Decline Press, a new short story


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Those of you who follow me on this blog may also know I write short stories.

“Decline Press” is my latest.

It is a work of fiction based upon some of the most ominpresent issues of our time: economic hardship, race relations and law enforcement, and the struggle of an Iraq War vet, Derek Moss, who builds his life anew only to see everything pulled out from under him. Whether Mr. Moss is self-destructive or merely the author of his own self-destruction is up for interpretation.  As his world unravels he is pursued by an admirer, Conner Loh, who is also the narrator of this story.

It all takes place right here in Van Nuys and is set in such glamorous locations as Lido Pizza, MacLeod Ale, LA Fitness, Fatburger, Bevmo and Galpin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big, Empty Foreground


On Flickr, where I sometimes spend my time, there is a group of photographs called “The Big Empty Foreground.” These are urban places, usually wide-open spaces, without people.

Many of the contributors come from Europe, a place one does not often think of as empty. Soccer fields, parking lots, office plazas, old factories, these are some of the unpopulated places.


 

Sepulveda Cleaners 2In Van Nuys, we have a lot of wide, empty foreground. Expansive asphalt pavements, empty shopping centers, abandoned houses on large lots.

Reynoso's

Near Vanowen, between Archwood and Sepulveda, there is a collection of one-story businesses: a cleaners, a phone store, a fishing tackle store and an odd place called Reynoso’s Lapidary and Supply which specializes in rocks, gems, stones and agate slabs.

These are in a building put up when land was cheap, sometime in the 1950s. And they are plain and homely and functional, but also practical, because the cars are put in back and the sidewalk is in front. Signs are small and discreet.

What intrigued me, on a day when dark clouds enclosed the sky and transformed the light of Los Angeles into something moody and cool, was how casually open space was made in the back, without gates or fences, or trees. That’s the way we parked in the 1950s at a suburban place. There was no thought given to landscape, only to laying down asphalt.

A walnut or orange grove, on many acres, probably occupied this land before the building was built.

This landscape back here will probably be developed someday and covered completely in a banal apartment, approved by city zoning.

But for now there is light, and space, and sky.

 

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Julius Blue, Whites Only, Van Nuys, 1948.


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According to WWII Army Enlistment Records, on March 9, 1942, Julius Blue, a 21-year-old Negro citizen from Walker County, Alabama enlisted at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The United States had been attacked by Japan three months earlier, and this nation was now involved in a struggle against the formidable and murderous Axis powers: Germany, Japan and Italy.

Unknown to most of the world, Germany was also engaged in the world’s most advanced genocide against unarmed Jewish citizens of every nation in Europe.

America fought not only to win, but to free enslaved peoples.

When the war was over, Julius Blue, now married, made his way to Los Angeles and settled at 1655 E. 40th Place in South LA.

By 1948, Los Angeles was booming. Jobs, factories, housing: the state was on fire.

And up in Van Nuys, near the corner of Roscoe and Sepulveda, 392 single-family homes were under construction at “Allied Gardens.” Terms were very favorable for veterans. A $10,400 home with a $66.80 mortgage could be had for $400 down.

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So one fine day in 1948, Julius Blue, his wife and her parents made their way up to Allied Gardens to look at the new homes.

When they got to the development, instead of being shown plans, the promoters handed the Blue Family a mimeographed document. It contained this description:

“No person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian Race (and for the purposed of this paragraph no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu or any persons of the Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be Caucasian) shall at any time live upon any of the lots in said Tract 15010”

Boltenbacher and Kelton, the builders, were allowed, at that time, to restrict purchasing of their homes to only whites. They were unapologetic about their open prejudices and discriminatory policies.

In that same year, 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled against race restrictive covenants.

If Mr. Blue had been able to buy a house at Roscoe and Sepulveda, he might have tried to apply for work at the brand new General Motors plant five minutes away at Van Nuys Boulevard north of Raymer.

But that plant also discriminated against black people. There were thousands of jobs, but only a handful of black workers, mostly janitors, employed in that factory.

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These are some tales of old Los Angeles told by the LA Sentinel, a black-owned paper whose news coverage reported (and continues to report) stories often ignored by the LA Times and other white-owned media.

While it is amusing in our present time, and poetically just, to imagine that the multi-ethnic San Fernando Valley was once, by law and custom, reserved only for white buyers, it is still shocking to contemplate the blatant sadism, inhumanity and unfairness of that old time racism.

Julius Blue was not the only black man who had difficulty buying a home in Los Angeles. The August 12, 1948 LA Sentinel also had this headline:

HATEFUL SIGN PLASTERED ON “KING” COLE’S $85,000 PALACE

Nat “King” Cole and his wife were planning on moving into Hancock Park but they were bitterly opposed by neighbors who feared that the dark-skinned entertainer and popular singer’s presence would reduce property values.

In 1948, Nat “King” Cole: wealthy, talented, successful, world-famous; fought to buy his own house in Los Angeles.

Think about it.

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As a footnote, in 1987, Julius Blue, 65, was seriously wounded in a drive-by shooting in South Los Angeles.

I don’t know whether he survived.

But his story is the story of so many black men. How they managed to stay alive and keep their chins up high is truly astonishing and inspiring. And deeply distressing.

We Americans are the inheritors of an illogic and unreason that herds men and women into racial categories.

We Americans must uphold individual, not group, character as the only standard of moral judgment.

If we again buy into con-man ideas about group wide evil, we are going back in time to somewhere dark and ignorant, not pushing ahead into enlightenment and reason.

Dec 3 1987

Liquor Store Robbery Suspects in Custody: October 31, 1963


Photos courtesy of LAPL. Credit: Jeff Robbins

A few weeks before Artist Josef Silhavy presented his distinguished oil portrait of Thomas Jefferson to the President and Executive Vice President of the Jefferson Savings Bank in Van Nuys, the Red Valentine Liquor Store at 6735 Sepulveda Blvd. was held up and robbed of $25 on Halloween Night 1963.

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Raymond Carpenter
Ronald Lee Ellmers
Ronald Lee Ellmers

Goateed and white-shirted Raymond Carpenter was arrested, along with his accomplice Ronald Lee Ellmers. Both men were AWOL from Fort Ord, a US Army post on Monterey Bay, CA, which closed in 1994.

The Red Valentine Liquor Store was also the scene of a shooting on June 11, 1951.

To our modern eyes, accustomed to seeing oversized vaca negras in black, XXL shirts emerge from every televised car chase, these criminals of a half-century ago are lithe, fit and neatly groomed.

If they were young, alive and looked like that today, they might be sitting at Starbucks working on their blog. Or perhaps mixing mash at MacLeod Ale.

Fire Party


The enormous Valentine’s Day conflagration that consumed the former home of prostitutes and drugs called the Voyager Motel brought out hundreds of firefighters.

And hundreds of spectators, photographers, cars and neighbors who eagerly and gleefully watched smoke and flames from safe vantage points near the fire site at Sepulveda and Hamlin Streets.

Children were hoisted atop parental shoulders, laughing bicycles circled streets, black clad Vaca Negras in their Sunday best waddled to box seats near the flames.

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It was the greatest entertainment in our area since an elephant stood on a driveway and hosed a car on an episode of Workaholics.

We had been driving from downtown, and on the 101 near Laurel Canyon could see a funnel cloud of dark smoke, somewhere in the NW distance, and then heard on the radio, an announcement, that there was an enormous blaze happening right near our home.

When we drove up Hamlin, the strong winds were blowing the acrid fumes south, away from our street, as if God herself had intervened to produce something dangerous and exciting within hundreds of feet from our house, without endangering any of us.

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The life risks were undertaken by 170 firefighters who spent almost three hours dousing the fire, killing it by drowning it until its fearsomeness and ferociousness fled.

For years, the Voyager Motel was a constant blight on the area. Nothing could end that local monster whose clientele paid by the hour, and whose rooms and reputation stained and demoralized everything around it. The sex and drug trade flourished. Nightly sirens and helicopters and cops buzzed the fleabag whorehouse. And then, last year, the motel was shut down, or went out of business.

One problem ended in Van Nuys, as 666 other criminal activities flourished.

Yesterday, Satan returned to finish his business at the Voyager Motel, his personal university in Van Nuys, and did it in his usual surprise way.

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VNCC Member Penny Meyer (L) pays an official visit to the fire scene.
VNCC Member Penny Meyer (L) pays an official visit to the fire scene.

 

 

 

 

The Incarcerated City.


 

_ABH2013 On these winter days, when the streets are emptied of cars, and the skies are filling with rain clouds, our neighborhood of Van Nuys cools down and empties out, revealing a strange amalgam of enormous parking lots; as well as businesses and homes surrounded by iron gates and fences.

In its entirety, these fortifications evoke prison: a high security, patrolled, guarded, and fearsome place where criminals and children are kept back by a fortress of steel and iron.

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For sixteen years I’ve lived here, always imagining that every New Year will bring an imaginative, humane and socially comprehensive new architecture into Van Nuys.

I fantasize that the parking lots will be torn up and rows of orange trees replanted in the soil. I think someone will see the enormous plots of land, now taken up with blight and decay, and see this as the new place to construct walkable communities with native plants and organic gardens surrounding little residential communes.

That is the dream, shared by some of my neighbors.

Reality is something else.

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On Sepulveda, between Archwood and Lemay, the hellish Ridge Motel is on Death Row, surrounded by fencing and covered with graffiti and garbage. It had long outlived its usefulness and functioned only as a prostitution and drug outlet, blighting its surroundings and neighbors.

Across Sepulveda, Fresh and Easy has closed, taking with it moldy produce and difficult checkouts. But sometimes I’d come here, and liked its convenience, its weird combination of English, Indian, Spanish and Asian foods, its overpriced milk, eggs and breads. And I miss that friendly manager who always smiled and helped me.

One Thanksgiving, about 2012, we bought our entire meal here and ate it back home with my mother, a pre-made, plastic topped collection of containers with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and turkey. My father had recently died, and my mother was to die two years later, and the holiday meal had a morose sadness intensified by the microwaved artificiality of our victuals.

Fresh and Easy is gone, but what remains are those walls and gates around it, and that big parking lot in front, and a reminder that even when there is no business, or no people, we will still live in an incarcerated city, a place where entrances and exits are controlled, and guarded from either imagined or real, chaos and crime.

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And those vast spaces of nothingness that are spread all over, those too are outdoor jail yards of lifelessness, neither urban or rural, human or natural.

These are the prisons that keep us captive and hold our imaginations and our existence hostage.

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