January 31, 2018

Siete Años Aquí

Seven years ago, on January 27, my flight from snowy New York landed at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

I was still wearing my winter boots, which I promptly tore off and threw in the trunk of my rental car.

The first place I drove to? Target. I bought a bikini there.

Later, I arrived to my new apartment in Beverly Hills, the lease for which I'd only signed a couple weeks before.

Seven years later, I still live in that same apartment. And I have no intention on leaving anytime soon.

If I've got to live in any apartment in the LA area—if I can't yet afford to buy a house—then I might as well just stay here.

But seven-plus years is a long time. It's the longest I've lived anywhere as an adult, just now surpassing the seven years I spent in my Manhattan apartment.

And I can't believe some of the things I haven't done in seven years—the things I haven't unpacked, the household items I haven't bought.

For example, it's taken me seven years to frame a limited edition poster of a live concert screening of Dracula I attended in 2011 in Big Sur. I'll be picking that up from the framer soon.

It took me seven years to find a bookshelf that I could use to display my tiki mugs. I liked the first one so much that I just bought another one to make a pair.

Of course, I moved to LA in a hurry, and I'd sold or given away many of my possessions back in New York so as to not have to pay movers to transport them across the country, so that forced me to start anew in LA.

When I got here, I bought a new couch, new rug, new coffee table (my first!), new chair, new shelves and tables and bedding and whatnot.

Some of it was a rush job and didn't quite fit in my small Art Deco studio. I've gotten rid of some of those items since.

Some of what I moved from New York turned out to be dead weight, unneeded for my new California life.

The jury's still out on some of it.

And now, after seven years, it's finally time to get a new quilt for my bed, a new trash can for my bathroom, and a new table for my bedside. It's amazing how such little changes can make an old apartment feel completely refreshed.

I'm not much for New Year's Resolutions, but the start of a new year is a good time to gather a "to do" list—and at the top of mine were three critical tasks:

  1. Go to the car wash. (Done New Year's Day, ✓)
  2. Take my cat to the vet. (Done two weeks ago, ✓)
  3. Hire a crew to "deep clean" my kitchen and bathroom. (Done this week, ✓)
After all, seven years is a long time to live in one place. And I'd dirtied up this place enough to require some professionals to come in.

When one of the crew members—who didn't speak much English—finished in the bathroom and came to check on me in the living room, I fumbled through some Spanish to explain to her how long it had been since the place had gotten "a big clean."

"Siete años aquí," I said.

"Siete años?!" she exclaimed, acknowledging what I meant.


And we need to say nothing more. The looks on our faces said it all. 

When she had me inspect her work in the bathroom, all I could say was, "It's so clean!" 

I hadn't seen it that clean in seven years.

But I didn't know how to say that in Spanish.

Maybe I will in another seven years.

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January 30, 2018

The Studio Built By The Little Tramp, Now Home to a Frog Named Kermit [Updated for 2024]

[Last updated 6/21/24 2:25 PM PT—The Wrap broke the story this week that the Henson family is looking to sell the historic studio, after having purchased it in 1999 and occupied it since the year 2000. 

I don't remember when it was that I first passed the former Charlie Chaplin soundstage on La Brea Avenue, just south of Sunset...

Postcard: Circa 1920s, California Postcard Co. (Collection of the California State Library)

...whether it was in the back of a taxi in the late '90s or riding shotgun with a coworker in the early 2000s.

January 29, 2018

How Draining the Mountains of Its Springs Became Big Business in LA

Note: This is a modified version of a piece I contributed to You can read the original here.

In 1917, the bottled spring water business was thriving so much that it warranted the opening of one of the largest bottling plants in the West at the time.

Circa 1933 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library)

And now, more than a century after first opening, the Arrowhead bottling plant near downtown Los Angeles on Washington Boulevard and Compton Avenue is one of the oldest continuously operating manufacturing facilities in LA.

When industrious Southern Californians discovered how to tap into one of our many natural resources—the unmolested riches of the San Bernardino Mountains—suddenly anyone could purchase water from our mountain springs to be bottled and shipped to the lowlands.

And thanks to Arrowhead’s aggressive marketing campaigns (which dovetailed with those promoting California as a tropical paradise that drew visitors from all over the country), that became very much the rage in the early 1900s.

That was a time when Southern Californians were fascinated with our mountain ranges and, in a fit of “mountain fever,” flocked to our mighty peaks for hiking, adventuresome trolley rides, dancing, stargazing, and more. Those with the money and the wherewithal to make the trek to our mountain resorts and retreats were romanced by the ruggedness of the Old West and intoxicated by the fresh mountain air and clear mountain creeks that seemed to run all year.

But it wasn’t just that our mountain spring water tasted better...

...because even that wouldn't have been enough to sell glass bottles of water to regular people who probably normally wouldn’t allow themselves such extravagances.

It wasn’t even enough for the water to be “pure,” since many waters at the time could have rated high in purity.

No, this water was something more than that: It was “healthful.”

Arrowhead capitalized on the popularity of drinking for health—like the tonic waters and seltzers that had become so popular in the mid-19th century—by advertising that doctors recommended its particular type of water for its mineral content (reportedly seven grains of mineral salts to the gallon).

Fortunately, some of the company’s fascinating history has been preserved...

...including the last bottle of glass before the company made the switch to plastic.

That and other artifacts had been literally gathering dust for decades in the basement and only saw the light of day again when Ms. G, a veteran Arrowhead staffer, decided to bring them upstairs...

...and put them on display in an empty space nobody was using, right next to the copy machine.

Unfortunately, though, this little makeshift museum—which includes various ephemera from when Arrowhead more broadly defined their role in the beverage business to include products like creamer and sugar, as well as ginger ale and a “champagne-style” orange soda—isn’t open to the public.

At least not yet, anyway.

But after years of drought and only one relatively wet season, should bottling and selling our local water have already gone out of vogue?

That question hit a fever pitch in October 2015, when the water level at Strawberry Creek—one of the sources the Nestlé-owned company taps into—hit a record low.

That’s also when no less than three advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that had granted a special use permit to Arrowhead in the past (actually, before the year 1914).

Apparently, the USFS has failed to properly document its approval of subsequent renewal applications—for the last 30 years.

Based on a decision from a federal judge in September 2016, Arrowhead had been able to continue to remove water from the San Bernardino Mountains—legally—until such time that the Forest Service officially revokes its permission.

Strawberry Creek ran dry for the first time—more than once—in 2017.

This past December, regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board reported that its 20-month investigation seems to show that the extraction and diversion of the water appears to be unauthorized.

The comment period on that report closes February 9, 2018.

According to Arrowhead, the company collects only water that’s naturally available at any given time at Arrowhead Springs (rather than, say, pumping into the groundwater supply). After all, it behooves the company to not let the well run dry, as it were.

Then again, that didn't stop the LADWP from draining Owens Lake after it surreptitiously acquired the water rights on the land that surrounded it.

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How to Rose Parade—Featured on

Presenting my first (and first of many, I hope) slideshow for Frommer's (featuring some additional photos not published on my own blog):

I've been preparing for this moment since at least 2014.

Does this mean I'm a "real" travel writer now?

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January 28, 2018

Memorializing Disasters in Space Flight

For anyone born around 1975, the Challenger disaster was a big deal. We remember it—being shown the footage in school—the way that my mother must remember watching the JFK assassination on TV.

It seemed incomprehensible.

It was a time when young schoolgirls idolized the first [Ed: American] woman in Space, Sally Ride.

Three years later, Christa McAuliffe was to follow in her space boots. But on January 28, 1986—midway through my fifth-grade year—the Challenger exploded and broke apart into two pieces just 73 seconds after launch. All seven crew members died.

That was 32 years ago. I was 10.

But there's another space shuttle disaster that, in terms of human death toll, was just as bad, just 15 years ago: the Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry after its mission  STS-107 on February 1, 2003.

It also killed all seven of its crew members.

The image of the Challenger becoming obliterated into two puffs of smoke is an image I wish I could forget, like the cloud coming out of the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. But in 2003, I was long out of school. I was knee-deep in my life working in the music industry in New York City. To be honest, I don't really remember the Columbia disaster happening.

Fortunately, both orbitors are memorialized at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, built upon the former site of the NASA Industrial Plant in Downey, CA.

Marked at the entrance by Apollo Boiler Plate 12’s command module...

...the Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on space museum with interactive displays like robotic arms, a gravity well, a shuttle simulator, robotics lab, rocket launcher, and of course an astronaut suit photo opp.

There's also the Challenger Learning Center, where you can simulate a return to the moon...

...or a voyage to Mars.

It seems fitting that this living tribute to the crew of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster be located on the site where the space shuttles were actually built... the former Vultee Aircraft Plant (circa mid-1930s), later known as Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) and, in response to President Kennedy's proclamation that launched the "space race," the Resident Apollo Spacecraft Office (RASPO).

Unfortunately, much of that original manufacturing and assembly complex responsible for the space shuttles that ended in disaster—known as North American Aviation—has been razed, paved over, and converted into a strip mall.

In fact, in one of the only remaining buildings, there's a T-Mobile store, though the inside has been gutted.

That's just around the bend from—and technically part of the same structure as—the Vultee Aircraft Company rotunda entrance at 12214 Lakewood Boulevard, designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann.

It's currently unoccupied, though presumably it's been spared the bulldozer.

This campus once housed over 300 astronauts, government contractors, and support personnel during the peak of the Apollo program...

...but at the peak of the plant (circa the mid-1960s), it actually was home to 35,000 workers.

From 1972 to 1985, a total of six vessels for "space transportation" (a.k.a. reusable spacecraft, which was a new thing) came out of the Downey plant: the Enterprise, the Columbia, the Challenger, the Discovery, the Atlantis, and the Endeavor.

But even before the Columbia disaster—widely attributed to a problem with a piece of foam that came flying off, a problem that NASA had known about for quite some time—the aerospace and defense business at the Downey plant was purchased by Boeing in 1996.

It subsequently continued on a smaller scale, until NASA relocated the remaining activities relocated to other sites and the NASA site was closed in 1999.

By then, the Columbia had been successfully accomplishing a variety of space missions for nearly two decades—including the very first flight of the space shuttle program in 1981.

But upon the near-completion of its 28th mission, when it disastrously killed all seven of its crew members in 2003, NASA suspended space shuttle flights while it investigated the accident over the course of two years.

It had been the Space Shuttle program's 113th flight.

And ultimately, the spacecraft that kicked off the Space Shuttle program essentially ended it, directly leading to the retirement of the entire fleet in 2011.

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Two Minutes Till Our Doom (Or, The Art of Buying Time) - Updated for 2023

[Last updated 5/26/23 11:34 AM PT—Tragically, the B-39 was removed from display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego and shipped off to be scrapped in Mexico in February 2022.]

This past week, members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board advanced the time of the Doomsday Clock by 30 seconds.

That puts it to 11:58 p.m.—just two minutes away from midnight, the end of the line.

We are two minutes till doomsday, the closest to the end of humanity we've been since 1953 (at least in the time that anyone has been keeping track, over the course of the last 70 years).

Now, the whole concept behind the Doomsday Clock is symbolic more than anything else—obviously we have more than 120 seconds before a man-made global catastrophe wipes us out. But if nothing else, it's significant by comparison.

The best we've gotten since then has been 17 minutes to midnight in 1991. At the beginning of the Cold War, at which point the clock launched in 1947, we were seven minutes to midnight.

Our demise has been imminent for quite some time, but it should create some alarm that the threat of nuclear war—compounded by climate change and "emerging technologies"—is just as bad right now as it was during the time that the U.S. was testing its H-bomb as part of Operation Ivy.

We are just as close to civilization-ending nuclear war right now as we were just four years into the nuclear arms race.

That is, if you trust the clock. Fortunately, the Doomsday Clock—unlike actual timepieces—can move forwards and backwards. It doesn't ever have to hit midnight, or even a minute to midnight.

All this talk of North Korea and nuclear warfare has got me thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis—something I knew by name but never learned about in history class. I didn't even remotely grasp the concept when I was in Cuba in 2016. But after a bit of research—timely to our current situation, to say the least—I now understand that the closest nuclear war threat we ever had, and the closest the Doomsday Clock should've ever gotten to midnight, was in 1962.

Circa 1962, By USN (Official U.S. Navy photograph [1] via [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, what happened in those waters surrounding the Cuban archipelago entered a crisis state, climaxed, and resolved too quickly for anyone to adjust the Doomsday Clock accordingly.

Located so incredibly close to the tip of Florida, Cuba proved to be a strategic military alliance for the Soviet Union, which sent a number of its submarines into the waters there, helping bring the world's two biggest nuclear superpowers to the brink of war.

Perhaps one of the best places to learn about what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis isn't actually Cuba, nor is it Russia, but San Diego—at the Maritime Museum, which has in its collection a B-39 (Б-39) Soviet era attack submarine of the Foxtrot class. [Update 5/26/23—The submarine has since been put out to pasture.]

It was part of the Soviet Navy's fleet called "Project 641"—and although this particular "undersea boat" wasn't commissioned until 1967, it's similar enough to the ones that were submerged near Cuba and armed with a nuclear warhead.

These boats would go to such ocean depths that their crews would lose radio contact with Moscow—something that's normally OK for brief periods of time, as long as a crisis isn't happening.

But when one of those boats has been "under" for a while, and its radar detects American military ships closing in on it at sea level, what can you do without outside command?

It sounds like the Americans are dropping grenades on you—or, at least, all around you. You're so deep underwater that you don't know if the world is already at nuclear war. You should be under attack, but you don't want to breach the surface to find out.

Your submarine is equipped with a nuclear warhead—the one with the purple tip—just in case. Why would the Navy give you one if you weren't supposed to use it?

You're running out of fuel. These submarines, though diesel-electric hybrids, were only meant to run submerged for three to five days at a time.

Your crew is getting stir crazy, more than 50 seamen crammed into a 300 foot boat...

...chock full of equipment, leaving very little leg room.

The cabin fever is compounded by a lack of oxygen and the rising temperatures from the A/C being on the fritz. The B-59 was designed for the freezing waters of the Arctic, not the warm, tropical tides of the Caribbean.

If you remain 800 feet or more below the water's surface much longer, you and your crew will surely die. There's no escaping it.

But coming up for air could also be suicide: You may be shot down or bombed by one of the 11 U.S. destroyers up there, or you may find yourself poking your head up into the middle of thermonuclear war.

And if you aim your torpedoes at whatever is headed your way, you could be the one to start a war that hadn't already begun in the first place.

That's exactly the dilemma that another submarine, the B-59 (Б-59) faced on October 27, 1962, when its captain ordered that its nuclear-tipped torpedo be launched against the USS Randolph aircraft carrier. After all, he didn't want to become the shame of the fleet.

And the only thing that kept the strike from happening was the vote from one man: Vasili Arkhipov (Василий Александрович Архипов), the B-59's second-in-command and commander of the entire flotilla (which is why they needed his vote).

He was only 34 years old at the time. He suggested that the "bombs" they were hearing—and that were rattling the sub—were mere warning shots, signals from the Americans for them to come up. They couldn't hide anymore, but maybe the U.S. Navy just wanted to question them.

But since the U.S. had no idea that the sub had been equipped with a nuclear torpedo—and wouldn't find out until 50 years later—Naval officers simply sent the boat home to Russia to enforce President Kennedy's "no sea traffic" rule. They didn't board the B-59. They didn't inspect anything.

So, it turns out that Arkhipov was right. And he has since become known as the man who "saved the world."

Well, he bought us some time, anyway. Maybe he was just delaying the inevitable.

Still, although I am watching the seconds tick by on the Doomsday Clock with trepidation, dread, and horror, I am hoping that there is at least one guy out there who might be able to convince someone not to hit the big red button when the time comes.

Because sometimes, we're so deep underwater that we can't see what's going on at the surface. And although it may feel like we've got to do something, sometimes it's better to just wait and see.

Sometimes it's better if your decision is not to decide.

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