Erika Schickel
I on LA by Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel

Biased reporting from Los Angeles

Last call: Kate Mantilini closes


Kate Mantillini closed Saturday, and with it a dining tradition for many of us Angelenos.

Me and Pop tried to get a dinner reservation on Wednesday, but they weren’t taking any, so we ankled in early to try our luck in person. Lisa Glucksman, the hostess has been seating us for well close to fifteen years squeezed us in, “Only because it’s you and your dad...” she said while leading us to a four-top in the back. It’s the only restaurant where I've ever had suck with the M’aitre D. Loyalty has its rewards.

Pop and I ordered our usual: two dirty martinis and two platters of oysters. Nothing makes the old man happier than a nice gin/bivalve combo and here is the photographic evidence:


Pop reminisced about the first time he came to Kate’s. It was 1987 and he and his second wife Carol were driving down Doheny on the way to the airport and they wanted a quick bite before getting on the plane. They spotted the newly-opened Kate Mantillini and went in. It was, and remains, a real eyeball-banger of a room, with its soaring lines, a row of booths that looked like ship’s berths, and a Hollywood-hip vibe.


Though Pop doesn’t remember what he ordered that day, I’d lay odds it was either the corned beef hash or the knockwurst plate. Kate’s American roadhouse menu suited his Midwestern palate perfectly. Thus, dining history, at least in the Schickel family, was made.

We celebrated nearly all of our birthdays with a family brunch in the big, weird corner booth which forced everyone to choose sides when sitting down, and God help you if someone in the middle needed to get up for the restroom.

When Carol got sick with cancer in 1991, we came here on breaks from the Century City Hospital cafeteria. We would get the chicken pot pie, her favorite, to go. Carol passed away, and we all toasted her at a long table over a family dinner there. Later, Pop found love again, with Barbara, who always ordered the sand dabs.

With all this talk of food, I have to say, it’s actually not the food I will miss, which was always pretty hit-or-miss—like the time I ordered a bowl of spaghetti marinara that tasted like Comet. On Wednesday I had a piece of rotisserie chicken that was so dry it must have been on the spit since the restaurant opened. But it was all comfort food nonetheless and the crusty bread was simply divine and the martinis never, ever disappointed. Over the years business seemed to sag, and the owners, the Lewis family (who also brought us the wonderful Hamburger Hamlet restaurants), would tinker with the menu, and innovate with things like the roving guacamole cart, which trolled the aisles of the restaurant like a lost dinghy.


No, the real reason I have eaten probably hundreds of dinners there is because is really was the best and often the only option in the neighborhood. Kate’s was the place to go after a screening at the Writer’s Guild Theater, or the Academy, the Laemmle Music Hall, or any of the several private screening rooms in the mid-city area. Pop is a film critic, and we always wound up here, looking for an after-show bite off the late supper menu. During the day it was a lively lunch spot and God knows how many deals have been done over chopped salad in that room. Kate Manitlini was always a no-brainer for anyone who had show-business to attend to. But, no matter what time of day you swung in through those big, glass doors, or for what reason, the welcome was always warm and convivial.

Young Hollywood has already found other places to power lunch, but it’s the older folks I worry about. Kate’s has always been home base to the aviator-frames-and-safari-jacket generation of Hollywood heavyweights, the guys who were on top in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Those “players” come here now with their grown-up grandchildren. I remember a raucous dinner party for Robert Towne after a screening of "Ask the Dust," at the Academy theater. It was held in the weird, neon-lit "private" room at the back of the house, under the stairs to the restrooms. That room had the aesthetic charm of a peep-show booth which felt perfect for the occasion. Pop and Towne are out of touch these days, and I hope that old lion is still roaring.

I am no longer the ingénue I was when I first ordered the meatloaf, and yet, no matter how much I age, I always felt like a kid at Kate’s where the clientele skewed towards alter kokker, and if there one thing I know, it's hard to teach these old dogs new tricks. "Where will we go for dinner now?" Pop asked, and I had no good answer.

“This is making me sad,” Pop said, slurping down an oyster. "Me too," I said swallowing a salty lump of tears in my throat. I was remembering all the late-morning breakfasts I had there with an ex-lover. We would roll in around 11am, love-drunk and ravenous for cheeseburgers, which Kate's always did well and had aptly named, “One Delicious Cheeseburger.” He and I were so besotted with each other we sat on the same side of the booth, we couldn’t bear to have the table come between us. He loved Kate’s as much as I did, and though our love didn’t last, I know somewhere he is feeling the loss of it too.

Of course, what makes any place special are the people, and in an industry with high turnover, the waitstaff at Kate Mantilini had surprising longevity. Meg, Terry, Jason and Robert were all familiar faces and made the joint feel like home. They weren’t there to add hipster elan, they were hired and kept on because they were damn fine waiters, and the service at Kate's was always friendly and impeccable. I hugged them goodbye, surprised by how attached I had become.


“I can’t believe this place is closing,” Pop said as we shuffled out to the valet, past the throngs waiting to be seated one last time, “it just makes no goddamn sense.” It never does. Kate Mantilini, like so many great and irreplaceable places, fell to a rent increase. Sometimes it feels like I write the Obituaries of Place over here on LA Observed. But I guess that’s the price of growing older—the endings start to pile up. There are other endings coming I suppose, and the closing of Kate Mantilini makes it all feel eminent in a way that made me cry as soon as I got in my car.

I will miss that place, and everything it has meant to me, my family, my neighborhood and to the artistic community of people it has served so well for so long.

Happy father's day to you, Pop, and all of you who will now have to find someplace else for brunch.


Free Skate: The end of the Culver Ice Arena


If you were to rip the roof off the Culver Ice Arena and look directly down on a free skate session you would see a beautiful, spinning mandala of humanity.

The eye of the mandala is the heart of the rink. It’s where the small, steely girls twirl and twizzle day after day, carving their Olympic dreams into the ice. It is in neighborhood rinks like these across the country that future Michelle Kwans are born. The girls are fierce and sparkly, their chalk white boots neatly laced against nude tights, double-jointed arms flung outward as they practice their moves in the field.

The next lane outward is where elderly couples pair-skate in bright sweaters like loose-limbed Lindy Hoppers, their arms hooked in a cordial diagonal. Skating is so much more than sport, it is art, and it is social engagement. It is civilized.

The next and widest band of the clockwise kaleidoscope belongs to the recreational skaters. People who make it a point to get out on the ice every so often just because it’s fun at the rink. Gaggles of girls gossip while pimply boys trail them, skating on the insides of their ankles. Toddlers cling to their mothers, and show-offy girls with pom-poms on their boots toss their hair for whoever may be looking.

Threading dangerously through all of this are the black-booted hockey boys, shilting along on shiny blades that shave the ice into slush. Their blades have no teeth for braking. They are coiled and confident, swooping like ravens through the crowd, threading the needle, startling everyone.

The outermost circle wavers with toddlers, wall-clingers and first-timers. They heel-toe it across the ice while clinging to the wooden barrier. Children on double-runners tumble forward, or fall backward; smacking the ice so hard it takes a minute before they can gather their breath to wail. Everyone skates around them. Skating is about falling down and getting up again.

Encircling this dial of life are the bleachers, and if you look closely you can see me sitting towards the top, a review copy of something open in my lap, watching the mandala move, hoisting a thumb’s-up every time one of my daughters skates past in the rotation.

I am a native New Yorker; so skating has always been a part of my life. My mother loved skating so much she wrote a book about it. She took my sister and me on regular excursions to Rockefeller Center and the Wollman Rink, of course, and I have many happy memories of those places. But the rink I most loved was an indoor rink out in Yonkers, next to the Stella D’Oro cookie factory. Its exterior was of the same vintage and non-aesthetic as the Culver rink. A teenager in a ticket booth clicked us through a turnstyle. Thick strips of meat locker plastic hung over the entry and a fan blew us inward. Once inside we beheld the utter enchantment of the rink.

Disco fever had turned skating sexy. It was the era of ice dancing. Pools of colored light slid across freshly-Zamboni’d ice and Donna Summer filed the air. My mom would lace me so tightly into my boots I'd lose all feeling in my feet. I staggered like a double amputee across black rubber mats to the rink’s edge. But the minute my blade found the curved, dirty edge of the ice, a strange, hypnotic grace would come over me. I could glide, and the beauty of smooth, horizontal movement transformed me. I became Esther Williams, Fanny Bryce and Billie Jean King all wrapped up in one eleven year-old girl. I felt lovely and powerful, even as I wobbled and fell.

Girls need that, so I made it a point to bring mine to the Culver Arena on a semi-regular basis, in an era when Britney Spears was on the P.A. and “girl power” was a hot slogan. I bundled up and endured the chill and the monotony of the bleachers every week to catch up on work. Sometimes, though, I would give in to the urge to rent skates and join my girls, feeling once again the singular grace and beauty of moving over ice on steel blades.

They still play Donna Summer at the Culver Ice Arena and "Last Dance" fades out as a voice booms out over the P.A. telling everyone to clear the rink, free skate is over. My girls come off the ice and we are ready for the other thing we came to the Culver Ice Arena for – the snack shop.

A desultory teen takes our order. He pushes the button on the hot chocolate machine and sweet brown liquid groans into a Styrofoam cup. A wad of soft, salty, pretzel-shaped dough is removed from the science oven and served to us on a thin paper plate. Carbs, salt and sugar – it’s all we need to get to get us home to dinner. We sip cocoa and watch as the Zamboni lumbers out onto the ice. It moves slowly, transforming the shredded ice back into wet glass. All of the loops and dents, the crazy script of our feet is erased forever.

It isn’t that the loss of the Culver Ice Arena will mean the end of skating, just a certain type of skating for a certain population of Los Angelenos. Future Olympians destined for gold will find their way out to the Valley, or down to Orange County, where other rinks remain open for training. The LA Kings will find a new place to practice. But the closing of the Culver Ice Arena will destroy a unique and beautiful cultural and social ecosystem that has been benefitting locals for over fifty years.

I heard there is a possibility that when they switch off the freezers at the Culver Rink and let the ice melt, and the half century of permafrost under the building thaws, the whole building will simply collapse. It would make the next owners’ job easier. No wrecking ball needed, just a bulldozer, the Zamboni of earth, erasing forever the place where generations of people once came to spin and twirl together.

Ladies of the canyon


“You must to come to the Teepee. You will come to the Teepee,” Melinda stated. Melinda is a can-do gal with the big, sloppy heart of a Labrador. She was already texting my email address to the hostess, because I was going, and that’s it. “It’s on the full moon, of course.”

“Naturally.” I replied. The full moon is a big night in Los Angeles; land of a million new-age ceremonies and healing rituals. There’s always something pagan going on. “Will drugs be involved?” I asked.

“What?!” Melinda laughed. Her surprise surprised me. One wants to know how to dress for these things, after all. Will we be hiking? Swimming? Doing yoga? Vomiting? She assured me nothing stronger than Cabernet would be consumed, which these days, suits me just fine.

We met at Lorna’s groovy Spanish house on Coldwater Canyon. Lorna was lithe and earthy, warm and welcoming. She had been hostessing “Circling Ceremonies” in her back yard for over a decade. She had two young children who were being tucked in by a nanny, and a clearly supportive husband who had tastefully absented himself for the night.

We were a group of eight women, between the ages, of twenty-four to… well… as I looked around I found myself in the startling position of being the eldest of the group. Traditionally, I have always been among the youngest in a moon tribe, but this is the thing about moon ceremonies—do enough of them and you're gonna find yourself in a whole new age group. I had waxed and waned into seniority. So that night I assumed the Crone Position—asana for the doomed.

When all were assembled, Lorna asked us to please prepare to enter the teepee. We lined up on her patio, waiting our turn to be smudged by our hostess. As she wafted sage smoke over me and whispered blessings I looked up at the moon. It was perfectly chalked on a blackboard sky.

We kicked off our shoes, stooped, then crawled into the dark, conical inner world and seated ourselves in a circle on soft cushions. The teepee’s ceiling was draped in silky fabrics. A constellation of candles, burned between us on a waxy pedestal, sending a curl of perfumed smoke up through the open apex of the roof.

The ceremonial props were standard issue. Hank of sage for smudging? Check. Handmade, crystal-encrusted, bling-y talking stick? Check. List of intentions? Check. This ceremony looked like it would be very basic—a little burning of paper, some brave sharing, perhaps some soft crying. Dig it.

Though I am a cynical New Yorker by birth, the truth is, after almost twenty-five years in Los Angeles, I believe in this shit. When I do my inventory I have to say I have become a Los Angeles cliché—a new-age, self-helper. It both mortifies and sustains me. annie-36-1.jpgI’m like Tony Robbins in “Annie Hall” snapping his hood visor in place, while the Woody Allen part of me looks on in horror and disbelief. Oxygen bar? Sure. High colonic? Let's go! Oy.

There are a million ways to grow your soul in Southern California and I have tried most of them. I have ‘shroomed among the sepia rocks of Joshua Tree, schvitzed in a kiva in Burbank, sipped Ayuhuasca in West Los Angeles and twelve-stepped at the Farmer's Market on Fairfax.

It’s easy for New Yorkers to roll their eyes at Angelenos—I know because I used to do it. Most of the rituals we enact here are a miasma of mysticism. We co-opt from Native American rituals, bastardize Buddhist koans, hijack Hindu traditions and shove centuries of human wisdom and spirituality through the distinctly American sieve of self-empowerment. What emerges is a kind of spiritual paste—good for spackling broken souls back together.

This teepee ceremony feels both tribal and Jungian. It has a whiff of witchcraft with just a soupcon of Steinem. It’s “Dances With Wolves” meets “Thelma and Louise” by way of “Practical Magic”. We are powerful WOMYN and all we really need is the Sisterhood. At the pee break we checked our cell phones to see if the husbands had called with news of the kids.

Lorna passed pens and paper around the Circle, and told us to make a list of the things we wanted to get rid of. The younger women set to their task eagerly, scribbling long lists of their character defects. I have made dozens of these lists myself, but on this night I sat with my pen hovering over the blank sheet of paper. Suddenly, I felt the simple satisfaction of being. I had survived divorce, heartbreak, middle-age and I felt happy, strong and... serene. Any complaints I had would be nitpicking, at this point. I wrote down a single word, so I would have something to burn.

We went around the circle and shared our lists. We resolved to let go of hurts, rivalries, addictions and self-doubt. As each woman spoke her heart we would spontaneously say "Ho!" if her words particularly resonated. We were Ho-ing it up in that teepee. Each woman burned her piece of her paper in the metal ashtray that was passed around the circle. By the time it got to me the ashtray was so full of sage leaves and half-burned regrets I worried that my scrap of paper would ignite the lot and start a fire in the tinder-dry canyon. I thought of all the things I had avoided doing in my life because I was afraid of the outcome, or because I thought it was possible for me to make the wrong choice. I burned the word “Fear.”

A coyote’s lone yowl threaded through the night like surgical stitches, and it was immediately answered by the pack. They were all around us. A chill rippled through the circle and we laughed and hugged our chenille throws more tightly around ourselves. A Chumash woman would think of the coyotes as spirit guides sent to take us into another the world beyond this one, our brave companions. But I am born of the Manhattan tribe, come of age in Los Angeles, and when I hear the hungry call of brother coyote I can only think, Ladies, hide your purse dogs.

HoopLA: Song, Story, Spectacle

Los Angeles is populated with art tribes. There are the actors-who-write, the writers-who-read, the musicians-who-paint, the-painters-who-jam. There are comedians who want to be taken seriously, and drama queens who want to sing opera. And of course, everybody is a writer. Los Angeles, in its sprawl, allows artists freedom to push boundaries, define art in new terms, or to blow off definition altogether. And yet, I have always noticed how the tribes kept to themselves. The actors-who-write are over at the Comedy Central Stage, and the writers-who-read are at Beyond Baroque. The singer/songwriters are at McCabe's and the poets are in the coffee houses. We keep to our own.

I arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 with little more than, “a dance belt and a tube of Chapstick” and a deep love of books and theater. Like Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman, I was slammed down by New York and had dreams of finding artistic license and success in this promised land. I started out as an actress, but wandered into many different genres, disciplines and venues over the last twenty-five years. I have done performance art at Highways, radio for LA Theatre Works, standup comedy at Igby’s, literary readings at Skylight and Book Soup. I have staged talent shows and vaudeville acts, dangled from trapezes, marched in parades, and performed political theater on the capitol steps in Sacramento. I have worked in journalism, moderated literary panels, appeared in films, and voiced vampires and cartoon characters for television. I have also been an avid consumer of all this culture.

I’m not bragging, I’m just saying—I have done it all, Yo— and I have met them all, and along the way I have marveled at how separate these art tribes remain. There is no shortage of shows and reading series’, gigs, galleries, cabarets and events to attend, but where is the place that pulls it all together? Where is our local talent show?

So I have created HoopLA to bring together these tribes, these disparate groups of brilliant, talented, funny, deep humans—the artists of Los Angeles. HoopLA will be free-wheeling and tender-hearted, heady and slightly inane. I will merge old-schoolers with up-and-comers, bringing their audiences together to explore and cross-fertilize around a central idea. I want HoopLA to be a place where we can all meet each other and create new connections, both artistic and social.

My co-producer The Los Angeles Review of Books, does this every day, and very smartly, online, publishing essays and reviews on a variety of topics. Like the LA Review of Books, I want HoopLA to feel as edifying as a long form essay but also as iffy as an episode of The Gong Show. Moreover, I want it to feel as friendly and spontaneous as a potluck.

Our first show is this Saturday, May 11th, and as this is Mother’s Day weekend, our theme is “Mother.” We will offer you a smorgasbord of female fecundity. We have Amy Simon lecturing her kids, Gayle Brandeis belly dancing, Garretson & Gorodetsky singing about the animals of Los Angeles, Samantha Dunn on the maggots in her mother’s kitchen, and God alone knows what the ever-spontaneous and hilarious Sandra Tsing Loh will do. I believe a violin will be involved.

If you can’t make it out, never fear, we will do it again the second Saturday of every month at 6pm at Club Fais Do Do. Every installment has a different theme and different artists, but it will always be fun. As Corky would say, I will not deliver "a stinky product, but a beautifully packaged, glossy, sweet-smelling show."

“Hoopla” in English means “ballyhoo,” “jovial commotion,” or “excitement” – all words which I am happy to have associated with the spirit of this show. But I chose the title it for its etymology; Hoopla comes from the French phrase, “Houp La!” which means, “Get up!” It’s something a Parisian mother might bark at her truculent child. That is the spirit behind this endeavor. Let’s get up and go out and see something, do something, meet each other, make something together, have some fun. HoopLA!

Erika Schickel, The Doyenne of HoopLA


The Sisterhood is Powerful


On entering, Warren spotted a schoolgirl among the local politicians who had gathered to receive her, and went for her. “I’m Elizabeth Warren,” she told the youngster, extending her hand, and bending down to make eye contact. “And I’m running for the United States Senate. Because that’s what girls do. Remember that. It’s important.” Philip Gourevich, The New Yorker

Whatever your political affiliation, it is undeniable that last night was a watershed moment in American politics. Ninety-two years after the Suffragettes won us the right to vote, women have finally coalesced into a powerful political force to be reckoned with.

And while we celebrate Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and the other women who won senate seats last night, there is still a long way to go before we reach parity in the halls of local and federal government. Where we go from here is going to require not just focused effort, but a sense of entitlement that may be new for us. We are so used to supporting others, but it has become clear that if we want the issues we care about addressed, we're gonna have to do it ourselves.

In that spirit, Marianne Williamson, author, lecturer and longtime spiritual crusader in the name of peace and love, is hosting a two-day conference this weekend, at the beautiful Saban Theater on Wilshire Boulevard. Here’s the pitch: “The purpose of SISTER GIANT is to help create a new conversation in American politics, one in which principles of higher consciousness form a new foundation for political involvement.“

Saturday will be devoted to discussing the personal and political issues that prevent women from running for office. For many of us, politics is too toxic to go near, but of course, that is precisely why we, and our brothers in the “consciousness community,” need to be more involved. Yes, it's ugly, but if we don't step up and advocate for children, families, equal pay, reproductive rights, education, tax reform and fairness and transparency in politics, then the bad boys are just going to run away with the whole enchilada, and we'll be left barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen once more.

Sunday will be devoted to a day-long workshop led by The Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. It will be a hands-on training session in the nuts and bolts of running for office, demystifying the process and empowering women to launch their own campaigns for local and national elections.

There is a full schedule of events on the Sister Giant website, with fascinating speakers from five different parties laying out arguments for why we should campaign under their banners. So let's pull up our socks and really get in the game ladies—because as Ms. Warren said, that’s what girls do. It's important.

Sister Cities: A Letter to New York


Dear New York,

When you Google “Sister Cities of Los Angeles” there is a list of foreign cities that include Athens, Beirut, Berlin and Mumbai. Those are lovely cities, I’m sure, but c'mon, they are all step-sisters at best, related to us by a civil ceremony that we didn’t attend. We all know that you, New York, are our real sister city.

New York and Los Angeles are made of the same genetic material, and like all siblings, we could not be more different, or more alike. You may have Dad’s chin and we have mom’s nose, but it’s the way we gesture, laugh at the same things, or sigh in unison that is the tell—we come from the same strange, brainy, artsy, independent, iconoclastic, self-absorbed, stubborn, salty soup.

Like all families, we have been known to treat each other shabbily. We take each other for granted, are passive-aggressive with each other, we flip each other a ton of shit, and make regular, stressful visits to each other’s homes where we quickly wear out our welcome. But in times of crisis, we should know we are there for each other, because, in the end, we are family, and we can’t imagine life without each other.

I was born and raised in Manhattan, but at twenty-four I left home and fled west for reasons both personal and professional. But the real truth is I had to get away from you, New York, in order to grow up and figure out who I was. There was not a street corner in Manhattan that didn’t hold a specific memory for me, many of which were painful and confusing.

Once here, I joined millions of other prodigal sons and daughters and got to work building a life that made New York feel further and farther away. Part of the "reinvention" contract that Los Angelenos are so famous for signing is the sub-clause of forgetting who we once were. It is that psychological distance, and not the 3,000 physical miles that separate us, that has caused tension in our relationship.

Now, many of those familiar, beloved street corners are underwater, and neighborhoods in which I once lived, loved and worked have been plunged into darkness or erased. I ache for the sidewalks and subways, for the friends, family and neighbors I left behind. But did I call anyone? No, and not just because I heard the phones were out, but because it seemed too far away and surreal to be real.

My friend Ellen lives in a high rise in lower Manhattan, across the street from the Hudson River. We worked together at the Odeon in the 1980’s, and over the years we have tried to keep our long-distance friendship alive, which hasn’t always been easy. It has probably been two years since we last spoke on the phone. A couple of nights ago she flamed my Facebook wall, where I was nattering away, like a stereotypical Angeleno, about (oh, forgive me, this is so embarrassing) a cleanse I had recently done. “Thanks for reaching out,” she sarcastically commented, apropos of nothing, and I realized, with utter horror, that I had been so far up my own ass, I had forgotten to check in with her.

So I did, and this is what she told me: “We just bought a house on the jersey shore, 59 days before sandy hit. it represented everything and cost everything we have... erika... i want to die at this point. i know that is a lot to tell someone in an email but you cannot imagine how bad it is for some of us. i re-activated my facebook account yesterday hoping people were reaching out to me... instead i got well, nothing.... “

And in that moment, I understood. I understood that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t fully comprehending the seriousness of what was going on back home. I still don't understand how cold, frightened and exhausted you are. As the images of devastation filtered in on TV and through the firewall of my own self-absorption and denial, I began reaching out to my New York family, most of whom are physically fine, but deeply stressed and bitter.

My mother lives alone in the East 70’s. She reports the constant sound of sirens, empty market shelves, and “depression, bad dreams and despair, hour by hour.”

My ex-boyfriend Jim had this to say: “Just drove downtown. Lights out below 35th street. Eerie. Like The Road with cell phones. Reminds [sic] of the feeling of NY after 9/11. On our knees. Buzz is that the nation doesn’t care. LA is at the tanning booth. While the straw that stirs the drink is crimped.”

The misspellings and screwy syntax in a couple of these messages tells me as much about the New York state of mind as the words themselves. This trauma refreshes the PTSD of 9/11. Things that have always been there are now gone, snatched away in a violent instant. Staten Island? Breezy Point? Coney Island? Gone. The Jersey shoreline? Gone. If New York is L.A.'s sister, New Jersey is our cousin. It bends the minds of those who are standing in the middle of it, and for those of us who are far away? Forgive us, for we cannot comprehend it.

I don’t have to read between the lines of my friends' emails to hear the anger and implication that us Angelenos, with our endless summers and valet parking, our Cobb salads and three-picture deals, just don’t get it. Of course, tanning booth clichés only trigger us. That is not us! We are real people with real problems, too! See, you've never understood us! Just when I was trying to build the rainbow bridge, you had to go and pick a fight. This is sibling rivalry. We keep score, we resent and lash out. Our wildfires and windstorms must seem so paltry compared to 9/11 and Sandy. It feels like only The Big One will make us even.

But I want to try to make amends. I love you, New York, and I don't want to us to fuss now, of all times. So, I want to say I am so sorry, New York, if we seem oblivious. Our news feeds are full of grey, churning water, sodden basements, endless fuel lines and the unspeakable horror of babies being swept from their mother’s arms, but we still don't get the picture. Your fear and helplessness make us feel frightened and helpless. All we can offer you is our celebrities for telethons and our utility trucks to help get the lights back on, but we honestly don't know what to do to fix something that is so unbearably broken.

Of course, the news we're getting isn't all bad. It is full of stories of you guys coming together, charging up each other’s phones, delivering free pizzas, and holding impromptu parades. That is the New York I know and love, and that is the New York that will prevail yet again.

I wish there was more I could do personally, other than donate what I can to The Red Cross. I want to get on a plane and come muck out Staten Island with you, but I can’t, for reasons too prosaic to list, and it hurts my heart.

I feel that by not being there, I am missing a family reunion, with all the pain, squabbling and stalwart love those insane events inspire in the human heart. I wish I could ship you my earthquake box with its extra batteries, baby wipes and Fig Newtons. I want you to know how proud I am to be part of such a bighearted, pugnacious family. You will survive and rebuild, because you are New Yorkers, goddammit! It's who you...who we are.


Dear Sugar, teach me how to be you


I’m having a Cheryl Strayed problem -- her success makes me feel like a failure. There. I’ve said it. I know that there are some of you out there who feel the same way, though maybe even now, now that I’ve said it, you still can’t admit it, because to do so would expose you to yourself as the jealous wretch you secretly are. And that’s okay, Sweet Pea -- because I’m going to take the hit for you.

I had been reading and loving the Dear Sugar column on the Rumpus for a few months when I learned, along with the rest of the world, that Ms. Sugar was not some frowzy housewife safely tucked away in a Southern kitchen among gingham curtains and curling linoleum, but a groovy Minnesotan, living in Portland with social/cultural credentials that nearly matched my own. She is close, personal friends with several of my close, personal friends and when I heard that I actually had the thought that maybe if I hadn’t wasted so many good years smoking dope with some of these friends, with my head up my ass, I might have a beautiful, insightful paid column of my own now. But thoughts like that are par for the course around here. I can honestly say that at that point I wasn’t bitter... yet.

Then, about ten minutes after Strayed blew the cover off her Sugar bowl, her memoir Wild was published and Strayed became the instant darling of the literary world. That's when all hell broke loose and I went down the rabbit hole.

A week after Wild’s publication, trying to keep my nose above the rising tide of my own self-loathing, I went to see Strayed at a local literary soiree. I was trying to inoculate myself against further disgruntlement. She read an excerpt from her book, and was interviewed by a friend of mine, who is an oft-published and brilliant writer in her own right. This woman, a powerful, eloquent being, Strayed's equal in gift, made light of herself and her own accomplishments as a way of paying tribute to Strayed.

When women are jealous, we often tend to display a beta dog-like admiration toward those we envy. Whereas a man will flex and posture like an alpha before his perceived competitor, a woman will practically petit point her own shortcomings on a lavender sachet and gift it to her rival in an attempt to distance herself from the stink of her own uncomfortable feelings. Not that Strayed is anyone’s rival. Nooooo… We are all in it for each other, after all, because we’re lovely, supportive gentlewomen, and the Sisterhood is sacred.

Afterward the audience, mostly women and mostly writers, swarmed Strayed, practically prostrating themselves at her feet. I did too, kvelling over her Sugar column, congratulating her on her success. Strayed seemed appreciative, if a bit taken aback by it all. That night I friended her on Facebook, getting in under the wire before her page exploded with friend requests from a grateful nation of fans.

The next day I went for a hike with three lady pals who are all accomplished, published writers, and had also attended the event. All we could talk about was, you guessed it, Cheryl Strayed, and that's when the knives came out. We let it fly; the begrudging admiration for her work, the bewilderment at the seemingly random nature of her success and how people seem to be overreacting to a book that was, yes, wonderful, but not so much more wonderful than books that other people we knew had written, such as, oh, us, for instance. We agreed she was a fine writer, but so were so many others we knew, including ourselves, so why did she get the brass ring?

Here we were -- women all in possession of good health, loving families, interesting, paid writing lives, and yet we tromped along like a quartet of Grimm Fairy Tale stepmothers spewing verbal toads and lizards out onto the trail. We bemoaned the state of being middle-aged, mid-listers in a dwindling freelance market. We ragged on our feckless spouses, our useless agents, on Joyce Maynard’s hair. But underneath we knew we were simply feeling the bitter injustice that came with the territory of not being Cheryl Strayed. Even our day hike was paltry compared to her mighty trek on the Pacific Coast Trail. Of course, at that point, I hadn’t actually read her book yet.

So I went home and read Wild furtively on my Kindle, and dammit, I fucking loved it. I laughed, I wept, I practically lost a toenail, I was so engrossed by it. It is a truly beautiful book and held yet more evidence of our similarities.

It’s one thing to snark at E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey success feels freakish and undeserved. I mean, holy crap, she’s a bad writer. Her success is evidence of a chaotic universe utterly lacking in value, and that provides perverse comfort. But Cheryl Strayed completely deserves her success, which makes her success sting all the more. It seems to highlight some kind of personal lack -- of talent, of persistence, of specialness -- in my own soul. Where did I go wrong?

I was, like Strayed, once a broken-hearted young woman, estranged from my family, lost to myself. Like Strayed, I took a long, lonely path through the wilds of my heart. But unlike her, I lost the trail, wandering off into the woods of self-delusion, a decaying marriage, school volunteerism, addiction, Project Runway reruns and the many diversions a frightened ego will take refuge in. Strayed got her Bad-Girling done early, took notes and strode bravely toward achievement, whereas I dawdled, putting off the hardest part of my journey until my forties when I would find myself trekking across an emotional snow field in flip flops, an inter-dental pick my ice axe.

Cheryl Strayed feels like an artifact from that parallel universe in which a more talented, successful version of myself is writing and thriving. It is this element of molecular recognition that makes me and my friends compare ourselves to her. She is utterly one of us: a journeywoman writer, an ex-drug addict, a gal with a tawdry sexual history and a failed marriage in her past. She is lush-bodied, kicks around in a pair of red cowboy boots that look like a sassy thrift store score, and on the night I saw her, was wearing a black ensemble that was beginning its descent into grey from over-laundering, just like half the stuff in my closet. In other words she is just like me and everyone I love: human, shopping at Target, maybe sneaking a cigarette when she has one too many. Except I was watching her take a fork in the road that didn't appear to be anywhere in my cosmic trail guide.

If the success of Wild (#5 on Amazon at this writing) weren’t enough, Strayed followed it up a mere four months later with Tiny, Beautiful Things, (#350 on Amazon) a collection of her Dear Sugar pieces, which would have been enough of a publication coup in and of itself. I mean, for fucksake, two beautiful, heart-wrenching books in a year?? I’m still dining out on my first book, a collection of freelance pieces published way back in 2007 (Amazon ranking #1,323,491), which, on my darker days, when I allow myself to go full-Plath, I tell myself doesn’t really count as having written a real book. My own version of Wild, a memoir called Unsupervised which I started in 2008, sits half-baked on my hard drive while I write festering blog posts like this one that twelve people will read (and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for being one of them).

I understand that this scarcity mentality is the mark of a dysfunctional ego run amok, and that of course, there are no limits to blessings in God’s perfect universe. My karma is not helped by my smallness, and yet, this awareness only serves to make me feel more puny and unworthy. Rather than be threatened by Strayed’s success, I should be inspired by it, and applaud it, because it is proof that good things can come to good people who work hard. But that brings up the question of whether I am, actually, a good person. I already know I'm not working hard enough. I fritter away my days lurking on Facebook, I read self-help books instead of great literature, I interrupt my writing regularly to squeeze blackheads in a magnifying mirror.

Of course, Strayed doesn’t need my applause, not with 5,000 Facebook friends frantically posting comments like, “You continue to be an amazing person!!” on her wall every day. Not with Oprah high-fiving her and People magazine wondering what she’s reading, (there's not a self-helper on her list, btw). I lurk on her page, tracking her career ascendency, and her utter grace in the face of it. I wonder, if there are days when even Sugar feels like its all gotten a bit saccharine.

Sometimes Facebook feels like that courtroom in Defending Your Life where we are all called to account for our lives and provide evidence of having lived them honorably. Whereas Strayed has posts that show her selflessly supporting the work of others, healing the hearts of the burned and broken, forgiving her mother, celebrating her successful second marriage, rescuing puppies from burning buildings, I am out here, unattached, estranged from my mother, using only 2% of my brain and sliding off the roof of my life with a TV antennae clutched in my hand. In fact, this very piece could be used as evidence to keep me off the tram to heaven.

Some days I think the only one who can help me now is Strayed herself. I’d like to write to Sugar and unbosom myself. She would probably say something like, Pumpkin, it’s okay, everyone feels like an envious little turd at some point. Then she might reveal something similar from her own experience, where she coveted someone else’s life and lacked appreciation for her own. She would find the common ground, and turn it all around by making me feel loved and special just the way I am, thereby instilling fresh hope in my exhausted, withered heart. Either that or she would simply unfriend me on Facebook. Either one would kill me.


A crowd of about thirty people was gathered in a corner of Canter’s Deli close to 11pm on Friday night. It was a fairly grungy group, dominated by young people, but well seasoned with middle-aged duffers like myself. Graphic t-shirts were the uniform of choice, dreadlocks and face studs the predictable accessories of those who had shown up to be accessories to municipal misdemeanors. We were drinking coffee and milkshakes, laughing and kibitzing a few steps away from the Kibbitz Room, where the evening’s band could be heard warming up.

At the center of the group was Robbie Conal, robbie-conal.jpga jolly, urban gnome in a chicken t-shirt. He was holding up his latest street poster, a Mitt Romney visage rendered in the classic Conal hand: over lined and jittery, a graphic manifestation of Conal’s genius as well as his A.D.D. Romney’s lipless mouth was pursed, eyes slightly crossed in a monumental effort to conjure a thought. An empty thought bubble floated over his head.

“So this is my take on Mitt,” Robbie began. “Mitt has deep thoughts. You’re getting a Sharpie with your roll of posters, so I’m sure you can write in something he can’t think of, which would be anything.”
“I got nuthin’,” someone shouted out.
“That works,” Robbie affirmed.

We were Robbie’s guerrilla postering crew. After two decades of watching his iconic posters crop up mysteriously on street corners around Los Angeles, I felt privileged to finally be there, at the center of the Los Angeles political art hub.

I came of age in New York City in the 80’s where Keith Haring’s chalk drawings were on every subway stop in town and Jean Michel Basquiat had recently emerged from his SAMO cover to dominate the art world. When I moved here at the end of 1988 Robbie’s work was basically it for L.A. street art -- Banksy was still finger painting and graffiti was mostly a disorganized, egocentric, gangster mess with occasional spurts of brilliance. This was back in the era of Jesse Helms and it was his “Artificial/Art Official” posters that made me a fan. 1412205_1_l.jpg

Conal’s art was something new: political discourse made tangible, fine art for the masses. The posters were graphic thought prods; Etch-A-sketch acts of outrage and pranksterism. They were funny, ugly, weird and righteous. They were also everywhere – on bus benches and construction sites, they covered billboards and light switching boxes, transforming Angelinos from passive consumers into what Conal calls “surface semioticians.” I remember, sometime around 1990, driving up La Brea and wondering how the posters managed to appear all over the city all at once. The mystery turned out not to be very mysterious; its a movement fueled by chutzpah, Dynamite glue and strawberry milkshakes.


“It’s a minor form of civil disobedience,” Robbie told us. “It’s about the same as being a little bit pregnant.” The analogy didn’t quite track, but it was comforting nonetheless. I had been a little bit pregnant sixteen years ago, and now that baby was all grown up and interning for Robbie over the summer. She had spent the day rolling his posters into tubes of 25 per and preparing for her first urban art attack.

Conal is not some riled-up, vitriolic art beast, but a sweet-natured, menschy soul who takes his art-mentoring very seriously. My daughter is one in a long line of kids he has taken under his wing over the years. She washes his brushes and runs errands for him and he pays her in home-cooked meals, chicken shirts and positive reinforcement.

“This is a lot of fun,” Robbie continues, getting down to serious business, “but for it to be a lot of fun, you need to follow Robbie’s Rules of Guerrilla Etiquette. No running. It didn’t work for Rodney King and it’s not going to work for you. That means not just no running from people in midnight blue suits with shiny accessories. It means not running across intersections because you’re so happy and are having so much fucking fun that you’re going to attract attention. Also, as you go along and everything’s going great, you might get a little cocky and get surface lust. You’ll think, ooh, great spot! I’m gonna climb up here where everyone can see it, but guess what? They’re gonna see you too.”

It went on like this for about an hour before we all went out to the Canter’s parking lot to get our posters and vats of Dynamite wallpaper glue. We struck out, my daughter (let’s call her by her baby nickname, “Bunnyhead” to protect her identity, unless of course you want to Google anything else I’ve written in the last sixteen years) riding shotgun, her accomplices in the back seat. I was there to chaperone the minors and drive the getaway car.

Bunnyhead had made a special mix CD for the ride, per Robbie’s instructions. We bopped through Santa Monica, postering Main Street, Wilshire, Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway, listening to hip-hop and The Smiths, slapping up posters in a semi-haphazard manner per Robbie’s instructions: “If it looks too perfect nobody will think its us. It’s gotta be a little crooked, a little funky because that’s the way we are.”

After a couple of hours, we were headed home via Pico. It was around the time that Morrissey was whining about not having a stitch to wear that we passed the Westside Pavilion. On the corner of Pico and Overland was a beautiful, virginal traffic light switch box. Robbie had deliberately sized his posters to fit these boxes perfectly. I dropped the kids off and told them I’d circle the block, as I didn’t want to park in a red zone, careful driving being another of Robbie's, and my, rules of etiquette. Of course, “around the block” took about seven minutes, as the residential streets around the Westside Pavilion are blocked to through traffic. When I finally rounded the corner back onto Pico, I saw the flashing squad car lights and my kids being questioned by L.A.’s finest.

I pulled up slowly and immediately saw what had gone wrong. Their youthful surface lust had gotten the better of them. They had blown off the light box for a big, white, blank door on the side of the mall itself. The Mittster seemed to be wondering what the hell he was doing affixed to private property.

“Kids?” I said, rolling down my window and looking like a model of parental concern and dismay, “What’s going on here?” I figured it would go easier for everyone if I played it like a Westside Soccer Mom just picking up her juvenile delinquents. If I were identified as an accessory to vandalism, it would be far more complicated for all involved, especially me.

“Ma’am, is one of these kids yours?” the larger of the two officers asked me. I parked, got out and identified Bunnyhead as my personal perp.

What ensued was close to an hour of questioning. The children were asked if they had any tattoos, scars or gang names and I had to turn away to keep from laughing when Bunnyhead shot me a look. The kids followed Robbie’s rules and were impeccably polite and respectful. The cops were solicitous, even friendly. “Remember,” Robbie had said, “If the police are interested in what you’re doing, it’s their job to be interested. If you’re really polite they’ll just think you’re misguided youth, and they wouldn’t be wrong about that.”

These two officers immediately saw they had nabbed some newbies. They checked student ID’s and asked about their SAT scores. They even went so far as to admire the poster and tell the kids they thought their political activism was admirable, but private property had to be protected. The crew nodded in perfect understanding. Because everyone was so cool, they gave the kids a break on the vandalism charge, and let them go with a curfew infraction. The guilty parties scraped the poster off the door, parents were notified, citations were issued and everyone went home. We await our court date and anticipate a small fine.


The evening was fun until it suddenly wasn’t fun. Watching my daughter being questioned and fingerprinted by the police was not a peak parenting experience, and I must tell you, I questioned my own judgement. But this is where the rubber of progressive parenting meets the road of authoritarianism. Our family believes in free speech and political activism. Afterward we talked about how it would have been different if she had been out randomly tagging with malicious intent. It’s a fine line between vandalism and street art, and I wanted her to be clear about where it lay. I also made it clear that I would have felt very differently if she had gone and done this without my permission or protection. Call me a hypocrite, but I encourage my children to question all authority except my own.

The next day Bunnyhead texted Robbie a photo of herself holding up her citation and his reply was: “Congratulations! I’m glad you didn’t have a boring night.” No Robbie, it certainly wasn't boring.

Chalk it up to troubled times


I was down at 6th and Spring on Thursday for Art Walk, killing time before I picked up my teenage daughter, Franny, from her summer internship at the Gloria Delson Gallery. I wandered up and down Spring Street where the Art Walk crowds had the sidewalks tightly packed. The energy felt frenetic and charged.

I walked past a group of kids who were handing out pieces of sidewalk chalk, encouraging pedestrians to draw on the pavement. I assumed it was some kind of spontaneous street art project in the spirit of Art Walk, but since the rain was coming down fairly hard, I thought drawing with chalk was a pointless exercise and passed it up.

The chalk kids were scruffy, pierced and dreadlocked, and though I heard no words of protest, they were Occupy-ish in their mien. They were there to whip us up, but into what, was unclear. I couldn’t decipher the moment or understand why they were there. It felt wrong, but harmless. The fat pieces of pastel sidewalk chalk were just like the ones my own kids have at home. The sidewalk in front of our house is often marked with kid hieroglyphics -- exhortations to live and love -- just like these. Chalk is so harmless. It is cheerful, temporary, and the medium of teachers, hop-scotchers and Keith Haring. So, okay, I thought, this is all okay.

It was the police presence that added a dystopian note to the festive gathering. It felt like date night, but with mean chaperones. Mini-skirted girls teetered in pumps and giggled beside their buzz-cut boyfriends in crisp shirts. Cops glowered at them from every corner. On the one hand the vibe was festive and arty, on the other hand, it felt like it could ignite at any moment.

The last time I was downtown it was for an Occupy event, and it felt just the same. Granite-faced cops pegged corners and crosswalks. Their sobriety stood in stark relief to the festive, tiddly energy of the art lovers. I didn’t like it, so I sought refuge from the rain in The Last Bookstore, flipping through a book of Robert Capa photographs. The men who fought the Spanish Civil War were as young as the kids out on the sidewalk. Revolution belongs to youth.

At 8:40 Franny texted me that she was done at the gallery and we met on the corner of 5th and Spring at 8:45, walked to my car and drove home.

The next day she and I were getting getting mani/pedis at our local nail nook and we saw the news reports of what happened fifteen minutes after we left Spring Street. All hell had broken loose. Bottles were thrown, rubber bullets were fired. sixteen people were arrested. We had left just in time. “Some of those kids were teenagers” Franny said. “I guess drawing with chalk is wrong, but child abuse is okay.” Out of the mouth of my babe, who is coming of age in zero-tolerance times.

As my nails got painted I watched footage of workers spray painting over the chalk art that had ended up on the side of a building, thereby graduating the doodles from harmless art to vandalism. I wondered why on earth they would go to the trouble and expense of painting over the chalk when a hose would have washed it off in a jiff. But this is the theater of self-righteous indignity. By defending businesses from harmless scribblers, the police were sending a message that it is business, not people, who are protected by the law.

These are troubled times, everyone is taking everything so seriously. There is a time for revolution, and there is a time for just letting people enjoy the street and neither the chalk kids, (whom I suspect were not an official an Occupy Wall Street group) nor the LAPD seemed willing to let Art Walk be about art. Throngs of people chanted, “These are our streets!,” and of course, they were right. There’s nothing wrong with using Spring Street as a temporary canvas for people who will never have their art on a gallery wall, to say something about what it feels like to be alive in this strange, exultant, fraught and confusing moment. The LAPD would have it all swept away, when in fact, the strange, unseasonal rain was already doing the job for them.

Addendum: My daughter reports that the chalkers came into the gallery on Tuesday to talk about what happened on Thursday night. They said they hadn't intended to cause a ruckus, nor had they anticipated the aggressive police presence. They were going around to all of the businesses to apologize and explain their intentions - which was to build community and allow people to participate more actively in the artwalk event. They told her they will hold a community meeting to talk about what happened. I will keep you updated if I hear of anything more.

Ten cents a dance

Note: This piece was written for a recent "Bad Girl" reading I did. The song lyrics are meant to be sung.

I was a dreamy, romantic, MGM Musical-obsessed child, growing up in Manhattan in the '70's. My dad was a movie critic, so our family record collection was full of soundtrack albums. One of my chief childhood pleasures was memorizing show tunes and choreographing elaborate dance sequences to them. All I needed was a twirly skirt, maybe a pair of tights on my head to simulate long, flowing braids, and I could transform my parents' living room into a soundstage. I leaped off of ottomans, flung myself into sofa cushions and belted out ballads while my parents tried to write in other, quieter, parts of the house.

When I was about ten I became fixated on a song from a movie I had never seen called “Love Me or Leave Me” starring Doris Day. “Ten Cents a Dance” told the story of a woman who works in a dance hall, getting paid to dance with strange men. The song was full of pathos and mystery, and something almost dirty that I almost understood. I played this song over and over every day for weeks, one of my mother's unlit True's dangling from my fingertips, leaning against a buffet, letting the unshed tears of the lonely, haunted woman fill my throat as I sang:

I work at the Palace ballroom, but gee that palace is cheap
When I get back to my chilly hallroom, I'm much too tired to sleep
I'm one of those lady teachers, a beautiful hostess you know;
One that the palace features, at exactly a dime a throw.

Fourteen years later I was an actual lonely, haunted woman newly arrived in Los Angeles. I had spent my last dime moving west to get away from a man who didn’t love me enough. I was combing the back of the LA Weekly classifieds one day, looking for a fast way to come up with rent that wasn’t prostitution, when I came across an ad that screamed “Earn $400-$600 a night as a hostess at Club Flamingo!”

The club was downtown on 12th street. I walked up the wide, creaking staircase of an ancient building to the second floor and asked for the manager. A beefy bouncer walked me past the dance area. A mirrored ball sprayed colored dots across a rough, empty floor. There was a bar area, and a long banquette, where a few bored girls sat, legs crossed, their pumps dangling off their big toes.

Marty, sat behind a huge, oak desk in an office cluttered with ashtrays, posters and cracked disco balls. He explained the rules: “No alcohol or drugs, cigarette smoking only on breaks in the designated area. Single men are not allowed on the dance floor, no leaving the club with customers, no blowjobs, no hand jobs, no grinding.” He pointed to a closed circuit TV screen next to his desk. “Every inch of that dance floor is on camera. If you break any of these rules, I will fire you. We run a clean joint here.”
And with that, I became a Taxi Dancer.

Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me
Gosh how they weigh me down.
Ten cents a dance, dandies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown.

Of course, with inflation, it was more like ten bucks a dance. The house took half and I got the other half, plus tips. I took my place on the red vinyl banquette alongside the other dime-a-dance girls – I was the only Caucasian in the lineup. The dandies and rough guys looked us over from bar tables. In heels, I was good a foot taller than just about everyone in the club.

My first customer was a stone-faced Hispanic man who followed me out to the dance floor just as “Hello” by Lionel Richie was starting up. As in Doris Day’s days, dances were timed by songs. He put his hands on my waist and drew me close. It felt strange to be this close to a stranger. We did an awkward shuffle, my forearms resting on his shoulders, my hands dangling in the air behind his back, which struck me as a gesture that was Doris Day-worthy, and got me out of touching him. We didn’t speak, and he didn’t even really look at me. I could feel his palms sweating through my thin nylon top.

“Hello” ended and I took him over to the desk to punch out and pay up. He didn’t tip me anything. Already I felt I was failing. What had I done wrong? It was a question that was always on my mind in those days. How am I fucking this up? Back in the days of the twirly skirt I had known who I was: a dreamer, a limerick-lover, a joke-teller, a girl with a dead-on Julia Child impression. But in the wake of my parents’ divorce, a troubled adolescence and a broken heart all that disappeared, and I looked instead to men to tell me who I was. I came west to be a movie star and find myself. Instead I found myself draped over an old man with gold teeth at the Club Flamingo who was telling me about his discount auto parts business. I was as far away from myself as I could possibly get.

Seven to midnight I hear drums, loudly the saxophone blows,
Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums, customers crush my toes.

I danced with a chatty, chunky fellow in a loveless marriage. He wanted to tell me his whole sob story, from his Bahamian honeymoon right up to that very evening when he got in his K car and drove in from Bellflower. He kept me swaying through four songs, sliding his hands up and down my back, stopping just at the top of my ass. He was misunderstood, he said, put-upon, a good provider, a man’s man, married to a cold bitch. I nodded and cooed my sympathy. When I clocked him out he tipped me ten bucks. I was starting to get the hang of this job.

Back on the banquet I chatted with a girl named Angela who was the only dancer there who would talk to me, the other girls seemed to hate me. “There are two kinds of girls here,” she said, “respectable girls and Corner Girls.” She pointed to the far, dark reaches of the ballroom where couples were nearly motionless, but for the subtle, curved, jungle boogie of the dry hump. “Those girls think they will make more in tips if they let guys take liberties. But it’s bullshit. And watch out for the pillar,” she said, pointing to a large, square pillar in the center of the dance floor. “Guys will try to get you back there because it’s the one area in the ballroom where Marty doesn’t have a camera.”

Japanese businessmen usually asked me to remove my high heel shoes, but I towered over them in stocking feet anyway. I tried to make conversation, but they didn’t have enough English. They were as far from home as I was, and their loneliness rolled off of them like Tsunamis. They were silent and polite, and I felt like a big, fritzing neon sign in their arms. The ancient parquet floor of the Flamingo was ragged from years of wear, and the splinters snagged my nylons and lodged in the soles of my feet as we danced.

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket,
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance.

I took a bathroom break. The ladies room was cavernous, with broken sinks that dripped, and soap dispensers filled with powdery Borax. I was washing my hands when two girls came in, one of them bee-lined for the sink and began furiously yanking out paper towels, dabbing at the front of her mini-dress. “The guy fucking came on me! I’ve got jizz on my fucking dress, Mija!”

“Damn Alicia, that’s what you get for being a Corner Girl.”

“Fuck you Yvette, I got kids to feed.”

I went back out to the banquette and was immediately picked out by a slick trick in a shiny suit and pointy shoes. He asked me questions about myself. I told him I was a runaway, that my father beat me, that I had three kids and was trying to put myself through school. He barely listened as he tried to dance me toward the pillar. I tried to dance us back out into the open. He danced me right back to the pillar and slid his hand up my shirt. I let him linger a moment before I pushed his hand away. He tipped me twenty bucks.

Fighters and sailors and bow-legged tailors
can pay for their tickets & rent me
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor
are sweethearts my good luck has sent me.

The Foot Doctor was a regular at the club. He rented girls, bought them Cokes and then rubbed their feet for a paid hour. It was a solid arrangement. My feet felt like raw hamburger, so I let him go crazy. He looked at me with soft, wet eyes as he cracked my toe knuckles. I purred with pleasure. He told me he was falling in love with me.

Though I've a chorus of elderly beaus,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes
I'm here till closing time
Dance and be merry it's only a dime.

Over the three weeks I worked at the Club Flamingo I became a for real Corner Girl. I never made $600 dollars in a night, but I came close. I would drive home to my chilly hallroom, my purse crammed with small bills, my clothes rank with sweat and Hai Karate. I would stand in a scalding hot shower at three AM, trying to wash it all off of me, but I couldn’t because it was inside of me

I was dancing with a polite black gentleman named Bill. He held me at a respectful distance, he spoke in full sentences and asked me about myself. Because he was the first intelligent person I had met at the Flamingo, and because I liked him, I decided to tell him the truth: I was new to Los Angeles. I was from New York. My parents were authors. I had graduated from Barnard College in June with a degree in English Literature. His eyes bugged out in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I told him.

He put me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. “The choices you make today will affect the rest of your life. Choose carefully, Young Lady.”

I drove home that night through the spooky, deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles, and knew I would never go back to the Club Flamingo. The next time I put on stockings and drove downtown, it was during daylight hours to work as an office temp – which turned out to be prostitution of another sort.

It would take me another two decades to understand what Bill meant, and by that time it would be too late. I made a lot of bad choices based on the bad notion that I was intrinsically bad. But now I know I wasn’t really bad, I just got swept up by a song and gave myself away.

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.

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