Tag: Culture


The World in the Curl

Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown Publishers, 416pp, $26)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Surfers will be stoked to read The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing—as will anyone who has, at some point, felt the allure of the sport, if only from the shore. The authors, both surfers and professors of history in southern California, offer a wide-ranging study of the sport, which “shows how surfing, at every point in its history, reflected—and shaped—the world around it.”

The story they tell is ambitious and compelling: a narrative of world history recounted through the lens of surfing’s own evolution. The authors capture the inherent paradoxes of the sport: the tensions between its global appeal and fierce history of localism, between its iconic image as a “natural” pursuit and its institutional history of environmental apathy (or worse, exploitation), and between its cultivated image as a nonconformist counterculture and its perennial trendsetting status in mainstream marketing. The World in the Curl challenges its readers to appreciate the fine points of the sport’s development at the same time that it holds a mirror up to its seedy and even violent historical moments and its deeply-suspect history (in Western manifestations of the sport) of ingrained racism and sexism.

The book is at its best when it conveys the voices of those individuals whose stories intersect with that of the sport itself as they pioneered its growth and development. Some of the most compelling of these voices emerge from the margins of the narrative, and none more so than those of women surfers who faced obstacles more daunting than the crest of a high wave for a place of their own in the lineup. In its final chapters, the story moves deeper and deeper into the postwar twentieth century, becoming dense with the details of military technology and chemical manufacturing, until it is entirely drawn into the whirlpool vortex of contemporary corporate culture. As climate change continues to affect our oceans’ coastlines, the intertwined histories of surfing, environmentalism, and social change, which the authors so deftly tease apart in their early chapters, will only become more powerfully important in the future of the sport.

Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library.


Putting LA Back Together

by Lynell George

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

Lovers and detractors agree: navigating life in Los Angeles is mostly a matter of interpretation. Those “72 suburbs in search of a city” that Dorothy Parker so indelibly defined and dismissed in one quick laceration is one way to characterize Los Angeles and its meandering sprawl, and a roots-deep Angeleno might read the Parker analysis not as insult but elucidation. That difficult-to-pinpoint character is what makes many die-hard Angelenos stick it out, despite the perpetual swirl of bad press that surrounds LA. Some see their city as episodic, others as a series of situational non-sequiturs. You can’t sum up Los Angeles in a sentence; it always demands a deeper look.

It isn’t easy to jack-hammer through LA’s glossy surface-story, the beamed-to-the world simulacrum the world thinks it knows because they’ve seen it on TV. Yet Lynn Garrett, is attempting to do just that. She didn’t just step into the fray but in a sense created one, a necessary forum of her own design—a place to explore and talk about the city without qualification or apology. Her lively blog and website, Hidden Los Angeles, along with its corresponding Facebook page (nearly 300,000 members strong) is dedicated to the daily endeavor of “going deeper”—in a city where people often interpret the very word “deep” as spurious: an oxymoron or the lead-in for a late-night comedian’s joke. To Garrett, Los Angeles is a serious subject for analysis and a constant source of surprise.

“Oftentimes, when people come to Los Angeles, they really don’t see it,” she observes. “They think they have an solid, informed opinion of it. Even though they only stayed one night. At a hotel. At the airport. What on earth would you learn about any city that way?”

Since 2009, Hidden Los Angeles has presided over a lively 24-hour virtual town square—linking current city-dwellers and expat, multi-generational natives to the casually curious from around the globe, feeding them into conversational threads that explore both place and perception, past, present and future.

Part old-school news editor and part 21st century content curator, Lynn Garrett single-handedly offers a regular flow of informational/conversation-prompting posts—video, photographs, news links—that fold in breaking news, history, cultural studies, recreation, city planning, conservancy, and nature/ecology. She has transported a famously elusive city into a virtual place, and attempted to give it shape and form.

Over three decades (on and off) kicking around Los Angeles, Garrett, an accomplished artist and graphic designer, has worked variously as a jazz singer and tour guide, for Disney Consumer Products as a senior designer of toy packaging, and for a time, as a senior art director at Mattel, where she designed board games. You see a little bit of all of those incarnations in the range of content explored on Hidden Los Angeles—in the online environment she’s created and the improvisational flow of ideas that dovetail to the next big thought.

Taken as a whole, Hidden Los Angeles is a fully interactive community—a virtual tour/online magazine of the city. It doesn’t ignore Hollywood as an industry but puts it in the context of the rest of Los Angeles—its ethnic communities, its flora and fauna, the curious factoids about LA in its earlier incarnation (a “horizontal” city, suburban sprawl, the old sky-scraper limits)—in other words, what it really means to live here.

The real city, Angelenos know, blooms along the edges of outsiders’ perceptions of it. What might appear arbitrary is actually the many chambers of its complex, working heart and how it fits into the world. That was the big question Garrett asked herself when she began her inquiries.

Part of really seeing Los Angeles, she has learned, is a simple act of shifting one’s perspective. “When we go to visit other places, we seek out and are often attracted to the cultural things. The history. It’s as if we have different expectations for Los Angeles.”

That’s been the case since its inception. The city was often seen as an antidote: a cure for the body and soul; a site of reinvention, a launching pad for dreams. Its own story—its indigenous riches, how it came to be, who shaped it—took second billing. For frequent visitors, the city is a palimpsest upon which to write their own story. “People think the past is gone, but it’s around every corner—it’s there, and so is meaning,” Garrett says.

“Go Deeper.” Logo for Hidden Los Angeles website and blog.
Logo designed by Lynn Garrett.

Excavating this tangible sense of place in a virtual world means that, in the day–to-day, Garrett is a bit of the ringmaster overseeing layers of fervent back-and-forth opinions and assessments, first-person recollections and sometime virtual “filibusters in real-time. Ostensibly, her hours stretch from dawn to dusk—but often in the wee hours you might catch her logging on to set a thread of conversation back on track. “I just have to be really careful that people aren’t using the site to promote themselves,” she says, pausing to acknowledge one of the truest clichés about LA. “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of self-promoters here. I wanted it to be about Los Angeles, not a giant press release.”

Garrett mediates much of the content from home via the various keyboards and handhelds strewn across her dining room table or tossed into her handbag. The online wordplay of her vast online community has an arc of its own; it’s sometimes shrill, sometimes snarky. It’s often passionate and frequently playful. But all of it—even in its polarizing disagreements—is an attempt to get beyond the easy clichés and assumptions about Los Angeles.

Lynn Garrett at Farmers Market, at the postcard stands.
Photo courtesy of Lynell George.

What might Hidden Los Angeles feel like to a first-time visitor? Well, imagine having several thousand highly opinionated Angelenos sitting at yourdinner table—often talking all at once—sometimes informed, sometimes not so much—but no matter; they discourse with authority about LA history, the LA River, the best east/west routes, downtown gentrification, the Valley’s old strawberry farms, childhood earthquake memories, riots (both of them), The Olympics, the elusive borders of neighborhoods—and quite often, one of longtime Angelenos’ favorite topics—which lost architectural treasure stood at the corner of some long -vanished intersection often rebuilt many times over.

Given the vast spectrum of strongly-held opinions, what keeps Hidden Los Angeles from swerving into the thicket of troll-infested shock talk—all noise and emotion but no grist—is Garrett’s quick, decisive and hands-on facilitation. Hidden Los Angeles has a guiding voice and point of view, and it is fully Garrett’s. She can keep conversation aloft like a vigorous match of volleyball, but knows when to spike and shut it down if it’s edging toward nasty. (“Just this morning,” she says, “I had to tell a guy to stop being a ‘dick’—he was just making rude remarks about other members.”) She’s quick to right some toppled bit of logic or break up heated exchanges edging toward virtual fisticuffs. “I don’t like to, but I ban people if they get too out of hand,” she admits. “But every year I do a ‘turkey pardon’ and give them another chance. This is for them. They need to be respectful of others and their opinions.” In many ways, what Garrett has mapped isn’t simply a website, but a milieu, an online replica of those 72 suburbs—a distinct “neighborhood” unto itself.

We walk into the stark white light of an August afternoon—the first break in a three-week, three-digit heat wave. Garrett has agreed to walk away from the screen (one smartphone in her bucket bag, just in case) to let her community “talk among themselves.” Though sometimes it’s difficult for logistical reasons to do so, getting out is it is precisely what she prescribes to her followers. In fact, she encourages people to move out into the world. She’s been hosting meet-ups under the Hidden Los Angeles banner almost since the site’s inception—cocktails at the venerable Musso and Frank, late grunion runs, kayaking the LA River and just recently she’s launched a series of participatory philanthropic events ,working with Downtown’s Los Angeles Mission and the Hollywood-based My Friend’s Place, focused on assisting the homeless—as a way for the community to experience one another as well as Greater Los Angeles.

It’s a postcard day in a neighborhood studded with tall, listing palm trees and a handsome collection of 1920s stucco and red-tile duplexes. Picking one of the main thoroughfares, she moves with the purposefulness of a seasoned tourguide—two steps and pivot, to explain the terrain. before us: past the high-end boutiques on 3rd Street, Mid-City, scouting for a coffee and a quiet chat. Despite her LA Doyenne status, she’s dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a simple, black, V-neck T-shirt. Garrett points out the French place and the Greek place and the Spanish place and the neo-all American diner place. And all of those languages drift out of open doorways and swirl above the small sidewalk patios—packed even in the pause between breakfast and lunch. She settles on the French place, where the ceiling is painted a vivid cobalt and the waiter knows her well enough to ask her only to specify her drink’s size. “You can find a little bit of everything you want here, depending on your desire or mood,” she says, “but that’s the key. You have to look for it.”

A native Californian, born in San Diego, Lynn Garrett spent a lion’s share of her early life in Los Angeles. She lived for a time with her maternal grandparents and grew to love LA through their eyes. “When you’re from San Diego, the default is to hate Los Angeles. But I had history here. My great-grandfather and grandfather painted murals at Charlie Chaplin’s house and at Pickfair [Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s mansion]. My grandmother, when she was 19, preached with [the evangelist] Aimee Semple McPherson, and used to babysit her kid. My grandma Beulah. So I had a huge family in LA.” Consequently, she interacts with the city like a native, finding pieces of her past everywhere, a vivid sense memory—an old traffic light on Sunset Boulevard or the spinner-racks of artichokes and postcard stands at Farmers Market—just around the corner.

Her appreciation grew even stronger as she began to navigate the neighborhoods on her own and without a plan or map. Eventually, for a time in the 1980s, she set down roots here and began to map her own personal version of the city. She let serendipity lead her: “I’d fill my tank with gas and just drive around. No destination in mind She’d let herself be pulled by whim or the itch of curiosity. But truly finding her heart connected to the city was a more complex affair; it didn’t happen overnight.

By the 90s, burned out on LA in its post-riot, post-earthquake-post-O.J. Simpson murder trail period, she picked up and moved for work to San Francisco, but there she was struck by the persistent chorus of anti-LA sentiment. “It just seemed like a one-sided conversation,” she recalls. She found herself routinely defending Los Angeles. Her San Francisco acquaintances recommended that she needed to get a sense of humor, “but instead I started writing all the things down that people hated about LA.”

It got so bad that for expedience and sanity’s sake, she began to keep her origins and alliances close to the vest. She believed you should be allowed proud of where you come from. And so, her thinking was, “If you don’t like it, change it.” Not the place, but the conversation around it.

That list in hand, she returned to Los Angeles with an idea to write a tour book—one targeted at the people who think they don’t like LA. The guide would focus specifically on LA as a culture, what makes it move—the art, the literature, architecture, the distinct neighborhoods. To get herself into the writing rhythm, she designed a blog to help work out theme, tone and voice. A friend suggested Facebook as a way to promote the blog, to which Garrett recalls responding, “I’m not 13. I don’t need to be on Facebook.” But the social-networking site would change everything. Creating a Facebook page, Hidden Los Angeles, to publicize the blog , Garrett circulated invitations among her Facebook community, her friends, acquaintances, and her network of jazz contacts. The fan page then moved, she laughs, through the Burning Man community—“and, well, they have verystrong following.”

As it turned out, lots of Angelenos felt the way she did. In the spring of 2010, her fan page went viral, spiking to 137,00 from 3,000 in four weeks. “Once you get over 60,000 members it’s like having a monster in your garage,” she says a little ruefully. “No one else has a monster in their garage, so there’s no one to talk to about it. And there’s no book to tell you how to do it. I had to figure it out.” And while Garrett would like to also “figure out” a way to monetize the site and hire a fulltime staff, she wants to do it in a way that makes sense and is in the spirit of the site and its goals.

For a virtual place, Hidden Los Angeles has done a real service. In a subtle yet indelible way, it attests that our sprawling, anonymous city isn’t always so. “I’ve watched the craziest, random things happen online,” she says. “I might post a picture of some event or place from thirty, forty, fifty years ago and suddenly people are tagging one another and [these people]—who haven’t seen each other in years—begin having a reunion online.”

In this respect, Garrett sees the site as a corrective and a colloquium that allows the city’s story to be shaped from the ground up by residents who actually experience it. A flowing, people’s history. And the interesting thing, she says, is that “forty percent of the people who are on Hidden LA don’t live here. Some of them used to, some of them are curious about visiting so they begin to get a sense of what it is by watching the posts. Some of them have been in the military serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So many of them come here when they are feeling homesick and they want a dose of home. Something I really wanted when I lived away.”

While reminiscing is key to her page’s allure and success (other LA pages—like have Vintage LA or Decaying Hollywood Mansions, or Who Remembers in East L.A? have grown up in the months she has been in operation), Garrett is committed to a mix that isn’t simple nostalgia. She wants Angelenos to get up and go out and experience their city—so that the places and events that we enjoy now don’t go the way of the vanished mom-and-pop shops we so romanticize. These conversations reveal the layers, the many cities Los Angeles has been over time, and what has been built on top of them.

Lynn Garrett’s dog, Zoe, who is the Hidden LA mascot, at Olvera Street, Downtown Los Angeles: Photo courtesy of Jinna Kim Photo (http://www.jinnakimphoto.com).

To really unearth and understand Los Angeles requires that you not be passive but be a participant. “I’m just lighting a fire under them, inspiring them to get out in it,” Garrett says. “Just sitting at your keyboard giving the stink-eye honestly is not helping the cause.” But in common with her online community, she is well-aware that LA has its rough edges, its doggedly singular take on what it is to be a city. “LA is messy. It’s like a hot mess of a T.J. Maxx. Not organized. Not neat. But if you lift something up, you’ll find some wonderful, unexpected treasure. LA is like that when you turn the corner. You’ll be surprised. But no one is going to point that out to you, you have to go out and find it.”


Jews in the L.A. Mosaic

mainstreet453x342Fairfax and Boyle Heights, movie-making and land development – Jews, the Autry’s most recent exhibition argues, have shaped Los Angeles as Los Angeles shaped them. Featuring objects that stretch as far back as the nineteenth century, curator Karen Wilson provides a story of Los Angeles that places the Jewish community at both the center and margins of LA’s development. Although excluded in the twentieth century from white Angeleno culture due to their racial status as Jewish, Jews were still able to directly influence the social, economic, and political development of LA through their work in some of the city’s key industries, including film and real estate. (After all, when we think LA, movies and housing developments are some of the first things that come to mind. Other than the freeways we love to hate, of course.)

The exhibition companion book, with the same title as the exhibition, contains five essays – including one from Wilson, the curator – that cover a range of topics, from Jewish bakers and Jewish women in politics to Hollywood and pop music. Together, these studies provide deeper analysis of the show’s objects than the exhibition labels are able to give, allowing both the casual reader and the studied academic to find stories of ample interest here. Plus, it’s lushly illustrated – so you can revisit your favorite objects from the show.

“Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” also offers an interactive element – encouraging visitors to leave remarks and answer questions like “will LA become a melting pot or a salad bowl?” and “will your grandchildren speak more than one language?” Challenging visitors to place themselves within the Los Angeles mosaic and consider both their past and future, the Autry will post responses monthly at http://theautry.org/exhibitions/jews-in-the-los-angeles-mosaic. It’s an intriguing project, and we look forward to seeing what comes of it.

The exhibition provides viewers with an accessible narrative studded with charismatic displays that remain with museum-goers long after they leave. Did you know that the Barbie was invented by a Jewish Angeleno? Or that the daughter of Jewish immigrants created the famed anti-war image of a flower with the text “war is not healthy for children and other living things”? There are many more great objects here, but I wouldn’t want to ruin all the surprises!

Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic is at the Autry National Center of the American West, located in Griffith Park at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027. It runs May 10, 2013 to January 5, 2014. An exhibition companion book, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, is edited by curator Karen Wilson.

Artwork above by Lorraine Art Schneider, Primer, 1966, etching. Loan courtesy of Carol Schneider and Family. Photo by Susan Einstein. Originally created for an art competition that limited the work to a four-inch square, this image became the logo of the organization Another Mother for Peace and the most famous anti-war poster of the Vietnam War era. Schneider grew up in Boyle Heights, the daughter of Jewish immigrants.

At top, photograph of stores of Jewish proprietors in the Downey Block on Main Street, circa 1870. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Photographs courtesy of the Autry National Center.

— Annie Powers


Ikea-fying Los Angeles

by Alex Schmidt
Photographs by the author

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Financing the Familiar

On a sunny day in northeast Los Angeles, you could take a slow drive around comfortably run-down streets that wend through gentle hills and see it all through the eyes of Steve Jones.

“There’s another one,” Jones says under his breath as he spots the work of a competitor. “Hilarious.”

When Jones started flipping homes (purchasing houses with the goal of selling them for a profit) three years ago, as principal of his design and development company Better Shelter, he was one of few people in the area doing this work. Today, a flipped home can be found on nearly every block in the neighborhood, thanks to at least a dozen small developers or individual flippers getting in on the game—a fact that titillates Jones.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

The houses aren’t difficult to spot. They usually follow some variation of the following pattern: gray or greenish-gray paint, white or brick red trim, a colorful door—mint green, orange, red—and sometimes a colorful accent mailbox. Instantly recognizable horizontal wood-slat fencing is the final touch.

While the push of gentrification eastward from Hollywood is well known—Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock—this area has yet to “turn.” Rising property values and the disappearance of renters as higher-income residents move in—telltale social signposts of gentrification—have not fully arrived. Yet there are other, aesthetic signposts of a coming turn visible to anyone who cares to look. The business-minded are remaking this neighborhood in what many of them call an “Ikea-like” style of development. If the trend continues, it could have ramifications for the neighborhoods well into the future.

The neighborhood

The last pocket of affordable housing stock in that eastward gentrification wave, before you hit long-upscale Pasadena and abutting downtown LA, which sits to the south, includes the neighborhoods of Highland Park, Mount Washington and Glassell Park.

There are a few larger commercialized streets in the neighborhoods, with small corner markets here and there. Three years ago, Highland Park was two-thirds Latino, and many of the businesses have Latino names and sell Mexican or Central American food or products. Several of the homes are surrounded by chain link or iron fences. There are lots of dogs—nearly everywhere, you can hear them barking.

The area was one of the first to be subdivided as Los Angeles spread out beyond its downtown heart in the late 19th century. Like much of LA, there’s no single architectural style here. The homes range from stucco boxes to Craftsman bungalows to Spanish colonial revival, and others. There are a few streets with larger homes, but mainly, the houses are modestly sized, middle-class affairs. The size is perfect for picking up and turning around in a short period of time, and the location makes sense for developers looking to cash in on the gentrification push.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Why they look the same

Developers are notoriously risk averse. A house flip is a gamble to begin with, but a new design adds on cost, plus the possibility that it just won’t sell. Going with a tried and true design is simply a more secure bet in the grand scheme. Beyond that, though, today the cards of the home ownership system are stacked against individual middle-class property owners looking to create their own design. That’s because banks (at least until very recently) won’t lend to them.

Every buyer wants a deal, and in the real estate world, the best deals are distressed properties. With a relatively small investment, a home buyer could turn a dump into the pretty nest she’s dreamed of. But banks refuse to finance sale of these properties to the average borrower. Chris Redfearn, a professor of real estate at USC, says that banks won’t do lending for construction redevelopment: “A house for 200K that [I] plan to put 70K in – I can’t get that loan and I don’t have the equity. So who’s left?”

People like Jones, who have the money. He can spend about $190,000 in cash, put in $80,000 of work, and turn it around four months later for around $400,000.

“Right now, we’re working on about 10 homes,” Jones says. “A lot of them are not financeable because they lack bathrooms or heating systems . . . so we take them and fix them up.” Those fix-ups, rather than reflecting the tastes of individual buyers, are the formulaic ones of developers.

Why people like them

Simply put, the style of these homes appeals to a pervading mindset. With their little plots of land, bucolic, fenced-in yards, fragrant citrus trees, and attractively simple staging furniture, the homes seem to represent the world before complications of contemporary life.

Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban planning at UCLA, believes the recent foreclosure crisis may have something to do with their appeal: “Maybe the American Dream, which we’ve seen so heartily crushed in 2008, is coming back writ large in iconic form. No one [today] really believes they’ll ever own their house, you’ll never get a loan, you won’t have the same spouse, and you’re certainly not going to get old in these houses. You need a more heavy symbolism in these houses to make them work.” The formula for their appeal, she says, “follows the pattern of nostalgic home desires—it’s sort of a pre-nuclear thing . . . The colors are pre-war—they hearken back to 1890 to 1940.”

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Jones concurs. “A lot of what our homebuyers are craving, even if they don’t know it, is authenticity and integrity.”

Yet how authentic is a home that looks similar to so many others nearby? Pricing and construction details reveal that this is in fact a mass-produced, ready-to-wear authenticity. It can be shed easily when the whims of the buyer—or the winds of the economy—change.

A different kind of neighborhood change

The style and staging of the homes suggests that people moving into them are a different crop of homeowner than those who have lived in these neighborhoods in the past. Indeed, homeowners of today are different from homeowners of the past. That’s because the average length of stay in a home in America is no longer a generation.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Andy Wu, a media consultant, and his wife recently bought one of Steve Jones’ flipped homes. Wu is 38, his wife 35. They only plan to stay about 10 years, until they have a family and outgrow the house. He says they liked that everything was designed attractively and in move-in condition; if you don’t plan to stay long, it’s great to have a lifestyle ready upon arrival.

This may be a different kind of neighborhood change than has been seen in the past. It’s not just that higher-income folks are moving in, but that they are moving into homes they plan to leave. The downturn in the market, lending policies of banks, and the spirit of our age have created design-friendly Ikea-esque homes on every corner of this L.A. neighborhood, ready to be bought and not long after, sold again.

A new house or storefront here or there, slowly changing the visual landscape, is the way neighborhood change and gentrification begin. But those early signposts can stay invisible, says Jerome Krase, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has studied gentrification. “Local residents are often oblivious to a single store or home that looks different, or a few young people who move in,” he notes.

Indeed, Highland Park homeowner Gerardo Borja lives next door to a Steve Jones flip. He has lived in his home, a nondescript off-white box with a brown roof and green artificial turf in front, for 46 years. Though the house next to his is about to change, and though the roots of his neighborhood may be shallower than the ones he’s grown in his own home, he says he hasn’t noticed many differences in the area: “We don’t really have time to look around.”

Neighborhood change is incremental until it isn’t. In a city as diffuse as Los Angeles, it can be hard to spot, unless you know the signposts to look for. How will our future neighborhoods look and, more importantly, feel? At some point, probably not too far off, we’ll find out.


That Lonesome Whistle

by Elliot J. Gorn

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Music and loss in the Southland

I left Los Angeles when I was eighteen years old. Left it cold. I didn’t like LA then, don’t like it now, so I’m always pleased when people think that I am from “back East.” I left and never looked back.

Except I’ve returned to the city of my youth at least a hundred times over the last forty years. Most of my family lived in LA and many are buried there. Old and new friends are still scattered around the city, my brother recently moved back, and most important, my daughter—whose mother relocated to Los Angeles shortly after our marriage dissolved twenty-five years ago—has grown to adulthood there.

Still, just thinking about the place makes me uneasy. My ex-wife once ran into my ex-girlfriend at a Los Angeles Starbucks, the sort of thing that I thought happened only in bad television sitcoms. Neither of them had ever set foot in Los Angeles before meeting me. What does it mean that the women I had loved most in my life left me for the town I fled?

Merle Haggard. Photograph by Jason Wolter.

Months earlier, that same ex-girlfriend—who finally bailed on me because, among other things, I was “too negative”—took me to one of LA’s cultural showcases, the Getty Museum, high on a hill, overlooking the city. I was impressed. The architecture was grand, the landscaping artful, the views magnificent. But I couldn’t stop myself from suggesting that the art collection was a little thin, that the Getty’s motto should be “Looks Just Like an Art Museum.” Me, negative?

My routine doesn’t change much each Christmas season: rent a car and drive hundreds of miles in a few days to visit my daughter, my brother, an old high-school buddy and several other friends. An unalloyed pleasure for any normal person.

My last trip, it was dark when I left Chicago, ice treacherous underfoot. I froze on the El platform, roasted in my parka on the way to the airport. I emerged from the terminal at LAX a few hours later into a morning bathed in warmth and sunshine. Within minutes I was tooling around in a nice new car, no work, no responsibilities. I headed down the Santa Monica Freeway to visit some friends in Venice, and we took a walk along the pier. We stood above the Pacific watching waves break toward shore trailing rainbows in the mist. The next day I cruised Interstate 210, my eyes filled with gorgeous green hills, Mediterranean-style homes creeping up their sides, and in the distance, the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. LA’s sky is enormous, its colors breathtaking.

That’s the problem. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “All deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.” LA’s visual feast sates the senses, induces amnesia, and “the industry”—Hollywood—magnifies the effect. Something about the cult of casual beauty here encourages forgetting, as if remembering moments of loss and despair were some sort of personal failure.

I barely notice any more as I drive the foothills, midway between where my brother and my daughter live, the forgotten spot in Lakeview Terrace (lovely name for a dusty, dead-end, working-class suburb, with its three-bedroom-one-bathroom-thousand-square-foot-American-Dream-homes) where several LA cops made media history in 1992 with what can only be called the world’s first “reality TV” video, as they beat nearly to death the hapless Rodney King, the same cops whose acquittal months later touched off a horrific riot. In the words of the city’s adopted anthem, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” from the album appropriately titled Trouble in Paradise: “Look at that mountain,/Look at those trees,/Look at that bum over there, man,/He’s down on his knees.”

I know, I know, I’m being unfair to my hometown. LA’s superficiality is an old cliché. Once you stop expecting it to look like New York or Chicago or San Francisco, then of course you recognize that Los Angeles is its own place, a post-modern city with fascinating neighborhoods, mind-bending diversity, and its own distinctive histories of rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Anglo, not to mention Jews, East Asians, and Middle Easterners. The whole world comes to LA now, and countless writers, historians, filmmakers, poets, and painters have depicted and enriched the town’s cultural life.

But all that feels beside the point. Cities have their self-images: New York’s raw wealth and power, Chicago’s working class and gangster ways, LA’s laid-back, easy “lifestyle.” More than anywhere else I know, pain, conflict, and unpleasantness feel out of place there, even insulting. Or maybe it’s just me. I admit, I’m the sort of person who can be unhappy anywhere, a “can’t-do” kind of guy. Only a wretch resists smiling up at that big white “Hollywood” sign set against a flawless sky. My trips to LA always make me feel guilty for being such a curmudgeon.

Anyway, I’ve developed a habit in my drives around town. I like all kinds of music, but I always plan ahead and pack half a dozen country CDs. Not the pale imitations coming out of Nashville these days, mind you, but the classics—Hank, Merle, Willie, Johnny, George, Waylon. Guy songs. Hurtin’ songs. Los Angeles is about cosmetic surgery; country music is about scars. My tonic for LA’s easy glamour is the sound of America’s heartbreak.

So I’m on the Santa Monica Freeway heading to the west side, to the Pacific, and Merle Haggard is with me, singing of “Rambling Fever,” the need to keep moving on. Merle grew up not far from LA, a hundred miles north in Oildale, near Bakersfield. Mileage doesn’t begin to measure the distance to hardscrabble lives in that hardscrabble landscape. Dust bowl refugees like Haggard’s parents flocked to California from Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Great Depression, keeping body and soul together with migrant farm work and oil field labor. Young Merle was in and out of prison, including hard time in San Quentin, but music was in his blood, and in another few years, he became locally famous, along with Buck Owens, as a founder of the “Bakersfield Sound,” which by the sixties, was the soundscape for many of LA’s white, working class neighborhoods.

“Rambling Fever” is a truckers’ anthem, full of bluster, but sadness, too, at a weary soul’s inability to rest. Like all great music, country’s range of emotions is wide and deep. Haggard turns the feeling around with his next tune, a beautiful little love song, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” as he croons his devotion to his woman, reassures her that he is in it for the long haul. But even in that title there is a hint of discord, a song about love deepening, introduced with words that speak of love fleeing. Love can’t last; it never does. In the next song, his voice heavy with resignation, Merle declares that he’s leaving. Not immediately, though. No, he’ll wait until some day in the future when things are good, when he has the courage, the strength, because he just can’t go when he feels so low. Some day. Some day.

The paralysis Haggard sings about must have been banished from the west side, for all is in happy motion around me—the cars on Pacific Coast Highway, the bicycle-riders and skate-boarders by the sea, the palm trees in the warm wind.

Next on the CD player comes George Jones, the Eugene O’Neill of American country singers. George’s best stuff, and O’Neill’s, comes down to a single theme—our inability to forget what must be put behind us. No easy amnesia here, but the relentless pain of recalling emotional betrayals, ours and others’. With pedal steel wailing behind him (you know you’ve crossed over when pedal steel no longer sounds like caterwauling), George sings of doing time in a honky-tonk prison. Days crawl by, each year feels like ten, but there is no reprieve, no forgiveness, no way out. Yes, yes, I know, the music is lachrymose, manipulative, self-pitying. But loosen the literal narratives of prison and drinking and cheating, take seriously the notion that many of the writers and singers of this music are serious craftsmen of metaphor and allusion, put aside the easy irony of our times, and the emotions, fresh and sharp, come crashing in. George’s voice resonates for a moment with our deep regrets, our buried sadness, the dark wee hours when love fails and absolution eludes us.

George Jones. Photograph by J. Dennis Thomas.

Years ago a student of mine heard me talking about country and dismissed it all as “music for losers.” I was living then in a town in southwest Ohio, teaching at a college where students seldom questioned that they would follow their parents into the suburbs, buy a house as swollen as a goiter, and fill it with stuff. It was the kind of town where the business and professional classes loathed less successful people, feared them, dismissed them as shiftless. The lives of the working class were a mirror that no one wanted to look into. They came mostly from rural Kentucky, and in their part of town—in bars and doughnut shops, in beauty parlors and garages—the sounds of home always played from the radios.

In nearby Ohio cities like Norwood, with its Fisher body plant, and Middletown, with the big Armco steel works, the promise of union jobs turned generations of coal miners into factory workers in the classic post-World War II bargain: brutal labor for a decent standard of living. Dwight Yoakam sang of these people and of his own family—of their trips back and forth, back and forth, north toward opportunity, south toward home—in his fine song, “Reading, Writing, Route 23.” So did Johnny Cash in “One Piece at a Time,” about a Kentucky migrant who lands in Detroit in 1949 to work on the Cadillac assembly line, where over the next twenty years, he smuggles one of those long black beauties out in his lunchbox, piece by piece.

I’m going neither to Detroit nor Kentucky, but Johnny is riding with me now as I head back to my daughter Jade’s place in Pasadena. For fifty years “the Man in Black” sang about workers, prisoners, and outlaws. His career faded by the late seventies, then he stormed back as the old century waned with a series of CDs “The American Recordings,” dozens of tunes, remakes of his own country hits, as well as rock, punk, pop, and folk songs. Usually that kind of crossover proves disastrous, but Cash had something serious in mind, an American songbook that plumbed the depths of family and loyalty, sin and salvation, love and memory, life and afterlife.

Johnny Cash. Photograph by Heinrich Klaffs.

I was in an LA record shop with Jade a few years ago where I bought Johnny’s 2003 compendium, Unearthed, five CDs of outtakes from “The American Recordings.” Jade’s musical taste runs to punk, hip-hop, and some pretty campy pop, but she always liked Johnny, and we sat silently in the parked car sampling several songs, and in particular, “Long Black Veil.” First written in 1950, its dark themes come straight out of traditional murder ballads. Johnny’s version on the 1968 Folsom Prison album was outstanding, but this new one is simply perfect. Told in first person, a man goes to the gallows for murder rather than reveal his alibi, an adulterous affair with his best friend’s wife. Old British folk ballads grab us with melodramatic tales revealed in the sparest language, and “Long Black Veil” borrows from that tradition. The lyrics cut back and forth from the trial and hanging to the windswept graveyard where the woman weeps over her lost lover. More than the story though, it is Cash’s longing baritone, the voice of the hanged man, that holds Jade and me spellbound.

Maybe my student was right, maybe this is music for losers. So much of country dwells in the past, in memory, in the passage of years, in loss. But not all of it. A day or two later, cruising Interstate 210 west of Pasadena, I slide in a CD of country’s poet laureate, Hank Williams, and we ride the foothills together. Hank’s songs remain unsurpassed sixty years after his death. He begins with the lovely and innocent “Hey, Good Lookin’,” where the only assets of a young man trying to make time with a local beauty are a few dollars, a souped-up car, and a gift of gab. “Whatcha got cookin’?” he asks, and we can just imagine them together years later, still finding “some brand new recipes.” This really is country music, filled with rustic imagery, from the comic “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” to the gently erotic “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” to the joyous gospel classic, “I Saw the Light.”

But like the music he godfathered, the genius of Hank Williams—who died on the back seat of his limo, 1 January 1953, on his way to a gig in Canton Ohio, not yet thirty years old, hooked on pain killers, his health, marriage, and career in shambles—is revealed not so much in each piece but in the breadth of his whole work. Moments of contentment only made his fall harder, as he pulled from his soul songs like “Lost Highway,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow,” all about the inexplicable need to flee, to move on, to hop a freight train and disappear, not in joy but in deep, deep sadness.

For all of its bows to tradition, country is truly modern music, and rootlessness is its master trope. The songs’ perpetual longing for home and stability measure what we have lost. Hank’s early stage name was “Luke the Drifter,” and though he chose the life of a celebrity entertainer, he sang lovingly of stable country joys not out of cheap nostalgia but from first-hand knowledge of a dying way of life.

My own parents were dating back in the late 1940s, when Hank’s career took off, though I suspect they rarely listened to his music. My mother’s parents, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, moved their family from New York City to Los Angeles in 1928 when a doctor advised them that LA’s climate would be good for their eldest son, Herman, the family’s bright and shining star. Herman was a scholar and law student, too sickly from the lingering effects of childhood illness to survive another winter back East. Not long after the family arrived in California, he took a job on a San Fernando Valley ranch, where he wrote buoyant letters home, declaring that outdoor work in this healthful landscape surely would cure him. He died within a couple of months, and I don’t believe my mother or her parents ever fully emerged from that shadow.

Hank Williams. Photograph courtesy of Fabio Bruna.

Still, about ten years later, toward the end of the Great Depression, my grandfather opened a men’s clothing store downtown on Seventh and Los Angeles streets, and for a while the store prospered. He sold inexpensive goods, and a lot of his trade was with new migrants to the city, families from the South, Midwest and Plains, many of them dustbowl refugees who found salvation from hard times as America shifted to a war economy and the defense industry boomed in Southern California.

My father first saw Los Angeles in the late thirties, fell in love with the place, and moved out for good after World War II. He took a job downtown, selling men’s clothing for my mother’s father. It was all so American: This young man not only went west, within a couple of years he married the bosses’ daughter. My brother, my sister, and I were born in the early 1950s—when Hank Williams’ life crashed and burned—and those were the years my grandfather’s business failed and a decades-long round of badly paid retail sales jobs began for my father.

One of the only ways I know much about my family before I was born is through stories my parents told about my grandfather’s store. Growing up, we learned that he sponsored a weekly country music program on a local radio station, KRKD. My parents imitated the show’s host, who would say things over the air like “We have received hundreds of requests (the number was closer to three) for the Sons of the Pioneers’ ‘Cool Water,’” and again that old standby would spin. Hanging on the store walls were enormous photographs of movie stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, those singing cowboys of yesteryear who occasionally came in to make personal appearances. In telling us these stories, my parents mocked the customers—they apparently were all toothless and traveled only in enormous families—who stared in awe at the images of their silver-screen idols. Occasionally, these “Okies” sprang for a pair of pants off the dollar table, as my grandfather paced the aisles, muttering darkly.

Such stories had a purpose, though no one said so at the time, and maybe no one really understood it. We lived in a working-class suburb, housing built by the square mile to accommodate the post-war demand. The family next door was from Indiana, and the husband drove a bread truck. Across the street were folks from rural upstate New York; husband and wife worked in one of Lockheed Aircraft’s factories. The families of mailmen and construction workers, machinists and short-order cooks filled out the block. This was not what my parents had in mind for themselves or their children.

“Negroes,” as they were called through the fifties, barely existed in our part of town, and no one in our household viewed them as a particular menace. No, the real threat was the white working-class from the heartland, living cheek by jowl with us as neighbors. These were folks who headed to Newhall for “swap-meets” on Saturdays, or took off to the hills for weekend hunting trips, or watched “demolition derby” on television, or listened to country and western stars like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb on the radio, or went to the Palomino Club on Lankershim Boulevard to dance to a little western swing. We were not supposed to become like them. “Swamp angels,” my father called them; “local-yokels,” “rednecks,” “hayseeds,” “stump-jumpers,” “shit-kickers.” Our family had missed a generation of upward mobility, but my parents were determined that my siblings and I would make up for it with a vengeance.

“You are not a cowboy,” an old girlfriend used to tell me in her Hindi-inflected English; “you’re a Jewish college professor.” True enough. But as I near my brother’s home in the dry seismic country where Interstate 5 merges with the Antelope Valley Freeway, now the enormous suburban developments of Valencia and Santa Clarita—though back in the Los Angeles of my youth, a place where westerns were filmed—Waylon Jennings sings “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Despite the title, this is no valentine. Yes, the music is elegiac as Waylon croons that he grew up dreaming of cowboys. But something is wrong. The subject of the song shifts back and forth from cowboy to singer until they’ve merged. Cowboys and their admirers are wistful dreamers, Waylon tells us, loners who take what they need then move on, leaving behind only sad songs. As if to declare the treachery of appearances, the music continues to sound like an homage to lost heroism but the words cut more and more deeply against that tone. Waylon sings of dreams wasted and youth misspent. In the end, homeless and loveless, even his “high-riding heroes” are left with only worn-out saddles and faded memories. The song is finally about growing old, about dying alone.

Waylon Jennings. Photograph courtesy of Majunznk.

Pretty depressing stuff. But that is why I listen to country music as I drive around Los Angeles: It is a talisman against LA’s corrosive denial of life’s pain. Snow may never get there, but the emotional winters always do. Those good old boys on the CDs can’t cure what ails us, but at least they offer witness to our troubles, along with the solace that comes from shared suffering.


From Ghost World to Your World

by Spring Warren

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

An Interview with Daniel Clowes

Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. He launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent. In April the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Daniel Clowes: A First Survey, on view through 12 August of this year.

Spring Warren: You were born in Chicago, but you’ve been in California now for going on twenty years. What brought you here?

Daniel Clowes: I came to Berkeley for a reading on a particularly nice day in February. It was 80 degrees and I wound up meeting my future wife at a signing.

Warren: Wow. Love and weather.

Clowes: Yeah. We had a long-distance relationship and then she said why don’t you come out to Berkeley and I couldn’t think of any reason not to, you know? The first time I went back to Chicago, there was freezing rain and I had to walk to a bookstore to do a signing where I knew nobody would be because it was the worst weather in the world. I just wondered how people ever settled there.

Warren: Now you’re living in paradise.

Clowes: That’s right.

Warren: You once said that when you close your eyes, you see Chicago. Not California?

Clowes: I saw Chicago for a very long time. I’m not usually dealing directly from experience in my work, but dealing with my own inner life. My stories tend to be based in emotions that have been with me for a long time. But now I feel like California is seeping in or some version of California is multiplying with images of Chicago, so there are palm trees mixed in with the urban blight and my vision of the landscape is now much more Oakland than Chicago.

It took a very long time to tap into the California thing, a self-satisfaction that we have in California—and I’m as guilty of it as anyone—that comes from living in a place like this where the weather is nice and there’s a certain beauty to the landscape that you don’t have anywhere else. I found that sort of off-putting at first and then came to see California, like the East Coast, as one of the two places that you go in America to be as far away from where you come from as possible.

Warren: Which might contribute to a certain colorful eccentricity of characters that show up in your work?

Clowes: I feel like that’s certainly true in this area. I spent many years living right in Berkeley and they’re almost intolerant of non-eccentrics. . . . Like you wouldn’t be welcome if you wanted to sell insurance. But even though I live in a real pocket here where the values are really liberal and you know, everything is very sort of progressive and artsy, all you have to do is drive through the Caldecott Tunnel into the suburbs and then immediately you’ll start seeing Romney stickers and stuff like that.

Warren: Do you sketch in Oakland public spaces—for instance, are the coffee houses in Wilson actual places?

Clowes: All of the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful are based on actual places in and around Oakland, but rather than draw them accurately, taking photos, or doing location sketches, I’m more interested in drawing my memories or impressions of those places, expressing how it feels for me to be in those spaces rather than to transcribe their exact particulars.

Warren: Is there anything about Wilson, the character, that is particular to California? That is, if Wilson the book was set in New York, would he still be the same guy or was there something about Oakland or California that spawned him?

Clowes: He strikes me as uniquely Californian in some way. In New York, for instance, his personality would be easily explained by the anxiety of living in such a dense high-pressure environment, but in the context of Oakland, his peculiarities seem much more self-generated.

Warren: Does the current, rather dismal state of the State of California show up in your narrative line? Like the Bush era being reflected in Death Ray?

Clowes: I am certainly very interested in what’s going in California but I’m not consciously trying to deal with that in my work, though I think anything you immerse yourself in will come out in your fiction; I am sure you know.

Warren: It would seem so with the art world here—your work seems in keeping with the experimentation in narrative form that California is known for.

Clowes: Maybe in a general, zeitgeisty kind of sense, because I really have no connection at all to that world here. I feel kind of purposely out of touch with that stuff.

Warren: Certainly the zeitgeist of comics changed in the nineties—they became more about social commentary than ever before, and graphic novels shifted to being okay for grownups to read. What was going on in the Bay Area then, and were there particular artists in California you were influenced by?

Clowes: Certainly Robert Crumb and some of the other Underground Cartoonists of the sixties were based in the Bay Area, and they had a great impact on what we were and are doing. Among California artists, my favorites are the architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and above all, Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo, The Birds, and Shadow of a Doubt are three of the greatest Northern California films, along with Coppola’s The Conversation.

Warren: I heard from one of the curators that there was great excitement over your upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California. That artists like Alicia McCarthy and Barry McGee and Ruby Neri are all great admirers of your work. Do you interact with these artists?

© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: I don’t know them personally. I actually know who those three artists are, but that’s because they’re like the biggest of the big.

Warren: Maybe at this moment they’re having a conversation along the lines of “I’ve never met Daniel Clowes but I know who he is, ’cause he’s one of the greats.”

Clowes: No, I doubt it. I doubt it extremely.

Warren: You lived in Berkeley for a while. Were you relieved to move to Oakland because of a certain second-tierism you’ve mentioned?

Clowes: Yeah. Oakland feels like the weak sister to San Francisco, and you know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is really the neglected half of the city compared to the north side. When I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn, which at that time, was not cool. And it was certainly the lesser part of the city when compared to Manhattan, so I’ve always found myself in those sorts of neighborhoods and I often wonder if I actually feel more comfortable there and that’s why I wind up there, or if it’s just sheer coincidence.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: You also worked for Cracked magazine.

Clowes: Yeah. The sad little brother of Mad.

Warren: I saw a photograph of you, perhaps around that time, posing with some fans in a comic shop, and you wrote about how uncomfortable it was, that you didn’t really know these people and they had your comics in a box in the adult section.

Clowes: Always. Even as a teenager I was interested in comics and wound up being sort of pen pals with some other guys who did comics in that area. You know, you see somebody’s address who’d written a letter to a comic and you’d write them a letter. That’s how you’d meet people back before the Internet days. And you wind up going over to their house for some party or something. We’d all like comics, but I had nothing else at all in common, you know. Even the stuff they liked about comics was the stuff that I actively disliked about it, and it made me even more alienated. You can talk to somebody for a few minutes, however, and the way they respond to the work, you can surmise a lot about them. You see the parts of the work that they respond to and you do feel connected to them in a way that’s much more profound that you’d imagine.

Warren: In all the interviews and public appearances that I’ve read and seen, you’re just fantastically popular, scads of people in the audience, very erudite, self-possessed. I imagine you being put up in the poshest digs with chocolates on the pillow. That hasn’t always been the case?

Clowes: Back before there were graphic novels, when they were just comic books, I would be invited to a comic store in another city and I’d drive fifteen hours to get there and wind up staying on the guy’s floor. Then you’d go to the signing, and you’d realize it’s just the comic shop owner and his five friends. When you’d go out to dinner afterward, you’re like held hostage until three in the morning. I remember one time staying at somebody’s house, sleeping on their couch, and to get to the bathroom, they said you have to go through this door and our roommate’s asleep in there. So I enter this room where this guy was asleep and he woke up yelling, “Who the hell are you?!”

Warren: That’s all changed?

Clowes: Even recently I agreed to do a little slide show for one of my books, and at every single venue they didn’t have the right adapter for my computer and the audience had to just look at my back while we’re trying to figure out the computer. I figured they hated me by the time I could do anything. It rarely goes well.

Warren: You said at readings that people are sometimes disappointed that you are not Enid from Ghost World?

Clowes: Yeah. I mean, I’ve certainly had that feeling of meeting an artist of some kind and you feel like you’re going to connect with some character that you really respond to and you realize it’s just a guy who made that up and spent hours and hours revising it to get it to feel the way it did and it didn’t just spring straight from their id onto the page. It’s something that takes a lot of effort and solitude to come up with.

Warren: Speaking of solitude—when you were thirteen, you idolized Wally Wood [one of Mad magazine’s founding artists] and said at that age you wanted to be a cartoonist even more than you wanted to draw cartoons. That you loved the idea of obsessively drawing all night when no one else was awake, with a cigarette dangling from your lip and a jar of pencils at hand.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Do you now like being a cartoonist more than you like to draw?

Clowes: Back when I was sort of looking to be like Wally Wood, the actual act of sitting down and drawing was often a struggle. I was really trying to learn how to do this stuff and had a vision of how I wanted it to look, a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then to achieve that was much more difficult than I ever imagined it, so I was just constantly frustrated and I was always throwing my pencils on the ground and storming off. I never would finish the day feeling like I did a great job. I would always think Goddammit, I’ve gotta fix this tomorrow. It really was very unsatisfying. It’s only been in the last ten or fifteen years that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do or what I set out to do, or at least I don’t put the pressure on myself to do something that I know is impossible. I kind of know what I’m capable of and so it’s much more fun. Your brain gets acclimated to doing this thing and now I feel utterly at ease when I sit down to draw. It’s tremendously challenging still and there’s still frustrations, but it’s something I can’t not do at this point.

Warren: You’ve talked about how a lot of your projects took off when you thought that your career was over. For instance, Eightball happened because you couldn’t bear to do any more Lloyd Llewellyn, and Wilson came at a time when you were struggling with this weighty tome of a book and really didn’t want to keep waking up in the morning to work on it.

© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: So now that you are a celebrity, maybe even a commodity in some way, does this create expectations that could interfere with your work—like you’re being asked to create the millionth Deborah Butterfield horse?

Clowes: (laughs) You know, I certainly don’t, there’s nothing of that in my daily life. Nobody ever calls me and nobody ever recognizes me on the street, so that there’s no sense of that at all. I mean, really, I feel more anonymous than I ever did. Back when people actually wrote letters and stuff, I used to get thirty–forty letters a week from people and anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. Now there’s no response at all. So while I’m very self-conscious in many ways, I’m not at all in terms of the work I do. I don’t really think about how anybody’s going to receive it until it’s basically done and it’s too late, and then I start to agonize over it. When I’m working, it’s a very personal thing, not for anybody else, and I’m only thinking about myself. I mean, the one exception to that would have been Mr. Wonderful, that I was doing for the New York Times Magazine. I was actually thinking about an audience, but that very quickly changed.

Warren: You’ve been very free in terms of shifting styles. Wilson, in particular, is noteworthy, as within the comic itself the work goes from more naturalistic illustrations to highly stylized ones in the turn of a page. It seems a sort of lens in which one views the exact same things happening to the same characters in a totally different way. And even when you sort of go more, maybe, classically cartoony, it reads even more tragically, you know, in a really intriguing way.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: How did you arrive at this collection of styles?

Clowes: When I first started, I did all these little strips while I was with my dad in the hospital, stick figures. The work was all just about the writing and the rhythm of the comic strips that had nothing to do with the drawing. When I got home and it finally dawned on me that I was gonna have to do this as a book, I set out to come up with a style that would work for all of these strips. And I found that a certain style would work well for some of them and not for others, and vice versa. I was getting very frustrated by that and I just couldn’t figure out if I was just gonna do some sort of middle-ground style that worked fairly well for everything. . . . Finally, I started looking at all my drawings and trying to figure out what style I was gonna pick, and I realized that all of them together were what I needed to do and that my brain had kind of solved the problem already and I just hadn’t noticed it.

You know, the result was really what the book was about and what I was trying to get across. [It] was something you can really only do in comics, where you can shift a style like that and all of a sudden it shifts the perceptions of the reader, but not to the degree that they get lost. They still follow the story, and after a few of these shifts, they’re used to that and it’s not jarring at all. The shifts become a way that colors the events that are going on. I found you could play with emotion to such subtle degrees by shifting the style; it was endlessly enthralling to work on that every day.

Warren: Wilson, the character, didn’t occur to you first as an image, is that right?

Clowes: With Wilson, the character just emerged without me even knowing what he looked like. He just existed as this stick figure that had a fully formed personality from the very first couple of little thumb-nail drawings I did of him, and it was just a matter of note-taking, just like writing down everything he said. He became one of those very rare characters that can lead you rather than you leading them, and so I just let him go. I would give him a situation and think, what would he do with this? And then, next thing I knew, I’d have a six-panel strip. That was a very different experience from most projects, which are much more of a struggle to get it all to work and for the character to come alive.

Warren: Is starting out with stick figures a pretty typical way for you to work?

Clowes: No. No. I work differently every time.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: When people have asked is Wilson really you, you said something along the lines of being more the person that would be victimized by Wilson.

Clowes: Yeah. I don’t think it was conscious, certainly, but if you look at the guys that Wilson victimizes throughout the course of the story, they’re all basically versions of me.

Warren: All tall, lanky guys.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren:Wilson follows a man through his middle years. Ghost World is about teenagers. I love the way that your work bounces back and forth between these two age categories and it seems there are a lot of similarities between them—facing big changes in your life that might be exciting and might be terrifying—and you’ve got all these big questions about why am I here and what should I be doing, and also some huge feelings of hating the rules of the world, just rejecting them. Is this just my imagination that you’re working back and forth between these two places?

Clowes: I think they’re both really interesting times. When you’re a late teenager it’s kind of your one opportunity to define yourself and so the pressure is on. And I think that’s a really interesting dilemma to have to face. Then in middle age, I feel like it’s very different than what I imagined it was gonna be. You think of yourself as not being so plagued with self-doubt when you hit a certain age.

Warren: That’s for sure.

Clowes: And if anything, if anything, it’s certainly, possibly, worse.

Warren: I have noticed that at two in the morning.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Wondering if that story line is going to work or not . . . Do you agonize over narrative? I mean, when people think of comics, they think about the visuals carrying the story.

Clowes: In comics, really, the writing is the drawing in a lot of ways.

Warren: But it’s not like the words don’t matter, that if you can draw a picture you can necessarily make a strip.

Clowes: Yet, when I’m writing I would never think in terms of blocks of text or, you know, in terms of dialogue or anything like that. I think in terms of how the images are going to go together and tell the story. And I would hope that in any of my books, if you couldn’t read English, you could still figure out what’s going on in the story. The visual component would let you know the basics of what’s happening. And that’s what’s really interesting to me.

Warren: You do all of your work from top to bottom, your own inking and coloring and lettering?

Clowes: Yeah, absolutely.

Warren: That’s unusual. Do you ever think, gosh, I just hate lettering. I’m sending it out to have it done.

Clowes: I love the lettering, but I hate, I hate doing the computer coloring. That’s the one thing that I think at some point, I could at least hire somebody else to do all the computer files and I could pick the colors, but I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. I have, like, separation anxiety. It’s hard to let go.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: There’s something about seeing the forms and colors in place to know if it’s really right.

Clowes: Yeah. That’s true and you know, there’s something about getting a book back from a printer and knowing I did every mark on the page. There’s nothing at all that’s not mine except for the UPC code on the back—which if I could do it by hand, I would.

Warren: It must be interesting, then, to relinquish your work to a museum to present it to the public. How did the exhibit for the Oakland Museum come about and what’s it like to go from comic book to museum wall?

Clowes: A curator named Susan Miller first approached me around five years ago with the idea of putting together a museum show, and through her tireless efforts and some luck it wound up going to my favorite local museum. I’m very curious how it will feel to see people experiencing the work in such a different way. My hope, of course, is that they will see the original pages as artifacts of the process of making comics and will seek out the books, which are the actual final works.


Constructing the Edge

by Anthony Raynsford

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Architecture in a Turbulent Age

Book Review: Design on the Edge, A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, edited by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell, College of Environmental Design, Berkeley, 2009.

In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)

This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.

This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?

Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.

The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)

Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.

During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)

Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.

Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.

At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.

Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.

It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.

Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.


War Furniture

by Jason Weems

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body

The influence of husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames is ubiquitous in American culture and encompasses an array of expressive forms from architecture, interior design and furniture to the graphic arts, cinema, photography and educational exhibitions. Most well known, the Eameses’ chairs with their smooth surfaces and biomorphic contours have become signature forms of postwar California culture and icons of modern design.

Photograph of Eames Splint in Use, circa 1943. (Source: Donald Albrecht, World War Two and The American Dream, 1995, P. 60) Image Courtesy Of The Library Of Congress.

Surprisingly, the roots for these objects lay not in the sleek and optimistic postwar aesthetic that shaped the corporate office, airport, or suburban home, but rather in the carnage and injury of World War Two. Although Charles Eames had first experimented with molded plywood construction under the tutelage of Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the late Thirties, it was in wartime Los Angeles that the design duo embarked upon their first large-scale fabrication in that medium. 1 Their product was not furniture but leg splints. In 1942 the United States Navy commissioned the Eameses to produce lightweight plywood traction splints for use on warships. The splints needed to be strong and durable enough to hold up under stress, yet also sufficiently light and nimble to facilitate easy navigation of confined shipboard spaces. Most important, they needed to provide a stable armature for the wounded human body—whose integrity and function had been compromised by laceration, fracture, burn, and other physical traumas. Like their later furniture, the Eameses married their technological innovations in compound molding to their organic and functionalist design aesthetic in order to craft a splint whose support surfaces conformed to the natural shape and composition of the human body. By war’s end, over 150,000 leg splints had been produced.

Treated too often as a footnote in the narrative of their contribution to modern design, the splint in fact played a seminal role in shaping the Eameses’ design philosophy. 2 The splint project required the designers not only to focus on the human figure in a conventional way, but also to reframe their consideration of it in terms of damage and dysfunction. If modern design had heretofore treated the human body as an idealized abstraction, these conventions appeared suddenly inadequate in face of the raw corporeality of rendered flesh, shattered bones, and ruptured psyches. Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised—a task that included Charles’s use of his own body in modeling and testing the splint—pushed the Eameses into a new mindset. If healthy bodies were culturally inoffensive, wounded and disabled physiques (then and still today) invoked feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, pity, distrust, and even humiliation and shame. The etiology of broken bodies, in other words, was as much cultural and psychological as it was physical.

Charles and Ray Eames (Evans Products Company, Molded Plywood Division, Manufacturer). Leg Splint. 1942. Plywood, 3 7/8″ × 42″ × 7 7/8″ Image Courtesy Of San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Designing for these circumstances required the Eameses to bolster their usual attention to functionality and aesthetics with a new consideration: empathy. The Eames splint became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices, not only because of its innovation in materials and artistry, but also for the way that its anthropomorphized contours made it feel and look like an organic extension of the limb to which it attached. Just as the physical act of pulling traction returned the disfigured limb to normal form, the splint’s visual and tactile naturalism provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit. Unlike other splints that made little effort to deflect the artificiality of their materials and structure, and thereby mediate the divide between natural body and industrial prosthetic, the Eames design pursued the possibility of a more organic and empathetic interconnection of subject and armature. Cutting a new path through the technophilism of wartime research, their splint positioned the body—and more importantly, the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam.


When the Eameses returned to peacetime projects at war’s end, they continued their concern for the needs of both mind and body. Though they did not pursue further design work with splints and prosthetics, their postwar furniture retained the substance of wartime lessons. Designed for normative (and idealized) bodies and standard spaces, the Eames chairs and lounges nonetheless retained an ethos of empathy. The Eames chair, for example, became a paragon of effective design precisely because of its deep adaptability to needs of the weary body. Its celebrated visual aesthetic, though rarely discussed in these terms, is perhaps best understood to be an outgrowth of this compassionate functionality.

Charles And Ray Eames Lounge Chair And Ottoman, Introduced In 1956. Photograph By Casey Marshall.

While there are limits to the correlations to be drawn between the desecration of wartime injury and the weariness of middle class bodies, the Eameses’ practices also have important implications for more contemporary understandings of disability design. In privileging the integrity of the body as their foremost criterion, they inverted a tendency in disability engineering to think primarily to the conditions of the technology rather than those of the human form and psyche. Likewise, their application of lessons learned from devising leg splints to designing furniture challenged the hierarchies, distances, and divergences that American culture usually asserts between normative and differently constituted bodies.

1. The literature on Charles and Ray Eames is too extensive to list here. The most thorough scholarly discussion on the topic is: Patricia Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). For more focused consideration of the Eames chair, see the recent anthology: Martin Eidelberg, Patricia Kirkham, et al., The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (New York: Merrill Press, 2006).

2. One account that does consider the splint’s production history in detail is the comprehensive Eames chronology: John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (New York: Henry Abrams, 1989), 27–35 passim. I also discuss the culture of wartime research in Los Angeles and its impact on the Eameses’ design philosophy in my forthcoming essay: Jason Weems, “Vision at California Scale: Charles and Ray Eames, Systems Thinking, and the Diminishing Status of the Human Body After World War Two” in Where Minds and Matters Meet: Technology in California and the West, ed. Volker Janssen (Berkeley: Huntington Library/University of California Press, forthcoming).


The Quotidian Patio

by Susan Straight

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

From Good Living to Decadence

The quotidian patio. A cement square or even a long narrow apron of concrete. An aluminum roof or green plastic, crenellated so when rain ran down in rivulets, children imagined they were inside a waterfall. Supports of wrought iron or aluminum, sometimes wreathed with molded-metal leaves or vines for decoration. To cook? A hibachi or small Weber barbecue, the coals glowing like red piles of shredded wheat. To sit? Plastic lawn furniture, or metal chaise lounges with oilcloth cushions that stuck to skin and sealed in the sweat on a hot day, even in the patio shade.

Almost every yard I visited in my southern California childhood had this patio. Every ranch house in every tract, my uncle’s in Chatsworth, my friends’ in Riverside, my grandmother’s mobile home in Hemet.

We spun skateboards in dizzying circles around and around the cement, or sat on the strapped-plastic rockers listening to adults who laughed and drank Sangria. The 1970s. A patio was quintessential California.

Not a veranda or gallery or wrap-around porch or screened-in front. The patio was carefree, outdoor living.


Not now. If judged by countless ads in newspapers and magazines and television shows, California currently aspires to The Outdoor Room. The Extension of the House.

This isn’t about jealousy. It’s a little about nostalgia. But it’s also about the environment, and what we think of when we think of outdoors, and living. Must we tame every inch of the land we own? Are we afraid to have nothing to do out there? Didn’t we used to go outside to escape the formality and cleaning and worry of inside?


The Outdoor Room has real furniture, and coffee tables, and rugs, and lamps, and gauzy drapes at the edge of a structure such as a gazebo or permanent trellis. Copper firepits once were de rigueur, but now coveted are actual (though gas-fired) fireplaces, built into masonry walls. Chandeliers or elaborate lanterns overhead are advertised as appropriate. And there must be an actual built-in bar and grill in an island clad in granite or steel, with tall stools along the bar, and even a small refrigerator or stovetop so you don’t have to go inside to cook.

In other words, it’s a kitchen, dining area, and living room—outside. Under a covering of some kind. More house. More to clean and furnish, even in rain and wind.

And the yard? Pools, yes, but also multi-level fountains, waterfalls, small putting greens near The Outdoor Room.


By pools I don’t mean the above-ground kind some people used to have in my old neighborhood, or the small plastic kind which some people have in the front yards of my present neighborhood. (We don’t need to talk about the infinity pools, which I’ve only been close to one time, and I still don’t understand how the water spills endlessly into the horizon because I was afraid to go investigate.)

Stay with the patio. The word patio comes from the Spanish, those lovely private courtyards which we still see in Spain, in Mexico, in Italy, and in many architectural layouts here in California—especially the Mission Revival or Spanish-style homes of the past. And think of the missions. Each one was designed around a patio, where the residents gathered to feel a cool breeze or night air, to be protected in a central enclosed area against raiders, to visit and eat and pray.

Visitors to the missions today can see the particular appeal, and why those Spanish friars and priests transported the idea of the patio to California. But the Native Americans already had their own outdoor gathering areas, which influenced the patios of the missions where they worked and cooked and did laundry—seldom voluntarily.


The various tribes in southern California had enramadas, outside spaces swept clean, shaded by wooden structures covered with palm fronds laid in a fringed pattern of shelter. Under these places they gathered daily and nightly, in the heat and in the cool. They tended firepits, sat on chairs and benches, wove baskets, and conversed. I remember sitting at San Juan Capistrano, in the patio, as a child, and thinking it the most beautiful place in the world. I remember travelling around America as a young adult and noticing what was different about the way people sat outside: porches in Minnesota and Massachusetts, screened against mosquitoes; verandas and galleries in Florida and Louisiana, with painted wooden floorboards and slow fans built into the wooden ceilings; fire escapes with one chair and a potted plant in New York City, which I thought the most exotic way to be outside back then.

But I loved my childhood patio.

On my own small brick-paved square in the backyard, under a wooden trellis tangled with wisteria, I still have a plastic-strapped rocker and the redwood picnic table my mother bought for her own first patio, a small cement rec-tangle attached to the back of her one-bedroom house in Glen Avon, California. I have a loveseat and coffee table as well—all-weather wicker from Kmart.


The magazines, however, show the elaborate, orchestrated Outdoor Rooms some Californians might love better, behind houses with cathedral ceilings and great rooms, screening rooms, and exercise rooms, eat-in kitchens and formal dining rooms. New tract homes advertised with up to six bedrooms and six bathrooms. And still another extension of formality and display seems necessary.

The quotidian patio may not be cool enough. But its simple elements can be cleaned with a quick hose-wash. And I’ve heard that Sangria, in an ironic and hip kind of winking way, is making a comeback.


Off the Grid

by Susan Straight
Photography by Douglas McCulloh

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Undercover independence

This is the state we’re in—the California that people love to jeer in a perennial way, the one they used to say would be “the first failed state!” with a certain glee. They are from most any other state, and they think we all live in The Hills of Hollywood-Malibu-Laguna, a fictional place where we get plastic surgery, drink endless lattes, and rise from our hot tubs to descend directly from our crumbling/fire-flood-prone/iceplant-laden cliff onto our own private beaches. But we are not the only state this season with budget impasses, with shutdowns and IOUs and intransigent politicians who will not bend, even when people are going hungry.

Taxes. That is what all the arguments seem to be based on. We are a state sorely divided by the issue of raising taxes. Here in Riverside County, Supervisor Jeff Stone (born in Los Angeles, raised in Anaheim) has called for secession! He wants to split the state into two entities—I would live in South California, which doesn’t even sound right. My own assemblyman, Ken Calvert (born and raised in Corona, worked at his father’s restaurant) is focused mostly on immigration, according to the frequent mailers I receive about securing the border.

But we won’t fail, contrary to the barely camouflaged derision of other Americans watching us, thinking we’re sinking fast because of taxes, immigration, and government.

Oh, government might be failing. At every level, our state—which was headed by Arnold S, born in Austria, but now by Jerry Brown, someone whose father was an icon to my own parents—is plodding toward Epic Fail, as my kids like to say. There could be no more perfect phrase with which to describe it.

But we’re not failing. We’re just off the grid, as people put it, and under the radar, in every way possible. Politicians don’t seem to know us or pay attention to how we’re living. We are invisible, and that’s fine with us, as long as we’re not epically failing. Many of our transactions are unfettered by taxation or representation. They are based in kinship and geography and loyalty, and bred from years of government indifference.

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

I live a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, in Riverside. Ah, the Inland Empire, the misunderstood, vaguely cinematic, desert-like place where we are all related to biker gangs (yes, The Hell’s Angels did begin here in Fontana) and only make the national news when we pass legislation limiting our backyard rooster ownership to two. I have four chickens, myself, one of which is a Mexican fighting hen I inherited from my brother, also born here. He was encouraged to raise fighting roosters by his neighbor out in the orange groves, Big José, born in Chihuahua. My brother was unable to teach his roosters to fight, because he loved them, so instead he taught them to sit on the couch beside him and watch NFL games while eating Doritos. The mother of some of those roosters lives in my yard now. Her name is Coco. I inherited her after my brother died in 2002.

Today, I bought extra tamales from Angel Jr., my tamale guy born in East LA, who comes Thursdays in his white truck with the compartment filled with varieties of homemade tamales. I’d been saving for a few years to put a brick path in my backyard; I’d recently given away the third-hand, metal swing set that my three daughters and countless friends had loved for years. The absence of the swing set, and two of my three daughters who grew up and left for college, left an ache in my chest, so I called my friend Luis, born in Corona, and he recommended Ofa, born in Tonga, who was now in the yard with his cousin and three nephews, laying brick.

I bought Angel’s tamales for the bricklayers because the previous day they’d requested shrimp burritos from Señor Baja, our local taco place. That’s why I love California. While Ofa and his relatives, born in Tonga and raised in Hawaii and now living in Ontario and Rialto and San Bernardino, who all speak Tongan among each other and English to me, ate lunch, I got in my car.

I left my hundred-year-old former orange grove farmhouse and drove down my street, past my neighbor S, born in Oakland, who is working as a funeral singer for our nearby Catholic church. I waved at another neighbor K, born in Riverside, who unloaded lumber; an elementary school teacher, he is doubling the size of his house. No McMansions in my neighborhood; his original wood-frame house is 650 square feet, and he’s building a second bedroom after twenty years.

I drove past the hospital where I was born, and then the new multistory building downtown where a giant metal dome, which cost $1.2 million, sits on one corner of the roof, looking exactly like a juicer for oranges. My neighbors find this hilarious since our city was once the citrus capital of the nation (in 1882, of the more than one-half million citrus trees in California, half were in Riverside) with the highest per capita income in America (in 1895, we had that distinction, due to citrus exports).

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

Riverside County’s reported unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation—16 percent—and has been for over two years. The foreclosure rate is one of the highest as well. But we have done this before—when our steel mill was disassembled and sold to China, when the Air Force Base was made into a reserve facility, and now, when the entire country remains in meltdown.

I drove to San Bernardino, past a towing yard where last year I retrieved my middle daughter’s Honda after it was stolen and stripped down to the frame. We put it back together with seats and door panels bought from Pick-A-Part, the locally famous junkyard where my ex-husband and his friends, all born in the same hospital as I was, scour cars for any particular item they need.

In San Bernardino, my mother, who was born in Switzerland, had her first job in 1955, at a Household Finance Loan company. Back then, she saw loans refused every day, because people didn’t have a steady salary, because they were the wrong color, because someone was in a bad mood. There was no subprime, no zero-down.

A few miles directly west of the red light where I stopped, my grandparents lived in Fontana after they immigrated from Switzerland in the 1950s. My grandfather, a former Swiss train conductor, worked for the Riverside Cement Company. My grandmother was a nurse for Kaiser Steel’s company healthcare program—Kaiser Permanente. It was one of the nation’s first HMOs when it began to offer industrial healthcare for California steel mill workers. My grandmother has told me stories of injured steelworkers during the 1950s being brought to a wooden building in the yard where she tended to them.

Back at my house, Ofa and his cousin and three nephews had finished laying bricks. Ofa’s cousin was a world-class surfer and rugby player, and he had just brought back from Tonga a long piece of sugar cane, which he balanced against my fence, built years ago by me and my neighbor J, born in Texas.

He told me, “Much better than American sugar cane. It’s soft. Better for eating.”

His wife was born in England. He met her when he played rugby there. Their son, born in Rialto, standing beside me, thought he was a ladies’ man and inquired about my daughters. On his forearm was tattooed KILLA. Ofa and his cousin and I, all in our forties, rolled our eyes at him.

Ofa sawed off a section of the sugar cane and handed it to me. It had five buds at the joints, shaped like tiny plump shields. Each bud will grow a new stalk after I plant it in the backyard, next to the lemon-scented ti grass given to me by Maria, the woman across the street, who was born on a rural farm in the Philippines and came here years ago when she married an American serviceman. The day she gave me the seedling-bunch of grass, she sat on my porch and told me a story about a woman in her village who turned into a dog at night, how she’d seen this woman transform.

On the other side of the sugar cane is my first navel orange tree, the kind originally planted by Eliza Tibbets, born in Cincinnati, who began the citrus industry in 1873 when she put into the Riverside ground (about six miles directly west of my home) two navel orange seedlings from Bahía, Brazil, sent to her by a USDA agriculturist in Washington, D.C.

We will not fail epically, in the backyards and driveways and parking lots of California. It doesn’t matter where we were born. The government will have little to do with it. We will make deals and give each other plants and fix each other’s cars and hand each other worn, creased dollar bills, and then tell a few stories before we go on our way.