Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crosswalk Jungle

 Tom Scanlon's terrified of Pittsburgh traffic. Of Pittsburgh drivers and their snarly ways.
  Seattle, San Fran, and even New York get his nod for driver decency but not Pittsburgh.
  Now understandably I'm suspicious of anyone with the same name as a machine politician nominated by Tom Corbett to a district court, but I've lived in all 4 cities mentioned above so lemme give my two cents here.
What's going on is that a generation, dare I say "a class",  of people are coming of age who expect cars to stop.
No matter what.
Crazy huh?
It's their right.
And they're not wrong about that. Legally.
 When you walk into a lane, and....maybe you've got your head down updating your twitter feed, maybe you've just turned up the volume on your headphones, and you're juggling a paypal or a bitcoin account as you switch hands, the fair trade Americano (no milk !) going from left to right, and, with nary a glance to see that the 2000 pound object coming your way is obeying the laws of the land or physics, you amble into the street...when you do that...Maybe there's a better way?
I mean, you're not going to re-spawn.
When I see someone put their life like this into the hands of automotive fate the first word that comes to mind is "Stupidity."
The next is "Entitlement."
A new generation feels like they don't need to look. It's beneath them. It's not their job.
Now we're all glad this gang has chosen Pittsburgh as the next center of a new and righteous economy but when I watch someone cross a street without the slightest acknowledgement that someone else - who could have just spaced out, or passed out, or who might have a job to get to, or a semi's worth of payload to deliver, or who might be late to pick up their kids from school, or who -hey- could be on the way to their virtual coffee shop office in their Prius- just stopped their car in the no-man's land between law and common sense and allowed them to live, something seems kind of off.
It's their right, I know, but it still doesn't seem "right".
I grew up in a city where you agreed mostly that everyone was part of a plan. That everyone in one form or another was "going to work". So if you had a chance NOT to slow them down, not to keep them from getting to whatever work it was they had to do, you took it.
 If you waved a car thru when you could have walked it wasn't a sign that the evils of urbanity had triumphed. It was simple decency.
 There were simple gestures. Take some quick steps getting across the street if 30 cars were waiting for you. Jaywalk whenever, but don't do it into oncoming traffic. Nod at the plumber who held his truck, even if he could have slipped past you. 
You were in it together.
I don't see that now.
 Well I see it in Pittsburgh still, but I certainly don't see it in Seattle or San Fran, and it's even starting to slip away from New York.
  What I see instead is a class of people letting everyone else know that they don't need to be rushed, they don't care if you have to wait, and they don't even have to register your existence, because history's on their side. You and they are not part of the same plan. You have a car, they have to mind their carbon footprint. You make a wage, they make content. You're post industrial and they're posting, as you hit the brakes. 
 I know that cars are bad. I know more people should walk or ride bikes and that everyone would feel better about themselves and the world if they moved thru it more slowly. Sure, ban cars from Manhattan. From Inner City San Fran. Tax every company that uses heavy trucking and that consequently bankrupts the ability of small municipalities to do anything BUT fix their roads. Require all parking structures be permeable concrete or better, raise gas taxes thru the roof (and into the basement tax structure of Europe), eliminate any subsidies to oil companies or to the highway commissions. But until the 80% of the nation, working to prop up these as of yet unreachable goals, feels some benefit from the new economy, take a second and lift your eyes as they pass you on the way to one of the 4 part time jobs their family's juggling. It's called class.
 When you don't. When you assume everyone should have had your education and if they didn't then screw em, it's called arrogance and in Pittsburgh it's kind of not how we do things.
 The average grandmother who's crossing Carson to get to her church on the Slopes, the family of four pushing a Giant Eagle cart across the lot in Homestead, the guys jay walking E Ohio.... when a car stops for them, they nod, they throw a smile, they wave. Join the club.
 Someone cuts you off, or gets a little too close to your kids in the crosswalk, go ahead and make an entirely different gesture but either way engage, make contact. Make believe that there's still a social contract. 
 Now I'll admit that the drivers of the new economy -so proud they're not driving at all- might lose a text or two if they look up and make eye contact with a fellow citizen, they might have to delay an email saying the real email's on its way, but would that be such a bad thing?
  Give me a little Pittsburgh aggression once in awhile if mostly what I see is decency.
  Puritan pedestrians can have Seattle, and Portland, or they can leave their bitter hearts in San Francisco.

The Straw and the Camel called America

   Things haven't been the same since......?
   Fill in the blank.
   Wave your generation's tattered old flag. Choose the poison you think everyone's been taking since.....?
   What's made us weak, us Americans?
   "Britain!!' said the founding fathers. "Banks!!" said the Jacksonians, "Disunity"said Lincoln,  to which the Rad Republicans replied "The South!!', the Gilded age barons said "The Weak", The Edwardians said, "Income Tax!!" , the Warriors to End all Wars quoted Washington, "Foreign Quarrels!!", the Greatest generation was about to say something profound and quite possibly change this country forever but then they all got drafted and for decades afterwards said "Reinstate the draft!", the Baby Boomers said "Everything!!" was wrong about America  ....and then they voted in Reagan who proved there's an exception to every rule even a Greatest one.
   I'd pretty much meld the teens and twenty somethings of the next three decades - 70's punks, 80's nihilists, and the 90s underground because all of them were caught by the first tsunami of mega capitalism and simply because they were the last kids to live when there WAS an underground, when the eyes and teeth of the internet couldn't find out your every inkling toward rebellion and make it pay.
   Taking a website page from Moore's law, or copying and pasting it ...or, even worse, should we say 'internalizing it".... there seems now to be a new generation every two years, a movement in every other county.....kind of like how there's a new grey and a new black at the Gap every other season. Yeah, I just dated myself there.....let's say kind of like how there's a new "custom made' sneaker every 4 months at....whatever the local pop up shop around you is called.
  Kind of like how you keep kids from crying. Give them new stuff. All the time. Don't worry, the dam of tears won't break and do anyone any harm until after they've moved out of the house and call themselves adults. "Hey, we're not liable..."
  That could be what makes America weak.
  I scaled this question back to the revolution because I want to posit that the fault - what makes America weak- is not in our stars but in us and has always been so.
  But before I try and prove that that can of worms has always been open I'll say this - What makes us weak is that we think escalators are elevators.
  We get on them and we stand as if we've just rented a cabin by the sea and we're gonna park there till the lease is up.
   Possessed by the idea that possession is 9/10ths of some law, damned if we'd imagine someone behind us might be late for work or late to catch a plane or late to get to their mom dying in a hospital, we occupy the escalator.
  What's happened here? When did egalitarian America decide not to make room? Not to give someone else a chance? Not to take more than your share?
  Stand to the fucking right and let people go by.
  Escalators are not Orange County. They are not your golf tee. They are not the four top in a Starbucks you've just colonized with your homework.
   Escalators are still stairs, the just move a little.
  They're like the highway: there's a fast lane and there's a slow lane. If you want not only to go slow but to stop entirely, stand to the right please......excuse me, could I slide by here?......pardon me, could you take the headphones off for a sec,...... sir could you just shift that bag a couple inches?.....HEY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.
   thank you.
   Now back to the core problem in American history.
   It's easy.
   Money and Jesus had a baby and that little demon's been torturing this country since the Dutch landed.
  oh....wait a minute, gotta get this text.....

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The New World

     In 1667, Peter Stuyvesant -Pieter to his friends- planted a pear tree in a corner of his Manhattan farm. That corner is now the corner of 3rd ave and 10th. The tree grew pears until a truck hit it in 1867.
     Papers blamed the weather as much as they did the driver. Global freezing and the irresponsibility of organized labor. So contemporary, as they mourned the loss of a fruit tree which had survived Washington's evacuation to Brooklyn and on through to the draft riots of the Civil War.
   There's a memorial plaque to it now on the original Kiehls bldg - which opened for business when the tree was a tree and probably supplied fruit for the employees during their lunch breaks. 
     That's seven blocks from where I currently and will briefly live.
     Six blocks from St George's Episcopal Church - where I recently sat thru a bit of an Easter vigil- which was also built on the remaining grounds of Stuyvesant's estate. The Anglo establishment putting a religious stake into the heart of Pete's Dutch Reformation.
     An avenue and half east of that is a small brownstone pressed up against the massive Beth Israel hospital complex - all of it built on the slopes of Pieter's farm rolling down to the East River- where Antonin Dvorak lived in the 1890s and where he composed most of his famous and relentlessly overplayed symphony "From the New World".
   My friend Milton and I used to sit on a cliff overlooking a slice of Lake Erie and blast our teenage souls into reverie as we scanned the water for ore boats. Summer camp. Back when if you wanted a soundtrack to your life you had to make it public.
    The things you learn when you're unemployed and like to walk.
    Facts pile up around you in NYC. They cry out to be sifted. I'm sure 20 other, 2000 other, famous people lived and worked on their masterpieces and died ten blocks from where- in a Dunkin Donuts- I'm sitting right now. I'm sure orchards stretched the width of the island and streams ran beneath the corporate counter behind me. Datum don't make a poem.
   Life here is so literal, so angular and monetized and at once so abstract. You walk an endless grid. It's filled with variety, layered to the point of madness, but at the same time it's like an experiment and you're the control factor to a circuit board testing various economic theories, a proving ground looking for an exception to gather up, to either champion or ruin. Exalt or swallow.
   Triumph here is a rare as a public bathroom.
   Oblivion is easier.
   You can hide in New York. Retreat from your own ambition, give up, let the reins drop and because there's so many strivers here few take notice as you plod to a halt on the sidewalk. 
   If you don't want to make it here you don't have to make it anywhere. 
  At least you're "here". Reigning in your own private Hell.
   But rough as it can be Manhattan is always part Heaven. 
   Long as u can pay your rent you can put your head down here and not lift it for a generation. 
   There's a guy two floors up from me in our Stuyvesant brownstone who was friends with a famous children's author. Got written into his will. Hasn't done a thing in 20 years. He gets his mail. He takes out the recycling. Amazon delivers the occasional package. Beyond that he does....nothing....
   What would Pieter, our original Protestant, the founding father of our infamous work ethic, have to say about his distant tenant?
    Maybe the man's writing a symphony. 
    They say Vladimir Horowitz was studying a Beethoven score, got depressed, went upstairs and didn't come down for two years. Ate Dover sole every night, played very little, read and reread all of Beethoven's piano pieces while his wife ran interference and made excuses to the media and Vlad's agents and then one afternoon the man put on his overcoat, went to the barber as he'd never once shaved his own face, walked to the Steinway store on 57th street and tried out a new grand.
    Someone should replant that tree. 



Monday, March 30, 2015

The Peak at El Yunque

    I hiked a rainforest for 5 hours.
I was between 2 (million) ferns. It was 50 Shades of Green.
And like the movie, it was a blur.
I just couldn't read it.
Isn't that what we do? Read a place? Into what we see, what we pass by, insert a narrative, the stories we've heard, the books we've read, the songs we know?
A place sings with its history. Or we sing that history at the place and it echoes back our designs??
But if you don't know that history what have you got? You're like Helen Keller: someone's making shapes in your hand - it feels good- but there doesn't seem to be a point. Let me go play. Feed me.
And what of Puerto Rico came to me as I climbed its second highest little mountain?
I know there must have been original souls, the first people, the Taino here who finally climbed this mountain to get away from the Spaniards who would destroy them. So at the peak, is this where a native nation died?
And then what of five hundred years?
When the Dutch tried to take San Juan and then came the English 200 years later did some poor sot from Portsmouth survive the latter battle and end up wed to a blue eyed Spanish girl with the last name Robben?
What of Puerto Rico's poets do I know? Her novelists and her singers, her artists and her thinkers? Where are they in the syllabus of America?
Where was Deburgos born, and what of Davila? Did Raul Julia wake up and think Yeah I'll rock Hollywood? And Rita Moreno - I'll win an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Grammy. Jesus. Them I know.
The tip of a cultural iceberg, with a yearly average temperature of 72.
I wonder did my childhood legend Clemente climb up El Yunque to see his island, his hometown just off to the left, or like most rabid athletes did he glance up and think "Hell with that, I've got a game to play?"
Eat, play, sleep, repeat. Oblivion for most. Immortality for the few.
I just didn't know what to do with it all. The jungle makes no sense. It was all of a sameness though I am sure it is as multifaceted as any hardwood forest I wander in wonder.
I thought of Klaus Kinski being interviewed in Burden Of Dreams, stunned by the massive rapacity of the Amazon, its "endless fornication". All that seething, squelching life, all that water endlessly pumping. After an hour I was soaked. I sweated out half the poisons I'd taken in all year. The next morning I drank three bottles of water at a blink. It evaporated within me.
And for what? To walk a green path for 5 hours. To view two more views of green below. A peak with a generator on it and a graffitied plinth. Some orange mud, a couple of bright flowers and the tiniest of petaled moss. And maybe there was a kind of wild mint, or possibly poison ivy. I didn't hazard the difference.
The only thing I wondered at were these sturdy butterflies, a dark brown with umber somewhere upon them -where I couldn't tell- as they never settled, would never land and let me look.
And frogs which sounded like soft alarms, and a bird which spooked then shook the tall palms like a mammal but remained unseen.
I think I saw a squirrel. He moved not like the ones I know up North.
I was contained by a place I couldn't codify. I moved for 5 hours in a kind of sodden meditation.
I complain now as I have no more story to tell than what it told me, but possibly that is an apt rebuke or a kindness. A message to any colonizer. And peace for any over denotative self and its need for the subject, verb, and object in every mystery.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Puerto Rico

    Old San Juan is a wing of land that guards a perfect harbor. Arched up against the sea to the north, it slopes down into the quiet water. If you squeezed San Francisco into a jewel box and abandoned it in the 1880s. If they'd built San Diego up on the cliffs that defend its anchorage and not down in the swamps where it belongs. San Juan's a film set. It's a tourist's dream. Not even a mile square you can walk the whole thing in an afternoon. Pile off the cruise ship and be back in time for the on board performance of Frozen.
  Puerto Rico. What did I know? I knew there were lots of Puerto Ricans in NYC. I knew not to head to mid town during the parade. I was born in Pittsburgh when Clemente still played and Im pretty sure my brother took me to a game where I saw him play but I can't say for sure.
  But I'll tell you, simply saying I might have.....damn did I not get some discounts at the deli on B and 3rd. Wear a Pirates hat in the East Village in the Nineties and you got some bro nods.
  And then I come here.
  I hate 80 degree weather, I hate humidity. I'm dying on the walk up an alley of multicolored antique homes and then I reach the high street and the winds hit me. They never stop, they're as cool as water. They comb your spirit. Heaven.
  And somebody tells me these are the winds that brought Basque and Portuguese sailors, and then the Spanish and the Dutch and the English to the New World. They were the current you had to take. The Trade Winds. And the first safe place they brought you after you left family and friends and sanity and certainty was Puerto Rico.
   Two months alone in the Atlantic - if you'd been lucky.
   There's a fort at the mouth of the harbor - more a piece of historical art than architecture- where you can look down and watch the tide come in. Through that channel flowed the wealth and power of the entire Spanish empire. That half mile of calm green kept the Hapsburgs rolling in the dough for 300 years. Ponce de la fucking Leon, Vasco Da man Gama, Hernando Deville De Soto, Cabeza Da Vaca who put the vaca into vacation, all these guys landed in San Juan. They walked the streets, they probably drank in the same bar (which of course isn't there anymore but there's probably a newer version on the same spot.)
  San Juan was where you knew you'd made it. You'd survived. Restock the water, bathe, get some vitamin c, a hooker, a deep harbor, a haven.
  And I gotta say it still kinda feels that way. When you walk around the old town you know this was a place where when people arrived they kissed the ground. They'd been delivered.
  What a heritage to have. To share.
  "Our visitors arrive in ecstasy." La Isla del Incanto.
  And then the steam engines came. And oil. And the boats just sailed right by.
  How long would it take for you to realize they weren't coming back? Like a port town left behind by the railroads. Like a rail town by-passed by the interstate.
  The Spanish got bored and became Puerto Rican and then the Americans assumed the lease to something they didn't own and tried to make it into Hawaii. Plantations, no indigenous economy, no one's allowed to speak Spanish, take the coffee and sell it back to the locals, a bulwark against Communism, a tax haven, a union free know the story. Or maybe you don't. I'm happy to say the people here are more than willing to tell it. Caught between being Americans or just owned by America. A devil's bargain. They'll lay it out for you when asked.
   I walked from el condo/resort centro - a barrier strip called the Condado- where you run a gauntlet, the stations of America's consumer cross: Starbucks, Denny's, Baskin Robbin, CVS, Walgreens, Subway, parking, parking, parking- until you escape to the peninsula of Old San Juan. You cross an emerald inlet. The light is uncanny. It all seems colored. Like there's no neutral to it. There are scores of deco and mid century mediterranean hotels and apts and offices left to rot in half repair but still glorious to the eye. A long street park hemmed in by access roads. A gallery selling Warhol polaroids. "Im from Pittsburgh!" So?
  I reached the old town and wandered in its alleys and by ways and walking streets. You can hear tourists coming from half a block away. You can see their signs on the busier streets - the ice cream cooler in the entrance way, the "free wi fi" placard - but if you duck away, even in this tiny little place you can be alone. (Not unlike the French Quarter - you'd think it would be overrun but two blocks from Bourbon st you can still sit by yourself in a bar for an hour.) The uncut dogs are strays and the cats half wild. The facades of each and every building look like color samples from Farrow and Ball. It's like Barcelona, it's like new Orleans, it's like Macau. It's magical. So compact, so embraceable, teetering on one side over the Atlantic and on the other into an industrial harbor where 1000 foot cruise ships sit in a watery trailer park.  RVs on nuclear steroids.
  I found a place called the St Germain. (One of my favorite names. Cool part of Paris, fine hotel in Montreal, Germaine Greer...) got a perfect sandwich and a coffee made by an arty crew of women. Proud to live on the island, sharp as tacks, perfect english, spoke Spanish when they wanted to make fun of the customers like me. They told me where to find some galleries, where to eat to avoid the cruise folks, what not to miss. They told me about the riots that happened in the sixties, college kids asking why the US army had an office in their campus: molotov cocktails, fences torn down, students shot and killed. Puerto Rico, who knew?
  The debt we've required they assume is larger per capita than Brazil's. They could declare independence and default but their main trading partner would be.....the country they owed the money to. They're citizens but they're not. They can vote in the US elections if they live on the mainland for a year. The remittances sent back to the island from the continental US are larger than any other group - more than the Mexicans, more than the Palestinians.
  Maybe they're the new Irish. As the big cities become more hispanicized, LA, NYC, Houston, Chicago, Miami - the Spanish islanders will become the power brokers, the politicians , the indispensable middle men to whom the old guard has to pay a tithe.
  A kid who ran a gallery up by the cliff side told me there was another gallery down by the harbor where some of his work was being shown. So I hiked down, dodging the Americans in their running shoes and college Ts, and the Dutch in tech gear I wouldn't wear unless I was crossing Patagonia, got down to the first piers of the port where the city wall ends and found this great quadrangle of an old Spanish fort where the University kept its art dept. Good freaking stuff. And a docent who railed about colonization for 20 minutes. I felt like I was back in class in 1988.
   International museum closing time is almost always 4:30, so I walked out and ended up in an enclosed plaza which opened into another enclosed plaza within the old fort - it turned 5 ish and I kinda hoped I'd get locked in, there were some cats lounging about and a bathroom, the light was perfect, the geometry of the fort's walls made the sky into a caribbean Turrell, what more did I need?
   And this is kind of where I've found for myself the last couple years. I like getting lost. I like not having what I think I might need. I like being cut off. I don't care anymore if I make it back before the sun goes down.
   Of course the fort opened out and led me onto a quay. A cruise ship sat like a giant billboard for itself across the water. I followed the university security guard through a parking lot and out onto a street that came to a dead end at the gate of the United States Coast Guard base.
  And I froze. Well. I stopped.
  I took a picture of the gate.
  A guy in black emerged and spoke that lovely phrase you hear only from Americans, "Is there something I can help you with sir?" which invariably translates into "Even though you're on public land, I could arrest you right now if I wanted to." What Orwell would have done with that.
  I told him, you know my dad was in the Coast Guard. And I think he landed here once. He died a couple years ago.
  If there's a way to escape casual fascism it's mention your lost patriarchy. He said, "well you're not really supposed to." And I wondered what that meant, but he nodded and went back into his purple art deco gate house.
   Was it the same color when my dad was here? Was that some surplus battleship interior paint they'd gotten slightly wrong and an officious Admiral demanded they dump it on the Guard?
   I remember when I was 15 or 16 and I was expanding further my disappointment with my father, I asked him "Have you ever been out of the country? I mean, ever?" and I think he said Portugal but I know he said Puerto Rico and I laughed because it seemed such a meager claim. Puerto Rico...? What the Hell was Puerto Rico? Some island in the middle of the sloppy Caribbean we made fun of and which wasn't even "out of the country". How embarrassing, my dad had been to Puerto Rico. The shame.
  I walked the access road to the base like I was casing a crime. Which buildings were new and which had been here since my father's shore leave 60 years before? How old was the road work? What views were still the same? The top of the Banco Populaire had been built in the 30s- he would have seen that. The huge USCG crest over the back door to the customs house- he would've walked right by it. Did he want to run his hands across the wrought iron like I did? The city wall from the 18th century was surely the same. Did he marvel at the construction so long completed and unnecessary?The casita in the middle of the harbor park was 19th century, he probably sat down in front of it and had a beer, and looked across the harbor at the boats at anchor. He walked the length of the boardwalk I'm sure, inspecting ship after ship in his encyclopedic way. Did he take any photographs of them with that old Nikon we never got fixed when we dug it out of his closet in the 90s? Where was the film? Did my mother ever see it? What did he keep of this place that I'd seen all my life and never noticed.
  And there it is a place suddenly echoes with someone's voice, how it fills up with them and every time you focus on something, a gabled house, an ancient tree, the curve of a particular street you feel maybe your gaze slotting into what was once theirs, the click of recognition, the hope for once that desire is in the genes and might lead you the same way it lead them. The sameness, if I lay my hand where his might have been.
   But it's really just ghosts. They rise up out of the stones to catch your imagination, grab you by the heel and say "Im here...Im here".
And of course you can't turn around and find them.
So you tell them stories.
  I smiled a lot as I walked back into Old San Juan and up and down its hilly streets because a man, a boy really, barely twenty, had walked around this magical city of deliverance and beautiful visions, walked bar to bar, storefront to storefront, I'm sure trying to avoid the tacky tourists of 1949, and that boy was my dad, a decade or two before I was even a thought to be bothered with.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

My local paper went tabloid.

  In response to the link below, I wrote this to the editorial desk at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. If you're not from Pgh it isn't going to make a lot of sense to you so my apologies. 
  My goal here Pghers is to SPREAD THE WORD.

 The PG editorial team dropped the ball running Jonathan Silver and Melissa McCart's article about Kevin Sousa. It sounds off like an expose but it's really a hatchet job. 
  There's no news to it, no journalism. Nothing uncovered but a queasy sense that the Post Gazette is trying to challenge the Trib for getting things "Right" in Western PA.
  The article baits bias against "charity" and non profit people being somehow soft or wasteful because their driving impulse is not a market profit. "How dare Kickstarter not do a financial study of its awardees?" Well, take it up with kickstarter or hear the deeper message- do your own research. 
  How we've again rebounded from the hilarity of anyone championing the free market system, 7 years after the managers of that market got caught with the country's pants down and everyone but them lost about a trillion dollars, I can't quite imagine. You'd think after the banking collapse folks would listen a little less to lies about fair playing fields and have some respect for individuals who want to make change and not a fortune. 
  But - brass tacks: 
  The piece foregrounds Sousa's "debts" and then mention 20 paragraphs later that both the new owners of Salt and Union Pig and Chicken -his former restaurants- assumed most of these these debts willingly. Professionals who'd known Sousa, and worked with him, made an analysis and bought the businesses. 
  So...I know I'm an actor but doesn't that mean it's not his debt anymore?? That's called "business" right?  (Good God, is the PG anti-business? Let's hope next week they go after all those young debt dodgers polluting this nation's cities. Otherwise known as college graduates.)
 How many restaurants run without debt? Damn few. They're accounting dance is up their with Hollywood's.
 But does debt make a business unattractive to investment? In both these cases, obviously not. 
 I can think of a few major corporations, several banks, and a construction company or two in Pgh still standing which if debt was an obstacle to development would have gone down long ago. It must be all the good work they do for the community that justifies the corporate charity and public money they get. Too bad the public can't do background checks on them.
  I forget sometimes that debt's a bad thing until it's really huge. 
  In the article, every foundation who'd given money to Sousa (and THEY do financial background checks) said they still fully supported him and his work.
   Did they respond, "We're deeply concerned, we're looking into it." ? No. 
   Again- where's the news here that's fit to print?
  John Fetterman's family gave 50 grand to the non-profit that's working with Sousa? (Full disclosure, I gave 10) So what?   Should they be using that money to expand the kitchen or put an infinity pool in the backyard?
Is that what we expect our "wealth creators" to do?
Like Dick Scaife floating the Trib for 20 years with his kids' money? 
I sure hope the PG doesn't have similar problems. They might have to accept charity too. 
Now that would be a story.
  I kinda like when the wealthy folks I know support a tough cause rather than paying their golf club dues or expanding the mansion in Peter's Township. 
  A legit issue, something worth taking up an entire page in a major newspaper, would be has Sousa been on the take? Has he siphoned off funds for his own benefit? Nope. Did he pay off his house with the money? No, in fact he took out a second mortgage and invested the money in his own business. 
  Oh and then he moved from a cushy up and coming hipster town to a place that's lost 80% of its population, tax base, and building stock. Because he believes he's capable, it's capable, of major change. 
 He walked away from the celeb chef, tv show, bbq sauce, cook book route to work in this town. It's a hard thing to do. An astonishingly brave move. 
  When Richard Branson blew a couple hundred million dollars during his first attempts at building the Virgin Empire did people call him irresponsible? No they called him a visionary because in the end what he wanted .....was a fortune. He wanted to be rich. And we'll excuse anything as long as the ambition behind it has a bottom line. Driven by ideals and dreams we find it somehow offensive. Uncomfortable. A waste. 
  I find that astounding. Because in the end it's simple envy. It's the worst instinct in the American psyche. Why aren't my dreams worth as much as yours? 
  Call Sousa a dreamer, call him nuts, call him willing to run a deficit. Don't write an article which for 500 opening words makes him sound like a minor felon. It's cheap writing. It's beneath the tradition of the Post-Gazette and truly for the first time in my life as a Pittsburgher I was ashamed to be reading my local paper, the one I delivered as a kid.
 The only article about Sousa that matters will be written in 5 years. Is Superior Motors running, is it not?
 Maybe by then, in the new media economy, the Trib and the PG will have merged. 
 Sounds like they already have. 
 ALCOSAN's going to raise water rates 600% over the next 20 years, two major foundations in this city know our air quality is about the worst in the country and can't talk about it - even in their own board rooms- because of corporate pressure, fracking's happening 100 yards from major County water supplies (which will actually SHORTEN PEOPLE'S LIVES), developers get tax breaks for affordable condos which are never affordable, the Strip's being held hostage by a for-profit company owned by its own non-proft foundation (explain that one Neo Cons) and what do we get in a full page article, a serious investigation into the dark underpinnings of Pgh's power brokers?
 A guy from McKees Rocks owes Sysco 25 grand. 
 Roll press. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Under the Big Black Sun

  Yeah, LA's great.
  That's usually what I say these days, when asked.
   I don't say I love it.
   I save that for New York. (Or weirdly enough now, Belfast, which was love at first sight for me in a kind of teenagey, laugh out loud kind of way.)
   My hometown? I just say "I'm from Pittsburgh", hold the look for a second and imagine that somehow my unspoken passion for the place will convey in the pause better than anything I could conjure up. I think, "They'll get it." But kind of hope they'll say, "I guess you're glad you got outta there!" so I can get medieval on their asses.
   But back to LA.
   The sun set about an hour ago. The Santa Monica mountains border the massive metropolis in a northwest crescent. It's winter so the light's pouring in from the south, hitting these hills. The whole basin's lit up at the end of the day.
   LA has few bldgs higher than 4 stories, it's really just a unending field of splitlevel homes and triplex condos, but its low profile lets you feel the whole sky. You feel "West" in LA, even if "The West" died here a long time ago or died before it even reached this desert by the sea.
  And when I say desert I mean it quite literally, and not without some affection. I don't mean 'Oh LA the cultural desert, Oh LA the place people go to be starved of the waters of life', or whatever knee jerk cliche America's second empire town's getting plastered with this year.
  LA is a desert by a sea, which geologically is an odd thing, a rarity. A plain hemmed in by the Santa Monicas, the San Gabriels, and the Cleveland uplift and fed by two meagre rivers. Land that can't feed you and water you can't drink. A city of brown. A city of succulents and rock and scrub. A city that crumbles, that you have to scramble up in to if you want to get away. A city of sage and savory herbs which if ground up in your hands and inhaled, suddenly make you feel like you're in the Mojave.
   When you embrace that desert disconnect, that alternate palette, when you accept that the town isn't going to water you like a plant, like Pittsburgh does with its saturated soils and its oaky steam room air, like the port towns of New York and Seattle and Belfast do, LA becomes sort of fascinating.
  Yes. It's easier to get front row seats at the LA Phil than it is to get a seat in a restaurant. Yes, there are more cars here than people. Yes, the blank faced aspirants texting, spinning and porning their way to million dollar shacks in Venice that they'll then flip for a 3 million dollar tear down in the Palisades to pay for their first divorce, yes these dull eyed drivers of the New Economy are legion. Mile after well paved mile.
  But, accept that LA has no opinion of you. That it's an equal opportunity war zone. A coliseum of riches where no one's watching you fight for your share, and you'll find the place start to tug at your conscience. You'll be gone five years, sworn it off, and then one late afternoon as the sun's setting, you'll walk out into the LAX roundhouse, take a breath and say, "Christ it actually IS sweet."
  It's a remarkable city in the way that American politics is remarkable. Both require work from you. They need your participation. LA mirrors your intent. It flashes back at you what you find lacking in yourself. It can rise with you to incredible effort. Left to run by itself it's the capital of bathos. Come here unsure of yourself, unequipped, it's cruelty incarnate, the way a desert can seem to be cruel, the way self interest in politics will scare you away for life from the voting booth.
   But ain't that America? Down deep?
   LA's just the truth of this country where you can't hide from it. Or where it can't hide itself. Or doesn't care to. The constant juxtapostions of wealth and poverty, masters and servants, intent and deception, decay and explosive growth, are laid out in LA county for all to see, block by endless block, all the way down to Irvine. It might be the most honest physical manifestation of the American dream, the entwined American ethos of individualism and rapacity, invention and cruelty, that you'll find built in the 50 states. LA to quote John McPhee "enacts the war between man and nature and you can't tell here who's the bigger loser."
   LA charms no one. Maybe for the first year a certain brand of fool can live happily with "My God but the WEATHER!" but down deep it's a tough town, hard bitten. All that lip service to Western friendliness is nonsense. Most of what you get here, behavior wise, was handed down by a people descended from Utopian mid western zealots who were looking for a promised land and then realized that if they didn't lock down their 80 acres and some water rights they'd be dead within a month.
  Los Angelenos are a people who define life by scarcity, by that which has been taken from them or that which went missing. They got sold a bill of goods and haven't forgotten the swindle. They talk about a dream, or a promised land, but only to justify the maintainence of their disappointment. They're a people who down deep like to get stuck in traffic. They're a diaspora that won't leave. Because the great myth upon which the City of Angels is built is that ANYONE can win the lottery of life. Anyone might be picked for the next blockbuster. If they just hang around long enough, they'll be recast on screen or in spirit. Wait, and there's a chance all of your wishes will come true. Which with the Godlike trainset of Hollywood on your side, the imaginarium comensurate to anyone's capacity for wonder, all things do seem possible. They CAN make anything seem real. To quote Peter O'Toole "If God could do the things we do he'd be a happy man."
  But the question hovers in the sweet amoral air- who should get everything they ever wanted? Isn't that a famous curse? Or maybe it's better to invert the logic and ask "Are all your wants worth getting?" Only children and psychopaths follow that train.
  Order coffee here for a decade and you'll start to hear the aggression behind every, "And how are you this beautiful day?" The insistence you reinforce the myth, the growl in the smile, the fury behind the stillness of every polite driver who lets you cross the street while they wait for that right turn on red which will get them where they need to go sooner, faster...and one fine day...
  But it's great. LA. It is.
  It's the realest America you'll ever know.
  New York might be the best of America. Pittsburgh the essential America. Phoenix the End of America, but LA embodies everything that's shallow and half thought out in our Democratic Experiment (or it takes all the abuse for it) and then it also demonstrates that experiment's astonishing elasticity and brilliance.
  It's the unmatchable city. The worst and the best. Hand in hand. It's unkillable.
  You got problems? Come to So-Cal.
  Your city - Pittsburgh lost 100,000 jobs in the 80s? LA lost 300,000 and no one cares, no one writes hymns of praise to the working class of Los Angeles, the car makers and the aero space engineers, the tire plant stiffs and the film crews. Poof. You're fired. LA's middle class got reamed and the town just kept rolling.
 Your city's wrestling with race relations? LA's more than half Latino. And though it couldn't function without the Mexican American hidden economy -the amount of money that's off the books in Southern California probably equals the GDP of Spain- Mexicalis and Indios were treated like slaves for 200 years in these parts and then treated like dogs by the police and the real estate coven for a century longer. And yet they have stayed and prospered and built their own city, their capital in America in LA. No one wanted to take their tired, their hungry, and their oppressed. They took it for themselves. And in 20 years it'll be as much theirs as Miami is for Cubans.
  Wanna talk about water wars? About usage and water rights and problems with supply?  LA makes every other city in America look like its swimming in potable liquid. LA has laws on the books to save water other states won't pass for decades. One city, the City of Angels, rerouted the entire Colorado river basin, built a Presidential dam, drained an area the size of Pennsylvania to feed its growth and its agricultural economy, and yet 80 years later it sets the standard for sustainable usage.
  Traffic issues in Portland? Come down to LAdot and learn how it's done. The 8th great wonder of the American experience isn't Boston's big dig, or Atlanta's new sewers, it's the highway system of LA. They're Pharaonic projects. Monstrous and maybe more importantly...functional. What?! people protest, the traffic in LA is awful!!  Sure, for three hours, but for WHAT CITY IN AMERICA AIN'T THAT TRUE NOW? With flex hours and the nation of the half-employed that we are on the road, it's a simple fact that commuting 8 miles from Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs takes longer than driving from the San Fernando into LA proper. I've done it, I know.
  You got artists that need cheap housing, new studio space, neighborhoods to colonize? LA's so vast it never ends, there's always a Francis Parkman type frontier town that's becoming the new bohemian development. One rises, the previous one becomes Santa Monica, and Santa Monica becomes a city unto itself. In two generations a soybean field becomes a liberal democratic model.
  LA's exploded as a cultural capital I would say mainly because it's so distended, so fractured, so malleable. Capital and brilliance flow quickly. If you're mad and brilliant this is the place for you. Platonic conceptions abound. You can build something out of brick and mortar, iron and glass, light and magic, that literally was drawn by your mind's eye.
  And isn't that what we love in America? Jack London, Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Huston, Jackson Pollock, Coppola, Brando, Hendrix, Melville, Pete Rose, Jerry Lee Lewis, William Mulholland, ....Sam Adams! .....and whoever called the last play in the latest Super Bowl... mad and brilliant. Makers of their own reality, their own a priori forms. Giant winners and giant failures, and sometimes both at once.
  And that's why I say yeah it's great. Cause it full of makers. They might not know shit for shinola about American history or French literature or have a single cogent thought about international politics they didn't learn before turning 30, they may play video games 5 hours a day and dress like little boys dressing like super heros, but the rest of the day they work like dogs, like freaking hungry, lost, desperate little dogs who come Hell or highwater are going to finish the highway, or the shot, or the oil well, or the painting, or the airplane, or the aqueduct, they're gonna do it right thru the 3rd marriage and the 4th house and the kids they only see on weekends, thru the earthquakes and the riots and the drought, but they'll do it.
  Like Alec Guiness in Bridge On the River Kwai.
  Screw the dream. Screw reason. Just finish the work. Give the 405 another lane, get the water to the city, wrap picture.
  If all you want to do, if all you believe in is work and its visceral rewards, LA is the place for you.
  If there's a more back handed compliment I don't know how to pay it.
  But I'll admit it, when the sun goes down, I still look West. When it goes down and what was 30 miles away looks like it's 5, and what's 5 miles away you can't even see in the haze but for a magic purple silhouette. I get a chill, that I enjoy.
  I like the indeterminacy. I like the floating world of LA. It's middle American Ukiyo. Because in the end you should feel some sympathy for the place. It's a period piece, a town trapped in an era it doesn't even recognize as itself anymore.
  LA is the gigantic American hope that came back from the Second World War and got frozen into the shape of a city. A land of promise built for and by the GIs. Aspiration as place. The myth of progress laid out on a semiconductor grid, which reboots and rewires itself every two years so we can all keep on believing.
  Everything money and power and moral certitude could make got made here.
  And didn't quite work.
  But God bless the place for keepin on. It muscles through. And remember, every alternative gets made here too.  Maybe only as a prototype but it does take shape. Truth to power drinks at the same bar as power. Matter and anti matter, capitalism and anti-capitalism, call it what you will, the opposition, the other, lives well in LA.
  More people move here every year than any other city in America.
  What they don't tell you is that every year more people leave LA than any other city in America.
  And that might just be the highest compliment.
  Hey, if you can't hack it.....