The Story Within The Story

I had the most wonderful of experiences the other night, of all things while coming home from work. It really is a fun story, but to tell you about it I need to explain a few things for those who do not live in Los Angeles. Please bear with me as I set up the story.

For starters, the first thing you need to understand about LA is that we love our stories. Between the film industry, the television industry, the gaming industry, the music industry, and even our growing fine arts industry (because it is an industry) there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people living in LA who create the stories we use to entertain ourselves. We all work to make the stories you like to read/see/play/buy. Just to give you an idea of the reach of these various entertainment industries, consider the block where we live. Its a solid middle to upper middle class neighborhood in the middle of the valley.  On this small block of 18 houses lives an advertising guy (me), an actor, a television director/writer, a explosions/special effects expert, a mid-level manager who is also a screenwriter, an advertising director/producer, and an accountant. All of us making money as a result of our participation in the entertainment industry. That’s 6 out of 18 houses that get their money from entertainment.

But its not just a money thing. We also consume the stories we help to create. We read books, watch movies, binge watch TV shows, listen to albums, play games, all of these things and more. We do this because the creative process is not a one-way experience. It requires input to maintain itself. So we consumer what others make because it drives us to make more and better work.

So we make stories and we consume stories. But there one more way we interact with stories, and this is by far the biggest and most important one; we become them.

For example, consider the lowly film school graduate, of which there are legion in this town. She comes to this city to learn how films are made, and in the process of her studies will make some films herself. She will become an expert at the various directors and their schools of filmmaking, she will consume art films, and foreign films, and even begrudgingly tent-pole films, and she will always be working on her own small projects. She’ll be writing or directing or producing, or editing, or even just holding the microphone on someone else’s movie. She’ll be involved in something. Why? Because this is how one moves up the ranks of filmmaking. But there’s one more point here about her experience, and its the most important part. During all of this schooling, and work, and part time jobs, and driving all the fuck over town, and holding cameras or microphones, she will also be dreaming. And what she dreams of is a very specific story, the most important story of all, the story within the story; the story of her success.

Success stories are by no means limited to film school graduates. They are essential to every person who comes to LA to make stories. Everyone you meet who works in the various entertainment industries will have one. Mind you, success stories are not just limited to these industries, one might say they are endemic to ALL humans. But the success stories that are endemic to those working in entertainment are very specific, and all follow the same trajectory. They are all the Horatio Alger variety. A lowly filmmaker comes to the big city, works hard, receives a lucky break, and creates a piece of art so explosive and so important her pin is forever stuck onto our collective cultural map.

So endemic are such success stories that down here we don’t really talk about them. They are simply assumed. If you come to LA to be a (fill in the blank) you come here to fulfill your success story. Everyone gets that. Mind you, we do other things. We all come down here to work, and we work on something, because lets face it, someone has to pay the rent. But under all of that work and hustle is a story, and its such a powerful story that it gets girls and boys living in far off places to leave the comfort or their well-known worlds and travel to a city full of dirt, and crime, and cars (dear God do we have a lot of cars), all in an effort to fulfill that inner story. To take part of a larger story. To become a story itself.

Think about it. Who is Tom Cruise, or Oprah Winfrey? Who is Steven Spielberg, or Jean Cocteau? Who is Beyoncé or Tom Waits? Who is J.K Rowling or China Miéville? These are not people to you. You do not know them. You don’t really know almost anything about them. So what is it you do know? Their story’s. That’s it. When you read about them you’re not really reading about the person, you’re reading their story. When you watch Tom Cruise act, you don’t really think you’re seeing the real man behind the face. Or when Beyoncé sings about loosing a lover you don’t really think she just broke up with her husband do you? No. Do you really think that when Sting has a few beers with his mates they call him Sting? Of course not. We all get that we’re experiencing a story, that the person we’re looking up to is not really a person but a construct. A thing. That thing then is a story. And not just a story, a myth.

So we’re not just talking story here, or even story; we’re talking myth. Myth is the underlying story to this town, it is the gas that moves the cars of our collective egos, and you cannot understand this town or its people until you can understand that.

With that in mind, I will now begin with my story.

The other night I was coming home from work. It had been a long 10 hour day at the office. The kind where you eat your lunch at you desk because you’re working against the clock. We finished up at 8:15, but I stayed longer to eat dinner. (For those that don’t work in the industry, yes they often buy you dinner, but only because they need to to keep working). So at about 8:45 I requested an Uber ride. Within minutes my driver Fabion (call me Fob) showed up at the building near LACMA and the Tar Pits, and we were off for the valley. As with happens with Uber, the service will often see if they can double up on the ride. In this case Uber told Fob to pick up a guy named Dave in West Hollywood. So maybe 10 minutes later were stopped at some intersection in West Hollywood on a street covered in two-story apartment buildings dating back to the 30s and 40s. Suddenly the back door opens (I’m a front seat kind of guy) and not one but two men get in. They are Dave and his best friend Brent.

Dave and Brent are highly sociable, so we’re not even 100 feet into our trip when one of them says, “Hey front seat, what’s your name?” Before long we talking and carrying on like you do with strangers who are affable. Its the verbal equivalent of smelling each other’s butts to see what you’re made of. In this town it means talking about the entertainment industry, which really means talking about your dreams. Except, as I noted above, we don’t really talk about our dreams as they are implied in every conversation. So instead we talk about what we’re working on, which is a nice round about way of talking about your dreams without really stating them. (I know, its weird, but its how this town works. If you openly tell people your dreams you are immediately seen as a tyro, an amateur. You are a rube, and so wet behind the ears that no one except other rubes will believe in your success story. And everyone knows success stories have to be believable to work. That how they roll. So the serious professionals don’t talk, they do.)

Normally this is not my favorite topic of conversation. Probably 90% of the work I do is on television shows or movies that are so boring or so minor that you will have never heard of them, and unless you are a deep insider you will probably not care. Mind you, the checks go into my bank account the same as those from big name movies, but the social cachet I earn from the work, that is to say my rank as a “player” in this town, is not strengthened by such meager projects. So when people hear what I do for a living and immediately follow up with, “What are you working on,” I usually have to mumble something sad and pitiful sounding. But as it happens, right now I have a couple of nice aces in my hand thanks to some friends who called me in on a couple of tent-pole movies. All that to say I can do some serious name dropping.

On this particular occasion I really didn’t have to do that. Not 30 seconds into a description of one of the pieces I did for Jurassic World, we came to the corner of Hollywood and La Brea. High in the sky on that corner is a 14 x 48 billboard I did for the upcoming Will Ferrell series called Ferrell Takes The Field. So all I had to do was off-handedly say, “Oh that’s one of my pieces,” and I instantly tripled my street cred. Boom.

But, as I was about to discover, I was soon to be outgunned. Not only outgunned, but totally blown away. And completely and incredibly happy to be so.

Dave and Brent it turned out, had some street cred of their own. And it wasn’t that weak ass, second-hand shit I was passing out either. It was the pure thing. The Real Deal. The stuff that dreams are made of. We’re talking pure, 100%, USDA, success story. And it was joyous to behold.

Dave and Brent, it turned out, had just made a big pitch that day. They’d walked into a room full of 8 or 11 Television Executives (each with their own big salaries and fancy new cars) and ha d sold the shit out of their TV comedy series. “Basically,” Brent said, “we did 30 minutes of intense stand up in the biggest room we’ve ever played.”

“Yeah,” Dave added, “I’m not kidding when I say this. It was the most important room I’ve ever walked into.”

The two writers were roommates and had been busting their asses for the past three and a half months, working hard every day, coming up with every funny and off the wall idea they could throw into their show idea called Manhood. Then when their agent had scored a meeting they went in and sold their idea. Sold it hard. Sold it successfully too because they left that room, some 45 minutes later with a huge check and a contract to write a pilot. They had three months to write the Best Pilot Ever, and deliver it with another pitch to the same executives. If that went over well then they’d be given and even larger pile of cash and they would actually film their pilot. And if that worked, well the network might just buy their series. And then they will have made it. If the series sells. If the people watch it.

So it was a big day for them. They had made the first step on the story of their success, and they were full of the same excitement and energy as if they had won the lottery, which is a very real sense was what they had done. They had won the story lottery, and they were on their way up, because that’s how stories work. Whether it would take them up to the rarefied air of stardom, or down the wicked road of perdition, no one can say. But they were on the first step, and ready for the next.

But dig this, Here’s the crucial part. They were not just making stories, they had now become one. Their success had become a story of its own, independent of their actions. A story that would ripple that night through family and friends, and slowly in ever wider circles throughout the industry. Even to such far flung places as your mind, for this very thing you’re reading right now is essentially a ripple of that larger story wave. That night when they talked about their work they were speaking success story, in its purest form. Straight from the story mines of heaven and drenched in the beautiful humility of luck.

See they didn’t have to talk about their dream. They just talked about their work, and the dream was inherent in the work. Which is the best story of all.

And deep in the middle of they telling, drenched in the beauty of their own success story (which they were obviously editing as they went because that’s what good writers do) there was also the tinniest glimmer of humanity, and all because I threw in a wrench into the gears. See these type of success stores are wonderful and all, but they are often way too impersonal. And I don’t like impersonal. I like to travel with real humans and listen to real problems. So while they were going on about the room and the show, I asked them a crucial question. “Did you call your mothers?”

“Well,” they said breezily because they were still caught up in the success, “We called our agent first, and then our partners.” Then their tone changed, and a bit of the real boy came out from behind the successful men, “But yeah,” they admitted, “we called our mothers.”

So after they left (Fob dropped them off at a bar on Ventura) he and I just sat there silently the rest of the way to my house. All we could say was, “Wow.” Nothing else would do. It was an incredible experience, and we both felt deeply lucky just to be near it. We had seen a success story, just at the moment of its birth, and it was a beautiful thing to behold. I hope their mother’s are proud.


The inadvertent racist

I am not the hero of this story. Not even close. But its a true story all the same. This really happened.

I was coming home from work.
I was standing on the Expo line platform at La Cienega and Jefferson. The station there is elevated a good 30-40 feet above the traffic below. It offers a nice view of the lights of Culver City, especially at night. Its also a short block away from a Sees Candy factory/shop. When the wind is right you can smell them making chocolates.

A young african-American man approached me and stood nearby.
He looked to be in his late 20s. My height. Well groomed. He had on slacks, a long-sleeve button down shirt, and a tie. A coat as well, but I can’t recall exactly what kind. Not a suit jacket, more like a trench coat or a rain coat. It was dark, and cold (what people on the East Coast would call cool). The elevated station not only offers a excellent view, but it also exposes you to the on-shore breeze, the Pacific Ocean being only a few miles away. It was cold enough people were wearing gloves, stamping their feet, moving around, and standing instead of sitting on the concrete benches. So we stood.

I was dressed like a person of privilege.
I don’t recall exactly what I was wearing, but this is how I dress for work. Jeans and a fitted t-shirt. On warmed days, tan dockers, but more than likely it was jeans. The t-shirt was colored, and might have been long-sleeved. I buy them at Target because they’re cheap, and because they look good on me. I was probably wearing my skating jacket which is bicycling jacket: comfortable, lightweight, stuffs into a small pouch, is 100% synthetic, and is amazingly warm. The jacket looks like something a cyclist would wear on a windy day because that is precisely why it was made. It was a gift from my in-laws, is the perfect coat for anything but a serious downpour, and is easily hauled around in my back-pack.

All this to say I was dressed like a person who doesn’t give a damn about how they dress. That’s because I don’t. My day job is being an artist, a pixel-pusher, a photoshop expert. A great job for people who like to dress like they don’t give a damn. My outfit has evolved to this point as being the perfect blend of comfort, ease of use while skating, and just professional enough to give the appearance of confidence. As such my outfit is strictly utilitarian; clothes I put on to accomplish the task at hand, and nothing more. The uniform of a slightly socially awkward artist.

But its also important to point out I dress this way because I don’t have to dress better. No one expects me to prove my worth based on my dress. Quite the opposite in fact. No one has ever questioned my value to society based solely upon my clothing. Or at least not since I was in college. And it would be considered rude for someone to do so. Its not something I ever have to worry about.

We started talking.
Possibly because he was friendly, but more than likely because I like to talk to strangers. I try not to be too pushy, but almost anyone will engage in casual conversation. “Sure is cold tonight,” that sort of thing.

I asked what he did for a living.
I do this with everyone. Its a great way to get a stranger to talk about something they’re comfortable with. Since I collect stories, like some people collect butterflies, I use this question, among others, as a method of exploration; a way to dig deeper. Everybody has good stories tucked inside somewhere, and I am shameless in my hunt for them. Up until a friend posted something on Facebook, I didn’t realize that asking someone this particular question has another meaning in the black community.

He told me to “guess.”
I thought this a funny response, a bit like a girl who is flirting with you might want you to guess her age. Only we were definitely not flirting. So I looked at his outfit, at the way he carried himself, noted the other passengers (remember I ride the train and busses all the time, so I’m familiar with the clientele), and took a wild guess.

“Are you a security guard?” I asked.

“I work in a bank,” he said. “As a loan officer.”

He may have said something more about his job. He may have not actually been a loan officer. I don’t recall. All I remember is that he worked in a bank, and not just as a teller.

He was angry after that.
Not sneering angry, not growling angry, not “ball up a fist and punch someone” angry. Nothing so overt. It was more subtle than that. More of a “slight tightening of the jaw” angry.  That, and he all but stopped talking with me.

I won’t pretend to be the most observant guy in the room, but I can tell when someone is done talking with you. They turn a shoulder. Ignore the next question. Don’t say or waive goodbye. They are done. Period. And this guy was done.

He walked far away to another entrance to get on the train.
That is to say, he made it very clear he wasn’t going to sit near me. Now I talk to people all the time on the bus and train, like I mentioned before, so I’ve learned a thing or two. I knew our conversation was over, and I had a pretty good sense the man was angry at me, but at the time what I didn’t get was why. I didn’t know if I had done or said something wrong, or if he was over-reacting. He didn’t have any of the signs of mental illness (I know, I talk to those kind of people all the time), and there was nothing about the conversation that I could see that would make someone upset. Sure I had guessed wrong at his occupation, but so what? I mean he asked me to guess. He could have just told me what he did, and we could have gone on from there. Hell, I would have loved to talk to him about his job. I’ve never worked in a bank, and I could easy have asked a hundred questions. Everything from, “do you still keep banker’s hours,” to “do you get any play with the ladies?”

He probably went home thinking, “what a racist asshole.”
He probably was right.

So that’s the story. Now, I’m going to turn the conversation over, and try to present it from his point of view. He was coming home from work. He was dressed well, dressed better than 95% of the people at the station. He works in Culver CIty which could mean anything, but probably meant he worked at a bank in the nice part of town–and the nice part of Culver CIty could give Beverly Hills a run for its money. He stood for his train, and was approached by an old white guy who dressed like a bum. They talked for a bit, and then the old gut started pestering him about his job.

I’m going to stop here for a moment because I want to talk about this specific topic. Its worth mentioning because its possible the white people in the room might not get all that is going on here. I know I didn’t at the time, so feel free to go to school on my mistake.

There are rules about how society functions. These rules are not written down, nor are they in a real sense enforced, yet they do exist, and they do come into play in public. For instance, if you are out in public late in the morning on a school day, and you see a couple of pre-teens out on the street, you will probably note them, especially if you are a parent. A child out of school sticks out. If you’re a teacher, you will probably say something to them. Anything from, “How’s if going,” to “Aren’t you suppose to be in school?” If you know the kids personally, you definitely will say something to them. “Billy Jones. Does your mother know you aren’t in school?”

There are two things to this example that are important. The first is that perfect strangers in public, who normally do not talk to each other, will speak out at kids who they think should be in school (whether they need to be in school or not, as my friends who have have home-schooled their kids will tell you). Its a social function. A protection. The social equivalent of white blood cells attaching themselves to a virus. Its not done to attack the kid as much as to preserve a perceived order; in this case having kids in school where they belong.

The second important thing about this example is that the person speaking will do so from a perceived place of authority. A kid on the street on a school day will not be enough for most people to overcome their natural inclination to not speak to strangers. But if that person is a parent, they will have more of an emotional stake in the issue, especially if they have kids near that age. They understand deeply what a kid out of school means. For a teacher, this is doubly true. They have first hand experience with kids and their motivations. They also have, what my sister (a long standing middle school science teacher) calls “the voice”. In others words, they know how to be effective. And if the stranger actually knows one of the children and their family, they will almost certainly say something.

In each of these cases, the person doing the talking is doing so from a place of authority. They know something, or feel something and are compelled to act. They do this from a place of privilege. This is what privilege means, having a raised point in a social experience.

So this social system, this method by which people of privilege speak out in public to correct a perceived flaw, also happens to be the very same method by which racism is carried out, and perceived racial divides are maintained. The equivalent of weeding in the racist garden.

I think most of my readers can imagine themselves in the dim dark past, out in a small town somewhere deep in the south, and see how white strangers might have have asked a black person what they were doing out on the street in the middle of the day. Especially during the time of slavery, where free blacks were as rare as kids not needing to be in school. This is what I like to think of as “safe” racism. Its somewhere deep in the past, doesn’t involve us, and doesn’t match or present social context. I mean, after all, no one today would ask a black person what they are doing out on the streets, right?

Well yes and no. You see, I don’t see white people doing anything of the sort, and as a general rule they don’t. But what they actually do is not all that different from it. If you’re like me, you probably won’t notice until its pointed out to you, but these kinds of things often still go on. All you have to do is ask enough people of color. They’ll tell you.

Go to a university and see how often the black students are asked, “are you here on scholarship?” compared to how often the white students are asked. Go around your neighborhood, especially a nice neighborhood, and see how many times a black person is asked, “do you live around here?” compared to a white person. Or go on a public train platform and see how many black men are asked, “what do you do for a living?” compared to the white men. If you are white, and confronted with these questions it doesn’t bother you because the questions will be few and far between, and the answers do not reflect poorly on you. But what if you got asked these things all of the time? What does it mean when every white person you see, even the well meaning ones, ask you the same questions over and over? And why these particular questions?

Are these questions just a part of the friendly banter between strangers in public, or are they analogous to the, “aren’t you supposed to be in school?”? If you’ve only experienced these questions once or twice, I’d guess the former, but if you hear them more often, they start to look an awful lot like the latter.

Which is how I accidentally ended up a racist. See I wasn’t trying to subtly tell this young man he didn’t belong in my world of white privilege, I was genuinely curious what he did for a living. Only its hard to tell sometimes the polite question from the pointed, and intent–as any competent trial lawyer will tell you–is damn hard to prove, and easy to mistake. Asking a young black man if he has a job (which is probably how he took my question) is no joke. The unemployment rate for men of color, especially young men, is incredibly high. Only a few short times since the 1960s has it dropped below twice as high as white unemployment. I’ll say it again. The average is more than twice as high.

So if I had had to work twice as hard to find a good job, and then was bugged about it by someone who looked as if he had been handed their job on a silver platter, I can imagine I would be a little bit testy. Because men, especially young men, often measure their self-worth by their jobs and the money they make, this is a topic that is rife for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Few things can make a man feel insecure faster than questioning his financial virility. This is true for men of any color.

Since that day I’ve learned to by more circumspect. I’ve learned that if someone talks about their work as being “a little of this and a little of that,” what they are really saying is either they’re unemployed, or they don’t want to talk about their work. Older men tend to be more sanguine about this, then the younger ones. They’ve found other ways to measure their own value to society instead of, or in addition to, making money. But it wasn’t until my friend posted something on facebook the other day that I realized I needed to find a different topic to bring up, or find a more socially acceptable way of asking. That, or I needed to acknowledge that my current style of questioning could end up with me being labeled a racist asshole. Again.

Dead Crow/Fight Club

Passed a dead crow today on the way into work. It was just a lump in the road, a dark lump, brownish grey with a splattering of darker feathers on top. The bottom of a crow’s feathers are not very black, more of a dark gray. It was sitting in the road at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, a little lump in the road about the size of a salad plate right at the intersection of the two crosswalks. The man in a suit who had been talking to the bus driver the whole way down Fairfax, stepped on the crow in his fancy leather shoes before I could warn him. I don’t think he even noticed.

I was reading Fight Club on the way into work today, and it shows.

Jesus on the bus

I met Jesus in the bus yesterday morning. He was a polite gentleman who was reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which turns out to be light reading for someone with a BA in Urban Planning. So now you know what Jesus is reading.

Jesus turned out to be an interesting chap. He’s from down here, but lived in Texas for a while, where he said the idea of Urban Planning has been deeply mixed with that of business. So much so that the electorate are referred to as “clients”, and one is expected to drop everything to deal with their calls. I can see the appeal for working like this, after all it is how I work, but I can also see the distraction. Too much mixing of business practices into governance is probably not a good idea, the two not being anything like the same process, but one cannot often tell Republicans this. I got the feeling Texas was a bit too conservative for our dear Jesus, but he never directly stated anything along those lines. A sharp man, that. He was carefully politically neutral throughout our conversation.

I wish him well on his TA work in the Geology Department at Santa Monica College, and hope his career choices bring him fulfillment and happiness.

And now I have one more book to add to my reading list, which is always a delightful thing.

The Inbetween

Tonight I ran across an interesting man on my way home. The truth is I didn’t find him, he found me while I was waiting for Teri and Trevor to come and pick my up at the North Hollywood subway station.

I noticed him because he walked slowly in front of me. He was young, early 20s I’d guess, hispanic (a Latino) by appearance, but I don’t know if he spoke Spanish. I say I noticed him, but really he noticed me, as in he looked at me while I was sitting there holding up my Kindle and reading a novel. When I say he looked at me, I mean he really looked at me.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most people in a public setting do not look at you. Oh they might glance at you, but there never let their glance rest on you for long. They look, and then quickly look away. Sometimes a gaze will linger, but this is almost always to express some form of sexual intent, or aggression. Rarely will a man gaze at me, especially a young man. A naked straight-into-the eye stare is considered a hostile act by most. Certainly it makes people uncomfortable.

(Don’t believe me? As an experiment, the next time you’re out in public openly stare at people. Look them straight into the eyes and do not look away. See what happens. Note: this will be taken as an aggressive act if they are the same sex, or a sexual advance if they are the opposite. Do this at your own risk.)

Anyway, this guy was staring at me. In the eyes. Only his expression was neutral, perhaps even thoughtful. There was no hint of anger. He seemed genuinely interested, like he was staring at a flower, or a car. There was not the least hint of negative intent, or of any understanding that his actions could be considered negative. In short, he was innocent.

Then he asked me what time it was. I clicked the menu button on my Kindle and told him it was 8:23. I told him several different ways. Finally he responded when I told him the way we used to tell the time at the Ren Faire (eight and twenty). His response was to repeat my words back to me.

He looked fascinated at my Kindle, so I showed it to him. He stood there for a second, never speaking. Looking both at the Kindle, and then into my eyes. Back and forth, back and forth. It was unnerving. He was really looking at me.

Then he walked to my right, and sat down next to me. Now I was sitting on a concrete rim of a planter there at the subway station. There were lots of people milling about, high school kids in black sporting skateboards, somber-faced old latinas walking along to their next bus, business people of every stripe and station, and even a few bums and drunks. And this guy. The one now sitting next to me. Only he wasn’t sitting next to me, he was sitting next to me. As in too close. Much too close.

Again, this sort of thing is usually considered an aggressive act, or a sexual one. But he wasn’t interested in either. Or at least I should say he wasn’t giving off the social clues for either.

So I asked him, “How ya doing?”

Its a straight enough question that most Spanish speakers can get the meaning. He responded, with a kind of non-word. A grunt, or maybe a sigh. Essentially a sound without any meaning. At least to me.

Then I looked up, and saw Teri drive up to the kiss and ride. I said goodbye to my newly found friend, and got moving to the car. Luckily he did not follow. If he had, I’m not sure what I would have done.

When I told Teri about this, she exclaimed she would have jumped up and moved away as soon as the guy sat down next to her. No doubt wise advice for a woman. Me, I’m pretty comfortable around the mentally ill, and the strange. This guy I think was likely just retarded. Possibly lost. Perhaps he doesn’t speak English. Who knows?

All I know is he was weird, and if I got a chance to talk with him at any length, I would have probably liked him, much like you like a new puppy. Only people are not puppies.

The Jesus Parade

Coming off the subway today around noon (Hey, its when they called me in), I climbed the stairs to wait for my normal bus, and instead wandered into a surreal scene on the Hollywood sidewalks. The bus stop is right at Hollywood and Highland, and for those of you who are not native to the area, it is a very large tourist attraction. Madam Tossuad’s is there, along with Ripply’s museum, the stars on the sidewalk and the hand/foot prints at the Chinese Theater. All of this is right in this area, so it is always abounding with tourists.

So today when I came up the stairs, I heard this large commotion. It was the sound of a large group of people talking. When I got to street level I was just in time to catch a parade going past on the sidewalk. And what a parade it was. There was about 40-50 people, all with matching white shirts, marching together in a group. One guy lead the procession with a very large cross that read “Jesus Saves”. He was followed by a guy with a huge banner (4′ wide, and probably 8′ tall) that said something about Jesus and had korean symbols on it (I think, I don’t read Korean). Then the main group came. In their midst was a guy with a microphone, and as they passed he was leading them in some kind of chant “Jesus loves you. Jesus saves.” Over and over. Trailing the group was another man with a large cross like the first guy. Each and every one of the people was asian, and as near as I could tell, not American’s but foreigners.

Right before my bus arrived, they came back up the opposed side of the street so I got to see them twice. The group was pretty interesting. They marched along all happy, and enthusiastic about Jesus. They made a lot of noise. Everyone else on the sidewalk got out of their way. Beyond the irony of foreigners coming to America to preach about Jesus, the whole experience was just plain weird. It was as if they has no sense of stage craft. Did they think they could simply march by, and people would suddenly be converted to Christianity? Why did they feel the need to talk about Jesus there, and in that bizarre manner? I mean, marching? Yelling?

You’ll notice I’m not complaining about them. There’s a reason for this. You see I myself have done something similar, back when I was a board-again. So I have some sympathy for them, or at least feel like I can’t say shit without coming off as the world’s biggest hypocrite. Still it makes me wonder why a group of people would take the time and energy to get all organized, come down to LA, and then act stupid. This wasn’t about “us” getting saved. It was about “them” bragging about how religious they are. So why can’t they do that at home, and save themselves the money, and me the spectacle of watching a group perform without the the least bit of understanding of how a performance works.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus loves me now.

Big Hair

I first saw her waiting for the red line. She was about 5 and a half, in a light colored dress, well shaped, young, and pretty. But what drew my eye to here was her hair. She had hair, lots and lots of hair. It was dark, almost black with lighter highlights, and in a larger curl then your typical afro; somewhere in between afro and dreadlocks is the best I can describe it. The strands were long, flowing in clumps over 12 inches from her head, which means the individual hair must have been twice that long. We’re talking BIG hair here.

Her hair draped over her head like a dress from the Corps du Ballot. The top almost like a shield-cone volcano in shape, a long low cone of hair, like a large brown coolie hat. The hair was wider than her shoulders, and must have weighted as much as a baby.

When she sat down opposite me, her hair left this lovely space for her heart-shaped face to look out of. After a while I noticed she was looking for someone. She sat facing straight ahead, but kept turning side wise with only her eyes, looking for someone else on the platform. That’s when I realized how big her hair was. She kept using it like a bush growing over her head which she could hide in with only her face showing out the opening. Like a huge hat that also had it’s own partial veil.

That hair, really was something.

A bad day on the train

Last week I took the train in to work every day, but Friday. The first day, Monday, started so bad I didn’t think I could make it the rest of the week. It started like this.

The station where I catch the Red Line subway is the first one (or the last one, depending on your point of view) in North Hollywood. It’s common for a train to break down when attempting to come back, which is why they keep an extra train beyond the station just in case. Monday started like this. I got on the train and it was so full I knew right away that this was the second train, the first one had broken down and was waiting on the other side of the platform with it’s doors closed, and the sign reading Not In Service glowing on it’s side. The doors chimed, then closed, and the train attempted to move forward. It jerked forward only a few inches and stopped. Not a good sign. The driver tried a few more times, but the train refused to move.  Shortly thereafter, the driver got on the PA and announced that this train was Out Of Service, and that we’d have to catch the next train which was just now pulling into the station. Everyone rushed to got off the train, and cross to the other side (all of 20 feet), where they proceeded to mill around the places where the train’s doors would open. This is somewhat normal, so I didn’t think much of it. What was abnormal was what happened when that new train opened its doors.

Right when the doors opened, the crowd surged into the train. Now normally they wait politely outside the door for the passengers inside to depart. This time they didn’t, and in some cased literally shoved them aside. I made some comment about waiting for the others to get off, but was ignored in the otherwise silent rush to get a seat. It was sad and disgusting to see people who normally act politely to be so hostile and selfish.

But that is not all. When we got off the train at Hollywood and Highland, many of us (it was a larger than normal crowd becuse of the train delays) stood outside waiting for the bus. Amongst the people waiting was a young man in a wheel chair, and a young women attending him. Now normally one waits for the people in their wheelchairs to get on first, but on this occasion the crowd surged forward, and immediately started getting on the bus. The young lady said politely many times to the crows that they needed to get on. The driver either did not see them, or was too pacified to care. Many people held back, but the since crowd kept trickling in, they saw no reason to wait, and got on themselves. Finally the driver noticed the wheel chair, and told the people to get back, but by then it was too late. The bus was so packed that even the people standing could not go back far enough to let the guy in the wheelchair on.  The driver shrugged his shoulders, and the bus moved on. By that time I was so disgusted with the passengers that I didn’t wish to ride with them, so I waited with the young couple for the next bus.

And man was that a good decision. You see while I was waiting for the next bus I struck up a conversation with a young couple from England. They were from the Midlands, and on their honeymoon, spending a few days in LA before they flew out to Tahiti for 2 weeks. He is a Bobby, and she is a Chemist (that’s cop and pharmacist, for those of you who speak American), and they were so charming and friendly. It was nice to meet fresh faces, and see some genuine happiness in the world. They got off the bus at Santa Monica and Fairfax, and I went on my way to work, for once forgetting how nasty humanity can be.

Late night train ride

Last Friday I ended up working for a client later then normal, staying until 10:30. Most of you know I take the subway and/or bus to work whenever I can. This particular client is right across the street from the Hollywood/Highland station on the Red Line (the subway). Late night on a Friday, and especially at a popular tourist stop on a warm summer evening, I expected to find the station crowded with the typical Europeans, Aussies, and American tourists. What I found instead were the workers; the hidden part of a modern city.

I thought I was heading home, but instead took a small detour into the hell of the working poor.

Waiting for the trains were all the security officers, janitors, and other people who come into the city late at night, and clean up after the rest of us have left. This is the shadow city, the other city. The part you normally do not see as their work happens after you and I go home. It was like I had wondered into a different town, one more Kafkaesque then the one I normally inhabit. Gone were all the suits, and the bright colored people. In their stead were tired mostly dark-skinned automatons. The late night, and harsh light giving them an almost zombie like appearance. Starring into space, the fatigue behind their eyes was palatable. I saw several bow their heads, and fall asleep on the short train ride to the last stop, their heads bouncing with the motion of the train, but their bodies too tired to wake up. The whole ride had this subdued air, with even the few teens on board unable to bring up enough energy to overcome the fatigue of their fellow passengers.

Getting off the train in “the Valley”, I was relieved to climb that last big set of stairs. The moonlit air above ground was warm and its comforting light invigorated the people as they left the station. We were back in the real world, the normal one. Kids hooted and hollered, riding their skateboards, or just running around to expelled the rest of the zombie energy from below.

As I boarded the Orange Line (and long articulated bus) I saw smiles all around. It was still late, and we were all still tired, but the dark pallor of the underground had lifted.

Interesting people

I met a very interesting lady tonight named Judith, on the ride home. She was an excellent contrast in character. She spoke like a New Yorker (not with the accent, but with that same feverish delivery, and the tendency to use proclamations), yet she thought like an old-school liberal. She is a piano teacher, in town from Canada to see her daughter perform in a local show. I got the feeling she is also at loose ends, a creative person playing the odds to see what will fall out of their lives. As she talked, you could almost see her fierce intellect behind her eyes. She wasn’t mean, or unkind, at least at heart. Yet there was a part of her I could sense that was neither dangerous, nor scary, but powerful all the same. I think perhaps, fearless.

The Metro’s bus and rail system was definitely not suited to Judith. That girl needs a train. She also had mental illness in her family, and in her personal life; a point we both could share. A brave and faithful traveler. Perhaps we’ll meet again.

Then later, on my last bus, I met a young lady who had a large backpack on her back. She had just been to Mississippi to some meeting for those who like to ride the rails, and we’re not talking about the ticket purchasing kind of traveler either. I told her of my own grandfather’s experiences during the great depression when “hopping freight” was common. She must have been under 30, and yet had already been married three times. Her third husband died of cancer (I believe). What she didn’t say, but what was clear to me, was that she was definitely touched by mental illness. When I meet people like this, I often wonder what will happen to them. She was very smart (she mentioned she had a degree in Chemistry), but she was also very fragile, so much so that I was almost afraid to talk to her. As if my words might harm her. She was quite the opposite of Judith, who was almost painfully centered. The two, separated by a middle train run, made for a very bizarre commute.