Friday, December 22, 2006
OK, Merry Christmas.
Don't send gifts.
Do something nice for that neighbor who always borrows but never returns stuff.
Smile when you talk on the phone.
Stop watching TV news when they do remote broadcasts from the Galleria.
Drink tap water. It really is clean (unless you're in a third-world country).
Thursday, October 26, 2006
I was wrapping up my fourth day in
It’s 8:15 p.m. and I’d love to take a short nap, but I’m certain I wouldn’t wake up until they come to wake me at 4:30 a.m.
You see, I have to catch the 6 a.m. ferry that will take me back to the tiny city of
Since late Saturday night, I’ve been a guest on the Isla de Ometepe, or as the gringos know it,
The small island pretty much consists to two massive volcanoes: Maderas and Concepción. They’re both active, but Concepción is more active — so active that when it started spewing thousands of tons of ash last November, the folks at Casa Santiago had to evacuate the 300 or so orphans that live there.
And that involved a lot of ferry trips.
When Concepción stopped spitting and started to breathe for a while, the children returned to the island, but the orphanage’s parent organization, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters), started looking for a place to relocate.
It was clear to them that running an orphanage beneath an angry volcano with a short fuse could be disastrous — especially when the only way off the island is by a small, slow ferry.
My wonderful friend, Chris Sisley, is involved with the organization and sponsors a child at one of its other orphanages. When she learned I had an upcoming training assignment In Nicaragua, she baited her hook and threw a line in my direction.
She knew I couldn’t resist the chance to interact with poor children -- children whose parents had either died, had been killed in the war or who had just plain abandoned them.
Before she even started to reel me in, Chris had sent an e-mail message to Father Philip C. Cleary, NPH International’s executive director in
And within a few cyber-moments, Father Phil e-mailed me an invitation.
My assignment in
Former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, it seems, may very well win the election and, once again, bring his Sandinista Party to power.
As you’ll recall, Ortega was one of the Sandinista revolutionary guerrilla leaders who chased dictator Anastacio Somoza from power in July of 1979.
He rose to the top of the junta that ran the country. He allowed national elections in 1984 and won the top spot.
Ortega became the first democratically elected Marxist leader in the
And since I’m reminding you of stuff, you must certainly remember that when Ronald Reagan took office three years earlier in 1981, his operatives came up with a plan to help the Nicaraguan people remove Ortega from office. It had to be a very secret and special plan because Congress had passed a law forbidding the
By a strange stroke of luck, in January of 1985, I was asked to make a side trip to
I flew into
None of them were happy when I joined them outside to get on the bus.
Ultimately, the bus driver took us to the
A few minutes later, a Soviet-made, Air Cubana plane landed and Fidel Castro stepped out onto the tarmac.
I tell you this story because it’s yet another example of how so many amazing and interesting things fall in my lap — especially when I’m not even looking.
(Time lapse) This is where the story left on off Sunday night. Indeed, I made the trip back to the mainland (if that’s what you call what’s not an island on a giant lake) and immediately went to work preparing for the Tuesday assignment in the city of
Today, Wednesday, I met with the editor of one of the daily newspapers and then taught a class at UAM, Universidad Americana (
On Friday, I’ll meet with another writer/designer to give his brochure a look-see. Then, I’ll have lunch with some other journalists and maybe another meeting in the afternoon.
So as you can see, I’ve had little time to take a lot of pictures or to write a lot about the billion interesting things I’ve seen and experienced here.
What I really want to do, however, is talk a little bit more about the orphanage I visited over the weekend -- and will probably visit again this weekend when my work is done.
It was dark when I arrived at Casa Santiago. It’s really not a house — it’s a massive piece of property that includes a church, a multi-classroom school facility, dormitories for young girls, young boys, older girls and older boys, housing for staff and volunteers, a computer lab, a semi-outdoor meeting facility, a soccer field and fields of beans and bananas and a whole lot more. You have to take a truck to get from one end to the other.
Most of the 300 children were at the covered assembly area watching television and getting things ready for an impromptu talent contest.
When I got out of the truck, the strangest thing happened. Children saw me and ran up to me. They hugged me and held my hand and greeted me.
"Hola, Padre." "Hola Padre Felipe." "Hola Padre."
I told my host and guide, a young man named Ross, that I was impressed with the greeting.
“They’re very friendly to everyone,” he said, “but you see, they think you’re Father Phil. I didn’t realize it, but you look just like Father Phil.”
Apparently lots of the kids remember Father Phil from the last time he visited from
When they gathered all of the kids together for the talent contest, they had to make a special announcement that there was a special guest there, a journalist from the U.S. who looks like Father Phil — but isn’t. His name is Don Ray.
Some of the children refused to believe that I wasn’t Father Phil and they continued to come up to me with gigantic smiles and their arms open wide. I finally had to resort to showing them my driver’s license. That, too, was a mistake. They saw my middle name, Philip, and thought that that was proof that I was the head of the entire international operation.
I considered just going along with it and blessing them and stuff, but then I thought maybe they’d expect me to give a sermon or mass or something the next morning.
But I have to admit, it’s nice to be loved.
In truth, though, I must tell you how absolutely wonderful these kids are. I watched them playing guitars and marimbas while other in beautiful costumes performed traditional ballet folklorico dances for everyone, I vacillated between smiles and tears. I smiled when I saw how absolutely happy they all appear to be. Then I would remember that each of them is without parents — either their parent had died or had abandoned the children — and then the tears would race down my face.
The following morning I watched them working in the bean field alongside the director of the facility. They all picked weeds — the children, the staff members and even the director of Casa Santiago.
It wasn’t his first time. You see, when the director and his wife children, they were also orphans in the original facility in
The organization is unique in that it never adopts out the children. When a child comes to Casa Santiago or to an NPH facility in any of the other eight countries, the child stays at the facility. They’ll get all of their primary and secondary education there and, if they wish, the organization sends them to college. If they’re not college material, they can learn a trade there at Casa Santiago.
And if the child has serious physical or mental problems, he or she is welcome to stay at Casa Santiago the rest of his or her life.
After weeding the bean field and after breakfast, the children turned their energy to their weekly chores. I videotaped the girls and boys doing their laundry by hand outside their respective dormitories. They allowed me into their rooms — four or five kids to a room — and I videotaped them cleaning the floor and straightening things.
Afterwards, it was free time. Some played checkers, some bounced in the bounce house, some played with Barbie dolls and some played soccer.
In one area, one of the “tios” (Tios and Tias are aunts and uncles, as they’re called in this “family”, who are the primary caregivers of the kids) was teaching two boys how to repair a bicycle. Some older boys were sitting on small bleachers watching a movie while another group of boys watched a soccer game on the big TV in the activities center.
A busload of girls headed off to the beach while a group of boys jogged to the town several miles away with one of the volunteer teachers.Some of the other girls had a soccer game to play in town. They lost, but they were still happy. In the past, their girls' soccer team went all the way to the top and represented Central America in the big international tournament. A couple of the girls now play for other top teams -- but they remain at Casa Santiago.
When all of the children returned from their off-site activities, they went to their respective dormitories and stood in line and said prayers while they waited for permission to go inside the dining area and eat.
I had been videotaping them all day. When I’d shot enough, I shot them with my still camera.
That evening, when I transferred the photographs to my computer, I looked at one picture of a smiling girl holding another girl who was also smiling and most contented smile. It’s so strange, but something about it brought tears to my eyes. At the time, I didn’t know why.
Later that night I shared all of my pictures with my new friend Wladamir Ruiz Rivas. He’s a photographer and graphic artist who gives hundreds of hours a month to the children. Even though he lives and works in
Anyway, as I was showing him the photos I had taken, I told him that there was one he’d soon be seeing that, for some reason, made me cry. When the picture came up, he smiled and told me that that girl who was girl being held — that girl with the contented smile. She was a new arrival. It had taken a while, Wladamir said, for her to adjust to her new family. But, he said, the picture I shot made it clear to him for the first time that she had finally come to realize that she was home -- that all of the suffering she had experienced in her short life was now a thing of the past.
I must warn you to not go to Casa Santiago. Do not meet the children. Do not let them hug you or smile at you or take your hand.
Because you to go there and you meet them and you let them touch you, you will not be the same again.
Like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about them all throughout the day. You’ll finish a good meal and then feel guilty knowing how so many of the children had come to Casa Santiago malnourished. You’ll look at the possessions that have made you so happy in the past and you’ll wonder how these children could be so happy with so little — with donated, used clothing and toys that kids in the
No matter how bad you’ve been feeling lately — no matter how difficult you thought your life has been — you’ll think of these children.
And you’ll feel compelled to return to Casa Santiago because you’ll feel like family.
No, you shouldn’t go there unless you’re ready to feel things you may not have felt before.
I’ve been as busy as I’ve ever been this week -- doing the work they’re paying me to do down here. It’s three times as hard because I have to do it in Spanish and I have never completed a Spanish class.
But as we were driving along a very poorly maintained road from
While they should be in school or at home playing with toys, they’re out by the roadside with shovels. Each of these pauper children tends to his or her a pothole and keeps it filled with dirt.
Then they stand by their repaired pothole with their hands out. They’re hoping the people driving by will give them a coin or two as a "thank you" payment for their work.
I wished that I could pick up each one of them and drop them off at Casa Santiago.
You see, when you’ve seen how a loving staff, some loving volunteers and some generous “padrinos” in the
I’ll write more about the other stuff going on here in
But I won’t stop thinking about the beautiful children who think I’m Padre Felipe.
It’s funny. I was kidding when I thought about maybe blessing them.
But, in reality, they have blessed me.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
But I wouldn't say that.
I saw it as an hour to live.
It's ironic that I chose this morning to explore one of the old cemeteries in East Los Angeles. This would be my sixth or seventh in the past month or so.
I intended to explore a well-maintained Serbian cemetery I'd discovered, but then I noticed a neglected, nearly abandoned graveyard hiding across the street.
I found a gate with no lock, so I went in. It turns out it's a Russian cemetery that must have been accepting most of its tenants in the early part of the 20th Century.
When I walked over to the beautifully groomed Serbian cemetery, one member of a tag-team , grave-digging duo responded to my greeting -- and to everything else I said to him -- in a thick Spanish accent.
"No camara. No pictures. No camera."
That took the fun out it for me. I spent a few minutes walking between the polished gravestones with a sort of "see if you can stop me" attitude. But I didn't shoot any pictures.
When I got back in my car, I heard the voice of my first TV boss, Pete Noyes, on KPCC's "Air Talk." He was talking about the man who had inspired me more than anyone, -- a man who I believe opened up my eyes to Los Angeles, to people and the beauty of brilliant writing. The sad part was that Pete was talking about Ralph Story in the past tense.
It took only a moment for me to realized the man I've idolized -- more than anyone -- had just died.
If you thought it was strange when you read that I was exploring seemingly abandoned graveyards in my not-so-spare time, then you can thank Ralph Story.
I certainly did. He stimulated my curiousity. He helped me find the explorer inside of me.
You see, when I was on the fringes of failing history in high school -- sorry, couldn't relate, -- I'd be looking forward to learning history by watching Ralph Story's Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon, even though it was a repeat of the program I'd already seen the Sunday before. And I'd be back in front of our old TV the next day to see the next episode.
Each week was a new adventure -- a new look at an old Los Angeles. He introduced me to Henry Huntington, Barney's Beanery, the old amusement park that was across Beverly Blvd. from what's now the Beverly Center. He took me on rides on the old Red Cars and took me back to the day in 1942 when the Japanese sub surfaced and lobbed a few shells in the direction of an oil field north of Ventura. And then he described the hysteria a day or two later when everyone thought that Japanese planes were bombing L.A. He called it The Battle of Los Angeles.
Of course, there were no Japanese planes.
He taught me the amazing history of water in Los Angeles and about the dam that old William Mulholland had designed -- a dam that would collapse on March 12, 1928. Years later I would bring together a reunion of the survivors of Southern California's worst disaster. I had never learned about it in school.
Ralph Story taught me.
I doubt that I ever got anything higher than a "C" in any history class, but I dreamed of the day I'd be sitting on the set, looking into the camera and sharing "Don Ray's Los Angeles" with fascinated young haters of history.
Ralph Story had an amazing ability to see things others couldn't see and to see things in ordinary people that others missed. He was a great writer, but I'd later learn that he had great writers working with him.
When I returned from Vietnam, I went back to my job with the U.S. Postal Service. It took me several years to realize that I was in the wrong place. That earlier dream was still inside of me, so jumped ship and went to college to study journalism.
In 1982, I began a stint as a per diem news writer at Channel 2 News at a time when Ralph Story was back on the air as an anchor.
I was able to watch, up close, the way he could pick up anything -- even poorly written news scripts and read them in a way that would make them sing. Finally, the day came when I got to write for him. My writing was probably mediocre, but his delivery made me believe I was gifted..
I hoped that there would come a day when maybe I could have dinner with him and tell him just how much he had inspired me. But I was a 33-year-old guy, and I couldn't compete with the lure of 21-year-old women. The truth is that I was invisible. Stuff like that happens in television.
But I still could put together the kinds of scripts that he could plate in gold with his conversational delivery.
For 40 years I've been giving my friends and their friends my all-night tour of Los Angeles. We never go to any place fancy -- just to amazingly interesting places most Angelenos have never heard about. When the rising sun signals the end of our adventure, my guests have a new way of seeing Los Angeles. They're seeing Ralph Story's Los Angeles and their seeing Don Ray's Los Angeles. And if I've done my job well, they're seeing their own Los Angeles.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
I just received an invitation to attend and cover a benefit concert at B.B. King's Blues Club this weekend. I jumped at the chance when I learned that Stevie Wonder will be performing there. In my e-mail reply to the woman who sent the invitation, I found myself transported back to a most magical moment in my life. Here's where the story picks up:
When I was a very, very young person, the TV program “Where the Action Is” invited me (and any other for a while.
for a while.
But anything's better than being in school, right?
But anything's better than being in school, right?
I was quite shy in high school — I had a few friends who were equally invisible. That’s pretty common, I guess. Between the tapings that day, I felt more comfortable wandering off in search of a more quiet place.
I noticed a little thatched-roof cabana off away from my acned peers, so I went there to escape for a while. I pulled the canvas door open and there was just enough room for a spinet piano and a bench. A young man was sitting there alone, playing the piano. He was about my age and I could quickly tell that he was blind. I felt the urge to quietly close the canopy flap and quietly slip away, unnoticed. But before I could he turned his head my way and, still playing, he said, “Hi. Come on in. He moved slightly to the right and, with a sort of gesture with his head and his shoulders, invited me to next to him. I didn’t recognize the melodies he played — probably because he was creating them at the moment.
I wouldn’t have known back then how to describe the way the music touched me — I still couldn’t today. But it was beautiful. He even sang a phrase now and then as he played. Of course, it was Little Stevie Wonder, as he was known up until about that time.
It was one of those most wonderful fifteen or twenty minutes of my life. I had seen him playing the drums and harmonica, I believe, in one of the Frankie Avalon & Annette Beach Blanket movies a year or two earlier. Now he was older – maybe 14 or 15. The encounter that day was as comfortable as any chance encounter could be. His warmth filled the cabana. His music fascinated me and his talent overwhelmed me.
After a while, however, some of the other kids discovered him and the piano and crowded in. Stevie was happy to have them squeeze in behind him as he continued playing and singing. But somehow the group went into “Ohmygod, it’s a celebrity” mode and my brief time, sitting next to this great kid came to an end. Within an hour or so, Little Stevie’s manager or someone guided him into the center of a wide circle of my classmates and we watched him lip sync aloud to “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.
We all clapped and marveled to the music of a young singer who was already famous. The other kids probably went home and told their folks about Stevie Wonder and the other popular singers and groups they had watched that day. I left there feeling as if I had made a new friend.
Over the years as a journalist, I would meet and interview other famous people. Most of them were kind and gracious, but a few would want you to believe that they were somehow more special than anyone else. Sure, what they did may have been special, but I always knew that they were no more human than any other person I encountered.
Everyone has a gift. Some people discover theirs, harness it, package it and ride it to fame and fortune. Others discover their gift and apply it to their own little world. Some go through life never knowing the gift they have.
Somehow, I’ve been blessed with my own gift — the ability to see and hear what people aren’t trying to show and aren’t meaning to say. Often, in enables me to discover the precious qualities that no one else sees in them.
Looking back, I wonder if maybe I witnessed for the first time that kind of vision in that kid playing piano that day.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
To be honest, I never even knew the name of the order or its particular mission. Truth be told, it’s a most beautiful place with acres of silence and ponds of serenity. I’ve always enjoyed going there.
Xiao Mei told me that one of the nuns, Sister Chen, wanted to introduce me to someone who would be there today — someone who might help me cut through the bureaucracy I’ve been encountering at the downtown Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration Clinic.
I had no clue that I would be witnessing an event that would inspire me to such a degree.
I did a double take when I saw several men wearing yarmulkes. The Sisters of Social Service is a Catholic organization — why were there Jewish people there? I would soon learn that they were there to honor a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Sara Salkahazi.
I was so moved by what I learned about her that I vowed I would share her story.
Sister Sara died nearly 62 years ago. Today, people from all walks of life gathered to celebrate her Beautification — a ceremony that precedes being canonized. Her story is, indeed, the story of a saint.
In December of 1943 — a year before her death — she wrote about the ugliness of the war that was closing in on her in Budapest:
“The world is crumbling around us, wherever we look, ruins everywhere . . . it is not the bombers that bring the destruction but the mentality that guides them: Hatred! Hatred brings mourning and pain — love consoles and wipes off the tears . . . we want love. And we want to build justice.
Consider the impact of injustice on life in our world: it violates boundaries, burns and destroys, wipes out peoples builds walls and divides! . . .
And justice? Justice recognizes the rights of the countries! It breaks down barriers. . . . Injustice within a nation turns ethnic groups against each other, whereas justice joins them together in unity . . . Injustice blinds those in power and entices them to tyranny, whereas justice trains them to protect law and order and to defend the weak. Social injustice divides social groups, builds barriers between them; it places profit above all and on this false principle it follows the methods of exploitation and abuse.”
She had been an elementary school teacher, but lost the job when she refused to take an oath that would have her pay tribute to what she considered to be a foreign government — a government she did not recognize. She would become a journalist and a publisher and almost a wife before she gave it all up to join the Sisters of Social Service.
Eventually, she was in charge of shelters that were secretly hiding and protecting Jewish women and children from the Nazis. By that time, she had vowed to give up her own life for the Lord.
On December 27, 1944, henchmen from the ruling fascist Arrow Cross Party discovered her and some of the women she was sheltering in Budapest. When they took Sister Sara, her assistants and the Jewish woman into custody, the henchmen said that the Jews would go to one of the ghettos and the Catholics would be released. But instead, they took all of the women onto the bridge that crosses the Danube River and forced them to disrobe and stand at the railing and face the water.
The gunmen shot all of the women from behind — except for Sister Sara.
One of the shooters would later tell what actually happened on the bridge that day. He remembered how one woman, Sister Sara, turned around and, naked, faced the gunmen. Then, she knelt down in the snow, made the sign of the cross and then looked up to the heavens in prayer as the soldiers pulled their triggers.
Nobody ever found a trace of her body in the river.
In all, the Sisters of Social Service saved the lives of at least 1,000 Jews.
At today’s ceremonies, more than a half-dozen survivors of the Holocaust came to give thanks to the Sisters of Social Service and especially to Sister Sara Salkahazi.
In the group photo below, Sister Sara in the third fromt he right in the front row.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
For me, writing about Genio’s Restaurant right now is like writing about someone you love who is very much alive, but who will die without a bone marrow transplant.
Marvin Cecchini and his grown kids are determined to find a new
But they’re more concerned that the sale of the building will put their dedicated servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, busboys, hosts and hostesses out of work. Marvin can’t hide the dread he’s feeling.
The people who prepare and serve the food and drinks talk about the “break” or “vacation” they’re about to be taking – it’s obvious, though, that there’s a chance there won’t be a Genio’s and they’ll have to replace “vacation” with “between jobs.”
For every Genio’s employee, there are probably a hundred or more customers who will also be in mourning. It’s a place where people came to share important moments and to meet with essential people. Most of those customers have a Genio’s story. Here’s mine:
She parked the cream colored 1951 Mercury on the street and we walked past the plate glass windows and entered the coffee shop through the glass door on
The long counter ran parallel to the kitchen in what’s now one of the dining rooms. Today, of course, the windows and the glass door are gone and about where the counter was is the solid kitchen wall.
After I ate my grilled cheese sandwich, fries and a Coke, my mother said, “How do you like this place?”
I told her it was great. Yep, I liked it.
“OK,” she said with a smile. “Then I’ll take the job!”
I don’t know why she sought my approval before she hired on as a waitress, but today I realize that working at an established restaurant meant that she would have the independence and security she would need to leave a marriage that was nothing short of hell. I’m sure she saw it as one necessary step toward liberating me and my sister, Nancy, from the terror we were enduring.
Within a year, she divorced our father and the three of us moved from Sun Valley to an upstairs apartment on
Mom worked a split shift most of the time and relied on Nancy and me to take care of ourselves when she couldn’t afford a babysitter.
Nancy and I would stay up late sometimes to wait for Mom to come home with a purse full of coins and a bag of garlic bread. We’d help her stack her pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half-dollars before we went to bed.
Often times, the garlic bread was my preferred breakfast.
The apartment owner was a kind little man named Pete Antista. He drove a bread truck and delivered the famous sourdough bread to Genio’s. Once he took me with him on his early-morning run. There was only a driver’s seat in his panel truck, so I got to sit on a big loaf of sourdough bread. When we got home, he paid me with a whole, chocolate crème pie.
Mom took her job seriously and was able to neutralize the advances of male customers without discouraging the all-important tips. But one customer wasn’t going to let her excuses for not going out with him get in the way.
Each time she told Ed Ripley that she couldn’t afford a baby sitter, he would make the tip even bigger. When it was obvious the babysitter ploy was no longer working, she played the “I can’t get off work” card.
Rip, as we would all call him, took his case to Genio himself and asked him to give my mother a night off so that they could go out.
Within a year, Genio hosted the wedding reception at his restaurant.
One afternoon Rip threw me a fastball and I caught it wrong and broke my left thumb, up near the wrist. When the doctor got through putting a sizable cast on it, Rip took me to Genio’s to break the news of the break to my mom.
She was carrying plates to a table in the coffee shop when she saw us. Her face broke into a giant smile. Then she noticed the cast and dropped everything on the floor.
At that time, the restaurant’s back door was not far from where the rest rooms are today. I can still remember Genio’s lanky, twenty-something-year-old son, Marvin, helping seat people while he learned the business. His brother, Gene, Jr., was learning how to run the kitchen. Their sister, Paula, was still a child – two years younger than I was.
When I was in high school, I’d drive my 1952 Studebaker to Genio’s for lunch. Being
My favorite busboy at the time was Arturo. He was from
Indeed, he was always hard at work. Sometimes, however, he wouldn’t return following the weekend. In the beginning people would worry about him. Soon word would get back to the restaurant that “La Migra” had nabbed him and sent him back to
I was never more proud of my mother and stepfather when I found out that they were in the process of sponsoring him so that he could get a green card. Arturo went on to become a bartender and would probably be a bartender today if a family crisis hadn’t forced him to move out of state.
Before I left for
I lied to my folks about the date I’d be coming home, so I was able to sneak back into
The first place I went was to Genio’s so that I could surprise my mother. It was a busy lunchtime when I came in the door. By that time in her career, Mom was working the cash register and seating people. When I walked in, my Mom wasn’t sight. The other cashier said she was seating some people.
I couldn’t wait. I walked back toward the dining room and saw her waking back from the cove with some menus in her hand.
At first, she saw a guy in an Army uniform who hadn’t read the “Please wait to be seated sign.” She shook her head slightly and then made eye contact. The menus took flight and my mother catapulted herself into my arms. Within a moment or two the customers nearby figured out what was happening and began applauding. Some of them stood up.
That spot in the dining room is sort of a sacred place to me even to this day.
I had dinner there that night and, just as he had promised, Marvin picked up the tab.
A couple of years I was out of the Army and working as a letter carrier for the Burbank Post Office. I’d have my lunch at Genio’s. Arturo would automatically bring me a glass of iced tea with two extra lemon slices and say, , “¿Qué está haciendo?”
That was 35 years ago. Today, when I sit down at Genio’s, either the busboy or the server brings me a glass of iced tea with two extra slices of lemon. Arturo trained everyone well and they’ve been passing it on all of these years.
When I got married the next year, my friends gathered for the reception at Genio’s. When my stepfather died a few years later, we met at Genio’s to remember how the restaurant brought him into our lives.
When my grandmother died back in
I had always wanted to be a writer, but it took a while for it to happen. The first time I ever saw my work in print, however, was when I wrote a review of Genio’s for the local paper. The paper’s restaurant writer got the byline, but I was proud knowing that it was actually my work.
When my first wife and I got divorced, somehow she seemed to have gotten custody of my mother. They remained good friends and I’d often run into my ex there at Genio’s. In 1983 I bought a little house across the street from Genio’s and down a bit. Genio’s brother-in-law, Tony, had retired as the bartender and was living three doors down from me on the corner.
Tony painted many of the beautiful landscapes that still adorn the walls of Genio’s. If my mother would see me admiring one of them, she’d buy it from Tony and wrap it up as a Christmas gift. I treasure two of his paintings that are on my wall today.
Tony had little to live for after his sister, Joan, died and later, her husband, the founder of Genio’s. They still refer to the little bar in the banquet room as Tony’s Bar.
My mother met her third and final husband, George Quinn, there at Genio’s. They were married for only a couple of years when he died.
Before she retired, Mom went along with Marvin’s suggestion that she join other professional
When Mother passed away in 1997, Marvin Cecchini stood up at her memorial and told stories we’d never heard before about a woman it seemed everybody loved.
Then he invited everyone to the restaurant to celebrate her life and her spirit.
I can’t go in there without thinking about the zany things she’d do on evenings when none of the owners were around. They were innocent things, such as pedaling through the restaurant on a busboy’s bicycle or joining the cooks, dishwashers and busboys when they’d declare the kitchen a Mexican restaurant and put on a secret Taco Fest.
It’s going to be devastating when they close the doors for the last time and I won’t be able to surround myself with the people, the pictures, the sounds and the smells that have brought me so much pleasure for most of my life.
I’m not special, but they treat me that way because I’m “
If you’ve never eaten at Genio’s, you should do it once, just to say you’ve been there and to know what
Order the garlic bread and ask for them to make it extra crisp – almost burnt – and ask them to make it drip with garlic butter. Forget the cholesterol this one time and immerse yourself in Italian bliss.
And, despite what your server says about his or her impending “vacation”, leave a few extra bucks this time around.
You never know if your waiter or waitress is counting on taking home an order of garlic bread to feed the kids.
And if you get to chatting and they ask you how you know so much about the place, tell them you heard it from
Friday, August 18, 2006
If you could have just one chance to have lunch with anybody alive, who would it be? There’s some things like to say to George W. Bush, but he won’t be in office long enough for me to waste my one opportunity. I’m so disappointed with politicians and most world leaders that I probably wouldn’t believe anything they would say.
But he’s insignificant when it comes to adding anything meaningful to the world. That’s a sad commentary considering he’s probably the most famous human alive.
O.J. Simpson? I doubt if he’d give me the answers I want. Heck I already know the answers, but I’d love to hear him say it.
There’s one person, however, who I feel like I’ve known for nearly 50 years — 48 to be exact and still counting. He’s been in every house or apartment I’ve lived in and in every car or truck I’ve owned. He’s mentioned in my favorite book (The Quartzsite Trip). I’ve seen him from a distance — I even took a picture of him when I was a kid, but you wouldn’t be able to recognize him without someone telling you that that’s him in the picture.
He taught me a lot. The most important thing I learned from him is how to be as absolutely fair and unbiased as I can be.
He taught me fairness. In a world of “us v. them,” he’s the exception. He’s an observer but not an endorser. He knows his profession better than anyone who ever lived, I believe. He’s had a gazillion chances to leave his job and move into the really big time and make even bigger bucks. I have no idea what he makes now, but I’m certain he could have quadrupled it a long time ago.
He’s the best example of loyalty I’ve ever seen — except for maybe some dogs I’ve had. Everyone knows that no human can be as loyal as a good dog.
When I think about it, he’s been there for me longer than anyone in my life, except for my mother and my sister. My father was only around for 10 years. My stepfather joined the family for 15 years. Mom passed away when I was 48. Don’t get me wrong, nobody can compare to Mom. We’re just talking statistics here — number of consecutive years of influence.
He spoke to me the other day when I went into Santoro’s Submarine Sandwich shop in
I waxed nostalgic for a moment and said to the young man preparing my meatball and cheese sub, “You know, I couldn’t name a single Dodger, but if Vin Scully is announcing the game, I’m captivated.”
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s nobody better.”
It was amazing because Vin Scully was at the microphone for 30 years before the young man was born.
You don’t have to be a baseball or Dodger fan to appreciate Vin Scully. He can describe what’s going on down on the field as quickly as it’s happening. What makes him different from all of the others is he names all of the players while the action takes place.
Other announcers might identify the position of the fielder involved in a play — even I could do that — or speak in the passive voice to buy time to remember or look up the name (“It’s caught by the shortstop, Henson, and thrown to the first baseman, Garcia”).
While the player for the other team is wiping the dust off of his uniform after sliding into second base, Vinny will tell you about the time the runner fell out of a tree when he was six years old. He’ll tell interesting stories between pitches and, even after an amazing homerun, he’ll complete the story.But it’s when there’s a dispute or a rhubarb that Vin Scully shows his stuff. In all of these years, I’ve never once heard him talk as if he’s on the side of the Dodgers. He’s always neutral. Always.
(The photo is from the www.dodgers.com.)
And he doesn’t talk bad about people. If a player screws up badly, Vinny won’t rub it in. In fact, he seems to have something positive to say about everyone — even the umpires.
He’s never at a loss for words. Back in the black-and-white days of the late 1950s or early ‘60s, I remember a time when Vinny was doing a telecast from a game in
And when the fans would get out of control and streak onto the field or throw things, Vinny would refuse to give them any exposure or play-by-play. Anyone who grew up listening to Vinny knows he wouldn’t approve.
For a few years, I’d take my transistor radio to the game so that I could listen to Vin Scully tell me what I was seeing. He’s that addictive. But after a while, I quit taking the radio because there are always enough people nearby with radios that you never missed a description.
He’s 78 years old and his mellow voice hasn’t seemed to have changed. I don’t believe there are any Dodger employees working there today who were there when the Dodgers came west from
If I could have lunch with Vin Scully, I’m not sure I’d even talk about baseball. I might not even ask any questions at all. I think I’d be happy just to be sitting with an old friend.
Thanks Vinny for being there for me and for teaching me how to be a better journalist and a better person. And thanks for not abandoning all of us. Thanks for not selling out.
OK, if you could have lunch with anybody, who would it be? I believe the "comments" feature is turned on.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
I don't have any prizes for the winner, but since some of the people who read my nonsense say they like the photo quizzes, here it is.
Hints? Out of a hundred people who look at this photograph, I hope that it turns out that at least ten adore it.
An update, the answer to the last quiz is meaningless because the trip to a small country with only one bordering state did not come to fruition. The country is The Gambia in West Africa. But it's possible they'll send me to another country. If that comes true, I'll quiz you on that one also.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Everyone around here seasons the neighborhood with their unique and sometimes exotic ingredients -- ingredients that reflect their ethnicity, their religion, their heritage ani their unique passions.
And the best way to appreciate this community cuisine of sorts is to send out the universal invitation -- just post a sign that reads, "Yard Sale."
We live on a neighborhood thoroughfare that does not discriminate. A tired-but-sturdy 1982 Toyota enjoys the same right of way as a slick, 2006 BMW or an overworked, 1999 Ford Ranger. And the tree-shaded sidewalks provide equal service to the seniors or the yuppies who walk their dogs and to the families -- sometimes comprised of four generations in one group -- who don't have access to an automobile to take them to church or to the retail stores down the street.
I wish I had posted a world map somewhere near our little table. I could have highlighted all of the different countries the visitors represented. I could have shaded in Italy, France, Mexico, Armenia, Iran, Lithuania, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Korea, the Philippines, Lebanon, China and Germany. I think there would be more, but I didn't ask everybody.
Four of my early visitors were two young women and their two dogs: a most beautiful, giant, slobbering, black Newfoundland and a most remarkable German shepherd feller who was in love with the her (the Newf).
The great thing about Newfs is that they love people, and hugging them is probably the closest thing to hugging a black bear without the risk of losing any body parts.
As big and bulky as they are, they're a lot like bull seals -- they're most at home in the water. They have webbed feet and they live to rescue people from the water.
But on land, they're not as agile. In fact. this furry girl had just come from the nearby Starbucks with her doggie boyfriend and their owners where she had stood up too quickly and somehow shoved the little, round, metal, outdoor table into the plate glass window. It was a miracle that the giant shards of glass did not slice any body parts off of them or their neighbors.
I know the story because, while I was rolling on the ground with the big, black, drooling machine, her owner was on the cell phone with her boyfriend or someone giving the after-the-fact play-by-play -- including her fervent belief the the incident was, indeed, the fault of the Starbucks folks. It was obvious to her that they should have bolted the tables to the ground.
This dispute would have been nonexistent if it had happened in Nigeria or Serbia (if you're a first-time reader, you may enjoy going back and reading about my adventures there). But in the U.S.A. it's all about who's to blame and, in the end, nobody admits responsibility.
(Begin personal rant)
Wouldn't it be surprising if someody did some bonehead thing and then said something like, "Geez, I didn 't mean for that to happen. Can I pay for the damages?" I know that all of the judges and lawyers reading this are about to fire off missives to me about my childlike naïveté. I have this belief that if everyone took responsibility for the things they did, we'd have a lot fewer lawyers and, as a dual result, we'd have a lot more doctors. And they'd both charge less.
Yard sale? Oh yes. (End of rant)
One of the more serendipitous things that happened was my reconnection with a most wonderful woman, Maria McFaller. She's in her early 70s, I believe, but has the spiritual energy of a hyper five-year-old. We met years ago when she was walking past my house after her car had broken down. She first made friends with my dog, Mija (Mija 1) and then with me.
Maria can't hide her Southern roots, her love for people or her love of God. Love of God means going to the foursquare church up the hill just about every Sunday, either before or after sitting a spell at Frank's Coffee Shop down the street from her place. The foursquare church is the closest thing, she says, to the Pentecostal sermans and revivals of her youth in Memphis.
"I don't go to no church where people sit still, " she said while she raised her hands to the sky and shook her body to some lively him or spiritual that was mostly in her head. "People got to move and dance to the music of the Lord," she said, with a Pentecostal zeal.
Maria lives in a senior apartment complex a block away from our place, but she still drives her new, compact car around town and to work. She works at Universal Studios Hollywood in the theme park -- been working there for nearly three decades. She practices the other activity about which she's passionate -- she feeds folks.
And when she comes home, she bakes cakes for a collection of customers who probably wouldn't know how to do it themselves. If they did, couldn't create something as delightful.
"I'm diabetic," she said, "so don't get to taste them. But I know my friends like them."
Maria has already brought Xiao Mei and our son David into circle of friends. You know it when it happens. She she throws her arms around you in a the way your own grandmother did it. Grandma. Heck, we've already chatted on the phone a couple of times since we reunited.
On Saturday, my friend Marcy Loer brought some things to the sale and helped out. She's a member of an interest group that meets once a month. On Sunday, another friend from the group , Dennis Deschamps, helped out and sold some of his stuff.
I have to tell you (with his permission) that putting the two of us together for an entire day was like staging a reunion remake of "The Odd Couple." The whole reason for the yard sale was to get rid of some of the 30-plus years of junk I've accumulated. The stuff reflects decades of disorganized pack ratting.
If Dennis were a woman and a bit older, you'd think he was Sue Anne Nivens from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She's the character Betty White played -- the "handy hints" lady who could never resist the opportunity to offer up clever, albeit uninvited, advice.
Dennis knows something about everything and wastes not a moment to share that knowledge. I'm certain he's right about everything he suggests. He's quite brilliant, you know. But I imagine that for him, being with me was a futile as trying to pound out dents in the cars that are in the middle of the Demolition Derby.
If I were to write down all of the suggestions he gave me for doing things better, blogspot.com would shut me down for using up too much space.
The moment I hope I'll never forget was when he saw me putting some hotel soaps in Ziploc bags and marking them for sale at $.25 each. He picked up one as I set it on the table and said, "Wow! This is Neutrogenia! It's great for acne."
Then he shook his head and wagged his finger (again). "You know, you really shouldn't put this out in the sun -- it will melt."
I moved a box slightly to put some shade on the little baggie and get it out of the direct sun. I did it less out of fear of it melting and more out of the desire to make the issue go away. But of course, the sun shifted and, by the afternoon, the Neutrogena looked more like warm honey. When gave me the deserved "told you so" I grabbed my camera and said I'd share my stupidity with the world. Here's the proof if it:
You know, there isn't anybody with whom you don't have something in common. With 48-year-old Terrie Duba, it was the challenge of deciding to accept growing a bit older that made me enjoy learning from her.
The receptionist/concierge at a post-production house had recently decided to embrace her age and experience and allow her natural hair color to grow back. She wasn't, however, ready to call it anything other than "silver." Hey, I'm a guy -- maybe there's a difference.
"I told a lady that I was letting it go silver," Terrie recalled, "and she almost cried. She said, 'Oh no! Don't do it!'"
Terrie may have hesitated for a moment, but moments pass while resolutions live on.
"I've decided to embrace my age," she said.
I thought about it for a minute and it reminded me of something that I should try to remember more often. About 25 years ago I did a one-on-one, on-camera interview with Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the "Love Doctor." He wasn't as popular in the L.A. as he was around the rest of the country. L.A. people -- for all of their cutting edge, self-help, find-your-inner-child, today's-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life search for "the truth," are not very touchy-feely.
So when Leo Buscaglia, a USC professor who taught "Love 101", recommended hugging each other, people around here wrote him off as something with something up his sleeve or something. Actually, however, he was quite harmless. He was an educator who put stuff on the table for you to take if you wanted to.
He had no stake in whether you decided to embrace loving life and loving people. In Phoenix, however, where I working at the PBS station, he was quite popular.
Anyway, I remember him saying, "People say, 'Act your age!'. What the hell does that mean? They say that when you get older you have to give up things. I believe you get old because you do give up things.
"Don't give up anything!"
I was glad that Terrie reminded me. I felt a little less silly wearing my short pants, black shoes and white support stockings.
"How are you doing today," I greeted a mountain of a man who was poking around the wares.
"I couldn't be better," he almost shouted. In fact, I think you could call it a shout. A small shout. A mini-shout.
This is the kind of person I like. When strangers or clerks (or both) ask me how I am -- and they really don't care -- I answer in somewhat the same way, but without so much mini-shout. So I had to get to know this guy.
Everything that came out of Dave Gist's mouth drew me deeper into a world of fascination and admiration. He'd done a lot of outdoor work, he told me, and finally decided he was tired of it. He ended up becoming a screenwriter. He's written 46 films so far -- sold about half of them. They're mostly horror flicks. That was interesting to me. How he got there, though, was a hoot.
"I was in jail and working in the kitchen," he said, without wanting to reveal the offense that landed him there, "and got sick. So they put me in an office had gave me a lot of typing to do.
I couldn't type and I told them so."
"'Well, you can now,' they told me," he said with a smile. "So I started hunt-and-pecking with my two index fingers and, by the time I got out, I was a fast typist. I still type with just these two fingers."
When he got out, his new typing skills -- and his disdain for laboring in the hot sun -- opened the gates into the world of screenwriting. It didn't completely come out of nowhere, however. His father was a well-known director who had also played parts in a slew of films and TV shows. Robert Gist's first role was that of the department store window dresser in "Miracle on 34th Street" in 1947. It seems he appeared in just about every television series I enjoyed as a kid -- from "Sea Hunt" and "Hennessey" to "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun Will Travel." Dave's dad also appeared in episodes of "Death Valley Days" and "Perry Mason."
"Agnes Moorehead was my stepmother," Dave told me.
I checked it out on IMDB.com (Dave is listed there also) and, if the gossip magazines of the day were true, the six-year relationship and short-lived marriage drew a lot of attention. Her first role had been in "Citizen Kane" in 1941, but most people remember her from her role of Endora in "Bewitched."
She was 24 years older than Robert Gist. Even today, that would make for good tabloid fodder.
But back to his son, Dave. His hunting and pecking produces stories that tend to be more about stalking and then packing the bodies away. I love some of the titles: "Merry Axmas," "In Cold Storage" (you guessed it -- it's about hiding the remains of victims at the local U-Store-It) and "Serial Killing 4 Dummies."
Now wonder he's so darned friendly -- I think he takes out his aggression on fictional characters. Sounds healthy to me!
One of our neighbors donated a little baby seat on a swing thing (OK, so I don't know what it's called. My son was 13 when he arrived. Yikes!). It was the last thing I would figure Anthony Valenzuela would skid his bicycle to a stop to see.
"How much for this?" he asked.
"Make an offer and I promise I'll counter with a better price," I said.
He hesitated. I don't blame him. I don't like it when sellers ask me to make an offer. I usually say "A dollar," just to get the negotiating started. Anthony was silent.
"OK, I said, "How does five dollars sound?"
"That's great," he said. "I'll buy it."
But I reminded him of my counter-offer policy and sold it to him for $4. He was happy.
"I'm going to be a father in November," he said ever-so-proudly. "His name is Elijah. It will be Elijah."
I asked him if he wanted me to deliver it to his place, but he said he could handle it perfectly well on his bike. And he did.
As he was starting to pedal away, he thanked me and said it would help a lot.
"I'm looking for work."
One of the last passersby didn't seem interested in anything we were offering, but I was interested in him. How many people have walked past your place with a bass guitar stapped over the shoulder in playing position and a boa constrictor around the necks? Yes, it was around his neck and the neck of the guitar.
Travis Reinhart's snake is Marilyn. She's 2 1/2 years old and 3 1/2 feet long. He was on his way to loan his guitar to a friend -- Marilyn was just grooving along for a ride.
Travis reminded me that he had been by on Saturday with his dog. His and mine had exchanged words over a territorial dispute that had ended when I put Mija in the house and Travis dragged his pooch away.
It turns out that Travis loves animals. He's looking for work again at a veterinarian's office. I like people who love animals.
As the afternoon was threatening to turn to evening and dusk, I started posting ads on www.craigslist.com for the three remaining big things: an entertainment wall unit thing, a refrigerator and a table and chair set. I made photos of all of them to include with the descriptions. I got calls right away for information about the refrigerator -- especially its diminsions. I'm not recognized for my drawing and drafting talent, but I'm pretty darned proud of this one -- especially after two days in the hot sun.
Since last weekend's yard sale, whenever I go outside, I feel a little sad. It's like how you feel on the Sunday morning at a big hotel following a great conference. You see the places where, just a day earlier, you felt the excitement of meeting new friends and learning new things. But now it looks like a hotel lobby.
But then I realize that all of these new and renewed friends are not that far away. I know I'll see many of them again and remember, again, why I love my neighborhood.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
I confess that this one is a stretch, but it got your attention. On the 20th day of a record-breaking heatwave, the stress got to me and I needed to connect with an old friend.
The old friend was an "Oakie pork" sandwich from Pecos Bill's Bar-B-Q in Glendale. It's been an old friend of mine for decades. One day maybe, I'll be a good enough writer to be able to let you taste an Oakie pork sandwich by just reading about it, but I'm not nearly that good.
I can tell you that eating one Oakie pork requires at least six napkins -- unless you take really big bites or don't mind having the Tennessee-style hickory sauce all over your face, hands and arms for a while.
Pecos Bill's is 1551 Victory Blvd just a few blocks from the Western Ave. offramp of the I-5 Golden State Freeway.
But it wasn't always a few blocks from the Golden State Freeway -- that's when Pecos Bill Stenzel and his son, Owen, built the stand 1946, there was no freeway. That would come a decade later. Bill came here from Oklahoma -- hence the term "Oakie". But the recipe has an even longer history.
You have to go back a couple of decades earlier when Bill Stenzel's father opened a saloon near a diamond mine in southwest Arkansas. By the way, the diamond mine is still there and, get this, it's the only diamond mine in the U.S. that is open to the public. It's now a state park and people still find some 400 diamonds there each year -- just sitting on the ground. You might want to check it out at http://www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com/history/. Heck, I think I want to pay that place a visit.
Here's a picture of the mine. I borrowed it from the park's website.
But I digress. Back to the story. Apparently the stuff Bill served up at his saloon wasn't nearly as popular as the barbecue dinners his wife served up to friends and family on Sundays, so he closed the saloon and started selling beef and pork smothered in the family's original barbecue sauce. It was the same sauce Bill's father grew up on in Tennessee.
Before long, Bill opened two restaurants in Oklahoma City -- restaurants that also served up tender meat and that great sauce. Following World War II, Bill came west and landed a job at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank.
By the way, I wouldn't exist if it weren't for Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. My mother and father met there during the war. Dad was an airplane mechanic -- Mom drilled rivet holes in the wings of bombers destined for England's Royal Air Force.
But Pecos Bill Stenzel didn't love working at Lockheed, so he and his son, Owen, built the little stand and called it Pecos Bill's. When Owen grew up, he and his wife, Dale, took over the business. About 15 years ago they moved to the beach to retire, but they didn' t let the barbecue fires die down -- they sold the business to Owen, Jr., and his wife Eva.
They still cook in the ovens Bill built back in '46 and, of course, still use the same great recipe. The place only stays open till 2:30 or 3 p.m. -- depending upon when the meat runs out.
I asked Owen Jr. to tell me some of the statistics about their business. He didn't have any to offer.
"You buy all this meat," I reminded him. "How much do you usually buy?"
"A couple of cows a week," he said in a tone that he probably inhereted from his great-grandfather. "Oh, yeah, and a pig."
Sunday, July 23, 2006
And even though we're out of the High Desert, we're still setting up the house.
On the Fourth of July our neighbors invited us to celebrate with them and with many of the other neighbors. Indeed, things have changed here -- the increase in home values has attracted a lot more professional and creative people to the area.
It's a good thing they all didn't walk across the alley and see my version of The Grapes of Wrath. Just how much accumulated junk could I loan into an old pick-up truck? This was the last load. Three times we rented U-Haul trucks -- the other six or seven trips were in the Ford Ranger.
This evening, July 23, we're moving David from the house we rented two doors down. Now that we've made most of the repairs and fixed up a room for him, we can all now begin the cramped life -- three people in a one-bedroom house on a 25-foot lot with an office-turned-bedroom out back for the soon-to-be 17-year-old.
We'll have a yard sale in two weeks and then give up the other house completely. There's no doubt we'll have to rent a storage unit, but I swear it'll be a small one. Yes, on the last morning of the last trip ("morning" means we were there all night packing), I finally decided to shed my "pack rat" mentality and start throwing things away. In an hour I filled 10 or 12 large trash bags with stuff I once thought was vital to my future.
Liberation! But it'll take a lot of time to go through the mountains of boxes that did make it "down the hill."
And about the time we finish with the yard sale, I may start packing for the next overseas assignment. It's not confirmed yet, but they've asked me if I'm interested. I would be working with the media in a very, very small country to help them prepare for upcoming national election. I'll give you some clues in a later. For now, look for a small country that provides you with the key ingredient in tapioca pudding and that borders only one other country.
Let the guessing begin.