The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *

Momentous Monday: Riding through history

Car repairs can come up at the weirdest times, although I have to say that this latest adventure was perfectly timed, since I’m furloughed. On the other hand, there were other inconvenient bits, mainly that the apartment complex I live at just opened two new buildings (that absolutely none of the tenants wanted jammed onto the grounds) and those buildings sit atop parking garages that are technically three stories down, but in reality six.

So, long story short there, about a week ago, I had to move my car from the spot, which for over a decade had been about thirty feet from my back door, to a new one four stories down in a parking garage. That spot is now a good two minutes away by foot and elevator. And I can’t even pull up to my back door to unload groceries anymore because they just fenced off and are excavating the parking lot behind my building to… jam in another building absolutely none of the tenants wants.

Prologue to this adventure. It was the day I went to pick up Sheeba’s ashes from the vet, on a Monday afternoon. Now, when I’d taken her there to be euthanized, I was able to go inside and be with her. That’s the one exception to the vet’s rule of all business being done in the parking lot. Picking up ashes, not so much.

So, I pull into a spot and try to call. But I keep getting… not exactly a busy signal, but a non-answer. I try that a few times, then suddenly lose the Bluetooth signal from the car — and am able to get through immediately just via the untethered phone.

This should have been clue number one.

After they put me on hold for five minutes and didn’t come back, I called again, and when they asked if they could put me on hold again blurted, “Sure, but I’m just here for my dog’s ashes” figuring (rightly) that on somebody’s next trip out to a waiting client they could bring them to me.

Did I mention that this entire time that the car was not running but the ignition was turned to accessory, and I had the AC and radio running? This will be important in a moment.

One of the techs brought the bag with Sheeba’s ashes and etc. to me, I put it on the passenger seat, thanked her, then got in, turned the key to start the car and…

Fwump.

You know that disheartening feeling? The one when you tell your ignition to ask your battery to juice up the starter to turn the engine over and your battery just says, “Meh?” Yeah, that one.

A couple more unsuccessful tries as my car suffers the automotive version of ED, unable to yank the crank and turn the engine over.

Profanities ensue. I don’t have AAA although, ironically, only two days before this, I got one of those, “Hey, we’d love for you to come back” direct mails from them and had been considering it. So I had to resort to the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rescue known as “phone a friend.”

Three of my closest friends also happen to live physically the closest to both me and the vet’s office, so I start calling and leaving messages, and none of them answers — but that’s when I realize that although I’ve set it for otherwise, my phone loves to only show “Private Number” even if I call someone whose contact list I’m on and vice versa.

I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t answer, either.

So then I start texting, and one of my exes is the first to respond. He’s also the one who lives closest to the vet, although not closest to me. The one who lives closest texts me back moments after I’ve arranged for the ex to come over with jumper cables, though.

Now every spot in the lot is full when my friend arrives, and then it turns out that his cables aren’t quite long enough to reach from his battery to mine, since I’m parked head-in — and keep in mind that he’s got a Honda and I’ve got a Yaris, both of which are pretty short cars.

But… the couple parked to my left is about to leave, as soon as they finish their paperwork. Meanwhile, someone in a truck in the first spot in the lot pulls out, and it’s like some complicated puzzle has suddenly been unlocked. Ex drives out and around the block so truck can leave. Couple backs out and around to take empty spot, ex drives back in and parks next to me and, ta-da, jump succeeds.

And the car keeps starting, if with a hint of sluggish, for the next week and a half, although I still make an appointment with Firestone to get the battery checked. I had intended to make it for Friday, but somehow wound up making it Saturday. Still, since I’m not going anywhere anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

Except that on the Thursday before, I go down to the depths of that damn parking garage, go to start the car and… bupkis. Not even an attempt to turn over the motor, just the annoying chatter of a starter that doesn’t even have the energy to roll over and hit “snooze.”

Well, fuck.

Luckily, right after the incident while picking up Sheeba’s ashes, I decided that it would be a good idea to re-join AAA, so I did. This came in extra-handy on Saturday and, although the tow-truck was 40 minutes late, I got my car started and got it to Firestone.

And yes, the battery was bad and the positive terminal had corroded away to the point that they’d have to replace that, so I okayed the work, and then really felt like I had no choice but to wait, because by the time I’d taken two buses home, it would be time to come back again. Yes, such are the vagaries of a four mile public transit trip in L.A. when home and destination don’t quite line up on the routes.

More on this later.

The good news was that once they replaced the battery, the starter and alternator tested A-Okay, so didn’t need to be replaced. The bad news was that I needed four new tires, but they had to be ordered and wouldn’t be in until Monday.

On the bright side, the tires weren’t that old, and two of them were still covered under warranty. (Two of them were not. Oh well.)

But there were two big snags on Monday, which was Memorial Day. One, I had to be there before 9 a.m. Two, the job would be long enough that there would be no point in waiting, so I had to make my way home.

So on what was ostensibly a holiday, I actually got up far earlier than I had since my last working day over two months ago in March. Second, the only real option for getting home with maximum social distancing was via the L.A. Metro, our local transit system.

What I didn’t realize on my trip home is that there’s one bus that goes right down the street just south of Firestone, which is also the street I live on. I just have to walk a half mile to the stop. Instead, I take a bus up Lankershim to the Metro Station, then another one that goes down another street to the west — where I have to walk half a mile from the stop to home.

Since the Metro is on a Sunday schedule for the holiday, it took me almost two hours to get home — a distance of 3.9 miles. The second bus only runs hourly, and didn’t sync up well to the first.

So I sat across the street from the Firestone and waited for about half an hour before the bus pulled up, and then entered through the back door only to find that there was no way to pay the fair or use my TAP card, which is the payment system we use here — a plastic card that we can add value to, and which uses RFID technology to add and deduct fares.

The one other passenger on the bus told me, “Oh, it’s free now,” and while the bus driver told her, “That’s not totally true,” when I asked her how to pay, she just waved me off to say, “Don’t.”

So I’m guessing that buses are not charging, while trains and express or fixed line buses are, because the latter have TAP terminals at either the entrances or at the rear doors, while the buses only have them up next to the drivers, and the drivers wisely aren’t having us infectious people getting on by them.

On one of the buses today, the driver even had the forward wheelchair seat straps webbed out across the aisle so nobody could get to the front. So no fare box, no TAP device, free ride.

And, again, the only reason I took public transit instead of a taxi or some godawful app-based ride sharing abomination was that I figured it would be much safer.

Generally, that was true. The largest number of people on any of the three buses I rode that day was four, and on that particular ride, the extra two were a couple who retreated to the back. I made sure not to touch anything inside with my hands, instead just hooking my elbow around the upright poles, sitting and standing without using my hands to assist, and banging the stop request buttons with an elbow.

But, for me, the most educational part of the trip involved a ride back down a street where I had spent quite a lot of time over the previous three or four years — and it was like an amusement park tour of a carefully curated disaster zone that comes right before the right turn and into the covered building with the big, scary monster.

This would be the NoHo Arts District. Oh, not the scary monster part. I mean the tranquil, formerly not a disaster zone that the tram steers down while the tour guide — who probably does a lot of shows in the many tiny theatres in this district — hypes up the tourists from Ohio with the corporate approved script.

Goddamn, that just went all kinds of meta.

Anyway… I’ve been a regular denizen of this magic zone for most of my life, at least since my early teen years, and I’ve seen it boom and bust. If the east side of the Valley has a downtown, NoHo gives Burbank a real run for its money.

All Burbank has (had?) are the movie studios. NoHo has (had?) the nightlife, live theatre, art galleries, small VFX houses, and… the Metro — which is the single innovation that brought the place back to life just over twenty years ago.

So  this vital stretch down Lankershim from just above Chandler to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, Riverside/Camarillo, has always been magic — it’s actually the Times Square of NoHo.

It’s the southernmost tip of a place in which I have some really fond memories of living, loving, laughing, performing, and playing here, so that it has always felt like my true L.A. home no matter where else I might have lived, etc. at the time.

But, since mid-March, with the physical shutdown of ComedySportz, I haven’t been anywhere near the district. Today was my first time back, viewing it out of the windows of the bus just like I were a tourist on a Universal Studios Tram, a tourist attraction that’s only about a mile down the street, and the first stop due south from the NoHo Metro station.

It was truly surreal, starting with seeing the old home of ComedySportz, the El Portal, shut down, its marquee with a message thanking the BID and LAFD — our local security patrol and fire department — and something along the lines of “We’ll be back.”

(Note: Considering the way CSzLA was treated when this all went down, I hope they’re not. At least not under the former management. Sorry, not sorry.)

Farther down the block, we came to a series of buildings that were destroyed by a fire about two years ago, and last time I walked by, they were still boarded up and surrounded by scaffolds, in the process of being repaired.

Well, now the buildings that were damaged in the fire show no signs of it. The scaffolds are gone and the storefronts are restored, but none of them are open.

The sushi restaurant that was ground zero for the fire, Tokyo Delves, looks like it was slated to return as something else, a project stopped dead in its tracks. And I didn’t notice any pedestrians on this stretch of street.

It was truly eerie to see Pitfire Pizza closed for reasons other than remodeling or its own fire almost twenty years ago. Yeah, I was right down the block from there one night exactly a week after 9/11 when the place went up in flames and freaked all of the artists in the area the hell out.

Finally, the stretch of Magnolia down to Tujunga was similarly empty and quiet. Still plenty of cars on the road, though.

Yet… this stretch of road that is just over one mile long, with a couple of side branches on Chandler and Magnolia, is one of the most vital corridors in this part of the city. And today’s adventure in “Not getting the ‘rona” really reminded me of that. Not only of how important this neighborhood had become, but how much it potentially has to lose.

I have no doubt that it will bounce back with a vengeance. We just have to give it time.

Image, “Once Upon a Time in NoHo,” © 2019 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved

Time of the signs

As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I spend a lot of time working and performing in North Hollywood, which has really sort of become the de facto downtown of the San Fernando Valley even though Van Nuys is where all of the L.A. City Government stuff is and Burbank is considered the hub of the entertainment industry, although only one of the Big 5 movie studios is actually there. That’s because most of the smaller production companies and post-production houses are in that city.

But North Hollywood, along with Universal City (guess which studio is there, even if one word in their official name is a lie), are the two Valley communities that are directly connected by the L.A. Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Downtown L.A. (DTLA) themselves. In fact, it was the opening of the North Hollywood Red Line Metro Station on June 24, 2000 that jump-started the process of North Hollywood rapidly changing (some would say gentrifying) from a place that you would not have wanted to be after sunset to a place that has a thriving night-life and a rich artistic culture. There are theaters both live and film, art galleries, several escape rooms, educational spaces, coffee shops, tons of restaurants, and tons of actors and artists who live here.. It’s also home to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Emmy People.

Despite the gentrification, it still has some of the cheaper apartments and housing available in the Valley, all conveniently within walking distance of those theaters and performance spaces and the subway. And while it was long known as North Hollywood, sometime during this whole process it was rebranded as NoHo. To be honest, that’s an expression I first used in an unproduced play of mine years before anyone else said it, and in my take it was a put down — emphasis on “No,” but I’m not bitter, and that’s not the point here.

But that’s just background to this piece, and the TL;DR is that at one point in time, up to about twenty years ago, NoHo was a shithole of a place. Once the arts started to flourish here, so did the neighborhood itself, and it’s still great. But it is starting to show some cracks. For one thing, there has been a sudden, recent influx of homeless people in the area. Here’s a paradox, though. Winding up with a lot of homeless people is actually a sign of success of an area, not failure. That’s because people without the security of a place to live are not going to risk trying to survive on the streets in a place in which it is not even safe to live inside. Homeless people don’t flock to Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or South Central L.A.

Fortunately, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed things like Proposition HHH and Measure H, designed to help the homeless, and we’re starting to see the benefits. (Ironically, the big hold up to making this happen isn’t government red tape. It’s the inevitable NIMBYs who want to help… unless they think it will affect them directly.)

So, back to the original point and reason for this article. One of the projects that popped up after NoHo started to recover was a place called NoHo Commons, a mixed-use development that combines living and commercial space, as in apartments and condos on top of commercial businesses and next to office space, all of it on top of or adjacent to public transportation hubs, like the Metro Red Line NoHo Station which connects to a ton of bus lines, as well as the Orange Line that crosses the Valley from east to west.

And, oddly enough, it’s been a big success. Or maybe not oddly at all. Hey — connect a transportation hub to housing, arts, places with jobs, several schools, thriving nightlife, and places with some sort of tourist interest, and you are going to have to make a concerted effort to fail. (Update: As I was working on this article, I found out that the Art Institute of California-Hollywood, across the street from the theater I work at, was abruptly shut down due to alleged fraud on the part of administrators. So I guess that some people did make a concerted effort to fail, which kind of proves my point.)

So the easy success in a community like this is what makes me so curious about the phenomenon documented in the photo up above. That LED sign is officially called “Drive By.” It’s 240 feet (73.2 meters) long and six feet (1.83 meters) tall, and at one point was activated by passing traffic. Apparently, it used to alternate between displaying famous movie quotes and showing abstract patterns based on cars driving below, replacing approaching yellow blocks with red splats when one lane passed another in the opposite direction. It was created by the City of L.A.’s public arts program in 2007. Ironically, it was shut down not long after by an ordinance from the city’s own Department of Building & Safety because it was (wait for it) classified as advertising. To be fair, though, it may have been more the result of ambiguous wording in that law rather than malice, and the sign was brought back in 2011.

But I’ve been hanging out in NoHo for a while now, and the one thing that has struck me all during that time is how obviously “Drive By” is in bad repair. A lot of the quotes are not readable because of missing or burnt-out LEDS, and there are times when the display itself stutters into jiggly blocks of nothing before tossing up another quote with many missing letters or words. And I have to wonder, what’s going on?

I contacted the city’s public arts program to ask who is responsible for the sign’s upkeep now — is it still the city, or is it now a private entity? And is its current state of repair due to a lack of funding? If so, is there any way that concerned citizens can help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a reply yet but I’d like to get this story up, so I will update that part if I do get some answers.

I suspect that it’s most likely that the public arts program is spread thin at the moment, because there’s just so much public art in Los Angeles, so maybe they just haven’t noticed yet. It may not be a funding issue, because the programs derive their money in two ways: a one percent levy on the cost of construction, improvement, or renovation jobs done by the city, and an assessment on owners of private development with projected values over half a million dollars, based on either a per-square foot fee or one percent of the project’s Building and Safety valuation, whichever is less. Given all the development and construction going on in the city right now, these are probably not trivial amounts.

And it’s not like NoHo Commons is hurting. Their ground floor storefronts along Weddington, Lankershim, and Chandler are full of thriving businesses, most of them some sort of fast casual restaurant, and they have Wells Fargo Bank as a corner anchor, plus 24 Hour Fitness as the upper floor tenant. The two apartment buildings attached, The Gallery and The Lofts, seem to be well-occupied as well. There’s never been a time that I’ve been in the area that it hasn’t been crowded with people.

So the sad state of repair of “Drive By” is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but probably emblematic of the natural dichotomy that is a part of every major urban area: The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pristine and the decayed, all jam together in the same public space in an endless waltz between two partners who, while mismatched, brought each other to the dance, and so are destined to keep on spinning around together forever, neither one of them sure who’s leading.

Photo credit: Jon Bastian

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns, or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

Yo Ho NoHo…

I spend a lot of time in a part of Los Angeles known as NoHo in general, although the specific area I’m at is called the NoHo Arts District. I spend a lot of time there because I do improv at and work box office for ComedySportz L.A. and, if you’re so inclined, you can come on down and see me perform with the Rec League on a lot of Mondays except the 1st and 5th ones of the month, or catch shows on Friday through Sunday nights. It’s improv (think “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” except we’ve been around longer) done as a competitive sport with two teams and a referee. Unlike “Whose Line,” our points matter.

But end plug. The real point is that designation of NoHo, which I feel some personal attachment to. See, a long time ago in the dark ages of the 90s, and before the Metro opened the Red Line subway station right in the middle of the arts district, leading to its gentrification, nobody called it that. It was also one of those neighborhoods that you really didn’t want to be in after dark. It was rundown, dangerous, and scary.

It was also a place with cheap rent, so where a lot of student and starving artist types had reasonable apartments in sketchy surroundings. So when I wrote a play called “Straight to Heart,” about a gay man in an ill-advised attempt to seduce a straight co-worker, I used the word NoHo. Yes, it was a play on SoHo in New York (which is short for South of Houston), which was probably in imitation of Soho in London’s West End, which is short for… nothing. That’s its name.

It also made sense for the character to use since he (like I at the time) lived in West Hollywood, and that’s been referred to as WeHo at least back to it becoming a city in the 80s if not before. So it was a quick jump from WeHo to NoHo.

Now, when I used the term, it was meant as a dismissal of the place. The lead character replied to the question of what he knows about the object of his affection with, “He lives in some dump in NoHo, with a roommate.” I thought it was funny, but nobody at the time got it.

“Who calls it NoHo?” a director of one reading asked.

But, again, once the Metro Station opened, everything changed, and the Arts District in particular turned into a mini Broadway. I’ve performed in at least four theaters in the area between the Metro Station and the clusterfuck of an intersection where Lankershim and Vineland meet and Riverside turns into Camarillo,  and still perform in one of them regularly. My doctor’s office is across the street from the El Portal, where I do improv, and when you’re not seeing theater in the area, you can see a movie at the Laemmle theatre, walk through the sculpture garden at the Television Academy (home of the Emmys), visit the art galleries hiding everywhere, or dine at one of the many amazing restaurants, including The Federal (yummy garlic fries and great burgers) or Vicious Dogs. By the way, I don’t even like hotdogs, but I love the ones at Vicious, and they are ridiculously cheap. And good. If you come to L.A., forget about the highly overrated Pinks. This is the place to go.

So… why the love letter to NoHo, you may ask. Well, tonight as I was on the way to my box office shift, I noticed a banner on the elementary school that’s a block west of the theater. I’ve seen it a bunch of times — my photo is up top — but tonight that date really hit me. “Lankershim School, est. 1889.” Now, the El Portal Theater was built in 1926. It started out as a vaudeville house, then changed to a movie theater and, finally, wound up as a live theater with three performance spaces. I had thought it was one of the oldest buildings in the area. Yet here we were, with a school established 37 years earlier, and I couldn’t even begin to think of what was there at the time, so I had to look it up.

The answer was fascinating. Basically, it was a farming town created when somebody decided to divvy up part of their family’s land, so the school was meant for the children of those farmers. Two other buildings built at the time, and which are still standing, are the post office and train station. The school is a block away from the former which is across the street from the latter, although the train station is no longer a train station. The original building was refurbished to house a coffee shop next to the end of the Metro Orange Line, which is a busway that connects to the Metro Red Line subway, which began the whole process of recreating NoHo in the first place.

And, speaking of the name North Hollywood, here’s a fun fact for people who don’t know the area. Although it’s called North Hollywood, it’s actually not directly north of Hollywood at all. It’s north of West Hollywood, which actually is directly west of Hollywood. NoHo also doesn’t abut Hollywood, either. The towns of Valley Village, Toluca Lake, Studio City, and Universal City, plus a bit designated as Los Angeles but not Hollywood, are all in between.

It’s just over five miles from the heart of the NoHo Arts District to the hub of Hollywood, at Hollywood and Highland, as the crow flies, although driving it is longer, at up to eight miles, thanks to having to go through a canyon on a bit of a winding route. By subway, it’s only ten minutes, though, since the train blasts its way straight down Lankershim, and then under the mountains that divide the L.A. basin from the Valley.

Now as a native of L.A., I can tell you that it’s very unusual for really old stuff to survive despite the city itself having been founded in the 18th century. That’s because, if an earthquake doesn’t knock it over at some point, then we tear it down with reckless abandon. Yes, we do have some old landmarks, like the aforementioned school, post office, and train station, and Olvera Street and the old church next to it enshrine the place where the city was born. Our City Hall dates back to 1928, and the two missions here — San Gabriel and San Fernando — date back to the 1770s and 1790s respectively. In fact, the trail that missionaries followed to establish California missions, El Camino Real, is marked with mission bells on shepherds’ staves, and quite a lot of it is now the route of the 101. Yes, we do refer to our freeways like that — although we do not talk like the people in the clip. Sorry, New Yorkers can’t talk California at all.

But here’s the funny trade-off. While this city seems determined to keep on tearing down its physical history, at the same time we have given the world our cultural history through film and television. Look at most old movies, particularly the silent movies, and they have L.A. all over them. Buster Keaton once staged a cattle stampede through DTLA (that’s Downtown L.A.), although, at the time, that wouldn’t have been all that unusual, since the cattle trains coming west stopped at the future location of Union Station in the old stockyards, which is right across the street from the birthplace of the city, and the station itself opened in 1939. Laurel and Hardy or the Our Gang Comedies reek of L.A. locations, from Pasadena to Silver Lake. Sunset Boulevard is iconically L.A. in both location and story.

And yet… while the world outside of here thinks of all of that stuff coming from Hollywood, they’d be very wrong, because “Hollywood” as the center of entertainment is an illusion. Number of movie studios actually in Hollywood? Zero. L.A.’s entertainment industry is actually located mostly in Burbank, which you could call Northeast Hollywood, with offshoots in Culver City, Century City, Playa del Rey, and Universal City. For TV, it’s definitely mostly done in Burbank and the Valley, with outposts in Santa Clarita, which is another valley north of the Valley, and occasionally Marina del Rey, which is way down south near LAX on the west side. Porn? Mostly the San Fernando Valley.

Hollywood was always a scam and an illusion, mainly meant to keep tourists away from where the magic really happens. On the other hand, NoHo has evolved into a hotbed of creativity and sort of a Broadway West. If you want to see some real art happen, come on over. All of the talent of DTLA, none of the traffic or parking woes. You’ll be glad you did.

This message was not paid for by the NoHo Tourism Council, just penned from personal experience with the place, which has really grown on me over the years.