Friday, July 15, 2011

Carmageddon: Christmas in July

First, there were President Obama's visits. Traffic got snarled everywhere he went. And it was bad.

Then, over the weekend, Prince William and his new wife visited Los Angeles. Again, clogged traffic accompanied their every move. And it, too, was bad.

But what's happening this weekend is unprecedented.

In case you've only been following real news (wherever that exists nowadays), the 405 freeway will be closed over the Santa Monica Mountains this weekend for bridge repair. It is not just our busiest freeway. It is the busiest freeway in the entire country. It is so vital for our ability to get up and down L.A. merely slowly that news of its temporary closure is being broadcast to international travelers who are planning to visit Los Angeles -- even in countries where they do have real news.

The last time the 405 was closed entirely for this long was never. When it opened 50 years ago, we had far fewer cars and people here. Four-lane -- two-lane in some parts -- Sepulveda Boulevard, which parallels the 405 over the mountain pass, had no doubt gotten too clogged for the daily commute. A giant, many-laned freeway was just what we needed.

Naturally, we responded the way we've done before -- and since -- every time we get a new freeway or freeway extension: We overpopulate the shit out of the areas adjacent to it, then use the shit out of it until we complain that it sucks. What makes the 405 different is that is the main artery that connects the two "halves" of Los Angeles: The Valley and The Westside.

For those of you not familiar with Los Angeles, there are other ways to get from The Valley to The Westside. There are also plenty of things to do on a weekend entirely in The Valley and entirely in The Westside without having to visit the other one. There are also other parts of Los Angeles entirely that have nothing to do with The Valley or The Westside. In other words, with a handful of exceptions (emergency response workers and Mountaingate residents have already expressed outrage), many people spend their weekends doing things that have nothing to do with the 405.

Since inaccessibility to the 405 hasn't happened to us since baby boomers got driver's licenses, we don't know how to react. Naturally, the majority of us cooler-than-cool showbiz hipsters have decided that the best course of action is to shit our pants. The term "Carmageddon" quickly entered everyone's lexicon. People are stocking up on supplies, planning to stay home the entire weekend. Some are already announcing they'll stay indoors the whole time, as if the sunshine itself will be tainted.

The whole thing has gotten so sensationalized that, among other things:

• At least one local TV station will provide live coverage throughout the weekend
• JetBlue offered flights between Burbank and Long Beach, which may be the shortest commercial flight in American aviation history. (The two available round-trips, which cost $8 per ticket plus taxes and fees, sold out within two hours.)
• To inform drivers in advance, CalTrans has posted electronic highway signs over 500 miles away

Many people, not realizing that you can be just as unaffected at home without going to the trouble of leaving town, will go to the trouble of leaving town. People north of the closure will head north on their available freeways; people south of it will head south on theirs. All of them are detached from the irony that by avoiding one freeway en masse, they'll be hitting others en masse, thus... getting stuck in... gridlock -- which they're ostensibly leaving town to avoid.

Based on all this, it seems like the safest place to be in Los Angeles during Carmageddon is...

Los Angeles.

Inordinate numbers of us will not go outside and inordinate numbers more will leave town. The relative few of us not in those categories have only this to say:

Thank you.

While the 405 closure is unprecedented, the panic it has incited is not. The same irrationality gripped us in 1984 when The Olympics came to town. Rumors of inconceivable overcrowding and 20-mile-radius parking jams flew freely.

They flew as freely as some of us are going to fly around town this weekend.

So go out and enjoy the sales and specials that retailers and restaurateurs are offering because they're afraid no one's going outside. You'll have them to yourself because, well, no one's going outside.

If you stay home all weekend, be sure to check back here for closure-related news as it breaks. In fact, let me save you the suspense and share the news with you now: There isn't any.

And if you misjudge the congestion or lack thereof, fret not. You'll have another chance. The city's going to shut down the same stretch of freeway again in 2012 for the rest of the construction project.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Election of the Century: Midday Update

It's raining here today -- or it's at least drizzly and cold today. Between that and the schumcky choices we have for Community College Board of Trustees, it's almost like God doesn't want us to vote at all.

But my polling place is at a local temple, the house of the chosen people. And I don't want to make a choice.

Just before 10:00 a.m., three hours after the polls had opened, I wandered into this downstairs room at the temple. There were six pollworkers inside, which, coincidentally, was two less than the number of voters who'd come in to vote that morning. (I was all set to take a picture of the desolation, but was quickly told photos were forbidden.)

First I had to look at a map to find out if I lived in the red section of my precinct or the blue section. Then I had to go to the right table to sign in. A nice senior citizen woman flipped through page after unsigned page to find my name. She turned the book around and I signed next to my name. Then I was given a ballot and invited to use any booth.

"Booth" is a charitable word; each one is more like a folding podium with a little contraption where you slide your ballot in until it's snug over two pegs, then you "ink" the bubbles next to the candidates whose names appear in the built-in ballot, the ballot that looks identical to the one we get in the mail. The one with two candidates.

Ink one bubble.

I slid the ballot in. Watched two of the ballot's 336 little circles appear next to Scott Svonkin and Lydia Gutierrez. My ink-a-vote pen still had its cap on.

I pulled my ballot out. Then I pulled two black markers out of my backpack -- a thin one and a thick one. I seriously considered using the thick one to write NEITHER in big letters across the bubbles. But that seemed too anti-establishment. After all, this isn't the 1960s.

During all this, I kept waiting for some pollworker to come up to me and ask me if I had a problem, since it was taking me so long to pick one person. But they were absorbed in a conversation. One worker, an authoritative-sounding type who seemed to be a pollworking veteran, was on the phone with a pollworker (yes, apparently SEVEN people were scheduled to be there) who said she was going to be late. The veteran told her not to bother coming since they didn't need the help.

"Who was that?" asked one man.

"[Name] who worked here before," said the veteran.

"Who's that?"

"Big black woman."

"Oh, yeah. Her."

Then she came over to tell the assembled workers the whole story about how [name] was a notorious flake. A college girl got up from her history book and passed by me to do something. She didn't ask if I was having a problem.

Finally, I stepped up to the table and asked, "What do I do if I don't want to vote for either of these people?" The senior citizen looked up from her paperback and laughed.

The veteran told me I could write "neither" in the write-in section of the ballot.

So I whipped out my Sharpie and did just that.

"Black marker. That's bold," said the man.

I gotta be me.

Then the veteran told me to tear off the top. I tore at the wrong perforation, which caused at least two pollworkers to shriek.

I ruined my ballot.

I asked for another ballot; they said that wouldn't be necessary. "Gee, don't tell me my 'neither' vote isn't going to count."

"No, no," said the veteran. "We put the whole thing into that white bin, where the write-in ballots go."

Then at the door,  I ended up chatting with the whole room for a moment. I found out a couple of tidbits. First off, we're having another election in June.


The reason they couldn't combine this election with the next one is because runoffs, by rule, must be held within a maximum number of days after the general election that caused them. Folding this election into the June election would violate that.

As we soaked in the disgust of that one, the election veteran said they'd be lucky to get 25 voters today. They indulged my request to see how many registered voters were listed in their rolls for this precinct. About 3,900.

In other words, the pollworker's educated guess projected a voter turnout of about two-thirds of one percent.

And this is for a runoff that's at least partly a referendum on wasteful spending.

The Election of the Century, Part 4: My Endorsement

This is becoming clearer.

For a guy whom others claim is a jerk, Scott Svonkin has an awful lot of support. People with names like David Allgood and Sweet Alice Harris must know something about Svonkin that I don't know. Apparently, I'll never know. They didn't reply to my email.

Then there was the city's League of Conservation Voters. Their own website goes into some detail about how to get an endorsement from them. So I emailed their president, asking him why he endorsed Svonkin and if Svonkin had to run the LALCV's endorsement gauntlet. Never heard back.

One of Svonkin's alleged supporters is Matt Stadtler, a fellow school board member who helped remove Svonkin from his role as vice president of the Board. I emailed him to ask him if he still endorses Svonkin. Never heard back from him, either.

Hardly anyone got back to me. And I must have emailed 40 people. Maybe I should have emailed asking for an actual endorsement. From the looks of Svonkin's website, they're not hard to get.

I got exactly two responses. One was from an influential Realtor who said he's known Svonkin for 20 years and that he'd been very helpful to him while he (Svonkin) was working for Sheriff Lee Baca and City Councilman Paul Koretz. The other reply was from my very own rep on the County Board of Supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky. (Good ol' Zev seems to have time for everything and everyone. He should make a good mayor someday.) Yaroslavsky's known Svonkin for over 20 years, calls him "able and committed," and that's no doubt part of the reason why he appointed him to the L.A. County Insurance Commission, where he's "served with distinction."

Okay, so Svonkin's one helluva guy. Or maybe he's complex. I don't doubt these testimonials, but still, they don't address the criticisms of Svonkin that I found in the LA Weekly articles. The articles had dozens of follow-up comments from Svonkin supporters, some trashing the Weekly for muckraking, some accusing the paper of showing its anti-union bias, and some suggesting the reporter was an intern. But none of them claimed the stories were untrue. In fact, I found only one source to refute the critcisms.

Scott Svonkin.

In an article on the website for the California Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Svonkin goes point by point on every one of the Weekly's attacks, flatly denying all of them. His biggest admissions are that he's not perfect and that he's chubby.



Some say he's a jerk; some say he's a swell guy. One reporter cites his fiscal irresponsibility; he denies it.


Still hates gay people.


Gee, what swell choices.

On the one hand, I don't want an imperfect chubby guy wasting bond money, which his alliances and history suggest he'll do. On the other hand, I don't want a gay-hater developing policy and approving strategy at our community colleges -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have a civic duty to vote, but whom do you pick when you don't like anyone?

I have a standing rule for all elections: Never vote for an incumbent. It only encourages them.

But neither candidate is an incumbent.

I got it. A write-in candidate!

Nope. This is a runoff. We have two choices. That's it.

So what's the answer?

There are two answers.

The first answer is to go to your polling place and follow your conscience. My conscience is yelling at me to write "NEITHER" on the ballot with a thick black marker. A smelly one.

The second answer is to vote two months ago when we had a bunch of other choices, thus keeping these two out of contention.

We're going to blow it today. Next time you see a community college student, apologize to them.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Election of the Century, Part 3

Okay, so I checked out Scott Svonkin, the first-place finisher in the battle for Community College Board, Trustee Number Five, in the last post. Claims to be big on fiscal oversight, evidence to the contrary; a number of witnesses have stepped forward to say he's a douchebag. Got it.

Time for some attention to be paid to the second-place finisher, Lydia Gutierrez.

Long history working in education, L.A. roots go back generations, yadda yadda. Very nice. And a buttload of endorsements. My God, this woman has more endorsements than Scott Svonkin. First on her list? Sharon Nolan of the Abalone Cove Landslide Abatement District. I don't believe it. She's playing the Abalone Cove Landslide Abatement District card right up front. This Gutierrez woman is not fucking around.

She's also got a bunch of officials from San Gabriel. This is not an accident. San Gabriel is Svonkin's stomping ground, where the majority of voters has grown to detest him.

Ah, the ugly business of politics.

But there's something else curious about her list of endorsers. At first I thought it was the lack of big names, but that's not really the issue.

No one has any party affiliation. No "Democrat" or "Republican" or any of their variations appear on her list. Not once. Nor does she mention any party affiliation in her bio. Strange.

What is she? A Whig?

A little Internet sleuthing turned up the truth: She's a Republican. Now, since the Community College Board of Trustees is a non-partisan group, there's no requirement to state party affiliation. Her exclusion of that information is understandable in a liberal place like L.A. I mean, we do elect some Republicans, but not often.

And Republicans are supposed to be big on fiscal responsibility, if I still believe that. And she's largely self-financed her campaign, so she's not beholden to many backers.

This is making sense. I rather like this woman.

Oh, wait. There is one more thing.

She hates homosexuals.

She was a proponent of Proposition 8. That's the one that excluded gay people from an equal chance at the misery of marriage that straight people take for granted.

She also said that the California Teachers' Association's endorsement of a state bill proposing a Harvey Milk Day is "offensive to the families of her students." (To add context, in that very complaint, she did cite that Cesar Chavez has done more for California's working class than Harvey Milk, but failed to mention that we already have a Cesar Chavez Day -- as well as whether or not the CTA endorsed the bill that created it in 2000.)

And last year, the CTA supported a bill that would allow minors to seek mental health assistance without parental consent. The crux of this bill was to help prevent suicides by tormented LGBT teens. (Governor Schwarzenegger mercifully signed it into law.) But guess which family values teacher didn't want to make it easier for suicidally depressed teens to get help?


More research revealed that one of her endorsers, a fellow named Ben Lopez, is a high muckety-muck in the California Republican Assembly. This far-right bunch advocates far more than just lower taxes and free enterprise. Terms like "Creator" and "Judeo-Christian Foundation" and "Holy Scriptures" are right up at the top of their page. After seeing that, I wasn't surprised to read that they believe in the traditional American family, the one-man-one-woman marriage kind. (No word on whether or not they plan to outlaw divorce or take away a woman's right to vote.)

I also wasn't surprised that she doesn't list Ben Lopez as a member of this group, but rather as merely a "Community Activist."


This woman who traveled to Colombia off and on for years to help orphans -- all on her own dime -- discriminates against gay people.

So those are our choices. An attitude case who's so in bed with big labor that it doesn't appear that he'll to anything to curb spending versus a goddamn bigot.

Oh, the ugly business of politics.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Election of the Century, Part 2

I was only joking a little when I went on about the importance of the runoff election for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, but I didn't realize how much I was joking.

The initial shock was over the fact that the registrar's office printed up hundreds of thousands of ballots for an election with only one item. In many districts, there are no other seats up for grabs, nor any propositions, for which Californians have become an international punch line.

So why give a shit?

I was reminded, after doing a little research, that the L.A. Times actually assigned one of its few remaining reporters to uncover the huge amounts of wasteful spending on boondoggle projects at our community colleges in recent years. Notable among them was a science facility at Valley College where some hot water handles were accidentally installed on cold water taps and vice versa, the eye-washing station had dirty water coming out of it, making it useless for eye-washing, and climate control thermostats went haywire, killing some animals in a lab.

In an earlier era, that sort of story would come and go without much thought. But nowadays, since every person, company, and government is broke, money actually means something to people.

Well, that's a good enough reason to vote. Count me in.

Now, what's the difference between these two politicians?

The guy who finished in first place, Scott Svonkin, believes in a bunch of stuff, including protecting taxpayers and "auditing all areas to find savings." This would not explain the fresh story in LA Weekly that told of his insistence that projects not be burdened with financial oversight. One such project was a mammoth solar panel project in the San Gabriel School District, where Svonkin serves as a board member. He insisted that the project would save the district "millions." The school board president refuted his claim, pointing out the mathematical impossibility of reducing an electric bill by millions when they don't spend that much on electricity in the first place.

Svonkin also believes he's an important person. He wishes to be addressed as "the Honorable Scott Svonkin," which already makes him a little douchey. He also believes, if he knows what's on his website, that he's still serving as vice president of the San Gabriel School District, even though he was stripped of that title five months ago. This would make him delusional as well.

He's also got such a long trail of stories of bullying and grandstanding behind him that it's developed into what I'd fairly describe as a reputation. One night during a board meeting, he not only munched on a sandwich in the middle of it, but decided to start shouting at another member mid-chew, food flying everywhere.

Douchey, delusional, and disgusting. Naturally, he's endorsed by every city and state leader in the Democratic party. I mean, EVERY ONE OF THEM: half the California Democrats in Congress, former governor Gray Davis, assemblymen, assemblywomen, state senators, county sheriff, county supervisors, city council members, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Los Angeles County Young Democrats, San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, Young Latino Democrats of the San Fernando Valley, People's Front of Judea, Judean People's Front, you name it. He's also got The Sierra Club, The Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper, and just about every labor union and guild in town.

Strangely absent were the endorsements of any teachers unions.

He's also supported by a long list of individuals, including numerous community leaders, chairmen of local organizations, CEOs of local businesses, and Shelly Levy and Jeff Schwartz, people with no titles at all. I think they should ask Svonkin to address them as "the Honorable," at least.

So how does a purported douchebag get so much endorsing? And does a guy who claims to believe in fiscal oversight fight it when it's demanded?

I intend to find out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Election of the Century

The vote.

It's everything in The United States of America.

Our civic responsibility cannot be quantified.

When an election comes along, we MUST respond.

Ultimately, we have no choice. The alternative is tyranny.



Or get tyranny.

On May 9...

Angelenos will get yet another chance...



This is the the sample ballot we got last week:

They meet twice a month -- along with the occasional emergency meeting.

There are only seven of them.

They are... the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees.

Up for grabs: seat number five.

Since no one received a majority in the March election, the top two finishers are in this runoff.

Two candidates. Only one can win.

Why is this important enough for me to stop in at my local orthodox temple before work on May 9? It's best you just check out their meeting agendas yourself:

Also check out the latest minutes of their March 9 meeting:

This is SO not over.

Not. Fucking. Over.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Restoring America's Pastime in Los Angeles

This was a bad week for baseball in L.A. For starters, the uber-wealthy funsters who run Major League Baseball decided that Dodgers' owner Frank McCourt was so inept at running his own team that they had to step in and relieve him of day-to-day duties. I don't want to say that the Dodger organization has a recent reputation for things going sour, but in a 60 Minutes profile of philanthropist Eli Broad that aired tonight, a driver pulled over and suggested that Broad take over the team. Broad declined. Nobody's that philanthropic.

It hasn't helped matters that McCourt and his ex-wife have been fighting over the team the way angry exes would fight over the kids in a custody battle. Honestly, the team has been so mediocre most of the last 20 years, if I were Jamie McCourt, I would have taken the money instead.

Then in the parking lot on opening day, two guys beat up a fan so badly that he's still in a coma. This is the kind of violence we'd gotten used to when the Raiders were here. Hell, their fans didn't even wait to get out to the parking lot. They started during halftime in the stands. But I don't remember news items of Raider patrons ending up in comas. Regardless of McCourt's degree of blame, it was under his stewardship that family-friendly Dodger Stadium became a sketchy place to visit, which kids of my generation never thought possible. McCourt responded to this tragic news by announcing increased police patrols at the stadium, which is just the kind of thing that makes some of us feel less safe.

On top of which, he recently had to borrow $30 million from Fox News to stop harassing phone calls from his own team's accounts payable department. It is a terrible thing for anyone to go to Fox News for help with anything. The only reasons you do business with Fox News is if you're a Republican trying to run for President or if you're trying to bullshit people into believing that your incredibly unpopular agenda is actually going to help people. But to borrow money from Fox just to meet payroll is, in a word, pathetic.

Plus, why would you have such a gigantic payroll for such a lukewarm team? Other franchises have been just as lousy over recent years on much lower payrolls. And nobody should have problems paying their bills when they charge $15 for parking.

For all that spectacular day-to-day operating, you will be shocked to learn that attendance is down. It is down thanks to people like me. In the last 10 years or so, I've been to about three games. Part of it is because I'm a jaded adult and I don't care about the Dodgers any more than I care about the storylines on soap operas. But McCourt made my decision easier when he jacked up the price of beer to $8.

Why, there are other baseball teams that sell beer for much less money. Like Burroughs High School in Burbank. You can even get it for free if you're a player.

As if our glorious reputation as a baseball town isn't smeared enough, the Burroughs baseball team just mathematically eliminated itself from playoff contention, a .500 season, and next-to-last place. During a recent tournament in Arizona, an assistant coach gave beer to some of the kids. When school officials found out, they canned the whole coaching staff and canceled the rest of the season.

I think the lords of the baseball realm have it backwards on this one. Punish the adults who gave alcohol to minors, but don't punish the players by taking away their entire season -- especially since some of them did nothing wrong.

Now, as for a team that should have their season canceled, that would be the Dodgers. This will:

• Take day-to-day operations out of the hands of Frank McCourt, seeing as how there would be nothing to operate
• Minimize fights in the parking lot
• Reduce the citywide crime of selling beer for $8 (except at trendy bars)
• Free up the police to fight crime elsewhere

It would punish the players, but...

• They're not going to win the World Series again this year, so big whoop
• Attendance is down. Who'd notice?
• Burroughs High School could use a few coaches who aren't enablers. How cool would it be for those kids to have Andre Ethier and Jonathan Broxton coaching their team?

Monday, March 21, 2011


The thing that's awesome about the Huntington Gardens is everything. It's more awesome when you go there to celebrate a friend's birthday -- and awesomer still when that friend has a pass that allows her to bring friends in for free.

We arrived about 10:00 Saturday morning, before it officially opens to the rest of the public. Members can go in early and enjoy the grounds before they let the rabble in. This is, no doubt, the way Henry Huntington wanted it.

Even after the rabble come in, it's still an uncrowded, quiet place to enjoy manicured nature.

We also had reservations for high tea at noon. The back room, where they seat the cool people... not crowded.

I don't think anyone has ever moved to Los Angeles just to be nearer to the Huntington Gardens. But it is one of the reasons people stay.


In the Japanese garden. This photo was taken by a security guard who claimed no less than 26 security personnel worked overnight to keep the property free of campers, vandals, pranksters, and vagabonds. I think he was lying. He had this detached, disinterested subtext that sounded like, "What am I? A goddamn tour guide? Yeah, 26. And the ducks play water polo with pine cones, brainiac."

Ducks waiting for us to offer food or pine cones, no doubt.

Watercress finger sandwiches, salmon canape, and other stuff at high tea.

Patty (the birthday girl and membership-holder) and I on her favorite bench. This was taken about five minutes after us college-educated grown-ups stopped at this quiet, idyllic spot and began goofing off. Note the girl in the background picking up her stuff and leaving.

Stefan and I on Patty's favorite bench.

Amazingly, they did NOT carry this in the bookstore. But they did have an Abe Lincoln 3D picture book. Abe Lincoln in 3D??

I believe people stay in L.A. even for THIS:

Not the art. I mean making fun of art. L.A.'s a great place to make fun of crap. Don't ask me how I know this.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Outside my apartment. This photo was taken on March 10.


"I Am Happy Here"

The dear Dale & Julie had another party last night. Julie celebrated a birthday at the local bowling alley (this time with a murder mystery), complete with buffet and drinks. The food was provided by George, the chef at the bowling alley's coffee shop.

Before you start judging....

The phrase "bowling alley coffee shop" doesn't exactly connote haute cuisine. But you have not eaten at the coffee shop at the Canoga Park Bowl. Chef George is not some parolee flipping frozen burger patties. He makes dishes. And for the party, he brought in lamb, meatballs, Greek salad, hummus & pita bread, and these little slivers of zucchini with some kind of sauce over them. This intrepid reporter was too gluttonous to bother asking what they were. But the whole thing was damn good.

In fact, dare I sound judgmental, it was too good to be bowling alley food.

During one of George's trips into the party room, I called him a wizard to his face and told him he should have a restaurant in Beverly Hills.

He backed away and waved his hands at me like he'd overeaten. "I am happy here."

I mean, isn't that just the damn secret we're all trying to figure out, if we were smart? Getting to the place that makes us happy, not the place where we think we're supposed to go where we'd be happy?

Go to George. Eat his food. Learn from George.

And if I can brag about L.A. for a moment, another satisfied customer in the city known for crushing dreams.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Question on Oscar Day

What was is the best L.A. movie? (I've asked this question in blog form in the past, but got little response.)

For me, I'd say L.A. Story. All the embarrassing things Steve Martin had to say about L.A. were essentially true.

Also, the L.A. sequence in Annie Hall.

And your favorite? I wanna know.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

100th Birthday -- and no cake?

Today, Van Nuys, the unincorporated center of the mostly unincorporated San Fernando Valley, turns 100. Like most 100-year-olds, it looks a little worse for wear.

I wish I could say that I was anticipating this day, but I didn't even realize today was the day until I chanced across this story yesterday:

(Note that the Daily News has it under "Breaking News.")

My opinion: The town's biggest improvement, if the article is correct, is that Van Nuys is no longer a dry town. Could you imagine?

This Saturday, there is apparently a celebration of sorts at the Orange Line stop in Van Nuys, which is just about in the heart of what we called BVN as kids, or Barrio Van Nuys. It says a lot about a neighborhood when its blight is somewhat ameliorated by the presence of government buildings and car dealerships.

In fact, a little research has revealed that the party began six months ago, or was at least scheduled to start then:

For those of you who don't read the press releases, I'm from Van Nuys. Born, raised, and latchkeyed. So this whole 100th birthday should mean something to me. I'm having a spot of trouble finding the excitement. I think that's indicative of one of the facets of L.A.: There definitely is a sense of community among Angelenos, but it takes more work to realize it than it does in other parts of the country.

Or maybe I just don't care about my hometown that much. I mean, I can go home again. Hell, it's only about 10 minutes from my apartment. I suppose the urge to go home has never materialized because I've kind of never left. Also, Van Nuys is still in its economic downstroke; the redevelopment hawks haven't swooped in yet. It won't be cool to visit Van Nuys again for about another decade, I'd guess.

I also can't go home again because it's not home. And I don't mean because my mother moved out of town. I mean because communities, in L.A., anyway, have a temporary quality to them. If the people cycle through Los Angeles as often as it seems, is it any wonder communities here don't feel the same as they did even five years earlier?

Makes me wonder what the next generation is going to think when Van Nuys celebrates its 125th anniversary. "Doesn't feel like home to me -- ever since the guppies (green yuppies) came in and turned the fast-food joints into lofts. The economy turned around, and all those quaint check-cashing legalized-loansharking places went out of business. Hell, the billboards aren't even in Spanish anymore."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jury Duty coda

Another aspect of the courts that works. This came in the mail about a week later.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jury Duty, part three

(If you missed part one and part two, click the links.)

I was actually looking forward to the second day of the trial, namely because I wanted to visit Disney Hall's "hidden park" at lunch. But before I could, I had to endure another morning of Mr. Hart eliciting inane testimony like an armless man steering a laden tugboat.

The plaintiff's absent witness from yesterday showed up for day two of the fun. It was her chiropractor, another Korean woman who was good at offering evasive, meandering answers. It took over an hour for Mr. Hart to get her to tell us that in her medical opinion, the plaintiff was in 7,000 different kinds of pain when she moved her arm, but thanks to her expert application of the chiropractic sciences, the woman was much better now.

A word about the defense counsel. This guy, I liked. He clearly had his shit together: kept his interrogations quick, made his points, never stuck for a question or an answer. And maybe this is all part of Litigation 101, but he kept making faces and inflections that clarified his positions. His unsubtle interrogation of the chiropractor, for instance, implied that since she provided services on a lien basis (i.e., the plaintiff hadn't paid a cent for any of her fifty-one visits), she'd padded the bill so as to collect a fatter cut of the inevitable judgment. "Twenty dollars for applying an ice pack?" followed by a look at the jury with his Whoopi Goldberg face: eyebrows raised, noticeable frown, chin dropped in disapproval. It made me want to be a lawyer. A little. Barely. For a nanosecond.

After a brief confab with the judge, Mr. Hart borrowed a witness from the defense. The witness was the defense: the restaurant manager, a nice Korean man who, after about an hour of testimony, barely told us a goddamn thing that we didn't already know.

At about 11:00 a.m., we were asked to excuse ourselves into the jury room again. By now, some of us, chiefly me, were having a hard time hiding our boredom with the whole thing. Since we weren't allowed to talk about the case, and since we'd already exchanged notes about the morning commute, we were stuck for topics. This may have been the time (we were sent into our chamber so many times that they've since blurred together) when I talked to a juror from Winnipeg. She said it gets so cold there that people have to use block heaters, these special appliances designed to keep car engine blocks warm enough so cars can be started the next morning. Or maybe so engine blocks don't contract to the point of cracking. Either way, it was like real-life science fiction to a boy from Los Angeles.

We moped back in a few minutes later, whereupon the judge began to explain to us a court procedure called a "directed verdict."

I knew what that meant.

As soon as I heard the words, I restrained myself from doing a little fist pump.

A directed verdict is something the judge issues instead of letting a jury decide a case, essentially because the case is so one-sided that no jury with its head out of its own ass could possibly see things any other way. It's like the ten-run rule in little league, where one team is slaughtering the other one so badly that the ump calls it. In this case, the defense was winning by a score of about 29 to zero, because the plaintiff had proven essentially nothing -- at least, nothing the defendant could be held liable for. Judgment for the defendant. The end.

We were thanked for our service and we left. I was so grateful for the no-nonsense way the judge had conducted the whole trial that I decided to send him a thank-you card as soon as I got home. (And I'm gonna. Soon.)

In the jury room as we gathered our things, I forgot to conduct a mini-survey about how we would have ruled if given the chance. But based on the chatter, we did not appear to have our heads up our asses.

In the hallway, Mr. Hart and the defense attorney stood there to soak up whatever feedback they could get from us. I didn't hear much of it because I was too intent on getting some satisfaction out of this whole farce. I'd been harboring the determination to let Mr. Hart know to his face what a clown I thought he was and how this cost me wages and was a waste of taxpayers' dollars and maybe even that he should take up a new line of work.

But I had only remnants of my original outrage. All I said to him was, "No one's happy this woman's injured. But she didn't look where she was going, period. It's a simple case of common sense. I'm sorry, but you had nothing." He stood there, taking it all graciously enough. Even his client stood there with a polite grin on her face. I don't think she knew she'd just lost. Mr. Hart was so nice about it all that I'm not sure he knew he'd just lost. 

In an instant, I no longer cared about exploring downtown. I didn't even care enough to ask if the plaintiff was going to be liable for the defendant's legal bills. I wanted to get back to my life. I stomped out of the building and down the block for the nearest subway car, which I ended up sharing with three other jurors. We exchanged variations on our amazement that Mr. Hart and his client somehow thought they had a chance. One noticed, sadly, that not only had Mr. Hart worn the same suit every day, but his coat was fraying. The conversation made me not want to be a lawyer anymore, not even a little, barely, for a nanosecond.

We seemed to run out of trial crap to talk about just as we were hitting our subway stops. We finally introduced ourselves -- and said our goodbyes.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Wasn't Even Wearing Axe

Jamal: Women will sleep with you if you write a book?
Forrester: Women will sleep with you if you write a bad book.
--Finding Forrester
World traveler, all-around fabulous babe, and mayor of parties' asses, Janice MacLeod has mastered this whole writing thing.

She's written TWO books -- and hers have actually sold a bunch of copies. She's been blogging a helluva lot longer than I have and is better at it than I am. And as for a career as a writer, she's conquered that and recently walked away from it, in search of bigger challenges. (I find that incredibly admirable. My writing career, at present, couldn't afford me a middle-class lifestyle any place nicer than Burundi.)

I don't want to risk babbling, so let me end by saying that yesterday, she honored the shit out of me with this:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day in Los Angeles

I've decided that if I were mayor or Eli Broad or whoever is in charge of Los Angeles, I would make Valentine's Day illegal within city limits.

Nevermind its obligatory aspects; those are universally regarded as repellant. I'd outlaw it because this town is already filled with alienated, lonely singles who are too proud to ask for company today and too mentally ill to ask for help. The last thing they need are public reminders of all the happiness they think they're missing out on today and strongly suspect they won't have tomorrow.

As an alternative, I'd devote 24 hours of public access cable to true-life video clips of couples who are miserable: public fights, recycled news items of celebrity divorces, reruns of Cheaters, all the evidence I can come up with that the grass is sometimes browner on the other side of the fence.

If anyone wanted to celebrate Valentine's Day, they'd have to do it privately, in a certain room, like that one room at parties where people smoke pot.

I'm not saying this out of bitterness. It didn't even occur to me until I checked my facebook page this morning that today is VD. (All these years later, I still take juvenile delight in its initials.) I'm saying this because the isolated misfits of this town need all the help they can get.

I'm also saying this because I'm no longer an isolated misfit. Yes, I'm single, but I'm rather proud of the fact that I'm pretty damn immune from lapsing into the dark side every time there's an invitation.

It'd be easy for me to tell miserable lonelyhearts some witticism like, "The greener the grass, the more fertilizer it's marinating in." But that's bitterness in disguise. Happiness is a state of mind -- whether you're in a relationship or not, whether it's February 14 or not, whether your dreams have come true here or not. For you see, Los Angeles, like money, does not make people happier. Our weather simply makes life easier.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jury Duty, part two

Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

The above line was spoken by John Houseman, playing a law professor in The Paper Chase. He was addressing a student. I think that student was the plaintiff's attorney in the case I was on.

By late afternoon on the jury selection day, the defense attorney was done questioning prospective jurors because he was satisfied with the jury. Mr. Hart was done because he had run out of turns to cast off prospective jurors. The 14 of us were told to show up at 8:45 the next morning. All I could think about was how this goddamn thing better be worth it because every day I was stuck here would cost me a day's pay, save for the daily $15 the city so magnanimously offers jurors.

The next morning, we were treated to the story of the case: A woman tripped in a restaurant in Koreatown and was suing the restaurant owner for medical bills, pain, suffering, misery, anguish, humiliation, croup, colic, bad hair days, a burning sensation during urination, the war in Iraq, and anything else she and her ambulance chaser could think of. She claimed it was due to unsafe conditions in the restaurant. We all knew it wasn't. We all knew it wasn't because there was surveillance video of the event, which they played in court. It showed that a corner of a rubber mat accidentally got turned over, she didn't look where she was going, she stuck her foot under it, and took a header onto a wooden chair. While we felt bad for the woman, we would have felt worse if her own adult daughter hadn't been the one who accidentally flipped the mat over just a few seconds earlier.

We also would have felt worse for the woman if she weren't such a pain in the ass. Right after the opening statements, she took the stand, and her lawyer asked her how she was doing. She pointed to the defense attorney and said, "I'm still shaking over those rotten things he just said about me." She admitted she'd been to the restaurant about 50 times in the past, but on the night in question, it was the first time she'd sat at that particular table, as if that made a difference. When the video was played in court for all of us to see, she said that the fact that the mat wasn't perfectly aligned like the others contributed to her fall, clumsily tacking on that bit of keen analysis as if it had just occurred to her. Her version also included spilled liquid on the floor and maybe poor lighting conditions. But it had nothing to do with her not looking where the hell she was going.

Mr. Hart wasted a hell of a lot of time asking about all the pain she was in. This was compounded by the fact that she was Korean and needed an interpreter, making every question and answer take twice as long. They took even longer because she wouldn't answer questions directly, which the judge had no way of realizing because her ramblings were in Korean. (The judge did cut her ramblings off more promptly, however, when she'd been asked a yes-or-no question.) They took even longer still because her lawyer didn't know how to phrase a question. The defense attorney objected literally every other time Mr. Hart tried to formulate a question: "calls for speculation," "hearsay," "hypothetical," and so on. The judge sustained almost all of the objections. Then Mr. Hart would rephrase and make the same mistake. Objection. Sustained. Sometimes, it'd take him three or four tries to get a question right.

Mr. Hart didn't even know when he could object. At one point, after the defense attorney asked a witness an objectionable question, there was a pause, and the judge looked at Mr. Hart and asked, "You gonna let that go?"

Sometime after lunch, the plaintiff's daughter took the stand. All she succeeded in doing was admitting to the defense attorney that her mother could have looked where she was going.

At about 3:00, Mr. Hart's last witness wasn't available, so in the interest of time, all parties agreed to let the defense begin its case. He called a rep from the company that rented the rubber mats to the restaurant owner. "Yes." "No." "Yes." "No." The best witness I've ever seen in my life. He was in and out in 15 minutes, cross-examination and everything. I speak for the entire jury when I say that we wanted to run up and kiss the guy.


Our city's downtown is textured and layered and rich, and I talk about exploring it like most people talk about exercise: We don't do it enough. Being forced to show up downtown indefinitely under threat of arrest by the sheriff's department, I figured I'd make the best of it. During lunch, I used my free court-issued-in-lieu-of-mileage-allowance rail pass to go one stop northeast to Union Station, whose architecture rivals that of any in the country. It's the 1930s all over again in there. The chairs are these capacious, wood-and-leather affairs, reeking of old money's den. The interior design remains uncorrupted except for a few modern food stands and rail timetables. It's the kind of place that you'd want to arrive in when arriving in Los Angeles for the first time. In fact, if you've never been to L.A. before, might I recommend flying to Ontario or San Diego, then taking the train the rest of the way. Union Station makes our international airport seem like Ellis Island, minus the hope.

I wandered two blocks up Alameda Street to Philippe, the Original French Dip sandwich place, which has been in business since 1908, which is the Pleistocene as far as Angelenos are concerned. The portions aren't as I remember them, and the prices aren't what they used to be, except for coffee, which has been nine cents a cup since 1977. (Decaf is 60 cents. Go figure.) Even though I was only making $15 a day, I splurged on a seven-dollar lunch: beef sandwich with sweet dill pickle and pickled egg. Then I scarfed it on one of the benches in one of the doorless chambers upstairs, walls and flooring reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Couldn't eat here every day, but I'd take it over a chain restaurant any day.

The walk between Union Station and Philippe is not a throwback to anything. It is hot and dirty, clogged with cars, victims of signals that are impossible to synchronize in these parts. A DASH bus stopped by. I considered improvising my way back to the courthouse by jumping on the bus and figuring out where to get off later. But a flock of tourists jumped on and filled it. I took the train back and arrived outside the locked courtroom door with half an hour to spare, the afternoon of aforementioned thrills still to come.

The halls of superior court are clean but undecorated since at least the 1960s, an interactive museum of hard-boiled civics. The benches are hard, featureless, simple things. Half the drinking fountains don't work. Still mid-lunch, few people were walking around. It took me a while to realize what I found so strange about it all: It's the first place I've been in a long time where I've had to wait that didn't have a television. Maybe it's an elementary observation, but the exclusion of TV and all other things unrelated to the business of justice gave me a sense of peace. All trial business happened behind thick doors, never in the hallways, and any potential tension my role entailed hadn't manifested. This made the antiseptic hallways of superior court relaxing -- and comforting, knowing that my city's court was uncorrupted, at least outwardly, by commerce and its related postmodern crassness. For all its distasteful elements, court appears to be working.

My thoughts were not placed, however, on how swiftly justice's engine could turn.

Next: the verdict.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Jury Duty, part one

(My first instinct was to make a play on the word "duty" with "doodie," even though actual poo is no part of this story. Just so you know what kind of writer you're investing your time with here.)

The groans of anguish that are emitted when one gets a jury duty summons aren't unique to L.A. Although, I remember reading an article years ago that in-the-know celebrities could call a certain number and weasel out of service. I believe that practice has been eliminated. A crude google sweep shows a few who've had to serve recently.

I had to show in October, but when the jury pool clerk offered forms for people to delay service, I filled one out and gave a flimsy reason just to see if they'd let me out. Sure enough, they did. Perhaps I was hoping that they'd forget to summon me again. But if A-list celebrities can't evade service, marginally successful authors sure as hell can't. I don't know what I was thinking, actually.

Which brings us to last week. After receiving my summons two weeks earlier, I was instructed by a very nice phone prompt to appear at the superior court in downtown L.A. Tuesday morning for possible jury selection. Naturally, I took our subway down there. Traffic to downtown eats ass in the morning, but for $1.50 you can get a ride there in about half an hour and arrive at a station that's about a one-minute walk from court. I hear it cost $300 million per mile to build the subway. If you ask me, it was a goddamn bargain. The 101 freeway between Hollywood and downtown should be shot.

When you arrive at the superior court,  you have to go through a metal detector. And this is civil court, not criminal. Then you go up an escalator and walk about four miles to the jury pool room, where a woman explains the ins and outs of what you are doing there today. I've decided that unloading the same speech every morning to a room full of strangers who don't want to be there is probably worse than any job I've ever had and I wouldn't want it, even with government benefits.

Part of her spiel goes on about how all citizens have a duty to do this, regardless of status. Why, a sitting judge showed up in jury duty just last week, she explained. And on the wall are a grand total of four pictures of celebrities who've served: Harrison Ford, Camryn Manheim, Weird Al Yankovic, and someone else I don't remember. I'm thinking the fourth pic may have been of our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but I may be confused on that count because I was still kind of tired -- and we always see him all the damn time anyway. Angelenos see Antonio Villaraigosa's maniacally happy grin more than Orville Redenbacher, Paul Newman, and the Quaker Oats guy combined.

After a couple of hours, about 30 names were called for the first group to go to a courtroom for possible jury selection. I was one of the 30. We headed up to the fifth floor and were treated to several hours of lawyers asking us questions about frivolous lawsuits, looking where you're going, and rugs with corners that get turned up. But the lawyers were not allowed to mention particulars of the case. Gee, I wondered, what ever in the world could THIS case be about?

The judge admonished potential jurors for trying to get out of service merely by saying they couldn't be impartial if they didn't mean it, and I'm the kind of person who's easily cowed by such things. So when my turn came, I answered some of the earlier questions the lawyers had with as much brutal, one-sided honesty I could engineer: I think we have too many frivolous lawsuits, I think we're a nation full of finger-pointers, I'm a big believer in personal accountability, I look where I'm going, and I have a rug in my bathroom so I don't slip when I step out of the shower. Naturally, the defendant's attorney had no objection to me being on the jury. I figured the plaintiff's attorney would bounce me off if (a) he weren't an idiot, and (b) all the other jurors weren't declaring the same things. I lost on both counts. I was on the jury.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Closing Night

Closing night of a play moves actors deeply, since they are all about emotions in the first place. "It's been glorious." "Will we see each other again soon?" "This has inspired me to do greater things." Truly. Be an actor once, just so you can experience it.

Tonight, friends, is one of those nights. Expressing Motherhood, the show featuring monologues about women raising children, the show I got cast in playing the husband of a woman rapping about motherhood, will turn its lights out tonight. It is going to be stirring and profound and touching and sweet and wonderful.

And I won't be there.

In the days leading up to the show, Susanna, the singer/writer/star of the song/scene, kept making adjustments to the song. Certain lyrics, the actual playback to which we would be singing, a bit of stage business she and I had.... Not many things, but she was having a spot of trouble getting it to a point where she was happy with it. Perfectly understandable. And last Friday night when the show opened, the aforementioned rap song went over like Lenny Bruce in rural Kansas. Susanna missed a couple of lines. And she and her microphone weren't loud enough. And we kinda screwed up the part where she was supposed to kick me in the goodies. I reacted too soon and it looked like she pantomimed kicking me in the chest. And we went first, so maybe the audience wasn't ready.

So that night and well into the next day, Susanna made a brutally honest assessment of what was wrong with the scene and shrewdly decided that the whole husband part wasn't working at all. She called me up at about 4:00 Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before I was supposed to be at the theatre, and gently broke the news to me that my services were no longer needed. I took it well, wished her luck, got off the phone with her, and laughed a little of my ass off.

This means that MY closing night was the night before: last Friday, which was also opening night, which made it economical if nothing else. My experience leading up the moving goodbyes -- after the song tanked -- was as follows. I got off stage and crammed myself into a little L-shaped dressing room with about a dozen other women. The way the theatre is laid out, there wasn't any place else for us to go. And the audience could hear us if we spoke above a whisper, so we had to be very quiet the whole time. For nearly two hours, I had polite, quiet conversations with a few of the mothers in the show. Some of them kept showing each other pictures of their children and complimenting each other on their shoes, while I read in whatever empty chair I could find. At intermission, I thoughtfully sat in one of the far corners of the L with my back to everyone so one of the mothers could pump breast milk.

After the show was over, there was no place for me to change into my street clothes, so I left my black suit on. The moving goodbyes were a couple of "See you tomorrows" and included me verifying the call time for Saturday's show. I waded through lingering audience members, none of whom gave me an obligatory "Nice job." I walked out the front door and went down the street to my car. It was at that moment that I realized I still had my cup on over my privates. I was about to reach in and take it out, but two women were walking down the sidewalk, headed my way. The last thing they needed to see was some guy in the dark on a street in Hollywood cramming his hand down his trousers. So I drove home in my black suit with my cup on.

The next day, after I got relieved of my duties, I emailed the producer to say farewell. She emailed back her thanks for my efforts and informed me that the show had been promoted in one of the community newspapers. Its website had this picture:

You'll notice that in the caption, I'm listed as W. Joe Dungan. The reporter and photographer covered the story during a tech rehearsal. I guess these things happen when you take notes in the dark. (As I write this, on closing night, the paper's website still has this story up -- with this picture and this caption.)

No W. Joe Dungan in the show. No Joe Dungan either. And tonight, during their closing night, they'll be bonding and having emotional episodes. I'll be having grilled cheese sandwiches and soup at a grilled cheese sandwiches and soup party, where I won't get written out after the first course and I won't get kicked in the cubes. But it will still be, in its own way, meaningful.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Kind of an Acting Gig for Kind of an Actor

You've really got to love acting if you're willing to endure its drawbacks, which is why I quit acting permanently (the first time) when I was 27. I had felt like all my self-promotion efforts were descending into expensive drudgery. And back then, most of the plays I ended up in were turkeys anyway. Plus, the discouragement got to me. There is no shortage of people in Los Angeles to tell actors, tacitly or otherwise, that their acting talents mean nothing to them. Another reason I quit was because I thought I was a writer, although there have been no shortage of people who've tried to discourage me of that, either.

And so it is in Los Angeles that if you have any kind of a reputation as an actor -- or even if you don't -- you get offers to act in people's projects. Now, it's one thing if they're making a short film. People making short films need all the help they can get, particularly if they need people to fill the background. In fact, it's kind of what we do out here. In some parts of the country, people help people raise barns. In L.A., people help people make short films.

But appearing in a stage show is something else. It's not an assignment that's handed out lightly.


This Friday, and running for two weekends, a show called Expressing Motherhood opens at a theater in Hollywood. It's a series of scenes and monologues about, well, motherhood. A talented stage veteran named Susanna Brisk is doing a scene in it, and she approached a friend of mine to costar with her. My friend couldn't do it, but for some odd reason, he suggested casting me, and for some odder reason, she did. She'd never seen me perform before, but based on my picture, my friend's recommendation, and my writing, she decided I was perfect for it.

I'm not sure I agree. You see, I'm helping her sing a rap song.

Now, my friend who referred me did not do so by chance; he once wrote and directed a one-man show for me in which I, among other things, sang a rap song. A cappella. But that was different. It had a meter that was easily recognizable even to a musical short-busser like me. This song, this one that I'm learning for the show that opens in just a few days, is a droll parody of an Eminem song that has a rhythm that can't be explained.

During rehearsal on Saturday, Susanna recognized my musical handicap, further divining that I can't even walk like a rapper. So she mercifully cut down my part to include as little singing and walking as necessary. I will spend a lot of the time on stage doing nothing but keeping one hand on my crotch. Anyone who's read my book probably figures I've had plenty of practice at that, but apparently, I still need to work on it.

An assignment taken must be honored, so I've been doing my part. I've been listening to the song repeatedly and have been practicing walking and standing still as if my junk weighed five pounds. I bought a suit -- actually, a black jacket and black pants that sort of match if you're not looking closely -- at a thrift store for ten bucks. And since the scene may involve me getting kicked in the dick, I spent sixteen bucks on a cup and jock strap. I'm not a total idiot.

All told, this should be a good show, and my modest role in it should be fun once I figure out the beat of this song for the four seconds I'm actually singing some of it. Plus, during rehearsal on Saturday, Susanna kept telling me I was perfect for this, despite the fact that I can't do half of what she initially asked for. On the one hand, I'm a damn funny guy. There are only a small minority of people who can do things like walk on stage with their hand over their crotch and get laughs on purpose, and I'm one of those people. On the other hand, Susanna may have just been blowing smoke up my ass. To many actors, getting smoke blown up one's ass is one of the joys of acting, even if some of them won't admit it -- to themselves or anyone else.

As for me, I hadn't had smoke blown up my ass about my acting abilities in a while, and I realized I didn't miss the feeling. Since my early retirement from acting, I have slowly developed a little thing called security. Plus, acting does not make my heart sing anyway, although it does make my heart hum once in a while, so I'm looking forward to this.

Now, if I could only get more people to blow smoke up my ass about my writing.