There Shall Be Victory In The Valley

Hello Everybody,

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A pretty accurate symbol of joy.

Last Tuesday, I went with my friend, Marisa, to Home Depot to purchase supplies needed to repair a gate leading to her backyard. It was a bright, hot day. After walking through the parking lot and entering, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the lighting of the vast expanse of the store. My left eye settled just fine, but my right eye was filled with many bright, flashing spots of all colors. Several moments later, my right eye was still filled with these spots. I covered my left eye with my hand – looked around only with my right – but couldn’t see anything beyond the spots.

“Are you ok?” Marisa asked.

“Sure. I think.”

The spots finally went away, later, as we waited for our lunch at a taco stand, on our way back to Marisa’s place. But as soon as they went away, an intense case of nausea set in. Marisa was talking to me, but I barely heard her as I debated throwing up right there on the sidewalk. I hung in there, but as we drove to Marisa’s house in Silverlake, the nausea grew worse. Then came the brutal headache. By the time Marisa steered us into the driveway, I was pressing hard on the left side of my head where the pain occurred. I’d never felt anything like that before.

Marisa gave me some aspirin with codeine, and by the time we finished eating, the headache was gone. Everything was just fine, actually. Dandy. But an hour into the repairing of the gate, I felt weighted down at my shoulders, hips, feet and arms. My head moved about like a bobble-doll, and my fingers were twice as thick as they were that morning. I was able to finish the repairs, but there was much hesitation in my work. I could see what needed to be done, but I couldn’t articulate it to myself. I felt like I’d been reading the same page of a Dostoyevsky novel over and over, and just wasn’t getting it. Joggers jogged by the hillside street, smiled, waved. Dog walkers, too. Cars passed by. Gawky, pimpled teens wearing private-school uniforms, came home from school, did chores in the yard. The sun slowly moved across the sky, then began its descent. Life was a shallow stream and I was an old tire stuck in the middle of it – half above, half below the surface.

I went to a pizza joint that night in North Hollywood, after repairing the gate. The last few stragglers of the evening rush hour raced by, honked, screeched. I’d only eaten half of my slice of pizza but it felt like I’d been there for hours. There was music playing over the PA from musicians I was familiar with, but I couldn’t name the songs. I wandered out of the pizza joint like a foreigner at the customs station in an airport, then zombied my way over to the Orange Line bus that would take me across The Valley to – my friend – Karen’s sofa-bed that’s been Home, lately.

20130914_113551The next morning, I decided a slow, long walk would do me good. Walking south on Sepulveda Blvd, I passed a firehouse. It was September 11th, and people were setting out folding chairs in front of a stage. Other people were placing flyers with “NEVER FORGET” printed on them on the chairs. Little American flags fluttered in a line along the sidewalk. There was a fountain in front of the station, which was covered with candles and cards and photographs of firemen who were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 12 years before.

I turned east on Ventura Blvd, away from my mind, into a total vacuum, and by the time my mind and the laws of physics caught up to me I was several miles down the street, almost to Studio City. I turned around and began my walk back, passing massage parlors that advertised massages at $45 per hour. A little further down the street, they went for $40 per hour. Even further down the street they were $35, whereupon I took the bait.

An old man with gray-blue eyes entered the massage parlor with me. He was grinning, but with one of those permanent grins like that of Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. One smiling, middle-aged Asian lady led him into a room, another led me into the room, adjacent. I lay there in the dark, soft, pink light, waiting for the masseuse as Chines, instrumental reworkings of tunes by the likes Kenny G and Celine Dion softly flowed out of unseen speakers. Then the masseuse came in and started working her magic. I began to relax, but only a few minutes into the massage, the grinning man began whispering loudly.

Not what you want to see in a massage parlor.

Not what you want to see in a massage parlor.

“Oh, yeah, dat feels so good. Yeah, c’mon…you know.”

“Oh no, he, he, he,” the masseuse replied.

This banter continued for about 3/4 of the massage, until the man said, “Alright, you made me feel good. Now, it’s your turn. Lie down.”

“Oh no, he, he, he…”

“C’mon.”

“Oh, no.”

“C’mon, I wanna do dis!”

“No, he…he…he…”

“Gimmie da oil and lay down!”

“TIME UP!”

“Hey!”

“YOU FINISH GO!”

“A’ight, settle down.”

There was the ruffling around of clothes, then footsteps, then the bell over the front door rang. I left a few minutes later, less relaxed than when I went in to the place. The massage oil made me feel grimy in the hot evening sun. Wind would blow and dust would stick to me. Karen’s apartment moved further and further away with each step I took toward it.

The memorial was about to start when I finally made it to the firehouse on Sepulveda. Firemen milled about – some in working uniforms, others in dress-blues – chatting, cracking each other up. A group of gray-headed ladies wearing red, white and blue sequenced vests were warming up their voices on the stage in front of the folding chairs. 12 Years Ago. Wow…a snap of the fingers. I was just a clueless 26-year-old kid, then. Now, 12 years later, I’m a…I’m…

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Red, white and moon.

The next morning, I did my laundry. Things were fine during the wash cycle, but sometime during the drying – as I drank my coffee,  listening to the metal on my jeans clanking around in the dryer, down at the end of the hallway of the apartment complex – the bottom dropped out of the day and I went spiraling down, down, down. Voices accompanied me on the descent, shouting or whispering phrases like it’s no use or all effort is utterly useless or there is only death or hopelessness. I sat up, looked around the apartment – found the computer, the sofa, bookshelf, anything easily definable that would keep me in the Here and Now instead of falling further down The Hole.

The dryer stopped. I tried to fold the clothes but gave up and took another walk. I turned north on Sepulveda Blvd. The mountains loomed in the distance and I began to feel compelled to walk to them, climb them with no food or water, find a ledge and wait to starve to death or – preferably – get mauled to death by a mountain lion. So, I turned south, away from the lions and hurried to Ventura Blvd. There, I headed west toward Encino.

Encino may as well have been a foreign country. It had the standard suburban shopping centers and restaurants, but absolutely none of it seemed familiar, or more so, made sense to me. A feeling so real came over me: that I would never, ever, be able to understand Encino. Or LA, or New York, or Texas, or Planet Earth. You’re done, a voice told me. Finito. You gave it your best shot, but it’s time to move on, pal. I had no headache, no nausea, but I felt an incredible amount of pressure around my head. I was approaching real despair, that only careless jay-walking could alleviate, until a sudden rush of serenity came upon me. Oh, I thought, this must be terminal brain cancer. Whew…for a minute there, I thought it was something really bad. So, I’m gonna die soon. Well, I’ve had a good run. Hey, 12 years and one day more of life than all those people who died in the 9/11 Bombings. More time than the thousands of soldiers killed by suicide bombers, or their own suicides, or by friendly fire. And more time than the 150,000 plus civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the bombings. You got it easy, Todd, you’re just gonna have one hell of a headache, see crazy lights and colors, pee on yourself every now and then until you go to sleep one day and never wake up again. I sat in the shade of a bus stop, thinking of who I should call to let them know of this diagnosis. My mother, of course, sisters, aunts and uncles, friends in New York, Chicago, Texas, Los Angeles…

“Todd?”

The voice came from inside a beat up, gray sports car at the curb. I walked up to it and peeked inside. It was a guy I met at an AA meeting earlier in the week. I didn’t even know his name.

“You need a ride?”

“Uh…yeah.”

“I’m a bookkeeper,” he said, as we cruised down Ventura. “I guess. I mean, that’s what’s made me money. But I’m really a musician. I just haven’t played in so long. I’m kinda craving to do it again, you know, sit and play with another person. And playing for people. I don’t care how small a crowd, you know. I just wanna play. Maybe you and I can play together sometime.”

“Sure, man.”

20130913_192620Friday, I felt better. But there was still much walking to be done. I started north on Sepulveda – the mountains were back to being mountains again, no longer giant rock sirens calling me to my demise. Then I headed east on Burbank Blvd, then north on Woodmen St, and finally onto Victory Boulevard.

Near a gas station on the corner of Victory and Woodmen, a young mother bounced a baby on her hip as she talked to another woman. She looked so young – around 20 – and still had a youthful, plump quality about her. The sun had just set. The sky behind her was apricot in color, slowly turning to indigo blue, further up. 3D palm trees loomed over us.

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Victory.

“I’m turning myself in to tha’ cops in Fresno at the end of the month,” said the young mother. “I got two warrants on me. I gotta cousin that got a year up there but he only served 9 days ‘cause the jail was so overcrowded. I dunno. Whatever happens’ll happen. I’m done runnin’ and I’m not scared of any of it anymore.”

Behind her, three chopped Harley-Davidson’s raced by in glorious, thunderous, weekend anarchy. The baby’s fat arms flopped in every direction as her mother bounced her. The little purple bow in her hair had fallen and dangled in front of her eyes that gazed passed her mother, through me and far beyond the liquor stores, check cashing stations, bail-bondsmen offices and body shops of Victory Boulevard, watching the wisdom of the entire Universe that she possessed upon birth slip further away as her billions of tiny cells relentlessly divided, divided, divided…

Be well…

We Will Be…

Hello Everybody,

The other night, I was sitting on the floor in the half-empty living room of the bungalow, reading a book next to a lamp. It was late. Luis and Andre had been packing all evening. I could hear Andre throwing things in boxes in his bedroom.

It’s about that time again...

It’s about that time again…

“You know,” said Andre, appearing in the doorway – beer in hand – not looking at anything in particular, “I was gonna live here forever.” He laughed. “I never thought I’d need to leave.”

Every so often, he’d come to me with something he’d found in his room.

“Oh wow, check this out!” he exclaimed, holding a little drawing book and a fresh beer. “It’s this book of drawings I did when I was a kid. I was probably seven or so. Parts of my life up to that point.”

I stood up, looked over his shoulder as he thumbed through the book with his beer hand. He kind of disappeared into each drawing, pausing just long enough to grasp the memory before turning the page.

“Look at this one, man!” The drawing was of his parents, brother and himself eating at a Japanese restaurant (spelled Janpenese with a crayola) in Chicago. “Get this,” said Andre, reading a caption at the bottom of the drawing, “‘Things I love in my life: my family, the Chicago Bears, and God.” He laughed, took a long drink the beer, slammed the book shut. “Man, I always wait ’til the last minute to pack,” he said, then went back to his room.

One crazy chapter after another...

One crazy chapter after another…

Luis didn’t wait until the last minute to pack. He’d been sending his belongings to his girlfriend and family members in Texas for the last several months. But both Andre and Luis had the same aura of hasty hesitance surrounding them as they packed. By seeing them pack together, I realized that packing’s packing, no matter how you do it. Both of them were heading to new places – Luis to work in New Orleans, then Houston; Andre was moving in with his girlfriend, Charity. Exciting things lay ahead for them both, but those things didn’t necessarily make the transition any smoother. They were still turning the last page of a chapter, which is always a tricky turn. You lick your fingers, but the page is still difficult to grasp. The anticipation of the ending of the chapter grows into frustration as you try to separate the pages, and when you finally do and turn the page, you speed through to the end. After reading the last sentence, you hang on it for a while. You read it over and over, trying to understand why, exactly, the chapter ends with that sentence. You put the book down, close your eyes, and look at the sentence in your head, searching for the meaning underneath the words…not wanting to face the possibility that there may not be any profound meaning in the sentence at all, that it’s simply the last sentence that needed to be written.

The next day, I was sitting in the kitchen eating a sandwich. Pictures of Luis and Andre, friends, newspaper clippings and cards still hung on the refrigerator. Pots still hung from the rack, but there were fewer things on the counter and table. I got up and walked around. In the hallway, the weird painting of Gandhi smiling and holding a ham-hock was gone. Throughout the apartment were boxes – or just empty space – where a couch, a chair, a lampstand used to be. The bungalow’s rooms were hollower. An echo rattled through the whole apartment. It was as if reality was disappearing, piece by piece. I imagined I would soon be standing in some kind of blank chamber. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. Nothing, just me in a pair of jeans holding a half-eaten sandwich.

People are turning chapters all over East Hollywood.

People are turning chapters all over East Hollywood.

When I saw my backpack by the front door, I suddenly realized something that I’d willingly put off realizing for a few weeks. I needed a new place to stay, soon. Then I imagined myself down the street, hanging out with the winos in the hobo jungle at the corner of Sunset Blvd and Serrano St. – boiling a shoe in a pot over a small fire, stirring it with a twig, my hand clothed in a glove with the fingers cut off. There was a tin can of something heating by the fire, for a side dish. I didn’t know what it was, the wrapper had been torn off. Some hobos down the way were engaging in spirited babbling, another was blowing sad on the harmonica. It was nighttime, and though we were in the heart of Jungle Hollyweird, we could all hear a far off lonely train whistle blowin’…

I finished the sandwich, put on a t-shirt and sent out a mass email stating I needed a place to stay for a week or so. I had three places to choose from within minutes, then more as the day progressed. I was spared from homelessness once more.

But homelessness was on my mind. Several times during the week, I met up with a man who was homeless, who I will call “M”. M is 49. For the last several years he’d been in and out of jail. He’d robbed, stolen, all of it. With two strike against him, he’d spend the rest of his life in prison if he got another felony.

Art imitating life in the Hobo Jungle.

Art imitating life in the Hobo Jungle.

“I go to a parking lot over there by Melrose at night,” he said. “It’s not so bad. There’re some strung out gang-bangers that go there, but they look at me and I just look at them. They don’t bother me. I just gotta hang in there until the 10th of next month and I get some housing and food stamps. Man, sometimes I think, how did…” the thought either left him or wasn’t worth completing, “…well, it’ll all be good, man. I’m just tired, you know.”

Luis’ and Andre’s next door neighbor, The Great Warrior, was tired too. He had a place to sleep, but he didn’t know for how long. He was unemployed and had about one month before he’d be broke. He was once again reshaping the resume and writing cover letters during the day…and repeatedly beating me at chess at night, while talking to me about it.

“I don’t know man,” he said. “I put a call out to all of my industry friends. If I’m lucky, I can get something through them. I’ll probably be the oldest PA (production assistant) in the city.”

Later, I rode with The Great Warrior to the farmers market in Silverlake, in his pick-up truck. We were carrying on a conversation of half-sentences with long spaces of silence in between. “It’s hard not to get down on myself,” said The Great Warrior, with potential to be the first to speak a fully structured, grammatically correct statement. But when steam started shooting out from under the hood of his truck, he finished with, “that doesn’t help.”

Early evening on Thursday, I was walking down Serrano St. It was still hot, but the heat seemed to be tired, lingering for posterity because it was still August. Summer was dying. It felt like I’d just arrived in LA. I have three whole months. That’s plenty of time to get it together, I thought as I steered the rental car down Sunset, back on June 1st. The evenings were cold then. They were hot in July. Now, they were cold again. The hot days and cold nights left me with a thick head, which made me not want to do a damn thing, lately, especially lick my fingers, grab the corner of the page and turn it.

Dying summer...

Dying summer…

As I neared Sunset Blvd, I ran into Edith and her son. Edith and family lived in the bungalow next to The Great Warrior. Back in July, Luis and I built a ramp for them, so the patriarch of the family, Miguel, could get in and out of the bungalow in his wheelchair. Earlier in the year, Miguel was injured on the job (you can read more about it in the Jamberoo: O’er The Ramparts We Are…). Miguel was undocumented, and though his Good Ol’ American Boss had no problem hiring him to work for her, she hadn’t much interest in him after he broke his back on the job. No insurance, no workers comp. He was, in short, screwed, and everyone in the family carried the same expression of bewildered fear on their faces.

“Gracias,” Edith said as we walked down the street together. “For the ramp. Thank you.” She thanked me every time I saw her.

“De nada.”

We walked awkwardly in silence for a few steps, before Edith asked, “You boys go, eh?”

“Si…moving.”

“Oh…we will miss.  Good boys.”

She turned to her son and spoke rapidly in Spanish. I heard enchiladas. When she finished her son turned to me.

“My mother would like to cook for you guys,” he said.

“My place,” said Edith. “Es Monday OK?”

“Monday’s fine…si! I will tell Luis and Andre.”

The three of us shook our heads and smiled for a while. Then Edith thanked me for the ramp again.

“De nada,” I said again. “Are you guys OK?”

Edith looked at me with nothing in her eyes but honesty. Then she finally smiled, said, “We will be OK.”

I told them I’d see them on Monday and walked ahead, fast. I didn’t need to be anywhere but I had to get away because I got angry and hurt and sad and even a little happy, dammit, because it was yet another time when I’d heard someone say they will be OK when they may very well not be OK. I was completely and utterly baffled once again by our species’ oversized brains. Or is it some defense mechanism set deep in the lizard part of our brain, to stay alive, this “I will be OK.” People die hopelessly, sometimes, don’t they? People get f@#ked and know they’re f@#ked and the people who f@#ked them give them the old “f@#k you” and they’re left to wander in the white blank space until their last breath, right?! Surely, that will happen to Miguel, Edith and their children, right?! There are people all over facing real despair! Not little dilemmas over whose couch to sleep on, but real hard streets where things may kill you if you fall asleep. But if you ask them they will smile and say “we will be OK.” We WILL? What is it that keeps us saying, “We WILL?”

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OK…

I went inside a donut shop and bought a donut and a Coca Cola. When I walked out on Sunset, the weather had changed for the evening. It was cool, just like that. To the west, down the boulevard, the sky was yellow-pink – the sun had moved behind the hills. The streetlights had a little more pop to them – brighter yellows, greens, reds, all down Sunset. I could see Edith and her son walking west, some distance ahead of me. They were talking, their hands moving, their steps not so heavy. They could’ve been any mother and son walking into that magnificent yellow-pink sky. I turned the corner and walked up Serrano. I was about to eat a donut and drink a coke. Edith and her son were alive. There was only Now and we were all, indeed, OK.

Be well…