Lost in the Warehouse: The Central Meridian, the Ghost of a Department Store, and an Exhibit from a Shadow Museum

I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small.

Rebecca Solnit

Central Meridian 2.jpg

It’s gone, so I’m gone.

If I were resigning from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and not just canceling my membership, that’s the letter I’d send.

It is Michael C. McMillen’s installation “The Central Meridian”.  For years LACMA patrons could walk through a not-so-low door in the wall and find themselves in what might be taken for a film-set recreation of a typical mid-sixties American garage, except that the car at its center is raised on a platform and lit from below, as if ready to take off, Repo Man-style, and amidst the tools and paint cans and bare bulbs and back issues of Popular Mechanics are signs of space-age primitivism; the cults and labs and cosmic temples of atomic mysteries that mark the Los Angeles of Aimee Semple MacPherson and L. Ron Hubbard; the Jet Propulsion Lab and Scientology; General Dynamics and Thomas Pynchon’s Yoyodyne.

Unfortunately, LACMA seems to have a way of contracting while it expands.  They built a new wing for their contemporary art – a wing so grand in its patron’s mind that it calls itself a museum – but somehow no longer had room for “The Central Meridian” once they were done.

LACMA is the perfect museum for LA, in a way.  It’s a sprawl; five decades’ worth of mismatched buildings, with Oklahoma eccentric Bruce Goff’s Japanese art pavilion the only distinguished one.  (Not so much the revenge of the Okies as a belated gift.)

May Co.jpg

There is one other LACMA building worth the price of admission.  The only problem is, it didn’t begin its life as a LACMA building, and in any case they probably won’t admit you.  That’s the 1939 May Co. department store at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax.  It’s a classic piece of streamline moderne, with the corner facing the intersection rounded into a gold cylinder framed in black.

The store, with its tearoom for ladies who lunch and play cards, closed in the eighties and was bought by the museum in 1994.  It houses museum staff.  It also houses a lot of empty space.  It also houses “The Central Meridian”.

It’s too perfect, really.  The new LA gets a bad Renzo Piano building to house Eli Broad’s collection of Jeff Koons hackwork, and Michael McMillen’s brilliant piece of craftsmanship and imagination gets shunted off to this old LA landmark.

I’d like to think McMillen appreciates it.  He was raised in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, with its crumbling amusement piers, veterans of three or four wars, aerospace workers, film technicians, and the resultant kipple scattered to the haunted streets.

“Kipple” is a word Philip K. Dick (surely a kindred [which is what the K stands for] spirit to McMillen) coined in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: “Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

And just as Dick took the stuff of pulp science fiction and turned it to literature, McMillen takes castoff technology – vacuum tubes and horseshoes and breadboxes – and turns it into art.

Now one of McMillen’s finest works has been cast out of LACMA to make room for junk art that skipped the usefulness stage of McMillen’s materials.

But maybe just as well.  Maybe best that “The Central Meridian” exists in rumor and memory.  And how perfect that it should end up in a shuttered and obsolete Los Angeles department store.  I can’t imagine that the old May Co. is as secure as the other buildings at LACMA.  Like subway tunnels with their disused stations and retired cars, this is the sort of place that ought to tempt urban spelunkers, the above-ground variety.  “The Central Meridian” should be discovered in pieces, by nervy law-breakers and enemies of secrecy.

The Abramiad, Part Four: "The Trevor Mayfield Letters" (excerpt)


We ended up opposite the Continental, at the Café Scala, which is conjoined with a cinema of the same name, a bright white two story art deco building with SCALA in an elegant 1930s typeface above a couple of smooth, abstracted, decorative columns.  Entering the café, I pictured the cinema façade twenty years hence, its whiteness stained with smog and muck, crumbling and stone-rotted, the second A in SCALA dangling or gone, leaving behind SCAL, which looks and sounds close enough to scar or skull, either of which would beat out the anodyne “scale” in a default renaming poll or contest.  So I ordered my cake and coffee, unable to escape the queasy feeling that I was poking at a scar or picking at a skull.

Adult Fantasy in the Seventies: Childhood’s End, Psychedelia for Grownups, the Retreat to a Private Place, the Reemergence of the Victorian Pastoral Erotic, and the San Francisco Style


The Bookplace stood at the corner of Clement and 2nd in San Francisco from around 1973 to 1978, long enough for Philip Kaufman to get it on film in his brilliant adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Kaufman no doubt chose it for its wall of funhouse mirrors, which suited the film’s aesthetic of distorted visuals.  It was pretty much my second home when I was a kid.

Funhouse mirrors weren’t the only odd detail about the Bookplace.  Maybe alone among bookstores of the era, it had furniture: soft, curvy chairs covered in white vinyl, a patch of tall green foam rubber grass a kid could almost get lost in.  Browsing and hanging out were encouraged, though that generous, utopian arrangement probably contributed to the store’s premature demise.

And there was one more thing: the spooky, darkly lit back room, where the mystery, science fiction, and fantasy books were kept.  It was a small room, too small for chairs, and the lighting, which my memory (maybe accurately) paints ultraviolet, wasn’t ideal for reading.  If you wanted to spend a few hours with Dashiell Hammett, you’d have to take him out into the light.

The back room had a name, but I can’t remember what it was.  I don’t think it was The Dark Alley of Mystery, though it was something noir, not so much suited to fantasy.  Fantasy had colors that wouldn’t have been easy to make out in that back room.  But fantasy had already emerged into the light, like the readers coming of the Dark Alley, books in hand.  The wall separating genre and mainstream fiction was collapsing back then, like so many other barriers.  Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, published by Ballantine in 1969, was a bestseller, popular among adults who might be embarrassed to be seen reading Tolkien.  The unicorn, not yet the embarrassment it would be reduced to, was a myth made for adults, suggesting an eroticism that only the rare fetishist would find in a hobbit, and legitimized by its presence in mediæval art.  I’m certain Beagle’s novel wouldn’t have been kept back there in the dark, but rather shelved somewhere in the store’s sunlit area, between Donald Barthelme and Saul Bellow.

The Ballantine Adult Fantasy imprint did not yet exist when The Last Unicorn was published, but that imprint would take the unicorn as its logo, and subsequent editions of the novel would bear those extra unicorns on their spine and cover.

Ballantine Adult Fantasy lasted from 1969 to 1974, long enough to overlap with the Bookplace, though I’m pretty sure you could find copies on its shelves well into the Ford administration.  At the time there wasn’t such a rush to clear out old editions for new.

Blue Star.jpg

Edited by Lin Carter, the imprint published a few new novels and anthologies and a larger number of neglected classics, including works by Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and reaching as far back as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.  What made the series instantly recognizable on the shelves was the cover art, by such gifted illustrators as Bob Pepper, David Johnston, Vincent Di Fate, Ray Cruz, Gervasio Gallardo, and Ron Walotsky.  Contemporary American fantasists and ghost story-tellers of Victorian and Edwardian Britain co-existed comfortably behind those flamboyant and sometimes erotic covers.

Something About Eve.jpg

There was always a tension between radicalism and reaction in the counterculture.  In the public sphere it went largely unresolved, and the result was a revolution in the streets that didn’t quite happen.  In the private sphere, its resolution was often a thing of beauty.  Victoriana and rock ‘n roll crossed paths happily in the summer of 1965, when George Hunter’s band The Charlatans dropped acid, took the stage of the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, decked out in their Maxfield Parrish-inspired finery, and played serviceable country- and blues-inflected rock.  (The last part of it was maybe a little more than an afterthought.  You couldn’t just stand around looking cool.  You had to do something, sing for your supper.  But they didn’t call themselves The Charlatans for nothing.)


The Charlatans returned to San Francisco in the fall of that year.  Their musical influence can probably be measured by the number of San Francisco bands of the 1960s that vanished into obscurity.  Their stylistic influence was far greater.  North Beach bohemia was a spent force, so the usual mix of musicians, artists, students, and deadbeats moved on, to the Haight Ashbury, a working class neighborhood well-stocked with cheaply bought, run-down, vintage houses, in a number of styles: Victorian Gothic, Stick, Italianate, Queen Anne.  (Unlike North Beach, the Haight lay west of Van Ness Avenue, where the 1906 fire was stopped, and many houses dated from the 1880s and 1890s.)  Full renovation of these decrepit masterpieces was beyond the means (and the energy) of most of the Haight’s newcomers, but a few days’ collective effort and not too much money would give your house a multi-colored face to show the world.  A “painted lady” made the perfect backdrop for a band photo.  Then you could break up.  The bands vanished, the Haight went from urban/pastoral bohemia to meth- and heroin-ridden violent shithole in the course of a single, media-saturated, badly misnamed summer, but the style lived on and moved on.

The antiwar movement liked to blame the hippies for making it impossible to take revolutionary politics seriously, but the Weather Underground was as much a fantasy creation as flower power.  It’s just that the Weathermen sucked.

But deluded, violent revolutionaries had sunk their claws into San Francisco and held on, well into the seventies.  The Symbionese Liberation Army was a phenomenon that lasted long enough to be preserved in the pages of tabloid histories and cautionary tales.  A less lurid account of the period will show that sturdier fantasies took root in the ground.

Fantasy suited San Francisco.  Most cities are, like living creatures, the product of evolution.  San Francisco is, like the unicorn, an invention.  An immigrant looking to reinvent herself comes to America; an American looking to reinvent herself comes to San Francisco.

It’s an impossible place, really.  Streets are supposed to wrap around hills like these, not run straight up them, and the whole peninsula’s just waiting to snap off at the faultline and end up submerged, like the Breton island city of Ys.  It’s no wonder that drink, drugs, sex, and magic are some of the city’s favorite pastimes.

World's Desire.jpg

It should be hard to go wrong with those pleasures, so of course that was exactly what happened.  “Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street,” according to “Uncle Tim’s Children,” a bitter and prophetic dispatch written by Chester Anderson of the dedicated and genuinely radical Diggers, who tried in vain to forestall the royal scam being cooked up by sociopaths like Timothy Leary, and who then stayed in the neighborhood to clean up the mess that was left behind.  “Are you aware that Haight Street is just as bad as the straights say it is?”  And that was in April of 1967.  The summer hadn’t even begun.

“We had fed the heart on fantasies,” Yeats wrote in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, “The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

If politicized fantasy (which never admits to being fantasy) fucked things up, it’s not quite fair to blame people for turning to fantasies of love and magic, which somehow do a much better job of reshaping the world, not on a grand scale (which is usually inadvisable), but rather one damaged heart at a time.  Political fantasists are quick to dismiss the other kind as childish, but a good therapist would call that projection.

“Sexual intercourse began”, according to Philip Larkin’s chronology, “In nineteen sixty-three…Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”  That would make the sixties the infancy of sexuality.  Hence pop culture’s childish, giggly approach to the subject.  “Why don’t we do it in the road?”  Well, we can all name about a dozen reasons.  Revolution in the streets, doing it in the road…dead ends all around.  Too much energy for too little gain.

The seventies may have been the era of exhaustion, but too often exhaustion is taken for defeat.  We all tire.  We rest.  We redirect our energies.  We grow up.

So adult fantasy was the right literature for San Francisco in the seventies, and those Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks, with their dreamy, sexy, thoroughly grown-up covers, capture the time and place for me as few other things do.

New Worlds For Old.jpg

One day I’ll have to read them.

Yeah, that’s a nice punch line, so of course I’m not going to leave it at that.  History is fantasy.  Memory is fantasy.  Knowing the words counts for something, but feeling the era at the subcortical level is fundamental.  It’s largely a matter of images.  Those cover illustrations are imprinted inside my skull, while I really can’t remember much of what I read when I was six, seven, eight years old.  (Phrases of Dr. Seuss stick with me, but those are nonsense.  They’re beautiful music.)

You can ruin the images of your childhood by overanalyzing them.  Or you can enrich them with analysis that shades into fantasy.

The Abramiad, Part Four: "The Trevor Mayfield Letters" (excerpt)


Ornette Coleman and his quartet were playing at the Five Spot.  You might think the man who dislikes hard bop would run screaming from free jazz, but Ornette Coleman circa 1959 was a far cry from the Noise Ensemble of Chicago.  Hard bop improvisation is a Benzedrine-stoked typist running the changes, ugly speed chess like a thin membrane of play stretched over actual bloody war.  Ornette Coleman’s was like the sound of the human voice, like listening to a soulful Russian poet reciting his verse and you’re hanging on every word, even if you haven’t a clue what it means.  I left the club utterly electrified.