RIP Uncle Kent -- my gateway to civilization
I’ve been outdoorsy all my life. But I’ve also had the good fortune to be exposed to civilization. Among my biggest influences in that regard was my Uncle Kent.
My immediate family was quite suburban, being happy to get that far from lower places. So I had little push toward experiencing life more broadly. Yet on my own all along I pushed hard for both the outdoors and for learning everything about everything.
Kent lived in Hollywood, California, with Aunt Jo, and welcomed me there whenever I could visit. I’ve posted about him here quite a bit over the years. He passed away last spring just after making it to age 80. He was an outdoorsman, lawyer, gourmand, and educated person. To me he represented Old Hollywood — the classy jazz era that was above celebrity. He also appreciated the street, and for years was a public defender of the poorest. We’d go to a fancy restaurant one day then to a taco stand in a parking lot the next. It was quality and experience that interested him.
I first drove to California from Michigan when I was 19. I had arranged a summer job for myself editing the magazines Gun World, Bow & Arrow, and Horse & Horseman. To say that was fun for me would be an understatement. As for the summer itself, all I can do is sigh.
When my first weekend in California rolled around I drove from where I worked to Kent and Jo’s place to see them for the first time as an independent person. I met Kent downtown right when he got out of work from lawyering. We met at a noodle stall in Little Tokyo and I got to enjoy my first-ever bowl of noodles. The cultural impact of that first wonderfully crowded adventure in noisy cuisine has stayed with me ever since.
That day Kent took a look at me and asked "Where’d you get those clothes? They’re from high school, aren’t they? Tell you what, go down to Melrose and spend a couple hundred bucks on some adult clothing and I’ll match you dollar for dollar.” I had no idea I was in a bad state, but it was a wonderful offer and I jumped at it. He then told me some of the basics of adult-wear: where shorts, jeans, tee's and tennies were appropriate (in sports venues) and where not (anywhere in public in a city).
Kent was huge, with a booming voice and a dry, understated manner, except when he boomed. We’re talking ducking for doorways — 6’6” and up to 300 lbs. He was actually quite "kingly." His brother Tim was his partner in energetic classiness, and he was sizable, too, but fit’n’trim and dry as dry can be, and funny. ...Princely, in a way. Kent’s wife Aunt Jo was tall and glamorous and was part of the gang, though not as into the jazz, as I recall. ...Queenly. Jerry, Bob and their other pals were brilliant and engagingly gungho lawyers. ...The court! ...With some jesters! Up north, Tim’s gang was also clever and capable, but trending to the manual arts, including pals who often lived at Tim’s well-shaded place of endless party.
That first summer I got to hang out a lot with Kent and Jo and Tim and Jerry and Loeb in their natural habitat. I would drive up on weekends then we’d hit the town, stopping only to sleep.
I was awed that people would go out for breakfast, lunch AND dinner, day after day. And such good meals, at that, enjoyed at the classic places around town, both high-end and common but always remarkable. After meals we might go skeet shooting or go back to Kent and Jo’s house. It had no air conditioning then. So we’d commence to making the ice-maker run overtime. We would melt ice in our cocktails faster than the freezer could make cubes. And we would listen to music. I’d never heard such good music played so loudly. Kent would bellow “Listen, this is God talking to us.” (I thought the police would be coming.)
As an afternoon wore on Kent would suddenly announce “So what do you feel like?” The gang would mull this over. Hmmm, do we feel like Thai, or Italian, or Chinese? We would discuss all the options. It would take yet another cocktail to decide this serious business. I’d never had sushi, so we were sure to do that.
We also visited marvelous bookstores most days. Kent and Tim kept me supplied with a stream of must-read books, especially those by Hollywood heavyweights like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But the OED, Merck Manual, Doc Johnson and Lucius Beebe all got regular mentions.
Kent and Jo’s house in the hills had what must be the essence of the old Hollywood feel, with a white, cool, hillside feeling in the slightly humid shade (because of the no air conditioning) … and with all that music. After a few hours' rest during the hot part of a day, we’d often go to Musso’s, where I was told those same hero authors used to have drinks, just like we were.
We also watched must-see movies. When they learned that I hadn’t ever seen Casablanca they were thrilled. "You’re lucky, you get to see it for the first time!” So we would rent the movie and kick back. Next it was “Harold & Maude."
Then it would be dark and time to go out and hear live music. We’d go to Burbank and make the rounds of the jazz clubs.
Sometimes we’d go back out again after listening to jazz and have another dinner.
It was fun seeing Kent and Jerry tussle over who would pay the tabs. I recall it depended on who was “flush.”
Then maybe we’d go down to Marina del Rey and Kent and Tim and I would go out for a jaunt on Tim’s quirky old ocean-going wood sailboat.
Mind you, none of these particulars were like anything I’d ever experienced back home.
I recall Kent saying that Keith Richards and his like were “lightweights, amateurs."
I kept coming back and ended up caretaking the infamous sailboat, even living on it a few times over the years.
Each time I was encouraged to stay as long as I liked, to try to do some work project out there if possible, and was shown every possible hospitality — with much patience from Aunt Jo, who didn’t always like the music as loud as we did. Kent and his pals enjoyed trying to think of the most interestingly creative business projects I could get involved with. Jerry owned a building downtown that was vacant at one point: he encouraged me to open it up as an afterhours club with my friends — and to be sure to invite them. He did let me use it as an office one summer.
A few years later I started bringing Martha out. And then our little family. Every one of them appreciated the chance to experience things we otherwise would not have.
Each time Kent would say “Why don’t you wander on out” we would jump at the chance as soon as we could to do just that.
And every time we visited them we enjoyed the same relaxed daily pattern of listening to music, doing some chores, reading books, talking about everything, and wondering what did we feel like for dinner…
Along with the exploring and enjoying, it was the talk I liked the most. We had such fun discussing everything. It was talk that I enjoyed for days on end.
So I’m happy that a couple years ago on a whim I thought to press the record button on my camera while having lunch with Kent and Jo, and also once back at their house with Tim on the speakerphone. Those recordings are so special to me. Video can be so common, though I notice that during the most important things I never think to make a recording or even take a photo. It’s the hardest kind of multi-tasking for me. But of all recording it’s the audio that is most important to me. The voices. ...To me it's the best part of video.
I’m so happy to have been there for all of it. ...To have had the chance to have those experiences in the company of Kent and Tim and their friends, and thanks to them, too. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. So much of those days is now past. I can only hope to carry on, and pass it on, as best I can.