Between Encino and Philippe’s by bike and bus

By William Campbell
March 21, 2001

Had to get out today into the Saturday sun and heat. Biked up White Oak Avenue to Ventura Boulevard from my apartment on Burbank Boulevard. Loaded my bike onto the rack on the front of the Metro Rapid 750 busline that runs from Woodland Hills to the North Hollywood station of the Metro Red Line subway to downtown.

I had it in my mind to go to Philippe’s near Union Station for a French dip sandwich and a lemonade. Thirty miles away. You’re thinking: “that better be a damn good sandwich.”

It is. If Los Angeles were in the dictionary, Philippe’s would be one of the words that makes up the definition. The place has been around practically since dinosaurs roamed the scene.

Traveling across the San Fernando Valley, with the headphones of my Rio digital audio player stuffed into my ears, I enjoyed the herd of MP3s I’d ripped from my CD collection: Iggy Pop, Beck, Amber, Kristine W., U2, Haddaway, Busta Rhymes, Fat Boy Slim, Edwyn Collins, Janet Jackson — even, I admit: the Backstreet Boys.

At Sepulveda Boulevard a thin elderly black man carrying a stuffed backpack boards and sits across from me with the backpack on his lap. I pay him and none of the others on the bus any mind and airdrum beats to the songs. Never sat behind a kit in my life, but that’s never stopped me from faking it. My left foot taps an imaginary bass drum, my left hand grips an imaginary drum stick and strikes my left knee, which serves as my snare. My right hand taps against the high hat, which is my right knee.

A couple stops later, over the din emitted directly into my ear canal from the headphones, someone’s almost yelling. I turn my attention to the black man. He’s looking at me with a smile and his lips are moving, but I can’t hear what he’s trying to say. Reluctantly I shut the Rio off and Edwyn Collins goes away. I lean my head in and tilt my left ear toward him, the international gesture for “WHAT?”

“You a drummer?”

I lie.

“I thought so. I could tell by the way you were working it out,” he says.

I shade the lie for protection: “But I haven’t played in awhile.”

“Why? Lost your coordination?”

I lie some more. “Nah, drums are in storage. Can’t practice. Live in an apartment.”

The black man nods and a few moments go by. I’m wondering if he’s done and I can go back to my tunes.

“You could get one of those electronic drum sets and wear headphones,” he offers.

I shake my head. “Not the same.”

“Yeah, I understand.” A few more moments go by before he speaks up again and pats his backback. “I do that with my keyboards… wear headphones… I play keyboards.”

I nod. My eyes catch a beautful blonde alone in a red Mercedes SUV in the next lane tunnel-visioned on the road ahead. She accelerates past the bus.

“Music’s what’s kept me alive,” he says matter of factly, the same way someone would introduce themselves.

I nod again. The bus now passes a cement mixer, it’s huge barrel turning slowly clockwise.

“Never made it big like I wanted, but I’ve never quit. Plain truth is that without my music I’d be dead. As a matter of fact, I just came from the studio.”

“That’s cool.”

He smiles and I notice several of his lower teeth have silver frames around them. The smile leaves.

“Trouble is, I can’t never seem to get my foot in the door.”

I sigh and shake my head, relating to how he feels.

“People think I’m too old, but they don’t know. I’ve got songs — I write all my own songs — that would be hits, but I just can’t get anyone to listen here. For that, I have to go down South. Down there I get respect.

“Do you play jazz, or R & B?” I ask.

“R & B. I do a little jazz, but I’m an R & B man. All the way — you ever heard of ‘Yesterday?’”

“The Beatles?” I inquire.

I don’t quite follow his answer. He nods, but makes mention of some artist of whom I’d never heard.

“What about “More Today Than Yesterday?”

“Stevie Wonder!” I proclaim.

“Yeah, Stevie Wonder, but…” Again he defers to some earlier artist whose name is unknown to me.

The bus passes by a corner building near Woodman Avenue that up until a few months ago, was home to a short-lived Indian motorcycle dealership that thought people would flock to Sherman Oaks to buy $25,000 bikes. I shake my head at the braniacs who thought that. Then again, at least theyhad the balls to try. A sign now proclaims it the temporary home of Prudential Real Estate. Given the state of flux SoCal’s always in, I think every business should be labeled as such — except for Philippes.

After a few more blocks of silence, the conversation switches back to his age and his troubles.

Out of nowhere I pipe up with my philosophy. “The music business is filled with so-called artists like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys,” I say. “It’s not about how you play or what you say, it’s about how you look and how you sell”

Now he just nods.

“It’s all youth-oriented now. And the trouble is, someday that’s going to backfire. We’re living in a world today where our elderly are more viable and productive than at any time in our nation’s history. They’re living longer and they’re healthier.”

“I know I’m as strong as I was 30 years ago,” he says in agreement.

“The trouble is, society is still in the mindframe that’s antiquated. We’re pushing our elderly down. Dismissing them — not just in the music business, but in all sectors.”

He’s listening hard now.

“The same things happening with screenwriters in the motion picture business. I read in the papers where writers are suing the studios over alleged age discrimination. The perception is that when a writer hits a certain age, he’s out of touch with the demographic to which movies and TV are geared — which is ridiculous. To think that a middle-aged writer couldn’t pen a television episode of “Friends” or the next teeny-bopper flick is outrageous!”

I think of the DVD I just rented that had the first six episodes of the second season of the HBO series”Sex in the City,” which chronicles the sex lives of four unmarried and horny Manhattan women. It’s funny, insightful, touching, sexy. And guess what: most of the episodes were written by men!

But the old man is hung up on the fact that there’s age discrimination in the screen biz. It’s news to him.

“Do they really do that with movies?” He asks.

“That’s what I’ve read.”

“Man, that’s a damn shame. I had no idea, but it makes since. It happens everywhere else.”

“And not before long, it’s gonna come around and bite the world on the ass,” I say. I’m on a roll. “Life expectancy’s higher than ever before, and the first wave of baby boomers are hitting retirement age. So look out!” That demographic isn’t just going to take their seat quietly in the Dying of the Light Nursing Home. It won’t happen overnight, but they’re gonna rage against society to embrace and include the elderly rather than to just be brushed aside like so much uselessness.

The old man catches me off guard with his next comment. He says, “Dylan Thomas. I can dig that!” He follows that up with some William Blake: “Tiger tiger burning bright in the forests of the night; what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

He sees the impressed look on my face and smiles.

“‘The Tiger.’ Heeeeeey, don’t look so surprised. I’m a lyrics man. Poetry is the Ground Zero from which all songs explode.”

I nod, still impressed nonetheless.

“And that’s the trouble with most of today’s music. The lyrics don’t matter. Now it’s all cussing and sex. They don’t know what good lyrics are.”

“And they most certainly don’t know William Blake or Dylan Thomas.” I offer.

“That’s right, no history.”

We ride in silence the rest of the trip to the end of the line off Ventura Boulevard at the Metro Redline subway station in Universal City, across from the Universal Studios Industrial Entertainment complex, a lead perp in the smoothing of the curvatures on society’s collective brain. As the bus comes to a stop, the man is up and out in a hurry with barely a “have a good one.”

“Good luck with your music,” I say in return.

As I get off the bus and remove my bike from the bike rack, I watch him disappear from view on his way down the escalator that leads to the subway platform. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t take the time to catch his name and shake his hand. I debate whether to subway it downtown or pedal through the rest of the valley and pick up the L.A. River bikeway next to the Los Angeles Zoo and get to Philippe’s that way.

I opt for the latter. Maybe I would’ve got on the same subway car as him and we’d continue the conversation. But I decided to take advantage of the beautiful day and stay above ground on my journey to that double-dipped lamb with bleu cheese, side of sloppy slaw and a bunch of lemonades.