Missing El Lay

When I wake at 3 a.m., and I do, often enough, it rarely has anything to do with a nostalgia for El Lay. I left over five years ago and have lived in Paris, London and a couple of Polish cities. I don’t miss the pathologies of consumerism, of an antidepressant-addicted populace, of SUV drivers and a jingoistic press. I don’t miss interventionist liberals or the blow-dried eunuchs of the far right. I especially don’t miss the culture industry and the derangement of careerism — nor the state of American theater. I certainly don’t miss Gordon Davidson.

But this is about what I do miss. I suspect the real resistance in the U.S., and in an intensified way, in El Lay, can be found in food. Most American food is terrible — Cheez Whiz and potato salad, weak coffee and sandwich meats. I mean the resistance (and I really am thinking in a political sense, here) of ethnic food. I think of all those taco stands beyond the First Street Bridge that takes you from downtown into East L.A. Last time I was in El Lay I stopped with my son Lex at a stand on Santa Monica Boulevard just west of Vermont. Had brain sopes and carnitas tacos. This is not domesticated food — and it’s not made by people who read Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof. This is street food, and it’s part of a culture that is off the marketing radar. I miss Woody’s Bar-B-Que (3446 W. Slauson Ave., L.A., 323-294-9443) for beef ribs, and The Pit Bar B Que (5309 S. Vermont Ave., L.A., 323-759-9428) for pork. I miss the strawberry soda one can usually get at Woody’s, and which is a requirement for a good barbecue experience.

I understand Janet’s Original Jerk Chicken stand on MLK Boulevard has closed, and that’s too bad. You could get homemade ginger beer soda there, and this is something I can assure you I do miss, and might even wake at 3 a.m. thinking about. I miss the Thai food along the far east Hollywood Boulevard ho track — Sanamluang Café (5176 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-660-8006) being the best, last time I was there.

I call this resistance because it is. It may be unconscious, but it is a form of resistance all the same. A culture so cut off from nature, from community, and that compulsively regurgitates its own flotsam and jetsam will be one that is prepared to ignore torture and the endless crimes of Empire. It will accept millionaire colonialist John Kerry as opposition to outright fascism. It will elect a crypto-Nazi cartoon as governor. It will embrace genetically modified food and put everything possible in plastic wrappers. To eat on the sidewalks of Lincoln Heights or Santa Monica and Vermont, to eat in your car outside Woody’s, or to order green papaya salad with buckets of lime juice at Hollywood and Normandie, is to understand what the society at large has lost. It comes from the community — what’s left of community — and it is not made to order for the lowest-common denominator. It’s not mass-produced or branded. It’s food. It’s human. How long before such street food is co-opted? Probably not long. Gentrification, notions of lifestyle — it’s an insidious business. However, this is the stuff I miss. Well, this and sunsets on the Mojave, around Joshua Tree, if I am to be completely honest.


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