When was the last time you cried because a store closed in your neighborhood? That happened last Sunday night in North Hollywood at the Iguana Cafe, also known as Iguanaland: The Smallest Theme Park in the World.
Sure, you say, the Valley is full of coffeehouses, one on every block it seems, so what’s the big deal? This was the Iguana. My husband held his first art show there. He played his first harmonica jam there and he read the first poems he had written since college on that stage. He didn’t want to be famous for any of those things when we first wandered into an open mike night. He just wanted a comfortable place to play after eight hours of corporate crud. And the Iguana provided that to him and to many others.
People came from all over the Southland to play at the Iguana. From Riverside, Fullerton, Canyon Country, people were drawn to this little corner of the Valley to take part in the supportive, artistic culture that was the Iguana. We were lucky enough to live only three blocks away. I appreciated having a cheap hangout with good entertainment and free coffee right in my back yard. A place where I could start and finish a book in a night with no phones interrupting me, just the breaks I took to put my book down and applaud the performer of the hour, even if I hadn’t really listened. That was the unwritten rule of the Iguana: No talking while someone else is living their dream, and applaud loudly when they are done.
Unlike all the trendy espresso bars cropping up all over the Valley with their beans of the day and their show-biz fringe customers reading scripts instead of literature, the Iguana was the epitome of the anti-trend. The land of the unemployed misfit. The garden of Goodwill reject chairs.
People with heartbreak survived it at the Iguana. People at the low point of their lives knew they wouldn’t get kicked there, or kicked out. They knew they could grab a table and a cup of coffee--who cared what the flavor was when it was free? I have a feeling a few people stayed alive thanks to that free coffee and even freer conversation. Last night I saw some of those survivors and I relished their new selves. I listened to their stories whether spoken or sung and I applauded every one of them. And I cried.
I won’t be able to do that anymore--gather in that community, complain about politics, buy a book or just read one for two nights in a row and debate the author’s merits with people who used to be complete strangers. “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” Richard Bach’s words were never so true as at the Iguana.
So why am I telling you about a place that no longer exists? A place you can never experience? Two reasons: 1.) To thank Tom Ianello, the owner, for creating it, and 2.) To encourage you to explore your own neighborhoods. I want to suggest something to all of you: The next time you need a caffeine hit, don’t walk into the same old neon-signed harbinger of franchise hell. Try the mangy-looking joint two blocks up. You never know what you might find there. It might be a green-haired folk singer from Seattle with a wonderful voice, or it might be a pudgy little waitress who once served lunch to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and wrote a poem about it. Maybe its personality will speak to you the way the Iguana spoke to us.