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Close Encounter of the James Caan Kind

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—

And if you’re a regular reader here, you probably have. Back in the spring of 2016, I wrote a post about crossing paths with James Caan when I lived in Los Angeles back, back, back in the 90s. On Thursday, James Caan died. Friday, I should write about that time I crossed paths with James Caan in the 90s, I thought. Also Friday, the Rogers outage. So I couldn’t check the site to see if I’d already written about it previously. But I mean, why would I, I thought. Nothing to do with municipal politics. So, I plunged ahead, writing a post about that time I crossed paths with James Caan while out in L.A. in the early-90s. On Saturday, with the internet restored, well, you can fill in the blanks.

But let’s not look at this as simply a case of me repeating myself or just going on and on about my one and only brush with celebrity. It’s more an examination of the nature of storytelling, the constant evolution of narrative. How does a story from twenty-five earlier change when told again six years on? Historical revision. Yeah, this is what it’s about, historical revision, and not the fact that I’m unwilling to toss aside a few hours of work

*  *  *

We were living in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. A friend come out to visit, fitting us in around a business trip to town. The plan was to swing by the hotel they were staying at in West Hollywood and head out on scenic drive around the city.

Parked on the street in front of the hotel, waiting, another car slowed to a stop right beside us.

“Excuse me,” the driver said through his passenger side window. It was James Caan, eating what I remember to be an apple. It might’ve been a pear. A banana would’ve been perfect for the purposes of the story, but I cannot confirm that in good conscience.

“Where the fuck is La Cienega?” James Caan asks us.

Now. Did James Caan really use an expletive in asking directions from a couple of complete strangers, sitting in their car, minding their own business, waiting for a friend to go out for a tour of the town? Did he really say ‘fuck’ or maybe it was something a little less aggressive like, say, ‘hell’. “Where the hell is La Cienega?”

Perhaps. Perhaps I’m getting the incident confused with Vincent Schiavello’s surly delivery character in Ron Howard’s Night Shift, bulldozing the mousy Henry Winkler. “Where the fuck is 4K?!” Perhaps.

It just feels right that James Caan pulls up beside us in his convertible, OK, it might not have been a convertible, it just feels like James Caan should be driving around L.A. in a convertible, eating an apple, or possibly a pear, but definitely not a banana, asking for directions. It was a big car. How’s that? Bigger than the 1983 Toyota Tercel we were driving.

“Where the fuck is La Cienega?” James Caan asks, as polite as you can ask, using those exact words.

For those unfamiliar with Los Angeles, La Cienega Boulevard somehow never feels as straight a north-south road as it looks on a map. I don’t know, something to do with the curve of the bay the city fans out from? Or maybe I’m just getting it mixed up with Centinela. Or La Brea.

This is to say that, at least from our perspective, it isn’t at all surprising someone might have trouble locating La Cienega.

We certainly weren’t sure, not being from around these parts. We did know it was in the vicinity. We’d probably driven on it to get to this very spot we were parked, in front of this hotel in West Hollywood, waiting for our friend, with James Caan stopped beside us in his convertible, eating an apple (almost positive), asking us where the fuck La Cienega was.

This was pre-cell phone use, realize, at least, pre-having full access to the internet on your cell phone, those days in the early-90s. What we did have was a map, the Thomas Guide. Everyone driving around Los Angeles except, apparently, James Caan, had the Thomas Guide in their car because driving around L.A., well, it can be easy to confuse La Cienega with Centinela. Or La Brea.

So, we’re scrambling to locate where we are on the map and how the fuck to get to La Cienega from here in order to pass along the information to James Caan. A car horn honks behind us.


Exactly what kind of horn honk?

In my memory, I’m thinking it was nothing more than a friendly little toot, a gentle prompt that there was a driver in a car behind us, unable to get past James Caan who’d stopped his convertible beside us to ask for directions and blocking traffic while doing so. A Hey! I’m waiting here kind of honk.

Honestly, though. I don’t remember. That’s probably how I would’ve honked if I was in that driver’s position, stuck behind a stopped car in the middle of the street. At least at first. But who knows. Maybe the driver was in more of a rush than I was or had had a bad day and just wanted to get home or… a whole host of possibilities. Whatever the intended tone of the initial honk, it clearly grated on James Caan.

As we’re getting our bearings and starting to tell him how the fuck to get to La Cienega, James Caan says to us, “People in L.A., right? They’re supposed to be so friendly.” He says this to us while chewing on a mouthful of fruit, is exactly how I remember it.

It turns out La Cienega is quite close, maybe even as close as, ‘Keep going straight up here, Mr. Caan—” “Hey! Hey! Call me Jimmy,” James Caan interrupts. “OK, Jimmy. You go straight up this street, take a left at the top, and then a quick right and you’ll be on La Cienega.”

Like that. More or less.

At which point of time, the driver stuck behind James Caan’s convertible escalates the situation, leaning hard on his horn. There’s no question in my mind that’s how this part of the story plays out. He’s tired of waiting and wants the driver of the car ahead of him to know it.

Well, James Caan goes ballistic. Like, fucking over-the-top out of his mind snaps. No question about his use of cuss words and expletives here. We’re getting our own personal performance of Sonny Corleone when he shows up and sees the bruises on his sister’s face. That Sonny Corleone. Explosive rage without getting out of his car or even turning around to look at the driver who’s still on his horn behind him.

Throwing his convertible into D, in mid-outburst, James Caan turns to us, like that other shouty James Caan was someone else altogether, and says, “Thanks a lot.” Or maybe it was just a ‘thanks’. ‘Thanks very much’ sounds too out-of-character. But it was as polite as if I’d just told him that while I know he gets all the accolades for his more high-profile roles, I thought his best work was in Cinderella Liberty with Marsha Mason. ‘Thanks’. Like that. (In this scenario, I don’t correct myself, confessing to James Caan I’m getting that movie mixed up with The Last Detail, which I really liked, not Cinderella Liberty, which I don’t remember a thing about except James Caan was a sailor in it.)

And then, off he goes, shouting back at the driver still honking his horn behind him, off toward fucking La Cienega, the din continuing all the way to a slow fade up the street.

“I hope we were right,” my wife says to me, the honking and James Caan yelling still wafting.

“Do you think he’ll come back for us if we gave him the wrong directions?” I ask.

“Probably couldn’t find his way back here even if he wanted to,” my wife assures me.

That’s a total 2022 fabrication, that little bit of back and forth, but it’ll probably find its way into future renderings of the story. Oh yeah. There will be future renderings.

What really happened is that our friend emerged from the hotel, I want to believe the brouhaha still audible if out of sight in the distance, and crosses the street to our car.

“What was that all about?” she asks, saying she could hear it in the lobby when she got off the elevator.

My wife and I in unison, shrug and say, “Just James Caan.”

Or maybe it was, “Just fucking James Caan.”

RIP if such a thing is possible.

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