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Where Kids Visit Strangers and Dream While They're Awake

Around The Valley

May 25, 1995|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The small, red signs in the Sherman Oaks coffeehouse spell out the deal. If it's after 8 p.m. and you want to hang around, be prepared to drop four bucks.

In 1995 Los Angeles, a shrewd panhandler can pick up that much in 20 minutes.

The $4 minimum, insists Rosanna Movsessian--a regular who sports a nose ring, numerous earrings and five silver rings on her 10 fingers--is partly an effort to limit the presence of "twerps."

"But," says Movsessian, "a lot of twerps \o7 do\f7 hang out here.

She thinks for a moment.

"I guess you could consider \o7 us\f7 twerps."

It used to be that coffeehouses drew essentially two crowds--the working folks who stopped by on their way to the office or the shop, and the college crowd, who took the night shift, moving in with textbooks, tortured philosophical debates and artsy visions.

Many Los Angeles cafes, though, have been claimed by an increasingly younger group, many too young to vote and some too young to drive. They have become smoke-filled way stations for the alternative set, a meeting place for angst-filled skateboarders, philosophers in baggy pants, teen poets and musicians.

For some, the low-light hangouts have taken the place of high-school clubs. For others, they have taken the place of absent parents.

"There's a lot of kids in here who have no mothers, no fathers," says Heather O'Brien, 19, who came to Insomnia seeking a "refuge" and soon wound up behind the counter. "The group in here has become so familiar with each other, so familiar with the setting, that it has become a homelike atmosphere."

Many of the young patrons have some portion of their bodies tattooed, pierced or dyed. But far more of them order sodas and hot chocolate than black coffee, says Michelle, an 18-year-old waitress who found a home at Insomnia after landing in town last year from Huntsville, Ala.

"Fifteen to 19" is the predominant age range here, says Movsessian, who, at 21, is something of an elder. "But," she says with a slight grimace, "there are, like, a few 30- to 40-year-olds."

A very few this recent night.

It is open-mike night at Insomnia. A girl comes through the door with a battered acoustic guitar, followed by a boy with a shiny one. A dwarf walks around with a well-worn flute, waiting his turn on the makeshift stage, and a full-blown band hangs out by the door.

One girl does a slow rap version of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle." Then a duo performs a silly house version of Billy Joel's "Piano Man," slipping in names of friends in the audience and altering the line "The microphone smells like a beer" to "The microphone smells like a mocha."

Most of the performers, though, take advantage of the intimate setting to ask the age-old teen questions about the meanings of life, love and sex and generally bemoaning their existential dilemma.

"I have all this depression inside me," one young man cries, sweat dripping from his forehead onto his guitar. "I have all this depression inside me. I have all this depression inside me. . . ."

He looks depressed, too.

Becky Harris, fair-skinned and clad entirely in black, is a crowd favorite--partly because everyone who has spent an evening here knows her and partly because her powerhouse voice and simple, impassioned songs demonstrate a maturity well beyond her years--just 16 of them.

She has been coming here "every . . . day, especially since I got my license."

And every night.

It is past 11 now, and the crowd has yet to reach its peak. Many will stay until 2 or 3 in the morning or later. Among those not sprawled on one of the weathered sofas or standing up for a better view, many will be packed around the handful of tables on the east side of the narrow cafe playing relentless gin rummy.

Gesmay, a 21-year-old business student at Santa Monica College, has been coming here "every day for 2 1/2 years."

"And he's proud of it," chides Kaminsky, 20, who says she has been visiting two or three times a week for two years.

Gesmay explains the layout of the place to a newcomer.

"That's the AA place over there," he says, pointing to the collection of dingy, comfortable couches. Gesturing to another area: "The crazies are there. And the rummy players are over here."

John Dunn, owner of Insomnia, says he's spent only $50 on promoting the quirky cafe since it opened three years ago. But MTV interviews with the stars of the series "My So-Called Life"--a hit with Deep Thinker Youth--that were filmed at the cafe have brought teens from as far away as San Diego. The plugs on KROQ-FM's "Love Line," a sex-and-drugs call-in show for teen-agers, didn't hurt either.

*

Their reasons for spending hour after hour, day after day at a dimly lit coffee shop are varied--and similar.

For many of the young recovering alcoholics, this is an alternative to beer-soaked parties.

For those who smoke--and they are many--this is one of the few places in town where cigarettes are bummed and passed about and fired up openly.

For almost all, the cafe is the place to discuss the past, investigate the future, have a smoke and a mocha and leap into the great chasm of adulthood.

"I used to come here to pick up chicks," Gesmay says, grinning and pulling out a wallet nearly two inches thick, crammed with scraps of napkins, cigarette papers and business cards, all containing phone numbers.

"But then I made friends."

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