#ShellNo

Yesterday morning I put on my big sun hat and went up to St. John’s to watch the Greenpeace protest. It was with an equal blend of civic duty and curiosity. I brought a big jug of ice water and finished my morning coffee there as I marveled at the people’s pluck. All of this was going down — fittingly — in front of the Water Pollution Control Laboratory.

From where I sat on the bank it was impossible to really see the climbers, though variation in their set up was apparent. Some clearly had platforms, much to my relief (the scant coverage I had glanced at led one to believe they were just free-floating up there, dangling bodily in space).

Luke Strandquist, a Greenpeace activist interviewed by our local CBS affiliate (from his cell phone, whilst dangling from the bridge,) indicated everyone involved was an experienced climber. Some of them had hammocks, some had platforms and some were just on chairs.

I’m not entirely sure how their resupply-ing was accomplished — I know they themselves had supplies in their gear, but there was also talk on Twitter of their being resupplied in some mysterious capacity. Which is a good thing, because while you can compact calories to a certain extent, water is very heavy, and goes very quickly on a hot day like that.

From afar of course, they just looked like beautiful flags, flapping silently in the wind. Hues nicely contrasting with the pale green of the bridge, yet catching the light to offset the dark underside of the bridge, forest park, and the petroleum industry. Honestly during this quiet morning it felt not like a protest but like a Jean-Claude and Cristo installation, all silky fabric reacting to the wind. Mimicking the hypnotic movement of the water.

I was particularly interested in the network of safety cables (and, of course, the big boat-deterring cable). All support cables were attached to the underside of the bridge, so removal from the upper deck was impossible. (You couldn’t just “cut them down”, as many counter-protesters frothily demanded). I watched the climbers raise this cable many times to accommodate tugboats and barges, lowering it again once the boats passed under.  All watercraft gave a toot of their horn — either in solidarity or merely indicating they wished to pass by.  Of course by and large the dangling protesters were far too high up to interfere with most water traffic — there was only one boat they wanted to stop, and it was too tall to pass below.

I was there morning to late afternoon — arriving after the boat had been turned around the first time, and leaving just before the police really started to exert force to make way for the boat’s eventual departure. The bridge was still open, and traffic was relatively light on highway 30 opposite, and every so often a car or truck would blare its horn as it passed overhead. The people on shore would cheer and clap. The kayakers would whoop in salute.

Kayak numbers varied wildly while I was there. Visitor numbers varied wildly as well. It was a relatively quiet time down at the bridge. Every so often a chant would start from somewhere, and it would ring out weakly over the water, and then die out.

If anything it really brought home the drudgery that can be holding out. Waiting for the inevitable.

I was only there for five hours, and of course got to leave once I felt uncomfortable — when my water ran out and my shade disappeared. The protesters held out for just about forty hours, in direct sunlight, during the hottest day Portland has seen this year.

That's in the shade, mind you. That’s in the shade, mind you.

It is, of course, futile to attempt to stop something so vast as a federally sanctioned multinational oil conglomerate with thirteen brave mountaineers, but I don’t think that was the point of this protest. Delaying the ship was, of course, intensely gratifying — and it was incredible to see the sort of ferocity that people express themselves out here. But the larger point was to get attention for the cause, and to once again call upon that most effective symbolism for environmental destruction — the human wall.

It was with a feeling of inevitability that, just in time for the prime time news block (so cynical!) Portland Police closed the St. John’s bridge to all traffic and successfully removed two protestors — lowering them like spiders into the waiting arms of the coastguard flotilla.

These two had dangled above the deepest part of the channel, and their removal cleared a tiny space for Fennica to squeeze under. It was at this point that the kayakers redoubled their efforts, launching into the river faster than the coastguard motorboats could arrest them. I know at least three personally who were in boats, out there in the fray, and countless others watching live from shore, or from the floating fishing docks out in the water.

The rest of Portland watched from home — both via live footage from our local television stations and via Twitter, in my case following both the #shellno hashtag and the unofficial PDX police scanner.

Fennica was escorted out to the Columbia river with what looked like 11 coast guard boats. One for each of the remaining Greenpeace activists.

Later, on Facebook, I saw something posted by Travis Wittwer, a scoutmaster with the 55th Cascadia Scout Group . It was getting passed around on Twitter, and is something I relate to very strongly:

Took my sons to St. Johns bridge to witness the #shellno protest. I wanted my sons to see of what people are capable. 

On way there, I briefed them on the situation and the sides. They had emotional opinions, but are neither educated enough in this area, nor mature from years of experience to make a decision that is sustainable. I suggested that they go and witness and watch. They did not need to come to an opinion on the protest. 

I wanted them to see the people. Think about how much planning and personal conviction is needed. And to be in awe of people. 

While there, we would find a spot and sit and just watch and listen. Sometimes nothing seem to happen, and that is good–I want my sons to experience the pause and length of what the activists are doing. To hear it relayed or to see a photo is not the same as to be there, watching the banners wave in the wind, wondering what is going through the minds of the men and women hanging from the bridge, in the water, or lending support. 

I wanted my sons to see a polite and peaceful protest that displays passion for an idea, a belief. This is something different than blasting a hole in the ship.

Day 6: The Getty

The last notable thing I did in LA was visit the Getty Center, which was something a friend of mine had insisted I do. It is a Great Big Free Place Filled With Art.

It is named for J. Paul Getty, an oilman named by Fortune magazine in 1957 as “the richest living American”. The bulk of his estate went towards a trust he had set up for the arts, called — what else — the Getty Trust. The vast number of artifacts within the museums began as J. Paul Getty’s own personal collection, as he was avid collector of both art and antiques.

His life was a checkered one. He was a brilliant businessman — did well during the Great Depression and learned Arabic so he could expand oil operations in the middle east, and no doubt made lasting connections there and in Europe where he lived out the remainder of his days. Yet he was also a miser, famously installing pay phones throughout his stately home in England. Additionally he seems a bit barren of human emotions. There is a chilling story of his grandson’s kidnapping by Italian gangsters — and the relative lack of humanity regarding the ransom. The grandson did badly after this ordeal — traumatized no doubt both by his relations’ businesslike calculations and by the physical mutilations he’d endured. 

So one has mixed emotions, standing before the bust of J. Paul Getty in the foyer of the Getty Center visitor center. Why he created the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust I am not sure. I am grateful for it though, because I had a lovely day reaping the benefits. It is the wealthiest art institution in the world, and includes this Getty Center as well as another museum complex called “the Villa,” (which Getty himself had built up around his home stateside, to better house his art collection), as well as the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Conservation Institute. 

The Center is unreal. Everything is well organized and calculated, like a clock. It is placed atop a hill, and from the parking garage you enter what I had called a tram but what I have since learned is a HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR, which is much better. They should print both words on their brochures and all signage throughout the grounds, for I regret riding a hovertrain and not being aware of it. 

HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR!
HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR!

The buildings are made of an eye-aching white stone called Travertine, sourced from the same quarry in Rome that gave us the colosseum.  

Along the walkways the stone is polished smooth, but it is left rough on most of the outer wall facings, as well as along the stairway down to the gardens. The rough stone has a fascinating texture, featuring tons of little surprises.

The whole place is like something from another planet. All columns and staircases. It is not the most intuitive of spaces but it sort of doesn’t matter, because it is pretty clear that no matter where you wander you’ll be rewarded. 

I only ended up with half a day here, which is no where near enough time for such a huge place, so I stuck with just one exhibit: the visiting Turner exhibition.

This day I was struck chiefly by the compositions, and I spent a great deal of time making studies.

Turner’s watercolor and gouache studies were new to me (I think? I don’t remember seeing them) and were particularly electrifying because they were usually done while he was traveling. As studies for bigger paintings. 

Just like me! I wrote in my sketchbook. 

Day 5: Echo Park

I stayed in the Echo Park neighborhood, and whenever I wasn’t taking in sights in an official way I was wandering around looking at murals and wondering about oldish buildings on or about this section of Sunset Avenue. The first night in Los Angeles I made my way down to the neighborhood’s namesake. 

Modeled after Shipley Park in Derbyshire, Echo Park started its life humbly as Reservoir #4. It was created in 1870 by essentially damming one side of a ditch and redirecting water from the Los Angeles River. The hope was to spark a real estate boom in the hitherto undeveloped west side with this ready source of drinking water.

The plan failed — attracting not the hoped-for residential pioneers but instead a bit of light industry such as the Los Angeles Woolen Mill — and in 1891 the land was turned over to the city as a public park. Over the next eight years the slapdash reservoir was carefully manicured into a charming little oasis — trees were planted, paths were built, and an island was created on the north end of the lake by piling up sediment scraped from the lakebed. Silent film studios located just down the road along present day Glendale Avenue began using the park extensively in its shoots, as nothing sells a good pratfall like a little a splash into a non-dangerous body of water. Keystone Studios — where Charlie Chaplin got his start on the silver screen — was particularly fond of the park, and the “Keystone Cops” were often bumbling around and (to the chagrin of city planners) trampling the flowers.

Studios were eventually barred using the park in such vigorous film shoots, though I imagine it is still used in gentler ways. 

As the city began to close in around the parks borders, Echo Park remained a quiet little paradise offering visitors a charming view of downtown buildings, a little boathouse with canoes for hire, and a serendipitous lotus bed that sprang up mysteriously around 1920. In 1978 a Lotus Festival began to celebrate what had become a treasured icon of the neighborhood. 

Alas, all good things must be tested. In 1980 the Lady of the Lake statue was removed and put into storage due to vandalism. (She was placed back on the lake in 1999, on the opposite shore, facing the opposite direction.) In the mid-2000s the lotuses shriveled up and vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. (“Perhaps as the result of pollution,” supposes LA Magazine.) In 2011 a $45 million renovation project began. Crews dredged the lake of the many years of sediment build up (not unlike the revamping of Portland’s own Laurelhurst Park), replaced the lotus beds and added a few new ones, and placed the Lady of the Lake back in her original location. The boathouse is restored, and though there were numerous paddle boats moored on the dock the first night I was there, I have no idea if they operate regularly. I hope they do, because I love stuff like that. 

“Cleaned up” too often means “the good grit is gone”, and I’m happy to say there’s still a lot of good local flavor to be found in the park. Literally, in fact: vendors with little grills made out of metal shopping carts are to be found throughout the park, selling hot dogs drenched in hot peppers, tamales, and of course, my shining star, my forever friend, elotes.

I think I may have heard about these from my Angeleno, but I wasn’t sure. What I was sure of was the smell, and the delightful sight of charred corncobs in neat little rows all up and down the rack. My eyes grew wide and hungry, and my man in a baseball cap and crisp guayabera looked at me and smiled.

I pointed to the cart. He indicated one with his tongs. I nodded, and raising a hand, rubbed my thumb along my fingers. (how much?).

My man held up 2 fingers.

I nodded. 

He picked up a cob, shucked the leaves into a bucket, and rammed a skewer stick into one end. He then picked up a wedge of lime, and poised it above the cob, and raised his eye brows.

I nodded.

He squeezed juice all up and down the cob. He indicated a tub of something with a rubber spatula sticking out.

I nodded. Joy rising.

He rubbed what turned out to be mayonnaise all up and down the cob. He hovered the cob over a plate over that very special Mexican cheese that comes in little tiny nubbins and does not melt quickly or readily, but rather stays to make sure you’ve noticed and are having a wonderful time. My man indicated. 

I nodded. I am grinning ear to ear by this point.

He takes a fork and deftly sprinkles the cob all over with the cheese. He then indicates a largish tin shaker, the top red from so many previous cobs of service.

I nodded. 

My man dusts the cob liberally with a chile powder. He offers me the finished product and I hand him my two dollars.

And for a long time, amid the lotus flowers, the ducks, and the people, I eat. 

 

Day 4: Uber and opening

It goes without saying that yesterday I should have taken Uber from my venue. How was I to know?

My budget really didn’t extend to things beyond my transit card (all paid up for the week,) and there was something a little intimidating about this Brave New World of sharing, though by and large that nervousness turned out to be completely groundless. The biggest fear I had was about the AirBnB host, who I was vaguely nervous about for no reason at all and who turned out be almost like an extended family member by the end of the week. Like staying with an uncle.

For the rest of the week I lean very heavily on Uber just for certainty and convenience more than anything else. A promotion was going on while I was in LA, and so long as you rode “carpool” (that is, the driver can opt to pick up other people) your fare was only $5 within a certain well-populated radius (my trip out to the Getty the following day would be more expensive). That’s more than a bus ride, but far less than a taxi ride in most cases, and it was a flat-rate. 

The app is seamless and very comforting to the overwhelmed traveler — no money ever changes hands, you can set it up to automatically tip drivers, and the “rating” system goes both ways: you rate your driver, but they also rate you as a passenger, which behooves everyone to be on their best behavior. 

The place I spent the most time this day was the Farmer’s Market, which is pretty spruced up and next door to an upscale shopping area, and wasn’t exactly what I had been hoping for. But it did have a nice eating area, and a big bowl of gumbo really helped sooth my nerves. And it also had a few excellent surprises, like these hand carts:

and a place where I could get a handful of coconut jellybeans, which remind me of my grandmother.

It also had a nice upstairs seating area where a person could sit and process things and watch sparrows stealing french fries, flying in and out of the pane-less windows. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my wristwatch.

A fabulous device, completely mechanical, running solely on the motions one’s body makes through the day (with the occasional wind in the morning to make sure we’re all set). Not once did my wristwatch betray me by running out of battery juice as my cellphone did every single day, usually when I needed it most like navigating a tricky transit mishap (like last night) or to call Uber as I was going to do from time to time this day and next. 

Fortunately my watch was made before they thought of planned obsolescence. When I got home I replaced my phone but not my watch!

Later it was back to the venue for the REAL opening. It was a madhouse. A huge stage out front for music, food carts, three open bars, and thousands of people crammed into the little space. 

It was thrilling to walk into the show behind a whole bunch of people who had not yet seen anything in it, and I felt very fortunate to have seen the whole thing in a much more intimate setting. As I filed in, I was directly behind these kids:

A woman handing out little flyers about the show looked at them and said,

oh babies. BABIES. This show is for YOU. You kids. 

Whereas the night before everyone was connected somehow to the show itself, tonight there was a constant refrain of, “are you one of the artists?!” and a flattering glitter and wide-eyed admiration that was scarcely warranted.

I met lots of nice people, said hello to the people I had met the night before. At one point Ron Finley walked up to me as I was looking at the police car, gave me a big hug. 

We chatted a bit. I found out that he was the one who provided all the plants for the car exhibit, and was worried about keeping them alive for the duration of the show. He thanked me for painting him, said it was an honor, and as we parted ways he gave me another huge hug and a kiss on the top of the head. D’AAAW!

I later bumped into his sons downstairs, introduced myself properly, and we all exchanged cards. I congratulated Delfin for selling one of his paintings, and he said he hoped we’d all get red dots. He and his brother Kohshin are much better artists than I will ever be, and it was incredible to see their paintings in person. 

I chatted with a bunch of people. A cuban woman who works with (I think) the California endowment and who was really into my work. (Again, why didn’t I write her name down?!) A film maker who’s trying to start a gallery. The guy who made these stamps. I found Sofia at last towards the end of the night and we resolved to be art pen pals, and as I write this I owe her a letter back. 

And, at the end of the night, it only took 20 minutes to be driven straight home.