OCTOBER 25, 2014
WHEN RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ submitted his essay “My Father’s House” to Dagoberto Gilb, author and publisher of the literary magazine Huizache, the two writers realized they shared some geography: the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. The neighborhood today stands as an international symbol of gentrification and hipsterism, of overpriced coffee and kids with pork pie hats, of pricey real estate and rents, a place that has rapidly been purged of its working class and immigrant residents. It is also an area with a deep history of bohemian and radical sensibilities. It was home to many World War II–era European expatriate artists and intellectuals, and a cradle of the city’s early gay and lesbian scene. In the 1970s and ’80s, an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America made for a mixed, uniquely LA demographic that created both tensions and desire.
Martínez’s grandparents moved to the area in the early 1940s, and Gilb’s father — Dagoberto’s home was with his mother — in the early 1960s. Both lived there as adults raising young children. Between the two, they straddled various lines — working class and middle, “native” and immigrant, the hills and the flatlands. As they traded reflections via email, they realized that they were telling a story together — about place and people and memory, about gentrification and the borders of American urban life past and present, and, of course, about writing.
DAGOBERTO GILB: A gorgeous piece! (“My Father’s House.”) We’re very lucky you’ve given it to us, and we’ll do as good as we can to highlight it. h4 (see huizachemag.org) is a super strong issue…. You couldn’t know but my father and his wife lived in Silver Lake too. He got a house there I’d guess around 62-3. Huge house that he paid shit for—which is what he made. I also wrote about my father in a piece published…I don’t remember…’Father Close, Father Far,’ in The Threepenny Review. It’s a subject that’s hard for us, since no one seems too enchanted to know stories of men and fathers in this era. And then for me, he was also that other community too, so double the confusion. His was a place I had to visit 2-3 days a year, his world and that of his wife (who was Elvis’s second cousin. No shit. Her mom was a Presley). He was 48 when he married 21-yr-old her. My mom did weird shit too…. I lived with my own family off Micheltorena, on Hamilton Way (below us, the O.N Klub) for a lot of our early LA years, in the mid-80s during a rat plague (I set a story, ‘The Rat,’ there). We’d, as in my wife and babies, often hang at Silver Lake park, at the curved bottom of the boulevard. (I think it’s been given over to dogshit—the new babies of this era. Disgusting to me, grass like dog toilet paper and people handling their piles like seashells.) Mostly at the bball courts. I wish I could live there now. I still love that neighborhood. Micheltorena school, where my son Antonio started kindergarten, was so cool and he loved it — we really knew it when we moved back to El Paso and he never loved school again. We didn’t do much on Glendale Blvd (except when we drove to Dodger games), though I do know exactly where La Ronda was now. [In his essay, RM relates the story of his grandparents opening up a Mexican restaurant near the corner of Silver Lake Boulevard and Glendale Boulevard and notes its transformation into the ultra-hip Cha Cha Lounge.] I have this strange feeling that my dad, when he got laid off, had an office for ‘real estate’ for a few years around there–it did no business ever. All about his pride — after 50 years at the other, he needed to pretend he had something to do.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ: Writing in my converted garage, at the Mt. Washington house. I always have to explain where Mt Wash is, even to natives, it’s a kinda invisible hood. There really isn’t any “mount,” it’s a pathetic 900 feet high, but pretty wide in circumference with lots of canyons. The way I usually get people to locate it in their heads is by saying it’s between Highland Park and Cypress Park. Both are working class, mexicano-sprinkled-with- salvadoreño hoods. (I always have to add the Salvis, because I’m both… and because Mexicans act so hegemonic in LA, and most everyone else is too lazy to distinguish between us except when they feel like eating pupusas instead of tacos—which is increasingly often.) So I’m in Mt. Washington, a block up from Marmion Way, which is the border with Highland Park, where the hood-hood begins. I’m at the bottom of the hill, middle-to lower-middle class. Higher up it’s pricier, but it’s no Los Feliz or Hollywood Hills, because it’s east of the L.A. River. I live next to a canyon, open space, where right now the drought grass is October-yellow-dry. And it’s only May!
I’m telling you this because geography—place—is everything, no?
And we share some geography. Micheltorena is just down the street from the Sunset Junction area, which I knew very well growing up. Hippie scene. Not hip but hippie, which was another kind of hip. Tie-die, head shops, record stores. I’m talking the early seventies. And then through the seventies the gay scene, which had been present in the area all along, really took off. Leather daddies and all stripes of transgender identities. In the essay I say there was a “golden moment” for my family in Silver Lake, which was a generational thing (my parents and their friends were still mostly young, in their 30s, early 40s, the jobs and alcohol and bad marriages hadn’t taken their complete toll yet), and a cultural thing (a curious blend among the family friends—mostly Salvis and gringos) but also something to do with the neighborhood itself. It was mixed. At the Sunset Junction Street Fair in the early 1980s, vatos rubbed elbows—and I’m sure on occasion a lot more—with leather daddies. Sunset was the river that everyone swam in together — south of the boulevard was mostly brown and working class, north mostly white and middle class but the class distance was much less pronounced than it is today.
Or is that me projecting romantically from my side of the tracks? No, I can’t paint it multiculti classless pansexual paradise. The LAPD always made sure to enforce the borders — often brutally. I always felt in-between; we were among the handful of brown families north of Sunset. Slowly over time the class divide got worse. The blue-collar middle class jobs like my dad’s — a lithographer and proud union member—evaporated. Gentrification started up. And the “mixed” scene became “hip.”
I used to love crossing the border, you know, all the borders — class, ethnicity, sexuality. It was the 90s. And then one night at the Silver Lake Lounge with my Puerto Rican queer performance artist friend Marcus Kuiland Nazario, we were drinking and cheering on the Mexican trannies. As we walked back to the car we were jacked at gunpoint by Salvi ganstas, who saw us, I suppose, as some kind of hipsters — artist types, easy marks. They ripped my gold chain and crucifix off my neck. Then they tore Marcus’s shirt open to see what he had. But he was only wearing his Santería beads — there’s a lot more Santería priests in L.A. than Catholic priests — and the guys freaked, “Yo, he’s a santero, leave him alone!” and ran off, shouting back at us “Mara Salvatrucha, putos!”
You said you lived by the O.N. Klub, I vaguely remember it, what was that scene like, and what was your experience of the place back in the day?
DG: I had tiny trouble with bangers, nothing dramatic (eg tagging my car) a few times but that wasn’t Silver Lake for us, another part of town, later, and…I didn’t want to leave LA, Silver Lake, those windy hilly roads that are one car wide — a long way here, now I own a ranch-style house in hot Austin, hot both in weather and tatt cool — but I had to survive. Back then I had two babies, one wife, and the only money I could get was in construction. I was a class A journeyman carpenter (why I came back to LA in 1980 after living in the rest of the West, unto El Paso. Came back to get in the union and make that money). Highrise work, which was wherever there were tower cranes wobbling in the wind, and there were a lot downtown and cruising the entirety of Wilshire and West LA. I ended up in Silver Lake after a brief two months or so alone at 3rd and Alvarado, with the old world drunks and new here mexicanos (wasn’t the first Pollo Loco right there?). Obviously I had to find a place for my family and yes, Silver Lake I knew like I did Echo Park (well, the lake, places on Sunset). I did a google just now writing this, to remember the first place we lived, a complex on Marathon and Robinson. Still there, painted white now. There was a Filipino family and a Brit dude who was into scientology, was even an officer in their army, who didn’t even bother to try to flip me or mine. It was good for a while, when I was working, until I went through a spell when there weren’t jobs coming out of the hall. A huge battle with the landlord ensued and we got evicted — I fought over some truly fucked up shit but the deeper, real reason was that I didn’t have the rent money. That’s when we moved to Hamilton Way above the O.N. Klub.
Thing about me is I have always lived borders too, though I’d maybe choose the Spanish and say lineas. Inherited probably from my mother’s side, which is all I know, crossing lines, breaking rules, peeking into other worlds too easily. Which is kind of like being into drugs but never focusing on any one, straying and exploring, causing problems that way. In my case, no money, not like I could visit a million places except with my mind. Not that I wanted to. I thought LA was a lot (thought Santa Barbara, where I graduated college, was the way way north). I was never really afraid to go into any scene or group or to get out when I didn’t like it anymore. Always prepared for the fight. Hung with thieves for a while. A graveyard shift janitor for high school senior year. A bouncer for a year after that. In junior college, I started in business because I thought that’s what college was about, and fast rotated the compass to philosophy and religions. All this to say that, when my closest compa, Danny Ochoa from El Paso, came in probably 81 to visit, we had to go out, and we headed to this place I’d seen on Sunset but never been to, the O.N. Klub (he and I went together to the first cockfight we’d ever seen in a stadium, in Chaparral, New Mexico—more like in pre-Jesus pre-Christian Rome, super dinky exotic, bleachers for maybe 75 in a circle around the ‘cancha’ or ring). What I remember, can’t and couldn’t forget, I swear to God, were these three albino couples dancing what I thought was swing, the girls in these 50s dresses, the skinny boys in what seemed to me plaid western long sleeves…maybe only one of the couples, and maybe I was so locked in on the strangeness…but I honestly couldn’t get past them alone, like it was some new tribe. Or I was high and drunk. I went again sometime later, alone, and it was nutz like an LA scene. I say that as someone who was not consciously into scenes much especially then. I worked all the time, 60 hours a week plus, I had babies I loved, and then I was beginning to write seriously, and when I had free time it was about that. But once in a while I did wander alone. (I liked to visit Los Globos for a few drinks and see the silk shirts with wide collars and chains, the lipsticked and high-heeled.) The O.N. Klub was this crazy sound. I asked a woman I was standing next to watching the dancing. ‘”Excuse me, but what’s this music?” She gave me one of those LA looks, like I was such a hick and should not have been allowed in. “Ska.” I waited another like thirty seconds. “And uh, sorry, what is that they’re doing?” To me it was like they were on imaginary pogo sticks. Now she couldn’t handle loser me. I must have seemed a stupid muscle head construction worker. If you could hear anything, I’m sure you would’ve heard her sigh and seen her roll her eyes. “Skanking.” But of course! How did I not know? I really did not know then, she was way right, even if she was…too much cooler than me & thee. I’m sure she got away from me immediately after. I went a few more times. Met what is one of my closest friends there, Claude Fiddler, a Virgin Islands carpintero, but that’s another story.
Living on Hamilton Way, we were in the beginning days of what were the Sunset Junction neighborhood festivals. I’m a little slow maybe (or I was employed and in pits or going up storeys from 5 am to 5 pm most days), but it took me some months from our street side, which was Mexican and Spanish-speaking, to realize that the other, higher side, which was nicer, was gay. Those years were also my first encounters with what you call the Salvis—my baby boy Toño played with Ralph, his sandbox partner maybe a year or two older whose mom was from there. I can’t remember where our landlady was originally from but it was somewhere near la isla de todas bitches. Though she was happy enough with us because I had fixing shit myself skills. She was super happy when the other half of our duplex got taken by this writer who came into so much she bought new fuzzy lavender carpet (and left it there when, long story, she was gone a few months later). We were never sure if the landlady knew that she and her dude were junkies and she got money and fame for being an infamous prostitute who slept with a Soviet diplomat (I have to look this exact story up!) who told her all his secrets Chinese cookie style — in bed. She gave them (sold them?) to the CIA or FBI and then wrote a book about her experience and was a guest on all the morning and afternoon talk shows. Her boyfriend was skinnier and freakier than Iggy Pop (his boy) and for work developed porno movies in Hollywood. It was, in other words, LA multiculti. Bad part: I remember being at a red light on Hoover one day, and in the crosswalk was like a thick Turk, a ultra white-skinned Chinese, a black Filipino, and a cholo, none above five-eight, and I’m thinking, very bad genetic pool for a bball team. Seemed to me the streets were one way, but power went another. And I want to tell you something: I read the LA Weekly. I was just cool that way, construction worker splinters and cuts or not. Got it fresh on Thurs at Vendome Liquors (I’m pretty sure! Or Mike’s on Silver Lake?), and when I saw they had a dude named Rubén Martínez who wrote for them, hijo brother, that was like impossible to me, never happened!
RM: Yes, Vendome Liquor! My dad used to buy these ready-made martinis in a can there on his way home from the print shop in Hollywood. When I was an adolescent, and we lived on St. George Street, just above the Shakespeare Bridge and a block from Marshall High School (where they filmed Grease in my freshman year), the second martini after work was watch-out time. That’s when the fights would start at the dinner table. Between me and him. Okay now our Silver Lakes coincide, even if, as you say, there are all these “líneas” and at any given time we could have been on one side or another or straddling them. When you mentioned the O.N, Klub I went to facebook and posted to get people to remember the place, and it really started coming together and even you commented.
What struck me was that even the responders were “mixed.” (And we had a bona fide literary superstar in there, besides you of course, the playwrite Luis Alfaro. Some accounts of the L.A. “new music” scene of the late 70s and early 80s emphasize the east-west crossover. (And when I say “east,” I don’t mean east of La Brea, I mean east of the L.A. River, East L.A. Los Lobos and Los Illegals and The Brat and The Bags (fronted by the legendary Alice Bag, aka Alicia Velázquez, author of the recent memoir Violence Girl), all Eastsiders, played the clubs in Silver Lake and Hollywood, though I’m not that clear on how many white kids were moving in the other direction….
You bring up the L.A. Weekly and that floods a desert wash with memory for me. I walked into the Weekly’s offices in 1985 and basically told them they had to hire me because they didn’t have a brown reporter, and, even though I had like zero experience, I must have made an impression with my political passion (I wore a scruffy Che beard, was down with the revolution in El Salvador). God I had desire back then. Not that I don’t have it now. But, you know, it’s different. It was a hipster scene, though that wasn’t the term used back then, but definitely a version of it. “Hipster” has become way too narrow and disconnected from a more nuanced history of bohemianism. That has to do with the boom of the 2000s and real estate and gentrification and the role “hipsters” played in scouting out and pioneering little art colonies in the ‘hood, like what we see happening in Highland Park even today. The hipsters in the 80s didn’t have much capital or social media and didn’t draw attention from speculators, at least not in the radically accelerated way they do today. Sometimes I think that back in the day hipsters actually “depressed” or kept real estate flat. They were middle to lower middle and even working class. They dressed in thrift store rags. They drank and did drugs and meditated and went vegan, wanted an alternative lifestyle. It was drop out-turn on-tune in a generation late.
The genius of the LA Weekly was that its founder, Jay Levin, and the first wave of its writers—Gingery Varney, Michael Ventura, Big Boy Medlin and Craig Lee (who played with Alice Bag!), among others — had this simple formula: link Left politics with the underground music scene, because they were linked on the streets. It wasn’t original — that’s the basic Rolling Stone model — but they did it in LA at exactly the right moment, when this big wave of punk and ska and new wave broke over the city. The politics were intense — the 60s were alive and well in the 70s — and the city hadn’t had hard-hitting journalism going after power and money and promoting Causes of the day: Central America solidarity, No Nukes, urban environmental justice, all mixed in with what was then a still pretty young “New Age” scene. Bizarre combination when you think about it. I mean, you could come up with cartoon figure — black clad big mean boots spiky haired vegan meditating sandinista. And the Weekly was headquartered, where else? In Silver Lake, on Hyperion near Lyric Avenue, a non-descript one-story stucco commercial building from the mid-60s probably. This was a perfect location, because of the peculiar LA mixed-ness we’re talking about here, and also because it was in the heart of a powerfully gay-oriented bohemianism whose history stretched back decades, all the way to the origins of the Hollywood studios, which set up shop in the adjacent Edendale area, which had once been home to Ricardo Flores Magón, my favorite Mexican anarchist and yours.
The thing the Weekly hadn’t done yet — by 1986 it was almost a decade old — was hire non-white staff. That’s where I came in, and also Lynell George, to this day a dear friend, the first African-American reporter. We were the affirmative action projects. I was all righteous back then about “representing” the brown city that had largely been invisible in the paper. I covered everything from the brown angle. And I was expected to, of course, which is a double-edged sword. And which was kind of wearing my cultural insecurity on my sleeve, you know, like Chicano nationalists did. Still, I tried to portray a complicated brown-ness. A rainbow brown, the different nationalities (Mexican-Salvi that I was), the immigrants, the working class, the fledgling middle class, cholos, queers (and cholo queers!), the different art and music scenes, the establishment politicos and the radicals on the fringes. I wanted our “community” to be big as a country, which it was and is, showing how it overlapped with other big “countries” in the city, whites and Asians and African Americans, countries colliding into one another and producing the kind of variegated city that I think not even New York ever quite was. (That might be an unsustainable claim, but at the very least we’re equal to New York on that count.) Oh one more thing about the Weekly and its geography. Just down the street was a place called Cuffs, the original Silver Lake leather daddy bar. It was this tiny one-room joint, opened in the 1950s. Walls all painted black, no decorations that I can recall. Mostly white crowd, but hey, it’s L.A. and there was always a brown contingent, including the searching chavo that I once was. I heard a story of James Dean hanging one night. Probably apocryphal, but there were very specific details in the narrative you don’t usually here in such tales. Like him asking guys to put out their cigarettes on his naked body.
So imagine Jimmy Dean doing his s/m thing at Cuffs (let’s believe the story for a moment) and on the other end of Silver Lake my grandparents, who barely speak English, opening up their Mexican restaurant, after years of playing rancheras for the gringos on Olvera Street and in some of the big revue clubs downtown, including a singing-waiter place called The Paris Inn. Why do these stories feel so disconnected, even though they’re connected? It’s like neighbors in an apartment building. Separate lives joined by a wall.
DG: Born and came up in LA, I was an immigrant to the Silver Lake world, which had a north south divide as opposed to east west (although I have ALWAYS been dizzied by LA’s cardinal point language which, mapless in those days, landmarks and boulevards only, so freaking confusing to me — eg, for too long I thought I was from ‘West’ LA–as opposed to East LA — until, thirty years old, staring straight down from on the edge of the bones of a highrise on Wilshire not far from the UCLA campus, a thousand pools and the greenery below, rich richer and rich, it was way clearest to me how dumbass I’d been. (A few blocks from the heart of Watts was not anything like “West” LA.) Most of my life my dad was the ‘rich’ dude I didn’t live with, living in one of those houses off West Silver Lake. What I’m calling here ‘north.’ Where I came to live with my family was ‘south,’ close to Sunset Blvd. My side of Hamilton Way was poor, a lot of mexicano families lived there. Why we could afford it there, a deal even. Interestingly, across the street, a higher view of Sunset on the hill, it was a lot better, bigger houses y todo, better off peoples. My neighbors directly across the street, name I forget, an older Mexican family, we got friendly with and I wrote a story called ‘Parking Places’ based on them.) There was one place across within a house or two away, that when I got home, I’d see people sunbathing on the deck of a garage. I don’t know how long it was, weeks or months, but I remember a day when that quizzical feeling of seeing something but not knowing what cleared up. It was always guys. Always kind of good-looking guys. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what gay was and hadn’t been around them — working at the plant, as a kid, one I remember, still gets me a big smile, the vatos called ‘Sancha’ all laughing hysterically, none of it ever anything but light fun at work; and then college years gay and lesbian intellectual types…but it was then, getting in or out of my car at our duplex rental, that I actually realized we were in a new ‘scene.’ It wasn’t a blink later that the first Sunset Junction Fair was a few blocks away. We walked my oldest by the hand, my just born rolled in a carriage. The next year I gotta admit was harder for yours truly. Dudes wearing butt cut-outs was not my idea of sexy hot, and, though not opposed to that world, we decided on Dodger games. The scene on and around Sunset was way good to me — all Latino — what was that corner Cuban café (cubanos who spoke with marbles in their mouth!), where almost nobody but Spanish speakers went in, and those fierce espressos? — but I guess I was still too old school. My bad, my scene, had been dumpy bars with quarter pool tables and beers and cuter by the bottle barmaids and sometimes shots were a night out. High school was fights, girls, cruising Tweedy or Whittier. This LA now was a clean up stage for me, no more ‘fun’ with my compa Danny hustling some hey mami, and he was a badfuck, six two and arms like a double jack, so other entertainments too. We ran mota, happy outcomes and some not so much (stories there), fought for workers rights, and lost jobs that paid so shitty who fucking cared—though I didn’t really know it then. But thus in LA, those eighties, when it was time, I was working eleven six days a week. I got to hear very little of the music you mention—the Lobos we saw free a few times, in their beginning, acoustic even, not many peoples — and you’re making me feel lame, sir. I’m one of those who worked fulltime while going to jc and then two or three fifteen hour a week jobs when I transferred up. And I love nightclubs and music, but then, when I wasn’t working, wasn’t being a daddy, I was writing, or reading.
Which brings up Weekly. I devoured it. And I can assure you I was aware that there were no brown voices in that mag — any! — until you came. It seemed big to me. I was trying to write then…no, I was trying to publish what I wrote, and I knew there was shit out there that was stories from our LA, our real. Like I said, I went to college, and in college I learned — politics is where you live, is what you accept and don’t. We did not exist in print but as clichés, stereotype fulfillments from the Other pov. In El Paso I met Ray Carver as he was becoming the famous Raymond Carver, and, stylistically good, there were two things I noticed: his working class read more graduate student ennui, and nobody considered Chicanos as ‘working’ at all. I was always looking for ciphers for the next wave—more than the next LA scene! — and you were it, brother. You were the first bird I saw flying. Smart, hip, good at their — their — cool crowd riffs on what was happening. I read the Weekly to go to readings when I wasn’t at work. Was I an innocent sap or what?? I looked for yours in the pages. I wanted more of us.
Hurts when you say Olvera Street. My mom would take me a few times a year for one thing — a yard of green sugar cane! Seemed like I slept with it. I guess like a doggie Dago with a chew toy.
RM: Thanks brother for the props on my work at the Weekly. I didn’t reflect much on my position back then (who has time to reflect when they’re 24 years old?), but looking back now see both what a responsibility I had (an impossible one, being a “spokesperson”) and how complicated my position was—a middle class brown kid with immigrant roots trying to keep it real. Geography! Your dad was north, you lived south, and my grandparents took a leap with the money they socked away from their Mexican folk routine and landed in what you’d call north among the Silver Lake middle class in 1948. Their neighbors were a motley cohort—English was broken in a lot of European immigrant accents and my father remembers plenty of Japanese kids in elementary school (until February of 1942, that is), but my grandparents stood out, not many Mexicans. The thing about the place we’re conjuring is that the physical distance between your mom’s place and your dad’s is what, a mile? And the social station could change from one side of the street to the other, like you say. My father remembers Okie families just down the street. Even I remember a couple of poor white families in the late 1960s. The líneas could hold fast from one side of the street to the other but the líneas could melt away too. You might have felt like an outsider in bohemian Silver Lake, but you were physically inside it and that had a psychic impact, no? Just as the proximity of the Mexican “other” has always permeated the larger city — superficially in obvious ways, hipsters in line at the taco trucks, but you can get serious and even mystical about it too, talk about the way urban space is sculpted at the ground level beyond the master plans by Mexican sensibilities, how a Mexican heart still beats beneath Bunker Hill. Had I grown up in a more working class immigrant setting, say Boyle Heights, my family’s attitude towards difference would’ve been…different. My parents probably would’ve raised us in a more socially conservative household. Mom, an immigrant from El Salvador, and Pop, son of Mexican immigrants. But in the “north” of Silver Lake, our neighbors were almost uniformly liberal leaning towards radical. The father of one of my close friends was a lawyer who’d defended Angela Davis. Another lawyer dad worked with the UFW. There were even parents who smoked weed with their high school-age kids. My parents largely assumed the orthodoxy of the ‘hood, which was that difference was good. Not to say that racism didn’t exist — it often did, in that liberal-guilty patronizing kind of way that is in some ways more troubling than the redneck version. Being the only “Mexican” (it was too much for people to handle a “Mexican-Salvadoran,” that prompted too many questions) designated “gifted and talented” in elementary school made my brand of difference stand out. When I arrived at Thomas Starr King Middle School, on Fountain Avenue, closer to Sunset Boulevard and just down the street from Cuffs and the Weekly, there were plenty of brown kids, but I was on the outs with them too, because of the class difference and because of language. They did the Chicano Spanglish thing, which was frowned upon in my house, my parents marking a clear border between languages and encouraging “correct” pronunciation in both. So I was outside with the insiders and outside with the outsiders. Which is why I’m a writer.
So this conversation began with rats, that is, with the story about rats that I submitted to your magazine. At the time, I didn’t recall your story about the rats, which I must’ve read, because I remember reading the book it’s in, The Magic of Blood. Maybe that set me up to take on the rat metaphor all these years later. Your rats stand for existential turmoil, stresses in a marriage in addition to tough material circumstances, in a city that feels kind of like Bladerunner, not in the futuristic sense but an L.A. where it’s always raining, an L.A. of wind and blackouts. (Reminds me also of the weather in that other L.A. classic, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.) An El Niño winter? I miss those. The storm is in the narrator’s soul, a haunted guy very likely on the edge of divorce, at a crossroads.
What’s striking is how both my essay and your story have exactly the same narrative arc to the rat element: an escalation from momentary sighting crescendoing with ever louder scratchings and gnawings and crawlings deep inside the walls and under the floorboards to, finally, the mano a mano with brooms and traps.
What I want to say about the coincidence is this: that your story paints a subjective geography with an expressionist brush — the house of a troubled soul — and mine regards real estate as inextricable from existential contradictions as well. Houses hold our bodies and our bodies house our souls. What adds to the resonance is our different class positions and your work, your physical labor that is, when your brown body was at work raising the city’s built environment, helping the boom, boom: relatively cheap labor (you were union, yes? A lot cheaper with undocumented labor more recently, right?) subsidizing construction for higher profit margins. Brown bodies building the White City (the L.A. Times nickname for the city in the 1920s). Kind of like the Indians of Mexico that survived the conquest building Catholic cathedrals straight over their old pyramids.
The Silver Lake we’ve been writing about is long gone. Gentrification arrived beginning slowly in the early 1990s, around the time that Beck (the musician) was in the ‘hood, around the time that “alternative” was becoming big business, the 90s version of hipster-ness. I participated in that through the Weekly, we were the early tastemakers, declaring this or that band or club or activist or cause to be cool, or not-cool. And then came the two tech bubbles, both of which fueled housing bubbles, the one before 9/11 and the one after, which drove the money much harder and faster and totally flipped Silver Lake, and then Echo Park, and set us up for the Great Recession and catastrophically growing income inequality and my mom is from El Salvador, where 13 families used to own 90 percent of the economy and you know how that turned out.
What we didn’t foresee was the way art (or at least pop culture) and speculation would blend together to start “branding” places like Silver Lake and coincide with new young money looking to spend, live an “authentic” life. You, Dago the journeyman carpenter, hanging at the quarter pool table bars: the hipsters thought guys like you were cool, in that fetishizing kind of way. You know, like hipters love la Virgen de Guadalupe today. The problem is that desire has messy connections to larger forces. The problem is the context, the economics of the neighborhood and how cultural artifacts (brown bodies!) get attached. In this latest boom, now it’s Highland Park that’s rapidly gentrifying, the next “destination.” On York Blvd. an haute eatery recently opened up right next to a Guatemalan bakery. I mean NEXT DOOR. What I want to know is how much time the restaurateur spent thinking about the impact his or her business would have on the panadería? Obviously the odds are srongly in favor of the bakery leaving the hood and the soon-to-be-Zagat-rated place to drive up storefront rents and housing prices, further displacing Chicanos and mexicanos.
Silver Lake is a much less mixed place today, having suffered ethnic- and class-cleansing, having undergone exactly the same as the Mission District in San Francisco, Mt Pleasant/Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., etc. So what do we do with the memories?
We write them.
DG: Silver Lake was perfect LA to me, for me, which is to say for my living, which is to say the conception of a world that reflected what my head lived and wanted more of. Sure, there was that north-south, high-low, old school-new hip SL divide, that Mexico-America, and even broader Latin America-US, which was very little Chicano as compared to East LA or South Gate-Lynwood or even much of old Echo Park (though that area going through a more hippie gentrification in its hills then). I’m maybe one of those last surviving, lingering souls who sees LA as a Mexican town now in los estados (and as I am an offspring of that, I am LA). All those others, visitors who stayed for the weather and the beaches. I grew up as an agave, rootless as the city, sneaking in and out of cultures and social spheres as imposed by my mom’s genes, her life my early LA life determined by the prism of who she was with or not, when. My dad from Boyle Heights was Job Is All and forever (man got laid off, boom, in his 60s), and he mixed the Mex culture in his life in that one job (became the Spanish-speaking floor boss) and a marriage to my too wild mom he met there (her mom was the owner’s ‘mistress,’ en la casa chica set up next door to the industrial laundry my dad eventually deposited all his years). When he got to Silver Lake, it was a not cool, vaguely ‘declining’ lower middle class (the ‘better’ people escaping to Valley suburbs), cheaper neighborhood, and he rooted deep, even taking along the furniture my mom dumped like last month’s dates, which he saw as scores, even as they petrified over 25 years. I came to SL as a mix of him and her. I wanted his stable old and her sexy new, the steady and the fast changing. I might hear classical from this window, cumbia from that one. Silver Lake was all this to me but with an extra that I aimed for—it was smart there. I wanted to be around people and culture that knew where they were and weren’t and why — and where ‘hip’ or ‘nice’ didn’t have to be only homogenized white people, which was what the rest of LA accepted — and projected — to the world.
Whoa, I wrote that above graph a little self-consciously. What I was trying to get at was your remarks on the scene of the neighborhood as I came to it (and eventually, sigh, had to leave because I couldn’t afford the boom & bust construction cycle in Califas). Trying to respond to your much better, more historical know of the area. I have trouble with time, that concept, especially the decade by decade one that is so to me American (are Germans the most month day hour tic-toc?)…that’s all me, why I could so naturally study philosophy and religion, as if it were math and science like, where time is so not the point, if maybe a variable. I mean, I go back to Silver Lake now, like I did last year, drive around, and so much looks the same to innocent me. I still want to live there, even buy that duplex we lived in. Only big difference I saw was that the plants outside the picture window had grown to cover it. Which is to say, no no, it’s gotta be the same as then! Change takes 100 years! I think that’s kinda what the Chinese ‘Tzus’ might say (maybe a 1000 years, but come on, even I can’t count that high).
Complicated to discuss union and non-union construction work. Better to compare say Texas and California than framing and highrise wages in LA, then or now. Especially complicated because nobody gives a shit about physical work or wage jobs here anymore, and Mexicans et al aren’t considered the ‘working class’ even if they live here 15 years and raise a family, their work more like ‘out-sourced’ to those who aren’t considered ‘here’ or ‘from here.’ That is a very LAish, non-union phenomenon, even when it’s a union highrise in LA.
I didn’t get onto this lit biz until later, as writer bios go. Didn’t follow the usual path into and through it — as in, no English courses. I didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘creative writing,’ let alone classes and grad schools. Hadn’t really been much of my consciousness until I got out of the college years (not debt) and though I started in Chuco — believing people wrote and then ‘sold’ novels, where I typed out a never published, pretty effing bad one — it wasn’t until I got back to LA and Silver Lake that I went serious — the Carver era, I decided that stories were how to get attention. “The Rat” story was early, one of my first (I wrote a long essay — eulogy for a drugs and liquor abusing friend — that includes the rat story’s very funny history that Zyzzyva published and was reprinted in Best American Essays 2013 — an essay that took seven essays to see print, which I say describes the real literary industry, stories have to hunt far and wide to find a home outside Manhattan or Brooklyn’s familiarity). And so I mentioned (didn’t I?) that I studied myth in college. My idea of fiction is aligned to recording myths that read like stories, stories that haunt like myth. Which for me means, ideally speaking, that a good story, like a good poem, like a myth story, is tight, elusively simple but in fact worked and meaningful line-to-line, with its focus not as worried about ‘plot’ but instead, like a painting, catching an image, or like music, haunted and hung up on a riff (ie, nothing at all like a novel). Though we had a rough rat phase on Hamilton Way, the dark night of the rat was as much a drawing about job worries, surviving, and killing fucking rats.
RM: We agree, by the way, on aesthetics, even if we’re nominally in different genres: in my essays I give the reader a sense of a journey with narrative, but like you say it’s the impressions, the affect, that count. Well, we’ve been painting Silver Lake. And I’m haunted by so many of its riffs.
My family still owns the old house on the hill above the Cha Cha Lounge, which used to be Le Bar, which used to be La Ronda… layers of palimpsests, pyramids beneath cathedrals. My mother is in hospice care there, in the same room where my grandmother died 25 years ago, and where my grandfather lay in his sickbed 40 years ago. And of course it’s been mostly life that’s taken place there: kids eating refried beans, fights between fathers and sons, photo albums filling up…all of it under the gaze of my grandmother’s Virgen de Guadalupe, this massive framed print that presides over the house from the living room. I have been visiting that house, and lived in it off and on, my entire life. The kid-me ran around the backyard, the adult-me loved and fought and wrote there, got high…too high.
I visit my mom every day there now, and after she’s gone will keep going to see my father until he too is a memory. I suppose instead of writing the house all these years (the first essay I ever wrote was set there, and I’ve put it on the page many times since), it’s been writing me. There are no rats there today. But my memory hears them gnawing.
Rubén Martínez is Fletcher Jones Chair of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West.
Dagoberto Gilb’s most recent book is Before the End, After the Beginning. He is also the founding editor of the magazine HUIZACHE, published by CentroVictoria, a MexAm literary cultural center based at the University of Houston-Victoria, of which Gilb is the executive director. He lives in Austin.