The Suge Knight Trial: Did Bone Have A Gun?

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[These trial updates will make much more sense if you read my feature in Esquire]

It’s all about the video, this case. Visual DNA, attorneys call it, because your eyes don’t lie. And yet look – both sides, prosecution and defense, are pointing to the same piece of tape and saying, “Look! Surely now you can see that he’s innocent/guilty!”

In a recent court filing, on Jul 8th, Knight’s defense attorney Tom Mesereau promised fresh video that shows, “one of his attackers brandishing a weapon.” In the end, it was the same footage as we saw before – the Tam’s Burgers parking lot security video – only a longer version this time, showing more of the aftermath. I chopped that video, cropped it, blew it up and gave it some Instagram filter flair (Lomo). It’s a horrible clip to fuss over but it had to be done. Originally the action was tiny and cramped up in the top left corner, with most of the screen taken up by tarmac, and cars rolling up to get their drive-thru. So I’ve tried to zero in on the fight.

(WARNING: This clip is hard to watch. A man dies, his name is Terry Carter and he was loved. About 2000 people showed up at his funeral. His daughters are in court every day. They’re very nice people. I don’t mean to exploit his death, but to present some evidence in this case.)

That’s Suge’s red truck. The man who approaches is Cle “Bone” Sloan, an Athens Park Piru. As you can see he doesn’t hesitate, he just launches into it. I’ll blog later about how the camera fucks up his story, the yarn he spun for the police in his first interview. As he said at the prelims, “I might have um, what’s the word, embellished. Because I knew I was responsible too, and Terry [Carter] was dead.” Bone is knocked flying when Suge reverses, and then the truck runs over him again before ploughing into Carter.

One of the critical questions of this trial is: Did Bone have a gun? If he did, then Suge’s self-defense argument looks sound. So Mesereau says he did. His co-counsel Thaddeus Culpepper puts it this way: “There’s a certain swagger that a person carrying a gun walks with, especially in the black culture. So he’s getting ready to use it, or he thinks he is. He’s what we call ‘bailing’. I mean, think about it – who walks up on Suge Knight like that? Suge’s got 100lbs on Sloan. The playing field was not level.”

This is bailing, I guess:

You can see the swagger, the spring, the arms swinging at his side full of purpose. But no one goes to prison for swagger. Where’s the weapon? The video’s unclear. Maybe there’s a way to enhance it, catch a glint of metal, an L-shaped object. But even if there isn’t, is it possible that Suge saw a gun in Sloan’s hand? Maybe that’s why he took such a pounding in that truck. Maybe the gun emerged at a certain point in the fight and Suge suddenly lurched the truck into action to save himself. Maybe maybe maybe.

But there’s more. Once Suge’s truck leaves the scene, a man approaches Bone’s body – quick before the paramedics get here! He turns him over and takes something out of Bone’s right hand. And whatever it was, it must have been important – Bone got knocked to the floor by a truck and whacked his head on the ground, but he never let go of what was in his right hand. It’s as though his life depended on it. And look what his friend, the gangbanger Jimmy Chris, does with it. He puts it in his waistband, or his back pocket, all the while looking furtively around him.

Notice also, at 15 seconds after Jimmy has taken this mystery object from Bone, a man enters the screen from the left – it looks like he’s approaching to help maybe? But he takes one look at what Jimmy’s holding, throws his hands up and gets the fuck out. You can practically hear him say, “oh shit!”

But the DA, the Sheriff, and Bone all deny that it was a gun. It was a cell phone. No, it was a radio, a walkie talkie, you know, the kind you need when you’re doing security on a film set like Sloan was?

A couple of things:

“Did you ever see someone put a cell phone in their waistband?” – as Fletcher said, and as Mesereau said, and as TMZ suggested when it ran the clip after the incident, putting a little arrow over the object and a label “possible gun”?

You really think that the first instinct of any gangbanger, while their friend is lying, crushed on the ground, is to rush in, before the cops get there, and grab his… cell phone? What was Jimmy after – Sloan’s minutes? The friends and family plan?

And is this what they teach in cop school, that when Compton gangbangers get down, someone’s probably packing… a radio? Seriously?

But look at how it went down in the preliminary hearing in April. This is Sloan squirming as Fletcher pointed out that his phone and radio were actually in his car:

FLETCHER: it is a picture of Cle “Bone” Sloan’s radio and cell phone in his car… Do you recognize [that]?

SLOAN: Yes.

FLETCHER: That in fact your cell phone and your radio that were in your car at the time of this incident, correct?

SLOAN: That… it wasn’t there at the time of the incident. It got placed there later. And I never leave the radio on top. I always stick it in the cup holder, so obviously somebody laid it back in there. I imagine when Jimmy took it from me, he put it there.

FLETCHER: So Jimmy Chris took your radio from you?

SLOAN: Yeah. I didn’t… I didn’t know it at first, but yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m saying Jimmy Chris took my radio, and it wasn’t a gun.

FLETCHER; OK, are you aware that there is a video from the beginning and end and no one entered your car?

SLOAN: Man, that video has ruined my life.

A little later, we heard Sloan doth protest about this alleged gun. Pure Hollywood it was, but then, he’s an actor, he was in Training Day and End of Watch. He saw his chance to make a speech to the floor, his you-can’t-handle-the-truth moment, and oh he was going to take it, show the court that this gun libel, well it was just wrong dammit, wrong!

SLOAN: I’m telling this court I didn’t have a gun. Only thing was out there was my radio… I haven’t carried a gun in two decades. I don’t need a gun. I’m a film-maker. I’m an award-winning filmmaker! I don’t mess with guns. And I am offended by you trying to make this a gun. And I know I’m talking too much. But I need to get my reputation back, because I didn’t have a gun. I don’t need a gun. And I will never take a gun to work. Why?

FLETCHER: I’m just asking you for clarification.

SLOAN: I’m asking a question too. Why would I take a gun to work? I work every day. I’ve been doing this for twenty years.

JUDGE COEN Let’s move on please.

Of course Sloan’s going to deny it. Here’s what happens if he admits it’s a gun:

  1. The prosecution’s case fall apart. Knight’s deadly escape will look even more like self-defense than it already does.
  2. It puts the DA Cynthia Barnes in the tricky position of having granted immunity to a man who goes up to people in car parks and attacks them with a deadly weapon.
  3. So Barnes would rip that immunity off Sloan like a mask at the end of Scooby Doo. Her grounds? That his whole story about being unarmed was in fact bullshit. Because there’s two kinds of immunity – ‘transactional’, which gets you off whatever the circumstance, and ‘use’, which only protects you from your own statements being used against you. Sloan has the ‘use’ kind. And Barnes wouldn’t even need Sloan’s admission of holding a gun to prosecute the shit out of him for felony murder – after all, he started this fire. You’ve seen the video.
  4. Sloan goes to the big house with the wonderful reputation of having snitched to the Sheriffs about “Big Homey”.

So let Sloan squirm up there. Let him be the Magritte of this trial: Ceci N’est Pas Un Gun. But it’s something else to see the investigating homicide detective Sheriff Richard Biddle sing the same tune. Biddle has been a cop for 33 years now.

FLETCHER: Have you ever seen someone carry a radio tucked in their waistband?

BIDDLE: I don’t know.

FLETCHER: Had you ever seen people put guns in their waistband?

BIDDLE: Sure.

FLETCHER: And in the video we can see the person bends down by Mr Sloan and takes something out and puts it in his waistband, correct?

BIDDLE: I don’t know if it was a waistband or a pocket or… I can’t tell.

FLETCHER: What did you think it was when he pulled his shirt up and put it in the back?

BIDDLE: My first assumption was it was the radio. 

I love that: “My first assumption”. Here we are in the world of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, in which innocent black men are disproportionately victimized and brutalized precisely because of the first assumptions of law enforcement – but Sheriff Biddle, he’s not that way. He’ll look at a couple of gangbangers passing a gun-shaped object between them and go straight to “radio”.

Mind you, Sheriff Biddle’s favorite musical is Annie, Get Your Radio. And he loves that movie The Radios of Navarone.

And last Friday, July 17th, this gun thing just got weirder, too. It was objectively a bad day for the Knight camp for several reasons – everything they were asking for was slapped down. But then, Judge Ronald Coen appeared to side with Biddle, Barnes and Bone (the Sheriff, the DA and the witness) about the gun. Mesereau was trying knock Knight’s bail down from $10 million, and part of his argument was that Bone was armed – just look at the tape! But Coen wasn’t buying it. He said he’d watched the video “about five times”. “This person [Jimmy Chris] picked up an object and appeared to put it in his back pocket,” he said. “And this person didn’t leave the scene. He went from Victim 1 [Sloan] to the decedent [Carter], and stood over him for several minutes…. If I had a gun in my back pocket I wouldn’t be around the company of Deputy Sheriffs…”

It was a telling moment. He wasn’t ruling, he was telegraphing, letting the attorneys know how he was leaning. So now Suge’s team knows that this gun argument might not fly at trial, not as it stands anyway – they’re going to need something more. And the DA knows that they at least have a chance of shutting the gun allegation down altogether. Barnes could possibly file a motion to limit, to prevent Mesereau from making the argument at all, since he has no witness saying it’s a gun, in fact the only witnesses so far have said, however implausibly, that it isn’t. And if that happens – well, Knight might find himself doing life.

For me, Coen’s argument stretches credulity. I watched the tape too, and it’s true that Jimmy Chris does wait with Carter until the medics show up. But after that, he’s gone. There’s no sight of him when the Sheriffs show up. And the moment he steps out of shot, it’s not unreasonable to think that he might hand the gun off to a third party. That’s what happens with guns, it’s a relay. They get passed along.

So right now, out in the hood, the gun issue is live. Witnesses are reluctant, of course – it’s Compton – but they know that “Big Homey’s” life might depend on it, so the thinking is, there’s money to be made. Hands are out, the hustle is on. Is testimony you pay for admissible? That’s just one of the problems for Knight’s investigators here. The other is Sheriff Biddle, who they claim is busy scaring all possible witnesses into silence – at least that’s what Mesereau suggested at the bail hearing.

Who knows what’s happening down there? There are even rumors that Sloan himself may be ready to admit that he was armed that day – for the right price. After all, he may have immunity from the law, but does he have immunity from the hood? Does any snitch?

I’m going to look into the economics of snitching in the hood. And there’s some incredible testimony in the “Murder Book” that I can share too.

More soon.

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The Suge Knight Trial – Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

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[These trial updates will make a whole lot more sense if you read my feature about Suge Knight in Esquire UK this month]

The Suge Knight trial was meant to be over by now. July 7th was the original date for the great unveiling of what actually happened on Jan 29th at Tam’s Burgers in Compton. We were going to find out if “Big Homey” was going to grow old in prison.

But instead we’re back at the beginning again. Talking about his bail again; another hearing’s set for July 17th. What happened was “Big Homey” fired his old attorney, Matthew Fletcher, having fired James Blatt and then former Death Row attorney David Kenner before him. You just can’t find the help these days. And the new guy, Tom Mesereau, best known for defending Michael Jackson in 2005, asked for more time to prepare. So it’ll be a while yet: September 17th.

But let me back up.  The 7th was a fitful day in court, procedural and finicky, one of those incremental skirmishes in the build up to the main event. The bail and preliminary hearings are like the press conference and the weigh-in before a prize fight. They give attorneys a chance to flex, maybe gain an edge, psychological or otherwise. And by those terms, Knight had a mixed showing.

On the one hand, he looked fitter, not so sickly and vulnerable as before. “He’s getting his weight back, it’s good to see,” his sister Karen said. “We saw him for July 4th and he was laughing. He’s always strong. The other week, he stopped eating because someone on his block got AIDS and he thought his sandwich was being tampered with. I was like noooo!”

But court wasn’t going his way. He wanted to move the case from Downtown to Compton, to get a more sympathetic jury, but Judge Ronald Coen said no. He also wanted the case thrown out altogether on the grounds that he hadn’t been properly identified as the defendant at the prelims, but that was smacked down too – only by a different judge this time, Judge Stephen Marcus. That’s the kind of day it was. We all had to up and leave court 101 and walk next door to court 102, and then march back again afterwards, families of the accused and the deceased victim watching their shoes as they passed each other in narrow doorways.

“That’s OK,” Mesereau told me afterwards. “Judges have to appear strong in these high profile trials ever since OJ. That’s why Lance Ito never made it to the court of appeals.”

There was one moment, however, when we got a glimmer of what simmers beneath all the procedural verbiage of this case. It was when Mesereau stood up, his mane as white as a beacon, and addressed Judge Stephen Marcus with a few plain facts.

(To refresh your memory, Suge drove into Tam’s Burgers, thinking he was going to discuss his fee for the movie Straight Outta Compton – which uses his likeness – but instead he walked into an ambush. Cle “Bone” Sloan attacked Suge as he sat in his truck, punching him through an open window. Sloan was almost certainly armed. Suge lurched the vehicle backwards and then drove away, running two people over, killing one, Terry Carter. He claims self-defense, the prosecution claims murder.)

Mesereau said: “We’ve got someone driving a truck alone and unarmed. He suffers a violent assault that has been captured on tape. But the prosecution calls as a witness the man who committed the assault. He answers questions in a very evasive manner – first he pleads the fifth, then the prosecutor offers him immunity. This is the assailant. So there are tremendous credibility issues and problems with facts… I think it’s an outrage.”

Mesereau isn’t known for emotive language. In his landmark defense of Michael Jackson in 2005, he was all precision and cool control. But Mesereau was saying what Matthew Fletcher had been saying before him, which is that something is off about this case. It doesn’t smell right.

Here’s some questions:

A man is attacked in a parking lot, on camera, but the Sheriff and the District Attorney choose to protect the attacker (Sloan), and charge the victim, (Knight). Why?

They gave Sloan immunity in order to testify, but when he got on the stand during the preliminary hearings, Sloan was clearly not telling the truth – he even refused to admit that he recognized Suge Knight, the most recognizable person in the courtroom. Is lying under oath not a crime?

Is it relevant that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department is under investigation now for its abuse of prisoners at Men’s Central Jail, where they’re holding Knight?

And above all, why did Sloan attack Knight that day? What did he have to gain?

We have no satisfactory answers as yet, but that’s what trials are for. As you read this, investigators prowl the streets of Compton collecting interviews while lawyers in LA and Sacramento pore through documents and serve subpoenas. There have been rumors along the way of another video that’s going around Compton, shot on a cellphone by one of the men at the ambush. It’s said that witnesses may yet be called who can attest to men at the Tam’s ambush standing there with guns drawn.

But let’s see how this shakes out. Not everything that’s rumored comes to pass, in this case at least. Floyd Mayweather was supposed to pony up $10 million for Knight’s bail after the Pacquiao fight, but that never happened. And what to make of this morsel that appeared in a summary of an interview that Knight gave to Sheriffs on the night that he handed himself in? “Knight described an on-going business dispute between him and Dre. Dre was involved in a large business deal with Apple worth a billion dollars and Knight was promised 10 percent by Dre. Knight believed he was owed 300 million dollars from Dre.”

(The New York Times quoted from this in its piece of June 8th. I would have quoted liberally from this interview in my Esquire piece, but the laws are different in England. Only material that has be cited in open court apparently.)

Knight hasn’t explained why Dre might owe him. His counsel hasn’t brought it up, contracts haven’t been produced, and all attempts to reach Dre to date have been unsuccessful. And anyway, people say the damndest things when a couple of Sheriffs are accusing them of murder.

But this is a story about money. Perhaps some long standing “beef” between Sloan and Knight – what Judge Marcus called “a soap opera” – played a part in this tragedy. But there’s more going on. Suge wanted to be paid for Straight Outta Compton – he would never have gone to Tam’s otherwise. Sloan admitted in the preliminary hearing that he had $2000 in cash on him that fateful day. Why so much? And the Carter family – the family of the deceased – has sued Universal (as well as Dr Dre and Ice Cube) for negligent hiring, by engaging the likes of Sloan as part of the security for the production. There could well be money to be made here – without Sloan’s initial attack, none of this would have happened. As he told police in his first interview, “it’s fucked up ’cause I was the aggressor.” And the mere threat of deposing these millionaires, asking them all kinds of awkward questions about their finances, their relationships, is probably enough to persuade them to settle out of court. But why has the civil case been filed before the criminal case has been settled?

I’m probably a little too interested in this case. It has all these elements – gangland, hip hop, Apple, Hollywood, fiction resembling fact resembling fiction, legal shenanigans, a shadowy Sheriff’s department… I can’t resist it. It’s the ultimate LA story. So if you want to join me down the rabbit hole, I can show you some material that you may not see elsewhere.

Stay tuned.

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Man of the House

I’ll start up the treadmill in the morning. Short man with paunch and baggy eyes and bed hair. And as the belt goes round, making that whining sound, I’ll think, here we go again, just a hamster on a wheel, going from meal to fucking meal. At least, that’s how it feels some days. I turned 44 last week.

But ten minutes later, a different story. This time the machine’s the only one whining. Short man is running now and snapping his fingers, elbows chopping at his sides. Singing even, in that awful headphones way. “Take me high-er!” I’m not a hamster on a wheel, I’m a hamster on a high.

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I joke about my treadmill the way people with treadmills do. That it’s my dust-gathering experiment. My dreadmill. But it isn’t. When we moved house earlier this year, there was nowhere to put it. The yard was sloped, there wasn’t a room that would work. So I had a deck built especially at the back of the house. And when the contractor took his sweet time, I was like, fucksake Miguel, you said Wednesday! I was an asshole. But that’s how I get without my treadmill.

It’s probably just the cardio, the endorphins or whatever. I’m one of those people, if I don’t run and sweat from time to time, I end up in the hole again, shovel in hand.

But there’s something else that happens when I run: Epic flights of nostalgia. I grow young again and hopeful. Life is a garden of possibilities. My snowglobe is all shook up, and suddenly it’s raining snapshots from my past, some recent, some old, and some that never happened at all. But I don’t care. A rainbow of positivity has wiped away that bitter residue that accrues and I’m no longer the sum of my defeats. All my wrong turns were character building. So that project I can’t finish, I can finish it. That idea I never pursued, I can finish that too. The future doesn’t loom, it beckons, and I’ll get there one day, I know I will.

There’s nothing quite like running on the spot when you feel like your life’s going nowhere.

There was a cartoon when I was growing up called Mr Benn, in which a bowler-hatted Englishman would go to a costume shop, try on a toga, say, and, just like that, he’d be transported to ancient Rome. Didn’t have to be a toga, but you get the idea. And at the end, he’d always return to the changing room, back to his bowler hat life, with a little memento from his adventures. My treadmill’s a bit like that. It’s as though I’m thrown back to my youth, and I come back with a piece, a little gift shop souvenir of blind self-belief.

Mr-Benn-in-the-costume-shop

It reminds me of a thing from therapy. Yes I did therapy, it’s no secret. I never thought I’d be that guy, but then I never thought I’d have a treadmill either. I thought buying a treadmill would make me “so LA” and there was nothing worse than that. But things change. You get beat up a bit. The torments of adulthood, the plunging finances, the failure. First you flail in this country and then the next. And then the next for that matter. And you think, fucksake, I’m too old for this shit. Then you get those days of oh lord what have I done and where is the exit, so you get a therapist, some guy on the westside, who has all this good advice. Get a dog, he says. Try jogging. Remember to eat. Set a schedule. That kind of thing.

Anyway, he swore by this technique called bilateral stimulation. He would wave a baton like a windscreen wiper, and tell me to keep my eye on it like those stage hypnotists who say “you are feeling sleepy”. Except you don’t feel sleepy at all. When you stimulate the left and right sides of the brain in a rhythmic fashion, something loosens and all these feelings flood out. People cry sometimes, just burst into tears without knowing why. I went the other way – I laughed. It was embarrassing because there was nothing to laugh about other than a man waving a baton, which is kind of funny, but not really. And then I laughed because I was embarrassed. It was like those times at school when the teacher scolds you for giggling, but you can’t help yourself, and the more you laugh, the funnier it gets.

Those sessions made me feel like there was all this laughter in me the whole time, just sitting dormant on a shelf while I scowled and raged. It just needed to be unlocked somehow. A guy with a baton could do it. But it didn’t have to be a baton. Some weeks he’d have me holding electric grips in both hands that would vibrate alternately, left then right then left. The effect was the same. And he’d say – this is why you should walk or run. It’s not just the cardio, running is bilateral stimulation too, it’s one of the most primal forms.

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The music is critical, of course. Nothing dredges up the nostalgia like a good tune. Not that I was thinking that way when I first started making my playlists. I chose house music, well, because I like it, no secret there, and because the tempo is optimal, the lyrics motivational etc – all these rational, boring reasons. The nostalgia came as an extra. But house is extraordinary that way – it’s so derivative and formulaic that every riff, every drop, every piano chord is familiar. All the old circuits light up again. The old triggers are triggered. I’ll listen to a newish tune like “Never Say Never” by Basement Jaxx, and it’ll send me back twenty years.

A lot of guys scoff at house. They call it trivial, commercial, repetitive. It’s for girls and gays, they say. It’s hair salon music. I don’t argue. But these men don’t dance, that’s their trouble. And I do. Or I did at one time. And I was good at it – or at least I thought I was, which is what counts. Short man didn’t care what he looked like out there. He tore it up. He thought Sister Sledge was singing about him.

And that’s where house takes me – back to a state of dancefloor rapture in my twenties. It’s me and my water bottle, in a swirl of lights. A pinnacle moment of a pinnacle night. I’ve got my hands in the air, everything is love and music. And I’m flying.

Of course most of my twenties were nothing like that. I was socially anxious, sexually frustrated and desperately afraid of being left out. I was an arrested adolescent, unsure of who I was, and how to be in the world. And while I know now that others felt that way too, at the time I thought it was just me. The narcissism of youth. Still trying to shake that off. So club nights were often the loneliest of all. Get the violin out. I’m walking home in the rain here.

But nostalgia tidies that mess up. Doesn’t just crop a bit here and there. It’s more than a spot of retouching. Nostalgia makes the past a Proustian dream that I reconstruct with each visit. House may be my musical Madeleine , but I couldn’t tell you where it takes me exactly. That pinnacle moment of a pinnacle night – I don’t know where I am or who I’m with. It’s generic. It’s shutterstock. These aren’t real flashbacks – old songs taking me back to old memories. These are new songs that take me to a dream of the old days. Those snapshots that come up – of a club in Miami maybe, a field in the west country – they’re subsumed into a deeper fantasy of youth, one that casts my twenties as not a stumbling period of angst, but instead a golden age of hope and potential.

And maybe it was at times, it’s hard to say for sure. My own memories can’t be trusted here. But I like to think that on my happiest nights in clubland, I could dance with abandon because I was cocooned in the belief, however inchoate and deluded, that the possibilities for me were still endless, and I might yet become any number of wonderful people. For now, fine, I’m a kinetic little ethnic giving it the disco large, but in the years to come, who knows, I might transform into a man of wit and distinction, someone who might be admired and desired. What a feeling, to believe in one’s potential like that. Who wouldn’t run back there if they could?

Perhaps that’s all that’s happening on the treadmill – I’m dreaming about a dream I once had. There’s no there there, and never was. It’s all just vapor and imagination. But the feelings – they’re so real that I can feel them again if I try. All I need to do is run and open that door, and they’ll come flooding out.

I have to share this tune with you. It’s not house, but it’s lovely.

I’m not alone in romanticizing my youth like this. It’s something middle aged people do. And I have a theory as to why – it’s evolution wiring us to forget the pain, the way women get over childbirth. If we recall too vividly the agonies of youth, the Morrissey of it all, the shame and the defeat, then we might lose our resolve to soldier on. And we can’t have that, not now. Because these are the doldrums, the U-Bend years. Our middle ages are the unhappiest of our lives – there was a big piece in the Atlantic recently. Rose-tinted nostalgia is just our natural defense against despair. It’s like Joan Didion said, a story we tell ourselves in order to live.

There have been a few articles lately about the middle aged malaise. Good ones too by proper New Yorker writers. There was a lovely piece on Brainpickings by Maria Popova about Megan Daum’s book, Unspeakable – it talks a lot about how we romanticize our fumbling and clueless youth. I read it and instantly wanted to write this blog. The way Daum describes her twenties is perfect: “the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

And then that Atlantic piece I mentioned, about how our happiness curve is a U, a smiley face, with middle age at the bottom. This is the sag in the sofa. The second chin. We’ve got our families now, the stress of kids and work. If we’ve achieved our goals, they didn’t make us as happy as we hoped, and if we haven’t, well we carry that failure with us. It’s just how life goes apparently. Even apes experience a slump in their middle years.

I’m grateful to the Atlantic. To all these kinds of articles. My middle age has coincided with such an era of compulsory positivity on the internet, that it’s hard to flip open the laptop in the morning. Every day, this torrent of happy platitudes, people just parading their joy and success in your face. They’ve no manners these people. Is there nothing else worth sharing? People like sad songs too you know. I’m comforted by knowing that other people out there are struggling too, that we’re in this together, especially my generation, laboring through our inevitable slump. And one way of alleviating middle aged misery is to read about the middle aged misery of others, especially richer, more successful people with wonderful careers. Yeah I said it. Schadenfreude is better than no freude at all. Of course misery loves company. Everyone loves company.

There is an upside though, to these U-bend years – wisdom. Daum calls it the “consolation prize of aging”. This is when it’s meant to kick in, after all. We have about the best perspective of our pasts and futures as we’re ever likely to have. We have our faculties, our characters have been formed. We see our youthful fantasies for what they were. And we know ourselves by now, which is both a reward and a punishment, but still, on balance…

So I know what to do on those mornings when there’s no right side of the bed. I need to drag myself to that deck Miguel built and set the treadmill to 6.5 like I’m setting the DeLorean in Back to the Future. No distractions, not if I’m serious – hence the towel covering up the treadmill display, and the Bose earbuds, the only brand that doesn’t fall out of my ears.

And as for the playlist, well, I don’t know anyone anymore who likes house the way I do. There’s one guy up in Vegas, but that’s it. So I need to put in the hours and trawl iTunes – search under Hed Kandi, Toolroom, Ministry. Peppy house not dark. No squeaking, bleeping or sawmill grinding. Give me something that soars with predictable drops. Make the hooks hummable, the production clean, the lyrics simple and uplifting. Inane is just fine.

“I’m going to rise. Nothing’s going to bring me down.” Sounds good to me.

“If it wasn’t for this and it wasn’t for that, it could be a better world.” True that.

“We’ve all just gotta be. Because answers rarely come easily.” Word!

I’ll take your pop romance, your cod spiritualism. You sing it, I’ll warble it for the neighbors.

Here’s a few tunes that brought the sun out this morning. The short man playlist. A belated happy new year.

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It’s All Gone A Bit Hitler

Screenshot-from-The-Hacker-Wars

[Screenshot from The Hacker Wars, by Vivien Weisman]

A documentary came out on Monday, called The Hacker Wars, and I’m in it, just for a brief moment. That’s me up there on a rooftop in New Jersey with an internet troll called Weev who became a cause celebre for standing up to AT&T and striking a blow for internet freedom. Heroic stuff, to be fair. I wrote about it for Esquire.

But in this one scene, he’s explaining to me how the Jews in Weimar Germany essentially had it coming – that OK the holocaust was a bit much, but they deserved some kind of payback.

I should have stepped away from Weev at that point. Everyone else did, all too aware of the camera. But I was too caught up in the moment – it’s not every day you witness such open anti-semitism, especially in what was an otherwise quite liberal milieu of media and activists. But that’s Weev. He loves to bang on about “Jew York” and Zionist bankers, preferably in public at high volume. It’s practically a schtick. And while I suspected – we all did – that he meant every word, we would never know for sure, because he could always say he was just trolling.

Well, now there’s no doubt. The day after that rooftop scene, Weev went to prison in Pennsylvania for just over a year, spending much of it in “the SHU”, the Special Housing Units – solitary confinement, essentially. And when he got out in April, he had a large, ornate swastika tattooed on his chest. On October 1st, he displayed his new tats on the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, alongside an article he wrote railing against “Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda.”

Is he trolling? I doubt it. But at a certain point, there’s no difference between someone who’s trolling as a neo-Nazi and an actual neo-Nazi. I don’t know exactly where that point lies, but it’s definitely before you get a big swastika tattoo.

And yet, Weev remains, as he always was, a figure of notoriety, amusement and admiration among his hacktivist peers. He’s not quite a media darling, but he’s not a pariah either. He still knocks about with journalists, activists, professors and attorneys, who seem to mostly give him a pass on his Nazi views. Oh that’s just Weev being Weev! Trolls will be trolls!

It’ll be interesting to see how far Weev can go before his Nazi beliefs begin to cost him his relationships. Right now, he appears to have carved a niche as an acceptable anti-semite, the kind you can invite over for dinner. It sounds nuts, but these are peculiar times. Anti-semitism is on the rise, especially in Europe. The Greeks, the Germans and the French are turning out in numbers for fascist parties. The Russians are holding Miss Hitler pageants. And while America likes to see itself as better than that, a more staunch friend of the Jews, the truth is muddier.

One of my favorite Philip Roth books is The Plot Against America. He imagines an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, became President in 1940, and formed an alliance with Hitler. It’s not so far fetched. Roth knew that the Republicans had considered Lindbergh as a candidate. And that Nazis have frequently found sympathetic quarter here. Only this month it came out that the US taxpayer has been paying millions in social security to Nazi war criminals. That wasn’t just a slip-up. It was the way the law was written.

I was reminded of all this, the other week, when I went hiking in the Pacific Palisades. That’s the wealthy west-side suburb between Beverly Hills and Malibu where Spielberg lives, and JJ Abrams and many other famous Jews. It’s also where residents are accustomed to cars pulling up and asking, “excuse me, which way to the Hitler Ranch?”

There’s a 50 acre property out here, that in the 1930s belonged to a couple named Winona and Norman Stephens, the heirs to a thumbtack fortune. They fell in with a shadowy character named Herr Schmidt, and under his guidance, turned the place into a refuge for Hitler after the war. The idea was that if Der Fuhrer wanted, he could decamp to California and retire, or alternatively, plot his return. He had friends here. The Stephens were part of a group called the Silver Shirts, an American Nazi organization that had its largest chapters here on the west coast – ironically in states that are today among the most liberal in the country, California and Washington. And they meant business – the ranch had stables, a bomb shelter, a power plant. They even had plans to put in a pool. Well, it is LA.

Hitler-Ranch-sized Hitler-Ranch-sized-2

Today, it’s a tip. The buildings are gutted, and the walls are scrawled with graffiti and tags. For decades, people have come here to hide out, camp and get high, and their trash is everywhere – cups, beer bottles, blankets, hundreds of empty spray cans.

On the morning that I showed up, I found a bunch of other tourists poking around the wreckage, taking pictures. We’d all trekked up the hill and then down a steep staircase of several hundred narrow steps – not that practical for Hitler, one would have thought, not in those boots.

But something about it felt right. Yes, it was a mess, but that was the point of the place – it was a thoroughly desecrated relic of American fascism. There’s been talk of bulldozing it and it doubtless happen eventually. But for now, it serves as an important reminder – like Weev – of just how near at hand the ugliness of Nazism actually is.

As I left to climb the stairs back up to the street, I saw a tourist from Brazil, fittingly enough, stand on a heap of trash in what was once the forecourt, and take a piss. That’s the spirit.

The Hacker Wars is out now

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Vegas At 40

Too-old-for-this-shit

[Also at Esquire]

Sunday morning in Vegas, and a couple of long married men are rounding off a weekend away from their wives – both of them as naked as monkeys and dripping in oils, sitting on a big warm slab of marble.

“Dude, this might be the gayest thing I’ve ever done,” says Greg. He’s a father of three from Boston, in town for a real estate conference.

“Me too,” I tell him. “But hey, what about those Bears?”

Greg’s a pal from LA who left. That’s the thing about LA, people always leave. So we planned a Vegas weekend to catch up, just us and our comfortable shoes. We’re not gambling types really and we’re too old for mad benders and parcels. There would be no gurning on this trip. No multi-storey strip clubs. And definitely no Pepe Le Pew horndog nonsense on the casino floor at 4am when we both know that it’s mostly whores at that time of night.

No, this would be a gentleman’s trip, a weekend of fine wines, naps, and room for dessert. The years of leaving Vegas malnourished and slightly brain damaged are over.

We picked the Cosmopolitan on account of a couple of dubious Vegas rules of thumb.

A) Always avoid the marquee hotels you see in the movies, because half of the Midwest is already there, taking selfies on the escalators.

B) Newer hotels work harder for their tips. They’re trying to compete with the big guys, but they haven’t quite got there yet, so the smile hasn’t quite curdled. They’ll do you a deal.

I don’t know if either of those are actually true, but they feel right. They’re truthy.

And anyway, the Cosmopolitan is a hotel you can root for. And that never happens on the Vegas Strip. Those casinotels are monuments of moral bankruptcy, shining towers of Babel, glittering with ill-gotten gold. Yes yes freedom and tits and all those fine things, but we know in our hearts what Vegas is – the way it shamelessly swindles the bovine hordes out of their hard-earned, the lies it tells as soon as you cross the threshold, pumping oxygen through the vents, painting the ceilings with sky and clouds… And the Cosmopolitan is as guilty as the rest.

But it’s also a monument to surviving the recession. It’s the Rocky Balboa of Strip hotels, coming off the canvas for the win. Building started in 2005, and it was launched five years later, in the rubble of the crash. The original concept was a half hotel and half apartment complex. Mixed use is a big thing out west, especially in LA. There are people here who actually choose to buy apartments in malls. But the Vegas Strip? That was a leap too far. No one went for it. So they rejiggered the apartments into hotel suites – it’s one of the reasons they’ve all got balconies (other hotels wall you up in glass to protect against jumpers). And even though the bankers took a bath – Deutsche Bank sold the place for $2.2 billion less than what it cost to build – today, in 2014, it seems to be finding its mojo at last.

I could pitch the place to you – the rooftop pools, the Jose Andres restaurants, the yadda yadda. But for Greg and I, it came down to the simple pleasures. Flirting with the bikini waitress who’s way out of our league. Paddling up to the pool bar for another fruity vodka cocktail. And bless the Cosmopolitan for having a variety of pools. We took a look at the party pool for a minute or two. It was all banging house and a zillion dudes in 12 inches of water. Greg’s like, “dude, let’s get in!” I’m like – well, you can see from the picture he took, how enthusiastic I was about the whole thing. I said, Greg, I’m not getting into that swamp. You can stay and party with all the undergrads, but me, I’m taking my paunch to the lazy chillout pool for old people.

The highlight was probably the club – or “club concept” as it’s known – called Rose. Rabbit. Lie . It’s a restaurant, a nightclub, a speakeasy and a cabaret, with a bit of Cirque thrown in, and stand-up comedy, and magic acts, followed by dance music… Everything basically. And the punters are right there in the middle of it all, practically part of the show itself. Singers jump up on tables, acrobats dangle from the ceiling. That’s how it goes now – in the absence of any discernibly new youth culture, club life is all about this-slash-that – bar-slash-circus, tasting menu-slash-comedy. Everything’s a mash-up, a fusion, a “concept” – chuck it all in, who cares? It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

Well, it worked. We staggered home that night, properly spent. A little disco activity goes a long way when you’re over 40. Greg passed out and I went onto the balcony for my nightcap. This is what it’s all about. Fifty floors up, watching the strip glitter and twinkle, as the muffled roar of a million parties wafts up from below, the unmistakable chorus of ‘Turn Down for What”.

When we woke up, we were eager for our spa business. It’s what you do when you’re north of forty, you leave Vegas on a spa. And at the Cosmo, they’ve got this traditional Turkish Hammam, it’s their pride and joy. It’d be our treat for behaving so impeccably.

Then the spa called – they only had one of us booked in. So I said, never mind, we’ll just skip the whole thing and go to breakfast. Bit of a bummer, but hey. And they said hold on – actually, they could fit two, but only one of us would get a female masseuse.

“Whatever, dude,” Greg said. “I’ll take the guy, you take the chick. It’s cool.”

But when we got downstairs, there was no chick anymore. Some other customer had “insisted” apparently, and snapped up the last masseuse. I wasn’t happy about it. I’d always rather be pampered by girls. By babes. Who wouldn’t? And we’d been so good on this trip, a cute masseuse would be a well deserved treat…

But instead, here’s Eric and Marko, leading us into a big grey, marble chamber, and sitting us down for the official introduction.

“OK, you boys are in for a treat!” says Eric. “You’ve booked the bridal package. It’s customary in Turkey for the bride and groom to get a traditional bath and massage on their wedding day before the ceremony. So you’ll both be getting bathed together, side by side!”

We both laugh. “We’re actually already married you know,” says Greg.

And they just beam at us. “Oh congratulations!”

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Shake Shake The Room

ktlaquake

[Also at Esquire]

The day we moved house, the house moved. That’s what you get for living on a fault line.

It was 6.25am on St Patrick’s day, March 17th, and I happened to be up, trying to get dressed in the dark, without waking the wife. It’s hard to sleep when all your stuff’s in boxes and the rugs are rolled up. I felt ungrounded and unstable. And as though to rub it in, the floor began to rumble and the chandelier started to swing.

I was putting my Levis on at the time, balancing on one leg, and the quake tipped me over so I was propped up against the wall at a 30 degree angle. I remember thinking “this should have stopped by now.” And, “maybe this is the one.” And, “at least let me get my pants on before the roof caves in”.

It was a 4.4, according to the Los Angeles Times Quakebot – literally a robot journalist that tweets the location and size of every tremor. And it was the start of a series because apparently earthquakes are like buses – LA has broken what the paper calls its “earthquake drought”, two words that individually describe the two greatest threats to the city’s existence, and yet when paired together, are actually quite welcome.

After 14 years out here, I’ve learned the local response to seismic activity – a “woah” and a tweet and you’re on your way. It was always the way. I was at the pub for my first shudder, way back before Twitter, even before 9.11. For a few perilous seconds we watched our pints shimmy across the table, but that was it. Then everyone just laughed and kept drinking.

But this time was different. It wasn’t the typical jolt or jiggle, so quick that your fear centers can barely start their engines. This one was a roller, it took its time – long enough for thoughts to form about the fragility of life, and how this might be the way it all ends, especially out here. Because LA’s always on the brink of something – if it’s not a burp in the tectonics, it’s raging forest fires or impending drought. Our perfect weather comes at a steep price.

And yet still we laughed. The face of the quake was a KTLA anchor called Chris Schauble who scurried under his desk, clearly terrified. The clip went viral and he became a figure of ridicule – never mind that he did all the right things, and that fear is not only rational but advisable, given that it was, you know, an earthquake.

But facing reality isn’t LA’s strong point. We deny death here and worship youth. We chase dreams and immortality. It was optimism not realism that drove the pioneers westward, and that fantastical thinking still holds true. Out on the precipice, all eyes are on the horizon, not on the rocks below.

Minutes after the St Patrick’s Day quake, I worried about trifles again – whether we had enough bubble wrap for the move, whether the sofa would fit through the door of the new place. It all went swimmingly in the end, and we love our new house. That ungrounded, unstable feeling, it starts to dissipates once you open up those boxes and roll out those rugs.

Then on March 31st, the floor rumbled again. It was bigger this time – a 5.1. And the epicenter was closer to home.

The question is: Are all these quakes building up to a big one, or are they releasing pressure in the plates, and actually reducing the chance of a catastrophe?

It’s got to be the latter, right?

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Esque and You Shall Receive

Esque-by-Maggie-West-1

[Photo by Maggie West]

[Also at Esquire]

Well this is one way to spend a Friday night. On my knees in a Boystown nightclub, with some strange guy in glitter sunglasses standing over me, holding a shoe-shaped goblet full of questionable white fluids.

“Open wide!” he says.

I was up for getting barfed on like Susan Sarandon. At least that’s what it said in the reviews of The Box, the famous club in New York – and London now too – created by Simon Hammerstein, of Rogers and Hammerstein fame (he’s Oscar’s grandson).

Apparently the star of Dead Man Walking was in the front row when one of the performers “blew chunks” as they say out here. Sarandon wiped the carrots off her chin in delight. It was all part of the show.

“That’s what we do, we bring theater into nightlife,” says Hammerstein. “The Box, touched on a lot of colors – some sexy, some transgression, some theater of cruelty. It’s not all shock. The press just likes to talk about the celebrities and the fake vomit.”

And the “guy” performer, who turns out to have a vagina. And the Twincest burlesque act. And the black diva in the Nazi outfit…

“Yes, all that stuff!” he laughs. “But that’s the Box. We’ve got a different concept going in LA.”

Hammerstein’s LA club is called Esque, and it’s based at DBA (Doing Business As), a venue on Santa Monica Boulevard that has changed hands a few times, but always retained its notoriety.

Back in the day it was Peanuts, a flaming disco full of drag queens. And then it was Voyeur, where young stars would snort their way to rehab every Saturday night – you’d see all the gorgeous wannabes waiting for hours outside, along with the TMZ goons trying to get a snap of Lindsay Lohan’s gusset. And inside, it was all S&M dancers, whips and what-have-you. Naturally, the Republican National Committee was caught up in a scandal there.

So plus ca change. Only now, you’re not just a voyeur – at Esque, you’re part of the show. The performers come right up to your booth and mess with you. One minute I’m chatting to club’s PR rep, a lovely guy called Edward who also happens to represent the Clintons (because that’s how the world works), and then some girl in a grizzly mask comes up and starts biting my arm.

Elsewhere a beast character is carrying a girl around, who’s wearing nothing but sheer netting and a teddy bear mask, and handing her to club goers to cradle like a baby. And there’s this cute little Japanese nymphette who’s skipping about the place in a thong. I was half-hoping she’d skip over here, when the big black guy with the cum-potion dragged me out of my seat.

“The theme is a Dionysian ritual,” says Yozmit, one of Hammerstein’s core players. “It’s a royal ball, and the people are all our slaves!” Slaves who pay $2000 for a table, mind. Slaves you see on billboards.

A Korean performance artist in his early 40s, Yozmit created the concept with Hammerstein, and plays a Queen on the night, the royal kind. In one scene, he reveals prosthetic breasts at first, then a prosthetic penis, and then he removes them both.

“First they think I’m a girl, then a boy, and then at the end, I’m all tucked up, so they think I’m a girl again! A lot of guys ask me out.”

Esque is perfectly pitched for LA, a city full of performers. They can’t wait to be part of the show. And it gets a bit weird at times. At the end of the night, Yozmit performs this shamanistic scene, in which one dancer dribbles creamy white fluid – they’re big on the whole fake-cum thing – from his mouth into Yozmit’s. He then spits it into a bowl and presents the bowl to the crowd as some kind of elixir.

“People drink from it!” says Yozmit. “This is just before we have an orgy scene in the middle of the dancefloor. We drag in people from the crowd to interact with the dancers.”

It beats the usual oontz-oontz club scene. And the lines out front are as long as they ever were during Voyeur’s heyday. But I’m not kidding myself – I’m too old to know what the hottest club in LA is. Hammerstein is too. “I’m 36,” he says, “and in nightlife years, that’s like 100.”

All I know for sure is that Miley Cyrus just showed up and took over our booth. She’s with a pack of girls, all checking their iPhones. I think one of them’s pregnant. Oh look, she’s goofing around pretending she’s giving head. Seems fitting.

“Hey what’s in the cum drink?” I ask the glitter guy.

“Sambuca and coconut milk?” he shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“All right, whatever. Let’s do this.”

Esque at DBA, every Thursday and Friday night, 7969 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood

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Matjames Metson and the Art of Reinvention

matjames-metson-at-work-by-Sanjiv

[Another 74 & Sunny, also at Esquire]

There’s an art show next week in Chinatown where everything’s made of matches – literally matchsticks and glue. The artist even sounds like matches – Matjames Metson. He deliberately fashioned the double-first-name thing, and it seems to go with his beard, tattoos and hat, and his workshop in Silverlake, which is LA’s Williamsburg (which is Brooklyn’s Shoreditch). You could easily mistake him for a hipster. But he isn’t.

Matjames is one of those stories that builds the myth of LA as a place of reinvention and possibility. Not a fairytale about a busboy who gets discovered at a Pizza place (though that happens too, #ChrisZylka), but a proper story of tragedy and hope and humanity. The kind of thing that comes on the radio around rushhour and straight away you stop bitching about the traffic.

“I had to use matches,” he says. “They were the only materials I could afford.”

It was 2006, and Katrina had destroyed his life. He’d been a successful artist in New Orleans, but the floods killed his friends, drowned his work, and washed away every possession he had except for the clothes on his back and his two pitbulls, Pikachu and Pearl. When a friend in LA sent him the money to go live with her and get back on his feet, he said yes, and spent a couple of months there recuperating. And then she found him an apartment in Koreatown, where he tried to rebuild his life.

But it wasn’t working.

“In Los Angeles, everyone’s here to win, but I was struggling to survive. I had a futon and a TV and that was it. My building was a rat’s nest. And I had a budget of $2 a day to live on.”

Every morning, he’d eat a handful of dog kibble, and then go out and beg for the bus fare to get to work – a $7/hr gig in the stock room at an art store.

“I had flood victim written all over me. I was failing. I needed help.”

All his life, Matjames had moved from city to city. And it’s never easy. The dislocation, the strangers, the starting over – it’s exhausting. But his parents were also artists and travelled from one teaching job to the next while he was growing up. And they in turn had come from England, full of bold ideas.

“You couldn’t bring cash, there was a limit,” he says, “so they put their savings into buying a Rolls Royce and shipping it over, thinking they could sell it when they got to New York. They forgot that they drove on the wrong side of the street.”

Metson’s own travels began at 16. He was living in a grim small town in Ohio at the time, and his girlfriend had just had a baby girl called Tyler. And Matjames freaked out.

“I didn’t know what to do so I just took off. I was way too immature to have a kid. I still am! So I left my parents, my brother, and all my friends. It was scary. I put all my stuff in an army duffel bag and just left.”

He ended up in New Orleans, working in bars, by night, and making art by day. It was a thriving art scene, and life was good – he had shows, he was written about, he was on his way. But then came Katrina, and his escape to LA, where he was living hand to mouth. It felt like he was drowning all over again.

And that’s when the phone rang one night. It was Tyler – his daughter that he’d never met or spoken with for all those years. She was a teenager now, and wanted to get to know her biological father, maybe visit him eventually.

“I thought, ’this person wants to know me, so I have to do better for myself.’

So he started making art again – buying matches and glue at the Dollar Store, and sitting in his roach-infested Koreatown studio, making things. It was a way of shutting out his problems.

“In New Orleans, I was kind of blasé as an artist. I wasn’t serious enough. But coming to LA, art became my one focussed thing. There was no more time in bars. And I was immobilized – I don’t drive, don’t have a car, I don’t have any money to go on the buses.”

And slowly but surely, his life began to change. He met a girl at his job, who saw past his wretchedness and listened. “Everyone I met, I wanted to just say, ‘I need help, I need help,’ and she was the first person who said, ‘OK, tell me how.’ I was like ‘really?’” City of angels indeed.

He spoke every so often to Tyler, and galvanized his determination to make her proud. And three years later – not a blink by any stretch – he had his first LA art show. He was back. “My daughter calling literally saved my life.”

Today Matjames is 42 and still going strong with that girl he met – they live together in her grandmother’s old house in Silverlake. He’s close to his daughter Tyler – “how many people who can say they’re good friends with their teenage daughter?” And he has a book in the works for Penguin, a graphic novel called “Surivivors Guild” about his life after Katrina.

Ask Matjames what he thinks about LA and he’s unequivocal. “It’s a cartoon strip for sure, but it’s not the narrative people think. You can reinvent yourself here. Start again. All you need to do is work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. I love this place.”

Matjames Metson’s show, A Better Home For A Quiet Wolf opens March 15th at the Coagula Curatorial, LA: www.coagulacuratorial.com

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Whipping Boy No More

Polar-vortex-vs-Solar-vortex

[A recent 74 & Sunny for Esquire. Check it out at Esquire and give it a like if you’re feeling likey…]

I know it’s February, but I’m still blown away by that polar vortex thing.

I don’t mean the way it froze waterfalls mid-flow or sealed whole cities under ice. I’m talking about how it persuaded snooty New Yorkers to admit, after a lifetime of disdain, that actually, they’ve got a bit of a boner for LA. A grudging boner perhaps – a yes-but-our-pizza’s-better boner – but still, a bonafide bone, one that’s only now starting to poke out into the open.

For some reason American GQ is at the center of all this, freezing its well groomed nuts off, within a shout of Times Square. Last month, it declared downtown LA to be “the new cool capital of America”. And a couple of months prior, it threw a party to celebrate Abbott Kinney in Venice, which it had dubbed “the coolest block in America”.

I’m not going to quibble over the small print – though they were right about downtown and wrong about Venice (the action in LA is east not west).

What’s important is that LA is getting some East Coast love for once. Because that never happens. New Yorkers learn to loathe LA at the teat, much like San Franciscans.  (Is that what they’re called? They sound like monks.) It’s the snobbery of the “proper city” versus the upstart, the old guard versus the arriviste.

And it turned LA into the whipping boy of American cities, shoved over in the corner, the new kid with the hot girlfriend that everyone else mocks as vapid, soulless, shallow, craven, fluffy, desperate, empty and trivial.

So why the change of heart?

My money’s on the vortex. Once your balls shrink to marbles, it’s natural to long for the sunshine. But the cold may be just the icing, as it were, because there’s a broader trend to all this. Lots of New Yorkers have been heading west of late, and daring to mention how it’s not really that shallow here after all (except in the shallow end of the pool that you might even be able to afford). Recently we’ve had Moby rhapsodizing about how “byzantine” and “baffling” LA is. And Werner Herzog, of course loves it here – he described LA as the city with the “most cultural substance”, which for a New Yorker has got to hurt.

Screenshot from Curbed - GQ says LA Rocks

This much we know – LA’s fundamentals are strong, as a business analyst might say. The hills, canyons, beach and desert, not to mention Kendrick Lamar’s “women, weed and weather”. John Fante had it right: “you pretty town!

Admittedly, there may be truth to that “bad weather, good people” thing, and its inverse too. Besides the stunning women, no one’s about to sell LA on its people, who can be, in all honesty, a tad peculiar. But are they so bad you’d sooner step out of a rabbit hutch in Manhattan every morning, slip on the black ice and go clattering into a hillock of garbage on your doorstep? Or – looked at the other way – are New Yorkers really all that?

I’m being facetious. I love New York, everyone does. It’s just that it might have peaked already. The vortex comes as Manhattan devolves ever further into a Douchebag Disneyland, rotten with bankers. Brooklyn is becoming a pastiche of itself, swallowed up by its own irony. Even Spike Lee’s going off New York. And look at the news lately about New York’s other famous son, the director of Manhattan. Wherever you stand on Woody Allen, the scandal tarnishes the city, just a little.

Meanwhile, LA just improves by the day.  The brunt of jokes for years, it’s still just waking up to its own potential. The Koreans are about to build the biggest ever skyscraper on an active fault line – that’s optimism for you.

So good job GQ. This sudden East Coast vogue for all things LA is no bad thing. It’s time to let the sunshine in and melt some of that ice. Because out here in the solar vortex, we never really understood where all that vitriol came from in the first place.

We just sit out on our sundecks, kale smoothie in one hand, prescription doobie in the other and wonder why it is that everyone hates us.

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Gene Genie, Let Yourself Go

Jerry-and-Terry-at-Twins-Days

You reach that age where you start to notice signs of your parents in your appearance and behavior. The way the lines deepen around you eyes, the way you sneeze or answer a phone. You look in the bathroom mirror in the morning and you remember those times as a boy when aunties would size you up, inspect your features and draw comparisons to uncles and grandparents you’d never even met.

It didn’t mean anything back then. All a boy knows is his own individuality, the sheer thrill of free will. But today it feels terminal – as though you’ve been walking a prescribed path all these years and your boyhood sense of free agency was an illusion all along. When you’ve grown up around the Hindu notion of fate, seldom a comforting concept, those crow’s feet start to look like the etchings on a headstone. Saul Bellow has a lovely line in Herzog about “the time of life when the later action of heredity begins [and] the blemishes of ancestors appear…. Death, the artist, very slow, putting in his first touches.”

But then I think of Tim Spector, a professor at Kings College London, who does these experiments with twins – the identical kind, the true genetic clones. I got chatting to him when I did my twin story for Marie Claire, and what he told me suggests that “the later action of heredity” needn’t be so morbid after all. Our genetics may not be so prescriptive. Because Spector has discovered that however much is written in at birth – crows feet or otherwise – we still remain, in a scientific sense, free.

“I started looking at the question of why identical twins die at different ages, and of different diseases,” he says. “And it’s because our genes are not our destiny. In fact, those genes are shaped to some extent by our lifestyle, environment and individual experiences.”

His field is known as epigenetics and it’s one of the most dynamic areas of gene science right now. Better that he explains it himself: “It’s about how we switch genes on and off with chemical switches, without changing their structure. So you take identical twins, where one has diabetes and the other’s normal, or one’s happy and one’s depressed – and you look for these little differences in the chemical switches. That can tell you a lot about the disease and what might be causing it.”

In other words, epigenetics is revealing the limits of genetic data, as well as its possibilities. And that alone, is somewhat revolutionary. It wasn’t long ago that genes were hailed as the ultimate blueprint, full of actionable data about our lives, our health, our futures. Genes, we were told, would determine not only our physicality – both the way we age in bathroom mirrors as well as our propensity for cancer – but also our psychology, our beliefs, our religion even. It felt very Hindu, very deterministic and faintly hopeless. And Spector was fully on board – he was part of that wave of excitement that propelled the Genome Project to such prominence and launched companies like 23andMe, to which customers are sending cheek swabs by the million.

But Spector’s perspective changed, much as he has now shown that our genes can change. The title of his book spells it out: Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes. Now he focuses on how we can alter our genetic make-up during our lives and pass on a different variation to our kids; how we can in a material sense overcome the past, and chart a new course. Nature, it turns out, can be nurtured.

One example from this year, reported in The Verge, showed that children who were born to women who’d had gastric bypass surgery prior to their birth, were genetically less prone to obesity. It was the surgery that tweaked the mother’s DNA and that was in turn passed down to the children.

Another example of how events in our lives can alter our genetic make-up: Rats which were conditioned to fear a certain smell passed on that fear to their kids.  Did the fear of the parent rats manifest in their DNA? It’s not clear. But if psychological traumas or even chronic conditions like depression can appear as epigenetic markers – the chemical switches that Spector was talking about – then what about the effects of the pharmaceuticals we use to treat them? How is Prozac tweaking our genes exactly?

Perhaps, this field will lead to grand cures in time, perhaps identical twins will the key to humanity’s future. But at the very least, epigenetics cements the idea that we can change, not just in deed or word, but in our very nature, at the source code level. We are  mutable creatures, and that sense of free agency as a boy, that wasn’t an illusion at all. The thrill of free will is real.

Some more Saul Bellow. In Seize the Day, he writes, from the perspective of Tommy Wilhelm, a failed actor, whose weakness and impulsiveness have led to an anxious and frittered life: “… In middle age you no longer thought such thoughts about free choice. Then it came over you that from one grandfather you had inherited such and such a head of hair…; from another, broad thick shoulders; an oddity of speech from one uncle, and small teeth from another.”

He’s like me in the mirror. And yet Tommy Wilhelm is a portrait of sadness, a man who feels trapped and burdened by life and the choices he’s made. And you want to grab him and say, Tommy, if only you knew, you’re free in ways you don’t even realize.

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