L.A. Slacker Report

Things Ain’t What They Used to be in Echo Park

As a resident of Taos, why report back from an utterly uneventful trip to Los Angeles? It’s a fair question. I am scribbling at LAX after getting my rental car checked in too early, anticipating extra security at the airport after a shooting held up my arrival flight. We all know there’s no way to predict how long you’ll spend in an airport; ask Ed Snowden. I was faced in the restroom here with a short, hand-scribed poem likening Texans to what I found in the toilet bowl of the first stall I checked. This poem, any learned Taos resident knows, might just as easily have been found in one of the bathrooms at Taos Ski Valley. But at the last show I went to at the KTAO venue, there was a warm, mutual round of Los Angeles bashing prompted by the touring band, from neither New Mexico nor California, and to me it felt a bit like listening to everyone having a go at an annoying yet loveable family member of mine who none of the people talking trash really knew all that well.  L.A. bashing is my job, and mostly just mine, because I most certainly did grow up there.

So flash back a few days from my reading of a rather unimpressive, yet thought-provoking rhyme I discovered in the ever-appealing airport bathroom, and you’ll learn the real reason for my trip – I made my plans with the sole intention of visiting and relaxing. This is a foreign idea to Californians and New Mexicans alike – a relaxation trip to L.A – but I have had success before when I’ve booked a cheap room in a non-threatening neighborhood, near enough to the beach that I don’t think twice about going when I feel remotely inclined. Let’s just call it a room in Culver City. I’ve found my little nook, complete with a Mexican place in sight of the ocean, open until 2:30 on the weekend and 2 on weekdays (yes, that means a.m., you sleepers) and I don’t want to be bumping into people I live next to in New Mexico when I come here; go to Culver City and find your own Mexican place if you want to try this vacation formula out.

Moving our focus away from the beach and toward Hollywood and downtown, I will review the taco stand in my old neighborhood, Echo Park, and mention something about the legendary jazz guitarist I saw on a Monday night. I didn’t catch the whole show, nor did I enjoy Mexican food at 2:20 a.m., or even anytime after 10pm, but the fact that those options were available to me was the very liberty I found relaxing. Well, that and the relative confidence that I wouldn’t bump into anyone whose sole mission in life is to break my vacation spell by asking questions about the job I’ve used precious days off to take a break from.

Hipness in L.A, as represented by modern art and gay-friendly attire, has been spreading for a very long time. This is called “gentrification.” As one who has known Echo Park since the 1970s, I have to say I find the current atmosphere a fascinating change on the surface. To underline the change I’ll point out that even to this day, no matter who is standing next to me, in front of me, or driving by, I am hardwired to never let my guard down in Echo Park for even a second. The neighborhood was at one time a gang hub spoken of with the same justifiable fear as the now-international crime syndicate called 18th Street. What looks like an espresso lounge on Alvarado was once a dollar movie theatre with Spanish subtitles. The fabulous clothing store called “Out of the Closet” was once a Woolworths – a department store with the same low-ball tactics as Walmart. Provided I pay no attention to the political hows and whys of recent changes, I have very few grievances; it’s all charming as a guest in my old neck of the woods.

But to my reason for visiting Echo Park itself: the taco trucks. If you think that New Mexico can readily offer the same cuisine, you are very sadly mistaken. There’s a place in Espanola that comes close, but lacks grease on the tortillas. There is a truck on 4th street in downtown Albuquerque, which is actually a truer representation of this sacred ideal than a couple of my regular stops as they now exist in Echo Park, as I’ll explain.

I experienced one unforgivable shift in paradigm on the taco-truck tradition – the garments are in buckets for the choosing by the customer. No doubt a result of the welcome boom in business the trucks enjoy (namely the increasingly self-absorbed “made-to-order” taco customer – bright hair dyed, hipster twerps carrying their pickiness with them from the Midwest or whatever residency they claimed previous to California; a passing mention of a short history of addresses, spoken quickly under breath amidst the rattling of other L.A. districts they tried immediately upon bright-eyed arrival; and they will likely refer to L.A. districts boldly as a matter of comparison – all previous districts being lesser than their current alignment, as to the Echo Park I speak of); which is to say that Echo Park is now The New Hollywood Hills, and has suffered at least in this small matter of self-service taco garnishing for it.

“The New Hollywood Hills” was a term coined for the Los Feliz district, then Silverlake, moving shamelessly and greedily toward East L.A. or downtown. It’s like a blob of hipness, growing geographically every five or ten years, but from the snapshot I took in, I have no trouble describing it as a happy blob. These people seem utterly thrilled to be digging for Hollywood oil, perimeter industry employees or hopefuls that they are, and it’s good they like being there because they are certainly paying for the privilege in kind, when compared to the rent I last paid around 1993.

I sampled two trucks. At the first stop, on Sunset and Alvarado, right next to a car wash, I waited about ten minutes, which gave me plenty of time to size up the people ahead of me while they were scooping onions, cilantro, hot sauces, and sauces I barely recognized at all into little plastic cups to take home. The cashier still offers the options of “here,” or “to go,” which used to puzzle me, even agitate me a little, because there are no tables. It turned out that “here” means you get it on paper plates instead of wrapped in tinfoil and paper bags.

The thing is it used to be that if you ordered in Spanish, saying “con todo,” without any further discussion you would get a typical Baja-style taco with two little fried tortillas, meat, cilantro, onion, hot sauce, maybe some radishes on the side. The cooks on Alvarado seemed to be native Spanish speakers, but the guy who took my order had no accent and called me “Boss.”

On Sunset, heading away from downtown in a Mercado parking lot on the right, my old favorite still stands. It is now manned by a guy named M—–, from Guatamala. He does keep garments in buckets, but also asked if I wanted one or two tortillas, and grilled onion and jalapeno on the side. One of the items you could scoop into a cup was cucumber slices that had probably been soaking in jalapeno juice all day, judging from the kick. At the previous joint, I wouldn’t have even considered ordering in Spanish, because that cashier spoke English but probably also spoke perfect Spanish and would have treated me like an asshole for pretending to have a grasp beyond what it took to get my food (which I do, but he would’ve deliberately stumped me – how do I know this was in his character? – because he called me “Boss”).

On the other side of the language coin with M—–, my limited, yet readily available spoken vocabulary resulted in his delight, and my learning a couple of new verb conjugations while we chatted. This conversation also taught me that not everyone in the blob is as generally content as the new hipster residents. M—- feels stranded in his current situation, because it would cost him $600 dollars for a passport back home to Guatemala, as I understood him.

Look Taos, L.A. likes you, okay? They told me so. In fact, anyone I’ve ever talked to from anywhere in California who has heard the first thing about Taos thinks we’ve got it all for some reason, despite the fact that our coffee spots are cripplingly deficient by comparison. Sorry, but I can’t get a decent cup of coffee in Taos without hurting my neck by sticking my head out the window trying to figure out what the parking situation is; or waking up early on a Saturday to plan for a trip across town; or crinkling my eyebrows at someone’s latest spliff- and spittle-laden, nonconsensual poetry reading from the astral-plane.

So there’s no need to go chanting and grunting along with some douchebag singer from Arizona who’s saying Taos has nicer people than L.A. That same singer probably just can’t drive worth a shit, and consequently thinks people who cut him off on freeways he doesn’t understand are doing it to hurt his feelings. Nice is relative. To me, asking me if I want one or two tortillas and grilled things with my dollar and fifty cent taco when the guy can’t even get on a bus back to his home country is pretty damned nice.

As for the entertainment blob, I think that people acting like I ought to be in a swanker hotel, dressing nicer and schmoozing my scripts around a little more when all I wanted in the first place was said tacos and a good look at the beach, well, this kind of pretentiousness to me is just adorable. I can’t get enough of that shit; well, as long as we don’t end up talking about an actual script, of course; let’s not get into that at all; not yours, not mine, no thanks, bad hipster, go back and get a real story worth writing from the midwest, or practice your guitar a little more often because your rent’s not getting any cheaper.

Otherwise I’ll reserve my born and raised, L.A. bashing rights for the Kenny Burrell show I almost missed at a place called The Catalina; a place that may get its mail sent to a Sunset address, but is by no means on Sunset, no it isn’t, no matter what that guy on the phone cheerfully tells you, it is absolutely not on Sunset at all. To our credit, there are many businesses in Taos who put up signs and speak to people on the phone like they want us to get there and spend money. For this, I am happy enough to be heading home.