Friday Free-for-All #93: Out of place, reality, growing up, smell

Another Friday, answering another set of random questions.

In which I answer random questions generated by a website. An ongoing series.

In what situation or location would you feel the most out of place?

Any kind of right-wing political rally or fundamentalist church service. A Monster Truck Rally or NASCAR race might fall under the umbrella as well.

At least these aren’t that common in Los Angeles County — well, the parts that aren’t far inland. We tend to get the rallies and fundies in Orange County. The Monster Truck Rally might show up at the Pomona Fairgrounds, which is where they hold the L.A. County Fair, but that’s obviously oriented toward a more rural crowd.

They do have some NASCAR race event coming up at a new stadium in Inglewood — I think it’s the one where the Sup — sorry — “Big Game” is going to be played — but as someone pointed out, that event is mostly going to draw its crowds from the Riverside and Inland Empires. That is, the red parts of the state.

The stadium itself is in the middle of an historical Black neighborhood in L.A.

What do you think about reality TV? Why is it so popular?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a genre that is completely without value. Note that Documentaries are a completely different animal. But the whole Bachelor/Bachelorette/Big Brother/Duck Dynasty/Real Housewives stuff is just complete crap. I’ll even include all the existing “talent” shows on this list. And yes, Drag Race is a talent show.

The problem is that they are so orchestrated and manipulated behind the scenes that what we’re seeing on screen really bears no resemblance to reality. It’s manufactured drama, some shows far worse than others, and it has the added detriment of continuously creating celebrities who should not be celebrities at all. Most of them never even deserved the first fifteen minutes.

These shows can also destroy the lives of their contestants, as well, and not in obvious ways. Yes, suicide is an epidemic among reality show contestants, present and former, and not just in the U.S. But the damage can destroy the living as well.

Look at home makeover shows. A lot of the time, the actual work isn’t done by contractors, but by set builders and decorators instead. There may technically be permits, but that stuff isn’t necessarily built to last. When it is, the new add-ons can sometimes trigger a new tax-assessment on the property, which is carried out based on the current market value, plus the improvements.

So a family that’s owned their home for twenty or thirty years and had been paying property taxes on those rates and original values may suddenly find their assessment is twenty or thirty times that old value, with higher property tax rates as well. They’ve been thrown into a situation where they can no longer afford the house they’ve lived in because the new property taxes are more than what they would have ever paid for a mortgage for the original place.

As for Drag Race, contestants on the show can spend a fortune on their looks — wigs, shoes, outfits, make-up, etc. — and most of them go onto the show not being rich or famous already. This is rather ironic, since in the early days of drag it was a do-it-yourself, thrift-shop affair. The kids were having fun by being creative, not by buying thousands of dollars of fabric or designer dresses.

As for why I think it’s popular — it’s junk food for the brain. It gives viewers a storyline to follow about “common” and “real” people who are neither of those things. It gives them drama to talk about with family and coworkers later and fills a hole for people without more creative outlets.

It’s kind of sad, really, and what’s sadder is that the money train seems to show no signs of slowing down.

What did you like / dislike about where you grew up?

Since the question asked both, I’ll answer both. I grew up in what started out as an exurb of a major city only to itself eventually turn into a small city with its own suburbs. When my parents had first moved there, it was a fairly new development, although they were not among the first wave of people to buy homes out there, nor were they the first owners of their house.

Interestingly, by the time my parents got there, a lot of the original homeowners were on the verge of finally seeing their kids reach adulthood — or so I’ve heard from conversations from an old neighbor who was one of those teens when I moved in as an infant.

Things that I don’t or barely remember are that they had not quite connected a main road across a rail line but finally built the right-of-way when it became clear that everything was going to keep developing to the west and that this street was going to be one of the major thoroughfares.

The topography of the place was basically low mountains to the south with what had probably originally been a pass or narrow valley at the bottom. This had been plowed out to make way for the Ventura Freeway and Ventura Boulevard, which in turn were what enabled the whole area to develop. (The Boulevard obviously came first.)

Like most of the San Fernando Valley, it was built on property that had once been rancheros, first when the southern half of California was a part of Mexico, and later on after it had become part of the United States. As the various cities across the Valley developed, evidence of the rancheros faded slowly, but since this was the far west end of the Valley, the rural nature of the environment faded last.

Not that there was a lot of it left in my neighborhood growing up, although I was two blocks from Pierce College, which was dedicated mostly to teaching agriculture and farming and which is still there to this day.

Meanwhile, Ventura Boulevard had all the fancy stuff, including the high school, and all the shops and fast-food places. Victory, after it had been put through, tended to mostly go through residential areas, but our grocery store was one mile east, and the huge mall, Topanga Plaza, was about three miles west.

It was also safe, most of my friends were Jewish, so I grew up learning comedy and hanging with the intellectual crowd, and for some reason we got a lot of the same stuff — multiplexes, automatic scoring bowling lanes, big box stores, and so on, that only seemed to pop up in the more urban and distant parts of town.

Well, at first. I think that we were actually a test market for a lot of things.

What I disliked about where I grew up was that, as I became older, I realized how far it was from everything else. It was not a trivial matter to get to Hollywood by bus, for example, and points beyond, especially downtown, were out of the question — especially in my pre-car days.

Hell, it was bad enough to convince my mom to let me make the bike ride to North Hollywood, which is only about thirteen miles by car now and which is not at all an uncommon bike commute for adults nowadays. Of course, they also now have the Metro bike path that follows the Orange line from the West Valley right to NoHo, so it’s a lot easier.

Another thing I really disliked as I became more and more aware of it was that the area had become where all the white racists had moved in order to escape the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city, especially just over the hill in Hollywood. Of course, they’d also fled to the south-west corner of the Valley because parts of it in the North were beginning to have too many Hispanic and Latino residents for their liking. Never mind that it was only in the extremely northern parts of the Valley, and pretty far east from there.

Since then, the justice has been poetic, as most of my old neighborhood is now pretty heavily mixed white and Latino, with those old racists having fled farther west into Simi Valley. But at least I never had to deal with a lot of the racist parents directly growing up, and once I graduated high school, I was out of there.

What is it they say? A nice place to grow up but I wouldn’t want to live there.

What smell brings back great memories?

This isn’t something that I’ve smelled in a long time, but whenever I do, it brings back the same memory. The smell is a wood-fire stove, burning early in the morning. It’s off in another part of the house, so the aroma is subtle, but it’s definitely there. It mingles with whatever part of the crisp morning air outside manages to sneak in.

Then — add bacon. The sudden smell of frying bacon that manages to come in and permeate everything, making the smell of the wood fire even stronger somehow.

The smell means that it’s time to get up. Grandma is making breakfast. I don’t need to tell myself twice. I get dressed, hurry through the chilly back house, then through the vinyl accordion door into the front house, closing it behind me.

Here, the wood-fire stove heats everything and the family gathers. Pretty soon, we’ll have scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home-made biscuits, milk, apple juice, wheat toast with plenty of butter and apple preserves, and I can’t even remember what else.

It only takes a whiff of a wood-fire stove somewhere and a hint of cooking bacon and I go right back to those mornings from my childhood. Funny how smell is supposed to be the strongest sense, and the one that most powerfully evokes memories, isn’t it?

Holiday Sunday bonus: Memories of Hollywood

I was born in Hollywood and although I didn’t grow up in it, I’ve always had a strong connection and soft spot for the place.

I’ve always had a very strong emotional connection to Hollywood, California, and I mean the actual city and not the industry itself — although I’ve lived most of my life in that industry anyway.

No. To me, it’s that I’ve spent so much time in the place over the years that I have many, many memories and have got to see it evolve and change down the decades, facing its good times and bad.

For starters, I was born in Hollywood, at the very east end, at Sunset and Vermont, which is where one of the Kaiser Permanente medical centers is still located. This is just south of Barnsdall Art Park and just north of L.A. City College and, nowadays, right on top of an L.A. Metro station.

My father was born not far away, somewhere to the south on Vermont, although I’m not sure where.

Although I have no memory of it, I lived my earliest days in Hollywood, on Orange Drive. This was right around the corner and up the block from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre — and if you want to sound like a local, you’ll call it that and not the “TCL Chinese Theatre.” We’ll know what you mean.

My family and I weren’t there long, though, before we moved out to Woodland Hills, in the West Valley, to a suburban tract home far away from the city.

That didn’t mean we never went to Hollywood, though, and one of my childhood memories was during the beginning of first grade and going to a huge bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard because they happened to stock all the same official readers that the L.A. Unified School District used.

Called the Pickwick Bookshop, another bookstore originally opened in 1931 and then the spot was continuously occupied by a bookstore under the Pickwick name from 1938 until it finally closed in 1995 after being taken over by Barnes & Noble. I remember that it was huge, and that the books smelled really great. The old space is currently occupied by an Italian gelato place, the typical generic store-front tourist trap shop, and a Starbucks. But of course.

But I remember my excitement at walking into the place and seeing all these copies of the big, hardcover readers we had at school, which looked brand-new and fresh instead of worn and run-down like our in-class only copies. Their covers were a shiny red, the ink was crisp and not worn, and the pages were bright.

Now, my parents didn’t have to buy the book. As noted, the schools provided copies. But we couldn’t take those home, so my parents wanted to give me the advantage of having them at home to read. This was a brilliant move on their part.

And this wasn’t the only book my parents bought for me there or on any of our other visits. I was interested in astronomy, biology, and history from an early age, so those subjects were always on the agenda. There was also always plenty of Dr. Seuss.

Every visit there was magical — just like any visit to a bookstore still is to me.

We also would find ourselves in Hollywood playing tour guide whenever we had family friends or relatives visiting. Hollywood Boulevard was one of the standard stops on Dad’s tour, which included not only Hollywood, but the Hollywood Forever cemetery, a trip along Mulholland Drive, a turn through Bel Air and residential Beverly Hills to gawk at the expensive houses before going through the business district in the BH, not forgetting to include Rodeo Drive, although more because everyone had heard of it, not because it was ever really a big deal to us.

We’d inevitably wind up at the beach — either Santa Monica or Venice depending upon how adventurous our guests were. And, somehow, they always seemed to be most impressed by Hollywood.

When I turned 12, I was allowed to take the bus from home into Hollywood for movie night with Dad. This was no short trip, either. Most of it involved the 81 bus down Ventura Boulevard until it transitioned into Cahuenga and then Highland, with the first stop in Hollywood at the same place the Metro stops now: Hollywood and Highland.

I don’t remember whether I had to take one bus from my house down Winnetka to Ventura to transfer or not, but it’s surprising how similar the route is now. The only difference is that I wouldn’t have had to go all the way down to Ventura.

Rather, nowadays the G (Orange) Line Busway runs just south of the house I grew up in, and there’s a stop a block or so away. That busway goes right to the NoHo Metro Station, where the B (Red) Line sets off and, two stops later, you’re at Hollywood and Highland.

It’s a lot faster than the old bus trip used to be, too, with the slowest part being — you probably guessed it — the busway bit. It was supposed to have originally been light rail like all of the other connecting lines in the city, but one neighborhood full of rich NIMBYS stopped that. Jerks.

Anyway, movie night with Dad was great, and it would always be to see the latest science fiction, disaster, or action movie. We didn’t always see them in Hollywood, though. Sometimes, that was just where we met before heading off to Century City or sometimes even downtown, depending on what had opened where.

Once I was in high school, I used to do the great bus adventure just for the hell of it, partly because I loved to haunt the bookstores and magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Although I really couldn’t afford anything at the Hollywood shop, it was always nice to watch the staff behind the counter demonstrate an illusion, and a lot of working magicians wandered through there as well and would often show off their own tricks.

Of course, the staff there were not as nice as the ones at a magic shop called Whichcraft which was way up in Chatsworth in the West Valley. I used to ride my bike up there, and the owner would let us kids hang out as long as we wanted to, plus he’d show us the secrets behind some of the tricks.

His stuff was also much cheaper than in Hollywood, although I think it may have been because Hollywood catered to the crowd that worked the Magic Castle, while Whichcraft catered to teenage Valley boys with limited funds.

In college, I was in Hollywood all the time, often to see movies at the historical theatres, but I also interned there my Freshman year. Plus, since I was majoring in film, it just seemed like the place to go. I’d gotten so attached by that point that I’ve had a P.O. Box there ever since. It’s P.O. Box 2149, Los Angeles, CA 90078-2149, in case you’re inclined to send me anything.

During the years I lived in West Hollywood, Hollywood was right next door, and so a frequent place to go for dinner, movies, and the like. During this period, we also loved to take visitors down to see the two tacky but fun museums that used to be right across the street from each other — The Hollywood Wax Museum and the Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not! museum.

The former was eventually eclipsed when Madame Tussaud took residence in a bigger space a few blocks to the west. Meanwhile, the Believe-it-or-Not! museum is still there, although Robert Ripley was notorious for just making stuff up.

During the WeHo years, we never went into Hollywood for clubbing, though. I think there was one gay bar still in Hollywood at the time, but it was in an area that had been one of L.A.’s first cruising spots back in the 50s and 60s, and it looked like a lot of the clients there has been in town that long.

It was basically a hustler bar, so those of us from WeHo just avoided it. I think it actually lasted until fairly recently; definitely into this century.

By the time I moved back to the Valley, the Metro Rail had become a thing, and I used to hop the train to go to Hollywood or Downtown all the time just to play tourist, photograph everything, and occasionally buy stuff. That only stopped when COVID happened, but it was great to get out, see the sights, gawk at the tourists, and marvel at how tacky the street really is and how it panders to the impression that non-industry people have of show business.

Of course, celebrities never really lived here after the silent era, the only production studios left here is one owned by the Jim Henson Company, which began life as Charlie Chaplin Studios, and Paramount which, while is technically in Hollywood, is only accessible through gates that are decidedly in Los Angeles proper.

All of the other studios are in places like Burbank, Culver City, Playa del Rey, Glendale, Austin, Vancouver, or Atlanta.

I hope to some day be able to hop the train and go back down to Hollywood, to see how it’s holding up. It’s always fun to look at the tackiness of the Walk of Fame, check out the forecourt at the Chinese, and see what new and bizarre temporary attraction has opened in some storefront.

There are also the old classics, too — the Hollywood Bowl and the Magic Castle are both places that I love — especially the Magic Castle, because the building itself is one big illusion.

Hollywood may be going through a rough patch right now and it’s really getting overdeveloped, but the city always bounces back. I hope to have many future adventures there in what really is my true home town.

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