Circles

circles

 

There are moments, we all must have them, where something happens or changes, and sometimes it’s something big and sometimes it’s mundane and sometimes it’s so small or seemingly inconsequential we may not even notice it but it changes everything and it comes from or maybe is related to or maybe even spurs those myths we create, or gives rise to them, or maybe the myths and the changes themselves feed into and support each other – and I know I’ve had plenty of fairy tales to keep me alive and that I’ve had my share of those days where something changes course and I think this is a big part of what I’m struggling toward and searching for in this story – to make sense of all of this, to identify those days and changes, sometimes for good, sometimes not for good. How many times during this fellowship have I just sat down and started writing, not knowing I might, or not intending to write much, just to jot down a thought and thousands of words flow forth? I think I need to trust that and run with it.

Michael said to apply my obsessive tendency to figuring out which serialized books were most successful, and why. Maybe this obsessiveness is something I need to embrace – as I embraced the chaos, struggle, uncertainty, etc. – and the thrill – of finding the story. Something to do with that neurotic fifth gear he talks about.

And now that stuff Anna talked about, how she turned in the first draft of her masters project and her advisor said, You’re a photographer – write like one – and how I told Anna I used to draw and she asked what I thought the story would look like if I expressed it in shapes because she said whenever she and I talk about it she sees shapes in her head, and now I’m starting to see shapes, too, as I think about and talk with Michael about the narrative, and what’s interesting is how the shapes, the story, that is, has changed over time from that chaotic looping thing Michael drew for me earlier in the summer at the height of my dread from of What’s my story about to now, when we can kind of see it and it’s starting to “make sense,” or we’re starting to make sense of it – and now I see what the point of this digital notebook was, is – is, because it’s – it, the story, the process – it’s all still unfolding – and the point, or one purpose, I think, was to see, to watch this thing evolve over the last few months, from that confused mess to some semblance of a narrative.

Michael and Mike Hoyt and Cissi talked about writing, the life – they’re all connected, and feed each other, nourish each other, like those moments, your “best” moment, that shift, that day, that night, July 29, 2012, the day everything got better, the fairy tale gets born and realized, and it sustained me, the myth we subscribe to so we can survive and in making it come true everything changes, for the better, or for worse, or for better because after that shift things really started to unravel, or they had already started falling apart but that was kind of a pinnacle and then I started descending deeper and deeper into that nightlife black hole until I snapped and got out [and would go back] but maybe that’s how it had to happen – I had to get to that “high” point – the lowest point of the nightlife chthonic promised land – to get there, so I could fall and climb back out, or to go down that far so I could start seeing a way out, through and toward writing.

Now I’m circling back and forth, weaving, as I did when I wrote the story and maybe that’s just my addled brain’s fault but there’s something about this struggle, searching for I know not what but it goes back, again, to that drawing on my desk, still.

And something about those flowers – those dying sunflowers – the all-yellow ones with the dark yellow centers, framed by the window, their dark silhouettes, and on my desk, next to the white legal pad, a cup of coffee, long gone cold, quarter full, and I leave it there, thinking, Maybe the caffeine, what’s left of it, will go into my brain by osmosis and charge my writing. And the mug, the cold coffee, the gray, cool fall sky, the wind that stirs the curtains, the glass desk reflecting that sky, the coffee and glass pane above the turned-off radiator that gives no heat, a drink to give warmth and energy that, now, no longer gives either, and the notes, and drawings, strewn on the desk, all of it, a kind of still-life.

Sometimes, I think, we’re better off remaining not fully aware of all the odds stacked against us and the circumstances because if we knew everything, how dire it was, how could we possibly act or do anything? At times, I feel this way now, so I plow forward, relentless, and trying not to be too daunted by what lies ahead.

Waiting

waiting

 

Serialization is not abandoning tradition – it’s going back to it, using the tools, leveraging the conditions of the digital media landscape. It allows audience to build over time, creates anticipation – agonizing for some – as readers wait for the next installment. And for those who prefer to consume it all at once, they can. In a world where many people read in 10- or 15- or 20-minute increments, while waiting on line, for example, serialization sets limits, establishes order – people have to wait for the next chapter. Increasingly, we can read, watch, download, see, listen to anything instantly. Having to wait is, for some, a welcome constraint. Serialization allows readers to consume a story communally, collectively. Now, without set schedules, we still prefer to read, or watch, stories together.

…And given the direction publishing is moving in, might it not be wise to allow people to read in small doses, which, given the high alcohol content, is probably best…

And as I get to the end of another notebook I think of that line on the intro track of Jay Z’s album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, “Oh-KAY, I’m reLOH-din’!” that I used to yell behind the bar in downtown LA after I’d poured the last drops from the bottle and opened the next one, twisted or jimmied or leveraged or tore off the cap, or in West Hollywood and one night the dude who drank house rum mixed with Red Bull – rum and Red Bull? – didn’t react to it and I said, half to [as I continue writing in the blue notebook, now, having filled the green one, and it always bleeds onto the back cardboard brown flap but I don’t write on the smoother white one at the beginning because I don’t know I’ll need the extra space…] him and half to no one in particular and he barely smiled and said, I got it…And the story, too, I know, goes past the borders of time, or of the fellowship, and it will keep unfolding and I’ll keep writing, but for now, I know, I must focus on publishing – how best to publish these first 40,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words…and how best to allow people to engage with it – and I hope that as it finds its audience – as I work to find that audience, to figure out who my readers may be – and then when we publish it, that it takes on yet another life of its own, as it did for me as I wrote it because it’s not about me, or about tending bar – I’m just the vessel, as will be the platform – as bartending, LA, were the setting…

…and sometimes the uncertainty is agonizing, and I worry about what’s next? And at the same time, it’s thrilling.

One Sip at a Time

Now that that dark drive through LA night is over – at least for now – I can start thinking about how to publish my story, and who the audience may be. So, Michael started talking about serialization and I started reading everything I could about it. Serialization, a way to build audience before a book ever gets published, before it’s printed and bound between covers. A way to infuse the work with cliffhangers, but maybe that’s not a good thing if they’re artificially imposed, but is there a way to fold them in or find them where they lie in the course of events the writer recalls? And momentum, tension, suspense – all elements of a sound narrative – to leave readers dying for more – somewhat like thirst itself. A way to give it to them in small doses because maybe just dumping it all at once is simply too much and how many people have time to read a long, long piece in one sitting? Many people, maybe, and if a reader wants to binge on it, she or he should have that option. But something about serialization – keep them reaching, craving the next hit. I think the Story Lab site itself is similar to a kind of serialization, at least in spirit – not of my story per se but of my “notebook,” the digital version of it, the process as it unfolds and as I set it out in this online space, bits and pieces, wreckage I have to blast away before I can get to writing.

As for audience, this I must figure out and test it on people, and I will, in coming weeks, but, probably, I think, at this point, the story could be for people who are addicted to some relationship or a person or a place or some thing they know they need to break up with because it’s bad for them but can’t because it feels too good or they can’t let go of something it gives them – money, power, prestige, security or some kind of high. By no means did I write the story specifically for a nightlife audience because I think, as I’ve said again and again, it isn’t about tending bar or clubs or alcohol – all of that is just the vessel. But, of course, I hope people in the trade get something from it if they read it. I guess you could say it might speak to East Coast transplants living in LA, but it could be for anyone living in LA who’s not originally from there, and now having lived in both places and working on this story I don’t see myself as “East Coast” or “West Coast,” just as a person who lived in both places and LA, especially, left a mark on me, but I don’t pledge allegiance to either city or subscribe to some side in a culture war of any sort or think one is better than the other. They’re extremely different in so many ways. LA did what it did to me and it is what it is, as the saying goes. Time to move on.

I hope the story resonates across age boundaries although it’s possible young people hustling to get by in a workaday survival gig may identify with the soul-crushing weight of something that kills slowly – not literally kills although a physical job such as tending bar can break you down over time, mentally as well as physically. Maybe people in their late 20s or early 30s who are trying to figure things out, where they want to go, what they want to do, chasing waves, as it were, can feel a little less lost if they read this, although I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to suggest they are lost or even feel lost, and maybe “lost” in this sense is the ideal place for someone who’s young and wants to write to be. But, in any case, my going through that decade of drink slinging in nightlife depths and now having this opportunity to reflect on it, what I saw and what I heard, strained through the filter of memory, I hope, may offer some insight, or at least make people want to turn the page, or click on the link and scroll down.

So I honestly think serialization, for this story, at least, about thirst, is like doling out shots of barrel-strength bourbon – take it in small sips, maybe add a little water, although if you’re crazy and grew up drinking the stuff and you can handle it, by all means, sip it straight. But best not to finish the whole bottle in one sitting – that would just be too much, even for die-hard bourbon drinkers. (Or, maybe not.) And once that lovely burn and mist and tingling goes up in the nostrils and the warmth comes over and through the drinker, she or he can take another sip – something like that. And hopefully it opens up to her or him new ways of seeing things, as whiskey may, or just loosens her or him up, or, if the person likes whiskey, is good to sip in any setting.

Cider

cider

 

So, I started reporting, or, rather, researching serialization and I learned it worked for Dickens, worked for Thackeray, worked for many 19th Century writers, and then read many articles, and learned it allows the story to build an audience over time and in the case of fiction, or nonfiction, to succeed it demands, needs (and yet also creates) tension and a kind of momentum, which keep readers reading and wanting more. And then I got an email from a place in Brooklyn that makes artisanal chocolate and was about to delete it but then I saw they had a cider and chocolate tasting event to toast Cider Week and being the curious imbiber that I am and newly initiated into the world of fermented apples – I started drinking cider recently because it’s fall, apple season, and New York is the country’s second-largest apple-growing region – I went to the cider company’s Internet page and started reading about the different ciders they make and I also started thinking about apples, by way, if indirectly, of avocados, and also of the earth, the soil, trees from which apples fall or are picked and the idea that this drink, cider, that nourishes people, gives them strength, as it has for centuries, now, we drink it still, and it comes from a fruit, and as avocados gave me sustenance and pulled me through a very dark decade, what if I could now make a drink from a different fruit that other people could imbibe and get sustenance from? It seems beautiful, and important work.

And I think about making cider to better understand apples, to better understand the cider economy, the fruit, harvest, the process, the art and science of it, and also because it’s a way to give a service, something important and nourishing – and delicious and refreshing – to people who work hard, here, and want something to quench their thirst at the end of a long day, and something that comes from this state, this earth they stand on.

Trollope criticized authors who began serializing their novels before they knew the ending. But isn’t this a different version of what I’ve been doing all along on this platform – revealing the writing journey to anyone who cares to witness – letting it unfold in this digital space?

 

Dry

dry-fingers

 

“Saturday night,” in nightlife speak, is often actually early Sunday morning, some time past midnight, 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. – that toxic, reversed, crazy cycle – and it all built from summer, from July 29, a kind of high point, ‘til it tipped me over the edge…you’d interviewed the previous Thursday, taking shots with him and after the shift wished him well in New Yorkand then you worked just one night…how your memory concentrated all of the hell in a two-week period toward the beginning of August when it was actually somewhat more spread out…and then when you called the owner or GM or manager or whoever he was and told him it wasn’t going to work out, he was fine with it, and you felt on top of the world…and so many Mondays after that one you’d go to deposit your cash at that Citibank on the corner – and if downtown LA was a place of summer and heat and “Bud” and screeching electronic dance music and inflatable cartoon characters as balloons and sweetness and top shelf liquor, West Hollywood was fall, cooling air, the heat breaking, seasons changing, a turning point, a new beginning, ever so slight as the contrast between summer and fall and winter and spring are in LA, but fall defined West Hollywood, Halloween, Pride a kind of slow burn and all of summer, cruising through it, losing track of time, Sundays, yoga, chia seed-acai-blueberry-banana smoothie, shower and drive to the bar, and on the way, toward escaping the night life, until you fell into the rhythm of a set schedule…flat, wheat fields, long yellow grass, water towers – and one of those tractors you’d see in LA, off the side of a smaller freeway or driving south on La Cienega Boulevard, near the Slauson Avenue exit, on your way to Culver City or to LAX – and I saw them again this summer – the ones that look like giant insects or aliens…I always had faith, never truly questioned whether it’d all work out but now I have serious doubts…and the missteps, slipping and cutting my shin or spraining my wrist, the slippery dirt path, the hole in the ground I didn’t see because it was dark, threaten, confirm and reinforce that…and, still, I don’t care – I do but I don’t because life as a club bartender is a constant limbo and so long as I’m speeding down this dark freeway I can lose myself in the chase, focus on the work, pouring drinks, and now, writing this story, I can focus on the obsession, and so distract myself, so long as I stay in the trance, all the while falling fast and I don’t care, delusional, but I know it’s all going to work out or it may not, but until I get there, I’ll grind, crank, until I go over the edge…and I was in love with the limbo, the chase, falling, having no cares and yet given I have weaknesses and ultimately wasn’t cut out for that I did care and I knew in the back of my mind, all the wreckage, collateral damage, the fast and loose trip, ruthless selling, and not just to my body and sanity and soul, and this could lead me to much worse…I knew how it would end and kept falling thinking I could win the bet with this dead-end ride, again, persisting, obstinately, in that delusional limbo ‘til I tore myself out of it.

…battle with a lifestyle and the thrill, power, respect, weight and money, the high of getting lost in the free-fall, in speed, and that sense of having no cares, but then, doubt creeps in, as sure and inevitable as dawn breaks night, and your knowing changes to praying…and you begin to question it, and it’s deeply troubling, and the more it haunts you, the more you need the trance, the chase, the work, to silence fear and doubt – and ultimately one must win out – break up or continue the perennial chase – and what you called “weakness” – not cut out for this work – thirst for something else – writing, school, a life outside the club walls – drives you out, to move, get away, and yet it still haunts you.

Something about working in this brutally clear morning light…and the following two weeks of exposed nerves and anxiety and grating, imagined sounds that came to life visually in that mural next to the IceLink store, but also, the sense that a huge, enormous, soul-crushing weight had been lifted, after the shock and adrenaline wore off – freeing, ablution [and beginning a course toward absolution and redemption], and a kind of euphoria, cleansing, catharsis, even, and I felt it again the last time I visited LA, that history, that chapter of my life, the dark passage, had been put to bed – but it hasn’t – and now I question how deeply I’ll have to go to purge this…and every time I read just a few lines from those documents…like I’m closing my eyes and seeing this dark paradise – it opens up the floodgates to memory and I drown in them, some thirst I had satiated, yet I always want more, can’t even get through what I wrote out by hand, can’t type but a few lines before I write another thousand…how the story has taken on a life of its own and continues to unfold now, today, how this cold, searing brutal fall light and cool air brings me back to those agonizing days, after summer 2012, and another would come and another will come…’til it’s hard to tell who you’re pouring the shots for – for yourself or customers? And it all starts to dissolve into a huge, dark mess swallowing me alive as I strove to swallow the bar: pour another shot, swipe another card, snatch another fistful of bills and stuff them into the tip bucket, ultimately just slaking a huge thirst, mine, theirs…when I counted bills at the end of the night I had to bring a filthy wedge of lime or lemon to the table to keep my finger pads moist, and I saw this as a sign I’d never triumph in this profession – my fingers were too dry…staring at the past, documents, memory, trying to make sense of it – but will I know when it’s time to go? I could leave or keep pouring, still thirsty.

Bud

bud

 

October 2014, as the LA air started to cool and something had just ended…coming to the closing notes, or at least drafting the postscript…I flip through my notepad of to-do items, old dates…here begins a new chapter, dread from starting fresh…work on the street, neon yellow vests, hard hats, a worker kicks gravel, another waves an orange flag, steam rises, machinery groans, but now it’s much cooler than when I could close the window and crank up the AC and fantasize about the cold beer the workers would drink in a dark, cool bar at the end of the day…As though we seek to revisit some grim fairytale we return to scenes of metaphorical or actual carnage, staring it in the face, treading on history or circling back to the scene of the crime, “belly of the beast,” looking for an ever-elusive Act III, and under those palm trees at dusk, reflections, long, empty streets, walking west, darkness falling…Sunday, July 22, 2012, sold $7,100 – “almost your busiest night ever”…I wore a wrist brace for a minor injury from breaking a fall while hiking, slipped on the way down…customers hollered at me, “Scott! Scott!” I glanced at them, then swung around, realized they were yelling at me, said, “What’d you call me? My name’s Zak.” And they said, “Same difference…You’re lucky we didn’t call you ‘Bud.’” I laughed. “Call me Bud. That’ll be between you and me.” Seemed fitting…I look back over these notes, those days leading up to July 29 and see the spiral, images, sounds, colors and light, speeding up to culminate in a crash, careen off that metaphorical road I envisioned from the East Coast, or a series of crashes, and, falling off this machine to get back on, like a cartoon character, wearing an inflatable donut for a neck brace, a deranged, cranky, 27-year-old called “Bud” who steals kisses off pierced lips that reek of cigarettes and coconut-flavored vodka, a guy who bumps fists with fellow bartenders and chases praise from high-rolling regulars who wear expensive sunglasses and tip heavy and buy rounds for the many women they round up while waiting for security to unhook for them the velvet rope…all possibility of real knowing or meaning eclipsed, obliterated by the imperative to sell, no time to question, just a drive to push the product, get money, fast, simple communication, sustained by speed and adrenaline and driven by the praise and admiring, anonymous eyes and false promises, yet ultimately just contributing to the noise, debauchery, reaping the reward and losing all ability to distinguish between the absurdity of this world and what’s normal, or at least, and at best, deeply lost, because the longer I stayed in it, the more it consumed me, infected me with the need to quench their thirst and mine.

…and those plants, thirsty themselves, sustained me, and I talk of darkness and of light, literal and metaphorical and it could be because I’m hopelessly high on a form of stupid pills and don’t trust my own ability to explain what I saw or what I learned, and it could be that I’m obsessive, it could be all of this, but it also speaks, I think, to the nature of thirst itself, which I keep trying to elucidate, that is, that it keeps coming back and never goes away, slake it once and it returns, detox in the daytime with yoga and stretching and sun, and coconut water, to re-intoxicate myself at night with whiskey I crave the moment I step behind the bar, and the next day I’d do it again, so the process itself, the rhythm that is the backdrop for all of this, the landscape and ethos, the spirit and supply-and-demand framework in which this story unfolds, all of it imitates the repetitive, empty-and-fill, drain-and-replenish nature of thirst itself, that is, ultimately, impossible to quench.

…and I keep coming back to these moments not for the sake of being repetitive or to enrage or bore my editors to death but because for me all of the soul-depleting agony of those years – particularly 2012, the period I’ve chosen to focus on in these memos, the months leading up to and following July 29 – all of that crystallizes into these images that burned themselves into my memory and that I think say more than words I might write about what I felt or what I learned – which I know I must, eventually – but the image and episode itself, I think, speak louder – and I’ve written numerous times that in many cases I remembered not faces but orders, drinks, accessories, tattoos, jewelry…repetitive nature of a thirst that is impossible to quench…Get me out of here…and it could be stubbornness or my proclivity to grind, and schism, too, is at the center of this story of light and dark, dualities, opposites, fighting, push and pull, ebb and flow, whiskey and bartending and yoga and avocados…And I’d rather keep pouring than pause and ask myself, What are you doing? Why are you doing this?

Purge

purge

I sit here now at this desk as I did July 5, the start of the week, looking out the same window, and it truly feels like fall now, the cooler air, the bright, cool mornings, that summer heat all but gone and it takes me back to LA, a different kind of brighter, cooler fall mornings and shorter days, crispness in the air, and the sight of that fall produce on the counter, that counter that two years ago in a house on North Kilkea Drive in the sobering fall months filled with drunk nights, the Black Keys concert, Oktoberfest, and others – but the process, my path, I’d begun, and now it’s fall again, and I see that cornucopia on the counter, that bowl of apples, bananas, avocados, lemons, limes, not exactly all symbols of autumn other than the apples, but the apples themselves signal it’s fall…everything, natural and plant-based. Figs are already done, all hopes of copping a basket of green ones gone…just before October, the air cooling, sunny mornings, exposed nerves, stubbornness, dread, compulsive need to earn money, fear of the proverbial “open road” – life outside of the bar – outside of those nightclub walls and in love with the life inside them…an LA love story…the corrosive nature of the lifestyle, grinding in a dark paradise, and it never lets me rest, and now, still, after I think I’ve left it behind, it still comes to me in dreams, the same nightmares of working behind a bar a mile wide…start looking forward and stop looking to the past, a voice tells me, echoing what I’ve heard other people say to other people…Grungy commuters sitting on stoops and standing on the boulevard waiting for the bus, a downtown LA Skid Row-type scene a place not far from where I worked…Addicted to this story as I’ve become to the point that even as fellowship deadlines loom, I need to keep working on this LA bartending love story, need to work on the postscript – I’ve no choice – it’s become an obsession…And as I type this out it’s as though I’m no longer writing this, as though, to my horror, the story has taken on a life of it’s own and I’ve no control over it, or as though it’s guiding me and unfolding without my dictating its path…Falling off the rails and I need someone to put me back on. And if I step back and look at what I’m doing I panic but if I do it and don’t think about it…

And I could go on forever but before I leave I think I need to stress, once again, that I don’t hate LA or hold anything against it and I wonder if this makes me sound like a hypocrite after all I’ve railed against the night life but I think I’ve made clear that it wasn’t LA itself I’ve anything against but, rather, I’m writing to a particular experience I had there while working for several years as a club bartender in a variety of bars and clubs and I can only speak for myself and the way in which this experience and what I saw and heard through it continues to haunt me. And if I had to choose between LA and New York – although I hope I don’t, I hope I can be free to roam – I’d choose LA because along with the nightlife darkness I referred to again and again and the sense of dread I said I so often woke up to during that time, I also experienced the light, in a literal and figurative sense, the yoga, meditation, good food and warm, laid-back vibe – all of that is real, and it worked for me. But to say the light was enough to sustain me or stave off dread from the dark wouldn’t be truthful because then I wouldn’t need to write this story. And now at the end of September coming to the end of the fellowship as I draft this postscript, I feel similar to how I felt when I wrote the postscript for my masters project…but for this story I’ve cut myself open and let come out what may, or at least this is what I’ve tried to do, and Michael and Mike and Cissi and Anna helped me get there…as though after six months of working on it, the reporting, the story, had just begun, had just started to take shape, as though I knew so little, as though I’d just scratched the surface and, now, still, every time I open an old notebook from those LA days and nights, a flood of memories descends on me, ambush me, and still, after four months of working on this, I feel as though I’ve just started, and now, truly, finally, feel that I need to report it out, if I want to tell it properly, do it justice, there are people I need to talk to, questions I must ask, about my past, their past, our past, and I’ve no regrets because I needed to do, to focus on, this writing, to get here – I needed to write this out, to figure out what I would need to ask and who I’d need to talk to. Maybe this is part of what I was running from and hiding from behind words and language – the recognition and realization on a gut level that if I am going to write this, I need to go back there. This can’t go further unless I go back there. Of course, time moves on, I’ve moved on, I survived and escaped the physical place that is LA, which, as I said, doesn’t mean I won’t or don’t want to go back there…and maybe I was enamored of a life of grimacing and 7-Eleven coffee and protein cookies for supper, bought seven at a time and stacked them in a cabinet to grab in a rush, and a guy waiting with a bottle of tequila and a large can of Red Bull laughed and I told him, Man, they work, because they sat like a lump in the stomach, a substitute for sustenance when it comes, mainly, from whiskey with a Fernet chaser…Can’t let go, can’t excise or exorcise or erase that time, what it did to me, what I did, what I lived, who I became, who it turned me into…found it and left it, apprehensive about what the future may hold, thoughts misgiving, and of continuing to work on the postscript next week and beyond…pour coffee, routine, and then I remember a line from a math graduate student TA in a calculus help room at Columbia working with a student to solve a problem, which required several steps, and he told him, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”…But the question that still haunts me now is, Have I broken up with LA, and the answer is, I’m not sure that I have or whether I ever will…“There was nothing else. Why would you leave?”…And in part I question whether I’m done, whether I could possibly be done, at this point or whether I need, to borrow Cissi’s words, a couple of decades of perspective, loss and wisdom before I can write this…you could’ve slipped into something bad, dangerous or risky because you were heedless for just one moment and then you can’t get out of it because you could lose your mind. No, not lose your mind, but because you don’t want to change it…And certain moments living that life you feel you’re at the center of something magical, that is nothing but a drop on the metaphorical rollercoaster, the rush you wait for after the last one, that, over time, becomes routine and loses the power it once held over you, and you hold on, white-knuckle grip, and scream as though screaming for your life, and knowing it’s all a kind of purge.

 

Chase

Fragments from these documents take you back to LA, to the fall of 2012 as the air began to cool and the leaves, if not flaming orange and red and yellow, started to turn brown and fall from the trees and nothing lasts forever and even that long, agonizing, ecstatic, euphoric summer, even that would end, and you moved into fall and toward winter, mild as it would be but cooler still, but you’d left that downtown LA ecstasy and hell behind, difficult as it was to tear yourself away from it, you let it go, and moved on to a new bar and new love, and uncertainty and dread and not knowing where everything was going but you moved on and in a sense felt free but even though you’d severed ties with that place, still, you drifted, back into the bar life, at a smaller place, but still it had you, still, you weren’t ready to leave because if you had been you would’ve left completely but you preferred to get the money and couldn’t break away completely, not yet, you’d know when the time was right but maybe you couldn’t plan for it, but that summer was over and you slowly eased into a new night life, a new darkness as the air cooled and memories of downtown LA still haunted you…You’re not immune to thirst…coast flipping…LA state of mind…I no longer know that thirst from when I sweat on the asphalt under the relentless midday sun and walked to the water fountain to take 30 deep gulps and I couldn’t get enough…And on my desk I flipped the coin as though I’d crossed to a different side…I sipped the rye, as he’d taught me to sip tequila, not to take it as a shot, unless you’re sad or looking to forget something or to numb yourself…and I toggle between documents and realize I’m writing it by hand, from the notes, into a new green notebook…and I remind myself to hold back nothing, censure nothing, omit nothing, to vomit onto the page, as my editors said…Hawaian Tropic sunscreen, sun protection factor 30 – memories of rubbing it into my skin when I woke up in the early afternoon in January, when it was still warm enough to practice yoga outside…finish typing, first entry in the “moment” document – and the word count is 1,111…“It’s 11:11”…The end is nigh…I write out nervousness…fall days when the leaves were gone and branches looked like exposed nerves and I hadn’t energy to force a smile and their words played on repeat in my head… I watch construction workers labor in the midday heat, 88 degrees Fahrenheit at 1:13 p.m., shoveling dirt, digging in the ground, in the middle of the street, and my apartment floor vibrates from a jackhammer pounding through the sidewalk…Escape? No, it’s about CHASEanonymous and striving…Now the same workers, in orange hard-hats and neon yellow vests, shovel dirt into the hole, smooth over the top, sweep away the rubble and dust. One of them stands to the side and lights a cigarette, in the blazing heat…And the work is all done now, long done, at 2:57 p.m., the hole covered up with a thick, heavy-looking metal sheet, and black, tar-like gravel that sparkles in the sun, the remnants of their labor, the workers gone, and traffic passes over it, onward, on with the day…High-volume club bartending is like the ultimate flow state and anti-flow state at once – you do your best work when you get in the zone but you’re also constantly bombarded with external distractions and demands that you must attend to – it’s a balancing act, maintaining Zen amidst the chaos while focused on the end goal of selling as many drinks as efficiently as possible…Writing, process, similar to cooking, boiling it down, taking large quantities of raw material and treating it…dread and not caring and the pursuit of happiness…notebooks, laptop, pens, cabinets, picture frame, all at right angles and parallel to each other, creaky wooden floorboards, the parallelograms of light on the floor, a worn out yoga mat, folded dirty dollar store towel for a cushion, no moderation…The patter of rain on the bathroom skylight and the choppy dripping sound of the water draining from the tub similar to some tribal tech-house vocal beat…early afternoons, LA love story, usually in the sun, breaking me, it seems far away and long ago…LA skews my memories of time because there are no seasons and even December feels like a very mild fall 2014, overcast, cool…turnips and potatoes and salmon, maybe, and rice, or that might’ve been in the spring, and tofu…didn’t eat for days because the bar-back had said to me fasting was a way to get rid of sickness…memories, of riding the bus as in LA, I reveled in shortness of breath and the giddiness and lightheadedness it gave me and the extra lightheadedness and rush from drinking caffeine and alcohol on an empty stomach, and the adrenaline rush from bartending, and the haze and twilight zone of being sick, the zombie feeling, weak and groggy from DayQuil and NyQuil, parked, underground garage, could take 40 years…Dos Equis – bought at the Rite Aid on Sunset and Fairfax or the CVS on Beverly and La Cienega – now, as I read another story about odd hours, working late, getting home from work at 1 a.m. or starting a shift at 6 a.m. and pulling the covers over your head – hustling, struggling, one day off, a and on a day most people work…when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did, and you wondered how far it could go…thirst! I flipped the coin back to its original position when I first put it on my desk after the first trip to LA this summer but the diagram is upside down again so the two objects – coin and drawing – are out of sync – on different rhythms…bottomless thirst…forever Sundays as the leaves turned brittle, we opened wine and she said, I want to keep you…now the all-black-gold-letters side is facing up but it’s upside down, as is the drawing – congruity restored, realities flipped, and I notice I speak of LA as a wasteland in my writing and yet I could gaze and walk on other streets that always look the same, empty, one pedestrian, midday sun beating down, no traffic…perennially chasing perfection in longer sales receipts…and fleeing…Somethimes I heard the neighbors downstairs through the thin floorboards or out the window, but I didn’t mind – the sound was distant, and in a way comforting, the perfect middle ground between the solitude I wanted at 4 a.m. after being intensely “on” and wired for four hours and complete isolation and that dread from time passing that became stronger as the sky turned dawn-gray and only the birds broke the silence that rang after the neighbors finally passed out…I feel on the one hand relieved I’m nearing the “end” of this iteration of working on this – it won’t be the end – and yet on the other a very real desire to keep working on it…Writing the story, a kind of journey in and of itself, the entire process, over these last few months has been, at times, often, harrowing, taken me to dark places. One of the greatest gifts it’s given me, and in no small measure, is a sense of freedom, free reign to allow myself to hold nothing back, let it flow as it comes, and a deeper trust in my instincts and impulses and willingness to explore all that which lies below the surface, the river of meaning the words often ride on – I owe my letting go, and faith in trusting this, to Michael, and Mike, and Cissi, and Anna, and to other teachers and mentors before them. I can’t thank them enough…Need to get this out of my system so I can move on…

Limbo

Yearn often for that simple life – even though it wasn’t simple at all…carnage memory wreaks…in those last days I wanted to get out, yet I reveled in it, too…living in the day and night but mostly in the night…redemption, edge, thirst…how many times have you missed a call and as you play the voicemail, your heart pounds…The comfort in the in-between – in the waiting period – in limbo – suspending all thought of what comes next…then mustering courage to call because you must and then hearing the crushing news…how memory skews what happened, amplifies pain or elation…those moments of humanity and compassion that go beyond the professional expertise and clinical coolness – the recognition that human ability only extends so far and so much is beyond our control and in these moments, when all we can do is offer compassion…still, lingering doubts…I look down at the page and the handwriting scrawled across it and the train of thought I scribbled and left and trying to resume where I left off is like trying to slip back into a dream after I’ve woken up…not excising or expunging it but getting it out by writing it…I’d had an Angel City Brewery IPA knowing it should be my first and last of the night and then had a second and it felt like a transgression and a luxury…counting our cash at the end of the night and I was there to do a job get paid and get out because I’d been doing it for a long time and knew what I was doing and wanted to get my wages plus tips and move on to the next one…transitions that never were…this story, and many others, I think, is a process of iteration, creating something and tearing it down and starting again from scratch, over and over again…I’ve never done this before, I thought. I never saw it getting this bad…what is it that pulls us back against our better judgment? Is it wrong to go back?…it’s a love story, twisted, of course – knew it was bad for me and still I kept going back…And still I obsess over whether to call him and let him know I’m coming back and see if he wants to talk…But last time you went, the little sliver of time you spent in the light – hiking to the top of the trail, the tree, view of LA from above, seeing it all from up high…or is your challenge to integrate and incorporate both the dark and the light, to acknowledge and recognize and see darkness in light and make sense of it…If I don’t have the proper garnish, I refuse to make the drink…What I wrote above is how it spilled forth from my vein. I think I meant to write “brain,” but what I wrote by hand says “vein”…not getting out sooner than you did…not because it’s required or necessary or important or because you have no choice but, rather, because you’re in some way broken by it…when I tear up and throw away the manuscript I’ll be literally tearing apart what I created to start again from scratch…And I could go on writing about this, but I’ll end it here so I can pick up where I left off with avocados…to tell them what you saw and heard – it’s time to create, he said – and they both said, it’s time to open a vein and let it bleed…channeling something by writing about that spiritual trap you had to escape…giving the neurotic fifth gear a rest – the “space break” Michael told me to take between finishing the letter from LA – the writing of which seemed to drag on and on to the point where now I dread going back, again, to the belly of the beast, the pit of darkness…will I call him?…Still awkward as ever…can’t stop myself from going backI knew I was bound to crack, knew that inevitable, relentless passage of time pushed me toward an edge and if I didn’t force a break-up, the work, in the way I did it, would break me.

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.