I woke up in the darkness. It was 4:30am and I was wide awake. I got up, made a cup of tea and grabbed my phone; started scrolling through photos from yesterday, reading the news from back home, maybe did a crossword puzzle or something. Around 5:30, as the sun just started to rise, my FaceTime rang. It was one of my oldest and dearest friends calling. We hadn’t spoken in a few months and he doesn’t do social media. In his mind, he thinks he’s caught me at 7:30 in the evening in California. He has no idea that I’m in Italy at the crack of dawn. He says, “Do you have time to talk?” I said, “Sure, but hang on a minute. Nickie’s sleeping. Let me go outside.”
I get outside and start walking as he tells me that he’s back in New York for his son’s college graduation. Congratulations are in order. As I keep the camera tight on my head and shoulders, we revel for a few minutes until I approach the completely empty Duomo plaza. At this point, he starts noticing the architecture behind me ain’t exactly Stockton and he says, “Where are you?’” I flip the camera around to reveal my surroundings.
For the next hour, we giddily strolled through empty Florence together, cutting across the Piazza della Signoria to the Palazzo Vecchio, past the Uffizi Plaza, down to the river, then turn around and wander through the abandoned alleys and cobblestoned streets right up to the Basilica of Santa Croce where a bunch of teens are congregated on the steps, still partying from last night…DOING THE MACARENA.
By this time, it was past midnight in New York and I could feel his eyelids starting to droop. We exchanged I love yous and said goodbye.
As I walked the last half mile back to the apartment, I felt such a huge glow. It was not lost on me that a few years back, we had done the exact same thing… in Paris!
My beautiful wife wrote a very heartfelt piece on our visit last week to the Sinagoga e Museo ebraico di Firenze (Jewish Synagogue and Museum of Florence). She framed it as her “Shiksa perspective”. As a companion piece to my companion’s piece (see what I did there?), I’d like to share my take on the experience.
The Synagogue was not on our agenda, nor had it been on my first visit to Florence many years ago. But this time, as the final day of our stay approached, I felt a growing compulsion to go there. It wasn’t far from our apartment and sort of on the way to yet another spectacular Florentine church (the Basilica of Santa Croce) where we were headed to pay our respects at the tomb of Michelangelo – and Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini… it’s one hell of a church!
I told Nickie that I’d like to visit the Synagogue and she was supportive without hesitation. As we approached, and saw the magnificent dome loom closer and closer, we started to notice a few kosher restaurants and some Hebrew writing in the shop windows. I was a bit surprised – and happy. When we arrived at the site, the first thing that struck me was the armed guard out front, a soldier actually, standing in front of his Jeep, cradling an AR70 assault rifle. We’d been in Florence for four days, visiting some of the most beautiful, iconic, priceless treasures in the world, but this was the first time we’d seen a gun.
There was just one person in front of us at the glassed off ticket window, a small chokepoint of an entrance with lockers and an airport security X-ray tube. The sign on the ticket window said, “We speak Italian, English, French, Spanish and Hebrew”. I said, “Boker tov. Shnai cartisim b’vakasha” (Hebrew for “Good morning. Two tickets please’). The woman looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t speak that language”. But the sign says….
No matter. We took our tickets, put our belongings in a locker and, one by one, we entered the X-ray tube.
The grounds were lovely and the edifice was quite impressive. As we approached the entrance, there was a wall to our left in the garden. My Italian language skills are basically non-existent, but I could make out that this was a memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the wall was inscribed with the names of the 248 Florentine Jews who were taken from their homes and sent to the death camps. Now, I’ve been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, so this “little memorial” barely caused more than a ripple in my hardened soul. I paid my respects and went into the Synagogue. It was a dark interior with very muted lightning, maybe a bit dusty and mildewed, not bright and polished like the Cathedrals and Basilicas we’d visited. But it was hauntingly beautiful. A little tour group of a dozen or so people noisily went by us. One thing we’ve learned on our travels is that more often than not, if a historical site is busy, you can just lay back for a few minutes until you find a brief lull in the crowd and you can have the place virtually to yourselves for a minute or two. We did.
The outer portions of the building, the tiny darkened rooms and staircases, contained a small museum, filled with precious artifacts and a handful of tourists. From certain vantage points, we could see downstairs into the shul itself and that became our focus. Once we entered the congregation, we found ourselves alone. It was absolutely breathtaking, as fine as any of the churches we’d visited. We wandered through the benches, the men’s and women’s sections separated. I noticed that the railing in front of each seat had a brass name plate, some old and tarnished, some newer and with a bit more luster. Beneath the railing, each seat had a small locked cabinet that I assumed held sidurim and talit (prayer books and shawls). A soiled tissue was on the floor. I frowned, then picked it up and put it in my pocket. From the back corner, we could hear loud talking in Italian and then giggling. I tried to ignore it but it persisted, growing into a crescendo. I couldn’t take it anymore and as I approached, I saw three people wearing name tags – they were employees! Using my handy language app, I said rather firmly (and maybe a bit contemptuously), “Silenzio prego. Questo è un luogo sacro. Per favore mostra un po’ di rispetto” – “Quiet please. This is a sacred place. please show some respect.” They looked at me with shock and what I perceived as disdain, but the look in my eye and the tone of my voice worked. They rolled their eyes, grumbled a little, and shuffled out of the sanctuary. I felt angry but, frankly, proud that I had stood up for myself, and for my people. From what I’d experienced these past several days, no church employee would dare exhibit such callous disrespect. None!
As our visit came to a close, we walked up to the gift shop where two other employees were chirping away as if they were in a cocktail lounge. Upon receiving my icy glare, the man hightailed it in one direction while the woman retreated into the shop behind the counter. I said to her, in Hebrew, “This is a place of quiet”. To my surprise, she apologized in heavily accented Hebrew and wished us a yom tov (good day). Upon exiting the building, Nickie went into the garden while I went around the building to take it all in. On one side, in the back corner, was a small blacktop basketball court/soccer pitch. Oh! So this place was actually an active Jewish community center. I walked around to the opposite back corner where I found a little children’s playground where I found myself picking up more trash. As I went back towards Nickie, I saw a window with a large child’s painting displayed in it. It was a Hebrew school!
That’s when I lost it.
After everything this community went through – a community dating back to the 1400s – annihilated by the Nazis, Jews still choose to live here, to raise their children here in the ancient traditions, under the shadow of one the greatest Synagogues in Europe. I walked back to the memorial, read all of the 248 names and shed a few more tears, tears for the people who died for one reason, and one reason alone – the senseless hatred of the blood that was in their veins – the same blood that is in my veins.
I blame both sides. Billionaires in a pissing contest with multi-millionaires. These poor players, having to scrape by on an insulting minimum wage of seven hundred grand a year (plus endorsements, hotel suites, per diems that are probably more than I make in a year, the best medical insurance on earth and a pension)
AND THEY GET TO PLAY BASEBALL FOR A LIVING!
…and be adored, worshipped, idolized… never have to pay for another goddamned cocktail in their lives!
Boo hoo, you have to wait five whole years to get that 30, 40, 50, 300 million dollar deal? Aw, poor baby. I feel so bad for you, to be treated like a piece of property like that. Must be fucking unbearable for you.
Why don’t you teach those owners a lesson and just walk away! I’m sure you can find plenty of other employment opportunities where you’ll find better working conditions and compensation.
Don’t even get me started on the owners
I hope the whole game goes bankrupt. I really do.
From Field of Dreams:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
So, I’m not a food critic per se, it’s not my area of expertise, but every now and then, I’ll get on Yelp and share my opinion on a thing or two. Now, mind you, I’ve left more five star reviews than one star reviews, so I’m not, you know, out there just bitching about what I don’t like. I think that if someone does a good job, they deserve praise and I try to heap that praise on in as detailed and colorful a way as I can; give people a real idea of what I think makes the place great – not just the food, but all the little nuances.
And sure, I’ve given some one star reviews, but the new, kinder me now leaves three or four star reviews for places I don’t like so that I’m not doing any damage to their overall rating. But in my text I’ll say exactly that, “I would leave them two stars but I don’t want to hurt them; but here’s why I’ll never eat there again“.
And I don’t do this a lot, I’ve probably written like only fifteen or twenty Yelp reviews over the past ten years.
So we go to this Mexican joint tonight in Manteca, California that we’d eaten at once before. I thought it was really good – we had sat outdoors last time because of this COVID crap, and the waitress was really nice and the food was delicious, plus… inside, the walls are covered with these fantastic Dia de los Muertos paintings of guitar playing skeletons dressed to kill and another features a magnificently decked out charro wearing a huge sombrero (and even huger mustache) who is holding a chicken. And we said, “Hey, this could be our new go-to place”. It’s closer than the place we’d been going to, which has also turned into Super Spreader Central, so we go the new place tonight and the service was just unbelievably bad.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I mean, I wrote the review, I was honest, I gave ‘em three stars and said, you know, “Because the first time we ate there was five stars, and today was more like one, I’ll give ‘em three because I don’t want to beat them up too badly”. The old me would have given them one star and been vicious, but I don’t want to be that guy anymore because, frankly, I don’t want to die young because of all the unnecessary anxiety and stress and hatred in my heart, so… and by young, I mean anytime in the next fifteen years – that would be dying young for me at this point… and anything over fifteen years, I mean, that’s like soup and diapers and catheters so let’s not even go there.
Where was I?
I finished my Yelp review and Yelp says, ‘Hey, you’re really on a roll, why don’t you review something else”. So I found some other place – you know, they give you suggestions in your local area, and I’m scrolling through thinking, “Nah. I’ll be mean to them because they suck”, until I find a place or two that I’m like, “Oh yeah, they’re cool, I’ll give them a nice review”, sort of as a palate cleanser after what I just dumped on tonight’s disaster. And I write a couple of five star reviews, all fawning and glowing and feeling like I’m Mister Benevolent, and then I’m ready to wrap up. It’s like midnight, and I’m done, and then…
I see that they want me to review… I won’t name the place but it’s a, uh… it used to be a falafel truck and then they opened a brick and mortar where some Jordanian restaurant had gone out of business. And it’s a good location for them because people are used to getting shawarmas in this joint, so they opened there. And they call themselves “Greek food”. Fact of the matter is, they’re Lebanese, but if you say Lebanese or anything Middle Eastern Arabic, ignorant people are gonna call you terrorists, and these hard working immigrants are aware of these prejudices… and if they’re Israelis (and these people weren’t), then, you know, you’ve got that whole thing going with the anti-Semitism and “you’re oppressing the Palestinians” and “you’re as bad as the Nazis” and whatever truths or untruths the Israelis have to deal with…
But these guys are Lebanese. However, they called themselves “Greek food”. Because, who’s ever pissed off at a Greek guy? In fact, all Americans really know about Greece is like marble statues, ruins and that funny wedding movie with the Dad spraying the Windex.
Was it Windex? Yeah. Anyway… Where was I again?
So I start thinking about this restaurant, and I want to leave them an honest review, which is, “I’ll never eat there again” ‘coz, well, because I’m a Mediterranean food snob. I think it’s the best food in the world and, where I live, I’ve been to every hummus joint within 72 miles of here and I’ve only once or twice had a kabob or a falafel that I thought could pass for “authentic”.
And so, I’ve eaten at this “Greek” place a couple of times and they charge prices like it’s a restaurant with waiters, but you actually go to the counter and you order and then they bring you your food in a styrofoam clamshell with one of those cellophane wrapped packets like you get on a freakin’ airplane, with the plastic fork and knife and two tiny packets of salt and pepper and the world’s smallest napkin. But before you get to that point, you have to pay with one of those iPad things that they flip around and you’re supposed to fill in a tip and they give you suggestions for the tip amount so you’re intimidated into leaving them a minimum of 10% – which should be based on quality and service – when you haven’t even gotten the meal yet. So the place already has kind of a negative for me but…
When did a falafel become a wrap?
I mean, in the Middle East, more specifically in Israel where I’ve lived three times in my life, I’ve had better food in a crumbling hole in the wall in Tel Aviv than at this “best Middle Eastern restaurant” in my town which, again, they don’t even call it Middle Eastern, they call it “Greek”.
Now if I’m in a Greek place, I’m expecting saganaki and moussaka and taramasalata and spanakopita and dolmates and baklava and some fucking ouzo with waiters yelling “OPAH!” … This place has none of that! They’ve got falafels and shawarmas and gyros, maybe a bit of hummus and tzatziki. Okay, sure, there’s some overlap because Mediterranean food is Mediterranean food but, come on, the place advertises itself as Halal. Bro. That’s Arabic, not Greek.
And I’m wondering, HEY, if you can’t come up with a fresh, fluffy, pita pocket that can not only hold the meat or the falafel but can also stand up to those sauces without busting open after the second bite, so you’ve got to come up with some fake tortilla… Oh! It’s a “lafa wrap”.. Come on! What’s the point? It’s not authentic.
And you look on Yelp and everyone’s going, ‘Oh, this is the best food. I tried it and I couldn’t believe it. It’s so authentic!” And I’m thinking, “you don’t know authentic!”. That’s like me going to freakin’ El Torito and saying, “This is just like the food in southern Oaxaca, or some other Mexican region I’ve never been to, and I have no clue what their food is like ‘coz I only know what El Torito is like and, you know, my local two-item-combo-with-rice-and-beans place. I have no idea what authentic Mexican food is. Just like the people here don’t know what authentic Middle Eastern – or Greek – food is.
I’m talking about, you go to gas stations in Israel and they have these little food counters inside with some of the best food you’re ever going to eat. And that crumbling little hole in the wall a couple of blocks from my office in Tel Aviv? This place was literally two tables outside and enough room for about eight people to sit inside, with a counter that was maybe seven feet wide and behind it is this sweaty guy named Itzik who has about four square feet of space to work with and he’s got a deep fryer and a grill in there, plus he’s the waiter and the cashier, and I’d go in there and order “hummus and foul” (pronounced ‘fool’); it’s a big old plate of hummus with about four or five ounces of olive oil floating in a well that’s been hollowed out in the center of the hummus, with a hard boiled egg on top of the foul – it’s an Egyptian bean that’s called a fava bean over here, like what Hannibal Lecter laps up with the liver and Chianti – and it’s all topped off with a big red glop of this fiery hot pepper sauce that’ll singe your nose hairs, and it’s served with a basket full of steaming, freshly baked pitas – and the whole thing is like three and a half bucks (while the teenagers are spending $11.50 at the mall for a McDonald’s hamburger WITH NO CHEESE because of kosher laws).
Anyway… I don’t know.
I just started getting incensed about the whole damn thing and why am I even writing food reviews because that’s all I’ve got.
That’s my food review.
Photo: Roberto Blanco, Paris, France GIF: NBC Universal Media LLC
So, I’m in the shower, music blasting as usual, and Back in the USSR comes up on my random play. And I get a little ironic chuckle because poo-tin is invading Ukraine. Well, not much of a chuckle because this isn’t actually funny. At all.
I’ve been reading as much as I can, as fast as possible, about all the horrors the Ukrainians face and how it could spread throughout Europe and how this could encourage China to seize Taiwan and this could spread, at least in economic terms, to our border soon enough. Then I read how poo-tin could be threatening nukes and I feel my stress level starting to spike.
We’re fucking doomed. And what can I do? Other than fret.
And right when I decided that the sanest thing I can do is to simply tune it all out, the next song comes on and it’s George Harrison singing Just For Today:
If just for today I could try to live through this day only Not deal with all life’s problems Just for today
Thank you. George (and Happy Birthday, by the way).
And selfish as that may sound, it struck me as very sage advice. I’m working myself up over something that I have zero influence over. Sure, I can change my Facebook cover to a Ukrainian flag, or add a little frame to my profile picture proclaiming that I stand in solidarity with Ukraine. I can even send some money to a relief fund, and go the extra yard and research which ones might actually use my donation for the welfare of the Ukrainian people.
But to immerse myself breathlessly into the hour to hour, minute to minute of it… That’s madness. I’m just not going to do it. Not going to be frightened like when I was a schoolboy hiding under my desk because Russia was going to drop a bomb (which never happened). Or any of the other fear tactics the media loves to pump into our eyelids to keep us glued. Yes, I’ll follow the progress and root for the Ukrainian people, because this is tragic.
As is every ever other senseless loss of life and limb going on on this planet today. Like, for instance, the war going on in the U.S.A. today with everyone arming themselves because they’re scared to death of all the ‘other’ people who are arming their selves. And please don’t get me started on Syria. Not seeing a whole lot of, “I stand with Syria” proclamations on Facebook.
I’m just not going to turn on the television news. Not going to read one article about what “could’ happen. Hypotheticals don’t interest me.
And I’m definitely not going to flash some self serving “Look at me. I’m so compassionate” meme or “I stand with Ukraine” sign on my social media. Remember Je Suis Charlie? Seemed like everyone had that one plastered on their pages for about two days. Who among you sent actual aid to those victims or their families? Or followed their stories past the news cycle? Who?
And do you reallystand with Ukraine? How exactly? What are you doing beyond the meme? Talk is cheap. Twenty four hours of memes and banners are even cheaper.
Are you walking the walk?
I sincerely you hope you are.
Speaking of the Beatles, when I toweled off, I grabbed the t-shirt on the top of the pile and you know what it was? A shirt designed to look like an old-fashioned fruit crate label that says:
Nothing is real Living is easy with eyes closed Misunderstanding all you see It’s getting hard to be someone But it all works out Doesn’t matter much to me
For the record, and I’m not saying this to boast (just a statement of fact) but Nickie asked me if it was okay to take “a chunk of change” from our sacred, hard earned “vacation fund”. I said, “Sure, if it’s not more than twenty three dollars and fifty three cents”. She’s a better human than I am. Her response was, “Well… I was thinking…”.
And I know that “a lot” can mean different things to different people depending on their circumstances, but it was A LOT!
P.S. Lyrics are copyright (probably) Ganga Publishing B.V. and Sony/ATV I’m not digging too deep on that because this blog is not for commercial purposes. But I stand with them.
so, Tower Sunset was finally demolished yesterday at dawn
For the uninitiated, “Tower Sunset” was the name given to Tower Records one time flagship store located right in the heart of Sunset Strip at 8801 Sunset Blvd., W. Hollywood, CA. My buddy and former colleague Gary Helsinger offers a fine and exhaustive history of the property. Amazing research, brother! Wow!
Tower Sunset, aka “store 131”, was opened in 1970, built by Ross Sockolov, Stan Goman and Billy Rhinehard. It was the fourth store in Russ Solomon’s game changing chain of record stores, and the first outside of Northern California. Eventually, there would be close to 100 stores in the U.S. and dozens more all across the globe. Sunset was the one that proved to Russ that he could make this concept explode. And it did! At Tower’s peak, Russ and his loyal minions rang up over a BILLION dollars of sales in a year.
Side note – Ross Sockolov’s son Kenny and yours truly built the first three Tower stores in Israel: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. But that’s a whole other story!
Tower Sunset became the most famous record store in the world, the place that Elton John wanted to work at, where Michael Jackson shopped (and spied on customers from the security booth through the two way mirrors), where people went to see and be seen, where every artist wanted to do an in-store appearance, where on Grammy days in L.A., you could walk in the store at any given hour and run into Prince, Ringo, Bruce, Whitney… people who only needed one name. David Lee Roth lived just up the block.
And the employees… Gary himself played with Green Jello (and all the other guys in the band worked at Sunset too!). Across the street, there was a separate Tower video store where guys like Axl and Slash worked. I could name you at least a dozen other notable musicians who worked at the record store, like Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Tom Stevens (Long Ryders), Jim Laspesa (Jim has played with Green Jello, Dave Davies, the Muffs, the Bangles, Lindsey Buckingham and is currently the percussionist in Brian Wilson’s band) and many others.
I worked at Tower Sunset from 1980 to 1991. I started as a clerk making $3.25 an hour sweeping floors on the night crew and left as the General Manager.
Fun fact: In 1990, Tower Sunset grossed over a million bucks EVERY month, including that skimpy little February. It was the only time in its 36 year history that this financial feat was accomplished. The manager was a kid named… well… it was me. I could write a book about the place. In fact, I AM writing a book about the place.
There’s way too much to cover here, and I’m sure many better articles have been, and will be, written about the store, but to complement Gary’s fine history of the property, I just want to acknowledge the eight folks who RAN the place over its 36 year history. These rock stars helped to steward this legendary piece of music history and they all deserve a TON of credit.
The first manager was a gentleman named Charlie Shaw. Charlie, much beloved by his colleagues, left the business to pursue another path. He was succeeded by the legendary Bob Delanoy, who was running the joint when I arrived on April Fool’s Day in 1980. Quick note about my hiring, when I got to Bob’s office for my job interview, there was a plaque on his door that said Bob Delanoy. Under it, someone had scrawled, “Spanish for ‘of the annoyance’”. That cracked me up! I walked in the office and Bob was leaned way back in his chair, sneakers on the desk, looking kind of like Gregg Allman with his long blond hair and mirrored sunglasses. I looked around the cluttered room and on the wall was a picture of Bob with Bob Marley! Damn! This place was cool.
Around maybe ‘84 or ‘85, Bobby D. got kicked upstairs and Dennis Lefler took over the chair for a couple of years before moving to Austin to put a Tower flag up in Texas. Debbie Pollay, who was on the night crew when I had showed up back in 1980, took over. The manager’s gig could be quite pressure packed and after a couple of years, folks tended to move on to other opportunities within the company, opening new stores as the chain rapidly expanded across the U.S. and internationally. When Debbie was picked to open the new store in Pasadena, I got the Sunset manager’s gig. I ran the store from 1989-1991 at which point I left to open the new Tower “WOW” store on Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills. I was replaced by Alison Shifke. When Alison’s term ended, Jay Smith took it for a spin. The final manager, the one who locked that door for the last time, was Sharon Vitro.
That’s a short list!
Charlie Shaw Bob Delanoy Dennis Lefler Deborah Pollay Joel Abramson Alison Shifke Jay Smith Sharon Vitro
I’m not sad that the building is gone. It was a cheap cinder block rectangle with a corrugated sheet metal roof that leaked right over the front cash registers. The building was drafty and run down and there were rodents in the rafters. One particularly rainy winter the back room started to flood under the back door and we had to scramble to get sand bags to prevent a total disaster. In the end, it was just a building. No one can take away the great memories and the great friendships – some brief, some that have lasted a lifetime. The store’s legendary status can never be diminished.
Sneaky little devils!
The new owners, using a loophole in the code, did not reveal to the city that they were going to gut the building.
From the WeHoTimes website: 2/17/22 The construction at the former Sunset Tower Records building is stripping the landmark to its bare bones. At a community meeting on January 27th, Aaron Green of Afriat Consulting Group, gave a presentation where he stated that the building would not have major alterations to the structure. He stated that the roof would be raised and the window facing Sunset Boulevard would be moved from the left side of the building, closer to the main entrance.
Some neighbors were surprised on Wednesday when they realized renovations also include the gutting of the exterior, something that was not discussed at the meeting. The walls are being ripped out, a dreaded sight for community members who fought to save the building and give it historical significance.
“It looks like they are doing more than just raising the roof and moving a window,” said one concerned neighbor who submitted photos to WEHO TIMES. “They are keeping the frame. If they tear it all down, then they would have to go through the Planning Commission and then go through the a City Council meeting. If they keep the frame, then they the slide over the counter. Shady.”
Thanks to everyone who wished me a Happy Birthday yesterday (and to all the ones who read this post and wish me a happy belated today😂).
I heard from friends I’ve known for sixty years to someone who just friended me yesterday.
All of you helped make my birthday very special. I am grateful and blessed.
And love and appreciation especially to the dear friends who took the time to read and comment on my “On 65” blog post. I post on Facebook with zero expectations. I know that interrupting scrolling to read something (or listen to someone’s music) is a big ask. That post was very liberating for me. That some folks took the time to go there with me…
I just really love and appreciate you guys! Thank you so much! ☮️❤️🎶