Travel

48 Hours in L.A. – Part Three

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Outside Griffith Observatory

I wake at dawn not knowing where I am.  It is dark with a little bit of light sneaking through the shades, and the room is too big to be my apartment.  While it only lasts a few seconds, the sensation of being untethered in time and space is both unsettling and enjoyable.

When I realize I’m in a comfortable bed in my room at the Magic Castle Hotel, I smile.  I have another three hours before my buddy Jamie picks me up, and I’m quickly back to dreamland.  After getting almost no sleep on the plane the night before, I feel rested and ready to start the day when the alarm wakes me at 8:30 am.

I pour myself a coffee in the lobby and Jamie arrives a little after 9.  We’re on our way to the House of Pies, a classic breakfast spot in Los Feliz.  Since the late 90s I’ve been to this restaurant dozens of times with friends or by myself.

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After seeing Donnie Darko in 2001, I remember trying to decipher its meaning while eating a Lemon Meringue Pie and downing several cups of coffee at House of Pies.

Jamie and I get a booth and order classic breakfast fare.  The two of us go way back, meeting as Freshman roommates at Bridgewater State College.  We remained great friends even after I transferred to Boston University, and about a year after we got our degrees we moved to Key West, Florida.  Jamie to begin his career with American Airlines, me to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett.

I eventually left Key West for film and TV studies at Emerson College in Boston, while Jamie stayed in the tropics for a girl and his job.   Sometime later he would end up in Albany for a promotion, and I got on my screenwriting path.   Knowing I wanted to move to Los Angeles after receiving my Master’s, I did my best to sell Jamie on joining me.  Back then he was going through a bad break-up in upstate New York (different girl than Key West), and it didn’t take much convincing for him to apply for, and eventually get, a transfer to LAX in sunny California.

We talk about all this, of the strange coincidences and good fortune that led us to be roommates in three different states.  Jamie never left LA, and had gotten married (and divorced), had a son, and was doing very well for himself still  at American Airlines.  Even though he had to work later on, we had about four more hours to hang out and catch-up.

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena was on the agenda, but we had about an hour and half before their doors opened at noon.  Since the entrance was just up the road from House of Pies, we drive into Griffith Park to the Observatory.  That spot has always been one of my favorites in LA.

When I was a resident of Southern California the Griffith Observatory began a massive renovation in 2002.  When I left LA in ’04 it was only half way to completion, so I never had a proper farewell.  I finally got to see the newly refurbished Observatory on a visit in 2009, and I was very impressed.  This is my first time back since then.

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At the Griffith Observatory with the Hollywood Sign in the Distance
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Hanging with Jamie at the Observatory

Jamie and I walk around the Observatory, taking in its wonderful architecture and the surrounding postcard vistas.  We can see the Hollywood Sign, and hard to believe I had hiked above it yesterday.  For some reason it seems like it was about five weeks ago.

From Los Feliz Boulevard it’s a quick drive to the 5 and then to the 134.  I get a strange sensation I’ve actually missed these freeways and exits.   It’s been twelve years since my last visit to the Norton Simon Museum and the city of Pasadena, and I feel a sense of pride I still remembered how to get there.

It was a bizarre detour in my life and career, but I was actually once an employee of the Norton Simon Museum.  My job was to stand in the company issued grey pants, white shirt, striped tie, and blue blazer, and make sure nobody got too close to the art.  My official title was gallery attendant, and I got paid minimum wage.  I was one of three employees who wasn’t either retired or an art student at one of the local colleges.

While there were certainly a lot of negatives to the job (the pay, the utter lack of engaging tasks, school groups), I enjoyed my six months there.  I’ve always loved museums and art, but outside a couple of classes in college I’ve been self-taught.  The Norton Simon was an opportunity to spend a good portion of my week studying such a fascinating subject, and be paid for it.  We were even able to take the headphones with the audio tour at the end of the day if it was slow.  I did this often, and also talked to the tour guides whenever I had a chance.  This spurred me to check-out art books at the library and continue my studying at home.

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Hanging with Matisse’s The Black Shawl

After examining and studying every piece in the Norton Simon when I was an employee, my favorite became Henri Matisse’s The Black Shawl (1918).  This painting remains the piece of his (and of the museum) I admire the most, though I still cannot properly articulate why.  The black and red colors draw you in, and your eyes focus on the alluring dark-haired woman in a beautiful dress.  There’s movement in that painting, and the model, though not depicted realistically, is alive.  But it’s much more than just the sum of the images, and I suspect there are Jungian forces at work on me whenever I stare at it.

Jamie and I started our tour of the Norton Simon the way I always thought you should (chronologically beginning with the Medieval, going through the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Impressionists, and then to the Modernists).  The collection is outstanding, and you get to see the evolution of art through the centuries.  By the time we reach the giant Sam Francis Abstract Expressionist mural, Jamie and I have been in the museum for two hours.  I’d like to stay longer, but my friend has to get to work.

Before leaving we head to the Sculpture Garden, with the lily pond right out of a Monet painting.  When I worked at the museum, whenever my rotation took me out there I would amble around and pretend I was in Paris.  On particularly dark days of the soul, when I was feeling severely disappointed at myself for wearing that blue blazer, strolling around that garden would always turn my mood around.

Because it had recently rained, parts of the grounds were closed to the public.  It’s disappointing I can’t take my old loop around the place, but we’re able to see a decent portion of it and snap a few pictures.  I am so happy to be back after a twelve-year absence.

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Norton Simon Sculpture Garden

After leaving the museum I had originally wanted to go to Lucky Baldwins for lunch and a beer, as it was always one of my favorite spots in Pasadena.  But with Jamie heading to the airport I had a decision to make.  While I could have stayed in Pasadena and had an enjoyable day, I wanted to see more of the city.  It was a short trip down the 110 Freeway to the 9th Street exit, and after circling around and saying our goodbyes, Jamie drops me off just before Figueroa Street.

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I had three jobs (none at the same time) when I lived in LA.  My first was Pizzeria Uno’s in West Hollywood, which is now a Wells Fargo bank, and I worked there almost a year before it closed.  The museum was the third one,  a brief six-month stint.  I was now on my way to Job #2 and the place I worked the longest, California Pizza Kitchen at 7th and Figueroa.   From 1999 to 2003 I stood behind the bar there and served pizza and beer and barbecue chicken salads, and until today I had never been back.

Even before I walk through the door, it’s all very strange.  In my days there was an underground, open-air mall next door called 7th Street Marketplace.  With a look straight out of the 80’s (think wavy neon lights), there certainly weren’t any big name brands and several retail spaces were empty.  Now called Fig at 7th, the place is hip and modern and features a Target, Bath & Body Works, and even a Victoria’s Secret.  Seeing it produced a Marty McFly-walking-into-Hill Valley Square-Circa-2015 moment.

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Where I worked from 1999-2003
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My Last Shift at CPK in May 2003

When I step inside CPK, the décor is much different.  The old, minimalistic black and white tile floors and bare yellow walls give way to wood, softer colors and lots of artwork.   There are also televisions!  When I was a bartender, there were none.  I always resented missing out on some big games while I worked.

But the layout of the restaurant is the same, and when I take a seat at the bar it all comes back to me in a rush.  There’s the same glass washer, the same taps, the same well, and the pilsner glasses are still the same.  I look to the left and the little nook next to the bar has a couple of employees eating pizza on their break.  That is where we would sit after the lunch or dinner rush for our breaks or to do roll-ups.  And there’s the same swinging black door leading to the back of the house and the manager’s office and time clock.

After a thirteen-year absence, it’s nostalgia overload.   I’m actually surprised at how much I’m affected by being there, mostly in a positive way.  The bartender is very friendly, and I let him know about my history with this CPK.  He tells me the name of his co-worker who has been there for fourteen years, but I cannot place this name to a face.  However, in doing so I think of all the great people I worked with through the years, some of which I am still good friends with today.

I order a BBQ Chicken Pizza and add feta cheese (my go-to meal way back when), and get a cold beer.  I think about how I was part of the opening team of the 7th & Fig CPK Team back in 1999.  I also remember how Jenna Fischer, several years before staring on The Office, used to sit at my bar several times a week.  At this point she was slowly building up her acting resume with smaller parts, but she was paying her bills by actually working in an office.

Jenna invited me to one of her plays called Nosferatu, and after leaving the theater that night fifteen years ago it was clear she was a very talented actress.  During our talks back then she couldn’t have been any nicer or sweeter.  I had such a huge crush on her.  Unfortunately for me Jenna had a husband, and when he sold a script she was able to quit her job.  I didn’t see her again until 2005, when I turned on the TV for the premiere of the American version of The Office.

I leave CPK with no agenda other than at some point to get to the revolving cocktail lounge at the Westin Bonaventure, and maybe have a few John Fante moments.  Fante is one of my favorite authors, and I first read him right around the time I started working in downtown LA.  After my shifts I used to walk the same streets he wrote about in his classic novel Ask the Dusk.  That book is all about a poor writer’s struggle to become successful in Los Angeles, and even though it was published in 1939 I connected with it on many levels in 1999.

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When I worked in downtown LA, the place was mostly a ghost town after all the business people went home.  With the opening of Staples Center and the construction of some new apartment and condo complexes, there was some growth in the neighborhood by the time I left in 2003.  In 2016 I’m amazed at all the shops and restaurants and bars, and also by the sheer number of people who are not office workers or homeless.

I head over to Pershing Square, and there are new murals and a café and the views of the surrounding skyscrapers and the Biltmore Hotel are as good as I remember.  Yes, there is a distinct piss smell by the statues and I get asked for change several times, but I can’t remember this area being so clean and well-maintained.  It’s nearing 5 pm and it’s time for a cocktail.

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The Biltmore Hotel viewed from Pershing Square

The Biltmore Hotel was built in 1923, and it’s one of my favorites in the world.  While I always loved taking in the Spanish-Italian Renaissance architecture from Pershing Square, it’s the interior that truly blew me away.  Stepping through the Biltmore doors, you’re hit with old school opulence everywhere you look –  marble, grand ceilings, dramatic archways, ornate carvings, bas-relief and chandeliers just to name a few features.

I go straight to the Gallery Bar, and the bartender gives me a warm welcome and mixes me a damn fine Manhattan.  I ask how long this place has been open, and the gray-haired gentleman informs me since the 80s (he gave a specific year, but the cocktails that are to follow erase it from memory).  The bartender has worked there since day one (before that it was actually just a hallway in the hotel), and when I tell him he probably made me a Manhattan in 1999 he smiles.

I sip my cocktail, take in all the elegance, and once again think of John Fante.  He would go on to be a successful screenwriter and novelist, but when he first moved to LA in the 1930s he was poor to the point of having to eat oranges for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  This is a passage from Ask the Dusk:

I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out.  He looked rich, and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was dream as I walked along her perfume still in the wet morning air.”

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Biltmore Hotel Gallery Bar

I walk outside thinking of the girl in the silver fox fur, and I head to the Public Library.  Another gorgeous piece of architecture in downtown LA, I’d like to stop inside but time is not on my side.  So I walk around the art deco building, thinking of all the great books I checked out from there in my late 20s, early 30s.   It’s also the same place where a young Charles Bukowski discovered John Fante, and he wrote  about that experience in the preface to Ask the Dust.

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I then head up Figueroa to the Westin Bonaventure.  On my first visit to LA in 1992, years before I would move there, I had drinks at the revolving cocktail lounge with my buddy Rich.  As we spun around and drank our beers, the enchanting dusk gave way to the coal-black sky and sparkling lights of night.  I remember declaring to Rich that I wanted to live in LA someday.

My next visit to the top of the Bonaventure would be as a resident of the city in 1999.  For the novel I was writing  I knew I wanted to set a scene in that lounge with the characters Tim and Jessica, and went there after my shift at CPK for research.  I took notes of all I saw and heard while downing several beers, and this is part of what ended up in my book:

“Although only a few blocks up Figueroa, I was still exhausted when we reached the hotel.  The giant glass cylinders gleamed at us, promising cure-all climate control.

“I’ve seen this somewhere,” Jessica said.

“I don’t know how they figured it out, but supposedly it’s the tenth-most-photographed building in the world.  Last time I was here, this guy next to me wouldn’t shut up about that.”

A few moments later, Jessica and I were in the glass-enclosed red section elevator, hurtling up to the thirty-fifth floor.  Exiting at the restaurant, we had to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the lounge.  We sat down at a table next to the window …. I looked down at the rug.  It was sort of an abstract rendition of geometry.  You could find triangles, circles, diamonds and even commas.”

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My Fourth Visit to the Revolving Cocktail Lounge . . . First time in 1992, Second in 1999, and Third in 2004
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One of the Many Wonderful Views at the top of the Westin Bonaventure

I take the same elevator to the top, make the same trek down the stairs from the restaurant to the lounge, and it’s possible I sit at the same table.  While I stare out the glass window at the skyscrapers in front of me, I notice they’ve redone the carpet sometime in the last 18 years.  That being said, it still seems dated.  The place actually doesn’t look much different from my last visit before today, which was in 2004.

The Westin Bonaventure was high on the list of things I had to do before I moved from LA to San Francisco.  I suppose it all goes back to that first visit as a 22-year-old, when I had a wide-open future where anything was possible.  Sitting there in 2016 and sipping another Manhattan, it’s challenging to find the nexus between the kid who first went to the Bonaventure 24 years ago and the guy I am today.  I know it’s there, and maybe more booze will help me find it.

In my attempt at recapturing my youth, I realize it’s 6:15 and I need to get back to Hollywood.  I made plans with my friend Kristi for dinner at 8 pm, and there was one more place I wanted to check-out before we meet.  So it’s back down Figueroa to the Metro Station at 7th Street, and it’s only a few stops on the Red Line to Hollywood and Vine.  I used to do this same subway trek when I lived on June Street to my job at CPK.

I didn’t want this LA Trip to be all about the past, so I had researched some newer spots in the city.  The one bar that stood out the most was Good Times at Davey Wayne’s.  The owner created it as a tribute to his late father, and the place makes you feel like you stepped back in time to 1976.  To get inside you have to walk down a driveway, enter a garage, and then open up a refrigerator door.   This could all be precious or douchey or even Disney, but it’s not.  Davey Wayne’s is just a cool local’s spot tucked away off Hollywood Boulevard that I enjoyed immensely.  But with 8 pm getting closer, I can only have one beer and then I’m on my way to the Magic Castle Hotel for a quick change of clothes.

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The Entrance to Good Times at Davey Wayne’s
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Inside the Cocktail Lounge

After putting on a new shirt, I ascend the winding road behind my hotel to meet my friend Kristi at Yamashiro, the iconic Japanese themed restaurant in the Hollywood Hills.  Built in 1914 as a private mansion to house Japanese treasures, you are truly transported to another time and place once you step foot on the property.  Surrounded by lush gardens complete with a bronze Buddha sculpture and a pagoda, the restaurant is a teak and cedar palace designed to replicate the ones of Kyoto.

The night before at Stella Barra we learned Yamshiro was closing, and Kristi, Matt, and I reminisced about all the good times we had there.  Most of them involved our great friend Bradleigh, who passed away six years ago.  It was Bradleigh who turned Yamashiro into a verb.  It was the place he would bring dates to impress them, and he claimed he never failed to get lucky afterwards.  Bradleigh would say he Yamashiro-ed the young lady after dinner.

There was no question we had to go there one last time, and Kristi was in agreement.  Bradleigh was my roommate when I lived in Hollywood, and years afterwards she had the great pleasure of sharing an apartment with him.  Over an outstanding dinner, the two of us shared stories of our friend who could be best be described as a combination of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski.  Bradleigh gave us some of the best times of our lives, and for that we are forever grateful.

Knowing this would be the last time we would eat at Yamashiro, Kristi and I go big and share the Himalayan Salt Plate.  We both enjoyed our wagyu steak cooked on a 400 degree round platter made of mineral salt and slathered in garlic (back in the day neither one of us could have afforded such a dish, and we each appreciate this immensely).  After Port and Molten Chocolate Cake for dessert (we were still going big), we walked around the grounds and took a seat on one of the benches to admire the views of Hollywood several hundred feet below.  I’m very sad Yamashiro is closing on June 12th, but I am so happy I got to experience it one more time.

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Moon Over Yamashiro
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Yamashiro Courtyard

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View from Yamashiro’s Gardens

Kristi orders an Uber, and I take it with her to the bottom of the hill and get off at my hotel.  During this short ride we hatch a plan to meet in one year, sneak into the complex on June Street where Bradleigh and I lived, and put a plaque next to the apartment door honoring him.  It’s sweet drunk talk, but when Kristi and I hug just before I leave the car, she says she has a guy that can make plaques.  I say I have a guy that can give us super-industrial strength epoxy, and we’re both looking forward to pulling off this caper in 2017.

I should probably just go to bed since I’m driving to Vegas the next day, but it’s only 11 pm and I want to squeeze out a little more fun on the trip.  So I walk down to Hollywood Boulevard to the Roosevelt Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1927.  When I lived here the place was obviously very historic, but like much of the neighborhood in the late 90s it had seen better days.  Back then I would walk inside the lobby and public spaces just to get a feel of what old Hollywood was like, but the only patrons were tourists.

Things have changed.  The Roosevelt has become a hip spot, and while I had read about that during my research, I wasn’t expecting the level to which it was true.  I go to the Spare Room on the second floor, which is designed to be a Prohibition Style cocktail lounge with a couple of bowling alleys.  The décor is super cool, and ditto you can actually bowl there.  But it was definitely not my scene.  There’s only a scattering of people my age, which in of itself isn’t an issue, but the music is very loud and this is clearly not a place to enjoy a cocktail alone.  I love chatting up strangers over a few drinks, but it isn’t going to happen here.  I drink my Bulleit over ice and head on down the road.

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I’m good for at least one more drink, and I decide to continue the old Hollywood Tour by walking down the Boulevard to Boardner’s.  It’s easily been more than a decade since my last visit, and I am happy to see the 1940s cocktail lounge still looks the same.  Well . . . mostly the same.  When I lived in LA it was a worn-down dive, but it has since been repainted and classed-up slightly.  Though unlike the Power House, Boardner’s still has the same wonderful vibe as I remembered.  On a Wednesday night there’s not a lot of people there, and while sipping another Bulleit over ice I allow myself to reminisce one last time about my days in Hollywood.

But now it’s time to start saying good-bye to Los Angeles.

Although I’d managed to cram a week’s worth of activities in 48 hours, I would have liked at least another day.  I hadn’t even cruised Mulholland Drive or enjoyed  a Ray’s Mistake at Tiki Ti or went around Silverlake (where I lived after I moved from Hollywood) or swam in the ocean in Malibu or Zuma Beach.  I think of this while I walk back to the Magic Castle.     When I reach Franklin I spot the moon and I stare at it for some time, buzzed and very grateful I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles when I was young.

Travel

48 Hours in LA – Part Two

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Los Feliz . . . one of the best neighborhoods in LA.

After taking in the views from the back of the Hollywood sign, I descend Mount Lee with an extra bounce in my step.  There are no more thoughts of the red-eye flight, of the crazy cab ride from LAX, of exhaustion, and most importantly, of sleep.  I’m ready to keep this day rolling.

Before reaching the bottom of the trail I try to arrange an Uber or a Lyft, but the service is spotty.  When I get to the parking lot I stand next to the Camp Hollywood Land sign, and I finally get a signal.  The driver is nine minutes away.

My pre-trip research pays off, and I know I want to have lunch at Mess Hall Kitchen in Los Feliz.  This is the site of the defunct Derby, a club made famous in the movie Swingers and one I frequented often back in 1990s.  The history of the space telescopes much further back in time.  It was originally built in the 1920s as Willard’s Chicken Inn and then a few decades later became one of the iconic Brown Derby restaurants.

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On the way to Mess Hall Kitchen I chat with the driver, letting him know that I used to live in LA back in the late 90s, early 2000s.  I remark, casually, that just in my short time here (about five hours) I’ve noticed the city has changed.  I don’t say good or bad, but just that it seems to be built-up a little more and less gritty.

The scruffy bearded gentleman in his mid-30s doesn’t waste time letting me know his opinion.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says loudly over a Martin Denny Tiki song.   “This city is becoming San Francisco south.  I want to move.”

I keep quiet.  This was not what I had been expecting.

“Where do I go?  The rents are fucking crazy here, and I’ve had to keep moving east from Hollywood to find someplace decent.  This is my home, this is where the money is.  Shit, in ten years I’ll be lucky to afford a place in Riverside.”

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I don’t have any answers for him, and I enter Mess Hall Kitchen with some excitement and a little trepidation.  It’s great that the place has been transformed into a top notch gastro pub, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of the Derby.  Swingers came out a couple of years before I moved to LA, and it’s a film that still resonates with me.  I spent many a night at the Derby back in the day . . .  on dates, with friends, and even by myself on occasion.  I loved that place.

All of this swirls through my head as I walk inside Mess Hall Kitchen.   It’s yet to strike noon on Tuesday, but there’s a decent amount of people.  There are heat lamps in the patio area, and I take a seat outside and order my first beer of the day.  It’s quite refreshing after my hike.  My lunch is the Mess Burger (onions, cheddar cheese, bbq sauce) cooked medium rare to perfection, and it is served on a delicious brioche bun.

It was hard to connect the place with the same one that used to feature Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and where very talented swing dancers strutted their stuff.  But nonetheless I leave happy.  I walk down Hillhurst with no destination in mind, other than a vague feeling that I will need to go to Skylight Books.  The fog burns away to the sun, and I figure why not have beer number two.

I realize I’m gravitating towards Ye Rustic Inn, one of the all-time best dive bars in Los Angeles.  It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been there, and when I walk inside I’m so glad that not much has changed.  Dark, red leather booths, wood paneled walls, and just an overall wonderful local vibe.  I remember way back when they were one of the first bars in LA to serve Stella (hard to think that was a big deal since you can get it just about anywhere now), so for nostalgic purposes I order one.

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I can’t help but eavesdrop on the two guys in their 50s talking loudly next to me, and it’s a challenge to keep from laughing out loud at their stories.  One of them says he was 4’9 in high school (he’s easily over six feet now), and that he needed a special cushion in order to drive.  One time at a party this cute girl he liked invited him back to her place since her parents were out of town.  But she insisted he drive her car, and when he had to get his special cushion, it cock-blocked the moment.  “No pussy at all in high school,” he said sadly.  “But at least I was tit high.”

While I could have spent more time at the Ye Rustic, I knew I had to keep on keeping on.  So I headed down Russell Ave with the majestic purple jacaranda trees blooming on either side.  Skylight Books was my next stop after reaching Vermont, and I spent a good 20 minutes or so ambling around and perusing the shelves.  I ended up buying a new notebook (Shinola Detroit), which has served me well these last few weeks.

Afterwards I walked a block up to Fred 62, a place I used to frequent when I lived not too far away in Sliverlake.  It was here nearly 15 years ago that I started reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is a great book for anyone who has either abandoned their creativity or never knew they had any.  I can recall sitting at that same wooden counter in November of 2001, turning those pages while eating an Apple Crumble ala mode and drinking a cup of coffee.

In 2016 I have the same dessert, but opt for a mimosa instead.  There’s a woman somewhere around my age sitting next to me, eating her lunch and reading a book.  She smiles at my order, and says if she didn’t have to get back to work she would be doing the same.  It’s around 2 pm, and it’s time to head back to the hotel so I can finally check-in.

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On the way to the subway (yes, LA has a well-functioning Metro that I used to take on occasion when I was a resident), I get sidetracked when I see the sign across the street for 1739 Public House.  I had read good things about it, especially about their wide array of beer choices.  So I pop inside the open air pub with the stained wooden walls and high ceiling with exposed rafters.

There’s only a few people at the bar, and I take a seat closest to the street.  The bartender is young and cute, and there’s a guy in his 50s a few stools down chatting her up.  I figure I’ll have just one and be on my way to the Sunset & Vermont Metro Stop.

The beer is a Petrus Aged Red, and my God it’s delicious.  It’s brewed in Belgium, and is imported by a company out of Middleton, Mass (not too far from where I grew up).  Technically a sour beer, there’s sweetness that brings balance and the flavor is just perfect.  It was a recommendation from the bartender, and I thank her.

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During my second Petrus the middle aged guy tells the bartender he has a daughter around her age, and that she always complains there is nobody to date but hipsters.  The bartender considers this conundrum, and nods a few times.  Then she says, “I don’t mind dating a hipster, but if the most interesting thing about you is the way you dress and look, you’re going to bore the shit out of me.”

After a third Petrus I finally make my way down Vermont to the Metro station.  This is the same stop I used to take the year I joined a bowling league in 2000.  Our team was the youngest by at least a decade, and every Tuesday night I had a blast rolling and drinking and chatting with a lot of great people.

It was three quick stops to Hollywood and Highland, and when I exit the station I pass the Chinese Theatre.  They’re setting up the movie premiere for The Nice Guys and there are people everywhere.  Amongst the tourists are the many hustlers dressed like superheroes and Jack Sparrow and Star Wars characters.  When I lived in the neighborhood I distinctly remember seeing Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe, but there were not a lot of them.  Now it almost seemed to be a one-to-one street performer to tourist ratio.  Though with my lack of sleep and several beers, it’s possible my mind is being hyperbolic.

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I walk up Orange and I’m so happy to reach the Magic Castle Hotel.  My room is ready, a junior suite with a pool view, and my bags have already been brought up there.  Alex and Derick couldn’t be any nicer or more efficient at check-in, and I’m offered a wide menu of complimentary candy and snacks (which is available to all guests 24-7).  All I want is water, and there is an infused dispenser right behind me.  I down a few cups while Alex completes the process.

When I get to the room I’m presented with another opportunity to sleep, but even though I won’t be meeting my friends for dinner for another 4 hours I opt against it.  Instead I take a swim in the heated pool, make some coffee in the room, and then shower and change for the evening.

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The Magic Castle Hotel pool.

At 6:30 pm I’m back out in Hollywood, heading down Highland Avenue in the direction of the Cinerama Dome (where I’ll be meeting friends for dinner).  I’m early, and an old neon sign beckons me to a bar.  In the late 90s the Power House was a complete shit hole of the best possible kind.  Dark, dirty, surly, and the perfect place to knock back a Jameson on the rocks after your last screenplay had been rejected for the twentieth time.

I wasn’t surprised to see the Power House had been reinvented as an upscale lounge.  While I could certainly be mad that one of the all-time great dive bars of the neighborhood has classed itself up, as a visitor (and not a resident) I can just enjoy the vibe and my Bulleit on the rocks.  The new owners of the Power House have gotten back to its original old Hollywood 1947 roots, with exposed brick, white tile, and hanging plants.  I sip my cocktail, and when songs by Green Day, Sugar Ray, and Semisonic come over the speakers in succession, it’s like I’m back to 1999.  Until my bill arrives.

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My buddy Dave gets to Stella Barra sooner than expected, and I hustle down Highland and go left at Hollywood Boulevard.  My memory fails me on how long it takes to get to the Cinerama Dome from the Power House, and it turns out to be a 25-minute walk in the dusk (I was thinking 15 max).  I had cut down some side streets to get to Sunset, and went past the Crossroads of the World complex.  When I lived in the neighborhood I always enjoyed walking by the cool 1930s buildings, and back then (as well as now) I couldn’t help but think of the scenes shot there in LA Confidential.

******

It’s been three years since I’ve seen Dave (when he and his fiancé Marley visited Hawaii), two years since I’ve hung-out with Kristi (on my last trip to LA), and it’s been over six since I’ve shared a cocktail with Matt (when we all had got together for a memorial for our friend Bradleigh).  It’s so great to see all of them.  The night is full of great conversation and the pizza and beer are quite tasty.  I feel truly lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with these three wonderful people.

After dinner Matt and Dave get cookies from the bakery for their wife and fiancé respectively, and Kristi is off to her apartment because she has to get up early for work.  We leave the restaurant, and I can’t help but be amazed at how the area has been transformed.  When I lived in Hollywood, the Cinerama Dome was a cool but severely aged theater, and the best you could do for food was something prepackaged from one of the corner liquor stores.  Now it was a full-on mall complex, with shopping and dining and a massive parking lot.

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The Cinerama Dome circa 2000.

Matt and Dave had parked in the lot, and the three of us walk up to Matt’s car so he can share his band’s CDs with us (Matt Mann and the Shine Runners, who are truly awesome).  Dave had worked all day in San Diego (and had driven back to LA directly for dinner), but he was up for a night cap so we could continue catching up.

Dave and I met in 1999 when we both worked for California Pizza Kitchen in downtown LA, and since then have remained great friends.  A few years after I moved to San Francisco he enrolled at UC Berkeley, and while he was in school we would hang out whenever we got the chance.  Tonight we ended up at Birds on Franklin, a cool place that I used to frequent back in the late 90s and which really hadn’t changed much.

Dave grew up in LA, and he was happy to be home.  We talked a lot about the city, about our days here way back when and how we viewed the place now.  Dave was very complimentary about his hometown, and I was as well.  I then uttered words I thought I would never, ever say:

“I think I could live here again.”

When I left LA in 2004 I had no regrets.  Two nights before I moved I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Hollywood Bowl, and I had an epiphany when they played “Go Daddy-O”.   Amongst the thousands of people and the bright lights and the great music, it hit me.  I felt so lucky and greatful that I had actually moved to LA and followed my dream.  But with this thought I was equally happy to be leaving, and I was sure I would never again be a resident.

In the twelve years since I left, I’ve been back to Los Angeles many times.  This was the first visit where I actually said that I could move back.  At Birds with Dave, after being up all day and ingesting an uncountable number of beers and cocktails, I became convinced I should dust off my old scripts and give screenwriting another go.  It was sweet drunk talk, and after Dave drove me back to the Magic Castle I fall asleep in about five minutes.

I’ve been in LA for a whole day and I still have 24 more hours left . . . .

 

 

Travel

48 Hours in L.A. – Part One

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On top of the Hollywood Sign

I lived in Los Angeles for six years, and whenever I return I’m struck by nostalgia in almost every direction.  My feelings on the place are aggressively mixed.  While I can never forget how much I struggled during those days, I have so many wonderful memories.  The way I figure it, I could have easily never left.

Many years ago I wrote a novel set in L.A. (A Model Community), and I can still remember why the younger version of myself wrote these words:

Unlike many of my East Coast brethren, I did not consider Los Angeles as the devil incarnate.  To me, it’s just so unimaginably easy to hate it.  Sure, the menu of complaints was extensive: helicopters haphazardly buzzing around at night, smog settling like dust on your skin and lungs, parking lots posing as freeways, accidental architecture.  There were gangs and crime and money was flaunted in the most shameless of manners.  But none of the demeaning qualities of the city really overpowered me.

It was always tough to admit it while I was a resident from 1998 to 2004, but in many ways I did (in a vaguely Randy Newman-type manner) love L.A.

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Cover art by the very talented Fozzie Phillips.

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Los Angeles can easily overwhelm a visitor, but even a short trip can yield a terrific combo platter of what the city has to offer.  But you need a plan.  I only had 48 hours to spend in LA, and despite once being a resident, I did a lot of pre-trip research.  While I figured I had to embrace the nostalgia, my goal was to get to know the city of 2016.

I took the red-eye from Honolulu and landed at LAX at 6:30 the next morning (3:30 am Hawaii Time).  Knowing it would be an incredible longshot my room would be available that early, I still needed a destination to give to my cab driver.  After I said “Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood”, I wasn’t entirely sure the gray haired gentlemen heard me over the classic rock track cranking over the speakers.  However, being on less than two hours’ sleep and with the cabbie joyfully exclaiming in his heavy Russian accent about how Deep Purple is his favorite band . . . I didn’t have the heart to ask if he understood.

While “Smoke on the Water” vibrated throughout my body, the driver got me to the Magic Castle Hotel without further instruction.  As I figured, I couldn’t check-in because it was just after seven in the morning and they were completely sold out last night.  But with friendly service they stored my bags and pointed me to their continental breakfast spread.

I had a choice . . . a lounge chair by the pool for a few hours of sleep before check-in time, or carpe diem the shit out of the day.  I chose the latter and downed three cups of coffee and had some yogurt.  Soon I was walking east down Franklin Avenue towards Griffith Park.

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Having done my research, I knew the trailhead to the Hollywood Sign Hike was just over 2.5 miles from my hotel.  With the trek itself being about five miles’ roundtrip, Uber or Lyft seemed the smart choice.   So why, after almost no sleep after a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, did I decide to walk?  Strangely, I felt pretty good physically and the coffee had given me a jolt.  But maybe after the $70 cab ride, I didn’t want to pay any more money for transportation.

When I lived in L.A. I had done many hikes in Griffith Park, but for some reason never put the Hollywood Sign on my to-do list.  It certainly wasn’t because I thought it was touristy (I had done the highly popular Griffith Observatory one on many occasions), or that I was unaware of its existence (I knew you could get there).  While I’ll never know the reasons why I shunned the Hollywood Sign, it’s certainly an activity I should have done.

After almost two miles walking down the heavily trafficked Franklin Avenue, I took a left just after Gelson’s Market on Canyon Drive.  Soon I was transported into a tranquil world.  Residential of the highly upscale variety, I could hear the wind in the trees and birds chirping as I walked up the slight incline towards Griffith Park.  After a short walk I reach the trailhead.  If I had been driving, parking was available in a couple of lots on either side at the end of the road.

The Bronson Caves, which have been used in several movies throughout the years and most famously in the 60s Batman show, were just a short detour before beginning the trek to the Hollywood Sign.  As it was nearing 9 am and I had a 2-and-a-half-hour hike ahead of me, I decided to get right to the main trail and forgo the Bat Caves until afterwards.  However, I actually never get to see them because I was too hungry when I returned and needed to get to a bathroom.

But after the experience of walking all the way up and behind the Hollywood sign, I’m sure those little caves would have been a disappointment.

******

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There was a fit couple in their 20s who started the hike approximately the same time as me, and with their speed and my just-happy-to-be-there gait, they quickly put distance between us.  A few minutes later four people in their 50s speaking German passed me on their way down, and it was probably another 30 minutes before I saw anyone else on the trail.  With the fog and the elevation and my lack of sleep, the whole experience was quite dreamlike.

I started getting weird thoughts.  What if the exertion was too much on too little sleep and I pass out?  There had to be mountain lions and rattlesnakes and David Lynch type monsters lurking just around the bend.  But I quickly ousted those ridiculous macabre fantasies from my mind, and it’s easy to enjoy the moment.

The first thirty or so minutes of the hike is a steady incline with some switchbacks, and then it gets easy for a while until you reach the turnoff that will take you up behind the sign on Mount Lee.  You need to step around quite a bit of horse poop, but otherwise the path is easy walking.  On a clear day I’m sure the views of downtown and the entire surrounding area are outstanding, but the diaphanous fog was doing its best to shield the sights.

Before going up behind the Hollywood Sign, I keep going along the ridge with its old wooden fence running along the left.  Through the fog I could just make out the Griffith Observatory and the outline of the skyscrapers in the distance.  Down below a group of horses ambled around a pen.   I reach the end of the path and can see the letters spelling out H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D above me, the closest I’ve ever been to them.  After snapping a few photos, I turned back around towards the trail to get to the top of Mount Lee.

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The sign still seemed far away, and with a big yawn I began to feel the lack of sleep.  I wanted to take a nap in the grass, but I kept onward.  It was up, up, up for maybe another 20 minutes before reaching my first extreme close-up view of the Hollywood Sign.  Behind a high chain link fence and warnings forbidding closer access, I looked down at the giant letters in awe.

Built in 1923 to advertise a real estate development called Hollywoodland (the L-A-N-D letters were taken down in 1949), the sign originally lit up with bulbs and was only intended to exist for eighteen months.  It then became a symbol of the glamour and glitz of the American film industry, and eventually morphed into a historical landmark of worldwide acclaim.  Something I didn’t know (until Wikipedia recently told me), was the original 1923 letters had become so deteriorated they had to all be replaced (by bigger ones) in 1978.

*******

Like countless people before and after, I moved to Hollywood in my twenties to make it in the film industry.  For me the dream was to become a professional screenwriter.  While I wrote several scripts, made many connections, and got read at some of the top agencies, I never got the proverbial big break.

When I made it to the top of Mount Lee that morning, a little winded and my calves feeling strained, I gazed down at the Hollywood Sign with respect.  I couldn’t help but think of all the hours, days, weeks, months, and years I spent holed up in dingy apartments writing and hustling to sell my work.  All the time hunched over a keyboard, doing my best to remain disciplined while my friends were out having fun.  All of the near misses and rejections I received from agents and producers.

And I couldn’t help but smile.

I had always enjoyed the process, the honest and pure attempt at trying to reach my life goals.  Since leaving Los Angeles I’ve never been so passionate, so dedicated to a singular vision.  That’s probably the biggest reason why I loved living in L.A. back then (not the weather, or the history, or even all the great friends I made).  And it’s why, despite failing to achieving those goals, I will always look upon my time there reverentially.

Travel

The Next Adventure

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Key West … a great place to live in your 20s.  

When I was in high school I had a large map of the United States tacked to the wall over my bed.  At that point in my life I’d only been to places on the East Coast (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Florida).  I loved the traveling I’d done with my family, and it surely fueled my desire to want to see more.  I vowed to get to as many cities on that map as possible.

My first chance to Go West occurred in college (Wisconsin & Illinois), and then shortly after graduation I took the trip that truly changed my life.  Colorado was the destination, and an Amtrak Train over the course of three days was my mode of transportation.  I was hoping to live in Breckenridge for a year, but it ended up being (for various reasons) slightly less than two months.  But that experience was the catalyst that drove me to move to Key West after turning 23, and certainly helped me when California became my new home at 28-years-old.

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When I was 22 I took the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, and then the California Zephyr to Denver.  That trip is worthy of its own blog.   

I’ve made traveling, either vacations or relocations, a top priority of my life.  Hawaii is the 4th state where I’ve held a license to drive, and I’ve also had the opportunity to step foot in many of the cities and countries on my lifelong “to do” list.  On a World Traveler’s Scorecard my adventures might not rate that high, but to me I feel so lucky for every passport stamp or check mark I’ve made on a map.

I love where I live now, and I am very fortunate to be here.  Hawaii is such a special place, not only the sheer beauty of the islands but the people and feeling of the aloha spirit.  The three and a half years I’ve spent here have been amazing.

But I still can’t help myself from looking forward to my next adventure.

I suppose I’ve always been that way.  I cherished the time I spent living in Key West, but I was ready to leave after one year.  I look back on LA as some of the best years of my life, but six of them in Southern California was more than enough.   I was extremely happy in San Francisco, my last city of residence, and I still consider it one of the greatest places to live in the world.  But after eight years I knew I needed a new destination to discover.

Hell, I couldn’t even stay at one college for four years.  I loved Bridgewater State and made so many friends there, but I left after two-years for Boston University.  The prospect of “what’s next” is always very thrilling.

When my company offered me a job in Honolulu in 2012, I knew I had to take it.  I have no plans to leave Hawaii, and I’m beyond happy being here.  Exhibit A: On my walk home tonight through Kapiolani Park just as dusk turned to night, the first twinkling of the stars appeared while I breathed in the soft tropical breeze.  Just minutes earlier I had strolled past Waikiki Beach, and the sky had just a hint of pink visible in the dark purples and grays.  When the traffic waned you could hear the surf lapping against the sand.  If I stay here another three and a half years I would consider myself lucky.

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Dusk in Honolulu

But as my 40s keep on keeping on, I know there are more places not only to explore as a visitor, but to experience as a resident.

I would love to live in Europe for one year.  With the visa requirements I’d have to keep moving and get out of Schengen Area every three months, but that is a work-around that would be fun to do.  My money would go a lot further in Costa Rica or Belize (which I visited in 2012), and those countries are very tempting destinations.  The idea of taking a year off from work to travel and write is one that Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page would have no problem incepting in me.

But I’ll put those thoughts on hold for the time being, and enjoy the opportunities for shorter trips.  J’Nell and I just had a wonderful neighbor island visit to Kauai, and in two weeks I’ll be in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for vacation.  The next longer adventure awaits.   It will begin as a dream, then become an obsession, and at some point in the future will become a reality.

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Great quote from “Inception”.