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Corner pleasures

In impersonal L.A., a modest newsstand draws regulars who turn a bare strip of asphalt into a warm community.

June 28, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

They lounge on the corner of Detroit and Wilshire, as usual. On a late workday afternoon, Jay Lacharity is chugging from a gallon jug of water, blowing cigarette smoke out the side of his mouth and lunging over a chessboard. "I'm coming for you," he says in a faux-"Sopranos" accent. "Power, power, nothing but power."

A player at the next table pauses his game to yell, "No more espresso for him." Everybody laughs. Lacharity, a computer repairman, has been coming to the Miracle Mile Newsstand & Cafe almost every day for six months. And he's the new guy.

Minus inhabitants, the stand merits little attention. The square footage is smaller than its name: "Cafe" is used liberally to denote a coffee cart and a few small tables, bordered by a parking lot on two sides and the gridlock of the boulevard on the other. But the allure of companionship transcends the bald decor.

At 8 o'clock each morning, this spare strip of asphalt becomes a social oasis in an otherwise asocial metropolis. People play chess, browse magazines, listen to an eclectic mix of world music and gab over coffee. Many have been regulars for years.

"We come to study the art of chilling," explains Lacharity's chess opponent, Chorie Jenks. Jenks, a freelance camera operator, spends two or three afternoons a week here. "You wake up, you feel the sun and you come chill," he says, smiling at the traffic just five feet away.

On a recent midmorning, the corner is humming. A slight breeze, cool and comfortable, wafts through the newsstand's ecosystem. Chess players sprawl at the colorfully painted tables and converse with onlookers who stand nearby. Others casually leaf through magazines, in no rush to buy anything. The stereo spins retro for the moment -- the Housemartins croon, "Now the children of the world can see, this is a better place for us to be, the place in which we were born, so neglected and torn apart...."

Pedestrians glance curiously at the makeshift hangout and, more often than not, venture closer. You get the feeling that nobody is a stranger at Detroit and Wilshire -- at least not for long.

"If you feel like banging your head against a wall, this is the place to come," explains Aida -- just Aida. "People might come in looking like they wanna kill the world ... but when they leave, it's all smiles."

A huge bull terrier ambles toward her, and Aida squeals happily. She kneels to meet it on the pavement. "Oh, you're handsome," she tells the dog. "You must be Robinson," she says, reading from its tag.

"Uh, no, that would be me," says the tall twentysomething magazine reader holding the leash. "Ron Robertson."

Aida the cosmetology student, meet Ron the musician.

The leash jerks as the dog runs to greet two newcomers. Lilly Taggart, 18 months, strokes the beast tentatively from her father's arms. "We were in the neighborhood checking out art exhibits, and Lilly wanted to meet the dog," explains Nick Taggart.

The Miracle Mile Newsstand & Cafe was once nothing but a parking lot.

Michael Martin, who owns the place and who always seems to be smiling, didn't set out to start a social hub: "I just wondered what does this old dilapidated parking lot need?" He decided on a newsstand. When working the register grew tedious, he started playing chess to keep himself entertained. Soon he had lots of company.

Mathew Kogan, who teaches adult English as a second language, was stuck in traffic on Wilshire two years ago when he saw people hanging out at the stand and decided to quit the commute. He has been a mainstay ever since. "In L.A., you can't just go to nightclubs and expect to know everybody. You gotta make specific plans," he says. "But you come here, you see all the familiar faces."

It's a diverse crowd. From widower-retirees to students to "lawyers, engineers, architects, a carpenter and some old guy who doesn't say much, but he's so good at chess that he must be a grandmaster from Europe," Martin says.

And yes, actors too. Michael J. Pollard, an Academy Award nominee ("Bonnie and Clyde"), sips coffee and jokes around with John Kapelos, also an actor ("Auto Focus," "Legally Blonde"). Nearby, a disheveled but smiling older man does more pointing than speaking. "That's Reggie," Martin explains. "He's a homeless type. He cleans the sidewalks, and I pay him with coffee."

"Please don't put Michael in the paper," Kapelos jokes. "Everybody's gonna be looking for him."

"Yeah, now there's going to be a doorman," says Pollard.

Reggie grins.

Although the newsstand is always busy, many patrons are more intent on chilling than buying.

"We show up, but we don't necessarily spend a lot," says Kogan. "They're not making much money."

Martin doesn't mind. "When I started this place, I expected to be robbed at least once a year," he says. "But with all these guys hanging around, that never happens." The Blockbuster across the street was held up, but never the newsstand.

While other merchants are afraid of crowds for security reasons, Martin embraces crowds -- for security reasons. Community is a welcome byproduct.

For Goldsborough Purnell, the corner is a second home. Over the past three years, the Albertsons employee has spent a few hours every day here. In fact, Purnell, who lives in Monterey Hills, is looking to move closer to Detroit and Wilshire. "Rain or shine or cold, I'll be here," he says.

As daylight fades, the traffic coagulates. Frustrated commuters stare at the unlikely consortium as their cars inch past. On the corner, little changes. People chat, read, play chess. Chill. Time is no enemy. The only destination is now.

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