Tag Archives: Los Angeles

Taking Pot Shots

An acquaintance of mine disclosed a rich history of LSD usage over a recent lunch.

“You can take drugs and not have them ruin your life,” he declared.

I could dismiss him as a deluded liberal hippie goofball, but he’s run a couple of large public bureaucracies in his career – including one in Los Angeles County. And since he likely has more than a nodding relationship with District Attorney Steve Cooley, I wonder if they’ve chatted about his recent vow to crack down on the marijuana dispensaries that have sprouted up throughout Los Angeles.

Cooley and his partner in crime busting, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, have vowed to prosecute pot dispensary operators, particularly those who accept any money. Cooley says he will ignore any dispensary regulations promulgated by the L.A. City Council. When Cooley was recently on a local public affairs radio show – where he conveniently ducked taking callers’ questions – he claimed ignorance about SB 420, the seven-year-old state law that gives municipalities the right to regulate dispensaries.

Politically, I can understand Cooley and Trutanich’s position. The City Council has put the “it” in dithering when it’s come to drafting regulations – opening up loopholes that have permitted hundreds of dispensaries to appear over the past couple of years. And while both men are law enforcement figures, they’re also elected officials. Putting some deluded liberal hippie goofball pot peddlers in prison could position them for a run at higher offices.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, left and L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have vowed to crack down on marijuana dispensaries. They appear wiling to trample on the state law governing their operation to score political points.

But as attorneys, they should know better. The way SB 420 was written, dispensary operators could have hundreds, if not thousands, of marijuana plants in their inventory. As non-profit cooperatives, the operators may be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses to cultivate and/or procure marijuana for their customers. Given that the executive staffs of many local non-profits earn six-figure and sometimes seven-figure salaries, this will be a non-starter. I sense millions of dollars will soon go down the drain to prosecute cases that will result in few, if any, convictions.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to drive through the recessionary streets of L.A. and fail to notice the commercial “for rent” signs have grown thicker than a Humboldt County bumper crop. Many of the new businesses I do spot are marijuana dispensaries. Every one I’ve seen has been decidedly low-key, with subdued, almost chaste paintjobs and signage. One within walking distance of my house is so anonymous it’s drowned out by the neon lights from the corner dry cleaner. I risk sounding like a deluded pro-business conservative goofball, but those dispensaries are providing sorely needed jobs and cash flow to landlords. Given L.A.’s draconian gross receipts levy, they could probably provide some sorely needed local tax revenue as well.

But that’s not the story being told by Cooley and Trutanich. They regularly link the dispensaries to armed robberies and other violent crimes, although neither has provided specific crime-related data. Trutanich also claims the marijuana being sold contained dangerous pesticides, although he tends to lapse into a stoner-like haze when pressed about the specifics of the lab testing that’s been performed.

Meanwhile, the local media report allegations that pot dispensary patrons disturb the neighbors or sell to teens. According to a recent piece in the L.A. Weekly, which has relentlessly covered the pot dispensary issue, “teenagers can be seen heading into them after school lets out in Hollywood, Fairfax, Northridge, the San Fernando Valley, Wilshire District and other areas.” The author of the article did not interview a single teenaged patron.

If true, these issues are the same quality-of-life woes that bedevil the neighbors of successful strip clubs, liquor stores and yogurt shops. They can be tackled with well-written regulations and rigid enforcement. At the height of the 1980s crime wave, liquor store owners were successfully pressured to shoo away loiterers and clean up graffiti. Zoning regulations quarantine most strip clubs to industrial areas. And heaven help any restaurant owner who expands without adding parking spaces — they die a death of a thousand citations. Yet the dispensaries are portrayed as occupying some more sinister portion of the business spectrum where owners and patrons deserve a bitter end.

Political capital might be earned by doing so, but the public has forgotten that the author of one of the bestselling memoirs of the past 20 years admitted that “pot had helped” get him through high school and college, as well as  “booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” He was so off-handed in his disclosure that Barack Obama probably ingested drugs in quantities far larger than one might assume.

Our current President and my recent lunchtime companion fall into a large swath of highly successful Americans who have used drugs without any apparent harm. A college friend shook me up when I discovered her predilection for smoking cocaine and heroin. She’s a high-profile gang prosecutor these days; Cooley’s her boss. I have had other drug-using friends and acquaintances who have written books, taught and performed other productive activities.

Certainly, some people cannot control their drug usage. But that occurs whether laws exist to bar their consumption or not. And even the most tripped out citizen on the planet can tell you that spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year to incarcerate a dispensary operator versus raking in more than double that in tax revenues to allow them to stay in business is a no-brainer.

There is a move to place a proposition on the November 2010 ballot to legalize marijuana use straightaway and make it subject to taxation. Given the current environment, it will likely never be approved, let alone make it to the ballot. Which means more than a decade after California’s voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the political firefights over how it should be dispensed rage on. And lord knows how many of our taxpayer dollars will continue to go up in smoke as a resultTaking


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We Should All Be So Dov-ish

I’ve visited many company headquarters in my years as a journalist. Only one has been more memorable than a pallet of two-by-fours.

Indeed, American Apparel’s offices and plant just east of downtown Los Angeles is by far the most dynamic place of business in town. Visitors begin their odyssey in gloomy freight elevators out of some Prohibition-era caper. They’re let out onto corridors teeming with models, suits and seamstresses, all moving at a mile-a-minute. There are garment workers everywhere: if they’re not hunched over their sewing machines, they’re eating meals of colorful ethnic cuisine, obtaining exams at the on-site medical clinic or a shoulder-rub from a workplace masseuse. If you think Diego Rivera by way of “Project Runway,” you get a pretty clear picture. Each visit has left me mildly surprised I wasn’t charged admission.

Sadly, this workplace vibrancy was diminished by an order from the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) last September to fire 1,800 American Apparel employees – about a quarter of the company’s workforce – because they are undocumented immigrants. The employees had 60 days to prove they belong in the U.S., but that window closes this month. Few, if any, of the fired workers returned to their jobs.

The firings are considered a departure from ICE policy during the Bush Administration, when such undocumented workers would be detained and deported.  This is the same federal government that e-mailed me a nine-digit Employer Identification Number in seconds when I started a new publishing venture earlier this year. Those fired American Apparel employees had considered their obtaining nine-digit Social Security numbers an impossible dream.

American Apparel presents a tempting target for the feds: Dov Charney, its chairman and CEO, is the most outré leader of any publicly-traded company in the nation. Charney has photographed hundreds of American Apparel’s notorious print ads featuring skimpily clad models, presumably far closer to the master bedroom of his Silver Lake home than his company’s bustling headquarters. His sybaritic shenanigans inside American Apparel have become the cornerstone of many an attorney’s workplace litigation practice.

Dov Charney is easily the most outre leader of a publicly-traded company in the country. But the Canadian emigre has got some balls when it comes to the rights of undocumented workers.

But Charney has also demanded legal status for all of his employees, and pays them an average wage of $18 an hour, plus benefits. He has a point: if you work hard and abide by the law, your host country should try and make an accommodation. His efforts have been denounced by self-proclaimed pro-business politician Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, as an addiction to foreign workers. But Bilbray isn’t much of a fan of the domestic worker, either: he voted against increasing the federal minimum wage two years ago to $7.25 an hour.

I want employers like American Apparel to abide by the law, but I feel that this mass firing has in some way trampled on our past compacts. Less than a century ago, as many as 3 million Europeans immigrated here each year as a cheap source of labor. Most encountered brutal prejudices, but the deal was clear: work hard and you can stay, which is something Charney would like to see repeated in the 21st century. Virtually all of those European immigrants entered the country legally, but my guess is if Italy, Russia, Ireland and Germany had borders with the U.S., many of those people would have snuck across them rather than stop at Ellis Island.

Charney himself immigrated from Montreal, and his peccadilloes aside, he’s worked harder than virtually all of us. Yet if he had not created a business that employs 7,000 Southern Californians and the power and influence that accrues with such an accomplishment, he might have been escorted back to the Great White North years ago. Given his success, one would assume all of Charney’s employees work very hard as well, and therefore should be allowed to remain at work.

Which brings be back to Rep. Bilbray. Like many neo-conservatives, he worships at the altar of Ronald Reagan. But he will never acknowledge perhaps the most generous and historic act of Reagan’s presidency: the 1986 amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants. I’m thankful for it on many mornings and evenings, because the coffee shop closest to my house is owned by an amnesty recipient. He had been working as a busboy at the restaurant in the mid-1980s when the owner decided to retire and sell out to him, the deal hinging on his becoming legal and a citizen. He’s since opened a second restaurant that’s enlivened a dilapidated West Hills strip mall. He pays all his employees well above minimum wage; his cook clears $1,000 a week. They do indeed charge admission here, but my bill is rarely more than $25, even when I’m with my family.

Of course, I may be confusing the issue when I wax about immigrants who offer fair wages and wane about natives who consider it more practical to put 1,800 working stiffs on the streets in a steep recession who would likely be law-abiding individuals but for the lack of a nine-digit number. But we live in a world that every day is fueled more by political expediency and less by common sense.

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Los Feliz Haunt

(Editor’s Note: I was working against the clock on this piece, well aware that the L.A. Times’s inestimable cityside reporter Bob Pool had worked up a long takeout, which was published as today’s Column One feature. Pool’s article had been held for weeks, the result of a painfully pinched newshole. I kept my fingers crossed, but these things happen. I do have some photos of the property, and a more contemplative angle.)

There are a lot of haunted houses in Los Angeles.

I don’t mean infested with ghosts and vampires. I mean an event has occurred on the premises so horrific that no one is ever comfortable living within its walls again.

L.A.’s two most famous haunted houses were the scenes of the Tate-La Bianca murders, committed 40 years ago this August. The house on Cielo Drive in Bel-Air where Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered had tenants shuffle in and out for a quarter century after the carnage, with Trent Reznor among its last lessees. It was torn down in the mid-1990s and replaced with a 16,000-square-foot behemoth you can see from miles away. Even with the old house gone, it took more than a year to sell the property, as I recall the defunct New Times Los Angeles reporting. One would-be buyer from Saudi Arabia apparently backed out at the last minute, after being erroneously informed that hundreds of people had been killed there.

The Los Feliz home where Leno and Rosemary La Bianca were stabbed to death still stands, but it’s changed hands many times. It also sports a different address, to keep away the curious.

No such obstacles prevent looky-loos from visiting another haunted property that’s just a short drive from the former La Bianca residence. It’s nestled in a cul-de-sac on the 2400 block of Glendower Place.

The mansion on the 2400 block of Glendower Pl. has obviously been vacant for decades.

The mansion on the 2400 block of Glendower Pl. has obviously been vacant for decades.

The beige Spanish-style house was built in 1925 and is enormous – more than 5,000 square feet, according to public records. It commands a gorgeous view of the Hollywood flatlands, reachable only by several steep and staggered stairways. The only home in the neighborhood with a more imposing presence is the fabled Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House, which looms over the Glendower home’s surprisingly small backyard.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a horrible murder-suicide that occurred there. According to the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 7, 1959, 50-year-old physician Harold N. Perelson killed his 42-year-old wife Lillian with a hammer while she slept. He also attacked his 18-year-old daughter. When his two younger children awoke to screaming, Perelson told them it was a nightmare, and that they should go back to sleep. They complied.

The older daughter fled to a neighbor’s house. That neighbor went to confront Perelson. By the time the police arrived, Perelson was dead himself, having ingested poison.

The living room of the Glendower house.

The living room of the Glendower house, photographed through a dirty window screen.

The Glendower property is the kind producers, mini-real estate moguls and neurosurgeons salivate over, even in the current down market. But it’s obvious by peering into the grime-caked windows of this manse that it’s been vacant for decades.

In a front room of the house, many plastic bowls sit on sheets of newspaper, which in turn covers either long-rotted carpet or wood. At first I thought they were for feeding pets, but then I realized the flat roof in that section of the house leaks like a sieve. A vintage radio sits on a shelf on the far wall behind the bowls. Most of the pieces of furniture visible in the rambling manse have long been covered with dusty sheets. Two yellow-vinyl wing chairs in the living room looked particularly garish, until I realized they were quite the style in the 1950s, which is probably the last time they were used. A back room is filled with old LPs, an ancient television, and a board game called “Table Tennis,” which looks nearly pristine, even though its graphics suggest it was produced eons ago.

Bowls in a front room; probably to capture water from a leaky roof.

Bowls in a front room. They probably capture water from a leaky roof.

There is a sadness in this unused home and its aging contents, particularly in light of the facts, of which there are few beyond the obvious. The L.A. Times of the 1950s was still a reactionary rag that had yet to practice serious journalism. Its first-day story of the tragedy ended on a singularly useless note: the names of the Los Angeles Police Department detectives who were first to arrive on the scene. It did mention that Harold Perelson had been experiencing some financial difficulties. Even in its current diminished state, the Times delved far deeper into the recent murder-suicide of the Lupoe family (and all the other murder suicides of recent years).

An unconfirmed rumor circulated in the years after the Glendower tragedy: Harold Perelson had been discreetly committed by his wife for depression, then reacted violently when he was released, certain the news of his hospitalization would wreck his Inglewood medical practice. This was an era when even medical professionals would deal with mental health issues through doses of Milltown and a staff upper lip, and wives were often discouraged — sometimes violently — from taking serious family matters into their own hands.

An ancient television and board game (far right), sit in a back room.

An ancient television and board game (far right), sit in a back room.

I tried to revisit the Perelson tragedy myself, locating what I believed to be Harold Perelson’s son Joel, who is living in New York (I couldn’t find the two other Perelson children). Joel was 13 when his parents died; he would be in his 60s now. It was a tough phone call to make. Not quite as tough as some of the obit calls I made as a cub reporter, but nor was it something I was itching to do.

After the line rang perhaps 10 times, I received one of those robotic answering machine messages: “Hello. No one is here to take your call. Please call again later.” I was then cut off. A second call I made the following day was met with the same result. It was exactly the kind of message you would expect to hear from a home where someone did not want to be disturbed by outsiders. Ever.

The Ennis House looms over the Glendower property's backyard.

The Ennis House looms over the Glendower property's backyard.

The only professional trace that remains of Joel’s father was an article he published in the Southern Medical Journal in August 1947. It was entitled: “Occipital Nerve Tenderness: A Sign of Headache.”


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Clichéd unemployment reporting now underway!

I was wondering when my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, would dust off the most shopworn of journalistic practices during a recession: visiting the local unemployment office. Such articles do little more than assay the desperation of the people using the services, and throw in a quote or two from the office staff about how busy it’s been. They provide little a dwindling pool of newspaper readers doesn’t already know.

Then they all rolled in at once: Times columnists Sandy Banks and Steve Lopez published essentially the same stories over the weekend, visiting California Employment Development Department (EDD) offices in the San Fernando Valley. Although the Times just announced plans to axe its local/California section, the city editors may have already departed.

The same might be said for the copy desk, given this doozy of an observation by Lopez: “I feel for the first time in my life that most of us are one piece of bad news away from the abyss. As I write this, another round of layoffs is being announced by my employer, and a cloud that never moves too far away has darkened another day.”

staring down an abyss, or another deadline?

Steve Lopez: staring down an abyss, or another movie deal?

Lopez’s Points West column is mostly rock-solid, and is arguably the most visible and popular feature in the Times. That’s supported by the fact the paper regularly runs ads showing him in a crosswalk just yards from his office, appearing to stalk either eternal truth or a Frappuccino. In April, Lopez will be portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in “The Soloist,” which is based on his reporting about a homeless man who is a Juilliard-trained musician (Jamie Foxx).

If your paper’s marketing campaign is designed around you and you have a movie coming out based on your work that’s packed with Oscar-winning and nominated actors, a personal abyss is unlikely unless you commence smoking crack or molesting children. It would have been more intellectually honest had Lopez acknowledged that reality in his column, but then he wouldn’t have been able to file prose as purple as an eggplant.

Banks’s column wasn’t much of an improvement. She reported the recession was hitting the middle-class very hard, but inextricably tied its plight into the recent murder-suicide of a local family committed by unemployed x-ray technician Ervin Lupoe, who gunned down his wife and five children.

“His predicament – deeply in debt, jolted by job loss, despondent over his family’s future – is becoming a familiar story,” Banks wrote. This description is at odds with her own newspaper’s reporting that the Lupoes’s financial situation “did not appear particularly dire” and that their credit card bills were paid up. Banks also filled many, many paragraphs before getting around to mentioning that Lupoe and his wife lost their jobs with Kaiser Permanente not because of the economic environment but because they falsified documents to obtain discounted child-care. Derangement, not despondency, was Ervin Lupoe’s operative emotion.

Banks is more on point when she describes the pricey vehicles many of the office’s patrons were driving. But then she recalled the unemployment her late husband suffered during the 1981-82 recession. Even though he eventually segued out of social work and into a more lucrative career in sales, Banks noted the experience “exhausted our savings, strained our relationship and stole our youthful optimism.” Oy.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Both stories were acutely lacking in analysis. Lopez ticked off the former occupations of the job-seekers: construction, sales, animal hospital receptionist, Wal-Mart clerk, waiter, telemarketer, managing director, etc. He didn’t note that most of those positions are held by people without a college education, and are therefore going to have a tenuous economic toehold during both busts and booms. He ended the story on a slight up-note, discussing how a frequent EDD patron had come up with a great idea to help his fellow unemployed, but added a snarky remark on how the man can tell a growth industry when he sees one.

Neither Banks or Lopez bothered to ask any EDD employees what the impact will be when their offices are closed two days a month and they will suffer a corresponding pay cut part of a cost-control measure undertaken by the State of California.

The one upside to these stories is that they tend to blossom during the trough of a recession, meaning some brighter news may well be ahead. Some are even informative: in a dog-bites-man twist, the Wall Street Journal reported in mid-January on how the unemployment offices in New Jersey have become a source of jobs for people out of work.

The Vancouver (Wash.) Colombian is more typical. It reported on the glitches the unemployed have experienced with Washington State’s mostly automated system to obtain benefits (the second-most shopworn element of this story is to report on the troubles people have getting their payments – and, indeed, the Times chimed in with this piece on Monday). The Colombian noted that at a state-mandated session to counsel the unemployed, “a line of 20 had already formed outside the door” by 7:45 a.m. However, it didn’t confirm whether this is a typical occurrence. It also had its share of interviews with those left despondent by their job losses, and the omniscient overview quote: “This is going to be the longest recession since the Great Depression,” says a regional labor analyst.

Gee, I’m glad I haven’t heard something like that before.

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