Nostalgie de Banlieu

Recent History from L.A. Northern Suburbs

If you’ve ever seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you have some idea of how the City of Los Angeles annexed most of the San Fernando Valley after William Mulholland’s aqueduct brought water several hundred miles from the Owens Valley to L.A. In the period of the movie, the Valley seemed to be mostly orchards. Today, some two million people live there. Its period of greatest growth was in the immediate postwar period when aerospace was king. Today—well, today much of the gloss has vanished. During the summer, the Valley is almost as hot as the floor of the desert: Today the temp reached 91º Fahrenheit (33º Celsius) as we left in mid afternoon.

The reason we were there was to visit the Valley Relics Museum at Balboa and Stagg in Lake Balboa. The museum pays homage to the Valley’s glory days during the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems everyone was buying property there because it was cheaper than the more liveable parts of L.A. adjoining the Ocean.

Ash Trays from Bygone Restaurants and Clubs

The Valley is still an interesting destination. For one thing, there are many excellent restaurants, both ethnic and American. (Today, for instance, we discovered a great place on Ventura Boulevard at Burbank called Hummus Bar & Grill that we will no doubt be visiting again.) There are several interesting historical sights such as the Leonis Adobe and Los Encinos State Historical Park, plus museums like the Nethercutt Collection. So the Valley is still a target-rich destination, though it is no longer the fashionable locale it used to be when I first moved the Southern California in 1966.

The museum had fight posters featuring Mohammed Ali and Cassius Clay, film stuntmen memorabilia, old restaurant menus with pre-inflation prices, neon signs from clubs and restaurants like the Palomino, and even an interesting selection of working pinball machines—particularly one featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, a former TV horror film hostess.

 

An American Heroine

Megan Rapinoe, the Star of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

She was nowhere near the biggest bruiser on the field (that honor goes to France’s Wendie Renard, who at 6’ 1” was the biggest in the entire tournament). But when there were a few inches of daylight between her and the net, Megan Rapinoe found a way to corkscrew the ball between the defenders and past the goalkeeper and onto the scoreboard.

I don’t watch sports on television much, but I have a soft spot in my heart for what the world calls football and we Americans call soccer. That is because my Dad played for a Czechoslovakian club in the 1920s and for various nationality teams in Cleveland during the 1930s. When I was a child, he would occasionally take me to Moreland Park, where he was widely recognized by the old hands at the game. Elek and Emil Paris were the Terrible Twins of the Cleveland clubs. I heard all the stories about the players whose legs were broken by my father’s powerful kicks. These stories may have been slightly embroidered, but I ate them all up with a feeling of family pride.

The fact that Donald Trump is highly critical of her makes me admire Megan Rapinoe all the more. When asked by a reporter whether she would grace the White House with her presence, she replied that “she was not going to the f—ing White House.” That set the Donald off, he being rather thin-skinned by any kind of criticism.

There was a follow-up to that, however. “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House with exception of the expletive,” Rapinoe told reporters. “My mom will be very upset about that.”

Still, during the Star Spangled Banner, all her teammates stood with their hand to their hearts—except for Megan, who had her hands at her sides. I like this girl: She’s a rebel!

 

 

The Patience of Maigret

Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Whenever I am looking for a great crime read, my first choice is usually the late Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector (later Superintendent) Jules Maigret. Like the author, Maigret always had a pipe in his mouth. I cannot help but think that Simenon thought of himself as his hero, but whenever I visualize the French detective, I have a different image in my mind, that of the film comedian Jacques Tati (1907-1982), Simenon’s near contemporary. (See photo below.)

I have just finished reading The Patience of Maigret [La Patience de Maigret] (1965), the 92nd Maigret in a series extending to 103 titles. Although the ones he wrote in the 1930s were brilliant, there was no noticeable falling-off with the later novels.

Maigret is in many ways the anti-Sherlock-Holmes. His cases are not solved as much through ratiocination as by a fanatical thoroughgoing diligence and its hero’s trust in the picture of the crime that emerges as a result. Near the beginning, Simenon describes Maigret going through his paces: “And yet that was how the Superintendent had succeeded with most of his investigations: climbing stairs, sniffing in the corners, having a chat here and there, and asking apparently futile questions, often spending hours in rather shady bistros.”

Comic Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday—The Very Image of the Paris Detective

At another point, he writes: “People had a mania about asking him about his methods. Some of them even thought they could analyse them and he would look at them with bantering curiosity because they knew more about it than he, who usually improvised at the whim of his instinct.”

In The Patience of Maigret, everyone is stumped. In fact, the jewel crimes at the heart of them have been going on for over twenty years, but no one could figure out who was cutting the gemstones out of their settings in order to fence the loot. The answer comes at blinding speed in response to a comment made during a phone call to the former mayor of Douai. When that happens, Maigret corrals the guilty parties and ties everything together with giftwrap for the examining magistrates who will do the heavy lifting for the prosecution.

 

 

Refugees

Salvadoran Refugee and Daughter Drowned While Attempting to Swim the Rio Grande

The photograph above of the bodies of a Salvadoran refugee and his two-year-old daughter will be the iconic image of our president’s attempt to stem the tide of immigration from so-called “shithole countries” to the south. I have visited a number of these countries and found myself admiring the people I met.

Many of these refugees are Guatemalan Maya escaping the bad government that has dogged their country ever since 1954, when the United States deposed President Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in a coup d’état for daring to oppose the destructive policies of the United Fruit Company. I guess that made him a Communist in the eyes of the U.S. State Department under John Foster Dulles. Ever since 1954, Guatemala has been ruled mostly by rightist generals, some of whom, like the infamous Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García and José Efraín Ríos Montt went in for large-scale genocide of the indigenous population. Some 200,000 Maya men, women, and children lost their lives.

Jacobo Arbenz, Deposed President of Guatemala

Since 1996, the scale of the killings has abated, but not stopped. Under Jimmy Morales, Guatemala is not an entirely safe place unless one has renounced indigenous ways. That’s why many of the refugees from Central America are Maya from Guatemala.

I have also gone across the border into Honduras (to see the Maya ruins at Copán). If I thought Guatemala was a poor country, as soon as I crossed the border into Honduras, I saw that the economic situation was more dire. That, plus one of the country’s largest cities, San Pedro Sula, was ruled by criminal gangs and, for a while, was the murder capital of the world.

My concern is that the United States under Trump is slowly turning into a shithole country. If so, where will we go for aid? And will we be welcomed? Not likely.

 

Serendipity: Dealing with Misfortune in Greenland

Inuit Greenlander

The following paragraph comes from Lawrence Millman’s Last Places: A Journey in the North. I have always had a hankering to pay a visit to Greenland—and I might, as a side trip from Iceland. I cracked up as I read this:

One thing about Greenlanders: they tend to find misfortune amusing. I once saw a man return from Denmark in a wheelchair, and when his family met him, they slapped their knees and rolled in the snow, pointing and laughing at the old man (he laughed with them) stuck in this odd-looking chair of metal. In The Last Kings of Thule, my favorite book about Greenland, Jean Malaurie describes how the good people of Thule always used to mimic a lame man named Asarpannguaq trying to make love. Cruel, yes, but it’s cruelty that serves, or once served, a useful purpose: you’ve got to be tough in this vale of misfortune or you’ll exchange your breath for a pile of stones. There’s a saying that Danes beat their children but not their dogs, while Greenlanders beat their dogs but not their children. It’s probably true; not once have I seen seen a Greenlander strike a child. But he will ridicule that child unmercifully or perhaps give him a nickname like Usukitat (Little No-Good Penis) that will stay with him all his life. In Igateq, East Greenland, I once met a hunter named Itiktarniq (Liquid Dog Shit), who was as tough as nails.

 

 

An Outpost of Progress

The Leonis Adobe in Calabasas

Over the last several weeks, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old Spanish and Mexican adobes that were built before the American occupation in the late 1840s. Built in 1844 along the El Camino Réal that connected the Spanish missions of Alta California, the adobe became occupied in the 1850s or 1860s by Miguel Leonis, a 6’ 4” Basque from France who has been called the King of Calabasas. He lived with Espiritu Chujilla, who lived with him as wife. It turns out, however, he was never legally married.

That became obvious when Leonis died in an accident which involved him falling off and being run over by his wagon in 1889.  Although he left Espiritu $10,000 in his will—no trivial amount in those times—he left his millions to various of his European relatives. The will referred to her as his “faithful housekeeper,” though she had been introduced to guests as his wifeEspiritu fought the will in the courts for many years and won, but only after a fashion. She was plagued ever after by over a hundred other lawsuits.

Espiritu Chujilla

For some reason, it was common for Yankee and European pioneers to do their level best to cheat the native Spanish and Mexican population of their land and livelihood. It is said that the Leonis Adobe is haunted. The ghost appears to be Miguel’s. If so, he has a lot to answer for….

The Leonis Adobe Museum is perhaps the best organized and funded of the adobes we have visited to date. On the premises is not only the adobe itself, but a number of the original or rebuilt farm structures and outbuildings. The premises includes chickens, turkeys, longhorn cattle, goats, sheep, and horses, which visitors may feed with packets on sale at the museum. One enters by the oldest dwelling in the Hollywood area, the Plummer House, originally built around 1870, and inhabited by the family of Eugene Plummer, close friends of Miguel and Espiritu. The house was moved from Plummer Park is West Hollywood in 1983 after vandals attempted to burn it down.

Longhorn Cattle at the Leonis Adobe

In 1962, the Leonis Adobe was named Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #1 by the newsly formed Cultural Heritage Board. (The Plummer House was State Historical Monument #160.)