I thought about breaking this up into more than one section, but I think I'm going to incinerate any vestiges of blogging protocol here and give it to you as one cohesive piece. Larry Fondation is an L.A.-based author and he wrote this piece for issue 71 of Flaunt Magazine.
In short, this piece is the absolute apotheosis of my view of Los Angeles. I'm biting my lower lip with the anguish that I didn't write it, but I'm endlessly thankful that it exists. If anyone ever wonders what I love so much about this blasted place, I direct them here. Here is why. Here is here.
Consider it my manifesto. Written by another like-minded soul whose words far outweigh my florid sentiments.
STARKNESS / LIFE IN THE EMPTY SPACESLARRY FONDATIONI am in my car. It is a bright day, cloudless. I am driving east on the 10 Freeway, toward the desert, for a day of refuge.The pace has slowed down. Change happened in the last century, not in this one. The terrorists know it—bombs come in backpacks. We do not know it yet.The endless, unbroken flatness punctuated by cacti, covered with brittle, dry, golden grass, on and on to the attenuation point, the horizon line, an occasional rolling hill, rising like a slight ocean swell, then the sharp, steep rise of the San Jacinto Mountains.Of course, millions of insects chirp and croak and crawl in the expanse of landscape that I can now see, but the vista appears lifeless, barren, stark. The vast emptiness of the American desert.The sky is tinged with red. A color chiaroscuro. The sun is going down. Soon it will be dark and the nocturnal world will come to life amide the starkness.Empty, vacant, abandoned. The buildings—tall for Los Angeles, the flat city. Ironically, it is Wall Street. Dead center on Skid Row. Downtown L.A.The sidewalks on Los Angeles Street, on San Pedro Street, south of Fifth Street and extending east, are clear by day, ambulatory, often uncrowded.By dark, I watch a churning eddy of activity—the pitching of tents, the unfurling of bedrolls, the appearance of oversized cardboard boxes, the long draws from the necks of green bottles of Gallo port.The parallels between the desert and the inner city seem to me to be both self-evident and uncanny.Both stark, the shapes all-vertical and horizontal—with little in between, straight lines, high walls—covered with graphics: graffiti and petroglyphs.The feeling of abandonment in both places is misleading. These environments are populated in their nooks and crannies, in vacant basements or underground burrow, punctuated by violence: the firing of weapons, the nighttime hunt of the owl, the click of a switchblade, the snake’s teeth snapping off the tail of the lizard—frightened, scampering, escaping with a third of its body gone and missing. Surviving still.Much hidden life. Much nocturnal life. A quality of darkness that is truly dark. Light—when it appears—gloating with glare and grimace: the halogen streetlight and the desert sun.Unforgiving.In harsh locales, the furtive are the best adapted.Beautiful.The beauty of starkness is the beauty of the harsh and the unforgiving. It is the aesthetic of emptiness and loneliness, belied by the hidden rattle and hum.I am a child of the city. I largely dislike nature, or, at least spending time there. My exception is the desert. I like my beauty to contain the possibility of meanness.The opposite of stark is lush. The opposite of lush is stark.I prefer starkness.I have only been to Palmdale once, but I will go back. Palmdale is both a desert and slum. Coyotes hunt errant house cats at night and the homicide rate climbs steeply. In the absence of hills, the dead bodies lie flatter on the pavement.On film, the stark aesthetic is captured bleakly and perfectly in the driving scenes—dust kicked up from the feeling, fugitive wheels—in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973).It’s urban corollary is Pasolini’s Accatone (1961), a portrait of the desolate Roman slums in the 1950’s.Paris, Texas (1984) is a noir film.Samuel Beckett is stark.So is Tilda Swinton’s beauty.Stark is gorgeous. It is its own kind of beauty.A few days ago, I returned to Los Angeles from the slum of my birth and my youth—Dorchester, Massachusetts. The decrepit structures on my old block, still my parents’ block, none shorter than three stories, still look the same.I walk from my parents’ house to Cataloni’s Bar. They have great pizza there, or, so I remember, and my friend Jeff died just outside, stabbed in a barroom brawl that spilled out onto the street. That was twenty years ago, but I still look for blood on the sidewalk. There are stains, but I cannot tell if the stains are blood, or fi they are something else, and even if they are bloodstains, odds are that they are the stains of someone else’s blood, someone who has died much more recently.You don’t have innocent bystanders in a knife fight.If anything, the neighborhood has gotten worse.It scares me that my parents still live here. They are now old and frail. But they are unfazed. It is simply where they live and where they have lived for years now.Another view: not much has changed, really.I believe I would love the inner city even if I did not grow up there, but I do not know why I believe that. I just do.I believe that I would still love the desert no matter where I grew up. As a kid, I never traveled outside the Northeast. I had never seen a desert. Yet, I was immediately attracted, just as I am to some women who sit just a certain way on barstools.These places are in me. I am not in them.I find beauty in squalor. I find beauty in starkness. Squalor is not starkness—nor vice versa. But they are related. Like nonidentical twins.Back in the Southern California desert, it is nearly evening now and I haven’t talked to anyone all day. Instead, I walk and I look. I take in all the flatness.On the darker side of twilight, I drive from near Mt. San Gorgonio’s shadow to the King Edward Saloon at Fifth and Los Angeles streets. It is full-on night by the time I arrive. The tents and boxes have all been erected along Skid Row. A man has pitched a tent right where I park my car. I rip a twenty dollar bill in two and I hand him one half.“If my car’s cool when I get back, you get the other half.”“You got yourself a deal,” he says. At that, I hand him a half-used roll of Scotch tape I keep in the glove box for just this kind of occasion.“You can have that, too,” I say. He slips the half twenty and the tape inside his grimy jacket pocket.I step inside the King Eddie.I am thirsty from my time in the desert and from the drive. I order Irish whiskey and soda. A woman with broken teeth sits down beside me and we begin to talk. Her face is weathered, but her hands are oddly smooth and her skin taut and almost delicate. I buy her a whiskey, and then, a little alter, I buy both of us another round. After awhile, I step outside to the corner to smoke a cigarette. The guy watching my car flashes me a thumbs-up sign and I return the gesture. I stare east, down Fifth Street. The city appears dark and dirty as my sightline telescopes toward Alameda.Stark.I flick the cigarette butt into the gutter and head back inside for another drink. The woman with the smooth hands has her bare feet up on my barstool. She smiles at me with closed lips.In a stark world, death would come by thirst or by violence.I have only alcohol and nicotine to end my day. For now, she has me. It is the right ending to my day amid desolation.Stark and beautiful.