Defining Moments


One of the reasons for the total lack of updates recently has been due to the fact that this month of June has been a very stressed and focused and culminating time of my ongoing public safety training , requiring pretty much most of my attention and relegating any communications on the internest to my Facebook page.

But now June is done. And while this past month has been the toughest most demanding part of my looooong 13-month journey, it’s the final segment of this latest phase in what initially began as a kernel of an idea four years ago. The idea to quit being the inevitable pawn in the various journalism chess games I’ve played this past 20 years and instead do something veeeeery different and far more fulfilling in becoming a humane law enforcement officer, aka, an “animal cop,” more than four years ago.

I know people at my advanced age aren’t supposed to chart such dramatic changes in course, but then I’ve rarely acted my age.  So it is with a sense of pride and accomplishment that I report the successful completion of all gradeable aspects of my training, and thus can now proceed through the final two weeks of scheduled instruction with my fellow cadets of Rio Hondo Police Academy Class 2012-1 to graduation, which will take place July 13 at 10 a.m. at Rio Hondo College.

I still have a ways to go in the process that I hope will conclude with me joining the Animal Protection Services Department within the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA), but I wouldn’t be able to proceed with that final step without achieving this one.

If you’re interested in attending the ceremony at the college in Whittier I would love to have you there. I’ve posted the event’s details here on Facebook.

I had a moment where I was going to give up. At the Rio Hondo College Police Academy this morning, for the required physical agility test in hopes of being accepted as a cadet, I almost quit before I got started. In my group of applicants, in which I was the oldest by seven years over the next oldest and more than 20 years older than most of the rest, our first test was the six-foot solid wall climb. I threw myself at the thing and never quit trying until the monitor called time, but the end result was him writing “DNC” (Did Not Complete) on my time sheet. I had been unable to haul my carcass up and over the wooden planks. Six feet might as well have been 60.

Embarrassed I went to the back of the line for my second and final attempt. I was seething. Fuming. Pitying. I alternated between silently berating and encouraging myself. And by the time our group cycled through the first round, I was the only male who hadn’t defeated the obstacle. I was crushed. I was angry. And for a split second I wanted to run to my truck and just get the hell out.

But I stayed, and I tried to use that anger. I stared at the wall and I cursed it as those in front of me took their second turns, some of them practically vaulting over it so effortlessly. And I tried to picture myself in pursuit of a bad guy. And then it was my turn, and I called out my last name as had been instructed, and the monitor yelled “Go!” and hit the stopwatch and I charged the wall. Again I tried the technique that failed me the first time. I tried to use my legs, but my feet could get no traction on the wood, and I flailed against the panels, ending up standing in the dirt.

I suppose in that split second I could have walked away. Or I could have tried that same technique again and again until the monitor called time. But instead I crouched down low, sprang up, grabbed the top with both hands, and kicked my right leg up, trying to hook it over the highest plank,. But I didn’t quite get it and I ended up where I’d started. Again, I could have listened to the devil and just given up, but I crouched again, jumped again, grabbed again, and kicked again, and this time my right foot cleared the wall, hooked and held.

Then it was something easier said then done, but somehow I managed to haul the rest of me up and over and I landed in the dirt on the other side of the wall and sprinted the 20 yards to the finish cone. I heard cheers and claps behind me.

The monitor called out my time: 13.6 seconds.

I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the strongest. I wasn’t the toughest. But I was the proudest. I beat the wall after it beat me and I let out a triumphant yell to celebrate.

PS. I went on to slowly and steadily and successfully complete all the remaining components of the test: the-six-foot chainlink fence (9.6 seconds), the 99-yard obstacle course (19.4 seconds), the 30-foot, 165-pound dummy drag (5.2 seconds); and the 500-yard run (2:09).

 

I’ve met Tony Pierce the blogger on a very regular basis since 2003, but I’ve only met Tony Pierce the person once since then. It consisted mainly of a brief handshake coupled to my expression of sincere appreciation at finally meeting him, before he moved on to far bigger names in attendance. It was at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood, site of a blogger get-together organized by some blogging get-togetherers that required RSVPs and shit. All the cool kids were there.

It may have been the spring of 2007 while I was temping at DirecTV, though it might have been after the summer of that same year when I had enthusiastically started the editor job that I enthusiastically quit this past April. But whether it was El Segundo or Westchester where I had been gainfully employed at the time,  I biked to the bar and then home because that’s how I roll.

Nowadays Tony’s rolling in a sweeeeeet Chevrolet. A gift he gave himself for a job excellently done as blog editor at the LA Times — a job he got that same year, and given the success he’s had invigorating the Times’ blogging presence one he just shockingly lost recently as a result of the latest rounds of layoffs to thin the paper’s ranks and thicken its bottom line. Among other things, the Chevy’s on Tony’s mind right now, because it’s gone from reward to burden as he realizes its lack of practicality and its hindrance to his freedom both physical and creative.

He argues that he could be better a better artist if he could more readily avoid the materialistic trappings that come from the ever-quest for the dollar.

I can testify to that. I quit my job to be that artist. After practically a lifetime of back-burnering my creativity I gave myself an entirely unrealistic  four-month window to realize that dream. Now that window’s closing and surprise: I’m not much closer than when I started. And so I’ve started looking at/for job opportunities.

One found me. An email came Friday from a TV network’s online content manager who wrote that he found me via my work at Blogging.la and that a freelance gig was basically mine if I wanted it. Focusing on DIY’ers it would involve me parking myself in front of various hardware stores around town and finding people exiting to interview them about who they are, what they bought and for what project. The guy wanted 10 of these profiles. By August 15. The pay was $750 for the bunch. Fixating on that dollar amount like it was a golden carrot, I said I’d do it… making myself believe I could knock this thing out with a few hours work.

I couldn’t have been more wrong — and what pisses me off is I knew better. A few hours? Hell, by yesterday afternoon I’d spent two hours prepping and then more than two teeeeedious hours at two different hardware stores in Silver Lake and Echo Park along with a brief visit to the Hollywood Home Depot (long enough for an over-zealous security guard quick to demand I cease “soliciting” patrons), and what did I have to show for it? Not a single interview.

People were buying light bulbs and potting soil and extension cords and timers and crescent wrenches — or nothing at all. Or they were contractors or subcontractors shopping for materials. The single solitary person who came closest to having shopped for an actual project — she had a can of paint for a wall in her new apartment — was initially interested but practically ran away when I told her some snapshots would be involved.

With all that time spent I couldn’t help but realize how I’d so vastly undersold myself. At a cost of 750 of the network’s bucks I’d agreed to first spending an untold amount of time wrangling 10 subjects, getting them to read and sign the consent agreement (always a great ice breaker), then interviewing them relatively thoroughly from a set list of at least six questions, and then photographing them (a minimum of three different images involving the person, product and store were required). From there I then come home. Transcribe the recording of the interview, produce a 400-600 word profile, format the photos, write captions using quotes not in the profile, scan in the consent form and email all of it to the content manager.

Given the time I first spent familiarizing myself with the provided style guide, while printing out 10 of three-page consent forms, followed by those two-plus  hours vested in not even finding that first interview, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that it could take me four, five — maybe even six hours per profile. Beyond the low dollar-per-hour rate that amount of work would equate to, was the fact that given the looming deadline 144 hours into the future I was looking at spending upwards of 60 of them just grrrrrrrinding this out. And I do mean grrrrrrrrrrinding.

So in actuality that overbearing guard at the Home Depot did me a favor. He said: You’re better than this, you don’t need to be on the streets “soliciting.” I came home hating to quit but hating even more that I prostituted my talents so eagerly for such a meager payoff (and maybe just maybe for the opportunity to be burdened with forthcoming and similar projects).

I emailed my regrets to the content manager and withdrew from the assignment.

I’d like to say with what was left of yesterday afternoon I immediately hunched over the keyboard and focused that negative aggravation into positive creativity, but instead I just stared at a blank page open on my monitor did a pretty good job beating myself up for being the sellout Tony’s trying hard not to be:

What he wrote early this morning sums it the fuck up:

if this aint the time to be making art and or making a difference out there i have no business calling myself an artist.
meanwhile, we all should be making art. while rendering unto caesar whats caesars.
because our mommas didnt go thru labor to produce sellout half-assed mediocrity.
when they saw us, they thought we’d be so special.
so for just a little while, lets be so fucking special.

 

As is so often the case, CBS’ “Sunday Morning” newsmagazine — my favorite program on television ever — draws stuff out of me. It could be inspiration, it could be revelation. It could be recollection. In this past weekend’s episode, a simple segment on fountain pens, reminded me of what was one of my biggest junior high school disappointments and lessons in bad teachering.

It was eighth grade at Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood.  1978. The class was history. The teacher was a fellow named Mr. Failla, he pronounced it Fay-lah. Folks in the halls liked to call him Mr. Fail-ya. He was tough, for sure. The class itself was of an advanced type and the fact that I was in it was something of a fluke the reasons of which I was never clear on. In fact, I remember because of my somewhat tenuous status as a not-so-full-fledged member of that class, I came veeeeery close because of a lack of ticket availability to not being able to attend a field trip with them to the King Tut exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art that year… but it worked out in the end and I got to go instead of being left back to feel like more of an outcast than I already was.

Decidedly opposite to that happy ending was the undeserving grade Mr. Fail-ya gave to a project into which I had poured a lot of hours, energy and research. The timeframe of the assignment was to explore the United States during the mid-19th centure, and what I opted to do was to create a handwritten diary of a young girl chronicling the trip she was making with her family from Alabama to California via covered wagon.

I went to the the old Hollywood branch of the library and got volumes on the country’s westward expansion. I interviewed western novelist William R. Cox (my first time meeting my mother’s friend who, as things would have it, six years later would become my stepfather), and he helped give me a better, more realistic perspective of what life could be like crossing the great plains (hint: there wouldn’t be a rogue tribe of bloodthirsty indians waiting around every butte of my active Hollywood-influenced imagination). I remember he had a scale model version of a prairie schooner in his office and we huddled over it as he described its details.

And then, when it came down to creating the entries, I almost instinctively knew that ballpoint pen and notebook paper would not do. The document had to look authentic. I mentioned this to my mom and the next day she’s stopped at an office supply store and brought home a sheaf of blank typing paper and a strange contraption known as a fountain pen, accompanied by a pot of ink — brown in color to aid in presenting the journal as something not just about the past, but from it.

It took a good bit of trial and error and a fair share of ink stains and splotches to become comfortable working something so foreign feeling as a fountain pen. Nowadays, in this era of key clicks and computer screens, sometimes picking up a ballpoint pen seems just as strange.

Having charted a course that took the family up from Alabama to St. Louis and then west, I began crafting the entries. I think there were somewhere about 30 in all, some a few words, some multiple pages, some stained with tears, some with dirt, some with blood (in the form of food coloring). One entry I wrote out and then tore the pages vertically in half. There were occasionally pages featuring sketches I made — unavoidably bad ones given my lack of artistic talent — of what the young girl had observed: the wagon, the vast grasslands, the family around a campfire, buzzards in the sky. There was a crude point-to-point map drawn of the 2,000 mile journey. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but taken as a whole  I felt that I’d done a pretty good job laying out a three-month trek full of struggle and triumph, high excitement and infinite boredom, with the family ultimately arriving in San Francisco to begin life anew (minus an uncle who drowned saving the girl’s life during a river crossing in Colorado).

The icing on the cake was when my mom literally cooked the book. She had come up with the idea to age the pages and had experimented with dampening blank sheets of the paper and then baking them in the oven. Eventually she dialed in the temperature and time so that all the entries wouldn’t go up in smoke and instead came out nicely browned, some with slightly charred edges.

After that we sandwiched it between two covers and bound the whole thing with leather string taken from the fringe of an old vest of mine. My mom and I stared at it on the table and she gave me a huge hug telling me how proud she was of me.

It wasn’t my first work of fiction (that dubious distinction goes to a bloodsoaked schoolyard horror tale cowritten with my friend Paul Okennon at Cheremoya Avenue School in sixth grade), but it certainly could qualify as my first book — albeit obviously one offering value far more stylistic than literary.  I was only 13, after all.

And maybe Mr. Fail-ya forgot about that key point. Maybe he couldn’t see past my less-than-advanced use of the written language. Maybe the narrative didn’t flow as well as he thought at should. Or he got hung up on some historical accuracies so that he couldn’t see the overall effort that went not into regurgitating history written by others, but in breathing life into that era, tangibly and with imagination. Maybe he held me subjectively to a standard always beyond my reach because he didn’t think I belonged in his class. Maybe he just had a bad day when it came time to grade my project or maybe he was just an incorrigible, indefatigable asshole. I’ll never know. All I know is that when he returned the journal to me, I was expecting something better than C+ grade with which he insulted me. In his opinion the project warranted nothing more than a designation as average, with the “+” perhaps donated to soften the sting of his narrow-minded reality. Whadda guy. From that point on I was pretty much a zombie during those hours of the week I was forced to sit before that simp in his lifeless classroom.

I wish I could show the journal to you. Scan in some of pages and display them here warts and all in the hopes that you could see it for the sum of its parts and not any individual nits that could be picked. But I can’t.  Faux and half-baked (literally!) that it may be, that document testifying to my capabilities is an ancient casualty of my history. So incensed and demoralized and gut-punched was I when I saw that horrible invalidating grade written alone in red on the back cover — with not even an accompanying note to explain it — that I found the nearest hallway trashcan outside the classroom and in passing slamdunked the thing hard into it and never looked back.

I kept the grade from my mom until she finally remembered to ask me about it, and when I told her she was so mad she wanted to go kick Mr. Fail-ya’s ass up between his shoulder blades. When I told her I threw it away, she wanted to do the same to me. But she gave me a huge hug instead. She told me that I could live my life dwelling on those small people who’ll jump at the chance to put me down, or do what’s harder and strive to rise above them.

Thirty-four years later I’m still trying to rise above them. Thirty-four years later I still have that fountain pen (somewhere), along with that pot of brown ink (in my desk), along with a lot of resentment. All I have to do is think of his name and the chills swirl around my shoulders, splashing up the back of neck and head. Sometimes I’ll entertain visions of standing before the little man, only now it’s me looking down at him and that arrogant Mona Lisa smirk while watching it disappear as I get him to recall a certain student from his past, an outsider working so hard to fit in and on whom he so thoughtlessly slammed the door.

Mr. Fail-ya, indeed. As far as I’m concerned he was a complete and total one.

UPDATED (1:15 p.m.): I forgot to mention that the nondescript fountain pen used in the project isn’t my only one. A dedicated fan of Montblanc ballpoints since the mid-1980s, on September 20, 1990 (I still have the receipt), I got on my Honda Hawk 400 motorcycle and rode from my apartment in Glendale to the the Brooks Brothers store in the Century City mall, and for one of my greatest impulse purchases ever, brought home this bad boy:

A Montblanc Meisterstuck Model No. 149, 18K-gold nib. $318.06, with tax. Why? Because I WANTED one. Why Brooks? Because that clothier’s credit card was the only remaining functioning one at that time in my freshly post-divorced possession.

I can count the number of times I’ve filled it with ink and written with it on one-hand — which would include today after taking its picture.

 

 

Tony Pierce went to see Roger Waters’ “The Wall Live” concert last night and it brought back memories of Pink Floyd’s original “The Wall” tour. The show was sold out for a week in February 1980 at the Sports Arena.

With no money to my name and a mother who was not a fan of the album and certainly not my obsession with it (I listened to it daily in its double-platter entirety for months), I tried my best to win tickets on radio show giveaways, but failed. So entirely desperate to see what was uncategorically The Rock ‘N Roll Event Of My Lifetime I even contemplated burgling a neighbor or worse robbing someone of their tickets outside the venue.

Fortunately I went neither of those felonious routes, and instead on Wednesday, February 13 — the last day of Floyd’s LA stay I pretended I wasn’t feeling well immediately after dinner, went to bed fully clothed, and after about a year-long 30 minutes of laying there, I stuffed clothes under the covers to simulate a body sleeping, snuck out the window, pausing while straddled half in and half out to not give a fuck if my mom decided to check-in on me and discover my escape. Then I went down to the garage, got on my battered BMX bike and pedaled out from the slums of Beverly Hills in the general direction of downtown via Olympic Boulevard, with neither a golden ticket nor knowing precisely where the Sports Arena was.

Come to think of it, from a cycling perspective that trip could qualify as my first-ever bike commute.

Anyway. When I finally arrived, sweaty, adrenaline filled and out of breath, the place looked and felt deserted with only a few people outside the entrance I was nearest, and I was gripped in horror that I’d screwed up and come all this way a day late. Then as if in reassuring answer “In the Flesh?” exploded from within the arena and I knew the concert was both going on and had only just started.

So ya thought ya might like to go to the show…

Increasingly and frantically desperate would be an understated way of describing how I spent the time basically pedaling around the arena begging a succession of rejecting gatekeepers that getting inside was a matter of life or death until finally finding a somewhat sympathic ear.

“I don’t even need a seat! Please just let me stand somewhere inside!”I implored.

I say the person was “somewhat sympathetic” because he didn’t let me in for free. I had to fork over the seven bucks I had in my pocket — and my bike.

I gave both over without hesitation.

And in I went. The moment I burst through the outer doors I was greeted with the acoustics of “Mother” and I almost cried. In fact I did, but for a different reason as I was immediately approached by a security guard wanting to see my ticket.

Instead, I showed him the performance of my young life, channeling that tearful relief into total sorrow as I turned on the waterworks and bemoaned losing my ticket and only being able to get in because the person outside made me give him all my money — and my bike.

Mother will they tear your little boy apart?

Miraculously, it worked. Embarrassed by my outburst, the guard led me to an access tunnel and told me to calm down. I did, a little. Then he looked around before telling me to go in but insisted that I couldn’t sit in a seat.

“If I find your crybaby butt planted anywhere it shouldn’t be I’m throwing you out!”

I nodded my head off in understanding and gratitude and when he looked the other way I did my best not to bolt headlong down the tunnel to experience what was indeed The Rock ‘N Roll Event Of My Lifetime.

Afterwards, given the amount of second-hand marijuana smoke I inhaled there’s little in the way of specifics regarding the looooong walk home other than I don’t recall my feet touching the ground and in getting back to the apartment not long before dawn I still didn’t give a fuck if my mom had discovered my absence. Slipping the screen off the window and sliding it open, I peered inside the darkened room and nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The door was closed. The clothes I’d stuffed under the covers still there.

Sure enough, the next morning I was awakened with my mom’s typically gruff and no-nonsense call to get up, but that was it. Though completely exhausted, I rose in triumph that the entirely AWOL evening excursion had been a total success. I had torn down several walls to see “The Wall.”

When my mom got home from work that afternoon you know what she found me listening intently to on the old Admiral hi-fi. Rolling her eyes, I turned the volume down and told her that my bike had been stolen. I pretended to be appropriately upset, then I turned up the volume and climbed back into the album with visions of the mindblowing concert in my head.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Evelyn Ruth Billings. I wrote about her demise back when I was editor-in-chief at The Roundup, the student newspaper of Los Angeles Pierce College.

From her tragedy came a personal triumph. My op-ed piece went on to take first place in the column writing category at the 1994 statewide Journalism Association of Community Colleges competition. Judged so by none other than one my my favorite columnists of all time, Jack Smith (which was as great an honor as winning).

The plaque hangs today off my desk hutch, and while the prize ain’t no Pulitzer, it’s my pride and joy — but one always tempered by the knowledge that it came at the expense of another’s pain.

Why do I bring this up? Not so much because of the passing of the 17th anniversary of  Evelyn throwing herself off the Mulholland Drive Bridge in the Sepulveda Pass, but moreso because of the bridge itself.

Coincidentally I just learned today that the span is destined to be demolished and replaced to accommodate a widened San Diego Freeway beneath it. From what I understand Caltrans and Metro will actually build the replacement bridge first and then destroy the existing one.

I’m not upset because the city is going to lose another landmark. The bridge is eye-catching for its height above the 405, but other than that there’s nothing notable about it architecturally or historically. But I am somewhat sad to see it go because not a passage that I’ve made since, either beneath it or across it has gone without me remembering the last place Evelyn stood upon this earth alive and saying a little prayer for her.

Rest in peace, Evelyn.

It was hastily shot and even more hastily cobbled together, but as you might tell in this 180-degree four-frame panorama there wasn’t a much better vista during yesterday’s CicLAvia than atop the 4th Street Bridge (click to panoramify):

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