The Real Stage

Hello Everybody,

Last Thursday, I went to Los Angeles’ City Hall to attend a meeting of the Cultural Heritage Commission. It was a cold wet morning for the city – 59˚ F with light rain. From every direction, Angelenos pitter-pattered hurriedly across puddles like wet cats, toward City Hall.

20131121_095450-1On the docket for the Cultural Heritage Commission was a review of the proposal for the building of a new, permanent performance stage on the grounds of the Old Zoo in Griffith Park. It was to be built on the exact same spot where Independent Shakespeare Company – an employer of mine – has performed for the last 4 years. I, along with several members and fans of ISC, attended the meeting to express my support for the new stage.

Those opposing the building of the stage first. Their argument was that mass groups of people would destroy the area and harm the wildlife around, that the area should remain a quiet, private urban wilderness for Angelenos to visit. Also, they argued that the Old Zoo was a part of LA’s history, and should be preserved and honored as hallowed ground.

Winter in Movietown

Winter in Movietown

At that point, I really wished animals could speak. I wanted a Zebra to trot up to the mic, clear his or her throat and say, “Preserve a Zoo?! Sacred? Historical? Are you f#$king kidding me?! Let the play actors and melody makers have their stage. Hell, build a hundred stages over any and all reminders of such pain and mistreatment placed upon we lesser mammals by you big-brained f#$k-ups.” The zebra takes a drink of water. “By the way…’PRIVATE urban wilderness’? Isn’t a public f#$king park? Isn’t shit like this a no-brainer?” The buzzer rings, the zebra’s alotted time to speak has expired. The zebra trots out of the chamber.

Several people supporting the proposal appealed to the commissioners. Most of them stated that such a performance space would further the cause to bring to the poorer masses entertainment of cultural importance – Shakespeare, classical music, etc – that they may not be able to afford to see in real theatres, opera houses, symphony halls. One supporter used the founder of the park, Griffith J Griffith’s own words to make such a statement:

It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city.

Griffith J Griffith was not a member of the rank and file. He was a rich man of compromised repute. In 1903, he shot and nearly killed his wife, then served two years in prison for it. But in words and action, he advocated for a park that was to be home to all, especially the poor. And, hell, if the begetter of the park wanted to give the rank and file, those plain people, a place where they could relax, commune with other, and live free for at least an afternoon or evening before returning into a city where only toil and marginalization awaits  – well, shouldn’t it be so?

The president of the commission reminded both sides that the topic was only up for review and no voting would be done until another meeting in the future. He diplomatically stated he was all for art in the park but requested of the architects of the proposal to bring a detailed report of just what and how everything will be built, plus a report on the possible effects of the environment. Then that was it, they moved on to the next topic.

20131124_112918-1That night, I did my laundry. It was a cold, wet walk to laundromat. I usually go back the apartment while my clothes dry, but the laundromat’s dryers exuded a soothing, fuzzy warmth, so I sat on a bench, facing the folding tables – not reading, or smartphoning, just relaxing. There were several Mexican-Americans folding clothes in front of me – a man in work clothes, some mothers, children – not smiling, not frowning, just folding. They folded the garments steadily, without pause, like they were practicing some form of domestic tai-chi. They each appeared to have achieved a simple peace that evening, or at least looked like they weren’t looking too far into the future – short Spanish phrases to each other here and there, requiring no response. The tumbling dryers behind them looked like goofy, jiggling cartoon eyes. The man folded his underwear. The lady next to him held two corners of a sheet with both hands, her mija held the other two corners. They came together and the mother took all four corners and folded the sheet into an incredibly small square probably just like her madre, tias and her lovely old ‘uelas did.

I looked out the large window, behind me. The Persian family that ran the falafel joint sat at a table in front of the establishment. Business appeared to be slow but they looked content with just sitting there, bundled in their coats. They chain-smoked cigarettes as they talked, sat silent, talked again, sat silent again. The window was cold to the touch and my fingertips left little foggy prints. As I wiped them away with my shirtsleeve, the cold coming in from outside and the warmth from the dryers collided somewhere inside me and for a split second I dissolved into the ether. When I came back to form, I stated to myself, I’m Home. This moment is Home. I looked around, inside the laundromat and then outside. I saw no plain people anywhere. Only artists.

tick, tock, tick...tock...........tick.................

tick, tock, tick…tock………..tick……………..

The next day I walked up Western Blvd from Wilshire Blvd to Sunset Blvd – Koreatown to El Barrio de Hollywood. About halfway into the walk, the Mexican signage blended with the Korean signage on awnings of buildings constructed early on in the previous century. Along the waters of that cultural delta, I came upon a clock repair shop. I stood in the open doorway, stared into the profound emptiness the store. The old clocks on the wall may as well have been hieroglyphics dating back to antiquity. I was debating going further into the shop to see if I could witness the ancient craft of repairing a clock, when I heard piercing laughter behind me. Across the street at the Oriental Mission Church, a woman led a group of Black, Latino and Asian elementary kids into an entrance at the side of the church. The last three kids – Black male, Latino Male, Asian girl – laughed as they held hands and spun around.

These three kids were not the children of the rank and file, they were poets, articulating with their being their right to be happy, to live freely, wherever they are, whenever. Through this ode incarnate, they told me how simple Life really was:  All we have to do is hold onto each other as we spin around…there is absolutely nothing else to do.

At one point, the little girl spun free of the boys. She looked like a weeble wobble in her oversized hooded coat as she tried to balance herself. As soon as she did, she ran back to the boys and the three of them resumed spinning, resumed the laughter.

A day of very clear visibility...

Clear visibility…

It was a frigid 63˚ F. LA had made it to another winter. The sky was gray but the morning rain had cleared, taking with it any haze or smog. To the North were the hills of Griffith Park. It was such a clean, clear day that the Observatory and hiking trails could be seen in great detail. The fancy houses of the Hollywood hills could be seen, just below. And so clear, too, was the sprawling city, in every direction. It was one of those afternoons when it was clear enough to see just about everything.

Be well…

ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #4: Autumn in America by Joe O’Brien

Smells like burning wood, my wife notes as we roll through Gettysburg in our little gray Honda Fit, a third of the way between Brooklyn and Louisville. Not sure if it’s the homey aroma of autumn hearth-blazes, or maybe a burgeoning forest fire.

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO'B

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO’B

Seven score and ten years ago, Union soldiers blasted back the Confederate tide here in Gettysburg, thundering cannonballs upon the Rebels who charged up the steep, knotty-grass slope of Cemetery Hill. History says this was our Civil War’s deadliest battle, and a crucial episode in our country’s eventual reunification.

Back in the present, Republicans in our House of Representatives have been charging up their own steep, knotty-grass hill, flailing against a bulwark known as the Affordable Health Care Act. They’ve chosen to shut down government operations because Senate Democrats would neither delay nor de-fund this citizen-supported, Congressionally-passed, Supreme Court-approved legislation. It’s all that the newspeople in this country can talk about lately. CNN’s got two clocks ticking in the bottom right corner of its screen: One counts up the length of the shutdown not just to the hour and minute but to the very second; the other clock counts down the days left before this shutdown would cause the country to default on our debt.

Most of the states that’ve been voting for these Republican politics are the same states that elected to secede from the Union a century and a half ago rather than promote the abolition of slavery. Back then, though, the Republicans were Lincoln’s party. Today’s Civil War is also fought, for the most part, over how to deal with a vast class of impoverished and exploited people. Although today those people have skins of all shades, and while they aren’t slaves, in many ways they’re not unlike indentured servants.Today the war at home is brutal, but the violence is less physical than psychological. The artillery isn’t made of iron or steel, it’s made of information and disinformation, both of which can travel at lightspeed and bury themselves deeper than any bullet ever could.

We can’t visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery today because, as part of the National Park Service, and therefore an agency of the government, its gates are currently locked. Instead we visit the independently operated Gettysburg Museum of History (as seen on TV’s American Pickers). We view relics from the borough’s historic battle– rifles, uniforms, bones from amputated limbs– as well as pieces of Hitler’s furniture, one of Marilyn Monroe’s bras, and the gun Elvis shot at his television.

Later we wander the battlefield among a dozen other tourists and snap pictures into our phones. One woman uses her phone to yap about some office business that apparently can’t wait until she’s somewhere else. Yet the atmosphere’s so heavy with holy hush, and the view atop the hill’s so idyllic, not even a cellphone yapper can puncture the mood. Tough as it is to picture this lovely patch of nature littered with 50,000 soldier corpses, it’s easy– nay, unavoidable– to feel its magnet-like gravity buzzing my marrow.

I’m tempted to say the place feels haunted, though officially, I’m agnostic about ghosts. My hunch is, if ghosts exist then they’re everywhere, floating around gas station mini-marts and suburban strip-malls, not merely spooking sites of terrible tragedies. Gettysburg, however, seems utterly convinced that it’s extra-haunted. Of all the American towns I’ve seen, perhaps only New Orleans seems more convinced of its own extra-hauntedness than Gettysburg does. Or, Gettysburg simply knows that a lot of out-of-towners with disposable income are convinced of Gettysburg’s extra-hauntedness. Or, those out-of-towners are simply willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of few spine-tingles sprinkled into a history lesson. Whatever the reasons, there’s so many different “Ghost Tours” advertised around here I quickly lose count.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O'Brien

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O’Brien

Halfway between Brooklyn and Louisville lies Weston, West Virginia, home of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (as seen on TV’s Ghost Hunters). When we arrive at the hospital, opened in 1864, its austere Gothic architecture is under-lit against the full-dark sky. Giddy anticipation and Lovecraftian dread tango around my guts.

Outside the old tuberculosis ward, a guy with yellow eyes and blood-splattered clothes warns us: Don’t even think of taking pictures… If you take your cameras out, the kids will smack them out of your hands.

There really are kids inside. Kids so young they shouldn’t be up this late on a Wednesday in October. Some of them leap out of dark smoky corners, growl like feral drifters, and stalk us like we’re prey. Some wail in agony, trapped in abysses of trauma. Some sing nursery rhymes like they’ve just been lobotomized– a cliché, maybe, but still creepy as hell.

Then come the clowns on stilts. Their breath’s soaked in grape bubblegum. Feels like we’ve crossed the threshold into waking nightmare. We scream, and then we laugh.

Thirty minutes later we shuffle through the exit, utterly exhausted and yet blessed by a marvelous catharsis. All that’s left for us to do tonight is to drive a few miles over to the Holiday Inn and get a room.

Except we soon discover there’s no vacancy at the Holiday Inn.

Same with the Super 8 and the Days Inn across the street. And the Sleep Inn, and the Best Western up the road.

We have to drive another 15 miles before we find an available room at a Red Roof Inn. Their last remaining available room.

On a Wednesday night? In the middle of West Virginia?

I hate to sound like one of those myopic New Yorkers, but what the hell’s going on here?

The next day we drive through the town of Philippi, site of the Civil War’s first organized land battle. We’re hoping to see the so-called “Mummies Of The Insane,” the cadavers of two former asylum patients currently on display in the bathroom of the Barbour County Historical Museum. But when we get there, it turns out the museum’s only open on weekends, if volunteers are available.

We stroll along Main Street, but not much is open there either. Half the storefront windows display nothing but empty space; more than a few houses are boarded up. Which reminds me: it’s still awfully hard to make a living and find a home in this country these days. And suddenly, last night’s hotel room scarcity makes a little more sense.

As we zip along rural roads flanked by cornfields and crumbling barns, flipping around the FM airwaves, sometimes we’ll stumble upon a station playing muddy bluegrass ditties, or old-timey radio dramas about crooked prospectors. Alas, such stations tend to disintegrate into static before very long, and our options are soon reduced back to plain old Country, Christian, Classic Rock, or Top 40.

We keep hearing a song I’d never heard before this trip, a fairly recent track called “Redneck Crazy” by Tyler Farr. It catches my ear not because of any inspired melodies, witty wordplay, or unique arrangements, but because it seems to provide the ideal theme song for this shutdown we keep hearing about. The song’s sung by a guy who’s angry and sad because he’s just learned his woman’s been cheating on him. Now, under normal circumstances, I’d sympathize with such a person. However, in the case of “Redneck Crazy” I’m inclined to believe, by the end of the first chorus, that the narrator’s actually a stinky, gaping butthole who deserved to be cuckolded:

Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood

Park this Silverado on your front lawn

Crank up a little Hank,

Sit on the hood and drink

I’m about to get my pissed off on

Gonna aim my headlights into your bedroom windows

Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows

I didn’t come here to start a fight,

but I’m up for anything tonight

You know you broke the wrong heart baby

and drove me redneck crazy

First of all: Leave Hank out of this, dude. Hank sang some sad songs, but I never heard him sound this petulant or clueless. Tyler Farr sings “Redneck Crazy” as if acting like an immature stalker is a noble pursuit rather than creepy, criminal behavior. Where songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” or Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” radiate a palpable darkness that seems to acknowledge their narrators’ demons, “Redneck Crazy” seems content to wallow in the pale-brown muck of self-righteous self-pity.

I’ll admit to chuckling later in the song when Farr sings of his romantic rival, “Nah he can’t amount to much/ by the look of that little truck.” In a way, that lyric captures how heartbreak and jealousy can bring out our catty sides. Although I’m pretty sure Farr’s protagonist is only mocking the other guy here, not himself.

The sore-loser attitude, the cognitive dissonance, the insecure pseudo-machismo, the misguided ridicule, the misappropriation of good ol’ boy Americana– that’s why the song reminds me so much of the Ted Cruzes and John Boehners I keep seeing every morning when I click on the news. The American People are like Tyler Farr’s ex, falling into the arms of the saner, more moderate brand of Democratic politics. And instead of taking the loss like a man, doing some serious soul-searching, pondering how they might improve themselves and win back our hearts (or at the very least, our respect), Republicans can’t think of anything better to do than sulk and throw empty beer cans at us from the hoods of their pickups.

Of course, the day after we get back to Brooklyn, the shutdown’s over. The Republicans caved, ostensibly due to their plummeting approval ratings, and they have little to show for their tantrum.

We fought the good fight, John Boehner says, but we did not win.

And yet, they’re going to keep fighting The Affordable Health Care Act anyway. The truce is only temporary. They may shut down again in a few measly months if they’re not happy. Somehow, this crushing defeat was not their Appomattox Court House. It might not even be their Battle of Atlanta. It’s still Autumn in America, and the cozy, menacing scent of burning wood still hangs in the air. And from now on, my wife and I will book our hotel rooms as far in advance as possible.

Joe O'Brien

Joe O’Brien

Joseph P. O’Brien’s short fiction has appeared in Matchbook, The Alarmist, and The Rusty Nail. He blogs about storytelling at Popular Fiction (, and he’s the editor of FLAPPERHOUSE (, which will launch its first issue in March 2014. He lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife Ashley and their adorable dog Sprocket.

I’ve Died There Before

Hello Everybody,

Last Tuesday, a new friend of mine, James, hired me to mount a large flat screen TV into a wall in his mancave – a separate building apart from his two-story house, next to the swimming pool in his backyard.

Stoned Glamour

Stoned Glamour

“I produce TV shows,” John told me, as we entered the cave – a home to several guitars, amplifiers, a drum set, stereo, computer and collections of cds and dvds. There was even a bed, just incase. “I love my wife and kids, but you know…” He held a hammer and pointed it a wall. “How ‘bout there?”

“Sure, that works, or maybe over-”

He started hammering holes in the wall.

“Yep, right there’s great.”

James was facing a deadline on his latest project, so he handed me the hammer.

“I much rather help you,” he said. “I don’t even want to do the project. But, it’s money, you know.”

I cut out the drywall around the hole to make a nice square, then sawed out the exposed studs of the wall. As I was sawing through the last stud, I ran an exposed nail deep into my left forearm. I stopped to watch the blood drip from my arm, thinking, Just when was that last tetanus shot? It’d been a lot longer than I’d wanted it to be, so I did the next best thing – washed out the wound with soap and water then pretended it never happened. Then I built a frame inside the wall in which to anchor the TV.

“It’s lookin’ good, man,” James said, poking his head inthe door. “Listen, I gotta drop my wife off at the airport. Here’s the keys to the Benz, go get whatever you need to at the hardware store.”

“Cool, how’s the project going?”

“Already finished it. It’s crazy, man. They’re gonna pay $10,000 for 2 hours of work today, and one easy day of shooting next week. That easy and I still don’t wanna do it? I gotta wife, two beautiful little girls and a job I love but all I really wanna do is get high and live in my head, all alone in this little room. You know, kiss everything goodbye just to do that…or go to Jumbo’s Clown Room and hang our with the nitwits…it’s f$%king ridiculous.”

Neon Scream

Neon Scream

That night, while walking down Hollywood Boulevard, I came upon a bum at the bus stop at Normandie Street. He held a rotting pumpkin close to his chest, digging inside it with one hand and throwing the green-gray contents onto the sidewalk.

“Damn, it’s the only pumpkin I have left!” He exclaimed with deep pathos. “The only one…the only damn one, dammit.”

There was nothing strange about this scene, within the context of The Hollywood Night. The strange thing was that it was barely 7pm. Daylight Savings Time ended the weekend before. On the previous Tuesday at this time, there was at least a hint of indigo in the sky. But this Tuesday’s 7pm sky was black, with the exception of a few stars and an apricot-tinted sliver of the harvest moon. Moisture from the cool night air shimmered on the street. Neon and halogen lights of storefronts belted visual screams that pieced the air like shrieks from a litter of premature babies. Outside Jumbo’s Clown Room, pretty girls smoked cigarettes as they shivered in their f#$k me clothes, like always, except now jackets were draped over their shoulders. Jackets? Really? Then it dawned on me – as the pumpkin digging bum’s lament faded behind me – that, damn, I’m wearing a jacket, too. What, when…Summer was so far away by Tuesday night, like an old memory that changes a bit here and there, gradually, the deeper it drifts into the past…then BAM…one day the memory is nothing it once was…and things you once swore had happened never even happened at all…you find yourself older, but with a new past. The cut my arm had grown red and puffy, I’d gently rub it, put pressure on it. Tetanus, tetanus, tetanus…

The next day, I went over to Jame’s and finished up the job.

“How was your night?” I asked him.

“It was great,” He answered. “Took the girls to soccer practice and just goofed around with them until they went to bed. Then I sat around and thought about getting high but didn’t.”

Friday, I spent the entire day recording a version of Early In The Mornin’, an old prison work song, for a friend’s web series. The hours disintegrated as I recorded one vocal track after another. The song required many vocals coming in on top of each other, like a chant. I’d record, listen, record, listen, etc, filling in the blank spaces with more tracks of my voice. It was quite a surreal experience, hearing that many versions of my voice singing over each other. By the evening, I envisioned several Me’s on a chain gang outside the high stone walls of a prison somewhere. The Me’s voices rose and fell like ocean waves…coming together on certain phrases, then echoing off and away from each other. Several Me’s…all down the line, condemned to swing an ax for eternity.

After I finished recording, I ventured into The Hollywood Night again. The harvest moon had waxed nearly to half, glowing fiery orange. There was the crowd of ladies outside of Jumbo’s – leather jackets, high heels, short skirts, skinny, giggly, stoned and glamorous. At Normandie Street, the pumpkin man was gone, but another street babbler had taken his place. A minimalist, this man mumbled quietly about “Mother” as he paced back and forth, running his hand along the back of the bench. The wound on my arm was producing a low constant itch and I had to keep myself from reaching up under my jacket sleeve and scratching it. My jacket…that night, everyone on the street wore a jacket. Were we ever not wearing jackets? Tetanus…

no caption

no caption

On Saturday, I headed over to a favorite cafe of mine, on Vine Street. During the summer, I hung out with “M”, a homeless man, there. It’d been a month since I’d last seen him, after he’d just gotten a job and phone and things were looking up for him. For a while, I received texts from him every morning, around 5am, before he left to go to work. Then the texts stopped and I stopped seeing him around. But he was back at the cafe on Saturday, wearing only one shoe.

“I was hit by a car,” M told me. “Down by 7th and Spring. They had to call an ambulance and take me to the hospital. I can’t put a shoe on this foot yet, but It’s gettin’ better. The thing was, though, the hospital gave me pain meds. Shoot, I was off to the races and the next the I know was I was in detox. The phone, my clothes…all gone. I’m having a hard time focusing and can’t stay still for very long, but they said that should clear up when everything’s completely out of my system.”

It just so happened that Saturday was my 7th anniversary of being sober. I told M that I’d had a lot of drunk dreams over the last few weeks, leading up to Saturday. M cringed and shook his head. These dreams are common for alcoholics once they try to get sober. Mine have always been more or less the same…

…I suddenly find myself drinking somewhere. At first, I’m shocked and scared, but then I realize that I’ve been drinking all along. Everybody knows I’m still drinking, and I know everybody knows. But I’m too afraid to tell anybody the truth, so I sit, drinking as much as I can, just waiting for someone to walk in and catch me, so I won’t have to pretend anymore…

These dreams never fail to wake me, and I’ll spend several moments overcome with shame, guilt, anxiety and some darker emotion that has no name. Then I’ll notice the gray light coming through the window blinds or the flashing lights of the modem, Reality gradually surrounds me, and I’m sober again.


Border of Heaven

But part of me believes those dreams are also a reality, and that there are multiple realities, as if every decision I’ve ever made had split my existence into different directions. Maybe another Me never got sober. Maybe another me falls off the wagon over and over. Maybe there are countless Me’s Out There. Maybe it is in dreams that all of these Me’s come together, check in with each other, give each other glimpses down the roads we didn’t take. Maybe another James put his little girls to bed, got high in his mancave, then ventured over to Jumbo’s and went home with a high-heeled regret. Maybe another M got out of the way of the car, or maybe he was killed. Maybe I died too, lonely and drunk in New York City. Maybe we all have…at least once.

Like it never happened at all...

Like it never happened at all…

I said goodby to M and walked home along Hollywood Boulevard. The sun burned down in the West, shooting pink and baby blue streaks across the sky. I became incredibly moved by the way the silhouettes of Hollywood’s palm trees, billboards, mountains and buildings created bottom of the sky – a pure, necessary and simple border of Heaven. I then tilted my gaze a few degrees downward. The city instantly regained its dimension and detail, and I sensed the onrushing despair of The Hollywood Night. But there was even something moving about that. The city’s despair was connected to Saturday’s beautiful sunset by a sweet and heartbreakingly thin tether. I looked down at my arm. The redness and puffiness was gone. Only a dried scab remained, itching slightly. Maybe another Me had to have his arm amputated. I’ll have to wait to find that out in a dream. But in this reality, I was healing just fine.

Be well…

To Me Through Me To You Through You To…

Hello everybody…

The weekend before last, I went to hear Menri Lopon Trinley Nyima, a Rinpoche – or Tibetan Lama – teach on the religion of Yungdrung Bon, a Tibetan religion predating Buddhism.

Tibetan or Aztecan???

Tibetan or Mexican prayer flags???

At the center of Menri Rinpoche’s lecture was the nature of the Red Garuda, a diety central to Bon. The Red Garuda represented energy and power, bestowed wisdom and protected one against obstacles and poisons. Several times during the two-day teaching, everyone in attendance chanted the Red Garuda mantra together, over and over, at a low, vibrating pitch…


Menri Rinpoche said the mantra liberates the chanter from suffering, and opens them to the fiery energy of the Red Garuda, therefore empowering them. With the power of the Red Garuda emanating into them, the chanter may then emanate that energy outward, to relieve the suffering of others, or to wish good will, in general.

Every time we chanted the mantra, the same process – for me – would occur. First, I’d find the chanting soothing to my being, as my chest, throat and head gently vibrated. But after a while my voice would tire, and rise in pitch. After losing control of pitch, I began to stumble over the syllables. I would then speed up, trying to get back on track with everybody else. After catching up, I then over corrected – tried to chant the mantra perfectly – to make up for stumbling off the mantra. I kept messing up, the harder I tried. At that point, I’d grow frustrated and give up, altogether. Then I’d cool down, and start reciting the mantra again, very simply, which resulted in my reciting the mantra very clearly. I would coast for a while, one clear and loud repetition after another. But as soon as I became aware of how good I was chanting, I began to wander when Menri Rinpoche would hit the bell to signify the end of the chant, at which point I’d feel the vibration in my chest again, then my voice would tire and I’d mess up again, then get frustrated and give up again, cool down again, then start over again, simply, recited clearer again…etc. After several cycles of this, Menri Rinpoche finally hit the bell – its ping cracked all things solid in my psyche. A zingy feeling flowed in and through me. Everyone looked around, at each other, as if we’d been magicall beamed there from another place, far away. And there was Menri Rinpoche, in the front of the room, smiling.

“It is long, life mantra,” he said in his low, quick, quiet voice. “Many time, all day. You sing 1,000 times in a row…you can say it to yourself, quietly. Or sit, meditate, very loudly. It has tremendous healing power. Red Garuda comes into you, to heal you, bring you success, then you send to others.”

Light and the Spirits

Light and the Spirits

The following Thursday night, on Halloween, I went with The Great Warrior to West Hollywood to take photographs of the gigantuanormous parade and party held there every year.

“It’s insane,” said The Great Warrior, as we walked deeper into the human stew of ghouls, drag queens, devils and squadrons of bubbly college girls in skimpy lingerie skipping passed couples dressed as Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke grinding on each other as glittery thonged unicorns cantered after robots and cowboys and men dressed up as ketchup and mustard bottles and too many Waldos and Jack Sparrows and cats and foxes and parents yanking along their kids dressed as superheros. “500,000 people will be here tonight.

20131031_202215By 9pm, Santa Monica Boulevard was shoulder to shoulder with happy freaks. I stood up onto the median and looked down the street – nothing but heads bobbing around, with the occasional drunk or two barreling through the crowd, jumping and howling at each other. Over by the endless row of skiddo-cans along the sidewalk, was some kind of protestant preacher shouting ”turn or burn” rhetoric through a megaphone. But all the decadent darlings merely danced around him, reveling, reveling, reveling. Further on, there were Hare Krishnas, singing, dancing and slapping tambourines. Wonder Woman and one of the Waldos danced with them, unaware that they were, in fact, dancing with real Hare Krishnas and not some joint fraternity/sorority costume “happening”. I got back on the street and made my way over to The Great Warrior who was photographing a giant drag queen. Thousands upon thousands of painted faces inched toward me – twice as many giant, black pupils, glossed over, closed in. A buzzing palpable energy thickened any empty space between people. Voices and action blended and everything spun around like a kaleidoscope. Soon, it became too much of a hassle to move in any direction other than the slow lurch down the street, as if the collective energy was propelling us to some final giant cosmic appliance deep in the center of WeHo. Somehow the Great Warrior and I managed to scrape our way to a side street and left, just as the first ambulances of the night roared, nearer and nearer.

The following events occurred the next day – Friday – and are better explained in reverse chronological order, and sprinkled with lyrics from various songs by Lou Reed

…the mother, her little boys, the gang bangers and I exited the subway train and filed onto the escalator at the Hollywood/Western stop.

“Shit!” continued the angry gang banger. “I been on the streets for two years now and ain’t got popped yet. Ni#$ga f@#ks with me tonight ni#$ga gonna die!”

I don’t know just where I’m going

But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can

‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man

(From Heroin)

The other bangers were appealing for him to cool down, as we ascended the escalator. But the angry fellow was white-hot and ready to go. He ran to the top of the escalator and with the bright blue sky as his backdrop, turned around, held up his hands and shouted, “Shit I been goin’ through the pain since I was 12 years old…I don’t lose a fight, n#$ga! I never lose!”

Waves of fear, pulsing with death

I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step

I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell

I know where I must be, I must be in hell

(From Waves of Fear)

…as the dancers loaded the drums and costumes in a pickup truck, I headed to Union Station and took the subway back to Hollywood. In the train, a group of lanky gang bangers held court. One kept bouncing around, very angry, and shouting to us all that he was going to kill somebody. A woman with two very young boys sat across from me. The oldest boy, about five, stood with his nose to the dark window, licking a lollypop. In between licks, he asked, “Mommy?”

“What?” replied the mother, who was wiping the younger boy’s mouth.

“I love you.”

The woman looked at the boy, quizzically, then laughed. “Well I love you too, baby. Just don’t put your tongue on that window.”


“Cause they’s germs on it.”

Resonating through infinity...

Resonating through infinity…

The boy looked at the dark window for some time. Then he leaned over and rubbed his lollypop on his mother’s bare arm.

“What the hell’s wrong with you, boy!”

The boy laughed. The mother wiped her arm and began laughing.

“You just wait,” she told the boy. “After you go ta’ sleep tonight, I’m gonna let the mole people come in an get’cha.” She looked over at me and laughed. “See what I gotta put up with all day long?”

Heavenly wine and roses

Seem to whisper to her when he smiles

(From Sweet Jane)

At the Hollywood/Western stop, she picked up her purse and the younger son, told the older son, “Hurry and get off before the doors close and stay there til I get off.” The boy did. “Come on,” she said on the platform, “grab my hand.” The boy did. I followed the them and we followed the gang bangers to the escalator…

I am tired, I am weary

I could sleep for a thousand years

A thousand dreams that would awake me

Different colors made of tears

(From Venus in Furs)

…the elderly couple had stopped laughing by the time we reached Union Square, as if the previous moment of joy had never happened. They were both silent as the woman unlocked his wheelchair and pushed, slowly, without expression, onto the platform and toward the elevator. I took the stairs up and out of Union Station and headed to the Dia de Los Muertos Festival that was taking place at Pueblo de Los Angeles – one of the oldest sections of LA.

There, busloads of schoolchildren ran around throughout the courtyard, their faces adorned in skullpaint. Makeshifti altars surrounded the courtyard, covered with pictures of loved ones, Jesus candles, wine bottles, hand written poems of lament and freshly baked bread. Skeletons and death where everywhere, but there was no overall Western dread of death. People were simply missing people they loved, remembering them, and inviting the dead to visit. And most people were having a good time.

No language...

No language…

In the courtyard, I caught a performance of an Aztec ritual for honoring death and rebirth. The performers wore elaborate costumes with headdresses, their faces painted as skulls. They blew conches, saluted the sun – twisted, spun, bowed and jumped to the beat of intense drumming. A force emanated from the action of the performers and drums. That force thrust inot and through me, connecting me to the dancers and to the audience and to Everything that’s ever been or will be. That force thundered through the heat of the cloudless day, into space, emanating beyond all concepts of God, echoing ever further into The Mystery, beyond the grasps of our words and language and philosophy. When the drums stopped, the dancers bowed, then walked around with buckets and asked the audience for money. Then they cooled off and smoked cigarettes in the shadow of a giant statue of the 18th century Spanish king, Charles the Third. After stomping the butts on the ground, they took off their costumes, wiped off their makeup and began packing everything up…

If I could make the world as pure

And strange as what I see

I’d put you in a mirror

I’d put in front of me

I’d put in front of me

Linger on, pale blue eyes…

(From Pale Blue Eyes)

And I feel just like Jesus’ son...

And I feel just like Jesus’ son…

Around noon on Friday, I hopped the subway and headed downtown, to the Dia de Los Muertos Festival that was taking place all weekend long. At a stop along the way, an elderly woman wheeled her husband into the car. It looked like his left leg had recently been amputated – the stump was in a splint, wrapped in gauze. The woman struggled to wheel him to the spot reserved for wheelchair passengers, knocking his stump against the seats and the wall. The man winced in pain as she did this and they exchanged growls at each other. Finally, she locked his chair’s wheels, then leaned against the wall, panting. After catching her breath, she leaned closer to the man and spoke something in Spanish. He turned to her, frowned at her for a moment, then laughed loudly. Then she started laughing and they both laughed together.

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

(From Perfect Day)

RIP Lou Reed…thanks for emanating to and through us while you were here.


…to you all and be well…

ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #3: The Fast One, The Still One, and The Runner by Talia Gibas

The Fast One

She runs behind and slightly to his left, watching the quick, short puffs of his breath in the crisp winter air. He runs like water flows over rocks, elbows tucked against his body, feet hitting the asphalt in a smooth, soothing beat. She understands the mechanics of running downhill – lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest – but rarely embraces them. She lacks his grace, his impossible beauty. But she wants to keep up with him, mechanics be damned. She tilts forward and feels her speed increase, her feet stumbling to catch her. She wonders how fast she is going. She is exhilarated.

Talia Gibas

Talia Gibas

Together they duck under the park gates and bound through the grass median on Vermont Avenue. When they burst onto the sidewalk at Los Feliz Boulevard he turns left and she follows, startling unsteady packs of revelers weaving their way home. “Happy New Year!” she calls. They respond by clutching one another’s shoulders and heaving boozy, heartfelt good wishes into the air. A giggly young couple whoops and sways under a streetlight. “Fuck yeah!” someone shouts from a car, while a near-middle-aged woman hangs out the backseat window with a noisemaker at her lips, delivering an absurd trumpet solo to the neighborhood.

Bleary-eyed bar employees sweep confetti from their path as they dart on and off the sidewalk. She plucks a party hat from an open windowsill and slides it over her beanie. He doesn’t notice until he slows to a trot on her street. “Look at you,” he says, and snaps a photo. “Green eyes.” Her face, already flushed from exertion, warms further.

Inside her apartment they exchange damp running clothes for old sweatshirts. He stretches across her couch to kiss her. “Are you happy?” he asks.

“Yes,” she murmurs. “Very.”

“Happy New Year,” he says. “The world didn’t end.”

“Nope,” she responds with a grin. “Not yet, anyway.”

They met in the fall. He was standing in a gaggle of people doling out stories and jokes but left them abruptly to stride toward her. “Green eyes,” he noted by way of hello. On December 30 he asked her to describe her ideal New Year’s Eve. “I want to be running,” she said. “I don’t want to be schmoozing with a bunch of people I barely know. I want to be in Griffith, on my favorite road, so if the world ends at midnight I am doing something that brings me joy.”

He tilted his head to the side. “That sounds fun.”

“You think so?”

“I do. Too bad the park’s closed.”

“Yeah. And too bad I didn’t think of this earlier, so I could berate friends into going with me.”

“You don’t think they would?”

“They have plans.”

“True.” He paused. “Too bad.”

Two hours later her phone rang. “T, what’s up?” he said in his bright, sing-song way. “My party fell through and I have this neat idea for New Year’s…”

He arrives at her apartment at 10:30 and they start running at 11. She has a tiny flashlight zipped in her pocket; he jokes about mace. They practically tip-toe past the stately mansions outside the park, as if running at night were a crime. Once they hop around the gate at the park entrance they ease into quicker strides, slowing every now and then again to take in the view, or to whisper to one another how fucking cool it is to be doing this. When they are well past the Greek Theater she switches on her flashlight and is startled by the eyes of coyotes staring out at her. Two dart across her path, but the rest watch and blink.

Outside the Observatory they crouch behind restrooms, dismayed by the security guard driving in circles near the entrance. “Champagne,” she whispers. “If we give him some champagne he’ll let us stay.”

“Champagne from a water bottle?”

“Worth a shot.” She takes three steps and the guard switches on his high beams. “Shit!” She darts back and they take off, giddy and giggling. Ten minutes later they stand at a break in the brush a quarter-mile downhill from the Observatory and look down at the city. “What time is it?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t bring a watch. Did you?”

“No. Shit.”

“We could ask the security guard.”

“Maybe we – “ She stops. Something is rumbling against the bottom of her feet.

A half-second of panic splits through her body; her first instinct is that it’s an earthquake. Then a silver light flashes above downtown and she realizes, holy shit, it’s the city, it’s the millions and millions of people below starting to bellow and hug and cheer in the near-freezing air, their voices crashing into car horns and drums, fireworks, pots and pans, clashing together into a roaaaaaaar that jumbles and stumbles and rises and grows and grows, gathering speed, sweeping over the beaches, across the west and south and east edges of Los Angeles and over downtown, rising higher and higher with each scream and shout until it washes over them sending coyotes scattering to the hills and she realizes this is it, she is in love with him, this is what it is to be finally, completely sure, to know that he is the one for her, that together they are invincible and therefore meant to be.

As the roar recedes he turns to start back down the hill she launches after him, gasping and stumbling and gleeful in the darkness.

Months and months later, on the cusp of June, she sits across from him at a table in Thai Town and stares at a half-eaten egg roll. The pain in her left calf is unrelenting and her mouth is dry. She’d never noticed how his impatience radiated from his skin, how he couldn’t stop looking at his cell phone, how he called the waitresses “sweetheart.”

“Just tell me,” she stammers. “Tell me why you did it. Why you pursued me. You knew me, you knew how I felt about you. You knew that if I knew you were with someone else I would never – I would never have…”

He folds his arms across his body and stares at her. “I was attracted to you.”

It’s got a real clear view of things.

They exchange stiff farewells in the parking lot and she turns alone onto Hollywood to walk home. When she steps onto a crosswalk the strain in her calf brings tears to her eyes. Nice, she thinks bitterly. And you thought yourself a runner. The headlights of his car come up behind her and she tries to adjust her gait, determined not to limp as he passes. A sullen man on a bike approaches on the sidewalk.

I was attracted to you. As if explaining why he’d ordered chicken instead of beef.

She steps to the side to make room and vomits onto a fence post. An unsteady figure hoots from outside a liquor store. “Shit, baby, shiiiit!” he calls. “That’s no way to start your summer.”

It is a long time before she is able to cross the street, the Observatory winking above her.

 * * * *

The Still One

They sit on a bench on a mild summer night and she notes to herself that she never thought she’d fall for someone so quiet. In the short time she has known him she has been struck by the care with which he chooses his words, as if each were a precious marble he examines against his palm before sending it out in the world. In more playful and inspired moments he would take aim and send one hurtling her way, knocking her into a giggle fit or making her skin hum with the timbre of sunset. Tonight’s, however, are made of more fragile glass. He offers each politely, one by one, and she holds them to her chest, determined to keep any from falling and rolling away. They are nearing the end of August, and he will be leaving soon.

They wandered here side by side, walking along Franklin Avenue and up and down side streets to the top of Barnsdall Park, where they shared stories of a city oddly lovely from above. Finally they settled on this bench on a quiet street. They have been trying to determine why, exactly, they met when they did, at an inconvenient moment when they could do little more than pass through each other’s lives. It is getting late. She tucks her knees against her chest and he puts his head in his hands. She tries not to cry.

“What do you think some wise soul would tell us to do,” she says, “if they knew about this situation?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, his voice low. He pauses. “Actually. I do know. They would ask us, ‘Are you in love?’ Because if we are, then none of the rest matters.”

The word “love” lands like a hysterical toddler sprawled on the floor of her lungs. I don’t know! it wails. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! I don’t know because I don’t know how to know, and maybe I never will, but now I want to know you, and this knowing thing may be bullshit or it may be true, but let me sit here in this stillness and this not knowing with you.

Neither of them moves. The question bobs politely in the air for a moment before giving up and floating away – toward the Observatory, perhaps, where a less inconvenienced pair might make use of it.

A few days later, as a ripe, uncomfortable humidity descends on the city, she sits to write what she does know. This, she thinks, can be a parting gift, an homage to vague ideals like Transparency and Gratitude. The first draft is an inkblot of false starts, scribbles, and do-overs. The second is hastily copied onto fresh paper in a coffee shop. When she pauses to stretch out her fingers, a well-coiffed barista looks over her shoulder. “Hand-written,” he says approvingly. “Old school. I like that. Safe. You can’t google that shit.”

She is encouraged but when she squashes the envelope in her back pocket a fragment of bone and muscle trembles against her bottom rib. In deciding to write she had underestimated how difficult it would be to know that tangible evidence of her feelings existed in the world. It was one thing to express these things in person. It was another to write them down, and quite another to hand them over, relinquishing the power to rewrite, edit, or destroy.

She knows their goodbye will be stunted and chaotic, but as she stands before him, reaching into her pocket, she is startled by a craaack! in her side. He takes the envelope from her hand and she realizes with horror that he is taking a small chunk of flesh and bone with it.

“Thank you,” he says, apology, exhaustion, and hesitation curling the edges of his voice. “I have to… I gotta go.”

She feels the ground fall away. Oh god, what I wrote… It will bleed all over your hands…! Helplessly she watches as he drops it into the plastic bag he is holding, far outside of her reach. She tries to calm herself as she speeds home, clenching/unclenching/reclenching her steering wheel. Maybe in the bustle of uprooting his life he will forget about it. Maybe, as August mellows to fall, it will sit in that plastic bag, bleeding away. Maybe he will find it months or years from now, mixed in with his belongings, and sputter “Fuck!” in dismay when he realizes it has spilled all over his favorite shirt, as she does when she opens luggage to find a shampoo bottle has exploded inside.

Maybe she will never know.

Maybe knowing is overrated.

Maybe quiet stillness between two confused people is more akin to love than the feverish clamor of those who feel certain.


On the first day of September she jogs through the muggy twilight of Griffith Park, wincing at the pain in her legs. A car passes and the driver, a woman, glowers disapprovingly. It’s getting dark. You shouldn’t be running out here at night.

Her breath ragged, she shifts to a walk, giving each leg a brief shake in a futile attempt to dislodge cement from her muscles. She stares down at the city. The salt of her sweat is beginning to crust along her arms. The bottom of her right foot feels tender and her hip is cramping. She remembers a day before injury, when running was exhilarating. She ran carefree only to spiral into gloom when some inevitable, idiotic adventure would leave her sidelined with a fracture or pulled Achilles. She isn’t afraid of pain. Sometimes she relishes it. Whatever this is, however, is a little more complicated.

She looks around. She needs to determine her route home. Ahead of her the road slopes up and to the right. She is about a half mile from the Observatory, maybe less. She could sprint the hill toward it, collapse in a patch of grass at the top. Or she could turn and run back down the way she came.

The mechanics of running uphill are strangely similar to the mechanics of running down: lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest. A key difference, of course, is the level of discomfort. Downhill is full of abandon and glee. Uphill requires patience to pace properly, acceptance of vulnerability, and faith that the body will recover at the top.

Below her Los Angeles shuffles and snorts. She looks up toward the Observatory and begins to run again.

imageTalia Gibas is known to her artsy friends as “that crazy triathlete” and to her triathlete friends as “that Shakespeare girl.” She manages arts education programs at the LA County Arts Commission and is Associate Editor of Createquity. She ponders, volunteers, nerds, and merrily verbs words in Los Angeles. She would like to put on a play.