PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING: "I grew up on the streets of Los Angeles,"… (Ken Hively, Los Angeles…)
EVERYONE gets three great loves in their lifetime.
That's what the waitress at Astro Coffee Shop in Silver Lake told me over my "scrambled burger" at 2 in the morning. This was back in the old days when I was young and restless and could not sleep. Now I stay up because I feel arthritic and hear the grim reaper.
I still cherish the worldly wisdom of the old-school waitresses around Los Angeles. They are a special breed, aren't they? Doesn't it feel like they ship them in from the port at San Pedro? Salty mouths and poufy hair. They remind me of a great-aunt of mine who always seemed to show up in the background of pictures taken at piers in the South Bay. A Marine on one arm and a tattoo on the other.
As for the three great loves — well, I had Almond Eyes. That was important. There's another, but I am waiting until my favorite sweater is returned before there is a mention in one of my pieces. And then there was — Oh my! You mean I only have one to go?
Why do I listen to these old broads?
I grew up on the streets of Los Angeles. I have a story for every section of the city. I remember incidents in front of buildings, unique people I've met or an activity that seems to embed the flavor of a neighborhood. Over the years they have filtered through me as scenes in plays with characters that I could not have thought up on my own.
We lived in the Pico-Union district of downtown Los Angeles, in one of the most active gang neighborhoods in the city. I went to Berendo Junior High School, which suffered a tremendous amount of racial tension in the '70s. When I was a kid, I saw the downtown Holiday Inn go up in flames. I ran after the screaming siren of the police cars racing to save Patty Hearst. Elizabeth Taylor waved a heavily studded diamond ring at me from her limousine after a premiere. I even had Bette Davis yell at me and my friends when we upset her concentration in the middle of filming on location in our barrio.
But I never felt like anything interesting ever happened to me. That's how my writing in public started: from the combination of living in very small apartments and learning to focus my sonar devices on the people who seemed to have many more amazing experiences than I ever felt I did.
In the beginning I would try to find the places where the biggest mouths gather. Blustery bar stool declarations, strip club confessionals and AA meeting acknowledgments. But frankly, those always felt forced to me — as if the liquor (or lack of it) made people want to be more interesting than they already are.
I love what happens when people talk in public. For playwrights there are unique ways in which people use language, which become a person's own style. I love going to the theater and hearing a character pop into a play through his own wonderful use of language. I can still hear the hilarious extortion scene in Annie Weisman's California play "Be Aggressive," at La Jolla Playhouse, when the San Diego brat threatens to withhold her love from her mother unless she gets her a boob job. Only in L.A. can we really appreciate how this sounds.
I love listening to conversations in restaurants. Most people seem to be able to focus on one thing at a time, and eating takes center stage. Confessions come in a close second. People don't edit themselves when they are eating. They concentrate on not choking.
What is it about being in public that makes people want to say so much? I think it's primal. We are social creatures. Maybe when we confess personal things in public, we really do want the people around us to hear our sordid tales.
I am probably the only person who relishes cellphone conversations in public. Cellphones are ruthless. I have heard people break up, negotiate divorce settlements, and one time — oh, this is big — I heard action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, at the Starbucks near the divorce court downtown, yell at who I assume was his ex-wife.
Every time I venture into public life, I get better at hearing the cadence, the uniqueness of a person's language and the musicality of the voices of Los Angeles. I search for these voices in the places where people feel most relaxed. Coffee shops are ideal for great stories.
There is something about the way a coffee shop erases class and race lines in the city. Coffee shops take on the uniform look of a long-term lover. Someone whose leathery creases you just want to wrap yourself in. A romance where they always serve the same thing, just the way you remember it. Cafeterias, taco stands, outdoor patios, and, yes, even McDonald's are places where you can find honesty.
Nothing facilitates a great conversation more than the communal table or bench — the ideal piece of eavesdropping furniture. It is on these upholstered confessionals that my writing got good.