Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Derby

The Derby: Last of the 5 Hollywood Derby's restaurants, and LA historic landmark.

Once, the Derby's were famous for their trademark shaped, brown Derby hats that composed the roof of their restaurants. One by one, the Derby's disappeared beneath the indifferent foot of progress. The last remaining Derby lost half its trademark roof years ago when half the building was sold and turned into a Louise Trattoria franchise.

What remained became a nightclub bar; during the nineties the Derby was the heart of the Hollywood swingdance craze. Jon Faverau shot the last scene of Swingers there, its where he gets over his old girlfriend by meeting Heather Graham.

I'd get over my girlfriend, if I had a girlfriend, for Heather Graham.

With the death of the swing craze, the Derby never recovered. Unable to appeal to a new crowd, and in constant battle with the landlord who wanted to tear it down for development, the owner decided to shut down.

Tonight, we are going to have one last drink in this semi, insider-famous Hollywood landmark.

We're invited by Paul, who once commented that whenever he hangs out with Phil, Varga, and myself he feels like he's in Swingers. Maybe that's why he invited us, I always like to think that we're like Jon Faverau and Vince Vaughn, just less glamorous, less famous, and less rich.

I make my way to pick up Phil and we make our way to the Derby. It's closed. It doesn't open until 8.

Paul walks up with his brother Kevin and Shay, a bald bartender guitarist rocker with two sleeves of tattoos and goatee beard.

We decide to get a drink in Louise Trattoria. Kevin is a set painter, has been one for 14 years but is nervous because at the moment, Hollywood is dead. "It's bad right now, this is as bad as any year I can remember, worse then 2001 after 9/11. Hopefully I'll have work in February, production is starting up on the "Green Hornet."

I ask Shay if he plays for a living. "Theoretically." he answers. "It's hard going on tour, most bands are a bunch of prima donna, egotistical, assholes. It's hard to make money on the road, you have to pay for gas, a hotel."

"What about in LA? There's tons of music here."

Shay snorts. "The music scene is dead here. Nobody comes to see music in LA unless you're a name, and most of the bands here suck. The Whisky is just a bunch of spoiled rich high school kids playing for their high school friends."

"I thought music required talent?"

"Music?" Shay laughs. "Music, yes. Rock, no. A brain dead chimp can play in a rock band, and most rockers are the rats that crawled out of the sewer. There are so many terrible bands here I don't even want to go perform because I don't want to listen to them before I perform my set."

"But what about the p---y?" I ask.

Phil and Paul shush me. "Careful Leiken, use code. This is Louise Trattoria. Strange, call it strange."

"Or socks." Paul adds. "Like, check her out. That's some dirty nasty socks."

I wave my hand. "Excuse me, I'm a teacher, and I'm trying to live vicariously at the moment. So what about the STRANGE?"

Shay cracks a smile.

"You're a teacher?" Kevin asks. "Where?"

"District 6, South Gate. Between Compton and Watts."

The table whistles. That line never fails to get me respect. I pull out a couple of teacher stories, after 5 years I can recite them like a routine. I regale them with the 2006 walk out riots and how I caught a couple of kids in the hallway, took them to the counseling office and almost got in a fight with one who threatened to knock my teeth out and put me in the hospital.

"What happened?" Kevin asks.

"The principal came in, told everyone to sit down, then took off to put out a fire somewhere else."

"What did you do?"

"What could I do? The students are giggling because they've gotten away with threatening a teacher and everyone in the office, including the secretaries, is dead silent. Then I remember an older teacher telling me that I had to master the "stare." So I look at one of the kids and I pour all my rage into a gaze of pure venom, imagine his bald, cholo head bursting into flames."

I pause to take a swing of my Corona. "At first they laugh, then after about a minute they start asking if I'm gay, and if I like their ass. After a couple more minutes they start to get nervous. Finally they ask the secretaries to make me stop. After that they just get silent and put their heads down."

Finally I ask, "You boys ready to go back to class?"

Head hung low, all they could say was, "Yes sir."

"Then I took them back to class."

"Dude," Kevin gasps, "you're like my hero. What about the kid that threatened you?"

"Oh," I wave, "he got expelled."

Shay is starving, but the Derby still isn't open. We walk a half block to a Mexican restaurant full of gabaucho's. It's pricey and full of white people. I down a Dos Eques, not because I like the beer but because I love the commercial.

Finally the Derby opens. We walk up a flight of black steps and get stopped at the door by a pair of promoters, a white woman and a hulking black man. They want $10 for us to see the bands. Shay mysteriously retreats back down the stairs.

Phil, master of talking his way past doormen and sniffing out seats in an auditorium, goes to work. They ask for $5, Phil explains we just want to walk in and have a drink. We're not even staying for the bands. A minute later Phil's voodoo whisks us past the promoters without a dollar leaving our pockets.

The promoters never had a chance.

Shay's relieved. "I'm glad they didn't recognize me. I know them from years ago. I hate promoters! The guy's all right, he's just a drunk. But the woman's a c---t."


"Because that money they collect at the door, only a fraction of it goes to the band. They're like highwaymen who get to collect a tax at the door. It's not like the club sees any of that money."

We make our way to the bar, we're the first one's there. The inside of the Derby is shaped like a brown hat, it has an art deco feel like something out of the forties.

No bartender is in sight. "Hey Phil," Shay asks, "get out that fancy I-phone of yours and call a bartender."

A few minutes later our bartender, a girl dressed in black nylon, black belt and shirt comes to the bar. Phil asks for a beer, but she tells us the Derby is out of beer. It's liquor only. Paul and I split a round of drinks and we have a few laughs as the first band comes out to play. It's a guy/girl duet.

The Derby slowly draws a crowd. It's diverse, silverlake hipsters, Hollywood relics, milf's and non-milf's, geek-chic, chicas, and randoms that could belong anywhere and nowhere. Paul informs us that where we are sitting is where Heather Graham was sitting when they filmed. A small, dark Mexican bartender Paul knows starts chatting it up, and like Peter Lorrie in the Maltese Falcon, he gives us the low down on why the Derby is closing.

The owner of the property is evidently an asshole.

He gives us a round of drinks. Vodka and tonic mixed with sprite. Good drink.

We make our way to the back room where a second band plays. Here it's quieter. A slender, Asian woman serves us a second round of free drinks, courtesy of Peter Lorrie. Her name's Iyin, it turns out she's a film maker and has a short she's premiering at the Cinescape next week about a world where everyone is gay and straights are the minority.

"I thought it would be interesting to do a film where a pair of "straight" people get split up by a homosexual world." she says.

"If everyone is gay, how our people born?" Paul asks.

I have to admit it's a good question. If Christopher were here he'd eat Iyin alive with these kinds of questions.

Paul lays it on, I have to admit, the man has game. She keeps getting us drinks, now at half price and I consume more alcohol then I have in years. Shay sits back and takes it all in, like a sniper waiting to shoot for the kill the moment Paul makes a misstep.

The game, even among friends, has no mercy.

I stumble in my seat, knock over a small painting at my foot. Phil glares. "Careful Lee-ken. I'm taking that with me."

It's a gauche painting of a martini glass.

"I want a souvenir before this place closes."

We have a few more drinks, and now I'm sloshed. Fortunately Phil's stopped and driving us home. He grabs the painting and heads into the bathroom, comes out a minute later with it wrapped in his coat.

"Let's go." he orders. We march to the door when he stops. "Hold up a minute, I need to check this out." He surveys the scene with a professional eye. There's two doormen and the promoter chick. "Okay Lee-ken, you go first."

We walk outside, I stumble down the steps and a moment later we're at my car. I hand Phil the keys, he unlocks it and tosses the painting in the back.

I grab my script and stumble my way back into the bar. I hand it to Paul and make one last round of goodbyes. Between the hot bartender and the cheap drinks, he and Shay are going to be here all night.

I've only been here one time, but I'm going to miss the Derby.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Professional Development

Seminars in education are a series of rituals designed to stretch out two hours worth of material into a full day of classes.

Today I attend a seminar on how to best teach literary analysis to students who have a hard time reading.

Finding a movie based on the book and showing it to students is not on the list of suggestions.

The first hour, like all first hours at all educational seminars, follows a pattern as predictable as an episode of Home Improvement.

. Tim the Tool Man Taylor makes a fool of himself on his show
. Tim screws things up with his family
. Tim gets advice from Wilson
. Tim screws up the advice
. Tim's family forgives him and all works out in the end

Educational Seminar: Hour 1

. Collect materials, gather in groups, drink coffee while everyone waits to arrive

. Meeting Standards are reviewed: cell phones off, be respectful, don't get side tracked or side barred by argumentative discussion

. VIP from the District Thanks us and lectures about the importance of education

. Inspirational Story about the little kid that could - try not to throw up

. Instructor from LAUSD thanks us for coming and lectures about how great the material, which has yet to be presented to us, actually is.

. Secondary Instructor gushes about how great the material is, which we are still waiting to get to.

. Pair Share with group what we hope to get from the seminar and what problems we have with students

. Share out our findings about what we expect to learn, which are then written onto poster paper and hung on the wall.

. 1 hour and ten minutes later, the lessons begin.

The second part of the seminar unofficially starts when a belligerent teacher asks why we should teach literary analysis when the majority of students in S0pecial Ed can't even read. It's a good question, but in education, its heresy. Ask why a student needs to learn literary analysis and you might as well ask why do they need to learn Shakespeare, or Algebra II, or Chemistry?

Better not to question, public education is a matter of faith.

The morning disappears in a haze of black coffee, a half modeled lesson, and unspoken recriminations silenced through educational dogma.


Time to break for lunch. Two of my co-workers and I find a small sandwich shop run by an Asian couple offering a half sandwich 4 piece sushi special. I opt for the whole sandwich, a ham and cheese on onion.

Few people ever start their careers in Special Ed, it's more like a gravitational black hole that draws people in. I ask both of them what they did before they were Special Ed teachers.

Rafael, calm and collected, speaks first. "I worked at a Juvenile detention center trying to reform kids and teach them how to read."

"How did that go?"

"I got stabbed."


"Once I got a job in LAUSD I couldn't believe how nice it was to have a job where I didn't have to worry about being attacked."

I look over at Heather. She smiles. "I was a taxi-cab driver."

I raise an eyebrow. "A female taxi cab driver?"

"Yeah, I did that for about 5 years. I was one of only two female drivers at a company of about a hundred guys, and the other girl was large. Large and in charge. They all thought I was a prostitute." She laughs, shakes back her hair. "That was before they figured out I had a scanner and was snatching up their customers first."

"Got any stories?" I ask.

"Yeah." Heather replies, guarded. "I worked out of Orange County. One of the best gigs was picking up guys just out of prison. They usually lived far away and they always paid because they didn't want to skip out on cab fare and end up back in jail."

"You picked up guys from prison?" I gasp, incredulous.

Heather shrugs. "It was good money. I drove every kind of person you can imagine."

I nod. "Whoever said crime doesn't pay wasn't a taxi cab driver."

Heather continues. "I once had to take my cats to my boyfriend's, and one of them decided to take a dump on the cab's back seat. I picked up a pair of business travelers and this woman on her way to a meeting sat in cat poop. She started screaming."

"What did you do?"

"Told her I was sorry and explained that my last customer had a cat and that I had no idea his cat had crapped all over the backseat." Heather smiles ruefully. "Compared to driving a cab, Special Ed is cake."

We make our way back, the second part of the seminar begins with the instructor showing us a variety of web site resources we can use for our classroom. This is actually useful, before it's drowned out with another lecture from another District VIP.

Never met an educator who didn't love the sound of their own voice.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

N Word

Marker to white board, bold letters dart forth as I scrawl out the day's journal prompt in a handwriting only a mother could love.

"Do you believe that Obama will help stop racism?" I write. "Do you think he will change your life or help Latinos? Explain."

The students walk in, it's the Tuesday after MLK day and they are still in a festive mood, bringing me my beginning of the week tribute of the weekends past events. Jessica is excited to tell me all about her new boyfriend and how he took her to Chuck E Cheese and now her old boyfriend saw them and wants to get back together. John wants to brag about how he finished Marvel Alliance on the X-Box 360 and how now he intends to beat it on EXTREME violence level. Kathy comes in to sketch my morning cartoon character on the board, today it's a bunny rabbit with buck teeth and crazy eyes named Cuddy.

Not until the bell rings do any of them even glance at the journal. I read it to them, patiently explain for the umpteemth zillionth time that yes and no are not acceptable answers and they must answer the question in complete sentences. In about an hour we're headed to an assembly to watch the 44th president get sworn in.

(Actually, he's only the 43rd. Grover Cleveland got sworn in twice.)

The journal is intended to jump start a discussion, to make the students think. This being special ed, that's a tall order, but I'm optimistic. Amanda raises her hand. "I'm done."

I look down at her journal, she's barely written a sentence. No, I do not think Obama will help Latino's because he is black and we are brown. I ask her to explain why she thinks that.

"Because he isn't going to do anything, mister." she huffs.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because he's black."

"Don't you think he might be breaking down the "color" barrier for everyone in this country? Maybe a Latino could be president someday?"

Manny speaks up. "No mister, there isn't going to be a Latino president. We're not that smart."


I blunder on. "Don't you think Obama might rethink No Child left Behind? What if he did away with the exit exams for non-native English speakers, or made exemptions for special ed?"

"No, he isn't going to do anything, he only cares about black people. He doesn't care about brown people." Amanda continues, adamant.

"Why do you say that Amanda?"

"Because I'm not a nigger lover."

The N word, the N------. The word that must never be uttered, the word that causes conservative pundits on Fox News to duck, turn white people pale, and send social activists into a tizzied frenzy. The N Word packs the power of twenty F-Bombs, a verbal explosive device more destructive then any other single utterance, except for maybe the C-Word.

My aide Mr. C is all over it. He asks Amanda to step outside, but like a mule she crosses her arms and remains planted in her seat, refusing to give in quietly.

At that moment I have several options available.

. Send Amanda outside and have her stand in the corridor.

. Send Amanda to the Dean's office and right her a referral for detention.

. Lecture her profusely about the evils fo racism and how we have to be careful about what we say because we can be both hurtful and offensive to other people.

I don't like any of these options. I begin writing a note to the Dean, I don't believe it will teach Amanda anything but an example has to be set. Amanda becomes more belligerent, nearly gets into a shouting match with my aide.

"Watch the class for a second Mr. C."

I walk 15 feet to room C102, where my collegue Mr. H is going over his weekly schedule before he heads up to help tutor his own special ed students. Mr. H. is a massive, 6'6 African American bald monstrosity that looks like he could be an NFL linebacker.

He actually played scrimmage football in the NFL minors, as an NFL linebacker.

I hand him the note to the Dean. Mr. H is a gentle person, I've never once seen him raise his voice, his mild manner bellied by his gargantuan size. He reads it as I ask him to come next door. "You don't have to say anything, just stand there." I explain.

We walk back to my room. At the sight of Mr. H the class is hushed, silent. "Amanda," I ask politely, "Since you don't seem to care about what you said, would you care to repeat it to Mr. H? I'm sure he'd love to hear all about your brown pride."

Amanda's eyes grow red, increase two sizes in panic. She stutters, seeking a way out. I bear down, merciless. "What's the matter? You have a problem expressing your opinion now?"

Mr. H says nothing, just stands in place like a small mountain as Amanda fidgets in her seat, desperate for this to end.

After a long minute, finally I speak. "There's a reason why we don't use that kind of language. I can't stop you from thinking it, but I'll be damned if I let you speak it in my classroom."

I thank Mr. H for his time, he chuckles as he leaves.

The class breathes a sigh of relief. Amanda says nothing the rest of the period.

I toss the Dean referral into the garbage.

An hour later I take the students to the auditorium to watch our new president get sworn in. It's a mass of brown faces.

When Obama finishes the oath, the students stand up and cheer.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Complete a Sentence

Lunch time. I enter my room to pick up my Trader Joe's BBQ salad.

A half dozen kids sit at their desks. This is unusual, at the sound of the lunch bell the kids typically rip out of the room like wild hyenas. During 2nd my co-worker and roommate Ms. Garcia holds a class in our room. Being special ed we don't get our own rooms, we have to make do and share.

Garcia is a crusader, a Teach for America Intern who worked for Barack Obama during his Senate campaign before he was widely known. She has a picture on her desk to prove it.

At this moment, however, she is furious. The kids remain still. Finally one of them speaks.

"Because, because..."

"You can't start a sentence with because." Garcia intones, irritated.

"But I can't Miss!"

"You also can't start a sentence with a conjunction. If you want to leave here, you'll speak to me in one complete sentence."

The students remain seated, stumped. These truly are the dirty dozen.

"You want them to write a complete sentence?" I ask.

"No, I want them to speak in a complete sentence."

I blink, stare wildly in disbelief. "None of you can speak a complete sentence?"

"We try," Juan speaks up, "but it's hard. Hey, was that a sentence?"

Garcia's adamant. "No. No subject."


"Expletive's are not a complete sentence."

One of the students gets up, approaches her. "Today I learned about stuff like reading and writing and we learned how to do that thing like figure out words that we don't understand."

Garcia stares at him. He grins, hopeful. "No."

"But I spoke!"

"Run on, and you used the word "stuff".

I look at the clock. The students have been sitting here for ten minutes.

"Miss, can't we just speak in complete sentences another time?"

"Edwin, you can go. That was a sentence."

Edwin rises, delighted. "It was? See ya suckers!"

A couple of students turn to me, hoping for a tip. I eat a mouthful of salad.

No one's going anywhere for a while.

Wish I had a snicker's.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

DI Dinner

Meeting up with friends in LA is harder then then traveling to Europe. All you need for Europe is a plane ticket and a passport. Gathering together a group of friends in LA is like herding feral cats, nobody can commit to anything even though nobody is doing anything.

It's the traffic.

This time trying to get together took twelve text messages and three phone calls, but then there were only three of us.

In LA you want to get people to commit to an appointment you have to serve them with a warrant, otherwise Mercury is in retrograde and their chakra is out of sink and the mocha frap enema they had yesterday is giving them a bout of diarrhea. Sorry, no way we can make it.

I'm gathering with two of my fellow teachers to commiserate about the LA district intern program. Anyone that's been through the district intern program shares a common bond akin to plane crash survivors in the Andes forced to eat dead bodies in order to survive.

For three years every Thursday we met. (And one additional Saturday a month.)

Three years of mind numbing, politically correct dreck of educational pedagogy, learning communities, and brain eating professional development. The interns came, they had to come. It was that or have your emergency credential revoked, no credential. No job.

Goodbye Must See TV.

Bonds were forged beneath the unforgiving glare of our District Intern administrators, small people with cruel mouths accustomed to giving mean orders. We were berated, chastised, infantialized: bow down and give respect worm! Many interns withered and fell away, unable to bear the pressure.

One young woman who had heart surgery broke down in tears, they told her she was in danger of being kicked out of the program because she had missed 3 weeks in a row. Sorry young lady, illness is no excuse!

We rebelled under the yoke of their tyranny, mocked them, cut corners, ignored their directions after they had given an order. People with small hearts are easy to ignore.

We shared stories, spoke of the horrors of the week, cracked jokes, turned mindless projects into multi-media platforms of entertainment. We taught each other with songs, created art, and always found time to laugh, both to spite our adminstrators and to spite them. DI Thursday turned from prison to a spiritual retreat.

Alas, we graduated, and attending classes was no longer a requirement. Now everyone is busy, their chi is unfocused, their kid is sick, and traffic is a bitch.

Now it takes 12 text messages and 3 phone calls just to get 3 of us together.

We meet up at George the Greek's in Long Beach, its the kind of place where you take a girl on a 2nd date, trying to impress her while staying on a budget. (In most cities you have to do this at the Olive Garden.) Being LA all the Greek food is cooked by Mexicans. Hummus, dolmades, mosaka, souvlakia; might as well be tacos, burritos and carne asada.

I'm joined by Alfonso and Parrish. Alfonso is a 5th grade teacher and works part time as a bouncer/chaeuffer driver for a sushi club called Wasabi's. (Sushi by Mexicans.) Gregarious and full of mirth, he is more mountain then man. If you were to try and take him you had better be armed with something like a Lincoln Continental, and that Lincoln Continental should be moving at about 30 miles per hour.

Parrish is a cute blonde with an attitude sharper then razors, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. I befriended her years ago during a district intern meeting when she confessed to me she wanted to murder the xylophone player who was chiming the end of our break.

We were friends ever since.

Tonight we're discussing the potential strike - the district wants to cut our benefits. Alfonso thinks they are going to slash jobs. Being special ed teachers, none of us are worried about it. "Nobody wants our jobs." Parrish jokes. It would be funny, but no one laughs. It's just true. No one wants to teach inner city special ed.

The topic turns to former interns, then to our instructors who Parrish refers to as the menopausal posse. It's been over a year and a half since we've seen any of them, yet the animosity remains towards the women who made our lives so miserable.

"Who do you think the intern instructors hated the most?" I ask.

Parrish and Alfonso turn and stare.

I smile sheepishly.

"You know, it would have helped if you didn't make fun of them in class."

"I don't think they liked being compared to Komrade Kommissars either."

We discuss New Years. Alfonso tells a story about a girl who tried to take a swing at him, missed, spun 360 degrees and hit the ground face first, then got up to apologize.

Parrish explains that all her friends during the count down took of their shirts and rubbed their breasts together. "The boys we're going crazy, you should have seen them fighting to get in the room!"

Alfonso and I stare at her.

"Well I didn't do it. I don't have young perky breasts. They do."

I don't have a New Year's story. I spent it watching movies with friends. So lame.

Our waitress brings us the check. I detect a faint Southern accent and ask her where's she from. She explains she's from Georgia.

"What's your name?"


I nod, that's pretty Southern.

"Well really, it's Jessie-Jane Anna-Nicole."

That's very Southern. We pay the bill and bid our goodbye's, promise to meet again a month later.

I miss my DI Thursdays.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Top 10 Films of 2009

There is a tradition in my family, every year judgment is pronounced on the year's films. It goes goes something like this:

Mom: "This was a bad year for films."

Me: "Yeah."

Except this year, that statement appears to be true, 2008 was a disappointing year for film goers, at least when compared to 2007. Where are the No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood? Looking back on 2008 I had a hard time picking 10 films I liked, let alone I would put on a list. Admittedly, I haven't seen every Oscar bait contender...

Ten Best:

1. Slum Dog Millionaire - A marvelous film, a modern day fairy tale. Danny Boyle's best film.

2. Frost/Nixon - In 1977 I remember my father screaming at the TV set during the Frost/Nixon interviews, after watching this movie, I know why. Ron Howard's best film.

3. The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke in a tour de force performance, and Marisa Tomei is hotter then ever.

4. Kung Fu Panda - I know, it's a silly cartoon, but I found it delightful, and liked it even better watching a second and third time.

5. WALL-E - Another cartoon, a lot of people loved this film, I wasn't one of them. But given what I've seen so far of this year's crop, it's better then most.

6. Iron Man - Sigh, we're already to the comic book movies. This one was fun and captured the spirit of the comic, Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps perfect casting for Tony Stark.

7. Dark Knight - A memorable perfomance by Mr. Ledger, he shines bright, casting the rest of the film into forgettable shadow.

8. Tropic Thunder - The first 2 minutes is brilliant, miss that and you've missed probably the best part of the film. A great parody.

9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - A servicable romantic comedy with some outright hilarious laugh out loud scenes.

10. The Visitor - This is heavy, plodding film. I didn't enjoy it, but I can appreciate the quiet, understated performances and nuance.

Movies I haven't seen that may still make the list:
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Class, Christmas Tale, Milk

Overrated Films:
Gran Torino - If this wasn't Clint this movie would have been tossed into the Fast Food disposal.
Seriously. Watch the film again. The acting is horrendous and the story simplistic and predictable.

Rachel Getting Married - Two hours of people screaming at each other through hand held camera. No thanks.

Synedoche, NY - A Kaufman film. If someone you know has suicidal thoughts, keep them away from this.

Revolutionary Road - A series of set pieces masqurading as a film.

Utter Trash:
Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Hottie and the Nottie, Jumper, Son of Rambow, The Happening, Quantum of Solace, Choke, and my worst film of the year:

10,000 B.C - A story about pre-history with pretty white people in dreadlocks coming a diverse multi-cultural tribe. Even when they are being chased by sabre tooth dinosaurs and mammoths, those white people still look good in make-up.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Christmas Card

Spring 2006

"Vicki," I snarl, "Please put away your phone." I turn my attention back to the class, we've got alot to finish today. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Vicki texting under the desk. "Vicki, put it away, now."

Vicki nods, keeps texting.

My voice darkens. "Vicki..."

She snaps her phone shut, "Okay Mister," she waves magnamiously, "you can start now."

"I can start now?" I choke, furious. I want to scream at her, this is at least the sixth time I've warned her about the phone. I want to pick Vicki up and toss her across the room. Instead I pull out my phone, a cheap silver Quallcom already two years out of date. "This is what I think of phones!" I scream.

I toss it across the room, it hits a closet and clatters to the ground.

The class gasps. Vicki shrugs her shoulders.

"That's no good," I mutter. I pick up the phone, throw it as hard as I can and this time it breaks apart, parts flying over the floor. "If I'm willing to do that to my phone, just think what I'm willing to do to yours! I had better never see that phone again, understand!"

No one moves, the students aren't accumstomed to me yelling. I'm the happy-go-lucky, buddy, pal around teacher. Vicki hunches her shoulders as she slides downward, face turned toward the desk.

John gets out of his seat, grabs the pieces of my phone. "Don't get mad, mister."

I can hear my pulse throbbing in my ears, my heart is an organ of fire, for a moment I have to fight the urge to rampage through the room, scattering student and desk alike, a 5'5 half-Jewish green-eyed Tasmanian Devil. Vicki brings out the worst in me, constantly refusing help when it is offered but demanding it when she is presented with a problem she doesn't understand.

Spoiled, self-absorbed, and conceited, Vicki's only true interest is Kobe Bryant, the only way I can get her attention at all is to mention the LA Laker by name. She spends hours writing notes to her friends, but not five minutes on the essay presented to the class.

John hands me my phone. It's fixed.

I frown. Don't you get it kid, I'm trying to intimidate this class. "Thanks." I grumble.


We're in an IEP meeting. Vicki sits across me at the table, arms folded. "I think it would be best for everyone if Vicki was moved into Resource. She's made it pretty clear that she doesn't want or need my assistance."

The counselor turns to Vicki. She shrugs, "Fine."

Other then passing her in the hallways, that is the last time I see her.


A student candy-gram makes the rounds, handing out Christmas cards from students to teachers. I've only gotten one this year, it was a Birthday Card with pirates on it.

The candy gram presents me a with a hand made card from an art class. "This is for you Mr. Leiken."

Dear Mr. Leiken,
Thank you for all your help. You were a really good teacher and I just wanted to say you helped me learn how to read. I also wanted to say that I learned a lot from you.

P.S. Kobe is still the best.
I love Kobe!

- Vicki

Red Carpet

“Hey Lee-ken. You want to go to a red carpet event?”

In my eight years of LA, I’ve worked red carpet events, covered them as part of free-lancer production crews, but never actually attended one. “What movie?” I ask.

“Waiting in Beijing.”

“Any good?”

“It’s supposed to be trash.”

“I’m there.”

A week later I’m standing at the Fine Arts Theatre off of Wilshire in Beverly Hills, a red carpet extends from a small pavilion to the theatre, a dozen photographers armed with space age cameras prowling outside. Phil and I walk up to the guest relations table, get our tickets, stroll to the tent.

“Hey, back entrance for guests!” a beefy security guard barks.

We round the corner and enter from the “rear” entrance. The tent has several couches, a mini-bar stocked with organic coffee in a can, flat screen TV playing the movie trailer, and a red carpet. Phil scouts for drinks, there is no alcohol to be had. I snatch a can of coffee and ignore the clerk as she expounds upon the new organic coffee that it is now available at Whole Foods.

The tent is cold. We’re early, hardly anyone here. Phil gives the tent the once over. “We should have gone to the bar.”

“Maybe it will pick up.”

Phil introduces himself to a pair of young women, one Asian, one Latina, both in black dresses. They openly praise the film. “So the movie was good?” he asks.

“Oh, we haven’t actually seen it.” The Asian girl gushes. “We just work for the ad agency and are hear to inform guests what it is about.”

“So you’ve seen the trailer?” I ask.

She winces. “No, but we’ve seen the EPK and have read the literature.” She hands me a pamphlet. "What do you do?"

"I'm a writer."

"Oh!" A hand flutters into her purse, hands me a card. "I'm an actress. If you have a role or anything that I'd be good for, let me know!"

I glance at the card. The photo on the front of it looks nothing like her.

Waiters bring out the h'or deurves, eggplant on French bread, chicken and beef skewers set in pineapple, egg rolls and cocktail shrimp. You grab one, then like trained soldiers, the waiters move on, unwilling to let anyone seize a second helping. The food is tasty, but it takes over an hour to get full, filling up on appetizers its like having to take a half dozen MTA buses to get 3 miles.

The first celebrity arrives, Audrina Patridge from MTV’s the Hills. In a low cut blue dress, she is simply stunning. I try not to gape. The crowd turns to stare, they would stare even if she weren’t a quasi-celebrity. She’s the kind of woman two hundred years ago men would have fought duels over.

Ted and Varga arrive, an exotic African-American woman is draped over Varga’s arm. I blink, normally Varga is into exotic Asian women, this is out of character. I pull him aside, “Varga, you’re out of character. Where’s the Asian?”

Varga shakes his head. “No, no. I’m into anything exotic."

I stare at her. She certainly is exotic. After two minutes of exchanging small talk with her friend, the and bold faced blonde with pushed up breasts, I realize I have nothing to talk to them about.


Tori Spelling strolls down the carpet in a white dress and black high heel shoes with straps that dance up her ankles. A few women stare at her enviously. It takes me a moment to realize they are staring at her shoes. "Tori, Tori!" the photographers shout. She hasn't been on 90210 in over 10 years, but when you're Hollywood royalty, you don't need to do anything to be famous.

An exotic looking Asian woman, borderline anorexic with giant kohl eyes enters after her. Bai Ling, Hollywood personality, best known for her guest shot episode on Lost where she gave Jack his tattoo.
She isn't classically beautiful, but there is something about her that is mesmerizing, like a glittering snake with light flashing off its coils. A boy toy sits on her arm.

Audrina, Tori, and Bai would be perfect guests for Hollywood Squares.

Provided it was still on.

I meet a commercial real estate agent, a gay couple upset about Prop 8 (although neither one would ever get married), a film promoter, the GQ boyfriend of the bold faced blonde who is somewhere from West Africa, and an older guy who gazes longingly at the pseudo celebrities. Bored, I try to make small talk with one of the servers, she darts away, looking at me like I'm crazy.


The promoters enter and begin urging people into the theater. The photographers vanish, and like the moon at daybreak, so do the celebrities. People make their way from the tent, down the red carpet, and into the theater where they are offered complimentary popcorn.

I just want my parking validated so I get the hell out of there. I'm stuffed on tasty morsels, delectable treats reserved for weddings and gay restaurants. Not for the first time I quietly wonder what the hell am I doing in LA? The ideal life is not one of riches, but of fame, to be a comic strip in the newspaper so
everyone knows your business; the more everyone talks about you, the more important you are.

Phil, Ted and I make our way to a restaurant/bar a few blocks north on La Cienega. Silent Indian music videos play over a large white wall, but the bartender mixes a mean drink. The place is empty.

Varga and his entourage enter ten minutes later, the bold faced blonde, the GQ model from Mozambique, and the Nubian goddess. Like most good looking people, they walk right by us and sit down at the opposite end of the bar, the six empty stools inbetween us remind me of a mouth missing its six front teeth.

Ted, Phil and I talk about great movies.

They talk about fashion and what Tori Spelling was wearing.

Varga dances between both groups, playing the consummate host. He's got a job promoting an upscale Scotch, and offers to buy us a complimentary round.

The drink is too strong, but I hand it to Ted and he sucks it right down.

Good 'ol Ted.

Varga picks up the tab.

He can buy me Scotch anytime.

Festivus 2008

Once a year, an LA clan of unemployed actors, production assistants, delivery drivers seeking to become actors, part time make up artists, booth girls, advertising salesman, photographers, and a couple of ticked off writers gather for Festivus, the annual Christmas LA holiday party.

This year, Nefeesa is hosting Festivus. Nefeesa is striking, she was a former Miss Arizona, now she works the Hollywood circuit in advertising. She gets invited to all the cool parties, like the Halloween party at the Playboy mansion.

The best I can hope for is to get invited to Nefeesa's Festivus.

This year, the party has two rules. First, you have to bring a $20 gift for a white Santa exchange, second, no jeans. Nefeesa is very strict about this second rule.

I pick up Phil on the way to her place. This year he's decided to go raunch and gotten a pink vibrator. "A vibrator?" I ask.

"It's got 5 settings, and 25 different motions. I had the clerk at the Pleasure Chest show me."

"Seriously, a vibrator."

"Dude, 25 settings. The girls will love it."

"You sure that's not over the top?"

"TWENTY-FIVE settings! It's going to be a hit!

We make it to the party. Phil's brought along his tripod, picture taking is a huge part of Festivus. What good is a Hollywood Christmas party if you can't pose and brag about what a great time you had?

The moment we get there we begin setting up the camera, complete with umbrella and studio quality lights. The guests arrive, a mixture of fashion models and guys that stepped off the cover of GQ mixed in with more ordinary mortals like myself.

I meet an attractive young woman who studied at VCU. Seeking a connection I mention I grew up in Northern Virginia and applied to that school, but never went. She explains that most of the people in Richmond couldn't decide if she was black, or white, but finally settled on mulatto as Latino's are almost non-existent there. She works in advertising.

"You wouldn't believe what they have me doing!" she laughs. "I'm promoting Marvel comics online! Is that geeky or what? It's crazy! I have to read comic books all day."

I love comics. I decide to keep this bit of information to myself. "Sounds rough."

"We made all kinds of suggestions on how they could improve their website, but they are so afraid of change. They really take their comics seriously."

I'm not going to argue it. A non-geek just simply wouldn't understand.

Nefessa's boyfriend shows up, he's wearing jeans. "Nefeesa want's us to pose for a group photo."

I groan. Once the camera's come out the picture taking is non-stop. Last year we took hundreds of photos, this year we'll take 570. Nefeesa takes it upon herself to direct.

"Okay, everyone, act like your on the middle school year book committee!" People slump their shoulders, grin sheepishly...CLICK!

"Alright, now we're all in an 80's music video!" CLICK!

"Okay, I want you to act like you're the high school quarterback and you have to go on a date with a Freshman because your mom set you up!" CLICK!

The gift exchange interrupts. The rules are simple, once you either select a gift, or steal it from someone else if you like what they have. A gift can be stolen twice. If your gift is stolen, you can go select a new gift. There are gift cards, bottles of SKYE vodka and Jim Bean, a transvestite she/male porno, a gift basket full of wines and cheeses, an Indiana Jones Bull Whip, cans of floam, bottles of hand lotion, Godiva chocolate and a thumb wresting ring with places for two thumbs to "duke" it out, and of course Phil's vibrator.

It gets stolen twice.

I get a cocktail shaker. No one wants to steal it. I try to hide my disappointment. "Hey!" Sarah calls out, "that has great re-gift value. Give it to someone else."

After the exchange more photos are taken, an orgy of digital flashes flood the room, enough to start a mild epileptic seizure. It's a red carpet event minus the red carpet, no actor ever saw a camera they didn't like. I pose for a few, stare enviously at the Indiana Jones whip, thinking about how I could use that on my students.

Dan shows up, he's an actor, so he's one of the good looking people. He's wearing ripped jeans. I ask him where his girlfriend from last year is. He shakes his head. "Can't stand her." A moment later he whips out the SKYE vodka. "Let's have a drink."

I think that's a god damn good idea.

So ended Festivus, not with a bang, or a whimper, but a glass of coca-cola mixed with vodka.

Mac, Slater, and Me

"Did you hear, Mr. Leiken?" Kazani gushes. "My Own Worst Enemy is coming to our school to film!"

I grunt. In other cities a film crew generates excitement. In the middle of a two year stint serving time at Macy's, I watched a huge crowd gather around Sinbad in the film "First Kid."

But in LA a film crew rates somewhere above traffic accident but below star sighting. "I heard that show was canceled." I reply.

"So what!" Kazani laughs. "Christian Slater! Didn't you see him in "True Romance?"

"Yes, it's one of my favorite films."

Around 3 the film crew gathers in the hallway, directly outside my room. They're filming in an art class across the hall. It's a typical crew, casual and pony-tailed, but this one is more subdued. Probably all thinking about where they are going to have to work next.

I study them wondering what the hell am I doing teaching? Wasn't this my dream? To work in entertainment? I ask where the Kraft services truck is, the crew tells me it's outside if I want to eat anything.

Love the Kraft services truck. Best part about being an extra.

One of my former students arrives, Mac. "Did you see what's going on outside mister?" Mac asks.

"They're right outside my door, Mac."

"Contributing to the rot of society. Just a little bit of TV a day keeps the brain away." he chuckles. Mac is always full of fortune cookie wisdom. "Did you see that guy, mister?"

"What guy?"

"The guy the show is about."

"Christian Slater?"

"Yeah. He's right outside your door."

I open my door. Sure enough, Slater's sitting down, chilling in a portable chair. The lead of "True Romance", one of my favorite films, just a foot away. He looks up. "Sorry, am I in your way?"

I start grinning like an idiot. Keep it cool, Leiken. Don't ask him to imitate Jack Nicholson, keep it casual. I'm still grinning like an idiot. "Can I get a photo?"

Slater smiles, waving. "Sure!"

"C'mon Mac, lets get a photo."

Mac shrugs.

A school photographer snaps a shot of me, Mac, and Slater.

I know we're all supposed to play it cool, that a celebrity is just a human being like the rest of us.

I failed. Can't help it. Slater starred in "True Romance."

The World Ends in 2012

"Mister," Edwin asks, "Is the world going to end in 2012?"

I scowl. Edwin is always incessantly asking silly questions: who would win, a shark or a tiger, can a man get pregnant, and now will the world end in 2012. He's referring to an ancient Mayan prophecy, which stated the world would suffer a horrible catastrophe and end in 2012.

After Y2K and the Day of 666 (June 6th, 2006) I'm a little disappointed with the naysayers. "No Edwin," I sigh, "It isn't going to end."

Jesus and Marcos peek up from their work. Discussing the end of the world is a lot more interesting then solving polynomials. "C'mon Mister," Edwin needles, "you can tell us truth. The world is going to end, right?"

An evil thought crosses through my mind, takes root, and an instant later my voice lowers to a near whisper. "Alright guys," I mutter, "I didn't want to tell you this, but the world is going to end in 2012."

Jesus and Marcos drop their pencils, eyes wide as Edwin hangs on my every word. "We don't know exactly how it is going to happen, but at some point the world is going to end."

"That's not true!" Marcos shouts.

I shrug. "We didn't want to scare you, but you're all old enough now to hear the truth. The fires outside of the Los Angeles, the anti-christ becoming the leader of the free world, economic recession; it's pretty clear the world is coming to an end."

"Oh thank God!" Edwin sighs in relief.

I blink. "What?"

"I don't have to worry about graduating, or getting a job. Thanks Mister." Edwin quits work for the rest of the day.

Sometimes I hate my job.

Yes We Can

Six months ago I was convinced that the U.S. would never elect a "black" man for president. Like many, I felt that Hilary was the best chance the Democrats had to recapture the white house. Typically, I start excited about a candidate and become less enamored as time moves on - with Obama it's the opposite.

I misted up at Obama's acceptance speech, but my eyes welled up not because of his delivery, or the fact that he was black, but because Obama repudiates everything George Bush represents.

Bush in my view represents the ugliest side of America; it's jingoistic militarism, lack of nuance, stupid simplicity, religious zealotry, corporate greed, xenophobic isolationism, and egotistical righteousness.

Barack is sophisticated, cool, calm, unflappable; he inspires where Bush divides, looks for the middle ground where Bush sought to play off differences. He is a "world" citizen, a 21st century man, someone who seeks consensus, who is not afraid to engage "evil" regimes because he understands the best way to defeat them is not to isolate them but to erode them from within.

I know there will be problems, and that he will make mistakes. In a few months, no one will care anymore that Obama's black, in fact by the end of his first term his race will be a non-issue. (Which in truth, it should have been anyway.) But for the first time in my adult political life, I actually do feel hope, how quickly the world has changed from even 4 years ago where I believed that the U.S. had entered a period of slow and irrevocable decline!

And maybe it has....

But Obama has a substantial majority of democrats in both the Senate and the House, many of whom are beholden to him for getting their seats. The Democrats have been in the wilderness for a long time, and I don't foresee them becoming corrupt and complacent like the '94 crowd who was voted out of office. The fact that the country is in crisis means that the government has to act, perhaps now we will finally begin to mandate universal health care, or insist that schools rise to a higher standard. (Sorry, No Child Left Behind doesn't count, I'm a public school teacher in LAUSD. I know.)

Maybe the country will now become "green", incorporating energy policies that have long become the norm in Europe, reinvesting money in new infastructure that will in the long term create permanent jobs, save money, protect the enviroment and truly move us away from "foreign oil".

Will these things happen? Maybe. I believe Obama will try, if even one was to be accomplished, or all three were to be partially tackled, it would be a huge improvement.

Finally, Obama is an excellent example to so many kids and teenagers that by acclumating to the mainstream culture, receiving an education, and working hard, you too can become president. Your ethnicity is no longer a valid excuse to hold you back from any accomplishment, or achieving any goal. So many kids I work with are filled with rage and vile hate, children who have been taught to believe the system is "rigged" and out to get them.

The cult of victimization just had it's Gettysburg.

Tinky Winky Throws Down

Halloween is my favorite holiday - it's the one day of the year where you can dress in a parrot costume to school and peck students on the head.

My aide was the pirate. He'd throw a walking stick on the ground which I'd perch on and caw, mimicking the students.

"Who are you supposed to be Mister?" they'd ask.

"Who you supposed to be, who you supposed to be?" I'd caw back in a high pitched voice.

"He's that fruit loops bird!"

"Yeah, he's that fruit loops dude! Hey, you got any fruit loops?"

"No, fruit loops." SQUAWK! "No candy! None for you! None for you!" SQUAWK!

Twenty classrooms later I was exhausted. Running around the room and flapping wings all sounds like fun and games, but it's hard work.

I also got really irritated that people kept asking me if I wanted a cracker.

That night I went out to a Joe Leyva's Halloween bash in far off Arcadia off the 210, with Phil, the Patster, and Varga. Varga was dressed a a red skinned devil (the slick debonair Devil), Phi and old time baseball player, and Pat as John McCain with a heavy mask. I went as a pirate, but someone said I looked like Meatloaf. Someone else said I looked like Harvey Feirstein from Independence day. (That's the gay guy who gets blown up about 35 minutes in.)


It was free to enter, but the shitty drinks were $9 a piece. We also had to get patted down by security, a sad state of affairs in LA. (Even in sad lonesome Arcadia.)

We got to the club and the place was full of people, everyone in costume. There were police, nylon stocking nurses, dark fairies, arab shieks, amazonian warriors, masked bandits, princesses, strutting Asian viking warriors with upside down horns, powder puff football girls, mardi gras masked revelers, red bull angels, roman centurions, cat women, four teletubbies and of course pirates!

I wandered on the dance floor and an attractive woman started dancing with me. "This song takes me back!" she shouted.

"Me too!"

"I'm ancient!" she cried.

"So am I!"

"I bet I'm older!" she called out.

"When did you graduate high school?"


I got her a drink.

After about an hour Varga's girlfriend Shalini and her friend KaVita joined us. Dolled up in tight sexy dresses, neither of them was in costume, but then hot chicks don't have to be in costume. A cute girl can get into any club or backstage at any concert, it's one of their superpowers.

With no easy place to stand we crowded into a hallway and took photos. We wanted to get photos with a full sized animatronic mummy, but Shalini knocked the head off.

We all feigned ignorance and walked away.

KaVita and I went onto the dance floor and danced a few sets. I am not a great dancer, I am not even a good dancer, but whenever I start dancing I always remind myself of an old saying:

"You don't have to be faster then the bear, just faster the someone else."

I may not be the best on the dance floor, but I'm often better then someone else.

We walked outside and KaVita told me she owns a grocery/gift store deep in the Inland Empire. She's a Sikh, which surprised me. I would have guessed Persian, or Hindu. She had fine, chiseled features and olive colored skin, features that were both universal and exotic, Kavita could fit in anywhere and simultaneously stand out at the same time.

it was then that the fight broke out. Two of the tele-tubbies, Tinky Winky and Laa-Laa, were fighting with an Arab Shiek and a bald headed cholo with a sleeve of tattoos. Fists flew, bodies pressing against one another as half a dozen men tried to pull them apart.
(Tinky Winky is the "gay" one, he's purple. Laa-Laa is yellow, I looked it up.)

Go Tinky! Go Tinky!

Suddenly, a gun was brandished. "Everyone get the fuck down! I'll shoot your ass!" A voice in the crowd bellowed.

No one stopped fighting. From where we were sitting, no one could see who had whipped out the gun.

Unsure of what to do, I remained still, praying no one was going to get shot. KaVita got nervous and moved behind me, then two other girls decided that was a smart idea and did the same, backing into a corner. I was both flattered and annoyed that my duty was now to be bullet shield.

Thirty seconds later we could see it was a security guard who had the gun, and the fight was broken up. The Arab was tossed onto the ground and handcuffed. Tinky Winky and Laa-Laa were taken aside for questioning. Other bully boys were told to hit the road.

Half a dozen squad cars arrived and a police helicopter buzzed overhead. The party was officially over. KaVita and I met up with Varga and Shalini.

The Arab was still handcuffed on the ground. "You see that," Varga pointed, "even when the Arabs are dressed up in costume, they're causing problems."

"True that."

We escorted the girls back to their car and a cop told us to leave.

The fights over, I wanted to scream. You guys must have got nothing to do! Instead I just politely nodded and we went back to Varga's apartment.

The police in LA can be assholes, even in far off lonesome Arcadia.

The Sin Eater


10:37. The bell rings, announcing the start of lunch. It would be breakfast anywhere else, but LAUSD operates under a different sort of logic. Duran have just finished co-teaching a world history class; it is my favorite part of the day.

One of our students approaches to talk about his grades...he's missing four assignments and failing the class. He failed the class last year and has to retake it if he wants to graduate, and being a senior he's running out of chances to make it up. I shake my head and launch into my standard "You need to be more responsible routine if you want to graduate," routine.

The student is silent, his dark eyes full of pain. "I'm sorry Mr. Leiken. I know I have to make them up."

"Why didn't you do them?"

"My father was killed."

I blink, stupefied. It takes me a moment to recollect my senses. "What happened?" I ask.

"One of his friends lured him outside and a gang shot him."

I shake the student's hand, speechless, there are no words either adequate or capable of conveying my sympathy and shock. "I'm sorry." I finish lamely.


One of my former students comes up to shake my hand. It's part of our daily ritual, whenever we meet in the classroom he always holds his hand out for a firm shake. Most students prefer the more streetwise "pound it", but he takes pride in being praised, and to him there is no higher praise then having his hand clasped in a firm warm grip.

Today he walks up to me. I hold up my hand but he doesn't take it. "What's wrong?" I ask.

"My niece died." He chokes.

"I'm sorry." I reply lamely.

"We're having a fundraiser. A car wash."

"For what?"

"The funeral."

For the second time in two days, I'm speechless. I don't want to know the details.


"Mr. Leiken, can I call you Uncle?"

I squint at Jonathan, who is beaming at me with a smile that could light up the sun. Last week when I dressed up as a pirate he thought it was the "coolest" thing ever.

"You can call me Leiken."

"How about Uncle Leiken?"

"Leiken or Mr. Leiken, or if you prefer, Mister."

"But you're cool Leiken. You're like an Uncle. I can tell you anything!"

I chuckle ruefully. That's the problem. I'm not sure I want to know. Each year I feel less like a teacher and more like a priest, an eater of sins that takes on the student's trials and makes them my own. No matter how much I give, the students demand more, they are emotional black holes that suck dry every ounce of energy I have to give away. No, I am not their father, or their uncle, I'm just a teacher.

"Just Leiken, Jonathan. Just Leiken."