Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Cooking at the Bicycle Kitchen

It’s with laughing self-awareness that my friend B. and I speak of how the ritual of acquisition is often more the point than need; pride of possession more relevant than regular use.

Though he has three beautiful steel bicycles, it was almost biological inevitability that led him to drive over a 100 miles early one holiday morning, and snatch up a bargain Craigslist offer of a vintage Japanese steel bicycle. It needed to be shipped, so a day later we were in downtown Los Angeles at the Bicycle Kitchen co-operative, with the bicycle on a repair stand, ready to be stripped down.

As much as you hear that America equals the automobile, there’s great dependence on bicycles here. Large cities still use bicycle messengers as couriers, and they form a gritty subculture with its own visual language of minimalist bicycles and large backpacks. Vast numbers of people too poor, or too undocumented, or once too impaired at the wrong time, to drive cars, use bicycles to commute. Visit a restaurant in America and look around at the parking lot railings, peep down the alleyways, or peer over the back wall to see how dining out wouldn’t function without armadas of cheap Mongoose’s, Motobecanes, and Giants.

Bracketing these two co-op using groups are the shiny hipsters on one end, and homeless people on the other. Even car-crazy LA has tribes who choose expensive single-speeders over automobiles. For them, co-ops serve as meeting grounds and even party venues. Many homeless people depend on bicycles to carry their possessions, or to ferry them to and from hidden encampments. The cheap parts and pay-as-you-can co-op is vital to their lives.

The Bicycle Kitchen on a late weekday morning reflected this mix. There was us, the self-admitted “wannabe hipsters” working on what would become the fifth (or was it sixth?) bicycle in a collection. On the repair stand next to ours was semi-crazed man with a homeless air, struggling to remove a stuck seatpost from a cheap mountain bike. A young man asked a volunteer, “Will you be my friend today?” because he needed help setting up his new cycle. A girl with a nice mixte bicycle talked to us about her recent cycling trip to France.

The friendly dog, I realised, belonged to a homeless man who reassembled his bike-based push caravan that featured a little carpeted tent for the dog hanging off the handlebars. In contrast, the co-op owner, with his formal shirt, neat hair and glasses, looked more like a Silicon Valley executive than the tattooed, dreadlocked figure who’d have blended better into the piles of oily cogs, and boxes bristling with handlebars and frames.

Payment at the co-op, if you don’t buy any parts, is a suggested $7 an hour (“This is a generous donation,” said the owner), but they will take anything you want to pay. Or not. There are a few such co-ops around LA, with names such as Bikerowave and Bike Oven.

In my world, bicycling is more about saving grams on multi-thousand-dollar frames, training to within millimetres of your life, and riding in exotic destinations, than about standing next to crazy guy swinging a hammer at his seatpost just inches away from your head. My friend B. has a talent for connecting with cities in surprising and authentic ways. Whether Los Angeles, Bangalore, Hyderabad, or Singapore, I’ve found that his version of the city is always captivating, and we are sometimes too critical of the acquisatory zeal of our hobbies, forgetting how, without them, we would pass through like puppets in front of a backdrop.

First published in Gulf News, April 25, 2017

Let’s Cut the Funds for Beauty

California is blooming. It’s spring after a series of winter storms that pulled us out of drought, and there are flowers everywhere. In gardens, riverbeds, the desert, on the mountains, on freeway embankments. Plants that looked dead when we moved into our house two months ago, now look like bouquets. For an all-too-short two weeks, the bare plum tree outside sprung blossoms along its coppery branches, before they fell to make way for green fruit.

Earlier this week, I drove to Point Mugu State Park on the western-most section of the Santa Monica mountains, past popular sections of California’s coast along Santa Monica and Malibu. This is where, the way the land curves, the beaches face due south, regularly confounding tourists looking for a sunset over the waters.

The Santa Monica range ends (or begins?) as rolling green hills adjoined by farmland. The Pacific Coast Highway runs along a rugged coastline here, and the parking lot for the Ray Miller Trailhead isn’t too far into the mountains.

I was here to experience some of the “superbloom” of California’s wildflowers, and the short hike up the ocean-facing hillsides did not disappoint. My favourite is the California poppy, the delicate petalled orange flowers said to have been the source of the name The Golden State.

Later that afternoon, I met my uncle who was in town on business, and we sat at a restaurant in downtown LA. Our server, Sabrina, had given us a cheery, authentically friendly greeting, and my gregarious uncle was soon chatting with her. He makes it a point, he later told me, to engage with people in these troubling political times, and remind them that there’s support and hope.

Sabrina is a filmmaker and is black. She nodded vigorously in recognition of a border crossing story my uncle told, and shared some of her own experiences. I was fascinated by this conscious construction of an interaction that, though engineered, was warm and authentic. As someone still more shy than not, it had never occurred to me to drive these fleeting social situations. I usually just let them take the path of least resistance.

That evening though, at a local Thai restaurant, the attempted connection fell flat. The Thai server mentioned that she couldn’t handle too much spice these days, and my uncle joked that it was the fault of the administration who were dealing in too much spice themselves. The server semi-sarcastically said, “Oh yeah, they’ve got in and changed our DNA” at which the matter was dropped, and we skated on safe waiter-diner superficialities.

It seemed that the young, fashionable, second-generation (at my guess) Thais, who are running a surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall restaurant out in an unfashionable arm of LA’s galaxy are Trump supporters. Or at very least, pointedly neutral.

As California’s blooms welcome the end of years of drought, there are threats from the center to punish the state financially for its political leanings, whether it’s removal of support for sanctuary cities, or changing tax laws. Most of the Trump voters I know, supported him in the belief that their bank accounts would be fatter under his administration.

I thought about this as I walked among the wildflowers in a state park that sits on hillsides worth millions of dollars in real estate. It will be just another couple of weeks before the flowers are gone, and soon after, the heat of summer will turn the hills brown again. I try to imagine looking at the world through the lens of my bank account, and it scares me that this way, beauty is as transient and fragile as a field of petals.

First published in Gulf News, April 11, 2017

The Wild West in the Attic

One recent weekend, I donned some old clothes, pulled on a headlamp and dust mask, and went reverse spelunking in the attic. I was attempting to run Ethernet cable from the router to my audio system, keeping as much of it hidden as possible.

My wife came up the ladder, and stuck her head into the space. She looked wide-eyed at the snowdrifts of blown-in insulation, the cabling, the wood joists studded with tiny golden globules of resin, the bronchial ductwork. She marveled that the home we lived in at the bottom of the ladder was mere epidermis. “Just under the surface it’s no more than a pioneer log cabin,” she said.

Sitting there, covered in the fluff of R-44 insulation, and breathing heavily through my dust mask, I chose to extend that to a metaphor for America itself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Just as canyons are evidence of rivers of old, there is much in day-to-day America that’s a reminder that not too long ago, here ran the blood and sweat of the settler life.

Out here in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it seems everybody is self-sufficient. Their garages are filled with enough tools to build small townships. Plumbing, fence building, roof repairing, electrical work–they don’t need a professional for anything. They drive cars that have seen close to 200,000 miles, if engines need a new pistons, the work is done in the driveway. Changing brakes is a morning’s task, no more stressful than I would find changing a spare tyre.

A neighbour helped me contextualise the American fascination with enormous engines. Most performance cars today take a European approach, using smaller engines that are tweaked and tuned to produce higher power. And because they run at high RPM, tolerances need to be tight. “If something goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do at home,” said M, a man who had replaced a camshaft in a Ford truck that morning. “And because they run at such high RPM’s, they don’t last.”

An 8.0 litre pushrod engine on the other hand, does highway speeds at a low 1,800 RPM. With its slack build tolerances, parts are more interchangeable in emergencies. If cylinders fail, you can still limp home on half the engine. The reason beloved American cars are so agricultural, I realised, is directly descended from the dream of driving across a wild and desolate country, and making it to the other side. Or from living so far from services, your life could depend on your car engine coughing to life one deep winter morning.

A friend, on hearing about my attic project, observed that Indian education and upbringing just doesn’t prepare us for manual labour, and nor does it sensitise us to its dignity. Being privileged in an under-privileged country means there’s always somebody to do your work for a few rupees. Why spend the morning crawling through the woodwork, drill in hand, when you could pay someone to do it for you, while you did something perhaps not as noble, but more of the nobility, such as reading a book, watching television, or playing the piano?

In addition, there’s the fear of the unknown, even though learning repairs is no more challenging than figuring out a new computer operating system, or a new recipe. Okay, the stakes are higher. Do manual labour wrong, and lose a finger, fall through the ceiling, or break your house. Luckily, it’s never that difficult or dramatic, and if something were to go wrong in that attic, at least I’ve met the wilderness above our ceiling.

First published in Gulf News, March 28, 2017

Technological nostalgia as healing

Remember this trick from the early days of the cell phone? You call a friend on his landline, and chat with him about plans for the day. As you’re talking, his doorbell rings, and he excuses himself to answer it. He opens the front door, and it’s you.

There’s astonishment and laughter all round, and a salute to how amazing technology is. (You have, of course, made sure to disconnect the call, because such frippery was paid for by the dear minute.)

By the time the Nokia 3310 was launched, this stunt was probably getting stale. Even so, I was surprised to read that the iconic phone was launched as late as 2000. Seventeen years later, the 3310 will be relaunched, taking us back to tiny screens, decent call quality, and long battery life. I’ve never been one for phones, but I loved the 3310, and wasn’t surprised to read of its return.

Apart from novelty and nostalgia, a phone whose battery can last a month on standby, will quickly become a safety back-up. It can be charged and thrown into a glove compartment or bottom of a suitcase at the start of a trip. It can accompany you on hikes where weak signals make your regular phone last only a few hours. And because it’s light,
simple, and rugged, it can accompany you on bike rides, beach visits, or even quick dog walks at night, where you don’t want to be waving around an expensive smart phone.

As someone who is interested in products and values that are a deliberate step back in time, it’s fascinating to me that we are already far enough on this ride to return nostalgically to products from a mass digital age. This isn’t like stepping back to vinyl after CD, or to horse-drawn carriages after automobiles (don’t you think
horses will come back?). It’s more like returning to the VCD from Blu-Ray, albeit in a way that makes sense.

When we moved to our new home, we packed up our television. And though we’ve been here for over a month, it’s still boxed, and a library has seen use. The television will eventually come out, but I’m seriously considering stopping the streaming service, and returning to renting movies on disc. We’re not alone in finding that having everything at your fingertips is like having nothing at your fingertips. We have frequently spent our entire TV dinnertime scrolling through the thumbnails, unable to settle on anything. And when we do, it’s almost always something mindless, or comfort food that we’ve seen tens of times before.

It’s tempting to be entirely bereft of an idiot box, but realistically, it seems right to at least make the turning on of the television an occasion again. I’m not sure that the relaunch of old mobiles will make phone calls an occasion, but if I had one, I’d look forward to “3310 days”, when I have the ability to text and phone, but am not continually ensnared by a few square inches of black mirror. I’m rapidly becoming as bad as everyone else about my smart phone–needing it near me at all times, and checking it many, many, many times a day.

I began this article with an image of how naively we opened our door to this surprising technology. You might assume I’m closing with a “little did we know” lament about where we’ve come. But I’m actually starting to think that the cycles of fashion are healing mechanisms, and that we have more control over our ways of life than we allow ourselves to believe.

First published in Gulf News, March 14, 2017

Growing up in motels

“Gentle giant” is the best way to describe my new friend. Let’s call him Jim. He is brutally strong, but quiet and shy. He has a distracted, slightly dazed manner, that makes it a surprise when he is usually a step ahead of what you’re asking.

Jim has two children. His son, 15, is autistic. His daughter, 12, is in special education, but is expected to move to regular high school. His wife cares for the children, and Jim is a day labourer. He gets lifting and loading work wherever and whenever he can find it. He can’t save enough money for a downpayment on an apartment, so he and his family go from motel to motel around Los Angeles.

A motel is $320 a week, and the rule is that occupants have to leave every two weeks for two days. That’s when a motel is $85 a night, so most months, Jim pays $1,450 for housing. He says he can find an apartment for $900 a month, but could never save enough for required first and last month up front.

Jim and his daughter were one of the first houseguests in our new home. A couple of months earlier, Jim had been distraught at work, though he tried hard not to show it. I’d given him a ride to the train station near my house, from where he was going to his father’s house to borrow money. I didn’t ask, but I think it was either that, or sleep outdoors. I wanted to help him, but I knew he was proud.

“We’re moving soon, come over one Sunday and help us out at our new house. Consider this an advance,” I told him. I was glad he accepted the cash without taking offence.

This exchange made me think later about how much charity is built into Indian society. Most people employ house help, picking some combination of cleaners, cooks, gardeners, watchmen, and drivers (or, often, all). In addition to a monthly salary, employers pay for employees’ children’s school fees, books, and uniforms. Extra food and hand-me-down clothing are given and accepted with ease. There are regular holiday bonuses in the form of cash and clothes. None of this is notable. To proudly announce that you paid your cook’s son’s school fees would elicit, at best, a “so what, we all do” shrug.

Jim’s story disturbs my wife and I, and a part of us feels guilty for that. After all, Jim’s life would look cushy to many, many people who have crossed our paths. Meat (albeit fast food) for dinner, clothes and shoes, running water, and school! And yet, here we were one recent Sunday, watching Jim eat a giant beef burrito like a man who starves slightly so he can feed his children. We’d just spent untold money on a new house, and sitting at our patio table was a little girl who is growing up in cheap motels around the San Gabriel Valley.
To a day labourer, money in advance is money that won’t buy dinner tonight. As I dropped Jim and his daughter off at their motel not far from my home, he asked me if I could spare a couple of bucks. “I’m so sorry, you gave me money earlier…”

I reached into my wallet and handed Jim an inadequacy that made me feel sick. He thanked me, and said, “Bye Gautam” as he and his daughter got out of the car.

“Bye Gautam,” she called through the rear passenger window in exactly the same way, then followed her father into the bleak Monte Carlo Inn.

First published in Gulf News, February 28, 2017

Remembering ‘The Selfish Giant’

The television was on in the living room of a comfortable home on a recent rainy day in Southern California. As we walked in, the woman of the house looked at the images of the Trump family live at the Presidential inauguration. “Finally, a first family we can look up to,” she said.

I was shocked. I had to go back and replay her statement in my head to confirm what I’d just heard. Now, I can work hard to understand why you may not like Obama’s policies, his politics, or even him as a person, but when it comes to your inability to look up to his wonderful family, I’m puzzled. How is Trump’s family more worthy of your respect? Oh wait, don’t answer–let me just give you a tight-lipped smile, be professional, and get out of here as soon as I can.

The day after the inauguration was one of my lowest in recent memory. While one of the big women’s marches was taking place not 20 miles away, I was among Trump supporters who thought the marches were “stupid”, and the marchers “morons”. As I heard some of the arguments against the march, I felt less angry, and more deeply sad. “Why are these women marching?” asked somebody. “Are they not treated equally in this country?”

I understand that some people think Trump will be good for business, but now, it seemed, this argument was a pre-election cover for agreeing with his other viewpoints too.

“How do you explain the danger of institutional sexism or racism to people who think that the opposition to Trump’s misogyny is personal, like if you ran into him in a lift?” lamented a friend to me on Whatsapp. Another friend was almost annoyingly rational.

“You need to lower your expectations of people,” he said, when I complained to him about some of the pro-Trump arguments I’d heard.

Though potentially patronising in its application, it was good advice. After all, I have no context for the other point of view. I come from a world where people are truly shocked that I actually know Trump supporters, “that too in California”.

“I don’t know anyone who supports that man,” said my mother who lives in India, and for that bit of news, I was grateful.

In my lowering of expectations of other people, I’m still not able to reconcile the woman in the house, nor her husband who chortled about “throwing out the illegals”. Trump’s family decidedly does not fit a conservative ideal the way Obama’s does. There can be no other reason for this person to not be able to look up to the Obama first family, other than that they are black.

I felt disgusted in her presence, but so far, her racism could only be inferred. I’m not sure if I can claim her house to be a hostile work environment and refuse to go back. Today, as I write this, news of Trump’s wall is across the front page. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant, who builds a wall to keep children out of his beautiful garden, only to bring on a perpetual winter. Spring returns when the children sneak in again through a hole in the wall, causing the giant to see the error of his ways, and tear down the boundary. The garden was so much more beautiful and meaningful when it was a part of the larger world, and not an enclave unto itself. The fact that this argument even has to be made today seems like a fairy tale in itself.

First published in Gulf News, January 31, 2017

The Second Real-Estate Market

When you buy a house in the US, the public record is changed, and this is a trigger for a whole industry in your mailbox. Some letters are helpful (offering discounts at local supermarkets), and some are outright scams.

There’s a company in California called Local Records Office, that sends business solicitations to new home owners. It charges $89 to furnish a copy of the title deed, something you could get for a few dollars from the actual records office. To be fair to Local Records Office, they clearly say (perhaps after litigation?) that they are not a government agency. Even so, the wording and style of the letter is clearly intended to deceive.

Less egregious, but still annoying, are the ways companies get your attention and make you open their mail. Important Security Document Inside, said one envelope. It contained an offer for a security system subscription. Final Notice About Your Mortgage Papers, said another. It was selling mortgage insurance.

All of these attempts to fool us into engaging, stung all the more, because my wife and I have a clear memory of being duped. We weren’t even new in the US at the time, having come back after two years away. We were looking for rental housing, and because we had a large dog, it was hard to find something suitable. (When you’re renting, “large” is any canine over 10 kg.) We got nervous and signed up for a company that promised to send hand-picked listings over 21 or so days, for a $50 fee. They didn’t email or text the listings; they faxed them. So we had to download a free fax program on a laptop, and dial in every day, to be sent lists of houses to visit.

The list didn’t seem to adhere to any of our requirements. Many said “no pets”, many weren’t in cities we’d asked for. We drove to a few, and some of the houses weren’t on the market. Others were so rundown, we didn’t even stop. And when we navigated the Byzantine rules for getting a reimbursement, I found that I need to have checked into the office every day to be eligible for it.

We’d been properly scammed, and it felt worse because we’d been vulnerable. It’s unlikely we’d have approached this company at the start of our househunt. But coming back to the our new house, it helped that those weren’t the only notices directed at us. The previous owner, a lovely lady in her 70s, had left us handwritten notes all over the house, starting with a big welcome taped to the kitchen backsplash. She explained the workings of various objects, from thermostats to the electric stove. She described the use of the remote controls. She left a list of the neighbours, and made sure the bathrooms all had toilet paper and hand soap.

Ultimately, this was a business deal, and if the financial machinery moved as well as financial machinery can, no more was needed. But there was a connection in this deal that was much bigger than mortgage and home appraisals. For some reason, we bonded with the home owner and she with us, through the medium of the property, in a way that belied the amount of time we’d spent with each other (almost none). Everyone involved could feel it, and the first time we saw the house, my wife cried, because it was over our budget, but she knew right then that this deal was going to happen. We all did, and this makes me think, you can only be duped if you allow it.

First published in Gulf News, January 17, 2017

Is this the right floor?

When I was very young, my parents were given an ornate chess set in which each piece was a miniature of a famous sculpture. I remember the kings were Michelangelo’s David, and the rooks were Rodin’s The Thinker. I thought it magnificent. I couldn’t understand why it made my parents giggle, and say how awful they thought it. I was too young to understand my dad’s explanation that this was the worst form of imitation.

The other day, I stood in front of a porcelain tile, and remembered that chess set. The tile was shaped, textured, and coloured to look exactly like a plank of wood. You could actually reach out and feel the grain and knot holes. In a photograph of the tiles installed in a fashionable home, it seemed that no two pieces were alike, giving the impression of a full-grained hardwood floor. There were many such wood-look options, ranging from regular oak or maple, to weathered barn wood, to distressed, reclaimed wood complete with water stains and faded paint remnants.

They were all extremely realistic, and yet, I thought of magnificent Italian statues reduced to plaster of Paris playthings. Why didn’t I have a similar problem with porcelain or ceramic tiles made to look like travertine, or quartz, or brick? Why was litho-mimicry okay, but biomimicry somehow… well, nouveau riche? Even stone-imitation needs a lot of artifice, especially if you’re trying to recreate the veining and lacunae of sedimentary limestones.

Our final choice for our home was a porcelain tile made to look like ashy brick. So why not wood-imitation porcelain? I love the look of hardwood floors, and there’s nothing infra-dig about choosing to not cut down trees. Sure, a tile can never feel like wood, but a brick-like tile doesn’t feel like brick. It’s too cold, too hard. It won’t acquire a patina. And while the tile we chose beautifully mimicked the subtle differences from one brick to another, it would never recreate that porous, earthy look that makes brick floors so inviting.

Maybe it’s the Rexine effect. You know, the fake leather material that was used in horribly cheap-looking furniture in the 1980s. Rexine cried out that here was someone who wanted the aura of leather, but did not want to pay for it either in expense or care. Wood-look tiles are still in that zone, especially on the west coast of America, where using actual wood as a building material is not as loaded a choice as it may be elsewhere.

When I start tile-gazing, I could barely tell one type from another, but once you’ve spent a few afternoons doing this, perception sharpens. I started to notice how the texture and veining of a true natural stone seems to lie under the surface, and also started seeing digital image artifacts on the cheaper imitation products.

When synthetic products imitate natural ones for purely cosmetic purposes, is it the same as that chess set imitating great art? Often, the imitation is for functional purposes too. If you’re making a synthetic fabric to keep people warm, sure, it needs to be woolly because that’s what traps air for insulation. By stepping away from trying to recreate nature, they came up with fabric with little silver dots that keeps wearers warm like nothing in nature, by reflecting body heat back at them. What if we’d done the same thing with flooring 10 or 20 years ago? That instead of focusing so much on imitating stone and wood, we’d developed floors that generated heat or electricity. Or how about this one: a “flooring system” that keeps itself clean?

First published in Gulf News, January 3, 2017

A stupid way to use a smartphone

It’s hard to be surprised by phones any more. They do so much. And yet, the other day, I was treated to an impressive use of the smartphone I’d never seen before.

I was talking to an industry rep, and asked him whether Method A was better than Method B. The rep said A was generally better. That wasn’t enough for me; I always need to know why. “So is it because…” and I offered up an arcane possibility as to why A was superior.

The rep half-nodded, even as he whipped his phone up in front of his face, and was instantly engrossed. He turned away from me, forehead almost touching the screen. He reminded me of a toddler who knocks something over, then covers his face with his hands, hoping he can’t be seen.

I know many of you would assume the rep was a Millennial, unable to bear the terrible burden of not knowing something under the Google sun. He wasn’t. He was comfortably Generation X, just like me.

Recently, a dear cousin of mine made an observation about modern life through the imagined eyes of his father, who died in 1985 at the age of 48. “If he was to come back now, and heard one of his grandkids say, ‘Let me take a photograph on my phone’ he wouldn’t know what to think. He might imagine us all gathered in the living room in front of the telephone… but how would you use it for a photograph? And why?”

As we talked about it, I realised most smartphone magic could be explained by someone who left us in 1985. Checking the phone for time or weather? Sure, you called the service. Using it to map your way to a hotel? You phoned and got directions from the front desk. Remotely checking on the delivery person at your front door? Aha, you phoned your neighbour. But taking a photograph?

My cousin’s father, like mine, was probably born into a household without a telephone. And just as I remember getting our first television, my father remembers when his family got their first telephone. He recently emailed a musing on the subject, talking about how he, as a child, would accompany his father to “Burmah-Shell uncle’s” office, and would sit, fascinated by the large Bakelite contraption on the corner of the desk. He would will the object to ring just so he could watch this marvelous technology in use.

His family eventually got one in their home, “hitched up against the wall on a stand” like a public phone. “And soon it did become public,” my father wrote. “Neighbours would pour in, stand in line and talk into that Bakelite handle without a thought that they were disturbing the family who owned the dastardly thing.”

The growth of the telephone in his lifetime from precious scarcity to careless ubiquity, was a matter of as much concern as wonder. My father is someone who loves to ask and ponder why, and I wonder how he would have reacted to the rep who didn’t even pretend to notice a message, or feel it ring before he used his phone to, nearly literally, cover up his insecurity. I’ve long noticed that people find saying, “I don’t know” as hard as passing kidney stones, and it seems this problem is worse than ever. For those who feel inferior for receiving information instead of disseminating it, the smartphone means they never need knowledge from another human again. Soon, it’ll be acceptable to have someone shove a phone up in front of their face to end a conversation. It’s a new feature and it’s coming.

First published in Gulf News, December 20, 2016

A rudimentary game of chess

We walk the dog in the morning in small natural area near our home called the Santa Anita Wash. To get to it, we go through a narrow underpass. This little concrete channel is a scene for a rudimentary game of chess that plays out nearly every day across the city of Los Angeles.

Every so often, spray-painted symbols and words appear on its walls, often with an half-full aerosol can left on the ground nearby. They are mostly indecipherable, though sometimes we can make out names and letters. A few days later, it’s all painted over in squares of grey or beige paint—the LA County graffiti removal squad has come through on their thankless rounds.

Many of these markings are a simple form of graffiti known as tagging. Taggers aim to spray their names or symbols in as many places as possible, and get respect in the community for especially hard-to-reach areas. You often see tags high above the freeways, where someone needs to have climbed out of a walkway, and hung 50 feet above the traffic to make their mark.

Some of this writing on the wall is more sinister. Gang graffiti marks territory, issues threats, and if the city doesn’t paint over it, the neighbourhood can change, quickly. Here, the broken windows theory plays out in squiggles on walls, signs, and even the tarmac on roads and bike tracks. The limits of policing, and the watchfullness of the neighbourhood are tested with the rattle and hiss of aerosol cans. (This is why, when you go to Home Depot or Walmart, the spray paint cans are locked behind a cage. You need assistance to buy one.)

There are sections of the bike track where I’ve watched this game played out over years. In South and East Los Angeles, where gangs are common, moves happen over hours. In a video on the Los Angeles Times website, a member of a removal crew describes how they painted over a large area only to have it tagged 10 minutes later. The crew waited an hour, and painted over the tags again. The Los Angeles County takes the graffiti problem so seriously that they operate a 24-hour hotline with live operators. Graffiti costs the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

While gang graffiti is meant to be read, it’s hard to decipher without the code. The number ’13’ for example, whether in Arabic or Roman numerals, suggest links to the Mexican mafia. The letter ‘C’ might represent the Crips, which, along with its rivals, the Bloods, is one of LA’s older gangs. A crossed-out gang letter with a K next to it, is a kill warning. And if you see the letters ‘MS’, you might be in the territory of MS-13, one of the most feared and ruthless gangs to originate in Los Angeles.

With hip-hop culture prevalent around the world, it’s common for people to “throw up” gang signs for laughs. Perhaps the best known one is to splay the index and pinky, with the middle and ring fingers crossed, to make the ‘W’ for Westside. Los Angeles residents often have to warn international visitors to never goof around with hand signs. On the streets of LA, these aren’t mere symbolic gestures. They can cause serious offence at best, and depending on where you are, may get you killed.

Right now, the taggers rule our underpass, and the timer is running for the city’s turn with paint or pressure washer to call ‘check’, and establish shaky authority once more.

First published in Gulf News, December 6, 2016