the shuttered downtown movie palace at the corner of Third and Broadway. Watching
over him, from 30 feet above on a molded cornice, were a pair of terra cotta
grotesques, winking devilishly. He was wearing a kelly-green T-shirt, Adidas
jogging pants and white running shoes. A multicolored beach umbrella provided
a spot of shade, Rod Stewart the soundtrack. Mauricio motioned to a high chair,
the kind you’d find discarded in an Office Depot dumpster. I sat down, placed
my right foot on a small pine box with a built-in shoe rest, and instantly recognized
where I was: Mexico City. Mauricio was keeping faith with the tradition of those
street urchins who tote wooden boxes the size of rat’s coffins in search of
a pair of Ferragamos along the streets of the Zona Rosa.
Earlier, I had got to thinking that the scuffs on the toes of my Red Wing oxfords
were undermining my casual yet orderly dress code. After a brief stop at the
Criminal Courts Building, on Temple and Broadway, I’d set out to find a shine.
It wasn’t easy. Service, let alone courtesy, is strictly verboten at the CCB,
more of a lockup than a courthouse. Likewise, so I ascertained, at the Federal
Courthouse, on Spring, and at the state’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse, on Hill Street.
Caught in a loop of my own sepia memories, I’d pictured the wide terrazzo ground-floor
hallways of these civic institutions as having shoeshine stands. Somewhere near
the door, there would be a wooden platform with padded Naugahyde chairs and
iron footrests, and a man in a smudged, waist-length smock putting aside his
newspaper as I approached. But all I found were pistol-packing guards, X-ray
machines and electromagnetic portals.
I ventured toward Bunker Hill, whose soaring towers contain downtown’s highest
concentration of lawyers, accountants and deal makers — and, therefore, expensive
leather shoes. On notoriously vacant Grand Avenue, not a pair of Allen-Edmonds
in sight. In fact, at 9:30 in the morning, I saw just six pedestrians between
First and Third, all of them wearing sneakers. Following them wouldn’t lead
to a spit-’n’-polish kiosk.
I crossed Grand Avenue, wandered onto Wells Fargo Plaza, then briefly peeked
into the KPMG Tower. The gimlet eyes of security-desk officials steered me away
before I could even begin to utter my question, “Is there a shoeshine stand
in the . . .”
It was on my way down the library steps, en route to the Biltmore Hotel and
Pershing Square, that it dawned on me: I could find a shoeshine, like everything
else downtown, on Broadway. At the Grand Central Market I asked the unarmed
security guard, who was busily chatting up a well-endowed woman sipping a soda.
Leaning his head out onto Broadway, he pointed up the block and said, “The man
in the green shirt.”
That was Mauricio, who was now swirling a brush in a tin of saddle soap and
quickly washing my shoe. With a horsehair brush, which he wielded like a baton
twirler, he swiped away the residue of soap. Next, he applied a swab dipped
in dye. A tap on my toe said, “Time to switch shoes.” He repeated the preliminary
steps. Another tap, back to my right foot. Mauricio loaded his left-hand fingertips
with black shoe wax and burnished the polish into my pebble-finished leather
uppers. Two more stages of brushing, and then, without much flourish, and with
just an occasional snap, he buffed the shoes to a glowing finish.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
Palm down, he spread the five fingers of his right hand.
As I got ready to get up, a man in evident need of a shine walked past. Mauricio,
catching the man’s eye, nodded toward his shoes, diffidently, partly asking
but partly telling him he ought to stop for a shine. The passerby didn’t know
what he was missing. With tip, I’d paid $7 to let my mind drift with the uncomplicated
ceremony of wash, dye, wax, brush, polish and pay. I’d purchased five languorous
minutes to gaze absently at a parade of wool-suited businessmen, plaid-shirted
laborers and ragged-trousered panhandlers. I’d call that an inexpensive restorative.
Later I learned that I’d missed two higher-end stands, one in the Wells Fargo
atrium, the other at the Gas Company Tower, on Fifth Street, catering to the
wingtips hurrying down the halls of those corporate office buildings. No matter.
Now I knew about Mauricio and his outdoor room from which I could observe the
labyrinth of the city at a turtle’s pace.
If any one figure in early punk embodied the healthy Valley Girl
gone very bad, it would have to be Cherie Currie, the lingerie-clad, platinum-blond
jailbaitery who fronted the legendary Runaways. So it’s oddly fitting that Currie’s
current occupation is chain-saw artist. With Makita in hand — or maybe an Ekko
— Currie can reduce a piece of redwood, pine, palm, elm or cedar into a carefully
carved work of art, generally at the rate of about two a day when she’s really
Still, there’s some serious cognitive dissonance when one first meets the former
teenage “Cherry Bomb” snarler and encounters the amiable Chatsworth soccer mom
who appears at the door. Inside her Southwestern-style home, her work abounds
— from the colorful relief images that adorn her walls (the “relief carvings,”
as she calls them, are one-dimensional and done with a dremel tool, a kind of
rotating blade with different bits) to the completed and in-progress pieces
of full-on chain-saw art, which are generally wooden animals and, more specifically,
cute renditions of bears.
“Most of my clientele commissions the bears because they’re very cute,” she
says. “They can sell for $250 and up — I’m busy all year with them.”
Carefully goggled and gloved, she strips the bark off a log via chisel and then
commences to chain-saw and talk about her art.
“Haven’t killed myself yet with the saws,” she says. “But I have been winged
by flying pieces of wood that hit you at 150 mph.”
Luckily, Currie is in excellent shape, possibly as a result of her mid-’80s,
post-Runaways career as a personal fitness trainer. In fact, after a couple
of hours talking with her, it becomes clear that there’s little she hasn’t done.
After she parted company with the Runaways (“We hated each other. The abuse
was unreal because I was the singer and always getting photographed. The others
were jealous”), she acted in many movies, including Foxes and a turn
in This Is Spinal Tap as the source of that cursed
band’s herpes outbreak.
“That scene was on the cutting-room floor,” she says, “but made it to DVD.”
She came upon her new career as a craftswoman, artist and entrepreneur completely
by chance. “I was driving over Kanan Dume Road one day and saw these dudes doing
chain-saw carving by the side, and I knew I had to get into it. I started interning
at the place, the Malibu Mountain Gallery, and before I knew it, I was doing
It wasn’t all that different from her start with the Runaways. “I dropped out
of high school to go on the road, and they promised they’d help with my education,”
she says. “Of course, the education I got was nothing like the one you usually
For now, her future as carver is bright. She even got a spot recently on the
Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage. In her episode, called “The
Logsplitter,” she says, “I got to chain-saw carve next to the legendary Bob
King, who’s the best carver out there.”
Currie’s present dilemma is that she can’t do much carving at home because of
the noise and wood-chip refuse — all these years later, she’s still the queen
of noise — but the West Valley real estate boom has made a move to a workshop
or storefront difficult. No matter, she loves her work.
“I was told when I started that all you had to do was visualize something in
the wood and do it,” she says. “If you can’t do that, you can’t carve.”
As for the inevitable question of a Runaways reunion — she and Joan Jett did
“Cherry Bomb” onstage in Anaheim about three years ago — it is unlikely to ever
“Lita Ford is the main reason,” she says, sadly. “Seven years ago, she set up
this reunion thing and we had to talk Joan into it and that was hard, but Joanie
finally said she would do it. A tour, a record deal, everything in the works
was a go, until Lita heard Joan’s voice on the conference call and then freaked
Apparently, Ford didn’t sense enough enthusiasm from the band’s most famous
“Lita basically says, ‘Hey, if you don’t wanna do double backflips over this,
I won’t do it.’ Joan [told her] that she was just off the plane from Hong Kong
and was a little tired, but that wasn’t good enough for Lita. Lita goes, ‘I’m
a household name, I don’t need this,’ and that was that. She did it again four
years ago when we were offered $3 million for a 40-date tour. I think it was
a setup from her to kind of string us along and drop it, because she’s still
Currie isn’t, which is a good thing — she’s got a chain saw and she knows how
to use it.
Nazi Mah and Colin Walkden, Mah’s London-born boyfriend, are
the kind of couple you might expect to see at the Sunday Farmers’ Market in
south Santa Monica. They live on raw food, quote Jello Biafra and drive a
car plastered with lefty slogans. The Sunday market has been their shopping
ritual for years.
Tawni Angel, 24, is also a regular at the Sunday market. Since 2001, she’s
brought in six to eight miniature Shetland horses from her ranch in Moorpark
and gives pony rides to the many kids who inevitably get restless tagging
along while their parents look at fruits and vegetables.
For a long time, Mah and Walkden took no notice of Angel and her Tawni’s Ponies
concession; like the cooked-food vendors, musicians and usual petition gatherers,
the ponies were just part of the market’s festival atmosphere.
But last fall, the two started watching the ponies, animals they consider
to be “our brothers and sisters,” not servants to man. In an era of spectator
malaise, when so many shrug and accept stolen elections and illegal wars while
consuming organic tangelos, Mah and Walkden like to think of themselves as
the kind of people who fight for their convictions. By November, they decided
to fight for the ponies.
They made signs, wrote up petitions and began distributing leaflets every
week to the customers of Tawni’s Ponies. Over the last five months, they’ve
collected close to 1,000 signatures, which they plan to thrust upon the Santa
Monica City Council. But one of their key tactics has been to taunt Tawni
“Slave owner!” shouted Mah one drizzly February morning as her eyes narrowed
on Angel. Even in her baseball cap topped with a stuffed toy horse, Mah, 32,
Other protesters, who along with Mah descended on the market holding signs
decrying the evils of pony servitude, chanted and gesticulated toward the
parents around the corral, incensed that a miniature horse breed should be
shackled for the entertainment of their giddy preschoolers.
“That one’s pregnant!” screamed Walkden.
Angel, used to all kinds of accusations from the protesters, rolled her eyes.
“He’s a male,” she said. The parents laughed.
Walkden admits their cause seems frivolous, but says, “Early life lessons
lay the foundation for how we live. If there’s any chance for us to live in
harmony with our fellow beings, it has to begin with the children, and if
one of their first experiences is riding a pony, then they will always remember
that animals are here for our use.”
The irony is that Angel considers herself an animal lover too. She originally
rented her ranch so she could live and work among horses. What’s more, she
says that her ponies work just six hours a week. The rest of the time they
roam free on 10 acres. Recently, hurt by the protesters’ accusations, Angel
created an informational poster to educate customers about her facility and
how she treats her animals.
But Mah and Walkden are unmoved, and some weeks the protests get particularly
tense. One Sunday, dozens of protesters shouted, “Shame on you, JJ!” at a
mounted, bewildered preschooler, and there have been accusations of assault
on both sides. Walkden was even jailed overnight in early January for protesting
the market. He insists he won’t stop until the ponies are free.
Last Sunday was calm, with gorgeous weather and a packed market. Mah and Walkden
marched alone, gathering signatures and distributing leaflets. One warned
of the E. coli risk inherent in pony poop.
Angel said that the claim smacks of desperation: “They’re just plagiarizing
Although the two sides have grown grudgingly accustomed to one another, Angel
is weary, and the protests have affected her business. “Look. There’s no line,”
she said, pointing toward the corral. “For the last four years, it was 45
minutes long.” Angel estimates that she loses $600 a week because of the protests
but does not plan on quitting. “There are kids who come to see and ride their
favorite ponies, and I won’t disappoint them.” With a deep breath she nodded
toward her adversaries and said defiantly, “They’ll give up or cross the line
and eventually get arrested or banned. I’m not going anywhere.”
a who’s who of about 180 ujayi-breathing masochists are gathered at the
Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for a five-day ashtanga yoga workshop with
the 90-year-old master, affectionately known as Guruji. It is a reunion
of sorts for the lycra-clad eightfold-path contingent, most of whom haven’t
seen one another since making the ashtangi pilgrimage to Mysore in Southern
India to study at Jois’ Ashtanga Research Institute.
After Guruji counts us through a hyper-accelerated version of the primary
ashtanga series, a gaggle of eager students rushes to bow at his feet. A
rosy-cheeked, San Francisco–based devotee skips toward me with butterflies
and hummingbirds dancing above her head. She sings about Guruji’s shakti
and the bliss of total thoughtlessness. I smile while wishing her and her
oozing happiness away.
I expected an electrifying transmission of shakti from Guruji — an eruption
of metaphysical bells and whistles — that would render me instantly enlightened.
Instead, I feel heavy and stiff.
My friend Sam sidles up, looking bored and pouty.
“Are you gonna do the foot thing?”
For obvious reasons (it’s weird; it’s gross), some Western students struggle
with “the foot thing,” an ancient tradition wherein the student wipes the
ignorance of maya from his or her eyes with the dust from the guru’s feet.
Indeed, I do line up for “the foot thing.” Sweaty, savasana-high yogis wait
to bow at the guru’s calloused feet. With an aura of divine reverence and
a billion-watt smile, Guruji sits perched on the edge of a banquet chair,
receiving foot caresses and eager hugs.
It’s my turn. I bow at Guruji’s feet and offer him the brownies I baked,
thinking them a fair trade for eternal liberation. I look deep into his
eyes for some sign of recognition.
He has no idea who I am.
Day 2: Guruji shuffles around the banquet hall bending the time-space continuum
while counting us through an excruciating lotus-bound balancing pose: “.
. . seven . . . eeeeee-eight . . . four . . . ” I receive neither adjustments
nor glance and slip out early, having a deadline — with its attendant paycheck
— to make. I could feel guilty about not paying my respects, but Guruji
reveres money almost as much as he reveres ashtanga yoga, if not more. He’ll
Instant Karma — I come down with an acute case of writer’s block and blow
Day 3: As partial penance, I take a different tack. I approach the mat with
genuine reverence and appreciation for Guruji and this practice he has worked
his entire life to master and to share. I inhale Guruji’s wisdom and I exhale
my deepest and most heartfelt thanks. It does little to loosen my hamstrings,
but helps block out the mind chatter.
Afterward, I shoot the shit with Katie, a hometown yoga friend. We tease
a fellow student who had been on the receiving end of one of Guruji’s few
and far-between, highly coveted adjustments.
“Did you feel his shakti?”
“No, but I saw the light of a thousand suns in the face of his gold watch.”
Katie and I rationalize being ignored by the Guru.
“Guruji only adjusts you if you’re doing it wrong.”
“No, he only adjusts you if your ego is desperate and crying out for the
But, my ego was crying out for attention. My every vinyasa, inhale and forward-bend
screamed “Guruji! Over here! Remember me!?! Come touch me with your shakti-infused
hands and save me from the dull, boring, material horror of this sleepy
and illusory realm! Goo-roo-geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!”
I guess my ego wasn’t whining loud enough.
Day 4: Not only are gravity and I at odds, rendering my practice unsteady
and spastic, but the flatulent woman to my left is in grave need of a colonic.
My mind wanders. Why is he counting so fast? When was the last time the
hotel shampooed the carpet? I decide mid-standing poses that I hate yoga.
I give up and go through the motions. When it’s over, I leap to the front
of the foot-lick line just to avoid conversation.
Day 5: I lay out my mat with resigned indifference. I surrender to the likelihood
of a shitty practice. I no longer care whether Guruji notices me. I am over
the pageantry and the tour and the Roosevelt hotel and these 6 a.m. sessions.
I drag Sam with me to the foot queue. We crack wise and watch teary-eyed
students exchange goodbyes and wonder whether we’ve missed something. My
turn is up. I bow down at Guruji’s feet. He looks me in the eye. His energy
is overwhelming and sweet. He is completely present and I wonder: Does he
see something in me? Does he remember me? Does he know what I’m thinking
and how much I practice and how hard I try and how I sometimes skip Sundays
and setu bandhasana and that I don’t always do the belly swishy
thing before practice, but that I love him and I love this practice — even
when I’m bratty and small and it kicks my ass the way it’s done all week?
I hug him and I hold him tight and for some reason, I don’t want to let