Thursday, May 22, 2014

the thin purple line

1. adventures in public transportation

I got on the Purple Line at the Normandie Station. Linda and I had just spent an hour and a half drinking soju and nibbling on an immense potato pancake at a Koreatown bar called Toe Bang. (The other place we were considering was called School Food Blooming Roll. You gotta love K-Town.) 

Toe Bang: best potato pancake east of Fairfax.
The Purple Line was always quiet and relatively empty at this time of night. Those sharing my car included a guy muttering to himself and smoking a cigarette, and a very tall, very thin man with a pencil mustache, slouch boots, and a feminine V-neck sweater. He (she?) seemed like a proud character from a novel about the marginal lives of aging disco queens.

For some reason, the Purple Line wasn’t running all the way to Union Station, and it took me lot of minutes and some backtracking to realize this. When I transferred at the MacArthur Park Station, a white-haired man shuffled up to me and mumbled something about the Blue Line.

“Take this next train and transfer to the Blue Line at the 7th Street/Metro Center station,” I said, like the occasionally knowledgeable Angeleno that I am.

“You going to Long Beach?” he mumbled. He was old-ish in a way that could have been from actual age or hard living, or a combination. He was a black guy with saggy, limp clothing, and he seemed Not Okay—in a way that could have been from mental illness or drugs, or a combination. I mean, he got on the train at MacArthur Park at 10 p.m. The probability of him being Not Okay was high.

“No,” I said.

“Where you going?”

“Oh, just Union Station.” That seemed like a safe, generic answer. I am going to a place full of people that does not tell you much about where I am actually going.

“Then where?”

“Just…home.” I walked ten feet away and stared into my Kindle. This guy was messing up the poignant final 3% of The Interestings for me.

The man did not transfer at 7th Street/Metro Center. It was as if he did not have a pressing engagement anywhere! When I got off at Union Station, he was still there, shuffling along behind me.

2. putting the !! in famima!!

He was there on the escalator out of the Purple Line tube, and he was there when I swiped my card to get on the Gold Line. Union Station was full of people, but he had distinctly not gotten lost among them.

After swiping my card, I decided I didn’t want to hang out on the not-so-crowded platform with him, and I definitely didn’t want to get off in Highland Park with him at my heels. I had walked to the train that morning, and I really didn’t want him following me through dark residential streets for a mile and a half.

So I made a U-turn back into the thickly peopled core of Union Station. So did he.

I didn’t feel afraid. His vibe wasn’t violent or rapey, more like that of someone with a fuzzy brain and nothing to do, who’d latched on to the most recent person to engage with him. I was fairly certain I had the upper hand in terms of mental faculties, not to mention general functionality in society.

But could I say for sure that he wouldn’t stab me in a quiet parking lot? No. And while the situation wasn’t quite crisis-level, it had taken a distinct turn. I needed to think clearly and come up with a new plan, and pretty fast.

I sort of wove through the common area, pretending to look at magazines in Famima!! while calling and texting AK: Do u think u could pick me up from union station. a mentally ill dude is following me & things kinda thin out on the gold line.

But she wasn’t near her phone. And the guy was still there.

I approached a security guard in Amtrak waiting area, thinking maybe I would sit there for a while and wait for AK to call me back.

“Do you have a ticket?” she asked.

“Oh, uh, is this area just for Amtrak? Sorry.” I wandered away, discombobulated.

Please note that seating area is for customers and their stalkers only.
New plan: Just take a fucking cab. It would be expensive, but I didn’t really feel like walking home from the Highland Park Station anyway. I contemplated turning around and telling the guy, “Sir, please stop following me.” But what if he denied it? What if he got mad? I couldn’t prove he was following me.

This is where being my father’s child—believing that the burden of proof is always on me—gets me in trouble. But I’m also a feminist, and I have decent instincts, and I’ve done a shitload of therapy. So I reminded myself that my paranoia, while abundant in the medical realm, does not take the form of thinking I’m being literally followed. If I thought I was being followed by some guy, I was probably being followed by some guy.

As I approached the cab line, I decided I would definitely talk to a security guard. A lot went through my head in a flash. I was still aware of having the social upper hand. I was white, middle class, had money for a cab, and my own mental illness was mild and medicated. But I also knew that in this moment, he was a man and I was a woman, and the tables were turned. And I wanted to be the kind of person whose street smarts outweighed her bleeding-heart tendencies. Or, more accurately, who knew that privilege is a complicated and malleable thing.

A part of me thought that I might be read as a scaredy-cat white girl, fresh off the train from some small town, nervous about being in Union Station at night. I decided I would find a black male security guard and talk to him—to demonstrate that I didn’t have just a general fear of black men. (Which is not to say that, on some subconscious level, I don’t; I am, after all, an American, and America teaches us that black men are a threat.) 

But the first security guard I came to was a black female. I decided now was not the time to be picky.

“So, um, I think I’m going to just take a cab,” I said, as if she had politely inquired about my travel plans. I spoke quietly: “But I wanted to let you know that this guy who’s behind you right now has been following me since MacArthur Park. I don’t think he’s doing anything, but I wanted to let you know. In case he bothers other passengers.”

I don’t know why I needed to make it sound like I was reporting this out of civic duty. I myself am invincible, but I must protect womankind!

“Okay, we’ll watch him,” she said.

As I walked toward the cab line, I heard her say, “Sir, can I help you with something?” But when I got in the cab, he was a foot from the door. For a second, I wondered if he would try to get in with me. Another security guard in an orange Metro vest was right behind him.

“What happened?” asked the cab driver.

That meant that whatever was going on was visible and real.

As much as I wasn’t dumb enough to doubt myself—I took all the necessary actions—there is always a part of me that doubts my own experience. This is what happens when 1) you are my father’s daughter; 2) your body spends months mourning babies who were never born and no one really gets what your problem is; 3) you think you have cancer because #2 is making you have a nervous breakdown, but you have not been diagnosed with cancer, and therefore you are crazy; 4) you later find out that, during the time you were paranoid, you were actually being followed—i.e., you do have cancer; 5) surgery gets rid of the cancer, but you spend months going through other just-in-case treatment—i.e., you don’t have cancer, but the entire medical establishment treats you as if you do, and therefore you are crazy.

The friendliest place in the city.
The cab drove the empty freeway, and I was happy to be back in the seemingly predictable, enclosed world of driving. The place where people’s lives didn’t intersect so much—a disease in L.A., but sometimes a blessing.

3. neurotics in love

At home, I saw AK’s phone sitting in the living room. She was in bed. “I wish you kept your phone closer, or not on silent so much,” I said sadly.

“Is Linda pregnant?” she said. She knows me well. I was proud to have a less predictable problem tonight.

But when I told her about the train incident, she got alarmed. “You need to call the police,” she said. “If there’s one thing I learned from my friend Maria—remember, the investigator?—it’s that you should report everything. That is stalking behavior, and that guy needs to learn it’s not okay.”

I remembered what had happened when I reported that my car had been broken into—an actual crime. A cop had mailed me a photocopy of his handwritten report, and weeks later, I’d gotten a letter from the LAPD inviting me to purchase The Club at a discount. I was doubtful, to say the least, that calling them now would help.

AK launched into a little rant about ill-trained security guards; she’d had her own problems with them at work when a drugged-up dude had wandered into her office saying he wanted to join the military (she works at a small art college; needless to say, there is not a big ROTC culture on campus). I admitted I had a new appreciation for Culosio, the super buff former trainee who did security at Homeboy and knew how to be tough or to deescalate, depending what the situation called for.

But I resented AK’s armchair quarterback tactics, and the fact that she was indirectly accusing me of not being forceful enough when I talked to security.

“I feel like security is [my fertility doc] Dr. Saadat’s office staff in this story,” I said. “Like, when something scary happens to me and I come to you wanting sympathy, you get mad at some third party, but also at me by extension.”

It is a reaction that reinforces my own darkest suspicion, which is that I am at fault for all bad things that happen to me and to everyone in the world throughout the history of time (which is, I realize, the most narcissistic, controlling dark thought possible).

Because this was not cancer, not the death of our babies; because I was not actually scared at all, just a little rattled and tired from a long night, we could talk about it in a sane way.

“For a neurotic—you know, a non-psychotic, non-hysteric—I’m quick to assign blame to other people, at least at first,” she admitted. She paused. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That’s what I wanted to hear.” And then we went to sleep.

Monday, May 05, 2014

writer, interrupted, or: what i read in march and april

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone. Today Angie at Homeboy Bakery was decked out in red, white and green, and almost announced the day’s pan dulce options in Spanish. At the last minute, she switched to English because she felt bad for all the non-Mexicans and non-Spanish-speaking Mexicans who wouldn’t understand her. I’ll be celebrating in my preferred crowd-averse way by having an Olvera Street margarita tomorrow. At least that’s the plan.

An authentic Mexican who does not speak Spanish (that I know of).
For now, here’s my bimonthly book roundup. I’m about two thirds of the way through Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea, which is a great book—very sweet and magical—but I wasn’t in the mood to read it tonight because I saw her Facebook post about being pregnant. She’s written unflinchingly about the highs and lows of trying to get knocked up, and it’s taken her a long time, and she is an incredibly nice and generous person, and I am absolutely rooting for her and her baby-to-be. But I am also the kind of writer who takes the day off reading a good book to wallow in her own envy.

Did you ever read Girl, Interrupted? I remember Susanna Kaysen writing about how, when homosexuality was taken out of the DSM, she was kind of bummed. Because now all her queer friends were officially not crazy, but she still had borderline personality disorder. She felt left behind. It made complete sense to me. That’s how I feel when people who’ve had a little trouble obtaining a kid obtain a kid. It’s not that I want homosexuality to be a mental disorder, it’s just that borderlines are people too. They deserve to feel accepted and not crazy. (I am the borderline in this story.)

Tomorrow I will drown my sorta-sorrow in a margarita.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: This is Gillian Flynn's first novel, and as such it's not quite as masterful as Dark Places, which I loved. It also veers deeper into the horror realm, blowing up petty girl politics and helicopter mothering into larger-than-life gorgons. I can't quite decide if Flynn is interrogating evil-mother fairy tales or replicating them, but I'm a sucker for the tangled world she creates. A cutter protagonist, some murdered little girls, some possibly murderous little girls, all at work in a pork-processing town where violence runs as thick and deep as pigs' blood. (I sound like I'm trying to write jacket copy there, don't I?) Flynn's prose is enviable, and she's one of those writers who--for reasons that are partly obvious, partly mystical--makes me want to sit down and write, which I'll take over perfection any day.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: In almost every multiple-POV story, there's one narrative I like best, or one I trudge through. But Liane Moriarty does such a nice job of getting inside the heads of her three protagonists--Australian women linked by their involvement with the local Catholic school and by the secret in question--that I can't play favorites. I even like Cecilia, who is the sort of overzealous, Tupperware party-throwing woman who gets yanked into debates about the "likability" of female characters.

More important, maybe, is the fact that Moriarty weaves the plot in such a way that no narrative is expendable. This makes for really good reading, although I feel like she ultimately gets too caught up in questions of coincidence and paths-not-taken herself. To me the more compelling theme is that of the walls (represented a bit ham-fistedly by the Berlin Wall, which makes periodic cameos) people erect between themselves and their loved ones. At one point Tess observes how embarrassing it is that she's expected to share her deepest secrets and desires with the man who watches her brush her teeth each night. There are multiple kinds of intimacy, multiple kinds of nakedness, and to love someone means disrobing again and again.

The Cantor’s Daughter by Scott Nadelson: I think Scott Nadelson is a fairly young writer, but these stories feel like the work of a person who's done a lot of reading and a lot of living. He has a knack for sometimes cringe-inducing emotional details--he gets the thoughts and motives that lurk three layers behind a character's consciousness. The stories skew a little dark (not a bad thing in my opinion) and range widely in content, from a cruise-going couple whose meet-cute takes a turn for the painfully real, to a working class headhunter who can never quite come to terms with his own desires. If the stories have something in common beyond style, I think it's that they are about disappointment, and trying to go on after disappointment. I'm taking notes.

G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon: I'm roughly the same age as some of the Boyle Heights gang members whom Celeste Fremon profiles in her well written account of the early days of Homeboy Industries and the worst days of L.A.'s gang wars. While the homies in question were fearing for their lives, losing hope and getting in trouble, I was a few miles (and an entire world) away, buying into the media's gang hysteria as Phil Donohue shamed crunchy-haired cholas for their unapologetic attitudes. What becomes immediately obvious upon reading the oral histories in the book: The homies are alternately wounded, childlike, wise beyond their years, funny, angry, hopeful, and hopeless, but there's not a truly bad person among them. Although Father Greg Boyle is a hero in the book and in real life, I'm equally intrigued by Fremon's own journey as she becomes radicalized by the love and violence she witnesses. Yes, people like Fr. Greg are rare, but the solutions to gang violence--a job, a little stability and a decent parental figure--don't have to be.

This cat also does not speak Spanish (that I know of).

Attempting Normal by Marc Maron: Marc Maron is not the funniest comedian out there, but I do think he's one of the smartest and most honest, which I rank higher than funny, as character traits go. These essays are the musings of a Renaissance man who reads a lot, thinks a lot, gets married sort of a lot, plays the guitar, rescues cats and has food issues. I'm into pretty much all of that except for playing the guitar. And I hope to stick with one marriage. I mean, unless my spouse dies young. Then I guess I'd hope to remarry after an appropriate grieving period. Ugh, now I'm doing some dark thinking. See, this is why Marc Maron is the comic for me.

The book has moments of brilliance and hilarity, but my four stars are really more like 3.7 because it could have used just a touch more in the way of an arc. In general, though, I agree with David Sedaris when he said that the book is good enough that it didn't even need Maron's celebrity(ish) face plastered on the cover. I dig the cat, though.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

the griffin avenue preemptive nostalgia tour

1. take a walk

My new thing is walking home. I’ve done it three times now, first because the Gold Line was broken, later because it seemed more efficient than driving to the gym. On Tuesday I took a new route up Griffin Avenue, which runs through Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights, and the southeast side of Highland Park.

The day was too hot, but the light was perfect, that pinkish gold that filmmakers love. The houses in Lincoln Heights wore their decades in layers. Shingles, stucco, rickety bedrooms built over carports. The makeovers got nicer and more up-to-code as I moved north. Walking a long street is always a series of ethnographic studies, as you make your way through waves of immigration and gentrification.

House on haunted hill.
I discovered that the grassy no-man’s-parkland near the Arroyo is where old TV’s go to die. The whole walk, I felt like I was witnessing the last of something. Maybe because history was so compressed all around me, maybe because re-urbanization means that beautiful ruins don’t stay ruins for long. Maybe because if I walk or run long enough, the sadness I’m able to file away quite easily these days usually makes its way out, like a splinter that comes to the surface of your fingertip weeks after embedding itself. I didn’t quite know if it—the pinky-gold hills and crumbly houses inhabited by not-rich people—was leaving or I was. A foreshortening of the future is a sign of depression, as my therapist likes to remind me when I get all but-I-just-can’t-imagine-ten-years-from-now-so-I-must-have-a-disease.

I mean, I’m not depressed right now. I don’t think. But I have that splinter.

2. everything eventually became a macy’s

Yesterday I drove to the South Bay to meet my family for dinner. I passed Hawthorne Plaza, a sprawling seventies-style mall that appeared to have been empty since at least the eighties. Besides the overt decay, there was the fact that its anchor store was the Broadway. The Broadway! One of those ancient department stores I vaguely remembered from the Manhattan Village Mall of my childhood, before everything eventually became a Macy’s.

Mall of America.
The fact that a huge commercial space could stay empty for thirty-something years was stunning. It seemed like something that would not happen in Echo Park or even Montecito Heights. It’s the re-urbanization thing. Only east Hawthorne (and, like, the entire rust belt of the United States) has the perfect ecosystem for sustaining such decay.

They say the neon lights are bright.
When I got to dinner, I asked my dad about it, and, shockingly, he waxed nostalgic for the days of indoor malls. My dad hates the indoors, and he hates shopping, but he said, “I remember the first indoor mall I saw. The Sherman Oaks Plaza or something like that. It was beautiful, with a big fountain in the middle—well, I guess it wasn’t a fountain, but there were running lights that looked like moving water.”

He said that Hawthorne Plaza had been heavily subsidized to help bring business to a rundown area, but “they destroyed their own businesses, with all the gangs and crime.”

I suggested that was because what “they” really needed might not have been a mall after all.

Then I confessed that, politics aside, what I really wanted was to hop the fence and take pictures. Yeah, I’m like a local version of those artists who take ruin-porn pictures of burned-out Detroit. While I’m many years past romanticizing poverty, and I would vote to make Hawthorne Plaza into a park in a second, I think there’s something about ruins that appeals to a lot of people for very human reasons.

We live in a culture obsessed with new and next and progress and productivity and happiness and TED Talks and brain science and data-driven outcomes and life hacks. We want to do everything right on the first try. I’m a part of this culture, and on some level my head is turned by all of the above. (On my walk home, one of my primary thoughts was that I really need to get an iPhone so that I could live-Instagram my journey.)

As if the Great Depression weren't enough.
We need ruin—we need to see the external manifestation of our broken little hearts. We need to see failure writ three blocks and thirty years long. We need to walk the length of it so that our bodies know things change from good to bad and back again, but always with a touch of sparkle or a hidden walkway that leads to the street below.

This girl isn't my grandma, but I love her.
The subject at our family dinner turned to earthquakes. My grandma said she remembered the Long Beach quake of 1933. She was only three years old, but it was a big deal. The aftershocks were so bad that her family slept on the porch. When they went in the kitchen, she saw that all her mother’s cake decorations had fallen off the built-in shelves her father had made, the bottles shattering on the floor. She loved it, she said. She thought the whole kitchen looked like an Easter egg.