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.