Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When It Was Still a Hill (John Fante's Downtown Los Angeles)

I wrote this piece over the summer for the new "Downtown Weekly," but they don't pay, so "highwayscribery" wins. It's a look at old Bunker Hill, now a cultural-corporate corridor, through the eyes of L.A.'s own John Fante.



Travel writer Charles Keeler wrote of downtown circa 1900, “...the charm of Los Angeles lies in its combination of hills and level reaches, of massive business blocks and, but a few squares removed, residences set in the midst of gardens where tropical plants and brilliant flowers thrive. The beautiful Sierra Madre mountains form an ever-present background for the city, blue and jagged in outline, with summits of snow during winter months.”

Those residences and gardens were on Bunker Hill, the property of a 19th century Victorian aristocracy enriched by oil revenues and banking services they provided to capitalize them.

In 1901, J.W. Eddy built the Angel's Flight funicular. By then, the neighborhood had lost its shimmer and apartment buildings rose up alongside the old Victorian mansions whose occupants headed into “suburbs” such as West Adams and Angeleno Heights.

The Hill was viewed as an obstacle to traffic in and out of downtown from those same suburbs. City Engineer Henry Babcock noted that, “architecturally [Bunker Hill] has not kept pace with the modernly growing parts of the city.”

By the 1930s, Bunker Hill was a renters district. An amalgam of apartment buildings, boarding houses and cheap hotels sheltering a working class that labored below in downtown proper.

In his novel “Ask the Dust,” author John Fante's alter ego, Arturo Bandini, returns home to Bunker Hill, “past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.”

The neighborhood's steady decline finally resulted in a leveling of The Hill to make way for the corporate towers and cultural institutions we know today.

There are sepia-tinged pictures of life on Bunker Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. Fante's writings provide a perfect companion to them, fill in the black and whites of the imagery with color in conversations, character, drama.

Poet Charles Bukowski, deceased dean of Los Angeles versifiers, said Fante was his “God” and that as a young man he adopted the irascible Bandini as his own alter ego.

Fante enjoyed youthful success as an author and screenwriter, but it was offset by an attack of diabetes that left him blind. Said Bukowski in a forward to “Ask the Dust,” Fante's story “is the story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.”

In “Ask the Dusk,” Bandini is living in a weekly hotel on Bunker Hill during the Great Depression. He's trying to survive by writing and things are not going well, his low life peopled with odd balls and economic castaways drawn to The Hill's cheap housing.
John Fante

“One night,” he writes, “I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.”

A close reading highlights the fact our downtown isn't “down” from anything, the way downtown Manhattan is actually down-island from uptown. Our downtown is in the “middle” and is pretty much the only place people from the east and west sides actually mingle.

The night, Bandini remembers, is important because he was late on rent and was faced with paying out or packing up. He is five weeks overdue and owes the landlady $20.

He decides to go for a walk and it is through a downtown of which only traces remain.

The anti-hero goes to a restaurant, orders a coffee “that tasted pretty much like coffee,” takes in a newspaper and “noted with satisfaction that Joe DiMaggio was still a credit to the Italian people...”

He takes Angel's Flight down into what we call the Historic Core.

“I walked down Olive Street past a dirty yellow apartment house that was still wet like a blotter from last night's fog... Then I went down the Hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories, and on down Olive to the Philharmonic Auditorium...”

The environment is neither friendly or pleasing. It is the height of the machine age and downtown is a configured mechanism itself.

“And so I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise, and the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad, and the black pavement still wet from the fog of the night before.”

Passing the Biltmore Hotel, he has little time to indulge the instant disliking he takes for the doorman “with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity,” because his eye is drawn to a couple of swells exiting a fancy black car.

The woman “was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside his swinging doors.”

Young, hungry, economically impotent, Fante yearns for his favorite lady, the city itself: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

His utterance has been echoed down the decades by newcomers in search of some golden ring only to meet with the brass knuckles of a reality soaked in sunshine patina.

“The uprooted ones,” writes Bandini, “the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise. They belonged.”

Bandini sells his short story The Little Dog Laughed, soothes his landlady and gets a bit of separation between himself and resident neighbors such as Mr. Hellfrick, who “was an atheist, retired from the army, living on a meager pension, scarcely enough to pay his liquor bills, even though he purchased the cheapest gin on the market.”

Flush with newly inflated ambition and a thickened wallet, Bandini heads downtown again to see what life holds for a man of his surging stature.

“A night for my nose,” he says, “a feast for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the flowers, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep across the top of Bunker Hill. The city spread out like a Christmas tree, red and green and blue. Hello, old houses, beautiful hamburgers singing in cheap cafes, Bing Crosby singing too.”

Bandini takes the steps down Angel's Flight (140 of them, he informs) “with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it, claustrophobia.”

You don't see many pedestrians opting for the Third Street Tunnel, but Fante is writing before L.A. becomes a freeway metropolis. Later, Bandini takes his ill-fated love Camilla to the beach by gunning Olympic Boulevard the whole way.

But on this celebratory night his first stop is a burlesque show on Main Street to see someone named Lola Linton.

Chuck Bukowski

Upon exiting he encounters, “Main Street after the show, midnight: neon tubes and a light fog, honky tonks and all night picture houses. Second hand stores and Filipino dance halls, cocktails 15 cents, continuous entertainment, but I had seen them all, so many times.”

He walks to the “Mexican Quarter,” which is not part of present day downtown argot, but sounds much like Olvera Street with its adobe church, “Plaza,” and proximity to the old Chinatown that was moved to make room for Union Station.

He makes a play for some gal who turns out to be a prostitute and she is picked up by a Mexican guy and Bandini watches them depart: “They walked under the banana trees in the Plaza, their feet echoing in the fog. I heard the Mexican laugh. Then the girl laughed. They crossed the street and walked down an alley that was the entrance to Chinatown. The oriental neon signs made the fog pinkish. At a rooming house next door to a chop suey restaurant they turned and climbed the stairs. Across the street upstairs a dance was in progress. Along the little street on both sides yellow cabs were parked.”

There is something pedestrian, village-like and intimate to Fante's downtown that urban planners have striven for decades to regenerate.

Somewhat deflated, Bandini returns to Spring Street and stops in a bar “across the street from the second-hand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. An old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.”

In Fante's writing, we find downtown's past unaltered from all that has transpired until our times. It is a downtown at the center of things, served by trolleys and subway and strange tracks that climb hills.

It is the downtown of when Bunker Hill was still a Hill.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Send in the Clowns

Word from Italy is that Marco Pannella has died. He was a unique political leader of a more unique political formation known as the Radical Party. In 1987, I was visiting Italy when the party successfully ran a porn actress for Parliament, putting Pannella and his group in the international spotlight. I was able, with the help of my good friend Gilbert D'Ambrosio, to craft this piece and sell it to the "L.A. Weekly," travel column, "Other Places."

Give 'em Hell in Heaven Marco!



In Italy, Democracy Makes a Bed for Some Strange Fellows

In Italy, sex and politics have finally been joined in unholy matrimony following the election of reigning porn queen Cicciolina (“Little Cuddly One”) to the national Chamber of Deputies. The man responsible for this transgression against all things good in decent in the country Pope John Paul calls home?

Meet Marco Pannella, founder and driving force behind the Partito Radicale.

The Radicale, vigilant advocate of 2.5 percent of the voting population, is a political dwarf when one considers the numbers racked up by the likes of the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats.


Pannella protesting (as usual).

What's unique about I Radicali is how effectively they communicate their message despite their diminutive stature. During the campaign, one could open a newspaper to page one and see Cicciolina, bare breasts and all, holding court in the center of Rome, promoting her seductive crusade against “society's pervasive sense of shame and sexual timidity.”

Would you give me your little vote? (il voticino) Just that?” she asks of a passerby who responds, “And who wouldn't?” And so, who didn't? The only person in the party she didn't outpoll was Pannella himself.

Hers is a story of Italian democracy as its inclusive best. Soon to represent a party stronghold in Rome, parliament's sexiest deputati is 36 years old and was born Ilona Staller. A veteran of the Radicale's anti-nuclear campaign and a party member since 1979, Staller took the initiative and nominated herself, something you can do with a little money and a set of values that are in line with the party of your choice.

Not surprisingly, Cicciolina's first order of business is to strive to abolish Article 528 of the penal code, which prohibits obscene shows.

Italy is in an uproar over her election, but that's nothing new to the Radicale, who specialize in the outrageous. The party's ticket for the June 14 ballot include two self-proclaimed homosexuals, transsexuals and two ex-generals who have renounced militarism in all its varied deformities.

Cicciolina
Among the winners was one-time singing star Domenico Modugno. This “radical,” who got a close-up picture of the country's medical system when he was crippled by a stroke, ran in protest of its inadequacies.

Modugno is famous for having penned “Volare,” that light-hearted ode to the joy that is life. In one political advertisement, the party cynically attached the song to 60 seconds of images featuring blossoming mushroom clouds, bloated African babies and brutally vivisected animals. It ran on Video M, Italy's answer to MTV, which the Radicale canvassed heavily for votes.

La Unita, the daily paper of the Italian Communist Party, accused the Radicale of engaging in transgression for transgression's sake. “Under what banner are they?” challenged the Communists. “What do they fight for, these Radicals?”

Toni Negri
The party, responds spokesman Sergio Roazio, entertains a platform best described as “an attitude against injustice.”

It is Italy's fount of self-righteous indignation, and Pannella, now in his 50s, is its eternal angry young man. He has gone on hunger strikes against laws he thought unjust, and once organized the party's officeholders to get high in Parliament as a protest against repressive drug laws.

In one of its most infamous outrages, the Radicale ran a candidate from jail. Toni Negri, a professor at the University of Padua and committed revolutionary theorist, had been accused of being linked to the terrorist Red Brigades and locked up without so much as a hearing. He was looking at up to 12 years incarceration before his right-to-trial kicked in under Italy's special anti-terrorist laws.




The Italian system, however, provides immunity from prosecution to members of Parliament. When Negri won his election, he was freed – and promptly fled the country.

Some people are amused by the Radicale, but more are horrified. Yet there is something to be said for a democracy that grants this collection of social maladroits a place on the ballot. The Radicale, for their part, make the most of what they have by providing some of society's most marginalized sectors with the biggest bullhorn in Italian politics.

Pannella broke from the Liberal Party in 1955 to form the Radicale and was first elected to Parliament in 1966. He is vocal, visible, and charismatic. Still, his party was not part of the last ruling coalition, nor is it likely to be a part of the next.

He tends to alienate serious people: Pannella dressed as Santa Claus; Pannella smoking hash; Pannella on a hunger strike; Pannella leading the party faithful in an a capella rendition of “Volare.”

Anyway, the Radicale are having too much fun to soil themselves in the dirty business of running a country.

When asked by a reporter how the party could run “a whore” for a such a position of responsibility Pannella challenged “the cynical priests and mafiosi in high government to cast the first stone, and promised to take it from there if they dared.

Cicciolina is Pannella's modern-day Mary Magdalene.

Because our hands are clean,” he raves, “and no one can deny they aren't, how do they attempt to discredit the Radicale? By saying we are clowns? Well, better clowns than criminals.”


Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Poetri in Jimi

"I see we meet again.."
Today we’re going to walk with the gods and talk about the poetry of Jimi Hendrix; specifically his wonderful song “The Wind Cries Mary."

After all the Jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on Down Street
Footsteps dressed in red


And the wind whispers “Mary”....

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife


And the wind, it cries “Mary..”

The traffic lights they turn a-blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags down stream
‘cause the life that lived is,
is dead


And the wind screams, “Mary”...

Will the wind ever remember
the names it has blown in the past?
And with this crutch, its old age,
and its wisdom
It whispers “no, this will be the last”


And the wind cries “Mary”...

The talk about rock poets was worn out as early as the late 1970s, but the scribe proposes that the above is pretty damn good stuff.

After all the Jacks are in their boxes
and the clowns have all gone to bed...


What an opener. Easy to understand, and taking you nowhere. The second makes certain the witching hour, before dropping that double meaning. Are the “clowns” like the “jacks”; make believe and metaphorical? Or are the clowns the people without painted faces who make you laugh or cry depending? For that matter, are the Jacks real people, too? Their boxes merely their drafty apartments?

You can hear happiness staggering on Down Street,
footprints dressed in red.


Does happiness stagger? All things reaching the end stagger and what better place than Down Street? Dressed in red. The red of blood? Red crepe from the last party? It is up to you and maybe its yo mama’s Friday night red party panties. That would be your problem, or pleasure, depending.

And the wind whispers “Mary”...

“Oh, boo” you say, “the wind is ‘whispering’. How whispery!” But hey, hardly any knowledge is new and a poet returns to the box and reuses tools.

And besides, the wind whispers, “Mary”... and the scribe has always thought that, on the track, Jimi misses a great interpretative opportunity by not actually whispering “Mary” in his inimitable Hendrix way: “Mahray”

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life.


Yeah. We sweep drearily, all of us. But the broom itself? Why not when you’re talking about gathering up “the broken pieces of yesterday’s life”? You’ve left them behind right? Or maybe you just can’t face up to doing the job on your own. And you leave it to the broom.

Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife


The high-point of the piece. So much silliness, so much desperation, so many sixes crossing with sevens, all the madness and lunacy of the great push spread out in this simple dilemma of loose ends.

And the wind it cries “Mary.”

Whispered one time, crying the second. The wind is going someplace and we’re invited to follow its utterances, its voice.

The traffic lights they turn a-blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed


And that’s him, Jimi Hendrix of Seattle, Washington, electric guitar god shedding the evening’s radioactivity on a mattress where he grinds his teeth and shakes his leg and lets the lights of the city color him green, yellow, red, Jimi, red – not blue.

The tiny island sags down stream
‘cause the life that lived is,
Is dead


As far as the tiny island, your guess is good as mine. Not that it matters because the poet is painting here and the primary colors are “down” and “dead”. Goes nice with that empty bed.

And the wind screams “Mary...”

Again. Imagine Jimi having worked his way (on the record) from whispering, to crying, to screaming. “Maaahraaay!”

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past?


Surely the wind has memory. That’s what we hear when it arrives, recollection and message from where it has been. Will it remember the names from the past? There must be so many, yet the wind is so vast, if inconstant.

And with this crutch, its old age, and its wisdom
It whispers “no, this will be the last.”


And the wind cries “Mary...”

Mary is last. Maybe you’ve met her.