Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 15, 2011

Martini by Manny

It was a perfect Los Angeles day. The recent rain and cold were things of the past, although they had left their mark, coating the mountains with snow and scrubbing the air so that, for a few days at least, we had a majestic backdrop of purple-and-white peaks looming to the north beyond the metropolis.

I was crouched in front of my computer, though, forcing myself to ignore the paradise outside. I had a deadline to make, and no earthly possibility of changing two pages of marketing gobbledegook into a crisp, five-minute presentation before the clock ran out. Yet that was my task. The phone rang, and the screen displayed an outside number. A vendor, no doubt. I jumped at the opportunity. A distraction! Legitimate! I’d tell whoever was flacking for work that not only did I have no jobs for them, I would never have work for them, but please keep calling because it lifts my spirits to blow them off!

But a familiar voice said, “I need a martini and I need to check on something with you. When can we meet?”

It was Brumfield. For once, I had every reason to tell him to cool his jets, go to the store, buy some gin and vermouth, mix his own darned martini and then call me back. But I decided this was just the motivation I needed to make myself finish this blasted piece of propaganda.

“I know what you really want,” I said, succumbing only a little to irony. “You think you’re ready for the Big Time, and you want me to take you there.”

“I’ve been ready a long time, man. You’ve taken me to The Proud Bird and The San Franciscan and the Buggy Whip. I’m ready.”

“Well, maybe you are,” I said. “I know I am. OK.  Hollywood Boulevard, east of Highland. Parking’s in the rear.”

“‘Bout time,” was his gracious answer.

“Oh, and DON’T be a jerk and ask Manny if he knows how to make some drink or other. The guy’s served every celebrity and president on the planet. Be cool, for heaven’s sake. And wear a jacket if you’ve got one.”

With his usual style, Brumfield just hung up. Nice phone manners those reporters have. Especially after they get their own columns and don’t have to cover a beat. Inspired, I finished my paen to jargon and headed to Hollywood.

Musso and Frank Grill is, for my money, the most storied watering-hole in Los Angeles, and probably in the world’s top ten, along with Joe Allen in Manhattan, Florian’s in Venice and the bar of the Peninsula in Hong Kong. Brumfield’s Olds was already in the rear lot when I pulled in, but he had waited for me. Even after all these encounters, it was still a shock to see that shiny bald dome as he stepped out into the California sunlight. He started toward the rear door of the place but I steered him away. “Let’s go in through the front. It feels more like arriving.”

Stepping into the place from the bright sunshine on Hollywood Boulevard is an instant transformation to a past you may never have seen. Far back beyond 80s glam and 60s funk, past 50s formica and red leatherette from the 40s, you’re in a high-ceilinged, sedate room of wood-paneled booths and bare floors where the denizens might just as well be celebrating the end of Prohibition as the beginning of a new millennium.

There are two rooms. The left-hand room is the dining room, and on the right, the New Room includes the bar. We sat. I wasn’t going to be a nerd about it and explain things, so I hoped that Brumfield appreciated the fact that we were sitting where Faulkner and Chandler, Nathanael West and Edmund Wilson had sat.

Manny was behind the bar, neatly decked-out in the red jacket all the bartenders sport. I said hello, told him I’d been there before and was glad to be back. Manny welcomed us, and then mixed our martinis. There are none better. Even without the ambience they’d be excellence, and in that setting, they were outstanding. I sat quietly, relishing the moment. Then I got down to business.

“So, we’re having martinis in one of the most storied drinking places in the world, Bob. What’s there to complain about, now?”

“Spaces,” he said.

“Ah, spaces. Of course.” I waited, expecting some additional information, but he said nothing. “And what kind of spaces would those be?”

He glared at me. “Spaces after periods. I’ve been trying to get back to writing some pieces for a little local paper up in the Valley. The editor tells me I have to stop putting two spaces after periods. Can you believe it? Is he crazy, or WHAT?”

Instantly, I knew the guy’s problem. He left journalism in the 80s, in the days of the typewriter. Things have changed since then. Then it occurred to me to ask him something. “Um, are you writing with a computer, by any chance?”

Now he gave me the full-on disdainful sarcastic glare.

“Ok, Ok, so you’re still typing on a typewriter. Um, you really found an editor who’ll take hard copy?”

I could see from the way he drew upon that martini that I’d better stick to one subject at a time. If we got into a third martini here, they’d have to send the rescue squad for us. “Ok, so, let me tell you about this ….” And I went on to explain to Brumfield that when he left the journalism game, typesetters still laid out what he’d written through a mostly manual process. Typewriters didn’t have proportional spacing, so to make the location of periods clear, writers put two spaces after them. But the typographers had already for many decades been using only one space after periods, because they kerned all the letters, and sentences stood out with just a single space. Now that everyone — except a few — used word processing software, the copy goes straight to the printer, and so writers are expected to use single spaces.

Bob was shaking his head. I knew his pain. Any of us who learned our keyboard skills on typewriters have had to program ourselves out of that instinctive “dit-dit” double hit to the space bar after every sentence. It was a tough habit to break.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’d be just as easy to write out the stuff by hand as it would be to lose that habit.” He sipped (we were beginning martini #2). “Maybe I can find a typist.”

I waited. I let that one hang there. It was probably a good idea. Ol’ Bill Faulkner sat here once, and he probably had a typist over at the studio. So, maybe did Bud Schulberg. Bukowski was here a lot, too. He was a furious typist, but he made the switch to the computer and embraced it. Well, whatever works.

“So, Bob,” I asked, “Whatcha writing about, anyway? You writing a column or are you covering some stories or what?”

He gave me a look like I’d never seen, just sort of piercing me with those big eyes under the wrinkled forehead. “Science fiction,” he said, flatly. “I have a character who comes back to earth after being away for thirty years. What do you think of that idea? Is that crazy?” And he kept looking at me in a very direct way.

I signaled to Manny to make me a third. I felt distinctly as if I needed it.

****

Bob Brumfield wrote a regular column for the Cincinnati Enquirer for approximately 15 years, from about 1966 onward. Eventually he had a four-times-weekly column in the paper. In 1980 his self-published collection of pieces, “Brumfield!” appeared, and is out of print. You can find copies on online sellers. Mr. Brumfield died in 1981.

I located this link to a story about his book in a back issue of Cincinnati Magazine. which includes some photos and the caricature that accompanied his column. I’d be glad for any pointers that anyone has to other work of his that’s available.

For more of my encounters with Bob, click on “Brumfield” in the “Categories” widget in the right-hand column. There’re all intended with the utmost respect to one of my first favorite writers.

****

The bartender at Musso and Frank Grill in this story, Manny Aguirre, is a real person. Manny is highly regarded in Los Angeles as one of the city’s cultural icons, and has poured drinks for more than his share of Hollywood’s glitterati, as well as us ordinary humans. Manny serves all with equal panache and good cheer. When you take your stool at Musso and Frank, treat him with respect, and tell him you’re glad to be here, and before you know it, you’ll have at least one friend in L.A. Do NOT ask him if he can make a Sidecar or a Rob Roy or anything else. He can make anything. Just order, and rest assured that it will be excellent. CLICK HERE to read a profile of Manny in LA Weekly.

© 2013 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the fun, snappy L.A. story — nice blend of writerly issues and ambiance! Good to see Brumfield back.

    Like


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