Monday, June 29, 2015

Not Quite As Fast As A Speeding Bullet

Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times

As I followed the manhunt and eventual killing of Richard Matt and capture of David Sweat in upstate New York this weekend, I marveled at the job police officers do in this country every day.

We welcome their intervention when bullets fly and innocent people are in danger, but we rail against them when they beat a Kelly Thomas to death or shoot down an Ezell Ford in cold blood.  But there are many sides to every story.

Some nights, I listen to LAPD scanner traffic over a website listed below, and I am always shocked about how many calls involving guns and gunshots come out over the airwaves.  I know the officers must go into these areas not knowing who the bad guys are, who is armed, and who is ready to kill them.  Adrenaline flows, and people get hurt.  It is easy to point fingers after the fact, but in that split second, the brain does not compute as fast as a speeding bullet hits its mark.  And that is the reality in an America where everyone is armed.

I wish we could banish guns from our streets so that officers would not have to bring in military grade hardware to combat street crime, but until we pass more stringent gun laws in this country, or negate the Second Amendment altogether, we will always be haunted by the bloody trajectory of that speeding bullet.

There is no incident in recent memory that demonstrates the danger police officers face every day and the murderous consequences of gun violence than the North Hollywood Bank of America robbery and shootout of 1997.  I’ve attached below the full police scanner traffic of that day which included the takedown of two very dangerous and deadly felons as well as charges that when it was all over, officers let one of the suspects bleed to death on the pavement.  Some would argue he deserved it, that it was street justice.  Whatever it was, the terror is evident in the police officers facing these heavily armed men and the dispatchers who tried to get them help.  It was a bloody day in Los Angeles history, and one worth remembering when we consider the job of policing the streets of America.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Heat and the Dust

Nhat V. Meyer McClatchy-Tribune

The patch of dirt outside my door at the front of my apartment building smells like dog urine.  The grass is long dead and worn away.  Next door, the duplex has a “lawn” of mixed dry weeds and crab grass (the only grass that seems to thrive without water).  The owner of that building has reduced his watering to once every two weeks.  Across the street, the homeowner ripped out his lawn altogether and replaced it with white rocks.  Papers and trash swirl in the street and the slightest breeze brings a dust storm of gritty particulate and dead, dry leaves.  The neighborhood looks windblown and arid.  A foreclosed home around the corner has been redeveloped into small apartments.  Where those potential renters will park is anyone’s guess because the street parking is always full from the tire store and car dealerships on the boulevard up the street.  My neighborhood has become an industrial wasteland due to drought and overcrowding.

In the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Joad family sees California as a modern promised land where the earth is fertile and opportunities abound.  The grandfather dreams of sitting himself in a tub of grapes and “squirshing around,” symbolizing the abundance of the farmlands of the region.  In California, Grandpa Joad thinks, you can bathe in grapes!  What they find is much different from their idealized version.

Anyone traveling to California today might also find a land very different from what he or she has envisioned.  California is not the promised land.  It is a place that does not live up to its dreamy fiction, and the drought has made that all the more apparent to anyone who takes a good look around.

Freeways are littered with trash.  The landscaping is dead due to the lack of water, and pot holes and the rough pavement can rattle a car’s suspension system until it feels as if the tires will fall off.  Trees stand dead and brown, diseased or dehydrated.  The famous stucco houses and apartment buildings are streaked with dirt.  Los Angeles, in many places, has become an ugly city.

Homeless people from all over come to L.A. because the weather is mild and consistent.  But with global warming, we are having more and more triple-digit days and that makes it rough on the homeless population.  Los Angeles is ill-prepared to deal with a heat crisis like we see today in Pakistan with close to a thousand people dying of heat-related conditions.  The number of tents in parks, in alcoves on thoroughfares, on the sides of the freeways, has grown.  Signs proliferate:  “Will work for food.”  “Homeless vet.”  “Large family needs assistance.”  And of course, every sign has the same sign off:  “God bless.”  In what promises to be a smoky, hot, dusty summer, God’s mercy will definitely be needed by those who live rough on the streets and alleys of L.A.

Mindy Schauer Orange County Register

Of all of Los Angeles’ most pressing needs—affordable housing, renewed infrastructure, better city services—the most serious is water, the stuff of life.  The drought is killing us.  There are a few signs of hope, however.  The Pacific is warmer and that might lead to a wet El Nino winter.  In addition, there are red crabs washing upon beaches from Orange County to northern Los Angeles County, usually a precursor to the El Nino phenomenon.  We can only hope this means a wet winter is coming, but it would take several wet years to undo the damage that has been done by this drought.

Los Angeles has always been a city challenged by water issues.  Joan Didion wrote about it in one of her essays entitled “Holy Water.”  William Mulholland stole the water rights from the Owens Valley with his construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  Global climate change has only exacerbated the problem now, and the prognosis, whether or not politicians disagree with the scientists, is dire.

Down the street from my dog-piss dirt patch, the city recently installed artificial turf on the center median of the boulevard to avoid using water to feed plants that spend their lives choked by exhaust fumes from traffic.  Wood chips, rocks, and cactus have replaced the green lawns throughout the neighborhood.  The city is brown and dry and hot and dusty, and that will be a fact of life in L.A. for some time to come.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Summer Rain

Summer rain falling across Los Angeles tonight, warm and humid.  I drove across the city through downtown, taking in the soft rhythm of the drops and the wiper blades sliding across the glass.

I was caught up in a dream, imagining how life twists and turns and lands and there we are, someplace new yet also the same.  The city is beautiful tonight with the clouds swirling around the tops of the skyscrapers, the shimmering lights from the Bonaventure Hotel, L.A. Live, the lofts and apartments standing tall over the tarps and tents of the homeless gathered under freeway overpasses and in the nooks and crannies of Hollywood just to keep us honest.  There is a thin line between those who are dry and those living rough in the elements.  In all the beauty we cannot forget.

It is early yet; the summer solstice is still a week or so away.

I remember fireworks in my grandparents’ back yard.  I remember homemade ice cream, cakes decorated in red, white and blue for the Fourth of July, playing hide and seek in the summer darkness.  Swimming in the public pool.  Body surfing at Zuma.

Days gone.  People gone.  Memories, warm and soft like gentle rain, still haunting me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Angel of Olvera Street

It was my Irish Catholic grandmother from Missouri, a refugee from the Dust Bowl, who first turned my attention to the work of Leo Politi.  She loved his books and paintings, and that was strange.  She did not seem to find much connection with the Latinos that populated her adopted city, but maybe in their search for gainful employment on the farms up and down the state they triggered some empathy with what she knew in her life, the life of the farm, its hardships and difficulties and back-breaking labor.

Politi was born in the central valley farming town of Fresno in 1908.  His parents were Italian and they owned a vineyard there and raised horses.  During the Great War, the Politi family returned to their native land taking six year old Leo away from his American life but they could not stop him from drawing.  He drew on every piece of paper he could find and at fifteen, won a scholarship to study art.

In 1931, at the tender age of twenty-two, Leo returned to California and fell in love with a young waitress named Helen Fontes.  While she brought customers their dinner orders, Leo sketched her.  He bought her a ring at Woolworth’s for fifteen cents.  Married and living in Los Angeles, Leo began drawing and painting the people and shops on the most famous Latino street in the city, Olvera Street, which is now a well-known tourist attraction.  His work morphed into illustrated children’s books, and he won many awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1950 for his book, The Song of the Swallows.  His work celebrated not only the Latino community he found on the street, but the vibrant colors of the cultural milieu.  He particularly loved the yellows, the browns, the burnt sienna sunsets, all earth tones and village color palettes of Latino heritage going back to Mexico, Central America, and South America.  Politi seemed to connect with that culture, steeped in Catholicism and Church rituals.  His scenes came from the pueblo, the early days of Los Angeles, rich with music and dance and crafts.  For his love of Latino culture, he is a unique figure in California art, a true treasure of the city.  However, during his lifetime, he was often poor and destitute, and he sold some of his work for pennies just to provide his family with food and clothing.  His work now is worth much more.

Politi died in 1996.  According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “a park near Dodger Stadium bears his name, as does an elementary school in the Pico-Union district” not far from the special street he loved.  The article goes on to say that like his subjects, Politi was always “simple and humble.”

I recently acquired new copies of four books I remembered from my grandmother’s library.  They are the most celebrated children’s stories of Leo Politi published by Getty Publications.  The tales are simple and heartwarming, but at first I thought they could just as easily be too naïve, too simple.  I remember, over the years, hearing that some Latino activists were up-in-arms over the depiction of the simple Mexican characters in the books.  This is a miscasting of Politi’s work.  His Los Angeles, however, is an idealized place, a small pueblo where people supported each other in their small businesses and looked out for one another in daily life.  I find Politi’s books no different than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or his fellow artist from Fresno, William Saroyan and his Ithaca as portrayed in the novel The Human Comedy.  These fictional towns like the Los Angeles in Politi’s work are based on truth.  They are the places denoting a simpler time, but the naiveté they portray does not negate their importance to the American narrative.  The story of America is the story of small towns, and turning those long ago places into sepia memories is part of American history.

In Pedro The Angel of Olvera Street (1946), a young boy with a gift for song prepares with his community for the coming Christmas holiday.  The Latino businesses and the people of the community pull together to put on the yearly Christmas pageant.  Olvera Street becomes a stand-in for Bethlehem, and the tradition of Las Posadas is re-enacted in a beautiful candle-lit ceremony through the streets.  For this book, Politi was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal in 1946.  He would go on to win the award for Song of the Swallows (1950), the illustrated story of the swallows returning each March to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Juanita (1948) was a Caldecott runner-up and details the Easter celebration on Olvera Street through the eyes of a daughter of a shop keeper.  Emmet (1971) is the story of a wayward pooch who causes trouble in the neighborhood but winds up saving lives when fire breaks out.

All the books are beautifully illustrated in the vibrant colors of Politi’s best work.  They are treasures to have and hold, and I am so happy Getty Publications has reissued them in hardback editions.  Leo Politi is Los Angeles’ own painter and story teller, an artist who has left a lasting impression on the city.  Olvera Street might seem a little too touristy today, even a little tacky, but it is part of the history of the city.  Today it exists as a Mexican marketplace that tries to preserve that history in modern times.  It is well worth the time to walk the streets Politi walked and see the sights, sounds and smells he tried to capture in his most vibrant work.