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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Overheard at Griffith Park

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We were hiking up the hill at Griffith Park the other day, on a crisp blue Sunday morning. It’s a ritual in LA to join the strivers on the day of rest, to bring the dogs, feel the burn and march up to at least the height of the Hollywood sign where, quite perfectly, there’s an observatory – so many here are reaching for the stars in one way or another.

Ahead of us, a postcard – a mom and toddler trudging up the slopes, they looked so sweet, it must be Christmas. But the poor little thing, he was having a moment. This is what he heard as we passed.

“But Mom you said just a few steps.”

“Yes, just a few more. Look, we’re so near the top.”

“I don’t want to!”

“But we’re almost there, honey. Look, everyone’s walking past us. Come on, let’s catch them!”

“NOO!!”

“Listen, sweetie, I know it’s not easy. But life’s not easy. This is LA honey. It’s a tough town.”

“I want to go HOME!”

“But no one comes half way and just stops. Look around! You have to go to the top. That’s the whole point. You need to finish things in life. Because if you give up on this, you’ll give up on everything, one thing after another, until you’ve got no confidence left and it’s just you, alone in a shitty bedsit in Boyle Heights with the wreckage of your dreams around your feet, eating ramen noodles and jerking off into a sock, dribbling out your last sad, teardrop and then quietly rolling onto your side and staring into space. Is that what you want?”

“I like noodles.”

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After Hours in K-Town

Here’s my latest 74 & Sunny column for Esquire. Go check it out at Esquire and give it a like if you’re feeling friendly. (Just for the record, me and Danny really didn’t go the whore route.)

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From the outside, it’s nothing, just a dead strip mall at three in the morning. Still as a tomb in the pale piss of the street lights.

But knock on the black door and a little slit opens up, and a pair of eyes appear, darting from left to right like a painting in a Scooby Doo haunted house. The door opens briefly and a man pulls you in, closing up again quickly afterwards. And that’s it – you’re in. No cover charge. You’re an outlaw now.

I love an afterhours. A pub lock-in, whatever. The way it turns grown men into sneaky little kids, trying to get one over on Johnny Law. But I’ve never seen anything quite this flash. Because up the stairs, it’s all K-pop and drunk people chucking back soju and double fried chicken, about 30 of us in all. We’re talking full menu service till dawn – just buzz the waiters with those nifty little buttons on the tables. And you can tell it’s dodgy – the soju comes in Dixie cups, so that they can pretend it’s water in case of a raid. That, and everyone’s smoking indoors because why the fuck not. In for a penny etc.

Koreatown has long been the afterhours capital of Los Angeles. It’s like prohibition out here. It’s a wonder they’re not running whores out the back. But no one talks about it, because unless you’ve got a Korean mate, you’re not getting in. I wouldn’t be here now if I wasn’t with Danny Cho, a stand-up comedian who lives around the corner. One of the ugly truths about K-town is that non-Koreans are often non-grata, even during regular hours – they get turned away from restaurants and charged double at the bar. Racism, basically. But I’m Danny’s friend today, so all is well. He hands me a menu and laughs. “See anything you like?”

The whole thing’s in Korean.

Danny’s part of this 2nd generation cultural wave out here in K-town, the largest Korean population outside of Korea. There’s the band Far East Movement, the chef Roy Choi, the artist David Choe who did the Facebook offices, and the DJ Tokimonsta. Danny hasn’t made it yet, not like the other guys, but you never know – he’s making this project about K-town, and all the shit he got up to in his twenties. And you know he pushed the boat out. He’s only 31 and he’s already got a touch of gout. That’s fast work.

“Hey you mentioned whores,” he says, lighting up a Marlboro red. “It’s all possible in K-town, it just depends how much you want to spend.”

I’ve been up at 3am in LA before. And I wouldn’t recommend it – LA closes shop at two sharp. In fact, good luck finding a decent table after 10pm. I’m serious. In the early years, when I had the stamina to make a proper night of it, I can’t tell you how many times I roamed the streets in the zombie hours, for mile after fruitless mile looking for a snifter – the Grey Goose chase.

The only place I found was this rough old shack called Ducks out in the hood run by some ranting coke dealer – “I’m Duck, what the fuck you want?” He’d chop out the nonsense right there on the table – that kind of place. Two brands of beer, both out of a can, and that’s your lot.

But K-town’s another level. The full nine. Ten, even. And it was always the way, according to Danny – this whole world was right under my nose all along, I just didn’t know where to look.

That’s why Koreatown captures the essence of LA. It’s hidden in plain sight. When I first passed through it left me cold – it’s so foreign and vast, it feels unknowable. There’s the language thing, the disorienting scale and the overwhelming indifference to just how lost you actually are.

And that’s LA – she doesn’t reveal herself so easily. New York’s all cleavage and brass, she’ll pull you into her energy and carry you along her currents. Look at my skyscrapers, my bustle and flow, my yellow cabs. It doesn’t matter if you’re lost, or new in town, you can just stumble around and have a great time by accident.

LA’s not nearly so easy. She’s more your femme fatale, mysterious and full of secrets. Who knows what she’s really up to? There’s cleavage there, no doubt, but you’ll have to work for it, and it might take years. It’s all part of the glorious paradox of a city where even in the permanent sunshine so much remains obscured.

K-town’s close to the center of the city, geographically. And it’s new, like the city as a whole. Still finding its identity. When the Koreans started arriving in droves in the late sixties and seventies, they recreated a version of Seoul here, and they did it for themselves, not as an attraction for Americans. So yes, there’s a lot of driving ranges and 24hr spas and blaring Korean shop signs everywhere instead of trees – no one said this place was pretty.

But it also means no end of red meat, liquor and girls till dawn. “Korea’s basically a country built by men for men,” says Danny. “So you get some of that flavor here.”

Hence his point about money. Because there’s this full-on geisha spot close by, but that’s a tad spendy. Then there are the karaoke rooms for hire all over town where they provide a menu of escort girls to party with – “domi girls” they’re called (it means “helper”). Domis come in every varietal these days – not just Asian girls, but Russians, African-American, Hispanic…. United Colors of Domi. And if that’s all a bit much, there are the “talking bars” where if you buy a bottle, the barmaid in the micro mini will come and have a chat. I’m told that’s as far as it goes, but in K-town who knows?

Another time, Danny. This old dog needs some kip. So just as the sky starts to lighten, the first inklings of dawn, we leave. The door guy opens the slit again, to make sure the coast is clear, and quickly bundles us out where suddenly, all is silent once more. We’re just two guys standing inexplicably in an empty car park.

“Don’t tell anyone the address,” says Danny.

Not a peep, hombre. Not a peep.

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I Believe I Can Fry: Hosting Tips from R Kelly

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“Cristal popping in the stretched Navigator. We got food everywhere as if the party was catered.”

So goes a lyric from R Kelly’s Ignition (Remix), which is as  relevant today as it has ever been. Especially if you’re planning to host an event, this holiday season.

When R sings “as if the party was catered”, he’s begging the question – why wouldn’t a renown “baller” hire actual caterers? And the answer is staring right at us – he’s done all his money on the champagne and the Navigator. And one suspects he’s secretly regretting it. After all, what does a stretched vehicle really add to a social occasion – surely it’s just parked somewhere? And why plump for Cristal when your basic Moet would do? Let’s be honest – most guests can’t really tell after the first couple, especially those underage girls he likes to pee on, allegedly. And Fat Joe’s mostly there for the snacks.

On account of this budgeting oversight, poor R now has to scramble. So this song is really a cry for help from a frantic man in an apron who’s watching the guests arrive and wishing he’d thought this through. No one knows better than R how competitive rappers can be when it comes to parties. In the 90s it was all they sang about. And people still talk about the time Dr Dre’s pastry bites came out cold.

So the pressure’s on. It’s time to get out of the closet and stuff those mushrooms himself. Bump and grind the pepper corns and bread his own nuggets.

“Bounce bounce bounce” – This is R on the balls of his toes, frantically ordering delivery and reading out his credit card number over the phone.

“All up in your grill, trying to get to a hotel” – R would love to mingle, but he’d be fool to leave the grill. Anyone who’s done chicken satay knows those things are so easy to overdo. Naturally, he’s wishing he’d gone to a hotel at this point.

“Hot and fresh out the kitchen” – That’s the goal, R, stay focused now.

“Can I get a toot toot” – R would like a line of cocaine please, to speed things along.

“Can I get a beep beep” – Some scholars believe the lyric refers to the aforementioned Navigator. R would  like to get some use out of it, seeing as he’s paid for the bloody thing. Another school of thought is that he’s referring to the oven timer, because surely it’s been 20 minutes by now – how long do mushroom caps take?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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