Friday, September 03, 2004

LA Stories (Part I)

I mean, what can you say about a legend? Good question, huh? When somebody out there figures it out, be sure to drop me an e-mail.

In the meantime, I’m gonna talk about my friend, Michael.
Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…

Friday was day four of my six-day tour of the known and the unknown that was my trip to SoCal. It was also the only day out of the six I spent there in which I really wasn't sure what my schedule would hold. And for that reason, it was one of the busiest, but also one of the best days of what turned out to be a phenomenal week.

Thursday night I had spent the night at the home of my friend and former business partner, Randy, in Huntington Beach. Friday morning I had a chance to spend a leisurely morning drinking coffee and talking with his wife, Linda, catching up on subjects like their kids (who are a bit younger than mine), and her plans to go back to school to become an RN. I speak to Randy on a semi-regular basis over the phone, but this was the first time I’d spoken Linda in several years. It was kind of unexpected, but nice.

Later that morning I said goodbye to my overnight hosts and made my way over to Long Beach. My weekend host was the only college buddy that I’ve kept in touch with over the years, Jay. I had a chance to check in briefly with him before heading up to Burbank to have lunch with my old boss, George, the former VP of the record company at which I worked for two years before moving to Nashville in 1992.

After my lunch meeting, the next thing on my Friday agenda was the loosely-laid plan to have my first face-to-face with a fellow blogger, the ever-popular Michael.

We had e-mailed a couple times before I left for California, and it was decided that Michael would give me a call at 2:00 PM Friday to decide what we were going to do and where we would meet. As it turned out, my lunch meeting ran a bit late and I was still hanging at George’s new office until about 2:30. I kept expecting my cell phone to start buzzing at any moment, but it never did. No biggie. I figured that Mike had gotten busy and forgotten to call, so I just went ahead and enjoyed my visit, which had to end at 3:00 anyway, due to a late afternoon appointment George had.

So when I got back to my car, I decided to give Michael a call to touch base. I dialed him up but got no connection. I then looked down at my phone and saw the two most frustrating words in the English language for a cellular user on my display: No Service. So I hopped back on the 5 Freeway and headed back towards LA, figuring I’d soon be in a good enough cell area to be able to make a call. Almost immediately I had “full bars” on my signal indicator and I gave Michael a call.

“AJ! There you are!” a friendly voice said on the other end of the line.
“I saw that you tried to call a while ago. I’m glad we were finally able to connect.”

In the small-talk that ensued, Michael suggested we meet at one of his favorite little Italian restaurants in Santa Monica at 7:00. He gave me thumbnail street directions as I precariously negotiated cell phone, steering wheel, pen and paper while driving in stop-and-go traffic. I managed to get enough down to recognize my own chicken-scratch writing and hoped that my former familiarity with the beach end of Santa Monica wouldn’t fail me once I got there and tried to find the place. But getting to the opposite end of the LA Basin would prove more daunting a task than I’d planned. Not only was the traffic obscene (and it wasn’t even rush hour yet), my foggy memory of LA’s Freeway interchange intricacies made me thankful that I had over three hours to kill.

Aside from the obvious, one of the suckiest things about near-gridlock traffic is the fact that you can quickly find yourself on "riptide highway" if you wander into the wrong lane. The exit that I thought was taking me towards Santa Monica had instead pointed me in the direction of the San Bernardino Mountains before I realized what was happening. By the time I got myself turned around, the traffic was really starting to bog down. It was then that I noticed one of the products of LA’s 10-year growth spurt, at least on that portion of the Santa Monica Freeway. There were no longer any shoulders on the sides of the road. They had both been turned into traffic lanes to expand the already smothering capacity of motorists who travel that very well worn artery each day through Los Angeles. God forbid that someone were to break down along that stretch; they’d have absolutely nowhere to go.

It took me nearly an hour to travel the approximately 25 freeway miles from Burbank to Santa Monica, so when I finally got off the road, I was ready to get out and stretch my legs. Fortunately for me, the restaurant Michael had chosen was on the main drag in Downtown Santa Monica, one that I was familiar with. That street, Colorado Avenue, ends at the famous Santa Monica Pier. I parked at the adjacent all-day lot and began taking in the sites.

There were still plenty of people on the beach at that late afternoon hour. The food stands, shops and carnival rides on and around the pier immediately brought back my best memories of this area, when I used to compete in the Santa Monica Gymfest gymnastics meet that was held each Labor Day weekend until around the late 80s. “The Beach Meet,” as it was known by most everyone, was held right on the sand, in an area just south of the pier. It was the place of my final competition as an active gymnast, in 1986. I was 30 years old, and it was my first competition in over two years at that point. I took third place on Rings that day, and it still ranks as one of my fondest memories as an athlete.

After putzing around the pier for awhile, I still had well over an hour to kill, so I went over to a little park area on a bluff just north of the pier that overlooks the beach. It was a peaceful little stretch of mature shade trees, park benches and jogging paths. I sat down on a bench, pulled out my notepad and wrote for about an hour and fifteen minutes. During that ime I was joined by a variety of people who sat for awhile and then moved on. The only one of my fellow benchers who said anything to me was an especially chatty homeless man, about whom I’ll talk more in another entry.

Around 6:15, I headed out for the restaurant, which was six blocks straight up from the pier. It was still plenty early, but I wanted to make sure I could secure a good table, assuming the place would likely end up crowded on a Friday night. Besides, I was really starting to get TB from sitting on that darned bench.

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Upon arriving at Fritto Misto, I was happy to find the very front corner table vacant in the tiny establishment. It’s a friendly, unassuming place that reminded me more of a neighborhood deli than a restaurant. I sat down, ordered a beer, and enjoyed a few slices of the fresh-baked Italian bread they bring to your table. For another fifteen minutes or so I continued to write in my notebook about the events so far in the week. Then my hand started to cramp (I’m so not used to writing longhand), so I decided to put away my writing and just spend the rest of the time people-watching until Michael showed up.

The people I saw coming and going were nothing too far out of the ordinary. Most everyone seemed to be happily in TGIF mode. The further it got past 6:30, the more people continued to show up, and the more happy I was that I’d decided to get in there early. I was just hoping that nobody minded me occupying a four-seat table all by myself. The quarters are pretty cozy at Fritto Misto — the tables are quite close together. It’s hard not to appear to be staring at your neighbor’s plate — or their date — unless you're careful.

There was a young thirtysomething couple sitting two tables to my right. The woman was heavy with child and the man spoke with a pronounced British accent. Soon another couple came in and seated themselves at the table in between us. I overheard the Brit happily responding to the other patron's inquiry about the menu item he had chosen. He mentioned that this was his third meal at the restaurant this week and that his goal was to have eventually sampled the entire menu before all was said and done.

I glanced at my watch. It said 7:12. No sooner than you could say, “fashionably late,” my cell phone started buzzing.

“AJ…Sorry I’m running a little late,” the friendly voice said. “I’m exactly 20 blocks away.” I told Michael that I supposed I could wait for another measly 20 blocks.

From that point on, once five more minutes or so passed, I began to examine the cars as they turned the corner of the intersection just outside the window I was facing. I was playing a little game of “Find Michael,” wondering if I’d be able to recognize him from the few photos of himself he’d posted on his blog. I thought I’d seen him a couple times, but the cars would either keep going straight or turn in the opposite direction.

Finally, about 10-15 minutes after receiving the phone call, a slender young man walked into the restaurant. He stopped, turned and stared, then smiled broadly at me. The smile looked familiar, but the Mr. Clean haircut took me aback just a little. As he ambled across the room towards my table, I reached out to shake his hand, but the first words out of my mouth were, “Geeze, since when do you have a shaved head?”

The MakeMineMikester smiled and said that he decided to try it a few years back and really liked it, so he’d been going clean ever since. I told him it did look good on him but I really wasn’t expecting it. He said that I looked exactly like my blog picture. Pleasantries exchanged, it began to occur to me that we were going to have a great time getting to know one another.

I found Michael to be extremely pleasant and engaging. The wittiness of his writing is only exceeded by the comfortable manner and sincerity displayed in his person.

If I had to describe who he looks like, I suppose he reminds me of yet another Michael — R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe — with his high, chiseled cheekbones, but with much kinder eyes. And as he has already written of our conversation, we did talk about a number of things, both blog and non blog-related. He told me about his family, about his own relationship with his Mom and sister, about how he came to LA, and about his aspirations and successes as a screenplay writer. He also told me of his budding interest in tree-dwelling South and Central American mammals.

We had a great time. The food was magnifico. Michael had the Lobster Ravioli and I went with the Pasta Pancetta, which was outstanding. The Chianti was fruity and fabulous, and considering that it didn’t give me a hangover, was probably pretty high quality as well. Fritto Misto gets four stars from this critic. Check ‘em out the next time you’re in Santa Monica.

And if I may be so cannibalistic as to take bite out of Michael’s “Blog as Restaurant” analogy, if our blogs were all as tasty as both the food and conversation Michael and I shared that Friday evening, we would all have to go on a diet. We’d be frikkin’ porkers.

Next: Dad
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