One Night in Santa Monica

The Apartment Building at 1323 11th Street

During most of the 1970s, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment on 11th Street in Santa Monica. I was on the second floor, with the bottom floor being a carport. On the way up the back stairs to my apartment (#10), I had to pass #8 and #9. I am giving you this detail so that you will be able to better see what happened to me on night around 1978.

I was returning from Von’s Supermarket with a bag of groceries. As I walked down the alley, I saw two young Armenian men crouching behind a car with a trailer loaded with furniture. They motioned for me to take cover. I surmised that they were moving into one of the apartments (the building owner was Armenian), but I had no desire to wait for man indeterminate time in the dark, cold alley. So I continued on.

As I turned to mount the stairs, I saw my alcoholic white trash neighbor Merle standing at the top of the stairs with a rifle. I greeted him: “Hi, Merle. How’s it going?” He complained that those damned kids who were moving in made too much noise and giving him a headache. He added: “You’ve always been a good neighbor to me, Jim.” So he moved to one side and let me pass.

As I turned my back to him to go to my front door, I was conscious that I had just done something irrecoverably stupid and that I might be shot in the back. I turned the key, entered my apartment, and fell on the floor, breathing heavily.

Within minutes, the Santa Monica Police arrived and arrested Merle. I never saw him again. Shortly thereafter, his wife Ursula moved out. One neighbor had told me that once, when he knocked on the door of #8, Ursula answered the door stark naked. I, however, was deprived of that experience.

Actually, except for that one incident, Merle and I got along all right.

J M W Turner’s Castle in Wales

“Conway Castle, North Wales” as Painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1798)

Back in 1976, I visited Britain after making some money selling a script idea. One of the places I stayed was Betws-y-Coed, from which I could visit several beauty spots in North Wales. One of them was Conwy [sic] Castle. I was elated to see at the Getty Center J M W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, which is what the English called it.

The Getty website describes the painting:

On a dramatic, rocky area of the northern coast of Wales looms the late medieval Conway Castle. It towers over a stormy bay while fisherman struggle to pull their boats ashore. Caught in this uproaring of the sea, the tiny figures of fishermen in their boat convey a sense of humans’ barely significant place in the order of the universe.

The Welsh landscape exerted a strong hold on Joseph Mallord William Turner, and he made several sketching trips there in the 1790s. In this early Romantic painting, Turner represented the dramatic effects of natural light, allowing sunshine breaking through the clouds to illuminate the castle and the coast beyond.

The castle was built by Edward I—the evil king in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart played by Patrick McGoohan—between 1283 and 1287. It was one of a number of fortifications he built in his effort to subdue the Welsh. Here’s what it looks like today:

Conwy Castle Today

A Civilized Man

MƒEXICO D.F. 19 NOVIEMBRE2007.-El escritor Sergio Pitol, presento su nueva obra literaria que lleva como titulo “Trilog’a de la Memor’a” esto en la Casa del Refugio. FOTO: GUILLERMO PEREA/CUARTOSCURO.COM

Mexican author Sergio Pitol Deméneghi (1933-2018) was a man of the world. As a writer and diplomat, he traveled the world and wrote some fascinating books that were a curious mélange of literature, autobiography, and travel. The following is taken from his The Art of Flight.

[Italian philosopher] Norberto Bobbio offers a definition of the “civilized” man that embodies the concept of tolerance as daily action, a working moral exercise: The civilized man “lets others be themselves irrespective of whether these individuals may be arrogant, haughty, or domineering. They do not engage with others intending to compete, harass, and ultimately prevail. They refrain from exercising the spirit of contest, competition, or rivalry, and therefore also of winning. In life’s struggle [civilized men] are perpetual losers. […] This is because in this kind of world there are no contests for primacy, no struggles for power, and no competitions for wealth. In short, here the very conditions that enable the division of individuals into winners and losers do not exist.“ There is something enormous in those words. When I observe the deterioration of Mexican life, I think that only an act of reflection, of critique, and of tolerance could provide an exit from the situation. But conceiving of tolerance as it is imagined in Bobbio’s text implies a titanic effort. I begin to think about the hubris, arrogance, and corruption of some acquaintances, and I become angry, I begin to list their attitudes that most irritate me, I discover the magnitude of contempt they inspire in me, and eventually I must recognize how far I am from being a civilized man.

My Safe Spaces

Day of the Dead Celebration in the San Fernando Valley

Ever since my first visit to Mexico in 1975, I no longer felt myself superior to Mexican-Americans. It didn’t take long before I felt that way about African-Americans and Asian-Americans. My safe space was becoming larger with each year. Now when I encounter prejudiced white people, I don’t even regard myself as being white. In fact, I’ve always felt particularly safe thinking of myself as a Hungarian.

That is a bit of a joke, really, as I am only 25% Hungarian. I am also 25% Slovak, 25% Czech, and 25% Bavarian German. The only difference is that Hungarian was my first language, and I can still think in Hungarian.

At the Los Angeles Times Book Festival this past weekend, I enjoyed the work of three black poets (Roger Reeves, Courtney Faye Taylor, and D. Manuel II) and one Hispanic poet (Brenda Cárdenas). Oh, and don’t forget Eloise Klein Healy, a white poet from El Paso, Texas, whose courage impressed me so much (see yesterday’s post).

I was presented with multiple templates of Los Angeles, all of which I accepted—if not exactly as my own, still as plausible worlds understandable to me. Probably the scariest Los Angeles was that of Eloise Klein Healy, because she fought successfully against the horrors of encephalitis and aphasia and recovered her verbal skills as a poet.

My reaction to the paranoia of white supremacists like Tucker Carlson is to regard them as broken people who are unable to join in the incredible richness of other ethnicities.

LA Times Poets: Eloise Klein Healy

Former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Eloise Klein Healy

As I mentioned in my previous post, what I enjoyed most at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival were the poetry readings at the Poetry Stage sponsored by Small World Books of Venice. One poet that impressed me for her sheer cojones was the 80-year-old Eloise Klein Healy who clawed her way back from aphasia. Let the introduction to her poetry collection Another Phase tell the story:

You cannot understand what you hear or read. You cannot speak or write and be understood. Your use of language has been lost. You speak and write words in a nonsensical manner. You hear what people say, but it makes no sense.

Her post-aphasia collection entitled Another Phase consists of haiku-like five-line poems that discuss her triumph. Below is one of them, entitled “Another Phase,” which lends its title to the collection:

Another Phase

It’s hard for me to read the L.A. Times.
I want to relearn, to refine part of me.
How did my brain twist?
How did the whack of it phase me?
Every page. Every word blank.

The subject of her rehab in the world of poetry is also covered in a poem entitled “Problem”:


When first I wrote a poem,
I couldn't change anything.
Didn't plan to edit or write another.
“Brain fry” was my reality time.
Step two wasn't there yet.

What I learned from listening to Healy read her poetry and then reading the poems in Another Phase was the woman’s courage and persistence in the face of calamity. She is still a little unsteady on her pins, but I find her to be an inspiration to me. And that’s not something I say about a lot of people.

The LA Times Book Festival

Book Dealers at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Book Festival

I have always loved attending the Los Angeles Times Book Festival at the University of Southern California (USC). Last year, Martine and I showed up; but I wasn’t feeling well, so we didn’t stick around for long. This year, I feel fine; and I intend to attend both days of the festival. Today was uncomfortably warm. Fortunately, the morning was comfortable. Around two in the afternoon, I took the E-Line back to West L.A.

As in previous festivals, I was most interested in the poetry readings, which are sponsored by Small World Books on the Venice Boardwalk. I listened to several readings, and after lunch I dropped in at the Kurt Vonnegut Library’s booth. (Kurt and I go way back, at least half a century since I first read Slaughterhouse Five.)

By the afternoon, the festival was starting to get too crowded. Morning is definitely the best time to attend. I hope to write several posts in the coming week describing my impressions.

“The Echo Elf Answers”

Photo by Ed Weinman

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is best known for his novels. Although I admire them as much as anybody, I now like his poetry even more. His subjects seem to be on the somber side, but I love their simplicity and rugged construction, such as this one:

The Echo Elf Answers

How much shall I love her?
For life, or not long?
“Not long.”

Alas! When forget her?
In years, or by June?
“By June.”

And whom woo I after?
No one, or a throng?
“A throng.”

Of these shall I wed one
Long hence, or quite soon?
“Quite soon.”

And which will my bride be?
The right or the wrong?
“The wrong.”

And my remedy – what kind?
Wealth-wove, or earth-hewn?

Zero Tolerance Policy

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Downtown Los Angeles

Martine likes to spend a day in downtown L.A. once a week. While there, she spends some time around the Twin Towers Correctional Facility operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It holds more than 2,000 inmates. Crumpled up outside the jail are interesting sheets of paper which give a lurid picture of life in stir.

Today, Martine handed me an information sheet entitled “Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Comprehensive Inmate Education.” It and other informative pieces of paper are tossed away by released inmates. At the top of the sheet is the usual administrative huffing and puffing by the Sheriff’s Department (which refers to itself as the LASD):

LASD maintains a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY for sexual harassment or sexual abuse of all inmates in its custody.

This means you have the right to be free from sexual harassment and sexual abuse by anyone, including staff, volunteers, contractors, medical and mental health staff, and other inmates, while in LASD’s custody.

You have the right to report if you have been sexually abused/sexually harassed, or if you know of someone else who has been or is being sexually abused/sexually harassed. No one deserves to be sexually abused/sexually harassed.

You have the right to report if you have a suspicion or know of threats that you or someone else will be sexually abused/sexually harassed.

Of course, if you have a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY, it pretty much means that it is probably widespread across the institution. It is typical that the prison administrators will wish the problem away by burying it in reams of paperwork, of which this Inmate Education sheet is an example. It gives detailed information on whom to contact and how. Also included are the following tips on how to protect yourself from being victimized:

  • Stay away from gambling or trading goods with other inmates.
  • Do not use drugs or alcohol [about which there is another ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY]. Being intoxicated puts you at higher risk for sexual abuse.
  • Do not accept gifts or offers of protection from other inmates.
  • Keep this information sheet with you for future reference.
  • There are PREA posters in each housing unit that provide this information.
  • You will also see a video about PREA in your housing unit that is played on a regular basis.
  • PREA is also discussed during town hall meetings with staff.

Nowhere is the point made that if you stay out of prison, you are more likely not to be raped, abused, or harassed.

Traffic Island Paradise

The Traffic Island at the Corner of Ohio Avenue and Santa Monica Blvd

You have not heard me say many good things about the legions of homeless that live in the streets of Los Angeles. Today, I will make an exception. Two blocks east of me is a little traffic island where Ohio Avenue intersects at an angle with Santa Monica Blvd.

The City of Los Angeles does not get the credit for digging up the earth of the island and planting it with succulents and other water-saving plants. The man responsible is a homeless man who lives in a tent to the left of the traffic island. Martine and I have seen him at work planting and weeding.

It is more often the case that the homeless who live in tents in West Los Angeles are known for accumulations of garbage, vandalism, panhandling, and getting into fights with other homeless in the wee hours of the morning.

I have not spoken to the man who created this little garden, but I wish him well. May he find a home where his talent at gardening will be more appreciated. I also hope that some idiotic city administrator does not decide to dig up the garden and replace it with something more boring.

Pink Hubris

Sophia Loren Giving a Busty Jayne Mansfield Serious Side-Eye

Jayne Mansfield was one of the sex queens of Hollywood, along with Marilyn Monroe. She looked even more overtly sexy than Marilyn, and she ended sadly, even as Marilyn did. Although it is not true that she was decapitated in a 1967 New Orleans auto accident, all manner of stories abounded regarding her life. Apparently both John and Robert Kennedy enjoyed her favors. She bared her all in a 1955 issue of Playboy. Several times when she was appearing in public, her top flew off, exposing her ample breasts to the waiting paparazzi.

I just finished reading a zine by David Hankins entitled “Pink Palace” about the house she lived in with her second husband, Hungarian-born body-builder Mickey Hargitay between 1957 and 1964. Martine found it on one of her walks and became absorbed in reading it. The author had fallen in love with Hargitay and Mansfield’s pink house on Sunset Boulevard and lovingly described its heart-shaped pool, shag-carpeted bathroom, its 700-pound chandelier, its many fireplaces, and the bits of quartz mixed with the pink paint to make it sparkle in the sunlight. There was even a fountain that spritzed pink Champagne.

Jayne in Her Heart-Shaped Tub (Note the Pink Shag Carpeting)

In addition to the grandiloquent fixtures of the house, Jayne and Mickey had a private zoo on the premises, which included rabbits, goats, monkeys, ocelots, a burro, an elephant, a water buffalo, as well as numerous dogs and cats. I was reminded of the Charles Foster Kane character in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane who also had a zoo on the premises of Xanadu. He didn’t end well either.

All this is leading up in my mind to a Chinese expression. When the Chinese do not want to tempt fate by flaunting their prosperity, they say, “Bad rice! Bad rice!” There is something about a too-lavish lifestyle that makes you fear thunderbolts from the angry gods.

I am by no means a famous person, nor want to be. While it would seem nice to win loads of money in the lottery, I would be afraid of appearing to live too large. And no one who sees me as I am would think me a fashion plate—nor would they if I had the money to be one in fact. I’ve read too many ancient Greek tragedies not to be aware of the Erinyes, also known as the Furies and the Eumenides. Thank you, but I prefer to live small.

Bad rice, indeed!