8.72

8.72: Paul's Kitchen

 Paul's Kitchen is an LA relic that is worth paying more than $8.72 for. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Paul's Kitchen is an LA relic that is worth paying more than $8.72 for. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I’m not much of a zealot.

I do not subscribe to the notion that any single ethnicity, religious group, gender category or class has sole purchase on wisdom or justice. I do not harbor any delusions of a one-size-fits-all ideology that will deliver us all. I cannot fathom the notion of a single immovable creed, signifier or uniform measuring stick that can withstand the scrutiny of reality.

Our current predicament as humans/Americans/downtowners has a lot to do with finding creative ways to keep from throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. This, in turn, requires a certain pragmatic flexibility.

Yes, I have strong opinions. No, this does not automatically qualify me as a zealot. Why? Because I’m not so enamored with my own ego that I think my ideas are infallible. That’s an important distinction. There’s got to be wiggle room.

My most stringent moral requirement involves a categorical distrust of authority, especially when it’s rooted in profit seeking. Still, I’m typing this on a corporate manufactured computer with a whole slew of other manufactured goods that were likely imported and advertised with big money. See how that works? You’ve got to reconcile contradictions.

I bring this all up, because the stated guideline of 8.72 is to explore authentic dining options in Downtown while staying below a certain price point.

Given a choice between a zealously toeing the cost line or supporting authentic, long-standing food locations in Downtown Los Angeles as they withstand the forces of willy-nilly redevelopment, I’m completely fine with eschewing the dollars and cents for a minute.

Paul’s Kitchen should be celebrated. The unlikely Cantonese comfort food restaurant at San Pedro St and 11th St is a multi-generational hovel that boasts trans-Pacific Chinese food served at a vintage counter top with more panache than expected.

An online menu lists prices that, as the physical menu reminds, are subject to instantaneous and unadvertised inflation. Paul’s Kitchen is cash only, which is also problematic.

I waltzed in with expectations of a slam dunk 8.72 that were met with grim reality. Paul’s is now uniformly above the stated eight dollar and seventy-two cent threshold.

And I don’t give a flying fuck. The money aspect is really a nice way to get at a certain element of authenticity. That nebulous concept is a qualifiable one. Like porn, you know authentic when you see it. Unfortunately, our current predicament suffers from a lack of authenticity, be it in dining locations or political rhetoric, because our world is completely enamored with quantifiable metrics.

Is something good? I don’t know. Let’s see how many people like it on Facebook or how much revenue it pulls in. That’s healthy, right? It seems like we might want to split hairs on what constitutes merit, but fuck it, let’s crunch some numbers in a sterile office and pretend we have our fingers on the pulse of actuality because we can reduce something to a series of digits.

 Maybe the author will one day have a framed photo alongside Tommy Lasorda's at Paul's Kitchen. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Maybe the author will one day have a framed photo alongside Tommy Lasorda's at Paul's Kitchen. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I know Paul’s Kitchen to be authentic because it exudes a certain timeless quality that I recognize.

There are two older dudes at the counter with a sufficient margin of seats separating them so we know they’re not into funny stuff. Each is glued to a television set blaring the noon-time good tidings of NBC 4 news. Turns out a kid has been taken in a carjacking/kidnapping in Van Nuys (surprise, surprise).

“Jesus,” one of them mutters, “some people should not have children.”

Agreed! Most people, in fact.

Around us, people are glomming down on plates full of Americanized Chinese food while portraits of Dodgers from yesteryear stare down at us from abreast of a shrine to Tommy Lasorda.

Lasorda is the original Jonathan Gold. The guy loved discovering greasy spoons and then binging there to a point that he became a cherished customer. His oily paw prints are all over local establishments. Not least of which is Paul’s Kitchen. In fact, there is a shared menu item here called the Tommy Lasorda Special. It is decadent and heart-stopping. It supposedly requires two to four people, but something tells me they’d cook it up for Tommy were he all by himself.

I went conservative with the chasu on the specialty menu. It is a heap of BBQ pork served with white rice, gravy and pineapple chunks. The fellow next to me, the one who indulges anti-fertility beliefs similar to my own, recommended that I order it with fried rice next time. Duly noted.

It was a gut bomb in all the best ways. I avoided the gravy much to the chagrin of Charlie who owns the spot. Apparently, that’s an insult at Paul’s. Oh well. That’s my little compromise. I will ingest this massive plate of meat and nutritionally vacant white rice, but you can’t gravy shame me.

I paid $10.50 and I’m not even mad.

Could it be cheaper? Probably.

Would I pay two extra dollars to keep Paul’s around? No doubt.

 The house specialty chasu costs $10.50 ($8.50 base price + $2.00 cultural heritage tax). Photo by Dan Johnson.

The house specialty chasu costs $10.50 ($8.50 base price + $2.00 cultural heritage tax). Photo by Dan Johnson.

Some intrepid LA Times stringer did the leg work for me a few years back when he profiled the restaurant. You can find the article yourself, you lazy bastards.

Here’s a summary: back when the original Chinatown was evicted and demolished to build Union Station, a slew of Chinese migrated south to San Pedro St and Adams Blvd where they created a residential neighborhood. Business interests centered the sino-angeleno diaspora around Olympic Ave and San Pedro St where the City Market produce center served as an engine for economic growth. Hence, Paul’s was created to cater to this now mostly defunct enclave.

If you go to any other city center around the world, you’ll notice that civic pride is undergirded with a sense of apparent history. Part of acknowledging Los Angeles’ abundant and fascinating history is forking out a few extra bucks here and there as alms to origins.

Also, beers are a mere three dollars.

I cannot reasonably award Paul’s Kitchen a “1” on the binary due to the sticky price issue. Instead, I am honored to convey upon this fine Downtown establishment a “Gastrointestinal Heritage Site” designation.

8.72

8.72: Master Burger

 Downtown welcomes its most perfect Metallica metaphor yet: Master Burger. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Downtown welcomes its most perfect Metallica metaphor yet: Master Burger. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Master! Master! All the carbs that you’ve been after. Master! Master! Adding to my thighs.

I have a hardwired trigger in my brain that interprets the word “master” from whatever context it appears into a custom riff on Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” Especially at the brand spanking new Master Burger location at Broadway and Olympic Ave where fast food cuisine and aesthetics transport me back spiritually to the heyday of Metallica one chorus at a time.

It’s a tick. One that afflicts a good segment of my generation. We have been quietly conditioned to a Metallican world view through constant repetition.

Metallica is the only band (including the Beatles, Stones, Zep and Floyd) to bogart a segment of dedicated daily programming on dozens of radio stations across the United States.

Out in the hinterlands and minor markets and hate ovens where Americans struggle with clinical depression like privileged Angelenos struggle with sunburn in January, Mandatory Metallica is a sort of church-bell by which we measure the passage of miserable time.

I grew up within radio broadcast distance of Baltimore, Maryland where that city’s fine-honed anger sublimated itself into a nightly 10pm broadcast of three (or more if they were feeling saucy) Metallica songs on 98 Rock.

Every night, we got the heavy shit—“Battery,” “Seek and Destroy,” “Hit the Lights,” “Fight Fire With Fire.” Exactly the sort of monstrosity that got everyone from cranked out truckers on route 15 in Frederick to basement drunks in Dundalk banging their heads.

I, for one, am glad to have received such a high dose of pre-Black Album Metallica in my formative years. My familiarity with Metallica’s early work has helped prepare me for a lifetime of disappointment. They are truly America’s band, because their catalog is a microcosmic slog downwards toward diminishing returns and constant compromise.

They’re the band that told the Sunset Strip and glam metal to go fuck itself. They made a brutal collection of albums that inspired a generation sonically while offering up enough live videos to instill an aesthetic of skinny black jeans and cut off t-shirts that still inspires visually.

Promising beginnings were not enough to stem a tide of ego and greed that have brought incredible fortune and fame to Metallica at the cost of their fundamental legitimacy. It all sounds suspiciously like the country of my birth.

There are people who still adore Metallica. Mostly, these are individuals who have strong opinions about the AFC West, like to tinker on classic muscle cars (or imagine themselves doing so one day) and have some sort of demon they need to confront via repetitive broadcasts of Re-Load.

These fans would support Metallica no matter what.

Case in point: I used to know a guy named Frank who paid good money to be part of the Metallica fan club. This entitled him to backstage access at Metallica shows. At one such soiree, Frank encountered Lars Ulrich sitting naked in a bathtub full of beer that fans were scooping out with a cup.

Frank gets a beer, tastes it and then comments to Lars, “Man, this beer tastes like piss.” To which Lars says, “that’s because I pissed in it.” And. The. Fans. Still. Drank. It.

Master Burger isn’t quite there yet. They can’t brazenly urinate in a twenty ounce cup without heavy complications. Still, it’s safe to say that someone is really into them because this is the fourth Master Burger location. There are others at Slauson Ave and Crenshaw Blvd, Western Ave and Vernon Ave, and Adams Blvd and Crenshaw Blvd. Think of their Downtown establishment as the chain’s … And Justice For All.

 It's hard not to hear  Load  ringing in one's ears while examining the options on Master Burger's menu. Photo by Dan Johnson.

It's hard not to hear Load ringing in one's ears while examining the options on Master Burger's menu. Photo by Dan Johnson.

It’s too early to tell, but the place has more of a Load feel. There’s nothing to really take my breath away at first encounter like a culinary “Blackened.” No single dish is going to rip like the second solo on “One.” My body will not be galvanized into rhythmic head-banging on the merits of a revolutionary meal that does to my gut what “The Shortest Straw” does to my soul. I will not receive a grandiose helping of mind-blowing foods that commands my attention like all nine minutes and forty nine seconds of “To Live Is to Die.”

No, the picture menu attempting to reconcile burgers and tacos with a whole other Italian food subplot feels like Metallica’s ill-advised 1996 full length fool’s errand, which found the quartet trying their best to stay metal while selling fans on what amounted to a grunge knock off album.

Even with the strips of bacon, the seven dollar half pound Master Burger tastes like a “Hero Of The Day” or a “Bleeding Me.” It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. It just doesn’t captivate me like I wish it would. I’ve had this same product elsewhere. In a pinch, it will do. But I’m not getting anything new out of it.

So too, the french fries have a quality to them that feels as if Bob Rock were a line cook lurking in the back of Master Burger. Yeah, these are Sysco generic medium gauge fries, but they have celery salt all over them to give it a little kick. They are undercooked, but damn it if they don’t have just enough sodium to pass muster.

For the record, it could be a lot worse. We’re still in decent territory here. Were it smaller or drenched in mayonnaise, I might have to call bull shit and compare the burger to “Fuel.” If the bun were stale and the pickles tasted like they were marinated in the fermented rectum of a dead cow, I would have to say Master Burger’s food has a culinary kinship to the masturbatory freak show of whiny entitlement that was Some Kind of Monster.    

What’s tough for Master Burger is that they’re situated across from Dune and next to Mega Bodega, which is a bit like having to listen to Hardwired…to Self Destruct in between Cowboys From Hell and Ashes of the Wake. Discerning palettes will know the difference.

Still, there’s this bit of hope: Metallica’s latest stab at relevance is currently Number 2 on the Billboard album charts despite having been released in November of 2016. Maybe Master Burger will experience a similarly perplexing stroke of good fortune.

 While the author would rather have a  Kill 'Em All  burger, he accepts that he won't find it at Master Burger and will settle for a  Load  burger. Photo by Dan Johnson.

While the author would rather have a Kill 'Em All burger, he accepts that he won't find it at Master Burger and will settle for a Load burger. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Personally, I’m hungry for a hamburger Kill ‘Em All or Ride the Lightning, but that’s never going to be Master Burger’s forte. Maybe they had their own proverbial Cliff Burton working the kitchen once, but now he’s dead. The best we can hope for is some sort of seasoning savant on par with Robert Trujillo. More than likely, when it comes to Master Burger, we’ll have to content ourselves with a flavor profile more akin to Jason Newsted, which is fine.

I award Master Burger a “1” on the binary and hope that some intrepid customer digs real deep into the menu and discovers that far from a “King Nothing,” Master Burger is, in fact, “The Thing That Should Not Be.”

8.72

8.72: Blue Cube Cafe

 I spy with my little eye a place where one might spy Eric. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I spy with my little eye a place where one might spy Eric. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I went down to the Blue Cube on Spring St south of 2nd St to see if I could find Eric.

I’m not a geometry expert, but the dimensions of the powder blue greasy spoon do not appear to conform to the standards of purely mathematical cubism.

If we’re going on the artistic definition where geometric figures blend and dissolve in a larger exercise in aesthetic topology, then yeah, I guess this long-tenured haunt is cubist.

The interior is festooned with album covers from a seemingly monochromatic host of artists including George Gershwin, Dan Fogelberg, Alice Cooper, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Rod Stewart and Marshall Tucker. These faces collide with a very much alive fellow hiding behind the rectangle that separates counter from kitchen.

The only other customer in the joint correctly identified the owner as a sort of wild uncle archetype. He is the nexus at which the planes of maturing rock culture, cheap eats and Civic Center sensibilities merge.

This is the sort of place I imagine Eric would like. Its nonchalant design and laid back vibes harken back to a free-spirited form of utilitarian small business that smacks of the things Eric espouses when he talks about our city.

I half-hoped I’d run into him at the Blue Cube. Alas, the restaurant apparently did not have a high enough population of elite social media figures to merit Eric’s presence. Or perhaps he was off campaigning for President somewhere else.

I wanted to like Eric. I think a lot of us did. I wanted to believe that his twitter game and Insta-obsession were natural extensions of a strong core built to withstand the pressures of municipal governance. I wanted to see him as a better dressed Jerry Brown who could sit and chew the fat like an actual human being, while he was quietly seething over some master stroke of civic engineering that would balance tough decisions with a sense of urgency.

Deep into his second term, I can’t help but resent Eric when I see him slinging drinks at Tom Bergin’s on St. Pat’s or wandering aimlessly through South Carolina dishing vague promises and half-hearted smiles to people who are not his constituents.

It’s fine to take time off to do fun things. Self-care we call it.

However, I grew up in a twice-a-week church family rooted in American militarism. If I brought home a shitty report card, nobody ruffled my hair and said, “gee, it must be the school’s fault—don’t worry about it, start campaigning for next year’s popularity contest.”

Fuck no. If I didn’t do my work, I lost Frasier privileges so that I had to hit the goddam books and do better.

I would think a Garcetti would be especially sensitive to letting a “sure thing” like the equitable development of Downtown slip through the city’s fingers on his watch.   

That’s exactly what we’re watching. The extremely quarrelsome, cacophonous, fractious debate we have in Downtown regarding housing, homelessness, mental health, infrastructure and all our other myriad growing pains has become such a cluster fuck because a grim street scene suffers in the extreme for want of any sort of central voice assuring us that some wise hand is at work behind the scenes.  

I understand your predicament, Eric. I get it. You’re fucked on this one. In Atari. Checkmate.

You inherited a situation that is incredibly complex and long-standing. The neighborhood rejuvenation that was to be the marquee accomplishment of your Mayoral tenure has turned into a lightning rod of controversy. HHH seems well-intentioned, but has had the same sort of effect as sending out snowplows in July for January’s blizzard. Mass transit’s coming and there’ll be changes to zoning policy, maybe, but it’s all a bit late for our tastes.

Also, the state has you behind the 8-ball that is Prop 47 and Prop 57. Jerry ain’t gonna give you a state of Emergency and Magic Mike Feuer’s civil forfeiture policy isn’t cutting it.

Of course, you can’t unleash the cops on the tents or the drug dealers without the ACLU, BLM and LACAN running a train on your supposed fondness for diversity and social justice. Meanwhile, no stakeholder in Downtown has anything nice to say about you because the street-level reality of day-to-day life adjacent to the human rights crisis is grim at best and terrifying at worst. So you’re getting pressured to pay for comprehensive mental health, which is deeply fucked because you’re putting the city on the hook for millions and millions of dollars of future spending that will come out of the pockets of the Hollywood Hills donors you’re relying on to finance your next big political move and, besides, any piece of lenient or compassionate city policy loses you the fringe voters in the valley who want desperately to associate you with some Steve Bannon fashioned accusations of cuckoldry.

Worst of all, you need all of these people to vote for you. So the safest move is to make incremental, ineffective gestures. Even those backfire on you when you waltz into Skid Row during your second term to congratulate General Dogon only to have him tear your fancy piece of paper up in front of the news media.

It’s a really shitty situation, Eric. Unfortunately, there’s a person we collectively elect to handle that shit and that person is you.

To quote Robert Frost, “the best way out is always through.” We need momentum to satiate our frustrations. Maybe things are really starting to hum up there in the City Hall, but it feels dead in the water down here in the Historic Core. With every passing day in the horse latitudes, you’re starting to sound more and more like Tommy Carcetti who himself resembles Martin O’Malley whose similarly ambitious run for national office ended with a whimper.

Eric, the sense here is that you’re galavanting around the country like you’re Luke Skywalker when, in my mind at least, you’re not even Wedge Antilles.

Sometimes you’ve got to turn off the targeting computer and take a tough shot from the gut if you want to blow up the Death Star. Otherwise you run the risk of ending up like Red Leader and hitting the exhaust port surface only to get waxed by the Darth Vader known as public scrutiny.

I’m thinking Star Wars because the original John Williams soundtrack is tacked to the wall at the Blue Cube just above my eye line as Uncle Blue Cube delivers my six-dollar order of signature sourdough pancakes with complimentary bacon.

 The arrangement of the bacon on the author's plate reminds us of Eric's grin. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The arrangement of the bacon on the author's plate reminds us of Eric's grin. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Uncle Blue Cube has owned the joint for five years. The previous owner manned the helm for thirteen years. When the signature sourdough pancakes were introduced, I am not sure. They are very enjoyable, nonetheless. Crepe-like in thinness and imbued with a certain yeasty aftertaste, they buck the trend of overly sweet fluff flapjack gutbombs.

There are ample other opportunities to eat for cheap at the Blue Cube. Omelettes, burritos, breakfast sandwiches all come in below the frugal-line. I’d say I’m shocked to see this place empty, but I recently watched as a crew of dudes beat a man bloody on 5th St between Broadway and Spring St with a metal couch leg only for two motorcycle cops to drive by and do nothing before a fire engine came so the beaten sod could decline medical assistance. I’m fairly desensitized.

Eric, my main man, it’s not too late, guy. There’s still time and you don’t even have to travel that far. If you want to be President or Grand Poobah of the loyal order of water buffaloes or whatever it is you so desire, you can win those laurels on the merits of what you accomplish here.

The crisis of democracy is a crisis of liberalism that pits techno-elite hyper achievers against the disenfranchised in a battle for the mantle of “progressivism.” The heir apparent to the resistance against disingenuous corporate Christian feudalism is the one that can reconcile market forces, be they developers or crack dealers, with the communities they affect.

Eric, you have the opportunity to be the guy who creates the blueprint for effective governance in the 21st century. The problem for you is that it’s goddam difficult. It requires stepping on toes and making tough decisions that forsake the coalition-building pandering that major party mouthpieces want to see before they declare you a “rising star.”

Los Angeles should not be a launching pad for rising stars. It should be a destination. You’ve already arrived. Let’s focus on the here and now.

I award the Blue Cube a “1” on the binary. I’ll give Eric a much-dreaded “incomplete grade,” because tough love is the only love that matters in Los Angeles.

8.72

8.72: Cherry Pick Cafe

 Those influenced by influencers beware—8.72 won't tell you what you should think. Think for yourselves! Photo by Dan Johnson. 

Those influenced by influencers beware—8.72 won't tell you what you should think. Think for yourselves! Photo by Dan Johnson. 

Trigger warning: having a frank conversation about Downtown.

Unlike most of Downtown, Cherry Pick Cafe is overwhelmingly pleasant.

8.72 never was your only choice for hot tips on places to dine in DTLA. What sets it apart is an iota of honesty about a city center that feels like it’s on the brink now more than ever. Unfortunately, that means I’m beholden to a certain unpopularity by which I tell people things they don’t want to hear.

Given the choice between doing literally anything else and writing about mostly uninspiring food options in Downtown Los Angeles, I’ll take the former. Nowadays, I’ve noticed a whole host of social-media friendly outlets that are incredibly eager to tell you, the new Downtown resident, just what it is that is totally awesome about #DTLA.

We call it “tastemaking,” “influencing” and “the decline and fall of western civilization.”

I prefer to think of my gig as “scouting.” I will go experience this thing and tell you what I think. Not what you should think. That’s up to you to decide for yourself.

While some people balk immediately at the idea of not having every single opinion pre-calculated for them, others seem to enjoy this bargain. Because I will take the proverbial culinary bullet for you. I will sit in dingy rooms listening to drunken men shout things at one another in foreign languages while my heart fills with dread at the thought of another colon bomb coming to my table with a long strand of split-end hair in it.

Now that I am no longer in the employment of the LA Downtown News and am thus unburdened with the responsibility of spending my week day mornings figuring out new and inventive ways to make events I will never attend seem exciting and relevant, I can reveal the great secret to you:

The thing I enjoy most about my life in Downtown is the occasional and much-prayed-for moment of goddam peace and quiet.

I’m Grade-A, tip-top, best-in-class at filtering out the stupid shit that mars my day to day life.

The guy outside with a spike in his arm. The absolutely bat shit lady with aggressive tendencies that no one from the green shirts to the State of California will deal with. The gigantic billboard trucks that seem like they were built off of Cold War era military technology designed to disrupt the circadian rhythms of the Soviets. The loud-as-fuck 818 teenagers who walk abreast of one another on the sidewalk so no one can pass by. The gaggles of pre-pubescent skateboarders who front like they haven’t actually been punched in the face before. The landlords that leverage community fabric to carve another buck off the bone of the neighborhood I live in presumably to the benefit of their gated estate in whatever community they choose to inhabit. The drug dealers who have grown so brazen beneath our esteemed City Attorney. The people who swear up and down that a new development will change Downtown for the better (in two years, after said development has amputated a block of city sidewalk on either side of the project). Politicians of any station in life who have weaponized insincere smiles. The list goes on.

 This back corner of Cherry Pick Cafe may be one of the few truly quiet places left in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

This back corner of Cherry Pick Cafe may be one of the few truly quiet places left in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

More irksome than the taggers or the Bunker Hill bros or the pushy junkies or the people on Facebook who block me before I get a chance to block them are the elite set of skull-destroyers on all sides of the social gamut who insist that we cannot speak ill of Downtown.

That’s not how I understand the First Amendment. Nor does it seem like a good choice here where, to quote Warren Zevon, “my shit’s fucked up.” I’m beginning to think that people who chide others about thinking poorly about a Downtown that is unthinkably unhinged need to put down The Secret and do some thinking themselves.

What I appreciate most about Cherry Pick Cafe is that, as the name suggests, I get to cherry pick what I think on while I’m inside.

The café is secluded. You can see it plain as day from the street. Yet, it’s not bustling. Because it’s centered between a trans-Pacific oriented tourist hotel, a senior center and the Junipero Serra State Office Building.

It’s nice to know we’re still naming things after Father Serra. He’s a great and shining example to all Californians of the utter failure with which best intentions translate into reality here in the Golden State.

 Yes, those are jars of potpourri and pine cones. No, the ownership did not place them there with Instagram in mind. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Yes, those are jars of potpourri and pine cones. No, the ownership did not place them there with Instagram in mind. Photo by Dan Johnson.

But, again, I don’t have to worry about Junipero Serra and his shit because I have the Cherry Pick Cafe’s impressive collection of kitschy coffee house décor to anesthetize me. Yes, those are jars of potpourri and pine cones. Yes, I am enjoying them. Yes, I like these design elements when they’re not used as a substitute for passable food and actual customer service.

Speaking of passable food, my omelet, which is delicious. It is robust and cheese-strewn. It comes with a vinaigrette tossed salad and four wedges of toast. None of which are difficult to get down.

It’s a post-dated Christmas Miracle! A joyous dining experience melded with good food that costs under eight dollars and seventy-two cents. I feel like the universe has rewarded me for surviving All Star Weekend and Night on Broadway with a quiet place where I can go to sit in the far back and be left alone to enjoy an omelet that comes on an actual plate as if they’re not expecting you to steal it!

I hereby award Cherry Pick Cafe a coveted “1” on the binary and thank whatever ambivalent deity it is that safe-guards our entropic existence that we are finally done with the jaywalking bull shit.

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula


a historical excavation by writer, performer, and artist Stacie Chaiken

mindmap3.jpg

For twelve years, I’ve lived on the fifth floor of the hundred year-old Higgins Building, on Second and Main. As time has passed, our corner of Downtown has changed: Saint Vibiana, once abandoned and tower-less, is now Redbird and Vibiana!

I look out the window at parking lots below; the few battered structures are the last vestige of what was once a flourishing Main Street. That block behind us is now the largest - as in, the most expensive - contiguous undeveloped area in Downtown LA. 

I wonder, What history is held in that one square block? Who walked those street before us?

Franciscan missionaries named our City Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula (Our Lady of the Angels, of the Small Portion).

I am engaged in an excavation of this small portion; I am summoning forth her ghosts:

Third-century Saint Viviana, patroness of the now-desecrated  cathedral, 214 South Main. 

Nineteenth-century former slave, and midwife, Biddy Mason, 331 South Spring. Philanthropist: “If you hold your hand closed,” she told her granddaughter, “nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” 

Japanese-American band leader Linda Lea, had her own theatre, 251 South Main (now the Downtown Independent).

Howie Steindler, murdered (cold case 1977) ran the raunchy Main Street Gym (1933 to 1984) at 321 South Main, where Dempsey, Marciano, Frazier trained. Jeanne La Mar; Joan Crawford sparring in heels. Howie’s daughter Carol Steindler (trainer/corner woman) took over when he died. She’s still around.

New Jalisco Bar, 245 South Main. Formerly down-low; currently out, and Latino drag haven.

Indian Alley, 118 Winston. Sister Sylvia Creswell's post-WWII Soul Patrol for returning GIs; Baba Cooper’s 1970s United American Indian Involvement.

8.72: Fix Café

 One of two Fix Café locations, which serves a variety of survival bites for no more that $2.50 and no less than $1.00. Photo by Dan Johnson.

One of two Fix Café locations, which serves a variety of survival bites for no more that $2.50 and no less than $1.00. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Believe it or not, I don’t get a large amount of fan mail.

That’s not necessarily an invitation. I appreciate it when people reach out to say they enjoy something I wrote, but one of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I can’t take a compliment.

Really, my favorite kind of feedback is hate mail. I savor hatred. The world truly needs villains. Assuming one’s villainy is rooted not in exploitation or greed, but the truest form of contradiction—defacing deeply entrenched assumptions of self-superiority rooted in complacency—we can treat earned hatred as productive and healthy.

I got a couple of especially nice pieces of ill-conceived hate mail last year that I found really invigorating. One in particular took the line that I am an ugly person trying to be funny so I can find someone who will fuck me. That’s a hell of a thing for one ugly person to tell another.

I would have loved to respond, but he blocked me on Zuckerberg’s magic dreambox. So I’ll have to save my well worded letter about the misuse of projection and the attendant impulse to load others with one’s own psychological baggage.

Up until January 16, his was the favorite letter I ever received regarding 8.72.

Then Heather Whittaker, communication intern at National Alliance of Safe Pest Control, rocked my world.

In a compact, but cogent communique that concluded with a call to action admonishing me to “share this information with your audience at Get Downtown,” Heather filled me in on the roach epidemic currently blooming across the US.

Bad news guys, apparently LA is amongst the top ten most infested places in the country. This should come as no surprise. The climate is warm, the streets are cracked. Besides, this is a place for survivors.

Once you peel back the myths of health and happiness beneath the warm Southern California sun and disabuse yourself of the notion that the Southland is a honeypot just waiting to shower you with oodles of riches, I think you’ll appreciate the fact that the common cockroach is the perfect emblem for Angelenos.

Most of us may not be changing the world, but damn it, we’re still here. In this day and age, that’s something.

I can’t speak to a roach’s inner-most desires, but I can’t help but think that they’re mostly in line with our collective hopes and aspirations. They clearly like to reproduce and nest. They make due and, damn it, they like to eat. Sounds pretty human to me. We’re less apt to survive a nuclear holocaust, but trim away the niceties and we’re downright roachist in many ways.

We tend to get in trouble when we assume our presumptions of natural superiority are accurate. The corollary in this trap of cognitive dissonance is that we think we are special and thus deserve special things.

Think roachy, friends. It’s not about what we deserve or even want. It’s about what we need.

A little honesty is nice from time to time. I’ve seen a lot of renderings of “future, awesome Downtown” recently. Happy (predominantly white people, incidentally) saunter through well-landscaped retail space in between their well-furnished homes and whatever bombastic food location stakes their claim on the ground floor.

How exciting! Won’t that be neat? In the meantime, if you’re looking for an emblem of Blattodea reality hinting at the actual quality of life in Downtown Los Angeles circa Anno Domini 2018, check out Fix Café.

 DTLA: check. Snacks: check. Always fresh daily: check. Fix Café has everything you need exactly when you need it, but only in small helpings that tide you over until you are forced by withdrawal symptoms to return. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

DTLA: check. Snacks: check. Always fresh daily: check. Fix Café has everything you need exactly when you need it, but only in small helpings that tide you over until you are forced by withdrawal symptoms to return. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

Downtown has two locations now. One on 7th St between Hill St and Olive St and another at 7th St and Broadway. With a name that winks at the fact that we’re caught in a perpetual opioid epidemic, Fix Café sells what you need and only what you need.

I’m in no way suggesting it’s roach infested, but the Fix Café I experienced gave every indication that it supports a bare bones lifestyle. Everything inside is priced between one dollar and $2.50. There are nuts and generic pastries and some of those yogurt parfaits.

The whole thing feels like a realistic compromise between the late-in-the-month, check-to-check skim of desperation and the libertarian future where everything is pay-to-play. It embraces our ever-evolving inhumanity and serves it dutifully.

Fix Café proves that the old swan-dive into dystopian oblivion can yield some practical adaptations. To wit: cheap sandwiches that are not at all filling, but contain enough nutrition to keep you alive and at your job for another eight hours.

The clerk wanted me to know that everything was made fresh that day. I have no reason to doubt him. My turkey sandwich had crisp lettuce and firm tomatoes as well as some sliced olives that had yet to stain the bread. The turkey didn’t have that waxy shine that usually precedes an “oh fuck” moment when you sink your teeth in and realize you’re eating nearly-rancid poultry.

 In the event of major catastrophe, Fix Café will likely serve as the feeding hole for the Downtown roach-residents that survive. Photo by Dan Johnson.

In the event of major catastrophe, Fix Café will likely serve as the feeding hole for the Downtown roach-residents that survive. Photo by Dan Johnson.

It was pretty decent. It tasted like an actual sandwich. It was cheap as hell. I spent maybe two minutes tops in Fix Café.

It’s fast food, really. Especially fast food because there isn’t much of it. The turkey ration is one slice. It goes down quick.

Forget your humanoid presumptions of what constitutes a proper meal. We’re living in roachtime here—small bites taken at intervals of necessity throughout the day.

It’s nice to think that we’ve earned some truly revolutionary fast food options that will confirm our own civic apotheosis. It’s a whole other thing to reconcile that line of thinking with the reality of life in an imperfect city filled with people who are dimly aware that life is short and by no means a fairy tale.

I celebrate Fix Café with a “1” on the binary and a hearty welcome to 7th St’s “Restaurant Row.”

8.72: Café Nine

 Café Nine, on the ninth floor of the Spring Arts Tower, is the perfect place to escape the ubiquitous noise of Downtown without actually having to leave the area. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Café Nine, on the ninth floor of the Spring Arts Tower, is the perfect place to escape the ubiquitous noise of Downtown without actually having to leave the area. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Among a bevy of superlative qualities, my single favorite aspect of Café Nine is that I have never seen any of you there.

Inevitably, some of you have patronized the ninth story haunt in the Spring Arts Tower over the many years they’ve been providing low-cost, but quality food items to building residents and locals with privileged knowledge of its inner sanctum.

I’m willing to bet we’ve come close to crossing paths there. Maybe we’ve missed one another by a margin of mere seconds.

The important thing is that Café Nine remains a temple where I am free to worship at the altar of solitude.

Pack up and leave for a weekend. Take that centrifugal journey outwards towards new geographies. You will notice that everything is quiet when compared with Downtown. Most of us who have been here long enough can tune out the noise. The sirens and shouts and boom box bull shit and screeching tires are standard fare. It’s our median line.

Even if we don’t always hear it, Downtown is obscenely loud. It is exhausting. Sound comes at cost. It is a physical energy that requires a certain amount of calories to process correctly. Otherwise the heightened effort stoops the body and drains the mind.

Ask anyone in Guantanamo who had to listen to Metallica’s St. Anger on high-decibel repeat. Noise will erode the consciousness you took for granted in a march to reveal something uglier and more animalistic.

These are things you don’t have to worry about at Café Nine. It’s Downtown at its best. Empty and elevated. From nearly 100 feet up, the happenings on Spring St look microscopic and hypothetical.

Others are hip to this trick of perspective. The Goodyear blimp trains its camera eyes downwards on something that resembles reasonable. Photographers climb spires and mount inaccessible helipads to revel in a skyline that scorns the horizontal daze of street level. Boosters and bloggers and commercial real estate players love the rooftop bar because the chaos of a tense city takes on a certain clarity from the top.

Down on the pavement, things seem less benign and mystic and more malevolent and grim.

Treat yourself. Ride that slow-haul elevator up from the lobby adjacent to the Last Bookstore. Café Nine understands its appeal. A sign on the counter happily reminds you that this isn’t McDonald’s. The production of food is contingent on industry best practices hedged on future circumstances that exist in a realm of unpredictability. It will arrive when it arrives.

 Café Nine has all of the trappings of a first-floor establishment, but it is anything but. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Café Nine has all of the trappings of a first-floor establishment, but it is anything but. Photo by Dan Johnson.

A motley assortment of seating including some long-tenured plush chairs dappled in dubious stains that invite you to park your ass and take a moment off.

There is a canvas print of a curious 1894 Birdseye map of Los Angeles. It’s on-brand. If you grow tired of peering down at today’s Downtown, you can always train your gaze on the euphoria of days gone by when Downtown appeared cartoonishly small and deceptively peaceful. Rail lines snake in and smoke bellows out. The city of the past looks like a model carefully constructed by an idiosyncratic retiree.

It is distorted, of course. We tend to treat the past with the kid gloves of nostalgia. These renderings are too often mistaken for ideal and pastoral relative to our present circumstances.

The past was a horror show. People were dying on the streets of Downtown even then. Substance abuse and gun violence and racial tensions and endemic greed and bitter disagreements about the future course of individuals, cities, civilizations and species were all the rage then too. It was noisy as hell. I guarantee that.

Like us today, the people who lived in that little cartographic village had no idea what was coming their way. Some would ascend rapidly to the heights of renown while most were carried away by the avalanche that was the American Century.

They could have used a Café Nine.

Alas, I’m one of the few lucky ones who stand beside Café Nine on this narrow stratum of time. Everyone who came before is shit out of luck. This bacon, potato, cheese and pepper breakfast burrito with attendant cups of pico de gallo and sour cream is for me and mine. Luckily, on this particular day, it was all for me.

 On this particular visit, the author not only received a breakfast burrito for less than eight dollars plus tax, but also an entire ninth floor DTLA unit to himself where he didn't have to deal with any of us. Photo by Dan Johnson

On this particular visit, the author not only received a breakfast burrito for less than eight dollars plus tax, but also an entire ninth floor DTLA unit to himself where he didn't have to deal with any of us. Photo by Dan Johnson

I know a lot of Buddhists who strive to emulate Siddhartha sitting there all taciturn and vacant beneath the Bodhisattva tree. Talk about good PR. Buddha’s story, however beneficial, is as much about a rich guy who ducked out on his family to go slack off in the woods as it is about enlightenment. As much as I envy him, I also worry that too much solitude is unnatural and ultimately ugly. The noise keeps us grounded in its own way.

Don’t let the Republicans fool you—we are as much a herd species as we are rugged individuals. Like the debate in physics that led to the enshrinement of the particle wave, we are solitary components enlisted in much larger waves of energy than we can ever appreciate.

We all have our fated place. That can be a tremendous burden. History, like Downtown itself, is god-awfully loud. Still it is essential to find a place where you can be quiet and alone, if only for a few long minutes.

I award Café Nine a “1” on the binary and quietly mourn Groundfloor Café.   

8.72

8.72: Anson's Eatery

 The multicolored "Open" sign is the most exciting thing at Anson's Eatery...and that's ok. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The multicolored "Open" sign is the most exciting thing at Anson's Eatery...and that's ok. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I intended to write about Glatt Kosher on 9th St between Broadway and Main St, but a quick perusal of their menu revealed an unbecoming selection of unaffordable items. Go figure.

Instead, I popped into Anson’s Eatery next door. It’s the small glass front bistro with the multi-colored “OPEN” sign. The polychromatic letters are possibly the most exciting aspect of the Anson’s experience.

I’m not even disappointed. I’m content.

Of the absurd menagerie of addictions afflicting addled 21st century Americans, I rank entertainment next to outrage and sex as the most pernicious.

Our collective national identity is hitched to a notion of exceptionalism. We’re special. A special people deserve special things. Now more than ever, we’re so accustomed to having our minds blown that we actually use “acceptable” or “sufficient” in the pejorative.

This is a mindset that we tend to associate with the fast-living of city life. It is by no means a recent phenomenon. The 1920 census was the first American survey in which more people inhabited cities than the countryside. Shit went wrong long before that, but strictly speaking, this is the beginning of an important historical continuum, the ass end of which we inhabit.

Why? It’s complex, but Michael Lesy did a pretty swell job of nailing that hide to the wall in the conclusion to his epic of American neurosis, The Wisconsin Death Trip:

“The people who left the land came to the cities not to get jobs but to be free from them, not to get work but to be entertained, not to be masters but to be charges. They followed yellow brick roads to emerald cities presided over by imaginary wizards who would permit them to live in happy adolescence for the rest of their lives. By leaving the land, they disavowed a certain kind of adulthood whose mature rewards they understood to be confusion and bereavement. By going to the emerald cities, they chose a certain kind of adolescence forever free from frailty, responsibility, and death. It is this adolescent city culture, created out of the desperate needs and fantasies of people fleeing from the traps and tragedies of late nineteenth-century country life, that still inspires…”

Boy, that sounds familiar. Especially in the context of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, where every relationship is defined by the excitement it generates and the worst fate is to become unenviable.

I’ve been swishing this idea around my mind a lot lately given the rapidly degenerating quality of our national discourse and the abundant attacks on the scattered remnants of the middle class and the internet.

Here in the cities, we took it for granted that the terms of our entertainment were not subject to modification. This is the height, after all, of every possible human ambition. Look at our technological savvy and inspired morality. Sweep the crazy beneath the carpet and hush hush the questions about the suicide epidemic. Never mind the horrors—look at all our cool shit!

It’s time for a most welcome gut check: what if this $7.95 diet burrito bowl from Anson’s were all I have to look forward to from here on out? What if I woke up tomorrow morning and all the pleasant fuckery of Facebook and the happy hour beers and abundant media were gone and in their place was a circular medley of steamed vegetables, brown rice, salsa and some avocado?

 This is what we deserve for all our inspired morality and technological savvy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

This is what we deserve for all our inspired morality and technological savvy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I would probably survive.

The zeal of living in Downtown would certainly change, but that’s already happened for me. The “gee, wow, you wouldn’t believe” letters home to Ma and Pa are long departed. I’m beginning to doubt their authenticity in the first place. I’ve replaced this sentimentalism with a calculated Libra impression by which I try to weigh good against evil without tipping over or confusing the two.

Cue BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Now the name of the game is a less-than-enchanted search for all-too-elusive nutrition, metaphorical and literal.

To borrow from once and former Downtown bard Timothy Turner, it’s like someone turned off the sunshine. Once you move past the lust for fame and fortune, the true dimensions of Los Angeles reveal themselves. The palm trees fade and the models exit stage left. This city’s soul feels like an endless night sometimes. So many lost people wandering about in darkness, destined never to find their way. The acknowledgement of that Los Angeles will change you fundamentally.   

Here I am. My life is this meal. It is cheap, wrapped in plastic and pretty hearty, actually. I’ve got some spinach and zucchini and broccoli and sprouts. The avocado is meager, but it’s well sliced so that none of the fleshy brown rot remains.

It’s enough. It feels like a relief to say that. It’s enough.

It’s not the feast you imagined yourself digging into as a child, but fuck your childhood self (not literally…hate that I have to qualify that statement in this day and age especially with the prospects for lunatic owned time machines increasing every day between Moore’s Law and tax breaks for the wealthy).

Most of us don’t even fathom how unrealistic our expectations are. Americans grow up living in a world where reality is just an inconvenient obstacle to the things sitcoms and magazines and movie told us we could achieve in America if only we have the gumption to make the right friends and fuck over the right people.

As a nation that acts out on its every picayune desire, however immature, because we deserve it because grandpa shot a Nazi and Coca Cola and jazz, we’re widely out of step with the trajectory of the world and possibly doomed because of our ignorance to that fact.

 Anson's Eatery's wall decorations remind customers of the bucolic scenes they left behind for a rousing city life that never quite panned out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Anson's Eatery's wall decorations remind customers of the bucolic scenes they left behind for a rousing city life that never quite panned out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

My big worry is not that we’ll wake up one day with nothing but $7.95 diet burrito bowls for our enjoyment, but that we will spend every day of our lives afterwards trying to get back to a place where we can almost, just about, not quite grip the things we think we deserve.

I award Anson’s Eatery a “1” on the binary and encourage you to stop by and enjoy their pastoral landscape design flourishes while applying some culinary balm to the crucifixion marks on your ego.

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

A Ruthless Ending for LA Weekly's Staff: Q&A with Gwynedd Stuart

The world of Los Angeles journalism and media was dealt a shocking blow when 9 out of LA Weekly's 13 editorial staff were abruptly fired. The timing came immediately following the purchase of the weekly print and web publication by an undisclosed company called Semanal Media, with just one identified manager, Brian Calle. We chatted with Gwynedd Stuart, Arts & Culture Editor at LA Weekly who was amongst those fired, to ask what happened, hear her and the team's feelings, and get a sense of what the future might be.

GDT: Did you know that this was coming in any way?

GS: We found out the sale was coming back in October. Ever since then, there’s been such a stunning, staggering lack of communication from the new company. Everything’s been dealt with in a pretty malicious way. So I didn’t have high hopes that much of the editorial staff would stick around.

GDT: What were you and staff able to learn about this new company?

GS: We learned nothing. They wouldn’t say who it was. We found out pretty immediately it was a new LLC called Semanal Media, but beyond that there was no information. Eventually we found out marijuana attorney David Welch was listed on the LLC. But we didn’t find out that Brian Calle was involved until an LA Times article came out where he was touting all his big plans to be so “creative and innovative”.

GDT: How did the firings actually go down?

GS: We had individual meetings. No one from Semanal was in the building yet. As soon as the sale went through, our previous owner VMG was responsible for dealing with all the firings. It seemed undignified that no one from the new company even knows who any of us are. From my understanding, all they requested from VMG was a list of employees and their job titles. I don’t think they cared or knew who they were laying off. Though I’m personally glad I didn’t have to meet those people because I don’t want to! It would not have been terribly pleasant for them to deliver the news. Instead it was a VMG employee and our editor Mara Shalhoup in the room, which was so big of Mara because she was canned too. After finding out she was fired, she had to sit there and be part of firing the rest of us one by one. And our publisher Matt Cooperstein, after being laid off, had to do the same on the business end.

I’m essentially third in command on editorial staff, so I felt vulnerable because I figured they may not want to have people in top editorial positions there anymore. But as I was standing in my office, cleaning stuff up, I’m seeing everyone come out one on one and give me the thumbs down, it was like… holy shit, it was a fresh shock each time. Each time someone would come out of the office and tell me they were canned, I thought, oh god, they really really went for it. The whole thing has been unpleasant from the get go. They really don’t know us and are not at all familiar with the work that we do.

GDT: It seems even ickier that a few select staff weren’t laid off...

GS: Well they kept our copy chief Lisa Horowitz, which makes a lot of sense. If they plan on publishing anything immediately, they need her. She knows how to put out the paper. They kept a few people in production, which could indicate they plan on continuing to put out a print publication. And they kept Hillel Aron, a news staff writer. I guess they figured they need a writer.

GDT: So you think there will be a paper next week?

GS: It’s confusing, I don’t know. This week’s paper is on the streets today, but not a lot for next week’s issue has been filed. We don’t know if they’re going to be moving forward with this skeleton staff or if they have a new staff starting immediately. It seems like Brian Calle has his big ideas and could have been secretly staffing up a paper this whole time. Or maybe they’ll have only a couple managing editors with lots of freelancers.

I really don’t know if the paper can survive this. I hope so, for the sake of all the great freelance writers who need an outlet to write for. LAist just closed, so there goes that. If there’s no LA Weekly…

GDT: Now that everyone is starting to know what happened, and our Facebook feeds are filled with “RIP LA Weekly” status updates, do you think there’s hope that LA Weekly could somehow recover from this?

GS: I think we’ll see as we learn more. I’m really hoping information starts trickling out. I mean, we have former coworkers in the office today. Once we know who these people really are, we can get a better idea of what they’re intentions are.

What we’re seeing happen everywhere is hostile takeovers of independent media, for nefarious reasons, to, frankly, destroy these things. I obviously hope that’s not the case. But, of course, I don’t think the paper is the same without the staff. We’re all represented in our editorial in such a positive way. Andy, our music editor, is so savvy and so hard-working. Our film critic (April Wolfe) was laid off, and she’s one of the top film critics in Los Angeles right now. She’s not replaceable. She’s up for Journalist of the Year at the LA Press Club Awards this Sunday. I’m also up for awards, Andy’s up for awards. We as staff are up for 20 awards total. I really don’t know if the paper can survive this. I hope so, for the sake of all the great freelance writers who need an outlet to write for. LAist just closed, so there goes that. If there’s no LA Weekly…

GDT: Have you been speaking with other fellow employees?

GS: Yeah, most of us stuck around yesterday after we all got the news. After everyone was ready to leave the building for the day, we went down to a bar down the street and commiserated. Everyone was shocked and upset, but I think, like me, people knew this was a possibility and had prepared in some way shape or form for the emotional difficulty of it. Then again, as much as that’s the case, though everyone felt vulnerable, I don’t know if anyone could have known the cuts would be this deep. The justification is just so… I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it, that they would just eviscerate the staff like this.

GDT: Though we’re speaking only the day after this happened, is there anything you’re hoping Angelenos out there will do to help support you and the rest of the team?

GS: I’m hoping everyone who worked at LA Weekly lands on their feet and finds ways to get their voices out, hopefully in other LA-based organizations. So continuing to support local media is hugely important - there’s nothing more important than that. And it’s easy, and fun! Just read! These are interesting stories that people are telling, written by people who are deeply dedicated to keeping Angelenos abreast of what’s going on in our city. It’s just so important.

 A screenshot from LA Weekly today, capturing the questions staff and the rest of us are all asking about the newspaper's new buyers. (screenshot via  LA Weekly )

A screenshot from LA Weekly today, capturing the questions staff and the rest of us are all asking about the newspaper's new buyers.
(screenshot via LA Weekly)