It Was a Very Slippery Celebration
My sixtieth birthday fell on January 13, 2005. My brother Dan decided to help me celebrate the date by flying up to Portland, Oregon, with me and taking me for a $100 shopping spree at Powell’s Books, which touts itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore.
We landed at Portland International Airport on my birthday and took a Portland Streetcar from PDX to our hotel, which was located in the center of town (I forget the name of it). Unfortunately, with our arrival there was a giant ice storm which crippled vehicular traffic and made walking on the sidewalk without crampons and ice axe quite iffy. We saw the cars swirling around in the streets, and we were lucky in not breaking any bones on the icy sidewalks.
Yet we managed to get around on foot … slowly.
Powell’s Books was fabulous. The last time I had visited a multi-story bookstore was Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London in 1977, on my way back from visiting Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I could have spent days—and a fortune in purchases—at Powell’s, but I managed to stay within a $100 limit, buying such books as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book about the Middle East by Freya Stark, and three or four other titles.
My only regret was that when my brother turned sixty, I was unable to return the favor in a timely way. I was working in an accounting firm, and April 5 (his birthday) comes during tax crunch time, when I had to work seven days a week to meet the April 15 deadline. Now that I am retired, I would like to find some way to return the favor, because what he did meant a lot to me.
Danzig, Birthplace of Gûnter Grass
He was born in a fairy tale Polish city in 1927 of German and Kashubian parents. As the Second World War got under way in September 1939, Gûnter Grass found himelf in the Waffen SS and fighting on the Russian front just as the Wehrmacht was beginning its final descent into the maelstrom. In 2006, Grass, famous for his novel The Tin Drum, wrote an autobiography covering the 1940s and 1950s called Peeling the Onion: A Memoir.
The first half of the book is brilliant. As a young German soldier trying to keep the Red Hordes out of Berlin, Grass was essentially told where to be and what to do. German soldiers who wandered the battlefield without written orders found themselves hanged in droves from tree branches, many of which the young Grass passed as he wandered separated from his unit. People around him kept dying, but he somehow got back to Germany with minor wounds and spent time in military hospitals before being released into the chaos the followed the war.
His mother and younger sister had been raped by Russian troops, but refused to ever talk about the experience. The young Grass knew he wanted to be an artist of some sort, but took several years before his thinking began to jell.
The First Volume of Grass’s Autobiography
Peeling the Onion loses its focus during the years that Grass tries to find out what he is to do with his life. It takes a while for him to find that his parents and sister are still alive, and he joins up with them.
I strongly recommend the first half of this book. The second half? Not so much. Uncertainty is not quite so winning a literary trait. There are some excellent moments, but for the most part, I could have done without them.
Another Monstrosity Going Up in West L.A.
I live just a couple hundred feet south of U.S. Route 66, the “Mother Road,” as it comes close to ending by the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In my neighborhood, it is called Santa Monica Boulevard, which joins with Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood and runs some ten miles from there to the Ocean. There is a mile-long stretch of Route 66 near me in which the old low-lying buildings are being replaced by high-rise apartment buildings mostly intended for filthy rich tenants.
There may be a few apartments in each building reserved for low-income tenants, but knowing the power of unscrupulous real-estate developers, most are not. And many of the units will be empty for years to come, especially as the coronavirus depression takes hold.
Martine and I cynically note the endless FOR LEASE signs on newish buildings. At the same time, there is a real shortage of housing for non-millionaires throughout the metropolitan area. Every month, it seems there are more tents with raggedy bums, more weather-beaten RVs, and more genuine homeless who have been turned out of their housing by greedy, unscrupulous landlords. The units in the building shown above will, no doubt, house only the well-to-do.
At the same time that multi-tenant units are springing up all over West L.A. (and other parts of the city), little attempt is being made to face the traffic problems that will inevitably ensue. Mayor Gil Garcetti thinks everyone will take the bus or rise the MetroRail trains; but I think that most of the people who can afford the new units would be afraid to take public transportation, as it brings them face to face with homeless turnstile-jumpers, and—oh horrors!—black people.
There will be a reckoning in the years to come—one that will topple the political ambitions of Garcetti and his associates who are altogether too cozy with the developers. And the developers? They will have moved on to cause problems elsewhere, as they always do.
The Los Angeles Central Library on West 5th Street
The Los Angeles Central Library is an impressive structure. In 1926 the original structure was designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in a combination ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival style. In 1986, there was an arson fire that destroyed some 400,000 volumes, or 20% of the library’s holdings—as well as causing damage to the structure. Fortunately, the library was rebuilt and restored to much of its original splendor. It was only three years ago that I started going to the library, only after the Expo rail line from Santa Monica to downtown LA was constructed.
Thanks to the coronavirus, however, I cannot go inside the library. But I can put books on hold and make an appointment to pick them up at the 5th Street entrance. This I did, showing up at 11:15 am and calling inside with my cell phone to give my name and library account number, whereupon a librarian came out with the books I ordered in a blue bag, accompanied by a complimentary LA Public Library deck of cards.
Unfortunately, one of the books I had put on hold, Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, was in the original French. I put a hold on the French edition by mistake. The book’s name is the same in English and French, so it was an easy mistake to make.
The big problem with going downtown during the plague is twofold:
- Finding a place to eat
- Finding a rest room
Thanks to one of the library cops (yes, they have their own police force), I found out that I could go across the street to the City National Plaza (formerly the Atlantic Richfield Plaza), eat at one of the few restaurants still open on the ground floor (Lemonade is pretty good), and get a free token to use the public restroom.
The Best Way to Beat the Heat: Iced Tea
Every morning, I make a full pot of tea in my little 1.5 liter metal Japanese teapot. Because it has a perforated insert into which I can spoon whole tea leaves without worrying about having to eat them as I drink the tea, I can dispense with tea bags altogether. I buy mostly Indian loose black teas (Darjeeling, Ceylon, Assam) by the pound. The general rule of thumb is that one pound (0.45 kilograms) brews some 240 cups of tea. Compare that with the Specialty Coffee Association’s estimate of 48 cups of coffee from one pound of beans.
In a heat wave such as we are now experiencing in Southern California—especially during the coronavirus quarantine—I become positively lizard-like. What keeps me from going reptile all the way is the iced tea I drink. As of 10 pm, there are only a few thimblefuls of tea left in my pot. While I was sitting in my library reading Marie NDiaye’s La Cheffe, I was cooled not only by the iced tea, but by the condensation from the glass sending icy droplets onto the hairs of my bare stomach (as I am not wearing a shirt while inside).
My Indian tea of choice lately has been the Ahmad of London brand, which is popular in the Indian and Iranian food stores in my part of town. At present, I am drinking their Darjeeling tea, which I find to be the best. It also happens to be the most expensive (600 grams for US$36).
I am particularly conscious of the heat because the apartment building in which I live was built in 1945, when insulation was not commonly used. That was before global warming. Now I feel as if I am living in one of those punishment hotboxes from Bridge on the River Kwai or Cool Hand Luke.
If you want to make your iced tea taste particularly good, add a splash of good dark rum, such as Myers’s Original Dark Rum from Jamaica. I also add the juice of a fresh lemon and some Splenda (as I am diabetic).
Deep Shade, Ocean Breezes, and Boats
Burton W. Chace Park in Marina Del Rey is no longer a secret. Many people have discovered that, even when the rest of Los Angeles is searingly hot, there is always a cool breeze blowing on the peninsula that sticks out into the Marina. So I took the #16 Santa Monica bus (to avoid the stiff parking fees) to Lincoln and Mindanao Way and walked the half mile from the bus stop to the park. On the way is a handy Trader Joe store where I buy a healthy picnic lunch to take with me.
While there, I read Kaouther Adimi’s delightful book about an Algerian Bookshop that also served as Albert Camus’s first publisher. In the sun, the temperature easily reached the 90s, but in the shade I was comfortable. Martine stayed home resting.
One of the Massive Shade Trees at the Park
The park is so excellent that I am surprised that Donald Trump has not tried to bulldoze it and turn it into a tasteless high rise hotel with gold plumbing fixtures.
Curiously, the predominant language of the park visitors is Russian. They seem to know how to enjoy themselves. Good!
At home, I prepared another vegetarian curry for myself made with potatoes, tomatoes, and peas with rice—and a combination of Serrano and Hatch chiles that challenged this chile-head. All the while, Martine, who is suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome looked on ruefully while I ate something that would have exploded her intestines. All she could eat was a banana and a can of Progresso Chicken and Wild Rice soup. She has been suffering with this condition for two weeks now. Tomorrow, I’ll drive her to see the doctor.
The Mystery and Sci-Fi Section
Since the beginning of quarantine, I had only been Downtown once. It wasn’t pleasant because I couldn’t find anywhere to eat, and unless I went to Union Station, there were no restrooms around. Today I decided to go again, mainly to return three books to the Central Library. Although they were not technically due until next month, I thought that as I had finished reading them, I might as well take them back.
Also, I put a hold on three more books which I could pick up at the front of the library once I had been e-mailed that they were available. That would be a big plus, even though I still miss sitting down in the literature section for a few hours reading.
Afterwards, I stopped at the Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring Streets. Last time I went, it had been closed due to the coronavirus. Now it was open, but they did one thing that I liked. Before the virus, the place was crawling with young pseudosophisticates who didn’t care about the books, but took hundreds of pictures with their smart phones to document their spavined lifestyles. Now one has to pay five dollars for admission, which is refunded from the price of books purchased.
I can just imagine it now: What? I have to buy books? Reading is so lame compared to the wonders of my smartphone.
It presented no obstacle to me: I bought five paperbacks. They included three Dave Robicheaux mysteries by James Lee Burke, André Gide’s If It Die, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool.
As soon as I receive notification that my books are being held for me at the Central Library, I’ll make another trip downtown. And I will likely drop in at the Last Bookstore.
We’re All in This Together, or Are We?
There is a nauseating saccharine imagine coming down to us from corporate America of everyday heroes in the struggle against coronavirus. The word “hero” is being bandied about … a lot! But when you come to think about it, it doesn’t cost much to employ people in hazardous work without making much of an effort to guarantee their safety. You see, if you call them heroes, you open up the possibility that many of them can make the ultimate sacrifice and become martyrs. And we know that martyrs are heroes that can no longer fight back. Very safe from a corporate standpoint.
I have become very suspicious of this type of unanimity from U.S. corporations. But it’s not just an American trait: During the Chernobyl disaster, dozens of Soviet citizens were fighting toxic radioactivity with nothing more protective than brooms and shovels. Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich wrote a book of interviews with people involved in the disaster. It was entitled Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. I am not trying to imply that the coronavirus is like a nuclear accident, but it certainly shared a similar awfulness and magnitude.
SNL Takes on Three Mile Island
While on the subject of nuclear accidents, I am reminded of a Saturday Night Live sketch after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The title of the skit was “The Pepsi Syndrome.” The reaction of the bigwigs was to send Garrett Morris dressed as a maid with a broom to clean up the radioactivity.
It is in the nature of power to make the innocent pay the price. The whole hero thing is nothing more than soft soap, and during this epidemic, we certainly have had enough of soft soap, haven’t we?
Why Is There So Much Construction Going On in L.A.?
What with the plague raging in the streets, I continue to be surprised how much commercial and residential construction is going on. It is as if, when the coronavirus finally goes away (if it ever really goes away), there will be people to fill those new offices, apartments, and condominiums for whatever top dollar figure the owners intend to charge. There will be talk of the city insisting on affordable units, but we all know that no one wants to build affordable units. My fearless prediction is that there will be a large number of vacancies and —given that the homeless population is growing by leaps and bounds—there will be a big problem with squatters.
Mayor Gil Garcetti of Los Angeles is being either naive, or is selling out to real-estate interests—a time-honored Southern California practice. In West Los Angeles, I see scores of new buildings going up, side by side with scores of old buildings that have been red-tagged and scheduled for the wrecking ball, and, in the meantime, occupied by bums.
Another interesting point: I do not see any corresponding effort to accommodate the increased traffic flow that will result if the new building space is occupied. My feeling is that the mayor feels that the construction of the Expo Light Rail Line will solve all problems. I don’t mind taking public transportation, but I am very clearly in the minority. Most people I know think that terrible things happen on those trains. Even Martine is hesitant to ride them. Me, I have no problems.
Also, Garcetti thinks that the thousands of homeless will be delighted with the housing the city will supposedly furnish for them (by reconverting old motels, hotels, etc.). But most of the homeless are not interested in following any rules such as not drinking, taking drugs, or smearing shit all over the walls.
Interesting times lie ahead.
Chewy the Bulldog at the Automobile Driving Museum
The coronavirus outbreak has affected me mostly in two ways:
- There has been no place to go. We could take walks to nowhere, of course, but that palls quickly.
- We haven’t been able to see our friends in person.
In the last two weeks or so, some destinations have become available. This weekend, we availed ourselves of two of them. Yesterday, we went to the Cruise-In show at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo. Martine has become particularly enamored of the museum, so much so that she donated $300.00 to them to help them out of the plaguey times.
There, we met the bulldog Chewy (picture above), who showed himself to be a real cool customer. Also, my favorite caterer, the Taco Taxi, was there with their super-great Mexican street tacos.
Neon Signs from the SFV Yesteryear
Today we showed up at the Valley Relics Museum in Lake Balboa to see their displays of pop culture hearkening back to the glory days of the San Fernando Valley back in the 1960s and 1970s. Most impressive was a large warehouse (above) filled with neon and other signs of businesses that are no longer. Back around 1970, I used to go to Pioneer Take-Out on Westwood Boulevard near Pico for a bucket of their chicken livers. That’s not an item that can be found at most chicken restaurants.
We had visited the museum once before, but didn’t enjoy it as much because it isn’t air conditioned, and in the Valley the heat can be formidable. Fortunately, today was on the cool side; and we were comfortable.
Manny, Moe and Jack from the Pep Boys
We ended by driving to a late lunch at Lancers Restaurant in Burbank. It’s one of Martine’s favorite sources of American coffee shoppe chow.