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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hollywood Arsonist (It’s LA!) by Brian Leiken

This year the 2012 New Year’s celebration didn’t start on December 31st, but on the 30th.

Around 2 in the morning I awaken to the clamor of sirens as an army of fire trucks rush up Fairfax Avenue, shrieking past my apartment like wailing infants desperate for attention.

At first I thought it was a forest fire, but after I spot a squadron of police cars followed by ambulances, I think it could be a riot or zombie infestation.

Do I have anything to fight off zombies? I do have a pair of swords in my closet, a dull rapier main-gauche and a heavy pirate saber, but neither would be effective at fighting off looters or zombies. (Need to stop watching so much Walking Dead.)

Raising my arms above my head I stretch and relax; no need to panic quite yet, time to find out what’s going on; that’s what the internet is for: stupid pictures of epic fails, illegal downloads, and news. Turns out it isn’t a zombie infestation; it’s an arsonist.

An arsonist. One firebug had taken it upon himself to start a jihad against the overabundance of vehicles in Hollywood, lighting them on fire by placing some kind of accelerant beneath the engine, igniting it, and incinerating the vehicle.

For the arsonist, any vehicle was fair game, so long as it was in an area where no one was watching, but this arsonist was unusual for two reasons.

1. He didn’t appear to have any monetary motive, making him impossible to track.

2. He didn’t stop after the first night or leave the area. On the 31st he kept at it, continuing to blow up vehicles all over West and North Hollywood in the same four square mile area.

This is clearly someone who wanted attention. After the second day I saw that the news story of the Hollywood Arsonist had acquired worldwide attention, having being picked up in Japan, Australia and the BBC news.

The LAPD put up police checkpoints, and firefighters deployed into rapid response teams throughout the city, but that was all for show.

How do you catch a man who doesn’t have an obvious motive? How do you protect an entire city from a lunatic?

In a couple of instances the fires that were lit climbed into apartment buildings, forcing people to flee their homes.

My car was in a locked parking garage, so I was more or less safe, but my roommate made sure to keep his vehicle parked on Fairfax, a street with lots of light and foot traffic. (We have a deal, I get the parking spot, he gets the room with a larger bathroom attached.)

On the first of January Mr. Arsonist was at it again, continuing to light fires and prove the powerlessness of the authorities to stop him, an entire city unable to contain one single fire wielding maniac.

A $60,000 reward was posted to anyone who had information that might lead to the arsonist’s arrest. Soon after the police had a tip and arrested a suspect.

A 53 year old Mexican.

Nope. This had crazy white boy written all over it, I knew as soon as they arrested the Mexican they had the wrong guy. White people may not commit as much crime, but when they do, it’s mucho loco. Drugs, car theft, gang violence - Mexicans. Serial killers, multi-million dollar embezzlement, pyromaniacs - Whites.

On January 2nd a volunteer police deputy on his third ever patrol stops a mini-van on Sunset and Fairfax, two blocks north of where I live. In the back of the van, there are explosives. The driver, Harry Buckhart, is a German immigrant that had been flagged as a person of interest.

An immigration official had reported that Harry Buckhart had acted out in court a few days earlier, ranting against America when he heard that his mother, Dorothee Buckhart, was going to be deported back to Germany on charges of fraud.

German authorities claim she had pilfered security deposits from her renters in Germany, but while living in Southern California American authorities discovered she had committed an even more heinous crime. She didn’t pay her plastic surgeon for her breast augmentation surgery.

That may seem like a small deal to those of you who don’t live in Southern California, but breast augmentation surgery is a vital industry in the Southland.

Not paying a plastic surgeon in LA is like stealing from a church, it's just not done. Our entire media is dominated by breasts; looking at them, discussing them, debating which celebrities are real and which are fake, and plastic surgeons make this all possible.

When Renee Zellweger was diagnosed with breast cancer, it made national news, when Janet Jackson had a “wardrobe malfunction,” it sparked a national scandal.

A woman who won’t pay her plastic surgeon is a woman not worthy of living in Southern California. Dorothee Buckhart was going to have to be deported.

Her son went crazy. Fifty-two fires and millions of dollars of damage later, he’s drawn worldwide attention. He lived just over a mile away and was caught within shouting distance of my residence, a modern day John Bardo, the man who stalked and killed TV star Rebecca Schaeffer.

The question is, why? Why has this sparked so much fear and outrage? No one died, the damage, while severe, pales in comparison even to one forest fire. Buckhart has drawn attention not because of what he did, but the manner in how he did it.

Our society, our entire civilization, is built around a basic assumption that people act in a rational manner, in their own self interest.

It just doesn’t make sense for someone to cruise through a city, night after night, looking to light cars on fire; where’s the motive, who is he targeting?

This time, the police got lucky, Buckhart had given himself away a few days earlier through his outburst, but if one 24 year old amateur can do this much damage, how do you deal with a professional who doesn’t care if they live or die but determined to inflict pain?

There are no answers. Yesterday while walking on Hollywood Boulevard I stopped to stare at a half dozen crooning Elvis impersonators singing to tourists, the day after that to watch a fitness instructor in a Laker’s jersey lead a group of 20 attractive young women through an aerobics fitness routine in a Bristol Farms parking lot.

If you want attention in LA, you have to be over the top, blowing up a couple cars isn’t even a footnote - in Hollywood it’s go big, or go home.

Harry Buckhart went big and got his day in the sun, but in a few months or a year, he’ll be forgotten. Notoriety is like a flare, it burns bright, but fades fast. Just ask Tara Reid or Paris Hilton.

Buckhart might be considered an abnormality in most of the world, but in Hollywood his behavior was just a more creative way to get on the fast track to a TV movie.

You want people to stop acting crazy, then stop paying attention to them. Otherwise, pray you don’t get hit and enjoy the entertainment. That’s LA.

Copyright 2012 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out, Messed Up and Knocked Down by Brian Leiken at

Friday, January 13, 2012

Customer Service with a Tear

What I thought would be just a summer job in a small town became a summer of touching and sometimes tragic encounters with other women's lives.

I was in my 20s, just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.

Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a small women's boutique in the college town where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.

For generations, the boutique's proprietor provided personal attention and service to the community.

Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.

She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women of the town as if she were their personal dresser.

They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special.

Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.

As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, sort of like telling their real ages.

So, when they would ask for a size 10 and were obviously a 14, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter.

They would be so delighted at how they looked, they left satisfied customers.

I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid '60s and social mores were not very flexible.

Looking for a dress she could get married in, a teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother.

There was a lot of tension between them; nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant. Eventually, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. Breast cancer then was not as understood or openly discussed as it is today.

She pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she still had breasts.

I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptablility after such a traumatic life event. I wanted to console her, to give her a hug, but I didn't, though my heart ached for her.

She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were "whole," just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn't know what else to say.

The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in her dazed state.

She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier; she was in shock.

She lost two family members in a senseless crime, but she didn't want to wear black.

I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn't stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.

My summer of being a personal dresser in a small boutique gave me a new understanding of "retail therapy" and an appreciation for the owner's devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Store Displays photo by Kay Pat

Mannequin photo by msvoluptuos31