“Theatre’s all about change,” said Sean, my boss over the weekend, at La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts, in La Mirada, California. I was one of many fellows hired to load in the set to the musical Les Miserables. “It’s just that we just keep doing the same shows over and over.”
Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.
(The above quote and the following quotes throughout are from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, on which the musical is based.)
The set was a rental, around ten years old. For a decade in theatres all over America, the set has been loaded in and set up so Americans could sing along to the titanic story of crushing poverty, desperation, love and redemption. From sea to shining sea, countless theatre-goers know the songs by heart. It’s one of the most popular musicals of all time.
“I’m bored,” said Mark. The two of us were told to hold a giant wall in place, while three or four other guys figured out how to attach it to another wall,”so I’m gonna tell you a whole bunch of dirty jokes. All right, here we go. Hey?”
“Do you know what a soggy biscuit is?”
I didn’t. He told me. I won’t tell you.
“You know what a pink sock is?”
I didn’t. He told me. I won’t tell you.
“Hey?” I asked.
“Hmm?” he replied.
“You know what a dirty gas pump is?”
He didn’t. I told him. I won’t tell you.
The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.
Our jokes were depraved, horrible, but the time passed a little faster as we fired one joke off after another. Fast time is welcome when you’re standing around all night, with one hand on a wall, shifting from one aching foot to another. Waiting around is 75% of a load in. The other 25% is when the hernias, pinched nerves and stress fractures occur, by pulling some incrediblly heavy and awkward set piece up or down or left or right or off a truck, and everyone’s in some precarious position with and arm or foot or face in danger of being crushed and the piece shifts and creaks and comes your way and you see your arm, foot or face crushed in your head which triggers a little tingle in your arm, foot or face and you curse and say I’m not gonna do it! This is too f#$kin’ dangerous! I’m only getting $13 bucks an hour and no insurance! For God’s sake I went to f#$kin’ college! Hey you, BOSS with the salary and benefits?! Either you come and do it or find a safer way! You are just about to shout all of this out loud, it’s on the tip of your tongue, but the guy next to you says it. Then everybody backs away from the set piece. Sean takes a deep breath, shakes his head, thinks for a moment and figures out a safer way as you and all the other fellows grumble, not gonna do it, not worth it for a stinkin’ musical…
But Les Miserables isn’t a stinking musical, it’s considered one of the best. And the book it’s based on is considered one of the best pieces of literature from the 19th Century. Hugo’s novel takes place in the years leading up to the June Rebellion in France. It begins with the protagonist, Jean Valjean’s release from prison. Immediately, he runs into obstacles, due to his criminal past. His first night free, he can’t even get a room at an inn. No one will give him a job, he’s only met with disdain. So he resorts to crime to get by. After a little time goes by, he assumes another identity, goes straight and prospers with his own business. There’s many plots, love and all that – over 1,500 pages worth – but ultimately Valjean cannot escape who he is. Or, more so, society won’t let him escape. At the end of the novel, Valjean winds up taking a stand – and losing – with other wretches of society at a barricade on a street against the French Army.
“Aw naw…” replied Adrian, another fellow helping with the load in, after we were instructed to lift a heavy platform over our heads, crawl up ladders, and slide the piece several feet over and attach it to a wall, “…I’m not in ta dyin’. You guys are always tryin’ ta get us ta do thangs da wrong way here. We gonna find another way ta do dis or we ain’t doin’ it at all.”
Sean took a deep breath, shook his head, thought for a bit and found a safer way.
Let us study things that are no more. It is necessary to understand them, if only to avoid them.
That night, I drove back to LA in the slow, winding red lava flow of car lights on I-5 North. It was Memorial Day Eve, and many people were heading back home after a day of communion, barbecuing, drinking and drunk driving in honor of all the soldiers who paid the ultimate price for the USofA. Cars swerved in and out of lanes. Cars changed lanes without blinkers, others drove long stretches with their blinkers on. Motorcycles materialized in my rearview mirror out of thin air, zoomed passed me. At steady intervals were the blinking red and blues of a California Highway Patrol car. As I’d pass by, I’d slow down, though I wasn’t speeding. Then I’d do a mental inventory of what I had in the Jeep. I had no contraband in the vehicle or on my person, no guns etc. But old guilt dies hard. Jesus, relax, your clean, been clean for a while. Yes, but still. But no. But. But what? Shit, I’m too tired and sore for $130 bucks. But you need the dough. But damn. But damn nothin’…keep your eyes on the road, there’s another cop.
The next day, my buddy Jason and I installed a wooden fence atop the brick barricade around his friends’ – Alex and Rob – backyard. We got there in the morning, surveyed the situation, then left each other to do different tasks. Memorial Day did not let us down, the sun was high and hot and the sky was blue. The sun steadily moved across the sky as I mounted wooden posts into the brick, leveled them. Jason was right behind me, cutting and affixing wooden slats onto the posts.
After lunch, Jason’s wife Jennie, dropped off their daughter, Vivienne. Alex spent the afternoon wheeling little Vivienne around in the stroller, around the pool, down the driveway, down the sidewalk along the street. When Alex pushed, Vivienne was quiet. When he stopped, she’d cry. Jason would give Alex a break every now and then, hold Vivienne in the shade, popping out into the sun from time to time, gently bouncing Vivienne in his arms, saying things like, “sorry, buddy, but I’ll be back on it in a second.”
To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.
But Jason’s fatherly duties had no bearing on our progress. It was a smooth job. By 5pm, the fence was up, giving the backyard a resort-like atmosphere. Maybe some tiki torches here, some kind of plant thingy there, a bar…
Jason and I jumped in the pool to cool down. After a few laps from end to end, Jason got out to change Vivienne’s diaper. I dog paddled to the middle of the deep end, took a deep breath and went under, letting out my breath just enough to sit on the bottom of the pool. I wiped the sand and wood grit from my arms, then let them float beside me. The were sore from drilling into the brick. I had bruises on my chest, from pressing against the drill for more force. My fingers were raw, had splinters in them. I closed my eyes and listened to the low hum in my head. Then the water disappeared and I was suspended in a substance less than Nothingness, void of time or gravity. Then I disappeared, became less than nothing…then I went up for air as if breathing were merely an option.
There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.
The next day, I went back to Alex and Rob’s to remove an old chain link fence that surrounded the pool. I snipped off the chain link, cut the steel poles from out of the concrete deck, chopped them up with a grinder, bagged it all up for the scrap metal men. Then I stripped down, jumped in the pool. After a few laps, I sat down on the bottom of the pool again. I brushed the metal shavings out of my arms, let them float, closed my eyes and waited to disappear. But I didn’t. I just sat there until my lungs were about to explode, then darted up for air. Then I jumped out, dried off, got dressed. Rob paid me and I left.
After depositing the money in the bank, I turned my feet toward an El Pollo Loco to get something to eat. The sun bore down hard, the El Pollo Loco sign squiggled in the heat waves, just above the horizon. At a bus stop bench along the way, an old black homeless man had barricaded himself with dozens of plastic bags containing his belongings. Containers of half-eaten meals lay scattered about the plastic bags. His feet stuck out from the plastic bags – scabbed, bleeding, swollen with long cracked yellow toe nails. Traffic zoomed by and heavy exhaust lingered at the bus stop. How many breaths has he had of this shit? Either not too many, or way too many, because he was smiling as he held his beady eyes upward and babbled with the sun rays rushing toward him and bouncing off his shiny bald head. Beside the bench, two bums sat with the same countenance as the empty beer cans that lay around them, rolling to the wind from the traffic. I could see the next bus approaching, jittery through the heat waves, but it wasn’t the kind of bus that could take these three bums where they needed to go.
A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.
I entered El Pollo Loco, went to the counter. A clerk was waiting for me. A bum stood at the counter, mumbling about chicken wings.
“Good afternoon, what would you like, sir?” asked the clerk.
“Hmm, lets see…” I said as I perused the menu above her head. “I think I’ll have the-”
“Oh, no…yep, dey say a chicken wing is $2.18 you ladies owe me a chicken wing,” said the bum. The clerk was ignoring him, looked like she’d been so for some time.
“I would like a spicy-“
“Yep, dey say a chicken wing is $2.18 now the other day I didn’t get no chicken wing so now I need a chicken wing cause dey $2.18.”
“…a spicy chipotle burrito.”
“You do the countin’ now dey $2.18 so you ladies owe me a chicken wing-“
“SHOO!” exclaimed the clerk and waved her hand at the bum.
The bum stopped speaking but stood there with the same wide open eyes. Then he tilted those eyes slightly downward. Then he turned around, left. “Damn, dey $2.18 say they $2.18 owe me a chicken wing…”
Gentlemen of the human race, I say to hell with the lot of you.
“Yes, make it a combo.”
I sat next to the window and ate. A latino teenager came up and sat just on the other side of the window. He pulled a beer bottle and plastic cup out of his back pack, poured some beer into the cup, took a sip, stared into the El Pollo Loco.
His gaze looked to be an amalgamation of wrath and exhaustion. He rarely blinked his eyes. His raven black hair lifted from the wind every now and then. His black shirt was stained with sweat rings about the neck and armpits. Holes in the knees of his pants. He took another drink. His eyes went through me and everybody behind me. I got the feeling he didn’t believe any of us thought he existed. He took another sip, dug around the backpack. Oh shit, this guys gonna pull out a gun and shoot us all…spray us with bullets just in time for the evening news. Why would you think such a thought? Because it’s not a crazy thought anymore. The kid pulled his hand out of the backpack, zipped it up, walked inside. He left his beer on the sidewalk! Yeah, he’s gonna kill us. I was really nervous. But, god, I don’t wanna be. He went straight to the bathroom. Did somebody suspect the last shooting? Did somebody feel this way last weekend, at Isla Vista? Did somebody know they were gonna die and just sit there? The kid came out of the restroom, pulled his iPhone out of his pocket, stared into it as he left El Pollo Loco and walked deeper into LA.
At first I was relieved, then I felt ridiculous. Hell, that kid couldn’t have been a mass murderer. He was just a poor kid. In this day and age mass murderers come from the suburbs, the progeny of economically viable parents. They plot their carnage from college dorm rooms, with air-conditioning and wireless internet. They spout their manifestos to a virtual world via YouTube then commit very real murder in the streets, schools and theaters. No longer do they look like Charlie Manson – a transient, born into bastardy from a drunk teenage mother, who couldn’t jump out of his social caste and therefore murdered some rich people in The Hills. Today, it’s the kids who will have the opportunity to live in The Hills that are doing the murdering. It’s a much more classier coming of Helter Skelter.
If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.
Wise words, Victor Hugo, you tell us how to find what’s wrong with us with that quote. But you tell us where to find salvation when you say…
If you are stone, be magnetic; if a plant, be sensitive; but if you are human be love.
Thanks to all who’ve helped me keep El Jamberoo going!
I love that you linked to El Pollo Loco.
I heard about this Amtrak writer’s residency and thought of you. It runs through next year and it could provide a free trip from California to NY
Always enjoy reading your blog.