March 06, 2006
My girlfriend & I recently moved into a lovely little suburban house here in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Two car garage, front & back yard, porch - the works. Nothing but palm trees line the street. Three speed bumps on the block. It's primarily a neighborhood of working-class Black folks, many of whom have lived on this very same block for years. Just before we moved in, an old Black man on a bicycle, a part of the neighborhood watch, stopped to question me until he was satisfied that this actually WAS my house.
I keep telling everyone I'm going to get an L.A. Times subscription just so I can pick up the paper in my bathrobe every morning and complete my "Ward Cleaver" fantasy.
I used to live in Hollywood. My old apartment building was, originally, a pretty wide mix of Hispanic families, Armenian families, and students like yours truly from the film school around the corner. But, over the course of the three years I lived there, most of the other students had left, and many of the Hispanic families, growing from new little ones or recently arrived relatives, expanded to fill in the gaps. The Armenians were relatively quiet, except for this one kid who was always in trouble with the cops. One day, he just disappeared. This was after he started threatening his girlfriend with a gun in the middle of the building driveway.
The rest of my neighbors were relatively quiet & pleasant. Working class folks, raising their kids and making the ends meet. I still have fond memories of our local handyman, a recent immigrant from Guatemala, who barely spoke English. And, I, with my 8th grade Spanish, wasn't doing much better. But we still managed to chit-chat and communicate and maintain some level of friendship. I liked him, and I think I missed him the most when I moved.
But, to be quite honest, I didn't miss the weekly Salsa lessons that had just started to be given just outside my window. And I didn't miss the weekly barbeques, also being thrown outside my window, where they all seemed to listen to the exact same Tejano song all day every freakin' day.
I'm originally from Baltimore. I once got into an argument with one of my college classmates about living in "the Black Community". This was a concept that, at the time, seemed patently absurd to me. Retrospectively, of course it would. Baltimore was 60% Black. You really had to go out of your way to NOT live in the Black community.
Not the case in Los Angeles.
And I know, one of the big factors that lead my significant other and I to move into Crenshaw (as opposed to Silver Lake or Pasadena or even Hollywood) was that we really missed our own culture. We missed the comfort and the ease and the familiarity of living amongst our own.
We missed being home.
Oddly enough, when we initially started looking for a place, if you go through most of the online apartment rental hubs, and most realtors, they don't even mention or list spaces south of the 10 Freeway. Everyone told us we could never find the kind of place that we wanted for the price that we wanted.
But we visited a friend who was living in a 2-story apartment down here in Crenshaw, who was paying roughly the same amount as I was paying for my one bedroom in Hollywood.
And how did she manage that? The little inside secret, in her words: "Black people will work with you."
And, so, here we are.
We recently had a visit from a close friend and her kids. They are absolutely lovely souls, deeply intuned with their spiritual sides. Very warm and loving. My girlfriend's known these people for years.
But, as they drove through the streets approaching our home, one of their sons kept saying to himself over and over again "I'm going to get shot!". That is, until he realized that he wasn't just passing through the Black neighborhood, but was actually going to be spending some time there with the family friends that he knew so well.
Did I mention they're white? Do I even have to?
Anyway, after an unusually exhausting weekend, we opted to stay home last night to watch the Oscars.
About an hour into the show, our doorbell rang. We both looked at each other, as if to say "did YOU invite someone over?" Not knowing who this might be, I flicked on the porch light and opened the door.
Across the threshold, I found a Hispanic man who spoke extremely poor English. From what he could manage, the best I could figure was that he'd traveled through Honduras & Guatemala en route to Los Angeles, but, since then, he'd been sleeping on a bench in Leimert Park. He constantly mimed pulling his denim jacket tight & shivering, to indicate how cold he's been. He often jestured to the ground, and then made reassuring motions, saying "es no problemo". But, despite how many times I asked, he could never actually say what he wanted.
In all honesty, I found myself falling into that trap that everyone talks about, where you try to speak slower, as if distinct syllables will suddenly tranform into Spanish from English in mid air if they'd only slow down.
Neither of us had any idea who this man was. From the looks of him, he appeared to be a migrant worker of some sort. But all he could say was that he was cold sleeping in the park.
Now, this entire non-conversation took place across our fairly heavy duty screen door. I remember the day our landlord suggested to us that he install one. See, we have a little window near the top of our front door, and, as the landlord demonstrated, a tall guy like him could just come right up to it and peek inside.
It was only when I started to close the front door, apologizing the whole way, that the man FINALLY brought his hand to his mouth, as if he were eating something.
He wanted food.
He walked all the way from Leimert Park into a darkened suburban neighborhood and randomly picked our house to ask for assistance.
We'd just had dinner. I was just coming back from grocery shopping when the Oscar telecast had started.
Whenever I'd walked past a panhandler in Manhattan, I always remembered the Gospel scripture where Jesus said "whatever you have done to the least of my children, you have done to me."
But when I looked at this poor man on my newly acquired doorstep, I thought two things.
1. He was obviously much stronger than me & my girlfriend combined.
2. He was desperate. Desperate enough to knock on the door of a complete stranger in a strange country.
Desperate men commit desperate acts.
And now, I'm the man of the house.
I remember my right wing Republican brother (and father of two) once said, "it's hard to stand on your principles when you're responsible for other people's lives."
All I could say to the man was "I'm sorry".
I closed the door, locked it shut, and turned off the porch light.
And later, as I took out the trash, I remembered that the lock on the flimsy wooden gate that leads unto our driveway and backyard was broken. My mind was racing: just how desperate was he?
Desperate enough to camp out on our porch until someone eventually opened the door?
Desperate enough to sneak into our backyard and lay in wait?
Desperate enough to smash a window and just come in to take what he needed?
I put away the trash VERY quickly.
A few hours later, Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year.
Just a few days before, I heard a bunch of local film critics on the radio completely trash the film, saying that it's stereotypical and doesn't reflect the REAL Los Angeles, i.e. the Los Angeles that THEY live in. They didn't just dislike the movie. They hated it. They were offended by it.
If I had to guess, I'm willing to bet that every single one of those critics, along with most of the people who loathe Crash, are, politically, very liberal, and, ethnically, very White.
And while the movie may not reflect THEIR Los Angeles, it sure as Hell reflects mine.
Los Angeles in all of it's complexity. Beauty. Horror. Love. Hate. Joy. Pain. Wisdom. Ignorance. Mercy. Vengeance.
This is a City of Possibilities. Where everyone is capable of EVERYTHING, good and bad, at any given moment.
And to pretend otherwise is the highest, most onerous form of denial.
And, on a related note, for all those people who felt like Brokeback Mountain got robbed, and that it's a sign that Hollywood just really isn't ready to embrace such a landmark, watershed film, so they picked Crash, the safe choice - I have this to say:
Yes, Crash is the safe choice - it's a better movie.
Brokeback Mountain was beautifully composed and depicted, which is why, among the nominated directors, Ang Lee deserved to receive an Oscar for his work.
The original short story Brokeback was based on is, like, 15 pages or something. So, to be able to stretch that out into a 2 hour movie with authentic characters & real pathos is a true feat of screenwriting. Which is why, among the nominated screenwriters, Diana Osanna & Larry McMurty deserved to receive an Oscar for their work.
But that, my friends, is it. Because, at the end of the day, Brokeback Mountain is merely a portrait of two lives interrupted. A snapshot. A beautifully depicted, amazingly acted snapshot, but a snapshot, nonetheless.
It's NOT, in the strictest sense of the word, a story. It's incomplete, and, in the end, for me, at least, unsatisfying.
In fact, that's the way that I felt about all the nominations for Best Picture. In fact, Munich was so unsatisfying, I didn't even go see it. (bad joke, I know). Not to say that I didn't enjoy these films. On the contrary. I thought Capote was exquisite, and I wish there were more films in the same vein as Good Night and Good Luck. But they all left me somewhat wanting. And not in a good way.
All, that is, except Crash.
Of the films that were actually nominated, Crash is the best.
And, personally, I can't wait to see what Paul Haggis does next.
After he's done re-writing Casino Royale, that is.