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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hong Kong Files #3 & 4 by Brian Leiken, guest blogger

Hong Kong Files #3
Today I decide to meet up with Kevin and take the ferry across Victoria Harbor to Central Hong Kong, the business district spurting with skyscrapers.  

On the way I’m accosted by more Indians and Burmese attempting to sell me purses, suits, and drugs, but by this point, I barely acknowledge them – to make eye contact requires a more persistent NO!

“Please sir, would you like to try a suit?”
“No, sorry.” I glance up to see it’s the same Burmese man who led me to his shop yesterday. “I already am having a suit made. With you in fact. "

He recognizes me, a second later he looks embarrassed. “Oh, so sorry sir. I will see you later, yes?”

I nod, and move on. The two Burmese men beside him redouble their efforts to get my attention. If I bought one suit from their friend, maybe I want another? No, sorry. Moving on, it’s 9:30 AM, and I’m already sweating. 

I pass by a Holiday Inn. Curious, I walk inside and am surprised to see marble floors and counters.

It looks like a 4 star hotel with valet and small men in red coats dashing back and forth to help customers. It’s nicer than my hotel, filled with Europeans sipping drinks, like something from an earlier century. 

Holiday Inn? Really? Makes you wonder what the YMCA is like. (I’ll pass by it later, it’s one of the best hotels in the city.)

I meet up with Kevin and we walk down to the pier. For about 50 cents you can climb aboard a ferry which leaves every ten minutes. Using my Octopus pass, I scan it across the turnstile and I see 3.8 Hong Kong dollars are automatically deducted. 

We climb on board and are greeted to an amazing view of the city, our boat circled by birds as we traverse choppy blue water. The ride is over quickly, maybe five minutes. Kevin wants to go to a hat shop and I’m just happy to tag along. 

Darting across lanes of traffic, we weave through a series of mini malls, and more shopping. There is no end to the sheer variety of stores here; and in Kowloon, the three most popular appearing to be skin cream stores like the Body Shop, jewelry stores all with Rolex signs, and a never ending parade of 7-11’s.

I’ve never seen more 7-11’s per square mile; every convenience store appears to be a 7-11 and they are on every block. 

I walked into one to check out prices and noticed that a tiny bag of M&M’s, barely more than a mouthful, was selling for about $1.10. Just like back home! Didn’t buy the M&M’s.

We begin to hike up hill. Central is quiet, reserved, it’s Sunday and most of the businesses are empty. It’s not a place people live so much as a place for them to do business. 

For the first time, I’m no longer surrounded by people, my new companions are the buildings, skyscrapers built on every available inch of land.

I point out that the skyscrapers look strange to me, and Kevin informs me that I think they look strange because they are unusually thin, built as high as possible on as little land as possible because space is at such a premium. 

We stop at a 7-11 and Kevin gets a beer. A group of men sit about outside, drinking. Kevin tells me this is a Hong Kong tradition.

People typically just gather round outside 7-11’s to drink.  

They all appear to be working class people, smoking cigarettes; none of them speak much, too busy nursing their beers. 
Further up into the city, we stop by a boutique hat shop. Kevin wants to try on hats, none of which fit his small head. There are a lot of fedora’s with bows, Newsie caps, and American sports team ball caps, including one for the Chicago Cubs. 

Yes, even here, I can buy American sports paraphernalia but the jokes on the Chinese – only they could possible think wearing a Cubs' hat would be cool.

We walk through the botanical gardens, a free zoo with simians kept behind sturdy black cages. Mostly monkeys and other tiny orange haired critters, but one little fellow looks Chinese with whiskers that resemble a Fu Manchu moustache. I try to take some photos but the distance and the bars prevent it 

We cross into Hong Kong park, which is filled with Filipino women enjoying their day off as they share food and chat. Most of them are maids; they are to Hong Kong what many Mexicans are to the United States, low-end labor the city imports to do the jobs Hong Kongers don’t want to do. 

There appears to be some sort of beauty contest going on, and I note the lack of men. I ask Kevin why there aren’t that many Filipino men in Hong Kong, but he doesn’t know.

That’s when I take note of something else. There are no homeless people in Hong Kong. Three days now, and I haven’t spotted one in a city of 7 million.

Where are they? Does the city sweep them up and push them into China, or offer them some sort of job and place to live, or do the locals simply look out for each other? I don’t know, but it’s the first time I’ve been in a city and not ever seen a homeless person.

We pass by a wedding couple standing on a street corner having  photos taken, the bride in a beautiful white dress, her husband in a black tux. Western style weddings have surpassed more traditional style Chinese weddings, and having unique wedding photos are an important status symbol among upper middle class Chinese couples.

I’ve read that Chinese will often rent out parts of a beach, or an entire building just to get that special photo. If I hadn’t read that, I would have the thought the bride and groom were just models; but something about the way he nuzzles her tells me otherwise.

We take the subway back to Kowloon. Using the Octopus pass, I wave it like a wand and the money is magically deducted from the card. No need for exact fare, the pass takes care of everything. The subways are clean and efficient. Hong Kong may have the best public transportation in the world.

We hit a local Chinese restaurant, and I order the Sweet and Sour pork which tastes just like something I could order back home. I’m just happy to see that many of the Chinese dishes I love aren’t like Tex Mex and are authentically enjoyed by the Chinese. Kevin and I agree to meet for dinner tomorrow and I head home.

Later I’ll go back to the tailor for a second fitting. This time it’s a Cantonese man who measures me. The clothes are half finished; the coat only has one sleeve, the pants no pockets, buttons or zipper.

I put them on and he takes new measurements, asking if I want my sleeves or pants shortened, or my coat further taken in. It takes about ten minutes, and I agree to come back tomorrow to pick up the finished product.

I head back to the Night Market and pass by the Jockey Club. About fifty men stare silently at teleprompters flashing numbers, silently praying their horse will win. 

They have no interest in watching the race, or any race, as every big screen TV in the room flashes endless arrays of numbers. The gamblers here are only interested in covering their bets. The greed is palatable, for these men a way of life.

I stop by a foot massage parlor, filled with locals busy getting their feet massaged

When I don’t know where to go in a foreign city, I have one simple rule: do what the locals do. Like all foot massage parlors in Hong Kong, a glowing neon sign with a raised foot stands outside, a happy face smiling from its sole.

I walk in and sink into a chair. A heavy woman with an iron grip boils my feet in a tub of water, then goes to work on my calves, shins, and ankles before working her way to the bottom of my feet.

It’s heavenly, and only about $15 American. Not cheap by Filipino prices, but that’s reasonable by LA prices. 

The TV is turned to a local channel. I watch a cooking show and although I can’t understand what is being said, I can follow the images. This episode the chef is showing the audience how to make lobster flavored ice cream, which judging by her facial expression is supposed to be delicious.

The next show is titled in English and Cantonese: Battle of the Senses. The premise is simple; two teams attempt to be the first to discover answers by being deprived a “sense.”

For example, one of the team members might have to sing through a mike underwater while his teammates attempt to figure out what he is singing. Another game involves blindfolding the entire team and then giving them something to touch, which they then have to identify what it is. 

This episode takes place at the Chinese version of Universal Studios and is essentially an advertisement for the theme park. 

The teams are blindfolded as three “famous” characters are brought out for them to touch and figure out who they are: Woody Woodpecker, Frankenstein, and the Gingerbread Man. Both teams figure out who all three are in under two minutes.  

I have to say I’m impressed, I’m not sure my students would get Woody Woodpecker. Then again they might not get Frankenstein or the Gingerbread Man either.

Back at my hotel there is a huge wedding taking place in the ballroom. I sneak a peek inside and see a drunk bride surrounded by a half dozen of her friends, all drinking from glasses of wine. 

The people are all Cantonese; but outside of their language and facial features, it could be an American wedding, down to the one lone rebel girl who has refused to dress up by wearing jeans with a spiked belt and a Led Zeppelin T-Shirt.

There’s some sort of story there, but I’m not about to crash a Chinese wedding.

Hong Kong Files #4   Victoria’s Peak
Today it’s off to Victoria’s Peak, or the “Peak,” the highest point in Hong Kong. 

By the 1880s, Hong Kong was getting overcrowded, but the British colonials were hemmed in by the mountains; and short of being transported by “coolies,” had no way to traverse them – at least until the cable car was invented.  

Suddenly, the entire mountain was traversable; using a pulley system, steam pumps and steel cables, it was possible to move up the mountain quickly and efficiently.

To this day the mountains surrounding Victoria’s Peak are some of the most highly priced real estate in the world. The average home here goes for about $260 million dollars (post bubble), and rent is upwards of $200,000 a month. (That’s American dollars, not Hong Kong dollars.) 

Big corporations have bought up the land and now use it for corporate retreats. The real estate is Hong Kong’s secret weapon and one of the methods by which the city generates revenue.

The peak's tram is a red cable car with forward facing seats. For about $2, I wave my Octopus pass and take a seat by the window.

As the pulley goes to work, I can feel gravity pushing against my back; it’s like being on a roller coaster before it plunges down the other side. 

If the cable breaks, the entire car would abruptly reverse course and scream down the hill – I calculate odds of survival from slim to nil.  

At the top is a shopping mall and terrace that offers one an amazing view of the city. The air is cooler up here; there is a pleasant breeze, and for the first time in days I feel like I can really enjoy being outside.

There’s even a McDonalds! (The Chinese call them McCafe’s.) And yes, there is also a 7-11, and a New York Fries, and a Hard Rock CafĂ©. Once again, America wins!

The view is dizzying. I can look out into the harbor where huge barges resemble toy boats as the bay turns into a magnificent river that divides the city in half.

If the Grand Canyon is the most amazing natural phenomenon I’ve observed, then Hong Kong is the most amazing city view I’ve seen. Most people mistakenly believe that humans can’t improve upon nature, that they only take away from natural beauty; but I don’t believe that is the case with Hong Kong.  

The buildings accentuate the land's uniqueness; even the forests on the mountain were built by design – the trees and topsoil were planted 130 years ago by appraising developers. There’s a reason why the land up here is expensive. The view is unique.

Back inside I pay about $20 to take a tour of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. 

Outside a group of Indonesian women take photos with a wax doll of Pierce Brosnan dressed as James Bond. 

There is also a wax doll of Michelle Yeoh, a Hong Kong actress from an earlier Bond film with Brosnan, but that’s not who people are interested in – they want to take photos with Bond, James Bond. Chinese, Europeans, South East Asians – Bond is Bond.

Inside are a variety of figures and a handful of Hong Kong movie celebrities, including Jackie Chan and Jet Li.  

There is also a wax figure of Chairman Mao and Yao Ming; a normal Chinese man stands next to Yao Ming’s statue and looks like a hobbit.   

For the most part, however, it’s American and British celebrities. Crowds flock to take their photo with Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Elvis, The Beatles, Einstein, Shakespeare, Spider-Man, Michael Jackson and Her Majesty, the Queen of England. 

There are even several dictators present: Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler and statues of Obama and George Bush.
A special photographer is set up to let people take photos with Obama in his oval office. I don’t see anyone opt for a photo with George Bush.
Taking the trolley back down, I notice now why all the seats face upward in one direction. If anyone was to sit facing downward, gravity would pull them out of their seat and send them tumbling down onto the floor.

I decide to hike through Hong Kong Central and spend the rest of the day walking up and down Hong Kong’s streets.

Central is where the foreigners gather, in bars with leather seats, serving burgers and pints of Guinness, offering mueslix and yogurt. British and Australians mostly, but I also overhear a number of American accents, including American sounding Asians.

A crowd of people surround a tea vendor, offering up 7 Hong Kong dollars for a plastic cup of sweetened tea. I buy one; it’s good.

I find myself on Hollywood Boulevard (the irony of this is not lost on me) and begin peeking in antique shops. Jade figurines, ivory combs, metal lanterns, exquisite model ships, dragon masks, dusty cabinets and chairs; is it authentic? No idea, but it looks old.  

I stop by the Ho Man temple, a small Buddha shrine where people pray to the twin gods of martial skill and education. Dark, red walls, incense curled into lamp shades that slowly burn above, small boxes with mysterious Chinese characters embedded into the wall, statues of serene Chinese with legs folded, palms praying.  

Unlike Christian churches, there is nothing awe inspiring about it; the point of the temple is to allow people to pray, not to frighten them into submission.

A handful of people come in and light incense. Crouching onto their knees, they pray, bowing, incense held to their forehead before rising to place the incense into sandy canisters. I don’t take any photos and I’m ignored.

Being Buddhists, I doubt they care what I do one-way or the other so long as I’m quiet and respectful. 

A second room has more statues of serene looking Chinese, but this one has offerings of fruit placed before them: one bowl with a pineapple, another with bananas, a third with grapes, a fourth with dragon fruit.

I have no idea what it means, but my guidebook states that people come here to pray when they need help with exams.
I walk back up the hill to the Sun Yat Sen museum, a colonial mansion near the top of Hong Kong island hill. Who is Sun Yat Sen you ask? 

Well he’s important, important enough to appear in the 7th edition of the McGraw Hill 10th grade world history textbook. If you can make it into a “standardized” world history text book, consider yourself a historical VIP, an icon that will be remembered for generations. The museum’s practially empty.

Sun Yat Sen was an impoverished cobbler’s son who became educated, converted to Christianity, and later a revolutionary in an attempt to modernize China. Hong Kong is where he agitated against the evils of the Chinese government until he was eventually banished and forced to flee to London. 

Traveling around the world, he raised money for the Chinese revolution, but eventually realized that money alone wouldn’t be enough to force change.

Befriending the Japanese, Sun Yat Sen later attempted to use the Japanese military in an attempt to overthrow the Chinsese government, but ultimately failed. In his later years, when he realized the Japanese were using him in an attempt to both destabilize and conquer China, he turned to help offered by the Soviets, inadvertently starting China on the path to Communism. Sun Yat Sen’s writing’s would have a great deal of influence on a young Mao Zedong.

As Marx is to Lenin, Sun Yat Sen is to Mao Zedong.
It’s also not all that interactive or interesting, but there are a number of photographs with captions in both English and Chinese. I’m more interested to see that Sun Yat Sen ditched his first wife (an arranged marriage) in favor of a much hotter second wife about ten years before he died.  

In his coat and tie he looks like an early 20th century Edwardian businessman. In spite of all his failure, Sun Yat Sen was a prophet. He knew that if China was ever to unify and become great again, it would have to adopt a more Western world view.
But even I think he would be shocked by how Western the Chinese have become. Later today I will spot: 

A movie poster for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (In Chinese characters.)
A Chinese marching band practicing with Scottish bag pipes.
A liquor store in Kowloon (meaning mostly Chinese customers) selling a wide array of foreign spirits. (including Chivas!)

At the end of the day I will pick up my coat and three pairs of tailormade pants: they fit like a glove. Total cost: $330.

I ask the tailor, a native to Hong Kong, why the Chinese don’t have more of their own brands. The Japanese have Sony, Toyota, Honda, Seiko; the Koreans have Hyundai, Kia, Samsung – the Chinese have nothing.

The tailor nods his head. “So far, we only make for others.  It take long time to build brand. No trust. Louis Vuitton; it be around for long time. People trust. But China needs to build trust, very difficult to compete against foreigner and big money.”

“How long until they do create brands?” I ask. The tailor thinks about this for a long time. Finally he says, “Hard to say. Thirty more years, maybe?”

We sit and drink a Chinese beer.

Copyright 2012 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out, Messed Up and Knocked Down by Brian Leiken at

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hong Kong Files by guest blogger Brian Leiken

Enjoy my son Brian's first impressions of Hong Kong. Here are the first two travel entries:

James Clavell. 

After reading his two Hong Kong novels, Tai-Pan and Noble House, I have always wanted to visit Hong Kong.  I picked up Tai-Pan out of the school library at South Gate. It was my first year teaching and after arriving in the morning to monitor a meaningless home room, I became a refugee as I was kicked out of the classroom by a more senior teacher.  

With two hours before my first class, I'd head to the library which was mercifully quiet and pick up the book to be transported far away from the broken black top and troublesome students, one last bit of escape before the beginning of four class periods of hell blended into a smooth puree of indigestible agony.

Eight years later, I'm finally here.   Although the British no longer run Hong Kong, their thumbprint is embedded into the city; drivers in Hong Kong follow the British model with the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car.  Instead of stop signs there are "turnabouts" to handle traffic congestion. 

Most signs are in both English and Cantonese, and most of the residents are at least semi-fluent in English. Many of the names retain a distinct British flavor: Victoria Harbor, Southron playground, Flagstaff house, the Quarterdeck club and Colonel cemetery. This is the city the British ruled but the Chinese built.

Hong Kong is efficient and modern; free Wi-fi is offered throughout the entire city to all the residents. (unlike the U.S.) The trains here are known as the MTR, or mass transit railway and are remarkably clean.  

Before using the train, you buy an "Octopus" pass for about $100 HK dollars ($13 American) which gives you a card you scan when you enter and exit the station.  When the card gets low on funds, a nearby kiosk allows you to put more money onto the card. 

Although I haven't been here long, I have the feeling that almost everything in Hong Kong is easily accessible by mass transit. 

I'm at the Eaton hotel in the district of Kowloon, which is centrally located and the heart of many of Hong Kong's hotels.  Victoria Bay cuts the city in half. Across the water I look over at Hong Kong island, a glass menagrie of skyscrapers that overlook the harbor. 

Behind the skyscrapers stand green colored mountains; the combination of mountain, city and water makes Hong Kong one of the more impressive cities I've seen.
Kowloon is more residential, covered in towering apartment buildings, surrounded by mountains, the only place to build here is up.  Many of the apartment buildings look like they've seen better days; residents string clothes out the window to dry; the tile of the buildings are weathered and beaten. The apartments can't be older then the 1970s but look like they were built in the 1920s.  

Immigration was a snap; the airport is designed for tourists with helpful signs pointing the way to the trains and busses.  Employees stand at attention throughout the airport to guide you to your next destination; even though its 5:30 AM, they stand like attentive soldiers waving me through.

Catching the train from the airport, a free shuttle from the train station, brought me to the hotel and short of getting a taxi it could not have been easier.  
I was informed I should ask for an upgrade by someone who stayed here before, so when I arrived I asked if they had anything better.  The conceirge immediately offered a deluxe room (at no exta cost) but have to wait for them to clean it.  So now I'm in the hotel lobby, just waiting.

 - Brian

Hong Kong Files #2

The city is almost suffocating.

Hong Kong is muggy, sticky and sultry, the air damp with a thick moisture that nearly overpowers me as I weave through massive crowds of people. 

 People here rush about like New Yorkers, moving with an intense purpose despite the heat.  Most are Chinese but there are a smattering of Filipinos, Indians, Burmese and trickle of Europeans thrown in. 

The harsh jangling of Cantonese reverberates and echoes off of buildings, a verbal cacophony of clashing cymbals. Kowloon reminds me of San Francisco’s Chinatown dosed up on PCP steroids. 

I stop to get my bearings, checking the navigation map on my phone.  The city confuses me; within five minutes I’m not sure I’d be able to find my way back to the hotel, the landmarks endless neon signs flashing Cantonese hieroglyphics.  

A few signs are in partial English, typically for a hotel or sauna, but most are in indecipherable Chinese characters, a language system so far removed from my background and experiences that I am unable to make external references that will help me translate the sign's meaning. 

Chinese is not phonetic; its symbols are characters based on ideas, not sounds.  On the plane I met a Chinese girl native to Hong Kong who told me it’s easier to write in English even though it's her second language. English she said is designed to more effectively convey ideas in a succinct manner.

I note that the trees here have roots hanging from their branches, the roots able to collect enough moisture out of the air without bothering to sink into the ground. 

People brush past me; foreigners are common here and attract no special notice outside of the Indians that constantly hustle me as I walk down the street.

 “Do you want knock-off watch?  I have fake Rolexes!”

“You want Hashish? Me get for you!”

“You want purse? I have all brands.”
I smile and keep on moving, after about two blocks I’ve been asked ten times if I want a watch, and another six if I want some form of marijuana.  I note that the Indians speak slightly better commercial English than the natives and make a note to ask one of them later for directions if I have a question.

I meet a man claiming to make tailor-made suits.  This is something that interests me, I have planned to buy one when I’m here and it takes time to make a suit, so I follow him back to his shop.  He offers me a three-piece suit for $450, I tell him I only want a coat and pants, and he goes down to $350. 

I state I still need to look around, heading for the door and suddenly we’re down to $300.  I take a look at his fabrics, pretend to know what I’m doing, but shake my head and tell him I need to think about it.  The price lowers to $250.
Now we’re in the ballpark.  I state I’m sorry but I still need to think about it.  His son enters and offers $230.  This is a decent price, I could probably push further but decide that’s fine and he measures me. 

I agree to come back Monday for a second fitting and put down a $1000 Hong Kong dollars as a deposit.  He hands me a receipt and tries again to sell me a shirt; I decline but decide to get a second pair of pants for another $100. 
I weave my way over to the night market, an outside collection of stalls selling knock offs, miscellaneous junk, and bizarre curios that begins at dusk and runs until late at night. 

Angry bird key chains, plastic smurf figurines, busts of Batman and Captain America, stuffed animals, bronze Buddha’s, toy guns, T-shirts, American and European magazines, (inside plastic sleeves to prevent moisture damage or from someone browsing the wares) cheap jewelry, wigs,  keychains,  inferiorly bound, empty journal books with leather covers.

Tomorrow I’ll take pictures because I can’t even begin to remember the sheer collection of crap that must go for at least half a mile in every direction.
People sit outside at small plastic tables eating food; food vendors keep lobster and fish alive in plastic tubs as Chinese families share dinner in a family style manner. 

I pass by an old woman praying over her shop, a handful of incense sticks in her right hand as she sings a chant to bless her business.  I walk by an off track betting parlor filled with Chinese men feverishly checking horse races, flat screen TVs line the walls with betting forms lining the walls.

I’m looking for Dim Sum, but there doesn't appear to be any nearby, so I settle for one of the more popular outside food vendors.  It reminds me of eating in the Philippines; one of the more popular beers I see people drinking is San Miguel light, the most popular (and only light beer) one can get in the Philippines. 

A waitress sits me down at a table across from another white man, a Canadian staying in Hong Kong until the Chinese process is work visa so he can go back to teaching in China.
His name’s Kevin and he’s spent the past 8 years teaching in Korea, but got bored with it so wanted a change of scenery.  He’s teaching in a northwestern province near the border of Tibet, and tells me that Hong Kong is nothing like the rest of China. 

 “Hong Kong is non-stop action, the rest of China is much more sedate, beautiful.  Here people are just on top of each other.  I love it!”
The people next to us are Hong Kongers, but overhear us and strike a conversation with a slight British accent.  I ask them where the best Dim Sum is Hong Kong; they tell me the Sheraton, or Vancouver.   My jaw drops. 

Dim Sum is not really Chinese; it’s a more Western invention.  I order a noodle dish with chicken; it's heavy with MSG but filling and tasty, nothing amazing but nothing offensive about it either.
I walk with Kevin back to his hotel, the Kowloon Mansions.  The rooms are twenty bucks a night, have air conditioning and TV, and just wide enough where if you stretch both your arms you can touch both sides of the wall.  

I suppose it’s a more authentic Hong Kong experience, but I’ll take my 3 star hotel. We agree to meet up tomorrow and I walk home, confident I can find my way back.
I get lost. 

I check my google maps, but I don’t see my hotel. I know it’s nearby, but somehow Hong Kong has magically concealed a 21 story red building behind a puzzle maze of other buildings.  I ask a cab for directions, but the cabbie speaks no English.  Frustrated, I spot an Indian looking man with dark skin and remember he probably speaks better English.  Turns out he does. 
I’m a half block away from the hotel.  I’ve walked past the side street leading to it twice.   I spotted a T-Shirt that had a slogan written on it:  “I got lost in Hong Kong.”

Might have to buy that now.

- Brian

 Copyright 2012 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out, Messed Up and Knocked Down by Brian Leiken at

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hollywood Arsonist (It’s LA!) by Brian Leiken

This year the 2012 New Year’s celebration didn’t start on December 31st, but on the 30th.

Around 2 in the morning I awaken to the clamor of sirens as an army of fire trucks rush up Fairfax Avenue, shrieking past my apartment like wailing infants desperate for attention.

At first I thought it was a forest fire, but after I spot a squadron of police cars followed by ambulances, I think it could be a riot or zombie infestation.

Do I have anything to fight off zombies? I do have a pair of swords in my closet, a dull rapier main-gauche and a heavy pirate saber, but neither would be effective at fighting off looters or zombies. (Need to stop watching so much Walking Dead.)

Raising my arms above my head I stretch and relax; no need to panic quite yet, time to find out what’s going on; that’s what the internet is for: stupid pictures of epic fails, illegal downloads, and news. Turns out it isn’t a zombie infestation; it’s an arsonist.

An arsonist. One firebug had taken it upon himself to start a jihad against the overabundance of vehicles in Hollywood, lighting them on fire by placing some kind of accelerant beneath the engine, igniting it, and incinerating the vehicle.

For the arsonist, any vehicle was fair game, so long as it was in an area where no one was watching, but this arsonist was unusual for two reasons.

1. He didn’t appear to have any monetary motive, making him impossible to track.

2. He didn’t stop after the first night or leave the area. On the 31st he kept at it, continuing to blow up vehicles all over West and North Hollywood in the same four square mile area.

This is clearly someone who wanted attention. After the second day I saw that the news story of the Hollywood Arsonist had acquired worldwide attention, having being picked up in Japan, Australia and the BBC news.

The LAPD put up police checkpoints, and firefighters deployed into rapid response teams throughout the city, but that was all for show.

How do you catch a man who doesn’t have an obvious motive? How do you protect an entire city from a lunatic?

In a couple of instances the fires that were lit climbed into apartment buildings, forcing people to flee their homes.

My car was in a locked parking garage, so I was more or less safe, but my roommate made sure to keep his vehicle parked on Fairfax, a street with lots of light and foot traffic. (We have a deal, I get the parking spot, he gets the room with a larger bathroom attached.)

On the first of January Mr. Arsonist was at it again, continuing to light fires and prove the powerlessness of the authorities to stop him, an entire city unable to contain one single fire wielding maniac.

A $60,000 reward was posted to anyone who had information that might lead to the arsonist’s arrest. Soon after the police had a tip and arrested a suspect.

A 53 year old Mexican.

Nope. This had crazy white boy written all over it, I knew as soon as they arrested the Mexican they had the wrong guy. White people may not commit as much crime, but when they do, it’s mucho loco. Drugs, car theft, gang violence - Mexicans. Serial killers, multi-million dollar embezzlement, pyromaniacs - Whites.

On January 2nd a volunteer police deputy on his third ever patrol stops a mini-van on Sunset and Fairfax, two blocks north of where I live. In the back of the van, there are explosives. The driver, Harry Buckhart, is a German immigrant that had been flagged as a person of interest.

An immigration official had reported that Harry Buckhart had acted out in court a few days earlier, ranting against America when he heard that his mother, Dorothee Buckhart, was going to be deported back to Germany on charges of fraud.

German authorities claim she had pilfered security deposits from her renters in Germany, but while living in Southern California American authorities discovered she had committed an even more heinous crime. She didn’t pay her plastic surgeon for her breast augmentation surgery.

That may seem like a small deal to those of you who don’t live in Southern California, but breast augmentation surgery is a vital industry in the Southland.

Not paying a plastic surgeon in LA is like stealing from a church, it's just not done. Our entire media is dominated by breasts; looking at them, discussing them, debating which celebrities are real and which are fake, and plastic surgeons make this all possible.

When Renee Zellweger was diagnosed with breast cancer, it made national news, when Janet Jackson had a “wardrobe malfunction,” it sparked a national scandal.

A woman who won’t pay her plastic surgeon is a woman not worthy of living in Southern California. Dorothee Buckhart was going to have to be deported.

Her son went crazy. Fifty-two fires and millions of dollars of damage later, he’s drawn worldwide attention. He lived just over a mile away and was caught within shouting distance of my residence, a modern day John Bardo, the man who stalked and killed TV star Rebecca Schaeffer.

The question is, why? Why has this sparked so much fear and outrage? No one died, the damage, while severe, pales in comparison even to one forest fire. Buckhart has drawn attention not because of what he did, but the manner in how he did it.

Our society, our entire civilization, is built around a basic assumption that people act in a rational manner, in their own self interest.

It just doesn’t make sense for someone to cruise through a city, night after night, looking to light cars on fire; where’s the motive, who is he targeting?

This time, the police got lucky, Buckhart had given himself away a few days earlier through his outburst, but if one 24 year old amateur can do this much damage, how do you deal with a professional who doesn’t care if they live or die but determined to inflict pain?

There are no answers. Yesterday while walking on Hollywood Boulevard I stopped to stare at a half dozen crooning Elvis impersonators singing to tourists, the day after that to watch a fitness instructor in a Laker’s jersey lead a group of 20 attractive young women through an aerobics fitness routine in a Bristol Farms parking lot.

If you want attention in LA, you have to be over the top, blowing up a couple cars isn’t even a footnote - in Hollywood it’s go big, or go home.

Harry Buckhart went big and got his day in the sun, but in a few months or a year, he’ll be forgotten. Notoriety is like a flare, it burns bright, but fades fast. Just ask Tara Reid or Paris Hilton.

Buckhart might be considered an abnormality in most of the world, but in Hollywood his behavior was just a more creative way to get on the fast track to a TV movie.

You want people to stop acting crazy, then stop paying attention to them. Otherwise, pray you don’t get hit and enjoy the entertainment. That’s LA.

Copyright 2012 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out, Messed Up and Knocked Down by Brian Leiken at

Friday, January 13, 2012

Customer Service with a Tear

What I thought would be just a summer job in a small town became a summer of touching and sometimes tragic encounters with other women's lives.

I was in my 20s, just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.

Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a small women's boutique in the college town where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.

For generations, the boutique's proprietor provided personal attention and service to the community.

Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.

She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women of the town as if she were their personal dresser.

They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special.

Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.

As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, sort of like telling their real ages.

So, when they would ask for a size 10 and were obviously a 14, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter.

They would be so delighted at how they looked, they left satisfied customers.

I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid '60s and social mores were not very flexible.

Looking for a dress she could get married in, a teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother.

There was a lot of tension between them; nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant. Eventually, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. Breast cancer then was not as understood or openly discussed as it is today.

She pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she still had breasts.

I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptablility after such a traumatic life event. I wanted to console her, to give her a hug, but I didn't, though my heart ached for her.

She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were "whole," just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn't know what else to say.

The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in her dazed state.

She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier; she was in shock.

She lost two family members in a senseless crime, but she didn't want to wear black.

I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn't stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.

My summer of being a personal dresser in a small boutique gave me a new understanding of "retail therapy" and an appreciation for the owner's devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Store Displays photo by Kay Pat

Mannequin photo by msvoluptuos31

Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Soldier's Story: "A Dignified Transfer" by guest blogger Jorge Duarte

On September 11, 2001, America witnessed a terrifying nightmare. We all felt a sense of helplessness as we watched it firsthand on national television.

Preparing for school, I began to watch the morning news, wondering what happened and trying to figure out what I was seeing on the screen.

As I continued to dress, I kept my eyes fixated on the television. News footage continued about the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and I saw what most Americans watching the news saw that morning, the second plane striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

At that moment I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency; I did not know the reasons, but I felt that something was not right.

I discovered that my school was on high alert for anything suspicious. Every class had a television with the news channel broadcasting the events.

Many Americans would come to know, the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, were acts of terrorism against the United States. As the days continued, the individuals responsible for the attacks began to surface and the rest was history.

In 2006, I would make a decision that would change my life. I decided to enlist in the United States Air Force.

Many people believed the acts of September 11th were my deciding factor, but that became one of many. My decision to join the military began on a routine day at a local food store where I worked as a pharmacy technician.

While I was performing my duties, I was interrupted by a news broadcast on a portable television inside the pharmacy. The news broadcast was about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the moment I remember as the main reason for my decision to enlist.

While the news aired, a female coworker said, “My husband wants to join the military so bad, but they won’t take him because of a medical condition.” I remember thinking, “If a man who is not medically fit is willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for his country, what does that say about an able bodied man like me?”

I remember going home and contemplating the decision to enlist. I remember the local news broadcasting tributes to the fallen Arizona natives that served in the armed forces.

I decided to enlist in the military, not because I was angry and wanted justice for the acts of terror that affected the way many people lived.

I joined to replace the soldier that was deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to give them a chance at seeing their loved ones again.

The endless stories of a family’s sorrow and knowing that I may have the ability to bring a soldier back to their family was more than what I needed to join the military.

I joined the Air Force, and my first duty assignment was at Dover AFB as a cargo aircraft mechanic on the Lockheed Martin C5 Galaxy and the Boeing C17 Globemaster III. My duties involved preparing the aircraft for missions, launching, and recovering.

I soon realized that many aircrafts recovered by our unit came from bases embedded in the Middle East. I also discovered a unique characteristic of Dover AFB that no other air base had.

I discovered Dover AFB was the only port mortuary for all the armed forces.

Every soldier killed overseas would have to make the stop at Dover AFB before continuing to their last resting place. It was not long before I realized that many of these soldiers were transported on the aircrafts I would be recovering.

I still remember the briefing I had regarding “Dignified Transfers.” Our squadron would get briefed on the time an aircraft would land carrying the remains of our fallen soldiers.

The reason we were briefed was to make sure all engine driven equipment on the flight line were shut down. The ceremony for a dignified transfer required complete silence on the flight line.

 Much of the aircraft recovery for dignified transfers were tasked by a separate sister unit on base. The ceremony conducted by the Honor Guard was private; neither public nor media were allowed to attend.

In April 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the media ban on the dignified transfer ceremony. Among the media, the families were also allowed to attend.

In late August of 2009 I recall arriving at my squadron and being briefed on my assignment. I was tasked to conduct maintenance on top of the tail section of the aircraft.

While I was working on the aircraft, I was interrupted by a broadcast over my portable radio, “Attention on the net, attention on the net. Please be advised aircraft 5007 will be arriving with a dignified transfer.”

As the plane landed, I could see personnel gathering near the aircraft. I was unfamiliar with this scene as I was only used to seeing the Air Force Honor Guard during the ceremony.

Sitting on the top of the tail section 60 feet in the air and about 400 yards away, I could still see the Honor Guard preparing. I also saw a group of people that were not in military uniforms.

 The ceremony began as the coffin was carried out of the aircraft. As I sat there, fixated on the events unfolding before my eyes, the night’s silence that blanked the flight line was shattered by the soul wrenching screams of a mother. The sight of the coffin holding the remains of her child triggered her uncontrollable actions. When the ceremony ended, the family was escorted off the flight line.

 Before the media ban was lifted, I had become complacent with the ceremonies that were conducted during a dignified transfer. It had become a routine that was normal on the flight line.

Not until I witnessed the pain and suffering that was endured by the family was I brought back to reality and found the purpose of my duty in the military yet again.

As I look at the picture of the dignified transfer, I relive the moments of why I joined the military, hoping that the public realizes the reality of duty for a soldier.

No longer shielded by a government ban, the public can witness what was once emotionally endured by a selected few. This picture brings meaning to my purpose; I can only hope it brings purpose to others around the country.

Photo by: (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik) “Dignified Transfer,” 4/6/2009 - An Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center carry team transfers the remains of an Air Force Staff Sgt. who died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom. His family is the first to allow media to cover the dignified transfer under the new Department of Defense policy

Dignified Transfer. (2009, April). Official Website of the U.S. Air Force.Retrieved from

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Graduation Flashback: Then and Now

As I watched the college students march proudly in procession into the stadium, I nostalgically remembered the excitement of that day in my life years ago at my undergrad college graduation from the University of Illinois in Urbana.

I never imagined that one day I would be watching my students' graduation. I sat in the front row ceremoniously attired in my cap, gown and hood to support the commencement ritual for the new grads.

Scanning their faces, I could see the pride and the relief that they had made it to the prize. I watched them accept their diplomas while their families and friends whistled and applauded as their names were called.

As they came down the stairs, some shouted out; one did a cartwheel, and another did a victory dance.

As I reminisced, I remembered that sunny day when I stood beaming in my cap and gown, clutching that hard earned diploma in front of the University's Assembly Hall. I was on top of the world.

I remembered the look on my face preserved in the photo my parents kept on display for years. I was glowing, filled with hopes, dreams and goals for a bright future.

A college degree was my ticket to a new life, better than my parents had, to live the American dream...the first college grad in our family, let alone the only female.

My four years of study prepared me to be an English teacher K-12. I believed that was the life ahead of me.

Graduating from college is what my mother had encouraged me to do after her own education was cut short by a depression that required her to quit school as an 8th grade honors student and work in the local factory to help her family put food on the table. My father managed to graduate high school which was typical for his generation.

I could relate to the students who pursued a degree while working fulltime, raising families and going to school at night. I appreciated their struggles and determination.

It had not been easy for me either. If it hadn't been for three scholarships and working three jobs, I could not afford to pay for my education. There were no other funds available at the time.

Looking back at that day when the world was my oyster, I thought I knew where the journey would take me: marriage, children, a teaching career and a comfortable life in a small town in the Midwest.

I had a master plan and a script to follow. I was all set.

Little did I know, how differently my life would go. I had college credits and a degree but little life experience for what was to come.

Years later after my divorce, I moved East to pursue a corporate communications and marketing career and even became a vice president of a high-tech start-up as my career advanced.

I raised my children as a single parent, then married and divorced again, and ultimately returned to teaching after many years in the business world. Along the way I earned my MA from the University of Richmond.

That was not the plan the day I stood proudly clenching my diploma ready to take on the world, or so I thought.

Where will the journey take the new grads? The one thing I can tell them is that it will be an adventure they cannot imagine and wouldn't want to miss.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

mortar board 1 photo by renata jun

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What I Learned from a Cockroach

Like most people, I find cockroaches disgusting and repulsive, but one cockroach taught me a lesson just at the time I needed it.

I'm afraid of bugs...always have been. I remember them knocking and buzzing at the screen as I tried to sleep on a hot "unairconditioned" night in Chicago when I was a young girl. 

It was the mid '90s on a sultry afternoon in New Orleans. I just left our company's partner conference. I was in turmoil about whether to leave the company that was faltering; it was just a matter of time before it would go belly up. Layoffs were underway, and the high-tech giant was floundering.

I was burned out; and as the workers left, the rest of us shouldered more of the load. I had reached a fork in the road--stay or go before the end. I was offered a corporate position, but it was really too late for a turnaround. If I left, I had no idea what I would do next. I felt "stuck" by my responsibilities and could not see a way out.

On the way back to the hotel, I discovered an art glass studio where students were shaping lava-like, molten glass into beautiful, decorative vases and bowls.

I love art glass, so I couldn't pass up the chance to watch the amazing process of golden, liquid glass being fired. It was an old warehouse with a tall, arched glass skylight, a dramatic rooftop for the fiery ovens below where the glass was given its final form.

Suddenly a storm blew in, the sky blackened, and lightening streaked above the skylight putting nature's fireworks on display, a theatrical production of fire and rain clashing as the glass was creatively brought to life by the glassblowers.  It was a dramatic moment of blazing fire, pounding water and lashing wind.

A deluge struck the building and we were caught on foot in a flash flood. The street quickly filled up with rushing water. We took off our shoes, rolled up our slacks, and waded into thigh-high murky water, feeling the pavement under our feet, but unable to see what was beneath the quickening current.

We sought higher ground and saw an historic townhome nearby with a dozen steps up to its landing.  We climbed as quickly as we could to safety as the water continued to rise.

We were not the only ones seeking dry ground. Below us, we watched a giant roach instinctivelyly inch its way up each concrete step to avoid being swept away.

Once again I felt that familiar revulsion, but I was stuck in place.

As I observed the roach work its way to safety, I became fascinated by its behavior. It knew what to do and how to survive.

I realized in the storm that the roach moved forward to live. That was the sign I needed.

I, too, had to move on and flee the corporate storm that was destroying my spirit and future.

I still am squeamish when I see a cockroach but am grateful for the lesson it taught me that day when I needed to escape the murky turmoil around me and regain my footing on solid ground.

Sometimes life lessons come from the last place we would look for them.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

power of nature by nespresso
steps1 by vasantdave