L.A. Stories


Was It Something I said?
Pete's coffee on Montana Ave. Santa Monica, Ca


  On my morning constitutional, I walked into Pete's coffee house for a stiff cup-of-Jo. From the eyes of an unsuspecting passerby, this location would seem like just another one of the many coffee joints taking over the corners of our neighborhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world hidden within would validate the words to Jim Morrison’s hit song, People Are Strange.

The aroma of roasting beans smelled like heaven. I wanted to crush those beans into a fine powder and snort them through a golden straw.  I might have started drooling from the corners of my mouth had it not been for my noticing the odd behavior of the employees.

Employees: dressed in street garb right out of an Urban Outfitters catalog, they looked like throw backs from the grunge days.  They behaved in a deliberately nonchalant way. Was I slipping into a hallucinogenic coffee thirst or did they seem to be pretentious about not being pretentious?  “My god, I'm in San Francisco”, I thought to myself.   They also had an (what must be a conditional skill of employment) annoying habit of flipping the hair out of their eyes while taking your coffee order. Weird and annoying.
The further up in line I moved, the spookier my observations became. I could see some of the employees mouthing the words to their routine customer's order, before he or she had a chance to complete it on their own. “Large, skim chia latte with three sprinkles not four”. I wanted to turn around and run , but my olfactory senses and morbid  curiosity were operating the rest of my body so I stayed to watch the show.  

Minutes away from the front of the line, I began to scan the world around me, and what I observed made my skin crawl.
 

The customers: The interaction of the patrons was disgusting at best.  A group of 50 somethings, spread throughout the store (inside and out), were trying to create their own version of  "The Breakfast Club".  There's a distinct air of familiarity at this location...some would call it bullshit; I call it ageing upper-class Santa Monica.
Oversize baby strollers littered the walkway in front of the shop. These monstrosities, containing only one child, were straight out of a South Park parody and were never out of the arms length of their captains‘. The herd of over caffeinated Santa Monicans sat greedily slurping down their designer coffee drinks while flexing their aging muscle sinew.  They talked about the “upcoming triathlon”, “the office” or “carpooling”.  
 

I had seconds to take in the rest of the show before it was my turn to place an order for some over sugared  moca-monstrocity. Giving up the ghost, I did a 360 degree turn to see how these people were reacting to nature and the general world around them.
 

Employees
: The employees seemed to navigate their way behind the counter without incident. Breezing past each other on “their side” of the counter never looked easier. The barista intensifies her gaze at the six-million dollar coffee machine as she searched for the perfect froth consistency on a customer’s cappuccino. It's just another day at the shop for them.

The Customers
:  With one exception, the customers reacted to their surroundings with familiarity.  The noise of a traffic congested Montana Ave didn't seem to faze any of them so long as their coffee is  hot and they had someone to peacock with. It was hard for me to gauge their reaction to nature because the grass in the surrounding patches of median were artificial.  I think they must have been proud because there were small signs exclaiming “These Grasses are brought to you by recycled paper”. The exception I mentioned earlier was about how they reacted to objects. I was that object. God forbid  that a slightly flamboyant  thirty-something, sporting black hair and a pink oxford  decides to grab a cup-of-Joe there. I was an outsider and they had pitchforks in the  form of rolling eyeballs. For a second or two, I swear I could actually hear them rolling.  
     It was my turn at the counter and by god I wasn't going to screw this up. I wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible while still leaving an impression on these Children of the Corn, so I opted to forgo the coffee-shop-lingo during the ordering process and instead said “A large coffee, black as you can make it please.” The orderly behind the counter gave me a sideways glance, and time it's self seemed to stand still.  “What? it's the only thing for a whiskey hangover” I said. Viola! A social pariah was born!
Maybe it was my bulging eyes or my trembling hands that gave me away, but in any case these people could tell that I was voyeurising their world.  Sensing this, I gingerly took my coffee, about-faced and exited the store.  While Walking down Montana avenue (and periodically looking over my shoulder) I mouthed the words to “People Are Strange”. Just another day at the zoo.



Westlake À La Mode


             I like the Westlake/MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles, it makes me feel like I’m in Tijuana.  Every food and goods vendor imaginable is usually setting up their curbside shop on the east side of Alvarado and by 6am, their goods which range from shopping cart-tacos, to fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh cut fruit, prepaid phone cards, cigarettes, shoes and socks are perfectly displayed.  Amongst the hustle and bustle of foot traffic on these sidewalks is usually a transient looking Christian squawking the message of salvation through a megaphone.  Street hustlers in front of the subway entrance proudly arrange their pirated DVDs on a baby blanket or towel. The backdrop against which all of this is taking place are fairly well known businesses like McDonalds, the historic Westlake theater, the famous Jewish deli Langers, and the original Tommy burger. They seem to thrive from the street vending culture taking place just outside their doors.  If you take a peek through the front window of any of these businesses, you’ll see that most everyone inside has a small bag in their hand full of items they’ve just procured from the sidewalk outside.  There’s a synergy between these two cultures. It feels almost exactly like what you experience when you are waiting in the checkout line at a grocery store. The magazines, candy, gum, batteries, throat lozenges, endless variations of gift cards and other stuff you probably wouldn’t make a point of buying, but do just because they are lining the wracks in front of your face. The magic of L.A. is displayed on the door steps of these businesses and being picked through by the patrons waiting in line for their Big Macs or deli breakfasts.

This morning I was walking through MacArthur Park; I do this when I need to get out of the Korea town environment. I had just walked out of the tunnel running under Wilshire Blvd that connects the two hemispheres of this park, and was strolling along the sidewalk when I saw a group of people setting up for what looked like what was going to be a rather large party.  In the center was a large stage in front of which sat rows of tables and chairs all decorated with white streamers and table cloths. Beautiful dark haired Mexican women were busily decorating the tables with balloons and toy sized piñatas. Following behind them were older women doting over each detail. They aligned forks and knives, fixed place mats and rubbed spots off of plastic champagne glasses. A few of them turned the floral center pieces just so that each guest had the best possible view of flowers. Every detail it seemed was being accounted for.
I found a nearby park bench and sat down so that I could watch.

To the right of the main stage and kind of in the back ground, 3 young latino men were setting up a county-fair sized BBQ. It was 2 fifty-gallon drums cut in half to produce 4 grilling surfaces. One of the young men was in charge of stoking the fire in the charcoal and the other, it looked like was doing the actual setting up of the grills. They were being supervised by an older man wearing a cowboy hat; probably the grandfather or uncle I thought to myself.  He charismatically pointed and waved his arms in this direction or that.

 When I saw the cake being brought out of a delivery van, I knew this was no simple birthday party.  This was a serious event. The cake was so big that it took four men to carefully move it to its own stage sitting just off to the left of the main one. It was exquisite!  The cake was snow white and had five-tiers in the center. Flanking each side were a series of two-storied tiers that were decorated with the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen on a cake; Lilies, daisies and roses.  This cake was fit for a queen.  While each platform and tier of the cake were carefully being arranged into place, two older Mexican women appeared out of nowhere and begun hovering around the commotion with paper fans in their hands. Every so often one of them would swat the air with their fan. It took me a few moments of running through all the possibilities of what they could be doing including things like Mexican fan dance or some indigenous form of communication before I understood their purpose. These two old ladies were keeping flies and insects away from the cake.  It was really something to watch them standing so sentinel. A swat here and a swat there! These two crones could put bug zappers out of business for good.

About that time I observed two men climbing the scaffolding that flanked the main stage. They were toeing a line connected to a very large banner.  There were two more men on the ground holding the banner while it was carefully being raised and fixed into place.  The sign read “Maria’s Quinceanera Spectacular”, a very broad smile crept over my face when I realized what was happening. A Quinceanera is the fifteenth birthday celebration that marks the transition from childhood to young womanhood in the lives of Latin American woman.  The Quinceanera party is a family tradition among these people which is said to date all the way back to the time of the Aztecs, approximately 500BC. This ritual is a very special time in the lives of these young women and I am a sucker for family ritual. I sat on that park bench and let my mind drift off into memory, recalling some of my favorite family traditions.
 Making Ice cream on the porch of grandpa's Kansas farm house, church every Sunday morning and night, decorating the tree every Christmas, dancing around the May Pole every spring in Hawaii, and on and on the memories flowed.
I crossed Alvarado Street with Angelino pride swelling in my heart. Before disappearing down the escalator into the subway tunnel, I glanced back over my shoulder for a final look at the Quinceanera. A tear rolled down my cheek “You go girl”  I thought to myself.


When McDonald's Is Better Than The French Laundry


Welcome to Los Angeles, the only city in the U.S. that carries a crown for being most culturally diverse. People from every corner of the Earth (and sometimes neighboring planets) are represented here in this great Comal.
About four years ago, in protest of sky rocketing gas prices, exorbitant DMV fees and a war I did not want to fund, I gave up driving. Yep, I sold my car and said so long to the stresses of road rage for good. Not only was I rolling around in the notion that I had done a good deed for humanity, I was also excited about finally being able to connect with this great city of mine. The reward seemed endless. I would exercise more due to walking everywhere, I’d finally be able to check out the Mom and Pap eateries that I would only catch a glimpse of while driving hurriedly to and fro, I’d save a shit-ton [in L.A. “shit-ton” is a real measurement] of money on gas and operation costs, and because of these rewards my stress levels would drop and I would finally have time to stop and smell the roses.

When I say stop and smell the roses, what I really mean is stopping long enough to observe the circus that is Los Angeles happening all around me.  No longer was I just another person scurrying about this megalopolis, ticking off items on my to-do list and blind to the goings on around me. Instead, I was now part of the city. Finally I was able to smell more than just the exhaust of cars ahead of me while we sat stuck in traffic. Now I smelled the smoky aromas of taco venders on every corner, the delicious fatty bacon-wrapped hot dogs being pushed through the streets, roses, champurrado and dreams coming true made my olfactory senses dance for the first time in two decades. Finally I was a thread in this Angelic Huipil and as a consequence, I was forced into close contact with all the other threads and their curious ways.
The following is a conversation I had the pleasure of eves dropping on one Tuesday evening after a long day’s work and a very crowded bus ride home.

WARNING: the following is completely anticlimactic, but the particulars are worth at least a chuckle or two.

“Swoosh, beep, beep, beep” were the sounds that the wheelchair lift on the 720 bus made as it lowered to deposit the cities wheelchair citizens onto Wilshire Boulevard. I hurriedly exited out the back door, desperate for a breath of air that wasn’t mixed with Calvin Klein and arm pits.
I was tired, a little hungry and not quite wanting to go home. I just wanted to go somewhere to sit and munch while I processed the day’s events. Bingo! The Golden-Arches of Normandie and Wilshire came to the rescue again.

The McDonald’s of Normandie and Wilshire:  one of the well-known havens for this cities transient population and because of its close proximity to an “old folks home” also a destination for Korea town’s geriatric community.  I opened the  heavy glass doors and waded through a sea of old people while at the same time trying not to bump into the shopping carts belonging to the homeless men and women that were sat greedily sipping from their foam coffee cups. Finally at the counter, I was able to place my order with the overly-chipper teen behind it. “Small fries and a coke for here please”, I said.
After greedily snapping up my bounty of hot deliciousness, I looked around for a quiet place to sit and enjoy what I anticipated to be a party in my mouth. After a few minutes of scanning, I found what I was sure would be the perfect place; arms reach from two little old ladies.  I meekly sat and began to munch on one fry at a time. My intent on relishing each and every morsel was slowly being hijacked by the conversation taking place next to me.

The two blue haired women that sat next to me looked to be in their 80’s. That’s not really as observant as it sounds though, because this is Los Angeles, a city where even the oldest of the old would sell their soul to look just a few years younger…they could have been in their 100’s and no one would be the wiser. What really made me take notice of these two was not their appearance, but the conversation they were trying to have about how “retarded” people now-a-days are. What made this eavesdropping better than a five-course meal at The French Laundry was not so much the topic of conversation, but the source from which it came.

One of the women was very noticeably hearing impaired. It was a combination of the hearing aids attached to the crest of each of her ears and her yelling the word “What!” that gave her secret away.  The other woman looked normal enough. In fact she could have been anyone’s sweet little granny, if it were not for the noticeable speech impediment that is sometimes characteristic of a stroke victim. She slurred her speech worse than a drunken sailor, and too boot repeated each sentence twice before asking the question “you know what I mean” at an octave that would have made an angel blush.

I felt like I was in a John Waters movie. I looked around to see if anyone else was privy to this verbal cripple-fight I was greedily enjoying. Just then a tiny bit of anxiety crept into my mind and weather from fear that someone around me would point a finger during the exact moment I had a half-eaten French fry dangling from my mouth to say “look at that monster, he’s laughing at the handicapped” or whether it was out of genuine politeness I’m not sure, but I slowly diverted my eyes to the task in front of me and only pretended to fain interest, so as not to let anyone see that I was actually hanging on their every word.
Five more minutes passed. I was nearing my last crispy and delicious alibi.  I couldn't take it! I was thoroughly entertained and no longer cared about the consequences of my voyeuring, I craned my ears toward them for a closer listen.

The ladies were agitated and discussing their extreme displeasure with the less than enthusiastic Latino that serviced them at the counter. Apparently there was an order mix-up. The teen behind the counter (understandably) could not clearly hear what it was the ladies were trying to order.  Today was Friday, and being good Catholics they dutifully ordered the fillet-O-fish but somewhere in the translation the counter teen heard the word burger, and that is what the ladies; to their extreme disgust discovered they had been given.

Finally, mad as a hornet, speech –challenged grandma threw her arms up into the air and exclaimed “Aeeey gust can’t undershhhtand why feeeople are soo damn re..cc..carded deeeze days”. She said this exactly twice followed by the question “yur knowwww quat I meanzzz?”
“WHAT?” yelled hearing-challenged grandma.

There are certain events that take place while living in a city, like a car wreck or a parking lot fist fight that one wants to stick around to watch but knows that he/she shouldn’t. This was one of those times and I knew I had to leave. Besides, if these two ladies got any funnier I was going to pee myself. I gathered my belongings and quietly pushed through the heavy glass doors. Once outside I freely gave cigarettes to the transients loitering outside. The war-torn and city-weary look on my face was now replaced with a quiet smile and an exaggerated pep in my step.

I flashed back to days of affluence and remembered just how boring and uneventful the five star meals were in comparison to tonight's .59cent bag of McDonald’s fries. A broad smile crept across my face and I began the long walk home.

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