Batter Up!

Hello Everybody,

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.

20140117_171309I 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.

athoua2-283x300I 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.

20131217_221826After 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?

20140111_114543When 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.

“No. Uh-oh.”

“Yeah, he OD’d last night.”

Suddenly, the copy of The Divine Invasion weighed only as much as a feather.

“Heroin?”

“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.”

20140112_144011

Another one crossed over the mountain…

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.

Now. Serving…

…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.”

“Written test?”

“Yes, you didn’t know you had to take a written test, did you?”

“No.”

“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.”

Chin up...there’s always tomorrow?

Chin up…there’s always tomorrow?

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.

Be well…

Billy Shakes And America’s Last Downtown

Hello Everyone,

I caught a cold last Sunday and spent most of last week laid up, caughing, sneezing, wheezing, reading post-modern liturature, watching documentaries about the dawning of robot intelligence and contemplated mortality. At some point, during this period of infirmity, I thumbed through Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It (which also happens to be Independent Shakespeare’s next production in Grifith Park this summer, go to iscla.org for the schedule!). The play has one of those famous speeches that we’ve incorporated into our Western DNA:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…

Griffith Park, every Thursday - Friday @ 7pm thru Labor Day!

Griffith Park, every Thursday – Sunday @ 7pm thru Labor Day!

It’s a weird thing, to be sick in the middle summer in Southern California, amid so much warmth and sunshine. Anytime I ventured out, I felt as if “UNCLEAN” had been marked upon my brow – an infectious threat set loose upon the season. Then, whilst I lay low with the chills in the middle of the day in the dark shade of the bungalow – as the lawnmowers, ice-cream trucks, sirens, and screaming East Hollywood street tramps compose summer’s song just outside my window – I felt like a child lunger too weak to play with all the other school children out here in the Wild, Wild West, left to gaze at all the Life out the window, until Death.  Here’s more of the speech:

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part…

Exile in Downtown?

Playing his part?

Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, As You Like It comes across as a rollicking whimsical tale, yet the threat of banishment, danger, heartbreak and even complete doom are never far away – like real life. Of course, goodness, virtue and hope are equally nearby, but, oh, how easily do we characters seem to forget that. Especially when one is exiled to a dark sick room in Hollywood – or the Forest of Arden, banished from court, like Jaques, the character who delivers the famous speech. Here’s more of it:

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

Jaques is a rather melencholy fellow. He doesn’t want to be so glum, but he just can’t seem to find the answers to life that he’s looking for. The search has led him to a dull despair. His fellow exilers try to cheer him up, but he only sinks further into gloom:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Remind you, this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Sure, there’s jokes, a clown, poems carved into trees in the forest, music, general hullabaloo and tomfoolery, love and all that stuff, but the undertones of As You Like It are entrenched in Existentialism – in fact, it can be argued that Shakespeare invented Existentialism in its literary form. Based on my limited knowledge of Shakespeare, I’ve come to the conclusion that he wrote no comedies or dramas, he simply wrote everything. But everything’s a lot to handle when you’re sick in the dark, and I began to take on – willingly – the melencholic demeanor of Jaques. Luckilly, by Thursday I started feeling better, and was able to crawl out from contagious exile and live again.

To the Sun, their God.

To the Sun, their God.

Friday, I rode the subway to downtown LA. A few blocks from Union Station, I began to hear drums. I followed the beat to El Pueblo de Los Angeles – an old restored section of the city – sandwiched between Chinatown, Little Tokyo and City Hall. There, I found a troup of Native American dancers, gyrating to the beat of the drum. They were decked out in full costume, sweat dripping off them as they twirled, jumped and sang in the hot afternoon. Many people surrounded the dancers – watching, applauding everytime the drums stopped. During breaks, each dancer would stand next to a donation bucket.

“It is Aztec,” one of dancers told me, breathing heavily, “we were Aztec, then we were Spanish you know, then Mexcian, and now…well, we,” he put his finger on my chest, smiled, “we are all the same.” He looked out at the crowd. “All of us are the same. But when we dance, we don’t dance for anyone,” he caught his breathe, then pointed to the sun, “we dance for god.”20130802_150144

From there, I made my way to Little Tokyo, just southeast of City Hall. I always find it humbling to walk down a street, unable to read what any of the signs or marquees are advertising. For a moment, I couldn’t find one English word, and I began to feel a tingly lost at sea feeling. But I kept floating and soon English words began to creep into the store windows. But moments later I wound up in front of an American Apparel, a Pinkberry, etc, and…BAM…back on hard American land.

From Little Tokyo, I carved my way through the heart of downtown LA, along gridlike streets with tall glass and concrete buildings, hustlers, cops, shoppers, office workers, panhandlers and of course, both the mute and prophesying classes of the homeless. Then I got to Broadway between 2nd and 8th Streets, what I call America’s largest flea market. Bridal dress boutiques, menswear outlets, jewelry stores, music shops, religious iconography stores, shoe stores and liquor stores occupied the crumbling storefronts. Mustached men with slicked back hair spoke Spanglish into a microphone out on the sidewalk…Reeboks y Nike y Adidas, para only $29.99!!!…advertising as as far out as their mic’s cord will let them. Day laborers handed out flyers. Clerks lazed about on the sidewalk until a customer went into their store. Spanish music flowed out onto the street. Shoppers flooded in and out of the stores. Crazy drunks stumbled across the street, singing to Dionysus. Scabbed junkies swung about like lynched corpses. Young, dirty kids joyfully ran to nowhere. A vibrant scene.

The Grand Central Market, downtown LA.

The Grand Central Market, downtown LA.

The Grand Central Market  – an intersection of Chinese and Latino foodstands – takes up most of the area between 3rd and 4th Streets. The whole scene reminded me of the downtown LA portrayed in the movie Blade Runner – cramped, sweaty and loud, where the Chinese and Spanish languages blend into one – the odd English term popping up every now and then. Ah, I thought, as I waded through the humanity between butcher shops, produce bins and taco and dumpling stands, Philip K Dick was right. This is the future. America is blending and will continue to blend until it’s base only faintly echoes the cultures it’s made up of. Now, just who in here are androids?

To Dionysus...

To Dionysus…

Of course, I don’t believe the robots walk among us, as they do in Blade Runner…yet. I was confident all those participating in the commerce of the Grand Central Market were made of flesh and blood. There we were, playing the demanding roles we must play between birth and death, gracefully flawed, holding on tight to all we know but ultimately letting go in small increments, in order to continue performing. It’s easy to see the spectrum of life – that Shakespreare so clearly captures – in places like The Grand Central Market. People are forced deal with each other face to face, touch each other. It’s when there’s a lot of space between the giver and the taker that we often find ourselves in the wings – observing, not acting, just dying.

It’s murky now, but we will mix into One…whether we want to or not.

It’s murky now, but we will mix into One…whether we want to or not.

Saturday night, I went to Griffith Park and saw a performance of As You Like It. Independent Shakespeare Company does a hell of a job with the play – it’s a very tight, energetic and soulful production. The actors run about, falling in love, longing for love while singing, wrestling, conjuring and in the end all the lovers find each other, get married and dance. But there is no love or nuptials for Jaques. He leaves the celebration to pursue The Duke Frederick – the man responsible for his banishment who’d experienced a blinding spiritual experience and abandoned court and wandered off to be a monk. As everybody gayly prepares to go back to court, Jaques takes his exit – towards the darker woods of the forest – in search of his own awakening – the kind that has to be found outside of court and kingdom, outside of all he knows. This is the last we hear of him:

So, to your pleasures:
I am for other than for dancing measures.

To see no pastime I what you would have
I’ll stay to know at your abandon’d cave.

Funny thing is, Jaques, with all this weighty existential pondering, is not even a lead character in the play. He’s just a supporting character. Just like the rest of us.
Be well…