Thursday, February 19, 2009

Plan B

Imagine a steak house filled with delectable four star food - a smorgasbord of scrumptious prime rib, new york strips, T-Bones, babyback ribs, and sirloin and tenderloin cuts so tender they practically beg to be eaten.

Now imagine that this same steak house charges you a $10 cover to walk in, and while the waiters will bring out one plate after another of all the delicious food that you can ogle and drool over to your heart's content -you get within six inches of that meat and a 300 pound former linebacker that's done two stints in San Quentin will kick your ass into the street.

These steak houses are what many kindly refer to as "Gentleman's Clubs."

Ironically, their are no gentleman to be found in a Gentleman's Club. Stoned businessmen buying lap dances on the company account, beefy frat boys treating the women like whores, decrepit fossils reawakened with viagra - yes. Gentlemen, no.

But play with the food, and the club breaks your face.

But that's because we're all Gentleman.

Some Gentleman's clubs will actually let you touch the food, but that costs $20 for 3 minutes, (less if it's an off night like a Tuesday special) but the food never fills you up, it just leaves you wanting more food.

You would wonder why men go to a Gentleman's club at all?

Men are stupid.

That being said sometimes you do just want to look.

Varga invites me to Plan B, it's a second tier club located off of Pico Blvd in Santa Monica. I've never been, but being something of a conneisuer I elect to join him. Varga's the ambassador for Chivas, a high end Scotch that retails for $300 a bottle. His job is to go to bars and pour shots for anyone willing to down them, all in the name of promoting the brand.

Varga looks like Rob Lowe and could charm the Devil himself; under the term personality in the dictionary there should be a picture of him to define the word.

We meet on Valentine's Day outside the club, a moment later he glides us past the bouncers and the $5 cover. Inside a jazz band riffs while a female dancer climbs up a pole, valiantly attempting to gyrate as the jazz singer incants: "Biddly do-wap, do-wap, do-wap, pzzzzz."

The girl shakes, trying to sway sexily to the everescent, non-base jazz rythm.
She fails.

The bar is decorated in Valentine's hearts, its small, with about a dozen tables - Plan B is more of a burlesque club then a strip bar. It's the kind of place one could take a girlfriend if you wanted to be risque without actually offending her.

Varga buys a $300 bottle of Chivas 18 from behind the bar, we get set up at a table near the stage along with half a dozen shot glasses, a carafe of water, bucket of ice, and low-baller drinks for mixing and cocktails. The room is half full, in one corner an aging rock star with twenty pounds of costume jewelry coiled about his neck sits with his weathered girlfriend. At the table across from us two couples sit, watching the girls. The men are quiet, their female handlers look like they haven't smiled since '98.

Varga begins handing out drinks, and a moment later we're rushed by groups of two to three men all looking for a shot. A short Asian guy trying to hard to be cool clasps my hand. "Thank you brother, thank you!" he shouts. Two beefy men who look a half step away from a cornary tell Varga how awesome he.

I'm also awesome by proxy. I look across the room and spot a beautiful Asian woman with hazel eyes dressed in a slender black coat covering dark lingerie. Varga catches my look. "I remember her from last time, she's Russian."

I look at her again. Russians are typically caucasian with blonde hair. She looks like she could be from China, or Korea. "Huh?"

"Seriously, she's Russian."

I motion to her, she catches my glance and saunters over to the table. "You're Russian."

She blinks, startled. "What, how did you know?" she replies in a husky voice that is unmistakably Slavic.

The Russian voice with the Asian face - hot.

"I could tell." I lie, inviting her to have a seat. Varga smiles and gets up to make a round around the club. "What's your name?"

"Yeva. It is means Eve in Russian."

"That's a pretty club name - I bet no other girl here has it."

"No, no," Yeva protests, flinging back her hair. "Yeva is my name."

"Here. Not out there."

Yeva favors me with a long, cautious look. "You look Russian." she states.

"Well you don't look Russian. You look like you are from China."

"My mother was from Mongolia, my father is Russian."

I explain that two of my grandparents were from Estonia. I ask her how long she's been in the States, and she tells me three years, two in Miami. I tell her I'm a writer, mention you're a teacher - and even with a stripper who is paid to flirt with you, and you're dead. Yeva tells me she has lots of stories, she tells me one about a "friend" who ran away from home when she was 12 because she was in love with a man. Later the man tries to prostitute her, but she runs away and escapes to America with $300 dollars in her pocket. She gets a job as a maid and tries hard to learn English, but she doesn't have papers and is afraid of going to school because she doesn't want to be deported.

She learns English from watching soap operas.

Varga returns and the moment is broken. I ask her to return to the story about her "friend" but Yeva no longer wants to talk about it.

Yeva gets up to dance. She's beautiful, but her face is definately her best feature.

A dirty old man with a hunch in his back asks for a shot, a mousy Asian woman stands next to him. Girlfriend, I wonder? Varga pours him a shot, and he asks for another. Varga gives him a second shot. Five minutes later he'll be back for a third, and five minutes after that a fourth.

I notice his "Asian" girlfriend is checking out the women more intently then him; his entire focus is on the bottle of now half empty $300 scotch.

Varga hypotheizes that the hunchback picked up the girl while in the Navy, she cooks and cleans for him and he rewards her by taking her to the strip club where she can indulge in her lesbian fantasies.

She buys a lap dance from Yeva.

The jazz band continues to belt out tunes, some of the girls adjust and manage to look good strutting up and down the catwalk. There is no nudity here, California insists girls are clothed in any club that serves hard liquor.

I sip my drink, there are attractive women here, but not the gorgeous drop dead beauties one normally would expect from a "Gentleman's Club" in LA. A few women ask me if I would like a dance - I offer then a drink of Chivas. Enter a strip bar in a sport's coat and command a table and suddenly you transform into a $20 bill with arms and legs.

Varga and I spot one dancer named Brazil, she's tanned with a smoking hot body, tatoos on her lower back with an open face. She reminds me of a cartoon character named Brandy from Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows. She stops in the middle of her dance and bends over, shouting, "You guys look like the only people in here having a good time."

We smile and wave. The feminazi's over at the other table still haven't cracked a smile, but I'm sure the one on the left is checking out Varga.

We give her a tip after the dance. Brazil informs us she used to dance at Foreplay, which is one of the highest end clubs anywhere in the city. I ask her why she decided to come dance at Club B, which at least monetarily, has got to be a step down. She brushes off my question with a laugh and kisses both Varga and myself on the cheek.

It will be the only kiss I get this Valentine's day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Roses are Red

Valentine's Day.

A holiday designed to guilt "single" people into committing to a relationship - being dateless on Valentine's isn't as bad as not having family for Thanksgiving or being alone on Christmas, but it's exquisitely painful nonetheless. I quietly despise the holiday with a cynicism honed by years of painful rejection, self imposed bitterness, and heaping piles of broken romantic dreams.

Fuck you Valentines. Fuck you.

So naturally I buy a dozen individually wrapped long stem roses.

Every year on Valentine's day I hand roses out to the female teachers, aides, and staff. It started four years ago as a whim, but the second year I used the roses as part of an elaborate cover to ask out an aide I was interested in - and was promptly rejected. The third year I handed out flowers to make up for sticking my foot in my mouth and pissing off half the female staff. By now handing out flowers has become something of a "Leiken" tradition.

Giving out flowers did not go unnoticed. My last birthday a dozen women entered my classroom, singing "Happy Birthday Mr. Leiken" while each of them personally handed me a flower. My students were in shock, one of them convinced that I was the biggest "player" in the school. It's an unforgettable moment.

I almost don't buy the flowers this year, but then I recall my birthday and go through with it anyway. I'm not looking to ask anyone out, but I do have a reputation to protect.

On a wet and dreary Friday the 13th I hand out the roses with a half bow and a smile, the women are flattered and filled with startlement that borders on annoyance. "How sweet," they exclaim, "thank you Mr. Leiken." A moment later I move on.

Garcia and Gaitan smile, thank me, put away the rose, and I am forgotten. I hand out a flower to Maranphal as partial thanks for taking me out in Bangkok, she emits a surprised laugh before I move on to Borquez who accepts the flower with quiet grace.

Carnizales is deeply flattered, she offers to buy me lunch.
We eat cheeseburgers.

I hand out the flowers to other teachers, they smile emptily, unsure of how to react. I give a flower to Roberts who turns slightly red and laughs, she's going to Vegas with her boyfriend this weekend. One to Andres, one to Kim, one to Serrano, one to Jordan; they thank me and I feel empty, a meaningless gesture of pointless platitude sponsored by Hallmark to promote the national religion of romantic love.

Tell someone you don't believe in God and they'll argue.

Tell someone you don't believe in America and they'll get angry.

Tell someone you don't believe in "true-love" and they'll just walk away.

I don't feel the joy of giving. I don't feel anything but grey resentment.

I recieve no cards, no flowers, no candy. I'm tossed a red sucker by a student attempting to bribe me into letting her leave class easy.

I tell her no but eat the sucker.

I die a small death.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Match

The last day of the semester kids crowd into the learning center, its packed with students who would rather spend time with us then with their regular teacher. My aide Mr. C asks one of the students to help him clean the room. Edwin.

Edwin tells him no. I look up, irked. We found 5 of Edwin's sweatshirts beneath my parrot costume in the closet, which means they were lying there before Halloween. His clutter is everywhere, papers, folders, half drawn art work. "Alright Edwin," I announce, "but if Mr. C finds any of your things, you can't stay."

Thirty seconds later Mr. C pulls out a stack of papers with Edwin's name on it.

"Alright Edwin, go to your regular class."

"What, but why?"

"Because you refused to help Mr. C clean up your own mess. Go."

Edwin storms out the room, one of the other teachers, Garcia, is irriated. "Why did you do that? I swear I'll never understand why you don't like Edwin. Must be two alpha males."

A match sparks.

More kids crowd in, I've promised one of them all semester we'd play a game of Risk! I tell him to get out the game while I write I want everyone to type a one page paper on what they learned this semester."

The kids groan.

Beneath my prompt I write "Just kidding."

They cheer. "Everyone can sit and talk quietly. It's the last day of school and grades were due at 7:30 this morning."

A half dozen students cluster around me as I assist them by setting up the board game Risk! It's a minimum day, we're out by 12:11, and the deadline for grades was 7 this morning.

"Hey Leiken," Mr. C asks, "Arturo needs help with his paper." I I instruct Jeff to help him as Arturo fires up the computer. I'm not in the mood to help anyone today, grades are in, the deadline has passed.

The match sparks again.

"He really needs your help Mr. Leiken. Jordan is letting him turn in his paper for a higher grade if he makes corrections."

The match flares. "Grades were due this morning! Why is his paper not finished yet?"

The two other teachers in the learning center look up. Garcia tries to interject, says something about Jordan letting kids make corrections for a higher grade. It infuriates me further.

"Today is the last day of the semester! The deadline for grades was this morning! I'm glad that deadlines don't mean anything anymore! I know, why don't we just pay our rent and our taxes when we feel like it? How many days did you miss this semester Arturo?"

Arturo lowers his head.

"Seventeen. That's almost four weeks, a whole month of school! How much did I help you with that paper?"

"A lot." Arturo says quietly.

Rages burns through me like a wave of flame, I know I'm irrationally angry, but I can't help myself. The rage pours out my throat like a fountain of molten lava, it scalds students as I berate them for not being prepared, for not taking school seriously, for taking their teachers for granted. The anger is a living genie of fire which consumes me, I know I've crossed the line as I look over at Garcia and Gaitan and they stare at me with eyes that have widened into white moons.

It feels good.

It feels great.

I love being angry, bask in the startled silence of students too afraid to move as their eyes dart to the floor. I feel like I could put my fist through a door while the endorphins surge through my body, it's addictive, all consuming.

It's wrong.

Mr. C is shocked. He turns and helps Arturo. I turn my attention back to the game.

At the end of class I hold Arturo and apologize, explain my anger was not really directed at him.

Where has this rage come from, what lit the match?

Was it the fact that Arturo needed extra help, and I wanted a day to relax with my students?
No. Normally I'd help him without a second thought.

Was it because I was angry at the school for having messed up next semesters schedules, and I'm not looking forward to having to spend rounds with the counselors and principals trying to correct it?
Closer. Messed up schedules is irritating, but still not the heart of the rage.

Is it because a new semester is starting up on Monday and I need to get my boxing gloves on to deal with an entirely new set of kids, and like an ultimate fighting champion, I'm psyching myself up for the new class?
Plausible, but no, it's something else that lit the match.

Is it because I'm angry at Edwin and my rage is not only inappopriate, but displaced?
Close, very close, but Edwin is more of a minor irritation. He's never made me that angry.

Is it because I'm having PMS?
Men don't PMS.

Is it that I'm upset with Garcia for allowing her students to take advantage of her sweet nature? It is irritating, but no, I don't believe my outburst was a show for her benefit.

Or is it because I'm burning out, I'm tired - am I really helping anyone, or am I just further enabling them by reinforcing their learned helplessness.

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Two hours later I will go 10 rounds with the school counselor and assistant principal of special ed, I will attempt to rationalize, plead, beg, anything to get the kids switched to what serves them best. They shake their heads, no, no, no. The schedule is set up so the students can take all their classes and graduate on time. I explain that they won't pass any classes unless the schedule is specifically tailored to their needs.

I will lose. I maybe mad as hell, but I'm going to take it, and take it, and take it, because the system is too big, the apathy all pervasive, the goals misdirected, the money misspent.

But I'm still mad as hell. The match stays lit.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Never show your creative writing to those you live with.

It's a simple rule, elegant, concise; writers don't want constructive criticism, they want validation. Unless the person you live with absolutely adores what you've written, as a writer you'll believe the worst. Giving the person you live with your writing to review is a low-gain, high-risk proposition.

It's like when your girlfriend asks you if the jeans she's wearing make her look fat, anyway you answer, you're probably screwed. Tell her she looks wonderful, and she'll think you are patronizing her, tell her she looks heavy, you're in the dog house. Duck the question and explain you like her other jeans better, and now you are offending her sense of taste.

Everyone would be better off if the question was never asked.

This week I'm dusting off an old script, based off an idea John Maniha shot me years ago. What if God and the Devil were trying to stop Armageddon by meeting in a coffee shop for one last talk?

I wrote a 15 page mini-script entitled, "The Last Temptation of Coffee", logged it with the Writer's Guild, but nothing ever came of it. Recently I met Paul, a short film maker who asked to see it.

I'm reading over it when my roommate walks in, curious. Although Christopher and I are friends, I have never asked him to review my work. This time however I hand him the script on a whim.

Mistake. Broke my own rule.

Christopher reads it, mouth drawn tight, eyes focused, silent. It drives me crazy, I have to go into the other room and print out a second copy. Rumor has it that my script is purported to be funny, but Christopher neither laughs nor chuckles, giggles or snickers, not one smirk, not one smile, not one shake of the head. He's superman as he peers through my script with X-Ray vision, eyes afire with an intensity worthy of Sidney Poitier.

He finishes, hands back my script.

I break the silence first. "So what did you think?"

"When did you write this?"

"About four years ago."

"Did you do any research?"

"It's a fifteen page mini-script about God and Satan in a coffee shop. I didn't think to check out the Bible for research material."

"Well there are a couple of things that don't make any sense, like the Devil wanting to be called Lucifer. That means "light of heaven." I don't think he would want to be called light of heaven."

"Maybe he's being ironic?"

"I don't think so."

"Christopher, if I was screening this to a group of theologians, I'd be worried."

"You really should do more research."

"Well who do I call about the "end of the days"? Latter Day Saints or Al Queda?"

Christopher frowns. "It's just that we've seen this all before. God as an old man, the Devil as a joker. It's not particularly original."

I had played with the idea of making God a child, but then tossed it because who wants to work with a child actor? "That's not how most people see God," I respond, defensive. "I have to appeal to an audience and convince a film maker to produce it. I'm working in mythology based on thousands of years of tradition."

Christopher shrugs.

"Was there anything you did like about it."

"I liked the coffee shop."

Irritated, I head out to see Phil. He's a fellow writer, so he'll understand. I explain what happened, but he just laughs and smiles. "You didn't want criticism, Brian, you wanted validation."

"But his first comment was that it needed more research! It's about God and the Devil in a coffee shop? How much research does that require? That's like writing a story about a monster under my bed and being told it required more research."

Phil nods. "You're right, it's an irrelevant criticism and reflects more on Christopher, but you need to let it go. I've met writers who have criticized me for not doing enough research, and I've always found that those are people who aren't being creative themselves. They use research as an excuse to stop creating and getting started on their own project."

I'm still mad about it an hour later, Phil leans over at the bar. "Let it go. Would you have preferred he had patronized you? Told you how funny you were?"


"Move on, show the script to Paul. The best validation isn't a critic, it's seeing your work on screen and having people like it."

A few days later Paul calls.

He wants to make the film.