The Oakwood School is not your typical hoity-toity academy for snobs-in-training. Founded by a band of blacklisted writers with a liberal–civil rights bent in the 1950s, the K-12 private school in North Hollywood has racial sensitivity training for parents, organizes school visits and food drives for the homeless and makes community service a requirement for graduation.
So student body President Jacob McKean was just acting in the Oakwood tradition when he accused administrators this fall of economic injustice and hypocrisy. The issue? A living wage for janitors and security guards. In a withering broadside in the student paper, the Gorilla, McKean asked how a school with a new $7 million gym and conservatory-quality music and dance studios could pay its guards $5.75 an hour without benefits. That translates, McKean noted, into $11,040 a year — about $5,000 less than the annual Oakwood tuition.
“How can this community attempt to help the needy when we create our very own poverty-stricken underclass?” McKean asked. “It’s time that our administration did some community service.” McKean, who also wrote administrators and faculty directly about the issue, called for an immediate raise for all employees to $7.25 an hour with benefits, or $8.25 without.
“What it boils down to is this: The Oakwood community can do the right thing, or we can continue with our pretense of virtue,” McKean thundered.
Response to his editorial was enthusiastic, McKean said; the faculty endorsed his proposal, and another student wrote a supportive article. “I showed the letter to a major labor leader, and he broke down and cried,” said Jacob’s father, Grover McKean, a vice president at a union insurance firm.
Headmaster Jim Astman was not so happy, however. McKean was summoned to a meeting at the school lawyer’s office, where he was dressed down for taking his appeal public. “It was intimidating,” Jacob McKean said. The lawyer, Sam Anker, told him that raising wages for the guards would be illegal because they work for a contract firm, McKean said. Astman stated that it would be impossible to justify the extra cost to parents because they “wouldn’t be getting anything new.”
“Having people that aren’t living in poverty working at Oakwood would be something new,” responded 16-year-old McKean, who’s attended Oakwood since kindergarten. Astman also promised to respond formally by letter, but that was a month ago and McKean hasn’t heard from him.
Astman and Anker could not be reached for comment.
“It just seemed like the school has such a pretense of justice and liberal values and things like that, it just seemed to me such a hypocrisy to have people working for us that lived in poverty,” McKean says. “I don’t know why the editorial sparked so much interest.”
NAKED WITH BRAD PITT
With much of Hollywood frantically lipoing and body-sculpting to maintain the illusion of staying on the short side of 40, Si Picker is a breed apart. The oldest member of the Screen Actors Guild’s union board of directors, Picker was just shy of 60 when he leaped on to the silver screen — and in Philadelphia, yet. And although he plays his share of bums and retirement-home guys, the 82-year-old actor isn’t even typecast. “I’m acting more now than before,” he said in L.A. this weekend during a break from his SAG board meeting. “Because of my advanced age, I’ve outlived my contemporaries, and I keep busy with small character parts.”
Picker does mostly “background” or extra work but also speaking roles. He once did a nude scene with Brad Pitt. Picker was filmed from the buttocks up, perched on a barstool, as part of a Pitt dream sequence. “Being a good union man, I said I’d do it for double scale,” he recalls. “I never did figure out what the scene had to do with the movie.” He lived in a nuthouse with Robin Williams in Awakenings. He also does a recurring Ben Franklin gig in Philadelphia, greeting corporations such as Microsoft (Bill Gates didn’t show) and Marriott (Bill Marriott did). In an as-yet-unreleased film, Picker plays a customer “with a Jewish accent”; Nicolas Cage is trying to sell him a set of tires.
Picker (grandfather to the Weekly’s own Deborah Picker) owned a furniture and appliance store in Philly, but got the acting bug during the Bicentennial, when he landed a bit part in a Revolutionary War movie. He grabbed his contract and ran straight to SAG’s Philly office. “It’s better to work with some protection,” he says. Picker loves spending time on the set — the card games, the catering truck. But what he really enjoys is acting as a mentor to younger union members. Fifty years ago, Picker worked in a shipyard and joined the machinists union; he says he owes the past 23 years of his life, happy years, to the union. “I had extra work in a commercial for $300, they upgraded it to principal, and with the residuals, I’ve made [more than] $5,000 off it. It’s the best union in the world,” he says.
MÉNAGE À GARLIC PASTE
So OffBeat’s cruising down Sunset Boulevard, Beck’s newest album, Midnight Vultures, blasting from the car stereo. We’re on our way to find out what the beloved Armenian chicken joint Zankou Chicken makes of its mention on Beck’s slow, soulful ballad “Debra.” The song, a funny homage to Curtis Mayfield–style ’70s soul music, is about a ménage à trois with the eponymous Debra. It contains the inscrutable lines, “Like a fruit that’s ripe for the pickin’, I wouldn’t do you like that, Zankou Chicken.” What is Beck trying to convey? we wonder as we step out of the car, boom box in hand. Is he referring to the erotic tang of the restaurant’s pickled turnips? The sweaty allure of the greasy, spit-roasted meat spinning behind the counter?
Unfortunately, we discover that no one inside, from the cooks to the cashiers, has ever heard of the song or Silver-Lake-homie-gone-platinum Beck. After much “Who?” and “How does the song go?” Alice Awanis, the cashier on duty, steps forward. Turns out a skinny young man with scraggly blond hair had come in just days before, girlfriend and CD in tow, ranting that he had heard someone named Beck singing about Zankou Chicken. “Might have even been him,” Alice muses, nodding at Beck’s picture.
“I’m gonna take you up to Glendale, gonna take you for a really good meal,” Beck belts out in the background, on his fifth go-round on the boom box. Margrete Iskendrian, a robust 70-year-old woman from Beirut who opened Zankou 17 years ago, says she’s proud that Beck sings the praises of her Glendale location. But she also doesn’t have a clue what Beck is talking about. “I prefer Turkish music,” she says.
We wanted to ask Beck directly what he means, but never got past his publicist, Dennis Dennehy. “Beck says he doesn’t like to talk about his lyrics,” Dennehy says. “He prefers they remain open to interpretation.” Okay, so here goes our reading: Beck is being the polite lover, assuring Debra he wouldn’t eat Zankou’s pungent garlic paste before an amorous encounter (“I wouldn’t do you like that . . .”)
“This music is for young people, not me,” Iskendrian smiles, as she hands us a stuffed bag of takeout. “But I’d like to meet this Beck.”