Gateways

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AS LONG as I can remember, I have been obsessed trains. Not just the grand locomotives and passenger cars, but the stories that fill and surround them, the symphony of comings and goings that comprise the story of railstations

Growing up,  I connected the trip across town to Union Station with the much-anticipated visits from my New Orleans grandfather. Although he’s now been gone more years I had with him,  I still do; I still hope to be the first to spot him in his stingy-brim straw fedora  and his crisp summer blazer, keeping his own rhythm. Union Station — the “Last Great Station” was his daughter’s —  my mother — gateway into Los Angeles as well; it was her first glimpse of the “pretty city.” These stories still swirl around inside me, feel very present so many decades gone.

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of Union Station and to commemorate  there are a couple of new books  about the station and an exhibit at downtown’s Central Library that opens next week. All of it serves to celebrate this auspicious milestone, and so I know that this means similar there-to-here narratives still swirl around within many other Angelenos, as well.

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Yesterday on my way to a meeting, I passed through the terminal and found myself lingering — dithering, really —   taking in all the busy rehab and refurbishing progressing  around me. I’m still sad about the now roped-off leather chairs  that edge the concourse.  An intricate web of scaffolding  laced across the grand entrance windows. Crews in hard hats and emergency-hued-neon vests spidered up ladders. There are both subtle and dramatic signage changes you’ll encounter; new destination and arrival boards and even the ceiling has been given a big scrubbing so you can glimpse the beautiful tile and wood. As happy as I was to see so much effort put into beautifying the building (readying it for its birthday close-up) — it’s hard to watch the change from the past to the future. I don’t want all of the those stories, conversations, memories to be stripped away.

As I made my way from across the concourse to meet my ride, a lone traveler stopped me. She didn’t have a question,  she wasn’t lost, I quickly discerned. She just wanted to chat. She was from the South — Arkansas — and was staying with her daughter and son-in-law, she told me. Her story circled around: She’d been in L.A. for three days and in that time had criss-crossed the region, “pretty remarkably,” I had to tell her, for such a short stay. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I don’t want to wear out my welcome. I want to be invited back. Longer next time.” Before I knew it, I was being introduced to the daughter and the son-in-law. It was like something out of not just another place or another time — but another lost impulse.

What made her stop me? I don’t know. She said it was “something about my face.” But the reassuring message I took away from our intersecting was that despite upgrades, the elbow-grease that was rapidly sloughing off  generations of dust and more, was that there was something about the spirit of that place — of train stations — that still encourages old-fashioned encounters — conversations and stories  that don’t have goals but rather are gateways to something else — a need to make all manner of connections.

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Pen to Paper

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THIS WEEKEND is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I have friends descending, all eager to take part. However, I have a weekend of writing in front of me, so the next couple days will be about prioritizing and balance. I have been thinking a lot about the working-writer’s life a lot especially after reading Susan Straight’s wonderful essay for the L.A. Times about the perception of what the writer’s life is and the reality of trying to steal time between all else stacked up in front of you.

From her piece:

“I wrote the stories in my first book by hand, in these places: at the counter of the Mobil station where I worked in 1979, between customers, eating beef jerky and stale cashews out of the nut mix no one ever bought from the cloudy glass compartments beneath my notebook; sitting on a huge rock at the beach in Rosarito, Mexico, in 1983 after my husband fell asleep in the tiny hotel where we spent our two-night honeymoon, writing in my notebook; sitting at a card table in married student housing in 1984 in Amherst with the small blue Smith-Corona my mother had given me for high school graduation . . . ”

Back in college, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a writer, I worked in a bookstore. Nightly, after our brisk pre-dinner rush and between cash-register duties, I would write on yellow pads until we closed at 9PM. During the day, I often wrote through my geography or philosophy class lectures (an idea springing up, rolling into something else) or would steal some time in a secret corner library carrel near a window before I met friends for dinner. I too always wrote in longhand. Even years later when I was writing full time for a newspaper, I sometimes scratched out ideas for a story or an essay on the hard cardboard covers of my reporter’s notebook. While I was teaching, I carried an extra slim composition-style book just to set down dialogue or an observation — fragments of things that I hoped might grow into stories — fiction or essays or something in between.

The longhand notes and paragraphs symbolized something separate, a different creative trail, a different purpose.

One of the most valuable writing workshops I ever took wasn’t in graduate school. It was an after-work session with a poet who explained at the outset that you create a “writer’s retreat” when you create the space within your crowded day to write. Only we could do it. Only we could honor that time. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve thought about it ever since. I’ve written in hospitals, in movie theaters before the lights have dimmed, at the mechanic — marooned between places. And yes, even in my car — like Susan Straight.

Her piece was an essential reminder that that “room” is really inside of you. You simply find a way — and space — to write.

You must.

To read the rest of Susan’s essay go here.

more jazz appreciation

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I’M ROUNDING the final stretch of Thomas Brothers’ 2006 book Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans and just stumbled upon this dreamy quote of Sidney Bechet’s :

‘No matter what he’s playing, it’s the long song that started back there in the South. It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them. There’s a pride in it, too. The man playing it, he makes a place. For as long as the song is being played that’s the place he’s been looking for. And when the piece is all played and he’s back, it may be he’s feeling good … Maybe he starts wanting the place he found while he was playing the song.’

… sad that this one is almost over … I have learned so much ….

some jazz appreciation

OF THE many Thelonious Monk quotes that get tossed around (and there are a plenty many), my favorite is his answer to the much-asked question “Where is Jazz going?”

Monk’s retort was quick and sharp: “Where’s jazz going? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”

I was reminded of this the other night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as a friend and I settled in into a nice aerie of seats above the stage for a concert featuring pianist Brad Mehldau and his trio and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman fronting his quartet. Tables turned, I for once was the very happy “plus-one” this evening. redman

I had spent so much of my early jazz-listening days running around hoping I could hear the last of the masters play in person. I got to see many — Elvin Jones, Stan Getz, Max Roach. But there were so many I had missed, some by just a hair. It always hit hard when a name would float up in an obituary, another one down, another one gone. It was like chasing ghosts.

What I heard in Wednesday night’s show was sure evidence of the past and a promise for the future. Music 2012 Brad Mehldau Where Do You Start Two master musicians in the prime of their playing years showing not telling and, in the process, eloquently answering that question. Mehldau’s set was a study in flowing introspection — standards, originals and a props-nod to lesser-known players of the bebop/post-bop era (Case-in-point: You bet I went home and pulled out some Elmo Hope). Redman’s quartet came out swinging — literally: A solid, mood- shifting groove. The quartet went on to lay out a collage of tunes that were pulled both from the American Songbook (a crack-your-heart-wide-open interpretation of “Stardust” for one) and originals — late in the set Redman stared down one his own compositions “GJ”, which he introduced with this admission. “Well, I wrote it, now I’ve got to stick with it.”

And sewn within that tossed off remark, yet another promise.

Here’s that nod to Elmo Hope that sent me digging:

Jazz Appreciation month is off to a very good start …