Monday, March 28, 2005

My early years in Los Angeles, I actually lived in Beverly Hills. Not a fancy-schmancy house where I could borrow a cup of sugar from my neighbor, Aaron Spelling (and no, that wasn't an innuendo about his daughter Tori -- shudder). But in the 90212 area, in a nice apartment just south of Wilshire. It was still pretty expensive, but hey, it was safe and clean and quiet. I hated it.

One of my friends lived nearby. She loved it. She was a struggling film school graduate like me, but felt she should be enjoying the high-life, and insisted we eat at hoity-toity overpriced restaurants. (Twenty bucks for an omelet? It's a couple of fried eggs! Were they laid by a bird with botox injections or something?) I think she thought it would increase her chances of meeting some rich executive who'd buy her script, or buy her dinner, like Mike Ovitz or even Aaron Spelling (shudder).

I once managed to talk her into going to Larry Parker's restaurant, which was much more reasonably-priced. Still, only in Beverly Hills would the most basic diner be laden with celebrity status. Larry Parker was a famous personal injury attorney. The shyster must have been successful enough to open his own place, but every time I saw his snarling face in his TV ads declaring he'd get you the whiplash money you deserved, I thought of Lionel Hutz from the Simpsons: "Your Honor, I wanna declare this a bad court thingie..." You mean a mistrial. "Right. That's why you're the judge, and I'm just the law... talking guy..."

So while Larry Parker's had a standard greasy spoon menu, the joint wasn't without flavor. Pop culture images adorned the walls and the tables, and it had a jukebox that played videos on the TV monitors overhead. Although the music references spanned the decades since the '50s, for some reason the place became a hangout for the hip-hop crowd. Fine by me. My friend, too, once I lied and told her Tommy Mottola would often eat here. (I think this was after Mariah but before Thalia. Again -- shudder.)

The restaurant was pretty quiet at the time, so I was surprised when the waitress asked us nicely if we would move to an end table; she needed the open space for a guest who would be arriving soon. Sure, but what guest needed all this seating? Must be big, physically or otherwise...

"Oh, it's Hammer," she said.

MC Hammer? The guy who recorded that corny "You Can't Touch This" song? Got a generation of kids to wear balloon pants, made gajillions of dollars, then suffered a cultural backlash and went bankrupt?

This was a hip-hop hangout. Hammer's music was a national joke, especially in this era of gangsta rap -- I mean, did Dr. Dre or Ice Cube do Pepsi commercials? Did Tupac Shakur have a Saturday morning cartoon?

After we snickered to ourselves for a moment, I thought maybe we weren't being fair. Like in his "Addams Family Groove", Hammer did what he wanted to do, played how he wanted to play, danced how he wanted to dance... Perhaps he made some mistakes about money management, but this is America. A poor kid from the Bay area can make it big, hit rock-bottom, and perhaps rise up again. Especially if he's 2 Legit 2 Quit.

Our conversation was cut short by the cacaphony of a crowd coming in. At least 50 people pouring into the booths, and I just had trouble believing all those folks simply loved Hammer for his clever conversation. The man himself arrived, wearing black denim and watchcap, like he was the fifth member of N.W.A. So he'd gone gangsta now. But with that entourage and lack of street cred, he came off like some kinda "sucka MC".

Adding to the cheese factor, the waitress put Hammer's new song on the video jukebox. I hadn't heard it yet. Do you remember "Pumps and a Bump"? It made "Whoomp! There it is!" seem like Handel's Messiah, or Rapper's Delight. Up on the monitors was the video image of Hammer, gyrating poolside amidst bikini babes. This was the guy who sang about how "We have to pray just to make it today", now rapping about boobs and butts in an innuendo skimpier than that speedo he was wearing.

But all the people were into it and the waitress bopped to the beat as she brought our BLTs. Everyone was having a good time, including me and my friend, so I just hoped that Hammer could hinge his comeback on this "Rump Shaker" ripoff. That the Hammer hangers-on could stay on the payroll...

A few years later, Larry Parker's went out of business. Hammer's still around... if you count the first season of "The Surreal Life"... I lost touch with my friend after her quest to meet and date George Lucas turned into an unhealthy obsession. I moved into a cheaper apartment in Santa Monica, where it's dirty, noisy and sometimes unsafe. I love it here.

And whenever I find myself spending too much money, or if I'm, uh, "frontin'" and "trippin'" -- or trying too hard to use the hip vernacular, instead of just "keepin' it real" -- I think back to that day at Larry Parker's. All I have to do is invoke imagery of MC Hammer, whether in his genie pants... or that speedo. Shudder.


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