tiki, teardrops and true confessions

tiki noIt must be a rite of passage to get your ass kicked by tiki drinks while visiting Los Angeles. The task was not hard to accomplish, what with a happy hour cocktail at the Roosevelt Hotel, huge beers with dinner, and a stop at the Rainbow for a whiskey soda and some jukebox glam beforehand. More reasonable humans might have called it a night at that point, but it was only 8:30! And this particular tiki bar was in walking (er, stumbling) distance from my friend T’s apartment.

But if you’ll permit me, let’s backtrack to Thanksgiving. In the dinner afterglow, perhaps three glasses of wine in the rear view mirror and tryptophan coursing through my veins, I found myself on facebook chatting with an old college pal who was visiting home from LA. We briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get together, but the timing wasn’t going to work. He suggested that I should just visit him in California, and in my warm and fuzzy and expansive postprandial state, I found myself thinking that was a great idea. A few keystrokes on my phone, and I had a ticket.

Mind you, I hadn’t seen T in about ten years, not since his wedding reception when he still lived in Chicago. Back when I was in school at Michigan State, I used to visit him there fairly regularly, taking the EL to the resale shops in Boystown or poking around Andersonville’s coffee houses and junk stores while he was at work. In the evenings, we’d go to dive bars, drink shitty beer and see bands play. Occasionally, his band would have a show, and I’d sing along in the front row.

Ten years later though, did we still have anything in common? I pondered this somewhat nervously as the trip approached. We were both unattached and had recently gone through divorces, so there was that. But we hadn’t really kept in touch since he’d moved (and even for a decent period before that), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Girlfriends inquired excitedly whether there were any “romantic possibilities” for my trip; I answered quite honestly that I had no idea.

detroit streetMy first afternoon in town, as we wandered the streets of Hollywood at sunset, I kept seeing bits of home everywhere I looked… Berry Gordy’s star on the Walk of Fame; a sign for Detroit Street; a guy in a Tigers t-shirt. As it turned out, by this time there was someone back home who was tugging at my heartstrings like a cheap ukelele, and as much as I was enjoying the California sunshine, I couldn’t help but have him (and by extension, the city I associated with him) in my thoughts. Naturally I thought the best way to deal with this was with a cocktail.

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act like you like it

“That’s Jillian,” the woman at the bar said reverently. “Do you recognize her? She’s been in so many things, like, I can’t even turn on the TV without seeing Jillian, but she’s always stressing that she isn’t getting enough work. She’s in the Jack-in-the-Box commercials, you must’ve seen those, right?”

No, I said apologetically, we don’t have Jack-in-the-Box where I live and I don’t actually even have a TV. (I did mention that I watch stuff occasionally on Netflix and Hulu so as not to offend her and/or come off as a complete Luddite.) She nodded distractedly, mentally dismissing me and calculating how long she had to sit with me to be polite before taking her leave to go chat with the fabulous Jillian and her other industry friends.

One of the great things about travel is getting to know the particular cultures of different cities, and the best way to do this is, of course, by hanging out with a local. While in LA I had the pleasure of staying with an old friend who, while from the Midwest originally, has lived in LA for 8+ years. Many of his friends are in the entertainment business, so I got a small but interesting glimpse into that subculture while visiting.

While T was living in Chicago in the mid-’90s, he became friends and bandmates with actor Eddie Jemison (Oceans 11/12/13; Hung; the Bud Lite “Yes I Am” commercials, among other stuff). At the time T moved to LA, Eddie had already been there for a few years, and the two reconnected to form another band with Vance DeGeneres (brother of Ellen) and another guy, Dave Gibbs, who I didn’t get to meet. As luck would have it, they were playing a show during my visit to celebrate the release of Eddie’s directorial debut King of Herrings, which he also wrote and starred in with his lovely wife Laura. It was at this show that the above exchange took place.

Luckily that night, through the magic of Tinder (T’s, not mine), I got to meet another really amazing woman named Lulu who sat with me through the show. She’d had a date with T and showed up to the bar solo, so I got to chat with her while T’s band was playing. Her playful eyes and adorable bleach-blonde hair, cropped ultrashort save for a cute wavy forelock that stuck up in front, belied her 47 years. We gabbed about men and divorce and sex and heartbreak and possibility in the way that only two strangers can (the gin and tonics didn’t hurt). Her ex-husband was in the entertainment business but not her, and she seemed pretty blasé about the whole thing- it was just a job. It was nice to talk to someone whose eyes weren’t roaming sideways to see who else they could be talking to that was more important.

The upside to T’s connections with the acting world was that we got invited to a private reading in the Brentwood home of a lovely couple who are part of Eddie’s weekly acting group. Their friend Champ Clark, a writer for People, is also a playwright and  wanted to try out some material with a live audience. We sat on folding chairs in the dining room and watched maybe a dozen short plays read aloud, performed without the aid of props, costume or staging; it was one of the coolest theater experiences I’ve ever had. T admitted that he probably wouldn’t have attended if I hadn’t been in town, but was glad he did. The material was laugh-out-loud funny for the most part, with some more serious and/ or surreal scenes woven in. After the reading, we ate, had some wine and mingled with the actors, who were of all ages, shapes and sizes. It was a completely unpretentious crowd and very welcoming to a stranger.

Before I visited LA for the first time in 2000, I hadn’t had any great desire to go there; I’d imagined it as this place where everyone was phony and plastic, i.e. not the type of place where I’d fit in or enjoy myself much. Both times I’ve been there, I’ve definitely encountered those types of people, but it was the overwhelming minority. Shame on me- kind of like someone assuming everyone from Detroit is a blue collar line worker or nerdy engineer. I should be so lucky to go back and get another first hand peek into a fascinating and worthy art form.

Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.
Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.

watts towers

watts 1Watts Towers rise up out of the surrounding working-class neighborhood like a fist pumped heavenward in victory. Amongst run-down ranch houses and dead-end streets, they sit serenely and proudly, a confection of concrete spun like sugar. Despite graffiti that proliferates elsewhere in Watts, the Towers remain untouched; rightfully respected.
watts 4Back when I worked at Book Beat, I’d seen pictures of the Towers many times in folk art or outsider art books and been intrigued–I’m a sucker for anything with mosaic or tile work, so right off the bat, the site appealed to me. When T and I found ourselves not terribly far away after an afternoon at Venice Beach, we decided to go check it out. watts 3

I’m not sure any photograph could have prepared me for how astonishing and moving this structure is in person. As someone who dabbles in creative pursuits in my spare time, it was both inspirational and incredibly humbling (like, who the F am I, this guy was the real deal). The towers’ creator, Simon Rodia, was an Italian immigrant and day laborer who worked on the project over the course of 33 years (1921-1954); pretty much any second not given over to work or bodily functions was dedicated to their construction. He created what he called nuestro pueblo, “our town”, partly out of scrap found along the railroad tracks, and would walk up to 20 miles up and down the tracks for materials. The towers were built solely with hand tools, no machinery. The dedication and perseverance it took to realize his vision are virtually unknown in this day and age, a sobering thought to those of us quasi-addicted to the instant gratification of blogging, instagram, etc. Not appreciated and even at risk of being torn down in the 1960s, the work is now being maintained and restored.
watts 2We weren’t able to actually enter the site, but had to content ourselves with viewing it through a fence. It’s beautiful and strange and awesome and I can only imagine sitting inside and staring up through the towers from within. Please do yourself a favor and visit this place if you’re anywhere nearby; photos don’t do justice to the actual experience. Read more about Watts Towers at the official website or on Wikipedia. Particularly fascinating is the religious ritual performed in Rodia’s home town and from which it is speculated that he took his inspiration.

watts 8
watts 9

venice in january

hare krishna van in venice CA

The boardwalk at Venice Beach is a maelström of humanity. T has informed me in the car that we will most definitely see a guy with a snake, and true to his word, the very first street performer we see wields a slithering sidekick. Approaching from Windward Ave, we pass some inviting restaurants and cafés which give way to a grotesque but expected series of tourist shops blaring pop music and hawking the usual t-shirts, sunglasses and other tchotch, as well as a number of marijuana outlets whose dreadlocked proprietors vie for our dollars like old-time medicine men.

“How are you feeling? Good? I can show you how to feel AMAZING…”

“Wanna kiss the sky?” (or maybe it was “this guy”?)

We make our way to the skate park directly ahead, and marvel at the lithe movements of these ratty young men, who, like all talented performers, make their craft look so easy. Torsos stay erect while hips gyrate to the curves of the concrete bowl. I try not to stare too much, but it’s mesmerizing.

The water is calling me, so we head across the expanse of sand. Giddy as a child, I roll up my jeans, take off shoes and socks and head for the water. T warns me to be careful, look out for needles. It spoils the moment just a little. I stand with the waves lapping my feet, staring into the surf and marveling at the fact that it’s JANUARY and I’m wearing a T-SHIRT and I’m BAREFOOT in the OCEAN!

Sadly, probably due in part to being a little hung over, we have not planned well and have neglected to bring a blanket or books or other sorts of things that one would want handy if one were to pass an afternoon on the beach. This causes me a fair bit of mental anguish, as there is nothing I want more at this moment than to doze off on the sand with the sun caressing my bare arms. Such is life. I focus on the positive (the BEACH! WINTER! T-SHIRT!) and we head back to the boardwalk.

We perform the ritual tourist walk-and-gawk. A man has trained his dog to lie prone while wearing a hot pink lamé bikini, which has dollar bills tucked in and around it. I don’t know whether to be amused or feel sorry for the poor beast. Awful art mingles with even awful-er art and a smattering of decent art. Buskers range from angelic waifs with sunken eyes and clear trembling timbres, to puffy middle aged men tunelessly belting out minor hits of the eighties. Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-ah his stride.

As we stroll on, observing the motley assortment of artists, performers, shysters, freaks and just plain beggars, I marvel at how anyone gets by. Practical me queries: aren’t tourist dollars more apt to be parted with in exchange for a “show” of some sort? How do the homeless and talentless survive? But survive they do, and in droves. Our nostrils are assaulted in a steady stream by the stench of the unbathed. A small parade of Koreans with placards marches past. “Come to Jesus!” exhorts the group’s leader, and the rest of the group echoes in a call and response. “Cooooome tooooo Jeeeeeesus!”

We agree that nothing we’ve seen today can top that, so after fueling up with lunch from a hole-in-the-wall Peruvian joint, we decide we may as well call it a day. The hustlers and hippies and hijinx of the boardwalk will remain as ever, should we choose to return.