Monday, April 22, 2013

An Odd Juxtaposition of Charm and Menace.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend was a revelation. Not so much the event itself -- I have seen books by the table and authors by the panel many times before in the festival's 18 year run-- as the route taken to and from the day.

With traffic almost at a standstill as we tried to merge onto the 10 freeway, I decided to chance it with a city street route. Even plodding along through the byways and stopping at each intersection seemed more interesting than just idling on the freeway. And boy was it fascinating!

The area south of the 10 and east of the 110 offered us an education. I felt almost like a visitor in a different country, so different were the industrial buildings and tiny squat, stucco apartments from my own town. We drove past graying, fading warehouses; we drove past a huge Farmer John complex painted in a disturbingly cheery palette of blues and greens, hokey countryside scenes featuring fat pigs by the dozen, and showing hillbilly farmers in an odd juxtaposition of charm and menace.

The obvious poverty of the area shocked and appalled me. Even though I know that neighborhoods like this exist, still, driving past in the comfort of my car, and comparing my own home to the tiny, yardless ones all about me, made me very aware of the inequity of our economic system.

And yet, everywhere, human ingenuity and perseverance was on display. The people in the poor areas were every bit as busy living their daily lives as people anywhere else in the world. We passed an area with lots of foot traffic, grandmothers and uncles and whole families headed out to the Metro station or along the sidewalks. Sprouting up like mushrooms were tiny stalls selling whatever someone might buy. One entrepreneur had turned a shed into a small drugstore, with tables filled with deodorant and shampoo, diapers and household goods. Some sellers operated out of push carts; others had dragged a TV tray or two out of the house. Candy, flowers, hair ornaments, clothes -- anything you could think of was on sale in the small space between the road and the thick iron fences that held postage-stamp front yards away from the street.

For a block or so, each neighborhood had a certain flavor, a certain tone or feeling. Then just yards along the boulevard, that would subtly change. As the car moved along, the income level would go up or down. The ethnicity of the people by the homes would shift. And that juxtaposition, that dialing in of a neighborhood station only to fade into static and then become a different radio spot entirely continued every time we turned onto a new Los Angeles street.

Before the day was over, we had driven through some of the poorest areas of California all the way to the tony, wide-avenued, manicured-median wealth of Beverly Hills. I noticed that the drivers were much nicer near USC than they were in their rich streets in their rich cars. We ate at a sidewalk café and heard more than 20 irate honks within less than an hour, plus witnessed five near misses. In a hurry, and acting as if the world should yield to them, the BMW's and Mercedes swerved and swooped, squealing tires and yelling with their hands or horns. Back in the dusty, grim, iron fenced world, old and ragged cars had made their way slowly and deliberately along, careful not to cause an accident that no one could afford to deal with.

In every area, we visited we found the same thing in different ways. An odd juxtaposition of Charm and Menace.

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