(Photo has nothing to do with following story)
It was a great year, at times, with a cool job and fascinating travel.
And then it was a petty, insignificant, entrapping year, a time where I was caught up in a web of misunderstandings and explosive incidents adding up to nothing. The fiery meltdowns of adolescence reappeared again, in middle age.
Longtime friendships imploded and vanished, precipitated by unpredictable events that were so small, so preposterous, so unimportant that I hesitate to even write of them.
And last week, in the post-vacation entropy of Van Nuys, I experienced more of the crazy relationship weather of Los Angeles: unreturned phone calls and emails from a “best friend”; an angry employer who told me to “man up” because his equipment failed for the umpteenth time; an art show invitation that came and went after my questions about hanging photos on walls or placing on tables infuriated the temperamental producer; a renter hiding a large five gallon jug of urine in his closet.
All of these got me angry, upset, mad and eventually laughing, moments of human comedy that were stupid, accidental and stunningly unimportant.
What I had in real life was echoed in Facebook. The local neighborhood page was full of posts about stolen Halloween decorations, loud leaf blowers, the crew of Workaholics taking over the street, an uncut limb from a tree crushing a vinyl fence, someone’s lost iphone.
We go crazy sometimes from too much that matters too little. That’s the way I felt for much of the time since I came back from the trip of a lifetime.
Part of the blessing or curse of travel is coming home to the place you call home; and experiencing it as a foreign country, a strange locale with odd people, bizarre customs and illogical folkways.
I was out of Los Angeles for not a very long time, only 3 1/2 weeks, but it was long enough and far enough and deep enough (in Malaysia, Thailand and Tokyo) to come back here and rediscover the old glaring sunshine, the friendly yet surface friendships, the lost, pretty, young faces, the mediocre food and wide monotonous streets I left behind only on September 19th.
Small interactions, which one might never encounter in Japan, for example, came at me in abrupt banality on my first few days back.
At Chevron, on Burbank and Kester, I was filling up my car when a strange man yelled at me, “Hey, how much you pay per month for your car?” It was none of his business. But it would have been more un-American of me to tell him that. Instead, being friendly, I told him the truth, even though it felt intrusive.
At Starbucks, on Riverside near Pass Avenue, I was writing alone on my laptop. A woman next to me leaned over and asked, “What are you writing?” It was my private creation, my personal space, yet she felt open and relaxed enough to ask me. What if I had been writing a letter of resignation at my law firm? What if I had been creating a mean email to my ex-lover? What if I wanted to be left alone?
At Santa Anita Park, leaving the racetrack last Saturday, I took out my camera and captured the sunlight on the buildings. Crowds were also exiting, including one woman who asked me, out of the blue, “Why are you taking a picture of that building?”
All these small incidents are either invigoratingly wondrous to those who admire the openness of Americans, or perhaps, to non-American sensibilities, they reek of rudeness, an inability to respect the private information and work of others.
Yet, I am through and through an American, exposed in my life through my writings, my photography and my online presence. I’ve gone up to strangers and handed them my business card. I’ve talked and asked and intruded upon friends, families, enemies and strangers.
At coffee today, I met my friend, writer Yassir, who told me about a man he met at Whole Foods who knew the head of a large publishing company and offered to send Yassir’s work over to his well-placed associate. Yassir also spoke of meetings, connections, people in high places, people with money, people in Beverly Hills, Century City and Bel Air who were handling big projects, some projects worth half a billion. And I again was thrust, conversationally, into that world of this city, a place of half-baked people and half-realized ideas, people who have big dreams and big talk, and sometimes convince and sell others on some spectacular imaginary creations. Instant friendships and instant dreams, formed in the checkout line at Whole Foods.
Why, even in unemployment, do we keep believing and buying into the mythology of this city? What do we finally become, after our youth and good looks have dried up, in the year round sunshine, after we pass the point of un-employability, when we finally know that we cannot make a living at the juice bar, behind the counter, in the retail store, driving to the audition, pitching at meetings, texting to a stranger online, what do we do when all the doors are slammed shut and we find intolerable even one more day in the dismally happy city of Los Angeles?
They were young when we boarded Singapore Airlines at LAX, bound for Tokyo. 22 men and women, flight attendants, smooth skinned, well mannered, and slim, women with hair pulled back wearing Sarong Kebaya. Graceful, smiling, polite, they maneuvered in and out of the aisles, pushing carts, pouring tea.
The flight left on time and touched down in Tokyo as silently and softly as a Kleenex falling on a pillow.
The airports were dazzling, slick, architectural and inviting: Tokyo Narita, Singapore Changi, and KLIA. Customs officials in every nation were polite, well-spoken, welcoming. Everything they are not in Los Angeles.
The skyscrapers were young, newly built, tall, dropped into every corner of Kuala Lumpur: Icon Mount Kiara, Charigali Tower, 60 floors tall, St. Regis Hotel, 80 stories tall, Menara Tradewinds, Warisan Merdeka (118 Floors Tall!), KL Tower (Menara Kuala Lumpur) 1,381 feet tall, Ilham Baru Tower (62 floors). They were clearing out jungles, paving over valleys, erecting vast suburban housing and vertical towers in Cyberjaya, Shah Alam, Bangsar, Petaling Jaya. Soon, a high-speed train will connect Singapore, KL and Bangkok.
The land was young, landfill on the west side of Melaka, thousands of acres of new commercial buildings lined up like soldiers in a future army of retail, uninhabited infants. Old classical mansions that once stood on the shore were abandoned and empty, their contents stolen, their memories wiped clean.
The KL malls were new, full of shoppers, hordes of black haired boys and girls in bright scarves and long dresses, eyes glued in their smart phones, moving through vast air-conditioned, bright spaces. The Pavilion! KLCC Suria! Star Hill Gallery!
The Malaysian highways were new, and along the new landscaped lanes, billboards shouted advertising with smiling faces, multi-cultural Malay and Chinese faces beaming in Samsung, Jasmine Rice, Panasonic, Thai Airways, Telekom Malaysia, Air Asia, Hyundai.
The Malaysian born bride was young, effervescent, intelligent, ambitious, and well connected. She owned a condo, a house (under remodel) worked for a bank and travelled to Singapore, Bali, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and Melbourne. She had a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of generosity and much love around her. She was the future, for just this moment, of a region where education and money are exploding exponentially.
And the trains in Tokyo, the intersections of Shibuya, Shimokitazawa, Ginza, Shinjuku, they were young, overwhelmingly so, populated with hundreds of thousands of post 1985 human beings pouring off the modern perfectly run trains, into stores and shops and cafes, hurrying everywhere, acquiring purses, shoes, makeup, perfume, suits, electronics.
Inside the endless shops of Tokyo Station, the bowing and the smiling, the serving and the selling, a furious, unabated, exhausting and exhilarating controlled carnival of commerce, this was Japan.
And everywhere, in every corner, the spirit, the energy, the optimism, the faith in tomorrow and the future, a region poised to take over the world, relentless in its work, socialized to harmonize, grouped en masse into money-making and modernism, this was young Asia.
I went here on holiday, for three weeks, to attend a wedding in Kuala Lumpur, to vacation in Phuket, Thailand and stop off in Tokyo for four days.
I came back to Los Angeles in culture shock. For what I saw back there made the Golden State seem dyspeptic, backward, self-congratulatory– without merit. Our new international airport had dirty windows; the customs people were fat and shouted angrily at passport holders. The bus was late and the driver made jokes (“This bus isn’t going to Van Nuys. Long Beach! Just kidding!”) that delayed our trip.
And the news was that the government was shut down. I thought of that on the 405 bus ride home, having just seen, 10 hours earlier, postal workers at work at Tokyo Station, on Sunday afternoon.
America is no longer young, in outlook or output, and I wonder if we even have any dreams left in our national imagination.
Months ago, inexplicably, I was sent an email inviting me to experience a day of horse racing at Santa Anita Park courtesy of America’s Best Racing.
I was dumbfounded and somewhat suspicious, thinking this might be one of those messages from Nigeria advising me that Dr. Ooeexxlio had been kidnapped and his wife was in need of funds to get him out of Somalia.
I asked the sender of the email why I was chosen– as my knowledge and interest in equestrianism is as specious as my familiarity with Seabiscuit. “We search for people within each market and try to convert them into new fans. It is all about getting new fans to head out to the racetrack,” explained Chip McGaughey, Brand Ambassador for America’s Best Racing.
I agreed to go, and summoned up my memory of Cary Grant in the 1946 film Notorious “accidentally” meeting Ingrid Bergman at a Rio racetrack, both dressed impeccably, he in his suit and she in her veiled hat and tailored outfit.
I put on my driving cap, recently purchased blue sharkskin suit and plaid tie, tie clip, Tattersall shirt, and wingtip leather dress oxfords. If I had to go to this event, I might as well go as if I were performing as the racehorses do, to compete and win.
Arcadia was there as it always is, a gigantic town of gigantic parks under the purple protection of the San Gabriels. I drove into the many square miles of asphalt parking lot, manned by good-looking, Wally Cleaverlike white boys who called me sir and took my $4.
I was met, at the gate, by a young and gracious couple: Jose Contreras and his wife Karina. Karina’s father is a jockey, she grew up in the sport, and her dad was riding that day. Into the clubhouse we went, our left hands stamped with an invisible seal visible only under black light.
Santa Anita is a lovely old track, so its worn innards have gotten a much-needed facelift. There are new, bright, white, stylishly designed concession stands serving craft beers, salads, and hearty sandwiches (I had thick sliced turkey on rye). Everyone I encountered at the track had that 1950s gaiety (in its old meaning) with plenty of “sweetie what can I get you” to the cashier who said, “My pleasure sir.”
I was given a $50 betting voucher, as well as free beer and food, and then Jose and Karina brought me up into the box seats where we passed other patrons in the haze of cigar and cigarettes, beer and bourbon, enjoying the festivities of the impending races.
I’m not a mathematical person, but I caught on, somewhat, to the odds on the board, and used my dismal arithmetic to concoct winnings on 3 out of 9 races. Jose was diligent and genuine in his love for the sport, and eager to bring another fan into the fold.
More guests arrived, other couples, newly baptized into the horse racing religion. We cheered as our horses came around the track. As one close race came to an end, I shut my eyes, and squeezed my abs so tight I got a cramp.
Jose and Karina brought us down to the paddock, an oval area of grass where jockeys and horses come down and parade around in a sort of modeling runway for the four legged.
We went back up to our box seats, and I again brought up my vague memories of old Lincolnwood, IL, where I grew up, and Evelyn Marx, a red haired woman of 50, who weekly drove her gold Sedan de Ville to Arlington Park and bet on horses, a diversion thought unseemly by my grandmother.
As I left Santa Anita, I walked past those 1930s aqua walls, bathed in late-day sunlight, past scalloped awnings and architecturally fluffy touches of femininity: decorative, frivolous and joyful. Slightly buzzed, somewhat richer, I walked away from a day at the races immersed in escapism.
America’s Best Racing wants to recruit new blood and return the sport to its preeminence. And they’re planting enthusiasm for it in the most un-likeliest of people. The marketing people have something up their sleeves, though I cannot begin to guess what it is.
Congress must act immediately to provide billions in funding to take action against Syria. The well-being of the US is in danger. This is the most critical problem facing our nation. We simply have to provide the funds to intervene in Syria, just as we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the American People must be wiling to make sacrifices so that our freedom and way of life can remain triumphant around the world.
A recent photograph of an old railroad ticket and freight building in Van Nuys, once operated by the Southern Pacific, was recently posted on San Fernando Valley Relics Facebook page.
That old photo, of a humble, yet sturdy, pitched roof building standing in bleached noir sunlight, got me looking.
I found additional images on the Southern Pacific Railroad Structures page.
Where was this located? My guess is where the current Busway is, along either Bessemer or Aetna Streets, between Kester and Van Nuys Boulevard.
This building, had it survived, might have become the new home of MacLeod Brewing, a craft beer maker who is hoping to open near this location in 2014.
Ruin and Redemption
Down the street from me is the neighborhood eyesore, an empty rental house. The simple Spanish tile ranch sits on almost an acre of land. Two back houses are rented out, but the front one has not had a tenant for five years.
At night, the prostitutes, the drinkers, the pot smokers, come here and throw their condoms, beer bottles and “medicinal” pot pill containers on the dried out grass.
Thick, dark, old oak trees provide shade and keep the street shrouded in darkness.
For years we have all complained. The owner was described to me as “white trash”, “crazy”, “indifferent” not communicating. She supposedly lived up in Santa Clarita and allegedly did not care about he neighborhood.
I took a visiting friend for a walk down Hamlin today, and we passed the neglected house. We turned up the dirt path that runs alongside the property and found a middle-aged woman inside a packed garage. Her stuffed old car was parked outside, and she was pouring insecticide into a plastic spray bottle.
She came out and introduced herself as the owner of the old house where nobody rents.
In gracious exhaustion, tired face, pretty blue eyes, weathered skin, she told us she was here in the raging heat, trying to kill weeds and clean up trash.
When I asked her what could be done, she told her tales of woe, so common and so cruel, the modern story of Southern California: unemployed husband, unscrupulous contractors, unpaid rent. She could not afford to hook up the house to electricity or connect it to water or gas. She had $700 in her bank account. She was hanging on, to a property she inherited, in the hope it might provide some security to her.
My friend had also lost his mother, his marriage, and his home in the past few years, no stranger to pain or economic catastrophe. But he saw clearer than the woman did, that her pain was avoidable, that she could sell and get out from under her crushing burden, rather than try and hang on to what was dying in the sun under her cracked feet.
How we live, under delusions and illusions, is the story of mankind. Whether in prayer, in love, or work, we live for the truth of a lie, believing our own imaginary tales and thereby setting up fairy tale endings while creating certain catastrophe.
We walked away from the woman who was much kinder than rumored. And she smiled and thanked us for listening to her story.