I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. From fifth grade on, teachers fooled me into thinking I might have some flair for it, and I bought it.
When I looked back, years later, at some of my youthful scribblings, I thought they were pretty crappy, even for my age. So, were they all leading me on? Conspiring to give a pitiable student hope?
Sad to say, but that was my only talent. Not a jock, no obvious artistic talents and a consistent C student, until the forced epiphany of being drafted during the height of the Viet Nam war turned me into an A student.
But I was always good with words. Every single third grade weekly spelling test, 100 percent; won the Spelling Bee for my grade school and went to the state tournament in Albuquerque with dreams of the nationals in D.C., but I flamed out in the second round. Childhood ambitions to be a doctor (wait, science? math?) turned into Journalism school.
Fast forward through 40 years of music journalism. It was my passion, my strength. I had the experience and knowledge to back up my strong opinions about music. But 40 years of anything is enough, eh?
So in 2007 I’m getting ready to make my second one-year camping expedition around all of Europe, family in hand. Launch date: summer, 2011. Shouldn’t I document this momentous expedition? Might not the good folks in Santa Monica be interested in the impressions and comparisons from a resident of 25 years? Santa Monica Daily Press publisher Ross Furukawa thought so, and the traveling predecessor of “Curious City” was launched, as “Three Innocents Abroad” (a slight reworking of the title of Mark Twain’s 1869 travel journal).
Having decided to give up my paying job as a music editor (which I could have continued from abroad, but who wants to leave a raucous German Bierhalle or Greek Panagiri at midnight to meet a deadline to write a review of some stupid album?), I was enjoying writing about people and places for a change, and my home town certainly was full of more stories than I could tell in a lifetime.
So what would my first Santa Monica column be about? There was no question. For literally 20 years I had been fighting City Hall to get the basketball courts at Los Amigos (now SMASH/John Muir schools) and Joslyn Parks open during the hours they were supposed to be open. Maybe now with the power of the press (??) behind me, I could get some action.
IT HAD BEEN AN ON AND OFF BATTLE.
I’d persist for a few weeks or months, get the runaround, stonewalled, phone calls not returned, then give up. Which was the whole idea, I believe. There was a man named McGrath who seemed to be in charge most of that time, but I rarely got to talk to him and never met him in person, though I requested a meeting many times.
At Los Amigos the gates to the basketball and tennis courts were locked maybe 30 – 50 percent of the time when they shouldn’t have been. At Joslyn, they were locking the baskets at dusk, which in the winter could be around 4:30.
So I bravely went forth with my new “Curious City” column to get to the bottom of things. Three months and three columns later, nothing had changed, except that I learned a lot about our city staff and government which, unfortunately, in these ensuing years, has only been reinforced.
I went first to Karen Ginsberg, Director of Santa Monica’s Community and Cultural Services Department. We spoke in her office for 45 minutes and she explained all the reasons why the courts at Joslyn couldn’t be open for evening play (even though they had been for 40 years preceding the new early closing rules). The problem was the lighting, she told me. Joslyn didn’t have the “basketball court lights” that were required, and it would be prohibitively expensive to install them. But she sent me off to Devin Starnes, the Custodial Services Manager – he would be the one to deal with.
Not on the lights, he wasn’t, no authority there, though he did try to steer me to people who had information. Starnes was open, amiable, and seemed to be trying mightily to figure out how to get that gate at Los Amigos open when it should be. But after three months, nothing had changed despite his new procedures, and my last column reported that frustration.
As it turns out, just after that, the gate at Los Amigos opened. Always. Open on time, closed on time (not early). Every single time I checked it, which was hundreds of times in the last two and a half years. Perfect. Until a Monday a couple weeks ago.
So I called Starnes, now promoted to Facilities Maintenance Manager, told him how amazed and pleased I was that he finally got that 20-year problem fixed for good, and also reported on the one day it wasn’t open. He said he’d check and get back to me, he did, it was a minor mix-up, now fixed.
The lights? Rec and Parks Commission chair Phil Brock, whom I had never met but who read my column and asked to meet me at Joslyn after dark, had an immediate assessment upon reaching the courts – um, let’s call it, “baloney!” There was plenty of light to play, he agreed.
He put it on the agenda of the next Commission meeting, told the Commission of his in-person assessment and suggested the courts stay open until at least 8:30 each night. I never got a chance to present all my arguments and data about the light measurements I took and the fact that there is no such thing, except as an industry designation of convenience, for marketing, as “basketball court lights,” because Ginsberg, who had previously told me several different ways that opening those courts past dusk just couldn’t and wouldn’t happen, meekly agreed that night that she had no objection. Done.
Not done, I offer, without Brock’s common sense assessment, and intervention. Los Amigos unlocked, not done without a supervisor, Starnes, who cared enough to work three months to find a solution that no one else, in 20 years, would even answer a phone call about.
It can work this way. Why doesn’t it?
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We have to make bureaucracy sexy.” – Jennifer Pahika
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org