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.
So this year, instead of breaking my foot for the holidays, I decided to tear my retina. Well, actually gravity decided for me. Apparently sometimes the jelly stuff in your eye (the vitreous) decides to part company with the retina. If it comes away cleanly, no problem. If it takes the retina with it, all hell breaks loose. There are spiraling stringy floaters and huge flashes of light.
A little like Fourth of July inside your head.
So off I go to the eye doctor. He shines the world’s brightest light into my dilated pupils and starts shouting directions. “Look up, down, left, right. Look farther to the right. A little farther.”
Any farther and I would have been looking over my own shoulder.
“Hmmm…there’s a tear at 7 o’clock. We’ll have to laser.”
We’ll have to what?
“It’s just a small tear. We can stop it. The rest of the eye looks stable.”
Go back to the part about the lasers…
He turns to the nurse. “Get her set up.”
She takes me to another room which looks exactly like the room I was in, except there is some kind of large gray box on one side with a list of laser instructions taped to it. The nurse gives me painkilling eye drops. “There shouldn’t be any pain. Just some very bright lights.”
Then why are you giving me painkilling eye drops?
The doctor arrives and puts on some impressive-looking headgear. He leans closer and shines a light in my eye. I was wrong about the other light. THIS is the brightest light in the universe. “Look to the right. Now don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.”
The world explodes into bright yellow and orange. I know at any moment I am going to be blinded forever. I know that the San Andreas has waited over a hundred years for this moment. I know that I will be unable to keep looking insanely far to the right for one second longer.
“Okay, we’re done.”
The room is bright purple. A really pretty bright purple, but purple just the same.
“The colors will fade after a bit,” says the doctor with the purple face.
And the back of my eye begins to throb in a low intensity way, not exactly painful, but not exactly pleasant, as I quickly make my escape out the door.
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.
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.
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?
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. No swallows around, though. Wrong time of the year for them. They come around on March 19th.
The remains of the Great Stone Church. Huge and haunted.
Tallow vats. Because who wouldn’t want to see tallow vats.
Serra Chapel. The oldest building in California and the only place remaining where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass.
One of the local residents.
Arches. I love arches.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So I went to a concert Sunday night to watch a performer I had first seen in person twenty years ago. Both great shows, but it got me to thinking about time and the difference between the type of show a person does when he is younger and the type of show he does when he’s older. The younger show was brash and funny, the older show more thoughtful and introspective.
Apparently introspection is catchy.
Anyway, as I was getting ready to leave for work yesterday, two of my characters started a scene that takes place years from the present set of stories, my fictional equivalent of the gap in the concerts. I could tell it was just going to be a scene or two. Short, sad, poignant. But I had to get to work so I took off and hoped I’d get a chance to write it down later.
But when I got to work, it started to transform. More characters wanted in on the action, the poignant moment turning into an inciting scene for an entire story. And every scene that showed up diluted the original by half. Soon nothing would be left but a watery gruel. The argument in the men’s room was the last straw. Do I want this to be sad or stupid?
I chose sad.
As soon as I get home, I crank up the computer and get to work. And, yes, the characters have decided on short and sad as well. I am deep into it, typing as fast as I can and then….
“MwaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAA” at my bedroom door.
Which is Siamese for “Let me in.” Or at least it is Calvin for let me in. I’ve found that no two Siamese sound exactly alike. Calvin is more of a loud tenor, Hobby is more of a cranky baritone. And neither of them say “Meow.”
I ignore him and try to keep writing, but Calvin will not be ignored.
“MwaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAA,” he says, trotting around the bed and trying to judge the distance up to my Wacom tablet. I use a tablet instead of a mouse. Unfortunately, it has buttons on it that scroll or hide windows. I never use the buttons, but Calvin likes to sit on them and activate them with his butt.
“So what do you need?”
“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Now the Mmmmmmm sound is a funny little noise made without even opening his mouth. It is a considering sound, a maybe sound. If he’s not quite sure what he wants or whether or not he likes something, he will mmmmmmm.
After two tries (he is seventeen years old so some days are better than others), he gets up on the tablet. I remove him before he can activate any buttons and set him on the bed.
“Do you want to go outside?” I’m hoping this is the right answer. Calvin likes to go outside and pee on the car tires. He learned that from our old Dobie Spencer. Spencer is gone, but Calvin still likes to pee on tires.
“Okay, give me a minute. I’m right at the end of this story.”
“Okay, okay, you can go out right now.”
I let him outside, leave the door open a crack so he can come back in and return to the computer. I get one sentence typed and then…
Now Hobby has been sick (he’s also seventeen) so it is important that he eats. So if he wants to eat, I have to go feed him. Right now he will only eat tiny bits of chicken so I cut him up a few chunks, wash my hands, go back to the keyboard.
But before I can close the bedroom door…
“There’s chicken in the kitchen, Calvin.”
He comes around the bed, eyes the tablet, wiggles his behind.
“Calvin, can I just finish my story?”
Of course, by this time, I’ve totally lost the flow of the thing. I’m not sure exactly how the story ends anymore, but I remove Calvin from the Wacom tablet and type something.
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.
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.
So I back when I was in grade school, I started my first book. It was actually a writing assignment, but I knew it was going to be a book so I confidently titled it “Chapter One.” I’m not sure now what the exact instructions were. I was just excited that I was going to get to write something.
Back in those days, I was very into animal stories. Not the cheerful happy Disney kind. The kind where everyone dies at the end. I’d just finished reading one where the main character was a wolf cub who hides in a crack at the back of his den to avoid being killed with the rest of his littermates. I thought that crack idea was the cleverest thing ever. (Okay, okay, I was ten, all right.) And the murder of his family quickly paved the way for the wolf cub to become an orphan and have a series of adventures. That was pretty much the plot of all the books I’d been reading. Step one, protagonist animal’s family gets wiped out. Step two, adventures.
So I decided that I would write a story about a cougar cub because I liked cougars better than wolves. A cougar cub who was totally black like a black panther. (I know, I know, cougars don’t come in black, but I wanted him to be black. Ten years old, remember?) And he would have some kind of identifying white mark on his shoulder (because being a totally black cougar was not identifying enough apparently.) His siblings would all be normal beige cougars who would show up fine in the darkness, but because he was all black, he could hide in the back of the den and not be seen.
As long as he covered up that damn identifying white mark on his shoulder.
Anyway, Shadow or Midnight or White Spot or whatever his name was, survives a little cougar Armageddon by hiding in a narrow place at the back of the den. It was a variation on the crack thing only better because he was already pretty invisible to begin with.
We had a substitute teacher the day we turned our assignments in. She collected them all and went off to read them in the back of the room while we studied history or something. I was rather proud of my work. I mean it was about a black cougar. How could she not like a story about a black cougar?
Half an hour later, she showed up at my desk, story in hand. The look on her face was not promising. “You didn’t write this story. You copied it from somewhere.”
I felt a tremendous surge of guilt. “Well, just the crack thing. The wolf in the book hid in a crack.”
“So you did copy this from a book. Do you know what that’s called? That’s called plagiarism. That is illegal. These aren’t your words.”
“They are my words.”
“You said they came from a book.”
“No, the hiding in a crack came from a book. But it’s not exactly the same.” I was tremendously confused by this time. She was getting angrier and angrier.
“You can’t steal other people’s words.”
Everyone was staring at me. I sank down into my chair. “I borrowed the crack idea.”
She was practically breathing fire by now. “I don’t care about the crack idea. Did you write this yourself or not?”
“Of course I wrote it myself.”
She looked at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I was lying or not. “You wrote this all by yourself?”
She tossed it down on my desk. “Then it’s very good.”
I threw the story away on the way out of class that day. I was so terrified by the whole encounter that I never wanted to show anyone anything I’d written ever again.
I got over it.
But still, years later, today to be exact, when a co-worker reads something I’ve written on a project and asks “Did you write this yourself?”, I totally freeze up. I’m ten again looking up at that lady who is certain that I’ve copied my entire first chapter from another writer’s book and I don’t know what to say.
Of course I wrote it myself. Why do people keep asking me that?