Monday, January 26, 2004

Three short stories from California

In my capacity as an associate editor at L.A. Youth one of my responsibilities is to go to classrooms as a guest speaker and talk about being a reporter and how students can get involved in L.A. Youth. With any luck the class has lots of questions at the ready (because even I'd get bored listening to myself talk for 45 minutes). In part fueled by being in SoCal one of the frequent questions I hear asked is whether I've met any celebrities.

"No," I tell them. Then I explain that when one works in Albany, NY there aren't many opportunities to meet "famous" people, especially when one writes for the news desk. Some times I tell them that I met Team USA soccer player Alexi Lalas, but that doesn't usually ring any bells for them.

Well, recently I've had an encounter that sorta might allow me to change that answer. One of our new projects at L.A. Youth is to extend our youth journalism program to teens with experience in the foster care system. As with any new venture, one of our challenges has been simply to make people aware of what we're doing. Fortunately one of our board members is with Creative Artists Agency (a firm of agents founded by Michael Ovitz). Through some connections we were able to get Amy Brenneman, best known for her TV series Judging Amy (10 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS), on board. In her show, which was based on and inspired by her own mother, Amy Brenneman plays a family court judge. So given our kind of dovetailing subject matters, she agreed to be the guest of honor at a "coffee" held at our offices.

We got a huge response of like 40+ people crammed into our rather small conference room (honestly, i wondered about the fire code). It was people from advocacy groups, family court, dept of children and family services, non-profits who do advocacy work, some students in the program, parents and many other people with a stake in foster care. While we know that these are people who share in our commitment to this cause, Amy's (b/c we're on a first name basis now, OK, not really), involvement definitely helped.

Well, I won't bore you with the details of the breakfast... I'll get to the stuff about actually meeting a celebrity. She was a little late (10 minutes?), which her assistant, who was in constant contact with us via cell phone while they were headed toward our office, attributed to traffic (not surprising in LA). As my previous celebrity sighting have indicated, the camera truly does add weight. Amy Brenneman comes across to me (apologies to anyone here) as someone with a healthy physique when I've seen her on the big or small screen. She's not like Courtney Cox or Jennifer Aniston thin, right? While reality didn't prove her to be rail thin or anything, she was thinner than I thought she would be. She wore brown wool-looking (i didn't ask and am no fabrics expert) pants, a brown shirt and brown boots. A very casual outfit. She spoke briefly encouraging everyone by praising the work they're doing and thanking everyone for coming.

There was one weird moment -- at least to me it was weird. Everyone in the room agreed that problems in the foster care system are widely under-reported. Seeing an opportunity that they might never have again, several people pitched story ideas to Amy for use on her show. She was incredibly gracious as people suggested storylines. She didn't roll eyes or say anything other than express what came across as genuine interest in perhaps dealing with these topics in the future. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think any of us really expect anything, but her demeanor impressed me, especially because I kept having a Seinfeldian moment. I kept recalling the episode where Jerry goes on the Tonight Show and George accompanies him to the taping. While at the studio George meets George Wendt and Corbin Bernsen and tries to pitch story ideas to them for Cheers and LA Law respectively. Thankfully, that awkwardness vibe didn't intrude on our office.

Eventually the "coffee" wrapped up and we all thanked each other for coming, yadda yadda yadda. I took a picture of Amy with some of our students, and shook her hand and actually talked to her for like 90 seconds. Obviously, I haven't washed that hand since then (which was November, btw). Soon after she left, driving away in her silver Lexus SUV, which she maneuvered expertly out of our narrow parking ramp driveway.


This brief story of a celebrity sighting doesn't have quite as good an ending, at least not for me.

So I was shopping for Christmas cards up in Tarzana (about 25 miles north of my house) because that mall has a Museum Company store. Well, when I get there I find that the store is out of business. Dammit. I start heading back to the freeway when I see a Barnes and Noble. Knowing they have cards I steer over that way. Well, almost immediately after entering I spot Catherine Bell, star of JAG (also on CBS, I think Fridays at 9 p.m.). She breaks all the rules of celebrities -- well really just the one about beautiful TV stars actually being average looking in real life. She is smoking. Like probably best-looking-woman-I-have-ever-seen-in-person kinda good looking. Perfect skin, great hair, attractive physique (not too thin). wow! And also, not like over-make-uped to achieve that look. I was really blown away. OK, now comes the part where I start breaking rules.

It's generally understood that when one lives in Los Angeles you are going to see celebrity types from time to time in the course of your everyday life. It's really not supposed to be that big of deal. And I'll admit for me it's still very fascinating, but it doesn't feel the same as it once did. Ground rules seem to be, no ostentatious gesturing or pointing, no hardcore staring, no following around in a store, no approaching. I mean after all, if they're out getting toilet paper at the grocery store, they should be afforded some freaking privacy, right? I have followed this law to the letter, even when I AC Slater was dining at a table next to me or when I saw Jeri Ryan (who's also not unattractive in real life). This time though..... I wish I could say the same.

First off, there was the following. I actually ended up next to her looking at the Xmas cards, unintentionally. That was when I really noticed how amazing looking she is. Feeling nervous, like high school freshman accidentally standing next to the senior homecoming queen nervous, I sidled away, but not too far, right? Without even realizing it, I was standing in the fiction section, like one aisle away. Still within noticing distance. I didn't realize that I had been shadowing her wandering over to that section. Once I realized that I was on autopilot, I knew I needed to bail. So then there was the staring. I tried being discreet. I went back to the Xmas cards, which were displayed on a table in the center of the store, while she drifted about 30 feet away and went to browse the magazines near the entrance. With the tall shelves and generally crowded store, I figured I would be obscured. For a while I definitely was, but I think that the statute of limitations on being obscured expires after more than 30 seconds. She happened to turn around toward her husband and for about half a second our eyes locked. I assume that I got red, like the red of a box of chocolates given on Val's Day. I managed to somehow disappear to the stationery section, but the damage was done. But now for the best part, I couldn't just leave the store I had to stand in line for 15 minutes with the cards I wanted to buy. I never really saw her in the store after that, which doesn't really surprise me.



So as you know only too well, I have a penchant for making jokes of many kinds -- silly, obscure, ironic, dirty, self-deprecating and of course schadenfreude-ific (joy in the misfortune of others).

The time is last Saturday night Jan. 24. The scene is The Grove/Farmers Market just east of Beverly Hills. It was one of those nights when I felt grateful to the gods for putting me in SoCal right now.

The evening began with some great cajun/creole food and Alaskan Amber beer at the farmers market, which because we were in LA we were able to eat outdoors even though it's January. But since neither designer Amy (our designer at the LA Youth with whom i was exchanging concert tix that night) nor I had anything on our agendas we decide to hit the Grove and check out Barnes and Noble and the Apple store. After some drooling over stuff I can't afford at the Apple store and a shared appreciation for being in an outdoor mall (for those who've been to Vegas think Forum Shops in Caesar's Palace.) in January only needing to wear light jackets (Amy is from Michigan), we decide to head back to the farmers market and see if the world famous Farmers Market Karaoke is going on. Apologies for all the parenthetical asides there, btw. (I never let my students get away with that kind of crappy writing).

We're in luck and find the karaoke in full swing. Now I've watched karaoke at a few bars/restaurants in my day and I'll say it right now this was the best ever. This was like semi-finals of American Idol good, though about a gazillion times more charming.

First off we had to sit about 30 feet from the stage, which was a legit raised stage with two huge speakers projecting from the right and left, because of the crowd. There were about 100 peeps and change gathered round. From senior citizens to yuppified west LA Families to GenY-ers out on a saturday to some truly funky california types it was the most mixed crowd i've seen in cali since moving here.

Usually when I've gone to karaoke, a substantial part of my enjoyment and attendance has been of the "watching a car wreck" variety. I mean I love hearing someone rock out on Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," but I also always got a kick out of watching someone forget the words to Avril Lavigne's too-wordy of a chorus (even though the words are on screen) for Complicated or listening to someone realize that it's freaking hard to sing Bono doing "With or Without You" or even better yet when they cannot follow along to the words and get ahead of the bouncing ball. I mean, just like watching the early eps of American Idol, it gives you some pleasure in your own discretion and not subjecting yourself to the insults that accompany self-delusions.

But as soon as I saw the singer performing a fantastic rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My way" I was completely disarmed of any irony or post modernistic superiority. I didn't want these people to do badly, I wanted them to succeed. OK, I know that sounds way lame of me (like the woman in Seinfeld who shouts from her apartment window "You're all winners" to people running the NY Marathon), but it was such a cool vibe. I mean I didn't even want to make fun of the other people in the audience, which as you know is how i usually derive all my self worth. If I passed this guy on the street I might have thought he was homeless. He had on too many layers of clothes, his hair was unkempt and his face had grooves and crevices that looked like his the Himalayas and his skin had that dusty quality. But his voice was chairmanesque, and he had stage showmanship to boot. After he finished everyone, including Amy and I applauded and cheered. But for most people it wasn't a surprised cheer of I-can't-believe-how-great-you-were, but instead it was the cheer of we-had-high-expectations-and-you-exceeded-them-as-always. The farmers market, like other karaoke sites, has its regulars, but these regulars know that they better bring their A games, like our Sinatra wanna be or our Elton John soundalike, who was so good, Reg himself might not have been able to tell the difference.

And as great as those guys were things really picked up when someone broke out some James Brown "I feel good." This had the crowd dancing in the sparse space in the aisles and in front of the stage. Older people danced with young strangers, random people danced alone, the emcee and another regular jumped in on backing vocals. And our singer waded through the crowd engaging audience members in mini-duets with all the showmanship of Wayne Newton.

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