We Americans are keepers of many things -- in this particular matter, I can't bring myself to use the word "own" -- toasters that sear the image of Jesus on our bread and ticket stubs from Abba concerts, not to mention kangaroos, lemurs, muntjac deer, potbellied pigs, lions, capuchin monkeys, cobras, pythons, and white tigers.
Exotic animals were in the news here in Ventura County last week, the Ventura County Planning Commission denying exotic animal trainer Irena Hauser's application to house up to five white tigers in Deer Creek Canyon, an unincorporated residential community in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu. The commission's decision was close -- 3 votes to 2 -- and it elicited applause from residents who had feared everything from incessant tiger roars to tigers padding through their living room. The decision ended (for now at least) more than a year of debate, some of it, not surprisingly, heated. The writer of a newspaper editorial was incensed, as writers of editorials often are.
"The applicants for a tiger training facility near Malibu, which I oppose vehemently, are not conservationists. They are business people who intend to use these poor creatures for their own profit," wrote Van Vibber.
Those on the rejected end -- Irena Hauser and her sister, who operate ISIS Preservation, a company which supplies white tigers and other exotic animals for Hollywood productions -- were not happy, pointing out, among other things, a blemish-free safety record at the sisters' exotic animal facility in Canyon Country in Los Angeles County (they had hoped to open the Deer Creek facility to give the tigers more room; the two white tigers they currently own will now remain at the Canyon Country facility). Hauser also pointed out that the dogs in the Deer Creek community make far more noise than tigers ever would. Here I side with Hauser. We have dogs on either side of our home. Sometimes I wish a tiger would eat them.
There's an old home movie that my family likes to watch, given to us by a former neighbor who was up on the latest technology in 1964. In this silent black-and-white movie it is Easter Sunday, and all the kids on the block are gathered in the neighbor's backyard for an egg and candy hunt. My three older siblings, all of them under the age of 10, are among them. The day is bright and everyone is running around happily, sometimes waving at the camera or darting past its field of vision as they search for holiday grail.
The camera pans over to the sliding glass door in front of the back porch where my mother is standing. She is dressed smartly, her hair done in a Jackie Kennedy-esque style. She is smiling. I am peering out from behind her, two years old and not smiling at all; in fact, I am glowering like I resent being there. My brow is furrowed and the shadows on my face cast by the bright sun intensify the bona fide frown. Even for a two-year-old not quite used to the world and occasions like this, I am a dramatic contrast to the gaiety around me. My mother tries to encourage me to look at the camera and lighten up, maybe join in the fun, though she doesn't try very hard. She seems used to it already.
My family always laughs aloud when they see this part of the movie. "Look at you!" they shout. "Not smiling, all put out, mouth all stuck out. You haven't changed at all."
Lakewood celebrated its 60th year of cityhood last Friday. And as the city has done at each of its milestone anniversaries since 2004, the city named new "Legends of Lakewood" to remember those who made the city possible.
Among those honored last week is a man you probably haven't heard of, but he affected the lives of millions of Los Angeles County residents. He died in 2000. His name is Joe Gonsalves.
The son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and a successful dairyman, Gonsalves was thrust into the politics of municipal incorporation in the late 1950s. Southeast Los Angeles County, which was still a semi-rural borderland between Long Beach and Los Angeles, was in rapid suburban transition.
When the city of Dairy Valley incorporated in 1956, it was to protect Gonsalves' dairymen neighbors and their 10,000 cows from suburban encroachment. Gonsalves, despite his reluctance to run, was among the new city's first council members and later mayor of Dairy Valley.
Workers demolishing a Sunkist packinghouse in Upland recently uncovered a sign hidden by a long-ago addition to the building. And that got me to thinking about American language in the landscape, where it goes, and what nearly unreadable signs mean.
Some painted signs (often those facing north, because they are less faded) offer products and services hardly imagined anymore: MILLINERY, FIREPROOF HOTEL, CLOTHES IN THE NEW YORK MANNER, SYRUP OF FIGS, TRUSSES, ARTIFICIAL LEGS, TAXIDERMIST SUPPLIES.
These signs -- some still asserting brand loyalty after a hundred years and some a palimpsest of competing sales pitches bleeding through the successive decades -- are more than a museum of past desires and least of all merely nostalgic.
Call it an early version of viral marketing. Promoters of two products -- a fruit and the region that grew it -- created hundreds of images of oranges, orange trees, and orange groves during the reign of Southern California's Orange Empire. They then leveraged the social network of the time -- the mail -- to broadcast those images far and wide. And, these promoters didn't pay a cent; tourists purchased the images as picture-postcards and then bought the stamps that carried them across the nation.
A new book by David Boulé, "The Orange and the Dream of California," collects many of those images into 176 richly illustrated pages, exploring the historical associations between the Golden State and the "golden apple."
Published by Angel City Press, the book draws from the extensive private collection the author has assembled over many years. Boulé has found some 600 distinct postcard images alone -- some of them serially reproduced and retouched, evolving with each printing. Also in his collection: electric juicers, packing crates, and even silverware that was part of a clever Sunkist marketing campaign. All these documents and artifacts help Boulé answer questions like: Why did oranges take root in California? What was the relationship with that other Los Angeles-area industry, the motion picture business? And how was orange juice invented?
In a phone interview, I asked Boulé -- a longtime L.A. as Subject member -- to elaborate on some of the themes he raises in his book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
People in front of our post office have many causes. I enjoy going to the post office just to see what they are. Over the years I have encountered folks championing for many things: the end of domestic abuse, the beginning of the ethical treatment of animals, the banning of the ivory trade in Thailand, the legalization of marijuana, more pepperoni on pizza (it is possible these last two causes were related).
Recently, in front of our post office, a man held a familiar sign.
"The World is Ending."
I have seen this sign before. I'm betting you have, too. These signs are generally general, allowing the sign maker to hedge his or her bets. And, of course, they are right. One day the world, for us, will end. No species lasts forever.
I was curious about this man's thoughts. He seemed lucid and calm, sitting cross-legged atop a wall, smoking a cigarette and watching his fellows rush into the post office with packages and missives that, if he was right, might be pointless.
I hesitated and then walked over to him. It is not always easy approaching strangers, but I am rarely disappointed when I do.
Gazing up at him, I held up the envelope.
"I'm wondering if I should mail this," I said.
My hometown celebrates its 60th anniversary of incorporation this week, having gone from beet fields to boulevards between 1950 and 1954. But the making a city was more than houses and highways.
Lakewood residents in those years spent most of their energies making new homes, caring for toddlers and school-age children, supporting the clubs and associations that gave them a sense of community, and sharing their experiences of Lakewood with their new neighbors.
Not many of them gave much thought to local politics.
California has lots of little governments. It's hard to tell how many, perhaps more than 3,000. Each of them is nominally equal in legal status; each with an elected board and all the trappings of officialdom.
California's little governments operate under the shield of the legislation that created them. And when long-ago governors signed enabling bills that created the little governments, governors promptly forgot about them.
The Central Basin Municipal Water District is one of California's little governments. Until the past few years, nobody but water wonks knew or cared about what the district did. The district's sovereignty was strictly limited to matters of water management, but the legitimacy of the board's decisions went unquestioned ... because there was no one who did.
With a name like Dead Man's Island, you might think that the small protrusion of rock was doomed all along. But the tiny island at the entrance to the San Pedro harbor was so steeped in romantic lore that many Southern Californians -- powerless to stop the dynamite and steam shovels -- greeted its demise in 1928 with sorrow.
Dead Man's Island was named for the shallow graves dug into its flat top. Various legends give different accounts of who was buried first: the last male survivor of San Nicolas Island, an Indian named Black Hawk; an English sailor who died while anchored at San Pedro; a smuggler who washed ashore on the island and died there of thirst or hunger. No one knows for certain which (if any) is true, but it's clear that by the 1830s the local, Spanish-speaking population knew the outcrop as Isla de Los Muertos.
In photos, it appears deceptively small; in fact, it measured at least 800 feet long and 250 feet wide. Rising 55 feet above the surface and separated from the San Pedro bluffs by nearly a mile of open water, Dead Man's Island was the bay's most conspicuous landform -- one that stood out from the mudflats, sandbars, and marshes that made up Los Angeles River estuary. It became something of a landmark for sailors anchored nearby.
Richard Henry Dana spied it from his ship, the Pilgrim, in 1835. "It was always a solemn and interesting spot to me," he wrote in "Two Years Before the Mast." "There it stood, desolate and in the midst of desolation; and there were the remains of one who died and was buried alone and friendless. It was the only thing in California from which I could ever extract anything like poetry." Needless to say, Dana hated his time in San Pedro.
During the Mexican-American War, the island accepted more corporeal deposits. Six American sailors and marines killed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho -- often known by the more colorful name, the Battle of the Old Woman's Gun -- were interred on the island in October 1846. Later, two more bodies joined them, and by 1858 as many as eleven bodies called the tiny island home. According to early Los Angeles historian James Guinn, the island became San Pedro's cemetery of choice since a narrow channel of open water protected it from scavenging coyotes.
A friend of mine died recently, a man by the name of Michael Reed. He was homeless. That wasn't the most important thing about him, but it was important to me because I frankly had never had a homeless friend until Michael. He was a real friend, a confidant and fellow traveler, not somebody I passed daily on a street corner and gave money or kind words, someone for whom I felt vague sympathy and kept a certain distance. It wasn't like that. Nor was he a journalistic subject I wrote about once and then kept in touch, just to maintain connection to a street-level source who could be useful in the future. It wasn't like that, either.
Actually it was Michael's dog, Topaz, who was the journalistic subject that I was keen on writing about after she got shot in a police crossfire in downtown Inglewood back in the summer of 2008. Topaz the pit bull had been quietly sitting tied to Michael's shopping cart when the Inglewood cops let loose a hail of 40 bullets intended for another homeless man they suspected of wielding a gun. The man was killed and Topaz was wounded in her hind leg. Inexplicably, the cops whisked her away to an animal shelter and took Michael down to the police station for questioning. By the time Michael reconnected with Topaz in the shelter system, the under-treated leg was in bad shape and had to come off. I was outraged by the death of the man -- turns out he had a toy gun -- and equally outraged that an innocent-bystander dog had to pay for such incompetence with one of her limbs. She was a victim of excessive use of force if I ever saw one.
Michael agreed. He was indignant, but he had lived such a hardscrabble life that Topaz's misfortune didn't surprise him much; ultimately, he was glad to have his beloved companion back alive. Michael was short and wiry, about my age, with graying hair and face stubble, but he was full of an energy and boundless optimism that bordered on adolescent. He had a brilliant, often mischievous smile. He experienced drinking and drug problems that had waylaid him -- "partying," he called it -- but never killed his spirit; a native Angeleno, he had grown up in the South Bay and loved to surf.