A Curious Stew

Silver Lake was a circus when I moved here in ‘92.  By day it was old buildings with peeling paint set against lush hillsides with hidden graffitied cement stairways and morning glories everywhere. School kids walked to and from the middle school on one end and Marshall High tucked in off of Griffith Park Boulevard on the other.  And every evening at dusk, like the flip of a coin, Hyperion Avenue became a sea of leather-clad men as the neighborhood merged into its nightly free-for-all leather-bar scene.  Leather caps, leather vests, leather pants, studded leather belts, leather chokers, and leather underwear — I saw it all parade past my window.

Occasionally, when the evening parade was in full swing the marchers fell out of line and snuck into my roofless cement garage.  Built in the 1920s, its walls were slowly caving in with each seismic shift of the earth, and it served less as a garage than a place to park the city-issued trash cans. But that didn’t matter to the boys who ran the streets at night back then, as they’d slip in – and slip it in.  

And when the sun rose, the buildings of nighttime delights were tucked back into their anonymous shells intertwined between auto body and mechanics shops, small theatres, old houses and apartments, Casita del Campo restaurant, and the local plumber.  

All part of the charm of Silver Lake life back then — rent a cottage, live on the hillsides, and watch the wild life.  Hemingway may have called Paris “a moveable feast,” but Silver Lake was a curious stew.

And out of this concoction a different flavor emerged when the young urban professionals started to move in and reshape the neighborhood to look more like the areas they came from. One weekend a 30-something gay man asked me to sign a petition to close the bars; the following weekend a couple of cute older queens, who owned the notorious and anonymous King of Hearts bar, pleaded for me to sign theirs.  “You can see how nice we keep the building and garden out front!”  But newcomers can be relentless in their pursuits to make an area fit their vision, and the parade was eventually forced to move on as the bars were made over into other businesses.  Even longtime stud bar Cuffs – the only building to sport its name on the outside – was shuttered, gutted, repainted inside and out and revived as a “tavern.” The new tavern owners, as if in an effort to cover up the saloon’s outlaw past, installed floor-to-ceiling bookcases of old law books over Cuffs’ mascot: a mural of a man in crotchless leather chaps that displayed his rather large erection. I only knew about this notorious gentleman when an ornery friend took me into the bar after I’d lived in the neighborhood a dozen years.  “See, it’s not so bad,” said Jeff, while the leather-chapped daddies stared at me in not quite a welcoming fashion, as I hid under a baseball cap, downed a drink, and he called me “Bob,” which I’m quite sure didn’t fool any of them.

I’m not sure how I found out that the bar had become Hyperion Tavern as a new sign was never posted. Only a revolving striped barber shop light pole at the doorway pointed the way for the new breed who sipped their beers and leafed through the endless rows of law books, marveled at the tavern’s rustic-like interior and charming scent of “old wood.” A cherry wood decor, in this case.  And even though the new owners had accomplished getting the longtime Cuffs’ bar smell out, its former ghosts came back to haunt in the form of knee-high pee stains that started showing through the black paint outside –right where the men in chaps used to line up every evening as they waited to get in. Stains aside, the Tavern’s speakeasy facade screamed loud and clear that bohemian-hipster gentrification had arrived, and the new party was in full swing.

Banking on the busy thoroughfare of Hyperion Avenue and new incoming traffic a hair salon replaced the feed store; an art gallery was gutted out of a former antiques shop that had replaced a small market, which at one time had been a boy bar. All of it was a welcome change, though maybe not the rise in rents and real estate, depending on which side of the fence you stood on.  It was also noticeably quieter at dusk, now that the boy bars were gone, and along with it their hoots, hollers, and catcalls.  And from this newfound silence, early one evening emerged Miles, or a version of him, as trumpet notes echoed through the corridor lending a mysterious atmosphere to the air.  As if purposely footnoted into the play that was this neighborhood, the notes seemed to be signaling a scene change.

I found the budding player a couple of buildings down from the Tavern, standing in an open doorway as the light from inside shone onto an otherwise dark stretch of sidewalk that was shaded over by trees.  The space had long been vacant, since it was last inhabited by an architect photographer, his miniature cut-out of the downtown L.A. skyline still fading on the windowsill.  

High school senior, if a day, Maya was practicing familiar phrases from “Round About Midnight,” her trumpet pointed towards the sky.  It wasn’t smooth as silk, but I could still hear the passion behind each note and wondered what it would have been like to have lived down the street from Miles Davis.

“Ah, thanks,” she blushed. Seated behind her on a well-worn couch next to a stainless steel bar was a man wearing an extra-large faded Hawaiian shirt, with a long thin salt and pepper ponytail that went down his back.  “Would you like a cappuccino? It’s free!” said Navarro, with a big smile and a twinkle in his eye that made him look like a happier version of Sitting Bull.

“Maya, make her a cappuccino!”  Navarro’s booming voice startling me out of my haze.

She put down her trumpet, grabbed a carton of milk out of a big stainless steel frig, and dutifully went behind the bar to whip up, what was to be, the house specialty.

Navarro’s business partner, Marco was perched on a stool and smiled: “You know what I like about her coffees? I never have to add anything to them, because they’re perfect!” I had to admit she created something that was also considered a work of art in L.A. – a great foamy coffee drink.  

Navarro and Marco were still working on the soon-to-be opened Java Kava coffee house that hadn’t much floor space to spare with everything else that was already in there, including the one wooden chair I sat on.    

“Oh we’re replacing all of this and getting some nice tables and chairs,” said Navarro, though it really seemed only big enough for a small table or two.

“It’s going to be great when we finally open!” he boasted.  “Hello, free cappuccino!” Navarro yelled out from his perch on the couch to couples walking by.

Equal parts couch philosopher and music lover, Navarro was easy to talk to over those delicious lattes.  And over the next few weeks I became a regular customer of the house specialty – conversation and free coffees.  We talked about the changing face of the neighborhood, as he played old rock and blues on his old school boombox.  He’d owned a local pet store and watched the kids grow up in the neighborhood, the graffiti increase, sales go down during the recession, and rents go up as new businesses moved in.  “Man, there was a time when that store was always busy.”

His new business was in a prime location as tavern-goers or art gallery visitors passed by Java Kava to-be, either on their way to or stumbling back from the latest party. The mixture of spirits, courtesy of the tavern or the art gallery’s monthly art openings and Navarro’s free coffees were the perfect elixir, as everyone effortlessly conversed.  And Navarro always made introductions: “Hey, he lives right up the street from you.”

This was a different offering from the latest crop of coffeehouses and diners inhabiting Sunset Junction that lacked the character of the greasy spoons they had replaced, where you could sit for hours as the waitresses kept refilling your cup. In the new coffee world, if you wanted another cup you had to ante up.

Walking up to Java Kava on any given evening, I could hear Navarro’s booming voice, “…it’s free!!”  Seated on the couch, he’d get up just long enough to turn up the volume of some old ‘60s blues. “I met a lot of these guys when I worked concerts in Hawaii,” as he’d share his endless stories of days on the big island.    

“Ahhh, Paul Butterfield,” said Navarro, as he sat back down and kept a steady beat tapping his foot, and slapping high fives, this night, with his friend Dean.  “This is the shit!” It seemed the perfect soundtrack as Navarro’s eyes had more than a hint of marijuana happiness.

“Yeah, it is!” said Dean who announced, “I’m not going to the Silver Lake street fair this year,” as he scratched his elbow that sported a tattoo of a 45 record.  “I’ve seen the Buzzcocks, and I don’t care about Morris Day & The Time,” he said.

On the hillside across the way we heard a backyard band playing – one of the many parties going on in anticipation of the weekend street fair.  The vocalist was shout-singing a Bob Marley tune — his voice losing steam as the drummer barely kept up.

“All right!” Dean yelled.  

“Come on in! Welcome!” Navarro yelled out to anyone who looked inside as they walked past, the offer of a free cappuccino from the Deadhead-looking-man causing them to double back.

“When are you opening?” was the familiar question.

Neighbors also stopped in to say hello. “Navarro, listen, I’ve got these old prints from the Walt Disney studio days – maybe we can work something out.  Permanent loan, once you open,” an older gentleman offered.

And, when necessary, Navarro was an expert at feigning sincerity, if it would gain him a customer.    

“Have you read my book yet?” asked Kevin, who lived in the apartments over the auto repair shop.  One of those neighbors I had sort of ignored when I saw a strand of toilet paper floating out his bathroom window.

“Yeah, I’m really enjoying it!”

“What’s his book about?” I asked when he left.

“I have no idea.  I only got through a few paragraphs. I guess he has some idea to save the world from itself,” said Navarro.

Outside a presumably bussed-in 20-something hipster recited into his phone: “You gotta come to this place.  On High-peer-e-awn. It’s on High-peer-e-awn.”

“You smoke WEED?!” Navarro asked me one day as we sat at the table outside his “we’ll-be-open-soon” coffee bar, watching neighbors walking their dogs or stopping in at the Thai Tofu Café.  I noticed that he couldn’t help but smile when he said, “weed” and seemed to draw the double ee’s out.

“No? Then how about a beer?” he offered.  And he immediately produced one in a coffee cup, its foam on top resembling a latte, and who would be the wiser?

I relaxed as my thoughts became colored from this late afternoon inebriation, and the Hyperion rhythm was settling into a mosaic pattern of persons, who didn’t look much different from their ‘70s counterparts I’d hung out with back in the day. “This spot has some special vibe to it,” Navarro offered.

Indeed it did.  But, like every dream, that included free cappuccinos, different characters started showing up, and the opening scene morphed into something else, as I realized there was a more literal buzz going on and not just from the complimentary coffee.

The update from Navarro was always the same: “Man, we worked all day on this thing.”  

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to open on time?” I asked.

“Yeah, we just got to get the plumbing fixed.  Almost.”

Dean’s girlfriend Maria usually stopped in before she had to open the Tavern for her evening shift at the bar. Some nights, when Maria also had to close the bar, she and Dean would sleep in the soon-to-be-opened coffee lounge.  And it started to look like they lived there with Dean’s Doc Marten’s sitting in the corner, her overnight bag on the floor and a rumpled blanket tossed in the corner.

“Dean won’t let Maria see his place,”  said Navarro.

He claimed to live, “Oh, somewhere around Virgil and Fountain,” but never described it much beyond than that.

“Los Feliz Ledger said they’d interview me the moment we’re ready to open,” said Navarro.  “Hello! Free cappuccino!” to a couple passing by.

And then a new kind of customer started coming around — the kind with a car waiting outside — and they only stayed long enough to follow Navarro behind the counter as he reached into his pocket, they reached into theirs, and he’d hand them something out of view.  

“See ya!” and out they’d go.

“Didn’t they want a free coffee?” a lady asked one night as she sipped hers.  

“Sorry no coffee tonight,” said Navarro when I came back a couple of nights later.  “We’re out.”

“Yeah, we had a busy day today,” chuckled Dean.

More people were hanging out on the couch, including the kid, I recognized, from the Korean-owned liquor store up the street. He ran the cash register and spoke to the customers for his parents, who could only manage a few English phrases.

When the guy with the waiting car outside ran in, Navarro motioned him to the bathroom – “Hey, check out the work we did on the plumbing today.”    

Marco would stop in now and then to see how things were progressing, bringing a fresh supply of coffee cups and milk.  He was usually happy, until they discussed the day’s events involving the plumbing.
I started seeing their coffee cups up and down Hyperion Avenue.  People would finish their free capps and toss ‘em it appeared.     

The plumbing problem never seemed to get fixed.  “We’re working on it.  Soon.”  And more of those visitors came by who never stayed for a free cappuccino, but then they were in a different dream than mine. And when Dean and Navarro started talking in choppy sentences, I’d take that as my cue to leave.  

“So, yeah, I got that, you know…”

“Good.”

“He’s coming by for it later.”

“Cool.”
“We’ll have to go out to the storage unit tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”

I was trying to ignore it, because I liked the conversation as much as the free coffees.  But, it no longer felt like a cozy new place for coffee once the younger patrons dangling around high school age started hanging around, switching the radio to hip-hop whenever Navarro had left to go “run an errand.”  Maya seemed shy to play trumpet when they were around. The neighbors also started complaining about “all the activity” going on at the coffeehouse, well into the evening.  

“I don’t know where he is,” said whatever kid was holding court on the couch, when I had stopped in again.  

And then one day the door wasn’t open, nor the next night or the week after that.

A few weeks later, I ran into Marco at Trader Joe’s.  “Yeah, I had to get rid of those guys.”

“I thought it was Navarro’s place.”

“My money mostly.  He was supplying that great contractor who could never fix anything.  That place is a mess.  I’ve got to start over.”

I wonder if he won’t lose whatever momentum they had at the beginning, but he assures me, “No, no, we’re good.”

Eventually the only thing that remained of the Java Cafe coffeehouse, coffee bar, coffee lounge, pick-me-up joint was their store-bought coffee cups peering out of the bushes and weeds up and down Hyperion Avenue.   And it was soon forgotten as that space again came to a standstill. Occasionally I’d peer into the sideways mail slot on their door and peek inside.  It was all in a disarray, and silent. No music, no whirring of the blender, and most notably, no aroma of coffee or happy Navarro keeping time, waxing philosophically, spinning yarns.

Face it, I told myself, it was all a dream that included free cappuccinos.  If it really existed the perfect name for the place would have been The Coffee Pot.

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About Teresa Conboy

Teresa Conboy is working on a collection of short stories about her two decades in the Hollywood area of Silver Lake, but from the new vantage point of Altadena, which she hopes will be a little slower to gentrify. You can find Teresa on Facebook, and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Always a pleasure reading Teresa’s stories. Keep them coming!

  2. I love Teresa’s stories. They always make me feel in that moment. Descriptive & real. The characters are always with interest. I love the visual of the graffiti & peeled paint–awesome. And the coffee cups strewn along the sidewalk & bushes..So L.A. I’ve watched the transitions of areas that were exactly as she writes. KEEP WRITING.

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