Rear View Window: My Take

The next door neighbor moved away.  She was a young mother with a towheaded kid.  She always dressed up like a fifties pin-up and wore frocks that exposed the ink on her sleeves. My living room window sits across from hers, so I could see her doings: the middle-aged guy who suddenly appeared, the months in which the her kid—the Aryan child—conveniently disappeared to summer camp, the tense arrival of the ex who reluctantly took custody of the kid during the start of the School Year and, now, the finale:  the sudden pack-up, the formation of a new family, the happy ending.

Now, I can see the various couples who are coming to rent the apartment across the way.   So, it’s like that Hitchcock Movie—Rear View Window—only it’s Front View Window and I don’t need binoculars.

Rear View Window

Each new couple, I’m sure, is envisioning themselves in this new life.  There has been a young family with outrageous hairdo’s and avant garde geometric clothing.  There has been an interracial couple–an Asian man with hippie pony-tail and a woman with hair too red to be natural.  A gay black couple sat in the court yard and I could hear them discussing their son who was at one of the musical conservatories nearby.

I live in a duplex—a real 1920s showplace that has been kept in immaculate condition, as if it were a brass button on a khaki military uniform: spit-shined and bright and neat.  It’s in a super-cute neighborhood—the kind I often gravitate towards—with a youthful population belonging to the liberal arts college, Occidental, that dominates the landscape a few blocks away.  Everybody says in hushed tones, “Barrack Obama went there.”  Nobody ever says, he very quickly transferred.


I live a block from the “hipster strip,” the zone that is in the process of being wrestled away from the recent waves of Mexican immigrants who themselves displaced the working class whites who once lived in this barrio, one of the oldest sections of Los Angeles.

It’s a desirable spot—set in the middle of what some may call urban blight.  Liquor stores, graffiti, empty lots, taquerias—all of these are counterbalanced by vintage stores, record shops, vegan restaurants, galleries.  There’s even a shop with a 45 minute wait for 8 dollar donut.  Every house is either run-down or polished into a representation of a certain kind of upper middle class, striving lifestyle.

Cafe De Leche--our local coffee shop--was featured on NPR.

Cafe De Leche–our local coffee shop–was featured on NPR.

My house is set off from the street in a miniature wilderness. There are raccoons and hummingbirds and possums in my yard so you can forget that you are in the middle of ugliness.  Yet just a block away, garage band artist types with their arm tattoos and their unique hairstyles roam their feral path.  Every second Saturday, there is a city sponsored Art Walk and people from the Westside come to gawk at how the bohemian set live.

It’s a landlord’s market in Los Angeles; rents are at an all-time high; and my landlord not only knows he can charge the top rate but, also, that people will audition like show ponies for a place kept up so immaculately.  He is also on a mission, because he has recently moved to Portland to live a dream of a bike-able city.  “I’ve been wanting to do this for years.”  And though he is putting up a front, he only has a week to find a suitable tenant.

The apartment has been a flurry of activity, with crews of work people tramping in and out.  Rudy is now sitting in the living room, waiting for couples to come by to check out the new digs.  And I am sitting in my living room, enjoying my Sunday coffee and the view from my Front View window.

This is the thrill and the discomfort of a life with so many windows—windows that open up into other people’s windows.  I can watch people like television.  And every once in a while, I get a pang and realize that they can watch me, too.  I wonder what they see when they see me seeing them.   I’m sure that they see me and remark with astonishment about  my resemblance to the late, great Jimmy Stewart.

Kim Van Kieu: Vietnamese Epic

Kim Van Kieu is one of those stories that is so famous that The Lonely Planet Guidebook will advise enterprising tourists to read it if they really want to move beyond the superficial world of noodles stalls, trinkets and bar-hopping. Supposedly, its influence is so immense that even illiterate peasants, working the emerald rice paddies, will recite a few lines, as they bend their backs in the kind of primordial labor that also makes great postcards.


Through this literary endeavor, any budget traveler can truly begin to understand the Vietnamese people.  But don’t just listen to me or The Lonely Planet; I’ve had this point corroborated on the good authority of several drunken German tourists at that delightful watering hole in Saigon—Apocalypse Now—who swear by its merits as a touchstone of culture:  “Kim Van Kieu is a part of your literary DNA.”  Short of dating a local girl, reading a bootlegged photocopy book of the story of Kieu is the best way to distinguish yourself from the crowd at the youth hostel.

Kim Van Kieu is a narrative poem that serves as an allegory of resistance.  Put in layman’s terms: the poem tells a story and we can read from the story how it is trying to tell, quite indirectly, another story.  The other story is about a beset Vietnam as it has attempted to resist a thousand years of invasion.

The backdrop of the story is the imprisonment of Kieu’s brother and father.  In order to save them, she marries herself off to a rich man who tricks her, turning her into a prostitute.  Her virtuous self-sacrifice is paradoxical, for she becomes that which is diametrically opposed to the very essence of virtue.  She becomes a whore.

The story can be read as a tale of the individual caught up within the machinations of the state, compelled to make sacrifices under unusual circumstances for the cause of nationalism.  The heroine Kieu is the archetypal Vietnamese, forced into terribly unnatural acts out of desperation.  The father and brother are the patriarchal authority, thwarted by injustice.  The middle-aged man can be any of a series of imperial powers–China, France, Japan and the United States—who have interfered with a nubile young country’s natural development.

Vietnamese people appreciate the pathos of this type of irony, even if they do not tolerate it in real life.  Prostitution is a growth industry in my old homeland and the statistics are staggering.   In my various visits to Vietnam during two years of traveling, I often saw the young sex workers come out at night and stand, backlit, at the doorways as pimps piss-pissed their wonders and virtues.  Girls of this kind could usually be found lurking somewhere near that bar Apocalypse Now, which is a hotspot for tourists who seek a certain kind of adventure.

apocalypse now redux wallpaper1

I often wonder how many young girls, sold into prostitution in Vietnam are choosing to do so for heroic reasons.  I often wonder how many people actually think that what they are doing is patriotic and self-sacrificing—that it might serve a greater cause that will shake the very fabric of Vietnamese civilization to its core. But it doesn’t seem like an appropriate question to ask.

One night, I got drunk on Tiger Beer at Apocalypse Now and then wandered around the tourist quarter, looking for people to buttonhole.  I asked this forbidden question to a nice, middle-aged man at a coffee shop.  Set before him on an aluminum tray was a tall glass of ice coffee, an ashtray, a pack of Jet cigarettes and the daily newspaper.  He was dressed in that classic Vietnamese style that always makes me feel immediately at ease:  white button-down shirt, high-water black slacks and plastic flip flops.  His hair, severely side-parted and blackly impeccable, glinted against the luminescence of the naked bulbs strung like gargantuan Christmas lights on steroids.  He told me two things that immediately made me feel better.  “Kim Van Kieu, she’s not a real person.”  The other thing:  “Those girls, most of them we get from Laos.”  I guess I should have been relieved that the bulk of our prostitutes are not really of consequence because they come from across the border.  Perhaps I was.

Tiger Beer

It took me several days to get a dawning sense of the true injustice that lay behind this new knowledge.  For what of the predicament of the many Western sex tourists who had been assiduously plugging away at Kim Van Kieu and waiting for the moment when they could graduate to a real Vietnamese?  Did they know they were getting the switcher-oo?  All that work, all that intellectual development, all laid waste. The injustice of that was terrible.