets for individual films can be purchased on a first come, first served, stand by basis for twenty dollars each, ten for students, at the theater box office. Full schedule

December 2, 2012

7 hours of 'Gatz' leaves her wanting more

One of the great perks of being a kid is that people read to you. I still miss it. That may be part of why I was so enchanted by "Gatz," currently playing 9 performances at the Redcat at Disney Hall. The theater production, put together by the New York-based avant-garde troupe called Elevator Repair Service, brilliantly performs F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by reading the entire novel onstage, incorporating every written word into the production. In doing so, it becomes so much more than the novel is, or than a play could be--I guess that's why the word transformative was invented.

I admit I was nervous before the show. But it was a nervous anticipation. Could I last seven hours (eight including a dinner break) in a not-that-comfortable chair listening to a whole novel? Within minutes I was swept away. If you're going to read a novel in one sitting, better make it a good one and in choosing "The Great Gatsby," ERS chose well.

I was awed by the beauty of the words, the way they sounded strung together, the images they painted. The staging was quirky and minimal. It allowed my imagination enough room to fill in the blanks, making the event participatory and thrilling. Like good theater should be, it was a very social experience: the intimate Redcat is a perfect venue — everyone knew from the start that we were all in it together and you could sense that excitement as we took our seats.

Set in a dingy office, the play begins with the narrator, Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, finding a copy of "The Great Gatsby" in a Rolodex on his desk. While waiting for an interminable reboot of his aging computer, he picks it up and starts reading. His bored colleagues gradually drift in and out of their workaday doldrums playing the characters so elegantly drawn by Fitzgerald. The seminal novel about the dreams and delusions of the young strivers of New York's upper and wannabe-upper class took flight onstage. The drab office was a perfect contrast to the life, both lofty and artificial, depicted in the book.

There are many surprises. First, it's funny — something unexpected from one of the great tragedies in American literature. But it's undeniable when hearing and seeing it onstage. Of course ERS has helped entertain with its inventive staging and visual touches. You feel you are witnessing something fresh and new. Great art often makes you see something familiar in a totally new way. Director John Collins said recently, "We knew we might fail, but it would be a worthwhile failure."

gatz-shepherd-iris.jpgAs Shepherd reads and the action takes place around him, the novel he holds becomes the most important character on the stage. In fact, when he leaves the book after Gatsby's murder and starts reciting the words by heart, it's somehow shocking to see him go on without the novel in hand.

It was exhilarating, exciting, hypnotic, poignant, heartfelt, intelligent and utterly charming theater. It lasted from afternoon 'til evening and it didn't make me tired. I laughed, I cried and felt everything in between.

When it was over, I was weirdly energized. I confess that somehow I had gone all these years without actually ever reading the novel, having started it a few days before I saw the show. After it was over, I couldn't wait to go home and finish it, relishing the thought of being immersed in the writing all over again.

Elevator Repair Service has been trying since 1999 to do a staging of "The Great Gatsby." Initially, it was not their intention to read the whole book onstage. But in trying to structure a play from the book, Collins and Shepherd said that every time they tried to extract something meaningful from the novel, it always seemed to diminish the work.

After years of wrestling with the book they decided the only way to do this was to read the novel it in its entirety. It took years to get permission from the estate to play in New York and Los Angeles, although it has been performed abroad intermittently since its Brussels premiere in 2006. Redcat finally succeeded in bringing it to its stage. It will run for 9 performances through December 9.

After seeing this production, I watched a trailer for the upcoming film of "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan and a cast of thousands. Multitudes of elaborately costumed extras leap off the screen, carousing in opulent locations featuring Gatsby's extravagant mansion lit up like a house on fire. It was a cacophony of excess. Nothing was left to the imagination and I'm sure no expense was spared. The clip only lasted two minutes, but I afterwards I thought "Now THAT was exhausting."

It was so much more satisfying to settle in for 7 hours of inventive storytelling, seated in a roomful of perfect strangers who had gathered together to share something unforgettable.

Photos of the production and of Scott Shepherd by Iris Schneider

October 25, 2012

Q&A: Daniel Olivas and USC poet Andrew Allport

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the novel, "The Book of Want" (University of Arizona Press.)

In my day job as a government lawyer, I work with many non-writers who love literature. They belong to book clubs, read publications such as The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Review of Books,, and LA Observed. And they argue, argue, argue about the merits of the latest "big" book.

body-of-space-in-the-shape-of-the-human.jpgSome of my colleagues have an even closer connection to literature. For example, one of the lawyers on my floor is married to an acclaimed novelist. And I recently learned that one of our newly hired attorneys has an award-winning poet for a husband. That poet is Andrew Allport, who holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is the author of a chapbook, "The Ice Ship and Other Vessels," published by Proem Press. His reviews and poetry have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.

And now Allport can add a full-length collection to his name. His book, the body | of space | in the shape of the human, won a poetry contest and was published this year by New Issues Press. After reading his new book, I asked Allport if he'd be open to an online interview, and he agreed.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Your debut collection, "the body | of space | in the shape of the human," was the winner of the 2011 New Issues Poetry Prize. How did you learn that you'd won? Had you submitted the manuscript to other poetry contests?

ANDREW ALLPORT: I had submitted the manuscript to at least a few other first book prizes, though I had really forgotten about them when I got a call from Marianne Sweringa, the managing editor at New Issues. At the time I was working as a sort of writer-for-hire in a sleepy corner of the university bureaucracy; everything I wrote was in bullet points. I was a little dazed by the news. I remember being quite sure that my name had been mistakenly put on some other poet's manuscript, and it would only be a matter of time before Marianne called back to apologize for the mix-up. She sounded like a nice person, so I hoped she'd take pity on me and publish mine as well.

DO: How did your manuscript take shape? Did it go through many iterations before you believed it was ready to submit it to the New Issues contest?

AA: It was a long and confusing process to get the book to where it ended up. I can't remember all of it, but basically what happened was this: when my father died very unexpectedly in 2008, I was already nearly done with a poetry manuscript. After a period of incapacitation, I managed to write a couple poems about the experience. But they hardly fit with the rest of the collection. Instead of starting a new manuscript, which might have been less effort, I began replacing poems, and the book gradually shifted in tone as the feeling of elegy took over, becoming darker and more emotionally direct. I think I worked this way because the idea of starting something new seemed too daunting at the time; perhaps this had to do with finding ways of making life after a traumatic experience somehow contiguous with life before, or perhaps it was something else. In any case, in the end only a couple of poems remained from the original when I submitted it to New Issues, and those were subsequently cut.

DO: You divide your collection into four sections each beginning with quotations from, respectively, Shakespeare's "King Lear," Robert Musil's novel, "The Man Without Qualities," Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 letter to Thomas Poole, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel's "On the Study of Greek Poetry." How do these authors set the stage for each section? How have they influenced you as a poet?

AA: Lear is my favorite play. I think it has affected me in different ways ever since I read it for the first time in high school, when I cried in English class over Cordelia's death, which I never saw coming. The quotation in the book, which precedes the first section, is from the scene where Edgar, the good son, is pretending to lead his blind and suicidal father towards a cliff. Edgar has to keep reassuring Gloucester that yes, the cliff is coming up soon, feeding him all this sensory information: the pitch of the hill, the smell of the sea, the tininess of the people below. When I set out to write about my father, I decided that I needed that kind of transparent artifice, in which the fictional setting becomes more evocative than the real one. The fact that there is no cliff only heightens the pathos of Gloucester's attempt at suicide; Edgar's resurrection of his father is a moment of love and forgiveness but also a lie. I knew I would lie about him, but I knew that lying would be part of telling the truth about him.

As for Musil and Coleridge and Schlegel, I don't have such a clear idea. They were things I was reading at the time and must have jotted down. They represent different ideas of art and different thematic elements of the book, but it's all kind of jumbled up and impossible to put one epigraph to a particular theme. Coleridge is talking about the difference between parts and the whole; Schlegel about naturalness and the sentimentality; Musil about progress and nostalgia. The epigraphs freeze each of them into little statuettes of thought, probably grotesquely distorted. The first epigraph of the book is the important one, I think, but--and this is true of the section breaks as well--I think it's important for a collection to have little stopping points where readers can take a break, reflect, and decide if they want to keep going or call it a day.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is "Keats, Listening to Van Morrison" because I love Morrison's song "And It Stoned Me" which paints a nostalgic scene of two boys caught in the rain after going fishing. You play off the Morrison lyrics as you imagine John Keats being moved by his vocals ("Strange entanglement of singing, a twin voice..."). What brought you to this unusual pairing?

AA: Keats seems like he would have been one of those boys in the song. There's a freedom to the scenes of the song! These two boys hitchhiking around and drinking whiskey with strangers...but such an innocence, too. And the speaker is so observant and close to the sensations of the experience, with the water on his skin and the joy of just being out and alive in the world. Keats was, from all accounts, a fierce and funny guy to be around, despite the tuberculosis. I'm into the Romantics--Wordsworth gets an appearance in the book, too, hiking around in California--but to me their value is their effect on our current moods and problems, not so much their original context. The title used to be "Reading Keats, Listening to Van Morrison," but someone suggested it would be better without "Reading," because it suggests that it's Keats who is listening to the song, which is an image I like better: the two boys make him think of his brother Tom, and perhaps all the water makes him think of mortality, and his own epithet as well--"one whose name was writ on water." Likeness in the unlikeness, right?

DO: The poet, Mark Irwin, observes that your collection "take[s] its emotional heart from Book VI of St. Augustine's 'Confessions,'" a book that is considered by many as the first Western autobiography. When did you first read Confessions? Do you agree with Irwin's assessment?

AA: The title of the book comes from this section of Augustine, although the words aren't in that order. As does the question at the heart of writing: "In what state shall we depart this life?" When I first read Augustine I was attracted, as many people have been, to its honesty and specificity. As you say, it's an autobiography, and it has all the best aspects of contemporary autobiography (or what is increasingly labeled, oddly, "creative non-fiction"): humble beginnings, ambition, drugs, concubines, spiraling doubt and despair, divorce, self-reinvention, apostasy, and spiritual rebirth. Bob Dylan, basically. The metaphysical question of Book VI is the physical existence of the divine--how do you picture something that simultaneously has no shape but is everywhere? For Augustine, this was about reconciling ideas of God, but I found that they echoed the difficulty of thinking about grief and absence: someone who dies is like God to us, unknowable and intimate.

DO: How would you describe your writing routine? How do you juggle teaching, marriage and fatherhood with the writing life?

AA: It's not much of a routine. My mentor, David St. John, once gave me some reassuring advice about writing that I try to keep in mind. He said you have to recognize how you work and respect your method, no matter how erratic or disgraceful it seems compared to other people's habits. I write when I can, which is not to say I'm always writing when I could be. Teaching is a funny business in that you're always exhorting your students to write, and sometimes feel bad if you're not taking your own advice.

DO: How much do you hate the question (usually from friends and family): What are you writing now?

AA: Wait, are you pointing out the aggravating nature of this question while also asking it? Tricky...well, since you asked, I'm early in another collection. It's on boyhood, drone aircraft, Pythagoras, and water rights. So far...

October 18, 2012

Revisiting the Garden of Allah

GOA pool.jpgIn early October, contributor Kaitlin Parker posted a lovely history of the Garden of Allah hotel/apartment complex in slide show format, featuring an underground tour of the site in its current incarnation as a mini mall at Crescent Heights and Sunset. Ulisses Acosta, the site's current property manager, even revealed tiles and tunnels that may date back to the hotel's original foundation.
TTWS-cover-11-SMALL-195x300.jpgOne of the few people who might know for sure is author Martin Turnbull, who has devoted himself to tracking down bits of Garden of Allah hotel lore and integrating them into his fictional series about the famed residential hotel through the decades.

On Saturday, October 20th at 1 PM, Martin will join the LA Chapter of The Dorothy Parker Society at Greenblatt's Deli to discuss his research and latest Garden of Allah novel, The Trouble with Scarlett, featuring Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley who both lived in the hotel its Golden Age in the '30s.

Martin may even have an update on the status of the historical, original scale model of the complex that's still up for auction.

Join us on Saturday. We'll be on the second floor of Greenblatt's Deli at 1 for a no-host lunch.

Historic Garden of Allah photos from Marc Wanamaker and the Bison Archives.

September 11, 2012

LA-centric text-speak

In this town of vanity license plates — WINBIGG lives right up the street and we've spent hours trying to figure out what he does; SLPYDOC who you'd think might work at Disney, but actually is an anesthesiologist who was famous for making house-calls; and my fave, A GUCCI on the back of an ancient mint-green Cadillac Eldorado the color of a pack of menthol cigarettes; BKINIS; CBRISKET; PERFECT; I♥BOTOX, and the somewhat interesting MOD3RN — my car doesn't have a license plate at all.

I got a new car a year and a half ago. My neighbor, who'd moved here from Atlanta a year ago, asked me yesterday in her adorable drawl, how I'd gotten a-way with driving a car for a year that doesn't have a license plate...

a-gucci-plate.jpg"I can explain," I said. "I really can."

I didn't want a new car. My lease was up and it cost too much to buy it in some banking formula I don't understand (as I'm sure the second I turned it in, they resold it to someone else for half the price.)

I realize this is LA-centric but it's not my fault I live in a city where it's not possible to walk from one place to another; public transportation is limited and sluggish; I'm too scared to ride a bicycle on a city street, let alone navigate a high-speed canyon; and constructing a subway, in my opinion, under a city that's actually on an earthquake fault (or three) and has a working oil-well dead-center (on the high-school campus of Beverly Hills) is one of the worst ideas ever, and if I was FEMA I would be fighting it.

But back to my car. I got the same exact car I had before just a newer model. I don't like it as much. It's not quite as zippy. It's probably a little safer: I can't quite drive it with one finger, I have to keep both hands on the wheel.

A few weeks later, a yellow envelope arrived from the DMV which due to its inflexibility and size was obviously my new license plate. I knew the moment I saw it. I had some sixth sense. I put it on the mail table like an unwanted court summons. I didn't open it.

A friend came for dinner. I brought the envelope into the dining room. "I can't open this," I said. "I know it's terrible. I know I can't put this on my car."

My husband rolled his eyes. My friend said, "You're being ridiculous. Just open it."

I opened up the envelope and looked at the license plate. It was worse than I could've even imagined -- it was a perfect abbreviation in text-speak.

My license plate said in big capital letters: 6SXL208.

I instantly translated the "SXL" to Sexual and when you add the "6" in, it became Sick Sexual. (No idea what the 208 meant, but I wasn't taking any chances.)

The "SXL" was bad enough but when you put the "6" in front of it. The text-speak instantly transformed to a sext.

What if somebody thought it was a vanity license plate?!

"Not happening," I said to both of them.

They looked completely perplexed. My husband said sheepishly, "It's just a license plate."

"No, it's not," I insisted. "It's asking for trouble. Worst case scenario, someone could think it was an invitation to follow you home."

The next day, I called the DMV. I got a very nice person named Anthony. I told him my story. "OMG," he said, without missing a beat, "you can't drive around with that on the back of your car. I get it completely. What if you were driving home alone late at night and someone decided to follow you?!" He told me to make an appointment at the DMV and for an $18.00 administration fee, they would give me a new license and registration.

I asked him if he'd ever had a call like this before. "Oh, yeah," he answered. "We've been having a lot of trouble with the 6 series. A lot of people are getting 666 and they don't like it, at all. But I have to tell you this is the worst one I've ever heard."

I can't explain why it took me a year and a half to get to the DMV. Well, I sort of can. Our local DMV was shuttered for renovation, life got in the way, I sort of liked being anonymous, if I got caught by a red-light camera, they wouldn't be able to find me. For the record, I have a clean driving record.

But last week, I finally went to the DMV. My husband came with me, partly because he's supportive and partly because he was certain they weren't going to take it back.

I told my story to the woman behind the counter. In some version of the "cheese-lady," she rolled her eyes at my husband sympathetically. (Everyone has a "cheese-lady." The cheese-lady is the woman behind the counter at Whole Foods who whenever I'm being particularly fussy about cheese, rolls her eyes sympathetically at my husband and then bats them three times. And I maintain that in every marriage, there's someone like the cheese-lady. For the record, we have a cheese-man, too.) But since I figured we never had to interact with the woman at the DMV again, I didn't give her the kind of dirty look I usually give the "cheese-lady." Also, I was a little worried about my replacement license plate.

"You can return it," she said. "But I only have one," and added with some attitude, "I hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will," I said with extreme confidence. I did. It was better than I could've even imagined.

My new license plate is 6WQW213.

My husband looked at me somewhat baffled as did the "cheese lady" at the DMV.

But in some text-speak version of K$sha with a dollar sign instead of an "e", I instantly interpreted the "Q" as a fancy variation of an "O" and "213" being L.A.'s primary area code translated it to 6WOWLA. Yep. Text-speak.

So, I have an appointment this week at the car dealership to get holes drilled into my car (why they aren't there in the first place, is also something that baffles me) so I can put the darn thing on the car. And if a police officer stops me in the meantime (for driving around without a plate), I'll just have to try to "sxplain."

loose-diamonds.jpgThe paperback edition of Amy Ephron's latest book, Loose Diamonds...and other things I've lost and found along the way, was just released with an added story, "Secrets," and a bound-in readers' guide. She will talk about the book and sign copies at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Thursday night at 7 p.m.

She writes a monthly column "L.A. POV" for the New York Times' T on-line on fashion, entertainment, food, and occasionally court. She recently directed a short film, "Chloe@3 AM," which was featured by the American Cinematheque at the female director's festival in January 2011.

Amy Ephron is also the author of five novels, including the international bestseller "A Cup of Tea;" "Biodegradable Soap;" the L.A. angst ridden "Bruised Fruit," and the cult classic "Cool Shades." She is publisher and editor of One For the Table, a website devoted to food, politics and love. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alan Rader, and any of their five children who drop in.

Photo: Maia Harari

August 14, 2012

Who you gonna call?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been under siege lately, with its operations and practices going back for many years under scrutiny. But there's a side of law enforcement that is rarely talked about. It came to the fore the other day, in the Texas shooting of a cop and several others; as it happened, the constable had gone to the home of an unstable man to serve eviction papers. The man killed him.

I write about a very similar incident in my new book Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. It's about a beloved deputy in the Antelope Valley - the little-known side of LA County - who was gunned down by a hermit in August of 2003 (nine years ago this month) by a hermit who may have feared eviction. As it turned out, the deputy was looking for someone else he had evicted from the area in the days prior to his visit - and there were additional, underlying reasons for the incident, all of which are explored in my book.

I first wrote about the killing and the manhunt for Rolling Stone; during the two years that I worked on my piece, I came to see a side of law enforcement that is not generally apparent to many civilians. The work of a cop is dangerous. It's one thing to say that but another to see it. Most cops get nervous about domestic violence calls or traffic stops - the deadliest kind of police work. Deputy Stephen Sorensen had volunteered for the position of resident deputy in Lake Los Angeles. That involved patrolling a far-flung area of the Mojave, where if you're in trouble, it might take an hour for back-up to arrive. As it happened, he had a run-in with the hermit Donald Kueck during a highway encounter years before their final clash. It nearly became violent, and strangely, occurred at just about the same time - high noon on a summer day - in the Antelope Valley.

llano-sign-lao.jpgAfter my magazine piece came out, I spent the next six years working on my book. It continues my long-time desert wanderings, expanding the story of the week-long manhunt and the two main characters, the sheriff and the hermit. In addition, it takes a look at the history of the old commune of Llano; it was near these crumbling ruins that the shoot-out occurred, just outside the trailer where Kueck once tried to build a utopia for one, and not that far from where Sorensen lived and worked, available when anyone had a need.

During my journey into this story, I spent time with several cops who were involved with the hunt for Kueck, a dedicated desert citizen who knew the terrain so well that he managed to outfox a massive, high-tech posse for seven days. One of the cops, veteran homicide detective Mark Lillienfeld, loaned me a book which recounts the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Through that book and others, I learned that Los Angeles - not Deadwood or Tombstone - was the most violent of all frontier outposts, the place where many an outlaw landed as they rolled westward.

I also spent hours listening to tapes of the final conversations between Detective Lillienfeld and Donald Kueck, as the cop tried to convince the fugitive to surrender after he was surrounded in a complex of sheds where he was making his last stand. Throughout this strange shadow play, Lillienfeld was at the Riverside apartment of Kueck's daughter; Kueck had been calling her while on the run and now, in his final hours, the siege was being televised, with choppers hovering over the hide-out as a sundown deadline for surrender approached. The conversations between the cop and the hermit are recounted in my book, with both men wanting something from the other as a distraught daughter is caught in the middle. Listening to these conversations told me a lot about an unseen side of police work - an emotional toll that cops try to hide in one way or another - and a few other things as well.

To write my book, I also went inside the SWAT operation, with the help of Lt. Bruce Chase and then others involved in it. During my many conversations with Chase, we talked about why he signed up with the sheriff's department. To my surprise - and I'm not sure why, as I'm not surprised by all that much - one of the reasons was that he was a long-time fan of Louis L'Amour. Reading L'Amour's work as a kid, he was struck by the code of honor that motivated the Sackett brothers and other L'Amour characters; like them, he came west one day and joined the law.

But that doesn't mean law enforcement didn't throw him a few curves. For instance, during the manhunt, the SWAT team staged its operations from, of all places, a desert convent. In addition to their own vans and other equipment, the sheriff's department needed a structure near the crime scene which could serve as a base. They also needed a place where they could land a chopper. A convent in Lake Los Angeles served the purpose and during the seven-day hunt, deputies were coming in from the desert to eat and sleep; some prayed with the nuns. Chase was relieved to throw off his gear in a shady place and catch some rest on the cool cement floor of the convent after trekking across the desert bakery all day. Yet it was certainly not how he or any of his compadres had envisioned a life in law enforcement.

Months after the manhunt concluded in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon, I sat down with Sheriff Baca and asked him why someone would want to go to the desert and guard it, alone. "Whatever it was," he told me, "it was Steve's mission to protect God's creation." It's an apt description of the Mojave Desert, with its Joshua trees, terror, and beauty.

When it comes to law enforcement, we have a schizophrenic relationship. A free country needs rules after all, and nowhere is this dynamic more palpable than in the Mojave, where the silence can calm you down or jack you up, whispering all sorts of messages until one day, someone has a problem and the man shows up and you suspect that you have to leave your home.

Photo: LA Observed

May 29, 2012

Counter of books at The Last Bookstore downtown


Photo by Judy Graeme.

May 7, 2012

What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles


Joel Bellman, a former radio and newspaper journalist, is communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Chances are, the recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. His longtime partner had died two years earlier. And Higham - who'd reportedly broken his hip earlier in a fall - had passed away more than a week before the story of his death finally broke in the Hollywood Reporter.

To the extent that Higham was known at all by the general public, it was for a series of sensational tell-all celebrity biographies notorious for their scandalous, sometimes thinly sourced and often hotly denied allegations of personal peccadilloes, weird sex (lots of it) and general depraved portrayals of his subjects. Critics dismissed them; the entertainment industry reviled them; and ultimately, many readers simply tired of them.

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death. And I thought back to a long-ago interview I conducted with him, and how, though it was our only contact, it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of both my professional career, and my life.

Higham's literary career was controversial, to put it mildly. Born into privilege in England, his family fell on hard times following a divorce. He published poetry from a young age and wrote several plays. Later, as a successful journalist and film critic, he took a writer-in-residence position at UC Santa Cruz, which led to his first book, one of the few serious critical overviews of the films of Orson Welles. Though generally admiring, it was also unsparing - and committed, for Welles acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and author Barbara Leaming, the unpardonable sin of blaming Welles for many unnecessary self-inflicted career wounds. Higham attributed them to Welles's "fear of completion" that repeatedly led him to abandon projects that remained unfinished, or were subsequently maimed and mishandled by others attempting to salvage what was left.

Higham went on to become the New York Times Hollywood correspondent, and the successful author of numerous formulaic and increasingly sordid biographies largely trashing some of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

I don't know whether Errol Flynn really was a Nazi spy or Cary Grant a "wife-beating, miserly closeted homosexual," as one obit short-handed two of his more sensational claims. But when I had the opportunity to interview Higham for a radio documentary I was producing on Orson Welles, I didn't care. Tawdry tales of Tinseltown - true, exaggerated, invented, unverifiable - didn't interest me.

What did interest me, intensely, was what he'd written about Welles, an early hero of mine both for his prolific and wildly successful radio career in the 1930s and 1940s, and for a small handful of some of the most memorable American films ever made, from the acknowledged masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" to the noir classics "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil."

In 1985, Welles turned 70, and Higham had written "Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius," the more critical of two biographies published that year. The other, by Hunter College film professor Barbara Leaming, boasted Welles's complete cooperation and Leaming's uncritical adoration, offering a gracefully written and colorful portrait of an uncompromising genius who'd suffered more than his share of indignities and tough breaks in a world of artistic philistines. Higham's book, by contrast, had enjoyed no cooperation from Welles at all - that earlier book had ensured lifelong enmity from the sensitive and easily wounded Welles. Its writing was mechanical, the tone generally unsympathetic, the narrative a tragic arc of vanity, indulgence, and artistic dissipation. Small wonder that critics dismissed it as merely the latest uninspired product in a literary assembly line of celebrity takedowns.

Still, much as I love and admire so much of Welles's work, I could not brush aside Higham's "fear of completion" thesis. And when I interviewed Higham - after having earlier interviewed Leaming - I found myself increasingly skeptical of her sunny, uncritical embrace of the Orsonian world-view. I really wanted to embrace her simplistic account of the unjust victimization of a misunderstood and underappreciated genius. But Higham, a more graceless writer, nevertheless made a compelling case for something more than just bad luck dogging Welles's career. As an acting prodigy whose lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare began when he was a young boy, Orson himself in a candid moment might have agreed with Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

As I was wrapping up my interview with Higham, he offhandedly asked me if I'd interviewed Welles himself for the piece. "Oh, God, no," I said, dismissing the possibility. "I can't imagine he'd agree to do something like this. He doesn't know who I am, and I don't know anyone who knows him." Higham replied, "You should do it. At least try. He's staying here in town at a house in the (Hollywood) Hills close by."

As I pondered our conversation later, I began to think, "Yeah - what the hell? What have I got to lose? Why don't I?" I made a mental note to follow up.

The following week, as it turned out, based on some previous investigative reporting I had done, I was subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit brought against the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. After almost two full days on the stand, getting pounded in cross-examination by the LaRouche attorney - an aggressive former prosecutor - I was exhausted and anxious to get back to my documentary.

As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I snapped on KNX for a quick news update, only to hear: "Actor-director Orson Welles was found dead today in the Hollywood Hills home where he had recently been staying. Officials said he had suffered an apparent heart attack, and died alone. Welles, 70, was best known..."

I don't remember the rest of the report; I don't think I heard it. I may have been in shock. Not only would I have to reconfigure the documentary from a birthday tribute to a eulogy, I could not believe how my timidity and procrastination had cost me a priceless opportunity to snare what might have been one of the very last interviews Orson Welles would ever grant. At the very least, I had missed forever a chance to tell the great man how much his work had inspired me. And he'd been living less than a mile from my office.

I went on to finish what became a two-part documentary, a sad and difficult job quite different than the project I had eagerly embarked upon. It got some attention and won a few awards, and today it's part of the archived holdings in the Paley Center for the Media. But I will always regret the failure of nerve that carried such an incalculable price.

Late in his career, in a reflective moment, Welles famously observed that "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone." Last month, Higham - like Orson - apparently suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, alone. He, too, was past his prime, his early artistic promise not eclipsed by a string of hammy bit parts, chat-show appearances and Paul Masson commercials, but buried under a pile of lurid yet lucrative celebrity exposes that similarly earned him wealth and fame, while costing him dearly in credibility and respect.

But it's the second half of Welles's quote that I want to remember: "Only through our love and friendship," he added, "can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." And that's the lesson I learned not just from Orson, but from Higham: in work, and in life, never hesitate to reach out to someone, no matter how prominent or inaccessible they may seem.

They can only say no. But over the decades, I've been surprised by how often they say yes.

Washington Post file photo from 1981 of Charles Higham; young Welles photo from Bellman

April 16, 2012

The Stendahl connection

P4140087.JPGNow that I've read April Dammann's book, The Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario, I'm discovering more and more that art dealer Earl Stendahl still influences our city's artistic evolution.

There's a Stendahl connection to LACMA's exhibition "Children of the Plumed Serpent: the Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico," which opened April 1st. Stendahl, the first U.S. dealer in Pre-Columbian art has a piece in the show, a large capstone from Teotihuacan, Mexico, which the late Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Fields acquired for the museum before her untimely passing. In addition, Stendahl Galleries loaned Earl Stendahl's letters from Diego Rivera, promoting Emmy Lou Packard, a young American artist who worked with Diego and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, to the current LACMA show "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States." Earl Stendahl became Packard's dealer and sold her work at rates equal to his male artists at a time when many dealers did not.

Upcoming are two rare occasions to tour Earl Stendahl's home/gallery in Hollywood. Author April Dammann will be discussing her book and Earl Stendahl's work at an open house with the Los Angeles Visionaries Association on Sunday, April 22nd at 1 PM. Make your reservations here.

Stendahl Galleries will host a new show that is only open for one weekend. From Friday, April 27 through Sunday, April 29, the work of Maynard Hale Lyndon will be on view in an exhibit called "Looking Boxes: Playful Ways of Seeing the World." "Meet the Artist" receptions are planned for Friday, April 27, 6 - 9 pm and Sat, April 28, 4 - 7 pm. RSVP. Contact for details and reservations.

Be sure to check out the Pre-Columbian art in the garden as pictured in this post. If you like what you see, here's the book's video.

April 11, 2012

April is my favorite month to stay in LA

annie+hall+tcm.jpgYou never have to look too far to find lots of things to do in Los Angeles, but April is the one month of the year I make sure I stay in town because so much comes to us. The third annual Turner Classic Film Festival opens on Thursday, April 12, immediately followed on April 16 by the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival and then their final weekend is overlapped by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at USC on April 21st and 22nd. So many choices, so little time.

This will be the 3rd annual TCM festival and I have to admit, when I first heard of their plans to bring classic films to the big screen at Grauman's and other theaters in the heart of Hollywood, I was dubious at best. How many people would show up to see "Sunset Boulevard" at 9 in the morning when they could stay in bed watching it on their television? Well, I was humbled to learn several thousand people from 49 states and throughout the world would and the festival has been selling out ever since. This year, stars such as Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Kim Novak and directors John Landis, John Carpenter and Stanley Donen are among the dozens who will be introducing films such as "Cabaret," "Two for the Road," "Auntie Mame," "Vertigo," "The Women" -- over 100 films in all. It is a veritable convention of film lovers and part of the joy of it for those of us who live here is that it is a reminder of how lucky we are - between UCLA, the Cinematheque at the Aero and the Egyptian, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences we have access to classic films year round.

Still, the TCM festival is something special. For those who didn't buy passes last summer when they went on sale, individual tickets are sold before the screenings on an "as available basis," so your chances are best at those shown in the largest venues, Grauman's Chinese and The Egyptian. Check out for the schedule and check again in a month or so to see when next year's passes go on sale.

The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival is in its sixteenth year -- and with fewer theaters showing foreign films year-round, it is a rare chance to see over thirty French films that may never be released in this country. Because of ColCoa, past attendees were already familiar with Jean Dujardin, this year's Oscar winner for best actor for "The Artist," because several of his previous films, including his hilarious OSS James Bond-spoofs, have been shown in past years. This year, new releases include the much anticipated "Another Woman's Life" starring Juliette Binoche and "Americano," starring Salma Hayek from the writer director Mathieu Demy, son of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. Classic films are celebrated at ColCoa and this year those include "Call Me Savage" starring Yves Montand and Marcel Carne's "Hotel du Nord." The festival is held at the Director's Guild and is open to the public. Full schedule

The Los Angeles Times continues with its budget struggles, but miraculously their Festival of Books flourishes. Each year hundreds of authors -- who spend so much of their time alone with their computer -- gather for a weekend to engage with -- and be amazed by -- thousands of active, engaged readers. There are a variety of "stages" -- the cooking stage, the poetry stage, the children's stage -- you get the idea -- and dozens of panels and one on one "conversations" such as Rodney King with Patt Morrison.

This year's "celebrity authors" include Betty White, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julie Andrews; Scott Berg will be moderating one of several biography panels (I am moderating another) and discussions with the likes of Katrina vanden Heuvel, Tom Hayden and Robert Scheer are sure to be lively and informative. Something for everyone. The Festival of Books was the brain child of Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman -- now both long gone from the Times -- and has evolved into one of the finest book festivals in the country. For years, the Festival was held at UCLA, but last year moved to USC. It opens on Friday night with what will be the 32nd annual LA Times Book Awards, coordinated by the Times' film critic Kenneth Turran, and that too has public tickets available. Admittance to the Festival of Books is free, but this year they are selling passes for $30 to eight panels for those who want to be sure to get in to see their favorites. (Stages and outdoor performances are all free as well.) It is still one the best deals in town and for tickets and more information. Website for info

Happy April.

Annie Hall screens at the Turner Classic Film Festival on April 15 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

February 18, 2012

Brushes with death and greatness

We start the day in Seattle. My husband and I meet a guy who buys green coffee beans. He's getting on a plane to Uganda in two hours, but has time for a chat that includes a brief discussion of the "magnificent bastards" one sometimes meets in various African countries, the ones who sluice your way to product, to connections, who offer outsize hospitality and big belly laughs, until the talk turns to money, which is when it all comes apart, and you realize you have once again fallen for a magnificent bastard.

I tell the guy, I just read and reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the actually magnificent book by Katherine Boo, about a slum in Mumbai and the commerce that rages there, the recycling of the tiniest of objects (used tampon applicators, anyone?), the micro-saboteurs, the NGO money that never goes where it's supposed to go, the smiling for the Western cameras. And yet, life goes on, as does death.

Two hours later, we are on our way back to Portland, driving south on the 5 freeway with several hundred pounds of green coffee in the back of the car. We've just picked up drive-thru. I am dumping fries into a bag my husband can easily access while driving when, POP! CRACK CRACK!

"Holy shit, what the fuck?" or something like it comes from our mouths, as does, "What happened?" Though we don't need to ask; the cold air rushing in the window just behind my husband tells us the window has exploded, as does the green glass that continues to shatter and pop.

"That did not come from a rock," says my husband, who does not slow down, who does not swerve. "Someone shot at us."

I undo my seatbelt and scrabble through the glass and coats in the backseat. I tell him, I see no shell...

"It wouldn't have been a bullet because that would have gone out through the opposite window," he says. "It was probably from a pellet gun."

We have no idea what car it came from; we're in the middle lane, cars and trucks passing on the left. But what an incredibly stupid thing, I am thinking, and then, as I look at the fish sandwich in my hand, what if they had shot through the driver's window? What if they had shot my husband in the head? I am not sure what sound I make, but he reaches over and says, "It's okay."

Yes, it is okay. Also, disturbing, to the point where terror is in your throat when you think about it, but what are you going to do?

What I am going to do, ninety minutes after we get back to Portland, is interview Katherine Boo. I had admired her book so much; at the work she did over a three-year period. We all, those of us who practice long-form narrative, have walked into projects with a great deal of gung-ho; sometimes, we falter. Boo did not falter. The opportunities for her to not merely leave, but to flee, were everywhere, as was dying, nearly always brutally, especially among the young. But she stayed, and with her staying, wrote a great book.


Boo approaches the table where I am to interview her. She is a tiny thing, I might easily cup both her hands in mine. As soon as she sits, we are in the thick of talking, of what it can feel like to be in the midst of a story, the trespassing nature of it, the slowness, the small moments of beauty you would never get if you did not stick around, the toll it can take and the push back from authorities, which in Boo's case meant being held by police. Also, the immense gratitude to friends, editors, spouses who say, don't be afraid to do this, and, you must do this.

I check the phone app I am using to record, files from which can be instantly loaded into the cloud for human transcription.

"Maybe in India," Boo says. Maybe. And it might be transcribed by the time I drive home. Not that I am driving tonight, glass still all over the car, and as I will later find, in my shoe.

After the interview, Boo and I hang out in front of her hotel. It's her first reading tonight. I tell her, the butterflies subside by the third or fourth. She asks what I am working on. I tell her, two projects, one for which everyone wants to tell me their stories, the second, about a murder, for which few will, people are afraid, not even the cops will talk to me...

"But they will, you know they will," Boo says, the subtext being, if you stay, if you commit. Standing in the light rain, smiling, she is so little but so big.

I take a cab home, and think what I nearly lost today, and what I was given, and how much I need both.

Nancy Rommelmann is the author of The Queens of Montague Street, which was recently excepted by the New York Times Magazine ("Dazed and Confused," February 5.)

November 17, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

  • Los Angeles Press Club honors Hugh Hefner at its Fourth Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards dinner at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel
  • Victoria Patterson speaks at Gustavo's [ Arellano] Awesome Lecture Series at Fullerton Library about her new novel, This Vacant Paradise. 6:30 PM
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hosts "Austria a la Carte" at the Austrian Consul's residence in Brentwood.
  • Author Richard Polsky converses with Shepard Fairey about Polsky's book, The Art Prophets: The Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers Who Shook the Art World, at Book Soup. 7 PM

Friday, November 18, 2011
  • The Spa Less Traveled: Discovering Ethnic Los Angeles, One Spa At a Time editors read their book at Vroman's. Oh, and happy 5th birthday to Prospect Park Media. 7 PM
  • Pasadena Children's Guild hosts its 44th Annual Snow Ball Preview Party and Auction at the Castle Green in Pasadena. 6:00 PM. Event continues with a brunch and holiday boutique at the same location on Saturday.
  • Filmmaker Wim Wenders discusses and signs Places, Strange and Quiet at Book Soup at 4 PM.
  • Randall Robinson discusses his novel, Makeda, at Eso Won Books at 7 PM.
  • Soil Desire People Dance performance starts at The Velaslavasay Panorama. Continues to Saturday. 8 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011" »

November 4, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

  • Dick Howard and Martín Plot discuss "Democracy in America" as part of the new West Hollywood Lecture Series curated in partnership with CalArts at the West Hollywood Library, City Council Chambers, starts at 7 PM
  • "Antiquity in the Twentieth Century: Modern Art and the Classical Vision" symposium starts at the Getty Villa and continues to Saturday. 10:30-5 PM
  • Los Angeles Transportation Club hosts its 88th Annual Installation Dinner at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach.
  • Lupus LA hosts its Ninth Annual Hollywood Bag Ladies Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
  • La Luz de Jesus Gallery 25th Anniversary Celebration Part 11 with Mark Mothersbaugh, Mark Ryden, and many, many others. 8 PM
  • Designer Alber Elbaz visits Lavin Store in Beverly Hills tonight.
  • Night & the City: LA Noir in Poetry, Fiction, & Film events at Beyond Baroque: Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles Legacy at 7:30 PM and A Night with James Ellroy, live and in person, at 9:30 PM. Venice
Saturday, November 5, 2011
  • SNL's Molly Shannon signs new book, Tilly the Trickster, at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. 1 PM
  • Los Angeles Police Foundation hosts its True Blue Gala at L.A. Live.
  • American Indian Arts Market at Autry National Center 10 AM -5 PM.
  • Friends of the Los Angeles River benefit hosted by the LA Weekly at its LA 101 Music Festival at the Gibson Ampitheatre, Universal City.
  • Leslie Klinger discusses Before Dracula: History of Vampire Literature at Brentwood Branch Library. 2PM
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art honors John Baldessari and Clint Eastwood at its inaugural Art and Film Gala.
  • Seth Rogen, Adam Arkin and others host Exceptional Children's Foundation's Fourth Annual Art Sale Fundraiser at Downtown Art Center Gallery. Los Angeles. 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011" »

October 28, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

  • Young Literati 4th Annual Toastbenefit for the Los Angeles Public Library hosted by Shepard Fairey and featuring the talents of Russell Brand, Demetri Martin, Henry Rollins at Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071. 8 PM
  • Zombie Prom starts at 9 PM in the historic Linda Vista Hospital , formerly Sante Fe Railroad Hospital, 610 S. St Louis St, Downtown, continues Sunday.
  • Peace Over Violence honors Los Angeles Police Chief at its 40th Annual Humanitarian Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 6 PM.
  • Urban Land Institute hosts Night at the Square on 10/27 from 6-8 PM
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles throw the The Big Bash! fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) presents "BELGIUM à la carte" at the Hancock Park residence of the Consul General of Belgium 7PM
Saturday, October 29 2011
  • ¡Vivan Los Muertos! at The Autry in Griffith Park, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462. 3-9 PM
  • Janet Fitch reads at the Hedgebrook LA Alumn Garden Party at the historic Stendahl Galleries in Hollywood Outpost Estates, benefiting Hedgebrook Women's Writer Colony in the Puget Sound.
  • First annual Automotive Authors Book Signing featuring Matt Stone, Steve Lehto, & Phil Noyes at Petersen Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd, Miracle Mile. 2-5 PM
  • Night & the City Lit Bar Crawl with PENUSA. 7 PM h/t Rina Rubinstein's Culture Alert newsletter:
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center hosts the Women's Guild Annual Gala at the Kodak Theatre.
  • Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles hosts Girltopia: The World of Girl Live at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Run for cover from the Girlzillas running amok Downtown at the sold out event.

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011" »

October 24, 2011

LARB eyes Joan Didion

Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) devotes a week to the work of Joan Didion, who has just released another memoir, called Blue Nights. Meghan Daum, Susan Straight, Amy Wilentz, Richard Rayner, Amy Ephron, and today, Matthew Specktor, who grew up around the corner when Didion lived in Brentwood, contribute essays contemplating the author and her place in the L.A. literary landscape.

The upstart literary review now comes in e-book format via Kindle. And on Thursday, November 3, Live Talks Los Angeles hosts a benefit for the LARB in the form of a conversation between the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and filmmaker Ed Zwick.

Can't get enough of La Didion? Catch "An Evening with Joan Didion" at Vibiana on Nov. 16 through the ALOUD lectures program.

October 20, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 2011

  • Celebrity Chef Tour fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, featuring the cooking of Iron Chef Marc Forgione and family at Chaya Brasserie, West Hollywood, 7:30 PM. h/t Eater LA
  • Outfest Legacy Project honors Adam Shankman at its Legacy Awards 2011 at the Directors Guild of America. 8 PM
  • Eric Olsen, Glenn Schaeffer, & Michelle Huneven discuss and sign We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at Book Soup at 7 PM.
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America honors Earvin "Magic" Johnson at its Heroes & High Hopes Award at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at L.A. Live.
  • Bonnie Nadzam will read and sign her debut novel, Lamb, at Skylight Books at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 21, 2011
  • LA Fashion Week starts today at the Sunset Gower Studios.
  • Thad Nodine will read and sign his debut novel, Touch and Go, and Andrea Portes will read her novel, Hick, at Skylight Books, starting at 7:30 PM
  • GLSEN-Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network honors Chaz Bono and Rob Reiner at its Seventh Annual Respect Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 5:30 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011" »

October 14, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

  • Congresswoman Karen Bass discusses Obama's Job Package at the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum of Greater Los Angeles in the North Campus,Crystal Ballroom of the West Angeles Church of God In Christ, 3045 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 7:30 AM
  • William Shatner signs his release of his new space-themed concept album, "Seeking Major Tom." at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. 7 PM
  • American Cinematheque honors Robert Downey, Jr. at its 25th Annual Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Starts at 6:30 PM
  • ArtNight starts in Pasadena at 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011" »

October 6, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 6, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

  • PEN USA and The Paris Review host a party featuring insights from Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, Mona Simpson, and Michael Tolkin in the Cactus Lounge of the Standard Hotel. 7:30-10 PM
  • The Drucker Business Forum hosts Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner for a look at "Keeping LA Competitive in the Global Economy" at Crawford Family Forum, 474 S Raymond Ave, 3 PM
  • LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne discusses cars, freeways, & getting around LA as part of a series on "Transportation & Living Streets" at Occidental College
  • Documentarian Aron Ramen screens his documentary "Pwer & Control: LSD In the 60's" at Beyond Baroque , 681 Venice Blvd, Venice 5 PM
  • LA artists Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston & Betye Saar reminisce at Natural History Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd
  • Aloud presents criminologist David M Kennedy in conversation with LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck at 7 PM.Taper Auditorium, LA Central Public Library, Downtown LA
  • "The Hollywood Librarian" documentary screens at CSULA, U-SU Theatre, Cal State Univ, 5151 State University Dr, LA. 6 PM
  • Harry Gamboa, Jr. & Willie Herrón lead a tour of the exhibition "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987" at 7 PM at LA County Museum of Art

Friday, October 7, 2011

October 4, 2011

A Hot Date with Libros Schmibros

The hottest literary ticket this month isn't LA Aloud or Arianna Huffington's salon or a poetry slam at some Johnny Depp-owned dive in darkest Hollywood.

It's hanging out at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights or the second, pop-up Libros that is now temporarily ensconced in the lobby of the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

For those who haven't yet heard, Libros Schmibros is a lending library and used bookstore in Boyle Heights dreamed up by critic, literary flaneur, former NEA bigwig and all-around book geek David Kipen. Can we clone him, please?

Recently, some brilliant minds at the Hammer got the idea to replicate Kipen's eclectic Boyle Heights set-up at their museum for six weeks. The functional yet conceptual art installation has been such a success with staff, museum visitors and area neighbors that the Hammer has extended Libros Schmibros West til November 5.

Initially, Kipen wondered how he would staff two bookstores at the same time. So he sent out a literary SOS to LA's community of writers. Would authors be willing to spend a few hours hanging out in either the Boyle Heights and the Westwood pop-up store as artists-in-residence.

Our mission: to shelve books, explain the Libros Schmibros philosophy to anyone who wandered in and generally hang out. Think Les Deux Magots without alcohol.

Here's how Libros works:

Every book in the library is for sale at half its listed price. Browsers may also borrow a book for three weeks on the honor system, leaving only an email address or phone number as collateral.

The city's scribblers responded to Kipen in droves, so that on any given day, you're liable to run into Mona Simpson, Jonathan Gold, Hector Tobar, Jervey Tervalon, Aimee Bender, Louise Steinman Sarah Bynum, Richard Rayner, DJ Waldie or Gary Phillips shooting the breeze with whoever wanders in.

Libros Schmibros has also hosted several nighttime events, including a standing-room only marathon reading of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and author Mark Z. Danielewski and guests discussing Thomas Pynchon's LA Trilogy. On Oct. 8, the Boyle Heights store will host a post-Yom Kippur feast with Jonathan Gold.

Last week, it was my turn at the Hammer's pop-up store. J. Michael Walker, artist and author of "All the Saints of the City of Los Angeles" was there too. (A gifted interpreter of LA culture, mythology, history and art, he also created the illustrated LA cultural map on the back wall of Libros West).

Michael and I hung out and chatted with visitors who came and went.

"You're Denise Hamilton?" asked one bemused visitor. "I've been meaning to read you!"

The visitor bought one of my books, which I happily autographed. Then I autographed four more for other people.

Soon Mike the Poet dropped by with some book donations and serenaded us with a brand new poem that Suzanne Lummis of the L.A. Poetry Foundation had commissioned for the Night and the City LA Poetry Festival this month.

The books for sale or borrow are wildly eclectic and include many that Kipen amassed in his years as book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. There are first editions, paperback classics, gorgeous coffee table art books and noir paperbacks. In a poignant twist, the bookshelves at Libros Schmibros West came from the much lamented and recently closed Mystery Bookstore in Westwood.

Which incredulously, leaves exactly zero bookstores in the cultural hub of Westwood, (except for UCLA's) except this modest pop-up whose lights will go out for good on Nov. 5.

So come on down to Libros Schmibros at its original Boyle Heights location or the temporary Westwood digs at the Hammer. I'm about to sign up for a second gig myself. You never know what interesting people I might run into.

david-kipen.JPGDavid Kipen with visitor at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights. Photo: Marianne Williams.

September 27, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

  • Los Angeles Philharmonic's gala "Rhapsody in Blue" expects about 650 guests at Disney Hall.
  • Chris Salewicz discusses his book, Bob Marley: The Untold Story, at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 7PM
  • Aloud at Central Library presents Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America in conversation with UC Irvine School of Law founding dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., L.A. 7 p.m. Free.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
  • Jaimy Gordon: The National Book Award-winning author of The Lord of Misrule will read and discuss her work at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A. 7:30 PM
  • Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles honors Connie Rice at its Angel of Peace Award Luncheon at the offices of the California Endowment.
  • Amor Towles signs his new novel, Rules of Civility, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., L.A. 7 PM
Thursday, September 29, 2011
  • Joachim Sauter, Art Center alumna Rebeca Méndez and Christian Moeller discuss digital media in a built environment at Art Center in Pasadena 7 PM, as part of the school's 3X3 series: "Get Physical, New Media in Space."
  • Author Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") will give a talk on Thomas Pynchon's three Los Angeles novels, not counting Gravity's Rainbow. Libros Schmibros, 2000 E. 1st St., L.A. 7

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011" »

September 23, 2011

Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene

porch.jpgPacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 -- that Getty-supported initiative documenting the origins of the area's contemporary art scene currently on display at various cultural institutions across the Southland -- provides Angelenos with unprecedented opportunities to peep into hitherto hidden private collections and galleries all over town. One such treasure is the Stendahl Galleries in the Hollywood Hills. It is the legacy of legendary art dealer, Earl Stendahl, who played an important role in incubating a market for Modern art in Southern California in the early 20th century.

Continue reading "Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene" »

September 8, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

  • Zócalo at the Hammer: Randall Kennedy ponders "Is Obama Erasing the Color Line?" at Hammer Museum at 7 PM.
  • Taschen Beverly Hills hosts a tasting and book party for Jim Heimann's Menu Design in America from 7-9 PM. Reservations required. Call 310 274 4300.
  • MAK Center Exhibition Opening Reception for "Final Projects" 7:00 PM
  • Fashion Night Out events all over town

Friday, September 9, 2011

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011" »

August 30, 2011

Diesel Books returns to Malibu!

diesel books returns to Malibu!

It's official -- Diesel, a book store, Malibu's beloved indie bookstore, is coming back. Owners Alison Reid and John Evans, who finalized a lease at the Malibu Country Mart on Aug. 30, expect their new location to be up and running by mid-October.

The new store, in the Malibu Country Mart's interior courtyard, will be roughly the size of the Brentwood location, which opened in December 2008. The couple, who opened their first bookstore in 1989, also own a shop in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland.

John and Alison have been working to re-open in Malibu almost from the instant they realized last February that they would have to close their seven-year-old store in Cross Creek. The Country Mart location, while a bit smaller than the previous Malibu iteration, has a far better vibe. It's a light-filled space with soaring ceilings, a beautiful wood floor, and a great view of the neighborhood's new hardware store across the street.

Added bonus -- the courtyard location offers ample space for Diesel's popular events and readings. (And for anyone worried about Malibu Shaman, a specialty book seller in Malibu since 1983, shoppers looking for books on the metaphysical will instead find a sign directing them to owner Scott Sutphen's store upstairs.)

Congratulations, John and Alison! And to the many devoted friends of Diesel Malibu who have phoned with questions and encouragement -- your calls have been answered.

July 25, 2011

Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst

I love books. I also love historic architecture and gossip, especially gossip involving historic architecture. So I was delighted to mix all my obsessions at a reception celebrating the publication of George Snyder's novel, On Wings of Affection, in William Randolph Hearst's two-story, customized suite at the historic Los Altos apartment house near Hancock Park.

The novel is about a well-connected Angeleno immersed in the West Hollywood substance abuse-recovery scene who struggles to keep his social circles from intersecting when his young ward befriends a notorious gigolo kept by a Beverly Hills interior decorator who turns up dead. It's a sexy read and well-written.

Continue reading "Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst" »

June 6, 2011

LA Public Library honors Walter Mosley on June 12th

Library devotees honor Walter Mosley at the upcoming Los Angeles Public Library Awards Dinner, scheduled for Sunday, June 12, at the
Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles.

Get your tickets now.

May 26, 2011

Peeping in on L.A.'s literati

The Los Angeles Review of Books Matthew Specktor shares his Los Angeles Cultural Diary on The Paris Review Daily blog this week. He covers a lot of ground in a brief amount of time.

It's a fun read with literary stops at David Kipen's Libros Schmibros lending library, Skylight Books for a Bret Easton Ellis reading and drinks at Musso & Frank's where he meets a struggling novelist who squats at an old folks home. That's intriguing...could the squatter live at the lovely old Montecito on Franklin or the Knickerbocker? I guess we will have to wait until the kid's novel comes out, eventually...

May 11, 2011

In praise of The Barn and Valentino

the-barn-hollywood.jpgThe Hollywood Heritage Museum, known to many simply as "The Barn," is the oldest surviving studio structure in Los Angeles. Originally situated at the corner of Selma and Vine, it was already twenty years old when it became Cecil B. De Mille's headquarters for directing his first feature, "The Squaw Man," in 1913. Paramount grew up around the building and when the studio moved to its current Melrose location, they took the barn with them.

Even though it was designated a California landmark in the mid 1950s, it sat for a while in an empty parking lot before Hollywood Heritage took it over in 1985, preserving it and moving it to Highland Avenue, right across from the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, the non-profit, member-supported group has developed it into a real little treasure of a museum, with historic props, cameras and photographs of the silent days. What makes it all the more amazing is that it is run by an all volunteer staff with a fabulous little gift shop and a variety of programs unavailable anywhere else in town.

valentino-in-blood-and-sand.jpgOn Wednesday night, Donna Hill, the author of "Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs," will be celebrating the star's May birthday with a presentation of rare photographs and a screening of "Blood and Sand." On Sunday, June 5th, there will be a signing of the new book "Hollywoodland" and a tribute to June Withers will be held on June 8. One of my favorite events is "Silents under the Stars," presented by The Silent Society, an offshoot of Hollywood Heritage, with films screened outdoors at the old Paramount ranch. This summer they are featuring Harold Lloyd's 1923 comedy, "Safety Last" on July 17 and Tom Mix's "The Great K & A Train Robbery" on August 21.

The Barn is open five days a week, Wednesday - Sunday from noon until 4:00 pm and if you have never been, you owe it to yourself plan a visit. I guarantee you will learn something and have a new appreciation of the Los Angeles that was. For more information on Hill's book, go to and for information about the Barn, their programs or joining Hollywood Heritage,

Photo: Valentino in "Blood and Sand"

May 2, 2011

My LA Times Festival of Books Top/Bottom 10

My LA Times Festival of Books Top 10

1. Chatting with Patti Smith in the Green Room and trying not to go all fangirl as I raved about her music and her awesome memoir "Just Kids." She told me she loves detective fiction. Who knew?

2. Hanging out with all the author friends I haven't seen since the last LATFoB.

3. The food at the LA Times Book Awards reception Friday night, especially the braised brussel sprouts.

4. Funny astrophysicist Gregory Benford, who introduced the Science & Technology Award. More Strangelovian presenters, please.

5. Meeting my new Facebook Friend Olga Grushin, who writes gorgeous novels about Moscow under Communism.

6. No heat wave.

7. Chocolate and cookies that several readers brought me when I signed their books. Y'all are sweet.

8. Shorter commute, as I live on the Eastside.

9. Listening to Mississippi Man Tom Franklin, winner of the LA Times Mystery Book Award, tell grisly tales about deer, knives and toxic waste.

10. Having an author escort recount how he stood guard over a NY Times Best-selling male author who looked in vain for a bathroom, then ended up 'watering the bushes' because he was late for his panel.

10. Being surrounded by 100,000 other people who luurrrvvee books.

My LA Times Festival of Books Bottom 10

1. No Mystery Bookstore Booth because the store closed. I miss the military precision with which the staff lined up 10 authors an hour, elbow to elbow, to autograph books, then kicked us out for the next wave.

2. Having to navigate a brand new campus just when I'd figured out UCLA and the giant booth sprawl.

3. When author Stewart Woods told the three female authors on my panel to relax because we revise and spend too much time writing. He told us he writes 1 hour a day and puts out three books a year. Naturally, this made us even more tense.

4. No time for café con leche with Cuban-American detective writer and real life PI Carolina Garcia Aguilera. The chica had our panel in stitches with her Miami stories.

5. Frantic searching for bathrooms between panels and signings. Unlike big macho male NY Times bestselling authors, we ladies have a harder time.

6. But not impossible. I stood guard this weekend while a desperate female hiked into the shrubbery between buildings and watered the bushes.

7. Having to skip all the panels and author signings I wanted to see because of my own panels and signings.

8. Missing the Granta party Saturday night because I was too tired and wimped out.

9. Not being able to wear high heels cuz of all the walking.

10. No Happy Hour booze in the Green Room. Maybe next year.

April 18, 2011

"The Bad Mother" vs a Bad Mother

Most writers have someone to whom they show their works in progress. Mine is Victoria, the lady that works the cash register at the donut shop. Victoria is maybe 5-foot-nothing in the 6-inch mules I have never not seen her tottering on behind the counter. She is also always, by seven in the morning, in full make-up, her processed blond hair rippling like a mermaid's to her waist. Victoria and her husband, who makes the donuts, moved to Portland from Mexico; they have seven children and own three businesses and work seemingly all the time. Despite this, Victoria is perennially cheery and a big reader, something I learned when I used to pick up the donuts every morning for my husband's coffee business.

As wives will do, we discussed our lives. When Victoria learned I was a writer, she asked to see some things I had written. I brought her two features I wrote for the LA Weekly. When I stopped in a few days later, she took my hands and said, "I need more." I brought her more. And more. She wanted to see everything, she professed to love the way I wrote and the topics I chose. How can this not be the best things a writer can hear?

Two years ago next month, I began to write about Amanda Stott-Smith, after she dropped her two young children from a Portland bridge at 1:43 AM, killing her four-year son. Her seven-year-old daughter survived for an hour in the 45-degree water and essentially saved her own life by screaming so long and so loud that two residents along the river motored their boat into the darkness and found her. I knew almost immediately the writing would become a book, if not how long it would take to get members of the family to trust and speak with me.

Victoria, who I would see every two weeks when I paid the donut bill, and I talked about Amanda, about the children. She asked when the book would be out; I told her, not for years. She said, she could not wait that long. And so last December I gave her the book in progress, about sixty pages. When I next saw her, she said, "I need more." I promised her that more would be forthcoming.

It was not, not for lack of material, but because The Bad Mother, a novel I finished writing in March 2009 -- two months before Amanda dropped the children from the bridge -- was slated to be published. I found this out in late December; there was editing to do, and once it was published, in March, pushing the novel into the world, what a writer friend refers to as, "rolling that log." There was and is travel, and appearances, things one does not anticipate, or that I did not anticipate, that make you portage from one writing stream to another.

When the novel was released last month, I brought a copy to Victoria.

"My god," she said. "You wrote it so fast!"

I explained, as I would wind up doing with many people, that the novel was not the book about Amanda, and that while I understood why people would, from the title, imagine it to be about a mother who drops her children from a bridge in the middle of the night, it was actually about homeless kids in Hollywood. That the confusing coincidence of the titles was just that, coincidence, and that the book about Amanda is called, "To the Bridge."

Last Thursday, I stopped into the donut shop. I had not seen Victoria for a month, as I had been out of town on readings. She was interested in these, saying, "I bet when people hear you read it, it changes their opinion about what happened."

I told her, that was true. That some people read the book and are scared of what happens to these kids and the dangers they are in. But when they hear me read it, they understand I feel only tenderness for these kids. Victoria nodded.

"You are also showing that the mother is a human being," she said. "That they didn't get the whole story in the newspapers."

Victoria had another customer, and so I had about two seconds to tell her, it was the novel I was doing readings for, not "To the Bridge." She looked puzzled, as though the overlaps in the stories were causing vexation, and it put me in mind of something my mother often asks: why are you always writing about dead children?

I left the donut shop thinking about this, as well a question I receive at each reading of The Bad Mother: was the novel inspired by your experiences as a journalist in Hollywood? I answer that, while it makes sense this is the case, it is not. That the characters are made up; that I have never interviewed a homeless or dying teen; that it must be the osmosis of driving through Hollywood every day for eighteen years that created the book.

I was pressing the clicker that opens my car door when I realized the genesis of the work is quite the other way: that I began writing nonfiction books and articles about murdered children after I began addressing them as fiction. That "To the Bridge," in fact, grew from The Bad Mother.

Nancy Rommelmann reads from The Bad Mother at Book Soup on June 30.

April 15, 2011

Noticing National Library Week

Have you hugged and thanked your neighborhood library employee for his or her dedication and service yet?

I've just received an email from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles informing me that National Library Week comes to an end on Saturday, April 16th.

Since library hours have been reduced following budget cuts, the libraries of the city of Los Angeles need your warm presence and support more than ever. As the late, great Miv Schaaf, a Los Angeles Times Sunday Edition columnist and public library booster, once wrote, "When life seems not worth living, ten minutes in the library proves otherwise."

Since voters approved Measure L last March, perhaps there's hope that lost services will be reinstated in July. Martín Gómez, the city librarian, told Library Journal, "Starting in July, we will add back a sixth day of service, probably a Monday, and in the second year we will add back two more evenings, and in the third year we will provide seven days of service at nine locations."

Time will tell if these predictions come to pass. In the meantime, consistently support your neighborhood library NOW with donations, bequests and the commitment to keep advocating for the financial health of our public libraries. Just because Measure L was successful does not mean that the struggle to safeguard our library system from erosion has ended. Complacency is no longer an option.

March 21, 2011

Life Imitates Art

I was visiting a mentoring and art center for homeless teens in Portland last week when my cell phone rang. It was Gordon (not his real name), calling from Orange County. I went to grade school with Gordon, and had not had contact with him since 1980. Earlier in the day, I had received a Facebook message from a fellow schoolmate, asking whether Gordon had also contacted me saying he needed $2500 or would be evicted by 3 PM. I told the classmate no; that I was sure it was SPAM, and that he should contact Gordon to let him know.

Standing yards away from a dozen homeless teenagers, two of them in wheelchairs, I asked Gordon if that was why he was calling, to let me know, the SPAM was not from him.

"No," he said. "I actually do need $2500 or I will be evicted."

I processed this, looking at the kids who come to the center each day for two meals, to make art and to read and use the computer until 2:30, when, rain or shine, the center closes and the kids are back on the street. I was visiting because the week before, I published a novel, The Bad Mother, about homeless teens in Hollywood. The kids at the center had found out about the book, they wanted to read it and to meet me. One girl told me she'd essentially been on the streets since age five, and then followed me around like a puppy, telling me her story, not with self-pity, just the facts, which included that she is, with the assistance of the center, renting a studio apartment and attending community college classes to become a CPA.

And here was Gordon, if it was Gordon, on the phone. We attended private school together in Brooklyn; last I heard, he had a white-collar job and was living in Southern California. I told him, his request had the sound of a common scam, and how did I even know it was him? I asked him what he called me in 7th grade. He got the answer right, and even sang the little ditty he'd sing when he said it.

I asked Gordon, what was going on? How did he find himself in this place? He said something about his business having lost clients, some bad financial decisions. He said he needed money and that he needed it today or would be out on the street. I asked him about his wife and children; he said they were with him and fine. He sounded cavalier. I told him, I was not going to give him money, and that his reaching out to people he had not seen in 30 years was very suspect.

"I appreciate you saying that, Nancy, but I always thought, once a Saint Anner, always a Saint Anner," he said, referring to the name of our school. "And if it was you calling me for money, even thirty years later, I would give it to you."

I told Gordon, I had to go. I might have added, take care, or get help, but did not. I have, as have nearly all of us, been around the block with people and their addictions, to drugs, booze, gambling, lying. We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not help.

I walked back into the center, thinking how bizarre it was to get this call here. I thought about the characters in my book, without homes, often without hope. And I met E, who was playing around on an espresso machine donated to the center. He told me he was learning to be a barista; that he didn't know a lot yet about coffee but he loved it. I told him, my husband was in the coffee business.

"Really?" he said, his face becoming both bright and shy. "Do you think I could meet him?"

I told him, I would be happy to help.

January 11, 2011

Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!

Police said the predator glides invisibly through crowds, disguised by his very ordinariness.

"He looks exactly like you and me," said LAPD Detective Margaret Millar. "He's smart, bookish. He likes a bargain. Maybe he wears glasses and has a ratty paperback crime novel tucked in his back pocket. At this point, we're not ruling anything out."

The most recent victim is Broxton's Mystery Bookstore, which suffered a fatal blow on January 11, 2011, and will expire at month's end.

Continue reading "Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!" »

January 10, 2011

It's never too late


This morning I opened the Los Angeles Times -- which I've frankly been doing more often lately (web overload?) -- and was rewarded by discovering a very nice review of a book I co-authored almost ten years ago.

DEVIL AT MY HEELS is the autobiography of Louis Zamperini, whose story has lately received much notice because Laura ("Seabiscuit") Hillenbrand's biography of Louie, "Unbroken," is everywhere, including at the pole position on both Amazon and the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.

Universal Pictures bought the rights to Louie's life in 1956, on the heels of the same-titled, first book version of his life, with plans for Tony Curtis to star (it didn't happen). Now they plan to give the movie another try.

I'm glad that the Los Angeles Times graciously acknowledged Louie's own book -- especially eight years after publication! -- when, in the flood of publicity and praise for "Unbroken," the paper could have easily acted as if Louie's own words didn't exist at all.

Louie's going to be 94 later this month. He's lived an incredible life and I'm thrilled that it's finally getting the wide recognition it deserves. He's a great guy, too, a constant inspiration, and I'm fortunate to still have him in my life.

Here's the Times story link.

December 1, 2006

Farewell, Autumn for Ray Bradbury

It was the early 1970s when Ray Bradbury and I met at Saint Patrick's Elementary School Library in North Hollywood. We were introduced through a dog-eared, much-underlined, yellowing paperback called "Dandelion Wine" and I promptly fell into puppy love. Ray was already ancient then, with graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses, or so it seemed to an 11-year-old, but I didn't care. I promptly read all his books on the shelves, sneaking in at odd hours since our little library doubled as the teachers' lounge. I recall pouring over "The Illustrated Man," "M is for Melancholy" and "The Martian Chronicles" at recess and lunch with the ardor that my school chums reserved for Tiger Beat Magazine. Ray's books transported me to shimmering far-off worlds. As you might imagine, my solitary obsession made me very popular with my David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman swooning peers.

Back then, I had no idea that Ray lived in Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from me. I realize now that he probably gave talks at bookstores and libraries and schools and generally swanned about town the way famous authors do. However, this literary largesse did not trickle down to my part of the Valley, and if it did, my family wasn't aware of it. While we were all very bookish, we were insular, bringing home booty scavenged from rummage sales and used bookstores. It would have been frivolous for my cash-strapped parents to spend good money on a new book when there were so many perfectly good used ones out there.

In college, Ray and I broke up. He'd become a bit of an embarrassment to me, proof of what a rube I'd been. I spurned his simple prose, his dated science. I was in love with more sophisticated, demanding and transgressive writers. Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Laurence Durrell, Thomas Pynchon, Feodor Dostoevsky. Ray was the freckled hometown boy in overalls who lacked the glittering allure of my edgier, faster crowd.

Then I must confess, I forgot about him altogether. I became a journalist, traveled the world, wrote my own novels, read many other things, had babies. Then my babies began to grow out of picture books. Browsing in my home library one day, I pulled out a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback copy of "Dandelion Wine" and all the fond spooky memories came rushing back. I began to read the book out loud to my oldest son each night, savoring the exquisite moods, the evocations of terror, of joy, the unbearable lightness of summer and the dark that lurked at the edges of things. It was a double pleasure to rediscover him as an adult, a triple pleasure that my son liked him too. Next came the "Martian Chronicles." Then "Fahrenheit 451." Bam, another generation was hooked.

Two weeks ago, Ray Bradbury came to a small independent bookstore in Glendale. He's 86 and in a wheelchair now, with a leonine mane of pure white hair, a kind of living time capsule, a character beamed out of one of his own Mobius Strip stories.

I told the kids we were going. After all these years, I would finally meet Ray. And the kids would see this literary legend in flesh and learn that even famous writers are just plain folks. It was glorious to see four generations of people crammed into the aisles of Mystery and Imagination Books ' hundreds of them, all holding cherished copies of old books and brand new ones.

My kids studied Ray. "He's old," my 8-year-old said. They were shy when we got to the front of the line, though we did get our picture taken with him. I had so much to say, it would have taken a whole book's worth of words. Ray was the first man whose writing I fell in love with, whose photo I recognized, whose words I emulated when I took my own baby steps at writing stories.

I settled for telling him that I was reading "The Illustrated Man" to the boys, one story a night. They'd found "The Veldt" especially unsettling. Ray twinkled fiendishly and said that was wonderful. He signed our books, including his newest, the sequel to "Dandelion Wine" that had been 60 years in the making. It's called "Farewell, Summer."

There was a certain melancholy to finally meeting him, in the late autumn of his life. There's the awareness that he's not going to be around forever, that it will be his words that survive the ages, not his flesh. So it goes for all of us. I hope my kids remember their afternoon with Ray long after he's gone. Maybe even after I'm gone. I hope that one day, they'll pull a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback of "Dandelion Wine" from their own shelves and read it to their children and that its themes will still resonate, regardless of what future they live in.