One of the most humiliating moments in my life was playing sheepshead with my in-laws and having no clue what was going on. The cards in my hand were meaningless. Not that one, that one! I couldn’t tell the difference. You owe me five cents my normally mild mannered mother-in-law demanded. I gave her the nickle. I was down twenty cents and had no idea how. More shuffling and drawing and dis-carding and I was down another twenty cents. I still hadn’t a clue what was happening. The three Wisconsinites whipped through their cards. I dropped mine. Don’t let us see them! Finally my wife had pity. I don’t think he’s getting it, she said. Well, you should’ve married a guy that could play sheepshead. Once again I was the dumb Irish guy, they were the superior Indians. They sent me outside to shovel snow and talked about fish fry. The next day we got together with more in-laws and I talked too much. They listened politely. Then Friday night at fish fry we sat between two Polish families from south Milwaukee. They drank too much beer, scarfed their food, talked too loud and laughed uproariously. My wife identified me as an Irish Catholic from New Jersey. I’m an atheist who hadn’t lived in Jersey since 4th grade but no matter. They told me Irish jokes that were the exact same as Polish jokes I didn’t dare tell back. Slapped me on the back. Bought me a couple schnapps even though I’d never been to Lambeau Field in the dead of winter. Really, never? They bought me another sympathetically. I sang in the car on the way to the Post. He’s a little tipsy they told the bartender. He’s from California. OK, then no more schnapps for him and he drew me 16 ounces of Pabst. There were more of those as the evening progressed. The bartender put the dice on the bar. I drunkenly demurred. He got cleaned out at sheepshead already, someone said. Laughter all around. Wisconsin is an experience.
Category Archives: Places
The birds hushed and the light became unreal
Just outside Wisconsin Falls sometime in the 1990’s the light was so startling we pulled off the road to watch a sudden summer storm roll our way. For a few minutes it was like being in one of those old Flemish stormscape masterpieces or a big sky canvas out of the American west. The air grew still and heavy, the birds hushed and the light became unreal. You could almost reach out and touch the sudden two dimensionality. We snapped two pictures and the rain broke and we made a dash for the car.
[Just found this amid the drafts, it appears to have been pieced together from various bits and might be ten years old, and some of it perhaps twenty or thirty years old, I don’t remember. It’s a rough draft, obviously, but I’ll leave as is.]
Someone asked about the ON Klub. In Silver Lake, right? On Sunset? Facebook archaeology. Look for the old people that remember. A few of us did. Had actually been there even. I could even recite the address, though how I have no idea. But it was 3037 W. Sunset. Silverlake–it was one word then, though it’s back to two again now–was terra incognita then. People knew Hollywood, and people knew Echo Park was next to Dodger Stadium, but Silverlake was an amorphous area inbetween, and it’s stretch of Sunset Blvd was dimly lit and dark shadowed as night fell, dingy old gay bars and botanicas and liquor stores and abandoned storefronts. Everything old and if not quite falling down, aging less than gracefully. You could tell that a generation or two before this area had been something. If you dared to turn left or right and chugged up the steep hill in whatever beat up seventies lemon you were stuck in (it was the end of a decade of terrible American industrial workmanship, when everything was built just to break down, and a whole nation was topographically divided by whether the car could make it up that hill or not) the darkness would close in around you, the houses hidden behind steel bars and lush foliage, the apartment buildings peeling and battered, and who were those sketchy guys on the sidewalk? The streets twisted upon themselves immediately, dead ended or narrowed to the width of a single car and Sunset Blvd disappeared somewhere back there and you were lost, instantly. We were new in town, just a year or two, and lived in East Hollywood with the Armenians and Mexicans and gays and losers and ancient people who tended roses in yards in front of old clapboard houses they’d lived in since the silent days. We never explored Silverlake. We’d pass through it on the way downtown till we figured out a quicker route. But that was it.
Our car had died and we were dependent on the RTD–now MTA–for transportation for a year. That was a drag. You miss a lot of things that way. At some point we scraped up enough cash for a car and bought a Pinto. They were homely and cheap and deadly in a collision. Ours was blue and it rattled and it never saw the fast lane of a freeway. But it was wheels. I’m pretty sure this was the car we first went to the ON Klub in. We kept reading about the place in the LA Reader–never bothered with the LA Weekly back then, the Reader was much hipper and Matt Groening wrote the music column–and all these bands I’d hear on KXLU occasionally seemed to be playing there. Weird bands, crazy bands, punk rock bands that annoyed everybody. We had to go there. It was a Saturday night. We’d worked our shit jobs that week and collected our paychecks. Put almost enough in the bank to cover the bills, and the rest in our pockets. ATM cards didn’t exist yet, and credit cards were beyond most of us. It was a cash only economy at our level. Cheap restaurants, cheap clubs, cheap beer and rag weed. We had apparently just smoked a whole joint’s worth because I remember being stoned out of our minds as we crept down a darkened Sunset Boulevard looking for the address. We went right past it at least once, turned around, and headed back. 3037 Sunset, that’s it. There was a marquee I think above the door. I think it said Oriental Nights. Maybe it said ON Klub too. I can’t remember if that K was to make it punk rock or if it was some affectation left over from its history as a rather notorious gay bar from the days before Stonewall. Silver Lake–two words way back then–had been a center and hide out for Hollywood’s gays since the twenties. Fyl once described a bus trip down Sunset sitting behind two elderly queens. As the bus made its way slowly along, these two kept pointing to their old haunts and reminiscing. Remember that place? Oh and that one? Mary, this, Mary that. The Silver Lake Lounge. The Black Cat Tavern. Oriental Nights was one. They giggled and whispered something about the place. By the time she got off the bus downtown she’d had the whole tour. But that was twenty years later. I have no idea what we thought the place had been as we entered that night. You didn’t really ask questions about punk rock clubs, you just took them as they came, hoping it would last more than a week. When you’re twenty something the past isn’t especially important anyway. Or shouldn’t be.
The place was a dive. It was old, built into a hillside, almost a cliff, it was almost like it was built into a cavern. East Hollywood was flat as Kansas but here just two miles away weird bars were excavated into bedrock and the neighborhoods clung to hillsides along streets undulating who knows where. It was a different world. Gays and hippies and vatos, ancient bohemians and chattering Filipinos and breathtakingly beautiful Latinas that returned your stare with a sneer. It didn’t feel like home, yet, but I liked it. We found parking along Sunset somewhere near the joint and went in.
Think the place began booking punk around 1981? But only for a couple years. It was there for years afterward, first an empty shell, lonely and sad and weed choked, and then was a film studio storage place or something for decades, might still be. I don’t remember as much ska there as later at the ON Klub in Hollywood. I remember some really nuts underground shit, though. Nip Drivers in 82 or 83 remains one of my favorite shows ever, it was demented, plus some guy was fucking with Fyl and she poured her drink over his head, but it was the wrong guy, and he got mad, and Fyl told him to fuck off, and he got madder, and she told him to fuck off, bitch, so he got even madder, all dripping and sticky, and I told him to leave (think I just pointed at the door) which he did, but he wrote us a nasty personal ad in the LA Reader, called me a “hulking boyfriend”, which we still have pressed in a photo album somewhere. I loved punk rock.
Oy, hockey. What a blow out. Can’t believe I wasted three hours watching the Kings get their asses kicked five zip. Ouch. Not just for the score and humiliation, but for the time utterly wasted. You only get so many three hours in a lifetime, and that one was totally wasted. Sigh….
I switch channels. Wow. Huell Howser. I haven’t seen a Huell Howser since he died. He’s at Musso & Franks Grill and it’s 1995. I recognize all the help. Huell steps out of the kitchen and bumps into Benny Carter. I yell wow, loud. Benny Carter. One of his favorite places, Benny says. I really miss Benny Carter, and I never even met him. Some people you just miss because you might have got to meet them, but didn’t. Huell turns around and there’s Charles Champlin. Another wow. They’re talking about the old days. The Algonquin Round Table West, someone says. Wow, I say. Back when jazz and writing were going concerns. Then it’s Dr. George Fischbeck. Wow. I’m awash in multi-layered nostalgia. Nostalgia for this show which I never knew I’d have, nostalgia for the people he’s meeting who in turn are waxing nostalgic about times past that I’m nostalgic for even tho’ I was never there, or even could have been, chronology being what it is. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a world where writers and jazz musicians were something, and journalists had class. A pre-internet world, basically, I type in electrons. Waxing nostalgic for a hard copy world in the ether, when back then none of you would ever even see this. It’d be notes on paper in a box in my closet. Now everyone reads it and I complain. Some people just can’t be satisfied.
I type a whole other paragraph, think about it, hold down the back space key and watch it disappear, like it never was. On paper it’d still be there, a big line running though its length. Later I could read what I was thinking. Here I’ll never know. That’s language in the digital world. There one minute, gone the next.
Musso’s, though, is analog as it gets. On Christmas Eve my wife left a card for me under the tree…how about dinner at Musso’s? it said. Soon, I said, soon. I love the place. You need cash to do it right, and it’s too soon after the holidays to think about it now. But soon. We’ll sit at an old table and drink martinis and eat pot pie and oysters on the half shell and a crispy iceberg wedge with crumbles of blue cheese and I’ll imagine Bogie at the bar, not in the best of shape, or Orson Welles talking and talking and never shutting up. Or earlier, even, and there’s Charlie Chaplin, and I’m too scared to go up and say you’re Charlie Chaplin because he is Charlie Chaplin.
Old Hollywood, classic Hollywood. Funny that we’ve been here a third of a century now. I remember our first time at Musso’s, and looking at all the old people and listening in on their tales of the silent screen. They’re all gone now, long gone, and we have our own tales of a long gone Hollywood. In Musso’s all that blends together, a century’s worth of Hollywood. You can feel it. Close your eyes and you can see it. I wish I was there right now. I’d go there every week if I could, assemble a little Algonquin West. We’d eat and drink and laugh ourselves silly, then repair to the parking lot for cigars and whatever. The whateverers would giggle, the cigar smokers would blow long plumes of Cuban smoke. Flasks would pass around. See you next week, we’d say, and head off into the city looking for music, live music, and life, real life. Memories. Seeking out memories, and creating new ones.
Silver Lake when you could afford to live here.
You know Silver Lake is not completely gentrified when the crackhead (possibly schizophrenic) babydaddy of your next door neighbor, who rants at all hours about how he is possessed by “el Diablo,” is caught sharpening a humongous machete in front of your house, spends one night in jail, and then he’s back in front of the door, macheteless but still screaming about the fucking Diablo.
Ah wow, nostalgia. This was the Silver Lake (though it was Silverlake then, before all the gueros moved back) that I knew and loved from the mid 80’s till sometime after its third or fourth cover of Los Angeles magazine.
Crack, cool. OK, maybe not cool, but you used to be able to buy that where the Silver Lake farmer’s market is now. Or on Micheltorena across from the school. Or at Parkman, right on the sidewalk, across from the liquor store where my pal Dave got beat up for badmouthing a couple cholos. Dave always was kind of an idiot that way. It didn’t pay to be an idiot back then. Now it does, and you get to write for the LA Weekly or be a reality star or an independent film maker. Back then you got beat up by cholos at Sunset and Parkman, or OD’d on junk or got AIDS. Maybe the cops busted you in somebody’s bushes with some bear you just met on Griffith Park Blvd. Try explaining that one to the new neighbors.
I heard the worst poetry I ever heard in a bar where Cheetah’s is now. A chick screaming in free verse about sodomy. Though she didn’t call it that. She’d written the poem while so engaged. Bent over and hating herself and writing bad poetry. Seriously, that’s what she told us. I wondered why I was there. But I digress.
There used to be lots of gays in Silver Lake too. No really, I remember. You could hear their sounds of love deep into the night, plus they threw great parties. And the dykes would beat the living fuck out of each other outside the club where the free clinic is now. They wore huge boots and drove big pick up trucks and beat each other up. No tea parties in Silverlake. Not then.
There were still a few hippies left, I knew some, theirs was a different world. Talk of soap factories and love ins. We just stared, blinking in disbelief. Then we’d smoke pot together out of some ancient bong. There even remained a few ancient beatniks. Embittered, angry, hating everything…they hadn’t changed a bit. And punks, though getting into their late twenties and beyond, still scared customers away.
There was a gay bookstore, a gay steakhouse, a gay hamburger joint, a gay coffee shop, and bathhouses you could emerge from sparkling clean. We had a zillion gay weekly papers, all outrageous, and one very serious Lesbian News. There was a lesbian auto mechanic.
We had crime too, lots of it. You could have your car battery, your car radio and your car itself stolen, sometimes in the same week if it was your lucky day. We had shootings and murders and a Colombian gang that specialized in pick pocketing and breaking and entering. Suicides were popular.
We had a laundromat that had poetry readings, next to a gay bar with oiled musclemen dancing on the tables. We don’t have that anymore. Plus we had a surplus store, and still do. That, and me and my wife, are still here. Surplus and antiques.
Nowadays we have breeders and lawyers and hipsters and a zillion lovely young women who I refuse to complain about.. And oh yeah, the food was better then. I mean it was worse, but it was better. At least you could afford it.
Anyway that story I opened with was from my former editor who yelled at me for spelling Esperanza Spalding wrong (I had whooping cough, no one can spell right with hooping cough) and who I once got in trouble because I said Lemmy beat me up. And that story of his brought all that wonderful old Silverlake back. Nothing like a good machete story. Especially if no one gets hurt. If it was a machete story and someone did get hurt, well, that was what Echo Park was for. Maybe hurt is an understatement. They fished him out of the lake. Maybe they found the head when they drained it.
Or maybe they’ll find it when they drain the Reservoir.
I like to think it was used by Santerias. We used to have them in Silverlake. The botanicas on Sunset sold powders and spells, and you’d find dead chickens in the park.
I’ve never told this to the lovely young neighbor ladies. They’d be outraged. Chickens have rights too, you know. Some stories are best left to the aged and cynical.
One Saturday night a couple years ago we were out in Palm Springs watching their Christmas Festival of Lights parade. Fire trucks and marching bands and agricultural machinery and prancing queens and everything bedecked in lights and fiber optic cables, as beautiful as it is absurd. The parade goes down Palm Canyon Drive and we’d booked a room on Indian Canyon Drive a block away. Two minute walk. It was chilly, not a cloud in the sky, a bone chilling desert winter’s night. A zillion glittery stars over head, and faint smudges of galaxies unimaginably far away, so far and so vast it’s better not to think of them at all. We didn’t. Continue reading
No wonder I live here
I have a hot Brazilian babe angry at me because I owe her some writing. This stuff didn’t happen before I became world famous and then world unfamous. There’s a price for fame and a price for unfame. Is there a happy medium? Maybe the psychic in El Sereno is a happy medium. Passed her office today. It was on Huntington Drive with a big evil eye painted on the window. Malocho. Huntington Drive must have the biggest parkway in the world. Enough once for two Red Lines. Now there’s a bike path and old men playing bocchi ball. Progress. We turned right for the hell of it because the street looked so steep. It curved and curved and wound and wound and turned to dirt and a dead end with a view you wouldn’t believe. We decided to get lost in Montecito Heights. We did, aimlessly, driving all around just looking and peering over edges. Gorgeous up there, abandoned in places, Appalachian. Down a bit the moneyed people show up. At the bottom was a house with huge metallic grasshoppers in the front yard. Art. Cool. Highland Park. Silver Lake used to be Highland Park, crazy, arty, weird, gay and dangerous. Now our Silver Lake neighborhood is very nice, very quiet chockfull of gorgeous, moneyed hipster chicks. I’m nearly 56 years old and grandfatherly. Oh the irony. Bored by our pleasant surroundings, we explore, like today. We wandered home from Highland Park down historic boulevards and up crazy backroads. Our secret way. L.A. is full of mysteries, lost continents, other dimensions, freaks. No wonder I live here.
There is a vast concrete plain where Bandini Mountain once stood. An awesome pile of dung a hundred feet high, it was the only topographic feature in all of Vernon and has disappeared into history. No more skiing down Bandini Mountain. No more nothing. Just wind and a big empty fertilizer factory and the ghosts of long dead commercials. Did Huell Howser ever ski down Bandini Mountain? He would have. Golly.
I remember driving by in a Santa Ana wind and not rolling up the car windows in time. Bandini Mountain was blowing west right through my car, covering me in a fine coat of fertilizer. What was in that stuff? I tried to think of it as dust, not cow shit. I had dust in my eyes. I was tasting dust. Brushed dust from my hair. Sweet smelling dust everywhere, on everything. A block or two down was row after row of rendering plants. Now that was an aroma. It annihilated all the sweet smelling Bandini Mountain molecules in the air, replaced them with the rankest smelling molecules ever. What nearby Farmer John didn’t turn into bologna wound up there, in great vats. I pictured hides and bones bubbling and fizzing and expelling great clouds of deadly fumes. The odor clung to you. The air along Bandini Boulevard was full of rendered pig and fertilizer. The exhaust of a zillion trucks. Burrito wagons too numerous to count. Cows.
Once in the middle of Vernon I saw a bull escape. An enormous longhorned beast. It made a mad dash from the cattle carrier into a parking lot. White coated workers backed away. The bull charged one way then another. The workers scattered. Another white coat showed up with an enormous hunting rifle, aimed it. The bull faced him dead on, snorting, magnificent, ready to charge. The light turned green and I moved on. I passed the place on the way back a few minutes later. The man with the rifle was still there, and the lifeless bull was scooped up by a skip loader. It lifted it up into the air, the head hanging limply, the massive horns harmless. It disappeared behind the gates. The light turned green and I drove on. Bandini Mountain loomed ahead. I rolled up the windows.
I tried to find a picture of Bandini Mountain. I couldn’t. I tried to find a Bandini Mountain commercial. I couldn’t. I googled Bandini Mountain. There’s was almost nothing there. Several sites even referred to it as apocryphal. Said it never was. But it was. I breathed it.
Summer nights in L.A. just aren’t the same without a bright orange moon. I see that sad, wan little thing overhead now and I remember when I was a kid and looking up, wheezing, and seeing the prettiest orange moon you ever saw. Suns were gorgeous, too, though spookier, a deep orange, almost crimson….your eyes would sting and tear up and you’d think wow, what a groovy orange…maybe that’s not such a good thing. A goldfish upside down in the bowl bloatin’, the Captain said, nailing it. There were no mountains during a Stage 3 Smog Alert, and sometimes not even hills. Just thick brown air. Come dusk the whole sky to the west was on fire and the sun, huge, slipped into the sea. Darkness descended and with it that orange moon again, hanging there, lovely. We drank Bud talls and passed ragweed reefer and it hurt drawing it in and the moon became even more vivid, more orange, more beautiful. Someone called her a goddess once. We’d gaze up and pray to her for a santa ana. Please, oh Moon Goddess, deliver us. Sometimes it worked, bringing gusts of desert air that would scour the city clean. Mountains magically appeared. Blue sky. We’d go up to Mulholland Drive and the city spread as far as the eye could see, and there was Catalina, there were the Simi Hills, there was distant Orange County. But sometimes the desert winds brought fire. Sirens and a pall of smoke. Cinders would rain down silently, you could hold out your hand and a tiny little carbonized flake of a house would settle in your palm and then vanish. The very air smelled charred, your clothes, your furniture, your hair (we had lots of hair then) all stank of smoke, and the moon on those nights was an angry goddess, crimson, warning of death and destruction and the end of the world. Distant sirens would send us to the television where every channel was breathlessly reporting the progress of the flames. Sometimes you could see them yourself, brilliant red lines that stitched along the side of the mountains. We’d watch with smarting eyes. The whole world stank of smoke. Come dawn, the sun appeared over the mountains again, angry orange, menacing, not good. Sunsets were gorgeous. The moon hung orange and perfect again. We’d drink our Budweiser by her light. As we cruised the freeways those summer nights, windows down, music blaring, shouting over the din, she raced along with us, a guardian angel. We’d stop. She’d stop. We’d go, she’d follow. The orange moon watched over us, beautiful and eerie. She wasn’t really orange, someone said, that’s the smog. No, someone else said, inhaling deeply, she’s a goddess. He coughed and the car filled with cheap weed smoke that blew out of the windows and into the poison air. I wonder about our lungs, sometimes.
They plow under everything in Hollywood
Went to Musso and Frank’s yesterday, and had a tasty meal. Sometimes you get delicious stuff in there, sometimes you wish you’d ordered something else, but that’s not the point. You go for the vibe, the history, that ancient coolness which is such a rare thing in this town. They plow under everything in Hollywood and build something new. Almost nothing is saved. And even if something is saved, will anyone notice? Or care? Los Angeles is where people come to start all over again, it’s a whole city full of people who’ve cut loose from their families, their ex’s, their pasts, themselves even, and pretend all of that never happened or they never knew those people back home or never had been a male cheerleader, a hit man, a mom. And we pretend the old neighborhood never existed, the old restaurant, the old film studio, the old anything…it just gets plowed under like the time I saw Tiny Naylor’s in Hollywood being leveled by a bulldozer. I stood there across La Brea helpless, all the times I’d been there passing before my eyes, and all the times I might have been there going up in a poof just like that, unfulfilled. The bulldozer reared back, lowered the blade again and pushed right through the dining room. Again and again. Tiny Naylor’s lay there, a disemboweled heap where once incredibly hot waitresses held trays piled high with hamburgers. The men would stare.Their dates pretended not to notice and seethed. The bulldozer plunged into the wreckage and scooped up a mess and let it drop into a big dumpster truck. Dust filled the air. I couldn’t watch anymore and wondered why L.A. ate its own past for lunch like that. Ate it and digested it and used the nutrients to raise new shopping centers, apartments, schools. There’s a school now where once a famous bowling alley once stood. The school was needed. There’s always another bowling alley. And too bad about Tiny Naylor’s , but there’s always Norms. Of course our Norms is now a hospital. Hospitals are needed. And there’s always Astro’s. Norms we used to go to when we were punk rockers and broke. We’d have spent all our money at the Brave Dog or the ON Klub and walk to Norms the next morning after scraping together a few 99 cents breakfast’s worth of spare change and the odd crumpled beer soaked dollar bill or two. Then we’d walk back to the house, smoke whatever dope was left and listen to loud records all afternoon, laughing and not worrying about a thing. The world was going to end any minute.
Sometimes for dinner we’d scrape enough together for Spaghetti Factory. We’d walk down there on a Friday night as Sunset Boulevard began filling up with Friday night cruisers. We’d order extra bread and fill our pockets. You could live on bread back then. Bread and beer and weed. On the way home we’d stop on the Sunset Boulevard overpass and watch the Hollywood Freeway come to life, white lights coming at us, red lights disappearing around the Scientology Celebrity Center on their way to the Valley. Dusk fell and the city turned to blackness and light and the craziness of the 1980’s.
Spaghetti Factory is gone now. Just a shell where a restaurant used to be. They had to leave it like that, a shell. Whoever bought it was not supposed to tear it down. Historical designation. Like that helped any. It looks like a monument to post-war Berlin, like a B-17 dropped a big bomb square on the thing and everyone inside eating spaghetti is in heaven now.
Musso and Franks, though, hasn’t changed. Not one whit. Not even the waiters. Certainly not the wallpaper. Or the menus. Or menu. What Charlie Chaplain once ate you can eat now. What Bogie once drank you can drink now. What Orson Welles once complained about you can complain about now. That’s what Musso and Frank’s is. Continuity. Between it and the Pantry you know what was then is still now, only a little more expensive. Continuity is a rare thing in this town. Studios hire editors to maintain continuity in their movies, so one scene looks like the next, the curtains, clothes, whose holding what beer and with what hand. It’s all fake, of course. One scene was shot weeks after the one before it. But you can’t tell. It’s a nice trick. LA’s like that. Stuff looks like it’s always been here. It hasn’t. That hospital was once a Norms. That public storage warehouse was once a silent movie studio. That school was where Robert Kennedy was shot. But you can’t tell. Continuity. That’s a take. Let’s break for lunch.
After Musso and Franks (they have valet parking now…that’s different) we wandered over to Hollywood Forever cemetery. Parked the car by Johnny Ramone’s grave with the big bronze Johnny Ramone on top. Kids kept coming up, carloads or straggling little groups. They looked up at Johnny and held back tears. We looked the other way. The Fairbanks are down there, Douglas senior and junior. Their crypt lies at the far end of a long reflecting pool, and everything is marble and perfect. A perfect pair of swans glided across the water, and the rain came down and the swans never noticed.