In February I hiked 9 miles (18 round trip) from Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena about four thousand feet up the old toll road to Mount Wilson, arriving four or so hours later with a sandwich and water left in my water bottle at a parking lot near the radio television broadcasting towers and the complex of observatories that date back a century. There was only one vehicle in the parking lot and a few people enjoying the view at the top, with a patch of dirty leftover old snow along the southern edge, where a marker that noted the altitude at 5,500 feet. Brilliant sun shone across the mountain tops (Mount Lowe to the west, Mount Baldy to the east) emerging from a soft sea of white clouds like rocks in a Zen garden. The cloud cover had made the early hours of the hike very cool in a couple ways, as I ascended through fragrant misty oaks and pines.
9 miles back downhill was of course easier, sweeter because I knew by then that I’d have no problem with the ankle I’d broken a couple years earlier in the Stehekin River, in the North Cascades National Park, some 40 miles from my vehicle.
A lifetime of electronic media, flat screens, movies, TV, books, music, the radio, news, the newspapers, pictures, photos, billboards, bumperstickers—all such things that produce us (even if, or as, we produce them), 24/7, day in and day out—dull the senses immensely. This stuff makes us retarded, it retards our reactions physically, spiritually and intellectually, it blurs, blunts and distorts our understanding of and feeling for the experiential, the actual and the real. Like any addict, I am in love with the fix because it works, it takes instant effect, I am in love with intelligence in any kind of medium, paper or plastic, electronic or 2-D. I got it going at all times of the day, at any given moment: music blasting, computers on, unread magazines scattered about, papers everywhere, artwork by friends and family on the walls and shelves, books piled everywhere, DVDs falling out of a basket by the TV, pictures on my flash drive and on my mind, telephone about to ring… Citified in who knows how many ways, penetrated and infiltrated, I find my only sure means of escape is by walking.
Walking is a form of resistance. You are not encapsulated by the steel vehicles which license your identity, you are not face first in a screen, you are not insulated behind glass, you are not listening to electronic voices beamed into your head. I have so far resisted carrying a cell phone precisely because then there’s no escape if you carry the various sorts of media accessible via the little screen in your pocket. Everywhere you go in an urban space, drivers are texting, drivers erratically proceed with phones clasped against their heads, people are trying to focus on buttons to punch, strollers advance oblivious to the day, verbalizing and spouting forth in the air, preoccupied persons are driven compulsively to check their cell phones at every opportunity for the next psychosocial twittering or voicemail to tell them what to think or to do. After a lifetime of resisting being a drone, I continue to resist being told what to do every hour, every minute, by little messages, by gangs of associates or random acquaintances, by people I already owe so much to, by my peers and by my betters, I am resisting final inroads into those last places where I actually am forced to reflect and think on my own experience and originate thought, as it happens, on walks.
My sister Hannah and her husband Dave run Smallhouse Art Glass in Northern California where he makes art glass vases, bowls and art objects including squids and frogs that are sold at galleries and places like the Long Beach aquarium. They brought their sons, Marcus and Caius, to visit L.A. and had already been to Disneyland and the Norton Simon Museum, took in the L.A. Philharmonic production of Porgy and Bess at the Hollywood Bowl, went to the Alhambra cineplex for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as well as the Griffith Park Observatory where they saw myriad exhibits where they could press buttons to find out their weight on each planet of the solar system while simultaneously watching videos taken by space probes to distant planets and moons in outer space, as well as reclined on plush seats in the planetarium to view a digital laser program on astronomy, “Centered in the Universe,” projected against the inside of the great dome by “the most sophisticated star projector in the world, the Zeiss Universitarium Mark IX,” and had reservations (which I made for them on-line because my mother refuses to own a computer) for “Pompei and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples” at the L.A. County Museum of Art. In short, they were getting the pre-programmed and mediated version of experience of place which is produced for tourists everywhere (and so in that way homogenized, Disneyfied), with on-line reservations and computers and cell phones telling them where and when to go. However, Los Angeles is my home town and I believe after a lifetime of resisting capitalist ideological programming, consumerist dogma and my own preconceptions that it was my duty to treat them to some alternative to that experience, a Los Angeles you cannot purchase, undelivered in digital formats, not preserved behind glass, not virtual, instead—actually, strangely, real.
In short, I suggested we go on a walk.
I know, practically unheard of in Los Angeles, slightly impractical in the 90 degree heat of July days, and—coming in at five to ten miles—more of a hike than a stroll. But, “real” in a way the touch-screen can’t touch. Unheard of, impractical, subversive—sun blasted streets, tarry pavements and long sidewalks, buildings and distinct neighborhoods, traffic and crowds, the real L.A. The Smallhouse family could bring their cell phones and digital cameras, but I was confident the actual city would render the virtual Matrix wholly secondary, subsidiary, derivative, an afterthought.
We left the van behind, parked a couple blocks from the Mission Street Gold Line station in South Pasadena—a couple blocks away because 2 and 3 hour parking zones aren’t sufficient for a walk that might take most of the day, given that my group of hikers might need to rest, might slow toward the end. Gold Line tickets are $1.25 one way, and even with a party of five, this is cheaper than all day parking in a downtown lot. Besides, it made us all pedestrians as soon as we took seats on the train and it left the platform. Escaping your own car is the necessary first prerequisite.
It feels old-fashioned, taking the Gold Line light rail into downtown Los Angeles. Like the red car trolleys and trains of the early 20th century, the Gold line follows an older route through Highland Park down the middle of Marmion Way, a residential street a block off Figueroa, where driveways open onto the street used by the train, where children bike and people stroll. Dave happened to be wearing a T-shirt featuring a block print image by Artemio Rodriguez, which I’d purchased at the Avenue 50 Gallery and I pointed out the gallery as the train scooted alongside it. At Marmion and Museum Way, the train stops at the Southwest Museum station—and I remarked on surviving century old Victorian houses hidden amidst palm trees and stucco box apartment blocks on the way and the “Casa de Adobe,” a 1920s reconstruction of an 1850s Californio adobe. A gray haired gent wearing a white plastic hard hat and a student’s backpack volunteered his own information, jumping into the conversation.
When Dave responded to the announcement, “Next stop, Chinatown,” by admitting he’d never seen L.A. Chinatown, I decided to add another mile or so onto our hike by getting off at the new Chinatown Station. Downstairs to the street shining in summer heat, across College into a two story maze of junk, trinket and dry goods stalls, a rats warren of a market, endless baubles and knick knacks for sale, from pots and pans to plastic AK-47s “in case you want to get shot by police,” knock-off clothing and souvenir T-shirts for $2 each. Stacks of T-shirts with Michael Jackson or “Hollywood,” on them, “Lakers,” or I love San Francisco,” “I Love Los Angeles,” “California,” or “I [heart] NY.” Mickey Mouse steering wheel covers ($8) and live turtles ($5). My party began enjoying shopping, and I didn’t even have to mention that some stalls in this market sold the most potent (if illegal) insecticide chalk. We went east across Broadway by the stone lions at doorways to various “benevolent association” headquarters, and walked through the Chinese gate to the Central Plaza and Gin Ling Way, which I suggested they’d recognize if they visualized it in movies or car commercials, sprayed with water and diffused at night by steam or smoke, the bad guys entering from one end and advancing on the protagonists. This late summer morning, Chinese dudes sat on folding chairs under big umbrellas in the plaza hunched over board games. Across from the Mountain Bar, part of the new Chinatown scene with literary readings and a hipster crowd, I handed out pennies to toss into the fortune fountain, with its waters splashing on cups marked “LUCK,” “MONEY,” HEALTH,” “indecipherable,” etc., and although all five of us tried pitching pennies at every cup in sight, none of us made a penny into any—perhaps because we already have all we need?
Across Hill to Chun King Road, I showed them the new Gallery row where “people from the west side” (read: white) bought out failing or dusty old mom and pop junk stores and trinket shops and remodeled them into new art galleries—gentrification if you want to call it that, but one that brings a new generation of people, customers, cash, new energy and new life into the neighborhood. Little Asian girls pushed their scooters up and down the otherwise quiet and empty Chun King Road. The art crowd doesn’t show up until the evenings, and till then the neighborhood is still full of multigenerational Vietnamese and Chinese families. We peeked into a couple galleries, then I led the group through a greasy back alley where the Calarts crowd converges in a basement called Betalevel for readings and music, down College and across Alameda to Homeboy Industries Headquarters, where we lunched at the Homegirl Cafe.
Patricia Zarate, her white hair short, who started Homegirl Cafe a couple incarnations back in the direction of Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights was chatting with friends at the next table, but I don’t think that’s why service was particularly good. Some days are just good days for the homegirls cooking up a storm behind the counter and for us, chowing down on their sandwiches and tacos, nine kinds of tacos like beef tinga with pickled onion, carnitas with minced green apple, celantro green turkey chorizo. Hannah bought a chocolate brown (cream-colored lettering: Homegirl) T-shirt in the souvenir shop (next to the full bakery case) for one of her Chicana activist friends. The waiting room in the bottom floor of Homeboy Industries was full of restless black and brown street encrypted youths, waiting for referrals and counseling, working their way of out that life.
A block west we walked in the rear door of Phillipe’s Original French Dipped Sandwiches, just to give them a glimpse of the next luncheon choice up the street, with the crowd lined before the counter where countergirls in their aprons carve the meat and the long tables stand amid sawdust scattered on the cement floor. Old school! I pointed out to the boys the row of telephone booths along the wall near the cigarette stand: “You may not recognize these things, and this may be your last chance to see them. Check them out. They are called telephone booths and they were once common across the United States.” Caius stepped into one ands his mother snapped a shot of him holding the telephone to his head. Marcus stepped into one and his mother snapped a shot of him holding his cell phone to an ear.
Westering, across Cesar Chavez at Alameda (kitty-corner to Terminal Annex Post Office, which offered 24 hour postal service for generations but no longer, and across the street from a particularly ugly heap of new “luxury condos” which block out the 1939 Union Station “colonial revival” train station), we worked our way up Olvera Street, that tourist trap which previously had featured as the rundown empty setting for street scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 short, “The Kid” (according to wikipedia), and was officially renovated in 1930 as a civic and commercial project by a woman named Christine Sterling, with the backing of Harry Chandler of the L.A. Times. Marcus located a Betty Boop belt buckle to his liking in one of the stalls and Caius tried out two plastic pistols, one in each hand, which when the trigger was pulled, played music and spun either a revolving basketball or baseball on the muzzle, which as the music played, opened to reveal a spinning basketball player or baseball player. Certainly I regret that I did not buy one of those pistols now! Sometimes objects of great value look like the purest trash.
We crossed the placita by the mission-era 1861 chapel under the great ficus trees, crossed over the 101 freeway with its bumper to bumper northboard traffic crawling at perhaps ten miles an hour (several hours later when we returned, the traffic was exactly the same) and I suggested that we must wave at the traffic and laugh, and walked past the Federal court house to try to enter City Hall for a look around (“Mayor Villaraigosa grew up in City Terrace, too, you know, but he did not answer my letter asking what the old address for his childhood home had been. He must have bitter memories…”). The guards at the door with their metal detectors and X-ray machine rejected us because Dave carries a big folding knife. So we went outside and Dave stashed the knife in the shrubbery and we went back inside and took the elevators, three of them in succession, up to the top of the building. At the 27th floor you can climb the stairs past a bronze bust of Tom Bradley (his predecessor, Republican Sam Yorty, called Bradley a communist during the campaign), to the large empty Tom Bradley room, a big meeting or banquet hall with an immense high ceiling and windows all around. The room was full of tables and chairs with a podium and microphone at the front of the room, where I improvised a short speech welcoming everyone to City Hall. In fact, as we (skittishly, some of us) went outdoors on the walkway outside that runs around each side of the building and you can stand in the breeze at the railing and look out over the smoggy city in four directions, we were the only visitors to the top of the building the entire time we were there, except for one young office worker with her city hall ID badge pinned to her blouse, who apparently was looking for a quiet, private place to smoke. We circled the building a couple times while I pointed out landmarks such as Dodger Stadium, General Hospital and the El Sereno hills to the east, the Disney Opera Hall atop Bunker Hill to the north, and architect Thom Mayne’s futuristic steel-skinned Caltrans Building and the old L.A. Times building to the west. Hannah took digital pictures of the views in all directions.
Continuing north from City Hall, we crossed the lawn in welcome ficus shade of muggy summer, strolled past the Rockefeller plaza-stolid facade of the 1935 L.A.Times building with fascist-style eagles flanking the front doorway, and the words “Truth/ Liberty Under the Law” on the one side, “Equal Rights/ True Industrial Freedom,” on the other. I commented that for the original owner Otis Chandler, like the Rockefellers, that meant no unions for workers, selling out to the Chicago Tribune, massive lay-offs and eventual bankruptcy for the newspaper. We hiked First Street uphill to the Disney Opera Hall, which Dave admired for Frank Gehry’s sculptural extravagance in stainless steel. The front doors were locked, so we went round the back to the garden, which was full of groups of foreign teenage tourists lounging, posing, shooting photos. We strolled through the crowd of kids speaking Hebrew or Greek or Hungarian, down the steps on the other side of the building, and out along Grand Avenue, in the shadows of immense bank skyscrapers and tall condo towers. The skyscrapers towering above MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art and California Plaza cause a wind tunnel effect, which on a blazing hot day is nice enough. Dave stepped to corner of the severe sharp edge of the blade-like Wells Fargo bank building, sheathed in chocolate granite, and looked straight up.
Crossed to Hope, and down the Library (or Bunker Hill) Steps (Hannah shot the Robert Graham female nude statue atop the fountain that squirts the cascade that runs down the center of the steps)—across West 5th, and into the bustling Central Library where Charles Bukowski discovered the work of John Fante, and Fante did important work as well as Carlos Bulosan, and then some pyro-arsonist set it on fire in 1986. We escalated up to the balcony at the top of the great eight story atrium, where everyone could use the restrooms and get a drink of cold water, not to mention cool off and enjoy the terrific air conditioning after walking all the way from Chinatown. I mentioned I ran a writing workshop out of the library once for six months. We looked at the library visitors, most of them young, all kinds, really, scruffy and studious, business-like and wild, going about their intellectual duties. I noted there were art exhibits (usually photography, this time by Paul Outerbridge) to see in the galleries in the building. A quick perusal of the gift shop off the central foyer, and we were off again south on 5th Street, alongside the Biltmore Hotel, which I couldn’t recognize from the back when Dave asked me what it was, down to the once dull and sun-stricken and full of winos but now terribly ugly (after remodeling) Pershing Square, full of people getting on the bus, businessmen, tourists, citizens of the city, citizens of the day. Young tourists, students, hurried all about downtown, maps or guidebooks or cameras in hand, talking quizzically about where they might be going, I’m sure. French, Korean, German or Dutch, all young, traipsing around with their lives in their hands, having adventures. I glanced at them going by with envy as we crossed from street corners. Did the weather-beaten and torn up alcoholics strewn along the benches at the base of Bunker Hill register us in the same way? People with their lives in hand, rushing about through the broad daylight, doing whatever they wished, free?
At Pershing Square (5th & Hill) they installed an Automated Public Toilet for $250,000, which resembles a green oblong tube sticking out of the ground like an ornate green steamship smokestack, and I saw a homeless guy enter to use it, urinating as the door rotated closed behind him. The Downtown News notes, “Each APT’s oval-shaped kiosk contains a small toilet and a sink. After every use, the door shuts and the toilet retracts into a behind-the-scenes cleaning area, where it is pressure-washed, disinfected and dried. Meanwhile, the unit’s floor and sink are pressurized with water and drained. The toilet bowl swings back around and is ready for use again within minutes. While some APTs cost 25 cents per use, the Skid Row facilities are free.” Nearby, two bicycle mounted cops wearing shorts and bike helmets listened to a homeless man.
Crossing Hill, below the immobilized Angel’s Flight Funicular draped in orange industrial netting and closed down in 2001 after it malfunctioned, crashed, killing an elderly tourist, we always look at the funicular wistfully because Dolores first lived in tenements on Bunker Hill when she came from Mexico, and took the funicular in its previous location, when Bunker Hill was actually a much taller hill full of old SRO old men’s hotels. That was the ghost city I recall from my father’s time, when we would visit him and he lived in furnished rooms in buildings which announced, in paint peeling off the brick, “hot water, shower and bath, fully furnished” or “rooms $10, monthly rates.” The current old folks residential towers and luxury condos on Bunker Hill bear no relation, except to evoke ghosts. For stories of that Bunker Hill neighborhood life, see John Fante’s stories and his 1939 novel, Ask the Dust. Across Hill we entered Grand Central Market, straight to the juice bar with its metal juice machine which has served all kinds of juice from carrot to pomegranate, from cherry to garlic, from celery to strawberry, for generations. I had pomegranate, Caius a cherry smoothie, Marcus a frozen coffee drink, and Dave a root beer float.
Of course into the market (dating to 1917), concrete floor strewn with sawdust, neon lights glowing in the dim piping and ducts of the high ceiling over the produce, confection, and cooked food stalls. Voices and street sounds reverberating inside the deepness of the open building from Hill Street to Broadway. The stalls have changed a lot over the years, and now, clearly, Centroamericanos and Mexicanos have made the market largely their own, with a few others, Koreans selling fried food, Chinese women waiting beside their massage tables, practically asleep under a big banner, “CHINESE MASSAGE.” There’s a 99 Cents store in the basement. I’ve never wandered through the whole establishment. It was one of those places our parents frequented. Dolores’s dad figured it was his duty as a Mexicano to barter with the vendors, arguing about the price, quality and worth of their produce. He used to bring home wilted, crummy old vegetables, proud he’d stood up to the cheap vendors; they couldn’t cheat him! Nowadays you can get a whole fried fish with some rice or French fries for a couple dollars, but who knows how long those fish sit under the overhead lamps. There’s gotta be some good eateries in all those stalls somewhere.
“The Million Dollar Movie Theater,” one of the big empty movie theaters on Broadway is next door; dad took us to see movies here when we were kids and he was living in an empty storefront on Wabash, years after he and mom had split up and he was in town from Central America or the merchant marine—maybe this theater was one my grandmother played keyboard or organ in as a teenager during silent movies, her job was to perform the soundtrack on sheet music, before she married my grandfather and they moved to the Bay Area because he (Long Beach chief of police) thought L.A. was “too dangerous” in the 1920s. They had lived in South Central when it was all white. Ah, what Los Angeles was that? Typically, no teenagers are interested at all in this type of information, but I feel bound to point out these traces of their ancestors as we go down the sidewalk. Cross Broadway at 3rd, I held open the door to the Bradbury Building, so they can check out the wrought iron grillwork, the 1893 architecture in the five story atrium lit by the skylight they’ve seen in numerous movies like Chinatown and Blade Runner, those movies most emblematic of the city. We can’t play in the two elevators, kids in one, adults in the other, chasing each other up and down the floors; the security would kick us out, the upper floors are LAPD Offices of Internal Affairs. It was all pretty quiet on a Thursday afternoon. The Smallhouses located a life-size bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin on a bench at the other entrance to the building and snapped pictures beside him. “Why is that here?” Marcus asked.
There is no why.
Outside, with a cop looking the other way, the teenagers and I ran across 3rd nto the parking lot and stood directly underneath one of the best murals in L.A., “the Pope of Broadway,” Eloy Torrez’s 8 story tall portrait of Anthony Quinn on the side of the Victor Clothing Company. I’d never seen the mural up this close before. We could touch his shoes. Up close, the brush strokes were wild and energetic. I could see the paint was peeling and sun-faded. Next to it, partially hidden by another brick commercial building from the previous century, appeared a mural of a flying horseman by Frank Romero that reminded me of the expressionist style of Carlos Almaraz. He was a terrific painter who died of AIDS in 1989, and Romero’s mural is ghostly, stripped and blasted by the weather of decades, almost entirely faded and gone. With their mom taking photos of us from the other side of 3rd street, the boys didn’t notice this secret mural; it’s just another ghost I saw from the corner of my eye—there’s one almost everywhere I look.
Down 3rd, left on Main Street, past the alley where the entrance to the Smell is located (where I had to park outside, waiting to pick up my daughter and her teen friends in the middle of the night), to the corner of 2nd (Santa Vibiana’s where Dolores went to Catholic school when she lived on Bunker Hill, now it’s been sold to a private developer, who will turn the church into a party or banquet hall), 2nd to Los Angeles Street where we crossed to the New Otani Hotel, enjoying the blast of air conditioning in the ritzy huge lobby with its grand piano and eateries, I held the door to the elevator for them. I took them out on the 4th floor garden level, but it’s been ruined—it used to be quiet little oasis of a Japanese garden several floors above the pavement and street noise, but the garden’s been taken over by restaurants, which set tables and chairs on the grass, lounge chairs and speaker systems on the pathways, and instead of the babbling brook only there’s lame disco lounge music. We walked through Little Tokyo down 2nd Street (we’ve been through here so many times and it’s so old now that it feels like “our town”), and the Japanese American National Museum was having a Thursday free day, but the kids were burnt out on museums so we skipped it, besides the famous Kogi Korean barbecue taco truck isn’t around so there’s less incentive. We strolled through the pedestrian alley behind the East West Theater, which used to be Union Church where they sent us when we were kids for our Christianity and Japanese Americanization, before we returned to East L.A. I still remember the old lady clothing rack and toiletries smell of that old church.
Nobody stops at the ugly monument to the 442nd World War 2 all JA regiment (anyway it’s not the ugliest war memorial around, we’ve seen worse) as we moved east along Alameda, fire engines spinning their light bars in front of the U.S. Metro Detention Center “downtown Hilton” jail whose tiny windows never open. Crossing over the 101 freeway (bumper to bumper traffic still, hours later), we strode through the high-ceilinged hall of Union Station, with the tables of the upscale restaurant Traxx cordoned off on the left and the postcard rack at the snack stand and people enjoying drinks at the bar to the right, and all kinds of travelers resting in the great old comfortable leather seats in the great space and golden afternoon light. The crowd was streaming through, lines waiting for Amtrak trains, but we headed upstairs to the Gold Line, jumping aboard the last car and zooming in snaky curves all along the Arroyo Seco, standing till we got some seats, and off at Mission Station, where we negotiated the crowd at the South Pasadena farmer’s market, and my sister and her husband picked out peaches and nectarines.
As we walked through the muggy late afternoon light of a summer’s day, toward the vehicle and other machines we would shortly wire or otherwise attach to our selves, we had weariness in our toes, we had perspiration in the fine hairs of the skin, we had peaches, plums and nectarines, we had the day away in the real L.A.—not to mention the ghost city of the past and all the ghosts we might conversate with on street corners tangential to the moment.
About the Author: Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 25 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. One of his last readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project NYC is Mp3 archived at www.salon.com and local readings are archived at www.sicklyseason.com. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo and other writers on the website, www.ELAguide.org. His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and World Ball Notebook (City Lights).