I watched the sky grow dark over the Watts Towers Wednesday afternoon and then saw a flash of light. Thunder cracked immediately overhead with an unusually sharp and crisp sound. I’d smelled rain in the air all day, and now I could hear large drops begin to hit what is left of the roof of my loft.
I was hungry. And since I don’t own a car, I decided that I had better get going to the Martin Luther King shopping center up
on Charcoal Alley. I grabbed my big black-and-white umbrella, went downstairs and started my trek north up Graham toward 103rd. The rain got heavier as I approached the Rainbow Bridge at Santa Ana Street. As soon as I saw the flooding in front of Saint John’s Methodist church on the corner, I knew I had made a mistake. I was the only person outside on foot.
But it was too late to turn back. It always floods at the bridge base on the Graham Street side of the tracks. I told the surveyors when they did the original layout that I’d eyeballed a low spot at the base of the bridge, and that there might be a problem when it rained. But oh no, they wouldn’t listen. I recalled the conversation, as I danced out of the ankle-deep water.
It started to hail as I walked west past the Blue Line tracks to Grandee Street. I quickened my pace. Crooked fingers of lightning lit the sky, followed by the loudest thunder I’d ever heard in my life as I approached the east entrance of the shopping center by the Food 4 Less.
All the time, the rain and hail were coming down with a force only Noah could have known about, and I was outside with nothing that remotely resembled an ark. Plus, it was starting to get cold. So I stopped at the M&M Coffee Shop next to the Radio Shack to get some green tea. I know the people who own the place, and it’s warm in there.
A guy in a black baseball cap, wearing a cardigan and carrying a folded newspaper, passed me on my way in, then stood there with the door open, looking outside. The hail had covered the ground at this point.
“Close the door, fool. It’s cold,” some guy seated inside said to the curious fellow wanting to see the hail.
“Green tea?” Mattie asked me.
She knew what I wanted. It’s the only thing I ever order when I go in there. She slid a couple of lemon packages over to me with the tea.
Outside, alarms on parked cars started going off, as the hail grew heavier. There was steady lightning and thunder — one flash and an instant clap — and I started to think that I’d fallen into a Frankenstein movie. People driving up in the parking lot started losing control of their cars and blowing their horns. At this point there was more than an inch of hail on the ground.
Mattie leaned her elbows on the counter. She was chewing on a plastic coffee stirrer. Her green eyes softened as she looked out into the deluge. “I hope it stops snowing,” she said to me. “I gotta drive all the way to Panorama City.”
“Huh?” I asked, looking astonished.
“What?” she asked.
“Mattie, that’s not snow,” I said.
She asked me what it was. I told her
to hold on, then I went outside and picked a ball up of hail and brought it back for her to examine. It was the size of a marble.
“This is ice,” she marveled.
“Yeah, it is,” I said. “And I would not advise you to drive in it without chains.”
She asked me what she was going to do. I started to tell her that I didn’t know when
a bolt of lightning struck something and the lights went out.
I thanked Mattie for the tea and told
her to be safe, then left. I had to get to the market and the Burger King before the storm got any worse.
By the time I reached Charles Dixon’s Martin Luther King statue — a bird, the “King Fisher,” leaving a hand — I noticed three stalled cars, two tow trucks, three fender benders and some guy yelling “What the hell is this?” More lighting and thunder ordered from Moses.
“This is God shooting his gun,” one sister yelled. “And when God got his gun, all the lights go out.”
That’s when I broke into an all-out run for the market. I damn near slipped and fell on my ass. When I got to the door, the big bald-headed manager was standing there. The same one who doesn’t like me because I criticize him for never working the checkstands when the market is crowded. He was already shaking his head.
“We got no power,” he said. “Go home. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
I started to tell him that I just wanted a banana and some yogurt, but the man is bigger than I am and he was holding a box cutter. I decided to cut my losses and make a run for the Burger King. The hail was now a foot deep across the parking lot. I took a deep breath and took off across the lot, sloshing my way through hail and pounding rain, praying that lightning, which kept flashing, would not strike me.
The manager, keys in hand, was
walking toward the door as I approached the Burger King.
“Wait! Please,” I shouted. “I don’t even want a whole meal. I’ll settle for a fish sandwich, some fries and a ride home.”
“Hurry up,” he said. “We closing, man.
I can’t give you no ride. It’s every man for
“But look out there!” I pleaded, pointing out to the sea of hail on the parking lot.
He was already shaking his head. “I can’t help that,” he said. “You want the fish sandwich or not? You better make up your mind quick, ’cause we’re closed!”
I took the sandwich. And then, standing on the curb of the Burger King, looking out into a moving slush of hail and rain, I knew my luck had run out. I was going to get wet and cold. I sloshed through the two-foot-deep Hail River, and made my way home.
—J. Eric Priestley
Attention, bargain shoppers, boomed the PA system in my head, we have some crazy deals for you today here at rock & roll Ralphs. Over in Aisle 10 we’re practically giving away toilet paper. Pick up 24 rolls of Angel Soft for $6.99. Thirsty? Twelve-packs of Heineken are only $8.99 — that’s nearly half off the regular price of $15.99. Limit two per customer with a Ralphs card. Also, be sure to stop by our quality meats department, where you’ll find an assortment of pre-packaged chicken, steak, pork, fish — all marked to go. At Ralphs, slashing prices is our way of saying thanks for ignoring the strike.
Honestly, I had no idea at first that I’d crossed the picket line. There were no picketers picketing when I drove up. And judging by the few available spots in the parking lot, the strike had either come and gone or it
was a figment of our collective imagination all along.
Inside, however, a grim reality presented itself. The deserted deli should have been my first clue something was awry. Instead of expensive cuts of meat, fine cheese and fruit salad, there were barren stainless-steel shelves. Boxes of Tide and bottles of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider were arranged in front of the deli’s refrigerated encasement — each conveniently on sale. A lone placard read: “We’re sorry but this department is temporarily closed. However, regular service will be resumed at the earliest possible opportunity.”
The inequities were hard to overlook. I found an overflow of Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza in the freezer section, and only a jug or two of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail a couple aisles away. In between, random boxes of grocery items, which looked as if they were abandoned just prior to being loaded on shelves, had been fashioned into crude aisle displays. Certain brands weren’t in stock. Some food was rapidly nearing expiration. I was reminded of a trip I took to Russia, in the early ’90s, where shopping at the markets was like visiting a rummage sale.
One improvement: The employees at the new-look Ralphs seemed fashionable compared to their predecessors. No more drab tan-and-green uniforms. Scabs are allowed to wear whatever they wish. Teenagers sporting Vans and Hawaiian shirts took instructions from a manager dressed down in jeans and a sweatshirt. But forget about asking someone for help; despite the Ralphs name tags, it was hard to tell who worked there and who was shopping.
At the checkout, I asked the cashier how he landed his job. He told me that he had just moved to L.A. and, incidentally, applied for the position the day before the strike. Since the hiring manager knew what was about to happen, he told the guy to hang tight. When the strike went into effect later that night, the call came to report to work the next morning. Even though he expects to get canned once negotiations are completed, he said the money is good while it lasts. In the meantime, he’s got first dibs on the hottest deals in town.
“You’re from where?”
Thirty-two-year-old Paul Ogata is the seventh comedian to arrive. He hails from Oahu, Hawaii, and actually got in a day ago. So here he is at 3:32 a.m., camping out at the Laugh Factory on Sunset, where the 10th annual Aspen Comedy Arts Festival is holding open-call auditions. The first 100 people in line by 8 a.m. are guaranteed a tryout. This is the second and last day for auditions here in Los Angeles.
My buddy drove me over at about 1 in the morning. Part of my brain wondered if there would be anybody there at all. I mean, I’ve never slept outside for anything. The warmth and comfort of my bed always seemed more appealing than any concert ticket or audition slot.
Stuart Papp, however, has a different view of things. If it weren’t so damn cold outside you’d think he was in his living room. Armed with blankets, books, heavy jackets and a green, collapsible camping chair, the ‰ young comic seems quite cozy under the bright lights of the Laugh Factory’s marquee. He has been here since midnight.
After Stuart was Joey, and Joey begat Paul and Paul begat Chris and Chris begat Sarah (and her boyfriend, Jeff).
“I’m just here for moral support,” says Jeff. If Sarah ever leaves him, I want Jeff to be my boyfriend. He’s brought along tall cans of malt-flavored Novocain to ease them through the frosty evening, plus a blanket and pillows and body heat. God, I hate being single.
Joey’s impulsive shopping spree didn’t stop him from getting a place in line ahead of Paul Storiale. The 27-year-old was no stranger to camping out, though; he once sat outside for three days in Minnesota to get front-row tickets to Rent. God, I hate musicals.
“You guys are like standup warriors or something!” Butch Bradley sweeps by with a couple of friends in tow. He is what everyone in line aspires to be, a working comedian. I find that out when someone says his name and I notice that the marquee above my head has Bradley’s name on it. Bradley offers some kind words of encouragement, shakes some hands and departs for warmer places. Stuart Papp, the first man in line, dreams peacefully beneath the sleeping bag.
“I was here yesterday,” says Damien, who shows up with Mimi a little after 4 a.m. Immediately, all eyes are on Damien as he tells of meeting this guy from Pittsburgh who flew out for yesterday’s audition. According to Damien, the guy stood outside kind of dazed after his two-minute audience and said, “I think I gotta re-evaluate my life.”
That’s a tough two minutes. It also brings up a question comedians, actors and other artists have to face all the time: When is it time to walk away? Langston Hughes convinced me long ago that “a dream deferred” is
a bad thing, but when does a dream turn into a fantasy? After all, at some point rent needs to be paid, kids like to eat, and God forbid you might want to buy the odd latte or two. Is this anybody’s last go-round?
“If you were going to quit comedy
because you didn’t get this [gig],” says Mimi, “then you were never really doing comedy in the first place.”
Eventually, the sun rises and revives the bone-cold bodies of those of us too dumb to bring blankets or even an extra sweater. “They don’t have anything like this in the middle of the ocean,” says Paul from Oahu. As the doors open and registration cards are passed around, Stuart Papp stretches, yawns and breaks down his mini-camp. Behind him are more than 100 comic hopefuls.
Adoring the Spin Master
I’M AT THE RINK with my skating teacher, when another coach approaches. “You should be here Friday night,” she tells my teacher, ignoring me. “Lucinda Ruh is coming.”
My eyes bug out, my mouth drops open and I feel like a tweener who’s just been told Hilary Duff will be attending her slumber party. I’ve been a fan of Ruh’s ever since the 1999 World Championships, when, as a little-known, 19-year-old Swiss skater, she brought the house down with spins so inventive, they caused even the notoriously finicky Dick Button to declare her the most brilliant spinner he’d seen in all his years. Since then, Ruh’s gone on to become a world professional medalist and a record holder for the most rotations (115) in a single spin.
But she’s beloved also for the sheer joy she radiates when she’s on the ice. That joy was actually one of the things that finally moved me to make the transition, well into my 30s, from watcher to doer.
I arrive at the rink for Ruh’s seminar Friday night to find that the next-oldest person in the group is celebrating her 16th birthday that night. When we hit the ice to warm up, my heart sinks to see my young companions’ spins and jumps leave me in the dust.
Then comes Lucinda.
She gets down to it, starting us off with scratch spins, the kind that start out slowly and pick up speed until the skater is a tightly tucked blur. I am, shall we say, a slowly but steadily improving spinner, so when she finally comes my way I have to tell myself, “This is for her,” before I launch into a spin that barely gets around. “You’re rushing the entrance,” she tells me, businesslike and oblivious to my adoration. I try it again, and pull off one of the best scratch spins of my life, fast and centered and elegantly finished. “That was a little better,” she says, and moves on.
Over the course of the session, she demands increasingly difficult positions and combinations — sit spins, camel spins, laybacks, all of which the kids toss off with ease as I struggle (valiantly, I think) in the corner to which I’ve banished myself. Ruh comes by a few more times to help me out, sweetly but no-nonsense, admonishing me repeatedly to take deeper edges going in. She is much prettier in person than on TV, with a delicate pink complexion and large, extravagantly lashed eyes. With her bleached-blond hair in Heidi braids and a striped scarf wound around her neck, she looks like the picture that might appear next to “Swiss figure skater” in the dictionary. Still, the only trace of foreign birth in her otherwise unaccented voice is the European tendency to end statements with questions, as in, “There’s no sense my helping you with your camel spin when you’re not even getting into it, yeah?”
The session finally ends, to my disappointment and relief, and it’s then that we are rewarded with a demonstration. Honestly, I want to scream, she is so amazing; instead, I stand silently mouthing “holy shit” as Ruh strikes one impossible whirling pose after another. It’s not hard to believe her when she says that she sometimes gets broken blood vessels in her eyes when she spins. She drops her head back at the speeding crescendo of her scratch spin, and the effect is of a gracefully shaped creature from another world. On her layback, Ruh, arms to her sides rather than traditionally rounded overhead, bends so far back that her torso is parallel to the ice. She looks as if she’s receiving a blessing from heaven. Her final move is a “Lucinda spin” into a catch foot. The “Lucinda” is her trademark, and she does it by tucking her free leg onto to her thigh and flattening herself over it, spinning all the while — it’s astounding, like a cross between a horizontal yo-yo and one of those aliens from War of the Worlds. From there, she straightens out, picks up speed, grasps the heel of her boot and stretches her leg up over her head, pulling it in so close to her body that the line from foot to sky is arrow-straight. We cheer wildly, then gather for photos. Ruh walks off, and I want to follow her to tell her how much her skating has meant to me. But this would mean running after her in my skates and I’ve looked dumb enough tonight. So I watch her go, promising myself that next time I’ll have something to show her.
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