Nothing's Permanent

The Leader building on Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.

On Fairfax Avenue just north of Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles. The Leader sign is attention-getting — it got mine, anyway, when Kate and I were strolling past last March —but what is/was it about?

Answer: From 1946 through 1989, the building housed a well-known and very busy beauty shop. The L.A. Times ran a very good story on its closing: Nothing’s Permanent: Fairfax Beauty Shop Closing After 43 Years. If you’re too busy for the link, the driving factor was rising real estate prices, and the family that ran the business cashed in on their property.

The July 1989 story notes that two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood were going for about $950 a month.

News From Our Semi-Intentional Menagerie

Monarch chrysalis, fastened to Ikea Strandmon armchair.

Briefly: We planted a bunch of milkweed this year in hopes of encouraging monarch butterflies to feed and reproduce. Among the lessons learned: There are lots of things out there in the world that will kill a monarch long before they have a chance to become butterflies. And when they get a chance to get to butterfly stage, the process is actually much more beautiful and absorbing than I had imagined.

Late in the season here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we noticed that the few adult monarchs around were accomplishing their reproductive mission more efficiently than they had been a few months ago. Maybe it was because most of the predators had gone underground for the year, but we were seeing more monarch larvae (aka caterpillars) than we had during the summer.

We brought a couple of well advanced caterpillars indoors and installed them in a butterfly house we’ve used several times this year. Kate, the chief wrangler of our semi-intentional menageries, named the larger of the new inmates Latelyton — that’s Lately and -ton — because of its appearance so late in the year.

It wasn’t long before Latelyton found his or her way out of the butterfly house. Where he/she had gone we had no idea. Monarchs that are ready to go into their chrysalids have a way of seeking an out of the way spot where they can attach themselves, so their odd, intense twisting dance to enclose themselves, and hang there in piece until they are ready to eclose (emerge, in insect talk).

We figured we’d see Latelyton after s/he emerged. I imagined a new butterfly flapping desperately to get outside to go about its natural calling. But it typically takes 12 to 14 days for a monarch to eclose, and as of yesterday, it had been three weeks with no sign of the wayward larva/pupa.

That was until Kate was vacuuming around an upholstered Ikea armchair. As she described it, she saw something dangling from one of the chair’s arms. It was, we are sure, Latelyton, in a perfect chrysalis. S/he does not look close to emerging, but what do we know? Maybe we’ll have on overwintering visitor. In any case, we’re letting him/her be. I’m hoping this monarch will at least wait until we get past our current predicted run of rainy, cold weather before it makes its next move.

The World of Dog Poop: Requests, Entreaties, Demands

Directions for cleaning up after your stylized dog, outside the city of Nagoya, Japan.

In our Berkeley dog-walking days (2006-18), I often considered the ethical and practical dimensions of dealing with canine excrement. It turns out lots of other people do, too, as evidenced by the advice posted – for free! – I see during my urban strolls.

Above is one I saw in Japan earlier this week. It made me wonder how many of these I’ve recorded over the years. The answer isn’t astronomical – 20 or so, after a quick look through my Flickr camera roll. Most are from Berkeley, but a handful come from elsewhere in the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City – with a few entries from Japan and Italy.

The Flickr album is below. If you’ve got a shot for me to add, send it my way.

Canine Advisories

Chicago Cemetery Visits: The O.A. Thorp Story

O.A. Thorp monument, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.

My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.

As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.

My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries, I think, after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.

The inscription: ‘Christ my hope.’ Sjur was a Lutheran minister who died of the effects of Parkinson’s disease in 1932. Otilia was a devout young Lutheran woman who met him at her church when he was finishing his ministerial training.

Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.

On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.

The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:

Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.

The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.

A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.

The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.

The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.

Part of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean’s report on the arrival of the Wergeland, published May 27, 1892.

So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”

He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:

“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “

Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.

How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.

In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.

One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Special Airline Edition: Reply Stop to Cancel

Jet fuel leaks from the starboard wing of Alaska Airlines Flight 1213 at O’Hare International Airport, Sept. 23, 2019.

We were in Chicago for a wedding last week and flew back to San Francisco on Monday. We got to the airport in plenty of time and discovered our flight was a little late. No worries.

We found a place to sit that had a view of the plane’s parking space and of the jetway at our gate. The incoming flight was later than advertised, finally pulling up and shutting down maybe 25 minutes late. I watched as the jetway was extended toward the plane to allow the arriving passengers to escape their confinement. But the apparatus stopped about 10 feet short of its target. The ground crew tried to retract it and re-extend it. They couldn’t get it to close the gap.

As the minutes went by, I was imagining the slow burn the passengers stuck on the plane were doing. I was wondering whether someone would appear with a couple of planks for people to walk across from jet to jetway.

What actually happened , after 20 minutes or so, was that two guys from American Airlines showed up. One of them got a step ladder and set it up adjacent to what looked like an electrical box on the jetway. Then he climbed up, took a “hundreds of Americans die every year doing stunts like this” stance, with one foot on the ladder and the other on the electrical box, and fiddled for about 10 seconds with a switch. He climbed down and signaled to someone to give the jetway a try. This time it worked. So at about 5:50, roughly 35 minutes after the plane parked, and about the exact time Flight 1213 was scheduled to pull away from the gate for the trip to San Francisco, the arriving passengers could get off.

An American Airlines technician climbs up a ladder to fiddle with a switch on a non-functioning jetway at O’Hare Gate G6.

It took about 30 minutes for everyone to make their way off the airliner and for a cleaning crew to race through the aircraft and straighten it up. Then it was our turn to get on, and I’m guessing another 20 minutes or so to hustle everyone on board. We pulled back from the gate at about 6:40, 50 minutes late, but not a disaster.

Once we were pointed toward the taxiway, but still just 50 yards or so from the gate, we had to sit for awhile to get in the takeoff queue. I was sitting pretty far back, looking out the window on the plane’s right side. Suddenly, liquid began spouting out of the wing. A lot of fluid. It kept going. What was it? Water? That didn’t make sense. Jet fuel? that wouldn’t be good. While I was pondering this mystery, which I thought someone ought to point out to the crew, someone else a few rows ahead of me said, “Hey! Look at this! Something’s coming out of the wing!”

That got a flight attendant’s attention. She looked out a window. Another crew member said, “Call them and tell them.” One of the flight attendants reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.

The liquid kept cascading to the ground. The flow gradually slowed, then stopped. Hard to say how much spilled onto the tarmac. One hundred gallons? Five hundred? Eventually, the flight’s captain got on the PA and confirmed that we had been seeing jet fuel spilling. More than once, he suggested that it had been a normal occurrence and tried to explain what happened. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded like an issue with having failed to properly balance the fuel load between the aircraft’s tanks and that a valve had opened — to relieve fuel line pressure? — and released fuel onto the ground. (As I say, I’m not sure I understood the details. I’d love to have an Airbus mechanic explain it again.)

In any case, we had to go back to the gate so maintenance technicians could check out the issue. Then the plane took on additional fuel. Then paperwork had to be done. The plane was opened up so people could wander around the terminal if they liked — but not too far! — and maybe grab a snack. The woman setting next to Kate and me came back with pizza slices.

All of that consumed another two hours. Kate and I did not leave the plane, though we got up a couple times to stretch. Finally, all the checking and rechecking was done, the wandering passengers were called back, and at 8:40 — now nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, we again pulled back from the gate.

All that stood between us and actual flight now was the long line of airliners waiting to take off ahead of us. The wait for our turn turned out to be another 40 minutes, making our departure nearly three hours and 20 minutes late. I was hoping Alaska would spring for free beer, or at least beer nuts, as compensation for the delay. No such luck.

Long story short: We made good time to SFO, and were off our plane by 11:35 p.m. (1:35 a.m. Chicago time). I had visions of making the last cheapskate BART train back to the East Bay. But by the time we had collected our bags and made it up to the AirTrain for the ride to the BART stop, it was too late. We wound up taking a Lyft ride instead — kind of a treat, actually, and we didn’t have to schlep our bags the last couple blocks home from the station.

I was thinking about complaining to Alaska as all this was unfolding. But then I got a personal message from the airline that came in just as our plane landed. It made me feel kind of … well, see for yourself.

A House Up the Street

It sold for $550,000 in 2003. It sold for $985,000 in 2015. In 2019, after a small addition was added, it sold for $2,050,000.

You may have heard that the Bay Area real estate market has veered into the crazy zone and the nutty rices that buyers are shelling out for shelter. Not too long ago, that seemed like something happening far away — maybe down in Palo Alto, the cradle of Silicon Valley and all its wealth, where we used to hear stories about modest old bungalows being purchased for millions just to be knocked down and replaced by something grand, or at least big.

Well, the irrationality — I won’t try to diagnose the causes right now, or comment on the unsustainability or the fact it has made my own neighborhood neither we nor our kids could possibly afford if we were buying now — has shown up right on our street. We’ve lived here since the late ’80s after a house turned up that owners were selling in “as-is” condition and we were able to scrape up a down payment with help from my parents and my wife’s employer. I can’t tell you how lucky we felt to be able to do it.

Late in 2017, a house that had been in the same family for more than half a century went on the market. The specifics: two bedrooms, one bath, a little under 1,300 square feet. A relative of the elderly owners, who had passed away, traveled back and forth from Southern California to update the house, which looked nice when the “for sale” sign went up.

The asking price: $875,000. Now, it’s understood that in this market that figure was a fiction, one meant to attract attention and leave plenty of room for the price to be bid up. Friends who long ago lived on the street were interested because their daughter was looking for a place. They have some resources, but were not optimistic that they’d win the bidding war, which they were certain would go well over $1 million. As a last resort, they wrote a letter to the sellers about their past connection to the street.

I’ll bet it was a nice letter, but they needn’t have bothered. The little bungalow sold for $1,650,000 . Nearly double the asking price and well beyond the offer they stretched themselves to make.

Once you’ve seen that happen, it’s not surprising when it happens again. And since early last year, sales in the $1.5 million range have become commonplace in the surrounding neighborhood. Not that that’s the limit: Earlier this year, a nicely redone home a couple blocks from us — four bedrooms, three baths — sold for $2.8 million. The agent sent a flyer around after the sale that bragged the home had attracted five all-cash offers — including the eventual buyer — that were over the $1.8 million asking price. (Did I bury the lede there? The house sold for $1 million over that original price, which today is better thought of as a reserve price, a minimum acceptable bid in what is understood to be an auction).

And this keeps happening. A month or so ago, another home on our street — next door to the one that sold last year for $1.6-million plus. I found the sales history: In 2003, the long-time owners sold the home, which was then probably two bedrooms and one bath, for $550,000. I’m guessing they felt they made out all right on the deal.

In 2015, the house, which I believe was at least modernized by the interim owners, sold for $985,000. High, perhaps, but in the current situation not insane-sounding. The new buyers added a 500-square-foot addition — a master bedroom and full bath — and remodeled the kitchen. A couple of months ago we ran into the owners, who still seemed like newcomers to the neighborhood, on what happened to be their last night in the house before they moved to Copenhagen.

The house was staged for the sale, the sign was posted out front, and I believe the bidding began at $1,395,000. How high did it go? The sale became official just yesterday. The price was $2,050,000.

As it happens, I crossed paths yesterday morning with a real estate agent who was putting up a sign for an open house. I said hi, and he responded with a bright, “Want to buy a house?”

“Ha!” I said. “Not in this neighborhood. You know that story.”

“Keep saving your pennies,” he said. “Maybe someday you can.”

Road Blog: Writing It Down

We’re on an overnight trip to Fort Bragg, up on the Mendocino County coast, and that’s where I’m writing from right now.

While assessing the weather and lodging possibilities (there was actually rain in the forecast for most of California for Sunday, and on Saturday, there were big thunderstorms with very heavy rain northeast of Los Angeles), the Pinnacles came up. As in Pinnacles National Park.

Before that, the park was called Pinnacles National Monument. We drove down there once — the park is about 100 miles south of us as the crow doesn’t really fly — after hearing that some very, very rare California condors were nesting there.

In recalling that trip the other day, Kate mentioned a couple things she remembered about it. Specifically: Talking to someone who had talked about how curious and mischievous condors could be, and how some of the immense birds had visited a construction site where he had worked and managed to open a box of nails and spread them around.

Huh — that sounded familiar. What I remembered hearing — wasn’t sure whether it was on that trip or another — was that condors had a thing for insulation-type material and that they had been known to rip it out of the roofs of homes under construction or even tear apart the operator’s seat on a bulldozer. I wasn’t sure, though. Then I wondered whether I had written any of that stuff down somewhere. “Somewhere” being right here in whatever you call this long, long collection of scribblings.

So I searched — there actually is a functioning search on this site — and a post from March 2010 emerged. It said in part:

“… While we stood in the parking lot outside the visitors center, Kate pointed and said, “Look!” Big bird overhead. Didn’t look like a vulture; bigger body and heavier wings. Didn’t look like an eagle; heavier wings with those splayed-out feathers at the tips. We grabbed the binoculars and each looked. No doubt about it: a California condor. In two or three minutes it was joined by one, then four, then five others: six condors wheeling upward–directly above the visitors center. One-thirtieth of the wild population, circling overhead.

“There were about 40 people standing in line to catch a shuttle bus to a trailhead higher up, and not one of them was looking up or seemed aware of what was happening above them. I couldn’t resist calling out, “Look up, everyone,” and Kate walked over to point out what we were seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes came up. I had my radio sound kit with me and talked to a few people about the condors. I found two people in line who had close encounters with them in Big Sur. One of the people was a volunteer condor guide and knew all about the birds, the other had managed a construction project that the condors visited. The endangered birds pulled stunts like pulling out a 50-pound box of nails and strewing it around the site. The condors apparently love to dig into things and would rip out insulation when they could get at it; on one occasion, a bird ripped out the seat from a bulldozer.”

 
I was gratified that I had taken note of the moment and written perhaps a fraction of it down. I might even still have the audio I recorded from that day — haven’t checked yet. (The one sobering thought: This was nine years ago.


This morning — the early sun that lit up the ocean in our clear view to the west has given way to a flat low overcast — Kate saw a man outside our motel who reminded her of someone we encountered during our 2017 Eclipse Odyssey.

On our second night out on the road from Berkeley, we had stayed in Twin Falls, Idaho. Before shoving off on Day 3, we hiked up to a pet supply store to buy a bed for Scout (aka The Dog), who didn’t seem to be very comfortable in the back seat of our rented Toyota 4Runner. When we got to the little mall where the store was, we could see we were right on the very edge of the Snake Creek Canyon, which is a sight. It’s remembered in popular lore as the chasm that Evel Knievel launched himself partway across in a September 1974 stunt that happened to occur the same day that President Gerald Ford pardoned the previous officeholder, Richard Nixon, though Nixon had not yet been criminally charged in connection with the Watergate break-in and coverup. (No, it seems I cannot mention Knievel’s Snake River “jump” without saying something about Nixon’s pardon — the two events are welded together in my mind.)

Back to Kate, though: She remarked on this person we met in Twin Falls a couple years ago. I remembered we sat in some shade outside the visitors center after watching people base jump from the U.S. 93 bridge and paragliding the several hundred feet down to the river. I remember telling him we were from Berkeley and that he met that with some California reminiscence.

I couldn’t remember all the specifics, so looked to see whether I had written anything at all about that encounter. Here is what I found:

“We started out in Twin Falls, Idaho, today, walking through a mall to the Petco with, guaranteed, the most scenic view in all of Petco World. Or, it would be the most scenic view if the entrance was at the back of the store, because that’s where you can look down into the Snake River Canyon of Evel Knievel fame.

“Alas, Evel is pulling his cheap stunts in the afterlife now (and maybe still getting upstaged by Richard Nixon). But there were base jumpers leaping, one after another, from the big beautiful steel arch bridge that carries U.S. 93 across the canyon. Here’s a video — watch it full screen — that sort of conveys what that was about:

“At the visitors center, near the Petco and overlooking the bridge, I had a talk with a guy who arrived with a daypack and a longboard-style skateboard who confided early on, “I’m a bum. I live down in the canyon.” But what he really wanted was to talk about losing a camera over the side of the canyon rim earlier in the week. He also confided he was an old time base jumper who had gone off the high bridge outside Auburn many times (OK — he said 1,000 times).”

 
Which isn’t to say I captured a wealth of detail. But — maybe this reflection is sparked in part by listening in the car to an Anne Lamott lecture on writing and the importance of attentiveness — I was glad that I had put something down that sort of anchors the historical moment.

City Planning

I have spent part of the evening trying to find some statistics on the East Bay’s old Key System — our local streetcar system that once upon a time ran through Berkeley and Oakland and neighboring cities and crossed the Bay Bridge to the late and mostly unlamented Transbay Terminal.

I didn’t find, yet, the stats I was looking for — what the peak average transbay ridership was — but I did stumble across a 1915 report that laid out city plans for Oakland and Berkeley and talks about the role of the Key System. I find old studies and reports like this fascinating when contemplating the current landscape and wondering where it all went wrong.

I’ve hardly looked at the report, partly because I was stopped by this declaration on the page facing the preface:

CITY PLANNING IS INSURANCE AGAINST WASTE OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FUNDS.

City planning means co-ordination of the activities that make for the growth of the city, especially the activities of railroad and harbor engineers, landscape architects, street-building and civil engineers, builders of factories, of offices, of public buildings and dwelling houses. Without this pre-planning co-ordination, clashes between these different activities, unsatisfactory results and most expensive rearrangements, become unavoidable. City planning therefore does not mean additional expenditure of money, but it means an INSURANCE AGAINST INEFFICIENT EXPENDITURE of the enormous sums that go — in the regular course of events — into the development of a progressive city.

Sounds straightforward.

‘Above All … Keep Moving’

I heard the beginning of this quote from Tim Dee, a British nature writer and BBC radio producer who I’m going to meet Sunday on a panel about one of his books. It’s from Kierkegaard, and I find the observation about sitting as compelling as the one about walking:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Timeline

This week’s KQED work project, thanks to KnightLab’s TimelineJS (and our local utility filing for bankruptcy):