Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ghosts of Summer (A Photo Essay)

All photographs are of  St. Elisabeth School, Van Nuys, California, June, 2014

Schools are lonely places during the summer months, filled with ghosts and shadows and long graduated voices.  Teachers pack away the books and pencils, grades are turned in, and the hallways and playgrounds wait for the fall, the time when education begins again for another year.

But what follows involves a mystery, something substantial in the ghostly haunts of empty classrooms. Below is a class picture from St. Elisabeth School in Van Nuys, which first opened its doors in 1928, meaning that literally hundreds, maybe thousands of students have traveled through its halls.  In this class picture from 2002, a legend was born.  Although many teachers and students claim the school is haunted, and back up their assertions with stories of ghostly nuns and figures wandering the halls, the picture below stands out for the extra figure standing with the graduates.

The picture is very wide, approximately twenty-four inches, so the frame above is only half the class, but for the spirit world, it is the most important half.  Examine carefully the focused area below.

Between those two graduates, do you see anything?  Let's zoom in for a closer look.

It is the ghostly figure of a man peering out between the two boys.  He appears to be older, wearing a light-colored shirt and a beige coat.  At the time the picture was taken, no such man was anywhere in the vicinity.  In fact, the photographer and teachers made sure no one interfered with this special graduation photograph.  Yet, there he is.

He appears in the black and white version as well as the negative shot.

In this version, though, he appears less substantial than the flesh and blood graduates.

Is it farfetched to think that the ghosts of teachers and students might haunt the halls of their alma maters long after the last notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" have died away?  Human beings experience many things in classrooms.  For many, those years might have been the best, or worst, time of their lives.

So we say goodbye to books and lessons, we put away our uniforms and school shoes.  September is far away, and ahead we see only the days of summer.  Another year ends.  The school hallways are empty of the living; the ghosts, however, are free to roam where they will.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Day-Trippin' in Search of Good Reading

It seems like just a few years ago that we were mourning the loss of independent bookstores.  Those neighborhood places that fostered community were being edged out by chain stores offering a wider selection and discounted prices.  Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Brentanos were the mighty triumvirate, ubiquitous in every mall and often with multiple stores within a few miles of one another.  But how the mighty have fallen!  Where there were three, now there is one: Amazon.  Strange thing, though.  The independents have made a comeback, offering good service and allowing that most important of retail customer behaviors:  browsing.

One such place is not in Los Angeles proper where there are several excellent independent bookstores like Vroman’s in Pasadena, but eighty miles north in Santa Barbara.  The place is called Chaucer’s Books, and it has been alive since 1974 serving Los Angeles’ version of the Hamptons, a vacation community in summer, a college town in winter.  Yes, the prices are shamelessly without discount and the same books can be found more cheaply on Amazon, but the browsing is what keeps me coming back.  The Amazonian algorithm can suck it; I rarely have anything interesting recommended to me by the digital gods at Amazon.  However, at Chaucer’s, I always find books I never knew existed, and this is from someone who pays attention to publishing news and gossip.  Because they offer me such an eclectic selection as well as ample time to browse, I’ll drop some dollars there when I’m in SB day-tripping.

In addition to books, the store carries a huge selection of cards, calendars, journals, and other reading life bric-a-brac.  They have a children’s department separate from the main store with an extensive stockpile of kiddie lit.  In a glass case on one side of the store are rare and hard to find books, such as coffee table tomes and art house publications.  They regularly feature local Santa Barbara writers like Douglas Adams and Christopher Buckley (no, not the political writer but the poet-essayist).

My only criticism of the place is that the aisles are narrow.  Overstock is stacked on top of the bookshelves or at the base, making it difficult when looking on the lower shelves.  Many times, I had to get down on my knees to peer at the lowest stacks, but I was amply rewarded with some good finds.  They have an extensive collection of religion and philosophy books as well as history and the decorative arts.

Chaucer’s Books has drawn me to Santa Barbara time and again.  Yes, the city is beautiful with the ocean breeze and the laid back atmosphere, but SB is not just a pretty face.  There is an intellectual life there, too, and Chaucer’s is the best evidence of it.  The town is a little crowded in summer, and I prefer the colder months when most of the tourists are back home and the city is quieter.  Nothing like a little rain on the roof while browsing for books.  Chaucer’s contact details are listed on their website.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Barrio Van Nuys

Summer has arrived, although the official solstice isn’t for a few weeks yet.  With the warmer weather, people are out and about, especially on a beautiful, balmy Friday night in the city.  I stood outside a Catholic church in Van Nuys and listened to the singing and prayers of an evening service while the life of the streets swirled around me.  Even on into the night, people milled around, talking, laughing, enjoying the end of a work week.  In the parish hall, eighth grade students celebrated their upcoming graduation with a dinner and a dance.  There were sirens on Van Nuys Boulevard a few blocks away, and a number of street denizens parked their shopping carts and lit a candle at the statue of the Virgin Mary in a grotto just off the street.  The avenues around Van Nuys High School were empty except for some skateboarders catapulting themselves off the steps in front of the school.  There was a nice breeze blowing, and the air was soft and summery, a perfect June evening in southern California.  In the midst of ramshackle houses and apartments, walking the streets of the barrio, the city for a moment was absolutely beautiful in its decay, a rare perfect moment where the angels of the city seemed to whisper and float down the streets, and the pulse of life presented itself in the voices of the people, their laughter and their stories.  I stood with my camera and simply listened to this life symphony.  Here comes summer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Crossing the Line

“Donald Sterling accused of racist, sexist remarks in new lawsuit.”
                                                                                                           Los Angeles Times  6/2/14

I stood just inside the doorway of the mall security office watching the teenage suspect, a black kid about sixteen years old.  He sat in a chair at a scarred, wooden table while across from him, a tough, no nonsense, off duty cop named Robert filled out the arrest report.  Between them on the table was a line of six Swatch watches, all the rage in the 1980s.  I thought the watches were ugly, but then what did I know, a college student trying to finance his education by working as a uniformed security guard at a mall.

Robert, a tall, African-American with twenty years on the force, was one of my favorite cops to work with because he took the job seriously.  That set him apart from the other jokesters who moonlighted at the shopping center.  Those cops could always be found sleeping in their unmarked mall rental cars or flirting with the teenage girls who worked the shops along the plaza.  Robert could be found reading the newspaper at the food court, and if you needed him on a call, he always responded.  He never condescended to the security staff or belittled us.  In a way, I admired him because he seemed more enlightened than the other off duty cops.

The kid had the misfortune of trying to shoplift the watches right in front of Robert as he walked through the department store looking for his wife’s anniversary gift.  He saw him sweep the watches from a display into an empty store shopping bag and make for the exit.  Robert followed him out into the mall and arrested him.  The kid never had the chance to run, although he immediately insisted that he paid for the watches but dropped the receipt somewhere.

“Man, this sucks,” he whined.  “I bought them watches.  Paid for ‘em with cash, too.”  Robert ignored him and kept writing out his report.  “Man, can’t a brother give another brother a break?”

Robert stopped writing and stared at the kid.  He glanced in my direction and motioned for me to close the door.  In a single fluid movement he grabbed a handful of the kid’s shirt from across the table and pulled him out of his seat.  “I’m black,” he hissed into the kid’s face, “but you’re a nigger!  I am not your brother!”

There was something about the brutal way he used the racial slur that made my stomach turn, as if he had physically slugged the kid in the face.  The room itself seemed to go dark, and I wanted to run outside for air.  Robert pushed the startled kid back into his chair.

In my job at the mall, we were given sensitivity training before we put on the polyester uniform and the plastic badge.  We were told that if we used racial language or acted in a discriminatory fashion, we would be fired immediately and escorted off the property.  The off duty cops we worked with didn’t follow those rules.  Racist and sexist language was a part of their culture, and they used those words for emphasis and punctuation.  What I found strange was how being a police officer separated them from civilians so completely that cops like Robert stopped being black, or Hispanic, or Asian, and seemed to exist without racial identification.  They were police and everyone else was just everyone else, or simply the enemy.  I witnessed firsthand the “us against them” mentality that would eventually culminate in a black man “proned” out on the payment and beaten by four officers on that fateful night in 1991 when Rodney King went down.

Words today have the same power for me now as they did in that tiny security office thirty years ago.  Words betray the thoughts of the author, and they must always be used cautiously.  They reveal character as well as wisdom and ignorance in equal measures.  Because words are my tools, I am always cognizant of this, and when I see someone’s words detonate in the air around him, I am reminded again how dangerous words can be.

After the uniformed cops showed up to take the kid and the evidence away, I ask Robert about his words.  “Why should you have a problem with one black man calling another one out?” he said.

His glare intimidated me.  “I was just uncomfortable,” I replied, feeling ashamed for questioning him, even though I feel now that I was right to do so.

“Get over it.”

Here in Los Angeles, thirty years later, I don’t think I ever will.