Daily Donut a Shop With a Soul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of the Daily Donut, Lynn and Now Lay, are talking in their Los Feliz shop one bustling morning about how they escaped Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, fled to America, went to school, learned English, bought their first shop in South Gate, and bought and sold enough other shops to acquire a mini-mall and an apartment building.

Suddenly an old man perched in a corner seat interrupts.

"When you came to this country, you'd never seen a toilet," Lennie Bluett proclaims for the rest of the shop to hear, "and now you have 14! It's the American dream."

Bluett is the best customer and best friend of the Daily Donut. He's an 83-year-old piano player who's been holding court for most of the 16 years the Lays have owned the shop, beguiling customers with wit and charm honed in piano bars around the world.

"Mister Lennie," the Lays call him.

Mister Lennie's picture is on the Daily Donut's wall, and his corner seat is reserved. When the Lays go on vacation, they leave him the key to the shop. When the couple, who live in the San Fernando Valley, were seeking to put their daughter into a better school, Mister Lennie became the girl's guardian so the Lays could use his Los Feliz address.

Theirs is an L.A. story: the tall old black piano player, raised in segregation, sharing laughs with two rugged immigrants raised amid genocide.

Bluett arrives one recent morning at the crack of dawn, entertaining customers with stories of his travels and show-biz experience, peppering them with greetings: Buenos dias ... bonjour

Just back from playing at a hotel bar in Casablanca, he's sporting a hand-knit Moroccan skullcap over his cleanly shaven head. He boasts that he sported the bald look before Michael Jordan--why, even before Telly Savalas.

"I was traveling in Switzerland, and all these little children came up to me shouting and pointing: 'Kojak!' 'Kojak!' 'Kojak,'" he says.

"I wanted to say, 'No! No, not Kojak! It's Blackjack! Now shut up and go away!'"

Bluett spots a Los Feliz neighbor.

"He's a judge," he warns the customers. "He could have you arrested."

"He's divorce court," jokes an employee, Rosana Aleman, handing a Styrofoam cup of coffee-to-go to U.S. District Judge Matt Byrne.

The judge pauses and tells a story about a preacher's response when asked if he had ever contemplated divorce.

"He said, 'Divorce, never. Murder, yes,'" Byrne laughs, pushing the door to leave.

Lynn Lay, 39, wonders from behind the counter why so many marriages in America break up. It's different in Cambodia, where woman are "loyal, hard-working and stable," she says.

"The difference," jokes a regular male customer, eating a glazed doughnut, "can be summed up in three words: Community. Property. State."

The Lays' marriage was arranged by their parents. It was a relationship that took hold while their homeland was in turmoil.

Missing the Green Fields of Home

Now, 43, still misses Cambodia, its endless rice fields bright green, dancing and fluttering in the wind. He says he was forced to work the rice fields, and faced starvation and torture under the Khmer Rouge, widely held responsible for the slayings of 1 million or more Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.

Now spent three months in jail for eating oranges that had fallen from trees. He and his wife tried to escape more than once, but were turned back and forced to walk back through fields littered with land mines. Now says his mother and three sisters were killed by the Khmer Rouge, who were singling out lighter-skinned ethnic Chinese or Vietnamese for slaughter. Lynn lost two brothers.

"They lined you up and checked skin color," Lynn says. "If the skin is white, they take you out of the line and kill you. If the skin is dark, then it's OK. I would stay in the sun to get dark."

Lynn was pregnant with their first child when they crossed the border into Thailand and flew to the United States in 1980. On the flight she went into labor, and the plane was diverted to San Francisco, where she gave birth. At the hospital, Now took his first elevator ride. Their child was named Larry by a hospital translator.

An extended family awaited the Lays in Los Angeles. The family pooled its money and began fixing up, buying and selling doughnut shops, an industry that thousands of Cambodian immigrants began to dominate in California during the 1980s. Lynn sewed clothing; Now worked in an auto shop. They both went to school.

Their spacious home in an exclusive section of the Valley has distanced them from their homeland. Their three children have little understanding of the hardships they endured.

"They say they are Americans," Now observes. "They say, this is America and nothing bad is going to happen in this country."

Six years after they landed in the United States, the Lays opened the Daily Donut at Hillhurst and Franklin avenues.

Two years later, Bluett, a resident of one of the Los Feliz district's high-rise condominiums, walked in, knowing little about Cambodians but a great deal about struggle. He'd heard the stories of relatives who escaped racism in the South. He'd heard the stories of his grandfather, who armed himself with a shotgun and sat on the porch of his Bell Gardens home, fearful that the KKK would attack his family.

Bluett came of age in Southern California at a time when whites hung a black man in effigy from the flagpole at Fremont High School and blacks demonstrated for the right to swim at any beach they chose.

His exposure to racism was cushioned by opportunities stemming from his musical talents and a strong family. His mother was a cook for Humphrey Bogart, and his father drove a bus for comedian Buster Keaton.

Complaining to Clark Gable

Bluett's singing, dancing and piano-playing talents emerged at Manual Arts High School, where he was a member of the chorus. Not long after he graduated from high school, he was singing in a group called the Plantation Boys. He played an extra on the set of "Gone With the Wind." Bluett was one of three blacks to knock on Clark Gable's dressing room door to complain about "Colored" and "White" signs on the bathroom doors. Gable put in a call and had the signs removed.

Bluett's talents continued to earn him small roles in movies such as "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky." Through his friendship with Bogart, he auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Sam in the movie "Casablanca."

"I was too young, too tall and too good-looking," he says straight-faced. "I'm good looking now--but then I was gorgeous."

From the day he entered the doughnut shop, the 6-foot-4 Bluett filled the place, overwhelming the Lays' broken English. Gradually, he became their translator--the voice of the Daily Donut, the social glue that held it together.

He drove one customer around in his car until she found an apartment. He encouraged the return of another regular who stopped coming when Now told her she was gaining too much weight. These days, a dozen or so regulars socialize at parties and dinner.

"He likes the people who are there at the doughnut shop," says Bluett's only child, Nicole. "He likes the owners. They think of him as an elder and respect that."

"There is 80-something years of history in that man," says another customer, Washington Rucker, a jazz drummer.

Sharyn Walker, a USC professor of immunology, walks over and shares a chocolate butterfly doughnut with Bluett. She remembers thinking he was obnoxious the first time they met in the shop five years ago.

"I just wanted to be left alone," she says. "I kept thinking, 'What is wrong with this man?' He just seems to stay in your face."

But as with many, her distaste soon turned to affection, and she found herself inviting him to her house for a party. Bluett agreed to go but wanted to know if she had a piano. Walker took the hint and went searching for a piano for her party. When she found one, she went back to Bluett and told him.

"I didn't want you to get a piano," he told her. "I just wanted to know if you had one. I get invitations from people who want me to perform for them."

Bluett's most recent performances were in the cocktail bar at the Hyatt in Casablanca. (He was performing Sept. 11 but stayed through November.) In Morocco, he plays in a small bar made up to resemble Rick's Cafe in the 1942 movie. Behind the piano there is a large picture of Humphrey Bogart. A trench coat and fedora are on a coat rack. The most requested song is "As Time Goes By."

"Both Mother and Father Time have been good to me," Bluett says. "I'm in the sunset part of my life, and I don't want to waste a minute. I wake up early, because I'd rather be interacting with people, laughing and joking, kicking and scratching."

Now squeezes into the booth seat next to Mister Lennie and notices a gold bracelet that Bluett is wearing. Bluett says it is similar to one worn by the king of Morocco.

"You leave me that in your will," says Now, nudging his friend.

"No," Mister Lennie says, playing the rest of the shop for a laugh again. "It goes in the box with me."

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