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Stop, stop, the New Yorkers will hear

After moving to Los Angeles, I found myself woken up on Saturdays and Sundays by a woman out on the street repeatedly singing, with a faintly surreal rare-bird intonation, the phrase, “Tamales! Y champurado!” In Mexico City, I discovered the filling wonders of a breakfast of tamales and champurado. (We actually drank strawberry atole, but close enough.) Looking for a hit of el D.F. after returning to the States, I woke up on Sunday and rushed downstairs — I’d fallen asleep in all my clothes the night before, making this easy — only to hear the singing cease just as I reached the sidewalk. Desperately wandering, I eventually found her and her tamales y champurado. She’d parked herself on 8th between Normandie and Ardmore, where street-food sellers, their shopping carts converted into kitchens, their propane griddles fired up, ply any number of deliciosities. On that small stretch, at least, I can feel like I’m back in Mexico — and hey, the foodies haven’t discovered it yet!

While I lament the cold, the bouts of sleepiness, and the numbness of lower extremities endemic to the double- and triple-features I attend in L.A., but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The near-total lack of theatrical screenings of films not in current release fueled my engine of disappointment with Santa Barbara; numerous chances to watch movies from the nineties, eighties, seventies, sixties, and earlier on film, in a theater certainly motivated my increasingly frequent L.A. trips toward the end there. While the more specialized of these pictures haven’t had DVD releases, I even go to screenings of ones that have. Audiovisual issues aside, I prefer the theater because it has no play button, no pause button, and no fast-forward button. Anthony Lane put this clearly — how else could he have put it? — in his piece on, of all movies, Tower Heist:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.

It occurs to me that you could frame the arrival of Papaya King in Hollywood as one more lurch forward in the grand New-Yorkization of Los Angeles. While I have no idea if our town is actually undergoing such a metamorphosis, doesn’t it sound fascinating? I instinctively welcome certain elements of this process (Metro extension in particular) and hope others never come to pass (garbage piles, winter), but I don’t have a clear image of which elements of NYC cuisine to import. Hot dogs and juices seem as suitable as anything, especially when you slot them into the closest side street the main stretch of Hollywood Boulevard has, at night, to a dark alley. The bright “PAPAYAKING” sign might provide the only strong source of outdoor illumination.

They’ve done the Hollywood Papaya King up in amusement-park colors, all the better to evoke its bewildering array of fruit drinks (it occurs to me that I don’t know if they officially qualify as “juices,” or if there exists an such an official qualification) on offer. We ordered one cup of papaya drink, because you have to, and one of lemonade, because who doesn’t enjoy lemonade with their hot dogs? The dogs themselves, just on the small side but much more appealing for it, can potentially come loaded with chili, cheese, and such, but only two topping options struck me as realistic: sauerkraut (“kraut”) or onions (“NY onions,” which look and taste more like marmalade) — plus, naturellement, self-pumped mustard.

We ate and drank standing, leaning on their street-facing counter. “Seems New York-y,” I thought. I partook of a pile of curly fries while fighting a sneaking suspicion that they somehow “impurified” my hot dog experience. I wondered where Papaya King’s hot dogs, which we devoured in the minutes before the screening at the Egyptian of a documentary about Tokyo’s greatest sushi master, place in the eternal struggle between New York and Chicago junk foods. Then I heard a middle-aged woman air her bewilderment about why purists say you should never, ever put ketchup on your hot dog. “But I like ketchup!” the woman insisted. “Stop, stop,” I thought. “The New Yorkers will hear.”

The guy behind the counter kept asking his customers friendly questions in an effort, I think, to alleviate the strain of existing amid Papaya King’s aggressive color scheme all night long. I asked him how he was doing. “Living the dream!” he replied. I started to laugh, but then suddenly didn’t know whether to laugh. Was I supposed to get sad instead? But hey, he actually has a job; I can’t say the same. Which brings me to my point: I remember Papaya King being reasonably cheap.

The tendency of Mexico City businesses that sell similar things to geographically cluster with one another surprised me; I figured you’d never see that in L.A. Yet on the walk from Papaya King to the Egyptian, I felt bout after bout of mini-déjà vu vu. We passed almost a dozen shops with front windows populated entirely by mannequins dressed in whatever you call outfits that fall halfway between lingerie and Halloween costumes. So on Hollywood Boulevard, those businesses cluster. Whatever those businesses are.

Even now that having no income has finally forced me to spend most of my time at home, I still talk to more different people on the average L.A. day than I did in the average Santa Barbara week. Just a big-city thing, perhaps, but it keeps in rigorous practice the lessons about conversation I’ve learned, very slowly, over the past decade. Scott Adams blogged with admirable succinctness about more or less these same lessons last year:

How many times have you been in a restaurant and victimized by the loud guy at the next table dominating the conversation without the benefit of being entertaining? It seems somewhat common that people who are neither alien nor Asperger syndrome types have no conversation skills. Indeed, it appears that many so-called normal people don’t even understand the concept of a conversation.

A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I’ve never seen them stated anywhere. The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person’s expense, you’re doing it wrong.

You might think that everyone on earth understands what a conversation is and how to engage in one. My observation is that no more than a quarter of the population has that understanding. Prior to [taking a Dale Carnegie course] I believed that conversation was a process by which I could demonstrate my cleverness, complain about what was bugging me, and argue with people in order to teach them how dumb they were. To me, listening was the same thing as being bored.  I figured it was the other person’s responsibility to find some entertainment in the conversation. That wasn’t my job. Yes, I was that asshole. But I didn’t know it. The good news is that once I learned the rules of conversation, I was socially reborn.

I cut out a couple lines about Dale Carnegie there to save space, but rest assured that I’ve enjoyed reading his book since high school. Anybody know I can pick up an original, non-updated, non-P.C. edition straight from the thirties?

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