25 May 2008


The other night I was talking with a friend about what we'd like to do if we weren't writers. There isn't much. I love what I do.

But I did mention that I used to know someone in Indonesia who had the greatest job that I ever heard of.

I met Ann Sutoro when I was working for Asian Business magazine and interviewing people for a cover story on what the private sector can do to help alleviate poverty. She was an economic anthropologist working for Bank Rakyat Indonesia, the rural development bank of the country. She was in charge of the bank's microfinance program.

From her office in Jakarta, Ann would pick out an impoverished village somewhere in the country. She'd travel there, spend several weeks getting to know the place, getting to know the movers and shakers in the village, who had the brightest entrepreneurial spirit, the best ideas. About 95% of the time the people she came up with were women. Then she'd go back to Jakarta and write up a report.

Loaning this woman US$70 would enable her to get a small refrigerator for her food stall, and among other things she could then stock medicine for curing river blindness in kids. Another woman could use 40 bucks to buy some equipment to better husk rice, so there'd be less waste and she could build up her business. For 65, yet another woman could get a second loom for weaving cloth and expand her business. It was all little loans, but it meant big improvements in the lives of whole villages. (And the default rates on the loans was much lower than it was on the big loans other banks made to corporations or wealthy individuals.)

Ann would write up her report, get the money from the bank, then return to the village to dispense the loans. She got to play fairy godmother to hundreds, maybe thousands of people. And best of all it wasn't charity. She was simply helping them to help themselves.

I liked her, a lot, the moment I met her. We became friendly and for several years, whenever I was in Jakarta I'd give her a call. We'd have a drink, a meal, hang out talking in her beautiful house in Jakarta. She had a great, quirky, sense of humor, was kind and decent to a fault and was just plain whip smart, one of the sharpest people I've ever known. I envied her her job, admired her tremendously and always looked forward to seeing her.

She died of cancer in 1995 and it was a tremendous loss. I've thought of her often over the years. Whenever the subject of great things to do with one's life comes up, I always trot out the story of Ann Sutoro. Because of her, if I ever went back to school, it would be to study economic anthropology. (Easy to say, though, not much real risk of that.)

Today, I was trying to think up a subject for this blog entry and I was thinking about my conversation of the other night. I thought I'd write about a few of the world's best jobs, so Ann immediately popped into my head. Just for the hell of it, I googled her, not really expecting to find much, if anything. What I found out is that she was Barack Obama's mother.

There's much that I like and admire about Obama. But, as with all politicians, there is also much about him that makes me suspicious and nervous. But I do know one thing for sure. He comes from a very good family. At least on his mother's side.

14 May 2008


Albert Hoffmann, the scientist who discovered / invented / synthesized LSD, died recently at the age of 102. That has given me the occasion to pause and reflect, fondly, upon my own history with LSD.

And that's right, I wrote "fondly." LSD was good for me. It made my life better. I have not taken it since 1970, but I took an awful lot of it before I stopped and I'm glad I did.

Now there are those of you out there reading this who are probably thinking: "I hope he doesn't have children." Well, not to worry, I don't. If I did, I wouldn't suggest to them that they ought to drop acid. But I'd have a tough time discouraging them.

There are others of you out there reading this who are probably thinking: "That stuff must have scrambled his brains." And I suppose you're right. It did. But I like the way my brains have been scrambled and I'm doing just fine with them mixed-up that way.

The first time I took LSD was in September 1966 (I was fourteen), about two weeks before it became illegal in California. I had traded a UCLA professor a bag of mediocre Mexican pot for a dosed sugar cube. Over the next three and a half or so years, I probably took acid between two and three hundred times. It was easy to lose track.

Now I'm not about to say that LSD will work wonders for everybody, or anybody. There is every chance that I was simply lucky not to have wound up a screaming, drooling, non-functional maniac. Some of my friends did, at least temporarily. A couple of them, near as I can tell, have never fully recovered.

When I dropped acid with friends I was always assigned the job of "maintenance foreman." That meant I took care of us. If there were tickets to be bought for something, activities to be organized, shopping to get done, talking to "the man" if "the man" showed up, driving; that's what I did. I even learned to drive a stick shift when I was stoned on acid and a friend needed to go somewhere and had forgot how to drive.

So, here's what LSD did for me.

It made me, mentally, stronger. I guess in the Nietzschean sense of "what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger." I don't fully believe that. Some of the things that don't kill you, can maim you. But still, in some of my most formative years I dealt with a lot of really strange and challenging stuff in a wide variety of circumstances. No matter how bizarre the world around me got, or at least the world as I was seeing it, I learned to cope with it. To this day I am very difficult to freak out. I tend to stay calm under stress. Sure, I have little explosions every now and then when things aren't going my way. But I tend to settle back into equilibrium pretty quick.

It helped give me a great deal of tolerance for things that might otherwise strike me as weird, strange, abnormal. I hardly think of anything as abnormal or normal anymore. When something seems weird or strange, I find it more interesting than threatening. That helps my powers of observation.

It taught me to see colors better than I might have otherwise. One of the things that LSD does is to enhance your sensitivity to color, kind of like boosting the saturation setting in Photoshop. I do take pretty good pictures, if I do say so myself, and I think LSD is partly responsible for that.

Same with patterns. Under the influence of acid I never hallucinated anything that wasn't actually there. I tried, and it never worked. (I've had to depend on the occasional high fever attending a recurrent episode of malaria for that.) But I did perceive complex patterns where none, probably, really existed. Part of my approach to photography, and much of my writing for that matter, is to find some kind of order, structure, pattern in the chaos that makes up the real world.

Who knows if I killed off a bunch of brain cells or not? Maybe I could have been smarter or saner. I don't know and I don't care. I'm smart and sane enough as I've ever needed to be. Either that or deluded enough to think that I am. And so far at least, I've escaped the attention of the nice men in the white coats.

So in my case, I want to celebrate the memory of Albert Hoffmann. And give a nod of thanks to Augustus Owsley Stanley III who certainly did more than his fair share to help psychedelicize my adolescence.

* According to the recent obituary in The Economist, "desire to laugh," were the last words Hoffmann was able to write in his lab journal after he first, deliberately, took a dose of LSD.

At midnight last night, the new, onerous LA County Taco Truck ordinance came into being. A brave group of taqueros has banded together to resist. Once more I ventured into East L.A. with pals - the toothsome Christa Faust and Bill Krauss, a fine fellow taco lover. Here's the poster for the event we attended, followed by some photographic evidence:

Tacos El Galuzo

Channel 34 was there

Cabeza - YUM!

Taco truck fine diners

02 May 2008


I've always admired Christa's writing (www.christafaust.com). HOODTOWN is one of the best, quirkiest, most fully-realized novels I've read in a long time. The other two books I've read by her ain't no slouches neither. The woman can write.

But boy howdy can she also eat:

Last night was Taco Truck Night here in Los Angeles. The misguided L.A. County Board of Supervisors, egged on by developers and restaurateurs, passed a law that would put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of taco trucks out of business. Even the L.A. Times has editorialized against the law. A whole lot of people depend on the trucks for cheap, tasty food, and few of the trucks are in real competition with brick and mortar restaurants. Even if they were in competition, isn't that what our economic system is supposed to be about?

To quote the L.A. Times editorial of today, May 2: "If providing cheap, tasty food that puts competitors out of business were a crime, the late McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc would have died in prison." Okay, so I disagree with the word "tasty" in that sentence. But still, you get the idea.

So last night, Christa, who is always up for an adventure, culinary or otherwise, unchained herself from her deadline burdened computer; brought along another writer pal, Nathan Long, and the three of us headed to East L.A. in my car to do our part to support taco trucks on their special night.

I was thinking to hit two, perhaps three of my favorite trucks and carts, eat a taco at each and retire happily sated from the field of battle. But Christa, whose slight but muscular, nicely illustrated frame belies her remarkable gustatory gusto, was having none of that.

Our first truck was La Korita, parked in a gas station two blocks east of Soto on Olympic. Nathan and I had carne asada, Christa the carnitas. For me, the real highlight of La Korita is its freshly made tortillas. The carne asada is also among the best in town. (The photographic evidence is above.)

Then we cruised up Soto in search of a place called La Estrella, but were distracted by the paintings of the Blessed Virgin, Jesus and a taquero with his al pastor wheel on the side of Tacos El Pecas, parked at a car wash. The tacos al pastor were good, not spectacular, but I have encountered few taco truck tacos that aren't at least good. Here's the evidence (Christa slurping an horchata):

From there we cruised north on Soto to Whittier Blvd. and turned east. There are often illegal taco carts along the sidewalk just west of the cemetery on Whittier. We were not disappointed. We stopped at the first one we saw - I don't recall seeing a name on the cart. It was on the north side of the street near Mott St. It was excellent al pastor.

We then passed a number of inviting carts, trucks and a chicken grill as we headed further east, past the 710 freeway, past the old Huggy Boy radio studio which is now a church of some sort. We were taking a break to simply cruise and take in the sights, sounds and smells of East L.A. - one of the great pleasures of life, especially on a hot summer night. Last night wasn't one of those, but it was close enough.

I was taking us to my favorite taco cart. At night, the southwest corner of Cesar Chavez and Hicks - a few blocks west of Gage - is home to what is, in my humble opinion, the finest al pastor to be had north of the border. Christa and Nathan seemed to agree. And they know their al pastor.

After that we were beginning to think we were filling up, so we thought to head toward Eagle Rock and Glassell Park where the fellows who organized Taco Truck Night have their home truck - La Estrella on York Ave. around Avenue 54.

But once again we were distracted. I was pointing out Los Cinco Puntos - a carniceria at the triangular corner of Cesar Chavez, Lorena and Indiana, where one can find the best carnitas and handmade tortillas in the city - when we noticed Cemitas Tepeaca and its colorful neon exclaiming "Cemitas, Tacos y Burritos." Better yet, it was parked in front of what looked like an interesting mural. (East L.A. walls are covered with great art, some of it truly great art. Just driving around and paying attention is as good as a visit to a museum or several great galleries.)

I don't know if Cemitas Tepeaca makes its own carnitas or gets it from Cinco Puntos, but they were superb tacos. While the al pastor place we went to just before it is the taco cart I'd most like to be stranded on a desert island with, this was the most interesting, colorful, and still extremely tasty stop of the night.

Finally we made it to La Estrella on York. It was, being an increasingly gentrifying neighborhood, and home to the organizers of the event, the only taco truck at which we saw any sort of large crowd of hipsters and foodies. And Spanish language news radio and TV reporters as well, of course. It was a fun scene, good to see that at least some people had come out for the event. But the carne asada tacos were the most disappointing fare of the night. They weren't bad, but they weren't all that good either. Still, a very big thank you is called for to the guys who organized the night, the petition and are working hard in the fight for taco trucks. You can find their website here: http://saveourtacotrucks.org/

After those, our sixth tacos (actually seven for Nathan who had two at the start of the trek), we decided to head home. But along the way we had to pass my favorite taco cart in Christa and my neighborhood (Silverlake) - the al pastor wheel at Fletcher and Larga, across from the U-Haul. It wasn't in us to simply drive by. So we finished off the night there, with excellent al pastor and what might be my favorite salsa roja in town - a bit thinner than most, but with a good, solid bite and a nice tickle of vinegar.

My car was low on its rims on the drive home. The three of us were groaning, belching, way too full but plenty content. Little more got done last night. It didn't need to. I don't know that we saved the taco trucks. But it was a splendid effort.