February 8, 2009
Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, and refugees fleeing Europe as a consequence of the Second World War, the city had become home to an impressive array of artists. Actors, writers, and musicians abounded everywhere, and many even resided tantalizingly close to the house where I grew up. Cary Grant lived on my very street in the 1930s. I often saw Aldous Huxley shopping for vegetables at the neighborhood market. And musicians! Within ten or fifteen minutes drive from my house lived some of the giants of the profession: Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Korngold, and Arnold Schoenberg to name just a few. These were some of the people that I, a budding young violinist, dreamed of coming into contact with, but save for an occasional glimpse of these gods at concerts, they might as well have lived on the moon. What were these people like? Were they bathed in some kind of angel dust? Or were they made out of normal flesh and bones like people I knew? Some day, somewhere, somehow, I hoped to have the good fortune to at least brush up against one of them. For the moment, however, I contented myself by practicing hard and going to my regular violin lessons.
Dad usually took me to those lessons since I hadn’t yet learned to drive, but on one occasion he called with bad news. His car had broken down and I would have to somehow get there on my own. This left me with several options. I could walk or bicycle, unrealistic in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles, I could take public transportation, cumbersome and time consuming, or I could hitchhike. In those days, hitchhiking was a surprisingly quick, safe, and respectable way to get anywhere. I once hitchhiked with two friends from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one day, a distance of some five hundred miles.
I chose to hitchhike to my lesson. The routine was simple and one that I employed regularly. I walked to the nearest intersection with a traffic light, waited for it to turn red, and when cars came to a halt, out emerged my thumb in the universal hitchhiker’s sign. Usually, a Good Samaritan would pick me up in short order but on that particular day, drivers either ignored me or eyed my violin case with suspicion. At first I smiled eagerly into the dark interiors of each car that pulled up to my extended thumb, but after the light had turned red a dozen times or so, the smile began to fade from my face and finally, unfeeling and unseeing, I performed the hitchhiker’s gesture purely by rote.
How many times did the light turn red before the event I’m about to relate took place? An event that to this day I cannot quite assess to my satisfaction except to call it the brush with fame I supposedly longed for—a brush with fame that revealed the person in question to be surprisingly, even shockingly normal. Did the light turn red twenty, thirty times? I do not know. Suffice it to say that at one point, my arm shot out, as it had done innumerable times before, and came in contact with something altogether new and different. A flashy, yellow, Cadillac convertible had pulled up in front of me, and before I could come to my senses, that thumb of mine, still on automatic pilot mind you, reached over into the open car where a figure sat behind the steering wheel. Or was it two figures? Yes, definitely two although it was hard to tell at first since one was so tightly wrapped around the other. Then I opened my eyes wide and let my jaw drop. Within inches of my thumb sat none other than the great Frank Sinatra behind the wheel with his girl friend, the sultry and breath-robbingly beautiful Ava Gardner, draped over him. I and my thumb remained utterly frozen in time and space as I gaped at Sinatra and Gardner while they, entwined like mating octopuses, regarded me back coolly. Traffic lights, mundane creatures that they are, have little regard for celebrities or special moments. On cue, the light turned green and Sinatra stepped on the gas with tires squealing. Perhaps it was only his creative response in sign language to my hitchhiker’s thumb, but as the car began to speed away, Frank Sinatra, arguably the most famous crooner in the entire world, looked up and gave me the finger.
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