Creeping down the Promenade

Near my hotel in Santa Monica, there’s an outdoor shopping mall called the Third Street promenade. It’s one of the rare places in Los Angeles where pedestrians are free to wander and, as a New Yorker, I have always been attracted there. The first time I visited Third Street, 10 or 15 years ago, it consisted primarily of old stores that seemed to have been there for decades. Five and dimes, second-hand clothing stores, bejeweled movie palaces, a couple of great old bookstores, that sort of thing.
It’s completely unrecognizable now. Or should I say it’s completely familiar. That’s because all those old, local businesses have been replaced by the march of globalization.
Barnes and Nobles, J.Crews, AMC theatres, McDs, Jamba Juices and, of course, Starbucks line Third Street as they do streets around the planet. I have seen the same line up in New York, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Cleveland, and all points in between. The inexorable creep of multinational corporations rob us of one of the main pleasures of travel. When every street looks the same, you feel as if you might as well have saved the airfare.

While, it’s true that, on one level, human beings crave the safety of consistency and like to know that we can dull the anxiety of being in a very foreign environment with a Big Mac and fries, this dull homogeneity feels threatening to all of us. As animals who are the product of evolution, we know deep down that trying to erase all variety from our environment is a very dangerous game. Katrina showed us what happens when we delude ourselves into thinking that we can control our world, can set up camp in Louisiana as if we were in Kansas, can treat an ocean shoreline like any other line on the map. We are just fragile critters, despite our hubris. Third Street may look like the Champs Elysees but it won’t if the San Andrea fault rebels.
Globalization is not the only story these days, of course. There’s also the backlash, seen most prominently in the Middle East, where the mullahs would take the people back five hundred years, long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, the thong, and the double decaf latte. Here in America, right between the Olive Trees and the Banana Republics, folks are growing fed up and reactionary. They’re also using religion as a levy, trying to hold back the rising tide by opposing Brokeback Mountain and Bolivian busboys. But right-wing politics, which is after all, complicit in enabling the corporations that now dominate the world, is in no position to fight back against it now.

While I completely understand the impotence one feels when facing the faceless, godless corporate landscape, I find comfort not among the supreme mullahs or the Supreme Court but in my drawing book. By slowing down and taking my pen in hand, I can always see particularity in the world. I am able to look at the Third Street promenade and see more than corporate logos. I see people, I see trees, I see the edges of buildings against the bright blue California sky. And I see beyond. I pack up my drawing gear and look for the rest of the city, the real city. I look for moldering buildings, tangled telephone lines, the homeless, the taco stands. If I was content to be a garden-variety, guidebook-toting tourist, I wouldn’t spend half an hour in an alley looking at broken windows. I wouldn’t sit on the curbside watching pigeons eat fast food wrappers. (Now that’s a vacation!)
One of the many great things about drawing is how it helps you find the beauty in anything, anywhere. Really seeing something helps you appreciate and understand it, and to know it from all others. I can draw a pebble or an apple core and see the universe within its pits and dents. With a pen and paper in hand, I am sure I will never feel utterly dehumanized. My drawings show me the world as only I can see it.

Sure, it’s dull drawing the engineered lines and committee-selected colors of a Burger King, but even gleaming plastic and fake brass give up interesting reflections and shadows that can confound its designers attempt at uniformity. The golden arches glow differently under the Pacific sun than they do in the North East, and so I can find beauty there. I have drawn them on Broadway, in Paris, in Florence and Hollywood. It’s my small gesture against the corporate creeps. They can try to force the world through their gleaming cookie cutters but artists will always see the truth.

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