Unexpected moments define a city. Over the past month, LA has defined itself down.
I’m talking about the city political furor surrounding the costs of the Michael Jackson funeral.
By now, we all know the story. The reigning, if sequestered, king of pop dies at 50. (Not an atypical age of death for drug abusing geniuses–classical pianist Glen Gould and sci fi genius Phil Dick were both druggies who died early in their sixth decades.) And the world shut off and the hype machine turned on, a machine that is only now sputtering down.
Meanwhile, the city bureaucracy, headless, since the mayor was in Africa on a mission of inconceivable importance, functioned well, if a bit over-conservatively. It put far more police on the street than the occasion, which brought out on the whole about as many people as did the average Lakers game, warranted. This seemed like good planning to me. Far better to over prepare than under prepare. Michael Jackson having not died before, it was hard to know just how many people would stand outside and mourn.
It was an orderly and respectful bunch who attended, in and out. There was a lot less public disorder than you’d have had at the above sports event. The only disorder was at City Hall, where, you would have thought to hear the attention grabbing noise, the runoff elections were going to happen next month instead of the last. Newly sworn City Attorney Carmen Trutanich vowed to investigate the purported $1.4 million policing costs, as though he suspected that most of the cops ordered out for the event had in fact ditched their uniforms and gone to the beach. Controller Wendy Greuel, of whom I frankly expected better things, vowed to investigate the out-of-county provision of sandwiches to the troops, at what seemed to me to be the fair market price of $7 a piece, plus power bars and gum (Do cops get to chew gum on the job these days? What would LAPD Chief Bill Parker think?). She scooted back into her City Hall den, however…when this began to look like one of those low-bidder deals, which of course such contracts are supposed to be. As controllers, of all people, are supposed to know.
Various council members made loud noises here too, insisting it was the intestate estate of Jackson that had to pay the policing costs, or AEG, Phil Anschutz’ entertainment machine that seems to have turned South Park into its personal Vatican. Much was made of the city’s nine figure deficit. Some even said it was obscene to pay that much for policing for a celebrity’s obsequies when teachers were getting pink slipped–as if these two services came out of exactly the same budget.
And suddenly, I felt like I was living in a very small town. Not the self-proclaimed World Class City I set sail to decades ago. But a sleepy burg of 10,000 or so, in the middle of some state beginning with “I,.” a city incapable of dealing with any but the most ordinary event. Celebrity funerals, like meteor strikes or tornadoes, will happen in big cities, and big, sophisticated cities will take them in stride, knowing that, unlike the disasters, the funerals will probably leave behind nearly as much money as they cost the city. And even if not, what can one do?
It’s only the tiny places with the tiny minds that complain as if Jackson had conspired somehow to die in LA and have his memorial here. OK, so this is a big place with tiny minds.
Fo some reason, I recalled the 1980 funeral of Jean Paul Sartre. surely Jackson’s intellectual, if not musical, peer. At least 50,000 people turned out for the Wall Eyed One’s cortege. Did anyone in Paris’ Hotel de Ville gripe about the cost in flics? Or did they even calculate how much those costs were going to be offset by cafe, hotel and Metro revenues? No. A great, and very controversial, public figures had died. The city (and nation) owed him and paid its respects along with the security costs.
Paris was then and is now a city of class. This one, for now, isn’t. But you knew that.