Item: A man shot his wife to death in a crowded parking lot of Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park, CA, on Saturday. The man was then fatally shot when he pointed the weapon at an off-duty Los Angeles police officer working as a security guard in the shopping mall, authorities said. The identities of the couple, who were pronounced dead at the scene, were not immediately disclosed by police.
It was just a small item at the bottom of page three of the L.A. Times. Nothing particularly unusual. Hell, there’s at least one of these in the paper just about every day. Still, it got to me for some reason. I sat back and tried to figure out why. It didn’t take me long.
Though I’m a native Ohioan, I have, for the better part of my life, lived in the San Fernando Valley — a suburb of Los Angeles. Most people simply refer to it as “The Valley.” Sometimes I even think of myself (God help me) as a Valley guy.
I remember when Topanga Plaza first opened. I’d just graduated high school. It was the first real mall in the Valley. It was a source of pride. Our mall. Today, the place looks undeniably tacky — a cheesy version of the gaudier (but no less repugnant) malls that have become our Global Villages of sorts. Nonetheless, I have undoubtedly imbued Topanga Plaza with some sort of spiritual quality. Sort of an “exempt” status from the ugly realities of the “real” world. A status resulting from the innocence which one associates with one’s teen-age years. Which is why, no doubt, that news clipping got to me.
However, I must confess that despite these somewhat soppy sentiments, the other part of me — the spoiled, well-bred, undeniably snobby kid from Cleveland — has always regarded the Valley (of which Topanga Plaza serves as the quintessential symbol) with a certain horror. When we first moved here, I could never quite accept the fact that my neighbors included people who drove pickup trucks and RV’s, went bowling on Saturday mornings, and shopped at godawful places like K-Mart. It was so … uncouth.
As a kid, I guess I found my new surroundings somewhat amusing. It was sort of like I’d just landed a role in a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. However, as the years passed, my antipathy for the Valley blossomed into what can only be described as a profound sense of repulsion. (This, despite the fact that today the Valley is considered one of the more “chic” spots in Los Angeles). Sorry, I don’t care how they try to disguise it … the Valley has a heart and soul that can never be altered.
Turn a wrong corner in the Valley, and suddenly you’re in Tijuana! Seriously! I can think of nothing more depressing than driving down a street like Sherman Way (only one of the many Valley streets which I detest) and seeing mile after mile of hideously nondescript apartment buildings with names like The Tiki Gardens, The Outrigger and The El Cortez (they always have 5-year-old “Grand Opening’ signs plastered on them). You know the kind of apartments I’m talking about … the ones where tinfoil serves as window covering and shopping carts litter the ugly weed patches that are supposed to pass for front lawns. Sure, I realize that there are apartments like these all over L.A. … but there is a certain extra tawdriness about the ones located in the Valley.
OK, let’s get down to brass tacks. You wanna know what the Valley is? I’ll tell you: The Valley is, well … it’s 7-11, Big Gulp, Abba Zabba, Bazooka Joe, Supercuts, The National Enquirer, kung fu video games, red licorice (not black), dice hanging from the rear-view mirror of ’68 Chevys, pot-bellied men in tank tops, polyester shirts, and/or T-shirts bearing beer emblems on the back.
The Valley is fat ladies in floral print mumus, cops that look like they just got out of high school (these guys inevitably have those infuriating neatly cut moustaches and stone-dead blue eyes), drive-in movies, do-it-yourself car washes, sunglasses with those little strings that you wear around your neck, see-through t-shirts, beer nuts, lava lamps, red plastic purses, exercycles, skate boards, landau tops, sheepskin seat covers, beat up old cars with bondo on the side and a bunch of empty coke cans and crumpled up newspapers all over the floor. Oh yeah. And donut shops. Lots of donut shops.
The Valley is Bob’s Big Boy, Midas Muffler, Sears, Zody’s, Thrifty Drugs, (not Save-On), Penny’s, Montgomery Ward, Kinney Shoes, Burger King, Jack In The Box, Naugles, Taco Bell, Midas Muffler, Earl Scheib, Pep Boys and Lees Bars, Stools and Dinettes. It is the Corbin Bowling Alley, The Rocket Bowling Alley and the Canoga Park Bowling Alley. In fact, every bowling alley in the world is actually located in the Valley.
The Valley is parks. Not very nice parks. Parks where the drinking fountains either don’t work or the water is real hot, and the grass is half dead. The Valley is pickup trucks, campers, RV’s, jeeps, mobile homes and vans with those stupid oversize tires and Western murals stenciled on the back windows. It is bad oil paintings of Elvis, Telly Savalas, Sylvester Stallone, Liberace, Barbara Streisand, Wayne Newton and Jesus that hang in people’s dens (all the dens have wood paneling). It is cigarettes. Everyone in the Valley smokes cigarettes (primarily Marlboro, Winston and Kool filtered) And they never dump the ashtrays. Oddly, people who live in the Valley (even the ones that don’t smoke) smell like cigarettes. Come to think of it, they actually look like cigarettes!
The Valley is the ugly brown and orange plastic chairs that adorn the waiting rooms at Kaiser Permanente Hospital — the ones littered with year-old issues of Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines that nobody wants to read. And the mother with her hair in rollers, a dead cigarette dangling from her lips, and a million screaming brats climbing all over her (which she never bothers to tell to shut up, even though they’re driving everyone else in the place nuts). And the old man with the cane sitting quietly in the corner, smiling for no reason.
There are no Negroes in the Valley. And any that are here are not real Negroes — or at the very least they are very insecure about being Negroes. Also no Jews. All the Jews live in Encino — and Encino (despite the fact that it is physically located here) is not the Valley. Studio City (also allegedly in the Valley) is not truly part of the Valley. Neither is North Hollywood. North Hollywood is Mexico. Spiritually, the Valley is Canoga Park, Reseda, Van Nuys, Simi, San Fernando, Panorama City, and any place with an 818 or 805 area code. If you’re the owner of either of these two area codes — you’re dead meat, Jack. If you’ve managed to maintain a 213 number, you’re safe (at least for the time being).
Men that live in the Valley work tarring roofs, in lumberyards, auto body shops or hardware stores — and they all sell real estate on the side. (Come to think of it, everybody in the Valley sells real estate). These men have names like Chuck and Leroy, or maybe even Dirk. Their wives are those bone-skinny women with little hairs growing out of their chins who stay home during the day and watch soap operas and clip coupons out of the paper. Many of these wives have tiny, ugly dogs (poodles, schnauzers, and the like). Dogs that they walk real early in the morning that leave huge, glistening piles of crap on your lawn.
It is no accident that the Valley is the capital of the porn industry. Many Valley people are into swinging, S&M and kiddie porn, as well as being members of assorted cults … witchcraft and satanism being the most popular. (Charlie Manson’s bunch got its start in the Valley). And everybody here — bar none — is on drugs — primarily reds (speed) and Ludes (downers). Cocaine is more Santa Monica, Beverly Hillsish.
Another curious thing about people in the Valley is that they don’t really grow up (yours truly included). They just become old teenagers. Many Valley men look like those guys you that you used to see at Elvis concerts. You know — guys that wear white belts and white shoes. Guys who have ’50s hairdos that they’ve actually had since the ’50s. Also many Valley men favor flattops. Inevitably, the Valley flattop men have those kind of stick-out ears which seem to be growing out of their necks.
Valley people tend to be either very skinny or very fat. There are very few middle-sized people here. Not only this, but Valley women seem to like to flaunt their fat. I swear, you find a fat woman in the Valley, and nine times out of ten (if the weather’s nice) she’ll be prancing around in some skimpy little tennis outfit, or even a bathing suit! It’s amazing (not to mention disgusting). As for the thin Valley women, they tend to have that Auschwitz demeanor. You know — their skin has that sort of yellowish tint that comes from smoking five packs of cigarettes and drinking 20 cups of coffee everyday for the last 10 years. In fact, Valley people (women in particular) have a very distinctive look which the practiced viewer can instantly recognize. It’s sort of like they’ve gotten dried out … like some old piece of beef jerky.
Some things that are not Valley include chocolate phosphates, Italians, grand pianos (people who play keyboards in the Valley all play organs or synthesizers), dill pickles, black cherry soda, halvah, Marcel Proust, Leonard Bernstein, Picasso, James Thurber, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Eiderdown quilts, Greek olives, bouillabaisse, Gefilte fish, Challah bread, herringbone sports jackets, and books on German humor. Fireplaces are not Valley (unless they are those gas kind with the fake logs). Red knee sox are definitely not valley. Green … maybe.
Turkey sandwiches (on white bread) are Valley. So is diet salad dressing (Thousand Island, not Roquefort). Orange Crush is Valley. Anything orange is Valley. Also, those decals that reflect different colors that people plaster on their rear bumpers are very Valley. Blonde hair is Valley. Dark hair is not. Curly hair — nix. Hair on the chest is not really Valley. It’s more Fairfaxy (the Jewish neighborhood).
Tastee Freeze is Valley. Kool Aid. Also, those wax coke bottles you used to chew when you were a kid. Pez is not Valley. Anything Jewish is not Valley. Example: Vernors ginger ale is Jewish, not Valley. Root beer is definitely not Valley. Night school is Valley, and so are all trade schools. PC computers are Valley. Macintoshes are not. Divorces are very Valley. Seascapes. Prozac. Juju Bees. Zorries. Unleaded gas. Cremora. Oh, and that most maddening of all phrases, “Have A Nice Day!”. Yep, started right here. I promise you.
Cunnilingus is Valley. Vaginal sex is not. The Three Little Pigs are Valley. The Big Bad Wolf isn’t. Cheating on your wife is extremely Valley. Lime jello is Valley. Yellow is Valley. Brown is Valley. Radio Shack. Q-tips. The May Company is Valley. Robinson’s is not. Neither is Nordstrom. Sears … absolutely 100 percent pure Valley.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Bill Gates actually lives in the Valley. Jimmy Connors is from the Valley, and Chuck Connors too, for that matter (he’s also dead). John McEnroe is a stone cold Valley dude. All the Elvis imitators in the entire world live in the Valley. Michael Jackson was raised in the Valley. Jon Voight is Valley, despite the fact that he’s a longtime member of Chabad House (sorry, Jon). Chuck Norris is pure 818 area code. Jack Nicholson — though he did a great imitation of a Valley guy in “Five Easy Pieces” — has never been in the Valley in his entire life. Wayne Newton ought to live in the Valley. However, it’s OK that he lives in Las Vegas, because Las Vegas is the Valley.
Other Valley residents include Frank Sinatra Jr, Tonya Harding, William Shatner, Jean Claude Van Damme, Pauly Shore, Jerry Quarry (remember him?), Dr. Deepak Chopra, The Amazing Randi, Mary Tyler Moore, Cal Worthington, Kitty Menendez, Tori Spelling, Lee Majors, Vanna White, The Beastie Boys, Priscilla Presley, Arsenio Hall, the guy that used to play Eddie Haskell on “Leave It To Beaver,” Gennifer Flowers, Julio Iglasias, Don Henley, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Mr. Ed, Harry Connick Jr., Earl Scheib, Hulk Hogan, all of the ex-Mouskeeters (the ones who aren’t dead or in jail), Farah Fawcett, Garth Brooks, Art Garfunkel, Sandra Bernhardt, Ann Landers, Kiss, Nora Ephron, Donny Osmond, Ed McMahon, Squeaky Fromme, Bob Eubanks, Rin Tin Tin, Chubby Checker, Slim Whitman, Billy Barty, Dr. George Fishbeck, a lot of aging child-stars who have kicked drugs and turned to God, as well as many game show hosts. Also all the plumbers and electricians in the world live in the Valley … not to mention one hell of a lot of extremely smelly Mexicans.
Do you begin to get what I’m saying here? No matter how you cut it, the Valley is still a hick town with aspirations of being something else. But there’s no way to disguise it. I don’t care how many billion-dollar malls or cute little French restaurants or Cappuccino joints they put up. This Valley is — and always will be — Beverly Hillbillies-land. And even if you’ve never seen this place, it doesn’t matter. There’s a “Valley” somewhere not far from you. Because the Valley is America.
Thinking about all this stuff got me a little nostalgic, so I hopped in my car and began aimlessly driving around. Before I knew it, I found myself at Topanga Plaza. The first thing I did was to snoop around the parking lot. I guess I was looking for the smell of death — some sign of the cancer that had invaded this sacred teenage haven of mine. But it wasn’t there. Nothing. Just a vast sea of cars with personalized license plates and those stupid sunglass things on the windshields.
I ventured inside the mall, got a cup of coffee and sat in the “Food Court,” whereupon I engaged in approximately an hour of anthropological research (i.e. people watching). It was really quite amazing. Despite the requisite costume changes, the Mall People still looked exactly the same as they had 30 years ago! If you could have magically transported this bunch across town to the Beverly Center, they would have immediately been tossed out for being impostors.
I could feel a good-sized depression coming on, so I decided I’d better split. I wanted to find this one old high school hangout of ours, which happened to be a freeway underpass. We spent a lot of time there, hatching plans, telling stupid jokes, smoking cigarettes — all the stuff that teen-agers do.
Actually, what I wanted to see was if this one particular piece of graffiti that we’d spray-painted on the underpass wall was still there. I don’t know why, but it’d stuck in my mind for some reason. What it said was: Eddie Blows Dead Goats.
The statement referred to this guy named Eddie Barnhart. And while, if I recall correctly, Eddie had several strange habits, this particular one was not amongst them. Somehow, though (I never could quite figure out why) poor Eddie had been branded by this cruel piece of slander. We just never treated him quite the same after it had appeared (in bright red spray paint) on the underpass wall. Nobody ever copped to the actual deed. Sometimes I think maybe ol’ Eddie wrote it himself!
It didn’t take me long to find the spot. I parked my car, got out, and headed into the underpass. There was plenty of graffiti all right — including the names of various gangs, rock bands, couples declaring their eternal love, pentagrams — all the usual stuff. But nothing that said Eddie Blows Dead Goats. Somehow, this made me even more depressed.
As I exited the underpass, I encountered a little kid, maybe 10 or so. He was selling flowers. They weren’t particularly nice flowers. It looked like he’d probably stolen them from various people’s lawns.
“How’s business?” I asked the kid.
“Not so hot,” he replied.
“So why don’t you move to another corner?”
The kid eyed me warily. “Dunno,” he squinted.
I could think of no retort. “How much for a bouquet?” I finally asked.
I dug into my pocket for some change. I gave the kid the dough, whereupon he handed me a rather wilted bunch of flowers. I took them and walked back into the underpass. I stood there for a long time, perusing the names scrawled on the wall. It was awful. I didn’t recognize even one of them.
Somehow I didn’t want to leave. I guess I was listening for … for what? A sound? A hint? A whisper maybe — from one the old ghosts? I wasn’t really sure. Whatever it was, it was not forthcoming.
Finally, I set the flowers down on the sidewalk, right underneath the spot where the infamous Eddie Barnhart graffiti had once anointed the wall.
“So long Eddie,” I said. “Hope everything turned out OK for you.”
When I got back to the corner, the kid’s flowers were there, but he was nowhere in sight. I stuck around for a couple of minutes, but he seemed to have disappeared. Either he’d gone off in search of a new spot, or else he’d just gotten fed up with the whole deal and bailed out.
Then again, maybe he’d been kidnapped! Good Lord! Maybe I’d pick up the paper tomorrow morning only to be confronted with a grisly article about some poor kid who’d been supporting his sick mother by selling flowers. And now they’d found his lifeless body chucked in some garbage dumpster!
I could feel my blood beginning to boil. Those filthy scumbags! I’d track those murderous scoundrels down if it was the last thing. …
But then I cut it out. I knew what was going on. It was just the dramatist in me working overtime. Anyhow, this wasn’t my movie any longer. I’d just written FADE OUT on final scene moments earlier, beneath the freeway underpass.
Sorry kid, but I’m afraid it’s gonna be up to somebody else to write you a major role in their story. Hey, quit complaining! You got a walk on … and that ain’t bad when you stop and think about it. Hell, it took Eddie Barnhart nearly 30 years to get his first shot. And guess what?
It wasn’t even a speaking role.