Monday Night in Pasadena with Richard Pryor

Pasadena City Hall
An autumnal chill had descended on the foothill city. The breeze at my back, nudging me down Colorado Avenue, made me feel like I was back in the Midwest.

Students from Le Cordon Bleu shuffled to the bus stop and young adults in hoodies darted in and out of doorways. On one side of the street were splashy retailers and eateries with exotic names. On the other side, the merchants that have been around for years and survived volatile economies: a bridal shop, a school supply, a furniture store. A 20-something wearing a Stanford sweatshirt skipped mirthfully down the sidewalk, stopped abruptly, wheeled about and tore off in the other direction to the amusement of her male companion – giggling all the way.

Compared to Burbank and Glendale, Pasadena is old world and genteel. People project an easy confidence – not in a rush but living with purpose.

A clutch of women in their 50s emerged from Tender Greens, chirping in that tone that lets you know they’re having an intelligent conversation and you’re not included. They were on their way to Anne Lamott’s book talk at All Saints Episcopal Church.

A friend had recommended I visit the legendary Vroman’s Book Store. So, I hustled down the street with the November breeze at my back, wondering why I didn’t wear long pants on this chilly evening.

I came upon Vroman’s unexpectedly. First, you notice the warm and inviting coffee bar and don’t realize it’s part of the bookstore. Then, you come upon a series of shelves and displays on the sidewalk under the not-so-watchful eye of an attendant checking his phone.

I leaned into the double doors, stepped inside and found myself in what looked like an appliance store from the 1960s with its harsh fluorescent light, uneven, squeaky floors and general lack of charm. This is the brick-and-mortar bookstore that your parents remember, and while the model goes the way of the dinosaur, Vroman’s holds fast to tradition knowing its clientele treasures the touch of a book, the feeling you get when you flip a page. Staff members have penned handwritten notes recommending their favorite reads; you'll see them on practically every shelf.

I browsed the Fiction, leafing through Dave Eggers’ latest novel. Sauntered over to Music, where I became absorbed in the letters of the great Leonard Bernstein. He was somewhat controversial in his time and boy, did Jerome Robbins take him to the woodshed over his initial sketch of West Side Story! (It was nevertheless a collaboration made in heaven.)

My concentration was broken by an amplified voice: “Attention, Vroman’s customers. In just a few minutes, brothers David and Joe Henry will discuss their new biography of comedian Richard Pryor, Furious Cool. Please join us on the second level for their talk and book signing.”

Looks like my next hour is booked, I thought. After all, I had time to kill as Mary was at the aforementioned Anne Lamott talk up the street.

I mounted the stairs, snaked through the greeting card section and followed the sound of voices belonging to a well-heeled crowd of musicians, poets, actors, activists and showbiz people. Many were dressed in black or other muted, solid colors, mingling and chatting with an easy self-confidence. 

Joe Henry took the microphone and explained in an unassuming way that as kids he and his brother were mesmerized by old Richard Pryor concert footage. Years passed, but the flame continued to burn, so much that Joe wrote a song called Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation. (Note: Joe's a musician of considerable renown who has written, produced, played and sung with the likes of Aaron Neville, Loudon Wainwright III and Bonnie Raitt.) As he told it that night, Disney, which owned the label on which the song was to appear, asked him to get Pryor’s permission. Pryor and his wife dug the song and asked Henry if he would write a screenplay about Pryor’s life. So, Joe summoned his writer brother (whom he admitted is far more meticulous about research) and they wrote a screenplay on spec.

Joe and David Henry sign copies of Furious Cool.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years of diligent work and little to show for it, the brothers were dropped from the project. Undaunted, they repurposed their work and turned it into a biography called Furious Cool.

Most people remember Richard Pryor from The Toy, Stir Crazy or Brewster’s Millions, forgettable films he made later in life. But that’s fool’s gold. The true gold lies in his standup performances from the 60s and 70s – a treasure trove of R-rated social commentary from the heart of a bitter man. How bitter? David Henry pointed out that Pryor’s mother was a prostitute and was raised by his grandmother, a formidable woman who didn’t hesitate to mete out abuse in the guise of punishment.
Whether you liked him or not, there’s no denying Richard Pryor spoke with a unique voice – bitter, brilliant, provocative. The Brothers Henry haven’t attempted to chronicle every seminal moment in Pryor’s life; rather, they set out to reveal what made him tick and explore his influences, from Lenny Bruce to Redd Foxx. Apparently, they’ve succeeded. Noted Joe: “Kirkus [Reviews] seems to hate everybody but they love us. So that’s something.”

I asked the brothers if they’re concerned Pryor will be lost on younger audiences and forgotten by future generations. Joe said he hopes Pryor is remembered for his off-the-wall, unrehearsed riffs onstage rather than scripted moments in bad movies. I guess it’s not the biographer’s job to promote his subject on the masses – but instead to put it out there and hope our children and grandchildren will discover Pryor on their own.

The destructive lifestyle caught up with Pryor, who famously set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. At the end of his life he was confined to a motor scooter and crippled by multiple sclerosis when Joe Henry visited him, bearing gifts of jazz CDs. While Pryor was barely able to speak at that point, Henry said he walked away from those encounters with an eerie feeling that entire conversations had taken place. And that’s sort of a metaphor for Pryor’s influence, which lives on in the work of David and Joe Henry. 


Backstreet Boys

The alley behind our building is nothing like the alleys I remember growing up in small town Missouri. Seward Street was our “alley,” a place to park the garbage cans and a way to sneak in the house past curfew.

6 ½, as I call it, features the usual generous array of trash and recycling containers, along with a continually changing and random collection of items people donate to the homeless: furniture, clothing, books and even record albums. (Where is a homeless person going to find a turntable?) They trek up and down these alleys at all hours, pulling their makeshift carts loaded to the hilt with bric-a-brac.

Most of the time I don’t hear them as they pass a mere 50 feet from our door – save the occasional hacking or coughing, which is a dead giveaway – and I’ve never seen one cutting through our breezeway to access Seventh Street.

Dog walkers, nannies and locals also use the alley, which is just wide enough for a car plus a human, so long as you dodge the trashcans. It’s truly the underbelly of the neighborhood, where you see the backside of the apartments, tiny balconies stuffed with the oddest assortments of furniture and household items, and neighbors unloading groceries.      

Since parking is at a premium, people will sometimes pull into the alley, get out and wipe down their cars. The other day, while toting some recycling, I walked past this guy polishing a beautiful European sedan, all dreamy with its dazzling wheels, gleaming finish and plush interior.

I was about to keep walking when he called out, “Is everything good today?”

“It sure is if you own that car,” I replied.

I sensed he was proud to tell me about his ride, a Jaguar, and wanting to take a break on this gorgeous, sun-splashed day, I asked him about it.

He opened the door, urged me to sit in the driver’s seat and take a gander at the instrumentation. I’d never sat in a Jaguar and now realized what I’ve been missing.

“Galpin screwed up the lease so I bought it off lease for 17,000. A steal,” he crowed.

“Put your foot on the brake and press that button,” he said. “No, that button.” Duh. I was like a gawky teenager trying to unhook a girl’s bra. Upon starting the engine, I noticed a circular knob arise from the center console like up, periscope! Then the air vents flipped open, jetting filtered air into the cabin.

Jerry Botham was his name – like Gotham with a B. Not the kind of guy you’d meet in a dark alley.

He was from St. Charles, Illinois – outside Chicago. I thought I detected an accent. Owns a plumbing and heating business. I’d seen his trucks around town.

“You must do a good repair business with all of these rental units around here,” I said.

“Nah, I avoid ‘em for the most part,” he replied. “I do more high-end. You know who’s taken this over?” he said, with a sweep of the hand to indicate the entire area, followed by a furtive glance to either side as if someone were eavesdropping.


I cringed inside. So, we’ve got a racist on our hands, I thought. Ok, let’s see where he’s going with this.

“They come in here, do these jobs and screw them up, then I get a call to come fix up their mess.”

He proceeded to tell me he built Madonna’s house. Being a good listener and not gullible, I listened with great earnestness, hoping I was getting the straight scoop from the genuine article. But as I think back on our conversation now, who cares? Regardless of whether he was making things up or not, he was still just as colorful. Maybe more.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can be selective about my customers,” he boasted. “If I hear attitude on the phone, I say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’”

Jerry was about my height, receding blond hair parted in the middle, slight gut, sporting a t-shirt and jeans. His eyes had a dancing quality – indicating this is someone who’s alive and eager to see what each new day will bring. Had maybe a day or two of beard on him. Would look right at home in a Bears jacket sitting on a stool at Mother’s on Division, I imagined.

He told me he’s 64, and like most guys bearing down on the twilight years, we talked about growing old.

“I’m trying to turn back the clock,” I said. “Living here has been good for my health and my outlook.”

Jerry agreed, having lived here since 1968. His philosophy? Don’t ever buy into the fact that you’re old or you’re gonna get beat by that guy who’s 35. Then, he gave a little demonstration that has stuck with me for days.

“It’s all in the body language,” he said, purposely slumping his shoulders. “You can’t walk around like this," he said as he hung his head and affected a nasal-y twang.

“You gotta come on like this,” planting his feet shoulder width apart, throwing his head back, squaring his shoulders. Then, as part of the act, he exclaimed, as if to a customer, “I’m gonna help you through this.”

It was a simple demonstration – kinda campy, but truly palpable. In that moment I saw the sheer force of a positive, assertive posture and how it can foster success.

So what if the guy was kinda full of himself? He reminded me of something very important in that one, fleeting moment: your attitude shows in the way you carry yourself, and people pick up on that. These are lessons you won’t learn in school or in the boardroom.

Here was a plain-talking guy, a self-made man, just polishing his Jag in the alley on a beautiful day. No big deal.

As the conversation turned to the differences between the Midwest and California I bemoaned the fact that I’m paying to store some of the furniture we brought from Kansas.   

“That Korean girl has some storage space down the alley,” he proffered. “Talk to her.”

Priscilla, our building’s owner, I thought. When I asked our landlady about this alleged storage space, she just laughed.

“In this neighborhood?” said Liz. “Are you kidding?”

Ok, maybe Jerry has a tendency to embellish, but he’s good theater. Not a bad encounter in an alley on a gorgeous Santa Monica day. 


Baked with National Pride

Willie and Shirley Douglas raised five boys near Koreatown. It was a hardscrabble existence – coming to LA from Jamaica by way of Florida and New York. Willie was an industrious guy. Always a self-starter, full of ambition. Got his Master’s in Sociology from Cal State-Dominguez Hills at night while building a property management business by day. Yep, apartments. Buying, fixing up, renting, flipping occasionally for a larger property.

It’s a long way from Ocho Rios, Jamaica to LA. But many have made the journey; there’s a significant Jamaican population here.

Willie's son Reginald wants to capitalize on our fascination with and love of things Jamaican. Having inherited his dad’s passion, Reginald crisscrosses the city in his bright blue Honda Civic, peddling a trunk full of wares. Tirelessly hawking his bagels, cream cheese and bagel chips with an uncommon flair and unwavering smile.

But these aren’t bagels, Reginald exclaims.

“They’re Jamagels,” he says, drawing out the word, as in “jahhh-MAYYY-gel.”
Reginald shows his wares from the trunk of his Honda.

Bagels infused with the flavors of Jamaica. Using spices like ginger, nutmeg, vanilla. Or pimento, cloves, allspice, garlic and onions. Or raisins, cinnamon and malt syrup. Six kinds of bagels and five flavors of cream cheese – even one that’s Jerk flavored, with spice extracted from the Scotch bonnet pepper, found only the Caribbean.

This guy has found his calling. For years he was a graphic designer, selling t-shirts to retailers at trade shows. He’ll tell you custom t-shirts should have no more than two colors. Any more than two and they look … well, tacky. (My word. We’ve all owned a few of those.)

But the fashion biz started wearing thin.

“It’s always looking ahead a year and if you don’t have a fresh idea every three months, well …” Reginald says.

So, how did this second-generation Jamaican from central LA become interested in food?

“Because I’m a creative person,” he says. “My mind is constantly working. I went back and forth six or seven months on this idea. Should I do it or not?”

Then, like a true entrepreneur, he just did it. Started cold calling bakeries around town, pitching his idea. Would they be willing to test produce some bagels, mix different spices in them? Reginald got lots of rejection, but what entrepreneur isn’t used to rejection?

Finally, he found a baker willing to give his idea a shot. Brooklyn Bagels in downtown LA agreed to the plan, but it would be expensive. In order to get a reliable sample, they’d have to bake 13 dozen. If the first one wasn’t precisely right, they’d throw out the rest.

Lots of testing and tweaking and months later, Reginald gave birth to the Jamagel. Brooklyn Bakery has been making them for 2 ½ years.

The name Jamagel is trademarked. A combination of Jamaica and bagel, but “Jabagel” didn’t roll off the tongue, says Reginald. However, changing just one letter and he found the lyrical name that conjures images of swaying palm trees and crystal blue shores.

“When you say Jamaica, everyone loves Jamaica. Everyone loves Bob Marley. Even if they’ve never been there. So I said ‘How can I come up with a product that people will eat every single day?’ People eat bagels every single morning.”

True, with food, not much changes because we are creatures of habit. Reginald is hoping to tap into that. But first, you have to encourage trial.

So, like every good marketer, Reginald built a web site and a Facebook page and launched a Twitter account. He spends his day pitching locally-owned grocers and doing in-store demos. I met Reginald at Rainbow Acres in Marina del Rey one evening. Almost walked past him as he called out to me. But there was something about that infectious smile and attitude that brought me back. Reginald pitched, a little breathlessly, and I listened.

You know that feeling, when someone is trying to sell you something on the spot? You think, “what is this guy doing and what am I getting myself into?” That was me. I sampled some cream cheese, made mindless conversation, then said goodnight and walked to my car. Then, I doubled back, asked for his card and said I’d like to talk more about his little enterprise.

About a week later, we met for coffee. He had just come from a meeting that didn’t materialize. His appointment was a no-show. But Reginald doesn’t know disappointment and rejection, so he gladly sat with me, sipped ice water and told his story.

He said he’s the only person in his family with the food fascination.

“Jamaicans all know how to cook and cook for themselves so we usually don’t think of food as a commercial pursuit,” he said.

Reginald is looking for financing because, while several stores have bought his products, he has ambitious growth plans and has to pay that baker and the dairy that produces his cream cheese.

Several months ago I was having breakfast with a former Disney executive – talking about life and global issues and business.

“What’s the first thing you think when you think of California?” he asked me.

“Well, my opinion is, to be honest, I think it’s lost a step,” I said, referring to the sagging economy, unemployment and companies’ unwillingness to locate here because of taxes and regulation.

“Yes. But, California has something you won’t find anywhere else,” he countered.

And then, very eloquently, my friend described the budding creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that courses through the veins of the Golden State. It’s characterized by boldness, desire and an uncompromising belief in one’s ideas. Never giving up, always eager to wake up every morning and see what opportunities lie ahead.

This spirit is everywhere. You can’t deny it. I certainly found it in Reginald Douglas – the Jamagel Man.

As I waved goodbye and walked away, Reginald called to me: “Don’t have a good day. Don’t have a great day. Have a Jahhh-MAYY-gel day! See, I made you smile!”

Maybe, just maybe, this entrepreneur will make it work by winning people’s hearts and taste buds.

Best place to learn more or place an order is www.jamagel.com.


Pack Your Laptop and Get Out!

Awhile back I wrote about the coffee shop in Santa Monica that has no wi-fi by design.

Now I see in this story that some coffee shops are growing weary of the hobos who camp out all day.

Bad news for those of us who are out here on our own. Guess I'll be spending more time at my kitchen table and drinking my own coffee. 


Making Sense of "Social"

I’m going a little off topic today, but this is still in the category of observation.

How did you learn about the Asiana crash in San Francisco?

Were you on Twitter or Facebook? Did someone mention it during a phone call? Did someone yell it across the room?

Maybe you were watching TV and up popped a bulletin: Breaking News.

Watching the story unfold, I began to form an opinion of this chaotic method of information delivery we call social media.

First, anything is social media in my book. It’s social because we’re sharing information and sharing an experience. And it’s media because there has to be a channel through which the information flows – be it the aforementioned Twitter or television.

Here’s how I found out.

Russ Mitchell, a friend who’s a TV news anchor in Cleveland, posted a Facebook link to KTVU’s live streaming coverage. Not one who regularly watches streaming video on his laptop, I initially bypassed the KTVU link and instead Googled “San Francisco crash” and clicked through bulletins from newspaper web sites. It didn’t matter if the newspaper was in Boston or Baton Rouge or the Wall Street Journal – information is viral and location agnostic.

For the next hour, I searched Twitter using various hashtags – #sfo, #sfocrash, #sfoemergency – and followed the unfolding events through a chaotic series of 140-word blasts. The most arresting tweet was David Eun’s photo of the wreckage, taken minutes after he escaped the plane. Many of these amateur dispatches were speculative, but many were also sourced to various news media. I found myself sampling the early coverage from a broad array of web sites – many retransmitting Eun’s photo and duplicative information.

Fast forward about an hour. I wanted to catch the NTSB’s news conference so I went back and found the link to KTVU’s coverage. At this stage I was invested enough in the coverage to stream live video on my laptop. (Don’t ask me why but I’m averse to watching video on my Samsung Galaxy device.) Either I missed it or it had been postponed. Instead, San Francisco General was holding a media briefing and spokesperson Rachael Kagan was standing before the cameras. As befitting the risks of live TV, KTVU caught her giving a media-only phone number to assembled reporters, on which she promised to record patient updates throughout the evening. A minor error, considering no one at KTVU could possibly know Kagan was going to give the number.

As Kagan patiently answered questions about the conditions the crash victims and the hospital’s readiness to treat them, it occurred to me that I had now put my full faith in the abilities of the KTVU news department. No longer was I sampling via Twitter; I was submitting to a narrative of sorts, being led through the sequence of earlier events and current developments by an anchor in tie and shirtsleeves and a few reporters in the field.

And here’s the thing. It was all social. I was consuming bits of data and images provided by total strangers. I was relying on them to be my eyes and ears. I was even re-tweeting. I tweeted to my modest group of followers that the crash was commanding major attention and suggested they follow some variation of #sfo for the latest.

It occurred to me that when the big story breaks – a plane crash in San Francisco, Christopher Dorner’s “catch me if you can” with the LAPD or a California brush fire – this news consumer still finds value and places his trust in local television. Call me lazy, call me old-fashioned, but when I tire of Twitter or am looking for a different perspective, I still like to have TV thread it all together for me.

I commented on Russ’ post: “They’re doing a good job, IMO.” Minutes later, he agreed. “They really are!” Then someone commented “Us too.” It was Eric Thomas, an anchor at KGO, also in San Francisco. Then Russ posted a link to KGO’s coverage, to which Thomas replied “thanks man.” Some time later another poster thanked Thomas for bringing the story to viewers. Granted, most of us in this thread are newsies or former newsies, but to me it illustrated that television news is still relevant and useful when a big story breaks.

That’s when it’s at its best. And, we were demonstrating that the convergence of media is indeed powerful – using Facebook to promote TV.

Days later my M.O. has changed and I’m reading more accounts from newspaper web sites. Print media can still effectively tie it all up in a bow and is probably more effective at weaving in the more substantive investigative findings. It’s how I learned the pilot only had 43 hours on a 777 and that one of the victims may have been run over by an emergency vehicle. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m often led to the paper’s site by a tweet or Facebook post.

Terrible tragedies bring strangers together. Social media gives us that rush of knowing that others are feeling many of the same feelings and experiencing adrenaline flow. TV – just as much a part of social media – allows us to sit back and let the story wash over us, but in a powerful way with marvelously blended words and sounds and pictures. IMHO.


Who's on Third?

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is a monument to commercialization that seems to have found a quasi-natural rhythm of its own. For all the retail frenzy that assaults the senses, it has a certain appeal if you just let it come to you.

Don’t set foot in this bodacious bazaar with a bad attitude, however, or you’ll quickly grow annoyed by the fortune tellers and street performers. Not to mention the restaurant hostesses who accost you if you make eye contact. I once had words with a college-age kid who wanted me to sign a petition. I’m offended by their guile; they sidle up to you and initiate a conversation like you’ve known each other for years, calling you “dude” or something. I don’t know you, I thought. You’re being presumptuous if you think I want to discuss saving the children or saving the whales. Am I cold and heartless, I wonder?

If you’re already having a bad day you’ll grow quickly irritated by the self-absorbed who don’t look where they’re walking or think the rest of the world wants to hear their story, told in a voice of self-importance and accompanied by exaggerated gestures and raucous laughter.

Most Santa Monicans will tell you they try to avoid Third Street. It’s for tourists, after all. Amateurs. I was once one of them. But, walking to the gym, it started to grow on me, precisely for the reason I would normally avoid it: the people. I’ve found I become energized in a crowd of strangers. It’s probably my Midwestern upbringing, from years of opening the front door to nothing but the song of birds and crickets.
Even the animal topiaries say "Look at me, look at me!"

Stroll down Wilshire toward the ocean and turn left at the Barnes and Noble, past Banana Republic, Monsoon (Asian fusion cuisine) and Chipotle Grill and prepare to experience a slice of southern California that’s not exactly the traditional Santa Monica.

The first sensory experience that greets me is the big bearded guy in a stocking cap, playing guitar with a portable amp. He seems affable, almost approachable. He’s perched just beyond the imaginary border of the Promenade so he doesn’t have to obtain a performer’s license. This guy seems to live in that grey area between homeless and mainstream. You just can’t tell. He has a plastic cup for tips but I never see him overtly begging. His guitar clashes with the voice of the elderly man sporting an Amish beard singing Tony Bennett karaoke style only a few hundred feet away. Don’t these people have to audition first? 

If it’s spring or summer you see and hear tourists from everywhere – San Antonio or Santa Ana, Birmingham or Burbank. Personal style is paramount; everyone has a look. Swarthy young men in aviators and tight shirts, a couple days’ growth of beard, sipping a glass of wine with their girlfriends in leggings, flipflops and oversized sunglasses. The Latino with gelled hair and an Angels jersey hanging with his hermanos. The mother-daughter pair weighted down with bags from Kitson, Anthropologie and, God forbid, Abercrombie & Fitch, striding purposefully to their car so they can retreat to the leafy havens of Brentwood or Pacific Palisades.

One day I encountered a protest march. It was a Sunday in early June, a good time to play to a large audience. They were shouting about genocide in Turkey, although as a group they didn’t look particularly oppressed. Some people stopped and observed the spectacle, others walked by in a hurry to get to their cars and beat the traffic. I went home, did some research and learned more of the citizen unrest in Turkey and its oppressive government. You can learn something useful here, and I’ll bet you won’t find that claim on the chamber’s web site.

Just the names of the stores are a delight for the imagination: Pink Ice, Hard Tail, All Saints, Journeys, Rip Curl. And then there are the more traditional names: Apple, American Eagle, Kenneth Cole, Tiffany and Tumi. Around the corner on Arizona, attracting anything but misfits is The Misfit –a nightclub that is unabashedly hip with its beguiling, even intimidating dark interior.

My sense of smell is always rewarded and it adds to the experience: That athletic store smell of shoe rubber that greets my nostrils as I approach the Adidas store, the marvelous array of scents from perfume vendors and the more earthy flavors from the kiosks bearing incense and other spiritual products.
What June gloom? The Farmers Market is happenin'.

A trio of athletic and gregarious black men attracts an impromptu audience with acrobatics and dance moves, set to a throbbing beat from a rather sophisticated sound system. They’ve plucked two people from the audience for a demonstration – a spry grandmother and an attractive blonde twentysomething, of course. I keep walking because I’ve seen this show before on Venice Beach.

Approaching The Coffee Bean I find myself involuntarily taking deep abdomen breaths in anticipation of the pleasant, rich aroma of coffee. I note the patrons – more leisurely than the crowd on foot – sipping and chatting, fiddling with their iPhones or staring absently into space. That’s the life, I tell myself.

The pizza joint next to the AMC theaters now has gluten-free pizza, and I promise myself I’ll give it a try sometime. You poor fools, I tsk-tsk to myself as I pass Johnny Rocket’s with the patrons shoveling cheeseburgers and downing milkshakes. You’ll regret it later. (I’ve turned into a nutrition snob.) On the southeast corner of Third and Arizona the people who brought you Chipotle are opening their third Shophouse Asian Kitchen here – the only others are in Washington DC. Yeah, it’s trendy like that here.

Tourists from Germany, Japan, Australia throng Third Street. They seem less casual than the Americans – more earnest and observational. Often it’s difficult to tell if someone is from another country or a person of non-US lineage living in Los Angeles, this city has become a kaleidoscope of nationalities. Whatever. The diversity inspires me and feeds my energy.



Just Another Day on the Westside

Helicopters have been buzzing our neighborhood all day. The President was here, somewhere, lunching with patrons in a leafy neighborhood. Elsewhere, several people are dead, a gunman is in custody and several others are in hospitals with gunshot wounds - after a crime spree near Santa Monica College. 

Last night I tweeted POTUS to lunch in Brentwood. Ho-hum. Just another day on the Westside.

Just another day, when terrified students dove under desks and scattered into the streets. Just another day, when a guy with a gun tried to hijack a couple of unsuspecting motorists. Just another day, when this same guy (presumably) set fire to a house and two people inside perished.

Our daughter called from Kansas. "Hey, I heard about the shooting at Santa Monica College. Are you guys okay?" We were. We had strolled to CVS to pick up a few items, then over to Chipotle on the Third Street Promenade for lunch. We ate outside, under the June gloom, with our dog Bella. Around us tourists mingled, unaware of the terror going down less than two miles away.

"I saw some firefighters standing around, chuckling, that's all," I overheard a woman say, who must have passed by the locked-down area.

Nope, you'd hardly know this was anything but a ho-hum Friday in Santa Monica. But we aren't callous. We have feelings and pray for the injured and their families and for the nerves of those unsuspecting college students.

"I'm worried about these helicopters," my wife just said.

"It's nothing. It's just for POTUS," I say. "They're giving his motorcade air cover."

Hell, what do I know? But I don't want her to worry. 

Mary's on the phone with a friend in Montrose, telling her about the chaos. 

Secretly (or not so secretly) I think we thrive on the excitement. Are our lives so mundane, so boring that it takes something like this to arouse our passions? I can only think of the Oklahoma tornadoes and the outpouring of sympathy and support. Deep down we are good people. We would venture into the teeth of a conflict to help our fellow woman and man. Look for the helpers, said Fred Rogers. We want to be one of those people, because somehow we feel more alive when we extend a hand to others.

Mary has turned on ABC7. They're all still doing wall-to-wall coverage. Police are still trying to sort out what happened. Neighbors are all too willing to talk about what they saw. 

More people have texted or written to see if we are ok. Yes, we're fine. We are tucked away in our apartment several miles from the campus. But we know that area all too well. I get my car worked on over there. Nearby is a Mexican restaurant we like. 

The reporter just said "this doesn't happen in Santa Monica" and "neighbors are shocked." 

Just another day on the Westside. 


Finding Bliss in the Joy of Others

I took a spin down Lincoln Blvd toward Manhattan Beach to see my friend Catherine - a native Angelean. You see it all – the spotty outskirts of Santa Monica south of The 10 with the auto mechanics and little cafes and Hawaiian barbecue, the dusty storefronts of Venice (could use a power wash and a coat of paint), then the expansive condos of the Marina and the ever-growing sky as the street widens and you approach the rather grand Loyola Marymount campus and soon LAX. I love to drive that section of Lincoln that parallels the north runway; you swear the planes are going to land right on top of your car. I nod at the iconic In-n-Out on Sepulveda, where all the visitors flock for a burger just after landing.

And on through El Segundo to Manhattan Beach – a part of Manhattan Beach that most people don’t envision. They picture a little elite fortress of a town, secluded from the rabble and decked out with charming merchants and eateries. And of course the pier and myth about beach volleyball being born here. No, I’m talking about the Manhattan Beach along the PCH, home of yoga studios and UPS stores and Ralph’s and car dealers. Yes, John Elway Toyota is here. Once I stayed at a tired Residence Inn next door to the Elway lot. This is the dealership bearing the name by the All-World QB? Like most things in the middle-class sections of Manhattan Beach (and LA for that matter) it’s quite modest. First, land is precious and lots are small and, second, being exposed to the relentless California sun gives everything kind of a shopworn appearance. (We put up with wood rot and general fade in Santa Monica because, hey, it’s Santa Monica. At the beach, a little of the right kind of shabby is okay.)

I parked in the snug, cratered parking lot near Two Guns Coffee. Catherine recommended it and I’m always up for something new. The strip mall – if you want to call it that – was chock full of random little stores (how do they stay in business?) and surprisingly, parking was at a premium. If you didn’t know this place was here you’d miss it. Unassuming comes to mind. Inside I found a few tables and a small counter and the aroma of some fine blend of coffee. I’m not that discriminating; I think all coffee smells good. 

Catherine was waiting for me, croissant and cup at hand. Beaming as usual. Even when the chips are down, she has a ready smile.

“How are you?” I called to her from across the room. We hugged. I sat down. She recommended the pastry; I said no thanks I had breakfast. She had just come from working out.
A light workout, she said.

“It’s great and you don’t perspire too much.” I’m not familiar with that type of workout.

Catherine was laid off a few months ago and we often commiserate about the job market. We worked at the same company for a time. Her husband was laid off from the same company but has since found work elsewhere. 

Catherine lost a job, but found peace.

“For the first time, I’m really enjoying our south Redondo Beach neighborhood,” she said. “I used to work long hours and didn't get to spend a lot of time at home. My husband and I live across the street from the high school so the softball and football fields are always bustling with kids. I feel a part the community now. There's a comforting ebb and flow to each day that I never felt before." 

Somehow I don’t think Catherine will suffer for lack of a corporate job. She’s had some interviews, but so far nothing. It’s the toughest market ever, in the toughest city in America.

Instead, she’s rekindled a passion for taking pleasure in the joy of others. We all know brides invest a lot of effort in their wedding day and want to preserve the memories, and Catherine has tapped into that sentiment. For several years she’s had a business preserving wedding bouquets so brides can have a lasting keepsake of their special day. 

“I’ve been taking social media classes, learning about search engine optimization and such,” she rattled off, excitedly. “I’m really working at marketing my business.”

And this is what Catherine loves to do. She loves to see the expression on a newlywed’s face when she picks up her arrangement. This being LA and South Bay Floral Preservation being a one-person operation, there’s no earthly way she can deliver. Her customers must drop off and pick up, or they can arrange a FedEx delivery. 

“I market within a 50 mile radius of Redondo Beach, but I’ve had brides from out of state use my services,” she said. “This is the biggest day of their lives, so they’ll go to great lengths to make it special.” 

While Catherine has shared joy, she’s also witnessed grief. She’s been asked to preserve floral arrangements from memorials, and the stories are sobering.

“There was a girl – a teenager – killed in a car accident,” she said a catch in her throat. “It was so sad. I don’t know how people carry on.” A real earnestness in her expression. 

And maybe Catherine’s contribution can assist with the healing – even in some small way.

I’m heartened by the pluck and determination of Angelenos – their capacity for finding a purpose. When her company gave her the boot, Catherine rededicated herself to her business.

Unlike those faded buildings, she’s intent on preserving beauty and following her bliss.


Land of the Self-Absorbed?

This isn’t Mayberry. Of course, what city is these days? It’s difficult to find a town in America where you can walk down the street and feel comfortable speaking to a total stranger. There are degrees. I would say in some places you can still give the knowing nod of the head and get a smile in return.

L.A. will be having none of that. Things move too fast. Everyone is in their own world, enveloped in their own issues, consumed by their problems. Considering the long distances people traverse across the Southland to conduct their business or pursue recreation, there’s no time for the trivial. Let’s face it. We are all self-absorbed. That, of course, doesn’t excuse the person who fails to return a pleasantry for a pleasantry.

One day Mary came home from a long walk with Bella in an exasperated mood.

“That was just weird,” she said. “A woman walking four dogs came toward me, and I said ‘Looks like you’ve got your hands full,’ and she said “It’s best if we don’t socialize” and walked on.

Kind of a curious retort.

I can understand that, yes, this woman did have her hands full, but why dismiss someone like that? I admire my wife for so many reasons. One is her forgiveness. When confronted by someone behaving like a jackwagon or tool, she reminds herself of “the baby in the back seat” analogy. Let’s not be hasty to criticize someone because we don’t know, can’t know, what troubles they may be dealing with, like the mother or father who’s driving erratically because there’s a baby choking in the back seat.

I try to keep this in mind when walking the streets of any city. Let people be, unless you see an obvious opening – like when another dog sniffs the arse of your dog, eliciting a chuckle from its owner, which leads to a brief conversation about how friendly and innocent dogs can be. However, let’s refrain from taking a page from our four-legged friends. Let’s not sniff the arses of others we encounter on the sidewalk.

Now, what if the tables are turned? What if someone is quick to speak to me? What if that person is homeless, asking for money? The homeless population of Los Angeles is considerable, owing to the state of the local economy, the unemployment rate and the hospitable climate. This is a vexing problem, a conundrum, something better left to the social scientists. I’m never sure what to do. If it’s an isolated incident – if I were to encounter one homeless person every other week or so – I would probably dig in my pocket, peel my only bill from my money clip and hand it over. In L.A. the homeless are so prevalent that it’s not uncommon to encounter five or six on the short walk to 7-11. I would run out of money after the first or second appeal, so I choose to treat the homeless equally: they’re getting nothing from me. I keep walking. I find it convenient to wear earphones and listen to my music while walking to the gym. Yes, I may still be accosted even if I look absorbed, but I can make the excuse that I can’t hear. This isn’t uncharitable; it’s a mode of survival. I have compassion for the homeless, but I don’t think the homeless problem is going to be solved by modest handouts.

My friend went to high school at St. Monica’s in Santa Monica, part of a large, well-endowed parish. The rich and famous attend this church and fill its coffers. Yet, she says, it’s a curious irony that just across the street sits Christine Emerson Reed Park, which is frequented by homeless.

“Here you have this incredible wealth on one side and abject poverty on the other,” she remarked. “You wish somehow the church could make an impact.”

No doubt St. Monica’s has significant outreach programs and has been doing good in the community for generations. It’s just one of the many curious juxtapositions you see in southern California.

What would Sheriff Taylor have done about the homeless? To my knowledge, the closest thing Mayberry had to a homeless person was Otis Campbell, the town drunk. Andy occasionally let Otis bed down in the jail. That won’t work in L.A.


What? No Wi-fi?

A quiet counterculture is building in the world of coffee shops. You probably don’t even notice it in your neighborhood. It’s starting very modestly, and I doubt it will supplant the Starbucks model we’ve come to know and, in my case, grudgingly accept.

One afternoon my wife and I set out with our laptops, looking forward to a couple of quiet and productive hours at a nearby, locally-owned coffee purveyor on trendy Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. We had noticed this store on the corner for some time. It looked very attractive from the outside – giant, plate-glass windows that let in an abundance of sunlight, bright interior, a spare, clean look. The kind of place where you can sit quietly, clear your mind and get creative.

Approaching the door, however, we noticed very few places to sit – only benches around the walls and tiny, low, round-topped wooden tables. None of the overstuffed, comfy chairs we’d come to expect in more traditional coffee houses.

“It looks like they really don’t want us to come in,” said my wife, and I agreed. Cold and sterile came to mind. 

We peeked inside the Starbucks across the street, but all the seats and chairs were filled. So popular was it was this mid-afternoon that we decided to return to the local place and give it a try. After all, I reasoned, we have each other. Do our surroundings really matter? (You come to recognize what’s enduring and fulfilling versus the fleeting and unsatisfying. Your wife is your best friend and you relish your time together.)

When we walked in, we were greeted by the type of funereal silence that always makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious. I almost turned around and walked out. Music played softly, and the energy level was low or nonexistent. If you speak, you appear foolish. Intimidating sums up the experience so far.

At first I thought maybe this is the kind of place where you get your coffee to go – so paltry was the available seating. But no, there were a few customers, occupying a long table with high stools in the back. 

The clerk was cheerful in a quirky way, although I felt as if she was thinking “these people don’t know or appreciate our sophisticated blends of coffee and tea. Watch the guy order a plain drip coffee.” Which I did, with room for milk. I have no pretension about these things and refuse to order something overly gilded or contrived just to fit in with the crowd. I think my wife ordered an iced chai tea.

My wife noticed the barista, who didn’t crack a smile the entire time. Made several coffees before she poured the iced tea. (I mean, all she had to do was pour the tea. Simple.) I usually don’t let the attitudes of others – especially strangers – affect my mood, but ms. barista’s vibe was palpable. It cast a pall over the place. Sulk much?

My coffee was good, but not worth the four bucks I paid for it. I guess when we overpay for the coffee we are paying for the privilege of sitting in a coffee house for hours, sucking up the wi-fi.

About the wi-fi. We opened our laptops, searched for available networks and found they were all encrypted. I asked the clerk if they have a wi-fi network. “No, we don’t,” she replied, probably sick of answering the question for the 60th time that day, displaying little compassion. No apologies. The whole premise of this coffee format is “unapologetic.”  

As Americans, don’t we have the right to free wi-fi?

“That’s okay,” I said to my wife. “We can do other things.” And she showed me the photos from her writer’s retreat in Whitefish, Montana. 

I’ve since noticed this no computer policy at other coffee houses. There’s a spot on Pico near Fairfax that segregates the laptop users. Polite little placards adorn each table explaining the policy. At least laptop use is somewhat acceptable. And the place is buzzing with energy, unlike the aforementioned tomb near our apartment.

We stayed for about 45 minutes, not sucking up their wi-fi but sucking up the oxygen in the room and taking up space. I guess I got my $4 worth. And don’t bother asking for a cup to go. No paper is consumed here.

This is a classic coffee experience, accentuated by large, white porcelain mugs. 

Maybe this is a new model, I thought. High-concept coffee. The anti-Starbucks. I’m clearly in the minority because most of the Yelp reviews were gushing. Do these people derive some perverse satisfaction from being surrounded by smugness and sterility? 

It led me to revisit a question I’ve always pondered about the attitudes of the help and the clientele. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Does the help turn hostile from dealing with arrogant clients all day, or do clients become arrogant from being waited on by hostile help?

So many questions, which I think I’ll consider as I sip my $1.95 grande at Coffee Bean.


Worlds Colliding

My friend Robb informed me Anaheim was settled by the Germans. Well, that makes sense. Anything that ends in “heim” must be German, I figure.

“Their saint was Ana, and that’s why you have Santa Ana, and then next to it is Anaheim,” he said.

We were having this discussion one evening in the parking lot of Alpine Village in Torrance. 

Our high school friend Stan was in town on business and the three of us went to dinner. 

Standing in the parking lot, away from the noise of the band playing a singles event, Stan observed “This place is kind of in the middle of nowhere.” Funny how it takes an outsider to notice what’s right in front of our faces.

“Is there a German settlement around here or something?” he asked. Stan is of German heritage. He has one of those names that is easily bungled and we used to find creative ways to mispronounce it in high school.

The answer is, well, no. Alpine Village is an attempt to re-create German life in the middle of a nondescript area of southern L.A. county. It’s a mixed neighborhood, with some residential, a dab of retail and a commercial enterprise here and there, totally devoid of zoning restrictions. Kind of a wasteland, really. The presence of the 110 Freeway nearby makes this section of Torrance an afterthought. The 405 / 110 interchange is just a mile away and the zillions of motorists who pass this way are determined to reach their destination – they pay no mind to the Torrance Blvd. exit.

That’s why I’m amused whenever Robb recommends we eat here. He’s a big fan of beers – even brews his own – and he’s always up for a tall glass of pilsner. Beer and knackwurst. The knackwurst on Alpine Village’s menu reminds me of the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where Ratner takes Stacy on a first date and they sit shyly, swallowed up in oversized chairs while being served by that big Brunhilda.

Alpine Village is a commercial enterprise that defies easy explanation. First of all, it’s situated on a humongous lot which could accommodate an airport hotel or light manufacturing facility. 

It’s a series of buildings, the anchor being a giant beer hall with dance floor and assorted party and meeting rooms. It’s Old World meets nondescript 1970s U.S.A. There are touches of German sensibility–walls of stucco and dark beams, coach light fixtures that exude a golden glow, dark hardwood floors. The servers don’t wear lederhosen or those frilly, low-cut frocks you see on the lasses at Oktoberfest in Munich. They dress like they work at Target.

The hostess on this evening was a fairly miserable young woman sporting a white dress shirt, thick black hair and trendy glasses – of Hispanic or Filipino descent I would guess – who found it difficult to muster a smile as I entered.

“I’m meeting friends here,” I said, as if to preempt her attempts at seating me. After all, that would require some effort and I wanted to save her the trouble.

“Um-hmmm,” was her response, then she returned to her smartphone.

Luckily we are adults, self-sufficient, and had no trouble commandeering a table on our own. We settled in to our beers and sausage appetizers, and were chattering with the ease of middle-aged white guys, when all of a sudden we heard a report of epic sonic proportions, one that always makes me cringe.


Musical equipment had materialized on the stage and a technician was prepping for a performance of some sort. We then noticed the hall was starting to fill with people of every age and stripe – in every type of garb imaginable. Large tables bore “RESERVED” signs. Clearly, something was up, and we were not a part of it.

I excused myself, made a trip to the restroom and did some reconnaissance. An organization 
called OC Good Life was hosting a singles event. There’s something about putting the letters OC (for Orange County) in front of everything; it makes it sound more hip, more intriguing. Good Life in and of itself is pleasant enough, but OC Good Life conjures images of a happy middle-aged couple rolling down the coast in their convertible, hair blowing in the salty breeze.

One look at this crowd, however, and words that came to mind were “trepidation” and “anxiety.” Balding men in cheap sports jackets and too much jewelry, women teetering in exaggerated heels and makeup, eyes darting around the room as they try to adjust to the light, unsure of where to go, what to do next or what pose to strike. I felt some measure of compassion for them, because haven’t we all felt ill at ease in certain social situations?

As I walked back into the main hall to be reunited with my goulash, an overanxious woman sporting bright red lipstick and bullet-proof hair accosted me.

“Have you signed in yet?” she asked enthusiastically.

Being married and not looking for the Good Life in the OC, I said “No, I’m just here with some friends, having dinner.”

“Oh, okay,” she replied, not defeated, just in a courteous tone.

At about that time, the band struck up a Motown tune (might have been “Heard it Through the Grapevine”) and the shouting began. By shouting, I mean my friends and I were shouting to hear each other and the lead singer had a tendency to shout when she reached for the high notes.   A little like nails on a chalkboard at times, but overall the band wasn’t bad. The lead singer – looking older than she sounded – was nearly expressionless even while singing the most poignant lyrics. A guy sang harmony with her and they were accompanied by guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. I wondered “Where do these people come from?” Stan later pointed out to me that the band was called “Bits and Pieces.” An appropriate name, given the fact that they looked as if they’d been thrown together moments before taking the stage.

Our attempt at making conversation over the loud music continued for about 15 minutes, then we paid our bill and decamped for the parking lot. Before we left, I noticed maybe 15 couples dancing on the big floor. I usually judge the quality of the band and the overall party atmosphere by the number of people actually dancing. There was no Midwestern reserve about these folks; they were here to party and let it all hang out.

On our way out the door, Robb and Stan asked the hostess about this event. When she replied “it’s a singles event” and they answered “Hah, we don’t qualify” I thought guys, give it a rest.   She has no sense of humor.

When I find myself making conversation on a wide range of subjects in the midst of an unfamiliar and unrelated environment, I find it stimulating. Here we were, discussing old high school friends, past jobs, family and music, while standing in a parking lot in a city far from where any of us grew up, as strangers passed by. It’s surreal, and energizing. The night breeze swept in from the ocean, passed through palm trees, whisked past freeways and buildings and billboards carrying an element of magic. Sometimes I refer to it as “worlds colliding” or a “mashup.” Regardless, I thrive on this coming together of random elements as they create their own energy and momentum.

Standing outside the front door, we got to watch people come and go. While it’s an unscientific observation, I got the impression that the people who frequent OC Good Life are lower-middle to middle class, of Hispanic, Greek, Italian and mixed ethnicity. And probably some Germans who came for the Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier instead of finding a mate. The men most likely shop at Target and the women at Ross. Most were wearing their “best” outfit and most seemed uncomfortable in their best clothes. Just catching whiffs of the various colognes, aftershaves and perfumes as people breezed by was a kind of heady delight. I could people-watch all day and all night, I thought.

Observing just this one frame of the human drama reminded me that there’s no single type of LA or Orange County resident. These were the working classes of Torrance, Buena Park, Long Beach, Fullerton and Inglewood. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup as southern Californians. They could be from Miami, Baton Rouge or Bakersfield.

A few weeks later I read in the L.A. Times web site that there had been a shooting at Alpine Village:

“A man was fatally shot and another was stabbed early Sunday during a fight at a punk-rock concert at the Alpine Village Center in unincorporated Torrance, authorities said.
The fight initially broke out inside the German-themed locale and spilled into a parking lot about 12:25 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said.”

I didn’t know what to think. Sobering, for sure. Tragic. To think we were standing in that very parking lot, feeling perfectly safe, savoring the atmosphere, blissfully unaware of the mayhem that can erupt in our midst at any time, with little warning.