Monday, February 28, 2011

The Last Oscars

Hollywood, California

February 27, 2011

I hesitate to write anything else about Hollywood. So much has been written already. Too much, some would say. Of course the word "Hollywood" stands in for many other things--Burbank, Studio City, Universal City, Beverly Hills and its outrageously affluent neighbors. It signifies the whole shmear that comprises what we think of as the movie and television industry centered in southern California, just as--on a grittier level--the word "Detroit" stands in for the auto industry that used to be centered in southeastern Michigan, even though most of the cars were being produced in other cities. Using stand-ins is a trick Hollywood has employed since the beginning. Sets inside gigantic studios stand in for apartments and homes, grand vistas, and city streets both exotic and ordinary. The California desert stands in for any place in the American west, or the world for that matter, where there are no trees to speak of. The suburbs of LA stand in for Anywhere, USA. Even human stand-ins are employed, to save the real actors from having to stand around while the lighting is checked and scenes are blocked out, and sometimes for the actors themselves in second unit long shots where you can't see the face of the star. When I was on the Queen Mary the other day the tour guide asked us to look out the porthole of the Churchill Suite and across the harbor to the skyline of Long Beach, glittering in the sun, its palm trees waving gently. "Anyone here ever watch CSI: Miami?" he asked. A couple of hands went up. "That," he said pointing out the window, "is the Miami you see in some of the opening shots on that program."

Hollywood. City of glamor and fame, of hopes and broken dreams, of romantic visions and ugly realities, of grand illusions and base trickery, of unholy cults and unvarnished greed.

In fact, almost the only element of life that Hollywood doesn't evoke in the popular imagination is religion. Unless you count Scientology, which I don't. You all know my feelings about religion in general, so if I call Scientology an elaborate con game and pyramid scheme that preys on the mentally and emotionally vulnerable you'll know I don't mean to elevate Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism to the realm of the legitimate, but only to comment on L. Ron Hubbard's cynical scheme to get rich by melding schlock science fiction with The Power of Positive Thinking. Like you, when I see the famous actors who espouse Scientology I'm tempted to think it might be just a tiny bit legitimate, until I remember how essentially phony all of Hollywood is, how often illusion stands in for reality, and how breathtakingly insecure, insincere, and self-deluded most of the beautiful people become, with their nips and tucks, their collagen lips, their silicone breasts, their elevator shoes, their theatrical trips to fur-lined rehab centers, their notorious and ill-fated forays into humility and self-abnegation. Their bodies, their very lives, are built on a skewed version of reality. Why not their beliefs?

I don't look up to the glitterati because of their fame and wealth, and I do my best--not always successfully--not to look down on them either. But the lure of Hollywood persists deep in the breasts of all of us who've spent our lives going to movies and watching TV. So when I was asked, half-jokingly, if I was going to be in Hollywood for the Oscars, at first I thought "Hell no!" then began to think "Why the hell not?" Hollywood isn't far, after all, and it might be fun to see a star or two in person, if I can get that close.

So today I am setting out from the motor home at about 11:30 in the morning on this impromptu adventure. It's Oscar night, which means, because of the time difference here in California, that it's Oscar afternoon. The Academy Awards are held at the Kodak Theater, at the intersection of Highland and Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. So I plan to drive to the park-and-ride garage in Pasadena, take trains into Hollywood, maybe snap a photo or two of famous people arriving on the red carpet, and generally do the whole tourist thing.

I arrive at the now-familiar Sierra Madre station in Pasadena, where I will ride the Gold Line into Union Station then take the Red Line subway into Hollywood. The trains run about half as often on Sundays as they do on weekdays, which is to say every twelve minutes instead of every six. Still pretty damn good service if you ask me. The mountains high above Pasadena--San Gabriel or San Fernando or San something--are snowpeaked at the higher elevations from the recent rains we've had here. It might get down into the high 30s overnight in the suburbs; ten degrees colder up there means snow instead of rain. When I arrived here I thought they might be covered with snow year-round, but in fact after a week or two of no rain the snow up there will be all gone. It takes much higher elevations to keep snow all year round.

One nice thing about purchasing train tickets through the machines here in the Metro--which, like slot machines, will take virtually any denomination of money they're offered--is that you get change from larger bills in the form of dollar coins. They have a nice gold color and a jingly sound that makes you feel as if you're carrying real money, in some old world sense.

The list of crimes against the Metro for which you can receive a $250 fine and 48 hours of public service is extensive: entry without valid fare, littering, eating or drinking, smoking, spitting or chewing gum, using gas-powered vehicles (whaaa?), engaging in loud or rowdy activity, rollerblading or skateboarding, and the playing of sound equipment. A long list of traps for the unwary, if you ask me. I suppose fear of the enforcement of these prohibitions, random as it might be, is what keeps the riders in line. And yet that doesn't fully explain it. There's a strange tranquility, even on the trains that run through the most notorious parts of the city, that mystifies me. It's as if people have been struck with the wand of the Golden Rule in some dewy ceremony presided over by Tinkerbell herself. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, exactly. Just wondering at the lack of unruliness. If random acts of rowdiness and vandalism herald a deeper unease within society, we must be quite at ease with ourselves these days. We coddle our children, accord our cops and our soldiers of fortune the status of heroes, heed the outlandish exhortations of our preachers, worship the rich for their wisdom, and despise the poor for their cluelessness. And we do it all with almost dutiful insouciance, clothed in overpriced garments advertising the names of outfitters and effete designers. Hollywood would pitch it this way: Stalin meets the Mall Rats. Orwell would be scared shitless. Long buried is the spirit of our revolutionary ancestors, who like Diderot called us to arms with exhortations such as "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

At Union Station I switch to the Red Line, and in not much time at all I'm at the Hollywood and Vine stop, climbing the stairs into the cool cloudless afternoon. Hollywood on this Sunday is buzzing with anticipation. The stars on the sidewalk, repeating the names of the famous, seem a little more relevant today. The huge Church of Scientology building looms over the street, a reminder that there's no place on earth where the winners and losers alike are more at war with the truth than right here.

I head for the Kodak Theater at the corner of Highland and Hollywood. That's where the attendees of the Academy Awards ceremony will alight from their vehicles, perhaps nod and wave, and proceed inside. I'll try to get as close as I can.

Along the way I stop to have a conversation with a disheveled bearded guy pushing a small grocery cart from which juts a large sign declaring that it's only 93 days until Armageddon, and 99 days until the end of the world, May 30 and June 5, respectively. I ask him if it applies to me, because I came down from Mars with Question Mark of the Mysterians, and we have been living in disguise in Michigan. He searches my face for a telling sign of ridicule, but I betray none. I haven't spend years working in nuthouses for nothing. He tells me, "You have been deceived by many," and there's no life anywhere except on earth and in the Heavenly Realm, which, by the way, is somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, beyond the meteor belt. Who knew? I like the guy. He's eager to talk, and very sincere, and it's a respite from the other types of craziness that abound here in Tinsel Town.

After that conversation I go into one the many souvenir t-shirt stores along the boulevard, looking for one that says "My Dad Was Taken Up In The Rapture And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." But there are none to be found, so I settle for some more conventional ones, having to do with Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the like. People do like souvenirs.

I'm looking for the Armageddon Dude again, though, because I've run into another couple, appearing a little less like they've slept under a bridge, bearing a sign saying the world is coming to an end in 84 days. I tell them about the guy who says it's coming to an end in 99 days, and the man answers, predictably, "There are many false prophets." At the bottom of the sign it says "84 Day's." I mention that there's no apostrophe in "days" in that context, and they profess surprise and thank me. I tell them that as long as we're all going to go, they might as well improve their English and go out with a little class. Who knows? God might give points for things like that.

Eventually I get as close as I'm going to get, about a hundred fifty feet from the Kodak Theater, pressed against a chainlink fence amid a host of Germans and Asians, stuck in a horizontal Tower of Babel, wondering if I'm going to get to take a photo of anything but pigeons. Probably not. Finally I edge my way to the fence itself. In front of me is the fabled red carpet and a long line of people waiting to valet park the cars that are arriving from the east down Hollywood Boulevard. I'm marveling at how many people drive themselves to the Oscars, in cars ranging from Mercedeses down to Hondas, then get out and retrieve their formal jackets from the back seats or smooth out their long formal gowns. Vainly I search their faces. They all look vaguely familiar, but in the end I don't know them. Only one do I recognize, the actor David Morse. At least I think it's him. Others around me wonder the same thing about everyone. "Who is that? Is it somebody?"

Gradually it dawns on me: These people are driving themselves to the Oscars. In their own cars. What's wrong with this picture? I look over to my left at the entrance to the Kodak Theater and see a procession of gleaming black limousines coming up Highland, stopping and disgorging their passengers to screams of recognition. I realize the people in front of me here are the B-listers, or worse yet the writers, the assistant directors, the cinematographers, the gaffers, the best boys, the key grips, or maybe the anonymous money men. Short stocky grey-haired guys who resemble me more than they do movie stars. No wonder I don't recognize them. I understand, as I often do at the grocery store, that I'm in the wrong line. But there's no way I could have gotten any closer to the intersection without losing my place on the fence and having to stand behind a pack of people who are taller than me. So I stay put, hoping to see a star emerge from one of the distant limos. And I do. One solitary star, who, as it turns out, is just the one to have seen--none other than Colin Firth, destined to win the award for Best Actor, and his movie, The King's Speech, the Oscar for Best Picture. No time and too far away for a decent photo, but I see him clearly.

It's getting cold in the late afternoon an hour later as I finally give up my spot and back away from the fence. The procession of unknowns in front of me is slowing as the time for the opening of the ceremony approaches. These are not the people who can afford to be fashionably late. One more brush with fame awaits me, however, as I turn around to see, at the door of McDonald's, a guy who looks just like Jackie Chan. He's not, of course, but he's enjoying the recognition in a casual if slightly exasperated way. I snap a couple of shots of him. I can add them to the Superman and Batman I saw on my way up the street.

I start back toward the subway station with the nagging feeling that the next person to arrive after I leave will be some Hollywood god or goddess, and I'll miss it. On the way I run into the Armageddon Dude again. I just have to stop and chat. I tell him I saw some folks who said the world was coming to an end in 84 days, not 99 days. "They implied that you were a false prophet," I tell him confidentially. Without getting annoyed he replies, "Well, if they were from some church, that's the tell right there. The churches are all full of false teaching." I'm liking this guy more all the time. Maybe he's not so crazy. "So you're not a false prophet?" I prompt. He levels his gaze straight at me, his blue eyes piercing the crisp late afternoon. "I am the Only Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, made flesh." Make of that what you will, but I can tell you this. God did not provide his Only Begotten Son with a dental plan. And I'm guessing it's too late now.

We continue to chat. I try as sincerely as I can to get him to elaborate on what will happen in the six-day interval between Armageddon and the End of the World. Plagues, it turns out. Hail, fire and brimstone, the rivers turning to sulfuric acid. A bad scene all around. Something out of a Hollywood movie, in fact. I can tell he's happy to be talking to someone who isn't challenging him or dismissing him out of hand. Finally he puts a stapled sheaf of papers in my hands. It's a photocopy of a thirty-page hand-written manifesto, headlined The Final Prophesy Countdown to Armageddon The End of the World is Here!!! "Finally." As we talk I idly flip through it. At the top of page 2 my eyes rest on this passage:

"And he prophesied the will of God to make war upon the earth in the flesh of men; and his enemy was SATAN the DEVIL whose name in the flesh of a man was GEORGE W. BUSH."

I look up into the bearded face again. This guy is getting smarter by the minute. He goes on, quoting scripture--the Gospels, Thessalonians, Revelation, etc. I turn over a couple more pages and spot this excerpt:

"For GOD put it in the hearts of America to agree to give their nation unto those whose names are not written into the book of Life of the Lamb in heaven. For they are the spirits of SATAN the DEVIL and his ANGELS of the Bottomless Pit and their given name (Political name) is the REPUBLICAN PARTY."

That does it. I don't care what else this guy has to say, he's now officially my main man. I, who have been preaching the same thing for years, have met a kindred spirit, nay, a greater spirit. Could this indeed be the Son of Man standing before me? He's telling me that he usually charges five dollars for the pamphlet, just to cover his costs. I ask him, "With so little time left, can't you just turn the money changers out of the temple, or something?" He says no, that's not his style. He doesn't steal. Fair enough. Then he tells me that since I appear to be a believer (he really can see into my heart, I'm thinking) he'll give it to me. Shamed by his generosity, I compromise, pulling two shiny gold dollars out of my pocket and placing them in his blackened upturned palm. I have to go. What do you say to Jesus Christ? "God bless you" doesn't quite cover it, and isn't my style. "Good luck" hardly seems appropriate. I settle on "Goodbye" and wander down the street.

It's been a long and revealing day. With so little time left before the end of the world I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to be in Hollywood on this one last Oscar night. And as for A-list celebrities, who cares? I've have been privileged to look into the weatherbeaten and somewhat grimy face of God.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Queen

Azusa, California

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Today I ride the rails through the city of Los Angeles. I take the Gold Line train from Pasadena down to Union Station, transfer to the Red Line for a few stops, then get on the Blue Line, which takes me straight south all the way to Long Beach. It's a sunny and breezy day, cool for LA but just about right for me, at somewhere between 55 and 65 all day.

As with Chicago, the wealth of LA is concentrated in the relatively small area downtown and north of downtown, while the vast south side of the city, including some of its more distressed suburbs, hangs like the part of an iceberg that never sees the light of day. The names of the areas on the hour-long Blue Line ride are familiar not because of the gloss of Hollywood, but rather from the grim and sensational news of decades past--Florence, Watts, Compton. Eventually the line reaches the sea, in the City of Long Beach.

The LA Metro is a well-maintained set of trains, running as a subway through the center of the city and above ground everywhere else. Pasadena is the northeasternmost edge of the system, although the rails eventually will run out to more suburbs along the 210. What surprises me a little is the complete absence of people checking on ticketholders. There are machines for purchasing tickets ($1.50 one way), but none of the turnstiles lock and in some places there are none at all. I could ride all day for free. As it is I purchase an all-day pass for $6.00, which saves me one or two fares, I think. Conductors or cops seem to be nonexistent on the lines, but signs are posted everywhere listing penalties, including arrest or $250 fines, for riding without a ticket and other less serious offences like eating, drinking, playing loud music, and (I thought I heard this, though you may doubt me) breathing. Occasionally very rude voices scold people through loudspeakers for infractions such as taking a bike onto a car where no bikes are permitted or riding skateboards on the platforms.

Without exception the behavior of the passengers is restrained and, if not polite, at least deferential. I feel as if I were in a poorer more diverse version of Switzerland, so much is the power of the collective superego in evidence. It's almost creepy how un-boisterous the kids are, in particular. What has the world come to?

At one point I see an older woman get on the train with a baby carriage. She has draped a blanket over the child, for warmth, I imagine, and perhaps to let it sleep. I begin to feel a bit uneasy when she leaves the carriage a bit too close to the opening and closing door, but she sits opposite it and keeps a watchful eye. I soon forget about her, concentrating instead on the unfolding one-story landscape of tiny houses with wrought iron bars on the windows and doors, the graffiti, the wrecked cars, the junk--in short, all the detritus of the poorer side of town. Suddenly I look up to see her sitting near me, well away from the carriage, and a man who had gotten on later tending to the baby. Strange. Eventually, however, all is revealed.

Despite the draconian proscription of food and drink, earlier I saw a young man walking down the aisle with a box of candy and small bags of chips, selling them at the reasonable price of a dollar each. People are apt to need sustenance, especially on such a long ride, in spite of the bullshit rules. The next time I look up, the old woman has removed a box of candy bars from the carriage and given it to the man. Next she takes a bottle of water in one hand and a Coke in the other and begins her own sales journey down the aisles. Immediately I feel better about the safety of the nonexistent baby. And I buy a bag of M&Ms.

At last I arrive in Long Beach, a mostly middle class maritime city of half a million with, as you might expect, a long beach. It also maintains the second-busiest container port in the United States. It has a large and growing skyline along the water. For many years, until the 1970s, there was an amusement park called The Pike along here. Now it's a collection of upscale shops and restaurants and The Aquarium of the Pacific. I decline to visit the aquarium because, well, it's just a bunch of fish, and if you've seen one aquarium you've seen 'em all. I pretty much feel that way about zoos, too.

I take a short boat tour of Rainbow Harbor. Besides being the southern end of the Metro train system, Long Beach is where the Los Angeles River flows into the sea. We go by the Queen Mary, permanently docked here and used as a luxury hotel and a tourist attraction. I see some California sea lions resting atop a buoy and some artificial islands in the harbor containing oil wells, disguised to look like pleasant little islands covered with palm trees.

Next I set out on foot to see the Queen Mary, about a mile away. I cross a bridge over the mouth of the Los Angeles River to the area that is home to the Port of Long Beach, past some luxury hotels, and up to the great liner, which when it was launched in 1937 was the largest afloat, at 1,016 feet long. During World War II it was drafted into service as a transport ship, painted grey, and on one Atlantic crossing carried over 16,000 people, the most passengers ever on a boat, period.

I sign up for a package tour of the Queen Mary and a retired Soviet submarine, the Scorpion, which is moored right alongside the port bow of the liner. First I enter the Queen Mary and take a look at some of the original art objects on display, including a depiction of the Virgin and Child in front of some ships. Everything is high art deco, the boat having been designed in the late 20s and construction finished in the mid-30s. Statues, clocks, furniture.

Next I take a "Ghost Tour" of the boat, designed to be a sort of floating haunted house, pointing out the various places where people have died. Lots of hokey scary music and special effects with lights. Very cornball, but amusing mostly because of the overwrought presentation of the tour leader, a young Hollywood wannabe, I have no doubt.

I have a more conventional guided tour of the ship coming, but before that I go down to take a look at the Soviet sub, decommissioned in the 1970s, then bought in the 90s by some Australian businessmen and brought to this spot. This is a self-guided tour, as indeed there is room for only one person at a time through the tiny hatches from one part of the submarine to the next. Valves and levers and torpedo tubes and impossibly tiny bunks and rooms. The crew of about 75 shared three bathrooms and one shower. Must have gotten pretty funky.

When I get back up to the Promenade Deck of the Queen Mary, our guide James is preparing to take us around. Another very cornball but amusing and informative tour. The Queen Mary has been here in Long Beach since 1967, when the city bought it for about $3.5 million, and has been used by Hollywood in a number of movies, especially its first class salon, which has appeared in The Poseidon Adventure and The Godfather Part 2. Basically it gets used any time someone needs a large art deco ballroom. Because I watched the Godfather movie a few days earlier, I wrack my brain to remember where in that movie they used the Queen Mary, and I think it was the scenes that were set in Havana on New Year's Eve 1958, just before Castro took over. "I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart."

At the time it was built the Queen Mary was by far the longest liner afloat, but the S.S. France, on which I myself sailed from LeHavre to New York in the summer of 1972, was longer by a few yards. I have a sense, therefore, of what it's like to spend a week on one of these floating monstrosities. Necessitated by a long bout of anxiety and depression that began with a sudden uncontrollable phobia of flying, my trip was less than pleasant, but I must say the food was superb (when I could eat it) and the service was excellent. The seas for the first 24 hours out of Southampton were quite choppy, and I was seized by unrelieved nausea, and I was always amazed by the quiet efficiency with which they came and cleaned up my room each time I staggered out to go upstairs for some air.

Who, you might ask, was this Queen Mary after whom the good ship was named? It wasn't Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, first born of Henry VIII. Nor was it Mary II, who reigned with her husband William of Orange. Those were real queens. This Queen Mary wasn't a monarch in her own right. She was Mary of Teck, which is in the German Kingdom of Wurttemburg, and she was married to King George V, the reigning monarch of Great Britain at the time the boat was being built. Her full name was Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, but everybody just called her May. Well, not everybody, but you know what I mean. She was the grandmother of the present queen, Elizabeth II. A bas-relief medallion portrait and a photo of her hang in the main stairwell going down from the Promenade Deck. By the time the boat was finally put in service, however, she was no longer queen consort, but only the dowager queen, since her husband the king had died and her son King Edward VIII had taken over, though not for long as it would transpire. But in England a queen's still a queen, even if she's no longer the queen, whereas a king is only a king if he's really the king.

It's getting late in the afternoon as I leave the Queen Mary and begin my walk into downtown Long Beach to catch the Metro back uptown. As the train moves north it fills up with evening commuters and soon becomes standing room only. The sun goes down over the sea and Los Angeles begins to light up as we head through the bowels of the city that was once, long before California became part of the secular paradise we live in now, presided over by a celestial Queen, also named Mary.

Friday, February 25, 2011

More Ahht

Azusa, California

Friday, February 25, 2011

It's not just what you've done, but what you've done lately that counts. I've been neglecting the blog, but I've been busy, and it's time for an update.

Lots and lots of art. Or ahht, as they say in the east. There are far more museums in the LA area than it's possible to attend to in one visit. The eye wearies even of great paintings and sculptures, and needs a respite. Since the last post I've visited three more--the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Huntington Library and Museum.

LACMA, as it's known, dwarfs the Getty, at least in terms of the size of its collection. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in LA not far from Beverly Hills, it comprises half a dozen large buildings, featuring European, Asian, and contemporary art of all kinds. It would take more than a day to see it all, but my interest in ancient and Asian art is limited, so I was able to cover all of it that I cared to see.

There are plenty of European paintings from centuries past, including a few of the obligatory Rembrandts, but the LACMA's collection of "contemporary art" is particularly good. I don't know the exact parameters of that term, but for simplicity's sake let's say it's European and American stuff from the early 20th century to the present. Some of it is in the Ahmanson Building, some in the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, and some in the Arts of the Americas building. Picasso, Modigliani, Magritte, Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons. A large exhibition of the drawings of the German George Grosz. Pieces by Edward Kienholtz. Listing the high points of a museum like the LACMA is rather like doing so for the Met in New York or the Louvre; in other words, impossible.

Next day came the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, to which I traveled via the Metro from Pasadena, arriving downtown at the 1939 Mission Revival-style Union Station. Inside you get the sense that you've seen it before, because you have. Shots of Union Station have been used in any number of movies. Sitting in the stuffed chairs under the ever so slightly cracked and peeling three-story-high ceilings, you can imagine yourself in the middle of a Raymond Chandler mystery or any of a dozen noir films about post-war LA: men in fedoras rushing to catch trains, other men following them, worried women in wide hats with veils.

On the walk to the MOCA I passed the Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles--Village of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, built in 1781 as the initial point of formal Spanish Settlement here, and the beginning of LA as a city. Up Temple Street from there is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a sprawling yellowish pile built in 2002 in something called the "postmodern" style. I won't even attempt to describe it except to say that it's large. I've always wondered about the term "postmodern," though. How modern does something have to be to be postmodern, anyway? It's a little like the concept of giving 110 percent or the current astronomical theory that there are multiple universes. Ideas at war with the language and with logic.

Walking down Grand Street, I passed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and also the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in the 1990s, a conglomeration of huge parabolic surfaces resembling a chaotic collection of wind-filled sails. Originally they were made of highly reflective stainless steel, but had to be toned down after intense glare from the reflection of the sun caused hot spots on the sidewalks and made residents of nearby condominiums complain that their homes were intolerably hot at certain times of day and that their air conditioning bills were skyrocketing.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, a comparatively conservative-looking red building entered below ground level, houses a collection of works by many of the same artists featured at the LACMA--Warhol, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Robert Irwin, Sam Francis. Much of the museum was closed for renovation. Either that or I missed a few rooms.

Tuesday I hiked up a hill near the San Gabriel Dam above Azusa, just for a break from looking at paintings and to see if I was still up for a strenuous walk. It was a beautiful quiet respite from the busy metropolitan area. But the next day I was back at it again, this time visiting the Huntington Library in the wealthy suburb of San Marino, south of Pasadena. I vaguely remembered the name of the library as a place that housed rare books, but was unprepared for the other things I found. It was a garden of earthly delights.

The Huntington was the property of Henry Huntington, an heir and railroad magnate and collector of art and rare books, who in the early 20th century built a mansion on several hundred acres. Today the property consists of 207 acres, over half of which are devoted to incredibly rich and varied botanical gardens--a desert section, a tropical section, and a Japanese garden, among other things. The density and attention to detail in the meticulously maintained collection of plants and trees from around the world puts most other such gardens to shame. I took a guided tour of the grounds, which was enjoyable but used up much of the time between my late arrival and the rather early 4:30 closing time.

The mansion now houses the European art collection, chiefly comprised of British portraits and landscapes by the likes of Joshua Reynolds, Van Dyck, George Romney, Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough. The most famous painting is Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy, which Huntington bought for $700,000, the most money paid for a painting up to that time. Amid the paintings are all sorts of furniture, glassware, silver, and sculptures. And the sumbitch even has a Rembrandt. I'm guessing that half the Rembrandts in the world are either fakes or are mistakenly attributed to him, being instead the work of his students.

Another building holds the American art collection, which features the portraiture of Gilbert Stuart, Copley, and members of the Peale family, and includes some famous pictures of George Washington. More recent paintings include items by Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, and even a bent beef noodle soup can by Andy Warhol.

Then there's the Huntington Library itself, the exhibition room of which contains a Gutenburg Bible from 1455, a 1400 illuminated manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and numerous other first editions of books, from Shakespeare to Milton to Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson.

I ran out of time at the library, where I could have remained for at least another two hours, and I also hurried a bit through the paintings. But what the hell. It's better to leave 'em wanting more than to feel like they've stayed too long. Another visit to the Huntington is definitely in order, maybe later this year.

In case you're growing weary of all this culture and wondering when I'm going to see another dead animal on the roadside, have no fear. On the way back from the Huntington, in quiet and stately San Marino, I spotted a freshly-killed cat. My immediate thought was that it belonged hung up by its hind leg in a painting by a 17th century Dutchman. "Still Life with Dead Cat and Fruit."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nixon Gratia Nixon

The end of innocence?

A motto for the ages

House in background; they added the pool later

That ought to hold him down

Wit' de original Rasta mon

The Joker and the King

Azusa, California

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nixon. What else is there to say? For our generation that single name evokes so many memories of the guy we loved to hate--of the guy the whole nation loved to hate, even as they paradoxically re-elected him. I think it was his campaign slogan that did it: Vote for Nixon in '72, Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw. At least that ruthlessly obtained victory led to his downfall, assisted by the one thing he couldn't do anything about. You can make yourself President of the United States but you can't make yourself lovable.

This is the land of Nixon. He was born in Yorba Linda, about 25 miles from here, and grew up and went to college in Whittier, even closer. My Nixon experience covered two days. On Wednesday, at my brother's suggestion, I went to Whittier College to see some artifacts from the man's public life. Up on the third floor of the school library I found a small locked room called the Nixon Conference Room. I went down and asked the student at the front desk if there was any chance I could look inside the conference room, that I'd heard there were some interesting things there. In truth, I didn't know what was in there. She said she didn't think so, but then went back into an office and after a time a middle aged man came out and told me he could take me up for a quick tour.

He punched in the lock code and we entered a conference room of about fifteen by twenty feet. Across one wall were a few glass cases filled with gifts Nixon had received in his official capacity when he was Vice President--a gold watch from the king of Saudi Arabia, various silver bowls, ceremonial daggers, a box with a picture of the Kremlin on it he'd gotten when he went to Moscow to visit Khruschev. While I was viewing the stuff the librarian, a very nice fellow named Joe, proceeded to tell me a story, most of which I confess I've forgotten, about how these things came to be there in Whittier rather than in the custody of the National Archives and at the Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda. Now I'm sorry I didn't pay better attention.

It was getting late when I emerged from the library, but my appetite was whetted for Nixon stuff, and I determined to go the next morning down to Yorba Linda to the Presidential Birthplace, Museum, and Library. Allow me to switch now to the present tense as I transcribe my notes from that visit.

Thursday, February 17, 2011. 11:15 a.m. It feels warmer down here in Orange County than it did up in Azusa. It seems to be a transitional spot between the lusher greater LA area and the desert of the Coachella Valley. It was a breezy and painless ride down the 57 freeway and took only about forty minutes, a blink of an eye for virtually any trip in southern California. It rained all day yesterday, but this morning the sun is out and the sky is dotted with cumulus clouds. I lock up the car in the huge parking lot and go into the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

As a lover of presidential trivia, I tend to gravitate toward the more obscure things rather than the obvious and well-known stuff. The Milhous family, Nixon's mother's side, were Germans who moved to England and Ireland. They became Quakers and came to the U.S. in 1729. Much later they continued west to the Quaker city of Whittier, California. The Nixons were Scotch-Irish (which means they were Scots who moved at the invitation of the English government into the northern part of Ireland, in order to Protestantize the island; the result of that little enterprise continues to haunt everyone involved). The Nixons came over here and fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. George Nixon III, Nixon's great-grandfather, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg and is buried in that cemetery so famously dedicated by Lincoln. These are interesting tidbits, and show that he had a long pedigree on this continent. The Nixons moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, where Nixon's father was born. Like the Milhouses they eventually made their way to California, where Nixon's father, Frank, bought some property and tried to start a citrus grove. In fact, he bought the very land on which the museum sits, and on which he built, in about 1912, the house Nixon was born in, just outside the museum. The whole farm comprised a little over eight acres, and the museum foundation has acquired it all.

The Nixons were Methodists, but when Frank married Hannah Milhous, somewhere near here, he converted to Quakerism. This exhibit testies to the sturdy rectitude of Nixon's parents, and it goes to show you that seriously flawed characters can emerge from otherwise good backgrounds. The Nixons were Republicans for all the right reasons, going back to the abolitionist sentiments of his forebears. That was before the Republican party ceded its position as the bastion of progressivism, in large part due to the machinations of Richard and his people in developing and cementing the southern strategy, whereby the Republicans took over as the party of white southern racists and ignorant white working people.

Except for the eldest son, Francis (known as Donald), the other four Nixon boys were named for monarchs of England, beginning with Richard--named for the illustrious gay Plantagenet Richard the Lion Hearted--then Harold, Arthur, and Edward.

In 1922, when Nixon was nine, the Nixon citrus farm in Yorba Linda failed, and Frank moved the family up to Whittier, where he ran a grocery store and a gas station. In 1925 Nixon's younger brother Arthur died at about 7 of something related to tuberculosis. The father took the death as a sign of heavenly displeasure because he'd been keeping the gas station open seven days a week, so after Arthur died he closed on Sundays. Little did the old man know that the real sign of divine disapprobation had come in the form of his number two son.

Here's an excerpt from an essay Nixon wrote as a senior at Whittier College, in which he avers that he has chosen to model his life on that of Jesus. "It shall be my purpose in life therefore to follow the religion of Jesus as well as I can. I feel that I must apply His principles to whatever profession I may find myself attached." As if this weren't ironic enough on a stand-alone basis, one of the items in the museum gift store, which I absolutely must buy, is a coffee mug that reads, "What Would Nixon Do?" I kid you not. The other theme the store exploits, again apparently without a trace of self-consciousness, is the famous White House meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley, the official photo of which has now become almost iconic. Nixon and Elvis shaking hands, the King wearing a cape and gazing at the camera with profoundly stoned eyes. It adorns coffee mugs, shot glasses, computer mouse pads, you name it. And those are their hottest selling items.

After Whittier College, Nixon went on to Duke University Law School to begin the systematic rearrangement of his thinking about the principles of Jesus. He returned to Whittier afterwards to practice law, and met the young school teacher who became his wife. I won't say anything more about Pat except to note that in tax law we have something known as the innocent spouse rule.

Outside I go, to the beautifully landscaped grounds and the reflecting pool, at the end of which is the house where Nixon was born, a small but handsome two-story job with obvious craftsman touches, although those might have been added later. I walk through the house, see the bed where he first protested his infant innocence, the homey living room, the tiny kitchen. Nixon is the first and only true Californian to have been president. Ronald Reagan was a Californian the way Clark Gable and Jack Benny were, Gerald Ford the way the other old farts in Palm Springs are. Nixon was a true home boy, down by law, as it were.

Next I visit Nixon's helicopter--the one that picked him up on the White House lawn after his resignation, where he stood at the door and gave that last awkward wave and double thumbs-up. I mentioned to the docent there that I remember that day as one of the brightest of my youth. She professed shock and disbelief and asked me why, and I told her it was because I couldn't stand Nixon. Again, utter confusion, from a woman about my age, no less. She asked me why I hadn't liked Nixon and I said, "Well, because he was a Republican, a warmonger, vindictive, a liar, a crook ... shall I go on?" She decided to just show me the helicopter instead. Not as nice as Elvis's at Graceland. I walked away even more confused than she. Since when do you have to explain why you don't like Nixon? That used to be taken for granted, like hating Satan or reality TV. What's the world coming to?

Between the house and the museum are the graves of Nixon and his wife. I pause on a bench opposite them just as I have paused so many times amid the tombstones. The inscription on Nixon's slab reads, "The Greatest Honor History Can Bestow Is The Title of Peacemaker," which is true enough in my opinion, although wholly inapposite to the person in front of whom I'm standing at the moment.

I go back into the museum and through a full-scale model of the East Room of the White House. The East Room recreation contains quite a bit of information about the history of the White House, the site of which was chosen by George Washington himself, though he didn't get to live there. This interests me because I'm listening to a recorded biography of Washington right now. Some of the high points in the life of the East Room include Abagail Adams hanging out laundry, James Garfield's sons having a pillow fight while riding velocipedes, and Amy Carter dancing with Mickey Mouse. But the East Room event most germane to this museum was the ceremony on August 9, 1974, in which Nixon bade farewell on the morning of his resignation, beads of whiskey sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip.

Next door to the East Room is a large special exhibit of expensive gifts Nixon and his family received while he was President, similar to but larger than the one I saw at the Whittier College Library yesterday.

It is the prerogative of every presidential museum to whitewash the life and tenure in office of its subject, and this one is no exception. The Johnson Library in Austin did so and the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids does too, but both to a lesser extent. As self-serving as LBJ was he appears much more humble in comparison to Nixon based on what I'm seeing here, and Ford is like a veritable lamb among wolves. Holy Big Lie, Batman. There is a pitched battle with the truth going on here, folks. From the senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Checkers speech, two terms as Veep, through the lean years of the sixties and all the way to the ingnominious end of his second term, there's not the slightest attempt to accept responsibility for anything but good stuff. He even spins the bad stuff as good. Probably the low point of this is the convoluted argument in one of the exhibits to the effect that, bolstered by Kissinger's peace negotiations, the South Vietnamese would have won that war after we withdrew our troops if the violent and irresponsible people in the U.S. hadn't been protesting the war, and that the unfair blame Nixon received for Watergate undermined his political power, thus allowing the anti-war enemies of peace in Congress to get the upper hand. Whaaaaa? Sort of like Hitler saying that if it hadn't been for those pesky Allies he would have brought peace to Europe much sooner. Or maybe like one of those moments in the Scooby-Doo cartoons when the villain is unmasked and mutters, "And I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those meddling kids and their dog!"

There is a Watergate exhibit section, but it's undergoing renovation. A workman tells me the new version is going to be "more factual" than the old one, since the National Archives has taken over from Nixon himself and his people. I tell the guy I would never come to a place like this to get the facts about Watergate, anyway.

Capping off everything is a half-hour movie, hosted by the tanned and aged Nixon himself. Again, no attempt to accept responsibility for anything except what he characterizes as a series of amazing and world-saving diplomatic victories. At least the guy was utterly consistent to the very end. When I leave the movie the old women in the gift shop ask me how I liked it. I tell them it was one of the most dazzling pieces of propaganda and revisionist history I've ever seen, and would have warmed the heart of Josef Stalin himself. They profess never to have heard such sentiments before.

Outside in the parking lot the sun is shining. I look up into the heavens, searching for some clean truth, and wonder, What Would Nixon Do?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ars Gratia Artis

Azusa, California

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I've visited two very fine art museums so far, the Norton Simon and the Getty Center. Each of these collections could stand alone as a rival to just about any museum in the interior of this country, at least for European paintings.

I happened to hear about the Norton Simon Museum from a little piece by the NPR veteran Susan Stamberg. They played it during one of the endless fund drives they have on public radio. And since they have more of everything here in California, they have more public radio stations and more fund drives. Born in Portland, Oregon, Norton Simon (1907-1993) was a businessman who grew up in San Francisco and started out in sheet metal and orange juice in Fullerton in the 1920s, then sold the juice company to Hunt's foods and took a controlling interest. Over time he came to control a diverse array of businesses through his holding company, Norton Simon Inc. They included Hunt's, McCall's Publishing, The Saturday Review, Canada Dry, Max Factor, and Avis car rentals. With the jillions of dollars he made he began collecting works of art, and over only thirty years he amassed over four thousand paintings and sculptures.

He built the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in 1974 on the site of what had been the Pasadena Art Institute. As museums go this one isn't huge, but it is chock full of really good stuff, and I'm a bit prejudiced in its favor because there's a good deal of 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting, which is my favorite. It takes a couple of hours to see everything on display, which is only a fraction of the entire collection, as I understand it. High points in the collection were a few Rembrandts, some Dutch still lifes, some Van Goghs, and dozens of miscellaneous Impressionist paintings. Also some early 20th century things from Picasso, Klee, and Kandinsky. In front of the building there are a few Rodins and in back a sculpture garden. The guy knew his stuff and only bought the best. His approach to art was probably like his approach to business, in that he acquired established things and didn't speculate. The museum is well worth a visit and very accessible if you have time for only one museum on one afternoon in the LA area.

But of course I have much more time than that, which brings me to the next one, the Getty. Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976) needs less of an introduction than Norton Simon, I suppose. Unlike Simon, he made his fortune the old fashioned way--he inherited it from his father, George Getty. Well, that's a bit of an oversimplification. The senior Getty had made some money as an insurance lawyer in Minneapolis, where the son was born. Then he took the family down to Oklahoma where he invested in oil and became very wealthy, and finally brought them to LA. He lent young J. Paul the money to start his own oil company, and the son made his first million in his early 20s. But he wanted to retire and become a playboy, which really seems like the right move for the son of a wealthy oil man, but which ticked off the old man. The father died in 1930 convinced that the son would ruin the family business, and left him a piddling half a million. But he did okay on his own, as it turns out, making it through the Depression while systematically acquiring oil companies. Then in 1949 he paid the king of Saudi Arabia a few million for a 60-year lease on some property there and began drilling. Nothing happened for several years, but when it did, it really did. In the 1950s he became the richest man in America, and when he died he was worth $2 billion, back when a billion dollars was a lot of money. He is famous for having said, "The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights."

Since J. Paul Getty was one of the richest people in the world, it is appropriate that the Getty is the richest museum in the world, the beneficiary of the billion-dollar-plus Getty Trust. It comprises two museums, the Getty Center, in Brentwood in LA, and the Getty Villa, in Malibu. The latter contains Greek and Roman antiquities and the former, which I visited, contains mostly European works of art from the Middle Ages to the present.

The Getty Center is more than just a building housing paintings. On Tuesday I arrived there after an hour-long torturous drive through Los Angeles on the freeways. Though I left later in the morning so as to miss rush hour, I realize that there is no time during daylight hours when the traffic into or immediately out of the city is light. Occasionally I would get up to forty or fifty miles per hour, only to come to a standstill in a mile or two at some merger of two highways. Sic transit Los Angeles transit. (My brother will finish that one, I'm sure.)

The museum is at the top of a hill, and I entered at the bottom, where I was directed into a large parking structure and asked to pay fifteen dollars. I wondered if this were just the beginning of the charges, but it turns out it covered admission, too. After parking I got into a small shuttle tram that runs slowly up the hill every five minutes or so, and began the ride to the summit. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and misty day, so I missed most of the spectacular views from the top, which I was told include, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other the mountain to the west of Palm Springs where the tramway runs. As it was, I saw downtown LA and the surrounding areas of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades. Nice real estate. The Getty Trust bought this hill and a couple around it, 750 acres in all, on which to build the museum, which was completed in the late 90s. Architecturally I can only describe it as pleasing and white and modern and huge, consisting of several loosely connected two- and three-level exhibition halls around a huge courtyard, with an amazing garden outside it, designed by artist Robert Irwin. There are numerous balconies from which to views the gardens and the countryside. A few hundred years ago this would have been the perfect place for castle.

I began by viewing the paintings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, my kind of stuff. Medieval altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, then the Netherlands painters. And there were some heavy hitters--Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, van Ruisdael, Bruegel, van Dyck, and Steen, to drop a few names. It makes you wonder how the hell so many different museums can have even a single painting by some of these old masters, much less three or more. They were busy as hell. Picasso I can see--the guy churned out stuff with obsessive speed and lots of it was little more than a couple of brush strokes on a piece of notebook paper. And Andy Warhol made prints by the hundreds. But considering the time it takes to paint a huge canvas in oils, well, I'm amazed. I know they had apprentices and helpers, but still.

After moving through a few rooms of 18th century French decorative arts--gilded and inlaid furniture and all that--I visited the relatively small showing of Impressionist paintings. The obligatory van Goghs (again, how the hell did he paint so much in so short a time?) and some by Degas and a few others. I never cared much for that era of painting, though most people love it. Van Gogh is cool with his use of paint and crazy colors, and Gaugin and Rousseau, but all those pastel boys leave me cold. Give me a still life with dead animals and fruit any day. Or in French painting, some gigantic tableau by Jacques Louis David. One I should mention from that era, for the sake of my cousin Cathy, was "Demolition of the Chateau of Meudon," by Hubert Robert. Another honorable mention goes to a pair of small oil paintings by William Hogarth entitled "Before" and "After."

Then I took a tour of the grounds and the cleverly-designed gardens, led by an energetic if rather dippy docent. This afforded me the opportunity to view the museum buildings from various angles. As for the collection of paintings, I would have to say that although the Getty had more stuff, the Norton Simon packed more punch. Much of the experience of visiting the Getty Center involves the beauty of the buildings and grounds. See both museums if you can.

I took the tram back down the hill and drove out of the parking lot onto the 405 to face the afternoon traffic. This time I went north to take the 101 and the 134 to the 210, going through Burbank and into Pasadena. Much better than trying the 10 again. You see, I'm beginning to talk like them. It's all about the traffic. About half the people here were born somewhere else, and although that percentage is decreasing, it's still an easy place to slip into. Just like Norton Simon and J. Paul Getty did.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Azusa, California

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hard to believe it's been a week since the walk ended. I have nothing to push me along now. Leisure time is best savored when it's stolen from a rigid routine--weekends or short vacations. I know now better than ever that I need that dialectic of duty and dalliance that makes each seem more valuable. Even now I'm writing this against a deadline, albeit self-imposed, and it's easier because of that. For me pure self-discipline is unattainable. But for all that I've been doing a few things.

On the day after I finished walking I began making phone calls to try to secure a mooring spot for the motor home for a few weeks. There aren't as many campgrounds in the northeastern suburbs of Los Angeles as I thought there would be. I did find a KOA in Pomona and another nice place up in San Dimas, and there was one high up in the San Gabriel Mountains, the ridge that runs to the north of all these towns I walked through. I'm sure they're very nice, but their rates rivaled those of a motel, which somehow didn't seem commensurate with the idea of camping. This is something I've always found mystifying about the whole RV thing, which I wouldn't embrace were it not for my walking project. Why would people spend a fortune on a huge RV, not to mention the cost of gas and maintenance, only to then pay forty to sixty dollars a night to park it and plug it in on top of those other expenses? I admit I'm spoiled after a year and a half of camping mostly free in Walmart parking lots, but if I'm going to pay that much I might as well get a room with a kitchen at a weekly motel.

So the criteria of my search were that I was looking for a relatively inexpensive spot close enough to the action that I wouldn't have to drive twenty miles down a mountain, or sixty miles on the freeway, just to get into the eastern reaches of LA. I assumed it was possible, but didn't really know, except that on my last two or three walks I'd gone past a few trailer parks that offered several spaces for transients with RVs. But as I began to call I discovered that most of them rented by the month and not by the week, and charged a month's security deposit plus the cost of utilities above the monthly rate.

Finally by accident, as usually happens with me, I called a trailer park that had five spaces they rented by the week for a very reasonable price, utilities included. And they had a spot open! I was about to hang up and go over there when the woman I was talking to asked me how old my motor home was. I told her it was an '88 and suddenly things changed. She said they only took motor homes that were ten years old or newer. Really? I wondered. A trailer park? What kind of luxurious place was this, over in Azusa? I envisioned a classy lot full of gleaming new megacoaches. Well, I wheedled a bit and finally the woman said I could call the next morning to see if her boss would be willing to waive the age requirement.

Next day I called back and talked to the boss. I pitched it to her, telling her about my walk and how I was writing a book and needed a place to stay while I did research. I may have hinted that she'd be in the book if she let me in. This is southern California, after all, and everyone in some recess of his or her mind is hoping for fame or fortune. It's just part of the culture. She was sympathetic, but said she'd have to "talk to corporate" about waiving the age restriction on the motor home. She really said that. Then she told me to call back in an hour. I thought, "corporate"? Sixty minutes later to the second, when I called back, she told me that corporate had said she could use her discretion, and let me in if the motor home was in "excellent condition." I told her I'd be right over.

In my opinion my motor home is not in excellent condition. It's 22 years old and has been through its share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But neither it is falling apart. Just about what you'd expect, I think. And considering the alternatives I knew I had to give it a shot. Besides the motor home park was only about eight miles from where I was at that moment.

When I arrived things came immediately into focus, as often happens, and I relaxed. The low white brick wall on Gladstone Avenue, just up from El Palenque sports bar and billiard hall and Duran Auto Body, and across the street from a place with a totem pole out front, read "Caravan Mobile Home Park," with, impressively, all of the letters present. I pulled to the curb. As I got out the boss herself emerged from a little yellow building next to a small swimming pool. She was a wraithlike middle aged woman, about five feet tall, all black hair dye and glasses. She called to a male assistant to go out and walk around the motor home and give it the critical evaluation. Out of the iron gate sourrounding the pool walked a man who looked like a hairier biker version of Gene Shalit. Huge black handlebar moustache merging with outrageous 19th century sideburns and a neck that hadn't been shaved in a week or two. He took a fast walk around my humble home away from home and called over the wall to the boss. "It's fine." I was in! Gratefully I chose my spot from among the three untaken ones and went in to pay the first week's rent.

Notice I said I was grateful, and indeed I still am. So no one will think me ungrateful or insulting if I say that after having cruised through the trailer park itself a couple of times I think my 1988 Winnebago brings no discredit upon the permanent trailers in the park, and indeed raises the class average, as it were, considerably. I'm still puzzled about the RV age limit, though. Except that I can see that if the Manson family came in with a fifty-year-old converted school bus painted in psychedelic colors, loaded on top with all their earthly possessions, even the Caravan Mobile Home Park might want to reserve for itself the right of refusal. In any event, here I am. It's reasonably quiet except for the yipping dog in the trailer next door and the occasional subwoofer bass of a passing motorist. Home sweet home.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Guys And Dolls

Friday, February 11, 2011

Today I checked out the intriguingly-named Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard. It's slogan is "Where the stars end and the darkness begins," which is rather clever, because it's located just east of where the stars on the Walk of Fame end. What's it all about? Well, death, in all its forms, but mostly in its most gruesome aspects. Serial killers and their female victims, electric chairs, that sort of thing. Think of it as an elaborate and more well-lit Halloween haunted house, minus the fictional monsters.

The back of the admission ticket contains this admonition: "WARNING - WARNING - WARNING - WARNING The MOD may cause headaches, seizures, epilepsy, PTSD, appetite loss, double vision, divorce, and many other problems. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK - ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!"

I'm still puzzling about the divorce part, but I think it could come from two different things. One would be if a husband managed to talk his wife into going into the museum in the first place, and an argument ensued about the overall trashiness of it, especially given the relatively high price of admission ($15), and the argument led to worse things. Sort of the "last straw" theory. The other possibility has to do with a certain extremely gruesome display of photos taken by a young couple of each other some time in the 1970s, after they murdered the woman's current boyfriend, and while they were nude and in the process of dismembering the dead guy's body. It was worse than you can probably imagine. The trouble is that it was in the days before digital cameras and computer printers, so they took the roll of film to be developed and someone at the lab turned the photos in to the police. Duh. The guy got life for the murder. The girl (whose idea it was) was having sex with the victim while the new boyfriend snuck up and stabbed him. She received a light sentence for pleading guilty to dismembering a corpse in exchange for her testimony against the boyfriend. I could see where that exhibit might start a discussion or two.

Besides that, and the almost reverential displays on Charles Manson and his family and other swell guys like Ed Gein and Hitler, the high point was a room filled with caskets and embalming instruments, in which they played an instructional video that had been made for students of mortuary science, on how to prepare a body for viewing. That actually was quite interesting to me, as I've always had an interest in such things, probably from all the time I spent at Coats Funeral Home as a kid when I had a job printing their funeral cards.

The cumulative effect of all that death and dismemberment, however, was that I felt slightly nauseated toward the end, and was happy to get out on the street again. On the whole I think the museum would appeal most strongly to teenage boys and young adult men, for its overall grossness. A great place for a first date.