Monday, November 30, 2009

Higashi Honganji









"The Los Angeles Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple has served the Buddhist community since the turn of the 20th Century. In 1904, Rev. Junjyo Izumida established the first Japanese Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, located at 229 1/2 East Fourth Street. The temple was relocated several times, to San Julian Street in Little Tokyo (1907), to Savannah Street (1911), and, in 1926, the temple was moved to 118 North Mott Street in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, where it remained for the next fifty years. The present temple, built in 1976, marked the return of the Higashi Honganji to its roots in Little Tokyo."

The name Higashi Honganji actually refers to one of two dominant sub-sects of Shin Buddhism in Japan. It was established in 1602 by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu when he split the Shin sect in two (Nishi Honganji being the other) in order to diminish its power. Shogun's were always doing things like that.
Shin Buddhism actually refers to a school of Pure Land Buddhism. It was founded by the former Tendai Japanese monk Shinran Shonin. Today, Shin Buddhism is considered the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan.
Pure Land Buddhism actually refers to a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and currently is one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in East Asia, along with Zen, which I have studied, and one could say practiced (by meditating) for a good deal of my life.
I'm not going to go a whole lot into the tenets of the Buddhist philosophy. That is beyond the scope of this blog. Look it up if your interested. I will tell you that as a teenager I studied all of the major religions that exist in the world, and a few of the smaller ones (Protestant), and Buddhism is the only one that remotely made any sense to me. For one thing they don't believe in God.
Anyway, as part of my new found effort to make some constructive changes in my life, part of which is getting out of my box more often and meeting new people, I had decided to attend the Sunday service at the Los Angeles Temple of Higashi Honganji.
Why this particular temple? Well it would have been great if there were a Zen facility nearby. Or maybe not. Zen Centers literally will have you sitting around and meditating all freaking day, and that currently does not fit into my busy schedule. I've been to Higashi Honganji before, six or seven years ago, and the services resemble those of a regular Catholic or Protestant Sunday service... and hour, hour and a half, and your good to go. Enlightenment on the cheap.
And it's within walking distance. Right at Third and Central. I practically walk by it four times a week going to and from the VA.
As for the temple itself it was "Built in 1976. The temple’s architecture includes a traditional roof with over 30,000 tiles imported from Japan, lanterns which adorn the ceiling of the main chapel, and a magnificent statue of Amida Buddha on the altar. The temple reveals itself as a magnificent repository of Buddhist art and architecture. The beautiful Japanese garden was landscaped and continues to be maintained by temple members. Today the Higashi Honganji houses the Lumbini Child Development Center, a licensed pre-school and fully accredited kindergarten with a full capacity of 74 children in its care."
Cool.
I arrived there at about nine forty five, fifteen minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. A kindly, little old, bent over, Japanese lady opened the door for me and I went into the Main Hall, or Hondo, and took a seat. I was surprised that I was the first to arrive considering it was so close to ten o'clock.
Soon the doors were opened fully and a beautiful young Japanese woman entered and began fiddling with things. She was wearing traditional Japanese dress and was one of the two female Buddhist reverends who would be taking part in the day's service. The other one was pretty cute too!
"Is this your first time here?" she asked me, her accent slight.
"What was that?"
"Is this your first time here?"
"No. I've been here before, but a long time ago... five or six years..."
"Oh, well welcome back," she said smiling with her little, beautiful Japanese smile, then made her way up to the alter (Naijin) and continued preparing for the service.
The kindly, little old, bent over, Japanese lady who had let me in entered and took a seat near the front. Another Japanese lady, about my age came in and took a seat near me. Four young Hispanic kids entered and... four Hispanic kids! What the hell!? Well, they sat in the back.
A little after ten the gong began to ring signaling the start of the service. Soon about thirty people were seated, a mixed crowd. My friend Michael had asked me earlier that morning if there was mixed crowd at these services, and I told him with me there there was. It seems racial integration had progressed nicely since I'd been away.
The beginning of the service was marked by the appearance of the three reverends appearing up on the alter, two female, and the older, bald man I remembered from services past. They took their seats, and a middle aged, Japanese civilian approached the microphone and recited some interesting poems dealing, I believe, with our powerlessness over others, and other things, then the reverends began chanting.
They were very good at it. We were told that at this time we could come and give our offerings.
Unlike the Salvation Army and Catholic services I've attended in the past, this Buddhist service got the offerings (money) right at the beginning of the service before you had a chance to escape. Very wise I must say.
I entered the line and followed those before me. When it was my turn I bowed before the main urn in front of the alter, placed a dollar bill in the plate, bowed again, placed a small amount of incense in the urn where there was some already burning, bowed again, stepped back, bowed again, then returned to my seat. Simple.
The reverends continued chanting for awhile before stopping abruptly. The older reverend stood before the alter, we all stood and recited the Three Treasures, the first part which is sung, first by the reverend, then the rest of us, then the reverend recites a passage, then we do, then everybody does, then we sit down.
Then we stood up again and sang a song in English. Always with the songs. Public announcements were made. Then we were told we would be split up into two groups. Those who wished to continue in English were to move to the conference room, those who wished to continue in Japanese would stay right were they were.
Nineteen of us moved to the small conference room and sat around the table they had in there. The Japanese Americans outnumbered us honkies by one, plus the four Hispanic kids. Those numbers reflect the two reverends that came in to facilitate, the elderly man, and the other pretty lady I had not talked to. When she finally did speak it was in such a rich, thick lovely Japanese accent that I almost fell in love right then and there. Unfortunately I discovered she was married with two kids, and with my luck the husband would turn out to be the last samurai.
We went around and introduced ourselves, then the elderly reverend passed around handouts which were reproductions of a story that had been printed in the Buddhist Review, by Mark Epstein, M.D. It was about him driving around while listening to a talk radio station, an interview with a man talking about his childhood, how his parents had perhaps mistreated him while he was growing up, but also about how he had accepted that past and got on with his life vowing not to repeat the mistakes that his parents had made, and doing a remarkable job rearing his own children. It turned out the man speaking was Bruce Springsteen.
This was all very interesting to me. I remember the past times I had attended this service when the one reverend would recite a sermon in the main hall in English, then repeat the very same sermon in Japanese. This was much better.
I don't wish to be critical, but this is so Buddhist. Talking about things that matter in a practical way in daily life, rather than try to interpret what an ancient scripture may or may not have said, or meant, and how it affected us personally in the modern world.
Anyway, we discussed this fully for about an hour. Then one of the men talked about his recent visit to Kyoto, and the main Higashi Honganji Temple, which had just been renovated.
"I believe it is the largest wooden structure in the world," the elderly reverend remarked. I immediately began to wonder if they have termites in Japan.
At eleven thirty we were done, and I walked back to my box to type this up while watching "Knocked Up," and eating a Bologna and cheese sandwich, with creamed corn. I feel pretty good, although I think the Bologna was a little rancid. I ate it anyway. No cigarettes since Wednesday, and I don't feel like killing anybody. Quite the opposite.
Right now it's three fifty one in the afternoon, Sunday, November 29th, real time. I'm going to Santa Monica in about a half hour to go to another church service. Odd behavior for an avowed atheist, don't you think?
I'd meet a woman named Patrice who gave me the old eye.
I'm a babe magnet.
I'll talk to you latter dear readers.
Be good.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Warning 4


Elizabeth Warren

The global financial crisis of 2007, and continuing currently in the form of decreased lending by banks, continued home foreclosures and increased credit card fees by banks bailed out with taxpayer funds, and a stagnant job market with double digit rates of unemployment, was first revealed to the public at large with the collapse of companies directly involved in home construction and mortgage lending, such as the British bank Northern Rock, and the American giant Countrywide Financial. Over a hundred mortgage lending companies went bankrupt in 2007 and 2008. The fear that the huge investment bank, Bear Stearns, would collapse directly resulted in its liquidation to JP Morgan Chase (itself a recipient of 25 billion dollars of taxpayer bailout funds) in March of 2008. The crisis hit its peak in September and October 2008. Several major institutions either failed, were acquired under duress like Stearns, or were subject to government takeover. These included Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, GM, and Chrysler.
This crisis perpetrated by blind American greed may or may not have been averted, or curtailed if the warning brought by Brooksley Born had been listened to, given credence, and acted upon. Considering the current dysfunctional political system our nation employs it seems unlikely. There will always be those who would place priority over making huge short term profits for themselves at the expense of the taxpayers, workers, homeowners, and the basic stability of the national and world economy. There are those in Congress who still adhere to a completely unregulated free market despite the overwhelming evidence that this has historically led to economic disaster for our country. Why? Because an unregulated free market system works for the ultra-rich elite who will amass tremendous fortunes, then exit the system altogether leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces, if indeed we can. This has directly led to the disparity of wealth in this country, along with the Bush tax policies, a continuation of Milton Friedman's "Trickle Down Economics."
But Bush is no longer in office. He left at the onset of this crisis, one which he helped to facilitate. What shall we do now to pick up those pieces and insure that this never happens again?

Elizabeth Warren was a champion debator in the state of Oklahoma where she was raised. Indeed she attended college on a debate scholarship. This particular skill would make itself quite useful in the years ahead.
She attended Rutgers law school and graduated in 1976, then began her own business handling personal legal issues like wills, and real estate. She taught bankruptcy law at the University of Houston, and as she researched the issue she came to the conclusion that contrary to popular belief the average debtor, for the most part, was not involved in a massive scheme to "game" the system. Instead she found evidence to indicate that hard working people through no fault of their own were applying for bankruptcy protection due a sudden layoff or illness, or unplanned personal crisis like the death or departure of a spouse, and by 2005 was testifying to Congress against legislation sought by the credit card and financial industry to make it harder to file for bankruptcy.
Unfortunately this legislation was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush (of course), something I will never forgive our current Vice President Joe Biden for voting for.
Much to Senator Harry Reid's credit (no pun intended), although he disagreed with her, he took notice of Warren's passionate pro-consumer views and her ability to explain complex issues so that anyone could understand them, and appointed her to the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) panel one year ago.
Since then she has reported before Congress, and in the media problems which are a direct result of the lack of transparency in the Treasury Department, like it paying out more than $78 billion more than the market value of the assets it purchased from banks. $78 billion, with a "B." She has also reported that despite the hundreds of billions spent on the bailouts, the financial system is still filled with toxic assets that could begin another meltdown, and that Treasury could offer no clear answer to Congress, and the American public regarding it's overall TARP strategy.
Like Brooksley Born before her, Elizabeth Warren is now facing criticism from those who would maintain the status quo. She has been accused of promoting an anti-bank agenda (considering that banks and investment firms got us into this mess it may not be a bad agenda to have. There are many, even Mr. Summers who still remains a major economic advisor within the Obama Administration, who state that the days of small banks are over. I tend to agree with the Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Saunders, who succinctly points out, "If it's too big to fail, then it's too big to exist: http://baselinescenario.com/2009/11/09/the-too-big-to-fail-too-big-to-exist-act-of-2009/, and efforts have been made to curtail her work.
She is now pushing a proposal, backed by the President, to help prevent the next financial crisis (realizing our propensity to forget, ignore, or just disregard our past mistakes, this seems like a wise and needed idea). She wishes to create a Financial Product Safety Commission to protect consumers from abusive lenders. She has written that mortgages and credit cards "should be subject to the same routine safety screening that now governs the sale of every toaster, washing machine, and child's car seat."
This idea of course terrifies the financial industry, and it's lobbyists have gotten to work in Congress which has begun to formulate legislation. The American Bankers Association, and The American Financial Services Association have begun fear mongering, stating this type of commission would "take us essentially back to the 1970s, where we had double-digit interest rates...and one-third the consumer credit available that we have now." Republicans in Congress have proclaimed this type of watchdog agency would undermine the health of banks. Financial policy analyst Jaret Seiberg said that the industry's worst nightmare is that should Congress create such an agency, Warren would run it.
What are they afraid of? Regulation. They are afraid, I believe, that they will no longer be able to get away with the same shenanigans that has brought this country to it's knees. I don't know... the idea of someone whose policy on selling financial products to an unsophisticated public is "If you can't explain it so the person on the other side can understand it, then you shouldn't sell it to them," would be a refreshing and needed change.


In a congressional hearing on October 23, 2008 Greenspan admitted that his free-market ideology shunning certain regulations was flawed. This has caused backlash from Objectivist thinkers, blaming the economic crisis on Greenspan's pandering to the mixed economy and betraying his laissez-faire views.


Sources for this post:

Washington Post, The Crash: What Went Wrong
By Anthony Faiola, Ellen Nakashima and Jill Drew

Wikipedia

Frontline: The Warning
Produced by Michael Kirk

Bank Buster: Elizabeth Warren is Wall Street's Worst Nightmare
David Corn

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving On The Row 2


My girl, "Love"

After a little while we waited some more. Our fellow resident, Fred joined and waited with us. We waited ten minutes, then waited some more.
We discussed various topics while waiting. Antidepressants, groups at the VA, smoking, why the Salvation Army would close its unique downtown Harbor Light (men) and Safe Harbor (women) facilities supposedly due to a lack of funds, when we all knew that the SA was richer than God. Maybe if they sold some of that real estate down in Palos Verdes they could afford to have kept them open another ten or twelve years and help hundreds more like they helped me when I first got here in 2002. Oh no, the Army doesn't keep anything open that doesn't pay for itself. Now they have no presence whatsoever in the one place they're needed the most.
"Hey," Fred shouted, "They're giving out food over there."
I turned around to see an urgent crowd huddled around a small SUV where some young black ladies were handing out Styrofoam dinner boxes. We left our places in line and rushed over. We weren't giving up anything as we hadn't moved forward at all and few had gotten behind us.
I went to the back of the vehicle to see what was going on. Two lovely ladies were rushing to hand out the last of the boxes from blue plastic bags. They were going fast. I reached out my hand and got the very last one. Fred got one, but Mike missed out. At least he had his U.S. Vegetarian Ration.
"What did you get?" he asked me.
I looked inside to find some nice turkey, a ham slice, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, lettuce, half of a bagel in a plastic bag, and a freaking individually packaged freaking Hostess Cup Cake.
"Wow!"
No cooking for me that night.
We returned to the line and resumed our places pretty much where we had left it. Except for Fred. We saw him walk by with my other neighbor, Daryl, past us up toward the front.
"I'm upgrading," he told us. Apparently Daryl was holding a better position in the line and was allowing Fred to join him.
So Mike and I continued our waiting. After a little while we waited some more. We waited ten minutes, then waited some more.
It wasn't the waiting that I minded so much. I'd been to Disneyland. It was the fact that we had already waited for freaking fifty minutes and the line hadn't moved a freaking inch! Freak!
"Mike," I told Mike. "If this line doesn't freaking start to move soon I'm taking off. I've got work to do. I'm going to take a look up front and see what's going on."
"Okay," he said.
I walked up there but couldn't see a thing. They were making a whole lot of racket up on the stage. I returned to Mike.
"I wish they'd stop all the yacking and get on with the feeding," I told him.
"Yeah."
I waited a little while longer.
A tall black guy who was standing behind us, and who had given Mike a cigarette, said, "I was at the L.A. Mission yesterday. The line ran around the block twice, and we were in there within forty five minutes."
"Really."
"Yeah. This line isn't moving."
That was for damn sure.
"I'm taking off, Mike. I've got some other stuff I've got to get done." That was true. I did have other stuff I had to get done.
"Okay Rick. I'm sticking it out. I don't have anything else to do."
"I don't blame you then."
I left, walking south on San Pedro to Sixth, then east. On my way back some people had set up a table with more Styrofoam boxes. Another black lady gave me one. In it was a nice hot dog in a bun with some sliced red onions. I ate that when I got back to my box. It was gooood!
I spent the next few hours writing about our Halloween party and Thanksgiving preparation and celebration while watching the comedy "Without a Paddle." Hey, it was either that or the freaking Godfather marathon, and I'd just seen that a couple of weeks ago.
At two o'clock my neighbor Daryl returned with boxes of food and a bag of gifts he had received from Fred Jordan. He asked me if I had received anything. I told him no, it had taken too long.
"Yeah, I was there since nine o'clock."
I thought the line might had loosened up a bit by now and walked back over there. Besides, I was intrigued by the gift bag.
I found that the line had shortened all the way up to the stage, where an evangelical preacher type person was yelling at the crowd through the loud P.A. system, telling everybody how we must be thankful to God for everything. Like being homeless in the first place. A Spanish interpreter stood next to him translating everything he said. Again the line did not move for the next twenty minutes, and I thought about leaving again, when they started talking about opening the gate and letting the last of us in. The man on the stage said they had just enough turkey legs for those of us left in the line. Soon they moved a barrier and we entered the staging area and took seats at tables.
The man on the stage was very happy that they had enough food for everybody. Apparently I had just got there in time before they closed everything and began to clean up. It seemed they had run out last year and had to turn people away. I personally did not need the food, but I was happy for those there who did.
That day Fred Jordan had prepared 2,000 pounds of huge turkey legs, 80 gallons of gravy, 3,000 bread rolls, and 800 pies, whole pies that they gave away. By the time I was there they were out of pie, but Daryl gave me a piece from his the next day. Apple!
What I did receive was a plate with a great big old turkey leg on it that would later take me a half hour to eat (while watching "The Godfather 3"), potatoes, yams, and vegetables.
Yes the people who came to Fred Jordan today were lucky. But with the state of the economy the way it is, many others, even some close by, were not. I invite you dear readers to the follow the link below to a special Thanksgiving report on poverty during this time and how it effects food distribution from our dear friends at Think Progress:

http://pr.thinkprogress.org/2009/11/pr20091124

I didn't eat there, but walked away with my plate so they could begin cleaning up, getting ready to do it all over again for Christmas. They gave me a nice ski cap, white hooded sweater, socks, and some shampoo as I left.
I did not return immediately to my box, but carried my plate of food up to Third Street to the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple they have there. I wanted to make sure I got the spelling of the name right so I could look up their site on the Internet.
I'd be going there very soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving On The Row 1





In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill mandating the last Thursday in November as a federal holiday observing Thanksgiving Day, a harvest festival celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada.
We here at the Las Americas, being the iconoclasts that we are, celebrated on the fourth Wednesday instead, and may have broken several federal laws in doing so. The Fred Jordan and Midnight Missions situated here on Skid Row, are good and true citizens and celebrated yesterday, the 26 of November.
I started my day by trading Emails with my lovely sister, Cheryl, as we wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. We were both spending the holiday devoid of family, her daughter having to work, and me here in Los Angeles where my family abandoned me decades ago.
They were quite right to do so in my opinion.
Anyway, I had told her that it was my plan to go out and about to monitor the various street activities that were bound to to be taking place. I knew that the Los Angeles Mission had had its Thanksgiving celebration yesterday as well (pictured above is our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, standing next to 92 year old Kirk Douglas, who is standing next to his lovely wife, Anne), and wasn't sure if there were any planned events scheduled for the actual holiday, but knew that many private citizens and churches were sure to be out and about dispensing food and clothing and I wanted to document that.
Before I left I watched a CNN report about a young honor student who lived with his father and sister at the Union Rescue Mission, and who's story had inspired some major league football star to come down and be photographed with him. What got me about the piece was that whenever they displayed a scene on the street, it was of someone arguing, or creating a fuss, or using foul language that had to be bleeped, or of someone throwing something at someone, giving the television audience the stereotypical idea that the streets of Skid Row were in constant turmoil, and it was basically just a jungle out there.
In actuality nothing could be further from the truth. I've lived in Skid Row going on a decade and have not once had a problem with any of the denizens of the streets. Although the area is riddled with crime and rampant drug use, the police presence is heavy, and downtown is as safe as any other place I've every lived. If it were not I simply would not live here. CNN does a disservice to it's viewers and the truth when it edits it's stories in that selected fashion, but perhaps it increases donations to the Missions. I have no idea.
After I watered the garden (with water cans. Someone had relieved us of our hose) my new next door neighbor and old friend Mike came with me, as well as Robert. Mike said the Fred Jordan Mission was feeding today beginning at ten, and there were already 2,000 people there waiting to eat. We left our building at about ten twenty, and walked west on Sixth. Robert insisted on riding his bicycle. He is quite graceful on that bike actually, but he still reminds me of a giant bull walrus performing in a circus while atop it. I can see why he gets a lot of flat tires.
I'm so mean.
Robert rolled, and Mike and I walked toward the Midnight Mission on the corner of Sixth and San Pedro, as we saw there was some kind of commotion going on down there.
The streets were filled with people, which is unusual for any other holiday than Thanksgiving. Even on Christmas Day itself the streets are most often deserted, that holiday being publicly celebrated before hand and most private organizations and individuals stay home to enjoy the day with their families. But yesterday the streets were filled with thousands.
We passed Nikita (who if you remember, played dominoes against Jose and lost, see The Great Domino Blast Of 2009) riding his bike.
"The Dollar Man give me twenty bucks," he proudly exclaimed. He was talking about the Reverend Maurice Chase (also pictured above, with one handicapped recipient attempting to determine if the bill was counterfeit), who routinely hands out dollar bills on the weekends to the homeless, and today had brought $15,000.00, some of it in twenties and hundreds. The money is donated by groups and individuals, including the widows of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.
He was gone by the time we got there though, so our hopes of new found riches were for naught. Their was a gentleman, along with his children handing out ham sandwiches, chips, and bottled water from his car at Sixth and Towne, and all three of us got some. All I had had for breakfast earlier was some left over Top Ramen from the night before, so I availed myself and consumed the sandwich greedily.
We continued west, and rock music could be heard getting louder as we got closer to San Pedro.
"Sounds like early Zeppelin," I told Mike.
"It sure does."
Indeed several musicians were busy playing an energized R&B on a makeshift stage at Sixth and San Julian, harmonica, guitar, drums, and bass, that sounded almost exactly like something off of Led Zeppelin's first album, such as the instrumental parts of the song, "You Shook Me."
This was right in front of The Midnight Mission, and the streets had all been blocked off for the event, and hundreds of men, women, and children were milling about listening, or walking around. But it didn't look as if they were serving any food at that location, at least not at that time. So we moved on.
Someone handed Mike a U.S. Government Vegetarian Dinner Ration.
"You should give that to Paul," I suggested.
Walking north on San Julian toward Fifth we finally lost Robert in his mad pursuit of more free edible goodies. Now it was time to investigate Fred Jordan.
The actual man, Fred Jordan, had died in 1988, but his wife, Willie, carried on in his name, providing this annual feast for the homeless, on this and other holidays, as well as maintaining Christian based relief services since 1944.
Mike and I approached the Mission on the north side of Fifth near San Pedro, and were told by a volunteer that the line for single people was across the street. The north side was for families. We crossed the street and joined the long line right at the Hollymart. Up ahead the line dwindled in the distance. People talking raucously through a PA system could be heard.
We began to wait.

To be continued.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Advanced Cooking Club




Okay, back from being sick, computer problems, and that unfortunate incident involving the moose tranquilizer. And of course my friend Jose's untimely, sad and sudden death. Time to get back to work, make some beneficial changes in my life, like trying to be happier and meet more people. Hell I may even grow my mustache back.
Let's begin by catching up on some recent history such as the SHRT Halloween Party (pictured above is my lovely case manager, Erin (what a ham) dressed as the foxy witch, and case manager Paul, as the gay cowboy, at said party). The geniuses in management thought it would be a good idea to have the party for three hotels, the Las Americas, the Olympia, and the Produce. They also thought that since three hotels were concerned they'd have the party in the Defiance Space, which can only be reserved for small amounts of time. In this case two and a half hours for the party itself, with a hour of prep.
Well this arrangement may have been alright for the geniuses in management, but not necessarily for the residents of the three hotels. Oh I'm sure there were those who enjoyed the party immensely, but I thought it sucked, and have vowed never to attend or participate in these economical, three, or even two, hotel meetings, as they just turn into unorganized melees, and I wind up having a crappy time. First off, I was asked to help plan it and set it up, and accordingly spent an hour setting up decorations. But when it came to serving food only the staff seemed to be qualified to handle that. I find the arrogance of these staff members with college degrees exceptionally amusing. They couldn't even handle that simple job, waiting a good hour and a half before serving, ensuring everything was nice a cold by the time it was handed out, which was done by the waitress method, where the staff would take plates to the clients. But first appetizers were enjoyed, by those who could get them. Erin kept passing around food to everybody except the small table I was sitting at. And she never did put on my make up that she had promised, so I had no chance of winning any prize, considering they only had like three door prizes for the 60 or 70 who showed. And nothing was provided for those who helped out, or if it was they kept it a big secret. And the festivities were rushed toward the end, giving the whole affair a sense of perfunctory artificiality. You can say I went away a tad bitter, and won't be going back to any of those anytime soon.
Methinks I bitch too much!
Well everyone was well intentioned I suppose. The staff can't help it if their incompetent bastards.
Except for my own fine case managers, Erin and Paul of course (except for the freaking make up, Erin!). They were wonderful. As can be seen by the handling of yesterday's Thanksgiving celebration at our own Las Americas.
On the day of Jose's death it was decided at the monthly resident meeting to have our Thanksgiving meal on the Wednesday before the holiday, so that the staff, Paul and Erin could attend. The food would be provided by SRHT, and Tianna, our lovely resident manger would be heavily involved.
Last Tuesday after yoga, for that days Support Group, Erin and Paul decided that time would be used to shop for the next days activities. Us three and Hardy drove in Paul's car to the local Ralph's on Eighth and Fiqueroa, a high end, rip off supermarket in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. There we purchased large bottles of "Squirt," the lemon/lime soft drink, pumpkin pies, chicken broth, and other assorted items. Shopping with Erin is like walking behind Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, as she will spontaneously break out into various pieces of song while simultaneously sniffing out the best possible bargains in that overpriced establishment. Paul even refused to purchase avocados there as they were so expensive.
Erin had told me she was coming in at six Wednesday morning to start cooking.
"Yeah, sure," I replied, and she gave me a brief dagger of death stare before recovering her good nature.
"No, really," she said.
"Okay, I'll be there to help if you're really coming in at six."
"You got it!"
We high fived on the agreement.
The time was changed to five thirty as it was believed that the turkeys needed a good six hours to cook, at minimum, and we wanted to serve at noon.
Erin arrived on time, wearing a cute little hooded jacket to protect her from the night cold. I was given the job of dicing up peppers, onions, and celery.
And then Erin took off! She goes to the freaking supermarket while I'm stuck cutting up all of the freaking vegetables. I had come down to work with her at five thirty in the freaking morning and she takes off! I'll tell you what, let her cut the freaking vegetables and I'll go to the freaking store! It doesn't matter that she has a freaking car and I don't... I'd have taken a freaking cab!
(Editor's note: It must be stated that the author had recently resumed smoking after the death of his friend, Jose Montoya, and at the time of this writing was suffering from the affects of nicotine withdrawal after beginning another period of abstinence, withdrawal symptoms sometimes displayed as slight irritability. RJ)
Anyway, she soon returned ("She better get her little butt back here or I'm going upstairs to finish watching "Buffy the Freaking Vampire Slayer.") and everything was okay. An older resident named John (or Steve. Nobody really knows for sure) was busy preparing one of the turkey's using a unique stuffing made with about three pounds of hamburger. Erin, Tianna, and myself worked on the other bird. We finally got both birds in the ovens by six forty five, and figured we'd be able to serve by one. We then made several pans of different stuffing mixtures, and then we took a break. Erin went to her office and laid her pretty little head down on a paisley pillow she had brought for specifically that purpose. I returned to my box and read, "War and Peace," then returned to the kitchen at eleven, just in time to help Paul make his famous guacamole.
"Give me the recipe Paul, and I'll publish it," I told him. He would have none of that though, and was uncharacteristically secretive about letting anyone know the exact amounts and sequence of the mixture. I do know that it involved avocados.
And it was great! Paul offered it to anybody who was around early, and it was gone in no time. By then we needed to get everything else ready. Paul being a vegetarian, had little else to do with the cooking really. I was in charge of the vegetables (canned mixed, heated in the microwave), and gravy, Erin the mashed potatoes. We even got her to chop an onion, which she was loathe to do, as she was frightened by a Vidalia as a small child.
We served at a little after one o'clock to about 35 hungry residents. To tell you the truth I wasn't even very hungry at that point, and picked at my plate (but made sure I had another stashed upstairs in my box for later). The birds were fully consumed and the washing up process began. That finished we were able to go our separate ways. Erin to visit her farmer friend, Rikki, in Temecula, Paul to visit his future in-laws in Palm Springs, and me back up to my freaking box!
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jose's Memorial


The memorial for Jose Maria Montoya was held Sunday afternoon at the Proud Bird Restaurant near the Los Angeles Airport, an establishment celebrating the history of aviation. I was informed of the event Saturday morning by Tianna, our lovely resident manager, and was told I'd be asked to say a few words about the passing of my dear friend. I immediately used my computer to prepare something to say, which took several hours. Unfortunately as I attempted to print what I had written I remembered that my printer was out of ink. Not being able to read my own writing I planed to print the material at the downtown Kinko's Sunday morning which is open 24 hours a day. Unfortunately again, the Kinko's establishment had been taken over by Staples, which apparently is not open 24 hours, and was closed when I went there. So I decided to recite from memory what I had written.
I was the only one at the memorial who was not a member of Jose's family as I arrived, and accordingly spent a great deal of time standing around by myself feeling rather awkward and nervous about remembering exactly what I had written. Tianna and her lovely daughter didn't help matters much by showing up about a half hour late. Fortunately, Jose's lovely sister Marietta did help matters by taking me in hand and introducing me to everybody in an effort to put me at ease and to explain to everybody else who this hulking stranger was who was intruding in their private family matters.
After everyone was finally seated at their respective tables in the exquisite dinning room, and Tianna arrived, I noticed Marietta tell her that she would be speaking just after Jose's pastor. She did not mention anything to me, however, and I assumed I would not be saying anything.
The pastor spoke, Tianna spoke... and then I was called to speak. Rather flustered, I remembered only about one quarter of what is written below, not doing Jose the justice I had intended, but the family seemed happy with what I stammered out in any case which eased my mood a good deal.
So the following is the memorial I prepared for my friend Jose (his families nickname for him I discovered was "Cowboy"), and what I should have said at the event, and yes I will buy more ink.


My name is Rick Joyce, and along with Jose's case manager Paul, I probably knew Jose best during his last months. I met him after he moved into our hotel and he began to show up at the various support groups and meetings that are held there on a weekly basis. He was always so eager to participate, which in itself is unusual. We soon got to know each other rather well and we became friends. Thinking about it I don't think I had much choice in the matter as Jose seemed to latch on to me for some reason, and he was such a nice and open man that I couldn't help but like him greatly. He started showing up at my door asking me to come down to his room and show him how to do something on his computer. After a while he just began showing up at my door just to say hello, and I started showing up at his door to do the same. We both kept our doors open partially during the day, and I think my fondest memories of him are when he was standing at my door, several times a day, smiling down at me as I sat working on my computer, and his delighted little chuckle, which I'm sure you're all familiar with, when I said something that amused him. My case manager Erin recently told me that that chuckle lit up her day every time she heard it, and it lit up my day as well.
We soon began to go out to eat, to a movie on his last birthday (although Jose said he did not celebrate brithdays, it happened that was the one day we went to a movie), or when he wanted me to accompany him when he wanted to shop for something. It was my job to make sure he got up for the various meetings or events. "Come and get me," he would say. Apparently the operation of his alarm clock perplexed him. "It keeps getting me up at eight o'clock," he would tell me. "Well change the alarm time, Jose," I'd tell him, and he'd just shake his head and chuckle. He could operate his computer, digital camera, and his plasma TV, but that alarm clock stifled him.
We became great friends although we didn't have a whole lot in common, but I saw in Jose a simple honesty and sincerity, a complete lack of guile that is so rare in downtown Los Angeles... rare in the world really. I told Erin about a month before he died that Jose was one of the two people I knew who I could trust completely, and I believe he trusted me as well.
I only knew him for five or six months, but I can tell you that he has changed my life forever, by the his example in how he lived his life, the way we interacted, his childlike quality, our caring for each other, and I will never forget him. I know he had his share of troubles in the past, although he didn't talk about it much, but I can tell you that in his last months he was happy and content, eager to be with others, free from the demons of schizophrenia, actively trying to make his life better, and looking forward to the future. Everybody who knew Jose either loved him as I did, or liked him intensely, because that was just the way he was. A very open and likeable man.
He liked to lie on his bed watching his big screen TV, watching his cartoons, CSI, or Little House on the Prairie, or studying his Bible, as he was very active in his church.
He came to my door last Wednesday morning when he knew something was wrong, and knocked on it loudly. I opened it to find him lying on the floor of the hallway looking up to me for help, and we immediately called 911 to get help on the way. We did everything we could to save him but it wasn't enough. He was a stickler for truth and accuracy and can fondly tell you that his last words were, "forty two," as he corrected me when I misspoke his age to the 911 dispatcher.
It's my understanding that Jose's beliefs were that he would see life after death after being resurrected by God to live forever in an earthly paradise. I know he will live forever in my heart, and in that hearts of the many whose lives he touched. He is greatly loved and missed, and I was proud to have him as a friend.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Soapbox


In honer of Jose Montoya, who passed away yesterday.


Last Saturday though, Jose and I did do something interesting. We attended the Red Bull (the tasty energy drink (I've never had one)) Soapbox Race, held right here in downtown Los Angeles, at the intersection of Fifth and Grand, right near the Central Library and my bank. That area is also known as Bunker Hill, where all the bunkers are, and which has a steep incline on Fifth from Olive St up to Grand, and an even steeper incline from Fifth and Grand, on Grand up to Fourth St. As chance would have it, the organizers of the event took advantage of the natural street topography, and set the race course exactly along the lines just mentioned, only in reverse. Gravity being rather intractable, the event planners, quite rightly in my opinion, planed to have the 40 soapbox contestants begin their short, crazed journey from the highest point at Fourth and Grand, speeding down to Fifth St., where a large platform was erected to make a radical left banking turn onto Fifth, and finally down to Olive and the finish line. Bales of straw were placed on each side of the projected racetrack, marking the boarders, and two ramps were located along the course, acting as a jumping obstacle. The time it takes to finish this short tract would probably be about sixty seconds... if you finished. Of the six races Jose and I viewed, two thirds of the racers did not complete the course, either crashing into the straw bales, losing a wheel, or toppling over while turning. Several of the small, human powered vehicles up-ended entirely, briefly trapping the drivers underneath the cars. No serious injuries were reported however.
Jose and I arrived about an hour before the race was to begin. There were a lot of people already there, lining the race course, and generally making a nuisance of themselves... or at least for me and Jose. I thought at least several thousand were in attendance, only to learn the following day the crowd was estimated at 111,000. Plus me and Jose. This puzzled Jose.
"That puzzles me," Jose said to me on Sunday. "How do they come up with that number? Is someone there counting everyone?"
I told him I didn't know for sure, but that the police probably had some experience in estimating the size of large gatherings. I asked him if he wanted to visit the police station and ask them.
"Do you think they'd tell us?"
"No."
Jose and I slowly made our way through the crowd. He wanted to go up to the staging area near Forth St. to take pictures of the soapbox cars. It took a while to get there, and by the time he was finished taking photos of half the cars I told him we should go find a place to watch the races.
As it happens, we found a place right at the starting gate that wasn't too crowded yet. A large monitor stood nearby which would allow us to see the remainder of the course when the races began. The local affiliate of Fox was here covering the event, with the saucy co-host of Good Day L.A., Jillian Barberie Reynolds, and some other guy announcing the race over very loud speakers. The comedian, Paul Rodriguez was up on the stage near us, telling jokes, sometimes, quite often it seemed clear he was having difficulty thinking up things to talk about. When the race began he eased into his duties of introducing each team, and seemed more at ease.
Former C.H.I.P.S. star, Erik Estrada, and American Idle runner up, Kimberly Caldwell (lovely woman) were two of the three judges. I don't know who the third was. Ms Caldwell also graced the crowd with her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, doing an excellent job singing that very difficult song.
Before everything began, before Kimberly sang, and the first soapbox took off, two morons jumped out of a hovering helicopter, 5,000 feet up directly overhead, who seemed to be on fire. At least smoke was trailing close behind them. I'm not kidding! There's a picture of them above!
Fortunately they remembered to wear their parachutes, and safely landed down near Olive St. I think.
Soon the race started. Jose and I witnessed the first six races, drivers 2, 3, 4, and 5 crashing before the finish, with number 6 actually judged the winner of the day.
We had to leave when Jose began to melt in the hot sun (it was hot and sunny that day), and we waded back through the crowd, back to our respective boxes.
Although this is not an annual event, I will be on the lookout for the next time Red Bull produces this contest, so I can get to work on the Skid Row Housing Trust Razer Striped Aero Speed Bomber.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jose Montoya


Jose Montoya Died Today. Apparently of a heart Attack. He Was 42 years old and will sorely be missed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Warning 3




Brooksley Born's fear of a potential collapse of the unregulated derivatives market proved to be prophetic. The boom in real estate and easy credit during the 90s produced more complex forms of securities and derivatives linked now to the overstated value of millions of homes packaged as "sub-prime mortgages" or "adjustable rate mortgages" issued to borrowers who would ultimately be unable to afford them and keep up payments. This created a new chain of risk stretching from the indebted home buyers to a vast, unregulated web of global contracts.
The derivatives market appeared to provide a safety net, but had the unintended effect of encouraging more risk taking by investors, who bought huge amounts of mortgage based investments, then bought "credit-default swaps" rather than establishing cash reserves to protect themselves. If the mortgages declined in value the investors had a cushion; the sellers of the swaps, who collected substantial fees for sharing in the risk betted heavily that the mortgage market would stay healthy.
The worldwide market in derivatives topped $530 trillion in June of 2008, including $55 trillion in credit default swaps, that $530 trillion represented all contracts outstanding. The actual dollar amount at risk was much smaller, but still represented $2.7 trillion dollars according to some estimates.
To put the amount in perspective, in 2007 it was estimated that the Gross World Product of the entire planet, the market value of all final goods and services made on Earth in that year was between $54.62 and $65.61 trillion.
When the housing bubble burst and mortgages went south, the consequences seeped through the entire web. Some of those holding credit swaps wanted their money; some who owed didn't have enough in reserve to pay.
Instead of dispersing risk, derivatives had amplified it.
The following is a excerpt from Stock Market Invesrters. com:
"Back in the early 2000's, there was an excess capital globally. The world did not even imagine there would be a global financial crisis and all investment managers were concerned about was where to invest their capital in order to make it grow. Generally, the demand was for low risk investments that paid some nice return.
However, such investment options were not easy to find. This pushed a great amount of money straight into the US mortgage market thanks to the unique and wonderful (on principle) vehicle - securitization.
An individual gets a mortgage loan from a broker. Then the broker sells the mortgage to a bank, which in its turn again sells the mortgage but this time to an investment firm on Wall Street. Such firms collect thousands of mortgages in one big pile. This in fact represents thousands of mortgage checks coming every month, a monthly income that was supposed to continue for the life of the mortgages. And of course, the firm in its turn sells shares of that income to investors who are willing to buy.
Mortgage backed securities seemed like the perfect solution to the great demand of assets. After all, in the beginning they were wonderful, safe investments - built out of mortgages with big down payments, proven steady income and money in the bank.
And investors loved them - and not only US investors but investors from all over the world.
The demand for those great, safe mortgage backed securities was really high. In fact, so high, that there was a point somewhere in 2003 when everyone who qualified for a mortgage got one, and still the global pool of money wanted more.
Thus, things needed to change. And they did. The mortgage qualification guidelines did.
At first, the stated income, verified assets (SIVA) loans came out. People didn't have to prove their income any more. They just needed to "state" it and show that they had money in the bank.
Then, the no income, verified assets (NIVA) loans came out. The lender was no longer interested in what you do for a living. People just needed to show some money in their bank accounts.
This wasn't enough to satisfy the huge appetite of global investors. The qualification guidelines kept going looser in order to produce more mortgages, more securities.
NINA is an abbreviation of No Income No Assets. Basically, NINA loans are official loan products and let you borrow money without having to prove or even state anything. All you needed to have in order to get a mortgage was a credit score.
Why would a bank loosen its criteria for lending money so much? Well, banks didn't keep these mortgages. They didn't care whether they are risky and the borrower will ever pay them back simply because they sold the mortgages to Wall Street. The Wall Street then sold them to global investors ... as low risk investments.
Why would any investor consider mortgage backed securities low risk investments?
Well, investors use a special system to assess risk. Credit rating agencies, such as Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch, give ratings to every type of bond according to its risk. Letter grades mark the safety of the investments - triple A is given to the safest ones, for example US government bonds.
And in this case, the credit rating agencies blessed most of the mortgage backed securities with AAA rating.
The problem with this high rating is that agencies used the wrong data to estimate the risk. Looking back historically, what they saw was a very low rate of defaulting, a very low foreclosure rate. However, the current situation was different - with new qualification requirements, new mortgages given to people who would never have gotten them before, and of course, a big speculative housing bubble that was eventually going to pop.
Up to 2006, the housing market in the US was flourishing.
It was easy to get a home loan, so more people wanted to buy a house. The increased housing demand increased in return the prices. The increased prices attracted investors who were looking to buy houses as an investment, only to sell it later for more. This further created more demand and further increased the prices - a classic speculative housing bubble.
And because of the rising prices, the consequences from all the "bad" loans given to people who could not afford them were delayed. Whenever people experienced difficulties making their mortgage payments, they could easily take another loan against the value of their house, simply because now it was worth more.
Basically, they went into more debt in order to pay off their debts. Thus, the housing bubble made home equity loans and home equity lines of credit extremely popular.
However, in contrast to the rising house prices, the average household income didn't increase. Thus, despite all the incentives and exotic mortgage products, people just couldn't afford those high prices and it was only a matter of time for the problem to come out.
And it did. The big housing bubble burst, the property values stopped increasing and the whole thing came to a point when the mortgage lending industry started witnessing something new - many people defaulted on their very first mortgage payment.
What happened was a chain of reactions very similar to those in the housing bubble but only in the opposite direction. The number of people who defaulted on their mortgages increased more and more which in return increased the number of houses on the market. The oversupply of houses and lack of buyers pushed the house prices down till they really plunged in late 2006 and early 2007.
That was the point when people on Wall Street started to panic. They no longer wanted to buy risky mortgages. Mortgage companies, which used to sell risky loans, experienced the devastating consequences of going out of business.
Unfortunately it was already too late for everybody.
The market has already absorbed enormous amounts of these securities. All kinds of investors from all over the world - individuals and big financial institutions - basically have bought these AAA rated mortgage securities thinking that it was almost as safe as putting money in a savings account. Now that the complexity and the real risk of these securities came out, most of them are already worth less than half their initial value and all those investors lost a great deal of money.
Moreover, foreclosures keep springing up. In the past mortgages were held in the books of financial institutions such as banks, who had real interest in working with their borrowers and making sure that everything possible is done to pay back the loans. However, in the current situation, mortgages have been sold and resold and pooled together into securities and sold to investors in the financial market. It is really really hard to even find who the actual current owner of mortgage is. And it is just as hard to prevent foreclosures."

To be continued.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Warning 2


Brooksley Born

Alan Greenspan was awarded a Ph.D in economics from New York University in 1977. In the forward to his dissertation he warned of a growing bubble in the housing market with soaring values placed on homes, and the influence this would have on consumer loans and spending habits. He even predicted that bubble bursting in 2004, stating, "There is no perpetual motion machine which generates an ever-rising path for the prices of homes."
He was right about that bubble bursting, but just off by three years.
He was first appointed Federal Reserve chairman by President Reagan in August 1987, he did not leave that position until he retired in January of 2006, serving under four Presidents. During the 1970s the executive branch and Congress gave up their powers of oversight over the country's economy by using the fiscal tools of allocated spending and targeted tax cuts, effectively giving those powers to the Federal Reserve, which through its power to raise and lower interest rates, has exercised more influence over economic growth and the level of employment than any other government entity. In his position as chairman, Alan Greenspan was often considered the most powerful man in the nation.
He was introduced to Ayn Rand in the 1950s and became a devotee of her and her Objectivism philosophy, part of which dictates that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest (she wrote an essay called “The Virtue of Selfishness”); that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez faire capitalism. She was also the mentor of the economist Milton Friedmen, who inspired "Reaganomics," and the "trickle-down," or "supply-side" economics that provided tax cuts or other benefits to businesses and rich individuals in the belief that this will indirectly benefit the broad population. These policies, along with massive increases in Cold War related defense spending caused large budget deficits, the U.S. trade deficit expansion, and contributed to the Savings and Loan crisis of the 80s and 90s. In order to cover new federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the world's largest debtor nation, which is still the case today.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton reappointed Greenspan as Federal Reserve Chair, and kept him as a core member of his economic team, named "The Working Group," which also included Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers (before he stated in a 2005 speech that women were too stupid to gain a representative number in higher levels in academia), all Wall Street legends, all opponents to varying degrees of tighter regulation of the financial system that had earned them wealth and power.
This is where Brooksley Born comes in. Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt reacted with alarm at her persistent interest in a fast-growing corner of the financial markets known as derivatives.
Unlike the commodity futures regulated by Born's agency (the Commodity Futures Trading Commission), newer entities called derivatives were not traded on an exchange, constituting "dark markets," that were under no regulatory provisions whatsoever. There were now millions of such private contracts, involving many of Wall Street's top firms.
Born wanted to shine a light into the dark, and after months of declaring the possible dangers that this enormous market posed to the financial system, she now wanted to open a formal discussion about whether to regulate them, and how to do it.
Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt were determined to derail her effort. Rubin agreed with Greenspan and Levitt that these newer contracts, often called "swaps," were not futures, thereby Born's agency did not have any legal authority to regulate them. These men believed that her call for a discussion had real-world consequences: It would cast doubt over the legality of trillions of dollars in existing contracts and create uncertainty over the market.
"Once she took a position, she would defend that position and go down fighting. That's what happened here," said Geoffrey Aronow, a senior CFTC staff member at the time. "When someone pushed her, she was inclined to stand there and push back."
Born's was the lone voice predicting a possible economic collapse due to the hidden multi-trillion dollar market in derivatives. But at that time, although there were troubling indications, the markets were booming. Everyone was making money hand over fist, the Friedman model of deregulation seemed to be winning the day. Anyone who thought or voiced an opposing view was derided, ignored, or ridiculed into complacency.
"We knew it was a big deal [to attempt regulation] but the feeling was that something needed to be done," said Michael Greenberger, Born's Director of Trading and Markets. "The industry had been fighting regulation for years, and in the meantime, you saw them accumulate a huge amount of stuff and it was already causing dislocations in the economy. The government was being kept blind to it."
Born testified at least 17 times to a openly hostile Congress (who had been swayed by the advice of top Clinton economic advisors to ignore the rantings of the CFTC chairwoman. Asked what it was she was trying to protect, by members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who most likely didn't even know what a derivative was, she answered, "The money of the American public.").
In the end, Greenspan, Rubin, Levitt, Summers, and the others in The Working Group not only won the argument, they cut off the larger debate of regulated markets. After Born was marginalized in 1999, she quit, and no one stepped up to take her place, and once the Bush administration arrived in 2001, the push was for less regulation, not more. Voluntary oversight became the favored approach, and even those were accepted grudgingly by Wall Street, if at all.
All of the pieces were in place for disaster.

To be continued.