Carter’s Blue

Best stuff on the street, they said. Just ask the old man, he’s got it. Orleans Reinette rubbed her hands over her arms and looked both ways down Melrose. But there was no sign of the old man.

Maybe she should keep moving. It wasn’t like she had to stay in this place. But this place was just as good as the rest of them. She glanced at the shops around her. Maybe a tad more trendy than she was used to, but that didn’t matter. It was the Blue she was after.

It was always the Blue.

A police car drove past, the mustached officer on the passenger side giving her a considering onceover as it passed. She turned away, casually window shopping, leaning down to study something in the huge front window of Aardvark’s Odd Ark. If they circled around, if they came back she would have to go.

She shivered and rubbed her arms again. Who said California wasn’t cold?

She moved farther down the street, toward Fairfax. More people this way. She would look less suspicious. ‘Not going to break in, officers. Just waiting for the old man.’ Whoever he was. Wherever he was. She could wait here all night for nothing. But her connections in the Valley had dried up. Arrested, dead, who knew? Gone. Just gone.

The way she would be at sunrise.

If only she were a vampire, able to suck her life out of her latest victim. Then the world would be full of what she needed. Great gushing gouts of it, hot and salty and free. Anybody on any street corner could be her supplier, her pusher, her lifeline. But her salvation was a different color altogether. When she was younger, it had been so easy. The Blue had been everywhere. But times had changed. Now if you got caught with it, no matter how little, it was the end.

The silence was broken by the growl of a helicopter patrolling from above, its all-seeing spotlight playing along the store fronts. The patrol car must have phoned her in. She stepped back into an alcove, letting the beam travel along the sidewalk where she had been, her heart thudding in her ears.

She waited for the voice from the sky to command her out of her hiding place. Lie down. Put your hands on the back of your head. But there was no sound except the whoop whoop whoop of spinning blades, kicking up a little dust devil in the gutter.

The old man wouldn’t come now. Not with death circling in the sky above.

The chopper made one more pass, then soared off on other business. She took a deep breath of the safe new darkness. There was a touch of fog in the air, a marine layer coming in off the sea, blessing the plants with the gift of moisture. She could feel it on her arms. The cold and the dampness. So cruel, so cruel.

A rustle from the landscaping across the street. She pressed back into the alcove, but the creature that emerged from the bushes was human, a man so old his body was bent double, draped in an ancient raincoat. He stepped out onto the sidewalk, his cane feeling the way.

“Hey.” She cringed. Her voice sounded huge on the empty street. He turned her way, his eyes half blinded with cataracts.

“Hey.” Softer this time.

He nodded, once, twice. But she would have to come to him.

She took a quick look in both directions and dashed across the street, coming to a stop a step away, dust settling at her feet. He took her in, the way the cop had, that half-superior, half-pitying gaze people reserved for a junkie. Relishing the power they had over you, but recognizing the wreck you had become. Not everyone could cope though. Not everyone could embrace change so easily. Other people had moved on.

She could not.

“I heard you had the Carter’s Blue.”

He gave her that half-mocking smile, that acknowledgement of his control over her, her life and death in his gnarled old hands. “I got it. What you got for me?”

“Fifty dollars. I have fifty dollars.” She shoved the bills at him. Fives mostly, earned begging from tourists up on Hollywood Boulevard. Fives from Austin and Florida and Minnesota, now clutched in her cracked fingertips. “Please.”

He grinned, almost toothless. “I got you. I got you.” He counted the money, slowly, just to watch the look on her face as she willed it to be enough. “All here.” He folded the bills twice and stuffed them in the pocket of his stained slacks.

She scanned the sky. “Please hurry.”

“Just hang on, little missy.” He reached into his tattered raincoat and pulled out a battered plastic bottle. 12 ounces. It had been so long since she’d seen 12 ounces. The blue label was faded, worn on the corners from traveling in who knew how many pockets. Carter’s, it said, Bottled at the Source. There was a picture of a waterfall.

She licked her lips. “Please.”

He laughed and tossed it to her as if it were nothing. She juggled it, almost dropped it, wrestled with the plastic top. The seal broke and the lid came free. Finally. Finally. She lifted the bottle to her lips, let the warm stale water flow over her dry tongue, gulped it down as fast as it would flow, savoring every drop.

The old man laughed and unwrapped a stick of gum. “I just don’t understand you water addicts. All you have to do is get the auto-hydration implant and you’ll never need water again.” He patted his pocket. “Save you a lot of money.”

She wiped her mouth, licked off her fingers. “You got any more?”

He patted his pocket again. “You got any more?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll have some tomorrow.”

He smiled that toothless smile. “See you then.”

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California Browns and Blues

Brown is the New Green

So we’re having a drought here in California. A serious dry-up-and-blow-away-in-the-wind kind of drought. Lawn watering is strictly rationed. No watering before 7pm and you can’t use sprinklers except on your designated days (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday if you’re even. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday if you’re odd.) The lawns are mostly dead, bare patches of dirt with a little oasis of oat grass or a solitary dandelion adding a splash of color, but I water for the sake of the trees. The jacaranda has cut out the middleman and pried its way into the sewer line so it’s nice and green and stopping up the plumbing now and then, but the citrus trees out back need some help. Laden with green lemons and oranges, halfway to being edible fruit, they need a drink now and then.

So, after 7 on my designated night, I turned on the back sprinklers. Long ago they used to be automatic so the switch in the yard is a bit dicey with wires and electrical tape all around in a way that makes me a little nervous to touch it. I carefully grab a tiny black knob at the back and twist it once, twice. A hissing noise starts and then suddenly the air is filled with arcs of cold water. The wet dirt and the thirsty trees immediately begin giving off wonderful smells in celebration. I get a little damp turning the knob because the sprinkler controls are right there at the edge of the lawn in perfect range of the two closest sprinklers. But I turn it on and dash inside with hardly a splash.

I keep one eye on the time, let the poor parched growing things outside have their three minutes before I go to turn off the sprinkler.

And it doesn’t turn off.

I keep turning and it keeps sprinkling. On me. And it’s cold.

I turn a little more frantically, anxious to stop the unwanted shower.

And the little knob comes off in my hand.

A tiny geyser of water bursts from the hole it should be in.

Great.

I try to shove the knob back into place, but now I am not only trying to find a tiny hole on the backside of a scary sprinkler head by porch light, but that hole is spewing enough water to push the knob back out again. I push and turn. The knob pops out. I push and turn. The knob pops out. I push and turn. The knob pops out of my hand and lands in the only long green grass in the entire lawn.

Somewhere.

Water is starting to drip out of my hair and run down my face. And I’m getting a little panicky. I can’t leave the sprinklers running all night. The water Nazis will come and take me away.

I run into the house, dripping as I go, grab the phone, call the local plumber. But at 9pm, he has apparently shut off his phone. Okay, I guess I’m on my own.

I find a flashlight and run back into the sprinkler spray, which is becoming less fun by the minute. The extra light is just what I need. There is the knob, all wet and shiny in the grass.

I grab it and shove it back into the hole. Water spurts up through my fingers. Water rains down onto my wet hair and soggy shirt. Pretty soon I’m going to be wearing my monthly ration of water.

I think it’s reached my underwear.

As I start to turn the knob for what feels like the hundredth time, I suddenly realize that I’m turning it the wrong way. I shake water out of my eyes and try again, turning to the right instead of the left. The knob wiggles a bit, still not quite seated in whatever spot it belongs in, then suddenly the screw bottom catches, rotates, actually does something. The sprinkler hisses and the water stops.

I stand there, grateful, freezing, happy Lawn Dude won’t be coming to drag me away.

No way I’m watering the front lawn.

Drainage of the Stars

MGM Manhole Cover

So when I was a kid, we lived down the block from Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. I was too young to know for sure, but I think maybe it was my mom’s idea. She used to tell me all sorts of stories about the movie stars she saw coming in and out of the gates and how she would check every day to see what the weather was like on the huge wooden sky backdrop they would paint with puffy white clouds or beautiful sunsets depending on the movie being shot. On top of the main building was a huge glass sign with the roaring lion logo on it which you could see for miles around. She was so excited about being near that studio, but she could only see the bits of movie making visible over the fence. She never once got to go inside.

I feel a little guilty that I did.

Of course, MGM isn’t MGM anymore. The studio that gave the world The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain was sold off years ago, the back lot made into condos, the movie collection going to TCM. Nowadays all most people remember is the hotel in Vegas which doesn’t really have much to do with the studio at all except for the yellow brick road that used to run through the casino. What’s left of the original buildings became Sony Pictures and little by little everything that said MGM was removed or replaced.

Except for this lone manhole cover.

Which isn’t much to look at, but think about it. Maybe Dorothy stepped across it on her way to Oz or Gene Kelly practiced a dance step or two while waiting between takes. Or maybe, if it is old enough, Louis B. Mayer himself stepped on this humble metal circle. And now I’ve stepped there too, just for a moment, just long enough to feel the magic.

Not just for myself, but for my mom.

I think she would have been thrilled.

Dungeons and Day Trips

San Juan Capistrano small

San Juan Capistrano. The mission the swallows come back to. Built by Father Junipero Serra three centuries ago. Real California history.

And I have a piece of it.

Well, maybe not a piece of the actual mission, but a piece of the stone the Great Stone Church was built from. Probably. Well, okay, it looks really similar. And it did come from the mission gift shop.

But let me start at the beginning with Elaine and her Groupon ticket. Because I’d dragged Elaine to a bunch of cemeteries, she thought it was her turn to drag me somewhere. Not that I actually had to be dragged to see the mission, but it did take us a while to get down there.

I was in the mood for some Mexican food and the guy in the information booth told us that the El Adobe was a good place. So we walked the few blocks down to the restaurant which the guide book (sheet of paper from the information booth) said had been made from two adjacent adobe buildings. Before becoming a restaurant, it had been a courthouse and a stage stop.

Cool.

El Adobe Patio

Since it was a nice day, we decided to eat outside on the patio. After a yummy meal, we headed inside to use the restrooms. While I was waiting for Elaine, I read a history of the building which they had hanging on the wall. All about how Richard Nixon used to eat there and how they’d found a dungeon when they were remodeling one of the dining rooms.

No way I was leaving without taking a look at that.

So when Elaine got out, I asked the hostess if we could see the dungeon. She smiled and led us through two dining rooms and into a small storage area before pointing down three brick steps. “It’s down there.”

At the foot of the steps was a door with steel bars. Apparently this had been the jail when the main building was the courthouse. In the center of the small room was a dark circular table with red napkins on it. Around the walls were bottles of wine. And behind the bottles were adobe walls with carvings in them, left by long ago prisoners.

Some of them are still supposed to be haunting the place.

Dungeon Room

Elaine has accused me of being more interested in the dungeon than the mission which is absolutely ridiculous.

Did I mention the dungeon is haunted?

Okay, the mission is haunted too so I guess it’s a tossup.

The mission grounds are beautiful, but there actually isn’t much left of San Juan Capistrano building-wise. A huge earthquake in 1812 took out most of the Great Stone Church, although what remains is pretty impressive. The earthquake did quite a number on the little town too so the townsfolk decided that instead of rebuilding the church, they would use the ruins to rebuild their own houses.

Can’t really blame them.

One of the buildings that may have been repaired with bits of the Great Stone Church is the El Adobe Restaurant. The one with the dungeon.

See how this all ties in?

Camino Bell

The bell on the walking stick is the sign of El Camino Real, the road (or more commonly a footpath) that ran between the missions.

Swallow Condos small

Swallow condos. No swallows around, though. Wrong time of the year for them. They come around on March 19th.

Great Stone Ruins

The remains of the Great Stone Church. Huge and haunted.

Tallow Vats

Tallow vats. Because who wouldn’t want to see tallow vats.

Serra Chapel Altar

Serra Chapel. The oldest building in California and the only place remaining where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass.

Lizard on a Hot Rock small

One of the local residents.

Doorway

Arches. I love arches.

Relic

Gray cross, blue sky.

Of course on the way out, we had to go to the gift shop and I noticed that some of the displays had a little piece of cream and rust sandstone holding the descriptive cards. Now these little pieces of sandstone were exactly the same color as the sandstone in the Great Stone Church and seeing as how pieces of it were “liberated” after the earthquake, it seemed logical to me that these rock markers might be actual chunks of the mission itself.

There happened to be one sitting on the counter when I went to buy my official souvenir refrigerator magnet so I asked the lady behind the counter if it was indeed a piece of the mission. She picked it up and studied it a moment. “I don’t know. These are made for us by the woman who does our crafts. I don’t know where she gets them.” She dropped it down beside the cash register. “It might be.”

When she picked it back up again, I saw that a nickel-sized chip had broken off. She saw that too and smiled. “Here.” She started to give it to me, then laughed and put the fragment in a little plastic jewelry bag. “Just in case.”

And THAT was just as cool as the dungeon.

Walking Through WeHo

1350bldg

So back in the day, my friends and I were all about going to Hollywood. It was kind of a wonderland to us, a little rundown, but fascinating and full of history. There were theaters that looked like Chinese palaces and Egyptian temples, there was a hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog, there was Famous Amos Cookies in its little A frame cabin with the giant airbrushed cookie on the front. Of course, there was Carney’s, a real train on a real track, and a restaurant that looked like a Russian cathedral.

And there was Tower Records, not shaped like anything really except a large rectangular box with a big lip hanging down from the eaves, literally shoved into the hillside. The Hollywood Hills rose right behind the dumpsters in the parking lot. The building itself was red and the large lip at the top was painted a bright yellow with the name Tower Records in red block italic letters that leaned left instead of right. On the roof and sides of the building were an ever-changing pantheon of the newest albums by the hottest bands, one of a kind artwork airbrushed onto huge canvases that could be seen the moment you rounded the curve on Sunset. You could find anything there. Old records, new records, records from across the sea. Celebrities shopped there too. We never saw anyone famous there though.

At least as far as we knew.

Anyway, when I read that there was going to be a walking tour of West Hollywood, I wanted to go. So much history packed into such a small amount of space and most of it I had just whizzed past in a car without appreciating what I saw. Now what you need to know about West Hollywood is that it is far and it is crowded.

Which led to me being late and having nowhere to park.

Spanish style
Spanish style
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable's
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable’s

I stashed my car in the big parking garage at the huge shopping plaza on Sunset and hurried to catch up with the small group making its way down Laurel Ave. There were about fifteen people and a white silkie chicken named Blanche. I’m not sure how much Blanche actually got out of the tour, but she seemed to be having a good time.

Our guide Roy led us up and down the neighborhood, into secret courtyards where Gable and Dietrich once lived, past Jim Morrison’s last LA address and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upstairs apartment, pointing out architectural features unique to California, fine work by famous architects. A little gem here, another gem there. History you could touch.

Saved
Saved
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction

But interspersed with the beautiful architecture and fun stories were little eulogies. Roy would point at some huge faceless apartment complex and say “This used to be a gorgeous little Craftsman home.” Or he would point at another building, still standing, but restored in a way that totally destroyed its original beauty. The saddest sight of all was a small L-shaped courtyard which had been built in the silent film era. Its days were numbered. The residents had already been evicted. The grass had been left to die. Soon it would become just another four story apartment building.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's apartment
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment
Jim Morrison's place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)
Jim Morrison’s place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)

Now I get that property in this part of Southern California is hard to find. I know that businesses come and go and owners die or move away. I know that places change hands and the old owners have no say in what the new owners do to them. I get all that, but every time one of these little bits of history disappears, Hollywood loses a little bit of its soul. If everything that is unique about Hollywood disappears, it isn’t really Hollywood anymore. It becomes no different than anywhere else. And it was different. And it is still different here and there, if you know where to look.

Storybook Style
Storybook Style
Marlene Dietrich's balcony
Marlene Dietrich’s balcony

Hollywood architecture used to be like a wild, brightly colored Dentzel carousel, the kind of carousel where the traditional horses had been replaced by cats and bears and dragons with an occasional ornate bench for those who preferred not to ride. But as time went on and property values grew steeper, the exotic jumpers started to decline. You can fit more people on a bench than on a seahorse. So the seahorse was replaced by a bench. And then the stag and then the lion disappeared, each replacement bench becoming a little shoddier than the last. The day is coming when that last zebra will be replaced by a pair of lawn chairs zip-tied together and no one will remember what it was like to ride at all.

Cheers to the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance for trying to do something before that last zebra is gone.

On the way home, I drove past what used to be Tower Records. The building looked empty. The glowing yellow and red lip had been whitewashed out, the huge airbrushed albums were all gone. All that was left was an anonymous white box with the word “LIVE” written on the corner.

It was anything but.

Fine Dinning

Green Water Blue Sky

So every year, Lisa and I and whoever else we can drag along go to the Irish Fair in Pomona. They hold it at the L.A. County Fairgrounds which they make a bit more festive by adding Irish banners to the flag poles and green dye to the fountains. Half a dozen little stages are scattered around outside the huge concrete commercial buildings. Little food stands line the main thoroughfare hawking hamburgers, hot dogs, bangers and mash.

But we never eat at those places.

Not that they’re bad. It’s just that after you’ve spend $12 for fish and chips and another four bucks for a drink, you’re left standing in the sun with a plate in one hand and a soda cup in the other with no place to sit and no way to eat your meal.

Enter the buffet. Where, for twenty dollars, you get not only a seat, but bangers, mash, salad, corned beef, shepherd’s pie, peas, potato salad, corned beef, cabbage, dessert and a drink. All you can eat, in the shady cavernous interior of one of the commercial buildings.

Perfect for a warm day, especially if you’ve left your third arm at home.

I checked the website the night before to make sure that the buffet was happening this year. And there it was. “Fine Dinning,” it said. Ha ha.

Except that it wasn’t a typo.

Because this year, right next to the tables with their little white tablecloths, was a stage.

With a Celtic rock band playing on it.

Loudly.

With every decibel reverberating through the big concrete jet hangar-sized building around us.

We ate there anyway because we were starving and the food was good. But next year I’m bringing my earplugs.

Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.