Prelude: Cheeto Returns (Rainbow Rose Still Lifes at Kaldi Coffee and Tea)
The cafe is narrow, with a dozen little tables and a gray concrete floor. Nothing too fancy. Nothing too shiny.
No espresso poured into designer porcelain with a dusting of organic cacao and a layer of orange-infused, textured milk. No movie stars. Or hardly ever.
But Kaldi Coffee & Tea is home to a community of dreamers who share a singular ambition: They want to be part of the movies.
Since the silent film era, people have flocked to L.A., seeking stardom. Hollywood may change, but the calculus remains the same. Chasing the elusive, living on shoestring budgets yet needing places to think and talk, write and edit.
Places like this one. Where nobody bothers you. Nobody asks you to move after half an hour. Where laptops are like coffee cups -- plentiful and always in use.
Pete Merryman, a former "South Park" animator who is quietly working on pencil sketches with his wife, animator Amy Winfrey, became a regular because he was looking for two things.
"The first being really good coffee," he says.
The second? "A really unpretentious vibe."
That's Kaldi. A world apart from bustling, showy cafes, it even has an address that fits: funky, down-home Atwater Village, about five miles east of Hollywood.
Sure, plenty of customers have nothing to do with movies: Realtors, students, paramedics. It also draws the occasional lost soul who sleeps along the nearby Los Angeles River.
But most of the regulars -- found at the cafe every day for long, over-caffeinated hours -- are screenwriters, producers, directors, editors, cinematographers, stagehands and everything in between.
Some are well established. Some have felt success slip through their fingers. Still others are hoping for a break, praying they can keep going, knowing failure could mean having to move back to wherever they came from.
"It's very much a workplace," says Nicholas McCarthy, a screenwriter and director whose first film, "The Pact," was written at Kaldi and screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "I'll be working away and I'll get tired and notice there's somebody else tapping away at a laptop a few feet from me. I might know this person, but maybe not. It doesn't matter; I know what they're going through, and there's a bond."
When Kaldi opened in 2002, new faces and new energy were beginning to transform what had been a worn, gang-troubled stretch of Glendale Boulevard.
Now, baby-carrying hipsters from nearby Silver Lake fill the sidewalks. And cobbled among the old businesses are the new: a gourmet restaurant, two Vietnamese noodle houses, an organic grocery store, a wine shop, Pilates, art and dance studios.
Kaldi has a staff of seven baristas (several are working on screenplays, of course, though they tend not to talk about this at the cafe). At least four times daily they scoop up beans -- roasted in a smoky back room -- and run them through a big Bunn coffee grinder.
Anyone spending more than an hour there walks out redolent of freshly pulled espresso. The low growl of the grinder mixes with music best described as eclectic: from Elvis to John Coltrane to little-known Japanese rock bands.
"Anything but eight hours of salsa and gangsta rap," says Kristen Wilhite, who manages the cafe.
She looks out from behind the counter, taking in the faces she sees every day.
"We can see how hard it is to make it in Hollywood," Wilhite says. "There are the people doing well. Did you hear about Colin Farrell coming in here one morning in his pajamas? Then we'll see people who have just arrived in L.A. They'll have their laptop open, working away on scripts or memorizing lines for a big audition.... We don't bother them. This is their place....
"But some, after a while, you just see them sort of losing hope," she says. "And then, just like that, we don't see them anymore."
Wilhite swipes a credit card through the processor, and regulars look up from their tables, almost as one.
At Kaldi, a single phone line carries life to the credit card machine, the fax and the wireless Internet modem. Invariably, when a card is processed, the phone line clogs, the modem freezes, the Internet shuts down and laptops are temporarily left in a lurch.
"It's one of the charms," says Clay Tarver, much admired among the regulars because he's no longer just a dreamer. He's living his dream. ("At Kaldi, everyone wants to be like Clay," says one regular, only partly in jest.) With "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams, Tarver co-wrote a 2001 motion picture thriller called "Joy Ride," which launched him on a steady writing career.
Tarver is often the first to arrive when Kaldi opens at 6:30 on weekdays. But, on one cloudy Monday morning, the first is Robert Troccolo, who studied film at Syracuse University before moving to Los Angeles in 2008, hoping to make movies. Troccolo lives in an Atwater Village apartment, works as a freelance researcher for Netflix, and in his spare time writes the screenplay he hopes will give him his first taste of Hollywood success.
"Back to the office," he says, walking through the doors. "Gotta lot of work to do."
At the counter, a ceramic mug full of fresh coffee waits for him.
"The people who are here all the time, we know what they want," Wilhite says. "Some, we don't know their name, but we know what they drink so we have nicknames. We'll see one guy coming through the doors and say, 'Oh, there's double-shot latte with soy,' or 'Get ready, there's hot chocolate, no whip.' "
For the first few hours, Troccolo is the only patron.
But 9 a.m. changes everything, as if someone turned a key.
Within minutes, the cafe hums: A woman reads over her dissertation; a freelance reporter plans his next story; two producers discuss financing for an independent movie; Troccolo's writing partners, Lucia Bozzola and Sherrie Gulmahamad, plop down on wooden chairs next to him.
"My writing, it's all about romantic comedies," says Gulmahamad, with a self-deprecating tone. "Rom-Coms, jeez! I wish I could write serious movies like Sofia Coppola does, but she has connections. Me? Just like everyone else in this cafe right now, I need to pay the rent."
The morning creeps forward. Tarver sits two tables away, reading a script.
He looks up and sees Amad Jackson, an actor whose recent theater work and a role in a series of Sears commercials have given his career a boost. Jackson, whose first child was born two days earlier, had been with his wife in the hospital -- until today, when he broke away for a short time to come to Kaldi.
"I don't like being here right now but I've got this audition coming," he tells Tarver, as he shows off cellphone photos of his little girl. "A few hours reading my lines here, then it's back to the hospital. I can't afford to take any time off. I have to get work, especially with my daughter."
The dreamers don't always know each other. Some keep strictly to themselves. But Jackson once worked at the cafe, and he's friendly with everyone. Up sidles Seth Burnham. Acting gigs have been scarce of late for Burnham, who lives with a pair of cats in a small apartment nearby and whose wife recently moved to St. Louis for her hospital residency.
Hearing about the baby cheers him.
"It's funny," he says. "This place, in this anonymous city, I'm here so much it's become my community. In a way it keeps me going."
The same could be said for William Graydon, a former reporter. At 90, he has shaky, weathered hands but enough energy to ride his single-speed Schwinn to Kaldi every day.
Even though he has never been part of the Hollywood crowd, he is Kaldi's soul.
He talks spirituality, politics, the glory of baseball legend Hack Wilson and the existence of UFOs. He's also never stingy in encouraging the dreamers -- whom he calls "the laptoppers."
"Good morning, everybody," he says, tugging his old gray hat, addressing nobody in particular.
Noon is coming, the sky outside is slate and a cold wind churns down the boulevard. But inside, it's warm and you can smell roasted coffee and hear Graydon talking and the patter of fingers tapping on keypads. Everything feels right.