The Saturday Morning Post #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! Here is the first even installment of The Saturday Morning Post.

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THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

Sunday nibble: Find the photographer!

You know that iconic photo of the L.A. skyline? Have you ever wondered where it was taken from? Chances are, you’re miles off in your guess.

You’ve probably seen images very similar to the one heading this article. It’s the downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) skyline, shot to feature the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Some versions also feature palm trees in the foreground.

It’s a very common souvenir item on postcards and posters, and it emphasizes the idea that L.A. is a big city with both the mountains and beach nearby. I think the usual tourism line is something like you can go from surfing to skiing in ninety minutes.

But there’s one tricky thing about this photo that even locals who aren’t in the know cannot answer right away. Where was this picture taken from?

Now, it’s quite obvious that it was shot some distance from downtown and with a quite long lens, which is what makes the mountains (30 miles away) look so close. But where in the city was the photographer standing?

The difficulty in figuring it out is in the deceptive layout of DTLA itself, so our brains put us at completely the wrong angle.

Most of Los Angeles and the Valley are laid out in a pretty regular grid, with the exceptions being in the foothills and mountains, as well as certain suburban neighborhoods that decided to get twisty, just because.

But, in general, you have the Boulevards and such running east-west and the streets and avenues running north-south, and those directions stick pretty close to the compass directions — which can make driving east-west in the morning or evening on the solstices really suck.

However, because of this layout, most people look at the photo and just figure that it was taken from directly south, looking at DTLA to the north and catching the mountains behind it, which are what define the so-called “L.A. Basin” in the first place.

The problem is that thirty miles due north of DTLA at this point is in Agua Dulce, which is a valley on the other side of the mountains and Angeles National Forest. Yes, there are mountains, but nothing as snowy or majestic as in the photo.

Going the other direction to the south, you run out of land after about 23 miles and wind up in the Pacific south of Long Beach. Plus, almost everything in this area except for Rancho Palos Verdes to the west runs downhill to the sea, and while there are hills in Long Beach, you really can’t see DTLA from there at all.

So what causes this illusion? Simple. Like I mentioned, DTLA is laid out differently than the rest of the city. You just don’t notice it when you go there because the adjustment is gradual if you’re driving and invisible if you’re on the Metro.

See, DTLA itself is still a grid. It’s just tilted toward the southeast. Like a lot. The streets in DTLA run at about a 45° angle to the rest of the city. In order to make the iconic city and mountains photo make sense, you have to rotate it all in your head.

The photo is actually taken looking almost directly north-east, which you can check on a map. The main mountain in the shot is Mt. San Antonio, colloquially known as Mt. Baldy, which towers at 10,066 feet (3,068 meters).

Now draw a straight line from Mt. Baldy through DTLA and keep going and you’ll eventually hit the one high spot in the area: Baldwin Hills and most likely the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area, which is a public park built on top of those hills.

Ta-da! The skyline view lines up perfectly with this location, plus it also has the elevation to get the shot, with palm trees easily put into view if you so desire. So if you’re ever in L.A. or already live there and want to get your own version of this iconic shot, now you know where to go.

Downtown Los Angeles, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: Just over a week after I ran this story, the L.A. Times inadvertently confirmed my guess with a photo credit on yet another similar shot of the DTLA skyline, taken from… the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area. Now I don’t know whether to feel vindicated, or annoyed that they’ve given the location away so that it will now be overrun by tourists. Not that it probably already isn’t.

La tormenta navideña/The Christmas storm

Right in time for Christmas, a major winter storm (finally) rolls into L.A. Here’s a bit of L.A.’s history with water from the sky.

Southern California — indeed, the whole state — has been on the dry side for a while now, which is why we’ve had so many big fires in the last few years. Everything dries out, then we hit a point, usually around late summer or early fall, when the Santa Ana winds kick up.

These are hot, dry winds that blow in from across the desert, so generally from the southeast. They can pick up a lot of speed as they roll down the mountains into the L.A. Basin as well as the various valleys around it — San Gabriel, San Fernando, Santa Clarita, and Simi, for example.

While these winds are blowing, humidity drops to practically nothing and all it takes is one spark to set off a firestorm — an untended campfire, a moron with a cigarette, a badly maintained utility transformer blowing up in the heat, or a lighting strike. And, of course, there’s always the occasional insane arsonist thrown into the mix — people who should just be shot.

But, after a brief visit from rain for about a day early last week, we had a storm roll in late on Christmas Eve eve (i.e. December 23rd) that delivered everything and more that we were only promised with the previous storm, which turned out to be a disappointment. Around where I am, we only got about a half a day of light rain.

This time around, it’s been coming down steadily, sometimes building up to windy and very wet, and it’s still going. This phase is expected to continue to past midnight before breaking, then return on Friday and possibly continue into Saturday.

The only downsides, of course, are flooding, and for all of the sewer and drainage work the city has done since the 1930s, we still have areas that always wind up with standing water. Sure, it’s not enough to reach the tops of first floors, but it can be enough to require a lot of sandbagging around ground-floor entrances and storefronts.

Still — better than it was before the city turned the L.A. River into a long concrete ditch that runs from the north end of the Valley all the way down to the sea at Long Beach. That’s pretty much its original route, but the idea of lining it in concrete was so that it actually had a higher carrying capacity, the dirt banks wouldn’t collapse and possibly block the river, and there were opportunities to make it wider and straighter than the original river to speed flow.

Never mind that they never made any provision for storing most of the water that flowed down the river into the ocean. L.A. was already doing a very good job of steal… buying its water from the Owens Valley up north and from the Colorado River, thanks to William Mulholland. See Chinatown for a very fictionalized version of the concept.

In addition to the concrete river, they also created a huge flood control basin in the middle of the San Fernando Valley that normally pretends to be an urban park, right next to a dam and reservoir. The impetus for this basin and the L.A. River project was a flood in 1938 that killed 144 people. I’ve seen pictures, and it wasn’t pretty — plus the flooding was not limited to just the Valley or L.A.

The basin is actually a natural bowl within the Valley itself, including its lowest point. At the time of construction (1941), it was on the eastern edge of development in the Valley, just past all the aircraft plants that had sprung up in Van Nuys and the suburbs built to house their workers.

It’s deceptive because it doesn’t seem like it’s lower than everything else when you drive in there, and has various parks and recreational areas, including Lake Balboa, and is home to several nature preserves. But when major flooding is expected, all roads in and out are closed at the top and the place has filled several times over the years, saving the rest of the Valley around it.

Still, we do get small floods everywhere, which is a reminder of something that might not be noticeable to casual observers. The floor of the Valley is not at all flat, though it might appear to be. For example, there’s a natural high spot along the old river where it goes north to south near Coldwater Canyon and it’s slightly downhill from there in both directions, toward North Hollywood to the East and Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys to the west.

Flooding tends to happen where that downhill flattens out at the bottom and even though it’s not terribly steep, it has an effect. They’ve mitigated it somewhat in the last decade or so, but the main intersection in downtown NoHo, at Lankershim and Magnolia, used to flood curb to curb on all four corners and, when it was particularly wet, go higher than that.

I remember a number of rainy nights there where the storefronts were sandbagged and you’d still be sloshing through four inches of water up on the sidewalk. Since the curbs themselves were already so high, people could easily get soaked to the knees by trying to cross the street.

One additional problem, which was weirdly fascinating, was that the storm drains couldn’t handle the capacity, so that at certain points instead of water flowing down them it would come shooting out in a strong backwash that was truly a sight to see.

Parts of NoHo still flood, particularly the parking and right lanes both ways on Magnolia, and there are more than a few intersections where experienced drivers know to slow down because they’re flooded and will send flumes of water everywhere when some moron tries to blast through at 40 mph.

Another famous place to avoid when it’s rainy is Sherman Way as it passes under the Van Nuys Airport. In order to facilitate building the runways, engineers decided to drop the street and build the runway above it. This created a fairly long tunnel that cars drive down into before coming back up on the other side.

On dry days, it’s actually kind of fun, and people still honk their horns as they go through to hear the echo. On rainy days, though, long-time residents know to avoid the area, because the entire tunnel often winds up submerged, and that’s not a place you want to drive your car into. Fortunately, they can usually block Sherman Way in time to reroute traffic, but there have been times when the tunnel has been slightly flooded — not enough for the water to hit the bottom of the overpass, but enough so that unsuspecting drivers won’t realizing their driving into water that’s too deep until it’s too late.

Since the whole thing is a divided road, one you’re on it, there’s not really any opportunity to turn around and get back out. Fun times!

The most bizarre water behavior I’ve even seen in L.A., though, happened when I was living in West Hollywood (okay, L.A. County, not L.A. City) during a time when we had one of Southern California’s historical great floods — like the one in 1938.

I have no idea what was going on in the Valley, but WeHo is located directly below a mountain ridge that separates it from the Valley, so the rain can go one of two ways — north and down or south and down. It’s a 50/50 shot, really.

Top this off with there being a natural spring near the top of Laurel Canyon on the WeHo side that will gush out of the street when the groundwater goes up, plus not a lot of natural channels for the water to come all the way down other than the canyon passages that were carved through the mountains long ago.

The end result was that my street, which ran from Sunset Boulevard in the North to Santa Monica Boulevard in the south, about half a mile, was very steep, and the water pooled along Sunset, which created a natural barrier — except where it didn’t, i.e., streets like mine.

I remember walking down to the lobby of our building with neighbors to marvel at what was happening. Our street had basically turned into rapids, with water streaming down it at a good rate of speed, and splashing up onto the curbs as well. Now, for some reason, it decided to get really funky right in front of our building.

I still don’t know why, but the water had come over the curb and onto the parkway where it seemingly randomly gouged out the dirt in just one section of the parkway, fluming through and past it before returning to the downhill flow.

Oh — one note: In America, what we call a “parkway” is actually a narrow strip of grass or a section designed with planters and trees that comes between the roadway and the sidewalk. So it’s generally not more than two or three feet wide, and mostly designed to create insulation between pedestrians, traffic, and parked cars.

I suppose that we could have gone whitewater rafting down the street that evening, but we decided not to. After all, we didn’t have the rafts lying around!

Obviously, I’m writing this before Christmas to put up on Christmas Eve day, but it would certainly be nice to have actual winter weather like wind and rain for the holiday weekend. Sadly, L.A. rarely gets my one favorite kind of weather, which is a thunderstorm. They are few and far between and generally disappointing, with a few lighting bolts, some lame claps of thunder, and that’s it.

And I’ve only ever known it to snow or hail twice in my life in L.A. that I can think of, both of which were very short-lived phenomena as well. Of course, actual snow would paralyze this city for as long as it stayed on the ground. On the other hand, I really don’t have to drive anywhere right now.

So I won’t dream of a White Christmas because that’s impossible here, but I will hope for more rain (and snow in the mountains) because we need it. Happy holidays, everyone, no matter what you do (or don’t) celebrate!

The strangeness of neighbors

Just because we live next-door to someone doesn’t mean we have to be besties.. Here are some examples of why that’s a bad idea.

There’s an old joke in Los Angeles: Neighbors only meet each other after earthquakes, or when one of them is taken away in an ambulance or police car. There’s definitely some truth to it, at least in more recent times, when families living in suburbs and exurbs are pretty much socially isolated from those of us in more urban neighborhoods or pseudo suburbs that have far more renters than owners, a younger demographic, and far fewer children than the average.
Being a kid who grew up in one of those exurbs that was socially isolated from the more urban parts of the city, there was one fact of life: Neighbors were all up in each other’s business all the time. Oh, not necessarily in a bad way. I think of it as P.E. Class theory.

I didn’t realize until years later that some of the people I was closest to were the ones standing around me when they first lined us up and arranged our P.E. Classes in 7th grade. They had us organize alphabetically by last name, A to Z, and in rows of a certain length. Because of this, I had a guy on each side whose last name was right before and after mine in the alphabet, as well as one behind me who was a set number of people ahead. I think they’d hit “G” by that point.

It actually extended to two guys on either side and two behind. Since my last name starts with “B,” I was in the front row, so wasn’t behind anyone.

But during the preliminary week when they were obviously observing to decide who wound up with which coach, these were our mini support groups through the process. We were quickly classified as jocks, nerds, and dweebs, and sent off accordingly, but that first week was a bonding experience that was completely accidental but permanent.

Exurban neighbors were exactly the same thing. When you moved into a neighborhood, your new best friends were whoever lived to the left and right of your house and maybe an extra to either side, plus across the street and one on either side. Depending on how high the walls were, you might also pick up a back fence neighbor or two.

Sometimes, this could make for great and lasting friendships that continued on after one set of neighbors moved out. Others, it could just lead to… weird. And there was also that odd identifying factor, missed by the kids, since it was a tract neighborhood with about four different floor plans doubled by creating mirrored images.

There was one two-story plan in two mirror versions and this was the deluxe house for the people with a little more money; Tier IV to use medical insurance terms. More square footage, bigger living space downstairs, fancier kitchen and backyard. Upstairs, master suite with its own bath, plus three or four smaller bedrooms, at least one with its own bath. With double the floor space, this one was easily a cool 5,000 square feet.

Tier III was a design with a more modern open floorplan, four bedrooms, a den/office with (for the time) very novel and fancy pocket doors, and a bit wider, shallower footprint than the others to allow for more back or front yard space and a detached garage. I’m just assuming that it cost a little more than ours, but I could be totally wrong, and it was probably geared toward the youngest professionals who would appreciate the modern design and pay more for it. Overall, it probably covered about 2,500 square feet.

Tier II was the three bedroom, one and a half bath with den, dining room, living room, and attached garage in a 1,500 square foot ell footprint. Nothing fancy but a nice starter. This was the place my parents owned — perfect for a young couple with one kid but working on another. (Narrator Voice: “But that ‘another’ never happened.”)

Finally, Tier I was a very compact two-bedroom place probably designed either for a couple only planning to have one child, or a young couple and mother-in-law. It was pretty much a square connected to a garage, with the house part being maybe 1,000 square feet tops, although 900 would not have surprised me. I don’t remember ever actually going into one of these units.

The Tier I units I do remember from the old neighborhood seemed to be home to either single mothers with one kid or retirees. Or, as I note below, this floorplan was the developer’s nod to low-cost housing requirements imposed by the city or county. They were clearly the shitboxes of the tract, after all, and nobody needed to paint that in neon colors for it to be obvious.

So I grew up in a Tier II with a Tier III to our north and Tier IV to our south. Across the street from north to south were another Tier IV, mirror to the one on our immediate south; a Tier III like ours but, again, mirrored, and a Tier II, likewise mirrored.

There were very few Tier I places, actually, and they seemed to be scattered in as punctuation. As noted above, I have to wonder whether they weren’t some legal requirement placed on the developer to provide a certain percentage of affordable homes within the development, which is why they didn’t seem to get special attention.

Hm. That sounds familiar, but this would have been applied to a tract built at a time in the area when land was abundant and literally dirt cheap. But let’s get back to the humans.

Our first neighbors to the north in the Tier III house were a couple that I think were older than my parents. Actually, they were older than my mom but same age as my dad, and I know this because not long ago their son found me on social media.

They were one of the first families to move into the neighborhood, while my parents were the second owners of their house. For years, I thought that the family name was only two syllables. Not using any real names here, let’s just say that I grew up thinking that the family name was Besrow because that’s how my parents always said it, but their son, who was an old friend of my late oldest half brother informed me that it was actually Bessarow.

Mom was never great with foreign names or words.

On the south side were the Gustafsons, a nice family made up of Danish immigrant parents and their two native-born children. Since their son Nils was only a year younger than me, we became friends. My parents also stayed friends with them for a long time, and invited them to family events long after they’d left the neighborhood — the father died of a heart attack when he was fairly young. I was about fifteen at the time, and since he got taken out in an ambulance, everyone got to meet. This was probably incentive for his wife, a fairly young widow with children, to sell off, downsize, and take advantage of whatever benefits and insurance he’d left her. But, again, the Gustafsons were basically part of our extended family forever.

Across the street were the Friedmans, with a daughter about my age, and I know that their mom and mine had that weird suburban fantasy that the two of us would grow up, fall in love, get married and make them grandchildren. They never said it, but we sensed it — doubly weird because it was basically a Catholic Mom and a Jewish Mom playing yentas.

But the Friedmans moved away long before the end of elementary school, and last I’d heard, their daughter Rebekah was diabetic — like in elementary school — and already blind and in a wheelchair while missing a foot or two before middle school. All of which made me wonder, because we all had great health insurance through our working parents in those days, “Why?”

I don’t remember a lot about the Bessarows because their son moved out pretty much right around the time I was born and the parents moved out when I was around nine years old, which led to the next family, which I might as well call the Corleones, because the father acted like that was his name.

Whether he was mafia or not, who knew. If he was, though, he would have been a made man, like Tom Hagen, because despite having a last name that is commonly assumed to be Italian it’s not. It’s actually Irish as hell.

If you know the history of Irish names and the Spanish Armada, you already know what it is. If you don’t, then you probably don’t know who’s on first.

I was right between the ages of their two sons so, again, instant friends, and my mom and their mom got along. Their dad, not so much, largely because of his mafia pretensions. He constantly claimed that he had been cast to play Mario Lanza in a big Hollywood film that never happened, and seemed to spend a lot of time at home hanging out in a very elegant quilted bathrobe with an associate referred to as “Uncle Billy” (he was not their uncle, the kids told me) showing up from time to time in a black Cadillac with tinted windows.

My friendship with the kids continued until one night — I don’t remember exactly when — that we were all woken up way after midnight by a knock on the door. What I do remember is that it was when my parents were looking to sell the house, so were doing some improvements, which included painting the bedrooms. At the time, I was using a sleeping bag in the living room, which faced the front door. This was also how we found out during a storm that the roof leaked, so one more thing to fix.

This probably puts the story in winter, though, or early spring at the latest. Anyway, someone knocks on the door, waking me up. My dad, robe and slippers thrown on over his pajamas comes down the hall pissed and answers. It’s our neighbor, Mr. Mafia, and the first thing he asks is whether dad has any liquor in the house.

I’m kind of listening from the darkness to all of this, but the gist I get is that his wife fell down and hurt herself and he doesn’t know what to do. I think my dad gave him some open fifth of booze just to get rid of him after convincing him that he should call an ambulance, which my dad did for him after he insisted that he was too upset to do it.

Things I missed as a kid — and because I was in the living room — probably any argument or fight the two of them had before the rest of it happened that my parents probably heard clearly; probably that he was already drunk off his ass; probably that asking for liquor when your first priority should be your wife who “fell” and is injured is just weird.

Anyway, the ambulance showed up, along with the police, which is absolutely standard procedure in any case that might appear to be domestic abuse. I have no idea to this day whether my dad told the dispatcher that he and my mom had heard something or not, but that didn’t change anything.

Mr. Mafia just assumed that my dad had called the cops on him but, absolute flaming pussy that he really was, he didn’t go after my dad for it. Why would he? My dad could clearly have kicked his ass fifteen ways from Tuesday. No. Instead, he turned his kids against me. Just like that, they were now my mortal enemies and bullies, and it led to a few years of hell.

His wife, meanwhile, confided to my mom that yes, he had beat her on that night, but she was staying because of the kids. Being a survivor of domestic abuse in a previous marriage herself, I’m sure that my mom had something to say about that, but Mrs. Mafia was having none of it. The family moved out around the time middle school started, but we heard not long after that Mr. Mafia had beaten his wife to death and got arrested for it.

I saw their oldest son at a middle school dance the day after she died, seeming completely unaffected. But, by that point, their power over me was broken and they never bullied me again.

Cue the next weird family to move in. Although, to be honest, I don’t think that they moved in right away. I remember a period when the house was occupied by a bunch of young people who were up at all hours, and there was many a morning I was woken up at five a.m. and glanced out my bedroom window to see a bunch of nude men and topless women swimming in the pool and using the jacuzzi.

I think that they may have actually been renovating the place on behalf of someone who was flipping it, and by the time the next family moved in, there had been substantial changes and upgrades to both the backend of the house and the backyard, including replacing the concrete with brick and building a rather nice wrought iron and brick fence and gate around the pool.

For all I knew, it could have been the new family behind it, since he was an electoral contractor who may have used connections to have the work done. The solution to this mystery was never revealed.

But at least the next bunch, the Sullivans, were weird in a good way. She had been married to the grandson of a famous boxer, with whom she had two kids, then married her second husband, who I think was older than her, and they had a daughter together who was a baby at the time they moved in.

The wife, Martha, was probably about my mom’s age, and the two of them got along really well, probably because of the lapsed Irish Catholic connection. However, Martha had a rather raunchy sense of humor that I think my mother enjoyed even while feigning embarrassment to assuage her own Catholic guilt, and Martha felt no reason to hold back just because I was in the room.

Since I was probably about thirteen or fourteen at the time, I actually appreciated it because she was constantly adding to my dirty joke repertoire, which gained me cred with the kids at school. I actually was closer to the parents than their kids, since their son was nine years younger than me and the other two were daughters.

The Mom gave me dirty jokes. The Dad gave me my first high school job and my first beer while I was on that job.

They were still living there when I went off to college, but I think moved out while I was gone.

For the most part, the rest of the neighbors were pretty normal, although the rich banker and family who lived in the Tier IV across and to the north clearly raised their two sons with no boundaries or limits. I was friends with both of them and same age as their oldest, and definitely got involved in some shenanigans because of this. most of which involved nudity. Because of course they did.

Meanwhile, to the north of the house to our immediate north, which was one of the Tier I places, there was an old, blind widow on disability who lived with her very adult son. He was probably in his late 20s, a retrograde hippy who didn’t seem to work but just loved to hang out with his friends to get stoned and party.
The thing I remember most about this guy was the time that he and his friends were partying at their next-door neighbors’ house, which had a pool. He climbed up onto the garage, dove for the water and… missed.

He was in a half-body cast with the stereotypical metal arm support and head restraints for at least half a year, but I’m pretty sure that it also went down below his hips and stopped somewhere around the thighs. He was kind of an idiot. Entertaining, but an idiot.

Basically, though, 90% of these entries are just proof that the old L.A. joke is actually a hint at the truth. Why would you want to meet your neighbors, much less invite them into your lives, when you’re all thrown together at random?
Sure, you can make friendships and I have, but those came from random encounters on things like dog walks or in the laundry room, and long conversations to determine that A) the other one is not insane, and B) we have a lot in common. And most of these were not among my immediate neighbors, but rather from people within the block or general community.

As for immediate neighbors, though… my upstairs neighbor is batshit insane and somewhere back in November she decided that it was a good idea to start stomping all over the floor in her place. Note the “upstairs” part. And this is stomping with intent — one routine involves deliberate steps in what sound like wooden clogs on an elephant from her living room to her bedroom and back. Since we have the same floor plan, it’s the same route.

Or, worse, there’s version two when it sounds like she’s either trying to do choreography or her best impression of an upset baby having a tantrum and stamping its feet because its ice cream fell off the cone.

Sometimes, she does this shit way too early in the morning, and I’m in the process of dealing with management to get it to stop. I do know that they’ve escalated it beyond our local office, probably to the regional property managers, because in any case that might lead to evictions for lease violations (which this is) they have to cross all the T’s and dot the I’s. I really don’t want to get her evicted, but if they could see to it that they move her to a first-floor unit or even a free-standing bungalow at the same rent, that would work.

After all, I do know that she’s pretty old, so this could be a mental issue and hence a protected disability — but, honestly, I shouldn’t have to suffer for her issues. Just like no neighbor should have to suffer.

Too often in the big city, though, “Being neighborly” really means, “Oh, you’re going to suffer.” Screw that.

Image: Paul Sableman, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Theatre Thursday: How to start an argument in L.A.

Here are eight surefire ways to start an instant argument among your L.A. friends, family, and co-workers.

I know the subject is Theatre Thursday, but this topic is appropriate here because every one of these things can lead to a lot of drama.

Now, L.A. is generally a pretty laid-back place, except during the occasional riots — although the legitimate protestors are never the rioters here, and vice versa.

But there are some things you can say or do in the City of Angeles that will immediately start disagreements. Here are some of them.

  1. Declare that (Establishment X) has the best (Food Y) in the city

You can fill in that Y however you want because that part doesn’t matter. It can be donuts, pizza, burger, chili, hot dogs, Chinese, Thai, Korean BBQ, comfort food, whatever. You can even extend it to cover bars, bakeries, food trucks, or anywhere else that people can stuff their faces.

No matter what you pick, there are strong partisans on all sides. You might get agreement with a statement like “Randy’s has the best donuts,” but you’re just as likely to get a range from, “They used to be good until the original owners sold it” to “They taste like stale oil and barf.”

And, of course, you’ll get plenty of people with their own preferences. This includes the very wrong, who insist that it’s either Krispy Kreme or Voodoo Doughnut (hint: It’s neither. The former are bland and mass-produced; the latter are way over-done and aimed squarely at foodie hipsters.), as well as those who have a very specific and independent hole-in-the-wall that they’re fond of.

Personally, I tend toward the latter, although not necessarily a specific place. Look for a tiny storefront donut place run by a Vietnamese or Cambodian family, and boom. Best donuts in the city, guaranteed.

When I was still commuting to work, I found one in North Hills called Uncle Joe’s Donuts that was amazing and cheap. Caveat: I never had any non-donut items from their menu, so I can’t speak to those, but in the morning, the donuts are fresh, hot, and amazing.

The most polarizing places in L.A. seem to be In-n-Out Burger, Pink’s Hot Dogs, and anything with “Gastro” in its name.

  1. Pronounce the city of “Los Feliz” in proper Spanish

Now, in some ways this is a shibboleth, meaning a word or phrase that only locals can say properly. A famous one in L.A. is “Cahuenga,” which most tourists either badly mangle or just give up and ask before they ever try to say it, with the most common mispronunciation being “Cahoo-enega.”

The proper way, at least to Angelenos, as “kuh-WANG-uh,” which isn’t how it would be pronounced in Spanish except that it’s just the Spanish version of the native Tongva name Kawengna, which means “place of the mountain.” Perfectly appropriate, since it denotes the mountain pass connecting the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood.

If you’re feeling lucky and don’t believe in curses, you can also look for the famous lost treasure of Diego Moreno up there.

Now there’s an Angelino pronunciation for “Los Feliz,” but also the Spanish one, and this has strong proponents on both sides. Generally, English speakers will say it as “Loze FEE-lis,” while Spanish speakers will say “Lows feh-LEASE.”

It can vary beyond this, though, and quite often native Angelenos who grew up bilingual will say it based on whichever language they’re speaking at the moment, or just default to the gabacho version.

Now, while places or streets like Sepulveda or Ventura or Alhambra or Alameda tend to get a pass on being mangled, rendered “incorrectly” as “Se-POLE-vay-duh,” “Vin-TYURE-uh,” “All-HAM-bra,” or “A-la-MEE-da,” Los Feliz is just different.

That’s probably because its origin is so much a part of city history. The area was named for a rancher named José Vicente Feliz, who was granted land called El Rancho de Los Feliz in the early 1800s. Eventually, after the land went to the city of Los Angeles, it kept the “Los Feliz” name.

However, a lot of people prefer the Spanish pronunciation simply because it refers to a family and not a word. Yes, it’s amazing how many people just think that the name means “the happy,” which it almost would in Spanish because “feliz” does mean happy. But… “feliz” is singular and “los” denotes plural.

So, if you’re referring to a generic group of happy people, then “los felices” is correct — or “las felices” if they’re all women. On the other hand, when you’re referring to an entire family named Feliz, then “Los Feliz” it is. This is the equivalent of Mr. Jones and his brood in English being known as “The Joneses.” We pluralize the name. Spanish doesn’t.

So, really, for those of us who insist on the Spanish pronunciation, it’s more out of respect for the family who gave their name to the place than anything else. Still — nothing funnier than being contradicted on this by someone who only speaks English.

  1. Mispronounce “Los Angeles” in the worst possible way

Oddly enough, this is one that even L.A. native Spanish speakers pronounce in the local way. it’s “Laws ANN-juh-luhs,” with a very short “s” sound at the end. At least it’s accented exactly the way it would be in Spanish.

But all the local desert gods help you if you come here and end it with a long E and drawn-out Z sound, giving something like “Lows anjuh-LEEZ.” You will be corrected and laughed out of the room if you pull this one.

Primarily, I find this to be a prominent sin of British tourists more than any other group, and it makes me want to ask them of they’ve ever been to “Lone-done.” Oddly enough, it used to be a lot more common in American English, apparently, and if you listen to old newscasts or movie news reels from the 30s through 50s, you’ll hear it a lot.

This may have been due to the use of the so-called “Mid-Atlantic” accent very common in this era, which was a blend of British Received Pronunciation and upper-class east coast American, and it mostly existed for two reasons: First, because early recording equipment sucked, and this over-emphasis was just easier to capture. Second, because it made it easier for Americans to understand British actors, and vice versa.

Cary Grant, British, and Katharine Hepburn, American, both had the accent, as you can hear in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. In fact, they probably epitomize it. In reality, Grant was born Archibald Leach, and grew up with quite the Cockney accent.

  1. Declare out-loud that you’re a Giants Fan

If you’re a diehard baseball fan, Los Angeles is Dodgers Country, period. However, people who moved here from elsewhere will get a pass if they root for the Yankees or the Red Sox — and no one else.

What they should definitely not do is be an open Giants fan, since that team, from San Francisco, is part of the enormous, sometimes joking and sometimes serious, rivalry between the two cities.

San Francisco is the much older city that became the hub of west coast life in the late 19th and early 20th century until the film industry came to Southern California and a little earthquake in 1906 wrecked the City by the Bay for long enough that it lost its prominence, rebuilding in the same time period that development in L.A. was exploding.

Wearing their gear in the wrong place can be dangerous. This one can actually start fights, or at least assaults, and it once did during a very unfortunate incident in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium on opening day just over a decade ago, in 2011.

This is the worst place on Earth to show your Giants pride.

San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow and several friends were heading to the car wearing Giants gear when they were viciously attacked. Stow wound up in a coma and it wasn’t sure he was going to survive. Fortunately, he recovered, and his experience turned into a positive, as he now tours schools teaching kids anti-bullying.

  1. Suggest the best route from Point A to Point B during rush hour

 You’ve no doubt seen the long-running SNL bit The Californians and thought, “Oh, that’s funny, but it’s not real.”

I can assure you that the discussions in this bit are 100% a documentary, and for every shortcut or best route one person suggests, someone else will have a better trick. And never, ever insist that the freeway is actually the best route no matter what (even when it is) because you will get slammed with five hundred alternate routes on side streets.

Really experienced drivers do know, though — just take the damn freeway or take public transit. The only reason surface streets seem better is because there’s more to look at, but while they create the illusion of making good time for short stretches, you’ll eat those time savings up stropped at every ill-timed red-light in the city.

Meanwhile, on the freeway, you may be moving slowly but, for the most part, it’s also steadily.

  1. Talk-up the “wrong part” of town in the wrong part of town

Largely because of the geography and traffic of Los Angeles, we may be one big city and one much bigger county, but the city and county themselves are sliced up into much smaller bits that are often separated by mountains, canyons, crappy urban planning, and more. The city also has plenty of carve-outs for smaller cities within it, like Malibu, Santa Monica, Culver City, West Hollywood, Burbank, and so on.

It’s really hard to make a nutshell version of this, but I’ll try. L.A. is divided up by borders both natural and manmade. The natural ones are our mountains, canyons, and coastline. The manmade ones are neighborhoods, roads, freeways, and mass transit.

This naturally created a few divisions — the Valley in the north; the Westside, which hugs the coast from the northern end of the county all the way down to south of LAX; Mid-City north, which includes some of the most affluent areas; Mid-City south, which includes a lot of the poorest communities; Hollywood, which is the tourist magnet slapped in the center and mostly avoided by locals; East Hollywood, which is the corridor leading to downtown (or DTLA) via Los Feliz and Silver Lake, home to many ethnic neighborhoods; DTLA, a strangely evolving clusterfucked mess that is both gentrified as hell and homeless central; and then, to the east and south of DTLA respectively, East L.A., still largely Hispanic and not gentrified; and South Central L.A., still largely Black and not gentrified.

The 405 Freeway creates one of the major divisions of the Valley as well as separates the Westside from everything else, while the Santa Monica Mountains keep the Valley from falling into L.A. and environs.

Connectors from the Valley to Mid-City include the Canyons — Beverly Glen, Coldwater Canyon, and Laurel Canyon — and the route from the Valley into Hollywood is through the Cahuenga pass or down the 101, although for the latter, the Metro is also perfectly acceptable. The Cahuenga pass is the last division in the Valley that separates the Mid-Valley from the East Valley. The 5 divides the City of Burbank from everything else.

On the other side of the hill, the 10 is pretty much the dividing line between “rich and white” and poor and black,” and yes, it was damn well planned that way as well way back in the day.

But the point is this: Go to Santa Monica and rave about the Valley (or vice versa), tell someone in Burbank that Culver City has much better nightlife, try to convince someone in Woodland Hills to take the Metro G and B line to DTLA with you, try to convince a designer on Robertson or Melrose that you’ve seen much better and cheaper stuff in the fashion district, and on and on.

You won’t be able to do it.

It’s a stupid and silly divisional argument that has been going on for no reason since forever. The point is that every part of this city is interesting and has its advantages and disadvantages. Plus, if you’ve been paying attention and are willing to take proper precautions (get vaxxed, wear a mask, get boosted, and wash your hands a lot) our current Metro system can get you to a lot more places more easily and cheaply than you’ve ever suspected.

Hell, it’s now even possible (and has been for a while) to take the train from the Mid-Valley right to Santa Monica. Sure, it takes about as long as the freeway, but you don’t have to look for (or pay for) parking, and you actually get to see a lot of the Mid-City on the way.

Win-win.

  1. Ever try to argue that (Thing X) from (Home State Y) was just better

To be honest, if it were really better, then we probably already have it here. Shit — you can find White Castle sliders in the freezer section of any grocery store, although I hate to tell you this but… overrated!

Likewise, most of your beloved IPA and craft beers are probably also being sold here, too. Chain restaurants? We either have the ones we want or never allowed franchises for or quickly ignored and let shut down the ones we didn’t.

Philly Cheesesteak? Yeah, we got it, and we won’t make adults talk like giant babies and demand “Wit wiz.” Chicago deep dish pizza? You might find it a couple of places here, but I’m sorry to disappoint you. Put this crap in front of most Angelenos and they’ll just look at you and go, “WTF is this, a tomato sauce casserole?”

The best New York style pizza, meanwhile, is at a little place in North Hollywood. And L.A. native pro-tip for tourists: If you come here, you must absolutely eat at Porto’s Bakery and Café three times: Once for breakfast, once for lunch or dinner, and once just for the desserts.

We have probably every conceivable kind of ethnic food and restaurant here and, more importantly, all of the good ones were founded and run by people actually from those countries. Well, the ones who arrived recently.

Yes, American “Chinese” food is just stuff made up by railroad workers from ingredients they happened to have access to, and it bore little resemblance to the real thing, but it’s still really amazing, and it was born here.

I’m also pretty sure that IKEA probably knows what it’s doing with its cafeteria and off-the-shelf Swedish food.

But, yeah… pick a food, give a home state example, and there’s an Angeleno ready to prove you dead wrong.

Even about your Grandmother’s blinis. Especially about your grandmother’s blinis.

  1. Write an article on “How to start an argument in L.A.”

Seriously — every item on this list will meet with either hearty nods of agreement or red-faced indignation, with no middle ground.  The only thing worse than accidentally starting one of these arguments in L.A. is intentionally point out that they happen.

Oh well…

So what are the big argument starters or local disagreements in your home town or city? Tell us in the comments below!

Wednesday Wonders: 10/20/20

October 20 is a surprisingly eventful day. Here are four things that happened on this date in history, some good, some bad, some ugly.

I found a bunch of things that have happened on October 20, some good some bad, and there were too many to decide which to focus on — so here’s a sampler of the best and worst the day has to offer.

Dancin’

I’m going to start with a bright spot. On this day in 1914, Fayard Nicholas was born. One half of the dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers, along with his brother Harold. They started out performing in the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, eventually appearing in a number of feature films.

They combined tap-dancing with more athletic moves, and if you watch the clip below, I’m sure you’ll be able to see their influence on all the actually talented TikTok dancers doing their moves now.

I was fortunate enough to have known Fayard and his wife Katherine near the end of their lives, and he was an incredibly warm and gracious person. And yes, even in his 90s, he could still hoof it.

Bailing out Bonaparte

Meanwhile, 111 years before Fayard was born in Alabama, the U.S. greatly expanded because Napoleon needed money, and so the Louisiana purchase was ratified by the U.S. Senate (back when they actually got things done) on October 20, 1803, increasing the territory of the U.S. by 828,000 square miles. The cost was $15 million dollars, or $262.3 million adjusted for inflation.

Of course, it all depends on POV. While the USA called it the Louisiana Purchase, the French referred to it as the Vente de la Louisiane, meaning the Louisiana Sale.

On top of that, though, the French didn’t actually control all of the territory they sold to the U.S. A lot of it was under native control, so it was just another example of white, European fuckery. France basically sold the U.S. the right to go screw the natives without any French interference without really having those rights in the first place.

Quelle surprise.

The new territory, however, would push Manifest Destiny forward and begin the great rush to the west, and also enable Andrew Jackson to be a genocidal, racist asshole, leading to his election as the 7th president.

Creating an architectural icon

On a brighter note, 170 years after this land deal was ratified, on October 20, 1973, the Sydney Opera House was officially opened, sixteen years after the original design won a contest in 1957.

There are actually multiple venues within the Opera House itself, comprising a concert hall, a theatre designed for live show, opera, and ballet, and a theatre, cinema, and library, which were later replaced with three live theatres, the smallest one presenting work in the round, and referred to as Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio.

Incidentally, it cost far more than the Louisiana Purchase — $102 million at the time, $604 million adjusted for inflation.

But what Australia really got for its money was an instant icon, and a man-made symbol that immediately identifies the country to the rest of the world. When anyone anywhere sees the building, they can’t help but immediately think “Australia.”

It’s pretty similar to the Statue of Liberty and the Hollywood Sign; the Elizabeth Tower (since 2012, and often incorrectly called Big Ben), the Tower Bridge, or perhaps the London Eye or Stonehenge; the Little Mermaid; the Eiffel Tower; the Brandenburg Gate; Burj Khalifa; St. Basil’s Cathedral; the Great Wall or Forbidden City; or the Moai of Rapa Nui, aka those big stone heads.

I’m hoping that you got every single country not mentioned by name in the above. That was the power of the creation of the Sydney Opera House.

Athletes being a-holes

But I have to end this piece on a downer, which happened 70 years ago, on October 20, 1951. Dubbed the Johnny Bright Incident, it was a blatant racist hate crime committed in public, during a college football game at what was then Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State University, or OSU.)

Bright was a halfback and quarterback for Drake University, a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was also the first Black footballer to play on Lewis Field, Oklahoma A&M’s home field, in 1949, without incident.

However, in 1951, Oklahoma A&M players decided to target Bright, with the players egged on by both the student newspaper and local press.

Once the game started, Oklahoma A&M player Wilbanks Smith intentionally knocked Bright unconscious 3 times in the first seven minutes, his final attack breaking Bright’s jaw and, although Bright completed a 61-yard touchdown pass despite it, his injuries put him out of the game.

Two photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, having heard about the threats against Bright, were on the scene and ready, focusing their cameras on the quarterback and capturing a sequence of images proving that Smith had dealt the jaw-breaking blow well after Bright had handed off the ball. They rushed their photos to Des Moines, Iowa to be published, ultimately winning a Pulitzer for their efforts.

Oklahoma A&M tried to cover up the incident for years, and Smith himself did such mental gymnastics that he actually tried to describe himself as helping the Civil Rights movement, saying that his act was, “a tool [those] organizations used, and it was very effective.”

Smith died in 2020. OSU did not apologize to Drake University for the incident until 2005.

Bright was only 53 when he died in 1983 due to a massive heart attack during surgery for an old knee injury. Smith was 89, once again proving that only the good die young.

Well, mostly. Fayard Nicholas was one of the good ones, and he died very old — albeit still too soon.

Image source: Mfield, Matthew Field, http://www.photography.mattfield.com, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Nibble #84: The One, Ten Thousand, and other L.A. horror stories

How over-priced apartments for TikTok influencers and a ridiculously oversized house in foreclosure exemplify L.A.’s big property problems.

This is a story that starts and ends with property, but in particular with one address in Los Angeles that I will always associate with architecture.

That address is 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90067 and, at the time I first new it, my father worked there for an architectural firm called Welton Becket & Associates.

I know. “Welton Becket” sounds like its already an association of two, but it’s not. He was an actual person, born in 1902, and who was in the business long before my father took up the profession. In fact, it wasn’t all that long after my father joined their firm that Becket died in 1969.

It was a company with a lot of legacies. The landmark Capital Records Building , the Cinerama Dome, and the Los Angeles Music Center were a trio of famous Welton Becket designs, and my father worked as a structural engineer on all of them.

He did it from a three-story office building at 10000 Santa Monica, which was right on the border line between the cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills — although Los Angeles is this weird literal fruitcake of towns and cities, so the Los Angeles that Beverly Hills bordered was just a continuation that wrapped around the smaller city and covered most of the county.

The fruits and nuts in the huge lump of dough that is L.A. are various unincorporated areas with their own names but which are still part of the City of L.A. — Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Hollywood, Los Feliz, etc.

Others are their own, independent cities with their own municipal governments and police departments — Malibu, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City, and Burbank, to name a few. While none of these fall under the jurisdiction of the City of L.A., all of them are part of the County of L.A.

Note: If you’re from out of town — especially if you’re from out of town — please call it L.A. We much prefer that to hearing it butchered as “low sanjaylees” or “la sanjulees” or any other abomination that ends with a long “E.”

Anyway… Welton Becket & Associates sat on the border of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, but it was also directly south of a place called Century City which was not itself a city, but rather a large, mixed-use development designed and built by Welton Becket & Associates.

It was quite an idea for its time, and still exists in mostly in its same original form, albeit with more buildings shoved in around the edges.

It featured both high-density, high-rise apartments and condos right next to office towers, two of the most famous having triangular footprints. The whole thing came about — and got its name — because it sits right behind what was then 20th Century Fox Studios, and they had a lot of backlot they weren’t using, so the studio head decided to go into real estate development.

Apparently, it was revolutionary for its time, and the design was so futuristic that it was used many times over the years for film and TV shoots, particularly for science fiction.

In fact, the famous Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard was actually the nearly-constructed but not-yet-open Fox Plaza, within the confines of Century City and owned by 20th Century Fox. Rumor has it that the company was able to make a small fortune renting the building to its own construction, as well as demolishing bits on unfinished floors to take the write-off. Hey, why not? It was still under construction.

Anyway, growing up, I had a rather personal connection to 10000 Santa Monica as well as Century City — as a kid, it really was the coolest, most “This Is the Future!” place I’d ever been outside of Disneyland, and I got to take the bus after school over there all the time when I was old enough to meet up with dad and see a movie.

So it was some shock that I only just recently learned about Ten Thousand, which is a building located exactly where my father’s office used to be — a building that became the ESPN headquarters, by the way, after Welton Becket eventually shut down.

It’s at least 13 years old, going by Google Street View’s archive function, and it’s a forty-story monstrosity tucked into the same footprint as my father’s office, which was low but wide. Now, that wouldn’t be so unusual for L.A. — we have plenty of high-rise apartment buildings, especially in the area from Hollywood west through Beverly Hills, Westwood, and beyond.

No, what makes Ten Thousand unusual is that it recently changed its target audience from the super-rich, foreign business-people, and various celebs to the new kids in town: TikTok Influencers.

Apparently, if you know what to look for, you can spot TikTok videos that were made there just by what the apartments look like inside — sorry, no filming allowed in common areas.

The place is overloaded with services and amenities. You can read all about those in the original article I found them in. Unfortunately, it’s only available to subscribers to Graydon Carter’s Air Mail email newsletter, so I understand if you don’t want to bother with that — although it’s not that intrusive but is a news aggregator that does not tread the same grounds and everyone else.

Indeed, it was hard to find specific mention of the TikTok angle although I can find plenty on the Ten Thousand Building, such as why it’s called that, and it’s not just the address.

Nope. Read that number as $10K, which is the minimum rent on the smallest studio in the place, with rents going all the way up to $65K. Yes, that’s per month.

Now, this isn’t the first location catering to social media influencers. Hype House, founded in 2019, is both the name of a collective of influencers making videos together, as well as a mansion in Southern California where many of them live and work together.

And let’s not forget Jake Paul’s infamous Team 10 Mansion in Calabasas, which became the focus of neighborhood ire once it turned into an out-of-control party palace. Of course, back in the summer of 2020, the FBI raided the mansion and found firearms connected to riots in Arizona.

Paul’s star had already fallen by that time, but he did wind up selling the place at a huge loss in 2021, heading off to Miami.

But let’s not let the TikTok angle distract from the real issue here: High-rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles that get away with charging rents that would make New Yorkers blush.

Keep in mind that the average rent in Los Angeles is $2,518, with the average unit size being 791 square feet. That figure reflects both people who are paying below market because they’re lived in rent controlled units for a long time as well as new renters paying market value and the super-rich paying whatever “change” they find in their sofa cushions for luxury units that would be a really nice mortgage payment on the average house.

Yes, the change in the cushions was a joke. Still, the most expensive areas to rent in in Los Angeles hit the top at $4,054 per month in Oakwood. This neighborhood is right next to the more bohemian Venice — yes, it has canals, too — where average rents are $2,498.

This is another great example of gentrification. Once upon a time, Venice, along with Hollywood, was a cheap neighborhood with older apartments where hippies, artists, and musicians could afford to live. That demographic has definitely been developed right out of Hollywood, which is one of the worst examples of out-of-control growth in the city.

So, in answer to the question: How can Ten Thousand get away with charging those kinds of rents, which are way above the already inflated rents in the rest of the city?

Simple. Dog’s balls. I.E., because they can. And you can bet that they have absolutely zero units set aside for low-income housing, as developers are supposed to do.

There’s one big problem in Los Angeles when it comes to affordable housing. Well, fifteen, and they are called the City Council, although locals have a more colorful name for them that I’m sure you can figure out.

The simple problem is that they tend to be as corrupt as hell. The latest example is Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been indicted on corruption charges for, among other things, getting his son into USC and then assigned to a professorship in exchange for shady favors, and all this right around the time he was on the County Board of Supervisors, voting with others to tear down the Los Angeles County Museum of Art because… rea$on$.

Note: The County Board of Supervisors is just as corrupt as the L.A. City Council. They’re just a lot more expensive.

But when it comes to affordable housing, the City Council dance goes like this. Developers submit plans that will basically tear up and destroy neighborhoods — but look! More housing!

Residents in those neighborhoods, homeowners and renters alike, show up at hearings on proposals and permits, and express their strong objections. The more enterprising will go directly to their City Council Member in person and get their ear.

City Council Member will show up at neighborhood association meetings, listen to their side, promise to save the character of the neighborhood and push back on the scale and/or location of the development, and maybe even make a speech or two against it in a planning session hearing or open City Council meeting.

And then… they will get very quiet and a couple of votes sneak by. Maybe there are a couple of modifications on the project, but not a lot, and then your City Council Member goes ahead and votes for it and stops answering calls from the neighborhood leaders that had been working with them.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Now, while my current district has, historically, had the smallest number of Council Members  — only eight in just under a century — we did boot out a long-time incumbent, Tom LaBonge, in 2015, because it was clear he was working for the developers, replaced him with David Ryu, who promised the world to renters and homeowners alike, and then abandoned both as soon as he got into office. We turned him into a one-term wonder, and the jury is still out on the current member, Nithya Raman, although like many elected officials, she did get really quiet after the election.

There was already a failed recall effort against her, but that was backed by someone I can best describe as a wee bit… unstable.

But, unfortunately, places like Ten Thousand have become the rule, not the exception, and complicate this with developers now diving into the market to buy up single family homes, tear them down and then jam eight tiny and expensive rental units on the lot, parking not included.

Also, affordable housing not included.

This has also made it very difficult for legitimate home buyers because, while they can and do make an offer, sometimes against asking price, it’s with a down-payment and mortgage, but developers will swoop in with an all-cash offer, and a lot of motivated sellers just can’t resist that. Meanwhile, the average homebuyer cannot compete.

It’s destroying the housing market, plain and simple.

About the only good mixed-use developments I can think of are the ones that they’ve been building on top of Metro Stations that include commercial, business, and rental properties — but they still need to make the housing much more affordable.

I can think of a few quick solutions off the top of my head, although don’t hold your breath, because this would require governments to pass laws unfriendly to developers. But here we go.

  1. Ban corporate ownership of single-family residences. The only exception: brief ownership by the bank or lender if the place goes into foreclosure, but it must be sold at the cost of the balance of the loan, and only to an individual buyer.
  2. Single-family residences can only be occupied by the owner, family, or boarders/lodgers in designated rooms or outbuildings. No such residence can ever be dedicated entirely as a vacation rental, like AirBnB, or partially for more than 90 days within any one calendar year. Owners must be in residence during vacation rental occupancies.
  3. Units within multi-family buildings can only be occupied by individuals who are signed to a lease. They may not be used as corporate housing for, for example, flight crews on layover, visiting executives or employees, or other occupational transients. Such people can only take up residence in contracted or owned commercial residential units, see below.
  4. Corporations can buy multi-family housing buildings, such as apartments, duplexes, or townhouses. However, if any of the units is occupied upon sale, the new owners are barred from evicting those tenants for ten years for any reason other than criminal behavior which results in felony conviction and/or imprisonment, and cannot perform major renovations on unoccupied units without the written consent of all existing tenants.
  5. Any residential rental units that have remained vacant for more than six months, whether or not the owner or management company showed due diligence in trying to rent them out, shall be put onto the market with the City as broker at one-half their current market value rent, subject to all of the same rent controls with that as the base rent. All income shall still incur to the owners, but at a new, fixed rate.
  6. Any commercial residential units, like hotels, motels, transient hotels, or the like, that have remained vacant for more than a year shall remain in the owner’s possession but shall be administered by the City as transitional housing for the homeless, with the City reimbursing the owners on a per tenant/per room basis each month.
  7. Any commercial property, like office buildings, malls, or the like, that cannot sustain 20% occupancy for more than five years or which fall below 10% occupancy at any time shall be seized by the City by public domain, with the owners compensated at the rate of one quarter of current monthly square foot rental cost times five — or 4/5ths the current square footage cost. Take it or leave it. These buildings would be converted into more of that mixed-use housing that developers seem to love so much, except owned by the city, or possibly a city-county-state combo, and could provide both housing and services to the homeless, battered woman seeking shelter, abandoned or runaway kids, and college students.
  8. Every new unit constructed must include one parking space per bedroom within the square footage of the entire lot, whether exterior to the units or placed underground or in a structure. Every new multi-family construction must include 25% low-cost units priced at an amount equal to 25% of the current median household income in the county, limited to people who make less than the median.

I call this my “How to Make a Developer Shit” list, but it’s long past time that we do it. L.A. technically has plenty of land and square acreage to see that everyone is housed affordably, There are no excuses to developers to be buying up single family homes and converting them into tiny, market-rate units with no parking, or for corporations to be renting out apartments in multi-family homes when hotels are available.

There’s also no excuse for so much vacant commercial property sitting around unused, and especially no excuse for mega-developments in suburbs or on known earthquake fault-lines. (Fortunately, the permits for that last one were recently revoked by the city.)

There’s also no excuse for a place called The One, a 105,000 square foot monstrosity located in Bel Air. It has 21 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms, a 50-space parking garage, a movie theatre, nightclub, cigar room, 10,000 bottle wine cellar, salon, bowling alley, a movie theatre to rival any multiplex black box, and more.

Developed by film producer Nile Niami, creator of such well-known “classics” as Galaxis, DNA, Resurrection, and Tart. In other words, a lot of direct-to-video material, but his films made him enough money overseas that he started investing in real estate here, culminating in his construction of The One, for which he originally estimated would sell for $500 million.

However, he defaulted on the loans used to develop and build it, so it’s now going on sale via receivership and the asking price is now a mere $225 million.

If any single-family home in Los Angeles should be torn down to put up a ton of units in its place, this is the ideal candidate. Or just throw a couple of apartment towers on top of it, move all of the TikTok kids from Ten Thousand in and give them the amenities, then turn Ten Thousand itself into low-cost single-family housing.

After all, the TikTok influencers don’t really need to go anywhere but they probably all own really expensive cars anyway, so being on a hill a few miles away from stuff shouldn’t be a problem.

Meanwhile, people who need a rent break and may not even have cars could sure use an affordable place to live next to Century City, which is close to a lot of transit lines and will be sitting on top of the L.A. Metro system one day soon.

I’d call this trade a great example of sustainable development, actually.

Image source: BDS2006 (talk)., (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday Free-for-All #80: Corporate screw-ups

How McDonald’s made a bet on the Olympics and lost big and how a former boss of mine shot himself in the foot.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Yet again this week, I had three questions ready, but the first one took up the whole article.

What is the funniest corporate/business screw up you have heard of?

One is corporate and the other is personal.

The corporate one happened during the 1984 Olympics, which took place in Los Angeles. This was kind of a big deal, because it was only the third time that the U.S. had hosted the summer Olympics, the two previous times being in 1904 and 1932.

It was even more of a big deal because the first Olympics in the U.S. had been hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, while the second, 28 years later, took place in Los Angeles, California — and by the time the Olympics came back to the U.S., they also came back to Los Angeles, 52 years later.

McDonald’s saw a marketing opportunity, and so they launched this promo: For every medal that the U.S. won in competition, customers would get a free item — a soft drink for Bronze, fries for Silver, and the big-ticket item for every Gold medal, a Big Mac.

Just one problem: In retaliation for various things Olympics related, including the U.S. led boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in addition to the USSR just being pissy in general), the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics, along with 17 other countries, although several of those (Albania, Iran, and Libya) boycotted for entirely different reasons.

Without competition for those countries, the U.S. had a very good year, taking home a total of 174 medals: 30 bronze, 61 silver, and 83 gold.

Remember: This was a national promo by McDonald’s, so they had committed themselves to giving out those prizes in all 50 states, for the duration of the Games. And while the U.S., USSR/Russia, and China are consistently the top-three medal winners, 1984 was a particularly good year for Team America.

While McDonald’s has always been tight-lipped over how much, exactly, they lost through this promo, since the Big Mac was one of their biggest money-makers and they had underestimated the number of gold medals badly, combined with many franchises just plain running out, their losses have been estimated in the millions.

Ironically, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were one of the few successful Olympic Games in history. Not only did it not bankrupt the city (like it did many others), but it made over $200 million in profits, largely by enlisting big corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola, M&M/Mars, and… McDonald’s.

As for the biggest business mistake, personal edition, I could have sworn I’d written about this one before, but I guess not. In this case, it was an attorney I worked for very briefly — just under a year and a half.

I had been through a very interesting transition leading up to the gig. I was abruptly fired from my first office job after six and a half years in one of those typical, “Department splits, new manager comes in, figures out which supervisors he can control and which ones can think, gets rid of the latter.”

I was the latter. Plus I probably could have made a very solid case that homophobia was definitely an element in my firing but… I was over that corporate gig. Besides that, earlier that same year, I had taken second place in a major playwriting competition at a big regional theater, and while I’m not exactly certain, I think that I must have found out that said theater was going to produce my play some time before I got fired.

So I spent the next few months living on a nice severance plus unused sick time from former employer, unemployment, and then weekly royalties, although I had to start looking for work pretty quickly after the play ended and then… the L.A. Riots (the Rodney King ones) happened, and put a crimp in the works for a bit.

As they were ending, I signed up with a temp agency, and they sent me out on an assignment that, they said, was with an attorney in Brentwood, working as his bookkeeper. I agreed, and it wasn’t until I got the address on Monday, my first day, that I realized it was in Inglewood.

If you know L.A., you know that Brentwood and Inglewood are polar opposites of each other. Also, we had just been through a major race riot, and ground zero for that was actually about half a mile from this attorney’s office — he’d escaped being attacked while driving back from the courthouse in Downtown L.A., in fact.

Now, while I was a giant white guy driving a Honda, I also knew Inglewood, since I’d worked there during and just after college and my college was in the next neighborhood over, and Inglewood was basically the black version of suburbia in L.A.

So it was kind of offensive to me that the temp agency felt like they had to lie to get me there in the first place — or maybe it was the client who had lied to them, which was probably the more likely scenario.

In any case, I started working as bookkeeper for an attorney who was one of the least ethical people I’ve ever met. For one thing, he only handled bankruptcies and evictions — but for the banks and landlords, not for the debtors and tenants.

He also represented a couple of governmental entities that served as mortgage lenders and guarantors. In other words, a right, total bastard.

My job as basic bookkeeping — keep track of the bills that came in and what was due, keep track of his hours and what he was owed, bill clients for same, and then every two weeks give him a report basically saying, “Here’s what you’ve earned, here’s what’s been paid, here’s who you need to write checks to.”

Now, you’d think that someone who regularly represents creditors would get it, right? Pay the people you owe money to, period. Except maybe it was because he represented these bastards that he felt like he knew how to skate around it, so inevitably I would hand him a stack of bills, many of them 90 or more days past due, explain to him what needed to be paid, and he’d look at the stack and brush it aside.

“Write me a draw for $200,000,” he’d say, while refusing to sign any of the checks I’d placed before him. In laymen’s terms: “Make out a check to me for $200,000.”

He certainly had enough to cover it in his corporate account, but he also had enough to cover all those other expenses, and then some — largely because he overbilled the hell out of clients, his government contractors in particular.

At least he was always able to cover payroll, the one small touch of decency about him.

Anyway, long story short, he was a total asshole. In October of 1993, I flew to Dallas for what was supposed to be just the weekend because I was in a crazy stupid long-distance relationship at the time. Between the Friday I arrived and the Sunday I was supposed to leave, the budget airline I’d flown on went out of business, stranding all of its return passengers.

Luckily, I had a free place to stay, but I had to call the boss up to tell him that I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to make it back, and he took this as a sign that I had embezzled all of his money and was about to run off to Brazil.

He demanded that I get the next available flight back to L.A., but since that would have cost at least $900 — more than my rent at the time — I politely told him, I would if you paid me more, but you don’t, so I can’t.

Then, near the end of that week, my immediate ex had a stroke of conscience and left a message on my home phone, which I heard when I finally got back the Sunday following. I had been accepted into a year-long screenwriting fellowship program, meaning that I no longer needed to work for asshole attorney.

I wrote and printed out my two-weeks’ notice that night, and handed it to him in the morning, after I’d found out that he had hired some forensic specialist to go over my computer to see how I’d ripped him off. (Spoiler: I hadn’t.) He accepted the notice immediately even though I knew something that he didn’t, and this is where the funniest business screw-up, personal edition, kicks in.

See, being a total nerd, I had cobbled together his entire accounting system using a consumer version of Quicken, and a bunch of macros in order to get Excel and Word to speak to it. I’d enter hours in Excel, have it generate invoices in Word and export data to Quicken, enter billing data to Quicken and have it export data to both Word and Excel to generate payment statements and track those costs per creditor, and so on.

The key to it was knowing which macros to run in which programs through which keystrokes, and at which point in the data-entry process. And I’d given two weeks because I knew that I’d need to teach that to someone.

But… Captain Asshole had refused, so when I walked out, I was done. I received three more phone messages from the office, moving up the food chain from receptionist to paralegal to boss, each one basically saying the same thing. “Please call. We can’t figure out the system you set up.”

I replied to none of them and just laughed. Should have thought about that before he accepted my two weeks’ notice immediately because he was being paranoid — although projection is frequently a trait of the greedy.

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