Nomads in Chinatown
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Nomads in Chinatown<br> By Marc Porter Zasada.<p> IN THE SHIFTING METROPOLIS, we hold on to whatever we can. <p> It's a late night in Chinatown, and ten or twelve people crowd around a table in a brightly-lit restaurant called Full House. Outside, a lonely wind blows along Hill Street, and a few neon signs still flicker along Gin Ling Way -- that little rumpled tourist plaza with the funky souvenir shops. Half a block from here you can find the spot where Faye Dunaway gets shot in her car at the end of the movie Chinatown. Little Joe's used to be there, but it's closed. <p> Tonight, the Urban Man has trailed a group of well-known L.A. poets back from a reading they just held at the Mountain Bar, an atmospheric joint nearby. The reading celebrated noir movies from the forties and fifties: You know, Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai, Out of the Past. In honor of the event, some of the women sport forties' fashions and little pillbox hats. Some of the men loosen narrow ties. At the microphone, the irony was nuanced, and the verse darkly comic. I remember one great line: "The Bliss of the Abyss." <p> And here we are at the after-party. The Urban Man is no poet, but I wore my fedora, and they've invited me to tag along. <p> Suddenly, I interrupt the lively chatter about old movies and fried jellyfish to address a question to the table: "Maybe you folks can help me out. I'm working on a radio piece and I'm asking people what they love about L.A., the things they're really attached to." <p> I mean, who better to ask? <p> To their credit, the poets reply without any dark humor. Mostly, they ignore new museums and glittering concert halls, and mention remnants from the past: Union Station, Griffith Park Observatory. Pink's hot dogs. A long set of stairs near Silver Lake. Places known through the course of a lifetime here. <p> Someone says, "To really love a city, you have to form an attachment to a particular place, a store, a dive. It takes time -- but in L.A., everything's swept away so quickly. You turn around and your favorite place has been rebuilt or remodeled." <p> I say, "Wasn't it Jack Kerouac who called L.A. a big campground, where people come and go like nomads, setting up their tents, without ever really settling down?" <p> Still, I know the conversation will soon return to the movies. To Barbara Stanwyck's worldly grin and Bogart's wry laugh. Often, those are the most reliable L.A. landmarks. Thanks to video, Bogart will never face urban renewal. <p> And suddenly I feel a little sorry for these L.A. poets, stuck with movies for dependable touchstones. No doubt the little tourist plaza will soon be remodeled, along with the hip atmospheric bar. Eventually, they'll lose this late-night Chinese place, with its loud families and clatter of dishes. Soon they'll have to buy a book of local nostalgia to see a photo of the spot where Dunaway was shot. <p> But there's a pause, and one poet, sleek in a green dragon-lady dress from 1947, gives us something to hold onto. She puts down her beer and mentions that no matter where she goes in this burg, she can always look up and see the "tall, wand-like palms, sweeping against the evening sky." Those palms, at least, provide a constant above the ever-shifting landscape. Always, they mark an oasis in the desert. <p> On the drive home, I look for the windy heads of palms against the night sky, and I stop thinking about noir detective films. But like a true Angeleno, a whole new set of movies spring to mind: The Thief of Baghdad or Lawrence of Arabia or, for heaven's sake, Ishtar -- scenes of tents and caravans and nomads at the oasis. <p> Copyright - 2004 by Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved. <br>
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