Take Me Out to the Bar Game

“The Dodgers suck!”

He’s all the way across the room, and he says it in a voice loud enough to quiet O’Tooles for a moment. This is a Chicago sports bar. It is Game One of the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the middle of teaching the defending champion Chicago Cubs a lesson in humility. The bar – indeed, the whole city – is wound so tight the air thrums as you walk.

And I am a die-hard Dodger fan with just enough IPA in me to stop caring who knows it.

“The Dodgers SUCK,” he repeats. This time he’s louder, and he is supported by a broken chorus of interjections expressing everything from full-throated support to mild “chill out dude” disapproval.

This is one of those moments when I ask myself what the right thing would be to do. As a guy. As a dude. I think about the thin veneer of civilization. I tell myself that sports is an opiate, and that I have been manipulated into this by a cynical media establishment that thrives on stoking sports rivalries.

And I don’t care. This guy hasn’t just insulted a bunch of grown men throwing a ball at each other. He has transgressed against something both more personal and far larger.

I think about the games I watched growing up. The time we went with Dr. Bing, our baseball coach, sitting so close that my heroes came to life in front of me.

I think about the times my dad took me to watch the guys play, and what it meant for he and I to listen to the post-game show as we drove the old VW van home down Sunset late at night.

I think about the giddy joy of the 1981 World Series, when we showed the most powerful Yankees squad in five decades that grit and determination beats glitz and polish when it counts.

I think about fifty years of admiring a team that prided itself on being the anti-Yankees, the Boys from Brooklyn, Dem Bums.

I think about Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in a critical World Series game because it landed on Yom Kippur, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a Jew.

I think about Jackie Robinson, who with the backing of Dodger management silently suffered innumerable hurts as he forged the path for African-Americans into the major leagues, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a man.

I think about Ray Campanella, upside down in his car on a Harlem Street after hitting black ice on a winter night, his back broken, his career over, then spending the rest of his life working in the Dodger front office and showing the world that there was no such thing as “handicapped.”

And I turn to look at the gone-to-seed neck-bearded fuck whose alcoholic partisanship has turned him into a drooling, knuckle-dragging neanderthal.

I think, “‘The Dodgers suck?’ You miserable, illegitimate, Epsilon-minus thick-skulled cretin!”

And I realize that I am about a pubic-hair’s width away from getting into my first bar fight, alone, deep in enemy territory. And I wonder if Blue Shield will cover my heartfelt yet doomed defense of our team, or whether the adjuster will boil the whole thing down to idiocy and refuse to pay on the grounds that the cause of my broken bones, lost teeth, and contusions were the direct result of an uninsured pre-existing condition.

This is the last place I want to be, but the testosterone and adrenaline are pouring into my system, and I start to get up.

The waitress is smarter than all of us. She comes over, looks me in the eye, smiles, and sets down another pint of IPA.

“I didn’t order that!”

“On the house,” she says. “And I’ve got some fresh tater tots on the way.”

I look over at Neckbeard. The bartender just put an order of hot wings in front of him and the boys. I’m betting these were free, too.

I look back at the waitress. She smiles.

“Enjoy the game,” she says. “And welcome to Chicago.”

Free beer and tots?

Manhood satisfied, I sit down again, the anger gone, replaced with a sympathetic good will toward old Neckbeard.

The Dodgers don’t suck, I tell myself. But for the moment, I am happy to let them prove it themselves.

The tots arrive, the Dodgers are winning, and I am left alone to contemplate the madness we – I – have yet to outgrow.

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Fragment of Fiction: Galaxy Upside Down

Her anger rent the air in our booth like a shockwave, pushing me back into my seat, strangling me. Then, in a moment, the fury abated and it was pain and not evil burning behind her irises.

“Don’t judge him too harshly,” I told her. “He’s just another insecure young guy sucked into a business where fucking over kin for a couple of points is a rite of passage. Hollywood is like the Borg, he’s been assimilated, willingly, throwing himself into it, and trying to extract him will either kill him or make him wish he was dead.”

I paused. That was about as close to profound as I get.

And I waited, trying to remember what I just said, watching her.

She seemed to quiet. She took a deep, sobbing breath, let it out slowly like Lemaze. And smiled at me.

“Still mad,” I asked?

“Every fucking cell of me,” she said, smile widening.

“Good,” I said. “Because we are going to fucking kill him, that shit-demon he works for, and that gutter slut they’re casting as lead.”

From the story “Galaxy Upside Down” by David Wolf

Singing Los Angeles

The essence of Los Angeles is not easily expressed, but that has not kept everyone from essayists to auteurs to muralists from trying to capture it. Perhaps this is part of the eternal allure of the city: the fact that it can neither be easily described, nor readily dismissed. The upside to all of this is that we are now the inheritors of some magnificent works that, while failing to capture the city in full, continue to add definition to the Angeleno Mosaic.

Music, as we have suggested here before, is a part of that mosaic, and a serious effort has begun to revive and rejuvenate some of the earliest efforts to capture Los Angeles in song. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun have collaborated in a project to select some of those early tunes and provide a modern interpretation. More than just covers, these are thoroughly modern renditions of almost forgotten tunes that give them a modern feel.

The songs are available for free download in a link from this story. I will not critique the music – I leave that to better tuned ears. What appeals to me about each of these tunes, though, is that their ability to transcend time also suggests something timeless about Los Angeles. I recognize that this thought will stick in the craw of a lot of people: the suggestion that there are timeless elements to American cities less than three centuries old – much less one whose maturity is of a far more recent vintage – is probably a joke to a denizen of London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, or Beijing.

But this music is guaranteed to touch something deep inside any Greater Angeleno, local-born or immigrant. There are themes, feelings, ideas in all of these that resonate to us today in a way that they did to locals eighty or more years ago, and that certainly still enchant those among us who live far away yet are still, somehow, Angelenos.

Hollywood Will Listen

I never paid much attention to the artfully manufactured bubble-gum pop Robbie Williams cranked out under the fist of Take That leadman Gary Barlow, so when Williams parted ways with the band in the mid-nineties I found it all-too easy to dismiss him as another moderately-successful musician who had fallen under the twin spell of his own ego and Columbian marching powder.

Flash forward to September 1998, and I was sitting in a nearly-empty Leicester Square movie house with my wife waiting for the matinee to start, when William’s anthem “Millenium” came over the speaker system. I was enthralled. The unforgettable string-figure from John Barry’s superb 1967 James Bond soundtrack for You Only Live Twice was woven throughout the song, and that grabbed me long enough to listen to the lyrics. At its heart the song was an anthem, a heartfelt cri de coeur wherein a jaded star realizes that while celebrity is great, it is going to kill him unless he slows down. Williams could have taken that theme down a darker but better-traveled road, but he chose instead to keep it forward looking and hopeful rather than mournful and hopeless.

Nearly every album he has delivered since (and, make no mistake, Williams is best enjoyed by the album, not by the song) has offered us some combination of Williams’ dark wit accompanied (mostly) by a thumping dance beat, the former aimed as often at himself as at others, and sometimes (“Handsome Man”) in both directions.

Cover of "Swing When You're Winning"
Cover of Swing When You’re Winning

On Swing When You’re Winning, though, Williams took a hard detour into Big Band territory. Channeling his abiding admiration for The Chairman of the Board, Williams followed Harry Connick, Jr. into Sinatra territory, recording fourteen standards from the 40s and 50s with the appropriate (and sometimes misbehaving) assistance of Rupert Everett, Nicole Kidman, Jon Lovitz, Jane Horrocks, and Jonathan Wilkes. Each song is brilliant in its way. Music lovers, though, will dwell over his rendition of “One for My Baby,” sung to the accompaniment of pianist Bill Miller, who played for Sinatra when he recorded the standard fifty years prior at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles.

All of this is prelude, though, to the anthem Williams placed at the beginning of Swing When You’re Winning. “Hollywood Will Listen,” penned by Williams and longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, is subtly iconic, a musical artifact that is in its execution pure Hollywood big-production, and in its words captures the hopes of every naif who ever walked through a studio gate.

Shamelessly dropping names, but of people he hopes will eventually revere him rather than those he “knows,” Williams plays the part of L.A. newcomer, facing a Tinseltown he knows to be hard and impersonal yet swearing it will eventually be at his feet. Anyone who has ever mustered the courage and confidence to take an audition knows the feeling, and, with the orchestra swelling to dramatic crescendos behind him, Williams almost makes you believe it.

But then he does something even more powerful: he just ends the song. There is no triumphant climax, no musical cue that suggests the dreamer has or will reach his dream. The final chorus ends as almost a fade-out, an anti-climax. You can almost see the orchestra fading out of existence, leaving the singer alone in an empty sound stage into which he has wandered, the dreams echoing away in the face of the cold reality of another casting call, another audition.

Once again, Williams is laughing at his own ambition, letting his aspirations soar but never forgetting that no matter what he brings with him, Hollywood is and ever will be a cruel crap-shoot.

Williams’ anthem, then, is neither a celebration of success nor a blues-laden wallow in failure, but a subtle reflection on the reality of life for dreamers inside the Thirty Mile Zone. This is Southern California in the cold bright light of a winter Monday morning, a tribute to Hollywood-as-dream-machine in the 21st Century.

The Grande Dame of Silicon Valley

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The Sainte Claire, perhaps the least well-known among the grand hotels of the Golden State, still adds a touch of grace to downtown San Jose. Designed by the storied San Francisco architectural firm Weeks & Day, the hexagonal building reflects in its flavor and styling the more storied Mark Hopkins and St. Francis hotels at the top of the peninsula.

The Sainte Claire was once considered the most elegant accommodation between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its owners, the building’s interiors and exteriors still reflect the original vision of the designers, but there is no slavish devotion to nostalgia here. The owners have managed to walk that fine line between history and modernity, preserving the original when possible, updating when necessary and proper.

The result is a delight, especially for travelers who find that the dependable sameness of chain hotels, like the quite excellent San Jose Marriott across the street, has become wearisome.

“This is a SigAlert Message”

 

“This is a SigAlert Message”.

 

If you have ever wondered where we got the term “Sigalert,” the term used in Southern California to refer to a severe roadway problem, Harry Marnell takes us back to the days just after World War II when Los Angeles began earning its reputation as a global center of auto traffic.

 

It’s a fascinating story of private ingenuity and a small innovation that became a core part of commuting life in the land of car culture.

 

L.A.’s Minority Architects

The theme restaurant and control tower at Los ...
The theme restaurant and control tower at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Breaking Ground’ at Chinese American Museum Shows That Not All L.A. Architects Are Old, White Dudes.
Wendy Gilmartin
LA Weekly
February 13, 2012

Los Angeles Revisited: 20th Century L.A. Architects: Chinese American Architects – Paul R. Williams – Pedro E. Guerrero – 2013 Pacific Standard Time Presents.
Elizabeth Uyeda
LA Revisited
May 8, 2013

Despite the inevitable hoots of derision from architectural purists, California is a haven of outstanding architecture. Lost among the strip malls and tract houses are countless examples of everything from subtle brilliance to outlandish provocation, not to mention pure gems of American history.

Los Angeles is no exception, with grand masters like Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Victor Gruen, Frank Gehry, George Wyman, and their like dotting the landscape with masterpieces and curiosities. What is too often forgotten, though, is that Los Angeles was also the garden for an early crop of America’s finest non-Anglo architects.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house designed by Paul Williams, who aside from being admitted as the first African-American architect to the American Institute of Architects in 1923, was the co-designer of the LAX Theme building, the first AME Church, the L.A. County Courthouse, the County’s Hahn Hall of Administration, and over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That the height of his career preceded the Civil Rights movement is, I believe, testament to both Williams as a man and to California as his base.

Gilmartin and Uyeda also highlight four outstanding Los Angeles-based Chinese-American architects who were Williams’ contemporaries and who left their mark on the city and on mid-century American architecture. Gin Wong co-designed the LAX Theme building with Paul Williams. Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy built a profitable niche designing homes and workplaces for Los Angeles’ increasingly prosperous Chinese-American population. And Helen Liu Fong was at the core of architects in the Googie movement, a 1950s update of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s that, though once passe, has become a core part of the Southern California design language. (If you are looking for the quintessential Googie look, think of the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland, or Ship’s Coffee Shop.)

If there is one lesson to be taken from all of these greats, it is this: architecture in Los Angeles has been – and remains –  about testing limits, be they aesthetic, ethnic, or seismic. For those reasons, expect the parade of thought-provoking design to continue, and expect it to come from the most unexpected places.