Whenever I need a little pampering, I drive myself over to Bonsoir Nails in Los Feliz, plunk down $12, and have a Vietnamese woman who does not speak English give me a pedicure. She soaks my feet, scrapes off the spurs, rubs them with pink lotion and, if I’m feeling summery, paints my toes turquoise or gold. In short, it’s the best way I know to spend a dozen bucks while taking a mini-vacation to an exotic land, where TV sets play soap operas, People and Glamour magazines are within hand’s reach, and customers seriously ponder the benefits of a rhinestone butterfly over a gold initial embedded in their toenails.
Because of the language barrier, Bonsoir is not the sort of place one forms the intense if periodic relationships one has with, say, a hairdresser or cosmetologist with whom one can converse. While we may not otherwise give one moment’s thought to these caregivers when we’re lying prone on a table having our monthly bikini wax, one’s most personal issues seem to come out along with the hair. These women hear about the fights with our boyfriends, they ogle our photos of the new baby, they see up close the dewiness of our youth morph to middle age, all the while meting out gentle advice. When a Russian waxer I’d been going to for years spun a tale about a movie heroine who’d vainly tried to push her husband to be something he was not, the dime finally dropped that I would soon leave my daughter’s father.
On a recent trip to Jessica’s Nail Clinic, in Sunset Plaza, I find out firsthand that these sorts of intimacies know no cultural/economic bounds. All I know about Jessica Vartoughian’s salon is that Nancy Reagan used to have her nails done there, and with this in mind I imagine a sterile, hierarchical establishment, perhaps with the plebes on their knees before a legion of iron maidens clad in Adolfo suits.
Climbing the white staircase, I hear what sounds like 100 magpies, and, after a rather stern Russian woman sniffs at me for not having an appointment, she plunks me in a room filled with 20 women nattering as though words will be outlawed two hours hence.
“Sonia will be right with you,” says the Russian.
With nothing to do but eavesdrop, I listen to the woman next to me, a dead ringer for Anne Meara, talk to her Romanian manicurist about the trouble she had cleaning a pan she’d grilled in; about her daughter-in-law’s decision to stick with two children instead of the planned four; and how her new husband (and here she flashes her megacarat diamond) would do anything for her.
“You’re lucky,” says the manicurist. “You remember how many frogs you had to kiss? You remember the psychiatrist?”
“Oh, he was awful,” says “Anne Meara.” “He was living with another woman and hitting on my girlfriend.”
“You remember the man who opened your refrigerator and said, ‘I can’t believe you eat those things’?”
“I remember, I remember.”
“You’re lucky now. You have good husband.”
Sonia, a Russian woman of about 50, apologizes for making me wait. “She has to go to her father’s wedding,” she says, pointing to the woman she’s just finished, blond with Bo Derek cheekbones and blusher, rose-tinted glasses, and a cotton candy–colored warm-up suit that hugs her surgically enhanced curves, “so, everything has to be perfect.”
Sonia looks at me — the only person in the room not wearing foundation — at my jeans and sneakers, and says, “You want something funky, funky.”
She rummages through a cart filled with polishes, picks something purple, and tries it on my finger. “No, I don’t like it; it’s not you,” she says, before I can say it myself. She tries pink, gray and pearl before she finds what she’s sure I’ll like, and I do, a bright aqua that shines like aluminum foil.
“You are young, you can do it,” she says.
I’m not that young.
“No, you’re young, so young. You get lots of compliments.”
As Sonia cleans my feet, “Anne Meara” gets up to use the loo. When she returns, her manicurist and pedicurist are in heated conversation.
“I have to learn to speak Romanian,” says Anne.
“We were talking about sex,” laughs the manicurist.
“Now I really need to learn,” she says, before reciting the menu for the dinner party she’s having later in the week.
“Sleep,” Sonia says, as she massages my feet. I close my eyes, feeling her tender ministrations, the way she subtly picks off things dead and unnecessary, the way a mother does when her child is nodding off in her arms; I get the feeling that if I asked Sonia to clean my ears, she would.
A new woman takes the Anne Meara spot and begins chatting about her grandchildren; Sonia paints my toes, then sits back and surveys her work.
“You have good taste,” she says, even though she picked the color. “No money, but good taste. You and me, ey?”
Yup, I tell her.
“That’s more important, yes?”
“Okay, that’s $30, you pay me directly.”
Which is when I realize that, after just 30 minutes, Sonia knows me better than I think, as I have exactly $32 in my wallet, and have to dig quarters from the bottom of my purse to give her a proper tip.
“Oh, no, but that’s all your money,” she says. “Here, you take a dollar back.”
No, no, really . . .
“Yes, honey, you might need something to eat,” she says, stuffing the bill and her card in my hand. “You call me directly next time. I will always be the one to take care of you.”
Hands down: At the center of a neighborhood controversy the past year was Behzad “Ben” Forat’s 26-foot-high car-wash sign on Ventura Boulevard. Seems that was about sixfeet too tall for some locals and city officials including City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Forat, who credits the fiberglass structure with pulling his business from the brink of bankruptcy, plans to replace the sign. Photo by Anne Fishbein
My friend Vic Abascal lives in a quiet neighborhood that sprawls up the side of a hill in West L.A. I meet him at his house, and we head up to the crest of the hill for our weekly run. His dog, Buck, pulls us up the hill by his leash.
Vic and I have been coming up here together for the past couple of years to run the oil roads that loop over the rugged landscape. He knows this land like his own back yard, because it practically is. He grew up in this neighborhood and moved back into his boyhood home after his father died. “My friends and I would cut holes in the fence and ride bikes, motorcycles, anything we could get our hands on, up here. Man, we would tear up these hills.” It’s easy to imagine him, age 10, sunburned and grimy, kicking up dirt on his Huffy.
As I follow behind him I notice his compact body has lately become a solid slab of muscle. He has changed in other ways, too. He’s gone from being a guy who liked finding a nice bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s to a guy who haunts local wine tastings, whose shower stall is stacked full of wine bottles and whose kitchen has been given over to three massive tubs of fermenting grapes.
It all began with an old issue of Wine Spectator that a friend left at his house. Vic has always possessed a terrierlike vigor for life, sniffing out good bands, art, restaurants, thrift stores. He ranges from one interest to another with unbounded fervor. Lately he has been talking about actually growing grapes, but until today I assumed he’d be onto the next thing without so much as planting a single vine.
“Watch your step here.” Vic leads us off the road, and I follow him across a field of mustard weed.
We come to the crest of a knoll, and suddenly the hillside below comes into view. It is studded with row upon row of bright-blue grow tubes. Spilling out of the tops of these tight, azure corsets are fat, glossy grapevines — merlot, pinot noir, cabernet. Buck picks up a whiff of critter and takes off into the brush. I stand there, agog, trying to keep my footing on the 80-degree slope. I can hardly believe he cleared all this land, carried out the weeds, and dug each one of these 2-by-2-foot holes himself. He describes how he hand-watered 40 thirsty young vines, lugging in 5-gallon Sparklett’s bottles of water.
“I was walking Buck up here every day, and I just started opening my eyes and looking at which direction the plants were facing and what the soil was like. I wanted to have my own little vineyard and teach myself how to do it and make mistakes so that by the time I’m ready to do it for real, I will be good to go.” Apparently this site could have yielded a 60-gallon barrel of wine in two years, but this particular patch of land turned out to be on property owned by the Catholic Church and operated by nuns. The nuns called the police.
“The nuns were scared. They thought it was pot. The police came and pulled up a grow tube. My name was written on it, along with the name of the varietal. Turned out the sisters knew exactly who I was. They knew my parents.
“Actually, once they figured it out, they got pretty excited about the vines. They thought they were beautiful.” But Vic was told he had to remove the vines for legal reasons. He asked for and was granted permission to leave them until they go dormant this winter, so they can be dug up without being killed.
My tenacious pal, never one to quit, leads me to his second site, another quarter-mile down the road. The landscape here is eerie — utterly wild, but not quite natural. The native California landscape has been straitjacketed in cyclone fencing, carved up into service roads, and punctured by oil drills that churn and squeak, endlessly sipping from the ground.
But nature is putting up a good fight. The scent of wild anise mixes with the smell of crude. Vic has seen foxes, lizards, hawks, and once, at night, a pair of owls dive-bombed his head as he walked down this road toward his site.
Vic leads me around a broken, rusted piece of oil machinery the size of an Airstream trailer. On the other side, the landscape suddenly opens into three flat, sunny planes that Vic has carved out with a 5-pound pickax and named “The Thirsty Dinosaur Vineyard.” Another 60 vines stand in neat, blue rows. These vines are younger and just beginning to peek out from the tops of their grow tubes. They are all grown from cuttings he has either gotten over the Internet or snipped while on vineyard tours. “There’s some pinot noir from Burgundy. This is merlot from Chateau Petrus. All of this up here is cabernet. My goal is to make a really bitchen Bordeaux blend.” Vic sees no reason why he can’t make a first-class single-vineyard designate wine on this neglected piece of land.
What Vic will eventually make here seems almost secondary to what he has already created, a place of ordered beauty among the chaos of nature and the debris of man.
“Yeah, my biggest obstacles are going to be the glassy-winged sharpshooter, raccoons and kids on bikes.”
“Kids on bikes?” I ask, eyebrow raised, wondering what the 10-year-old Vic would have done if he had stumbled on a vineyard hidden in the chaparral.
“Yeah, kids fucking with my grapes.” He smiles at me, and the irony is clear to us both.
A delegation from Kirghizstan — otherwise known as the Kirghiz Republic and “the belly button of Central Asia” (it’s halfway down the Silk Road) — recently hosted a modest business outreach reception in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Academy Room, which isn’t very Kirghiz: It’s more ’20s-Hollywood ersatz-Mediterranean. But it has a pleasantly high ceiling whose big rafters are painted with faded Romanesque trim. The food wasn’t Kirghiz, either. There were bran muffins, mostly, and hotel coffee, hot water (served in tall, silvery ewers) and tea bags.
“Too bad. Because Kirghiz food is actually pretty good,’’ said the gentleman we’ll call Hal, who has pioneered relations with this faraway realm and can tell you all about it. “It’s a lot like what they serve at the Uzbekistan Restaurant down on Sunset. Uzbekistan is just next door, of course.’’ To Kirghizstan, that is. It’s what blessedly buffers Kirghizstan from what journalists now call “strife-torn” Afghanistan.
As one might judge from the event’s official title — “Kirghiz-Amerycan Business & Kultural Center” — reaching out to America is new to the 11-year-old (former Soviet) republic. The Kirghiz (who number about 5 million) want Americans to come visit, to invest and to buy their exports. They’d like us to help them build a new railroad. But the spoken pronouncements were in Russian (the nation’s second language), with an intermittent English translation, and Southland entrepreneurs were not conspicuous among the 40 or so people on hand. Most attendees were local Kirghiz (including some MBA students at local universities) and Russians, with a few Central Asia wonks like Hal. But L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Lopez, in plain clothes, was there, he said, to reassure the delegation of L.A.’s peacefulness, should it decide to do some business here.
There also was a huge video screen, filled with Kirghiz images. Deep-green valleys like Agoura in springtime, only with yurts and 20,000-foot mountain ranges. Plus soaring ancient towers in an utterly alien architecture. And herdspeople milking and riding horses. Mare’s milk is drunk fermented, by the way. It’s called kumis and “tastes like bile,” according to one knowledgeable toper. “But their brandy is terrific,” Hal said, “just about the tastiest I ever had. It stands up to Europe’s best.’’
Kirghiz government adviser Nurem Urorovitch, a very tall man in a very dark business suit, double-breasted in the post-Soviet style, explained that his country is rich in gold and uranium, food and fibers (including cotton and camel and yak hair), but poor in exportable manufactures (although someone mentioned that “the yak-meat charcuterie has potential”). “What we do have are fabulous tourist and outdoor sports resources,” he said. Make that extreme sports. The big screen was just then showing skiers disembarking from an ex-Soviet helicopter onto 24,000-foot Pobedy Peak (Victory). There are forests full of wildlife (“including the bearded vulture,” Urorovitch said) and vast unpolluted Alpine lakes. Issuk Kul is the local Lago Maggiore: Formerly a top-secret Soviet torpedo-testing range, it’s now a recreation haven, Hal said.
Pointing to a map, Kirghiz Senator Isa Shashenkul Omerklvov invited U.S. investment in a rail line crossing the Tien Shan Mountains into China. “Our trains are falling apart,” he said. What’s more, the Lonely Planet Guide recently called them “grotty.”
What the Kirghiz should export are hats. A Kirghiz man’s hat is called a calpac. It’s sort of a fleecy, white-felt version of the Cat in the Hat topper, only with a Sinatra-style snap brim and no stripes. As they left their conference and walked out of the dark, empty hotel lobby onto sunny Hollywood Boulevard, the delegation’s dark-suited males donned their calpacs and caused dozens of strolling tourists to swivel their heads. It felt like a primal moment in fashion history.
—Marc B. Haefele