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.

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.

 

 

 

10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

10 pm to 2 am

The drive there, the walk up the hill on Hyperion, the door guy, the customers, the bartenders, burly, hairy-chested, stocky, the chains, pens in pint glasses, that awful afternoon moving in slow motion, like a bad dream, the early days before you descended deep into the depths – limited shifts, having to prove yourself…On edge, hungry, rushed, forcing a smile, dry granola bar…alarm!…selling your soul, a Faustian bargain – a kind of moral compromise, a reckoning, test – getting out of New York – seeking opportunities in a sunny promised land, then running into nightlife-drugs-alcohol-sex-promoters-owners-club kids-managers…seeking redemption…struggle to make money at any cost…as though you had no choice, so you chose bartending, knew no other way to live. Looking back you’ve few regrets, but still, you revel in the past, but why – as a means of establishing some kind of credibility? If you could burn the past, clean slate, start fresh…battle scars from long laborthrowback to a primal age when wiry gunslingers wore shirts that read “Primitive” ruled the rooftop daytime drinking underworld like petty kings…nightlife prison, my truest realm…how wrong you were, time and again…but outside the walls, a frightening place…fear of lost opportunities, Ivy League education, and even after you left the bar life you wondered if you could live without the money, doubting, as though zig-zagging down the street from sun to shade then back to sun…and you thought you understood the toughened, wrinkled face of a man who said he couldn’t remember his past, what he’d done – “Most of the time, I was drunk,” he said.

…top dog in an underworld, no one questions you, a position earned, and the cost: a kind of spiritual suffering…trapped inside a prison while knowing that you reign supreme within it, no one questions you (but at the same time it terrifies you for how it’s taken hold of you) and the terror of what exists outside and how you’d even begin to navigate the “other side.”

A pattern – every time I sit down to write something simple, such as, I didn’t have to struggle long before I found myself back in LA bartending pits, I circle back to the past, digress, drift, down endless rabbit holes…hole up in a cabin in the woods somewhere or a third-floor walk-up in Long Island City above a defunct pizzeria and cappuccino shop on a restaurant-lined yet quiet strip of Vernon Boulevard, industrial echoes of bygone eras…“It’s not my neighborhood anymore”…a remote, removed place…seeking character – Ivy League grad bartending in Vegas struggling to live the life his parents lived…trials in the jaws of bartending hell…stretching on the wooden floor, working out kinks in my lower back, Sunday morning before my shift…this building is old and rickety and I can smell the wood and the mold.

…it’s hard not to empathize with him, this brutal, massive, terrifying prisoner who seems to have a tenderness and depth and humanity commensurate to his strength and capacity for inflicting pain and dominating others…And I think I wrote in other memos how I struggled to prove myself before I’d monopolized the Holy Grail of Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and then Sunday, gravy, but what I’m writing to is that in LA I essentially started from scratch, was no one.

I deemed it worth my time for the freedom it gave me, sense of accomplishment, the industrious worker in me – would the need to master it put me inevitably at the throne of this chthonic kingdom, as parents tell kids that dogged, tireless, relentless sweat leads to success? Did my penchant for hustle make my descent into nightlife depths inevitable? Am I responsible for sinking? Could I have left or gotten out sooner? Or did that world pull me in and override my free will? Or was it a combination – the irresistibility, allure of night life like quicksand sucking me in and my compulsive will dominate this vile plot of the industry lubricating the path to the top or slide to the bottom, making my rise and fall inevitable?

[“…money, power, respect,” two years, deeper, deeper, ‘til I’d no choice but to leave but lacked guts to act on impulse – Watch it – a warning?]

…14th and Ninth – couldn’t someone else have beat me to it? Was my working there and everything that came after that inevitable? Was it all written, bound to happen? Or was it by chance? How much control did I actually have? Skill kept me in the nightlife prison, for the security, money, community and structure…bound to master the craft and hit bottom, at the top of an underbelly kingdom…

…never forget what it’s like inside the metaphorical prison because you’ll fall back into the same patterns, same mistakes – “prison” does not have to be an actual stone structure with bars and doors – could be anything, bartending prison, crime prison, addiction prison…a kind of confinement, isolation, a “no one knows who we are” state, silence, stillness, slow yet blindingly fast passage of time juxtaposed with mayhem, frenetic chaos, dark brightness/bright darkness of night life.

…as we started to build, he said, “Wanna beer?” and handed me a Stella from a small fridge in the “den,” the beer fridge, and sometimes I’d take a beer out when I got home from work, amazing how just that apartment evolved over time and how I, how we, lived in it. He had a habit of staying up until 5 a.m. working, editing, business, drinking energy drinks and once said 5 a.m. is the best time to drive because there’s no traffic and said he’d driven to the store last night at 5 a.m. and was in awe because there was no traffic…and the next morning I got up and – still weird to not work weekends, felt as though my life was empty and lacked purpose even though I’d go back to slinging drinks just a month later, started constructing my futon, Ikea fun, adult Legos…started pounding the pavement, or, driving, going down that club and bar list in LA Weekly, which had descriptions of the places and I could choose exactly what I wanted, knew I wanted to work in a club because I had the speed, Rich told me when we met in New York over Jameson shots at our newly-reopened-in-a-new-location old place we’d worked together, knew this was my chance to shape, mold, take control of my career, to re-start, reinvent the kind of bartender I was and I was determined to be a club bartender, wanted, had a vision, a fantasy of working from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and earning at least $250 a shift, but didn’t want to touch food, didn’t want to get on the 10 or 405 any time before 8 p.m., wanted to work late and drive during off hours as Trevor had spoken of. If in New York I’d started out and taken what I could get until I built up speed and stamina and established myself as a club bartender but had also worked dinner and happy hour shifts, now I’d be strictly a club bartender, no muddling limes, no mixology, strictly shots, champagne and bottled beers, “Jack and Cokes, all day,” this was the person I would be and this was the world I would live in, the life I would create, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., the choicest cut, the busiest time, concentrated insanity, this was what I wanted, no food, strictly liquor, so I identified the clubs, the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. spots that I was sure would be or at least sounded busy or “poppin’” as Angeleno club goers might say and started that afternoon, first to the Airliner, nobody there, go 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., then Akbar, left resume with Jeff, the bartender, who said they were fully staffed, check MJ’s on Hyperion, they’re hiring, drove down Hyperion to MJ’s, left resume with Tony, bar manager, who gave me his email address and cell phone number and said to follow up and around the same time must’ve started looking for jobs on Craigslist, after I’d moved into the house on Kilkea Drive, this I knew because I distinctly remember scrolling through listings on my ancient iBook G4 on that round, white, wooden table I’d borrowed from the kitchen to use as a desk and the kind of scratches or skid marks on the surface, gray or black lines on white that looked like skid marks from tires on a road and made me think of speed, which seemed fitting in LA, land of fast cars and skid marks on highway exits from drunk drivers on their way to or from clubs, skid marks I’d make, rubber I’d burn, later, once I’d descended deep into it by summer 2012, not drunk, but fatigued, yes, after a shift, wanting to get home, and the marks seemed fitting because speed defines club bartending which is exactly what I wanted, so as I perused jobs, I’d look at those symbols on the table, sun streamed in, and I applied to every club job that sounded promising…and the next morning, my bartending fate still undecided, took the bus to that interview for the job I’d get that would be my undoing, sending me past that point of no return.

…something about this, I think, as I pull wandering thoughts back to my breath, reminds me of sitting in meditation, warm Friday afternoon, close to 3 p.m., haven’t eaten, rode through Astoria and Long Island City and into Brooklyn over the Pulaski Bridge, something about this dull pain of emptiness in my stomach and sitting with my legs crossed and eyes closed on an elevated seat from a folded dirty blue, yellow and white beach towel I’m pretty sure I bought at Ross soon after I’d arrived in LA, and the end of the mat folded against it, and leaning against the white wall, floor slants down to the other side making the elevation of my hips greater so I only need one towel and one fold of the mat, takes me back to LA…and you know how it ends but not how you’ll get there.

Driving at Night

driving at night

…a shop few people entered, not really a shop, more like a small desk in the Sorolla room, which housed gigantic, magnificent murals by the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla depicting scenes of everyday life, a woman dipping her foot in the ocean, an open-air market, horses, a religious festival…broke my fall with my hand and sprained my wrist, scraped my palm on the gravel, dust between slits, nothing, but any time I got hurt, fear of becoming dependent on family or strangers, to survive – destitute, high, deranged, on the wet rock in an alley.

[Two fears – of being destitute and of figuring out “who you are/what you want/finding yourself,” all that rite-of-passage/escaping from bartending hell/journey-type stuff – and the fear of being lost/down and out/having no money wins out and sends you back to the depths]

The contrast is striking – between neighborhoods, from Long Island City to Astoria, from industrial blight to public housing projects near Queensbridge Park to stately mini-mansions in Astoria, the bridge to Riker’s Island, and rows of houses, working-class, blue collar America, American flags in front yards or hanging above front doors, statues of the Virgin Mary, a red bumper sticker on the back of a pickup that says “TRUMP” in all capital letters, rapid transformations, drastic leaps from just one block to the next.

Evolution, dread of having to pick up where I left off, and of figuring out where that is, diving back in…slow change, like water wearing away the surface of a rock over time, gradually and inevitably, new patterns, shapes, forms emerge…The industry, money, scene lures you back even as you seek escape…repetition, cycle, routine, another day (or another night), a rhythm – I’m used to it by now.

…on the plane ride to LA, in the days following and all during the first weeks I obsessively repeated the plan like a mantra, head shots, resume, reel, and also asking myself, Am I covering everything? Am I missing anything? Am I getting this right? But I knew there was no right answer to these questions, as there is no right answer to, How do you become a journalist or a writer? “There are no rules, man,” which could be daunting, overwhelming, gave me a sense of freedom but also felt like staring at the ocean or at a desert and trying to figure out where I needed to go [fear – herein lies the root – uncertainty, sense of being lost] yet there was no landmark or sign to orient myself, so I tried to cover the essentials and took everything everyone told me seriously yet with a grain of salt, follow my gut and just hustle, in the same way I tried to serve everyone at a slammed bar, all at once, while knowing it was impossible and whoever I didn’t get to, they’d wait, but no longer than 30 seconds because they needed a drink and I wanted their money.

Whether this writing leads to discovery – who I’ll talk to, which questions I need answered –  clarity, shape, structure, a vision of the arc, until then, dread, anxiety, loom until I choose a direction  – today I feel lost as I look at my iCal, dive back into what in my memory is chaos, as though revisiting a recurring nightmaredesperate sense of losing something at the same time as you sank deep into LA bartending depths…Snap backs and tat-toosWatch it, watch it, a warning.

…details, flooded, drowning, as thought trying to get to every screaming face at that eternally slammed bar, inundated in orders and alcohol – or is this the writing I have to do before I get to the writing I need and want to do, finding the shape and architecture of the story, creating, reconstructing from memory and chronology…yet I can’t keep up with thoughts as they crush, flood, swallow me, but keep pounding away, head down, next drink, ‘til I find the flow and crank out ten at a time, swipe two cards, split the check, take cash, with hustle, sweat, all falls into place, ‘til I unravel, break down, get out, do it again, pattern, fate, it is written…this story has taken hold of me and I fear I’ll never find it, like bartending madness, poisoned, point of no return, driven by fear, obsession, a need to relive it and make sense of it. I didn’t choose this, it chose me. I drive at night, always at night.

Threads

threads

Cigarette still burning the tips of your fingers and the smell of smoke in the morning, bruised wrist, picture frames fallen from the shelf…something about the simplicity of these objects, and the apparent serenity of the people, and the routine itself, one she probably completed after every shift, like a ritual, seemed almost soothing to me, and just a day after leaving this life, after eight years of working in the industry, I felt like an outsider, as though a switch had flipped and I were on the other side, and in that moment I questioned my decision to leave, knowing at the same time there was no turning back, sure, I might bartend again, but there was no going back to that path to destruction, if I did go back, I knew it would be different, somehow, nonetheless, I wondered why I couldn’t take it and what had prompted me to leave, even though I knew the obvious answers, but if this older woman could do it and seemed at ease, still sane, if she could stand it, why couldn’t I? And I wondered how much she earned on a slow Monday night and whether she worked the weekends, which destroyed me, and if working Monday, something I would never want to go back to, even if it were way less stressful than Friday or Saturday in a nightclub, where one can earn $300 or $400 or $500 or more in a few hours, but was that why she could still stand it, less money, less stress, and had I made the right decision to leave the money and that simple but not at all simple life behind? These doubts persisted even as I told myself, you’re done, no more – as I’d wanted to believe when I arrived in LA – stay away from bartending. And days later, I took another job, my last, at the gay bar in West Hollywood.

At the end of this I’m still screaming in my mind, what am I doing, where am I going, where should I be, is this going anywhere?

Every shift I pushed myself to the limit, went over a kind of edge with a less precipitous fall but closer to the ultimate decision to leave it behind. I told myself, Faster, faster, in rhythm with the mindless, pounding music. My hands would shake at the beginning of the shift, from nervousness and excitement, and sobriety, not because I was an alcoholic, but because being sober also had my nerves, my energy so sharp and taut, I hadn’t yet relaxed into the flow that came with the first sprint, so I’d stand there tense, empty club, hypnotic, early-evening house music, bouncers standing around looking as bored as the bartenders, the metaphorical calm before the storm, waiting for the door guys to open the gates and let the masses in, letting the line get long and stretch to the end of the block and then around it, creating that aura of exclusivity when inside the club it was just us and the DJ and a few people who’d slipped past the ropes early because they knew someone or were there to see someone, and then, the first rush of the night, when the bar got slammed and I got the jitters out in banging out those first 50 or 70 or 100 drinks, and then a couple shots of whiskey, one with my bar-back, Thank goodness he wants a drink because I need one, and then with the bar manager, Thank goodness he wants a drink because it was about time, and I could exhale and just convince myself it was all good, packing bills into the tip jar, swiping credit cards, taking orders, three shots of Goose, bottle of water, $50, auto-grat, “Keep it,” too easy, flashing the falsest grin at people I pretended to know, and while I never stopped moving still felt as though I were ten orders behind, and that voice kept demanding I move faster, faster, you are falling off, you are losing it, don’t stop.

If I sit down and write, strong coffee, every day, routine, the work is less daunting. Writing from prompts or going into memory, in the five senses, following wherever it leads me. But when I step back and ask myself where it’s going, I panic…I’m trying to answer Cissi’s question, why did I leave, and, also, how did I avoid getting sucked into the death spiral of drugs, alcohol, debauchery? Personal questions I’ve never addressed or thought of and I don’t know the answers.

…parallels – what happened to you while working around alcohol…life lessons from the other side…Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis… journals – notes from the nocturnal underground…imprisonment in a way of life…nightlife extravagance – excess – grotesque…vanity, weakness, capitulation…spiritual development through years of labor and isolation in the bar life…writing, medicinal, as an act of discovery, from the depths.

…still the ever-present dread of not knowing what this is or where it’s going – but confidence, less uncertainty in the sense that I’m willing to go wherever it may take me.

Chronology slips away from me. In documenting the experience of working as a bartender in LA, I inevitably slip into the dark place to which it led me. I’ve decided to adhere to chronology while allowing myself to drift…let words float on a river of emotion…thoughts loop and jump around and chronology eludes me, leaping in time and place, forbidden, coming back to the same places, leaving them again. I’ll trust Michael’s drawings and as a kind of diagram, if not a literal map, but a guide, the spirit of the thing.

Even when I narrate the events themselves they seem to take me back to LA tropes, symbols, images, the light and the dark, the sun and the darkness, the night and the day, alcohol and avocados, a recurring duality. In that paragraph Mike said to start from – wanting to avoid bartending, falling back into it, then going for a hike the day after a shift, getting badly burned, and into the sentence about drinking in the LA daytime way of life [and then back to nighttime]…Every day sitting down to write feels like starting over…somehow speaks to the experience of working as a bartender in LA – broken, damaged, wanting it back…Red paint, chipped, building façade, dusk, industrial next to a stately, gray roof, red brick, building on the corner…

The challenge of telling this story…kiss the sky…LA bliss and LA angst…multiple threads unfurl at once so to tell one track or thread risks forgetting or omitting a parallel thread. So what I wrote yesterday about the mental check list I took with me to LA, a kind of blueprint, head shots, resume, reel, training, I must now flesh out the bartending narrative as that’s the source of the agony and the vehicle that took me to the depths of night and threatened to swallow me and that I finally escaped…moving, finally…summer nights, wet, liquor, tank tops, heat, balmy, cleaning up at the end, trapped, stuck, not stagnant but impeded, hindered, and finally moving, always needing to move, wanting to move, driven by fear of never getting out or never moving forward…must delve deep into working in Silver Lake, the drive there, the walk up the hill, the fat door guy, the customers, the bartenders, the chains, the pens in the pint glasses, that awful afternoon where you felt as though you were moving in slow motion as in a bad dream, the early days before descending deep into the depths – limited shifts, having to prove yourself…driven by opposing fears.

Struggling to find the frame or the vessel for the story – seek it in parallels or other stories – constantly reaching for inspiration, for something to grab onto…Mary Oliver, “Journey,” deeply resonant – finding your voice.

…acknowledgement that the life is lonely, an acceptance.

Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That” – knowing when it started but not when it ended, the ambiguity, loss of innocence, not knowing when, exactly, you made that Faustian bargain and gave up forever a part of your soul to the profession, the lifestyle, and all it compels you to do…Didion wrote: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends…ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves…” When did you lose your optimism? Where is that person who used to be me? I recognized that it could happen, had happened, would continue happening to other people, yet the experence is harrowing and riveting nonetheless, and the struggle, the angst, the desperation, the getting through it…lack of clarity – what ended it? What made you leave? What is money? How do you want to live? Lack of faith, and fear drives you…As those pursuing a creative passion need a survival job that pays bills and frees them financially to pursue their bliss, so the chronology frees me to drift and discover as I write…running away…getting through a decade of endless nights.

 

Outsider

outsider

When I go to this place I get lost in memories, images, sounds, smells, bacon-wrapped hot dogs vendors outside clubs grill atop foil-covered carts, nestled among onions and peppers, Canadian whiskey a coworker, a mother of two, drank, Irish whiskey I drank, exhaust from my car, a ’94 white BMW with a salvage title that had many more miles on it, a much longer, more complicated history than I knew, which I only found out when I had to sell it just before I left…Most of all, I can see the dirt, the palm trees, the branches, still green, and those that fell to the ground, brown and brittle, or the view from the hill where I practiced yoga, pink flowers in a dark green bush at the far edge, or the blue sky through power lines, clear in winter, when it was still 70 degrees at midday, the dog shit in the neighbors’ yard, where, some nights, I’d sit on a soggy cushion on a metal wire chair and turn on the Christmas lights and smoke a bummed cigarette and drink a beer in the dark just before dawn when the air was cool, maybe the sound of crickets, or someone snoring from an open bedroom window, or the hum of an air conditioner or some bird that had risen early, chirping, which I hated, because I’d just gotten home from work and that bird signaled morning coming.

This is a story about getting lost, about being on an edge and constantly on the verge of getting pushed over it, or driving oneself over it, going too far with some delusional hope the results will be different even though they’re programmed to be the same as they were the last time. It’s a story about ignoring warning signs, barreling past them into the jaws of destruction again and again, driven in part by self-destructive impulses of unknown origin. It’s a story of desperation, fear of the passage of time, aging, rotting, fear of uncertainty itself, of not knowing the destination, and reacting to that fear, trying to anchor and orient oneself in routine and ritual. It’s a story of trial, error, testing, of getting through the night again and again, of highs and lows and constant good weather and easy living that mutes the screaming panic in my mind like a drug that mellows me out ‘til the next panic hits. It’s also a story of rage, pushing against walls, antagonists, and donning a guise to get through it, riding to an unknown destination and getting out. It’s a story of recklessness, driven by adrenaline, rage, whiskey, jumping over the bar, shoving my way through a violent mass of wasted bodies, tracking down a guy who slipped away without paying for his sangria.

Disillusionment is inevitable. You arrive, and the sense is, I’m here, what’s next? Bartending and acting going hand in hand – people refer to the nightlife industry as “the industry” and to the entertainment industry as “the industry” as though “industry” needs no modifier to specify which one they’re referring to. Somewhere along the way you compromise your pure heart. You just have to act – impulse – in those early stages of training, the brain is your enemy because it’ll get in your way – just do, don’t think. Going out and coming back – the notion of traveling to a frontier – and yet I never saw it as failure, just a part of the journey, and now it pulls me back – some people say it’s empty, and I felt this, too, but I think it’s driven by a different kind of energy – something to do with the yoga, the produce, the avocados, meditation – from seeking an antidote to the night life, yet in LA this contradiction is everywhere, healthy life in the light and the inevitable return to dark. This is true in other places, too, of course, but in LA the emphasis on natural, clean living, eating, working out, which translates into toned, tanned bodies which feeds into the shallowness and artificiality and toxicity people often associate with its darker side – it all circles back to itself. I moved to LA with the intention of becoming a working actor but more than a passion, it was a goal I set for myself, a challenge, something to master, something I pursued doggedly well past the point of realizing the struggle wouldn’t fulfill me. Writing, not acting, is my disease, it’s what I do compulsively, and without hesitation I tell people, “I write,” whereas, in LA, when people asked me what I did, I told them, “I bartend,” because I felt a greater sense of dignity in identifying myself this way, a trade I’d mastered, a field in which I’d attained a high degree of professional competence, in which I’d supported myself for nearly a decade…Fear of working the worst shifts drove me to work with ferocious speed because I wanted no one to usurp my position as top seller…Even if I embedded in a dark underworld, it was this desire, and the consuming fear, that drove me to master the craft. That dark part of my life is not isolated – it’s still raw – fear of sinking to the bottom in this place inhabited by bottom feeders, driven by obsession, whether that of a teenage basketball junkie dreaming of making it to the NBA, I cared little for money or fame, just wanted to play in the League, to master the game, and this carried through, to Columbia, and to bartending, and I don’t think it’ll go away…always felt like an outsider, in high school, on the basketball court, behind the bar, in West Hollywood, in downtown LA, kind of like a journalist, there, taking it in, but not one of them.

 

 

No Way Out

Drawing by Michael Shapiro
Drawing by Michael Shapiro

Going on a journey, driven by fear, obsession, lack of clarity…times when all of your thoughts are misgiving…looking out the window, at dawn, looking to the west, through the palm tree leaves…wanting to get out of LA, out of the night life…to whom do those voices belong? You stood long…Is the laughter positive or sinister? A necessary process ends with a primal scream.

I only exercised using my own body weight, to stay limber, which would allow me to move at maximum speed and efficiency behind the bar…running from the terror of waking up again and again in a sunny place and not knowing where the journey will end and always staving off dread that lurks on the outskirts of daily rituals that could go on for perpetuity and lead to nowhere – the demons and the antidotal ritual reinforce each other…Dried out, brown palm tree leaves, branches, sticks…I got to my car, opened the trunk, tossed the yoga mat back inside, got in, rolled down the windows…air conditioner never worked well…the first hint of light from the East took me to Astoria, Queens, the bottling plant and the dirty Punjab restaurants on 21st Street, and to the West, the palm trees, empty rooftops, promise a future freed from bartending, half-hallucinatory ruminations from a near-delirious state of tired.

I slip back into the dark, the debauchery, corruption, tainted, poisoned side of LA, moments of empty ecstasy to forget that the day would return, the sun would rise again and shine a painfully bright light on side of life I’d just escaped…light, thin doors, everything is ephemeral, halfway there, permeable, see-through, translucent…that which is dirty and broken and cracked alternates with images of purity, the organic – dirty garbage can, broken drawers and pots and pans and cooking tools, pure fruit, dirty kettle, fresh-ground coffee beans…regularity and predictability I clung to and fled from…pattern – I couldn’t deny it felt like some kind of paradise, and that’s where it loops back around to the dread – ebb and flow, caught in the middle, trapped – when something becomes too comfortable, a place of no seasons, a sense that nothing changes, although of course it does, but the continuity of it, and the seeming lack of struggle, although of course there’s struggle of every kind, all over the fragmented neighborhoods, crime, violence, shootings, brutality, drugs and alcohol and unctuous shadiness, I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, and in West Hollywood, too, but the struggle, there, is subtle in the sense that every day can feel like a vacation, and this is confusing now because then one might ask, then why would you ever leave? But how long until you go crazy? And if every day is punctuated by night time bar mayhem, which also never changes, is a cycle, repeats itself, and that debauchery, from the dark, alternates, like a checkerboard, with the detoxifying daytime rituals, you ask, how do I ever get out of this, because even the escape I seek in the daylight inevitably, it all dissolves into the dark, which is inescapable if one’s line of work is in the dark, a part of the nightlife machine, driving it. So it feels like there is no way out, just a back and forth, one extreme to the other every day and night, craving release, falling into the same trap every time I step behind the bar, seeing no end, seeing only frustrated, if positive, hopeful, but struggling, stuck in the same weeds, people around me, and others who’ve no desire to get out, and being caught in that, feeling that escape is impossible without some drastic change or action, is maddening.

I know what I want to say and I can’t spit it out, as though an avocado hangs heavy on a branch, beyond ready to fall…long afternoon shadows and setting sun’s light on concrete and brick walls…to early evenings before nightfall sent me clattering down creaky wooden steps, into the dark, white BMW, down Melrose and La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevard…‘til I crashed and found I had nowhere to go but away from there…cherries, avocados, bananas, almonds and dark chocolate, hellish summers of bartending, golden afternoon light…a brick of oily cheddar and potatoes in my stomach, wait for a call from my mechanic, who never called…This place of never-ending light will destroy you…downtown LA, summer weeknight, get off early, back to Melrose, running in the night…obsession taking hold, stretching on the floor, empty stomach, LA images, LA routine, and, again, torn denim, mundane image, object, loving someone ‘til the end of time, this pulls you back, a sick part of you wants to go back to it, the easy life, easy money, thinly veiled, selling yourself and the product, smiling, pained stomach, acid, grimace, fuck it, work it, don’t stop, get it, for the thrill of it…Disorder, I knew it was getting out of hand, a kind of bargain with the lifestyle, headed toward no good end, to an ever-darker territory, and I wasn’t the one driving anymore, yet, still, didn’t want to wake up…Diamond Bar, Calif., green, hills stretching, flat, hinterlands, on and on…As a boat in an ocean, no shore in sight, no anchor, bobbing in the current…doing it over and over until they crack, and instead of heeding the warnings, they go back to it and do it again…nowhere, somewhere, here, in a twilight zone or a dream, not a good dream and not a nightmare – a kind of limbo. Violence, drugs, drinking to excess, exploitation, murder – and much of it is stunningly beautiful – the PCH, the dark birds that perch on the thin steel bars that hold up the giant letters of the Hollywood sign, easy to take a wrong turn, keep ascending, and then you’re behind the sign, way above Los Angeles, looking down, or downtown LA at dusk, a pink and purple horizon, tinted from the smog, made beautiful by what’s toxic.