The Man in the Green Shirt
Earlier, I had got to thinking that the scuffs on the toes of my Red Wing oxfords were undermining my casual yet orderly dress code. After a brief stop at the Criminal Courts Building, on Temple and Broadway, Id set out to find a shine. It wasnt easy. Service, let alone courtesy, is strictly verboten at the CCB, more of a lockup than a courthouse. Likewise, so I ascertained, at the Federal Courthouse, on Spring, and at the states Stanley Mosk Courthouse, on Hill Street. Caught in a loop of my own sepia memories, Id pictured the wide terrazzo ground-floor hallways of these civic institutions as having shoeshine stands. Somewhere near the door, there would be a wooden platform with padded Naugahyde chairs and iron footrests, and a man in a smudged, waist-length smock putting aside his newspaper as I approached. But all I found were pistol-packing guards, X-ray machines and electromagnetic portals.
I ventured toward Bunker Hill, whose soaring towers contain downtowns highest concentration of lawyers, accountants and deal makers and, therefore, expensive leather shoes. On notoriously vacant Grand Avenue, not a pair of Allen-Edmonds in sight. In fact, at 9:30 in the morning, I saw just six pedestrians between First and Third, all of them wearing sneakers. Following them wouldnt lead to a spit-n-polish kiosk.
I crossed Grand Avenue, wandered onto Wells Fargo Plaza, then briefly peeked into the KPMG Tower. The gimlet eyes of security-desk officials steered me away before I could even begin to utter my question, Is there a shoeshine stand in the . . .
It was on my way down the library steps, en route to the Biltmore Hotel and Pershing Square, that it dawned on me: I could find a shoeshine, like everything else downtown, on Broadway. At the Grand Central Market I asked the unarmed security guard, who was busily chatting up a well-endowed woman sipping a soda. Leaning his head out onto Broadway, he pointed up the block and said, The man in the green shirt.
That was Mauricio, who was now swirling a brush in a tin of saddle soap and quickly washing my shoe. With a horsehair brush, which he wielded like a baton twirler, he swiped away the residue of soap. Next, he applied a swab dipped in dye. A tap on my toe said, Time to switch shoes. He repeated the preliminary steps. Another tap, back to my right foot. Mauricio loaded his left-hand fingertips with black shoe wax and burnished the polish into my pebble-finished leather uppers. Two more stages of brushing, and then, without much flourish, and with just an occasional snap, he buffed the shoes to a glowing finish.
How much do I owe you? I asked.
Palm down, he spread the five fingers of his right hand.
As I got ready to get up, a man in evident need of a shine walked past. Mauricio, catching the mans eye, nodded toward his shoes, diffidently, partly asking but partly telling him he ought to stop for a shine. The passerby didnt know what he was missing. With tip, Id paid $7 to let my mind drift with the uncomplicated ceremony of wash, dye, wax, brush, polish and pay. Id purchased five languorous minutes to gaze absently at a parade of wool-suited businessmen, plaid-shirted laborers and ragged-trousered panhandlers. Id call that an inexpensive restorative.
Later I learned that Id missed two higher-end stands, one in the Wells Fargo atrium, the other at the Gas Company Tower, on Fifth Street, catering to the wingtips hurrying down the halls of those corporate office buildings. No matter. Now I knew about Mauricio and his outdoor room from which I could observe the labyrinth of the city at a turtles pace.
If any one figure in early punk embodied the healthy Valley Girl gone very bad, it would have to be Cherie Currie, the lingerie-clad, platinum-blond jailbaitery who fronted the legendary Runaways. So its oddly fitting that Curries current occupation is chain-saw artist. With Makita in hand or maybe an Ekko Currie can reduce a piece of redwood, pine, palm, elm or cedar into a carefully carved work of art, generally at the rate of about two a day when shes really cranking.
Still, theres some serious cognitive dissonance when one first meets the former teenage Cherry Bomb snarler and encounters the amiable Chatsworth soccer mom who appears at the door. Inside her Southwestern-style home, her work abounds from the colorful relief images that adorn her walls (the relief carvings, as she calls them, are one-dimensional and done with a dremel tool, a kind of rotating blade with different bits) to the completed and in-progress pieces of full-on chain-saw art, which are generally wooden animals and, more specifically, cute renditions of bears.
Most of my clientele commissions the bears because theyre very cute, she says. They can sell for $250 and up Im busy all year with them.
Carefully goggled and gloved, she strips the bark off a log via chisel and then commences to chain-saw and talk about her art.
Havent killed myself yet with the saws, she says. But I have been winged by flying pieces of wood that hit you at 150 mph.
Luckily, Currie is in excellent shape, possibly as a result of her mid-80s, post-Runaways career as a personal fitness trainer. In fact, after a couple of hours talking with her, it becomes clear that theres little she hasnt done. After she parted company with the Runaways (We hated each other. The abuse was unreal because I was the singer and always getting photographed. The others were jealous), she acted in many movies, including Foxes and a turn in This Is Spinal Tap as the source of that cursed bands herpes outbreak.
That scene was on the cutting-room floor, she says, but made it to DVD.
She came upon her new career as a craftswoman, artist and entrepreneur completely by chance. I was driving over Kanan Dume Road one day and saw these dudes doing chain-saw carving by the side, and I knew I had to get into it. I started interning at the place, the Malibu Mountain Gallery, and before I knew it, I was doing it.
It wasnt all that different from her start with the Runaways. I dropped out of high school to go on the road, and they promised theyd help with my education, she says. Of course, the education I got was nothing like the one you usually get.
For now, her future as carver is bright. She even got a spot recently on the Discovery Channels Monster Garage. In her episode, called The Logsplitter, she says, I got to chain-saw carve next to the legendary Bob King, whos the best carver out there.
Curries present dilemma is that she cant do much carving at home because of the noise and wood-chip refuse all these years later, shes still the queen of noise but the West Valley real estate boom has made a move to a workshop or storefront difficult. No matter, she loves her work.
I was told when I started that all you had to do was visualize something in the wood and do it, she says. If you cant do that, you cant carve.
As for the inevitable question of a Runaways reunion she and Joan Jett did Cherry Bomb onstage in Anaheim about three years ago it is unlikely to ever happen.
Lita Ford is the main reason, she says, sadly. Seven years ago, she set up this reunion thing and we had to talk Joan into it and that was hard, but Joanie finally said she would do it. A tour, a record deal, everything in the works was a go, until Lita heard Joans voice on the conference call and then freaked out.
Apparently, Ford didnt sense enough enthusiasm from the bands most famous alum.
Lita basically says, Hey, if you dont wanna do double backflips over this, I wont do it. Joan [told her] that she was just off the plane from Hong Kong and was a little tired, but that wasnt good enough for Lita. Lita goes, Im a household name, I dont need this, and that was that. She did it again four years ago when we were offered $3 million for a 40-date tour. I think it was a setup from her to kind of string us along and drop it, because shes still angry.
Currie isnt, which is a good thing shes got a chain saw and she knows how to use it.
Nazi Mah and Colin Walkden, Mahs London-born boyfriend, are the kind of couple you might expect to see at the Sunday Farmers Market in south Santa Monica. They live on raw food, quote Jello Biafra and drive a car plastered with lefty slogans. The Sunday market has been their shopping ritual for years.
Tawni Angel, 24, is also a regular at the Sunday market. Since 2001, shes brought in six to eight miniature Shetland horses from her ranch in Moorpark and gives pony rides to the many kids who inevitably get restless tagging along while their parents look at fruits and vegetables.
For a long time, Mah and Walkden took no notice of Angel and her Tawnis Ponies concession; like the cooked-food vendors, musicians and usual petition gatherers, the ponies were just part of the markets festival atmosphere.
But last fall, the two started watching the ponies, animals they consider to be our brothers and sisters, not servants to man. In an era of spectator malaise, when so many shrug and accept stolen elections and illegal wars while consuming organic tangelos, Mah and Walkden like to think of themselves as the kind of people who fight for their convictions. By November, they decided to fight for the ponies.
They made signs, wrote up petitions and began distributing leaflets every week to the customers of Tawnis Ponies. Over the last five months, theyve collected close to 1,000 signatures, which they plan to thrust upon the Santa Monica City Council. But one of their key tactics has been to taunt Tawni Angel.
Slave owner! shouted Mah one drizzly February morning as her eyes narrowed on Angel. Even in her baseball cap topped with a stuffed toy horse, Mah, 32, looked fierce.
Other protesters, who along with Mah descended on the market holding signs decrying the evils of pony servitude, chanted and gesticulated toward the parents around the corral, incensed that a miniature horse breed should be shackled for the entertainment of their giddy preschoolers.
That ones pregnant! screamed Walkden.
Angel, used to all kinds of accusations from the protesters, rolled her eyes. Hes a male, she said. The parents laughed.
Walkden admits their cause seems frivolous, but says, Early life lessons lay the foundation for how we live. If theres any chance for us to live in harmony with our fellow beings, it has to begin with the children, and if one of their first experiences is riding a pony, then they will always remember that animals are here for our use.
The irony is that Angel considers herself an animal lover too. She originally rented her ranch so she could live and work among horses. Whats more, she says that her ponies work just six hours a week. The rest of the time they roam free on 10 acres. Recently, hurt by the protesters accusations, Angel created an informational poster to educate customers about her facility and how she treats her animals.
But Mah and Walkden are unmoved, and some weeks the protests get particularly tense. One Sunday, dozens of protesters shouted, Shame on you, JJ! at a mounted, bewildered preschooler, and there have been accusations of assault on both sides. Walkden was even jailed overnight in early January for protesting the market. He insists he wont stop until the ponies are free.
Last Sunday was calm, with gorgeous weather and a packed market. Mah and Walkden marched alone, gathering signatures and distributing leaflets. One warned of the E. coli risk inherent in pony poop.
Angel said that the claim smacks of desperation: Theyre just plagiarizing the news.
Although the two sides have grown grudgingly accustomed to one another, Angel is weary, and the protests have affected her business. Look. Theres no line, she said, pointing toward the corral. For the last four years, it was 45 minutes long. Angel estimates that she loses $600 a week because of the protests but does not plan on quitting. There are kids who come to see and ride their favorite ponies, and I wont disappoint them. With a deep breath she nodded toward her adversaries and said defiantly, Theyll give up or cross the line and eventually get arrested or banned. Im not going anywhere.
After Guruji counts us through a hyper-accelerated version of the primary ashtanga series, a gaggle of eager students rushes to bow at his feet. A rosy-cheeked, San Franciscobased devotee skips toward me with butterflies and hummingbirds dancing above her head. She sings about Gurujis shakti and the bliss of total thoughtlessness. I smile while wishing her and her oozing happiness away.
I expected an electrifying transmission of shakti from Guruji an eruption of metaphysical bells and whistles that would render me instantly enlightened. Instead, I feel heavy and stiff.
My friend Sam sidles up, looking bored and pouty.
Are you gonna do the foot thing?
For obvious reasons (its weird; its gross), some Western students struggle with the foot thing, an ancient tradition wherein the student wipes the ignorance of maya from his or her eyes with the dust from the gurus feet.
Indeed, I do line up for the foot thing. Sweaty, savasana-high yogis wait to bow at the gurus calloused feet. With an aura of divine reverence and a billion-watt smile, Guruji sits perched on the edge of a banquet chair, receiving foot caresses and eager hugs.
Its my turn. I bow at Gurujis feet and offer him the brownies I baked, thinking them a fair trade for eternal liberation. I look deep into his eyes for some sign of recognition.
He has no idea who I am.
Day 2: Guruji shuffles around the banquet hall bending the time-space continuum while counting us through an excruciating lotus-bound balancing pose: . . . seven . . . eeeeee-eight . . . four . . . I receive neither adjustments nor glance and slip out early, having a deadline with its attendant paycheck to make. I could feel guilty about not paying my respects, but Guruji reveres money almost as much as he reveres ashtanga yoga, if not more. Hell understand.
Instant Karma I come down with an acute case of writers block and blow my deadline.
Day 3: As partial penance, I take a different tack. I approach the mat with genuine reverence and appreciation for Guruji and this practice he has worked his entire life to master and to share. I inhale Gurujis wisdom and I exhale my deepest and most heartfelt thanks. It does little to loosen my hamstrings, but helps block out the mind chatter.
Afterward, I shoot the shit with Katie, a hometown yoga friend. We tease a fellow student who had been on the receiving end of one of Gurujis few and far-between, highly coveted adjustments.
Did you feel his shakti?
No, but I saw the light of a thousand suns in the face of his gold watch.
Katie and I rationalize being ignored by the Guru.
Guruji only adjusts you if youre doing it wrong.
No, he only adjusts you if your ego is desperate and crying out for the attention.
But, my ego was crying out for attention. My every vinyasa, inhale and forward-bend screamed Guruji! Over here! Remember me!?! Come touch me with your shakti-infused hands and save me from the dull, boring, material horror of this sleepy and illusory realm! Goo-roo-geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!
I guess my ego wasnt whining loud enough.
Day 4: Not only are gravity and I at odds, rendering my practice unsteady and spastic, but the flatulent woman to my left is in grave need of a colonic. My mind wanders. Why is he counting so fast? When was the last time the hotel shampooed the carpet? I decide mid-standing poses that I hate yoga. I give up and go through the motions. When its over, I leap to the front of the foot-lick line just to avoid conversation.
Day 5: I lay out my mat with resigned indifference. I surrender to the likelihood of a shitty practice. I no longer care whether Guruji notices me. I am over the pageantry and the tour and the Roosevelt hotel and these 6 a.m. sessions.
I drag Sam with me to the foot queue. We crack wise and watch teary-eyed students exchange goodbyes and wonder whether weve missed something. My turn is up. I bow down at Gurujis feet. He looks me in the eye. His energy is overwhelming and sweet. He is completely present and I wonder: Does he see something in me? Does he remember me? Does he know what Im thinking and how much I practice and how hard I try and how I sometimes skip Sundays and setu bandhasana and that I dont always do the belly swishy thing before practice, but that I love him and I love this practice even when Im bratty and small and it kicks my ass the way its done all week?
I hug him and I hold him tight and for some reason, I dont want to let go.
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