Earthquakes in L.A.

Posted on June 25, 2012 by

My second marriage ended when I was 45 in 1996 but this time I had kids.

The relationship started to crack two years earlier when the family was dislocated (like a broken bone) from our “neo-Mediterranean-style” upstairs rental in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of West L.A.

No-one I knew was hurt in the Northridge Earthquake, but four buildings on the 1600 block of Sherbourne Drive were badly damaged.  Just west of La Cienega (the swamp) and a mile north of the site of the Santa Monica Freeway bridge collapse, all that mushy stuff below the ground made Sherbourne a particularly vulnerable spot.

A few weeks later the house we lived in would be “red-tagged” – rendered uninhabitable – by a FEMA inspector but we didn’t wait to evacuate.  We were out of our apartment within 72 hours of the January 17, ’94 “e.q.” (the ninth anniversary, by the way, of the M.L.K. federal holiday).  Two movers helped throw our stuff into cardboard boxes which we carried down the stairs while hoping that the aftershocks wouldn’t worsen the gap between the wall and the living room floor or collapse the building altogether.  No time to organize and label, each box was an amalgamation: a frying pan, a pair of sneakers, six paperback books, two pillows, venetian blinds and an alarm clock.

My kids were three and six months old and we needed shelter.  Their mom and I found a temporary and expensive place in upscale Beverlywood, a charming and exclusive neighborhood with curvy, hilly, tree-lined streets and homes with back window views of Century City and downtown. The $2700 FEMA check we received in the mail a few weeks later covered a small part of our move.

Though we survived the “medium one,” the episode and its aftermath exposed fissures in the marriage which would eventually tear the family apart.

By then, I’d been in L.A. for 15 years and had come to terms with life in Southern California.  What kept me here at first – besides the weather, of course – were work opportunities and a sense of possibility.  There was a lot to do and hope for.

I got off to a quick start in the early ‘80s as a freelance writer, selling stories to local papers and a few national magazines, including a couple of pieces to the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner about the progressive “takeover” of  Santa Monica city government by radical renters rights advocates (groomed by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda). I nailed an exclusive Q & A for the short-lived Inside Sports with the first Soviet hockey player in the NHL: the now completely-forgotten Victor Nachaev.  I got the lead for that “scoop” from contacts made writing an L.A. Weekly cover story on Soviet émigrés in Los Angeles, which followed my first Weekly piece: a profile of Jewish Defense League director Irv Rubin. Twenty years later, Rubin would kill himself while in custody in the downtown L.A. detentions center for allegedly plotting to blow up the Culver City Mosque.

My early writing career in Los Angeles was supplemented by various sales jobs.

Working in a “Boiler Room” on Washington Blvd. – starting weekdays at 6:00 a.m. – about twenty of us would cold-call east-coast law firms, accounting offices and realty companies to lure secretaries into ordering copier supplies. The trick was to make them believe that we were the “authorized” supplier which, of course, we weren’t.

Watching over us from across the room and monitoring our conversations was the head salesman: an extreme extravert with great instincts.  Getting your attention at just the right moment he would point to you and recite the most important line in our script: “Spell Your Last Name.” That was the signal to stop pitching and start closing.  Filling out the details of the shipping form – which begins by getting her (it was usually a her) to turn over all pertinent information – was how this operation stayed in business and how we earned our commissions.

The pressure to make money drove my career in new directions and – in an odd way – connected me to the Reagan era.  Though I opposed the administration and its policies,  I was living out the 1980s creed that you’re on your own.

After all, I had just left a promising career as an “advocacy journalist” – and my first wife – in cozy, comfortable and communitarian Vermont.   The fact that both my parents had died in New York before I was 30 made it easier for me to get away.  Un-tethered from the northeast (I called myself a “divorced orphan”), I was leaving behind my neighborhood in Brooklyn and – more reluctantly – the rural New England progressive cultural ghetto.

Why not enjoy my anonymity for a while and take advantage of the individualistic – hedonistic – life-style and apolitical opportunities of Southern California?  I wasn’t about to throw my world view overboard but I wanted to test the market to see what my “skill-set” could bring.

I found a niche in public relations.

I was hired as an account exec by a mid-sized Wilshire Blvd. agency and – among other assignments – would promote the launch of an L.A.- based national financial newspaper, an alternative (so we said) to the venerable Wall Street Journal.

Investor’s Daily (later known as Investor’s Business Daily) offered readers advanced financial data (circa 1984) and the right-of-center views of its publisher William O’Neil, a quirky investment wizard who made a fortune as a broker and pioneer in financial-data-tracking computer technology.

I enjoyed publicity work and generated substantial media for opening day of the new pub.  I booked interviews for O’Neil on Today and other news shows and wasn’t particularly troubled by the notion that I was serving the “financial elite.”

But after a few year of project work for a variety of agencies – promoting a master-planned residential community in Simi Valley, showcasing corporate sponsors in a tribute to the Crenshaw High basketball team, preparing investor-relations materials for a stock offering by a small defense contractor – I began to suffer a crisis of political values.

Was I turning into a “sell-out”?

Working with unions – starting in 1986 – would solve that problem.  I gladly took the oath of loyalty to the American Labor Movement; more able to tolerate contradictions within organized labor than if I had put in with a more elite progressive institutional movement.

I was quick to internalize the mission, the values and the language of unions; able to circle back to my “Inner-Bensonhurst:” the workers coming down the Bay Parkway train station steps after a long day pushing racks through the fashion district, unloading crates in the Fulton Fish Market, answering phones in midtown ad agencies. I didn’t have an idealized or romanticized notions about wage-earners, I just knew they needed a break.

Certainly, union activists must sustain a vision of a better – a more equitable and just – society.  But working for unions requires solving concrete problems.  My entry point was in improving union “communications:” writing, editing and producing newsletters and developing materials for internal and external campaigns.  As it turned out, my journalism and public relations skills were also a good fit for Labor’s corporate campaign era as unions looked for alternatives to the strike to enhance bargaining leverage.

One of my earliest projects was to force the City of Hope, a big-name Southern California cancer hospital, to back off from its anti-union posture with its clerical workers.

I hammered management for betraying its legacy as a tuberculosis treatment center founded by garment unions in the early 1900s.  Ads in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal targeted hospital director Sandy Shapero, a very dubious character who would leave City of Hope later in the decade under disagreeable circumstances (investigated by the FBI in 1998 for extortion).  Our campaign disclosed, among other things, that Shapero was trying to pass himself off as a medical doctor when, in fact, he was a discredited rabbi with a doctorate in “divinity.”

It took a while, but management came back to the table.  This earned me some cache at the time with the central labor council, partly because the settlement removed the once union-friendly City of Hope from the AFL-CIO boycott list, which was causing headaches on both sides.

I felt useful and included.  For many years I didn’t think I belonged in this region.  Isolated and alienated, I missed Vermont’s community-based camaraderie and ever-expanding social circles; where – all day long – in Brattleboro (the southeast corner of the state) or Montpelier (central Vermont), I would run into friends and colleagues on the street, in stores and in restaurants.  Vast and sprawling L.A. would even make me yearn for the banter and bustle of the compressed neighborhoods of  New York City.

Not any more.  It was now clear that the Los Angeles Labor Movement would satisfy my need for meaning, recognition and affinity; and eventually – with unions as my psychological anchor – make progressive L.A. an “idealized object.”

As for other – more intimate – needs, Southern California may have been a good venue for experiment and exploration (use your imagination) but five years without a  meaningful relationship made me lonely and depressed.

Debbie and I met in late ’84 and become “serious” right away.  We were a good match. In fact, she was great support as I prospected for – and began getting – union work.  Culturally and politically radical, non-materialistic, nice-looking and my age, she fit the bill in another important way: a psychologist a few years from completing her doctorate, she reflected the “inner world” side of my character.

Striving to expand my institutional role, I now had a partner who would hone in on my internal struggle.  As a client and student, I already had quite a bit of exposure in the psychology field.  Many friends – and my sister – were therapists.  My connection to that professional community would expand through my new relationship.

I had both tracks covered.

Unions would give me a sense of purpose and a living.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, couples counselors, group therapists, Freudians, Jungians and Kleinians would give me a shot at mental health and happiness.

For the past 25 years I’ve been living in and thinking about these different realms.  The borders are ambiguous and elastic.  Many labor / political activists have formidable personal and inter-personal insight and many psychologically-minded people can be very politically astute.

I would conclude, though, that union organizers and leaders tend to be concrete in thought and action; temperamentally inclined to assess conditions, devise a strategy and carry it out with focused determination.

Psychologically-oriented adults, on the other hand, concentrate on internals: unconscious motivation, the “struggle” to connect with others, the individual’s existential pain.

My political friends tend to miss how hubris and hunger for power is driven by low self-esteem.  My psychology friends tend to lose interest in the details of class-based economic warfare.

That aside, my life as husband (‘87) and parent (’90, ’93), was joyous but troubling.  Fatherhood suited me.  I, of course, fashioned myself a modern dad, capable of carrying out the most basic infant care functions (including bottle-feeding “expressed” breast milk). But the daily stresses and frustrations of parenting (compounded as always by sleeplessness) were mounting.

Sometimes work would keep me away from home and I resented being blamed for not doing enough.  We hired help and went into debt.  Ashamed to admit that I couldn’t carry the load, I paid bills with credit cards, made interest-only payments and – like an addict – ordered more plastic.

It’s tragic when the pressures of a young family drive parents apart but that’s what happened.  I felt misunderstood, unappreciated and hurt.  The marriage was becoming grueling and I began to resort to type by checking out.

The quake accelerated the process.

Though we managed to find a comfortable house to rent – and then buy – in Mar Vista, west of Sawtelle, north of Venice, the two forced relocations (we were evicted from Beverlywood when that house sold four months after we moved in), the swelling debt, our growing emotional isolation, the pressure of caring for two pre-schoolers deepened the cracks in our marriage.

These fault lines in our relationship caused fissures that widened over time.  Was I to blame? I had been involved in crumbling relationships before, but not with kids in the mix.  What would happen if we couldn’t hold on?

Two and a half years after “Northridge” it was over.  I was moving out and moving on.

Determined to make a go of it as a divorced dad.

Comments (6)


  1. Goetz Wolff says:

    Hey Lou -

    This is a truly valuable and human self-disclosure (partial autobiography) that shares so much with your readers (me) that we didn’t completely know. The personal is political, and you illustrate the unplanned path that you followed, and its consequences.

    Take care, and do good!

  2. Ernesto Medrano says:

    Incredible how time flies. I met you in 1987 and it seems like it was just recently that we sat in Abe Levy’s class with many other great folks learing about Organizing and the Law.

    Im glad that though I have travelled throughout the nation and am now working in Orange County, Im glad that we are still friends.

  3. What a wonderful story and what a wonderful writer you are. Thanks for sharing this…now I want to know more and more details…so please do a book. Your work is very important and your personal story is compelling. A terrific combination.

  4. Linda Luna says:

    What a life you have lead. I’m glad you found your way to the Labor movement. You need to write a book. I will be the first in line to buy it. Thank you

  5. Christina Perez says:

    I always imagined your split was complicated. One memory that is imprinted in my mind forever is even though your marriage had ended and you lived in a different place from your children, every night you came to your children, and made sure they were safe and un-afraid. I think that speaks volumes about the kind of father you have been, and the parenting you and Debbie committed to. I’m going to be standing in line for the book too!
    You’re a keeper.

  6. [...] I wrote in a 2012 blog post, we had to move twice within six months, rang up considerable debt (despite a $2,700 FEMA [...]

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