Friday, April 20, 2018

Venice Lights Up For 4/20!

Venice woke up to a new addition to the Venice Sign this morning, with two weed leaves adorning either side, in honor of 4/20, and the end of the ridiculous marijuana prohibition that this country has endured for ages. It's pretty much 4/20 every day in Venice, but it's still nice to acknowledge the day this year, especially now that it's legal (here).

And it should be. It's medicine. Plain and simple. I remember asking a friend if they ever thought they smoked too much weed, and they said, "No. It helps me not want to kill myself and everyone around me." While that's an extreme example, some days I sure get it. A person posted on Nextdoor this morning that they were "overly offended" by the new sign's leaves, and to that I would agree. You ARE overly offended, and probably shouldn't live in Venice either. It's really no big deal, and I'd much rather have kids see that than alcohol ads. No one does anything bad on marijuana (other than perhaps overeat with munchies), and we all know all the damage that alcohol has done historically. I've also never heard of alcohol ending children having seizures. Or shrinking tumors. Or bringing comfort to chemo patients. Etc. Etc. Etc. Please.

The sign probably looks much cooler lit up at night, but I'm not going to be down there tonight, and it's to celebrate today. I was heading back when I saw these two cheery guys strolling down the street in their "Best Buds" shirts, and they were SO excited when I told them to go take their picture under the sign with matching leaves. Cute.

We used to have a croquet tournament on this day every year in memory of our dearly beloved Sponto, but now people are all over the place and it's hard to set up, but the spirit remains, and today is sunny and beautiful and Friday, and time to cut loose with some extra good vibes. So, HAPPY 4/20 to one and all, and YOOOOOOOEEEEEEE SPONTO!!! This one's for you.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company - Serving Venice Since 1973

I've been a big fan of Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company ever since I moved to Venice in the 90's, but that makes me a rookie, as they've been serving up their wonderful steak sandwiches on the corner of Lincoln and Superba since 1973.

The spot was actually a sandwich spot before that as well, run by Philly people that had relocated here, but THIS incarnation has been around since Richard Sohn took it over in 1973, and ran it for 25 years. One of his early workers, Sergio Perez, Sr., took over the business with a partner 20 years ago, and he now owns and operates this Venice institution with his son, Sergio Perez, Jr. Perez, Jr. was essentially born in the shop, and says it was "my after school, my detention, my suspension, my 'you're gonna come work and peel a sack of onions so you don't do that mistake again' job. Helping my Dad saved me. Growing up in Oakwood, lots of those friends are gone or in jail, but I learned to respect EVERYONE in the Community ... Black, white, and brown ... and you get it back."

That sense of Community isn't felt as much these days, but Perez agrees that the "Heart and spirit is still here." The sidewalk in front of the shop used to have so many drug addicts and hookers cruising up and down, police thought they had a piece of it. You couldn't walk there after dark. He grew up having drive-by drills at Broadway Elementary during their lunch hours, so "you grew up knowing the dangers of Venice, but you didn't want to live anywhere else." Kind of like now.

The menu at "Hoagies" (as pretty much everyone calls it, and how they answer the phone) has never changed, and people would be mad if it did. They even got upset just when they changed the menu hanging inside! Change is hard, but it also speaks to how beloved a place it is.  Perez, Jr. told me, "You see things come and go, and it hurts, because you lose people. We don't get having $300 t-shirts on Lincoln, but you can come here and get a meal for under $10, and we're gonna keep doing it, because we're a staple."  They truly are.

While Perez, Jr. and I sat outside at one of the outdoor tables at Hoagies and chatted, I could tell how much this place truly means to him and his family. He got on a roll, and I sat there, listening and nodding in full agreement, almost getting emotional.  He spoke enthusiastically and seriously, "We provide a service, we're here for you, we were a part of your growing up, and that's what we do it for. It hits your core when you grow up with something and it stays the same. Everything changes, but if ONE place stays the same, it lets you know that it will be o.k. ... . Nostalgic places are around for you to feel that way." We've all got ours. "In chains, you're just a number, but we have camaraderie. You can vent, reunite, catch up, GATHER ... It's important. And it's important to a lot of people."

NBA stars (Kobe, Robert Horry - my favorite, who would wait outside in his car for people to leave before coming in, so as not to make a fuss). Biggie Smalls' kids and wife, Faith Evans are regulars who live off of their sandwiches. Philly transplants (as the sign says, "It's 3,000 miles to Philly, eat here!"). Venice locals. Kids from Animo Venice ("We provide a sanctuary for them as they flirt with independence. It's that sacred walk between school and home."). Single parents, maybe not connecting with their kids, but they can sit down and relate over a cheesesteak, "and that's all that matters then." It's clearly more than just slanging sandwiches for this wonderful Venice family. And it is a legit family affair. They are there every single day, and they love it. Their history is right there on the ceiling for all to read.

The Perez family doesn't own the land, but the Korean family who sold it to them does, and they love the place, so it looks to be safe, but if ever forced to move, they've got ideas. They could be in the new football stadium (They could be there - a second location - even without moving, Magic Johnson, give them a call!). They could be a food truck. They could move over to Hampton, closer to the beach. There are options, but we all know no one wants them to change. They get offers to buy the place every day, and they just tear them up. "It's not about money, it's about a fulfilling, meaningful life. I don't want to knock anyone else's hustle, but you can't know what it means to us. Like, you went to Hoagies, and now it's a good day." I love them. Perez, Jr. told me they're toying with the idea of having merch, like shirts and trucker hats, but "It would piss me off so much if I saw some fake hipster wearing one, so we haven't done it yet." Haaa. I get it  - and definitely want one.

As much as Hoagies gets from Venice, it also gives it all back. They sponsor a toy drive every Christmas, with bands and a party in the parking lot. They are involved with the Venice Car Club, with Perez, Sr. riding in a low-rider in the Cinco de Mayo parade, and donating gift certificates to the raffles. They want to utilize the parking lot space more for community events too (he's thinking something for the homeless that are their neighbors), so add Hoagies to your list of cool spots to host a shindig.

"In Venice, you grow up knowing 'crazy' is really just hard times, so you want to say hi, help them, feed them ... it's understood that they need help. Venice makes you aware of these things. You're more careful. It gives you a thicker skin. It's all we know and how we roll." And have been for 45 years.

Cheesesteaks. Burgers. Hot dogs. Chips. Homemade lemonade. Sodas. That's it. But it's so much more. The murals on the walls are all by local artists. You will see locals at the tables. It's still cash only, but if you don't have cash and need to go across the street to get some, they'll put extra cheese on for you while you walk. The prices are weird, like $3.54 for a hot dog (dinner under $5!) and 7.63 for this one sandwich, but that's because they've gone up in increments since 1973.

"These aren't Philly Cheesesteaks, they're VENICE Cheesesteaks. Philly people say, 'You took me home today', but the vibes and feelings and the simplicity of knowing that you'll get what you want is Venice. We know how bad it can get, and we're aware of the tightrope walk between good and bad, but we're here for you. The whole spirit of Venice unites, binds us to do better together, so that EVERYONE can rise, and all of us are up there!" That really is the spirit, and it does not go unnoticed by locals. During the Superbowl this year, Hoagies had to close down because they ran out of all their supplies, even though they had ordered way extra. During the World Series Game 7, I walked to Hoagies, and while every t.v. in town was tuned in to the game as I passed by, the phone was ringing off the hook at Hoagies, where they were listening on the radio. They're simply a part of our lives here in Venice, and we're so lucky to have them.

They feel lucky too. Perez, Jr. loves the skatepark. "Every single sunset I go down there and say thank you to the sun, and welcome to the moon." He likes La Fiesta Brava and Casablanca and the Indian place at the beach, but really, "The sunset in Venice is where I like to be." Me too, brother.

Even running the same ad in the Beachhead since the early days, Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company has been a solid mainstay for Venice every day they've been open. Stop in, say hi, eat a great, affordable meal, and say thanks. This is the kind of joint that keeps Venice real.

Long live Hoagies!!

Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company
1720 Lincoln Boulevard
10-10 every day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Warrior Odyssey - A Tony Alva Mural

I'm real late to posting about this mural, as I'm usually flying by fast down Washington, but today I took it slow and stopped to appreciate the Warrior Odyssey - a mural done by Robert Vargas depicting skate legend Tony Alva, both now, and back in the early Dogtown and Z-Boys days.

Alva was always one of my favorites, so it's cool to see him being honored in such a big and long-lasting way there on the side of The Kinney hotel on Washington near Abbot Kinney. I'm of the mindset that all buildings - in Venice, for sure - should have big, beautiful art works on them, especially when it portrays something or someone that or who has been an awesome part of the area's history.

Love it.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Rock The Night - Jakob Dylan, Jim James, And Butch Walker Rock For A Cause

The Teragram Ballroom hosted a rock show to benefit finding a cure for Crohn's and Colitis, issues that 1.6 million Americans suffer from. The disease is such a bummer, that it's good to have an awesome night out in honor of all of the people that it affects - and that we did.

The festivities kicked off with a silent auction - and open bar - that got folks milling around and connecting right from the start. They had all sorts of cool things, from weekends at posh resorts to a signed Lakers basketball. There were a whole bunch of speeches, and a video explaining it all. Stacy Dylan spearheads the event every year, which is how you get Jakob Dylan to headline it every year. Stacy's son and Jakob's nephew (Bob's grandson), Lowell, suffers from the disease, and this show was for him and all the other people that share this affliction. And good people coming together to do good things with rock and roll is my favorite thing, so I was there.

The musical portion of the evening opened up with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and his gorgeous tunes. He's awesome. He kicked it off with the fantastic "I'm Amazed", and it's just as good solo as it is with MMJ. We also got "Throwback (When We Were Young)", also beautiful and with his nice crop of hair back-lit with the colorful lights, it was as good throwback to real Zeppelin-type rock vibes, for real.

To be honest, I was also talking to a bunch of folks during the James set, as I got there a little late and really wanted to learn more about the disability that we were there for. I learned that former Laker, Larry Nance, Jr. suffered from Crohn's, and would often visit kids in the hospital also dealing with it. It's kind of incredible that he could play at such an elite level while also having his stomach tied up in knots, but there is medication now that really helps, and that's what we were there for - help, and a cure.  Jim James ended his set with a Yim Yames tune, "Changing World", where the chorus goes, "Change the ways of this changing world" .... which is also what we were there for.

The wonderful Jakob Dylan was on next, and as excellent as expected. It's funny, it was the ten year anniversary of the Justice Tour launching (a series of shows put on by Tom Morello to benefit different charities in each city we visited), and I had met Dylan at our New York show for Road Recovery. We talked about it after the show, and he remembered playing a pink guitar for "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" - that also featured Slash! Probably the rockingest time that Sunday School classic has ever been played. Great memories, but we were there to make more, and Dylan playing his "Three Marlenas" will definitely suffice as one. It was the first Coachella weekend, and Dylan said, "Thank you all for being here and not at Coachella. All of that money went to garbage stuff, so thank you for being here!" Agreed.

"God Don't Make Lonely Girls" was up next, and The Wallflowers jam was extra warmly received. Because Dylan and his band are awesome. Dylan said, "The next one is a song that if you knew it, and you had a gig, you'd play it on a Saturday night too.", and we got Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night". The whole place was up and dancing, and full of the stoke that comes from the communal singing and dancing that goes down at a fantastic live show - AND for a good cause! Guitars were extra shredded on that one, prompting Dylan to say, "Stanton Edward is playing so good tonight we have to introduce him!" Again, agreed.

The big Wallflowers hit, "One Headlight" was next, and my friend next to me told me that he'd heard that Bruce Springsteen said he'd wished he'd written this one. Mighty fine compliment for a mighty fine - and now classic - tune. It was great. As was the Dylan set closer, "The Letter", a cover of The Box Tops oldie. People didn't want Dylan to leave, but it was now time for Butch Walker.

The Awesome Butch Walker. I was friends with him back in the MySpace days, and hadn't really seen or heard him since, so this was a real treat. I'm not super familiar with his discography (yet!), but this show made me want to run out and get every last thing he's ever played on. I don't know the name of his opening song, but after it, Walker cracked, "This next song is also not 'One Headlight'". Well, it didn't need to be, because it was also mighty fine - all on its own. "Wilder In The Heart" was next and had great lyrics like, "I heard you talking in your sleep in English, even though it ain't your native tongue, I see you still got your sense of humor, left over from when you were fun." Nice!

I think the next jam was called "Bed On Fire", and by now the place was seriously rocking. At first I was wondering why Butch Walker was headlining, but at this point, I totally got it. He is, again, awesome. As is his band. I wrote in my notes, "How is Butch Walker not huger?!" underlined several times, and I ask it again now. HOW?! Maybe to that point, after that barn burner, Walker said, "We've officially gone 15 minutes without talking about Ed Sheeran. Want another song?" Yes. Yes, we did. He than cracked, "That was from Page 14 in the Audience Baiting handbook. And I don't have a tech. This is a benefit. We tech for ourselves," by way of explaining the pause for tuning. I love him.

Another great song whose name I don't know merged into "Teenage Wasteland (Baba O'Riley)", and that was so good that Dylan re-joined him on the stage to duet on Walker's "Closest Thing To You I'm Gonna Find" and it was just .... !!! All the guys were literally bending over backwards, giving their ALL to the rock. We all went crazy, and Dylan said, "I just felt like Petty in that Prince moment ... that's what that felt like." (referring to the Rock Hall of Fame gig when Prince's guitar did NOT gently weep, but nearly set the joint on fire with its fury). Walker replied, "Except I didn't smirk the whole time." Haaa. (*Editor note: Prince deserved every smirk he gave.) It really was just about that good.

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" was the Elvis Costello cover Walker and Dylan sang together for the evening's finale, and it both asked the question, and gave us the answer. There's nothing funny about any of it, and we were all there for all of it. The music was pure peace and love (and ROCK FURY!), and I think we all now had a better understanding of this medical situation that so many people live with but don't really talk about. Again, these are the kind of musical events I love best, and you always leave feeling a little better about the state of the whole world.

The Night was indeed Rocked, and money and awareness for Crohn's and Colitis was raised as we all Connected For A Cure.

Thank you to all involved!

*All photos courtesy of Rodney Bursiel

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Hso Hkam - The Prince Of Venice

If you've been out and about in Venice in the last two plus decades, chances are you've crossed paths with Hso Hkam. A real man about town, Hkam is always on the scene at every cool thing that goes down in Venice, but it was only recently that I got to know him better and find out the story behind the dude. And it's a good one. Like, did you know that Hso is a real life Prince? Yep, his family is from Rangoon (formerly Yangon), Myanmar (formerly Burma) and are the royal family of the Shan people. Hkam is the 19th Prince, but hasn't been back to his Burmese home since his family fled the country when he was 11 years old amid political strife. His aunt wrote a book about all of it called My Vanished World: The True Story Of A Shan Princess, and Hso is right there in the Lawksawk family tree. I mean HRH Hso!

Hkam's royal father married his mother, a commoner, which actually helped make things easier when the family left for Illinois, where his mother's family had already settled, and where his physician mother would immediately have work running a hospital. They got young Hkam into summer tennis, so by the time the school year began, he already had a bunch of friends, and easily assimilated (they also got him into martial arts, so he never had to be scared, because he could more than take care of himself!). His childhood friends are still his best friends, and it's amusing to see photos of the young Burmese Prince with a bunch of Italian Sopranos looking dudes ...and that's the beauty of America.

Tennis took him to the University of Illinois, and then winter took him to UCLA, and UCLA really took to Hkam. He joined a fraternity, and that really launched his social calendar. While at UCLA, Hkam and his frat buddies were super into skating and surfing, so would make the bus trek to Venice all the time. "We always wanted to come to Venice. We'd yell 'There's Christian Hosoi!', but it would only be the back of him because he was so fast." Skating around, he met the whole Venice Originals crew, and soon made the move to 6th and Indiana, mainly because there was a skate ramp in the backyard. The nightly machine gun fire got them out of there in only three months, but Hkam was having "adventure after adventure in Venice", and knew he was here to stay.

Shooting things for his fraternity got Hkam really bitten by the movie making bug, and one of his first short films won for Best Short at the Malibu Film Festival in 1993, so he knew he was on the right path. 1996 found his film Ghostown (about hijacking a taco truck in Venice) being sold to a Thai company, dubbing Hso and Block and crew into Thai! I have to see this. Hkam got work at a post facility, learning everything about film from shooting to editing. He continued making shorts and music videos, which were soon being featured on the old legit Venice Yo Venice! and then caught the attention of LA Weekly, where he continues to make short documentaries for their content, on everything from bands to chefs to the homeless issue. I like to think of him as kind of a new Huell Howser, capturing all the things that make L.A. great in what he says is "My dream job come true!"

That's the best thing I learned about Hkam, actually. His enthusiasm for good stories and people doing good reveal his own truly good heart. It's cool that he's a Prince and all, and that he can name-drop with the best of them, but he really seems to get the most excited about his work traveling all around L.A. with the homeless, health issues, and organizations like City Hearts (where 'Kids say yes to the arts!"), Coalition to Preserve LA, Housing Is A Human Right, and now also shooting things for the Southern California Burmese Association, keeping him connected with his home country. But he always comes back to Venice.

When asked what Hso was doing in Venice these days, one of his friends answered, "Teaching white people how to live!" When asked what he loves about this place, his first answer was "The tribalism of Venice. I have that in me, and it definitely exists here." It's true, and also why community means so much to Hkam - and the people he calls his friends. A painter as well, Hkam would have people over for chicken dinners while he painted every Thursday. "My biggest thing is food. I love to cook for people. My #1 is chitlins!" Chitlins! He added that any taco truck that doesn't have tripas tacos is not legit. No thank you, but I'm gonna go with him on missing Lilly's the most in Venice, and their succulent moules frites. OH, man. REALLY miss that. These days you'll likely see him at Gjelina or Canal Club (since it was Rebecca's) or James Beach, usually with a margarita.

Regarding the massive changes in Venice, Hkam says he embraces it. "If you want to be classy, go to Abbot Kinney, and if you want to be shady, you can still go to the Boardwalk and get mugged. There's no shortage of weirdo artists, they're just richer now. There will always be creatives here." Hmmm. Yeah. We can definitely agree that Venice "Should be INclusive, not EXclusive." - and that extends to greedy landlords and prohibitive rents, it should be said, as well as just the overall vibe.

While having all of his L.A. fun, Hkam is also getting ready to do his first feature film, as well as commercial directing, saying, "I'm ready for the big projects now." After being under such a microscope since he was born (as a royal), Hkam is quite content to be behind the scenes and behind the camera. Shooting all around L.A., he has gotten to know the community leaders of every area, and "I always represent Venice, but really I'm from Burma." Venice will consider Hso Hkam ours anyway, and when Hkam told me that a friend recently told him, "People in will always remember you for being so positive," I absolutely got why. He really is a Prince among men, and Venice is lucky to have him.

*Personal photos courtesy of Hso Hkam.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Please Play!

Well, Happy Weekend! It feels like we all really need this one, right? Walking along and thinking about what I'm going to get into this weekend, I took a turn down Marco Place and saw a whole bunch of little chalk messages left over from Easter, and a hopscotch type game going all the way down the sidewalk. The very first one said, "Please Play!" next to a heart with "Love" inside of it. I'm going to take these sweet little kids' advice and play and love for sure this weekend.

As you go along, you can see that the kids were trying to write a nice message to everyone along the way. One house got the "You have a cute dog" message ...

Another lucky house got told that they were liked and nice ...

It's kind of hard to make out what several of them said, but the effort remains adorable and who doesn't like a kind compliment every now and again?

These kids know. They can think of something nice to say about everyone. We would all do well to emulate the good observations and the positive attitudes of these Venice kids that clearly spent their day making the day of others. And having fun doing it.

Yes ... Please play!!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Honoring Dr. King Fifty Years Later

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the day the world lost Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his legacy is as special and important to our country as it has ever been. In fact, MORE special and important, because in today's world, Dr. King's message is needed more than ever. I was on a hike the other day in Kenneth Hahn Park, and at the very top of the trail was a brand new MLK Memorial looking out over the entire city of Los Angeles.

It was a pleasant surprise, and also a little time travel feeling, as the plaque marks today as the date it was commemorated, but today was two days away. I read that a big crowd made the hike to the top together a few days ago to have a ceremony marking the place and honoring the legendary American hero.

There are fresh trees planted, and as you walk up to the obelisk itself, several rocks are engraved with famous MLK quotes - truly words to live by.

Today's world needs an emphasis on social justice more than ever, and I find myself cringing when I think of what King would feel about all the madness happening in these current times. How sad he would be to know that we are still struggling to make his wonderful dream come true. I remember how happy I thought he would be to know that we had President Obama - and we all thought major progress - but now how crestfallen he would be to know that those eight years of grace and dignity were followed by the worst Administration the United States have ever known.

That's why it is so important to have monuments and memories to the greatness we're capable of, and the inspiration to walk on in those epic footprints forged before us. Standing at the top of this mountain, thinking about the "I've Been To The Mountaintop" speech King gave the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, I had a similar feeling to when I stood in the spot that King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech on the Washington Mall. That the ground where I stood was now sacred. That we have failed him. That we have the potential to be so much better. That the dream is still alive, even if he is not. That we can make it a reality by always remembering to focus on the love and social justice that King did.

I've been to the King Memorial on the Kenneth Hahn mountaintop ... and I looked over.

I've seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know today, that we, as a People, will get to the Promised Land!
And so I'm happy, today.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Thank you, Dr. King. Your dream will never be forgotten.