HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

I just wanted to write about… life. People. Life in Santa Monica. The really interesting people all around us who have amazing stories we would never have suspected. Not politics, politics only, though I have always been passionate about it. I profiled a few local characters, and I want to do more.

There was “Alex,” the Mexican Master of Leather on Main Street. Great head of hair. “What do you need, my friend? If it’s leather, I can do whatever you want.”

Ensconced for decades at the “wrong” end of Main Street, in his breathtakingly cluttered shop piled to the ceiling with boots, belts and bags, sandals and shoes, and fascinating cultural tchotchkes everywhere, it was so jam-packed it finally got him in trouble with the law after years of warnings, but he was ultimately forced out when the landlord raised the rent, a lot.

He spent a lifetime in two different shops in Santa Monica, and years ago often ended his workdays by going fishing off the Pier with his boys (none of whom wanted to carry on the business). He lived east and south of downtown LA, a long drive every day. “Why did you set up shop here instead of closer to where you live,” I once asked him. He looked down and shrugged and finally looked up with a big grin — “I like Santa Monica.” Says it all.

 

SO NOW HIS SHOP IS GONE

And many of us miss the business and the man. Ignacio Benavides did the best work — if you could patiently wait for him to get through his constant backlog — at half the price of others or a third. He charged so little people often paid him more than he asked.

His building was historic, he informed me, proudly displaying a yellowed newspaper story written about it and him years ago, having been home to a record pressing and distribution business by two Jewish brothers who specialized in “race records” when the big music stores in Hollywood wouldn’t touch them. The limos of the stars made the trek to get the good stuff in Santa Monica, right where Ignacio set up shop, decades later. He seemed very pleased to be a part of that history. And very willing to tell you the story, or any story, in a heavy accent and in very, very — very great length.

He had a heart attack on the way to work one morning, and his wife had to take a quick detour to the ER to save his life. But he was soon back behind the counter in his shop, eager to tell another story. Ignacio seems to be doing well in semi-retirement, but a little bored. I’m sure he misses the contact with people.

 

PETE THE BARBER

A better ending I guess, a longer retirement than for Pete the Barber, for so many years in his shop on 4th Street, next to the Dance Doctor, a couple of steps below street level, serving both the law and the outlaw. Let me explain.

He told me that it was only when they finally captured the notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger (charged with 19 murders, #2 on FBI 10 most Wanted List, behind only bin Laden), who was hiding out in Santa Monica for 16 years, incognito, that he realized he had trimmed his hair and beard regularly, little knowing who he was. Nor did the SMPD cops, often waiting behind or ahead of him. Tell me about him, I asked. Pete shrugged. “He was a regular customer. He was a good tipper… not great.” That’s it.

Pete never revealed much about himself, or if he did he embellished so much you had no idea if there was even a sliver of truth in there. But isn’t that what you want from your barber? Besides a barber pole (he was very proud of his) and old magazines scattered on a table. I think he spoke several languages, was born on the island of Cyprus (or not), and moved his shop only once, from another Santa Monica location nearby.

 

THE DON (NOT THE DONALD!)

“Don Ameche was a customer of mine… do you know who Don Ameche was?” he asked, pausing to give me a skeptical look. Yes, I assured him. “He used to invite me up to his place for dinner, pasta usually, he was quite the cook. Well, when I was getting ready to move here from my longtime location, he said, ‘Pete, let me give you a hand.’ Oh, no, Mr. Ameche, I can do it, I told him, it’s just a few blocks and I’m just going to walk everything over. But he insisted and there he was, wheeling one of my chairs down the street, flashing that famous big smile and waving to everyone and stopping to shake hands and say hello and sign autographs. Then I understood.

“‘Pete,’ he said to me, ‘there’s probably no better way to let the people of Santa Monica know you’ve moved your barber shop than to let them see Don Ameche pushing your chair down the street to the new location.’”

Like Ignacio, Pete also loved to tell stories and he had little concern for facts or consistency. He declared his age to be anywhere from “no offense, but none of your business” to 70s to late 80s. (I asked, a few times.) I think the latter was accurate. He worked six days a week cutting hair since he was very young. I think it kept him going. When he finally had a serious health problem that hospitalized him, he never came back, though his son told me he wanted to, very badly. He convalesced at home but couldn’t recover, and peacefully passed away.

A little while ago I mentioned my longtime mechanic Ruben and his thick book of stories that I hope to tell soon. There are many others, and not always old timers, like the two new proprietors of our famous music club Harvelle’s. Tell the City Council to stop burying us in high-rise concrete, so I can.

 

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Will I return to politics next Wednesday? It’s a good bet.

 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” — Earl Wilson

 

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 32 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at therealmrmusic@gmail.com