Union Station, Los Angeles

From the archives, taken in 1984 or so. I used to love to sit in one of those wood chairs and breathe and think and watch people coming and going. Union Station has appeared in many movies, including "Blade Runner" and 1950's "Union Station," which was set in Chicago but shot interiors in L.A.


Winnetka, Land of Mystery

A friend of mine has become obsessed with Winnetka, the name of a main street and town in our corner of the county, since he heard it was a Native American word meaning “beautiful land” and after it became the freeway exit to his home. Since the same freeway used to be a passageway for the Chumash Indians, he also wondered if “winnetka” might be Chumash. Being a fan of place names and etymology myself, I thought it would be fun to look into it.

It turns out Winnetka’s origins aren’t local at all, but rather in Illinois, where the town of Winnetka was incorporated in 1869. Beyond that there doesn’t seem to be any solid consensus on anything. The Winnetka Historical Society attributes the word to a Native American phrase meaning “beautiful land” that town founder Charles Peck’s wife Sarah supposedly read in a book, adding that “the source of this phrase has never been discovered.”

A dubious Wikipedia entry citing the WHS posits that “no language has been found with a word anything resembling both Winnetka and the definition.” The Village of Winnetka website states as fact that it’s a Native American word meaning “beautiful land.” The Encyclopedia Brittanica entry hedges, saying the word is “thought” to be derived from a Native American dialect.

Only the L.A. Times cites an actual tribe, claiming in a 1998 town profile that Winnetka is a Potawatomi word for “beautiful place,” an idea also put forth (and possibly derived from) an entry on MSN’s Encarta that says “probably.” (And yes, that’s the same Potawatomi Indians immortalized in the Tigers of Instantaneous Death song “Dowagiac.”)

That’s plausible, since the Potawatomi were known to live in Illinois (Winnetka is 10 miles away from the Potawatomi Woods). They could also be found in Kansas, and the Kansas Heritage Group’s helpful Potawatomi Dictionary translates “beauty” and “earth” (the closest thing I could find to “beautiful land”) as “we’onuk kik.” We’onuk-kik. Winnetka. Hmmm.

Then there’s UCLA Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Anthropology William Bright, who states rather professorially in his book “Native American Placenames of the United States”: “The name is apparently an artificial coinage from elements in various Algonquian languages, including SNEng [sic]. Algonquian ‘beautiful’ (Vogel 1963). The placename also occurs in Calif. (Los Angeles, CA) and Minnesota (Hennepin Co.).”

So which is it? Potawatomi? Multiple Algonquian? Sarah Peck’s pidgin Indian? Unsourceable? Beautiful land? Magnificent feast? More importantly, how can so many different takes on the origin of one word co-exist in an authoritative context? It seems that not only is the erosion of truth inevitable but insurmountable.

UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous reader for the following additional info:

Wenet- means it is good looking. Ka could come from ke- earth or sometimes pronounced ki-
ki with a k means at on or near a location. It is called locative.

In Potawatomi there is an animate or living word and inanimate non living word for most things. So Wenet- is is inanimate while wenze- he/she is beautiful.

Wenek- is a different form of the same word.


Leo, Sagittarius, Capricorn and Mills Ltd.

From the archives, an unpublished photo of R.E.M. at a record signing taken in 1985. "Fables" was out and Wendell Gee was reared to give respect so I went and waited. I had recently tapped into Mel Torme because Stipe had mentioned him in an article. I also had a live bootleg tape my friend Craig had given me of an Atlanta show where the band had played “California Dreamin'.” So when I got to Stipe, I asked him if he was taking requests for the show that night and suggested “California Dreamin',” to which he replied, “That’d be kind of obvious, wouldn’t it?” Ouch. Not wanting to be left crestfallen in front of one of my musical heroes, I came back with a quick rejoinder: “Okay, how about some Mel Torme?” And he says, “Who’s Mel Torme?” Double ouch! (It was many years later before I was finally able to delve into the cue of his Ignatz tattoo and allow myself to fully enjoy the work of George Herriman.) On the plus side, he signed my "Murmur" and "Fables" posters, and on the bottom of the latter he marked up the IRS label mascot and wrote “G-Men Alive,” a scrawl I thought was so cool that for many years afterwards I wanted to use it for a band name.

And yes, I did look up birthdates and astrological signs to come up accurate in the Monkees album takeoff of today’s title, and providence provided quite a match.


Rotten Terrible McNasty's

When I was growing up in the Valley there was a gas station off the freeway called Terrible Herbst. This was a source of great amusement for me as a teen, the idea that any company would call themselves terrible anything, and I avoided the place just for the sheer stupidity of it.

A few years later during a trip to Northern California I came across another gas station called Rotten Robbie. Again I had to wonder, not only about the logic of having the word rotten associated with your product, but why both of these aberations were in the business of selling fuel. Were there any other badly-named companies I didn’t know about?

It turns out Terrible Herbst still exists and now operates gas stations in California, Nevada and Arizona, as well as Terrible’s Casinos, all seeded from a station in Chicago in 1938 and named after founder Ed Herbst. (They even have a racing division called Terrible Motorsports. Would you want to drive for Terrible Motorsports?) Wikipedia doesn’t say where the bad side of Ed came from, but the website for Rotten Robbie says one of the owners was named Robinson and they thought rotten was “catchy.”

There was also a bar in the Valley named Filthy McNasty’s ( and apparently are others today as far-flung as Fort Worth, Texas and Aberdeen, UK), but that somehow seemed more appropriate, if not kind of odd to a kid. Then there’s those reality missed:

Diabolical Dalrymple
Putrid Pete Petrol
Shady Smith’s Sunoco
Horrible Hank
Awful Andy’s

The possibilities are endless, but my dedication to the riff isn’t. I tried to look for other bad names but mostly found pages dedicated to names that were either unfortunate or just plain stupid, rather than ones intentionally named with negative connotations. Are there more like this, and is the trend limited to gas stations and bars?


Ten 2008 Winter Movie Reviews

“Bedtime Stories”: Adam Sandler, CGI, and so many
crazy effects you won’t even notice the plot holes.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Everything
old is young again—even F. Scott Fitzgerald stories.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still”: Calling occupants
of interplanetary craft. Klaatu, right?
“Four Christmases”: Sly holiday family
dysfunction? Eh. Steenburgen as cougar? Pass.
Frost/Nixon: Sock it to me, Opie!
“Gran Torino”: A racist Clint Eastwood meets the
Tao of Asia over a 1972 muscle car? Okie-dokie.
“Last Chance Harvey”: Didn’t Dustin Hoffman
already play Willy Loman?
“Marley & Me”: Overrated cute dog book now latest
notch in Jennifer Aniston’s lukewarm features belt.
“Seven Pounds”: At current exchange rates, that’s
$10.26 I’ll save not seeing this.
Valkyrie: For those who just couldn’t wait until
Valentine’s Day to see Tom Cruise try to kill Hitler.