by RIP RENSE
TEA TIME IS OVER
sitting in the mouth of the corporate beast, its demographic saliva
dripping all over me, peering out through the fangs. I’m encased in
market-tested earth tone walls, a ceiling with air conditioning ducts
fashionably laid bare, and a few Pythagorean cut-outs of blond wood
suspended from above. Carefully approved “cool” surroundings, carefully
approved "cool" music.
I think this used to be
the site of a longtime L.A. bar with the marvelous name of Betty’s Pistol
Dawn. (Think about it.) That’s the most redeeming thing I can say about this
spot. I mean, that terrifying “Bijan---designer for men” billboard at Santa
Monica and Sepulveda is the big atmospheric bright spot out the window.
Unless your idea of atmosphere is watching the endless L.A. funeral
procession of The Driving Dead. Bijan’s iridescent choppers are about four-feet tall. . .
My more immediate view:
several rusted newsracks full of sex tabloids, L.A. Parent (the
possible result of buying sex tabloids), and the L.A. Weekly, home
of that guy who won a Pulitzer Prize by eating parts of poor animals that
were not meant for eating, then writing about what it did to his taste buds.
Inside, the inevitable
procession of the grubby, amiable, pissed-off, rumpled, overweight, all
line up for coffee. Unwashed guy in wrinkled shorts and T-shirt,
sunglasses on heads, dashes out, cup in hand, to a black BMW parked at a
meter he didn’t bother to feed. Hip Asian Dude with blonde crew-cut parks
gold Mercedes in red zone next to hydrant, runs inside. Lunk barks stupidly
into a cellphone, clad in T-shirt printed with “Brooklyn,” and Nike
sweatpants. Chubby chicanas shift on their haunches, crammed into those
jeans that all women wear that manage to eliminate all femininity.
Skinny blonde with a hideous latticework tattoo circumnavigating her upper
arm shouts into a cell phone on her shoulder, “OKAYCOOL!” The usual
scattered complement of suit/cellphone/laptop clones.
They come and go, these
wretches, with their lattes and caramel machiados and café vanillas, and I
think of the opening line from “Grand Hotel:” “People come and go. Nothing
I’m drinking some sort of
Casper Milquetoast thing called Chamomile tea, because I can’t handle the
acid in coffee. But of course, I absolutely reek of coffee--- burned
coffee---which should be the last hint you need to know that I am in
It was never like this in
the Green Tea Terrace.
The Terrrace was an
Algonquin Round Table by contrast. People got to know one another there,
at least some of the people, and they stayed and carried on conversations.
Now, for those of you who are not clear on what exactly a conversation is,
it is not where you tell someone about your screenplay, and he/she tells you
about his/hers. It is a circumstance where people impart ideas, and jokes,
and trade commentary with one another, essentially for the joy of it.
Nobody works an angle, nobody schmoozes, nobody networks (if
that asinine term is still alive.) I know, I know. What is the purpose of
that, you wonder? What’s in it for me?
Well, call it an arcane
pursuit still carried out by eccentrics.
GTT, in Westwood, a block and
a half south of UCLA, there was an intermingling that might---might---have
been unique in all L.A.. Yes, I realize that there are hangouts in
Silverlake and West Hollywood and Santa Monica and Ocean Park where
intermingling takes place. But it all seems cliquish to me. Either
artsy-fartsy types in strange black clothes, strange black hair, and lip-piercings,
driving ’64 Dodge Darts, or homo/bi/quadra-sexuals, or rich people dressing
po’, playing regular folk near a Venice that has not been funky in 30 years.
At the GTT there were
UCLA grad students and undergrad students and old folks from the
neighborhood and lonely middle-aged people with no jobs and the occasional
reeking homeless. There were waifs and naifs and old farts and vigorous
grannies and drugheads and philosophers and linguists. There were New Agey
marriage counselors and investment guys who secretly hated the world they
worked in, and I swear, not a single goddamn screenwriter in sight.
Okay, except for one
day when an aggressive, fashionably tussle-haired young fellow huddled
with a somewhat embarrassed prospective writing partner, and carried on in a
voice loud enough to suggest he owned the place, talking about character
motivation and back stories and all that awful crap. But that was an
exception. I nearly tapped the jackass on the shoulder and told him that
screenwriting discussion was prohibited in the GTT. Which would have gotten
a hell of a laugh from the staff.
You know, there were
comparative literature majors reading classics in Spanish, and “anarchists”
who had graduated with degrees in environmental studies, and French majors
and divorced fathers who came in on Saturdays with their kids, and
immigrants from Israel and Africa and Asia.
You wouldn’t have guessed
any of it from the outside. I sure didn’t. It was a narrow space, handsomely
conceived though no less plotted than a Starbucks. The Japanese
owners supposedly wanted it to be a “classy tea emporium,” and in a way it
was, but not in the way they wanted. Students saw to that---sometimes unfortunately, with
occasional hideous rap music and for one period of several months, incessant, deafening airings of
"Dark Side of the Moon."
I plunked down a
laptop amid its pistachio and orange and azure and whizzing machines as
an experiment, about a year and a half ago. I had first gone there for the
tea several years earlier, but it wasn’t until I started hunting and pecking
on the keyboard that I got to know the joint’s magic. I never intended to
speak to anyone, let alone get to know them. I figured this was L.A., you
see, and this just isn’t done. I just went there to work.
“So what brings you
here?” asked a guy one day, as we sat at a counter in the back along with a
couple of students, huddled over laptops.
The guy turned out to be
a philosophy graduate student who is one of the finest people I’ve ever met.
A rare mix of intelligence, compassion, education, decency, honor. I didn’t
know such people still existed in Bushcheneyland. We began a conversation
that endured for months, whenever we felt like taking breaks. Check that---I
joined an already running conversation that had been running there for the
five years that this guy, whose name is Ira, had been coming in. A
conversation that included anyone and everyone.
Some of the most
entertaining talks I’ve tuned into in many years were between Ira and a GTT
employee from East L.A. named Jorge. Jorge was curious, well-read, and
unschooled, and when the two of them exchanged notions about Aristotle, or
the nature of time, I didn’t know whether it was profound, or profoundly
funny. Or both.
There were employees
like steady-as-she-goes Lauren, a mainstay of the place since it opened,
and Shelly the Enviro with a social conscience as wide as the 405 will soon
be, and Dhana from Israel who did Brazilian drumming and martial arts, and
Tamara the Vietnamese-American who went to study in Spain, and Michelle who
was kind of like a young version of your favorite aunt, and recited Faulkner.
And there were customers like Roni, a middle-aged guy from the Middle East,
who always seemed a little sad until he had his matcha, and Craig the
Realtor, who loved to talk about better ways to get along in life (“not
everything needs to be resolved” was one of his memorable remarks), and
Molly the counselor who won a year’s supply of free tea, and whose genuine
smile made you want to believe in optimism again.
But about that matcha. .
Matcha was the lubricant
of the GTT, and until I had it, I thought magic potions existed only in
Wagner operas. This is powdered whole leaf green tea, and it is rife with
antioxidants, varying amounts of caffeine, depending on the grade, and an
amino acid called theanine which does two great things: it triggers
serotonin, which engenders happiness, and it facilitates a slow-burn of the
caffeine, so you don’t bounce off the walls.
Everybody at the GTT was a matcha addict. Every last soul. You could feel
the energy whip up when the staff laid into the Imperial grade, and the
walls sang with a vivaciousness I’ve not felt since I was. . .in college.
A funny thing happened
in the middle of all this: I got more work done during the 18 months at the GTT than probably the previous five years put together. I finished a novel,
wrote a few short stories, edited two collections of my essays for
forthcoming books, wrote the first draft of a first-person book about my
association with a rather famous personage, and tons of columns for this
It was the matcha, yes,
but it was more. I’ve been writing for the last 25 years in relative
solitude, and the GTT made me recall how much I missed the conviviality and
energy of newsrooms, where I spent ten years (fifteen if you include high
school and college.)
So now I’m back to
solitude again, or at best, vicarious socializing. The GTT is closing in a
few weeks due to, say many of the regulars, slipshod management and no
promotion. I am poorer for it. Many others are poorer for it. L.A. is poorer
for it, not that it will notice. And all the people brought together there,
by the matcha, by the energy, by the joie de vivre, by the pistachio and
orange and blue walls, will scatter.
To the corporate, coffee-reeking winds.
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