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AL MARTINEZ

Farewell to a woman and an era: Here's to Alice

September 15, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

In the rush of events that keep us pumping through life like chipmunks on a treadmill, one finds it necessary upon occasion to take a moment to acknowledge a person of some importance. It's why I pause today to say goodbye to Alice.

As a waitress for 50 years at an L.A. drinking place called the Redwood, she embodied two eras of newspapering, from hard-drinking reporters, photographers and editors to a cooler, more sober clientele of journalists.

The Red Dog, as columnist Jack Smith used to call it, was just up the street from what was once Times Mirror Square, and it summoned us to eat and drink in the presence of each other at a friendlier, less frantic period in the life of the Los Angeles Times.

And then there was Alice.

Her full name was Alice Broude. Tall and lanky, she was the very epitome of efficiency, sailing through the bar room crowds like a clipper ship at sea, bringing our booze and burgers without stopping to chat, remembering exactly what the regulars drank and never spilling a drop.

I arose early Monday morning, before full light, thinking about Alice, bothered by a feeling of guilt that would not allow me to sleep. I had been promising for years to take her to lunch but, distracted by more pressing needs, I never fulfilled that promise. And now I never can.

Alice died last week.

She was 89 and still full of life and laughter when she was brought down by a massive stroke at the retirement home where she had lived since July, abandoning the small, tidy house in Echo Park she had occupied for 62 years. Her husband died in 1984.

We spoke on the telephone many times and she wouldn't let me off the hook when it came to a promise of lunch.

The promise itself had assumed a life of its own, from good intentions to a joke. Whenever we spoke, each conversation would begin with, "When are we going to lunch?" And she'd laugh.

More recently Alice had concluded that if I wouldn't take her to lunch, by God, she would take me to lunch. I was invited to join her at her retirement home, but it never came about.

Something, always something, kept intruding. But we continued talking about it, determined to make it happen.

I was still thinking about it when a mutual friend and former Times employee, Nancy Tew, e-mailed me to say that Alice had suffered a stroke, and then, the next day, that Alice had died.

It wasn't as though she was a relative or even a very close acquaintance. But she was an essential link in the transition from one era to another that saw a drinking culture slip away; she watched the old breed die.

Every newspaper had a bar back then, frequented by its staff members, cops, lawyers, judges and hangers-on. At the Oakland Tribune it was the Hollow Leg; in San Francisco, Hanno's near the Chronicle, and Jerry and Johnny's by the old Examiner. In L.A., the crowd at the Herald Examiner drank at Corky's and we drank at the Redwood.

I was still belting down a martini or two at lunch when I first came here in 1972, honoring a sort of tradition from my days at the Trib. By the time I became a regular, Alice knew what I drank. All I had to do was walk in the door and she had my martini at the table, waiting like a happy puppy.

A Times reporter told me that he once had an office on the second floor of the Redwood building just above the bar.

When his shift was finished at the end of the day he'd simply pound on the floor, a signal to Alice that he was coming down. She'd have his drink waiting.

I interviewed an old LAPD detective, John St. John, for hours and weeks at a table in the corner for a book I was preparing, which was followed by a television series based on the book called "Jigsaw John." Alice enjoyed the idea that she had kept us in drinks all the time St. John's brief period of notoriety was being born, and was uncharacteristically giggly when I brought in the series star, Jack Warden.

Many words have been written about Alice since her retirement five years ago, including a piece I did for Bon Appetit magazine. She was the ultimate L.A. saloon waitress. But we still never had lunch, and now it's too late.

Her death is the coda that will always remind me of those days before out-of-town ownership, downsizing and buyouts, when Otis Chandler ran the Times and we aspired to greatness, rather than just survival. The Redwood is still there and the newspaper is still there, but neither is the same as it was.

So goodbye, sweet Alice, and goodbye to the era you characterized.

One of these days, when I have a moment off the chipmunk treadmill, I'm going to have a martini at some dark and timeworn bar. I will hold the glass high for a final farewell to a special lady, and I'll remember.

--

almtz13@aol.com

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