September 29, 2015

Love at First Bite

Is there anything better than that first bite of pizza, that first sip of champagne, or that first crunch into a Cheeto?

We spend the rest of our bites trying to recapture the glorious rush of flavor of that first one, the thing that made the difference between not tasting and tasting.

But each subsequent bite is just another taste of the same thing. It doesn't get better. Your tongue gets used to it. Your mouth doesn't salivate for it as much anymore. But you keep eating for more of the flavor, and the more you eat, the more the flavor fades.

You could eat the entire bag of chips in one sitting, and none of the bites will be as good as that first one was.

If you had any self-control, you could just eat one chip, close up the bag, and put it away. Let a few hours—or even days—pass. Brush your teeth. Cleanse your palate. Place on your tongue things that are sweet or creamy, just anything but salty and fatty.

And then come back to the chips, and have just one more.

If you were able to do this, every bite would be the first bite. Every bite would be amazing.

But we sabotage ourselves. We convince ourselves that an entire big chip is just one bite, even if it takes a couple of bites to devour it. We accidentally choose a chip that's a runt—some mutant potato slice that's small and weird—and eat it anyway without thinking, telling ourselves it doesn't count, and taking another bite.

We're always trying to relive the first time, even when we do the same things over and over again. We want everything to be fresh and exciting. We want every dog to be a puppy, every cat to be a kitten. We are ever in pursuit of the new car smell that never goes away.

We always remember the first kiss, but not the dozens or hundreds or thousands of kisses that follow.

Maybe the key is to embrace change and variety. Make sure each bite is different than the next. Add more toppings to your pizza. Add more layers to your cocktail. Buy the variety pack. Get the whiskey flight. Try the beer sampler.

You have to know what one tastes like in order to appreciate the other.

We feel so relieved walking into an air conditioned room, but the longer we stay in there, the less cool it feels. When we go to leave, the hot air outside feels kind of good.

You have to know what both feel like.

But at some point, this all becomes exhausting. It's a lot of work. Sometimes, you want the wine that gets better with every sip—the first one a jolt to the senses, and each one that follows, a warming, calming, evolving melange of notes and tones, with a lingering aftertaste that surprises even the most trained palate.

There's a German cookie called lebkuchen that my mother, aunt, and grandmother used to make at Christmastime. I always marveled how it wasn't very good when it came out of the oven—unlike pretty much every other cookie. You had to let it cool. Then you had to frost it. And, after all of that, you had to wait a few days—even a week—before it was its most delicious.

Of course, who can wait a week to eat a Christmas cookie? So we would start snacking on them as soon as the frosting set, and we would finish them off before they passed their peak. With lebkuchen (which roughly translates as "love cake"), every bite always got better, making the best bite the last bite.

I've had a lot of exciting first bites of a lot of different things in my life. But I'm ready to start nibbling on something that's just going to get better with time. I'd like to feel like I'm moving toward my best bite.

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September 28, 2015

Looking Down the Barrel of 40

I've been dreading this week for over a year.

I think I've been dreading this week for my entire life.

On Wednesday, I turn 40.

I know plenty of people turn 40 every day—or even 50, or 60—and they say they feel young, and life is just starting for them.

But I don't want to be 40.

I don't want to be 40 and single. I don't want to be 40 and poor. I don't want to be 40 living in a studio apartment with no pets, clutching a stuffed pig as I fall asleep every night.

I don't want to be 40 and damaged goods.

I mourn the life I could've had, if I'd gotten the help I needed earlier. If I'd been spared the trauma that haunts me. If I could have had just one less disability.

When I turned 30, everybody was excited for me. My older female friends told me my 30s were going to be great. Everything would settle out. I would find peace.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I jumped out of a plane for my 30th birthday, and I just kept falling, for the next ten years.

When my 40th birthday began approaching, I couldn't figure out how I could "outdo" skydiving. I've already driven a race car. I've already shot guns and paraglided and kayaked the Salton Sea.

But there was one thing I'd never done before, that kept nagging at me. It would feel like a celebration. It would be magical. It would be special.

When I turn 40, in the depths of my despair, I'm going to the happiest place on earth.

I'm going to Disneyland.

Fortunately I've got two partners in crime willing to go with me.

I hope to take some photos while I'm there, since it will be my first time (and it's fully dressed for Halloween), but if I don't, it's because my hands are full of popcorn or ice cream. Or Goofy.

I need something to look forward to. I'm dreading the next 40 years.

Riding the Red Line to Haunted Hollywood

As much as I love trains, I'd only ridden the LA Metro once before this weekend, and it made me cry. It reminded me too much of New York—not making me homesick, but reintroducing a past life that I think is better off left behind.

I don't live near a Metro stop (yet—if the Purple Line Extension ever gets to Beverly Hills), and generally it would take me nearly as long to drive to a train station and park-and-ride as it would to just drive to my destination and find parking.

But I'm somewhat of a subway tourist. I first fell in love with the underground at the London Transport Museum, and since then, I've taken advantage of special occasions to ride the subway in New York, just for the sake of riding the subway. It was more about the ride than the destination.

So, in keeping with that spirit, I decided to join a tour of the "Haunted" Red Line hosted by Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles (GHOULA).

We began our journey at Union Station...

...which is even more gorgeous at night...

...and far less crowded than during the weekday commute.

From in front of Union Station, we looked out at the various haunted sites of Downtown Los Angeles, like City Hall—which was not only cursed by angry spiritualists, but was also built at the site of the city's gallows. Guards at the security monitors frequently catch a glimpse of someone wandering around in the locked rooms upstairs, and when they go to check, find nothing.

Pico House, the failed luxury hotel otherwise known as "Pico's Folly," is notoriously haunted. Ghost-hunters attribute this to the victims of the Chinese Massacre of 1871, and sure, some of them might've worked at the Chinese laundromat that delivered clean sheets to the hotel. But it's more likely that the ghost who lingers here is that of Pio Pico himself, the last governor of California when it was still Mexico, who fell from a position of great power and died a pauper.

Philippe the Original, the famous purveyors (and at least one of the originators) of the French Dip sandwich, now glows under an appropriately-colored red neon sign on the edge of Chinatown. This was once the Red Light District of LA, and the building that Philippe currently occupies used to be a high-class brothel. You might hear some "activity" if you take your meal upstairs to a dining room in one of the former bedrooms.

Of course, Union Station itself must be pretty haunted. Its construction displaced all of Old Chinatown. And if the victims of the Chinese Massacre are haunting any building, it's probably this one. The trees many of them were found hanging from were right next door. We could've spent all night talking ghosts in that one location.

But it was time to move onto the next Red Line station, two stops down at Pershing Square.

Each of the Red Line stations has kind of its own theme and own array of public art. Pershing Square has some nice neon.

It also has its share of ghosts.

There have been sightings of a naked woman walking through the front door of The Pershing Building, thought to be the ghost of a woman who'd been caught in the throes of passion with another woman. Unfortunately for her, she was on top when discovered, pulled off by an appalled policeman who'd responded to the "screams" coming from within, and thrown out the window. She fell to her death.

The Subway Terminal Building is also probably haunted, at least by a little red-headed girl who's been sighted on the tracks of the abandoned subway tunnels that go from there to the Millenium Biltmore Hotel and beyond. And The Alexandria Hotel (now Alexandria Apartments) can easily be considered the second most haunted hotel in LA (unless you count the Queen Mary, which is really more of a ship). Apparently every type of paranormal activity happens there all the time, and more than once, the bartenders downstairs have witnessed a collection of glassware rise up off the bar, levitate for a moment, and come crashing down—completely on their own.

Pershing Square is also the site of what could be LA's oldest ghost story—that of a Native American woman who insisted on bathing and washing her dishes in the LA River, where she contaminated the water that flowed through the Zanja Madre (LA's first aqueduct—the "Mother Ditch") to the farms, homes, and businesses in the area. She is also seen levitating, but that may be because the original zanja was a couple of feet higher than the sidewalk is now.

Bypassing MacArthur Park, Los Feliz, and East Hollywood, we got back off the train at Hollywood & Vine, where Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera himself) used to haunt his favorite bus bench, until it was replaced by a new one that could carry advertising.

The Art Deco Pantages Theatre might be haunted by the ghost of Howard Hughes, who once owned the building and occupied one of its offices. He would sometimes step away from his desk and pop into whichever movie was playing to sit in the back of the balcony and clear his mind. Sometimes he still does.

But Hughes might have a turf war with the theater's namesake, Alexander Pantages himself. He's been seen poking around the auditorium, especially during construction and renovations. Who knows what's happened in the bar? And since the old Hollywood Mortuary used to be right across the street (now a parking lot), the dead bodies—if not the ghosts—of scores of movie stars have graced this section of Hollywood Boulevard at least once (including Bela Lugosi's final stroll, in a hearse whose driver had no control over it for several blocks).

When you finally reach the Hollywood & Highland station on the Red Line... hit the mother lode of ghost stories.

The Hollywood & Highland shopping center was built on the site of The Hollywood Hotel, which was notoriously haunted by the ghost of Rudolph Valentino, who might place a "spirit kiss" on the lips of a woman who stayed in a particular room. But Valentino's ghost gets around: he's also been spotted at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and The Roosevelt Hotel, which is probably the most haunted hotel in LA.

Of course, the El Capitan Theatre must be haunted too, right? Legend has it that in the theater's glory days, patrons would purchase their tickets from the outer box office and then be held in the "outer lobby" under the marquee, outside the front doors, until a big crowd collected there. Nightclubs do this all the time now outside of the velvet rope—create a crowd to attract more people, because if that many people are waiting to get in, it must be good. The theater manager would sit perched in a second story window to monitor the crowd below, and when it reached a critical mass, he would signal to let them in.

Every now and then, someone walks up to the theater now (which is owned by Disney and runs all Disney movies) and asks the box office attendant, "Who's that guy in the window staring down at us?"

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September 27, 2015

Last Night, At Church

I went to church last night.

But most of the times that I go to any kind of sacred space now, it's not for God or religion. It's to hear the organ playwatch the sunlight stream through the leaded glass windows, or gawk at the architecture. Sometimes I'm looking for traces of when it was a theater. Sometimes I'm chasing ghosts. I will eat the pancakes, admire the flowers, breathe the incense air, and gaze at the multitudes of faces in plaster, marble, and bronze. But I probably won't pray.

Last night, I went to church to watch the first performance of director/choreographer Heidi Duckler's new episodic dance series Sophie & Charlie at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City. (No relation to the lead characters in the movie Letters to Juliet).

There should be more dancing in church, don't you think?

Of course, it's not hard to lure me to an interesting building.

This particular church's ministry actually didn't become affiliated with the Unitarians or the Universalists (once separate entities) until 1960, even though it was founded in 1943.

It began as the Christ Memorial Unity Church, part of the Unity sect of Christianity.

But Reverend Herb Schneider—the founding minister who constructed this building with his own bare hands in 1945—ultimately disagreed with the Unity Church philosophically and theologically and disaffiliated. The church was non-denominational until becoming Unitarian in 1960.

Sophie & Charlie isn't the first dance performance to grace the chapel here—the Karen Fox Dance Troupe and the Sufi Dancers both performed here in the 1970s. The Unitarian Universalists are known for being pretty liberal.

The Heidi Duckler dancers, and the love story that unfolds through their performances, seem to fit right in at this church. They're known for their innovative and economic use of space—floor to rafters—in unexpected venues.

Last night, we attended a funeral in which the officiant seemed to be mourning just as much... the friends and family that the deceased left behind.

And then we witnessed the deceased emerge from his coffin, and in one final dance, depart.

We deposited written messages and blessings into the now open and empty coffin, and returned to our seats, which were now facing the choir loft in the back of the church. Lili Haydn played her violin mournfully.

It was sad and beautiful and confusing—just like life and death and love.

But it was just the beginning of the story of Sophie and Charlie.

He asked her out and she said yes (I think), but now they must go on their first date.

You can catch the next episode, "First Date," on October 1 at Beyond Baroque in Venice, a neat little space that the dance company will use inside and out (as they did at Linda Vista). As with each episode, the next one will feature its own distinct musical performer: a harpist / beatboxer.

And people say LA has no culture.

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September 24, 2015

Photo Essay: The Ghostly Shadow of the Red Car (Updated for 2020)

[Last updated 2/11/20 3:24 PM PT]

I don't know how I hadn't made it to the Red Car River Park until now, nearly five years after moving to LA. I mean, it was dedicated as a parklet (a.k.a. "pocket park") way back in 2005, and it's the nexus of two of my favorite LA things: streetcars and the LA River.

Even when I went—even when I got there—I didn't really know what it was, other than some obscure access point to the east embankment of the LA River under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge.

But that's more important than it sounds.

Recently, the fate of the landmark Hyperion Bridge has been hotly debated. It needs a seismic retrofit to protect it from any future earthquake damage, but the proposed improvements haven't included any pedestrian walkways or bike paths. That's kind of a big deal for a bridge that connects Franklin Hills and Silverlake to Atwater Village—with lots of young, socially-conscious, pro-environmental, outspoken people on both sides of it, crossing back and forth.

This comes at a time when it looks like the LA River actually will be revitalized—now that the summer recreation zones have survived their pilot programs, and the masses are starting to realize we have a river (that you can kayak in!).

And, boy, do we have a river. The concrete that had been poured into it to control and channelize floodwaters couldn't withstand the force of nature, and the rushing waters have broken it apart, returning this section of the river—the "soft bottom" Glendale Narrows—to the wild. There are even fish to catch. And fishermen to catch them.

Still, this part of the river seems frequented only by locals who know it's there, and who don't mind the industrial blight that detracts from its natural (albeit overgrown) beauty. The park itself is hard to find, and hard to get to because of the traffic patterns with the bridge and the 5 Freeway. You have to intend to go there; you likely won't just happen upon it.

But there life here: this section of the river is actually quite residential.

The east side is lined by houses and fences and trees and other plantings.

It kind of feels like walking down an alley behind people's houses—where only the unsavory creatures roam.

It's hard to escape the power lines...

...and transmission towers...

...that you're definitely not supposed to climb... to the river you're definitely not supposed to swim in.

Having lived in NYC for so long, I have a thing for river crossings. I love bridges. I love seeing the view from a bridge. And many of these old LA River viaducts (like the one at 6th Street, a.k.a. Thunder Road) are threatened. But the Red Car River Park pathway only extends from one bridge—the Glendale-Hyperion—to another, at Riverside Drive.

I suppose you could cross the bridge there to the other side of the river, and then cross back over the Glendale-Hyperion to get back to where you started, but I decided to walk back the way I came, and get another look at the Red Car River Park to try to figure out what I was looking at, and what I had seen.

Magic Hour was passing, and the light changed just enough to make everything look different on the way back.

It was about to become very desolate.

The neighbors weren't enjoying their river bank. I hope they have a good view from inside their houses.

In fact, it seems like they are less focused on creating access to the river and more on keeping the river people out of their yards.

And that's OK...

...though rusty, barbed wire usually beckons me...

...signaling that there is something worth protecting inside.

As I made my way back to the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, I realized it wasn't just one bridge I was looking at... was two.

Downstream from the automobile bridge are the concrete footings of a former streetcar bridge, where Pacific Electric's Glendale/Burbank Red Car line ran until 1955. (The concrete replaced a wooden trestle that washed out in 1928). From Silverlake (then "Edendale"), it took passengers through Atwater Village, into Glendale and Burbank, and then back to the Subway Terminal in Downtown LA.

Urban legend has it that General Motors bought and destroyed the Red Cars to ensure the success of automobiles in the thriving metropolis, in what became known as "The Great American Streetcar Scandal" (see also: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). Regardless of how it happened, motorized busses did replace the electric streetcars, and the 5 Freeway was built right through several neighborhoods (see also: Corralitas Red Car Property).

And so here we are. Soon, you won't be able to get to the other side of the river safely now without a car.

Circa 1952 (Photo: Alan Weeks)

For the time being, the abandoned pylons are a haunting reminder of what once was. Perhaps those concrete footings could support a future bridge for walkers and bicyclists. Or, considering the extensions of the Gold Line, Purple Line, and Expo Line ("to the sea"), maybe a train will once again run in the Red Car's ghostly shadow.

Update: A new pedestrian bridge spanning the old footings opened to the public in January 2020. Currently called the Red Car Pedestrian Bridge (and formerly known as La Kretz Bridge), it's also open to equestrians and their horses. Stay tuned for photos. 

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