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A heady brew of movie dreams

COLUMN ONE

A small coffeehouse in Atwater Village serves as both refuge and workplace for Hollywood's strivers and success stories.

April 11, 2012|Kurt Streeter
  • Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Atwater Village is home to a community of dreamers who share a singular ambition: They want to be part of the movies.
Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Atwater Village is home to a community of dreamers… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The cafe is narrow, with a dozen little tables and a gray concrete floor. Nothing too fancy. Nothing too shiny.

No espresso poured into designer porcelain with a dusting of organic cacao and a layer of orange-infused, textured milk. No movie stars. Or hardly ever.

But Kaldi Coffee & Tea is home to a community of dreamers who share a singular ambition: They want to be part of the movies.

Since the silent film era, people have flocked to L.A., seeking stardom. Hollywood may change, but the calculus remains the same. Chasing the elusive, living on shoestring budgets yet needing places to think and talk, write and edit.

Places like this one. Where nobody bothers you. Nobody asks you to move after half an hour. Where laptops are like coffee cups -- plentiful and always in use.

Pete Merryman, a former "South Park" animator who is quietly working on pencil sketches with his wife, animator Amy Winfrey, became a regular because he was looking for two things.

"The first being really good coffee," he says.

The second? "A really unpretentious vibe."

That's Kaldi. A world apart from bustling, showy cafes, it even has an address that fits: funky, down-home Atwater Village, about five miles east of Hollywood.

Sure, plenty of customers have nothing to do with movies: Realtors, students, paramedics. It also draws the occasional lost soul who sleeps along the nearby Los Angeles River.

But most of the regulars -- found at the cafe every day for long, over-caffeinated hours -- are screenwriters, producers, directors, editors, cinematographers, stagehands and everything in between.

Some are well established. Some have felt success slip through their fingers. Still others are hoping for a break, praying they can keep going, knowing failure could mean having to move back to wherever they came from.

"It's very much a workplace," says Nicholas McCarthy, a screenwriter and director whose first film, "The Pact," was written at Kaldi and screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "I'll be working away and I'll get tired and notice there's somebody else tapping away at a laptop a few feet from me. I might know this person, but maybe not. It doesn't matter; I know what they're going through, and there's a bond."

When Kaldi opened in 2002, new faces and new energy were beginning to transform what had been a worn, gang-troubled stretch of Glendale Boulevard.

Now, baby-carrying hipsters from nearby Silver Lake fill the sidewalks. And cobbled among the old businesses are the new: a gourmet restaurant, two Vietnamese noodle houses, an organic grocery store, a wine shop, Pilates, art and dance studios.

Kaldi has a staff of seven baristas (several are working on screenplays, of course, though they tend not to talk about this at the cafe). At least four times daily they scoop up beans -- roasted in a smoky back room -- and run them through a big Bunn coffee grinder.

Anyone spending more than an hour there walks out redolent of freshly pulled espresso. The low growl of the grinder mixes with music best described as eclectic: from Elvis to John Coltrane to little-known Japanese rock bands.

"Anything but eight hours of salsa and gangsta rap," says Kristen Wilhite, who manages the cafe.

She looks out from behind the counter, taking in the faces she sees every day.

"We can see how hard it is to make it in Hollywood," Wilhite says. "There are the people doing well. Did you hear about Colin Farrell coming in here one morning in his pajamas? Then we'll see people who have just arrived in L.A. They'll have their laptop open, working away on scripts or memorizing lines for a big audition.... We don't bother them. This is their place....

"But some, after a while, you just see them sort of losing hope," she says. "And then, just like that, we don't see them anymore."

Wilhite swipes a credit card through the processor, and regulars look up from their tables, almost as one.

At Kaldi, a single phone line carries life to the credit card machine, the fax and the wireless Internet modem. Invariably, when a card is processed, the phone line clogs, the modem freezes, the Internet shuts down and laptops are temporarily left in a lurch.

"It's one of the charms," says Clay Tarver, much admired among the regulars because he's no longer just a dreamer. He's living his dream. ("At Kaldi, everyone wants to be like Clay," says one regular, only partly in jest.) With "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams, Tarver co-wrote a 2001 motion picture thriller called "Joy Ride," which launched him on a steady writing career.

Tarver is often the first to arrive when Kaldi opens at 6:30 on weekdays. But, on one cloudy Monday morning, the first is Robert Troccolo, who studied film at Syracuse University before moving to Los Angeles in 2008, hoping to make movies. Troccolo lives in an Atwater Village apartment, works as a freelance researcher for Netflix, and in his spare time writes the screenplay he hopes will give him his first taste of Hollywood success.

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