Vulnerability was a motif in this week’s Great Reads – and some of their soundtracks.
One of the last surviving newsstands in Los Angeles. A Christian woman living under the Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. A horse cast adrift after a family tragedy.
In different ways, my heart lurched for all of them as they faced threats to their existence. I longed for happy endings, but fear that only one of them -- the horse -- will get one.
The singers for two of the story soundtracks have always moved me with their vulnerability: Gram Parsons and Spiritualized's Jason Pierce.
Parsons might have the most vulnerable voice in rock (matched, possibly, by Neil Young). Even without knowing how it all ended in that Joshua Tree motel, you feel the brokenness of him in that sadly beautiful voice. I never fail to get goosebumps at the moment his voice trembles when he sings “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy/But I don’t want no one but you to love me” in “Hot Burrito #1.”
Pierce gets to me the same way. Earlier this year, I saw the band at the opening of the Ace Theatre downtown, performing the (wonderful) album “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” in its entirety. Pierce, so thin, his white T-shirt and jeans giving him the look of a hospital patient, never moved from his chair. The robust choir backing him seemed to reinforce his fragility. But he was electrifying.
Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!
A newsstand where the world still unfolds as print fades to black
A red truck pulls into an empty parking lot off Fairfax Avenue just before 6 a.m. René Portillo gets out in a rush and heads to a blue shoe box of a building wearing a message in faded paint: “THE NEW YORK TIMES Expect The World.” To the right, a California Lottery banner proclaims: “Millionaire made here.”
Portillo unbolts two padlocks and flicks on the lights. He rips the plastic tether on a stack of newspapers and begins arranging them on a wire rack. Then he hears footsteps.
“Buenos diiiiiiias,” he says, greeting his first customer with the chirpiness of a morning person, even if he might not be one. The men chitchat in Spanish as Portillo rings up the man's stack: seven copies of the Los Angeles Times, seven more of the New York Times, three USA Todays, two Orange County Registers and one La Opinión.
The man works for CNN and comes in every weekday to buy papers to take to work. After he leaves, Portillo peels his breakfast banana. Then a customer with a tangled, graying beard and dirt caked on his red cheeks shows up, buys a cold Starbucks mocha for $3 and walks around the shop. He pauses in front of a magazine with Kim Kardashian on the cover and asks her a couple of random questions.
“Et tu, Brute?” he says. “Are you ordering a hamburger again?” He puts his ear next to her picture for a second and shrugs. She didn't answer, he says as he walks out. Portillo laughs and waves goodbye.
It's just another day at Centerfold International Newsstand.
Sure, Portillo says, the Fairfax neighborhood stand has become a lot less international over the years. When his brother, Manuel, bought the place in 2006, it carried dozens of dailies from overseas: the Times of London, Egypt's Al Ahram, five newspapers from Italy. Now the brothers make half as much money, and their foreign offerings have dwindled to weekly versions of the Guardian and Le Monde and a Russian-language paper printed in New York.
“People have the Internet for anything,” he says. “Now only old people come in — like me. I don't like the Internet.”
#soundtrack: “News of the World,” by the Jam. Up there in my top 20 bands for sure. Paul Weller looks so young in this video! Oddly, the camera focuses on bassist Bruce Foxton. Did they think he had more pop-star appeal? I beg to differ.