Tommy's and Our Block Party

Original Tommy's on the corner of Beverly and Rampart

The other part of Tommy's

La Verne Block Party. Maurey grilling.

Melissa and Princess pose in front of the fire truck
at the block party

All of the kids loved the face painting

A pot-luck of food

The first time Jason arrived in California I picked him up at LAX and took him straight to Tommy's. Food brought Jason and I together in the first place and there was no better way to keep a blossoming romance going than to add enjoying the best chile cheeseburger in the state together. Jason still says it is one of the favorite memories ever.

I grew up eating Tommy's burgers because my parents lived in Silverlake and my dad grew up around the corner from Tommy's on Alvarado Terrace. Tommy's burgers were certainly a family tradition and I couldn't wait to have Jason share in this family joy! There is something about the hot spicy chili juxtaposed with the thick cold tomato and then the burger and cheese that is so addicting you never want to stop eating them. And they are so messy you have to eat them very quickly.

This past Sunday we had a block party. I only know a few of my neighbors. Most people have such busy lives and tend of find their homes a sanctuary to rest. The children play together on the street and I'll wave at someone if they are outside when I head out on a walk, and I have the neighbors right next door who get all my cooking experiments, but for the most part I didn't know many of my neighbors. Thankfuly, one of our neighbors took the time and effort to organize a block party so we could all finally get to know each other. The street was closed off and it was a big pot-luck. There was a fire-truck, face-painting, a jumpy house, chalk drawings, water balloon fights, lots of grilling and lots of happiness and conversation as people introduced themselves to each other. (I will also note at this point that we seem to have an unusual number of really good cooks on our street, mostly men, and the food at the potluck was great!) The party was supposed to last from 1-5 but by 6:00 we were all still throughly enjoying our conversations. The fog had rolled in and it had gotten quite cold (CA beach towns are famous for being "cold" in the "June Gloom.") So we went and got jackets and I changed into sweats and Jason got the firepit out and carried it up into the middle of the street where we were all talking. Other neighbors brought wood and we had a big fire in the middle of the street and the party continued.

One of our elderly neighbors, and one of the few original homeowners on the street, John sat quietly with a warm blanket on his lap for hours through all of these conversations. I was told from another neighbor that he has mild dementia. He seemed to be enjoying himself even though he was very quiet. His daughter would check on him to ask him if he wanted to go inside, but he was happy and wanted to stay outside. He stayed around the fire for hours not saying anything as we were all deep in conversation.

Because there were so many food lovers on the street, the topic of conversation continually circled back around to food. Sean and Blake were telling us about these great Pastrami's sandwiches in Simi Valley and that we had to make a drive out there just to try them. Jason and I wondered if they were as good as Shapiro's in Indiana. Sean explained that they were dipped, like a French Dip. That lead the conversation to Philippe's, where the French Dip was invented and suddenly, John pipes up "I've been to Philippe's." So now he's part of the conversation and then Blake or Sean said something to the effect that the best comfort food ever is Tommy's. So everyone joins in the conversation: Rob and Kelley went to USC and ate at Tommy's all the time. Everyone is talking so loudly and excitedly about how much they love a good Tommy's Burger and describing the burgers, the chili, the tiny counters, the paper towel dispenser for napkins, the cold bin that your reach into to get your soda, the middle of the night food runs since it is open 24 hours. Then John says "I knew Tommy."

For some reason it never occurred to me that there was an actual man named Tommy's. The place and the food were their own icons and had been there for so long and I'd never seen a picture or heard anything about the original man who created this chiliburger that we all crave. So I asked John where he was from and how he knew Tommy. John was from New York and served in the Philippines and Japan in WWII. When he got out he moved to Los Angeles and met his wife. His wife worked at the theatre on Western and 3rd and was neighbors with Tommy Koulax and his family. So after she got off work, they would go to Tommy's together to get a burger. Tommy was even invited to their wedding.

It is interesting to me how a favorite thing can trigger someone's memory. I've seen it happen when our homeschool group goes on the monthly visits to a nursing home. John had been quiet most of the day and most of the evening. But somehow this talk of favorite food places triggered John's memory and then he went on to tell some great stories and he even owned a deli here in Ventura after he and his wife moved up here from Los Angeles. He also said in the 50's they used to have block parties all the time. I wish I had a camcorder and could have recorded some of his stories.

I think everyone has a story, you just have to ask the questions and listen to the answers. It was a special day and I hope it will become a tradition. There is something wonderful about including everyone of all ages in a party from infants and toddlers to WWII veterans. We all benefit from knowing each other.


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