Monday, June 25, 2012

Accidents Happen...All The Time

A few days ago, coming back from dinner, I pulled away from my parking space at the curb to get walloped by a guy changing lanes.  His path was blocked by a line of cars, which is why he was whipping around the car in front of him, and my lane was open, which is why I was pulling out.  In any case, the damage was minimal, the classic fender-bender.

That night at home, I got on the phone with my insurance company.  I recorded my version of the events, discussed the logistics of getting the car repaired, and made arrangements for transportation in the week ahead.  However, when I was on the phone with the claims agent, I discovered some startling news.  I was worried that the insurance company might cancel my policy, especially if they determined the accident was all, or in part, my fault.  The guy chuckled when I asked.  “Mr. Martin,” he said, “I have your driving record in front of me, and I see no reason we’d cancel you.  Most of the customers I handle file between three and five claims per year.”

Three to five claims per year?

After I hung up the phone, I sat thinking about the situation.  I’ve had a few accidents over the years, all minor and none of them my fault.  They all resulted in extreme stress and a bad case of nerves after.  I remember one where I could not hold a pen to write down the other driver’s information; I was that nervous.  But could it be that I was lucky to have had only three scrapes in ten years or more?

In retracing my excursions around Los Angeles, I realized that although I’d had no major accidents, I have had a huge number of close calls.  I have also witnessed some pretty good smack-ups.  Traffic has increased exponentially from when I was a new driver.  Then there are the more recent distractions of cell phones and texting.  Navigation systems, although designed to assist drivers, can also be a hindrance to focused driving.

Talking with some colleagues over the weekend, I found they were bothered by L.A. drivers.  They cited the usual problems and distractions.  “People drive carelessly,” my wife said when I told her of the three-to-five average number of claims.

Yes, cell phones and texting have made the roads more dangerous.  But what I see far more often is that people are too impatient.  They believe they have the right-of-way no matter the situation.  They pull out into oncoming traffic with reckless disregard.  They honk if I hesitate a fraction of a second as a light turns green.  They feel they have the right to judge approaching traffic when I am in front of them waiting to make a left hand turn, and they signal their displeasure at having to wait by sitting on their horns.  Or, much more dangerous, they swing out and drive into oncoming traffic to make the turn ahead of me.  The worst problem I encounter is a driver who will not stay in his own lane.  Pulling side by side, I find myself swerving to avoid the vehicle next to me because the driver has drifted over the line separating us.  I drive a car that fits snugly in the average traffic lane.  There is not a lot of free space, especially when cars are parked at the curb, one idiot leaves his door open in traffic, or there are pedestrians or bike riders in the street.  I have had so many close calls that could easily have been catastrophic accidents.  Three-to-five claims a year is feasible, if even twenty percent of the close calls became collisions.

I was reminded of how dangerous it is to drive in L.A. not just because of my own accident.  Last week, a full on fight broke out between two motorists on a southern California freeway, and it was all caught on cell phone video by a passing driver.  Two men beat another to the ground and began kicking him in the head.  Once he appeared unconscious, the two thugs jumped in their car and sped away.  They were later arrested for the beating.  The guy on the ground was also arrested for an outstanding warrant.  Road rage is very real, and probably more dangerous then most of the fender-benders that incite it.

In my case, the other driver was aggressive at first, telling me I should have signaled before pulling out—I did—and that I should look before leaping—also did.  The fact is that he was impatient and did not want to wait.  He saw an opening and shot into my lane.  After the impact, I rolled about six inches back to the curb.  I ignored his diatribe about my driving and simply asked for his information.  By the time we finished, he apologized for the accident, something I was told never to do.  I said it was “unfortunate” we had to meet that way, and we went on about our lives.

Still, I awoke several times over the weekend hearing the sickening crunch of the collision, and I wondered if this was the year when my luck would fade, and I would need my insurance company two to four more times before the new year begins.

Friday, June 15, 2012

In Love With Another City Not My Own

“No, I don’t,” I replied.

*          *          *

I have a confession to make.  I am an adulterer.  I have betrayed what I am supposed to love:  Los Angeles.  It is time to be open and honest, and stop living the lie.  I love New York.

This begs the question:  how can I write about L.A. when my heart belongs in the east?  And what of my entire life spent in the city of angels?  Was it a marriage of convenience, or somewhere, deep in my chest, did I split my heart between two coasts?

In my defense, I must say that Los Angeles is not a city easy to love.  It is false, fictional, and never what it appears to be.  The world sees the glamorous, the heavy makeup and ruby red lipstick.  It is only in the morning light that the cracks are evident.  The light reveals a city older and more jaded than the Hollywood hype.  I cannot get close to this city; it is enigmatic and distant, best left to the image on a silver screen.  There is emptiness and haunting loneliness to which L.A. gives a unique spin.  Sure, you can be lonely elsewhere, but it is different here.  In Los Angeles, loneliness becomes a suicidal, lost, drug-induced hallucination.

New York City is a character.  It has character.  Los Angeles is a backdrop, a malevolent shadow in the surreal tent show of life.  Writers don’t make L.A. a character of equal billing in novels and screenplays.  Bret Easton Ellis tried.  But really, could Salinger have set his story in Los Angeles?  Holden Caulfield could not have walked the sprawl of city streets among the landmarks without falling down from exhaustion.  L.A. is an attitude more than a place.

The subtitle of this blog is “Searching For The Soul of Los Angeles.”  Maybe because of the film industry and the history, that soul is subtle and often hidden.  It is not in-your-face like New York.  However, after living here my whole life, I know the soul is there.  So it is not necessary to love L.A. to write about it.  One of the most intriguing things about the city to me is the layered texture of the place.  When peeling back those layers, all kinds of surprises come out.  London, Paris, New York—what you see is what you get.  We instinctively know those places, even if we have never been.  We find them in the pages of books and on the screen, and when we finally do visit, it is more to validate what we have seen portrayed elsewhere.  Los Angeles will surprise you.

That is what I enjoy about living here:  the surprises.  The city cannot be taken for granted.  There is always a juxtaposition, a contrast, a dramatic fault line.  People elsewhere think of the city as a paradise:  great weather, beaches, mountains.  But the layers bring the dark corners, the insinuations, the hints of something psychologically more complex and interesting.  Our conflicts are epic—just look at the recent battle for ownership of the Dodgers.

So I’ll always love New York for what it is, but I am connected to Los Angeles not just because I was born here, but because I am addicted to watching what it will become.  Things are always changing, and that leaves everyone slightly off balance.  There is this collision of money, politics and dreams that makes the city interesting to explore, but almost impossible to fully capture.  That is what makes the challenge of writing about L.A. so inviting.

As for my sin of city adultery, I know I will be forgiven.  L.A. knows the human animal has secrets, dark and malevolent.  The city is noir to the core.  With the pain of a civic hangover, we greet the morning light with squinted eyes, wondering how we got to where we are.  It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Los Angeles never sleeps in the same bed twice.  She is a restless lover, trying to capture the dream that almost always proves illusive and fragmentary.  She keeps her distance and her secrets carefully hidden.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Downtown At The Holiday Inn

I remember a long ago summer when I got an offer I could not refuse.  My brother-in-law was managing the bar in the basement at the Holiday Inn on 9th and Figueroa, and he needed a band.  “Nothing, huge,” he said.  “Maybe just a trio, or a quartet.  Jazz.”

I jumped at the chance.  A real gig, Wednesday through Saturday, at a club, just like the pros.  Not a club exactly, but a hotel lounge.  A lot of great musicians started in lounges, and some of them never escaped, but I was willing to take my chances.  We worked out a system where the band could eat for free and drink whatever they wanted, all for the door.  We’d start with a five dollar cover and see what would happen.

The first night, we packed the place.  All our friends came, and the money poured in.  Altogether, the other two musicians drank two hundred dollars in imported beer.  I stuck with Coke.  We also had a nice meal upstairs in the coffee shop before our set started.  The next night, the crowd was equally large.  I heard several regulars complain to my brother-in-law that they’d have to find another place to hang, as this dive was too noisy and too crowded.

By the second week, the place was only half full.  My brother-in-law had put a stop to the imported beers, and we were now allowed a meal and a soft drink before our set.  The regulars were still there, although obviously disgruntled.  During a break, one grabbed my arm:  “This used to be a good place till you all showed up,” she said.

By the third week, we were drawing three to four people a night.  And they refused to pay the cover, seeing as their goal was to get drunk.  They thought the fiver would be better spent on the first shot and not on us.  We kept a brave face and played on, but I had the feeling things were not going to work.  My brother-in-law started running specials like an “all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.”  No one wanted to go upstairs to get food; they were there for liquor, and once seated at the bar, they wanted full glasses, not plates of questionable clams.

Week four saw people lumber down the stairs only to see us and climb right back out.  The regulars now demanded the barkeep leave the TV on while we played, so we developed a repertoire of television theme songs and played them at the start of each show.  No one was amused, nor did they want to hear extended versions of the theme from Hill Street Blues.  One regular at the bar would drink until he passed out, sitting upright on his stool.  A long string of drool would trickle off of his lip and pool on the bar.  Slowly, over the course of a few hours, his head would dip lower and lower.  We realized that his head sunk to its lowest level right about quitting time, so we now gauged the length of our sets by the Drooler.  We were bored.  We were also hungry, because the free meals had dried up.

By week five, my brother-in-law moved on to greener pastures, a smorgasbord out in the valley.  I lied to the new manager and said we had a contract.  He barely spoke English and assumed I was on the level, so we continued to play for an empty bar.  The Drooler was there, but since he was unconscious most of the time, the place could still be considered empty, I guess.  Our facility with TV theme songs was prodigious, and we continued to explore the harmonics of each tune with everyone, including the drummer, taking a solo.  The bartender kept yelling at us to stop so he could hear what was happening on the set.  Since the cover charge had long been abandoned, we rarely covered our gas to drive down to play.  I didn’t mind though, because if you are not being paid, how can you be fired?  Still, the other musicians were beginning to see the futility of the enterprise and I was having trouble fielding a full band.  One night, it would be just my piano and a bass player; another night, I’d trade fours with the drummer.  Not many people hear the melody in a lead drum version of “My Funny Valentine,” and once when we had finished a particularly lengthy back-and-forth, the bartender yelled out “What the hell was that?”

Managers came and went on a weekly basis, and finally one got up the courage to tell us we were through.  On the final night of our big summer gig, I showed up to find the bar flooded with six inches of raw sewage.  A pipe had exploded.  Gagging at the stench, I dragged my piano and speaker up the stairs to my car.  We were not the only ones out of a job; the waiters and busboys from the restaurant, as well as the bartender, were all given their walking papers.  The place would be completely shut down for six months of remodeling.

As I sat on the hood of my car that night wondering what next, a homeless woman approached me.  I’d seen her several times around the hotel, and I’d often slip her some money, usually our meager pocket change from the door that night.  The marine layer was particularly thick over the city, and fog enshrouded the tops of the nearby skyscrapers.  The air was cool and moist.  I could smell the ocean.  “How’s it going?” the homeless woman asked me.

“Great,” I replied.

“You guys finish early tonight?”

“Never got started,” I said.  “Place is flooded.”

Up close, I realized she was a lot older, even though she wore a tube top and dirty jeans.  Her bag was slung over her shoulder, and some of her ratty hair was tangled in the strap.  “Well, that means more time to enjoy the night,” she replied.

I took out my wallet and handed her a five.  It was all the money I had.  She thanked me and tucked the bill into her tube top.  She leaned up against the hood of my car, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes, drawing in the city.

“You gotta love this town,” she said.

“No, I don’t,” I replied.

I am no longer a musician, and the Holiday Inn was torn down several years ago.  It is a parking lot now, across from the restaurant, The Original Pantry, opened in 1924, “never closed, never without a customer.”  As for the city, I’m not sure she can be loved, but that is another story altogether.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Brother Ray

Ray Bradbury died this week.  He is the last of the greatest generation of speculative fiction writers, a group that included Isaac Asimov, Phillip K.Dick, Douglas Adams, and Robert Heinlein, to name just a few.  Bradbury was a Los Angeles writer, through and through, although his stories often centered on distant worlds and parallel universes.  Much has been made of his time spent in the UCLA library typing his stories on rented machines, feeding dimes in as his pages came out.  I have some tapes of him discussing his work where he talks about taking long walks on the beach at Santa Monica and dreaming up his fantastic and poetic tales.  For many years, he was the main attraction at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  One of my students, an aspiring writer, once arrived in class on a Monday following the festival nearly incoherent with joy because Ray Bradbury had posed for a picture with him and signed his books.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching many of Bradbury’s books and short stories.  I still consider the first sentence of his story, “Tomorrow’s Child,” to be one of the best in literature:  “He did not want to be the father of a small blue pyramid.”  Even now, I want to keep reading, regardless of the fact that I know how it ends and have read it a million times.  That was the thing about Bradbury’s writing.  His words twisted around and pulled you in.  They were poetic and descriptive, but not at the expense of story.  His poetry prose is what set him apart from other writers.

I think the best book about writing has to be Bradbury’s Zen In The Art of Writing:  Essays On Creativity (Capra Press, 1989).  “And what, you ask, does writing teach us?” he writes in the Preface.  “First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that is a gift and a privilege, not a right.  We must earn life once it has been awarded us.  Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.”  He goes on to say that “Not to write, for many of us, is to die.”  And write, he did.

My favorite Bradbury novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes (Avon Books, 1998).  In it, a carnival comes to town, bringing a malevolence that threatens the very existence of the characters.  In addition to the carnival tent, the games, the funhouse, a library also plays a major role in the plot.  It is a thread running through all of Bradbury’s work:  reading.  Of course, Fahrenheit 451 (Del Rey, 1991) was a staple in my classroom when I taught high school.  Los Angeles adopted the book as a One Book One City reading project several years ago.  I still have my commemorative pin.  According to Bradbury, he wrote only one science fiction book:  Fahrenheit 451.  “All the others are fantasy,” he said.  “Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.”

Whatever the classification, Ray Bradbury’s work is literature, and should be included in the books kids should read before leaving high school, right up there with Shakespeare and Salinger, Twain and Tolstoy.  Science fiction has long been considered a lesser art, but when done well, this literature is prophetic, insightful, and exciting.  I find Bradbury’s work appeals to boys, especially, although I am loathe to classify literature as “boy books versus girl books.”  How is it that stories set among aliens on a distant planet can reveal secrets of the human condition?  How is it that we can recognize our humanity, or lack thereof, in characters so unlike us?  Bradbury knew the secrets to those riddles.

“It is a wise writer who knows his own subconscious,” Bradbury writes at the end of Zen In The Art of Writing.  “And not only knows it but lets it speak of the world as it and it alone has sensed it and shaped it to its own truth.”  Ray Bradbury did all of that and more.  His imagination, poetic use of language, his incredible insights into the human condition will continue to thrill audiences for years to come.  Brother Ray, however, has journeyed on.