Tag Archives: California

Ghosts of Koreatown

17 May

gHOSTS OF kOREATOWN

The first chapter from an unpublished novel of mine, about a young working class white guy who gets caught up in a centuries old blood feud between two Korean families in LA’s Koreatown:

GHOSTS OF KOREATOWN – CHAPTER ONE

As usual, I was the only white guy in the place.

I watched as the cordless microphone was passed down along the bar to Chin Ho, a pale faced Korean with huge bags under his eyes. I looked up at the wall mounted TV behind the bar. A Korean ballad began to play – words I couldn’t understand. Chin Ho dug into the tune – he was a good singer.

Once or twice, when I got really drunk, I’d try to sing in Korean. No one ever told me to shut up. No one ever grabbed the mic out of my hand. Instead they’d smile and slap me on the back as I gutted their language.

I looked over at the front door where a tall floor fan whirred and buzzed, doing its best to cool off the bar. Cars drove past. It took some getting used to – sitting in a bar and being on public view.

There was only an inch left in my bottle of Hite. At five bucks a pop I could only afford one or two a night. I looked up at the queue of songs running along the bottom of the video image. My song was next – I’d sing and then go home.

Chin Ho finished up and Min Jee, the good-looking barmaid, took the mic out of his hand. With a smile she handed it to me. Min Jee had her hair dyed an auburn color, with streaks of blonde highlights. She almost always wore golden earrings of some kind. For weeks now I’d been thinking of asking her out but I always took a step back. I liked coming to the Saja Room every night for a song and a beer – I didn’t want to do anything to fuck it up.

The first notes of “Moon River” began to play and I looked up at the karaoke screen. I knew the lyrics by heart but I liked the reassurance of seeing the words crawl slowly up the TV tube. The screen showed a flurry of disconnected Korean images unrelated to the song – a bungee jumper, animated cell phones, kids bouncing a ball, cherry blossoms waving in the wind – the images made no sense at all.

I weighed the mic in my hand. It had a lot of reverb and it made almost every singer sound like he was in the shower, his voice bouncing off the tiles. There were a few singers the mic couldn’t save – guys who sang angry, loud and desperate. Most patrons would stare into their drinks when a singer like that roamed the floor – they rarely sang from their seats since they were in too much pain to sit still. But karaoke Korean-style was all about flushing out the jim-jams. It was no American Idol fantasy. It was a balm for the psyche.

I began to sing, enjoying the feeling. “Moon River” was my song. My grandma back in Pittsburgh used to play that tune over and over. It had gotten under my skin in an odd way and when I first dropped into Saja and they handed me the mic, without thinking I asked for “Moon River”. The regulars all had their signature song and this was mine.

I glanced over at Ms. Tam, the owner of the bar. She was smiling. She liked it when I sang. The Koreans were middle class and were pleased when a white guy showed them respect – even a white guy like me, in jeans and a black T-shirt.

Ms. Tam looked to be in her 50s, still put together well, always wearing a sheath-like dress. I think her black hair was a wig, since it never changed shape. She always had a Marlboro pasted to her lower lip. The rest of LA had won the war against smokers but you’d never know it in Koreatown. It seemed like everyone in Saja smoked – the air was blue with it. I didn’t have the habit, but I breathed in so much second-hand smoke I’d probably have to start wearing a patch if I ever changed bars.

There was a young Korean woman standing next to Ms. Tam. I’d never seen her before. She kept her head down and leaned in towards Ms. Tam, like a shadow. Dressed in a white shift, she looked demure next to the older woman’s flash. I’d noticed that most Korean women had a really hearty sensuality about them. This young woman looked bled out and shy.

I dug into the lyrics –

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

There was polite applause at the end of my song and some of the patrons raised their beers in a salute. I gave a little wave of thanks and handed the mic to Min Jee.

Min Jee said, “I like the way you sing that song. So much feeling.”

She brought the mic down to a grey-haired Korean and the old guy started singing an upbeat Korean number.

Maybe it was worth the risk, asking Min Jee out. Maybe there was a way I could approach it without feeling like a jerk if she said no. There was a fancy-looking Korean barbecue restaurant a block away. I could ask her to show me the ropes when it came to Korean cooking. I’d examined the menu on the front door a couple of times – it looked confusing as hell.

I was imagining sitting across from Min Jee, maneuvering a pair of chopsticks, eating something gooey and strange, when I saw a Korean dude walk into the bar. Instead of finding a seat, he stood in the open doorway. The guy had presence – a sense of style. He wore a sharp-looking suit without a tie; his glowing white shirt was open at the neck. He had the fresh look of a guy straight from the barber shop. It was strange the way he stood there, his eyes searching the bar. There wasn’t much to see – just a long row of stools, a tiny dance floor and a couple of restrooms off the kitchen. The guy’s eyes fastened on Ms. Tam and the young woman standing close to her.

The man smiled –

Then his head exploded in a burst of shotgun fire from the street.

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Born Into This

18 Aug

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Spent July 4th by myself, blowing off an L.A. suburban party that would have created more anxiety than I needed. I preferred being alone, writing and watching movie after movie. I finally got Hollywood Video to accept my membership card from New Jersey. I dove into a four-day DVD orgy, one film after another – from The Squid and the Whale to The Devil’s Rejects.

One film I watched was the Bukowski documentary, Born Into This. In some ways Bukowski was his own worst enemy – the drunken persona he created was so well realized that it made him an easy target. I’ve loved the guy since 1976, ever since I read an interview in Rolling Stone, which printed his poem about the neighborhood mutt tearing the crap out of the doctor’s dog.

The documentary revealed several moments of vulnerability that aren’t expressed in his writing, especially a scene where, reading a poem about the pure happiness he felt with Linda King, he begs her to be gentle when she takes her love away. Remembering as he reads, sitting on a broken down couch in his apartment in Hollywood, the pain is freshened and he begins to weep.

When you add these moments to the mix of his accomplished art, only those with an artistic agenda could continue to disparage him. Bukowski’s not above criticism, but to hate him reveals a small heart. I’ve always felt that artists were working to create a huge mosaic of expression – each of us adds something to the mosaic. Critics who deny Bukowski his part of the mosaic – that’s an impulse inspired by a kind of psychic fear.

One thing made me laugh.

When Bukowski was 54, he achieved success and moved out of a broken-down East Hollywood apartment to a beautiful home in San Pedro.

When I was 54, I moved from a nice home to a dark studio sublet in East Hollywood.

The funny thing is, Bukowski would love this place, Koreatown.

2006

Lights Out

26 Jul

 

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I had a strange experience. I was driving down Canoga Ave to the library on my lunch hour, on the way to return a couple of films: Must Love Dogs and Lawrence of Arabia. Driving along I hit a red light. I make a right turn and a car speeds across the intersection, cutting me off.

I hit the brakes and as the car pulls in front of me the driver flips me the bird.

I give it right back.

He flips me again.

Back to him.

He gestures for me to pull over.

I do.

So here I am, pulling over to the side of the road behind a pickup. Me in my mid-fifties, getting out of my car, ready for who knows what.  I notice the car’s got a rugby bumper sticker. The weird thing is, there isn’t a molecule of fear in me. I know what it’s like to be afraid – I’m not fearless. But getting ready to confront whoever gets out of that truck doesn’t scare me in the least.

He gets out – a weight lifter type with a shaved head, maybe in his 30s. He crowds within an inch of me, getting up in my grill, yelling all kinds of shit.

I can almost feel his first punch. Then the fight would begin in earnest.

I tell him, “Fuck you, I didn’t see you.”

Then something odd happens. I still can’t figure it out. He looks at me – I don’t know what he sees – maybe his parole officer over my shoulder. Maybe he sees the total absence of fear in my eyes and figures I’m dangerous. If he wanted to he could take me apart.

He backs away saying, “Sorry man…sorry I lost my temper.”

He hurries back to his truck and drives off.

I’m left standing alone.

Wondering what it’s all about, my not being afraid.

(2006)

The King

16 Jun

 

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“He or she who has the script is king. It’s very simple. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an agent, an actor, a director, a producer or studio person. If you’ve got the document you’re running the show. It’s always about what’s on paper.”

Don Simpson

 

Driving to work on the 101 and a driver in a beat-up Nissan Sentra is in front of me, weaving all over the place, hitting the brakes, then surging forward. He catches my interest – I want to see what the crazy fucker looks like. I give my RAV 4 some gas and nothing happens. All of a sudden, with the pedal to the metal, I’m losing power.

I pull off on the next exit and literally coast down the off ramp into a parking space on a side street. I notice the temperature gauge needle is spiked in the hot zone.

I get out of my car and it’s a beautiful sunny day, warm air like a cloak around my shoulders. I have $18 in my pocket, a bricked-in checking account and a corporate credit card I’m not supposed to use. A thought goes through my head: it could have been worse. I’m only a couple of miles from work and I have free towing with Geico.

I find out later that the water pump disintegrated, causing all kinds of shrapnel wounds to the engine. It’s going to be a few days of scrambling to get to work, and a long weekend of walking through LA, wondering how I’ll pay the mechanic $800.

(2006)

 

Burning Bright

13 Jun

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Driving down the 10 in the rain, putting my son on a plane to New Jersey, wondering what the fuck is wrong with me. Living alone – my wife in Jersey too afraid to venture west. My son, at 15, becoming a sullen teenager – still sweet underneath, but looking stricken with depression and misery half the time. I’m missing whole months of my son’s life while I make my charge in Hollywood.

I stop into Ralph’s supermarket to pick up some groceries and on impulse buy some Grecian Formula – even though I’ve given myself numerous pep talks that it’s basically a lie to color your hair – that you’re not fooling anybody.

Coming home to an empty apartment, I wonder why I don’t miss my wife more. Years ago she transmuted into another, less appealing person. During Devon’s visit we watched Falling Down with Michael Douglas. Robert Duvall plays a cop who is saddled with a neurotic wife played by Tuesday Weld. She was the spitting image of Ann – a beauty who caved into becoming a complaining, self-centered burden.

And me, I’m trying to crack the Hollywood scene. Not as a player, but as a writer. But am I good enough? Or a shade deficient?

My life has become a series of capitulations, accommodations, apologies, and understanding head nods.

With all that’s going on, the truth is, I may be a textbook case of arrested development. How else explain the absurdity of a guy coloring his hair in the afternoon, while his son flies east to face his teenage years without his father?

I sit in a dark apartment watching A River Runs Through It.

Makes me wonder about death and burning bright.

 

(2006)

 

Distance

21 Apr

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“I don’t understand how people can have the same point of view year after year. People expect you to be consistent but I think that’s very uncreative. The creative process has to do with inconsistency. I don’t see how you can have art without ambiguity.”

 

Irvin Kershner

 

 

We’re days away from April, the month when Umzumbe Boys was supposed to begin shooting and when the big check would come in. Now it looks like we’ll be lucky if they shoot this summer.

An image comes to mind, of an old dude in his 80s, sitting on a porch, drooling. He’s been buying lottery tickets for 50 years. He finally hits the jackpot – his family is jumping up and down. And the old dude – he’s holding a thick bundle of bills, looking at it with goose egg eyes, thinking, “Money…what the fuck is money?”

(2006)

Full-Court Press

4 Apr

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What a day. Having an ugly fight on the phone with Ann while I’m sitting in my car in a parking garage. Her blaming me for everything, all our financial woes.

Me finally saying “Fuck you.”

And her saying “I hate you!” and hanging up.

Then it’s back to the magazine for a few hours of work, feeling shaky, wondering how I’ll deal with the freeze on my account – numerous calls to the lawyer on the case go unanswered.

I don’t blame Ann for being close to hysterical. The court order that finally arrived (after they froze my account) cites all the things they can do, such as seizing our cars and walking into our house and taking anything of value. Unfortunately, instead of dealing with it together, Ann reverted to type. If we were on a lifeboat at sea she would have pushed me overboard.

In the afternoon, I flee work early and head into LA, for an appointment with Eriq LaSalle’s company about the Les Miserables project. This is a big deal – he’s heard the report on the pitch from his people and he wants to see us.

I get there early and find a parking place on a side street. I make a call on my cell and finally get the lawyer. Surprise, surprise, he’s a human being and we sketch out a payment plan. I may only have fifteen bucks in my wallet, but at least Ann and Devon won’t be going through the trauma of having sheriffs appear at the door.

Michael, Tom and I meet at Hamburger Hamlet an hour before the meeting to go over the pitch. Tom is in one of his sulky, passive aggressive moods.

Later, when Michael calls him on it, Tom says, “I like to be quiet before a pitch.”

My immediate thought is, ‘Why agree to a pre-pitch meeting if you don’t want to talk?’

Eriq LaSalle has a rep of having no patience for fools. The skinny on Eriq is he once stopped a writer in mid-pitch, saying, “I know you’re not an actor, but can’t you do any better than this?” Then LaSalle thought about what he’d just said and blurted, “Fuck this” and walked out.

Our pitch goes really well. LaSalle was really engaged, offering penetrating comments when we were done, even siding with us against one of his execs on a story point.

Michael and Tom are both six five. I’m five nine on a good day. On the way out, after some banter about LaSalle’s basketball movie, Rebound, Tom says. “And Mark here played in the NBA.”

I look at my shoes, feeling like Chaplin, and mumble, “It was a tough couple of years.”

(2006)

Zero

25 Mar

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A mind-fucking 24 hours.

Matt Robinson from J-Lo’s company, Nuyorican Films loves Mambo Sun and wants to develop the script with us. He’s asking for changes, in what amounts to an unpaid rewrite, but it’s a great opportunity.

Michael and I emailed Mentor what we think is the last draft of Drum. We’ve pulled out all the stops – it’s really strong.

Umzumbe Boys is back on track – Athenaeum won an Oscar and so did Tsotsi, a great South African film featuring a young, black, unknown actor. It can only help Umzumbe Boys.

Eriq LaSalle’s company likes our pitch for Outcasts, the Les Miserables remake.

And then I drive into my bank and stick my ATM card in the machine. Zero balance.

I call the 800 number. Zero balance.

I get a real person on the line and find out Citibank has a freeze on my account. I owe them money on a credit card. This freeze also freezes any checks I’ve written that are in the pipeline – including my rent check. I’m living in the kind of apartment building where they put an eviction notice on your door the third day of the month – a fact I know from experience. I have 40 bucks in my wallet and the imminent peril of being tossed out on the street.

I’m down on the ground, getting kicked in the ribs. I’m wincing from the blows, reaching behind the garbage can, hoping to find a stick or a lead pipe.

Hoping my hand doesn’t grab a half-rotten banana peel.

(2006)

Side Order

11 Mar

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Each morning I drive down Western Avenue, the Hollywood sign in the distance, like a caterpillar on a hill. There’s an experience of LA waiting in the wings – one where I’m not counting singles in my wallet, not cutting half bananas into my corn flakes.

I don’t know what that experience will be like, but I imagine there will be a flow of social engagements, Michael and I winking over martinis and throwing out some crude remark about beef curtains to keep things real. Hopefully the challenges will become even more of a throw down – big films and novels to be written. Our goal in the next few weeks is to get an agent who also handles novels and non-fiction.

My cell phone rang a few days ago while I was driving down Western – Kelly Carlin.

I told her, “Man, things are so tight, I don’t know whether to get an oil change or a bottle of wine.”

(2006)

Koreatown

11 Oct

 

Writing this at a little table outside Ralph’s Market, facing Western Ave., the grey-green Wiltern Theatre to my right, traffic flowing past, and a solitary trumpet player performing a block away, probably for dimes and nickels.

My neighborhood is a mix of Mexicans and Koreans, in a northern section of Koreatown. Here and there are echoes of Raymond Chandler’s LA, especially when the sun washes over the Moorish curves of pre-war buildings.

I’ve always described myself as beset by duality.  I’m missing Ann and Devon and the total absence of family life is tough. I’m used to some kind of teeter-totter action.

I was getting worried, wondering if I was going to have to resort to living in a cut-rate motel – the kind over-encouraged actors, big dream screenwriters and crack whores live in.

Then I found a place in Koreatown listed on Craig’s List, a sublet from a Jamaican girl. Once I handed the money order over to her, I had something like $40 bucks to my name.

I have my own four walls around me – at least for the next three months.

My apartment is functional, but very dark. It looks onto an alley and a brick wall. Before I got out here, one of my criteria for choosing an apartment was it had to have light. Instead I panicked – rightfully so – and chose the first crib I could get. Thank God LA is filled with light. A dark apartment in New York would be tough, but I can walk outside and luxuriate in the sun. But it’s lonely.

I spent the last decade going from a driveway to a parking lot. Now I have to become an overnight expert in parallel parking.

(2005)