The Most Photogenic City

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We had walked over from her place on Benton Way in the late afternoon and stopped into a bright Mexican restaurant and sat at the bar where they had expensive tequilas and cheap margaritas.

At El Cóndor, on Sunset at Edgecliffe, the bartender was tall and black and efficient, fast serving the cold, salted glasses with the green mixtures to go along with the guacamole and chips.

We were talking and then a young guy sat down at the corner. The server, the busboy, and the bartenders seemed to know him as if he were a regular. He talked to a blond, bearded bartender, who left, and was replaced by a clean- shaven, quiet bartender in a denim shirt.

“I moved in with a girl,” he told the quiet bartender who listened and nodded politely and stared into the distance.

“I came here to act,” he said.

“What time do you get off work?” he asked.

“I’m going to a party later,” he said.

He was looking for a friend, maybe something more, but his plaintive loneliness reminded me of so many days and nights ago, and that certain summer twenty years ago when I moved to Los Angeles and lived with a girl. There was nothing to the relationship, other than a brittle friendship, and it died in the fall of 1994, never to return.

When you drink, you think, and you are articulate. The intuitions and insights flood your mind, and you feel relaxed and the fear and the anxiety leaves you and you can walk and laugh, cry and remember, and nothing will stop you, no inhibitions or tentativeness, no wary caution or reversion to propriety.

And the next day, if you are lucky, you remember a tiny portion of last night’s enormous revelations.

After we got back to her place on Benton Way, she told me I was her first activity of the night. Jason was downtown, visiting from Montreal, and she would be driving there to meet him.

But first she showed me those crazy, 1980s sweaters I gave her that had once belonged to my late Mother. She said they smelled like Louise, who died on September 1, 2014. My mother always dry-cleaned her clothes and hung them on wire hangers shrouded in plastic.

We sat on the gray sectional couch that had been in my mother’s apartment on Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey, the couch that had been purchased at Crate and Barrel in Paramus, NJ on Route #17 in the summer of 2008, the couch that was selected as I pushed my reluctant father in a wheelchair around the store and my mother hobbled along. That couch covered the events of the last seven years, the deaths of its two owners. It lived to find a new home in Silver Lake.

We are not more than friends so I left to make way for love, which was fine, as I was happy to drive into the waning light and go back to a street I found a few months ago where the giant Church of Scientology looms over a motley block of cheap apartments.

That street was Berendo, near Lexington, and I found it just when the sun was setting, and the harsh ugliness of old, broken-down, and neglected buildings became comely, enticing and seductive.

Water LA Scientology Over Berendo Lexington Near Vermont

There were markers of Western history dropped onto the streets, like French chateaus and Spanish castles. There were homely, plain and workaday brick and wood apartments and houses, old wooden electrical poles and wires, and cars that were packed into tight alleys, and parked along the curb. Occasionally, a cat would crawl out from under a car and dart into another shadow.

Berendo was blasphemy, watched over by a cross atop on an old blue hospital now advertising SCIENTOLGY.

Under the gaze of the cult, I was walking, and photographing, a city unique in its fate and form.

Lexington Near Berendo Lexington Near Berendo (1) 4800 W. Lexington Ave.

Los Angeles: the most photogenic city in the world.

Whatever you imagine it is, it is.

Her beauty is fragile and fleeting. Her people arrive to grab onto to something illusory and transforming.

She should be seen and felt in the fading light, after the hours when the sun is brightest and before the hours when the darkness descends.

4th of July in Years Past

From the USC Digital Archives, one finds fascinating and unusual photos of old California.

A search for “4th of July” brought up these photos and captions:


“Photographer: Gaze. Date: 1952-07-04. Reporter: Gaze. Assignement: 4th July–Santa Monica. #23-29: Navy landing craft comes ashore in Fourth of July exercises at Santa Monica. LCM No. 268 in the foreground has just landed and No. 175 has just taken off back through surf. In addition to these landing craft, visitors streamed aboard the heavy cruiser USS Toledo and the destroyer escort USS Whitehurst.”


Philippine Independence Day celebration July 4th, July 4, 1951. Elizabeth Rigor (“Miss Luzon”); Mayor Fletcher Bowron; Sartonio V. Abrera (consul of Philippines); Maria Torres (“Miss Visayan”); Aurora Garcia (“Miss Philippines”).

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Special 4th of July rites at St. Vibianas, July 4, 1951. Processional into cathedral with Archbishop J. Francis A. McIntyre.


“Photographer: Gaze. Date: 1952-07-01. Reporter: Gaze. Assignment: 4th July advance. #41: Pretty Rita Simon looks as though she were about to take off on a giant skyrocket at Ocean Park which is one way of calling attention to the annual 4th of July fireworks exhibition which will be held on the end of Ocean Park Pier on the night of July 4 in tribute this year to four warships which will anchor in the Bay. Visitors will be allowed aboard from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July4, 5 and 6. #42: L to R: Audrey Donahue holds her ears as Margie Brunner lights giant skyrocket and Rita Simon appears ready to take off with the explosive on the Ocean Park beach. The girls enact the scene to call attention to the annual fireworks exhibition to be held at the end of the Ocean Park Pier in tribute to 4 warships which will anchor in the Bay over the three-day holiday.”

The Capriciousness of Life.

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I was down in Venice yesterday on a foggy Saturday morning, down there to attend a training video for a new food processor I’ve been hired to test.

I parked on Sunset near 4th Avenue, not far from Gjusta, where I went to eat. They sell loaves of bread for ten dollars there.

And along Sunset I passed a man and a woman and a tent, their home I assumed. I ignored them and went to the restaurant and ordered eggs, toast and coffee for $16.

On the way back, the man and the woman had moved, and set up their tent on 4th Avenue.

Camera in hand, I went over to introduce myself.


The man, Alexander, said he was from Pomona and was 22-years-old. The woman, Dina, said she was 44 and from Egypt. They both said they met in Israel.

They said they were artists. And they had ended up here and had no means of supporting themselves, so they were living in the tent, on the sidewalk, chased away by residents and police.

Alexander was smart, funny, articulate and intelligent. He said he was Jewish, an anomaly in Catholic and Hispanic Pomona. Dina said she grew up in Egypt, a Muslim, and her father was blacklisted for writing against the regime. She said she had children in Israel.

Alexander told me that the hardest part of being homeless was how exhausting it was. They had to be constantly moving, like Bedouins, and forage for food. Cleaning up was not easy, they washed their hands along the curb. Yet they seemed clean.

“Capitalism can be cruel. Even in poorer countries, people seem to look out for each other, to help. In America, the indifference is noticeable,” Alexander said.

“All of my family live in the same compound,” Dina said, thinking of her kin back home. And what would they think of her now?

Dina had the flinty, tough, tenacious soul of a woman from the Middle-East. She was genuinely touched that I cared enough to stop and speak with her, and discuss her plight and struggle.

They both said they needed a backyard to stay in. That would help them feel settled. I wondered why there was not a place in Venice or Santa Monica, in a community full of backyards, where one couple could camp out temporarily.

Their goal was to save $3,000 and return to Israel.

I don’t exactly understand how they got into this position, but I am sure that life doesn’t always reward the moral and punish the immoral.

Sometimes it is capricious, and good people end up in bad places, and if they are lucky enough, can dig out and get back on their feet.

But why is it that nobody can lend them a backyard and few bucks?

A few blocks from Dina and Alexander, Google is building a new office. And a friend of my brother rents a small apartment on Rose for $4,500 a month.

And Dina and Alexander sleep in a tent on the sidewalk while all around them humanity passes by.


2015 is Different.

2015 is a different year.

Not only is it the first year I have ever entered without my mother, but around me, on the roads, in the skies, Los Angeles is changed.

The economy, we are told, is back. There are more cars on the road. The air is acrid, and brown, and smelly.

Gas is cheaper. Undocumented Californians can now drive legally with license.

The white-flowered Magnolia trees are blooming on Magnolia Boulevard.

Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, nose blowing all around.

Everywhere there are trucks of painters, tile setters, electricians, window installers, gardeners, pest controllers. It takes 20 minutes just to drive to the next stoplight.

The parking lots are packed with new SUVs.

Every other car ignores the rule against hand-held devices.

30 year olds and younger drive the slowest.

The Waze App is slicing speeding drivers, evading jams, down residential streets. Cars go 50 mph on 25 mph roads.

There is a boom going on, but it is a boom with low-paying jobs.

Houses cost a fortune. Apartments rent for ridiculous prices. Old people who own property subsidize their children who cannot afford to live.

Studio City is getting torn down, the little houses are replaced by massive two million dollar “Cape Cods”.

The people are without direction, but looking for somewhere to go. They get in their cars to go somewhere, to get to a place that none  really want to get to. But foot on the pedal, they move on.

2015 is a different year.

The recession is vanquished.

The go, go, go times are in the air.

Which brings us back to 2007.




There are no sudden storms in the Southland.

There are no sudden storms in the Southland.

They are slow, and anticipated for many days before arrival.

The rains of Los Angeles are not the violent and fast moving ones from my youth in Illinois.

They come from San Francisco, imported and exotic, served only in winter.

They travel, as if on a slow moving freight train, chugging down across the mountains, picking up wind and moving clouds with great effort, until, by eminent domain, they seize this region in rains, pushing out that squatter the sun, drenching the city in something purifying and disorienting, dark and light; a benevolent symphony of Earth’s workings, cleansing and renewing.

The rains of Los Angeles are a strange corrective of nature. They are more powerful and more intimidating than the human cesspool city of sudden violence and crashing cars. The Army of the Clouds is a conqueror who must be obeyed. Under occupation, rivers are rerouted, trees blown over, electrical current shut off, oceans churned, roads made impassible.

But they are kind in power, artful in practice.

They transform the ugliness of asphalt into reflecting pools.

They tame cars, dragging them through curbside baths.

They throw dark daytime shadows across the city.

And after they pass, one looks east, towards Pasadena and the nation beyond it.

And we stand, once again in the sun, in the Southland, in our winter.

Left to our own devices.

Raymer-LA River USA Gasoline Farmer's Ranch Market Raymer-Kester


Holiday Inn Express, North Hollywood.

Sunrise Ford

Holiday Inn

One of the strangest juxtapositions of new development and old crap can be seen in the San Fernando Valley east of Lankershim on Burbank.

A new six-story Holiday Inn Express is going up on the south side of Burbank Blvd. within view of the “arts district” yet firmly within the auto zone of muffler, tire, transmission, oil change, lawnmower and auto sales dealers.

Imagine you are a naïve guest, perhaps from Iowa, who is coming to Los Angeles for the first time and you see this modernistic, multi-colored Mondrianlike building on Trip Advisor. You might be excused for believing that you had lucked into a real fine deal, a lovely, clean hotel with good rates right in the heart of North Hollywood.

Upon checking in, you drive up Lankershim, past Sunrise Ford with its bright red painted “Diesel Truck Repair Center”.



You go up to your room and look out and see V.A.S Auto Repair and John’s Lawn Mower with its garages full of grease monkeys changing oil, servicing radiators, and loading up pick up trucks with power equipment and lawn mowers.


If you are getting hungry, after walking through all the paint and gasoline fumes, and breathing in the smell of diesel, you can pick up something to drink at N. Hollywood Liquor where they accept EBT and can also cash your check for a fee.

$1 Taco

Smoke Shop

For a stroll you might stop by for a bite to eat at Tacos Manzano where Taco’s Tuesday is only $1. Or go directly next door to the Smoke Shop or Harry’s Auto Repair where the smog experts work behind cinderblock murals of Marlboro cigarettes and hookah. Pick up some pot at any of the medicinal pharmacies along the way. Marijuana is to modern Los Angeles what rice is to China.

Los Burritos

Quick Lane

If you don’t want burritos on the cheap you can have a more expensive burrito at Los Burritos or go across the street and get an American style burrito burger at Denny’s. If you crave nightlife you can go to El Zorro nightclub right next door to the Quick Lane Tire and Auto Center.

In another 50 years, a new generation of vaca negras will waddle past here, orange drinks in hand, and wonder if that bad old motel with prostitutes and vagrants will ever be torn down.

Day at the Races.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.