The Varnish

May 20, 2023 § Leave a comment

It was a Sunday night in the historic core of Downtown Los Angeles. Streets were almost empty, lights buzzing amid the silence. The stark opposite of a typically packed and rowdy Saturday night in one of the world’s most populated cities. The infamous City of Angels in all of its iconic glory.

My heels tapped the pavement as we walked across Sixth Street to Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, a restaurant and bar that has been in existence since 1908. 

We walked down a few stairs from street level into the old-timey diner that looked more like a 50’s movie set than a modern-day sandwich delicatessen “famous for their French dip.” It occupies the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building which served as LA’s main train station for the Pacific Electric Railway in the early 1900s. History felt alive and well there.  

We looked left and right, scanning the scene. Lights were dim and no one was drinking at the bar. Ed made a slow a-line straight to the back of this landmark LA staple and I followed. A few diners looked our way, people watching as one does in this town. It was a slow night and all signs pointed to this being a very chill outing. 

Edward didn’t want to be home. “Let’s just grab a drink,” he suggested over the phone.

I was happy to join my friend, it was no big deal. It was also a summer night and I had an easy Monday on the schedule. So, why not? 

We approached an unmarked door in the back, Ed opened it. And in we walk to another room with what seemed like a secret bar. It was an old-fashioned speakeasy I had never heard of. A mahogany grand piano sat at the center focal point, and on one side the room was furnished with tufted leather booths lit by banker desk lamps. It was dim on the other side with rays of light shining through the wall fully stocked with glimmering liquor bottles. A single bartender poured drinks for two men at the far end of the 50’s-looking maple colored bar. 

We basically had the place to ourselves. We step in quietly, the door closes, and the two men glanced over at us. We glanced back at them. I turned away and looked again.  

“Is that Jon Hamm?” I said to Edward just loud enough not to be heard over the jazz playing.

Barely moving his lips, he turned and said,

“Don’t embarrass me.” 

I smiled and laughed a little. I had no problem controlling myself and his panic amused me. The bartender moved toward us. We ordered our drinks. Edward had a glass of whiskey and I ordered a martini. 

Coincidently, it happened to be the night Mad Men’s season four premiered. A show Jon Hamm starred in. Maybe it was season five, I thought. The exact details escaped me, but I had sacrificed seeing the premiere on TV to join my friend when he called. 

I had to congratulate Hamm on the new season. 

Edward excused himself to go to the bathroom and I had my chance to say hello. I turned to him and he glanced my way, so I said “Congratulations on the new season.” 

He was gracious and said “Thank you.” We clicked glasses, each took a swig of our drinks and made small talk. I told him I was new in LA. I had just moved to town that year. 

He stepped closer, looked intently into my eyes and examined my face. It was bewitching. Maybe because I was a little star struck, but I savored that moment more than so many other regular human encounters. I told him how I loved the city so far. I was still experiencing the newness of it all. He said it was a great city. We spoke briefly.

Then I heard the door of the bar swing open, it was Edward coming to kill my moment. He motioned his hand toward a booth and I excused myself. I didn’t want to fangirl too hard anyway. 

We sat, sipped on our drinks and I told Edward about the introduction. Then, the man Hamm was there with walked toward us, and looked at us for a second as if we were on display. And he walked away. It was Giovanni Ribisi, another luminary. Ed and I just looked at each other and continued our conversation. They must be friends or maybe they were taking a break from shooting somewhere downtown. The historic core of Los Angeles is a living and breathing movie set with productions taking place around its landmarks on a regular basis. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s an even lesser known room in this building that links to Cole’s. 

What was he looking at? I wondered. I didn’t really give it too much thought, I was just loving this casual Sunday night out on the town in my new city. I laughed with Edward and felt totally at ease and happy to have opted to see my friend instead of staying home to watch television that Sunday. 

“Of all the gin joints in all the world,” I thought to myself. “This is The Varnish.”

I later looked up the Mad Men episode that premiered that night. It was titled “Public Relations” which is interesting to me because I had moved to Los Angeles to develop a career in that very industry. After completing an academic program for PR and peaking professionally in the Bay Area, I was so ready to see what could happen next. And if ever there was a green light, good sign, or good omen from the universe, I imagine it would have looked a lot like that encounter. 

In retrospect, I can say that with total confidence because moving to a city where so many people with creative inclinations come to make it can be competitive. What people don’t say in the movies is that this is a city where many dreams come to die. Very few make it in the entertainment industry. It wasn’t an easy start, but as cut-throat as those first few years were—it was all so worth it.

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