Still Life with Pedal Car

Five weeks ago, a carefully arranged still life appeared on a nearby street. It consisted of a bike frame, a rear wheel, and a toddler’s pedal car, all cable-locked to a power pole guy wire. It was all neatly done, the wheel and frame in vertical, snuggled against the child’s toy.

I figured it would disappear in a week or two. It did not. Whoever locked it in place either lost the key, forgot about the cache, or had better things to do. At any event, it remained there week after week. It’s there now.

From time to time, someone has struggled with the components. The pedal car, bike frame, and the wheel assume different positions over time, as if they were taking yoga poses from a junkyard heap.

Similar collections regularly pop up throughout the neighborhood: tires and innertubes locked to bus benches, a half-dozen suitcases secured to a power pole, a shopping cart tied with shock cord to a streetside shade tree.

The homeless get the blame for all this. Most of the 50,000-plus Angelinos sleeping rough don’t thieve and deserve better of the city, a fact that prompted a series of L.A. Times editorials last week. But exculpatory data and moralistic appeals are of little interest to neighbors enraged by the excrement they find on the street (public toilets are rare), the large encampments and the litter strewn across sidewalks.

Theft is among the most common complaints, and bicycles are a particular target.

Frankly, the thefts don’t surprise me, though I have my own history of broken locks and stolen bikes. It isn’t exactly news that petty theft is an occasional by-product of extreme poverty; Hogarth and Dickens warned us.

What does surprise me is the hoarding. Few months ago, police in Orange county found a thousand bikes – a thousand bikes – in a tunnel off the Santa Ana River. Shopping carts, tents, and suitcases overflow with stuff salvaged from an earlier life or scavenged in this one. None of this has much street value. But it’s worth a lot to those who squirrel it away in storm drains, shopping carts, tents, and bus shelters.

Apart from a professional familiarity with the  poor laws and welfare policies, I am not many decades removed from poverty. My ancestors included homeless vagrants wandering the 18th century English countryside; ill-paid coal and lead miners Lancashire and Illinois; Depression-era families repeatedly evicted from crowded walk-ups; Jews “from the poorest shtetl in all of White Russia;” and Greek peasants living hand-to-mouth in remote mountain villages. My own last name, inherited from a Greek grandfather derives from slang for a Greek street kid.

My British, Jewish and Greek ancestors differed greatly from one another, but had one thing in common: none of them owned very much. A few tools, some bedding, a couple of religious books, a single change of clothes, a skillet and a bit of crockery. That, for most of them, was it.

Since the mid-20th century, the explosion of consumer items has made it possible to go hungry while watching a pirated cable on a late-model flat-screen. The flat-screen may have cost $25, or have been bought new in better times. Whether salvaged from the wreckage of a previous life, fished out of the trash, found abandoned at the side of a road, or thieved from a garage, such possessions represent some lingering claim to membership in American society. They aren’t easily let go.

Michael C. McMillan, “The Central Meridian,” LACMA

For years, the L.A. County Museum of Art displayed Michael C. McMillan’s “The Central Meridian.” It is… a garage, complete with an old car, creosote-treated timbers, rough-made shelves and empty oil cans. When I first wandered in – this would have been thirty years ago – I couldn’t figure out why an art museum would collect a reproduction of such a familiar space. Apart from some visual editorializing, the “installation” seemed to reproduce the very garage that sheltered our own ’65 Dodge Dart. McMillan’s garage is, of course, a still-life. Midcentury American garages warehoused an entire idea of American ingenuity, masculinity, and erotic suggestion. The life stilled in McMillan’s ersatz garage is an outtake from the American dream.

It is possible that homelessness will begin to recede under the assault of our good intentions. Or it may grow unstoppably, political solutions frustrated by NIMBY resistance, policy misfires and hardening of hearts. Either way, these hoarded collections, chained to public spaces, ignored by police and passers-by, their metal rusting and their brittle plastic fading with time, embody another set of dreams: disturbing and dark, but still quintessentially American.

LACMA’s leadership is planning expansion of its gallery space. That’s good: we’ll need room for the installations to come. Life always anticipates art.

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