Tag Archives: Los Angeles

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The first chapter from an unpublished novel of mine, about a young working class white guy who gets caught up in a centuries old blood feud between two Korean families in LA’s Koreatown: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

22 Oct

 

Man Drowning

Jon, the producer trying to get me to write a film shot in China, told me a story about one of the Chinese industrialists he’s going to tap for money to finance the film, a friend of his named Yunru.

Ten years ago, Yunru was homeless and friendless, living in a mausoleum in a graveyard outside Chengdu. After seven straight days in the darkness of the mausoleum without a crumb to eat, he became delirious with hunger. Yunru staggered out into the sunlight, wailing, “I’m hungry… I’m hungry.”

In seconds, other homeless people emerged from the surrounding mausoleums, moaning, “We’re hungry, too.”

The others – a group of about a hundred – pooled what little food they had and gave it to Yunru. With his strength restored, the others began looking to Yunru as their leader. He told them he’d go to a nearby factory to try and get them work.

Yunru spoke to the factory manager and said his people would work for half what he was paying the other workers.

The factory manager turned down the offer.

Yunru then said, “Twenty of us will work for free for one week. We’ll show you that we can work harder and better than your other workers.”

The factory manager agreed and at the end of one week Yunru had made good on his claim. The factory manager hired all 100 of the workers from the cemetery. Over the course of a few months, production and profits at the factory were way up, attracting the attention of the factory owner in Hong Kong. He flew to Chengdu to see for himself why this particular factory was outperforming the others he owned. He first spoke with the factory manager who hemmed and hawed and didn’t give a satisfactory answer. The owner then interviewed a worker who said, “It’s all because of Yunru.”

The owner tracked down Yunru and in the course of their conversation asked, “Are you happy working for ten dollars a day?”

Yunru answered, “We only make five dollars a day.”

The owner confronted the factory manager, asking, “What are you doing with the extra money we are sending you?”

When the manager was unable to come up with an explanation, the owner said, “You’re fired. Yunru will take your place.”

As time passed, Yunru eventually had 3,000 workers under his control. He invested in coal when it was pennies a ton – now it’s over $50 a ton. Yunru is a rich man with a beautiful home and family. When friends come over to visit, he breaks out $100K bottles of Lafite Rothschild.

Whisper

11 Aug

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My block is getting even more gang-ridden; with foul-mouthed rap blasting from windows and shaven-headed Mexicans tagging the walls with spray paint. This season in L.A. the Blacks hate the Latinos more than ever; they’re executing each other in an ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods.

Where a white guy like me fits in is anybody’s guess. On any given day, I’m either Captain Kangaroo or Paladin.

There will come a day when I’ll have to deal with unwanted attention. On that day or night I’ll call on the ghost of Whisper, a youth who died of an overdose on the sidewalk in front of my building, the night before I moved in. For weeks, gang members tended a shrine of flowers, candles and snapshots. In the mornings I’d tidy up the shrine, up-righting candles that had tipped over in the night.

When I finally face the inevitable moment of truth of living here on this block, I’ll call on Whisper to save me.

(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)

Pitch

17 Jul

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“You’re gonna have a sleepless night,” says Michael. “But it’s important you do it.”

It’s my turn to step up and pitch, a prospect that gives me the willies. Mambo Sun is more my idea than Michael’s. With all the changes we’ve been making, Michael is worried whether he can keep the characters names straight.

Michael and I are sitting at California Bowl, having lunch, and I’m telling him, “Pitching is completely against my nature. You know me – I don’t hesitate to give my opinion.  But when have you ever seen me take center stage and tell a story? It’s not me. It’s totally contrary to what and who a writer is.”

“Yeah, but you got to face your fear,” says Michael, “What if-

“I know, I know. You have car trouble –

“Or I’m sick –

”Right. I gotta do it.”

And you know what? It’s part of the game. You can take refuge in the identity of the writer, but when all is said and done, you’re a Hollywood writer. So get in the game. Either that or put the car in reverse and back into the Jersey driveway you sped out of.

That night, when I tell Devon on the phone how nervous I am, he says, “C’mon Dad, you were the guy who got crazy in Love Henry. Of course you can do it.”

It’s very telling that I don’t share any of my fears with Ann. I think she would relish them.

I don’t have a sleepless night, but I do have disturbing dreams, of Devon hang-gliding over a lake surrounded by jagged trees, of me having a knife fight with a punk, and then – the wide awake weirdness – lying in bed in the dawn and hearing a woman screaming and then slowly realizing it’s a dump-truck changing gears.

In the morning, I read my pitch over a bowl of LIFE cereal.

Thinking over the pitch as I drive to work, asking myself, “What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re where you want to be. JLo’s company wants to hear your idea for a film. This isn’t a challenge – it’s an opportunity.”

Sitting at my desk, getting an e-mail from Michael. “I read your pitch – beautiful….”

That meant a lot to me.

He especially loved one paragraph:

“There’s a moment, and it can happen to anyone, when they look around and see that they’re missing something – they’re missing the point of life – but the people around them get it – they’re either effortlessly in love, or grounded in their community and enjoying life – they’re not keeping score.

This is what happens to John, our main character in Mambo – a Cuban-American living in Miami, who when we meet him, couldn’t care less about his Cuban heritage – it means nothing to him.”

And then I get a call from Matt Robinson an hour before I’m to leave for the drive into LA, to meet Michael outside the offices of Nuyorican Productions.

“We gotta reschedule,” says Matt. “I can’t go into it, but there’s a real crisis going down. You come in to pitch and Simon won’t even hear you. The phone will be ringing the whole time. We’ll have to reschedule for next week.”

When I get Michael on the phone he’s mightily pissed. “I read your pitch – I was ready to go in there like we were fuckin’ golden!”

I guess I really do have a little of the pussy in me – I feel relieved. This gives me a week to gather some more strength.

(2006)

Commute

10 Jul

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A sleepless night, knowing I’ll have to get up at four a.m. and call a cab to bring me downtown to the corner of Seventh and Figueroa. As close as I can figure out, that’s where I can catch a commuter bus to take me the 19 miles to Woodland Hills, where I can put in a day’s work and then pick up my car.

The alarm rings while I’m wide-awake.

One of my favorite things to do is to walk through doors where I haven’t a clue what waits on the other side. It started in Boston when I was 18, walking into a nightclub in the Combat Zone called the Mousetrap Cabaret. On the side of the building was a painting of a tipsy mouse in a tuxedo holding up a martini glass. Nothing much happened once I was inside, besides a stripper in leopard skins, but I think it cured me forever of worrying what was on the other side of a door.

But I feel vulnerable, riding in the cab through the dark streets as my cab driver listens to gangsta rap on the radio. What kind of corner is Seventh and Figueroa? Downtown LA is a homeless nightmare. I can’t help wondering what kind of tough shell I’ll need in the pre-dawn streets. A lot fucking harder to pull off with a head of gray hair.

Once we’re downtown, it’s no big deal; a metropolitan crossroads with streetlights on every corner. My bus comes and I pile in with the Mexicans. I pay a ridiculously low fare of $1.25; you gotta keep the underpaid, illegal workers flowing back and forth.

Like a lot of places I’ve been lately, I’m the only Anglo. Just me and standing room-only Mexicans, all of them eerily silent, except for the occasional woman who climbs on board, greeting other women with affectionate smiles and a kind word.

The women who speak seem superbly grounded, compared to the stoic men, who look like they carry the end of the day with the day’s beginning.

We drive north on the 101 and the sky grows warm and gray.

(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)

 

Eight Ball

14 Jun

 

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I’m sitting in a Japanese fast food joint on Santa Monica, reading the LA Times, when I look up to see a street tramp at the door – the kind you only see in Hollywood. She’s in her 50s, a former beauty, dripping with costume jewelry and wearing a black slouch hat.

She heads straight towards me, asking, “Can you spare some money so I can get some soup?”

Closer I can see she has a huge shiner under her right eye.

I pull out my wallet. “Yeah, I can spare a few bucks.”

I dig out three dollars as she tells me I have gorgeous eyes – the prettiest she’s seen in a long time. She sits down at the table next to me.  When I hand her the money I see how filthy her hands are, dirt worked into the creases of her skin and black grime under the broken nails. She wants to shake hands with me but I can’t bring myself to do it.

She notices me looking at her black eye. “You can see it?”

“Yeah, it looks like somebody hit you.”

“My boyfriend – my former boyfriend.”

She dips into her purse for a bottle of makeup and starts dabbing it over the shiner, saying. “This helps.”

I say, “Time will help.”

She tries to shake hands with me again. Jesus…

She starts talking about her former career, all the important people she knew, that she was a model and an actress – that she worked in Basic Instinct.

Then she says the one thing guaranteed to get me lurching towards the door.

“And I sold a screenplay!”

(2006)

Sign

1 Jun

 

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Devon and I did one of our urban hikes. We decided to walk from my apartment in Koreatown, down the length of Western Avenue, and up into the hills until we reached the Hollywood sign.

No sooner than we were out of the front door than we encountered a crazy, good-looking Spanish girl babbling on the front step, grinning to beat the band. I thought she was talking on a cell phone until I realized she was talking to the sky. Devon got a little freaked, especially since she started following us – but she gave up after a block.

A hundred yards later we saw a Korean mobster roughing up an underling, doing the classic move where you pull a guy’s jacket down so his arms are pinned and then you slam him up against the side of a car. The whole thing had a balletic feel – like the victim was secure in his role. Devon pushed me, saying, “C’mon Dad – don’t look.”

Walking past the 99 Cent stores, talking with Ann on the cell, letting her know we were on our way to adventure. Devon couldn’t believe that block after block the Hollywood sign wasn’t getting any closer.

We had lunch at the end of Western and Hollywood Blvd., drinking Thai ice tea in a little restaurant with a huge hot dog perched on the roof. I was looking forward to having a Thai hot dog but it wasn’t meant to be. The sign proved to be from a former eatery now passing the torch to a bitter-looking Thai woman serving bamboo stir fry in the harsh LA sunlight.

Walking on down Franklin, past the AFI and a bunch of cool cafes and then hanging a right onto Beachwood, our shoes already heating up and our foot bones getting articulated in a strange ways. As we walked I told Devon that Bob Dylan was a kindred spirit, that he loves to walk the outskirts of whatever town he finds himself in.

We wound our way through the Hollywood Hills, past wonderful quirky homes befitting the Dream Capital of America. Devon and I commenting on the various vintage Mustangs along the way. And then, really dragging now, reaching the Holly Ridge Trail, with its “Beware of Rattlesnakes and Mountain Lions” signs. We were pushing it, winding back and forth along the hill, catching a glimpse now and then of the sign and radio towers above us.

Every once in awhile we’d look over our shoulders at a  wide screen view stretching from  Santa Monica to downtown LA, with the asymmetrical Wiltern Theatre smack dab in the middle.

We met a little Japanese hiker who looked fresh as a daisy – no way did he start in Koreatown like a couple of crazy Jersey boys. In fact, I’ll go on record – no one ever started in Koreatown to set off for the Hollywood sign.

We kept on, Devon worried about dehydration. I tried to reassure him that humans don’t die that easy.

Here he comes again on his way down, the battery-driven Japanese guy greeting us with, “I took a picture.”

We finally made it to the top. Looking down on the backside of the Hollywood sign. Where poor Lillian Millicent Entwhistle plunged to her death in 1932 when her acting contract wasn’t renewed.

But up on top I wasn’t thinking about Hollywood, or anything like it.

I was enjoying the fact that Devon and I had made up our own day – there wasn’t one like it to be found anywhere.

(2006)

Relay

5 May

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My son Devon flew out for a week and I took some vacation time, which means I’m cut off from my computer at work. Living in an illegal sublet makes it impossible for me to be hooked up to the Internet. So when I wanted to reconnoiter with Michael about Mambo Sun we have to make plans to meet at Surfers Point in Ventura.

Devon and I drive down the 101 to Ventura as Devon searches the dial for a decent song. We pull into Surfers Point and sit on a bench, looking out at the ocean. In April, after heavy rains and runoff, the surf is churning brown, inspiring a hepatitis warning to would-be swimmers. I tell Devon my favorite opening line from a book is by William Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads.

“The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river.”

Michael comes rolling up. I turn my laptop on and Michael takes it to his car where out of the sun he can read the screen. This lack of being wired makes me feel like a Greek runner in the Trojan War carrying messages back and forth between Menalaus and Ajax.

Michael comes back in minutes. We discuss a few changes and Michael deems it, “Close enough for government work.”

The goal is to get the outline to Matt’s liking. Then we’ll come in and pitch Mambo to Matt’s boss, Simon Fields. Presumably, if JLo’s company wants to move forward, they’ll pay us to write a first draft.

Presumptions are dangerous in Hollywood, but Michael and I won’t write a custom-designed script for Marc Anthony if we’re not getting paid.

(2006)