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…

The View From X

Hello Everybody,

“I like to think of it as my own secret entrance to The Bowl,” Karen said, as she steered off Cahuenga Blvd onto a side street and into the Hollywood Hills.

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The Hollywood Bowl.

We were heading to the Hollywood Bowl to see the Diavolo Dance Theater perform to music by Philip Glass, which would be performed by the LA Philharmonic. After parking, we hiked up a winding, narrow residential street. It was the golden hour – sunlight light came in soft and yellow through the green trees between colorful houses. The temperature cooled noticeably as the sun continued to lower. It was a fine evening after a long, hot day.

Moments later, we fell in line with the flock of other Angelenos walking up from the venue’s parking lots. After presenting our tickets, Karen and I found our section in the nosebleed seats. Below us, tiny people filed into the mezzanine and orchestra sections of the amphitheater. Straight ahead – above and over the stage – stood the HOLLYWOOD sign, lit to a brilliant white by the dying sun. A dusk, a few bats fluttered across the sky. The sound of crickets grew louder, and more little humans filed into the venue. Karen’s friends were sitting just behind us. By the time she introduced me to everyone it was dark, the HOLLYWOOD sign had been consumed by the night. When the houselights lowered, the orchestra began to warm up. Everyone stopped talking and I drifted from the vast silence of the place…

…to earlier in the week on Monday afternoon, when the founders of Independent Shakespeare Company – David Melville and Melissa Chalsma – held a party for the cast and crew at their house. The company’s 2013 festival in Griffith Park had closed the night before. Everybody was in a good mood, drinking, laughing, eating.

“Our first show was ten years ago,” said Melissa. “14 people showed up. And a dog. The dog left at intermission. Last night, 2,600 people showed up.”

Many of the actors and crew had other gigs lined up, day jobs, husbands or wives, boy or girl friends, or children who required their focus, bringing them further out of the fading summer. As people began to leave, there was much hugging and many fare-thee-wells and see-you-soons with just a hint of but when?

Same goin' up as it is comin' down...

Same goin’ up as it is comin’ down…

Tuesday, David, myself and a handful of volunteers met up at the park to load up set pieces and props. We couldn’t take the set down, because the Symphony In The Glen would be performing on the coming Saturday. This delayed my exit from LA for a week, but that was fine. I was having a good time floating around LA. It was hot on Tuesday, however, and we all dripped sweat as the day reached infernal temperatures.

“My god,” said David, panting, wiping the sweat from his brow after we loaded a piano into the U-Haul truck. “It was uphill when we unloaded everything out here, and now it’s uphill loading everything out. How does that happen? Isn’t that a violation of the laws of the Universe, or something?”

“Theatre warps space and time,” I replied, wiping my stinging eyes with my shirt, sucking in hot air. “It’s been three long months. But now that were moving stuff out, it seems like we put it all up only yesterday.”

The large TV screens on either side of the Hollywood Bowl’s stage came on to air a taped statement by Jacques Heim, the artistic director of Diavolo Dance Theatre.

“Ze idea of ze piece,” said Jacques, “izz zat we are moving away from ze cubed, angled, sharp world and moving to ze…ah…curved, liquid and spiritual world. Zat izz Humanity’s next leap. To embrace wholly ze unknown, ze spiritual.”

Only the center of the stage was lit. It floated in the quiet blackness. The orchestra began playing the score by the repetitive minimalist Glass. The cadence had a curious effect on my brain, cutting out the rest of LA, even Karen and everybody else attending the show. Way up there in section X, it was only me.

20130905_212404One by one, the dancers crawled out of a perpendicular, clear plastic tube, located at stage-left. They then reconvened at center-stage, around an oval-shaped orb covered with many holes resembling a giant, slightly melted glob of Swiss cheese. The dancers danced around it with caution. But their curiosity was stronger, and the dancers couldn’t help but get close to the orb, touch it, crawl on it. Suddenly, a dancer was sucked into one of the holes of the orb. The other dancers danced real scared-likebut one by one – as if compelled to do so – they danced toward the holes, and one by one they were sucked in. For a moment, the droning music played to a stage devoid of Humanity…

On Wednesday, I went to a cafe I like to frequent on Vine Street. I thought it would be my last time to visit it before I left. There I ran into my buddy, M, who was homeless. I hadn’t seen M for a few weeks and had begun to fear the worst. But there he was, in a clean shirt, smiling.

“I been real good,” said M. “I gotta job. But it’s down further west so I just find a place near there when I get off, to sleep. A guy offered me a job in Hollywood, but they’re big on personal hygiene and I can’t get to a shower before the shift starts. But it’s all good. I get my first VA check next week and my food stamps, and I’m on two housing lists, so…”

“Man, I been dreaming so much,” said Usef, an old, bald, all-night Persian cab driver whose bluetooth was always wrapped around his ear as if it were permanently screwed into his skull. The three of us drank coffee at a table on the sidewalk. “I tell you, I haven’t dreamed in twenty years, man. Now, all the time when I get off work in the morning, I dream. Nothing strange, just something like I’m telling my cousin or brothers something funny and they laugh. Then I wake up.” Usef laughed. “Stupid stuff. But I hope I keep having the dreams.”

I gave Usef and M my own fare-thee-wells with a little bit of but when?

“Hey,” shouted M as I walked away, “say hello to all my ex’s in Texas for me, ha, ha!”

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Homeless in The Valley.

That evening, I took the subway to North Hollywood and then the 183 bus down Magnolia Boulevard. Magnolia is a long straight road that traverses most of The Valley. I stared out the window, at the endless sprawl of apartment complexes along either side of the street. The heat came in through the window but the other side of my face was cold from the air-conditioning in the bus. Plump, pleasant ladies chatted away in Spanish, laughing heartily at something as I pressed my head to the window, daydreaming deep into the wide, flat sprawl of The Valley as it was slowly and steadily subdued by longer and longer suburban shadows. The view out the window could’ve be anywhere in the U.S. – Grand Junction, Colorado, way out by the Interstate; Sioux Falls, South Dakota somewhere out by the Indian casino; or basically anywhere in and around Orlando, Florida.

“Last stop, man,” shouted the bus driver. We were at the corner of Ventura and Sepulveda Boulevards. All the plump ladies were gone, I was the only one on the bus. Space and time was dancing and bending again…

The giant ball of Swiss cheese began to open. Inside, the dancers danced to figure out where the hell they were. They writhed about, scared and fascinated with a desire to…what? I don’t know, but I didn’t need to. Whatever they desired, the dancers owned it in their bones and emotion came forth from their moves and that was good enough for me. The dancers were incredibly strong – lifting, tossing, throwing each other. One misstep could have meant serious injury. But they kept at it, gyrating inside the orb, hoping to comprehend it in some way. The music and movement escalated until suddenly, only a lone female dancer graced the stage. The music stopped, then came in low but fierce and the woman jerked from side to side, jumped, crouched, searched, searched, searched. Then she did something I’d never seen before. After arching backward and balancing on her feet and hands, she lifted her hands, balancing only on her feet, and held the position. From all the way where I was, I could see her leg muscles twitching, her face grimmacing. Then, she straightened from that position, and danced as if she’d found Something. The rest of the dancers came out with the plastic tube. The orb began to close over the dancers. The woman crawled into the tube. The dancers then thrust both tube and woman through one of the holes just as the orb closed.The woman climbed out of edge of the tube and reached as far out as she could out into space, her eyes peering into the dark, beautiful unknown. Then blackout, end of show.

Don't know what this picture symbolizes in this blog but it doesn't matter.

Don’t know what this picture symbolizes in this blog but it doesn’t matter.

As I sat in Karen’s kitchen Friday morning, drinking coffee, the dancers still danced around in my head. There they were, scurrying around that porous orb, not running away, or to, or in or out, but through…Something. But after my second cup, I swept them off my mind and got dressed. I was staying at Karen’s place in return for a little handy-man work and I needed to work finish up some things before I could go a Zen House in Central LA to meditate that evening. I’m not Buddhist. But I am curious.

Be well…