The sun was out, the winds were blowing, the air was dry and we drove over in the Super Bowl ghosted city to see the 6th Street Bridge, an 85-year-old patient whose arms and legs still spanned the Los Angeles River, but whose execution was now under way in Boyle Heights.
We parked on the west side of the bridge next to steel gates and barbed wires. Homeless people still gathered in the shadows under the arches. A lone woman on a bicycle pedaled up and shot some photographs; as did an old man in a bright yellow Porsche convertible who sat in his car and then drove off.
Fascinating to me, even after 21 years in Los Angeles, is how civic grandeur and public spaces are degraded and neglected. I grew up in Chicago, where Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park, the Lakefront, Soldiers Field, the Field Museum, and Water Tower were proudly shown off and cared for. They left an impression on a small child. We drove downtown to admire our city, not run from it in fear and revulsion.
What is one to make of the disrespected and defiled 6th Street Bridge with its decapitated light posts, the arches sitting in mountains of trash, the human beings laying underneath the noble, carved, Art Moderne piers? Where does 3,500 feet of concrete, erected in the grandest and most elegant way, where does it go?
Some who spoke of the life of the condemned bridge talked about movies that were filmed here. Is nothing real or important unless it starred in a film? Does Los Angeles exist as an actual city or is it only a stage set whose humanity only matters when it is on celluloid? For all of the 85 years that the bridge sat in a sea of defiled urbanity did it only fulfill its importance when fakery was filmed around and on it? Is that why the exploits of the Kardashians are so valued, but thousands who set up mattresses under bridges in our city are ignored and forgotten?
One has heard from the leaders in Los Angeles, recently, that “working class Boyle Heights” and the new “Arts District” will mutually benefit from a new $428 million dollar bridge designed and constructed in modernistic form.
But that is what they always say, these politicians and people in power, the ones who spend hundreds of millions, and, in the end, where are the human spaces, the parks, the housing, the stores, the markets, the schools, the health care, all those markers of civilization?
If life doesn’t exist under the 6th St. Bridge, then no bridge itself is capable of conceiving the rebirth of a neighborhood. It takes a village, as some obscure old woman once said.
During the day, I transacted business at Starbucks in Toluca Lake, and then, at night, I went, in denim shirt and pomaded hair, to MacLeod Ale, where all the whirlwind connections of my present life gathered, on the concrete floor of the brewery where the front door was raised up to the cold night air and smoky tacos were grilling outside on open-flamed ovens.
There was an RV trailer parked on the tarmac filled with knitting materials, and hanging knitwear, and, nearby, at the brewery tables, some people knitting. The urge to make something other than digital swipes propels a new generation.
Next door to the brewery, at the open door of Joe’s Auto Body, the acrid daytime odor of wet, chemical, sprayed car paint was yielding to roasting chickens and tamales on the griddle. Joe slouched on a milk crate, his face covered in white paint, phone in hand.
Dapper music collector Victor Torres, Jr. was spinning LPs on the record player, and his little brother Cesar was drawing illustrations and advising me on logos and creative visuals.
At the bar, Andreas and his friend Marcus, fresh off their bikes, had just pedaled here from Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank. I sat down at a stool to talk to Marcus and Andreas. Somewhere in his future, the former has plans to leave Echo Park and open a bakery in San Luis Obispo because it reminds him of his hometown, Gloucester, MA. He lost his job at Trader Joes after 15 years and told me he had grown up dyslexic and went to private school on scholarship.
I sipped a bourbon-aged beer, and spoke to another man, Mr. McReady, who was very happy. He was just fired, but had collected a great severance package, after 22-years-at-a Burbank cleaning empire. He has great, expensive, bendable eyeglasses and lives with his wife, who never comes to MacLeod Ale, on Calvert St. near Hazeltine.
Roderick Abercrombie Smith, the handsome, bearded, prodigiously talented, blue-eyed Scottish born painter, currently, happily, living in a van, was at the other end chatting it up with gregarious Ian Wright, the British born carpenter. I waved to both men as I ordered a beer from the always cordial manager Steve.
That beer was called Heather Bell [Scottish Gruit]. MacLeod describes it this way:
“An ale traditionally made without hops, but bitter herbs instead. Ours has heather tips, marsh rosemary, and red clover, and a few hops thrown in to keep it legal. Made in collaboration with our friends at Solarc Brewing.”
In the back, a table was set up for the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC). Kelly Martin, Development Director, introduced herself. She was there with others from her organization discussing an upcoming 5-Day Long Climate Ride from Eureka to San Francisco whose sponsored riders will donate their money to the LACBC. Someone handed me a beautiful, scenic calendar with color photographs, but I left it on the table and wandered off.
Anita of Orion Avenue, articulate and lovely friend and neighbor, came in and we hung out. She is married, and a mom, and an engineer, and savvy, and concerned about Van Nuys. We love it and agree it is confounding. We love the picket fences and houses on one acres– surrounded by prostitutes and discarded sofas.
As I drank, she complimented my “fantastic” hair and told me I had good-looking friends on Facebook. And then (unintentionally) ruined the moment when she asked me what I did for work.
Then the beautiful Pinay, Stephanie Chan, walked in her with her long-haired Belarusian born roommate, a woman who reminded me of Ali McGraw in “Love Story”. Ms. Chan just bought a condo on Sherman Way between Kester and Van Nuys Boulevard.
Andy, the tall Texan brew worker in tight jeans, who exudes lily white, baptized, boyish machismo, and demonstrates affection for hops and hugs, came over and talked about his “Leaving for El Paso” beer. Hud would have played pool with him.
I steered myself into the room where darts were throwing, and I walked around, lightly intoxicated, past all those crowded tables of young men and woman rolling dice and moving objects over game boards.
Back outside, I went to order tacos, and bumped into burly actor Stacey Hinnen, here at the brewery with his two little girls, and he regaled me with his story of his latest acting job, down in Cuba, working with Don Cheadle on “House of Lies”.
Mr. Hinnen played a Koch brothers type character who was down in the communist country to regain property stolen from his family when Castro came to power. The actor said he had a scene throwing fists at his brother in the middle of a courtyard.
If Mr. Hinnen agrees, and Mr. Hurvitz (me) can get his shit together, the actor will one day play a character I wrote, Shane Davis, in a web series about my street in Van Nuys.
Jennifer, the owner, came into the brewery and hugged me and I introduced her to Anita and they both realized they knew some mutual people connected to former Van Nuys resident Donnie Wahlberg.
And then one of the best young characters to emerge in the MacLeod firmament came over, boyish and lanky beer poet, Sam Wagner, native of Manhattan, here in Los Angeles to put his great imagination and large intellect to work in that industry which despises and wastes both of those attributes.
Lizzie, the tall, dark, Scottish niece, only 22 years old, was hanging with Sam. They both had met working at the brewery. She is smart and thinking she might stay a while in Los Angeles, a decision that has proven the undoing of many before her.
They were selling beer last night at MacLeod Ale, or so it seemed on the surface. But what they were selling were stories: intoxicating, delusional, impossible, and possibly real.
If MacLeod Ale’s chemical and financial alchemy survives, we, who wandered into here, and drank the spirits, may share in the dream.
Last night, over beers, me and A______ discussed a mutual male friend, Mitch, a good-looking, well-educated English teacher, originally from Cleveland, OH, who ended up in a small town in Northern Japan where he teaches English.
Mitch had moved to Los Angeles in 1993, right after he graduated from Princeton. He was working at a restaurant on Beverly when he was recruited or spotted or casted by a Hollywood big shot. Mitch became that man’s assistant, and ended up traveling around the world handling the man’s scheduling, shopping, appointments and travel.
There was a girlfriend back in Shaker Heights named Cassie. Cassie had dropped out of Oberlin after two years and was working as clerk in a mattress store. But she was pretty and ambitious and she was determined to move to Los Angeles.
Mitch meanwhile was realizing that his attraction to the opposite sex was not too strong. He was gay. He had no control over his sex drive, but he was determined to not admit it. To do that, he started drinking heavily and found that if he drank when he had sex he forgot what he did and with whom.
Mitch continued to succeed at his job, and was promoted to be an executive in his boss’s entertainment empire. By 2000, he was making six figures and had enough money to buy a small house in the Hollywood Hills with a backyard pool and a view of Los Angeles.
Cassie came out for a visit to Los Angeles and stayed with Mitch for a few days in 2001. By this time she had found out that he was gay, and she was dating a truck driver from Lexington, KY. She worked now in the transport business and had also put on quite a bit of weight. She was also pregnant.
Mitch was determined to show Cassie some fun. He took her to a party in Beverly Hills where she met Demi Moore and Tom Cruise. They went whale watching. They drove up PCH. They went hiking in Runyon Canyon.
When Mitch asked her how she liked LA, Cassie told him she enjoyed it, but she thought that he lived a selfish life, devoted to nothing important. “You should be helping people instead of going hiking. This isn’t real life!” she said.
He felt bad. Her comment made him feel that he was leading an aimless existence. But he knew that she was a true blue friend who only cared for his well-being. He decided that he would study Japanese and apply himself to learning about another culture just to take his mind into an objective place.
After Cassie left, Mitch began to write. He started a blog and he wrote stories about living in Hollywood. He began to post photos and long essays about what it was like to live here, what Hollywood felt like, and he would often email his stories to Cassie, but she never responded.
She had a baby named Charles in 2002, and then she eventually married trucker Graham Hawkins in 2005. They got a small apartment and she became a stay-at-home mom. She also began to eat heavily, compulsively and her weight climbed to some 400 pounds. She developed diabetes, had difficulty breathing and walking. She was only 31.
Mitch sold one of his stories that became a feature film. He was dating, but he was still drinking. Occasionally, he would call Cassie to see how she was doing. But mostly they communicated by email and when he posted photos online.
After he went on a 2007 trip to Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan, he posted photos on his blog. To his amazement, Cassie commented on a photo of Mitch sitting in a steaming Japanese bath surrounded by snow.
“Is this how you work? Must be nice. My husband hauls boxes 1,000 miles a week and I stay at home raising my son and also earning money knitting socks. Too bad you somehow have escaped all the responsibilities of adulthood.”
Mitch took her comment in stride. He was living a good life. But was it all by accident? He made the choice to go travelling. Just as Cassie chose to do what she did. He never told her how confining and sad her existence was. He felt that would be cruel.
Mitch was still drinking a lot. One night in Hokkaido he slipped on the ice and broke his arm. His vacation was ruined. When he got back to Los Angeles, he began to go to AA meetings.
He decided to quit his job as an entertainment executive, and explore what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. His daily life, meanwhile, had become devoted to attending meetings and trying to live healthy, through diet and exercise and spiritual self-awareness.
In 2009, he learned that his father in Cleveland was sick with Stage #4 lung cancer. His mother was also ill with early stage degenerative Alzheimer’s. He had no siblings, so he decided to move to Cleveland and see if he couldn’t help them move to an assisted living facility.
When he got back to Ohio, he got back in touch with Cassie. She told him that her life was crazy with children, her husband and work. And that she was sorry about his parents, but that Mitch “was finally learning a lesson in responsibility and what it means to be a real person and care for others.”
“I have to wipe my kid’s nose, take him to school, cook him every meal, clean up his room, pay the bills and work and I really can’t believe you’ve never had to do any of these things!” she told him.
He moved in with his parents and cared for them until his father died three months later. His mother, now a widow, was placed in a memory care facility. He felt drained and saddened and alone. But he somehow injected some fun into the tragedy by walking around Cleveland, taking photos and exploring neighborhoods. He decided that he would leave Ohio, and move to Japan. Before he left, he asked Cassie if she would meet up with him.
They agreed to meet at a mall in suburban Cleveland for lunch. When she walked into the restaurant, it was as if no time at all had passed. She was still beautiful, but she was enormous and he could see that she had difficulty walking.
“Well it’s great that you are moving to Japan. You should explore new places. If I had the chance I would move too. But I have responsibilities and I can’t even imagine what you do all day. If I had only my own self to think about that would be like a dream,” she said.
He told her he was going to teach English in northern Japan, in a small mountain town. He was excited, but also a bit sad and lonely. He was on his own. And his parents and their life was all behind him.
He was still in love, somewhere in his heart, with Cassie.
“Do you ever look at my photos or what I write in my blog?” he asked her.
“Yes, why?” she asked.
“I just wondered if you do because it really matters to me. It’s my life’s work. It’s what’s deepest and most important. When I write I’m revealing myself and my inner emotions. And I thought you would care,” he said.
“I do care,” she answered.
“Then why have you never commented or sent me a note about my stories or my photos?” he asked.
“Oh maybe because I’m on duty 24/7! I don’t have the luxury of dilly-dallying around, going on trips, writing or photographing. And I think it’s rather selfish of you to ask me to stop what I’m doing during my extremely packed day to attend to your blog!” she said.
“Well I see what you’re saying. I guess since I don’t have children or a husband like you do, I shouldn’t imagine that everyone has time to read or send nice thoughts to an old friend,” he said.
“You don’t know the half of it!” she said. “My life is so burdened with duties, but I have to do them. Because I couldn’t live with myself if I just went off on a bender every day of my life!” she said.
They said good-bye. And then he knew, maybe not right away, but somewhere in his heart, that he would never speak to or see her again.
Among the stranger aspects of modern American life is that we have gotten over old 1950s fears (Communists, homosexuals, fluoridated water, rock and roll) but have now supplanted new, sometimes exaggerated terrors to replace the old ones.
The above photograph by George Brich (LAPL) was published in the Valley Times on September 21, 1960 and read, “Jeanne Avery, 15, 14155 Cohasset St., Van Nuys, adds to the view along palm-lined Van Nuys boulevard, community’s main business street. The community is the largest in the Valley.” Van Nuys is nearing its 50-year anniversary and is being celebrated as one of the most beautiful and productive cities in the Valley.”
Can you imagine the outcry in 2016 if an adult male photographed a 15-year-old girl on the street and published her name and address in the LA Times?
“Thank you George Brich for violating my daughter’s privacy! Now every crazy pervert in the world will know where she lives!”
“This is completely wrong. No young woman, no matter how attractive should be photographed by a stranger and have her address published in the paper!”
In 1960, America had a benevolent and innocent view of itself. It was considered an honor for a teenage student to be photographed in the local paper. And nobody meant anything ironic in describing Van Nuys as “one of the most beautiful and productive cities in the Valley.”
In 2016, the average American, the average person living in Van Nuys is probably photographed hundreds of times a day, in security camera videos, in mobile phone images, waiting in a car at a red light, filling up for gas, withdrawing money at the ATM, driving through McDonalds, or stopping to shop at Target.
But the intentional photograph by camera on a public street has now become a provocative act. Its artfulness, its quirkiness, its freedom has been put on probation. Public photography itself is now under suspicion.An art form and a means of communication has volunteered to restrain and censor itself. Even when no law has been broken, and no privacy invaded. And this in itself is irrational and a denial of our American way of life.
There is nothing against the law in taking a photo of a person on a public street. You don’t need their permission.