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It’s the Parking, Stupid!

David Freeman is the first to arrive. Wearing a blue blazer and brown fedora, the writer hunches over a rickety table in the far northeast corner of the Farmers Market, stirring his coffee with a metal spoon, the significance of which I‘ll soon learn. No one remembers how, exactly, Freeman’s renowned Algonquinesque table came together. Or even when. But the core group -- two novelists, a screenwriter, a painter, a journalist and a film directoractor -- has been gathering here in the same spot, daily, for nearly two decades. ”It‘s so informal. We never thought it would be an institution,“ Freeman says. ”We met for breakfast here in the mid-’80s, and then one day film crews were following us.“

If the Market is a pocket of timelessness, then it is, perhaps, the simplicity, the steadiness of routine that draws this group here each day. Morning after morning, 8:30 a.m.: the same faces, the same river of affectionate insults flowing among them, the same doughnuts from Bob‘s, the same peripheral groups (Israelis at the next table, retired bartenders at another) and the same, familiar chorus of white noise -- the clatter of dishes, a melting pot of languages -- in the background. Only now, four days before the opening of The Grove next door, it includes the relentless cacophony of construction. Normally, Freeman tells me, conversation revolves around the same three staples: sports, women and movies. Today, there’s a new topic: parking.

”Did you find a spot?“ Freeman asks. ”They keep saying, ‘You won’t be affected here.‘ But it’s just impossible. There‘s something about this place, where we’ve been so comfortable for so long, turning into everything that‘s horrible about this country.“

That would include plastic spoons. A few years back, the Market decided to ditch its silverware and go all-plastic, much to Freeman’s disgust. And so the Coffee Corner keeps a proper tin spoon for him. That‘s the sort of thing that keeps him coming back, that and his friends. ”There’s enough vulgarity at the corner of Fairfax and Third. I don‘t see why I should have to add to it by stirring my coffee with plastic.“ He brightens momentarily. ”Oh look, here’s Len.“

Leonard Klady, the journalist, settles in with a stack of newspapers and Hollywood trade magazines. Before he even sits down, he asks Freeman, ”Where‘d you park?“

Freeman presses on about the Market: ”This place had a genuine quality to it. And now it’s starting to feel like a theme park: ‘Oh, here’s New Land, and now we‘ll go over here to Old Land.’ Add to that the traffic problem this is going to generate. I don‘t see how I could keep coming. Or my friends.“ Freeman pauses, contemplating the end. ”It really does come down to the fact that it was once casual, spontaneous, and completely seemed like a cultural event.“

Klady: ”The people from The Price Is Right! That was always a cultural event.“

Freeman: ”Yeah, they’d come over from CBS. They were always here.“

Klady: ”They wear funny costumes and have Bob Barker T-shirts. And they go around in herds of, like, 20.“

Charles Bragg arrives next. The artist, whose comical drawings were ubiquitous on posters and cards in the ‘70s and ’80s, has been described as part Charles Schultz and part Hieronymus Bosch, and in his sweat-suit jacket, Atlanta Braves cap and graying, manicured goatee, he somehow looks the part. Bragg is followed by screenwriter Leon Capetanos -- who co-wrote Down and Out in Beverly Hills with director Paul Mazursky -- and his (much younger) Swedish wife, Lisa, carrying their 12-month-old daughter, Chloe. Leon met Lisa at the Market 12 years ago -- at this very table -- when she was just 19. ”Isn‘t that incredible?“ Freeman says, dragging over a second table. ”It’s like from another era: Her father introduced them -- Leon‘s nine times her age!“

After another round of greetings, the conversation shifts back to the Market and The Grove. ”We’ll see whether there is a dichotomy between people who come here,“ says Klady, tapping the tabletop, ”and the people who go there.“ (He points eastward, toward the mall.)

Freeman: ”We‘re not going there!“ a36

Bragg: ”I’d go there before I‘d go to the Beverly Center.“

Lisa: ”I’ll be coming here for breakfast and then going over there!“

Freeman: ”You know what this reminds me of? Death of a Salesman. Those two huge buildings around this little tiny alley, and everyone‘s looking for the sun.“

Suddenly, the alarm on a nearby ATM machine sounds -- a shrill, high-pitched, shriek -- and Freeman’s voice bumps up a notch: ”I liked it better when there wasn‘t all this crap around!“

A woman strolls by wearing a white T-shirt that reads: ”Traveling alone from Montreal to see . . .“ over a picture of Bob Barker. ”Do you see that?!“ cries Klady, grinning victoriously.

Over the years, they’ve called themselves The Above the Line Table and The Grosses Table and, simply, The Table. But today it feels less like an epicenter of working Hollywood and more like Sunday brunch with the whole family chaotically picking at the food -- and each other. Into this scene steps Mazursky, finally, in a bad mood but smiling.

”I only came because you‘re supposed to be here,“ he tells me. ”Traffic! It was unbearable! Today was the worst day -- I hate it here!“ He leans into the tape recorder. ”Put me down: It stinks! They’ve ruined it. And parking -- it‘s like bumper cars out there!“

”Where’d you park?“ I ask.

”I‘m at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion!“

Bragg, who appears to be the lone optimist, cuts in: ”I’ve been coming here since 1956, and it hasn‘t changed that much. That’s what we like about it. If this stays the same, and the parking is easy, it‘ll be fine.“ As for Mazursky’s more pessimistic take, Bragg offers this explanation: ”He‘s insecure. He’s senile. He was against the sewing machine! He thought that would change the world.“

I ask Bragg how he hooked up with this crowd.

”These guys,“ he says, ”I met at a gay sushi bar. Never mind -- they don‘t want to talk about it.“

Klady: ”It was about eight years ago.“

Bragg: ”Eight longest years of my life!“

About then, a Mel Brooks look-alike later described variously as Bragg’s former business partner, a rascal, a general hanger-on, and a coat-holder to second-rate celebrities, wanders past in a kelly-green sweat suit. ”There goes the Jolly Green Giant,“ says Mazursky. ”Nice outfit, Bob!“

Klady: ”We give everyone a hard time here. The only person we were nice to was David Hockney.“

Freeman: ”Yeah, Hockney got a free ride.“

I want to point out to them that Hockney is basically deaf and they‘d blown a great opportunity, but with this crowd it’s hard to get a word in.

Mazursky: ”We have a lot of visitors during the course of the year. When Mike Figgis is in town, he joins us. You know Francis Coppola? He never comes. Scorsese? Never comes. See that table of Israelis over there? We don‘t know them deeply, but we know their names.“

On that table, in fact, Freeman tells me somberly, there is a plaque dedicated to the late sportswriter Allan Malamud, who was a beloved member of this group (”Allan Malamud Shlepped Here, 1941--1996“).

Klady: ”But we don’t use that table anymore. The Israelis took it over. They said: ‘We want the land!’“

Laughter all around.

Bragg: ”You know what‘s starting to look good to me? Those girls in the hard hats. There’s somethin‘ there . . .“

Mazursky: ”Do you know the Village People, the group? They’re right over there!“

At roughly 10, the table breaks up as casually as it came together, with a smattering of ”see you tomorrow“s, said with a little less assurance now than in the past. They have a few alternative spots in mind, including one in Burbank, of all places. But the atmosphere of Farmers Market isn‘t easily reproduced.

”You know, it’s been great,“ says Mazursky. ”We‘ve had a lot of fun, seen each other through ups and downs. But we’re afraid it will change. It‘s all Gapped now, it’s all Bananaed, it‘s Starbucked. And that’s not what we‘re here for. So we’ll see if it works.“

Freeman is the last to depart. ”Drive carefully,“ he says, returning his tin spoon to the Coffee Corner. It will be there for him tomorrow, whether or not he finds a parking space.


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