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
One from the archives, a part of an oral tradition told to anyone who’s ever asked if I saw anybody famous while I lived in Los Angeles.
Back in the early 1990s, on my first L.A. go-round, we were sitting in our 1983, rusting-out but still trusted Toyota Tercel, outside a West Hollywood boutique hotel. A friend of ours was in town, on some official film bid-ness, and we were waiting to take her sightseeing. The weather was agreeable, I can only imagine, as a remembrance.
As we waited, I noticed a fairly sizeable car approaching us, slowly, from the opposite direction. I’d like to think it was a convertible because it makes the story that much better. But I couldn’t tell you for certain that’s what it was. It was probably just a big car, windows down, soaking in the nice weather I think I remember it being.
What I do know for a fact was that James Caan was driving that car. Jimmy Caan, baby, in what should’ve been a convertible but probably wasn’t, eating what I think was an apple but might’ve been some sort of sandwich. He’s driving towards us, slowly, slow enough that I can tell you for sure, swear on a stack of bibles, it was him.
Now, you have to understand, for someone my age and with the undying love I have for The Godfather, this is a big deal, huge! (Or ‘uge, as I imagine Caan would pronounce it.) Celebrity sightings don’t get much bigger or better than this. I’m all a-flutter. When he finally cruises right by us, should I say ‘Hi’ or play it cool with just a ‘Whattup’ nod? Or maybe don’t even acknowledge him, pretend he’s just another guy in a big car that should be a convertible, eating what might be an apple or possibly a sandwich. James Caan? So what? So what have you done for us lately?
What I couldn’t do, this being the early-1990s and all, and having no circa 2016-era cell phone, is to video the entire proceedings that were about to unfold in order to prove that what I’m going to tell you is absolutely true except for some of the minor details which only really add flavour to the tale.
Unbelievably, as he gets to almost right beside our car, James Caan slows his already slow moving vehicle to a stop. He’s right there, James Caan, looking at me looking at him through his open window. Oh my god! Oh My god!! Oh My God!!! OH MY GOD!!!! OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD!!!!! Clearly, I’ve blown my cool and he noticed me, gawking at him, like some star struck, mouth-breathing, yokel from anywhere else other than Los Angeles or, possibly, New York. He’s going to say something smart-alecky or wise-acre like: Hey. Take a picture, pal. It’ll last longer.
But no. It’s even better. Miles better.
Through a partially full mouth (or maybe he took a moment to swallow, I can’t honestly remember), James Caan, car stopped, turns to look at us and says (and I’m quoting here):
“Where the fuck is La Cienega?”
It’s not a nasty tone. There’s no hotheaded Sonny Corleone ire directed toward us. It’s just mild frustration, expressed in an I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think-of-me manner you would expect from James Caan. Note perfect, in other words.
While in this part of the city, La Cienega Boulevard is a pretty straight north-south (?) street, the layout of the area can certainly be disorienting. Santa Monica Boulevard has just finished going diagonally rogue, heading north-north-east toward Sunset, leaping up past Wilshire in the process. San Vicente meanders like an uncertain tributary. A regular grid pattern is interrupted enough times around here to unsettle even the calmest of drivers. James Caan does not appear to be a calm driver.
Not being from this part of Los Angeles but desperately wanting to be of assistance, I take a moment to get my bearings and begin to explain how he can get back to La Cienega. I’m not fast enough, however, to stop the driver behind Caan’s car from giving a quick beep of his horn. I imagine James Caan has been slow rolling for a while now, looking for La Cienega, and establishing something of a funeral procession of unwilling and not at all star-struck drivers behind him.
He’s not as understanding, it seems, as he shouts something like ‘Hold on a second, wouldya!’ back at the car behind him. James Caan then turns pleasantly back to me. “These people in L.A. Supposed to be so nice, right?”
I’m a little rattled, however, and try to quickly finish giving him directions. He has to turn left at the next stop sign and then another left when he gets to… whatever, whatever. It’s 20 years ago. Like I’ve got the exact details on this particular point.
Not that it matters anyway because the driver behind Caan, or one of them, at any rate, leans on his horn inciting James Caan to go ballistic. We’re talking They just shot pop/Carlo beat up Connie again/Michael went and enlisted full on nuts. An incomprehensible, expletive laced diatribe that felt like it went on for minutes but probably lasted 10, 15 seconds, max. Then, sweetly, pleasantly, James Caan turns back to us and thanks us for giving him directions that I’m pretty sure he in no way took in. It simply wasn’t possible. Not with all that commotion going on.
James Caan then proceeds to drive past us down the street, picking up his tirade in midstream, it seems, the yelling and screaming slowly receding, only due to the increased distance from us not its intensity. We sit back in our seats. Huh. So, that was a celebrity sighting.
Our friend emerges from her hotel. Getting into the car, she asks what all the noise was that she’d heard from in the lobby. I’d like to think, we took a suitable dramatic pause, looked at each other, and with simultaneous shrugs matter-of-factly responded:
Sitting on a patio at the corner of 71st and 1st on the upper east side, taking a lunch time margarita for a test drive. What’s a lunch time margarita, you ask? Well, as far as we can tell, it’s just like a night time margarita only cheaper. A slippery distinction that’s difficult to pass up.
Acaphlegmic’s in yet another lather. Truth be told, he’s been in some sort of lather or another since we arrived here in New York. First, it’s the ‘mallification’ of Times Square. You see, Acaphlegmic hasn’t been back to the city since around the mid-80s when, as an aspiring actor training at the Neighborhood Playhouse (alma mater of Jimmy Caan!), he prowled the mean streets of the East Village.
“In those days,” he tells us, “Times Square was gloriously seedy. Just like in Taxi Driver.” Apparently, you could buy yourself a cold beer from any squalid convenience store that had a bullet proof glassed enclosed cash register, pop it into a paper bag and then wander around, taking in the sights of open prostitution and live sex shows. “It had character,” we’re told. “Not just this soulless, neon lit commercialization.”
While we all agree on the latter point, Times Square is just another American strip mall, full of cheap souvenir shops and chain stores, there has to be some sort of compromise between that and the old stomping grounds of Travis Bickle. We’re called ‘cheap punk corporatists’ for that view. Another round of lunch time margaritas is then ordered as Acaphlegmic launches into a new day’s outrage.
Grid patterned numbered streets and avenues.
“Where’s the romance in that?”, we’re asked rhetorically. “You always know where you are. It’s impossible to get lost!” Huh?! Just when we thought an argument couldn’t get any loopier. The man tops himself. “In great cities, you always get lost. That’s what makes them great. By getting lost, you make new, unexpected discoveries.”
We’re going to find no common ground on this discussion. The utilitarianism of Manhattan’s numbered grid system is pure gold as far as we’re concerned. Not only do you know where you are but you know roughly how far it is you need to go to get to your next destination. Say, for instance, you’re drinking lunch time margaritas at 71st and 1st and you’re planning to head off to the Guggenheim. Its coordinates are 88th and 5th. That’s roughly 17 blocks north and 4 west (give or take a couple big name avenues that intrude. Like your Park and Madison Avenues). Your journey is about 25 blocks. Accordingly, you adjust the number of drinks you can have before heading off to get to the gallery before closing time.
Furthermore, we love the alternating one way street set up running both north-south and east-west. Odd number streets go west. Odd number aves head south. Or do evens go south? No, definitely odd number avenues travel south and the evens go north but even numbered streets flow… ? We had this all figured out before the lunch time margaritas.
Either way, it works well and a pedestrian catches on very quickly, within minutes realizing they only have to look in one direction in order to jaywalk safely. It’s not that Manhattan isn’t still congested but that’s a matter of there still being too many cars trying to fit into too little space rather than a badly designed traffic flow.
“Why don’t we have more one way streets in downtown Toronto?” Urban Sophisticat wonders. “Start south of Bloor. Leave it two way. Harbord-Wellesley goes west. College-Carlton east. Dundas travels west. Queen east. Etc. etc., all the way to Front Street. Same thing north-south from Parliament to Bathurst or so, leaving Yonge as a two way.”
Why not? With all the talk of bike lanes, transit and traffic congestion during this year’s municipal election campaign, where are the radical ideas? Anyone who’s traveled through the downtown core can tell you that the big one way thoroughfares, Adelaide and Richmond streets move more smoothly (not including the construction corridor between Bay and Yonge) than any of the other east-west roads. Granted, they don’t have to contend with streetcars using the two middle lanes but wouldn’t one way traffic on those streets that do help improve the situation? Turning vehicles would be off to either side not blocking the flow up the middle. Would the streetcars have to be uni-directional as well or is there a way to control having one lane coming the opposite way just for streetcars?
Surely there are traffic flow experts who have answers or solutions to these questions. Studies must have been conducted somewhere. So why isn’t there a discussion happening over bigger view ideas and grander visions for improving traffic congestion in Toronto?
“Because,” opines Acaphlegmic, noisily finishing off yet another lunch time margarita, “people are afraid of change.”
Truer words have never been spoken from drunker lips.