Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dancing in the Dark: Farewell to Electronic Billboard Blight

Although the last post ended with a hope for the return of light, this one gives thanks for lights out, in the form of the obnoxious electronic billboards that until last week, have turned much of L.A. into Times Square. Not that I don't love Times Square, but that level of constant visual stimulation is a lot of fun when viewed by pedestrians in Manhattan. It's much less enjoyable while trapped in gridlock traffic on the highways and byways of the Westside.

Constant craving: The giant hot dog at the 7-11
at Overland and Palms
One morning last week, I noticed that one of numerous billboards that constantly flash at me on my morning commute to UCLA, was dark. I assumed it was out of order. On the drive home, however, I noticed that the electronic billboards at Santa Monica and Westwood were also dark. A court order had dictated that more than 60 of the billboards operated by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor be shut off. By mid-week, about 100 of these signs were dark.

For nearly six years, a coalition of residents whose neighborhoods were invaded by the glare of these billboards - which often shone directly into houses and apartments - fought to get the signage removed. Apparently, the L.A. City Council had made semi-secret deals with the billboard companies that allowed the signage to be installed in 2007. They were placed just about everywhere in the city, even near residential areas.

The argument is made - by the billboard companies, of course - that the signs are a vital asset to public safety, with their ability to broadcast important messages. While that may be true to an extent, I have only seen them used for this purpose less than a half dozen times. Besides, the public is so attuned to personal media devices that there is little chance that anyone will miss the memo about a sudden zombie attack upon Greater Los Angeles.

These billboards signs were a blight and a safety hazard. When I first saw them, I was alarmed by the speed at which the images would change. They made the streets look like a flashing computer screen full of pop-up ads and distracting graphics that would divert attention from whatever you were on the computer for in the first place. In addition, for the hapless residents of the Westside and other areas where the signs were thoughtlessly erected, the billboards were often placed at the perfect height and  angle to keep their homes brilliantly and unnaturally lit.

I think if advertisers want to get public attention, they need to consider giving us a truly authentic sense of what they are selling. Who doesn't love the giant hot dog that is perched about the parking lot at the 7-11 on Overland and Palms? It doesn't flash, but it does the job: I always want a hot dog after catching a glimpse of it.The gigantic sinker that is Randy's Donuts is another L.A. icon that does the job without offending anyone. There used to be a whole genre of restaurants shaped like the items on their menus: more giant hot dogs (remember Tail O' the Pup?), oversized coffee pots, fruit, and milk bottles. They tell you where you are and what you'll get, without any superfluous information on their Twitter or Facebook. You're not supposed to text while driving anyway.

If you do a search on the saga of the electronic billboards, you will be greeted with endless posts on the disregard of the L.A.City Council for the impact that such obtrusive signage would have on heavily trafficked and densely populated neighborhoods. Greed was the main motivator here, both on the part of the council members who were in on the deal and from the advertisers and billboard companies.

Although CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel have vowed to get the billboards back on line, there have also been murmurs that the offending installations will be removed completely. That would be a wonderful thing. But for now, I am enjoying the the reduction in visual clutter. Most of all, I am enjoying the return of the velvety night sky, the silhouettes of our iconic palm trees, and despite all the lights we do have on in the city, more space in which to see the stars.

Friday, April 19, 2013

When the Lights Go On Again

Reflecting on the horrific events of last Monday in Boston, I tried to remember what  the most impactful events were in the United States when I was a child.

The 1960s were full of hope. A historic sit-in for civil rights took place at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, as four African American college students used nonviolence to protest segregation. The Beatles visited the United States, twisting and shouting to the screams to hysterical teens. The Peace Corps were established by Sargent Shriver, sending our youth to developing nations to share our knowledge in exchange for a lesson in the planet's shared humanity. The first functioning laser was invented at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu. Thurgood Marshall became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court, and Neil Armstrong became the first American on the moon.

A lot of bad things happened too. I was born in 1965, the year of the first riots in Los Angeles. The Vietnam War raged on, spanning three decades of violence, dissent, and for many Americans, an umprecedented loss of faith in our government that I don't think we've fully recovered from since. The world said goodbye to Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, both John and Robert Kennedy, and Che Guevara.

We fared only slightly better in the 1970s at least here, on the home front - largely due to the distraction of disco. I remember the news being full of Watergate, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the energy crisis. For years, we were admonished to turn the lights off when they weren't being used. For years, nobody hung Christmas lights because of the excess of electricity they used.

Union Square, 2013
Today, our major act of solidarity in saving the planet - at least on the Westside - is to dutifully carry our reusable shopping bags to and fro, as we buy our organic, free range, and rBST free groceries. We recycle everything - I've even started to fill a Ziploc bag full of safety pins to return to my "green" dry cleaners.

But what good is it if so many people are bent on killing their fellow human beings - and not on a foreign battlefield, as was the controversy with wars overseas, but right here in what is considered a first world, technologically advanced and intellectually enlightened nation?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre last December, I barely noticed the displays of American flags returning to their usual flying height before they were lowered to half mast again this week. Actually as of late, it seems that half mast is now the default position for a flag that once flew proudly on the moon's surface.

We survived a lengthy war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the remnants of which we still deal with, in our soldiers who came home with scars of varying degrees, and the civilizations that the wars have left their mark upon, for better and for worse. We have technology now that goes above and beyond any science fiction that ignited the imagination of my generation. (I'm still waiting for the flying cars that they had on "The Jetsons," but am less hopeful now that we have all but lost our federal space program.)

I don't have any great answers, nor helpful solutions. But I do think that a fix to the despair and sorrow - conditions that occur before such a tragedy that in effect, create it - needs to start at home.

Not just with one's family, but with the whole human family that each block, each town or city, and each state contains. When something like the Boston Marathon tragedy occurs, we worry about what to tell the children. What we should think about even more is what to tell children before they grow up to do something as terrible as what the two brothers enacted upon an innocent gathering of happy, health conscious participants and their cheering onlookers.

This reposting of a blog post by Jonah James Fontela really captures it for me. While on a bike ride near the Charles River, he watched the burgeoning spring reveal itself in the calm of a city after a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. Along with the beauty of nature, he also saw a microcosm of the human drama, both in his own personal history and in the lives of his fellow Bostonians.

"Breakfast and tooth brushing and work and everything else could wait," write Fontela. "I looped around the river, along its edges on both sides. I saw trees with purple flowers beginning their bloom above empty benches on the water’s edge. Cops barked and car horns honked in this city where I’ve spent the last 13 years of my life. I saw buildings I worked in when I was still a scared kid and didn’t know shit, bars where I drank, places where I made mistakes. I saw the sun and rippling water, a pregnant woman jogging, rowers rowing silently under the Mass Ave Bridge.  I said hello to everyone I passed, the walkers, the runners, the mothers, the fathers, the homeless, the old couples holding hands, the tourists – a seagull. This morning I saw things I’ve never seen before."

We need to show the children - and probably more often than not, ourselves - the beauty, promise, and strength that lies in them and in each one of us. We need to especially do our best with those individuals who are harder to reach, because you never know what kind of pain they are in, or what they might do with it.

One Christmas season in the late 1980s, after becoming accustomed to another year without Christmas lights, they began to appear once more on the houses in my neighborhood. Timid strands would outline the roofs at first. Then over several years, windows, trees, shrubs, and every surface that would support a string of lights began once more to sparkle in the night.

Hopefully, one day, seeing our flag at half mast will become a rarer occurrence than it is today.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Girl Bites Boy; Eats Alone: Breakup Food 101

One Friday night in the not too distant past, I was blithely getting ready for a date with a guy I had been seeing for a few weeks. There was the enervating rush of trying to repair the ravages of a day’s work when unable to go home and freshen up, because rush hour traffic will make me late. It’s a mission not unlike storming the beach at Normandy: you have only one chance to make a good impression or to protect Western Europe from the Axis forces.

Finally satisfied with my efforts at personal renovation – which included a new hairdo and a mad dash to Zara for a more “datier” top - I made my way to my destination, anticipating the evening ahead. However, about two hours later, I was on my way to Canters solo, in search of comfort food.  

Not such a neon jungle: Canter's glowing refuge on Fairfax Avenue.

While the name of this blog may imply a carefree, unfettered female who lives only to eat, nothing could be farther from the truth. I do make an effort to have an actual love life. I am not one to kiss and tell, but I do enjoy kissing and eating (armed with Altoids, of course). A handsome face across the table is always the best sauce, I say.

I am pretty used to eating alone most of the time. It’s just what happens in a busy life, with the demands of a schedule filled with work, exercise, and various social and cultural interests. Sometimes I look forward to a table or counter to myself, eager to dive into a good book and a good meal, feeling both comforted and empowered in my solitude.

Then there are times when being alone at the table is a damning, painful feeling. This often follows the demise of a relationship. To combat this, I have a rotating prescription of feel-good foods, many of which lean toward the carb-y and chocolately. Even if the end of a relationship is for the best, there is still a feeling of loss, embarrassment, and inadequacy. Ironically, these emotions seem keener when one is the breaker-upper rather than the break-ee. But I digress.

Dorothy Parker was attributed with saying,
“Where’s the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?”
She was only partly right – what could be better than
a rainbow cookie from Canters that coordinates
perfectly with my backpack?
It’s so strange to realize that Canters has a Website, as the restaurant belongs to a period in my life when the Internet was still science fiction.  and the reality of three-dimensional objects like old diner booths and neon signs had more value than the same environment in HD brilliance.

I’ve been eating at Canters since shortly after high school, which is so long ago that I have no recollection of how I found the restaurant in the first place. I’ve gone there with large groups of friends and co-workers, back in the days when I ran in a youthful, noisy pack. Shelly gorged herself sick once on the dishes of pickles that appear on the table in the interim time between arriving and being able to order your meal – which used to average about 40 minutes. We accepted much abuse over the years from the gruff staff with good nature and grumbling stomachs. An impatient friend asked twice for a glass of water from a waiter who we dubbed “Houdini” because of his leonine but aging good looks. The waiter snarled, “I’ve only got two hands!” This same friend earned a dirty look for our somewhat loud and rowdy table from Rodney Dangerfield, who was dining nearby with his daughter (at least, we thought it was his daughter) when his frantic “Where? Where is he?” startled the comedian. We all laughed and told our friend to pipe down, but we weren’t as embarrassed as we probably should have been.

Canters is the closest thing I have to “A Clean,Well-Lighted Place” when I’m blue. It is one of the few places where my urban survival mode shuts itself off and once again, I’m a snarky, nerdy-cute teen with a new drivers’ license. I feel about the place like Holly Golightly did about Tiffany’s – nothing bad can ever happen to you there.

The décor, which has remained nearly unchanged in the last 30 years or more, is mid-century cozy, with roomy booths, a neat screen made of colored glass discs meshed together by a fisherman’s net of thick chain, and an overall golden haze, much like the hue crust on a potato knish. There are lighted cases with sliding glass doors that contain mysterious halves of cantaloupe and slim quarter slices of watermelon. I have never seen anyone order one of these slabs of fruit and always had wondered if they were real.

The ceiling in the first dining area is covered with acetate “tiles” that are lit from behind, each one featuring a quarter-paneled photograph of autumnal tree branches against a Technicolor blue sky. This always makes me think of walking home from school with Greg Brady. Peter was cuter, but Greg was the oldest and thereby, a catch in my mind. Any guy with a kidnapped goat in his room can’t be all that bad. 

Another Rodney – Bingenheimer, that is – has been at Canters nearly every night that I have ever been there in the last three decades. The New Wave impresario of my teenage years still has his show on KROQ FM in the wee hours of the morning, as he continues to celebrate new talent on the L.A. music scene. He also has his own special soup at Canters, a hearty concoction of beans in a savory broth that is kept to thicken on the back of the stove for him all day. Over the years, I would see him sitting with an entourage in his regular booth next to the staircase. Lately, I have seen him alone or not at all. This is probably due more to my self-imposed curfew of more recent years than to his seniority as the gracefully aging Mayor of the Sunset Strip.

Bingenheimer wasn’t there the night I sought solace in this safe haven of my teen angst and hope. I felt like something out of a 21st Century version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” sitting at the counter and emailing Alice, who would totally understand my random message about eating after a failed evening out while waiting for my order. Amusingly, my big news to her was not that I had broken up with yet another misguided suitor, but that I was eating stuffed cabbage after breaking up with ----------.

Take another little piece of my heart – or my stuffed cabbage.
Heartbreak and hunger cut like a knife at Canters.

I’ve taken many dates over the years to Canters in much the same spirit that one would introduce a guy to Mom. While almost all of them have liked the food, I personally did not always end up with five stars on Yelp. But no matter. In the proper frame of mind, knishes can sometimes be better than kisses.

A few days later, Alice shared the link to Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” While I will never experience the therapeutic qualities of ice cream as Viagra (at least, I hope not), I have to admit that a toasted Black Russian slathered with whitefish salad from the Bagel Factory is not a bad way to bandage a bruised ego and achy heart. Nor is a half a cantaloupe from a glass case, my equivalent of really breaking loose when having lost at love. (Now you know why I’m single.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Grounded: Ode to the Coffee Cup

Every morning, I stop at Starbuck’s, Peet’s, or Copenhagen Pastry for a cup of coffee.  Friends ask why that since I drink decaf, why do I bother? I actually drink it for the taste, but yes, I do need a kickstart. This morning ritual serves that purpose.

Clouds in my coffee: A shot of deep, dark espresso with a
pristine froth of foamed milk at Profeta
in Westwood Village.

What, you ask, could possibly be motivating about standing in line waiting to pay two to three dollars for a cup of coffee? Ask everyone else who is standing in line with me. My two chief reasons are a) I hate cleaning up after making coffee at home and b) I need the personal attention in the morning. As a regular at my usual coffee stops, I get smiles and acknowledgement. But even in an unknown coffeehouse, I feel somewhat pampered by the attention, even if it is from a barista who makes $8.50 an hour.  

Why does coffee bring people together in a way that tea and other beverages – except for alcohol – do not? First off, for most people who drink it full-leaded, there is the promise of an energetic buzz, which seems to encourage the genial airing of half-baked ideas. Secondly, coffee is usually served in thoughtfully decorated environments that are typically graced with art, literature, and a parade of humanity to gawk at.

UCLA's William Andrews Clark Library

Imagine then, the chance to enjoy one's enervating cup of coffee in a setting that feels like a location for “Downton Abbey.” UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library is such a place, built in the early 1920s, a hidden jewel in the West Adams district of South Los Angeles. In January, the Library presented “Bittersweet Uprising: An Exhibition at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library: Coffee and Coffeehouse Culture in EarlyModern England,” which showcased a collection of dictionaries, diaries, broadsides, pamphlets, and satirical plays related to coffee and its caffeinated mystique. I attended an event celebrating the exhibit, which featured a keynote by Professor Thierry Rigogne from Fordham University titled, “The Creation of the French Café in Myth and History.” His talk complemented the exhibit and outlined the growth of coffee's popularity, from its origins in the Middle East to fortifying lively forums of intellectual discourse through the establishment of coffeehouses in Europe.

Preceding the lecture was a fabulous demonstration and tasting by Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz. Michael James of Cafecito Organico in Los Angeles was the Clark's barista for the day and demonstrated the French press method of brewing. Similar to Asian tea ceremonies, traditional and slower methods of brewing coffee are an artform that is rarely experienced in today’s hurried world.

What a grind: Yellowish "chaff" separates from
fresh coffee grounds.

James ground and brewed Verve’s “La Providencia,” a variety is grown in Guatemala, where he said that the diversity of climates leads to a myriad of flavors in a single cup of coffee. Lining a Chemex vessel with a white paper cone filter, he prepped by rinsing the filter with hot water to rid the paper of any flavors that would come from its processing. He then filled the cone with fresh ground coffee that was visibly separated from its “chaff.” James did “pulse-pours” that steadily filled the filter without letting the water get too high. His use of an electric kettle also kept the water at a constant temperature. The result was an aromatic and caramelly brew that I sipped happily without my usual cream and sugar.

In French, the word “café” stands for both the beverage and the place where it is served. The first scholarly history of the café begins in the 16th Century, when Europeans first drank coffee in their travels to the East. Suleiman Aga Musta-Féraga was the Ottoman ruler who established the use of Coffea Arabica as a beverage. The plant was first cultivated in Yemen and used in religious ceremonies by the Sufi. The beverage became known as qahwa, a term formerly applied to wine. Thusly, it became known as the “Wine of Islam” to Europeans. Presumably, the caffeine’s stimulating qualities would help keep worshippers awake during their evening dhikr.

"Pulse-pours" keep the brewing process steady, with
the water's temperature controlled by an electric kettle.

According to Rigogne, between 1650 and 1694, the enjoyment of coffee had spread throughout Europe, from Paris to Marseille, to Oxford to Leipzig. By the end of the French Revolution in 1799, there were 4,000 cafés in Paris. Coffee’s origins evoked for Europeans a history of Asian romance. Hence, the term, “Armenian” was often synonymous with “café owner” in the late 1600s.

According to the information displayed in the “Bittersweet Uprising” exhibit, at one point, more than 50 London coffeehouses were named "The Turk's Head" in recognition of the beverage's Oriental roots. This inclination toward exoticism still exists today in the names of coffees. Antigua, Colombia, Kenya, any place in Italy that ends in a vowel - the names are invoked by devoted drinkers as if they were magical incantations to transport one to a faraway place. I'm lucky if my tall Americano will last through the long and arduous morning commute through West L.A., its streets forever plagued by the ongoing renovation of the 405 freeway and the sheer volume of traffic.

A feminine call to arms by 17th Century"coffee widows"
of  London. From "Eighteenth-century
coffee-house culture, edited by Markman Ellis (2006).

Another artifact in the Clark’s exhibit was a recipe for making “artificial coffee,” from William Ellis’s “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” (1750), the formula of which includes burnt breadcrumbs, which were used when real coffee was too expensive. Such measures were also used in coffeehouses, where a cup of "coffee" was a great excuse to linger with one's tricorne hat-wearing homies.

A little-known aspect of coffeehouse culture is the gender debate that ensued. A treatise titled "The women's petition against coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of that drying, enfeebling liquor" was printed in 1674 by women in London who were miffed that their husbands spent more time in coffeehouses than at home. Forty years earlier, an account of travels in Persia by Adam Olearius cited coffee as having an adverse effect on male desire. Is this why in this über-cautious age, so many blind dates and first meetings are done at Starbucks?

According to an article by ethnobotanist Chris Kilham in the Ethiopian Review, coffee has no diminishing effect on desire, nor any linkages to cancer, miscarriage, or birth defects. It also has some therapeutic qualities that help reduce the risk of gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, and colon and rectal cancers.

W.W.G.D.: What would Goldilocks do? Giant cup of house
blend (in a cup too big) and French press (with a cup too
small) are just right at brunch at Bread and Porridge
on Wilshire Boulevard.

The caffeine in coffee stimulates the brain, decreases mental fatigue, and overall is a great mood lifter. It’s no wonder we are all addicted. And it’s a natural food pairing with dark chocolate, which has been found to lower "bad" cholesterol and blood pressure, is rich in fiber, and (this is a shocker) increase insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

While tea is also a highly social drink, somehow it just doesn't have the same cachet for me that a caramel macchiato does. Tea is more about the ritual, which makes it a serene and wonderful experience. But when I need to wake up, a gently brewed pot of dragonwell green isn't going to cut it.

I need to be where the people are, with my fellow commuters shuffling along in line engrossed in their mobile devices, baristas shouting at us to pick up our drinks, and impatient caffeine addicts elbowing me while reaching for the nonfat milk at the condiment bar. That being said, to hell with decaf. Make mine a double, fully leaded.