Letter From LA: Gods and Monsters

Posted on November 11, 2022
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Swaying palm trees, cool evening breezes, night-blooming jasmine, ruby red and purple bougainvillea, golden sun at twilight: these are some of the cliches that describe Los Angeles — and they’re true. But here’s another version of LA’s reality, from the famous French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard: “There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks of the clouds. Only Hieronymus Bosch’s hell can match this inferno effect. The muted fluorescent of all the diagonals: Wilshire, Lincoln, Sunset, Santa Monica. Already, flying over San Fernando Valley, you come upon the horizontal infinite in every direction. But, once you are beyond the mountain, a city ten times larger hits you. You will never have encountered anything that stretches as far as this before. Even the sea cannot match it, since it is not divided up geometrically … Mulholland Drive by night is an extraterrestrials vantage point on earth, or conversely, an earth dweller’s vantage point on the galactic metropolis” (from America, 1989).  LA is unique, yes. But in one respect, LA is still just like every other major American city — riddled with corruption. LA’s past has had its share of robber barons and cheats and thieves and politicians on the take — from the Huntingtons and Chandlers and Dohenys through William Mulholland and Mark Taper. LA’s past has been riddled with police and city council corruption — just pick up a copy of “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” by John Buntin for a litany of LA scandals.

But lately it seems that the sewage is bubbling more often than not to the surface.  Former LA City Council member Mitch Englander was sentenced to federal prison last year for obstructing a corruption probe, former Council member José Huizar was indicted in 2020 on bribery and other federal charges for allegedly favoring developers, former Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas stepped aside after being charged with facilitating public contracts to the University of Southern California in exchange for favors (Marilyn Louise Flynn, the former dean of the USC School of Social work, was implicated in the bribery scandal; the 83-year-old was sentenced to a $100,000 fine and 10 years of house arrest. Ms. Flynn was the stepgrandmother to Tess, my daughter Lizzie’s best friend during her teenage years).

USC has been a hotbed of scandals: there was an FBI sting of a basketball coach, sexual abuse allegations by former patients of a campus gynecologist who they say sexually abused them (USC agreed to pay more than $850 million to settle), cover-ups of on-campus rapes, and a blatant influence-peddling scheme around college admissions in which some Hollywood stars and elites bribed their kids’ way into the school. USC’s rival across the city has also come in for its share of scandals, chief among them the indictment of a former UCLA campus gynecologist for sexually abusing female patients; a Los Angeles jury found Dr. James Heaps guilty in a criminal case that came after the university system made nearly $700 million in lawsuit payouts.

And Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has come under intense scrutiny for blocking an investigation into excessive violence by deputies against inmates, and for his denial that violent Deputy Gangs permeate the Sheriff’s Department.

The latest: three LA City Council members and the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor were caught on tape last year discussing ways to consolidate power in Los Angeles at the expense of Black leadership; during the conversation anti-Semitic, anti-Black and anti-Armenian remarks were made. When the tape was leaked last month, City Council President Nury Martinez, who disparaged a white colleague’s adopted 2-year-old Black son, stepped down, as did Ron Herrera, president of the labor organization. The two other council members, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, have yet to resign, despite a public outcry, and there’s no way that the men can be kicked off the city council short of a voter recall. Cedillo will term out this December, but de León has two years left on his term, which will net him about $568,000 in combined salary and pension. What a rat.

Speaking of vermin, Los Angeles has been named the third “rattiest” city in the country (it was second last year). Exterminator company Orkin released its annual list of the most mice-and-rat invested cities last Wednesday; Chicago tops the list followed by New York, LA, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in the top five. The survey covers September 1, 2021 to August 31, 2022. According to Orkin: “Each fall, mice and other rodents invade an estimated 21 million homes in the United States. They typically enter homes between October and February looking for food, water and shelter from the cold. And unique to previous years, with the influx of outdoor dining structures brought on by the pandemic, rodents have found the perfect place to dine, live and multiply … with some displaying more aggressive behavior than in the past.” When I lived in Beverly Hills in the 1990s and 2000s, that wealthy city had a terrible rat problem. As far back as 1999, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Once concentrated in fields and crowded urban areas, the reviled rodents have started to invade some of the best addresses in America … How did rats wind up scampering into the lap of luxury? With urban rodents reproducing at epidemic rates after two consecutive mild winters, overcrowding has induced them to trek, street by street, to suburban settings … the suburbs are easy street: lavish leftovers in flimsy plastic bags, high-end pet chow, birdfeeders everywhere.” Beverly Hills still has a major rat problem and though not enough to make Orkin’s top-50 list, it still jangles the nerves of the city’s affluent residents; according to WickedLocal website, “Beverly City Councilor Stacy Ames said she has received more calls and emails related to the rodent problem than any other issue while she’s been in office.”

I hang out a lot near the Hollywood Bowl, walking a friend’s dog, and I see many interesting things. There’s a lot of cruising and speeding along Highland Avenue past the Bowl — it’s a long stretch from Franklin leading up to the Hollywood Freeway (101) and I guess some young men of a certain adolescent mentality love to rev their engines and “hot-rod it” up the street with mufflers that make earthquake-like rumbling sounds (hey, wait, didn’t I do this when I was a teenager?). There’s also a lot of motorcycle gangs that tool up the street (why don’t these bikes have mufflers these days?), followed by 18-wheelers, garbage trucks and buses. Lots of noise. There’s also a lot of homeless people walking up and down the street — only a couple of blocks away there’s a gigantic homeless encampment lining both sides of Cahuenga Blvd. under the 101 overpass, as well as in a park area above the Hollywood Heritage Museum (the original Lasky-DeMille Barn that served as one of the first Hollywood studios in the 1910s), which sits in the middle of the Hollywood Bowl parking lot. Some of them come down the hills like coyotes, scavenging for food and recyclables in the neighborhood trash cans. But the weirdest thing I saw recently was an older gentleman pulling into the Hollywood Bowl parking lot one morning. His car was a late-model BMW X7 (probably a 2021 or 2022 since the California license plate began with a “9”) with a sticker price that starts at $73,000. With long gray hair flopping out from under a baseball cap, the man opened the rear car gate, pulled out a personal shopping cart and walked over to a line of trash cans. He rummaged through the trash, pulled out some bottles and cans, then began walking up into the Whitley Hills (a wealthy residential area adjacent to the Bowl), checking out the garbage cans as he went. I can only surmise one of two things: He just lost his job and needed the cash he could make from collecting recyclable bottles and cans – or – the guy has figured out how to make enough money from scavenging to buy a BMW. As I walked by his car I peeked in a side window and saw a bunch of LA city maps unfolded on the passenger seat. Nothing like planning out your scavenger hunt.

I’ve always liked the smell of fresh-cut grass — it reminds me of summer days growing up in Mar Vista, when, as a kid, mowing the front lawn was a weekly chore. But now it turns out that that smell that so many people like is really a cry for help. According to an NPR report, two University of Missouri researchers say that freshly cut grass blades are not too happy about being shorn. “For more than 30 years, husband-wife team Jack Schultz and Heide Appel of MU’s Christopher S. Bond Life Science Center have studied how plants react to stress. For example, when a plant is wounded, it can sometimes release airborne chemicals to attract birds and other insects to try to eliminate pests that are causing the damage. So when we cut the grass, Schultz says the grass is trying to find something to help.”

Back in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I rented a great apartment in Echo Park, in what is now known as Elysian Heights. In the early part of the 20th century, nearby Edendale was the home to most of the major movie studios on the West Coast, with such companies as the Keystone Studios, Fox, Pathe and others clustered along what is now Glendale Blvd. Because of its close proximity to these movie lots and, later to Hollywood, the hilly, forest-like Elysian Heights became the home to wealthy Angelenos; the area was also a bastion for artists and communists in the years leading up to World War II. After the War the neighborhood started to slide economically, and its cheap rents became a magnet for hippies and bohemians. Some of the homes at the top of Echo Park Avenue were veritable mansions: the apartment I rented was the bottom 1/3 of a gigantic three-bedroom house that had been broken up into smaller units (my next door neighbor’s house — which was shared by three bearded young men — had an expansive gardenia garden as well as an indoor swimming pool). I lived there from 1969 to 1976 and loved it; the house was perched at the very top of the hill, with a sunken dining room that had a view toward the lights of Glendale and Eagle Rock. It was secluded, with a long flight of eerie cement steps leading up to an overgrown back yard and dirt-filled pond. Off the dining room was a small utility room that — even in the heat of the summer — was always cold. The rest of the apartment was circular: you would enter from a back door, through the kitchen into the living room. A right turn took you up some stairs to two bathrooms, one with a toilet, the other with a shower. At the top of the stairs was a long hallway that butted up against the building’s basement; at the end of the hallway was a spacious bedroom. Another flight of stairs lead down to a small vanity room, then back down to the living room — a complete circle.

One night I was awakened by the screams of my lover: “Harley, there’s someone in the hallway,” she yelled. I jumped up and, as I headed for the hall, saw a yellow orb of light floating away from me. There was no one there. This happened a few more times — awakenings in the middle of the night — then they abruptly stopped. Cold room, floating lights — was this place haunted? As it turned out, the house was owned by Elizabeth Hampton, my landlady, who had lived in Echo Park with her husband, Roy, in the 1930s and 1940s. Roy was an LA City Councilman from 1939 to 1943, and was involved in some political controversies during and after his terms in office. He was a graduate of the University of Southern California and of its Law School and worked as a journalist as well as an attorney. In 1953 his body was found in a motel on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu; Sheriff’s deputies said he had taken his own life. Was that Roy floating down my hallway in 1973?

Happy Halloween, Roy.

Til next time,


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