Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mr. Dave's Neighborhood

Hey All,

I wrote my last post from the glamorous confines of the Laundromat Did you know that my word processor automatically capitalizes Laundromat? There it did it again. I guess at one time it was a trade name. Strangely, the program is cool with windex. It tells me it's misspelled but doesn't cap it. Let's try this ... Kleenex! Capitalized. Against my will. There must be a story there, but I'll leave that for you.

What was I starting to say? Oh, location. I am now in the local coffee house and community hub. This is where I come to argue politics, religion, art and whatever else a cup of coffee has persuaded me that I know something about. There is an octagonal table in the front-most area, where such discussions are held every Saturday and Sunday morning. I can often be found there. It's called the "Round Table" in spite of it's eight corners. The current table showed up shortly after the new owner shit-canned  the one we had. That one was larger, wobblier, and actually round. The public outcry was such that Julie, the new owner, grabbed this one somewhere and stuck it in. Now we crowd in a little closer, our newspapers overlapping and bagels fighting for space, but the quest for truth goes on.

So I am there now, only just managing to find a little quiet. A local woman with whom I have had several spirited debates - usually not ending pleasantly - tried for a while to engage me. I futzed with my computer, pleading "Work". She then sat at my immediate left and made a long and noisy call. But I hung tough and ignored her ... and she has gone. Sweet.

It's a funny little town, Altadena. We sit just north of Pasadena, just upslope. If you watch the Rose Parade on New Year's morning, you will notice that the cameras all shoot northward. This shows off the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains to good effect. Much of the rest of the country is, by then, huddled inside their snow-banked bunkers, cursing Currier and Ives and that mall-artist who makes being snowed-in look so picturesque. They stare through the window of the TV into California where tawny horses high-step and a million flowers bloom into gaudy wheeled sculpture, and they say "Why? Why are we here?". The hills that march away toward those mountains is where I live. Altadena.

Many years ago the town was made mostly of cabins and artist shacks. The normal folks stayed down on the flats where they built neo-old-money mansions in Pasadena and San Marino and thousands of tract homes for the worker-bees. This was a place for mis-fits; folks who weren't real fond of rules. That ethos is still alive and well, though as LA and consequently Pasadena grew, some of the money eased up the hill. I live at the fringe of maybe half a square mile of homes clustered around a country club. Some grand houses there. We've got 'em surrounded though, and they mostly keep to themselves.

The Altadena that I know is exemplified by a clutch of businesses along Lake Avenue. This is one, the Coffee Gallery, and it's Backstage where music is presented almost nightly by the famed Bob Stanes. The Gallery At The End Of The World is another; a found-art explosion of creativity which Ben McGinty and his merry pranksters endlessly morph into a thousand visions of an art collective.

That sits six blocks north of where I am writing, and immediately north of that is our bar, The Rancho. This is sort of the dark sister to the Coffee Gallery, a place where real alcoholics go to do their work. I myself spent many a wasted night there, soaked in booze, learning again and again that a small-town tavern possesses every bit as much political intrigue and danger as a Kandahar hookah lounge.

There are, of course, other businesses, all of them small. A few restaurants, and a few liquor stores. Tobacco store, hardware store, brake and tire joint, couple hair salons. An old drugstore that dominates most of a block was a kind of general store containing a pharmacy, stationers, Hallmark shop and a bottle shop all stepped down the hill in sections, and connected by passageways, now walled off by warring heirs forcing patrons to walk out to the street and back in another door. The Ralphs super-market here is so small it has no deli or even a proper meat counter. It is scorned by the country-club yuppies and the intelligentsia as beneath contempt. I shop there, and at a still smaller Armenian corner-grocery, and at a big, rollicking market on our western edge called Super King, where potatoes are a dime a pound, and onions only twice that, and gorgeous red and yellow bell peppers cost a third of what they'd nick you for at Whole Foods.

We have no Starbucks, and don't want one. No Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Staples. The Blockbuster is teetering on the brink. Wal-Mart would giggle if we invited them here. We are the classic hillside town; not on the way to anywhere more important than a hiking trail, and inhabited by people with congenitally low stores of ambition.

It's perfect. It's a neighborhood. I moved here eight years ago. My marriage delaminated suddenly, and while doing a stint at my folks' guest house, I found myself here more and more. I was booking Sundays at the Backstage and hiking every Saturday. A friend clued me to a bungalow for rent, and I crashed the party full-time. I live in one of those little horseshoe arrangements of cottages around a grassy courtyard once so popular in California. People move in and out. I always know most of them pretty well, but nobody knocks on the door very often. It's quiet and private and I'll miss it when I go.

I'll miss the people, and the sense of belonging that, as hard as I have fought it, has permeated my calloused skin.

Just this past weekend an event took shape here that would be unlikely in a lot of places. One of our own, a man named Leslie Perry, has published a book of his collected stories and plays, and the community turned out to celebrate him. Leslie is a performing storyteller who has lived an artist's life; writing, teaching, keeping alive the lore and oral history of Black Americans and all Americans. Two years ago he noticed a certain mutinous behavior in his body. It wouldn't always do what it was told. Eventually, he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, the same ailment which has sidelined the beloved California singer-songwriter Eric Lowen.

Leslie's first impulse was to throw a benefit for the ALS association. I participated, along with many others and we raised some money and had a ball. Later, as she watched her friend and customer slowing down, Julie (she of the Round Table caper) made up her mind that Leslie's works would be published. A fund was created, and another benefit held. A publisher appeared (local Quesadilla Press) and Leslie and his helpers pulled together a fine beautiful book.

Sunday marked it's release. Bob donated the Backstage which bulged with people. Julie and others cooked. The cream of So Cal storytellers read excerpts, Ross Altman sang and finally Leslie took the stage. It may be his last performance. Or maybe he has a few more in him. But he will never forget that day. It was moving stuff, and typical of our little lopsided town. This is a place where you can be old or fat or sick or black or gay or mentally askew or even white and male. And nobody will spend a minute on it. If you hold your hand out and behave yourself mostly, you're in.

I will most likely trade my little place for one with wheels before too long. The adventure, hopefully, will carry me far and wide and give me friends everywhere. But I'm taking some Altadena with me.

Take Care, Dave

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