This writer and three others will have their short stories read aloud at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 6:30pm.
Tickets are free but require reservations.
This writer and three others will have their short stories read aloud at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 6:30pm.
We are hosting, for the next few weeks, a family gathering. There are guests from Malaysia, Singapore and Switzerland, women all, except for the family patriarch, 83-years-old, who, despite his recent health setbacks, flew 19 hours to see his granddaughter graduate from business school and join the festivities.
The house is crowded and people are sleeping on futons, air mattresses and sofas. We bought sacks of sweet potatoes and Vidalia Onions and cartons of organic cherries, blueberries, and strawberries.
For mental health reasons, I stocked up on beer.
Because this is a Chinese-Malaysian family, I get to see and be a part of, close-up, the Hainan dialect, the Straits accented English, so sharp and so distinct; and the laughter, and sometimes the arguments which I observe but do not partake in.
Prescriptive, advising, pedantic, loving, cautionary, understanding, this is the general aura. When you are in the embrace, you are looked after, and you look after others.
Around 3 O’Clock in the afternoon there are cakes and coffee and people gathered around the dining room table chatting and laughing and sending photos over mobile devices.
As an American, I take pleasure in people being awed by the things I never think about: the copious enormity of Costco, the directness of speech, the assertive and self-assured women, the large portions of food, the open vulgarity of sexual talk and provocative dress, and the friendly kindness of strangers.
On “The View”, a show blaring today, they were arguing and screaming about politics, and our guests, fully conversant in English, must have wondered about how we get away with saying what we want without fear of arrest or condemnation. There are sedition laws back in Malaysia and public discourse is held back, and one would not broadcast aloud against the government for long without inviting arrest.
Whoopi Goldberg could be a political prisoner there. Imagine that.
One of our guests liked the small chatter and joking banter she saw on the local KTLA news. It was so casual and relaxed she said; so un-like her country. Target, Costco, Sam Woo…we really do have it all.
Nothing is so nice as being admired for banality.
We went to Vegas for a two-day trip to stay at room cheap, free parking for now Mandalay Bay and visit Hoover Dam.
In the casino, where machines insatiably swallow $20 bills, Liberty Bell shaped smokers waddle through. The smell of second hand smoke wafts through the air like hay in a stable.
We drank at Red Square during their happy hour and had two whisky cocktails for $24. Later on we ate Japanese food where a fist-sized piece of salmon goes for $49. When I went to withdraw cash from the ATM they took a $6.99 fee.
At the elegant Japanese restaurant at Mandalay Bay, men wore Affliction T-shirts and baseball caps or square toed dress shoes with cargo shorts.
At Terrible’s Gas Station on The Strip the attendant who rang me up called me honey and at the Market Grille Café in North Las Vegas I was darling and I was sir and sweety at the Mizuya Lounge. Vegas is nothing if not affectionate to strangers.
On our way back from Las Vegas yesterday morning, we stopped in the Mojave Desert to see the world’s tallest thermometer, use the restrooms and buy some water.
Hardscrabble, windy and roasting, Baker is significant in its nothingness: a strip of dilapidated and defunct motels, a country store selling hot sauces and craft sodas, and the home of the Mad Greek Diner, occupying a key corner off the highway.
We parked first at the thermometer, which was cool at only 93. We were looking for bathrooms, but we couldn’t find any there. Instead there was a metal and stone monument featuring an egg in a frying pan.
As we made our way down to the country store where urinals and toilets awaited, one uncle received a text from the young woman about to graduate. She was in her classroom at UCLA and her school was in lockdown after a shooting. A gunman, or possibly two, was on the loose.
The uncle told me, but we kept the knowledge of the unfolding events from the mother, the elderly father, and the aunt.
We got back in the car, and were stopped in the middle of the desert by road construction. The temperature outside was about 100 and the air-conditioning was blasting. The two aunties and their father were sleeping in back.
So I turned on the LA news, KNX 1070, and gradually the terrifying words filled the car: police, shooting, FBI, active shooter, two dead, locked in the classrooms, students, LAPD, bomb squad, SWAT team. The mother, napping in back, awoke, and gradually, without us saying anything, realized her youngest daughter’s school was now a crime scene.
A few more texts came from our girl. She said they were hunkered down in darkness. But she was all right.
We are all in our classroom with locked doors and the lights off. I think they confirmed it’s a murder-suicide.
Worried, in suspense, we listened to every development at UCLA as reported by KNX. Why did I turn on that radio?
We inched along at 15 or 20 miles an hour. The traffic broke, and we continued west, now at 60 or 70 MPH into Barstow, and then that steep, disorienting angle into the brown cloud that filled the mouth of the Cajon Pass, and later travelling along the flat 210, in Rancho Cucamonga, we got relief.
We are being let out now.
Our loved one was OK. But someone else lost a son, a friend, a husband; and a killer died who was also someone’s child. Bullets, brains, and blood took their monthly seat alongside erasers and magic markers.
America! What is wrong with you? You have so much going for you! Everyone likes you! People are so impressed by you! Don’t fuck it up! Use your God-given talents! Just like my mother used to tell me.
I am still deeply in love with the United States of America. When foreigners say something against it to my face, I remember it. I want to present it and show it proudly.
Born, was I, in the Land of Lincoln, 97 years after, the 16th President, died.
Riding back from Las Vegas yesterday, a typical American morning unfolded for our guests from Malaysia. I wasn’t proud.
I was ashamed.
“At The Wagmor we understand that your dogs are your children. We go above and beyond the normal expectations and look for ways to make your dogs experience special. Being away from you can be traumatic and we understand that. We provide a calm, loving and supportive environment and always use products that are chemical free. We use the quietest dryers with heat control to ensure the comfort and safety of your pet. We use top of the line shampoos and conditioners and we take pride in being one of the first dog spas to offer Oxygen treatments and Aroma Therapy. While your dog is with us we will make sure he or she is happy and content. We hope you will become part of The Wagmor family.”
At The Wagmor in Studio City, the family dog can get a specialty haircut for $100, oxygen treatment for $18 or de-matting “for severe cases” at $60.
Across the street from the Wagmor, at Wylder’s, pet services include sonic teeth cleaning, acupuncture, massage therapy and psychic pet readings.
Further down Ventura, Healthy Spot offers nutrition consultations, non-anesthetic teeth cleaning, wellness clinics, pet photography and a grooming salon.
To those who are terrified of pet food impurities, Healthy Spot assures, “we understand that dogs are more than just pets; they are family. That’s why we’re committed to providing, even the most discerning pet owners, with a full range of wholesome, organic food lines as well as a wide selection of safe and eco-friendly toys, treats, training tools, grooming products, and services. We track every pet food recall and stock only the highest quality products. Rest assured, if it’s Healthy Spot approved, it’s safe.”
Some of these people might support gay marriage, universal health care, affirmative action, gun control, and organic food labeling. They are aghast at Mr. Trump’s comments about female anatomy, disabled reporters, Muslims and Mexicans. They nuture their children. They teach them tolerance. They tell them that a transgendered teen deserves respect and understanding.
Yet what in God’s name is going on with seeing and ignoring human beings living, sleeping, eating, defecating, and wandering the streets of Los Angeles, and all around Studio City, while dogs are being treated to luxury spas and psychotherapy?
There is a woman who has lived on Ventura Boulevard making her home on a bus bench for the last year! Her home is in front of two banks, Citibank and Union Bank.
People are eating out of garbage dumpsters.
They are going around unwashed and unfed.
They have mental health issues that are not treated.
They sleep in alleys, under bridges, alongside railroad tracks.
They make beds in parking lots and sleep on the asphalt.
And there are many dogs in Los Angeles who live better lives than people.
How can we drive our Range Rovers up to the pet spa and spend $200 on canine hair stylings when we can’t take care of a man or a woman on the street?
How sick and misplaced, decadent and dehumanizing are our priorities?
A recent run of work inside a Ventura Boulevard real estate office brought me into the world of those listings, words and photos, meant to build the self-esteem of homes.
I speak of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and its breathless descriptions of current residences offered for sale.
Awkward, ill-proportioned, ungainly, ostentatious, oversized, outdated, gaudy, trendy, remodeled, modernized, updated, whatever their individual personality characteristics and physical appearance, once they had undergone descriptive transformations via agency wizardry, they each emerged as self-confident houses ready to graduate into acceptance of offer and transfer of title.
As anyone who spends time in Studio City or Sherman Oaks knows, there once existed a lovely pair of communities where tree-lined streets and charming cottages co-existed with larger and wealthier hillside homes. But lately, the obliteration and demolishing of sweet little places and the replacement of small and human with enormous and robotic, has become a frenetic, greedy and exhausting activity.
6 bedroom, 7 bath, 5,000 sf houses on 7,000 sf lots, and every single one of these places as indistinguishable as pennies in a piggy bank.
Their owners are an exotic lot of ethnicities whose names are unpronounceable but mostly sound like San Fernando Valley streets spelled backwards.
4533 Casa Grotesqua was purchased in July 2014 for $795,000 by Kraproom Namdoow and Sordec Notluf. And after a $60,000 kitchen upgrade was sold for $2.1 million to Edisrevir Yrotciv, an attorney.
14432 Moonshine Drive, Studio City is an outstanding 2 bedroom, 1 bath house with walking closets, a two-die for pool, expansive windows overlooking bustling, sophisticated Ventura Boulevard. It was completely remodeled in 2014 by designer Enitlezah Agneuhac and features stone ground fountains, heated toilets and high security children’s playrooms monitored by close circuit cameras. It is now offered for sale at $2.1 million.
The real listings on the MLS are too grammatically mangled to reprint here. If they were homework assignments handed in to English teachers in any 7th grade class, they would all be graded F.
But why bother proof reading listings for houses selling for one, two or three million dollars?
When your mortgage is $9,000 a month, there is very little time left over for reading or writing.
Parked along Tujunga Avenue in North Hollywood, on the east side of the park, between Magnolia and Riverside, a remarkable new residential community of homeless people has been established in a line of permanently parked RVs.
Visible and egregious, with their reflective cardboard stuffed inside windshields to cool down the metal houses in the summer sun, these faded and rusted motor homes are testament, depressing and sobering, to the high cost of housing in Los Angeles and the inability of so many to find a suitable and safe place to live.
I walked along here today and photographed some 15 vehicles where people live.
In front of one, a woman and two men were in lawn chairs, sitting in the shade. The lady asked me, in a friendly way, why I was photographing and I told her it was for my blog.
“I’m homeless. We’re all homeless,” she said.
And I told her I knew that. And I also said I was photographing these four-wheeled residences to let others know how their fellow human beings were forced to live.
“God bless you,” she said.
And I continued my walk.
The New York Incident
I went back East for two weeks in July. My first stop was Boston, then I went to New York City and ended up in Chicago.
On Wednesday, July 22nd, I boarded a late afternoon train at Boston’s South Station and rode down, through the Connecticut shoreline, into Westchester County, and finally New York.
I hadn’t been in Manhattan since 2008. And as I walked through dismal Penn Station, dragging my suitcase on wheels, laptop slung around my neck, camera in bag across my shoulders, I entered into dusk on 8th Avenue and up into loud, thrilling chaos and disorder and a human army of walkers and honking cars and trucks.
It was about 8 O’Clock and I grabbed a smoking stick of chicken kabobs from a street corner vendor. A few jovial, joking, middle-aged guys, on their way to Madison Square Garden, stood behind me and kidded me about my kabobs, asking me if they were any good. They were my first interaction in the city, and a good one: the heart and soul of New York is the casual, interfering, obtrusive love of strangers on the sidewalk.
I walked east on 34th, aiming for a bus to take me uptown on Madison to my destination at East 87th. Eyes on the Empire State Building, I walked through Herald Square and then into a protest that spilled into the intersection of 34th and 5th.
There were hundreds marching against police brutality. And there were cops, on foot and in their vehicles, yelling through bullhorns to get the people off the street. The action and the sounds, the theater of it all, pushed me into grabbing my camera from my bag and start photographing it all.
As I was shooting pictures of people against law enforcement, someone came behind me and walked away with my luggage. My entire clothing and shoes and toiletries were stolen.
I knew it right away, or rather I realized it when I pushed through the crowd and got to Madison Avenue. I still had my computer and my camera, but I was without the two-week supply of pants, underwear, socks, shoes, and toiletries I had come with.
The next morning I had to go buy new clothes. Everything. I went to the cheapest place I could find, H&M, and bought it all. It was stuffed in a plastic bag.
I was near 59th and Central Park West, and had called the NYPD to see if I could go to a precinct station and file a report the stolen suitcase. They said to go to Midtown North at 306 W. 54th St.
As I walked up to the old brick building, a female cop came roaring out of the door and pointed to me, “You! Get out of here. Go to the other side of the street! And the rest of you, you can’t sleep here! Get up and get out!”
She thought I was homeless because I was carrying my bag of new, replacement clothes.
I ignored her and went inside the cop house. A large STOP sign was in the middle of a grungy room where cops sat behind swinging gates and an elevated stage. I saw a water fountain. Thirsty, I went to get a drink beyond the STOP sign.
“Sir! Get back! You can’t just walk in and drink there!”
I explained that I was here to file a stolen property report. They told me to put my name on a list and wait at a window on the other side of the room.
I waited. And nobody called me. Other people came in and walked in front of me. So finally I looked through the glass window and saw a bearded Orthodox Jew at a desk and a black woman standing behind him.
“Yeah, what do you want?” the black woman asked.
“I’m here to report my suitcase was stolen last night,” I said.
“Your suitcase was stolen last night so what are you doing here this morning?” the Orthodox Jew asked.
“I was robbed near 34th and 5th and they said to come here and file a report,” I said.
“34th and 5th? That’s the Empire State Building. You don’t come here. You go to the Midtown South Precinct at 357 W. 35th St.” the Orthodox Jew answered.
“They said you would write up the report and send it down to them,” I said.
“Who said that? We ain’t doing their work for them!” the black lady answered.
I realized now that I was in that territory of comical and tragic best covered by Woody Allen. There was no empathy, no service; only obstacles, ridiculous and inexcusable, but this was how the city that doesn’t work works.
I walked out of the police station and marveled at the New York comedy routine I had just experienced.
I still love that city.