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Saturday, January 13, 2018

My visit to a "shithole" country

Central Managua/WikiMedia Commons
I’ve visited a lot of what Donald Trump might call “shithole” countries in my life, but the one that evokes the most poignant memories is Nicaragua. I spent a week there in 1986, at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war, as part of a delegation of journalists and artists. There were about ten of us, although I remember only two by name: Bill Press, the liberal talk show host, who back then worked in television in Los Angeles; and Fionnula Flanagan, the Irish actress and political activist. Fionnula, who by then was already well known, had just the year before achieved some notoriety by performing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the nude, in the film “James Joyce’s Women.”

The delegation was organized by my good friend Alice McGrath, a legendary political activist who got her start in Los Angeles in the early 1940s coordinating the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. In Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and film “Zoot Suit,” based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, her character was called Alice Bloomfield (her “maiden” name was Greenfield.) We became close friends in the middle 1980s, when UCLA’s Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. As a friend of Alice, I was drawn into a tight group of friends and admirers in California who loved her strong spirit and her dedication to social justice; all of us are still in mourning over her death in 2009.

Alice had invited me to join the delegation, which I was thrilled to do. Our group stayed in a guest house in Managua. Every morning during our week-long visit we piled into a van and headed out to visit various Sandinista politicians, political activists, agricultural specialists, and anti-Contra fighters across the country. One day we supposedly ventured within firing range of the Contras, at least that’s what we were told; we were all skeptical that the Sandinista leaders would put us in danger. But while near the front, we did talk to a female soldier who told us the story, interrupted at times with torrents of tears, about the death of one of her comrades during a fierce battle.

We thought of ourselves as a sophisticated bunch, and treated what we were told, especially by Sandinista leaders, with the suspicion that all propaganda deserves. But at the same time, we were overwhelmed by the incredible kindness and generosity of the Nicaraguan people, with whom we had plenty of unrehearsed contact. We were often left to wander in Managua’s central market, or in the villages we visited, and had encounters that could not have been anything but genuine. Back at the guest house in the evening, we would sit around and share these experiences. None of us had ever met people as nice as these, and we were in a state of shock about it. As Fionnula said at one point, “Something is happening here, and we all know it.”

Most of the people we met were incredibly poor, which made their generosity all the more remarkable. One afternoon our van was heading down a dirt road when a couple of girls, perhaps 12 or 13, waved at our driver, asking for a ride to the next village. He let them in the van where they took a couple of empty seats behind Fionnula. There is no way they could have known who she was, but they immediately formed an attachment for the woman they repeatedly called the “ bella dama” (“beautiful lady”) and fluttered around, firing questions at her between their giggles and laughter. (I must confess that I, too, was fascinated by Fionnula, and did a poor job of covering up my star-struck infatuation with a veneer of coolness.)

The van arrived at their village. The girls, obviously looking for some kind of gift to give to Fionnula, suddenly produced a 20 cordoba note (worth less than a dollar today, but probably a few dollars back then) and thrust it into her hand. Before she could even jump up to protest, the girls were off the bus and running towards their home.

I was sitting across from Fionnula, near the front of the van, and I think I was the only person who could see her clearly. As long as I live I will never forget the emotions that passed across her face as she held the 20 cordoba note gingerly in her hand, all the way back to Managua: A mix of shock and guilt, disbelief and anguish, and, I suspect, hopelessness that she would ever be able to completely absorb why two girls who had almost nothing would bestow a valuable gift on her, who had so much.


I guess I have Donald Trump to thank for inspiring me to tell this story, which I have related to only a very few friends over the past three decades. But it’s gratifying to see that over the last 24 hours, a lot of other writers have also been inspired to tell stories about the “shithole” countries they live in or have visited, and the wonderful people who live in them.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Tree Grows in Van Nuys

6032 Woodman Avenue, Van Nuys, CA, as it looks today.
My recent move from Paris to the United States--a return to my home country after 29 years in exile--has provided an opportunity to sift through old files and documents, the remnants of times past. I came across an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in 1986, not long after the death of my mother. The Times' editors titled it "The Best Offer," although my original title was the one you see as the headline of this post. I always considered it one of the best things I wrote in my early days as a writer and reporter in Los Angeles, so thought to reproduce it here (if you can't share your experiences on your blog, where can you do it?) I think it speaks for itself, so here is the original text.


The house I grew up in, a house on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, will be torn down this summer and replaced by an apartment building. My mother died last September--my father died several years ago--and my brother and I came with some ambivalence to possess a quarter-acre of San Fernando Valley real estate. My parents had bought the new stucco ranch house back in 1949, and the orange tree they planted in the backyard shortly afterward is now one of the few vestiges of the Valley's formerly rural character.

For months after our mother's death, my brother and I procrastinated. Should we rent the house out? Should we sell it? Should we keep it for ourselves? On occasion we would confess to each other our fantasies about moving back in and reclaiming that fragment of our past.

We finally decided to sell. Our broker told us that the house was a "cream puff," real estate jargon for a home kept in beautiful condition. For a while we had illusions that a nice family would come along and fall in love with it. My mother, despite her illness, had completely redecorated her home, with new carpeting, wallpaper, draperies, bookshelves, French doors. In the backyard, she had built a swimming pool.

But although Woodman Avenue was just a dirt road in 1949, today it is a major Valley thoroughfare. Prospective buyers loved the house but balked at living on a busy street. And the land along that strip of Woodman had years earlier been rezoned for apartments; single-family homes were on their way out. When the developers began their bidding, we took the best offer and gave up our hopes of preserving the family homestead.

At the moment, we are in escrow. My father had gone into real estate soon after we moved to the Valley, and every night he and my mother would talk about "escrow" this and "escrow" that. To my  child's mind, it seemed like some strange state of being, an eerie limbo. I realized only dimly that, all around my safe little world, houses were going up by the blockful as the postwar Valley building boom hit full stride.

Our house was in one of the first tracts built in Van Nuys after the war. Across the street and just to the north of us was Marlene Dietrich's estate, and behind us, cowboy star Tex Ritter had a chicken ranch. My brother and I walked past the place each day on our way to school, and when Mom had packed a lunch we didn't care for--bologna was the chief offender--we would feed our sandwiches to the chickens that thrust their beaks through the wire fence.

As the Valley grew, so did the backyard orange tree, and every winter the oranges seemed to get bigger. One year, my father, who was then working for the real estate appraisal department of a downtown savings and loan, took an huge orange to work. The photographer for the office newsletter took a picture, but the editor apparently did not believe it was really an orange. When the newsletter was published, the photo caption read: "Morris Balter and a grapefruit from his tree."

Recently, I took a walk through downtown Van Nuys. Most of the landmarks of my youth still stand, though there are many signs of change. At Sylvan Street and Vesper Avenue, the old Spanish-style building that was once the Van Nuys Library is now occupied by the Bureau of Fire Prevention and the Department of Transportation. (I still remember being perched on the back seat of my mother's green 1949 Pontiac, surrounded by books like a pirate among his chests of doubloons, as she drove me home from an afternoon's treasure-hunting at the library.) And the McDonald's on Van Nuys Boulevard just south of Sherman Way, where I had my first "real" job at the age of 17, cooking hamburgers, is still serving up Big Macs by the billions.

When I was a young teen-ager, my best friend, Jerry, and I would walk down to Van Nuys Boulevard every Saturday, looking for things to do. After stopping off at Cupid's, at Victory Boulevard and Tyrone Avenue, and eating those delicious chili dogs under the stand's distinctive sign--a big red heart pierced by a yellow arrow--we would arrive on the boulevard only to discover, as we did every Saturday, that there was really nothing for us to do there. My circle of friends became determined to explore what was outside the San Fernando Valley. As soon as we learned to drive, rather than cruise Van Nuys Boulevard on Wednesday nights as many of the other kids did, we would travel to the ends of the city and beyond. And at the age of 18, I graduated from high school and moved out for good.

I confess that I have always been proud that I "escaped" the Valley, although I wonder whether I would have been better off growing up someplace more "exciting." Perhaps I appreciate Los Angeles and the rest of the world all the more, having discovered it only in stages. And now, 20 years later, I have returned to briefly reclaim my childhood home. Escrow closes at the end of this month. My brother and I will take one more slow walk through the empty rooms and hallways, grasping at memories already receding from our minds.

We will walk through the backyard, pausing before the orange tree, which, we have been told, cannot be saved and replanted elsewhere, because when it is uprooted, it will die. This past winter, for the last time, the tree exploded into great glowing orange orbs. My brother and I picked the fruit feverishly, knowing we would never again taste their sweetness.

And so with one last look back, we will lock the front door gently behind us and surrender it all--tree, house and land--to the forces of inevitable change and, I suppose, progress.