Friday, June 30, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

5. Writing
It's odd, isn't it, that I came to it so late in life? I was in my 30s before I began writing in any conscious way. 35 at least before I started doing the archeological dig into my heart and memory and soul that would later result in the stuff I published, that editors saw fit to print or digitize. I think it's a little odd. I've always written, of course, letters mostly, and a story or two during my very short academic career -- which came to a screeching halt on my 16th birthday, the day I dropped out of high school. It snuck up on my. First came the book reviews. I was a graphic designer doing the design and production on a book review magazine and the editor asked me to give review writing a shot. Shortly thereafter came restaurant reviews for a lifestyle magazine in San Francisco, Notes From the Trough my column was called. I had a hit first time out of the gate when the sheriff of San Francisco invited me to review the food at the county jail. I went, met many confused young guys who'd done something stupid, got six months in the county jail. It was sweet watching them care for the baby goats on the farm at the jail. I called the article "Waiter, There's a File in My Soup." The writing has kept burning, taken me all around the world, keeps e getting out of bed in the morning. That and our beautiful baby.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

4. The Blues
The Blues is a natural feature of the Mississippi Delta, a renewable resource. It oozes up out of the cracked dirt furrows of the cotton fields, underneath a lizard’s heel, and all around the trumpet-trunked cypresses in the chartreuse swamps. Then it streams beneath the cars parked at odd angles in front of the cinder-block juke joints before surging over the levee in a great slow wave. And when it hits the flat caramel river, there’s no stopping it, just like there’s been no stopping it for a century or more. It goes south to New Orleans, north to Memphis, west to San Francisco – and it fills the cars and streets and buildings of those cities, and the ones beyond them and the ones beyond them. And from there, the Blues flows all over the world, just as it flowed to me decades ago, never let go, became the music I must hear always and forever.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

3. Photography
The frame, the image, the composition (Ukiyo-e!), color or black and white, sharp, blurry, but always in focus. The art and practice of shadow-catching found me at a time when I was eager to find a way to capture what I was seeing, feeling, thinking. Photography filled that need and more. I could never really afford to get seduced by the technology. That was a good thing. It forced me to look at the work of the masters, early and contemporary -- Steichen, Bullock, Bresson, Arbus, Eggleston, Shore, on and on and on. At 12, I turned our only bathroom into a darkroom. My parents were very patient, supported my passion. Catching shadow and light, color and colorlessness has remained an obsession. I still take pictures every day. Some are snapshots, some are something else. What is the difference?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

2. Ukiyo-e
I figured out that I was an artist by age 10 or so. I knew I was but I didn't know what to do about it. That would come. Mentored by an older sister, I took up printmaking, woodcuts and linocuts. I made many, many, printed them on rice paper, gave them away, occasionally sold them. They are gone now. I kept a couple of the blocks. They're packed away in a dark box in a dank garage in soggyfoggy San Francisco. I may see them again, I may not. My interest in printmaking led me to Ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodblock printmaking movement that brought extravagantly beautiful color pictures to Japan from the 17th to the 19th century. The prints depicted everyday life, celebrities of the time, the natural world. One of the most well known Ukiyo-e images is Hokusai's The Great Wave. I did a Miro-a-sized version of it. Gone. I continued the printmaking until photography took hold of me. It has never let go.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

1. Africa, Nattabi & Mukisa
At 56, I came to Africa, lived in the Rwenzori Mountains for the next 3 years or so. I fell in love with the place, the people, and one woman in particular, Nattabi. I married her. I've never been the same. How much she changed me, how much Africa changed me, and how much I changed myself is a calculation I'll be refiguring until the end of my days. A couple years after we married a tiny African was born right in the center of our lives and he's never left. His name is Mukisa. Mukisa Douglas Lugose Basoma Cruickshank in full. I wonder how old he'll be when he can spell and pronounce his entire name. Might be awhile. He is a delightful young gentleman and he brings his mother and me endless delight and satisfaction. Long may he, and we, wave.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jonathan Winters on Lord Buckley: "We were all out of the same magical pot..."

Jonathan Winters started the conversation by telling of first meeting Lord Buckley in Las Vegas in the 1950s. Winters introduced himself and Buckley immediately began addressing him as "Prince Jon."
Why can't it be Lord John? I asked. 

"Because, my dear man," he said, "I am Lord, Lord Buckley." 

And I said, "Yeah, I remember you in the forest. You were against the Black Knight and he all but dismembered you with some kind of medieval hand ax." 

"Yes, my friend, thank you for remembering," Buckley replied. 

And we just started laughing. Later we went out in the country where he had the Mattress Farm. And everybody sat on those things and he kind of held court, you know. And started doing numbers and bits. I thought he was one of the funniest guys I'd ever met, and I still do. Of course his classic was the Nazz. We that did know him, guys like Lenny [Bruce], we were all kind of out of the same magical pot, as it were. I just thought he was one of the most gifted performers. I think that a lot of people thought that he was black, because he gave that impression in his dialogue. He'd obviously hung around a lot of black people -- musicians and performers. If anybody could do that voice -- a certain kind of black person -- my god, he had it down.
Calling him a comedian almost doesn't really do him justice.
No, I think he was more of a satirist, a humorist.

What was happening then that affected people like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and, of course, Buckley? It seems that there was change in the nature of stage performance.

Well, I don't know about the others. One thing I've fought against myself was jokes. I'm still fighting against those.
The whole punchline thing?
Yeah. I grew up improvising and coming out of movies, you know, pretending I was Bogart or Gary Cooper [does Cooper voice]: "Don't draw your guns here, I'm a biblical student."

Do you think that Buckley influenced your work?

Not so much influenced. I think he rubbed off on all of us that knew him. I wouldn't go so far as to say influenced me. That's a step away from copying and I've never purposely copied anybody. I loved his material -- "God's Own Drunk" and "The Nazz." He was a far out dude ...

He had an extraordinary point of view.

 Oh yeah, and his Nazz thing. If you were any kind of a religious person at all you'd say, "Geez, that's kind of heavy, he's kind of putting Jesus down? But he wasn't! He'd written him as a -- which it should be -- as a hip guy, and you could see those people. He painted such great verbal portraits, which I've always tried to do. And you could see the Nazz coming down the stone path, you know [affects Buckley voice], "We saw this guy as a carpenter kitty. A little dude, kinda bent out, looked like his mental didn't fit him right -- crinkled or something. He say, 'Hey Nazz, look at my eyes man. Lay somethin' on me 'cause I can't see. My dog is blind too, hit both of us. And next the Nazz say, 'Yeah, baby, cool it. Come over here under this shade … Where is the shade? You'll know when you get to it.

He had a real love of language.

 I loved his stuff. Oh, I've had people sit down and I've said, "If you haven't heard this dude, please, listen to him now."

Do you think that if he would have lived into the '60s he would have had a bigger following?

 I absolutely do. I can't speak for the younger generation, or for the older generation, for that matter. But if you're a fan, you're a fan for life. I've never been able to single that many people out who really put me on the floor -- this guy was one of 'em. I've always been a Laurel and Hardy fan, and W.C. Fields. There are a lot of them out there. Lenny, though his language left a little bit to be desired; of course, he'd be like a pussycat today. I mean, compared to what they're doing today. You know I've gone from Gable saying, "Well personally, my dear, I don't give a damn" to "Go fuck yourself, Charlie. Tell that cocksucker to get back in the Plymouth." Wow.

 And that's the family show.

That's right. Exactly. That's 6:30. But I feel that, yes, his stuff is going to last forever. And I don't picture anybody "doing" him. I think that's a mistake. Sandy Baron obviously wanted to take on Lenny Bruce. Wrong. Lenny was unique. And you take on a unique guy ... It's like a Jim Brolin -- God bless him -- taking on Clark Gable. Look out. It doesn't work.

 So after meeting him in Vegas, then he moved out here [to the West Coast], did you see him on a social basis?

On occasion. I'm kind of a loner myself, not that I'm a recluse or anything. But I love antiques and I collect toys, that's a big hobby with me. When I came home after three years in the Marines, I said to my mother, "Where are my toys?" and she said "You've got chores to do, clown. You're 20 years old. What do you mean toys? I gave them away to the mission." And I said, "Why? Why didn't you let me know. There were some things I wanted to save." (I salvaged a baseball glove and a .22 rifle). And she said, "How did we know you were going to survive?" I said, "You should have put the star in the window right away, and had some friends over for lemonade or something." But that was my mother. She had this black humor. You know -- "You don't look well. Maybe you’re dying of something other than a flesh wound. "Thank you, Mother, thank you. Why don't you have some more sauce and sit down. It's a little past 9 a.m. -- I'm surprised at you." But, really, she didn't drink during the day, in deference to her. My dad called me the dumbest white kid he'd ever met. Because I didn't get math. I hate math. I got as far as plane geometry and then I knew it was over. I walked in -- "I will never use this shit" -- trigonometry, calculus, all bullshit. And Latin! What the hell … I go down the street: "Ego amutay." "Yeah, you faggot. Cut it out." "Ucabom, u cabos, u cabat." "What are you talking about?" "I'm studying to be a pharmacist. I'm studying law." "Yeah, sure you are." Who uses a dead language? You know, "Weenie weenie weekie," and point to the head, ya know, over there.

Did you ever go up to the Crackerbox Palace?

No. I would see him from time to time. Of course, those were my days of boozing, guess he'd have a little bit of sauce too.

He'd have drink or two now and then.

Yeah, I was in a lot of pubs and I'd bump into him. My big moment was, a whole day and an evening with that mattress meeting out there in the desert outside of Las Vegas.

He kind of landscaped the place with mattresses?

Yeah, it was funny. I wish I had more to tell you. But I wouldn't make up something. Not about somebody the caliber of this guy. I'm just sorry I didn't know him longer. I've got everything he's done. On rainy days and chilly nights, summertime or whenever, I pull it out and listen to it. I think kids are going to rediscover this guy. And I think that's true at the colleges especially. I see somebody, not so much doing him, I hope they don't for their sake, because it's a very difficult to step into his moccasins. But I would picture an evening of kind of an hour of listening to Buckley. And maybe a guy introducing him -- I don't know how it could be presented. I mean there'd have to be a performer there. Maybe Lady Buckley. Oh, I think that would be great. And I think there's a place on radio for this kind of thing. How about devoting something on one of the FM stations and playing his stuff. Well, I wish you luck with the article. Please send me a copy.

I'll do that.

All right, my friend. Thank you. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What Happens in Vegas Stays Vaguely, Deeply, Sensuously, Cerebrally Vacuous

On the way from the airport, Roger, my taxi driver, tells me he first came through Las Vegas in 1939. “About 8,000 people here then,” he says. He relocated to the town a few years later when the population was around 40,000. “And there were only two clubs – El Rancho Vegas, which was the old Club 91, and the Frontier. But they were just Western-type places. Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo (now the Flamingo Hilton) was the first of the modern-style casinos.”

“Do you miss Las Vegas being a small town?” I ask. (The current population is 850,000.)

“Sure,” Roger replies. “When it was 40,000, everybody knew everybody.”

As we cruise the Strip, I tell Roger I’m taking a poll. “Whaddya think,” I say, “is it a city, a sculpture, or the world’s largest mind-altering drug?”

He lets out a smoker’s bark as he waves to one of his 39,999 old friends. “Maybe all three. I don’t know.”

I don’t either, but those questions bounce around my head as I wonder at how the city that just can’t say no has transformed itself in mere decades from a gangster’s brainchild – where no one would dream of bringing children – into a family fun park. Many who come here consider the place heaven on Earth, others say it’s a vision of hell, and the rest of us just want to find a decent meal and some light entertainment.

Heaven, hell or what-have-you, the eternal work-in-progress known as Las Vegas is fast metamorphosing into something way beyond a gambling mecca. These days, it’s more like a multidimensional science fiction illustration come to life: hundreds of acres of virtual realities that defy all categorization and most adjectives.

The Strip, a few miles of asphalt and casinos once synonymous with sin, is a great glowing laboratory of gaiety and mirth where new billion-dollar entertainment constructs are being prototyped: massive, total-immersion, mega-resort amalgamations of shopping centers, restaurants, night clubs, casinos, video arcades and theme park rides that converge as giant, pulsating, temperature-controlled pleasure centers.

(The first major post-greenhouse-effect attraction, Circus Circus’ Grand Slam Canyon, reassuringly advertises that its pink glass dome “lets through only 19 percent of sunlight.” And the 5,009-room MGM Grand due to open Dec. 18 promotes the fact that it will feature “18,000 tons of air-conditioning…enough to cool a small town of 5,500 homes.”)

Navigating this neon river of recreation is like strolling through the innards of a mammoth pinball machine. And the rapidly expanding suburbs of hacienda-style homes that are filling up the flat, arid land encircling Las Vegas attest to the area’s ferocious growth.

Yet it is encouraging to find that despite the amphetamine pace and monumental developments, there is still room for a crazy little thing called love. In the first 24 hours I see a dozen brides in lush white gowns accompanied by their dusky-suited men, winding through mazes of slot machines and roulette tables, past pai gow games and crapshooters, the rustle of satin and beaded lace overpowered by the ding, ping and clank of quarter jackpots and the calls of wild croupiers (“Ten, ten, the big one on the end. Ten the hard way – tough ten …”).

I ask the ethereal blonde in charge of the door at the Tropicana’s tropical garden wedding chapel how many weddings they have lined up. “We have 19 or 20 today,” she tells me.

“Nineteen or 20!” I bellow. “What do you do – bring ‘em through on a conveyor?”

“No, no,” she whispers. “And we vacuum between each ceremony.” To prove it, she pulls open the chapel door so I can peek inside, where a woman behind a gurgling Hoover nods and smiles at me while she pushes the dust-sucking appliance up and back over the jungle-green carpet. It’s Lovestock Las Vegas style. And though its casino-owned cathedrals may be an odd location for the exchange of marriage vows, one can’t deny that this mutating wonderland still throbs with the vigor of creation.

Speaking of which, I get down to the Mirage just in time to see the volcano go off. The Mirage is an amplified version of the Tropicana – your basic Polynesian theme minus the tikis, macaws and other less subtle elements, and with a bunch of waterfalls, rare white tigers, bottlenose dolphins and a humongous fire-belching volcano added in.

Signs posted in front of the volcano carefully explain that “This volcano erupts every 15 minutes after dark until midnight, except in inclement weather. The red flashing light denotes inclement weather.” Inside, walking through the flower arbor entryway, I overhear one woman say, “It’s pretty here. It reminds me of Hawaii.” Her husband replies, “Yeah, it’s hot though, but not as hot as Detroit.”

Later, in search of a passable Chinese lunch, I hike down the sweltering Strip – it’s 102 at 1 p.m. – to the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino. But I get sidetracked looking at their automobile collection -- $50 million worth of glorious Model J Duesenbergs, not to mention 200 other gasoline-powered artifacts including Mussolini’s mistress’ 1939 Alfa Romeo, Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz, a purple Rolls-Royce town car once owned by Tsar Nicholas II, and the 1937 pale yellow Cord 812 in which cowboy movie star Tom Mix took the long wrong turn of his life.

The fifth-floor warehouse that houses the collection – complete with a catwalk and a uniformed guard – also has one of the Strip’s least crowded bars. If you can put up with being stared at by a mournful stuffed buffalo head while you drink your Singapore Sling, it’s a good quiet corner for cooling out. Downstairs, however, is quite a different scene.

There are bigger casinos and there are grander casinos, but there is certainly no spookier casino than the Imperial Palace. The main room looks like some smoky back corridor in the Forbidden City. Carved dragon heads with flaring nostrils and wagging forked tongues hang from the ornate rafters along with the topaz hemispheres housing the video surveillance cameras. Hauntingly hideous Lucite chandeliers complete the decor.

At any moment one expects the makeup-caked Dowager Empress, draped in silk brocade, trailed by eunuch courtiers, to emerge from the crowd and fling a pair of ruby dice the length of the craps table, raking the green felt with her crimson claws, and then stalk off in a royal sulk when the dice refuse to obey her hissed command for “boxcars!”

Unnerved and still hungry, I escape across the street to Caesars Palace, where I step aboard the black rubber motorized walkway that carries me to the entrance of the Forum Shops. (Why they don’t use an apostrophe in Caesars, as is the convention with possessive nouns, is another of those crazy Las Vegas conundrums.)

The Forum Shops at Caesars might have happened years ago, and on the other side of the world, if contemporary kitschmeister Jeff Koons could have collaborated with Third Reich architect Albert Speer. But like nuclear testing and rattlesnakes, it’s probably just as well that it is isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. Built to evoke a boulevard in ancient Rome, the Forum Shops is a collection of pricey boutiques and fashionable restaurants – Armani, Versace, Spago and (soon) Planet Hollywood.

In addition to the grandiose, ersatz classical architecture, this Dionysian temple of trade has three large fountains. While one has the usual winged horses, another features giant statues of Bacchus and his colleagues that every hour open their eyes and come to life, just like the palace gargoyles in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” – but these statues talk at you while a light and laser show takes place overhead. (For the life of me I can’t understand anything they say.) But don’t worry, the whole thing is over in 10 minutes or so, and then everyone gets back to shopping.

I view the spectacle from my seat at La Salsa, a Mexican fast food restaurant where I down three passionless tacos along with tepid black beans, and a margarita that is so cold my teeth itch for the next hour. Still, in defense of the Forum Shops, I should point out that it may be one of the few places on Earth where the seemingly incongruous combination of ancient Rome, soft tacos and laser beams make perfect sense. You’ll see what I mean when you get here.

Nowhere has reality been toyed with in odder fashion than in Las Vegas. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the Strip becomes a national monument. Lord knows this well-lit ribbon of commerce is a better representation of American spirit and ingenuity than, say, Mount Rushmore. And just when you think the parameters have been pushed about as far as possible, the city’s resourceful hoteliers come up with something even stranger – or at least bigger.

At present there are three new hallucinations-in-the-making along the Strip, all scheduled for completion over the next few months: the previously mentioned MGM Grand (opening Dec. 18), which will be the largest hotel in the world, with a 33-acre theme park and a seven-story replica of Oz’s Emerald City; Circus Circus’ Egyptian-themed Luxor, a glass pyramid with a facsimile of the Sphinx at its entrance (opening Oct. 15); and Mirage Resorts’ Treasure Island (opening Oct. 27), said to be inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name (Mr. Stevenson would no doubt be flattered).

As a means of securing their place in the nation’s mythology, Luxor and the MGM Grand have started a trend which promises to create a new Monument Valley. Late in the afternoon, I stand on the hot gravel median strip running down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard and watch a man in a cherry picker carve the sphinx’s face out of foam. Big white splinters slowly float to the ground as the man does his work. Once the hand contouring is complete, a synthetic plaster mixed with paint will be used to seal and color the surface. Nearby, the face of the MGM lion is being reproduced in a similar fashion.

Where this new technology for building heroic statues will take us is anybody’s guess. But I think we can be sure it is a trend casino builders will embrace with gusto.

To prevent the MGM Grand and Luxor from grabbing all the attention, word has it that Treasure Island plans to blow up the now defunct Dunes several blocks away as part of its opening celebration. I call their publicity office to confirm the story. “I’ve heard a rumor that you’re going to shoot off a cannon on one of the ships in the Treasure Island lagoon and blow up the Dunes.”

“That’s no rumor. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. But it’s a mock cannon. Some people have thought we were going to shoot off a real cannon.”

“Oh, I see,” I say. “So how are you going to blow up the Dunes?”

“A company called Controlled Demolition Incorporated is doing it.”

“I guess they’re professionals, huh?” I say.

“Yes, they are.”

I always tell Las Vegas novitiates that it’s a 24-hour city. “You want to get in and get out,” I recommend. Otherwise the crowds, the climate, the tuna melts and the sensory overload start to fry your central nervous system and you begin to feel like a logic bomb has been dropped into your braincase. Besides, if you gamble using my system, 24 hours can seriously excavate your bank account.

By evening my feet are blistered and I’m ready for the decent meal and light entertainment I set out in search of so long ago. At the Stardust I walk through the casino behind a fully uniformed bride and groom and their attendants. The bride is smoking a Virginia Slim and her soon-to-be husband is complaining about it vehemently. I don’t have a good feeling about this marriage. Stop your bickering, I want to say, stop in the name of love.

Instead I leave the wedding party and slip into Ralph’s Diner. I sit in a booth and study the menu, gulp ice water and gawk at the ’50s decor. Out the window are the pool, palms and, beyond, a two-story strip of rooms that look like they could date back to the ‘60s or earlier. For the first time I get a sense of what Vegas must have been like in the early days. Peering down the time tunnel, I glimpse its oasis appeal. Just for a moment I see Bugsy’s screwy, over-cooked vision.

Then all of a sudden the juke box comes alive. It’s Jerry Lee Lewis – “Cum honovah baby, whoo lotta shakin’ goin on.” All eight waitresses – tall and slender, short and plump, rhythm-filled and rhythm-less – form a line and start singing along with “The Killer.” They’ve got a whole choreography going too. Forget the smoke and lasers and the big production numbers: This is the best floor show in Vegas, and the only instance of flat-out fun I’ve witnessed since I got here.

When Jerry Lee quiets down, the waitresses go back to their duties. One walks over to me. “What’s it gonna be?” she asks.

“Meatloaf,” I answer, “with lotsa gravy.”

“Sounds good to me,” she says with a wink and walks off.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dancing With Mr. Demerol

The Fentanyl had vanquished everything bad except the itch at the end of my nose. Fortunately, the Chinese man with the upside-down smile had stepped over to help. He was standing directly above and behind me. “That always happens about now,” he said, scratching enthusiastically with an antiseptic-scented index finger. It was a good thing he was willing, because my arms were restrained with black Velcro straps and my ticklish snout was driving me crazy. Not that it mattered much. I was on the way out just as the surgeon, Dr. Low, was coming in. Still, even though the room was starting to breathe with me and I felt as if I were floating on my back in a pool of hot cotton, there was time left for conversation. “Do you know what John Huston said when he was asked how he’d lived so long?”

“No,” the anesthesiologist said, cranking up the sodium pentothal. “What did he say?”


Dr. Low laughed and the room filled with black light.

At the time I was living in San Francisco, on Taylor Street near Jackson, a few doors down from the Golden Lion restaurant, around the corner from the cable car barn, and the Chinese Hospital was the only health facility I could get to without driving. I may have had a volcano in my viscera but I wasn’t about to give up my parking space. The two-and-a-half-block walk down the steep hill was excruciating, but for some reason heart attack and cancer (which usually pop into my mind at the first sign of odd pain) didn’t occur to me. Apart from the intense discomfort, it was an exquisite ache, centered perfectly in my chest, alternately burning like a fist of lava and throbbing in counterpoint to my heart. If it hadn’t hurt so much, its singular symmetry and rhythm would have been a pleasure. Anyway, it was being taken care of now. Dr. Low was cutting out the devil appendix while I did the backstroke in the underworld.

Moments later (so it seemed), I was eased into a bed next to a window that looked out on a wall. “Who’s he?” I asked the nurse, nodding toward the old man in the other bed. “He’s your roommate. He had an operation just before yours. He’s a Filipino. He’s not awake now.” I could see that, but he was groaning. Then again, so was I. He looked to be about sixty-five, a small, muscular man with big hands and most of his hair still black. We were in and out, the two of us. He’d mumble and I’d grunt, I’d sigh and he’d say something in Tagalog. It went like that into the evening until the sandman, a Mr. Demerol, sent us off to sleep in our stainless-steel canoes.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in an all-blue world. I was seeing the lights from the nurses’ station glowing through the curtains that enclosed the old man’s bed. A cape buffalo had one foot where my right hip pocket should have been. I pushed the button and a few minutes later a young nurse came in, gently rolled me over, and gave me another shot of Demerol, then rolled me back. She seemed embarrassed. “Thank you,” I said, and she patted my ankle as she left. She was a young soul with an old heart.

“Tell me the funniest thing,” the old man said slowly.

“What?” He seemed to be wide awake.

“Tell the funniest thing that ever happened to you,” he said, batting back the blue curtain so that he could see me.

It was a reasonable request. I thought for awhile. “I don’t know if this was the funniest,” I said, “but it’s a contender.” As the Demerol lifted the buffalo’s foot, I told him about my flight to Paris a few years before.

“My friend and I figured that we’d be up all night and that it’d be much cheaper to buy a bottle of liquor instead of buying single drinks.”

“True,” he said.

“So as soon as the plane left Dulles, I bought a big bottle of Remy Martin cognac at the onboard duty-free shop. Then, being that I’d made the purchase, I sent my friend to retrieve a couple of paper cups from the restroom. We had to be cagey pouring the stuff because you’re not supposed to open the duty-free liquor on the plane. But we got it poured and managed a quick toast before the cognac began dissolving the glue that held the cups together. I was wearing a baggy cotton sweater and about $6 worth of Remy Martin dribbled from the cup to my wrist and down my forearm, and collected into a big cognac reservoir in the sweater’s elbow. I spent the rest of the flight sucking a mouthful of soggy, intoxicating yarn and ignoring the quizzical looks from the stewardesses. I got pretty looped.”

After an awkward pause he said, “That’s almost funny.” I had a tough customer on my hands.

I don’t know what his habits were in the real world, but I’d later find that in the Chinese Hospital the man rarely slept unless he had visitors. At night he came alive. He favored conversation between the hours of two and five in the morning, though sometimes he’d perk up as early as midnight. We’ll call him Leon. I had little to do over the few days I was in the Chinese Hospital but chat with Leon when he was awake, write down our conversations when he wasn’t, and dance with Mr. Demerol as the spirit moved me.

Right after the cognac story he said this: “Okay, what’s the saddest thing?”

“The saddest thing that ever happened to me?”


“I’ll pass on that one,” I said.

“That’s right,” Leon said with a slight smile as if I’d solved a riddle. “You keep it always here,” he tapped his head, “and here,” he pointed to his heart, “but you never say it. The saddest thing you can’t say.” I nodded and there was a long silence.

I came to like him very much. I liked his mastery of the non sequitur (unpredictable changes in direction can be invigorating), his peculiar curiosity, and his screwy, invented expressions. (Once, when I made a claim he doubted, he declared it “about as likely as a luau in Lapland.”) Leon was part imp, part gangster, and something of a mystery. He seemed to be able to pass from consciousness to sleep almost instantly. He’d be lying as still as a statue and then suddenly say something like, “I grew up in Los Angeles.”

“Really,” I’d reply, “I thought maybe you’d grown up in the Philippines.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re Filipino.”

“I’m not Filipino,” Leon answered. “I’m half Mexican and half Scottish.”

“I thought I heard you speaking Filipino.”

“No, that was Latin.” It was definitely not Latin, but I didn’t quibble.

“How old do you think I am?” This was obviously a point of pride (and, after all, the man had just weathered surgery) so I trimmed a few years from my estimate.

“Sixty-two?” He smiled.

“I’m seventy-nine,” he informed me with the justifiable glee of a man who’d just had seventeen years added to his life. “I grew up on the east side of Los Angeles where they used to call it Edendale. I lived there until I was twelve and then we moved here. The Mack Sennett movie studio was in Edendale. You know who Mack Sennett was?” I did. Famous for the Keystone Kops movies, Sennett has given Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton their first film jobs. “Constance Talmadge, the actress, would come to our house,” Leon continued. “My mother owned a coat with a leopard collar that Constance Talmadge wanted – real leopard, very luxurious. I think my mother finally gave it to her.” Leon was getting drowsy. “They’d give me fifty cents a day,” he said slowly, “and Mr. Keaton would chase me around for the movie. I was just a child, but I liked being in the movie.” And he was asleep.

In the morning an elegantly dressed Chinese woman entered the room, walked over to Leon and kissed him. “This is Grace,” Leon said to me. Grace smiled. She appeared to be in her sixties. I assumed that she was Leon’s wife. “I just go by Hang Ah,” she said holding up a large bag and pulling out several pieces of dim sum. “You have some.” And she placed a pork bun, two potstickers and a piece of shui mai on a napkin next to my water pitcher. “Don’t believe anything Leon say!” she whispered, making sure Leon could hear, and they both laughed. Grace took off her coat – it had a leopardskin collar that looked like the real thing – and pulled a chair close to Leon’s bed.

I nibbled at the pork bun. The morning nurse had encouraged me to walk as soon as I thought I could. I was so sore I wasn’t sure I could even stand, but I wanted to give Grace and Leon some time alone so I drew my curtain and very, very slowly got to my feet. By the time I returned to the room ten minutes later, Grace was packing up the translucent bits of paper that had wrapped the dim sum and Leon was fast asleep, making a sound like a motor boat with water hyacinths tangled in its propeller going through muddy water. I thanked Grace for the food, we made small talk for a minute or two, and she left.

Late that night, about eleven-thirty, a noise in the hall woke me. The room was blue again; the nurses were laughing quietly outside. At Leon’s bedside were two well-dressed men in their late twenties, talking to him in whispers. He seemed to be angry with them about something. They left abruptly. Leon pushed back his curtain and looked over at me. “My sons,” he said without me asking.

“They like to visit late, huh?”

“They’re night owls.”

Leon told me dozens of stories about his early life while we shared that room. He reminded me of my own father at about the same age. In his last decade my father’s memory for the recent past was nonexistent, but he could recall the most minute details of his youth. Leon’s memory worked like that. We spent many late, blue-lit hours in the early decades of the century, the time Leon remembered best.

Being in the Chinese Hospital amplified the feeling of being healed in the past. Built in 1924, it has a time-out-of-time atmosphere that carries over to the doctors and staff. The hospital facilities are entirely modern. The only thing out of date is the attitude of the people who work there, which harks back to a less accelerated era when brusqueness was rarely encountered in such an environment. The hospital nutritionist stopped by to see if I wanted American or Chinese food (I chose Chinese), then visited me again to find out if the fare was to my liking. The amiable anesthesiologist came in one day – smiling right side up – to see how I was feeling, and stayed for nearly a half hour, discussing the weather, joking about my itchy nose, and telling me more about my appendix than I cared to hear – “It was all black and full of pus,” he said cheerfully. (Later, when I married a medical professional, I learned that that kind of talk is considered pleasant chit-chat in the health biz.) Dr. Low, too, paid me several leisurely visits. The nurses were kind and funny, and enjoyed telling me about their children. The Chinese Hospital was the perfect context in which to hear Leon’s tales of his life.

“This isn’t a funny thing and it’s not sad either,” he said to me one night. “It’s more of a secret thing, but it happened so long ago I guess it doesn’t matter. It was the late 1930s – ’38 or ’39 I think. I’ve never told anybody this except maybe Grace. Nobody knows this,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I’d moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco. I was in my late twenties. A fellow I met one night told me about a job down in La Jolla. I didn’t have much money so I hitched down and called the number he’d given me from a diner. And the man hired me over the phone – never even met me. Guess who that was,” Leon asked me.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“He was the writer. The detective writer, you know? Mr. Chandler.”

“Raymond Chandler?”

“Yes, that’s who.”

“Amazing. What did you do for him?”

“Well, I would do all sorts of things. Odd jobs, whatever needed being done. And I would drive him some nights when he went visiting.”

“I’ve heard he was sort of a solitary character.”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “You know his wife was older than he was and she was ill, she was an invalid and he took care of her. And he wrote his books and articles.”

As he spoke I imagined the Chandlers whiling away the warm La Jolla evenings together. I’d been to the town at night just once. I remembered the sea smell of the mist mixed with the scent of the night-blooming cactus, and how sensuous the curved trunks of the palm trees looked when illuminated by the warm yellow headlights of slow-moving Bentleys. “But they would go visiting?” I asked Leon.

“No, no. Mrs. Chandler was bedridden, but she wanted Mr. Chandler always around. So in the evenings he’d work or read to her. Then, when she went to sleep, he’d go visit his friend. But by then he’d be a little drunk. He never showed it, but he was a big drinker, you know.”

“I’ve heard that,” I said.

“So he’d call me to come drive him because it was quite a few miles north, up the coast to Encinitas.”

“Who did Chandler visit? Was he having an affair?”

“No, not at all. Mr. Chandler was very much in love with his wife. No, see, this is the part you’ll find surprising I think. He’d go on these late-night visits up to Encinitas to see the famous Indian. Those two had become acquainted, become friends some way. I don’t know how.”

“Who are you talking about” I asked Leon. I thought he was being overly mysterious considering that we were discussing events that took place a half century earlier.

“The yogi!” Leon said impatiently, as if I was fool not to have known. “Yogananda. Paramahansa Yogananda, the great yogi from India. I would drive Chandler up there to the house on the cliffs above the ocean. He told me they often talked about his stories.”

“No! You’re kidding. I can’t imagine they’d have had anything in common.”

“They were as different as butter and bone meal,” Leon said in a low, comical voice. “But I drove him up there dozens of times. I met Mr. Yogananda twice. Very nice man, though he could have used a haircut. Mr. Chandler would stay for a couple hours. I’d go for a walk and have a cigarette or two, or sit in the car and read the Daily Racing Form.”

The conversation put me in mind of my world-traveling raconteur uncle who once told me about a fellow he met in London who – every time my uncle finished a story – replied, “Interesting if true.” It’s a line I never would have used on Leon, but his Chandler and Yogananda revelation briefly tempted me. The Demerol was trying to drag me out of the dance floor of sleep and I was trying to stay awake long enough to ask Leon a few more questions about the unlikely alliance between Mr. Chandler and Mr. Yogananda. But suddenly he was snoring away, so I gave in and let Mr. Demerol lead.

When I woke up the next morning the nurse was pushing a wheelchair into the room. “I’m going home,” Leon explained. “Enjoyed talking to you.”

“Why don’t you write down your phone number,” I said, my writer’s brain sensing story potential.

“I don’t have a phone,” Leon said (I knew he was lying, everybody has a phone). “But I’m at Red’s Place – just down Jackson here at Beckett on the corner – every Thursday night from seven ‘til eleven or so. That’s my night out. Come by. I’ll tell you some more. It gets better. You can buy me a drink.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Thursday?”

“Every Thursday.” He nodded and the nurse helped him into the wheelchair and put a large paper bag on his lap.

The next day I checked myself out of the Chinese Hospital. They’d been so good to me, I actually wrote a fan letter to the nurses and Dr. Low.

The following Thursday at about seven-thirty I caught a cab at the corner of Pacific and Taylor and had it deliver me to Red’s Place. I stayed for nearly two hours, drinking J&B with water back and inhaling the other customer’s Camels. Leon never showed up. I did the same thing on the next Thursday, but I came later and stayed longer, until about midnight. I also described Leon as best I could to the bartender, but he couldn’t recall seeing anybody like that.

On the third Thursday after I came home from the Chinese Hospital I walked down to Red’s Place around 9:30 in the evening. It must have been late September, but it was still a warm night and there were a lot of children playing on the sidewalks in Chinatown. A fair number of young, backpacking tourists were wandering around with the same dazzled, fey demeanor they exude wherever in the world you come across them. As I walked, the aromas of seafood, car exhaust and stirfry wafted about, blending together into the singular, unmistakable Chinatown smell that I’ve had in my olfactory memory bank since I was a child. As I said, there were children all around, a few old men, a few backpackers and, as I arrived at the doorway to Red’s Place, Leon’s two well-dressed sons. They entered just ahead of me. I ordered a beer and stood there sucking up Camel smoke and trying to make eye contact with Leon’s sons. After ten minutes of watching them in deep conversation I walked over to where they were sitting. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Leon your father?”

“Who are you?” the heavier one asked.

“I was in the hospital with your father. I saw you there one night visiting.”

“Leon’s not my father,” he said. “I just do some work for him sometimes.” And he smiled and checked his watch, and the two politely excused themselves and walked out.

After that, if I was in the neighborhood on a Thursday, I’d sometimes go by Red’s Place, but I never saw Leon and I never saw his “sons” again either. Over the next few months I pretty much forgot about all of them, including Chandler and Yogananda.

Generally, I don’t pray. I’ve never found it very effective. It could be my technique, or it could be my lack of faith. It’s foolish of me no doubt, because writers of all people need as much help as they can get – who wouldn’t find comfort in an alliance with a supreme being? In any case, though I didn’t pray for it – indeed, I’d stopped thinking about it – my prayers were answered. By sheer coincidence I came across the ending to Leon’s story in a basement restaurant on Pagoda Place.

I have a friend, Liz, who loves dim sum and I’m fond of it myself. About five months after my appendectomy we had a date on a Tuesday morning to meet at Hang Ah Tea Room. I like Hang Ah because the dim sum is quite good and the place is a charming dump, which means you don’t have to compete with a herd of people to get a table and you come away with that stomach satori that is the only thing any of us really wants (or perhaps one of two things). It’s the oldest dim sum dive in Chinatown and its cellar location gives it a tawdry appeal that the owners could probably cash in on if they wanted to, but thankfully have not.

On our way in Liz and I stopped in Hang Ah’s entryway to look at the Miss Chinatown photos. As we were standing there, out walked Grace, Leon’s wife. I might not have recognized her except for the leopardskin collar of her coat. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen like that. It made me think of Constance Talmadge and Edendale and Leon-the-child being chased by an as-yet-unknown Buster Keaton for fifty cents a day. It’s funny how everything can get all mixed together in a moment – it’s often like that in dreams, but you don’t expect it to happen in reality.

“Grace!” I said. I startled her. She didn’t recognize me. “I’m Doug,” I explained. “I was in the hospital with Leon.” She squinted and smiled.

“Oh yeah,” she said, taking my hand. “I remember. How are you doing now?”

“All better.” I patted the spot now occupied only by a phantom appendix and a faint hoofprint. “How’s Leon?”

Her smile wilted. “Leon’s gone,” she said sadly. “He passed on…one months. Just one month ago.” He’d been such a vital character. Even in the hospital he looked so healthy and fit that I’d figured he’d live another decade or two or three. I didn’t ask her what he’d died of. What’s it matter?

“Well, he was a great guy,” I said. Liz had drifted into the restaurant as I talked with Grace.

“Great guy!” Grace agreed. “We take him back to Manila for the burial. That’s what he want.”


“Oh yeah, he come from there, you know. Grow up there.”

“Really? For some reason I thought he grew up in Los Angeles. I must have got it wrong. Did he spend a lot of time in L.A.?”

“No, I have a sister there. We visit her a couple times, but usually she come up here – better Chinatown,” Grace laughed.

Now Grace had me going. “I guess he was a big reader, huh?”

“Oh yeah, he drive me crazy reading and re-reading those detective books and all about the movies and the crazy religions, but he always make a good living,” and her eyes started to tear up as she thought about him and I wanted to stop talking to her because I never know what to do at such times.

“Grace, I’m so sorry, but I know you’re going to do fine.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured me in a motherly tone. “Nice to see you.” She smiled and squeezed my hand. As she walked down the alley toward the street, I noticed her black-and-gray hair made an oddly dramatic lacework over the leopardskin collar – there was something bittersweet about it, but I don’t think I can explain it. I then walked inside the restaurant where Liz had already ordered pork buns, potstickers, shui mai and shrimp dumplings, and I told her the whole story, starting with the anesthesiologist itching my nose and ending with Grace’s leopardskin collar partly covered by her black-and-gray hair.