“Slippery Oasis”

image by Damon Casarez linked via Los Angeles Magazine

NICE PIECE up at Los Angeles Magazine by Jesse Katz about Westlake’s “slippery oasis” known as MacArthur Park.

A snip:

The people who turn up in the lake these days may look different from those who perished a century ago. They may come from different parts of the world and inhabit different social echelons. We may have a more sophisticated vocabulary for their breakdowns, a more nuanced understanding of addiction and despair. But the guile of the lake—the melodrama of our city—is not a modern condition.

Every fall, I think about my old across-the-landing neighbor who worked graveyards undercover with LAPD, his beat to spin around those shadows in the Park. I know he could write a book or two. Jesse’s piece brought all that back…me standing, balancing with my laundry listening to native noir stories.

More of Jesse’s wonderful, moody piece here

into the center of it

get shot

LAST SUNDAY, I drove into Watts pulled by something larger than an anniversary.

I’ve been back and forth a great deal in recent years, months, weeks — for work and personal visits — but this journey felt more like flipping back to the opening pages of a book, to re-orient myself in a story that didn’t move the way I had expected.

I’ve been swimming through all the coverage today — and in the weeks leading up to — this 50-year anniversary of a what began as a traffic stop and then exploded into an italicized exclamation. One that now echoes across decades.

Like so many, I’ve been revisiting photos and essays and spoken testimonials that so freshly recall that stretch of hot August days. I’ve been talking to old friends and old colleagues. I stare deep into the frames of these grainy newspaper images of collapsed buildings, piles of wood, the silhouettes of storefronts, fancy blade-signs and realize — once again — that so many never re-opened. The story finished there. Full stop.


As a small child, I felt some foreign emotion creep in, take up real space; a feeling related to the noise, the smoke, the tanks, men in uniforms and guns at the market — where we bought our milk and fruit — the strange measure of days that hemmed us in within our own home: That new word “curfew” flashed in my brain like neon.

August 1965 was the summer my grandfather visited from New Orleans to take the first, in-person glimpse of his infant grandson. The two-pronged reality of that visit: the first bloom of the new family branch, strikingly backdropped by the racial inequity and violence not at all foreign to this quiet and proud Southern-born man — just Southern-California style. Early the next morning he woke before the rest of us, disappeared. We later learned, through his detailed stories, he’d wandered off, to find the hot center of it. To know the story better.

How — he must have reasoned — could you be so close and not try?

The journalist that I would become understands.

Now, as an adult, I realize the emotion I must have been trying to sort through was the very same that might accompany the instant when a table might be upturned and there’s a moment — long, protracted out-of-real time — where everything was still in the air. The finish yet to be determined. Ruin or reclamation? It was all still up for grabs.

50 years.

So fast. So long.

And yet.

Sunday Drive: Remembering #42

JUST AS I finished snapping the photo,  a man standing at the threshold of his home just across the street began talking.


He spoke as if we had already been in conversation. In other words his statement sounded like a mid-sentence recitation ” . . . from China, from Mexico, from Europe. They come looking. Black people too.”


Such a quiet street, Pepper Street, a cul-de-sac that’s a hodgepodge of structures, some single-family residences still standing alongside multifamily-dwelings. I had come knowing that Jackie Robinson’s house no longer stood but I wanted to find the plaque — I had walked by it the first time. It’s set in the sidewalk — flush– like a headstone.

Looking down, I wondered why it took me so long to come here to size up what was left. As Sunday Drives go, this was a blink.

Pasadena has named parks and baseball fields, post offices after Robinson. (I just dropped off a package to a friend there last week in fact.) Just across from Pasadena City Hall there is striking piece of public art by Ralph Helmick, Stu Schecter and John Outterbridge of Robinson and his brother Matthew “Mack” Robinson. (see below).

But I have to say there was something even more humbling about that simple plaque on a sort of afterthought of a street. I paused  to talk a little more to the gentleman who had come out of his house so early on a Sunday morning to share what he has seen over the years. New structures, new people, even since he’d been there, long long after the Robinsons had left the scene.

The only constant were the people who come, and continue to. They pause and just stand before that easy-to-miss plaque in silence. Paying respects.

“Not any man could have done with he did.”




Native Language

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

THIS COMING Thursday, I will be doing a short reading at the beautiful little oasis of a spot in Frogtown (Elysian Valley) called Clockshop, as part of a summer series of readings/travelogues and films titled My Atlas.

I will be introducing a pretty incredible though not-often shown film — The Savage Eye shot over several years, in the 50s by Haskell Wexler, Helen Levitt and Jack Couffer and directed by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick — and reading a short piece that was inspired by the film.

Any regular reader of this blog will know this spot has been a place for me to take a deeper look at L.A. — my home — a place that too often slides by our window (if we’re not in gridlock) at 55 mph-plus. In that time we’re suspended on an overpass or creeping ever-so-slowly toward our destination windows up, the city is being remade — over and over and over. What’s it like to grow up in and live place that constantly dramatically shifts? Disorienting? Dislocating? In the past, I’ve written about how important it is to commit your “personal city” to memory because it won’t always be there. Just recently, I finished a piece about how we Angelenos talk about locations as if they are something like a set of nesting dolls — instead of referring to what is there, we refer to what once was.

For all sorts of reasons of late, I’ve found myself wandering even more, through quiet, early-morning L.A. Through emptied-out, in-the-margins L.A. I’m trying to record bits and pieces of that old city — in notebooks, in essays and now in photographs — odd remnants that have eluded “redevelopment,” city blocks that have somehow slipped through the cracks and regulations. Precisely what I’m looking for, I couldn’t tell you. So many of us here are wandering, traveling, looking for something we can’t quite articulate. But often I know it when I stumble upon it — a lonely pillar of someone’s past dream, a faded fragment of a promise scrawled along a wall. Something that tethers us, something that makes the earth feel not like sand. Something that has eluded destruction or disaster — like the flourish of a freehand X on a map: “I was here.”

Prognosis: Excellent

I HAD been thinking about getting my old (formerly my mother’s) 1955 SmithCorona “Silent Super” repaired. Well actually, I only thought it needed a ribbon. As it turns out it needed a whole lot more.

2014-07-29 15.20.42



Who repairs typewriters? More important: Whom could I trust? I had already determined I was ready to have this one refurbished and while it was largely for sentimental reasons there were some other practical ones I was weighing as well.

My thinking? Mostly because my mind works in a different way when I’m typing on an old manual machine. Not for deadline work, of course. (I know my eds. out there are relived) But maybe to get started on long-form, personal think pieces and to be able to write in mental place where I will not be as Wi-Fi tempted or electricity dependent.

I liked being lost on an island of thought — somewhere between the legal pad dreaming and the tip-tap of the computer.

My friend Marisela scoped out this little place just in time This little hive of a shop is on a a busy stretch of Figueroa in Highland Park that’s gentrifying. Thankfully, edges of its character remain, as the shop  happens to be right across the street from a beautiful old-school camera store that I’m hoping to explore at some point soon as well.

To say it was like walking through a museum would be imprecise as many of these very-much-alive machines are attached to owners (or want-to-be owners); people much like me, I’m learning, who are looking for a way to rethink their process and want to work out their thoughts away from contemporary distractions — but still with the ease of the keyboard stage.

The visit was like falling through a seam in time. Underwoods, Royals, SmithCoronas. Before I knew it an hour and a half had passed as we learned about these beautiful old machines (see below) that are in Ruben Flores’s care here at the aptly named Typewriter Repair.

The store was run for decades by his father, Jesse (whose photograph you can see just behind the pink typewriter in the gallery below). Like father, the son can tell you stories — deep histories — about both the machines and the people who use them. As well, Ruben spent a good portion of time talking about neighborhood’s changing character: “Do you lose something if you say hello? Why can’t people just say ‘hello’?”

Between his commentary, he opened it up and knocked around– turning wheels, lifting levers, rooting around inside. “She’s in good shape. Considering. A little gummy.” I was happy to hear his prognosis. I felt that that trusting my mother’s machine with a man who had learned from his father was precisely the right thing to do.

To get a glimpse of Jesse, who passed away a few years ago, click on the video below.



Looking forward to getting my fingers in shape to make those hard “clackty-clack” strikes and hearing the satisfying sound of keys hitting platen.

Writers need company. Even when we are alone.

Thanks so much, Ruben and Marisela.


Urban Legends


IN WHICH, I consider the appearance of so many “headless” palm trees scattered around the basin. What was once the occasional spotting, now is a much more common feature of our landscape.

Click here to read the piece; it’s part of a series of essays in the new Flaunt/L.A. Review of Books partner-project about those ubiquitous palm trees here in L.A.