Main Street Mashup

My friend Vince’s sister-in-law Amelia runs a coffee shop in Santa Monica with her husband and son. Amelia hails from New England – Haverhill, Massachusetts – not far from Newburyport, where some of my wife’s family is from. I’m always quick to play the Newburyport card because I know New Englanders are a tight-knit bunch and it usually ignites the conversation.

One of the Yelp reviews of Amelia’s reads “Service is excellent and Amelia is a doll.” I showed it to her, eliciting a nervous smile; don’t know if she wasn’t moved by it or just being modest. Vince is married to Amelia’s sister Rosmarie, and Saturday mornings you’ll find most of the clan sitting on the patio outside Amelia’s Coffee & Paninis under an umbrella sipping strong coffee from big white cups and chatting about everything but southern California. I feel like I’ve hit the mother lode of authenticity.

Anyway, chatter is the universal currency here; if you have the gift of gab you’ll fit right in. But it’s not intimidating; there’s an easy, unassuming flow to the conversation.

“You just missed Michael Keaton,” says Vince. “Sat right over there. Comes here often.”

Joining Vince this morning is Jon Peretti. I picture them as “running buddies” – meaning they “run” together in a very figurative sense, not literal. The “I got your back, you got mine” kind of thing. Jon is a wiry guy, balding, sporting a day’s stubble and piercing blue eyes.

We talk about Italian surnames. I tell them my family is from northern Italy and Jon is familiar with the town. His people are from Naples. We discuss complexion – Vince having light complexion like me even though he’s also Italian.

“My father was black. Just black,” says Jon.

“Yeah, my dad had a pretty dark complexion,” I say. “He would tan at the drop of a hat. Me, I burn first.”

Jon is writing a book and currently wrestling with his new Apple laptop.

“Every time I do spell check, Word crashes,” he says. “And don’t get me started on the white palace.”

He’s referring to the Apple store, where he’s had an underwhelming if not frustrating customer experience.

“I just want to talk to someone, so I say ‘I’d like to talk to someone about my drive’ and the guy tells me I have to make an appointment,” he laments. “I can see a guy about ten feet away, so why can’t I just walk up to him and ask him? ‘You wouldn’t just walk into a dentist’s office and ask to see the dentist’, the guy says to me. ‘Let’s check the calendar and see when there’s an opening.’”

Clearly, you don’t want to cross Jon Peretti when he’s having computer trouble.

“Were they condescending?” I ask, referring to the associates at the Genius Bar.

“No, not condescending exactly,” says Jon. “It’s like the first time I worked in Utah. You speak to someone and they’re smiling and nodding at what you say but I can wave my hand in front of their face and their expression doesn’t change.”

For the next few minutes, Vince tries to troubleshoot Jon’s Mac as Jon continues to complain. I interject that I’m no devotee of Apple and have heard the new iPhone isn’t all that.

It takes me awhile to figure out Jon is originally from New York and has a pad of some sort in Kyoto, Japan. I picture an efficient little apartment, given how land there is at a premium. Soon Jon’s wife, Anya, and one of their two-year-old twins show up. The little girl’s name is Yakura. The boy is asleep in the car. Anya’s mother is also with them. Anya grew up in Lithuania, yet she talks like she’s from Long Island. Dropped r’s and stuff like that. So fricking charming.

“Anya, she makes up words half the time,” Jon says, playfully. “She’ll be going along, talking, then out comes something and I’ll say ‘what did you just say?’”

Anya, probably 15 years younger than her husband, takes it all in stride, immune to the good-natured ribbing.

They’re all precious, and I allow myself to imagine we’re sitting at a sidewalk cafĂ© in Tribeca or SoHo – not Santa Monica. While Yakura munches a croissant and wanders over into the grass, Vince announces that I’m originally from Missouri. This gets Jon’s attention because his youth weightlifting team will be competing in a national tournament in Missouri the following summer. Exactly where, he’s not sure.

“Bet it will be hot in July,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I have memories of my daughter playing AAU basketball tournaments in places like Springfield, Missouri and Kingsport, Tennessee in the middle of summer. At least you’re in an air conditioned gym.”

Being from the Midwest brings curiosity. People I’ve encountered just don’t spend much time thinking about anything beyond the California state line. Think about it. California has 38 million residents. It has ocean, mountains, desert, cities large and small and every climate imaginable. A nation unto itself. Why would you need anyplace or anything else in your life? I share this carefully considered opinion with Jon and Vince and they can see the wisdom. On the other hand, I assert, Midwesterners are fascinated with the world around them. Probably because we’re in middle of the country and we look to the East or West with a kind of wide-eyed awe, partly for pleasure, partly out of a sense of wanderlust.

“You can look in all directions from there,” says Jon, in between sips.

He’s right, and it speaks to the fascination I’ve always had with southern California. It’s not the Midwest. It’s something different, almost mystical. Now, I find myself embracing it.  Assimilation will help me study the natives more effectively. I took great pride in affixing California plates to my car and getting my driver’s license in the mail. Now, if I accidentally cut someone off in traffic or find myself awkwardly trying to extricate my car from a dead-end street bearing California plates, it’s somehow not as egregious or embarrassing as with out-of-state plates.

“Hmm, must be from over the mountain, doesn’t know the neighborhood,” they’ll say to themselves. You get more slack being from West Covina than being from West Plains.

By now Vince has phoned a colleague at work to ask for Apple advice. Vince would go to the end of the earth to help you with a problem. Soon, he’s commandeered Jon’s laptop and starts fiddling with it. At this point, I zone out on their diagnostics and turn my attention to Anya.

“Does he let you read what he’s writing?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” she says. “He reads aloud to me sometimes.”

I leave it at that. While I’m sort of curious what the book is about, my Midwestern restraint prevents me from going “all in” and asking more probing questions. After all, it could be a memoir about something very personal and private. Don’t let the weightlifting thing fool you, I tell myself. This guy could be deep.

With the exception of Vince, these people are about as California as I am. Vince has lived in Los Angeles since he was 10, his Italian family having emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. He has a slight accent that you’d peg as “something Mediterranean,” almost Hispanic sounding at times. What’s beautiful about Vince is he is his own guy. Doesn’t follow others or adhere to fads. He’s as unique as his accent. Broad-shouldered, greying mustache, an ever-present twinkle in his eye. I took to Vince immediately while on a consulting gig at a local defense contractor. No matter the stress level around him, Vince can easily summon a smile and reassuring word. He’s worked for the same company for 30+ years and will retire with a good pension. For Vince, retirement is just two years away, and I can tell he’s relishing it. With two kids in school and one just graduated, Vince swells with pride over the job he and his wife have done as parents.

“My oldest just graduated, put her resume together and is applying for jobs. I don’t want to tell her how to go about it right away, so I’m giving her six months then I may insert myself.” he says with a wry, knowing smile.

He continues: “I did tell her ‘you just gotta get a job, any job. Just get started. You can’t be too picky.’”

Vince’s kids attend Catholic schools and I ask him about Loyola High, because I’ve seen lots of license plate frames that read LOYOLA HIGH, GO CUBS. A neighbor’s son goes there. Where is it? I ask. A back-and-forth ensues between Vince and Jon until they realize I’m referring to the high school, not Loyola Marymount University.

“Loyola High – the boys’ school – is in downtown. A tough part of town,” says Vince. “But it’s a good school. A lot of the boys from our parish go there.”

I had seen highlights of the Loyola football team the previous Friday night on KTLA, but I can’t remember if they won or lost. The one thing I do remember is a tweet from an overzealous fan that was accidentally posted to the TV screen: JAMES SPANIER SUKS BALLS. GO ATA. Posted it to Facebook. Got tons of Likes.

I tell them my son graduated from another Loyola – the University in Chicago. Those Jesuits stick together, you know. Again, a reference to the Midwest (Chicago) and I never know how it will play in front of an L.A. crowd. Am I too sensitive or apologetic? After all, when meeting folks here, about the only reaction I’ve received so far regarding the Midwest is about the heat and humidity.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this cultural mashup for anything. It was time well spent.


It's the People

This blog is about human interactions and impressions. It isn’t a travel blog - an attempt to describe locations and landmarks in florid hyperbole. It's about one person’s encounter with a city that is expansive, often breathtaking and sometimes exasperating.

Of course, the risk of using such adjectives is they encourage hasty judgments and the drawing of shallow conclusions. While outsiders may characterize Los Angeles as shallow, I see it differently. Without a doubt, life can be hurried in Los Angeles, but beneath the veneer of brisk efficiency lies a complex city that warrants an unhurried and reflective examination. There are a multitude of layers here, and casual or cursory observations tend to perpetuate stereotypes and fail to do justice to the rich patina of personalities and places.
Some years ago I read Stephen Brook’s L.A. Days, L.A. Nights and couldn’t stop talking about it. Over lunch, at parties and sitting on the deck with my wife I would talk about how this book that I’d stumbled upon resonated with me. It was transformative and transcendental. Lying in bed at night and reading Brook’s work, I could picture the neighborhoods, hear the street sounds and smell the aroma of pork belly and chicken gizzards wafting from the Korean eatery just off Wilshire. This was my siren song, yet I had scant opportunity to succumb to the temptations of the City of Angels. The heart of this native Midwesterner longed to spend a lazy afternoon nursing a cup of coffee from Daily Grind while watching the world go by on Santa Monica’s colorful Main Street. But life’s events didn’t bring me to Los Angeles; I had few excuses to make the trip. Work and vacations always took me elsewhere – to some wonderful places, for sure – but the chance to truly experience LA? That remained a pipe dream for years.

By experiencing LA I mean living as a native or resident would live; not spending a weekend, sleeping in a hotel and visiting the only the locales inhabited by tourists. And just what or who is an LA native? Using the residents of our apartment building as an example, a standard definition upon which everyone can agree is elusive.
Here you have a reality TV producer originally from Rochester, New York, a roller derby queen, a trainer of service dogs, a comparative literature professor, a personal trainer to the stars (or so I’m told – never seen a celeb), several retired couples whose dossiers I have yet to fix, a young finance executive at a pharmaceutical firm and an extroverted landlady who hails from Glenview, Illinois. Some are native Californians, many are not. Each, I’m sure, would say they have had a rich experience living here. No two experiences are alike. The whole thing defies definition, if you ask me.

So, this is why I won’t attempt to capture the full spectrum of life of this entire metropolitan area. I won’t presume to represent this city in an exhaustive form. I write what I see with my eyes and know in my heart.
Each day within the boundaries of what many call The Southland has yielded experiences and encounters that could fill pages. It is a rich existence, for which I’m grateful. I’m not terribly extroverted (like my landlady) so I can only imagine what my days would be like were I chatting up everyone I meet. Yet, I’ve always savored the art of inquiry; that’s the journalist in me.

Example: The sofa we brought with us was too large for our cozy apartment, so we sold it on Craigslist to a charming young couple returning to the area after a stint in Portland. One day while walking to the hardware store I came upon an antique furniture store on Lincoln Blvd. called Courtney’s. My intuition, which usually doesn’t fail me, led me to picture a confident, attractive woman named Courtney buzzing around the store, bouncing from one customer to another with an air of superiority. I stepped inside, saw the place was barely half full of merchandise and eerily quiet. 

Approaching the back room I found a rather short, unassuming middle-aged man and another man fussing with an overstuffed armchair for a photo shoot. The middle-aged guy was Courtney. Mike Courtney, owner of Courtney’s. I told him I was looking for a sofa, attempted to describe our requirements and somehow found myself engaged in a fascinating conversation about the history of the store and Mike’s business prospects. Turns out Mike was being compensated to vacate his property to make way for the construction of luxury apartments – this being Santa Monica’s trendy downtown and a magnet for young, hip urbanites. For the time being, Mike planned to conduct his business online – selling to the “trade”, as he says: movie and TV set designers. In time he would look for a new property that would hopefully be more affordable.
I can’t remember how we abandoned the discussion of my sofa and got on the subject of Mike’s great uncle. Mike’s uncle was a cardinal, buried, in fact, at Notre Dame University. You a Notre Dame fan, he asked. No, I said. (In fact, I used to despise Notre Dame as a child – for no good reason – and bet against them every year in the family bowl game pool.)

“My uncle was a real character,” said Mike. “You’ll never guess who he was best friends with.”
I couldn’t begin to imagine, although for the sake of playing along I probably said something like “Bing Crosby.”

“Nope. And I’m kind of embarrassed to say. J. Edgar Hoover.”
“Wowww, no kidding?”

“I’m a gay man, and you know what they said about Hoover,” he said, with a wink. “So I’m wondering. Did he and my uncle have some kind of …” the voice trailing off but I knew where he was going.
The last couple of minutes of this conversational thread dealt with something about Hoover sending the FBI trainees through Notre Dame and how Mike’s great uncle was an operative in all of this.

This was not what I expected to find inside Courtney’s. I’ll probably never see Mike Courtney again, but that chance encounter made a memory. I could have had that encounter in Chicago or Philadelphia or Albany instead of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. When you think of LA, Mike Courtney doesn’t immediately spring to mind.
Guess there's no such thing as a typical Angeleno.