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L.A. at Large

The Clientele Is the Late Show at the Pikme-Up Cafe

February 10, 1988|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

When that 2 a.m. shroud has wrapped itself around L.A. nightlife, when you've despaired that all the fun house doors have been bolted, the sidewalks rolled up-- don't . There is the pikme-up espresso bar/gallery: caffeine at 4 a.m. for the despairing, intellectual companionship for the hungry of mind, art for the soul.

Its elements, habitues say, reconstitute the avant-garde coffeehouses of the beat generation and their contemporary manifestations in other cities.

Unique for Los Angeles, they say.

"Well, you don't find too many places in L.A. with people reading, for one thing," says a patron named Doug, a political science student at Loyola Marymount College who was born in El Salvador.

"It's also the best place in town to get one of these, a cafe au lait ," says his friend, Tracey.

A lithe man in blue jeans sits curled in a worn armchair. His blond hair, sprouting from dark roots, falls easily to the left of his forehead. He is angular--lean face, pointed chin--but has the softness of youth. He is adamant in expressing ideas--but gentle in manner. He's an artist and 23.

The work of friend and fellow artist Kyle Brackett hangs behind him, its layer upon layer of primary colors so bold the art seems kinetic.

"The way he keeps layering his colors, he gets a lot of depth," says the aesthete in the armchair, who goes by the name Freddie Lee. "There are only three things in (Brackett's) life--cigarettes, coffee and painting. That's why we get along so well. Those are the only things in my life . . . and you don't need anything else. You don't even need a house." He pauses. "I had a wife; that didn't work."

He takes a drag on his cigarette and sketches his listener, quickly forming on paper a subjective abstraction of the environment.

"This is the place where a new thing is starting up," says Lee of the cafe. "The next wave of a creative outlet for the populace is going to be through artwork. We feel it, people are going out and looking at artwork, people are taking young artists seriously. . . . Old artists are dying out and new art's being bought instead of guys making art to order. And this is one of the places where it's going to happen."

He scans the packed cafe, a high-ceilinged, boxy structure on West 6th Street between La Brea Avenue and Detroit Street, which stays open until 2 a.m. most nights, until 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The music is vintage rock, African high life, blues.

"Coming here on a Saturday night you're getting a rare phenomenon--the 'hit-on' crowd," says Lee, an art student at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. "A lot of guys hitting on girls, girls hitting on guys. It's like a pickup coffeehouse at this hour. But what I like about this place is that it's usually not like this. You can sit down with a woman at a table without her being threatened that you have one thing on your mind."

It is near 11 p.m. on Saturday and the line to the espresso bar counter is backed out into the street. Patrons occupy chairs as if at home in their living rooms. At a counter for four, a couple chat, a man reads the Nation. On a faded, light green velvet sofa with fringe at its base, a couple are glued together. At the other end of the couch, a man engrossed in his own world sips cappuccino and reads a book.

Between late night and 2 a.m., the character of the crowd will change. The college-age crowd will give way to an older, louder, often drunker crowd trying to come down from booze and drugs, says co-owner Jerry McKenna.

"But the turnover is nice; the people are always on their way," says the proprietor, a soft-spoken man who eschews publicity. He says descriptions of the cafe that have appeared in print since he and partner Tawny Featherston opened last year have been off the mark.

" 'There were boys with ponytails and kilts,' " he quotes one account as saying. "I did see a boy in a tutu in here once, but that was on Halloween.

"We do laugh about it," McKenna says of the publicity. "But if they just could get the gist of what we are about. We are an art gallery, an alternative meeting space. We do poetry here every other Sunday because there is a need for that. We have had benefits for the homeless here, an animal rights benefit. We just opened the space as an alternative for anyone who wants to use it, not for selfish purposes."

Those Late Hours

The result is that business has been "incredible," McKenna says.

Their late hours are a draw for night owls who are frustrated that "everything closes down and the sidewalks roll up at a certain hour" in Los Angeles.

What Los Angeles lacks, he continues, "is a sense of neighborhood," a place where people know they can meet people with shared interests. His cafe is in one of the few areas of town that have that feeling of community, he believes.

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