Watched Pot

It was four in the morning, still dark, and Laura leaned against the counter and sighed. The coffee-maker burbled behind her, trickling the dark liquid into the clear pot – taking what seemed like forever. A watched pot never boils? Well, even if you don’t watch, they take as long as they like. She was in a sour mood.

The night shift was fine, usually. She didn’t mind starting work at eleven at night – that was when she was most awake anyway. She also didn’t mind dealing with the characters that came in and out of the all-night diner. Some were shady, scary even, but Laura treated them just as if they were a couple of middle-aged lovebirds stopping in for afternoon tea. Some of the more aggressive guys would try to hit on her, or else make fun of her relentlessly so that she’d snap at them, but Laura never caved. She was calm to such a degree that it made the thugs get bored and back off.

There were the sad people who came in, too; the prostitutes, makeup smudged, counting their earnings in a corner booth and asking for take-away pie for the kids at home; the homeless men and women who collected enough change during the day to buy a cup of bad coffee and maybe a bowl of fries; one or two crazies who wandered in and yelled about the end of the world or Jesus living inside them. Laura knew most of them, since they were regulars. The diner was the only twenty-four hour one in about a mile around. Anyone who worked or lived on the streets around it would come there instead of trekking over to the all-night Starbuck’s that was ten blocks away.

So Laura normally liked the night shift. The denizens of the darkened city and small hours of the morning were familiar to her and she wasn’t scared or judgmental of them. They were just there, and like anyone else, they needed to eat and drink.

Sometimes, though, like tonight, the familiar tired, worn out, or constantly tough faces were supplemented by others. In the big booth right in the center of the diner sat six of the rowdies, most obnoxious teenagers Laura had ever seen in her life. It was people like them that made her irritable to the point of wishing dearly to serve up coffee with spit in it.

They were obviously drunk or high, and they were laughing uproariously as one of the guys did some imitation of a comedian. Laura was rather glad they’d moved on to laughing about stupid stuff like this, because what had come before had been much worse. She already knew everything about their evening – they’d gone to Big Tod’s penthouse, and they partied there, and then they went to Shazzam, the biggest and most dangerous club in the area, where they’d partied some more, and then Trudy-O met them at the liquor store where they knew her and sold her whatever she wanted and they partied some more right there on the street until some cops came by and told them to get home or else. Instead of doing that, they’d decided they were hungry and wanted to sober up a little, so they came to the diner, where they unknowingly became the stuff of Laura’s nightmares.

Gangsters, she could handle. But these rich kids slumming it for a night? She couldn’t stand them. She knew they were just kids – probably just a few years younger than her, maybe even as little as two – but she felt that their naiveté was like a bad joke. They honestly thought they were living dangerously, taking risks, being cool. Laura could almost hear the thoughts in the heads of the other customer – thoughts of how much they’d like to teach these kids just how dangerous danger could really be, but why bother when mommy and daddy the lawyers will be swooping down on them tomorrow? No reason to create more trouble with the law than there already was.

Laura didn’t approve of harming people just because they were annoying, but she couldn’t help fantasizing about it, especially since these idiots had been mean and abrasive towards her, and she knew that she was going to get next to no tip, despite the fact that they had a big order coming. Including, of course, six coffees, and right now, followed by an audible whisper and giggle concerning white-trash waitresses.

The coffee-maker clicked off, the pot full, and Laura turned back to it. She poured the coffees, put the mugs on a tray, and carried it over to the teenagers.

“Here you go,” she smiled brightly and put the coffees down in front of each of them. She caught the guys staring down her shirt and the girls turning away from her, continuing to talk over her, as if she were invisible. No thank-yous came, but Laura smiled and told them their food would be coming out any moment now. She smiled all the way back to the coffee machine, which she refilled and started up again.

This time, she faced it. Maybe this way she wouldn’t be able to go back to the table to bring refills. No coffee boiled and brewed, no refills, right? So she stared at the machine, willing it to adhere to adage and never boil.

The H Cafe

The H Cafe is a small place, sitting right on a busy, noisy street. It’s a main thoroughfare between one part of the city and the other, and the sound of cars, trucks, ambulances and motorcycles is constant. There is also a cake store on the corner next to the H, that doubles as a plain bakery and cafe. It could be said, by some people, that the H Cafe is not in a prime location.

But it’s never empty. The waiting-staff don’t wear uniforms. Not even t-shirts with the H’s cat logo. The only way you’d know who your waiter or waitress was, would be because they came to you. And they do. They’re kind, sweet, funny and patient. They don’t get mad if you order a coffee and nothing else. They don’t bug you when it takes you a long time to order. Best of all, they don’t seem like they’re suffering, and that’s a good thing to see. They look, rather, like they happen to be asking people what they’d like to eat. When they aren’t needed, they stand around the register and talk to each other, laughing charmingly, but always with an eye out. If a hand pops up or a head turns their way, they’ll be there in a flash, still grinning.

How, you might ask, does it manage to have clients at all hours on such a busy and noisy street? The H has cleverly made up for its location by simply refusing to admit to it. The outdoor seating area is raised on a wooden platform, and is bordered on three side by greenery. The lamps that sit on the platform, entwined in the bushes, look like they were taken straight out of London in the 1920s. They’re picturesque, yet simple. The tables are wooden and often wobbly, but the chairs are comfy enough and you’re never in the sun or rain. During the summer, plain white fabric umbrellas rear their heads and give a pleasant tent-like quality to the place, while in winter the area is surrounded by glass and feels like a cozy, warm fish-tank.

The menu is small but with wide variety, the coffee is superb and the atmosphere lovely. It’s the only place in which I’m ever recognized and acknowledged as a regular customer. The H Cafe is a diamond in the rough.

Arrived

Los Angeles is one of the most special cities in the world. Even when the weather forecast announces that it’s going to be overcast with possible showers, you can still feel the presence of a bright yellow sun behind the clouds, and within hours the sky clears and that bright orb makes its appearance just in time for a last walk in the sunlight before dusk falls.

Beautiful as it still is and will always be to me, there are things that have changed. Nothing that’s unique to LA, but rather things that have changed across the United States. Melrose, the hip-happening street of fashion, food and fun, has now more FOR LEASE signs that it ever has before. Shutters are drawn across the empty store fronts, and the glass looks dusty, as if it’s been waiting for a new tenant for longer than it’s used to.

When we ate lunch today, a dark-haired, scruffy, tall homeless man walked over to the table behind us and took the tip that was left there for the waitress. We saw it, as did a woman inside the restaurant, and none of us did anything. It seemed to happen so fast. We all were sure he was going to take some item of food, but then he was gone and so was the waitress’ tip. What do you even do in a situation like this?

I’ve been taking photos. Too many, and probably mostly bad ones, but I’m finally going to try to catch some of the essence of this bizarre half-city-half-suburb in more than words.

I’m jet-lagged and exhausted and our trip took more than twenty-four hours. I think now is the time to sleep.

At the Diner

It was Halloween night, and fourteen people sat around one long surface made up of tables pushed together. They were a loud bunch, all talking and laughing animatedly, despite the fact that it was past two in the morning. They were elated. They’d just finished what felt like the greatest, best, most amazing and spectacular experience of their lives, and they weren’t likely to forget that night for the rest of their lives.

They were a variety – all shapes and sizes, both young men and young women – but what they all had in common was the sweaty, running make-up that none of them had bothered to remove. In loud voices, they yelled up and down the table to each other, congratulating a night well done and feasting on everything from pancakes to onion rings to spaghetti-and-meatballs. They were ravenous, having completed a feat to which they’d devoted countless hours over the last two months.

Anyone nearing their table would have been able to feel the warmth, friendship and fierce-if-fleeting love they held for each other in that hour. Even the tired waitress, decked out in forced-Halloween-uniform and looking tired beyond measure, smiled at the bunch, allowing herself to be patient with them and trusting that, distracted as they were with each other, they wouldn’t complain about the slow service.

It isn’t surprising that this group wasn’t the only one sitting at a diner at two in the morning after Halloween night. The booths were filled with pirates and princesses, butterflies and Peter-Pans, all of them young people on their way back from various parties. The surprising element was that of men and women well into their middle ages, decked out in elegant finery fit for an extravagant office party or dignified family event – and there were many of these at the diner that night as well, looking happy and content, conversing just as loudly and merrily as the young folk.

If the diner could have felt the happiness and excitement that was filling its tables and chairs that night, it would have sprouted wings and begun to float above the ground.

Sorry-Sorry-Service

The waitress was pretty, in a conventional way. Her hair was that sort of natural bright yellow that all those who dye their hair want to have. Her figure was trim but womanly, short without being stocky. Her eyes were big, brown and innocent looking. Her school-girl looks were probably the only reason people were being semi-patient with her.

She’d been running around tables all day. She had no idea why she was lucky enough to get this job at Patisserie Valerie, one of the most popular hangouts in Soho. She had no idea how she was there with her English being so imperfect. She also, unfortunately, had no idea whether or not she would be allowed to stay; so far, she was a disaster.

A group of three came into the cafe: a red haired woman, a girl in her late teens who looked like her daughter and a young man with dark, curly hair. They sat down at a table, and the waitress was shooed over to them by the woman who’d been helping her on and off all day. She bobbed over to the table and asked in her broken English what they wanted to drink. They answered, and the flurry of words was almost too much for her. She went to the kitchens to relay the order. Once she brought it, she realized that she’d forgotten two items. She hadn’t understood what they wanted, she supposed.

Asking about the food was worse. The young man, bless him, merely wanted the sandwich as it was written in the menu, but the woman and her daughter asked for all sorts of changes. Simple enough, if she could only understand what it was they wanted. She felt like her brain had turned to mush, and she only understood every third word, though she dutifully scribbled in her notepad obligingly the keywords that she could understand.

It took her three runs to the kitchens and back to make sure she had everything right. Then the kitchen botched one of the orders. She lost her head completely, and took the order out anyway, saying as she did so that she told the man what to do and he hadn’t done it right. She was about to set down the plate anyway, but the three stared at her uncomprehendingly and then asked her to please get them the order they’d asked for. They didn’t mind waiting, but they wanted to eat the food they’d ordered – not whatever the kitchen’s whims were.

The waitress felt the tears well up, but they didn’t break out. She quickly brought the things back to the kitchen. When she came back, finally with the correct order, she bobbed a sort of half curtsy and explained that “It’s my first day, so sorry, so sorry.”

***

The really strange thing was that when I returned the next day for another meal at the same place, I got the same waitress. It was, again, her first day – sorry-sorry – and again the orders weren’t done right. I don’t blame her. I’ve waitressed. It’s hard, it’s pressuring, and it requires some knowledge of the language. I do, however, blame the restaurant for not even pairing her with a more experienced waitress for a couple days. My mother tells me, however, that Patisserie Valerie has been known since she lived in London more than twenty years ago as a place with good food but notoriously bad service.

The food, at least, was indeed delicious.

Spam [Part II]

Part I

Ladonna had walked down several blocks at a very brisk pace before she stopped, shook herself both mentally and physically, and tried to pull herself together. It was weird, true. It was even extremely strange and unlikely. However, there was no reason to panic. In fact, quite the opposite: perhaps her lottery ticket would really be worth something.

Still, she was spooked. As she slowly made her way home, she shook another cigarette out of her pack and lit it. The smell and taste of smoke calmed her nerves, but only out of habit. She considered smoking as a sort of meditation. That argument had never worked on her friends who told her to quit smoking, but it sounded good anyway.

It was still early in the day, and Ladonna had the day off for her birthday. In the evening, she’d have a few friends over. They were all taking the train down to throw her a little bash. She was appreciative – she knew train tickets weren’t all that cheap and that the two hour train ride was a hassle for them. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she’d be taking the train over to them soon enough as well, and so she shouldn’t feel guilty. It was her birthday, after all. She was allowed to be indulged, at least a little.

Thinking of the evening, Ladonna’s mood improved as she walked along the streets back towards her apartment. She meant to cook up a good meal for her friends, and even bake a cake, and she wanted to get an early start on things. There would be alcohol, of course, and plenty of it. Her friends were planning on staying the whole night and get raucously drunk (though not really, because there were neighbors who wouldn’t appreciate that). Ladonna smiled to herself rather grimly as she envisioned the hangover that would follow and the too-familiar feeling of that odd and illogical peace that would settle in the house as she and her friends would drink cup after cup of coffee at her table and try to sober up. They had spent many nights and mornings together in this fashion.

Well, they’d all be nursing headaches and queasy stomachs together, at least. Oh, oops, Ladonna realized. All of us but one. Kate was pregnant, and wouldn’t be drinking. Damn, Ladonna thought, that means none of us will get as much drinking as we’d like done either because we’ll all feel she shouldn’t have to suffer us extremely drunk. She felt guilty immediately afterwards, and slammed the heel of her shoe down on her dwindling cigarette. She had reached her apartment.

As she was climbing the stairs, a man exited a door on the next landing. He had a dog with him, an obedient golden Labrador who sat quietly as he fumbled with his keys one handed. He seemed to be having difficulty getting the key into the lock. Ladonna then realized the type of leash he was holding – not a leash at all, but a harness. The dog was a seeing-eye dog, and the man must be blind. She stepped sideways on the staircase to allow him and the golden Lab to pass her, but the stairway was just too narrow and the man bumped into her just as his Lab sensed the danger of it and sat down to warn him to stop.

“Sorry, sorry!” the man hurriedly apologized. “My mind was elsewhere, didn’t hear there was anyone else here, I’m so sorry.” He gazed at her unseeing and smiled slightly, trying, she felt, to gauge her mood somehow.

“No, it’s no problem at all!” she mumbled shyly back, trying to edge around him. She hadn’t meant to distress him, and he seemed so worried.

“Say,” he began again. “Your voice is a new one. Are you new here or something?” Ladonna felt ashamed of herself again. Here was a new neighbor, a person that would be tromping up and down the stairs here just like her, and she was acting like a complete ninny, just trying to get away from him because she was nervous!

“Yeah, I am, actually.” She decided to do the thing properly, put a smile in her voice and kept on bravely. “My name’s Ladonna Trent, I just moved into the apartment right above you, sir, and I’m glad to make the acquaintance of a neighbor.” She then took his hand and firmly shook it.

He smiled widely. Ladonna noticed how sweet, open and friendly that smile was. This big man, wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and black tennis shoes looked simply boyish, despite being very much over fifty years of age.

“Well then! Welcome to the building, Ladonna! My name’s Steve, Steve Solomon. This good girl here,” he gestured to the Lab, who was sitting quietly beside her master with her tongue hanging out, “she’s Anibal. Anibal Solomon, really, since you could say she’s like a daughter, helping her dad around and all.” He grinned widely again. “We’re going out to the corner store. Need any milk or anything?”

“N-no, thank you, sir.”

“Steve’s fine, Steve’s fine – we’re neighbors, after all! If you ever need a cup of sugar or something, just knock on my door. Anibal here will get me if I’ve got my headphones on. She’s good about noticing the door. Come on, girl!” With his command, the Lab started to walk slowly and carefully, her harness gripped firmly by Steve, and led him down the stairs and out into the street.

Ladonna stared after them until they had left the dimly lit interior of the building. When they were out of sight, she ran the rest of the way up until she reached her apartment. It took her three tries to get the key in the lock, and she felt a pang of sympathy for Steve, needing to fumble like this all the time. Finally she managed it, and wrenched the door open. Without bothering to take the keys out of the lock or close the door, she rushed to her computer.

The screen was writhing with strange snake-like pipes that were moving and growing and then collapsing on themselves. Impatiently, Ladonna jerked the mouse aside, stopping the screensaver from it’s endless patterns of pointless animation. She stared at the spam folder in her email. There were still five emails there, from five different supposed senders.

Ladonna Trent was her name, of course.

Ronda B. Clements had been her waitress.

Ricky Charles had been the sole survivor of a freak tractor accident that she had happened to catch in a convenience store on the shortest, silliest news report of the day.

And now, Anibal Solomon had just happened to be her downstairs neighbor’s seeing-eye golden Labrador.

This was turning out to be the strangest birthday Ladonna Trent had ever had, and that included the one where her older brothers had tried, and succeeded for a few hours, to convince her that aliens were attacking the earth because she had turned eight.

Spam [Part I]

Ladonna Trent sat staring at her computer screen, which was displaying the spam folder of her email account. There were five emails there. Four were advertising something called Rx Meds [At Your Fingertips Today!] and the other one was advertising fake watches. The emails were from a variety of names: Anibal Solomon, Rubin J. Keith, Ronda B. Clements and Ricky Charles.

The rather odd thing was that the last sender of one of the emails advertising Rx Meds seemed to be from herself. The name Ladonna Trent was neatly listed next to the subject of the email. Ladonna stared at the email a while longer, wondering what the odds of THAT happening were. She decided the odds were some big number to one. How odd that it should also happen today, of all days, her birthday.

Ladonna abruptly abandoned her computer, grabbed her coat, keys and cigarettes and dashed out the door, only remembering when she got to the end of the hallway that she should probably lock the door, especially as she actually remembered her keys this time. The door made a satisfying click when she locked it and Ladonna wondered how just a small, round, metal bar could lock a door so thoroughly. As she walked down the stairs of the building, for the elevator was broken yet again, she continued to marvel at the incident of the spam email. Why would a woman with her exact name be sending out advertisements? Actually, the advertisements probably weren’t sent by actual people, but just by some company’s computer, and the names were probably just generated randomly. Still, it was strange to see your own name advertising something like illegal medications.

As she stepped into the late morning sunlight outside her building, Ladonna wondered what she should do now that she was out. It was her birthday, after all, and she wanted to have a nice day in this city of strangers. She had just moved to the city a week before. She worked for a large company who did big and important things, though Ladonna didn’t quite care what those things were. She only cared about what she was supposed to care about – whatever her boss needed. She was one of the CEO’s secretary, which meant that she made him coffee, took his phone calls and made appointments. She never really cared what those phone calls or appointments were about. The Boss had moved here to run one of the local offices, and as she had nothing much tying her down in her old city, she came along.

The Boss had met his mistress at a café near her house, Ladonna knew, for she had made the appointment with the mistress herself, so she decided to head there for a cup of coffee and a smoke. The café was a pleasant place with little white tables out on the sidewalk for those lowlifes of the American society who still needed to puff smoke into their lungs. Ladonna didn’t really mind being one of them. She sat down at one of the tables and waited to be noticed by one of the laughing waitresses inside. Eventually one of those fresh faced young women came out, still smiling from whatever joke had been shared by her and her friends.

“Hi, would you like a menu or do you just want coffee?” She asked, her smile changing to a long practiced polite little uplifting of the corners of her lips.

“Just a coffee, thanks. And an ashtray, if you could be so kind,” replied Ladonna, imitating without realizing it the empty little smile. The waitress came back within minutes with the frothy cappuccino and a small ashtray. Ladonna thanked her with the fake smile again, and sighed with delight as she took a sip of the coffee. It was good, better than the ones she made herself at home. She took her cigarettes out of her coat pocket, shook one out of the soft pack, and lit it with the lighter that inhabited her jeans pocket perpetually. She took drags in between sips of coffee and enjoyed a moment of quiet in a public place, something she had not enjoyed for a long time. It was nice to go to a café on your own – she had always thought this, but she hadn’t gotten around to doing it in a long time. She watched the traffic flow by lazily, with the occasional halfhearted honk, for who could be rushing on a lovely sunlit morning like this? A homeless man across the street pushed his cart in a seemingly chipper way, though he was probably just rushing to the nearest soup kitchen before it closed. A woman with three blubbering children walked by, trying to wipe the nose of one, pull the other from the curb and stop the third from spitting out his food at the same time. Ladonna smiled indulgently on it all, knowing that it looked lovely to her only because she was in a good mood and thinking how nice it would be if good moods really affected the world in some way.

Her coffee and cigarette finished, she waved the waitress over, and asked for the bill. As the waitress was bringing over the bill, Ladonna noticed her name tag. It said RONDA on it. The name tickled her memory so much that when the waitress came back to take the money and her tip, Ladonna decided to ask her what her name was.

“Ronda,” She smiled and pointed at the name-tag.

“Yes, yes, but I meant what’s your full name?” Ladonna caught the look of confusion on Ronda’s face and added quickly “It’s just that you seem familiar and I was wondering if you were related to someone I know.”

“Oh, then my full name is Ronda Bantam-Clements. I got both my mom’s and my dad’s last name. Could you be related to one of them? I know my mom’s got a bunch of family she doesn’t speak to.” Ronda nattered on about her family history for a while before Ladonna cut her off, saying that she must have been mistaken and she didn’t know her after all.

Ronda Bantam Clements. Ronda B. Clements. How odd. Another of the spam emails that morning had that name listed as the sender. What a strange day this is, Ladonna thought to herself.

The discovery of Ronda B. Clements made up Ladonna’s mind. She would go and buy a lottery ticket. Who knows, she thought to herself, perhaps a coincidental day is all that’s needed to get lucky. Ladonna found a convenience store, and asked the large man behind the counter for a lottery ticket for tonight’s drawing. He looked at her strangely, as if it was a very odd request, before tearing off a ticket with numbers to be filled in and handed her a pen.

“Here, love.” The man said, revealing his strong English accent and his penchant for calling total strangers by pet names. Ladonna filled out the lottery ticket, thanked the man and was about to leave when she heard the tune of the beginning of the noon newscast come on the television across the counter. She hadn’t even opened her newspaper that morning, so she paused and looked at the off-color screen to listen to the five minute news edition.

“It’s twelve o’clock, and I’m John Irving with the news. Three people died and a fourth was severely injured last night in an accident involving a tractor. The details of the incident haven’t yet been released, but Ricky Charles, the sole survivor, exclusively told our reporters that the incident revolved around a drug induced cult act. More details will be released later.

In other news, ‘Cereals are in danger’ says specialist…”

Ladonna didn’t want to hear any more. She walked briskly away from the shop, shaking her head and trying to understand what was happening to make today so strange. Ricky Charles, the sole survivor of whatever freak accident happened with that tractor, was another of the names on Ladonna’s spam emails that morning, and Ladonna was getting uncomfortably aware that something strange was going on today. Something she could not explain, something she did not even know how to describe. After all, it might just be a very odd coincidence. But what are the odds of finding your own name on a spam email, finding another spam-sender serving you coffee and discovering a third as a name on the news? Something about today is definitely off, Ladonna decided.