Monthly Archives: June 2008

Trains

I love them I know, and I also know I write about them a lot. I don’t know why the rest of my day doesn’t inspire me the way the ride home does.

I had a lovely evening, spent with friends that I haven’t seen in ages and haven’t really talked to for years, we met up at Masa in Echo Park and then they kicked us out for a hipster wedding party and I damned gentrification and we walked a couple of blocks to Barragan’s. Masa’s used to be called Carmelos, it was a brilliant cuban place that had been there for decades with pink booths and a counter the old men used to sit at and drink their cafe con leche, and they sold magical pasteles de guayava y queso, and platanos and all things nice. Now it’s dark and candlelit with brown booths and tatooed waitstaff and really good microbrews on tap and the food is nice too…it’s just all twice as expensive.

And we drank and told stories of course, and it was just what my heart needed…such evenings are rare in L.A. because they require so much coordination…Almost everyone I love most is here and I feel like I never see them enough. The people I see are on the train. I wanted to write a novel once about the train, how it was a portal to some other place, to some much better place where everything was flipped around and the poor were rich and the sad happy, and the crazy were sane…that the woman in the floor-length faux-fur leopard skin coat was the key, or the old guy passed out in his seat. I never wrote it, the raw reality of the train itself defeated me, this world we have created…

There was a crazy guy playing porter today along the blue line, he was frighteningly crazy, with his lips pulled back and jagged teeth and no touch of awareness in his gaze, he could not speak only yell words barely recognizeable. At each stop he got out and held the door and shouted what might have been all aboard, and ushered the people in who were brave enough to choose his door…we lost him at firestone station as the people poured in and filled the car completely, he continued to hold the door as the warning bells chimed again and again and sacraficed his place so the last family could jump on. It was his moment, and as he watched the train leave he was shining.

My friend with the glasses bearing white 50 cent flags stuck on each side and selling candy with a smooth fast sales pitch that makes everyone smile was on the train today, he had almost sold everything.

A man younger then me sat quietly on the bottom of the steps leading up to the green line, he held a forty in a brown paper bag and threw up to one side casually as though he were just spitting. Once, and again, and once again. The smell of it was sickly, and it mingled with the sour stink of beer to fill the air.

An old guy told me he loved me. He was too drunk to really speak and drink had marked his face as it’s own and I was too sad to do more then smile. He might have meant to say something else, maybe he didn’t love me after all. But his eyes never left my face and when he followed me onto the green line I realized he walked only with great difficulty and a congenital limp…and the fact remained he was frighteningly drunk and therefore unpredictable and I hate to be stared at and I was glad when he got off at the first stop.

My friend from a few weeks ago was on the train as well, the one who had a crush on Hillary Clinton…he had lost the one sock he had, but had acquired shoes that did not fit his swollen feet. He had a large black book with a red logo, and on it he beat an irregular rhythm and sang a song to himself in a language that probably only he could understand. The smell of him was terrible, and his clothes were falling off of him and he was doing far worse then when I saw him last.

I saw everyone with ghetto hard faces, the kind that say don’t fuck with me, I could hurt you. You have to wear it to wall out the overpowering need of others, to protect yourself, to create your own distance from what is around you. If you don’t live here you never see those faces transformed, masks melted away where it is safe, and people return to the way they ought to be. I lost my mask in Scotland, but I feel it creeping into the set of my lips sometimes…when I think about it I do not want it back, but there is a price to pay for that. Unconsciously your face hardens.

I biked home through the darkness and the smell of flowers, and laid out on the grass for a while to search for stars. If I could have any power at all, any gift, I do believe I would sacrifice my lifelong dream of flying for the ability to heal people. There are layers upon layers of what is broken and I know the scale of it…but it is the brokenness of my people on the train one by one that breaks my heart.

The next blog shall be funny, I solemnly swear.

Advertisements

Biking tipsy through the darkness

Last night my friend Jose and I repeated the famous downtown L.A. bar tour on bikes…cycling from bar to bar is invigorating, the wind blows cool against your face and the night wraps around you. The night is yours in fact, it belongs to rebels and dreamers and tipsy joyful adventurers on bikes; the L.A. streets were almost completely deserted as we frolicked along them. Hard to explain the freedom and happiness to be found playing speed racer down a long slow hill in the darkness…

We started at Jose and Bev’s, watching some episodes of a brilliantly bizarre manga show called CLFL, and drinking a cold beer. I had to recover from the grueling bike ride from work to the house carrying a heavy backpack complete with laptop, books, clothes and necessaries for three days since I am off to Santa Barbara bright and early this morning…When the dvd proved unplayable at a key point in the tangled story we decided it was time to leave. We headed the Gold Room, on the cusp of gentrification, the Lakers were playing so it was mostly the regulars. It’s a tiny divey place on sunset, half the bar is palm trees lit up in an ever changing rainbow of color; over the single line of booths is darkness fretted with tiny golden lights like stars. The waitresses wear tight white shirts almost completely unbuttoned, but they’re very nice and they give you bowls of free peanuts in the shell, which I appreciate much more than their cleavage. We left before the lakers lost, and went down the street for dinner at Thuvia’s – pupusas de queso con loroco and platanos fritos, god damn they were good! Even if the place had a C rating and the waitress asked us if we wanted the salsa even though there was a chance of salmonella as it wasn’t cooked. That’s certainly enough to make you pause, but adventure called and we answered and had the salsa anyway.

We went to the standard, and shall we say that the standard is not for rebels and dreamers and tipsy joyful people on bikes? That would be the nicest thing I could say, we weren’t so much turned away as ignored and put off, we weren’t the only ones, so a rooftop poolside bar with white pod waterbed chairs was not to be ours…I suppose the price of admission is the L.A. look, and what a price to pay! I’m not willing of course, and I don’t enjoy looking at it at all, and even standing in the line was painful, but I did want to take pictures from the roof! So I cursed on principle, hating the thought that there’s somewhere I cannot go even though I don’t really want to, Jose successfully blew it off, and we went around the corner to the Library Bar. Small and cosy with an old-fashioned bar and lights shining through glasses and on the opposite side a wall of books and an old stove full of candles and even a globe! I am fascinated by globes. Needless to say I liked it, though it started filling up with Celtic fans (god only knows where they came from or if they made it home in safety!) and so we left…headed over to La Cita only to find a line of hipsters and a cover charge, I spit upon covers, and upon hipsters. It’s a metaphorical spitting of course, but psychologically very real.

So the third stop was Bordellos, lush with black chandeliers and mirrors and painted gothicness…no cover and Go Betty Go in its new incarnation was playing and they were really fucking good! We met up with Evelin and Ludin and America and had a couple more beers, and after Go Betty Go came the Fresas and they weren’t quite as good but still excellent, with tight harmonies and an electrified violin…I love all girl, well, almost all girl, pop punk bands. Everytime I see bands like that I still want to play the guitar and whisper, croon and yell into a microphone…i suppose my day has passed for that. But the company was brilliant, and the music was rocking until the last band came on. They should be happy I’ve forgotten their name cos the music was ok but the lead singer was a bouncy blond in a cutsy tube top dress who jiggled rather than rocked, and whined rather than raged and we fled precipitately. We sped homewards in the darkness, struggling up hills and reveling in the way we went spinning back down them. We past alongside Echo Park, beautiful and silent and solitary, the big fountains in the middle an arching misty silver…and came full circle back to the Gold room for a final libation. We closed the place out, headed home for some quesadillas de queso fresco, and I feel asleep for a few hours before getting up to catch my train North…

MacArthur Park

MacArthur Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, shimmering green against shade and sun, palm trees and the dirty blue of the lake. It was full of families, there were even some people fishing. It was also full of people sleeping, forms stretched out in every patch of shade and lost to the world, lost to themselves. On the corner of 7th and Alvarado you can still buy anything, but there are fewer people selling then 10 years ago. Their faces are different, but the look is the same. Lean, hungry, watchful. They look me up and down; in a segregated Los Angeles where race almost always equals class and people stick to their own in both company and geography, I clearly do not belong. Usually I am happy that there is nowhere and nothing I belong too, it frees me to move between worlds, spending time in each with the people I love.

A small fat preacher was shouting into a megaphone, hurling words in Spanish of love and belonging, a yellow banner stretched between two trees, 25 folding chairs set up on the grass, a ragged crew of people clustered around him. Most slept on of course. “Quizas la proxima semana…” the preacher yelled, “perhaps next week you will stop smoking, perhaps next week you will pick up the phone and call your mother or your daughter, perhaps next week…” And the people listened, he called them up in revival style, “Tu hermanita, tu, necesitas salavacion, venga…” There is such desperate need for belonging, need for hope, the people came.

At the other end of the park another small fat preacher was screaming into a megaphone, suited and tied, his words were entirely of hell and the book of revelation. Everyone slept on, walked past as though he were not there. One of his associates blew a long animal horn of grey that curled upon itself, it sounded deep and echoed off the palm trees and no one listened. I myself dream that people will take responsibility for themselves and for the world, that people will cease to look for salvation as a gift and demand a better life as their right, that people will work to change what is broken…and what is not broken? My faith is that this is possible. I almost stole the megaphone but reflected that shouting at people in the street was hardly exemplary of my vision. Perhaps next week I will come back and smite it.

I walked past MacArthur Park because we had a reunion today, of everyone that had ever worked at CARECEN though I am sad to say not everyone was there…enough to make it enjoyable though. My friend Ruel made it quite enjoyable in fact, we met first at our old Winchell’s and had donuts and coffee. Winchell’s, with its perennial sign stating they have been “fresh and warm since 1948,” and an even better sign saying “CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN! 14 donuts!” It’s like an alternate universe really, that has been making me smile for 8 years now. I missed Don Tonito though, he used to sell artesanias and Salvadoran books on revolution and revolt. He lent me old tapes of boleros and home videos of when the FMLN marched back into San Salvador to sign the accords. He used to tell me stories about the guerrilla, like the time he was hiding with a companera in the end house of a long set of row houses. The military came searching house by house along the ground and there were more of them walking along the roofs so that no one could escape and he believed he was dead, when the roof of the house right beside theirs fell in under the weight of the soldier on top (good old poverty), and the soldier broke his leg. And that was enough to stop the search and save my friends’ life. Funny that most of the stories I know from El Salvador are tragic and brutal and still haunt me, it is only the stories of the fighters that have humour and hope in them. I wish I’d stayed in touch with him. But I’m back in touch with some other old friends though, and that is always a beautiful thing

LAPD officer wounded, resident killed, in Boyle Heights

Yesterday a gun battle broke out on Malabar Street, when police tried to serve a narcotics warrant. The four hour stand-off left one of the men in the building dead, and a police officer in the hospital with a wound in his leg, and the mark of a ricocheting bullet on his helmet…the swat team evacuated 30 residents from the block, and this is what they looked like to the folks living in Boyle Heights:

Luis Sinco - L.A. Times

It’s an armed invasion team really, how can this make anyone feel safe?

I was talking to my friend Leonardo yesterday, who has been organizing in Boyle Heights for years upon years…they’ve done a lot of work on the issues of gangs and drugs. And the reality is that there are systemic reasons that these things exist, the lack of jobs, good schools, opportunities. The reality is that our economic system is broken, and while it remains broken we will continue to struggle with gangs and drugs because they provide for very real needs, whether an escape or income or sense of belonging or protection.

And so while fighting to change the system, we must also fight to control the violence. And in Boyle Heights the community is beginning to do it, people are beginning to walk the neighborhoods at night, to talk to their youth, to build altars together to those have died and work together to try and stop it. It is slow, but sure, and Union de Vecinos is having an impact. The idea that humvees full of police carrying automatic weapons can bring any kind of security seems almost funny, if an endgame where people die riddled with bullets could ever be funny.

Love and Hate

Los Angeles hurts.

It has always hurt, and all the things I love here do not seem to be quite enough to protect me from its teeth. Not now, when I am hurting so much already. Happiness carves its price into your flesh only as it goes. Los Angeles makes elections small, we had a historic day yesterday in the world of symbols, but symbols will change nothing. And I suppose if elected, Obama will carve his own price into the hopes of the nation. We saved rent control for another year, but in winning only defensive battles we are still pushed back. What are we doing? There were kids today on the train selling candy, perhaps they were 5 and 8? if that? I have seen them on the train before, and they are not the only ones. There are a few more kids, and a middle aged black man who has taped signs to his glasses saying 50 cents. He makes people laugh, and he makes people buy candy. We are being pushed deeper and deeper into a third-world economy, as the community crumbles around us.

I am writing. The words drip and smudge across the page, sometimes I think that if I were to dip a pen into my own veins it might be enough, the very ink itself my exorcism, because words alone fail. They cannot speak of pain enough, they cannot burn, they cannot taste of salt and hurt my eyes the way this does. The emptiness that night brings shudders along. I write and the words mock me, the powerlessness of them. I rage and it changes nothing. I imagine happy endings and know that in life they do not come true. I write but people remain broken, friends remain dead, battles remain lost, love remains bitter, the poor remain fucked. I smile at my own sweet exercise in futility.

If I could write the stars the way they should be seen, and can never be seen in Los Angeles, perhaps then…