Friday, June 22, 2012

How to find the Claremont Black Swifts

Follow the written directions to get to this spot on Cobal Canyon Road, and look in this direction: east.  Keep staring at the swallows as they emerge over this ridge.  The Black Swifts will emerge for 10 to 20 seconds at a time, then duck back down beyond the ridge.  Tonight, 22 June, 2012 they were only seen once for literally 2 or 3 seconds beyond this ridge at 6:15 p.m..  We had better views 100 feet uphill i.e. up the road.  At this spot, there is less sky available to the east, but the Black Swifts were visible more often, and were closer.
Earlier, at 5:45 p.m British birder Craig Chernos and I first spotted the Black Swifts from this spot, much higher up the fire road.  This spot is several hundred yards further up Cobal Canyon Road.  This is a hairpin curve in the road. As you stand here,looking down on Claremont, hikers who are walking uphill are arriving from your right, and crossing to your left.  Stand at the edge, and stare at the swallow flock that is above the left peak.  On the one hand, you can get extensive views of Black Swifts.  On the other hand, they are really far away, not even visible to the naked eye.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Welcome to Claremont. Now go home.

For these stories to make sense, you need to understand that if you start at Claremont's southern border a.k.a. the 10 Freeway, every block north that you drive, towards the mountains, the average income of residents on that block is $10,000 more than the people one block south.
I.  The bicyclist
There is a lady who rides my Metroink train to work from Claremont, to Union Station, just like me. She is really skinny, is around 50 or 55, and she always dresses in all black.  Always.  And she wears a black ribbon around her throat (this was considered to be really sexy in 1967), and usually wears a black beret.
She usually brings her bike onto the train, and gets onto it in downtown LA. The last thing I see of her in the morning is her mounting the bike, and riding off.
The other evening we were in the same car.  I only noticed her as the train was pulling into Claremont, and I stood up, and began struggling with my over-stuffed backpack.  She had to stop, blocked by my backpack, until I turned sideways and let her pass.  I didn't say anything like, "Excuse me." or "Pardon me."  Usually I do, but I was in a panic to get my backpack's straps over my shoulders, and passengers understand the rush to make it to the door, and not get stuck on the train.  In other words, it's acceptable to be rude under certain circumstances.  I got my backpack on, and started down the train stairs, right behind her.  Once we were both at the train door, I stood behind her, ready to get off right behind her.  With her back to me, I asked, "Where's your bicycle?"
She didn't turn and answer me.  Her back turned to me, she looked at the ground, and muttered, "It's at my house. In northern Claremont..."
Was she saying that to me?  Was she answering my question about her bike?  What did she mean by northern Claremont?  It turned out that she was: she turned around, leaned forward, got into my face, and hissed, "...where you don't live!"
She abruptly turned around, and stepped off the train.
II. The bicyclists
I went birding at Claremont Wilderness Park, tonight, after work.  It's at the north edge of town.
The park consists of dirt fire roads that go up into the riparian oak foothills between Claremont, and Mount Baldy.  A couple of years ago I found some summering (breeding?) Black Swifts that had shown up from Argentina, so I walked up there last week, and got lucky: they were back.  Problem is, after I reported them last Thursday, none of the other birders who have shown up have seen them.  I decided to go there after work, tonight, to find and photograph them.  No such luck.  I stood at the right spot, along the side of the dirt road for over an hour, and never saw any Black Swifts.  What I did see was lot of people hiking up or down the trail for exercise.  I was there so long, that I actually saw some people who passed me when they arrived, pass me going the other direction, on the way back down to the parking lot.
Once in a while you see one or two guys on mountain bikes.  No problem.
So, this one woman was walking uphill with her 2 little kids, and her mom (the grandma).  The woman was Hispanic, which in around here is code for first-generation Mexican immigrant.  She was ridiculously attractive. She was smokin' hot, and she knew it.  She exuded that whole "I'm too sexy for you" i.e. "I only date men who drive Mercedes" attitude. 
Quite frankly, I can't stand women of any ethnic group, religion, or political party who are attractive, and spend their waking hours obsessing over how beautiful--read: valuable--they are.
There is a woman at my job who is an immigrant from the Middle East, and she is gorgeous.  Seriously: she is stunningly beautiful.
And the reason that I like her is that she is nice.  She is friendly, polite, professional, just a nice human being.  The thing I like about her is that she gets it. She knows that I'm married, I'm not picking up on her, and not talking with her because she's beautiful.
I talk with her because she's smart, and knows things that I need to know.
It really reduces the stress levels at work.
So the Hot Mexican Mama is walking uphill on the dirt road, trying to corral her kids while scanning every man between 14 and 94 years old, to see if they're checking out her bod. 
They must be, because I'm hot.
So a group of 8--count 'em: 8 rich Claremont white dudes on very expensive mountain bikes (You don't buy these at Wal-Mart: they custom-make them for you at the shop in The Village) come barreling down the dirt road at high speed.  They were wearing their cutesie skin-tight, yellow, black, & red bike outfits, with matching helmets.  These morons were spread out all over the whole width of the dirt road, not single-file, or in 2 rows; they were hogging up the whole damn road at the time of the day when boatloads of people get off work, and go hiking on it.
The bicyclists collectively hit the brakes, in order to not run over the little kids.
If they exchanged words with the Hot Mama, I didn't hear it: I was focused on finding Black Swifts.
But, not 20 feet away, as they rolled downhill, the lead bicyclist--Der Bergrad Fuhrer--turned his head and nonchalantly said to her, "Go home to Pomona."
Oh. My. God.
I don't want to be white, any more.  Where's the office where I can go undo this?
III. The Mexican of Costco
My wife is chubby, and she has long, straight black hair.  Obviously, she is Mexican.
Except she's not.
She is Polish, German, and Scottish (her grandfather's last name was Duncan).
So here's what happens when we go to Costco:  People who speak little-to-no English walk up to her, and start talking to her in Spanish.  Obviously, she's Mexican, and she's with a blond white guy (me) so she probably speaks English.  Hey, she can help us!  Or should I say, "¡Ella puede ayudarnos!" ?
That's the other thing: I speak much better Spanish than she does.
So, when they talk to her in Spanish, and she says with a total gringa accent, "No hablo espanol" they get pissed at her.  Now she's a bad Mexican: Thinks she's white. Thinks she's better than us.  She's a pocha.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Can't we all just get along?

I can't believe that Rodney King--a man only 2 years older than me--is dead.
I feel bad for his family.
I want to say something nice about him, even though he was an alcoholic.  Normally, I can't stand alcoholics, but Rodney admitted on Patt Morrison's show earlier this year, during the 20th (TWENTIETH!) anniversary of the riots, that he struggles with alcohol.  he struggles (struggled) to be a good person.
But here's the thing about Rodney King:  Usually, alcoholics are nasty.  The term "mean drunk" is just another way to say "alcoholic".  Most alcoholics are angry, and when their frontal lobe has been dissolved in ethanol, they feel free to vent their spleen at somebody who pissed them off when they were a kid.
So, what did Rodney King do at the height of the riots, when the TV reporters shoved their cameras in his face?
Did he say, "Fuck white people"?
Did he say, "LAPD got what's coming to it?"
The man trembled, and cried, and felt horrible about the fact that the city was on fire because of him (Actually, it wasn't his fault, it was the ultimate ex-Marine's fault, that arrogant moron, Daryl Gates).  Rodney King--a guy who wasn't that smart, not well-educated, not a smooth-talking, articulate guy who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, stood in front of the cameras, and with tears rolling down his face asked, "Can't we all just get along?"

Did the riots end because he said that on TV, or because enough uniformed men with guns showed up from all over California, or because the rioters themselves grew tired of the burning and looting?

Probably a combination of all three, but Rodney King--with all of his shortcomings--didn't pour fuel on the flames, and we must never forget that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Venus transited the Sun, giving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the inner planets’ full size and shape. The truth of the matter is that as Venus goes round and round the Sun every year—just like Earth, all that really happened with this transit was that Venus crossed the Sun at an angle where you could clearly see it. So to speak. You needed to either project what’s coming out of your scope onto a piece of paper, or some other flat surface, or put an appropriate filter in front of your scope’s objective lens. We did both.

So, what did we actually see? If you look at Jeff Cowell’s photograph, you can see that Venus is this little, tiny ball in front of the gigantic ball of fire that is the Sun.

Here’s the thing: Earth is the same size as Venus:

Earth - 7,926 miles (12,756 km) in diameter

Venus - 7,521 miles (12,104 km) in diameter

So, by standing in our driveway, and seeing this little tiny planet that is the same size as our planet, live, through our own scope, we got to see just how small our world is.

Well, recently I found out just how small my world is.

To say that there are Mexicans in the eastern part of the City of Los Angeles—referred to as East L.A.—is like pointing out that there are Jews in Brooklyn. My job sends me to East L.A. on a regular basis, whenever a truck sets off the radiation alarms at this facility that receives shipments. The routine is that some truck driver shows up, something inside his truck—that he is unaware of—sets off the radiation alarms, and I get called. When I arrive, I use special equipment—the equivalent of a 1960s laboratory in a device the size of a laptop—to figure out what is inside the truck, where it is, and how radioactive it is. After we determine that everything is okay, I fill out paperwork, and tell them how to proceed. So far, nothing dangerous, life-threatening, etc., has ever shown up at this facility that is hidden in a little pocket neighborhood. That’s okay. If—God forbid—anything dangerous or weird ever should show up, we will respond accordingly.

Two weeks ago I drove up to their office, and decided to park ass-backwards, to hasten my exit when I’m done. The manager came out, and upon seeing the Obama 2012 bumper sticker on the back of the Jeep, he enquired, “You’re a Democrat?”


“I’m a Republican. I like war.”

I stared at him, speechless.

Last week I had to drive over to his facility for the usual reason, and after identifying the isotope in his truck, we sat in his office, studying the truck’s route, in order to figure out who the moron was who put radioactive junk into his truck. If we can figure it out, I can fine them. That’s right: I can write you a ticket, like the cops. I’m the radiation cop and I’ve got the badge to prove it.

So I’m sitting there at Jose’s (his real name) big wooden desk, studying his haircut that may—or may not be a military haircut—and he circles back to last week’s comment about liking war.

He says, “You ever been in the military?”

“Yeah, I was in the Army.”

“Me too. I was in the Balkans.”

Holy shit. That makes sense. He’s a little bit younger than me. I lucked out. I nailed it perfectly: I served after the invasion of Panama, and before the Gulf War. I have never fired a shot in anger, or been in danger of hostile forces shooting me. Him? He must have been in during the late 80s/early 90s.

He doesn’t know that I’m Hungarian, and that I have traveled all over Europe. I flash back to my friend Richard Kostrenic in San Pedro, a Slovene who said 5 years before it happened: “When Tito dies, the country is going to catch on fire. They’ll be at each other’s throats. Richard predicted that Yugoslavia would break up in a bloodbath.

I ask Jose, “Yugoslavia?”

His eyes widen with surprise and he says, “You know where that is?”

“Yeah, dude. I’m Hungarian. I’ve travelled up and down Yugoslavia by train and bus multiple times. When World War One ended, the Serbs went looking for my grandfather, because they wanted to kill him.”

Jose looks down at his feet and replies, “Oh, shit, dude. You know what happened there, right?”

“You mean, like Srebenica?”
“YEAH! Srebenica!!! I was there, man, when it happened!”


     I sat there in that black leather office chair, staring at Jose in his bright yellow safety vest with silver, reflective strips, and his hard hat, that make him look like a construction worker. I stared into his empty, hurt eyes, and then I stared at his short, black hair that is gray along the sides of his head, and saw that he has never gotten rid of his Army haircut. He is permanently stuck in 1995.

     Jose leans back in his office chair and starts talking.

     “I was in the reserves man, in an artillery unit, and we got activated and they assigned us to NATO. Man, I’d never been nowhere in my life, and now I’m in this beautiful country with pine trees and rivers and mountains, and all these people that hate each other. That dude, Slobodan Milosevich? He was an asshole. They shoulda shot his ass. Motherfucker killed women and children. Man, I was 19 years old, and I was digging up the bodies, man. They killed all these women and children. I remember digging in the dirt, and this 5 year old girl’s foot came out of the dirt. Man, it was so small. It didn’t affect me, at the time, man, but now I have a daughter…”

     Jose stops talking. Tears well in his eyes, and he sits there, silently.

     He regains his composure, and continues,

     “Man, it didn’t bother me until I had a kid, you know? Once my daughter was born, I realized what those fuckers did. Bunch of fucking murderers, man. They were like gang members, and it was weird, ‘cause we were like the cops—we couldn’t just go in there: somebody had to call us, and ask us to do something. I hated that, man. I wanted to just go in there, and stop those dudes. They were called the…the…the…”

     “The Skorpions?”

     “Yeah! The Skorpions! They were death squads, man. I hate those motherfuckers, to this day. They almost killed us.”

“What happened?”

     “We got a call, and drove into them. They would just set up a roadblock where-ever, and we were in 3 Humvees, and they had all kinds of trucks and cars set up, and we drove right into their roadblock, and their leader said ‘Come out of the car. Come on, we’re your friends. Give us your guns. We won’t hurt you!’ I didn’t believe him, man. I knew they would kill us, and bury us in the forest, somewhere. I was scared, man. We were seriously fucking outnumbered. I was lucky, man, my platoon sergeant was a CHP from Sacramento. Experienced cop. He told me, ‘Don’t give them your gun. Stay in the car.’ He told them to back off, and let us through, and their leader kept saying, ‘Come out of the car. Give us your guns. We’re your friends.’ So my sergeant pulled the lever on his M-16 and said, ‘Lock and Load!” real loud, and pointed his gun at the Serbs. That CHP cop saved us, man. I owe that Sacramento cop my life. He wasn’t afraid of them, and they knew it. He saved my life, man. But it affected me, man. When I came back, I was fucked up. After I got out (of the Army) I went through my troubles, man. I drank, I kept arguing with everybody. Kaiser told me I needed better help. They said, ‘Wait, you were in the Army, in a war? You need to go to the VA’. So I went to the VA, man, and talked with these dudes who went to Vietnam, and they were like me, man.”

Jose then recounted his drug and alcohol abuse, and how he clawed his way back into the real world, all for the sake of being a father to his little girl—the love of his life. He also told me about how he had been thinking of killing himself, and was driving his car, and was stopped at a red light, and when he said out loud, “God, do you even exist?” a shooting star flashed by, and he took that as a sign from God, and now he’s another one of those ex-Catholics (I don’t know what’s more annoying: ex-smokers, or ex-Catholics) who is a strident follower of some fundamentalist church that knows when the world is going to end, and all of the signs are there in the Bible, blah blah blah…

Normally, when some religious numbnut starts “proving” to me that the Bible has accurately predicted various historical events, along with next week’s winning lotto numbers, I quickly lose my patience, but in this case, I gave Jose a free pass. He deserves it. It’s his way of dealing with PTSD caused by his wartime military service.

As I drove away that morning, I thought about him all the way back to my office. I thought about him at home, that night, when I saw my 2 kids. I also kept thinking about the phenomenal number of Iraq War and Afghanistan veterans out there. Jose is only a few years younger than me, in his late 30s, but what about all of the 21 and 31 year-olds out there? How many 25 year old Mexican ex-Marines and soldiers are there in East L.A., who can’t tell their mom what they saw in Fallujah, or Kandahar?

So, the next time you’re driving your car, and you see some minority dude on the side of the road in boots, jeans, a t-shirt, a day-glow safety vest with silver, metallic reflector strips, and a hard hat, ask yourself who that guy is, and if he’s ever been to Afghanistan.

Or Yugoslavia.