In a leafy backyard in Eagle Rock, right across the street from Occidental College, Quetzal was serenading a few dozen progressive activists and their children, many of whom were exhausting themselves in a moon booth, or whatever people are calling those inflatable chambers for bouncing kids these days. Next to the moon booth was a cotton-candy machine, where Renata Garza, a member of Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg’s staff, padded one paper cone after another with silky spun sugar. She was perfecting her double rotation technique when her boss arrived and ruined a perfectly good party. Actually, it was Goldberg’s party, one of several local events she has scheduled to help mobilize the rank and file for the upcoming election.
“Tell everyone you know to go and vote,” said Goldberg, “and tell them to tell everyone they know to vote, and then tell them, once they’ve voted against the recall, to put down a vote for Bustamante. You may not want to, but it’s vital.”
The sound of small bodies pummeling taut vinyl was still faintly audible from the moon booth, but a pall fell over the adults.
“I know many of you would like to vote for Arianna Huffington,” she said. “Believe me, I would vote for Arianna myself. I agree with her on just about everything. But I’m going to the polls for Bustamante. If we want to keep Schwarzenegger out of Sacramento, that’s what we have to do. It’s that simple.”
Discontented murmurs could be heard at the mention of Bustamante’s name, while the combination of “Schwarzenegger” and “Sacramento” elicited sharp groans. Don’t get me wrong, said Goldberg more or less: She is thrilled that Huffington and Camejo have managed to put progressive issues on the nightly news — an achievement in its own right — but “polls show Schwarzenegger and Bustamante at a dead heat” and “a vote for Huffington or Pete Camejo only helps Schwarzenegger.”
Right about then a helicopter that had been circling nearby passed overhead, and I couldn’t keep the thought away that the Commando himself could be up there, ready to rappel from the side door and take down the whole party. If Goldberg noticed she didn’t let on. She wrapped up her comments and sat down in a chair beneath a tree. The guests returned to the Señor Fish taco buffet, and I approached the former City Councilwoman.
One on one, Goldberg sounded downright alarmist. At the governor’s desk, she said, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator moniker would take on new meaning because he will surely kill any remotely progressive legislation that comes his way. Goldberg could think of no bills she’s championed that he would have signed. And that includes Senate Bill 2, a landmark piece of legislation that just passed in the State Senate last week and would put California at the vanguard of progressive health care policy by providing insurance to millions of the working poor.
What’s more, she warned, a Schwarzenegger victory will translate into paralysis “because we’re not gonna let any of their stuff through, and at the same time our bills won’t get signed. It may make you feel good to vote for Huffington or Camejo, but it will just paralyze the Democratic legislative majority you elected. Sacramento will stand still for the next three years. We have to get the vote behind Bustamante. We have to put emotion aside in order to survive politically.”
When a young boy picked up a plastic guitar and joined Quetzal, pretending to play along, the Assemblywoman broke off to laugh. I took the opportunity to return to the cotton- candy machine, looking to pull something sweet out of thin air.
CORNED BEEF AND WRY
Some of the regulars are beginning to pester Gary Canter. With uncanny instincts, they latch on to him as if he were an obliging nephew. One man, whose son Canter later tells me is in the restaurant business, walks up — skipping the line — and asks for a couple of sandwiches. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to stand on line,” Canter responds, knowingly. “Just be patient, I’ll get them for you.”
You’d expect that at the 55th-anniversary celebration of Canter’s in its Fairfax Avenue location (the first Canter’s opened in 1931 in Boyle Heights) the regulars would overwhelm the joint. Especially when a corned beef on rye, with a pickle and chocolate rugelach, was priced, from noon to midnight this Monday, at 55 cents — 94 percent off the regular $8.93 price. Whatta deal. Canter, a third-generation member of the family-owned establishment, estimates that by midnight 10,000 sandwiches will be served, consuming 6,000 pounds of brisket pickled and steamed into 5,000 pounds of corned beef. But now he’s got that pestering customer to deal with.
“I knew there’d be some asshole today,” he tells me, sotto voce. Meaning, it’s not enough that you’re giving the food away for practically nothing; there’ll always be someone who wants more — even if it’s just the satisfaction of using a bit of pull to go to the head of the line. “I’ve got two sandwiches from this morning back behind the bakery counter. Let’s see what he’ll do,” Canter adds, grinning. A few minutes later, he returns with a plastic bag and hands it over. The man takes the bag and, waving his parking stub, says, “Gary, Gary, can you validate this?” Canter takes the ticket and scrawls “Fuck You” on it and laughs. The man, clueless, thanks Canter politely and walks confidently toward the parking lot.
The late-lunch line, which extends roughly from the main entrance to the northern doors at the “annex,” has about 60 people waiting. Inside, unbeknownst to most on the queue, there is immediate seating available — at the same low, low prices. No matter. Those on the line are content to wait 10 minutes to trundle up to the deli case, where they are handed a brown bag containing the usual half-pound sandwich plus the aforementioned pickle and cookie. Fifty-five cents trades hands. Shiz Oki has driven in from Diamond Bar to cash in. She’d seen a brief item between segments of the Today show, called her friend Yo Sasahara and said, “Do you want to drive down to Canter’s?” The pair are standing outside, patiently inching toward the giveaway, plotting for round two. “For $3 of gas, I’d better go stand on line twice,” Oki tells me. And she does.
Inside, the place is bustling, but there is a strange lack of pleasure in it. Getting a square meal for double nickels seems to impose a mildly Great Depression pall, like an Edward Hopper painting. Mike Saltzman, the waiter working the western end of the counter in the main room, says that 98 percent of his customers simply sit down, order the special, eat and run. A glance around the room confirms his assessment: Nobody looks like they’re lingering. “Can I get you anything else?” Saltzman asks a man in his early 30s. “No, not really.” “When’s the last time you had lunch for 60 cents?” Saltzman asks kindly, as if to open a conversation. The fellow, a touch sullen, replies, “Never,” smiles briefly and lays down a dollar bill. “Have a nice day,” the 47-year-old waiter says. Tips, he admits cheerfully, have “rolled back 55 years, too.”
Not surprisingly, the prevailing conversation among patrons is how little they paid for lunch. At the cash register, one man asks another, “How much did you spend?” When the other answers, “$3.14,” the first says, “I beat you: $1.40.” And so it goes.
Around 3:15, Alan Canter, the patriarch, pops onto the sidewalk to kibbitz with his son. He’s the spitting image of the actor Peter Boyle, who portrays Frank Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. Gary has been talking about his father’s pride in personally making the fresh-fruit cups and choosing the melons that are on display above the counter in the dining room. I compliment the elder Canter on his work, and without missing a beat he explains how his day today started off. “I came in this morning,” Alan Canter says, “and there’s this guy behind the counter jerking off.”
“What?” I say.
“Yeah, jerking off.” He’s dead serious.
“Jerking off. The guy says to me, ‘The sign says first come, first served.’” Canter cracks a wry smile. Like Raymond’s father, Frank, he’s amused not by the joke, but because he has sucked me in with his delivery.
At 4 o’clock the line is snaking past Canter’s, covering the sidewalk along the storefront to the north. Alan Canter has headed off in the other direction, and I bump into him outside one of the fruit stalls on the next block. “I had to get the hell out of there,” he tells me. “All those people were bugging me.” And then he launches into a joke unprintable in a family publication. Actually, it’s unprintable in the Weekly. The punch line barely out, Canter drifts up Fairfax. Turning back, he says, “It’s a delicatessen joke.”
At least 55 years old, too. And cheap.
More than 30,000 mostly college-educated white people are inside the Los Angeles Convention Center buying yoga mats, vitamin water and bejeweled flip-flops at the first annual Yoga Expo. As I wander through the vast maze of vendor booths, having my breathing analyzed (Help! I’m an overbreather!), my aura photographed (too orange!), my body massaged and beamed with infrared light and chanted over, I feel increasingly lost and full of doubt. Do I need to be wearing magnets? Are my shoes supportive enough? Should I be having tantric sex?
I soon grow weary of the narcissism that self-realization requires, and seek out the Expo’s host for the weekend, Bikram Choudhury, who stands out as the perfectly aligned spine of the event. Nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit and straw fedora — in fact, most of the Indians are dressed in sharp, designer clothes, while the Americans are clad in robes and sandals — Bikram looks more gangster than guru. Wherever there is a live microphone, there is Bikram pattering from the stage, telling jokes, breaking into song, glad-handing and posing for photographers in his usual Dean-Martin-from-Calcutta fashion.
This impresario of Hot Yoga doesn’t wrap his wolflike ego in the sheepskin of New-Ageism. He is a meat-eating, gas-guzzling guru with no need for other people’s philosophy. Bikram is all about Bikram: his yoga, honoring his Indian roots and bringing his vision of health and harmony to a wandering, navel-gazing West.
That translates into what might be the world’s largest yoga class (about 1,350 students show up) and seminars that don’t sound like the expected yoga workshops. Consider “How To Be a Spiritual Guy or Chick in One Easy Lesson,” or “Heal Your Finances,” or “Tantric Toning.” Some of the advice being dispensed: “Don’t let your fat clothes become your wardrobe!” “Neutralize your beliefs!” “Stop judging yourself!”
The real judging, of course, is going on at the final round of the first International Hatha Yoga Asana Championship, the contest sneered at by many in the Western yoga world for bringing competition to a realm that some feel should remain noncompetitive. After four days, 60-some contestants have twisted through three compulsory asanas and two asanas of their choice, leaving just 10 competitors. But when Lesli Christiansen, a tidy blonde from San Diego, performs a taut, balanced Dandayamana-Janushirasana (or standing head-to-knee pose), an asana that nearly all the other finalists wobble on, the deserving winner becomes clear. Her flow is seamless, her holds effortless, the supple beauty of her body breathtaking.
“We are not competing with each other, we are competing with ourselves,” Bikram says just before he gives first prize ($3,000 and a two-week trip to anywhere in the world) to Christiansen. “Always we are fighting each other, but always we are chicken and compromise with ourselves. This competition means you learn to fight with yourself, with your perfect body, perfect mind and make everything possible in human life. Become number one.”