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Setting Times stories to music: From Elvis to Roxy Music

Last Saturday I went to a movie marathon put on by American Cinematheque at the wonderful Egyptian Theater. During the seven hours I spent there, I was grateful for two things.

One: that the seats were comfortable. That’s a lot of sitting.

Two: the theater itself, in all its gilt and Pharaonic glory, and its palm tree sentries guarding the neon-lit entry on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m grateful that we honor our Hollywood past, and present, by keeping the grand old place alive. It could so easily have become a forgotten corner of Los Angeles, chopped up into a multiplex, or worse.

Two of this week’s Great Reads illuminate forgotten corners of Los Angeles. In one, Frank Shyong told us about a lost Chinatown that I never knew existed. In another, Nicole Santa Cruz showed the Times’ commitment to telling the stories of the city’s forgotten homicide victims.

Maybe now they won't be forgotten.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story-song combo!


Monday’s Great Read:

Paul's Kitchen hangs on as City Market Chinatown fades away

Every meal at Paul's Kitchen begins the same way.

A waiter in a spruce green uniform clinks a bowl of crispy noodle sticks onto wood-grain Formica and pours a cup of oolong tea so dark it verges on coffee. He flips open a notepad.

In the kitchen, two huge woks sizzle to life. Within 15 minutes, vintage Chinese comfort food is heaped onto the table, piles of egg foo yong, chop suey and chasu barbecue pork, all swimming in a deep brown gravy.

The food is a throwback to a different era in cuisine — culturally Chinese but unapologetically American — and a lonely survivor of Los Angeles' forgotten City Market Chinatown.

For 23 years, manager Charlie Ng has run the restaurant on downtown's San Pedro Street as his uncle Paul directed, adhering to a business strategy that has over the years been elevated to maxim: Keep everything the same. It's even woven into the restaurant's Chinese name, bao ju — a common naming format for restaurants of the time period that translates literally as “treasure memory.”

Here, the dining room's metal ornamentation stays pink and the horseshoe nailed over the door for feng shui has never moved. Each day, Ng dons the same threadbare green uniform he's worn for years, and every lunch hour, he needles his customers with the same jokes about their age, their wrinkles, their white hair.

The regulars endure the insults. After all, Paul's Kitchen offers a commodity in short supply outside the restaurant's smudged windows: permanence.

#storysongs combo: “Same Old Scene,” by Roxy Music. Sure, Bryan Ferry is lip-syncing on this Brit pop show, but doing it very prettily.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

LAPD library of homicide takes 'murder books' digital

Adrian McFarland awoke in a panic. His brother had come to him again in a dream. In this one, McFarland walked into a bar and there his brother stood, flashing a toothy smile.

But Charles had been gone for nearly two decades, shot to death in Los Angeles when he was 27.

McFarland, younger by four years, knew little about the crime. The dreams, he thought, were a sign. After all these years, had anyone been caught?

A few days later, LAPD Det. Mark Hahn's phone rang. McFarland was on the line from Monroe, La., with questions long unasked.

These calls never got easier for Hahn, even after 14 years working homicide: families checking in on the anniversary of a killing or the victim's birthday, their grief renewed by a date on the calendar.

Usually, answers would have been hard to come by, especially for a case so old.
But this time, Hahn knew where to turn: to the detectives creating the Los Angeles Police Department's first library of homicide.

#storysongs combo: “Somebody Got Murdered,” by the Clash. I’d forgotten how poppy this is.


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Socialist to occupy Seattle City Council

The rain was cold, dripping down her blue poncho, but the newly elected city councilwoman's words sizzled.

Surrounded by union workers gathered to support Boeing's machinists, Kshama Sawant denounced the two-party political system, corporate greed, military contracts and the leaders of the aerospace giant whose name has long been synonymous with Puget Sound.

“We don't need the executives!” cried Seattle's first elected Socialist in living memory, as the damp crowd cheered and rush-hour traffic hummed slowly by. “We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers — by the community!”

Sawant is the rare elected official with roots in the Occupy movement — the leaderless resistance effort that drew thousands of protesters around the globe to encampments including those at Wall Street, Los Angeles City Hall, the Mexican Stock Exchange and Seattle's Westlake Park, where they demonstrated against income inequality in 2011. Her ascendance is an indicator of shifting Seattle politics — of how elections are run here and what voters are thinking.

Seattle's City Council — ostensibly nonpartisan but stocked with Democrats — will soon be a two-party body. And there isn't a Republican in sight.

Two weeks ago, on election day, the 41-year-old software-engineer-turned-far-left-sweetheart was trailing longtime incumbent Richard Conlin, 46% to 54%, and it looked like the environmentalist who rode his bike to City Hall had won a fifth term.

But Washington is a vote-by-mail state, only a fraction of the ballots had been counted, and Sawant swore that she would unseat the fleece-vest-wearing Democrat — if not this time, then the next. She was certain, she told supporters, that late voters would break with tradition and veer left instead of right.

On Friday, trailing his challenger by 1,640 votes, Conlin conceded. On Sunday, Sawant held a victory rally. And on Monday, she was out with the proletariat, declaring, “It is time, high time, that we workers opt for a mass political alternative to the two big-business parties!”

#storysongs combo: “Revolution,” by Billy Bragg. Yes, it’s a Beatles song. But you have to love the thought of lefty Bragg covering it.


Thursday’s Great Read:

Seems as if all of Fresno has adopted the Bulldogs

The flatbed trucks have backed onto the worn grass fields that ring Bulldog Stadium, which can mean only one thing: college football.

It's four days before Fresno State's next game, but preparations have begun. The trucks are packing aluminum frames and canvas, materials for the canopies that, come Saturday, will shelter the hundreds of pregame tailgate parties, the most elaborate of which feature live music and waiters serving prime rib and wine on white tablecloths.

At the Bulldog Shop, an apparel and souvenir store across the street from the stadium, customers clutch T-shirts, hoodies and mini football helmets in a long line headed toward the cash register. In the coming days, the store will set records for hourly, daily and weekly sales. At the other end of campus, inside the Dog House Grill, no one in the packed bar is playing much attention to flat screens showing highlights from far-away NBA and NHL games.

This is, after all, Bulldogs country, where college sports rules — most notably the undefeated, 15th-ranked Fresno State football team. Perhaps no team among California's scores of colleges energizes its hometown with as much passion and pride.

In the days before Halloween, Fresno is gearing up to host the University of Nevada Wolf Pack, a Mountain West Conference rival that has played in a bowl game in each of the last three seasons.

The electronic board above the door at the U.S. Mortgage Home Loan Center office sums up the community's support, flashing the message “Go Dogs.”

On the day before the game, the Shaw Avenue shopping district is red with fans in Bulldogs hoodies and polo shirts. At Barry Maas' insurance company, everyone in the office either wears a shirt with a bulldog on it or spends the day avoiding cold stares from co-workers. Inside Dr. Eric Hanson's second-floor suite at the Sierra-Pacific Orthopaedic Center, nurses have large Bulldogs logos sewn onto the sleeves of their powder-blue smocks, and the walls of the four examination rooms are covered with framed photos of the college's football players.

“The city shuts down for Bulldogs football,” says Derek Carr, Fresno State's record-setting quarterback. “It's a big deal.”

#storysongs combo: “Bulldog Skin,” by Guided by Voices.


Friday’s Great Read:

Seeking the truth behind the tragedy of Kennedy's assassination

Barb Junkkarinen emerges from the bedroom with the gift her husband and son gave her one Christmas.

It's a 1940 Italian-made rifle, like the one Lee Harvey Oswald fired from a sixth-floor window at the Texas School Book Depository, killing President Kennedy on an autumn afternoon in Dallas. He'd spirited the weapon into the building by disguising it as a curtain rod.

“This is how Oswald carried his package,” she says, holding the butt of the rifle low, the way witnesses described. “He had it cupped in his hand, like this.”

Junkkarinen's husband, Juha, and son, Jason, nod at the demonstration they've seen again and again. They help adjust the unloaded weapon just so. They point out there's also a scope and ammunition.

Over more than half her lifetime, Barb Junkkarinen has made a hobby of delving into rumors, theories and contradictory facts that swirl around a killing that continues to titillate — and divide — Americans on the 50th anniversary of the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

In the world of online Kennedy discussion groups, she learned “lurkers” tune in but never post; “fringies” attribute a political motive to every turn; false witnesses claim to have been places they haven't. Those who believe Oswald acted alone are “lone-nutters.”

And people like Junkkarinen are CTs, for conspiracy theorists.

#storysongs combo: “Suspicious Minds,” by Elvis Presley. I can’t tear my eyes away from this live version. He’s playful, but also a bit contemptuous of the audience. He makes a cocaine joke and seems under the influence of something. But at this moment where “Early Elvis” meets “Late Elvis,” he still has all the moves.


If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #storysongs.


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