Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The man I idolized and still try to emulate

You might say that I had an hour to kill this morning between my East Los Angeles appointment and my downtown L.A. meeting.
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. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A magical moment of Wonder

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 Burbank High School students) up to DeBell Golf Course’s Luau Grounds where they were doing a day-long taping for a show that would air later. They needed hip young kids to be in the outdoor audience, but they had to settle for a few kids like me who bordered on boring. Of course there was a lot of set-up time required between performers, so we had to mill around and wait for a while.

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

A most unlikely day of inspiration

My wife Xiao Mei would not have been angry if I had told her I was too busy to go the Sisters of Social Services retreat compound in the Encino hills today, Sunday. Her aunt, Sister Anselma, stays there when she’s visiting from Taiwan. I’ve taken Xiao Mei there at least a half-dozen times for visits or family gatherings.
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.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A tribute to a departing friend -- Genio's Restaurant

Genio's Restaurant is closing at the end of this month. It was almost 50 years ago that I first walked into its coffee shop -- not knowing that it would be, to me, what Rick's Cafe was to Casablanca.

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 Burbank location for their business. They’re worried about the demise of a family enterprise that goes back more than 50 years. They believe they owe it to their loyal customers to keep the pasta boiling.

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:

I was seven or eight when my mother told me she wanted to take me to lunch at a place in Burbank. It was around 1956 or 1957.

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 Olive Ave. It was bright inside.

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 Cedar Ave. in Burbank.

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 Doris’ kid meant that I would get the royal treatment.

My favorite busboy at the time was Arturo. He was from Mexico and was a little older than I was. He taught me to say, “¿Qué está haciendo? (What are you doing?),” and he’d reply, “¡Trabajando!” (Working!).

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 Tijuana. In a few days, he’d find his way back across the line and report back to his trabajo.

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 Vietnam in 1968 I had to have a sort-of “last meal” at Genio’s. My Army buddy, Paul Mooney, flew in from New York so we could travel together to Okinawa to train the dogs we’d be partnering with in Vietnam. Marvin surprised my by picking up the tab. He told me he’d buy me dinner again when I got home safely.

I lied to my folks about the date I’d be coming home, so I was able to sneak back into Burbank without them expecting me.

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 Iowa the following year, it was the host at Genio’s who broke the news to me.

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 Burbank women as a member of the Zonta International service organization. She volunteered her time delivering Meals on Wheels and helping community members in other ways. She eventually became president of the club and presided over meetings in the Genio’s banquet room. The highlight was when she traveled to Australia for Zonta’s international conference. Indeed, it was her involvement with Genio’s that helped that skinny, inexperienced waitress discover her strengths and do her part to help the world.

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’ll miss the always-welcome smiles from the people there who treat me as if I’m special.

I’m not special, but they treat me that way because I’m “Doris’ kid.”

If you’ve never eaten at Genio’s, you should do it once, just to say you’ve been there and to know what Burbank is losing. If you ever dined there, you must return on last time.

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 Doris’ kid. It might earn you a couple of extra lemon slices.

Posted by Picasa