“Nothing Is Easy”

Bengals QB Joe Burrow Grimaces in Pain

I am not known as a big football fan, but nonetheless I decided to watch today’s Superbowl LVI between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams. After all, the game was being held in L.A. and featured the home team.

While it was nice that the Rams won, I was very conscious of the physical pain that is an inevitable part of the game. In the Second Quarter, Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr had a non-contact misstep which injured his left knee and sidelined him for the rest of the game—leading to additional defensive coverage on Cooper Kupp that made things rough on QB Matthew Stafford until the fourth quarter.

What particularly caught my eye was the sacking of Bengals QB Joe Burrow by Rams linebacker Von Miller early in the Fourth Quarter (above). For several seconds, Burrow lay on the field with his face contorted in pain. Fortunately for his team, he was able to recover, though I felt there will be something to pay for that takedown.

There was a lot of meaningless commentary by all the sports pundits, but only once did the truth come out when one of them said, “Nothing is easy.” No truer words were ever spoken in sport.

The Geography of Los Angeles

One thing about Los Angeles is its distinctive geography, much celebrated in literature and film. You can always tell when some New Yorker just deplaned at LAX and started spouting inanities that displayed an ignorance of this geography. That’s what happened when I read Megan Abbott’s neo-noir thriller Die a Little. There were a few names like “Pico Boulevard” (which everyone here just calls Pico), the giant doughnut at Randy’s in Inglewood, even several restaurant names like the Apple Pan and Ciro’s—but they just didn’t hold together. It’s as if she was using a map and a guidebook and just pasting the places together.

Take Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) with its tone-deaf attacks on L.A.

After all, it’s been more than 35 years since Alvy Singer hilariously dissed the city in “Annie Hall,” saying that people here “don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into television shows” and that “the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”

I can only hope he enjoyed the mashed yeast he ordered on the Sunset Strip.

When you read Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, you get a feeling for the crumbling sandstone of the coastal mountains, the transverse mountain ranges running west to east, the vast distances going from one point to another, as well as the odd architectural vibe of the place. When I first came out here in 1966, I was confused by all the stucco and chicken wire architecture, until I experienced my first real earthquake in 1971.

You can always tell when an east coast writer is slumming in Southern California. It doesn’t come across as real.

Down Two Muses

Christmas 2021 was going to see Los Angeles minus two of her muses. We just lost Joan Didion (above) to Parkinson’s disease; and six days ago, we lost Eve Babitz (photo below) to Huntington’s disease. Didion and Babitz were, to my mind, the leading writers about life in Southern California over the last half century or so.

I remember when I was first introduced to Didion by my friend Stephanie Hanna, who recommended back around 1970 that I read her great collection of essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Since then, I have read at least eight other volumes of her fiction and nonfiction.

Eve Babitz was a more recent discovery, thanks mainly to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), which brought out most of her work in the last few years. I consider Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company to be among the best works written about life in Southern California.

Joan Didion died in her 80s, and Eve Babitz at the age of 78. That makes me feel vulnerable, as I am a male who is about to reach his 77th year next month. In many ways, my acceptance of women as a source of outstanding literature about the local scene is due to these two powerful figures.

Now, as I look around me, who is there to take their places? No one that I can recognize at this point. I am just going to have to start looking….

The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles

I am completely entranced by the poetry of Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Indian who is also Poet Laureate of the United States. I found the following poem in her collection A Map to the Next World. By the way, Okmulgee is the Oklahoma city that is the center of the Muscogee nation.

The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles

There are strangers above me, below me and all around me and we are all strange in this place of recent invention
This city named for angels appears naked and stripped of anything resembling the shaking of turtle shells, the songs of human voices on a summer night outside Okmulgee.
Yet, it’s perpetually summer here, and beautiful. The shimmer of gods is easier to perceive at sunrise or dusk
when those who remember us here in the illusion of the marketplace
turn toward the changing of the sun and say our names.
We matter to somebody,
We must matter to the strange god who imagines us as we revolve together in the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way,
We can’t easily see that starry road from the perspective of the crossing of boulevards, can’t hear it in the whine of civilization or taste the minerals of planets in hamburgers.
But we can buy a map here of the stars’ homes, dial a tone for dangerous love, choose from several brands of water or a hiss of oxygen for gentle rejuvenation.
Everyone knows you can’t buy love but you can still sell your soul for less than a song to a stranger who will sell it to someone else for a profit
until you’re owned by a company of strangers
in the city of the strange and getting stranger,
I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow
who was never good at singing or much of anything
but finding gold in the trash of humans.
So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city?
Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet.
But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.

Baby Steps

Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets

Today I took the train in to Downtown Los Angeles (or DTLA, as it is also known) to return some library books and pick up the next batch. For the first time in almost a year and a quarter, I was able to enter the library, hand my returns to a human being, and pick up the next batch. The last time, I had to call on my cell phone and have a librarian come out with the bagged books I had put on hold.

Now the ground floor of the library is open. This includes the book check-in and check-out and the international languages department—oh, and the restrooms. For any other books, I still have to put them on hold using the library’s website.

With my books in hand, I took the Dash Bus B to Chinatown and looked for a promising Chinese restaurant that was open to indoor dining. My old standby, the Hong Kong Barbecue, was still take-out only; but I found a good option in the Hop Woo Chinese Seafood Restaurant, just a few doors down, where I had rock cod in black bean sauce.

On the way back to Union Station, I bought my usual small bag of limes from an elderly woman (only $1 for about eight limes). As the weather grows warmer, I am addicted to fresh-squeezed lime juice with a slight splash of tequila.

I still had to wear a face mask on the train and the bus, resulting in fogged-up glasses, but I am encouraged that sometime soon we will be able to dispense with them. My second Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination was two months ago, so I am hopeful that the worst is past.

Southeast

This Is the Part of Los Angeles County That Most People Know

Although I have lived in the Los Angeles area for over half a century, there are parts that are almost totally unfamiliar to me. Today, I had a chance to visit one of them as I drove Martine to a ophthalmologist appointment in Lakewood, which is a place I have whizzed past on the freeway, but never stopped to visit.

The part of LA that is most unfamiliar to me are the so-called “Gateway Cities” in the southeastern part of the county. I am somewhat familiar with Long Beach, which I regard as part of the tierra cognita of my experience.

The City of Los Angeles occupies much of the center of the county. Then there is a narrow corridor of the city that stretches down to San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles. To the right of that corridor are a number of independent cities that include such names as Bell, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Cudahy, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, Lakewood, Lynwood, Maywood, and presumably other -woods.

Here is a map of the Gateway Cities:

Los Angeles’s “Gateway Cities”

When you remove the dark blue of Long Beach, you are left with a bunch of small, tightly squeezed together communities that for all intents and purposes have little of interest for people visiting Southern California. There are a couple of colleges, no major museums, only one ethnic community (the Indian and Pakistani enclave along Pioneer Avenue in Artesia), and a couple of historical places, mostly in Whittier. Other than Long Beach, the only community people outside of California are likely to have heard of is Compton, mostly as a high-crime place to avoid.

Martine is due for another appointment in Lakewood in a couple of weeks, so I should probably learn a little more about this apparent black hole in the city where I dwell.

And where do I live? If you look at the top map for Santa Monica slightly to the left of center, look for the number oval 2, which indicates Santa Monica Boulevard. I live right under that oval 2.

Eve Babitz’s L.A.

The Sunset Strip, Where L.A. Came to a Head

Whenever I read Eve Babitz, I think of L.A. the way it was when I first came here from Cleveland by train at the tail end of 1966. Being a stuck-up Easterner and a graduate of an Ivy League college, I naturally thought there was something fundamentally wrong about the West Coast. In time (lots of time) I grew even to love it.

I just finished reading Eve Babitz’s novel L.A. Woman, which brought memories rushing into my brain:

And I was an L.A. woman. In fact, looking back on those one-night stands, I must have been crazy. Yet there were thousands of girls living between Sunset and Santa Monica in between La Brea and La Cienega who painted the town red like me—and who got away with it too.

When I arrived, Eve was hanging out with Jim Morrison of the Doors, whom she just refers to as Jim in the novel. Every weekend when the weather permitted, thousands of Teeny-Boppers rioted on the Sunset Strip. The war in Viet Nam was entering a new and uglier phase, and I thought that nowhere else were there women quite so beautiful as the ones I saw on the street every day.

Eve Babitz When She Was Younger

Eve Babitz was, to put it mildly, a righteous babe. What set her apart from all the others was that she had a brain and was able to describe her wild life without prejudice.

If you want to see Los Angeles from a different perspective, I recommend these books of hers as an excellent place to start:

  • Eve’s Hollywood (1974)
  • Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977)
  • Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time (1979)
  • L.A. Woman (1982)
  • Black Swans: Stories (1993)

I have read all five of the above and look forward to reading her recently published collection of essays entitled I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz (2019).

Allergy

What It Looks Like When You Don’t Cover Up a Sneeze

When I was a child, I was an allergic mess. I would both look forward to and dread visits to my uncle and aunt, because they not only had a dog, but cats as well. My eyes would start to itch and swell up, I would sneeze, and I would constantly blow my nose into one of the two handkerchiefs I always had on my person. I even saw an allergist named Myron Weitz once a week for the better part of a year. He performed numerous scratch tests on me, indicating that I was allergic to tomatoes, oatmeal, tobacco, and a few other things. Then I would get a shot each week which was supposed to make me immune to allergens. It never did.

In the end, I think I was allergic to Cleveland. Once I moved to Southern California after graduating from college, my allergies lessened—especially after I learned to stay far away from cats. There was a time in the 1970s when I developed asthma and had to take a horrible medication called Tedral which kept me awake all hours.

Now I come down with allergic reactions for only a few days each year. Unfortunately, this is one of those times. Something is in bloom that disagrees with me. My nose is stuffed up, I’m sneezing, and my eyes feel as if I had sandpapered them. It could be that the winds are blowing something in from the desert. I just don’t know.

I checked the pollen reports, and supposedly there currently is no major threat. Yeah, but tell my nose and eyes that!

Library-To-Go

The Flower Street Entrance to the Los Angeles Central Library

The Central Library still looks like this, though most of the buildings around it have changed. What is more, after a devastating 1986 fire, the building was expanded on the Grand Avenue side and remodeled. Fortunately, the murals on the second floor rotunda were saved, leaving some of the old library highlights still intact.

Because of the coronavirus lockdown, patrons of the library may not enter the building. If I want access to the library’s holdings, however, I can access the Library-To-Go service. It involves four steps:

  • Select the books I want to read using the library’s website
  • Place a hold on those books and check the status every few days
  • When the books are marked as being available, use the library website to make an appointment for pickup
  • Show up at the approximate appointment time at the 5th street entrance, phone the librarians inside, and wait until they deliver the books to you in a brown paper bag

I am currently set to go downtown on Thursday morning to pick up four books: Jamyang Khyentse’s What Makes You NOT a Buddhist; Ma Jian’s Red Dust: A Path Through China; Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: A Novel; and Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov. As I am still working on my Januarius Project. this month I am reading only books by authors I have not previously read.

Thanks to the library’s vast holdings, I can easily reserve books that are out of print and difficult to find.

Masque of the Red Death

Death Is Stalking the Land in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death

I cannot help but feel that Covid-19 is inching ever closer. The son of one of my friends probably has it; and all the holiday socializing that has been going on is leading to a crisis in Los Angeles. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times had a headline in which paramedics can refuse to pick up a patient if he or she appears to be near death in their judgment. Emergency rooms and intensive care units are packed to overflowing such that local hospitals are casting about for hallways, chapels, and other rooms in which to deposit patients. And hospital morgues are overflowing with the dead.

Tomorrow, I was planning to ride the train downtown to return some library books. With the coronavirus news becoming worse day by day, I will wait two or three weeks until the maskless fools who have been socializing during the Christmas and New Years holidays come down with the virus and isolate themselves.

Because of their behavior during this outbreak, I am becoming reluctant to associate with young people in any capacity. I have numerous preexisting conditions that make me a prime target for the Red Death. Thankfully, all the young people in my family live out of town.

Instead of going downtown, I’ll take a walk to Bay City Imports in Santa Monica to get ingredients for a Calabrian Chile Pasta dish that looks interesting. As long as this outbreak lasts, I will be intent on working on my cooking skills. I know I’ll never catch up to my brother in this regard, so I’ll just have to reconcile myself with accepting second place in a family of two.