3989 East 176th Street

Where I Lived 1948-1964

Where I Lived 1948-1964

When I looked up my old street address on Google, I was also given the opportunity to get a photographic view of the house where I spent most of my childhood up to fifty years ago. The house in the middle fronts on where Eldamere runs into East 176th Street. On the left side of us lived the Smiths; on the right, the Fordosis, our “enemies.” The photograph makes the front yards look much bigger than they were by about a quarter. The tree hides the window to my second story attic room, where I spent much of my time doing my homework and reading.

We were just a few houses in from Harvard Avenue, where Charley Fontana’s corner grocery store was located. Once, when I was little, William Boyd, the star of the Hopalong Cassidy television series, stopped at Fontana’s and was mobbed by little kids, one of whom was me. He handed out embossed plastic commemorative coins stamped with the name Hopalong Cassidy.

About half a mile left on Harvard was Saint Henry’s Church and School, where I attended grades two through eight. (Don’t tell anyone this, but, to my eternal shame, I never finished first grade.) Then I spent four years at Chanel High School in Bedford, which was renamed St. Peter Chanel before it blinked out of existence last year.

It was a pretty nice neighborhood when we moved there in the late 1940s. Because most of the houses were pretty new back then, the streets were barren. Now they are flanked by large trees that were just getting started when we moved to Parma Heights. By then I was at Dartmouth College and was way too sophisticated to care.

What made us move out was a real estate practice known as blockbusting. The early 1960s were a time of racial tension. When real estate salesmen paraded potential black buyers to neighborhood houses, the existing residents—including my family—panicked and sold out. We thought the neighborhood would become an evil slum like the Hough District just east of downtown. It never did: The new owners apparently were just as intent on making it a nice place to live as the Hungarians and Poles who left the area.

When I returned in 1998 to look around with my brother, we were pleasantly surprised.


Independence Day 1821

Declaring Independence Was One Thing, But Winning It Another

Declaring Independence Was One Thing, But Winning It Another

Peru is now celebrating the 193rd anniversary of its own Declaration of Independence by José de San Martin in Lima, as shown in the famous painting above by Juan Lepiani. As with our own Declaration of Independence, there was still a lot of fighting to come. Worse still, disunity was rampant. So much so that San Martin left for Europe in disgust and remained there until his death in 1850. Compared to what happened in South America, our own struggle for independence was a cakewalk, thanks largely to Admiral de Grasse and the French navy.

Let me give you a brief timeline. First there were the native peoples of what is now Peru, who were mostly gobbled up by the Inca empire. Then the Spanish came in under Francisco Pizarro, defeated the Incas, and set up a European-based government. All went somewhat smoothly under the Peninsular War of the early 19th century, in which the English, abetted by Spanish guerrillas, drove Napoleon’s French out of the Iberian Peninsula—at the cost of messing up their colonies in the New World. All criollo (native-born white) officials were replaced by new administrators from Spain. So, feeling disenfranchised, the criollos rebelled under Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, O’Higgins and others. They won, effectively driving the Spanish from South America.

Even to this day, Peru is largely a criollo-run country, even though whites constitute only 15% of the population. Naturally, the 45% who are Amerindians and the 37% who are Mestizo (mixed races) currently feel disenfranchised. Is Peru due for another revolution? In a way, it had one in the 1980s and 1990s under the Shining Path and the MRTA guerrillas, who were defeated in a series of bloody confrontations in which thousands of innocent people were killed.

It is inevitable that the non-whites in power will be replaced by more of the people from the Altiplano and jungle regions as time goes on. There may be other Independence Days to come. Who knows?

After all, there are people who feel the same way in the United States, people who dress in 18th century costumes with tea bags dangling from their hats.

Monsoon Monday

Mexican Monsoon Clouds Over Arizona

Mexican Monsoon Clouds Over Arizona

Generally speaking, it doesn’t rain in Southern California between March and December. The only exception is when we catch the northern edge of a Mexican monsoon, as we did yesterday and today. When we stepped out of the Albertson’s Supermarket yesterday around 2 pm, Martine and I were surprised to see the ground was wet and our car was covered with droplets. “Oh great!” I thought. “This’ll be another dirty drizzle that craps up my car windshield.”

It was more however. In nearby Venice, a young man died when he was struck by lightning, and ten people were hauled off to the hospital. While waiting for our friends Bill and Kathy to arrive, we heard thunder. Then, this morning, one of my co-workers from Redondo Beach said that she had lost her power three times during the night and that there was frequent lightning. Neither Martine nor I experienced anything like that in West Los Angeles,  only about twelve miles north of her.

One would think that the rain—such as it was—would at least ameliorate our dire drought conditions. No such luck! The rain evaporated within minutes, leaving behind only a sticky and uncomfortable humidity.

It reminds me of Florida. My mother moved to a senior condo in Hollywood several years after my father died in 1985. I would visit her from time to time, but I could never find a comfortable season. Every time I stepped off a plane in Florida, I felt as if I were being hit in the face with a big wet towel; and that feeling would persist the whole time of my visit.

I could never be comfortable in a humid climate. The summers in Cleveland were, I thought, dreadful. When a Peruvian acquaintance suggested I visit the jungle area around Iquitos, I begged off quickly. The humidity is bad enough, but the mosquitoes and tropical diseases were more than I could stand. Don’t forget, I like to take vacations in places like Iceland, Patagonia, and the Andes.

Hot Dog Stick

The Original on the Boardwalk in Santa Monica

The Original on the Boardwalk in Santa Monica

We got together with our friends Bill and Kathy Korn today and did something a little bit different. Bill had been visiting restaurants featured on the late Huell Howser’s television programs and decided he wanted to try the Original Hot Dog on a Stick restaurant on the Santa Monica Boardwalk, just a few steps from the Santa Monica Pier. The above picture shows the restaurant, which somehow never had the connective words “on a” painted on its sign that is now part of the company name. So it was to the original stand dating back to 1946 to which we repaired to dine on a delicious hot dog stick.

Martine was not particularly enthralled with having to sit on a wall that was liberally decorated with dried bird droppings, and even less having to maneuver through the massive crowds on the pier; but she put up with it. Bill and Kathy are from a part of Los Angeles where going outdoors in July is, to say the very least, uncomfortable. Just to get an idea of the crowds, see the picture below:

Crowds on the Beach North of the Santa Monica Pier

Crowds on the Beach North of the Santa Monica Pier

Curiously, we had some rain this afternoon. Not only did we have rain, but also a rare lightning strike that killed one twenty-year-old male and injured several other people. By the time we went, about an hour and a half later, the storm, such as it was, had moved eastward.

Speaking of Hot Dog on a Stick, I remember visiting the Pier one Sunday morning in 2009 and wandering into the middle of several hundred young men and (mostly) women dressed in the standard uniform for a corporate meeting:

Hot Dog on a Stick Meeting 2006

Hot Dog on a Stick Meeting 2006



The Way We See Ourselves

Reagan Popularized This Concept

Reagan Popularized This Concept

The text originally comes from the Bible, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The phrase had been used by several Americans since to describe the way we as a people wanted to be seen. While still aboard his ship en route to the New World, John Winthrop delivered a sermon in 1630 that contained the following phrase:

For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are on us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land where we are going.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy used the phrase in one of his speeches. More famous, however, was Ronald Reagan in 1984 when he said:

…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…

In the course of the passing years, after Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan and various other global hotspots, we have developed another image. In a short story entitled “Absence,” a Peruvian-born writer named Daniel Alarcón painted a very different picture of what the United States had become: “Americans always feel bad. They wander the globe carrying this opulent burden. They take digital photographs and buy folk art, feeling a dull disappointment in themselves, and in the world. They bulldoze forests with tears in their eyes.”

Tenniel’s Walrus and the Carpenter

John Tenniel’s Illustration for Walrus and the Carpenter

Now what this reminds me of are the Walrus and the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. You might remember from the accompanying poem that the Walrus and his Carpenter friend talk some oysters into joining them for dinner. Of course, they eat all the oysters, and begin to cry. The following conversation then takes place between Alice, Tweedledee, and Tweedledum:

‘I like the Walrus best,’ said Alice: ‘because you see he was a LITTLE sorry for the poor oysters.’

’He ate more than the Carpenter, though,’ said Tweedledee. ‘You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.’

‘That was mean!’ Alice said indignantly. ‘Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.’

‘But he ate as many as he could get,’ said Tweedledum.

This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, ‘Well! They were BOTH very unpleasant characters—’

It’s a long way between the City on a Hill and Lewis Carroll’s the Walrus and the Carpenter, but I do believe that over the centuries, the U.S. seems to have arrived at that point with surpassing ease—while at the same time with all our illusions intact.


Bad Karma

Both Israel and Hamas Are Asking for a Miserable Future

Both Israel and Hamas Are Asking for a Miserable Future

I do not intend to say who is right and who is wrong. But I think that both Israel and Hamas will suffer in years to come for their mutual intransigence. Both sides have negotiated in bad faith, especially when Benjamin Netanyahu was on one of the sides. Unfortunately, it is the innocent who—as always—suffer the most. The images of wounded Palestinian children are everywhere in the news. And certainly, the casualties are grotesquely one-sided.

The question I ask is: When does Israel’s right to defend itself cross the line over into war crimes? Although their rocket attacks have been one-hundredth the intensity of Israel’s air and land barrage, one might also ask of Hamas why, considering what they know of Israel’s tendency to over-respond, do they continue acting in such a way as to deserve punishment by Israel? But will Hamas be punished, or the Palestinians who just want to survive with their families and property intact?

So much of the news today is about irreconcilable conflicts between people who should be brothers: Ukraine and Russia, Syria and the Syrians, Iraq and ISIS … the list goes on. And the casualties continue to mount.

“Don’t Read Books!”

Chinese Scroll

Chinese Scroll

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

—Yang Wan-li (1127-1206), “Don’t Read Books!”

Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas—Witness This Moche Pot

We tend to think that the only advanced Pre-Columbian Civilizations were the latest. For Mexico and Central America, that would mean the Aztecs and Mayas; for Peru, the Incas.

As one who has traveled to Mexico many times to see archaeological sites, I can vouch for the fact that, long before the Aztecs left their mythical homeland of Aztlán, there were other civilizations in Mexico that they replaced, but which they did not necessarily improve upon. The peoples who built Teotihuacan north of Mexico City did it around a hundred years before the Christian era. Then there were the Toltecs, the Totonacs, the Olmecs, and the Huastecs. I have seen remains from these and other Meso-American civilizations over a thirty-year period.

The Mayans are slightly different: They were less a centralized political entity than a people who have been around for thousands of years and lived through both empires and more localized city states and leagues of city states. The last Mayans were conquered by the Spanish at Tayasal in 1697, representing a much thornier military target for the conquistadores than the Aztecs.

The Moche Civilization of Peru

The Moche Civilization of Peru (100-800 AD)

Like the Aztecs, the Incas were fairly late on the scene, first coming to notice around 1438 and being conquered (but not decisively) by Francisco Pizarro a hundred years later. In many ways they were not as advanced as the Aztecs and Mayans inasmuch as they did not have writing—though they appear to have been able to use a writing system of colored knotted cords called quipus for inventories and other business purposes. (In this regard, they were like the ancient Greeks who used Linear A in a similiar way.)

What the Incas had going for them were primarily two things:

  1. They built a great paved road system covering some 25,000 miles. (But since these roads included steps at times, they could be navigated by sure-footed llamas, but not by the Spaniards’ horses).
  2. They were great builders who, in a major earthquake zone, erected structures that are still standing.

Prior to the Incas, there were numerous Peruvian civilizations who bettered the Incas in many respects. The Moches or Mochica of the north were just one example: Their pottery is far more artistic (see above photo) than anything the Inca were able to create. Then, there were the Wari, the Nazca, the Chavin, Tiwanaku, Chincha, Chanka, and Chimu.

My upcoming trip to Peru will include some visits to non-Inca ruins, such as Huaca Pucllana of the indigenous Lima culture and Pachacamac of the Ichma people. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve never been to Peru before—and I don’t know whether I can go again—I will concentrate mostly on the Inca sites of the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu.


Art Without a Human Context

Not a Fan of Non-Representational Art

I’m Not a Fan of Non-Representational Art

There are people who like abstract art, and then there are people like me. I could go through a large museum of modern art in a quarter of an hour or less, stopping only for a handful of paintings that catch my eye. Admittedly, one finds masses of brilliant colors, bold designs, but nothing that relates to human experience. I have always been amazed that so many works of abstract art are so large, involving so many square feet of canvas and paint, yet  elicit so little response from me. How often does one find works of non-representational art that are small? Their very hugeness is part of their impact. I could spend half an hour looking at a small Renoir or Cézanne, yet pass by a room full of gigantic daubs with barely a shrug.

Some of my friends think there is something wrong with my taste in art. They urge me to visit Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), but I hesitate to devote my time and money to something that does not engage my intellect.

I have looked through some of my earlier posts about art, particularly those relating to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. One is about Vermeer’s “A View of Delft”; another takes as its subject Pieter de Hooch’s “The Mother”; and yet another, Sandro Botticelli’s “The Trials of Moses.” Marcel Proust and I have this in common: paintings that send one on a tangent are infinitely preferred to those which only inspire a grunt accompanied by the exclamation “Meh!”

It is no surprise that banks and corporate headquarters tend to like large works of abstract art. They want people to think they are forward looking, at the leading edge. One looks at them as adjuncts of power rather than as works that can inspire even a modicum of thought. But, perhaps, power without thoughtfulness is what they are aiming at.


I Seem To Have Become Hispanic

I Didn’t Know One Could Change One’s Ethnicity

I Didn’t Know One Could Change One’s Ethnicity

For some reason, I seem to have spooked the marketing algorithms behind some web sites: Now I find myself getting ads in Spanish. Could it be because of all the Google searches I have done regarding my upcoming vacation in Peru? In any case, I am amused by the whole thing—provided I do not have to fear getting nabbed by the migra and deported to Tijuana.

I guess this is the way I look to the marketers:

Which One Do I Resemble Most?

Which One Do I Resemble Most?

The painting above is John Sonsini’s “Christian and Francisco” (2013), which hangs in the Autry National Center in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, which Martine and I visited yesterday.

In the meantime, I hope to improve my colloquial Spanish so that I can be worthy of my new identity.