Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas in the City

In which we take in a slice of L.A. life

There's one thing that says "L.A." like nothing else. No, it's not "fake tits" or "broken dreams." It's the outdoor food stands that dot the city. If you really want to get to know L.A. and its variegated peoples, it helps to spend a little time now and then at the stands. Here, you'll find people from every walk, from t he bike messenger grabbing a quick lunch to the big-shot film auteur holding forth on his favorite shots in "Pulp Fiction" over a chili dog.

Everyone has a favorite. This is mine, on Vine between Hollywood and Sunset. Taken on the windy, lonely Christmas Eve of 2007.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Beginning of the Long Goodbye

In which we visit some of our favorite haunts and discover some new ones

These are my last few weeks in Southern California, so this morning I determined to take a long bike ride around L.A. and take a few snaps. All these pictures were taken on a single day, December 23.

I lit out at about 9 a.m. and rode up through Toluca Lake, past Bob Hope's old digs, with its million-dollar wooden sculpture-work Nativity Scene, and on up Riverside Drive into the Rancho Equestrian District. The air had that cool, crisp feel and that bright, slanted, crystalline light that you find only in Southern California in the wintertime. I'll miss the Southland winters.

In Griffith Park I came across a coyote. I've seen many of these Wyle E. hunter-scavengers around town, but this is the first time I've had a camera handy.

I rode on through the park and up Los Feliz Boulevard and down to Vermont to looked in at Café Figaro. So-so service, indifferent food, but nevertheless one of my favorite cafés. I sat at the zinc bar and enjoyed some eggs and a Kronenburg.

Part of the bar's soda fountain.

I have never been to famous Roscoe's but I finally found it on my ride up Hollywood Boulevard. I'll have lunch there today if they're open.

Stopped by the Arclight Cinemas, where they often display costumes seen in recent films. It is the world's best place to see a movie. FYI, Charlie Wilson's War was brilliant.

Next I went down to Santa Monica Boulevard to tour the Hollywood Forever cemetery. I had never found it before, probably because it's — not surprisingly — hidden behind a strip mall on one side and a factory on the other. It's a lovely and serene place, a peaceful respite from the din of latter-day Hollywood. Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Joey Ramone are a few of the famed immortalized here.
I peddled back up through Hollywood and up, huffing and puffing, through the Cahuenga Pass and back home for a break and shower before heading back into Hollywood to get some night snaps.

At dusk I went to get an espresso at the shopping center across the way from my apartment, where I came across this fellow and his pet.

Hopped the subway back to Hollywood, alighting at the Hollyood and Vine station.

Across the street from the station is the Frolic Room, a Hollywood classic next to the venerable Patages Theater, where Broadway comes to L.A.

The Frolic Room's unique, futuristic lamps.

In the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino would race on horseback down Hollywood Boulevard from the studio to Musso & Frank, where the loser would buy the drinks.

The Stromberg Jewelers neon clock sign. Stromberg's is long gone, but preservationists have managed to keep the sign lit. Other "landmarks" preserved are not so glamorous, including a giant penguin that used to adorn an ice-cream joint (now incongruously atop a dentist's office) and a giant hot dog now advertising a Thai restaurant in Thai town.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


In which we celebrate, in our own small way, the life and reign of a great lady

Her full title is:
Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith

This month, Queen Elizabeth's reign surpassed that of Queen Victoria, making her the longest reigning monarch in British history, and perhaps in all history. Before she was crowned she said:

I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

Long indeed has your service been, Your Majesty. Thank you.

God Save the Queen.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Celeb Sighting of the Week: Fonzworth Bentley

In which we meet a fellow natty fellow

Last week I attended the grand opening of a retro clothing shop in Los Feliz called Jake on Hollywood BLVD near Vermont. The shop's owner, Jonathan Kanarek was a finalist in Esquire magazine's "Best Dressed Real Men in America" contest this year, though he's way too rockabilly retro for my taste.

Among the guests was Fonzworth Bentley, who was rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs' comic "umbrella carrier" and is now a performer in his own right and is the author of:

Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence, and Style to Get Ahead

It's a sort of etiquette book for the hip-hop set.

Special thanks to Matt Deckard of The Cad for sending the photo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Santa Monica Boulevardier

In which we meet a natty nabob and his lovely lady

I came across this couple on Santa Monica BLVD during my bike ride from my place in Studio City to Venice Beach and back last Sunday. (Yeah, that's about 35 miles.)

I wouldn't call this eccentric chap a dandy exactly, but he and his gal were a kick to look at. And yes, those are spats. Denim spats, I think. The fellow had an accent so I asked where he was from. He said, "Europe, originally," as if being an American I naturally couldn't possibly find Belgium or Romania on a map. (Though seeing that this was Santa Monica his assumption probably wasn't that out of line. This seaside city's surfeit of surf and sun seems to balanced by a positive paucity of worldly perspective.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Tao of Venice

Taken today on Venice Beach

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Celeb Sighting of the Week: Jon Polito

In which we spot a great performer who made one of our favorite movie scenes so memorable

As I've said before, one of the neat things about living in Studio City is that there is always the chance you might run into someone you've seen in a film. Not usually the big stars, though William Shatner lives up the hill from me, but the the real, hard-working character actors who make films so so fun to watch.

Last week I ran into Jon Polito at the Ralphs at the corner of Vineland and Ventura. Unless you're a Hollywood person or a fan of gangster movies, like me, you probably don't recognize the name. But polito's been in dozens of films, including the recent hit, American Gangster. Every one of Polito's characters is as colorful as it is believable. He literally makes whatever scene he's in come to life on the screen.

By far my favorite Polito perfomance is from Miller's Crossing, one of the 10 best gangster movies ever made. It's the opening scene, in which Polito's character, an Italian gangster named Johnny Caspar talks "ethics" with Irish mob boss, Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney). Enjoy:

I didn't talk to him, but his sunny rapport with the checkout ladies at the supermarket would seem to indicate that he's a pretty nice guy. Shatner could take an etiquette lesson or two from him.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

End of a Daredevil Nation

Will Beall, LA city cop and author of the best-selling crime novel, "L.A. Rex," recently penned a paean to the late daredevil, Evil Knievel, in a recent issue of the LA Times. It pretty much sums up how I feel about the sorry Pussyfication of America. Below is an excerpt, published entirely without permission.

"Growing up in the '70s, I had an Evel Knievel lunchbox, an Evel Knievel action figure with a working stunt cycle, Evel Knievel comic books featuring "Evel Knievel and the Perilous Traps of Mr. Danger" and "Evel Knievel versus Ghost Rider." I was even Evel Knievel myself for Halloween one year. Larger than life doesn't begin to cover it. The guy was a walking, talking, honest-to-God superhero.

"Working-class heroes were still real in the proletarian neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s, and no one could beat Evel Knievel, a former small-time criminal from a broken home in Butte, Mont...

"My friends and I used to build these crazy bike ramps -- not half-pipes, mind you, but ramps angled to launch you and your Huffy Dill Pickle out into space. More than his spectacular successes, it was always the bone-shattering crashes Evel walked away from that inspired me. Even his Icarian Snake River jump taught me something about the nobility of failure. The outcome is irrelevant. Get back on that hoss and you've already won.

"We got stitches and wore our casts with pride. This was before helmet laws, before seat belts became the measure of parental love, before they cut down our jungle gyms and replaced them with pathetic, padded playgrounds. My mother and the nuns at St. Mary's were always telling me that I was going to crack my head open, but Evel seemed to be saying: "Hey, kid, it's your head..."

"It's fitting that 1977 was also the year the Supreme Court implicitly endorsed the lawsuit as a profit-making enterprise, when the high court declared lawyers' rights to advertise the prices of their legal services to be protected speech. This decision is seen by many as a watershed moment, ushering in today's lawsuit culture. Once ethically forbidden to foment lawsuits, entrepreneurial personal injury lawyers were now free to seek and goad their clients. Litigiousness was no longer a vice in America, and the era of the daredevil was at an end.

"Now, the city of Los Angeles pays round-the-clock security guards just to keep neighborhood kids from cooling off in the Mulholland fountain, lest one of them slip. Diving boards are being dismantled all over the country. Swing sets will probably be the next to go.

"We were once a nation of daredevils, certainly a region of them. The West was the realm of Kit Carson, Buzz Aldrin and Larry Walters.

"We've since devolved into a nation of neuters and babies. Our own safety has become our obsession. We cower in gated communities and fret about the West Nile virus. Infantilized, we have little use for the freedoms we once cherished, and we're happy to trade them for personal safety.

"Rather than risk another terrorist attack, for instance, we would render this country unrecognizable, a fascist shadow of its former self... "

Amen, brother.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Travels Past: The Sound Barrier

In which we boldly go where but one man has been before

As Travels West readers (all six of you) may know, back in 1997 I covered the World Land Speed Record for a NY magazine and later wrote a profile of five-time record holder, Craig Breedlove for Salon.com.

I really enjoyed writing those pieces and telling the story afterward of watching a car break the sound barrier for the first time. But as liberal with the adjectives as I might be, I could never really capture what it was like. And I could only imagine, of course, what it was like to be the driver, Andy Green, inside the car, as he smashed through the old record to make a new one — 763 miles per hour. For a decade I've waited to see some film or get my hands on some DVD of this great event. Until now, the video below, which was taken from about where I was standing in the Black Rock Desert, was all I had.

Recently, however, a new set of videos has surfaced on YouTube that capture the thrill.

First, look at this short close-up clip of the car, ThrustSSC as it races across the desert. Put your headphones on and turn the sound up — you won't hear anything until you hear the sonic boom.

Now, take a look at this clip from inside the cockpit. In this 3 minute, 30-second clip, the car travels more than 13 miles, and from a dead stop. Notice how much English the driver has to put on the steering to keep the car going in a straight line. (If he goes too far out of "true" and hits a rock, he's almost certainly a dead man.) Feel the tension in his voice as the car nears the speed of sound, and as the car's twin jet turbines begin to scream.

Again, put your headphones on and turn it way up.

Remember Green struggling with the steering? In this clip, taken from the car's year tail fin, you'll see a white line ahead of the car. This is a chalk stripe that the ThrustSCC team laid down on the desert floor for Green to follow, like the lines on a highway. Notice the line seeming to weave wildly back and forth as Green nears 500 miles per hour. Lastly, see the vapor condensation form over the engine cowling as Green nears the speed of sound.

Take a look at this shot from the air. Notice that as the car nears the sound barrier, you can see a straight line in the dust that extends from both sides of the nose of the car. This is the shock wave that forms when a vehicle goes transonic. (No sound in this clip.)

Finally, here's a nice, long shot of the car as is comes up out of the desert mirage. (Also no sound).

Many thanks to PrivateCustard and FoxyGrandma333 for these great clips. You truly made my week.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Burning Man for Bruins Fans

In which we give it the old college try

A beary nice day.

A pal from work is a Bruin. I was going to say "rabid Bruins fan" but that doesn't quite say it. No, Jeff is a Bruin, through-and-through -- a Valley born-and-bred Southlander whose alma mater is good old UCLA. During home games at the Rose Bowl, Jeff puts on one of the most elaborate and comfortable tailgates. "Tailgate" isn't exactly the right word either for what Jeff puts on. Arriving either the night before or in the wee hours in order to claim a prime bit of real-estate, Jeff sets up his site, made up of pair of "easy-up"pavillions, a real, charcoal barbeque, a picnic bench, comfy folding recliners, ice chests filled with barbeque fixin's, beers and booze, and three—count 'em, three—satellite TV sets (so he and his guests can watch all the games at once) and, piece de resistance, a home-made urinal. (Believe me, people, that last touch is a life-saver.) It's Burning Man for Bruins fans.

Flying the double standard: UCLA & JD
Now, except for Jeff, I've got no connection to UCLA. Living in Park La Brea, however, I learned to hate the all things Trojan. A lot of USC kids lived in my building, you see, and every one I met was a rude, self-centered, spoiled, snotty little shit. Needless to say, this endeared me to Über-Bruin, Jeff, and he began to invite me to his tailgates. After a few I was declared an honorary Bruin.

Bruin Claus gets on the horn to tell the elves to buy more beer.
These photos were taken at the UCLA vs. Oregon game, Nov. 24, which ended in a Bruins victory, 16-zip. Not the most exciting game in history, but an upset win nevertheless. Since then, sadly, the Bruins lost to the hated Trojans, although they did make it to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they will face off against BYU (i.e., the Mormons), Dec. 22.
What's a game without the Goodyear blimp? ... Uh, sorry, "airship."

Isn't that a Trojan Horse? What the... ?! Jeff later explained that this was part of a half-time ritual showing that the Trojans to be a pack of drunks, which of course they are. But it's a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, IMHO. BTW, that's part of Jeff's set-up in the background.
A junior Bruins quarterback throws the Hail Mary...

...and the receiver makes the catch!

Oregon fans can be so touchy! Jeeze, lighten-up, will ya?

Earlier in the day I took this snap of the Malibu fire from the Hollywood Hills.