Homage to Chili’s


A lifetime ago, when, as my boyfriend puts it, I used to eat like a normal person, my favorite haunts were the Chili’s on Fallbrook and Victory and the Dan’s Super Sub recommended to my family by a contractor with no left-hand thumb.  Though I’d like to say my family was better than Chili’s – we weren’t.  And I very much attribute its constancy in our lives to me and my demand for a good grilled cheese.

My patronship started early on in my youth.  After baseball games, after softball games, celebrating birthdays, days when Mom didn’t feel like hearing us complain about not wanting lasagna again.  This was back before what I’d like to refer to as “The Great Sterilization” of the place.  We’d arrive, pulling the chili-shaped brass door handles open, and the hostess would greet us with “Smoking or Non-Smoking?”  My mom would insist we be seated as far away from the left-hand-side of the restaurant as possible, but not close to the kitchen or bathrooms, both of whose heightened foot traffic led to a relatively unenjoyable dining experience.  Intelligent as her motives were, the smoke always seemed to creep past the bar separating the two areas and hovered over our heads like premature death.  If they Awesome Blossoms didn’t shave off a few heartbeats, the second hand smoke certainly did.

It was a cozy place.  A second home, I’d like to think of it.  A place that I forgave its wrongs and praise its abundant rights.  A place where the green and Mexican flower motif tile tables were never clean by definition of the very word.  I would rub them vigorously with my paper napkin, scraping through the smeared grease to reveal its true identity.  Above the rows of brown faux leather booths were shelves stuffed with Americana – silver stars, vintage toy cars, tin can airplanes.  On the walls were yellow picture frames of sunburned chili cook-off contestants accepting awards from white haired, over-weight Texans.  These were the people that built Chilis, at least in spirit.  Years later all of the memorabilia was taken down, apparently too personal for the new wave of chain restaurants (Applebees, TGI Fridays, Outback Steakhouse, Cheesecake Factory on the higher end).  It was cleaner and streamlined, but it just never felt like home again.  Like when my grandma moved from a house with orange orchards to a stuccoed condo in Rancho Cucamonga.

In terms of ordering, my family was pretty predicatable.  There were few surprises.  Roasted chicken with potatoes?  Too fancy.  Baby back ribs?  Highly marketed, but too messy for practical use.  We were purists,  preferring things that could be eaten without forks or knives.  My mom started with a frosty mug of Bottomless Diet Coke.  By the end of dinner she had accepted about four unnecessary refills.  I would imagine her heart raced and her hands shook, but as a kid I never took note of things like that.  Most often she carefully paired this with a giant Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich – the only time I ever saw her eat something so greasy it would bleed through the wax paper surrounding it.

I don’t remember dining with my dad much before the divorce, save for a trip to a fancy Mexican restaurant during which I was strangely allowed to order crab legs.  I am pretty sure someone else was footing the bill.  My recollection of eating with him becomes more crisp after the enactment of post-divorce, court-mandated, Wednesday night dinners.  Each week I would insist on Chili’s.  A trifecta of cooperation could only be achieved if I stimied my brother’s campaign for El Tapatio – an extremely greasy, everything-tastes-like-pork-even-when-it’s-not-pork, “B” rated Los Angeles take on Mexican food.  I usually won on fear of group botilism.

My dad never cared where we went, and I hope he enjoyed spending time with us.  My attempts to recall specific conversations come back with lackluster results.  He’d order a hamburger and cut it down the center with a plastic-handled steaknife to make it more managable to eat.  Most noteable was his regular consumptoin of at least two very tall glasses of beer, after which he would drive us home and then head over Topanga Canyon to Santa Monica.  This is not a fact I ever used to justify drinking and driving when I got my license.  I was well awaare of the infalliblity of one’s parents and their ironclad rules.

It was there that my dad taught me how to really eat a dinner salad: always with extra blue cheese dressing.  it wasn’t that their blue quarter cup ramikens were ungenerous or that the blue cheese there was to die for.  The point was to cover your sald to the point that it was unrecognizable.  As my refined palate developed alongside my gag reflex I learned how to order for myself, customizing my salad to include every delectable aspect and avoid all of the things that would end up as sad uneaten bits at the bottom of my bowl.  “I’ll have a dinner salad with bacon and blue cheese, no croutons or tomatos,” I would instruct them.  This of course left me with iceberg lettuce, strings of carrot, and strings of cheese.  Here’s the logic:

1)  Bacon somehow disappeared from the dinner salad recipe during the mid 1990s.  The only reason this inconvenience didn’t bother me was that “Bacon and Blue Cheese” had a nice ring to it as I ordered.

2)  Crutons.  I don’t have anything against them.  Just wasn’t into them.

3).  The tomatoes were chopped and most often pithy in texture.  In my opinion they only served to sog up my shredded cheese and act as a bacon trap, robbing me of bits of tasty pig fat.

My dinner salad was always accompanied by a Dr. Pepper and followed by a Kiddie Grilled Cheese.  This was the most important, the coup de grace, the standard to which I would hold all grilled cheese sandwiches henceforth.  The white bread – toasted to a perfect golden tan, white and unmarred around the edges near the crust.  The cheese – gooey, stringy and beautiful cheddar.  The bed of french fries – peppered to perfection.  All that sat before me in a little mesh basket, I doused with a healthy amount of salt.  This was what life was all about.  These are things things I miss about not eating like a fat kid.

Phil would order Coke and Kiddie Fingers.  These were, of course, not the fingers of actual children but the even less anatomically probable fingers of chickens.  Appetizers were never the norm.  Occasionally, if we were in the company of ballers, we’d get to order nachos or mozzarella sticks – another finger-shaped food that doesn’t go by that name.  I suppose this is fair as cheese wheels don’t possess anything remotely similar to digits or other such flanges.

My second favorite part of dinner was dessert.  This was an opportunity to take our sibling rivalry out into the public.  An order of their Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae became an all out war in which Phil and I would shovel impossibly big forkfuls into our mouths.  The goal was to consume faster than the other so as to protect our rightful 50% of our sweet treat.  This was a battle my parents were smart enough to stay out of and often ended with me calling him a pig and stabbing at his spoon with my spoon.  Later I opted to mark my territory with a lateral knife mark down the center of the ice cream.  This was largely ignored by my brother who was faster, smarter, and hungrier than myself.

But like all things, my love affair with Chilis was not destined to last forever.  The Wednesday night dinners petered out quietly after I got my own car in tenth grade.  Phil quit baseball.  I quit softball.  My mom went back to work.  Years later no one lived back at home.  It’s still in the same place it’s always been.  I drive past it when I go to Trader Joes.  My brother and I will go there on occasion when he’s starving and cranky.  He doesn’t order from the Kiddie Menu anymore.  And I dont’ drink Dr. Pepper, use white bread, or eat Cheddar cheese.


Saving the World. Killing Animals.

I watch the baristas (if they’re male is it baristos?) at King’s Road scoop their potently dark coffee beans from giant gray trashcans into petite brown paper bags. That’s gross, I think. The fact that these receptacles have most certainly never been used as proper waste baskets for old food leaves my irrationality undeterred. I will forever associate a trash can with the smell of curdled chocolate milk and sour ham sandwiches. I’d like to not see my precious coffee being stored in such a container of ill repute.
You see, Senior year of high school I become quite familiar with these bins. A recycling club was formed by students and spearheaded by Dr. Foffanoff – a man whose name appropriately and with almost onomatopoeia-like accuracy described his demeanor, gait, and hand movements. His ambiguous sexual orientation was due less to actual ambiguity but rather the strict Catholic school that he had sadistically chosen to exist within. And of all things he was a religion teacher. You could almost see the self-flagellation wounds bleeding through the back of his button up shirt.
We were attempting to save the planet, to see further than beyond our upper-middle class and sometimes plastic surgeon adjusted noses. At the end of the semester we were to donate all of the proceeds of our recycling dollars to a charity of choice. I think it had something to do with homeless kids or hungry kids or kids without books. Whatever. The effort entailed topping the aforementioned cans with state-of-the-art lids, replete with a four inch circular holes, thus separating them from the “I don’t give a shit about the planet” cans. The idea was that if teenagers saw the shape of the hole, they would place things of the appropriate size…something akin to that blocks game everyone played when they were babies. X’s went in the X holes, Os went in the O holes, and if you got tired of banging them around to see what went where you could opt to just chew on the pieces.
As rudimentary as this plan sounded, it was almost impossible to illicit cooperation from my lazy and ignorant peers. Every lunch a few of us would stand up on chairs and make a reminding announcement over inane chatter about who hates who and who blew who. But our red-faced requests to “PLEASE REMEMBER TO RECYCLE!” were always drowned out by “Chad did WHAT to WHO?!”
Twice a week after school our group of tree-hugging blessed souls would snap on some thin latex gloves and dig through our treasure bins, separating the wheat from the chaff if you know what I mean. The four inch opening never appeared to indicate it’s intention. People preferred to interpret the specialized lids for little trash for little trash collectors to take to little trash dumps. Like Lilliput for garbage. Wads of chewed gum, half-eaten BBQ chicken pizza, open containers of ranch dressing, banana peels, etc. Fifty percent of the bins would be filled with toxic rotting shit and the other half full of germ ridden sticky cans not worth the five cents we were trading them in for. It was a thankless job.
One day, doing more of the same, we heard a panic within the ranks.
Being the good rubbernecking, eavesdropping seventeen-year-olds that we were, everyone ran to the direction of the squealing. By the front door of the cafeteria and up the stairs from my World History class, a blue trash can lay on its side, cans and garbage spilling out from it like a cornucopia. A girl stood above with her arm held against her nose. Closing in, we all did the same. Amongst the Tang, Pepsi, and Diet Dr. Pepper was a dead squirrel, stiff, having drowned in a mound of filth and good intentions.
The most ineffective recycling program in the history of West Hills ended soon after the slaughter. We earned about $51 from all of our manual labor and lunch hour PR efforts – a sum I would have gladly donated from a week of blending Mahalo Mangos at my juice bar gig. Anything if it would have saved that poor animal. Recycling kills. Trashcans are dirty. The end.

(What our squirrel might have looked like had he/she been able to pursue a long, happy life)


Review: Metric at the Wiltern

The curtains come up. I look over at Brett and yell, “It’s 30 Seconds to Mars! And that’s Jared Leto!” The guitarist’s hair is straight and shiny and as the light reveals him more honestly he more so resembles Michael Pitt during a beer drinking phase. The opening act, Sebastien Grainger, is a motley crew of queer doppelgangers. The lead singer wears a Nascar/Elvis inspired jumpsuit, looking like Freddy Mercury as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with facial hair. The keyboardist is a strange lovechild of Mario and Luigi. He’s got the height of his momma and the ‘stache of papa. He hangs a tambourine around, gyrates epileptically in his designated area. His curly hair shoots out of a sweatband and his stiff, white over-sized shirt reminds me of the waiters at the Red Dragon Chinese Restaurant in West Hills.
They rock out admirably hard for an opening band. They even go through the dramatic trouble of removing the whole band, save fake Freddy for a sentimental solo. He is bathed in the white spotlight and I feel like I am watching The Phantom of the Opera all over again. When he’s done crooning thirty seconds later the band is back on the stage perform the rest of the song. In between songs the singer makes what I think are jokes but he snorts them out pretty quickly. I can’t decide if I’m at an Eagles of Death Metal show or watching Dane Cook at the Laugh Factory.
Brett has given me a pair of white earplugs to soften the blow to my delicate hearing and I am appreciative. I do, however, liken it to wearing a condom. While you are safe and protected, you just don’t feel it. During Metric’s last song later in the evening I entice him to take them out for just a moment while they do a quiet acoustic set, just to hear the hum of the speakers and the rustling of the crowd…all of the details that get censored when you attempt to save your ears. When it sounds as though they’re going to crank up the tunes again, we slip the plugs back into their appropriate holes. I look over at Brett and yell, “It’s like playing ‘Just the Tip’!”
The earplugs have the added bonus feature of making the conversations around me more audible than the music being played on stage. The girls behind us are loud and yell things like “I love your mustache!” and “I want to fuck you!” and when the roadies are on stage moving equipment they yell “I want to have sex with all of you…at the same time!” I turn to investigate the age of these potty mouth horn dogs, guessing 7th grade in maturity but most likely 10th grade in reality. I am assaulted by one pair of ironic hipster glasses and four pairs of rather large boobs. I had assumed that their hollering and panting would cease when Metric comes on (female singer, Emily Haines) but these girls are unstoppable maniacs.
“I would go lesbian for you!”
“Emily!!! Emily Haines!!!”
“You’re so sexy!!!!!!”
“She’s so sexy!”
They’re right to be riled up for her. She’s petite and adorable and thoughtfully fashionable. She comes on stage silent and covered in a form-hugging, gold-sequined dress, platinum blond shaggy hair, and a sparkly Chanel-esq black jacket. They start playing. She headbangs dangerously while she toys with the keyboard. She is most definitely a good time. At the end of their first song a cobalt blue light pours over them and on us like a technicolor fog. The effect is used multiple times, interchanging between that blue and a gold that matches her outfit. It doesn’t get any less mesmerizing.
It’s a good time this show. The group to my right bounces up and down endlessly. The floor thuds under the pressure of moving bodies. I note that they too are about ten years my junior and I wonder if I’m too old to like this music. Brett reassures me that there are other people here our age and I stop worrying. A group of girls look at each other and scream the lyrics, dance holding hands, bound about spryly. I am reminded of a piece of myself. Their mother’s are probably picking them up afterward. For most of the show I am trapped behind two taller boys with shaggy hair, whose backlit forms open and close to reveal the stage like prop wooden forests in a ballet production. Occasionally the screaming girls behind me catch strands of my hair with their bracelets and I’ll feel the twang of my locks being removed violently. The place liberally layers the smell of vomit, Barbasol shave cream, and human sweat. Oh rock and roll, I love thee.


Rutherford Dr.

Up a winding Hollywood hill, at the end of an ungenerously narrow cul-de-sac, stands a 1920s Tudor style home painted brown and tan. It is meant to whimsical and in many ways it is. The realtor greets me from the door while I am still getting out of my car. She has short hair a la the Golden Girls and red lipstick that had been applied earlier in the day, all that remains of her efforts is a stain of the color on her lips. When she says hi she is friendly and jovial and well-intentioned. I walk through the door and understand that such a personality is precisely what is going to be needed in order to sell this place.
What has become a common expectation of mine in this house hunt are strange smells. One I am particularly fond of is cat piss and this place provides plenty. Confirmation of the owner’s pet of choice is in the form of two bags of Friskies near the entrance. The carpet is a deep and dark ruby red, obviously worn over the course of time to something more accurately resembling drying blood. The ceilings are coved and completely cracked with water damage, the old sooty cream paint often morphing into a muddied brown. Glass Christmas tree ornaments hang from the fifteen foot ceiling.
I ask the woman how long the previous tenant had lived here although the answer is an obvious “forever.” She tells me the man had been here since the 1940s and had passed away this year (not in this house she assures some other prospective buyers…a pair of contractors that leave within five minutes, knowing that this place is in need of more than cosmetic resurfacing). An easel sits in the corner, covered in drawings that I assume to be his own. “He was an artist,” she tells me, “An eccentric old codger.”
The place is categorically frightening, but an odd feeling of dilapidated calm prevails in this crumbling old house. I walk into the room with two chairs and “a million dollar view” as the agent puts it. And that it is. The house faces the entirety of Los Angeles…the beach, the hills, downtown, the flats, all of it. The clouds are big and rumbling today. It is clear. This man literally watched LA develop from dust. Piece by piece by piece the surface of the city changed in front of these lead glass windows. Airfields turned into office buildings. Barren dirt turned into shopping centers. Freeways sliced through stately neighborhoods. I wonder if he was sad about it. Disappointed in some way. This place was his city much more than it is mine.
I agree with the woman about the view and move into the dining room with lumberjack plaid wallpaper peeing away from the walls. From there I go to the kitchen and then out a door to the patio. The breeze blows hard from the beach and my hair whips back behind my shoulders. There is something about this place that reminds me of Disneyland and what would happen if its dreams were abandoned.
More details are provided to me by what has turned into two realtors, a man in addition to the woman with red lipstick. It was supposedly quite the Hollywood party place. “Swank,” she calls them. The owner was ninety-eight when he passed. The house is 2500 square feet. There are maid’s quarters on a detached lower level, complete with laundry chute. There is an attic upstairs…
On second floor are the bedrooms. The first is quite small and I try to relate to the gentleman realtor by saying that my brother always got stuck in rooms like this growing up. The master room shows the same signs of neglect as the res of the home. There are few things in it aside from an uncomfortable and dusty looking bed and a few old lighting fixtures. The next room is cluttered with pictures and birthday cards and stacks of books. An adjustable hospital bed points at me from the door. I offer that this was maybe the old man’s room but he tells me that he thinks this is where the granddaughter who lived with him stayed. Yikes.
The realtors direct me back upstairs and to the attic. When I am told that there is an inoperable bathroom there I sense it is less to tell me about an convenient design feature and more to warn me not to venture into it. There are windows on three of the four sides of the roof. This was his artist’s studio and I can see why. It is 4 in the afternoon and the light on the wood floor is generous and still.
Before I head down to the maid’s quarters, the man walks me over to the outdoor stairs and makes sure I watch my step. These people feel like grandparents and I want to have holidays with them. Twenty some-odd rough-hewn steps later I am in a floor of the house that hasn’t been occupied or used in at least thirty years. Leaves lay carelessly on top of paper thin wood floors. Slats underneath the walls peer out of gaping holes in the plaster. Window panes are missing. There are two industrial wash bins that were probably used before the advent of washing machines. The view is still spectacular and despite it’s ill repair, there is something quite lovely about it. At some point in time this housed one of the luckiest maids in the word.
When I walk back to the main floor I talk to the realtors for some length. I feel slightly guilty knowing that I am not going to buy this home. They offer to contact me about another that needs “less work” and I agree. I say that I hope someone else does right by this house and I do, if it’s even possible. I get into my car thinking about that house as less of a piece of property and more of a testament of time and of life, of how a house deteriorates as you deteriorate…everything sinking into disrepair until the day you’re not there anymore to care about it.


Celebreality Bites: The Poser Edition

In my experience, the flight between New York and Los Angeles has always been fraught with interesting characters. I once had the opportunity of sitting six bodies away from Catherine Keener, whom I identified first by her booming alcoholic witch cackle of a laugh. Needless to say, I felt very honored to be in the same vessel with such a talented actress. That and having a celebrity on a plane usually makes me feel more at ease with the flight, as I would like to believe that God would not strike down an aircraft carrying that variety of superior human. Celebrities die in private planes, not a Jet Blue Airbus.
More often, though, I am surrounded by people that God would gladly take down during Freak Accident Quota Deadline, weather permitting and myself included. Back in 2002, I got trapped in between a drafty window and an young vaguely Indian man who introduced himself as Anand Jon. I am tirelessly wary of people who introduce themselves to you using both their first and last name. These are people who want to establish “Names” for themselves. These are people who want you to remember them down the road. These are people desperately attempting to prematurely stake out a legacy for themselves or are sociopaths who believe they’ve already done so. These people are douche bags. Apparently Anand Jon does double duty, also taking some time out of his busy schedule being a lame ass to design clothes.
Quickly into the flight, Anand Jon puts his press kit in my lap. At this point in my life I was a first year Communications student who got drunk on Long Island Iced Teas because it was economical. I bought burnt orange Jones New York sweaters from Century 21. The closest thing I had come to regular perusal of a fashion magazine were the issues of Seventeen I subscribed to back in middle school where I learned to mash avocado and mayonnaise together as a remedy for dull hair. I had no idea what a press kit was or what designers were cool. Nothing. I was delightfully immune to the whole machine; as immune as someone who had grown up in South Jersey.
So when the black binder of magazine clippings and badly written articles gets passed my way I did not know that I should have pretended I didn’t speak English and ask him to kindly leave me alone in the universal language of physical violence. Nor do I laugh in his face and tell him he’s an attention grubbing egomaniac and I’m just a college student who really doesn’t care about his clothing line. Instead, I politely flip through page by page while he breathes over me, superfluously pointing out which pictures were of him with Paris Hilton.
Despite being an age when I was not so fashionable, I recognized that these bedazzled, Bollywood-inspired hankerchief dresses were not fashion. Wet Seal wouldn’t even sell this stuff. But I smiled and placated, said “Wow…” a few times. And eventually the flight was over.
Aside from the irritation I developed like a light rash from the five hours I spent being a captive audience for the equivalent of an Amway salesperson, I also honed in on something else. This guy was creepy. The creep seeped out of his pores and over his seat and into my seat. This was before I really developed a radar for this kind of thing. But humans are animals and the “Fight or Flight” instinct is alive and well. I surmise to guess that the only thing stopping Mr. Jon from touching me inappropriately was the plane full of bothersome witnesses.
A few years later I get a casting to shoot for his clothing line. The address is on Maple Street, a residential area. I realize it is his apartment when I park my car. This is something that happens often in this industry and goes against all common sense and rules of safety that your mother teaches you when you’re in kindergarten. Hold hands when crossing the street, don’t eat candy you find on the bathroom floor, when a strange man asks you to come into his car/house/pants you run away screaming “Fire! Fire! Fire!” A few months into modeling I had to put all of this training behind me for the sake of actually booking work. Although I do admit that in the beginning I would say a little prayer and hope that this wasn’t the last casting I would ever go on.
When I got inside, there were a few other girls trying on jeans. He was in the living room taking pictures with a digital camera. There was no music. There were no sounds. Just the eerie quiet that usually signifies ill intentions or judgment (most often it’s just judgment). When he didn’t recognize me I decided not to offer our shared plane trip as a proverbial olive branch. He pointed to the bathroom and told me to try on a pair of jeans on the counter. There was another girl in the bathroom. She was quiet as she pulled on her pants.
A sneaking suspicion crept over me that it would be reasonable to think that he had cameras hidden in between towels and toilet paper rolls and that this casting was only a ruse to acquire more footage for his personal perv collection. “At least I’m not getting raped outright,” I think reassuringly.
I leave the casting and like hundreds of times before, I don’t book the job. This time I really didn’t care. I do, however, take interest when three months later I hear that Anand Jon has been arrested for the sexual abuse of minors and young women, some models. Apparently instinct isn’t as sharp in some people and for this I am terribly sorry.

When I Google Anand Jon, a website comes up asking to support him in the egregious injustice he faces. There is a quote from Ghandi and a picture of him looking like a doe-eyed, innocent angel. Even facing life in prison, this guy is a completely ridiculous tool.