Last Friday, I built a traveling collapsible throne for a friend of mine who hosts several Bon-Buddhist lamas throughout the year (See the Jamberoo: To Me Through Me To You Through You To…), who come to the United States from India to teach the tenants of Bon.
I worked outside my bungalow – sawing, screwing, sanding – as the neighbors blasted Tejano music out their windows. The neighborhood glass and bottle collector clicked and clacked about his work all day. When a woeful ballad would come on the radio, the collector’s clicking and clacking slowed as if he remembered someone he wished he still knew but knew he’d never see again. But then a faster song with mucho whooping and ahyayaya’s would come on, and the collector’d forget about that someone. But of course, there were more sad songs, and more cans and bottles, more memories…but ¿asi es la vida, no?
In the evening, after the neighbors turned the radio off, I was still going at it, sweating, covered in sawdust. The day’s hours dissolved, rather than ticked by. I peered through the thickening darkness of the neighborhood. All was calm, just a low hum of traffic and somebody shouting, a distant motorcycle, abulance. As the last sliver of sunlight slipped below the rooftops along Carlton Way, I heard the jingling bells attached to the shoes of the Court Jester of Time. I was a day older, just like that.
I delivered the throne to my friend on Monday, then devoted the next few days to The Ship’s Recorder, the play I’m rehearsing (click here for tickets!). Here’s the synopsis:
In this play about European expansion and cultural clashes at the dawn of the 16th century, a fictional world of magical realism materializes. The plot loosely borrows from the narrative structure of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is rooted in language and events from the discovery journals of Bartolome de Las Casas, Christopher Columbus and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. These chroniclers traverse a shipwreck story that probes the psychological depths of their brazen entitlement and utter disorientation. As the characters navigate dreamscapes informed by Taino and Mayan cosmologies and contemporary archeological and historical findings, poignant reflections on early struggles for human rights on the “American” continent emerge.
I play a Cristobal, the Christopher Columbus-like character hellbent on finding a western passage to India, refusing to believe there isn’t one. He’s well aware of other explorers who’ve all but proven such a passage doesn’t exist. His refusal to face facts only propels his lust for riches and power, to the point his men begin to mutiny. As the play proceeds, he roams about, beset with blindness and arthritis, but with an even more twisted and dark mind. Finally, Cristobal is caught and restrained by Alvar, a white explorer who’d “gone native” and befriended the Natives. But instead of rejoicing, Alvar sadly prophetizes:
An entire continent is waking up into a haze they call America. Soon, more than Spanish alone will be here. They would, without hesitation, take what they can, work people to death, and continue this bloody abomination.
So the gods of the Natives simply shake their heads, stop Time and try again, reshaping man from paste made from corn and water. Maybe this time…
Each night after rehearsal, I’d drive down Sunset Blvd to the bungalow, my head still swimming around in the play. I’d have one hand on the wheel, staring down the long, long row of red and green lights down Sunset. All other lights in the city seemed to go out as if those lights never existed, excluding the dull, lifeless glow of the lights of Kaiser Permanente hospital…and the novacaine-blue light of the Church of Scientology which stood high like the palace of some seemingly sweet young raja but who secretly acted out devilish, drepraved scenarios on his subjects, burying their bones deep in the palace walls. But after passing both hospital and church, I was back to zooming down the dark void…red, green, red, green.
After arriving in Hollywood, I’d engage in the predatory act of parking. Down all the streets, cars crept about like giant steel beetles. One by one, they’d scurry to the nearest vacant space as if it were a hole leading into a giant dunghill, dodging red-eyed midnight crazies sucking on 40s of malt liquor with dirty duffel bags hunched over their backs. On the curb, pale hookers wearing fishnets tried to look discreet but not really, talking on their phone like they were preoccupied, but always giving you a little eye-play as you passed by. Over and over, block after block. Finally, after enough cursing and whatnot, a space across the street appears in the oncoming fog. Speed up, u-turn, back in. The great primal act achieved, for another day.
Thursday I had the day off, so I took a long walk in the afternoon. I let thoughts drift, away from the play, from work, etc and soaked in warmth of the sun. Before I knew it, I was walking north on Vermont Ave, the heart of the Los Feliz neighborhood. A cool breeze whispered down the shady sidewalk lined with quaint clothing boutiques, artisan shops and outdoor cafes.
But a curious thing happened on Vermont Ave. I kept seeing the same couple, over and over. The man wore sneakers, a black shirt, blue jeans, sunglasses and his forearms were covered in tattoos. The woman wore short shorts that sat at the hip, a billowy blouse, scarf and sunglasses. They walked ahead of me, gabbing away in syllables I couldn’t discern, incorporating lazy, vague arm gestures. But I also saw them on the other sidewalk – across the street – walking in the opposite direction, gabbing away, wearing the same apparel. I looked straight ahead again. They were still in front of me too. Then I saw the same couple walking out of a comic book store. And, I saw several of the same couple at a sidewalk cafe, mumbling the same syllables. There were more, still, walking in and out of the matinee showings at the movie theater. Black shirts, blue jeans, hot pants, blouses, scarfs…sunglasses, sunglasses, sunglasses and the same tattoos on all the arms. It was as if Los Feliz was in some kind of Huxleyian nursery that cranked out these clone couples.
Suddenly, the thoughts of all these clone couples became audible. And it was the same exact thought!
We are different from everybody else.
The couples repeated the thought over and over as they walked about comfortably. They had no pasts, no childhoods. They existed permanently at the dawn of thirty-ish, white affluency, and as far as any future was concerned, they’d only raise their eyebrows above their glasses as if to hint that…well, how bad can it be, whatever happens, right?
When I came upon a strung out kid decaying on a bus stop bench, I thought, Finally, an individual! He smelled like the inside of a dumpster. His eyes never closed but they weren’t open, either. Is this what individuality does to us? Seemed like a high price to pay. I was a bit glum as I walked away from the poor creature, but sadly relieved to find the same exact strung out kid on the next bus stop bench. Then the next…all with the same thought…
Nobody knows what it’s like to be me.
The thoughts of the clone couples and clone bums grew louder, but never louder than my own…
I’m a brilliant writer with something new to say.
I picked up the pace to get away from all the thinking. But when I caught my image in a cafe window, I stopped. There I was, in my Levi’s and work shirt, Chuck Taylor’s and cheap knock-off Ray Ban’s I bought solely for the reason that they looked like the kind worn by Hunter S. Thompson. Beyond my image, clone coupIes sat at tables, shoveling forkloads of salad into their gullets. A waitress moved in and out of me. For a moment The Universe was only that window. Then the air-breaks of a city bus phooshed behind me. When I turned around and my loud thought was gone. The clone couple’s and the bum’s thoughts, gone. I resumed walking, turned east on Fountain and headed for the public library to check out Philip K Dick’s The Divine Invasion. I hoped, wiith a child’s Christmas morning excitement, that it was available.
It was, but before I could get home and start reading it I ran into a buddy of mine.
“Hey, d’you hear about Gerald?” Gerald was a mutual buddy of ours.
“Yeah, he OD’d last night.”
Suddenly, the copy of The Divine Invasion weighed only as much as a feather.
“Yeah. He’s in a coma in Burbank.”
“All the way out in Burbank?”
“I know, right. They say if he comes out of it, he’s gonna be a vegetable.”
I wish I could say that Gerald’s overdose was something different…that it was a profound act of individuality. But of course it wasn’t. That happens every day. Every. Day. Gerald looked and sounded so good the last time I saw him, a week ago. “I feel so good this time,” he’d always say when I saw him, or something like it. He’s a big, jovial strong fellow, too. Too bad strength has nothing to do with it. Because addicts are fucking strong. They’d cross a mountain range to get high. Gerald did that. I knew him in Hollywood and he literally crossed the mountains to a needle in The Valley. Ok, so they’re called the Hollywood Hills, but come down to the flat boulevards of Barrio Hollywood and look at those hills, with the white Hollywood sign shining in the sun, the cliff side houses with balconies and glass walls and palm trees that tickle God’s toes. From that angle they may as well be the Himalayas, as seen from the distant viewpoint of a Buddhist monk on his throne. The monk smiles sadly, shakes his head as The Universe whispers, Man will always cross the mountains, man will always cross mountains, man will always cross the mountains…
“I just wanna be there for my son,” Gerald would say. But Gerald climbed a mountain and yet again Someone’s son, Someone’s parent, Someone’s sibling, Someone’s lover or whoever happened to the The Apple of That Someone’s Eye couldn’t keep Someone clean. And now Someone’s just another Somebody lying in a hospital bed over the mountains in a coma far away.
Friday, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my license switched over from New York to California. I took a number and waited for the female computer voice to call my number…
Now. Serving. F177. At. Window. 17.
Now. Serving. F178. At. Window. 9.
Now. Serving. G286. At. Window. 3.
…with many other Angelenos with names like Rosie, Michael, Lisa or Hector but each time a number was called one of us would stand up obediently as if these number had been assigned to us shortly after the Big Bang, then dance a vacant waltz toward the window to which we were instructed.
“Ok,” the clerk said, after I showed her my license, passport and filled out a form. “You’re all set. Now, you just have to take the written test and you’ll be good to go.”
“Yes, you didn’t know you had to take a written test, did you?”
“Well, you do.”
“Well, no problem, how hard can it be?” I smiled. She smiled.
I failed the test. By one damn question.
“It’s alright, honey,” said the clerk who graded my exam. “You can take it again on Monday.”
As I sulked toward the building’s exit, I heard my dad yelling at me from far away, about failing the test back when I was 16 – failed it twice. Then I relived every single strikeout from my baseball playing days. I heard the voice of the first girl who ever called me ugly, too, booing me as I walked back to all those dugouts. But the memories of failure dissipated just after I left the DMV and stepped out into gray hazy day, when I realized that I did, indeed, have another chance. I just hope Gerald does, too.