Photo by Greg Bojorquez
EVERYTHING SEEMED TO BE GOING SO WELL. The Last Waltz was playing at that glistening new movie theater in Hollywood. A record store you could spend hours rolling around in had recently sprung up down the street on Sunset, and the mall on Hollywood and Highland, the one I sneered at daily as its steel beams blocked traffic and cranes littered the horizon, had brought new joy to my life by carrying all the scents and colors and cleaners I used to have to go to New York to get. And on one of those rare coastal scrub evenings that feel like Midwestern summer's, Peter and I, having indulged in all these shiny new things Hollywood had to offer, were on our way to Christi Minarovich's candlelight yoga class at the Center for Yoga on Larchmont, the unexpectedly romantic site of our first meeting, to which we often return to exchange meaningful looks in mountain pose and hold hands under our blankets in savasana. (No doubt anyone paying too close attention would be embarrassed for us; thankfully, the room is quite dark.)
Christi has recently had a baby, which she will sometimes remind her students of while guiding them into a particularly painful twist: “It's awesome,” she'll say. “If you've had a baby, you can do anything!” (We used to see Anne Heche at her class a lot, but then she, evidently, had a baby, too.) More to the point, being a new mom means Christi teaches only every other Sunday, so her class has become an event, a pilgrimage, a workout with Persian crossover music and incense around which you plan other Sunday events, like afternoon movies and late-night dinners. But as we strode down Larchmont toward the Center in our sandals and shorts, basking in our shared sense of perfect order and the alignment of all relevant things, we were horrified to find the street, just above Beverly, blocked off with yellow tape: Police Line. Do Not Cross.
“What's going on?” I shrieked.
“Maybe we can get through the other way,” Peter assured me. We rushed around the block, down Gower to First, and headed up Larchmont from the south. But it only got worse. As we turned the corner, a blue Cherokee labeled “Bomb Squad” sped up the boulevard, which was by now empty of traffic. A man came out of his house and asked whether we knew what was up. “It must be a bomb scare,” I told him, describing the Jeep. “Oh, we have those a lot around here,” he said, and went back inside.
By now, it was clear that yoga was off. A willowy woman in flowing Hard Tail sweatpants and a sticky mat tucked under her arm stopped to explain that the Center was closed, that they'd evacuated Paul Cabanis' restoratives class earlier and everyone had gone home. “The police found something that looks like dynamite stacked up around one of the lampposts in front of Koo Koo Roo,” she told us, smiling. “They're clearing the area while they dismantle it. I hope the Center gives credit to those of us with monthly passes!” Other mat bearers streamed in all directions down the street, which Peter observed felt like a movie set. Some people stretched out on the street and dropped into a desperate downward-facing dog position. (I restrained the urge to stand on my head.) Other people were laughing, petting each other's dogs, sitting on the sidewalk in front of La Luna drinking bubbly water and slurping bowls of minestrone as if the day were suddenly a holiday. The two registrars who work Sunday night at the Center walked toward us and explained they'd closed up shop. “We're going for a glass of wine!” said one, triumphantly.
We slumped onto the bench in front of Blockbuster and tried to invent an alternate plan. The gym was out: On Sunday night, all the gyms we know in Los Angeles, even the 24-Hour Fitness Center, lock up as if by fiat. It was too late to rush to another yoga class, and too dark to hike. We resigned ourselves to sloth. We headed to the Mayfair Market on Franklin for grilled Thai tofu and sesame noodles, only to find all was not exactly well on Bronson and Franklin, either. The manager, a small woman with big eyes and long black hair, was standing outside slapping her hands to her eyes and face while at the same time pulling the supermarket's doors shut. Clouds of small winged insects covered the lights and blocked the entrance, and inside, people clutching their numbers at the food counter were waving their hands, blinking and shaking their heads to fend off the swarms. “They're all over Hollywood,” we heard a man say. “It's like that Hitchcock movie, only with bugs.”
Was this the infamous new pest, the red gum lerp psyllid that sucks the sap from eucalyptus trees? Gnats shaken out of some recently felled tree? Some fly that somehow ingested the same poison that wacked out Hitchcock's birds, the same Domoic toxin now oozing from the unusual algae blooms off the coast of Catalina, beaching record numbers of dolphins and sea lions, who wash up on shore crazed and with eyes crossed? No, we determined as they fell from the sky and landed, in a writhing, dying carpet of tiny brown bodies and gossamer wings, these were ants. Flying ants, of the sort that chased fans out of a Detroit Tigers game in August of 2000. The kind you went out and captured as a kid if you wanted a self-sustaining ant farm (the flying ones, say entomologists, reproduce). To a fisherman, they portend a banner year. To a certain sect of born-again Christians, however, the ants mean doom: The newspaper The Trumpet, which collects evidence of impending Rapture, includes a 1998 Reuters News Service item about flying fire ants in its lists: “These stinging, flying ants build mounds up to three feet tall and have infested over 300 million acres of land in the United States,” says the article, “causing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose a quarantine on 11 states of our nation.” We are Armageddon-bound, say The Trumpet's editors. I can't say with conviction they're wrong.
“Wouldn't it be sad,” I say to Peter on the way home, “if the world ended just as things are going so well for us?” I tell him about Don DeLillo's White Noise, in which the protagonist and his Babette, for all their blended-family bliss and intellectual satisfaction, cannot stop wondering, through the Toxic Cloud Event and their child's haunted screams, which one of them will die first.
“Sure would be sad,” he nods. “You in the mood for Thai food?”
WORKING L.A.: Sex and the Letterpress
BALD, WITH A GOATEE, AND JUST A TOUCH OVERweight, Brooks Ocon is probably the best letterpress operator in Los Angeles. But trendy designers only recently discovered him, and now his life is totally different. Instead of mostly Quinceñera cards and fliers for auto shops, he's now printing Jude Law's baby announcement, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' business cards and the personal stationery for the head of Universal. Still, Brooks doesn't care much about the celebrities or making money.
“I live pretty cheap,” he says. “As long as I have a few bucks in my pocket, I'm cool.”
What he does like, he says, are the pretty women who come into his shop near Macarthur Park. “Most of the designers, like 95 percent, are girls,” he says, “and of those, 75 percent are cute. So it works out really well.” He hates it when one of those women explains that she's coming in to get invitations to her own wedding. “You get these crushes on them and it's, 'See ya,' they're off getting married.” Brooks says he knows why the women get their printing done with him. “There's something sexy about letterpress: the printing itself, the whole atmosphere. It's real.”
That is true. It is thrilling to walk into Aardvark Letterpress. It's a small space, and it's crammed with century-old presses and worn wooden shelves filled with metal type and the smell of ink and grease. The coolest machine, the one sitting right in the window, is a flywheel press: Squat and made of black metal, it has two thin arms that rotate in a circle, grabbing paper out of a pile and holding it for a second while it gets printed and then reaching out and laying the paper down in another pile. It looks like a 19th-century robot. Even better is the Ludlow machine in back. Brooks asks you your name, and then his hands flitter quickly through a shelf of old metal type molds. He puts the molds into the Ludlow, which coats them in molten lead. After a few seconds, the lead hardens and falls into his hands. He hands you this metal bar; it's your name in very hot type. Then he'll put that bar in the flywheel press along with a thick piece of paper, and all of a sudden you have a gorgeous, deeply printed piece of stationery that is more beautiful and exciting than any stationery you've ever seen.
Letterpress printing is old school, and hardly anybody in the U.S. knows how to do it anymore. Virtually every printed thing you see — magazines, posters, soda cans — was printed on an offset press in which the ink & is laid on top of the surface. With letterpress, the ink is pushed into the paper — like on a typewriter — so there is an indentation. For most of the 20th century, people thought letterpress printing looked cheap; most folks liked those slick bump-free offset presses. But recently, many top designers have discovered a new love for letterpress. They like those indentations, which make the printing seem more three-dimensional. Today, letterpress looks expensive and handmade. And designers like the process of getting their stuff printed at Aardvark.
“When I use offset, I e-mail the guy a file and pick it up the next day,” says Sophie Howard, who designs stationery for many Hollywood executives and stars and who often spends an entire day at Aardvark. She'll come there with a basic design in mind, but she can hunt through those shelves and find some cool type font. She and Brooks will lay out the stationery — a meticulous process in which lines of type are put in metal galleys and held in place by various size wooden blocks — and make adjustments until it looks just good. Instead of using the standard ink colors, Brooks will mix his own, adding a little blue or yellow until Sophie thinks it's just right.
Brooks never did anything to attract people like Sophie. He and his dad, Luis, were running a sleepy print shop serving their working-class Latino neighborhood. Luis learned letterpress as a 13-year-old in Mexico City setting the type for newspapers. All of their pressmen over the years have been Mexicans or Central Americans who were trained in Nicaragua or El Salvador, places where offset printing never acquired the firm hold it has in the U.S. and Europe. Brooks never planned to become a master letterpress operator. “Here's the thing,” he says. “I didn't really do that well in school. I didn't have a specific goal.” So, he just learned to do what his dad did. He and his father spent much of the 1980s wishing they could get out of the letterpress business but never had enough money to invest in offset or in computers.
About 10 years ago, design students from Otis Parsons somehow found Aardvark and realized it was an easy place to get their printing-class homework done. Some of those designers became successful and remembered the place. Unlike many of his old customers who didn't care about letterpress — they'd yell at him if the indentations were too great — these new designers “get amazed. They say it's like a hidden art form.” And in the end, that's what Brooks likes best about all this new business . . . maybe more, even, than the pretty girls.
PRIVATE LIVES: Rabbit, Run
I LIVE IN A HOLLYWOOD APARTMENT with paper-thin walls. I eat dinner to the sound of a neighbor whistling along to Streisand musicals. I fall asleep to the blaring television and wake to the hacking coughs of the elderly man on the other side of my bedroom wall. On occasion, usually Sunday afternoons, the young couple in the apartment below contributes moans of pleasure to the mix. The lack of privacy is not only intrusive. It is repressive.
If I can hear my neighbors, I assume they can hear me. Because of this, I hesitate to disclose personal information over the phone, and I muffle sobs with my pillow or, in worst cases, I go to my car. When I come home at night, I shed my platform boots at the door to not wake my neighbors as I cross the hardwood floors. These are small concessions. I do them freely.
But some things are more difficult to smother, relocate or refrain from. For example, stomach upsets occur and gas must be released. Despite the universality of the predicament, I blush and worry. Can my neighbors hear me? Do they think me vile? Are they losing their appetites?
And then there are my bedroom sounds. I am embarrassed to admit that I am a snooze addict. I used to get angry with my sister when we shared a room and she snoozed the alarm. Why didn't she set the alarm for the time she needed and get up when it went off? Why the transition period? Why did she have to wake me repeatedly?
Recently, however, I have fostered an affection for snooze. On more than one morning, I have gotten out of bed to press snooze, then crawled back in for six minutes of lucid dreaming after which I get up and snooze again. And again. For an hour. Then the alarm turns itself off, and I'm left to wake when my body desires — sometime around noon. Living the freelance life, without fear of being fired, it is difficult to leave the pleasure of post-snooze sleep. Yet my enjoyment is tainted as I wonder, with each beep, if my neighbors secretly hate me.
But my biggest concern is the volume of my vibrator. I am liberated enough to talk about it, but I do not want my neighbors to know when I use my Deluxe Rabbit Pearl Vibratex with separate speed controls for the rubber phallus and clitoris-stimulating bunny ears. After Charlotte, in Sex and the City, obtained this mechanical treasure, she stopped going out and saw no benefit to dating. I have not given up on that, but my vibrator serves a purpose — it takes the in-heat desperation out of being single (better than I can myself) and thereby increases my odds of entering into a relationship that would render the vibrator less crucial. Plus, it does so without the risk of STDs, pregnancy, snoring-induced sleep deprivation or awkward goodbyes.
My girlfriends, with their one-speed light-up wand and palm-held egg vibrators, fail to appreciate my situation. “You mean you can hear it under the covers?” “With the radio on?” I can tell from their expressions that they are envious and wish to possess the superpower of the Pearl.
A few nights ago, I tried to increase insulation. I turned up the stereo louder than usual and put an extra comforter on my bed. I burrowed underneath, set the speeds and began, accompanied by the sounds of music and my next-door neighbor's television. Soon thereafter, I thought I heard him ask, “What's that sound?” I shut off my vibrator and pretended to snore loudly. Did I just get caught? Would anyone believe it was an electric toothbrush? Distressed, I eventually fell asleep. I dreamed of a house.
–Anne-Marie Baila Asner