Hunting and Gathering: The Cult of the Purple-Mulberry Eaters
IT WAS LIKE OPENING DAY AT DODGER STADIUM. MULBERRIES WERE BACK at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Chefs, hippies and foodies started lining up at the Circle C Ranch stand Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. while Kim and Clarence Blaine delicately peeled scraps of cloth off plastic bowls of the forbidden fruit. The uninitiated walked by and wondered what all the fuss was about, but for anyone who has tasted the intensely sweet-flavored purple fruit, there was no containing the excitement -- and tension. There's never enough to go around.
"Persian mulberries are the best-tasting thing at the market," says Fred Eric, owner of Fred 62 and Vida restaurants. "If you had to pick one thing, it would be the mulberries."
The season is barely a month long, and the berries are so delicate they can be neither shipped nor stored for very long. They're a mess to grow, and few people want to deal with their incredible staining power. Kim picks them by hand and, wearing surgical gloves, doles them out one basket at a time. Depending on the supply, you can buy one, maybe two, small boxes, about a half-pint each, for a hefty $10 a pop. No wonder the regulars try to curry Kim's favor. Hopefuls bring her gifts (last year a customer gave her a sunbonnet). Regulars are sometimes rewarded with a special peach, cherry or apricot -- also among the best at the market -- from Kim's private stash under the counter.
A steely Korean woman perhaps in her late 60s, Kim is no pushover. Ask her if the figs are sweet, and she will answer wryly, "No, bitter." It definitely helps your cause if she recognizes you. Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard remembers waiting in line for the first time after she moved here from New York nine years ago. "Kim didn't want to have anything to do with me. I asked for 5 pounds [of mulberries], and she said 'No.' Now she's like part of my extended family."
As the line gets longer, waiting for the horn signaling the opening of the market, other chefs appear in the "backroom," the rear of the Circle C van. Civilians in line eye the chefs with a mixture of apprehension and envy, fearful that there won't be enough mulberries to go around. "People see us in the back picking up our stuff, and they think we're more privileged than we are," says Yard. "It's the same stuff they can get if they get here early."
Still, there is an air of anxiety as the devotees wait their turn. First in line is a 35-year-old ex-punker dressed all in black. She affects a New York cool about the scene. "Hey, I've done heroin, I'm not going to freak out about mulberries."
A screenwriter from Santa Monica says he used to get anxious about the chefs getting stuff before him; now he uses the opportunity to find out what they're making.
With a whisk hanging out of the pocket of her jean jacket, Yard looks ready to whip up something on the spot. One of her favorite things is poaching figs in mulberry juice and Syrah wine, then spooning the sauce and mulberries over a tart shell filled with ginger cream. Josiah Citrin from Mélisse might use them in a fromage blanc mousse or with foie gras. But most of the regulars prefer to eat them raw with their fingers.
The line crawls. People kill time talking about recipes and swapping favorite mulberry stories. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a very skinny woman who told Kim she was pregnant and needed to get an extra box to satisfy her craving. When Kim refused, the woman stormed off to the market manager, telling her that the health of her unborn was at stake.
A musician in a leather jacket waits cheerfully; he has been coming here every week for five years. He's from Armenia, where, he says, the mulberries are even bigger and sweeter than California's. "But these are the closest to the real thing. For me, eating them is like a meditative experience; the flavor reminds me of my childhood."
An Asian woman from Hawaii says she has tried berries in France and Sweden, and these are the best in the world. "I remember growing up reading fairy tales and imagining what berries should taste like. This is it."
Not everyone here is a convert. A first-timer, brought along as a subterfuge by his girlfriend so he can buy an extra box, is unconvinced. "These people must have a lot of time on their hands," he marvels. "It looks like a cult."
There is something of the religious experience about the ritual. People get up early and assemble every week, greeting their fellow seekers with good cheer. If, as Sherry Yard says, "the market is our church," then the mulberries must be heaven on earth.
MADMEN AND TINKERERS: In Search of the Flux Capacitor
"DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A FUSE BLOCK to you?" The questioner wears a Powerpuff Girls T-shirt and features a full set of ZZ Top whiskers. He holds up a shiny metal case from which a nest of colored wires dangles. I shrug to indicate that I'm not sure what it is.
We're standing in a cramped aisle of Apex Electronics, a hangar-size building stuffed to the rafters with electronic parts, gadgets, and surplus whatnots expelled from the bowels of the military-industrial complex. Hidden among the auto-parts salvage yards, taco stands and freeway ramps of Sun Valley, Apex is a not-so-well-kept secret: a technology graveyard haunted by ham-radio nuts, backyard electricians, tinkerers, studio prop masters, artists, metal sculptors, effects techs and other assorted spooks with an itch for cool junk.
Doc Brown and his ilk would feel right at home here. What looks to be a fresh stock of flux capacitors and enough components to send Marty McFly back to the future are strewn the length of each aisle. Next to a heap of digital-logic integrated circuits I unearth a pair of Art Deco drive-in theater speakers still in the original manufacturer's box. Another nearby shelf yields an assortment of similarly preserved vacuum tubes.
If some of the stuff looks as if it's been gathering dust here for years, that's because it has. Apex took over the building in 1953 as an outlet to sell off postwar surplus from manufacturers like Lockheed. Tons of industrial and electronic scrap still arrive every week, get sorted and sifted through by a small army of Spanish-speaking day workers, and eventually find a place among the acres of debris.
Checkout is equally serendipitous. A customer approaches a tiny counter near the entrance with an armload of goodies. Behind it, the young Russian-émigré clerk eyeballs the odds and ends, deftly judging its value. "Mmm . . . six dollars," he says between drags of Marlboro.
Out back, it's a scene from a post-apocalyptic yard sale: a labyrinth of small paths wind among tall stacks of twisted metal cabinets, rusting electronic test equipment, power transformers, oscilloscopes and other mad-scientist gotta-have-its. Like some indie-movie prop rat's dream, a polished aluminum radar dish sags against a group of sleek ballistic-missile bodies prickling with pointy Flash Gordon tail fins. I crawl through one of the storage trailers and find myself surrounded by control panels from some long-forsaken aerospace project bearing NASA logos and a phalanx of buttons marked "FIRE," "ARMED" and "EMERGENCY ABORT." Later, I pass by a fellow with a camera discreetly framing shots of a fashionably attired young woman against a glittering landscape of steel trusswork piled at crazy angles against the sky. Just then, the man with the ZZ Top whiskers wanders by clutching a blue airport-landing light.
"I don't have a clue what I'm gonna use it for," he says, "but I know I need it."
STATE OF EMERGENCY: Playing the Victim
"EARLY THIS MORNING, AT AN EMERGENCY meeting of the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and the L.A. Emergency Network, high-ranking officials were kidnapped, and some were murdered. At 8:35 a.m. an explosion rocked the Staples Center. The VA has been told to prepare for victims."
This is the scenario spelled out by Frank Estrada, manager of the Emergency Program at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles to a group of 30 aspiring victims. We are taking part in a simulated-disaster exercise.
"Here's where you guys come in," he tells us. "We don't know what explosives were used. We need ambulatory volunteers for decontamination." He warns that this will involve showers, which means we'll get â wet. Will our clothes be cut off? Will we have to get naked?
No nudity, assures Estrada, trim, in jeans and short-sleeved shirt, sunglasses perched on his shaved head.
With nine others, I choose the decontamination route. Paper pants and shirts are distributed. Then chaos ensues. Not the chaos of contamination, but the agony of pants that won't fit. "Excuse me, but not every victim is petite," proclaims one woman, pants stuck beneath her hips. Bigger sizes are located.
Hospital employees distribute green tags delineating our injuries. Those not garbed in blue have a full range of woes, from a bit of confusion to head injuries. I'm designated as contaminated, but I'm untagged and ambulatory. I figure I'll stroll right through this victim gig.
But then another coordinator shows up with tags for the contaminated. Mine reads, "Unconscious with bleeding from the nose and ears." I'm unhappy with my lack of control.
Once we are tagged, Estrada directs us outside to await our ambulances. I am standing in the sun with a group of strangers in blue pajamas. Green, blue and red tents line the lot to our left. Medical workers wander about. We've been told that many agencies are working together for the first time in this drill, but we are already feeling a bit out of it -- appropriate victim behavior. A small squad in blue hoods, gas masks, goggles and puffy blue boots stands near a huge Hazmat truck (for hazardous materials) parked in front of the blooming jacarandas. Above us, the Getty sits firmly on its hilltop. We know that crisp blue skies, sunlight and flowering trees can coexist with the most horrific events.
An ambulance pulls up. I'm led into it with two other volunteers and strapped onto the gurney, while the others, with less serious injuries, sit by my side. Sirens whir as we're driven around for a few minutes before returning to the tented area, yards from where we'd begun.
I'm trying to stay in unconscious, contaminated character, but it's not easy. I resist the numerous inquiries about my condition. In my slightly unconscious, contaminated state, I'm wheeled through a warm spray, shifted to a plastic stretcher and moved to a new zone.
I am seriously injured and getting a lot of attention. There is shouting and hovering. Everyone is trying hard. I am unconscious with eyes open. Does this mean I'm dead? (I hope no one will notice through my sunglasses.) Cameras record my every move. Should I worry about how I look? A voice on a loudspeaker booms that the explosion was not radioactive.
"Okay, ma'am, you can get on the gurney," says one of the medical personnel. I remain committed to lack of consciousness. "Okay, ma'am, you can get on the gurney," the request is repeated. And repeated again.
"I'm supposed to be unconscious," I splutter.
"It's okay," a real or pretend nurse assures me. "They told us you could move yourself now." I scramble onto the gurney.
"She's in the sun -- you shouldn't put her in the hot sun," says a concerned worker, who holds no sway.
Eventually I'm released from the gurney and sent to get a bagel and juice from the Red Cross truck.
Others, decontaminated, healed or sent to the morgue, wander over as they're dismissed. Some, now wearing long blue robes, carry their clothes in plastic bags. We all seem a bit disoriented. Earlier, before plunging into our roles, we discovered that while a few had been involved in earthquake preparedness for years, most of us had signed on after September 11. Although acts of terror had been the incentive, people were especially interested in figuring out how to create a sense of community and safety in their neighborhoods.
"In an ideal world, you would know and trust your neighbors," says Penny, who has been attempting to organize her block, "but in the real world, you don't."
In the real world, as presently constituted, we've completed our morning's good work. We're thanked and assured that we've made an invaluable contribution to a new level of emergency preparedness. But it's not clear if we're any closer to the safer present we all long for.
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