Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hidden California : The Temple to Guan Gong

On Stockton Street in San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, on the third floor of the Kong Chow Benevolent Association building, you will find the temple to Guan Gong. It’s a plain beige stucco office building with a few shops on the bottom floor, and with offices on the upper floors perfect for accountants and dentists to hang their shingles. There’s a narrow black Otis elevator in the back, and tacked to the wall is a faded piece of paper with Chinese writing with a tiny scrawl in English at the top -- Temple, Third Floor.

You ride up three floors, step out into an entranceway filled with shopping bags and suitcases, then step through a beaded curtain and into an sun-filled atrium in which sits a massive statue of a stern and red-faced warrior with a long beard, who carries a long pole with a blade -- General Guan Yu, most often called Guan Gong, or Lord Guan. Surrounded by urns filled with burning incense, smaller statues of minor deities and stacks of fruit offerings and flower bouquets, Lord Guan’s wooden face glowers at you, tolerating your presence, as if asking you to speak quickly and explain why you’ve come.

He is the patron saint to many residents in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and you will spot a shrine to him in the back corner of many shops. He is the patron saint to warriors, to police officers, to criminals, to poets, to artists and to travelers - in other words, people who feel they must live apart from the rest of society, and therefore follow a separate code.  Since many residents of Chinatown still see themselves as travelers to our country, removed by fate or choice to live apart from the great Middle Kingdom, Guan Gong is the deity who watches over them.

I first learned about Guan Gong as a kid when I watched the play F.O.B. (which stands for Fresh Off the Boat), written by David Henry Hwang, in which Guan Gong comes to life in a seedy Chinatown restaurant. I was then introduced to the temple as a teenager, when I was doing documentary photography and I wanted an introduction to Chinatown.  My oldest childhood friend, Kelvin Han Yee is an actor who is well-known in San Francisco, but at the time his father, Kong Yee was even better known in Chinatown, and he was my guide to places I’d never have found otherwise.

Kong Yee was the Clerk of the Court for the City and County of San Francisco for many years, specifically, Night Court.  And in that court, the most pervasive crimes that were addressed night after night for years on end were -- parking tickets. And where is the parking worst in the city of San Francisco?  Chinatown. 

The merchants and delivery trucks working those narrow steep streets gather dozens of parking tickets a month as a normal price of doing business, but if you remain a scofflaw for too long, your car or truck will be towed or its registration denied, and you end up in Night Court.

For years, Cantonese-speaking Clerk of the Court Kong Yee was the liaison between the judges and the scofflaws, and he’d help broker the deals between the two.  The City would get some of its money, and the merchants would get to keep running their businesses in a neighborhood vital to tourism. This meant that when Kong walked through Chinatown, he had juice.  People would come out in the street, shake his hand, press a gift on him, beg him to come in for some food, thank him for fixing a problem or beg him to address a new one.

When I was with Kong, I was a caucasian kid who wasn’t merely tolerated but I was welcomed, and he showed me back kitchens and garment factories and gambling parlors I wouldn’t have seen otherwise -- including the temple to Guan Gong.

Once you enter the temple there is no rush to help you.  An old Chinese granddad wanders up to you, the same kind of guy in the padded coat with a bag of groceries who you see riding the 30 Stockton bus, and it turns out he is the Taoist priest who runs the place. He knows why you’ve come, so there are no questions. He steers you to the wall where newspaper articles show the politicians who have come to pay their respects to Lord Guan in the past -- President Eisenhower, Governor Pete Wilson, and Mayor Willie Brown to name a few.  The priest explains that if you want to win re-election, the politicians know you must visit Guan Gong.

You then pay five bucks, burn incense in ten spots around the temple, get on your knees and bow.  Then, if you want, you can get your fortune told.  You shake a bamboo container full of a hundred thin bamboo sticks with numbers on them, and whichever stick emerges as you gently shake is Lord Guan’s declaration of your future.

I went there recently with two good friends from my youth and from Cal Berkeley -- fellow writers and seekers Kevin Kirkpatrick and Douglas Gorney, who I knew would feel the same kinship that I have with Lord Guan. 

The rituals were exciting, but when it came time to divine our futures, the fortunes we shook free indicated that Lord Guan had some stern and direct advice for us. The sticks warned one of us not to cut corners at work, he warned another that he must find and new place to live, and another was told there was no easy answer to his family health problems.  These were not fortune cookie platitudes, and it didn’t seem like paying more money would have gotten us nicer outcomes.

“Work hard and then come back in December and see what he says then,” the priest told us all. I tried to take a photo, but he said no -- I didn’t have Kong with me to smooth things out this time.

We left the temple feeling energized and a little scared, and headed back to Grant Avenue.  Before meeting my wife and daughter, we vowed to downplay the seriousness of what we’d been told.

If you want to read more about Lord Guan, go to:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Bell

For the month of May 2013, I commuted from Studio City in the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles, close to the Santa Monica Border.  It’s a trip of just 16 miles, and it took me an hour.

For the first 40 minutes of my commute, I only go 8 miles, which means I’m traveling at an average of 5 miles an hour, bumper to bumper, west on the 101 freeway and then south on the 405 freeway.

Then everything stops as I try to merge from the 101 West to the 405 South.

And that’s when I see it.  Every morning I pass a solitary bell, rusted brown on a green pole shaped like a shepherd’s staff, cemented in the narrow strip of dirt between the freeway and the on-ramp.

You catch glimpses of these bells along freeways everywhere in California, and they are there to remind you that you are supposedly driving along a route that was once the romantic and historic El Camino Real, the King’s Highway, the same road that the Franciscan Padres and Friars walked as they established the bucolic missions that later became the towns and cities of the picturesque Golden State.

As I pass this bell, inch by inch, I can’t help thinking that it’s for us, the poor saps stuck in traffic, taunting us on our morning commute.

Who else could it be for?  You can’t see this sad, rusted bell if you are driving the speed limit, because it just flashes by.  The only time it actually catches your eye is when you are stuck staring at it, stationary in your car.

In 2013, the bell no longer evokes any romantic notion of California’s past.  Did it ever?

Maybe in 1955, driving along a new stretch of the 101 freeway, someone would look out their car window on their Sunday drive, coasting along and say, “Hey, look, there’s a bell marking El Camino Road!  This new highway follows exactly the same path that the missionaries took when they walked north from mission to mission! This ribbon of asphalt which we coast along, reminds of the loam of the earth beneath it, where brave Californians before me once walked!”

click to enlarge

That may be what the original boosters who put in these bells hoped I would think when I see it, but this bell is now an unintended ironic joke on me and every other driver out there who idles past it every morning. The romance is gone.

When you grow up in California and go to public school, in fourth grade you do your “mission project.”  There are 21 missions in California -- Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Jose, Mission San Rafael, etc.,  - and there were also two pueblos (one is Los Angeles) and four presidios.  Even with overcrowding in California schools, that means each kid in class is still assigned a mission to research and investigate. He or she then writes a paper and builds a paper mache diorama, and maybe even visits the actual mission with his or her parents on a weekend trip. Millions of school kids in California have done this for decades.

“Are we there yet?” a kid might ask on his family driving trip to his mission.

“I don’t know, we are getting close,” a parent might reply.  “Look for the bells, after all, we are on the El Camino Real.”

In between San Jose and San Francisco, and in between many towns, the El Camino Real is an actual boulevard, and you can drive it for miles from town to town, but in Los Angeles the El Camino Real is the freeway.  A blazing hot, noisy freeway with fumes and trash by the side of the road.

click to enlarge

I remember the romantic stories from school of conquistadors like Anza and Portola moving north through this Western paradise and blazing their way farther north, followed later by the Franciscan brothers who would walk the 26 miles between each mission in a day.  They would then rest a day at a mission, and then walk again the next day, and thus a brother could walk the entire length of El Norte California in two months. 

When they walked the El Camino Real they would carry bags of mustard seeds that they tossed by the handful, so that the next year the bright yellow flowers of the mustard plant would mark the way they had traveled the year before. 

Of course, most of this romantic story is bullshit, just like the romantic myth of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving.  We have evidence that  the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia resorted to cannibalism to survive the first winters there, and there’s plenty of evidence that early California was just as brutal, and the true purpose of the missions was to secure political power. 

I was taught that the missions were idyllic paradises where the natives learned agriculture and the crafts of civilization while the brothers tamed the wilderness.  However, there are no native tribes left to confirm any of this.  It may have been closer to enforced slave labor that became genocide. 

Hey, Mom and Dad! There’s another bell!  We’re almost to the mission!

So the bell celebrates a romantic myth of a past that wasn’t ever real, and I stare at it questioning the truth, but I also know that although it was brutal, the California they are trying to evoke was at least pristine for a time. 

And California becomes less pristine every day, and as I sit staring at the bell as I idle in my car, I think of the climate change my carbon exhaust is exacerbating.  There is:

A little less rainfall every year,

A little less snowfall,
A little less snowpack,

A little less snow melt and runoff,

A little less water in the rivers,

A little less water for plants and animals and crops and people,

A little less water for electricity,

A little higher cost to buy the energy from out of state, but Washington State has the same problems,

Or we have a flood year where we get all our water at once -- but it doesn’t stay long because it melts too fast,

Which means more erosion and mudslides because there are fewer plants to hold the soil against the flash floods.

Which means when it dries out, the fires will come, like they do every year now, burning away even more growth to expose even more soil that can be washed away next year.

So while Oklahoma suffers from killer tornadoes, and the East Coast suffers from hurricanes that rip through cities and neighborhoods, and while the northern states endure brutal winter storms and spring months with record snow fall...

...California slowly heats up. Like me, moving in traffic at five miles an hour, the weather and climate in California changes gradually.  Day by day we are becoming more of a desert, baking in the hot sun, tranquil -- until a brutal fire breaks out and destroys homes and forests and kills firefighters.

That’s what I think about when I’m stuck in traffic and I stare up this misplaced and misguided bell.

Maybe that’s its new purpose -- if it no longer can remind us of a California that never was, perhaps its point is to urge us to take notice of our slow, fiery decline so we can try to do something about it.

My job ends in eight days, and I am staying off the freeway.  I won’t take a job unless it’s closer than fives miles away from home on surface streets. 

For more information on these bells, check out:

Fore more on climate change : 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I am Walter Mitty

I am Walter Mitty.  I make up stories in my head about former Army Rangers who can keep their cool in a fist fight and who know how to handle a weapon. I have met some of these people and I’ve felt their icy gaze as I peppered them with questions, but I am not one of them. 
            The truth is, I haven’t been in a fist fight since I was thirteen. I also love to read about daring computer experts, hackers from Anonymous who stop evil politicians from rigging electronic voting machines, and CIA whiz kids who can ruin foreign nuclear centrifuges from afar, but I am not one of them either.
            To be honest, I can’t even program my own watering system. I stare at the keypad with Option A and Option B with variable start, stop and run times, and like a suburban Sisyphus I punch in numbers and  try yet again to get all thirteen sprinkler heads to work in tandem. I dream that maybe this time I won’t drown one section of my lawn while starving another, but again, I fail.  My task is never done.
            That’s why I stick to writing and editing.
            However, I do know some secrets.  I have special knowledge that only fellow dads and husbands would appreciate.  Here’s one I can share:
            You’re at a birthday party with your family. There’s a bouncy house so all the kids can fling, trample, collide and crush themselves into exhaustion, thank goodness. You’re exhausted yourself, and you wish you could just kick back and talk to some other dad about sprinkler systems, but now Is not the time. You still must wipe faces, chase kids and grab scissors away from them, and take video when someone thrusts a camera in your hand.  But keep an eye on that bouncy house, solider. Your time is coming.
            As the party dies down, ask the host when the truck is coming to take the house away. Make sure you have at least half an hour.
            Then ask if you can take a nap in it before it is deflated.  They will be amused, but they won’t say no.  Ask your wife to make sure that no harassing kids climb in with you and ruin your experience.  You’ve earned this.
            Then, turn off the fan in the back and quickly climb inside.  If the bouncy house is in the shade and it’s not too hot, you have found the perfect refuge, an undulating pillow where you can slowly fall asleep as the house of air slowly collapses around you.
            Before you close your eyes, look up at the mesh ceiling of the bouncy house and see the leaves and branches flicker in the blue light.  Feel yourself sink deeper into the tuck and roll of plastic, as the tower columns dip down to greet you and then envelop you.  Eventually the house will reach stasis with its internal air, with you, and the surrounding air, and you will float there, suspended, until wonderful sleep overcomes you, labors ceased.  
            Trust me, I’m an expert.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

PT Cruiser Weekend

Here is an article I wrote for the LA Times -- in the year 2000! It was part of their “First Person” series, and I wrote it when the PT Cruiser first came out.

To surprise my wife Robin for her birthday I rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser for the weekend -- and in 48 hours we experienced all the thrills and horrors of instant fame. 

            She drives a fragile '87 Jaguar and wants a new car, so when she saw the Cruiser at the LA Auto Show in January she thought she'd found a car with as much style as her English baby.  But when she called dealerships she discovered that no one gives test drives -- because they don't need to. One dealer has 250 cars on order and has delivered only 50 so far -- or so he said over the phone.

            Then I found Advantage Car Rental in Van Nuys, where I rented a red PT Cruiser for 90 dollars a day.  With full insurance, unlimited mileage and a pre-paid tank of gas, the tag came to $239 for two days.  That seemed steep, but it was the same as renting a hot sports car for the weekend -- and right now the PT Cruiser is the cooler car to drive.

            "We classify it as a specialty vehicle," explained Andy Gantner, the Advantage area manager,  "but we'll probably reevaluate that price as time goes on."

            The star of my birthday production drove up front. I was briefly disappointed -- she was smaller in real life than I'd expected from her pictures.  But that feeling quickly passed as our first fan appeared before I'd even driven away. 

            It was the start of a weekend of fan bombardment -- but that's what you get when you hang out in public with a celebrity.  Our admirers fell into three categories: polite fans who pretend they aren't looking but sneak glances at you...loud fans who insist on being your friend...and brazen stalkers who say nothing but follow you too closely.

The first guy, a bearded man in his fifties, turned out to be a stalker.  He slowly circled me as I transferred dry-cleaning, bags and cassette tapes from my car to the Cruiser. He peered over my shoulder as I lowered the seats in back, then examined the side mirrors as I got behind the wheel. He finally stood right in front of the car and wouldn't move -- even after I'd started the engine.  I was afraid to honk.

            When I finally tooted the horn he looked me in the eye and just stared. Thankfully he stepped back on the curb and I made my getaway. My first celebrity lesson: don't upset the stalkers.

            Robin was thrilled with her birthday gift, once I convinced her I hadn't bought it. She grabbed the keys and after months of waiting finally slid behind the wheel. We hit the town in style.  She likes the car because the design reminds her of a London cab or a classic DeSoto. I like it because it reminds me of those same cars souped up into Rat Fink Hot Rods from the 70's.

The interior has the same gray plastic moulding as most standard cars but they've added some flourishes. The speedometer and signals are round and recessed into a retro dashboard coated with red fiberglass that matches the exterior of the car. It's not the metal and wood dashboard of my dreams, but hey, for a mass-produced American car it was good enough.

When you're with a star, errands take longer.  It was midday by now and everybody was slowing down to look at us in our hot red car in the bright July sun.

As we walked out of a coffee shop one woman insisted on taking our picture.  She took one as we posed by the car, another as we pulled out from the parking space, and another waving at her with the windows down.  She walked over.

"You should really meet my son, he loves old cars and would love one of these!" she said, searching through her purse for a pen and paper.  The cars behind us started honking and we thankfully had an excuse to drive away.

You can't talk to everybody no matter how nice they are, so soon we were acting like celebrities ourselves. We donned dark sunglasses, just smiled and nodded, and made no sudden movements.  Parking lots were tough, but the crowd eventually parted if we moved slowly enough. Robin did mention, however, that it'd be nice if the company provided bodyguards along with the car rental.

We needed a break from all the attention, so Sunday we headed north to Santa Barbara to visit friends for the day. A guy in a convertible Mustang pulled alongside and honked, and he and his blonde girlfriend flashed us the "thumbs up."  We waved, all smiles, suddenly accepted by the beautiful people.

But soon it was impossible to change lanes because there was always a car full of rubberneckers alongside checking us out.  If we accelerated, so would they.  If we slowed down, they'd do the same.  Dealing with fans in a parking lot was easy compared to speeding with them down a highway. We missed three exits because we were boxed in by fans cheering us on.

The car was fun to drive, but doesn't have a lot of power -- it gets passed going uphill no matter how cool it looks. It was the most fun at the beach with all the windows down.  The hatchback makes it easy to throw junk in the back, and it's small enough to get in and out of any space.

The weekend was a blast, but after 48 hours we were glad to abandon our celebrity status and slip back into the anonymity of our comfortable used cars. When there are thousands of PT Cruisers on the road and the flush of excitement wears off, Robin will go back and try the relationship again.  She hopes by then it'll come in British racing green.