Monday, March 27, 2006

The Spirit of 76

You've got to hand it to the good people of Los Angeles.
When it comes to historic preservation, their tastes run from the eclectic to the downright bizarre.
Example: At the same time that some residents are wringing their hands over the fate of the Tale O' the Pup hotdog stand, the Ambassador Hotel, one of the area's most visible and noteworthy landmarks, is being reduced to rubble to make room for a school.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in a town where preservation means face peels, an online petition is urging people to lock arms to save the Union 76 ball.
That's right, the large orange orb that has adrorned, or besmerched depending how you see it, our landscape for years, appearing on gas stations, atop radio antenas, on the sides of buildings...even serving as a beacon of hope in the vast, dark wilderness that is the Dodger Stadium parking lot.
This is historic preservation? The petioners think so.
"In 2005, ConocoPhillips, the Texas-based energy company thattook over the historic California Unocal refineries and gas stations in2002, commenced a campaign of design terrorism, ripping down the hugelypopular orange and blue "76" branded ball signs in favor of a genericflattened red and blue disk.
"To give the public a chance to be heard, an online petition has beenlaunched by the authors of L.A.'s 1947project crime history blog. Signersare declaring their intention to boycott if ConocoPhillips doesn't reversetheir redesign policy and show proper respect for the beloved 76 ball brand.
Petition co-writer Nathan Marsak, author of "Los Angeles Neon," says, "Oururban fabric will lose a groovy, sexy element of its attraction with thedisappearance of this turning orb, an orb that still speaks "progress!" and"fun!" as opposed to its replacement, which resembles some sort of gianttombstone."
His co-author Kim Cooper agrees:
"...This is the real deal. I just am baffled and disturbed byConocoPhillips' rebranding of the jaunty 76 orb...It seems like a lot of people agree. I feel like if we can just raise our voices in love for this classic piece of urban design, maybe they'll have to stop and reconsider, and the balls can be saved."
The petition reads:
"We, the undersigned, as consumers with an abiding fondness for the striking, historic and uniquely Californian blue and orange ball-shaped Union 76 logo, be it on tall metal poles or car antennae (since 1967), hereby call on ConocoPhillips to reconsider their alteration of the 115-year-old brand, to cease replacing spherical blue and orange 76 balls at gas stations with flattened blue and red disks, and to restore the beloved spheres to the poles where they belong.
"If ConocoPhillips does not demonstrate greater respect for the the history and goodwill associated with the blue and orange 76 ball, we will be taking our business to other gas sellers. This petition is being launched on January 31, six days after ConocoPhillips posted fourth quarterly earnings of $3.7 billion, and we call for a sincere response to our concerns before the announcement of their next second quarterly earnings."
Whether these people are passionate preservationists or merry pranksters remains to be seen. But some of petition signers seems to be taking it all very seriously:
Says one: "Please save the blue and orange ball signs. If you dump that icon, you will, for one, display stupidity, and secondly, you might as well call the place something else beside 76. It's like McDonalds dumping the arches. Just wrong!"
Another writes: "Good design belongs to the people. It is presumptuous and inappropriate for a corporation to arbitrarily toss out a strong, historic logo in favor of such a poor substitute. "
"I used to buy from a 76 station only two blocks from my house," says another petition signer. "The day CONOCO/Phillips changed it to red and blue, I stopped patronizing it. There is logic and reason to allow diverse brands to co-exist under a common corporate flag without requiring the destruction of historic artifact simply for the sake of arrogant displays of smaller brand assimilation."
And finally, "I'm a vet. Was my blood not enough?"
As a friend commented to me, "Jeez, you'd think they were torching the Louvre."
As for me, I'd find all this amusing if it wasn't for the fact that so much of our past has been bulldozed into oblivion.
I wish they would have put as much effort into saving the Ambassador.

He Ain't Kinky, He's the Governor

When it comes to celebrity politicians, nobody beats California.
This is home to Hollywood, after all, and when the cast includes Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's a tough act to follow.
But Texas is trying.
After nailing down the White House and the national championship in college football, the good folks of Texas are mulling the candidacy of what passes for celebrity in those parts.
We speak, of course, of Kinky Friedman.
Never heard of him? Well, Kinky, a country and western singer of sorts, achieved a considerable cult following back in the 70s and 80s. His group, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys, produced such notable hits as "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and the ever popular "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed."
Now, Kinky has his eyes focused on the governor's mansion in Austin. And while his critics claim he's all hat and no cattle, he's out riding the campaign trail.
Indeed, according to media reports, Friedman has raised three times as much campaign money in his independent bid for governor as the two top Democratic candidates combined. Which may mean he is a popular and engaging candidate. Or it may be a statement on the fortunes of Democratic politics in Texas.
However you want to slice it, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell raised $355,000 in the last six months, and one-time state Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage collected $67,000. By comparison, Friedman reported raising $1.5 million.
And talk about well connected: Friedman is friends with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom have invited him to visit the White House.
Kinky is no carpetbager. He was raised on a ranch in central Texas and graduated from the University of Texas before serving in the Peace Corps.
He currently lives at Echo Hill Ranch, just outside of Medina. He founded Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, whose mission is to care for stray, abused and aging animals; more than 1,000 dogs have been saved from euthanasia.
His candidacy has propelled him onto the national stage; he recently appeared on "60 Minutes" where he observed, "Politics, folks, is the only field where the more experience you have, the worse you get."
And he has a clear vision of what the job he seeks entails: "The governor of Texas, as you know, does not have his finger on the nuclear button. He's more like the judge in a chili cook-off."
His campaign slogans include, "How Hard Could It Be?" and "Why The Hell Not?" Other bumper stickers retort: "My Governor is a Jewish Cowboy", and "He Ain't Kinky, he's my Governor".
But seriously folks. Here is Kinky on the issues:
"Texas politics stinks. The parties sell themselves to big donors, lobbyists control the legislature's agenda, and the top fundraising groups in the state are being indicted for money laundering. Corruption and big money have such a chokehold that the two major parties blew $100 million in the last governor's race to elect a candidate to a job that pays $100,000 a year.
"Texans are the most independent people in America, and if we're going to be inspired, the inspiration will come from someone unafraid to deal in new ideas and honest answers, an independent leader who lets the people call the plays instead of dancing to the tune of the money men. "
"That kind of leader is never going to look or sound like a politician. He won't steer by image polls, speak in hollow phrases approved by focus groups, or show up in hand-tailored suits. You'll know him when you see him -- true Texas leaders are unmistakable. After all, the last independent governor of Texas was Sam Houston. The next will be Kinky Friedman."
He supports higher pay for teachers and has proposed financing public education through the legalization of video poker terminals in bars: Slots for Tots.
On social issues he has supported gay marriage, answering an AP reporter's question on subject, he remarked "I support gay marriage. I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us." He supports nondenominational prayer in schools. In fact, his Christmas cards read, "May the God of your choice bless you and yours this holiday season."
And just before you laugh too loud and too long, know this: Two of his top campaign advisers worked for another outrageous and underfunded candidate who achieved the unexpected: Jesse Ventura.

No Stone Unturned

That old starship commander, William Shatner, is once again boldly going where few men have gone before. Shatner, who as "Star Trek's" James T. Kirk combined equal parts heroism and ham, was in the news recently when he generously sold his kidney stone for $25,000, with the money going to a housing charity. The buyer was, which appears to be a gaming website but also indulges in collecting such oddities as a partially eaten cheese sandwich thought to contain the image of the Virgin Mary.
The deal includes the surgical stint and string used to permit passage of the stone, which Shatner said was so large "you'd want to wear it on your finger." Thankfully, we were spared that sight.
But it got me to thinking, what other kind of oddities are being offered out there in cyberspace? Plenty, as it turns out.
When it comes to body parts, perhaps nothing was more astonishing than the "Bel-Air MD" who offered on eBay to donate a "perfectly healthy kidney for a reciprical donation of $2.5 million to a charity of my choice. Absolutely serious inquiries please. "
On a more chilling note, an eBay seller offered three of serial killer Roy Norris' fingernails, affixed with a small piece of tape, to a "recycled card... He's penned a long note authenticating the nails, which fills half the card. At bottom right, he's signed in full over a perfect right thumb print, in black ink. Absolutely guaranteed authentic for life, or your money back. " The bidding opened at $9.99.
Then there was a lad named Franics, who declared, "I just turned 17 and I'm going into my senior year in high school. I decided I'd like to lose my virginity. I figured with the latest eBay craze, I'd see exactly how much I could get for my virginity. Bidding on me will start at $10."
An even more enterprising youth offered, "I have a talent for listening and valuing people. You might feel a little lonely or just underappreciated. I am facing graduate school loan payback. Our solution together: I become your daily e-mail pal who will listen sincerely, care deeply and always be there for you." All for $1,500.
Turning to the animal kingdom, one seller offered an "annoying cat. Vomits constantly, coughs up hairballs 1-2 times per week, and wakes you up at 3am on a consistent basis by meowing outside your bedroom door." Starting bid: one cent.
Guns are banned on eBay but apparently missiles are OK: "Hughes AIM-4D Falcon Missile. Disarmed no warhead. What a great conversation piece this will make!!! "
And finally, this one:" I have discovered the reason for our existence and will be happy to share this information with the highest bidder." Eight people bid, the winner coughing up $3.26. Cheap enough for the secret of life.
I'm not sure what this says about the entrepreneurial spirit in this country. But it makes Shatner's gesture seems downright mundane.

Blue Plate Special

Would you want to know if patrons of your favorite dining establishment fell ill after eating there?
How about if the number of ill patrons approached several dozen?
Would you be angry if public health officials declined to identify the restaurant, saying it was unnecessary because there was no evidence of "continuing problems"?
That's exactly the scenario that has been unfolding over the last few weeks following an outbreak of hepatitis A last fall that sickened more than 300 people at various locations throughout Los Angeles County.
Under pressure from various news organizations to disclose details about the outbreak, health officials finally came clean, breaking their silence on the matter. They identified La Golondrina in Olvera Street as a locale that experienced an outbreak of hepatitis, sickening 15 patrons.
"If we have a few cases and we think it's traceable to a restaurant but the infections occurred six weeks ago and ...there's no evidence of continuing problems, what's the benefit" of identifying the restaurant, Dr. Johnathan Fielding, county health director, told the Los Angeles Times. "It may simply be they got a bad head of lettuce."
The benefit, Dr. Fielding, is credibility. By dealing honestly with the public you are sworn to protect, you avoid the appearance of having a cozy relationship with the restaurants you inspect. No restaurant owner in his right mind would want the fact that there was evidence of hepatitis at his establishment made public. By keeping that information under wraps, one might reasonably assume that the restaurant's financial well being is a consideration in this policy.
Oddly, the county's Department of Health Services regularly displays restaurant ratings based on its inspections on its web site. And many of the violations listed thereon are often resolved immediately. So what's the difference?
Having said all that, I have to give credit to these same health officials for reacting quickly when workers at Cafe Pinot in downtown Los Angeles fell ill with hepatitis A in December.
The Department of Health Services put out the word that patrons of the restaurant who ate there during a two-week period in November should get a preventive shot of immune globulin.
Those patrons included my wife and I and several friends.
Since the clock was ticking on the incubation period, we immediately contacted our family doctor who told us that his office could not get globulin dosages because most of it was being sent to Iraq.
We were instead directed to a county health clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Since we didn't have time to be picky, we dutifully if reluctantly headed for north Figueroa Street in search of a shot.
Any fears I had of being herded into a room full of consumptive homeless people was qucikly dispelled when I pulled into a parking lot brimming with Lexus, BMW and Mercedes automobiles. After all, Cafe Pinot is a high end restaurant.
The process was slow and we spent the time swapping stories with other patron/patients. The winner was a guy who had taken 16 business associates from around the world to lunch at Pinot and had spent the better part of two days trying to reach them about the problem.
Four hours and a couple of sore rear ends later, we were on our way.
The next day, Cafe Pinot called to explain to us that the infected employee did not work the evening we dined there. Indeed, the Pinot people suggested they were singled out by county health officials because they ran a high-visibility restaurant. The names of similarly affected restaurants, they claimed, were not being disclosed.
This kind of attempted spin and the confusion it causes underscores the need for candid reporting on the part of health officials.
Just how serious can foodborne hepatitis get? In western Pennsylvania in 2003, more than 650 cases including four deaths occured among patrons of one Mexican restaurant in a mall. Officals suspected contaminated green onions.
Federal officials describe the outbreak as the largest in U.S.history, noting that hepatitis A outbreaks contained to a single restaurant typically impact between 25 and 200 people.
The largest hepatitis A outbreak on record occured in 1988 when almost 300,000 people in China ate contaminated clams. In 1997, frozen strawberries caused 262 people in five states to become infected with the virus.