Readings: Laughing With Wen Ho Lee

Photo by Anne Fishbein

The man who was clapped into irons by Janet Reno’s Justice Department and denounced by The New York Times as the most dangerous threat to our national security since Ethel and Julius Rosenberg offered a nugget of advice to a crowd of about 150 gathered last week at a Westside Barnes & Noble: “If the FBI ever comes and knocks at your door, the best thing to do is tell them, ‘Go away.’

“Well, you are laughing,” Wen Ho Lee, the 62-year-old Taiwan-born computer programmer, said dryly while the audience cackled, as if he had uttered the obvious, X-Files dogma of citizen-to-Bureau contact. “But I invited them into my house. I brought them the best tea from Taiwan. I brought them cookies. I talked to them about 20 times before I found out it was too late. So, don’t laugh.”

From December 1999 until September 2000, Lee was held in solitary confinement on suspicion of espionage. Accused of downloading the “crown jewels” of the nation’s nuclear arsenal — the blueprint for the top-secret W-88 thermonuclear warhead — and handing them over to China, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist spent 278 days in “pretrial detention.” With Lee under 24-hour surveillance, his every gesture and word was monitored. Reno said he was such a masterful spy that even a “hello” from his lips might send new nuclear secrets to the Chinese. In the end, the charges, including 39 counts that each carried a life sentence, were dropped. Lee pleaded guilty to one count of using an “unsecure” government computer to store national-defense information. For that, he got 278 days — time served.

Lee has written a book about his ordeal, My Country Versus Me, and the book signing at the Westside Pavilion would have been an ideal occasion for him to preach. Certainly, his co-author, Helen Zia, had a few barbed words before Lee took the stage. “The story of Wen Ho Lee is about excessive government prosecutorial power and why racial profiling does not work to protect national security,” she said. “While the government was pursuing Wen Ho Lee, September 11 was being planned.” And to underscore the danger of racial prejudice, Zia announced, “The brother and sister-in-law of the postal worker killed by Buford Furrow are here.”

Lee, dressed in a smartly tailored, three-button, charcoal-colored suit, then approached the podium. “How do you feel about America?” one person asked. Lee, a slight man with formal posture and a thoughtful glare, replied, “We are very lucky. We have the best system in the whole world. I like it. The only thing I want to point out: Whoever is in charge of handling those systems should want to make sure he doesn’t make a mistake, so the damage done to me is not redone.” That was Lee’s rebuke of “excessive government prosecutorial power” and “racial profiling.”

“What do you say to Janet Reno?” someone else asked. His tone was placid, his reply polite. “She thinks that the 19 files I downloaded are very precious — they called them the ‘crown jewels’ — but in fact they were garbage. So, I don’t know what she means.”

Wen Ho Lee is no doubt sensitive to the trip-wire patriotism that right now makes the retelling of his treatment both necessary and verboten. Which might explain his reluctance to denounce his government or point fingers at the Bush administration’s racial profiling of Arab-Americans and its use of preventive detention and military tribunals. But, by nature, he says, he was never concerned with affairs of state. Prior to his FBI encounter, he did not read the newspaper; he did not watch television news. He wrapped himself in Gustav Mahler — a sanctuary to which he says he would like to return. Lee warned, however, that his lofty indifference was shattered by a walloping civics lesson. “I would say today, particularly to minority people, you have to get more involved in politics. Don’t fall into the same disaster I had.”

End of lesson — almost. “As you might know,” Lee concluded, “I’m still in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I’m planning to move to California.”

The audience laughed and applauded loudly. The man hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

—Greg Goldin

Auctions: Rust Never Sleeps

Visible from the 605 freeway are armies of repossessed, abandoned, impounded, drug-deal-confiscated, outlived-their-civic-usefulness vehicles. It’s a Saturday morning and my boyfriend and I are headed straight for those cars, to Nationwide Auction Systems’ bimonthly public auction, in the City of Industry. He has 53 hundred-dollar bills in his pocket and is hoping to get a good deal on a silver-with-blue-trim 1996 Ford F150 he’s seen on Nationwide’s Web site.

Vendors selling mamay and limón ice pops greet us at the entryway, which opens onto the selection of most-desirable items: three tricked-out Harley Sportsters, a 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and a vamp-red 2000 PT Cruiser, Limited Edition, which I think must have been a hardship for someone to lose.

There are easily 1,000 cars and trucks, all radiating heat in a hard-pack dust lot that smells of hot metal and motor oil and the perspiration of men poking beneath open hoods, while their wives stand idly by, holding babies sweating through their bunting. We begin searching the aisles for the pretty F150, passing laundry trucks and school buses, cop cars and cabs, Waverunners and catamarans, and a turquoise cigarette boat straight out of Miami Vice. There are hundreds of hatchbacks and pickups and minivans, dozens of city-yellow utility trucks, and one ancient, forlorn-looking, mud-encrusted street sweeper. There’s a battalion of battered RVs, including a Winnebago that’s been commandeered by two young guys, one at the wheel, the other claiming the back bunk. There are ancillary auto items, row upon row of air compressors and engine hoists, hydraulic lifts and truck tires, and 20 white Dodge 4x4 beds. It’s an orgy of mechanics, a gearhead’s wet dream, but there’s not one F150.

“Let’s look at the furniture,” my boyfriend says, steering us toward a holding area for filing cabinets and desks and what must be a thousand office chairs stacked 20 feet high, and the ratcheting voice of the auctioneer.

“Nnnn, twentytwentytwenty, doIheartwentyfivefivefive, nnnthirtythirtythirty . . . .”

He’s in the process of selling pallets of computer equipment packed in shrink-wrap, everything from antediluvian electric typewriters with “County of Los Angeles” stamped above their keyboards, to a dozen new, 21-inch Samsung monitors, which the Pakistani guy next to me buys for $500.

“I can sell them for $150 each on the Internet,” he says.

I wander among brass hotel luggage carts with ratty carpet beds; a tower of animal cages; 60 rows of school lockers; six-burner Wolf ranges and walk-in refrigerators; three electric potter’s wheels and 23 pallets of fire blankets, each stenciled with “Contains No Asbestos.” It’s impossible to look at all this stuff and not wonder who once owned these things, and what hyperbolic optimism/catastrophe/bankruptcy/divorce settlement/fickleness of fashion forced them to offload. This point is driven home by 48 boxes of Korn rag dolls, 12 dolls per box, and already sold. Who would want 576 creepy little Korn dolls, and what are they going to do with them? It occurs to me that the transfer of commerce is a lot like physics; that the items up for auction are all matter, capable of conversion but never destruction.

We head over to the dim, airless hangar housing smaller goods — jewelry and “luxury items” like faux Fabergé eggs and ostentatious watches manufactured by companies whose unfamiliar names are meant to convey class (Philip Persio, Peire Bernie), all piled chockablock behind Plexiglas. A man carrying a vest-wearing live iguana on his shoulder contemplates a commemorative “9 Decades of Pennies” plaque, while another in a “Better Slob than Snob” T-shirt runs his hands over a shelf of microwaves. The auctioneer is madly racing through electronic equipment, selling receivers for $50, VCRs for $20. He’s gotten to the bitter end: three aluminum milk pails, which go for $5, and a box of several dozen locks in their original packaging, which a portly guy in soiled overalls buys for $30.

“Who would buy a box of locks?” I ask my boyfriend, as we head back to the car.

“Some freak,” he says.

Yeah. Or a bargain hunter, or a hardware-store owner, maybe even my hardware-store owner, looking to turn a profit on someone else’s loss.

—Nancy Rommelmann

Scene: Boys’ Night Out

Sandy Gallin, Hollywood power manager, lives not too far above the Beverly Hills Hotel, in a manor that’s hissy but not too hissy. Recently, he gave a party for Eric Freeman, a New York painter showing at the Mark Moore Gallery. I opened the door and Cliff Benjamin, the curator from Mark Moore who invited me, whispered, “God, this is so Dawson’s Creek

I looked around and saw what seemed to be a hundred boys, all in their early 20s, all of whom could have turned up on any TV show requiring a cast of barely legal, all-American wholesome hunks. Apparently the party had been crashed.

“I have no idea who they are or where they came from,” Benjamin said. “And I had no idea that there could be so many people who look the same.”

At least the real Ellen DeGeneres was there, humble as ever. And so was the ever-so-not-humble painter/socialite Ross Bleckner, who engaged my friend Yaroslav “Slava” Mogutin — 28-year-old author, photographer, Russian dissident, gay activist and star of Bruce La Bruce’s Skin Flick — in a brief conversation.

“What are you doing in L.A., Slava?” Bleckner asked.

“I’m here modeling, for an artist, Rainer Fetting,” said Slava.

“Modeling?” Bleckner said. “You’re still modeling? You’re too old to model. He’s a model.” Bleckner pointed to a nelly 20-year-old.

Next, we were presented to our host, Gallin. Not mincing words, he shook our hands and asked, “Who invited you here?”

“The gallery,” I replied.

“Oh, are you one of the artists?” asked Gallin. I grinned ambiguously, and Freeman, the party’s honoree, intercepted Gallin’s interrogation, saying that he knows Slava from “The City.” Slava, in turn, protectively rescued me: “He’s more of an artist than I am.”

We moved on, and cut into the chow line behind the photo curator of the Getty, Gordon Baldwin, and watched him take the very last serving of the pasta. On the veranda I surveyed the low-grade networking and realized how All About Eve L.A. can be. There were a couple Margots, a handful of Eves, and an abundance of Phoebes.

One hour was enough. In the car, Slava, in town for just a few days, asked, “How often do you go to these kinds of parties in Beverly Hills?” I ignored the question. We were heading toward Long Beach to meet friends at the Mineshaft, and I was wondering just how a suburban butch bar was going to translate. Then again, Slava informed me, Moscow is 20 below zero and miserable. How bad could the suburbs be?

—Ron Athey