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Silver Lake Ramble #2
April 3, 2013
Papa Legba, an old man with a crutch, stands at the crossroads, an intermediary between our world and the world of the Loa. Haitian Vodun (Voodoo) has many gods, but only Legba, known to speak all human languages, can give permission to break through the barrier, communicate with the spirits. I’ve come to understand, however, that Legba lurks at every carrefour: in the crucifix, in cathedral architecture, in the image of St. Peter, in a tree trunk with branches or river with tributaries, in the Continental Divide and the design of the human body, in Euclidean axioms, graph paper, the plus sign, and the letters t and x, in the intersections of the NYT crossword puzzle, and in Leonard’s teeming brain, too, as he solves it at lightning speed. And just as surely, Legba is with us in Silver Lake where Maltman bisects Sunset. To cross the street here is to gain access to one of the few mailboxes left in the neighborhood; to the 99 Cent Store (beggars, a disabled man with pet dog out in front); to the mix in the long lines at the cash registers of rich and poor, carefree and burdened, children and adults, black, white, Asian and Latino, along with the occasional hipster looking for kitsch, or someone impatient like me, making a quick hit to pick up flashlight batteries, though tempted to buy more than I can carry, plastic plates that don’t look plastic, tortillas, green and rubbery, made from nopales (pads of the prickly pear cactus), a surprisingly likely looking bottle of wine. Leonard, who introduced me to this emporium, finds himself at home here, Leonard, who contains multitudes, spouts a smattering of languages, always ardent, ever hip, armed with information, consumer and bargain hunter par excellence.
Set foot on this famous boulevard, follow it east or west, lay claim to Los Angeles if you dare. I mean only to point out this juncture as a possible divergence. But I hope you will turn with me instead onto a strip mall of sorts (conversion of hair salon into upscale convenience store in progress, Filipino bakery, children’s clothing store, raw-vegan restaurant, cafe, apartment house, garage - typical hodge-podge of Silver Lake enterprises, each with its history, long or short, an offshoot recently blocked off, no cars allowed. The official name of this space, now filled with cheap plastic planters, tables and umbrellas, in varying shades of green, is Triangle Park. And, indeed, it is triangular, though nameless until now as far as I knew. In the original grassy section are built-in wooden benches around a stone fountain decorated with Mexican tile work, which puts forth an occasional trickle of water. In the recent past, a place where bums, now called the homeless, hung out, where apartment dwellers, huddled in blankets, swayed and moaned in time to aftershocks the morning after the 1994 earthquake. At the edge of the park to the east, the Fandango beauty shop, formerly home to Dianetics, and the longtime Conquistador with illustrative murals, one of the first gay neighborhood restaurants. I call this place the Plage - think Paris Plage, a fabrication, an illusion of striped awnings and suntan oil, deck chairs and sand. With such accoutrements does a beach appear along the banks of the unswimmable Seine in summer. Yet in Silver Lake, the now gutted hair salon - over $100 for a haircut, shampoo, and blow dry - didn’t make it. Natural Mind, it was called, replete with product, on its outer walls an imitation of the hanging gardens of Babylon, all withered now and, secretly, walking along with my head down, though regretting much wasted labor and material, I have cheered death on, chanting, not right for Silver Lake, not right for Silver Lake, under my breath.
But if you wish to dress your androgynous toddler in a houndstooth jacket, little Mao pajama coat, suspenders and bowtie, a pair of blue jeans with 50’s style rolled-up cuffs; if you want anything soy, seasonal, artisanal, sustainable, raw, organic, gluten-free, or vegan; or, perhaps tomorrow, a caramel latte, lox and bagels, and a buttered scone, step right up. Even the red brick vintage apartment house has had its makeover, white roses and picnic table out in front. Remember: vintage and retro are trendy. The word authentic wafts in the wind, as in her relationships are not authentic, also as it applies to clothing, diction, restaurant menus, and more. This is a land of locavores, of foragers, who roast green coffee beans at home. In opposition to all this, is Enrique’s auto and bicycle shop, which might be the model for a Keinholtz installation, life imitating art and vice versa. Enrique must be fiftyish, though he doesn’t look it, pampered as he is by his wife who arrives with platefuls of chicken, rice, and frijoles at midday. Enrique is introverted, preoccupied, a man of few words, mostly in Spanish. Leonard, on flimsy evidence to do with a battery, says he’s a crook, that such bonhomie as Enrique musters for the gringo is all sham. But Enrique has endured fire and earthquake, I counter, lets street artists deface his property, promotes bike riding - the homeless make nests on his doorstep. I plan to stay on good terms with Enrique since, in rolling distance of my house, he will be my mechanic when I can no longer walk to Doug’s.
Many contradictions converge here each Saturday when a Farmers Market takes over the Plage. Then is Enrique in his element, hobnobbing with a farmer from San Diego who sells soursop (cherimoya; corosol in Creole) at six dollars a pound, with the tamale man and the pupusa women who make vegan versions of Mexican and Salvadoran favorites to accommodate local taste. A form of fusion, I tell Leonard, who insists it’s all ersatz. No real farmers here, just clever cheats who buy fruits and veggies downtown at the crack of dawn, label them organic, jack up the prices for fools. Maybe not even that, they buy it all at Vons or Ralphs. What nonsense. I’ve seen permits, scolding inspectors, a white farmer from Lancaster with hands like Grandpa Van Dyke’s, callused and swollen, hands around a hoe, deep in dirt. And the summer peach lady, his wife, who conjures the smell of apples crushed to bursting in her driveway when the fall crop is good. She’s missing some teeth, her granddaughter comes along to help her, and she calls me hon, which I want to object to, but don’t. Country ways, I tell myself.
Country ways mean teenagers work instead of playing soccer on Saturday, and even younger children count change, politely wish me good morning. What must they think, I wonder, looking out from behind makeshift counters upon this melee of twenty or thirty-somethings, middle-agers down from the hills to scavenge like raccoons, skunks, possums, and coyotes; older residents, like me, who haven’t sold their homes to retire in Nicaragua, or moved somewhere nearer their children; straights, gays and lesbians, parents of every variety, coaxing their children to eat at least part of a $2.75 muffin. There’s a lot of waste here, a lot that gets spilled, spit out, or thrown away. I can’t tell anymore how old anybody is. I fling the term hipster around, conscious of a general fear of enthusiasm, defensive postures and clothing, but not sure just who in this crowd qualifies. Do hipsters have children? In the frenzy of buying and selling, none of this matters. It’s all about produce for the week ahead, bean sprouts and heirloom tomatoes, persimmons, pomegranates, avocados black and green, about stocking up on goat cheese and manchego and hummus and organic honey, sampling all the samples, planning a dinner party with flowers, even if only a few can tell kale from Swiss chard or recognize kohlrabi, and don’t mind looking a bronzino from Greece in the face, in spite of a New Year’s resolution to eat nothing but locally grown vegetables. Tough-minded Asian women drive hard bargains over long beans and greens for pho. Latinas and Latinos, cordial, excessively polite, well-dressed, are clearly of higher status than the Mexican vendors they kid around with. Their accents may be South American, but as the money changes hands, it’s all chistes (jokes) among native speakers who understand each other’s ways. Sharp differences are for a moment erased, as both sides revel in innuendo, fast-paced Spanish, for insiders only.
The Silver Lake Farmers Market has become a destination, and everyone here is making a statement. Unshaven, just rolled out of bed, short shorts on long legs, spike heels, an empire jacket with lion’s head hood, fedoras, sandals and flip-flops, boots, leggings. I pay attention to what I wear to the Farmers Market. I admit it. We’re dressed to kill, all of us. We prepare a face, as J. Alfred Prufrock says, to meet the faces that we meet. Not too dressed up, but not the disgusting sweats I’ve worn to the gym all week. Mostly I don’t want to look old. Though that’s impossible. Or frumpy, which I think I can avoid. And, of course, not too young either, which can be grotesque. Some awareness, some sign that I know what I’m doing, have put together a look. That’s what I go for, but do I get away with it? Well, someone else will have to tell me. I could ask the barista I like who makes me a single shot, decaf, non-fat espresso macchiato, drizzles me a foam heart, knows I prefer a china cup. I flirt, I tip, I tap my foot to the electronically infused music of El Hijo de la Cumbia. I play the whole game, now that I know it’s more than a silly fad, being a good barista, that is. Not many among us can achieve, much less repeat, perfection.
The world in little is the Plage, a microcosm. Where the underworld can meet the elite. Well, underworld may be going too far. I’ll amend it: underclass. But who doesn’t come is noteworthy too. None of the people I have left behind on Maltman. Not the Cubano, nor El Conejito, nor the German hausfrau, nor Marilyn, nor ever the people who lived in the foreclosed house. Neither do the homeless men venture around the corner on market mornings to be part of the hubbub. For all of these the price and the prices are too high. They cannot afford it, or are otherwise put off for reasons unknown to me. I love the Farmers Market; I buy the expensive corosol because it reminds me of Haiti, but here I can concede Leonard a point. Silver Lake at its worst, he calls it. Hardly that, but the market is no melting pot, nor even in the currently favored metaphor, a tossed salad, in which all ingredients are included, yet remain unique. Instead, it is a dazzling display, an illusion of community. A communal delusion? Magical in its appearance each Saturday and as quickly swept away, leaving the pale green surface, dotted with outsized polka-dots in chartreuse, blackened, cigarettes stubbed out in the planters.
Much later, on another day, the Plage becomes a song at twilight when grass and lifeless fountain, skateboarders doing wheelies, the young and old, glued to iPhones and laptops, who measure out their lives in coffee spoons, break dancers and basketball players, showing off for the assembled audience and for each other, high fives all around, shivering models and photographers, tired mothers dragging school children, single fathers feeding babies, those eternally patient and muzzled dogs merge dreamlike in the drama of a Los Angeles sunset. Perhaps it is the quality of light which best characterizes this unreal city sprawled out upon the Dream Coast, where actors and waiters appear to be interchangeable, where fickle customers and clients, hyper aware of the latest Tweet, can be counted on to desert. Gone already are the children’s clothing store and the raw-vegan restaurant. They say it is the smog that makes the ends of our days here so beautiful, but I discard this rumor. If far away in Russia, a meteorite can enter our atmosphere, warning that one day Apophis, named for the Egyptian god of destruction and death, will collide with Earth, why not see cosmic coincidence here on the Plage?
Thus I return to Robert Frost with whom I began, whose resemblance to Papa Legba, Guardian of the Crossroads, is suddenly clear. Frost, like Legba, is fond of choices, oppositions, of paths diverging in a snowy or yellow wood, fire and ice, vocation versus avocation, walling in and walling out, of the strange pull of death on an active man or woman in the midst of life. Leonard, abandoning swagger, no longer at home in Silver Lake or anywhere, lingered for months at this frontier, bourne of the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Frost ponders this too but, unlike Legba, stops short of ushering us in. The boy in Birches only swings towards heaven. Earth’s the right place for love, confirms the poet-speaker. Though much closer to death than the boy, an older man in After Apple Picking also shies away: his ladder points toward heaven still, and in the end he seems to settle, if only temporarily, for just some human sleep. With whom shall I side? With both. With neither. I find myself unripe, unready, as I leave the Plage to continue my walk, swerving onto Griffith Park Boulevard where Found Cat or other sign of good Karma may await us.