Eve Babitz and the Trouble With Taquitos

Even someone as “harmless” and carefreely narcissistic as Eve Babitz might not have made it in today’s literary scene. As her resurgence reached a crescendo in 2018, with Emma Roberts touting Sex and Rage as her book club choice (oy vey) for the summer of ’17 and Counterpoint re-issuing a lesser known work called Black Swans the year after, on the heels of the rediscovered gems in her early oeuvre, Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company, Babitz has been dissected anew, but not always kindly. While many “writers” covering the subject were wont to explore the theme of how Babitz’s unapologetic self-involvement was a natural fit for making her a new cult favorite in the millennial pantheon of “indie”/”hipster” icons to be worshipped, others simply called out that her style and subject matter only further served to underscore the white privilege-centric “perspective” so often wielded when talking about Los Angeles. A city with almost half its population consisting of Latinos and Hispanics. Thus, in the present, where it becomes more and more of a challenge for blancos to come at the world with their privileged “musings” unchecked, the denunciation of being unable represent a “real” side to the city has been a gripe bandied in an attempt to discredit Babitz’s talent. Which is not what this aims to do, so much as play devil’s advocate for the complicated burden of hindsight in a present that is evermore intolerant of “la-di-da” observations. 

Yet whatever one might think of her “privilege,” let us never forget that being Jewish in America is in and of itself a “racial risk.” With Babitz’s zaftig figure (which she is prone to mentioning frequently, particularly in Sex and Rage) and overtly Semitic last name, her primary fortune was being born into “the Industry,” where being Jewish was a main requirement of success in film. Her father, Sol (yes, another quintessential Jewish name), was a contract violinist for 20th Century Fox at a time when that paid something a man could live on and support his family. Oh how times have changed for the commodification of the arts in the U.S. In any case, it was being in the orbit of the studio and famous people on a regular basis that helped lead Babitz on her path toward “it girl.” 

At age twenty, her notoriety cachet took flight and was legitimized through the lens of Real Art thanks to Julian Wasser’s photograph of her playing chess in the buff with a clothed Marcel Duchamp. Displayed at Pasadena Art Museum (with the show curated by Babitz’s then boyfriend, Walter Hopps), it didn’t take long for Babitz’s legend to become secure, even if only at the hyper-local L.A. level. Hyper-local fame within Los Angeles or New York is usually the mark of an eventual icon anyway. Of course, Babitz was never into fucking with NY. That’s one of the primary reasons why she’s such an iconoclast. She doesn’t adhere to the belief that it is the “greatest city in the world,” because to her, it’s quite obvious that L.A. is. 

In her frequent struggles to maintain a thin physique (another facet of her work that gets disparaged today for not promoting body positivity), it was clear that part of the “issue” stemmed from Babitz being a gourmand. As such, a natural love of food writer M. F. K. Fisher was inherent in her sumptuous prose. And yes, the more one thinks about it, the more it could only be right that Babitz was a Taurus, consumed by the decadence of indulging the senses. Toward the final chapters of her vignette-filled memoir, Eve’s Hollywood, she pays homage to Fisher with a story called The Landmark. Not to be confused with the movie theater that is currently (though likely not for long) the last vestige of L.A.’s Westside Pavilion (better known as the mall that made a cameo in Clueless). 

But it also pays homage, in a more than slightly tongue-in-cheek way, to the death of Janis Joplin. In the opening paragraph, Babitz invokes a John Carpenter-written article for the L.A. Free Press that shruggingly queries of her overdose, “What else is a Janis Joplin going to do on a Sunday afternoon alone in L.A.?” Well, Babitz’s entire premise for talking about where to get the best taquitos in the city specifically on a Sunday is based around the idea of what Joplin could have done besides OD’ing in her hotel room. Which was in The Landmark Motor Hotel, hence the title of Babitz’s story coinciding with “the landmark” that is Olvera Street and its taquitos. 

In her usual way of romantically painting the lore of Los Angeles, it is in this chapter that she makes reference to, for the first time, how L.A. “came to be,” which is more than most white people were doing at this time (some even still refusing to acknowledge the town’s true roots). So it is that she prefaces telling us where to get taquitos on Olvera Street with, “In 1781 a Franciscan with 24 ex-cons and runaway slaves decided to name something that didn’t exist La Ciudad de Nuestra Signora La Reina de Los Angeles and proceeded to build a church and a street called Olvera Street. The church and the street are still there, preserved by this huge city called L.A. as a landmark from the days when one street was named the City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels.” From there, Babitz speaks to her reader from the perspective of a time when taquitos couldn’t be bought in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. She speaks as though she holds the key to existence, and she just wants to help other white folk try to better understand what they could be doing with their time instead of shooting up or whatever else it is they do with all their money. So it is that her tone takes on that of a Time Out writer circa 2010 as she describes, “The street is uneven and bricky and lined with terrific shops where you can get things you think you want, cheap. And taquito stands for in case you get hungry.” She adds with a touch of irreverent condescension fitting only for an era when taquitos were “under the radar,” “Taquitos are much better than heroin, it’s just that no one knows about them, and heroin’s so celebrated.”

This is where her chastizing of Joplin continues as she notes, “And Janis Joplin, all she had to do was get in her car and go down there. And she would especially have liked it on a Sunday, because on Sundays they have confetti and mariachi bands in the adjacent plaza.” Here again, Babitz instructs in her pre-dating hipster tone, acting as some helpfully pedantic scene queen for those who just aren’t in the know yet because they’re still too fresh off the boat from their formerly all-white milieu. Babitz, indeed, often calls out a situation or environment when she feels it has too many white people–another self-deprecating white millennial thing she was ahead of her time on. 

Babitz, known for being cavalier about sex, extends her laxity to the way the search for food so often seems to come after getting an abortion. Seeking some type of comfort for your trouble, especially back then, when going down to Tijuana was the most non-judgmental way to get one. It is in this way that Babitz gets to exert her culinary authority as she nonchalantly remarks, “The kind of chili… I’m talking about is L.A. chili. I’m not talking about what comes in a can or from Denny’s or even anything you get anywhere, say, for instance, in Mexico… I am also not talking about anything called Mexican that comes from North of Santa Barbara or South of San Diego–well, maybe Tijuana if you’ve just come out of an abortion and are famished, but really, the food in Tijuana is half-assed.”

Getting back to Janis again, she notes how the Mexican Catholic mothers flooding out of the church on a Sunday dress their little girls like “floated camellias, angels.” And how “a Janis Joplin could have gone down to look at the camellia angels, eaten taquitos and drunk Dos Equis beer. She used to like Dos Equis. I saw her drinking it at Barney’s Beanery more than once.” Yes, how hipster haven-esque indeed to think of Janis amid this setting described by Babitz. In addition to picturing Janis drinking at Barney’s Beanery. After a few more digressions, Babitz gets to the heart of the matter: the best taquito stand (a hand-drawn map is provided for how to get to it, and there is still a taquito stand in this spot to this day, even if not the same exact one). And how they prepare them. Again, this was at a time when Latino/Hispanic culture wasn’t deemed profitable by the suits, so Babitz was speaking in a manner that comes across as mildly patronizing now as she explains, “Carnitas for taquitos are Mexican beef pieces of such loveliness and unimaginable perfection that I can’t really tell you about it except to say that once in a time of blind dismissal of fitness, I bought two pounds down in a Mexican butcher shop down past the railroad tracks.”

Babitz even has the perfect hipster-ified route for one to take in order to get to the taquitos stand. She doesn’t want you to use the most “effective” directions, oh no. She wants you to really see some of “the other” L.A. and take your time with the process of arriving, for that’s half the desirability of the delicacy: the buildup to getting it. So it is that she recommends, “a leisurely drive down Sunset. Most people would take the freeway, but that’s a little too coldhearted. I mean, taking the freeway when you’re on your way to get a taquito for 45 cents is like taking a jet to go visit your cat, the texture’s all wrong… The convenient freeway. It’s for you if you don’t want to know about anything, you just want to get there.” She delivers another coup de grâce at Janis’ poor decision-making upon adding, “Maybe you should stay in your motel and shoot up and get there once and for all.” 

Yet, in the end, Babitz doesn’t take her time at all about the taquitos, overcome with the gorging gluttony of so many gentrifiers that would succeed her. She gets hypnotized like Aladdin and Abu in the Cave of Wonders and, before she knows it, “I’d eaten the whole first taquito before I’d even gotten across the street. My fingers were dripping with extra sauce in which they put green chilis and I don’t know what else, maybe there’s cinnamon in it or something… I did the thing with the guy about parking money, which took time, so I’d gotten halfway through the second and last taquito before I was there in my car ready to sit down and eat the taquitos, which was the original plan.”

As Janis’ original plan had been to receive her fiancé, Seth Morgan, and friend, Peggy Caserta, at the Landmark Motor Hotel that weekend of her death. But the fragility triggered by being rejected without warning set her off, for neither of them showed up or gave her an indication that they wouldn’t. Babitz was and is of a more hardened stock, perhaps. Or maybe writing makes it easier to channel sentiment and gain strength from emotional pain than being a rock n’ roll legend at twenty-seven. Whatever the reason, something tells one that taquitos would not have been enough to keep Janis from going back to her hotel and shooting up anyway. Drugs are so much more filling to addicts than actual food. 

Still, Babitz makes her case for engaging in the gentrifying hipster practices that have become most people’s norm, particularly in major cities like Los Angeles. It’s only rather unfortunate that Babitz, as an L.A. Woman, had to be glommed onto by “Brooklyn fairy tale” Girls in a roundabout fashion when Zosia Mamet hosted a panel for NYPL in celebration of Black Swans’ re-release back in ‘18. And even more undesirable that Babitz shares the same birthday, May 13th, as Lena Dunham, the self-declared “spokesperson” for the millennial generation who has been compared stylistically to Babitz in TV form for her “unrepentant” self-consumption. But gentrifying in New York was always more obvious than the less patently hostile ways it happens in L.A. Maybe that’s what makes it easier for people like Babitz to get away with. It’s “honoring” not “appropriating,” as is the new dismissive way to handle criticism. 

A final moment at the end of her lurid tale of taquitos on a Sunday morning points to her viewing the “landmark” as just another place for “her kind” to take a safari when she wants to escape the quotidian. As she contents herself with licking the plate and its residual sauce like an animal in the parking lot, she notices “a little black kid” staring at her. Because of course we must mention his couleur. “He’d been standing behind the trash can and he’d probably even seen me torn between handing the parking guy the change and balancing the plate. He looked faintly horrified. ‘Taquitos,’ I explained. ‘Right.’ He understood at last.” But did he? The fact that Babitz is projecting her own ideas of what he might be feeling or thinking onto him is indicative of one of the many reasons why racial divides still exist today. And more than likely, her self-involvement is so profound in this scenario, that the boy might not have even been really looking at or thinking about her at all. That this is embedded into a story about Babitz’s “take” on “Mexican culture” only heightens the retrospective difficulty of stomaching the text (no pun intended). 

And in the end, with the present climate of whites being asked to carefully consider every usually careless action they make, we must ask: is Babitz’s taquitos “exposé” ultimately “helpful” or “co-optive”? Shouldn’t someone who was actually Mexican have been permitted the platform for writing about taquitos and shedding light on their goodness, should they be so inclined? This goes for Anthony Bourdain’s “food unveilings” as well, though he flies under the radar for being a revered and beloved white man dressing up his fervor for food in travel… now especially unbesmirchable because he killed himself. But the fact that there is an intricate memoir-like short story about getting taquitos on a Sunday is itself a definition of white privilege that would never be bestowed upon a Latino or Hispanic writer.

Yet, can Babitz be fully begrudged for what amounts to an angered obituary at Janis Joplin for leaving us so foolishly so soon (a fetish for self-destruction possibly being the whitest privilege of them all)? An approach to writing a “creative obit” that also smacks of some hipster-inspired experimentation.

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