Walking in LA

Hanging out in Echo Park with Cocoa.
Hanging out in Echo Park with Cocoa after her week of high-powered business meetings and sushi-rritos in Santa Monica.

From everything I’d heard, the one thing that seemed certain about our trip to LA was that we were going to need a car to get around. So, while we did have a car to get to and from LAX, it was gratifying to leave that swank Dodge Avenger blissfully parked outside our rented Echo Park bungalow for pretty much the whole five days we were in Los Angeles.

Besides saving money and aggravation, it was nice to get some exercise between meals and drinks, and street burritos, and ice cream sandwiches, and was especially nice since we had a big crew for the first few days. Nicole and my brother, Matt, were on the tail end of business trips; superfriend Justin R. came down from Seattle; friend-of-the-blog and aspiring weapons trainee, Country Club Bill, came up from San Salvador, and his brother, Rob, turf specialist for the Dodgers, who happens to live in Echo Park, in a monastic cell where he is feted with chicken head soup and other Szechuan wonders. Below are some highlights:

ship shape
On an egg run downtown.

-The six of us partook of the PBR/tequila special (and some mysterious tacos, is it dog food? could be) at The Gold Room on Friday before heading up to the stadium for the Dodgers/Brewers game, which was followed up by a stop at Sunset Beer Company for supplies. No one was injured.

-Tracked down a foodtruck, Egg Slut, in the Toy District for breakfast. Boxed water? Raw denim? Plenty to go around here.

-The speedball at The Viper Room came highly recommended, for a brief foray into Hollywood, but Nicole and I ultimately decided to abstain, and hit up Book Soup instead. I feel like that was a solid choice.

-Saturday night brought bowling in Tarzana to celebrate the thirstiest birthday of friends Joey Joe Jo and Brandi along with Benji, Jeff, and a host of other Nebraska expats who relocated out there.

CCB sucking in his gut at The Red Lion Tavern.
CCB sucking in his gut at The Red Lion Tavern.

-All the other out-of-towners left after a couple days, but CCB and I stuck around a few extra days for two more Dodgers games, another stop at Sunset Beer Company so CCB could fill his suitcase with microbrewed delicacies largely unknown to Central America, and a Neil Hamburger-headlined comedy night at The Satellite in Silverlake.

-We also hit up the Red Lion Tavern for some serious day drinking. Much happiness resulted from the liters of fine Spaten and Bittburger served here, although the food was pretty disappointing. There were also like twenty people getting rowdy on a Monday at 11am, taking advantage of the sunroof. We knew it was pretty serious when the guy with long gray hair holding an ornately carved walking stick complained to the beermaid that another guy who long gray hair (this one with an eye patch!) thought he was a “big shot!” To the victor go the spoils, I suppose. (Ed. note: CCB talked to the guy with the eye patch in the bathroom, and testified that he seemed pretty nice. So there you go.)

And what awaited my return to Nebraska. Snow in May. Glorious.
And what awaited my return to Nebraska? Snow in May. Glorious. (Our new house on the right, by the way.)

-My favorite part of the trip, however, was the kid we saw biking between Echo Park and Silver Lake who was holding a cross-stitched little portrait of two guys kissing. The hipsters of LA are taking it to a new level.

-Seriously, though, it was a genuinely relaxed and gratifying weekend. We talked about how none of us ever really felt the need to experience LA before, but that it was actually pretty awesome. Could it be that the most over-hyped city in America could be kind of underrated?

Weeks of Aug 31-Sept 13, 2009

Novel Work
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.

Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.

One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.

Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”

Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.

Now Reading
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.

Up Next
Exiles by Ron Hansen.

Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.

Featured Market
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.

Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)

All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.

 

You will be missed, Ron Raikes.

 

Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.