Friday, June 21, 2013

Funny, Sad, Frightening, and Odd

The call went out on a typical Wednesday morning:  OnStar, the safety, navigation and communication system available on all General Motors’ vehicles reported an unknown trouble at the intersection of Moorpark Street and Tyrone Avenue.  The LAPD dispatch officer asked for more details.  The alarm had been activated on a black Cadillac SUV indicating either distress or an accident, however, the OnStar operator said the line was open and she could hear frantic voices.  Several LAPD units responded “Code three,” which usually means lights and sirens.  Within seconds, the first officers arrived only to find a major complication.  At the intersection of Moorpark Street and Tyrone Avenue sits Casa de Cadillac, a dealership serving the Los Angeles area for more than 50 years.  The responding officers found literally hundreds of black Cadillac SUVs in neat and ordered rows in several parking lots.  Which vehicle had the trouble was anyone’s guess.  Later, it was determined that a mechanic had accidently set off the call while repairing a car.

The Long Beach Press Telegram reported this week that, “Unable to pay for a funeral, an Apple Valley woman reportedly told sheriff’s deputies she was forced to bury her husband in a shallow grave in the couple’s backyard weeks after the man died.”  Apple Valley is a high desert community about 95 miles northeast of Los Angeles.  Deputies came to the home for a “welfare check” on the 63-year-old man.  The woman made no attempt to hide her “crime.”  She led deputies to the grave and reportedly knelt down nearby as the officers uncovered her husband.  Neighbors set up a fundraising account at where people can donate to help the woman give her husband a proper burial.  The effort netted $120 in the first hour.  A local men’s apparel store promised a suit for the deceased.  In California, it is illegal to bury a human body anywhere but in a public cemetery.

A woman taking pictures at the tourist trap location of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue was stabbed to death by three transients when she refused to give them a dollar.  This is the location of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where so many movie stars have placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement.  The woman took a photograph of the transients because she found the sign they were holding to be amusing.  The sign read:  “Fuck you.  Give me a dollar, please.”  After snapping the picture, the men demanded money and when the woman refused, they jumped on her, knocking her to the ground.  When she stood up, blood gushed from a wound in her stomach.  She died a few feet from the well-known Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Also near Hollywood, journalist Michael Hastings died in a fiery solo car crash on North Highland Avenue.  Hastings, 33, was an award-winning journalist who wrote a 2010 Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal that led to the career military officer’s resignation.  According to colleagues and friends of Hastings, the journalist had claimed in recent weeks that he was under investigation by the FBI, however the LAPD released a statement saying there appeared to be no foul play involved in the accident.  Hastings’ car was caught on video traveling at a high rate of speed just before the accident by a freelance news team  working nearby on an unrelated story.  Conspiracy theorists are already hard at work trying to prove something more sinister, and with the recent revelations of National Security Agency monitoring of cell phone and social media communication without warrants, anything is possible.

So what does all of this mean?  Every city has its oddities, its stupid criminals, its inept politicians.  There is no shortage of tragedy and despair anywhere in America.  Los Angeles, though, always has an extra layer of weirdness, that additional aura of eeriness.  Writers like Joan Didion and James Ellroy have chronicled the creepy L.A. scene going back decades, and those of us native to the city know that behind the shiny brightness of the Rose Parade and Tinseltown, darkness lurks.  Los Angeles is a city of juxtapositions, of brilliant sunshine and steely knives, of big dreams and drive-by shootings.  On a typical week, there are a million stories in the naked city, and many of them are tinged with weirdness and tragedy.

Today is the first day of summer, and tourists are already flocking to Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Universal City.  But the heat brings an uptick in strangeness, a harbinger of dark violence that lingers over this town like smog.  People should be forewarned not to become one of those million stories.  The streets can be funny, sad, frightening and odd.  Be careful out there.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

At Cafe Cordiale With The Babylon Social Club

I caught the Babylon Social Club’s set at Café Cordiale in Sherman Oaks on Sunday night.  The six-piece band featured Leslie Smith and the remarkable Sara Niemietz sharing lead vocal duties, and veteran film composer and studio musician W.G. Snuffy Walden on guitar.  The music had a pop jazz feel with bluesy overtones.  Niemietz was a revelation, trading lines with Smith’s voice and Walden’s guitar.  She is a classy veteran performer who electrifies an audience.  This particular evening was her 21st birthday.  To be so young and so talented is truly a blessing.  Walden’s soaring guitar work demonstrated his virtuosity and reminded us that before he wrote music for Thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, The West Wing and Friday Night Lights, he was an accomplished session guitarist backing artists like Stevie Wonder, the late Donna Summer, and Chaka Khan.  According to owner Peter May, the band will return to in August for more dates.

The restaurant offers an eclectic mix of performers Tuesday through Sunday, and it is not uncommon to see some of the best Los Angeles musicians stretching their musical chops on the café’s stage.  This makes Café Cordiale a great place for live music in the San Fernando Valley.  The restaurant feels like an intimate living room with good sight lines from every table, an excellent bar, and delicious food.  There is no cover charge, however reservations are recommended for music or dinner.

I usually start with one of their fresh soups like the clam chowder which is lighter than most overly salted restaurant soups.  The chopped salad is excellent, but I like to substitute the creamy vinaigrette dressing for the herb vinaigrette, a personal preference.  The spicy chicken satay, flat iron steak, and grilled salmon are all delicious as well.  For dessert, order up the fresh berries or the French apple tarte tatin with ice cream.  The menu also features lighter entrees, and don’t be afraid to request special dietary requirements like low salt or no oil preparations.

The restaurant has a long history at its current location in the Scotty Building.  The Mays opened Café Cordiale in 1985.  The Northridge earthquake in 1994 destroyed the place and required two years of remodeling before the grand re-opening in 1996.  It is the kind of cozy, comfortable neighborhood place where you can have Sunday brunch or a relaxing family dinner, and hear some great music.

Café Cordiale is located at 14015 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks in the Scotty Building.  Free parking is available in the rear.  The restaurant opens Monday through Friday at 11:30 AM; Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM for brunch.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kombucha at the Studio City Farmer's Market

Since I wrote my piece on the Tapia Brothers’ urban farm in Encino, I have made it a weekend ritual to shop at farmer’s markets.  Nearly every community within the city of Los Angeles has these street markets—Santa Monica has two each week—featuring the freshest produce, organic and gluten-free products, fresh-cut flowers, fresh fish and meats, just-baked bread, a heady mix of spices, herbal remedies, clothing items, healthy drinks, entertainment, and petting zoos for kids.  Usually, the city closes a block or more to traffic and vendors set up booths for shoppers to peruse.  These markets are not just for the average customer looking for some good tomatoes; well-known chefs from landmark restaurants also wander the stalls looking for the freshest produce of the day to feature on the menu that evening.

I recently spent two Sundays in a row at the Studio City Farmer’s Market, held rain or shine from 8 AM to 2 PM Sundays on Ventura Place between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Radford Avenue in Studio City (the name comes from the CBS lot nearby where programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were filmed.).  Customers can find parking behind the nearby Chase Bank or at the CBS Studios on Radford Avenue.  It is best to come early, as by 2 o’clock, the best of the best has been snapped up.  Coming early also means beating the rush for a parking space.

I recommend walking the entire length of the block before retracing your steps to buy.  Often, the $2.99 a pound peaches might be $1.99 farther down the street.  Also, as the day draws to a close, vendors will drop prices to unload the last of their wares before packing to go home.  Buying bulk is a good thing; some stalls offered a reduction in price if a customer purchased five pounds over a half pound.  Cash makes for an easy transaction, and many booths do not take credit cards or checks.  Shoppers with cloth bags have an easier time transporting their purchases without the damaging and ubiquitous plastic bags, although most vendors have the dreaded plastic available.  The whole experience of shopping at a farmer’s market takes a little time to fully appreciate, but once a shopper has a system, it is a great, fresh way to buy food.

In addition to the produce, flowers, and bread, there are vendors offering prepared meals like the Salvadoran favorite, pupusas.  These are thick corn tortillas stuffed with meat and cheese, similar to a Cuban empanada.  There are vendors selling fresh pasta and Italian sauces, and of course, hot dogs and snow cones if someone is jonesing for calorie-rich carnival food, although one could probably score a gluten-free or whole grain hot dog bun.

Many of the vendors are local farms and businesses.  Homeboy Bakery has a booth.  This is the business started by Father Greg Boyle in east Los Angeles to help gang members find employment and turn their lives around.  The bakery stall featured a wide variety of breads and baked goods.  Customers could purchase good food while also helping to support a worthy cause.

One discovery I made was Organic Raw Kombucha flavored with ginger.  Kombucha is an ancient elixir composed of fermented sweet tea.  In the fermenting process, most of the sugar is consumed by the raw culture leaving a slightly sour, effervescent liquid packed with probiotics and powerful antioxidants.  Although the health benefits have not been proven conclusively, the drink supposedly cleanses the liver and aids with digestion.  I sampled some at a booth at the market and purchased two bottles to drink throughout the week.  Did I find myself with super-human energy and verve?  Well, the jury is still out, but my own unscientific evaluation is that I did feel better and more energetic.  The taste of Kombucha is not for everyone.  Still, it was fun to sample something new and different.


The Studio City Farmer’s Market has a lot of stuff for kids to do.  In addition to the petting zoo and jumpers, there are also face painting booths, balloon animals, and even Snow White.  All in all, farmer’s markets are a great, healthy way to spend a few hours.