by RIP RENSE
THE HUGH DOUGLAS BROWN
(April 18, 2008)
"Inside, the colors and
design scheme also scream for a hip, tech-savvy crowd."---L.A. Downtown
where do I start?
How about here: many,
many (many) years ago, I was at party where someone had hooked an enormous
eight-armed hookah to an aquarium pump. The hookah was packed with good old
pre-super-pot pot. The pump provided each inhalee with the hit of the
I remember exactly one
conversation from the party (quite a feat), in which a fellow was carrying
on to spellbound listeners about redoing his apartment with a lot of
old-fashioned bathtubs, and stocking them with live trout.
I wonder, sometimes, if
that guy is designing new L.A.. No, I take that back---he should be
designing new L.A.. Most of the recent structures in this town possess every
bit as much charm and beauty as Larry King. To wit, I give you. . .
The Canvas L.A.
If you drive the Harbor
Freeway through downtown, and all the best people do, ladies and gentlemen,
you have nearly collided with them. The Canvas L.A. Apartments have all the
élan of a cardboard box, all the lyricism of a cat box, all the
architectural allure of stacked crates. One-bedrooms start at $2,090. Three
bedrooms: $5,500. And not a trout in a bathtub.
Ah, but none of that
should surprise, right? Style-free style is characteristic of
developers’ gang- rape of L.A.. Their only rule: build as many units as you
can legally shoehorn into every square inch of available space, and build on
any location, no matter how ungainly, unlikely. Call the results hip and
nouveau and “desireable,” put a “screening room” and gym inside, project
naked female shadow forms dancing in some of the vacant units (to stir up
interest), and people will come.
Thus we have Canvas L.A.
Apartments, which are right next to the Harbor Freeway.
That’s “next,” the way
Kirstie Alley’s right thigh is next to her left.
Right. I don’t mean under
the freeway, or beside it, with a minimum building code requirement splotch
of green in between. I don’t mean in the general vicinity. I mean that when
you look out your 18-foot Canvas L.A. Apartment “loft” window, you are at
eye-level with asphalt, sunglasses, gritted teeth, and gridlock. Couple of
drunk drivers, and you wind up with an Escalade in your toilet. “Freeway
close” used to mean a mile or two. At the Canvas, it means a mite or two.
I mean, I’d be staggered
if there was as much as 30 feet between Canvas L.A. Apts. and the
mad-dog-fuck-you-asshole-I-gotta-gun L.A. car carnival. Of course, as the
nuclear-perky Canvas L.A. Apt. rep, “Jody,” told me over the phone when I
called for some info (“how soon do you want to move in!” was her greeting),
the freeway view is “sort of interesting” and is “definitely great for
Gee, I don’t know
about you, Jody, but traffic is just not my idea of interesting scenery.
There are lots of other things I’d rather watch, such as homeless guys
urinating, or a dog taking a dump. I’d even rather watch the
female shadow dance projections in vacant Canvas L. A. apartments, as has
been the case with Fox, ABC, and NBC “news,” which “covered” this “event.” Eyewitless News. What brain-fryingly, turn-in-your-human-card banal
But as I was saying, oh
my, where do I start? There are several reasons I am writing this, aside
from an excuse to bring up the trout-bathtub anecdote, and to castigate the
sheer thundering greedfreak stupidity of the
Canvas L.A. Apartments. And
aside from the fact that I feel sorry for people who will dwell in them
(there were no freeway-view takers as of this week!) No, not because
residents will have a tableau of L.A. traffic out their quadruple-paned
glass (really) windows, but because they won’t mind having a
tableau of L.A. traffic out their quadruple-paned glass windows---or paying
two grand a month for it.
Who in the H.G. Wells are
these 21st century mutants? And what are they smuggling---I mean, doing---to
get that kind of money?
Oh, did I say two grand?
Wait a sec---make that $2,550 for the 900-square-foot freeway-in-your-face
“lofts.” Yes, folks, L.A. has gone this insane. Next will be townhouses
abutting the L.A. Hyperion Sewage Processing Plant, each unit lined with
Well, the other reason I
am writing about the Canvas L.A. Apartments (so named because they have
color-changing panels, so hoop-te-doo help me gawd), dear patient readers,
is a long-deceased fellow by the name of Hugh Douglas Brown.
Mr. Brown resided in
an crumbly old beige flat-roofed stucco building of his own design that
once roughly occupied the same spot as the Canvas L.A. Apartments. No one
will remember it, probably, or him, except me. That’s because I interviewed
him for the Herald-Examiner, and wrote a feature that appeared April
28, 1980, on page three. The headline:
“He’s the William Buckley
of the Harbor Freeway.”
“Hugh Douglas Brown’s
targets are passing automobiles, and his weapons are words.”
Brown was a cantankerous
old cuss who felt disassociated and misanthropic and generally passed
by---kind of like The Rip Post---and decided to needle the world
about it. (Kind of like The Rip Post!) Or at least to needle the good
politically concerned Commuter-Americans on the freeway. So he posted big
crude spray-painted plywood signs for the amusement of the Great Gridlocked
Morose. You couldn’t miss them. One, “Senior Citizen Center---First American
Camp,” was static. The others changed every few weeks. A few samples:
“Carter Has Got to
Take Hostages---150 Iranians to Protect the U.S. Hostages.”
“Fonda and Hayden, Our
Communist Neighbors, Want Russia to Take Over.”
“Did He Throttle Her Or
Just Let Her Drown?---Chappaquiddick.” (Teddy Kennedy was running for
president that year.)
I had hoped to find an
affable, playful crank behind the signs, in order to write a whimsical
and affectionate feature, but instead found an unapologetically stodgy and
grumbly 82-year-old. “Crusty,” defined. Not to mention nearly deaf, thanks
to decades of not having quadruple-paned glass Canvas L.A. Apartment
We sat for an hour or so
inside his freeway-sooty little house, decorated in a way common to old
people living alone: lots of musty throw rugs, worn-out furniture, piles and
piles of books and magazines and flotsam (some jetsam, too.) I noted in the
article a book called “Mars 5,” written by. . .Brown. “As you can see,” he
told me, “I write a little science fiction, too.” Well, why not. His life
bordered on it.
We chatted, old Brown and
I---or rather, shouted over the freeway white noise, a wall of sound to
shame Spector. He carried on about having variously been a lawyer, newspaper
reporter, teacher, and an amateur “rock hound” (geologist) who eventually
became the curator of “the greatest exhibit of minerals, fossils, gems,
crystals ever assembled in the state.” Something he called the “Westonian
Institute,” the remains of which were laid out in the dusty basement of his
dusty home. Grade school classes, he said, used to come visit on field
trips, to see the rocks.
Finally I asked the
$2,550 question: why did he live next to the freeway?
“Nobody should have to
live next to a freeway,” he roared. “I didn’t have to, and in fact, I
didn’t. There used to be trees and shrubs outside, and that freeway was 40
ever-widening, house-gobbling L.A. freeways!
So Brown spent his waning
years with the Harbor Freeway as his roommate, listening to recorded
magazines from the Braille Institute (he was also legally blind), wandering
over to the Grand Central Market for groceries, and once in a while hosting
a few old cronies for dinner. After which, they would gather around the big
double-keyboard mahogany organ at the far end of the living room, where the
old boy would concretize and serenade.
Just as he did at the end
of my interview. (See great Chris
Gulker photo.) As I wrote:
“You know this one?”
he asked, and his creaky hands and feet moved with sudden alacrity to stale
pedals and white keys that looked like tobacco-stained teeth. A rhythm box
tick-tocked a bossa-nova beat. Truck brakes squealed. Brown’s eyes were
bright, and the old organ moaned:
“Pack up all your cares
Here I go,
Bye-bye blackbird. . .”
It was peculiar,
ridiculous, poignant all wrapped together. You know, like life.
Re-reading the article, I
got to thinking: would anybody half as interesting as Brown live in the
Canvas L.A. Apartments?Would TV turn out to interview someone posting
if there were no nudie shadow dancers? As a friend of mine put it, “People
like Brown made L.A. a place. People who live in the Canvas L.A. apartments
make L.A. a figment of their imagination.” Quite. Trend-suckled smiley
caricatures of emptiness starring in their own narcissistic
So whenever I pass the
Canvas L.A. Apartments with the freeway view that they boast as a (gasp)
selling point, and the very cool color-changing panels on the
outside, I think of old Hugh Douglas Brown living out his last years in that
oddball house, going deaf from his own freeway view, declaring, “Nobody
should have live next to a freeway,” playing mischievous political
commentator/troll to passers-by, and sitting alone at night, singing
“Bye-Bye Blackbird” at the organ.
As far as I’m concerned,
they ought to name that sillyass apartment building after him.
And make “Bye Bye
Blackbird” the official song of developer-raped Los Angeles.
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