Painting a whale at an LA potluck, with gratitude, rage and hope
This is a story of gratitude, hope, oceans… and libraries. November. Not the cruellest month. But seen from December, it’s clear we have somehow landed into a melancholia triggered by capitalism and the likelihood of further pandemic chaos. I was asked to reflect on November. I’ll start at the beginning and try to remember what I felt as the calendar flipped over… how hopeful I was; how everything had a veneer of otherworldliness as I settle back in the US and we emerge out of “this thing”. What I’m remembering now is how I crossed the river. That river was November.
November is the month of Thanksgiving, and for the first time in a long time, I find myself in the United States (thankful that Trump is no longer president, but worried for Biden’s next term). I’ve washed up on the shores of Venice Beach – with plenty to give thanks for. Firstly, the right to be where I want, since I once lived a life of precarious citizenship (stateless following the Islamic Revolution in Iran). In a world full of borders and nationalism, I now have too many citizenships to know where I fully belong: Iran, Newcastle, England, New Zealand (which gave my family passports in 1981) but also the US. And now I’m drawn back to the second homeland for Persians, Los Angeles. However, it troubles me. It troubles me greatly.
The City of Angels is a tiger. Much misunderstood. It’s a brutal place full of car-mageddon, homelessness, uptight socialites, and fancy housewives. I don’t mind – there are worse places to be, and I find those who complain of LA just can’t fathom the traffic tide table and that’s their problem. I work in the motion picture industry, and this literally is a factory town. I am in that factory now, raising finance for a Scandi detective TV series set in Iceland and a biopic of an Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad. Those are two different things by the way!
Forough means light in Farsi, and Venice has been that light. I am thankful for the community I’ve found. This community caught me as I almost fell off the edge of sanity following a particularly cruel break-up; the kind one might not have recovered from. The neighbourhood greeted me at the “painting the whale potluck” in a back alley where a fifteen-foot blue whale is repainted every five years by an oceanographer and those who live adjacent. Everyone brings a dish. Luckily my move coincided with this. The neighbours had long connections but were quick to welcome this oddball outsider. These people are kind. It was my Ellis Island. I bring Persian baklava.
The whale was a fitting mascot for the welcome party. I was instinctively drawn to Venice and the ocean was my solace. Tim, our neighbourhood oceanographer, tells me there is indeed only one water mass, ONE ocean, as they are all interconnected. This was just what I needed: a small sunny town with a breeze on the shoulders of a metropolis and a history of refuge for misfits, outsiders and rebels. Chaplin’s Little Tramp debuted here. Muscle Beach and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jim Morrison. Point Break. Something stuck. I felt of this place despite not knowing how to surf, nor being nearly cool enough.
But be careful. Venice will scratch you. Life here is in technicolour but sometimes it burns you too. It’s not an easy place to be. The streets are home to America’s most visible homeless challenge. In the most affluent part of the most dazzling city in the richest country in the world, the homeless line the streets. Capitalism has not served these people well. For them Venice is home too. And I am glad of it. Everyone deserves a nice home.
I try and reconcile my feelings of warmth for my adopted home with my conflicted feelings about capitalism. Nowhere are the contradictions of America more visible than here.
If I have a homeland, I belong to libraries. Wherever I go, I seek them out. Einstein said, “the only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” This is gospel and yes, I am evangelical about them. A place where lost souls go to find purpose and meaning and periodicals. All of it is free. It sits outside the capitalist model. No money needs to change hands here. America has had a long complex relationship with libraries. Since the time of railroad baron Andrew Carnegie, it is what the rich give to assuage their guilt. But libraries are the anti-capitalist machines we need in this day and age.
Hustling in Los Angeles means that I’m often between meetings, darting across town from one hot location to another. Between meetings I visit one of the 88 branches of the LA County Library, and the world opens up. I spy ideas; knowledge sets my imagination on fire. I think about the librarians who would’ve ordered this book, wonder about the folk who will take out this copy and will turn its pages. This book belongs to us all; all of us who will share it. We are rich. I love libraries because they are an antidote to Jeff Bezos. A foolish piece in Forbes magazine said libraries “don’t have the same value they used to” and cost taxpayers too much. The article proposed replacing all public libraries in the US with Amazon bookstores. Pfff.
Libraries, the lungs of the city, are also where the homeless of LA go when it’s too hot outside. When it rains. They are the emergency service that assists those who need computer access and wifi to do those essential life admins. Recently some libraries have been using the pandemic as an excuse to lock out their local inhabitants. I was disappointed Santa Monica library stopped allowing people to sit in their expensive glass library building. Why, I wonder? Is this a new way of unrooting the homeless from their city? The librarian tells me 60% of the budget of the library has been cut, the city citing Covid pressures. So, the richest country in the world is closing its libraries? “Santa Monica is too poor for libraries,” should be the headlines. Really?!
LA County Library is one of the largest public library systems in the United States. The library is primarily financed by property taxes and work out to approximately $45.05 per capita (for fiscal year 2018/19). Maybe Forbes doesn’t like that you can download their magazine free with your library card? As tweeter Amanda Oliver noted: “Visit your local library for one day. Sit and watch who comes in to use the services – it’s not just people checking out free books. It’s one of the few places in our society where the underserved can be treated with dignity and respect. It’s wifi. It’s translators. It’s kindness.” Libraries are saints. I am writing this in one of the branches of the LA County Libraries, one of the best libraries known to humanity, whose location I will keep a secret. If you want to find it… go and visit your own local library. It might be there. I might be there. We can flirt across the stacks. Where else can you meet people these days? You know, we need to make libraries hot again. Especially as many of us are now working from home.
A report from the University of Illinois showed that public libraries offer a four to one return in investment … providing anywhere from $2 to $10 in return for every tax dollar received.
The American conundrum
So why aren’t we protecting our libraries? I guess it’s the same reason we’re not protecting the environment. We take it for granted. I am thankful for this ocean of knowledge, this interconnected neural network, and connection to our fellow citizens, just down the street. Libraries made me who I am. Go while we still have them. I’m serious: JUST GO. Spend a few hours and see what happens. It’s time to save libraries, and ensure we are a better, kinder society for it.
Libraries won’t solve the homeless problem, but they are part of the solution. The society that builds libraries is the one in which people know how to look after each other.
Tribalism is Killing Us
In November, in Venice, the oceanographer and his tribe of neighbours read the entirety of Moby Dick in a marathon two-day session on the beach (I didn’t ask if they read the redacted version that removes the offensive language). Actor John Lithgow has been known to do a turn. They read Melville for hours and days – raising awareness for conservation. It’s an illusion to think that Venice is far away. I stand with my feet in the Pacific knowing we are connected with the rest of the world. It just seems far away.
My newsfeed brings more stories of more bodies consumed by the ocean. Stupid fucking humans stopping other humans from finding safety. I see the photos of the drowned Kurdish family. A family that had so much to offer wherever they settled.
They seem like my own family, one that fled Iran in the ‘70s. I think of my Uncle Frank who is a legend in the sales hall of fame for Mercedes Benz, my aunt who was a nurse and worked in a print shop for many years, my uncles who run service stations, or my own beloved father who is a renowned scientist. Their kids have further contributed: pharmacists, stockbrokers, and the odd filmmaker. I think about my family and what they’ve done in their lives and there’s no real difference between the refugees in the freezing ocean and my own successful family – or indeed between them and the population at large. We were just lucky. And no, we don’t need refugees to be worthy in order to be saved. Kate Andrews in the Torygraph says the best way to beat traffickers is to let refugees enter UK legally and she is right. The ocean can swallow up the hope and promise of those seeking a better life.
My survivor’s guilt doesn’t make it easy to enjoy the privilege I have. Why was I so lucky? Safe on this side of the ocean. The debate about refugees and the homeless should not be used as political football. The British debate the refugee crisis as the Venetians blame Bonin for homelessness. A lot of finger-pointing on both sides of the coast. “Ignorance is the parent of fear,” said Melville. It’s not left or right but right and wrong. And we would do well to remember that as we celebrate Christmas. I remain optimistic. “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” Melville’s Ishmael is overcome by the sorrows of the past, but steeled and hopeful for the future challenges that await.
What the pandemic told us is: be where you feel good. Life is short. Be with those you love. Be with community. Venice, with its funny little library, is my own; my people. And I know how very, very lucky I am to have this. I am grateful.
Labour’s Tony Benn said it best: “You need two flames burning in the human heart: the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope you can build a better world.”
I am angry. But still hopeful.
Tina Gharavi is a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and professor whose work focuses on misfits, rebels and outsiders. Since 1998 she’s campaigned for ‘untold stories, unheard voices’; storytelling from the margins. She’s based on the coastlines of Newcastle, UK and Venice, California