Her Own Wings

Not long ago I was approached by Andy MacMillian to be a part of a group show exploring Portlandia — the statue whose namesake television show is far more famous than the statue itself.

Despite the intentions of the people who commissioned the statue, she never took off as an icon of the city — she never became for us what the Statue of Liberty is for New York — in large part, it seems, because of Raymond Kaskey’s vigorous protection of his exclusive rights to the image. Arguably a wise art-business move, but in the end a misguided step in the stingy Northwest, where it was unlikely anybody was actually going to shell out the money to use her ubiquitously on mugs, t-shirts, etc., particularly after the large commission fee, funded in large part by the public.

So there she sits, atop the back of a strange building downtown, off my usual bus lines and therefore for me a completely forgettable thing despite being the second largest copper statue in the country. She is completely unrecognizable to most people, even to locals, if they haven’t managed to take a city tour or walk underneath her on fifth avenue.

Andy had been doing some research on this, and had been incensed that Portland essentially wasted a golden opportunity to personify the city with a strong female character. She is based off the woman on the city seal — itself a complicated and generally uninspiring thing because it is so cluttered up with symbols, to wit:

“… a female figure in the center thereof, representing commerce, and holding in her right hand a trident and pointing with her left to a sheaf of wheat and a forest, with a representation of Mount Hood in the background, and at her feet a cogwheel and hammer, and on her right a steamship coming into port.”

It may have been moving and thrilling in 1878, when this was written in the ordinance, but nowadays the seal just looks clunky. Tepid. All redesigns have faithfully adhered to the ordinance, but for some reason have also always been rendered like an etching, so never ends up looking modern or representative of the city in any way.

Andy wanted a fresh take on all this, so he put out a call to various artists — all women or female-identified — to take a crack at this concept and see what we could do with it.

I found it to be a weirdly difficult concept — encapsulate a whole city in a single, strong female figure. Portland has changed so much over the scant nine years I’ve lived here — and had changed a good deal long before I got here — that it’s a tricky story to speak to. After all, my Portland isn’t Chuck Palahniuk’s Portland, not by a long shot, and the Portland I found when I got here during the Great Recession is worlds away from the Little California it’s becoming now. A city that once revered its history is quickly being consumed by boxy, high-end condos, and many of my cornerstone locals have begun to seek their fortunes elsewhere. (And it so easily could have been us, lest we forget.)

So it’s not exactly a warm and gushing moment to be asked to personify your city. I think a lot more of us would have gone the route Cate Andrews went if we’d had the guts.

On the other hand, calls like this are rarely this meaty and specific. And it was stimulating to try and wrestle the concept into something visually satisfying.

In these angry and divisive times I find myself longing for redemption. For hope. And because I survived our eviction and managed to land within the city limits in a good situation, I am able to cling hard to the idea that Portland is still a good place for artists. Not absolutely everybody I know has moved to Cleveland or Detroit or Butte. There are still a lot of us here. And a robust handful of us were in this show, displaying our courage and hope.

 

 

The show is up until September 3rd at Land Gallery: 3925 N Mississippi.

If you happen to be out of town, no matter: you can still view the digital gallery and buy a print here.

Proceeds from this show go towards Call to Safety (formerly Portland Women’s Crisis Line).

Slip Slidin’ Away

“…Cry. Swear. Laugh. Cry more. We are making a river with our tears and rivers quench the thirsty…”

I had a massive headache for the past two days — the sort that makes you not even want your morning coffee and leaves you feeling nauseous. I worked through it the first day and made it worse. I tried to appease it the second day by lying prone wrapped in blankets on our couch with a cool washcloth on my eyes and forehead.

This is what couches in living rooms are for, and with four people in the house we get a lot of mileage out of ours — though of course the thing I thought about was that this was exactly where Travis was when I came home and found him sick on the couch back in May.

His was a much more advanced ailment, of course, but it was with roughly the same treatment. He was balled up on the couch, had a bucket and a blanket — I administered the cool washcloth, asked if the light level was okay, asked if he wanted windows open or closed, asked if he needed a lighter or heavier blanket, asked if he wanted water. Brought him some anyway after he threw up the first time while I was there, and brought him a fresh cloth to wipe his mouth with. Held his hair back when they next wave came.

I found a book on grieving for teens at the end cap of our library recently. I found myself deeply moved by this item:

” 21. Know that your relationship was unique.
You’re probably not the only one mourning this death.
Others share your sorrow, and there’s comfort in knowing they do.
But it’s also comforting to know that the relationship you had with there person who died was unique. You behaved differently around one another than you did around other people. You affected each other in different ways.
You’re a different human being now than if you had never known that person.
Your life is enriched forever.”

Travis and I were not best buddies. I honestly had not known him that long, as far as things go. But we’d lived together, and his partner was a fixture in Anthony and I’s concentric circles. To be roommates, for me, means you become a sort of family. There’s a lot of late nights, early mornings, weird household emergencies (like chickens escaping or discovering two of your angelfish are a breeding pair), and just a lot of casual stuff that bonds you in ways that are difficult to explain.

So our friendship was stirred up pretty quickly, because in addition to all this we were similarly laid back, similarly in favor of being quietly attentive rather than overtly demonstrative. Similarly wary of Too Much Directness, and often balancing something really deep and meaningful with something kind of surface-silly, to even things out.

We clicked. That’s really all there is to it.

During the three months of cancer, our interactions were exactly as they would have been if he had just caught a bad cold. I never tried to Say Anything Meaningful, nor act outwardly that this could be the Last Time I Saw Him — though of course I always knew that in the back of my mind. That knowledge did not push me to a heightened state of sentiment, rather it pushed me into a heightened state of awareness. Appreciation. Openness. I was just unexperienced enough to think to myself, with a sense of quiet bemusement, this is what a Last Moment could be. Digging in pizza boxes for a cheese pizza, that he absolutely should not eat anyway. But that’s what he wants, and by God I’m not going to police him. Enough people are doing that. Sure, bro, I’ll help you look.

He told us at the beginning of all this that he was eager to come see us because he knew we weren’t going to treat him any differently. And we never did. Illness strips you of bullshit — of tact, of propriety, of all the tip-towing we do to keep other people at ease. There’s no patience for that when you are plagued by a gnawing nausea, when something else is gnawing at your liver and lungs.

And it seems like this sudden, utter, abject directness causes a lot of healthy people to wrap extra layers of indirectness around themselves, to protect themselves from it. And it’s just because you don’t know what to say, how to help — because of course, you can’t help. You can’t make it better. And you can’t say anything that will help the fact that he’s dying and going to leave his two year old daughter with no memory of his devoted, pure love.

We’ve been writing letters to his daughter. In my first one I said:

“I never knew what a father was until I saw your daddy being one.”

One of the last things Travis did on this earth was to arrange for a slip ‘n slide to be purchased for his daughter, and watch her play on it in the hot summer sun, with the kind of wild abandon reserved for two year olds.

Three months later we were at Orcas Island, a place he loved almost as much as his daughter. The place he shared with Anthony and I (along with a handful of folks who had been there before.) A place I have not done justice to at all, and intend to, because it is unreal.

It’s where we all would have gone again this summer if he had been well — it was a place he himself was able to spend his last week on this earth. It was a place I said I need to get to this year, long before I knew we were holding his memorial there. Because he is connected to the place in a deep way, and I felt his spirit would be heading there. In our circle one cannot set foot on the island without thinking of him.

We were there to formalize this connection.

During the memorial I was throwing pebbles into the sea with his daughter while above us, on a large rock, family members scooped into the Big Lebowski inspired Folgers can containing his ashes. (This can was purchased on eBay at Travis’ request, about a month or two before it was needed. The phrase “volume of human remains” was Googled to ensure one can would be sufficient — it is, as it turns out, at least in his case.)

Music was playing from a loudspeaker. After several key people hurled a scoop of ashes into the sea, they yelled my name. I hadn’t expected them to, and was deeply moved.

I was unofficially in charge of his daughter, who looked at me inquiringly when they yelled my name.

“They’re calling my name. Let’s go see them.”

Someone else threw ashes while I got myself up on the rock. I had his daughter in my arms, and I checked someone’s program to confirm the song we were dancing to: Paul Simon’s Slip-Slidin’ Away.

I learned later that Travis had selected all the music for the memorial himself. Doubtless this spurred on the last minute slip ‘n slide purchase. Full circle.

“What they doing?” his daughter asked. I was frank. We are always frank with her.

“They are throwing your daddy’s ashes. And now it’s our turn.”

The memorial was planned months ago — and when I heard the date I was ecstatic, because it was being held the day before my birthday. How correct, I’d thought. How beautiful. A celebration of death and then a celebration of life. It meant I’d be spending my birthday doing things I loved: camping, sitting around in nature.

After a good hearty camp-stove breakfast I went for a walk back along the place we’d been to the day before, the place one spends a good deal of quiet time if one is at that campground. The place where we’d thrown his ashes.

It was earlier in the day, so the tide was further out than it had been during the memorial.

I wasn’t exactly walking where the ashes had landed, but closer. I was looking casually for good pebbles, as one always does on a pebbly beach. Things catch your eye and you examine them.

I posted these on instagram earlier, and haven’t been able to say it any better than I have already:

It was there that I saw, rolling around in the sea…

…an agatey-geode he left just for me.

There are people who got real closure from the man himself.

There are also people who didn’t, and for whom that stung very painfully at the end.

I wasn’t CONSTANTLY around during Travis’ illness, though I think I give off that impression. There were some people that were there almost every day, administering massage, helping with the steam baths, managing medication, and just generally trying to keep him comfortable and loved. It was like a massive rhythmic dance going on for those three months. A stomping, clapping, tapping kind of rhythm. And my role as I saw it was to add a clap in the gaps. I was the gap filler. I would drop in, nudge something into place, then leave again.

I tried my best to strike a balance between giving help and giving space. (And, very often, LEAVING space for others.)

It didn’t matter to me who was visiting them, what mattered that SOMEONE was visiting them.

It didn’t matter to me who was bringing them dinner, what mattered was that SOMEONE was bringing them dinner.

It meant I was slightly outside of the real work — the drama, the frustrations, the tears, the moments where it got especially dark. But as such it meant I could pick up the slack, or direct others to pick up the slack for them, when energies waned. It meant I felt my role was not as important as those folks who were always there, and I was never out trawling for acknowledgment, though I received a ton.

Of course, this also meant I was occasionally very privileged and lucky to be at the front seat of things.

Of course, “privilege” and “luck” are not usually words you’d use to describe holding someone’s hair back as he vomits into your trashcan because of his stage IV terminal cancer. But it felt lucky to me. To have a chance to be there with him, to be helpful, and to not make a big deal about it at the time. To not need or seek any thanks at all. That wasn’t the point – the point was the real, hands-on time. The gift of time.

He surprised the hell out of me by alluding to it once, when he came to visit me out of the blue on a Saturday morning about a month later.

“I owe you a pitcher…” he said.

He was talking about the plastic pitcher I’d sent him home with the day his partner came to get him from our house — he had been wrapped up in one of our quilts too, but the pitcher was the Thing To Throw Up In. A comforting thing.

I laughed. “No worries. I know where you live.”

We understood each other.

I understand this stone as a birthday gift from Travis, from the other side.

And that’s how I’ll take it, because I like going on that kind of ride.

The Sparkling Salish Sea

I didn’t want to talk about this until I could show you, and short of standing with you on the shore and demonstrating, this is the next best thing.

Apparently the waters surrounding the San Juan islands (which we visited recently) are filled with noctiluca scintillans (also known as sea sparkle!) a microscopic organism. (Not a plankton itself for it eats plankton, but just as small.) Agitation of the water’s surface causes a chemical reaction within their little organelles, and they glow for a brief moment with a fascinating blue-greenish tinge that you have to really pay attention to at first, because it seems unreal. (It reminded me of the table-cloth we were “seeing” at the blind cafe.)

Once you do finally accept that what you are seeing is real, it becomes captivating. I was particularly mesmerized by the waves crashing onto the pebbly shore, and the sparks of light that would dance of the surface of the bouncing pebbles — the bright hiss of the peebles tumbling in the surf registered as a sizzle, coupled with the dance of light so quick it seemed like electric sparks.

These guys are dinoflagellateflagellate meaning they travel via flagellum (like sperm — they have sperm tails) and dinos meaning they are tiny dinosaurs. (Just kidding. It is latin for “whirling.” They spin!)

(…whirling-lizard?) *checks Wikipedia and the OED via the local library website* No, we’re good: the Greek root “dinos” means whirling, whereas the Greek root “deinos” means terrible, potent, or “fearfully great”.

Back to our creatures. They feed on plankton, which is apt to bloom in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the San Juan islands, and evidently this bloom is reliable enough that bioluminescent tours exist. We knew nothing of this phenomenon before we went out to the shoreline at night, so in our case the discovery was as serendipitous as it was delightful.

You know now, so I’ve spoiled the surprise for you, but I don’t think I’ve diminished the wonder, because there really is no picture I can show you that will replace seeing the thing for yourself with your own eyes. So get to it, will you?

On or about the San Juan Islands

I drew this picture as a bit of wishful thinking last year, long before we’d ever actually done anything like look for orcas of a rocky coast north of Seattle. Last weekend we finally did just that, and many other classic summer vacation things up in the San Juan islands.

We met up with a group of friends who had already set up camp, and then for the next four days explored the island.

We didn’t manage to see any whales, (I suspect they hang around the Haro Straight more than they venture into the smaller sounds,) but one member of our party did see porpoises playing in the water just off the coast of our tiny pebbly beach. And there was lots of other marine life to admire.

It was a glorious trip. Filled with happy surprises.

( Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that Hugh made it there and back with no trouble.)

For the journey home, rather than retracing our steps, I cajoled my brother-in-law into helping us drive around the Olympic peninsula, and visit some of the Hoh Rainforest, where we spent not nearly enough time on a trail called the Hall of Mosses.

The thing that struck me most about this trip was how lovely is was to come home. It was probably one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time — very simple, filled with natural wonders, and weather nice enough to sleep under the stars as I did the first night, all moss and deer creeping through the underbrush.

And to sink into a bed after four days on the ground (and six hours propped up against bedding and tents in the hatchback,) was just the crowning jewel of it all. To come back to plumbing and ice cubes and running water.

The best kind of vacation is the sort of vacation that really makes you appreciate what you already have.

#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. 

Day 3 : transit mishaps

Most guidebooks I have looked at tell the visitor that LA is a car city. You can’t really get around without a car, they warn, you’ll be stuck without one.

These travel guides must not talk to locals, because according to Wikipedia, LA boasts the third-largest public transportation system in the country — and a dizzying number of bus, shuttle, and light rail routes spaghetti themselves all across this city. My former Angelenos told me to ride the bus, and one even let me borrow a TAP card. Ridership is robust. I never seemed to be on an empty bus, not even at midnight.

I was in LA to take in the sights, not to look for parking, so it was a no brainer for me to go this route. The bus route. My initial feelings here were reinforced by my wonderful encounter with Ann, and my subsequent hassle-free adventures on transit.

Save one very notable exception

I left the Manifest:Justice artist preview around 10pm, with the reasoning that I did not want to stay out too late. I stumbled into my AirBnB room (about 20 miles away) at around…1:30am. 

Not ideal. 

When I told people what I’m about to tell you after the fact I was reprimanded — for both trusting the public transit system but also for traveling this late, through those neighborhoods, alone. People started seeing me off with don’t get raped! instead of so long! (Do we need to talk about this, LA? Are you a missing stair?)

I’m not sure if this is over-caution on my friends’ part or over-confidence on mine. It may be a blend of both. I’ve never been the sort of person who worries about walking around alone at night, though at barely 5’1″ and dressed like a character from a Wes Anderson film it’s not like I exude street cred. I walk upright, with purpose, and try to look like I know where I’m going (even if I don’t). I am not naive, but I also don’t believe in being fearful of a situation that reads as innocuous just because of the neighborhood’s demographics.

LET’S GET ON WITH IT

First connection is a breeze. I walk up to the platform, feeling victorious, and eventually the train comes. I sit sleepily with a few other people nearish me. I’m in a happy place. The night has gone well. Happy music playing in my big headphones.

I am near the front of my car and I see in a window’s reflection that some biggish, swaying figures are making a ponderous way up to my end of the car. They appear to be stopping at various people sitting well behind me. Things are being said but it’s not loud. 

I see the woman in front of me (a black woman slightly younger than me, sitting facing perpendicular, so I can see her in profile) glance towards them, tense up a little bit, but otherwise remain in the same position. I do as she does, and remain just as I am. One of the guys sits down in the row across the isle, and faces me (or rather, the side of my head.) As he’s situating himself I make brief eye contact with the woman in front of me, a look that for the both of us says I see you. It is vague but comforting. I have a witness.

I can’t quite hear what the dude is saying to me when he sits facing me, across the isle, talking to the side of my head. We have a seat and the isle between us but I hear a reference to my red shirt (it’s orange, actually, but um. You know. He’s all in black.) I remain sleepy looking and the same, total cold fish, as if he isn’t even there. After about five minutes of this he and his other two guys get off a the next stop. As they leave the woman in front of me closes her eyes wearily and shakes her head. 

I get off at a metro station, ostensibly to take another train to a bus. And I wait. And wait. And wait. The crowd is…uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes the guy from the train shows up with his bros, and they are sort of circling around a bit, which seems less ominous than before, but still makes me feel uneasy. After 40 minutes I move over to a different part of a platform, next to an older lady and her extremely-young-for-her man friend, a old white guy in chinos and his Asian escort, and a family with little kids sitting on the floor playing a game of some kind, which altogether feels more wholesome. It’s pushing midnight.

ACTUAL DIRECTIONAL FACTS FROM HERE ON OUT ARE BLURRED BECAUSE I WAS EXHAUSTED AND ALL TURNED AROUND

I am waiting with everyone on the [my way] side of the platform, and twice there have been trains that come for the side. The third time this happens two thirds of the people get on it, and I hear an announcement that Red line is coming every 20 minutes, but the purple line is coming every 10. I can take either to my next stop, so I go up the platform to look for the purple line.

But I see no signs indicating the purple line, and after examining each one as cool as I can, a casually sharp man with long braids asks me if I’m lost. I take off my headphones and admit that yes, I am. (No sense in denying it.) I think I’m looking for the purple line.

We get to talking. He tells me that in all likelihood, the purple line isn’t going to come at all. Apparently after 10 the trains are impossibly wayward and often either don’t come, or show up on the wrong platforms. He indicates the platform. Mostly the trains will only show up on that side, going any which way. This is appalling but very good to know, and I thank him. 

I have resolved at this point to get onto the next train no matter where it’s going, because I’ve been waiting over an hour at this point. (If it goes to Union Station, fine, and if it goes out towards Hollywood, fine.) The train comes and we both run down the steps to get on it. We’ve been chatting about tranist and all sorts of things, he shows me video of his little mini schnauzer wearing rain booties. I tell him about the show I’m in. We talk about where that is, and evidently it’s very near his church. I think I’m going to go see it, he says. I give him my card and tell him to email me and I can give him the actual address. (He never did, and I wish he could have because I forget his name and if he hadn’t said anything to me about the trains I may have been stuck there to this day.)

So we both get off at a stop, and I get up there hoping to catch a bus line, and see no stop marked for it. I am just bouncing from corner to corner looking. I see a 204 bus going in the right direction, but I’m not sure if the route will continue all the way up to Sunset, which is what I need. I run up to check stop numbers and the bus pulls away. A tall, older man in a tweed jacket asks me the same question: are you lost? 

I tell him I’m trying to get to Echo Park via Sunset, and pointing I say, should I have gotten on that bus?

Yes, he says. I tell him the bus number I was actually looking for, and he thinks a moment and says I think that bus stops running at 9. 

So I resolve to wait for the next 204. Dante tells me he’s just come from a fashion show rehearsal, something he’s brand new to, and that he was about to go get ice cream at Denny’s across the street. He said he’d wanted to talk to me because he REALLY liked my look.We talk about clothes. After a few minutes I tell him that I don’t mean to hold him hostage, and we waves it off, saying that he wants to keep me company while I want for the bus, since people are less likely to mess with a 6ft tall black man than a little white woman, alone, and I agree and thank him.

So we stand there and talk for almost 20 minutes. He has a daughter studying psychology, she’s 19. He does his runway practice walk for me. But he also keeps talking about how he likes white women, he likes slim women, he likes people my size, etc. This makes me vaguely uncomfortable, but people waiting for the bus are starting to congregate (about 5 other people) so I figure if there’s a scene I’ll be able to make a decent ruckus and garner support. And I actually give him my card too, because he was interested in what my artwork looked like. 

In the end of course, nothing happens, he’s just a somewhat old fashioned borderline creeper doing a gentlemenly thing and waiting with me for the bus so I don’t have to be alone — a target for worse creepers. And when my bus comes we shake hands, I thank him, and he heads to Denny’s for his ice cream. 

The 204 does indeed stop at Sunset, and from there it’s familiar territory since I rode the #2 up to Hollyhock House and back earlier today. Google maps says I’ll have to wait about 40 minutes, but a bus comes within 5 (Mazel tov! an old guy next to me breathes) and by 1:30am I am home. 

So, that sucked, but could have been a WHOLE LOT WORSE. 

Day 3 : artist preview

Ron Finley lives in Los Angeles. 

I know the man is busy and has better things to do than meet someone who admires his take on One Of The Major Social Issues Of Our Time In A Way That Is Human And Manageable, but a person can dream, and in the idealistic phase of planning the trip it went on my list of: wouldn’t it be super if.

I went so far as drafting an email to him, but in languished in the Draft folder because really, who the hell am I? 

The day I arrived in LA and logged onto the internet from my AirBnB for the first time, I saw on twitter that Ron was working on something for the Manifest:Justice show. 

What!

So I dug out the email and sent it, adding a link to the write-up I’d already done, and saying I was in town for the show, wouldn’t it be nutty to see you there. 

Fast forward to the actual opening. (Or rather, the artist’s preview of the opening). I budgeted a LOT of time for my first transit journey down to the venue, and ended up in the area about an hour ahead of schedule. I wandered down from the train platform towards a rec center and a series of fields, where several different sports practices were in progress. Lots of tough talk at football practice, the kids were probably in middle school. You could hear the metallic crack of baseball bats from the adjacent field, obscured by giant oak trees and the bleachers. Parents chatting in camp chairs. Little siblings playing chase games on the metal risers, laughing and making booming stompy sounds on the metal seats. All chummy and friendliness down there. And then, finally, to the venue.

Manifest:Justice was housed in what used to be the Baldwin Hills Theatre, which today is tucked behind a strip mall. (Yosi wrote up a nice little thing about the venue here.) 

As soon as I found the correct driveway and walked up to the front doors, I saw the edges of a container garden, made up entirely of the sorts of things that had made it on my brainstorm sketch paper just a month before. A janitor’s mop bucket. A discarded drawer. A radio flyer. Before I even saw him — frustratedly trying to affix some tiles onto the side of a raised bed —  I knew this was Ron Finley’s creation.

He was busy, and annoyed, and so rather than come up to him all gushy and starry eyed I sat — glowing with deep content — in one of the painted lean-back chairs and started drawing. 

I did not hover, I did not want to be annoying. I did ask him if he needed help at some point, which prompted him heckle his sons, (who evidently had not offered), and caused me to do a little sassing as well which I later felt a teeny bit bad about.

The artist’s preview was mostly intended for all of us to meet one another and some of the Key Bigwigs who helped get this thing off the ground, but of course it was hard to focus on any of that because the work was so good.

Everything was curated VERY well. Although everything was stylistically different and could easily have become jarring — the unrelated mismash that group shows can become — here everything flowed together, one thing naturally leading to another, so that audible “oh”s could be heard when a particular piece made a point that other work was building to. There were little alcoves off the main rooms that are vaguely themed — a money room, a power room.

My work was in one of these alcoves, in what I mentally referred to as the vicarious arts and crafts room. Appropriate and not unexpected. I feel very strongly about all this stuff, but stylistically I really can’t compete with hoodies folded into flag boxes, or the enormous Lady Liberty bust, hands covering her face in sadness or shame. Now with the Ferguson police car, smashed up, plants apparently growing up and out through the broken windows, a tray of tomatoes nearby with a sign adjuring folks to “eat or smash!”.

Is installation the best way to get a political idea across? 

I don’t think my approach is too saccharine necessarily, but also I have a different experience of all this, and so my work seems less visceral. Less urgent. I want to find the urgency, but I doubt I can capture that visceral THIS IS MY STORY feeling you get from a lot of these works. It’s reporting from a war zone — and how can I tell the solider’s story from my victory garden on the homefront?

I was taken to task with this self-defeating outlook a few days later, from a woman with the California Endowment, whose name I have alas misplaced. She said: this is your story. This is everybody’s story. We are all in it, experiencing it. This is absolutely your story. 

We were provided an open bar and glorious (at times, confusing) hors d’oeuvres. I met some people but mostly hung out with a fellow I-came-here-alone lady artist named Sofia Enriquez whose work is amazing and whose weird goofiness meshed with mine excellently. The world has me and Sofia to thank for the tomatoes smashed into the hood of the Ferguson police car, sprinkled with dirt. 

At one point we were standing around eating and Ron Finley walks up to me.

“So. How do you know me?” 

People don’t always get to their emails. I start from scratch. “I heard about you on NPR, I’ve watched your TED talk, and then went on to listen to other interviews. I am deeply moved by your gardens, because I think it is a great response to all of this nonsense that is going on nowadays,” (I wave my hand around. We are standing between the 15 ft cardboard bust of Lady Liberty with her face in her hands, Treyvon, and the Ferguson car. He nods.) “And so, when I started to think about what to do for this show, I thought of you and I painted a picture of you.”

Recognition dawns on his face. “I just read your blog today.”

“Oh really?!”

“You sent me an email!”

“I did!”

“And today, you were sitting in one of my gardens. “

He shakes his head, a quiet smile on his face. He says: “It is a small, small world sometimes.” 

So that. That happened. Nothing else could happen this whole trip and I would consider it a success because of that.

Before the thrill of this encounter wore off, I tottered down towards the lightrail platform for my transit journey home. 

And OH WHAT A JOURNEY.