One after the other, at the urging of a giant cat, the little girls ran into the ocean. They loped into the waves clutching surfboards. On the shoreline, five teams of girls had formed. They stood in lines anxiously waiting their turn. Waves swelled, peaked and frothed over, turning the surfers under. Tiny arms paddled. Tiny legs kicked. It was the first day of the Hello Kitty Boardfest in Huntington Beach, and the girls had been at the water’s edge since the early morning hours, taking surf clinics, learning tips from super girl surfer Holly Beck. Now, in the late afternoon hours, they were getting their first taste of real competition.
“Nice!” boomed the announcer, pointing to one girl in Team Blue. “I think that may be her second wave.” One girl tagged in, another tagged out. The crowd cheered. “It’s great to see all the moms. When I was your age,” the announcer said, “I remember the boys coming out with their dads to cheer them on.” In between runs, the girls stood around in various degrees of undress: swimsuit, swimsuit and wetsuit, swimsuit and wetsuit half on, wetsuit and T-shirt, towel over wetsuit. They clustered in tight circles for earnest discussions about the waves, the water temperature, their flip-flops, how cute so-and-so’s bikini was, after which they took turns measuring their height against someone’s white O’Neil surfboard. They looked to be between 7 years old and 17, though the youngest I’m told was 5.
Sometimes natural talent shined through. One little girl in an orange bathing suit, barely bigger than her board, skimmed the waves like a waterbug.
“What’s your name?” asked the announcer, as she emerged from the water.
“Paige Ortiz.” She wrung seawater out of her short braids.
“That’s a huge score you got. How’d you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You had your game face on, though,” he said. Paige shrugged. No biggie. A few feet away, the sea spit out yet another surfer girl. She was chubbier than the rest and dragged her board behind her like an albatross. Gasping, she leaned against her mother’s shoulder. Another girl came over to console her; together they dug their feet into the sand.
Back on land, tented booths and a long boardwalk had been set up stretching to the water’s edge. People sifted through Hello Kitty paraphernalia, signed up for Hello Kitty credit cards and cell phone service. Little girls bounced on inflatable trampolines and drooled over a fully customized Hello Kitty Airstream trailer. Look! You could nuke a burrito in a Hello Kitty microwave oven. Look! You could pee in a Hello Kitty toilet.
Earlier in the week, I had wondered about this whole Hello Kitty surf business.
I mean, did cats even like the water? “Can I schedule an interview with Hello Kitty?”
I asked one of the spokespeople.
“Unfortunately that won’t be possible. Hello Kitty doesn’t really give interviews,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“She doesn’t have a mouth.”
“So then how does she speak?” (Or eat? Or lick?)
“Kitty,” sighed the spokeswoman, “speaks from her heart.”
Of course Hello Kitty wasn’t properly a kitty. Wandering past the rock-climbing wall, I ran into another staffer — in kittydom, they were legion. Tamra pointed out the girl who would don the cat suit: the giant white cat head, the furry paws, the lavender dress. “See that girl with the bun?” said Tamra. “She’s Kitty today. She says it’s soooo hot in there. They have rules as to how long you can be inside the Kitty suit. It’s 15 minutes tops, or something. I think she’s going in soon.” The Girl Who Would Be Kitty passed us with a grimace. She fanned herself with a pink propeller fan. A few hours earlier, she’d been mobbed by a hundred little girls who were trying to pet her. “Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!” they’d screamed, clutching at her fur like zombies. The entire swarming process began anew as Kitty made her second trek across the sand.
Soon, Holly Beck, a few other pro and aspiring-pro surfer women, and the teams of little girls were called onto a stage for prizes. A pink Hello Kitty surfboard was raffled off. “Kitty, are your paws dexterous enough to pull out a raffle ticket?” the announcer quipped. “Ladies and gentlemen, Hello Kitty doesn’t do a lot of talking. Lots of sign language. Lots of purring.” Tiny Paige Ortiz, whose slick surfing scored an 8.33 out of a possible 10, was voted MVP.
“How does it feel, Paige?” the announcer asked, handing her the microphone.
“I don’t know,” she giggled. “Good?”
“You have to know how it feels. With surfing like yours, you’ve gotta get used to this,” he said. “Is there anyone you’d like to thank?”
Part of the girls’ morning training had been on dealing with marketing and sponsorship. Paige thought for a moment. “I’d like to thank Holly, my mom and dad, and Hello Kitty.”
The girls cheered.
In the Company of Friends
Neil LaBute — dis-fellowshipped (though not excommunicated) by his Mormon church for the content of one of his plays, criticized for his narratives that some say are obsessed with sexually frustrated male sociopaths, and frequently labeled “anti-woman” or just plain “anti-social” for his film work — has some fallacies to debunk: He doesn’t have a writing routine; he just puts pen to paper after, as he puts it, “some chick” has “pissed” him off. No friend of censorship, he claims Nazis “actually dig” him. And he still loves his controversial play Bash, even though, he says, “That little fucker cost me God.”
LaBute, who is best known for his film debut, In the Company of Men (about a vile exec who emotionally destroys a mute woman before devastating his male crony), makes these admissions before a mostly supportive crowd of Los Feliz literati Friday night at Skylight Books.
With the help of his friend David Schwimmer — a drawling, surprisingly engaging presence in the wake of NBC primetime — LaBute has just finished reading from his debut work of fiction, the short-story collection Seconds of Pleasure. And with the Q&A session nearly over, he’s almost made it through the night without an attack on his gender portrayals. Almost.
“Your women are absolved of identity while your men are static,” a middle-aged woman in the crowd tells him. LaBute, bearded and friendly, begins to respond when a more distressed female voice interrupts.
“Don’t you think it’s more misogynist than that? Your men find redemption in hating women. I love your work and its critique of male rage. But here it’s basking.”
“So you’re not going to buy the book?” LaBute asks.
Call it just another night at the opera for LaBute, quoted recently by a British journalist for extolling the “great good” that comes from “great evil.” (Incidentally, and one hopes not coincidentally, LaBute condemned that journalist for half-assedly repeating paraphrased soundbites instead of “doing his own research”).
“I only feel compelled to create a character that’s interesting,” he tells the Skylight crowd. “Here I’m exploring the same impotence that I apply to a lot of male characters — the inability to communicate.” Seconds of Pleasure is classic LaBute. He shares voice-y prose shorts about mostly male characters abusing prostitutes, hating their wives’ moles, and despising the 2.7-kid married life in Los Feliz (there’s also a woman protagonist who sleeps with an unfeeling man her mother used to bed).
But doesn’t the term “classic LaBute” mean more than the shock-value misogyny that sates the narrative hunger of hipster MFA grads? While literary fiction is turning away from edgy writers who conjure so-called extreme scenarios to achieve drama — and while LaBute has at times rightly been characterized as exactly that kind of writer — Seconds captures in print both the nuanced rhythms of contemporary speech and the pitfalls of dark I-Me-Mine gratification.
“I’ve just only been doing this, writing prose fiction, for the last 12 to 18 months,” says LaBute, who submitted a story cold to The New Yorker and got a book deal soon after. “It was quite satisfying to finish something over the course of a trip rather than just have five or 10 pages of something that needed another 100 pages to make a whole.”
“I’m really just feeling my way,” he continued. “It doesn’t mean there’s a novel on the way, or even another book of these. It’s just that the collection grew and became enough to publish. I don’t know where it will lead.” Where it leads tonight is a mirrored-hall effect of laughs, grimaces, guffaws and snorts. Love it or hate it, LaBute’s stories work incredibly well in performance.
“I think it would be just wild if you and Eric Bogosian could collaborate,” says a starstruck 40-something male fan wearing a Dr. Strangelove T-shirt. A younger woman happily adds, “I thought it was great to hear David Swim-Scwhim-whatever, say the words . . . , ‘Fucking shit!’”
On paper, a graveyard seems like a logical place for goths — those pasty-faced lovers of all things macabre — to gather. Yet the palm trees and manicured lawns of the storied Hollywood Forever cemetery, in balmy early-afternoon sunshine, make a somewhat incongruous setting for the monthly get-together of the Westside goth meet-up group, a loosely affiliated gaggle of gloomsters drawn together through online communities like Craig’s List and Meetup.com.
First arrival Bret Anthony Jordan parks his economy car (the license-plate frame reads: “I’m the goth that’s gother than all the other goths”) amid the hearses and groundsmen’s golf carts, immediately blurring the cartoon: In jeans and T-shirt, with shaved head and olive skin, this 35-year-old engineer is the image of a “regular guy.”
“You don’t have to wear black to be a goth,” he says. “We’re not all shoe-gazing, suicidal, absinthe-drinking maniacs!”
And, sure enough, though there’s a fair bit of dark garb among the nine who trickle in (out of 53 members of the Westside group), they’re an eclectic, eloquent, warm and funny bunch. They include a television subtitler, a researcher, a book dealer and an actress. Three bring their dogs, two carry parasols against the sun, some have brought the makings of a picnic.
“Goth is more of a sensibility,” Jordan continues. “It’s a way of thinking, and then comes the look, the sound, the lifestyle, the art and the cinema.”
Strolling around the cemetery, as group members seek the final resting places of Rudolph Valentino, Hattie McDaniel and Rozz Williams (singer for cult goth band Christian Death, who hanged himself on April Fools’ Day in 1998), organizer Christina Hayward, 24, mulls the gothic mindset: “It’s a love of darkness, romance and, obviously, blackness . . . it’s people who hate mainstream culture, it’s people who have to belong to a subculture to be true to themselves.”
Jordan recalls that at high school he was the anti-jock: “I was usually the one in the library or in art class during recess: drawing, painting, writing stories or hanging out with my English teacher.” One of two African-Americans in today’s group, Jordan takes goth a step further. “When I go to goth clubs in L.A., I’m usually about the only black guy there,” he laughs. “We’re a minority within a minority!”
Lunch is spread onto blankets beneath a shading tree: sushi, Triscuits and red wine are passed around. In a few days’ time, this area will be covered with Day of the Dead shrines, but the timing is coincidental. Halloween isn’t necessarily a big day in the goth calendar, it’s “every day,” says Jordan. “The rest of the world just celebrates it on October 31.”
And sometimes the goths feel a little put out by it all. “I was at Trader Joe’s today, and the clerk said, ‘Hey, I love your costume!’” says Christina. Her group-mates laugh and groan in empathy. And the red wine flows.
A Real Super Man
Bill Liebowitz: 1941–2004
Collectors know that every Wednesday is Comics Day —
when new books arrive and, for a brief spell, satiate the enormous appetite for heroes, monsters, guns, sex and the occasional
Wednesday, October 27, was notable also for the passing of one of the gentle gods of local pop culture, Bill Liebowitz. He was the founder of perhaps the most influential comics store on the planet, Golden Apple.
It was through Golden Apple that Liebowitz touched legions of artists and comic enthusiasts, including myself. For the last
several years we hosted the L.A. Weekly/Golden Apple signing with comics creators like Carol Lay, Kyle Baker, Tony Millionaire and Steve Niles. I’d come to look forward to Liebowitz’s call around November asking if I was ready to do another one. And though I knew ours was only one of a dozen events that Golden Apple hosted, Liebowitz and his wife, Sharon, made it feel important and personal even to the point of baking cakes for the guests. One participant in our very first signing, writer and DC/Vertigo editor Jonathan Vankin, remembers Bill:
“From the moment I moved to L.A. and first walked into his store, Bill was immediately supportive of me and my writing. He didn’t have any particular reason to be. My books did okay but they weren’t the biggest sellers. I can only assume that he was the same way toward everyone. He was so passionate about comics that when he saw someone starting out in the field, he just had to help out, however he could. I know that whatever confidence I have in myself as a comic-book writer, I owe much of it to Bill. His passing is an enormous blow to comics, to Los Angeles and to me.”
Liebowitz was a tireless promoter — particularly of local talent — hosting events for such artists as the Hernandez Brothers and Dame Darcy. The emphasis was on fun as much as hype. One story I heard had a still virtually unknown Matt Groening crashing a signing. He sat with the other artists and grabbed and signed the books of bemused attendees before they could object.
There will be no funeral for Bill Liebowitz (there’s no body; he donated it to UC Irvine). But the folks at Golden Apple are having a memorial, a party really, with music and food and yo-yos. If you never met Liebowitz, go and get to know him.
Liebowitz is survived by Sharon, their sons Damon and Ryan, daughters-in-law Teri and Kendra, and the only thing he loved even more than comics, his granddaughter, Sage.
For information about the upcoming memorial go to www.goldenapplecomics.com.