Thursday, October 23, 2003

After the fall


Tuesday September 23, 2003

After the fall
* Lightning sparks the most harrowing rescue attempt anyone can recall at Grand Teton National Park. As Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington report, the elite crew of climbing rangers summons brain, brawn and machinery to come out on top.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony and Rebecca Huntington, Special to the Times

THE CHOPPER LIFTED OFF, YANKING the thick cord attached to its belly until only six feet lay slack on the ground.

Under the thwack and blur of blades, climbing ranger Leo Larson snapped his harness onto a loop at the end of the rope.

"Clipped and ready," he said into his flight helmet mike.

"Coming up," the pilot answered.

The ground fell away and Larson trailed the bird through the air above Grand Teton National Park, dangling, nylon shell flapping hard. Twisting slowly on his 100-foot tether, he faced the distant town of Jackson, Wyo., and then the broad river valley nicknamed Jackson Hole and, still rotating, the 13,770-foot Grand Teton itself. With his long blond hair tucked into his helmet, the 6-foot-5 ranger stretched out his legs and arms to brake the spin and looked for a landing pad.

"How about letting me off on that large flat rock?" Larson said.

Lowered and unclipped, helicopter backing away through steep clouds, he saw the dead woman and the dazed climbers -- her husband and friends -- huddled atop the Friction Pitch of Exum Ridge. Everyone except the guy who had disappeared off the ledge around 3:45 p.m.

The call

A few hours earlier on this Saturday in July, Larson was shuffling paperwork in the subdistrict rescue cache -- a small cabin and a few picnic tables in Lupine Meadows -- when his radio spit. "Lightning strike on the Grand," came the familiar voice of the park dispatcher. "One person not breathing. One person critically injured."

The on-duty search-and-rescue coordinator, Brandon Torres, tripped the high-alert tone, signaling all rangers to swarm the meadow. Larson, 47, a La Jolla-based map publisher in the off-season, bolted to his own tiny cabin 200 yards east of the cache. Wrestling off Levi's and a T-shirt, he pulled on the two-piece Nomex fire-retardant flight suit kept on his front porch. His wife of 24 years, Helen, a backcountry biotechnician and experienced rescue cache coordinator, jogged through the tufts of sagebrush to help.

Rushing back to the cache, Larson scanned the sky, spotting the cumulus domes that tend to toy with helicopters. If the threat of downdrafts didn't shutter the operation, sundown might. The blobs on the Doppler radar soon confirmed his gut feeling. Even for an old hand at short-haul rescues, in which a helicopter "inserts" rangers hanging on a rope to hasten response in extremely rugged spots, this would register in the park's Jenny Lake subdistrict annals as the most harrowing day.

Much later, at "the critical incident stress debriefing," the details would come out. Thirteen climbers, mostly work colleagues in their 20s from the information technology department of an Idaho Falls company, had headed up the Grand's popular south-facing Upper Exam Ridge route at 8 a.m., well after the recommended dawn start.

The route typically begins as a scramble from a part of the ridge called the Lower Saddle and eventually traverses an exhilarating and technically challenging stretch. Once climbers reach Wall Street, a fat ledge, they usually rope up before maneuvering across little more than air to a nearby boulder ledge. From there, the only way off the peak is up. After climbing the Golden Staircase, a yellow slab known for its large, knobby holds, they make their way across broken ground to the 120-foot Friction Pitch. A pitch is any distance climbed using a standard rope and, with a 5.5 rating, this is the most difficult pitch on the route. Its smooth, unbroken rock offers thin holds and few cracks in which to wedge the aluminum chocks or mechanical camming devices that roped climbers count on to arrest a fall.

In summer the valley floor acts like a burner under a pan of water, sending warm, moist air into a lid of cold. But the drought had rung the atmosphere dry in recent weeks, and the roughly 70 people a day attempting to top the Grand had sweated beneath either clear skies or clouds no more menacing than cotton balls. Then, in the week leading up to July 26, true to seasonal form, the billowing afternoon thunderheads returned from the south. Inside the clouds, water droplets rose and fell, like a shoe rubbing on carpet, generating static electricity.

Seeing the suspect clouds, the Idahoans ditched their summit bid -- just 700 feet short of the top. Divvied into four rope teams, they planned instead to cross the Friction Pitch and traverse to a rappel, several hundred feet below the summit. Rain came, slickening the rock, but they weren't alarmed.

Erica and Clint Summers were sitting hip-to-hip, carefully paying out rope as Rodrigo Liberal climbed, when lightning struck. The bolt hit Erica, its electric wallop killing her on contact. Unspent, it scorched her husband's leg, then ricocheted off rock and slammed Liberal to the end of his rope. Just below, the charge blasted three others on a separate rope. Tumbling 60 feet, one climber bounced off boulders until a rope that had twisted around his legs snared on a rock. His two partners, incapacitated and confused, kept asking their buddy, sprawled on the ledge above, "What happened?"

The plan

Scattered across the front and backcountry, rangers arrived by car and on foot. Circling the picnic tables, they paged through binders filled with black-and-white aerial photos of the Grand. Talking fast, in search-and-rescue speak, they floated potential routes and strategies. Coordinator Torres, still linked to the climbers' cellphone, tossed into the equation a new factor: Liberal, 27, was limp in his harness, unconscious or dead, from a rope anchored to rock 40 feet below the closest stable ledge. And with thunder echoing through the canyons, lightning was itching to strike the mineral-laden ridges again.

Torres radioed for the helicopter, a Bell 206L-4 with a big tail rotor for better performance at high altitude. Located 30 miles south in Hoback Junction, it would ferry Larson and batches of rangers from the helipad beyond the cache's weathered buck-and-rail fence to a staging area at 11,650 feet and then short-haul them one by one to the Friction Pitch. To achieve and maintain lift under its main rotor in this storm -- 50-degree air, 24 mph-wind, low visibility -- the Bell could carry no more than 500 pounds.

Inside the rescue cache cabin, Larson and seven others scrawled their flight weights on a white board, lumping in clothing, headlamps, rescue kits and food and water for one night. Moving to a computer, Larson double-clicked on Heli Load Calc, a program customized by a fellow Teton ranger to account for the quirks of the Bell 206L-4. Larson punched in the atmospheric variables and hit "enter."

With the weight cap, only the pilot, two rangers and a modicum of gear could fly. Larson quickly got the nod from Torres to run the rescue on the mountain. Dan Burgette, a ranger with medical training, would go in the first drop too. And they were good to go. Except the storm had pinned the helicopter down on its pad.

Fifteen minutes ticked by, 20, 30. In less than four hours, the sun would dip below the ridgeline, casting the accident site into purple-gray shadow. Even if he got to the climbers at dusk, Larson thought, they would all have to bivouac on the sheer rock. Not everyone would survive till first light.

Finally, Larson heard the first of the two birds and watched it drop. He and Burgette tugged on their helmets and gloves. Ducking under the rotor, they high-stepped aboard.

The execution

Before dangling a ranger on a rope, reconnaissance would be needed. At 13,000 feet, wind gusting, the pilot edged within 150 feet of the wall where Liberal hung taut on his rope. "Just hanging, belly-up, limp," Larson said later. "Completely bent into a U-shape, much further than you could possibly bend." The rangers snapped digital pictures of him and of the others on the upper ledge. Then the helicopter whipped around and offloaded Larson and Burgette at a staging area on the Lower Saddle, about 1,500 feet below the climbers, where the Park Service keeps an 8-by-10 hut and gear stash.

As the pilot shuttled the images down to the gathering rescue crews, Larson began preparing for his open-air ride. A veteran of 11 major rescue operations so far that summer, he knew the drill back at the cache. The rangers would pop the doors off the Bell and hook a 100-foot short-haul rope to its belly. Next, they would snake the backup "belly band" -- two additional ropes -- through the doorways on either side and tether it to a metal plate inside. Lighter now, having spent some fuel, the helicopter would ferry three more rangers to the staging area. But first, they would again fly by the accident site, assessing air temperature, barometric pressure and, the most critical chopper gauge, torque -- all measures of whether the chopper could stay aloft in the thin air at 13,000 feet.

At the gear hut, Larson changed into snug synthetic undergarments and a fleece jacket under a nylon shell. He stuffed a soft backpack with climbing gear: an anchor kit, including a full set of pins, wedges and camming units designed to fit in cracks, and extra ropes. Thrusting sticky rubber-soled Nike Air Exums through the leg holes of a climbing harness, Larson waited, twitchy for his E-ticket ride.

The first sortie to insert him near the Friction Pitch failed when black clouds shrouded the peak. The helicopter plopped Larson back at the hut, where another chopper had dropped more rangers. While it returned to the cache for additional reinforcements, Larson, Burgette and the others talked, agreeing they couldn't wait for the weather to clear. As two rangers began the climb, tracing the Idahoans' route, the clouds shifted. Here we go, Larson thought.

Traveling on the end of the short-haul rope at 30 miles per hour, it took minutes to reach the rock where Larson touched down. A stray shoelace could incite a fall of a couple hundred feet, but he didn't slow to set an anchor. With hands and feet for balance and sticky soles for traction, he moved among the climbers to assess their injuries. He knew from the relayed chatter of their cellphone that the young woman could not be revived, so he focused quickly on the worst case: the man suspended 40 feet below the ledge on the vertical face, his anchor intact despite the lightning blast.

"The climbers told me that they thought he was still alive," Larson said. "That if you yell, he'll moan."

"Rodrigo!" they all shouted. And back came a moan.

By now two more climbing rangers -- Craig Holmes and George Montopli -- had been short-hauled up. They set anchors and rappelled down to Liberal. Using the helicopter as their pack mule, they anchored a litter a few feet west of Liberal's anchor, lowered it along the face, and tied it off. As the rangers struggled to hoist Liberal's dead weight into the litter, he grunted incoherently.

Larson looked at his watch, studied the sky. He figured they had only 35 minutes of flying light left, not enough to airlift every climber, one at a time. If darkness descended midrescue, anyone left would spend the night on the mountain. And Liberal would likely die.

In a harried conference with the other rangers and ground crew, Larson reluctantly agreed to let one of the unhurt Idahoans lead the walking wounded up the Friction Pitch and off the mountain. The second Bell helped shuttle the few too hurt to hike to the cache -- and later, in a dangling net, the single body bag.

Now, with 30 minutes to go, four rangers remained on the ledge. Montopli and Holmes strapped Liberal into the litter. Marty Vidak and Larson debated how to get him onto solid ground -- either lower him onto the rocks below or raise him onto the ledge. Up, they decided, and then fly him off of there.

They attached two lines to the litter, in case one failed, and configured "a three-pulley, five-to-one system," Larson said. "For every 50 pounds we pulled, the pulleys pulled 250."

Holmes attached himself to Liberal to help keep the litter from bashing into sharp outcroppings. But Vidak and Larson could not hoist the 400-plus-pound load of two men and the litter. Montopli climbed his rope and, horizon fading, tugged with the others.

Gradually, the litter ratcheted up the wall and swung onto the upper ledge. With 10 minutes of sky, too few to "repackage" -- flip Liberal on his side to prevent choking -- Larson radioed the helicopter. Grabbing the short-haul rope that he had swooped in on, he attached the litter and cued the pilot.

Larson watched twilight swallow the litter. What he couldn't see from atop Exum Ridge were the life-flight paramedics waiting at the rescue cache, or the burn specialists standing by at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, or the young man's face when, 36 days later, he finally left the hospital.


Freelance writer Steven Barrie-Anthony is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Rebecca Huntington is a staff writer for the Jackson Hole News & Guide in Jackson, Wyo.

Thursday, October 9, 2003


Tuesday September 09, 2003

Hang with a gang that never grows up
* With half pipes and beer bongs, bikinis and stilettos, last weekend's Action Sports Retailer Trade Show in San Diego was an affront to adulthood. Two young reporters check it out.

By Katie Flynn; Steven Barrie-Anthony, Special to The Times

By Katie Flynn:

Hit on parade: "This is an interesting show, considering a lot of people here are drunk," says a model for American Apparel, oozing out of a tank and terrycloth shorts the size of a wash rag. "Everybody gets hit on, no matter what they are wearing."

Extreme prejudice: Upstairs from the action, a rep for the marketing firm Board-Trac tells sporting-goods industry pros that, although retailers say they feel the economic pinch, "extreme" sports are robust, even growing.

Really, that hot? Inside the Rusty booth, retailers watch surfboard shaper Rusty Preisendorfer draw a custom board on the computer screen. Mike Schillmoeller, vice president of marketing, surveys the scene. "Surf is as hot as it can be," he says.

Boogie nights: Not hot but warming up is in-line skating, according to skate maker Salomon's Dean Kaese. "Night skating" groups are big in Santa Monica and Long Beach, he says.

On the prowl: At quitting time, the smell of pot drifts through the convention center. Workers merge from their booths into the aisles. Jordon Coilett, owner of a skate shop in Albany, Ore., says he had a good day on the floor. "I don't know about these models, though."

"Well," adds his wife, Miriam, as surfers stream by, "at least all the drunken guys like them." By now, it's not only the oglers who are intoxicated. Some models teeter on their stilettos.


By Steven Barrie-Anthony:

Thread's dead: The flow of people coagulates outside the Rip Curl booth. The doorwoman bars anyone without an appointment. Word is that the company's Code STL process has spawned a new era of board shorts that will allow surfing without chafing. Inside, gaping at four backlit pairs, surfers ooh and ahh at the dawning of said era. With electro-welded joints, "they are the world's first 100% seamless board shorts," explains Rip Curl marketing director Adam Sharp. "The needle and thread are dead."

Tat takeout: At surf-skate clothier Sessions, muscled bodies wait in line to get another tattoo. It's free, so why not? "Last year we got booted, but this year ... we're legit," says Drew Holderman as the tattoo artist nearby mops blood off a shoulder, revealing a blue and black star.

Hard-headed: Despite a proclaimed breakthrough in helmet technology, the Pro-Tec booth is nearly empty.

"This is the first helmet that's multi-impact, certified and actually comfortable," says Jono Siegel, sales coordinator. But how many young skaters have the brains to shield their noggins? At the show's nearby skateboarding "street" course, no one wears protection.

Lip lock: Naked, blue-haired Model 103 stares blankly, her firetruck-red lips locked in an O that hovers between ecstatic and obscene.

"She's very good at selling hats," says Jordan Beck of BigSmile Mannequins.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Beach party or forum?


Monday August 25, 2003

party or forum?

* It's a night of bikini babes and speechifying as gubernatorial candidates and the media check out Jim 'Poorman' Trenton's 'Governor's Ball.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Event organizer Cindy Rakowitz positions a gorgeous twentysomething in a bikini bottom and body paint outside the Backstage Cafe in Beverly Hills. Nearby, Jim "Poorman" Trenton -- the dreadlocked surferdude host of the TV show "Poorman's Bikini Beach" and sponsor of this evening's "Governor's Ball" -- gathers reporters and his posse of bikini babes and shows them some newly developed snapshots.

"I visited kitchens in L.A., and look! This is a kitchen in South-Central -- there's dirt under the sink!" Another kitchen, devastated by fire: "This is a person who has a home, and she can't afford to have her kitchen replaced!"

Trenton is running for governor, apparently on the "kitchen" platform, and he has invited all 135 recall candidates to the Thursday night party thrown in their collective honor. Not all of them make it.

A limo pulls up, and out jumps a wannabe Crocodile Hunter. "Bumhunter for governor!" he yells in an Outback Aussie accent. The reporters swivel.

"Everyone knows that the largest amount of bums on the street are those in Sacramento," "The Bumhunter" says, crouching and glancing side to side as if to avoid venomous L.A. wildlife. "If you elect me, I'm going to clean up those streets. I'm a homeless advocate!"

Paul Vann, a widowed financial planner from Irvine and a Republican candidate, talks to whomever will listen. "I want to fix worker's comp.... Keep no secrets from the people.... My children are proud of me.... I'm running to win."

A pit bull with wheels for hind legs enters the melee. She sniffs at Trenton.

"It looks to me like some people are running for governor," says Chris Cory, a writer-director-producer out walking his dog. "Her name is Coral. I think she should run." Coral wheels in a circle and snorts.

Let the speeches commence. Inside the bar, lights turn everything red. More than a few people get smacked by cameras or boom mikes or oversized L.A.-style breasts. Bartenders whir: For politicians and the media, drinks are on the house.

Ruben Raul Vega, a "personal bank officer" at Wells Fargo running as a Democrat: "In a nutshell, I want to expand the gaming industry."

Logan Clements, "Republican objectivist": "There are two things that this government is good for -- taking away money and taking away freedom."

Vann takes the mike. A bikini babe rubs his head seductively. "I'm not sure this is a serious stage," he says, smiling uncomfortably ... but he goes on to tell an anecdote about Sacramento inefficiency anyway.

"I am an artist from Venice Beach," says Trek Kelly, dressed all in blue. "I am running as an elaborate art piece.... I also have an advertising job because, until I stage my own death in three years, I won't make a profit from my paintings."

"It's about time we have average people running!" says Anthony Morman, an independent wearing a blue suit. All candidates, regardless of orientation -- or whether they're even on the ballot -- cheer one another on.

"And this is the most attractive candidate," says Trenton, introducing Reva Renee Renz, a Republican from Santa Ana and tonight's only female politician.

"As a bar owner," Renz says, "I hear average concerns every day. People say, 'Where did the money go?' I want to go to Sacramento and find out where it went."

The entire bar explodes. "Show me the money!" somebody screams.

"We ought to give a round of applause to the press!" Trenton enthuses. Reporters stop writing. Some actually blush.

"Are there any other candidates?" Trenton asks.

"I'll run!" says a man on a barstool. He swigs his beer, stands ...

Later, Trenton stands outside and gabs with reporters and fellow politicians. "At first, this was just publicity, but I was really moved by the fact that people own their own homes but can't afford to fix their kitchens. It makes me want to go and walk the streets. This process is changing me. I really care."

"Excuse me, but would you want to buy one of my paintings?" asks a passerby.

"Sure!" says Trenton, who ushers the man inside."Roxanne!" scream the Police from ubiquitous speakers. Everybody joins in. Black-suited Republicans ... "the Bumhunter" ... the bikini brigade .... "You don't have to put on the red light. Those days are over. You don't have to sell your body to the night."

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Cleveland in all its splendor


Sunday August 17, 2003

Cleveland in all its splendor

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

ANNE HECHE is wearing a typically gorgeous designer gown and looking typically gorgeous in it. She plays celeb perfectly: grudgingly approaching the print media area on the red carpet outside Hollywood's Cinerama Dome and offering a typical sound bite -- "I'm so excited to be here with this group of artists. Very excited."

"Anne! Anne!" screams the inevitable horde of onlookers, trying to snag autographs to hawk on eBay. Nearby, Harvey Pekar stands amid the commotion looking decidedly unimpressed. He is wearing a black suit and an "American Splendor" T-shirt, his neck perpetually hunched. "It's no big deal -- a lot of advertising," he says. "With the money I get from this, plus my pension from the VA hospital, I'm just hoping I can survive. I just wanna keep going. The most meaningful thing in life, for me, is breathing."

Pekar has spent the last 25 years documenting his mundane and often unpleasant existence as a Cleveland file clerk in his American Splendor comic books. His story has spawned multiple appearances on Letterman, an off-Broadway play and, now, this evening's biopic, featuring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

"I'm attracted to deliberate, willful pariahs," Giamatti explains. "To some kind of working-class rage that's about as far from my background as you can get."

Giamatti is fast becoming a critics' darling. As for Pekar: "I don't know that I'm a figure," he says. "My number is in the phone book, and I don't get a lot of calls."

Time for a group picture, so Giamatti stands next to Pekar and Judah Friedlander stands next to the character he portrays, Pekar's real-life buddy and avowed nerd, Toby Radloff. Friedlander grins idiotically for the camera -- mouth agape, eyes wide -- and gives two thumbs-up. Radloff, mimicking the actor who is mimicking him, gives a thumbs-up too.

"I feel great," Radloff says in his loud staccato voice, each word deliberate. "I'm in a big movie.... Afterward, I'm going back to my government job. Unless Hollywood calls again." He takes out a battered camera and snaps pictures of the photographers who are taking pictures of him.

The afterparty on the roof of the ArcLight Cinemas parking structure is straight out of the movie. "I was trying to bring to life the streets of Cleveland," says veteran party designer Billy Butchkavitz.Multicolored spotlights illuminate vintage cars from the early '60s through the '80s; there are nearly 60 8-by-8-foot blowups of American Splendor covers; more than 5,000 LPs are piled in crates underneath the buffet tables; and white-carpeted vignettes re-create working-class living rooms, replete with beaten-up couches. "We went through all the thrift stores to find this old junk," Butchkavitz says.

Faye Dunaway congratulates one of the film's two writer-directors, Robert Pulcini, and everybody tells Giamatti that "it was beautiful," that he was "fantastic." A live jazz band starts up.

Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, surveys the party with a frown.

"This could've been somebody's salary on the film," she tells the producer, Ted Hope. "It's a little startling until I realize that I don't have to do all the dishes afterward."

Thursday, August 14, 2003

The bouncers let us in


Thursday August 14, 2003

Cover story
The bouncers let us in

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

ANY Saturday night in Hollywood. Outside of "it" clubs like White Lotus, Deep and Ivar, sidewalks teem with various versions of sexy, hip and trendy, everybody looking for validation and a place to party. Seeking admission into the netherworlds of nightlife -- where darkness softens frown lines, music blares louder than nagging introspection and booze eases inhibitions. Lonely in a city full of strangers, here you can finally connect.

If you're on the guest list. If you have a wallet full of cash. If you're over 21.

Cadres of bouncers and doormen loom in each doorway, assessing and judging -- they gauge style, sex appeal, propensity for violence. What do you offer the club culture inside? What are you worth?

"I look for a doorman who has what I call 'the eye,' " says Ivan Kane, who owns Deep and Forty Deuce. "Somebody who knows the players and can spot them.... Somebody who knows who's who."

"You want intimidating, big people," says Ivar and Nacional owner Alan Nathan. "So that, psychologically, people won't want to mess with them. Some security guys don't have much interaction. They're just posts."

Any Saturday night in Hollywood. You go home early, lonelier than before. Mumbling about jackass bouncers with oversized biceps and undersized brains. Them and their ad hoc night court. Who gave them license to judge, anyway?

But as is too often the case, the people you love to hate are people nonetheless. As it turns out, bouncers and doormen have their own hopes and dreams, insecurities and self-doubts. They even have day jobs like the rest of us. They are writers, singers, actors, teachers, family men.

"I am the skinniest bouncer in the world," says Forrest Satchell, who is also an assistant director of independent films. Andrew Brin is an ex-DJ, ex-performance artist, ex-drug addict, now working toward a doctorate in psychology. Damian Decottle has the heft of an NFL star, but ...

Damian Decottle

The Short Stop

Checking IDs outside the Short Stop, Damian Decottle looks older than 22. "Most people think I'm 35 or 40," says the beefy 6-foot, 6-inch bouncer. "Most people look at me and see ... a football player." Then Decottle smiles -- a youthful, giddy smile -- and he sheds years. "Most people tend to judge what they don't know."

Listen up, Most People: Decottle is no linebacker. "I'm more like a male J.Lo," he says. His personal hero? Janet Jackson. While the sun is up, you'll find Decottle at Millennium Dance Studio in North Hollywood, practicing his routines set to hip-hop beats. Yep, big guy is a dancer.

"Dancers are not always 5-6 and 110 pounds," he explains. "If I get in some terrible accident, if I can't walk, I'm still a dancer. That's who I am."

Growing up in Seattle, Decottle always felt different. His body spoke a language of its own -- "I realized that I could move in ways that other people couldn't." But he had no idea where to channel this fluidity, this energy. When he was 8, Decottle saw Janet Jackson on TV and started mimicking the diva. In no time, he had her moves down.

"Dancing came so easy. It wasn't a challenge," Decottle says. He remembers thinking, "I'm doing it exactly like they're doing it, but they're on TV. Why aren't I on TV?"

Decottle's father, like Most People, thought that his son was a football player. "You're a boy," Dad said. "Get out there and play football." But Decottle wasn't interested in paternal advice. "I grew up with the tragic broken family syndrome," he says. "We moved a lot. My parents were addicted to drugs." In lieu of losing hope, Decottle danced and danced....

In high school, he was the only guy on the drill team. And he towered over the others. He did talent shows, and "everybody's kinda like, whoa!" he laughs. This kid could move. He joined In the Mix, a dance group that worked radio station parties, fairs -- "if they did dancing, we were there."

He could never afford lessons, but as a sophomore Decottle began teaching hip-hop dance. All the while he was in the school choir and on the class council. "My parents didn't care if I dropped out. I don't think they even knew I went to school," he says. Which only made him study harder.

In his junior year, Decottle's two older sisters moved to San Diego. Then Dad got thrown in jail and Mom, strung out on crack cocaine, disappeared. A homeless Decottle spent two weeks telling friends and teachers that everything was fine, just fine, but school officials eventually caught on. Decottle was placed in foster care. Life was tolerable until, in his senior year, he was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a serious blood disease rarely found in people younger than 30. Decottle's body was producing too much blood.

"My eyes would bleed," he says. "I would be driving on the freeway and my eyes would black out." He did schoolwork from bed. Doctors drained his body of excess fluid, and he underwent radiation therapy. He lost his hair, and it returned only in patches. "I thought I was going to die," he says.

Doctors and Most People told Decottle that he wouldn't be able to walk again. "If normal blood is like water going through a straw, yours is like a milkshake," they explained. Decottle didn't give up. One foot in front of the other, then he was walking, then he was dancing. Nowadays he gets drained twice a year, but otherwise, he's back to normal. Most People, wrong again.

Decottle moved to Los Angeles seven months ago to pursue his dance career. Given his size, landing a bouncing job wasn't difficult. He never drank growing up -- that was his parents' gig. He experienced nightlife for the first time as the guard at the gate.

"When people go to bars, I don't consider them adults anymore. They're drunk kids. Which is not a bad thing -- I like drunk kids. Well, not literally," Decottle laughs. "I'm a baby sitter who can throw people around." He enjoys the "eclectic" mix of barhoppers at the Short Stop, "flashy Hollywood types, grunge types, '70s types," and schmoozing with the inevitable celebrity, Seann William Scott and Vince Vaughn being regulars.

He has yet to meet Janet Jackson, or appear in any of her music videos. Whether that happens or not, Decottle will keep on groovin'. "If I get recognition, great. If not, I'm still doing what I love to do."

Andrew Brin

Les Deux Cafe,

Bar Deluxe

Andrew BRIN prefers to be called a doorman. "Bouncers keep peace within the clubs, mostly with physical presence," he says. "Bouncers get people out. I get people in."

Certain people, at least.

Brin, 43, presides over some of the most exclusive clubs in Hollywood: Mondays at Les Deux Cafe, Tuesdays at Bar Deluxe. These are the celebrity destinations you read about in the glossies. Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore and Tobey Maguire all frequent Les Deux, and Bar Deluxe partyers include Owen and Luke Wilson, Ashton Kutcher, Edward Norton and Sheryl Crow. Most of L.A.'s A list has appeared on Brin's clipboard at one time or another.

In his spare time, Brin "maintains the integrity of the guest list" at private shindigs thrown by industry glitterati. "Hollywood is a little neighborhood," he explains. "I'm the neighborhood doorman."

He is also the neighborhood rehab counselor. During the day, Brin works at Beit T'Shuvah, a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in Culver City. He counsels, facilitates groups and grinds out paperwork. In addition to his caseload, at any given moment he's "available to 100 residents as an ear, to make suggestions ... for whatever they need."

Brin is aware of the irony -- by night he baby-sits the rich and famous as they drink and party, by day he shepherds addicts toward spirituality and sobriety. But the two worlds are "not as contradictory as they appear to be," he says. "What I do at night helps what I do during the day. I teach people trying to get clean that they don't have to be afraid of bars.... There are lots of sober people in nightclubs."

This doorman knows clubs. And he knows drugs.

"I started going to discotheques when I was 13, and started doing drugs before that," he says. "I was strung out for 20 years."

In the mid-'80s, Brin got a bachelor's degree in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design but soon lost interest in the profession. "Part of me has always wanted more ... has been insatiable," he explains. He is addicted to having "creative positions of influence."

After architecture, Brin moved "right into the mainstream of late-century performance art." It was a leftist political movement. "Polemic. A couple of people onstage with multimedia." When that petered out, he became a DJ and spent the next 20 years spinning disco, '80s house music and "hip-hop, when that was invented."

Then he was arrested for selling drugs in 1997. "I chose rehab over prison," he says. It was his sixth rehab. For some reason, this one stuck. He made the move to L.A. five years ago and has been clean ever since.

Brin tried to DJ here, but competition was stiff. He needed a new career. "It should have something to do with the [movie] industry," he remembers thinking. "If I lived in Detroit, I'd work at Ford." His credentials left something to be desired: "a lifetime of experience in [two] fields -- nightclubs and addiction."

"At some point in your life, you stop trying to pretend you're somebody you're not and make a deal with what you've got," Brin says. So when a friend quit her job as a doorperson, he slid right in. Soon, Beit T'Shuvah hired him by reputation.

Brin makes a model doorman and counselor for the same reason he's a journalist's nightmare: He is bullheadedly tight-lipped. Lounging outside the Coffee Bean on Lankershim one late afternoon, he refuses to identify a "well-known independent film director" who strolls by, because "that's her business." He won't discuss much of his childhood, because that involves other people -- his parents. Needless to say, he refuses to comment on his celebrity clientele. He is routinely hounded by "people disguised as students, people pretending to be reporters," but has yet to be fooled.

Despite spending most nights surrounded by booze, Brin is never tempted to imbibe. Well, rarely. "I was watching Mariah Carey trip her way across the room with a perfect apple martini," he recollects, "and realized that I have never had an apple martini."

If you're hankering for a night of glitz and glam, don't bother palming a fifty. "I have turned down thousands of dollars," he asserts. "I have an obligation to the environment that's not for sale." No matter how much you want to meet Cameron Diaz, unless you're on the guest list, Brin's answer is "no" -- excepting very, very rare occasions when, he admits, "I can be entertained enough to just let you in."

For the first time in his life, the future looks constant. Brin has found his niche. He's even enrolled in a graduate program at Antioch College, working toward a doctorate in psychology -- at which point he will no longer be a doorman. He will be the doctor at the door.

Torrance Jackson

Burgundy Room

His first day in Los Angeles "was too hot," Torrance Jackson remembers. It was 1991, and he had moved here on a whim -- with no friends or job prospects.

"I was standing by the Dresden Room [on Vermont Avenue], waiting for the light to change," he says. "The sun was shining. But I knew that people get jaywalking tickets in this city, so I waited. When I finally got across, an older lady handed me a $20 bill."

"For the song," she said.

Jackson realized that he had been singing "Old Man River."

"It was beautiful," the woman informed him. "People in Hollywood love music." She suggested that he "walk up and down this street, singing."

Nothing better to do, Jackson followed her advice. "I made $180 in an hour and a half," he says. The street singing gig lasted for nearly six years. "Of all the jobs I've had, that was the hardest. You have to do it every day." He sang "everything from blues, jazz to gospel."

"My passion is singing," says Jackson. "It is my aspiration, the joy of my life."

It is not his only goal, however. After "releasing a nationally successful piece of music," he wants to "teach at my alma mater, Howard University." He already has a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education from that university.

"I have a definite interest in human behavior," Jackson explains, "in human problems, particularly those of the disadvantaged." He wrote his master's thesis on "music therapy, based on a study in a Washington, D.C., jail." He focused on "music as a means toward self-disclosure, self-revelation."

For the moment, his diplomas are stowed away. "Your academic credentials will stay with you," he says. "Right now, my voice is crisp and I'm going to follow that. I'm not going to get old and talk about what I wish I had done."

Jackson was singing one day when the owner of the Burgundy Room passed by. Liking what he heard, he offered to hire Jackson as the doorman. Although Jackson had no experience as a bouncer, he took the job. Another whim. Four years later, Jackson is a fixture at the Hollywood bar.

"A lot of people come into this place because of Torrance," says bartender Thaddeus Quigley. "He's the staple. He moves as slow as a turtle -- but people listen."

The bar is a haven for music industry hipster types, and Jackson has made some connections. He released his first album last year -- "Torrance Jackson, My Dream" (Dr. Wu Records) -- and is recording a second.

But even if he makes it big, he says, he'll still work at the Burgundy Room part time. He loves the scene too much to give it up for small things like fame and fortune.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Jackson drapes his lanky 6-foot-9 form over his chair and watches the street for signs of life. He is eating a bag of instant buttered popcorn, as usual.

Every night is "like a movie," he says. "And better than the ones I rent, I'll tell you that." He points at a group of young punk-rockers huddling around a pay phone. "Those are the angry street kids," he says. "There are millions of them. They're an institution."

Virtually everyone who walks by -- be they dressed in Gucci or garbage bags -- stops to say hello. Jackson is equally congenial to each: He gives directions to a girl who looks like a Vogue model, then chats with a homeless guy who asks about finding an apartment. He is never patronizing, ever calm and calming.

A disheveled man walks up, fists clenched, eyes crazed. "I'm not afraid to die!" he screams. Instead of flinching, Jackson smiles. Which seems to disarm the man, who walks away looking confused.

"My academic training gives me a good foundation," Jackson says. "If I have an irate customer, I revert to the therapeutic approach."

In addition to bouncing and recording, Jackson also substitute-teaches throughout the L.A. Unified School District, gives voice lessons from his Hollywood apartment and tutors three students in reading -- "a Hispanic woman and her two children who have been in the States for a year. I met them when they walked past the bar."

Patrons and passersby ask Jackson to sing nightly, and he obliges. "I would never tell them no, unless I physically couldn't do it," he says. "That song might be what gets them to their next breath."

Jackson will talk candidly about most everything, except his age. "Age is in relation to the Earth. We are all very young," he says. He gazes lovingly upon his domain. "We are all just youngsters trying to find our way."


Opening the door

* They can smell desperation

The key to getting past the door is, above all, to play it cool. If bouncers don't want you, then you don't want in anyway, right? At most clubs, "if you're respectable-looking, decent people, then you'll get in," says Cinespace's Steven Z.

* Show your style

"I like attractive people who have a sense of style," says Anya Varda, longtime doorperson at the Standard Hotel on Sunset. "People who are, beyond anything, nice. People I would like to hang out with."

* Dress creatively

Flashy but not too flashy. Show some skin, but not too much skin. Sexy without going over the line. Treat each club as your personal fashion runway. "I like lots of eye candy," says Varda. "That's why people go out, to look at other people and have other people look at them."

* Don't bet on bribery

Most high-class doormen are with Varda on this one: "If all you bring to the door is a wallet, I'm sorry.... I have turned down over $50,000 in bribes."

* It's good to be a girl

Emily Cole-Chu, an Occidental College student who frequents L.A. clubs, has honed a routine that works for her. "I tell them that all my friends are in already. I give them some eyes. Make it seem like I'm needy, all alone on the great big Sunset Strip. I play into their wanting to do a good thing complex."

* Show up early

Go on less popular nights. Make a wish list of clubs, from most to least exclusive. Most importantly, don't let the game get you down. There's always tomorrow night.

* Don't drink too much beforehand

Bouncers are hesitant to admit drunks. "If you get out of a car and the first thing you do is vomit in my driveway," says Varda, "you're not getting in. I don't care how much better you feel."


Where they are

4100 Bar, 4100 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake

Akbar, 4356 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake

Bar Deluxe, 1710 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood

Burgundy Room, 1621 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

Cinespace, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Dresden Room, 1760 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood

Ivar, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Les Deux Cafe, 1638 Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood

The Falls, 8210 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

The Gate, 643 N. La Cienega, L.A.

The Standard Hotel, 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

Short Stop, 1455 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park

Three Clubs, 1123 N. Vine St., Hollywood


On the inside looking out


Doors: Cinespace, The Falls, The Gate

Day job: Real estate agent with Coldwell Banker of Beverly Hills

"You're dealing with 300 to 400 people per night, so you have to be a people person. The key is not to be abrasive. You get threatened just doing your job, but you take it with a grain of salt. People

approach this rope defensively, so I like to make them laugh."


Door: Ivar

Day job: Hanging out with his wife

"I'm the nice guy, the opposite of all the other bouncers. I'm from Canada, maybe that's why.

People are like, 'You look so mean.' Then I smile, and they're like, 'Wow.' I don't goof around. When I come in here, I break a sweat. I'll help sweep, help valet. This is our home. Our team. Our family."


Door: Three of Clubs

Day job: Actor

"It's all about the art of self-

defense and containment. You present yourself as a nice guy, but if things go bad, you gotta be bad. You put on a look, wide shoulders, doorman persona.... I have had groupies, girls who just come and stand at the door and talk to me all night."


Door: Akbar

Day job: Assistant director of independent films

"I am the skinniest bouncer in the world. I let them come at me, then I turn sideways and they usually fall right over. I get to see every single person who comes in here -- it's like the salad bar comes to me.... I'm looking out for the welfare of people in here; I'm like a den mother. When I go to another bar, I feel like I'm cheating."


Door: 4100 Bar

Day job: Writer (short stories, screenplays)

"You're just a post. A tree stump. I'm tired of people who don't know how to order a drink in a bar and can't hold their alcohol. You are who you are, I am who I am. Still, I try to give people as much respect as I possibly can. I try to kill them with kindness. I'm the only door guy in town who will give people cigarettes while they're waiting in line."

Sunday, August 10, 2003

A rose grows in china


Sunday August 10, 2003

A rose grows in china
* Artists shape a fountain from broken Delft porcelain to resemble Lillian Disney's favorite flower, in a tribute at L.A.'s new concert hall.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

The story of the fountain is common-speak around Walt Disney Concert Hall.

How Frank Gehry, meeting Lillian Disney at her home to discuss plans for the hall, noticed her china cabinet.

The china looked chintzy -- out of place in the lavish Disney abode. Gehry's curiosity got the better of him. He had to ask.

Disney smiled. As it turns out, she and Walt loved to travel, and while waiting for flights they took to buying the chintzy Delft knockoffs that inevitably litter airport gift shops. Back at home, Lilly would display them proudly and show them to friends to see who could spot the fakes.

After Disney died, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren asked Gehry to design a tribute to her. Thus, the fountain: a giant rose -- Disney's favorite flower -- covered in a mosaic made from crushed Delft porcelain. It sits as a centerpiece in the colorful "garden for public gathering" that surrounds the concert hall.

No faux-Delft, Gehry declared. In memoriam, Disney got the real thing. Two hundred Royal Delft porcelain vases, to be exact. They alone cost over $34,000.

"I called Delft, in Holland, and they asked me how many vases I wanted," recalls Tomas Osinski, the artist and architect in charge of the project. "They told me that I may have to wait about 10 years." But the project's prominence greased the wheels.

"Frank [Gehry] gave me a model, 14 inches in diameter," says Osinski, whose job is to turn the model into the real thing: 22 feet wide by 17 feet long by 7 feet high. Water will cascade quietly over each petal. At night, lights placed throughout the structure will cause the flower to glow.

"I love it because it's not architectural -- it's almost sentimental," Osinski says. "It's not something you would expect from the famous contemporary architect."

Osinski hired artists rather than metalworkers and tile setters "because you have to be crazy to do this," he says, "the work is so neurotic." It will take the eight-person team four months to complete the fountain, at a rate of eight hours a day, six days a week. And they may not be finished by the Aug. 30 deadline.

Yet the team remains in good spirits, which must be partly because of their surroundings. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the garden is breezy and the air actually smells clean. Traffic noises from below are muted to an almost calming purr. The garden exists in an ambiguous space: apart from yet surrounded by this smoggy metropolis.

"Shaping rebar is what I really identify with," says Jay Raveling, who lives in Boston but relocated to work on the fountain. "I have a natural affinity for that aspect of it."

Shaping rebar -- or bending reinforced iron bars to form the petals' skeletons -- is only the first step.

Next, "we attach stainless steel mesh onto the rebars," Osinski says. "Then we pack reinforced concrete onto the mesh.... Then we mortar.... Then we use finished mortar.... Then we do waterproofing.... Then we do thin set -- glue for the tiles.... Then we tile.... Then we use epoxy grout."

"We figure it out as we go," says Kamil Becki, who is sporting an aquamarine Mohawk -- no hard hat, "because I have to show my new colors."

"By the time we learn how to do things, we're done with them," Osinski says. He has become an expert vase-breaker, among other things, able to smash a vase in a deft hammer swoop to "form any shapes, triangles or whatever, that I want."

"This is time-consuming, difficult, tedious work," he says. "On the other hand, it's like playing on the beach." He grins.

Osinski watches as Becki fashions wet cement into balls and passes them to Raveling, who packs them onto the mesh. Nearby, Bozenna Bogucki sits on a petal inside the flower. She is nimbly placing tile after tile, and although each is a different shape, they all seem to fit.

"I am an artist," Bogucki says. She holds up a vase fragment. "There is a certain part of the brain that deals with size," she says. The tiling process is "almost magical ... it's totally uncontrolled. I just put them on, and it's like they're cut to size.

"It gives me satisfaction," she says. "This is going to be a real landmark for L.A."

"I think it's going to look stunning," Becki agrees.

Raveling steps back and surveys their work.

"My blood's in it," he says. "Literally. I smashed my finger, hurt my back. Even at the opening, I'm still going to want to climb into it."

Contemplating 'Divorce'


Sunday August 10, 2003

Contemplating 'Divorce'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Reporters and cameramen jostle for position on the red carpet at the Mann Festival Theater in Westwood. Across the street, fans stand tippy-toed and stare through disposable camera viewfinders, intent on capturing a celebrity or two. But take them all away, and the "Le Divorce" premiere July 29 might well be a family picnic. Everybody is just so relaxed.

A pregnant Kate Hudson, star of the hour, stops to adjust her multicolored Missoni maternity dress. She leans toward the reporters and confides, "As the breasts expand, the dress starts to not fit right."

Hubby Chris Robinson, former Black Crowes singer, never lets go of Hudson's hand. She looks lovingly at him. "Oh, you have lipstick all over!" she says, and reaches up to wipe it off.

"What can the French teach Americans about love?" somebody yells.

Mathew Modine, who plays a buffoonish expatriate stalker in the Paris-set film, fields this one. "I would have to say, what can the French learn from Americans about love?" he says.

"Are you proud of Kate?" a reporter asks Robinson, who drapes his arm around his wife.

"I'm always proud of Kate," Robinson says. "I guess on the proud spectrum, I'm a little extra proud tonight."

Walking into the theater, Hudson and co-star Naomi Watts share a bucket of popcorn and whisper into each other's ears -- looking much like the sisters they play in "Le Divorce."

Opening credits roll, and the audience cheers for every name.

At the after-party held in the UCLA Hammer Museum courtyard, spotlights turn the trees red. Waiters wander, asking, "Crab cakes, anyone?" Three makeshift bars offer all the essential alcohols, and vitamin water. By the buffet, a woman bites into a beef skewer and exclaims, in a heavy French accent, "Delicious!"

As Watts mingles, she curls her hair around a finger. Hudson, chewing gum, sits and laughs with friends.

At a neighboring table, Nick Nolte is talking about the movie. He is garbed in black, his glasses are migrating toward the end of his nose, and he is smoking a cigarette.

"I found it very meaningful," he says. "It's not just light comedy. It reminds me of love lost, love found, loveliness, despair, and a broken heart."

Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Midseason reflections on (yawn) boredom


Tuesday August 05, 2003

Midseason reflections on (yawn) boredom
* Summer's lazy days may drone on, but at their close will be a longing for idleness.
Series: One in a series of occasional stories about the rituals of the season.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

The inexorable groan of the school year. No. 2 pencils and, oh, so many standardized bubbles to bubble, carpools to wait for, homework assignments to ignore and then endure. The same Tupperware lunch every, single, day. Alarm at 8. Burnt toast. Loading up the backpack.

Through it all, the dream of summer. A lust for sloth. Every morning a Sunday morning. To be nearly naked and irresponsible, too hot to move except to smile an indolent smile and sip a lime-colored cooler! To mess around, hang out, waste time, take it easy.

Then, it begins.

Alarm's off, but you wake up anyway. Too early. Too antsy. With nothing to do.

In the words of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "summer has set in with its usual severity."

Television drones. Books turn into pages of unintelligible black marks.

Preschoolers whine, college students start drinking earlier than usual.

Finally, time to talk on the phone. But nothing much to talk about.

Lethargy eclipses bliss.

As aphorist Mason Cooley notes, "Even boredom has its crises."

"When university finishes, leaving me stranded without purpose or structure, despair arrives," says Shirin Borthwick, a student in Sydney, Australia. "The less stuff I do, the less I want to do, so instead of enjoying the sunshine I end up lurking in the house, haunting the halls like a creature locked in an ivory tower, all the while engaging in progressively deeper introspection."

You find yourself talking to the cat. Becoming an expert at making that creaking sound in the back of your throat. Noticing the dead fly stuck in the stucco ceiling.

"I am the nation's expert on boredom," says Alan Caruba, who runs the online Boring Institute ( from his home in New Jersey. It started 20 years ago as a joke but quickly turned serious.

"Boredom is an early stage of depression, if it lingers on more than a day or two," Caruba explains. And, summer being the midyear hump, boredom season, the Boring Institute has named July "the official anti-boredom month."

Caruba, by the way, is "never bored." And for only $4.95, you can beat boredom too -- by downloading the Beating Boredom guide from his Web site.

But instead of buying your freedom, you end up running your name through Google.

Checking your e-mail 20 times.

Swinging your feet onto the desk.

Studying your toes.

Remembering all the fun you had last summer, and the summers before ....

"A lot of what I did during the summers was try to reenact my younger childhood," says Aneesa Davenport, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara. "Which in a way made me more bored, because it was never as fun or captivating as I remembered it to be.

"Even as a child my friends and I were very nostalgic," she says. "I don't remember playing hopscotch for fun -- I only remember being about 10 and playing it because it used to be fun, and trying to go back to that time.

"When we had a lemonade stand it was because we knew that's what kids did, and we were nostalgic for the experiences we saw on reruns of 'Leave It to Beaver' and the 'Donna Reed Show.' "

Henry Miller said, "There is a time for play and a time for work, a time for creation and a time for lying fallow. And there is a time, glorious too in its own way, when one scarcely exists, when one is a complete void. I mean -- when boredom seems the very stuff of life."

A summer Monday in South Los Angeles. It's just too hot. Sweat stains spread under arms. Seat belt buckles scald. Air conditioners break.

Even worse, "the sorority houses aren't open, so there's a huge shortage of women," says Brandon Pleus, a USC cinema major.

The fraternities remain inhabited. USC's frat row, 28th Street, is melting, a lonely island. No fewer than three blowup wading pools wilt in dirty frontyards, water long evaporated, reminders of what summer might have been. Windows are broken, and beer bottles, overturned chairs and rusty barbecues lollygag on browning grass.

At 2 in the afternoon, Pleus ventures outdoors. He rubs his eyes, yawns, checks the mail. He's dressed in blue boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. His face is burnt to a tomato hue.

He looks bored. He is bored.

"But boredom isn't as bad as one might think," he says. "It's not as bad as stress or anxiety."

Instead of inventing distractions, Pleus embraces boredom. Some days he lugs a lawn chair onto the frat house roof.

"I sit and look at the street," he says. "I think about home, about sports, movies that I've seen ... what it's gonna be like to have a real job."

He watches bike riders go by, and "I wonder if they're going to the library."

At boredom's peak, "you have no conscious thought at all," Pleus says. "You are just looking -- letting your eyes be yourself."

"I would classify boredom as a mood, like joy or sorrow," says Dale Wright, professor of religious studies at Occidental College.

"From a Buddhist point of view," Wright says, "meditation is the extremity of boredom, purposefully imposed, to train the mind to see that all things are alive, that beauty and opportunities are everywhere.

"We tend to see the boring quality in ... summer, rather than recognize that boredom is in our minds."

In our minds.

In our minds.

Lying on the couch, you find yourself reading the same line over, and over, a mantra, without noticing that you're reading it over, and over.

Soon the pencils will go on sale, giant Back to School vats at Target and Costco.

There will be carpool arrangements to make. Daily planners to purchase.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, "He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the strongest refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain."

Who knows.

But a few months from now, you may close your eyes for a second, and remember ...

The boring season.

What a wonderful summer.

Sunday, August 3, 2003

A smokin' party


Sunday August 03, 2003

A smokin' party

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

The Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills is packed for its eighth-anniversary bash, also celebrating the release of two documentary films, "The Fuente Family: An American Dream" and "Fuente Fuente Opus X: Making of a Legend."

Guests, almost exclusively men, almost exclusively dressed in gray or black, lounge cross-legged on lush red or green velvet couches and leather chairs, sipping mojitos and red wine and puffing on expensive cigars.

Third- and fourth-generation cigar makers Carlos Fuente Sr. and Jr. are dressed alike, in starched white shirts and Panamas. Originally from Cuba, nowadays they grow tobacco in the Dominican Republic.

Here, they are gods. Surrounded by grinning cigar aficionados, Fuente and Fuente exhale smoke toward the high ceiling, all elegance and ease.

"This is the most legendary cigar family there is," Havana Room owner Stan Schuster gushes. "The Opus X is the most sought-after cigar."

"It's got the elegance of a Porsche, the purr of a Ferrari," Fuentes Jr. agrees. He motions to Schuster and says: "We're family. This is our home."

Movie stars get second billing.

"It's so nice to be able to smoke a cigar without being bothered by all the Nazi rules in Beverly Hills," says Tom Selleck, chatting with fellow actor Peter Weller on the veranda. Both are members of the Havana Room.

"This club is a port in a storm," Weller says. "People tell me I'm very intense. I say, 'You should've met me before I started smoking cigars.' I don't know people who are violent and smoke cigars."

Grammy-winning jazz musician Arturo Sandoval sidles up to join the conversation. He is grinning ear to ear.

"Nobody plays trumpet like he does," Weller says.

"I cannot complain," Sandoval says. "I have an extremely happy life. I make a living doing what I love to do. And on top of that, I am smoking a big cigar."

Sandoval wrote the scores for both Fuente documentaries, "45 original pieces of music," he says. James Orr produced, directed, wrote and narrated.

"I did this for free," Orr interjects. "As remarkable as the cigars are, the family is even more remarkable....

"Cigars are the equivalent of peace pipes in tribal ceremonies," he says. "They bring men together, and we share stories about the hunt. And personal stuff -- innermost thoughts."

Although a novice cigar smoker, actor Jon Voight is nonetheless discussing cigars. "I just came back from Italy," he says, "and the fellow I was staying with insisted I smoke big Clint Eastwood-type cigars."

Suddenly, an alarm bell goes off. Men look up from their cigars, confused. "Just a fire alarm," somebody yells. Everybody laughs. Alarm deactivated, Sandoval unleashes his trumpet in the center of the room to rousing applause.

On the veranda, conversation meanders toward politics. Most pick Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Havana Room member, as their favorite for the California recall election. If he runs.

"I'm not gonna run," says Selleck, adamantly. "I have a mortgage. I don't think people with mortgages should have to run for public office." He sucks on his stogie. And grins.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A storm is downgraded to a cliche


Tuesday July 22, 2003

Style & Culture
A storm is downgraded to a cliche

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

"SARS is a 'perfect storm' of a disease," according to the Los Angeles Times. 50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world, proclaims Billboard magazine. Newsweek has designated Jayson Blair, the plagiarizing New York Times reporter, as "journalism's perfect storm."

The war on terrorism is the perfect storm of the airline industry, American recession is the perfect storm of European tourism, conservative politics is the perfect storm of public school orchestras everywhere....

And somewhere, beneath the thunder, you can hear an English professor crying.

"If you stare at a wall long enough, the wall disappears," explains Dan Fineman, a professor of English and comparative literary studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Likewise, a phrase reiterated endlessly loses its original meaning -- and sometimes all meaning whatsoever. It's about "habituation," Fineman says. "Even a complex object, if it doesn't get moved around, becomes status quo."

The term has been around for years already. "The Perfect Storm," the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, was published in 1997. "The Perfect Storm," the blockbuster movie starring George Clooney, was released in 2000. But "the perfect storm" is still gathering force. In the last year, the New York Times printed it 11 times, the Chicago Tribune 47 times, the Washington Post 54 times -- and the Los Angeles Times 65 times.

We can trace the term's origin to a certain Boston scientist, on a certain Sunday afternoon in October 1991. Bob Case, then a deputy meteorologist with the National Weather Service, gathered breathlessly with his colleagues around their instruments and computer monitors.

What they observed was a meeting of storm systems 1,000 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. A typical "northeaster" off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, was on a collision course with Hurricane Grace. While both were unremarkable as solo phenomena, the cold winds propelling the northeaster, combined with moist, warm air that Grace had picked up off Bermuda, promised to ignite a Molotov cocktail on the high seas.Meanwhile, cub journalist Sebastian Junger weathered the tempest from his home in Gloucester, Mass. "This enormous storm came through and trashed most of New England," Junger says. "It was all around us. It almost blew the house down."

Having recently been injured while working as "a tree climber," Junger was considering "writing about dangerous work," he says. Then, he heard that a local swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down in the maelstrom. It was a -- dare we say, perfect? -- crossroads of adventure, human interest and tragedy.

Case, since retired, had spent his "entire career trying to eliminate meteorological jargon in speaking with the press," he says. Explaining science to laypeople is always, of course, a delicate balance between not dumbing down too much but simplifying technical jargon just enough. Case's biggest challenge was not forecasting and following the storm but rather relaying his findings to the press.

Junger was "just another reporter," Case recalls, but their conversations would send reverberations through the English language for years to come.

There were many situational characteristics that had to fall into place, Case explains. "Had to have the night's cold air coming out of Canada....The systems had to mesh at the right time.... The moisture had to be available from the dying hurricane. It was the combination of extremely cold air and warm air. Combined with the final kicker, all the moisture influx. Like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Neither man will take credit for what came next.

"Sebastian came up with it," Case says.

"He claims I did," Junger says, "but in my notes, he says it."

Junger's article stretched into a book. It was originally titled "The Storm." Given that people were killed, he says, "the phrase 'the perfect storm' ... seemed tasteless, but the idea of using it grew on me."

With publication of the book, the phrase came back to haunt Case. "Unfortunately, 'the perfect storm' got misconstrued," he says. He began getting calls from meteorologist peers telling him, "No, it wasn't the biggest. The storm of '62 was worse."

"But that was never the idea," Case says, still adamant after all these years. "This wasn't the biggest, wasn't the worst, wasn't the most deadly. It's not even in the top 10. It was a unique situation and took an atmosphere that had the perfect elements in space and time to occur."

When the movie came out, Case was inundated. "Everybody has their 15 minutes," he says. "I got an extra five."

Junger, too. Nowadays, "if I meet someone and they ask what I do," he says, "I can't even bring myself to admit I wrote the book. I really try to avoid any relation to it."

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel


Saturday July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel
* Irwin Hearst is 95, and that's exactly why he has surrendered his keys. After driving eight decades, the word for him is 'adjust.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It was 1922. In Montreal, Canada. Some irresponsible kids lent their neighbor, 14-year-old Irwin Hearst, the keys to their Packard automobile.

Hearst remembers it well: the ascent -- "there were step-on seats on the side of the car" -- and, of course, takeoff. "Exhilarating. I was king of the mountain."

Eight decades later, he has surrendered his keys for good. He sits shirtless in his two-room apartment, gray slacks tethered snugly to his midriff, active eyes behind large-rimmed black glasses. Hearst lives in Westwood Horizons, a group housing facility that advertises "Adventures in Senior Living."

"It's lonely being by yourself," he says. "So I moved here two years ago, when my wife passed away. They have a shuttle to the hospital, which is convenient."

Hearst still could drive if he wanted to. Ninety-five years old, he has a regular California driver's license and owns a car. He has had "no major accidents" and considers himself a "good driver."

Still, Hearst believes that "no elderly person should drive," and he is no exception. "We haven't got the reflexes. Why kid yourself?"

When he put his car up for sale, "everybody told me, 'You'll be sorry,' " Hearst says. "But I meditate and decide what's good for me. And what is good for other people. I'm ready," he says, and gestures, palms up. "Here's my car."

And then he smiles. "I've got an electronic walker now! It can turn all the way around! It was a bargain -- I got it from a lady who only used it for two weeks before she died. I'll just go on trips from here!"

The room is silent for a moment. "You feel as if your hands will be tied," he admits. "As if you'll be left alone. As if the whole world is passing you by."

"I got my first car for $200," Hearst remembers. "I was living in New York City. It was a convertible, but I couldn't put the top up." Instead, Hearst fashioned a roof of cardboard, which he used on rainy days. "I really must have been quite a sight."

Hearst spent his working life driving. He was a traveling salesman, so his car was a second home. "My car was one of my tools," he says. He would often "travel 70 miles away from my base" -- just him, his goods and his wheels.

It is fine to start slowing down, Hearst says. After living for almost a century, "the word is 'adjust,' " he explains. "I don't ever forget it." He will see friends less frequently, but one of his daughters lives close by. And Westwood Horizons sponsors activities and shows movies.

"The L.A. freeways are abominable," Hearst says, so in a way, good riddance. "And young people don't know when to stop or slow down." And "the average person is negative toward elderly drivers." As Hearst got older and drove more slowly, "people always honked," he says.

Or worse. One day, when Hearst was 85, he was driving onto a freeway onramp from Santa Monica Boulevard. Suddenly, the driver behind him started honking. "He wanted to get in front of me," Hearst says.

Apparently, Hearst didn't move quickly enough. "I heard a loud crash, and when I turned around my rear window had shattered. He had shot a gun at me," Hearst says. "That scared the hell out of me."

Hearst drove directly to the police station, but the cop on duty was no help.

"Did you make any dirty signs at him?" he asked, and extended his middle finger in demonstration. "Is an 85-year-old man going to make those signs?" Hearst still wonders.

His daughter nagged him to stop driving for some time, and although the old man is fiercely independent, her persistence had something to do with his decision.

"I used to just pooh-pooh her," he says, "tell her that I'll take care of myself." But, like the word "adjust," Hearst has taken certain life lessons to heart: "If you become stubborn, then woe is you," he says, without explanation.

Westwood Horizons holds a special "candlelight dinner" once a month. Tonight's will begin soon, and Hearst would like to attend. He rises and moves slowly across the carpeted floor to his mirrored closet. He chooses a bright yellow sweater. Dressing is a lengthy process: One hand pulls the garment down a few inches on one side, then the other hand echoes, and the steps repeat.

Hearst dons a suit jacket, and looks quite the dashing dinner date. But he walks slowly down the hallway, back stiff, bent forward.

A woman in uniform approaches, looking tired. "Irwin, your daughter wants to know what medicines you need ordered," she says.

Hearst turns, fire in his eyes. He sheds years. "I will order it!" he says, raising his voice in anger and embarrassment. "I've always done everything for myself! She better not come near me. She'll have to get a new father!"

The woman nods and speaks into a cell phone. Hearst arrives at the elevator. He drops heavily into a chair. And, gazing toward the floor, waits resignedly for transportation to whisk him to the shindig downstairs.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Grabbing a fast pass to fame


Monday July 14, 2003

Grabbing a fast pass to fame
* A party celebrating the release of a book on gaining instant celebrity is a magnet for the sort-of-famous set.

by Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

But Warhol didn't say how long it would take to get your 15 minutes.

Up to two weeks, according to Melissa de la Cruz and Karen Robinovitz's new book, "How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less" (Ballantine).

"Once you start telling people you're famous, they believe you," de la Cruz says.

"We should be able to slip past any velvet rope. Everybody should be able to," Robinovitz says.

All you have to do is follow their eightfold path, outlined in chapters such as "A 'Brand' New You," "There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity, Darling," "Managing the Press Machine" and "The Schmooze factor."

The book began as an assignment for Marie Claire magazine, and it got the authors ink in the New York Post and beyond. Now they've sold the movie rights to Disney. And the Times is covering the book party at the Tracy Ross store on Sunset Boulevard.

The party is hot. Sweat beads on Joel Michaely's forehead. "Apparently they're going to tell us how to become more famous," says the actor ("Rules of Attraction"). "I have a finite amount of fame. I'm looking to become more famous."

Nearby, Jenna Lewis, from the first "Survivor" series, lounges on a black leather sofa. "I hated becoming famous," Lewis gushes, grinning, "but either you embrace it, or you become a hermit like Howard Hughes. Celebrityhood is our royalty, and," she says, grabbing an hors d'oeuvre, "I get free shepherd's pie.

"Do you know who that is behind me?" Lewis asks, chancing a quick glance over her shoulder. "That's Brennan Swain. He was on the first 'Amazing Race.' "

"I was the first 'Amazing Race' winner," Swain emphasizes. "I was a lawyer, then I ended up on the show, and next thing you know -- I was famous." Swain left his law firm. But he is far from idle. "A bunch of my buddies from reality TV series all got together, and we're starting a cable network called Reality Central," Swain says. The network will feature "lots of reruns of the reality shows we know and love." "I'm from the sixth 'Survivor,' " pipes in Alex Bell. "All I did was get on national TV and hit myself with a machete."

In a tent in the parking lot, partyers browse the Silent Auction of Celebrity Swag to benefit the Colombia Presbyterian Herbert Irving Child and Adolescent Oncology Center. Heiress and yoga instructor Anna Getty drops by to check in on her donation of "yoga tea events." She has yet to read the book but says that "there are so many ways to become famous ... go for it."

Has anybody here actually read the book?

"I love the title -- it's so L.A.," says heiress and party girl Paris Hilton. Had she perused the book, she would've come across a section titled "Why Don't You Throw Food at the Hilton Sisters?" in which de la Cruz and Robinovitz consider finding fame by doing just that.

Hilton will soon join the reality TV ranks herself: In Fox's coming "A Simple Life," Hilton will cope without a cell phone or credit cards, and she even has to work ... at a Dairy Queen. She'll become even more famous by pretending she's not famous.

The authors arrive fashionably late to the Thursday night affair. De la Cruz is in Christian Dior, while Robinovitz chose Escada and a pair of custom-made Rock & Republic jeans.

"Calvin Klein called our publicist, but we were already taken," Robinovitz says.

"I haven't paid for anything since I became famous," de la Cruz admits.

Which is apparently the case with some other attendees as well. "One woman tried to pull a switch on me," says security guy Kerry Meets of O&R Protective Services. He is wearing a black suit and an earpiece.

According to Meets, the woman slipped on a blue topaz and diamond ring that was being auctioned, replaced it with her own and walked away. Meets "grabbed her by the arm" and elicited an "Oh, I'm so embarrassed!" before she sauntered off. "That happens more in this atmosphere than in middle- or lower-class areas," Meets says, frowning.

Indeed. Later on, a certain rock star's daughter was seen helping herself to a pair of socks. "She was rummaging through a display," says an onlooker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "She grabbed a pair of socks, took off her Ugg boots, put the socks on and ran off."

"I know who stole the socks," store owner Tracy Ross says when called the next day. "She told me she was stealing them. And I have her credit card on file.""Celebrity is almost the easy way out," says Ben Coyle, an artist who claims he's not looking for personal fame but, rather, recognition in the art world.

He is in the minority here.

"I feel famous too!" enthuses de la Cruz's mom, Ching. To keep up with their daughter, she and husband Bert "have to keep on reading entertainment magazines," she says. Bert has yet to read his daughter's book -- but he does find a moment to browse People magazine at the party.

Around 9, De la Cruz and Robinovitz try to project energy but, in fact, look exhausted.

"It's fun signing autographs," de la Cruz chirps.

Robinovitz drops and retrieves her autograph pen. "Fame doesn't fill the void," she admits, finally. "There is a difference between this and who we are at heart."

She eyes the door. "I can't wait to get back to my hotel and order room service," Robinovitz says.

As for de la Cruz: "I'm going home with my parents to Pasadena to watch our big TV."

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Distinctive debut


Sunday July 13, 2003

Distinctive debut

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Just short of midnight, partyers taking a breather from the Mountain Bar's opening festivities crowd around Arlo, the evening's hippest VIP.

Although Arlo is about 20 years short of drinking age, his cherubic mug is already a lady magnet. "He's a hit with all the girls," says mom Francis Stark, as she rocks Arlo gently on a bench in the courtyard outside.

Stark and husband Steve Hanson, the proprietor of nearby gallery China Art Objects, are part owners of the new Chinatown bar. Nearby, a second owner, architect Mark McManus, feeds quarters into a mini merry-go-round and hops on for a ride with his giggling daughter, Lilly. McManus' pregnant wife, Emily Decrescenzi, sits and watches. The third and most famous owner, artist Jorge Pardo, skipped the opening shindig for more important business in New York.

Inside, it's not your typical Los Angeles premiere. There aren't any celebrities so there aren't any cameras, there is a shocking lack of hors d'oeuvres, and instead of schmoozing and comping cocktails, the owners are lounging outside with their kids. The sum of which could be underwhelming ... but isn't.

This bar is an "accumulation of happy little accidents," says the general manager, Max Duncan. It has been three years in the making, explains Hanson, "a labor of love." Now that it's finally open, "I don't know what to think about having a bar," laughs Stark. As for the July 5 opening itself, she says, "I didn't send invitations out ... I'm a busy mom!" Arlo drools.

The crowd -- artists, architects, musicians and an insurance salesman who looks lost -- is more intent on exploring the interior than chatting up the opposite sex. Flip-flops stand next to spike heels, mojitos sweat next to colorful martinis, and everybody points at the intense red walls covered with red paint drips, at the huge hanging lamps fashioned out of wood, bent laminate and paper, at the carved wood booze cage that hangs above the bar ...

"This looks more like hell," observes Cathy Pack, an architect from Echo Park. "But you're with such happy people, drinks in hand, that it feels like heaven."

"It's sci-fi modernism filtered through baroque," offers a shy artist who declines to give her name.

Pardo -- known internationally for his "functional art" -- designed the space, once occupied by Chinatown's beloved General Lee's. Artist barhoppers say it will probably be known as "Pardo's place" rather than the Mountain Bar.

They may be right. The owners have yet to hang a sign. In fact, the only name on the building is a remnant from previous ownership: "Man General Lee's Jen Low" is painted on the inside of the door. It will stay as is, says McManus. "Because it's beautiful."

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine


Wednesday July 02, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Dan Crane plays guitar for the "faux-French '60s band" Les Sans Culottes. They've rocked Vegas' Venetian and opened for Ringo Starr. But when Crane appeared on NBC's "Last Call With Carson Daly," he didn't bring an instrument. Or at least not a visible one.

You've seen air guitar before. When your buddy at the bar jumped onto the table and tried ineptly to play along with Hendrix, resting his imagined Stratocaster on his beer belly -- that was air guitar. Wayne and Garth played air guitar, as did Bill and Ted. Chances are you've played air guitar yourself.

But it's not just you and your mirror anymore. The U.S. Air Guitar Championships were held Saturday at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, and by the end of the night, a national air god emerged. Finally, the United States will be sending a representative to the (eighth annual) World Air Guitar Championships, held in Finland.

You laugh, but Crane is here to prove you wrong. There's "nothing funny about air guitar," he says.

Guitarists and groupies

Inside the club, afros and mullets converge. Bare-chested men go glam, in lederhosen and gold chains and tacky lipstick, as they and saunter and blow cigarette smoke in each other's faces.

The air guitarists and awestruck air groupies lounge on the VIP mezzanine. They schmooze, drink beer and grant interviews.

"I have played air guitar since I hopped out of the womb," says Jerry -- just Jerry -- from Nevada. He is wearing a furry, gray coat with no shirt, torn jeans and black-and-white checkered Keds. "I play spring break, weddings, my living room, the john....If I could play a freakin' instrument, I wouldn't be here," he admits. But still, "I think my research and development will take me to Finland. I may not be the most talented, but I will outwork you."

Jerry has two roadies named, appropriately, Veri and Berri. Both have dirty-blond hair and are showing lots of skin. "I'm old enough to know what turns me on. And that would be air guitar," says Berri. "We like it when he plays hard," adds Veri.

Standing nearby, Crane, a.k.a. Bjorn Turoque, frowns at the extravagant posturing. "L.A. is so superficial," says the Denver native. "It's filled with fake [cleavage] and fake smiles." In contrast to the competition, Crane is understated in his rainbow pants and black shirt with a yellow handkerchief tied around his neck.

Crane takes his air guitar seriously. "I'm a nihilist," he explains. "On the plane over, I read a lot of Nietzsche to get into the whole nothingness thing. I'm taking on the role of the Nietzsche Supermensch." Air guitar, he says, "is about nihilism, existentialism, showmanism and a lot of other isms."

Indeed, the Finnish Oulu Music Video Festival, which holds the World Air Guitar Championships, does so "to promote peace," reads its Web site. "According to the philosophy of air guitar, all wars would cease and bad things disappear if everybody in the world only played air guitar." Amnesty International, step aside.

Here's how the championships work: First round, the 20 contestants choose their own music. Next, five semifinalists each perform the same surprise song. The air guitarist who remains standing will go mano a mano with David "C-Diddy" Jung, the legendary East Coast champ. Winner takes all -- a real electric guitar, donated by Guitar Center, and a trip to Finland this summer.

The judges know their riffs: Nina Gordon, formerly of Veruca Salt; Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and currently with AudioSlave; and Roy Trakin, editor of Hits magazine. They'll score contestants based on subjective analyses of originality, charisma, feeling, technical ability, artistic merit and "airness."

"Air guitar has always been my art," says Shawn "Dick Maynard" Mason, who sells electronics in Los Angeles. He's wearing a long black trench coat, Mafioso-style. "I used to play with my dad on long car trips. I always joke with my friends that I'm the greatest air guitarist. Now I can prove it."

"It's C-Diddy!" somebody shouts. The champ has entered the building. He sports his signature Asian motif -- a long red kimono and tight red Chinese print stretch pants -- and is flanked by an actual entourage. Surrounded by would-be celebrities, C-Diddy projects the real thing. Cameras whir.

Sitting in a dark corner in his wheelchair, Ryan "Benjamin Walkin" Flynn, from Fontana, seems to shun attention. The mirrored cross rising from the back of his chair and looming over his head implies otherwise.

"I only came to represent Christian rock music," Flynn says. "We'll find out tonight if Christian rock gets the respect it deserves."

The real pretend thing

Everybody is already grinning as the curtain goes up. For an audience that just paid actual money to watch pretend guitarists pretend to play guitar, it can only get better.

The first few acts are uninspired. Then Mason takes the stage. He sheds his trench coat to reveal the glittery silver sleeves of his black shirt. As the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" begins, Mason bends his knees and slides his fingers up the fret board. He appears to be playing actual chords, not just air chords. He closes his eyes and bangs his head.

"Dick! Dick! Dick!" chants the happy mob.

The energy balloons as the night progresses, both on and off stage.

When it's time for Flynn to perform, nearby do-gooders lift his wheelchair gently onto the stage. "Praise Jesus," he tells the crowd. As the music begins, he drives his electric chair around the stage with one hand, works his guitar with the other. Then the wheelchair takes a violent turn, and Flynn spills out.

There is a collective gasp. But Flynn jumps to his feet and leaps into the air.

Appearances are no longer what they seem. All is air. At the end of his set, Flynn runs to the edge of the stage, reaches into his crotch and throws a handful of glitter at the audience -- which, judging from its deafening response, loved every second.

Good air guitar is actually more about technique than glitz and glam. The savants stand out because they are actually playing an instrument -- not a fake guitar, but rather a real air guitar. When an expert changes chords, the music jumps accordingly. When an expert strums violently, notes turn shrill and the amps scream.

Jerry strides onto the stage with all the bravado of a rock god. Veri and Berri come crawling after him, tear off his shirt and slink back offstage.

Jerry has the look -- hair falling over his eyes, a lanky physique. He has the sexpot groupies. He may even lead the rock star lifestyle. But when it comes to air guitar, he's a pretender. His fingers lag behind the music, get ahead of the music, just generally hinder the music.

In the semifinals, pure technical prowess -- on Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" -- trumps stage presence.

Gordon "Krye Tuff" Hintz, wearing kneepads and a pair of handcuffs as a belt buckle, is the last to perform. He is quiet and confident, and gazes out into the crowd as if to say, "Don't worry. I will rock for you."

His fingers dance. The beat flows through his body like electricity. And then he does something daring even for an air guitarist: He hurls his instrument upward.

The crowd screams. Eyes follow it up, up down, down ... and Hintz catches the guitar. His arms shudder and he jostles slightly, but he's got it, he caught it. His chords continue, flawlessly. He is the Ace of Spades.

It takes charisma

The dark club is humid with perspiration when C-Diddy arrives to battle Hintz for the title. The guy's got charisma. He unties his sash, pivots, and the red kimono falls open. Never before has a Hello Kitty breastplate looked so good. Never before has music seemed to bend -- to tremolo, to reverb -- at the will of an air guitarist.

The crowd goes crazy. C-Diddy plays with effortless virtuosity, a la Eric Clapton. He kneels, throws his head back, and his guitar wails. He owns the act so completely that the music seems to be emanating directly from him. "It can't get any better than this!" somebody shouts.

The judges agree. C-Diddy accepts his trophy and tells Hintz, "You have been a worthy challenger, my friend." He also accepts the real electric guitar, but looks unsure of how to handle it.

A champion crowned, the buoyant mob turns patriotic. "USA! USA!" they bellow. Finland, here we come!

Saturday, June 28, 2003

In impersonal L.A., a modest newsstand draws regulars who turn a bare strip of asphalt into a warm community.


Saturday June 28, 2003

Corner pleasures
* In impersonal L.A., a modest newsstand draws regulars who turn a bare strip of asphalt into a warm community.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

They lounge on the corner of Detroit and Wilshire, as usual. On a late workday afternoon, Jay Lacharity is chugging from a gallon jug of water, blowing cigarette smoke out the side of his mouth and lunging over a chessboard. "I'm coming for you," he says in a faux-"Sopranos" accent. "Power, power, nothing but power."

A player at the next table pauses his game to yell, "No more espresso for him." Everybody laughs. Lacharity, a computer repairman, has been coming to the Miracle Mile Newsstand & Cafe almost every day for six months. And he's the new guy.

Minus inhabitants, the stand merits little attention. The square footage is smaller than its name: "Cafe" is used liberally to denote a coffee cart and a few small tables, bordered by a parking lot on two sides and the gridlock of the boulevard on the other. But the allure of companionship transcends the bald decor.

At 8 o'clock each morning, this spare strip of asphalt becomes a social oasis in an otherwise asocial metropolis. People play chess, browse magazines, listen to an eclectic mix of world music and gab over coffee. Many have been regulars for years.

"We come to study the art of chilling," explains Lacharity's chess opponent, Chorie Jenks. Jenks, a freelance camera operator, spends two or three afternoons a week here. "You wake up, you feel the sun and you come chill," he says, smiling at the traffic just five feet away.

On a recent midmorning, the corner is humming. A slight breeze, cool and comfortable, wafts through the newsstand's ecosystem. Chess players sprawl at the colorfully painted tables and converse with onlookers who stand nearby. Others casually leaf through magazines, in no rush to buy anything. The stereo spins retro for the moment -- the Housemartins croon, "Now the children of the world can see, this is a better place for us to be, the place in which we were born, so neglected and torn apart...."

Pedestrians glance curiously at the makeshift hangout and, more often than not, venture closer. You get the feeling that nobody is a stranger at Detroit and Wilshire -- at least not for long.

"If you feel like banging your head against a wall, this is the place to come," explains Aida -- just Aida. "People might come in looking like they wanna kill the world ... but when they leave, it's all smiles."

A huge bull terrier ambles toward her, and Aida squeals happily. She kneels to meet it on the pavement. "Oh, you're handsome," she tells the dog. "You must be Robinson," she says, reading from its tag.

"Uh, no, that would be me," says the tall twentysomething magazine reader holding the leash. "Ron Robertson."

Aida the cosmetology student, meet Ron the musician.

The leash jerks as the dog runs to greet two newcomers. Lilly Taggart, 18 months, strokes the beast tentatively from her father's arms. "We were in the neighborhood checking out art exhibits, and Lilly wanted to meet the dog," explains Nick Taggart.

The Miracle Mile Newsstand & Cafe was once nothing but a parking lot.

Michael Martin, who owns the place and who always seems to be smiling, didn't set out to start a social hub: "I just wondered what does this old dilapidated parking lot need?" He decided on a newsstand. When working the register grew tedious, he started playing chess to keep himself entertained. Soon he had lots of company.

Mathew Kogan, who teaches adult English as a second language, was stuck in traffic on Wilshire two years ago when he saw people hanging out at the stand and decided to quit the commute. He has been a mainstay ever since. "In L.A., you can't just go to nightclubs and expect to know everybody. You gotta make specific plans," he says. "But you come here, you see all the familiar faces."

It's a diverse crowd. From widower-retirees to students to "lawyers, engineers, architects, a carpenter and some old guy who doesn't say much, but he's so good at chess that he must be a grandmaster from Europe," Martin says.

And yes, actors too. Michael J. Pollard, an Academy Award nominee ("Bonnie and Clyde"), sips coffee and jokes around with John Kapelos, also an actor ("Auto Focus," "Legally Blonde"). Nearby, a disheveled but smiling older man does more pointing than speaking. "That's Reggie," Martin explains. "He's a homeless type. He cleans the sidewalks, and I pay him with coffee."

"Please don't put Michael in the paper," Kapelos jokes. "Everybody's gonna be looking for him."

"Yeah, now there's going to be a doorman," says Pollard.

Reggie grins.

Although the newsstand is always busy, many patrons are more intent on chilling than buying.

"We show up, but we don't necessarily spend a lot," says Kogan. "They're not making much money."

Martin doesn't mind. "When I started this place, I expected to be robbed at least once a year," he says. "But with all these guys hanging around, that never happens." The Blockbuster across the street was held up, but never the newsstand.

While other merchants are afraid of crowds for security reasons, Martin embraces crowds -- for security reasons. Community is a welcome byproduct.

For Goldsborough Purnell, the corner is a second home. Over the past three years, the Albertsons employee has spent a few hours every day here. In fact, Purnell, who lives in Monterey Hills, is looking to move closer to Detroit and Wilshire. "Rain or shine or cold, I'll be here," he says.

As daylight fades, the traffic coagulates. Frustrated commuters stare at the unlikely consortium as their cars inch past. On the corner, little changes. People chat, read, play chess. Chill. Time is no enemy. The only destination is now.