Friday, February 27, 2009

The Dark Side of Downtown L.A.

L.A. is a creepy town.

Imagine the following in your best Rod Serling voice.

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination, the 10, the 110 and the 101 Freeways. That's the sign post up ahead, your next stop...Downtown L.A.

Submitted for your approval or at least your analysis:

It’s Ash Wednesday and people are walking around with black smears of soot between their eyes, but that isn’t what is unnerving Lauren VanMullem. She works in a big blue building directly across from The deVille Motel in a cubicle that is hotter than Hell, but that doesn’t make her uneasy either. No. What’s creeping her out is seeing children frozen in perpetual plummet from the ceiling of the Civic Center metro station, the demonic figures scrawled on the walls of 7th and Figueroa metro station, and the shifty-eyed Mexican next to the woman giving him the evil eye high above her head on a mural. And the statue of a businessman putting his head through a slab of marble at the corner of 7th and Figueroa. And the fact that no one, in her 1 ½ years of working in the government building, has ever stopped the elevator at the 5th floor.

There was nothing on the fifth floor. An abandoned empty space. Dingy, stained, deserted. Except for a message scratched onto one wall with a thin sharp instrument: "Tell Bob I'm on the 6th floor."

"Just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment we'll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we'll only explain it - because this is the Twilight Zone."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Redwood Bar and Grill

Yo, ho, ho, I’ll have a bottle of rum please. And coke. And the Redwood burger with everything on it.

When my boyfriend invited me out to lunch at a burger joint, I expected, well, a burger joint. Not the inside of Captain Morgan’s galleon, complete with sails, ale barrel tables and a real human skull holding court over the hard liquor.

When I stepped indoors out of the bright overcast day, I was struck by the darkness of the restaurant. It’s not lit by candlelight, but the dim orange glow of the wall sconces gives that impression. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed the dark wood walls, reminiscent of a 1970s living room except for the white sailcloth and heavy rope rigging draped across them. Paintings of storm-tossed tall ships lined the front walls, while the back walls enclosing private booths sported paintings of sultry mermaids with large, very bare, breasts. My boyfriend didn’t notice the latter until I pointed them out. Either he is very savvy, or needs his eyeglass prescription checked.

Not only did the interior nail the atmosphere of the black belly of a brig, it smelled like it too. In any other eating establishment, the smell of brine, fish, and human sweat would have sent me right out the door, but here it just aided in the suspension of disbelief. I was in a pirate ship eating fish and chips with vinegar and a heavy dusting of pepper, and stealing bites of my boyfriend’s $12 dollar Redwood Burger (voted the Best in Downtown by the Downtown Daily News). Its half pound of beef was clearly hand-formed, moist, with a slight blush in the middle, covered with swiss cheese, bacon, tomato, onion, pickles and lettuce. The only interruption to the nautical charm (did I mention there’s a full sized cannon?) was the modern juke box embedded in the wall – but who can object to a juke box that plays Boston songs?

My dining experience was topped off by the pirate sitting in the booth next to us. He was grizzled, browned by the sun, talked to himself in a constant low growl, and was every bit the ancient mariner. I could smell him from where I sat. Ok, he wasn’t a pirate, just another half-crazed homeless man in downtown L.A. But he was courteous to the waitress, though he had to interrupt his dialogue with himself to say “please” and “thank you,” and the waitress was courteous to him. I will think of him as a pirate. He’d make a great pirate.

316 W. 2nd St. Downtown Los Angeles
Hours: M-F 11am-2am
Happy Hour M-F 4pm-7pm
Live bands & DJs at 10pm almost every night
P. 213-680-2600

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Food Memory


I hadn’t realized how traumatic my early experiences with food were until I was assigned to write a “favorite food memory” piece for my Food Writing class. Some classmates’ food-memories were handed in early and read aloud, and were what you might expect: Watching her grandmother make pie from scratch; Helping her mother make tomato sauce. They were all standing in warm, sweet-smelling kitchens as the new, young recipients of culinary wisdom passed down through generations. The kind of comforting clich├ęs that inspire a life-long love of food.

I have nothing like that.

From the ages of eight to thirteen, my mother and I lived with my Aunt’s family on their ranch in the mountains between Buellton and Lompoc; since the wineries came, the region has been dubbed the more mellifluous “Santa Rita Hills.” My most memorable experiences with food are from that time because, in my aunt’s house, sustenance bordered on the bizarre.

My aunt stored her potatoes for months…or years…beneath the sink next to the pesticides. Her pantry—if one braved the smell of her rashed, puss-encrusted blind poodle who slept there—was used for the preservation of vintage Spam and canned carrots. I learned early to check sell-by dates and to avoid family dinners whenever possible; and when not possible, I ate lightly.

For fresh vegetables, my aunt, cousin and I used pick-axes to crack the adobe dirt of the yard to plant seeds. My aunt used a ‘survival of the fittest’ model of farming. Gophers and mice were permitted to pilfer what they could before snarling ranch dogs rushed at them. I planted corn one summer, and when the fat ears stretched out from their stalks, my mother and I shucked them for popcorn—letting fly colonies of black ants across the kitchen counter. In the fall, the hard-packed dirt of the vegetable garden was layered with apples on which dogs, horses, and rodents gorged themselves. The humans and birds opted for the sweet sun-burned pink apples on high branches. Eggs came spotted with blood and excrement from the nesting boxes of hardy chickens and, occasionally, we would drill into a giant egg from the nearby ostrich farm and pour the watery mass into the largest skillet for a family-sized omelet.

I knew where to hold my breath in the rooms and hallways where mice decomposed in the walls. When odors of dead rodents or dog-scared-skunks weren’t wafting through the kitchen, it smelled like medication and sugared cereals. My uncle was diabetic and my aunt couldn’t bear to be deprived of cheap cereals and Albertson’s cakes (two for five dollars). My cousin’s teeth were permanently stained Hawaiian Punch red. My mother’s idea of healthy cooking was to heat frozen diet dinners and vegetables in the microwave. We went out to eat frequently, but our options were limited to two steak houses, two diners and Baker’s Square; the waitresses of these establishments knew us by sight.

My early years were not gourmet.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Hand That Feeds

UCLA officials acknowledge that some freshmen are admitted for reasons other than their grades and test scores, that some students come from dramatically different backgrounds than many of their peers but show academic promise. They say there are programs on campus to help these students But De La Cruz isn't aware of them.”

This LA Times article, For an illegal immigrant, getting into UCLA was the easy part, by Jason Song, is the sympathetically told story of an 18 year old girl recently admitted to UCLA. She’s an “undocumented student” who graduated “barely in the top 20% of her class” with a mediocre gpa of 3.4, rounded up, and low test scores. Her background is unfortunate, but not tragic, and not that different from countless other illegal immigrant children. She was rejected by San Diego State, and accepted by UCLA where the average freshman has a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades.

Now, she's struggling academically and isn't even aware of how or where to find help. I’ve spent time tutoring in “underperforming” LAUSD high schools in both honors classes and remedial classes where some students were then awaiting their court dates for assaulting police officers. In the honors class, the students, all Hispanic, were encouraged daily by an unflaggingly optimistic teacher to apply to 4-year universities; community college was an extreme last resort. Entire classes were devoted to filling out the college forms and applications with explicit instructions: “write your name here. Don’t forget about this deadline. Here is how to fill out the FAFSA.” All the high school teachers were doing everything they could to get these students in to 4-year universities. They were repeatedly informed of every scholarship opportunity, every form of help available. The teachers practically filled out their forms for them.

And one of these students made it to UCLA, completely unprepared to find her own resources because they’ve always been found for her.

The teachers aren’t to blame and neither are the schools, whose reputations and even funding are based on the percentage of kids to graduate and go on to college. But they’re not teaching self-sufficiency. They’re teaching students to depend on others to tell them what they need to do and by when. Passively waiting to be told information is a sure way to fail out of UCLA—I know; I went there.

Not only is this 18 year old academically unprepared, even having to take a remedial English class before entering Freshmen English, she has been taught to expect help. She might be able to overcome her academic deficiencies and rise to the higher expectations, but having the drive to succeed without knowing how to advocate for your own success leads to failure.

She missed the summer orientation program, found out late about the free tutoring services, didn’t access her UCLA e-mail account until many months into the school year (which has a number of helpful links to resources neatly mapped out on the left hand column), and can’t even manage to find a computer on which to take a practice test even though Powell Library is lousy with them. It’s hard for me to write about this without wanting to hit her over the head with every word, but the kicker is that she was set up to fail by the very system that aches to see her triumph.

The most valuable lesson I learned in my time at UCLA was to work the system; To find tutoring, to find professors who would help me get to the next level, to stalk TAs around campus for extra clarification, to find mentors who could point the way to programs and opportunities I may have missed in my hours of research. It's hard, it takes a lot of footwork and energy, and sometimes even clever people like me get schooled (pun not initially intended) and miss out on something. But finding that dogged, almost angry, active determination in myself saved my life after college--and is the reason I'm still writing.


What I learned at UCLA:

1. Everything you want to do is hard; few things are entirely impossible.
2. Most people will tell you "no" a lot, but don't listen to them until you've asked every single person multiple times. (a friend has an alternate version of this: Don't accept a "no" from someone not in a position to give you a "yes".)

3. Only after you have tried every single possible way to reach your goal should you switch direction, but even then you can circle back later.

4. Everything happens for a reason, usually a good one, but sometimes just because you screwed up. Do better next time.

5. "Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss." - Douglas Adams

If this student learns to be pro-active in her education, she just might make it. But after 18 years of being taught otherwise, the force of habit is against her.

Close Reading

I’ve discovered a few truths since beginning this blog, the most important of which is that my personal opinions and reflections might actually be interesting to other people. Also that most people who read my blog know me personally, and might therefore be interested in my ramblings.

I’ve often scoffed at writers who write from places so far inside their own heads as to be nauseatingly solipsistic (def. extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption). And I certainly have never wanted to be numbered among that set.

But lately I’ve found that I am fascinated by my friends’ writings that hover in between solipsism and philosophy. Rather than writing reams of detached observations interrupted by stream-of-consciousness depictions of highly intimate physical experiences (I don’t find your bodily functions titillating, sorry), as a certain artsy writerly set is wont to do, these writers use their experiences to connect with readers. They aren’t trying to draw readers into their minds; they lead the readers to wonder with them and think more deeply about themselves. Instead of bearing witness to a monologue a la Hamlet—the prince of solipsism, the reader is engaged in a dialogue with the writer. The autobiographical style still strikes me as self-indulgent, but it works, and I am at once envious of and deeply grateful to my friends who write with such power.

So while I will continue to post various articles that haven’t yet found homes in print, I’ll also try out a few more personal ventures in writing. The first of which is my reaction to a recently printed article in the LA Times. See next post.