Back on Stage with Ed

20 09 2015
Interviewing Ed

Interviewing Ed

The summer trumpets have sounded. Into the autumn we go. Noise of political campaigns consume much of my days and nights — my reporting automatic at this point. I can see what is coming and avoiding danger, drama and becoming a jaded, bitter journalist is what keeps me on guard.

I have joined a monthly writer’s group separate from my two main employers. This gives me hope. At our first meeting, they ripped up my writing style pretty good. Call it an intervention on my addiction to clichés. My writing needs more description, they say. More color. More flavor.

Well, here we go.

When I shook Ed Asner’s hand I was surprised at its strength. It was a firm grip from a meaty hook. We were in Orlando, at the Doubletree Resort at a conference for mature people. Asner is 85 and he doesn’t forget easily. The legendary actor remains ever vigilant in the causes he holds dear. Fighting for the disadvantaged and working poor.

“For so many of us he embodied what being a man was all about,” said Tomcat, the conference organizer.

At this conference, I was the moderator on a panel of two — Asner and moi. My chief concern was not embarassing this Hollywood legend. Asner was cranky and cut me off on several occasions, much to the audience’s delight. My youthful inexperience during the program seemed to be part of the draw. I told the audience this was a first for me — sharing the stage with a Hollywood legend.

But it was not my first time standing before a crowd.

Flashback to 2010 and the race for the Florida House.

On an early Friday morning on the campus of Florida State University, candidates gathered to give speeches to the business community. This chamber of commerce function was attended by all levels — local, state and federal.

I dressed in a suit with pin-strip black pants. During this campaign I was intent on demonstrating an air of worldliness. I knew — we all knew — I would be defeated so I might as well go down in style.

Introduced to the audience my the former Speaker of the House, I spoke atop a wooden structure called a “stump” that had been placed on the stage. It was my desire to deliver words that would make my campaign stand out. I wanted to be remembered and I knew that the issues I was championing would not be a big hit in this room. Panama City, once a stronghold of Democratic values, had been flipped, like much of the South to represent Republican positions.

I was not speaking to the choir — and that was part of the fun.

And so from atop a staged stump, wearing Wall Street threads (Even mentioned to the audience, I was wearing Prada label shoes) I basically for all intents and purposes told those assembled to fuck off.

“Let me close with these words,” I said — slowly and softly — into the microphone. “It is a complicated world out there and only the naive see it in black and white.”

Later in the campaign, the Democratic Party chairwoman would say that speech was a turning point. The Republicans began to fight my message even harder.

“You scared them, John,” she said.

Five years later, I was on a stage in Orlando with labor activist and screen titan, Mr. Ed Asner. This manly man, as his admirers describe, fought the establishment many times in his career and lived to tell about it. I felt rejuvenated by his side and ready for the fight once more. Asner was blacklisted by the Reagan administration. I was by the local GOP good ol’ boys.

Common ground, through adveristy, was forged.

 

 

 

 

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Leaving Los Angeles just a Shadow of Myself

6 05 2013

I almost missed the train back to Arizona. “John, what time is your train?,” Normen asked as Joel and I browsed the sales racks at the Gap store in Hollywood.

“Oh yeah, the train,” I realized, pulling out my iPhone to check the time. I had one hour till departure. “We better go.”

And we did, briskly walking through the heavy crowds of people gathered on the sidewalks outside the Chinese Theater and down Hollywood Boulevard to where we had parked the car. On the windshield, a parking ticket courtesy of the City of Los Angeles greeted us. Union Station wasn’t that far away, but the traffic was thick and it was almost five o’clock. We would never make it, I thought.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

The guys were staying a few extra days in LA before driving up to San Francisco then flying across country to New York before departing back to Singapore. It would be one of those trips they would remember for the rest of their lives. I had made a similar journey to Europe as a teenager and those memories are still very much alive. I was thankful to have been a small part of their American experience.

Somehow we made it to Union Station with a few minutes to spare. Jastine and Cheng Yew accompanied me to tracks, where we said our goodbyes and had our hugs. They asked me to visit Singapore one day and promised to show me around. I said I would and thanked them for our friendship — a friendship developed over the course of living and working together for the past 10 weeks in the isolated, desert climate that is Grand Canyon. I would miss them. A lot.

The ride back to the Canyon was depressing. I was alone again — with still two months of work to go. Despite a nearly full train, I was the only one who made late dinner reservations in the dining car. The food was fair, the rolls hard as rocks, but the service was super. I enjoyed chatting with the Amtrak employees and conductors. They all were approachable and friendly, unlike those stuffy 50-something flight attendants often pushing the drink cart on a Delta plane. Most of the crew were in for the long haul to Chicago. One of the conductors asked me where I was from. “Florida,” I said and then he grinned and replied, “Interesting Governor you got there.”

Elected in 2010 during the Tea Party wave that swept me and many other Democrats out to sea, Florida Governor Rick Scott made a name for himself as an ideologue, hellbent on fighting the Obama Administration every step of the way. So when the federal government offered funds to the states to construct a high speed rail network, Scott refused the program and the money went elsewhere.

“They’re building a new connection from LA to San Francisco with your money,” the conductor gleefully said. “It’s projected to be the fastest route in America.”

“I’m sure it will be,” I replied, adding just a tinge of sardonic wit.

Florida was very much on my mind during those last months I spent working at the Canyon. I knew it would be a battleground state in the upcoming Presidential election and polls were showing Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, to be leading in the Sunshine State. My break from politics had been refreshing and reinvigorating. Nature had truly heeled a lot of old wounds and now I was ready to return to the game.

I spent the remainder of my time at Grand Canyon hanging out with my roommate Brian, who was eagerly anticipating the start of the college and pro football season. We traveled down to Flagstaff on one scorching Saturday afternoon to attend Arizona Cardinals training camp. The crowds were enormous that day and it was quite clear the people of the desert southwest were starved for a good NFL team.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

When I wasn’t working or hanging out with Brian, I would go to the employee recreation center to lift weights, write, read the New York Times and visit with the international workers. I had gotten fairly close to a few of the Turks. One, a shaggy haired teenager named Ozgur, had become my table tennis buddy. He was quite gifted with the paddle. His English speaking skills were another story. I helped Ozgur with his English and he, in turn, taught me a few key phrases in Turkish. I would learn to say “Merhaba” and “Arkadas” with an Istanbul accent. Ozgur wanted to come to Florida with me after his work was finished. I really didn’t know what to say to this request, afraid he would not be able to understand my world back home.

I had not been entirely honest with my co-workers and friends from the Grand Canyon about circumstances involving my being there. But September was on the horizon and I would soon be stepping out of the shadows.





Behind the scenes soccer

19 04 2013

The next morning, still a bit fuzzy from the Kush, we collected ourselves and made a day of it at Universal Studios Hollywood. I think Joel was slightly aggravated about the rest of us toking up. The lingering effects sure made the rides at Universal fun. Most of the rides were stationary, three dimensional experiences as opposed to high flying roller coasters and were themed around popular movie franchises — Transformers, The Simpsons, The Mummy, and so on and so on. For me, the highlight was the studio back lot tour where you board a tram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of famed Hollywood movie sets.

And ingenious works in progress. Amazing how well the lens can fool you.

Later that night, Jastine, Cheng Yew and I took in a Dodgers game. This was a sentimental stop for me, having grown up an Atlanta Braves fan and watching many a battle with Los Angeles’ boys in blue.

California fossil

California fossil

Dodger Stadium is one of the older ones in Major League Baseball, its tall swaying palm trees a familiar sight from years watching Ted Turner’s superstation. Just being in the stands on a clear and cool night in Chavez Ravine, munching on a Dodger dog was pretty damn awesome. The game not so much. A pitcher’s duel won by the visiting Philadelphia Phillies. I hate the Phillies.

On my final day in LA, we soaked up the syrup at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles before visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. Roscoe’s was a homage to Southern cuisine and would be the closest my Singaporean friends would get to a Dixie fried delicacy during their American tour. Best I could tell, they enjoyed it, despite still not budging on the tipping procedure. At the tar pits — another lasting image of Los Angeles seared into my memory by the entertainment industrial complex — we got a tour of the grounds given, surprisingly enough, by a recent Auburn University graduate. It was here, that I learned California’s state fossil is indeed the saber toothed cat.

After the tar pits, we returned to Hollywood for one last meal together and shopping before I had to catch the train back to Arizona. Large crowds were gathered outside the Chinese Theater for a premiere of the dance movie “Step Up Revolution.” No one in our group seemed interested. We ate at a sports themed restaurant. SEC football media days were on the TV sets. I explained to Joel this was the dominant college football conference. Winners played on those teams, I said.

“Your football makes no sense, John,” Joel observed. “All that stop and go. Stop and go. It’s boring.”

Joel loved soccer as did Jastine. And Desmond, my hiking buddy.

I watched the Singaporeans join with the Turks to beat the French, Bulgarians and Americans — beat them badly — at the Grand Canyon Recreation Center’s annual East vs. West match. The French group came out to the Canyon in mid summer and the women reinforced every negative stereotype I could imagine. The guys were actually very cool and I learned quite a bit about Parisian culture, particularly from this one Moroccan. More on him, later.

The Turks were aggressive on the field — the exact same field that would be transformed, later that night, into grazing grounds for a herd of elk. The elk were a constant reminder of our wild living conditions, far from the streets of Paris. One of the Bulgarians nearly broke his leg that day. The Turks were relentless and not even a stout American goalie could stop enough of their advances. The match would become the subject of much conversation at the employee cafeteria. Soccer was all the rage during the summer of 2012. It was not entirely foreign to me. I played the sport as a grade school kid in the Orlando suburbs. I recall being self conscious about my shin guards being bigger than my legs. Quite the challenge being the smallest one in your class or on the team.

Easy prey for bullies.

Grand Canyon Kicks

Grand Canyon Kicks

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Elk on the field





Kushed Out in Hollywood

30 03 2013

I do admit to leading a pretty charmed life. Sure, there have been highs and lows throughout, but the summer of 2012 has to be one of the best ever. I was high in every sense of the word that mid July night, sitting rooftop of our Hollywood apartment. We all were, having just gamed the California medical system by scoring some marijuana during our visit to Venice Beach. I was amazed at how easy it was and how openly corrupt the entire process appeared.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

But as we shared a puff of premium grade OG Kush, one thing was for sure. Nobody was hurting.

The view from the roof was amazing at night. Smog circles drifting overhead, the lights of Griffith Observatory shining from the nearby hills and in the opposite direction stood the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.  Normen, Cheng Yew, Jastine and I went up to the top — with joints and beers — to indulge in our vices. Joel stayed in the apartment. Someone, after all, had to remain responsible. As twin brothers go, Normen and Jastine could not be more opposite. Jastine the steady, calculating planner, Normen the fashionable performing artist. I had gotten to know Jastine much better as we spent time discovering the Grand Canyon while he recuperated from a collapsed lung suffered upon arriving in America. I guess you could say we bonded over adversity. I, wounded ego, in self-imposed political exile and he a wounded stranger in a strange land.

Normen worked at a different location so we rarely hung out, but he had the same job only at a much higher volume store. His shop, at Bright Angel Lodge, was right on the rim and he would work eight hour shifts — sometimes never stepping away from the cash register. Meanwhile, further into the village at Maswik Lodge, Cheng Yew and I would go hours without recording a sale. Based on those negotiating skills and his hipster looks, Normen became our point man for securing the weed.

“That doctor was a joke,” he said, emerging from the Venice Beach “Green Doctors” office with prescription in hand.  There were more medical marijuana operations in Southern California than McDonald’s, or at least it seemed. Green crosses, denoting clinics and dispensaries, were everywhere you turned. For a hick from North Florida and exchange students from Singapore, this was indeed a whole new world.

Jastine pressed his brother for answers, “What did the doctor ask you?”

“What I needed marijuana for,” Normen replied.

Keep in mind, Normen is a picture of health. Young, firmly built and agile. He would never be mistaken for a cancer stricken patient or someone suffering from AIDS. The week before arriving in LA, he had hiked the Canyon, rim to rim during the height of the summer’s scorching heat.

“And what did you tell him?,” Jastine asked.

“That I had insomnia,” said Normen. “And then he wrote me a prescription.”

Just like that. We were all amazed. Of course, there was a catch. You paid forty bucks up front for the initial evaluation and after the doc cleared you, the next hurdle was finding the right pharmacy. As Normen quickly found, everyone had a hand out along the way. The dispensaries were protected like banks, only with meaner looking security. We all waited patiently as Normen went inside to select his “medicine.” He ended up with the OG Kush and Sativa and after dinner on our first night in LA, we passed the joint around and marveled at our surroundings.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

The weed certainly helped my sunburn. I had gotten roasted pretty good at the beach, but the more I toked up the less pain I felt. This had been the first time in a long time, I had smoked marijuana. It was, without a doubt, available in the Canyon, but I never pursued it. I was intent on projecting leadership and didn’t want to fall in with the stoner crowd. But here, on a mini vaca in California, it was time to experiment.

With each puff, I found the kush to make me a tad over analytical. Were those helicopters in the distance coming for us? Were they even there?? The kush hit Cheng Yew like a ton of bricks, so much so that Normen had to help him down the narrow flight of stairs back to the apartment. Jastine and I followed and eventually we all passed out. Insomnia cured.