American Sabbatical 051: 11/11/96

Los Angeles

11/11.. Los Angeles

Barstow is a remarkably integrated town, if our experience is any indication. In the restaurants on the strip, both evening and morning, there were mixed crowds of Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, and Orientals, all chowing down together in family groups. Granted, they were all middle class, but it was heartening nonetheless to encounter the whole stew in one pot.

The town itself was a sprawl bordered with railroad marshaling yards, tank farms, some sort of refinery/mill, a solar water project, and a Marine Corps Base. Beyond that the lone and level sands stretch far away. This is the western terminus of the big dry and dusty where even the cacti are shy and standoffish. We pulled down our hatbrims and rejoined the road race.

Our final sprint across the desert was unremarked except by the odd mountain rearing up like an island. One was framed by sweeping catenary curves rising to crescendo at the peak, another, a perfect black cone, had a spiral road climbing around it to some private castle atop the nowhere. The fourwheelers and dirtbikes had left linear scars thitherwhichaway. Then the Joshua trees started waving their arms again and the scrub began thickening.

We struck on dispersed development long before we raised any woody growth, and turned off the interstate onto Pearblossom Highway to skirt east of the San Bernardino mountains, and circle round to West LA. It was a kick to be in a famous painting. David Hockney did a fragmented photomontage image of a junction on the Pearblossom Highway, with trash on the shoulder, and naked desolation to the far reaches, and he got it right, heat shimmer and all. To our left (west) the dark cordillera was capped with snow.

Pearblossom Highway
(David Hockney Painting)

These are the unvarnished desert outskirts of The Big One, over the outer ranges, and they have a seedy, outlaw ambiance. Trailers and modest bungalows between abandoned hopes and thrift outlets. “Antiques and Real Estate,” one opportunist advertised. The sideroads deadended in junkyards or petered to dust. The few people in sight looked worn out, and there was a glut of beaters. Even the road was half-paved. But the Joshua trees were magnificent in abundance and extravagant in choreography. There were patches of bunchgrasses, and raptors coiled the air.

First Sightings
Then the traffic thickened, and the pace, as we merged first into one freeway, then another: we had joined the Angeleno jostle. The fourlane, then sixlane, then eightlane, swept up into the San Gabriels and over Soledad Pass. The shrubs became trees, dense stands of juniper, thick chaparral, then the hillsides opened into mixed grasslands and desiccated shrubs. There had been fires all through these hills, and black barrens yielded to thin washes of bronze where the grasses had sprung back, and were now crisp again. At one point we plunged between upheaved strata in a fractured landscape that looked as though a quake had passed through yesterday. Then we tipped headlong into the San Fernando Valley and the city blossomed around us.

Los Angeles is an hundred cities in one, spread along a coastal plain, climbing the surrounding hills, pushing up the canyons, spilling into the valleys beyond, and oozing out through the gaps in the big mountains which drink the winds dry. The Valley is where those kind of girls come from, and we were quickly in mega-urb to the max. From stingy desert survivors to luxuriant irrigated super-flora was an eyeblink, and a million Spanish castles bloomed on the hillsides. Like, WOW.

Once in the maelstrom it’s impossible to focus on the whirlingspast. Cresting the last rise above the coastal metropoli the ocean smell hangs in the yellowed air like an enticing incense, but you are instantly bombarded with a cacophony of floral aromas, muddling eye dazzles, and the intense lane-shuffle samba. California highway signs are a casual after-thought, and the city was laid out by road engineers who studied with Jackson Pollack. You can’t even navigate by compass in this polis. No wonder the natives are so dizzy. Fortunately I was traveling with a native (so many things becomes clear), and she guided us up into the Brentwood hills to the funky digs of Nina and Bill, the next victims of Muirinvasion.

Onto the 8lane

Nina was Peggy’s college companion, and it’s fun for me to watch the two of them shed the years together. She is a professor of History at Occidental, he is a Physicist at UCLA. True scholars, in the best of the academic tradition. Nina is just bringing to publication a book about Louis the 15th’s official mid-wife, who trained young women all over France in modern techniques of delivery under a royal patent, and her narrative account of M. de Coudrey is stylistically heretical, raising the hair of her colleagues. So we had some dandy discussions on the nature of historical truth. Nina says that narrative history is enjoying a renaissance after a generation of dominance by the annalists who followed in Braudel’s footsteps. This is to say that the story has recovered from the onslaught of the database. Hurray the taletellers.

Bill and I politely waltzed around the dissonance of physics vs metaphysics. I don’t see a necessary conflict between left and rightbrain perceptions of reality, but Bill is convinced that only Science is provable as truth (yes), and thus a valid subject for analysis (no). I argued that art is the science of the spirit, the perceptual focus which can reveal an inner universal truth. That works of art which speak to an age are analogs of that era’s scientific theories: windows on fundamental realities. It’s stimulating to bump heads with eggnoggins. One of those urban sports.

Another is peoplewatching, and LA is the ultimate circus parade. And a selfconscious parade, at that. This is the capital of bodybeautiful and the simmer of mutual appraisal tingles even a jaded wanderer. There are more anorexic joggers, curvaceous rollerbladers, hunks in surfing suits, and sensuous strutters per square mile in LA than anywhere else. But the costume show is so eclectic as to be comical. Tights under floral miniskirts with highheel Doc martins on matrons with pearls and Twenties hairstyles. Tie-dyed granny dresses on inline skaters. Withered tanmasters in shorts and gold chains wearing smoked sunglasses and clogs. Postmodern couture in Santa Monica.

The babe's house
It goes with the architectural theme. Faux Chateau next Mock Tudor side by Hacienda Moderne door to MaxiCape-and-El side to Cantilevered Bau Haus. We revisited the house on Roxbury, in Beverley Hills, that Peggy was born into, and it's a fanciful Spaniard in an overshadowing grove of palms. Around the corner is the Witch’s House from a children’s movie of the day, surrounded by monkey puzzles. If buildings are signs in Vegas, they are movie sets in LA. And there are a million movies in Tinsel Town. Nina and Bill’s cliffhanging contemp is wound up at the top of Kenter Canyon in Brentwood, on the western periphery of the megaburg, upcountry from Santa Monica beach. Twentysome years ago it was a backwater bargain. Now it’s an upscale address, and the local matrons wouldn’t chip their nails with housework. What you see on the streets are nannies strolling the offspring and Hispanic yardmen trimming the shrubbery.. and the joggers.

And the fab cars. Every dream vehicle you ever drooled over from sexy sportscars to antique pickups, with a predominance of new German high-tickets. These are the real outerwear of the Angelenos and they drive with sartorial flair. The cutoff with head toss. The sunbleached tousle in drag takeoff. There are surprisingly few motorcycles for such a fairweather town, but I did glimpse one immense black man in chains and stormtrooper helmet Harleying fiercely down Sunset.

The witch's house

I have to admit that Red Owl has felt intimidated in all this mechanical splendor. In fact, her brakes are failing. Having paid through the nose for a complete brake overhaul before departure, this is another indictment of Wiscasset Ford. May they all live on the hilltops and depend by their own brake work. I get queasy enough in the highclass altitudes, now I find them upright scareful. We roar downhill in first gear with anxious Angelenos dodging around us.

Our first evening in town we were booked in for dinner atop Beverley Hills with an old friend of Peggy’s family. This is the top of the pyramid, loyal readers, and the posh climbs to stratospheric heights here. Street vendors peddle “star maps” for these streets. It’s a silly game of higher upmanship on this storied slope, and the houses themselves are, ironically, almost impossible to see. Between the plantings, walls, and steep angles, all this architectural extravagance is invisible. One mansion actually has lawn ornaments (!), but they are dalmations, and (you guessed) there are 101 of them. The swank set may be invisible, but the address is the thing.

Our destination was up on the skyline on Chalette, and the view was astronomical. The whole sparkling galaxy of lower Los Angeles spread out beneath us was as head-spinning as the penthouse panorama from upper New York. This is where social climbing gets you. Better check your brakes.

Our hosts, on the other hand, give big money a good reputation, and are special people on top of it all. Aaron was a poor immigrant kid from Chicago who could tell a funny story and got all of America to laugh at their television. Maureen sang and danced her way to the top of Broadway and on to Hollywood. Now they work every day for charity. He’s a volunteer advocate for underclass teens in Juvie and a mentor for abandoned children, she is a fundraiser for handicapped kids. Aaron is in his 80s, but as spry as a 60-year-old, and Maureen has an ageless beauty. Here are folks who have it all, but who care enough to come down from the mountain to wrestle with the street demons. Pretty inspirational stuff.

They also have a splendid collection of contemporary art, and I was surprised to find it all about people, people of all colors and description -- but I should have known. I’d carried a tubful of carvings to show across America, in part because Aaron had volunteered to puff my stuff to the dealers he knows out here. Now he was obviously upset at encountering roadblocks in the galleries. The fact is you can’t just sail in as an unknown provincial artist working in an unfashionable genre and get star billing. The art biz is a very competitive profession, and Aaron in his innocent generosity had run hardup against the walls of commerce. So much for the big break in Beverley Hills. He has put me in touch with some dealers in other places, and I can play those cards as I choose. We politely changed the subject.

We talked politics and social service and family reminiscence into the wee hours. Aaron grew up with Peggy’s father and has been a loyal friend of that clan all his life. He stuck by Leo when he had walled himself off from everyone else, and is now joyful that Leo has come out of his isolation to rejoin the family circus. As the hour got late he let loose a few family secrets, and we netted them quietly to carry off for examination. It was a warm embrace in the stellar altitudes, and we winced as the Owl smoked and squawked back down to Sunset and around to Brentwood. The traffic lights were flashing and all the sprinklers in LA were misting the median plantings.

(Memo #44)


Who? children and parents in the legal system

What? new court building

Where? central Los Angeles

When? recently

How? child- and family-sensitive architecture

Topics: CASA, family court, court architecture, independent living program, HOORAY FOR FREEPORT.

Questions: How do we protect children’s interests? How does a court determine the best interests of children? What is CASA? How do we facilitate the move of children from dependent to independent living?

Santa Monica Sideshow

Today I spent the day in the family court building in Los Angeles. I was the guest of my father’s boyhood friend Aaron Ruben who had fascinated me with stories about his work for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). CASA started about twenty years ago when a judge discovered that the bureaucrats at family court knew little about the children in one case. The judge put out a call for volunteers to be advocates for children in court situations, to be on their side, looking after their very individual needs and interests. He got many volunteers and the organization was born. CASA is now found all over the nation.

How much do we need special advocates for children? Here are the horrific US statistics. Every day 8200 children are reported as abused, neglected, or abandoned. Every day 500 children are placed in foster care or institutions. Every day 3 children die from physical abuse.

If you want to be a CASA volunteer, you undergo training in legal procedures and counseling and child development. Working under a CASA director, a CASA member will be assigned several children (only one CASA person I’ve heard of had more than four children). CASA deals with situations in which children have been abused, neglected or abandoned. The CASA representative meets with the child or teenager and the social worker. And s/he advocates - s/he watches and listens and asks questions and finds out all s/he can about this one child and this one family. The CASA advocate goes to meetings with the child (and family) - from PETs to court sessions. The advocate (unlike the social worker or lawyers or judge) has only one or two children to represent. That one child’s interest is paramount. There are limits to the role. You do not, for example, take the child in, but you DO make regular contact and become the person the child can depend on. Aaron Ruben drives to the juvenile hall facility once a week to meet with his CASA boy (the only regular visitor the boy has). Today Aaron was delivering several boxes of stuffed animals to the court to be given to children.

The family court building is new. In the past, children whose parents were abusive or absent would wait to see a family court judge, and sit next to mass murderers and arsonists in the one court building. This building was designed with the children and their needs in mind. You enter the huge building through a small houselike space. There IS a search and no cameras or guns etc are allowed. The lobby has clouds on the ceiling, whimsical trees for lightstands, and a mural made up of crayoned self-portraits of children. The second floor is where children wait for their cases to be called. They have a large library with a variety of books, an art room with a variety of materials, a cafeteria, a large TV room with many beanbag chairs, lockers to put valuables in. There are staff people available for help and comfort . The space is large and bright and clean and quite charming .

Upstairs on the courtroom floor there were hundreds of people waiting in the large lobby. Again the space was bright and warm and comfortable with a variety of chairs (some child sized), and small conversation arrangements. There are diapering rooms and nursing rooms! There were kids of all ages from teenagers to new babies. The adults ranged from foster parents to parents and grandparents, CASA representatives, lawyers etc.

I visited Judge Emily Stevens’ court. The family court courtroom is smaller and more “rumpled” and intimate than criminal court. The judge sits at a low desk (again so children will not be intimidated).The witness chair (where a child may sit) has a few teddy bears on it. There are tables and desks for many court officials. I saw a room abustle with quiet activities, both dignified and somewhat informal. Judge Emily Steven is a bright, efficient, and compassionate Afro-American. While she and the other officials care deeply about the children and family in the cases they hear, numbers are against them. Judge Stevens’ court hears about forty cases a day - It makes it difficult to take a thoughtful, thorough time to determine a child’s interests. This suggests how important a CASA worker can be.

I went to a meeting of CASA workers on the topic of independent living. There is an independent living program (federal) focused on teenagers sixteen and older. How do you move kids from foster care to independent apartments? There is some housing available now but just not enough. Many of the CASA workers said their teenagers were on waiting lists. One girl had waited eighteen months for an apartment. In the mean time they may have to stay in shelters or group homes. People will only be supported in foster home until they are 18.

YAY FREEPORT: You’ll see why we should congratulate our school, Mrs. Wescott, Mr. Lincoln, Mrs. Smith!!

The CASA director described the NEW AMAZING federal Independent Living Program. The federal government gives money to community colleges to run special courses to prepare kids for independent living. Students are paid and given transport to the classes. They are taught to manage a checking account, shop, cook, pay bills, read a lease. They are given career guidance and vocational testing and have job fairs and college fairs. They must collect important documents such as birth certificates. I proudly put my hand up and said that my high school offered all these services, we took kids to college fairs and had an Independent Living course for seniors and an extensive career planning program. I asked whether it wouldn’t make better economic sense to pressure the California legislature to put in a graduation requirement for independent living courses than to set up new ones at community college. Several speakers said that wouldn’t help or reach the dropouts (true). I still found myself really proud of all the Freeport staff does to get students ready for adult life.

I heard many stories about children and teenagers in court care and some are hair-raising. One CASA worker said that he questioned the current stress on keeping families together as THE top priority. He had CASA kids who went through horrors- ten foster homes in a year ! - while the court tried to reconstruct the family (get the parents into drug rehab and counseling). Must we accept the fact that some families CAN’T be put together? It sounds as though Maine has all the same problems, but small scale.

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