Archive for Los Angeles Public Library

Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, drawing, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”


My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Resister in Sanctuary: We Won’t Go

Posted in FRIENDS, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by Louise Steinman

Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968 Black and white photograph/L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In one glass case, what first draws my eye is a REMEMBER JOE MAIZLISH bumper sticker identical to the one I affixed to the bumper of my dad’s Ford Mustang in 1968. Yes, I do remember Joe Maizlish. Decades ago, I wrote to him in while he was in federal prison, where he served two and a half years of a three- sentence for refusing induction to the draft. Joe, now a psychologist and mediator, in present-day, is my neighbor in Silverlake.

The item, along with posters in fonts of various degrees of psychedelia, is on exhibit at WE WON’T GO: The L.A. Resistance, Vietnam and the Draft (at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery until August 19). Curated by Winter Karen Dellenbach, an L.A. Resister, together with Ani Boyadjian, Research & Special Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, this inspiring display of civil disobedience was drawn from the Los Angeles Resistance Archives, acquired by the library in 2014. The collection includes letters, posters still and moving images, diaries, mimeographed newsletters, draft cards and other ephemera donated by members of the L.A. Resistance and their supporters. Essentially, this is a chronicle of the non-violent anti-draft activities of the L.A. chapter of the Resistance, a nationwide movement.

I recognize a black and white photo of General Hershey Bar, with his signature plastic B-52’s worn as medals. The real General Hershey, a Nixon advisor, was head of the Selective Service, and General Hershey Bar was a familiar sight at anti-war rallies in the ’60s. “Fixin-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish) cues in my head:

Well, come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re going to have a whole lot of fun”

 But what sends my memory into overdrive is RESISTER IN SANCTUARY, in bold black letters across a legal size flyer. It’s a manifesto written by Gregory Nelson, then nineteen years old and briefly my high school sweetheart. Greg had openly refused to register a year earlier, as required by law, when he turned eighteen. In the fall of 1968, he asked the minister and congregation of Grace Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles to grant him sanctuary, a medieval tradition, for an act of conscience. His language is simple and direct:

This is a period of deep disunity in our country.

One source of that disunity is the war in Vietnam. I have refused to participate in that war—even to the degree of refusing to register for the draft. Now I am charged with a crime for that refusal. I feel that my refusal is an action consistent with the moral precepts and teachings of my society, an action directed toward ending the present war and healing the wounds of discord. I ask you, a visible guardian of our moral teachings and a main source of guidance to the people of our society, to consider my plea… 

I was a junior in high school when I met Greg spring of 1968, through my volunteer work for the Resistance. I’d trade my pastel shirtwaist school uniform and saddle shoes for jeans, denim work shirt, jeans and sandals — then hurry down to the Resistance office in the red brick colonial on Westwood Blvd. There were a few other high-schoolers, but most of the supporters working there were college-aged. They impressed me as energized, purposeful and very cool. Lives were on the line.

I’d join them in stuffing envelopes, or we’d pile into someone’s VW bug and head off to a local draft board with a pile of leaflets, trying to interest those young men who’d arrived for a draft physical in alternative actions, draft counseling. It was my first taste of communal activism and I cherished the palpable sense of “family” among those who planned to take a stand of conscience and those who supported them.

Many Resisters were galvanized after hearing David Harris, the charismatic anti-draft activist and former Stanford student body president (then married to Joan Baez), speak about non-violent non-participation as a way to end the Vietnam War. I’d heard Harris at the Stanford campus, the summer I attended Junior Statesman Summer School there. His was a voice of persuasive moral passion, drawing from the ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, and Mario Savio. Harris called for young men to resist the draft openly and be willing to take the consequences, that “The way to do is to be.”

I hung out with Greg early that summer of 1968. It was the summer after the assassination of MLK in April at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It was the summer after the assassination of RFK in L.A at the Ambassador Hotel in June the night of the California Primary. It was the summer before Nixon was elected president. The casualty count in Vietnam was rising and the government’s need for more bodies to feed the “Buzz Saw of War,” to use my dad’s phrase from WW2 — seemed insatiable.

It was also a summer for young lovers to lie entwined under an Indian-print bedspread in a darkened studio apartment near the Venice Boardwalk, to listen to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds twelve times and not care that the needle was sticking; to make midnight runs to Tomy’s Burgers on Ramparts; to dance wildly to the Jefferson Airplane at the Cheetah nightclub on the Pacific Ocean Park pier.

… Since I cannot turn to the courts for justice, I turn to the church. I ask you to lend your church for a role that churches once played. I ask you to grant me sanctuary.

Nelson’s plea was granted by Grace Episcopal Church on W. 78th Street in South Los Angeles. On the day Nelson and his supporters gathered in the church, one of the Episcopal priests, Reverend Harlan Weitzel, was joined to Greg with a length of chain. In my journal from that day, October 2, 1968, I noted that it was Yom Kippur, that the bitter taste in my mouth was less from fasting than from fear and distress.

 Resistance founder David Harris was there to speak, to support Greg, and to lift our spirits. Greg said, ‘you sure rap well, Dave, who then yelled amen! Amen! And urged us all to sing’ Two young men burned their draft cards that day, I remember the packed crowd of supporters — including many of those whose papers are now in the archives at LAPL. I didn’t remember, until I read the notes to the exhibition, that Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian film director, was in attendance that day as well, which made some kind of surreal sense. Oh, of course he was.


In a letter to Joe Maizlish in prison, I described feeling hysterical when I learned what Greg was going to do, and how another, older Resister, helped to calm me. “I stood next to Greg’s mother in front of the church,” I wrote Joe. “… we were passing out flowers. The church was surrounded by federal marshals and police and Greg’s mother wondered aloud, ‘Why all these men for my one small boy who hasn’t even a comb in his pocket?’”

No one who was there will ever forget the approach of the U.S. marshals with their ridiculously over-sized bolt cutters, how they hesitated before approaching the dais, stepping over and even on bodies — to where the slight long-haired young man was chained to his friends and supporters. “I saw Greg, his bright eyes stare the marshal in the face and he said, I will go don’t hurt anybody please. And they still dragged him. They cut the chains and took Greg away and crammed him into a waiting car.”

On a video clip playing on the wall of the Getty Gallery, a grey-bearded Greg Nelson — 50 years later — recalls how the chains were actually so loose he could have slipped out of them; that the church had been locked that day and he’d had to sneak in, in order to get arrested — a fact the uniformed Marshals found amusing.

“Each draft card turn-in was performance art, each refusal to register a brazen repudiation of coercion,” wrote Winter Dellenbach. “It was so much fun, and it was deadly serious, and it had deep consequences.”

The scene in the sanctuary though, was not child’s play, not performance art, it was high drama: the chains; the supporters singing under the cross; the representatives of the State with their weapons; the violated sanctuary; the palpable communal determination to resist.

Greg’s trial was on Friday, Oct 4th, at the downtown Federal Courthouse. When I arrived, I was surprised to see so many reporters. I assumed they were there for Greg. In fact they were covering the more sensational hearing for Sirhan Sirhan, who’d fired the shots that killed Robert Kennedy.

Greg represented himself at trial. “All the prosecutor had to do was to prove Greg was 18,” I wrote to Joe Maizlish at Safford Prison:

“…That he hadn’t registered. That he lived at 1018 Pacific St. in Santa Monica. Greg didn’t present a defense, but he cross-examined the witnesses:

-His high school vice-principal who testified Greg had indeed gone to Santa Monica High. Greg started lacing into him for making him salute the flag. (Later the judge said he couldn’t blame anyone for getting a chance to get back at their high school Vice Principal. )

-His father, to testify he’d been born.

-The draft board lady — to testify she had not received his registration. (Might you have lost it? asked Greg.)

-The FBI agent who had warned Greg of the consequences of his action a year ago.

The prosecutor was moved by Greg’s muteness on his defense. So was the judge. Greg made one statement — which the judge allowed — on the draft and the selective service system. Quite a natural, down-to-earth speech. And that was it. He was sentenced the same day and when led away said ‘I’ll say hello to Joe for you all.’”


In conjunction with the exhibit, the library hosted a panel discussion on July 19th with three Los Angeles resisters — Geoff Fishman, Paul Barnes Lake, and Joe Maizlish. All served time in prison. Historian Jon Wiener, host of The Nation podcast, was the interlocutor.

Wiener asked them each why they’d chosen to refuse the draft, what they experienced in prison, how it impacted the trajectory of their lives. How did they make their initial decision to resist?

Geoff Fishman described how, when he was already at the induction center , waiting to be “processed” for the draft, there came a “moment of truth”:

“When all were asked to acknowledge allegiance and acceptance into the army, to step forward to accept, I surprised myself. Everyone stepped forward except me.”

Joe Maizlish’s decision came in stages, the first revelation in 1965: “I was crossing a street in Berkeley with my brother. We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s no way we’re ever going to be in this war.” Three years later, he became “completely unable” to send in the form to renew his UCLA graduate student deferment, that “political free ticket,” as Dave Harris termed it, knowing others would be drafted to serve in his stead. “It wasn’t an actual decision,” he said, “it was my whole being — I can’t do this.”

As it was for Joe 50 years ago, our whole beings tell us that children shouldn’t be separated from parents, our whole beings tell us that asylum seekers should not be sent back to their deaths, that torture is wrong, that the earth itself is worth saving and fighting for.

In these treacherous times of eroding civil liberties and rising authoritarianism, the L.A. Resistance Archive can serve as blueprint to help guide and inspire us. Exhibition co-curator Ani Boyadjian aptly summed up the enduring value of the collection: “It’s the intensity and passion of doing the right thing and it is a thing of beauty.”

So thank you, Greg Nelson and Joe Maizlish and Paul Barnes Lake and Geoff Fishman and all the other Resisters who were willing to give up so much to take a stand against America’s immoral war in Vietnam. And, thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library, for preserving these stories for future generations — who will face such difficult decisions of their own.

Image:  Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968, Black and white photograph. L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Paradise on Hope: On the 25th Anniversary of the Central Library fire

Posted in ALOUD with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“I have always thought that Paradise was a kind of library.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

On a November morning, a crowd soaks up the wan sun in the Maguire Gardens in front of Central Library. The lucky ones sip coffee out of paper cups, others slump in the stupor of the unslept. A black feral cat slinks out of the shrubbery to forage. At a quarter to ten, the waiting throng jockeys for position at the three entrances to the Central Library: Flower Street, 5th Street, and Hope. At 10 AM, a Library security officer unlocks the tall copper doors, swings them outwards. The crowd surges inside in a race to reach computers, magazines, warmth, chairs, public restrooms.

I’ve worked at Central Library for sixteen years now, yet the urgency of this morning ritual never fails to move me. After all, this is no mad rush for rock concert tickets or wide-screen TV’s. These people are hurrying into a library. This library is many things to many people—a place where scholars do serious research, where parents read aloud to their children, where jobseekers polish resumes. In the Literacy Center, volunteers tutor adults in reading, in the Popular Library commuters peruse audiobooks and in the public restroom near the 5th Street entrance, homeless women brush their teeth.

In the Mark Taper Auditorium, where I curate a lecture and performance series, Angelenos gather to listen to a physicist discuss black holes or a novelist extol “the human fidelity to beautiful ideas.” We’ve presented Zen archers and hiphop poets, a panel of bloggers and journalists helped us envision the rocky future of the Los Angeles Times.

The Central Library was built in 1921 during one of LA’s boom cycles. It may have been a time of shoddily constructed subdivisions, but the Central library was built to last. The building was a collaboration among the architect Bertrand Grosvener Goodhue, the painter Dean Cornwell, and the German-born sculptor Lawrie Lee. Goodhue’s intent was to mimic Egyptian architecture: topping the library roof is a pyramid tiled on all four sides with images of the sun. At its apex is a golden hand circumscribed by the Serpent of Knowledge and holding aloft a torch: “the light of learning.” The Goddess of Civilization, flanked by two black marble sphinxes, presides over the grand staircase to the rotunda. On her crown is a tiny replica of the library. Her staff rests on the back of a tortoise. On her the bronze breastplate are images of Romulus and Remus, the Egytian pyramids, the winged bull of Babylon, the goddess Shiva, a Minoan temple, a Phoenician ship, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Conestoga wagon, an American bison, and the Liberty Bell. From the facades of the building, bas reliefs of great philosophers and historians— Herodotus, Virgil, Socrates — peer down at all who enter.

The old building was a civic treasure; but it was stuffed to the ceiling with combustible material, lacked a sprinkler system, adequate ventilation and storage space for the collection. Recommendations on fixing the outdated building were doomed with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. On April 29, 1986–an arson fire that originated in the Rare Books Room of Central Library sent smoke billowing into the afternoon sky. It took over 360 firefighters from sixty companies to subdue the stubborn blaze.

smoke billows from Central Library, April 29, 1986 photo: LAPL Photo Collection

In the days and weeks that followed, many librarians joined the salvage effort, working in foot-deep toxic stew of soot, mold, and melted debris without protective gear. Many contracted a wicked chronic bronchitis from these efforts. (The perpetrators have never been apprehended.) Nearly 400,000 books were destroyed, but the disaster did have a silver lining, mobilizing the public and civic leaders to rally behind the Save the Books campaign to raise funds to rebuild Central Library.

In 1993, the expanded, renovated, technologically updated building opened to great fanfare. I began working for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that same year, with a mandate to create public programs. In my dreams that first year, I noted in my journal, Central Library often appeared as a maze, “with many secret areas as yet unopened to the public.”

Every Thursday morning school groups visit Central Library. I watch the second graders sitting cross-legged on the marble floor of the Rotunda under the Zodiac chandelier. Their high-pitched voices blur in the vast hall. They look upwards with wonder and curiosity at Dean Cornwell’s forty-foot high California history murals that cover the vaulting walls. Cornwell, a magazine illustrator, completed them in 1932. The murals are visually delightful and—if you’ve read much California history—intellectually distressing. Cortez steps ashore. Muscular heathens kneel at his feet, heads bowed, offering gifts of beads and pelts. “ A chubby eight year old asks, “How did he paint it?” During Cornwell’s lifetime, a newspaper called the Central Library murals “the largest ever executed by one man since Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel.”

Fragment, Central Library mural by Dean Cornwell

The docent crouches down next to the boy, who is the same hue as the kneeling Gabrielino. She points out how there are over three hundred figures, each one outlined in pale blue. “Look, those are the padres, they are holding the building plans for missions. They walked the length of California.”

And I am back in my own fourth grade classroom at La Ballona Elementary in Culver City, melding flour, water, salt for my relief map of my home state. We constructed California missions out of popsicle sticks and learned that the Indians were grateful to be clothed, fed, and educated by the good padres. It wasn’t until my thirties, working on a documentary film about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California, that I learned the uglier side of California history—the forced conversions, repression of native languages, the official state bounty on Indian scalps the plunder of resources Indians needed to survive– all painfully symbolized by those subservient figures in Cornwell’s murals. I sit on the floor of the library and stare up at the Zodiac, thinking of Ishi— in his skins and seared scalp, mourning for his family.

There are plenty of books on the library’s shelves that tell about the rich culture of California’s indigenous peoples. I wonder if those second graders will someday possess the curiosity to seek them out and read them.


The library is open to all and, as the Great Recession tightens its grip, a growing number of L.A.’s homeless seek haven there during the day. The untreated mentally ill are among the regular visitors, ranting, sitting and staring, making entrances and exits through the lobby. A few weeks ago, a man attempted suicide in the library atrium. An email from the City Librarian went out to all staff: “A man jumped at 11:45 AM.” No one could agree from which floor—some said the third, some the fourth. A librarian in the Literature Department caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. Some said he took a running leap, others that he stepped over the railing without hesitation. Without a doubt, he fell onto the Atrium Lower Level 1, where the first security officer to reach him was Officer Kyles, who I happen to know can speak in tongues. Damage was done, blood spilled, bones askew. Officer Kyles stayed by his side. “Did you pray for him?” I asked later. He nodded somberly. “He wasn’t going to die on my watch.” The jumper did live, surviving surgery and a tenure in the ICU at County Hospital. Officer Kyles says they’re trying to find his family.

Recently, as part of our lecture series, the Surrealist poet Andrei Codrescu spoke about his Posthuman Dada Guide. During his talk it occurred to me that our jumper may have considered himself already in the posthuman world, that he’d moved on to the phase when one can exist half human, half bird.


There’s a charming tiled fountain flanked by tangerine trees that I walk past every day en route to work, after climbing the stairs from Hope Street. It took years until I finally noticed the quote chiseled in the marble: “WISDOM IS THE RIPE FRUIT OF MUCH REFLECTION.” The converse is now etched into my mind as well: ignorance is the unripe fruit of much inattention.

After all, for years I exited the library onto Hope Street at the end of every work day, without realizing this was the same Hope Street inscribed on my birth certificate. It wasn’t until Cornerstone Theater mounted a site-specific production of “Candide” (re-titled “Candude, the Civil Servant”) in the Central Library that I made the connection. At the climax of the play, the actors lead the audience on a journey through one of the library’s underground tunnels and, at the finale, the hero Candude flung open the doors onto Hope Street. “Hope!” he cried, “here it is.”

Hope Street, where I was born, just six blocks away from Central Library. I haven’t come far from my origins. Perhaps that’s why the idea of Central Library as a hearth of the city resonates so deeply with me. This life-quickened repository of wisdom, an un-virtual world where we daily interact with serpents of knowledge, goddesses of civilization, scholars, bodhisattvas, poets, madmen, would-be suicides. Where every morning at 10 AM (while there’s still the budget and the public will to keep it open), the eager crowd rushes in.

[Written 2009, published originally in The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today, Red Hen Press, 2010]

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