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Mean emails, tongue-twisters and fun interviews: Reflecting on this newsletter, six months in

The Los Angeles Times building

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Dec. 8. I’m Justin Ray.

This week marked six months since I took this position writing this daily newsletter. I thought I would let you all see a little bit behind the curtain.

When I wrote my first note to you all, I received hundreds of warm messages. About a quarter of them included dead frog stories (who knew so many people had sad toad tales). The months that followed were a roller coaster. Since I took over Essential California in June, so much has happened: There was a recall election, an oil spill and a new COVID-19 variant. I’ve had three editors and countless interactions with reporters at The Times and other outlets. But the best part of my job has to be talking to people I wouldn’t normally encounter.

I enjoyed chatting with the teacher who stopped a stabbing attack at a school. An in-depth conversation about the sad reality of being a veterinarian during the pandemic became my most-read story on The Times’ site. I thoroughly enjoyed a talk with the cofounder of a nonprofit bringing awareness to missing people of color. I also learned a lot from the head of an atheist organization about “religious nationalism.”

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Oddly enough, finding something to write about every day is easy. That’s because California is dramatic. Our politics can be shady. Climate change means the environment is evolving. Cryptocurrency companies buy arenas. Also, pandemic!

This truly has been the best job of my life. I get to choose every topic. I have been able to write honestly, even about this institution. I have even gotten away with putting in tongue twisters (e.g., “a brief breakdown to bust through the booster babble,” “the clam community’s crash created a calamity”).

The hardest part of my job has to be reading comments. Readers themselves find new ways to tell me I’m garbage every day. I’ve been accused of being anti-white. I’ve been accused of being anti-Black. Someone told me I was trying to start a race war (I mean, I can’t even make breakfast for myself reliably each week). I’ve responded to four comments; three people apologized. One wouldn’t.

But don’t feel bad for me; I’m a gay Black man who grew up in the Midwest, I’ve survived much worse. But more importantly, I have also received so many positive notes. When I discussed my mental health struggles during the pandemic, I received a flood of support that helped me keep going. And even if you don’t send a note, it means so much to me that you cared enough to read what I wrote. Thank you.

I have a lot in store for you in the future and I hope you keep tuning in. Or don’t — I don’t run your life. But this newsletter is free, so why not? I deliver daring, delectable dispatches daily.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

These are the best restaurants in L.A. The Times is out with a list of Los Angeles’ best eateries. Our compilation includes an interactive map, photos and descriptions so you know exactly what you’re in for should you hit up these restaurants. “Whether you’re picking up takeout or settling in at a crowded counter, remember to treat those who feed us in these unprecedented times with kindness and patience. And welcome back to the table,” restaurant critic Bill Addison writes. Los Angeles Times

Southern California is one of the world’s most exciting places to eat.
(Illustration by Luke Lucas / For The Times; photography by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Angelenos closest to the homelessness crisis urge compassion. A new poll of Los Angeles County voters found that although Latino and Black respondents were the most likely to have either experienced homelessness or housing insecurity in the last year or to have known someone who had, they were also more optimistic about solving homelessness than their white and Asian American counterparts. Emblematic of that finding is Los Angeles residents of color who are advocating and helping unhoused people in the city. “When we talk about the population of homeless in skid row and the amount of the homeless that are people of color, you’ve got to understand this — it’s a direct relationship to the lack of opportunity that is there for people in L.A.,” said Shirley Raines, founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, a nonprofit that provides hot meals and makeovers to people on skid row. Los Angeles Times

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If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll love our daily podcast “The Times,” hosted every weekday by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Go beyond the headlines. Download and listen on our App, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

California failed to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke under Biden’s new OSHA chief. President Biden’s pick to lead the nation’s worker health and safety efforts was largely ineffective in his previous job enforcing protections for California outdoor workers exposed to toxic wildfire smoke, according to an investigation by KQED and the California Newsroom. As the state faced its largest wildfire seasons on record, employers were required to take steps to prevent millions of outdoor workers from breathing harmful levels of smoke. But under the leadership of Douglas Parker, the California agency tasked with enforcing the smoke regulations rarely penalized employers for breaking the rules. In interviews, vulnerable workers in the state reported they labored in heavy smoke without any of the required safeguards.KQED

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to finalize its new set of council district maps for the next 10 years, bringing a quiet end to a frequently contentious redistricting process. On a 13-0 vote, council members approved a redistricting ordinance that places Koreatown in a single council district, reworks political boundaries in the San Fernando Valley and ensures that USC and Exposition Park remain in the South Los Angeles district represented by Councilman Curren Price. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Human head found in Bay Area leads to grisly guillotine scene. An investigation that began after the discovery of a human skull hidden in the bushes of a Santa Rosa residence in March has led authorities to deduce that a man took his own life with a makeshift guillotine. After dying by suicide, the man — identified as Robert Enger — was allegedly beheaded by another male who authorities say moved into his home. Robert Melvin Ross III pleaded no contest to a felony charge of possession of a memento of human remains, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported. “There is a lot of methamphetamine use involved in this story,” Sonoma County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matthew Hubley told the Press Democrat. San Francisco Chronicle

Police swarm house due to a fake 911 call. I once again present to you a podcast episode. This one, called “Darknet Diaries,” is about cybersecurity. Host Jack Rhysider talks to professionals in the field about subjects such as how they detected hackers, or how people can keep their information and gadgets safe. He also talks to people about the cybercrimes they were caught for. In this episode, a man explains how a person made a disturbing call to 911 in a small Northern California town. This made a sea of authorities come to his house, leading to a tense standoff. The practice of making such 911 calls is called swatting. But why would someone do this to the man? Because he has a valuable two-letter Instagram handle. But warning, this episode gets heavy. Darknet Diaries

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Mom says son vaccinated in exchange for pizza at LAUSD without her consent. Maribel Duarte says her 13-year-old son, a student at the Barack Obama Global Prep Academy in South L.A., accepted a COVID-19 vaccine at school. She says the teen told her he got the shot when someone offered it to him in exchange for pizza. “The lady that gave him the shot and signed the paper told my son, ‘Please don’t say anything. I don’t want to get in trouble,’ ” Duarte said. LAUSD told NBC Los Angeles that student matters are confidential but did say its “safe schools to safe steps incentive program” is meant to ensure several steps are in place for vaccinated students to receive prizes. Duarte says she’s not against the vaccine and is vaccinated herself, but it’s different with her son. “He has problems with asthma and allergy problems,” she said. NBC Los Angeles

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Before Pearl Harbor, L.A. was home to thriving Japanese communities. Here’s what they were like. For the many thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast — among them U.S. citizens — Pearl Harbor’s “thereafter” meant being detained, dispossessed of property, and sent to incarceration camps. In 1941, about 36,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were living in and around Los Angeles, most of them within about five miles of Little Tokyo, the growing nucleus of the community for more than a half-century. Patt Morrison explains what the community was like in a column that includes interesting vintage photos. Los Angeles Times

How QAnon hijacked Hollywood to spread conspiracies. In the convoluted and often nonsensical world of QAnon, Hollywood plays a big role. The conspiracy theory has adopted images and phrases from works of entertainment. This has been upsetting to the writers behind them. “I would prefer to have my words kept in the context they were created for. Imposing unintended meaning on art, in this case, has been hurtful, and is untrue,” said screenwriter Todd Robinson. He wrote a catchy line for the 1996 movie “White Squall,” starring Jeff Bridges, that became the rallying cry of QAnon. Los Angeles Times

Illustration of a camera lens with a Q in the aperture.
“It’s terrifying. It’s weird,” said Kenneth Johnson, author and director of the 1983 miniseries “V.”
(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 65 San Diego: Here’s a cow sliding down a hill. 64 San Francisco: Cloudy 56 San Jose: Overcast 60 Fresno: 61 Sacramento: Cloudy 56

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Jack Haesly:

When I was a young boy about ten or eleven years old, I used to visit my grandfather in Santa Monica where he lived. He took me, and my sister, Doris, to all the great attractions the city of LA had to offer. That includes the farmer’s market, and of course, the wonderful Santa Monica pier where I spent many hours taking in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. Being from Dallas, one cannot even imagine how wonderful that was. To catch a fish from that pier... well, beyond wonder. One day while being on a discovery excursion at the Farmer’s Market, being a kid running unattended around the various booths of delight and magic, I ran into a jolly old man and knocked him flat on his posterior in my excitement. He looked at me, flashed a beautiful ear to ear grin, followed by laughter as I helped him to his feet. That man was Sidney Greenstreet. I was humiliated and apologetic to no end, and embarrassed to say the least. I am now 84 years old and the magic of Southern California, its people and wonders still resides in my aging heart. I am forever grateful.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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