Friday, September 28, 2012

We Gather For History: Space Shuttle Endeavor

On a hot, first day of autumn in Los Angeles, students and teachers from Mount St. Mary's College, Chalon campus gathered together to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavor fly over on its way to retirement at the California Science Center near USC. Here are some candid shots of the crowd; without a telephoto lens, the shuttle itself is but a dot in the hazy blue sky.

Students gather on the porch of the Humanities Building

Looking north from the parking structure at the Humanities Building

Looking down from the parking structure at Carondelet Center

Students who braved the intense heat and sun were finally rewarded.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I Drive In L.A., Therefore I Am

It's time to get all existential. Carmageddon II will commence this weekend, and yesterday, Angelenos learned they will have to get by with only one television traffic helicopter hovering over the empty freeway. What if there were none? If no one is on the freeway, it is completely empty and desolate from the San Fernando Valley to the 10 on the west side, does the freeway exist? Do we, who normally travel said freeway, exist? We will be spared having to answer those questions because there will be at least one helicopter present to prove the 405 is real, if closed for the weekend.

LAObserved detailed how this small but well-traveled strip of freeway may result in a citywide traffic jam:

"The Dodgers will also be playing with the playoffs on the line, Placido Domingo will be singing at the Los Angeles Opera, the Hollywood Bowl will present the Go-Gos and Willco, the West Hollywood Book Fair will take place, and there will be special events at many local museums. Clearly, a lot of people will be driving"

There will also be something called the Herbalife Triathlon running from the beach in Venice to downtown L.A. Get out of the way for 2500 participants swimming, biking, running and whatever else they do in triathlon.

In traffic, the driver exists in a bubble. It is a lonely communal experience, often involving the same people at the same time every morning of the week, and again in the evening when the day is done. I recognize my fellow commuters by their bumper stickers, their personalized license plates, or in one case, by the way the driver flails around in the car playing air drums. I think he is looking for extra attention. There are the assorted nose pickers, ear wax miners, furtive texters, shavers, makeup artists and one guy who seemed to be getting undressed, although I only saw him once, thank God.

Every day of our lives, the traffic inches along. All those minutes leeching off into the void.

I start my commute with NPR, followed by station surfing, but that gets old because radio seems to think that what we really want in the morning drive time is talking. You're not funny people; play some music. I usually end up with silence. I embrace the isolation among the masses yearning to get to work on time.

I had planned to get to a library this weekend to research a piece I'm writing on the personification of death from ancient Greeks through the plague years. One of those uplifting projects that almost writes itself. Instead, I'll stay home and digitally commute to the resources I need. With all this doomsday Carmageddon II talk, I'm afraid the Grim Reaper himself might be stuck in gridlock on his way to his appointed rounds.

Monday morning, we'll all be back on the road, fighting the good fight to get to work and earn a buck. Los Angeles will have survived the end of the world yet again. And those of us on the highways and byways will have plenty of time to ponder the existential question: could I get away with calling in sick today?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Fire Next Time

I got a small taste of what Armageddon might look like yesterday.  About 3:30 PM, a brush fire broke out in the Sepulveda Pass, a canyon I travel every day to and from the office.  Almost at the same time, due east, a transformer exploded at the top of Coldwater Canyon at Mulholland, starting a second brush fire there.  Within the hour, a third fire broke out along Interstate 5 near Dodger Stadium, shortly before crowds were to arrive for one of the final home games of the season.  The ambient outside temperature during this event was between 102 and 106 degrees.

As I made my way toward the pass and home, I was confronted with gridlocked traffic and a huge and growing plume of smoke in the clear September sky.  There are two ways to travel through the Sepulveda Pass:  Sepulveda Boulevard, a winding, mostly two lane canyon road, and Interstate 405, which is currently undergoing a billion dollar widening project.  On the radio, I heard that the boulevard was closed in both directions, and that the freeway would soon be shut down as well.  The large number of fire trucks and LAPD cars screaming by me as I waited on Sunset Boulevard attested to the truth of the radio report.  In front of me, as if to add insult to injury, a large articulated MTA bus broke down.  I gingerly inched my way down to Sepulveda around the bus and coned off lanes, set my GPS for home, and turned south on Sepulveda, away from my destination.  Traveling south, I passed endless lines of cars simply parked in the northbound lanes; no one was moving.  Using my car GPS which simply gives a route, and my phone GPS which actually links to real-time traffic, I found myself at Wilshire Boulevard.  The left turn lane was backed up for more than a quarter mile; no way to turn east.

If Sepulveda and the 405 are shut down, the next best option is Beverly Glen about five miles east.  It, too, is a winding canyon road.  Further east is Coldwater Canyon, also closed, and beyond that, Laurel Canyon and the 101 freeway, but they were many miles away.  The only option was to find a way east to get to Beverly Glen.  I found myself wandering through Westwood on side streets, circling around the UCLA campus and eventually meeting up with Beverly Glen.  Traffic was inching up the canyon, but it was moving.  I made the turn and was finally heading north.

Now comes the existential part.  Why was I here?  I was driving home from work.  And what would happen if all northbound access points were blocked?  Today, only three were blocked, and evidently, Coldwater Canyon was not as serious as the pass fire.  It was clear that here in Los Angeles, we are not prepared for the kind of apocalyptic traffic nightmare that would occur if a major earthquake hit while we were all at work, or a major terrorist attack broke out at high noon on say a Wednesday.  There is a large range of smaller mountains—the Santa Monicas or the Hollywood Hills—that stand between L.A. proper, where millions make their money each day, and the San Fernando Valley, where millions of people live.  With the suddenness of a flash flood, I realized why experts say to keep water, food and a change of shoes in the car.  I could easily picture myself camped out along a street somewhere, waiting for debris or flames to be cleared so I could make it home.  Not a pleasant thought.

This time, I was lucky.  It took me two and a half hours to complete the drive to my home.  This same commute, without traffic, would normally take me twenty minutes.  The fact that I left work exactly when the fire started saved me, because I was able to make it out before traffic locked down completely.  Still, it is a little disconcerting that a commute to work takes as long as driving half the coast of California.  It is only two hours tops to San Diego, less than that to Santa Barbara, and three to four hours to San Luis Obispo.

But the real question is, how far is too far to make a buck?  What about all those minutes, even on a good day, that we spend in the car traveling to and from our jobs?  Maybe it is a question more imperative for people in Los Angeles, because we have a second-rate transit system, a group of buses and subways that people take only if they have no choice.  During the morning and evening commutes, I see almost every car with a single person inside.  If we can, traveling to work is a solo effort.  Yes, lots of people take transit buses, and there are vanpools and I am sure, some people who carpool, but there are too many of us on the roads these days, and our commutes for our precious jobs are just too far.  If someone commutes across town, he or she is lucky.  Some people drive 60 miles to work, like my brother-in-law, with a daily total of 120 miles five days a week.  Interestingly enough, he drives one of those MTA transit buses for a living.

As for the fire, it still smolders today, and L.A. city fire did an extraordinary job of keeping it from becoming a major disaster.  The water-dropping helicopters and Super Scoopers swept in and dumped their loads on the fire lines, and crews quickly cut away fuel and drew a circle around the flames.  They are mopping up today with the hope of reopening Sepulveda on Sunday.  The 405 freeway never in fact closed, however it did come to pretty much a standstill for most of Friday evening.

On Monday morning, I will be headed back that way for another day of work, as will millions of other people.  We will snake our way up canyon roads and up the onramps to the clogged freeways, hoping against hope that Armageddon will not come today, and that we will all make it home alive and within a reasonable amount of time once the day is done.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Gehenna (Part II)

Photo courtesy of Chips and Salsa Today blog

These are the things that haunt us.  There is a woman floating among the tables on the Catholic Worker patio.  Shrouded in white, clean, hair freshly washed, eyes vacant.  She is dream-like, hallucinatory.  Then it registers, across her chest, LAC+USC Hospital.  I realize she is wearing two gowns, one tied in the front, one tied in the back.  Barefoot.  On her wrist, the distinctive plastic bracelet.  She sits on the corner of a table, spine straight, dignified.  I know her story.  Homeless patients from the county hospital get dumped back on Skid Row, often without their possessions or any provisions for their self-treatment.

*          *          *          *          *          *

“Water man!  I need water over here!”

The clients have taken their seats at the picnic tables on the patio.  The line still runs out to the street, and they cannot get enough water.  As I move quickly, table to table, the clients in the line also ask me for a cup and some water.  It is the heat, the humidity, and something else:  the food is spicy hot.  In an effort to create flavor in blandness, the cooks have loaded up on hot sauce and peppers.  There is also a cart manned by an attractive volunteer.  Clients stop by on their way to the tables to put more spicy condiments on their food.  They ask for spoonfuls ladled over their plates, or to fill paper cups.  There are tables set up nearby with bins of diced onions, jalapeno peppers, and the bell peppers I chopped.  They want taste, but the sauces and vegetables simply create heat, and then, no one can get enough water.  It is comic irony, but there is no time for a chuckle.

“Water man!  Hurry, I need water.  My mouth is on fire.”

I draw my pitcher from a barrel, and rush from one end of the patio to the other, filling paper cups.  “Sir, agua?” I ask one man.  “Ma’am, more water?”  When I call them sir or ma’am, it is as if I have given them a compliment.  They visibly straighten and smile, the lost look runs away from their faces, and they lock eyes with me.  Dignity becomes a tangible thing, all because of a sir or ma’am.

Several complain that the water from my pitcher is not cold enough.  I go back inside to the kitchen to find another water barrel; this one has been full of ice and water for longer, so it’s colder.  I scoop up a pitcher and make for the patio.  On my way out, I notice that many people in line for food have containers and jars.  Once they have a full plate, they ask the server to fill their plastic containers for later.  One man has only a vegetable bag from the supermarket.  “I’m afraid it will melt,” the server tells him.

“Please, please, fill it.”

She ladles the tuna noodles into the bag.  The man twists and ties a knot.  The bag holds for now.

Back out on the patio, I continue to move quickly to fill the outstretched cups.  At the back and center of the dining area is a fountain.  In this oasis of food and comfort, the fountain offers a Zen-like peace.  A woman crouches at the very edge, rocking gently back and forth on her heels.  She is humming to herself, but I cannot make out the tune.  It sounds like a lullaby.  “Ma’am, would you like some water?” I ask her.  She visibly shrinks from my words and from me, waving her hand frantically in the air.  I move on and leave her alone.

“Hey, hey, man,” a toothless Latino stops me.

“Would you like water?”

“No water.  Listen, man, could you help me.  I’ll work for it, I’ll do whatever you need.  I have to get a bus ticket home.  You know, it’s like ten or fifteen bucks, and I ain’t got it.  But I’ll work for it, I promise.  Do you know someone who can help me?  I need to get back home to Santa Maria.  It’s up north.”

“I’ll get you some help,” I offer, and go to find one of the workers.  When I return, he tells the woman the same story, but she cannot give him fifteen dollars.  They do not just hand out money to people.  The man becomes a little more edgy and insistent.

“Look, I just need to get home.  Can’t you help me?”  Then another thought strikes him.  “Listen, can I use the phone?  I can call someone to wire me the money.”

Another diner nearby, a man wearing several coats in the heat and humidity, perks up.  “Here, man, use mine.”  He holds out a cell phone.  Homeless people with cell phones?  When I pass by them later, the bus ticket guy is talking urgently into the cell phone, pleading for help.

“Ma’am, some water?” I ask a chubby, middle-aged woman with a cherubic face.

“Oh, dearie, you must be new here.”  I nod breathlessly and catch the corner of the table for balance.  “And you don’t look so good.”

I fill her cup while pondering her English accent.  “I’m fine,” I tell her.

“Where am I?”

I notice she is very clean and her nails are painted.  “You’re at the Catholic Worker.”

“Oh, they are so nice.  That’s the place started by Dorothy Day.  When did she die?”

All I have learned and read runs away from my dehydrated brain.  “I think in the 1960s.”

I go to the barrel to swoosh up another pitcher of ice water.  Jeff Dietrich, the leader of Catholic Worker L.A., stands nearby supervising the patio.  I ask him when Dorothy Day died, and he snorts out a reply:  1980.

As I continue to move among the clients, a low-hanging branch rips off my hair net along with a chunk of hair.  Oh well.  My Saran-Wrap gloves are also in tatters.  I strip them off and drop them into a trash can.  I am no longer handling food, so I don’t think I need them.  My hands welcome the chance to breathe, but they still feel slimy from the thin plastic sheeting.  A man calls out to me for water.  I come up behind him to fill his glass, but I involuntarily recoil.  His hair is alive with lice.  I am suddenly reminded that the people behind the empty cups are in dire shape.  Many have needle tracks up and down their bare arms.  There are skin infections and sores.  There are casts and splints.  And there are bugs—flies, worms, lice, and other creepy-crawly things.

A face looms in front of me.  “Hey, I don’t want to bust your balls,” the man says, but you need gloves.”  He is a volunteer, and his words don’t fully register.  “Some of the people are complaining.  I just thought you should know.  Go get gloves.”  I do as I am told.

I come to a table in a corner of the patio where the men glower at each other and eat in silence.  One man, white and middle-aged, has a store-bought water bottle that he wants me to fill.  As I am pouring in the water, he sneezes into his hand.  “Bless you,” I say automatically.

“Hey, don’t blow your nose while I’m eating, you dirty sonofabitch!” one of the other guys says.  I take a step back.

“I’m not a dirty sonofabitch, but you’re an asshole.”

The complainer stands up, and for a second, I see a fight coming and I am between them.  “Fuck you,” says the sneezer.

Thankfully, the complainer moves to another table.  I turn to see Jeff Dietrich standing nearby, watching intently.  Is he watching my reaction, or is he anticipating trouble?  And with his small stature and bad knee, what would he be prepared to do?  The trouble, this time, dissipates.

In one corner of the patio, the homeless get to leave their carts while they eat.  The area is blocked off and secure.  This is also where Catholic Worker people issue carts to those who do not have them.  It is a major problem on the street when the cops bust the homeless for “stealing carts” from local businesses.  The homeless lose their possessions when their carts are impounded, and they have no way to move around Skid Row.  The Catholic Worker started a program where they buy carts and issue them to the homeless, clearly marking them so that the cops know to leave them alone.  This is one problem of which I am completely ignorant.  Who knew that a shopping cart might be considered property worth the risk of injury or death, but on Skid Row everything is in the shopping cart.  Therefore, the homeless are simply fighting to protect their last possessions, the things absolutely necessary for survival.

The line is still long, and the diners have changed over several times.  Each table brings new faces, and the demand for water is unceasing.  There are clients with the thousand yard stare, as if they have been in the war zone too long.  There are the normal conversations that one might hear in a restaurant.  Three men are discussing the Lakers with a worker, the ins and outs of recent trades and the team’s chances of winning another championship.  A woman face down on the table suddenly raises her head and calls out for water.  She is black, but her face is coated in what appears to be white paint.  I study her complexion as I fill her glass.  I cannot tell why her face is painted this way.  There are no marks or sores, so the white is definitely not a cream or ointment.  I pass another table where two women are reading the Bible.  As I fill glasses, I realize one of the Bible students is a man in drag.  He is wearing a miniskirt and a low-cut top.  A construction worker carrying a heaping plate of food exits from the line and leaves the patio.  Should a man with a job be allowed to get free food?  He returns several times for more, but no one from the Catholic Worker seems to notice.  There are Hispanic gang bangers lining up as well, with pressed white tee shirts and clean shorts and socks.  Do they qualify as poor and indigent?  Two black guys in suits come through, rings on nearly every finger and big gold medallions around their necks.  Not exactly my view of a person in poverty, but several workers know them.  “I love you all,” one of the black men calls out to the kitchen staff as he exits.

As the diners dwindle, my final job for the day is to dry dishes.  At this point, my legs are rubber and the bustle of activity has taken on a hallucinatory haze.  Spots and shadows cloud my vision, and my tongue feels swollen in my mouth.  I am in no shape for this work, and I hope my condition has gone unnoticed.  But in the middle of drying the dishes, Mike calls me over and dismisses me for the day.  I am the first one to be let go from the volunteers, and I cannot help but think that it is because of my lack of physical stamina.

Before I leave, I take a last look around.  The dining patio is still full.  Some of the homeless have taken the opportunity to sleep on the tables and benches.  Patients still wait at the health clinic.  I wonder what will ultimately happen to these people.  It is good work to feed them three times a week, to try to give them medical attention, to provide them with carts and clothing, but those are immediate needs.  Will they ever escape the street?  Jeff Dietrich and his workers have been doing this for forty years now, and I am sure the line at the gate is just as long today as it was in the 1970s.  The faces change, but the problems remain.

Out on the street, I walk to my car, careful not to step on the bodies already staking out their places on the sidewalk.  The noon sun burns hot.  Across the street, a dog savagely attacks the fence as a homeless man passes.  Near my car, a dead tree offers two men scant shade to lounge on their sleeping bags.  One rolls around laughing, holding a blunt in his hand.  “Hey, dude,” he calls to me.  “Do you know how to sing Hakuna Matata?”  He laughs at his own question.  Aside from the obvious Lion King reference, I find it ironic that the title is Swahili for “There are no worries.”

I wave to the men, get in my car and head for home, full of questions and deeply disturbed.