By Michael Good | House Calls
Steve at the Qwik Stop — always ready with a savvy recommendation for a new microbrew — is a changed man. He told me the other day as I was — uncharacteristically — buying water and trash-can liners that he’d quit drinking. He seemed as baffled as I was. “You know,” he said, “I never even drank that much! Just a couple beers a night!”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt overcome with a feeling of déjà vu. Earlier that same morning, across the street at Cardamom Café & Bakery in North Park, one of the waitresses confided in me that she had quit drinking coffee. She told me this as I was standing at the register with my croissant and coffee.
“That smells so good,” she said, adding conspiratorially. “Last week I went on a juice cleanse. I feel amazing.” Has the world gone completely mad?
The next morning I went into Influx for a cup of coffee. Influx is one of those bright, airy places filled with people dressed in gray and black. The room was silent as a library, everyone’s gaze fixed on a computer screen. I was the one spot of color in an otherwise gray world. Why were they even here? The Wi-Fi? The coffee? Were they just looking for a clean, well-lighted place?
I was still pondering these big questions a few days later, when I went with a friend to a party in Wonder Valley. On paper, Wonder Valley looks like a 1940s housing development, with well-ordered streets crisscrossing the valley floor. In person, it looks like — a desert. A desert with a smattering of abandoned houses, a lot of sagebrush, and one rather spectacular, snow-capped mountain in the distance. Our host, a former musician in a Seattle grunge band, gave me the history of the place as he brought out a large platter of hamburger patties.
In the 1940s, the government opened the area to homesteaders. If you built a small structure on a 5-acre plot and inhabited it for five years, the land was yours. Hundreds of Angelinos took the government up on its offer, built little cinderblock houses and a few rambling ranch homes, then lost interest and disappeared in the wind like so many tumbleweeds.
Now a younger and hipper generation of people are buying the former homesteads, fixing them up and staying there on weekends. This was the highly educated, creative class you’ve heard about. The IT people, the photographers, filmmakers, programmers and producers. They had discovered a new five-year plan: Rent the place out during the week on Airbnb, cover your mortgage payment and own your 5 acres outright in five years. Thus a new generation of desert dreamers have been born.
As my host lit the Weber barbecue, threw a few patties on the grill and wandered off in search of another drink, these millennial homesteaders began to arrive, all dressed in varying shades of black.
The code of the desert is that there is no code, other than Don’t Chop Down the Joshua Trees. Which is how I ended up cooking 20 burgers the size of Frisbees for a bunch of people I didn’t know. At some point, a middle-aged woman stepped in to help.
“It looks like you know your way around a smoking piece of meat,” I said. I find it’s usually helpful when you don’t know anyone to throw compliments around.
“Actually I do,” she said. “I used to be the personal chef for …” (She named a famous actor, who I won’t mention by name, because then his wife, who apparently is quite a piece of work, would probably sue me.)
By now, the surface of the grill had reached about one degree below spontaneous combustion. The plastic spatula had turned floppy. Flipping burgers was like trying to turn over a tortoise with a wet noodle. The hamburgers, the quinoa burgers, the corn — everything was melding together.
“I guess we need to tell the owners of the veggie burgers that they’re no longer veggie,” I told my fellow chef.
“Actually those are mine,” she said. “Not that I’m a vegetarian. We’re just trying not to eat meat.”
“Oh.” I again didn’t know what to say.
“We just got back from an African safari,” her husband chimed in, by way of an explanation. In Hollywood, this makes perfect sense. They were eating quinoa to save the Oryx.
Later, around the campfire, I heard about the latest obsessions of a certain class of Angelino. There is a new type of massage that I can’t describe in a family newspaper. There is some sort of rejuvenation procedure that involves steam and a body part I also can’t mention. Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan, apparently. I also learned a few things about Jennifer Garner, who had recently delivered an inspirational talk that one of the women attended. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
But it really was a lovely night. The stars were out. There was hardly a breath of wind. My hosts had done a remarkable job of resurrecting their once-forlorn 1950s ranch house in the middle of the desert. I actually wouldn’t have minded going to bed, but there were still people everywhere, talking. A couple of children were running around barefoot, oblivious to the cactus.
Earlier I had been thinking we were a nation in denial. Denying who we are, what we do, what we want. A cup of coffee. A beer. A slab of hamburger. A spot of color. Is that really so bad? We seemed filled with doubts, even about our most private parts — parts that rarely see the light of day, even for Gwyneth. But now, looking up at the stars, hearing the children squeal, I thought, nah.
All this self-doubt often gets blamed on Hollywood. But Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender; it encourages us to save the whales in one movie and kill our human enemies with extreme prejudice in another. Hollywood doesn’t really care, as long as we keep buying movie tickets, and watching television, and allowing the marketing people who run the internet to pitch us on whatever it is they are trying to sell us — more gray T-shirts, for example.
I wouldn’t be too bothered by all this if it weren’t for the fact that the whims of popular culture are beginning to mess with my neighborhood. In the desert, I didn’t cut down any Joshua trees; I didn’t turn over any tortoises. But the marketing machines that masquerade as informative television shows are beginning to chop down the icons of my part of the world — the neighborhood bungalows. Instead of being respected, these venerable houses are being gutted and relegated to the dust heap to make way for “green” buildings with open floor plans, energy-efficient windows and new floors, ceilings, walls and insulation that have to be manufactured, shipped and installed. The greenest building is the one that’s already standing. Rehabbing an abandoned 1940s ranch house in Wonder Valley? Probably good for the environment. Tearing down a North Park bungalow to build an “energy- efficient” modern home with an open floor plan? Probably not.
Why do house flippers insist on snapping up and gutting the few houses left with their original floor plans and built-ins? Why buy something unique and then destroy what’s unique about it? Why cut down a Joshua tree and put it in your living room for Christmas?
It’s like working in a liquor store, and not drinking beer. It’s like working in a coffee shop and not drinking coffee. It’s like going to a barbecue and not eating meat. It’s like living in a world full of color and only wearing gray. It’s like running around in the sand with your shoes on. Actually, it’s not like any of those things. They’re minor infractions in a world of sensation. This is a crime against history, an offense to your community.
I’d like to imagine the open floor plan has had its day, based on how many people tell me they want it. “Opening things up” may have reached the tipping point, like shag carpet, popcorn ceilings and aluminum jalousie windows. That’s the way of the trend. Tearing down the walls may go the way of the vertical blind, the color mauve, and that white loopy carpet with the little grey flecks in it. Or it could go on forever, until the only kitchen left with a swinging café door and four walls will be mine — and maybe yours, too. Either way, I’ll still have a refrigerator full of beer. And from time to time I’ll still go out for coffee. They can’t take that away from me.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.