I am sitting in the office of Don Baroda, who sells personalized business gifts from his store in Burbank. The office, in fact, is part of the store, a squat white building with his name in large black letters over the top.
Baroda, a curly-haired man of 49, is on the phone. He is talking to someone he calls Lenny-baby, as in, “Hey, how you doin’, Lenny-baby!”
As he speaks to Lenny-baby, the pace of his conversation picks up to such a degree that his face glows like a jack-o'-lantern and his eyes go wide with enthusiasm.
He begins jiggling his leg and speed-talking, dropping all punctuations, like, “ListentheresaguyhereandIllhavetogetbacktoyouLennybaby.”
I don’t believe I have ever met anyone like him before.
He is a cross between Cal Worthington and Billy Graham, looking around to smile at someone or shake hands or slap you on the back or just shout howdy! out the front door at the people passing by.
When he pops up out of his chair, you expect to see him bounce like a beach ball across the store, turning up the neon, beaming that 100-kilowatt grin.
And he loves Burbank like a child loves puppies.
While Baroda is speed-talking to Lenny-baby on the phone, let me tell you that I am in his store to ask about the new image Burbank is attempting to project.
The chamber of commerce is tired of Burbank’s depiction as a dull city and has initiated a campaign to alter that image.
However, the campaign slogan, “Doing business in Burbank is good business,” portends an effort as dreary as the image the town is trying to shuck in the first place.
So I went around looking for someone with more fire and I found Baroda. He’s a member of the chamber, kinetic as hell, and likes Burbank the way it is.
Baroda sells T-shirts, cups and baseball caps that bear a stylized logo of Beautiful Downtown Burbank, the phrase made popular on the old “Laugh-In” series.
He is probably the most colorful Burbank booster I have ever met and, in fact, may be the only Burbank booster I have ever met.
“Why change the image?” he says, having dealt appropriately with Lenny-baby.
Baroda was once a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey in places like Oakland and Sacramento, which is probably why he speed-talks. I am slowing and translating in order to better communicate via print, otherwiseitwouldlooklikethis.
“We’re in the middle of the ocean and someone wants to rock the boat!” Mr. Burbank is saying. “Why? We’re right on course! Burbank is America!”
Baroda sees Burbank as a homey oasis in the midst of calamity. “You can drive down the street and wave and honk your horn and get honked back,” he says.
“People say Hi, how are you , brother "--he waves a hand in a half-circle to demonstrate--"and I, of course, say the same thing to them as they pass by. I even say Hi, mama, to the mayor. You can’t do that in Van Nuys!”
A customer leaves the store and Mr. Burbank shouts “God bless!” after him, then turns to me again and says, “You like magic?”
I follow him to a water cooler where he fills a cup with hot water. As the cup heats, an advertising message appears, “Pleated Filter Cartridges.”
He explodes in a new smile, even greater than the one before. White teeth gleam in the sunlight that streams through a window.
“Now look at this,” he says.
We move to a sink near his toilet where he runs cool water over the cup. The message disappears.
“I’m thinking of doing something like that for Burbank,” he says. “Aprons and beach towels too, all with the logo.
“Someone said I ought to do underwear. Burbank panties. But they mentioned some other things to print on them that I’d never get away with.”
He erupts with laughter, then says, “I’m just on the borderline of wacko. Really wacko. You want references? I’ll give you names!”
Mr. Burbank is wearing a blue shirt, blue-gray slacks and blue-gray shoes with pointy toes. He is Lebanese, he explains, but looks Italian.
“I tell people in the East,” he suddenly says, smiling to the limits of his mouth, “on a beautiful day you can see the beautiful Verdugo Mountains and beautiful palm trees with the sun glistening off the fronds.”
He is revving up, like a race car at a drag-strip track.
“Beautiful green lawns, lush green trees, graceful birds of paradise, bougainvillea, lantana!
“I tell ‘em about the beautiful evenings in January and February without mentioning the Santa Anas andhowtheycansitoutonthedeckandhaveabeautifuldinner!”
As you can see, I am unable to slow and translate further, for at this juncture Mr. Burbank simply shot out of control and crashed.
But I feel that he made his point perfectly. There is a little bit of Burbank in us all.
To paraphrase John Kennedy’s famous Berlin speech, all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Burbank. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Burbanker!
Or, if that doesn’t do it, how about a simple howdy?