Friday, May 25, 2012


Photo courtesy of SMPD
One afternoon, while driving in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, I rounded the corner of a twisting street to come face to face with a coyote.  I stared at him through the car window, and he stared back, frozen in intensity.  He was not afraid; he was gauging his chances of flight or fight.  Quite suddenly, he decided he’d flee today, and he loped down a nearby driveway and into the bushes leading to the home’s backyard.  I could only hope there were no kids playing somewhere close, or a small dog or cat out for an afternoon stroll.

On another late afternoon drive in the same area, I came upon several deer in the roadway.  They calmly looked at me in my car, completely unafraid.  I sat and watched them graze on either side of the roadway, until they disappeared down a hill.

Once, up late reading and writing on a summer night, I heard a commotion in my fenced-in and vine-covered backyard.  I came out with a flashlight and saw nothing amiss on the patio.  Upon shining the beam up into the trees, I saw a constellation of twinkling yellow lights.  They were not stars but eyes.  I counted at least a dozen tree rats using the branches as a rodent expressway to the fruit trees in the yards up and down the block.  One of them eventually found my car engine and made a nest in a wheel well to catch some residual warmth.  I have also seen possums back there, including one juvenile who had obviously fallen from the trees.  The mother sat on a thick limb directly over the patio, waiting for me to disappear so she could mount a rescue.

Driving home late at night in my neighborhood, I have slammed on the brakes for a family of raccoons living in a storm drain.  A few weeks later, walking after dark, I passed the spot and heard wicked growling and thrashing in the bushes.  The mother raccoon was not happy that I had invaded her space.

Black bear tranquilized in Glendale
(Raul Roa/Glendale News Press) 

I tell these stories not because they are unique, but because in Los Angeles, they are commonplace, everyday occurrences.  And if you talk to people long enough, you will hear far more frightening encounters with wildlife than my rather pedantic tales.  I know people who have watched their small dogs torn to pieces by coyotes.  Blackbears make regular appearances in urban neighborhoods to swim in pools and eat from garbage cans.  Joggers and hikers have been attacked by mountain lions in the hills around the city.  And that brings me to the 75-100 poundmountain lion who decided to take an early morning stroll in downtown Santa Monica just a few blocks from the beach.  The animal paid for his indiscretion with his life.

According to an article in the Santa Monica Patch, this two-year old mountain lion would have died anyway, even if he was successfully tranquilized and transported back into the mountains.  Reporter Jenna Chandler quotes Jeff Sikich of the National Parks Service who told her that “Nearly every one of the handful of mountain lions of the same age tracked by the park service since 2002 in the Santa Monica Mountains has died while trying to establish his own home range.”

The cat was simply doing what comes naturally:  at a certain age, the male lions must find their own space.  The area above Santa Monica is saturated with the big cats right now, so it is difficult for a youngster to find his own territory.  If he had been able to find a suitable spot, with so many mountain lions prowling around, this often leads to a lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding.  Mountain lions usually turn back when encountering people or freeways, but often they are hit by cars and killed, or come in contact with a hiker with deadly results.

Sikich believes this mountain lion bedded down off of Second Street because he was lost.  He would have had to cross major streets and intersections, and walk by people both sleeping and awake to get to the center of town.  The Third Street Promenade, a major tourist and shopping center, was a block away.  When authorities tried to dart the cat and the sedative didn’t work, they felt the public was in enough danger to shoot and kill the animal.  Still, as many comments indicate on the Patch article, we will never know what might have occurred had the cat been saved and transported elsewhere.

May be we need to re-evaluate our compact with nature.  Here in Los Angeles, we live in such proximity to hills and mountains.  Urban growth mixes uneasily with the natural world that once occupied the space, and neither humans or animals are safe.  No one likes to see their beloved pets torn apart, and from the response this week, no Angelinos are comfortable with law enforcement gunning down lions and bears in their neighborhoods.

Police officers must have non-lethal weaponry on hand in their vehicles to use against animals.  As long as we continue to build into each other’s habitats here in Los Angeles, we will face this problem, and therefore, both animals and humans will be in jeopardy.  The only solution is to be better prepared for the next encounter.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

It's Always Armageddon Somewhere

The final story, the final chapter of western man, I believe, lies in Los Angeles.”
                                                                                                                        Phil Ochs

This past Saturday, I had an all-day meeting scheduled for downtown Los Angeles near USC, and I was worried.  According to media reports, this weekend was supposed to be yet another cataclysmic disaster for traffic on downtown streets as the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings all had home playoff games scheduled back-to-back over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, along with a bicycle race that would end at the front door of Staples Center.  If I believed the news readers, all Angelinos should head for the hills, or their backyard bunkers or other suitably reinforced shelters.

Over the last year, we have had several Armageddons that never materialized in L.A.  Probably the most famous was the weekend closure of Interstate 405, known locally as the San Diego Freeway.  This was the event known as “Carmageddon,” and had the entire country enthralled, if the coverage on CNN and MSNBC was to be believed.  We were warned that L.A. fire units and paramedics would be unable to reach calls in the hills above Sherman Oaks and west Los Angeles; LAPD would be slow to respond in the area of the closure.  It was all doom and gloom, and none of it materialized, thank God.  Carmageddon was a bust.  Everything proceeded normally, and the construction company even finished the scheduled work early.  The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) reported lighter than normal traffic across the region.  The closure did result in a funny photograph of a dinner party in the fast lane of the empty freeway.  The group managed to clear out before California Highway Patrol (CHP) showed up to cite them.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Glucksman

It still seems odd to me that so much of Los Angeles history is cast in terms of the end of the world.  Earthquakes, fires, floods, crime, pursuits, and sporting events all seem to come with the “Armageddon” tag, as if we expect that the Book of Revelation could only come true in L.A.  The thing is, we survive.  We recover.  May be it is just our Hollywood sense of drama that makes us blow the prophecies of destruction and annihilation out of proportion.  However, I feel our wails of trepidation might make the rest of the country think of us as cowards, and that would be a shame.  Citizens in this city do have resilience, probably to a greater degree than we think.

Los Angeles needs to toughen its image.  Not only did our basketball teams get pushed around this weekend, and will probably be eliminated from further playoff competition, one of the events scheduled for this Armageddon was a bicycle race.  On a normal day in L.A., bicyclists are forever in jeopardy on the streets of the city.  Although there have been several high profile attempts to promote bike riding in Los Angeles—even catching the attention of The New York Times—this city is a difficult one for the bicycling enthusiasts.  This is not a flat city, and the sprawl makes a cycling commute nearly impossible.  I applaud the work of CicLAvia, but they are facing a similar uphill battle to make L.A. more bike-friendly.

The Sunday Los Angeles Times did a front page story about the revitalization of the downtown area surrounding the Staples Center and L.A. Live.  It is “No longer the 9-to-5 area its once was…” said the headline.  New lofts and apartments have gone up, some of them in old refurbished buildings that had been empty for a while, and businesses anticipated a busy weekend with all the traffic headed for the sporting events.  But the article also points out that just a few blocks north, west, east, or south, things are rather dull.  Only the usual locals come out to hoist a few in the bars and restaurants.  In short, the crowds for events stay localized in the streets around Staples.  In many ways, Los Angeles lacks a heart.  The city center does not hold, unless there is a reason to go downtown.  Great dining can be had in Pasadena, Santa Monica, even the San Fernando Valley.  There is Citywalk at Universal, Disneyland in Anaheim, and Magic Mountain in Valencia.  The question must be asked:  is Los Angeles a city or as Dorothy Parker said, “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city?”

For the record, I made it to my meeting a half hour early in light traffic.  Coming home, I hit the usual congestion going through downtown on the 110, but once I hit the 101 I was home free.  And according to the news naysayers, traffic was light throughout the area all weekend.  Things were absolutely normal, at least for L.A.  But tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Los Angeles, 1984

Photo courtesy of Suzette Valle

“Faster, Higher, Stronger” (Olympic motto from the Latin:  “Citius, Altius, Fortius”)

So it was in that hot summer of 1984 that the Olympics came to town.  The Games of the XXIII Olympiad.  These were already flawed games.  Because of the 1980 United States boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, most Eastern bloc countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany, and even Cuba from our own neighborhood retaliated by not attending the L.A. Games.  Peter Ueberroth, head of the Olympic Committee, was undeterred in his mission to pull off the event.  The Games would go forward.

We were warned about hellacious traffic and gridlock.  We worried about crime with all the potential victims arriving from faraway countries.  We were told to stagger our work shifts, or stay home altogether.  Would Los Angeles be a dangerous and disappointing city in the eyes of the world?

The answer was an emphatic no.  In the final analysis, everything was good.  Traffic was astonishingly light.  Things flowed smoothly.  Although the organizers fretted, the spaceship landed on cue at the Closing Ceremonies wowing the crowd in the Coliseum.  The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were the most successful of the modern era, and they revitalized the tradition of the Games themselves.  L.A. was the benchmark by which all future host cities would measure their own performance.

The U.S. won 83 gold medals, 61 silver, and 30 bronze:  174 total.  No one really missed the Soviets, Germans, Libyans, Iranians or Cubans.  When the last dollar was counted and all the bills paid, Ueberroth announced a 223 million dollar profit, enough to endow several foundations, grants, and charities for years to come.  That summer, Los Angeles was rolling in green and good will.

I had just been laid off from my warehouse job at an aerospace firm in June, and therefore my entire financial support system for my college education was shot to hell.  Strangely, as is the case when you are young, I was not too worried.  I’d find a way to stay in school and keep my head above water.  I spent those months going from place to place dropping off applications.  It would not be until October that I found steady work hoisting sacks of manure in the Lawn and Garden Department at Target.  I was intent on being a musician then, and when I was not handing out my work history on a flimsy sheet of paper to anyone who would take it, I was schlepping my Rhodes Electric Piano and speaker from gig to gig in my 1978 Chevy Chevette, a car much too small and underpowered to carry such a load or have a racing stripe painted on the side.  My total take for all the music that summer was probably 30 bucks.  I could not afford to attend the Games, or even a single event.  But I was young and believed the future held all the promises in the world.

One evening shortly before the Opening Ceremonies, I was driving in the city up Sepulveda Boulevard, the longest street in L.A. at 43 miles.  My father used to tell me that Sepulveda stretched, in one form or another, clear across the country.  I’ve since learned that is not exactly true, but it sounds good.  So there I was, at a stoplight, waiting for my life to catch up with me, mentally counting my pennies to make it to September and beyond, not really thinking about games or athletes or anything other than survival.  The light turned green, but nobody moved.  A brightly lit and flashing caravan of law enforcement personnel in cars and on motorcycles rounded the corner and swarmed the intersection.  Sirens wailed and everything became intensively illuminated.  Like many other motorists, I got out to see what was happening.  A large group of runners—25, 50, 100?—came down the street followed by a line of black vehicles.  Leading the procession was a tongue of fire, the Olympic Torch.  Spontaneously, the drivers, passengers, bystanders, the entire crowd began clapping.  The applause became thunderous, echoing off the buildings lining the street.  The torch-bearer lifted the flame higher in response to the crowd, and people began yelling and cheering.

A hot summer night in Los Angeles.  My life wasn’t moving in a direction I recognized, but time would reveal that peculiar synchronicity of fate and destiny only observed in hindsight.  I would have to be patient, a lesson I had to relearn many times over the years.  I am still learning it.  I drove off into the night, thinking of that fire traveling all the way from Greece, across the centuries from antiquity, to come to the street where I live here in Los Angeles, 1984.  In that moment on the boulevard, I was certain that anything was possible.  I was not a runner or an archer, but I had my own Olympian dreams.  If I believed, if I never stopped striving, if I waited patiently, they would come.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Henry Van Wolf

When you live in a city all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted.  Very few of us apply a tourist’s eye to the streets we walk every day.

So it was in an effort to get in touch with my city that I attended my first lecture at the Museum of the San Fernando Valley which recently opened a store front in the Westfield Sherman Oaks Fashion Square.  The subject was sculptor Henry Van Wolf, presented by his son, Joe.

Joe Van Wolf is an unassuming, low-key guy who would probably be more comfortable doing the work of his father.  He told the assembled group of about fifteen people how his father came to the United States from Germany in the 1930s with one dollar in his pocket and 250 pounds of tools.  Henry studied all kinds of art in his native country, but here in America he focused on bronze casting.  He opened a studio on the grounds of his home at Hazeltine Avenue and Chandler Boulevard.  In an effort to help other artists, Henry founded the Valley Artists Guild.  He soon became one of the most in-demand sculptors in southern California.

Joe grew up in the valley and went to Notre Dame High School, class of ’62, after graduating from St.Elisabeth Elementary in Van Nuys.  His father passed in 1982, leaving Joe to be the caretaker of his father’s business and his finished pieces now spread all over Los Angeles, the U.S., and the world.

After the lecture, I talked to Joe about his life in the valley in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  He told me that the area had changed so much—more traffic, people, noise.  He and his wife, Ladonna, were moving that week down south to Arkansas where Ladonna was from.  “Life there is like the valley was forty years ago,” he told me.

As the lecture broke up, I perused the collection of Van Wolf reproductions displayed in the museum.  I photographed a few—busts of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein—but I wanted to see them out in the city, in the places where they lived now.  We found our car and hit the road.

Our first stop was the mall outside the Van Nuys Civic Center.  There on a pedestal stood Van Wolf’s Fernando, a bronze representation of the first inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley who were most likely Chumash, Tongva, or Tataviam Native Americans.  A reproduction of the statue, about the size of an Oscar, is given annually to those who have contributed to valley culture and enterprise over the years.

I also managed to shoot some pictures of the old Van Nuys courthouse and original fire station.  Both buildings have nice bones and excellent architecture.  On this quiet Saturday, the mall was nearly deserted.

Next up were the bronze doors at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Encino.  Van Wolf’s doors to the church depicted the Seven Sacraments.

Our final stop was my favorite:  Van Wolf’s Lincoln In Meditation, installed on the corner of Verdugo Avenue and Buena Vista Street in Burbank.  Behind it is Lincoln Park and the Buena Vista branch of the Burbank Public Library.  As twilight faded to night, I was able to catch the haunting image of Lincoln’s face in my lens.

Public art may be more necessary than museum pieces because it performs a civic function.  It’s out there with us, the visual accompaniment to our daily lives.  May be it was the fading daylight, the history, or the sculptures themselves, but I found myself moved by the images in ways I hadn’t expected.

Later, back in my study, I contemplated the medallion made by Henry Van Wolf that Ladonna had removed from her own neck and given to my wife.  It was a beautiful, heartfelt gesture.  On one side was Christ as a shepherd, herding his sheep; on the reverse, Christ was depicted blessing children.  I thought of Joe and Ladonna loading the last of Henry’s sculptures, tools, materials, all the artist’s detritus into trailers and transports for the long journey south.  Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley would be diminished without them.  History would go on, though.  Henry’s statues would stand, monuments to the epic that was the twentieth century in America and Los Angeles.

I placed the medallion on our writing desk next to the computer.  Silently to the night, I wished the Van Wolfs Godspeed.