Downtown Los Angeles is full of surprises. One of them is on Seventh Street, just west of Broadway, in an alley behind the St. Vincent Jewelry Center.
It's called St. Vincent's Court, and as you walk by on the sidewalk, you see an oddly picturesque courtyard beyond the dark overhang of upper floor offices. Walk beneath, and you'll see a paved space lined with small quaint restaurants and cafes, with inviting tables and chairs set out for patrons.
Get closer and you realize the quaintness is all false fronts - Disneyfied chalets, cottages, and villas with plump plaster figurines of jolly chefs and happy innkeepers. The window boxes are filled with gaudy plastic flowers.
The restaurants are ersatz French cafes and exotic Chinese temples - or have plastic Fleetwoods with Hollywood blondes waving prettily. It's all a little faded and odd, but despite the tackiness, the place is surprisingly friendly and welcoming.
A couple of elderly tourists strolled through, snapping photos, just like me. A young boy selling bouquets of bright roses smiled and let me take his picture. The cafe tables were crowded with people, and as I watched, I saw them call and greet one another. This was clearly a small vital enclave in the middle of gritty downtown.
As I took my time to check it out, I realized that it was, in fact, like a small village thriving beneath a goofy facade of tourist kitsch. The cafes and stores, whether outwardly displaying French, Swiss, or Oriental decor, all offered menus that appealed to the lunchtime jewelry-mart customer - Which is largely made up of jewelry merchants, dealers, wholesalers and buyers.
The predominant gender is male, the predominant age is over 50, and the predominant ethnicity is a vibrant mix of Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Israeli. I ducked into one deli, and checked out the menu. Among the standard offerings of ham and salami sandwiches were things like Russian Salad, basturma, lentil soup. Inside the drinks coolers, in addition to the Cokes and 7ups and bottled waters were bottles of Dugh, a fizzy yogurt drink, and tarragon soda.
The lady at the counter looked so friendly I decided to get a sandwich. While I waited, I looked around the store.
The deli was a little grocery, too, with mid-Eastern canned and dry goods. A whole array of Persian jams and jellies stocked one shelf - prettily shaped jars with colorful pictures of fruit and gracefully lettered labels. Bags of bulgar wheat in different grades of coarseness. A shelf full of jars of red-pepper relishes and pastes, brand name Zergut. Bags of lavash bread on wire shelves, styrofoam trays of baklava.
A man came into the store from the courtyard, and grabbed a paperbag from the deli clerk, greeting her in a language I couldn't identify. As he walked, he folded a newspaper. At the back of the store was a doorway going into a dark little room, and he strode to it. At his entry, men's voices rose. "Hey, hey!" said someone. "It's Croatia and China, sit down!"
I peeked inside. The room was small, had cheap wood paneling, and tables and chairs against the wall. It was dark, except for a big flat-screen TV high up on the wall, where a soccer game played. A half dozen men sat, focused intently on the action, their lunches spread on white paper wrappers before them. Beyond them, a glass doorway opened onto the back of the jewelry mart and the glittering display cases.
It had the familiar feel of a fraternal hangout - like the tavern in the basement of the Labor Temple where my union had headquarters. Although it felt friendly, I was reluctant to enter. For a rare moment in my life, I longed for a cloak of invisibility - I wanted to sit in there with them, listening, feeling their excitement and fraternity, but knowing even my silent presence would disrupt and dispel it.
Someone caught my eye and nodded. I smiled, and picked up my brown paper bag with my nicely wrapped sandwich, and went back out to the colorful tourist tables in the courtyard. I sat in the sun, watching the strollers and the pigeons.
My sandwich was delicious - fresh baguette, ham, provolone, lettuce, tomato and rich mayo. I listened to the rise and fall of voices, the laughter, the mix of unknown languages, and was content.