Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Take A Number

Southern California

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Every locale seems to have its share of loopy lawyers advertising on TV and southern California of course is no exception. Ambulance chasers, firms looking for people to sign up for class actions against asbestos-mongers or purveyors of poorly designed bionic joints, people trying to help you get your Social Security benefits, and so on.

"We'll deal with the government. You have enough to worry about already." So says the guy with the ridiculous cowboy hat who, if he's a real lawyer, would be someone you'd be wise to steer clear of if you wanted to be taken seriously.

I was thinking about the idea of letting someone else deal with the government as I walked purposefully into the California Department of Motor Vehicles office in Pasadena this afternoon to get a driver's license. Based on my observations I believe Californians have a high tolerance for nuisance and annoyance, and they suffer a great deal of indignity in relative silence, at least until they reach their breaking point. Compared to their counterparts in the densely populated east they don't honk their horns very often, nor do they appear to bitch and moan a lot in public places. They wear shorts and sandals so much that I think it makes them feel like they're on perpetual vacation, and hence they're in a more relaxed mood. It's true that they do start complaining if the skies are cloudy and the temperature dips below 70 or goes above 85. But that's entirely consistent with vacation behavior. I guess since being in southern California is a lot like being on vacation, the thing to get upset about isn't the crowding and the traffic and the waiting, but the weather. Another factor to consider is that, like people who've gone to a vacation destination, Californians are more or less committed to being where they are, and don't really have many other choices. This country is all about choices--too many of them usually--but most Californians have already made their choice, to move here. You don't get fed up with California and say, "Hell with this, I'm moving to Minnesota!"

I had been warned that the California DMV would be a terrible experience. Common sense would tell you that in a county of 10 million within a state of nearly 40 million you'd expect some crowding in a DMV office, and that was indeed the case. The parking lot was full to overflowing and the inside of the building was packed. But to my surprise things went rather smoothly and were made tolerable by an absence of the pissing and moaning you would get if you were in the northeast. I'm not saying people were happy to be there, and indeed they might have been grumbling among themselves in Spanish or Chinese or Tagalog, but they were keeping it low-key, which I found to be admirable.

After filling out my form I got into a line that ran the length of the building. I was congratulating myself that it was moving right along until I began to hear a disembodied female voice calling out that such-and-such a number was being served at such-and-such a window, and I realized I was waiting in line just to get one of those numbers, not to be served. After twenty minutes I got my number and then sat for another forty-five waiting for my number to come up. Then a bored and semi-competent man processed my application behind a bullet-proof glass shield such as you would see in a convenience store in a blighted neighborhood, complete with the tray underneath through which I passed my paperwork. At that moment I caught a glimpse, I thought, of the limits of the tolerance of the California public. Additionally, here and there were signs indicating that it was a violation of the law to harass or attempt to intimidate a DMV employee. Finally, after getting my picture taken and passing a 36-question multiple choice examination covering the rules of the road I was awarded my temporary license, the real one to arrive in the mail in a few weeks.

The length of the wait, considering the hundreds of people who were jammed into the small office, wasn't bad. And as for the curt indifference of the staff, I would have been disappointed if they had tried to be more civil than they were. As a former state employee, I appreciate and understand curt indifference in a person who meets the public. We seem to be losing some of that in the private sector, and I guess this is one of those areas where the government has to step in and fill the gap. For instance, at banks the service has been getting more ridiculously cloying as time goes on. The tellers act as if they're your personal geishas instead of the people whose job it is to pay you almost no interest on your money while charging you enormous interest to borrow their money. I am much more comfortable with the coldness at the DMV. "We have what you want and we'll take our time giving it to you," is the message.

I was struck by how smoothly it went, all things considered. The California DMV has a decent system for handling an enormous polyglot population, including the option to make an appointment ahead of time to make your wait much shorter. But for a walk-in, an hour and a half total to obtain a driver's license once every five or ten years doesn't seem to me like that much of a sacrifice.

However, I should note that I am a veteran of many trips to the Connecticut DMV which, prior to its reformation in the late 1990s, employed what was easily the surliest and most unproductive bunch of bureaucratic thugs in the nation. And they're still pretty damned slow, albeit in a more chipper and polite way. I say that with only two other states to compare to Connecticut, but I nevertheless say it with absolute confidence. And of course things are much worse in other countries, I have no doubt. Indeed, maybe that's why the people at the California DMV are so patient--so many of them are from other countries, where without bribery or interminable red tape nothing gets done at all.

Which lets me mount another hobby horse of mine. Where's the everyday bribery in this country? Sure, there's organized crime and extortion galore; border guards get paid off and certainly cops are crooked throughout the land, but can someone slip a ten spot to a DMV employee and expect to get faster service? I doubt it. What's wrong with that picture? So much corruption in the billion dollar sky boxes and so little in the cheap seats.

Well there you go. Another California experience chewed, swallowed, and digested. After I've tuned up by waiting a few more times at the DMV, maybe I'll be ready to stand in line all night to get into The Price is Right. And then, who knows?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A River

Los Angeles County

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

There's a town in this string of communities running east away from northern Los Angeles along the San Gabriel Mountains and old Route 66 that I've become quite fond of. It's not the largest nor is it the prettiest. Its name is Irwindale, and I think it's probably the Rodney Dangerfield of this group of suburbs. Not known for upscale Craftsman-style homes on the one hand or for gat-wielding spray-painting gangbangers on the other, it is a huge string of gravel pits and industrial parks containing, incidentally, 1,422 citizens as of the last census.

To folks who live in rural Mississippi or the sleepy adobe pueblos of New Mexico, a town of over 1,400 might seem not only decent-sized but practically metropolitan. But here in the middle of a county of nearly 10 million souls, Irwindale, surrounded by neighbors with populations ranging from 25 to 75 thousand each, is small indeed. Small in permanent residents, that is, but great in the stuff of which the very infrastructure we take for granted is composed. For starters, a large percentage of the aggregate that goes into the concrete on the freeways of Los Angeles County comes from the quarries of Irwindale. And it is rich as well in other amenities, the sorts of things that folks who live on the florid avenues of nicer places disdain, but without which they couldn't drive home to spend sweet evenings among their roses and jacarandas.

Turning big rocks into little ones is certainly the most conspicuous of Irwindale's industries, with the ubiquitous Vulcan Materials pits and their long elevated Rube Goldberg apparatuses for carrying and sorting stones. But the streets of Irwindale are replete with small businesses and warehouses and distribution plants, tucked between which are numerous tiny, oily shops devoted to transmissions, auto electric systems, and new and used tires. Sprinkled throughout are places whose names contain that wonderfully reassuring morpheme "chem," their yards piled high with pallets of 55-gallon drums containing God knows what. And Irwindale is home to a company called Holy Spirit DME, Inc., catering to all your needs for durable medical equipment and incontinence supplies. In the name of the Lord. Plant nurseries also line a long stretch of Arrow Highway. And last but not least there's the massive MillerCoors brewery up by the freeway.

On the map Irwindale appears as a gerrymandered piece of real estate, probably just left-over spaces its neighbors didn't want. It was only incorporated in 1957, having previously been county land. So what the hell do I like about Irwindale? Well, all of the above for starters. My readers know I love urban blight as much as I cherish the unspoiled wilderness. In large part it is the sheer grey ugliness of Irwindale that attracts me. People drive through on the 210 or the 605 hardly knowing where they are, looking down on a vast lunar landscape of stone and craters. But also I love the fact that here is a place where shit can be obtained, and where shit gets done. It's comforting to know that if I need a used tire or a rebuilt transmission, or for that matter a huge container of industrial lubricant or a thousand tons of trap rock, Irwindale is there for me.

But there's one more thing. Just above the northern end of Irwindale is where the San Gabriel River comes tumbling cleanly down out of the mountains of the same name. This waterway, fed by snow melt and runoff from the hills, is mostly dammed up to form reservoirs for drinking water for the surrounding towns and for flood control. Along the often dry river bed, now returned in an unnatural way to its natural state and filled with native desert plant species, runs a terrific bicycle path, south out of mighty Irwindale itself, through Covina and El Monte and far beyond to the Pacific Ocean. After decades of industrial despoliation, I have no doubt, someone cleaned up the place and transformed it into a recreation area. The nicely paved path starts just off Foothill next to the entrance to the main Vulcan plant at Irwindale Avenue and makes its way up onto the Santa Fe Dam, a flood control barrier that cuts west across the riverbed just north of Arrow Highway. The dam is made of earth and rocks, no doubt quarried in the immediate vicinity. Riding across the top of it high above the city you have a beautiful view of all that makes Irwindale what it is--the roofs of the warehouses and factories, the gravel pits, the endless procession of little places featuring piles of rusting car bodies and engine blocks out back--the wretched refuse of the teeming shores of greater Los Angeles. It is a sight to behold.

I've been unable so far to find out anything about Irwin the man, or woman, after whom the city was named. Rumor has it that over the years Irwindale's employees have dabbled in corruption, blowing municipal money on junkets to New York and the like. But with so few people, how serious can it be? Most of the population are probably not property owners themselves. I'm assuming the lion's share of the city's tax money comes from the beer and stone and chemical companies and a few absentee landlords. What's a little graft among friends of that ilk?

In any event, on a clear evening the view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the center of unprepossessing Irwindale is just as beautiful as it is from the gleaming white Spanish colonial town center of Azusa or the bustling modern condominiumed boulevards of Duarte. Its roads are decent. It is refreshingly empty of fast food joints and expensive coffee shops and big box retailers. If you're looking for a truck body from the 1950s or a used radiator or a wiring harness for a 1975 Cadillac, look no further, Irwindale is the place for you.

And a river runs through it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

O Lucky Man

Southern California

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Somewhere in the history of just about all these towns in Los Angeles County is a rich man. More often than not it's a railroad baron--a Huntington or a Stanford--but sometimes it's a guy who made his money in another way. One such non-railroad mogul was Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin, the man who once owned about half of the land comprising the present-day adjoining municipalities of Arcadia and Monrovia, just east of Pasadena.

Lucky Baldwin was, like nearly all the California white men of his day, born somewhere else. In the best tradition of the pattern of migration in this country, he originated in a place that was already considered part of the west when he was born--in his case Ohio--in 1828. From there his family inched farther west, into Indiana, and after that he wandered to Wisconsin.

Here I must interject a general observation: it is only by spending time on both coasts of the United States that one can fully appreciate the truly parochial outlook of not only its colonial founders and their heirs but also the denizens of its ultimate western terminus, as well as how truly "geographically challenged" many people are. I was born and grew up in what is called the Midwest, a vast chunk of land stretching from Ohio all the way to the Dakotas, and from the Canadian border down to the Missouri-Arkansas line. In terms of understanding the nation's geography, I think this gave me an advantage that east and west coasters either do not possess or have forgotten. Midwesterners have always understood that there is a great deal to the east of, say, Michigan--not just the Atlantic seaboard but the full width of the Appalachians and some more besides, as well as a practically separate nation to the south, below which finally is Florida, the happy hunting ground of those who spend a lifetime enduring what people like to call the Four Seasons. We Midwesterners also understand that to the west of us lies an almost interminable expanse of rugged and underpopulated plains and Rocky Mountains, at the far end of which is this little strip of desert oasis called southern California.

But dwell in New England, for instance, and you hear the damnedest things. Everything west of the Hudson River is some wintry, woolly place that starts with an "M"--nobody quite knows which states are which, nor does anyone care. All they know is that people ice fish and grow crops out there. Beyond all that stuff is California, which isn't nearly as far away as middle America, really, since it's only a six hour plane ride away. Californians have a similar attitude, in reverse. When you tell them where you're from they just whistle softly and say "Wow, you're a long way from home." You could be saying Kansas, Indiana, or Rhode Island, it doesn't matter. The only concrete eastern reality for most is New York City, which again is best understood in terms of the idea of 500 air miles per hour. Easterners, I think, can be more readily forgiven their ignorance; after all, they got off the boat and just stayed put. For most of my Connecticut friends a trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts or Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire is as epic a journey as any undertaken by Columbus or Amundsen. Many New Englanders did of course travel far to the west, but they did it in increments and didn't return to tell the tale, to explain in detail what's out there. To the easterner the middle of the country is all a vague mishmash of steel mills, Civil War battlefields, Grant Wood cornfields, and cowboys and Indians. But Californians really should know better, because most of them have been east. They were born there. It puts me in mind of something Wordsworth said:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come....

The rest of the vast eastern portions of the country, so formative to their young lives and so essential to their natures, remains in the deep recesses of the minds of Californians as a sort of vague dream, which in the Pacific sunset fades so quickly from memory that they're left with only the most imperfect of impressions of the great playing field that lies between the two cultural goalposts of America. They learn to complain about weather that Minnesotans expect to experience only in heaven, and understand only dimly the idea of places without freeways and electoral votes.

Well, back to old Lucky Baldwin, the Buckeye-Hoosier-Cheesehead. He finally came all the way west as an adventurer in his twenties, locating in San Francisco in 1852 shortly after the beginning of the gold rush. He opened a hotel and livery stable and dabbled in a few other business ventures. But his sobriquet of good fortune wasn't earned in the gold fields; rather, someone paid him a debt with several thousand shares in a silver mine in Nevada, worth pennies a share at the time. Soon thereafter, in 1859, the Comstock Lode was discovered, turning Lucky's investment into a fortune worth a few million dollars, back when that could buy you more than a small house in Beverly Hills. The fortune in fact enabled him to purchase, among other things, over 60,000 acres of land just northeast of the city of Los Angeles.

Today the City of Arcadia is the chief legacy of that purchase, including the Santa Anita Race Track, built on what was once Baldwin property. Baldwin himself built a track there in the early 1900s, but it burned down. The present track was reconstructed in the 1930s. Many places around here bear his name--Baldwin Avenue, Baldwin Park, Baldwin Hills.

Baldwin was also lucky (or unlucky depending on how you view it) in love. He had four wives and in addition was sued four times for breach of promise of marriage. In 1883 he was ignominiously shot in his own hotel (the Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco) by a jilted woman, but survived. Then about ten years later he was shot again, by the avenging brother of another injured party. Again he lived. Lucky finally died of old age in 1909.

In Arcadia there's a place called the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, a really lovely 127-acre expanse developed on what was once the heart of Lucky Baldwin's estate. It is divided into sections featuring plants and trees from all parts of the world. Its rose garden is in demand as a venue for romantic, idyllic weddings. In the midst of it all, next to tiny Baldwin Lake, is Lucky Baldwin's 1885 Queen Anne style cottage, a beautiful example of heavily ornate high Victorian architecture, fully furnished inside with period pieces. The Arboretum has been used as a movie and television setting for decades, and inside the old carriage house adjacent to the cottage there's a detailed display of photos. They've shot everything there from old Tarzan movies to modern jungle flicks like Anaconda. They also shot the opening scene from Fantasy Island there, where Tattoo yells, "De plane, de plane," after which Mr. Roarke walks out of the Queen Anne cottage.

I suppose what makes a guy lucky, in retrospect, is whether people speak his name a hundred years after his death. By that standard Baldwin was fortunate. At one place in the historical displays inside the carriage house it lists his date of birth as April 31, 1828. That would make him pretty damned lucky, too, since he wouldn't have had to share that birthday with anyone.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Earlier Than You Think

Southern California

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One of the phenomena I have contended with since I've been in the Pacific time zone is the vague feeling that it is later than it really is. It has nothing to do with the sun; indeed the sun suggests that the time is or should be about what the clock says it is. I get up earlier, and I go to bed earlier, as if I were still in the east. Gradually and eventually I imagine this feeling will subside.

My theory is that this is from a lifetime of living in the Eastern zone where it's three hours later. After a while the body's ability to sense what time it is becomes synched to the "dominant" zone, the one in which one spends the majority of one's time. The more years in the zone, the more strongly the sense of it is built in. We are familiar with the general idea of being out of step with local time on a short-term basis, which we call "jet lag," but I don't know if I've ever read or heard anything about how it plays out in the longer term.

Last Sunday, June 5, the world was supposed to come to an end, completely. Lights out. Or as the poet Yeats said, "Black out. Heaven blazing into the head." Thus spake my friend the Only Begotten Son of God (hereinafter referred to as the OBSOG), the bearded denizen of Hollywood Boulevard, back in February. So on the morning of Monday the 6th, with the sun shining as usual here in California, I went looking for the OBSOG, not to challenge him or gloat--he was a rather sweet guy, and held the same views about the Republicans as me--but in the hope of a reasoned explanation of some kind. Besides, why should I revel in, or even take comfort from, the fact that all this is not going to end? Sometimes I look around and wish I could warm to the certitude of the crazed millennialists like Harold Camping and the OBSOG, or even regular garden variety Christians, regarding the eventual happy second coming. My own feeling on the subject is closer to the one I got the other night while sitting uncomfortably through the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, saying over and over, from about a third of the way through, "Well, it can't last forever." Not nearly soon enough, as it transpired. I had only seen the first of these cinematic turds, back in '03, and based on that was thinking this one might have something of a plot involving human beings. Wrong. I like Johnny Depp (and Keith Richards, who made a quick appearance in this one, too) and made the mistake of thinking it might be good because he was in it, rather than that he had become another of the many Whores of Babylon.

Anyway, bright and early Monday, at a little before noon, I locked my car in front of the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard just west of Gower, where the two-hour free parking spaces end. I ambled west, past empty store fronts, dirty lingerie shops, and souvenir t-shirt stores, nearing the heart of the tourist district. Excited Germans paused on street corners to take one another's pictures with the HOLLYWOOD sign in the background. Around them ambled the human marginalia of this particular page of life--raggedy bag women, over-made-up costumed wackos, old gone wrinkled cowboys come to spend their golden years in whiskey and handouts. I looked for some sign of the OBSOG, maybe his pull-behind two-wheeled grocery cart packed with black plastic bags packed in turn with who knows what (standard issue for self-respecting street people), or his sign warning of the impending end of days. Eventually I decided to start inquiring about him among the people who looked as if they spent all day there, nearly every day.

The first person I asked was a huckster of indeterminate nationality, but probably from one of the southern Slavic countries or maybe Armenia. He said he knew who I was talking about, and that he usually hung out farther west, near Hollywood and Highland. Up at that intersection the second person I approached was a young good-looking Middle Eastern guy of about 30 who was selling tours of the homes of the stars. I asked him if he had seen "the End of the World guy," with the beard and the shopping cart. He knew the OBSOG by my description right away, but said he said he hadn't seen him for a week or so. "What's wrong?" he asked. I said that nothing was wrong, just that I wondered where he was today.

"Don't worry," he reassured me in his thick Arabic accent. "Nobody can say when is end of the world. Jesus no say. Mohammad no say. Ibrahim no say. Only God says. Have a good time, relax." I said I really wasn't worried about that, but merely wished to speak to the guy. I explained that he had predicted that the end of the world would happen yesterday. I could tell that although the Arab had rather enjoyed this momentary diversion, I was beginning to waste his time. And he was wasting mine.

Other reactions from the Hollywood tour and map-of-the-stars salesmen were predictably similar. There was, I sensed, a loose solidarity among the everyday folk of the boulevard. One young man asked me, laughing, if I was looking for him to get my life savings back. My first thought was to answer, "Do I look like a complete idiot?" Then it hit me. Of course I look like a complete idiot, to him and all the regulars. I look just like the rest of the goofy tourists from middle America and Europe who traipse up and down the street, gawking, taking snapshots, posing in front of the Chinese Theater with people dressed as Spiderman or Elvis or Shrek or Darth Vader. Why else would I even be here? On Hollywood Boulevard you're either selling or buying. And if by chance you should be wandering aimlessly, the Church of Scientology lies patiently in wait, a wolf among lambs.

Meanwhile, even absent the OBSOG, there was no shortage of religious types afoot. Near the Chinese Theater I passed a pair of amateur musicians playing softly while handing out tiny tracts identifying themselves as a German outfit predicting the end of the world in December 2012--12/12ers, I guess you could call them. Then, to my surprise, I came to a pair of young Mennonites, also handing out pamphlets, offering merely garden-variety Christian salvation, minus the imminent cataclysm. I stopped to talk to a young man of this persuasion, who informed me that a large group of them had traveled to Los Angeles to save souls, and were staying in a hotel. I said I didn't realize the Mennonites were evangelists, and he told me that at least his group was. The guys were mostly clean shaven and conservatively dressed, and the women wore full-length print dresses from which sensible gym shoes protruded, and little white lace bonnets on the backs of their heads. As in west Texas, I was struck by how homely they were--the girls especially. Inbreeding, I suspect. At one corner an a capella choir of about twenty of them earnestly sang hymns--regular church hymns I recognized from my own childhood. The voices, at least, were pretty. I paused and leaned against a palm tree and absorbed the sweetness of the sound, traveling back half a century in my mind.

When I got to Orange Street I asked another local, who told me that he knew of the OBSOG, but that I had ventured a bit beyond his territory, which he said was strictly between Vine and Highland, on the south side of Hollywood Boulevard. That had indeed been where I'd seen him on Oscar night. I began walking west again, carefully scrutinizing all the people with those shopping carts and huge plastic bags, ranging through the trash cans, looking for redeemable empties rather than redeemable souls. In a little courtyard set back from the sidewalk in front of some sort of cheesy museum I asked a homeless Japanese man if he'd seen my bearded End of the World guy. He was more precise than the others. "Not today," he said, his bloodshot eyes scanning me warily. "But last week." Why did I want to know? the eyes said silently. This man's information I instinctively took to be a bit more reliable than that of the tour people, because this guy probably knew where the OBSOG spent his nights, back on the side streets behind dumpsters. But I didn't want to invade anyone's home, only to see him here on the street, in his element. I did venture down El Centro to an alleyway, where the empty bottle and can people looked at me furtively, just as the residents of a suburban cul-de-sac might eye a scruffy stranger to their domain.

I didn't find the OBSOG this time, but I haven't given up hope. No doubt he's busy recalculating, not to mention revising his manifesto to accommodate the obvious fact that it's earlier than he thought it was. These things happen. Calculations, unlike the mighty adversaries in the battle of Armageddon, are only human.