The Hundred-Year Walk

July 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Hundred Year WalkGrowing up in the 1950s, I would hear my mother say, as mothers are wont to do, “Don’t waste food. Think of the starving children in __________!”

India was usually the country named, though China occasionally received a nod. And then my mother would add, “In my day, it was starving Armenians.”

Until much later, I had no idea who Armenians were, where they lived, or why they were starving. Now I find myself living amongst the largest concentration of Armenian Americans outside of Russia—214,000 residents of Greater Los Angeles claim Armenian heritage— and next door to Glendale, where an estimated 40 percent of the population has Armenian roots.

I now know that Armenians were starving because during WW I, Turkish officials rounded up as many as 1.5 million Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire and either slaughtered them outright or force-marched them into desolate regions where they slowly succumbed to disease, malnutrition or exposure.

Dawn Anahid MacKeen, who grew up in Glendale’s Armenian diaspora, has written the astonishing account of one man who, against all odds, survived the genocide: her grandfather Stepan Miskjian. The Hundred-Year Walk, An Armenian Odyssey, was published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

portrait1930

Stepan Miskjian

It is a deeply personal tale, interwoven with her own story of how she came to learn the details of Stephan’s arduous journey, eventually retracing his route through Turkey and into the deserts of what is now Syria and Iraq.

Cliche though it is, I have to say that if Stephan’s life were made into a movie, no one would believe it.

For two years, he, along with hundreds of thousands of others, were herded further and further from population centers, always alert to opportunities to earn a bit of bread or a place in someone’s shelter. Stepan escaped what was to be the final death march by slipping away in the dark and walking six days through the desert with no food and only two cups of water.

It was a superhuman feat but not the end of Stepan’s trials. He was recaptured and had to escape again—not once but several times over. Eventually he found his way to the camp of a powerful Bedouin sheik who sheltered him until the Ottoman empire’s war effort collapsed and Stepan was able to make his way back to his hometown and remaining family members.

The Hundred-Year Walk is a richly detailed narrative, a visceral testimony to suffering that is not easily forgotten.

I now understand why my mother, born in 1910, would have been encouraged to “remember the starving Armenians.”

Here’s what puzzles me, though: If a little girl in far-off Altoona, Pennsylvania, knew about the calamity befalling Armenians, how is it that one hundred years later, the Turkish government and many of Turkey’s citizens still cannot see it for what it was: genocide?

365

July 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

365 logo  It’s been a while since anything has annoyed me as much as the new 365 store in Silver Lake.

Maybe I just don’t like 365’s parent company, Whole Foods Markets.

You’ve heard the common complaint, that the stores should be called “Whole Paycheck” because of the high prices.

But I’ve got a few more grievances:

  • John Mackey, a Whole Foods founder and current co-CEO, is an anti-union, libertarian jerk who felt so strongly about Obamacare that he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed opposing it.
  • Mackey expanded Whole Foods by scooping up regional chains, e.g. Fresh Fields in No. Virginia and Mrs. Gooch’s in SoCal, to create a near monopoly on what we used to call health food stores. Independent stores, with clerks who knew you and their products, got pushed out of business.
  • Whole Foods masquerades as a health food store but is actually an up-scale big-box merchandizer selling gourmet products to a monied constituency.

good choices And now along comes 365, designed to cut costs by requiring only 100 employees to operate, as opposed to the typical Whole Foods Market that employs 250 to 500 workers. The preponderance of prepackaged produce and a DIY regimen for what isn’t—customers must weigh and tag their own, a task done by check-out clerks at Whole Foods Markets—also cut labor costs.

The company says prices at 365 are cheaper than at Whole Foods, but that’s more appearance than reality. The store brand—365—dominates inventory; shoppers looking for  high-priced specialty items won’t find them. A Los Angeles Times consumer review of five basics found 365’s priced about the same as Trader Joe’s.

good times  Whole Foods is gambling on the success of its 365 stores. According to the L.A. Times, full-sized Whole Food Markets open a year or more have shown three straight quarters of declining revenue; this year’s sales are flat. Shares are trading at less than half their $65 high in the fall of 2013. The company has announced its intention to open five more 365 locations in SoCal.

The company is upfront about banking on Millennials to pull them out of their hole. The stores employ technology Millennials have grown up with: iPads to place orders with the store kitchen and a wine section where you find reviews by scanning labels with a smartphone.

And then there’s the not-too-subtle marketing. The company ran three full-page ads targeting Millennials in the Times’ “Saturday” section just before opening day. They border on being parodies of themselves: good-looking young people, not all of them white and some of them tattooed, with phrases such as “good choices,” “good times,” “good vibes,” and “good things” liberally sprinkled about.

good vibesThe ads represent 365 as being a gift to this demographic, “Because we believe making good choices should be a lot less effing time consuming.”

Seriously, could they get any more effing annoying?

Dead ends

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

I can’t be the only one who grabs the California section of the L.A. Times each morning and races through to the obituaries.

In part it’s a response to aging: mortality seems so much more real than it did even 10 years ago. I check out ages of the deceased, do the calculations, think, “Okay, 94, that sounds good. Hmm, 83, I could accept that.” As if I actually could bargain for longevity.

Mostly, though, I read obituaries because they are mini-biographies, often fascinating glimpses into another’s otherwise private life. Written by a family member or friend, they attempt to sum up a life, say what made the person special. Not that that’s possible in 200 or so words, but those left behind try because that’s how we honor people we love.

There’s a certain predictability to many of the obituaries. Men are summed up through their careers, women by their families and volunteer work (unless they’re under 60, in which case careers also matter). In lieu of corporate success, hobbies, athletic accomplishments, travel, and pets’ names are mentioned.

Language, too, tends towards the conventional. The deceased has “gone home to the Lord.” They “bravely battled cancer” and “adored” their grandchildren. They were universally “loved and admired.” She/he married after meeting “the love of her/his life.” * It seems important to survivors to mention, when they can, that their loved one “died peacefully at home, surrounded by family,” which often leads to thanks and appreciation of the (usually Filipina or Latina female) caregivers who enabled the deceased to stay at home.

Even if spoken in platitudes, the stories these obituaries tell hint at interesting lives well lived. Folks arrive here from far-flung places: Skopje, Yugoslavia; Chuquicamata, Chile; County Donegal, Ireland; Tokyo, Japan, brought by parents or lured by jobs or relatives or the Golden State mythos.

I marveled at the man from Belfast, Ireland, for instance, who emigrated to the U.S. as a youth and served in the Air Force during WW II as navigator bombardier. He not only survived 30 missions over Germany but lived to be 100.

Occasionally, a good piece of writing appears, usually written by friends. A painter and print-maker was recently eulogized as “playful with his grandchildren and demanding of his students. He inspired all who knew him to expand their horizons and to accomplish more than they believed possible.”

More rare still are the profiles that detail a life not spent climbing the corporate ladder, such as the Japan-born, 18th generation Pure Land Buddhist priest who, later in life, studied in Switzerland and returned to Los Angeles as a Jungian analyst.

For all the richness of L.A. Times’ obituaries, many, many lives are unremarked upon. Prices for death notices start at $105 for five lines and go up from there. It’s a very white crowd one reads about, with just a sprinkling of Black people and Japanese-Americans. Latinos show up mostly when the Sheriffs benevolent society posts a notice about one of their own.

No, the obituary section is neither democratic nor truly representative of our community. Given that death is the most universal of all life experiences, isn’t this a most ironic shortcoming?

Coal ash & breaker boys

March 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

Anthracite FieldsEarlier this month, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented the West Coast premiere of Anthracite Fields, Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio about coal mining, it was the sort of performance that leaves you stunned, riveted to your seat—until you leap to your feet to applaud.

Perhaps Anthracite Fields resonated so deeply because I grew up in Central Pennsylvania when coal was still king.

Every fall, a driver for Arnold Fuel Co. backed one of its orange dump trucks perpendicular to the house, thrust a chute through a ground-level window, and released its load. Those small, oily black chips flooding into our coal bin fascinated me. In them was the mysterious power that kept us warm, a material substance transmuted by fire into heat, leaving rough pebbles of ash that my brother would shovel into tubs to be placed at the curb for disposal.

Anthracite was prized because it’s high carbon content and low level of impurities caused it to burn cleanly, which did not prevent a film of gritty black dust from accumulating on interior window sills that my sister and I had to dust every Saturday.

The word “oratorio” suggests Baroque stylings of Handel’s Messiah. Anthracite Fields, in contrast, is a contemporary piece, majestic in its own way, full of dissonance and surprising harmonies, spoken word, recitativo, and video projections. Singers were accompanied by a sextet of amplified instruments and implements that included bicycle wheels whose spokes provided the sound familiar to every kid who’s ever clipped a playing card to the fork of his bike.

Anthracite Fields takes us into the world of the men and boys who brought anthracite to the surface and of the women who labored to sustain households under the ever present threat of loss occasioned by cave-in or explosion. In fact, Wolfe begins her composition with a sung list of names she culled from an official compendium of all who died in coal mines between 1869 and 1916.

Consequences of coal mining were commonplace throughout the Pennsylvania of my youth: massive spoil piles of waste rock, rivulets of bright orange acidic fluids streaming from old mine sites, sudden ground subsidence, underground fires that could burn for decades.

Mining put so much debris into waterways that by the time the Susquehanna River rolled by Harrisburg, there was profit to be made sending a barge along the shore to dredge coal waste for resale. Swimming in the river from City Island’s concrete beach meant stepping into mushy piles of granular coal.

By Lewis W. Hine - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

By Lewis W. Hine – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

What I did not know until hearing Anthracite Fields was that until the 1920s, boys as young as 8 or 9 worked 10 hours a day, six days a week plucking debris from the torrent of coal pieces pouring down chutes in the breaker mill. The oratorio memorializes these “breaker boys” who earned, c. 1902, 65 cents a day, which might be reduced to as little as 25 cents when rent was deducted.

You would be forgiven for imaging that Anthracite Fields refers to a world that no longer exists. Yet in many parts of the U.S., residents can boot up their computers and recharge their cell phones, turn on a light or put clothes in the dryer, only because somewhere, coal is being burned. In Los Angeles, coal supplies 33 to 40 percent of the electricity provided by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, our city-owned public utility.

Navaho

Navaho Generating Station. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

True, here are no more breaker boys and pollution control devices have significantly reduced the amounts of sulfur and ash that once poured out of power plant smoke stacks. But every year, the two generating stations serving Los Angeles* spew into the air more than 700 pounds of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, which makes its way into our waterways and up the food chain into us. Other by-products include massive amounts of carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

Anthracite Fields includes an excerpt of testimony given by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, before Congress in the mid-1930s. It’s worth considering his words:

If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.

To which I would add that we must also protect those who live with the environmental consequences of mining and burning coal. And, of course, the Earth itself.

~~~~~~~~

*Intermountain Power Plant, in southern Utah, and the Navaho Generating Station in northern Arizona.

You’ve got to free your mind!

March 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

BigErn  On occasion, you encounter someone whose life experience is so different from yours that it forces you to recalibrate your understanding of humankind.

That’s how I felt meeting the Lakota counselor at a summer camp where I worked. And that’s how it was with Big Ern.

His full name: Ernest Shepard III and his reputation preceded him. About three years ago, my partner Joe told me he had met this amazing guy. “He spent 45 years in prison and now he’s working with Youth Justice Coalition.”*

Meeting the formerly incarcerated wasn’t anything new—Joe himself was a Vietnam-era federal prisoner, in for draft resistance, and is deeply involved with criminal justice reform movements—but forty-five years! I couldn’t imagine it.

Plus, a hefty sentence like that might mean an unnervingly hefty crime, though it was hard to know. Sentences often don’t match the violation and it’s a breach of prison etiquette to ask, “What are you in for?”

Anyway, Joe said Ernie was okay and that was enough. We invited him to our Christmas open house and were delighted that he came.

It was immediately clear how Ernie got his nickname— he was tall, robust, muscled—and seen on the street, he could appear intimidating. In fact, he was gentle and kind.

That Christmas, Ernie mentioned that his father had been a musician, that a clip of him playing with the Duke Ellington orchestra was posted on YouTube. I pulled out a laptop and we all watched a performance of “Take the A Train,” with an extended solo by Ernest Shepherd pere playing the bass and scat singing. The man was good! And his son was so proud.

ErnSpeakingIn the months afterwards, I’d get reports about Big Ern from Joe when he’d run into him at demonstrations or county supervisors’ meetings where Ernie spoke up on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. One Saturday, I tuned into Geri Silva’s KPFK radio program, “Think Outside the Cage,”   and heard Ernie’s warm baritone. He sometimes spoke haltingly, not because he didn’t know what to say but because he was reaching deep inside himself to access wisdom that had come from decades of struggle.

fair-chance-project Through the grapevine, I learned Ernie was was working with the Fair Chance Project, “a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones of term-to-life prisoners organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices.”

That’s what Ernie was doing on Friday, February 19, waiting for an elevator that would take him to a Fair Chance meeting, when untreated cancer claimed him. He had celebrated his 71st birthday only the week before.

Since his death, I’ve learned more about Ernest Shepard’s life. He grew up in segregated Los Angeles, in the Black community surrounding Central Avenue. He was academically accomplished, but, as he told YJC students, “Like a lot of Black youth, I wanted to be a student, but I was forced to be a fighter.”

In one of those fights, another man died, and though manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge, the prosecutor called it second degree murder and demanded the death penalty.

Ernie spent three years on death row, but studied the law, filed a writ, and was granted a new trial. He then represented himself in court, getting his sentence reduced to 7-years-to life. Lamentably, “tough on crime” policies kept him in prison decades beyond seven years.

I last saw Ernie at a theater performance by former prisoners. During the panel discussion that followed, he said that to remain whole while locked up he’d had to do a lot of inner work. To be free, he told us in an impassioned voice,  “You’ve got to FREE YOUR MIND.”

Coming from anyone else, this would have sounded New Age-y and glib. But from Ernest Shepard III, with a lifetime of struggle behind him, it was Truth with a capital T.

The panel ended shortly after Ern’s pronouncement because what more was there to say?

A memorial for Ernie will be held on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Hardy Hall, 6501 Crenshaw Blvd., Inglewood.

~~~~~

You can see Big Ern yourself in this five-minute video interview shot in 2012 by Robert Corsini.

* From their Facebook page: “The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) is working to build a youth-led movement to challenge race, gender and class inequality in the Los Angeles County juvenile injustice system.” Their continuation high school is located at Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E Redondo Blvd., Inglewood, California.

25,686

January 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

homelessThey’re everywhere: beneath freeway overpasses, lining city streets, across from City Hall, the tents, tarps, bedding, and shopping carts letting us know that Los Angeles residents who have no other place to lay their heads have moved in. Although nearly a quarter of our homeless population clusters downtown, there’s not a council district in the city without people in need of permanent housing.

A few facts and figures:

Every two years, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a joint city-county agency, sends volunteers out over a three day period to survey the unhoused wherever in the county they can be found. Last year’s count identified 25,686 homeless in the city of Los Angeles, a 12% increase over the previous census. While some of these folks had temporary refuge—in their cars, RVs, or shelter beds—nearly 70 percent were on the street. Single adults make up 82% of this population, but nearly 4500 are family members and 197 were unaccompanied minors. Men out-number women 2 to 1.

About one-third are chronically homeless. More than a quarter are 55 or older. Mental illness and/or addictions plague a third of the total population.

Almost half of the homeless are African-American, but overall, the disadvantaged in our county are a rainbow of white (22%) and Latino (21%) with small populations of Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Veterans account for 11% of the total.

I guess a lot of residents have been complaining to City Council members and other officials that “Something ought to be done,” because Silverlake’s Neighborhood Council recently held a town hall on homelessness with an array of government representatives, service providers, and advocates. Judging from questions directed to panel members, “something” can mean either “How do we get those people out of our neighborhood” or “Let’s get these folks humanely housed.”

Big, beefy white guys make me nervous so I not did not have high hopes for the meeting when I entered the town hall venue and found a half-dozen LAPD officers back slapping and glad-handing.

Which, I later recognized, is just as unfair a prejudice as the sort many residents have towards people camped out on the street. What I learned from the Senior Lead Officers of Northeast and Ramparts Divisions is that police officers are the front line in the homeless crisis. They actually know these individuals, where they hang out, what they’re up to. They work within limitations placed on them by lawsuits over seizure of property. They know that the solution is not more policing, but political will to house every resident.

I also found out that city and county agencies are “doing something,” though their “something” doesn’t translate into more housing. The Bureau of Sanitation sent two representatives to the town hall who described how encampments–those large concentrations of homeless individuals– are cleaned and sanitized once a month, which often entails guys in hazmat gear handling human waste. Council District 13 staff go out every other week to collect trash and sweep around camps. Non-profit service providers do persistent outreach to people on the streets. Prosecutors from the City Attorney’s office made it clear that while criminal behavior in encampments is prosecuted, simply being homeless is not a crime. However much some residents would like to see the problem just go away, jailing people is not the answer.

Four walls and a roof would be, but, in a city where developers rule, housing for all remains a pipe dream.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with the help of 6,000 volunteers, launches it homeless count this week. I’m not a betting person but if I were, I wouldn’t place money on the city’s total being less than last year’s figure.

Rams 1, POTUS 0

January 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

The first Black president makes his final State of the Union address, and it’s spunky. He vigorously bats down Republican-peddled untruths about the economy, Muslims, national security, and foreign policy. He expresses regret at his inability to defuse the inter-party rancor that’s led to a Congressional logjam. He tells us to take care that our future workforce is well-educated and ready for technological challenges.

And how did our Newspaper of Record, the Los Angeles Times, report the President’s words? With a three-inch headline announcing that a professional football team will take up residence in Los Angeles. A story about the president’s address, meanwhile, was way down the page, below the fold.

LA Times

Granted, the SOTU story carried inside to a two-page spread–news reporting accompanied by an analytical piece—but with more than half the space taken up by photos.

The football franchise, in contrast, got two front page stories occupying two-thirds of that page. These continued inside with more column inches of text than the POTUS received.

Why do I even bother with the outrage?

The LA Times has been flailing about for years and not just because of massive changes in the media world. The decision by third and fourth-generation scions of the Otis-Chandler family, which had controlled the newspaper for 125 years, to sell off the business in a highly leveraged deal sent the paper into bankruptcy. Lay-offs, buy-outs, and other cost-cutting has resulted in far less actual news, fewer features, and enormous headlines and photographs to make up the deficit.

One of the photos placed with the football story exemplifies these dispiriting tendencies. Men decked out in team jackets, jerseys, and hats displaying a team flag, banner and even an enormous cut-out of the new team owner’s disembodied head were identified in the accompanying caption as “jubilant Rams fans.” Maybe some of the guys were locals excited about NFL’s return to L.A. but please don’t tell me they’ve been keeping all that gear in the closet for 20 years, waiting for the Rams to return. It was a pep rally equipped by team marketing managers, a non-event created for the media, which the Times reported as news.

Pretty shabby, no?