Saturday, May 31, 2008

Downtown different

I was lucky to have some weekdays off from work, and I decided to spend them exploring downtown, as documented in this week's posts. Part of exploring a place is to think about what it would be like to live there. I was walking along San Pedro Street, and saw a sign for a new residential complex, offering tours of its model apartments. So I decided to check it out.

The downtown residential boom brings up a lot of conflicting issues, including the pros of revitalizing the neighborhood, preserving historic properties, and retaking the streets from lawlessness. Or the cons of gentrification, pricing out the poor, and allowing rampant development.

I could approach this post a couple of different ways. I could do an ironic take on the new affluent condo-community living down amongst the puebla in the gritty streets. Or I could write a boosterish promo of downtown living for the hip and cool.

It's way more complicated than that.

For one thing, if I were to decide to live in a downtown area, abandoned to the poor and destitute, forgotten so profoundly that historic architectural buildings were preserved by neglect - it wouldn't be the first time in my life I've done that.

In the late 70's, I lived in a large room in an old cast-iron-facade building on the corner of Broome Street and Greene Street, a manufacturing area of Manhattan that was only just beginning to be called "SoHo." I paid $150 a month to a painter named Kimiko for a bedroom behind a nailed up partition. I remember when I would come home from working in the theatre at night, I walked down the middle of the cobble-stoned streets from the subway stop. That way you could avoid the smell of piss from the bums who slept in doorways, and besides, there were no cars or taxis driving those streets, in those days.

So the idea of living in an edgy environment is both intriguing - and familiar. I know that it's not scarey. My experience enriched my life.

Plus, as an avid consumer of decorating magazines I like the style of living downtown. I like the contrast, crystal chandeliers against rough concrete walls. Like any American consumer, I'm an easy sell on that stuff. How romantic - how hip!

But hold up.

The reason I rented from Kimiko, and the reason she needed a roommate was because we didn't have many other choices. She paid the rent by selling paintings. She needed a space to paint in, and it had to be cheap. I paid the rent by working free-lance in the theatre. I needed a place to sleep in, and it had to be cheap. If we had a crystal chandelier edgily juxtaposed against the rough concrete walls, it was because I found in in the trash over on Allen Street and I brought it home to replace a bare hanging light bulb.

These new downtown lofts are another thing entirely. They're not for those who scuffle.

It's a large industrial building, six floors high, dating from the middle part of the 20th century, with sturdy walls and floors and large concrete structural columns. As designed, the primary access is from the parking garage - residents and their guests are most likely to arrive by car; park in their designated spot, and enter the complex.

The security guard at the electrically controlled gate on San Pedro Street was a little surprised that I came from the sidewalk teeming with homeless people - did I not have a car?

He let me in and sent me to the next buzzer-accessed gate, where I met a salesperson named Nicole. Her office was airy and open, with hardwood flooring, modular furniture, and Asian-inspired decor. Lush oriental rugs were on the floor. I told Nicole that my husband and I were considering a downtown condo for Our Son, who would soon be graduating college, and entering the work force. She bought my story - which may almost be true - and didn't seem to mind my casual attire (including my brand new heart-and-skull vans). She offered coffee, tea, water - I opted for a bottle of water.

I was given an elaborately designed sales brochure - heavy stock, cut-outs, folded pockets - and off we went to tour the models.

First we saw the serene pool lounge area, screened from the street on the ground level.

All the model units are fully furnished, with all kitchen and bath appliances, finished hardwood floors, and individual climate-control systems. Stacking washer-dryer units in each apartment.

Nicole said there are some 140 units in the building; about 80% already sold. The 6 model units range in price from around $350,000 to around $700,000.

The building, she said, is fully WiFi networked.

I asked Nicole about the neighborhood. Was it safe at night? Were there places to shop for groceries? Walk the dog? Restaurants and bars? Oh, yes, wonderful nightlife, she said, only you want to stay to the north side of the neighborhood, rather than veering south, where you get into where the Missions are. She stressed the convenience of having onsite reserved parking - which made it so easy to grocery shop anywhere. There is even an enclosed dog-run within the secure complex.

It seems like you could live quite comfortably here and hardly ever encounter the smell of piss on the sidewalks of San Pedro Street.

Part of me wants to live in this place, with its elegant decor; I can just see myself driving a Mercedes (or no, let's be sustainable - a Prius!) into the garage and ascending the elevator to emerge into my Loft with its crystal chandeliers, artwork on the walls, and its tall metal casement windows overlooking the decrepit neon sign over the Hotel Rosslyn. I can see myself offering a glass of champagne or cabernet to artsy guests - a neighbor, perhaps, just back from an opening at MOCA, or an event at Disney Hall. A gallery owner. An actor.

Yet another part of me wants to burn it all down, spray it with grafitti, reverse the trend, to banish Nicole and her chic black pantsuit, and the pricey printed brochures, and the elegant red market umbrellas to hell and beyond. I want to rent the space behind the vacant windows in this building,

and rent a machine to sand the industrial dirt off the old but sturdy wooden floors. I want to stay up till 3:00 in the morning drunk on cheap wine and the fumes of varnish I apply to the floors myself, and then fall asleep on a futon in the corner. I want to paint a canvas in the morning light streaming through my window - or play my guitar with a pick-up band - or install a bathtub purchased from a salvage house. Before going out to a punk club later that night.

Such fantasies are not becoming to middle-aged successfully employed people like me.

If lofts on San Pedro Street are going for $600,000, perhaps only successfully employed people like me can do things like this now.

So - where will the artists live?

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Art of Culver City

It was an unexpected outing, at the end of a long week. We were invited to an exhibition of some art students at the group studio owned by their school, down in Culver City in a reclaimed industrial building.
We arranged to meet for dinner here at Gloria's:

One of my favorite places to eat, because the staff - Gloria herself, all the waitstaff - are wonderful. A creature of habit, I always get the Plato Tipico because it has an assortment of Salvadorean tastes - A pupusa, with its vinegary cabbage slaw, fried yuca, fried plantains, and black beans and rice. [The Man I Love] got camarones with garlic - it's nice to know how secure he is that I love him.

We then went down to the studios. When the school occupied it, it built partitions so that each student would have a private studio to work in. The result is a warren-like structure with winding hallways and multiple levels. Brightly lit, splattered with paint, crammed with stored canvases and sculpture materials, it looks like the perfect place for Art to Happen.

These are truly talented young artists, and touring their workspace it was easy to see that some of them will be notable in the future. I can see the reason people buy art as an investment - but I also can see that the investment part of the transaction isn't what motivates a buyer the most. You just want that piece that moves you so much to be in your life - so you can look at it.

I didn't take any photos except the one above, which is in the sculpture studio of Mitsuko Ikeno. Let the work speak for itself. If you want to see the wonderful work of some of these artists, just go here, and here, and here, and here and here. If you can support them, please do.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Toy District - Can we just talk shopping?

Enough social comment. This post is about buying stuff! I just love Los Angeles' Toy District! This is a place for a shop-a-holic to go where the prices are so low it's almost guilt free. Even if you don't buy anything, it's a great place to walk around and sight-see.

One store drew my eye - it was a Chinese import store. When I was a little girl, someone bought me one of those Chinese pin-cushions - you know the ones, right? A silk-covered ball, with little puffy silk figures embracing it around all sides, in shimmering jewel-like colors? Well, you can get them here - by the dozens. Curly bamboo plants in earthenware pots; carved wooden Buddha figures, brocade cosmetic cases and purses - I ended up buying a parasol to protect me from the sun. The proprietor asked me how many dozen I wanted. $2.50 each for the first dozen, he said. If I only wanted one, it was $5.

Sold anyway - because the sun was hot.

Down the block there was a lady selling chickens and cats and bunnies. Not real ones, but posed figures of them, with feathers and "fur" applied, so they looked real...ish. She did not let me take a photo.

Another store had real bunnies and birds...parakeets, finches, grey parrots and cockatoos. Also, swimming in a pan on the pavement a half a dozen turtles about the size of salad plates. They looked happy, paddling away in their watery pan, but I don't think these are legal.

I went across the street and got my watch battery replaced for another $5 by a nice Indian gentleman, and then I bought a $15 watch from him - it looks very 20's retro, with fake jet and marcasite. He kindly adjusted the clasp so it fit my wrist, and then he replaced the old battery with a new one, to start me off right.

There are a lot of stores selling items printed with crazy punk patterns of skulls, smiley faces, camoflage and cockroaches. Messenger bags, backpacks, wallets; you can buy imprinted suspenders and belts, too. I almost bought messenger bag in black with skulls and red roses - only $20 - but decided against it. Maybe next time.

In one little shoe store, the young Asian man waiting on me complimented my sunshade while I examined the sneakers and "crocs" and vans on the racks. Ooh, comfy shoes! I ended up taking the plunge - check these cool vans out:

Pink hearts and skulls with bows - the perfect thing for a 54 year old woman! Maybe I can wear them to staff meetings. And only $10!

At the south end of the district - where they sell fabric by the yard, I browsed among the silks and rayons, and found some incredible dupioni silk for only $8 per yard. It's a brassy yellow/chartreuse, with an undertone of magenta (can you believe it? I hardly can myself!). I bought 3 yards, being a cheap-ass, hoping to have a fantastic table-covering out of it. Now I need to find some fringe to sew along the edges.

I saw tons of things I adored but would never buy in a million years. How about these clocks?

There were some other cool ones with fiberoptics! And you could buy figurines that were also lamp-bases, with shades. And how about these tasteless ethnic stereotype kitchen accessories?

You can find anything you want here. As long as you buy it by the dozen.

Who wants to go on a group expedition? I know there are at least enough people out there who would justify a 12-parasol order. If you're in L.A. this summer, and you can arrange a weekday free comment or email me, and let's plan a group excursion.

We can go have cocktails after.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Los Angeles Street

On Los Angeles Street, in downtown L.A.'s Toy District, the wholesale merchants deal in a range of products. It's arrayed somewhat like a spectrum, but instead of orange giving way to yellow, yellow to green, and green to blue, it's a different gradation.

At the northernmost blocks, near 2nd Street, merchants display hip, cool Japanese imports, like plush Hello Kitty toys and manga figurines. Sometimes it's a little more hard-edged than Hello Kitty - some stores feature a vast array of bongs, quasi-legal herbal stimulants, and rows of pleather belts with spikes and studs.

There's a block where restaurant supplies dominate. Did you ever wonder where to buy one of those statues of an Italian chef that stand outside the door at some cafes? Right here on Los Angeles Street.

There are electronics stores and jewelry stores - although this is cheap jewelry here, novelty jewelry, not like over on Broadway or Hill Street where it's the real deal. You can get hair clips, elastic bracelets, and phone cards.

There are a lot of stores selling items printed with crazy punk patterns of skulls, smiley faces, camoflage and cockroaches.

As you walk south, there are stores with toys, inflatables, wading pools, dolls and toy motorscooters. You come upon party stores, pinatas hanging from the ceiling; stores with quincinera decorations, Hannah Montana tablecloths for little girls' parties, and Bratz.

You can buy Kwan Yin figures, Buddhas, menorahs, cherubs, rosaries, saints' candles, and Native American-themed dream-catchers.

There are stores displaying underwear and socks and children's clothes. You can buy perfume and cosmetics. Stores sell fabric trims, such as braid, buttons, fringe, appliques. Then fabric and yard goods take over the street, and suddenly you're down in the Fashion District, near Santee Alley.
All along the street there's as much commerce going on outside the stores as there is inside. Taco trucks pull alongside the curb. Ice cream carts jingle along the sidewalk. Women push baby strollers with trays of cut fruit strapped on top.

I saw a shoe-shine guy, using a folding shopping cart for his set-up.

And then there's the bacon dog vendors.

L.A. bacon dogs. What could be more tempting? A hot dog, wrapped with bacon, grilled till the bacon is crisp. Sliced onions and peppers grilled alongside, your choice of ketchup, mustard or mayo as condiments; a grilled jalapeno on top, maybe. In the Toy District and the Fashion District you can smell them sizzling for blocks.

The county health department has been cracking down on bacon dogs. It's not just the illegal vendors that are being targeted. According to this L. A. Weekly article, the county's beef, so to speak, is about grilling the bacon. The county only allows boiled or steamed dogs to be sold from street vendors. So even otherwise legal vendors get cited, fined, or even jailed.

Yet the demand for good bacon dogs is high, so the illegal trade flourishes. Here's one vendor with a nice cart parked at the curbside, with signs and racks with clips for bags of chips; an umbrella to shade from the sun. Her fancy cart means she's probably licensed, but today she was selling bacon dogs.

Another vendor hid her cart behind the screened fencing of a parking lot - you could see and hear her from the sidewalk, and pass through the gate to grab a bite, but the screening kept visibility down.

At least 4 other vendors were selling bacon dogs from carts that could not possibly have been legal. All the vendors strongly discourage photos, but I managed to snap one as I drove by - the photo shows the basic design. A wheeled cart holding something that burns fuel, a cardboard box to conceal the burner, and a rimmed baking sheet on top on the box, absorbing the heat and grilling the delectable bacon dogs and vegetables.

These contraband bacon-dog carts are lightweight and easily moved. The vendor I watched had a friend who stood watch for her. At his signal, she'd move the cart into the store, or back out again to serve customers.

Even so, she was doing a brisk business - as I watched 4 or 5 customers waited for her to come back outside, paid her and then headed off down Los Angeles Street with their bacon dogs.

In this part of town, people try to make a living any way they can, and there's a darker side to it, too. If you go through the arcades that open onto Los Angeles Street, you end up in a T-shaped alley, where it's easier to hide from the authorities. It's suspected that the vendors in the alleys sell what is pirated or stolen merchandise - CDs and DVDs, watches, electronics. And although I've never seen it, I hear that some vendors sell animals like turtles, lizards, rabbits - whether for exotic pets or exotic meals, I'm not sure. The police routinely raid these narrow bazaars. A shaved-ice vendor was doing pretty good here, but about 30 minutes later, I saw him getting busted.

Although the bacon dogs smell delicious, they can be a pretty serious gut-bomb. I'm also a little leery of buying something that's been cooked on top of a cardboard box. I headed for the taco truck in the alley. There were 3 older ladies sitting on resin chairs in the shade, eating something that looked delicious. Were they quesadillas, or tostadas de tinga? I opted for a taco al pastor, and while I waited watched what everyone else got. A man who was mute came to the window and pantomimed his order. He was clearly a regular customer, because the cook and the cashier mimed it back to him and they all laughed together.

My taco was delicious! Next time I'm going for a taco dorado de papa - crispy fried tacos filled with potatoes and covered with a green salsa.

On another side street, a taco truck belonging to Juana La Cubana was parked. Her menus featured an assortment of tortas, and listed exotic ingredients like nopales and others I couldn't translate. But she was very popular, with a line of at least 8 customers.

Hunger abated for now, I stopped on Los Angeles Street to watch a guy play a shell game on the top of a cardboard box, using 3 Carmex lip-balm lids and a marble - he saw me watching and invited me to join in - I laughed and shook my head. "You're way too good for me!" I said, and moved on.

She saw me coming

I am pretty much immune to shopping in malls and department stores. I have a little bit of a weak spot for online sites like Zappos, but I've learned to temper myself.

But there's one particular kind of store that I am a total sucker for. I don't even know how to categorize it. It's the unique store, the one that's imprinted with the character of its owner. It's the store with the one-of-a-kind collection, and the proprietor that has a passion for her work. And sometimes it's a little goofy. A little strange. It's the odd-ball boutique. Those are the stores where I can't help myself.

There was that place in Edmonton, Alberta, the local designer's boutique, where I bought that "fun" cardigan with the knit checkered pattern and the green collar and cuffs.

Remember the sari shop in Artesia, California, where the proprietor told me she knew just the right salwar kameez for my coloring? She had her assistant measure me right there to sew elastic into the waist of the trousers. They told me to go windowshopping and come back in a half hour - and the alterations were done. They fit perfectly.

The French milliner's shop in pre-Katrina New Orleans, where I bought the most wonderful raincoat EVER. I wear it whenever it rains in L.A. - which is hardly ever. On a later visit, three exquisite blouses and a citron colored parrure (necklace and earrings).

The odd little store on West Broadway in SoHo, where the owner wore blue and white makeup on her face and talked me into buying a scarf and a crocheted cardigan, telling me that she'd sold one just like it this morning to Meryl Streep. I told my friend Marla about it, and she gasped and said she'd been conned into buying something there the same way! (note: we both LOVE what we bought)

I date this weakness of mine even back as far as the early '80's, when I put layaway down on an exquisite black wool jersey skirt and cardigan I saw at the original Opus 204 shop in Seattle - when it really was at 204 Broadway. It took three months to pay it off, but I still wear it. Since Opus has now closed I'll cherish these timeless fashions even more.

Well, today, at the end of my excursion exploring downtown LA and its odd mixture of cheap wholesale novelties, jewelers, electronic stores, and art galleries, I walked past the lot where I'd parked my car, thinking - "Let me just see what this next block is like," before heading back home.

It looked promising. There was a bar/cafe on the corner, and I thought for a brief moment of going in and having a glass of wine and a snack. But I walked on. A Vietnamese restaurant - oh, that looks like something worth going to another day. And walked on past the next storefront -

Hey! that's a pretty dress in the window!

Potted plants in the entry, and benches, and a cat curled up on a chair. When the cat saw me stop and look at the window display, it leapt off the chair and into the door, as if leading me onward.

And as soon as I stepped into the shop, I knew I was going to walk out of there lighter in the wallet.

Golden yellow painted walls. Shabby furniture. Paintings and framed mirrors on the wall. Dresses hung on racks made of copper plumbing pipes. The cat. Another cat. A chandelier. The ceiling dressed with white muslin, tucked and tied to look like clouds above.

I was greeted by the proprietor - Her name is Stella. She was tall, rawboned like a North Dakota farmwife, and wearing a flowing red silk dress. Her greying hair was braided with multicolored ribbons, and she had them tied up in a high, loose pony tail on top of her head. She asked if I was looking for something particular. She had an accent. I'm a sucker for eccentric ladies who wear their own design in clothes and speak in accents.

I said, no, I was just walking by and your shop caught my eye. I was trying to lay down a rhetorical line of escape. It didn't work.

Her clothes were exquisite. A lot of black clothes; dresses with lace insets, over-jackets; you could tell the quality of the fabric. A few colorful pieces; one rack of flowing, floral-patterned dresses in georgette, chiffon, crisp sateen cotton. Hats, in velvet, with veils and silk flowers.

There was another customer there, obviously a regular and a friend. The three of us chatted. Did I live downtown? No? Did I like it here? Did I visit often? Stella told me she made all the clothes herself, there in that shop. She made clothes for many regular customers. I knew I was doomed. I moved toward the rack of dresses, and picked out one that was a twin of the window display - "Can I try this one on?"
The dress did not fit me properly. It was too tight in the waist - I'm thick-waisted. But the fabric was silky to the touch; the skirt flowed gracefully and spun out if I twirled. Despite the fact that the buttons gaped down the front, the cut of the waist and the picture collar made my waist look nipped in far more than it really is.

I frowned at the mirror, and there was a silence. Then, Stella came toward me. "That color is no good for you. But what about this?" she draped a swath of fabric over my body.

She said, "I can take your measurements and make a dress for you with this."

Oh my.

We talked. Her friend gave me a little black velvet hat with a veil to try on (I'm not a hat person, but it looked...intriguing). Stella said she bought the rayon print she showed me down the street in the fashion district. There are so many fabric stores, but she has her regulars. This print just caught her eye a couple of days ago. Her friend was working with the L.A. Conservancy for a downtown event at the Million Dollar Theatre. We talked about their Last Remaining Seats series. Stella talked about living across the street in the old hotel. She said she used to be in New Orleans before coming to L.A. I told her about the French milliner's shop I knew - she knew them, too. She talked about designing costumes for a cabaret revue show. She showed me a dress she made for another customer, waiting for her to pick it up. She said, "When I buy fabric, I have a picture of her in my mind," touching her forehead. "I must have bought this fabric" - she held it up - "for you before I knew you."

As we talked, I walked about the store and looked at the other clothes, and felt the silky skirt flow and swirl around my legs. "So how much would I have to put down, and how long would it take for you to make me a dress?"

The dress will be ready in a week. I'll show you when it comes.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Valley Greek Festival

Memorial Day weekend is a good one for festivals and events in the Los Angeles area. Checking the newspaper, I see there's a Highland Games event down in Orange County, a couple of festivals in Santa Barbara, and it's Strawberry Month in Beverly Hills. We have our own Topanga Days here, but in recent years I've stopped going to fair, sticking with the 10K and the parade.

I like to get out a little, and I decided to check out the Valley Greek Festival. The festival is at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, up at the northern end of Balboa Blvd. in Northridge.

I've loved going to Greek festivals since Our Son was a toddler and we used to take him to the St. Demetrious Feast in Montlake in Seattle. They had a raised dance stage, and between performances the neighborhood's toddlers would run in circles to the recorded music on that inviting space, while watchful parents sat on the edge of the risers, nibbling Greek treats.

This was my first time to a Greek festival in Los Angeles. One of the nice things about festivals in today's Los Angeles, is that even if it's a church festival, its interaction in the neighborhood is quite ecumenical. The Korean Lutheran church across the street was doing a brisk business selling festival parking for $5 a car.

Before entering the lawn and asphalt-paved festival grounds, I entered the church for a tour. I put a couple dollars in the box and lit a candle. The sanctuary at St. Nicholas is stunning, with a nave lined with stained glass windows leading to the magnificent mosaics set behind the altar and on either side. A dome directly above the platform is ringed with colorful windows, and a mosaic portrait of Jesus and the saints look down. It is truly a beautiful sanctuary, and the docents giving the tour were very welcoming.

Outside, a large open area faced a stage where a band played. A group of young dancers performed in the open space.

Here are the kids posing for a photo in their colorful costumes:

There was a stand selling beer and Greek wine, and rows of tables under a tent for dining. You could get a whole Greek dinner with your choice of entree - souvlaki, chicken, moussaka or pastitsio - with all the accompaniments of potatoes and salad and olives. Or you could go to a gyro stand, or get a hunk of loukaniko sausage on bread. There was a stand selling kabobs and lamb chops.

But the big seller was the pastries. There were cases of baklava and kataifi, and other wonderful looking things that I couldn't possibly name. They looked delectable!

But the big draw - the item that caused the line to snake across the lawn, around the dance area, and up the walkway - were the loukoumathes:

Hot nuggets of fried dough, dusted with cinnamon and drizzled with honey.


UPDATE: Tuesday May 27 - there's a great story in the L.A. Times about the history of the Greek community in Los Angeles that mentions this festival.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Today's critter

Yesterday in the park a young girl showed me a frog she'd found in the nearby pond.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tough Topanga 10K

Every Memorial Day Saturday for the last 6 or so years, I wake up super early and hike uphill through the morning fog, and volunteer for the Topanga 10K Run.

You can read about The Topanga 10K at the link. It's a challenging run for all ages through the beautiful mountains of Topanga State Park. You can also walk it if you like. I'm not a runner. I volunteer because I can't say no when this person asks me to:

Jill and her husband Sparky have been in charge of the run for more than 10 years, and between the two of them, they organize everything from figuring how to clock runners' time to making the floral arrangements for the closing ceremony.

Jill has recruited athletic Topanga moms to run or walk in the race, but she's also roped at least a score of non-runner Topanga moms into volunteering. I do pretty much anything that's asked of me. This morning, I sat at a damp picnic table under the oaks and registered runners, fumbling a pen in my cold fingers. It was great to see all the runners check in, and the kids. One of the great things Sparky has been doing is recruit kids from all over Los Angeles to participate in the run, and providing subsidies for those who need it.

Here are the runners setting off from the starting line:

They round the corner out of the parking lot, and then they're on the trail. You can see here how quickly the elevation rises:

Once the race starts, we have about 40 minutes to set up for the Runner's Breakfast at the end of the course.

As I said, I'm not a runner, so I don't know what most runs feature for refreshments at the end of a race. Complimentary juice boxes and energy bars? Not here. The Topanga 10K breakfast is legendary.

Set beneath the porch overhang at the Nature Center at Topanga State Park, in one corner there are 3 or 4 women cutting fruit into serving portions, another 3 or 4 slicing bagels; in the kitchen platters are arranged with fresh tomatoes, onion slices, smoked salmon. There are bowls of cream cheese and capers; in the kitchen's oven pans of frittata, roast vegetables, and baked granola warm.

The serving tables are set with real linens and vases of garden flowers. The bagels are served in wicker baskets, the food platters are ceramic and earthenware. Here's the serving line before the runners return:

And here it is 15 minutes later:

My favorite thing to do is serve out the famous warm granola. An assortment of fresh, home-canned, and dried fruit is covered with granola, dotted with butter and baked until it's a hot, sweet, crunchy delight, served with yogurt or cream to pour on top.

I've had people tell me that this is the reason they sign up for the grueling run. And why they come back each year. I've seen people's eyes widen when they taste their first bite of this stuff. Seeing their enjoyment is the best reward for volunteering. It makes it worth enduring the early hour, the damp cold, and the exhaustion at the end of the day.

The other great reward for participating in this each year is the chance to re-connect with friends and neighbors. Now that our kids are grown, and there aren't school activities to bring us together, it's easy to lose touch. We all work in different places, commute by different routes. The annual reunion in the kitchen, the time spent chatting while slicing bagels, the exclamations and hugs when you spot an old friend in the line are a welcome reminder that we are a community.

I almost feel like I earned a medal myself.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chez Jay

Sometimes we long for a nostalgic past that exists only in our own minds or memories - the original is long-gone demolished, or the memory is so altered by passing time that its no more than a feeling.

I'm remembering what it was like to be a kid and go with my parents to a "grown-up" restaurant - Lenhardt's in Cincinnati, where European waiters in formal attire served us wiener schnitzel, goulash, and pizelle. I'm remembering what it was like to be a young woman from the Midwest exploring Manhattan in the '70's, and visiting hidden little cafes in Greenwich Village, which looked as they did thirty years past. I'm remembering the 13 Coins, a brass and leather-boothed all-night joint in Seattle in the '80's, across the street from the Seattle Times building, where the reporters drank coffee, and stagehands after a load-out at the Paramount ate 3- egg crab-and-cheddar omelettes with a beer before going home to sleep.

You know the kind of place I'm talking about. Dark wood. Candles. Booths. Red-checked tablecloths. Cocktails. If there's food, it's steak. The choice of salad dressing always includes Roquefort. If there's music, it's standards, or jazz.

My LA past isn't long enough to qualify for any personal nostalgia for me, but I am always happy to borrow a little of it. One of the best places to get that sense of "the old days" is Chez Jay.

Chez Jay is a low, narrow building two blocks from the beach. It's in a parking lot right next to an old motel with a neon sign. The neighborhood has changed in the past ten years - there are slick new hotels across the street, a huge complex housing a policy think-tank to the east, and a sleek office building to the south.

Chez Jay has a neon sign, crazy ocean murals on the ocean-blue walls, a giant plaster scallop shell facing the parking lot. You enter through a Dutch-style front door that lets the setting sun off the ocean penetrate the interior gloom.

The bar is to the left when you enter, and it's usually full of regular patrons. Tattered memorabilia on the wall is authentically layered pentimento - the new applied over the old. The smart-talking bartender has seen it all, she'll tell ya, as she puts your glass in front of you.

The right side is lined with leather booths and tables with red-checked cloths. There's a kind of awning over the booths that makes it feel cozy and intimate when you sit in them. There's just enough room in the middle of the floor for a single row of small tables. Each table has a large votive candle made of red pebbled glass.

It's the perfect dive. We ended up there as an impluse, and it being the most geographically convenient place for the the three of us to meet - [The Man I Love] heading homeward from where he works, me working a few blocks away, and Our Son driving in from Topanga, before he embarked on further adventures of the evening. Our heat wave of the weekend had truly broken, and a stiff breeze was up, sending palm fronds to the pavement, and tossing bougainvillea bracts like brilliant confetti through the parking lot.

The weather made it feel even cosier inside.

Our Son had scampi and a draft beer; [The Man I Love] and I each had a steak and a glass of cabernet sauvignon. I chose scalloped potatoes, which I adore despite their caloric sins, while he had a baked potato with sour cream. The steaks were perfect, tender, cooked just medium rare as requested, and so big I took 3/4's of mine home and had a sandwich the next day.


It was the first time Our Son had been here. I wonder if this dinner and this place will end up in his nostalgia library someday.

I left my camera home in the charger, so I used my cell phone for these shots. But I kind of like the mistiness it lends the images - sort of like the mistiness of nostaglia itself.

UPDATE: as long as I'm being nostalgic about Seattle, I would be remiss if I failed to mention another great, truly departed (for the 13 Coins still remains) dive, Bob Murray's Dog House. All roads lead to The Dog House.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Event planners' outing!

One of the nice things about being professionally connected to the arts, entertainment, and events business is that - you get invited to all kinds of parties!

Now,these are not really "parties" where you can let your hair down - they are Work Related - but you sure do get a chance to check out the latest in event planning trends.

I was recently invited to a "mixer" event by a salesperson working for one of the luxury hotels on the beach in Santa Monica. I went with my colleague from work.

We were a little hampered by the fact that we had met our host - the salesperson - several weeks ago and neither of us quite remembered what he looked like. It was one of those email and telephone relationships you have in business these days - we felt like total friends, weren't sure we'd recognize him in person.

We registered and were immediately presented with a drinks tray. Watermelon martini or something blue that I didn't quite catch its name. We both chose the watermelon martini. Tray-passed hors d'oeuvres were whisked past our noses. Yes, I'll try the skewers of lamb, feta, and roasted tomato, thankyouverymuch!

A bit empty at first, and then it filled up. We chatted with two ladies who were event clients of the hotel - she does weddings and parties, her friend does corporate meetings. Lovely! Our friend came along and said Hi - thank goodness I recognized his voice, because I didn't remember his face at all, but I was able to go, "Oh Hi, K___!" when he spoke.

A quick swap of the empty martini glass for a glass of sauvignon blanc and a visit to the Raw Bar set up overlooking the beach.

Is this not the absolute best thing you've ever seen? Oysters on the half-shell, Shrimp on the beach.

And please note: that's tuna tartare served on a coconut shell "dish", with a plantain chip spoon. Very nice presentation!

The cool thing about going to a business mixer is that the servers feel a little more uninhibited with guests who work with catering and kitchens and all that. So as we were offered mini crab cakes, we asked the servers how things were going, and whether the strange weather of today (tornadoes in eastern area, sudden rain squall) had put a damper on the event, and if they were experiencing the same business we were in our facilities. One of the tray-passing waiters danced and sang to us - I bet he doesn't do that for a typical wedding party.

We found another friend, someone who's really well connected in the local tourism business, and dished with her a while, and then we decided to take off. But before we did, we looked beyond the party, toward the beach - which is what draws everyone here in the first place.

Here is the beach at Santa Monica, in the setting sun. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it a gift? I had a wonderful time, but in a funny way, I stood there on the pool deck of a luxury hotel, and envied what two random people out there on the sand were experiencing.


Moops, Bootsie, Bingalo, Beetle, Minnow, Mr. Bister, Minjgelo-Bah!, Beanly, Mootsie. These are the nicknames we've called My Son, now in his twentieth year. Some of these are his baby names - long out of favor. Since we nicknamed him in utero, as many parents do (a couple in our Lamaze class called their little bump Gouda, like the cheese!), I suppose you could say that one of these is his First Name.

The most creative coiner of nicknames is, of course, his father, but even his Aunt Elisa made one of them up. Nicknames. What do they all mean? where do they come from? And isn't he a good kid for putting up with them?

Nicknames can be shortened proper names. Some people - unlike My Son - carry their baby or toddler nickname into adult life. Some nicknames refer to a physical characteristic - or its opposite. Tall guys are sometimes called "Stretch", but don't we all know a really big guy who answers to the name "Tiny?"

One place where I worked, almost everybody had a nickname. Some people had several. There was a guy who answered to Fat Boy, Food Giant, Big Boy, Bronate (for the gimme-cap advertising fertilizer he always wore) and Sandy.

There was one guy I worked with who exclusively used people's nicknames whenever he referred to them - I don't think I ever heard him utter a person's real name during the 18 years I worked with him. with him, it was always "Uncle Buddy, Pablo, Pooter, Nerves, Puddles, Fat Boy, The Polish Princess, Crusher, Tiny, Husker, Zipper, Footsie, Augie-doggie, Dutch, Itty-bitty" - instead of Don, Paul, Don, Kevin, Doug, Alex, Karen, Mike, Dan, Mike, Jeff, Larry, Ben, Ed, Diana....of course, this guy had a nickname, too, which became so closely identified with him that he once actually got a paycheck made out to Ed Strange.

Nicknames can show affection, or contempt.

Nicknames can convey status. One of my colleagues at my current job always says "Hey, Bigbank!" to whoever's the most senior in the business office that day.

Nicknames are strange because there are two kinds - the ones you call someone behind his back, and the ones people actually answer to.

What's your nickname?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


There's way too much life out here. We're infested with critters. I guess we can be blamed for the goldfish, because we brought them in. But then there's these guys, who show up in the kitchen some mornings:

One Saturday morning in April, we returned from grocery shopping to find a very small snake lying on our front steps, tucked right into the place where the tread meets the riser. I carried up the grocery bags and didn't even see it until I was stepping over it. It must have been only two feet long and about the diameter of a fine-point Sharpie. I came back out of the house to get more bags, and watched it slither down the steps and then sidewind its way across the driveway into the brush.

These guys like to sun in the garden, and run away when you come near:

This year the big thing in birds is Mourning Doves. They're all over the place.

Just now, I missed the chance to take a photo of a couple of doves, something - two males fighting, or a couple in the act of love? - on the top step of our deck. As I came to the window with the camera, another dove flew out of the jacaranda tree. "We're like Dove Central here," sez [The Man I Love].

Last year we had a surplus of Acorn Woodpeckers. These birds cackle like demented cartoon characters and as a special bonus, they peck holes in your redwood siding right down to the insulation!

The year before that? Well, that was the year this guy started hanging around the neighborhood:

Do you know what it sounds like when a full-grown peacock lands on your house? It sounds like someone threw a canned ham on the roof.

Even the dog took him seriously:

But it's more than just fish, reptiles, and birds. We bought some devices from Home Depot that you put 4 D-cell batteries into and pound into the ground. They're supposed to emit supersonic noises to keep the gophers from doing this:

As you can see, it doesn't really work.

As dog owners, we often find it convenient to let the dog out and leave the door open for him to come back in on his own. Back when our Malamute was alive, he would sometimes wake us up in the middle of the night to "go outside." On one of these occasions, [The Man I Love] thought the dog had come back in the open door - and realized there was a raccoon in the kitchen, eating the dog food out of the dish on the kitchen table!!!

Why was the dog food dish on the kitchen table, you might ask? Why, to keep it away from the rats!

Yes, the rats that are attracted to our place during the summer months when the fruit ripens on our plum and apricot trees. We do our best with snap traps, but I heartily endorse this product

for all your rodent-management needs! It quickly electrocutes rats that wander into it in search of tasty nuggets of dry dog food, and you can easily dispose of them by tipping them into the trash can, with no muss, no fuss!

Beware the glue traps, which I've used once, but never again. Do NOT try the glue traps, I'm here to tell you. Here's what you get when you place a glue trap near the dog food area at bedtime: At 6:00 a.m. you discover an extremely pissed-off live rat, adhered to a plastic raft, paddling about the slick kitchen floor like some hideous fanged boatman with his un-stuck paw, gnawing on whatever object he manages to propel himself against, hoping it will free him - including my sandals! (into the trash they went!) - No, my heart cannot take this more than once in my life.

Dispensing of said rat is not for the squeamish. It involves a plastic trash bag and a sturdy cast-iron implement.

You may think I am unkind to poor defenseless animals, but consider this: we just had to write a check for $1200 to repair the electrical wiring on one of our cars - an ancient 2001 station wagon - because the insulation had been chewed by rats that decided that the engine area of our car was the perfect place to raise a family. Our mechanic has started to use the phrase "Mickey Mouse" in reference to our car.

It's not easy co-existing with critters, but that's the way it is in Topanga. It sure is romantic living close to nature.