It is a rare L.A. morning: Everyone is wearing overcoats. The winter air is crisp; the light that shines through the trees is bright. Bespectacled Matthew Kogan sits under a heat lamp at a round yellow table on what he calls “the doughnut side of the Farmers Market” — that area sandwiched between Bob’s Donuts, in the same spot since 1935, and Coffee Corner, which has been here since 1946. Half of his café Americana is finished, and there are a few bites missing from a cinnamon bun.
For the past 15 years, Kogan, who works as an ESL teacher, has been coming here in the mornings to read or work on lesson plans, and so is qualified to point out the regulars, of which there are many, most past the age of retirement. And since today is a school holiday, Kogan has nothing but time. He takes off his wool cap, places it on the table by his green messenger bag and looks around.
“She is a regular and alone, which is very rare,” he says, pointing toward a woman in red. “Usually she is holding court and telling stories loudly.”
Just beyond are six men in scarves and gray beards at the so-called “Mazursky table,” long favored by director Paul Mazursky and his friends. “Those guys are all into sports,” Kogan remarks, and then turns toward a man in a white fisherman’s cap engaged in conversation with a man whose face resembles the actor Burt Young. “The little guy with the hat and glasses,” Kogan says, “he is here every day in the same spot. I was once nearby and heard him talking. I think he was a sailor. A lot of the older people are very social. They come and meet their other friends here. I think going out every day and socializing seems really healthy.”
Do you ever talk with them?
“I know I seem antisocial. I am a little bit younger than a lot of the people that hang out,” explains Kogan, who is 45. “If I start talking to them, then I will start sitting with them . . . ” he smiles and stretches out his legs. “I am really gregarious, but I also like my time to read, or think, or write.”
Of all the places he’s tried to read in public, Kogan finds the Farmers Market more appealing than most cafés and restaurants, where, as he points out, they tend to play “high-energy” music more for their employees than the customers. “I like loud music, especially when I drive — I crank it up. But when I read or if I’m writing, it’s a killer.”
Kogan, whose father was in the garment business, grew up in the Fairfax district. He went to Carthay Circle Elementary and later Fairfax High. A little over a decade ago, Kogan was even a silent investor in the once extremely hip Big and Tall Café and Bookstore, on nearby Beverly Boulevard, considered partially responsible for the redevelopment of that area. And though he remembers ordering pizza from the Farmers Market pizza stand when he was a kid, it wasn’t until he reached adulthood and had moved back to the neighborhood after living in England for a few years that Kogan and his wife, a Swedish-born physician’s assistant, developed a real appreciation for the Farmers Market.
“The Grove hasn’t changed the place; it’s full of tourists anyway,” he says of the adjacent mall, which was built on the former Farmers Market parking lot and annex. Even the 1940s-era tables and chairs have remained. “I am a strange person. I am in the same place I was as a child; people can’t relate to that. My grandmother used to come here every day when she learned to drive later in life; she used to drive like five blocks to get here.”
So do you come here because of some sentiment from your childhood?
“No, no, no. I come here more for the outside space, the European thing. Look, it is a beautiful day. Why would I want to be inside? Actually, now that I think about it, this is one of the few places that has not felt compelled to change — they had something good going. Even when they build some new little addition, they keep the stones — they’re actually quite stylish and well built. There is a Starbucks, but why would you come to Farmers Market and get the corporate coffee? I think [the Coffee Corner is] better anyways. They do a good cup of coffee.”
Kogan also appreciates the authentic L.A. people-watching.
“If you went to Fred Segal you would see Fred Segal people, and that’s cool too. Actually, I see more celebrities here than anywhere else. It’s weird that they would come to a place where there are tourists. They are always left alone.”
As if on cue, the actress Illeana Douglas orders a drink at the Coffee Corner. With notebooks, possibly scripts, in hand, she attempts to take a seat at the table beside the women Kogan had pointed out earlier, who quickly tell the star of Ghost World and To Die For that the table is being held for friends who have not yet arrived.
Where do you teach?
“Evans Community Adult School. It’s a very large school run by LAUSD.”
I’ve never heard of that school.
“That’s because you aren’t from El Salvador,” says Kogan matter-of-factly. He is also a representative for the teachers union.
Do you travel often?
“Yes. In fact, during my last two spring breaks I went to Italy and France. I did a lot of photography, which is fun, a hobby.”
So photography is a passion?
“A passion? No. A hobby. An interest. That’s probably what you write about: L.A. people describe their passions, their dreams, and the script that they are writing, which relates to their passion. I am not in the industry. I don’t have my biography encapsulated in a few paragraphs.”
He picks up his Corner Coffee cup and takes a final sip.