Easter Sunday and Robert Mapplethorpe

There was an eccentric woman in our church, who always dressed elaborately for Easter. She was a spinstress–tall–and dressed as if her frocks were sculpted out of the buttercream frosting on a wedding cake. That woman carried a huge Easter basket, filled with candy, which she gave to all us kids. If you spotted her, you knew you were getting candy. I can’t remember one sermon from church. But I still remember that eccentric woman with the Easter basket.

It’s funny what memories grip you–which cradle you, which return like a slap on the face.  I’m no longer much of a believer in the religion department but Easter Sundays, now, I like to go to the church of the mind:  the museum.  And look at the world the way that only museums teach us to look:  with clarity.

Recently, I was at the Getty Institute in Brentwood, doing some research in the archives.  And I popped over to the museum side during a lunch break to mill about with the tourists…and to take a quick peek at the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective–a retrospective that is also occurring simultaneously at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

For those who don’t know, Mapplethorpe was the bad boy of art:  provocative, shameless, teasing.  If you walk into a Mapplethorpe gallery, you might see images of men in leather pissing into each other’s mouths.  Or a large black penis issuing forth from the unzipped trouser of a polyester suit.  These are the images that caused conservative politicians to turn him into the poster child of cultural degeneracy; they called for the end of the National Endowment for the Arts, the institution that funded his art; and ironically, launched him into the long snaking path of fame.

I first encountered Mapplethorpe’s work, though, through a reproduction in the late 80’s:  an image from the album cover of the alternative band The Swans.  He was already a big name by then, but the album cover displayed none of the pornographic imagery.  Instead, it showed the image of beautiful tulips, shot up close to reveal their fabulous, vaulted architecture–their chambers–undulating and elegant.  But I knew it was a Mapplethorpe because the Ken, the turtleneck-wearing kid who showed me the album, told me it was a Mapplethorpe.

“That’s a Mapplethorpe.  Isn’t it awesome?”  And who was I to doubt the coolest kid in the freshman dorm–a kid who never went to class and hated his parents for adopting him and who was deliberately getting F’s in class so he could drop out and go to art school.

Mapplethorpe was edgy and he was bad and he was everything that an upper middle class white kid rebelling against his parent’s Costco tract house strip mall life wanted. We knew those tulips to be pornographic, even if they were simply beautiful, detached formal exercises of shapes and tones and colors–like something out of an experiment from the Bauhaus movement, or the glamour photography of the thirties.  Those tulips had all the luster of advertisements selling nothing–nothing but desires yet unknown.

That’s what I look for when I look for art:  to see a creation that beckons like a woman in buttercream frosting or an effusion of tulips that sing the siren song of the dangerous and forbidden.  I’m going to get my hair cut today–in honor of Easter, of course.  And then I will make my way to church:  the Los Angeles County Museum, to catch the second half of this amazing exhibition.

Happy Easter!


My Daddy’s Suit: Bruce Boyer and Ivy Style

I’ve developed a recent fascination with the writer Bruce Boyer—an authority on men’s fashion.  Boyer worked as a professor, and he brings to the table an historian’s taste for detail and precision that I appreciate:  the kind of hairsplitting that is as soul-satisfying as a Scotch in a leather wingback chair by a roaring fireplace.  And though his writing affects the authority of the posh country gentleman, his observations are honed precisely because he is not:  he comes from working class stock and will always be a stranger in the house, always looking through a plate glass window at a party to which he is not entirely invited.

Boyer’s bailiwick is conservative men’s fashion–the classic fashion that hasn’t changed for over a hundred years:  East Coast Ivy League Style.  He is the kind of guy who will explain, with gusto and relish, the exact reason why button-down collars are buttoned down (spoiler: because Polo players didn’t want their collars blowing in their face).  Or the history of khaki pants (it entered into America’s closets as military uniform during the Spanish-American War and became a part of campus clothing after World War II when the GI Bill brought the huddled masses to campus).


What was the impetus for this intellectual Odyssey?  I was driving one Saturday through the posh, scenic section of Pasadena and, on a whim, decided to stop by an estate sale in one of those old houses that imitate the grandeur of the English country gentleman.  It was the last day–the mosh-pit-free-for-all–when you can scoop up great deals, and everything was picked through, sad and empty.  There was a sign on the lawn:  TUTOR HOUSE FOR SALE.

I walked through the back patio.  An Armenian gentleman was bargaining ruthlessly for a discount on a Persian rug of tribal origin and things were getting kind of, well, insulting.  “I’m Armenian.  I must always ask for a discount,” said the paunchy man with a walrus moustache.

“Why do you say that?  I’m Armenian, too.  I never ask for a discount,” rejoined the woman who stood behind the Costco fold-out table with the steel money box.  She held out her bony arm.  “What, you want blood from me?”

I was about to leave when I spotted a glen plaid suit—a suit with subtle lines of blue moving in and out of its criss-cross of black and white.  It had a label–Southwick Atkinson–sewn into the lining.  I immediately decided I must buy it.  And after some research, the desire to determine its history brought me to Bruce Boyer, this fashion guru:  I learned to my delight that Southwick was the premier purveyor of quality mens’ clothing and Atkinson, one of its great retailers.


I no longer buy vintage at this stage in my life but, darn it, the suit fit me like a glove.  It was in mint condition.  And it is still entirely stylish—kind of Mad-Men-ish.  These are all things that recommended it, despite the fact that it was hanging in that dark closet, in a paneled room that held a tiny twin bed and an afghan in the corner.

“I think this one was disabled,” said a woman casually as she looked at the various electronic devices hooked up to the bed.  I wasn’t creeped out.  The suit was one of many suits–all exactly the same–but all worn down like a pencil to its nub.  This was the best suit–the cherry one–and I knew one thing about this man:  He had decided on a style and stuck with it.

That glen plaid suit reminded me of my father who wore this exact kind of suit, day in and day out, carrying a hard grey attache case with important papers in it.  So seeing this suit made me think of the many years my father worked before he saved enough money to start his own business and lift us into a world of ski vacations.  His suit at that time was not his own, most probably.  It was probably a suit that a nice church member gave him when we first arrived into this country–penniless refugees adrift.


Still, he made the suit his own and, in making that suit his own, it became a part of him–a phantom limb. I never thought of it as anything but his suit, until that moment standing before a stranger’s closet when I realized the profound fact that this could not possibly be the case. So, I bought the suit just as if it were my father’s suit, handed down to me.  It was a steal at eight dollars—even if it belonged to a dead man.

Boyers might say that the suit belongs to West Coast Ivy Style—that cool “hep” style of privileged men who dispersed from the East Coast establishments of privilege, colonizing the landscape of the West coast—men who liked to snap their fingers and listen to the jazz stylings of Chet Baker during a time when America was a post-war juggernaut, men who still knew that their loyalties lay with the East Coast establishment and its Anglophilia and its love of the old school and the venerable.  These are the kind of men who would judge you by the collar of your shirt and the seat of your pants.

Can you judge a man by his suit of clothes?  The opening epigraph to Bruce Boyer’s most recent book True Style is a quotation from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Case of Identity,” and the lengthy quotation ends with this finger-wagging pronouncement  of the great detective to his sidekick, Dr. Watson:  “I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.”  So, clothes are the very business of great detective work and at the heart of man–at the heart of the art of ratiocination–which is concerned above all else with the practice of uncovering our place in this world that is pure surface–even if that place is as empty as a suit that contains nothing but phantom memories in a closet full of moths.


Echo Park: The Gentrification of the Eastside

I did a little detective work this weekend, visiting parts of the city I enjoy but don’t often hang around in:  the string of neighborhoods, like pearls on silk cord–Silverlake, Los Feliz, Echo Park–that sit on Sunset Boulevard.  They are all part of the gentrifying LA.

I wish I could say that this was intentional.  But basically,  I missed the movie time at my favorite old-timey theater—the Vista—so instead, I wandered through that part of town aimlessly, poking my nose into everybody’s stew pot, and finding myself at my favorite thrift store in one of LA’s up-and-coming neighborhoods—Echo Park.

For those who don’t know, Echo Park is one of those old neighborhoods in LA that fell into disrepair, gang-land violence, and slumminess.  Its main attraction is its amazing man-made lake, which anchors a park–a park that has now been revamped, conveniently, the moment a certain demographic of moneyed professionals started refurbishing the large, lumbering housing stock.

The park is a jewel.  You can feed ducks and geese, or ride a pedal boat into the spume of the fountained center.  You can fish.  There are lotuses that bloom and a yearly lotus festival that has a Chinese-y flavor.  I still remember going, once upon a time in a distant childhood, to the park and seeing the strange people and their ungodly ways.

Echo Park

Echo Park is far east from the beach communities—so close to downtown that it could make out with its towering skyline and give it a nice hickey.  Word of caution:  You shouldn’t say it’s the “eastside” because that might get a lot of true eastsiders upset.  For true eastsiders, the “east LA” designation refers to the line east of the LA river—a red line spelled out in concrete that developers only allowed brown people (Mexicans, Japanese, Blacks) to live in.

Downtown is still technically west of the river, so anything west of downtown is the westside.  This makes for a lot of high feelings among people who feel that gentrification is all around us, pushing us in all directions–taking and scattering and spitting in our faces.

Still, celebrities like James Franco, Madonna, Zoe Deschanel—they all have chosen to live on the eastside for specific reasons that have everything to do with the way the ordinal points of the city are imagined.  To live in Echo Park is to live in the Eastside as a state of mind.  It is to wear buffalo plaid and a beard and tattoos.  It is to deliberately reject the polo shirt and the Mercedes Benz.

Madonna's House in Los Feliz

Madonna’s House in Los Feliz

The French might say that it is a gesture of “epater la bourgeoisie”…thumbing their noses at the straitjacket of conventionality, often as a way to achieve an elite status–the status of the bohemian.  Many decades ago, the writer Paul Fussell described this very French provocative-ness as something akin to walking on a plane in a see-through blouse without wearing a bra.  I would update this by saying it’s like doing all that and not shaving your armpits and tattooing that hairy armpits are cool in calligraphy on the side of your neck.

The eastside self-consciously rejects the westside–with its conventionality and its prime real estate and its striving lux-ness.  And Echo Park has been the last part of the steady spill-over of gentrifying neighborhoods—each like dominoes adjacent to the other; each producing their own refugees seeking better parking, better rents and gentrifying the neighboring outskirts a bit faster.

First, there was Los Feliz where Leonardo de Caprio grew up; Madonna put it on the map and it was made.  Second, there was Silverlake where our current mayor Eric Garcetti bought a home; it was at one time the home of punk and is now the home of postpunk parents with six-figure jobs and toddlers in onesies that bear the image of punk rock icons and “fuck-the-establishment” aphorisms.  Third, there was Echo Park, which has experienced the fastest boom; the housing stock is bigger and better as you close in on the city core.  Eric Garcetti–our great mayor—bought another home here and chooses to live in this corner of the city, eschewing the mayoral mansion in staid Hancock Park, which is too historic, too stodgy, too old-money.

Whenever I’m in Echo Park, I make a bee-line to my favorite thrift store—Out of the Closet.  It’s a really great place for books, because graduate students—those bellwethers of gentrification—live there.  Academic books that go for fifty to a hundred dollars often will be available for a buck.  Also grad students are very selective book hounds, so their abandoned collections are usually well thought-through:  not only excellent titles but standard editions.  “I want to stop in here for a minute,” I said to my wife after a coffee at the fancy schmancy Blue Bottle–a shrine to cold drip coffee, subway tiling, and sleek modernist lines.

I wanted an out of print book that was already on special order for me in the mail but which had not yet arrived and I was sure that Out of the Closet would have it.  When you have that kind of lust for a book, you will search it out like a serial rapist with an uncontrollable compulsion and a wandering, wondering eye.

“You’re such a saint,” I said, as we walked past the workers offering free AIDS tests.  “I know you hate these places.” The sign on their little table–a table covered with freebie condoms and pamphlets–announced in bubble letters that if you take a test, they will give you a ten dollar Metro Pass.  Echo Park is on a major transportation line and it is the epicenter of the bike lane movement–its zero-emission sensibility somehow aligned with its trophy-veganism.  My wife takes the Metro from downtown once a day, so she could use a few extra swipes.  Still, I was on a mission.  There was no time to spare.


But no such luck.  The book selection was actually terrible.  I walked through the neat racks and did come across some amazing finds:  a Jil Sander suit that normally retails for 4K, a Brooks Brother’s special edition Women’s suit that would look great with pearls, an Ungaro Camel Hair Coat made in Italy.

I took none of it home but I did try the Jil Sander suit on.  I have that exact same suit in glen plaid, so I know how much it costs full retail.  And this Jil Sander suit fit me better than my own. Except this one had scuff marks–as if somebody had fallen off a motorcycle during a weekend heroin binge, one that would get them fired from their job as an executive in one of the glittering towers in the distance.  “If I was in a punk rock band, I would buy this suit and put patches all over the fucked up parts.”

“This would make a very stylish zombie outfit for Halloween,” said my wife, looking at the price tag.  “Even at 50 dollars, it’s a steal.”  I could hear the mockery in her tone.

So what is my take-away?  The writing is on the wall:  the graduate students have moved out.  The yuppies have moved in.  Home prices here are already past the million dollar mark.  This is the common wisdom repeated over and over again.  But a million dollars is too abstract for my little mind.

I guess I should have known all along.  But for me, this thrift shop is the tell-tale footprint by the back alley entryway.  It is the splash of blood on the hem of a skirt—the dog howling late in the late of the night.  It is the sound of crunching on gravel that startles you awake after a fitful sleep.