By Frank Vespe
Elizabeth is a 20-year-old blond haired, blue eyed, size one, Gwyneth Paltrow look-a-like who lives in a posh Long Island community, where most of her friends are “one percenters” and children of the stars.
She attends a prestigious North Shore university during the day, teaches guitar and violin for $20 per hour to rich kids at night, babysits on weekends for East End luminaries such as Paul McCartney’s daughter Bea, drives her father’s brand new Civic everywhere always using his BP credit card to keep the tank filled and her stomach nourished with non-meat food.
By all accounts, she doesn’t have a care in the world, except for her occasional anxiety attack, such as when she needs to ask the counter person in Baja Fresh on Hollywood Blvd. for extra cilantro on her salsa to compliment her favorite meal in the whole wide world, the Mexicano bean and cheese burrito she nibbles on all the while checking the delivery status of the ripped skinny jeans she ordered from Urban Outfitters.
Her appearance is All American, would be Fonzie’s main squeeze if not for Jenny Piccolo, yet her angelic inner feelings of compassion for fellow man brings her to a two-mile stretch of soiled cement in Venice Beach on a balmy day in November to experience the desolation and despair of Ocean Front Walk while discovering a world her New York City father describes as “heartbreaking.”
Beginning at age five, I took her twice a week, Tuesday and Thursdays at 4:30, to a music store in Levittown, NY, where she studied guitar, piano and violin, quickly able to play any lick Slash or Itzak Perlman threw her way.
Local bands soon noticed her beauty and musical ability, asking her to play gigs all over Long Island at parties and small venues, keeping me awake many nights at 3 am wailing “Sweet Child of Mine” in her room. It came as no surprise when I mentioned her younger brother Paul was to tour UCLA and meet its baseball coach that she quickly begged to join our sojourn, excited to see its vibrant music scene, never expecting its scene was more vagrant than vibrant.
It was Saturday at noon when we parked on 18th Avenue, a block from the beach, and began our precession toward the Santa Monica Pier two miles away, but less than a hundred feet into our stroll, Elizabeth ducked into a stall of a cinder block, bunker-like grey bathroom in the sand, slammed the two-inch-thick shiny silver door and cried and cried like I never heard her cry before.
“The homelessness is too overwhelming,” she cried.
“Get the police, break the door down,” my 15-year-old son Paul shouted.
“Have you seen a police officer?” I asked, unlike the multitude of law enforcement every eleven feet in Times Square.
When the door finally eased opened, her gaze was unfamiliar yet determined. Instead of continuing to Santa Monica, she ran to our car, threw on a worn grey and white sweater she bought at the Goodwill store in Hollywood the night before, tussled her long blond hair with two hands, then pulled her 12 string acoustic Epiphone guitar from the trunk of our rented RAV 4 and lumbered to an open patch of concrete next to Mister Justin, a 20-something handsome thin guy with an open to his belly-button designer shirt, a red flowing wig on his head hiding behind Elvis Presley-type mirrored sunglasses hawking used CDs and other odd trinkets who moved to Venice a few months ago from Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I’m a promoter,” he boasted. “If you’re any good, I’ll be your manager.”
“My dad’s my manager,” she quickly answered.
“Cool,” he said as he slid his tiny chair to her to sit and play guitar on.
“What brings you here?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’m best friends with Michael Morgan, the actor,” he boasts.
“I never heard of him,” she answered.
“He’s BIG, we’re best friends,” he says. “I’m staying with him in the Hills; he should be here any minute, I’ll introduce you to him, maybe he’ll put you in one of his movies.”
I later discover on IMDB that Michael Morgan, the actor, died in 1999.
Elizabeth asked for my East Hampton Star baseball cap, turned it upside down, laid it in front of her and began strumming, quickly attracting passersby’s who threw dollar after dollar after dollar in the hat.
“You made more in 10 minutes than I made all yesterday,” Mister Justin said.
Elizabeth smiled, nodded at me and her brother Paul to leave her alone and so we found a spot 20 feet away sitting against the opposite wall, recording every second with my Panasonic HMC 40 HD camera on my lap, ready to pounce on anyone remotely making an unwanted move toward her, but alas, only guys with second hand guitars and second hand dreams approached, offering her a hit of their joint, too common up and down the strip.
Before I knew it, young guys with guitars slung over their shoulders swarmed around her, playing tunes, vying for her attention, not knowing her world was a million miles from theirs.
“I’m gonna be famous,” said barefoot Bert Malcom, a 19-year-old Native American from North Dakota who moved to Venice a month before.
“What’s your plan?” Elizabeth asked.
“Plan?” he answered. “Someone’s gonna discover me, that’s the plan.”
Elizabeth and Bert are now friends on Facebook. They communicate only when he borrows someone’s iPhone.
A few feet away sat Peter Demien playing a vintage Guild acoustic guitar, a 69-year-old Cat Stevens sound alike who moved to Venice in 1989 from Ontario, Canada hoping to become famous. He walks over to see the new girl and quickly hands Elizabeth his Street Smart one-inch lapel buttons.
“Take one of my pins,” he tells Elizabeth handing her two.
To be nice, she clips it to her thrift shop sweater, smiles and says “Thanks.”
“Wanna buy my album?” he asked holding up his $15.99 CD.
“I don’t have any money,” she answered.
“Here, take it for free,” he said leaving it by her feet.
“That’s awesome!” she replied.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“New York,” she answered, never revealing her home in the Hamptons.
“Welcome to Venice,” he mumbled.
“And why are you here?” Elizabeth asked the Glenn Frye look-a-like.
“I love making music,” he brags, “Lived in my car for thirteen years, right behind me in the parking lot, but I made a few unwise choices, and well, I’m still here, playing for loose change,” he continued.
“That’s some commitment,” she said.
“My glory days are behind me. The music scene needs someone like you; pretty, young and talented,” he said walking back to his post with his Guild guitar, behind a Shure battery operated microphone and portable Fender amp.
Five hours passed when Elizabeth decides it’s time for a bite, so she gathers her booty, about $255 and walks with me and Paul along the strip toward the guy holding the $1.99 Slice sign above his head, her Epiphone slung over her shoulder looking like every other hopeful James Taylor, but our walk is halted when we come upon a guy with his head bent over, oblivious to the crowd, rifling his fingers along the keys of a baby grand piano.
And then there is Nathan Pino, could be Robin Williams’ twin except for the long blond bleached ponytail hair, perhaps the most remarkable pianist I have ever seen and heard in my life, a true virtuoso, brilliant savant. His fingers fly over the 88 keys like magic, not sure he’s even touching the keys, but I hear its beauty, deep richness, never missing a note.
“Are you classically trained?” Elizabeth asked.
“I started playing at four, never stopped,” he answered with his head buried toward the ivories.
“Me too!” Elizabeth answered excitedly. “You should be playing Carnegie Hall.”
“I like it here,” he sheepishly said.
‘And what brings you here?”
“I moved from San Francisco in ’71 when I was 18 with my band,” he continued. “Capitol Records wanted us to play on a bunch of records with big producers, but it’s tough keeping a band together.”
“Ever play in any famous bands?” Elizabeth asked again, curious about his life.
“I played keyboard with Iron Butterfly, but you probably never heard of them,” he answers.
“In a gadda devita!” she blurted out, but he turned to his baby grand piano, pushed back his tightly wound hair and played the theme of Somewhere in Time by Rachmaninov, disappearing again into his own world, never looking up, eyes closed, fingers leaping like a dancer in the Nutcracker.
The remainder of the day was spent closer to Santa Monica, where Elizabeth played guitar next to Daniel, a former IT guy now making a $1,000 a day selling stones, then on the porch of Jim Morrison’s sky blue alleged house, fulfilled she embraced a side of life never seen in the Hamptons.
And on the plane ride back to LaGuardia the following week, Elizabeth sat stoic, her eyes filled with water, staring over and over and over at the video footage I shot of perhaps the world’s most un-famous pianist in the world.
Play on Nathan, play on.