8.72

8.72: Wurstküche

The author worked here almost a decade ago. His time at Wurstküche proved to be formative. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The author worked here almost a decade ago. His time at Wurstküche proved to be formative. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

There are now two Wurstküches in existence not counting the ill-fated Denver branch, which we do not speak of in polite company.

Even if the aliens made first contact with mankind at the Venice location where they instructed the snap-button staff in the esoteric art of lactating Aventinus Eisbock from their nipples and squeezing gourmet Austin Blues pork links from their bleached sphincters, Wurstküche purists would still decry the Lincoln Boulevard store as second fiddle to the original ‘Küche.

It’s pronounced “cooch,” incidentally. Not to dissuade every Downtowner with a couple semesters of college German from attempting to form their lips with Bavarian precision around the Teutonic tongue twister.

I know this because I spent time slinging sausages at the ‘Küche in 2009. Mine was a brief season in Wurstville. My arrival was one of many awkward stumblings toward solvency precipitated by the boom or bust cycle of freelance creativity that has similarly fucked many of my colleagues over the eons.

In a glorious testament to the enduring psychic trauma of the protestant work ethic and the puritan guilt laid there-in, I recall attending the informal job interview (that I secured via Craigslist) in a shirt and tie. Not that my attire made any difference. Mostly the owner was trying to suss out whether I fell in the acceptable margin between total slapdick and outright thief.

After securing Tyler’s blessing, I journeyed up the steep incline of the ‘Küche learning curve to become a casual interloper in the world of Bauhaus themed, tube-wrapped protein service.

What a world it was. I say this as a grizzled veteran of yesteryear’s Wurstküche: today’s food servers are soft. We were a heartier bunch back then. The ‘Küche was a bizarre dojo. The managers were our instructors in a discipline of balance and pain.  

We negotiated the dead-arm holding pattern facilitated by persistently unaware customers who stacked themselves like non-sentient rocks of humanity in the narrow confines of the bench tables.

We used the original (and heavy) red order numbers that most early customers placed face down on the table instead of up and obvious.

We learned to do more with less as our heavy breathing, Mike Ness adoring manager, James, steadily turned the lights down until the back corridor became a physical metaphor for some Joseph Campbell shit.

We stacked glass and checked the perspiration on the cucumber water jugs. Late at night, a few unlucky souls collected the condiment bottles and went to battle with the disgust-inducing golem of kitchen impedimenta known as the mustard pump.

We were privileged to live in the golden age of ‘Küching when drinking on the job was somewhat frowned upon but not forbidden. We pined for generous managers to prescribe us mid-shift doses of “sanity juice,” 9% alcohol German beer served to the brim in water cups. We were forbidden from sipping—a reorientation with good mental health came only with taking down the medicine in a series of strong, breathless gulps.

Eight years later and I’m overcome with nostalgia for the ‘Küche of yore. It still smells roughly the same. The mustard, the sausage and the heavy beer have a unique fragrance that will likely never be undone.

The reminiscence is not all delight. A seven dollar “veggie cho” sausage, no matter how delightful, will always remind me of an aggregate of shift meals that end with me leaving the ‘Küche ten pounds heavier. Further, the carefully curated blend of indie electronica soft rock disturbs me to the core. To this day, I suspect that the song “Burial” by Miike Snow is my Manchurian Candidate trigger song.

The "Veggie Cho" ushered in palpable feelings of nostalgia for the author. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The "Veggie Cho" ushered in palpable feelings of nostalgia for the author. Photo by Dan Johnson.

What wasn’t at all obvious during my tenure at the ‘Küche was that our dear little sausage kitchen would become one of the most influential service locations in Downtown.

No matter how you feel about the asymmetrical oddity caught conceptually between Portland and Potsdam, the truth is that its business model, its aesthetic and its success became a touchstone and bellwether for an entire generation of quick casual dining in Downtown. If Wurstküche could make it, so could x amount of other similarly conceived restaurants.

Proof of concept is nice validation, but the larger impact of Wurstküche is silent and tremendous.

It doesn’t take a twenty-year service veteran to pour beer, cook sausage and work a cash register. In a city where survival jobs are at a premium, Wurstküche opened its doors to hundreds of creatively minded drinkers and grillers who popped their service cherries there.

The ‘Küche is like culinary Kevin Bacon. If you’re out for a drink or a bite to eat in Downtown, you’re no more than a few degrees removed from someone who’s put in their time at Wurstküche.

I see Oscar most days at Guisados. Dylan and Steve-O will always and forever be the barroom heroes of Downtown Los Angeles in my eyes. The Travises are alive and well and doing the good gospel work laid out by Saint Matty. Jasmine owns a wildly prolific chain of food trucks where I have eaten far too many “wachos” to have the waistline I currently enjoy. I even ran into Johnny on Grand Avenue not that long ago. He’s doing OK.

El Tigre is on Facebook, naturally. Lord knows what happened to the Cricket.

For its cast of all-star human staff members, Wurstküche also had a way of singing a siren song to the douche bag set.

On my last day at the ‘Küche, I witnessed an ominous harbinger of Downtown to come. Power cut out during a rolling brown-out right as the dinner rush started. The hood fan and kitchen equipment wheezed to a halt and ‘Küche staff went into damage control.

In my final hours as a ‘Kücher, I was tasked with manning the front register and breaking the bad news to would-be patrons: yo, we can’t take orders.

Under the influence of one or more doses of sanity juice, I bravely shooed away a veritable host of diners. As if on cue with ninety seconds left under the watchful eye of Joseph and Tyler, a token Bunker Hill Bro strolled into the restaurant with what I assume he mistook for a female trophy of some sort click-clacking behind him in heels.

Without so much as a spare second with which to heed my warning, this BHB began shouting an order worthy of three or four grown men.

Finally, he paused to consider his dipping sauce options. I ambushed him with the bad news.
“I’m sorry sir, we’re closed.”

In no mood to be shot-down by someone making an hourly wage, he spat back, “what do you mean you’re not open?”

If I’d had a white board and some markers handy, I could have sketched it out in terms even his Cro-Magnon self could have fathomed. Kitchen + No Power=No Protein 4 Dingus.

Instead, I opted for the quick retort. “Don’t you worry sir, by the end of the night we’ll get one of our sausages inside of you.”

His corpulent face began to turn bright crimson.

“What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“Don’t you worry sir, by the end of the night we’ll get one of our sausages inside of you,” I repeated as I removed my server towel, pivoted, walked into the back of house and clocked out.

Fuck you, buddy.

Sometimes you just have say "Fuck you, buddy" and then immediately clock out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Sometimes you just have say "Fuck you, buddy" and then immediately clock out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I honor the ‘Küche for being a gateway to the janiform aspect of Downtown we are so prone to losing touch with. Here, you really get the best and the worst. That’s that. Savor the good for all it’s worth and tell the bad to sit on an uncooked kielbasa until they have to call in sick with botulism.

Unless you’ve had lapband surgery, eight bucks isn’t going to leave you feeling full at Wurstküche. Plus, the temptation posed by ample beer has a deadly and pricey allure. Still, I can’t help but feel remiss for not having sung the praises of this unlikely delight deep in my heart.

Surprise, surprise—I award Wurstküche a “1” on the binary and wonder where James Nichols is today.

8.72

8.72: Meat Zilla

Meat Zilla, adjacent to the storied Hotel Cecil on S Main St, has an eerily familiar feel to it... Photo by Dan Johnson.

Meat Zilla, adjacent to the storied Hotel Cecil on S Main St, has an eerily familiar feel to it... Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Meat Zilla is clearly a glitch in the Matrix. The staggering discontinuity in commercial food service immediately adjacent to the Hotel Cecil is enough to elicit a hearty “whoa” out of Keanu Reeves.

Was this not an entirely different business four months ago when I wrote an 8.72 on Dave’s Grill?

Yes and no. The lunch service shack has undergone one of the least expensive rebrandings in the history of Downtown to become a zany, off-the-wall purveyor of culinary sensationalism.

For those with a discerning eye, the big tip off that Meat Zilla is just a bleached tip, bro’d out caricature of Dave’s Grill comes in the form of the animated woman manning the register. Don’t I know you from somewhere? Possibly this same restaurant in January?

Then there’s the patio furniture, which is exactly the same as it was before except for the ubiquitous presence of tiny stickers whose font communicates “MEAT ZILLA” with the same subtlely as a fifteen beer drunk Huntington Beach resident expresses his desire to sleep with anything possessing a pulse while puking and rallying his way through a free Social Distortion concert at the US Open of Surfing.

The Meat Zilla sign itself is just a vinyl wrap stapled onto the old marquee. The contours of the previous Dave’s Grill palm tree logo press through the fabric in a curious instance of signage topography.

Mostly though the transition has played out in a predictable menu reboot built around adding grotesque quantities of meat to ordinary menu items. The updated fare is a love letter to sodium and Sysco. Burritos with tater tots and meat patties and frozen French fries and Applewood bacon and a burger named “Beef! Beef!,” oh my!

Adding further discomfort are now abundant images of a hand-rendered, sunglasses and ball cap wearing hamburger whose anthropomorphized likeness appears around the shop touting platitudes like “#justthetip” and “Yo! Put Baskets Here” in jerry-rigged 8x10 attempts at order.

Meat Zilla's menu seems to be what Dave's Grill offered, but this time with more meat and poorly crafted puns. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Meat Zilla's menu seems to be what Dave's Grill offered, but this time with more meat and poorly crafted puns. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The overall effect is the same as going to your high school reunion and meeting a vivacious and attractive woman who seems familiar in a way you can’t quite place. Then it suddenly dawns on you that despite all the airs of effortless cool, this is the same person who shit themselves during the Presidential Physical Test and has subsequently invested tens of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery to escape the stigma of that bowel movement.

Hey, no judgement. We all do what we’ve got to do. There shouldn’t be a prejudice against a quick nip tuck of personal or business nature.

Still, with both cases there’s a lingering psychological aspect. Just because you decide to be a new you, doesn’t mean you’re a new you. Sorry, The Secret lied.

Despite the new logo, Meat Zilla is still Dave’s Grill except now you can get a hamburger served “Meatzza” style, which is shorthand for paying three dollars extra to have your patty wrapped in pepperoni pizza instead of a bun. I didn’t opt for that because I wasn’t raised beneath high tension power lines, but I can understand why a business would feel such extreme lengths were necessary.

With the Hotel Cecil ready to undergo renovation and the palace of layaway upcharge known as Dearden’s going under, the current prospects for the 600 block of S Main St are grim. Daytime draws include a tailor, a bus stop and a place where you can hop a ride to twenty cities south of the border including but not limited to Zacatecas.

Does this block really need another food location to compete with Margarita’s, low cost sushi, cheap-o Chinese and flavor-of-the-week pizza? No. But Meat Zilla’s there just the same, so might as well make the best of it.

Meat Zilla's "entirely un-erotic" Threesome Burrito caused the author considerable internal discomfort in the hours after its consumption. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Meat Zilla's "entirely un-erotic" Threesome Burrito caused the author considerable internal discomfort in the hours after its consumption. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I had the scandalously titled Threesome Burrito, which is an entirely un-erotic trio of sausage, ham and bacon mashed up with tater tots and “Juan’s Salsa,” which amounts to a glob of cilantro in one half of this monstrosity.

The regret came free of charge. There’s nothing like standing in an unmoving lunch hour line at the local post office when a slab of eight dollar tortilla, meat and cheese begins dissolving into your bloodstream. The resulting malaise tinged with the agro chemical yield of hormone-augmented meat generated a hateful impulse future historians should not overlook when attempting to interpret our era.

I award Meat Zilla a “1” on the binary while still wondering just who Dave is.

8.72

8.72: Dune

Tucked into a shady stretch of Olympic Blvd, Dune proves the Downtown pessimist wrong. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Tucked into a shady stretch of Olympic Blvd, Dune proves the Downtown pessimist wrong. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

The important thing to remember is that good things are happening.

Pessimism is addictive and useful, but perpetually preparing for the worst-case scenario also has a way of filtering out the decent occurrences that accumulate in plain sight.

Those needing proof of the great glacier of progress creeping slowly through Downtown Los Angeles need look no further than Dune.

Not the Frank Herbert sci-fi novel that has spawned a cottage industry of secondary internet conjecture speculating as to which film adaptation is indeed the worst cinematic document of our era.

I’m raving about the Mediterranean bistro on Olympic Blvd between Broadway and Main St. It’s an Atwater transplant, like a healthy liver donated to a sickly man from some rosy cheeked kid whose body grew two on accident.

I first noticed the puke green exterior from a bench at Mega Bodega where I go to discuss matters of great importance (typically related to fermented hops and wheat) with similarly illumined minds.

Patronizing Dune is like stepping into a scene from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris except you’ll actually give a shit about the plot. The café is a stylized idealization of interwar France. Soft lighting, mirrored walls anchored with dark tile, aesthetically pleasing vintage canned food and a soundtrack drawn from old-shellac recordings of roots Blues all evoke a specific sensibility of chic simplicity.

By and large, the sandwiches are beyond the $8.72 price range. If you’re flush with first of the month coin, the falafel sandwich is nice, but pales in comparison to the $11.5 pickled beet sandwich.

Though the words “pickled beet” don’t necessarily inspire consumer confidence, I can happily attest that this is one of the finest sandwiches I have ever tasted in Downtown Los Angeles or anywhere else for that matter. Dominant olive flavors, shoestring potatoes and a fried egg all pull their weight in an explosion of flavor that makes Budd Dwyer’s mouthful of .357 magnum look like child’s play.

But hey, there’s that tricky sticking point of affordability. Speaking in the parlance of ‘30s Paris, the price point at Dune is more for established, money-to-burn Picasso types not poor, drunk, sex-crazed, willing-to-entertain-the-notion-of-eating-one’s-own-shit Henry Miller ilk.

Prepare to bask in the glory of this wondrous institution: the community sandwich. Unwritten on Dune’s menu but clearly marked in store is a pay what thou wilt meal built from day old ciabatta bread, hummus and vegetables. It’s an ingenious way to clear out old stock and provide a meal for common and frugal folk such as myself.

The French-reminiscent interior of Dune initially distracts from this wondrous announcement written on a mirrored wall: "Community Sandwich - Pay what you can or take and share!" Photo by Dan Johnson.

The French-reminiscent interior of Dune initially distracts from this wondrous announcement written on a mirrored wall: "Community Sandwich - Pay what you can or take and share!" Photo by Dan Johnson.

The proceeds from the community sandwich go to the ACLU. Most apparently see fit to offer up a one to five dollar donation for aforementioned splendor. I paid four dollars for mine. That dovetailed conveniently into a side order of falafel for four dollars, although the $1.5 eight-minute organic egg would have been a nice addition as well.

Anticipatory moments were wiled away beneath a sonic blanket of Blind Willie Johnson and Tommie Bradley. What should one expect from a cheap-o sandwich? As it turns out, quite a bit.

First, the sandwich itself is a glory. Second, the side of falafel is generous in its own right. Third, how did we get so lucky?

One form of logic argues that a restaurant of Dune’s caliber should never devalue its quality product by offering up a cut rate version of itself to any Dick, Debbie or Donovan that comes in off the streets. This is the same school of thought that found Alan Greenspan advocating for unoccupied homes to be destroyed so as to raise the market value of all other homes.

Still a more pragmatic logos dictates that wasted food is never good for a business’ bottom line and the surest way to establish oneself in a neighborhood is to create an accommodating category of service by which the broadest cross section of would be customers are invited to sample the quality wares at a flexible rate.

We used to call this sort of thing “compromise.” It’s a term referring to a process where one party abandons a lofty perch of pride to bridge a chasm separating reality from idealism. We used to do a lot of it here in America, but less so these days.

A "Community Sandwich" and side of falafel combo passes the 8.72 test and reminds us – in 2017 – that there are still some good things in this world. Photo by Dan Johnson.

A "Community Sandwich" and side of falafel combo passes the 8.72 test and reminds us – in 2017 – that there are still some good things in this world. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The taste of such archaic humility buttressed with quality and served on a donation basis has my heart palpitating.

I award Dune a “1” on the binary and politely ask that you go support them before someone “develops” their building.

8.72

8.72 Meat Bender

All it took was a little taste at Won Kok ... and the meat bender began. Photo by Dan Johnson.

All it took was a little taste at Won Kok ... and the meat bender began. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

It began with a momentary indiscretion hastened by poor judgement and a lack of choices.

I walked into Won Kok at Alpine St and New High St with every intention of keeping my pescetarianism intact.

Now that I think of it, I was already in a precarious position given that the choice to cut meat out of my diet was hedged with a willingness to create exceptions to the rule: fish, eggs, spare ribs from a friend when it’s just one and they’re grass fed.

It was only a matter of time before the dietary house built on proverbial sand detached from the bedrock of discipline and careened downhill into oblivion.

I never intended to arrive here in the world of masticated morality. I was raised an omnivore. We didn’t have the food pyramid. We had the culinary equivalent of a megalithic site where cursory carbs and vegetables were arranged in concentric rings around the central altar where we worshipped slab after slab of dead and preferably smoked meat.

Then last summer I stumbled into Richie’s Café and Grill across from the prison where a quick 8.72 became a dalliance into vegetarianism lite after the astounding shittiness of the hamburger gave me pause.

I don’t particularly care about the lives of consumable animals. That may offend you and that’s ok. I respect everyone’s right to empathize over things I don’t give a shit about. Maybe one day chickens and cows will evolve thumbs and a predatory instinct. Then we’ll really see how we measure up against them in the grand scheme of life. Until then, I’m fine with the fact that they die so we can eat.

I enjoy foregoing the taste of flesh because it’s a gift you give to your colon. You just feel better. Yet, anyone who has ever switched teams from the omnivores to the veggie lovers will tell you that you’re fighting an uphill battle against millions of years of genetically transmitted programming.

Sometimes those urges are stronger than your 21st century peccadillos and pretensions. Today, for instance. I had every intention of packing myself with Chinese-American quick cuisine while also satisfying my meatless agenda.

Then I found myself facing a meat-festooned menu of baked buns and dumplings stuffed with pork and chicken and served at under a dollar apiece. There were rules, sure. I could snag a shrimp dumpling and leave with my dignity intact. Unfortunately, I have grown weary of shrimp: the dingle berries of the sea.

I began asking larger meta-questions about the morality of shrimp itself. Is shrimp fishing sustainable? Are we not also decimating the ocean food chain when we pack these little hook-shaped turds into our guts? Is the Fukushima radiation scare real? Am I about to have a beryllium cocktail?

I threw caution to the wind and ordered up two BBQ pork baked buns, two egg rolls and a sesame peanut bun. What could go wrong?

Various Chinese meat-filled delights from Won Kok sent the author spiraling into oblivion. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Various Chinese meat-filled delights from Won Kok sent the author spiraling into oblivion. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Cut to ninety seconds later when I was outside jamming a Chinese sloppy joe in my face from a makeshift placemat I’d fashioned out of a hastily ripped paper bag flattened on a bird shit covered newspaper box. Verdict: pretty great!

Anyone who’s ever made fun who dutifully trudge to overeaters anonymous meetings can get bent. Food is as legitimate an addiction as anything else. It will make a junky out of anyone it can.

I didn’t appreciate its compulsive pull until the meat began to enter my bloodstream. I was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that I’d only spent $4.40 of my $8.72 and maybe there would be someplace else I could fold into this week’s post and maybe that place would have meat and maybe it would be good meat and even if it wasn’t I could still write about it that way. Right? RIGHT???????

After another sudden jump cut, I regained consciousness in Philippe’s where I found myself kicking sawdust and complaining loudly to someone I didn’t know about the sheer quantity of saps lined up in front of us to eat a historic sandwich. “Fuck it,” I opined loudly as I exited through a door I first attempted to pull open even though it was clearly a push.

Still flush with coin, I proceeded to Placita Café across from the Chevron at Main St and Cesar Chavez Blvd where the sandwich board sign out front promised a “Small Mexican Burrito” for $2.50. Count me in!

So what if meat tastes like fear? Ipso facto, fear is delicious. I wish more vegetables experienced terror. Then maybe I wouldn’t have been jonesing like a crystal freak on the 30th of the month for lack of the sweet fear my taste buds have come to associate with divinity.

The pork buns were really making their presence known in the larger chemical sphere of my brain. Meat took over. The landscape shifted. Aesthetics failed. Scenery was suddenly less important than a location’s capacity to serve me meat.

Meat. Say it. Meat.

Meat. More. Meat. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Meat. More. Meat. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The woman who delivered the small burrito to my table was lucky she let go when she did otherwise she’d be nursing a stump right now where her hand used to be. I devoured that slab of beef and cheese.

If memory serves, I practically levitated over to Olvera St on a mistral zephyr of dead cow. I was drawn instinctively to Cielito Lindo because it’s been around since 1934 and because I’ve always wanted to eat there and because it’s only two crosswalks away and because GIVE ME THE GODDAM TAQUITOS.

I don’t shout at the man, but I wanted to. Like all pushers, he was treating me with the level of disdain I deserved. Ordinarily the outright scorn would be a problem. The flippancy with which he snatched the five spot out of my hands. The haphazard way he tossed my change on the counter. The way his partner in crime slapped down two taquitos on the glass and said “there” as if he were feeding a stray dog.

I was halfway to saying some real shit about him and his mom, but every time I tried to form a word, I couldn’t because I was already fifteen feet away with a deep-fried beef taco in my mouth.

I was peaking. I could feel it. The world was a haze of pleasures hidden behind a veil of animal protein. Nothing could touch me. Not the green sauce on my shirt or the shredded beef strands between my incisors and canines. I was fifteen feet tall and immortal!

This pudgy little kid with a “Dude Where’s My Data” shirt and a fidget spinner started going table to table asking where he could get free water. I didn’t even snap at him, I just gave him the stone cold Jurassic Park where I sit completely still and pretend he’s not breathing his filthy sixth grade T-rex miasmas on me.

Then suddenly I was in the Avila Adobe looking down the locked staircase at a section of the zanja madre envatted in plexiglass twenty feet below. I turned to leer at some tourists before saying something pithy about water that horrified them because they didn’t speak English and the person jawing at them was some bestial, meat-drunk caricature of a person who freely admits that he is already a caricature of a human being.

I was initially dismayed to discover how much money I’d spent, but you can’t really put a price on a dead animal afterglow until the moment that protein halo dissipates. In my case, that instance of reason arrived mere minutes later in the Plaza where I was stupefied by the absence of the pan flute virtuoso who plays Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

The whole thing felt profoundly unhealthy. Regret is as much an undue burden as is the quick trek home to pound compensatory fiber and glasses of water.

This is not an indictment of meat. This is a criticism of someone who really enjoys meat but denies himself to a point where he is overcome with the urge and means to consume ungodly quantities of street-quality meat then hates himself for it.

Maybe a little less stricture and more compromise is in order. Vegetarianism is a gift to the self and the world at large. Then again, so are stomach enzymes that allow you to eat meat without getting incredibly ill afterwards.

Meanwhile, Won Kok, Placita Café and Cielito Lindo all get a “1” on the binary. Also, I have chosen to award the fidget spinner the coveted “lobotomy of the summer” award. I would say good luck running the world to a generation entranced by ball bearings and cheap plastic, but my generation doesn’t exactly have legs to stand on in the good political judgement department.

8.72

8.72: Happy Day Café

Happy Day Café on 6th St has managed to, at least for now, survive the crippling effects of GQ's 2014 fluff piece on Downtown LA. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Happy Day Café on 6th St has managed to, at least for now, survive the crippling effects of GQ's 2014 fluff piece on Downtown LA. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Mai’s was dead to begin with.

It’s been almost two and a half years since the cash-only burrito shack on the 600 block of S Spring St shuttered its doors. With every passing day, the humble casa de carnitas slips deeper and deeper into the realm of mythology where I keep nostalgized memories of places I will never visit again.

Objectively, Mai’s was not the world’s best counter service Mexican restaurant. It was a mess. The odds of bowel distress stemming from one of their burritos were pretty high. Sanitation was not always a priority. On more than one occasion, I watched a visibly ill staff member cough directly into my food.

Many of us still pine for Mai’s because it was an emblem of its era. It wasn’t perfect, but it was affordable. Even at your most hard-up, a filling $4.50 burrito was within reach. Mai’s was a relic of a day and age where people moved Downtown because it was cheap and interesting.

Alas, Downtown’s history is a social geology. The strata of time are written in a language of erosion and supplementation. The businesses, people and activities that sustain one era are washed away or covered up in short order.

The age of middle ground died on January 6, 2014—the day GQ declared Downtown “America’s Next Great City” with a rousing fluff piece that played like a coronation of the business interests who had the foresight to invest in Downtown years before.  

When the glossy tastemakers proclaimed DTLA to be the hippest of all hip places, decades of real estate consolidation, blowhard branding and patient posturing paid off. The time was nigh for residential rent increases and a changeover in retail tenants. No long-term lease? Sorry! No one was going to deny stakeholders the price per square foot rates they had lusted after for so long.

It was an age of dreams that too many of us bought into vicariously. The promise of the future was bright, after all. Sure, we’d give up a few of the establishments we’d come to know and love, but just think of all the boutique hotels we’d get!

Mai’s had to die so a proposed tower could go up in its place. Or so we were told. Two years later and the cabin that once held Mai’s still stands. A profusion of unmemorable pop-up restaurants has marched through the location like sailors through a whore house and still no tower. Meanwhile, Downtown has changed.

On a scale bigger than one burrito shack, the GQ mentality inspired two foolhardy and ultimately destructive phenomena.

First, a wave of rent increases (to be followed year after year by many more rent increases) jacked up the market rate of local housing in anticipation of a glut of moneyed jet setters who would be the new bedrock of Downtown. Gone were the mainstays of yesteryear and with them a roster of bar goers, artists, minds, hell raisers and outsiders whose conversations made our culture all the more interesting and whose hearty sensibilities helped maintain a certain order on the streets.

Second, a glut of new and pricey businesses rushed to anticipate the needs of the promised glitterati who would definitely have enough money not to feel economically strangled by absurdly high housing rates.

Upside: I can now buy a ten dollar all black ice cream cone that will earn the envy of sugar hounds across the internet.

Downside: I can’t feel safe walking in my own neighborhood because the savvy Downtowners that used to hang out at now evicted markets and restaurants have gone the way of the do-do while boneheaded policies, inept or absent policing, non-existent mental health checks and a Mayor who has given every indication that the problem is above and beyond his capability to administer a city on Instagram has opened the door to new dimensions of dystopia.

I’m sorry if you’ve read this far because this really isn’t for you. It’s for the con-artists who charge five dollars a square foot and encourage saps like now-dead class of 2015 standouts Tabachines Cocina and Bier Biesl Imbiss to build relatively expensive businesses on a delusion.

Can you read the writing on the wall? Is it starting to sink in that the elitism and price gouging is a cognitive disease coupled with toxic greed that threatens the viability of the whole experiment in Downtown rejuvenation? Can you comprehend that an unaffordable city center in this day and age is unsustainable? What do I have to do to explain to you that encouraging a low cost of living supports a social middle ground that may not satisfy your lusts for return on investment, but serves a useful purpose just the same? Do you get that perpetuating a poisonous and dishonest image of a city is very different from supporting its substance?

You can slap a new coat of Slytherin paint on the San Fernando Building, but without cutting rates, the Skid Row adjacent haunt is still going to be below capacity. You can commission a touchy-feely mural of sociopath babble and people will still sell drugs beneath it. You can inject capital into whatever compensatory mega-tower you feel the need to erect, but until you grapple with the reality of Downtown at street level, you won’t have built a damn thing.

Let that sink in.

While you’re processing a statement on Downtown that doesn’t involve someone congratulating you for having the foresight to make money, why not pop into Happy Day Café on 6th St between Spring St and Broadway.

The tiny kitchen is the inheritor to Mai’s legacy—an affordable, cash only, quick service Mexican food location where we can begin anew on the quest to build a Downtown for everyone.

Getting full and not breaking the bank will never be disappointing. Happy Day Café's food options recall the glorious days when Mai's still enabled that sought-after combination in the Historic Core. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Getting full and not breaking the bank will never be disappointing. Happy Day Café's food options recall the glorious days when Mai's still enabled that sought-after combination in the Historic Core. Photo by Dan Johnson.

For $8.25, I feasted on a taco and a huevos rancheros plate that featured a fat stack of corn tortillas on top of abundant flavor. The food wasn’t disappointing like calling the green shirts at 5:54am regarding a man who had been incoherently screaming since 4:14am only to have them arrive at 7:20am. Nor did it burn like witnessing a crime and attempting to flag down LAPD as they sped past on their way to LA Café. More so, the staff maintains a congenial demeanor and ample seating so your stay won’t be interrupted by a tool bag in designer overalls notifying you in hostile tones that you’ll have to pay more per minute if you’d like to stay and if you choose to leave, it’ll be no problem because a lot of people would like to sit on the busted-ass naugahyde chair you’re occupying.

I award Happy Day Café a “1” on the binary and encourage you all to support them before it becomes a forty-story helicopter landing pad.

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Q&A: Zero Waste LA

Q&A on Zero Waste LA with Lauren Ahkiam, LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) 

Waste is a major challenge for cities, and Los Angeles is tackling it from environmental, workers rights, and customer satisfaction perspectives through Zero Waste LA - a campaign fought hard by advocacy groups like LAANE. We were interested in how activists created a campaign around a not-so-sexy topic like waste, what is now being implemented, and how Angelenos are involved.

GDT: What was LAANE’s role in the Zero Waste campaign and how did communities get involved?

LA: LAANE looks at what kinds of policy changes can we make and what kinds of work can we do together to benefit workers, the environment, local communities  by tackling key industries locally.  Waste is one of those, obviously, and the City has a powerful role and responsibility to make sure it’s operating sanitation to high standards. Starting in 2009, I had been part of conversations with various communities to determine how this issue involves LA’s communities alongside major organizations who focus on climate change.

We took a particular look at the impacts of workers in neighborhoods, many of whom have been living in communities where there’s a huge concentration of the waste job sector, like in the Northeast Valley, and spent a lot of time speaking to worker health and safety experts. Individual Angelenos became a dedicated part of the coalition because they saw how big of an issue this was and were dedicated to seeing this system transformed.

GDT: What were the issues affecting the former waste system?

LA: When digging into this, we saw that Bureau of Sanitation does a great job with high recycling rates, moving to clean fuel trucks, having high standards for workers. But what we saw on the private side was that it’s a Wild West - there were over a hundred different companies that any one customer might have to negotiate a deal with. There were very little tools to ensure companies were operating according to high standards, and they weren’t meeting the City's environmental goals. We saw that 70% of what was going into landfills came from commercial side, and only 20% of the commercial side of waste was getting recycled. There was a clear disparity.

It also wasn’t working on the customer side. You’d have people paying three times the amount their neighbor is for the same service, businesses stuck in contracts they couldn’t get out of, customers that wanted services like compost collection or food diversion wouldn’t necessarily get those features if neighbors didn’t want it too, or it would be super expensive.

The haulers themselves would criss cross across the city, causing traffic impacts as tons of haulers were serving the same geographical areas, all of them competing on price rather than on standards. Haulers that were committed to an environmental vision with a stable workforce were having a hard time competing with haulers who were just looking to offer as cheap of service as possible.

Composting, food diversion, and other more sustainable features are coming to everyone in LA as part of the City's Zero Waste LA plan. (image via Wall St Journal)

Composting, food diversion, and other more sustainable features are coming to everyone in LA as part of the City's Zero Waste LA plan.
(image via Wall St Journal)

GDT: What did you see as the solution?

LA: What we found, and eventually convinced the City of, is that the best solution was an exclusive franchise system. It’s a strong tool to substantively address the myriad of impacts that the waste sector makes - from the local community dealing with too many trucks, to the workers having training to be safe on the job, to reducing climate change as waste is third highest contributor to methane emissions in LA County. 

Everyone is impacted by the waste sector one way or another, even though it’s not that sexy and not many of us are waste nerds, but once you start digging into it, you realize how much it touches people.

GDT: How will average Angelenos take part in Zero Waste LA?

LA: The City has designed a comprehensive education program with the haulers that will be disseminated to their customers beginning this July and into 2018. At the end of the day, haulers are contractually obligated to make sure that 1,000,000 tons of waste that used to go in landfills doesn’t anymore. So they have a lot of incentive to do education, get that word out, work with restaurants to divert food, etc. And the City is able to track all of this, which will unleash a lot of data and show where and with whom this is working best.

I think it’ll be a lot easier for individuals once people have the three bins - people will be able to see how much they’re sending to landfill versus recycling versus composting. It’ll make it easier for businesses to see how they can sharpen their ordering by noticing how much is going into the green bin - that’s like money going down the drain and food wasted.

We’ve built a strong connection with groups like the LA Food Policy Council, as 30% of what’s going into landfills right now is organic, which is the big culprit for methane emissions. What we’re trying to figure out with them is what can we all do together to get food out of the landfill, get edible food to people in need, and get stuff no longer edible to be composted or anaerobically digested.

GDT: Bureau of Sanitation has a target of eliminating waste in LA by 2050. Do you think it's really possible?

LA: I do! I think it’ll be hard but I think it’s definitely possible. It might be more like 95%, but I think it’s not only possible, but imperative. There are too many impacts to continue the way things have been. But it’ll take everybody’s involvement to get there.

8.72

8.72: Grinder

Grinder is a wonderfully affordable and expedient breakfast, lunch, and dinner joint not to be confused the with the popular sex finder app. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Grinder is a wonderfully affordable and expedient breakfast, lunch, and dinner joint not to be confused the with the popular sex finder app. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

If you were to read nothing but local government press releases, you might confuse Los Angeles as a city poised to eliminate car culture once and for all. As excited as I am about light rail and regional connectors and bike shares and monorails street cars, I think it’s important that we all face facts.

Los Angeles is a car city in a car state in a car region. What the Conestoga wagon and iron horse did for the region is momentous, but our present era is defined by the highway system and the near-infinite plenitude of personal automobiles operated by motorists of varying degrees of character and ability.

I relish the privilege of owning a car, however humble and unimpressive it may be. I’m one of a host of Hybrid drivers in the Southland. Sorry if that offends your gas-guzzling, “I’ve got an SUV…don’t you dare question my penis size” compensatory mindset. Sorry too if you think my battery dependent vehicle doesn’t go far enough in mitigating carbon emissions and I should instead endeavor to ride a fixed gear bicycle through the Mojave Desert in search of my true, green self.

I’m not alone in savoring this facet of my Angeleno identity: in a raucous metropolitan area of fourteen million, we delight in trapping ourselves in steel and glass coffins that afford an amount of tightly controlled personal space unavailable via mass transit.

My dear motor coach has accumulated a fair amount of wear and tear recently. On Monday, little stupid me said, “Hey, I’ll pop into Midas this morning and get a pair of new tires. How long could it take?”

The answer, as it turns out, is four and a half hours. I could have gotten out of there in three and a half had I not asked Greg if the car had been aligned. A look of shock overtook him. I wanted my wheels aligned???

Well, yeah, frankly, I do. I wonder, Greg, how often it is that people come in and purchase new rubber tires and don’t want them aligned so as to facilitate another trip to your fine institution in a matter of months? As much as we all love sitting in your waiting room watching “Dumb Shit Dumb Drunk People Do” on your communal TV while you prattle on the phone, most of us down at the Midas on Figueroa are getting stiff at the idea of being anywhere else.

Thanks be to civic planning, the stretch of Figueroa near Midas is an absolute glut of affordable food. As much as I enjoy anonymous rice bowls and colon capsizing Taco Bell, I tried my hand at Grinder.

Note the extra vowel there. I’m talking about the humble table service restaurant, not the app for finding willing same sex partners within geographic proximity. I didn’t detect any kinky play going on at Grinder during my stay. Although there was one particularly eerie looking fellow with Mennonite type garb and bowl cut popping in and out of the restroom now that I think of it.

Still that’s about the most bizarre thing to have transpired at Grinder where I was treated to an $8.04 pancake, home fries, over-easy egg combo that tasted delicious and sat well in my stomach over the ensuing four hours of bull shit that would come to pass up at Midas.

Perhaps Grinder's location along the once illustrious and now car-dealership-lined Figueroa Corridor near USC campus is what makes the experience of eating there so amiable. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Perhaps Grinder's location along the once illustrious and now car-dealership-lined Figueroa Corridor near USC campus is what makes the experience of eating there so amiable. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Grinder is a treasure for a variety of reasons. First, the food is good and the service is quick, but congenial. Second, it’s highly affordable. Third, Grinder has ample and free parking. Fourth, despite being so close to USC, the cardinal and gold themed restaurant festooned with Trojan memorabilia doesn’t appear to be frequented by anyone affiliated with the University.

In my years in Los Angeles, I’ve really come to value this last point. Always beware of institutions that have a “master plan.” Especially when that “master plan” is staked by a culture of self-proclaimed arrogance and architectural aesthetics that look like they were heavily inspired by Universal Studios’ Harry Potter world.

You know shit has gotten bad for a California college neighborhood when a Del Taco is converted into a drive thru Starbucks. That’s your canary in the proverbial coal mine warning you that the atmosphere of entitled pretension is verging on the “catastrophically fucked.”

To Hogwarts 2.0’s credit, the University has done quite a bit of community outreach and despite new fences surrounding the campus, USC is still a fantastic place to ruin a public toilet on a sunny April afternoon when your Prius is being held hostage by a man who swore he ordered your house-brand tires from the warehouse hours ago, but they haven’t mysteriously arrived yet and that one husky dude with the Ford Focus has clearly just skid-marked the hell out of the one-hole Midas bathroom.

With hours to kill after my Grinder meal, I popped into the Southern California AAA HQ at Figueroa and Adams to renew my membership. This place is a little-known treasure. The Spanish Revival structure is a testament to the imagined grandeur of Progressive Era Los Angeles when a flourishing and wealth neighborhood made this particular corner the busiest intersection in America for automobile traffic.

As a kid, AAA was an anonymous fluorescent lit suburban retail space where well-meaning affiliates attempted to sell me and mine on life insurance and camping trips to Busch Gardens. This AAA is a whole other monster. Inside you’ll find curiosities including an expansive dome decked out in flags from the various powers that once held sway over California. Better still, there’s a gigantic relief map of California and a magnificent Sequoia tree ring slice with which to indulge all of your dendrochronological inclinations.

Take a stroll over to SoCal's AAA headquarters after your meal at Grinder to be further reminded that people are obsessed with cars in this city. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Take a stroll over to SoCal's AAA headquarters after your meal at Grinder to be further reminded that people are obsessed with cars in this city. Photo by Dan Johnson.

There are much worse places to be stranded in California. Mecca for instance. Those looking to assuage the enduring pain that is getting tires changed at Midas on South Figueroa need look no further than Grinder, which I have seen fit to award a “1” on the binary.  

8.72

8.72: ET Thai

ET Thai, whose name is either a clever reference to a Spielberg alien or just a boring acronym, serves delicious yet scant Thai dishes west of the 110 Freeway. Photo by Dan Johnson.

ET Thai, whose name is either a clever reference to a Spielberg alien or just a boring acronym, serves delicious yet scant Thai dishes west of the 110 Freeway. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Ask yourself, do you prefer to spend eight dollars eating a heaping plate of unpalatable food devoid of nutritional value or do your interests lie in the realm of getting a meager serving of delicious cuisine that delights the taste buds but leaves your stomach feeling neglected?

This is the axis mundi of 8.72, the prime conundrum that informs all other mysteries in the broader cosmology of cheap food in Downtown Los Angeles circa 2017.

Almost a year into the pithy world of economy gastro-blogging and I am no closer to proposing a master theory for categorizing the priorities of my intestinal lusts. I can only shrug off the ponderous meta-questions and suggest that dining frugal in Downtown is like white water rafting. It’s a constant exercise in navigation that toes a fine line between scenic splendor and the threat of drowning. When in doubt, stay out of the river.

As much as I dread the toilet-bowl busters that lurk in the high-quantity/low-quality stretches of the culinary rapids, I’ve come to fear the disappointment of high-quality/low-quantity food just as much.

We call it mealtime blue balls in the biz. It’s that sinking sensation when your meal arrives and you realize that the pixelated photo on the menu is only slightly smaller than the dish itself. The cold-sweat begins to drip down your forehead as you begin to work the calculus of fullness with variables for the size of your stomach versus the disproportionately small quantity of food with wild cards accounting for the availability of after dinner mints or available food items in your pantry.

Not that good food is without its joys. Take ET Thai for example. It’s the Southeast Asian delivery icon that’s launched ten thousand bong rips, fed hundreds of avant-garde indie film shoots and helped reduce a city’s worth of hangovers.

The name is an acronym for “Excellent Thai,” which is accurate. Their well-adorned, but unassuming Westlake brick and mortar next to the Monty serves up a delicious eight-dollar tofu spicy fried rice. The rice tasted of anise and the tofu was fried to a crisp perfection that preserved some semblance of moisture within the soy cubes’ pan-browned shells.

The absolutely delicious tofu spicy fried rice just didn't do it for the author, who, like an addict with a high tolerance, needs an unhealthy amount of food in his stomach just to feel normal. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The absolutely delicious tofu spicy fried rice just didn't do it for the author, who, like an addict with a high tolerance, needs an unhealthy amount of food in his stomach just to feel normal. Photo by Dan Johnson.

My was it delicious. Unfortunately, it did not do the trick for me. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m just a fat little piglet with a gluttonous belly stretched beyond the obvious dimensions of my trim frame. Maybe I’m a cheapskate. Maybe I’m a rude little skinflint who should have made his column 15.72 so I could stop denigrating the good name of fine establishments in the business of serving decent food.

Look, if I listened to all the insults others threw at me (or a quarter of the awful, soul-scathing shit I toss at myself in the darker hours of the day), I’d be a wreck. That’s no sort of way to live life. If I’m being completely honest, it’s that sometimes I’m too lazy to ponder the byzantine web of costs that unite chefs with food providers with distribution services with big ag farms and farm supply companies and water right negotiators. That’s that.

If I get cranky on any given day due to a perceived slight in meal portions it’s because I have a stomach, a penis and a brain and only enough blood to work one third of those at any given time. You do the math.

I award ET Thai a “1” on the binary, but wish they would dole out more than what I deserve, full well knowing that any relationship predicated on one party secretly hoping the other will change is a doomed proposition.  

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Q&A: Asuka Hisa and Clement Hanami of ArtMetroPolis

As the former Santa Monica Museum of Art makes progress on its Downtown LA home, re-opening as the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (ICA LA) in September 2017, the museum is beginning to unveil its uniquely Los Angeles-focused programming. Their newly debuted project, ArtMetroPolis, presents a series of VR experiences showcasing Los Angeles-based artists and their respective art installations on Metro station platforms.

To learn more about the project, we chatted with Asuka Hisa, Director of Education and Public Programs at ICA LA, as well as Clement Hanami, Art Director at the Japanese American National Museum, whose artwork Through the Looking Glass or Traveling at the Speed of Light (Rail) is installed at the East LA/Civic Center Station on the Gold Line.
 

GDT: ArtMetroPolis is one of the first forward facing projects for the new ICA LA. How did this project come about?

AH: ArtMetroPolis was first developed as a video idea when the museum was in Santa Monica. The Expo Line Phase 2 was about to open and it gave us a chance to reflect on how our city will be further connected and accessible, particularly on the eve of opening up in a new location. The four artists featured in our ArtMetroPolis series have their Metro Art projects at stations from Santa Monica to the Downtown LA — the stretch between our old location and our new one. We wanted to not only learn about the work they created for the stations but to also learn about their experience of the city by riding the Metro with them. We learn more about the themes in their work and what inspires them while on a metropolitan journey.

GDT: Clement, how did you get the opportunity to feature your artwork at a Metro station?

CH: It was mostly persistence. You have to apply for a whole lot of things and you have to continually do it for a really long time. You will get some opportunities, but you will also get a lot of rejections. This persistence really helps me to get better at creating proposals based on experience and criticisms. But I think it is also my work within the community as an artist and museum professional. By working with different constituents in these areas I became more aware of the concerns as well as meet a lot of really great people.

Artist Clement Hanami (image via Metro)

Artist Clement Hanami (image via Metro)

GDT: This journey of riding the train from an artist’s point of view is made considerably more stimulating by the use of VR. Was there always a virtual reality intent for this project?

AH: Initially, this was going to be a straight video project but then I learned about VR, or Virtual Reality, and switched the production to this type of capture. 360 degree video is going to become more and more common. You can watch the videos without a VR headset on Facebook or YouTube (although the most immersive experience is with gear and headphones). It's exciting to produce some new projects in a space — online — that are accessible to all but also related to an "in real life" experience you can have in the city of LA.

GDT: Beyond the digital sphere, how do you think a public agency like Metro can best engage people “in real life” with art at its stations?

AH: I love art at Metro stations. It's appealing to have an art environment while you wait or even when you are rushing about from one train to the next. Or, best case, someone actually stops their tracks when caught by surprise by a compelling work of art in an unexpected place — they are suspended in a special moment to receive what the artist has offered. I am a cheerleader for more art in the day-to-day.

CH: When an artist is given the opportunity to make public art, it is a big responsibility to consider the needs of the audience. How they see art and what is it that exists in their visual environment. But i would also not just replicate formats that one might feel should exist in a certain environment; rather, I would hope to challenge viewers with something that is both familiar yet completely new that must be seen several times before it makes complete sense. In that way you give the audience an opportunity to take away a variety of meanings for themselves.

As a viewer myself, i think it is important to look at art several times before making any final critiques. and even then, I would never discount anything permanently. There probably is a place and time for every art work and while it might never be something for me, it might be for someone else. I have also seen work that might have had one meaning for me, but then later have a completely different, and more profound meaning once it found its place in my personal areas of experience.

GDT: This project is a great intersection between public transit, artists' stories, virtual reality, and a museum - what else might ICA explore at this intersection?

AH: Intersections are very LA! When we can highlight the intersection of so many vibrant, cultural, civic, social, and artistic endeavors in a city, people can engage from more than one angle. ArtMetroPolis features four artists: Clement Hanami, Shizu Saldamando, Carmen Argote, and Daniel Gonzalez and they talk about their Metro Art work and then expand to such topics as identity, race, getting around, neighborhoods, people, and places of discovery. ArtMetroPolis encourages exploring the city with public transit, through the lens of art and with local artists as guides. It would be great to do more videos like this and explore documentary VR further in collaborations with artists.

GDT: What under construction / proposed Metro line are you most excited about?

CH: The regional connector in downtown for me is the most exciting. I mean, i appreciate the long distances that Metro is seeking to reach out to, but those are in many ways isolated and limited in their service. The Regional Connector, however, is supporting a more central hub to make not only Downtown more accessible, but all the other lines too. The more we can make the inner circle work faster, the better all the lines become to their final destinations.

AH: ArtMetroPolis relates to a couple of current Metro lines: Gold Line and Expo Line. I'm pretty excited about the Purple Line Extension; and we'll see if there's ever progress for an extension into the Arts District, which would service the ICA LA nicely. The Crenshaw/LAX Project will be so good — train to the airport? Yes! I live near Crenshaw and Pico Blvd.

I'm a big advocate for getting around this city in different ways—car, train, bus, bike, ride share, bike share, or on foot. The more options the better. but we need to up the infrastructure for all of it.

CH: And hopefully, more artwork for the masses as they await their next journey.

8.72

8.72: Corner Kafé

Corner Kafé on 7th St is a place where you will definitely find an American flag roof but not necessarily a sense of dignity. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Corner Kafé on 7th St is a place where you will definitely find an American flag roof but not necessarily a sense of dignity. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

It’s 10:50 on a Tuesday morning and no one in the open air patio at the Corner Kafé on 7th St and Maple Ave is willing to address the elephant in the room. A good dozen of us park our asses on busted vinyl chairs that have seen so much sitting, they’ve started to herniate their stuffing into the open air where the horde of flies from the street beyond buzzes in to get while the getting’s good.

Most of us are staring at the long-suffering TV where Drew Carey’s already dysmorphic face pixelates and cracks as the signal fades in and out. Some giddy white woman from middle America is going to spin the wheel and make the showcase. Great.

One fellow is loudly video chatting with a woman who wants cigarettes. Another is pounding down a plate of chilaquiles. In the corner, the pachyderm in question, a scrawny dude with hate in his eyes, is mad-dogging me. I’m not special. He does this to everyone who makes a transaction.

In his mind, he’s entitled to cash or a meal from customers by virtue of the simple fact that we have money to spend on food and he doesn’t. It’s an old school trick coming rapidly into vogue with a new school of Downtown panhandlers who seem to have mistaken America for a place built on something other than English property law.

This sap is in league with Henry from Africa, that bold, Scripture shouting rogue, and the fellow who ran up behind me at the Pershing Square Bank of America ATM on Sunday to demand twenty dollars before loudly encouraging me to say the “n-word” so he could “beat my ass.”

It’s crass and presumptuous, a hair’s breadth shy of strong-arm extortion and a tableau taken straight from the pages of some cheesy GOP fear-mongering tract about so-called welfare queens.

My new friend demands I give him change. When I decline he shouts, “buy me food then!” He gets neither because I am a warm-hearted person with a (generally) good sense of etiquette who has learned to train a hateful, languid stare on those who offend my sensibilities.

The pitch isn’t going well. Someone gives him a plate of pancakes, which he promptly discards. Why? Were they not to his liking?

As the white girl bids on a new camping set and a trip to the Hard Rock Café Bali (loaded with rock memorabilia!), jackass shouts, “give me food, man!” at a fellow cradling an oddly out of place lap dog.

“Do I know you?! Why would I buy you food?!” the customer shouts back. The elephant is jawing now. His loose-swivel head pivots as his eyes struggle to focus on another customer canoodling with an older white woman smacking her gums. He shouts something I can’t decipher at his new mark who leans over his woman’s shoulder and almost whispers, “you better get out of here, homeboy, before you have a bad day.”

With staggering speed, the elephant stands and marches out of the patio to the bus stop where he stares back at us and pouts.

This is Skid Row. A complex and much-maligned petri dish of humanity that brings out the best and worst in people. It’s hard to get a good idea of what the neighborhood is all about, because every person capable of painting its portrait hedges toward one extreme or another. It’s either a “community” steeped in “recovery” and the righting of all the wrongs endemic to the Western World or an apocalyptic slum where, even as we speak, the crack dealers are assembling their addicted minions to sack Patti Berman’s lofted Rome.

Corner Kafé is a popular spot in Skid Row, where, like everywhere else in society, there exists "a a system of disparate hierarchies that pits the quest for dignity against the species’ most base impulses. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Corner Kafé is a popular spot in Skid Row, where, like everywhere else in society, there exists "a a system of disparate hierarchies that pits the quest for dignity against the species’ most base impulses. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I appreciate Skid Row. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: a dedicated zone of supportive services and low-income housing is crucial to maintaining Downtown’s equilibrium. A Downtown that works for the wealthy alone is no sort of Downtown at all, it’s a billboard for a cruel spectacle that is ultimately devoid of spiritual merit in proportion to the degree it divorces itself from the problems of the world. Case closed.

One of the things I really value about Skid Row is how natural it is. John Singleton Mosby famously said, “society is a thin coat of varnish.” Strip away wealth and phony laudations and prestige and you see humanity for what it is—a system of disparate hierarchies that pits the quest for dignity against the species’ most base impulses.

Dignity is an interesting thing. It’s not like your virginity. You can get it back in some measure once you’ve lost it. (Been there.) It’s not quantifiable in a dollar amount. Nor is it an obvious thing to cultivate. It takes a deeper sort of character to see after the pillars of your dignity.

There are physical components ie: hygiene, grooming, posture, presence. A dignified mind has its own facets. Mostly though, dignity is the marriage of a philosophy of respect (outward and self-directed) put into daily practice.

From whence this daily practice springs eternal is a matter of hot debate in our United States. Is it a product of institutions or the fruit of an individual’s will? Can it be given or must it be earned? Does the artifice of wealth create dignity or merely mask one’s lack thereof?

The answer is somewhere in the middle—the kingdom of the golden mean. Unfortunately, we live in a zero sum world. Our society is built on bellicose metaphors that encourage even the wisest and most benevolent sage to think of life as a struggle between warring in-groups, not a cooperative gambit.

Dignity is found in balance. It is not a province of ego, but an exercise in humble surrender and the endurance of compromise. Achieving dignity can be messy and uncomfortable, especially to ideological purists and those with a messianic bent. Yet, it’s worthwhile.

Our little patio tiff between John Q. Asshole and the customers of Corner Kafé illustrates a larger point. There will be demanding douche bags at all points along the way in our city’s journey. It’s exhausting to spend a lifetime denouncing or plotting to destroy every dickhead that exists in this world for the undignified purpose of serving self-interest. To navigate the obstacles of asshattery requires keeping one’s feet in the fire and learning to employ a few choice words or a simple statement of action in lieu of declaring war. One option leads to grace another to internecine destruction.

Everywhere I look in Downtown, it feels like we’re reaching a boiling point. Everything is intensely symbolic and heavily divisive. Battle lines are drawn in every corner of the sandbox. We’ve come to imagine our city’s destiny is a winner takes all affair. Everyone is itching for a fight. The whole thing smacks of fear and insecurity—two of the least dignified emotions in the human spectrum.

Turn off the gas. Hold your heads high. Fight fair. When absolute dignity fails, try a modicum of decency.

The author found that while dignity is abound in Skid Row, it is absolutely non-existent in the staff cooking up food at Corner Kafé. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The author found that while dignity is abound in Skid Row, it is absolutely non-existent in the staff cooking up food at Corner Kafé. Photo by Dan Johnson.

(Which, incidentally, is completely lacking in the food staff at the Corner Kafé who served me a grotesque plate of huevos rancheros built on fetid habanero sauce, past due eggs, and brittle tortillas that resisted every stroke of my plastic knife. Also, I should mention the hair. The free keratin deposit lurking beneath it all was not a welcome addition to my meal. You bastards.)

I award the Corner Kafé a “0” on the binary and encourage every Downtowner to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, “is this a dignified way to go about my life?”