My bread’s gonna be squished.
I remember thinking that as my hands flew up into the air and my eyes squinted to adjust to the light shining in my face.
Having decided that shopping was more economically sound than eating out every night (I never bothered to actually do the math before), I was on my way back from Ralphs. As I walked down the street to my apartment, visions of sandwiches and beer danced around my brain. This shopping thing was a good idea.
“Where you going?!” A booming voice shattered the quiet reflection.
Now, it may be interesting to note that I had about $150 to my name, wasn’t running or skulking behind anything, was dressed in a jacket and tie and . . . oh yeah! . . . had two bags of groceries in my hands. And as pissy as I may seem right now, I swear none of this outrage or disgust was roaming through my head at the time. I should have been pissed off, right? I wasn’t doing anything illegal. Hell, I wasn’t doing anything except walking home with groceries. I didn’t even see them there, which was scary enough, but when I looked up and saw the police car, I was actually afraid.
“I live in that building on the end there, I just came from shopping at the Ralphs. I got receipts for all my food, and my wallet’s in my pocket here if you wanna get it out.”
“You don’t have to be a smart ass!”
Oh, this is great: one of the few times in my life when I’m not being sarcastic and I’m gonna get my ass beat for it.
Then I thought: They could shoot you.
They could shoot you and kill you! Don’t move! Just fucking be still!
One of the first things I ever knew about L.A. cops was the Rodney King incident. I hear ya groaning, guys, but you have to know that one’s just never gonna die. Speaking of things that will be in the collective consciousness for a while,
Of course, I did see some LAPD officers break up a fight in front of the Standard Hotel one night. In that instance, there was a white guy and a black guy. Both a little drunk and both throwing punches. Outta nowhere, six squad cars pull up (they are good at that), cops jump out, Mace the black guy down, handcuff him and ask the white kid if he’s all right. And let’s not forget the story about another videotaped beating in L.A. in which the police were let off scot-free.
And there it was. I’m 29 years old. I have been all over this country and have met cops from all walks of life. I’m a black man and I know what it is to be stopped for no reason. But I have never been afraid that the police would actually shoot me. As long as I didn’t do anything wrong, I have always said my piece and let them get as pissed as they want. I’ve argued with cops before, but I didn’t think I was going to die during the encounter.
“No, sir . . .” I answer the cop.
“Sir?” What is that? I’m calling this jackass “Sir.”
And they sped off just as abruptly as they appeared. I picked up my groceries, thanked God that I was all right, and went home to make sliced-turkey sandwiches on squished bread.
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led the nation to Washington and told us that there would be a day when we would all be judged equally. Forty years later and there are things that are better, things that are worse, and there are some things that are exactly the same. Yeah, they could have killed me, but at least they needed me to give them a reason. Progress.
The Dybbuk in the Cemetery
Venturing out at dusk like bats from our cave, we arrived at Hollywood Forever Cemetery — the streets of the necropolis lit with tiki torches — and made our way past the phallic Otis monument, the diminutive Mel Blanc tombstone, the polished black granite slabs etched with the photos of recently deceased Russian immigrants. By the time we reached the cemetery’s southeastern corner adjacent to Paramount Studios, several hundred people were already picnicking on the only open grassy space not occupied by graves. DJ Brandon Hall set the pulse with a mix of melancholy but celebratory klezmer, hip-hop and down-tempo: Pharaoh’s Daughter segued into Blood Oranges, Davka into Billie Holiday into Mickey Katz, source of the memorable line, “She even cha-chas when she shlufts.” And then came The Dybbuk, the 1938 Polish/Yiddish film noted for its “Hasidic Gothic” visual style, projected onto the mausoleum wall.
The screening is the brainchild of Tali Pressman, the 23-year-old director of a new organization, Avada, whose mission, under the umbrella of Yiddishkayt L.A., is to bring people under 35 to a new appreciation of Yiddish language and culture. “Yiddish can be a hard sell, especially to my generation,” says Pressman, who has, with tonight’s program, conjured a canny juxtaposition of Old World and New, mystery and schmaltz, love-in and summer camp.
Based on the classic 1919 play by S. Ansky and set in an Eastern European shtetl in the late 19th century, Der Dibek is a tale of disconsolate spirits, frustrated passions and untimely deaths. Poor Leah, the young bride-to-be, is possessed by the spirit of her dead lover, the young scholar Khonen, who’s been dabbling in the forbidden texts of the Kabbalah. The film’s subtitle is Between Two Worlds. Ansky, a prominent socialist, Yiddish and Russian journalist and avid folklorist, was himself an illustration of that in-betweenness: comfortable neither in Russian secular society nor among traditional religious Jews.
I also was mediating two worlds: the ghostly images projected on the cemetery wall and the presence of my dead parents, grandparents and cousins in a vault in Hollywood Forever’s adjacent Jewish section. In the film, Leah goes to the cemetery to invite her dead mother to her wedding. In reality, my own dead mother is buried in this cemetery. A reason to drink more red wine.
Meanwhile, with a red-glowing Mars above flickering black-and-white images of Polish rabbis performing exorcisms, those around me were experiencing their own epiphanies and discomforts. A friend kvetched about the film’s stereotypical and kitschy depiction of shtetl Jews. Another friend said that the people assembled on the cemetery lawn reminded her of everyone she’d ever known in her life who had died. A third, a refugee from the NYC blackout, gleefully noted how she couldn’t wait to tell her Brooklyn friends how she spent the night sitting in the dark in a cemetery in the middle of Hollywood. A fourth muttered, “Hey, the goyim have a duck pond. That’s not fair!”
Despite creeping damp and inevitable leg cramps from sitting on the ground for two hours, an informal solidarity built up among those gathered. Collectively witnessing the gradual shift of light from afternoon to evening was a tribal rite, inherently calming. Hearing the actors on the screen speak in Yiddish was disorienting to some, comforting to others, poignant to many.
When the movie ended, no lights came back on. It was dark. Real dark. A partial moon hung overhead. Ducks quacked. Mexican fan palms loomed as eccentric silhouettes. Car headlights cast intermittent shadows, transforming pedestrians into apparitions, illuminating the inscribed names of the dead.
After attending too many family funerals, the last thing I have ever wanted was to join my ganse mishpocheh for eternity in the middle of Hollywood behind a strip mall. Mellowed by red wine and klezmer, however, surrounded by visiting peaceful souls, listening to my grandparents’ mother tongue, and with the prospect of more nighttime screenings, I began to seriously consider the possibility.
On the Friday before Labor Day, restaurateur Steven Arroyo strides into the dusty interior of Malo, the new Mexican restaurant he hopes to open in Silver Lake within the week. The dining room of the restaurant is still mostly unfinished — 100 metal chairs are stacked in the center of the room, a carpenter is trimming out the far wall, and in the corner Arroyo’s 3-year-old son, Luca, sits on a dirty banquet playing with a cash register, punching on the keys and grinning whenever it prints out another blank receipt.
“We’re calling this a Mexican restaurant, but I feel like I’m taking some poetic license,” says the 34–year-old Arroyo, whose other restaurants are Cobras & Matadors, Hillmont and Cobra Lily. “It’s really going to be Chicano food, or Mexican-American food. It’s the kind of food I grew up with.”
“We’re fairly proud of the fact that we’re not going to have nachos on the menu,” says Malo’s executive chef, Robert Luna, whose thick sideburns and burly physique make him look like a Latino Elvis. “When you think of Mexican food, why do you feel like you need superhuge amounts of refried beans?”
Arroyo lists the standards that diners won’t get at Malo — mole, enchiladas, soft-shell tacos, free chips and salsa on every table.
So does that mean there won’t be any margaritas either? “Oh, no, no, no,” says Arroyo. “We’re definitely doing margaritas.”
In order to re-create the sort of food he grew up eating, Arroyo invited his family to help him shape the menu and break in the kitchen. Today, Arroyo’s 88-year-old grandfather, Patrick Holguin, is making red chile–encrusted pollitos with fresh rosemary. Arroyo’s mother is boiling stock for menudo, and Arroyo’s cousin Latecia Arroyo, who will be Malo’s head chef and kitchen manager, is making sure everybody has all the cow’s feet and fresh chiles they need to make their dishes. Arroyo’s sister-in-law Nikomi Arroyo, who will be Malo’s floor manager, drops by to see how things are coming, and Arroyo’s wife, Cristina, comes to pick up Luca and chat with the family.
Arroyo’s grandfather used to own a famous taco stand called Bea’s El Burrito on East Third Street just below Ford Boulevard in the 1950s and 1960s. He looks much younger than his 88 years — “I know, I look great even for 70,” he says. Arroyo’s mother grew up working in the kitchen of Bea’s during her summers off from school. So in some ways, Arroyo’s Mexican restaurant is a return to family tradition. But only in some ways. The green chile that Arroyo plans to put on Malo’s menu may be similar to the recipe that Holguin used at Bea’s, but the sea salt and lime chicken grilled under a brick has more in common with the heavily spiced Spanish food that Cobras & Matadors tends to serve.
Holguin himself doesn’t even stick to recipes from “the old country,” as he puts it. He was born in Santa Monica and moved to East L.A. when he was 5. His favorite recipe is for chicken cordon bleu, and in the recipe book he shares with friends and family, there are instructions for osso buco and stir-fry kung pao chicken right next to Mama Tina’s Tamales.
“I recently invited a lady friend over for dinner, and she was expecting Mexican rice and tacos,” Holguin says, “but I was serving beef brisket. I told her I would make her Mexican food the next time.”
At about 9:30, the cooking is finally finished, and Arroyo’s mother, cousin, sister-in-law and grandfather join him, his partners and a few friends in the candlelit bar area of Malo, which is much closer to completion than the main dining room. Out come Holguin’s pollitos, served on paper plates with canned beer — the tableware hasn’t arrived yet. Arroyo tastes his grandfather’s dish and smiles. The pollitos are good, he declares. But will they make it onto the menu? He won’t say.