Performer: The Monkees
Songwriters: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Original Release: Head
Definitive Version: None
The first time I went to visit Jin in Los Angeles in 1996, she took me to one of her favorite restaurants—an Italian joint on Melrose (yes, THAT Melrose) called Caffe Luna. It was this cool, bohemie joint. We sat in the front room with the windows open, and I liked it well enough to suggest it a year later when Debbie and I were in L.A. to visit Jin.
We again sat in the front room, and this time, I got the spaghetti carbonara. This was a revelation along the lines of the first time I had real Chinese food and not La Choy. It was so good that it holds a legendary place in my food catalog: All future carbonaras are compared with the carbonara at Caffe Luna, and all have been found wanting—even Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston, which is my current favorite.
The carbonara made Caffe Luna a destination. Every time I visited Los Angeles from 1997 up to the final time in 2002 before the restaurant somewhat mysteriously closed, we had to go to Caffe Luna for the carbonara. We typically took care of this requirement the night I’d fly into town, because it was more convenient to go to West Hollywood after Jin picked me up at LAX while we still were on that side of the mountains.
That’s all prelude to the story that I’m about to relate, which is a story I’ve been anticipating writing about for some time. It’s the story of my trip to Los Angeles in September 2001.
As I mentioned, the purpose of the trip was to hang out with Jin before we headed East to attend the annual Ratpack outing in Las Vegas. 2001 was the first time I had been invited, because it also was the first time I could attend—now recently unencumbered from a long-term relationship.
Vegas was a blast, but the L.A. portion of the trip was profound. I remember the morning I flew out of Columbus, I cabbed it to the airport, because I didn’t want to deal with long-term parking. As we hit the street that leads into the airport, the oldies station that the cabbie had on played What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. I thought that was a good omen.
Up to about August, I had been deeply depressed by the end of my relationship with Debbie, but I was coming out of it. By the time my flight to L.A. took off, I was pretty excited to get out of town and do something new—Vegas.
The new ended up extending to L.A., as well. About the only things Jin and I did in L.A. that were repeated experiences were a Dodgers game (story to come) and Caffe Luna. But to compare the dinner at Caffe Luna that night with previous ones would be like comparing, say, The Who’s music pre-Tommy with what came after. In other words, there’s no comparison.
This time, we sat out back in this great bistro courtyard that was bustling with activity on a packed weekend night. We ordered—I didn’t have to look at the menu to know I wanted the carbonara—and Jin leaned in close, saying she had an announcement.
She seemed a little nervous, and I couldn’t imagine what it was. She was pregnant? She was a lesbian? She was a Republican? (OK, that last one was impossible.) No. She said she was a Pagan.
My family had been brought up nominally in the Christian faith, but let’s face it: We were an areligious family. Jin told me about her awakening and how she came to conclude that she wasn’t just shedding Christianity but really nonspirituality. She had something she believed in now, and because it was unconventional, she was a little apprehensive about announcing it, but now she felt she had to do that.
Well, I was, by far, the easiest person with whom to break the news. Jin even admitted she knew I wouldn’t have any problems with it, but I still felt very honored that she chose me to be the first person outside of her close circle of friends that she told.
I had a lot of questions. I knew a little—very little—about Wiccanism and asked if it was like that. She said it was—there were spells and rituals—but it wasn’t the same. Wiccanism is more organized; Paganism is about as unorganized as you could get and still call it a religion (as I would see in practice later).
It was an interesting and excellent conversation, and I felt my sister and I grow closer together than ever before. We had a great dinner—the carbonara was its usual hearty perfection—and I felt better than I had in months.
As we finished up, a woman came to our table and asked if we wanted a card reading. Well, talk about perfect timing, given Jin’s announcement. Seriously? A Tarot card reading after our long discussion of Paganism? Had she overheared our conversation? Apparently, Caffe Luna hired or allowed this woman—let’s call her Lucia—to solicit patrons, like a strolling violinist. Only in L.A. would it be a Tarot card reading, right?
Jin immediately invited Lucia to have a seat, and she took the one next to mine at the four-person table. As she began to work the cards for Jin, I immediately took notice that Lucia was extremely attractive—maybe Jin’s age, maybe a little younger, so around 30; slim with curly black hair that hung a little above shoulder length. Hmm, I’m starting to get the allure of this Pagan thing.
Anyway, Lucia did the reading for Jin, and then Jin asked if I wanted one—she said she’d pay. Considering my attraction to Lucia and that I was very much in a just-go-with-the-flow vibe, I said why not.
It pretty much identified that I was in a void, in between what was and what would be. But I’ll never forget one specific thing Lucia said. She was talking about various cards and at one point said that a particular arrangement indicated that a person from my past—an ex, who was a bit arty—would come back in my life and want to restart our relationship. I immediately thought of Debbie.
Lucia then went to the unclear, the reader consults to the deck for guidance. Lucia cut the deck and looked at one card, repeated the act and shook her head, then did it a third time and made a face like she just had been fed castor oil. “Oh! Don’t do it!” OK, there’s some clarity right there.
We finished, and Lucia and Jin talked a bit before she departed. Jin said she liked Lucia’s vibe and should invite her to join her circle. I wholeheartedly endorsed that idea.
When we finally made it to Jin’s home in The Valley, she said she had something she wanted to show me. Jin had been a Monkee’s fan pretty much from Day One, but she never had seen Head before and just recently viewed it. She wanted to show me the opening, which she just loved, before the movie devolved into, as Jin called it, “more-typical Monkees goofiness.”
If you know the movie, you know the scene. The rest of the band, for reasons never made known, chase Mickey Dolenz off a bridge to his death. “He actually dies,” Jin emphasized in amazement, as Mickey’s lifeless body floated in the water before being hauled off to eternity by a mermaid to the strains of this song, which I never had heard before. Woah. THIS is a Monkees song? It became an instant favorite and has been one of my favorites ever since.
Oh, and as for what Lucia said, two months later, after 9/11 completely knocked the wind out of my sails, Debbie visited me one day for lunch and began to cry. She said she came to realize that her worst fears were true—that she made a huge mistake in letting me go. She said she wanted us to get back together.
Holy crap! Lucia completely called it! I was stunned, but I remembered her expression. So with her words ringing in my ears, I told Debbie it was too late for us. She never asked again, and I never said why I turned her down until now: I decided to trust the word of a stranger whom I never saw again. If I hadn’t met Lucia that time in L.A., it’s entirely possible Debbie and I would have gotten back together to an unknown fate.
I wasn’t always happy afterward, but I never regretted my decision.