I’m still struggling to get my legs back under me. I drafted an essay on the nature of grief to fill this space, but nobody wants to read that shit. I spent a little time thinking about King Kong, too, specifically what a great metaphor for contemporary culture that big monkey is. How many times have we discovered something rare and beautiful only to exploit and inevitably destroy it? It’s a good idea, but not one that I feel like rambling on about right now.
And then I started thinking about all of those evenings spent reading and writing at the Insomnia cafe, scribbling line after line with no idea what I was doing. I rarely dig out old journals, but the more I thought about that period the more I wondered how my writing has changed over two decades. The following entry is from February 1993, and it’s a story that I’d planned on writing from scratch sometime soon anyway. That should happen eventually, as this anecdote has the bones of a good story, but for now I’m just going to transcribe what I laid down 23 years ago.
We left Al’s Bar fifteen minutes after we got there because Kelly didn’t like the people. “They just want to wear angst like a weekend fashion,” she said. “You want to go somewhere real? I’ll take you somewhere real.”
It was 2:00 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles. Ghost town — the occasional warm body on a street corner, an odd car passing now and then; the way that cities ebb and flow with time and tide. I pointed to a young Hispanic man standing beneath a brightly lit sign reading “Jesus Is the Light.”
“Let’s test your knowledge. That guy, is he dealing or just hanging on the corner?”
“Let’s find out,” she said and rolled down her window. I protested, but she was already in motion. “Amigo! Amigo! Chiva?”
He shook his head no. “Gotta go down to Sixth. I got needles, though.”
“They clean? Clean needles?”
“I want to look. I’m going to pull over,” Kelly said.
“No!” I interjected. “What are you doing?”
“Jaime, relax. I just want to look.”
“Because you asked if he was dealing. If you didn’t want to know then why did you ask?”
“I was making conversation. Now will you just go?”
She rolled her eyes at me and sped away from the curb. I turned around and saw the dealer give us the finger. “Look, Jaime,” Kelly said. “I’m not using anymore, okay? It doesn’t get me high like it used to. God, I wish it did. I just like to know that it’s still out there.”
“Let’s just go, Kelly. If you’re not looking for dope then why the fuck hang around here?”
We drove along silently. Every street corner supported a pocket enterprise. Just folks waiting on a bus or a cab, minding their own business on a two a.m. corner. Roll down the window, though — ask that nice old man what he’s holding. They’re all holding something: pot, crack, coke, heroin, sex. Anything you want this concrete Sodom will provide. All you need to do is ask the question.
Tommy’s Burgers was jumping. Four patrol cars and six police motorcycles circled the place — protection against the throng of teenage Hispanics gathered there. Every town has at least one hang like Tommy’s where one pisses away their teens one weekend at a time, sitting on a buddy’s car hood and drinking warm beer.
Every movement the cops made was met with ridicule. We ate chili dogs and sat on the cold sidewalk. “Come on,” Kelly said as she stood and brushed the potato chip crumbs from her lap. “I want to show you something.”
As we wound through L.A. Kelly told me stories of her junkie past. She pointed out places of historic junkie significance and even discussed the forbidden death of her junkie lover. Upward we went, north of downtown, climbing into the hills but still within the city limits. The road turned to dirt. Four cars sat parked along the hillside. Spanish voices were a din beneath the thud of loud hip hop music. Silhouettes of their bodies were visible against the cityscape dancing, drinking, playing.
“No, here,” she said and hurdled an iron gate that blocked a small access road.
“I don’t want to go up there,” I said.
“Why not, Jaime? Are you scared?”
She grabbed my hand and feigned pulling me over the gate. “You are with me, that makes you a ghost. Nothing can hurt you.”
My stomach was all butterflies as we walked up the trail. Isn’t this how stupid people die? They go to the most remote place in the middle of the night and seem surprised when death takes them.
Kelly was like a little girl on a picnic. “I used to come up here and play saxophone. Nobody ever bothered me except once and that was to tell me my car stereo had been stolen and to bum a smoke.”
The road ended in a promontory overlooking the city. It was as if someone had cleared the land to build but never got around to doing so.
That’s where the journal entry ends. The next one comes four days later, and it is limited to this: “Don’t I ever finish my stories?”
I’m not sure why I bailed out of this anecdote where I did, as the payoff was great. Kelly and I sat in her saxophone spot, talking and staring at the L.A. skyline while the boom boom boom of the stereo on the ridge below reminded me that we weren’t alone. One of the kids down there fired a gun, three sharp shots echoing through the Hollywood Hills. “Maybe we ought to get out of here,” I said.
“Okay,” Kelly said.
We stood up, and I took one more long look at Los Angeles, all lit up like a Christmas tree. “It’s almost perfect,” I said.
“What would make it perfect?” Kelly asked.
“If you kissed me,” I said. She smiled, and she moved close and wrapped her arms around my waist. We stood there holding each other, locked in a kiss that was much sweeter than a story about a dope run suggests. She thought of herself as a ghost, and I was empty inside. There was no sex in that kiss, just vulnerability and kindness.
And that’s where we stood as a police helicopter rose above the ridge, its floodlights searching for the shooter. We didn’t let go of each other, just stood there bathed in the bright lights for a moment. It may have been the most cinematic thing to ever happen in Los Angeles.
The ghost would like to read your essay on grief, and on King Kong, too.
That ending got me, my friend. As Watts’ Ann Darrow says near the end…”Beautiful.”
First-rate then, first-rate now. Always worth my time.