“I don’t drive into the city…”

 

I recently attended a work-related event in Plymouth, a charming and quaint little burg located about halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The event consisted of a dozen or so upper-middle-class white women meeting for tea and to discuss a chosen topic, “preservation”. I was contacted by the group’s leader and invited to share product samples and talk a little about my business. Others read poems, shared family stories or talked about their work restoring old homes. It was a nice event, if not really my thing, and the women were very sweet and friendly and supportive. But when I invited them to visit my place of business, I was taken aback and dismayed by how many of them replied sweetly, “Oh, I don’t drive into the city…” as if that were a totally normal excuse.

Wait, what?! These women seemed educated, and while “cosmopolitan” might be a stretch, they certainly weren’t the MAGA red-hat-wearers that I typically associate with fear of the city (Macomb county, I’m looking at you). The one who restores old homes was dressed very stylishly, in striped wide-legged pants, a turtleneck and a cool vintage beaded necklace. She looked like she could have been a board member (or major donor) at the DIA. Another was around my age and was also an entrepreneur in the same sector as me. To her credit, she actually did come visit and meet with me to talk business, but was perceptibly on edge about the drive, almost canceling at the last minute because of a light snow.

I really wish I had responded to them with, “Oh, really? Why is that?” I think some of them were literally just scared of driving in “big city traffic”, but obviously that wasn’t the whole story. I’m kicking myself for the missed opportunity to enlighten people that Detroit (especially any of the parts these women would set foot) isn’t some scary lawless place where criminals roam the streets with assault rifles waiting to rob, carjack or shoot any visitor (read: white person). Not to sound naive, but I honestly thought those anarchic, post-apocalyptic stereotypes were limited to certain subsets of Macomb and far Oakland counties (and others from farther afield who have never been here and don’t read anything about what’s actually going on.) It was pretty depressing to realize just how far we still have to go with the city’s public image when “educated” people who don’t even live 15 miles from the city limits are scared to come here.

Of course many of my fellow Detroiters would say, great, we don’t want those people here anyway. And while I personally wouldn’t mourn not having to share space with sheltered bougie suburbanites, the reality is that bodies equal dollars, and Detroit can use all the dollars it can get. I can hear the argument already–that those visitors would only spend money at businesses in downtown and Midtown, not the neighborhoods. That may be the case, but if some of that money is then used to pay the wages and salaries of residents, who may in turn spend money locally in their neighborhoods, I still think it would be a net positive. The more the narrative changes (i.e. “I went to Detroit and visited all these cool places and there were people of diverse backgrounds all hanging out and I didn’t get shot…”), the better for everyone, and we can continue to dispel the ugly clichés of the sort you see in the comments section of any article in the Free Press.

I realized the other day that this summer will mark 20 years since I moved here. As someone who has the ability to move amongst and relate to people from many different socioeconomic strata (I grew up in a suburban area and have a college degree, but I am also a low-income city-dweller), I have an opportunity to exert positive influence when I encounter skeptics or outright critics. Next time someone tells me they don’t come to the city as a rule, I’m going to do better to tease out of them exactly why not, and to give them a different perspective.

hot springs eternal

There’s something about hot springs that, for me, is really special—the literal immersion of oneself into nature. I’m not much of a swimmer and I hate being cold, but the idea of just sitting in a warm pool in a magnificent natural setting is highly appealing. In the bleak of a Michigan February, I find myself pining for these places of beauty and warmth. I’m making it a point to seek out some hot springs on my next trip down south (perhaps this one, or this one when it re-opens), and am toying with the idea of a trip to Iceland, where geothermal baths are plentiful.

September 2001, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

It’s late in the evening. We’re on our way to Niigata to visit the island of Sado-Ga-Shima, famous for its gold mines and legions of feral cats. We stop off at an onsen, or traditional Japanese hot springs bath.

As with most things in Japan, there is a cultural learning curve. Bathers enter the baths nude–a personal article of clothing such as a bathing suit would be seen as unclean; sullying the water. 44-year-old post-pregnancy me would, ironically, probably be less self-conscious than my 27-year-old self was about public nudity. But thankfully, the darkness obscures us. We sit in the open air, bathed by moonlight and warmth and heady infatuation.

***

June 2010, Buena Vista, Colorado

On a blindingly sunny Saturday, M and I hook up with our old Detroit friend K, who has offered to act as tour guide that day since our host D has to work. She drives us obligingly a couple of hours out of town to Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, with a stop for a hike at the beautiful and scenic Roxborough State Park. Despite calling itself a “spa”, which might connote something fancy, Cottonwood is a kind of funky, unfussy place where you can rent a lodge-style room or even a campsite. It makes me happy that these kinds of places are largely accessible to the general public and haven’t been overly commodified or made exclusive. Overseas, I would expect as much, since other cultures consider it more of a “right” that everyone be able to partake of a natural attraction regardless of income. But, given our American tendency to privatize and bleed every dollar we can out of tourists, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever that’s not the case.

cottonwood

***

October 2014, Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Winding through the mountains of Sao Miguel island, my best friend A and I happen to pass a sign for Caldeira Velha, a park with hot springs, and can’t resist pulling over. We don’t have a whole lot planned for this trip, other than to see where the road takes us. We park the car in a lot off the twisting road, and walk towards the park. The red dirt path pops cheerfully against the intense, saturated greens of the forest. We reach the springs, where you can actually see the water boiling up out of the ground in spots. A small waterfall flows gently over a ruddy, moss-covered rock face and into a natural pool. We don’t have bathing suits, so we roll up our jeans and sit at the edge of a smaller pool, like a large bathtub carved into the rock, submerging as much skin as we can. There’s an autumn chill in the air, providing a welcome contrast to the deliciously warm water. We sit in silence broken by the occasional birdsong or foreign chatter, and meditate on our good fortune.

IMG_2217

A couple of days later, we are in the town of Furnas, known for its hot springs and geothermal cuisine, in which pots of beef and root vegetables are stewed low and slow in the ground. This time I am prepared, having bought a cheap swimsuit in a tourist shop the day before. There are two main baths in Furnas. One is in the Terra Nostra botanical park; a huge pool of mineral-rich water the color of milky tea. The other, which we decide to try, is the Poça da Dona Beija, a series of five pools of different temperatures set amidst lush subtropical foliage. It’s dusk when we get into the water, and a fine rain mists our faces. We make small talk with a couple of young Canadians who have overheard us speaking English and who we recognize from our flight. The iron-rich water stains our nails and skin and swimsuits. We splash around, blissed out by the cool rain, hot water and the beauty of twilight fading on the verdant gardens.

eulogy

The following was written on August 16, 2015 and I feel enough time has passed that I can share it now. If the person this was written about reads it, I hope they know I still very highly regard the time we shared, and wouldn’t change a thing.

So here’s what’s happening right now: a quiet Saturday evening, crickets and a cool breeze. A snack of shrimp “cooked” in lemon juice with sea salt, thyme & shallot, drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with some charred cherry tomatoes. A not-quite-chilled-enough glass of Peñedes, but it’ll do. A bouquet of flowers I bought in a lame attempt to cheer myself from a loss that, although I predicted it long ago, was nonetheless heartbreaking.

I don’t know how to say this and I may regret writing it. But someone very, very dear to me has, for reasons known only to that person, chosen to withdraw their already tenuous friendship from my life. I’ve wanted to write about this person before, because they amaze and thrill and delight me, but for reasons of privacy I kept it to myself. Perhaps down the road, with distance, I can tell our story, but not any time soon.

My reaction to this loss was surprisingly calm. I had always known there was an inevitability of our connection dimming (for a multitude of reasons I can’t get into), but I always thought it would be a gentle tapering off, where we gradually stopped spending time together but remained friendly acquaintances. That was actually more or less already happening, and although it didn’t make me happy, I accepted that this was the natural order of things; a friendship like ours, while a thing of beauty, just isn’t cut out to be sustainable. When we unexpectedly hung out recently and had one of the best times I’ve had all year (and maybe with anyone ever), it was a pleasant surprise, but I didn’t see the overall trajectory shifting. What I should have remembered was that every previous time this person had pulled me in a little closer, they subsequently felt the need to shove me away with an even more violent force.

For most of my friendships, although I try not to be demanding, I have a very basic set of social expectations, of the sort that most of us do. However, ours was a different story. I had learned with this person a while ago to accept only what they were freely offering to me, and not to ask for, let alone demand, anything more than that. My time with this person was so special that I was willing (and more or less happily so) to forgo my usual friend expectations: text me back in a semi-timely manner, let’s hang out sort of regularly, etc. I quickly learned to hold back, take cues and wait until I was called upon to spend time with, rather than suggesting any social activity.

This may sound to most people as if I was some sort of doormat, desperately waiting around for a phone call or text. Not at all. In fact it was strangely liberating to have this kind of a friendship. For perhaps the first time in my life, I knew for an absolute fact that I accepted someone 100% for who they are and not anything that I wanted or wished they would be. And as a person who has spent far too long in unhappy situations because my expectations on others ultimately led to disappointment, it made me so incredibly happy to know I was capable of that! I don’t think I could say that before about anyone who wasn’t my immediate family member (or maybe my best friend A). This was huge progress for me personally, and has carried over into other aspects of my life and other relationships. In fact I think a big reason why I’ve been able to let go of so much anger and be at peace with M is a direct result of what this friendship has taught me. It’s made an immensely positive difference in my life.

What I’ve thought about in the last few days is this: I still love this person dearly. I’m very much hurting. I don’t at all understand their actions, which were swift, angry and honestly a bit cruel, but clearly the 100% acceptance thing wasn’t working both ways and I suppose this is just something they felt they needed to do. I have no choice or say in the matter. With other friends, I’d likely have attempted a reconciliation by now, but I don’t think that’s the thing to do here. Perhaps in time they’ll reconsider, and I really hope that’s the case. But no matter what happens, they can never take away the happiness I experienced being part of their life. They can never erase the beautiful memories, the corny inside jokes, the meals we prepared and shared, the philosophical discussions, the music we played each other, and the absolute sense of psychic connection with another human being. I will cherish all of those things even if they can’t or won’t, and my memories won’t be diminished by this act of severance. My heart is full of both love and sadness, but at least it is full, and that is something to be grateful for.

***

Postscript: Months went by in which I neither saw nor spoke to this person. On my end, I was afraid to reach out because I didn’t want to push or force anything (and probably also because I didn’t want to suffer more rejection.) Eventually we saw each other, and much to my delight and relief, big (and sincere) hugs were exchanged. These days we don’t really interact anymore except when we run into each other around town, but that’s ok. Just being able to appreciate what we had, and knowing that we are at peace, is enough.

 

cast hexagram 47

Three weeks ago my marriage officially ended in a courtroom downtown Detroit, in a surprisingly sun-filled room on the 18th floor overlooking the river and Windsor, just a scant couple of blocks from where it began. Below is my I Ching reading for that week. I’m happy to report that I followed the wisdom therein, biting my tongue, knowing that all the words I wanted to say would fall on deaf ears and only make me feel worse. (Anyone who knows me will know what a challenge it is for me to hold back when I have something I want to say, so I was particularly proud of this achievement.)

Also as advised, I espoused cheerfulness; I’m a strong believer in the fake-it-’til-you-make-it school, and I find that the more you act like you’re fine, the more it takes hold and becomes genuine. I never in a million years thought I’d be an advocate for what I probably would have deemed phoniness at another stage of life, but age and experience have made me see things in less black and white terms. Today, the cheerfulness almost feels real, and it gets a little realer each day.

The lake is above, water below; the lake is empty, dried up. Exhaustion is expressed in yet another way: at the top, a dark line is holding down two light line; below, a light line is hemmed in between two dark ones. The upper trigram belongs to the principle of darkness, the lower to the principle of light. Thus everywhere superior men are oppressed and held in restraint by inferior men.

THE JUDGEMENT

OPPRESSION. Success. Perseverance.
The great man brings about good fortune.
No blame.
When one has something to say,
It is not believed.

Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man. When a strong man meets with adversity, he remains cheerful despite all danger, and this cheerfulness is the source of later successes; it is that stability which is stronger than fate. He who lets his spirit be broken by exhaustion certainly has no success. But if adversity only bends a man, it creates in him a power to react that is bound in time to manifest itself. No inferior man is capable of this. Only the great man brings about good fortune and remains blameless. It is true that for the time being outward influence is denied him, because his words have no effect. Therefore in times of adversity it is important to be strong within and sparing of words.

birthday came early

I’ve just spent Christmas with my family, but this was a Christmas of many years ago- only my parents and siblings, no spouses or children. My mom announces that one of my grandparents has just died, but which one? Hadn’t they all passed away already? We discuss this, and conclude that they in fact have.

Although I know it’s winter, the weather is as mild as a spring day. It’s my birthday, or the day before maybe, and I’ve made no plans. So I wander in search of something to do; a little companionship. I cross through a field where someone is inexplicably walking a dolphin on a leash; occasionally they throw a bucket of water on it. My dog sniffs it for a moment and trots onward. I pass by other relatives in town for the holidays and wave hello, but don’t stop to make small talk.

I make my way into my city, which has, for my purposes, become walkable from my childhood home, and just walkable, period. Places that are miles apart are suddenly and conveniently clustered into one fun neighborhood. Strolling past all of my usual haunts, whose windows twinkle invitingly with string lights for the season, I think of guys I could call who would take me out for a birthday dinner, and we’d have a nice time. But of course I don’t want nice–I want Him.

I end up at a house party and suddenly it’s morning and there he is, outside on the patio, sitting expectantly as if waiting for me, despite the fact that we haven’t spoken in ages. As usual, I’m displeased with him for some perceived minor infraction and begin to chide him. But as usual, his physical presence washes away my annoyance like chalk in the rain, still perceptible but illegible and without consequence. He silences my faltering complaints with a kiss and we latch on to each other like long-lost lovers.

We make our way through the city this way, joined, and although he is twice my size, somehow I am carrying him like a child. I ask where he wants to go and he says, “my house”. So we go, and there is a party happening; a birthday, but not mine. His place has expanded and there are rooms upon rooms to go through to get to his chambers, but at last we arrive. Someone has left us slices of cake, and I gleefully exclaim that we’ll eat it in bed. We have to chase some children out of his rooms; the last one to go is a very small toddler who has just learned to walk and whose footsteps shake the wooden floors like thunder as she runs out.

After dispensing of all the interlopers I return to him and to our kiss. He now tastes of liquor… a hidden flask? I’m stone cold sober and want to ask for some, but don’t; it’s morning, after all, and besides, this kiss is the main thing. Our tongues reach deep, searching for each other’s souls, or maybe intestines. I could go on in this moment forever, but I know it’s not to be.

I awake, and immediately want to crawl back into the cocoon of this dream. Coiled in the warmth of our imaginary embrace, I slowly and regretfully shake off sleep, knowing that the best part of my day has likely already occurred. But although it was just a figment, the kiss is now a shiny coin that I’ll keep in my pocket, absentmindedly rubbing for luck and secretly smiling.

three-legged puppies

My friend T, who also happens to be recently divorced, talks to me fairly regularly about her escapades as a newly single person on the dating scene. She happened to observe recently that she is recognizing a pattern in her attractions- namely, that she seems to have a proclivity for what she’s termed “three-legged puppies”. You know… guys who are in need of some sort of rescuing, special care, etc. I laughed at her creative descriptor, but it made me reflect on my own past relationships and the motivations therein. I’ve been known to fall victim to the charms of three-legged puppies… I think we all have at some point (if you don’t know who yours are, let me know and I can probably point them out.) They’re cute in their needy, damaged way, they give you a sense of useful purpose, and make you feel like just maybe you have your shit together by comparison, even if you really don’t.

Particularly, the three-legged puppy comment brought to mind O, a guy I used to hang out with a decade or so ago. O and I were never really dating, but we were what you might call special friends. I can’t even say we were friends with benefits because the relationship was pretty nonsexual… this was mostly due to him being a total weirdo and only able to handle the tiniest amounts of intimacy. I don’t know what exactly his diagnosis would have been, had he actually gotten help, but he wasn’t able to exist even remotely comfortably in the world as we know it. Something about him was too precious or sensitive for this life. His coping mechanism of choice, sadly, was heroin. He used to claim that it was the only way he could handle the bullshitty interactions of everyday life (like his job in retail, for instance) and I believe him.

The Gold Dollar, where I met O and spent lots of quality time at the turn of the millenium, near the intersection of Temple & Cass
The Gold Dollar, where I met O and spent lots of quality time at the turn of the millenium, near the intersection of Temple & Cass

He didn’t really do it to party or get fucked up; it was more just to get by and blunt the sharp edges of life. And I knew him in the earliest days of his use, so it wasn’t like this was a years-old maintenance habit. I used to imagine that he had emotional sensors that were amped up way more than the average person could conceive of, and the drugs just helped bring everything to a manageable level. (I think this must be fairly common; another friend who has struggled with some mental health issues and who used to do heroin told me that the first time she tried it, she thought, “This must be what normal people feel like.” Like O, she would do it and go to work, except in her case it was at a law firm.) Not that I condone his drug use at all- I always wished he’d gotten psychiatric help, and I think his malaise could have been managed with far less harmful substances and/or talk therapy. But, he was a wannabe musician who idolized and romanticized drug users, and that was the path he chose.

Anyway, during this time I was writing songs as my short-lived solo project, Little Hammer, and I wrote the song below about O and the other three-legged puppies of this world. I still have a soft spot for them, but I know better than to get caught up, much as I wish I could save them all. Incidentally, I wrote another song about him during this time that never got recorded, with the not-so-subtle lyric “Prince Charming/ on a white horse/ or the hookers on Temple & Cass, well I don’t know which is worse”. The song was an ode to that summer, breezy but bittersweet, with lyrics about bare feet on concrete and big cars on the boulevard… “summer in the city of nowhere to go but up”. Back then, it was probably a lot more accurate, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m not sure whatever happened to O; he moved back to his parents’ in Cali at the end of that summer, and we lost touch. I regret to say that I don’t have a very optimistic outlook on where he might be right now, but I wish him the best. Even if you’re cute or charming, it’s not easy going through life with only three legs.

tiki, teardrops and true confessions

tiki noIt must be a rite of passage to get your ass kicked by tiki drinks while visiting Los Angeles. The task was not hard to accomplish, what with a happy hour cocktail at the Roosevelt Hotel, huge beers with dinner, and a stop at the Rainbow for a whiskey soda and some jukebox glam beforehand. More reasonable humans might have called it a night at that point, but it was only 8:30! And this particular tiki bar was in walking (er, stumbling) distance from my friend T’s apartment.

But if you’ll permit me, let’s backtrack to Thanksgiving. In the dinner afterglow, perhaps three glasses of wine in the rear view mirror and tryptophan coursing through my veins, I found myself on facebook chatting with an old college pal who was visiting home from LA. We briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get together, but the timing wasn’t going to work. He suggested that I should just visit him in California, and in my warm and fuzzy and expansive postprandial state, I found myself thinking that was a great idea. A few keystrokes on my phone, and I had a ticket.

Mind you, I hadn’t seen T in about ten years, not since his wedding reception when he still lived in Chicago. Back when I was in school at Michigan State, I used to visit him there fairly regularly, taking the EL to the resale shops in Boystown or poking around Andersonville’s coffee houses and junk stores while he was at work. In the evenings, we’d go to dive bars, drink shitty beer and see bands play. Occasionally, his band would have a show, and I’d sing along in the front row.

Ten years later though, did we still have anything in common? I pondered this somewhat nervously as the trip approached. We were both unattached and had recently gone through divorces, so there was that. But we hadn’t really kept in touch since he’d moved (and even for a decent period before that), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Girlfriends inquired excitedly whether there were any “romantic possibilities” for my trip; I answered quite honestly that I had no idea.

detroit streetMy first afternoon in town, as we wandered the streets of Hollywood at sunset, I kept seeing bits of home everywhere I looked… Berry Gordy’s star on the Walk of Fame; a sign for Detroit Street; a guy in a Tigers t-shirt. As it turned out, by this time there was someone back home who was tugging at my heartstrings like a cheap ukelele, and as much as I was enjoying the California sunshine, I couldn’t help but have him (and by extension, the city I associated with him) in my thoughts. Naturally I thought the best way to deal with this was with a cocktail.

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act like you like it

“That’s Jillian,” the woman at the bar said reverently. “Do you recognize her? She’s been in so many things, like, I can’t even turn on the TV without seeing Jillian, but she’s always stressing that she isn’t getting enough work. She’s in the Jack-in-the-Box commercials, you must’ve seen those, right?”

No, I said apologetically, we don’t have Jack-in-the-Box where I live and I don’t actually even have a TV. (I did mention that I watch stuff occasionally on Netflix and Hulu so as not to offend her and/or come off as a complete Luddite.) She nodded distractedly, mentally dismissing me and calculating how long she had to sit with me to be polite before taking her leave to go chat with the fabulous Jillian and her other industry friends.

One of the great things about travel is getting to know the particular cultures of different cities, and the best way to do this is, of course, by hanging out with a local. While in LA I had the pleasure of staying with an old friend who, while from the Midwest originally, has lived in LA for 8+ years. Many of his friends are in the entertainment business, so I got a small but interesting glimpse into that subculture while visiting.

While T was living in Chicago in the mid-’90s, he became friends and bandmates with actor Eddie Jemison (Oceans 11/12/13; Hung; the Bud Lite “Yes I Am” commercials, among other stuff). At the time T moved to LA, Eddie had already been there for a few years, and the two reconnected to form another band with Vance DeGeneres (brother of Ellen) and another guy, Dave Gibbs, who I didn’t get to meet. As luck would have it, they were playing a show during my visit to celebrate the release of Eddie’s directorial debut King of Herrings, which he also wrote and starred in with his lovely wife Laura. It was at this show that the above exchange took place.

Luckily that night, through the magic of Tinder (T’s, not mine), I got to meet another really amazing woman named Lulu who sat with me through the show. She’d had a date with T and showed up to the bar solo, so I got to chat with her while T’s band was playing. Her playful eyes and adorable bleach-blonde hair, cropped ultrashort save for a cute wavy forelock that stuck up in front, belied her 47 years. We gabbed about men and divorce and sex and heartbreak and possibility in the way that only two strangers can (the gin and tonics didn’t hurt). Her ex-husband was in the entertainment business but not her, and she seemed pretty blasé about the whole thing- it was just a job. It was nice to talk to someone whose eyes weren’t roaming sideways to see who else they could be talking to that was more important.

The upside to T’s connections with the acting world was that we got invited to a private reading in the Brentwood home of a lovely couple who are part of Eddie’s weekly acting group. Their friend Champ Clark, a writer for People, is also a playwright and  wanted to try out some material with a live audience. We sat on folding chairs in the dining room and watched maybe a dozen short plays read aloud, performed without the aid of props, costume or staging; it was one of the coolest theater experiences I’ve ever had. T admitted that he probably wouldn’t have attended if I hadn’t been in town, but was glad he did. The material was laugh-out-loud funny for the most part, with some more serious and/ or surreal scenes woven in. After the reading, we ate, had some wine and mingled with the actors, who were of all ages, shapes and sizes. It was a completely unpretentious crowd and very welcoming to a stranger.

Before I visited LA for the first time in 2000, I hadn’t had any great desire to go there; I’d imagined it as this place where everyone was phony and plastic, i.e. not the type of place where I’d fit in or enjoy myself much. Both times I’ve been there, I’ve definitely encountered those types of people, but it was the overwhelming minority. Shame on me- kind of like someone assuming everyone from Detroit is a blue collar line worker or nerdy engineer. I should be so lucky to go back and get another first hand peek into a fascinating and worthy art form.

Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.
Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.

watts towers

watts 1Watts Towers rise up out of the surrounding working-class neighborhood like a fist pumped heavenward in victory. Amongst run-down ranch houses and dead-end streets, they sit serenely and proudly, a confection of concrete spun like sugar. Despite graffiti that proliferates elsewhere in Watts, the Towers remain untouched; rightfully respected.
watts 4Back when I worked at Book Beat, I’d seen pictures of the Towers many times in folk art or outsider art books and been intrigued–I’m a sucker for anything with mosaic or tile work, so right off the bat, the site appealed to me. When T and I found ourselves not terribly far away after an afternoon at Venice Beach, we decided to go check it out. watts 3

I’m not sure any photograph could have prepared me for how astonishing and moving this structure is in person. As someone who dabbles in creative pursuits in my spare time, it was both inspirational and incredibly humbling (like, who the F am I, this guy was the real deal). The towers’ creator, Simon Rodia, was an Italian immigrant and day laborer who worked on the project over the course of 33 years (1921-1954); pretty much any second not given over to work or bodily functions was dedicated to their construction. He created what he called nuestro pueblo, “our town”, partly out of scrap found along the railroad tracks, and would walk up to 20 miles up and down the tracks for materials. The towers were built solely with hand tools, no machinery. The dedication and perseverance it took to realize his vision are virtually unknown in this day and age, a sobering thought to those of us quasi-addicted to the instant gratification of blogging, instagram, etc. Not appreciated and even at risk of being torn down in the 1960s, the work is now being maintained and restored.
watts 2We weren’t able to actually enter the site, but had to content ourselves with viewing it through a fence. It’s beautiful and strange and awesome and I can only imagine sitting inside and staring up through the towers from within. Please do yourself a favor and visit this place if you’re anywhere nearby; photos don’t do justice to the actual experience. Read more about Watts Towers at the official website or on Wikipedia. Particularly fascinating is the religious ritual performed in Rodia’s home town and from which it is speculated that he took his inspiration.

watts 8
watts 9

venice in january

hare krishna van in venice CA

The boardwalk at Venice Beach is a maelström of humanity. T has informed me in the car that we will most definitely see a guy with a snake, and true to his word, the very first street performer we see wields a slithering sidekick. Approaching from Windward Ave, we pass some inviting restaurants and cafés which give way to a grotesque but expected series of tourist shops blaring pop music and hawking the usual t-shirts, sunglasses and other tchotch, as well as a number of marijuana outlets whose dreadlocked proprietors vie for our dollars like old-time medicine men.

“How are you feeling? Good? I can show you how to feel AMAZING…”

“Wanna kiss the sky?” (or maybe it was “this guy”?)

We make our way to the skate park directly ahead, and marvel at the lithe movements of these ratty young men, who, like all talented performers, make their craft look so easy. Torsos stay erect while hips gyrate to the curves of the concrete bowl. I try not to stare too much, but it’s mesmerizing.

The water is calling me, so we head across the expanse of sand. Giddy as a child, I roll up my jeans, take off shoes and socks and head for the water. T warns me to be careful, look out for needles. It spoils the moment just a little. I stand with the waves lapping my feet, staring into the surf and marveling at the fact that it’s JANUARY and I’m wearing a T-SHIRT and I’m BAREFOOT in the OCEAN!

Sadly, probably due in part to being a little hung over, we have not planned well and have neglected to bring a blanket or books or other sorts of things that one would want handy if one were to pass an afternoon on the beach. This causes me a fair bit of mental anguish, as there is nothing I want more at this moment than to doze off on the sand with the sun caressing my bare arms. Such is life. I focus on the positive (the BEACH! WINTER! T-SHIRT!) and we head back to the boardwalk.

We perform the ritual tourist walk-and-gawk. A man has trained his dog to lie prone while wearing a hot pink lamé bikini, which has dollar bills tucked in and around it. I don’t know whether to be amused or feel sorry for the poor beast. Awful art mingles with even awful-er art and a smattering of decent art. Buskers range from angelic waifs with sunken eyes and clear trembling timbres, to puffy middle aged men tunelessly belting out minor hits of the eighties. Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-ah his stride.

As we stroll on, observing the motley assortment of artists, performers, shysters, freaks and just plain beggars, I marvel at how anyone gets by. Practical me queries: aren’t tourist dollars more apt to be parted with in exchange for a “show” of some sort? How do the homeless and talentless survive? But survive they do, and in droves. Our nostrils are assaulted in a steady stream by the stench of the unbathed. A small parade of Koreans with placards marches past. “Come to Jesus!” exhorts the group’s leader, and the rest of the group echoes in a call and response. “Cooooome tooooo Jeeeeeesus!”

We agree that nothing we’ve seen today can top that, so after fueling up with lunch from a hole-in-the-wall Peruvian joint, we decide we may as well call it a day. The hustlers and hippies and hijinx of the boardwalk will remain as ever, should we choose to return.