Los Angeles

CAGEMATCH: Hector vs. Hrishi

by on May.30, 2011, under Los Angeles, music

I think Hector Tobar is right about this:

Don’t ever say: “L.A. doesn’t have any seasons.” Our seasons just don’t look like New England seasons. Instead, we have a season when the jacarandas bloom (right now) and a season when ash falls from the sky. We have a season of gloomy mornings (which isn’t in winter) and a season of Technicolor sunsets. We have a season when Mt. Baldy is covered in snow — and a season when you can’t see Mt. Baldy at all.

But I love The One AM Radio’s song “In A City Without Seasons.”

Contradictions! We haz ’em. The new album, Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread, is my first real ear crush of 2011. It’s ambivalent about L.A. through and through — in “Plans” Hrishi sings, “Fuck this town and all the things I have been / I am leaving here as fast as I can” — and I’m not. But I love driving the streets to his despair at them.

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Less Sweat

by on Jan.19, 2011, under Los Angeles, Politics

Celina Su’s anecdote in n+1 about visiting an aid worker in Cambodia, Holiday in Cambodia, includes this observation:

These women [in Phnom Penh] sewed clothes and reported to Chinese factory contractors, who reported to American managers, who reported to shareholders. Every once in a while, an exposé about the sweatshops reached American televised news. To Z, shareholders had an astoundingly predictable, biannual ritual of expressing shock about the sweatshop conditions in which these women earned less than $2 a day.

This is followed by an encounter with backpackers who disappointingly make excuses for the conditions, which allow workers to live at one-third the poverty level according to the United Nations. It’s only an aside, but it’s a misleading one. The rest of the piece describes a visit from a set of resolutely point-missing U.S. Congressional aides to the author’s friend Z’s aid projects. But the sweatshop aside shows a similar lack of attention.

I worked with anti-sweatshop advocates for two years putting together an anti-sweatshop purchasing policy, and they routinely held up Cambodia as an example of third world manufacturing done right. Garment export factories must submit to inspection by the International Labor Organization, described here at length. Violations still exist, but Cambodia’s monitoring regime is among the developing world’s most robust. Su’s observation isn’t wrong, but it feels much more like a pro-forma gesture at “conditions in the third world” than an informed account, even at the level of an aside.

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Earthquake Season

by on Dec.13, 2010, under Books, Los Angeles

At a reading for her book of poems Earthquake Season, Jessica Goodheart read a new poem, an elegy for Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart worker who died in a 2008 Black Friday stampede on Long Island. Of course there was a clear note of anger in the poem, but it wasn’t by far the loudest sound; the consumer megalith behind Damour’s death was too easy a target for the poet. (Which came as a nice surprise, because I know Jessica through economic justice work.) The poem looks past capitalism to look directly at the atavisms and animal currents it organizes.

Time and time again in these poems, the organizing fictions of civilization come to seem like a thin fence around the jungle. (Jessica lives near me in a woodsy corner of Northeast Los Angeles where coyotes regularly dine on cats.) Consider the concise, hopeless decree that opens “Caesarean”: “What’s inside must stay inside/what’s outside should be smooth.” The voice often seems like it is on the verge of abandoning the pretense that wildness can be suppressed from even the simplest interactions.  “Instructions for the House Sitter”:


Refill the dog’s dish in the evening.

But do not walk him unless

you are prepared to go as he does,

on all fours, weathering hours of solitude

Until the very end, it’s a funny, charming picture of wildness, a child’s game; but for me, “hours of solitude” uncovers something terrible and unseen. That moment, deftly underplayed, of looking past the veil into the darkness comes up again and again in Earthquake Season.

Buy Earthquake Season at Amazon.com

Jessica Goodheart at Word Press

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Things That Look Like Other Things V

by on Nov.18, 2010, under Los Angeles, Movies

Los Angeles….

A coyote wanders out of Los Angeles...

…looks like Chicago.

...and into Chicago

(Click on the images for more.)

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Adventures in Ill-Advised Paragraphs

by on Aug.15, 2010, under Los Angeles, Politics

There’s nothing wrong with anonymity — in its place. For instance, many people engage in discourse and commerce on the Internet anonymously (assuming the websites they’re dealing with have any scruples) for sound personal reasons.

Michael Hiltzik, Trying to shed light on a shadowy figure in Proposition 23 battle, August 15, 2010

The L.A. Times has suspended Pulitzer-winning business columnist Michael Hiltzik without pay, and discontinued both his column and his weblog, in response to the news that Hiltzik used psuedonyms on his blog and elsewhere to comment on Times-related matters, including his own work.

Opinion L.A. (an latimes.com blog), Hiltzick Suspended, April 28, 2006

It’s a very good column. Hiltzick, probably my favorite L.A. Times columnist, is pushing to expose the donors who are hiding behind the “Adam Smith Foundation” in order to overturn California’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions control law, AB 32. Just… dude. Choose better examples.

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Verlyn Klinkenborg And I Have The Same Favorite On-Ramp

by on May.10, 2010, under Los Angeles

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s latest editorial-page impressionistic L.A. vignette has some scratching heads, but the paean to Inscrutable L.A. deserves praise for limning the National on-ramp.

Not once, but twice, does Klinkenborg allude to what must be an obsession with L.A.’s most awesome freeway entrance

The iconic glimpses don’t help me in my quest — not the sudden view of the Hollywood sign I get from the Hollywood Freeway, not the view of downtown almost floating in the sunset from Pasadena. Every now and then, I turn a corner and think that something essential is about to be revealed. The feeling intensifies all the way up Venice Boulevard into Culver City, and then I’m on National taking one of those curious hidden freeway entrances and suddenly the feeling vanishes.


If I had an extra lifetime to live, I’d live it here. I don’t mean one lifetime lived, in the usual way. I mean a lifetime living within a block or two of the insurance shop on Venice Boulevard with the wrap-around neon facade. Another watching cars turn off National onto the 10. Another sitting by Santa, seeing who comes and goes. Perhaps then I could grasp what always escapes me here. Then I’d know whether it was worth looking for in the first place.

(Emphasis mine.)

To anyone still innocent of the on-ramp in question, this must look like an odd refrain for such a short column. It’s not. The National on-ramp is wicked cool, Airwolf cool.

Your approach disorients you three times over: once, by virtue of being anywhere near the baffling Overland/National/Motor/Palms mess, where streets turn into one another and then back, confounding any sense of gridded stability; twice, because the on-ramp is actually on Manning, not National; thrice, because you are trying to get on the freeway going east, but you must drive west (technically northwest) alongside the westbound 10 to approach it.

It doesn’t look like much — you’re going up a hill into a residential area, and then —

boom! you’re making a 90-degree turn on a flyover, crossing eight lanes of traffic and swooping down onto the 10 East.

Good call, Klink.

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Dennis Hopper

by on Apr.21, 2010, under Los Angeles, Movies

Dennis Hopper looms large in my mind as a weird hybrid of hippie and roughneck. I know him as an early Sunset Strip art scenester, showing photographs at Ferus; as the archvillain of Speed, an evil mastermind hiding out on the skids; and as the director of Easy Rider, which I half-saw one night in college. I picture him as a kind of Dog Soldiers Malibu-hills Don’t-Tread-On-Me cocaine libertarian, a portrait probably not entirely distinct from Hunter S. Thompson. I know he’s dying.

This video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz provokes a deeper consideration. Watching it, Hopper’s fragility leaps to the surface — the hard-luck cop in True Romance who dies rather than give his son up to Christopher Walken; the alcoholic coach from Hoosiers; flashes of tenderness, sensitivity, and weakness in dozens of Seitz’s clips. The art scenester appears an exponent of the avant-garde and a poet of nature and existence. It’s a moving tribute, well worth watching even at its considerable length for online video (24 min).

This, from Seitz’s short introductory essay, also rings true:

When I think about Hopper, I hear his voice in my head: the nasal Kansas vowels; the cowboy twang; and last but not least, the semicolons where periods would normally go, contributing to a sense that his thoughts, like works of art, are never finished, only abandoned, that he never really stops talking, that there’s always one more observation or pronouncement or dirty joke waiting just around the bend.

Jane Espenson’s warning against glib dialogue has been very helpful to my writing partner and me recently:

You probably loved it while you wrote it.  You could feel the emotion and poetry in it.  But when you reread it, it seems glib and overwritten.  If you take the poetry out, it feels flat.  In my opinion, the only thing wrong with the line is that it defies human psychology.  We don’t get articulate when we’re emotional — the opposite happens.  We get stumbly and tangled as we choke back our tears.

The trick, per Jane, is letting the poetry “creep back in when you write the next line, after the heat of the moment has passed”. Hopper seems particularly adept at a kind of unglib, poetic moment of rushing towards illuminated truth, as if the bends around which the observations wait all lead towards something bright, or fiery.

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A Made-Up Gang Problem?

by on Feb.21, 2010, under Los Angeles, Politics

In the course of marshaling statistics to explode the myth of rampant Latino immigrant criminality, Ron Unz of the The American Conservative makes the following observation about LA:

Los Angeles today ranks as America’s least white European large city. Half of the population is Hispanic, and many of these are impoverished illegal immigrants and their families. Yet all crime rates have been falling steadily over the last two decades, with homicide dropping a further 18 percent just last year. As Chart 14 illustrates, most major crime categories are now back down to where they were in the early 1960s, when the population really did look very much like the actors appearing in “Dragnet” and “Leave It to Beaver.” And indeed, violent crime is now roughly the same as for Portland, Oregon, America’s whitest major city.

This Los Angeles example also raises important questions about the official claims that Latino youths have exceptionally high rates of gang membership, 1800 percent higher than for whites. Los Angeles supposedly has among the worst Hispanic gang problems, yet the city’s actual crime rates are roughly the same as what they were back in the lily-white days of the early 1960s. So if these local gangs aren’t committing much crime, what exactly is the definition of a “gang”?

A cynical observer might draw a connection between the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government distributes each year for gang-prevention programs and the zeal with which local officials uncover the severity of their gang problems. In the case of Los Angeles, public officials have held January press conferences each of the last several years hailing the unprecedented drops in serious crime rates. They often follow these up a few months later with contrary press conferences on the horrific state of local gang violence and the desperate need for increased federal funds to cope with this scourge. If the federal government pays cities to find gang problems, many city officials will surely oblige them.

This has the ring of truth to me, but I don’t live in Los Angeles. What say you, Angelenos?

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by on Jan.12, 2010, under Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Times features waiters who work at Los Angeles’s two notable south-of-Mulholland delis: Langer’s and Canter’s. Canter’s is the Hollywood deli, set in a neighborhood full of young writers and actors, up all night, and host to The Kibitz Room (where Boots recently brought Edmund Welles). Langer’s, The Restaurant Saved By The Red Line, sits in “transitional” MacArthur Park, an easy lunch destination for downtown office workers who can ride the subway or get curbside to-go using their cell phones.

And Langer’s — as the Times notes 20 grafs in — is union.

Eva Francois began serving at Canter’s 17 years ago. The nighttime shift allowed her to spend days with her young son, but once he grew older, she was able to work days. A co-worker who served at both delis suggested lunch shifts at Langer’s, an extra job she has been working the last eight years. Like many dual-deli waiters, Francois takes the health benefits at Langer’s — a union shop.

Good on them for spelling out the difference. What the article neglects to mention–though the story’s in the archives–is that a little less than twenty years ago, Canter’s was union too. As I understand it, the original owners passed management to their children, who overturned a longtime arrangement with labor. A decertification campaign bitterly divided the staff. The former bass player in my band was a union organizer who worked closely with one of the shop stewards who manned that picket line (at a different job, years later). So we were not about to play The Kibitz Room.

Also, Langer’s is widely thought to make the best pastrami in the United States. Any meat-eating New Yorkers wanna come try it?

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Out With The Old II

by on Jan.04, 2010, under Los Angeles

Via LA Observed, this video of Los Angeles buildings demolished in the 00’s:

Lost in the Aughts from curbed los angeles on Vimeo.

Given the vastness of the subject, “We’ve Only Just Begun” would be as good a Carpenters song for the soundtrack. My first job in Los Angeles, for H.E.R.E. Local 11, was at 321 S. Bixel Street, a building owned by the union. It was taken by the school district and today is Miguel Contreras Elementary School.

Following that, I worked for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy at 548 S. Spring Street, one of many old, underutilized downtown commercial spaces. Before it was turned into lofts and LAANE had to leave, it was used to shoot the 7½th floor in Being John Malkovitch.

City Hall, the location of my last office job, still hosts the seat of governance. But a brand new jail sits on the parking lot where I left my car every day for five years, and our former field office is today a furniture store.

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