Online guides such as The Zagat Guide, Yelp or TripAdvisor can be useful to diners and detrimental to restaurateurs. One bad review can close you down before they close their browser. Cyber-sent diners will flee from your eatery before they can even taste for themselves whether your "ambiance is as bland as the soup" or "Their Chicken Piccata made me want to yank my tongue out." Some people are just mean -- like the guy in California who ran around suing and subsequently closing restaurants if their handicapped facilities weren't up to his non-handicapped satisfaction.
I do read reviews, but take them with a grain of salt if the salt is needed. The Zagat Guide once included in their review of swanky eatery The Ivy at The Shore that it had "a nice view of the homeless." Decency herself personally marched into the Zagat office, waved her lily-white arm and that errant phrase vanished. Zagat was right. Many Hollywood hangers-on had difficulty swallowing their $48 hanger steaks with bums blatantly looking all pitiful and hungry just outside the window. Mediocre starlets actually got acting jobs based on their ability to act like they didn't notice the destitute throngs blocking their view of the Santa Monica Pier. We all saw them, we just didn't care. We cared, deep down, but just not right then.
Back in the old days, if someone lost their home, someone else in the community took them in. Sure their reputation was forever tarnished and they'd be spoken of in hushed tones, but they'd be provided for. Then the depression hit, and there were just too many. Entire shanty towns popped up like zits on a teenager and legions of train-hopping hobos rode the rails without tickets or steamer trunks. By the time the bloody Viet Nam war was broadcast into our shag-carpeted living rooms during dinner, we were desensitized. "Toughen up and cut that steak, America," Walter Cronkite said. "Keep eating, dear, it's not us," our mother's assured us.
When I moved to Santa Monica, I saw the same, really old homeless woman for 15 years. She was tiny, had grey Phyllis Diller fright-wig hair, and managed to maneuver a marvelous string of a dozen small wheeled carts tied together with plastic bags. I would see her organizing her carts like she was managing children, pausing to refresh the slash of bright orange lipstick that lit up her otherwise grey face. I always figured she would be picked up one day and provided a home, but she disappeared. Presto -- it only took 15 years, and I think she died.
I always face a conundrum -- do I give a homeless person a dollar to ease their struggle, or does that make them successful as beggars and keep them oppressed?
I love Callahan's Restaurant in Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard. Opened by an Irish family in 1948, but bought in the '80s by a Mexican family. The papi cooks, his daughters are the waitresses, and the abuela gives you coffee whether you want it or not. Once I was enjoying huevos rancheros, when a homeless woman came in and ordered breakfast. I asked the waitress to discretely add it to my bill. When her food arrived and the waitress told her it was on the house. The woman looked puzzled, but put away her rumpled money -- money just like I would later use to pay -- and took her Styrofoam box and left to eat on the street. I had hoped that she would take a break from the mean streets and sit in the comfort of the green, vinyl booths. The waitress explained that the woman always declined to sit inside because she didn't want to bother the other, cleaner diners.
I recently had to step over a homeless woman in my path. I saw her stocking feet and figured that she'd been a victim of a recent shoe theft. Her dark tan brought out her still-attractive features. I thought for a second that if this were the South of France or my pool, she would be actually improving her appearance by getting a little sun, but here she was just literally burned up and out -- unprotected. Sunblock was low on the list, beat out by vodka and survival.
She is someone's daughter or sister or wife. At one time she laughed and watched old movies and maybe cooked breakfast for her children. She earned that spot on the street, on her own, by falling on times as hard as the sidewalk. It might not look like it, but she is still someone special. Unlike the disconnect I usually enjoy when watching tragic news on television at a safe distance, she was very close to me, and could be someone I know, or me.
I am reminded to practice tolerance and reserve judgement. I may not drop a quarter in their cup, but I can smile and look in their eyes and wish them a better day. That doesn't make them successful as a beggar, and it keeps my humanity in check.
I always try to live in gratitude, which thankfully needs no physical address.
Follow Greg White on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eatgregeat