The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


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April 10, 2008

          A friend wrote to me the other day about a “certain dearth” of oxygen in L.A. air. That sounded like somebody from Arkansas saying “certain death,” which is what the certain dearth of oxygen in L.A. likely will soon bring about.
          Anyhow, I wrote back that I hoped to be appointed Grand Wazir of Los Angeles one day, and I would then see to it that the place is properly oxygenated. We could start by eliminating all local television “news” reporters shouting “reporting live from” and “now back to you in the studio.” This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions measurably, I’m sure.
          Next I would cancel Mayor “Little Anthony” Villaraigosa’s “million tree” PR nonsense. Villa-rai-ghost-a, I say. For a mayor, he makes a terrific set of teeth. I mean, planting all those Little Anthony trees, which will never happen anyhow, would be no proof against the death-breath exhaled every five minutes by the ever-widening, ever-more-constipated freeways here. Poor little saplings, struggling to exude a little freshness into the great automobile fart cloud that heavy heavy hangs over our heads. Better to put them in a forest, with their sad, endangered brethren.
          I don’t know. . .You walk around---I mean, drive around---this town and you feel that all the good stuff is oxygen-deprived. Wheezing, pinch-nostrilled, blue under the eyes. All the neighborliness, all the quiet, all the sweetness, all the conversation, all the lyricism, all the. . .room. Driving across L.A. alone is enough to turn anyone into a surly asshole. Sometimes it feels like the only polite person left here is Vin Scully.
          Ever stop to imagine how utterly blissfully upendingly operatically fever-dreamishly lovely it used to be in L.A., back before the freeways cut the place up like Pythagorus gone berserk, dividing cities and cultures and gelling envy and racism and classism? Back when it was a ridiculously pastoral half-day outing to drive to Hollywood or Pasadena or the beach, and you had your pick of scores of uncrowded grand old movie houses that looked like things Kublai Khan would have wanted in Xanadu? I mean, as recently as the ‘60’s, people got dressed up---dressed up!---to go to Dodger Stadium, or to go out to dinner at coffee shops that felt like home and the waitresses reminded you of the big sister you never had, or your nice aunt you never saw enough of.
          Well, here’s a tip: don’t imagine it. Don't even think about this stuff. It’s depressing. It’s like wishing for bullets to exit bodies and go back into guns.
          I don’t know where I’m going with this, really, other than to say that, right now, out my window, there is a fairly gushy late afternoon spring breeze that has turned all the trees into a chorus of whoosh, and that is a very nice and very oxygenated thing. The trouble is, you can’t count on this sort of event to be a balm anymore. You let your guard down to try and enjoy it, and suddenly a bunch of skanky-lanky teenagers on skateboards start doing that whack-thunk-scrape-bash-whoop thing on the street. Over and over and over. Thunk. Clank. It sounds like broken machinery, and in a way, I suppose it is.
          Or a dozen people collect on a balcony half a block away and begin to “have fun.” Having fun, of course, means drinking supernatural amounts of booze, killing any available oxygen with endless cigarettes, break into aural detonations of “laughter” (really cacophonous, frightening, almost savage shouting), inserting “fuck” and its grammatical variations two or three times a sentence. (Girls, too!)
          Or the guy across the street warms up his oxygen-sucking motorcycle for ten minutes, then drives away like an elephant-sized Hornet from the Planet Zoogoo, a buzz that threatens to invade your head and force your brains to squirt out your ears.
          Or a moving van bigger than the house it is looking for stops outside, and idles for a half-hour, so you have to close all windows to prevent yourself from eating oxygen-killing diesel particulate matter which somehow gets inside anyhow and leaves you hacking.
          Or 30 or 40 teenagers get access to an apartment on a Friday night and for no apparent reason use available oxygen to group-scream nonstop over and over again for hours, taking breaks to run in great hordes through the street, stopping traffic, where they also scream (“Where’s my PURRRRSE!”) as they get into new SUVs and burn rubber down to the liquor store to pick up more canned cocktails and the cops respond to complaint calls five hours after the party has broken up.
          Or an LAPD chopper starts hovering, 1984-like, lighting up your bedroom every 30 seconds, and sirens converge from six or seven different points on an unknown target that the news will never report about because it is too busy giving traffic and weather reports (always bad, and good, respectively) and saying "now back to your in the newsroom" and "reporting live from."
          Or the guy across the street stabs his roommate in the leg, and the roommate runs down the block, shrieking like a chicken on a chopping block, and SWAT shows up and tear gasses the stabber, a parolee who has crawled underneath his apartment building, and you are ordered to stay inside your home and cough yourself into oxygen-deprived imbecility.
           I mean, O paradiso!
          You know, Man was not meant to spend his life this L.A. way. Man was not meant to spend his life driving, dodging reptile-brained brutes in truuuucks the size of their beloved wangs (with the decorative plastic testicles dangling from the rear bumper.) Woman, either. Man did not design cities only to have them littered with primitive tribal gangs of feral beasts equipped with high-tech 21st century weaponry. Man did not build L.A. to create a gauntlet of billboards with smiley beanbrained TeeVee Newsmannequins, intersections that look like Mondrian paintings, and some hiphop guy thundering in the SUV next to you about bitches and ho’s. Cities are more than a bad trip of Starbucks-es and gas stations and Taco Bell/Foster’s Freeze drive-thrus and traffic roar. Aren’t they?
          Here in hallowed West L.A., the ear-eroding white noise of Wilshire and the 405 and the 10 only eases up on three-day-weekends and Jewish holidays. Still, I get a lot of flak (or strained silences) when I tell people I live here---especially people who live in Montebello and the Valley and places that aren’t West L.A. They nod and say dumb things like, “Oh, you’re one of those cool West L.A. people.” One such remark came from a latino who remained undeterred in baiting me after I mentioned that my neighborhood is teeming with his brothers and sisters, and the infamous Sotelo gang boys, and that everyone here is part of the increasingly scurrying working class. Maybe my “street cred” would have gone up if I had mentioned drunks who crap in the garden, or the “gang-related” triple murder at the Koo Koo Roo at Wilshire and Bundy a few years ago. Badge of sophistication.
          It’s been ten years since I landed here, following a long exile in the Valley enforced by freelance writer pay and rent control, and I didn’t come for the Third Street Promenade or the beach which I seldom get to since they passed that law that does not allow men over 50 to take their shirts off in public. I didn’t come, either, because I partly grew up here, and yearned to return. You can’t go home again.
          But at least you can smell the ocean on a good day, and gaze at the murderous, cannibalistic sea gulls floating lazily on updrafts, like flying eyebrows. Here, you can look up above the rampaging shock-and-awe of SUVs and Mustangs and Big Blue Buses (they’re periwinkle, goddamn it) and Maseratis and the perpetual motion machine of mostly colorless and incredibly new vehicles that have come to be the defining feature of this city, any city, and maybe the planet. You can look up above the relentless Starbucks green and fake-terrazzo mixed-use beige and brutalized-woman-movie billboards and try to ignore the sirens and jackhammers and mysterious screams from apartments across the street. . .and you can see the sky, and take a deep breath and tell yourself that it is better than a deep breath in Montebello.
          It’s the oxygen, folks. That’s why I live here. There’s more of it on the west side. It has come to this.

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