Thursday, May 8, 2008

City of Reptiles: Los Angeles 1985

This is not a true post for this blog. This is but a story based on maybe something that could be a true post for this blog . . . I just had to start somewhere. It's too long and too untrue and too structured. It does not need to be read and really, probably should not be read in connection with this blog. I should delete it yet, I haven't so far . . .

Flew into Burbank Airport from Chicago after two months away and there Tice was waiting for me all decked out in a blue silk shirt, sunglasses, as tan as a rotten banana. I'd been whistling away my time in Iowa, writing, unemployed and living in my parent's basement, running everyday at my old high school's track. So it was good to see Tice again--I worked for him--and I grabbed my bags and we zooped off in his little brown cheese-wedge of a sports car, down the streets of Burbank under the dry trees and traffic signs, windows down, the Doors playing on the radio. It felt good to be back in Southern California, the megalomaniac city of L.A. but a freeway or two away.
"Had a good time?" he asked when we were stopped at Victory Boulevard.
"Sure I did. Was in Chicago for the last two weeks."
"Got all fucked up?"
"No, I did not. I stayed with Cindy, slept soundly every night."
"Well," Tice said and peered over his extra-cave-dark sunglasses at me, "we'll take care of that."
And then we zoomed ahead, cutting lanes, slipping through yellow-just-red lights, all the way to the Oakwood Apartments off Barham in North Hollywood where all I did was dump my duffle of belongings into my old spongy bed before we were off again, down Olive towards the Pago Pago, a dispirited little lounge slugged in behind the studios.
"We meeting Wade at the Pago?"
"Not now," he told me. "He's finishing a job in Arcadia."
Tice ran his own contractor business--a single crew most of the time--of which I was considered a foreman, even though I didn't know much about construction. We had been remodeling Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centers in strip malls all around the county, in San Bernardino, once in San Diego. I'd been working for him for about a year, Tice being an old college pal, and he put me up at his apartment at Oakwood. Wade was staying there now, also. I didn't care about the work one way or the other, really. I just liked being in sunny SoCal, seeing and feeling everything new under the smog.
"What about Bob and Roy?"
"I haven't seen them around for a while. Bob's been drinking up at the Blue Room, I heard. Roy took off, I think. Back to Canyon Country."
"So it's only Wade and me?"
"Yeah, yeah and whoever else we need. Don't worry about work. Wade's gonna meet us later. He's got some stuff."
Stuff, I thought and knew, could mean about anything drung related: crank or weed or coke, pills or shrooms or acid. Wade was the bagman. Tice was the boss. I was what? Detatched and uncommitted.
Tice parked in a smidgen of space in the alleyway and we came in through the back door like good time-honored patrons do. And inside of the black hole of the Pago Pago were the same old faces sitting in the same old places along the padded and curving bar, still clinging to the same old drinks.
There was Casual Dave, a forty year old boy-man always in a good mood, and Half Moon the credit card thief, Ricky the knife-wielding Belizean, Orofino the pool shark and an assortment of other fuck-ups who recognized me and asked where I'd been and how I was doing and would I buy them a drink.
"Hey it's you. Howyadoing? Whatchyawant?"
It was Lenny, raspy-voiced and barrel-bodied, the bartender who owned an honest-to-god gold mine up around Lone Pine where he went once a year to chuck dynamite into a hole in the ground just to prove to the state of California that he was still using the land. He got me a beer and a shot of Wild Turkey. Got Tice the same.
And so I drank and talked about the same things I'd talked about two months ago and played inspired games of afternoon pool in the recessive-gened darkness of the bar in Burbank while we waited for Wade to show up with his stuff.
I had come back to make a little cash, see the sights, returned from those months of scribble-writing on my novel and sleeping in my parents' Des Moines basement. Days of running my high school track round and round like a pony ride at the State Fair, staying clean and sober and thinking good thoughts, working my way away from something I could not name, some great dread within the system of myself. And then the weeks in Chicago with Cindy, my sometimes girlfriend, who I knew loved me, who let me stay at her apartment in Skokie while she went to work at her father's framing business in Wriglyville. Who I had left once again. Come back to work for Tice. Tice a responsible memeber of the working community, an employer of the outcasts and desperate, of those who wanted only a weeks worth of undocumented income to refill their clustered bottles of alcohol, their papers, pipes and needles--their very veins--some cash flow to re-rail their own personal train wrecks and get on with their reptilian existence. I had come back--and even drinking in the afternoon at the Pago Pago--I did not see myself as one of them.
What the hell.
I was feeling good. Pleased. Even happy. Drinking and shooting pool and bumming a cigarette or five as the day's sun made its trip to the Pacific. And then there was a phone call and the message was to get back to Oakwood, where Wade and his stuff now were, and where there was some kind of complex-wide club party going on. But we were supposed to meet him at the room first.

Cigarettes, beer, tequila, marijuana, cocaine and a sheet of acid. They were arrayed like a painter's palette upon the kitchen counter, the alcohol in the sink among clean scales of ice. This was Wade's stuff. Wade, younger than me, had lived on his own since the age of fifteen, had blue-ink tattoos of crowned Nittany Lions on each arm and had spent a year locked up at Chino for drug dealing. Wade, the son of a Camp Pendleton soldier who abandoned his wife and kids, had recently abandoned his own common-law wife and young son so that--as best I could tell--he could work for Tice and live with Tice and thus hang out in bars and arrange to get the stuff that he was now displaying to me.
I was already a bit wobbly from the beer and whiskey and the flight in, and the wares before me made my mind balk and I asked if this was all for one night.
"Yes," Wade said. "It's for your return to the Golden State."
What the hell, again.
I grabbed a beer and Wade began chopping at some coke spilled upon a mirror, giving me a pinch to tooth. Which I did, feeling the immediate Novocain swim upon my gums. Tice grinned as Wade went back to his chore, scraping little brittle lava flows of lines from his minced pile.
He offered me the first snort with Tice producing a hundred dollar bill rolled tight as a tube and I snorkeled up line one and then line two with each nostril, passed the mirror on to me gentlemen friends. They did likewise and we lit cigarettes and cracked the tequila for a quick shot and I felt the turbulent rise within me, the great stiffening of my brain stem. And Wade rolled joints while Tice put on some music. All we had was a single tape-playing boom box, less than one-handful of tapes, and he slapped in the Eric Clapton cassette that was really the only one we ever played, cranked it up to distorted volume as we drank and smoked and talked. Did another line. Wade now scraping the marching powder into an amber vial that had a miniature spoon dangling from its lid. The acid was placed in the mold-friendly fridge. A joint was lit, passed among us as Eric Clapton sang, as he had sang months ago, while the night waited for us like a sleeping lizard outside the balcony doors.

I never paid much money for my drugs. I bought alcohol freely, cigarettes, would kick in for weed or coke if asked to. But usually, it seemed, I just hung out with people whose appetites--or addictions--were stronger than mine. And maybe it was because I never asked them for it, never whined or wheedled, so they  willingly cut me in with their illicities. Or maybe it was because, generally, I was a pleasant fellow. Calm. A listener. A go-alonger. And when I did get drunk or stoned or hopped-up, I could be funny. Wicked. I was a strange entertainment. I could become quite animated and maybe that was the true investment, the cost, of giving me their drugs, to bring me out as a floor show for the night. Maybe.
And so after the coke, the pot, a shot of tequila to smooth out any remaining second-thought wrinkles, we went out into the warm desert air. Stood out behind our building among the many buildings of the complex, the fuzzy hill directly behind us looming high, ringed with dry dusky light--that golden, southern, California light--and before us lay the black paths that ran between the honeycombs of stacked dwellings, snakeblack asphalt that ran to the tennis court and parking lots and swimming pool and clubhouse. We could hear the music of the party like scrambled confetti in our ears, so we pointed ourselves in that direction.
And the clubhouse was full of people and there were drinks and food spread upon tables. All these milling humans of which I recognized a few or more. A mini-world noisy and drunken and well fed. We ate but little. Drank more beer. Jammed delight into our heads. And then Wade struck up a conversation with some short-skirted blonde--legs, blue eyes and dimples. She was also an ingratiating non-stop-smarmy-talker. It did not take long to discover that she didn't live at the Oakwood, but had crashed the party. It also didn't take long to see that she was already coked to smithereens--which excited Wade greatly.
Turns out this young woman was from Chicago, had, in fact, gone to the same south side high school as Tice. Or so she claimed. And even though she was from Chicago, I saw her as a wannabe California girl at heart: self-involved and deeply convicted to the pop/advertised culture of the day. It took but one drink more and the promise of one snort more for Wade to get her to go back to the apartment with the three of us.
So back to the room and Eric Clapton on the beatbox once again. Wade wisely hid the farrago of drugs from view, leaving only the drink sand the vial of cocaine semi-surreptitious in his pocket. And we all chatted and drank and smoked and Wade doled out skinny lines now and then just to keep things jumping, just to keep the blonde there among us. And she went on and on about this and that celebrity she had spied about town, from Eddie Van Halen at a party to Forrest Tucker at a car wash. And she went on about movies and fast cars and clubs in Hollywood. Her face oafish and bright and her smile like spilt milk in the cavity of her mouth. And the Clapton wore down and she tuned in a radio station where the resilient Rolling Stones sang a song.
"Oh, oh, I love this song, she said then sung, "Start me up--oh I love Mick--Start me up!" her bouncy body beaming in curves, mouth open again, "Wow!"
"Hey," I said, weary of her now or maybe trying to get her attention, "if Mick Jagger wants to equate his life with a car engine, that's his business, but I wouldn't love him for it."
Wade laughed. Tice chuckled and sat cooly upon the couch, began to roll a joint. And so it went, she flitting about, talking talking, Wade trying to teach her new tricks.
"She told me she isn't wearing any underwear," he said. "Show 'em."
And she looked around and smiled and lifted her little dress to show us a clean shank of white buttocks.
"A little more," Wade said, face devious, playing it as a game.
"No, not yet," she said, also gamelike, intimating that we'd have to give her more blow to show more.
But I didn't care. I saw her as a waste of time, a disruption in the ramping of my electrical power grid for the evening. She was a jellyfish. A piece of grit in my oyster night, one that would never produce a pearl. And I sat with Tice to languidly smoke his joint as she went about, flashing us, Wade now getting agitated because he wanted her to do more but not sure if it was worth the price of his cocaine. But the vial came out again, powder duly snorted from the tiny spoon but not lined up upon the narcissistic mirror, then the vial was passed among the three of us so that she did not know who possessed it. So that she now honeybeed about coming to each of us, playing a street vendors shell game, a three card Monte, looking for the vial. And I just back in California, dealing with my own personal dishevelment, could not help but to see her as desperate and obscene, did not want to see it, so I went out to the balcony.
I watched the night. My mind and heart raced with the traffic and lights of the valley, the balled lights of jets coming over the Verdugo Mountains into Burbank. And then she came out and sidled up next to me. She took my hand and began to suck my fingers.
My skewed and self-deceptive moarality was high in my mind as she slobbered my index finger. I did not know why, exactly, I felt so superior to this sad woman. But I did. I was apalled, disgusted, self-righteous. I also, at another level, wanted to fuck her. But I obeyed my sense of a higher order.
"It's all gone," I told her.
She removed my finger from her pink mouth.
"All gone," I said, looking her in the eyes.
Evidently she believed me. Because those eyes went dull and she turned and left the balcony, sped through the room and went out the door.
I returned to the room.
"What happened?"
"I guess she had to go home."
I sat down on the couch. Someone had put the Clapton tape back in the box. We laid in stasis, lost for the moment in our many-layered intoxication. Then Tice laughed.
"Man," Wade said, "we all could have fucked her. Did you see her fly around to each of us? But, man, she was a bitch though. What a nose."
And we all laughed, as men can so easily and callously laugh at women, and we began to forget her. The girl was but an appetizer for the night, because there was still the party at the clubhouse and pool, still plenty of pot and drinks and other delights. And we forgot her because Wade went to the freezer and pulled out the sheet of acid.
Now the plan had been, more or less--according to Wade--to get roared up on the cocaine, temper that with marijuana, and save enough coke to keep us awake for a late-night acid trip. The beer and tequila--like cigarettes--were never considered into the equation, they were just normal ingesta,  par for the course.
But plans change, so Wade handed us each an early dose, a tiny tab of acid which he placed upon our tongues in communion, where we let them dissolve like the first snowflakes of winter--even if it doesn't snow in Southern California. And we rose, beers in hand, Clapton still playing, and went out the door again, went down and dismounted the stairway, headed for the pool and party.

The thing about tripping--be it on LSD or alcohol or one's own ego--is to keep in touch with what I call the Third Eye. Now the First Eye is what you actually do and say, and the Second Eye is your immediate subconscious, what you think before doing and saying. The Third Eye--in my estimation--is the omniscient watcher, the detached camera of the self, like when you feel you are in a movie or a novel and can be aware of the trivial or horrible wealth of your actions but do not worry about it. Because you can see yourself and know the Third Eye is watching, that all is correctable if you so want. That is, you can get wildly high and discombobulated on a trip and be safe, as long as you can still view yourself from the vantage point of the Third Eye. But of course, there is a fourth thing. Not an eye but a Reptilian Brain that is deep, the deepest, within us all. The Reptilian Brain is the wellspring from which we react from instinct, such as a moment of dire self-survival, or the desired realm you reach during copulation, or--when you are truly fucked-up--how you can navigate your world during blind drunks or drugged blackouts.
But I was not concerned with any of that as we walked, my ego hyper-extended by the coke, my soul soft and dreamy from the pot, and of course the depressant of alcohol--which has always been my true-blue drug of choice--and stimulus of nicotine which allowed me to enjoy the warring factions within my bloodstream as we re-wandered the black paths, this time making it to the pool.
And the pool itself was a glorious shimmering thing. There were many people gathered around it, people half lit, half darkened, in the gold and grays and greens, all bordered by concrete and thorny bougainvillea and feathery eucalyptus. But I was mesmerized, suddenly and frankly, by the luxuriant rectangle of water, water clean and shallow and halo-blue, underlit by yellow lights. There was only the three of us and the others were but Ghost People, and the wind and the apartment accoutrements were but props set beneath the black backdrop of sky and hills. And I was no disturbed when the pool itself began to warp with light and rise up ever so gently, like an ocean swell, and roll from deep to shallow end. After all--I told myself--I had been such a good boy the last few months. The sobriety and running, the positive thinking and typing away upon my manual typewriter in my parents' basement, rewriting my first novel that I'd once thought I'd finished during my last year of college in Iowa City. And I had nestled in Chicago with Cindy, a relationship also in the works, finished and unfinished like my novel. And here, now, less than eight hours back in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, I had ingested quantities from the Four Major Drug Groups and was still standing, was feeling perfectly strange and fine.
I lit a cigarette and then saw a frog in the far end of the pool. No, not a frog, but some dark amphibian or prehistoric catfish, swimming, casting its shadow along the undulating pool bottom. And it steadily grew larger, coming towards Wade, Tice and I and our own private splendors. The party music played. The Ghost People went about their ghostly ways and I was relieved to see the catfish-amphibian thing come out of the pool a changeling, as it morphed into human form. Ha, ha, it was only a swimmer. Yes, only a swimmer.
Wade tapped me on the elbow and motioned me to follow him and we went behind the manicured eucalyptus divide, Tice also, to smoke yet another joint, just a few yards shy of the unbubbling Jacuzzi. Tice lit it up. Smothered his face with smoke. The people in the spa seemed oblivious. A small group in hot water--a pool of their own--that was calm and small, steaming. But Wade, seeing the spa, turned the timer knob--which we stood by--and before I could even take the joint the Jacuzzi erupted and the people within it cheered and giggled. Great vents of steam rose as I smoked my turn and watched. Then a single form rose from the round burbling pool and came to us.
It was a kid, maybe eighteen, with a large nose, who came out of the tub dripping pebbles of water upon the walk, some young guy covered with an aquarium shine. He wore pinkish quilt-patterned boxers for swim gear and a pair of oversized Nomad sunglasses and he came directly to me. Out of all the people in SoCal, all the humanoids at this party, out of the three of us, he picked me to dribble up to and talk.
Maybe it was because I held the joint.
He was some big-nosed kid from Texas, said Ralph was his name, and I handed him the joint, hoping to keep him quiet because I had fallen deep into my own psyche by then, drugged beyond redemption, but he went right ahead and began to tell me about his lifetime of problems.
Ralph told me he was from a broken family, how he was out of work, then drawled out numerous teenage platitudes--dead-end nonsense--about life and misfortune and taking things a day at a time and then he went back to his joblessness, that he needed work to stay in L.A. and that he had an interview set up but thought that he would skip it. He said the employer wanted references and that he had none. And I don't know why, don't know why, but I listened to him as he passed the wetted joint to Wade and was filled with some desire to help him, advise him, to take him under my angelic wing and show him a one-way path to self-illumination so that he could clearly see his own abject stupidity.
"Look," I said in a loud tough-lovish way, "now you just go ahead to that interview and get that job! When these employers say they want references it's just a matter of course, bureaucracy, so you can lie--take a chance--it won't matter, they never check it out!"
"Man, I never thought of it that way," he said. "You mean it's sort of like official business. They ask everyone?"
"That's right." And I nodded with paternal sarcasm, with satisfaction that my directness had gotten through hi betel nut-hard head. Ralph was definitely eighteen at best.
Tice and Wade stood by me, also nodding, chuckling, passing the never-ending joint around once again. And Ralph was now stuck to us like a wad of gum upon the Golden State Freeway. He stood expectantly in front of me, eyeing me and the tapered joint, blocking my view of the bubbling pool behind him, where the ghosts sat steaming like so many plucked chickens. And after his puffs upon the joint he began to tell me more, all about his life in Texas on the Gulf Coast, and about his troubles with his girlfriend.
"She was gonna come out here. I already sent her the money for the flight and everything. But when I got to the airport she wasn't even on that flight." He was bewildered by this turn of events and I looked at him sternly, this boy with a huge nose now dripping like candle wax, the powdered steam of the spa rising behind him as if he had just crossed the Styx, with his Nomads encapsulating his eyes like the eyes of some ghastly refrigerated insect, his hair still wet and plastered upon his skull like an ill-fitting black pancake. Skin translucent and dopey, platypus-like ears unevenly stabbed into both sides of his head.
"Did you call her to find out why?" I snapped.
"Well, no," he drawled.
"Well what do you think, kid?" I asked, my tongue a sharp and flexed muscle in my mouth. "Obviously she took your cash, bought some coke, and right now she's probably driving around Houston, naked, in a car full of black men!"
Tice and Wade howled. They were finally getting a return in their investment in me. And I realized this, knew it was what they wanted, and could not let me benefactors down. Ralph even laughed right along with them.
"Yeah, but... " and the boy was right back into his weary querying about job and girl and proper references.
"Now I told you what to do about the job! I told you about the girl! Forget her--or go back to Texas!" All my intoxicated and radiated energy was concentrated upon poor Ralph's dilemmas. I knew I was there, there that very night, to solve his eternal struggles. "Just go back to Texas!"
"I can't," he said. "I got in trouble."
And then Ralph laid out a whole sad worthless tale on me about being involved with drugs and narcing and about Mexican cocaine mafiosos. I didn't think he had enough brains to lie, to create such a story, but I doubted very much that there was any true danger in it. But I was still there, ready to preach to him, direct him, to turn his life around and put him onto the path of enlightenment.
"Drugs!" I said and my words flew freely from my mouth, forethoughtless as if they were locusts cast upon the idolatry of the world. I was all Third Eye now. "Well, that figures! That's always the problem with you young ones: drugs! You always end up in Los Angeles, hopping from hot tub to hot tub, looking for hand outs and advice!" I put the boy to shame. He looked embarrassed. "You've got to shape up, Ralph! Get the goddamned job and stay off the drugs! No drugs!"
Oh it felt good. Tice and Wade laughed openly. The people around us were within earshot but did not care. And I did not care. The Third Eye of myself looked down upon me as I suddenly saw myself in a new true light. And I told myself that I was a shaman, a sage of wisdom. In my blitzed mind I was The Way. I was Jesus H. Christ reborn on earth to help everyone, especially candle-nosed Texas kids in trouble. By now the Third Eye was ringing me, passing judgement as these thoughts of grandeur began to take hold among my many still-living brain cells. Maybe it was only the coke, but I was not going to listen to my detached conscious. The nimbus of my ego was too great.
"You're right, you're right," the kid said. "But you see, O also like to surf. And when I go to the beach none of these guys will let me surf because they're locals only..."
And I blew up:
"What the hell are you talking about? Surfing? You have problems with job, drugs, women and now surfing? Get your priorities straight, kid! Get off the drugs and get to work! Quit namby-pambying around looking for others to support you! You need the hard road, the straight and narrow. Quit fucking around, Ralph!"
He tried to say something but I cut him off. "No!" Tried again but again I dismissed him. "No, Ralph!" I stopped him, held up my hand, balled my fist. Tice and Wade were still an amused audience but I no longer saw it as comic. I was serious. My arm felt strong and solid like a staff, a scepter, my fist was the Big Blue Crystal of the Almighty. I held my ruling arm up against the transgressions of this poor boy, and I had spoken. Had laid down the law and now it was up to him to follow the path or forever wallow in his little purgatory. I was wise and triumphant. I was the King.
And Ralph got smaller. He crouched down then and suckled the pale remnant roach of marijuana, lips pooched upon its nib, a singular fine trail of smoke rising before his waxy face. And now behind him, in my view, was the Jacuzzi with its collection of mortals soaking in the roiled water. And I stood there, both astounded by my personal greatness while also fearing it. Somewhere, even with the Third Eye blinded, I knew it was a self-delusional indulgence that went too far. And then I saw him.
In the heated water was an old silver-haired maniac man, sitting at its edge among the vented steam. He was a rotund man, face big and boated and red-blood-vessel-broken. The yellow lights shown upon him. The churning waters surrounded his legs and feet. And in the pool were two black girls. Nice sumptuous young women in green and purple suits, their skin so dark and lustrous. And the man sat above them holding his arms out--fingers splayed to the dim stars--and he was blabbering, "Hooblahboolaroo."
It was outright, unbelievable, cartoonish blabbering. Nonsense. Childlike. Incomprehensible. "Blooblahbahroohaha." His face was distorted and beyond ruddiness, his fat body bathed in steam, and the girls were looking at him, then at each other, gaining faces of abject fright and repulsion. And the man said to them, "Touch my hands!"
"No," they said.
"Hold my hands!"
"No." And they waded away from him, began to scramble out of the fuming waters as he went off on another rant: "Bleebahloolababah!" Now shaking his hands minstrel-like, gospel preacher-like. His face ludicrous.
I was stunned. I thought it was some mean trick. A hallucination. No one else--save the departing women--appeared to notice the man in the hot tub. And somewhere, swimming in my rational mind, I knew who the crazy man was. Not by name, but I knew he lived in the complex, that he had been a successful screenwriter who was now upon hard times, alcoholic, who was rumored to be on the verge of being kicked out of his apartment because he stored newspapers--stacked like cordwood--in his apartment. That, and the failure to pay rent. I knew this, but also could not help but to see it--this sudden image of the flailing fat man in sulfur waters--as a dreaded omen.
I was frightened and ashamed. And I had to quickly cut myself away from our little mongrel-pack, away from Ralph and my friends. Went back to the swimming pool alone, sat upon a chair and tried to take in the pool's cool blueness. Tranquility. But beyond the short divider of trimmed eucalyptus and snake plants, I could still hear the barbaric ranting. In my mind I could see the melting man in the boiling pool. And I knew that I was not the King.
He was.
He was The Great Reptile King and He was waiting for me.
Waiting to show me The Way.

No comments: