Before the cold rains struck the San Fernando Valley late Monday afternoon, dark and menacing storm clouds went into formation.
Seen from the empty asphalt of an abandoned parking in Panorama City, the view east lived up to its name. The craggy, inky, rock-topped San Gabriels permitted fog to brush their face.
Eager to pursue the dark light show, we drove east on Roscoe where it opens up under the high voltage lines, across the valley, under the concrete freeway, cutting diagonally up Tuxford, emerging into the industrial abattoir of Pacoima where death and life, and light and shadow hunt under smokestacks and behind motels.
The rains came down on Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Road, soaking Chabelita’s Restaurant, Gallardo’s Auto Repair, Fierro’s Muffler, Franco Tires, JC and Son Welding, and the Coral Bells Motel.
And then, in the mode of Los Angeles, the sky cleared. A vast, blue vista opened up. A cold wind followed.
Carrying our cameras, we passed men who eyed us with suspicion. Señor Fierro came out of his muffler shop and kindly asked us why we were taking pictures. I handed him my card and told him how beautiful the sky was. He seemed to agree.
These people work hard. They come from lands where blood soaks the cross and breaks the heart. Now they weld metal and change tires and cut hair and dig trenches. Here are these Americans whose presence makes us American.
San Fernando Road is also part of Route 66. The historic state sign says so. The old motels along the highway attest to a long history of travellers who made their way into California: on foot, by automobile, in the back of trucks, hidden inside freight trains.
They got here and slept on the floor, two or three to a bed. Some had no papers. Some had no money. They were somewhere strange and hostile, but free, free to pursue and put down roots and stop running.
But death caught some too young. Some died under trains, running across tracks after the signal, or purposely running into death to escape the misery of life.
Pacoima is strong. Its buildings are painted in the deepest blues, oranges, yellows, reds and greens. There is no room for ambiguity in hue. The choices are laid out in bright sunlight. The devil and the angel battle here. You can eat well or go hungry. You can get pregnant and high, or go to school and study hard. You can pray or you drive drunk into a wall. Pick the orange off the tree or the prostitute off the street. It’s up to you.
On walls, adjoining muffler shops and liquor stores, are murals of mythological, cultural and aesthetic magnificence. Poor Pacoima has more beautiful public art than Beverly Hills. And there is even a wall-sized portrait of that savior and scoundrel El Niño. Artist Levi Ponce is the Michaelangelo of this district.
El Niño, as we all know, is in town for a few weeks. He may pay up or he may skip town without leaving payment. Nobody knows.
How I thought of that city, which I left before I became an adult, was cloaked and colored under the family who brought me up there and who soaked their biases into my head.
That Chicago, more specifically Lincolnwood, became a suffocating, judgmental, intolerant and petty landscape of cruelty, snobbery, and competitiveness in which I, and my family, were on the receiving, and losing end.
In light of the present, where I know of the real atrocities around the world, the things that happened back then in Lincolnwood were small and fleeting and insignificant.
But they still stung me. And have stayed with me.
A few months ago, I did one of my Facebook searches for people I once knew in Lincolnwood.
One infamous and notorious name came up. To protect the guilty I will call him Arthur Knox.
A blue-eyed, athletic, deviously charming and good-looking kid, he was the child of a Highway Construction Foreman who washed his Black 1963 Fleetwood Cadillac on the driveway every Sunday.
Arthur ran faster than everyone. In his bedroom he hung posters and pennants of his favorite heroes from the Black Hawks to the Cubs. In school, he was the captain of any team in gym class.
By contrast, my own disinterest in sports grew as I was pushed into Little League. I hated standing in the hot, humid sun waiting in center field for someone to hit a ball out to me.
I also had not a single interest in any Chicago sports team: a fatal flaw in The Windy City.
Instead, I read from my 1960 World Book Encyclopedia while Arthur Knox and other boys set up ball games on the street and played football on nearby lawns.
Gradually, my lack of interest in sports worried and angered my mother. She may have perceived a dark funnel cloud of homosexuality on the horizon.
Arthur Knox bullied me on the bus. He called me “the world’s suckiest athlete.” I went home and told my mother about it. She replied, “I don’t even know what that word suck means. Forget about it!”
At the bus stop, Arthur taunted me and another girl with dog shit on a stick. On another day, he rode after me on his bike, with his pal Keating, tackling me near the Devon Avenue Bridge and beating me up in the dirt. Nothing had provoked it. He just felt like it.
Was I shot? No. Was I bloodied? No. The scale of violence was mild, but my rage was deep. Arthur was terrifying. He had to be avoided but he ruled over the street.
40 years later, he was a “Life Coach” and a father, married, and had competed in a triathlon in which he apparently almost lost his life, later revived by paramedics. He went on to tell his resurrection story on a nationally broadcast program.
On Facebook, the accolades of praise for Arthur Knox poured in. “World’s Best Father”, “The Man who Taught Me What it Means to be a Man”, “The Greatest Friend Anyone Could Have.” Arthur had posts against bullying, posts about gratitude, posts about love, family and life.
His life of conformity to alpha male values was vindicated. Competitive in sports and business, he basked in praise. Millions knew his outer accomplishments. Only I remembered his temper and violence.
And the popular kids, the ones who I used to call “The Snob Club”, they were all his friends on Facebook. And the virtual world of 2015 was as alive with sycophants as the real one of 1975.
Why bring up the story of Arthur Knox? He is nobody important. He just seemed important back then. And some think he’s important today.
On my recent trip to Chicago, one sunny late July afternoon, I went down to Montrose Harbor.
Everything was in primary colors.
The day was glorious and the setting magnificent: the blue sky and the white clouds, the enormous grassy lawn park, the yachts and the boats moored at their port, the skyline in the distance, the red lighthouse and white sailboats, the bleached rocks on the shore and turquoise tinted Lake Michigan.
A tall, tanned young man in board shorts was hoisting a sailboat off its trailer and attempting to attach it to a steel armed lift that he would use to crank and lower it into the lake. I asked him what he was doing. He asked me if I would help him.
I jumped in and directed him as he steered the boat on wheels and hooked it onto the crane. We pushed, pulled, and guided the vessel into the water.
After we were done he told me he worked at Mariano’s in the western suburbs. “Dude, I’m a butcher!” And on his day off, he eagerly came down to work at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club at Montrose Harbor. Sun burned butcher on the dock on his day off….
He picked up a cold can of Colt 45 and drank it. He thanked me for helping him and asked me if I had to use a bathroom or anything. I said yes, and he let me go into the clubhouse facilities.
We said goodbye and I told him I would put his photo up on Instagram.
Something about that day seemed intrinsically Chicagoan: friendly, un-menacing, bonding, open- hearted, fun, casual, and unaffected.
Maybe there are people and moments like that in Los Angeles, but they are often colored by ulterior motives, either sexual or vocational.
Am I being too generous to Chicago? Is there anything truly odd or notable about that day on Montrose Harbor?
Is it logical to bestow attributes on someone just because of where they live?
At lunch, Judy Mamet, lifelong Chicagoan for eight decades, said her city is often “judgmental.”
She was speaking to me, an Angelino, who often hears that everything is “cool”. On the West Coast we hide our indifference by calling it toleration.
Maybe what I remember most about Chicago was its judgments.
I think of that stern Lutheran neighbor in the knee socks who walked her girls to church every Sunday. She came to say good-bye when were moving out and told my Mom that she was glad my retarded brother had been institutionalized because she pitied watching Jimmy and my mom played catch. My mother later said she wanted to throw acid in her face.
I think of Mrs. Libman, my 6th Grade teacher who taught the subject I could never learn: math. I grew to dislike her.
One day, my friend and I rode our bikes in front of her house, yelling out “Mrs. Libman! Mrs. Libman!” She came out of the side door and yelled at us. Later on my friend apologized to her. But I never did. Then my Mom and I bumped into Mrs. Libman at Marshall Field & Co. at Old Orchard. “Howard Kenneth apologized to me but your son never did,” she said. “I’m sorry Mrs. Libman,” I said.
Think about how un-criminal our behavior was. Yet it was scandalous. And that old Chicago standard of judgment still haunts my morality.
And those small lives predicated on big morality, they seem to still thrive in the Windy City, those people who have never left there, who exist in the mental and geographical landscape of the Middle West where you cut your lawn because your neighbors would look down on you if you didn’t. And you go to work everyday because if you didn’t you would not only starve but be banished out of the family of normality and acceptance.
Embarrassment and shame, the cabal of middle-aged moms and dads who enforce good behavior, the presumption that there is a right and a wrong, the correctness and goodness of the white race, the idea that life goes off the rails because of moral defects, these are deep in the DNA of Chicago and the Middle-West. Pope John Paul II and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have called Chicago “The Most American of Cities.”
They said it patriotically. I quote it ironically.
Proudly, Chicagoans will show off their lakefront, their new parks, their “architecture” and their feats of engineering and artistry. But what they are also saying is that their city is who they are. And that is why, when a Chicagoan is told that his city is racist, or a murder capitol or not as good as New York, he reacts with anger and hurt. You are hurting the Chicagoan to speak against Chicago.
And that is what makes it unlike any city in America. The city and the man in it are the same.
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.
According to City Data, the area of Van Nuys bounded by Roscoe Boulevard on the North, Woodman Avenue on the East,Burbank Boulevard to the South, and the 405 on the West, an area of 7.2 square miles, contains some 100,000 people at a population density of 13,271 per square mile. The LA Times claims 110,000 lived here as of 2008.
Heart of this district is a blank-walled canyon of bleakness, Van Nuys Boulevard. It was once a thriving commercial street, full of fine looking Mid-Century Modern banks, small stores, and family run businesses where the windows were washed and the sidewalks swept daily.
In the 1950s through the 1980s it was a cruising area, taken over by young people and cool cars.
And now it is a dump.
It seems that this blog, for over 8 years, has reported ad nauseum on this wasteland of shuttered shops, littered parking lots, and vast expanses of asphalt surrounded by decay.
And yet, two blocks from Van Nuys Boulevard, there are some lovely and historic streets, well maintained houses, people and their properties who are trying to keep neatness and bourgeois respectability evident in their front yards.
The bottom line is the bottom line. There is not a plan, nor a large scale investment, nor a vision for Van Nuys Boulevard. There are piecemeal and weak proposals put forth by well-meaning people to make it “bicycle friendly” or “pedestrian friendly”. But who the hell wants to spend time in the 100-degree heat, soaking up the smell of urine in doorways, stepping over dog shit, as the smoke of illegal food vendors blows over the parked cars and idle trucks who have flunked their smog inspections?
The current environment is a hellish place, one whose continuing demoralizing existence blights the whole community of Van Nuys.
One hundred thousand people who live here deserve better.
It was late Sunday afternoon in December, here in Van Nuys.
The air was brisk, the sun was low, a pork butt simmered in the slow cooker.
This is the time of the year when you can see the mountains beyond the orange trees.
Days are brief and what gets done gets done quickly. The Christmas season is sewn in living threads joyous and melancholy, lonely and familial; aching, sad, reverent and intoxicating.
Football, films, electronics envy; shopping, eating, packing presents; drinking orange beer under red lights where the smell of pine, vanilla and chocolate is pervasive, these are some of the elements placed here annually.
I walked yesterday, in waning light, along Kittridge, a neat and well-kept street of homes between Columbus and Van Nuys Boulevard.
West of Kester, Kittridge is a ranch house neighborhood entirely built up after World War Two. Within living memory of some, this area was once entirely agricultural. What lay west of Van Nuys High School was the vast beyond of walnut and orange trees, ranch lands and open spaces. Within 15 frantic years it was developed or destroyed, depending on your viewpoint. And by 1960, it was the Valley we know today, structurally, not demographically, of course.
The homes here are solid, the lawns (mostly) cut. The flat streets and sidewalks recall a Chicago suburb, a place where American flags are flown, and bad news and bad behavior is kept quietly behind drawn drapes.
Two friendly eccentrics were outside yesterday: a man who looked like Fidel Castro with an engraved “RICK” metal belt buckle, and his beer mug holding friend. They stood on the corner of Kittridge and Lemona as workmen re-sodded Rick’s lawn.
I spoke to them briefly, repeating my infernal line. “I write a blog about Van Nuys called Here in Van Nuys.”
“Here in what?” asked the beer mugger.
“Here in Van Nuys,” I said.
“You work for the government?” he asked.
“No. Let me take your photo,” I said.
“No. You got a card?” he asked.
I handed him my printed business card.
“So you write what?” he asked.
“A blog, called Here in Van Nuys,” I said.
The older man with the Fidel Castro beard knew exactly what a blog was. He also complimented my camera and my quilted jacket.
I moved on after that, and crossed to the east side of Kittridge.
On the east side of Kittridge, north of Van Nuys High School, the street is grounded in civic and religious solidity by the presence of St. Elisabeth’s Catholic Church and the enormous VNHS.
Rod Serling might have come here to film an episode of The Twilight Zone, so awash in normalcy and Americanism that one could be dropped here and think that nothing had changed in Van Nuys since the Eisenhower administration.
Notably eccentric and interesting collections of houses line the street, ranging from neat bungalows to sprawling pre-war ranches. They are placed on long, narrow lots, going back far, into deep yards, but they seem to have been immunized from the decline into squalor infecting some older streets in Van Nuys.
I stopped and stood in the parking of St. Elisabeth’s across from a tall white spire bathing in the remaining daylight. People were gathered, under umbrellas, for an event involving food and prayer.
And the second part story of my Sunday walk will continue in another essay….