Kester, the Underachiever.


He has low self-esteem. He thinks he is too skinny, too short, too overlooked.

He blames his parents, near Raymer, for spawning him into the world from an obscure and ugly industrial spot near the concrete walled Los Angeles River.

On hot days, which are frequent, he told me hardly anyone drives up to his northernmost reaches. He looks at the homeless carts, the empty parking lots behind Target, and he thinks he is like an orphan among roads in Van Nuys and vicinity.

He told me he is jealous of Sepulveda named for an explorer, and of that “pompous” boulevard hosting such notables as Bevmo, OSH and LA Fitness. “What do I have except a couple junky liquor stores where they sell malt liquor? Sepulveda is arrogant. He has money and history and power. He was born near The Mission, holier than thou, and rams his way all through the San Fernando Valley and even has a pass named after him. He has Getty and Skirball and two Zankou Chickens. He gets to go all the way to LAX and beyond. He is well-travelled too!”

“I’m only 4.7 miles long. And people use me. They know I have no ramps to or from the 101 so they travel on me as a shortcut of necessity. They don’t really want to visit me. They would rather be on Van Nuys Bl.,” he said tearfully.

I told him I had respect for him, as he, evoked in me, a sweet nostalgia.

I said I liked Valley Builder’s Supply at Oxnard, especially the piles of sand and rock. And the place next door where they put bald tires on cars as a stray, three-legged, bandana-necked dog dances in the dust and dirt around the jacked-up vehicles. I tried to cheer him up and mentioned the braceros who gather for work everyday, smiling, rubbing their stomachs, itching for opportunity. “This is the real city. This is you, Kester!” I said.

I thought he would be thrilled at the two, new, white, glistening apartments on Kester between Delano and Erwin. “Big deal,” he said. “One of the buildings has just painted a big orange tongue on the front like a Pez dispenser. It’s like they want to make me look ridiculous instead of elegant. I’m always put into the low-class category!”

He said that even churches ignored him. La Iglesia En El Camino at Sherman Way just gives me a parking lot. And then there is that lousy self-service car wash across from the church. On Sepulveda, they have new, automatic car washes with flashing colored lights and lots of suds. On Kester, people still spray their cars by hand!”

He talked about his bitterness towards Van Nuys High School which turns its playing field bleachers away from him.

He ridiculed the remodeled Kester Palace apartments south of Victory as “refried beans” and “tacky.”

Most angrily he attacked the mini-mall on the NE corner of Victory where the trash and the shopping carts full of garbage are always left on the Kester side of the building.

I tried to change the subject.

“What about MacLeod Ale? I know it’s not on Kester but so many of its patrons drive down you to get there!” I said.

“Don’t mention MacLeod. They have it easy on Calvert Street. That street is twice as ugly as I am but they still get crowds of fans. Life is really unfair!” he said.

Then I had to, unfortunately, break the news to him that Metro is planning to demolish 58 buildings from Kester to Cedros along Aetna and Bessemer to accommodate a future light rail storage and maintenance yard.

“What? That’s crazy. Why would they destroy all those small businesses where people make a living? This is madness! Why does Van Nuys keep shooting itself in the foot? Do you mean to tell me that part of Kester will be taken away and devoted to floodlit rail yards right in the middle of old Van Nuys?”

“Yes. The great new transportation future of Van Nuys, with light rail, requires the dismemberment of one of its solid, dense, walkable districts. That is always how it works in Los Angeles. You must wipe out the old to create the new!”

He started to cry.

“It’s not part of my family but do you mean they will also knock down the old metal-sheeted, pitched roofed, fruit packing houses on Cedros and Calvert? Those go back to before WWII. Those are really lovely reminders of old Van Nuys,” he said.

“Yes. I’m afraid they will demolish those too,” I said.

After spending time travelling, walking, and observing Kester, I understood that he was, truly, different from the louder, noisier, bigger, wider roads. He struggled to voice his own identity. He watched as less deserving streets around him got more and more action, and he slipped, quite often, into self-pity.

In other cities, perhaps in Italy or Mexico, a Kester might find love with his shadows and frumpiness. His shy virtues of walkability and modesty, independence and eccentricity, could give him a solid living and self-respect outside the US. Poets would write of Kester, painters would paint him. The monogram “BVN”, sprayed so artfully, so often, on the walls of Kester, would be stitched into the world’s finest garments.

But cruelly, in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, the majority stamps him only as Kester, the Underachiever.

 

Bank of America at Haynes and Van Nuys Blvd.


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Ph: Julius Shulman
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Ph: Julius Shulman

Many are familiar with the large, architecturally impressive Bank of America at Haynes and Van Nuys Blvd. It was designed by Paul Revere Williams, a prominent architect who was also an African-American Angeleno. The bank was built in 1967 and features murals inside and out by artist Millard Sheets. In 1968, famed photographer Julius Shulman photographed the bank. It was a high point for civic architecture in Van Nuys, and perhaps the last time this area felt proud of its main street.

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Prior to the 1967 bank, there was a more humble, late Art Deco, Bank of America at this same location, 6551 Van Nuys Bl.

In this black and white photograph, one sees the crisp, scrubbed-down, finely cared for building. Around it was a thriving street with well-dressed, law abiding citizens, and perhaps the occasional criminal whose activities were the exception not the rule.

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Chase Bank, Sepulveda at Victory.

Today, human beings in Van Nuys sleep, eat, and defecate alongside bank buildings. Their disgraceful conditions scarcely cause anyone to notice. Or care.

In 2017, we are so busy congratulating ourselves on our “tolerance”that we forget that things that were once intolerable, illegal and immoral were considered so for many good reasons. In our gross barbarity, in our willful blindness to the suffering of neighbors, we are co-defendents in a new type of indecent nation, one that tests our moral fiber and will present itself to history for judgment.

Human beings do not belong on the street. They should be housed safely, affordably, with sanitation and security. Call this conservative, call this liberal, call this anything you want.

 

La Tuna Canyon Fire


The sky was exceptionally sublime last night with distant plumes of smoke climbing up into the clouds. The air was smoky and humid. The city seemed exhausted, ready to take a cold shower, drink ice water, and crawl into a bed without a blanket in an air-conditioned room.

But firefighters were racing to multiple scenes, battling on foot, assisted by water dropping copters. There would be little sleep for the defenders of life and property.

Near 12653 Osborne St, Pacoima, CA 90012

The 2017 La Tuna Canyon Fire in the Verdugo Mountains, a punishing event, looked tame from a distance in Pacoima along San Fernando Road. Closer up, panic and urgency: horses, dogs, cats and people evacuated. Others chose to stay home, hose down their roofs and wait it out.

In Sunland, still along San Fernando Road,  one could glimpse the hot flames shooting up in the crevices between the jagged hills, orange fire against the dark blue sky.

Near 8134 San Fernando Rd
Sun Valley, CA 91352

Dormant Beauty


 

On a Sunday evening in July, on foot, after a few beers, the old town of Van Nuys, carried a note of Tribeca 1985, in its summoning of potential, laid out, for dreamers and developers.

There were empty storefronts and shabby alleys, but there were also women in chairs, attending children on bicycles, who played near clothes for sale, hung on a fence. Here Andreas bought a shirt for $3.

There were menacing BVN insignias on garbage bins and apartment walls, but there was also the eternal light of California soaking the decay in cinematic color. If I were sober, if I were alone, I probably wouldn’t have walked here.

Intoxication, used wisely, is a gift. When nerves are soothed, adventures commence.

What glories the cessation of fear brings to the eye. Every corner revealed something: teal and brown homeless tarps seemingly sculpted, the wood pallets in the alley placed with artful intention, a wood gate in the back of a parking lot like the entrance to an old western town.

The best buildings were the forgotten ones: The steel walled packing house on Vesper St., the pink stucco cottages on Cedros, and 14225 Delano St. a mid-century structure with a dark green cornice and an inverted glass wall, respectable, laconic and businesslike.

It was Sunday night but some people worked.

On Bessemer St. a worker at Technology Auto Body buffed a gleaming pick-up truck, squeezing the last minutes of light to finish his job.

Last night, these fearsome streets, Calvert, Bessemer, Vesper, Delano and Cedros, were peaceful and passive. Sometime soon, this walkable, neighborly and nostalgic area will revive, and these ramshackle adventures through denigration will take their place in the history book of Los Angeles.

 

 

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The Model is Not Your Friend


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I just published my latest short story, “The Model is Not Your Friend.”

The plot:  two sober living men intoxicated by young beauties get drunk on self-deception.

I mulled this idea around in my head since the beginning of the year, choosing the title early on.

Originally it was about a man chasing a woman and chasing his youth while she turned his life upside down. Boring and banal.

I wrote pages of that story and then destroyed it, something I never have done.

Then I went back to something a playwright named JRB once told me. He said he tears a photo out of a magazine and begins to write from it.

I used that concept, of seeing something visual and then building a tale from that. It happened that I have a friend who is a painter, and I like his work, and he lives nearby, so his art propelled me to write.

Maybe this is all boring. I happen to hate those NPR radio shows where some producer or director or actor or songwriter talks about what inspired them.

So fuck all that and just read the story.  Please.