The Big, Empty Foreground


On Flickr, where I sometimes spend my time, there is a group of photographs called “The Big Empty Foreground.” These are urban places, usually wide-open spaces, without people.

Many of the contributors come from Europe, a place one does not often think of as empty. Soccer fields, parking lots, office plazas, old factories, these are some of the unpopulated places.


 

Sepulveda Cleaners 2In Van Nuys, we have a lot of wide, empty foreground. Expansive asphalt pavements, empty shopping centers, abandoned houses on large lots.

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Near Vanowen, between Archwood and Sepulveda, there is a collection of one-story businesses: a cleaners, a phone store, a fishing tackle store and an odd place called Reynoso’s Lapidary and Supply which specializes in rocks, gems, stones and agate slabs.

These are in a building put up when land was cheap, sometime in the 1950s. And they are plain and homely and functional, but also practical, because the cars are put in back and the sidewalk is in front. Signs are small and discreet.

What intrigued me, on a day when dark clouds enclosed the sky and transformed the light of Los Angeles into something moody and cool, was how casually open space was made in the back, without gates or fences, or trees. That’s the way we parked in the 1950s at a suburban place. There was no thought given to landscape, only to laying down asphalt.

A walnut or orange grove, on many acres, probably occupied this land before the building was built.

This landscape back here will probably be developed someday and covered completely in a banal apartment, approved by city zoning.

But for now there is light, and space, and sky.

 

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Dreaming of Exile


 

DSCF2360Even if you have given up on LA, cursed its tackiness, screamed at its traffic, revolted from its inanities, choked on its air and dreamed of exile from its toxicities, you might be seduced on Sunday afternoon, as I was yesterday, by a place hidden away that seems like a small town in the Poconos.

I accompanied a friend on an errand. She manages properties, and was cleaning up after renters at a small house on a street called Lake Shore Avenue.

East of Glendale Blvd, south of the 2, west of Elysian Park, it sits snuggly into a hill that blocks the setting sun. Shady, built with little bungalows, it bisects, at Effie, an institution: Gateways Hospital and Community Mental Health Center.

A mid-century sign sits at the entrance to the facility.

Egregious, garishly lettered in big vertical typeface, it announces, creepily, its authoritative medicinal mission (rehabilitation, research, hospital) as if they were triple feature films from the 50s like “I Want to Live”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Blob.”


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We parked on Effie and looked ahead at a wide dirt path climbing up a steep hill where nets were laid down to trap water and debris that may pour down here fiercely.

My friend went to work on her property, and I climbed up the trail.

Around me were dried, parched grasses, the remnants of homeless blankets and bags of clothes, and, at the top of the hill, a stucco shack of a house, with a pitted asphalt driveway, and a wooden deck. It was guarded by ziggurat cinder block walls and reinforced steel window bars.

The dilapidated home was a find, unusual in its state of disrepair. For we live in a city of brutally competitive property investment, where every top elevation has been captured by someone richer. This mountain hideaway lacked the hidden cameras, the expensive cars, the pool, and the pretense to architecture. An eccentric hermit might inhabit it.

Moby if he had no money might live here.

Its views stretched out to Silverlake, downtown, and tall radio towers across the way. Yet it was an uneasy isolation. It felt dangerous, not reassuring.

Bucolic and rustic in Los Angeles never exists in purity.

Helicopters and sirens in the distance, the threat of fire, the presence of people without homes, the surprise of events that might end our life erupting from the deepest earth, or from a violent intrusion through an open window. These are the sights, sounds and conjurations of the imagination haunting happy moments.

That is how that house and hill felt.


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Back down on Lake Shore Avenue I walked past institutional houses, illuminated by industrial floodlights, set along the street, behind gates. Two older men were on the stoop of one place, smoking. They nodded to me and I waved back.

Outside the property of Gateways, dominating the bright part of the hill on Lake Shore Avenue, was a tall, two-toned, red and white brick house looming over a row of old garages. Homely, graceless, squinting in the sun, it refuted the lovely myth that everything historic is charming. The white “sanitary” bricks, glossy and washable, were often used in the 1920s on building facades for bakeries and cleaners.

A small signifier of community well-being, a landscaped traffic circle, ended my walk up Lake Shore.

That idea that a street could come together in a circle, unified by architecture, common purpose, cafes and conversation, there was something of that here, but I saw no other pedestrians. The only movement was daylight in retreat, shadows moving over the street.

After walking around, I came back to my friend’s property and went inside. We stacked dishes in the dishwasher, carried out bags of food from the refrigerator, and a basket of dirty towels. She turned on the alarm and locked the door. We got in the car and left to return to the real city beyond.

 

 

 

El Color de La Vida.


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Before the cold rains struck the San Fernando Valley late Monday afternoon, dark and menacing storm clouds went into formation.

Seen from the empty asphalt of an abandoned parking in Panorama City, the view east lived up to its name. The craggy, inky, rock-topped San Gabriels permitted fog to brush their face.

Eager to pursue the dark light show, we drove east on Roscoe where it opens up under the high voltage lines, across the valley, under the concrete freeway, cutting diagonally up Tuxford, emerging into the industrial abattoir of Pacoima where death and life, and light and shadow hunt under smokestacks and behind motels.

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The rains came down on Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Road, soaking Chabelita’s Restaurant, Gallardo’s Auto Repair, Fierro’s Muffler, Franco Tires, JC and Son Welding, and the Coral Bells Motel.

And then, in the mode of Los Angeles, the sky cleared. A vast, blue vista opened up. A cold wind followed.

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Carrying our cameras, we passed men who eyed us with suspicion. Señor Fierro came out of his muffler shop and kindly asked us why we were taking pictures. I handed him my card and told him how beautiful the sky was. He seemed to agree.

These people work hard. They come from lands where blood soaks the cross and breaks the heart. Now they weld metal and change tires and cut hair and dig trenches. Here are these Americans whose presence makes us American.

San Fernando Road is also part of Route 66. The historic state sign says so. The old motels along the highway attest to a long history of travellers who made their way into California: on foot, by automobile, in the back of trucks, hidden inside freight trains.

They got here and slept on the floor, two or three to a bed. Some had no papers. Some had no money. They were somewhere strange and hostile, but free, free to pursue and put down roots and stop running.

But death caught some too young. Some died under trains, running across tracks after the signal, or purposely running into death to escape the misery of life.

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Pacoima is strong. Its buildings are painted in the deepest blues, oranges, yellows, reds and greens. There is no room for ambiguity in hue. The choices are laid out in bright sunlight. The devil and the angel battle here. You can eat well or go hungry. You can get pregnant and high, or go to school and study hard. You can pray or you drive drunk into a wall. Pick the orange off the tree or the prostitute off the street. It’s up to you.

On walls, adjoining muffler shops and liquor stores, are murals of mythological, cultural and aesthetic magnificence. Poor Pacoima has more beautiful public art than Beverly Hills. And there is even a wall-sized portrait of that savior and scoundrel El Niño. Artist Levi Ponce is the Michaelangelo of this district.

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El Niño, as we all know, is in town for a few weeks. He may pay up or he may skip town without leaving payment. Nobody knows.

But Pacoima will carry on.

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They Had Promised Rain.


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They had promised rain.

We were going to be drenched, drowned, and flooded.

The clouds would stay overhead for months, and there would be endless days of mudslides, dark clouds and gray skies.

They had promised rain, clearly, and said it in English, many times; the word was rain, but there was so much of it and they had renamed him El Niño.

For maybe one or two days there was rain and it came down and drenched the garden and it seemed that relief was on its way.

But the heat and the sun, and that blinding light, the kind that throws deep shadows on surfaces, came back.

The hot winds, the cloudless skies, the bees and the mosquitos, the dust and the fires, and the furnace of the car parked in the sun with black seats that burn your ass when you sit down.

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In Hancock Park, last Saturday, the air smelled like smoke, and lungs labored hard to bring in oxygen.

But on curved streets with swept sidewalks and trimmed hedges, homes glowed, in the inferno.

Movie star beauties, these residences, from the 1920s and 30s, photographed like Garbo and Gable, in black and white.

They retained dignity, reserving in elegance, those rights given to the rich, to remain unaffected by external events, to quietly succeed by dint of elitism, and transcend the hot weather through graceful form.

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Paris


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First there was youth and young people, fresh faces, and smiles. There was festivity and the night, wine and laughter, the scent of exotic perfumes, the smell of jasmine, vanilla, sandalwood, tuberose and citrus, the flirtations and sensuality of life, the swing of partiers having fun. Music and entertainment and the dark, gathered inside a red Chinese concert hall built in the 1860s, some place historic, cultural, significant, simultaneously frivolous and majestic.

And there was the stadium, and players and the cheering crowds, the fast game, the movement up and down the field, the lines and the rules laid down, with everyone playing fair, and the adjudication of sport overseen by referees, players, spectators and cameras.

November in Paris, a Friday night, and the restaurants were full, and diners were devouring mushrooms in wine sauce, risotto, saffron flavored rices, rare beef, sautéed spinach and roasted garlic; red wine, sparkling wines and many glasses of beer and whiskey.

There were lights, and people holding hands, and lovers kissing, and boats sailing down the Seine, and the monuments lit up and illuminated and beloved.

And anger was nowhere to be seen because it was extinguished in warm fragrant showers, in grassy burning candles, or under blankets where people made love in bedrooms where the windows were swung open and the drapes swayed in the breeze.

Chocolate cake and buttered bread, hot coffee and cream, soft cheeses; and women with red lips and tousled hair and cashmere scarfs tied around their necks, and young bearded men with long hair and a long life ahead of them.

Children only yesterday, born after 1990, so young and so unaware of the temporal and the fatal; and perhaps they died as they lived, in a spasm of ecstasy, with no foreshadowing or fear of the barbarism that would end their brief lives within seconds.

Why, why, why, why, why, why?

Why, why, why, why, why, why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Grieving Mood


The first anniversary of her death will be on September 1st.

In the year since my mother died, I have experienced days of grief that just came over me, an intense sadness: unshakeable, persistent and gripping.

And then, inexplicably, the darkness leaves and I’m set back into temporary equilibrium. I no longer cry easily and my laughing is real.

But the fragile happiness goes away again, and then the days of moodiness, anger, sadness, loneliness, self-destructive thoughts and a yearning to have someone hold and comfort me, comes back.

These are those days: these late August days.


 

Since I was a kid I’ve always hated August.

I hated its hotness and its humidity. I hated its interminable thirty-one days of family beach vacations. I hated coming back to “reality”, to school and to work. I hated August holding us in its grip of tall corn and short tempers, melted ice cream and burning asphalt. August is the threat of impending hurricane, school, and work held back by the ruse of calendar.


 

There is really nobody close to reach out to.

The advice, always, is to just get busy with something. If you had a full-time job, if you had kids, you wouldn’t be in this state-of-mind.

I think of that stinging indictment delivered by a friend in Chicago: “You’ve chosen a selfish life.”  How selfish to feel.

So I go to MacLeod Ale and have a few beers and talk to people I know, not about anything deep, just something human and non-virtual.


 

I hire a model and take photos and think I’m taking great photos. He puts them on his Instagram and I put them on mine. And then he takes my photos off his Instagram. And I close down mine.

There is no solace or satisfaction in art when you go online. What seems great to you is crap if it doesn’t garner 8,000 likes.

There is a mighty fine job interview with some super smart people and the opportunity to work on something interesting. It pays well, it’s nearby, it might turn out to be stimulating.

So I go in for the job meeting and then I wait for an answer.

And I must stop myself from imagining the rejection, even though that is what happens most of the time.


This morning I wake up and see a gruesome news story about the killing of a news reporter and her photographer, the wounding of another woman, and the pursuit and eventual death of the suspect.

It is just another morning of murder in America, refreshed every single day by the shooting of some other strangers in some other states.

I follow the story of the news crew killings on Twitter. They reveal the identity of the killer. Then he posts his POV video on Facebook and I watch it.

What kind of madness is this?

Is social media making people ill?

We are all enraged by something. The ubiquitious gun and smart phone make our most bestial and primitive urges possible. We can act, produce and distribute our own unspeakable fantasies for the world’s consumption and entertainment.

In this new epoch of human life we are  all Gods stage managed by the Devil.


I decide the cure is to lessen my place in the virtual world. I will delete something, I will stop doing something online, I will take my eyes and thoughts out of the Internet.


 

When you are in mourning, they say there is no time- table for recovery. You imagine that the hour will arrive where grief, a monster of no particular form, shall scatter and take with it remnants of memory, love, and attachment.

You go through the day, in motions: working, cleaning, driving, shopping, cooking, and watching television.

You drink a beer or two and feel something elating, calming, relaxing and pleasurable.

And when the beer wears off, you are deep in touch again with something you tried to forget. And you cry and cry but there is nobody to pick you up and hug you.

You are alone, facing something final.

You are in a grieving mood.

Awaiting redemption and answers and the return of normal life.