Starry, Starry Nights

I was having dinner with my wife and son at an Italian place on Melrose. We’d gone there a million times when we were carefree renters living in Hancock Park adjacent, and thus were cognizant that it was not especially hospitable to kids. And unfortunately, Emmett was having an off night. It was just past 8, and he was melting down bigtime. And if there’s anything I’ve learned as a parent, it’s that you can only ply a kid with bread and butter for so long before the sirens go off.

As has become our custom, Carrie and I alternated speed scarfing our grub and attempting to calm our son. Which meant traipsing out of the restaurant through the entrance by the bar to stare at all the pretty colored bongs through the window of a nearby head shop. But Emmett wasn’t buying it. Just before our fourth or fifth exit onto Melrose, a soon-to-be-tanked 50something woman made it quite clear we were not to cross her path again so long as we had a screaming toddler in our hands.

My first instinct was to tell her to fuck off, that we lived in a free country and all that. But then I put myself in her shoes. If I were waiting for some old coot with a fat wad of cash in his pockets to take me away from all this, I’d be pissed too. It must be difficult to describe the cosmic significance of your favorite fad diet to a potential sugar daddy when a kid’s wailing nearby. Kills the mood, I guess.

The morals of this story? On a very basic level, we learned the hard way that it may no longer be copacetic to take our fifteen-month-old to dinner; every night out with him has become a game of Russian roulette: Will he or won’t he go off? Perhaps we’ve stubbornly clung to the idea that we have the same nocturnal mobility we had when we were childless.

But mostly, the bitchy barfly’s bad vibes made me feel unwelcome in a place I’ve spent the majority of my adult life. This type of brazenly rude behavior couldn’t possibly happen in our warm and fuzzy cocoon over the hill, I thought.

Then it hit me: I’ve developed Valley Pride.

When we moved four months ago, we were sucked into the gravitational pull of Ventura Boulevard, the transitional hub of all those who sojourn into the 818. It offers a modicum of bright lights, big city and yet… it’s only a ten-minute drive! You could live your life on Ventura and never lack for anything: Sushi galore, decent Mexican, frozen yogurt, Trader Joe’s. It’s paradise.

Truth be told, Ventura Boulevard is a bit of a mirage, an electric artery at the Valley’s southern border that serves as a vibrant way station when you need to ease into the life of super-wide streets, extra dollops of smog, and Taco Llama. The Boulevard is a lot like a Sex in the City episode – it’s life all dolled-up and romanticized, but hardly representative of reality. It’s the Valley’s skin under a plastic surgeon’s knife, but not its beating heart.

With time, though, an oddly protective comfort zone hits you like a feather. The view outside the driver’s side window now looks “gritty” where it once was merely skanky, and you feel roots sinking into the soil a bit. Suddenly, the drive to Ventura’s a drag, and yeah, why don’t we check out that place in the ‘hood.

We went for a Sunday dinner just three days after our Melrose nightmare. We thought we’d give Emmett one more crack at an evening out, at a old-fashioned family-style Italian place called San Remo. The façade is faded, the neighborhood dank and the parking lot a little dubious. But inside, the food was hearty, and the room spacious. The place was teeming with toddler types of all temperaments. An Emmett-safe zone. The kind of place we could revisit whenever we get our Italian jones.

In spite of the comfort, our boy couldn’t resist giving the lungs and tear ducts a workout, just as the chicken and eggplant parm were arriving. But instead of smirks, the wait staff showed infinite patience. And during one of my periodic strolls to the parking lot to bounce Emmett around a bit and give him some air, I ran into a party on their way out.

Were they annoyed? Well, a slow moving white haired fellow did turn back at me, then glared at Emmett, his bug eyes fairly popping out of his skull. Suddenly, he served up a crazy-ass grin, revealing teeth with a

gap so wide you could drive a small family through it. Goddamn. It was Ernest Borgnine. In the middle of nowhere. Trying to cheer my son up. It was beautiful

The gregarious old star even managed to elicit a reaction out of Emmett. He screamed.