Monday, January 12, 2015

Four Towns

Los Angeles, CA

Four weeks. Four cities. A little same, a whole lot different. I only spent a couple of days in SoCal in December, whereas I divided my time between New Orleans, Miami, and the bulk of the Christmas holidays in NYC. The constant movement is a good thing. It jogs the brain. The constant dissonance between new and old can be an ultimate mind fuck... if you let it. Or it can be a lazy afternoon basking in the soothing warmth of yesteryear.

Los Angeles. The ubiquitous sunshine makes the holidaze seems more fake than a relgiious holiday that got hijacked to sell shit we really don't need. Nothing says I love you more than a pair of socks, or a new sweater, or a piece of electronic equipment that will become obsolete in six months if it doesn't break first. I was never really into Christmas trees (i.e. utter waste of money) until I moved to LA because I need something to make it feel like Christmas. The constant sunshine doesn't mesh well with Christmas... and the weak ass attempt with palm trees and Christmas lights is more laughable than applaudable as the denizens of Southern California desperately try to get in the Christmas spirit. Nicky knows no other holiday season (SoCal Xmas) because she is one of the rare citizens of the City of Angels who actually grew up in LA and has no other childhood point of perspective of waking up to an actual White Christmas. Me? Wasn't jungle bells written about last minute holiday shopping in New York City? In the urban decay of Gotham in the 1970s, the only thing that didn't smell like urine and rotting garbage was the rare scent of Christmas trees that invaded almost every major street corner. It's a sense memory that has been imprinted on my brain along with a numb face. It's supposed to be cold as fuck at Christmas and your nose gets numb because you spend a lot of time wandering around the streets while shopping for gifts (in the pre-Amazonian era), or spending late evenings staggering around shitfaced drunk admiring the foggy gasps of breath that roar out of everyone's mouths while hopping from Christmas/holiday party to party to party either company parties (ranging from low-end to baller bankster) to friends' tiny apartments to the odd, random party you randomly crashed in a bar somewhere. In the modern era, the LA holiday party is drenched in artisan, gluten-free hipsterfied chow and ironic blinking lights and superficial guests that are silently judging you but more worried that they'll look "pasty" in their next batch of selfies because everyone is sweating their asses off in a rare public display of their winter wardrobe. No one walks anywhere unless it's to the valet, so any sensible party people are making a cameo before Ubering to the next party up in the hills before all the medium-passable quality of drugs are inhaled by dilettantes and all the hardened dope fiends are haggling over a couple of frail lines of shitty-ass baby laxative, which you paid dearly for in actual time and mental anguish by listening to the same douchenozzle with shitty blow prattle on about his latest script conference with someone you're supposed to be impressed with and all you keep wondering is if your Uber driver knows a better coke connection.

New Orleans. Shit got crazy. Either I'm getting old, or I forgot about the darkness that oozes underneath Bourbon Street. Maybe it's a little of both. Liquor is a a true pestilence upon this land. Too much of liquid anything makes everyone's eyes look mean. I felt a little safety being with my brother, who still resides in the Bronx, and hanging with two medical doctors, a lawyer, and Iraq War vet. Just in case shit got too crazy, we had a small, yet elite crew of professional party people. When you're running AlCantHang with the bulls down Bourbon Street, the last thing you want to have to do is pull someone out of a potential all-out street brawl. Testosterone and liquor can always be tempered with cool heads, but it only takes one idiot to incite an ass-whooping. Yeah, it sounds a lot worse than the reality that everyone was safe as long as we stuck together and didn't do anything too stupid like wander off solo in the wrong direction where the shadow people can jump your schwasted ass and snatch your valuables before they haul ass back into the shadowy side streets. Partying always comes at a cost, but without a high risk, you don't get that big payoff. It's sort of like going on an animal safari and praying you don't get trampled by a stampede of irate giraffes. But New Orleans was rough without the usually indulgences of food and liquor because I had some minor dental surgery a few days before the trip and I couldn't drink heavily with the prescribed meds (it felt strangely uncomfortable actually waiting in line to acquire pharmaceutical products for a real pharmacy) and could barely eat at all because my mouth hurt too much. The first bit of solid food I had in days occurred as soon as I arrived in the French Quarter and Otis handed me something wrapped up in a napkin. Fried chicken. Damn fine-ass fried chicken. I tore into it like a vulture picking apart the dead carcass of some unlucky roadkill. Maybe the abundant dark energy was so prevalent because I spent three nights  extremely sober, which was the most coherent trip I had ever taken to New Orleans in 20+ years.

NYC. Can you ever really go home again? My favorite time of the year is also the most stressful. I equally love/loathe Christmas in NYC because... well... you know... family shit. It's never easy, but we all have to deal with it somehow. I've lost my patience the last few years. It's the product of a near-death-experience when you come out the other side not giving a fuck anymore and you come to a moment of clarity like, "Why am I wasting my time with people who will never change?" But it's the city that really brings me back. The ghosts. The memories. The forgotten memories are the best presents... just taking a wrong turn and walking down a street you had not walked down in two decades is enough to trigger an avalanche of memories. The mind is a masterful magical kingdom... and you can truly bend time and space by accessing your memory banks, but sometimes you lose too much time like I do, wandering streets that I had not wandered down in years... both physically and mentally. An old friend once said our childhood rooms are like museums to our own self, usually curated by whatever parent or family member still lives there. My childhood room is barely recognizable, but there's plenty of memories in boxes and cluttered inside a gigantic closet. I could spent a month in that room getting lost in forty years of living. But too much navel gazing is a bad thing, but too little insight into your past is also a dangerous thing. You need a healthy balance, which is the key to self-awareness. Never forget where you came from, but never forget it will never truly define where you're going because you're the one driving the bus. Or something like that.

Miami. A whole other country/city/nation state. Miami will someday sink into the ocean. Might take 500 years or 5,000 but someday most of Florida will be all underwater and delegated to a series of island chains off the coast of the US of A. Call the city water you want... New Cuba, or North Cuba, or Los Miami, or whatever... it's definitely not America anymore. I spent a lot of time covering the Latin America Poker Tour, so my time in Miami felt more like being on the road in a foreign country than visiting the southern most city in America. Miami has always been driven by its own unique rhythm, but the confluence of international travelers, ubiquitous sunshine and cheap drugs makes Miami one of the rowdiest destinations on the planet. But like any of those party-centric small cities whose magical reputation turned its legacy into a much larger city than actually exists. Miami is not so much a city as it is a state of mind. Miami... the constant flow... it's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. If anything, I got to end the year by spending a semi-romantic week in a tropical paradise with my girlfriend, who desperately needed a real vacation after a rigorous work schedule. Plus I got the added bonus of seeing old friends from college... the coolest type of friends who don't guilt trip you or make it awkward to reconnect. Oh, and one of my favorite bands played four concerts so life ain't too bad when you have all the elements for a guaranteed fun time.

Four towns. Four weeks. Last year ended like most years... on the road and hopeful for a new year.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Richard Linklater Nudge

Miami, FL

When I was 20, I was heavily influenced by two films by Richard Linklater -- Slacker and Dazed and Confused. I saw Dazed in the movie theatre about 15 times in college. We'd all get blazed to the tits in the parking lot and sit through the film, which was set in 1976. That was unheard of because period pieces on the 1970s were few and far between in the early 1990s.

Linklater is more important to me than you think. He inspired me to embark on a creative path and make movies. If this were Bob Evans talking, "When I was a kid, I really really really wanted to work in the pictures."

When I graduated college, I had aspirations of becoming a director. A true pipe dream. Right around the same time, I saw Reservoir Dogs by Tarrantino and Clerks by Kevin Smith. Those three filmmakers -- Smith, Tarrantino, and Linklater -- inspired me to apply to film school even thought I was a longshot and way behind the curve. I studied more film theory in college (I had a minor in Film Studies, but I was a double major in Political Science and Philosophy) than the actual nuts and bolts of film making. As a result, without any student films to boast of, I was rejected from NYU Film School. Not once, but twice. I eventually got into a film school in Vancouver, British Colombia only because it was sorta open admissions. If I had the money at the time, I would have gone. Or I should say, if I had a family that shared in my vision, I could have borrowed the money from them, but they thought I was crazy. They were really miffed when I quit a job on Wall Street (I was in a bond trader training program, but utterly miserable and thought I'd do the job for a couple of years to save up to buy equipment and fund film school) to pursue the creative arts. They thought I was wasting a college degree on a hopeless venture. I'm glad I never listened to my family because I never would have gotten to where I am today by listening to their poor advice, like the one time an uncle told me to take the NYPD exam because it paid overtime and had good benefits.

Alas, film school was never meant to be. I stayed in NYC and continued the path I was on... humping shitty job after shitty job and using whatever money I made (or won from gambling) to fund travel adventures (some of which included Phish tours and Jazz Fest). I often think about what would have happened if I went to film school in Vancouver, but that fork in the road happened twenty years ago, so it's impossible to figure out what would have happened.

I was aiming for one direction but I ended up in another. Simply put, I started writing screenplays because I was broke and could not afford camera equipment. These days everyone has a video camera on their phone, but in the early 90s, you had to have some cash (or at least a credit card) to buy a camera and film. Oh, yeah... film was expensive. Not to mention other equipment like lighting... because lighting is everything. Without the financial means to become an auteur film maker, I focused on the writing aspect and dug deep into screenwriting and humping shitty day jobs with the hopes of some day buying a camera. Well, somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the initial goal and ended up writing full time. Screenwriting was pushed aside for other mediums. Funny how life works out like that. You aim at one target and end up hitting the bulls-eye in another.

Today's guest on WTF Podcast is Richard Linklater. Marc Maron conducted a great interview with one of my favorite film makers... and one of the holy trinity of directors that helped give me the nudge in the right direction. Maron asked Linklater about his most recent film Boyhood, which was shot over 12 years using the same cast. That ambitious and arduous effort alone is worthy of an Oscar for best director. Linklater will get a nomination, but I doubt he actually wins because Hollywood is rigged and those fancy awards are bought/paid for behind the scenes. Linklater has never been one of those Hollyweird insiders and those fuckers like to take care of their own, which is why if Boyhood wins anything... it will truly be an upset. But hey, I love a underdog.

A great interview unveils a few hidden gems, and this one had a bunch. I never knew Linklater had earned a baseball scholarship... so now the re-make of Bad News Bears makes a little more sense (I still have not forgiven him for that... the original is in my all-time Top 10 films). He also had an coincidental six degrees of separation with Matthew McConaughey... because both of their fathers knew each and played college football as teammates at Houston in the 1950s.

Link to the WTF Pod with Linklater.

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Here's Linklater's interview with Vice about the making of Boyhood...

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Greasy Spoon Civil War

Miami, FL

All I wanted was a cheeseburger.

I incited a near riot in the kitchen. I mean, it really wasn't my fault per se, but I sort of put them over the edge. There's always tension between the front of the house and the kitchen staff. Doesn't matter if it's a greasy spoon diner or a Michelin star restaurant in Paris. But I showed up for breakfast at the wrong time. The kitchen staff had been feuding all morning and the waitstaff were having their own issues with all the fuck ups in the back. So it was a problem that had been festering all morning. It just so happened I was the schmuck who knocked over the bees nest.

"Breakfast or lunch?"

That was the million dollar question. I could have gone either way. Nicky opted for breakfast and got one of the diner's original specials. It originally opened in the late 1930s in a part of town called Little Havana. It was a throwback for sure to the late 1970s with movie posters on the walls... a mix of spaghetti westerns and the Godfather franchise.

I ordered the lunch. A burger named after the original owner. It was supposedly a bigger burger than usual, but it's a diner... and how can a diner fuck up a simple burger?

If our waitress was a car, she was closing in on 220K miles. She had the face like a catcher's glove. Her hair was blonde, obvious dyed because her white roots were clearly visible. She looked like she could have been a real looker three ex-husbands ago and back was JFK was still president. But in the Obama years, she's humping a morning shift on New Year's Day slinging hash to a bunch of hungover tourists with more cash in their pockets that she'll make in 5 months.

"Our waitress must be snorting Xanax in the back," I joked with Nicky when she was unable to complete more than one task at a time. Like she forgot to take our order, then didn't know what kind of toast to bring Nicky (who ordered wheat with butter, and she brought out cold, dry white). The couple next to us arrived ten minutes after us and got their order fairly quickly. The Xannied-up waitress was complaining about the cooks. They were all Haitians in the back, but the only line cook who spoke English was not working that day, so there was a huge communication gap. When our food never appeared by the 30 minute mark when the owner, a feisty Cuban woman in her 50s, checked up on our situation. She was visibly irked and embarrassed when screams were spilling out from the kitchen. Like loud as fuck, you better call the cops because someone is gonna die loud. The Xannied  waitress told me that they were short on staff so the cook brought in his wife to help out on the line, but those too were bickering all morning like most married couples do, but their home issues spilled over into the workplace, so it was a total shitshow in the back with a husband and wife at each others throats during the morning rush.

At the forty minute mark the owner ran into the back to break up another fracas. Sounded like pots were being thrown around. She had to tell everyone to shut the fuck up and start working like a team or they were all fired. Tons of tension. Everywhere. The kitchen staff hated each other. The wait staff hated the kitchen staff. The owners hated the kitchen staff. I hated everyone.

Cubans and Haitians don't like each other. Never did. Some of those century-long feuds spilled over onto the streets of Miami, where both cultures frequently clash. And there was a serious class war going on as well... well-to-do Cubans living the American dream while the Haitians were humping a min-wage job. The proletariat vs. the bourgeois.

I was in the middle of a class war, and a domestic dispute, and clashing of economic policies. And all I wanted was a spicy cheeseburger.

We finally got our meal a good fifty minutes after we order (or at least forty minutes later than everyone else). The Xannied waitress brought Nicky a second batch of toast. It was warm, but no butter and it was white. I got my spicy jumbo burger but I inspected it closely for saliva or blood droplets. With my luck one of them spit in my burger or some blood spilled onto my plate when the line cooks shanked each other. I gobbled down my burger, paid the bill (minus a 20$ discount from the owner), and rushed out of there before someone got their face slashed.

"Happy Easter!" said the waitress to Nicky, as we quickly made an exit.