We first met at Wilcox and Yucca. It was a sunny afternoon in a neighborhood impervious to the sun. Maybe met is misleading. It wasn't like a mutual friend introduced us over vodka gimlets while Bobby Short serenaded us from the Cole Porter songbook. It was more like I kicked him.
I didn't mean to. I was just preoccupied. I'd been hurrying to get to the check cashing place on Whitley and I failed to see his six and a quarter foot frame sprawled in the doorway of Hell's Gate. I'd been walking along at a pretty good clip and my foot slammed into something squishy with a dull, flat sound. I looked down in disgust as if I'd stepped in something foul, which of course I had, and our eyes met for one horrifying second and I almost wet myself.
"Watch the fuck out!" he said in a full, rich, news-anchory voice.
Then I did wet myself.
It's not that I was surprised that he was capable of speech. I mean, I have seen Mr. Ed. It's just that he was, well, human. Don't get me wrong. I know these guys are human. If I didn't know they were human I wouldn't try so hard to avoid eye contact with them. You see them pushing shopping carts, stopping traffic, generally giving a dark edge and a pungent scent to our fair and bright city. But while they do make the sounds and the motions of hominids if not full fledged humans, it's just comfier to think of them as oh, I don't know, clouds. Well it's easier for me at least.
Then again, you kick someone in the head and suddenly you're in a relationship.
"Fuck, dude. I'm sorry. You OK?"
"Don't call me dude, you red striped bufoon." He was glaring at me with bloodshot eyes, one of which had a yellow lump. I leaned in, moth-to flamishly.
"Gimme some money." he said.
I did not like this man. I mean, he looked cool as hell with his undersized hunting jacket and his shiny black jeans (I think they were jeans). The orange galoshes and the Rob Zombie dreads completed the look. Dude was downright dapper. But I was getting peeved that he'd had the bad manners to smack my boot with his head, indelibly staining the former with the latter. And the smell, Jesus. I lost a potato behind my refrigerator one summer that turned into a black puddle and it didn't smell half as bad as this guy.
But he was kinda cute. "Let me buy you a drink" I said. He rubbed the side of his head and grinned, working it. I ran into the Pla-Boy liquor and got some schnapps.
And that was how it started. Next thing I knew I started running into him everywhere. Jayburger, the Bourgeois Pig, The ugly ass metro station on Vine. Or was it the ugly ass metro station on Western? Come to think of it, I ran into him in all of the ugly ass metro stations. Dude just kept showing up. And every time I ran into him, I know this is lame but it's true, he looked a little more like a human being. I'd always say hey and hand him a buck if I had one and he'd always kinda snarl at me in a dog-on-the-porch sorta way. But he was warming up to me I could tell. The fact that I actually wanted him to warm up to me was a bit disconcerting but warming up to me he was. One day I had just cashed a big fat check and I saw him outside the Bliss Café. I went in and brought him out a sandwich and a coffee and as he scarfed, he motioned me to wait. Then he straightened out a crumpled wrapper from his coat and handed it to me. It was a poem.
Now, poetry is not something I claim any more than a passing familiarity with. I could take it or leave it, mostly leave it. I mean really. Outside of William Shakespeare, Richard Brautigan and maybe Ogden Nash, whaddaya really have? Alan Ginsberg? Whatever. Smoke enough hash and he's the voice of a generation. Henry Rollins? Please. As a poet he's a helluva body builder. Of course Jewel is a god damned genius. But really the rest of what passes for poetry just sounds like so much verbal scab-picking to me. Do I really want to know about some broad's fucked up relationship with her abusive father? No. No I do not. Hey I had a fucked up relationship with my abusive father too. You don't see me stepping up to the mike to whine about it while you're trying to enjoy your latte, do you? No, most poetry is just unfriendly monkey noise from people who've forgotten how to fling real poo. Now where was I? Oh yeah, he gave me a poem and I really really liked it. I still have that copy too. It's a love poem.
I love your pussy but I hate your cat
even now I see him sitting on your lap
he's grinning and he's squinting at me from beneath your fond caress
I want to sit right there and lick myself too
I want to claw your favorite shirt to shreds
I want to spread my dandruff all over your couch
I want you to pick little lumps of my shit out of the carpet
and call me naughty boy
and spank my ass
but not too hard
and when I'm finished pissing on your pillow
I want you to chuck me under the chin and talk baby talk to me baby
talk baby talk to me baby
you could tell me almost anything
just don't tell me bout those things we haven't got
and all the men that I am not
and all the shit I'd have to do
to get some fucking love from you
I love your pussy but I hate your cat
I see that motherfucker sitting on your lap
why doesn't he get off his fat fucking cat ass
and get a job
and take care of you
and rub your back
and buy you flowers
and stand around in the mall while you try on clothes
and wait in the living room for you to get ready to go to some dinner party
and listen to you and your stupid fucking friends bitch
just who is the dumb animal around here anyway?
"Tracey is a fictional character." he assured me. "She just doesn't know it."
Wow. I was feeling a little warm. Up until now I guess I'd just thought he was around for my amusement, but now that he'd actually done something to amuse me I realized he was so much more than that. He had a history. He had had, at some point, what you or I would call a life. You know, apartment, chick, bills, stress. All the good stuff. The stuff that makes you want or at least have to get up in the morning and go to work. Of course he had. Nobody gets out of high school and runs right out and selects a shopping cart. Something had happened. I wanted to know what it was. Had he fallen suddenly or by degrees? Was there some big tragic event or had he simply decided to opt out of the rat race? Maybe I didn't want to know. I did know that I felt sorry for him. His swollen feet looked like they hurt and he was always a little bloody somewhere on his body, sometimes a lot bloody. Life was beating the shit out of him and he just wandered around the city taking it. Just taking it. I started thinking less about what had happened to him and more about what was happening to him. I loved him. And I wanted to read more of his poetry.
Then, of course, he disappeared completely.
* * * *
But there's some thing that lives here with me that keeps me thrilled to be here. It's as if some ancient Chumash god escaped the onslaught of the blue eyed devils who ran off all the Chumash and he hid out, maybe in Runyon Canyon, maybe Elysian Park. He hid out and waited to be worshipped again but the Chumash never came back. So he sits here still. Unknown and unworshipped he draws fame seekers from all over the planet into a swirling vortex of anonymity.
Or maybe I just dig the chicks.
Every little town the world over has that one hot girl. The one who's not just pretty but somehow striking. The one who makes all the guys say "ouch" when she walks by. She could just be happy to be the hottest girl in town, marry the captain of the football team and drive all the menfolk crazy with dreams of passion and possession. It's a good life. Unless of course she takes a drama class in high school. Then forget about it. Once she and her home town get the idea that she can parlay her pulchritude into something more substantial it's all over. They bundle her up in write-us-soons and break-a-legs and send them like tribute, like sacrificial virgins to appease a god whose name they'll never know. That god lives right here. And there's a new crop getting off the bus every day.
I hadn't seen my friend in a few weeks. I was a little worried about him at first, but there were so many distractions.
My latest distraction was named Fiona. Her eyes were luminous azure orbs perched regally atop cheekbones sculpted by Noguchi. Neurotic, alcoholic and totally narcissistic. Just the way I like 'em.
I'd been reasonably certain that I wouldn't get sucked in this time. The inherent unavailability of the actress (or if they're really pretentious, actor) makes for the perfect short term relationship. The more she says she loves you the more you get the feeling that she is, after all, acting. Unfortunately I always seem to forget that the minute you buy the performance it's time to move the show. I'd been through this before.
But one must do one's part for the arts. The headshots, the classes, going over sides at the 101. It's all very fun in an optimistically desperate sort of way. She was telling me, between bites of slightly seared cow flesh (no fries, thank you), that she was leaving me for the guy who directed Mario Brothers The Movie.
Check, please. Maybe someday she'll get the part as Sonic the Hedgehog's love interest. Oh well. I never liked those swanky dumps on Larchmont anyway. Larchmont Village itself has a stink about it that I never could get used to. All those gaunt little women weighed down with shopping bags and rouge, accompanied by curly-haired bald-spotted men clutching leashes with nervous little rat faced dogs at the end. F.Scott was right about the rich, but I'm not sure he knew the half of it. So when I saw my long lost pal shambling towards us on 1st st., I felt like Gilligan watching a C-130 transport buzzing the lagoon. I almost knocked over the table to greet him I was so happy.
He stopped dead in his tracks, but he seemed not to see me. He was clenching and unclenching his fists and mumbling something menacing through gnashed teeth.
"It's the bricks." he said.
I was a little hurt. No "Don't call me dude" no "Can ya help a fellow American who's down on his luck?" Just "It's the bricks." He said it again and again, with the same tone and intensity. I had no idea what he was talking about but he was starting to scare me. I looked a little closer. He was definitely in some kind of a blackout. He looked terrible even for him. There was an infected wound oozing on his neck and his right hand was bloody and swollen. I had to get him to county in a hurry.
"C'mon, let's get you a drink."
I remembered to breathe through my mouth as I shepherded him onto the bus. I wonder if Fiona thought I was coming back to pay the check.
Once they cleaned him up and pumped him full of antibiotics, he kind of came around and almost got friendly for a minute there. In a moment of unrestrained gratitude he promised to have me over to the house and there was no way I was going to miss seeing this. After canning a bit on Melrose-I think we gathered enough aluminum for his next couple of fortys- we headed north on Gower in the shadow of Paramount's western walls. On our left, Venetian blinds in bungalow windows hid digital production teams slaving away polishing next season's batch of unimaginable dreck.
As we wandered, we finally came to a neighborhood more to our liking, where the lawns were tall and brown and strewn with trash. Here streamline moderne snuggled with faux Moroccan, all with chipped paint and fiercely barred windows. I was struggling to keep up with him now, as he'd recovered quite nicely from his little "episode". Suddenly he turned right and we headed between two identical dirty pink houses. Ducking through a break in the hedge, we were safe inside a lean-to made of cardboard boxes and calico detritus. "Wanna eat?" he asked. Reaching between a poster for CSI Miami and a tampon carton, he pulled out a half eaten hoagie with brown, almost liquid lettuce. "No thanks" I said, sincerely contemplating never eating again.
"OK. Sleep now" At this, he stretched out and began to snore. I broke the filters off two cigarettes and stuffed them up my nostrils. Then I lit one, simultaneously calming myself and freshening the air.
Crazy I know, but I felt comfortable in that place. It was far neater than I would have guessed. Crushed cans and 2-liter bottles formed one wall while a pile of paper scraps leaned against the pink stucco opposite. All in all it was pretty cozy in a Better Hovels and Gardens kind of way. The sinking sun cast a golden rococo pattern through the leaves of the hedge and as my smoke amplified the patterns I noticed that I was rocking back and forth. I liked it in there. One of the donut bags in the pile caught my eye. It had writing on it. I soon noticed that quite a few of the other bags were similarly adorned. I pulled it out.
Sherman and Sepulveda meet just north of here
Sherman said "War is hell"
Sepulveda probably said something just as cool
but it was in Spanish so I don't know
I don't know how I got here
where the smoke rises up from my full flavor Best Buy cigarette
like a tiny funeral pyre
Where Venetian blind deaf and dumb shafts of light
illuminate filigrees of curly blue smoke
I don't know how I got here
I don't even know where I got the money to stay here tonight
but these four walls feel good
A room with a view
of the sun going down
As it does the roaches come out
Too many to kill or even count
The walls look like an aerial view of some great battle
The roaches on the south wall
fortified by the remnants of a burrito supreme
form a phalanx and advance menacingly on the roaches of the east wall
Just then the whore in the next room
brings her performance and her customer to a stunning climax
with just the right blend of fuck me fuck me and oh please god don't kill me
No man don't kill her
I want to hear this routine with the next guy
Gets me off every time
God she's good
The voice that launched a thousand ships
has just launched mine
Now all is quiet on the western towel rack
The firefight is over
and the troops have all turned in
Sherman and Sepulveda consult their charts
while I try to devise a battle plan of my own
I don't know how I got here
I don't know how I got here
I don't know how I got here
Wow. He'd suffered more than I'd realized. He actually used to live in Van Nuys. I've always thought that the entire San Fernando Valley would make a dandy penal colony. Not that it isn't a de facto gulag now, but think about it. Minor offenders could do time in say, Valley Village. Misdemeanors and class 3 felonies would have to languish in Reseda and Encino and the hardcore murderers and freaks would be locked down in Panorama City (oops! they've already thought of that).
I picked up another piece of paper, ready for another poem, but this one was covered with numbers. Not just numbers but complex algebraic equations. Thousands of them. I felt queasy. A little frantically, I plucked one after another of the pieces of paper in the pile and found nothing but row upon row of numbers.
Suddenly, I panicked. What if they were all in order and I'd screwed it all up? I hid the errant papers as deeply in the pile as I could reach. That's when I found the box. The moment my fingers touched it they knew that it was special. Oblong, smooth, cool and dense. My heart was pounding louder than his snoring as I drew the box, Excalibur-like, from the pile. Ornate marquetry adorned its lid, which I slid aside to reveal tangible quantifiable proof of the existence of a man.
His name really was Newton Sawtelle. No shit.
Decorated veteran, dedicated educator, devoted husband and father. All right here in a box. Ribbons, pictures, shiny bits of metal, certificates and clippings of the past. A past that no one knew but him and me and the family he'd left behind. In that box were four or five gum wrappers, a bunch of pictures of his family, two bronze stars, and a PhD in structural engineering, f'chrissake. This guy was not only one of them, one of the much vaunted middle class, he had succeeded at it. He'd really done the deal. He was a full-fledged badass.
So what was he doing here? For that matter what was I? I should be trolling Beachwood for chicks or at least out looking for work. But here I was, rocking back and forth and staring at what seemed my only friend in the world.
I detachedly examined my comrade. His leathery skin was pockmarked with scars and scabs. His ankles were ringed with soot, and every wrinkle and fold on his body was filled with the same. As he breathed his chest heaved and wheezed and his open mouth revealed lesions and sparsely placed yellow and black teeth. The ridges in his claw-like fingernails made them look like aged bamboo.
There seemed to me to be a force field protecting that little spot. Through the hedge a world was moving while inside all movement had ceased. Enwombed in this place, I could feel a warm fullness in my chest as I swayed in rhythm with the leaves of the western wall. I listened with newly attuned ears to their rustling, Newton's sputtering snore, the distant hiss of rubber on asphalt, my own breath, my own thoughts.
It was time to go.
This bumper sticker was telling me to kill my TV and I couldn't help but think "Kill your own TV you fucking hippie fascist" Who the fuck do these people think they are? He also wanted the world to know that DRUM MACHINES HAVE NO SOUL. Apparently it hadn't occurred to him that neither do drums, that they too are machines and needs must be operated by a drummer who presumably possesses a soul, just like a drum machine programmer. I was starting to fantasize about pulling him out of his '67 Valiant by his nose ring and beating him to a quivering mass of tattoos when it occurred to me that maybe I should lighten up.
Poor schmuck doesn't know any better. It could happen to anyone who listens to too much Sonic Youth.
I guess I was just having a bad week that day. I was working for this "indy" producer in Los Feliz and I was just so fed up with the whole hipness thing I could have puked. Producer boy had the emo hair, the jeans that fit just the right way, the studded belts, the tattooed neck, the whole bit. Which would have been fine if he was like twentysomething but he was way more like fortysomething and no one, least of all me, had the balls to tell him that he looked like an idiot. I mean for the love of god, man, stop watching MTV and read a book or something.
Don't get me wrong. I love Silverlake. I dig the eastside chicks with the jet black hair and the overpriced restaurants with the mediocre food served by snarling ex-punk rock stars. I dig the thrift stores where you can buy fucked up old formica furniture for about ten times what it cost when it was brand new. Really. I do.
But there's a strain of snobbery that thrives east of Vermont as prevalent and far more virulent than its counterpart west of Robertson. At least in Beverly Hills the people are snotty and horrible because they're rich which is somehow easier to take than getting attitude from a guy just because his car is older than his girlfriend.
Deep as I was in my ruminations, I kept thinking about Newton. He had disappeared again and I was getting worried. I went by the twin pink houses on Delongpre hoping to catch him hibernating, only to find a clean up crew hard at work. The beautiful filthy pink had been covered by light olive with dark green trim. Gardeners were laying verdant sod and planting African daisies where once my friend and I had hidden from the painful light. A young couple pulled up in a newish Explorer, she with Bettie Page hair and too much ass stuffed into rolled up 501's, he with a pompadour and a bolo tie. There goes the neighborhood.
After exhausting his every known haunt I screwed my courage to the steering column and decided to head for the home of the homeless. Time for a suicide run to the dreaded west side. Santa Monica here I come.
There must be some kind of homing signal submerged in the Santa Monica bay for nappy headed poo butt scavengers. That's one theory I have. Another is that these guys follow the setting sun every night until they hit the ocean and then they just wander laterally. Most credible of all, though is what I call the Big Bash Theory.
I figure that these people were all at the same beachside acid test one fine summer's eve. The Seeds played and so did Bobby Fuller. They drank, they laughed, they danced the Frug and the Watusi, they fucked in the sand and they dosed. The acid was really really good back then and maybe that night it just way too good. Now, 35 or 40 years later they're starting to come down and look for rides home, wondering who's on Ed Sullivan tonight.
Or maybe not. This is just the kind of thing I think about when I'm stuck on Olympic heading west in a sea of SUVs, BMWs and various high performance penile compensators. I drive a '74 Duster. It's good enough for Al Bundy and it's good enough for me. It is not, however, good enough for the LAPD. Not in West LA. And certainly not with bad tags. Why do I always feel like taking a shit when I get pulled over? It's kinda weird. I think my body must need to expel any excess weight so I can run. Either that or their strobe lights are designed to incapacitate suspects with a laxative effect. Hmmm.
"Good afternoon sir. May I see your license and registration please?"
Good afternoon? Please? My heart sank. I'd much rather hear something along the lines of "Outta the car, asshole!" At least then you know you're dealing with a real human. If you bear in mind that his wife or his boyfriend probably hasn't fucked him in weeks, you can good naturedly put up with his shit long enough for him to feel guilty about being a dick and maybe let you go.
Did I mention that I had warrants? By the Book Boy had me bound and in the back in no time flat.
The ride to jail was not unpleasant, which added to the eerie THX1138ness of it all. I tried but failed to engage Officer Stedenko in any banter, so I amused myself by counting the bristly hairs on the back of his ridiculously thick neck. I was up to 287 when we pulled into the compound. After depositing me like one more smelly carp into a creel, the fisher of souls returned to his hooks and lines.
I didn't have to ask for a phone call, there was a pay phone in the holding tank. Of course, it would have been much more useful to me had I had someone to call. Fiona was busy shooting a Vagisil commercial and for all his tattoos, Producer Boy had never seen the parking lot of a jail, much less the inside. And as he had just fired me for calling him an idiot, I just couldn't see him flying to my rescue.
Besides, why bail out when they're just going to make you come back and pay anyway? I had way more time than money. Hey it's not like a romantic weekend sightseeing with some chick. This could actually be interesting. Nutritious meals made of mystery meats, Saltpeter, Spanish TV, and Spades (the card game). Kind of a poor man's spiritual retreat. I balled up my jacket and curled up on the bench. I had a 3AM bus ride downtown to look forward to and I needed my beauty rest. Someone's muffled cries bounced along the waxy linoleum, adding one more sour note to the music of incarceration that echoed in the holding tank. Puke green enamel tried but failed to fill the pockmarks on the cinderblock walls. Soon the little pits became meaningful shapes. Oh look it's Argentina. Hey there's Ghandi's diapers. Look at that. It's Quentin Tarantino's '83 Tercel. Amazing. Two musclebound men with big furry rabbit ears approached me, one with a scimitar swaying from his kilt. Neither one of them looked too friendly, but the one with the scar bisecting his lower lip seemed especially cranky.
"Hey" I said. "You guys know where a 7-11 is around here?" Nothing. Thinking quickly, I began tap dancing an urgent message in morse code to my partner, whose marksmanship and beauty were exceeded only by her national security clearance. She must have been very close indeed because the next instant found Scar Boy writhing on the flagstone with her heel crushing his larynx. Deftly snatching the scimitar from his compatriot, I dove through the window and described a lovely arc towards the foamy sea below, pausing long enough to hear their piteous cries for mercy.
I awoke to the sound of some other poor slob getting booked. Jail etiquette dictated that I pretend to be asleep, which I did, and soon ended up back in dreamland. Apparently I'd been rescued by a ship of bikini model pirates, the most nubile and comely of whom was leaning forward to give me mouth to mouth. Her breath was astonishingly bad, absolutely intolerable, but she was so strikingly beautiful I held my breath and puckered up.
Gasping for breath, I woke up to find the hideous black toothed grin of Newton Sawtelle inches from my face.
"Cigarette?" he said.
"You can't smoke in here" I whined.
"Oh yes I can." At this he pulled a Marlboro from the center of one of his dreads. "I've got eight or nine in there and a coupla doobs" He then produced a paper match and a scrap of flint and lit us up. Best damned cigarette I ever had. Damn it was good to see him.
"How come you're in such a good mood? Jail must agree with you." He leaned back on the bench with his hands behind his head looking downright mogulish. "Three hots and a cot, kid. I get tired out there. Hey! Wanna hear a poem?"
"Gee, I don't know, Newt, I'm a little busy right now"
"Don't ever call me Newt. I may be a bum but I'm no congressman." He was so freakin' sparky he was starting to scare me. He cleared his throat and began.
I'm having car trouble this morning
I can't seem to walk down and get in mine
But magnetic forces pull me to my car
Like the fear of living in it
and that nagging need to eat
There's a freeway in my head
It's cold and so I offer coos of courage
to my car and to myself
I twist the key like a motivational knife
My poor car groans like a grudgefuck fake orgasm
and then it starts
all John Bonham like at first
Then Louis Bellson
And when we get to Tito Puente
the automatic choke shuts off and we can go
There's a freeway in my head
and all my thoughts are cars
Some of my thoughts are slow
they change lanes suddenly
and without signals
I move like a corpuscle
to the hardened artery at Franklin and Gower
Lacking sufficient power for a bypass
behind the Ford Escort with the stickers
Nine Inch Nails
Why is it always Nine Inch Nails
Who cares what bands you like
Your car's a piece of shit
and you drive like old people fuck
and if I were Trent Reznor
I'd be embarrassed to have you as a fan
There's a freeway in my head
My faster thoughts tailgate my slower ones
Honking their horns
and flashing their brights at the introspection
I'm getting on the freeway now
or trying to
but this dickweed in the Lexus
is too busy visualizing world peace to let me merge
He'd better get with the program
lest his car become a forty thousand dollar hood ornament
for my 1972 Country Squier wagon
Do I look like I have insurance?
There's a freeway in my head
and all my thoughts are cars
Every now and then
two of my thoughts collide
and lie there smoldering and twisted
while the rest of my mind
slows down to have a look
Now I wasn't sure if I liked that poem but it was a trip to watch him recite. His chest heaved, his eyes shone and his voice was downright stentorian. I wish you coulda seen him. He was like a suddenly whole guy. I mean he was glowing. And after all the patchouli scented douchebags I'd seen whimpering on stages from Beyond Baroque to Highland Grounds, this smelly old fucker was refreshing to say the least. I snapped my fingers in proper beatnik fashion and called out for more. By this time another drunk had been thrown in the tank with us. Now with a full audience to entertain, Newton drew himself up a little higher and with a rather somber tone began anew:
I met a dyke
at open mike
She opened up my mind
She wore overalls
and broke my balls
Man was she unkind
She hated men
but then again
I couldn't hate her back
I dropped my guard
and took it hard
I welcomed her attack
She spoke my crimes
so many times
out loud for all to hear
it dawned on me
her motive was quite clear
A heavy chip
began to slip
then from my shoulder slid
She was irate
because I ate
more pussy than she did
Ah. The sweet elegant logic of the rhyme. Free verse always makes me feel a little stupid, but rhyming poetry fucking rhymes. What had I been missing all these years? An abusive neurotic English teacher had confiscated my bong in tenth grade and I'd been holding a grudge against the highest of art forms ever since. No more. I pledged there and then to seek erudition by any means necessary. If that meant hanging out with psychically wounded college girls in sandalwood scented coffee houses then so be it. The slam of a door down the hall reminded me where we were. The sounds of cop shoes on linoleum and jingling keys killed my mood completely, but for Newton the effect was dramatic. He was rocking in the corner and mumbling when the bull got to the holding tank.
"Let's go, gentlemen"
How is it that when a cop calls you a gentleman you always know he's really calling you a sub-human piece of shit?
On the bus, I kept looking at Newton to see if he was pulling out of his sudden funk, but it was much more than that. This was no bad mood and this was no act. He'd gone back to that place he'd been on Larchmont. His mumbling took on the pulsating rhythm of a devotional chant.
"It's the bricks the stacks of bricks they're juxtaposed in such a way as to say to me and only me the name the one true name of Collosalangeles I can decipher them given time give me time there really are only so many their numbers though formidable are nonetheless finite and therefore knowable my god is knowable my god is knowable though presumably complex surely a calculation can be devised whereby the angles and their relative position will reveal the name my god is knowable my god is knowable Collosalangeles abides within the angles of the bricks it's the bricks tiles have a language too and manhole covers have a certain dialect distracting and even entertaining as it is the bricks whose six sides eight corners fifty seven hundred sixty degrees when placed beside another fifty seven hundred sixty like itself will make a musical note which rings eternal and clear one need only find sufficient quantities of notes and place them properly within a chord and add to chords already thusly constructed to make a syllable one syllable reverberating across and through the tangible the audible the visceral the one true name the name the one true…"
He went on like this for the entire bus ride. We were separated upon arrival. They shackled him to a group of men by all appearances much like himself, narcotized and drooling, rocking and grinning. Were they all engaged in worship?
It was a fine morning for a walk. Losangeleopolis was warming up and starting to teem. I hadn't walked through Chinatown in forever and a scenic stroll was just what the doctor ordered. Of course the fact that no one would come pick me up on Vignes helped make up my mind.
Ah, to be broke in Los Angeles. Land of opportunity, city of dreams, you bet. Of course, being out of work, or "between projects" as we like to call it, is no great shame these days. So much production has moved out of town I almost miss seeing whole sections of the city blocked off by teamster trucks and honey wagons. I even miss the rotund cops squatting on Gold Wings at every shoot, waving you through like soldiers at the Berlin Wall.
And the record companies are swallowing each other up so fast that "I work in the music business" sounds more like "Can you spare some change?" Pretty soon we'll be buying everything from Satanco. No bar code tattoo, no cream cheese, fella. Next?
As I crossed Figueroa my stomach grumbled my absolute defeat. I was going to join the hordes of the living dead. It was time to get a real job.
"That won't be necessary" said a voice, not my own. Suddenly my worries were supplanted by the soft, warm thought that everything was going to be alright.
"Collosalangeles will provide" I said, quite out loud. I chuckled in an attempt to convince myself that it was a funny thing to have said.
Collosalangeles did indeed provide, with a PA gig in West Hollywood. The money wasn't bad, but there was the obvious drawback of working in a part of town that looks like the inside of a Starbucks. The only other drag about this job was the fame factor.
What with this famous guy and that famous girl coming in and out all of the time, the atmosphere got a little thick now and then. Not that the celebrities themselves were anything but gracious, as a rule. It was the sycophants who really made me want to do violence.
Really, what do these people think, that it's going to rub off on them or something? "You know what Colin said the other day?" No, asshole, it's not "Colin" it's "Mr. Farrel" to you. And you don't "work with him" you make sure his car is gassed up. And you're not "in the industry", you're just another moron who makes a living taking shit from people more successful than yourself, just like everyone else in this town. Well, just like me anyway.
No. Shut up. I'm not finished. I was on La Cienega the other day and I saw a billboard for a watch and it said "Paris Hilton's choice" What the hell does that mean? "Buy this watch and everyone will think your scrawny ass is glamorous"? It can't mean "This is a good product because it's on a famous person" It can't mean that. They wouldn't try to say that would they? Would they?
I felt totally screwed. The tow yard had my Duster, some cheeseball director had my girlfriend and the cops had Newton.
Or did they? What was the punishment for being homeless and alone these days, anyway?
I didn't worry too much about when he'd turn up any more. He'd obviously been able to take care of himself for a long time before we'd met and it was a pretty safe bet that he didn't need me now.
The boss was putting this really big project together and the office was just crackling. Things got so hectic that I actually had to start showing up in the morning. Opening up one morning I found a dirty little paper peeking out from beneath the door. I pulled it out to find this charming little piece of work:
When I ate your dog
I knelt and said a prayer of thanks
I thanked him and I thanked you too
for all your ministrations
Visits to the vet
Gleaming tooth and shining eye
I watched him die
Brimming with life giving nutrients
And when I'd pulled his skin and fur away
I burned him just a little
so that smoky wisps of him would rise and form a hecatomb
to titillate the palate of Collosalangeles
What a good dog
What a good good dog
Atta boy fella
Jesus Newton are you alright? What the hell is going on with you anyway? Now you're eating people's dogs? The last time I saw you you looked so fucking good. Well, except for that whole going into a trance thing. Other than that you were fine. Now it seems something had snapped.
I was an idiot. Newton Sawtelle was not a fallen prince, he was a bum. He was not some undiscovered genius languishing on the boulevard of broken dreams he was a bum. He was a bum who slept in trash bins and begged for change and drank MD 20/20 and pissed himself and smeared dirty rags on people's windshields and ate their dogs. Ate their fucking dogs. I felt like a choir boy who just found out why Father Mike smiles funny.
Next day, new poem. I reached for it, not at all Christmas card cheerfully but more with toe tag turning trepidation. I decided not to read it. That lasted all of 15 seconds. When I did, I don't think I liked it any better than the last one.
Hey man can I call you nigger
You look so secure in that suit
Surely you can take it
So is that cool?
Hey man can I call you nigger?
Nigger not niggah
Let your compatriots address you thus
It is far too familiar
I'm lynching my assumptions
About your assumptions
So can I call you nigger?
Cause if I could call you nigger
I'd know we were really brothers
And it wouldn't hurt so much
To ask you for change
Next time I saw him he was splayed out at Hollywood and Highland between Superman and Freddy Kruger. He was yawning and stretching and scratching his ass, glaring at the tourists as they tried to avoid him. They had obviously invaded his space. I tried to avoid him too.
"Kid! Boy Wonder! Howsabout buyin' me a drink, f'chrissake!"
"I gotta go."
"What's the matter, kid?" He was genuinely shocked that I was mad at him. I think he was a little hurt, too, but fuck him. At least that's how I felt right then. "Tell you what" I said. "I'll get you something to eat instead. How 'bout a burrito? What'll it be? Carne Chihuahua or Asada de Labrador?" He stared blankly at me for a moment before he got it.
"Oh kid, listen. I write poetry, not fucking journals. Truth in art is highly overrated and may even be criminal" I stood there taking it all in. I was crouching in front of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum discussing art with a man who had an enormous urine stain on his filthy polyester slacks. The absurdity of the scene was magnified by the validity of his point.
I got him a bottle of Old English. Did I need Alanon?
El Queso Grande called me into his office. "I was going through your files." he said, quickly adding, "I needed some phone numbers. I found these." He tossed a folder at me. It was the collection of Newton's poetry that I had typed up.
I was a little relieved that I was about to get fired. Six weeks at one job was way too much like a career. I started to calculate my unemployment benefits.
"It's good." he said. "I mean it's a little rough around the edges but I like that about it. You're no Ferlingetti, but there's definitely something there."
I needed to set him straight on the poem's authorship.
"Actually those are-"
The words stuck in my throat and they just wouldn't come out. Big Boss Man was looking at me in a way he never had, and the rays of his adulation felt all warm and snuggly. "- works in progress."
I told myself that those shitty feelings that I was having would eventually go away.
"Listen. I happened to have lunch with Niel Benjamin yesterday. He's almost got the green light at Working Title to do this great story about a girl's search for her long lost father."
"Well the father is supposed to be this great poet and the poems, well, suck."
"You don't say."
"No. I do. I mean they do. Suck I mean. The script is really really good but the poems are just, um, "
"Yeah. They suck. But these are perfect. If we could use some of these, we could probably pull Niel's cookies out of the fire. Niel would owe me big time and we would be well compensated, my friend. Very well compensated."
'Magine that. He said we. Now I could be one of the assholes I'd always detested. I couldn't wait.
There's quite an exclusive club in this town. It really doesn't matter how great your band or your script or your whatever is. If no one gives you money for what you do, it's just a hobby and you're not in the club. Sorry. If, on the other hand, your completely cliché ridden script or your lame-ass band that sounds like a poor imitation of a poor imitation of Grand Funk Fucking Railroad on their worst day ever has a deal, well that's different. Doesn't matter if that deal means nothing more than your indentured servitude to some hateful multinational corporation. You're in the club. You get invited to the party. Your name gets dropped. They write about you in those obnoxious little "Nightlife in the City" articles in the back of the Weekly. At least this is how it looks from down here at the bottom of the food chain.
The Hollywood food chain. How's that for a lame cliché? Having been a plankton for so long, I was comfortable in my moral superiority to the barracudas and sharks that circle this little lagoon. Now I had to face the fact that I'd never sold out, not because I had integrity, but because I'd never had anything to sell.
Now I did. So it wasn't mine, so what? What the fuck was Newton going to do with it? Build a temple to Collosalangeles and count the fucking bricks? I was ready to make something really happen, baby. I've seen these hipsters strolling around the city like they own it, like it's all about them. Because they do own it and it is all about them. I wanted in. At the very least I wanted to get blown by some tattoo covered starlet while reading about myself in the Calendar section of the Times.
For all the years I'd spent tripping out on "The Industry" the negotiations were surprisingly quick and mundane.
"To whom do I make this out?" asked the suit.
Visions of validation danced in my suddenly expanding head. I reached deep within myself to summon the necessary mendacity to utterly betray my friend.
"Newton Sawtelle. Make it out to Newton Sawtelle."
I'm such a pussy.
You know that pair of needle nose pliers you keep noticing on the kitchen counter? The one you've been meaning to put back in the tool box for weeks? You actually need it now to remove a massive hairball from the shower drain. So where the fuck are those goddamn pliers?
Newton Sawtelle was those pliers. Ubiquitous as billboards one day, elusive as happiness the next. The last time I'd seen him he was cadging pizza from the grey-haired bikers in front of Stefano's, so I started my search there and worked my way east. Nothing. Countless sleazy eateries and dingy dives had failed me when I pulled into The Snug Harbor. Every time I go downtown part of me thinks I'll never make it out alive. Not because I think I'll get killed down there, though I'm sure I could, but because part of me feels so at home in between all those buildings made of all those, um, bricks.
Yeah. The bricks. Take that sooty little number on the corner of 7th and Lucas. I found myself gazing at it lovingly and counting the rows. I can't explain it, but I really felt like there was a puzzle to be solved there. There was a lot of figuring to do just on that one little building. Think about it. I did. If one added the total number of bricks to any other relevant quantity, say the total number of rows of bricks or perpendicular mortar stripes, or multiplied those numbers or divided or subtracted them, one could conceivably end up with the one true number for each building. Having arrived at the true number, it would be a simple matter to transpose that number to a frequency, working forwards of backwards from 440, which is of course "A".
Here's the weird part. After contemplating these possibilities for a while, completely underneath my conscious mind the answer came to me. Newton was at that moment strolling through Macarthur Park, just a few blocks away. There was no doubt in my mind.
And there he was. He had parked his mass on the edge of a picnic table and a small but impressively smelly audience had gathered at his feet. There were three or four winos in varying stages of picklement and one ancient junkie with a huge white scar across his cheek. A couple of game looking crack whored sat cross legged on the grass at his feet. They were both kind of cute actually and I couldn't tell if they were a couple or not. I didn't know what Newton was saying but I couldn't wait for him to finish. "Newton wait'll you see this!"
"Ease up, kid. Can't you see I'm telling a story here?"
"No. I know. I mean sorry but I gotta show you this. Dude you're gonna freak!"
"What did you call me? A little respect, you ungrateful twerp Was it not you who whimpered that you wished more poems would rhyme? Here I've constructed a god damned dithyramb for you and all you can do is interrupt. Where was I? Oh fuck me. I'll have to start over."
Of course the world goes on without him but he's gone
He left me here to talk about him but
obituaries eulogies cold forensic autopsies
won't bring him back if we say please
he brought the nation to its knees
he covered it like some disease
and now he's gone just like the breeze
and as I said he left me here to sing his song
As if the words when strung together properly might reconstruct his flesh
As if the universe were made of words and images that we can't get to mesh
But Jonny could
He used the powers that be like carpenters use wood
He built his house and bid the nation come inside and be amazed
Then they all showed up at once and Jonny wasn't even phased
He found them all a place to park and took them in and made them crazed
and turned them out
That he was magic there was never any doubt
And on that cataclysmic day when Jonny made his big debut
That day the definitions changed of what was good and what was true
They all sat staring at their hands like they were seeing something new
But I digress
It seems in certain situations more is less
In this orgy of oration I must mourn my new lost friend
If stories were all stores I'd have more words than I could spend
So let's begin at the beginning
it's so much better than the end
so here it goes
Now Jonny was aware that he was Jonny long before they called him Jonny
Gleaming in his mother's eye
His mother thought he was a sty
He wasn't an infection he was Jonny
And then he was an embryo
he only had one way to grow
Down and out was all there was for Jonny
And then he was a little kid
and all the things that Jonny did
made people say how cute it's baby Jonny
The crying years the quiet year the season of belief
The silent education and the cutting of the teeth
and all the while Jonny kept his secret underneath
just like a gun
the other kids were having fun
but somehow Jonny didn't seem to see the baseball
when they finally threw it to him
His tattered pockets held his hands
He stood the way a victim stands
who doesn't know the bullet's going through him
They took him to the principal
a broken little bird who's wings they'd crushed
His temple suffered quite a blow
a purple lump began to grow
They called out for the nurse and in she rushed
She told them this year Jonny won't be getting his diploma
She also mentioned something about a massive hematoma
She was sorry to inform them Jonny'd slipped into a coma
And he had
But it wasn't all that bad
Tiny streaks of purple light
shaped like little sperm cells
raced across his vision with the speed of locomotives
They all collided at one side and grew together until their tiny purple bodies made a glowing purple mass which grew until it covered every nook and cranny of the universe until it couldn't fit and of course it had to blow up the debris from this explosion wafted to the ground like ten million hypnotist's watches all with a slightly different rhythm having the effect of the lights of Caesar's Palace which is exactly where he was in front of Caesar's Palace on the sidewalk across the street from a McDonald's
The smell of that McDonald's crossed the street and found its way to where he lay
The pungent fumes of frying meat
transported him across the street
He looked and saw the truck that sped his way
He jumped up in the nick of time and got run over by a Maserati
He wondered why nobody stopped
to pick him up from where he dropped
That's when he realized he had no body
He'd been floating round Las Vegas for he never knew how long
He could barely cling to billboards when the desert winds got strong
But it never had occurred to him that there was something wrong
until just then
Now he was in the world of men
but was not of it
He could float through it just beneath or just above it
Unfettered by a body's chains
not feeling any aches or pains
He began at first to like and then to love it
Just think as Jonny thought just then of what this meant
He had no wants or needs or cares or bills or rent
To say that he was truly free would be to put it mildly
If he wanted to go somewhere there he went
He had innumerable options when it came to transportation
He could catch a cab at curbside or a bus down at the station
but a voice inside him talked him out of changing his location
It said stay
That voice with Jonny held much sway
It was that voice that guided Jonny on his quest
It laid him down to sleep when Jonny needed rest
And Jonny listened cause he knew the voice knew best
When something good came Jonny's way the voice said grab it
If something threatened Jonny harm the voice said stab it
It said we can't go on this way
We've got to find a place to stay
It bade Jonny find a body to inhabit
The voice in its advice had always been beyond reproach
Comprehension of its wisdom Jonny never could approach
It told Jonny this when he was staring at a roach
upon the wall
And though the roach was rather small
as roaches go
He watched it crawling to and fro
Crawling fast and crawling slow
and then the roach began to grow
He saw the many colors of the roach's back
from gentle browns to steely black
Insect beauty lacking lack
He watched it crawl into a crack
But though it crawled away it didn't disappear
He felt the roach was coming near
He felt its hunger and its fear
He saw it see and heard it hear
For now the roach and Jonny were as one
He had the sudden urge to run
to find a fry or burger bun
For now a meal must be won
Poor Jonny pumped his little legs with all his might
Running blind through half the night
Running left and running right
until his dinner came in sight
It was a dumpster sitting twenty feet away
with lots of garbage on display
In fact it held a vast array of food in stages of decay
He fell on that food like Attila the Hun
A feast for a king that was second to none
He knew for a fact then that he was the one
He was Jonny
That's right Jonny
You couldn't have pulled him off there with a winch
A pretty big guy for a half of an inch
An insect you'd want on your side in a pinch
He was Jonny
In days he was known as the mightiest roach
The dumpster his fortress that none could approach
The alley his forest that no one could poach
He was Jonny
They brought gifts of food to the throne where he sat
The king of the roaches grew careless and fat
and then he was eaten by somebody's cat
He was Jonny
It was just before dawn in a pile of garbage
when Jonny turned into a cat
The king of the roaches' remains lay in state
in the now sacred spot they'd been spat
Then all of the roaches swarmed on the king
by tradition to which they were true
They fell on the body and ate of its flesh
that they might be sacred too
But Jonny the cat didn't witness this scene
he was already four blocks away
A scent on the wind had convinced him
that would be known in a biblical way
When he finally caught her on somebody's lawn
pink flamingos were frozen in shock
She sang the belligerent song of her sex
and she screamed when his key hit the lock
For Jonny this moment was only the first
of a thousand more like it to come
He had hundreds of Halcyon days filling holes
with the greater part of his sum
Then love reared its hideous head to the cat
he had not known the feeling before
She was only thirteen with the streets for a home
A heroin addict and whore
That Jonny did love her can not be denied
Of his passion he couldn't be rid
He loved her so much that he wanted to be her
and so of course that's what he did
He looked down at the beautiful body that he now possessed
It was tired and hungry and needed some food and some rest
He'd seen her get money and drugs in the park
with gurgling sounds he knew well in the dark
So she went there and tried it and ended up under arrest
The policeman took Jonny the whore to the outskirts of town
where he raped her and shot her and buried her seven feet down
But we all know that Jonny the whore didn't die
Although brutally beaten and shot through the eye
He just dug herself upwards and started to walk into town
It was in that walk to town that he began to miss the voice
Had he made it go away or did he even have a choice
So that when the voice spoke out to him he felt his heart rejoice
He sat and cried and smeared the makeup he'd applied
Now did the voice ask him questions it hadn't before
Was he Jonny the insect or Jonny the cat or the whore
He was none of these things he assured him with glee
He had his own body he'd take him and see
So they started downtown to the hospital for his encore
When he got to the hospital bed where his body was kept
He entered the body and settled in tight and he slept
He danced in himself like a fish in a stream
And then he woke up as if out of a dream
He opened his eyes and looked down at his hands and he wept
Now I need not tell you of all that he did
From Emperor Jonny to Jonny the kid
These things are inscribed in his fourth pyramid
He was Jonny
You know Jonny
He told me these tales while I was his valet
He told me they might come in handy some day
And he said if I wanted to tell them I may
Thank you Jonny
Good bye Jonny
We all stood silent and motionless as the last waves of Newton's voice bounced off of the benches and percolated into the grass. Then we gave an ovation the likes of which I know I'll never see again. We howled like dogs and stamped our feet and I think I lost a couple of layers of skin on my palms I was clapping so hard. One of the winos got too excited and started to fart uncontrollably and the two crack whores squeezed each other and started to cry. For his part, Newton just beamed. He'd given a hell of a performance, nuanced in inflection and impeccably timed and he knew it. He bowed deeply several times and blew kisses to us, we few, we happy few. Then he strolled magnificently away before I realized that I had come there to give him his check. By the time it dawned on me, he was gone. I never saw him again. At least I don't think so.
Many sleepless nights ensued. By day I hunted unsuccessfully and by night I writhed, battling with the thought of cashing his check myself. I mean I was kind of his agent, wasn't I? I was certainly entitled to a piece of the action, say, ten percent? No. Fuck that. Agents get more like fifteen these days, don't they? Yeah. Hell yeah. Fifteen percent and reimbursement of expenses, like all that gas I'd been burning up just trying to find his Rasputin lookin' ass. Not to mention all the schnapps and beer that constituted about eighty five percent of his daily caloric intake. Oh I had that shit coming alright.
I was ruminating along just these lines at about three o'clock one morning when I heard his voice and my heart just about jumped out of my chest. I mean I was happy he was back but how the hell did he get in my apartment? And where the fuck was he? No, man, he wasn't there at all. It was just his voice. Oh great. I'm sitting in my bed at three o' fucking clock in the morning listening to a disembodied voice. What's next, a foil hat? After three or four hundred cigarettes, though, I started to calm down and just listen. Maybe Newton was trying to tell me something.
In the beginning was the lie
and the lie was good
Collosalangeles strode the verdant fields
he'd only just imagined
and plucking fragrant flowers therein
he sighed and named it all
Your sky's an unseen green screen
Zippy wonderland of scabs and tufts of hair
There is so a there here
I swear dear
Collosalangeles sighs once more
He is lonely
Drawn and then crushed by his mighty smirk
with hearts of scar
and heads of solid bone
His is the name that drips from all their lips
An impossibly tall blonde negress beckons
Seized by her sultry baritone you swoon
Bubbling up from beneath your expectations
La Brea seeps and seeks its prize
Another chubby little forearm
sinks to future fossilhood
Tendons gristle and all
Out here no one can hear you scream
Cause they're all screaming too
So dry your eyes and blow your nose
and find someone to screw
Their victimhood your victory
Your name in lights for all to see
Collosalangeles is laughing now
but never laughs at you
Who dares to speak his name
Who dares to seek the truth
shall surely die
In the beginning was the lie
and the lie is good
I slept well that night, which is weird because I dreamed like crazy. I mean like crazy. Trips to other planets, luscious orgies, talking animals, you name it. After all that I got up feeling rested and refreshed and ready to continue my search for Newton.
No soap. Dude had just flat disappeared. But as I searched for him, he would pop into my head from time to time. I don't mean I would think about him, I mean he would pop into my head. Like I could hear him plain as day. And it wasn't just poetry anymore. He would say shit like "Nothing is simple and everything is normal" or "Chaos is not a theory" Just randomly. Sometimes at the worst possible moment. Like when I was standing in line at 7-11 and he started to give a Marxist critique of peak oil theory. The worst thing about that was try as I did to ignore it, his thesis was not only viable it was downright fascinating. So I stood there, Big Gulp in hand, and listened. Nothing else I could do, really. Then the day came that I had feared so long. I was kicking a can down Delongpre and an ambulance drove by and I knew he was in it. No, I didn't see the body but I didn't have to. I just knew.
Sure enough, he came to me one last time, this time with a prayer:
Fuck you God
There I said it
Where's the lightning bolt?
Where's the gaping maw that's supposed to swallow me up
and take me straight to hell?
Not done fucking with me are you?
You gave me these hands
to clutch at thin air
You gave me these nerves
to carry me pain
You gave me this soul
This dull aching
But you forgot to give me the balls to kill myself
Fuck you God
God grant me the stupidity to erect the dreams I lock in chains
The obduracy to chain the dreams I had
I'm too dizzy to know the difference
Fuck you God
Consider the lilies of the field
They neither toil nor do they want
Yeah well fuck them too the lazy pieces of shit
Plant my ass in the flower bed
Rain down on me
Shine that sun on me
On my outstretched hands
and my stretched out nerves
With my soul in the soil sustained by the waste of worms
Maybe that's all I need
So give me this day some fucking bread
And forgive me when I trespass
And forgive me when I knock over this liquor store
Cause it gets on my nerves
when it slips through my hands
and I can't sell my soul cause the market's depressed
I'm empty inside like my needle and spoon
I fuck with my head
and I think with my dick
There's a hole in my heart
There are holes in my arm
My blood's in the water
I'm down on my knees
I would try to get up
but I just shot the moon
I can't take any more
there's no more room in my veins
Are you done with me yet
Tired of pulling the strings
How bout pulling the plug
on my hands and my knees
on my nerves
on my soul
on your mark
Fuck you God
Fuck you God
Fuck you God
Fuck you God
It rained last night. Today the leaves on all the trees are shimmering as they sing to me. I'm grateful for their song and for the sun that warms my face and dries my beard. Collosalangeles and I we sigh with satisfaction.
The spray from the fountains of Echo Park lake is making rainbows as the Lady of the Lake gazes lovingly at her lotus blossoms.
Collosalangeles is humming promises to me.
Losangelopolis is vibrating now. Another earthquake perhaps but more likely is another day, another sacred day with shiny walls and windowpanes and beautiful women dancing distractedly through shadows made blacker by crisp searing light.
Collosalangeles is grinning.
I'll be provided for, I know. There are cans, there are fruit trees, there is the infinite kindness of perfect strangers. Besides, there's so much to do, so much to figure out. There's a section of Broadway that I think might just hold the key. It's all about relative angles after all. And if the one true name were suddenly revealed I'd never utter another sound. How could I? Collosalangeles provides and we who seek reap rich rewards far greater in the effort than in the certain death of success.