crows and porn
Friday, May 26 2006
setting: Woodland Hills, California
Luc has a large Japanese-made pickup and a sporty little Porsche, and for reasons perhaps related to workplace diplomacy, it was the truck we used to travel the 40 miles to my first day of work. We took the familiar lanes of the 405 south to a corporate office park in Torrance, in the coastal part of Los Angeles well south of my old stomping grounds. Originally I'd been under the impression that all my work would have to be done on the corporate campus, but it turned out that there were things that I could do as "homework" back at Luc's place. We just needed to get a few definitions of database entities and an ASP page.
On the way back to the house we stopped at the Fallbrook Center for burritos. Though I had a hankering for a hyper-authentic "ghetto burrito," I was in the wrong part of the world for such things. At the Fallbrook Center, there was no ghetto anything. Indeed, there wasn't a single store there whose brand I didn't recognize. This was fairly typical of American Deep Suburbia, where imagery is cranked out as if by the graphics hardware of a videogame, with repeated renderings drawn from a small library of patterns.
The only burritos available were from Baja Fresh. It's a great restaurant to encounter in its few East Coast outposts, but here in the West it's as unremarkable as a Wendys. Still, they can whip up a reasonably good approximation of a ghetto burrito. As tough as West Coast burrito competition is, they have enough sense to provide a salsa bar, the one crucial element lacking at all mid-Hudson-area burrito joints.
I don't know what Baja Fresh puts in their burritos, but it was as if I'd been slipped a roofy. I retreated to my bedroom with a fat XSLT reference guide and immediately passed out.
Soon after I got up I felt the need to get out of the house. It was just a little too quiet, but not really in a way that is conducive to either contemplation or work. Luc was spending most of his time sitting on the floor of the living room configuring piles of expensive rack-mounted server equipment prior to taking it to a co-location.
The surrounding neighborhood was an essentially featureless monotony of densely-packed suburban California. You know the look: tile rooves, palm and cyprus trees, and small eruptions of intense colors from various flowering plants. Each was situated behind a tiny token lawn having grass growing so densely that it actually looked permed. In the driveways and out on the street, the leading brand of vehicle was the Mercedes, followed quickly by various species of SUV, particularly the Lincoln Navigator. A few people had gone all the way and bought Mercedes SUVs. The one thing that this landscape lacked was human beings. There were sidewalks, but nobody was walking on them. There weren't even any ponytails chasing joggers past.
The only feature in this landscape was the Fallbrook Center, so that was where I ended up. It was a massive conglomeration of buildings, all of them joined together in the back around a dreary parking lot with their colorful glassy faces pointing outward towards the surrounding boulevards. It was an example of the nuMall of the 2000s, an inside-out version of the 80s mall, one requiring only the bare minimum of walking that Californians are capable of enduring.
It bears noting at this point that the very first store I encountered on this walk was a Pep Boys auto parts outlet. This reminded me of that one time back in February of 1998 when I wandered all over Columbia, Maryland looking for an auto parts store so I could replace a dead starter in my Dodge Dart.
I, of course, refused to approach this mall in the expected manner. I walked entirely around its outside, past the WalMart, the enormous two-story shoe store, and then KOHL'S. Looking up, I wondered if I was the only person who had ever noticed that crows had built a nest atop the bottom bar of the L in the letters spelling out the word "KOHL'S." There were metal spiky things sticking up from the letters to discourage birds, but the crows had piled sticks onto of the spikes until they lay uselessly submerged. It looked as if the crows had chosen this place for their nest because of the protection afforded by the apostrophe hovering overhead.
I usually find car culture comically oppressive when I find myself walking through its habitat. The scale of its artifacts are elephantine, uncomfortable and ugly, and the peculiar remoteness of the encapsulated humans whirring past makes them seem either fictional or beside the point. I start thinking of myself as some sort of probe or space vehicle piloted by aliens. Since getting up to speed on the looming crisis of Peak Oil, the strangeness of car culture has seemed all the more extreme. What an odd planet I've landed on, where the most visible lifeform burns through a limited geological deposit comprised of its dead ancestors! Why do they need this power? So its individuals can have the energy necessary to move about in steel capsules weighing 20 times what they do. Why do they do that? So others of their species won't get the impression that they're poor!
I've felt all these things on one level or another while hitchhiking or walking around Kingston waiting to have tires installed, but California, at least this part of it, manages to make complete pornography out of the squandering of resources. Precious Colorado River water flows down the street-side gutters of the suburbs because wasting it demonstrates admirable lawn care zeal on the part of the person doing the wasting. And, even with regular gas costing as much as $3.40/gallon, the parking lots of the shopping centers are clogged with boxy SUV monstrosities. Today I was looking at a swath of parking lot and every single vehicle there was an SUV. Then I turned my head slightly and realized that some of the swath of SUVs had been outside by field of view. Even in places with actual snowfall, SUVs aren't anywhere near as popular as they are in the San Fernando Valley, a place whose chief export is pornography.
As I headed back to the house drinking a Starbucks iced coffee (since there was no other choice), a couple of nesting crows in the trees above the corner of Victory and Erwin spied me and started raising the sort of fuss the crows only raise about something very unusual, in this case a pedestrian.
This evening as we sat around the pool in the back of Luc's house, I asked him whether his house had any earthquake damage when he bought it. It turned out that his house is one of the few lucky ones in the neighborhood to have an intact masonry chimney. The epicenter for the North Ridge quake of 1991 is only about four miles away, and most of the houses in the neighborhood experiences substantial damage. Luc was actually living in another Valley neighborhood when the quake struck, and it had, among other things, managed to slosh half the water out of the pool.
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