Nixed

I couldn’t stop thinking of the absurdity of how the drone of a dark sea covered that fine madness with such ease; of having been enjoying that same night, that same hour, that same moment that someone had been maimed and others might still be hiding, crouched listening to the death seeking them.

 

Edits

The trust comes pretty quickly, if the writer is honest with herself and the editor is good. He strikes that word, or paragraph, or page. A slight tinge of reluctance evolves into a swelling pride, then morphs unsentimentally into embarrassment of and disdain for one’s own writing. How could this have been the job I chose, for I’m terrible at it.

The disdain, when allowed to dissolve by the suppression of pride, then realizes its potential. To clarify and correct, to simplify, to self-edit. Yes, it was useful to have written it, but it does not belong to the piece. The writer begins to hear the blue-inked pen in her ear. “That word is almost always unnecessary”; “This section is nonsensical”; “Do you mean escaped where you wrote rogue?”

So the editing process goes — battles fought on the same side of the war. And small victories are won, spots of blood surfacing at the margins. Ultimately, certain things become clear: A writer must have a purpose; obstruct the ego; ‘currently’ is always redundant, and God lives in specificity. Do not avoid the truth but do not presume to be able to capture it; inform; nothing will remain the way you wrote it, and it may never have existed that way to begin with.

Freeway

Something’s missing. Re-living a 2012 twilight zone, burnt-out, exhausted, repeating the cycle, and everything’s great…he yelled at other drivers – I forget if yelled at them because the horn on his vintage buggy didn’t work or if he simply preferred yelling at people to using the horn – which would’ve made sense considering he hated how people lived in a bubble, in their cars and constantly on their devices and yelling at people would’ve allowed him to fight this by initiating human contact, if aggressive and antagonistic…Are those cracks in the pavement of Queens connected to cracks in West Hollywood or DTLA? And those BluBlocker sunglasses on the coffee table – I peered through those at raucous Sunday crowds…

…how could I not respect him – he survived years, decades, far longer than I have, in LA night life and several years in Vegas before that. Talk to him in his accented Spanish and you hear the arc of a night life history seen through the eyes of the quintessential behind-the-scenes player, the guy who makes the bar work, without whom the bar could not function, who’s labored in one premier club after another, one era to the next (night life eras being quite clipped), invisible to patrons but absolutely indispensable to the people who pour the drinks. And he did it as a bar-back, which is physically, I’d argue, far more grueling than tending bar. Not to diminish bartending, but the bar-backs do the heavy lifting, hoisting the buckets of ice, the racks of glassware, the boxes of full liquor bottles, the fruit and energy drinks, and they clean up the wreckage, piles of garbage and debris, the limes, napkins, straws, discarded on the bar and the floor, collateral from the bartenders’ mad rush to sell. You can smell his sweat overpowering the Axe body spray or whatever it is he puts under his arm pits – the scent of something nightclub bathroom attendants would have on hand next to the mints and Lifesavers and Starburst candies and cigarettes, the kind of product you’d find on sale in the Men’s Grooming aisle, or whatever it’s called, in a Washington Heights (or Koreatown LA) drug store – as he works next to you, you can smell him, over the smell of the bar, a mixture of stale and fresh, citrus, juice from concentrate, soda, congealed sugar, acid, chemicals, highly toxic cleaning fluid, liquor spilled, all of it both old and new, seeping into the floor over time. And the times he collapsed or blacked out, in the liquor closet, you couldn’t blame him, for what he put up with, for how hard he worked, for how hard managers asked him to work, to provide the essentials as bar-back to me and seven other bartenders…he knew, perhaps, it was out of the question, from discrimination or circumstances or ingrained roles, whatever it is, it was unlikely he’d work, or even want to, as a bartender in Hollywood or downtown LA or the Strip in Vegas. But as bar-back, he’s unequaled. And who could ultimately what he did, what he went through or survived, to get here…We landed at LAX a little after 1 a.m. on Saturday, August 20, called Lyft and rode on nighttime LA freeway and I had that feeling I have every time I return to LA or New York that nothing really changes…the orange stucco walls of houses, in the dark, and the red shingled roofs. The buildings and businesses, most of them a single story high, or two or three at most…I got a feeling something ain’t right…police cars, sun, blue sky, relatively dry, could be…late afternoon, sunny, dessert town, field, festival grounds, tents…slash… violence of the term – the need to take a knife to the work – a machete at the beginning and a scalpel in the later drafts for more precise, nuanced, delicate cuts…smell and taste and color of Fernet, rye whiskey and bitters mingle…like hiking – when you get to the top of the trail, you see the whole city – but on the ground, you see it up close, the details…maybe everyone is going places or returning places looking for endings or answers or a closing scene.

 

Fat and Acid

fat-and-acid

 

The story, relentless, compels me to write it. Voracious, as an avocado tree sucks up water. I consume the story, shapes on the wall speak to a time I tried not to think about and never intended to write about. Shadow, light, reflection, from some metal surface glinting in the sun, rays ricochet onto a wall, or the red bricks framed by the window sill, two rectangles, one of the wall below blue sky, and leaves at the corner – acid cuts fat – lime and avocado – both essential – antidotes, paradox, contradiction, duality – green oval, green circle. Synthesize, distill, boil it down, edit, revise, expand, refine, iterations, hacking away with a machete and, later, small incisions with a scalpel, build it up and tear it down, shred the pages once I’ve hammered, typed ’em up, toss them into a black metal wire wastebasket, start again, and again, the doing…craft, trade, wanting to get to the mecca…fear of descending to such a low place drove me to work aggressively and with ferocious speed…brushing up against it, mixing with it, falling into the current like a crashing wave, out of control, nothing in control, and it’s ecstasy…scrape away blemishes, reveal what lies beneath, discard the rotten and find green flesh…ritual of consuming the first fruit, sustenance but also the experience…knew what you had to do and didn’t stop, put in a position to sell…acknowledgment that this life is lonely – acceptance…reinventing, falling, running, the chase, resurrection, starting anew…bartending, LA, none of it would ever be the same…swapping of words takes you to what you heard at dawn as it blended with thoughts scribbled half-legibly and another sunrise indicative of a flipped, unnatural, irregular cycle…visible signs, markings from the past, the shape of the bottle opener worn into the back pocket of jeans, a past that left you haunted, wanting to burn it all away, a place you love, embedded in it and it’s ingrained in you, yet, now, terrified of the other side…repetition, and more repetition within the repetition, circling back, and as far as this part of the process goes, no logic to it…

…the taste of mescal  with fresh lime juice and agave syrup, shaken and strained, on the rocks…millions of voices from that summer still chant at me…no way out…wanting and not having breeds stronger desire, then the hard kiss, lips that taste like cigarettes and coconut-flavored vodka, and she’s gone…throwing it all to the wind, jettisoning inhibition, going after it with a primal abandon…calm amidst chaos – seeking refuge – looking out over the downtown LA rooftop, three in the afternoon, just before customers flood the bar, in that moment, I’m relaxed…Friday nights – leaving – don’t get jumped – cop cars – DUIs – smoking a cigarette – two fake twenties in your drawer and on top of that, $34 short – “…that’s the biggest bottle I’ve ever seen…give me a ride, please!”…”yeah, they still haven’t brought me back there…I’m at a hotel right there…they do mostly special events…yeah, I’m that guy…I beat the shit out of him…” Just finish your smoke, get in your car, don’t get jumped, don’t get killed, drive safe…

Sand, Mountains and Kale

sand-mountains-and-kale

 

We rolled 30 deep, the head bouncers, enormous guys with forearms as thick as my quadriceps, at the front of our entourage, flanking the diminutive general manager and several of the partners, and a herd of cocktail waitresses and bartenders and bar-backs…early afternoon dissolves into late afternoon, long shadows, suffocating heat and the low sun as though I’m re-living those days but in a different twilight zone…avocado mania that makes the crop hugely lucrative for producers in Michoacán and in California, but there is a dark side, too, from the negative impact producing the fruit has on the environment and the avocado-drug cartel connection…light and dark side, the nighttime/daytime duality, the dichotomy and contradiction inherent in this fruit and in bartending and night life…the shades are drawn to seal out heat on a sweltering day and it feels eerily similar to LA…redline to 1:50 a.m. and keep pouring until the risk is too great…redemption is no longer the frame – now, breaking up…I wanted to fall. I wanted it to end…dormant so long as I keep the notebooks tightly closed…I saw days pass, nights pass, a whole summer pass, vanish, vanquished, controlled by it, no longer in control…Night life mysteries revealed through daytime events and rituals…an interplay of landscape, profession, events, time…lips that taste like cigarettes and coconut-flavored vodka…ran out of glassware – ran out of ice – no cranberry from the gun because the machine broke –  afterwards, driving home, listening to the Velvet Underground, Early dawning, Sunday morninglike a plow, it cut into me…the dark side of avocados…rotted flesh…voraciously thirsty…wish I’d make up my mind and get out but couldn’t break it off – road to perdition…as though getting sucked into a black hole of endless, bottomless demand that I tried to satisfy and inevitably failed because it is impossible to make that many drinks for that many people all at once…fail and fail again, quench thirst, no matter how much I sold it was never enough, and I’d die trying to satisfy the demand that had no end, which for a short while was enough to make the work seem “worth it,” a temporary get-by…cheap, chemical-laced corporate empire alcohol, hunk of lime adds organic acid, but the chemical taste lingers, like mass-produced tequila, amplified by synthetic, tripped-out beats, summer-winter contradictions, meditation, LA day/light-underground…I felt I was drowning, felt less like Lebron effortlessly dominating his opponent and more like Allen Iverson getting squashed on the way to the rim by defenders a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier…Bananas have a slight edge on the avocado for convenience because they require no utensils to eat. One could eat an avocado without a fork, knife or spoon, but it’d be messy, half-way to guacamole all over one’s hands and face. Bananas, I could eat on the go, in my car as I drove. Avocados can be packed, but, still, ideally, require a surface to rest them on, a knife at the very least and a fork or spoon, space to cut, peel, discard the pit, plus salt, and lemon or lime are not essential but the acid enhances and cuts the flavor of the rich buttery flesh. Avocados, then, are less easy to eat, more of an ordeal, require more steps, but they forced me to sit down, savor the moment, the ritual, the cutting, peeling, slicing, squeezing the citrus wedge, sprinkling salt, and although I sought to minimize time in the kitchen, this routine, once a day, calmed me – white round table, clock on the wall that long ago stopped ticking, bizarre paintings of anthropomorphic animals and blurry figures resembling some kind of otherworldly chain gang marching in a circle…young, forever, on a Thursday night drive to Santa Monica, and not in good way…misgiving – time behind the rail…What does it all mean? Looking through palm leaves at dawn to the west…vortex of self-destructiveness and hedonism and plunging into avocado territory to find clarity. Walking west I say to myself over and over, “Avocados, LA, night life”…wall in shadow, light enters from left window, facing east toward sunrise…all actions, every routine, every part of the ritual, leads to and prepares you for the night…a career that will destroy you, despite your treading during the day on sunlit dirt paths to coconut water in this land of sand, mountains and kale.

Quench

quench

I wake up with a parched mouth and after I brush my teeth I pour a pint of water from an alkaline pitcher, to balance the body’s pH level, pound it, pour another, drink it in two gulps. If I drink too fast or it goes down the wrong pipe I feel a sharp pain in my stomach. I follow these instructions – to drink two large glasses of water in the morning – because I read somewhere that it’s healthy – and, throughout the day, glass after glass of water. I don’t count. It’s good for the skin, I’ve read – hydrates the cells, cleans out the pores…later, we walk down Sunset Boulevard in the late afternoon, pedestrians in a city where everyone drives cars, past In-N-Out Burger’s red and yellow and white signs and symbols, a steady flow of cars passing through the drive-through lane, and, next to it, Hollywood High School, blocks of gray, a cluster of buildings, cracked, littered steps and generations of graffiti wiped out and tagged over, and repeated, like a palimpsest, railings I’ve watched skateboarders skid down, and, further on, past motels with neon signs that look like they’ve been there for decades as the boulevard and the neighborhood has morphed, with palm trees smothered in soot and smog, thick, hard branches but still dark green, and shrubbery cluttering the sidewalk, and as we walk, again, I’m thirsty, pound a bottle of mineral water and it’s as though the liquid evaporates after it passes my lips and I continue drinking even after I’m no longer thirsty.

Graft

graft

Indentations from a lover’s handwriting on a white legal pad, like a palimpsest, and I write on top of it and it devolves into repeated deep dives into the apocalypse…desire to tend bar effortlessly…what’s the point…bitter black coffee from 7-Eleven on the corner, Hyperion and Rowena, at the top of the hill…Silver Lake, Atwater Village, Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Echo Park Ave., liquor store, yellow sign, black letters, at the bottom of a hill, gray of early morning, the groan and chhhhhh of the bus and the driver steps out and stands around in the lot…Elysian Park, Dodger Stadium, Alvarado Street, and Glendale and up to Altadena, photo shoots in the woods, behind a waterfall, and I think of how people describe LA as “spread out,” and it is, yet looking at it on a map, neighborhoods seem close together…climbing through late afternoon sunlight, tall weeds, golden wheat…generations of linens stuffed into a closet, corn-based products, tear open a plastic bag to an ear of corn, multitasking, driving and texting, IKEA furniture…the ongoing work of developing avocado varieties…grafting, graft, hustle, hard work, the fruit, it’s beauty, grain distilled, fruit slit open…what are my greatest fears and what is it I do not want anyone to know? If I’m writing to no one but myself as a kind of journal entry, I want this to be over or to erase it all and yet I obstinately pursue threads of memory, free rein to think at random moments throughout the day that this is the good life…tattoos and big hoop earrings and large buttocks, ordered Bacardi 151 and Coke…said he’d find me in back of the club after my shift and beat me down because he was angry at the price I charged him for the Adiós Motherfucker cocktails, but I didn’t make the prices…downtown LA rooftops, smog sunset, nocturnal cityscapes, lights on in the apartments, earthy green banquettes and cabanas, seat of scandal, drinking from the bottle, snapback baseball caps and thick-rimmed aviators, gold teeth, until everyone’s gone…sun shone in my eyes as I watched from behind orange tinted lenses men, restrained by bouncers, swing at each other…and taking shots with him, and taking shots with me, small green eyes and weak chin, and a voice that sounded like he had a hairball stuck in his throat…lights on the back bar illuminated bottles, turquoise glow…the dance, the street and club and party and alcohol culture…look good, sling drinks, get money, LA state of mind, living the dream in the dark and the light… she said people in LA have more time than people in New York to watch music videos…emptiness all around me and I saw myself becoming it and sun and dark alternating…bottles and ice and avocados and thugs and women and cars and freeway and sunsets and cityscapes and a field. And I saw myself getting lost in it and I let it go on. And the following morning, a wooden floor and a sliding glass door leading to the balcony and the day was slightly hazy and overcast, and the carpet of the office and the glass panther in front of the fireplace. And then lightness, I felt relief…laboring and waiting, avocados on the brain, drinking with the boss, a metaphor for skipping out on the life of a neglected mind, trying to fill a void with money, 100-proof rye whiskey and a lonely ritual that haunts me just before dawn, empty bed, torn quilt, feathers peaking out, dark birds fly across a grey sky in front of the Citigroup building in the distance as crows perch on the metal poles that hold up the Hollywood sign, and we wrongfully assume we’ll be forever young in a land of junk yards, exhaust pipes, columns of smoke, piles of gravel, parks that seem eerie even in the sunlightlines of reporting opened…why? Was it because I played this in my car, the CD, rented from the LA public library on June just north of Melrose, and returned years later, Watch it, a deep, powerful voice, long afternoon shadow on the dirt, running along a ridge, off to the races, nowhere, lost, who cares…melancholy, sense of longing while searching for lines I opened, don’t ask me what I did with my life…relentlessly dark, fits perfectly, La Cienega, tequila billboard, raucous Champagne brunch but I only see the white stucco walls from the outside…seeing a clear warning sign, ignoring it, and barrelling ahead at full speed, damage done in the blazing midday heat, soaked in sweat, had a thought, a memory, an idea, relating to the story, sharp pain, so you thought, and, now, as you try to recall it, you can’t, and hope it’ll come back.

Digging into the avocado pile, again, source of infinite intrigue, or reaching for the fruit on the banch, setting foot on lands on which those trees grow from Michoacán in Mexico to Fallbrook in California…cash crop…drugs, trafficking…the fruit, work, sweat, death and longevity, two tales offer a searing dichotomy…something in all of this draws me in, the notion of living long in a sun-drenched landscape, exploitation, working oneself to death but in the process, and indirectly, yielding fruit, hawking alcohol in a land of make-believe, style and deceit, corruption and debauchery, violence, drugs…sink your teeth into these connections, industry, fruit and agriculture, the night life and antidotes we seek in the mundane and the everyday.

My grandmother is called Belma

 

She was a crook-nosed beauty of blonde hair, high brows and sharp cheekbones to guide you, mercilessly, to her blue, teardrop eyes, always enhanced by a cat-like black liner. Old photos reveal a bright, inconsistent woman who changed expressions and hair like her day’s clothes. As a dancer and singer, she was a piece of Istanbul’s burgeoning artistic world, her band behind her in one photo, Terry Moore and Conrad Hilton beside her in another.

In several, someone catches her in the reflection of a mirror, withdrawn, coy. There is one, though – a photo of a man’s hands sketching her in pencil – which revealed the most to her granddaughter. His thin lines dictate a lifted eyebrow, closed but soft lips, an uncertainty in her eye. I recognize her. This is the same woman who sits before me now, peering out the loft window to Nisantas, skin like paper, eyes searing blue and clear as day. They give away her inherent trepidation where otherwise it would never be found.

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Time

These are some of my people, and some of their people.

1_Page_37Strangers whose blood runs through me. 1_Page_14

Who resemble my uncle, my grandmother.

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How fabulous they seem, trapped in their smiles and eras, silent and fixed there, unmoved.

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But they do move. They date, age, expire.

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I cannot explain what unease it is to tell a personal history – what it forces and corrupts, what it distills, propels, means – because its tribulations are difficult to express. But my youthful insistence to keep myself out, a matter of inexperience, proved to make this particular story more, not less, trite than I intended. So came the day that I listened to the patient editors and began to write the story of my maternal family. I read recently, “Any personal or family history, large or small in scope, can throw light on the human condition.” This is my toss, let’s see how far it goes.

Wages Plus Tips

wages plus tips

Twilight streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows and between buildings of downtown LA skyline. On the bar, chunks of pineapple, watermelon, diced apples, shots, yes, shots, of cheap red wine to wash down mouthfuls of produce…Redemption point…Two knives lie on the cutting board like avocado slices or flower petals…so we stood chewing the cud in our brains, parking lot conversations at 3 a.m., talk of a dinosaur spawned from an Italian digestif, 40 herbs and vegetables, plus codeine…I don’t open it. I will tomorrow. And I think of that time that hardened me, the active ingredient, transformation. In the aftermath, marinating, pending further corruption. But the dooming transition, going beyond the point of no return, had already occurred by the time I migrated to West Hollywood…gig economy…struggling to fuse raw memories inside a “Where are they now?” story – engineering degree, good schools, music dreams, troubled past, fell into bartending, stayed too long, for the money, cracked. How many are there similar to this one, and what happened to those threads, tracks we tread, into the rabbit hole, and all we left behind…back to LA, MJ’s, early days, training to work at the DTLA club…couldn’t survive on New York State unemployment payments, catapulted into full-time-part-time wage labor, no benefits, just work and tips and endless hustle ‘til you go over an edge, crash, pick up the pieces and figure out which struggle you’ll commit to next…speaking in the vernacular, terms and semiotics of night life, songs that seeped past ear plugs and into my brain during the apex of bartending angst, because we gave up, got out of the trade to pursue other dreams, find or rediscover ourselves, revive something we’d lost or that was suffocating or dying. But which dreams did we give up when we left it all behind – and were they dreams or were they something else? Or was it all of one piece…synthetic brown leaves on a scratched wooden floor after a summer detour to avocado country, sun-paved roads, paradise north of the promised land…far easier to write about bags of fruit than barriers in a bar…the glare of that dark side is blinding so instead of facing it I look away, turn inward, fearful to confront it, seeking an answer in those fields we passed through but knowing full well any illumination comes at a cost and requires a dive back into the so-called belly of the beast…willingness to jump, but there’s a price…reconciliation never realized, love of the work, contempt for the additives, long hours, a mist of substances, the night life and all its tainted glory, darkness in light, inability to negotiate two extremes so you left it all behind, chaos, the little credit card machine we had to run toward to swipe cards every time we had an order because the system was broken, arriving at night, cool, warm, bright lights in the parking lot, stone walls, entering the club from the back, parking attendants and a bartender, dressed in all black, leather, with her motorcycle helmet under one arm, we got there at 8 p.m., early…a green traffic light in the late morning, shortly before noon, look East, toward Jackson Avenue, how drastically one block to the next changes…“I can’t do this anymore”…words ride on a river of emotion elicited by details past and present, allowing the five senses to pull me wherever they may, pursuing a chronological re-telling of the tale to make sense of it, while drifting throughout…across the dark parking lot after the meeting, I saw him and he saw me and I nodded to him as I passed and he said, “Good luck, man,”…buyouts, posturing, politics, but that night, it was all over, and again I went home frustrated for all the toil, sweat, yet can’t even reap rewards…LA paradise, bitter bliss, treading on afternoon light, manufacturing danger and superstars, because we can’t find it other than amidst these chthonic sultans doing it for the thrill of it who speak a language of crime because there’s something violent about working in a club.