Friday, November 7, 2014

The Hamlet Returns

A few months ago, I wrote about a restaurant in my neighborhood that had been a part of my life for more than three decades.  Hamburger Hamlet closed in July, headed for bankruptcy court.  The windows looked blankly out on Van Nuys Boulevard, and those who ambled past the place each day saw dust and idle stoves, the bar swathed in black plastic trash bags.  I held out little hope that the place would rise from the ashes and make a comeback.

So I was surprised to drive by the other day and see bus boys cleaning the windows and signs of activity.  Something was happening.  A quick Google search gave me a most welcomed result:  yes, Hamburger Hamlet was open again, under new management, guided by the owners of the Killer Shrimp restaurants, one of whom started his career at Hamburger Hamlet working alongside original owners Marilyn and Harry Lewis.  Looking over the newly reconstituted menu, it is clear the owners wanted to bring back the classic hamburgers and dishes made famous in the original restaurants both here in Los Angeles and back east.

Earlier this week, I stopped in for dinner and received another surprise.  One of my former students, Dustin Belvedere, is the Director of Operations.  He greeted us at our table and we were able to reminisce about the days of yore.  Interestingly, he clearly remembered being assigned summer reading when he was in my junior high school English class.  In short, he hated having to read during the summer, and his family continues to tease him about it even now.  On those long ago days of summer break, if he became annoying, his parents would command him to leave them alone and “go read.”  In spite of his lackluster enthusiasm for books over the summer, it was good to see how well his life had turned out.

The food was, as the old Hamlet sign used to say, “simply marvelous.”  The lobster bisque and split pea soup are back, as are many of the classic burgers that had dropped off the menu in the last few years.  The ambiance remains intact, and some of the wait staff have also returned for another go around.  Of course, they are still ironing out the kinks—the restaurant will undergo remodeling after the first of the year, and more classic food items will be added back onto the menu soon—it was comforting to know our favorite comfort food place is back in operation.

After dinner, we walked to the newsstand at the corner of Ventura and Van Nuys Boulevards for our usual magazines and reading material.  The air was autumn crisp with a slight breeze.  For a week night, there were a lot of people enjoying the transition to November in southern California.  When I last wrote about Hamburger Hamlet, I said that things did not look promising for a resurgence of the brand.  I am very happy to say that at least for now, I was wrong.  Hamburger Hamlet is back.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Riding the 158

Every morning for the four years of high school, I would catch the 158 bus south down Woodman Avenue and every evening, I’d reverse the process and take it northbound back home.  Compared to the way my world is now, with maintenance, insurance, and traffic, the bus ride was cheaper.  Of course, if someone had asked me then, economy would not have mattered.  I was miserable.  First, I had to walk several blocks in the cold morning or blazing heat to the bus stop; then, I could pile my books and belongings on the seat next to me in the vain hope that the bus would not become too crowded and I would be forced to share a seat with some stranger.  On the way home, the kids from the public junior high school invaded the entire space, shouting and screaming, and even though I was older than most of them, they still intimidated me with their noise and obnoxious behavior.

I’d like to say I used my time wisely on those mornings and evenings, but I did not.  Mostly, I stared out the window, people-watching.  Many of them, like me, were simply following through on their daily routines, and therefore, I saw many of them every day in the same spot, as if frozen in an almost-still photograph.  I watched them and made up histories and stories for them.  The old lady who wobbled down the sidewalk from the supermarket carrying the ingredients for her evening meal.  The two gangbangers out on the stoop of an apartment building staring menacingly at the traffic.  The old duplex where my uncle and aunt used to live before they decamped for Palmdale.  The tiny music store that tempted me, once, to get off the bus early and go inside.  Sheet music, a few instruments, a lot of dust, so I mustered courage and asked the proprietor if he ever needed some help.  No, no, he muttered, he did not make enough money to hire anyone, and he was, in fact, selling the place if I knew any buyers.

As much as I tried to escape taking the bus, I always seemed to wind up back in my seat.  For a while, a co-worker from a job I picked up at a travel agency to pay my tuition used to drop me off on her way home, but she couldn’t do it with any regularity, so back to the 158 for me.  A classmate would pick me up some mornings as he drove by, but our schedules never seemed to match up properly to make it a regular occurrence.  The best time was when my father would lend me his truck.  Ahh, the freedom of one’s own car.  But those times were few and far between.

Once, on a hot May afternoon, I walked home from the school after playing in the band for graduation.  The trip that normally took about 20 minutes on the bus took more than two hours on foot.  And even though the neighborhood is dangerous now but not so much then, I still encountered some scary people on the trek home.  Their stories were clear in the glare of their eyes; no need for me to fictionalize them at all.  They were real life scary.  I also set a dangerous precedent by walking the route.  My mother decided if I could walk it once, I could do it more often when she didn’t want to drive down to pick me up.  The bus stopped running about eight o’clock in the evening, so when I was at band practice until ten at night, she was always tempted to tell me to walk home, although that would have meant a midnight arrival.  In the end, common sense and the fear of looking like a bad parent kept me safe and sound in the passenger seat of my family station wagon on those late nights.

In the era of the ‘80s, my era, the band Missing Persons had a song entitled “Walking in L.A.,” the main idea being that no one walks in L.A.  It is also true that no one takes public transportation in L.A. unless there is no other choice.  L.A. is a car city, and to be without wheels means walking the streets which are filled with cars but light on pedestrians, especially in the suburbs where I grew up.  In a place where you might be the only one walking down the street through neighborhoods of tract homes, you became a target for bullying and random acts of violence.  At one house on my route to and from the bus stop, the teenagers threw rocks, bottles and anything else they could find at me.  I did not know them, nor did I ever have any encounter with them previously.  It was simply a crime of opportunity.  Often when standing at the stop, people would throw things from their cars at me, or shout out obscenities and threats.  I often tried to figure out why this kept happening.  Was it something in the way I looked?  Did I stand in such a way as to invite violence?

What I’ve learned from being a bus rider, a walker, a bicyclist, a car commuter, is that Los Angeles is a hard city to travel in, and one best be careful on the streets.  Walking in New York has its own pitfalls and dangers, but there are lots of people walking, and there are cabs and subways, and people have options.  Here in Los Angeles, one either has a car, or one is at an extreme disadvantage.  Traffic is so bad that buses are often late or don’t show at all.  They are crowded and smelly.  Currently, there is a class action suit in progress originating with the bus operators who feel they were poisoned by the pesticide sprayed in the buses to ward off cockroaches and bed bugs.  One wonders if the daily passengers, the ones without options, should be part of that lawsuit.

Every day, a staff member at the college where I work walks two miles uphill in the morning and downhill in the evening to catch her bus.  I see her, walking through the mist and again, in the dusky twilight.  I’ve often stopped to offer her a ride, which she only occasionally accepts.  The most grueling part of her journey must be the uphill climb in the morning, as the campus sits on a hilltop.  In the heat of summer, I don’t know how she does it.  And she is not alone: there are many others making the uphill trek, domestics climbing to their jobs cleaning multi-million dollar homes.

We are a city of isolates, of loners, of people in their bubbles all moving toward something.  We are in our cars with satellite radio and entertainment systems.  As we pass one another, we see cartoons playing silently in the minivan next to us, or the man gesticulating wildly and talking to invisible people, utilizing his hands-free cell phone built into his car.  In a city where no one walks and only the desperate take public transportation, we try to build barriers to ward off the Other.  We avoid interaction because it threatens our equilibrium.  We surrender to the imaginary world where we control our own destiny because we have a car.  I drive, therefore I am.  But what I learned riding the 158 on Woodman Avenue for four years of high school is that even in a crowd, we are alone.  We do not control our destiny, nor the time it takes to reach our destination.  Regardless of how we arrive, we are the citizens of a constipated city in desperate need of some relief.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Time To Change the School Calendar

Here in Los Angeles, we are headed for a weekend of triple digit temperatures again, and it’s October.  As our sun-is-always-shining image morphs into a desert wasteland, it is time to revise the school calendar.

Global climate change has had a profound impact on our environment, and although ignorant people continue to question the science, you cannot ignore the most profound pieces of evidence:  the rising ocean levels, the melting ice caps on our poles, the wild weather and massive storms; and in the southland, the dried up lakes and reservoirs, the tinder-dry brush choking the canyons, and the dangerously high temperatures.  When those temps start to climb, the demand for electricity across the basin spikes, and air conditioners strain to handle the load.  Schools feel the effects as much as everyone else, even if they have air conditioners that work well.  The heat makes kids edgy and restless, especially if the temps are accompanied by their usual companion, the Santa Ana winds.  Joan Didion wrote my favorite essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” about these gusty, hot interlopers.

Years ago, LAUSD and other local school districts flirted with year-round class schedules, mostly due to overcrowding.  However, the plan lost its panache after a while and schools returned to the standard ten-month traditional year.  But here in southern California, we need to look, not so much at year-round scheduling, but shifting the summer break to take advantage of the changing nature of our seasons.  Most schools dismiss for the summer in early-to-mid June.  Some even release students in May.  Everyone returns to the classroom in August, often within the first week or two of the month.  If we mount a comparison of the temperatures within traditional summer months, May and June can be hot, but according to the Los Angeles Almanac, the average daily high for May in Los Angeles is 74 degrees; June averages 79-80 degrees.  These temps are manageable with air conditioning and shaded areas available to students during recess and lunch.  July, August, September and October have daily highs in the 80s.  The Weather Channel lists the highest recorded temperature for the Los Angeles region as 113 degrees in September of 2010.

Here is my proposal:  we break for the summer in July, possibly even mid-July.  Students are off from July 15th through October 15th.  By mid-October, the heat has left for the most part, and students can comfortably study and learn.  This means that the school year will run from October through July, but the number of school days will not change (most districts and private schools use a 180-200 day schedule).

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory discusses several studies revealing that students performed better in environmentally controlled classrooms with heat and air conditioning than in rooms without controls.  Of course, anyone who lives in the blazing southwestern U.S. can tell you that heat kills the brain.  You can fry an egg on the sidewalk and you can fry your brain in your brain pan.  The University of Georgia cites a study done by Herrington (1952) which found that students in classrooms with “temperatures above 80 degrees” experienced “harmful physiological effects that decrease work efficiency and output.”

At my wife’s Catholic school in Van Nuys, the students recently took their battery of standardized tests with some of the hottest temperatures outside for the year.  Her classroom has two window air conditioners that cannot cool the room filled with 25-30 students.  One can assume that those test scores will be impacted by the environment in which they were administered, and since test scores are the measure of success in the modern classroom, is it fair for student progress to be evaluated in this way?  Is it fair to evaluate teachers working in such conditions based on the scores of tests administered during a heat wave?

Why students have traditionally gone on summer break June through August is often attributed to the agrarian calendar formulated when much of America worked the land and needed summers for field work, but this is not true.  If schools followed an agrarian schedule, they would be off in spring for planting and in fall for harvesting.  State Impact: A Reporting Project of NPR Member Stations quotes Assistant Professor at CUNY Kenneth Gold, who explained that schools in America did once have a year-round school calendar.  In 1842 New York, students had 248 school days throughout the winter and summer months.  The report goes on to list several reasons for the fall-winter schedule with summers free:

1.      Standardized school years.  School reformers wanted to get rural and urban schools on the same schedule.  Since rural areas had two terms—in the summer and winter—and urban schools ran year round, a compromise had to be struck.  But, why summer?

2.      In rural areas, the summer term was seen as “weak.”  Gold said the summer term in rural neighborhoods tended to be taught by young girls in their mid to late teens.  On the other hand, schoolmasters, generally older males, taught the winter terms.  Because of this, the summer terms were seen as academically weaker.

3.      In urban areas, rich families vacationed in the summer.  City schools were trying to limit the school year in the mid-19th century anyway, to adjust to the schedules of wealthy families who would generally go on vacation in the summer.

4.      It’s hot in the summer.  The school buildings of the 19th century weren’t exactly air-conditioned.  Heat during the summer months would often become unbearable.

5.      Summer gives teachers time to train and get ready for next year.  In the 19th century teachers didn’t really go to college or get certified, so Gold said they would use the summer months to train.

6.      Doctors thought kids would need a break.  This idea isn’t given much medical credit these days, but Gold said back in the 19th century it was believed medically unsound for students to be confined to a classroom year-round.

Those school buildings of the 21st century are not all that much cooler than those of the 19th.

LAUSD and all area private schools need to re-examine the school calendar and make changes.  The drought, the extreme heat, the weather anomalies are not an aberration or a temporary fluke in a single year.  Most experts believe the drought will be with us for years to come, and that Los Angeles will be a lot warmer in the future.  Winter may even become a thing of the past.  By all predictions, we may soon be looking at a year with only two seasons:  spring and summer.  Those who will survive the colder and more arctic winters in the east, also a result of climate change, will continue to admire L.A. weather from afar, drawing conclusions from watching the sunny Rose Parade every January.  The reality, though, is far more impactful, and the consequences to student learning could be disastrous.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

If I Take the Wings of Dawn

for Laura Michaelian (1922-2013)

Earlier this week, while stuck in gridlocked traffic on Sepulveda Boulevard through the pass here on the west side of Los Angeles, a young deer, a buck with forked horns, ambled out of the brush on the side of the road and walked up to the passenger window of my car.  He stared at me intently for several moments, maybe even a minute, and clearly in my head I heard his voice:  “What are you doing with your life?”

Before you accuse me of driving under the influence, or question how I knew it was the deer’s voice, let me just say in my defense that although I was listening on the radio to the predictions of400,000 Ebola cases by the end of January and the report of how tumbleweeds have taken over whole neighborhoods in my drought-plagued city, I was not hysterical or even close to falling over the edge into insanity.  The only thing I can say is that the deer gave voice to a question that has been running around in my dreams for months now:  “What are you doing with your life?”

My problem is, I keep waiting for something.  A sign, a hint, a door left opened.  Is that wrong?  I mean, there has to be more to existence here in my fiftieth year than sitting in two hours of traffic each day only to fall into bed every night wondering exactly what I accomplished that day, or worse, what will I accomplish tomorrow, or next month, or in the years ahead?  What does it really mean if you feel as if every part of your life is a wrong turn off the existential highway?  I think of the phrase, “in the weeds.”  Is it normal to feel, on every level, in every situation, that I am “in the weeds?”  It is not just that I am entangled in the details and complexities of my life; those details and complexities are things I never thought I’d be entangled in, much less have to take ownership for, but here we are.  I own the wrong life.  However, I can hear a literal Greek chorus of wise men from Plato to William Michaelian tell me that there is no “right” or “wrong” life.  There is just life.  Live it, and quit your belly-aching.  (Okay, that last line sounded more like my mother from Kentucky.)

We live in moments, crystal drops of time that fall and shatter and wash away to become fragments of memory.  From dust we were created and to dust we shall return.  It is so difficult, so heartbreakingly frustrating, so profoundly vast and empty, to contemplate the fact that the world will go on, quite efficiently, without us.

I remember a religious studies professor I had as an undergraduate, the same man who married my wife and me in his church 27 years ago.  He told us once that as he was driving home one evening, he came to a stop by the side of the road with the premonition that he would die soon, and almost everyone on earth would not care.  Outside of his family and a few friends, his death would escape notice.  No tributes. No public monuments.  No lasting work—a great novel or philosophical treatise—to leave behind.  Just a quiet slipping away into the dusk.  Very few of us are Shakespeare.  Our reputations will not transcend the end of our earthly bodies.  We die twice, once at our deaths, and then again when everyone alive who remembers us dies.  How do we live in such a world?  My teacher broke down and sobbed in his car, and this from a Congregationalist minister not given to highly emotional outbursts or bouts of narcissism.  His was a stoic, New England persona, and a deeply serious man trying to express something dark and disturbing:  the absence of being in the world.

Although mortal, I am trying with every fiber of my being not to be.  How do we live in a world where we are destined to die?  We live well, with good works and intentions.  We create art and beauty, we celebrate truth, we extend a hand, we listen, we meditate, we hold close those we love.  We get up each morning and wind the clock of existence, day after day, so that time does not run out on us.  But it will.  It always does.  Time flies, and then there is darkness.  But still, we try to hang on to the light.

The deer by the side of Sepulveda Boulevard looked deep into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity, a plasma pause in the universe of light.  Then he snorted and broke the spell.  He shook his head from side to side, turned, and ambled away.  I watched him pass the other cars behind me, stopping for a moment to look at each driver.  I guess he still had not found the answer he was looking for.