Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My First Oktoberfest

(And basically my only one.)

The wall was a brittle swamp of orange. Like a kindergarten room after Arts & Crafts, little construction paper pumpkins were tacked over the seafoam green paint. Unique jack-o-lantern faces had been drawn on each one in black Sharpie.

A sign at the counter read, "Want to design a pumpkin? Ask your server for supplies." I didn't even have to ask.

"I'll bring you a pumpkin in just a minute," a waitress said brightly as she rushed past.

I drew the typical triangle eyes and jagged mouth. I gave it an extra dimension by drawing curved ridge lines. I also filled in the stem to look more twig-like. As the waitress hung my creation, I noticed some designs I hadn't seen before. Many people, not content with the standard jack-o-lantern face, had drawn sideways faces, using the stem as a nose. Some had eschewed realism, drawing faces with human characteristics such as acne and hair. Some had done away with faces altogether, using the space to draw scary scenery. Some had made drawings that had nothing to do with Halloween at all.

I felt very unimaginative, and nearly requested a fresh canvas from my waitress. But I decided against it. I'd made my bed, and I was going to force myself to lie in it. Besides, there's something to be said for typical, iconic Halloween imagery. So maybe my pumpkin wouldn't be a standout; it was still worthy.

That was my first impression of Cafe 50's, and it won me over immediately. Any restaurant which devotes that much wall space to Halloween decorations -- and encourages customer involvement in said decorating -- is a winner in my book.

"Wait, you haven't seen the best one," said Rob.

He led me to the managers' office -- a walk-in closet with a computer -- and directed my attention to the ceiling. On a pumpkin above me was a drawing of a smiling Homer Simpson. A dialogue bubble had him saying, "Happy Halloween and hamburgers." At the bottom was the recognizably childlike scrawl of Matt Groening's signature.

Rob answered the unasked question: "It's real. He's eaten here a few times. Pretty sweet, huh?"
I was just getting to know Los Angeles. I flew out in the middle of October the year I graduated college, staying with my old high school friend Rob. Rob had been living there a few years already and was helping me get oriented. At the time, I couldn't have told you left from right. My only reference was the Pacific Ocean which, for those of you not familiar, is generally West. Fortunately for me, Rob was living close enough to the ocean that I could figure out where I was a great deal of the time.

Rob was a manager at Cafe 50's. I was fresh out of college, unemployed, and new in town. Rob's apartment was my home away from home; his job was my chance to get away from my home away from home. I was the guy sitting at the end of the counter going through the job listings in the newspaper. I could use the authentic '50s-style wooden phone booth to follow up on promising leads (or change into Superman). And with Rob on duty, I could eat at a tremendous discount, or sometimes even for free. (I say this now, hoping that the statute of limitations for the owners' wrath is long since up.) When it became apparent that job prospects were limited for me, Rob arranged to have me work part time at the restaurant. That's when I met Kreg.

Kreg was a big guy, latitudinally if not longitudinally. He had smoker's hair - stiff and dehydrated as straw. Hard brows cast a permanent shadow over his sunken, wild eyes. His habitually pursed lips gave the impression that he was always sizing you up (negatively). His belly was forged of beer and pretzels. This imposing image was undermined, though, by a thin, light voice. His short-and-fast speech pattern implied a lack of confidence.

His name, it should be noted, is actually spelled the way you'd expect: C-R-A-I-G. But whether out of boredom or some passive-aggressive rebellion, he fashioned a name tag for himself with the spelling I now prefer.

With Rob's recommendation, Kreg gave me about 10 hours a week. My job was to sit in the cramped office with the door closed and enter numbers into the computer. Compensation was minimum wage (in cash, directly out of Kreg's pocket), and a free meal per shift. To help pass the time, there was a TV locked onto the Fox News channel. And, of course, there was the Homer Simpson pumpkin.

Before I arrived in L.A., Kreg and Rob had made plans to go to an Oktoberfest celebration. Now that I was part of the family, I was invited along.

I'm not much of a beer drinker. I'd never found the flavor particularly enjoyable, and the scent brought back bad childhood memories of outdoor picnics with gooey piss-mud under the keg, and amber-breathed elders belly laughing as they pulled the epidermis off my cheeks. But given his physique and what was implied to be a birthplace of somewhere in Germany, Oktoberfest was clearly of importance to Kreg. It would have been rude to decline the invitation, particularly since everyone knew I had nothing else going on.

The night of the event, Rob and I were to meet Kreg at the restaurant. Joining us was Tom the Austrian.

The story of Tom the Austrian went something like this: Rob was living in a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with Adam and James. James was employed at a restaurant (not Cafe 50's) where, one night, he got to talking to a down-on-his-luck foreigner who had just been kicked out of his temporary residence. That residence, I'm told, was a guest house on the property of director Brett Ratner. (If that sounds made up, I assure you it was not made up by me; I'm only telling you what I heard.) Playing the role of the Benevolent American, James offered Tom the Austrian a couch to sleep on. As it turned out, Rob and Tom got along great. By the time Oktoberfest rolled around, Rob insisted that Tom come along.

It's worth mentioning that Tom the Austrian's accent bore only marginal resemblance to that of the most famous Austrian-American, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tom was able, for instance, to correctly pronounce the name of the state he occupied. This fact has left me with lingering suspicions about Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Kreg had no discernible accent. If he was in fact born in Germany, he must have left when he was quite young. Or maybe not; what do I know? However much time he'd spent away from his homeland didn't prevent him from dressing in full lederhosen, vest and suspenders for the festivities. After a quick laugh, we all squeezed into his shiny BMW, and we were off.

To this day, I can't tell you where we went. If memory serves, we were on the road for 45 minutes to an hour. And not the "stuck in traffic" version of being on the road; we were mobile. It didn't take long before we turned and veered enough that I had no idea which way the ocean was, rendering me officially lost. Through the window, I noticed the city buildings thinning out, and the pavement giving way to dirt. Were we even in Los Angeles anymore? In my lifetime, I'll never be able to find that place again. A Bavarian Brigadoon.

While on the road, Kreg made a call from his car phone (how old school!), which he put on speaker for all to hear. His business partner Joey was already at the fest, and Kreg was letting him know we were close. Joey, audibly drunk, answered the call in stilted yet functional German. Kreg responded in a more fluent German. Joey replied, again in German. Kreg laughed. Tom the Austrian did too. Rob and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. We would never find out what they said.

We arrived at the grounds and, after security gave a suspicious glare to my out-of-state driver's license, met up with Joey and his people. After that, I must admit I don't remember much about that night. And no, it's not because I drank to the point of blacking out. (My meager budget coupled with the availability of only beer and white wine saw to that.) It's just that, in my memory, the entire night is one blurred mass of oom-pah music, port-o-potties, sauerkraut and bratwurst. And picnic tables. And spilled beer on dirt, forming the wretched molding clay I'd detested in my youth.

Except I didn't find it so unpleasant this time around. In fact, I found it strangely reassuring. When you uproot yourself from the life you'd spent 22 years living and move 3000 miles away, you expect things to be weird and different - culture shock. Instead, these early experiences in L.A. told me that it was remarkably similar to the life I'd been living back east. I knew that I'd be just fine out here.

It doesn't seem like we stayed very long at Oktoberfest, but I know we got back to Cafe 50's just before it closed for the night. Kreg let each of us order a free breakfast from the restaurant to take home for the next morning. I got blintzes.

Rob, himself of German ancestry, bought a beer stein from the festival as a Christmas gift for his dad. He ended up forgetting to pack it when he traveled back east that December, so it became a pen holder on our kitchen counter. Tom the Austrian returned to Europe shortly after the new year. Rob and I both quit Cafe 50's within six months of that night, and neither of us has worked a restaurant job since. But Cafe 50's is still a winner in my book. I make sure to get over there a couple times a year. One of those times is always in October, so I can see the new pumpkin designs on the wall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Memory...

Do doctors congratulate themselves when they correctly guess how long a person has to live? You and your family are in a funeral home mourning, while in a fancy house on the other side of town a doctor pops a bottle of champagne. "Nailed it!"


I wasn't there when the doctor gave my grandmother six months to live. But I'm told that her reaction was, "Well that's not so bad. I thought he'd give me 'til the end of the week." She was sharp-witted like that, and remained so 'til the end. That's what distinguished this death from most of the others I've experienced in my life...

Her husband, my grandfather, developed alzheimer's in his old age. That was the beginning of his decline - a slow deterioration that would be drawn out over several years. This was while I was still very young, and it left me with an impression about how death was supposed to happen: first your mind begins to go, then your body catches up with it, and eventually you're left a vacant shell. By the time grandpa actually died, I had already accepted his departure. His heart may have kept beating through 1992, but the person he had been was long gone.


After grandpa was moved to a rest home, grandma took up his former routine of picking me up after school several times a week. This wasn't something my parents requested of her (or him); I lived close enough to school to walk home. This was something she enjoyed doing. She'd drive clear across town, just so she could spend an extra ten minutes with her grandchild as she drove him home from school. After dropping me off, she'd usually sit in her car in the driveway for another half hour or so, keeping watch over the house, making sure everything was going to be okay.

During the summer school breaks, grandma would spend extra time with me. She enjoyed going on drives out in the country, and she liked having me along as company. We'd visit old friends of hers, or relatives. Some of her favorite memories of me were from these times -- like when I saw a sharpee for the first time and I asked her why it was so sad; or when I noticed an infestation of silk worms dangling down from a tree and couldn't believe that worms could spin webs.

I know that these are her favorite memories of me because these are the ones she would bring up nearly every time I called her in recent years. Having moved so far away from home, I wasn't around to create such new memories. The best I could do for her was listen patiently and respond enthusiastically as she recounted these memories, guilty for not being able to spend more time with her.

In her final two months, grandma was no longer able to hold the phone to her ear. I could send her letters or cards, but she was unable to respond.


The last time we spoke on the phone, grandma asked if I would be home for Christmas this year. I was confused. Was her condition improving? Was she going to outlast the doctor's prediction, throw it in his face? Was she expecting to make it to another Christmas?

Was she in denial?

I've had plenty of time to think about it now. I think the answer is that she was just genuinely curious about my upcoming plans. I think she'd removed her ego from the situation, and accepted that life would be going on without her. She wasn't asking if I was going to be in town to visit her; she was asking if I was going to be in town for me. To be with my family and friends during the holidays.

Just keeping watch over the house. Making sure everything was going to be okay.