Wonderful World

People in the LAX arrival lobby. (Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu)

I have a new favorite place in L.A. And no, it’s not the Pacific Palisades, or Topanga Canyon State Park, or the Expo Line to Santa Monica, or some hip fusion coffee bistro in Los Feliz with healthy tacos on Fridays and jazz music on Sundays.

It’s the international arrivals terminal at LAX.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Los Angeles is its extreme cultural diversity. People from so many nations visit and move to southern California, and despite the current anti-immigrant political climate, the global assimilation here still feels inevitable and completely natural. The region is a pastiche of vibrant, multi-cultural neighborhoods (Feel like Ethopian tonight? Head over to Fairfax Ave. between Venice and Olympic), and as Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary is sadly pointing out, we can never learn enough about other countries.

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A line of limo drivers for Emirates passengers, all in a row.

The international terminal is decidedly different from the other arrival facilities at the airport. While most of those are just dreary baggage claim belts and congested curb sides with taxi and pickup lanes, the Tom Bradley Terminal is like a non-stop global convention. There’s a Coffee Bean, a Pinkberry and a Mexican restaurant called Cantina Loredo nearby, but the centerpiece of the place is a wide ramp where the arriving passengers emerge from the customs area below, pushing their luggage carts—some piled high with every personal belonging imaginable—and are greeted by dozens and dozens of families and friends flanking rails on both sides, a huddled mass of multi-lingual humanity eager to see their first glimpse of the person or people they were waiting for.

One of the things I used to love about the “old” airport days was when people could welcome their arriving loved ones (or send them off) right at the plane’s gate. If I had time to kill while waiting to board a flight myself, it was always fun and comforting to wander from gate to gate and watch people I didn’t know embrace each other.

LAX International Arrivals is the next best thing, aside from instantly reminding us of how small a slice we really are in the global pie. And it’s a lot less painful than riding the “It’s a Small World” boat at Disneyland.

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Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues and Greys

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Sorry I haven’t posted a blog for a while. Life duties and the political state of the country has had me in a slight creative funk, and the last thing I’ve wanted to do is join the 26,343 others writing about this administration.

The other day, however, I began to think about the Civil War. Maybe because we could very well have another one if our toddler-in-chief is booted from office. Or maybe because my wife was watching the Ken Burns documentary again recently, and the melancholy sound of Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” wafting down the hall put me in the appropriate mood. But I suddenly remembered how much that war meant to me when I was growing up.

From 1962-1965, there was a Civil War Centennial going on in our culture. Despite a superb short film version of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” that Rod Serling featured one night on The Twilight Zone, Hollywood tended to steer clear of the subject, but manufacturers of children’s entertainment were quick to pounce.

Death BattleTo begin with, my friends and I collected Civil War bubble gum cards. Years before “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch” hit the big screens, these cards were the first graphic depictions of violence many of us ever saw. Released by Topps in 1962—and remaining one of the most collected trading card sets of all time—no color rendering of horrific battlefield death was left on the drawing board. “Vicious Attack”, “Wall of Corpses” and “Flaming Forest” were just a handful of the vivid hand-painted scenes by Norman Saunders, Maurice Blumenfeld, and Bob Powell. I don’t think I had more than three dozen of the 88 collectible cards (which I would bet $20 my mom threw away when I was at school) but the ones I had certainly left an impression, and my friends and I giddily ranked them by gore factor as often as we could.

WheelCrushWhich probably explains why I was soon clamoring for a “Civil War set” for one of my birthdays. Released by Marx, the set came with a few hundred pieces, including blue and grey soldiers, a stone bridge, a plantation(!), cannons, fences, wagons, a few horses, and characters for Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Many a summer backyard, either at my house or a friend’s, would double as a vast miniature killing ground for the infamous Battle of Yarmouth Street or Massacre on Drury Lane. And I would bet another $20 that my mom threw the entire set away when I was at school.

Less than a decade later, deadly doings in Vietnam would take over the TV news and our political consciousness, and my brief fascination with the Civil War went into hiding. We all learn about history in different ways; a friend of mine n Maryland is an avid Civil War collector, attends memorabilia shows, and once showed me his actual piece of a Gettysburg fence, still pockmarked with bullet holes. I was perfectly content with my grisly bubble gum cards and little plastic soldiers, but the most catastrophic war to ever occur on our shores would forever stay embedded in my view of the world. Here’s hoping it stays embedded.

On Walking Without a Device

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Last weekend I knocked on my son’s door, and told him I would do the fifteen-minute walk to Subway from our house to get him a sandwich for lunch. I always like to listen to music on my iPhone earbuds when I do this, but my phone was down to about 10% power, so instead I left it charging in the house and braved reality by taking a half hour walk without a device.

It was a beautiful warm early afternoon in March, the Chinese elms in our neighborhood providing plenty of shade. Birds chirped and hopped through the branches and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves. It took a few minutes to get used to them, but natural sounds and my own breath were actually a perfectly pleasant substitute for the usual Brazilian samba or European trip-hop that filled my ears.

As I passed through an empty school parking lot and a short bridge over Ballona Creek, my thoughts began to stray. Suddenly I was back in Western Massachusetts, trudging home from high school through a frozen path in the woods and along slushy suburban streets. The time of that solitaire walk was usually 30 minutes one way, twice as long as the one I was doing now—and I had no smart phone, Sony Walkman, or electronic device of any kind to listen to.

Thoughts of high school girls I knew, or creeps or jocks I didn’t want to know, occasionally filled my head, maybe mixed with visions of a TV show, movie, or sporting event I’d been looking forward to. Most of the days I walked home, though, were normal and somewhat dull. Ninety percent of the time, I walked alone.

So how did I pass the time?

I used my imagination. If I wasn’t devising a scenario for a new little Super 8 movie I wanted to make, I was self-producing imaginary record albums in my head. This would entail quietly singing through a dozen or so of my favorite songs (six on each side of the album, naturally), expertly arranged for maximum artistic impact so I would be seen as the dynamic young rocker I apparently fantasized being. While I walked to Subway the other day, I desperately tried to conjure up the specific songs I sang, but this was many decades ago, and has sadly become a blur. I’m pretty sure “Jet” by Paul McCartney and Wings was in there, maybe a Simon & Garfunkel or Who tune. I do remember that my album rarely changed, and a song had to be pretty special to make the cut and bump another one out.

The important thing is that this was a very enjoyable way to spend idle time. When you are not plugged in electronically, your mind can grow, and dare I say it, experience the world around you for what it is.

For my device-less walk back from Subway last weekend, I thought about Saturday afternoon kid matinees I would attend with my pack of movie friends. Nearly every time while waiting in front of the theater for someone’s mother to pick us up, we would pass the time acting out the supernatural, sci-fi, pirate or Roman slave movie we just watched, everyone choosing a different character. Today we instantly jump back on our phones, no matter our age, to check texts or emails, maybe hit up IMDb to learn about an actor.

I also remembered what happened in a large house I once lived in with three or four others up in Vermont. My friend who owned the house was the news editor of our weekly paper but also a freelance rock critic, and one entire wall of the huge living room consisted of a stereo system and shelves and shelves of record albums. Many of the nights there were a joy, everyone just sitting around talking, drinking beers, smoking, and just listening to music.

Then one day my friend moved out, and the stereo system and shelves and shelves of record albums left too. A television replaced them, and the vibe of the house changed overnight. People would get home from work, grab their dinners and eat in front of the TV, watching whatever was on and barely talking. Petty fights began over cleaning the kitchen and other house duties. Factions developed. It got ugly, and I can’t help thinking it all started when people allowed themselves to be plugged into something other than human contact.

Anyway, back home from Subway, I gave my son his sandwich, and went down the hall to see if my iPhone was charged. It was. I began to unplug it, then decided to leave it there a little longer. Grabbed a good book I’d been reading and went out back to sit with it under a shady tree.

Why I Liked “Sing Street” More than “La La Land”

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Granted, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land deserves its big basket of nominations and will probably win the Best Picture Oscar barring a last-minute, anti-Trumpian nod to Moonlight, but I’d like to take a few minutes here to talk about a hardly-seen Irish comedy/musical currently streaming on Netflix.

Sing Street is by Dubliner John Carney, known for two other very fine indy films about music, Once and more recently, Begin Again with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. He writes witty, likeable characters, completely understands the emotion and power of music, and manages to put you in a good mood using gritty. vulnerable characters we can easily identify with. “Street” does that in spades, telling the tale of Conor (played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a sweet, gullible ‘80s lad who wants nothing more than to become a rock musician. Transferred to a tough Dublin boys school by his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) and inspired by a local rebel girl he has a crush on named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), he gathers a small gang of goofy misfits together to start a rock band and film a rock video, and the results are hilarious, turbulent, and life-affirming.

Basically, Sing Street has the exact same message La La Land does about listening to and following your creative dreams, but the two films couldn’t be more different in their approach. La La Land, while magical and beautifully staged, is obsessed with being a tribute to Hollywood musicals while it’s poking mild fun at L.A., and in the end, even though there are many things worse than looking at Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for two hours, I never felt completely connected to their characters. The movie has a perfectly crafted sheen and polish to it, like a hit single by the Eagles, yet it often seems a little too aware of itself at the expense of good storytelling.

Here’s an example. The opening one-shot musical number on the freeway, likely to go down as one of the great filming achievements ever, would have been far more effective if it had happened five or ten minutes into the film, rather than kicking it off. Having just sat down in the theater, I wasn’t prepared for its immediacy, for throwing us into its rekindled genre right out of the box. If Chazelle had set up the two leads for a few minutes and let them drive onto the freeway and get stuck in the slowdown traffic, suddenly turning the scene into a musical number would have been completely magical and delivered the viewers into his musical tribute on a silver platter.

I much preferred Chazelle’s last film, the brilliant, mesmerizing Whiplash, which was just as smart (if not more so) about music and established an unforgettable human conflict between student and teacher. La La Land, while inventive in many ways, feels less organic and more like Chazelle really wanted to win an Oscar. And he no doubt will, but if you prefer some endearing, emotional, unbridled fun with characters more grounded in reality, do not miss Sing Street.

Room with a Rear View

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On New Year’s Day night, TCM ran a marathon of classic Hitchcock movies, all in pristine, restored hi-def. Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Trouble with Harry all made the list, but for its 112 minutes, Rear Window captivated me like it never has before.

The 1954 release is simply a perfect film. In a medium that essentially requires viewers to sit in a dark room and watch other people’s lives, it’s about a man physically trapped in his New York apartment and spends all his time watching other people’s lives. The art direction and Hitchcock’s manipulation of it is beyond brilliant, giving us just enough visuals and sound from all of the apartment courtyard’s mini-dramas to keep us as intrigued as Jimmy Stewart is.

I won’t elaborate on the particulars of the story, seeing most of you have seen the film, but I thought it would be fun to delve deep into the Internet and provide portraits of L.B. Jeffries’ colorful and memorable neighbors, because they’re as much a part of the story as Stewart, snarky Thelma Ritter, evil Raymond Burr and the ravishing Grace Kelly are…

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GEORGINE DARCY (Miss Torso)
Darcy, who was born in Brooklyn and urged by her mother to become a stripper to “make a fast buck”, studied ballet and worked as a model before appearing as the voluptuous, forever dance-practicing neighbor directly across from Jeffries’ apartment. She was paid just $350 for her work in the film, and had a spotty acting career from then on. In 1962 she played Madge, a “dancing firestorm” in the Chubby Checker movie Don’t Knock the Twist. She had a few TV roles after that, but died of natural causes in Malibu in 2004 at age 68.

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JESSLYN FAX (Sculptor with Hearing Aid)
The dotty artist who lived directly below Miss Torso was played by Canadian actress Fax, who was a “short, dumpy, cherubic character actress,” according to Wikipedia, and had small roles in The Music Man and Kiss Me Deadly following her appearance in Hitchcock’s film. She also occasionally served as comic foils to Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. Born in 1893, she died in Hollywood in 1975.

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ROSS BAGDASARIAN (Struggling Composer)
Bagdasarian, known for being the friendly acquaintance of Hitchcock in the director’s Rear Window cameo scene, was an actual pretty successful composer who wrote “The Chipmunk Song” for Alvin and Co. and specialized in “catchy, hummable melodies.” As an actor he appeared in 20 films, including Hot Blood, Three Violent People, The Proud and Profane, and The Girls of Pleasure Island. He was just 52 when he died in Beverly Hills in 1972.

FRANK CADY (Sleeping Man on Fire Escape)
Cady, who died in Oregon in 2012 at the age of 96, may have been the most successful of the courtyard’s supporting cast. Most people remember him as Hooterville general store owner Sam Drucker on the twin TV series Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Before playing the husband who slept with his wife on one of Rear Window’s fire escapes to beat the heat—and later got caught in a rainstorm—he appeared in a whopping 42 other movies, most in uncredited roles, including D.O.A. and The Asphalt Jungle.

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SARA BERNER (Sleeping Woman on Fire Escape)
The neighbor with the only true speaking part in the film, Berner was a successful voice actress who worked a lot in the 30s and ‘40s, almost exclusively in animation, and did the voices for cartoon characters Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, as well as the mouse who “danced” with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh. In Rear Window, she lowers her and her husband’s little pet dog in a basket every day, and when Raymond Burr’s character strangles it later in the story, gives a shrill lecture to everyone in the courtyard about human decency that’s virtually the only strained moment in the film. Bernier lived to be 57 and died in Van Nuys, CA in 1969.

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JUDITH EVELYN (Miss Lonelyhearts)
Evelyn, who beautifully played the sad single woman in the bottom apartment who restrains herself from overdosing on sleeping pills when she hears the gorgeous piano number played by the single composer upstairs, appeared in a handful of movies after Rear Window, including Giant and The Tingler with Vincent Price, but had a full career of TV work before passing away in New York at age 54.

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RAND HARPER & HAVIS DAVENPORT (Newlyweds)
Harper, the hunk who carried his new wife across their apartment threshold in the first few minutes of the movie, then lowered the window shade for two or three days, was mostly a TV actor who had a recurring role on Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, along with small parts on Perry Mason and Gunsmoke. At 87, he is the only Rear Window resident to still be alive. Davenport only lived to be 42, with parts in just two other films, Scandal Incorporated and A Star is Born. The newlyweds’ late scenes, in which it’s depressingly clear they are threatening to turn into Raymond Burr and his disappeared wife, are deliciously ironic.

Which brings us finally to…
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IRENE WINSTON (Mrs. Emma Thorwald)
Lars Thorwald’s unfortunate bedridden wife, who appears to be mocking her husband in a few early scenes before ending up in various parts of the East River, was a New York native with a 1940s career in radio who later wrote for television. Like all of these supporting apartment players, her pantomime from afar was exceptional, and helped create one of the greatest underrated ensembles in cinema history.

And now, as Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont might have said as she coyly lowered Jimmy Stewart’s blinds, “Show’s over for tonight…”

Dan & Jim & Enrico & Larry

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Over the weekend, I dove headfirst into Uber for the first time. Oh sure, I had put the app on my phone over a year ago after my 21-year-old son had long mastered it, but I had either been too stubborn or anxious to actually use the thing until last Wednesday night. I was taking a red-eye to Charlotte and then Sarasota that was leaving L.A. at one in the morning, so after researching how many drivers were actually available to pick me up late at night, I made the call.

Days later, I am pleased to announce I have a serious crush on Uber. Why anyone would even think of calling a cab when you have this option is beyond me.

Dan showed up first in his Nissan Sentra around 11 p.m., its little grey and black Chiclet moving toward my house from West L.A. on the application’s map. Dan was a nice local guy, the car was spotless, and we talked about family and parents all the way to LAX.

At the small, easy-as-pie Sarasota Airport, I stepped outside with my bag and saw that Uber had its own section of the parking lot directly across the street, with a handful of drivers waiting patiently in their cars for a call.

Jim was a retired good ol’ boy from Fort Worth who had moved to Sarasota with his wife some years back. He invited me to sit up front in his shiny white Ford F-150, and the 25-minute ride to my folks’ house couldn’t have been more pleasant. We talked about his job, my job, why we preferred the Gulf side of Florida to its east coast, the tourist trade, the best places for barbeque, and so on. I knew deep in my bones this guy was a Trump voter, but was careful never to bring up politics and even added a subtle twang to my accent by the time I got out of his vehicle. The cost was $22, less than half of what a cab ride would have been.

Enrico was a full 18 minutes away from my parents’ house when he started his pickup drive yesterday morning, so I checked in on his Chiclet every few minutes while my phone was taking a final charge. He had a spotless Chevy Trailblazer, invited me into the front passenger seat, and was an absolutely great guy. A former truck driver from Long Island and a huge Mets fan, we talked baseball and sports the whole way to the airport. He had slicked back grey hair, a certifiable New York accent, and told a hilarious story about delivering a washing machine to some lady’s house once, not even realizing she was Whitey Ford’s wife.

Back in L.A., I had to take an escalator up to the departures level at LAX to meet Larry in his Hyundai. Guess what? He was a super nice guy in a spotless car, and he filled me in on the trouble Uber is having taking people to and from the airport here thanks to the local police and taxicab union. Like the other three drivers on my virgin Uber weekend, Larry was funny and engaged and interested without ever being anything but polite. It was like having four new friends to give you rides.

There are plenty of new technologies I have not been able to warm up to. Periscope was fun for a month and then got creepy and depressing. Siri will never be my friend, or someone I have a need to ever speak to. But Uber? Where do I buy stock?

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This blog was originally going to be about Black Mirror, a scary, ingenious “British Twilight Zone” I just finished binge-watching that plunges the viewer into a quasi-futuristic society where advances in technology alter our social and personal realities for better and often worse.

Then last night’s Election happened (or as I now may call it, Beer Hall Putsch 2.0), and I suddenly don’t feel compelled to write about a dark fictional world when we are really about to live in one.

There’s plenty of anger right now in my many stages of grief, but mostly there’s just all-pervasive sadness. Sad for women, sad for minorities, sad for immigrants, sad for the LGBT community, sad for my young parent neighbors and their children, and mostly sad for America, a beacon of reason and democracy that had a nice 240-year run. If half of the country believes that a lying, ignorant, racist and sexist fascist would make a better President than a qualified career politician, good luck to them. Because I have no plans to ever accept a flaming, unhinged asshole as my President.

anniebBut let’s talk about Annie Boots, our cat. Home alone last night with the election coverage while my wife was on a job up in Washington State—planning a likely Hillary party with her nasty woman workmates—I had little reason not to be optimistic. Trump was ahead 19-3 in electoral votes when I was leaving work but had fallen behind slightly by the time I switched on the TV and began preparing night two of my spinach chicken salad. Then Florida was in trouble. Then Ohio and North Carolina and Virginia were in trouble. Then the entire middle of the country was turning red for Trump like a woman’s whatever.

I switched over to an old Hitchcock movie called Saboteur on TCM, but could barely follow what was happening. Went back to MSNBC for a spell, until new polls closed and new horrific numbers surfaced. I went to a Kings hockey game in Toronto for a short spell, but the noise of the skates sounded like scythe blades. Meanwhile, I was getting text after text from friends, loved ones, all wanting to share their panic.

I killed the TV and retreated to the living room to read through some pages-in-progress for my new novel. Maybe plunging myself into the fictional world in my head would help beat back depression. The problem was that my phone was perched on the arm of the chair I was sitting in. Before long, I was taking Twitter and Facebook breaks, which was like reading dispatches from the end of the world in real time. Couldn’t take that either.

But then Annie Boots pranced into the room and jumped on my lap. She didn’t give two shits about any election, had been happily carousing the driveway for mice in the ivy, drinking the scummy backyard pond water, and pausing for lick breaks. It was also starting to get chilly out, so leaping on my warm jeans and curling up was all that mattered to her. Within minutes she was dozing, purring like a new John Deere, happy to be taken care of while unwittingly comforting her dad to no end.

I shared a final consoling phone call with my wife before retiring and somehow getting five hours of sleep. Annie Boots had gone back out at 10 p.m., around the time the country that I love was going through its death throes, and when I rose about 4:40 am. to use the bathroom she still hadn’t clawed at the bedroom door to come back in. Oh great. Not only has American voted in Satan, but now a coyote has claimed our cat.

I called for her but she never showed up. I tried to fall back asleep and was maybe out for a half hour when Annie’s nails suddenly scratched on the door. After making sure there was no half-dead mouse in her mouth, I slid it open, more happy than ever to see her. Got up, made coffee, and let her sleep on my robe while I sat in the living room again.

When insanity happens, the world shatters, and you’re forced to live one day at a time, maybe love and little furry things are enough to keep you going.