Sunday, December 4, 2011

Arizona: Copper, Cotton, Citrus, Cattle, and Crazy

(As a kid in Arizona, they used to make you memorize The Five C's, which included "Climate" but not "Communism" nor "Capitalism" nor "Corazon..."; but hey, hence the title for an Arizona-based magazine....) (and yes, dammit, there are such awkward asthmatic aardvarkian-esque things as magazines from Arizona... Dude, we can totally read — we're just not in the mood, so we look at the pictures.)


Arizona's first state governor wasn't a Pontiac dealer.
Instead, he was a Zoroastrian. It was the Pontiac dealer — the guy who came in after the one-eyed newspaper columnist and then, eventually, the Mexican-born ex-boxer — who officially outlawed Martin Luther King Day. Then there was that early governor who refused to approve the state flag. But the governor who saw UFOs over Phoenix came way after that. Then he founded a French cooking school. (There'll be a test on this later, so take notes.)

A white pyramid looms over the mountains where Phoenix and Scottsdale and Tempe crunch together, marking the tomb of that first Zoroastrian governor guy. But since nobody remembers him, or knows why there's a white pyramid parked against the red rocks and cactus, or can figure out just what a Zoroastrian is, it simply serves as a symbol of just exactly how Arizona has always been, and likely always will be. Arizona is intentionally weird, oddball squared, a place where bold eccentrics have historically stumbled in to see just how they stacked up against the nutjobs who were currently running the joint.

Some of those nutjobs, of course, were those dang Indians — like, for instance, the Apaches, who were said to be able to run 50 miles a day (and bear in mind that Arizona was hot as hell, even before they paved it). It's hard to understand why the US Cavalry didn't just turn their horses around and go pick on the Hopi, who were pushovers, and a lot slower too. Perhaps this is why even today our license plates say "The Grand Canyon State" rather than "Famous Frybread," or "Geronimo Lives."

Tombstone, "The Town Too Tough To Die," became "The Town Too Tourist-Dependent To Close Until 9:15 PM," but that was later. Scottsdale used to be "The West's Most Western Town," but that was before it became a golf course. Phoenix ("Park And Lock It; Not Responsible") was built right on top of a system of canals that had originally been constructed by the Hohokam Indians, who wisely disappeared, apparently annoyed by the sight of Apaches sprinting back and forth. Tucson (pronounced "Tuk-sin") has traditionally been distinguished by its lack of canals, and by the fact that it was never the West's Most anything, perhaps its saving grace. Still, it features Old Tucson, where all the Western films that weren't filmed in Hollywood occurred.

Arizona, a place that has been, among other things, part of Old Spain, New Spain, Mexico, New Mexico, Sonora, the official State of Deseret, the Gadsden Purchase, the Compromise of 1850, the glorious Confederacy, the glorious Union, the State of Nevada, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola, and . . . well, those dang Indians were so lousy at writing names down. Anyway, Arizona has a proud right to a perpetual identity crisis.

Ok, so the Clantons and the Earps were genuine trouble, one and all imported from out of state —snowbirds, in Arizona terms. But during my own lifetime, the Devil's Disciples and Satan's Slaves and the Mongols and the Bandidos and the Hells Angels and the Vagos and all manner of other well-meaning darlings have been among the genuine outlaws. (I used to have a safety-card from one of those charming dance-clubs, until the Secretary-Treasurer needed back, because it was the only one he had, and there were cute girls in the bar he wanted to impress.) Arizona is the proud state that first established the law that you couldn't wear your hogleg pistol into the topless club, a fine example of our state's firm, focused grasp on practical jurisprudence.

But 'twas ever thus. John C. Fremont, Arizona's first territorial governor, spent most of his career exploring California, for which you can hardly blame him. He was told he had to reside in Arizona, or resign. He resigned.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry House...in the Ghetto!



The last time I was in Dennis Hopper's house was — let's be fairly honest — the only time. This was a while ago. Things may have changed a bit since then in Hopper's house, in Dennis Hopper's life. Hell, in my own life too. There may have been some rearranging of the furniture.


Hopper's house is famous, in case you didn't know, for not only being the home of Dennis Hopper but being the house that Frank Gehry built for Dennis Hopper. It was in the ghetto. Or that was its rep, anyway — Frank Gehry had built Dennis Hopper a house in the ghetto, right there in Venice and everything. The LA Times was every bit as titillated as the New York Times and the London Sunday Times, though there was reason to believe the LA Times would have had a harder time finding the ghetto — any local ghetto — on a map.

Of course, Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house in Venice wasn't in a ghetto. Not actually, of course. It was Dogtown, and there was placa all over everywhere, naturally, all kinds of locals-only graffiti. If you took a look, it just said really mild stuff like "West Side Locos," and "Con Safos." Venice has always been nice and funky and sweet that way. But really, the verdant sub-tropical neighborhood where Dennis Hopper had commissioned a Frank Gehry house-clad-in--corrugated-iron could be called a barrio, perhaps, maybe, possibly, but then so could so many of the best parts of Los Angeles. Or at least the parts where great food doesn't come equipped with valet parking. That may well be the way that we can best determine the ghetto parts and the barrio parts of LA from the non-ghetto, non-barrio parts — the presence or, conversely, the absence of valet parking.

Anyway, it had all proved pretty thrilling to all kinds of ultra-upscale and high-end magazines and even daily newspapers and other such slum-dwellers, this super-stimulating non-valet parking juxtaposition of Dennis Hopper and Frank Gehry and the ghetto and the graffiti and the corrugated iron exterior of Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house. Me, I could never never really figure out which locution was correct, or at least more correct — was it Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house? Or Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house? I think it depended on what magazine you were working for, and how glossy the magazine's pages were.

In this case, let it be said, the magazine was HG. Formerly, until only very recently, House & Garden. Which Anna Wintour had only recently boarded, the salty sea-breezes between the UK and the the USA still fresh in her hair, knife clenched in comparatively tiny teeth, promptly prying off the logo, turning the venerable House & Garden, one of the jewels in Conde Nast's crown, into the all-new, all-exciting, much hipper HG. (Over the next year or two, practically all subscribers cancelled, newsstand sales died, and before long, the magazine, which had been around forever, folded. Instantaneously Anna got given Vogue, which had been her undeclared intention all the while. (Grace Mirabella, who had been considering herself Vogue's editor, was, well, notified. By a phone call from a reporter from the New York Post, as I remember.) Conde-Nast brought their former cash-spurting-cow "shelter magazine" back successfully maybe a decade or so later but this time they named it, for unfathomable un-chic reasons, House & Garden. Go figure.

But hey, wasn't me that was working for 'em at the time. It was my pal, my boy James Truman, later to be knighted no less than the Editorial Director of Conde-dang-Nast — arise! Sir Knight! — but at the time, only just the mere cuff-adjusting West Coast editor of HG, an underling, a simple salary-man really, uprooted outlandishly from Manhattan and outposted like a bemused but wary cavalry colonel, albeit one with a posh-ish British accent, dispatched to a frontier Fort Courage in order to keep an peeled eye on the unruly local Injuns. Truman was doing it in perfect style, precise Conde-Nast style, making certain he'd leased a hell of a house in the Hollywood Hills, and he and I were considering putting together a shared writing office above La Fonda, on Wilshire by the Otis Art Institute.... with a fax machine! Of our exclusive own! Which seemed like a big deal! That's how long ago all this was — oh, and the fax machine had a tiny little green-and-purple polka-dotted pterodactyl flying around inside to make it work.

Anyway, among the other LA lifestyle accoutrements essential to the West Coast Dude for HG, Truman could see the absolutely essential necessity of possessing the absolutely essentially right car. As a Brit, and a journalist, he'd long since done the duty required by some tea-stained Parliamentary statute; as with each and every other British journalist ever sent on a junket, he'd got off the plane and onto the shuttle, and immediately rented a red Mustang convertible. (Then, over the course of their two-or-three day stay, they are required by law to drive back and forth along Sunset and the Pacific Coast Highway, before refilling the tank, dropping the car off, and returning home to write a story that emphasizes how shallow and absurd LA is, a story that contains the requisite surreal swaying palm trees within the first paragraph. I've always wondered, given the depth of their research, how come they can't ever pronounce "Los Angeles" right — always with that hard G.)

Truman was much beyond that by now, much beyond. Now he desired, needed, required, a Mustang convertible of his very own. A groovy one, a vintage one, a '64 or '65 or '66 Mustang — in red. As his pal, as a Californian, and as a car guy — though, let's face it, his dad had, after all, been a Jaguar dealer — it was my solemn duty to advise him, and in all good conscience, I had to let him in on The Truth: those old Mustangs pretty much suck. They're just sad little Ford Fairlanes, the lame-o econo car that Ford slapped together to battle the Volkswagen Bug, with a sexier body pasted on top. There's not one of 'em, no matter how beautifully restored, that doesn't rattle like a rusted bucket of rusty bolts. Naturally, as old friends and comrades and confidants, he listened closely to my sage counsel, and didn't believe me. He went and drove a couple of fresh new old-ass Mustangs, and discovered that, lo and behold — who'd'a thunk it? — they pretty much sucked. The redder they were, the more they rattled. And they cornered like tanks — like water tanks. Like fish tanks.

So instead, we found him a mint perfect '68 Firebird with a 326, a convertible, with that really cool grey-olive metallic paint-job that Pontiac was doing in those days, and matching interior. It was so wicked, so quick, so cool. It looked amazing. Because it was amazing. And perfect, and pristine. Until, of a wet Saturday morning, first good rain of the season, streets all nice and slick and oily-wet, he banged it into the back of somebody beautiful and blonde. As I remember, he was looking at the girl when he ran into her Volkswagen Rabbit up near Hillhurst. Although I may be confusing it with the time I banged my Mom's '68 Camaro, driving underage without a license, while I was looking at a girl. Probably both, actually.

Anyway, I get this panicked call from him. He's late — he's supposed to be out at Dennis Hopper's house. Watching over, shepherding, facilitating a Matthew Ralston photo shoot. At Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house. And then sweeping up afterward by interviewing Dennis Hopper. But he'd just pranged his perfect Pontiac, and now, profound remorse, powerful panic, pitiful regret, with that sickening sense of a world turned upside down, with no taxis responding because of the rain, he needed me to run him out to Venice. And maybe stick around to be helpful. (Which, as everybody knows, I am. Helpful — that's me.) Plus, as a guy who'd personally spoiled at least one pristine, perfectly bitchin' '68 GM product myself (327, automatic, with that amazing cool console shifter; pristine white interior), I was only too glad to be of comfort on the way out to Venice. Hey, dude, man, things like this just happen — wet roads, fast cars, distracting girls. Distracting cars, fast roads, oily girls. It's a lot like life. It's lifelike. It's especially easy to be philosophical when it's not your broken Firebird.

So we rolled, in my major primary ride of that time, which was a black '68 Pontiac GTO with RamAir hood scoops and beefed-up sway-bars with urethane bushings and old-school Cragar mag wheels and that amazing 400 cubic-inch Pontiac big block. If you were worried about Dennis Hopper's neighborhood in Venice being the ghetto, you definitely didn't have to worry about it after you'd parallel-parked that bad boy. A lot of the semi-vatos and their cousins who came out to have a look once they heard the dual exhausts setting off their car alarms were in fact related to the guys who took it as a privilege when I used to downshift into the valet-parking districts of LA, the guys who shoulder-shoved the other valets away so they could snag the keys and cruise around the block a couple times before they had to park yet another silver-grey BMW. Somebody actually moved their Nissan into the driveway so Truman and I could honor 'em by parking the GTO in front of their house — these guys had excellent valet parking skills, which no doubt came from living in the ghetto there.

Anyway, in we went. I wish I could tell you what the doorbell of Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house sounded like, but I don't remember. Probably somewhat like rusty corrugated tin grinding away. Then again, maybe we knocked. Anyway, once we got inside, it was a horrific scene. It was horrifying. Remember that part in Apocalypse Now? Or the sort of somewhat end-thing of Easy Rider? Or all the various movies with Dennis Hopper in them like Colors or Speed or Blue Velvet where nobody could figure out how to end the thing and so there's a big climactic scene where everything bursts into flames? Well, it was a lot like that. A lot. Only you couldn't see the flames. But they were there, take it from me.

Poor Truman. He was already not having a super-great day. Me, I was at my helpful and conciliatory best, but let's face it — wasn't my gig. Hell, I wasn't even on the Conde-Nast payroll at the moment, so really, I was in ever so many ways the absolute best guy to have on hand, with undoubtedly the clearest vision of all concerned. Not my ass on the line whatsoever. Although I do, okay, tend, perhaps, to get a little philosophical under those types of circumstances.

The main room (I'm sure it had a proper name, that huge room with the raw undulating ceiling, but we were just waltzing in late, and it wasn't really my gig, so I didn't write it down or anything) was this big open space but it was divided by hanging wall-divider deals, hanging from the ceiling, but on these extraordinarily smooth-operating bearings, like Swiss skateboard bearings but no doubt done to aerospace industry tolerances. And on all these big sliding panels mounted on sleek sliding Swiss bearings, there was a lot of Art. It was, anyone could tell, actual art. Sliding away, yet set so they could be glimpsed, there were things that looked like Basquiat, and some sure-enough Rauschenbergs, and a silk-screen Rosenburg, I think. There was either a Franz Kline, or else a really amazing Franz Kline copy. And among them, scattered in on the silent Swiss bearings, shuffled into the deck, were some of the artworks of Dennis Hopper.

Okay, but everybody was avoiding that room like the plague. Dead silence. Tumbleweeds were blowing through. Where all the action — all the downstairs action anyways —was going on was in the (what do you suppose Frank and Dennis had titled it?) The Amphitheatre Room. Man, it was pretty ultra-mega-fraught in there. There was this room on the first floor of Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house that was like a little 99-seat theatre all unto itself. There was a stage, with a real lighting rig and a big sound rig, and against the opposite wall, there was a series of those over-sized steps, amphitheatre style, carpeted in some rigorously nubby industrial-grade charcoal-colored carpet. And on the steps and the stage, there were all kinds of dazzling suits and blouse-y Versace shirts and blinding ties and socks and shoes and suits and shirts spread out, each on its own hanger, except the socks, which were folded on hangers in pairs. And there were like three fashion-stylist assistants and two make-up stylist assistants and two photo assistants and an intern, and one guy who was there with the rental lighting, and there was a catering team. With espresso machine, which unquestionably wasn't helping matters. And that's to leave out the make-up stylist, and the fashion stylist, and the hair stylist, and maybe another stylist for something I'm forgetting. Maybe a socks stylist. In the absence of an Art Director, there was Truman, and, hey, me too. Oh and there was Matthew Rolston.

(Once, maybe a year or two later, I got a peek at The Secret Sheet. There was once this piece of paper — it was genuinely on paper back then — that told you the name of each photographer that Conde-Nast used, and what they got paid. As a writer, and even as a pampered one, it was kind of discouraging. I mean, I wrote a lengthy profile on one of the most famous actors in the history of Hollywood, and one of the guys on the sheet had gone to do the portraits, and because the guy was Old Hollywood, hey, they simply did it in his backyard, so it was like picking oranges right off the low branches of the tree or something. And he'd blown the shoot! Screwed it up completely. Unusuable. Nothing! We had to send yet another famous photographer to go do it over! And the first guy got fifty grand! And the second guy only got forty! And they were just about the cheapest guys on The Secret Sheet! You really didn't count until you were up there with the six-figure guys. But even there, even among the legends, like Irving Penn and Horst and Helmut Newton and Hiro, they weren't really pulling down the biggest of the big bucks. That was Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber, and, naturally, Matthew Rolston.)

So, really, as important as Dennis Hopper and Frank Gehry might have seemed, if only especially to themselves, they really weren't. Not really. I mean, Dennis Hopper had only just made the biggest comeback in the history of Hollywood, and Frank Gehry was probably about the most controversial architect of the time, at a time where even daily newspapers were suddenly gabbling ever so knowingly about "design." But believe me, the important one here today wasn't Hopper or Gehry or even the fabled Hopper-Gehry/Gehry-Hopper house. It was the photographer. And while Truman would eventually acquire the kind of power that made the most mighty of Manhattanites tremble and dream to be seen lunching with him in the Conde-Nast cafeteria — does one order the yellow Jell-O as a post-modernist ironic gesture? Or will he maybe not get it? Maybe better wait and see what color he selects —he was currently a bit on the death-defying, career-destroying balance-bubble in a fairly fraught three-celeb pile-up. Me, I was the guy who owned the '68 GTO parked out front, so as far as Dennis Hopper's neighbors were concerned, probably I was the most important. With power comes responsibility; I believe humility is essential.

Anyway, Matthew — I like to call him Matthew — was upset. Upset but professional. Professional but pissed-off. Pissed-off but at least still on site. On site but having his folk make the grand gesture of packing up. Packing up, but slowly. Slowly so they didn't actually have to leave, because once he and his people had packed up and left, they were gonna look like prima donnas. Or Matthew was, anyway. And Matthew knew who the prima donna, the diva, was. And it wasn't him. It was not him. It was Dennis Hopper, who had stormed upstairs. Slamming all the doors while doing it. Though, given that it was a Frank Gehry design, not all the doors stayed slammed shut.

Truman didn't beg so much, or plead, as just do a lot of very apparent, very gestural, very empathetic listening. He didn't, for instance, go down on one knee or the other, or both. He did, however, put the hand of reassurance on Matthew's shoulder, and that was really something, because Truman's not that touchy, not so much of a toucher. He can be clever and funny and he can be warmer than you'd think, but he's not, say, a big ol' bear-hugger. He's British, even if he hasn't lived there since before Diana was a princess. Anyway, he did a fine job of mollifying in the moment, and then, and then . . . and then, it was time to go upstairs. And speak to Mr. Hopper. As a show of good faith, Matthew had his people cease their faux-packing-up process. There was a momentary moment of relief, a glimmer of hope. Truman was, I think we all felt, just the man for the mission. Maybe.

Mr. Hopper — may I call him Dennis? — was not pleased. He, like Matthew, was pissed-off. But his version of pissed-off was different, and called for a different style of expression. A more expressionist style. He was barricaded behind the door that led to his bedroom and bathroom. And he was outnumbered, as well, having just only merely the one assistant, a reedy woman in her late twenties. She and Truman huddled, consulted, considered, co-conspired. Finally, she gathered her courage, threw back her shoulders, then hunched them back into servile position again and knocked on the door.

"Dennis?"

No answer.

"Dennis?"

[muffled but beyond miffed] "What?"

"Dennis, James Truman is here. He had a car accident on the way here. He was hoping he could come inside and speak to you."

A long pause. Actors, as I understand it, have beats that they work with, beats that are a great deal like musical rhythms, beats they can count out and use to create dramatic effect. I mean, it's not like I hadn't already known that Dennis Hopper was an actor's actor's actor, and that he'd studied and studied with and worked with the greats, but still, sometimes you have to be in the presence of a great actor when they're displaying their craft to really gather it all in. This, this, was greatness. I started to wonder how Truman was possibly going to be able to convey all this greatness, all this greatness that was surrounding us, how he was going to get it into his story. I didn't envy him.

"Dennis?" It was Truman. Man, he really had the touch. And the timing! I mean, here he was, working, mano a mano, with a guy that I myself was now recognizing as one of the greatest actors of the day, and yet James' voice had just the right note of quivering question, with maybe just a slightish soupçon of querulousness to it. Well-played! It was like a tercio de varas, the first stage of a bullfight, with the matador merely flirting, feinting his cape to learn just how fierce the bull will prove to be. Ole!

"Wha-a-at?" Again, the work of a master craftsmen — no, Hopper was a consummate artist, an artist who'd learned his craft and then transcended it. It was awe-inspirational. It was three syllables; no more, no less.

"Dennis, do you think I might possibly come in and join you there? We could perhaps talk? I feel so personally responsible for this whole problem..."

Nice! Nice. Was that nicely done or what? I felt a swell of pride, perhaps even a lump in my throat. Yes, true, Truman was my dear friend, my boy, my buddy, but really, it was the kind of thing that made you just want to root, root, root for the home team. If Nottingham had a football team with a football song that I'd known, I probably would have burst out singing it right then. I think, we can all agree, it's just as well.

Anyway, Truman was admitted to the inner sanctum, while the assistant and I, both diplomatically and cordially, smiled at one another briefly, and then commenced to considering our shoes and, alternately, the curved-versus-straight aesthetics of the Brian Murphy-designed interior. Brian Murphy was one of Frank Gehry's under-apostles but more of an interior design-y dude, so he was the one whose publicist, in conjunction with Frank Gehry's publicist, and Dennis Hopper's publicists (his personal publicist, and his latest film's publicist team) had sort of helped to, as we might say, inspire this story.

Truman was in there a really long time. He was in there for more than a century. I grew old and gray and died and went first to Purgatory, then got the guided tour of Limbo, and then was escorted to the very edge of the Gates of Heaven — but just then, just as I was entering into an all-access-laminated-pass negotiation, there came a shout. Shouting! It was startling! It was Dennis Hopper, back behind the brilliantly-designed bedroom/bathroom door. He was at full voice! It was glorious!

"NOT IN MY HOUSE! NOT IN MY HOUSE I FUCKIN' DON'T! NOT IN MY OWN FUCKIN' HOUSE! NOT! IN! MY! OWN! FUCKING! HOUSE!"

I wasn't in there, perched on the edge of the bathtub while Dennis Hopper paced manically around the open-plan bathroom with its industrial-grade fixtures, but it was kind of obvious what stage of the negotiation they'd achieved. Dennis' wan assistant and I raised our eyebrows at one another and then smiled wanly. Truman had just moseyed around to the part where he was strong-arming Dennis Hopper into perhaps considering wearing a few of the lovely suits and ties and socks and things that Matthew Rolston's fashion-stylist had so graciously provided. Suits that would be truly becoming, and perhaps even genuinely very flattering—

"NOT IN MY OWN FUCKING HOUSE! NOBODY TELLS ME WHAT FUCKING CLOTHES TO WEAR IN MY OWN FUCKING HOUSE!"

I'm trying to remember just exactly when David Mamet wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross." Whether it would already have been a big hit then, or what. I mean, it's not that Dennis Hopper had necessarily been auditioning for it or anything, or just using Mamet's script for vocal tune-up practice downstairs in the Amphitheatre Room, where all the suits and socks were now spread around all the places where an audience would ordinarily sit. But Mamet's masterwork, had, I realize now, a certain resonance, a certain harmonic resonance. I think it must have already been a hit, and they were probably already starting to talk about making a movie of it. I'm guessing, though.

Anyway, that particular moment was probably the most highly-pitched moment of drama, volume-wise, if not necessarily the most truly dramatic. Theater buffs, fans of method acting, and hack screenwriters probably already guess that it necessarily lowered in intensity before long, that eventually Dennis and Matthew made an uneasy peace before parting as good friends and then going on to say incredibly bitchy things about one another once the whole ordeal was done, once they were at last out of earshot of one another and each others' assistants and all. And Truman? James had wrung peace and photography from a world where before there had only been dischord and blank film. But really, even though he got it fixed, I don't know that he ever felt so in love with that lovely Firebird ever after that day. I guess it was never really mint perfect again.




Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Picoesque

(A brief hunk of my unfortunately destroyed novel that was sort of a love song about Los Angeles.)

You couldn't see faces when they came in, not at all, not whatsoever. Early summer evening Pico Boulevard southside sunlight shooting in sideways through blue and green paint letters on La Frontera's elaborate blue-green quetzal-elaborated front window on La Frontera's blue and green and yellow storefront, it kept you from seeing any of their faces. Three of them came in, one with a soccer ball under his armpit, three dark little short little men all shadowed blue-green, and parked the ball there square on the table top while Mauricio brought them beers and chips and salsa. They didn't move the ball. He didn't have much to say to them, and they had nothing whatsoever to say to him. Which was weird. Because everybody who comes into La Frontera jokes and horses around with Mauricio, and Mauricio horses and jokes around with everybody. Plus, also, moreover, Mauricio is one of the central ways that word gets passed about kitchen jobs, busboy and dishwasher action. He's a big main stem on the Guatemalan grapevine. It was strange. It stuck out. What was up with that?

So then Mauricio goes to me, "I got to go to El Otro Lado for got some more Cabros. You wanna go with me, maybe we take your troca — I maybe can drive us if you wanna'ed." I'd let him drive the El Camino when I first started coming around La Frontera de Guatemala y Mexico (that was the formal name, its baptismal name, the name out front) after he first spotted me parallel parking it out in front of the window so I could keep an eye on it in our lively, lovely, rotten little neighborhood — he'd come outside to direct traffic and make sure I didn't dent it up. Nowadays, he pretty much preferred that I keep my own use of it down to a minimum.

I fling him the keys. He catches them backhand, lefthanded, like a Dodger fan, which he most definitely is not. Mauro is a lifelong Giants fan, so much so that he's been known to switch the tv station if the Dodgers start to pull ahead, incurring all manner of wrath and such. Yet another thing he and I have in common.

Out the door to the parking lot, and Mauricio grabs, seizes, snags, shakes, rocks, rattles the ladder with Hector the muralist up there aboard it, chingaderoing him in mid-air fresh paint motion. Hectoro's up there painting another brand new flower basket high on the wall, another fresh new one, and Mauro grabs the ladder and gives it a good solid set of serious shakes. Hector offers, in contemporary Spinglish (on my behalf, for my benefit, because I'm there) to dump his wet yellow brush on Mauricio's perfect grey-and-black New Wave rayito pachuco pompadour. This mural, this former brown brick wall full of flowers and girls and super-scenic scenery, is very much A Work In Progress, has been for years now, maybe always will be if Mauricio has much to do with it. As he does, It's his place, even if it's Hector's mural — Hector's and Mauricio's both. Generally, I try to park the El Camino upwind of Hector's ladder.

It's Hector's place too, in the sense that La Frontera's mural is primarily, basically, allegedly, pretty much a street scene from their shared Guatemala, from somewhere probably a whole lot more like Antigua than Guatemala City, somewhere where the streets are cobbled and quiet, where willowy long-ankled peasant women in skirts sway with baskets balanced above their braids. You'll be waiting a good while yet in life to see your first willowy Guatemalan Indio gal, but both Hector and Mauricio know what they like and what they remember best. And that's what they like. Only it keeps changing, what they like and what they remember. And it's subject to discussion and revision and renegotiation, over chips y salsa y Cerveza Cabro y campechanas negro in the late hours. The street grows trees; the trees go away because now they block the mountain, a volcano shaped like an upside-down sno-cone looming on the horizon. With smoke coming out of it some weeks, other weeks not. Clouds crash into the volcano even though it looks to be a sunny day, even though for a year or two it was twilight there in Antiguatitlan. A window opens up where there was only wall before – Hector sometimes spends weeks and months painting elaborate bricks onto the brick wall — and then another willow-waisted campesina is sitting coyly in the window, and then a window box of flowers, great gorgeous flowers like a prodigy-kid would paint, maybe perhaps a little extra large and glorious and gorgeous for so small a window box, only now the girl is gone, painted out as a result of some all night aesthetic argument with Mauricio — all those flowers were stealing away her glory anyway — and her window is slammed closed. A burro shows up on the street, and then a great squared-off, squared-away, square-shaped load of green onions weighs him down, as it would, because practically every onion has its own painted-in personality. Plainly, obviously, Hectoro loves onions. A month or two later, after a long, long, very long series of discussions about the ways of burros and the ways of green onions on their way to the market, a little girl arrives to lead him. She has sweet ankles too.

"Este es el corrrrrido del ca-ba-a-a-l-l-l-o-o blannnnn-co..." Mauricio sang as he cranked over the Chevy, as he sang each and every time he stuck the keys in the El Camino's ignition. Turning it over, he turned to me. "So how come you don't never write some story for Motor Trend?" Mauro had been a faithful Motor Trend reader ever since he was a junior shoeshine kid carrying his matching deep-sea-blue box y banquito, the shoeshine box on a shoulder-strap and the banquito fitting just so, carrying them first all around his own little atitlan town, and then all across grim-ass, grimy-ass, brutal-ass Guatemala City, where the bloodstains began where the bullet-holes ended.. El Gran Tiempo. Where if you got there plenty early enough, you could park your personalized tuck-and-roll metalflake banquito next to a newsstand that was directly across from maybe probably the biggest turista hotel in all Guatemala, all full of crewcut American military advisors wearing casual beach togs and sunglasses (if no actual beach-togged sunglass-wearing American tourists — Guata-fuckin'-mala?). Mauro told me about twenty times, or thirty, maybe that he used to always shine the black Beatle boots of the actual gringo guy who wrote and sang "The Ballad of the Green Beret," and so now he was always trying to find a copy, a 45, to put on the jukebox at El Otro Lado. And since Pico Boulevard was littered with what was left of the old school Rhythm & Blues jukebox 45 single business, all these scattered storefronts that had once been the original R&B record labels, loose teeth still sticking around but now morphed into Mexicanismo labels and distributors, banda y Norteno y tropicalismo y mariachi y mas, staying low and loose under the table then and now, traditional record business practices still in place, never actually paying anybody not holding a loaded pistol but only just skidding by and sliding and surviving on smiles and promises and shiny cars and signed contracts and contracts specifically unsigned, and on shoe shines as well . . . well, sometimes me and Mauro would stop in on our way to and fro up and down Pico and we'd see if we couldn't locate a clean-ish vinyl copy of the Greatest Hit of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, Green Beret. "Fighting soldiers from the sky... fearless men who jump and die... men who mean just what they say... the brave men of the Green Beret...." Ah, but no dice, dude — it does not say — all that ever happened is I ended up scooping up even more Carlos y Jose albums and cut-rate Los Tremendos Gavilanes cassettes, and Mauro would end up being ceremonially presented with a few more free tropical bikini gal posters for the restaurant, so that he'd have to Scotch-tape 'em up amidst all the current ones, amidst all those ever-so-unlikely svelte sexy dark brown-eyed Budweiser morenas, the ones who obviously didn't ever drink beer or eat beans or tortillas or anything else from the starchy side of the border.

Meanwhile, back in Guatemala City, back in his shoeshine days, wedged in there somewhere beween the newsstand and El Gran Sheraton-Hilton, the patrón-proprietor of the newsstand liked to leaf philosophically through Motor Trend himself, and he charged a very reasonable quetzal-rate rent for thumbing though any fresh copies he got just as long as Mauricito covered his shoeshine-smeared manos with yesterday's newspapers and didn't get any shoe polish smudges on the pages. Yo, you smear 'em with Shinola, you just spent next month's masa harina money. But all very well worth all the big risk, extra especially since back in Mauro's metalflake tuck-and-roll banquito days, Motor Trend was bulging with brand new muscle cars from Detroit, wicked Mopars and fierce Fords and each-and-every God-entirely-forsaken division of General Motors, Pontiacs and Chevys and Buicks and Oldsmobiles — hey, and even those long-forgotten Javelin's and AMX's from American Motors, with red-white-and-blue paintjobs — all of 'em ramming massive big block boat-anchor high-performance engines into indisputably the best Body by Fisher design since the late 40s, and then swathing them in spoilers and racing stripes and colors that vibrated long after the ignition was cut off.

In fact, Mauricio had squatted on the very first banquito in Guatemala with a racing stripe. Bright amarillo-yellow against that azul anil, taped off officially by a body-shop hombre who'd received in exchange daily shoeshines for a solid month — although Mauro told me that he'd stinted on the ultra-valuable Kiwi polish as much as possible by making grand gestures and spitting and popping the rag twice as much, doubletime. With great stealth and cunning, he'd ripped from two successive months of Motor Trend ads the Dodge SuperBee logo, a mean little cartoon bee with racing helmet and goggles and a maniacally gleeful grin; then, after that, he'd shellacked them both to either side of his shoeshine box with the somewhat inaccurate legend "440 cubic inches" hand-painted in yellow underneath them. A pristine version of my own SS-396 El Camino had been righteously representing right there in the Motor Trend ads too — with the inverted hoodscoop, and Chevy's own big-belt version of a racing stripe — and it resonated, vibrated, rumbled Mauricio's ribs to this day, right up against his corazon. Few things in life, let me tell you, are anywhere near as enjoyable as driving east against the incoming late afternoon traffic tide on Pico, heading downtown when everyone else is heading home, staring into the glare, then you cutting over at Alvarado to Olympic on the way to the Garment District with Mauricio popping down into neutral at every red light so's he can rev the engine so loud he can only just barely be heard singing Jose Alfredo Jiminez' classic corrido "El Caballo Blanco" over it. Which is not on the radio, but in his head. And now in the clattering LA air as we blasted down Olympic.

"So what's with those guys with the soccer ball, with the football? What's up with that?"

He quit singing, kept revving. Long ago I'd given up on guarding the redline on the tachometer; I might mention it to him occasionally when he got too enthusiastic but he was more interested in how the revving harmonized with his singing while we waited at the intersections. He had a sense of the harmonics, if not the tappet valves. "These guys, these guys, they think I'm all a cholo, because of so they don't give me no respect I deserve. See, they like to come to at La Frontera at this time of the day, when the sun still lives in the sky high up still, so they can eat Elena's tamales, tamales estilo tipico Guatemala, con crema de Guatemala, not no Mexican tamales with the crema de Mexico, that you can get everywhere. And they eat Elena's tamales and drink lot of Cabro beer from Guatemala we like to drinks, but only they don't think so much about how this Cabro comes here to get out from Guatemala to from here. To their mouths. Because they are so traditional. Because they are all indigenous. Because they are Indios. Because I am not Indio because I live in Los Angeles and own and have a restaurant. And because they don't need a job for today for them or their hermanos." His eyes rolled back quick, back and again. "If they are so indigenous I don't know how they can kick some football no Maya din't make for them. That their women din't weave it. Out of the pattern of their village, traditional. And they think maybe I got to pay them money for who they know back in Guatemala that they might know Elena's family that still stay there, or else maybe they try to make me some trouble here too. Pinche cabrones who don't know me or they don't show me more respect."

"So how come they call you a cholo? Junior's the cholo, not you..."

Junior was the white t-shirted cholo, born in Guatamela, definitely, but raised in LA among Mexicans, 17 or probably 16 or so, a vato loco de la old school, complete with all authentic accessories except the hairnet. He'd been romancing Mauricio and Elena's daughter Estrella in the only way he knew how to romance her, which, in the absence of a zocolo, in the absence of your basic central plaza around which to take her promenading around counter-clockwise while all the vatos with no sweetheart came silent or sneering around clockwise, well, in the absence, he mostly just sat around and acted stupid. So far it had mainly been a methodology of hanging around the restaurant in the afternoon watching the telenovelas and American talkshows and sit-coms and cop dramas and Dodger games and teasing her while she did her homework and trying to talk her into serving him beers until she finally got annoyed enough to scald his sad ass out the door by telling him all the things he wasn't and many he was never going to be and a lot he would never even be smart enough to know he wasn't. All true, but it was tough on the both of them. Mauricio's solution was that maybe I should marry Estrella.

"Because, see, in California, in the U.S. United States, in California, see, Junior, they call him a cholo. But see in Guatemala, see, cholos are Indios who wear the clothes of like the Ladinos because they want to look like they are Ladinos and not Indios. Because they don't wanna be be Indios."

And the Ladinos? "These are the ones who own all up of everything in the big cities and the towns and in the little small villages also most of the time too. Because they come with a name of Spanish from Spain. Because they're not Indios. The Indios don't got a Spanish name, or if they got it, they don't look nothing like Ladinos, see? Ladinos, see, they try and look more like gabachos. They come there with the conquistadores, the Ladinos. From the time of Don Alvarado. The Ladinos got the land. They end up got all of the land. In Guatemala, everybody wants land or else they wanna look like they got land. That's what they like in Guatemala, is land. So they can make corn. Corn and land and coffee. That's what they love. They kill you for corn and land and coffee. These kind of guys. "

Mauricio and Elena's place downtown was called La Frontera too — Hector had painted La Frontera en el Otro Lado, blue-green, naturally, high upon the facade, way up where hardly anybody ever looked. The Border on the Other Side. Mauro used to call it La Frontera de Guatemala y los Estados Unidos, but nobody who actually noticed it ever got the joke. They kept telling him there wasn't no border between Guatemala and los Estados Unidos, that Mexico was the one with the border with the U.S., so finally he had Hector climb up his ladder and paint a whole new name. "I thinked about maybe La Frontera de Guatemala y Cañada but then I mostly got to spent all my time telling to people that I already know that they don't got no frontera of Cañada and Guatemala. So I just had him put "El Otra Lado." And where the other words had been, Hector painted a cartoon of Mauricio running away from a dog with longanizas, sausages on a string, trailing out of his mouth behind him. Mauricio's mouth had the sausages, and the dog was chasing after him.

The garment district was always deep forest blue-green quiet by early evening, but the watch peddlers stayed late and some were talking together as they put their things away, box by box, re-wrapping the display models in their fittled plastic wrap, perfectly painstaking, box by box, each into a box and then a larger carton, each motion it's own prayer. They were African, dark black, darker than blue, as Curtis Mayfield said.

"Ola, Abraham — que paso?" Mauricio said after we parked and walked over to them. "How is the weather in your tuba today?"

"Hot and dry and perfect, my friend, my amigo. Always perfect there."
"Sometime we got to go there. Maybe me and you go sometime together there."
"Sometime we will go soon, amigo, mon frere. My cousin has just come from there, back with all the news. It is peaceful and perfect there. You must come with me."

"Probably they don't got no Guatemala food there. Maybe when we go, we can set up a little restaurant. And you can sell watches from it."

The African laughed so hard he had to lean in to his friends and tell them too. "Your food we sell, but there are too many sellers of watches now already now. Maybe I must become your cook for you there."

"When we go, I will be the cook and you will be the one who speaks the language to the peoples. Together me and you will have together the first Guatemala restaurant of your city. We will be rich. We will wear fine watches and fine clothes."

"Already we have fine clothes and fine watches here in the District. What we will have in that city will be perfect peace."

Mauricio began unlocking the restaurant door. "Then soon we got to make our plan. Maybe my amigo here comes with us."

"If he comes, he will have perfect peace there too."

El Otro Lado was a lot more along the lines of a taco stand than La Frontera on Pico, with its big three-man hand-carved wooden marimba and its relaxed late evening atmosphere — El Otro didn't even have a jukebox, but just a ghettoblaster hung by its handle between the cash register and the grill, where he and Elena could fuss equidistantly over which radio station they played. Just around the corner and down the street from Callejon Santee, Santee Alley, the seven-days-a-week bazaar, El Otro most served as a loncheria for the Garment District — the Fashion District, as the city government determinedly kept trying to re-label it, upscaling it away from images of little Asian ladies and little Latin ladies and little Latin men and little Asian men and little men and women from all over the world hidden in the upper floors of every building downtown that wasn't a bank, rip-racing through piecework, tossing their days into white canvas hampers on wheels. Then again, in general, as a whole, lumped together, the immigrants of Los Angeles are unquestionably the nattiest immigrants ever, thanks to the immeasurable outflow of pirated designs, the unstoppable inflow of boatloads of containers of crates of cartons of boxes of sporty shoes, the unceasing clatter of color and cut and logo and label and brand name knock-offs and no-name knockdowns, socks three pair for five dollar, cinco dollores para tres.

I still hadn't gotten past the beginning of their conversation. "What were you saying to Abraham about the weather in his tuba? I couldn't figure you out."

"Ibrahim — he's called Ibrahim, not called Abraham. He come here from Senegal, in Africa. All these guys who sell the watches, they all come from there, from Senegal. They are Senegaltecas, those guys with watches. And where they want to go is they all want to go back to their city they got there call Touba. In Touba they always say everything stays always perfect. The weather is perfect and the peoples there is perfect. Everything perfect. Nobody never fights and they don't got to pay no taxes because they all of them send money there to Touba from selling watches and purses. It is a place that is perfect. It's maybe for them like Guatemala used to be before when my father was a niño. Or right before then, maybe. From long before."

We were loading cases of Cabro, the beer so refreshing they dare to choose to use a realistic goat on the label, when a yellow Nissan pickup pulled up, piled up impossibly high with flattened cardboard boxes, and parked in front of us. Yellow plastic rope held flattened boxes way high over the top of the cab, maybe three or four feet higher. A little Mexican-looking lady was driving; she got out and yanked a rope loose but before it was loose, her children were scattering all down the alley, climbing up into dumpsters to check for boxes. "Mijo," Mauricio called to one, a nine-year-old kid or so. He shrilled his whistle, his Mauricio whistle, so the kid would know him next time forever. "Venga, mijo." The kid came along as Mauricio went back inside. They came back with half a dozen boxes each, and the other kids instantly dismantled them, taking them apart and stomping them flat, then winging them up to their mother, who stood balanced on the edge of the truck bed, spreading them out evenly. I asked the mother if she hablar Ingles but she smiled and pointed to the kid handing her up the boxes. He was probably eleven or twelve. What I wanted to know was just how much a truckload of flattened cardboard boxes was worth. "It's worth a whole lot," he told me con mucho enthusiasm. "The recycling center, they give us thirteen dollars, probably. Sometimes fifteen." So how long does it take to get a load? "It depends — depends on if you get lucky. A lots of times you get lucky. But sometimes you don't — sometimes you get there and somebody else already just been there and they already got all the boxes before you." And then you try and go somewheres else and and somebody already just been there too. But a lots of times you get lucky. The bad thing is when they make you wait for too long a time in line at the recycling. And sometimes they close first before you get weighed and paid. And then you got to sleep in the truck there so nobody don't steal your boxes."
Mauricio had climbed in the back of the El Camino and — cracking up the kid's little brother and sister — was personally stripping the cartons out from the cases of Cabro. He dumped the bottles loose in the back of the bed by the cab and tossed the beer flats one after another down to where the kids were seriously stomping boxes on the sidewalk. The kids leaped on his offerings with giant glee, and then they flung them up to their mother like frisbees, like flying tortillas, like flattened cardboard boxes. "Buena suerte," Mauro told them, and then "Suerte," he called again as they pulled off, all the little four of them pressed into the cab of the little truck, the imperfectly high load just a little higher now, just a little slightly more impossible. Only slightly.

He drove us back to La Frontera with six or eight cases of beer bottles clanking loose in back, a clattering brown tide sloshing forward when he stopped for lights, sliding all the way back at the tailgate once he took off again. No delicacy involved between him and a big-block El Camino. He was certain the superior construction of Guatemalan beer bottles would keep them from breaking, and so he drove con mucho gusto — after all, you only go 'round once in life. At La Frontera, parked beneath a lavender-blooming jacaranda tree, I guarded the beer while he went in for green plastic garbage bags. We loaded them up with beers and laid them over our shoulders, beer delivery Santas, and Mauricio dropped off a couple of free beers at the table of the soccer players. Tops popped, foam flew furiously forth, cursing commenced, Mauricio crowed like a rooster, a gallo, a chingadero. A couple of the marimba players, saxophone straps hanging loose over their shirts, their guayaberas, began to warm up. Commenced. Evening light ended, lightly, over with, blue-green night descended on La Frontera de Guatemala y Mexico. I left a little later, not that much later, walked the maybe half a mile or so home. The jacaranda had rained lavender blossoms entirely all over the El Camino; the hood, the bed, the roof, the windshield, all littered solid with wet lavender-purple, a fresh paint-job of petals that would have dried up and blown off if I'd tried to drive. Spring was beginning its ending; summer was coming, on the way, here now. Incoming.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Sign o' the Times

Hey!

Good news!
(If maybe a little late. Maybe I'm not paying the proper attention to this stuff.) (Hey, but I'm willing, near-perfectly...)
(Or maybe I'm just like my mother...)

In any case, our eternally beloved, if poor ol' battered and beaten-up-beyond-Bondo-repair good ol' SPIN magazine (hey, cats 'n' kittens, remember way back when?) has declared Prince's Sign O' The Times the Official Most Second-Best of All The Albums of the Past 25 Years. Yeah!! (Ok, so I'm like a year or two late in noticing... but who reads SPIN anymore?)
Whoa!!
And check it out — my very own review of the album is quoted, if dope-ily, by whoever that week's dumbass dope in charge of organizing the Today's Super Dopey List Of Whatever-The-Fuck We're Listing Up Today! Yeah!! Whoah! (BTW: Don't let the elevator break you down...)

Here: here's the poor sad nitwitted knucklehead's intro: (and I'd urge ya'll to enjoy it, as I can't help but do so my ownself..)

Prince's divinely, defiantly eclectic double-album came out at a time when SPIN was all agog. "I guess you know what the problem with Prince is: he's too good," goes the start of Bart Bull's review. "He's so good he can do anything he wants...and sometimes the dumb stuff he does works out to be the best stuff anybody's ever done. Ever." That even-the-dumb-stuff-works spirit imbued an album as personally pointed and stylistically varied as any ever made, and it's aged well enough that, in a 2005 tribute, SPIN's Michaelangelo Matos called it a "one-stop superstore for the past two decades of pop."

And then, here, here's the actual undying review thing.... there's such a great story that goes along with this one, a story that swirls together Al Green and Don Dixon and Marti Jones and Elvis and Graceland and Albert King and Duck Dunn and Memphis itself and . . . well, I'm'na get to this story, with Polaroid photos, perhaps, sooner or later. (Me, I'd hold my breath, breathlessly...)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Aphorism Sixty-Five (as printed in Vogue, no less!) (One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set)

Directors are a debased currency in today's Hollywood. Producers count, studio heads are stars, stars are social philosophers, agents inspire more fear than ever, but instead of wielding the staff of power as they once did, directors now stand in line for a chance to kiss it.