January 04, 2004

Part One of Two of the Huge Honking Trip Report: Ken and Keith...Westward Ho!
Please scroll down for Part Two.

PROLOGUE. 10:00 a.m., January 3, 2004. Jersey City, NJ.

About 24 much-needed hours of sleep later, I woke up in my own bed, in a room containing only myself and my own stuff, for the first time in ten days. A long shower, a cup of coffee, and a laundry-load later I was pretty fully decompressed, but there was definitely something missing from what I had previously assumed was my satisfactory life. Where were the 99-cent shrimp cocktails? Where were the amusement parks, buck-fifty huge-ass margaritas, desert drives, lovely beaches, or spiffy strangers offering me piles of Mexican food? I had gained a good night's (and day's, and then another night's) sleep, but just what had I lost? What had I left back there in the Mojave desert, buried like a local who went heavy on credit for Michigan and then couldn't come up with the scratch...

Day One. December 24, 2003. New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

If you're going on vacation, you ideally want to make the days leading up to it as horrific and soul-crushing as possible, so that the vacation itself will seem that much sweeter in comparison.

Or at least that's what I must have been thinking, as not only did I plan the short-notice vacation during my company's busiest time of the year, guaranteeing two weeks of hellish overtime crazy-making work, but Keith and I decided to fly a cheaper route out of Philadelphia, a city about 100 miles away from either of our homes, though theoretically reachable by mass transit. So it took us a cold, rainy walk and several hours of PATH, NJ Transit, and SEPTA train travel for us to even reach the start of our travels.

The long, one-stop trip out to Los Angeles was fairly uneventful, except for two food-related notes: 1) I had no idea that chili over spaghetti was a local Cincinnati delicacy until Keith informed me of the fact, inspiring us to enjoy two heaping bowls at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (review: beanless chili over spaghetti is pretty much meat sauce); and 2) Delta offers absolutely no food on their four-hour flight from CNK to LA, but instead has a menu of meals and snacks available for purchase. Just out of principle, I would sooner gnaw off my left arm and eat it rather than purchase food on an airplane.

But enough about that. Carry-on snacks eaten, book (William Langwiesche's Sahara Unveiled, which I picked up with the mistaken impression that one of my favorite journalists had written about our hotel in Vegas) finished, and plane landed, Keith and I made our way towards the baggage claim to be met by our lovely and delightful host for the trip, a dear friend and roommate of mine from my Seattle days, Emily Simon.

[Note: despite our repeated and completely sincere entreaties that she was a wonderful host without which our trip would have been infinitely less fun, Emily still labors under the false impression that she could have done a far better job. Again, she is wrong about this. Therefore, I will highlight with an asterisk all points during this narrative where Emily went above and beyond in order to make our trip more enjoyable.]

*Emily picked us up at LAX and drove us all back to her cozy Atwater Village home, where *Keith and I would be staying for five nights. We unloaded our bags, cleaned ourselves up a bit, and scouted out the sleeping arrangements ("cozy" being another word for "not really meant for three people to sleep in without any snuggling"). Keith and I were ready to face Los Angeles...but not before *Emily presented each of us with a Christmas stocking filled with goodies from the 99-cent store! Sure, all three of us are Jewish, but who gives a hoot when you're given delightful swag like Popeye chewable vitamin C tablets, a Spice Girls figure, a Spanish-English dictionary, and much more! And what did Keith and I have for Emily? That's right, nothing! Not thing one! We totally suck!

[Note: Both Emily and Keith have their own comments on the trip, which I will be inserting into the text when appropriate.]

[Emily: "Neither Ken nor Keith even remotely suck. You give presents on Christmas, for Christ's sake — I'm still half shiksa, and it's in the handbook. The boys had no attendant obligation. Besides, I was all punchy with joy about seeing Ken, adored Keith immediately, and had to show my love for them somehow. It was down to interpretive dance, iambic pentameter, or 99-cent-store stockings."]

But if Emily was pissed off *she had the good grace not to show it, and instead *drove us over to the home of her friend Richie, where folks were gathering to exchange gifts and enjoy a traditional meal of tamales. Now, Keith and I had never heard of this apparently well-known tradition, but we have never been one to argue with any tradition wherein a complete stranger piles us with excellent Mexican food. [Emily: "At this point, I would add that Keith immediately developed a full-blown non-sexual man-crush on Richie Rodriguez, and preceding each of the rest of the trip's social events, could be heard to ask plaintively: "Will Richie be there?" Apparently, Keith is a sucker for big Mexican punk rock drummers who feed him tamales. Ken, as usual, played hard to get."]

Suffice it to say that Richie is an excellent host with an extremely cool place (he has a full diner booth and a swanky bar with a brass footrest and a great fish tank!), and all of Emily's friends were kickass, and we all went back to Emily's place that night sated and happy right up until the point where I apparently woke everybody up with my snoring which would have been a continuing theme of this report if Keith or Emily were writing it but they're not so that's all you're gonna get on that.

Day Two. Christmas 2003. Anaheim.

If there's one thing that decades of dedicated television viewing had taught me, it's that Los Angeles is invariably sunny and 80 degrees, except for one or two rainy days a year for when they need to film Dylan breaking up with Kelly or something.

So it was quite the face-slap to set out Christmas morning into a gray, dreary Los Angeles, with an increasing cold rainfall that not even my customary reason-proof optimism could ignore. And just where were the three of us headed to on such a day? Why, only to the Happiest Place on Earth (and no, D'Lish, I don't mean Tijuana): Disneyland! And while the rain would let up on our way to Anaheim (causing us to reach the only possible conclusion: the Baby Jesus loves him his Disney), it was only a temporary reprieve before it would later return, colder and harsher. [Emily: "Apparently, the Baby Jesus is not so happy about Jersey Jews showing up for his birthday party. I swear on my life, it was like they brought El Nino with them."]

But that was till hours off in the future, and I was as giddy as a 32-year-old with lingering strains of immaturity. We passed by the entrance to the new Disney's California Adventure (like apparently everybody else), bought our admission tickets, and headed inside. And I immediately felt very, very happy. Yes, fine, I know I should have moved on to better things, but I was raised on the movies and theme parks, with my family visiting Disney World practically every year of my childhood, and I have always been fascinated by the spectacle and architecture and layout and everything else.

So we rushed off to grab some Indiana Jones FastPasses for later, and took a ride on every child's introduction to Borscht Belt comedy, the Jungle Cruise (still one of my favorite jokes: "I'd like to point out some of the exotic plants here. [pointing] There's one.... and there's one.... there's another one......"), then the Matterhorn, Pirates of the Caribbean and all the rest. I happily rode the now-defunct-in-Florida Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and devoured a giant turkey leg after being driven to craven hunger by repeatedly passing a family eating them on the zigzagging Peter Pan line.

There were a few disappointments. Both Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain were out of operation, with the latter undergoing an inexplicable two-year-long renovation. The aforementioned freezing rainstorm in the late afternoon pretty much sucked (and even forced me to buy one of those lame ripoff panchos), but it did ultimately clear out a lot of the crowds, letting us enjoy some line-free rides afterwards (two rides on the very cool Splash Mountain and one on the too-lame-to-believe Autopia). Definitely my biggest disappointment was the Nightmare-Before-Christmas-themed revamping of the Haunted Mansion ride for the holiday season. Basically, they took one of my two or three favorite rides in the park and replaced all the cool stuff with characters from a movie I don't particularly like. They do a similar thing with Small World, but that pretty much involves putting some red hats on the dolls and adding some Christmas songs (except in the Mideast sections, of course). It's probably a pretty cool change-of-pace if you go to the park all the time, but since I go about every five-to-ten years, I really wanted the classic.

Anyway, even though Emily was soaking wet and freezing, *she let Keith and I ride a few more rides before heading home [Emily: “Imagine yourself soaking wet and freezing. You've had a lot of fun, ridden a lot of rides, been outdoors for about eight hours. You're then asked: ‘you wanna go on SPLASH MOUNTAIN?!?!’ Ken and Keith's deranged ‘but we're already wet!’ argument did not, shall we say, hold water with me. I would never deny the boys fun or food, but I stop short at cosigning faulty logic."], then *tried to find Keith an In-N-Out Burger (the one place in LA he really wanted to visit) and *even stopped at a La Pizza Loca (he didn't have a turkey leg) for what seemed like hours before we finally made it back to her place for a much-needed collapsing.

Days Three and Four. December 26/27, 2003. Los Angeles.

Ever since I was fortunate enough to make the trip to Spain to view the breathtaking Guggenheim Bilbao, I have considered Frank Gehry to be perhaps the foremost artist of our time. So with our trip to Los Angeles fortunately taking place so soon after the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the L.A. Philharmonic, a trip there was practically mandatory. So after waking up, heading off to work, and having a fine breakfast with Emily (part of our Emily Fantasy Camp, which features a tour of her sweet office with a great view and a rundown on her pretty cool job), Keith and I *borrowed her car and headed downtown.

And the Music Hall in no way disappointed. Since Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for The New York Times, is slightly better at this sort of thing than me, I figure that I'll let him describe it.
On the outside it is a moon palace, a buoyant composition of silvery reflected light. Inside, the light shifts to gold. [...]The light playing off its surface is uncanny, though we have often been in its presence. It is the light of the silver screen and of the round reflectors used on photo and video locations: the light of the Hollywood dream.

Now imagine a moon apple: a hollow sphere of lunar light. Somebody hands you a knife and says, "Cut!" How many shapes can you make? Peel a ribbon. Carve out squares of curving surfaces, concave and convex. Change the dimensions. Turn some slices inside out. Tweak. Stretch. When you're done, compose the pieces into a flowering cabbage. Then into a cabbage rose. Rearrange. Magnify. Reproduce the contours with large panels of stainless steel etched to a soft matte finish. Jump in and soar.
I don't think anything will compare to what I felt when in Bilbao, if only because of the shock and the setting, but the WDCH is a wonderful, incredible building, absolutely stunning both inside (easily more inviting and effective than Bilbao) and out , and I say all that without having been able to see the centerpiece of the building, the performance space itself, which is not open as part of the tour. It is supposed to be equally incredible, and when I next visit L.A. I plan to see a performance of some sort there. [Keith: "Not to quibble, since the WDCH really is quite spectacular, but for a state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar facility, it would have been nice if they could have built a men's room with more than one urinal. I mean, we were there in the middle of the afternoon with no performances going on, and I still had to wait in line for 10 minutes. And the line for the ladies room was much longer. I guess they spent so much money on the fourth-floor garden that they couldn't afford to install an extra couple of toilets."]

[An amusing side note: Keith and I both enjoyed part of the audio tour, read by John Lithgow, where he informs us, while we are looking at the wooden support columns, that while "the columns before us support the weight of the building, they also serve a practical purpose."]

After the Concert Hall, Keith and I grabbed lunch at the Original Pantry Cafe, open since 1924: "Never closed. Never without a customer." The waitstaff seems to have been there since 1924 as well, and they bring you huge honking piles of food, including pretty much a loaf of bread with everything. Full, we picked up Emily at her office and headed out to Malibu for a few Shirley Temples and fish tacos.

That night, after dropping Emily off at her house, Keith and I took a little trip out to cruise the Sunset Strip, because that's just the swanky kind of guys we are! Of course, we didn't really have any plans or desire to pay the covers to get into the really swanky joints, so we ended up walking around for a while and grabbed a few beers at Dublin's Irish Whiskey Pub.

On the way home, Keith was finally able to have his much-anticipated In-N-Out Burger, though perhaps the saddest thing I saw the whole trip was the look of disappointment on his face when he took a bite and realized that, well, it's just a burger. A pretty good burger, sure, but still a burger. Oh well, we were still able to introduce Keith to the culinary joys of El Pollo Loco later in the trip. [Keith: "For my money, the best burgers can be found at the White Rose System in Highland Park, NJ. They're similar to full-sized White Castles (but with better quality meat) and they seem to have perfected the delicate pickles-to-onions-to-ketchup ratio. And the service is so fast they practically hand you your food before you're done ordering, then give you angry looks when you don't have your wallet out in time."]

The next day was probably the calmest of the trip, as the three of us took a ride out to Venice Beach and enjoyed an excellent brunch, then had a lovely walk along the surf up until the point where I got us all distracted by a nearby plane taking off and we ended up soaked up to our ankles. But until then it was great. I also got to see another notable Frank Gehry building, the Chiat/Day Office Building on Main Street in Venice. Yep, those are giant binoculars.

The Chiat/Day Office Building on Main Street in Venice.

The rest of the day was spent trying to arrange a rental car for our trip to Vegas, a seemingly simple task that ended up taking hours, and a fine Italian dinner at a local restaurant with even more of Emily's find friends. And that brings us right to...

Day Five. December 28, 2003. Still in Los Angeles.

I must admit that I was a bit concerned over the first meeting of the day. A fortunate coincidence had both the Whybarks and myself in L.A. around Christmas, so a meeting was obviously in order. Now, neither Keith nor Emily had ever met Mike, but they were very family with his work on the now-defunct Ken Goldstein Project, as well as the Ken Goldstein of the Week, and had numerous questions they wished to ask, many of which involved the words "creepy" and "bizarre." [Keith: "The word ‘obsession’ was also used a lot."] Well, as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Both Mike and his lovely wife Vivian were charming, with Mike answering my friends' rather pointed questions with friendly grace and sharing many amusing stories about our former workplace. [Emily: “Vivian Whybark is, in fact, lovely & charming. Mike Whybark is a dangerous man who is very clearly, and very patiently, stalking Ken."] Emily's choice of establishment was top-notch and Jewy good, and I delighted in my bagel-with-lox and matzoh brei. We all left fully satisfied, except for the poor bastards who were in that massive car accident out front.

From there, Keith and I headed on to Manhattan Beach, where Keith visited with a former co-worker of his, as well as her dog, who he once took care of for a week. They talked a lot of business while Keith played with the dog, and if this were Keith's report, the next five paragraphs would be about the dog and how cute and great it is, but since it's not I figure that I'll mention just how impressive some of the beach houses are. I guess I'm used to the beach houses at places like Seaside Heights, which are inhabited only a few months of the year and are designed to hold huge numbers of college kids without collapsing, the homes lining Manhattan Beach are thoughtful, attractive structures actually meant for real people, usually with a pile of cash, to live in year-round, and had the desired effect and making me wonder, like many of the people, places, and things we saw in L.A., just why the hell I lived in Jersey City. Well, I'm sure I must have a reason.

And then the trip turned a little strange. Everything seemed fine at first, as the three of us headed out a West Hollywood club to see the Moore Brothers, friends of a friend of Emily's. We arrived at the club about 15 minutes before the show was set to begin, then headed inside to find...well, at first it wasn't clear just what was inside, except that it very loud and largely...well, actually, 100% male, and definitely not a place where a quiet acoustic performance was about to take place. We headed back outside to regroup, at which point we met up with Emily's friend and went back inside to try again. This time we were met by a group of three shirtless men, each pushing about 350, dancing/hugging in a tight circle. At this point it was fairly obvious: we had stumbled across the bi-monthly gathering of the Parlour Club's Club Chub: the Spot for Bears, Chubs, Cubs, and Admirers.

Yes, that Club Chub.

We were certainly no closer to figuring out what was going on, and frankly, I was beginning to get a few looks [Emily: “Imagine Ken Goldstein, shirtless & oiled, gyrating to "Groove is in the Heart." I promise you, they were."], so we headed back outside to try and figure this out...maybe the stage was downstairs, or in a back room? Nope, that wasn't it. Maybe we're supposed to be at a different Parlour Club? Well, here comes the band, also with no idea of what's supposed to be happening. Plans began to be drawn up for a makeshift performance at the Starbucks down the street, or perhaps at the local house of one of the attendees, when we noticed that the guests leaving Club Chub were beginning to outnumber those entering.

Well, it turned out that CC was scheduled to end at 9, the same time that the Listening Room musical performance was scheduled to begin. If the Parlour Room's schedulers are reading this for some reason, might I suggest a half-hour period between your events? Emily was particularly interested in how the stark difference between the population for the two events created a rapidly shifting dynamic, so that at 8:45 we were the tiny minority being given strange looks, and then about a half-hour later the few remaining shirtless gents were the ones that were out of place. Anyway, the Moore Brothers eventually performed and were pretty enjoyable, but frankly it was a bit of an anticlimax.

Well, somewhere in the middle of that whole last bit Keith and I were met by Alicia, a friend from our college days (well, Keith had actually seen her a few times since then, but it had been many years since I had) who took over from Emily and escorted us to a few local swanky joints we would never had found in 1000 years, including Star Shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, where I enjoyed a drink and watched several breakdancers practicing their craft. For those of you not fortunate enough to have met Alicia, she's kind of a western version of Kambri Crews; if you have not met either Alicia or Kambri, we completely pity you. The night ended up with a tour of her and her fiance's quite amazing house up in the old Hollywoodland Hills, which now rivals the mythical penthouse overlooking Central Park East as my future home once my numerous ships come in. In any case it was great to see her doing so well, and I will definitely be taking her up on her offer of a place to crash should I make my way out there again.

Then it was back to Emily's for a few hours of anxious sleep, since in the morning Emily would be dropping us off at the airport Hertz office so that Keith and I could pick up our car and finally, triumphantly, gloriously, wonderfully make our way across the Mojave to that city of dreams...Las Vega$. Ahhhh....

Keep reading below for Part Two of Ken and Keith...Westward Ho!: Vega$ 2004 Baby!
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