View Full Version : Al Martinez, Los Angeles Times Writer

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11-17-2006, 10:53 AM
Al Martinez:
Dad holds hope for imprisoned son
November 17, 2006

IN mythology, Brandon Hein would be the lost soul wandering through eternity, looking for an opening back into the world he was forced to leave.

He would be holding a lantern whose light was growing dimmer with every passing year and with every failed attempt to help him toward a door in the darkness.

The parallel isn't too far amiss. Hein, who will be 30 next February, has spent the last 11 years in prison for being in the presence of a murder.

But during his incarceration, massive efforts have been made for his release. These include newspaper and magazine articles, a documentary film, a play, petitions, his own website and the passions of dozens of bloggers.

I write of him today, as I wrote of him shortly after he was sent to prison, because yet another court decision will soon be forthcoming in his case. Efforts have failed on a state level to have his conviction overturned. His only chance to escape eternity rests in the hands of a federal district court.

Hein was one of five young men involved in a fight that led to the death of a policeman's son, 16-year-old Jimmy Farris, in a backyard Agoura Hills "fort" in 1995. A sixth youth waited in their car, a seventh didn't fight. They ranged in age from 15 to 18.

They had gone there to buy or steal marijuana that the fort's owner, Mike McLoren, was allegedly known to sell. During the fight, Farris and McLoren were stabbed. McLoren recovered. Farris died.

Jason Holland admitted to the stabbing. The others claimed they hadn't even known a knife was present during the scuffle.

In court, one of them, stunned by the consequence of their punishment, remarked in a tone of incredulity, "It was only a fistfight." That didn't matter. Under California's felony murder rule, Hein and three others were charged with first-degree murder because Farris was killed during what was judged to be a robbery. One had his sentence reduced. Only Jason Holland, the killer, and Hein went to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Hein has become the poster boy for justice in a case grown cold with time's passage. Efforts to free him from prison have refused to die, even as appeals failed.

Public opinion continues to resonate on his behalf, led by legal experts and by his father, Gene Hein. Many point out that the younger Hein, who killed no one, is serving the same sentence as Charles Manson, who was responsible for the murders of eight.

In a documentary based on Hein's situation, "Reckless Indifference," Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz calls the sentence "disproportional, outrageous, unconstitutional and immoral." A bill by former state Sen. Tom Hayden to revise the felony murder rule died in the Senate. A virtual army of Hein's supporters say that if Farris hadn't been a cop's son, the felony murder rule never would have been applied.

I met with Brandon's father, Gene, a disarmingly soft-spoken man of 55, who has never believed that his son would spend the rest of his life behind bars. He tends Brandon's website with loving care and visits him every other week at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi.

"He tries to keep a level head in prison," the father says. "He'll tell you that 90% of doing time is mental. That's not to say he doesn't get angry and frustrated. He has difficult times. He always says it's not hard to get into trouble, but it's hard staying out of it."

Sitting across from him in a restaurant, I wondered at the passion enclosed in this quiet, self-possessed man. His attitude hasn't changed from the first day we met in their well-kept suburban home on Oak Park's Sunnycrest Drive. He laughs easily and often appears to shrug off the darkness that has enveloped his family. But his actions tell a different story.

He has managed to awaken the world to Brandon's case with the determination of a distance runner, even arranging to post his son's artwork on to their website: remarkably evocative pen and ink sketches of rage and sorrow that Brandon has produced in prison. He has learned to paint and cut hair behind bars, and when he isn't doing one, he's doing the other. Time passes easier that way.

The tragedy that embraced seven boys is as much cultural as it is personal, addressing the unevenness of justice in America. The families all lost sons in the brutal enclosure of a suburban backyard. They stumbled into fate's playground, one with a knife, another doomed to feel its sharp edge, and emerged as players in an American tragedy.

In his way, Brandon Hein represents them all, the lonely figure of mythology wandering through eternal darkness, seeking the door that will allow him into the light. Justice for him would also illuminate a law that vanquishes the innocent along with the guilty. The death of Jimmy Farris was a personal tragedy. Existence of the felony murder rule is societal. We are demeaned by its existence.

02-09-2007, 10:49 AM
Al Martinez:
Standing outside the castles
February 9, 2007

I had Exxon Mobil's $39.5-billion profit on my mind the other day when I stopped to buy cherries at a stand overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

The obscenity of so much profit in a single year, the most ever for any American company, was filling me with an anger that wouldn't abate. Even by the shaky ethical standards of today's general merchandising, the amount was excessive.

There have been grumbles of protest since the news broke that the company had topped the world in profiteering during 2006, enhanced by the likelihood that it would probably exceed even that in 2007 when the numbers come in.

Slightly lower gasoline prices have muted a louder roar of indignation to Exxon Mobil's disturbingly high profit, obscuring with a few pennies the amassing of billions at the expense of its customers, some of whom can barely afford to buy food. And one knows instinctively that sure as the sun rises over Wall Street, those prices will rise again right along with it.

Supplicants to the gods of wealth are confident that eventually all the protest will die down, just as it always has, and nobody's going to do anything about oil company profiteering. Those who could, won't, because they'd be risking their political futures and possibly their personal fortunes.

Jess Unruh, California's one-time big daddy of the Legislature, called money the mother's milk of politics and probably had oil money in mind. One can only wonder how many in D.C. are the suckling children of Exxon Mobil.

Meanwhile, armies of corporate spokesmen, like human robots in a George Orwell novel, intone in unison that the companies need the profits for research, for research, for research, and if they say it often enough we might even be lulled into believing it, or at least not doubting it.

The contrast between us out here and them in the castles of oil was never clearer than on the hilltop where the Cherry Man presides. His name is Arasa Nekousar, and just about every day of the week he's selling cherries, strawberries and a lot of other good fruit at the top of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, looking down on Woodland Hills.

The only time he's not out there, he tells me, is if the wind is threatening to blow his small stand off the hill or the rain is falling hard enough to drown a duck. He picks up the fruit he sells from what he calls a "secret source" in downtown L.A. at 4 a.m. and sets up just as dawn is filling the sky.

He makes about $300 a week during the summer months, when many are attracted by the signs he places along the road, calling attention to his wares with bright red depictions of cherries on one poster and strawberries on the other.

I hadn't intended to interview him, but the dichotomy of Nekousar crawling out of bed before dawn to sell cherries on a hilltop for just enough money to exist and Exxon rolling in its ludicrous profit without anyone able or willing to do anything about it was more than I could ignore.

There are workers like Nekousar all over America, doing what they can to survive, usually at minimum pay or less. Many are the "food insecure" people we keep hearing about, a euphemism used to identify the hungry without placing too much of a verbal burden on our collective conscience. These include about 35 million Americans, 13 million of them children.

Hunger is a debilitating and, in many ways, a humiliating condition, forcing one into a state of desperation by the need to stay alive. I've been there. During what is grandly identified as the Great Depression, getting enough to eat found us digging through garbage cans for what scraps seemed edible, stealing whatever we could eat or peddle, selling our own clothes, working for pennies or turning "dog bones" into a watery soup. We were "food insecure" big time.

One reason I'm a steady customer of the fruit guy on the hilltop is my emotional attachment to cherries. We had a huge tree in the yard of an otherwise desolate East Oakland home whose basement we occupied through the generosity of a family friend. During the season, I always had cherries to eat and cherries to sell and a place in the gracious old tree to daydream of a better tomorrow.

Nekousar is one of those guys who, by selling fruit and managing college courses in accounting, sits in a cherry tree of his own dreams, pursuing a better future by starting at the bottom. I admire him for that, just as I sing of all who toil for bare subsistence against the background of a culture that rewards an evil cult of profit with billions sucked from the tables of the working poor.

This is the stuff of battle in what economic expert Harlan Cleveland once called "the revolution of rising expectations." Social uprisings in a democratic society are achieved through legislation. Revolutions of exasperation are achieved on the streets. History records the existence of both.

One wonders which way the villains of excess profit will lead us. Not forever will the hungry tolerate the feasts of the fat cats while their children starve; not forever will profit threaten the very existence of those who dream in the cherry trees.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

02-09-2007, 10:55 AM
Al Martinez:
A town that's a tonic for the soul
February 2, 2007

A cold rain fell on Ojai the Monday we walked its main street, giving the small settlement a lonely feel, like a woman by a streetlight, waiting for a bus.

Hardly anyone was out strolling in a place usually loaded with tourists. Shop owners and clerks looked out with a longing, hoping we'd stop and buy a scarf, a scented candle or a pair of onyx earrings.

The tearoom was empty and so was the wine shop. Only Bonnie Lu's Country Cafe, where the locals hang out, was doing business. The word "culinary" isn't mentioned there. You just get a damned good breakfast.

We spent time at Bart's Books off the highway, where you could linger the better part of your old age searching through about 100,000 titles, most of them used, looking for the one that mattered.

Cinelli and I were on a brief R&R after my heart tuneup, and Bart's is a place we never miss. It's been there for 43 years in an indoor-outdoor space with alleys of books protected from the weather. You squeeze through narrow passages to find old friends on the shelves and to make new ones.

There are books against a wall on the outside too, so if the place is closed, you can buy one and pay by dropping money through a slot. In L.A., they'd steal the books, the money and probably the slot too.

The last time we were there, or maybe the time before, the clerk was a big-bellied guy with a beard, hair and brows so thick he looked like he was peeking out through a cluster of bushes. He's gone up north somewhere, leaving his image behind.

I found Jack Smith's last collection of columns, the one called "Eternally Yours," and was glad to sit reading in a protected section of Bart's while rain rippled at the rooftop like the hesitant tapping of a child at the door. Jack preceded me in the features section, and his prose remains the sweet remnants of an old song still drifting through the air.

I came across a book of my own too, one I wrote in 1996 called "City of Angles." I had autographed it to someone named Pat, and he'd passed it on until it ended up at Bart's, a worn compendium of my early years in L.A., now distant and gone.

Ojai, in case you've never been there, is a town of about 8,000 souls, some of them rich, others famous, a few of them both. It's tucked into the Santa Ynez Mountains, where once the Chumash Indians made their homes. I like its solitude and its style, and the fierce manner in which it clings to its identity.

Crime's at a minimum in God's little acres. Check out the police blotter in the Ojai Valley News and you'll find items like, "Rollos and Gummi Bears were reportedly taken from a business in the 1100 Block of Maricopa Highway Jan. 23 following a forced entry." The Gummi Bear burglars strike again.

I went to Ojai partly to say hello to legendary underground journalist John Wilcock, creator of the Ojai Orange, a kind of journal of his life and works that he's been publishing for years. We've been communicating off and on for a long time and I was looking forward to actually meeting him in person, which is often rare in today's e-mail world. He was one of the founders of New York's Village Voice and has led a swift and varied life. So much so, in fact, that I missed him again. When I reached Ojai I discovered that he'd gone out of town, on his way to somewhere else.

We stayed at the Emerald Iguana Inn, in a cottage tucked into a garden of beauty that you don't find around every bend in the road. It sparkled in the wet atmosphere of the storm, but because of the rain hardly anyone wandered through the way they usually do. A garden in the rain has to count on blurred views from passing traffic.

I'm always seeking the kind of hideaway that offers what the poet Shelley called the silence of the heart: peaceful havens where only Gummi Bears are at risk, and they don't have to worry about gang wars or drive-by murders, the bloody assaults that take down old ladies and babies that haven't learned to walk or be afraid.

My havens are generally isolated places like Ojai, 11 miles from the 101 on the southern tip of Ventura County, or Markleeville at 5,500 feet in Alpine County, or Etna, existing like Brigadoon, away from everything, just this side of the Oregon border. You feel embraced by the distance under stars so full and bright you can feel the weight of infinity. The far-away beckons like a teasing child.

Even though it was raining off and on in Ojai, I was at peace with the environment. High-end restaurants such as Auberge and Suzanne's reminded me a little of a big-city's gourmet pretensions, but Il Giardino, with a dining area not much bigger than a Beverly Hills kitchen, had the feel of a small-town eatery, with a gumbo that warmed the edgy places of a wanderer's inner being.

I'm not sure that a few days in Ojai strengthened my heart, but it did wonders for my soul. Thanks, Ojai. And good luck in your hunt for the Gummi Bear burglars.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

02-09-2007, 10:59 AM
Al Martinez:
The hospital: A place to bare souls -- and behinds
January 26, 2007

I am lying in a kind of half-sleep, which is all that anyone gets in a hospital, when I force my eyes open and see a light at the end of the tunnel.

It is a blurry light because my vision is unfocused, and I say to myself this is it, I am giving up the ghost, as my mother used to say, sliding down the last tunnel toward the glow at the end.

I've read about near-death experiences and expect at any moment that Mom will appear in the light telling me to eat my boiled carrots, which I still hate, and my evil stepfather will be ready to give me a whack aside the head whenever I am in range.

I'm beginning to crawl out of bed when I realize that I do not see a martini at the end of the tunnel and decide I'm not going anywhere that doesn't have a full bar.

I sit up at the edge of the bed, blink a couple of times and conclude that it isn't a near-death experience at all, or even a near-martini experience. I am just looking out through a half-closed door into the hallway of the cardiac recovery ward.

I open the door to see a parade of old people shuffling by in those hospital gowns that do not cover your behind, lock-stepped into a post-surgery requirement to move about. But to me it is like a glimpse of hell, condemned souls doomed to wander for all eternity for the evil they have done.

I'm not sure what time it is because the light in a hospital ward, like the light in a gambling casino, always seems the same. I crawl back into bed, and as I sit staring out at hell's parade, a nurse bustles in and announces that she has come to take my vitals.

In my blurry state I interpret that as coming to possess my vitals, reaching down into my body to tear out my heart and my liver.

But she is there to monitor my vitals, not to steal them, an angel of health fluttering about like a tiny sparrow doing good. Another sparrow chirped me awake at a wee hour one night to say she was there to weigh me, explaining that it would be better to weigh me then instead of doing it at 8 a.m. when she went off-shift in case I might be sleeping.

The fact that I had been sleeping when she woke me up didn't seem to occur to her, but I was too groggy to complain. Sleep is an uneven experience in a hospital anyhow, because you can't get the bed to crank up to the right position and there is always a low hum of noise, like the buzz of a distant lawn mower. You drift in and out.

Because I am in a room of my own, I spend part of the time watching the only kind of television offered at 3 a.m.: oil-slicked evangelists selling salvation and the glory of money, exercise gurus extolling flat abs and tight butts, and commercials hustling videos for "Girls Gone Wild." Though I don't mind watching girls going wild, flashing body parts that one normally keeps under wraps, I am a long way from indulging in the erotic fantasies that occupy the waking hours and hot dreams of teenage boys.

When a nurse comes in to check me over, I switch the TV quickly away from the half-naked girls back to a preacher with a pompadour praying that I will see fit to send enough money to at least get me halfway to heaven, praise the Lord. I watch parts of "All That Jazz" instead, which features Jessica Lange as a beguiling, sweet-smiling angel of death, and I'm thinking if she is on the other side, how bad can dying be?

As I ponder it later, I don't know why I'm worried about any kind of nudity in a hospital, either on TV or in person, because before they allowed me to don underwear, there was no part of me that wasn't exposed to anyone who may have wanted to look.

When you kick off the covers and your hospital-issue gown is up around your neck, nothing goes unrevealed, and whoever wants to come by for a peek is welcomed to do so.

I criticized hospital food the other day, but now that I am in a more merciful mood, I guess its tastelessness is at least partly due to the chemicals being pumped into me and the fact that I was not allowed to have salt.

The kitchen hasn't discovered herbs and spices yet, but I'm sure it will, and there will be a celebration in all of the wards for the entry of rosemary and oregano into the culinary lexicon of the galley.

Someone asked if I had endured the experience of aortic valve replacement surgery just to have something to write about. That isn't too far-fetched a notion, but no. Cigna wouldn't cover me for that. Furthermore, I would no more have myself sliced open like a honeydew melon for a column than I would bungee jump with a long rope from a short tower.

I can tell you now that I'm never going back to a hospital again, no matter what. If the devil wants me, he won't find me in that parade of old men with their behinds exposed. I'll be in my office at home slumped aside a half-finished column and seeking the martini at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure it will be heavenly.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

02-09-2007, 11:08 AM
Al Martinez:
A healing heart, an aching heart
February 5, 2007

THERE are times, despite dangerous international conditions, when one is more concerned with self than with the world.

We turn inward when illness threatens our lives, oblivious to the larger tragedies besetting the globe, because in pain, we become the larger tragedy.

I say this in reference to my recent removal from the scene due to heart surgery. Because survival is a major instinct of the human condition, it was my primary concern during recuperation. But things have changed.

I emerge from the self-concentration that illness provokes to find that in terms of war and survival, we are worse off than before. We're upping the human ante in Iraq. We're surging.

I probably wouldn't have written about this had it not been for a newspaper item on the $300 billion we've spent on the war and the wasteful reconstruction in Iraq that has left buildings unused or unfinished and weapons unaccounted for.

The money spent on killing and rebuilding was a shocking revelation, but the shock wears off when one considers the more devastating human waste brought on by the same duplicity and stupidity that drives profit-motivated greed in the business ethos.

More than 3,000 Americans have been killed in combat since the Iraqi war began in 2003; 23,000 have been wounded. While this isolates the carnage to our own nationals, consider the larger picture of woe in the human family: An estimated 100,000 civilians have lost their lives in the chaos of the Middle East war.

Empathy has a short reach. We tend to limit our concerns in war to those on "our side," which is not dissimilar from concentrating on our own bodies during times of illness. But it is increasingly obvious that the world is growing smaller and the distances that once divided us are no longer a factor in the separation of our pain from theirs.

Imagine it is our own sons and daughters who constitute what generals regard as the collateral cost of conflict, lying in the street or in the rubble of their homes, torn by shrapnel, pierced by bullets, choking on their own blood. Imagine those we love gone in the hellfire blast of a single missile. Imagine the sorrow. Imagine the rage. Imagine the emptiness.

But still, the man we twice elected president doesn't hear the screams. The way to end the war, he says, is to increase the number of Americans at risk, to raise more targets for a shadowy enemy to demolish, to up the potential for more civilian deaths. And even as he fails to hear the cries of agony, he fails to heed the roars of rage.

When he marched into the war like Napoleon at Waterloo, George W. Bush did so unsupported by the community of nations we considered our friends. He was out to destroy the weapons of mass destruction, by God, and to punish Saddam Hussein for his participation in the horror of New York's Twin Towers. Nothing was going to stop him. Congress, bereft of facts, cheered him on.

But he found no weapons of mass destruction and he found no link between Saddam and the Twin Towers. Efforts to impose pax Americana on a nation in turmoil veered sharply from its original intent. A war to liberate a people became a war of survival and then a civil war and then just a lot of killing. Motivations blurred. Causes disappeared in the black smoke.

In the U.S., encouraged by a newly elected Democratic Congress, peace advocates finally found their voice. Republicans began joining with their political counterparts to call for an end to the war. Marchers demanding a withdrawal from the killing fields filled the streets. A bipartisan Iraq Study Group called the situation "grave and deteriorating." Polls damned the conduct of the war and wanted it ended. The roar for peace magnified.

But Bush didn't hear that either.

When silence provided space for a response, he announced that he was going to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, not as an increase but as a "surge" to help quiet things down. It was a moral non sequitur in the face of what everyone was demanding. Just as he had ignored the counsel of other nations in his decision to go it alone, now he was ignoring both Congress and the cry of the people not to send more troops.

A newspaper editorial summed it up: "You're not listening, Mr. President," it said.

It isn't exactly that. His concentration is inward, not due to any physical illness but to an emotional barrier that allows no empathetic outreach. Meaningless platitudes, supported by distorted logic, shape what vision he possesses. He can't imagine the horror of war. He can't imagine that more troops will, in so many ways, fuel the killing.

We are saddled with a leader who lacks even the wisdom to imagine, and this could lead in the time of his fading presidency to a conflagration beyond even our wildest and most horrific nightmares. He can't internalize the grief of war. He can't hear the sobbing.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com

02-09-2007, 11:14 AM
Al Martinez:
Election results from on high
January 29, 2007

GOOD NEWS — Art Buchwald has been elected president of the United States of Heaven. Mike Royko is his secretary of State and Royko's old friend Slats Grobnik his press secretary.

Buchwald was swept in as a member of the Humorist Party by a vote of one, but that is all that is required up there. You can guess who cast the one and only binding vote.

Royko is his only Cabinet member except for one of those bobbing-head dolls on Buchwald's desk that always nods yes, which is what a Cabinet is for anyhow — to agree. The doll has been given the title of Secretary of Everything Else.

It is next to a sign on his desk, by the way, that says, "The Buch stops here."

Buchwald won the support of Art Hoppe by promising not to do very much while in office, thereby defusing Hoppe's venerable "Nobody for President" campaign in his San Francisco Chronicle column. The president of everything to all people has never worked out, so a president who does very little has an edge.

In his acceptance speech, however, President Buch, as they call him, promised never to send anyone to war who is under 60 but to build an army of drum-beating, bugle-tooting hawks who are too old to fight a war but like the idea of having one around. Therefore, when more soldiers need to be sent into the fray, it would not be a surge of young men but a wobble of geezers who would be doing the fighting.

Buchwald announced it all with a big laugh, the kind he offered when they told him back on Earth that he was going to die eventually, knowing full well that everyone was going to die eventually anyhow, so what was the big deal? He was just having more fun dying than most people.

Country boy columnist Lew Grizzard is speaker of the heavenly House, where absolutely no business is conducted, although every once in a while a member will awaken to frown his objection to whatever he thinks might be going on. Image is everything. Only hands of approval to the president's suggestions are permitted. They are assured by a zap of electricity to each member's behind that causes a sudden upward jerk of both arms. Works every time.

Grizzard entertains with funny stories about his black Lab Catfish, an animal a lot like my old dog Hoover, who died growling at me and never did like the human race too much. Grizzard's last words before undergoing heart surgery were supposedly to tell the surgeon to make it quick so he could catch the last bus to Albuquerque. He never made it, but he's raising hell up there in heaven.

President Buchwald is often seen with Grizzard and Royko at the Billy Goat Tavern. He is back to smoking cigars again, which he gave up under pressure on Earth. In the good old U.S. of H. you can smoke and never get sick, drink and never get drunk, and be honest without risking political support or campaign contributions.

Up there, by the way, euphemisms are not allowed to take the place of truth. You can't say you misspoke, you have to stand up and say you flat-out lied, otherwise you end up in a hot place with a lot of ticked-off Republicans, and I don't mean Palm Springs.

There is no money in heaven as such, so there are no real political campaigns. Each candidate is allowed a credit to buy a drink for the person that he thinks will do him the least good. This creates campaigns of aides who are too useless to be effective, thereby maintaining a peaceful atmosphere throughout the course of the election period. No TV or radio ads, no newspaper ads and no telephone or computer pitches.

At best, if one is so inclined, he can praise himself to his dog or cat.

When it is over, God buys the drinks at the Billy Goat and announces his selection of the president with a unanimous vote of, well, him. This allows for no voting-machine errors or decisions by a court to screw things up. God just points a fiery finger, there is a glow around his selection, and that's it. They all sing a satirical tune written by Royko shortly after Bush stole the presidency in Florida. It is called "Hail to the Thief." Then they laugh like maniacs and have another beer, or whatever.

The U.S. of Heaven was created when God looked down on this troubled nation and decided that humorists were making more sense than any of the political leaders. So he called up editorial cartoonists like Thomas Nast and Herbert Block, commonly known as Herblock, and Walt Kelly and Bill Mauldin, among others. Pogo was the first president, which made all the creatures of Okefenokee Swamp happy. He was followed by H.L. Mencken and then Will Rogers, who could skewer a politician and twirl a rope at the same time, and they all contributed to doing nothing.

Sadly, there is no Art Buchwald or Mike Royko or any of those others for the upcoming presidential election down here, so we'll just have to hope and pray that whoever is elected might receive a message from God that if they really set out to do nothing, everything will be OK. At least they won't be doing anything wrong.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com

02-12-2007, 09:25 AM
Al Martinez:
In his own way, he towered like the forest
February 12, 2007

I find it hard to believe that Jack McKellar died peacefully in his sleep. He just wasn't the type.

Here was a man of the north woods who cast himself in the image of animals that once ruled the forests and the air above them.

"If you're going to be a bear," he'd roar in the lumberjack bars around Eureka, Calif., "be a grizzly!" And he was at that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, big and intimidating, standing tall even among the redwoods.

In later years, he'd talk about the old age of eagles and saw himself soaring over an environment he was once a part of, observing from afar those secret places in the woods "where the monkeys chased the hoot owls."

If ever a man was the type to heed a poet's call not to go gentle into that good night, McKellar was the one. His presence was ominous and his death the other day at age 83, a graceful descent into darkness, was unlikely. One would expect more of a growl to mark his reluctant passage.

Just as the grizzlies and the eagles have disappeared from the forests McKellar loved, so too was he becoming an anomaly. A lumberjack once, he was vocal in supporting their right to exist as the mills were forced out of existence by an army of environmentalists who stood between the redwoods and the saws that endangered them.

I met him in the 1980s when unemployment among the woodsmen was shrouding the North Coast in despair. McKellar had given up logging by then to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, but he remained at war with those who wanted the mills shut down completely, ignoring the human element that was suffering as a result.

He called himself "the redneck of the redwoods" and delighted in challenging the influx of tree-huggers who were making Eureka the focal point of their war on the clear-cutting of timber in the hills around the coast.

When roaring alone wasn't scaring them away, he entered politics, first winning a seat on the Del Norte County school board and then on the Eureka City Council. His open battles with the environmentalists are the stuff of legend. Challenged by a woman who wanted logging ended, he demanded to know whether she used toilet paper occasionally and then, playing the grizzly, roared that without wood there'd be no paper and then what in the hell would she do?

Scarred by barroom battles and by his career in the woods, McKellar was one of the few crushed by a falling tree who lived to tell about it. A 9-ton log, cut down from a hill above, rolled over him, breaking bones and tearing up his insides, but he rose again like the grizzly that he was, bellowing defiance at what surely would have killed an ordinary man. "They thought I was dead," he said to me with a grin, recalling the incident years later, "but I wasn't."

We were nothing alike in politics or environmentalism but I came to admire the man for what he was: honest, forthright and, in his gruff, iconoclastic way, good humored. I'd look him up anytime work took me to the north country, and we'd meet in the bar of the old Red Lion Inn, where he'd pound the table to make a point and glower as he looked around for anyone about to challenge him.

An adversary called him a force of nature, and that was still evident even as his days of heavy boozing and brawling ended. But he was a poet too, conjuring up images of monkeys and hoot owls to define those dark places in the woods that few actually saw and no one truly understood. As the eagle in him slowed to the heaviness of passing years, he defined that too in periodic telephone calls to find out how his "short, liberal little friend" was doing in L.A.

Our last conversation was a few weeks ago, and I guess I could tell then that a lot of the roar had gone out of the old grizzly's voice. Called upon to redefine himself in the image of the area he loved, he'd probably see himself as one of the free-flowing rivers that creased the hills and rolled past the redwoods on a mission to the sea, churning into the wild and beautiful coastline at the completion of a long journey.

His wife, Miriam, said that at the end, he just quietly slipped away. She and McKellar's daughter, Monica, were at his bedside when he died of congestive heart failure, so I guess they ought to know. But I prefer to see him as the old bear that roared a warning to the impending darkness, because he was larger and truer than the darkness itself.

We were unlikely friends, bound by a respect for each other's way of life and by the poetry that springs from quiet places of the soul. He was a good man, taller than even his own physical stature, and I wish him the peace he deserves in the clouds where eagles soar, and in forests where the monkeys and the hoot owls play.

02-12-2007, 09:25 AM
Al Martinez:
In his own way, he towered like the forest
February 12, 2007

I find it hard to believe that Jack McKellar died peacefully in his sleep. He just wasn't the type.

Here was a man of the north woods who cast himself in the image of animals that once ruled the forests and the air above them.

"If you're going to be a bear," he'd roar in the lumberjack bars around Eureka, Calif., "be a grizzly!" And he was at that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, big and intimidating, standing tall even among the redwoods.

In later years, he'd talk about the old age of eagles and saw himself soaring over an environment he was once a part of, observing from afar those secret places in the woods "where the monkeys chased the hoot owls."

If ever a man was the type to heed a poet's call not to go gentle into that good night, McKellar was the one. His presence was ominous and his death the other day at age 83, a graceful descent into darkness, was unlikely. One would expect more of a growl to mark his reluctant passage.

Just as the grizzlies and the eagles have disappeared from the forests McKellar loved, so too was he becoming an anomaly. A lumberjack once, he was vocal in supporting their right to exist as the mills were forced out of existence by an army of environmentalists who stood between the redwoods and the saws that endangered them.

I met him in the 1980s when unemployment among the woodsmen was shrouding the North Coast in despair. McKellar had given up logging by then to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, but he remained at war with those who wanted the mills shut down completely, ignoring the human element that was suffering as a result.

He called himself "the redneck of the redwoods" and delighted in challenging the influx of tree-huggers who were making Eureka the focal point of their war on the clear-cutting of timber in the hills around the coast.

When roaring alone wasn't scaring them away, he entered politics, first winning a seat on the Del Norte County school board and then on the Eureka City Council. His open battles with the environmentalists are the stuff of legend. Challenged by a woman who wanted logging ended, he demanded to know whether she used toilet paper occasionally and then, playing the grizzly, roared that without wood there'd be no paper and then what in the hell would she do?

Scarred by barroom battles and by his career in the woods, McKellar was one of the few crushed by a falling tree who lived to tell about it. A 9-ton log, cut down from a hill above, rolled over him, breaking bones and tearing up his insides, but he rose again like the grizzly that he was, bellowing defiance at what surely would have killed an ordinary man. "They thought I was dead," he said to me with a grin, recalling the incident years later, "but I wasn't."

We were nothing alike in politics or environmentalism but I came to admire the man for what he was: honest, forthright and, in his gruff, iconoclastic way, good humored. I'd look him up anytime work took me to the north country, and we'd meet in the bar of the old Red Lion Inn, where he'd pound the table to make a point and glower as he looked around for anyone about to challenge him.

An adversary called him a force of nature, and that was still evident even as his days of heavy boozing and brawling ended. But he was a poet too, conjuring up images of monkeys and hoot owls to define those dark places in the woods that few actually saw and no one truly understood. As the eagle in him slowed to the heaviness of passing years, he defined that too in periodic telephone calls to find out how his "short, liberal little friend" was doing in L.A.

Our last conversation was a few weeks ago, and I guess I could tell then that a lot of the roar had gone out of the old grizzly's voice. Called upon to redefine himself in the image of the area he loved, he'd probably see himself as one of the free-flowing rivers that creased the hills and rolled past the redwoods on a mission to the sea, churning into the wild and beautiful coastline at the completion of a long journey.

His wife, Miriam, said that at the end, he just quietly slipped away. She and McKellar's daughter, Monica, were at his bedside when he died of congestive heart failure, so I guess they ought to know. But I prefer to see him as the old bear that roared a warning to the impending darkness, because he was larger and truer than the darkness itself.

We were unlikely friends, bound by a respect for each other's way of life and by the poetry that springs from quiet places of the soul. He was a good man, taller than even his own physical stature, and I wish him the peace he deserves in the clouds where eagles soar, and in forests where the monkeys and the hoot owls play.

02-16-2007, 09:07 AM
Al Martinez:
Stamping feet, whispered words, entwined needs
February 16, 2007

IT was difficult to determine in the Mark Taper production of the musical "13" whether all that shouting and foot stomping on stage was anything more than noise. It was. It was youth.

Bedlam is essential to the teenage years because it's a time when one is seeking some kind of identity or at least recognition that he or she exists. "Look at me!" it says. "I'm here!"

ADVERTISEMENTHence, those of us accustomed to more sedate presentations are naturally taken aback when assaulted by sudden bursts of kinetic frenzy and glass-shattering dissonance offered as entertainment.

I admit I was a bit put off by the show, whose title, "13," refers to a pubescent age rather than a curse or an omen of bad luck. I am past the years of worrying about pimples or popularity, which was an essential element of the performance, and I don't need another coming-of-age story in my life.

The show was generally about all of that and about fitting in and the fragile nature of friendships at that transitory age, told through the frantic dancing and loud singing of a talented young cast. It was not, I thought, a show that will live in memory.

But life is full of comparisons, and I am one of the seekers of dichotomies that enhance the meaning of this when placed against the contrast of that. For instance, the very next night I saw the movie "Venus," which is all about quiet moments and fading years; whispers instead of shouts.

As I thought about it later, I realized that both "13," with all of its clamor, and the beautifully low-key "Venus" were essentially about the same things at different ends of time's spectrum. Peter O'Toole, a man in his 70s, plays a man in his 70s who reaches out to a woman 50 years younger in an effort to identify himself.

Our film critic, Kenneth Turan, sees "Venus" as touching "on what matters most in life: love, friendship, connection," adding: "It's about aging and what keeps you alive…."


And in different ways, Turan's observation applies to both the calamitous performance on stage by a cast of uninhibited teenagers as well as to the cinematic masterpiece about a man who seeks love, and all of its life-affirming elements, one more time in what is more backward glance than future promise.

Connections are not confined to any age group. Adolescents thrash about in their miasmic world more desperately than infants because their realizations have grown beyond Mommy and Daddy. Singles haunt bars and clubs dedicated to pairing them up because nature is stirring their libidos. Older people seek bonds of friendship in their own age groups, thus connecting not only with kindred souls but also with the yesterdays that ennobled their lives.

In order to maintain my own age neutrality as an observer, I view life from a position of agelessness, neither junior nor senior, but someone standing just on the other side of time. But I am also a participant in the ages depicted in the two performances, having been 13 once, as I recall, and now being a person in his 70s.

It's why I find a kind of sameness in the quest of the two age groups to be wanted by someone, to clasp hands with a friend, a mate or a lover in a darkening world.

One of the characters in "13" is physically disabled, thereby laying into the plot line the even greater difficulty of trying to create relationships with those who could never understand, especially as wild and mobile teens, what it is like to be so different. Acceptance is a final element of the show, as it is in "Venus," where the principals reach beyond age barriers to observe in each other the indefinable nature of love's beauty.

I saw both the play and the movie in a 24-hour period, as though I were sitting in the same classroom where the similarities and differences of age were being discussed. Both teens and seniors harbor dreams and both suffer the humiliation of exclusion; both need the support of others to make their way through high seas and heavy weather.

What I worried about as a teenager I don't worry about anymore. What I wear or how I look isn't as important as who I am. Teenagers, as growing children, don't know who they are yet; their definition of person lies in their future, shaped as much by external circumstances as by internal drives. And, yes, the needs of the young and the old are consistent with our nature as humans. We need someone to sing with us and dance with us as life begins, and to cry for us as it ends.

A movie and a musical spoke to me of these needs, and I was glad for having experienced both. I learned. And that's a need of my own.

02-19-2007, 09:31 AM
Al Martinez:
The real world in a box of decorations
February 19, 2007

I am sitting here in a morose mood, wondering why things are the way they are in a world that seems to be spinning in reverse, when suddenly there is a loud crash from the other room, followed by a yowl of surprise and a howl of pain.

These are not unfamiliar sounds in a household that combines humans and domestic animals in a post-Christmas mode. I say post-Christmas because, even though it is February, we are just now getting around to putting away the seasonal decorations.

Well, actually, I am not a part of it, being isolated in a small room off the hall where I manage to avoid any kind of real work by writing. Cinelli is stowing the bells and ornaments while I, as you can clearly see, am engaged in higher pursuits.

She has various names for the seemingly unfair division of labor that separates toil from whimsical quests, but this is no time to be getting into that in the face of the yowls and howls from beyond. I hear Cinelli's soothing voice after the outburst and figure that everything is more or less OK, so I am back to writing as she enters my domain. I don't turn around, but I can visualize her standing in the doorway, hands on hips, scowling. I concentrate hard on what I am writing as though it is a sequel to "The Brothers Karamazov," knowing that she is about to say, "Didn't you hear all that racket?" — which she actually does say.

I look up, pretending to be startled by her presence and say, "What racket?"

It is enough for me to know that she is all right, but not enough for her to be satisfied with that. What happened, she explains, is that she was organizing the Christmas decorations when a heavy box of outdoor lights and other festive items crashed to the floor.

This caused her to step quickly backward just as the dog, Sophie, more eager than intellectual, rushed over to see what was going on; perhaps something edible had spilled and she could lick the floor. The dog's paw arrived right under the space where Cinelli's foot was about to come down and she stepped on it. Sophie yowled, more in shock than pain, unaccustomed to being trod upon by the lady of the house.

What happened next was an impressive display of loyalty. Our black cat, Ernie the Assassin, thinking that Sophie was attacking Cinelli and not really fond of the dog anyhow, flew across the room, claws extended, teeth bared and landed squarely on Sophie's back, causing her to follow her yowl with a howl, this time of real pain.

"You should have seen it," Cinelli says. "Ernie must have thought the dog was after me and rushed in to stop her. Sophie had to do flips to get him off her back."

In his short stay with us, Ernie, a cat our daughter Cindy rescued from the hard streets of Sacramento, has managed to do in mice, rats and birds but has never sought bigger game. Sophie was his first.

"Someday," I say, "he may be out there chasing elephants and rhinos across the Masai Mara."

Cinelli turns in exasperation. "Do you ever have a sane thought in your head?"

"It's not my fault I have a bad heart," I say.

I have just applied an argument ploy called Domestic Guilt Exchange in which a husband uses a wife's natural feelings of self-doubt to win a point. In this case, I am thinking that she is angry because I am unable to help her on account of my recent heart surgery but feels guilty because she thinks I should.

She fires back with, "If it isn't your bad heart, it's your bad back, and if it isn't your bad back, it's your bad stomach. It appears to me, Elmer, that it may just be your whole bad attitude."

"OK," I say, rising, "I'll get out there and wrestle large crates around, although it may mean my life, and you can amuse yourself by crushing the dog's feet."

I limp off to the other room as though I am walking to a death chamber and observe that the dog is cowering in one corner while Ernie sits in another glaring at her, the way Max Schmeling tried to psych out Joe Louis back in the days of championship boxing.

"Just ignore them," Cinelli says, "while they enjoy a nervous truce."

"They look OK to me," I say. "The Jews and the Palestinians display more hostility."

I start to lift a box, and it slips from my hands, dumping strings of plastic pine needles and tiny Nativity figures all over the floor. It was an accident, I swear. Baby Jesus rolls into a corner. One of the Magi suffers an injured arm. The dog cowers deeper into himself, expecting the worst. The cat is tense but doesn't move.

"Maybe," Cinelli says, sighing, "you should just go back to creating fantasies in the air and leave the real world to me."

So here I am again, staring at the cloud-fluffed Magritte-blue sky, wondering why things are the way they are and hoping that tomorrow they'll be a little quieter, but I doubt it.

02-23-2007, 11:38 AM
Weighing the options of a longer lifetime
February 23, 2007

MY body fat has reached critical mass, and unless I do something about it soon, I'm not sure what's going to happen. I have to eat more carrots and peas and fewer pork chops and mashed potatoes, and I have to eat them while working out on a treadmill or running down Ventura Boulevard.

This is my understanding of a fitness report out of Gaithersburg, Md., that I received during a break in my cardiac rehab regimen at the little hospital on the corner.

The percentage of fat in my body is at 31.8, whereas it should be at about 20 if I anticipate living a full and enjoyable life. Well, it may be too late for the full and enjoyable part, but if I am expected to last beyond next Groundhog Day, I'd better start eating less and exercising more.

How my vital statistics, such as height, weight, age and caloric intake ended up in Maryland, I have no idea. The center of my local health world is just down the block from the Tarzana Medical Center, where three times a week I am expected to walk a treadmill, ride a stationary bike and otherwise burn off a lifetime of accumulated fat.

The report of my decaying condition — more formally, my body composition analysis — was handed to me by a nurse reminiscent of a fifth-grade teacher who once threatened to drown me if I didn't start behaving in class. They could do that in those days. Several of my friends disappeared one year, and I'm sure they were drowned by old lady what's-her-name.

"I've told you and told you to eat better and knock off the martinis," Cinelli said when I showed her the report, "but do you ever listen to anyone but the strange voice in your head? I fix you vegetables and you eat around them. What's the matter with you? I should drown you myself."

She wore the same menacing expression as the nurse at the gym and the teacher at Lockwood Grammar School who threatened to immerse those of us who disrupted the class. So I decided right then and there to really work at reducing my body fat.

My idea of exercising is to walk into a gym, hop on a treadmill, speed it up until it threatens to hurl me against a back wall, work until I drop and lie on the floor until the paramedics arrive. At the gym where I am presently enrolled, they have a routine that must be strictly followed. I hook up to a portable monitor carried in a little cloth bag around my neck, connect it to places on my chest, do stretching exercises, have my blood pressure taken and board a treadmill at the speed and for the time allocated by a nurse.

I think it annoys them because I can't remember precisely where the monitor hooks up. The ends are colored, red, white and black. "White is right," one of the teachers, I mean nurses, said, "and black is the smoke over the fire." It is doggerel intended to remind the dumbest of us how to apply them, but I can't remember what it means, so I rely on a nurse to connect me. I think they're afraid that if I hook it up wrong, I'll be electrocuted.

On a particular day, my pre-designated treadmill speed was 1.7 miles an hour for 12 minutes, which seemed far less than I was capable of doing. Midway during the treading we are supposed to honk a small air horn attached to the equipment, which is the signal for a nurse to come over and take our blood pressure.

I honked at six minutes, my b.p., as they say, was registered and I continued on like a chipmunk on a wheel. But I didn't stop at 12 minutes. I stayed on for 20 and cranked up the speed to 2 mph. That was nothing. When I was doing time at Pritikin after a heart bypass 18 years ago, I was on the treadmill for what seemed like two weeks at a time doing 32 miles an hour.

The Pritikin people were young and their bodies contained no fat whatsoever. They worked you with the notion that anyone under their care was to emerge looking like them, just muscle and bone with faces so thin that their eyes seemed to pop from their sockets like certain types of Central American frogs. If you made it through Pritikin, God granted you another 20 years of life to hop around the lily pads, or whatever.

I have 36 sessions at the little hospital on the corner to lose weight and lower my fat content. I'll keep going to the gym because I'm afraid if I don't they'll send dogs after me or drown me; I'll also try cutting down on my portions of food. Instead of martinis, steak, wine, mashed potatoes and dessert, I will add okra and give up the dessert and the steak. No, wait, I'll keep the steak, give up the mashed potatoes, add sliced carrots and halve the okra. Or give up the wine, double the martinis, dump the vegetables and to hell with another 20 years. Let the good times roll.

02-26-2007, 05:56 AM
Al Martinez:
Cheney's Bizarro world, where down is up
February 26, 2007

FOR those bewildered by Dick Cheney's response to the British troop withdrawal from Iraq as a sign of progress in the war, I have an explanation. It's his Bizarro genes. One of our vice president's antecedents was no doubt from the square planet Htrae, to which Bizarro, Superman's evil opposite, once fled, populating that world with characters who invert logic.

Non-Superman fans probably don't know what I'm talking about, but like life on the other side of Alice's looking glass, nothing quite makes sense on Htrae. Well, it makes sense to the Bizarrans, of course, but not to the rest of us.

Even their words mean the opposite of what they intend to say. For instance, as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia explains, in the language of Bizarro, "Me am going to kill you" means "I will save you" and vice versa. Properly applied, it could refer to wars of liberation.

I became aware of the Bizarro connection after British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his troop withdrawal announcement. Informed of this, Cheney, a tough guy not opposed to shooting his friends or giving the verbal finger to his enemies, should have responded with indignation and rage. I mean, how dare they do this to America! Instead, he offered the floating smile of the Cheshire cat and said it just proved that we were making progress.

The twisted logic of his Bizarro roots was apparent.

You may be wondering why, if pulling troops out of Iraq is progress, we are sending 20,000 more troops into combat in what President Bush regards as a surge. While that may seem the antithesis of progress to you, it doesn't to someone whose grandfather or great-grandfather was a Bizarran.

Calling it a surge rather than a buildup, don't you see, challenges the accepted definition of the word and contorts it to mean a withdrawal. So while the troops are disembarking in Baghdad, they are actually leaving the combat zone, although it seems otherwise. Feel better about it now?

Increasingly, we are assuming characteristics of Htrae, where right is wrong, up is down, good is bad and war is peace, to speculate on just a few of the possibilities. I suspect that several members of the current administration possess Bizarro DNA or at least Bizarro tendencies and see things that do not exist. George Bush himself, for instance, saw weapons of mass destruction under every flowerpot in Iraq. But when they turned the pots over, nothing. I think he's still convinced they're there somewhere.

Now he is beginning to see evil in Iran, which may or may not be another illusion brought on by alien physiology rather than Earth logic. God knows what he might do if he decides that Great Britain, in its abandonment of the American crusade, is his enemy.

I am not without hope that Cheney, a comic book figure himself, is right. There is a certain rationale that would accept as progress the total withdrawal of all armed personnel from Iraq, including the Muslim militants, until there is no one there except civil servants, oil millionaires and fruit stand vendors. No one would have to worry about car bombs or missiles, and they could go about their daily lives without fear of being blown into confetti.

I mentioned similarities between the Bizarro world and Alice's world behind the looking glass, where reality also takes a couple of peculiar twists and turns. Long before the existence of Bizarro, there was the Mad Hatter's tea party, which included the March Hare and the Dormouse at the same table discussing perplexing inanities, much as Bush's Cabinet gathers to ponder world events.

At one point, responding to the Hatter, who insists on posing meaningless questions, Alice says, "I think you might do something better with the time than waste it in asking riddles with no answers." A real Cabinet member would never, of course, say that to a president of the United States seeking justification for an invasion of a sovereign state, but the parallel is unavoidable. He could have done something better with his time than going to war.

Fantasy often parallels history, adding skewed possibilities to existing realities. One gets a better view of events when they are illuminated by satire. But we should never cross the line into believing that fantasy is reality or we become apostles of Bizarro or the Mad Hatter, bogged down in a world of confusion and contradictions.

Unfortunately, there is no Man of Steel to save us from the Bizarrans who are running the country and no looking glass to climb back through in an escape from the Mad Hatter's tea party. We're just going to have to cling to the hope that things might get better, even as they're getting worse. It's an application of the Bizarro Law that seems to work every time.

03-02-2007, 10:23 AM
Al Martinez: Fate and the beautiful day
March 2, 2007

I am driving through the San Fernando Valley listening to a Sarah Vaughan CD on a day scrubbed clean by the previous night's storm. The morning sky is as blue as a lover's eyes and the new growth of a late rain glistens like emeralds in the fierce winter sunlight. Van Gogh would have loved the colors.

For the moment — dazzling day, new car, good music — I am as happy as a baby in its mother's arms, but contentment is not an enduring quality in my life. I was born in an earthquake and raised in a gale and continue to live a journalist's life in a calamity of events that forbid any kind of eternal serenity. I am a writer, not a monk.

It is that condition of happenstance that explains the sudden appearance of an old Volvo in my path, making a left turn into a space that I will almost instantly occupy. We meet. There is a crashing sound as my Camry kisses the Volvo. It is not a big crash because, being a person of good reflexes, I am almost at a stop by the time my front end strikes his passenger side.

I take adversity as a dance with fate in which we are not always in step. In the spirit of acceptance, I emerge from my Camry as he emerges from his Volvo, looking angry. I am calmly digging out my driver's license when he suddenly bellows, "Why did you hit me?" Good question.

I am about to reply in an equally truculent manner, "I did it, fool, because you turned in front of me and I couldn't stop in time to avoid bumping your beat-up Volvo with my previously pristine Camry."

But then I notice that Driver No. 2, as he will be known in the accident report, is a burly, muscular guy, and I say to myself that confrontation will not be wise in this case. He is a construction worker and I am, well, less physical than that, so instead I say something like, "I believe, sir, that you cut in front of me. I had the green light and … "

He shouts, "No! Your light was red and now I'm late for work!"

It is an argument that neither of us will win, so I say, "Can I see your driver's license, please, and proof of your automobile insurance?" I sound like a Highway Patrol commercial for safe driving, but under the circumstances, it is a wise road to travel.

He says, "No! I'm calling the police!"

I say, "The police won't come unless there is blood on the pavement." I am about to add that they are probably on a break at a Yum Yum Donut shop somewhere, but think better of it. He does not seem receptive to humor at this point.

He calls the police on his cellphone and discovers that I'm right, they will not come as long as there are no bodies littering the road and inhibiting the free flow of traffic. That's important in L.A.

The man finally calms down and we exchange driver's licenses and insurance cards. Meanwhile, his boss somehow hears of the accident and drives to the scene from a few blocks away, where they are working at a construction site. I think the boss informed him that he would not be fired for being late, which makes Driver No. 2 a lot happier. He is still insisting it is my fault, and I am still maintaining it is his fault, but it is more of a polite exchange between Tony Blair and the Queen of England than George W. Bush and the president of Iran. We are polite, but not about to hug.

My Camry looks like the cow with the crumpled horn, but it is drivable, so I roll down the street to Grand National Auto Body. Meanwhile, I call my insurance company and report the incident to a woman who is sympathetic but not tearful, if you know what I mean. She says, "What a day this has been," in the exhausted tone of someone who also might have been tripped up by fate. What I think she means is that there had been a lot of accidents that day and she is tired of taking claims.

Cinelli picks me up and wants to know if I'm OK, which I am, and offers to buy me a cup of coffee, but I politely decline. "I'd buy you a drink," she says, not meaning it, "but it's too early for happy hour. Anyhow, you're more morose than happy after a martini. For you, it's the unhappy hour."

So life goes on at its tick-tock pace, despite all that fate can do. We make it home and here I am proving that nothing is ever wasted by writing of the incident on a day so beguiling that one could not possibly imagine another unpleasant incident marring its resilience.

But if the engine of a 747 should crash through the ceiling, I will take that with a shrug too. Fate is not called fickle for nothing.

03-05-2007, 09:50 AM
Al Martinez:
Wi-Fi hot spot? Or maybe just a cool martini
March 5, 2007

I have a little hand-held computer I am charging up at this very moment, after which I am going to find someone to show me how it works. It has been in my possession for a year and a half, and my only mastery of the gadget is to play solitaire.

It's a wireless HP iPAQ, a device that allows me to perform all kinds of communication and entertainment feats that I have not even begun to utilize. My wife bought it for me in response to my I-want-one-too mode.

I was talking computers to an acquaintance one day when he asked if I would like to see his BlackBerry. I quickly said no. He shrugged and said, "It's a little wonder." I said, "Regardless."

Come to find out, a BlackBerry is also one of those hand-held computers. Its possibilities so impressed me that I began lobbying for one, not realizing at the time that working it would require some rudimentary effort on my part.

I am not electronically minded. I do not tinker with toasters to get them to work properly, I do not disassemble lamps, and I do not change modems or add motherboards to my computer. I don't even know what they are.

My good friend Joshua, who is 5 and has just started school, tried the other day to give me a lesson in the use of a Nintendo game called Kirby. He works it with two thumbs pressing buttons simultaneously, turning the small screen into a battlefield of Kirby against all sorts of peculiar oval creatures.

When I asked if I could try it, he said no without even looking up, probably realizing that I would never be able to understand it.

The moment reminded me of Ray Bradbury's story "Zero Hour," in which children gather pots and pans and all kinds of odd paraphernalia to the amusement and ignorance of their parents. Turns out they're building an entryway for space aliens to take over the Earth.

Joshua was just playing a game, not trying to conquer adulthood, and finally allowed me to try my hand at it. After a few embarrassing moments in which Kirby zigzagged about the screen like a demented housefly, Josh took the gizmo back without a word, condemning me with silence to the role of "stupido."

BEING humiliated by someone I know to be superior is one thing, but being done in by a kid not even in the first grade is quite another. My wife tried to comfort me by saying, "There, there, Elmer, you may not be very smart, but you're a very nice person. Well, you're not always a very nice person either, but you, uh, write just fine."

I do not take well to being made to look bad and decided that I could prove my worth by conquering the red coffee maker. It is a large machine into which one puts coffee beans and, by adding water and pushing a series of buttons, instructs it to grind the beans and produce liquid caffeine.

It sounds simple enough, but so does putting a couple of guys at the tip of a rocket and shooting them into space. Semantics do not always illustrate the difficulty of an endeavor. I worked for 30 minutes trying to understand the sequence of procedures that would give me coffee, but it required the same kind of miraculous abilities that allowed Jesus to turn water into wine, which I have always felt would be a wonderful talent to possess. Building upon that basic skill, would the ability to turn water into martinis be far behind? In the Garden of Olives?

It is difficult for me to admit failure in print, even though I do need the wordage. I am more victim than practitioner of the columnist's art. But, as Cinelli points out, it is good for a man to stand up and tearfully announce, "My name is Elmer M. and I am dumber than hell."

I'm not quite ready for Electronics Anonymous, however, which is why I am charging up my iPAQ. I am determined to figure out how it works, even if it means reading the instructions. A former boyfriend of my Teengirl, now my Twentygirl, showed me once but moved so fast that I was still on Step 1 when he was racing past Step 14. A few weeks after that, Twentygirl dumped him, but I think it had more to do with incompatibility than with a failure to teach me electronics.

My iPAQ is blinking yellow now, which proves at least that I have it connected properly to my computer. The challenge will begin when the blinking light turns a solid amber, and a blue light goes on to indicate the little dear is ready to go.

"You will be able to contact the moon with that beauty," my computer friend said enthusiastically. "But if it doesn't work, you can play with my BlackBerry."

Not on your life.

03-09-2007, 09:37 AM
Al Martinez:
To those weighing in on Times' woes: Shut up
March 9, 2007

I am writing in my underwear today, the dark blue boxers that match my socks, and I am not listening to any background music as I compose this column in protest of the latest definition of who we are in L.A.

It came in the most recent evaluation of the journal that employs me from a man who presumes to know all about newspapers and all about the population in Southern California that reads this one.

His name is Charles K. Bobrinskoy and his primary interest is money, working as he does for a capital management company. His views were aired recently on the PBS series "Frontline," in which, among other comments, he declared that pretty much all we care about in Los Angeles are style and entertainment.

Therefore, he went on to say, The Times should forget stuff happening in, oh, say, places like the Middle East and Washington, D.C., and concentrate on local occurrences, such as, I suppose, whether Britney Spears is still dancing without panties on and whether Lindsay Lohan is back in alcoholic rehab and, if so, for how long.

More advice on how to "save" The Times also came from one R.J. Smith in the authoritative Los Angeles magazine, whose main purpose until now has been to list the 10 best of everything in L.A.: the best lawyers, the best hot dogs, the best service station toilets, the best shoe stores, et cetera and ad infinitum.

Among Smith's advice for us is to "find a bar," pointing out that every "great paper has a great bar," and the current reanimation of the Redwood, just a stagger away from The Times' building, doesn't fit in that category.

I don't know how many newspaper bars Smith has visited, but the ones I have frequented, including the old Redwood, have hardly approached greatness. Their gourmet offerings rose mostly to the level of cheeseburgers, but that was OK because we didn't go there for the haute cuisine.

My favorite newspaper bar was the Hollow Leg, just across the street from the Oakland Tribune, where Nels poured extra strong drinks for those he considered his friends and thus helped launch a generation of drunks, most of whom died in their 40s and 50s. A drinking companion speculated after Nels died that he was actually sent from hell on a mission to destroy the Tribune, drink by drink.

There was also Hanno's, a dark and crowded place, for the guys at the San Francisco Chronicle and Jerry & Johnny's for the Examiner staff, both of which I was pleased to frequent on occasion while socializing with friends who worked for those newspapers. Reporter Paul Avery, who is depicted in the movie "Zodiac," was one of them. He survived into his 60s only because the high alcohol content in his blood preserved him the way formaldehyde preserves body parts in jars.

Back to Bobrinskoy. I take offense at his implication that we are obsessed with who's wearing what, or who isn't wearing what, not only in Hollywood but in the 'burbs that comprise this sprawling megalopolis. Many subjects of vast importance occupy our minds in Greater L.A., such as, well, lunch. Only New York in the contiguous 48 states seems to care more about lunch than we do.

I'm not talking about power lunches between agents and studio heads or actors and their dealers, but just ordinary people who have saved their money to dine at places where the presentation of the food is more important than its taste. If their menu even included, for instance, a hamburger, it would be listed as viande de boucherie, served in miniature, offered with truffles and surrounded on a large plate by decorative lines of red stuff squeezed from tubes. And it would cost $75. At least.

I am especially upset at the notion that we care so much more about clothes than we do about world events. I suggest that Mr. Bobrinskoy journey down to one of our local beaches and listen to the surfer dudes, who wear nothing more enchanting than wet suits, discuss everything from the application of the Malthusian theory on immigration control to the impact of Paris Hilton on global warming. Sometimes their beach bunnies, who care less about what they wear than what they don't wear, will spend entire afternoons arguing the virgin birth theory in relation to Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

Although we certainly understand that there is a segment of our circulation area that lives and dies by Hollywood news, it is hardly a standard for producing a good newspaper, which we are and will continue to be as long as we ignore the advice from those ill equipped to offer it. I must add, however, that I am concerned about the quality of the new Redwood and whether it will eventually measure up to

being a great bar, thereby determining whether we will rise on the R.J. Smith Saloon Scale to that of being a great news-


I'll leave it at that. But do me a favor: To show Bobrinskoy how little we care about clothes in relation to world events, join me in an Underwear Day in L.A. Flash your scanties to the world. Gucci shoes and Parisian hats are optional.

03-09-2007, 09:37 AM
Al Martinez:
To those weighing in on Times' woes: Shut up
March 9, 2007

I am writing in my underwear today, the dark blue boxers that match my socks, and I am not listening to any background music as I compose this column in protest of the latest definition of who we are in L.A.

It came in the most recent evaluation of the journal that employs me from a man who presumes to know all about newspapers and all about the population in Southern California that reads this one.

His name is Charles K. Bobrinskoy and his primary interest is money, working as he does for a capital management company. His views were aired recently on the PBS series "Frontline," in which, among other comments, he declared that pretty much all we care about in Los Angeles are style and entertainment.

Therefore, he went on to say, The Times should forget stuff happening in, oh, say, places like the Middle East and Washington, D.C., and concentrate on local occurrences, such as, I suppose, whether Britney Spears is still dancing without panties on and whether Lindsay Lohan is back in alcoholic rehab and, if so, for how long.

More advice on how to "save" The Times also came from one R.J. Smith in the authoritative Los Angeles magazine, whose main purpose until now has been to list the 10 best of everything in L.A.: the best lawyers, the best hot dogs, the best service station toilets, the best shoe stores, et cetera and ad infinitum.

Among Smith's advice for us is to "find a bar," pointing out that every "great paper has a great bar," and the current reanimation of the Redwood, just a stagger away from The Times' building, doesn't fit in that category.

I don't know how many newspaper bars Smith has visited, but the ones I have frequented, including the old Redwood, have hardly approached greatness. Their gourmet offerings rose mostly to the level of cheeseburgers, but that was OK because we didn't go there for the haute cuisine.

My favorite newspaper bar was the Hollow Leg, just across the street from the Oakland Tribune, where Nels poured extra strong drinks for those he considered his friends and thus helped launch a generation of drunks, most of whom died in their 40s and 50s. A drinking companion speculated after Nels died that he was actually sent from hell on a mission to destroy the Tribune, drink by drink.

There was also Hanno's, a dark and crowded place, for the guys at the San Francisco Chronicle and Jerry & Johnny's for the Examiner staff, both of which I was pleased to frequent on occasion while socializing with friends who worked for those newspapers. Reporter Paul Avery, who is depicted in the movie "Zodiac," was one of them. He survived into his 60s only because the high alcohol content in his blood preserved him the way formaldehyde preserves body parts in jars.

Back to Bobrinskoy. I take offense at his implication that we are obsessed with who's wearing what, or who isn't wearing what, not only in Hollywood but in the 'burbs that comprise this sprawling megalopolis. Many subjects of vast importance occupy our minds in Greater L.A., such as, well, lunch. Only New York in the contiguous 48 states seems to care more about lunch than we do.

I'm not talking about power lunches between agents and studio heads or actors and their dealers, but just ordinary people who have saved their money to dine at places where the presentation of the food is more important than its taste. If their menu even included, for instance, a hamburger, it would be listed as viande de boucherie, served in miniature, offered with truffles and surrounded on a large plate by decorative lines of red stuff squeezed from tubes. And it would cost $75. At least.

I am especially upset at the notion that we care so much more about clothes than we do about world events. I suggest that Mr. Bobrinskoy journey down to one of our local beaches and listen to the surfer dudes, who wear nothing more enchanting than wet suits, discuss everything from the application of the Malthusian theory on immigration control to the impact of Paris Hilton on global warming. Sometimes their beach bunnies, who care less about what they wear than what they don't wear, will spend entire afternoons arguing the virgin birth theory in relation to Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

Although we certainly understand that there is a segment of our circulation area that lives and dies by Hollywood news, it is hardly a standard for producing a good newspaper, which we are and will continue to be as long as we ignore the advice from those ill equipped to offer it. I must add, however, that I am concerned about the quality of the new Redwood and whether it will eventually measure up to

being a great bar, thereby determining whether we will rise on the R.J. Smith Saloon Scale to that of being a great news-


I'll leave it at that. But do me a favor: To show Bobrinskoy how little we care about clothes in relation to world events, join me in an Underwear Day in L.A. Flash your scanties to the world. Gucci shoes and Parisian hats are optional.

Juan C Ayllon
03-09-2007, 10:26 AM
I actually saw that piece that Martinez referred to on PBS. It was a fascinating story.

I didn't know what to make of the argument that there were only one or two newspapers that properly fit the international news market and that the L.A. Times should stick to local news reporting.

I can see that trend played out here locally. A paper I do some freelance work for based in the western suburbs of Chicago isn't interested in pieces covering Chicago or international news unless there's a local angle.


Juan C. Ayllon

03-12-2007, 09:38 AM
Al Martinez:
Veterans often have no one to turn to
March 12, 2007

IT is essential that someone like John Q. Nobody, as he calls himself, remind those of us who write columns for a living how far removed we are from people in desperate need and how little we can do to help them. He has e-mailed me for years in missives so garbled by bad spelling, skewed grammar and a limited ability at the keyboard that I've had trouble deciphering exactly what he's been trying to say.

What did come through generally was a cry for help for a friend of 20 years, a veteran of the war in Vietnam who is losing his home and just about everything in it both because of an inability to function and a society that is taking advantage of it.

Lawyers, the government and family have all failed, says his friend, and the vet is in a state of "mental meltdown," about to face the bleak prospect of living out of his 18-year-old car.

The e-mailer has always signed himself "faithful reader Craig in West Hills." Only when I asked personal questions of him did he say he was just John Q. Nobody, but he is considerably more than that. He's a voice from the crowd demanding help for a veteran who is in so many ways symbolic of those who have fought in this country's wars and then been shunted aside when the gunfire and the bugle calls have ended.

We're seeing this in the unfolding disaster that is Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in the disgraceful dismissal of veterans who can't find their way through mazes of VA legalese and eventually give up trying, suffering their needs in silence.

Craig is just one of the readers who have written me about veterans who, for a variety of reasons, have been somehow denied medical care or financial support and are either on the streets or living on the edges of society.

What can I tell them? Go to the VA? They've been to the VA and received little or no help. Hire an attorney? Attorneys want money, and a veteran who reaches the point of needing a lawyer too often can't afford food, much less legal help. Go to the media? How many stories of need and injustice can we tell and retell before the subject becomes an echo instead of a voice? How much space or airtime is available to concentrate on the suffering of one segment of society when there are so many?

Craig, in one of his lengthy e-mails, brings that home too in his role as John Q. Nobody. When I wrote in a column about the medical coverage I received for heart surgery, he responded with a "how lucky you are" letter that listed his own ailments, his lack of insurance and his inability to afford treatment for them.

A sense of envy crept into his response, noting that I had so much and he so little: "You are enjoying the benefits of the American dream to do anything you wish and enjoy success at it" — while he struggles to survive. "Be very glad you aren't in the shoes of others unable to change the circumstances in their lives."

I refuse to spend the rest of my days feeling guilty over the benefits I have acquired in a lifetime of work, sometimes seven days a week, locked into an emotional need to write and accomplishing a good life because of that need. But I am simultaneously aware of those who exist on only a fraction of what I have, who want for food and housing and the comforts of a culture that is often less than generous.

I write endlessly, and so do others, about those who live on the society's margins, the "invisible people" who are a part of the world we have established. Even though our words might help a few, we are still aware of overwhelming privation in the lives of the many others who exist in the shadows, including veterans, the homeless, the uninsured, the mentally ill and those lost in the blur of skid row.

All that I can do to help isn't enough. Government assistance isn't enough. Aid from private agencies isn't enough. Money dropped into a beggar's hand isn't enough. We are a culture of priorities, and those on the lowest end of the scale are not among the first beneficiaries of society's largesse.

I'm grateful to Craig for what he's trying to accomplish by helping one veteran. He pledged to the man's mother before she died that he would never stop trying to put her son back into a world of at least nominal success. He has been true to that promise. But I cannot apologize for my own good fortune compared to his life of misfortune, a subsistence that barely manages to keep him alive.

I suspect I will hear from representatives of private agencies who will offer help for both Craig — John Q. Nobody — and the veteran who is overwhelmed by the world he came back to when his war ended.

I would be content if they could, but still on my mind would be all the others, the tens of thousands who receive scant notice from the media and remain in the darkness of society's scary shadow world.

03-16-2007, 09:32 AM
Al Martinez:
Lo, did you see that Jesus stuff on TV?
March 16 2007

I was basking in the ease of a brief summer morning last week when a bearded man with long hair wearing a shimmering white robe appeared in my driveway.

His presence startled me. One often runs into bearded, long-haired men in white robes wandering through Topanga, but very few of them shimmer, unless it is the morning after St. Patrick's Day and the effects of green gin have not yet worn off.

He headed directly for our gazebo, where I was seated with my laptop waiting for a muse to flutter from the overhead oak tree and land on my keyboard. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky once said, "Every day I open the store. I'm not saying anybody comes in, but every day I open the store." My store was open.

The bearded person walked with a floating motion into the gazebo and hovered before me, not unlike a humming bird observing a blossom, but slower, and I'm no blossom.

"Lo," he said, "I say unto you that there is sacrilege in your mortal head, and, lo, I come to cleanse you of bleak thoughts."

"Lo," I replied, suddenly realizing, "it's you, I mean You, God!"

"You don't 'lo,' " he replied in a less biblical manner, "I 'lo,' you just listen. You're about to make fun of us."

"No, no," I said, "never!"

He settled into a chair and gestured. Two glowing martinis appeared before us, as the dial of the gazebo clock spun forward crazily from 10 a.m. to gong the happy hour at 6 p.m.

Sipping his martini, he went on to explain that he had discerned a pre-thought buzzing around my head that would lead to a column on the Jesus tomb. If you saw the recent Discovery Channel documentary "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," you would be aware of the announcement by the filmmaker and renowned biblical scholar James Cameron. Bones found in Jerusalem 27 years ago in a set of 10 ossuaries, he proclaimed, were, lo, those of Jesus Christ and family.

Cameron is said to have added in breathless wonder at his pronouncement, "It doesn't get much bigger than this."

True. Not since a schoolgirl claimed to have seen Elvis Presley in a Pic 'n' Save shopping for pork fat and beer has the secular world been rocked with such a significant revelation. Scholars are debating the veracity of the claim in varying degrees of belief and disbelief. An Israeli anthropologist summed up the skeptical side by asking, "Would you believe a story by a guy who made 'The Terminator'?"

Actually, Cameron's big film, the one that won him an Oscar, was "Titanic," a fanciful depiction of the ship's sinking that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a clog dancer and Kate Winslet as the ship's figurehead prow.

"Speculation is that he's going to make a movie even bigger than 'Titanic,' " I said. "Cameron could be the 13th apostle. Just as Peter was the fisher of men, it would be Cameron, lo, the fisher of gimmicks!"

"Easy," God said with a twinkle in his eye. "This is serious business. Do I make fun of your son?"

I had dinner with Jesus once. He was a short guy in cowboy boots who played the title role in "Jesus Christ Superstar." His name was Ted Neeley. It was during my tenure as a television writer. We were trying to build on his success as Jesus by attempting to sell a series in which he would star. It was pathetic: Jesus wandering the networks looking for work and being rejected every time. Only in L.A.

"If anyone can answer the question," I said, "surely you can: Are those actually the bones of your son and his family in those coffins? Mary, Joseph, etc.?"

"Let me put it in a parable," he said.

"I don't have space for a parable."

God frowned. "Then let me put it this way. Do you believe that was the face of the Virgin Mary that appeared in a pepperoni pizza a few years ago?"

"It was a cheese pizza," I said. "The face was in the stewed tomatoes."


"Some believed it. Some didn't. They're still debating it at Papa Joe's."

"Exactly," God said. "You believe what you need to believe. Everyone is different, some more different than others."

I was about to ask whom he preferred to play the part of Jesus in a possible movie on the tomb findings. A friend suggested Kevin Costner, but I prefer Brad Pitt because Angelina Jolie would probably be included as Mary Magdalene, whose bones were also thought to be in the tomb. I was about to press the question but Cinelli came up the pathway toward the gazebo.

"You're talking to yourself again," she said. "Are you out of medication?"

"Nope," I said, "I'm having a conversation with God … " and turned to him again but he was gone. Gone too were the two golden martinis, and, lo, the dials of the clock had spun backward from happy hour to morning.

"It's just as well," I said to a puzzled Cinelli, "martinis are best drunk indoors."


03-19-2007, 08:58 AM
Al Martinez:
When L.A.'s Chicken Boy ruled the roost
March 19, 2007

Chicken Boy was lying in the sun behind a Highland Park studio when Amy Inouye reintroduced me to him after a separation of more years than I can remember.

He was in three parts: a stand, his human body and his chicken head, its round, dark eyes staring straight up into the afternoon glare. All 22 feet of his fiberglass body seemed in fine shape for someone who had been in a dissected condition for 23 years.

Once in old L.A., before gang dominance, Disney Hall and $15 martinis, Chicken Boy hovered over Broadway from the roof of a restaurant that, in Inouye's words, specialized in garlicky chicken that was deep-fried once and possibly twice.

He was to the downtown area what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Tower of London to Britain. Inouye calls him L.A.'s Statue of Liberty.

Chicken Boy was there when I came to town in 1971 with my simple Oakland ways and soon became symbolic of the peculiar culture that represented my adopted city. He was hokey and odd, but he was ours.

Then one day I was driving up Broadway and sensed an empty space against the smoggy, sepia-colored sky. I suddenly realized that it was because Chicken Boy was gone. Later I learned that new construction had forced him off his perch.

Inouye, who had come to L.A. about the same time from San Mateo to attend the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design, loved "vernacular architecture," the oversized symbols that designate certain businesses, like a brown derby, a giant doughnut or a mammoth hot dog. Chicken Boy fit into that category.

But over time he came to mean more as she tried to adapt to a new environment. "I was feeling lonesome and homesick wandering through town," she said, leading me around the building she calls Future Studio that she shares with her live-in, artist Stuart Rapeport. "Chicken Boy somehow made me feel I'd be OK."

When she discovered that the edifice was coming down, she lobbied to obtain him and was finally offered Chicken Boy as a gift, which she gratefully accepted. Thereafter, she said, showing me clusters of Chicken Boy souvenirs and artifacts, plus an assortment of other stuff that fills her gallery, she tried to place him in various museums, but her offer was refused or ignored. So she took him home.

Now he lies in comfort behind her studio, once an insurance office, awaiting the day when Inouye obtains final city approval to place him atop the roof of her one-story building to forever, or thereabouts, look down on busy little Highland Park and beyond to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

At one point, he was exhibited in the Arco Plaza Mall where old timers could shed tears of nostalgia and newcomers ponder his existential meaning. A homeless man appeared one day out of nowhere to study the statue and wisely remarked, "We are all Chicken Boy." Inouye found in that simple comment philosophical verification of her acceptance as a part of L.A. I'm not sure why, but that doesn't matter.

In her hands, the fiberglass bird enjoys a good life. He is celebrated in a movie, "Chicken Boy: A Chicken With Attitude," newspaper cartoon panels called "Chicken Boy Is Back" by Rapeport, a Chicken Boy website and catalog, and a lot of dolls, cups, T-shirts, hats and other items that celebrate the mutated form of boy and rooster. Two oil paintings on velvet depict him playing an accordion and a guitar. In the movie he comes to life, endures a series of adventures and becomes an accordion-pumping blues singer.

The studio itself, which Inouye, a book designer, and Rapeport have occupied for three years, deserves mention if only for its vast collection of just about everything, including her father's golf trophy, 17 1950s table lamps, the artwork of a 70-year-old downtown parking attendant named Joe Oliver who discovered an ability to paint when in his 60s, and Rapeport's scrap wood sculpture of an art critic slumped in a chair, possibly done in by a crazed surrealist.

But the building truly belongs to Chicken Boy. If archeologists dig him up a million years hence, they will no doubt label him Homo gallus gallus and wonder at the figure that celebrated both boy and bird. What tribe? What religion? Sifting through the detritus of time they will finally discover that he was a piece of our history, a shard of the absurd that somehow made sense in the nonsense of L.A.

I guess I find in him a little of what Inouye sees, a gentle reminder that the world isn't all composed of steel and money, but also of dreams and memories and the stuff of fantasy that entwines our brief days on the planet Earth.

I will be there when his statue is hoisted atop the studio in Highland Park and feel my own surge of remembrance of the time in our strange and whimsical City of Angles when Chicken Boy was king.

03-23-2007, 08:40 AM
Al Martinez: A stain that idyllic Santa Barbara can never wash away
March 23, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, with its fussy intellectual ways, has always been a weekend favorite of mine, a 90-mile ride that seems a thousand miles away from the deeper troubles of L.A.

It was, up until last week, a peaceful little town of sidewalk cafes, notable restaurants, a magnificent university, breathless ocean views and a special art museum. Locals rode bikes through the city and tourists strolled the shops that lined State Street. There was sunshine there and cool fog.

Suddenly, and without warning, gangs clashed in broad daylight on the same thoroughfare with the same shops and the same restaurants that have for years lured visitors like me to their peaceful environs.

A boy died from the thrust of multiple stab wounds and, like a murder in heaven, it announced the presence of hostile, deadly street gangs to a wonderland of tranquillity. It wasn't supposed to happen there.

Not that there haven't been struggles in small and beautiful Santa Barb, but not on the level of what happened a week ago. There have been battles of words and ideas, of maintaining the style of a city long noted for it, not turf wars or brutal confrontations for dominance fought with shiny steel blades.

I don't mean to imply that all the elements that attracted visitors in the first place have disappeared. The ocean is still there and that little French restaurant around the corner, and the kids from UCSB continue to add a glow of youthful grace.

But the gang fight has altered the nature of the city. The place that existed a few days or even a few seconds before 15-year-old Luis Linares was killed is gone and it is not likely to return. Promises of action and increased police activity will pale in the face of growing gang membership and the blood that is likely to continue to spill within the limits of their village.

That's a damned shame.

What's happening to Santa Barbara happened to us down here in the meaner climate of thousands of thugs who have banded together to rule L.A. with guns and blades from one end of town to the other.

They're downtown and in the Valley; they're on the Westside to the ocean and on the Southside toward the airport. They're in San Pedro and Venice, in Woodland Hills and Pasadena. They're everywhere and will one day be in the places that once seemed untouchable.

Over the years, as our own gang wars have increased, leaving babies and old ladies dead in the streets, I have heard from others relative to the presence of gangs in the Northwest and the Midwest, as though to rule an entire nation is the gang members' quest. And they're getting younger. A 14-year-old is charged with the Santa Barbara murder. Participants in the State Street battle as young as 13 have been arrested.

"It breaks my heart," a local said.

When I came to L.A. 35 years ago, there was little of the gang activity that has spurred City Hall to again announce a mandate to rid the streets of the mindless thugs with automatic weapons who have brought rivers of tears to a town once so laid back that even earthquakes didn't rattle us much. The presence of Pachucos in the 1940s should have been a warning of ethnic and racial clashes to come. The widespread merchandising of illegal drugs should have been foreseen as the new currency in the lower levels of our societies. We should have sensed that they would ultimately merge.

Like smog and traffic, gangs are now an integral part of large cities across the country, overwhelming our ability to control them, much less put them entirely out of business. There is a peculiar level of tolerance in the urban sectors of America that allows them to exist, as though they are a necessary stitch in the fabric that comprises a metropolis, except for brief periodic crackdowns that eventually dwindle off in platitudes.

Perhaps what may be called the Santa Barbara Syndrome will alert us to the influence of gang participation in the body politic and the dangers that result thereof. Here is the sweetest of all small cities at last stained with the blood of a kid who had hardly lived, brought down by an assailant hardly into adolescence. Gangs have hovered for years in the periphery of the city by the ocean, and now they're breaking down the door.

There is intellectual coalescence in Santa Barbara. One hopes that its citizens, now aware of the evil in their paradise, will use their considerable gifts to study the roots of what happened there on a bright winter afternoon when a young boy died in their arms.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

03-26-2007, 07:50 PM
Al Martinez:
Podunk? Put a cork in it, pal
March 26, 2007

Paso Robles — WE drove north looking for the rain because I was tired of the endless days of gray sunlight, and we found Paso Robles, shimmering in a light mist, its crisp air laced with the rich bouquet of a pinot noir.

This is wine's newest California boomtown, luring visitors from throughout the world to bask in a generosity of nature that has produced 170 wineries. Ten years ago there were only about 35 vintners here, but a perfect combination of soil and climate have altered a small town of 29,000 souls into a wino's paradise.

By suggesting that we drive to Paso, as they call it, my wife, the tricky Cinelli, was probably looking for ways to wean this old dog away from martinis and into a more civilized culture. "Sip a little of this and a little of that," she says, "and forget about those nasty little drinks with olives bouncing in them like decapitated green heads."

She has always had a colorful way of describing what repels her, and this one was a classic. But while I glory in her creative instincts I am not easily lured from the serene moments of a happy little martini taken against the horizon of a fiery sunset.

However, I am trying to appreciate good wines, and this is the place to savor the Chardonnays and the Zinfandels, the Cabernets and the Merlots, the Syrahs and the Viogniers, the Roussannes and a fussy little blend they call "the Ditch Digger." Whimsical people these Roblens.

I ventured timidly into the world of the vintners, accustomed as they are to those so knowledgeable of wines that their cheeks are a Cabernet red and their eyes sparkle with the light of a bright Chardonnay.

I asked myself, do I sip the wine, roll it around my mouth and then spit it into a silver container like a bum spraying tobacco juice into a skid row gutter? Or do I sniff the bouquet, inspect the color and, upon sipping, throw a baby kiss to indicate my child-like delight in its amusing vintage? And how do I clean my palate between sips? And what in the hell is a palate? I don't think we had palates in Oakland.

In Paso, we wandered the back roads up through the hilly countryside that flanks this 118-year-old town, where they have been making wine in one form or another since 1797. Oak-shrouded byways of such deep serenity that even the rain whispers led us past a mix of mansions and clapboard homes and tasting rooms of varying degrees of appeal. Fields of grapes stretch in precise rows over gentle slopes to the Santa Lucia Mountains, tomorrow's wines beginning to leaf for the coming kiss of a new spring.

Hunt Cellars, Eberle Winery, Norman Vineyards, Adelaida Cellars and Opolo Vineyards are the ones we visited, coming away with the trunk of my car jammed with a mixture of reds and whites in enough volume to drown a Frenchman. I am going to log them into my modest but comfortable wine corner and offer them to special guests with noses and palates.

Wine was important in San Francisco when I lived there, to the extent that when one known wine snob was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, his good friend was said to have remarked to the surgeon, "You opened him, of course, at room temperature." But martinis were more important and did not require special rituals to imbibe. You just drank them and sang.

Paso Robles, which I once dismissed, silly me, as Podunk, is now blessed with enough gourmet restaurants to please the most sophisticated tastes. One we chose with satisfying results was the Italian Gaetano's, run by Marsano Gaetano himself, a big, robust man, whose greeting was large and effusively embracing. For a moment, we were his friends, his cousins, his paisanos. The food was divine, the atmosphere comfortable, his hug bone-crushing.

My favorite was the Bistro Laurent, a small, cozy room with brick walls, cool waiters and a wine list longer than a chimp's arms, although there is probably a more appropriate metaphor to apply to an establishment of such understated elegance.

Laurent Grangien, once the chef at Fennell's in L.A., is both chef and owner of the Laurent, a man who fled the harsher environs of Southern California to find peace and safety on a side street of a town once known for its Jeeps and pickups and now characterized by flashy sports cars that sail by on the highways like a passing breeze.

But to prove that all the elements of a small town have not completely disappeared from Paso Robles, while dining in Gaetano's, a plump, middle-aged woman with dyed blond hair suddenly lunged from out of nowhere to wrap her arms around a startled Cinelli's neck, introduce herself as Tookie and say God loved her. I said, "What about me?" but she was out the door by then, limiting God's picky love to a chosen few.

Neither Gaetano's nor the Bistro Laurent served hard liquor, so I lost myself in a deep red Cabernet as Tookie went her evangelistic way, leaving me to dream of a sea of martinis with little green heads rolling happily in their purity, calling my name.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

03-30-2007, 09:37 AM
Al Martinez

Lefty's dream of baseball greatness
March 30, 2007

Oakland — AS I walk slowly down 64th Avenue, south of what used to be East 14th Street, I pass the garage door that was once a part of Lefty Lyon's dream.

I stop for a while and concentrate on that portion of memory that has stored the muffled sound of a tennis ball being thrown against the door.

Thump, thump, thump …

If I concentrate hard enough, I can see Lefty tossing the ball and catching it in his fielder's glove, over and over again. He's a small boy of about 12 with freckles across the bridge of his nose and thick red hair that he rarely combs.

He never tires of throwing the ball and catching it, even though the day grows late and the lights of the modest wood frame houses along the block are beginning to turn on and their residents prepare for the evening meal.

Thump, thump, thump …

Lefty was there in the early morning, just as the sun was beginning to warm East Oakland, until it was impossible to see the ball, even with the street lights turned on. Summer was the best time because the days lasted into the twilight with enough illumination to prolong the game of a ball against the garage door.

Lefty's dream was important to him. He wanted desperately, more than most kids want anything, to be a major league baseball player; to be Ted Williams, the hottest player of the day, because that's who he admired the most.

No way.

You could tell even in those preteen years that he was always going to be too small for any kind of athletics and probably not good enough. He couldn't throw the ball very hard and missed it a lot when it bounced back, but that didn't faze the kid one bit.

Never mind that a baseball coach from Castlemont High who'd heard about him came to 64th Avenue to check him out, and told him right to his face that he just didn't have it. I thought Lefty was going to break down and cry, but he didn't say anything, and when the coach left, he went on tossing the ball.

Thump, thump, thump …

Lefty had two older sisters who weren't bad looking but they didn't seem to pay much attention to Lefty or even to each other. We'd see them on East 14th Street, now International Boulevard, sometimes hanging out at a coffee shop as we walked to the pool hall that was a few blocks away, where Lefty could display his real talent. The sisters never greeted Lefty. Not a word.

He was one of the best pool players that anyone had ever seen, including Raincoat Jones, who had spent a lot of time around pool halls during his wandering years. He was a habituι of this particular place, a large, dark upstairs room, the name of which for the life of me I can't remember.

Raincoat delighted in watching Lefty, his red hair glowing under the hanging lamps, take sucker after sucker, who never figured this slight kid for a pool shark. Lefty would take them on one by one, cleaning the table, slamming the 8-ball into a corner pocket like a guy furious with its very existence. We figured that throwing that tennis ball day and night gave him extra strength to propel the cue ball like a rocket on green felt. You could almost see smoke trailing from it.

We weren't even supposed to be in the place, but because of Lefty's skill, they allowed us behind the green door, which was the color of the entryway. They encouraged us to smoke cigarettes because the owners figured it would make us look older in case the cops came by. I doubt if they'd have cared if they had come by, but you couldn't convince anyone of that. So we smoked.

I'm not sure why I'm going on about Lefty so much. I guess it's because I was formulating my own dreams and so were most of the other guys along 64th Avenue.

We never talked about the coach telling Lefty he'd never make it in the big league because we were all of the opinion that at age 12 anything was possible, even though we were poor and our dreams so far away.

Lefty came to represent persistence. No matter what, he'd keep tossing the tennis ball against the garage door, even when it was raining and the wind was so strong that the ball would get blown away from him and he'd have to chase it down the block, and then return to his strange obsession.

Thump, thump, thump, thump …

We moved away from 64th Avenue when my stepfather got work at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, and I didn't see Lefty again until years later, after I'd returned from Korea and was working at the Oakland Tribune. He was trying to make documentary films and was looking for contacts, of which I had none.

We had lunch and a couple of drinks at the old Hollow Leg across the street, and then he was gone and I never saw him again. But standing by the old garage door I can visualize him perfectly, and feel a little sorry that his dream never worked out.

Thump, thump, thump, thump …

Funny about dreams.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

04-02-2007, 08:54 AM
Al Martinez:
A new portrait of the artist: Twentygirl
April 2, 2007

San Francisco — THE San Francisco Art Institute sits on a hill overlooking North Beach with a sweeping view of the bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, and of a community still straining to be hip.

On this particular day, a storm has scrubbed the sky clean, and the sun gleams with special radiance over a scene that is as familiar to me as my own backyard.

We walked North Beach as college kids, Cinelli and I, when you could still buy a spaghetti dinner for a few dollars and listen to jazz after midnight for the price of a beer. That was in the '50s, before the clubs went topless and the beat poets went underground.

Although much of the bohemian look remains and the houses on the hillsides haven't changed much, the high-priced restaurants have moved in, and tourists are clogging Broadway and Columbus like herds of hungry wildebeests.

We weren't there as cultural critics but to witness the transition of Teengirl from a rebellious kid to a young adult. You remember Nicole. She's 20 now and soon to be 21, back from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to begin anew in the city by the bay.

She gave up Chicago and a first love with considerable emotional pain to enroll at the graceful, 136-year-old San Francisco Art Institute, where budding artists learn to use the tools and techniques that will someday fashion images of the soul.

Twentygirl came under our care during her last year in high school when a family clash sent her scurrying off like a tiger cub seeking its turn in the jungle. Demanding independence, she thrust herself too soon into a world of adulthood and came away with tears in her eyes. She learned, as we all learn, that pain is often the price of independence.

She has her own apartment now just off Oakland's Telegraph Avenue and catches a BART train to the city three days a week for classes. The rest of her time is taken up working at a video store and, of course, painting.

It's not just Grandpa talking when I tell you that she was born with a talent to draw that manifested itself at age 6, when she was creating fantasy figures and cartoon characters with whatever sketching equipment was handy. Teachers let her follow her heart when it came to drawing, and now she's refining what emerges from secret inner places and being noticed beyond the confines of art school. A gallery in the U.K. has already asked to exhibit her work.

With her artistic talent came a mercurial nature that often exploded into flashes of rockets and Roman candles, and a defiance of authority represented by anyone who could tell her no and mean it. A chaotic room, late nights and indolent days became expressions of what she considered her right of independence.

We all learn that life comes with a price and that talent demands payments of time and concentration to fulfill its destiny. Moving to Chicago, she learned during her year there how hard it could be in the winters of her growing up and walked away from a first serious relationship to begin anew in San Francisco, older and steadier.

Except for paintings-in-progress leaning against a wall and a collection of paints, brushes and other tools of her art piled on a living-room table, her small apartment is tidy and well-kept, which in itself is a departure from the earlier life she seems to have abandoned. She'd left her room at home looking as if it had been jolted by an 8.6 earthquake, throwing everything to the floor. By comparison, her apartment is pristine.

Art reflects what's going on inside an artist's head, and I noticed in Twentygirl's self-portraits a change from the pink-haired rebel under siege by an adult world to more mature portraits, darker and with a somber mien.

The fact that she has only one of her paintings on the wall of her apartment, and it's an almost classical self-portrait of the new and more serious Twentygirl, speaks for her maturation process. She's growing up.

One views these kinds of moments with different emotions. Both Cinelli and I and her parents are glad she's reaching for adulthood, but there's much of the little girl she was that one longs for. Before teenage years sent her marching to the barricades of personal revolution, there was the sweetness of the early years, when she didn't feel as if she knew everything there was to know, when questions fluttered like butterflies at the edges of her limited vision. She walked with a hand in ours, uncertain of the trail.

Now she strides with the self-confidence of experience but realizes also how much there is to learn. The newest self-portrait wears an expression of uncertainty amid the shadowy tones that surround it, while announcing by the skill of its creation that Twentygirl is at last exploring the artist within the woman within the girl, and slowly discovering exactly who she is.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

04-09-2007, 10:36 AM
Al Martinez:
A news veteran on the fruits of his labor
April 9, 2007

THERE'S a joke about a guy who travels the world looking for someone to explain the meaning of life to him. He finally finds a guru in a cave high up in the mountains of Tibet to whom he asks the question. After considerable thought, the guru responds, "Life is a lemon tree." Period.

The man is clearly disappointed and not a little angry. "I spend a fortune and give up years of my life to have the question answered by one of the great gurus of our age and you say, 'Life is a lemon tree'? What kind of nonsense is that?"

The guru shrugs and says, "OK, then life isn't a lemon tree."

I was thinking about that when I went outside this morning to pick some of the lemons off our tree. The fruit, illuminated by the early rays of the sun, seemed to glow with an inner light, hanging like jewels from the tangled branches of their host. There were maybe a dozen or so of the current crop remaining, of which I picked six, leaving the others to ornament a section of the garden on a hillside overlooking the house.

Picking lemons is not a part of my daily routine, but there is a connection of sorts between the persistence of life in nature and the uncertainty of a career in newspapering. I used to rush out in the morning to get the paper for the news; now I go out to see if it is still being published. On Mondays and Fridays I check to make sure I am still in it.

Regardless of how the future finally shakes out for the L.A. by God Times, these are not good days for those of us who stew in the uncertainty of our careers. Entrepreneurs do not buy newspapers for the people's right to know. They do not buy newspapers to perpetuate the grand traditions of print journalism. They buy newspapers if they think they can make a buck out of them.

If it doesn't work out, they sell them and buy oil stock or pharmaceutical companies or insurance agencies, organizations that can stick it to the people and get away with it.

Whoever ends up owning us, there will be staff reductions, page reductions and probably quality reductions. The bottom line is contingent upon a kind of amorality that permits a distance between owner and worker, allowing for layoffs and forced buyouts without a lot of owner tears being shed.

So I don't rush out to get the paper anymore by dawn's early light. I stop to admire the lemons, shimmering in the glow that the sun allows them. Or maybe I just sit in the gazebo and stare off over the wondrous garden that my wife has created. Then I pick up the paper and read about the pending deals or the done deals or the probable deals that involve the product I hold in my hands, the product that holds me in its hands.

I promised myself when The Times, a conveyor of news, became an object of the news that I would avoid writing about the convulsions of its shaky existence. I would leave that to those whose job, talent or inclination have made them the chroniclers of the chronicle, like interpreters untangling the mysteries of an archaic language. But we have achieved such a place in the headlines that we have become the news, and everyone who cares wants to know what's going to happen next.

Like the aging guru, I am asked often what our future might be, both as an institution and as an individual product. What changes will enhance our longevity?

Rarely in the 55 years I have been a journalist has anyone cared enough to ask about the functions or problems of a newspaper until now, except when a reporter has been caught faking a story and editors have had to beg forgiveness.

The convulsions currently attending our existence augur change, and owners and editors are busy tinkering with the product in an effort to enhance its popularity. We don't appear to know what's selling these days, and seem clueless about whether we ought to continue to be a player on the national stage or give it up for the fun of a Hollywood sound stage.

Unlike the radiant lemons remaining on our sunlit tree, we have lost our inner glow. We see endings to our existence, and like dreamers searching for eternal life, there is a note of desperation in our current disposition. The product changes we're making, all the perky bells and whistles, don't appear to be working. So now what? Beats me.

But I do know that the remaining lemons on the tree will be allowed to remain where they are until birds pick them into nubs or raccoons get them or they simply wither and drop while the tree falls into hibernation until nature calls it once more into bloom. It will undergo these stages in the seasons to come, spring after spring and winter after winter, until time, fire or pestilence sweeps them from the dark earth.

Even after a half-century of writing and reporting, and only a few years of observing fruit trees, I know more about lemons than I do about newspapers. Maybe life is just a lemon tree after all.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

04-14-2007, 10:38 PM
Al Martinez
Pearl Sloan: a kind and gentle spirit
April 13, 2007

THE afternoon was a mix of sunshine and mist, the kind of weather that makes Topangans glad to be there.

From a balcony of the storied Mountain Mermaid, once the Mermaid Tavern, one could look out across the canyon toward the new hillside greening of the still tolerable season and at the faint wisps of fog receding into the distance.

I was at a wake. They call them memorial services now, and they're a lot more dignified and sober than the ones I used to attend, like the Oakland send-off for Nels the bartender, where a Tribune copy editor disgraced the day by trying to seduce the grieving widow.

If I attended services these days for friends or colleagues who died, I'd be going to one every other week as members of my generation, good people all, are swept away like hummingbirds in a hurricane.

So when I hear that a fellow hummingbird is gone, I take a moment in my work to acknowledge his passing and then finish what I'm writing. He'd understand. We are what we do and what I am is a writer, and probably so was he.

I made an exception Sunday and went to a memorial service for Pearl Sloan, who was someone I hardly knew. In fact, I met her only once, at a reception in her house.

For some reason she made a lasting impression on me. It wasn't just that she had a large oak tree growing in the middle of her living room. And it wasn't just that she'd lived in Topanga since 1947, surviving all those eras of folk singers and flower children and remaining in love with the place right up to the invasion of the rich.

It was the way she seemed to become an instant best friend, which was a way she had of embracing anyone who happened to pass by. It wasn't the kind of reeling in that implies boorishness. You wanted to know Pearl. You wanted to be her friend.

But that's not why I went to her memorial service. My wife, the persistent Cinelli, knew her well and insisted we go together to pay homage to that kind and lovely woman. I, of course, resisted the way I resist all things good and decent, but I could see that Cinelli was not about to fold, so I figured what the hell.

The Mermaid, whose history goes to the 1930s, was jammed. Wine was served, but no one got out of control the way they used to up in Oakland, and the food laid out on the patio and in a kind of drawing room was fit for a royal banquet. We drank and ate by a pond full of fat orange fish and then went into a large room where I met Pearl.

I know I said I had met her once before, but this was different. We are judged by what others think of us and Pearl's innate goodness emerged through the tears and laughter evoked by memories of her offered by those who were her friends and her relatives. There was sunshine and mist inside the building too.

As I sat there among the hundred or so guests, listening to stories about Pearl and seeing photographs of her and her family flashed on a large screen, I received insights to someone I had really not known at all. In writing, I've been able to pretty much categorize someone in the flash of a moment, but I hadn't really tried to do that during my one meeting with Pearl.

She emerged in the ebullience of a bright afternoon as a real, living, laughing, caring, fun-loving imp of an earth mother, a part of the mountains and the oak trees that she and Bill, her husband of almost 70 years, had shared. Grown men cried openly as they told stories about Pearl, and Bill looked as though he were about to. And always there was laughter. I didn't take notes because I wasn't there for that, and I hadn't even intended to write anything about it. It just came upon me the way an emotion swells up unexpectedly and you want to do something but you don't know what.

Photographs are about as close as we come to reversing time, because we can freeze someone in the posture of their youth and continue to emulsify them on film through the following decades of maturity and old age. We saw Pearl walking through the woods, splashing about in a lake, picnicking in a park and growing old with Bill in her embrace.

I sat there after it was over as small groups gathered to enhance the memories before everyone went home and took Pearl with them, always a part of their souls, where the gentle dead are kept. Cinelli was talking to people she knows because she's a gregarious person, the way Pearl was, and loves to be a part of others. I sit alone, just looking and thinking.

Events are a waste of time unless one achieves something from them. I got to know Pearl. I saw her as a spirit of this mountain community that is being altered by the inroads of money but will truly never change. Mountains survive us. Trees are the calendars that mark our growth, and we won't let anyone cut them down. Pearl will always be a part of the Topanga that was, before the BMWs and the high, enclosing fences. We can all be glad for that.

I wish I'd known her better.

04-16-2007, 12:49 PM
Al Martinez:
'The Namesake' shows the universal in an Indian immigrant family's story
April 16, 2007

THERE were only half a dozen people in the large emptiness of the Laemmle Theatre the night I saw the movie "The Namesake." The size of the room not only emphasized lack of interest in the film but also suggested how into ourselves Americans are.

Although there are changes in our isolationist attitudes, we still tend to scoff at or ignore the offerings of other cultures unless they are presented in the guise of "humor," as was the crude, inane "Borat," cinematic trash that won our hearts with its bagfuls of mockery and scatology.

What distinguished "The Namesake" was not high drama or moments of obvious theatrical tugs but its very mundanity. It is in many ways an ordinary movie about ordinary people living ordinary lives, even as you and I do.

One might argue that sitting through two hours of a work that features neither a gunfight nor a car chase runs contrary to our usual interests. No heads blasted open? Nope. No frontal nudity? Nope. No horror, no savagery, no breathtaking stunts? Nope, nope and nope. Not even animation.

What we have in "The Namesake" is a couple from Calcutta establishing their lives in the United States, clinging to their ways while adapting to ours. A spectrum from birth to death is encapsulated in the story of the Ganguli family, whose visceral tribulations could have been those of just about anyone's family.

We see the ritual of an arranged marriage, the birth of two children, the difficulties of their growing up, the pain of deception in the boy's marriage and the anguish of departure in the father's death. Although arranged marriages aren't among our national traits, the movement of a family through years of ups and downs otherwise reflects what most families endure.

We all need the protection of one another, we need someone to care about, we need the strength of a soft touch when adversity darkens our lives, and we need someone to share our elation when success brightens our moments.

"The Namesake" is an emotional journey played from the perspective of four people whose connections to their homeland remain strong while they seek new identities in New York. Their hopes are intrinsic to their existence, their fears relative to their setbacks. As they travel back and forth on visits to Calcutta, we come to understand the necessity of roots and the gradual acceptance of a background that the American-born children hardly know. Their history comes upon them slowly and gently, like the morning of a warm day.

We seem to be going through a climate of dismissal or perhaps even deep hostilities toward one another in America. Although there might not have been hatred involved in Don Imus' insult, which he says was just humor gone bad, it constitutes but one more instance of a superiority complex that lies beneath the surface of our constitutional spirit of egalitarianism.

What we don't seem to get is that what we want in America is what the people want in India and Iraq and Denmark and Italy and China and Russia. Beyond the flags we wave and the national anthems we sing are the composite figures of humanity who share similar needs and similar skeletons. Our true connections are elemental, not ethnic or racial. We are joined at the soul on the blue globe we occupy.

Seeing movies like "The Namesake" reminds me of what I have learned in years of travel to many of the places I mentioned. Scenes from visits to other countries and other cultures continue to paint pictures in my head of the actions that characterize our race of humans. I see women shopping at open markets, touching the fruit to test their quality. I see men on scaffolds painting a new office building. I see children playing catch in the street. I see families picnicking under the branches of shade trees in a park.

The scenes are unremarkable, which is an element of their glory. They are us in our various modes of daily living, and they are the same on a side street in Prague as they are at a farmers market in Santa Monica; the same at a building under construction in Wuhan as they are in Woodland Hills; the same at a park in Oslo as they are in Watts. While languages might change, laughter is universal, and so is sorrow.

I hadn't meant to sermonize today but simply to point out some familiar aspects of a "foreign" film, some gentle stuff that binds us to each other. I'm not going to fool myself into believing that a movie is going to change anyone a lot, but perhaps it might at least stimulate our thinking processes as we ponder the basic similarities in our species and the shallow depths of our cultural differences.

The message that might emerge from "The Namesake" is that when we're trashing others, we're trashing ourselves, and when we kill one another on fields of combat, we are killing ourselves, and that's a strange and terrible concept to consider.

Al Martinez's column runs Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez @latimes.com.

04-26-2007, 07:35 AM
Al Martinez:
Agasp at 'Porn for Women'
April 23, 2007

EVERY day in the mail, along with form letters from Hillary Clinton and charity pitches for money accompanied by gifts of return-address stickers, I receive books from authors hoping for a review — even a bad one — or just a little mention.

Most of them are mysteries because that's all anyone is writing these days. This is a phenomenon rooted in the success of Michael Connelly, who rose from the gloom of journalism to the rank of bestselling author with his Harry Bosch series.

I don't generally read mysteries but lean more toward books of an intellectual genre. I have one in front of me right now, for instance, the mere title of which has set the synaptic connections of my brain waves sparking. It's called "Porn for Women."

Your expectation was probably the same as mine, that a real, honest-to-God dirty book was awaiting perusal. I noticed right away that it was published by the Cambridge Women Pornography Cooperative, and that seemed even better — smart women performing depraved (but creative) acts of sexual degradation with animalistic men.

Then I noticed it contained photographs by Susan Anderson and my lust was heightened beyond any intellectual or literary level as I surmised that what awaited was smart women doing despicable things in living color.

Well, you can zip up, guys. That's not what "Porn for Women" is about. Although it asks the question, "What really gets you hot?," the mood quickly dissipates when the prologue explains, "Prepare to enter our fantasy world, girls (or guys who want to learn something): a world where clothes get folded just so, dinners await us at home and flatulence is just not that funny."

As I turned the pages, my passion index dropped to zero, because this is not a book of women performing acts that would be banned in Oakland, but a collection of photos geared strictly toward women enjoying pleasures beyond eroticism: hunky, shirtless men bringing them flowers for no reason, leaning in to pay attention to what they're saying, vacuuming the house and cooking gourmet dinners.

One particularly disturbing illustration is the depiction of a stud holding a trash bag, accompanied by the caption, "As long as I have legs to walk on, you'll never have to take out the garbage." The word "never" is in boldface.

Books like this, more so than even "Das Kapital" or "The Feminist Mystique," threaten the basic culture of coexistence in America by striking at the balance of gender relationships. For years, men have only half-listened to what women were saying, have avoided even learning how an oven operates and considered flatulence right up there with burping as prime elements of humor.

Although my own idea of what's funny might vary considerably from that of a hod carrier or a drywall plasterer, many of the elements in "Porn" seem related to conditions that exist in my household. I have noticed that in the age of female empowerment Cinelli isn't inclined to honor the old standards anymore. Just last Thursday, for example, she asked me to take out the garbage.

Due to a bad back and a possible hernia, I have avoided taking out the garbage for more consecutive days than Joe DiMaggio's famous 56-game hitting streak for the New York Yankees in 1941. I gasped and looked so horrified at her suggestion that she took out the garbage herself, fearful that the emotional trauma could shock my heart into ventricular fibrillation.

Another outrageous depiction in "Porn" is that of a man smiling warmly while cleaning the cat box and saying, "Who could object to cleaning up after the cutest thing on four legs?" Fortunately, our cat box is so high-tech that even the cat isn't sure how it's supposed to operate. Since Cinelli has long realized that I am helpless in the face of technology, she takes care of it.

All things considered, I am not the ideal husband in a culture that redefines pornography for women as men cooking gourmet dinners or giving their wives the better car to drive. I am willing to dance in my underwear or parade around the bedroom wearing only boots and a cowboy hat (spurs are optional), but that isn't good enough anymore, according to the Cambridge Women, a twisted bunch if ever there was one.

OK, the book does make some valid points, and since I don't want my wife to start lusting after young shirtless guys who are willing to sit through movies with subtitles, I am going to change my ways. Sort of.

Although I am unwilling to abandon my quest for 100 consecutive days without taking out the garbage, I will start cleaning the cat box if I can figure out the electronic process without trapping the cat in the automatic sweeping mechanism. Cinelli will be so taken with the idea that God knows what acts of animalism she will be willing to undertake. But after observing the mess I've made of the infernal contraption, she will nudge me aside and clean the cat box herself.

That'll show me.

04-30-2007, 09:08 PM
Al Martinez:
Celebrating ecology with 'Planet Earth'
April 27, 2007

EARTH Day came and went like a passing dream last Sunday, leaving in its wake strands of a growing awareness, political declarations of love and 10 hours of television.

Its ethereal qualities were due not to the growing sense of Earth's fragility or to attempts by presidential candidates to embrace it with more passion than their rivals.

The dreamy nature of the day was rooted in those 10 hours of television: end-to-end presentations of the Discovery Channel's series on "Planet Earth."

Though there have been many attempts over the years to show us the globe and its inhabitants, including us, it has never been put together with such refinement and beauty as in this series.

What added mood to the presentation of past episodes strung together was a soft rain that was falling over the Santa Monica Mountains all during the day, providing a sheen to the reality of the nature around us. It was perfect.

I don't usually spend that many hours in front of a television set, losing an entire day and fragments of my brain to indolence. But this was Earth Day after all, and, because I'm not inclined to hold hands with others and dance around an oak tree, the very least I could do was watch a series I had heard so much about.

We live among environmentalists in our small, tight canyon, and word had been carried like the twittering of birds to every corner of the community, saying what a great television presentation it was. The widespread chatter was yet another reason I decided to watch it, so I'd have something to talk about with my neighbors.

"Planet Earth" is less a plea than a love song, only slightly suggesting through both its depictions of the planet and through the soothing voice of Sigourney Weaver that if we want to preserve what we were seeing then we'd better do something about it.

Such beauty. Such a diversity of wildlife. Such rare natural wonders. However it might have affected you, 10 hours of wandering over high mountains and through green jungles made a believer out of me. I felt like I ought to be out there personally saving the Gobi Desert or preserving the rain forests of the Matto Grosso.

There was life in the deepest caves and under the severest of conditions, clinging to the edges of existence if only for hours, reaching toward the sun, flying across frozen tundras, illuminating the darkest places with wild flashes of color, flora and fauna existing in union with the atmosphere.

There was something in the series for both religious adherents and agnostics. Beauty binds. One could watch a sunset over the Aegean and believe either in God or in droplets of water in the air. Miracles are rooted in reality, and if we wanted to think that the shimmering crystals in caves were formed by an infinite power, that was OK too, because nature is also an infinite power.

Planet Earth is not always serene and not only a collection of quiet places where life whispers rather than roars. It explodes through its crust with fire and smoke, and its continents collide with devastating displays of energy. Howling storms eat the mountains away and wild seas claw at the headlands.

Earth's creatures add to the violence by fighting for food and turf, the strong stalking the weak in the air and below the surface, crawling through the dark woods or over craggy mountainsides, fangs and talons bringing down their dinners. Its chimps march through jungles like armies of men and go to war over invisible boundaries like, well, armies of men, killing all in their wake and then devouring the young in a metaphoric gesture difficult to avoid.

We are closer to animals in Topanga than most places in L.A., and I don't mean the unregenerate hippies who cling to vapory yesterdays like fragments of an afterthought. I mean deer and raccoons, possums and rattlesnakes, bobcats and maybe a mountain lion or two. Seeing a coyote crossing the road or a red-tailed hawk swooping down through the clouds is a part of our neighborhood. We live with them.

In a larger sense, we live among all creatures on a globe that seems to grow smaller as we connect through electronics. We are joined in fate. John Donne best expressed a feeling of oneness when he wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." It should have been included in the series, because the thought was never better illustrated than on Earth Day.

I lay in bed that night after watching an 11 o'clock newscast bloody the evening with scenes of war and domestic violence, and couldn't help but remember the observation of my grandson Travis on a rainy day when he repeated something he had learned in the first grade. He looked up at the rain and said, "The Earth is crying." Sadly, despite its fragile beauty, it still is

05-07-2007, 09:08 AM
Al Martinez:
OK, pony up or the donkey dies!
May 7, 2007

LIKE most weeping liberals, I carry a heavy load of guilt.

It is a requirement of the left to be bent under a burden of culpability almost too great to bear.

I consider it my fault that there is hunger in Mauritania and that monsoon rains sometimes wipe out modest villages along the Ganges.

I take personal responsibility for AIDS although I have never been in a bathhouse, and for a frightening increase in leprosy.

Like Judas of Iscariot, I'm not sure I will ever be forgiven.

My mother, a devout Catholic, told me that the reason I always felt guilty was because I was. Catholics, she said, should feel guilty about how Jesus was treated. She never said how we were involved, but it instilled in me a feeling that I was responsible for the ills of the world because of what we did back then, whatever that was.

My sister Emily, who has carried on the Catholic tradition, prays for me several times a week, asking God to forgive my sins. She used to pray for me every day, but she's 85 now and sometimes forgets.

What all this is leading to is that I have found a new reason to be guilty. It has to do with a little donkey from Sacramento, and I don't mean a short Democrat.

We are on a lot of charity lists because we try to share our modest income with those less fortunate, who, to weeping liberals, include just about everyone. We don't donate on the level of Bill Gates, exactly, but we try to be generous.

And now this.

Recently I received an envelope, on the face of which was printed, "No one wanted the crooked-legged little donkey — so they decided to shoot her."

This naturally caused me to gasp. Not that it particularly surprised me, because humans are known to shoot what they don't understand, but why a crooked-legged little donkey?

Inside, it explained that the owners of this donkey and two others got them free when they bought their house in Sacramento. I've never heard of a house sale that included donkeys, but that's neither here nor there. When the new owners decided they didn't want the donkeys, they put an ad in the newspaper and sold two of them, but no one wanted the third one, which was, you guessed it, the little crooked-legged donkey.

To make a long story short, they were about to shoot the animal when the people at Santa Clarita's Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue heard about it and rode in like the Light Brigade to save it.

It turns out that the "sad little donkey," as they call it, whom they later named Ilene, is the poster girl, so to speak, for a pitch to save what donkey lovers claim is the most mistreated domestic farm animal in America. Donkey Rescue has 478 of them.

I always thought that the most mistreated animal in America was the turkey, the fat little bird being the featured dish at an annual holiday feast. So I grieved for the fate of the turkey. Then I was told by the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary of Marana, Ariz., that the potbelly pig was everybody's victim. That seemed odd to me, but I sobbed for the potbelly pig anyhow.

Up until I was informed otherwise, I had looked upon both creatures as little more than dinner. Turkey was something you stuffed with herbs and spices, and a pig was a pork chop or, to the average Frenchman, cochon de lait. I mention the French particularly because they are known to eat anything.

Now it's lo, the poor donkey.

When I was a kid, a donkey bit me as I was trying to feed it a carrot. Not only did it lack Ilene's obvious sensitivities but it also brayed in laughter after the bite.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for something that draws blood. But as a weeping liberal, I embrace all God's creatures, except maybe the grizzly bear and the great white shark, who have not bothered all that much to curry man's favor.

What Donkey Rescue wants are funds to prevent abandoned donkeys from becoming the kind of anonymous meat byproducts that show up in dog food. "Each night I pray for friends like you — who care about these dear tortured souls," the pitch letter says. Linking cash to compassion, it seeks ways into our "caring hearts" to convince us to send $25, $35, $50 or more to save a donkey.

Ilene, as it turns out, has met her maker, but there is still Isabella, who is clubfooted and "walks in tiny, agonizing steps on her toes like a ballerina." She was but a pas de deux away from the meat chopper when the Donkey People saved her.

Since I have little to do with donkeys, it is difficult for even an open-hearted, tear-stained liberal like me to feel a lot of sympathy for them. So I think I'll save my money and give it to a fund for mistreated cows instead.

Given America's appetite for pot roasts and T-bones, they really have it tough.

05-07-2007, 09:10 AM

05-11-2007, 08:33 AM
Al Martinez:
Al Martinez: To protect and serve, and bust you upside the head
May 11, 2007

I took a week off to putter and write (which are often the same thing), and while I was gone everything went to hell in L.A.

First, the cops went crazy swinging their truncheons and shooting their play bullets at men, women, children, dogs, houseflies and the media, and then a judge had the audacity to order America's empty-eyed sweetheart to jail. In between those performances, I got the flu.

There were other items of passing interest, not the least of which emerged from within our own ranks when sportswriter Mike Penner declared in a column that he was altering his gender to become Christine Daniels, the woman within.

I've seen many strange newsroom occurrences in my newspaper career, but this is the first time I've seen a man become a woman almost before my very eyes.

Our primary interest here at the L.A. by God Times seems to be entertainment, so we are fortunate to have celebrities occasionally driving drunk, snorting coke, screaming at their kids, picking up hookers who turn out to be cops, dancing without their panties, shaving their heads and otherwise filling the holes in our news pages.

I'm not sure into what category Paris Hilton falls, since the only thing she seems to be good at is portraying Paris Hilton. It was she who was sentenced to jail for 45 days by a judge who obviously misunderstood how confused the poor girl was about the law and all, silly goose.

Not only did Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer order her into the slammer as a parole violator, but he also specified that she could not spend her confinement in a room at the Four Seasons Hotel, or any five-star accommodation.

Hilton, looking a little like a whipped schnauzer, indicated she had not understood the terms of the drunk-driving pleas she had signed months ago. "I just sign what people tell me to sign," she said tearfully. "I'm a very busy person."

But all is not lost. Hilton, who lived on a farm for her television role in "The Simple Life," can segue her time in the pokey to "The Con's Life." Although scrubbing toilets and consuming a food known only as grub may not be the most viewable show on TV, it's an era when anything sells, so why not a nice little rich girl in a designer jumpsuit incarcerated for being too busy?

And then there were the cops running around like schoolyard bullies whacking everyone they could, no doubt in fear of their lives, since many of those participating in an immigration rally at MacArthur Park were armed with flags and placards, both of which could be construed as deadly weapons. I can't count the number of officers who have been skewered with flagpoles and beaten bloody with posters.

Chief William J. Bratton showed his stuff by shifting personnel around, promising to punish those responsible for the unofficer-like conduct and apologizing to members of the media who were among the victims. One was Christina Gonzalez of Fox News, who could be seen on a Channel 11 video being pushed around by a burly cop and looking as though she would have liked to smash his face. You might get away with pushing a reporter around, but beware the Latinas. They bite.

It was as I watched the cops running out of control that I was overcome with waves of nausea and was forced to rush to the commode. Earlier that afternoon, my grandson Joshua, who is in kindergarten, had vomited in school and been sent home. His mother explained that he does that when he sees something disgusting.

I asked Joshua what he'd seen and he said he'd seen a boy eating lunch with his mouth open and food dropping out. The school decided to call me when they couldn't reach his mom. I brought him home. Once removed from the disgusting scene of his classmate dribbling food, Josh was fine.

Later that same day, I was watching news reports about those whose job it is to protect and serve doing so by whacking everyone on the cabeza when I vomited too. I realized very quickly that it was the flu, because my bones ached, my head hurt and I felt like I was only a cough and a wheeze away from the embalmer.

But as I think about it now, almost over the flu, I realize that I displayed Joshua's response to viewing something that was truly disgusting, which is to say the very people we count on to keep us safe, doing us in. If there is anything more disgusting than that, I'd like to see it. Well, no, actually, I wouldn't, because one upchuck is enough.

Like Paris Hilton, the poor dear, I'm just too busy to throw up every time a cop beats a civilian.

05-14-2007, 09:25 AM
Al Martinez:
Fighting for the fire fighters
May 14, 2007

TONY MORRIS isn't the kind of dude you are likely to see whooping it up at a party. No wild and crazy guy rocking and rolling for attention in the center of a dance floor.

If he's at the party at all, he's more likely to be off to one side monologuing in his deep basso about something, well, important. There is nothing frivolous about the man.

Morris, a 65-year-old Yale graduate, takes life seriously. He's so low key that it sometimes requires a lot of talking to get his point across, but when he finally does, you come to realize that the man is a persistent campaigner for public safety.

What has occupied his mind for a good number of years is the vulnerability of Southern California's mountains and canyons to the danger of wildfires. Morris saw it up close in 1993 when one of Topanga's more deadly brush fires came right up to his front door before it was beaten back.

If you were anywhere near last week's hellish Griffith Park fire you saw what disaster these monsters can cause. If it hadn't been for the firefighters on the ground and water-dropping helicopters buzzing around like houseflies day and night, we could have lost not only homes but also some of L.A.'s valuable cultural assets. The Griffith Observatory, the L.A. Zoo and the Greek Theatre were all at risk.

A few days later, another of the state's icons, Santa Catalina Island, was burning, with historic Avalon in harm's way.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger heard the clanging of the fire bells and almost instantly ordered CAL FIRE, formerly the California Department of Forestry, to contract for a new jet supertanker that can drop about 10 times more water than the more cumbersome turboprop air tankers. You can thank Morris for that.

He'd heard about the value of high-speed, high-volume, fixed-wing aircraft in fighting brush fires and began wondering how to get them on a permanent standby basis to attack fires in Southern California. Like a scientist locked up in his lab seeking a specific microbe, he dived into the job of researching the problem and then went out to spread the word.

A Topanga resident since 1988, Morris set up a meeting of 60 local residents and organized what became the Aerial Fire Protection Associates. He also showed the community at large a 14-minute documentary he and cinematographer Tom Mitchell had produced that focused on the need for flying supertankers to fight the kind of fires that threatened homes and lives in the brush-choked canyon.

Assisted by many others as time went on, Morris began cornering everyone he thought could help in his campaign to get better protection for the community he had grown to love. In 2004, he and Bob Cavage, a retired aeronautical systems engineer, lobbied before Schwarzenegger's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission and won the OK for what became the Wildfire Research Network.

Meanwhile, Jet Tanker 910, a converted DC-10, had been developed with private funds. It can lay down 12,000 gallons of water or retardant in a half-mile swath in a startling eight seconds. Morris knew that was the baby to have in the skies when the Santa Anas blew, the humidity plunged and flames began flickering in the chaparral.

Now backed by a larger citizens group and members of the media, Morris began a campaign to get it ready for what everyone was calling California's worst fire season in two decades. Griffith Park and Catalina were warnings that no one could miss, not even the governor.

Schwarzeneggar approved a standby contract with the owners of Tanker 910 for exclusive use in California and simultaneously called for a buildup of the state's fire-fighting armies. The tanker will be stationed in Victorville and be airborne in less than an hour after hearing a wildfire alert.

When Morris heard the news he called me, the way he's been calling a lot of people for a good number of years. He was as elated as he ever gets (I could almost see him smiling), and followed up the call with an e-mail message, quoting a CAL FIRE rep as saying, "Tony and Bob, you got your plane."

So the next time fire roars over the mountains or up the canyons of Southern California, discoloring the sky with flames as high as heaven, and a jet comes blasting in out of Victorville to join an aerial assault with massive water drops, you're going to have to give a lot of credit to Tony Morris.

The men and women who fight the wildfires that have come to characterize life down here are already my heroes. And while Morris may be an unlikely icon in a pageantry of noteworthy individuals, he deserves a standing ovation for his persistence in bringing a new weapon into the war on an old and powerful enemy.

I suspect that when he reads these words he'll telephone and say thanks in the deep and hesitant manner that has come to characterize his style. But knowing how much he has done for all of us, I'll be the one doing the thanking. Good job, Tony. Take a bow.

05-14-2007, 09:27 AM

05-18-2007, 08:13 AM
Al Martinez: Let us sing Mort Sahl's praises
May 18, 2007

HEARING that Mort Sahl had turned 80 was the social equivalent of realizing that one's high school sweetheart was now a grandmother.

It forced an abrupt acceptance of passing years and, in Sahl's case, of a passing era when we were young and loud and demanding of a better, smarter world.

In the long run we didn't get either, but the 1960s was at least a time of coming to grips with our shortcomings, and Sahl was there to point them out.

He was the cultural warrior in a clip of time that began with the Eisenhower presidency and ended, more or less, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It embraced a moment in history when Sahl was leading a parade out of a San Francisco club called the hungry i that eventually trailed across the nation.

I see him as a postgraduate out of USC in a red, V-neck sweater, a rolled up newspaper under one arm, rattling off a combination of jokes with the speed of a Gatling gun, rarely missing his target. An admirer dubbed him "a rebel without a pause."

Even his laugh was a staccato, and his grin a combination of pleasure and grimace, not unlike the smile on the face of a tiger.

The point of all this is we are at last honoring Sahl as an American icon, more than just a kid telling jokes way back then when we were all hip enough to dig what he was saying and counting on him to say it.

Two events are occurring to recognize the man's contribution not only to humor and satire but also to being the first to stand up and point a finger in the face of those whose hypocrisies were justifying war and racial suppression.

Sahl created the era that blossomed to include the genius of Tom Lehrer, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Mike Nichols and Elaine May and a lot of others who played the hungry i, a small club tucked into a corner of North Beach that was home to a generation of cognoscenti.

I said that two events are occurring to acknowledge Sahl's contributions. One is a June 28 tribute in Westwood's Wadsworth Theater, where comedy notables such as Bill Maher, Robin Williams and Jay Leno are expected to appear. The other is contained in an announcement that Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking twice a week beginning in September at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont.

OK, so it's important to gather a lot of celebrities to honor a guy who used to refer to Eisenhower as "one of our presidents, according to many" and to then Vice President Nixon as being born in a log cabin in a blue serge suit. But it's even more important to tap into the brain of a man who probably knows more about critical thinking than most of his successors ever will.

Sahl's ride up to this point hasn't been an easy one. He's been in and out of fashion more times than long dresses, part of which was due to his endorsement of a conspiracy theory in the Kennedy assassination. Like Gregory during the civil rights movement, Sahl got serious about his newfound mission and the laughter died.

While celebrated in smaller venues and enjoying a revival of sorts now and again, he never did make it back to where he was, but that wasn't entirely his fault. The times that had created him had ended, and his attack-dog style of humor just didn't seem funny anymore.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called him "the light that failed," and critics were quick to point out that Sahl was a used-to-be. To my own regret, I too took a bite out of the guy I had known since the hungry i days, failing to realize that he was more than just a part of one era but had joined other great satirists whose influence has endured beyond their lifetimes. Sahl was my generation's "Will Rogers with fangs," as one writer dubbed him. Another said, "He didn't tell jokes. He told truths."

He made the cover of Time magazine in 1960 and, more recently, Comedy Central has put him at No. 40 on a list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time. And now there's that tribute in June, and Sahl lecturing on critical thinking to a bunch of kids to whom the 1960s are about as remote as the Roaring '20s. Sahl can tell them what it was like back when truth was unpatriotic and critical thinking was a crime. It still applies. The country hasn't changed much.

Sahl said it better. I see him leaning toward an audience. The rolled-up newspaper. The expectant grin. Then: "Two hundred years ago we had Jefferson, Washington, Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, and there were 4 million people. Today we have 220 million and look at our leaders. Darwin was wrong."


05-21-2007, 09:01 AM
Al Martinez:
L.A., where valet parking was born
May 21, 2007

The first car to roam the rutted streets of L.A. was built here in 1897. Because of the paucity of traffic and the lack of hotels and restaurants, there was no need for valet parking.

But by 1946, there were many hotels and restaurants in the booming City of Angles, and a man named Herb Citron saw a need to make life a little easier for motorists driving to Lawry's restaurant on La Cienega, so he invented valet parking.

It is said that he wore a red jacket and a bowtie, among other apparel, of course, and was exceptionally polite to those who drove up in their shiny new postwar Fords and Chevrolets. Doing so, he went nationwide and became rich.

Today, venues including hospitals, supermarkets and even, possibly, the kind of places Heidi Fleiss used to operate, have valet services, none of whose employees to my knowledge wear red jackets and bowties.

They might not speak good English but are careful with the cars they park for people who would more willingly trust them with their wives than their Lamborghinis, Aston Martins or the occasional Pagani Zonda C12 F.

There are about 7 million cars in L.A., many of which are vying for parking spaces every day of the week, from dawn to sunset. Because public transportation is almost nonexistent, automobiles are the primary means of conveyance from your place to those scattered areas of nightlife that beckon like hookers in a doorway.

Every time I go out, I pray that wherever I am going, there is a valet waiting.

Thinking about the men and occasional women who park cars for a living, I was interested in talking to a clown named Matthew Morgan. I don't mean he's a goof-off. He has actually trained and worked as a clown. Now he parks cars at the lovely Art Deco hotel on Sunset Boulevard called Sunset Tower.

This is not a place where one who is just passing through normally spends the night. It is not Motel 6, where they leave the light on for you. It is a hotel of note where well-known people stay or dine and expect and receive exquisite service from those who park their cars.

Somehow, Morgan, who also acts and writes (doesn't everybody?), fits right in as one of the car parkers at the hotel. He's very, well, L.A. When I met him, he was juggling a cellphone, a pen and a Chapstick to demonstrate his facility as a professional clown. Even when he speaks, he gestures with both hands as though juggling invisible balls. He can also balance half a paper cup of soda on his forehead and tip it so the soda falls into his mouth, but it's risky and he decided not to try it.

Ari Hodosh, who owns the parking service, was quick to inform me that his staff of 30 is not inclined to stand around juggling all day. They have other activities involved with those they serve at Sunset Tower. In one instance, Hodosh himself was asked to buy a new car for a woman staying at the hotel. He had to search for days for the vehicle that fit her exact needs, and when he found it, he also arranged the loan and delivered it to her. In another instance, a male tenant handed him $10,000 in cash and asked him to buy an engagement ring for his bride-to-be. "That," Hodosh admits with a shake of his head, "made me nervous."

Finding lost dogs, helping celebrities avoid the paparazzi and occasionally driving home the famous who have had too much to drink and carrying them into the house are all part of the services performed by the valets from heaven at Sunset Tower. I'm not sure that I would ever have the need to be driven home and tucked into bed, but the service is intriguing. If I ever did reach that stage, Cinelli would be at the front door refusing delivery. She would stamp me "return to sender."

As I left the hotel, a frail Nancy Reagan, surrounded by friends and a bodyguard, was arriving for dinner, and Matthew Morgan was saying that if I told him when I would be there again, he'd have a bicycle on hand and balance it on his chin for me. As I thought about it later, a former first lady and a writer-actor-juggler-valet, coexisting in an environment of West Hollywood posh, is what we're all about.

When another valet brought me my car, which is far less impressive than, say, a $1.7-million Bugatti Veyron, and was dusty and spattered with bird droppings, I explained that I lived in Topanga, where there was a lot of dust and a good many birds. He smiled politely and said, "Of course." I tipped him nicely.


05-25-2007, 08:43 AM
Al Martinez:
When will there be a cure for hate?
May 25, 2007

THERE is a cruelty in hatred that exceeds even physical abuse because it is so much more pervasive and lasting.

It burns over the boundaries of many generations, simmering in the collective memories of an entire population.

What makes it more terrible is that the hatred is contained within the same human family, the only species capable of an emotion that transcends need. Hatred isn't a requirement of life. One has to work at it.

It concerns me on this day, at this writing, because of a series of events dealing with immigration. The first was that May Day melee in MacArthur Park that, because of a few who threw rocks and bottles, turned into a devastating reprisal by members of the LAPD against anyone in their path.

Immigrants of every status gathered to protest what they felt was a vendetta against them by those whose ethnic hatreds had spilled over into what otherwise might have been a political debate.

After I wrote about it, I received e-mail so vile and offensive that I can't repeat most of it here. One especially vulgar missive came from a man in Big Bear who rattled on about Mexicans destroying L.A. and ended it in a tirade of obscenity directed at me, a "Mexican mutt."

He especially decried the ignorance of those migrating from south of the border while simultaneously demonstrating his inability to put together an invective-free sentence that made any sense.

Oddly, e-mails and letters like his were followed by news that a bipartisan group of U.S. senators was sponsoring a measure that would allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally to become citizens. Even President Bush hailed it.

The two events embraced a peculiar mix of hatred and hope, of which there is so much more of the former and so little of the latter. We are a world on fire with animosities that stretch back into history. They are racial, ethnic, religious and tribal, their origins sometimes so convoluted that no one is quite sure where they began.

The current outbreak of hatred is like a virus that has spread through most parts of the world, worse than AIDS or other communicable diseases. It has infected populations on every continent, deliberately pandemic, without containment or cure.

The most recent demonstration of mindless hatred was revealed in a story we carried Monday on Page A4, perhaps too horrifying for better exposure but at least laid out for all to see: the stoning to death of a young woman in northern Iraq because she was in love with a boy from another sect. She was a Yazidi, he a Sunni.

Exposed on television as well as print, the incident soon became a political debate, the dead girl in the street little more than a symbol of division among religious groups. A life ended at 17 because of love seemed too great a contradiction to be ignored and fit into the waves of deadly hatreds that are consuming us.

The drooling antipathy emerging from the racist in Big Bear was just another day at work for me. I hear from unfortunate haters like him any time an ethnic issue arises, but, thank God, I hear more often from those who can debate with intelligence and reason.

The years harden guys like me to the existence of hatemongers. The hide toughens and arrows bounce off. But the young haven't yet developed the ability to shake off incidents that hurt deeply and remain a part of the physiology of their lives, at any age.

I can recall in college preparing for a first date with a woman of deep religious convictions who advised me on the day I

was supposed to pick her up to park about a half block away and just wait. When I seemed confused, she explained that her parents would be enraged if theyknew she was dating a Mexican.

The incident remains like a scar on my soul, and I couldn't forget it even if I wanted to. The truth is I don't want to because, like a course in human behavior, it is a constant reminder of how cruel hatred can be and how deeply destructive its expansion is to the whole human race.

We will someday find a cure for AIDS and cancer and for other deadly diseases that threaten the world's population. But hatred conceals itself in the guise of purity and godliness, hiding its evil intentions until long after the damage is done.

My generation has lived with hatred through wars and economic stress, and we're still living with it. Whenever I feel it might be lessening, a message from the devil's own lair hurtles at me through cyberspace, through newsprint or through a television screen to warn me that hate endures, glowing like an ember in the human psyche. One wonders if we will ever be free.

05-28-2007, 11:42 AM
Al Martinez:
Missing in wartime, then fading from memory
May 28, 2007

ALMOST every Memorial Day, Veterans Day or the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, I stop to wonder whatever became of Charles Wertman.

I'm not even sure, 54 years later, that I'm spelling his name correctly. He vanished during the Korean War almost as though he never existed, leaving nothing behind to prove that he had once marched among us.

According to Defense Department records, 36,516 men perished in the war, of whom 8,176 remain unaccounted for. For years I kept searching for his name among the dead or missing, but it never showed up.

I was so obsessed with it for a while that my wife began to wonder if it wasn't some sort of war-related hallucination, but I know that at one time there was a Charles Wertman. I've always been sure of that.

He was an odd sort, given to complaining a lot and lagging back when we were on the march. I'm not saying he was cowardly, just that he had his own pace and not even the demands of the 1st Marine Division or a war to save the world from communism were about to hurry him.

We were moving north on an early evening when Charlie disappeared. It was after we had been tumbled backward at Chosin Reservoir and were fighting our way once more toward the 38th parallel that someone noticed he was gone.

We dug in atop the hill and then went back in the fading light to see if we could find him. There had been no screams or sounds of gunfire to indicate he might have been captured. Other platoons in our company also searched but to no avail.

It wasn't a good idea in newly gained territory to prowl around after dark, so we stopped and resumed the search the following morning before moving out. The effort was thorough, but there was still no sign of Charlie. No blood spots, no abandoned rifle, no trace of anyone being dragged off.

His was another unexplained fate in the long, sad history of human conflict, a silhouette against the skyline that was quickly fading. There was an unnerving quality to his disappearance, both because it was so silent and because Charlie had been so much with us, complaining about the food, the rain, the heat, the cold, the officers and whatever condition we were subjected to. War is not a week at Club Med. Charlie found much to dislike.

When our battalion was finally pulled off the front line some weeks later after suffering almost 50% casualties, I hitched a ride to the command post and went through the names of those killed or captured. Oddly, Charlie was not among them, and no one seemed to know why.

After the fighting ended in a peace treaty and I was shipped home, I continued trying to find out what had happed to Marine Pfc. Charles Wertman, but the quest was in vain. He was similarly not listed when our POWs were returned from North Korean prison camps. He was not among those returned or those who stayed behind.

It was then that I began thinking that I might have been misspelling his name. I didn't know a lot about Charlie, like where he was from or if he had a family. To our discredit, we just considered him a pain and wondered how a guy like him ever got accepted in the Corps or why he had enlisted in the first place.

I guess it was our attitude toward Charlie back then that continues to bother my conscience today and causes me to think about him on military-type holidays. I'm not the kind of guy who flies an MIA flag or prays for men who, like Charlie, remain unaccounted for. I take no part in the type of rituals that characterize Memorial Day. While I may grieve for those still fighting in wars, I do so with great anger at the waste of human lives.

Charlie is more hazy image than substance now, a small, gray figure on the edge of my memory, growing dimmer with every passing year. He symbolizes so many who have died in war, men never cut out to be warriors and who would have been fathers living their lives in the relative comfort of less violent surroundings. Perhaps some would have even returned to Korea, as I did, when the fighting was done and found it to be a remarkably peaceful place. "Land of the Morning Calm," they call it.

Today seems an appropriate time to write about Charlie, but it is with no new information or evidence to add to his story. Even ghosts vanish with the passing years. I suspect that I won't mention him again or try to find out in the voluminous records of war what became of him. I don't even remember the tone of his voice anymore or what he looked like, so I guess it's time to walk away from the memory.

So long, Charlie, and say hello to eternity for me.

06-01-2007, 09:21 AM
Al Martinez:
Goodbyes are just too damned hard
June 1 2007

I don't know how to say goodbye.

The need to do so has been thrust upon me suddenly, like the quick strike of summer lightning from a nonthreatening sky. I wasn't prepared.

The editor of the section of which my column is a small and barely visible part telephoned on an otherwise uneventful afternoon to say that my column, in its present form, is ending and that I am being given a buyout.

No one asked if I wanted it. I would have said no. I would have said I'm not ready yet. My prose is strong and my mind is clear. I'm still climbing upward. There is still a summit I haven't reached, a sunrise I haven't seen.

But they didn't ask.

And so I sit in our gazebo on this gentle twilight and struggle to write a final column that says what I don't want to say, on a day that I don't want to end.

Cinelli walks up the pathway. "Are you writing the goodbye column?" she asks.


"It makes you sad."

"Yeah. I guess."

I am suddenly adrift. Not that an uncertain future cowers me. Other possibilities with this newspaper are under discussion and, either way, I've never been afraid of a blank page. What bothers me most is the manner in which I was told to leave. It could have been better, gentler.

But then, I say to myself, watching the last rays of the sun set our garden aglow, newspaper owners have never been known for their compassion, or newspapers for their permanence.

"You have to say goodbye to so many," Cinelli says.

"I know," I say. "That's the problem."

Goodbye, teachers. Goodbye, bus drivers. Goodbye, housewives. Goodbye, cleaning ladies. Goodbye, restaurant owners. Goodbye, fellow writers. Goodbye valets and waiters and actors and dog walkers and mimes.

Goodbye, old men and little children. Goodbye, dancers and poets and lawyers and weed-pullers. Goodbye, right fielders and tree trimmers. Goodbye, cops and firemen. Goodbye to the frightened. Goodbye to the brave.

You meet a lot of people in 35 years. You watch lives begin and the young grow old. You watch old women die and losers win. You answer God only knows how many letters and respond to more telephone calls than you could ever remember. Questions, answers, comments, shouts, whispers.

And then there's e-mail.

Never have readers been able to react so quickly to a journalist's point of view. Praise comes flying out of cyberspace like the blast of a bugle, and rage like the thunder of drums. Critics rarely back off. Fans rarely abandon you.

I answer one by one, patient with most, respectful to all, in my way.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

"Well," Cinelli says, "at least you'll have more time to, well — "

"To what? Pump iron? Crochet? Bird-watch? I write. That's what I do."

She nods and says, "Yes. I know." Then, suddenly, "Can I fix you a martini?"

I look at her like she has suddenly gone mad. She has never before asked to fix me a martini. She has said, "Do you have to have a martini?" and "Please don't have a martini" and "Damned martinis," but never, "Would you like me to fix you a martini?"

I am a little stunned, the way I was when told that my career was over. "No," I say. "I think I'll skip the martini. For now." I hedge my bet in case I decide later that a martini would not be half bad when I finish this column. I rarely drink and write. When I do, I come off like an odd fusion of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.

I'm running out of space.

Cinelli kisses me and goes back into the house. There are some trails one must walk alone. Although I do so today, I am aware that others occupy the same forest — those, who like me, are bidding newspapering farewell; some happy to do so, others facing a void in their lives they will never be able to fill.

How do I say goodbye?

Dusk reaches out in a warm embrace. Only vague shards of sunlight remain among the trees and bushes in Cinelli's garden, like Malibu lights emerging to greet the coming night.

It's time to go. I've decided that the best way to say goodbye is to say thank you for the pleasure of your company all these years. I never took you for granted. I never gave you less than my abilities allowed.

The day is over. I close my laptop. I walk to the house. It's too dark to write anymore. Maybe it's better that way.

Goodbyes are just too damned hard.

06-02-2007, 09:45 AM

GOODBYE, Al Martinez. Your column will be missed. I was willing to hunt for you after your column was relegated to the back pages of the Calendar section, but now you're not even going to be there. Thanks for your artful words of wit, grace, insight and compassion.


Los Angeles


WHAT were you thinking? To find that yet another literate, thoughtful voice is being silenced was more than I could handle Friday morning. Al Martinez has been a favorite for many years.

I almost always feel transported by his way with words in describing the ordinary or the extraordinary.


Valley Village


IT is writers such as Al Martinez who compel me to read the paper every day.

He gives language and clarity to both world and personal life issues.

I can't believe that the L.A. Times thinks it's a good idea to alienate the very people who continue to read the paper.


Huntington Beach

06-02-2007, 03:48 PM
Frank- In today's business section of the Los Angeles
Times, there is an article about the departure of about
sixty journalists of the Times. According to the article,
the decision to lay off Al Martinez drew the loudest
public outcry in the form of "at least three hundred
e-mails, phone calls and letters of protest." It was
also reported that by week's end, Times Editor
James E. O'Shea had met with Martinez to try
to bring Martinez's column back, at least part-time.

Martinez had told his colleagues by e-mail, "I always
thought that I would be the one to decide when it
was time to walk away whey my prose faltered and
my think was blurred....I think I deserved a better
way of ending such a lon and honorable career."
Also according to the article, "Martinez had a stage
play in the works-a conversation between four
generations of military veterans." In the play,
the veterans were "arguing over whose war was

- Chuck Johnston

06-02-2007, 03:58 PM
Thanks Chuck:
I'll read the business section right now, I send Martinez an e-mail telling him that my Monday's & friday's were not going to be the same without his column to read.

I'm just about ready to dump the Times.


06-02-2007, 04:08 PM
The Times' changes pick up speed as many depart
By James Rainey, Times Staff Writer
June 2, 2007

The staff-wide e-mails have arrived in bunches over the last few days at the Los Angeles Times.

From Glenn Bunting, the dogged investigative reporter who exposed illegal foreign fundraising by President Clinton's reelection campaign, "Farewell. It's been a terrific adventure." From Bob Sipchen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and "School Me" columnist: "It's been splendid my brothers and sisters." And from Solomon Moore, who went to Iraq and helped uncover the ties between official security forces and sectarian death squads: "Peace out."

The great majority of the 60 departing Times journalists made their exits this week from the downtown L.A. headquarters once known as Times Mirror Square. They wrote and edited their final stories. They packed decades' worth of files into cardboard boxes in an exodus that has become painfully routine in the newspaper business of late.

The San Francisco Chronicle announced last week that it would reduce its news staff by a quarter. Reports circulated Friday that the once-robust San Jose Mercury News would pare its staff again. At The Times, the latest departures will leave the paper's news staff at roughly 850 people, about three-quarters of its peak.

"We all are caught in the greatest upheaval our industry and the institution of journalism has ever faced," Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal told the newsroom this week as he tendered his own resignation.

The journalists remaining at The Times found some consolation in the knowledge that the news staff will continue to be the second-largest in America (behind the New York Times), with bureaus around the nation and in 18 foreign countries.

"You can look at this as a bad time, because there is no doubt that newspapers are going through wrenching changes," Times Editor James E. O'Shea said in an interview. "But … there are still a lot of great people here and a lot of great work that can be done."

Publisher David D. Hiller ordered the reductions in an effort to prop up The Times' profit at a time when many advertisers are leaving newspapers to chase consumers onto the Internet. The vast majority of the cuts were achieved through voluntary separations and will save a little more than $5 million a year from the more-than-$100-million newsroom budget.

The Times and other newspapers were created to fasten their gaze on the outside world, not on themselves. But the paper's operations became a national issue last year, when the publisher and editor left in a protest over staff cuts.

The current buyouts have provoked concern outside the paper. Stuart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a state government watchdog, was saddened to see the departure of Robert Salladay, who created the Political Muscle blog on latimes.com

"He very quickly became an essential read," Drown said.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said that Frank Clifford, an editor leaving the California section, had made sure that The Times' environmental coverage "was head and shoulders above any of the competition."

Jenifer Warren, leaving the paper's Sacramento bureau, drew praise for keeping lawmakers and other officials on their toes about failures in the state's corrections system.

"Her knowledge allowed her to draw back the curtain on the often-secret world of prisons," said Steven Fama, an attorney for the nonprofit Prison Law Office.

Among those walking out the door are several acclaimed investigative reporters, the founder of The Times' late Outdoor section, a top features editor who was the first woman city editor in the paper's history and a popular columnist who first set foot in the city room about the time of the Watergate break-in. Six Pulitzer Prize recipients were among the group.

Nancy Cleeland and Evelyn Iritani formed half of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that described how Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had altered the face of world commerce.

Ralph Frammolino, noted by one editor for his "ability to induce a confessional state of mind in other people," revealed how children of the rich and famous got backdoor admissions into UCLA.

Roy Rivenburg proved the power of humor throughout a 25-year career in which he "interviewed psychic dogs, played golf with Deepak Chopra and explored such topics as Count Chocula's love life."

Said veteran Times feature writer Robin Abcarian, who will remain at the paper: "It's a sad time because all of us chose this business and stuck with it because it's the most exciting and interesting thing we could think of doing."

The departures weren't all amicable. A couple of journalists used Internet communiques to protest their treatment or the newspaper's policies. A handful were laid off.

The loudest public outcry surrounded the decision to lay off Calendar section columnist Al Martinez after 35 years at The Times. "I always thought that I would be the one to decide when it was time to walk away," Martinez told his colleagues by e-mail, "when my prose faltered and my thinking blurred…. I think I deserved a better way of ending such a long and honorable career."

The news provoked at least 300 e-mails, phone calls and letters of protest. By week's end, O'Shea had met with the 77-year-old Martinez to try to reach an accommodation to bring the column back, at least part-time.

The Times plans to hire new employees to backfill operations that saw a greater-than-expected exodus.

Many of the departed are charting new paths. Frammolino is finishing a book following up his award-winning reporting (with writing partner Jason Felch) on how the J. Paul Getty Museum received looted antiquities. Martinez has a stage play in the works — a conversation between four generations of military veterans "arguing over whose war was best."

As the accumulation of farewells verged on the mawkish, reporter Rone Tempest, who has written about wars in the Middle East and the transformation of China, offered relief in the form of his own e-mailed sign-off Friday.

"4 Career Life Lessons from a Retiring Hack," it read.

"1) Never write a company-wide memo

"2) In any foreign language the most important phrase is 'My friend will pay' as in French 'mon ami va payer' or Chinese 'Wo de pengyou yao mai le'

"3) Given a choice, Bordeaux red

"4) Never get killed for an inside story."


06-03-2007, 01:28 AM
Frank- In regards to thinking about dropping the Los
Angeles Times, I know the feeling. It appears that
the paper is being gutted when a large number of very
good journalists are being let go or persuaded to leave.
Of course, a lot of newspapers are going through a
rough period at the present time. Is there a future
for newspapers in the United States?

- Chuck Johnston

07-16-2007, 01:12 PM
Mayor not unlike other men in power
July 16, 2007

In a town that practically invented sex, it should come as no surprise that everyone is doing it.

For that reason, I find it difficult to hyperventilate over the erotic misbehavior of our mayor, who, as it turns out, was covering a female television reporter while she was covering him.

Granted that anyone who would leave his mate for a journalist ought to have his head examined, it's still not out of the ordinary for one to go prancing off with a new love in a culture that finds sharing a bed less traumatic than sharing a table at the bistro.

We are Hollywood, folks, and Hollywood is all about great bodies, hot desires, long weekends and Brad leaving Jen for Angelina, if you get my meaning.

Forget, for a moment, that Antonio Villaraigosa was married to someone else and that Mirthala Salinas was assigned by NBC-owned Telemundo to report on his activities as mayor, which she apparently interpreted to include his private preferences.

What they did, while possibly distasteful on many levels, not to mention unethical, is not unusual among men in power and the women who pursue them. To make my point, I bring you a brief contemporary history of illicit sex on a higher level.

Beginning with the World War II era, which many of you may recall, two prominent figures were said to be doing, well, **it** with their female assistants while married to others. That would be then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with driver Kay Summersby while married to Mamie, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt with secretary Lucy Mercer while married to Eleanor.

Due to a more protective stance back then in the days preceding mad-dog journalism, the public knew nothing of those affairs, involved as we were with whopping the Germans and the Japanese, not to mention their little brothers, the Italians.

Since then, we've had a succession of presidents, some of whom have managed to work in a little on the side while running the country. Prominent among them was John F. Kennedy. He dallied with Marilyn Monroe, who sang happy birthday to him at Madison Square Garden as if it were a mating call, and Judith Campbell Exner, who, it was said, had gangland connections.

Kennedy's affair with the latter was apparently an open secret that Congress eventually got around to pondering 12 years after he was assassinated. As an indication of how protective his aides were, when former presidential advisor Dave Powers was asked about her, he replied in a spirit of jocularity, "The only Campbell I know is chunky vegetable soup," which indicates the laissez-faire attitude in politics toward extramarital affairs.

Fast forward to Bill Clinton — past Jimmy Carter, who only lusted in his heart, and Richard Nixon, who only lusted for himself. From what we know of his romantic efforts, Slick Willie, as his detractors called him, was about as subtle as a pimple on the nose in his efforts to seduce just about any female within reach. What differentiated him from others in high office with similar inclinations is that he got caught.

In an effort to conceal the obvious but succeeding only in complicating it, Clinton declared that he did not have sex with that woman, meaning Monica Lewinsky, apparently alluding to a more traditional method of intimacy between a male and a female, not what he and Monica were actually doing in the Oval Office. I'm surprised that, in his effort to reconfigure the experience, he didn't call it bio-networking.

Sexual scandals among prominent men haven't all involved politicians. Raging hormones have also heated some of God's more prominent secular soldiers to devilish stints of misbehavior involving, at different times, secretaries, prostitutes and gay lovers. All cried copious tears of atonement when their sins were revealed and, thus cleansed, went on about their business.

So now filling our lives, our screens and our newspapers are the testosteronic misadventures of Mirthala and Tony, whom Washington Post writer William Booth describes as "the little firecracker with the Chiclet smile." By admitting adultery, the Little Firecracker hopes to ease its impact, meanwhile carrying out his duties cutting ribbons and filling potholes, while hoping we'll forget all about it by the next election.

What is largely ignored, except for Villaraigosa's passing reference from a prepared statement, is the humiliation he has caused his family. Although we may be culturally schizophrenic in our attitudes toward extramarital sex, simultaneously celebrating and condemning it as a recreational activity, the victims of disloyalty are often swept aside.

Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton could handle it because both were creatures of a political environment, but Corina Villaraigosa seems to me somehow more emotionally battered by the indiscretions of a man who has been her husband for 20 years and is now L.A.'s newest dirty joke. But we butt-bump that aside in the overheated environment of a Hollywoodian party, and turn the music up a little louder. It's birth control pills for swinging women, Viagra for old men and beer for the kids. Let the good times, and the sad times, roll.


Roberto Aqui
07-16-2007, 01:38 PM
It's birth control pills for swinging women, Viagra for old men and beer for the kids. Let the good times, and the sad times, roll.

According to a report on NPR, the largest user of Viagra are young adult men, kids as it were. Viagra has become part of a cocktail they use when partying along with alcohol, estasy, and meth.

Think back to all the bear and tigers slaughtered for their gonads to be ground into traditional aphrodisiactic compounds, and that is just so old school in modern China. Of course given the counterfeiting of prescription medicines by the Chinese, half the time they're just taking aspirin instead of Viagra!

07-23-2007, 08:27 AM
Al Martinez:
A higher authority's views
July 23, 2007

I was working in the gazebo on a morning as sweet as heaven when a glowing bald man in a white robe floated by on the quiet street that edges our property.

While glowing bald men in white robes are not unusual in Topanga, I had not seen one float since the harmonic convergence of 1987, when it was not uncommon for mystics to gather on a hilltop to await the end of the world.

On this particular morning, I was exploring ideas for a column when the robed figure drifted down our driveway and into the gazebo. It was then I realized who it was and exclaimed in surprise, "My god!" and he said, "Right."

I wasn't sure whether I should genuflect or ask forgiveness for years of sinning, but God, reading my mind, said, "Forget it. What can I do for you, as if I didn't know?"

He often appears in different forms. Once he came as Tom Cruise, but gave it up when Cruise became a Scientologist and began bouncing on couches.

"Well," I said, "I'm thinking of writing about the Pope of Hollywood and I'm not sure if there's anything left to say about him."

"Ah, yes," God replied, rubbing his chin, "that would be my boy Baloney Mahony, the wily old coyote of kingdom come."

"That would be him, all right."

Under normal circumstances, I don't write about my conversations with God due to suspicions among editors that I'm faking it. They allow it only because they're afraid that I actually am talking to him and making me stop might infringe on my religious freedom. Better to have a wacko on the staff than the ACLU at the door.

Asking God a few questions about Cardinal Roger M. Mahony before writing about him seemed only appropriate. They've known each other a long time.

"Mahony is suffering the old kiss-my-ring syndrome," God said before I could ask. "It often affects those who come to believe that they actually are my messengers on Earth instead of ordinary dudes with good-paying jobs."

"But even so," I said, "he still seems to want to protect priests who are guilty of molesting children. Isn't that some kind of a moral crime against, well, You?"

"The arrogance of power," God said, shaking his head. He looked up. "You want a martini?"

"At 7 in the morning?"

"I can make it 7 in the evening if you prefer," he said, preparing to snap his fingers. While it is well known that he can turn day into night, it is not a miracle my wife is likely to accept if I come to breakfast drunk, so I declined the offer.

"If he is truly a holy man," I said, once more referring to the Pope of Hollywood, "wouldn't he worry more about protecting the children rather than shielding the sexual predators in the priesthood?"

God leaned back in his chair. There seemed a terrible weariness about him. "Truth is lost in the pursuit of the status quo," he said. "I created the human race, but I cannot be responsible for its conduct. You kill, you torture, you lie, you steal, you save yourselves at all costs. Thus it has been, thus it will always be. Free will has its violators."

"But You, being God, know what he's about to do."

"You don't have to keep capitalizing the word 'you' when referring to Me,'" he said. "Pronouns aren't holy." Then, more seriously: "You remember the Green Lantern, the comic book hero who could flash his ring to perform miracles?"

"I loved him as a kid," I said.

"Well, Mahony is hoping that flashing his ring of secular achievement will at least get him by any more legal action. Face it, this is the guy who swung the deal to pay the victims of sexual abuse $660 million and before that came up with $200 million to build the Taj Mahony. You think he isn't slick enough to buy his way out of this mess? He may even beat eternal damnation."

These are melancholy times on planet Earth, so it should come as no surprise that even God seemed burdened by the shenanigans of one of his generals. Mahony seems to be protecting his troops despite evidence of their evil transgressions.

"He can pray his fool head off," God said, as he rose to leave, "but it won't help when he goes before St. Pete. Only when he gives up every man who violated children will his salvation be assured. It'll take more than a ring to save his damaged soul."

Before I could answer, he was gone, a holy noun vanishing into the velvet folds of the morning. A bird fluttered off and I wondered if it were him, but then I guess, if you believe, everything constitutes a little piece of God.

"You coming to breakfast?" Cinelli called from the house. As I walked down the path toward the front door, she said, "Who were you talking to?"

"Some bald guy in a gown who floated into the gazebo and turned into a bird," I said.

"That's nice, dear," she said. "I'm glad you're finally making friends."



08-08-2007, 07:36 AM
Al Martinez:

Ray Bradbury, Norman Lloyd and Norman Corwin:
Aging with grace, these 3 men of letters snap fingers in the face of time.
August 6, 2007

Time clomps by like an old horse, moving on up the road in billows of dust and transitions.

Even though it sometimes seems to pass at sonic speed, on other days we manage to slow it down enough to comprehend what's going on in the present. This is one of those days.

In my 70s, the old horse has become a more conscious part of my life. I'm looking closely at the era I occupy and those who share it with me, before memory becomes history and everyone is gone.

I'm talking specifically about three men I know, and have had the pleasure of interviewing, who stand tall among the literati of Los Angeles. They have managed with grace and wit to snap their fingers in the face of time, mocking the old horse as he approaches in the distance.

Their names are Ray Bradbury, Norman Lloyd and Norman Corwin.

At 86, Bradbury, is the youngest of the three and still turning out books and plays as well as enthusiastically involving himself in the life of the city. He wants a monorail in L.A. almost as much as he wants to finish his next novel, and champions the cause every chance he gets.

Lloyd is 93, a legendary producer, director and actor whose friends included Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. The man has a memory that clicks on the names of everyone he's ever met and exactly where he met them, and if he falters, his wife, Peg, of 71 years is there to fill in. His last movie was two years ago, and he says he's always looking for work.

Corwin, a tall, stately man, is 97, with roots in the early days of classic radio. A writer in residence at USC, lecturer, playwright and living icon, one of his comedies will be produced in October in Thousand Oaks. Among the performers: Norman Lloyd.

All three are linked by their creative energies to one another and to us. They were all born in the early years of the 20th century, two of them before World War I. It was a different America then, on the brink of twisting into a creation that in many ways has been diminished by the passing years. In words and images, Lloyd, Corwin and Bradbury helped define it.

Lloyd talks about Chaplin and Hitchcock as if they were still down the block, and how his association with Chaplin probably called him to the attention of McCarthyism's Communist-hunters in the 1950s. They lifted his passport and for years he dodged subpoenas to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where political inquisitors performed like evil priests at an auto da fe.

Suspicions lingered as the era faded, and only Hitchcock's insistence — "I want him" — convinced a network to hire him back. "I want him." Lloyd repeats it today like the gong of a liberty bell, and I guess it was.

I sat for an hour with Bradbury. He held court in a room surrounded by books, memorabilia and honors too extensive to list here, on shelves and on the floor, a literary lion in the clutter of his lair, juggling ideas for new projects.

Like most famous men, there's a forward thrust to the lives of these three, missions to be accomplished and goals to achieve. Corwin, whose career dates back to early radio, is the soft-spoken antithesis of hard-chargers like Bradbury and talkers like Lloyd. You have to lean forward to hear him, and like most men of accomplishment, he'd rather discuss anything but himself.

Corwin ruled the airwaves in the days when the imagination that radio provided lifted us from our Depression-era lives to the story lands he created. Bradbury calls him "the greatest director, the greatest writer and the greatest producer in the history of radio."

In subsequent years, he wrote for film and television, winning an Oscar nomination for writing "Lust for Life," based on a Van Gogh biography.

But his soul, I think, lies in radio, before TV images were thrust in our faces, before "reality" shows challenged good taste and credulity, before canned laughter defined humor.

Corwin turned out "We Hold These Truths" and "On a Note of Triumph," classics that celebrated the America that was.

I grew into my own dreams while men like Bradbury, Lloyd and Corwin were already inscribing their names on a slate of history, and would build their reputations through the changing ages of a culture in flux.

Like the old horse clomping up the road, they just keep on moving toward destinations over the hilltop, leaving behind the glowing footprints of their accomplishments.

When I met with Bradbury I asked him to sign one of his books I'd brought with me. In it, he wrote one word: "Onward." That said it all.


09-03-2007, 11:15 AM
Al Martinez
It's startin' to get pretty crowded around California
September 3, 2007

It occurred to me after a small boy bit my ankle at Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific that there are just too damned many people in Southern California.

To begin with, the aquarium had crowds the likes of which I had not seen before at a facility that offers little more than fish swimming in circles.

"It's a fun place," Cinelli said, undertaking the impossible job of lifting my spirits. "You love sharks."

"Only when they're attacking surfers," I said.

"Or maybe journalists," she added less pleasantly.

Getting there was slow, parking was slow, buying tickets was slower and moving around inside was slowest. The largest component of the crowd seemed to consist of babies, some of whom were still in the womb, some in strollers and a lot of them scurrying about like frightened chipmunks.

"There must be a breeding farm around here somewhere," I said.

"Just keep moving," Cinelli said.

They were babies of every ethnic background, representing a cross-section of the world, which, for some reason, had converged on this house of fish the very same day, resulting in a level of calamity from the lobster pit to the gift shop that was the emotional equivalent of a departing jet.

A boy with rosy cheeks and Swedish hair bit my ankle as we were maneuvering through the teeming masses toward a tank in the distance that was home for a large, dour fish with a mouth that turned down into a Walter Matthau scowl. When I complained about the bite, Cinelli watched the kid run off screaming and said, "You must have stepped on him."

"No way. He attacked for no reason. He's a pit bull."

"He's a baby," she said. "Babies do peculiar things. They put beans up their nose and bite strangers. You want him impounded and tested for rabies or what?"

In hindsight, I have decided that the boy's feral behavior reflects the impact of overcrowding on the human psyche. A website points out that our society is becoming "a veritable Babel of gibbering crowds," which, while less than scientific, does explain a lot about L.A.

With 18 million men, women and babies shoving or driving their way from here to there in Greater Los Angeles, forming lines that sometimes seem to disappear over the horizon and generally jamming into every venue available to the public, it's no wonder we are perceived as a hell on Earth. We represent a separate reality.

Add to our own massive numbers the 20 million tourists who descend upon us in their plaid shorts, striped shirts and white-stocking sandals every summer to vacation amid the mammalian clutter of a large, soulless metropolis. Readers of movie magazines, they are here to catch a glimpse of celebrities like Nicole Richie, who spent 82 minutes in the slammer for driving under the influence of drugs. Her jail time has so altered the notion of jurisprudence in America that soon we will see criminals sentenced from 75 minutes to life in prison or 122 minutes without the possibility of parole.

But that's another rant for another day. After treating my ankle wound with an anesthetic lotion and hearing my wife cry, "But he didn't even break the skin, you nut!" I continued researching the negative effect of crowds on human behavior and discovered that we had the lemmings all wrong; they do not deliberately hurl themselves into the sea. But the annoying little rodents' growing population does cause them to kill themselves accidentally.

Debunking the myth of their suicidal tendencies, a website called Ask.Yahoo.com admits that lemmings are noted for cyclical population explosions and when those occur, they migrate wildly in search of food. "While migrating," the website concludes, "some lemmings do fall off cliffs or drown, but these deaths are accidental."

I see it as a result of all the pushing and shoving that goes on, which, like frustration on the freeways, may result in criminal behavior. A little nudge by one lemming that sends another spiraling down the side of a cliff is either flat-out murder or a darker aspect of Darwinism at work.

In a separate study involving rodents and overcrowding, researchers from UC San Diego determined that rats subjected to a high-density population for a year turned to infanticide, cannibalism and homosexuality. It seems also that the survivors became very clubby, which I guess is what you do when you share the same traits.

Just before leaving the Long Beach aquarium, I stood on an upper floor and looked down at the crowds and suddenly realized that we are probably more like fish than rats or lemmings, swimming in circles but not understanding why. Cultural anthropologists haven't categorized that characteristic yet, but when they do, it will explain much of what occurs in the City of Gibbering Crowds, including the kid who bit my ankle. He may even be the precursor of tomorrow's cannibals.


09-17-2007, 10:57 AM
Ocean views and sea sounds make for the perfect getaway during tough times.
September 17, 2007

It was a fine, gray morning along the Ventura coastline. A damp mist dropped like a bridal veil over the Cliff House Inn, and sea gulls soared and screeched for attention in the complex currents of air that surrounded us.

The breakfast crowd had not yet gathered on the lawn just a few feet from the pounding surf, leaving the sounds of ocean and sea gulls to my wife and me as we attempted to sort out our lives in the shifting surprises of recent events.

Whenever a crisis alters the course of our well-being, I have a tendency to want to get away. A motel on the ocean, with sea and sky blending into one, was the perfect place for contemplation.

I have never regarded Ventura as a tourist destination. Santa Barbara was generally our choice for a short trip away from the madding crowd, where Cinelli and I could consider our options without the drumming of a big city in our ears.

I considered Ventura an innocuous settlement on the way to someplace else. We visited friends there occasionally, but did not take seriously the idea of actually spending time in a town tucked away into a mountainside. That has all changed.

It was after a shake-up at the L.A. by God Times left me temporarily columnless that we decided on the brief sabbatical. I am only truly at peace when I am away with the one person in the world who can be next to me in silence and understand what I'm feeling.

We had stopped for dinner once at the Cliff House's restaurant, Shoals, marveling at its proximity to the ocean, in view of the spray that laced the near horizon and in earshot of the muffled hum of the surf. It stayed with us.

There are faraway places in the heart of every dreamer that call to him across an expanse of possibilities, and Ventura is now among mine. Although the room at the Cliff House was smaller than we expected, the inn's location made up for it. One could leave the window open at night and sleep to the lullaby of the Pacific, floating off to different places on different oceans.

Father Junipero Serra founded Mission San Buenaventura more than 200 years ago on the site of what would become a city of the same name. Now populated by about 106,000 fortunate residents and its name shortened to Ventura, it sits like a village on the Mediterranean, just about 60 miles north of reality, at peace with itself.

Sunset magazine calls it "the new Ventura" and raves about its renovated downtown, its growing art scene and its "cutting edge restaurants." We favored rows of thrift shops and antique stores loaded with stuff we didn't need, and added much of it to the stuff we have no room for. We bought this and that from a shop called Times Remembered and sweetened ourselves with chocolates from Trufflehounds.

My indulgence was a crystal cocktail shaker, which added to a collection in my already crowded writing room that features 16 different martini glasses on a window shelf. In the late afternoon, as the descending sun ignites the many colors of the glasses, a rainbow is cast across my desk in a harmony of tones that would seem almost spiritual, if your religion features a chalice with an olive in it.

Speaking of God's favorite drink, a treasure of 36 different martinis can be found at Cafι Fiore, which, while not a discovery equal to old Junipero's founding of Ventura, is a welcomed haven for weary travelers. Entering the restaurant after a hard day of shopping, we were greeted by a bar whose configuration was that of a woman's open arms with liquor-bottle eyes that sparkle in the properly directed bar light. I don't usually wax poetic over booze, but, knowing the drinking habits of a few priests over the years, I'm sure Father Serra might have felt the same way.

We had lunch at a place called Cafι Bariloche, gazing out at the avenue over a Peruvian entree and a Brazilian beer. I quit drinking beer a long time ago, but a bottle of Palma Louca is heaven's gift to sweat when the mist melts away and a hot sun pounds down on the coast.

I'm never sure that a place that seems so right at a certain time will feel the same when I return. Paris never changes, and New York is always pretty much the same. I'm afraid that if I go back to an inn built in the 1940s it will seem quaint but a little tawdry, and Ventura will be just another small town in a pattern of municipalities with big ideas.

But for a few days at least, wrapped in the remembered comfort of sea and sound, of tranquillity restored to a briefly troubled soul, I can thank them for the pleasures of their ambience, and for the nights of deep and peaceful sleep.


10-01-2007, 09:19 AM
Ghosts of newspaper's past haunt Oakland's Trib
Wilder, woollier days fueled journalism then. Things are different now.
October 1, 2007

OAKLAND — Standing in the center of a vacated newspaper city room is like being in a haunted house, listening for voices and the clamor that accompany the presence of restless spirits.

I can hear the clatter of typewriters that were old 50 years ago, the rattle of wire service machines that carried three competing organizations and the shouts of "Boy!" that called young editorial assistants to rewrite row.

I can feel the tremor of the building when the presses began to roll and sense the gasping "whoosh" of the copy desk vacuum tube as finished stories flew to composing. I can hear telephones ringing and a jumble of voices from police scanners on the city desk.

Across barriers of time and space, the past is creeping back.

This was once the beating heart of the Oakland Tribune, occupying a six-story building adjacent to the 310-foot brick tower that has stood like a sentinel over downtown Oakland for 84 years. There's still a Tribune, but it's only a shadow of what it was and it isn't at 13th and Franklin anymore.

It's owned by a company that calls itself the Bay Area Newspaper Group (BANG, if you're feeling whimsical), and the Trib at about 55,000 circulation is just one of a family of small newspapers, far from the 350,000-circulation giant that drove Hearst's Post Enquirer out of town in 1950. It's housed out near the Oakland Coliseum.

I worked at the Trib and returned when I heard that the offices were being abandoned, moving from the tower that once held its history, and mine. Dave Newhouse, a lanky, soft-spoken man, took me around. He's been with the paper 41 years and still writes a column three days a week. Columnists don't let go easily.

The afternoon Trib was big time back then, dominated by a legendary city editor named Al Reck, a half-century later still the best editor I've ever had. He rarely raised his voice, but when Al chewed you out, quietly and in an almost civil manner, you learned something, and the lesson stayed with you. There was Assistant Managing Editor Stanley Norton too, a vision out of hell, who dragged a bad leg as he stomped toward you, roaring like some kind of primeval swamp creature and waving the story you'd just turned in -- which he probably hated. Worst of all, he yelled into your face and you caught the spray of his usually pointless rage. Stanley died of tuberculosis, and for a terrible few weeks we wondered if he was going to take the whole damned spittle-sprayed staff with him.

We were a brotherhood of young lions back then, working hard through a half-dozen deadlines a day and drinking hard at the Hollow Leg, a bar across the street. The Leg ceased to exist years ago, after Nels the bartender died, taking the policy of every-third-drink-free with him. He left me his dog, a white German Shepherd named Pooh.

Martinis fueled our frantic quest to be better than the newspapers across the bay, working all night if we had to just to get an edge on the arrogance of the Chronicle or the bully boy attitude of the Examiner.

Today only the Chron (and a shadow of the Ex), is left of the large newspapers, and it's in financial trouble, like almost every other major paper in the country.

I sat by a pillar at a right angle to the city desk then. Later, when I began writing a column, I moved into an office, past sports and photos, down a hallway they called "the tunnel." Item-columnist Bill Fiset shared the room with me, and was in misery a good deal of the time because there weren't a lot of item-worthy people in Oakland. He yearned for his years on rewrite and sighed more than once in an exaggerated tone of melancholy, "Those were the days my friend . . ."

The Tribune was owned by the Knowland family and began to fade when the old man, JRK, died and his bland and humorless son Bill took over. He'd been a U.S. senator but gave it up to run against Pat Brown for governor. Bill was "Mr. Republican" in California, but Brown, who was Jerry's father, beat him soundly, leaving him to publish the Tribune.

We were an epoch out of "Front Page" journalism: fun, crazy, self-assured, kicking in doors, crawling in windows, working with cops in ways that just don't exist anymore. We did it, we told ourselves, for the people's right to know, and affixed it like a knight's pennant to the end of a spear. One reporter was psychotic, another an ex-con, another a double Ph.D. A photographer was a Hell's Angel.

I came south when the Trib began to die, but a lot of the hell-raising attitudes have stayed with me, even though it's all different now, quieter, saner, more professional. But still . . .

As I stood in the abandoned city room contemplating the ghosts, I was just as glad I was in L.A., but when I turned to leave I thought I heard a ghostly whisper. The voice, full of pain and melancholy, said, "Those were the days, my friend."

In some ways I guess they were.


10-01-2007, 09:42 AM

10-08-2007, 09:38 AM
Al Martinez:
The quiet of dawn speaks volumes
October 8, 2007

In Roman mythology, Aurora, the goddess of dawn, soars across the early sky in a robe of pink and gold to announce the arrival of the sun. Her colors are cast along the rim of the horizon, reflecting the eastern morning over the western ocean. A silver sheen glistens on the waves in the new light of a coming day, and the world trembles awake.

The Greeks called her Eos and worshiped her as the mother of the evening star, Eosphorus. By any name she brings tranquillity to the hesitant moment between night and morning -- an affirmation of renewal, a second chance for a new decision, a time not to be afraid anymore.

I don't always think in these esoteric terms, but leaving the house at the magical moment between dark and light is an almost mystical experience. It was necessitated by the need to get Cinelli to St. John's Hospital for early morning surgery on her knee. It was not a critical procedure but it had to be done, and now was the time.

She takes these phases in the aging of the body with an equanimity of spirit that defies the pulses of time through our lives. It is an adventure to her, and she loves adventures. I saw her enthusiasm in Africa, China and Russia; while others of our age faded, she marched on, called by the wonder of places she had never experienced.

A thin darkness still prevailed as we wound down out of Topanga Canyon. It was sometime around 6 a.m. But for the crows singing of summer's end, cawing from the tips of the oak trees, wheeling through the rain-scrubbed sky, a hush lay across the land. There was an autumn chill to the morning, belying the heat of the day that would soon weigh heavily upon the Valley, the downtown, the Westside and all the neighborhoods of the east and the south of our sprawling megalopolis. But meanwhile, before the light, before the traffic, before the calamity of a city coming awake, we had the cool, still dawn to ourselves.

I am unaccustomed to rising in darkness. The years are gone when the need to be up and out required crawling awake to the insistent jangle of a pre-dawn alarm clock. There was a tiresome repetition to the routine, and I never have liked a requirement that drums in the same beat day after day. But because I haven't done it for a while, this dawn offered a different perspective.

I could appreciate what James Fenimore Cooper called "the winning softness that brings and shuts the day," reveling in a serenity seldom experienced. As I drove, I was particularly aware of the stillness and of those who shared the early morning with me. I saw lights go on in the hillside homes that faced the ocean. I saw a single car come down Sunset Boulevard on a street usually choked with traffic. I saw a homeless man riding a rickety old bike along PCH and another rising from sleep in Palisades Park.

An early morning scene that intrigued me most was the lone figure of a very old woman pushing a shopping cart down 14th Street toward Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. She walked in a gait that was almost slow motion, bent forward by both the burden of her years and by the necessity to push the cart ahead of her, a task that required all that she had to give.

One wondered at her destination: an all-night market? A 24-hour pharmacy? Or was she driven by a deep need to be a part of the dwindling hours that remained in her life? A dog trotted at her side, but I couldn't tell whether it was hers or just a pooch let out from one of the nearby homes for his morning stroll. The dog seemed as old as the woman, and it was only right that they should waltz together through the encompassing dawn.

Now the pink that trailed across the horizon from Aurora's flowing gown was giving way to the hesitant day; the sky melted into a pale blue as darkness receded into the gathering light. By the time we reached St. John's, the bustle of traffic had begun and the quickening tempo of the city had intruded upon the tranquillity.

I told myself as the dawn eased away that I would do this again. I would rise early at the moment before movement and absorb the stillness. I would do it again soon.

I took Cinelli home from the hospital a few hours later. Her knee was bandaged, but she was free of pain and ready to lead a parade down the street and over the hills and through the turmoil, head thrown back, baton twirling through the air, a majorette on the way to another day.

I drove home dreaming of the morning and wondering how I could put it into words.


10-22-2007, 09:28 AM
Al Martinez:

Pleading e-mails are the latest attempt to dip into our wallets just when we're feeling most generous.
October 22 2007

I'd like to be the first to wish you a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah and whatever other commercial holidays I may have missed, because as we all know, October heralds the beginning of the spending season.

The smell of money is in the air.

Once we waited for Thanksgiving to pass before we decked the halls, but that notion is just in the way now of warp-speed hustlers who dive like rodent-seeking hawks into our pockets and purses.

I become aware of this each year due to the early thumping of the advertising drums, the influx of catalogs and the joyful efforts of scammers from far and abroad to tap into our spirit of greed.

It is that spirit we will address today, a universal need to con our fellow man out of his money, and an equally pervasive need to get what we can, however we can.

I am especially conscious of spending at the moment due to a property investment we have made with funds that we do not possess.

A simple man with no capacity for economics, I am told that using the money of others to make money for one's self is the kind of modus Americana that creates Eli Broads.

But I'm not sure I'm of that ilk.

"We have to be brave," Cinelli tells me as I sit trembling with doubt.

I am not brave and I never have been brave, which is why I am seeking other sources of revenue.

Just in case.

Doing so, I have begun paying closer attention to e-mails from Africa and Europe offering me big bucks if I would help the senders stash away millions they have either stolen from deposed tribal leaders, inherited from crooked parents or found in abandoned doghouses.

All I have to do is send them the number of my bank account, my date of birth, my Social Security number and various other scraps of identity and they will transact their business and send me a check for a percentage of the take just for being a nice guy.

That's the main thrust of a stack of e-mail offers I have before me at this very moment, although there are variations on the theme.

Here's a plea, for instance, from one Beatrice Williams in achingly primitive syntax: "I sent to you this e-mail proposing to you my intentions to transfer my heritage of FIVE MILLION EURO to your country for investments to enable me continue my studies."

The e-mail was from France and addressed to "pls dear one." Details awaited my response, so I wrote back: "Dear Ms Williams. Five million euro should cover your studies nicely, as long as it's not a private university.

I would be happy to assist in investing it if you would send me a cashier's check for $1 million U.S. to get us started."

Beatrice must be busy because I haven't heard back.

Here's another, this one from 19-year-old Esosa Etinia David of the Ivory Coast, who seeks help investing $6.5 million left by her father.

It was addressed to "Dear Beloved."

She too needs it to further her studies. I don't know what these people are studying, but I wrote back suggesting a different major at a smaller college.

And then there's: "My family are poor, I am not able to work as my baby is only 3 weeks old and I need to care baby."

In tune with the Age of the Internet, she asks for donations to her website, "Mother Pixels Promotion," for which she is selling space at $1 a pixel.

I don't know what a pixel is, but my family are poor too, and I've spent all of my money on other pixels.

The most intriguing of the, well, offers comes from a man who says he is a U.S. soldier fighting in Iraq and, with two other G.I.s., came across money hidden in some doghouses near one of Saddam's old palaces.

His share of the loot is $21 million and he wants me to smuggle it into the States.

He's asking how much I would charge. Since I have never smuggled before, I am asking if anyone out there knows a smuggler that I might contact for help.

I will give you a finder's fee equal to 10% of my net smuggle.

Space forbids that I offer more examples of the early Christmas spirit, but you get the idea. Many from across the seas are anxious to join those at home in acquiring what little money we have.

E-mailers from China are the latest to join in the parade of those who require our help with their millions, but since they write in Chinese, I am ignorant of the details of their offers.

I just tell them to send a check and I'll think about it.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping our property investment turns out OK. If not, expect an e-mail from me any day now: "Dear beloved: Me am make bad investment wife hungry too dog sick send money pls. I send pixel."

I'm waiting.


10-29-2007, 05:51 AM
Al Martinez:

Residents trade peace for peril
October 29, 2007

They watched their home burn on a television news show, broadcast in Santa Monica's Broadway Deli, recognizing it through openings in the dark smoke that boiled skyward in the hills above Malibu.

The glass and stone dream house owned for 10 years by Bernard James and his wife was reduced in minutes last week to a stone fireplace and a couple of walls, standing like sentinels over a dark landscape of ashes and ruin.

Nearby, the Malibu Presbyterian Church was also reduced to the detritus of the firestorms that swept through Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, at a horrendous cost to lives and property.

James, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University, and his wife, Connie, chair of the school's business division, had followed police orders to evacuate that morning. They knew by the intensity of the smoke that rolled through the small neighborhood of homes overlooking Malibu that the situation was grim.

Four times before in the 24 years they had lived in the small, community, they had been forced to leave their homes in the face of firestorms that roared over the Santa Monica Mountains toward the ocean.

"The fifth time," James said, "was this time."

Other houses around his home remained untouched by the flames, benefactors of the caprice that is an almost mystical characteristic of the Santa Ana winds. They skip through neighborhoods like a child at play, touching down in random fashion with devastating effect.

"When there was no doubt that it was our house that was burning," James said, "all we could do was be glad our family came out of it OK. We knew we could count on the love and grace of the community to get us through the rest. We aren't alone." Their adult daughter lives elsewhere, and their son was away for the weekend.

His tone was matter-of-fact, rarely dipping to an emotional level. Like so many others in Malibu, he's a veteran handler of the grief that fire and landslides have brought over the years, and faces adversity with a reserve born of experience.

"We didn't make it this time," he said simply.

I had stopped by what remained of his home to watch workers pick through the debris in compliance with a state mandate requiring separation of recyclable items from what James called "the garbage."

An expanse of bright green lawn that surrounded it was in sharp contrast to the blackened remains that had been their family home. The work of picking out recyclable material was under the direction of contractor Ed Bell. It was the second time that a home on that plot had burned to the ground in wildfires.

This was one of many stops in my tour of our neighboring town, just down the hill, more or less, from our home in Topanga Canyon. We share a common danger, those of us who live in the dry hills, but we also share the kinship of living in an environment that is rare in a city of steel. Life here is a trade-off: peace for peril.

A clean, cool fog had rolled over Pacific Coast Highway during the night, as though a soothing touch was affirming the notion that life will go on in those places where fire has darkened the landscape.

I saw a burned-out home in Carbon Canyon and charred palm trees that had burned like tiki torches around Malibu City Hall during the long night of the devil's work.

I saw hillsides of chaparral torched by flames that were miraculously stopped by firefighters and airborne water drops at the back doors of homes and businesses along PCH.

I saw small armies of utility workers and road crews reconnecting Malibu's damaged linkage.

Later I stood on the concrete steps of what had been the Presbyterian Church, now the rubble of a place that used to be. Among the few parishioners who wandered sadly through the ruins was Jennifer Bennett. She had worked and worshiped here for the past four years. Her son attended nursery school at the church.

As she helped her two children into her car, Bennett showed me a charred piece of paper that was part of a pamphlet she had found among the ruins. It bore the printed words, "Legacy Campaign."

"That was to be a building fund drive for our church," she said, staring at it. She shook her head without saying another word, as though nothing needed to be said now in the irony of the occurrence. Then she drove away.

James manifested none of the anger or sadness that one might expect in his circumstance. Home is a special place, embracing so much of the sweetness that life has to offer. More than a structure, it is an emotional haven, a sum of the whole that identifies us. I felt its importance in dread when we faced evacuation at the height of the Malibu fire. I felt it in relief when the fire was extinguished.

With almost stoic acceptance, James shoulders forward through the dark moment, accepting the help and friendship of neighbors, promising to build again on the same stretch of horizon that looks across to the ocean.

Sunset that Saturday glowed with crimson streaks along the Pacific skyline, reddened by debris from other fires still burning elsewhere. A full moon was tinted a deep amber, sailing bravely above the smoke. The beauty, like the fog, was nature's gift. The fire was nature's warning.


10-29-2007, 05:52 AM

11-09-2007, 09:37 AM
Al Martinez
November 5, 2007

There will come a point in the life of Buddy Epstein when the world around him will dissolve, taking with it his history and his identity. Barring a miracle, all that will remain will be the shell of a man existing in a void without meaning and without recognition. Buddy Epstein, in short, will disappear, the victim of a living death called Alzheimer's disease.

He discusses it in the clear and solemn manner of a lawyer defining the elements of a case that affects him only as a counselor. If he agonizes over the symptoms, he doesn't reveal it to me. Rather, he fights to keep focused on the subject, realistically acknowledging that he has the disease, that it is affecting him and that it will consume him, but refusing to go gently into that night of the soul.

The estimated 5 million Americans who have Alzheimer's live in a world of moments, their lives reduced to the here and now, struggling to identify what they see but cannot define.

Epstein is 58 and divorced and has practiced law for 32 years. He sat quietly across from me in a restaurant at the beach, a man of modest height and somber expression. His hair is short and shows strands of gray. He cultivates the stubble of a beard. His manner is intense, almost furtive, and he chews gum angrily.

"I have clear days and I have unclear days," he says, explaining his condition. "I am not as competent as I used to be."

Three years ago Epstein was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. He knew it might come. His mother, father and grandmother all had it in their latter years. He left the law firm that employed him, reluctantly giving up the work he loved, and is now facing days, he says, of abject boredom. His life is incomplete.

Slowly, his ability to handle the "deal making" involved in many of his cases lessened. His attention span diminished. "One day you're there," he says, "and one day you're not." An ability to memorize that once had rarely failed him began to slip away.

"I was the kind of guy who could remember every phone number. I could do four things at once. Then it stopped. I knew something was clearly wrong."

Others noticed too. The firm's managing partner, whose wife has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, suggested he be tested. A brain scan revealed the worst.

I met with Epstein on a day made for living, not dying. Sunlight streamed through a window and illuminated his face in such a way that it almost resembled a painting. Outside the luncheon room of Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, families walked along the beach. Waves etched patterns in the sand.

Epstein agreed to talk about his case for the benefit of Sunday's Alzheimer's Walk through downtown L.A., a fundraising effort to back research into the melancholy disease. I agreed to listen because three years ago, my sister Dolores vanished into the darkness that is Alzheimer's, gradually becoming a part of the gloom that embraced her. She was two years younger than I. Her last words were that she wanted to go home, that place in the dwindling light of her heart that represented a prior existence she couldn't remember.

It is for her, in a way, that I write this column. She was my little sister, the one I watched out for, protected against bullies and helped with schoolwork. In the days before she died, all I could offer was the comfort of my presence.

Epstein was able to articulate his thoughts, although hesitantly and often with a stammer, as though a connection between ideas and words had been impaired, and that's essentially what the disease is, a failure of neurons in the brain to make synaptic connections. There is no cure and very little relief. Even the cause is in question.

Asked if he's afraid of the days ahead, he ponders the question silently for a moment and says, "I don't think about it. I saw what happened to my mother, father and grandmother. You get more forgetful as time goes on and eventually end up in a haze."

Then: "I don't know what happens after that. My future is dwindling away."

He knows someone will have to care for him when he can no longer care for himself. Medications have slowed the effect of the disease but its thrust is tenacious. He is aware of the research being conducted and is trying to keep himself in good physical shape to be able to benefit from any breakthroughs.

As our conversation ended, I could almost visualize the man disappearing before me. The basic elements that compose him will vanish in the sunlight that illuminates the beach, the man and all that he is. There will no longer be a Buddy Epstein, only a silhouette of the person that used to be.


11-12-2007, 11:22 AM
Al Martinez:
The fallen who now have faces
November 12, 2007

They're home.

West, Dorser, Becker, DeSalvo, Trent and Bunchuk.

Their humanity vanished in the acrid clouds of war more than half a century ago, leaving only their names writ large in the memories of their survivors.

Their widows grew old and their children grew up without them. Parents died mourning and friends turned to other lives.

But now their names emerge once more as new tools are employed to identify those regarded as missing in America's past wars, dating back to 1941.

The remains of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen -- once the nameless detritus of combat -- are given faces and past lives in a Pentagon effort to identify all who have come home to be buried at last with military honors.

I pulled some of the names from the Defense Department website, Marines I might have known or seen in the war that raged on the all those years ago. As it turned out, I knew none of them. They were strangers but brothers in the uniformity of combat.

They were:

Carl West of Amanda Park, Wash.

Jimmie Dorser of Springfield, Mo.

Clarence Becker of Lancaster, Pa.

Domenico DeSalvo of Akron, Ohio.

Donald Trent of Crab Orchard, W.V.

Frank Bunchuk of Medina, N.Y.

The litany continues solemnly, like the rhythmic cadence of funeral drums. It seems to never end.

The men the drums beat for came from small towns and major cities. Some were just out of high school or still in college. Some had fought in World War II and had remained in the reserves. All marched off to fight in a war whose horror was minimized in euphemism; it was, by lessening, a "police action." But wordplay cannot degrade the cost: among the dead and wounded, 8,142 missing in action.

They disappeared in places they'd never heard of until the war broke out in Korea. Places like Inchon, Chongchon, Unsan, Kunuri and Hagaru-Ri.

Their remains were recovered by treaty with the government of North Korea. They had been buried in nameless graves or in mass interment near the places where they'd fallen. I have monitored the list released by the Pentagon, wondering if it contained the identities of anyone I knew back then, a brother in arms who had simply disappeared.

After each major battle, we looked for friends in other units to see if they had survived the confrontation. Some had, some had not. One among the missing was a Marine infantryman I have mentioned before. His name was Charles Wertman.

He vanished in the ferocity of hostilities as though he had never existed, torn from reality to dwell in limbo between life and death. No one ever knew what happened to him, and he came to symbolize those embraced by the darkness that war creates. I keep looking for his name. I always will.

It's a strange juxtaposition of bodies being identified at a time when representatives of the two Koreas are at last talking about formally ending the conflict that ceased its violence only by an armistice 54 years ago. Governments demand a written conclusion. A handshake isn't good enough. And so they meet and they talk.

DNA, dental records and even skeletal remains are utilized to give names to men like West, Dorser, Becker, DeSalvo, Trent and Bunchuk. The tools of forensic science extract identities from what remains of the living soldiers but can never re-create their voices, their childhoods, their touch or their laughter. These too are victims of war, blank spaces left in the years without them that no military funeral, no flag-draped coffin and no 21-gun salute can ever replace. The past, like a sandcastle, cannot be rebuilt.

I'm not sure why I wanted to revisit times I would rather forget. The morning is melancholy enough with thick clouds obscuring the sun and a forecast of rain in the news. I guess that a dark mood revives the notion that I just don't want anyone forgotten. Better to bury them than to live with their ghosts for the rest of my life.

When the dead of World War I were returned to the United States, a newspaper reporter who met the ship wrote the lead to a news story that said simply, "They're back." Everyone knew. That same spirit applies in a parallel manner to those who, by being given names, return home today.

They too are back: West, Dorser, Becker, DeSalvo, Trent and Bunchuk.


11-12-2007, 11:28 AM
The insight of columnist Al Martinez flows from his myriad creative talents and experience as a reporter, author, scriptwriter, documentarian and television series creator.

He contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts and was nominated for a 1992 Emmy for the CBS-TV movie "Out on the Edge." His Pulitzer contributions involved a 1983 series on the Southern California Latino community, team coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a staff award for reporting on the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

He has written columns for The Times since 1984, before which he was a news feature writer and reporter for 12 years. Prior to that he was a columnist, feature writer and military reporter for the Oakland Tribune.

The California Chicano News Media Association named him 2002 Print Journalist of the Year and the Society of Professional Journalists chose him as Journalist of the Year in 1996. Other honors include a 1988 National Ernie Pyle Award and a 1988 National Headliner Award.

He authored "The Last City Room" and "City of Angles, a Drive-By Portrait of L.A." He also wrote two books profiling Spanish-speaking Americans, "Rising Voices" in 1974 and "Rising Voices: A New Generation" in 1994. In addition to creating three network television series, he has 20 writing credits for TV movies.

Martinez attended San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley, and received an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters from Whittier College in 1996. He was born in Oakland and is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

He is married and has three children.

12-24-2007, 10:51 AM
Al Martinez:
Farewell to a big sister who gave love, help and prayers
December 24, 2007

Her name was


She lived in a modest, wood-framed house on the corner of East Oakland's 94th Avenue and B Street, purchased in 1945 when her husband Eddie came marching home from the Second World War.

They paid $7,000 for it, and added a recreation room sometime in the '60s, where we had some of the greatest holiday gatherings I can remember. We drank, we sang, we feasted, and we bellowed with youth and life. Only on Christmas Eve did we slow down to observe the tranquil nature of the season.

Then Eddie died and that took a lot of steam out of Emily. She'd been looking forward to their 60th wedding anniversary when he collapsed on the bathroom floor, standing before a mirror shaving. We wondered if he had witnessed his own death in the reflected image, a fading and then falling away, like the silent crash of a tree in an empty forest. I still wonder.

Emily began turning inward. She was all right for a while, the same independent, outspoken, sometimes cranky big sister of my youth, caring about me as much as anyone ever has. But one could sense the transition from a strong, outgoing person to a lonely widow wrapped in a shroud of grief. Life without Eddie was empty.

As years passed, the neighborhood changed around her. Once mostly Portuguese and Italian, it became a haven for African Americans, and then Latinos. They all knew Emily, the old lady living alone in the house at the corner. They all looked out for her.

Her daughter and two sons tried to get her to move to a safer area, but she never felt unsafe where she was, and stubbornly declined. It was Eddie's house. She wouldn't leave the dreams and the memories that filled its every corner.

Eventually, her heart began to falter, and then her legs gave out from excessive weight and just plain lack of use. She rarely left the house, parking herself on a couch and watching television all day and eating the wrong kinds of food. Alone and fragile, she waited out the last clock-ticks of her fading life thinking of Eddie.

We were traveling in India when I learned of her death. It was both stunning and cataclysmic. My daughter Cindy

e-mailed me, "I am really sorry to interfere with your vacation this way, but I thought it would be worse to find out after the fact when you got home. Emily died sometime on Sunday, Dec. 2nd, apparently from a heart attack."

I'm not saying that certain events in one's life are often accompanied by the clashing chords of operatic music, but there was a lightning storm of unparalleled drama over the Indian town of Kochi the night I got the news. Lightning flashed around the hotel, thunder roared like cannon fire; rain fell with monsoon-like intensity.

My big sister was gone. The one who climbed trees to rescue me when I was a rambunctious kid. The one who took me in when I left home in high school. The one who gave me money when I entered college. The one who came to the train station when I went off to war. The one who never stopped praying for me when I moved to L.A.

Her daughter found her on the floor of her bedroom, one arm extended as though she had died reaching for something, or maybe someone. Make of that what you will.

The storm that had swept over Kochi was gone as quickly as it had appeared, a raucous, muscular stride through the black Asian night, leaving an unsettled silence in its wake. I sat on the edge of the bed looking out the hotel window as the storm whispered off, while Cinelli, always at my side, talked about Emily and what she'd meant to me and to our family. The time difference between India and the U.S. made it impossible to call; e-mail lacked the passion to convey my sadness. So I tossed through a sleepless night with Emily moving through my subconscious.

They're clearing out the house on 94th Avenue now. Soon it will be on the market, sweeping away the last physical remains of an old lady who lived in her dreams, with little need for intrusion from the outside world. One can only hope that she found the heaven she was seeking and the husband she loved for all those years.

If I were the spooky type, I would say she was saying goodbye to me across the oceans through a linkage of thunder and lightning that lit the night.

I'll say my farewell this Christmas Eve in a quieter place in this quiet way, hoping it will reach up through the starry nights and the glowing days to assure her that all is well with me.

So long, Big Sister. I'll miss you.


01-14-2008, 10:13 AM
Al Martinez:
Screening movies is guilty pleasure during the strike
January 14, 2008

I am sitting in a back room with the shades drawn and a television set on when I hear the front door open and close. It's my wife, Cinelli, home from doing whatever she does out there. I instantly turn off the TV.

She enters the room and finds me in the semi-darkness sipping from a bottle of Kingfisher beer, an Indian brew I learned to enjoy on vacation while fighting the heat and dust in a town called Pushkar on the edge of India's Thar Desert.

"You look guilty," she says. "What's going on?" She glances around as though expecting to find one or both of the Olsen twins hiding behind the dresser.

"Nothing," I say in the pathetic manner of a man who knows he's guilty but doesn't know exactly why. I have a T-shirt that says, "If a man should speak in the forest and there is no woman present, is he still wrong?"


"You're sitting in the dark drinking beer and you expect me to believe you are innocent of whatever it is you're probably guilty of?" she asks. It amuses her.

"Would you mind repeating the accusation?"

"It's OK. Just drink your beer. You're getting to be more like Homer Simpson every day. Next you'll be wanting to hang out at Moe's."

Stung by the comparison, I blurt out, "I was protecting you!"

It's this way.

I have before me a small stack of movies on discs sent by various film production companies because I am a member of the Writers Guild of America and we will be voting soon on the best scripts of 2007.

The DVDs are accompanied by written warnings, sometimes flashed several times during the showing of the movies, that the films are for award consideration only by people like me who are authorized to vote in the competition. Bootleggers beware.

I am not to copy, sell, lend or invite friends or relatives over to watch them with me. A note from Fox Searchlight Pictures adds: "These screeners may be individually coded with an invisible watermark that identifies the screeners and any copies of the screeners, with you personally."

I'm not sure how that works, but it's probably similar to the technology that helps trace lost dogs.

If caught electronically or otherwise ignoring any of the warnings, I will be arrested by the FBI and -- under the rules of war -- imprisoned, tortured and deported after serving five years and paying a fine of up to $250,000 for film piracy.

"I'm not sure you should be in the same room with me while I'm watching these movies," I say to Cinelli, "or that we should even be talking about them. It may constitute a copyright violation. These people mean business. They don't like writers in the first place."

"Look on the upside, Elmer," she replied. "If we're in prison, you won't have to take out the garbage and I won't have to listen to you whine. There is no whining in the slammer."

But there exists yet another reason to worry about accepting films sent by the studios. Movies have producers, and those are the shameful people we are picketing at this very moment. Would watching their films be a violation of Guild strike rules?

As I understand these rules, members are not supposed to write, outline or think about ideas they might have for new film or TV projects, or discuss them with any producers, even if they are sleeping with them.

Additionally, watching these movies constitutes a form of enjoyment that I believe is also banned by the Guild. Writers must remain morose and surly as long as they're on strike. I know, because I walked a WGA picket line once and was hell to live with. I am still hell to live with, which indicates the lasting effects of the emotional trauma that affects writers on strike.

Cinelli suggests we watch a movie together and take our chances with the feds. We watch two, in fact, both of which have been hyped as winners. One is "Sweeney Todd," a lighthearted take on cannibalism, and the other is "No Country for Old Men," which would make more sense had the remains of its numerous murder victims been packed into meat pies too.

I stopped enjoying blood when I was discharged from the Marines, but that is not to say I wouldn't vote for a script written in it. I know the kind of anguish one endures creating a movie and do not take lightly my responsibilities as a judge.

"Good for you, dear," Cinelli says when I declare an intention to honor my obligations as a Guild member. "I'll get you another beer and we can watch a third movie together in spite of the warnings."

She leans over to whisper: "Maybe it will have female frontal nudity and you can sit there and sweat. You'll enjoy your beer more."

Sounds good to me.


02-11-2008, 10:49 AM
Al Martinez:
To her, there's no such thing as a simple question
February 11, 2008

I should have known that asking my wife a simple question when it held the possibility of a complicated response was probably the wrong thing to do.

Women do not think in simple terms but ponder questions in a more abstract manner, sometimes over a period of several days, examining each segment of many possibilities the way an entomologist might consider a bug under a microscope.

Men are more liable to reply to a question with a grunt or at best a short declarative sentence. "Want a beer?" "Sure." Ask that of a woman, and she will respond with, "Why?" You'll have to come up with several reasons, not one of which she will find either suitable or viable.

For instance, Cinelli and I were fascinated by the televised coverage of the California primary, which threw Obama and Clinton into celestial combat more elemental than the clash between Brady and Manning. In one segment, the camera followed Hillary toward a stage with Bill trotting behind like a happy puppy. That caught my attention.

I'm sure that by his presence and in his way, he was attempting to be helpful, assuring everyone that if the little woman faltered, he'd be there to prop her up. What he managed to achieve was the annoying appearance of an old trouper trying to reprise the act that had once made him famous, turning the campaign into a duet instead of a solo.

After the segment, I turned to Cinelli and said, "If you were running for president would you want me tagging along?"

She didn't say anything at the time, but the next night, as we were in bed, she said in a tone not meant to tempt debate, "I'd never have you along on a campaign."

Hindsight dictates that I should have just agreed that she was absolutely right in her decision to leave me home, but instead, damn me, I said, "Why not?" I would have sucked the question back in through my teeth if I could, but it was too late.

She said, "You would never go to Cincinnati."

I lay there trying to recall if I had ever refused to travel to Cincinnati or if it had popped into her head because Hillary, with Bill at her side, might have said, "We're off to win in Cincinnati!" after her victory in California. Nothing came to me.

I said, "Why don't we just talk about it in the morning? You can fix us a nice breakfast and we can sit across from each other and chat, the way Lucy and Desi did before she threw him out."

Cinelli ignored the offer: "You're too damned stubborn to just say, 'If you want to campaign in Cincinnati, dear, let's just go together.' You would flat out refuse. I'll bet Bill doesn't refuse."

"He probably has groupies in Cincinnati."

"You'd stay home and eat canned okra until you passed out from okra poisoning and I'd have to fly home to get you to your stupid little hospital on the corner."

Although I like okra and often enjoy it right out of the can, I am also known to mix it with garbanzo beans and a nice pate, creating a sort of okra Parisienne. I don't eat it all the time, only when I run out of real food, which she prepares and freezes for me when she drives north to visit our daughter, the Cat Lady.

Silence followed her assault on the okra, during which I decided that the Cincinnati Question had probably been exhausted. Wrong again. She was sitting up in bed, a puzzle book in one hand, pen in the other. Half asleep, I was taken with a sudden Walter Mitty-esque vision of her flinging the book aside, enraged at my dismissal of Cincinnati, and coming at me with the pen upraised, about to strike.

I rolled away quickly and she said, "What on Earth are you doing?" I looked up. The puzzle book and the pen were still in her hands. She appeared more quizzical than angry. I saw my opening.

"You're right," I said, sighing and modulating my voice to a tone that would indicate a groveling fool seeking forgiveness. "I would fight going to Cincinnati for no reason at all. I've never hated Cincinnati. I can't even spell it. I'm just a stubborn fool."

"Oh, well," she replied soothingly, touched by my atonement, "I guess that's just you."

"Yes," I said, "just old dumb Elmer." Then, without thinking, I added, "What exactly do you mean by 'That's just you'?"

I'd done it again.

I had rammed a question right into the middle of her delayed thinking process. She didn't say anything, but looked at me, pen and puzzle book in hand, like there was something more to consider and she would study it for a few days and eventually come up with an answer.

Next Wednesday she will say, "I'll tell you exactly what I mean," and I will sit half listening and wishing I were in Cincinnati.


03-24-2008, 10:32 AM
Goodbye, Mr. Hammond -- and all that jazz
Al Martinez

Though it was an unusual setting for a jazz club, the Back Room at a coffee shop named Henri's has been hosting pianist John Hammond for three years. Sadly for fans, the legend's stint has come to an

There was a light mist over the Santa Monicas when I drove down from Topanga Canyon to catch the final appearance of the John Hammond jazz quintet in the Back Room at Henri's.

Earlier that day, a heavier fog had rolled in from the ocean and over the mountaintops but had thinned as it reached the Valley, lying like a bridal veil over Canoga Park. A slight chill in the air was nature's reminder that winter wasn't over.

Henri's is a coffee shop, more or less, with a back room that began hosting Hammond about three years ago. He's a jazz legend and I'm a jazz nut, and to be able to drive to a club about half an hour away to hear great music was a gift from heaven.

He was there every Friday and Saturday night with either a trio or a quintet, and occasional visits by other jazz greats who dropped by to blow stars into the night.

But that's all gone now. Economics has ended jazz in the Back Room the way it is ending Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood. Little pieces of quality are spinning out of L.A. like leaves caught up in a gale.

Oddly, Henri's was the perfect venue. Most jazz clubs don't exist in coffee shops, especially on streets that die after dark. Everything around Henri's seemed to close when the sun went down. There was a feeling of loneliness to the location, which was OK in its way. Jazz is meant to be a little melancholy.

I was in a low mood, I guess, when I walked through the restaurant and into the Back Room to hear the style of music born in New Orleans more than a century ago. Word had gotten around that this was to be Hammond's last night, and it was jammed with more than 100 jazz aficionados. They were there to say goodbye.

The quintet, with Hammond at the piano, opened with a riff on "It Could Happen to You," a ballad polished into a new blues form, described once by Billie Holiday as walking in the rain. She was seeing jazz not as a love song but as a mood. The last piece was a whimsical tune Hammond had written called "Big Butt Blues." Then it was over.

Clearly, Henri's owner, Mike Puetz, had regrets about ending the jazz sessions. His father opened the restaurant in 1972, and it has become the place to go for breakfast in the Valley. Jazz was added when Puetz discovered Hammond, who was winding up a two-year stint at the Hilton in Woodland Hills.

Dwindling profits and rising prices forced him to end any kind of entertainment in the Back Room, Puetz says. The cocktail lounge will remain open, but it'll be just another bar without the intricate blending of piano, bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet to pull guys like me off the street and into its dark embrace. You can have a martini anywhere, but it begins talking to you when there's music in the night.

Trained as a classical pianist, Hammond, 66, switched to jazz when he was 16 and has been playing it ever since. He leans over and almost into the piano as if they're a single instrument, Hammond's white hair gleaming under the measured light that illuminates the room. With him on his last night were Jim Hughart on bass, Kendall Kay on drums, Pete Christlieb on the tenor sax and Carl Saunders on the trumpet.

The diversity of Hammond's talent glows up out of his bio, and includes performing or recording with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme and Tina Turner, and guest-conducting with the Johannesburg, BBC and New Orleans symphony orchestras, among others.

I got into jazz in college when you could hang out in San Francisco's North Beach and listen to good music for the price of a pitcher of beer. Then it turned into a tourist haven and you had to look harder to find one of those small clubs that didn't hit you over the head with cover charges and minimums.

Puetz tried a $5 cover at Henri's but it didn't help much, and charging more wouldn't have seemed right. So the decision was made to eliminate jazz. Weekends, already pretty dull in the Valley, are now even quieter along Sherman Way.

A great city needs great art. It needs music and galleries and bookstores. Its people need to be transported beyond gang violence, traffic jams and inadequate leadership. We need more than a Hollywood mentality, more than amusement parks and certainly more than the self-accolades of a chest-pounding city hall.

Looking around at those gathered that last night of jazz at Henri's, I could see how involved they were in the complicated movements of the music. Some bopped along to the syncopated rhythms; others were transported by the melodies to a level of listening where music is all-embracing. We shared golden moments.

As I drove away from the Back Room, I could almost see Billie Holiday standing under a nearby corner streetlight. It was raining and she was crying.


12-22-2008, 10:37 AM
A rainy day makes movie critic of columnist
By Al Martinez

There is snow on the palm trees in old L.A.

Even as I write, it is falling in places where it has rarely fallen before, dusting the city of endless summers with a powdery substance that has the natives puzzled.

In West Hollywood, a screenwriter at a Christmas party suffered a severe case of nose frostbite trying to snort it.

In Malibu, they considered it God's frothy ice and scooped it up by the golden buckets full to mix into their margaritas.

Blizzard conditions have closed I-5 over the Grapevine and Highway 15 to Las Vegas, creating a brotherhood of survivors. Trapped by the weather, real people are leaving their cars and their semis to look around and wonder.

The effete owners of BMWs are talking to hairy-chested truckers. Women whose hands have never touched dishwater are chatting with women who clean houses for a living. We huddle together in bad times. The spirits snuggle.

I am not in all of that snowy, sleety, rainy, windy weather on this particular night of what appears to many in L.A. as apocalyptic weather. I am tucked into a warm room of my house, like a bear in its winter lair, watching free movies.

Each year, studios with hope in their hearts mail out what they consider to be films worthy of one of many awards coming up, including those for the best screenwriting of 2008.

Because I am a Writers Guild member, I receive and have viewed many in the pile. It is better to be inside doing this than outside doing anything. Although I love rain, I am not one to prance about in a blizzard for either ritualistic or entertainment purposes.

What I offer today are brief rundowns on a few of the more notable films in the pot. Do not consider these as reviews. Reviews are written by people like Kenneth Turan who truly know what they're talking about. These are, well, utterances, that rate the movies on a Dorothy Parker scale of one to five martinis:

The movies:

"Changeling" -- This stars Angelina Jolie and her lips, with a screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski. Overcoming Jolie's insistence that he write roles for her 70 or 80 adopted children, he instead turned out the story of a kidnapped kid, a bad substitution, lying L.A. cops . . . the usual. Jolie plays Jolie playing Jolie, and everyone loves her. Charlize Theron could have done it better, but her lips are too thin. One martini and an olive.

"The Visitor" -- Real critics have called this film about a lonely college professor whose life is reanimated by a pair of illegal immigrants "life affirming" and "brilliant" with "nuanced performances," and many other stock phrases that can be purchased on the Internet. Starring Richard Jenkins, who learns to play bebop on African drums, and written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who could wring laughter from a rhino. Not bad. Two martinis, straight up, hold the fruit.

"Milk" -- I missed portions of this because I turned away during scenes of men kissing. I am not homophobic and I voted no on Proposition 8, but I just don't like to see men kissing. I personally do not kiss men, and when they seem to want to, as many affectionate liberals do, I back away. The movie starring Sean Penn (and a lot of cute guys) with a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black is about the 1978 murder of gay San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk and straight Mayor George Moscone. Warning: Certain scenes may not be suitable for kindergartners or men from the Midwest. Three cosmopolitans.

"Burn After Reading" -- This is so crazy that I love it. I left it twice to fix a martini and then to fix another martini, this time without olives, and don't believe that I missed anything. You could start watching it in the middle and go either way and it would still work. Written and directed by the Coen brothers, who were temporarily off their medication, it's about spies, bumbling conspirators, illicit love and everyone falling down and going boom at the end. Four martinis and a cold shower. "Burn" is not recommended for those with serious emotional disorders. They might be able to figure out the story line and ruin the fun.

"Frost/Nixon" -- This is a love story between a disgraced former American president and an unemployed British television version of Regis Philbin. Peter Morgan wrote the screenplay based on his stage play based on the 1977 televised interviews in which Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) go at it. There is no sex in this movie and no pounding score, which means it will probably not appeal to anyone under 25. An animated remake with Brad Pitt as Nixon's voice and a sober Paris Hilton as a female David Frost voice would probably make it more palatable for those who prefer amusement over history. As is, two straight shots and a joint.

Th-th-th-that's all, f-f-f-folks!

12-29-2008, 11:58 AM
Keeping our memories from the mists of Alzheimer's
Al Martinez
December 29, 2008

"God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December."
-- James Barrie

The Walt Travis I knew at San Francisco State was an amazing guy: scholar, debater, hobbyist magician, fraternity brother and one hell of a lot of fun.

He could stand before a hostile audience, face a debating opponent with the cool logic of a forensic scientist and turn him into gelatin. When the crowd booed the conquest of their hero, Walt would smile. He'd made his point.

He could also sit at a downtown bar and make coins and cigarettes vanish into thin air with the skill of a master prestidigitator, gathering a different kind of audience around him and winning free drinks for both of us.

But all of that is gone now, the tricks and the fun. The man I knew a long time ago is disappearing into himself, erased by a disease called Alzheimer's.

I was thinking about him as I watched my family decorate our Christmas tree: my son Marty and his wife, Lisa, and three of our grandchildren, Nicole, Jeffrey and Joshua. Each ornament was hung with care. Small blinking lights framed their faces.

It was important to me to lock this moment into a memory component beyond erasures; I strained to fix it in my head the way a camera lens isolates a scene. I didn't want what was happening to Walt to happen to me. There are some things that must never be forgotten.

I had heard from his wife the day before that Walt had been placed in a full-care facility, suffering from "dementia," another way of describing the malady that is sucking the humanity from more than 5 million Americans.

"Walt's short-term memory has been diminishing," she wrote, "and he reached the point where his whole personality had changed. He became easily agitated, demanding and aggressive. I could no longer care for him."

It's a sad and terrible disorder, an erosion of the core mentality that contains the history of who we are, the memory of ourselves that makes us unique. I couldn't believe it was happening to him.

I've known Walt since he was a returning World War II veteran in college on the GI Bill and I was a kid out of high school.

He was a scholarly patrician who would go on to earn a PhD at Columbia University, and I was a dour and scruffy beatnik wannabe who worked on the college newspaper and wrote unintelligible poetry; I never did finish up with a degree.

He followed his dream into teaching, and I followed mine into writing.

We kept in touch by letter, but I hadn't seen him face to face until about three years ago.

When Cinelli and I learned that he and his wife had a place in Palm Springs, we made it a point to meet them for dinner on a weekend trip. It was a strange encounter.

There was a peculiarity about Walt. He had always been a soft-spoken man, intellectual in conversation, but possessed of a nimble sense of humor. Now he was loud and repetitive, greeting with raucous bursts of laughter moments from our past that weren't especially funny or that had never actually occurred, and repeating them many times over, as though each telling was new.

When he fell silent, he seemed abruptly detached, as though he were viewing from afar, directing his focus on someone beyond the room.

I had seen that look before in another man I knew, a much younger person than the 79-year-old Walt. His name was Buddy Epstein. He was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and coldly aware of the fate that would lead him into darkness. He described it as a slow disappearance. "One day you're here," he said, "and one day you're not."

Cinelli and I wondered if Walt was on the edge of that same darkness when we last saw him in Palm Springs. And now our fears had been confirmed. The Walt we had both known simply no longer existed.

That was reason enough for me to view with intensity the evening my family was decorating our tree. There are moments we must not abandon, beyond major achievements and professional triumphs. Careers end and plaques tarnish, but the eyes of Christmas, for instance, remain forever bright.

One must remember with equal clarity the nuances of a lover's voice and the cry of a baby's frustration; the aroma of pine trees and the cool, clean perfumes of a rainy day. I am determined never to give up a vision of Cinelli's smile or the warm embracement of a summer's eve.

They are blips in time to be absorbed. They pass too quickly and are gone so completely.