Only a nobody walks in L.A., so I started walking.
It was a sort of moving meditation and a sort of slow protest against the city: the crush of traffic like some never ending noisy metallic beast; the dirt and heat; strange things gathered in the gutters — porn, needles, discarded clothing, fast food wrappers. Walking down Santa Monica Boulevard I came face to face with the young male hustlers fluffing themselves through their loose pants, advertising for the businessmen rushing past in their foreign cars. On Hollywood Boulevard I met the runaways, bikers, and Scientologists who hustled their personality tests more aggressively than the twinks down on Santa Monica hustled their cocks. Down on Melrose were the cool kids, ducking in and out of Aardvark’s, Aaron’s and La Luz De Jesus.
Occasionally I’d get hassled, but that was all part of experiencing L.A. on foot.
“Excuse me, sir, can you spare a dollar for what I really need?”
“What do you really need?”
“I need a drink.”
I’d never noticed how isolating cars can be, like glass and metal bubbles keeping us from experiencing the world — climate controlled, sound insulated, soundtracked. Even our mental faculties are redirected from aimless wandering to the tens of thousands of computations per second required to keep a car moving forward without running into anything. Life inside the car bubble was like a Choose Your Own L.A. Adventure, filtering out the hustlers and the ugliness if one chose or driving straight into the heart of it if that’s your thing. Walking meant confronting all of it, all of the time.
But there was another side to walking in L.A. Parking my isolation bubble meant climbing into others’ bubbles. My coworkers in the MGM building offered me rides all over the place, perhaps because they assumed I walked out of need rather than choice. Joel took me to the Boddhi Tree during lunch for books on Buddhism, Kevin just took me to lunch. Cheryl drove me home many nights, detouring through Hollywood before taking the long drive back to her home in the desert. They all talked non-stop from behind their steering wheels. In retrospect I wonder whether perhaps I was the one doing them the favor, masking for a few minutes the unbearable loneliness of their glass and metal bubbles.
Each night I returned to Su Casa Apartment number 207, where I tried to mask my own loneliness with a typewriter, talking to white sheets of paper that parroted what I said. I tried to write stories, to make sense of it all, but I was just a monkey pounding keys — pages and pages of incoherent rambling. All that is salvageable from those early efforts is this: “She smelled of hurricanes and peach orchards.” More important than the output was the exercise: pressing the keys, moving my hands, sustaining concentration for longer and longer periods of time, assembling words like a toddler mashing together a box of building blocks, trying to make castles from lettered cubes.
Being out in the world and writing were somehow tied together, but I didn’t know how.
Kelly, my cutting room friend with the perpetual stomach ache, caught me writing at my workbench one day. “My mother was a writer,” she said. “I’ll bring you her book. After you read it I’ll tell you a little story.”
The book was a grocery store novel about an abused little girl. The writing was fine but the story was brutal, sadistic. I felt like a rubbernecker finding entertainment in human misery. I didn’t want to write stories like that. I wanted to write about girls who smelled of hurricanes and peach orchards who eventually rip out your heart, which was miserable, too. The whole game was rigged for human misery, it seemed. I should have stayed in the cozy womb of the glass and metal bubble.
On the other hand, I was having fun with Michelle, the waitress from Ed Debevic’s. She was moving to New York in two weeks to try her luck in the lucrative field of Shakespearean acting, wherein no one was required to tolerate Larry Flynt or periodically break into the Hand Jive, so we were packing as much sex into half a month as possible. I barely slept for those two weeks, but somehow the long walks to work in the morning made it bearable. By late afternoon I was dragging ass, though, so when Kelly offered me a ride home I jumped at it.
The MGM parking lot was packed with the kinds of cars that slowed for the hustlers on Santa Monica: Saabs, Volvos, Audis, Mercedes, Jaguars, and one beat to shit American sedan. It was white with a burgundy landau roof and looked as if it had been on the receiving end of the Malachi Crunch. “Don’t laugh,” Kelly said. “It only cost me 125 bucks.”
“I never laugh at a free ride,” I said. We climbed into the faded luxury of the American driving experience: torn cloth seats, cracked vinyl, warped plastic, missing knobs. The beast fired right up.
“Where’s your place?”
“Hollywood. Near the Rockin’ Ralphs.”
“Okay, I know where that is,” Kelly said. “I need to run an errand first, do you mind?”
“No, that’s cool,” I said, and she pointed the beater in the opposite direction and stabbed the gas. The shocks were shot, so we floated on the car’s springs like some evil combination of low rider and clown car. “Your mom’s book was really good.”
“Yeah, people like it. The funny part is that the whole time she was writing a novel about child abuse she was abusing me.”
“I don’t even think she saw the irony,” Kelly said. Downtown L.A. emerged through the smog, the wide expanses giving way to the tall buildings as Kelly told me the story behind the story, a tale of neglect and abuse significantly worse than anything in her mother’s book. The beast pushed deeper and deeper into downtown, past the shiny buildings and into the decayed heart of the city. He car wasn’t out of place here. The area looked like a bad neighborhood as designed by an overzealous set decorator: piles of garbage in the gutters, homeless unconscious on the sidewalks and staring at the walls, graffiti everywhere, broken windows, broken doors, broken people.
She pulled onto a side street and parked in front of a metal gate guarding what looked like an abandoned building. “This will just take a minute, unless you want to come with me,” Kelly said.
I looked at the building. “I’ll just wait here,” I said.
“Cool, be right back,” she said, and she slithered through the padlocked gate and disappeared into the dark belly of the building. There was no noise, not a bum pushing a shopping cart, no wailing sirens or birds or gunshots or revving engines. Wherever we were the air seemed to absorb all sound, like we were locked in a vacuum. I fiddled with the remaining knobs on the dashboard, checked the door locks, kept my head on a swivel. The lack of sound grew more disturbing, like a horror movie silence just before the guy with the machete leaps from the shadows.
I sat there for an hour, though my watch insisted that only ten minutes passed, and then Kelly slipped back through the gate and ran back to the car. “I got it,” she said, her face lit up like Christmas morning.
She clutched a little square of aluminum foil in her shaky hand. “I just want to look at it and then we’ll go,” she said, and she peeled open the foil. There was nothing inside but a tiny lump of brown sugar.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Chiva,” she said, and I replied with a blank stare. “Heroin,” Kelly said, and she fired up the car and we headed back to Hollywood.