Smoke And Mirrors

Hello Everybody,

Late Summer heat over Hollywood Boulevard.

Late Summer heat over Hollywood Boulevard.

Last Monday, I helped my friend, Jason, move his wife’s – Jennie, also an old friend of mine – Pilates equipment from her old space to another, larger space in the same building on Hollywood Boulevard.

“I only really need help with this huge wall mirror,” Jason said. “It’s too big for me to move it myself. That’s about it. We’ll move it, remount it, then I’ll buy you lunch.”

The mirror was six feet by three feet. The walls of the old office building were uneven and had been patched and painted several times over the decades. The original installers of the mirror had to build a custom mount for it – the mirror was not meant to come off the wall. By the time we got the mirror off the mount, it was past lunchtime. But we needed to keep working because Jennie needed the studio set up in the new space for the next morning. She’d sublet the space to another Pilates instructor to bring in some extra cash. Jennie was six months pregnant and would be on maternity before long.

“I just remember that it took them days to put get it on the wall the last time, guys…” Jennie said, shrugging her shoulders, holding a broom and dustpan.

Jason and I hustled the mirror out of the tiny room, through the narrow doorway, down the narrow hallway, through the other narrow doorway, and into the new space. The building smelled old. The inner doors in the office spaces were wooden and glass, with names stenciled on them like doors of offices in newsrooms or police offices in TV shows from the 1950’s.

Remounting the mirror proved to be a very difficult task. Like the previous space, the walls in the new space were uneven, covered with old patchwork. Further, it appeared that the space was once adjoined to the neighboring space. Several studs in the wall had been removed to make a passage-way in between the two rooms, and when it was closed up – sometime later – it was done so with only one stud, simply to fasten the drywall in place. The mirror weighed about 150 pounds. It needed to be mounted well, and…

“Sorry guys,” Jennie said, still holding the broom and dustpan. She was sweating, her faced was red, and she looked a bit stressed. “It has to go on that side of the room, because,” she pointed to various light fixtures and electrical outlets on the other wall, “I need this wall clear, see?”

Baby season is coming...

Baby season is coming…

After some debating, Jason and I were able to safely secure the mount to the wall. Then came the task of sliding the huge mirror onto the mount. To do so, we needed to keep the mirror level with the ground, level with the wall, then twist it here and there so we didn’t bind the mirror on the mount, possibly breaking it and causing a horrific bloodletting. We tried this several times, but each effort lead to the same result – the mirror jamming on the mount, with Jason and I stuck holding the heavy, awkward piece of glass, breathing into onto the mirror as if we were staring at our doppelgängers through fog. Jennie – broom, red-faced, tired, stressed – smiled, shook her shoulders. “Sorry guys.”

We’d needed another person to help. I called up my friend, The Great Warrior, who lived just down Hollywood Blvd. “Sure,” he said over the phone, “I already ate, so they don’t have to buy me any lunch. But if it takes more than a few hours, I may look at you in a mean, threatening way.”

It took the three of us several attempts at holding, leveling, sliding – all the while adjusting for the uneven wall. Sunlight burst through the western window of the space, rendering the air-conditioner useless. Dripping sweat, our hands sore, knees shaking, we cursed and grunted until we finally managed to slide the mirror all the way onto the mount. We shouted, gave each other high-fives and did other manly gestures of dominance over the inanimate object for a few moments. Then we stepped back to admire our work. There, the three of us gave a collective, quizzical sigh, tilted our heads to the right. A lead-heavy silence ensued. The mirror was uneven. Tired Jennie and the broom appeared again. The smile, shrug of the shoulders, then “Sorry guys, but…”

Lunch was now dinner. After eating at the taco joint on the first floor of the building – The Great Warrior scowling at me from across the table – we went back and tried again. Lifting, tweaking, grunting, sliding – sweaty hands, shaky legs, weird feelings in the lower abdominal region – all three of us looking through the fog toward ourselves in the alternate universe of the mirror. Alternative Jennie and the broom were beyond the fog, too. She stood in the background, biting her lip, unconsciously stroking her baby-belly with her free hand – tired, blushed, uncertain, excited. After we hung it again, we stepped back to get a better look at the mirror, Then Jason, The Great Warrior and myself turned to Jennie in unison. She smiled, shook head up and down, then said, “Yep.” The sun was long gone and the room was dark and cool. The Great Warrior scowled at me, then smiled, said, “see you around, man,” then left.

Ventura Boulevard

Ventura Boulevard

Late Wednesday afternoon, I had to run errands in Studio City. As I walked down Ventura, a man – khaki shorts, tennis shoes, high white socks, a yellow tee-shirt with palm trees printed on it – came up to me. I’d seen him approaching from several yards ahead. He’d walked up to everyone else in front of me, extending his hand as he’d done so. Most of the people jerked away from him, or ignored him. I debated which to do as he neared me, but I simply froze in my tracks, instead. The man came face to face with me, held out his hand. His eyes were crooked under his raised, black eyebrows – his forehead crinkled under his shock of gray hair. His mouth hung open, exposing his big white teeth.

“Hello,” he said. I didn’t remember extending my hand, but there it was it was, floating between us, and he grabbed it. His handshake was energetic, exaggerated. His eyes were already looking behind me – for the next person – as he said, “Now you have a great day, sir.”

I turned around and watched him kind of hop down the street. More people veered away from him, looked at him like he’s crazy. I’m sure I looked at him that way, too.

An hour later, I’d finished my errands and was walking home when I saw the handshaker again – still at it. It was around 7pm. There were more people on the street – more people repelled from him as if they were of opposite magnetic poles. I froze again, stuck my hand out again just before he came up to me again. He said, “Hello,” as he shook my hand wildly. “Now you have a great day, sir.” I saw absolutely no recognition in his expression that we’d already shook hands. Then he was gone as quick as he came – “Hello sir’s” and “Hello ma’am’s” fading softly into the evening.

Cars began to turn on their headlights as they sped to the next red light on Ventura Boulevard. Across the street at a hot-rod repair shop, a mechanic revved an engine loudly for a long time. The sound pushed through me and rattled the windows of the storefronts. After the mechanic killed the engine, The Valley seemed quieter – a wide chasm was between sound an action. I saw a silent bus approaching and decided to hop on.

Valley Sunset

Valley Sunset

I put two $1 bills into the money-taker next to the driver. It spat one of the dollars out. I tried several times to get the machine to take the dollar – straightening it, smoothing the corners each time – but I had no luck. I held up the bill in the light, and noticed it was a $1 bill from 1957.

“Hey, look at that.” I said as I handed the bill to the bus driver.

“Wow, man. 1957!” exclaimed the driver, taking the bill. “That’s sixty years ago!”

“Well, 56 years ago.”

“Well, yeah, 56,” he said, handing the bill back to me.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have anymore change.”

“Ah, that’s alright, man, take a seat. Man, sixty years. Tha’s a long time ago.”

I sat in a seat and examined the $1 bill, closely. 1957, I thought. That crazy handshaker was probably just a little boy back then. I wonder what he thought he’d be in 2013. Famous astronaut? A cowboy? The building where Jennie has her studio probably smelled of new lead paint, in 1957. People bustled about those narrow hallways to make deadlines or quotas. Of course, the hallways weren’t so narrow to then, probably. I always heard people were shorter in the old days. How short were Jennie’s parents in 1957, back when they had no clue there was ever be a Jennie at all? Hmm…1957…back when the future was one big happy surprise.

I watched TV late into that night…hmm, TV, only 10 years old in 1957…I haven’t had a TV since 2005, but I was raised in front of one…no one really knew the power of TV in 1957…so TV is in my DNA and I am powerless when I am in its vicinity for an extended period of time. Of course, I watched nothing in particular…so much power…just surfed. Masons ruled the world on the Discovery Channel, DB Cooper got away on National Geographic, The History Channel just couldn’t let Hitler die, AMC made heroes out of meth makers and misogynist ad-men – one re-run after the next, ESPN aired an hour-long show about fantasy football, and rednecks and hillbilly’s from all parts of America either fished, repaired cars, hunted ducks, repossessed airplanes, searched for ghosts in attics or just got drunk and stupid. FoxNews scared half the Americans off to the Right, MSNBC scared the other half to the Left. Infomercials promised me prosperity for just $19.99, or some kind of cooking tool for the same price. Evangelist asked for money…jeez, TVs were grand pieces of furniture in 1957then sometime in the wee hours something extraordinary happened. All the TV shows became the same TV show, presenting the same message…now TVs come in all sizes and prices at Wal-Marts on the edges of town…over and over, hour after hour, relentlessly, the same message. What was the message? I don’t have to tell you…moths to a flame…you know what The Message is.

It’s in our DNA...

It’s in our DNA…

I turned the TV off and went to bed. Before I slipped into dreamland, I pondered over The Message, imagined what life may be like without it. I didn’t imagine anything too clear, but I did see more people extending their hand to the handshaker. None of them were scared of him, either. They were all happy to say, “Hello,” too.

Be well…

There Shall Be Victory In The Valley

Hello Everybody,

20130911_170425

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…

20130913_190949

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.

20130913_191656-1

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…