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All Night Menu Serves Up L.A. Stories

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From the outside, 647 Orange Grove Blvd. in South Pasadena is the kind of pleasant but generic apartment building that dot this part of L.A. It's three stories tall, a couple of lots wide, a pair of palm trees stationed out front. However, once upon a time, this unremarkable building housed a most remarkable personality: Patricia McCormick, bullfighter. From 1951 through 1962, this St. Louis native was one of the few women to showcase in the plaza de toros within the Mexican border circuit. She ended up in South Pasadena after hanging up her cape in order to become a manager of art models at the nearby Art Center College of Design.

McCormick's story, and that of many other remarkable but oft-forgotten Angelenos, is just one of many that inhabit Sam Sweet's "All Night Menu" series. These slim, zine-like volumes unspool around a simple yet powerful conceit: pick a series of addresses across the Southland that tell the stories of people, places, and histories that lay beneath those street numbers and names. That includes the home studio at 506 N. Virgil Ave. where Vernon "Jake" Porter helped record Chuck Higgins's 1962 hit "Pachuko Hop," as well as the former Canoga Park Cycle Center at 7003 Topanga Canyon Blvd. where manager Russ Okawa helped kickstart the BMX craze of the 1970s.

As "All Night Menu" highlights, the urban landscape is a palimpsest where even an apartment room can have rich histories rewritten upon it countless times. "All Night Menu" digs through those layers in search of the character (and characters) of Los Angeles. As Sweet puts it, he partially began writing the series in order to "create a picture of L.A. and the character of L.A. that was truer to my experience than what I was reading in other histories."

Sweet is especially attuned to the popular (mis)representations of Los Angeles as someone who grew up thinking about the city from its continental antipode: Brunswick, Maine. He first came to L.A. as a high school teenager in the 1990s, recipient of a summer fellowship for aspiring filmmakers. He was housed in the infamous Oakwood Apartments, where Hollywood dreamers go to live -- and usually leave brokenhearted. Sweet explains how, on that first visit, he began to appreciate how L.A. differed from its typical portrayals: "if you think L.A. is gold-plated toilets you'll probably be disappointed but if you came out here to see empty swimming pools and salmon-colored apartment buildings that have the perfect sort of pink light on them, then that's something that L.A. can deliver on every day."

Sweet eventually made his way back to L.A. in 2007 and one of his early inspirations for "All Night Menu" came through a habit of creating captions for photos that otherwise had none. One of those became a key essay in the first volume of the series: a 1942 photograph of a shirtless William Faulkner, sitting out on a balcony, supposedly taken in Hollywood. That no one seemed to know where the photo was taken stuck with Sweet. "To me that was emblematic of how people treat L.A. It's not a real place, because you make something real when you treat it with specificity," he says. Sweet ended up digging through records of Faulkner's known addresses in L.A. until he came upon an old apartment building on Highland. Sneaking onto the roof, he knew he had found his quarry. "Looking out on the view from the roof, you could see the exact angle, pretty much, that the photograph was taken from. In the process of doing that research, you actually get a one-page story that tells you a lot about Faulkner, a lot about L.A., and it gives you something that 500 page biographies about Faulkner were unable to give me," Sweet adds.

Photo: Oliver Wang.
Photo: Oliver Wang.

It's tempting to call "All Night Menu" a series of lost histories but Sweet is quick to challenge that appellation. "It implies that these are esoteric stories, and the things I write about are not esoteric stories," he says. "They appear small because of the format of the book but these are... epic stories. I believe that every doorway, every street, every person, has a history. It's the accumulation of a lot of little things that make one region distinct from another."

Sweet and I meet up in Compton, just down the block from Centennial High School, where both Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar attended. We're at 1950 N. Central Ave., the site of the old Skateland roller rink that's a centerpiece in "All Night Menu Vol. 2." Back for a brief spell in the mid-1980s, Skateland was a happening spot for local youth, including a young Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, right before N.W.A. formed. It hasn't been an actual roller rink since 1988; now it mostly warehouses cosmetic goods. On the one hand, Sweet's drawn to the site partially for the incongruity between its current state versus its heyday but he also resists the impulse to wax nostalgic. "I'm not for preservation," he states. "Talking about these stories is not to turn something like this into a museum about N.W.A. or anything like that. I think nothing's going to be more powerful or more truthful than just observing it in this state," he says, waving at the decrepit building behind its fencing and barbed wire.

Even if Sweet insists he's not a preservationist, there is the fact that "All Night Menu" is only available as a book. The series' idea would easily lend itself to other, newer media: a blog, a podcast, a video series, but Sweet was very deliberate in wanting to keep the form of it physical, even if that meant reaching fewer potential readers. "I would rather have 100 serious readers than 20,000," he says. "A small, quality audience is worth more than a big audience where you become a part of an ephemeral diet of internet content. I'm not against internet content, and I don't think it's lesser, but the other thing about this project is that it's really about making L.A. tangible. I think the tactile nature of the book, and the fact that it's in high-contrast, black ink on this certain type of paper reinforces this idea of making things tangible, making them real."

"All Night Menu" is currently between its second and third volume and Sweet plans to release the next installment by the end of 2015. With five volumes planned, "All Night Menu" still has many stories to excavate and Sweet keeps a mental directory of potential addresses for investigation. "You have to accept everything" he says, explaining that he's not interested in just the city's unsung heroes or feel-good stories. "You have to accept the ugliness of L.A. to have any appreciation for it," Sweet insists. "It's an ugly place and it's also an intensely gorgeous place. There is no choosing. You accept it as whole, and that's what makes it exciting as a place."

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