City of Gold (2015)

City of Gold is a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. I’m ambivalent about the current spate of foodie-oriented TV and movies, but this was less of that and more about an interesting and quirky artist, and the real main character was the city of Los Angeles.

One of the main focus points is how Gold is the champion of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants, largely immigrant-focused. It’s a healthy counterpoint to the current post-election culture that has swallowed the news cycle, and the doc shows several examples of how he championed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and made their business explode. An example was Meals by Genet, a restaurant in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax run by Genet Agonafer. She fled Ethiopia for LA with her young son, and struggled through the usual low-pay food service jobs. Her son, through her support, eventually grew up, went through medical school, and became a doctor. When the space on Fairfax opened, he maxed out every credit card he could find to get her restaurant going. When Gold reviewed it, she could not cook fast enough to handle all the new traffic, and now she’s flourishing because of his nod on the 101 Best Restaurants list he publishes.

There are several stories like this, where he writes about his favorite Thai food, taco trucks, Korean places, and works the Pico strip, eating at every small ethnic restaurant along its length. And that’s why I say LA is the main star here. I’m unapologetically a massive fan of Los Angeles, and wish I would have spent more time than the brief half-year I lived there in 2008. There’s some city planning porn in the doc explaining how LA has multiple city centers, and grows outward from each one. Many people — mostly those who have never spent any time there — decry this sprawl. But it’s a feature, not a bug. It means different parts of the city blossom and grow to provide different experiences for a widely diverse population.

Sure, that sprawl means unending chain restaurants. You’ll find at least 150 McDonald’s chains in LA county. But it means there are so many spaces for weird, eccentric, or authentic food. This is one of the big surprises of the city, and shown well in the film. There are big Zagat-reviewed fancy places in LA, which are all stuck in the 90s. But you can roll into a mini-mall in El Segundo and find mind-blowing food from any country or region of the world, sitting next to a cash-for-gold place.

Gold writes for the LA Times, but the movie shows his ascension through the ranks. He started at the LA Weekly as a proofreader back in the early 80s, when he was studying cello at UCLA. He moved up to music editor, then got into food. There are so many interesting intersecting paths here; he’s got the connections to the food criticism world, and you see Robert Sietsema, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, and so on. But he’s also a regular on KCRW. He was a champion of the early LA gangsta rap scene, spending time with Snoop Dogg in the studio while he recorded his first album. He played with the post-punk band Overman. He was around for the early 80s punk scene with X and the Germs. And it seems like he’s had a thumb in every little food scene within LA, from the old Jewish delis (he actually worked in Spielberg’s mom’s deli back in college) to food trucks to everything else.

One of the things I liked about the film was showing Gold, how he lived in a house filled with books on every horizontal surface, his close relationship with wife Laurie Ochoa (now entertainment editor at the Times) and his struggles with writer’s block, even though he still publishes 150,000 words a year. He’s a jovial looking guy, with long hair and always with a smile on his face, and it’s humorous to see him pecking at his Macbook at the kitchen table, then wandering off to pick up some random book and not get to a review his editor wanted yesterday. We’ve all been there, but I think the rewarding thing was to see him struggle with it and then at the last second crank out such engrossing and descriptive criticism.

The only sore spot with this film is it really, really made me want to go back to LA. Watching those long pan shots of the strip malls and restaurants of West Hollywood and Koreatown and Culver City and Sawtelle gave me such overwhelming nostalgia for the place. There are things I like about Northern California, but we don’t have city centers like that. We have downtowns surrounded by bedroom communities, and it’s just not the same. Yeah, the traffic sucks, but the traffic here sucks too, and we don’t have 350 days of sunshine a year and such an overwhelming food scene. I really wish I was back, to drive down Pico and look at everything, even if I do just end up at Norm’s at three in the morning, eating pancakes. Great film.

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11/20

  • It is winter here now, so it is 50-something, raining, and the sky is dark at noon. It will be like this until February. I know it sounds wonderful if you’re in freezing temps and a foot of snow, but this is when the SAD kicks in full-time. I dug out the verilux light and am hoping for the best.
  • I am still trying to walk every day and keep the Apple Watch streak going, but this is hard now with the weather. Yesterday I walked up and down the length of our parking garage for 45 minutes, which was depressing.
  • For whatever reason, I bought a Zoom H1 recorder the other day. I have been listening to a lot of ambient music using field sound, so I wanted to start recording more stuff while I was on walks or traveling. I do this to some extent with my iPhone, but it’s always too quiet with the built-in microphones. Also, iTunes changes where it syncs voice memos like every other week, so all of mine are scattered across like 17 folders now.
  • Speaking of Apple, I tried out the new MacBook Pro the other day at the mall, and wasn’t entirely impressed. The new keyboard is okay for typing, but it looks really cheap. So does the touchbar, honestly. I think the previous MBPs had a very sleek, minimalist appearance, and the larger keys and the random things appearing on the touchbar make it look like a cheap plastic Compaq laptop you’d buy at Best Buy and half the keys would fall off in six months. I’m not terribly butt-hurt over the port situation — I’d just buy an external dock for everything. I am mostly concerned about how long I can wait for an upgrade, and what my options will be. (Buying a Windows laptop is not an option.)
  • My current 2014 MBP is still problem-free, more or less, with no repairs or issues yet, knock wood. The battery is down to 91% of its engineered life, and that’s the main concern, because battery replacement is almost impossible on these things. I also wouldn’t mind an upgrade in storage size, because I have the 500Gb and it is almost full. I can go up to a 1TB, but that’s $600. I could also clean up my computer and move some crap to an external, but, lazy.
  • I have been taking guitar lessons — not bass guitar, but guitar guitar. I am still horrible at it, and feel like I’m not learning very fast. I wish I would have done this when I was 16, so it was burned in now.
  • I’m reading Gringos by Charles Portis right now. I’ve read every other book of his this year, aside from that collection of short stuff, which I have but couldn’t get into. Gringos is not his best work (that would be Masters of Atlantis) and it’s a little too similar to Dog of the South for me, but it’s still good, and has some great moments in it. Portis has this incredible ability to efficiently describe a person showing only their peculiarities in a minimalist way, and it’s always incredible to read. I’ll be sad when I’m done with this last book. He’s 82 and his last book was in 1991. I’m hoping he can knock one more out before taking off.
  • Also fell down a brief k-hole on photographer Charles Gatewood. Re/Search has a mini-book with various interviews and profiles of him, which was a great read. (There were only 300 printed, so you might want to get on that.) Gatewood is an interesting guy who ran to Sweden in the 60s and learned his craft, then spent time in NY for a while before coming out to SF. You’ve probably seen his work, because he took a ton of the WS Burroughs photos in circulation. (They did a book together called Sidetripping.) I just got a used copy of his book People in Focus, which I’ll get into after the Portis.
  • The Gatewood book made me really want to break out the new camera and do some street photography, but the Canon is not waterproof, and see earlier note on weather. I’m also always very itchy about bringing out gear and getting it stolen, so there’s that.
  • I need to walk another 13 minutes, so off to the parking garage.
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Stoneridge

fullsizerender-3I had yesterday and today off, and I was bored of walking in my neighborhood, so I drove to the nearest mall, like an honest-to-satan mall mall, and not a bunch of stores next to each other with a fake city square in the middle of it.

The closest mall to me is in Pleasanton, about thirty minutes south/southeast of here. There’s a Westbrook mall in San Francisco, probably technically the same distance away, but it’s tucked into the city and not the same experience as being in a suburban freestanding mall.

Stoneridge Shopping Center is the perfect example of a healthy and well-operating Simon mall. It’s got about 160 stores and four anchors (JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears), with almost no vacancies. It was originally designed by A. Alfred Taubman, and it has the same look and feel as some of his other malls. I’ve been to Short Hills mall in New Jersey and Cherry Creek mall in Denver, and the interior has the same feeling and flow to it.

Walking around this place is a real mindfuck for me. First, it resembles University Park mall’s exterior, the way JC Penney and its champagne-colored brick juts out from the mall proper and Macy’s is around the corner. The mall sits on an uneven parking area, the north side a level higher than the south, with stairsteps going down the evergreen-covered ridges. The mall sits in a bowl created by the Pleasanton ridge on the west horizon, and the 580 and 680 highways to the north and west. The exterior is decidedly Californian, and far more suburban than the rest of the Bay Area.

But walking the concourse inside — it’s very easy for me to get lost in the nostalgia of the place. It feels like a direct time machine to being in the late 90s in the Seattle area, shopping at Northgate, or Lloyd Center in Portland. And being there in the late morning, right before the Christmas holiday season, brings back old and strange memories for me, of stocking up new shipments when I worked at Wards, hauling out the lawn tractors for storage and setting up the Christmas trees.

There’s something hypnotic about the dead lull at about 11:00 on a weekday in a mall. It reminds me of the times I spent at IUSB, when I would skip class and drive to Scottsdale or University Park to hit the record stores and arcades. The only people there would be the career mall workers, the day shift people, along with a few geriatrics walking the loop, and maybe a mom or two with strollered kids. Everyone else was at work, at their jobs in the factories, and I would have the place to myself, like a post-apocalyptic movie. I like seeing a mall busy at night with holiday traffic, but having the place to myself always felt great.

Malls have a secret life few people see, like the hour before they open, when you see all the assistant managers walking to the bank with their locked up money pouches and drop boxes, stopping to get coffee, talking to the other lifers about the coming onslaught. I liked when I worked the 6AM truck unloading shift, and after unfucking 45 feet of furniture from the Franklin Park warehouse, I’d get a few minutes to go to the pretzel stand and get enough caffeine to finish the next trailer full of stereos and mattresses. Working in a mall paid nothing, even back in those peak mall days of the late 80s/early 90s, but it was a nice routine.

Now, finding a mall like this is a huge nostalgia trigger. I don’t really have anything I want to buy at a mall (other than pretzel dogs, which I really can’t have) but I really enjoy the walking, the people-watching, and the general atmosphere. And like I said, it’s a huge time machine that sends me back twenty years. It’s unfortunate, because malls are dead and dying, but when I get a change to spent an hour in one, it’s almost restorative to me. I know this isn’t very edgy and absurd and punk rock, but it’s a thing. I wish we had a place like this closer to my house. I should probably take more pictures before this one goes away.

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Boxes

I recently found this excellent Jon Ronson documentary about going through the boxes that Stanley Kubrick left behind. Check it out on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/78314194. The basic gist of it is Ronson was contacted by Kubrick’s assistant for a copy of a documentary of his, and before he got a chance to catch up with him, he passed away. Later, his estate let Ronson poke around, and he found thousands and thousands of archive boxes filled with notes and photos, raw research for most of his films after 2001.

This doc is forty-five minutes of mind-blowing thing after thing, and you expect it to top out, and it gets even better. Like there’s a scene where Kubrick is going back and forth with a box company to get a better storage box with the perfect lid. A few minutes later, Ronson finds film cans containing 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Full Metal Jacket. This is after a series of memos instructing his assistant to find a cat collar with a bell to scare away with birds, but with a breakaway feature to prevent the felines from getting stuck in a tree. (This eventually had to be specifically fabricated by his team.)

And then the stationery. Stanley used to hoard it. Paper, notebooks, pens, inks, drafting supplies. His assistant said he could probably start a stationery nostalgia museum. He would spend hours at a shop, always paying in cash so nobody would ask questions.

I have a huge stationery problem now. For years, I’ve been buying these Moleskine notebooks and go through one every year or so, writing a page or two a day. Last winter, I got some Field Notes notebooks, at a shop in the Public Market in Milwaukee. They were the ones for the state fair series, for Wisconsin, which had a certain kitsch value to me, and I’ve been keeping one in my pocket when I go to lunch, so I can jot down ideas.

Because I heard Draplin do his sphiel on Maron’s podcast, I decided to subscribe to Field Notes. You pay a lump sum and get a package four times a year, with whatever cool limited edition books they just came out with. They’re also good about shoving a bunch of extra stuff in there, discontinued booklets and pens and stickers and whatnot. It’s all made in Chicago, well-designed, and has a weird addictive quality to it.

The only problem is, I’m now sitting on two dozen blank notebooks, and only using a few of them a year. And I still have the urge to buy more every time I see their web site. There’s something so collectible about them, and there’s also this feeling of “I’m a writer, I need to write, this is justifiable” and it isn’t, but I will keep subscribing and buying the shit.

I had this problem when I was a kid. There was this store called Stationer’s in downtown Elkhart, and they sold absolutely every kind of pen, pencil, paper, and business supply. It obviously doesn’t exist anymore – big-box office supply stores barely operate anymore. But back when I was 12 or 13 and playing D&D, they had every kind of graph and hex paper imaginable, along with special erasers and felt-tip markers and anything else you needed as a dungeon master.

And I studied drafting earnestly as a teenager, thinking I would go to college and become a draftsman or architect. These were the days of actual paper-based drafting: t-squares, big tables, protractors and scale rulers. That meant supplies galore: wooden 6H and 2H and HB pencils with points you carefully filed down by hand; kneaded erasers; dust-it powder; metal erasing shields; fine-tipped ink pens; translucent sheets of paper. We got the first CAD systems toward the end of my high school drafting career, PS/2s with digital tablets, running VersaCAD. But those tactile supplies — I hoarded that shit, bought as much as I could, somehow holding some psychological connection between having the most stuff versus being able to do a good job.

The Kubrick thing makes me wish I had more space to collect this garbage, a thought that would freak out my wife. But now that we’re in a digital age, the hoarding has gone to my hard drive. I have sets of folders filled with old PDFs, scanned photos, saved web pages, text files. I like the idea that Kubrick spent every day, hours and hours sifting through this stuff assembled by assistants, looking for the next idea, doing pre-production on films that never got shot. As I fret over what’s next, I often think I need to do this, forget about rushing out the next book that nobody will read, and spend a decade looking at photos and researching things out.

Anyway, great documentary – go check it out on Vimeo, before it vanishes.

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