I wake at dawn not knowing where I am. It is dark with a little bit of light sneaking through the shades, and the room is too big to be my apartment. While it only lasts a few seconds, the sensation of being untethered in time and space is both unsettling and enjoyable.
When I realize I’m in a comfortable bed in my room at the Magic Castle Hotel, I smile. I have another three hours before my buddy Jamie picks me up, and I’m quickly back to dreamland. After getting almost no sleep on the plane the night before, I feel rested and ready to start the day when the alarm wakes me at 8:30 am.
I pour myself a coffee in the lobby and Jamie arrives a little after 9. We’re on our way to the House of Pies, a classic breakfast spot in Los Feliz. Since the late 90s I’ve been to this restaurant dozens of times with friends or by myself.
Jamie and I get a booth and order classic breakfast fare. The two of us go way back, meeting as Freshman roommates at Bridgewater State College. We remained great friends even after I transferred to Boston University, and about a year after we got our degrees we moved to Key West, Florida. Jamie to begin his career with American Airlines, me to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett.
I eventually left Key West for film and TV studies at Emerson College in Boston, while Jamie stayed in the tropics for a girl and his job. Sometime later he would end up in Albany for a promotion, and I got on my screenwriting path. Knowing I wanted to move to Los Angeles after receiving my Master’s, I did my best to sell Jamie on joining me. Back then he was going through a bad break-up in upstate New York (different girl than Key West), and it didn’t take much convincing for him to apply for, and eventually get, a transfer to LAX in sunny California.
We talk about all this, of the strange coincidences and good fortune that led us to be roommates in three different states. Jamie never left LA, and had gotten married (and divorced), had a son, and was doing very well for himself still at American Airlines. Even though he had to work later on, we had about four more hours to hang out and catch-up.
The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena was on the agenda, but we had about an hour and half before their doors opened at noon. Since the entrance was just up the road from House of Pies, we drive into Griffith Park to the Observatory. That spot has always been one of my favorites in LA.
When I was a resident of Southern California the Griffith Observatory began a massive renovation in 2002. When I left LA in ’04 it was only half way to completion, so I never had a proper farewell. I finally got to see the newly refurbished Observatory on a visit in 2009, and I was very impressed. This is my first time back since then.
Jamie and I walk around the Observatory, taking in its wonderful architecture and the surrounding postcard vistas. We can see the Hollywood Sign, and hard to believe I had hiked above it yesterday. For some reason it seems like it was about five weeks ago.
From Los Feliz Boulevard it’s a quick drive to the 5 and then to the 134. I get a strange sensation I’ve actually missed these freeways and exits. It’s been twelve years since my last visit to the Norton Simon Museum and the city of Pasadena, and I feel a sense of pride I still remembered how to get there.
It was a bizarre detour in my life and career, but I was actually once an employee of the Norton Simon Museum. My job was to stand in the company issued grey pants, white shirt, striped tie, and blue blazer, and make sure nobody got too close to the art. My official title was gallery attendant, and I got paid minimum wage. I was one of three employees who wasn’t either retired or an art student at one of the local colleges.
While there were certainly a lot of negatives to the job (the pay, the utter lack of engaging tasks, school groups), I enjoyed my six months there. I’ve always loved museums and art, but outside a couple of classes in college I’ve been self-taught. The Norton Simon was an opportunity to spend a good portion of my week studying such a fascinating subject, and be paid for it. We were even able to take the headphones with the audio tour at the end of the day if it was slow. I did this often, and also talked to the tour guides whenever I had a chance. This spurred me to check-out art books at the library and continue my studying at home.
After examining and studying every piece in the Norton Simon when I was an employee, my favorite became Henri Matisse’s The Black Shawl (1918). This painting remains the piece of his (and of the museum) I admire the most, though I still cannot properly articulate why. The black and red colors draw you in, and your eyes focus on the alluring dark-haired woman in a beautiful dress. There’s movement in that painting, and the model, though not depicted realistically, is alive. But it’s much more than just the sum of the images, and I suspect there are Jungian forces at work on me whenever I stare at it.
Jamie and I started our tour of the Norton Simon the way I always thought you should (chronologically beginning with the Medieval, going through the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Impressionists, and then to the Modernists). The collection is outstanding, and you get to see the evolution of art through the centuries. By the time we reach the giant Sam Francis Abstract Expressionist mural, Jamie and I have been in the museum for two hours. I’d like to stay longer, but my friend has to get to work.
Before leaving we head to the Sculpture Garden, with the lily pond right out of a Monet painting. When I worked at the museum, whenever my rotation took me out there I would amble around and pretend I was in Paris. On particularly dark days of the soul, when I was feeling severely disappointed at myself for wearing that blue blazer, strolling around that garden would always turn my mood around.
Because it had recently rained, parts of the grounds were closed to the public. It’s disappointing I can’t take my old loop around the place, but we’re able to see a decent portion of it and snap a few pictures. I am so happy to be back after a twelve-year absence.
After leaving the museum I had originally wanted to go to Lucky Baldwins for lunch and a beer, as it was always one of my favorite spots in Pasadena. But with Jamie heading to the airport I had a decision to make. While I could have stayed in Pasadena and had an enjoyable day, I wanted to see more of the city. It was a short trip down the 110 Freeway to the 9th Street exit, and after circling around and saying our goodbyes, Jamie drops me off just before Figueroa Street.
I had three jobs (none at the same time) when I lived in LA. My first was Pizzeria Uno’s in West Hollywood, which is now a Wells Fargo bank, and I worked there almost a year before it closed. The museum was the third one, a brief six-month stint. I was now on my way to Job #2 and the place I worked the longest, California Pizza Kitchen at 7th and Figueroa. From 1999 to 2003 I stood behind the bar there and served pizza and beer and barbecue chicken salads, and until today I had never been back.
Even before I walk through the door, it’s all very strange. In my days there was an underground, open-air mall next door called 7th Street Marketplace. With a look straight out of the 80’s (think wavy neon lights), there certainly weren’t any big name brands and several retail spaces were empty. Now called Fig at 7th, the place is hip and modern and features a Target, Bath & Body Works, and even a Victoria’s Secret. Seeing it produced a Marty McFly-walking-into-Hill Valley Square-Circa-2015 moment.
When I step inside CPK, the décor is much different. The old, minimalistic black and white tile floors and bare yellow walls give way to wood, softer colors and lots of artwork. There are also televisions! When I was a bartender, there were none. I always resented missing out on some big games while I worked.
But the layout of the restaurant is the same, and when I take a seat at the bar it all comes back to me in a rush. There’s the same glass washer, the same taps, the same well, and the pilsner glasses are still the same. I look to the left and the little nook next to the bar has a couple of employees eating pizza on their break. That is where we would sit after the lunch or dinner rush for our breaks or to do roll-ups. And there’s the same swinging black door leading to the back of the house and the manager’s office and time clock.
After a thirteen-year absence, it’s nostalgia overload. I’m actually surprised at how much I’m affected by being there, mostly in a positive way. The bartender is very friendly, and I let him know about my history with this CPK. He tells me the name of his co-worker who has been there for fourteen years, but I cannot place this name to a face. However, in doing so I think of all the great people I worked with through the years, some of which I am still good friends with today.
I order a BBQ Chicken Pizza and add feta cheese (my go-to meal way back when), and get a cold beer. I think about how I was part of the opening team of the 7th & Fig CPK Team back in 1999. I also remember how Jenna Fischer, several years before staring on The Office, used to sit at my bar several times a week. At this point she was slowly building up her acting resume with smaller parts, but she was paying her bills by actually working in an office.
Jenna invited me to one of her plays called Nosferatu, and after leaving the theater that night fifteen years ago it was clear she was a very talented actress. During our talks back then she couldn’t have been any nicer or sweeter. I had such a huge crush on her. Unfortunately for me Jenna had a husband, and when he sold a script she was able to quit her job. I didn’t see her again until 2005, when I turned on the TV for the premiere of the American version of The Office.
I leave CPK with no agenda other than at some point to get to the revolving cocktail lounge at the Westin Bonaventure, and maybe have a few John Fante moments. Fante is one of my favorite authors, and I first read him right around the time I started working in downtown LA. After my shifts I used to walk the same streets he wrote about in his classic novel Ask the Dusk. That book is all about a poor writer’s struggle to become successful in Los Angeles, and even though it was published in 1939 I connected with it on many levels in 1999.
When I worked in downtown LA, the place was mostly a ghost town after all the business people went home. With the opening of Staples Center and the construction of some new apartment and condo complexes, there was some growth in the neighborhood by the time I left in 2003. In 2016 I’m amazed at all the shops and restaurants and bars, and also by the sheer number of people who are not office workers or homeless.
I head over to Pershing Square, and there are new murals and a café and the views of the surrounding skyscrapers and the Biltmore Hotel are as good as I remember. Yes, there is a distinct piss smell by the statues and I get asked for change several times, but I can’t remember this area being so clean and well-maintained. It’s nearing 5 pm and it’s time for a cocktail.
The Biltmore Hotel was built in 1923, and it’s one of my favorites in the world. While I always loved taking in the Spanish-Italian Renaissance architecture from Pershing Square, it’s the interior that truly blew me away. Stepping through the Biltmore doors, you’re hit with old school opulence everywhere you look – marble, grand ceilings, dramatic archways, ornate carvings, bas-relief and chandeliers just to name a few features.
I go straight to the Gallery Bar, and the bartender gives me a warm welcome and mixes me a damn fine Manhattan. I ask how long this place has been open, and the gray-haired gentleman informs me since the 80s (he gave a specific year, but the cocktails that are to follow erase it from memory). The bartender has worked there since day one (before that it was actually just a hallway in the hotel), and when I tell him he probably made me a Manhattan in 1999 he smiles.
I sip my cocktail, take in all the elegance, and once again think of John Fante. He would go on to be a successful screenwriter and novelist, but when he first moved to LA in the 1930s he was poor to the point of having to eat oranges for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is a passage from Ask the Dusk:
“I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out. He looked rich, and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was dream as I walked along her perfume still in the wet morning air.”
I walk outside thinking of the girl in the silver fox fur, and I head to the Public Library. Another gorgeous piece of architecture in downtown LA, I’d like to stop inside but time is not on my side. So I walk around the art deco building, thinking of all the great books I checked out from there in my late 20s, early 30s. It’s also the same place where a young Charles Bukowski discovered John Fante, and he wrote about that experience in the preface to Ask the Dust.
I then head up Figueroa to the Westin Bonaventure. On my first visit to LA in 1992, years before I would move there, I had drinks at the revolving cocktail lounge with my buddy Rich. As we spun around and drank our beers, the enchanting dusk gave way to the coal-black sky and sparkling lights of night. I remember declaring to Rich that I wanted to live in LA someday.
My next visit to the top of the Bonaventure would be as a resident of the city in 1999. For the novel I was writing I knew I wanted to set a scene in that lounge with the characters Tim and Jessica, and went there after my shift at CPK for research. I took notes of all I saw and heard while downing several beers, and this is part of what ended up in my book:
“Although only a few blocks up Figueroa, I was still exhausted when we reached the hotel. The giant glass cylinders gleamed at us, promising cure-all climate control.
“I’ve seen this somewhere,” Jessica said.
“I don’t know how they figured it out, but supposedly it’s the tenth-most-photographed building in the world. Last time I was here, this guy next to me wouldn’t shut up about that.”
A few moments later, Jessica and I were in the glass-enclosed red section elevator, hurtling up to the thirty-fifth floor. Exiting at the restaurant, we had to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the lounge. We sat down at a table next to the window …. I looked down at the rug. It was sort of an abstract rendition of geometry. You could find triangles, circles, diamonds and even commas.”
I take the same elevator to the top, make the same trek down the stairs from the restaurant to the lounge, and it’s possible I sit at the same table. While I stare out the glass window at the skyscrapers in front of me, I notice they’ve redone the carpet sometime in the last 18 years. That being said, it still seems dated. The place actually doesn’t look much different from my last visit before today, which was in 2004.
The Westin Bonaventure was high on the list of things I had to do before I moved from LA to San Francisco. I suppose it all goes back to that first visit as a 22-year-old, when I had a wide-open future where anything was possible. Sitting there in 2016 and sipping another Manhattan, it’s challenging to find the nexus between the kid who first went to the Bonaventure 24 years ago and the guy I am today. I know it’s there, and maybe more booze will help me find it.
In my attempt at recapturing my youth, I realize it’s 6:15 and I need to get back to Hollywood. I made plans with my friend Kristi for dinner at 8 pm, and there was one more place I wanted to check-out before we meet. So it’s back down Figueroa to the Metro Station at 7th Street, and it’s only a few stops on the Red Line to Hollywood and Vine. I used to do this same subway trek when I lived on June Street to my job at CPK.
I didn’t want this LA Trip to be all about the past, so I had researched some newer spots in the city. The one bar that stood out the most was Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. The owner created it as a tribute to his late father, and the place makes you feel like you stepped back in time to 1976. To get inside you have to walk down a driveway, enter a garage, and then open up a refrigerator door. This could all be precious or douchey or even Disney, but it’s not. Davey Wayne’s is just a cool local’s spot tucked away off Hollywood Boulevard that I enjoyed immensely. But with 8 pm getting closer, I can only have one beer and then I’m on my way to the Magic Castle Hotel for a quick change of clothes.
After putting on a new shirt, I ascend the winding road behind my hotel to meet my friend Kristi at Yamashiro, the iconic Japanese themed restaurant in the Hollywood Hills. Built in 1914 as a private mansion to house Japanese treasures, you are truly transported to another time and place once you step foot on the property. Surrounded by lush gardens complete with a bronze Buddha sculpture and a pagoda, the restaurant is a teak and cedar palace designed to replicate the ones of Kyoto.
The night before at Stella Barra we learned Yamshiro was closing, and Kristi, Matt, and I reminisced about all the good times we had there. Most of them involved our great friend Bradleigh, who passed away six years ago. It was Bradleigh who turned Yamashiro into a verb. It was the place he would bring dates to impress them, and he claimed he never failed to get lucky afterwards. Bradleigh would say he Yamashiro-ed the young lady after dinner.
There was no question we had to go there one last time, and Kristi was in agreement. Bradleigh was my roommate when I lived in Hollywood, and years afterwards she had the great pleasure of sharing an apartment with him. Over an outstanding dinner, the two of us shared stories of our friend who could be best be described as a combination of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. Bradleigh gave us some of the best times of our lives, and for that we are forever grateful.
Knowing this would be the last time we would eat at Yamashiro, Kristi and I go big and share the Himalayan Salt Plate. We both enjoyed our wagyu steak cooked on a 400 degree round platter made of mineral salt and slathered in garlic (back in the day neither one of us could have afforded such a dish, and we each appreciate this immensely). After Port and Molten Chocolate Cake for dessert (we were still going big), we walked around the grounds and took a seat on one of the benches to admire the views of Hollywood several hundred feet below. I’m very sad Yamashiro is closing on June 12th, but I am so happy I got to experience it one more time.
Kristi orders an Uber, and I take it with her to the bottom of the hill and get off at my hotel. During this short ride we hatch a plan to meet in one year, sneak into the complex on June Street where Bradleigh and I lived, and put a plaque next to the apartment door honoring him. It’s sweet drunk talk, but when Kristi and I hug just before I leave the car, she says she has a guy that can make plaques. I say I have a guy that can give us super-industrial strength epoxy, and we’re both looking forward to pulling off this caper in 2017.
I should probably just go to bed since I’m driving to Vegas the next day, but it’s only 11 pm and I want to squeeze out a little more fun on the trip. So I walk down to Hollywood Boulevard to the Roosevelt Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1927. When I lived here the place was obviously very historic, but like much of the neighborhood in the late 90s it had seen better days. Back then I would walk inside the lobby and public spaces just to get a feel of what old Hollywood was like, but the only patrons were tourists.
Things have changed. The Roosevelt has become a hip spot, and while I had read about that during my research, I wasn’t expecting the level to which it was true. I go to the Spare Room on the second floor, which is designed to be a Prohibition Style cocktail lounge with a couple of bowling alleys. The décor is super cool, and ditto you can actually bowl there. But it was definitely not my scene. There’s only a scattering of people my age, which in of itself isn’t an issue, but the music is very loud and this is clearly not a place to enjoy a cocktail alone. I love chatting up strangers over a few drinks, but it isn’t going to happen here. I drink my Bulleit over ice and head on down the road.
I’m good for at least one more drink, and I decide to continue the old Hollywood Tour by walking down the Boulevard to Boardner’s. It’s easily been more than a decade since my last visit, and I am happy to see the 1940s cocktail lounge still looks the same. Well . . . mostly the same. When I lived in LA it was a worn-down dive, but it has since been repainted and classed-up slightly. Though unlike the Power House, Boardner’s still has the same wonderful vibe as I remembered. On a Wednesday night there’s not a lot of people there, and while sipping another Bulleit over ice I allow myself to reminisce one last time about my days in Hollywood.
But now it’s time to start saying good-bye to Los Angeles.
Although I’d managed to cram a week’s worth of activities in 48 hours, I would have liked at least another day. I hadn’t even cruised Mulholland Drive or enjoyed a Ray’s Mistake at Tiki Ti or went around Silverlake (where I lived after I moved from Hollywood) or swam in the ocean in Malibu or Zuma Beach. I think of this while I walk back to the Magic Castle. When I reach Franklin I spot the moon and I stare at it for some time, buzzed and very grateful I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles when I was young.