A few Baltimore natives met for a meal at Mel’s Diner in Hollywood, located in the former Max Factor building. Credit: Macon Street Books.

I spent a long week in Tinseltown last month visiting my daughter Amelia and her family. She is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, an actress and the mother of a toddler named Lake.

One afternoon, at a garden lunch on Sunset Boulevard,  I excitedly told her about someone I’d spent time with the day before.

“Max Gail.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Wojo, from Barney Miller.”

Vaguely familiar with the beloved 1970’s TV show – the Greenwich Village cop comedy was one of her mother’s favorites – Amelia didn’t know from Wojo. So there was no point in telling her that, without shame, I asked Gail to say, “Hey, Barn…” And he did.

Max told a great story about Abe Vigoda, the morose, long-faced actor who played Detective Fish and, as the traitorous mobster Salvatore Tessio in the original Godfather movie, is whacked on orders by Michael Corleone.

A memorable Vigoda moment, said Gail, relaxing at a picnic table in Santa Monica with some sort of maroon/purple health drink, came during rehearsal for a complicated scene. In it, an especially tall suspect tries to commit suicide in the squad room lavatory by putting one foot in the toilet and a finger in a light socket on the ceiling.

“We weren’t sure exactly how to play it,” said Gail, 79, who, along with the 91-year-old Hal Linden (Barney) is among the show’s few surviving stars. “Everyone had an idea and then Abe says, ‘Play it like a loose hat.’”

Which, as best they could, they did.

And thus rolled a week in LA to get away from a frigid Spring in Crabtown. My wife Phoebe and I  stayed at the Hotel Roosevelt, where the first Academy Awards were held in 1929. It rises above Hollywood Boulevard about a block down the street from the Dolby Theater where this year’s Oscars were held. At the inaugural ceremony, Wings won best picture and no one slapped anyone, at least not on-stage.

I broke bread with friends from the Baltimore diaspora now settled in the City of Angels, took in the sights within walking distance (Blessed Sacrament Catholic church where Bing Crosby attended Mass) and saw Lake just about every day, chasing her on the playground, reading books after dinner and making silly faces.

Meatloaf sandwiches after the grill has shut down

At Mel’s Diner on Highland  – which opened 20 years ago in the 1935, Hollywood deco Max Factor building – I had a meatloaf sandwich on white toast with screenwriter, director and former Stevenson University film professor Scott Kecken.

I almost never order meatloaf but did so in memory of a late night encounter many years ago at John’s Carry Out at O’Donnell and Potomac Streets in Canton. My good friend Mark “Petey” Pietrowski and I had just played a few games of basketball around the corner, back when you could get a large rowhouse on O’Donnell Street for $60,000 or so. We were sweaty and hungry.

“Grill’s shut down,” said the tough Hon behind the counter.

As we turned to go, a middle-aged man with half-a-load-on walked in.

“Grill’s shut down.”

The man thought for a moment and slurred, “How ’bout a meatloaf sandwich?”

At Mel’s – where Kecken and I were joined by the photographer and Dundalk native Sean Scheidt – the delicacy goes for $8.59.

Kecken and his wife, former Wire staff writer Joy Lusco Kecken, have been living in Los Angeles since 2008. He is currently shopping a feature horror script about gentrification called Eat, Drink and Be Merry.

“It’s based on our experiences out here looking for housing – inventory is scarce, rents have exploded, and purchasing a home is an almost impossible task for most,” he said. “We’ve got a name producer and a name director attached. It’s now going out to name actors.”

Fingers crossed as Kecken also works to get a TV pilot about the paranormal and the Tarot into the very clogged film word pipeline.

Sean Scheidt took the photos for my 2016 book on the murals that comprise the Baltimore Love Project. Last September, he packed up his gear to roll the dice here in a goldrush of vast opportunity and broken promises.

“The pandemic made it clear to me that my life and career were at a standstill,” said Scheidt, who specializes in fashion. “Baltimore was the best place for me to cut my teeth but the pond had gotten very small. I didn’t want to become another aging photographer bitching about my flagging career. And Dundalk was well, Dundalk.”

And if that’s not a Hollywood movie – “the weather here is more inspiring than the Back River water treatment plant,” he said – I don’t know what is.

With no disrespect to meatloaf, the best meal Phoebe and I had in L.A. was at the heralded Hollywood restaurant Jitlada, also on Sunset, with its extensive menu of food from southern Thailand. There was a line to get in and we stood in the parking lot near a young, bearded man holding court with friends about the upcoming Academy Awards.

Stories from strangers

When our name was called, we were seated at the table next to his, the room crowded and loud with happy eaters. As we enjoyed Pad See Ew, a Thai omelet with pork and stuffed, deep-fried chicken wings, the cinephile’s discourse continued. Phoebe hates it when I talk to strangers but has accepted that this is how stories are made.

When everyone had finished eating, I leaned over and asked, “Are you a filmmaker?”

Yes, he said, introducing himself as Reid Antin, a newly minted one out of the University of Southern California. His most recent film is a 12-minute short called Rated R, an exceptionally clever and beautifully shot 16 mm film about an 8-year-old boy hell-bent on going to see an R-rated movie. And hell is what he gets.

One of the last things I did before flying home was to visit, as I always do, a practitioner of Chinese medicine named Mike who does near miraculous body work. In addition to working out the kinks, Mike shares insights about what the body is telling him.

He knew that my father died last summer and almost all of my recent writing has been about loss and the past.

“It’s time to stop looking backward,” he said. “Start looking ahead…”

Not bad advice this time of year. As the great Thomas “Look Homeward, Angel” Wolfe said, “Spring beats death.”

Rafael Alvarez lived in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2009 while writing for television. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com