To help me stay sane during the lockdown, I started working on a book about the rise of LA beer from an insider’s perspective. I interviewed some of the key players from back when we were all just starting. Did some portraits even.
And then it stalled. Because things started to open up again and we had to get back to work.
Daniel Drennon asked me to lunch a few weeks ago and asked me to write something for Beer Paper LA. I’ve been posting a bit of a retrospective look at the rise and fall of Strand on social media since the brewery closed. It reminded Daniel that I had started the book and that it sits unfinished. By the time lunch was over, we had decided that I should finish the book and that I should write one article every month for a year. They would be “excerpts” from the book.
Over the years, Daniel has been one of the most vocal supporters of LA beer. A pied piper. A Johnny Appleseed. An unrelenting supporter of what it all stands for to those of us that helped build it. And to the people that have enjoyed it.
I’ve written for Daniel before. In the past. He knows what to expect. Which is why I have been asked to prepare you, the reader, for what is about to happen.
See, last time I wrote an article for Beer Paper LA, I was asked to do a piece about breweries being sold to AB/InBev and what I thought about that. Because that was back when everybody cared about that sort of thing. Everybody was outraged. How dare anybody build a business in the largest capitalistic society in the entire universe with the intention of selling it for a profit. How dare they. Sellouts.
What I turned in was a story about the time when I lived at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. I had a homeless friend that lived in the bushes there and he survived on rice and wild chickens. He would bodysurf at a spot called Revelations. A small patch of reef, easily a half-mile out to sea. All alone.
It made no sense. The article, that is. Except that it was actually a story about the relative value we place on those things we believe are important to us in our lives. And our tendency to forget to compare them with the things that are actually important in life. It was about gaining perspective.
This assignment is to write about how Strand came to be, and ultimately failed. And how LA beer at once literally and figuratively grew from the desert wasteland. Instead, what I’ve turned in is two thousand words about eating a slice of pie.
Except that it’s not about pie at all.
Dave and I step into the vegan restaurant that always looks empty when I walk by. It’s in an old brick building with a worn concrete floor and high ceilings. The guy behind the counter has his back to us. A telephone receiver is tucked between his head and left shoulder. The cord is twisted and tangled up in itself like they all eventually do. His hands are busy. A large plastic tub of frozen bananas held on his hip like a baby and he is stabbing at it with a chef’s knife. Chunks are supposed to be breaking off. But he is having little success.
On the phone is a customer that wants the menu explained in excruciating detail. It visibly irritates him but he does a good job being patient. He stops stabbing just long enough to lean toward us and whisper that it’ll just be a minute.
He reminds me of somebody. Somebody I knew not too long ago. Somebody that I’ve had to leave behind. Doing it all. Doing everything. But not able to be fully effective at anything. Telling himself that it won’t be much longer before things change. Before something changes. Not long now before something good happens. And then I can finally get some sleep. Spend some time with my family. Play with my kids before they aren’t kids anymore. Take a break. Catch my breath.
I don’t like when vegan food pretends to be meat. It’s uniquely dishonest. Cauliflower is good. Cauliflower chicken isn’t.
I’m not sure what to write. I’m struggling to find the story. Struggling to find the one real piece of truth to build upon. I’ve promised Daniel a story each month for the next year. Ostensibly, this is about the rise and fall of Strand and the rise of LA craft beer from the inside. But I’m tripping on my own feet and I’m about to miss the very first deadline. I’m afraid it’s going to be terrible. That it will be shit. I’m overthinking to the point of paralysis.
Since he did that first art show at the brewery, Dave has become a frequent collaborator and good friend. Having previously made a reasonable living as a screenwriter, he primarily works in acrylics these days. He’s not afraid to tell me the truth. As we sit waiting for our food, I sound out a few ideas. But as I hear the words coming from my mouth, every thought sounds terribly cliché and I abandon them before they even have a chance to land on the other end. Dave knows it. He knows this process. He can tell I’m hunting for the toehold. That I haven’t found it. He knows to give it space. Breathing room. I allow myself to feel like a failure for a moment. And then I tell him what Rachel said.
Celebrate it. Approach it from the perspective that it did good things for the community. See its value. Appreciate what you helped to build. Allow yourself to see its beauty. Just enjoy it. I know she means for me to take this as more than just writing advice.
But I can’t.
It’s not that I don’t want to. I just really don’t know how to. There’s a lot of pain connected with my memories and I’m having trouble letting that go. Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe I’m still too close to it. The truth is that I’m still hurt.
The guy sort of chucks our plates at us. Not rudely, he’s just in a hurry. He’s already forgotten which of us ordered what. And so we have to do that thing where it’s like a quiz and it’s slightly stressful and you have to pay attention and raise your hand when he calls out your order. My sandwich comes with fries and the little plastic cup full of ketchup is all splattery on the sides. I got the last of it as it sprayed out from whatever dispenser they use back there. They’ve run out. On top of everything else now he’s got to go out and get ketchup too.
It was hardest in the beginning. And then again when we expanded. The workload. Most of the physical act of building the brewery was my responsibility. Rich pitched in when it got dire, but he was always far more valuable to us on the street than he was at home hammering nails. We both knew it. If he was at the brewery, he wasn’t out selling beer. If he wasn’t selling beer, we were over. So, I threw myself at it. Fifteen, eighteen, twenty hours every day. Seven days every week. For years.
I used to sit on the floor next to the front door. In the dark. With my head resting on my knees. So tired that I wasn’t sure how I might muster the energy to tie my boots, much less get up and leave. I came home last night. No. This morning when it was still dark and everybody was asleep. Or was that yesterday? Could be last month for all I know. Coming and going in the wee hours for entire seasons. Sometimes not stopping for 72 hours straight. Curling up in a ball and napping on the floor under my desk. Because somehow that’s what makes sense in that dreamy, deprived, isolated state.
I only took a single day off when our youngest was born. We were in the middle of connecting the sewer lines for the floor drains. There was nobody else that could do it. So I had to go back to work.
Seems like an easy solution doesn’t it. Just hire some help. When you look at it from here, from today, it makes a lot of sense. But in 2009 we were considered crazy. Hard to raise money when all you have is a crazy idea. Hard to hire help when you have no money. When you’re painfully undercapitalized as the financial people liked to tell us.
It’s good advice. Make sure you’re not undercapitalized. Maybe you should take some time to win some homebrew awards before you open an actual brewery. What you need is an advisory board. You should just go get an SBA loan. A custom bottle is what’s going to really set you apart from the others. Have you chosen corporate colors? You should do some advertising. Why don’t you have live music every night? Oh, and make sure to pay yourselves.
Make sure you’re paying yourself? With what? We worked for years without taking a penny. Scraping by on savings, credit cards, and occasionally, government assistance. Food stamps. It’s interesting what you can and cannot buy with food stamps. When I finally did start paying myself, I did the math. I was earning less than $3 an hour. So, I never did the math again.
I worked through thyroid cancer, earthquakes, power outages, dance recitals, birthday parties, first steps, and first words. I worked through uncertainty, sadness, self-loathing, loneliness, and self-doubt so powerful that I nearly gave up.
Scott once called me a drug dealer. He was drunk on my beer when he said it. I’ve grappled with that thought. There’s a dark side to all this that nobody seems interested in addressing. That we all ignore. That I am incredibly relieved to no longer be involved with. The addiction. The irresponsibility. The pain it often causes.
After lunch, Dave and I wander around in a record shop. He looks at the books and I watch the guy whose job it is to catalogue all of this stuff. He’s got a pile that he’s working on. And an even bigger pile that he hasn’t gotten to yet. He doesn’t look up from what he’s doing. As far as record shops go, this one is expensive. But you don’t have to worry about scratches. Their vinyl is clean. Even the used stuff. All kept nice. But I have trouble just enjoying it. I see all the work it takes to neatly organize this place. Thousands of records. Not a single one is out of place. Everything has its own plastic sleeve. Somebody did this instead of doing something else. This is me.
We move on. Meander through alleyways vaguely in the direction from where we started. We look at the paintings on the walls and talk about the terrible lines in the architecture of some of the new and modern apartment buildings going up downtown. We see Brian sleeping on the sidewalk on Pine. The pair of burgundy Adidas size elevens that I gave him months ago have turned nearly as black as the rest of his clothes.
Where do you go to look at the past? What do you take there with you? We draw a fluid path through the rigid structure of the streets laid out before us in parallel and perpendicular. I remember there being points along the way, in the very beginning, that felt like milestones. Like finally borrowing the first few thousand dollars. Registering the business with the state. Opening a checking account. Signing the lease. Each one made it a little more real. And if I’m honest with myself, that part did feel exciting.
And there was the comradery. Particularly in those early days. Cyrena Nouzille. Ting and Jeremy. Brian and Lloyd. Rob Croxall. We were all alone together, raging against a machine that was designed to prevent a group of artists from flourishing in Los Angeles. It was punk rock. We were sticking it to the man. Eventually, our collective weight was too much for the system to bear. And each time one of us finally did get open, it felt like we had all accomplished something important.
I convince Dave that we should stop at the pie shop across from my place. Dessert before he takes off and I get back to my new job. I get to work from home now.
As we enter, the smell of pies and an overwhelming sense of joy hit me. It’s a new thing. I’ve been noticing it more and more lately. It’s one of the changes I’m going through since closing the brewery. Without thinking, I blurt: “Ohmygod! Look at these pies!” The place is small and it feels like I shouted it and I feel self conscious. So I quietly apologize to the room. But everyone behind the counter is smiling. The girl piping vanilla whipped cream into swirls around the edge looks at me and grins. She knows she’s done this. She can enjoy it.
The lady sitting in the corner eating a slice tells me it’s okay with a smile. It’s okay to enjoy the pie. It’s okay to be here. On this side of the counter. It’s okay to look back from this place. You don’t have to look at the flour on the girl’s apron or notice the pile of kitchen tools that need to be cleaned before she can go home. It’s okay to put a few dollars in the empty tip jar and then be glad that it’s no longer an empty tip jar. Rachel is right, she says. Don’t worry about how they mop the floor under the ovens at night, just enjoy the pie. Just enjoy the pie.
Dave orders the cherry. Warm. With ice cream. I get crème brulee.
She takes her time sprinkling the sugar on top and torching it into a beautifully caramelized piece of glass that cracks like a sheet of ice on a tiny lake of sweet cream when I poke it with the fork.