Christmas Shopping from Santee Alley to Beverly Hills

As I do every holiday season, I make the rounds and watch people do their Christmas shopping.  I not only find it interesting, I believe it is among the best barometers to tell what is really going on in the economy and in society in general.   It is not only a matter of how much people buy, but what they buy that can tell you quite a bit about the general state of things.  With frivolous items, times are good.   Foods and times are bad.   Stuff like that.

Every year we stroll down Rodeo Drive which boasts of twenty-odd Baccarat Crystal Chandeliers, all suspended above the street in double lantern frames.  Each chandelier is unique and they certainly cast a rich and classic glow over the street famous for the most upscale designer brands in the world.   But things weren’t the same as the previous years.   Where shoppers were seen in past years parading around with five, six, seven shopping bags, this year I would see more shoppers with just one bag or in many cases no shopping bags at all.   There was, however, a lot of looking and drooling, remembering no doubt the good old days when people had money.

Despite the pricey stores and the upscale clientele, you could see the anxiety on the faces of shopkeepers and store clerks.   Business was off and time was consumed being nice to those who strolled into the shops to look around.  Hope springs eternal, and in this case there was hope that shoppers would change their minds and buy something on impulse.

Down at the opposite end of the spectrum, Los Angeles has Santee Alley.  Santee Alley is just that, a bustling narrow street in and about the failing garment district where goods can be bought from open air stores.  Cheap.  You can find anything from toys and clothing, to pet Iguanas and Parrots in Santee Alley.   People visit there from all walks of life from all parts of the city.   Shoppers are largely Hispanic, as are many of the shopkeepers,  and it does help a little with the bargaining if you can speak Spanish.

But it is money that does the most talking in Santee Alley.  If you have some cash you can bargain.   You can buy knock off designer brands from the different stalls or Callejones, as they are known in Spanish.   You know, counterfeit Louis Vuitton or Prada Bags, counterfeit designer jeans, even fake Sony electronics.  Ed Hardy Fashion has been the big counterfeit opportunity for the past few years. Some are on display, but with most cases you just have to ask.  If the shopkeeper determines you are not a cop, he will pull out from the back storage area a large canvas or plastic bag filled with bogus designer handbags.   Some are made better and look more authentic than others.   Quality control in the counterfeit industry is pretty much free form or nonexistent.

So while business was quieter than most years, it was still pretty brisk in Santee Alley.  People were buying colorful outfits, toys for their kids and the proverbial smuggled Iguanas and Parrots.   And then the police came.  Forty-five of our city’s finest raided Santee Alley, as they have done for a number of years in a row.  Like other things, the police raids in Santee Alley have become a holiday tradition.  Dozens of cops swooped down on the shopkeepers and confiscated whatever counterfeit merchandise they could find.   Twenty eight people were arrested and an estimated haul of close to $3 Million in merchandise is now in police custody.

So much for looking upscale on the cheap.   Bogus or not, there are always plenty of buyers for the counterfeit merchandise.   Perhaps a live Iguana will have to do for Aunty Jospehina.  But then there is a bright spot.  After this dismal holiday shopping season maybe the real stuff will be reduced and affordable.   Just to get rid of it, authentic designer merchandise will be given away at firesale prices.   Who knows?   For the designers who don’t wish to besmirch their brands, some of their own merchandise may make the trip from Beverly Hills to Santee Alley.   That would be something.

Sex and the Christmas Season

Nobody likes to be alone.   At least most people don’t like being alone.   Especially over the Holiday Season.   Even more especially during over the Holiday Season during a rotten economy.   Because there is nothing like the Holiday Season to make your being alone feel really, truly lonely.

It’s shopping alone for gifts for friends and family but not for a special lover or significant other.  It’s tough knowing that families are coming together, lovers coming together, and  you are either going alone to Holiday OParties, seeing the family, or watching TV with a quart of seasonal egg nog that you can only share with your cat.

Small wonder that during the holiday season sex becomes a major factor.   Reports and studies will tell you so.   Single folk have the wandering eye.  People feel romantic, want to be intimate.  With someone.  Even, at times, if it is wrong.   The alcohol ingested during the holiday seaon only serves to fan those flames.   Normal restraint can go by the wayside.   If nothing else, hot sex on a cold night is one of the better ways to pass the time.

I wrote some years back about how I noticed women in particular look at you differently during the holiday season.  There is that certain glint in their eyes.   They flirt both subtly and overtly.   You are a prospect, and the holiday season can be overwhelming.   All that sentiment, so much nostalgia floating about, it is small wonder people are looking for a date, someone to do something with.

And then I suppose there is the consideration of family life.   Most of us are around families, sometimes more than we care to be.   But we are there nevertheless.   In an economic downturn it is, for better or for worse, one of the constants, the sense of intimacy and understanding, coupled of course with the usual neuroses and jealousies.   We start think about perpetuating that famiily life.   Which means having kids of our own.  Which means having sex.   What better way to have sex than for a worthy cause, the perpetuationof life as we know it.

So here we are in the midst of another holiday season.  A good many of us don’t have the bucks to go anywhere, so we are stuck in our very own version of reality.   We are up to here in snow in a particularly cold season.  Even the west coast is experiencing a chill.   That is a chill for the west coast.   So there isn’t much of an escape.   Even our shopping this year is probably limited.  Gifts?  don’t expect many.  Still, we must do what we must.

Well, not all that long ago in this country, most people didn’t visit St. Bart’s for holiday vacation.   They didn’t go much of anywhere.   They stayed where they were, hung out with friends and family.   Went to parties.   They had a few drinks, and they had sex.

Well here we are back to go in some ways.  We are a different country, but we are facing economic restrictions.   We can be drinking at parties, but we are a much more sober country.   So much for having a field day on our credit cards or home equity loans.

But we can still get together.  We can still couple.  We can still have sex.  It’s free.  Well, most of the time.

Democracy for 99 Cents

In most cities you can find one or two places that are in their own way models of democratic activity.   I am not talking about voting, or democratic activity with a big “D.”  Instead I am point to the unique qualities of a certain location where people from all walks of life come together on a regular basis.

Sports stadiums were once the obvious examples.   But the venues are so large anymore they really don’t lend themselves to the sense that it is all one crazy melting pot of people from mixed ethnic backgrounds and economic classes.  In fact, sports venues over the years have become increasingly exclusive, with the advent of skyboxes.  Then a notch or two below the sky boxes, sports fans  in pricey seats are given access to eateries and sports clubs forbidden to hoi polloi.   All while those in the cheap seats are relegated to the hot dog and beer stands or the fast food franchises.

But in cities like Philadelphia there are the steak sandwich joints in South Philly where people from all walks of life stand around, munching foot long sandwiches as hot cheese burns the roof of your mouth and hot steak grease runs down your arm.   Be it a hot summer night or a cold winter day, there is a line.  Same thing with Titos in Los Angeles.   People  from everywhere line up until midnight for cheap tacos.   Pink’s in Hollywood, has patient lines of hot dog buyers.   Immigrants, movie stars, rock and rollers, regular Joe’s, all waiting through the night for their turn at the hot dogs.

South Philadelphia had Levis’ Hot Dogs where the parking lot was a mix of junkers and Jaguars.   Businessmen and professionals sat at communal tables with truck drivers, chomping down on what was one of the better hot dogs in the western world.  It was more than food; it was a tradition with water stained posters listing the members of the 20, 30 and 50 year clubs, respectively.  Parents took their kids and as the tradition had it pointed out what was the oldest working soda fountain in the USA.   There they served Champ Cherry Soda, a drink all to its own.

But that is gone, a victim of someone’s idea of gentrification.   Levis’ is not the only victim.  There are places of similar tradition around the country that have been lost to the franchised world and overpriced storefront bistros.   Chicago has its places.  New York.  Name the city and there is always someone to list the places.   Even if the list gets smaller every year.

But today there is a new model of democracy in action.   The 99 Cents Only stores.   With locations in California, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada, the store is now the intersection for people from all walks of life.   You can thank the economic downturn for that.   With the economy so lousy, everybody needs to save money.   What better way to save money than to buy everything from food and cleaning supplies, to health aids and reading glasses for less than a buck an item.   Often it is the same brands as you would find in the supermarkets or department stores.  Often they are not the same brands, but the off brands or the once popular brands you knew from childhood that have fallen into obscurity over the years.   Or it is laundry powder from Mexico, something like that.

But with the economy as rotten as it is, the parking lot has taken on a whole new visage.   Broken down junkers are mixed with the German and Japanese thoroughbred motors so prominent in Southern California.   People in funky threads, mix it up with people who are dressed in the latest fashion.  Supercuts meets Umbertos of Beverly Hills, and the thing is no one seems to care.   A bargain is a bargain.

So there is a perfect cross section of much of the country, well, Southern California in this case, anyway, pushing baskets up the narrow aisles and plucking items from the well stocked shelves.   There are men alone, single women, married couples, dates, winos,  and of course the proverbial couple who just moved in together and debate in every aisle over what they need for their new arrangement.   It’s cute, really, in an obnoxious sort of way.

But the point is, they come from everywhere to visit any one of what seem like thousand stores in the city.  With some of the more affluent shoppers you can determine how new they are to the experience by the way they navigate the store.  The experience shoppers tend to breeze through, while the novices stop and examine every item.  Why not?  I mean where else do you have open access to everything from frozen food to colored condoms?   Where else can you find the $20 reading glasses you saw a year ago in the department store for 99 Cents?   Tools.  Eggs.  Notebooks.  Toothpaste and furniture polish.

So democracy has returned  as the mixed income bargain seekers all wait patiently in the cashier’s line for a recent immigrant to check out their items.  Twenty things.  Twenty bucks.  Plus tax, of course.   People pay in cash; people pay with credit cards.   People  are there who have always needed to watch their budget.  And people who had really no budget at all.

The whole interaction is surprising orderly.   You don’t really experience the usual rancor you find in a great many Southern California parking lots.  Perhaps the economic meltdown has everyone in shock and not in the mood to do battle over a parking space.  Talk about shock and awe.  But the orderly aspect in interesting all to itself.   A true democracy may be messy, but there is order.  More importantly there is respect for the other individual, even if it is grudging or even obscure respect.   The meltdown, like the larger earthquakes and other disasters hasn’t resulted in chaos and a breakdown in order.   If anything, order, like water has found its own workable level.   For less than a buck.

Bad Economy–Even the Hookers are Hurting

A year ago the world’s hookers were being pinched by their flush clientele.   Now the same prostitutes are feeling the pinch.  Life is a lot tougher out on the streets and in the bordellos of the world.   The economic downturn is hurting the world’s oldest profession.

In Prague, long known for its post-communist bohemian scene and plethora of prostittues, business is bad.   There aren’t enough tourists notes a recent article in the International Herald Tribune.    Not long ago, because of its low prices and high number of prostitutes, there were sex junkets to Prague, where businessmen could sow their wild oats for a carnal weekend.    But prices are up and money is tight.   Some still come to cheer themselves up and to forget about the global meltdown.   Just not as many as there was a while ago.

In Berlin, known for its bady night life,  the sex business is down by 20%.  As for the other cities of the world, one has to presume business is off as fewer men are paying to get off.   Perhaps sex is on the increase in dating and with partners.   But I doubt it.  Sex junkets are special.   It is the alternative to golf and other escapist weekends that men use to bond.   Sex junkets are for distraction.  Sex with spouses and partners require more focus.

As for the good ol’ United States, who knows what this economic downturn will mean, sex-wise.   As for the changing of administrations, from a conservative to a more liberal government, often that means added sexual congress.   But between all the people whose libidos are reduced by anti-depressants and the depressing state of the economy maybe there just isn’t the sex there used to be.  It may no longer be a matter matter of “just say no.”  Maybe no one wants to bother.

The article indicates that the lousy economy discourages adultery.   No one could afford that expense of the illicit romance, the wining and dining and the ancillary upkeep.   When you can’t afford to go to dinner with your spouse or partner, it’s hard to justify spending money for the sole purpose of spreading the seed.   Even dating has tapered off, at least on the grand scale and the big splash.  You know the illusion of life would be if the two of you got together in a more serious fashion.   Now, with cheaper dating habits, you tend to see what you are getting.

Driving through one section of Long Beach, California, one eyes the hookers working the corners in other desperation, the disease it seems practically dripping off of them.   Not to pick on Long Beach, or even Sunset Boulevard, where a similar scenario plays out day and night.  I am quite sure most cities in this country have its streets where prostitutes ply their trade between heroin benders and sessions at the crack house.   One has to think while driving by that in this lousy economy the usual trade for this layer of girls is unemployed or really hurting for money.   Times must be really tough.

Crime must be up here and even among the upper class hookers.   On the upper level your pockets get rifled, while here the unsuspecting trick may be lured to a remote spot where he is set upon, beaten and robbed.   As for what the higher class call girls are doing, that’s hard to say.  Most are probably working.  Just not as much.

Well it goes to show that when times are tough, times are usually tough everywhere.   No one can escape the belt tightening operation.   Most are shocked it all came down so fast.   Talk about shock and awe.  It’s tough to feel libidinous when the world is collapsing all around you.   Tough to pay for sex.   Tough, even when it’s free.

A Critical Passing of Cultural Critics

Our best critics are dying.   And with it a form of writing and assessment of our cultural has been downgraded to a lower form.   Where critics once served to educate their readers and point to new directions in our arts and culture, most criticism today is either boosterism or narcissism.   It is a shame, really, because it appears that with the decline in cultural criticism we experience a decline in the quality of the arts.

Within the past couple of years, Hollis Alpert, founder of the National Society of Film Critics, has passed away.   John Leonard, esteemed literary critic, has also moved on to another world.   Clive Barnes, dance and drama critic, died not too long ago.   Pauline Kael, perhaps the most influential of film critics, died a few years back.   Vincent Canby.  The list goes on.

Others still hang in there, writing quality reviews.  Stanley Kauffman remains the literary critic for the New Republic.  Erudite and sometime curmudgeonly octogenarian,  John Simon, still writes theater and film reviews.  Fellow film critic and octogenarian, Judith Crist, still writes and teaches at Columbia University.   Likewise, Andrew Sarris.

While a few have inherited the love, concern and at times the erudition of this older set of critics, Rodger Ebert and Manohla Dargis, come immediately to mind, most critics today are interchangeable faces with paste on smiles and clunky writing styles.   Where the others had a deep passion for the arts, most critics today are merely hired hands, flogging product and searching for the next rung on the ladder.   It is not the passion and involvement that seems to drive them, but career advancement.   Most will not and cannot take chances.

Time was art and cultural critics would take the lead in defining a movement or style.   They would go out on a limb.   They would push the unpopular because they believed it was good.   They would denounce works and fight with their creators.  Feuds between artist and critic were renowned.   For the most part, both gained from the conflict.

Their reviews would be imbued with wit and style, erudite, in fact, which today, sadly, goes unappreciated.   You would sense their anger or appreciation for what they were reviewing.   You could sense the love and the displeasure.  You would not only better understand the art piece itself, but the art form in general.  You would come away from a review with a better sense of the complexity of the human experience.

It is unimaginable that critics of the past would deign to even review much of the art that our current cluster of critics tend to praise.   Good writing is almost a thing of the past.   It is fashionable to laud the middle brow and to deem the wretched acceptable if not great works or art or entertainment.  Sad as it may be, it is understandable.   Like other media people, there is little knowledge of the history of their subjects.   Therefore, there are few reference points.   Their analysis, overall is pathetic and short sighted.  Writing styles hand out language that is impenetrable.   Rather than serve as true critics who in turn advance the quality of the arts, driving their creators to do better,  their task is mainly to talk about celebrity.

The presentations are as mediocre on a good day and do little or nothing to raise the quality of the art form.   I start reading reviews and   midway through I start wondering what the hell the writer is trying to say.   There is no real point of view, and if there is a point of view quite often it is singular and simplistic.   There is no guts to it.

As for the reviews on television or radio, they come off like promotion pieces designed to send you to the theater, or out to buy the book.   There is a tie in between the entertainment industry, the media and the lucky slob who issues forth his McReview.   Whether some are rewarded for writing favorably is a point of conjecture.   But with so much else on the take, it is difficult to imagine that ambitious souls with questionable talent wouldn’t be susceptible to a material pat on the back.

As I noted earlier, there are still a fair amount of quality books, films, dance, and theater.   But given the sheer quantity of what is produced for the market in a  single year, the good art represents a slim minority.  As for projecting and developing the complexity of human experience, with few exceptions you can forget about that.  You would like to think that the torch is passed from one generation to another.  You would like to believe that the arts endure and with the changes in society there are advances in the arts.   Not in the technology of the arts, but in the arts themselves.

You would like to think that.   But then you would be dreaming.