My goal here had been to write one blog entry a week, but life, mine in particular, seems to have a way of veering off on little paths that, while not necessarily on track, are interesting to explore, especially when it turns out they’re all connected anyway.
While I’m pleased to say that the campaign to save the Hollywood sign has been granted an extension, truth be told, I got a little tired of looking at Hollywood through nostalgia-tinted glasses. Nostalgia, after all, means “painful longing for home,” and is an emotional disease that is marked by the fear of change – and of truth. It’s a weakness readily exploited by the likes of collectible memorabilia manufacturers, politicians, and movie producers who spew out one horrible remake after another. Talk about painful.
At any rate, I’ve been reading a lot of history of this area and California in general, and it’s really quite stunning what they didn’t teach us in school. I’ve been looking even more critically than ever at my surroundings, but I have also been appreciating much of what I see on a daily basis, particularly the architecture. Ever since I wrote about the old Asbury, I have been noticing beautiful buildings everywhere I go. You can turn down almost any side street in town and soon enough you will encounter an architectural confection to delight the eye.
Last week I took a walk through an old residential part of town just to admire the houses. Oh, those curves, those arches! There is a graceful, elegant, and I would even say feminine quality to early LA architecture. One of the things I learned recently in my ceramics class is that the curved red roof tiles, which are a signature element of California Mission Style architecture, look that way because the natives who made the first missions dug red river clay to form slabs, each tile shaped by hand over the curve of the artisan’s own thigh. This shape not only creates a distinctive visual texture when placed in rows, but also makes the tiles easy to stack and transport, and, as it happens, extremely efficient at sluicing water away from the building. I found this to be a delightful little piece of natural history, like a bird adding its own feathers to a nest, and in fact many birds build their nests in the hollows of these tiles, completing a circle in further testimony to the form that springs from nature. But unlike a bird’s nest, the missions became prisons and death camps for the very people who built them.
The more I learn about my local history, it seems to me that a lot of my ingrained perceptions about what makes this place great, while not in and of themselves absolutely false, are nevertheless the direct result of a cultural invasion which set the wheel in motion for a strangely disconnected sort of reality. This is the territory I am interested in exploring. As luck would have it, in talking about my new obsession, I found out that a friend of mine is a member of a Hollywood conservation society, and she invited me to visit one of the historic theaters for a classic movie event. She also told me that the push to renovate the area presents a problem because as the old buildings have fallen into disrepair, they have ended up housing a very low-income population. The only way to pay for the renovations is to kick the poor people out and entice rich people to move in by building lots of shops and restaurants that the now homeless people can’t afford and are not welcome in.
I have a terribly soft spot in my heart for homeless people. All too often we take what we have for granted, and shy away from the less fortunate, as if fearing contagion. California has always attracted hobos and vagabonds, with its promises of sunshine and new beginnings. But when government cuts in the 80’s eliminated spending on mental health facilities, the numbers of mentally ill destitute began to grow, and more recently, economic problems have forced many people onto the street. A few weeks ago I witnessed the heartbreaking scene of what appeared to be a newly homeless couple walking sadly along with all their worldly possessions packed neatly into a shopping cart. One of the men was crying and the other just looked stunned. Back and forth between them, a small dog romped on a leash, trying to get its owners’ attention as they shuffled along in a haze, but neither one seemed to notice.
When I lived downtown, I got to know a homeless man by the name of Charles whom I passed every day on the way to and from school. He was an elderly black gentleman who told me he had once been a jazz saxophonist. He said he had come out here some 30 years previously, but then his band split up and he had never been able to make it on his own. His mother and sister supported him for a while, but then his mother died and he started to suffer from mental breakdowns. Eventually his sister stopped sending him money and he was forced to live on the street because he couldn’t keep a job. I used to bring him food from my job as a waitress, and he told me stories and occasionally gave me gifts, which I really did not want but he insisted I take – a plastic carnation, a brand new green sweatshirt, a bent switchblade knife. I suspected he was sleeping in my car, but as it was an old junker, nicknamed The Frankenstang because it had no original parts, I did not really care. One night Charlie seemed especially sad, and he told me it had been ten years since he had been with a woman. He then made a rather awkward, half-hearted gesture at asking me if I would help him out, which I politely declined, and thankfully he never tried to proposition me again.
Then there was Glad Bag Gladys. I only laid eyes on this astounding vision of a woman once myself, but once was plenty. It was a sweltering LA summer day, and I was cursing the heat and anticipating getting home and having a cool drink, when turning the corner I almost ran smack into this tremendous mass of towering female voluptuousness, the classic figure of an African fertility goddess. Only she was dragging a filthy wheeled cart, eyes pointing madly in opposite directions as she muttered angrily to herself, her red wig tangled and askew, sweat pouring in great silver rivulets that sparkled on her ample body, whose shape was visible in its every curve and dimple, spilling out of what appeared to be a ruffled, form-fitted evening gown constructed entirely out of garbage bags. She was amazing! I had to force myself not to stare, but I will forever have her image seared into my consciousness.
Sometimes I forget that I live in “Hollywood,” which makes things like seeing a gladiator and flapper crossing the street together a surreal experience, for the moment before I realize they are just actors taking a break from the set. All over the world, people escape their difficult and boring lives by watching someone else’s fantasies in pictures, and then they dream of glamorous Hollywood, the artificial Eden. People like Glad Bag Gladys do not figure into this fantasy. What does she dream of, I wonder?