Saturday, September 17, 2016

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD



I walked Hollywood Boulevard taking photos of tourists and landmarks; the classic Hollywood restaurant Musso and Frank, the huge Ninja Turtle statues that draw in folks in front of the Hollywood Highland Center escalator where people can do a selfie with the turtles then whisk themselves up the escalator and do some shopping. 



    The sun was bright and warm, the tourists dressed in shorts, tank tops, and the more exotic dress of high class hookers strolling with patrons along the sidewalk of stars.
    A young sales crew approaches me for a star tour bus ride, handing me a brochure and asking where I’m from. I engage them and ask some questions about the one sales rep that seemed most engaging.
    “Business is slowing down from the summer,” he says. He’s got dark skin, bright white teeth, buzz cut hair. “We show you star homes. From a distance. The house where Michael Jackson died, Stephen Spielberg’s house.”
    The buses run up and down Hollywood Boulevard, turning north on side streets, jostling the folks riding in the open air deck holding cameras and smearing sun screen over their noses. “Right now, I can get you on the tram here,” he says, pointing to an open air van parked fifteen feet away, “for only nineteen ninety five.” I tell him I’m not taking a tour today, but I wrote a story with a tour bus operator in it. That seems to bore him. The other sales rep walks away, yelling back at me that I seem to ask a lot of questions for a news guy.
    “Aladdin,” he says, when I ask him his name. He’s from Cincinnati, has worked a few other jobs in the three years he’s been in California. Representing a couple of bands, he says, without further explanation.
    
The sidewalks are full of hustlers. Taco trucks, open bars exposed to the
sidewalk, men in hoodies and sunglasses leaning against walls watching the 
action. I see couples walking together, a young woman in a short
chiffon dress exposing the lace straps of her bra. She stops to adjust her shoe
as I walk alongside. She has the cute look of a young Hollywood professional. Can’t be sure, you never know. Don’t be judgmental, I think to myself, continuing on past an electronics shop, a couple of shops closed up and protected by black iron grid security walls locked in front of the door and windows. 
Flyers are strewn in the shadows between the security wall and the windows. The people, the buses selling access to the stars, the cheap shops and dive bars seem one step from morphing into their next incarnation. Or this is it, they had their chance and some of the storefronts have given up the ghost and die quietly behind grids of wrought iron and padlocks.
 



    Miceli’s is a respite, a friendly oasis that has endured the shape shifting of Hollywood. Its friendly sign, white script spread over a wide green sign, signals another era with its stained glass windows, heavy wooden door, wrought iron handles strong and secure. It’s almost empty, and it’s the noon hour. 
The hostess seats me and the waiter brings a beer and a delicious plate of pasta carbonara. The sauce and seasoning is perfect.

It needs no pepper or salt, no Parmesan cheese. Thick noodles curl around my fork, full of bacon and slivered red onion, a rich olive oil to bind the pasta but not enough to pool on the plate. It’s perfect, and the cold beer has a bite that works well with the pasta, gleaming little noodles that turn golden in the lantern light. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet, Dean Martin croon in the background. The lights are dim, the air cool, the music and the food simple and true, just a block off the madness of Hollywood Boulevard, where the trends change faster than the titles on the movie marquees. Anchored in the past, I could sit there for hours drinking beer and listening to the music, out of the bright sunshine and into an air conditioned time capsule. If I lived here, this is where I’d spend the afternoons, with a notebook and a fountain pen, writing profiles of the young waiter, the chunky hostess and how efficient she seems and out of place in a retro-joint like Miceli’s. Write a few notes on the delivery man, a grey haired older guy who pulls in a cart loaded with cases, jars or cans of some ingredient secretly added to the sauces or the vegetables, perhaps the Italian bread that pulls apart so lightly that it flakes in my fingers. He goes in and out in front of me, down to the basement, up the stairs to the landing level and another level above that, a level I can only see because the ends of the red vinyl bench seats are flush with the wrought iron railing, way up in the darkness above where I’m seated.
   Michael rests a soft guitar case against his knee on the Redline train. I sit next to him and comment on his guitar, and he talks about his music, his guitars, the vintage Harmony in the case that he says just sounds better, maybe because it’s old, he thinks. He wants to learn piano and I mention that piano was too tough for me, my hands had difficulty stretching to make chords and hit the runs and scales.
    No, he hadn’t heard about John Lee Hooker until I say that he plays the intro theme to NCIS New Orleans.
    “Oh yeah, I know that piece. That’s iconic.” He says he’ll check out Hooker, and I tell him the blues great played on a kind of sampler CD with Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana and others. He thinks I know more about music than I do, because I tell him I was a disc jockey and he says, “Yeah, you have that radio personality vibe.” Maybe once upon a time, I did.
    I lean in to listen to him, fighting the noise of the train as it clacks through the tunnel on the way to Union Station. It’s been a great day. Nice interactions along the way, with the tour bus sales rep, Aladdin, now Michael, the guitarist working his way through the music of Los Angeles.

     Settling in my seat on the Metrolink, an air conditioned car that departs at 3:00 PM, I see the Amtrak Surfliner on the next track, the train that runs along the coast up to Santa Barbara. Longer ride, to the next great coastal destination. Los Angeles is good enough for me, though, good enough to have a lunch of pasta, a stroll along the boulevard, to talk with strangers in a casual way, to get them to respond to me like a regular. That’s what I want to be, a regular, able to slip in and out of the rush of the city into an old school joint for a drink and a meal, and back into the surge of the city and down into the subway. Come and go, in and out, among the folks and into the retro. Feel Hollywood and its people, yet maintain dignity and safety, move past the alleys and the shuttered shops and into a joint like Miceli’s to escape.
    Silently pulling away from the station, the train bends around storage yards full of huge iron chocks for electrical contractors, the odd angles and corners of chain link fences surrounding parked buses and out of service trains, over the deep cement canal of the Los Angeles River, alongside giant highway overpasses threading traffic from the 101 and the 10 freeways to their tributary streams, and out east to Cal State L.A. Graffiti is sprayed all along the cement walls in huge rounded lettering. Homeless camps show signs of life and death, the debris left behind the camps, couches, carts, tents, tarps, where people tried to live and failed.
    We move quietly on the rails. We see the back side of our city. We head home.     


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