Last Monday, I was walking through Wino’s Alley on Serrano Street toward Sunset Boulevard. A couple of winos were laying on the the sidewalk ahead of me, their bodies curved to fit in whatever shade was available, on the sidewalk outside the Food 4 Less. Across the street, against the wall of Bill’s Liquor, three other winos – babbling, drinking, seeing things I couldn’t see – kept counsel on the other side.
“BLAH!” Exclaimed one.
“Blah, blah…blah,” Said the other consolingly.
“Bl…bl…bah, blah. Blah. Blah,” Conceded the first.
“Blah, blah,” said the second, shaking his head in affirmation.
“Blah?” asked the third, who’d been destracted by a sunray.
It was an unusually clear day. To the north, the beautiful Hollywood Hills could be seen in sharp detail. Mini-palaces with big shiny windows and large balconies teetered over the sharp drop-offs of the bushy green Hills. Palm trees popped up in clusters here and there. The Hills looked so close in the smogless sky – floating in the heat waves of the hot day. It was as if the visage was projected out of the brain of the sleeping wino just ahead of me – a good dream about The High Life in 3D. The wino lay there – a crumpled up pizza box for a pillow – covered in grime from his gray hair to his one dingy sock next to a spattering of unidentifyable, dry organic matter. At first, I thought he was dead. But just after I leaned in for a closer look, he twitched slightly, as if an angel nudged him, or a gnat flew in his nose.
Across the street, one of the babbling winos crushed his empty 24oz. beer can and threw it in the gutter. His gin-blossomed face went blank as his fine day suddenly got hotter and longer. He sat in absolute disgust, listening to a slow clock ticking somewhere, pretending not to hear the howls of the dogs of despair that would be on him by evening. His two compadres babbled on. They still had some booze left. Their day was still Just Fine.
I found myself anxious, later that afternoon. My job in Los Angeles – building the set for Independent Shakespeare Company’s summer play festival in Griffith Park – all summer long folks, go to iscla.org for the schedule! – had finished up, for the most part. I’d been spent the last few days writing and trolling the internet for writing jobs, adding up to a lot of computer time. By Monday, I felt as if I’d just crawled out of one of those cryo-jelly pods like Keanu Reeves in the The Matrix, just after he took the Red Pill. Now that I was back in the carnal world, my body needed to move, so I decided to hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory – up in those Hills of that wino’s dream.
Just beyond the entrance of the park, people of all kinds lounged in the thick dark-green cool shade the park offered. Frizbees, picnics, books. A group of Buddhists meditated. A group of Muslims prayed towards Mecca. A steady flow of couples, joggers and dogs and their owners moved up and down the trail leading to the observatory. I joined the assembly line and headed up the switchback trail.
The idle time had taken it’s toll. I was sucking in air as I neared the observatory, sweating profusely. The sweat had a consistency of thin oil, and burned my eyes as I humped it up the hill. Everybody else looked fine. There were too giggly girls just ahead of me, talking about there dudes and what they ate for lunch. Behind me was a young couple, both wearing capris, skipping along, talking to each other like lovers do.
“Well, that’s a bit of history that they don’t tell ya’ in school, isn’t it?” said the girl.
“I know, it’s crazy, right?” replied the dude.
“You’re so smart.”
“Ah, well, you know.”
About two-thirds of the way up, there was stony water run-off that served as a shortcut for the more adventruous pilgrims heading to the observatory. I ascended the steep incline – slipping now and then, catching myself on rocks to stay upright – and crawled up to the last stretch of the switchback. Sweat stuck to my hands like hamburger grease. My shirt and jeans were soaked and covered in dirt. There was a tree by the trail and I went under it – my wet clothes cooled me in the breezy shade. A few moments later, the young couple in capri’s walked by, nuzzling against each other. They looked un-alone, un-worried, as He directed She’s attention to various parts of the city.
“Oh, that’s it, way over there?”
“Yeah, way over there, isn’t that cool?”
“That is so cool!”
The bounced up the trail like Raggedy Ann and Andy. Renewed with vigor, I followed.
The observatory is closed on Mondays, but many people were there, laying about on the greens in front of the entrance, peering out from the observatory’s balcony. I shouldered my way into the crowd on the balcony and looked over the city. Los Angeles sprawles so far out it finally just disappears, like there’s only the city and there’s never been anything else. I could see East Hollywood from the balcony pretty clearly. I could even see the corner of Serrano and Sunset. I couldn’t see the wino’s. But they were there.
Next to me, a girl held her smartphone to her ear, smiling to herself over what she was hearing. On the other side of me, a woman subconsiously put her arm around her husband – or whoever he was – as they stared out to the west. Behind me, a happy man carried his happy little son on his shoulders. Behind him a guy was taking pictures of his reluctant girlfriend on the concrete walkway, where there is an ebedded, brass diagram of our solar system.
In the center of the diagram, is a little brass dot, representing the sun. Then you have a brass circle representing the orbit of Mercury around the Sun. Then you have one respresenting Venus’ orbit, Earth’s, Mars’. There’s nothing after Mars for a while – you have to walk several pace before you come to Jupitor’s orbit. Then there’s Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and then there’s poor, demoted Pluto. When I was little, Pluto was a planet, I thought. Suddenly, I was rocketted back to the first grade, learning the planets in a little small town classroom with my childhood friends. But I was back in LA almost instantly, sweaty, older, and a long way from that little classroom. When I was little, Pluto was a planet…a planet…
I walked back to Earth’s orbit, stared at it. Looking down on it, it was an incredibibly simple place, planet Earth. Spins around while circling the sun, that’s all. I thought about what that astronaut said…
If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried. — Alan Shepard, Apollo 14 astronaut, second human in space.
Well, that’s nice, but that’s not what I was thinking about…
Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there. — Mike Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut; interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.
Close, but nope, wasn’t him, either…
This planet is not terra firma. It is a delicate flower and it must be cared for. It’s lonely. It’s small. It’s isolated, and there is no resupply. And we are mistreating it. Clearly, the highest loyalty we should have is not to our own country or our own religion or our hometown or even to ourselves. It should be to, number two, the family of man, and number one, the planet at large. This is our home, and this is all we’ve got. — Scott Carpenter, Mecury 7 astronaut; speech at Millersville University, Pennslyvania. 15 October 1992.
Not quite, but we’re getting closer…
It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small. — Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 Astronaut, first man on the moon.
THUMB!!!! THUMB!!!! Thanks for the hint, Neil Armstrong! Now, this is what I thought about…
We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself. — Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut; In the Shadow of the Moon.
By the time I descended the hill and got back to Hollywood, it was dark. I walked along from one dark pocket of shadow to the next along Hollywood Boulevard. The sidewalk was sprinkled with panhandlers, charged from the energy of the night into a near euphoric state. They almost looked happy they rattled about, their thin frames swinging inside their baggy clothes…say man, you got a dollar…bus fare…listen, I’m outta gas…I just need a fu#$ing quarter, man…ok, how about 20 cents? Man, what’s 20 cents?!
Sorry, buddy…sorry, buddy…sorry, buddy…
“Hey what’s up, man?” asked a different kind of voice coming out of a shadow.
I looked to my left and saw an old, black ashen hand sticking out of a shadow, holding a nearly full pint of gin. The bottle glowed in the streetlight, the shiny liquid sloshed around. I peered into the shadwow. The old man sat in a wheelchair, rubbing his abdomen as if to soothe the open wound caused by the jagged, sharp scales of the craving that crawled in and out him. But the craving seemed to be pacified for the time being, for he sported a large, gaping smile under his blooshot eyes. He held the pint higher, to me. He looked so happy.
“Say, wan’chu have a drink wimme?”
His smile was infectious, so I smiled back. But I didn’t answer. He leaned closer.
“Come on, man…drink wimme.”
The gin was strong. I lingered in its bouquet long enough for it to start smelling real good and perfect and absolute and the only thing I’ve ever wanted.
“No, thanks, buddy.”
As I left him, he reached out to grab me, just missing my arm.
“Hey, come on, man! HEY! HEY!”
“I’m sorry, buddy…”
Then his smile broke and on rushed the despair.
“GODAMMIT, MAN. JUST TALK TA’ ME!!!”
There was a wounded brutality to his voice. But after he shouted, he looked down at the ground. Tick, tock, and the howls growing nearer. But he was laughing when I made it to the corner. I turned around. He laughed, took a long drink, then laughed some more. The dogs of despair had passed him by, and his night was back to being Just Fine.
Whenever I feel like my week is passing too fast, I’ve realized, it just gets me that much faster to El Jamberoo! Your photo captions are whammies this week – wow. Totally hit me in the gut.
Beautiful piece of writing, vivid, lyrical and moving. LL