Interview with Diane Lefer, Writer/Human Rights Activist ~ Los Angeles
8:55 AM PDT on July 13, 2007
"If America's so bad, why does everyone want to be here?" His answer: "When you're here, you're less likely to be a victim of American foreign policy." Diane Lefer (pictured above) from "The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places"
"Good Morning and Happy 4th of July!... I feel the most patriotic action that I can take today is to be here in support of impeachment and especially impeachment of the poster boy for what is wrong with this administration." Maxine Waters, opening of the Los Angeles Impeachment Center, July 4th, 2007. The most patriotic action I could take on that same day was to sit down with Diane Lefer, independent and provocative thinker, author of the collections of short stories "Very Much Like Desire," "The Circles I Move In," her latest one "California Transit" and the novel "Radiant Hunger."
TACO: Why did you start wearing an orange jumpsuit in public?
Diane Lefer: I was inspired by an anonymous man in Washington DC who on his lunch hour dresses in an orange jumpsuit, puts a black hood over his head and kneels in front of the White House so that anyone passing the White House has to be confronted with what we're doing. So I got a jumpsuit and I got a hood, I went around LA, rode buses, walked around. Lately when I do readings for "California Transit", I show up with the jumpsuit at independent bookstores. I tried to do it at Barnes&Noble at The Grove but security wouldn't let me in. I said I had to buy a copy of the Constitution and he called for backup. (laughs) What we're doing is inhumane, illegal, horrible, I hate it but during the holidays I'm sitting on a bus in my jumpsuit and Santa Claus gets on the bus and sits across the aisle from me and it's funny. You can't censor out the humor even in the most grim situations.
TACO: How do people react?
DL: Most people avoid me, one man started screaming "Guantanamo Bay is like Club Med, they're getting gourmet food." Another man called me "a fucking communist," then he came back and said "no, you're a fucking liberal." Some people say "thank you."
TACO: The main character in "California Transit," the novella which inspired the title of your new collection of short stories, was a freedom rider in Mississipi in the 1960's. Was this story inspired by personal experience?
DL: I was too young for that. But when I was 18, I was teaching a summer program called Upward Bound on a Black campus in Alabama. It was an enrichment program for poor kids but none of the white kids signed up because they didn't want to live on campus with the Black kids. I was teaching high school kids almost my age, English, French and basketball. I didn't know much French at the time. The basketball was okay because I got the keys to the gym and all I had to do was unlock the place and the kids knew how to play. The local white people were very hostile. They tried to run me over when I took walks. Then I decided maybe I shouldn't take any more walks. (laughs) When I look back on it I think the Black community was remarkably peaceful considering there was no police presence. You had to solve everything yourself because if you called the police they would shoot and arrest people, innocent people would get caught up in it. When you had a problem you couldn't ask for help. Then a Black kid got me against the wall and put a gun to my head and told me he always wanted to kill a white person. I told him "Have you read "Wretched of the Earth?"
TACO:He had a gun to your head and you told him to read a book?!!
DL: I told him the author, Frantz Fanon, was a real revolutionary so we got to talk. I think he was tempting me, if he really wanted to kill me he would have done it. You want to ruin your life by killing me, at least pick a better target! He said I can't get to them, you're the only white person who comes here. I was there two or three months. I lived in the dorm, it was difficult, I was assigned a roommate and she wasn't happy about rooming with a white girl so she didn't really talk to me. And the other Black people who accepted me as white asked me to go to church. When I told them I was Jewish they stopped talking to me.
There were social and caste issues in the Black community too. On arrival I was assigned to mentor 6 young women. As it turned out the 6 girls were from a very rural area with no indoor plumbing, they were shunned and ostracized by the other kids on campus because they were so country and two of them were lesbians. So I was weird to begin with and I was with the kids that got bullied. It was challenging and I was completely unprepared.
"I will build a merciless demonstration, a building with mirrored surfaces, all tinted, so that everyone who sees himself will see himself with browner skin." Diane Lefer, "At The Site Where Vision Is Most Perfect"
"Do you think," I asked, "that when one becomes acutely aware of race, it's advisable to put oneself under a doctor's care?" Diane Lefer, "Naked Chinese People"
TACO: When I moved here, I was pretty ignorant of the current state of race in America. Back in France, I remember seeing the TV series "Roots" and my brother turned me on to Richard Wright's novels so to me it was a thing of the past. Then I moved to LA and I didn't have a car right away so I took a lot of buses and I noticed that maybe people rode buses together nowadays but they didn't get off at the same stations. Forward to ten years later and I'm driving and this woman was in her car coming out of a driveway and she was Black and I heard myself think: "If I let her go first, will she think I'm patronizing her but if I don't let her go first, will she think I think I'm superior because I'm white?" Diane, do you think I should go to the doctor? (laughs)
DL: I do think racism is a psycho-pathology. Being aware of it and naming it when we see it is a thing we have to do because the sickness is still in our society and until you diagnose it how can you cure it? It's bad when you become hyper conscious to the point it's interfering with how you function in society. The line in the story is a joke when she says it but it's true.
TACO: Your characters think aloud and they address race. From my experience, if you're saying something about another race, even if it's positive, it could be seen as suspicious. People might think: Who do you think you are to think you know what's best for us?
DL: I know some things I have written have offended people and I don't write to offend anyone, I'm very careful. People are going to interpret your work however they want to so one day I decided to stop censoring myself.
"Why did the English language capitalize the first person singular? Why was the singular form of the noun the root and the plural its extension? Did our language itself assert unity over multiplicity? Did it demean the collective? There were Indian languages that had no comparatives or superlatives. Was there any hope for our culture? Was it simply too violent, too hierarchical, too male, too white?" Diane Lefer, "California Transit"
TACO: When we blame the "White Man" for everything, isn't that racism? What about atrocities committed during civil wars, in Darfur, in Rwanda, is it just being male?
DL: The western society, especially the English language society is so individualistic they capitalize the I, and I think some of our aggression comes from "I can do whatever I want." Where the societies are more collective, where there is a sense of a we, then they're committing atrocities against a group. Here we have the lone gun man who is killing a bunch of people. I think the style of violence in America is embedded in our culture and the style of violence from other cultures is embedded in theirs and with globalization we can all be violent in diverse ways!
Here it's "every man for himself", "look out for number one." The Black community has often felt you're not just for yourself, you're for the people, sometimes they can't get ahead because they're giving money to their brother, their father etc. White Americans get a paycheck, leave town and you live for yourself and you accummulate things. You take care of yourself. Don't expect anyone to take care of you. Those were values that were embedded in the culture.
But the total collective doesn't work either. If I lived in a total collective I would have escaped from it. The worse thing you could call someone in Mexico is selfish. You find great selflessness along with terrible selfishness in Mexico because I think once you give up your commitment to the collective you don't quite know how to balance becoming an individual and still be responsible to your group and you may go all the way in a selfish violent direction. When I lived in Mexico I was so admiring of the community but also realizing I could enjoy it but I was free to travel.
TACO: When did you live in Mexico?
DL: I dropped out of Harvard which is supposed to be the intellectual center of America and I ran away to Mexico. I was living in Oaxaca and I would meet Indians with no education and who were illiterate and they are asking me how do you market corn in your country and all kinds of questions, philosophical, political, then I returned to the US and I went to Cambridge to see friends and the only question they asked was "So you lived in Mexico, what kind of drugs did you do?"
"Minfong cuts through the sclerotic coat. The tunic of protection protects no more. Incision, excision. She gasps as the membrane over the cornea curls up by itself like a fallen leaf in time-lapse photography. Slice, rotate, back to the back of the retina and she reveals the yellow oval at the place where vision is most perfect." Diane Lefer, "At the Site Where Vision Is Most Perfect"
TACO: Your new collection of short stories, "California Transit," seems to be about the need for greater vision. People are being watched and don't know about it. Or they disappear while nobody's watching. It seems to me you're saying part of America lives in the illusion of the American dream and believes Bush when he says we're going to teach democracy and freedom to the Middle East as if we perfectly embodied those values. Like the man in the window at the end of "At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect," some people don't see what is really going on. Your book shows a profound disillusionment in the American dream.
DL: The man in the window feels he has impunity, he thinks he can do whatever he wants and people won't notice. Look how long it took for this country to catch on to Bush. It's going to take generations to undo what's been done. The American dream has been destroyed, it didn't exist for people of color for a long time but then things started to change, unfortunately the structure of our economy now is more like what it used to be in Latin America.
TACO: Can you expand on that?
DL: The income is flowing to the top and the entire country is controlled by a few families, like Nicaragua before the Revolution. As in a lot of developing countries, the money didn't come from what they produce, the money came from the use of money, from dealings with banks and corporations, the money came from corruption not from production and the expertise was imported just like we import our engineers from India because we don't have the educational system that trains our own. That was true in the developing countries, the American engineers went there to work. Right now there is a huge transfer of money to Blackwater (As suggested by Diane, click here for a link to journalist Jeremy Scahill's book on Blackwater) and Halliburton, they're making billions off this war, they're not making money at producing something that benefits this country or anybody else in the world. That's how fortunes are being made today. It makes no sense at all. Yes we're post industrial I guess. It's still a very rich country but we're spending money just in order to give money to the rich rather than to create anything.
TACO: A lot has been written in recent years about the fact that this is the first generation of Americans who live more poorly than their parents and cannot afford the American dream even on two incomes.
DL: We had a strong middle class but a lot of people were excluded from it, I remember in the 1970's when Yugoslavia was still Yugoslavia, my parents were there, and their tour guide talked about how her uncle worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and sent money home and until she went to the US she had no idea what he had suffered. Her family in Yugoslavia lived a middle class life while in America her uncle worked 7 days a week under outrageous conditions, lived in barracks and had nothing. We've always exploited immigrant labor here and Black labor and kept them in conditions where there were no way to move into the middle class. Some of them did, the families overseas moved up, the whole economy of El Salvador depends on earnings that are sent back home. Then things got better, we lived a period when we were getting past some of that but now there's been a reversal. An administration that will falsify science (Diane sent me this link to Congressman Waxman's reports when I asked her if she could be more specific) will do anything and I think they've kept people afraid of them, because they're not afraid of anything.
Terminal Island, outside the detention center, photo by Diane Lefer.
"In detention, the TV is blaring, the detainees arguing over which channel - Spanish or English. On the English language news, an earnest reporter says, "Not everyone achieves the American Dream." On the Spanish news, "Not every American Dream is betrayed." Diane Lefer, "At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect"
TACO: Your experience as a translator in an INS detention center inspired the story "At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect" where a mother gets caught in an INS nightmare. The fate of these people reminds me of the fate of the Guantanoma Bay prisoners who are there indefinitely with no access to attorneys. We've known about it for years and we've let it happen. I understand in the early days of 09/11 nobody wanted to take the chance of setting terrorists free, but everybody should have a right to trial. Unlike Guantanamo, INS detention centers don't make headlines. Can you talk about your experience at Rattlesnake Island?
DL: Which is the old name for Terminal Island. It's an island off the coast of San Pedro, there's a federal prison there, but there's also a detention facility. When the novella was written it was run by the INS. It is now run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and it is under the control of the Department of Homeland Security. People who are here undocumented are locked up there pending deportation. The scary thing is in 1996, Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Act. There was a provision that no matter how long people had been in the US and even if they had a green card, if they were convicted at any time of an aggravated felony they were subject to deportation. But it included things like shoplifting, possession of majijuana and it was retroactive. If someone who at age 18 or 19 was caught shoplifting and twenty years later has a family, a house and a job, and no criminal record, he could get deported. Yes there were some heavy duty criminals there, they always tell you about the child molesters, but they were all kinds of people there. What I saw a lot of were farm workers who were coming back from the fields in one of these trucks that's carrying half a dozen men or more and gets pulled over and they find cocaine in the truck and they arrest all the guys. These guys have no money, they don't speak English, they're offered a plea bargain where you plead guilty and they go home, no jail. They take the plea but years later because they pleaded guilty it made them subject to deportation. The facilities were overcrowded, I haven't been allowed in since 09/11.
TACO: You say in your book that Amnesty International doesn't have access, is that a fact?
DL: I first heard about the situation from Amnesty International. They wanted people to go in to see the conditions of people who were applying for asylum. They were locked up in there sometimes for years and they would go crazy, lose heart and say "Deport me, I give up." So Amnesty International wanted volunteers to go in just to be friends with detainees, but they weren't allowed in, journalists werent allowed in but at one of the meetings I met a lawyer who were representing some of the people so I asked her if I could help, she was so burned out she was leaving the job. She introduced me to some other agencies who wanted me to take statements from people about the conditions and the deprivation of rights. But in order to meet people, you had to be invited by the people. We would have to get the word through one detainee to then tell other detainees that lawyers were willing to hear from them and then a letter would come with their id number and then I could go in as a legal assistant and meet with them.
The really serious lawyer left town, the other one went on maternity leave and didn't come back, the others were afraid to take on the government, they didn't have a very activitist mentality. We went once to a Youth Authority Facility where they were housing kids who had come across the border with violent gang bangers, they're not allowed to do this anymore. The kids didn't speak English. They were given orders in English and when they didn't follow orders they were pepper sprayed. They were punished for telling us that. I was outraged, I said let's sue the bastards, let's go to the media. But the lawyers said "We'd better not go back, we'd just be creating more trouble." Are you gonna confront the situation or not? They just quit.
TACO: Do you know if Amnesty International was given access in the end?
DL: I don't believe so. The ACLU have been much more active both in terms of Guantanamo and the detention facilities here but it's very hard, the secrecy is intense, as soon as you connect with one prisoner they transfer them to another facility to get them away and so it's always like starting all over again.
There were thousands of people who needed representation, it was so upsetting. When the families visited, there meet in a phone booth separated by plexiglass, the phone didn't work, they have to speak to each other through the glass. Because I was a legal assistant I was in an actual room with the clients and sometimes all I did was hold them while they cried because their families couldn't do that. It was insane.
"I just want a nondriver's ID... I waited on one line (at the DMV) and then I waited on another. They took my photo and my money and my thumbprints. The sign said, if you have no thumbs, fingerprints will do, and I wondered how many people had chopped off their thumbs to keep from being recognized." Diane Lefer, "California Transit"
TACO: Some of the stories in "California Transit" were written before 09/11 and others after. How did it affect your writing?
DL: I started writing "The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places" before 9/11 when I was concerned with the economic dislocation, that even middle class people couldn't afford to live in the communities where they have their roots and where they grew up. They're angry at an economic system, but how do you fight that? 9/11 took the story in another direction of this rage and hunger for revenge. Could there be a way of shifting that into a different sort of energy?
TACO: Your characters often feel very isolated and helpless about the way they feel. How did you deal with your own rage?
DL: After the first and the second time Bush was elected I had rage I didn't know what to do with, I started working with Hector Aristizabal, a Colombian exile, activist, torture survivor and theater artist. I helped him develop a play about his experience as a torture victim. I was so angry. I wasn't going to go out and throw a bomb, but I was going out of control, and he gave me all those activisits things to do to help me channel my energy in constructive ways. What he talks about as a survivor is that we tend to replicate the conditions of the torture chambers and we carry them around. Part of healing is opening that door, finding a window and reconnecting with the world outside. It made me realize in my writings how my characters were trapped. When you're alone at a computer there is nobody to challenge you, it's a very solipsistic view. Working in the theater is a collaborative process and being active in the community made me look again at my own writing. How can I give my characters more doors to walk out of? Rage is very powerful but very destructive. As I helped Hector write a book about his life in Colombia, surviving torture and civil war and his immigrant experience coming to this country, a lot of my own experience started coming in the process.
Hector Aristizabal in "Nightwind", created in collaboration with Diane. Photo by Nick T. Spark.
TACO: I'm not surprised. In the stories "California Transit," "Angle and Grip," and "The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places," the central characters all seem to be walking around in a state of trauma, they are numb and watching from a dispassionate place rather than participating. It makes you afraid of what they will do when they start feeling again.
DL: In "California Transit," the character's situation was compounded by her isolation. Some of the people who worked in the Civil Rights Movement were damaged, it was a lot to bear. After the dissolution of the movement people were left on their own, they couldn't heal. It was her isolation that made it impossible for her to integrate what happened to her in a healthy way.
"There's our first Baby Dill doll, legs splayed open, on the table. The skin is soft and smooth and the breasts have jiggle and give like real ones. Jimmy has a finger in her vagina. I have my finger up the anus. We're checking for angle and grip." Diane Lefer, "Angle and Grip"
TACO: What's with you and sex dolls? (laughs) Diane gets up and bring back a silicone hand that looks way too real.
DL: I heard about this factory and of course I had to go see it. I think they've gone out of business. They're not blow-up dolls, they're better.
"We put in teeth and tongue for the realistic look, but the tongue is detachable to facilitate entry. Her eyes have to be done over and done over again. The window to the soul isn't easy to get right but somewhere around the tenth try, we do." Diane Lefer, "Angle and Grip"
TACO: In "Angle and Grip," a woman whose husband and newborn baby just died agrees to become a partner in her neighbor's rather experimental sex doll business. She watches passively as her business partner's cousin is getting crushed when the full-body casting process goes wrong. What attracted this woman to this business?
DL: The doll doesn't have feelings. She's shut down, dolls make sense. When you accept feelings in other people, you have to deal with your own. You don't have to have empathy for a doll. Men use the doll sexually, she can use it psychically, she is not going to be in a job where she has to smile at people.
Downtown LA. Photo by Diane Lefer.
TACO: In "At the Site where Vision is Most Perfect, the husband and son of the woman who is interned in an INS detention center also slowly disconnect from their jobs and isolate themselves and even stop communicating with each other. The son starts reading Nazi literature, and the women in "The Prosperities of Cities and Desert Places" are on the hunt for a group of Nazis.
DL: People who feel violated and want to strike back, they can't get at the real enemy so they'll hit who you're allowed to hit. You can attack a Nazi, no one 's going to blame you for that.
TACO: But in "The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places," it wasn't obvious they were going to hurt them. That's what I liked. Were they going to kill them or love them? Your characters try to love their enemies, your stories ask the question if it is possible or not. While getting beaten up in a Mississipi jail, the central character in "California Transit" tries hard to apply non-violent action technique i.e. love her enemy, to no avail. Here's one of your characters' humorous take on it:
"The dolls themselves were gone. Had there been male dolls? Anatomically correct men of silicone rubber. If I could find a brown shirt and boots, I could have dressed my Nazi. Nazi, I would have said, I have come to give myself to you and love you... And so I try to imagine evil redeemed by love, how I would hoist myself onto the Nazi's prick. How there would be not one doll, but a second, and I'd take a towel to wrap it like a turban round his head. My terrorist, I would coo. My darling. It would be the most difficult thing I'd ever done but what is love if it cannot transcend, well, everything?" Diane Lefer, "The Prosperity of City and Places"
TACO: We didn't answer the terrorist attacks of 09/11 with love, and even though none of the 09/11 hijakers were Iraquis, Bush went to war in Iraq with very little objection. To me the lack of reaction was due to people having an emotional reaction to 09/11. They still wanted to go get someone.
DL: But I think it also has to do with the lack of humility in this country. We never atoned for Hiroshima. It makes it easy to go do something else. It's like this country never admits to anything. Or when they apologize it's to people who can vote. When do we apologize to other countries that we destroyed?
"I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide material support for State-sponsored terrorism and torture." Diane Lefer
"A rattlesnake could enter you and be your lover. Very exciting, that vibration, but you would have to hold the head tightly to keep from being bitten, though for some I suppose the threat would make it more intense. Not for me. How can you let go and surrender when you've got to keep your presence of mind and a firm grip? You'd need a friend, or a nonjudgmental acquaintance, someone to hold the head for you, a masturbation assistant, as it were, and you would need to trust that person implicitly, not that s/he would intentionally let go and expose both of you to the poisoned fangs, but most people are simply not competent." Diane Lefer, "The Prosperity of City and Desert Places"
Gibbons love. Photo by JeanKern found on flickr.com.
TACO: In your books people are more apt at feeling love for animals rather than for their fellow humans. Tell us about your volunteer work in the Research Department of the LA Zoo, what's your favorite story?
DL: Gibbons who look like plush toys, are kind of lesser apes, smaller, very beautiful. They mate for life. They're also considered to be stupid. Because they mate for life they don't have to juggle those multiple relationships, they only evolve in pairs. There was a couple, they were devoted to each other. The male developed diabetes, he was put on a special diet but he kept on eating her food so he got sicker, they had to separate them. They were able to get his diabetes under control because he cooperated by learning to put his arm out every day for an insulin shot. He understood this was good for him. They decided to reunite him with his mate. They hadn't seen each other for a year and no one knew what it was going to be like. Does this marriage exist anymore?
TACO: Did they have kids?
DL: They didn't. They opened up the cage and let him go in and they were at opposite ends of the cage, they just stood frozen staring at each other and they ran into each other's arms and they held each other. They had offsprings and everything was fine then his diabetes went out of control. I was called in a few times. It's all trial and error with animals. They would try different doses of shots. He would drop on the floor and start shaking. One day I was in the back right where the bars were and when he fell out, his mate ran over to me and grabbed my hand until he got up and she ran back to him. Officially I'm not supposed to touch them but it was so... emotional. She loved him, she was upset and she needed reassurance. They hold hands just like we hold hands.
"There's a lot more research done on dogs and cats than on elands, so a lot of what happens at the zoo is based on trial and error, experience, seat-of-the-pants, which is maybe not so different from medical care for humans except with humans you don't like to admit it." Diane Lefer, "Alas, Falada!"
DL: I was at the San Diego zoo, watching Bonobos, it's a different kind of chimpanzees, they are the "make love not war" kind. They're small but they really look like people, it was hard watching them, they walk on two legs, the mother is holding a child's hand, they shouldn't be in a zoo, I was having trouble dealing with it. Anyway, Bonobos have sex all the time regardless of gender and for any reason, if they have a fight they all have sex with each other that's how they calm down. There's a whole bunch of people watching them, including myself. Two Bonobos are lying in each other's arms, they weren't having sex but they were kissing and caressing each other and this older female is watching them and finally she laid down and started masturbating and we're all watching and all of a sudden she sat up, stared at people and she pointed to her eyes and she ran over to the glass and she started with her fist at us like "How dare you, that was my private moment." It disturbs me that we consider them different from us, that we can do things to them because they're different.
Bonobos, the "Make Love Not War" chimpanzees! Photo by jmknapp found on flickr.com.
"Most Mexican towns smelled of charcoal fires and something oily that penetrated your clothing and skin and the aroma of roasting chiles, coffee, and corn. San Andres smelled of tar and rotting seaweed and brine. Los Angeles smelled of bus exhaust and fast food and jasmine." Diane Lefer, "California Transit"
"We go to the Korean barbecue. I'm learning not to stare at the Korean people, but discreetly, very discreetly, I watch to see what they do. Use the lettuce leaves like a tortilla, wrap up meat and kim chee, and eat it like a taco." Diane Lefer, "Naked Chinese People"
TACO: From sex to food... What are your favorite restaurants?
DL: I like to go to Grand Central Market. I buy mole and spices at the stall, I like the Mongolian BBQ and the Salvadorean restaurant there. Korean food is my favorite. The one I like is at Western and Maplewood on the SouthEast corner, it closes about 10pm, which is unususal. I don't know its name, The Castle BBQ is across the street from it, I don't go to that one. For late night Hodori in Koreatown (1001 S. Vermont, 90006,) it's inexpensive. Mexican food, I only want to eat from Taco trucks. I like my mole negro to be spicy and not sugary, the sit down restaurants don't eat like real food. Loteria at the Farmers Market has very good Mexican food, but the portions are tiny.
Diane Lefer and her orange jumpsuit with actor Kevin McCarthy at Dutton's. Photo by Rachel Canon.
Diane Lefer's books can be found on most on-line booksellers' sites but she likes to suport local independent bookstores like Skylight Books in Los Feliz (www.skylightbooks.com), Dutton's Brentwood (www.duttonsbrentwood.com), and Vromans in Pasadena (www.vromansbookstore.com.) For people outside the area, Diane recommends Powell's, the "legendery bookstore" at www.powells.com.
Diane's latest, "California Transit," from which all the quotes in this story are taken, is published by Sarabande Books: www.sarabandebooks.org. You can also try the Los Angeles Public Library's catalog at www.lapl.org.
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