Drama, served up on a plate

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EVERYONE gets three great loves in their lifetime.

That's what the waitress at Astro Coffee Shop in Silver Lake told me over my "scrambled burger" at 2 in the morning. This was back in the old days when I was young and restless and could not sleep. Now I stay up because I feel arthritic and hear the grim reaper.

I still cherish the worldly wisdom of the old-school waitresses around Los Angeles. They are a special breed, aren't they? Doesn't it feel like they ship them in from the port at San Pedro? Salty mouths and poufy hair. They remind me of a great-aunt of mine who always seemed to show up in the background of pictures taken at piers in the South Bay. A Marine on one arm and a tattoo on the other.

As for the three great loves — well, I had Almond Eyes. That was important. There's another, but I am waiting until my favorite sweater is returned before there is a mention in one of my pieces. And then there was — Oh my! You mean I only have one to go?

Why do I listen to these old broads?

I grew up on the streets of Los Angeles. I have a story for every section of the city. I remember incidents in front of buildings, unique people I've met or an activity that seems to embed the flavor of a neighborhood. Over the years they have filtered through me as scenes in plays with characters that I could not have thought up on my own.

We lived in the Pico-Union district of downtown Los Angeles, in one of the most active gang neighborhoods in the city. I went to Berendo Junior High School, which suffered a tremendous amount of racial tension in the '70s. When I was a kid, I saw the downtown Holiday Inn go up in flames. I ran after the screaming siren of the police cars racing to save Patty Hearst. Elizabeth Taylor waved a heavily studded diamond ring at me from her limousine after a premiere. I even had Bette Davis yell at me and my friends when we upset her concentration in the middle of filming on location in our barrio.

But I never felt like anything interesting ever happened to me. That's how my writing in public started: from the combination of living in very small apartments and learning to focus my sonar devices on the people who seemed to have many more amazing experiences than I ever felt I did.

In the beginning I would try to find the places where the biggest mouths gather. Blustery bar stool declarations, strip club confessionals and AA meeting acknowledgments. But frankly, those always felt forced to me — as if the liquor (or lack of it) made people want to be more interesting than they already are.

I love what happens when people talk in public. For playwrights there are unique ways in which people use language, which become a person's own style. I love going to the theater and hearing a character pop into a play through his own wonderful use of language. I can still hear the hilarious extortion scene in Annie Weisman's California play "Be Aggressive," at La Jolla Playhouse, when the San Diego brat threatens to withhold her love from her mother unless she gets her a boob job. Only in L.A. can we really appreciate how this sounds.

I love listening to conversations in restaurants. Most people seem to be able to focus on one thing at a time, and eating takes center stage. Confessions come in a close second. People don't edit themselves when they are eating. They concentrate on not choking.

What is it about being in public that makes people want to say so much? I think it's primal. We are social creatures. Maybe when we confess personal things in public, we really do want the people around us to hear our sordid tales.

I am probably the only person who relishes cellphone conversations in public. Cellphones are ruthless. I have heard people break up, negotiate divorce settlements, and one time — oh, this is big — I heard action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, at the Starbucks near the divorce court downtown, yell at who I assume was his ex-wife.

Every time I venture into public life, I get better at hearing the cadence, the uniqueness of a person's language and the musicality of the voices of Los Angeles. I search for these voices in the places where people feel most relaxed. Coffee shops are ideal for great stories.

There is something about the way a coffee shop erases class and race lines in the city. Coffee shops take on the uniform look of a long-term lover. Someone whose leathery creases you just want to wrap yourself in. A romance where they always serve the same thing, just the way you remember it. Cafeterias, taco stands, outdoor patios, and, yes, even McDonald's are places where you can find honesty.

Nothing facilitates a great conversation more than the communal table or bench — the ideal piece of eavesdropping furniture. It is on these upholstered confessionals that my writing got good.

On the long, dark wood of a communal bench at Barbeque King in downtown L.A., I heard the most heartbreaking confession of cheating on one's spouse between two MTA bus drivers who both wiped away emotion with saucy napkins that left red salty tears smeared on their cheeks. I was having the King Burger, which is really good and juicy.

At the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, where they line their black and white tables right next to each other, I witnessed a young tourist couple from Australia split up and agree to finish their respective vacations on their own. I still remember how the newly single woman hardly touched her order of the delicious lox and bagel. I finished mine.

At Dish in La Cañada, with its circular design where everyone can see one another, a family brunch got good and dramatic when voices raised over what to do with Grandma. The arrival of pumpkin pancakes simmered things down a bit.

On a cloudy Sunday morning at Farmers Market, a couple of scenesters loudly recalled a romantic tryst across the street at the Farmers Daughter Motel. I am so flustered by the frank recollection that I have to order something with melted chocolate from the French Crepe Co.

At Philippe the Original in Chinatown, I see the most beautiful image in a sea of every kind of Los Angeleno: someone praying over his French dip. The place is crowded, and lines are snaking around the long communal tables. I am listening to two mommies, with a pack of Hello Kitty girls, talk about the crowded drive into the city. I am writing furiously. I can't seem to keep up with the hilarious tales of La Mirada and the 5 Freeway.

Just then I see a group of young Asian teenagers, talking and laughing with great abandon. But in the center of their posse, a young Indian man prays over his sandwich. I am so moved that amid this crowd we can still find spirituality. Although I wonder — is it double-dipped?

Theater for all to see

I myself have indulged in the public confession as well. My second great love broke up with me at Tang's Donut on Sunset Boulevard. I remember my yummy maple bar doughnut, and I remember feeling very bad. One of the old Russian Armenian guys who hangs out there playing chess patted me on the back and gave me the "so-sorry" look. My revenge came later when I wrote a very one-sided scene about a breakup for a play.

Every day a story waits to unfold. The city arches its back and reveals its colors. A language gets spoken. A person gets lost. A building transforms. A wound is healed. A body breaks open. In a coffee shop. At a barbecue stand. In a deli. In a market. A story reveals itself, and we writers get to expose it to the light on a stage.

Oh, my gosh, I just realized something. The poufy-haired, salty-mouth waitress from the Astro Coffee Shop was right. I have had the great third love.

It's called Los Angeles.

Luis Alfaro is director of new play development at Center Theatre Group and a 1997 recipient of a MacArthur grant. His plays include "Bitter Homes and Gardens," "Straight as a Line," "Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner," "No Holds Barrio" and "Black Butterfly."

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