June 29, 2019

Celebrating My 17th L.A.nniversary with a Bang


The impact, like many impacts, was sudden.

I heard the crunch of metal, not as loud as those bang-ups you see in the Fast and Furious movies. Maybe because it came from behind, out of nowhere. Maybe because my windows were rolled up.

And maybe because Huey Lewis was singing "If This Is It," a result of Spotify shuffling my 80s playlist, possibly to demonstrate the algorithm's twisted sense of humor.

And because it came from behind, I was thrust forward, my right tibia (shinbone) hitting the console of my Honda Civic's dashboard, my upper thigh pressing into the lower half of the steering wheel.

Next, the recoil: I fell back in the drivers seat, the backrest falling with me, reclining until it could recline no more. The headrest broke off its rods and tumbled onto the backseat. My head didn't know where to go. Meanwhile, I could hear the screeching of tires, another impact, metal-on-metal...

If this is it indeed. After all, I was on Santa Monica Boulevard. A road most traveled. Three westbound lanes. Well trafficked, even at one in the morning. Other cars could be piling up on top of each other...

Then, another thought: My car is still moving. Lifting up my head from my awkward driving position, my right foot was able to find the break pedal. I pulled over to the right, bringing the Civic to a stop next to the flower bed-lined median that separated the main road from the frontage lane where two cars were parallel parked in front of an office building.

I glanced in my rearview mirror. No other vehicles were behind me, barreling down my lane. I looked to my right. On the other side of the median, a wrecked BMW came to a stop. In my stunned haze, I saw a woman stumble out of the driver's seat...and walk away.

Where she was going, I didn't know.


The concept of a hit-and-run accident didn't automatically register in my head. I wasn't immediately concerned about the driver (and passenger) who hit me and proceeded to flee the scene on foot. (Assholes.)

My first thought was to find my phone. While my entire body vibrated from shock, I frantically searched for my phone, not realizing it had projectiled from the dashboard upon impact, in its cradle, to the backseat.

The first three words out of my mouth were "What the fuck?" I figured the moment warranted such a reaction. Quite apropos.

My right calf muscle ached, like it was torn or pulled, as I carefully opened my door and slowly stood up to survey what had just happened. Thankfully, despite the late hour, there was a pedestrian witness.

Apparently, after rear-ending me at a high-speed (approximately 70 mph), the red BMW lost control, jumped over the median, knocked out a parking sign, and sideswiped a parked Subaru. The owner of the Subaru, who happened to be working in the office building, came outside after hearing the crash.

After seventeen years of living in Los Angeles, I just survived my first major car accident. 

And the proverbial salt in the wound? I was a mere three blocks away from my apartment, coming home from a late showing of Rocketman. Oh, and I had just purchased this 2019 Civic just five weeks prior.

Needless to say, the days that followed were a pain in my neck...my back...and my leg.


After explaining what happened to the police, I had to explain what happened to my insurance agent. After that, I had to explain what happened to the doctor at the Urgent Care the next day. I had to explain what happened to my concerned friends. And then my coworkers after taking a day off to recover. And then the insurance rep and mechanic at the body shop that received my smashed car. And then the receptionist at the chiropractor I was assigned to. And then the technician at the imaging center where my body was X-rayed.

I was prescribed muscle relaxers. I got my spine adjusted by said chiropractor, a handsome gentleman who is probably younger than me (ugh). I had electrodes taped to my back and electrical pulses sent to my "problem areas." I visited a pain management specialist. I experienced slight PTSD as a passenger in other cars, flinching if we got too close to other vehicles. Now carless in a city full of cars, I rode in countless Lyfts, grew familiar with the number 20 Metro bus route, and increased my steps by several thousand. For a brief time, I saw familiar neighborhoods in Los Angeles like a tourist, noticing things I wouldn't have had I not been on foot.

And yes, I realize that all of this could have been worse. A lot worse.

My car -- remember, I had just bought it five weeks earlier -- wasn't totaled because its value was still relatively high. An investigation is still open as I write this, although they have found the culprit, a 20-year-old twit who was smart enough to leave behind her drivers license in that BMW and apparently lie to the police about what really happened. (That's another story for another time.)

For now, I can't express enough gratitude for the support and help I received over the past three weeks. Thanks to Ricky and Pearl for the loaner Hyundai. Thanks to David for sending a care package across the country (even though I didn't need the calories). Thanks to the friendly bus driver with the warm smile who let me on for free after seeing I was struggling with my TAP card. And thanks to the other friends who gave me a ride, sent concerned messages, and reminded me that I have a kickass network of people who got my back in a city I have proudly called home for the past seventeen years.


This wasn't the anniversary blog I was hoping to write this year.

I had originally planned to write some bullshit about how competitive Los Angeles is, which is nothing new. Something about how living in such a sprawled-out metropolis that keeps reinventing itself is always an exciting adventure. And sure, that may true, but what's really exciting is knowing that my life will eventually get back to its regularly scheduled programming: finishing the edits on my novel, enjoying the Fourth of July weekend in Palm Springs with my friends, attempting to get back in a cardio routine, catching up on my podcasts, catching up on my summer reading (currently: The Woman in the Window), and continuing to tell my loved ones that I love them.

Then, the warm fuzzy feelings will fade away, and I will find something trivial to obsess over or complain about (or both in one). And all of the above -- along with the additional details of the stressful aftermath I haven't even mentioned here -- will eventually turn into an anecdote I'll share and laugh about in the future. Perhaps over some vodka martinis...or some Metamucil shots at the retirement home.

Such is life.

@TheFirstEcho

June 12, 2019

Catfights, Cleavage and Carrie-Anne Moss: 'Models Inc.' Turns 25


In the early 90s, as anyone familiar with the oeuvre of uber-producer Aaron Spelling knows, the successful Beverly Hills, 90210 begat the successful Melrose Place, which then begat the gloriously campy trainwreck that was Models Inc.

"If you missed the series premiere of Models Inc. you missed a night of temptation, seduction, and murder," boasted the TV Guide ad for the drama's second episode, which aired shortly after the 4th of July holiday weekend of 1994. How do I remember? I still have in my possession the magazine clipping, straight outta my scrapbook of primetime soaps, of course.

A rather limp murder mystery kicked things off when been-around-the-block supermodel Teri Spencer was pushed off the balcony of a Los Angeles high-rise. Whodunit? Who cared? But if you must know: it was the agency's receptionist...with the candlestick...in the...nevermind.

As a die-hard Melrose fan, I consumed this forgettable piece of Clinton-era crap with relish. I read every entertainment article that publicized the spinoff's anticipated debut on Fox twenty-five years ago. And while other 14-year-olds were shooting hoops down the street, I was obsessing over catty lines of dialogue and studying cheesy plot devices for the development of my own primetime soaps I had kept handwritten in small spiral notebooks (Titles included: Shadow HillsMiami Heat, and Sutton Heights).


The titular modeling agency in the show was run by Hilary Michaels (Dallas alum Linda Gray), mother of Melrose's main villainess, Amanda Woodward. According to Ken Tucker's review of Models Inc. in Entertainment Weekly, Farrah Fawcett was once considered for the role of Hilary, and naturally I would have killed to be a fly on the wall in the room where that casting decision had been made. As for the rest of the cast, they were unknowns, and executive-producer Aaron Spelling promised "a great deal of backbiting" on the sudser.

Hilary's bevy of babes was, by 2019 standards, as diverse as a sorority at White Girl University. There was the newbie, the waif, the bitch, and the has-been -- at age 27. Then there was dead Teri's lookalike, Monique, played by the same actress (Stephanie Romanov), appearing out of nowhere and throwing all the characters for a loop. Monique fell in love with wealthy nightclub owner and widower Adam Louder, played by 90s actor James Wilder. Fun fact: Not too long before appearing on Models, Wilder also played evil Reed on Melrose Place, getting Jo (Daphne Zuniga) pregnant before she shot him in self-defense while being held hostage on his boat. Which begs the question: If Models existed in the Melrose universe, could Adam have been related to Reed? Or did Reed fake his death and reappear with this new identity? But why stay in the same city?

I digress...


After five months, and nearly halfway through an enormous 30-episode order, producers were not satisfied with Models Inc.'s Nielsen ratings. Co-creator Charles Pratt once said, "I'm willing to try anything to keep this show on the air." A new direction in the writing ditched implausible storylines and promised "more romance, more modeling, and more personal traumas." Brian Gaskill, who played Hilary's lame son and dated doe-eyed Sarah (Cassidy Rae), was written off, and Haitian-American actress Garcelle Beauvais was hired to play the alluring Cynthia because, well... #ModelsSoWhite.

But the biggest addition was Emma Samms, another Aaron Spelling vet, brought in as the sociopathic Grayson Louder, returning from the grave to win back ex-husband Adam. With Fox promoting her as the Heather Locklear of Models Inc., Samms told Entertainment Weekly back in 1994, "I will do the best I can, but I can't concern myself with whatever expectations there are."

And she did do her best; the last batch of episodes demonstrated just that. After all, what's a desperate British broad with ample cleavage to do when she fails to rewrap her legs around the man who fathered her child? Hire a hitman (The X-Files's Mitch Pileggi!) to snuff him out along with his new bride...at their wedding. What turned out to be the series finale ended with a cliffhanger in which said hitman took his shot, leaving viewers -- and one frustrated boy in New Rochelle, New York -- wondering who received the bullet. Luckily, when E! reran the series in the fall of 1995, the broadcast included several scenes that tied up some of those loose ends: Grayson, in an ironic twist, got shot, and Hilary, after probably realizing her models were way too involved in all this crazy shit, shut down the agency for good.

However, if there was anything this piece of primetime trash was good for, it was delivering Carrie-Anne Moss to audiences. Even though her character, Teri's older sister Carrie, was last seen being sold in sex slavery "somewhere in Central America" in the final episode, all of us fans were happy to see actress star in hits like 1999's The Matrix and 2000's Memento.

And who could forget that awesomely 90s opening theme song? I didn't. I have it saved as an mp3 in my iTunes library, filed in a playlist called "Primetime Soap Themes."

In other news, I'm still single.

@TheFirstEcho

May 23, 2019

UNDER THE SUN: The 2019 Summer Playlist


Before everyone goes their separate ways for the long Memorial Day weekend, please direct your attention to the 40+ songs I've gathered for your listening pleasure. Your pool party, barbecue, and/or beach trip will thank you.

"But Hiko, what are your favorites?" Ah, glad you asked.

Well, Lizzo is a given. KAYTRANADA is delivering some really good W Hotel lounge vibes with "Dysfunctional," P!nk is always a mainstay (see: "Can We Pretend" featuring Cash Cash), and former Glee star Kevin McHale has an adorably breezy number called "Help Me Now."

So go ahead, help yourself to all of this:

@TheFirstEcho

May 16, 2019

Belinda Carlisle Taught Me How To Ice Skate


Saturday afternoons during the winters of 1989 through 1992 were usually reserved for visits to the Hommocks Park Ice Rink in Mamaroneck where my plump 10-year-old ass quickly grew familiar with the cold, hard surface of the frozen ground.

I assumed the main purpose for these excursions was to tear me away from the TV and work some cardio into my weekend schedule. Naturally, I didn't take to the ice well at first. Plus, the brown faux-leather rental skates pinched my extra wide feet.

"You've got pork chop feet, just like me and your father," my mother used to tell me. Great. Why couldn't I have inherited something more useful like, I don't know, maybe a million-dollar trust fund?

Anyway, these contraptions were more like laced-up torture devices designed for little boys who wished to spend their Saturdays sitting on the couch with a few reruns of The A-Team and Knight Rider and settling into the evening with new episodes of The Golden Girls and 227. I never felt such throbbing pain.

"You gotta be shitting me," I muttered as I stood up from the bench, watching other children run around with their friends and beg their parents for some greasy fries (the frozen-in-a-bag kind) and hot chocolate (basically Swiss Miss packets) from the snack bar where some sullen teenager tried to keep up with the demands of the hungry families of Westchester County.

Today it was just me and my father. It was usually just me and my father. "Don't look down at your feet," he would tell me as I inched my way into the crowd of skaters. "Just look ahead...and go."

I did just that. I kept my head up and watched everyone whoosh past me on the rink. Moms with their daughters. Hockey jocks in jerseys. Hand-holding couples (yuck). Teens in sweatshirts covered with the faces of New Kids on the Block. And that one asshole -- there's one on every rink -- who just has to speed through and show off his slick moves. My chubby little body never tensed up as much as it did when I attempted to glide across the ice and enter the stream of people. Sometimes my father rented a pair of skates and joined me, but he wasn't perfect on the ice either. And sometimes he just watched me from the bleachers, probably itching to get out of there so he could drag me to the Japanese grocery store in White Plains and stock up on dried seaweed and fermented soybeans (nattō) that always stunk up the kitchen and drove my mother mad.

But his simple, straightforward advice helped. After a few laps, one hot chocolate, and several minutes of watching the Zamboni do its thing on the ice, I got the hang of it.

What also helped me find my confidence on the ice was the mix of pop music the DJ would pump through the speakers inside the rink. One song on heavy rotation at the time was Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place On Earth." The playful vocals of the former Go-Gos frontwoman had a hold on me. I couldn't get it out of my head. The empowering chorus got me pumped. I skated faster and faster around the rink, my eyes focused on what was ahead of me, my ears absorbing the synths and lyrics. My feet stopped throbbing. I soared across the ice, determined, inspired, invincible.

In my mind, I envisioned a chorus line of skaters moving in a lively, choreographed rhythm behind me, everyone waving their hands in the air and singing along. "Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth..."

This wasn't the first time my head was filled with a fantasy musical number. Since the age of 6 (as far back as I can remember), whenever I heard a particular tune, I've always had a tendency to daydream about music videos in which I, or friends of mine, would take center stage. You know, like when Renee Zellwegger's Roxie Hart imagined herself singing "All That Jazz" in the opening scene of Chicago...or when Christina Aguilera's Ali pictured herself covered in diamonds in the first act of Burlesque. I envisioned my elementary school classmates performing in elaborate sequences to songs that included George Michael's "Careless Whisper," Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now," and of course, Madonna's "Like a Prayer."

Needless to say, whenever I hear Belinda Carlisle's fantastic contribution to 80s pop, I can't help but think of Hommocks Park, lacing up those skates, and soaring around that rink as if I were some overweight, half-Asian pop star ready to dominate on MTV.

It's no secret that songs have a way of taking us back to particular moments in time - weddings, first dates, high school dances, the first time you rode in your mom's new car...and I have plenty mentally filed away that come out every so often when I hear a certain melody, beat, or lyric. For instance...


"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana - Riding the Mind Scrambler at Playland Park. The operator of this indoor attraction also acted as a DJ, which I thought was such a cool gig at the time. He must have had a thing for Kurt Cobain, because every time my friends and I got on, it felt as if we were in a psychedelic mosh pit. We would spin around while everyone screamed out the chorus and thrashed their heads. If you had asked me back then, I would've preferred something by La Bouche or The Real McCoy.

Amy Grant's "Every Heartbeat" takes me back to the summer of 1993 during which I spent two weeks at Campus Kids, an overnight summer camp based on a small college campus somewhere in Pennsylvania (hence the name). Armed with an ancient tape cassette player and a snazzier-looking Aiwa portable player, I replayed the song over and over - on the bus ride there, in my room (which I adorned with a Jurassic Park poster) and anywhere else I could. My roommates included a socially awkward 13-year-old who violently tossed and turned in his sleep and a chubby Hispanic kid who made the mistake of swallowing a cup full of mouthwash and burning his esophagus one morning.

"My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion - Picture it: Four 17-year-old boys. In my father's Toyota Camry. Lip syncing for their lives. Introducing...the young men of Iona Preparatory.

"All That She Wants" by Ace of Base - Eighth grade. Jeanette Tanner's birthday party. I first heard this song with the rest of my classmates at Westchester, the nightclub her family had rented out for the occasion. My obsession grew shortly thereafter. "Don't Turn Around" became a prominent track on the first mixtape I ever made later that summer.

"Self Control" by Laura Branigan - My mother's friend once owned a house with a pool next door to a cemetery. One night -- it must have been the summer of 1984, a bat had flown into the enclosed backyard, sending everyone running for cover. As a little boy, I kept picturing fangs ripping into my neck and claws scratching my eyes out. I vaguely remember scraping my knee on the concrete deck while trying to scramble out of the pool. Laura Branigan must have been playing on a nearby radio at the time, because whenever I hear this song, I'm transported back to that creepy night. Luckily, back then, I never saw the equally creepy music video, directed by The Exorcist's William Friedkin; my pre-school ass would've had nightmares for days (don't even get me started on Michael Jackson's "Thriller").

@TheFirstEcho

May 15, 2019

Pop Culture Rant of the Week: Clapbacks, Stans, and Cancel Culture Are Ruining Us


At the end of 2018, Wynter Mitchell, a digital strategist and panelist on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Rocket, expressed her frustration with stan culture:


I can't agree more.

Simply put, that cesspool Mitchell calls the internet has infected us. It's no secret that social media has changed the way we live our lives. We know -- or we think we know -- everything about classmates we haven't seen since the 90s. Reactions are more instant. Movements are galvanized faster. As a result, the way we treat and regard each other, especially across these platforms, hasn't necessarily changed for the better. And at the risk of sounding like a "get off my lawn"-screaming retiree, this is especially applicable to a certain generation that came of age during the era of snaps, likes, follows, and subscribes.

Many things have been written about the dangers of stan culture, especially when it comes to the role of critics in pop culture. (I won't reiterate it here; you can read the great articles I just hyperlinked.)

Back in 2017, before the term even entered my vocabulary, I started to recognize just how much traction stan culture was gaining. That was the year MTV's VMA ceremonies were particularly feisty. There was enough shade thrown around to fill several episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.


This was the year Fifth Harmony flung a body double of former member Camila Cabello off a platform -- clearly symbolic of the girl group's feelings about the singer's abrupt departure. Then, there was the debut of Taylor Swift's video for "Look What You Made Me Do," the lead single from her highly-anticipated Reputation. It was chock-full of reactionary references and imagery designed as a message to her haters and so-called enemies. (Apparently Taylor can't "shake it off," and if you ask me, the song should've been retitled "The Petty Anthem.") Meanwhile, unfunny host Katy Perry took a shot at Justin Bieber for forgetting the lyrics to "Despacito," Adam Levine tweeted about how "utterly horrible" the show was, and Girls Trip star and presenter Tiffany Haddish took to the mic to express to her "stupid-as-hell exes" just how much she is "out here killing the game."

The behavior inside the The Forum that night perfectly demonstrated where we were -- and still are -- in popular culture. The venue became its own cesspool, filled with celebrities on the offensive. And all of the clapbacking on display were arguably symptoms of a stan culture that has affected not only the constantly consuming public but the celebs who find themselves on the receiving end of such intense worship.

These are the pop artists who are rapidly built up by their rabid fans and regularly find themselves in the middle of Twitter feuds exacerbated by their overly expressive base. Just ask Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, or Shawn Mendes... Well, you can't literally ask them. But you can take a gander at their feeds on any given day of the week to see what shit stirrers are flinging insults (usually misspelled, with poor grammar) at fans of other artists, daring each other to "@ me." It's an endless cycle in which everyone feeds off each other's shittiness.

If I hear one more singer reductively say how she has "the best fans in the world," I'm going to throw my brand new MacBook Air off my bedroom terrace.

And God forbid one of those celebs or anyone in the public eye makes a faux pas, because only then will a few loud people convince thousands if not millions of others to "cancel" that someone. Even after an obligatory apology tour. Yes, we're all in agreement when we say we're canceling someone as heinous as R. Kelly, but canceling, say, a YouTuber because he ignorantly wore a T-shirt brand that was made by an indigent seven-year-old in Thailand is taking it too far. Are you really going to unsubscribe from his channel and unfollow him on Twitter and Instagram? What if he really didn't know what it meant? What if he received the shirt as a gift from his great-grandma who is now in hospice and can only eat solids through a straw?

No one cares about the nuances of someone's circumstances because no one wants to take the time to learn about them. You're either awesomely untouchable, the greatest of all time...or you're a dumb, flaming trash heap who deserves the thousands of death threats you receive. And there's plenty of people who will agree with you because we're all shouting into one big digital echo chamber on a daily basis. Folks, therein lies the endangerment of empathy.

God, where the hell am I going with this?...

As someone who is a passionate fan of many things, it is somewhat difficult to indict others of taking their fandom way too far. I too have been guilty of reactionary posts (you're reading one), contributing to the vitriol, and negatively commenting on something I disagree with (see the aforementioned jab at Taylor Swift). In fact, some bloggers, journalists, and those in between have made a living doing just that. They have even come up with a term to describe such opinionated writings: the thinkpiece. It sounds nice, doesn't it? It's a great portmanteau that can be used to disguise someone's disdain or disgust as a reasonably intelligent and articulate argument.

And if you don't like anything I'm saying...well, you can just @ me.

@TheFirstEcho

#TBT: The Summer of 1999 Mixtape


It's scary to realize how clearly I can remember the summer of 1999.

I returned to New York from my freshman year at Boston University, took a job working for my uncle's collecting agency, and soon quit thereafter when I realized I was better suited to work behind the stacks of the New Rochelle Public Library (go figure). That summer also saw my first trip to Vegas (I have a souvenir photo of the Hilton's Star Trek Experience as proof) and marked the first time I traveled to L.A. to visit my cousin -- three years before I ever entertained the idea of being a full-time resident of the City of Angels.

But most importantly, the summer of 1999 represented something else: the height of the Teen Pop Boom, the heyday of boy bands and pop princesses who made frequent appearances on MTV's TRL countdown.

In other words, it was a glorious time to be alive.

@TheFirstEcho

May 01, 2019

Meals with Grandma: The Adventurous Appetites of a 9-Year-Old


As an only child, and as the baby in my entire extended family for a good chunk of a decade, I was surrounded by a lot of adults. Therefore I quickly learned how to eat like one.

The children’s menu at most restaurants usually say they’re for “kids 11 and under,” but I was ordering from the “adult menu” well before I turned twelve. I like to think that I was a prodigy when it came to dining out, that I accelerated through my food education so that I could order with the rest of the grown-ups. While other kids my age were munching on chicken fingers and fries (How juvenile!), I was enjoying seafood platters and pasta dishes named after famous Italians I couldn’t properly pronounce.

This was no more apparent than when I was with my grandmother. While being raised by two working parents in the gloriously gluttonous 1980s, a memorable amount of my New York childhood was spent with the only grandparent I knew. This involved numerous day trips and numerous tasty meals throughout much of the Tri-state area.

My grandma, Grace Riehm (nee Gibbs), was born on December 21, 1921 into an Irish Catholic family with twelve children on the outskirts of New York City. (Those East Coast immigrants sure knew how to populate the country.) She married a handsome German boy named George Riehm, and at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to the first of seven children who would collectively give her twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren throughout her lifetime. Holiday gatherings were never quiet.

Since I was the youngest (and only) kid in the family during the entire duration of the Reagan administration, I was fortunate enough receive most of Grandma’s loving attention. I spent many afterschool sessions constructing highways and shopping center parking lots with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox miniatures on the pea-soup-green carpet of her apartment while glancing up at the TV set every now and then to see what dramas were unfolding on General Hospital. Perhaps this is what had instilled in me a deep appreciation for a good, soapy plot twist.

Before my parents arrived to pick me up and take me home, she would cook me dinners that appeared to follow a consistent weekday schedule. Macaroni and cheese – the boxed kind, with that toxic-orange-colored powder – was often served on Mondays. Grandma’s personal touch: adding a can of peas to the mix. Gotta get my serving of vegetables somehow. Fried pork chops with sauerkraut and apple sauce were usually reserved for Wednesdays. Other days featured a rotation of cheeseburgers smothered in tomato sauce with instant mashed potatoes, fried filet of flounder (her specialty) with more mashed potatoes, and spaghetti with Ragu. (I never had a home-cooked Italian meal that didn’t involve sauce from a jar.) I should also mention that there was never a slice of bread or a biscuit that wasn’t slathered in butter in that first floor apartment on Centre Avenue.

I’m salivating just writing that last paragraph.


Dining out with Grandma was always a little adventure in itself. Shopping mall food courts were a given, but they were also child’s play. For instance, the White Plains Galleria offered plenty of options, but it was a restaurant inside the mall called Mr. Greenjeans that provided some memorable meals. Known for their oversized drinking glasses and very 80s décor (random road signs, blinking traffic lights, neon grid lighting), Mr. Greenjeans was where I experienced my first Caesar salad. The garlicky creaminess of the dressing made quite an impression on me, and I felt like I could eat salads for the rest of my life – so healthy, right? I got a slight thrill seeing our server’s reaction when he took my order.

“And what can I get for the young gentleman?” he asked.

“I’ll have the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and extra dressing on the side,” I told him with the confidence of a high-powered businessman who just landed a promotion after snorting cocaine (again, the 80s).

I clearly caught the guy off guard, bypassing the kids menu for an item usually reserved for Westchester housewives taking a break from the sale racks at JCPenney.

“Oh, okay,” he replied, scribbling it down on his pad.

I could imagine him silently judging my order: This kid doesn’t know what he’s getting into. What eight-year-old orders a shrimp Caesar salad?

He glanced at Grandma for a second as if he expected her to clarify the order and tell him what I really wanted, as if this were some kind of restaurant game of pretend in which little boys order like grown-ups. Little did this guy know what my appetite was capable of.

“I’ll have the chicken club,” Grandma told him, “with a cup of the vegetable soup. And an iced tea.”

“Will that be all?” our server asked, holding out for the possibility that I might change my mind.

“I’ll have a Diet Coke with a side of lemon,” I told him. “Please.” And drop the condescending tone, I thought.

Such exchanges were common in other restaurants Grandma and I visited. If I ordered something that appeared to be on the children’s menu, I always had to clarify that I wanted the “regular, adult version.” There was no way I was going to subject myself to the pitiful portions that came with the kids’ meals at some of these places.


The Ground Round was known for serving a basket of popcorn at each table while you waited for your meal. We’d usually go through two baskets before our orders were served. Every so often Grandma would like to splurge and order a steak with a loaded baked potato. Sometimes she treated butter like the Elixir of Life and went through several little packets to accentuate her meal. Naturally I did the same and joined her in this buttery binge before my cheeseburger arrived.

The Ground Round on Central Avenue in Yonkers was also where I had a surprise party for my sixth birthday. My mother had invited my entire kindergarten class to celebrate. Chicken fingers were consumed. A girl vomited into a basket of popcorn. A clown was hired to make balloon animals. And I made out like a bandit, bringing home a shitload of gifts that made Christmas seem like a pitiful, distant memory.


Friendly’s was another regional chain of family-friendly restaurants that was a frequent stop during my many outings with Grandma. Whether it was lunch or dinner, dessert was always a must. The signature strawberry sundae was one of my childhood vices. Three scoops of creamy ice cream, topped with thick strawberry sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and of course, a Maraschino cherry. As I got older I dared to try to “super-sized” sundae every so often (five scoops of deliciousness with double the toppings). There were never any leftovers. In fact, 99% of the restaurants I visited as a child never involved the taking home of food I couldn’t finish. I always left with a clean plate, something I probably inherited from my Japanese father, a man who never met a meal he didn’t inhale in one complete swoop.

One of Grandma’s neighbors, a kind and bespectacled woman I called Ms. Parker, sometimes dropped by and joined us for one of our trips to the mall or a nice seafood meal out on City Island in the Bronx. She lived on the sixth floor of Grandma’s apartment building and always waved to me from her bedroom window during my morning walks to school. She owned a cream-colored 1970 Chevy Nova that she hardly used. It sat in the same spot outside the building in the large parking lot that was used by most of the businesses of downtown New Rochelle. When I turned 16, there was a brief mention about me inheriting the car. That never happened. It was probably for the best; there was no cassette tape deck I could use to blare my many Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette mixtapes on the way to school.


One outing with Ms. Parker and Grandma involved a short drive to City Island to have dinner at Crab Shanty, an Italian-style seafood establishment that was known for its fantastic garlic bread. When I was nine, and when I knew there was a Crab Shanty dinner in my near future, I made sure my appetite was prepared to take on the Shanty’s many offerings. However, the aforementioned garlic bread was usually my downfall. Because I was so hungry I would usually eat two or more buttery slices before the salads came out, and by the time my shrimp or lobster linguini came out, my stomach was nearing its capacity of bread and blue cheese-drenched lettuce. But I soldiered on, eating my meal as if it were the last meal of my life. I savored every damn bite.

“My word! He eats like a grown-up!” Ms. Parker exclaimed upon seeing me do everything but lick the Alfredo sauce off my dish to make sure nothing was left. This was probably her polite way of saying, “Jesus, Grace! You sure feed this boy well! No wonder he’s so plump!”

I just sat there as Ms. Parker patted my head and smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was being congratulated for a job well done, being praised for such a grown-up accomplishment, or being condescendingly criticized for my eating habits. Either way, I could feel myself blush. I didn’t know how to react. I could have responded, “Thanks, Esther. You should see what happens when you put me in front of a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich!” Or maybe, “Mind your business, Esther. Just finish your damn clam chowder and be grateful that Grandma is paying for both of us.”

Ms. Parker was so impressed by my enormous appetite and ability to consume an amount of food that would make Jabba The Hut gag that Grandma thought it was funny to share Ms. Parker’s reaction with the rest of the family. The consensus was that I had a “healthy appetite, and thank God I wasn’t a picky eater like some of those spoiled brats you see in restaurants.”

Grandma passed away at the youthful age of 93. The last meal we shared was a Christmas dinner, cooked by my mother, in the dining room where we had shared numerous dinners and store-bought desserts throughout 28 years. (Shout out to Entenmann’s coffee cake!) Her appetite wasn’t what it used to be, but that didn’t mean she could resist a tasty buttered roll.

However, my last memory of her involves swinging by that same first-floor apartment – that pea-soup-green carpet had been replaced in the late 90s with a plush coral that would only fade and brown from foot traffic – on my way to the airport to catch my flight back to L.A., just three days after the holiday. I hugged her as she sat on the edge of her bed, half-eaten toast left on a small tray, the volume of her TV turned up and tuned in to a Christmas episode of Hot in Cleveland. It was just like any other goodbye. A delicate embrace, a kiss, and an obligatory “take care of yourself.”

But it was the final one, and I’m very grateful that I was given that chance to experience it.

I’m also very hopeful that she is enjoying that grand, all-you-can-eat buffet in the sky. Buttered rolls and all.

@TheFirstEcho

April 19, 2019

Just Because: 9 Music Videos That Take Place in Laundromats


It's one of the biggest music video tropes that's rarely explored in pop culture.

The public laundromat has become a go-to location for artists when making a music video for a single they wish to sell to the masses.

But WHAT IS IT about a space where ragtag groups of strangers gather to fluff and fold their delicates? Is it the obvious metaphor of dirty versus clean? The scintillating possibility of people stripping off their clothes for a wash?

I was feeling a little nostalgic (as usual) and took a look at some of the vids that have fallen under the spell of spin cycles over the past 30 years...

"EVERY HEARTBEAT" / AMY GRANT (1991)

Back in the early 90s, the Christian pop tart followed up her massively successful "Baby Baby" with "Every Heartbeat," a personal childhood favorite of yours truly (the Body & Soul Mix, of course). In one of the two vignettes featured in the video, a laundry-toting hottie attempts to flirt with a young woman who refuses to fall for his cheap tricks (even though he does look good in glasses...and that white tank top).


"LAUNDROMAT" / NIVEA (2001)

The R&B songstress teamed up with He Who Shall Not Be Named (it's R. Kelly, duh) to sing about a cheating scrub, here played by...Nick Cannon!?


"JULIET" / LMNT (2002)

This music video from 2002 sees each member of the short-lived, multiethnic boy band fantasize about the young women who walk into the laundromat where they all look bored as hell while singing into the camera's fish lens. (Maybe it's because they realized how silly "I think you're fine, you really blow my mind" sounds after one too many choruses.) Of course they give the Asian-looking dude some kung fu choreography for his Matrix sequence. And...holy shit, is that Jamie-Lynn Sigler from The Sopranos?


"FALLING STARS" / SUNSET STRIPPERS (2005)

This remix of Boy Meets Girl's 1988 classic "Waiting for a Star to Fall" was on heavy rotation for me in the mid-aughts. It brings back memories of Red Bull-fueled Thursday nights at Tigerheat in Hollywood. God I miss my twenties...


"ONE LESS LONELY GIRL" / JUSTIN BIEBER (2009)

I...I'm not gonna even bother with this one.


"DTF" / ADORE DELANO (2014)

A trashtastic piece that features Instagram thirst trap Max Emerson getting dickmatized by the former RuPaul's Drag Race finalist:


"MY HEAD IS A JUNGLE" (MK REMIX) / WANKELMUT & EMMA LOUISE (2014)

21st century Eurodance music turns a drab laundromat into a hoppin' discoteque!


"SOME KINDA WONDERFUL" / BETTY WHO (2017)

Betty Who even took over a local fluff-and-fold for the lead single off her second album The Valley. The alluring pink hue throughout the second half could almost make a casual viewer mistake it for a Virgin America safety video.


"JUST GOT PAID" / SIGALA (2018)

And then there's Sigala's 2018 single, "Just Got Paid," featuring Ella Eyre, French Montana and Meghan Trainor. Because one celebrates payday with several loads of laundry surrounded by strangers, right? And is that a roll of quarters in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

@TheFirstEcho

March 31, 2019

Nearing the End of My 30s


With age comes an increased indifference.

And during my birthday this year, I realized I am now old enough to have a kid college (But seriously, who wants kids these days? Why add another carbon footprint to the earth?) I am also old enough let certain things fall to the wayside.

Just how old? Allow me to illustrate...

I am fast-forward-through-the-musical-guest-on-SNL years old.

I am everyone-on-social-media-is-insufferable years old.

I am if-Pete-Buttigieg-gets-elected-there'll-be-a-POTUS-younger-than-me years old.

I am crushing-on-MSNBC-correspondents years old.

@TheFirstEcho

March 28, 2019

'Go' Turns 20: A Look Back at the Script, Soundtrack, and Timothy Olyphant's Abs


In the spring of 1999, my freshman year of college was nearing its end. My initial taste of dorm life resulted in being fifteen pounds heavier, experimenting with a goatee (I know), and getting my hands on any plaid button-down American Eagle had in stock (screw you, Abercrombie).

The spring of 1999 shall also be remembered as the time I was introduced to one of the few movies that left an impact on me as a young adult -- and no, I'm not talking about The Matrix, which opened on my birthday that year.

Go, directed by Doug Liman (Swingers) and written by John August (Big Fish), was released on April 7, 1999 during the height of drug-fueled raver films at the turn of the new millennium (Groove, Human Traffic, etc.), tapping into a nervous energy that permeated pre-Y2K America.


The movie's cast was a venerable who's-who of late-90s It Boys and It Girls: Katie Holmes (fresh off the first season of Dawson's Creek), Taye Diggs (fresh off Broadway's Rent and post-How Stella Got Her Groove Back), Scott Wolf (wrapping up five seasons on Party of Five), comedian and SNL alum Jay Mohr, Scream 2 suspect Timothy Olyphant, twink-adjacent Clueless vet Breckin Meyer, and Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who was making a splash on the indie scene. It also features a blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearance by a then-unknown Melissa McCarthy (a friend of August's at the time).

"Just so we're clear, you stole a car, shot a bouncer, and had sex with two women?" - Singh

The film is distinctly split up into three acts, each one following a character whose story is connected to the others. It opens with the young Ronna (Polley), a supermarket cashier who needs some quick cash to pay her rent during the holidays and comes up with a scheme to sell baby aspirin to Ecstasy-seeking ravers after a drug deal goes wrong. The next focuses on Ronna's British coworker, Simon (Desmond Askew), who takes a trip with his pals to Vegas where a strip club encounter also goes wrong. And then, in the last vignette, a pair of gay soap opera actors (Wolf and Mohr) go on an undercover drug bust with a cop (William Fichtner) that leads to a very awkward dinner with his wife (Jane Krakowski, taking a break from Ally McBeal at the time).

The moral of these stories: In life, things can go wrong. And they most certainly will.


To say Go hardly pinged on anyone's radar twenty years ago would be obvious. One could speculate this was because the film had the misfortune of opening in theaters a week after Keanu Reeves donned a leather trench coat and broke free from the chains of virtual reality in the blockbuster no one saw coming, The Matrix. Earning a total of $16.8 million during its domestic box office run, Go barely recouped its overall budget.

But the reviews from most critics were glowing and respectable. With its razor-sharp dialogue, crafty narrative structure, and Tarantino-lite sensibilities, the movie was considered a junior Pulp Fiction. The contained timeline -- all the action unfolds over the same 12 hours -- also gives everything an urgent tone. And on screen, three interconnected stories featuring a dozen characters get wrapped up in a tight 100 minutes. The most casual of moviegoers couldn't ask for more in a piece of high-octane entertainment.

"You know what I like best about Christmas? The surprises..." - Claire

Like Die HardGo also deserves to be considered for Christmas movie categorization. It's an alternative holiday treat with all the trimmings: beat-up jalopies covered in lights, a dance party called Mary X-Mas ("Mary, like a chick. Like her name is Mary. Not like 'you marry her,' you fucking moron."), classic holiday tunes sprinkled throughout, and a shirtless, Santa hat-wearing drug dealer who likes to quote The Breakfast Club.


The film arguably takes a page from Shane Black's Guide to Making a Christmas Crime Movie. It shows the grittier side of Los Angeles during the holidays, much like Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys -- all written by Black. “Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days," Black told Entertainment Weekly in 2016, "a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think that it just informs as a backdrop...I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets."

With Go, Liman and August manage to convey what it's like to live in L.A. during a season normally associated with family gatherings, warm fuzzies, and friendly snowmen. The city is known for becoming a chilly ghost town between the twenty-fourth of December and the first of January, leaving behind its few natives and anyone else who can't afford to travel back to wherever they came from. Having Christmas in the background adds a weird yet effective counterpoint to Go's intertwining plots and not-so-family-friendly material.

"They can't evict you. You'd be ho-ho-homeless!" - Simon

Contributing to the frenetic vibes of Go is a kickass soundtrack that includes tunes from No Doubt, Natalie Imbruglia, Fatboy Slim, and Len, who scored a hit single with "Steal My Sunshine." Meanwhile, the movie's rapid-fire opening credits is accompanied by Lionrock's "Fire Up The Shoesaw," a stuttering track that sucks in the audience right away. The electronic artist who provided the throbbing score, BT (a.k.a. Brian Transeau), also contributed the pulse-pounding "Believer," a banger heard during the climactic rave scene in Ronna's storyline. (FYI: One year later, BT would release his third studio LP, Movement in Still Life, a seminal piece of work that remains on my top 10 list of all-time favorite albums.)


"I could leave something with you. Collateral."
"I already got a fucking Swatch."

So, how does Go hold up to today's Millennial-populated, social media-driven environment? Surprisingly well.

In fact, watching the film through a 2019 lens reveals something peculiar: a slight passing of the torch from Gen X to what was then called Gen Y (a.k.a. Millennials). The movie's cross-section of ages among its young characters arguably represents a shift in demographics that was felt in pop culture at the time. After all, 1999 was an interesting year for movies. Not only were filmmakers experimenting with the rules of cinema (as seen in Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Magnolia, and The Sixth Sense, to name a few), there was also a popcorn-friendlier crop of titles appealing to an emerging, younger group: She's All That, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, and 10 Things I Hate About You. In hindsight, Go perfectly falls somewhere in between, bridging both of those sides as well as a generational gap that seems to have grown wider the deeper we move into the 21st century.

I recently sat down with the hosts of We Watch Things, Jared Ruddell and Carolyn Wright, to talk about Go just in time for its 20th anniversary. They had watched the movie for the first time before we recorded, so it was interesting to get a fresh perspective from viewers (gulp) a decade-plus younger than me.

You can check it out (and feel old like me) here:


March 20, 2019

Spring Equinox 2019: So Much Pop Culture News in One Day


A lot happened on this rainy Spring Equinox...

We found out the long-awaited third Bill & Ted movie has a release date: August 2020. Excellent indeed. Bring on the mid-life crisis punchlines. (And who knew the Hollywood Bowl was the go-to rendezvous spot to make such an announcement?)


Speaking of things that come in threes, Netflix went ahead and dropped the trailer for Stranger Things 3, which takes place during the summer of 1985. It's chock-full of colorful, Reagan-era imagery (Geometric patterned clothes! Neon-lit malls! 4th of July carnivals!) and establishes how quickly these kids are growing up.


And then Lizzo goes ahead and drops a new single featuring Missy Elliot, "Tempo," a track tailor-made for twerking:


In casting news, the Twittersphere had a collective coronary when dreamy Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo (if you don't know the name, you are clearly over 25 and have never watched a YA romance adaptation) was announced to be "in talks" to play the new He-Man. Yes, this guy. And all I have to say right now: The same schlubs who are bitching and moaning about this development will be the same ones watching the inevitable YouTube fitness trainer videos demonstrating how they too can get a jacked Masters of the Universe bod like him.


Finally, we got a sneak peek at Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which stars Brad Pitt as a stunt double for Leonardo DiCaprio's hotshot TV actor in the 70s. Margot Robbie is in there somewhere, and so is an actor playing Bruce Lee. I'm sure there will be a kickass score and plenty of showbiz skewering. I'm like, okay...

@TheFirstEcho

Celebrating My 17th L.A.nniversary with a Bang

The impact, like many impacts, was sudden. I heard the crunch of metal, not as loud as those bang-ups you see in the  Fast and Furious ...