joebelknapwall: (Default)
It's one of those perfect nights, where a perfect sunset faded perfectly into a perfectly clear night sky in a cycle of blue to blue to blue until it's all just velvet black and stars and that gorgeous subtle motion of a searchlight somewhere in the distance, cutting a swath into the night. I came back from California with my eyes still focused on the scales and distances of that strangely compelling place, and I watched Baltimore slip under the jet and found my familiar landmarks as we wheeled around on approach to the airport that they used to call "Friendship."

There are the stadiums, little more than luminous cereal bowls from up here, and there's the jagged coastline of the Inner Harbor and the celestial blue glow of the Bromo Seltzer tower, and I can make out the streets and follow the edge of the water to where my beautiful museum lies. I almost hope to see the letters on the side of the sculpture barn where my little workshop is, reading "L-O-V-E" in rich neon colors, but it's all a blur from this height, and we're banking, and heading in. The Christmas lights are everywhere under us, sparkling and brilliant, the exuberant defiance of people chasing away the cold weather blues, and soon enough we're on the ground and I'm home again.

It's small here, not like where I've just come from.

There was a time when I was sure this place had everything I'd ever need, but my eyes haven't adjusted yet, and it's a dollhouse life, bound up in trees and little buildings and everything. Theodore McKeldin called my state "America in miniature," and he wasn't far off the mark. For nearly forty years, I've wanted for nothing in this perfectly-formed place.

For nearly forty years, the searchlights have always called out to me, sirens in the night sky.


From Mulholland Drive, all you can see is city and city and city, right up to the sea, right up to the mountains, an endless spectacle of gridwork and places to go and ten million people you'll never, ever meet, or maybe that you'll meet just once before going your separate ways forever.

In the sun, the city is full of little sparks, twinkling up from the streets below. The cars down there turn and stop and start and work their way through the traffic, and at exactly the right moments, the sunlight reflects off windshields and side windows, sending volleys of photons that have traveled ninety-eight million miles to get here for a fleeting ricochet into my eyes. I start to notice it and suddenly, it's all I see, all those little sparks, all those drivers in all those cars, off on errands and pleasure drives and on their way to work, all so far from me except for that flash.

The streets are alive, and I am humbled, terrified, and compelled by the scale of things.

I point the sparks out to Terry, and maybe he's never looked at them that way, and maybe it's what I can offer to someone who's been here for so many years.

I can't speak, and so I just watch and breathe it all in.


Allen and I walk the paved path down in Long Beach. I'd just aborted my headlong run to the Pacific to dip a toe into the water in my increasingly-customary rite of arrival, having made it right to the smooth sand before realizing that the shallow waves carried a foamy green substance to the shore with the consistency and smell of something one might find in a diaper.

Maybe I'll just say I did this time, I tell myself, grimacing at the water.

It's so different from the idea of an ocean, I guess, even from the boxed-in waters in the bay. A beach is a long, straight thing that disappears into haze and perspective at each end, not the crazy science-fiction landscapes they have out here. In Long Beach, weird futuristic architectural flourishes hide oil derricks on islands that you could almost swim to, if you had the nerve to step into the green. Oil tankers lounge at anchor in the glistening water, and the Queen Mary rests off to the right like a cenotaph for a gilded age, and it's just so novel that I can't stop mentioning everything out loud, like it wouldn't be real if I didn't keep pointing it out.

Long Beach is staid and wildly gay all at once, a place that most of my newfound Los Angeles friends sneer at, but there's a rested quality to things here that's joyous in its own way, too. Allen and I stop at a branch of the local library and it's a kind of early-century mission with gorgeous details and heavy, lush woodwork. There's so much here that's tacky and silly, and so much that's still full of age and dignity. We pause on the way back to look at an old English-style cottage with the most amazing sculptured wood shake roof I've ever seen, full of crazy shapes and jewels and wavy stripes of different colored shakes and caps of hammered copper beginning to go to verdigris, and I can well understand why he'd be at home here.

In an afternoon, I remember what I've missed so much about Allen, and why I shouldn't have been so unforgiving when he'd had it with life in a dollhouse.


"Well, now I've seen Alhambra," Terry says, with a smirk that soundlessly adds the coda of "and now I'll never need to see it again."

I can't say that I'm particularly enthused about the place, myself, except that I can't get over the combination of blandness and exotic names on every building, which makes me want to be a complete rube and say "there sure are a lot of Chinese people in California," so I do, just for a cheap laugh. We're looking for a Malaysian restaurant I found online and meeting [ profile] sarahparah, my great exotic food buddy who's game to try out the places that set Terry's skin crawling.

We park and find the place, crossing through a little park full of competent mosaic sculptures that make me remark that that's what I do for a living now, and that I could probably do a better job than they'd done, even if I do say so myself. The restaurant is in a nondescript storefront, and Terry recoils with horror at the glaring "B" in the front window. I'm all for cleanliness, but I don't see how a "B" is so much worse than an "A," and I don't come from a place where you can see such things displayed in the window. My old favorite phở place back home is notoriously roachy, to the point where you refuse to sit near the planters on the side of the restaurant because things jump out of the foliage and run up your arm, but life's about denial, sometimes.

The food's good, the conversation is warm and familiar, and I get a mean little kick out of watching Terry squirm after he's spent an hour calling his friends to tell them that Joe was dragging him out for Malaysian food, whatever the hell that is. We leave and I give Sarah a great big hug for being one of those kinds of people who just seems like an old friend from the first time you meet and for giving me another frame of reference in a strange land.

We stop for a moment before heading back and return to find that the dogs have managed to extract my Malaysian leftovers from where I'd carefully secured them under the seat and have opened and eaten two meals worth of rice, rendang beef, and lemon grassy-coconutty chicken. It's just Alhambra, one of the nowhere places in Los Angeles, but still I'm having a good time, just watching the scenery slip by as Terry grumbles about the traffic and we both cringe at the thought of an hour's driving in a car with two dogs packed full of Malaysian food.

A familiar street name appears and I ask, innocently, if we can just follow it back home.

Terry furrows his brow, asks me if I understand that streets here can go for twenty and thirty miles, sometimes, all stoplights, and I guess he's right. I keep thinking it's a little like Chicago, where I at least know if I find an old familiar street that I can find my way back to where I'm staying with family.

I don't always get it, but then I enjoy the ride, anyway.


From Griffith Park Observatory, the view is much like any other insane, mountainous view in the city, albeit framed by the most gorgeously-deco building imaginable, and I run around like a little kid, insistent on following every pathway and every curving stair in the building, even as I'm completely bored by the actual contents of the place except where the perfect detailing shows itself. It's enough to give me vertigo, and keep me constantly off-balance, but that's how I feel most of the time in California, like it's all just some kind of fever dream, almost imaginary.

Terry mentions, wistfully, that he'd carved his and Billy's initials into a wall up here, along with every other romantic in Los Angeles, and imagines they are probably long gone, washed away in the splendid restoration that was done over the last six years and countless zillion dollars. I hope he's wrong, and that we'll find them somewhere, one more proof of an amazing time in an amazing life, but he's not sure where it was, and so we just take the place as we find it.

I can't stop pointing things out, and can't quite shake my inner rube.

I wonder, sometimes, if I'd become immune to the wonders of this city, or if I'd just keep on being me, and keep on looking for both the extraordinary places and the humdrum ones, too.

From the smooth cement wall where I hang over the edge, watching the flickering daylight shining up from the city, I can't imagine where a person would find the energy to be bored here.


It's a city inside a city, one more of the weird geopolitical anomalies here, the town they call Signal Hill, and it's about the same size as my home town, population-wise, just perched on this bizarre island that rises like an iceberg over the rest of Long Beach. First female mayor in California, history going back to the days when the Americans who ruled the land were all natives, or at least the earliest immigrants, a former citadel of pumpjacks and oil barons turned into something else, and it may as well be on a rock hanging a hundred feet over the city.

There are so many places like this, so many crazy stories just around the corner.

Sometimes I can't help but sneer at this whole landscape, looking at it from a lifetime of a different kind of life, and wonder how the people who live out here ever get any work done, with so much crammed into their world.

Sometimes it's just me, transfixed, hanging in space.


I swear to myself that I'm not going to be caught up in it, in this eerie simulation of a simulation of a simulation. I haven't been reading Baudrillard for years just to surrender to the lure of the uncanny, dammit.

I swear it and still, I'm walking the backlot at Paramount with my mouth open, giddy with the fakeness and familiarity of all of it. Terry and I are guests of his former lover's former lover, the kind of odd family relationship that's all too common here, and are killing time before we hit the screening room for a showing of Dreamgirls. They're both old hands, having been around long enough to remember the changes in the lot, and how it used to be, back when the backlots of Hollywood's imagination machines were far grimier, almost in ruins.

We walk through unreal cities, vaguely evocative of places I've seen on TV, and John points out how they film street scenes in half-complete sets where you can see the metal-clad bulk of soundstages just behind. It's the angle and height of the camera, a subtle trick of position and lighting, and if I imagine myself looking at it that way, I might well be in Brooklyn, or Chicago, or some other fictional city, playing out a script. It's all unreal, almost as unreal as reality, and a joyous lark to step into open doorways and see open framework and randomly-placed fragments of sets.

A diesel lift rumbles past us, the same model I use at work, and the driver's got the cage down while he's driving, a careless way to treat a trusty machine. I scowl and wonder if I should say something, but it's not my place. I just watch the orange monster disappear around a corner and think of it all as one more curious moment in a week of curious moments.

We wander a while more, then find our way back to the screening room. The movie starts, and it's terrific, even though it's a hair longer than it should be, and I feel raw and electric after seeing it, walking back through the deserted roads of the backlot to where we've parked.

Nothing seems quite real out here.

When I think about it, nothing ever does.


"Is this just a part of your process?" asks an exasperated Terry as I struggle with the new light fixture I'm installing on his porch to replace the old ugly one hung by a clueless witch with no sense of architectural unity.

It is a part of my process, I guess. It takes a whole lot of "fuck" and "goddammit" and "shit" to do some of the work I'm doing, but that's how I like it, and I say so. You'd almost think I wasn't enjoying myself, but I am, as I always am when I'm doing something useful. His house is rambling and ramshackle, a combination of pure, unsullied historical detail and awful "modernization," and working on it is a kind of zen delight for me, something that just feels right and natural.

I look around, sometimes, and all I can think about is all the work I could do here, and how much I'd cuss and how good my work would look in the end.

It's all a part of my process, and I just can't hold back.

In the end, the lamp is beautiful, a million times better than what was there, and it's my handiwork and my mark on the place, something I'll know is there no matter when I come back.

"Goddammit," I say, noticing that I've kinked the bright copper of the ground wire where it threads through the chain that holds the fixture. No one in the world will ever see it, but I'll still fix it anyway, so I know. Some things don't have to be for anyone else but me. It's good, very good.


It's twenty-seven miles to the restaurant, all straight uphill, up into the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. The roads are surreal, exaggerated roads, the kind of roads you see on Roadrunner cartoons, with crazy switchbacks and hard curves and endless drop-offs.

"You better drive careful, Terry, because I forgot to bring my little bent-up parasol and a sign that says 'YIPE!' and I don't want to go off a cliff without 'em."

He laughs. He gets it.

I don't get the heights. They're just so odd for me, the idea that we've only driven an hour and suddenly we're a mile up in the air, and I'm singing one more beloved song in my head.

I'm used to raging, boundless green, the kind of green that rolls over the whole world in summertime, the kind that's fed by all the warmth and decay of the older parts of the country, and it's not green here, not the same way, even if it's a world of wild growth, where bristly stalwarts hold their own in the dry climate. We hit the snowy parts of the mountain and I may as well be on the moon.

I'm transfixed.

We find our restaurant, twenty-seven miles up in the sky, and have a nice meal, quiet and comfortable. The place has been here for the better part of a century, and yet it might as well be any era. There's no time up here, just altitude and more and more mountains, unfolding impossibly around us.

On the way down, we stop where a trailhead meets the road, and the path is a zig-zagging earthen switchback, working its way down the mountainside. There's been a fire recently, and the gnarled trees around us are burnt black, a glorious landscape drawn in japanese watercolor, and we work our way down the side of the mountain and into a broad, open valley. The dogs are loose, racing ahead of us, and are in heaven. Stephen, the dumb one, can't seem to grasp the idea of a switchback, and keeps overrunning the ends of the trail and skidding down the hillside to the next part of the trail.

"Cheater," I holler, and chase him down.

I can barely catch my breath on the way back up, but it's not the exercise.


My bike is the silliest looking thing I've ever seen, an old-skool mountain bike in pastel green that I've been improving, stripping the knobby tires in favor of smooth street rubber, changing the seat and the grips, cleaning and tuning and making it all feel just right.

Terry calls it "roots," and I deny it, over and over, even as I like to think of that ridiculous thing locked up in a ramshackle garage thousands of miles from here, waiting for me. Roots are made of love and hope, of history and magic, not chrome-moly, rubber, and more. It's just a bike, not roots, and still…

Well, it doesn't really matter.

I set out in the early hours, heading out to Jefferson and then Vermont, down to USC and the empty playground that's waiting for me. I could ride for hours, just circling the campus and the science museum in the deserted shadow of the unbelievably enormous Coliseum. I stop to gawk at the SR-71 trainer in front of the museum, make lazy figure-eights in the deserted parking lots, and pull slowly past the Olympic pool.

Today will be different. A stretch of fence is missing, and in a second, I'm inside, through the boundaries around the Coliseum, through the tunnels and then into the gargantuan valley of the old Olympic stadium. Someone will probably catch me, and I'll probably get into trouble, but it's just so perfectly worth it, even still. I kick the bike into high gear and mash the pedals for all I'm worth, making a circuits of the place until I'm sure I've truly done it. As I dart out of the gap in the fence, I just can't stop smiling.


Terry's obsessed with getting me up on Mulholland Drive at night, wanting to share the vista he's been enjoying for decades, and I'm always torn. It's just too much for me, too much of everything, and too much possibility. We find a familiar overlook and park, so we can climb the hillside to the very top, and there it is—a whole world underneath us, spread out in every direction and lit in magical, twinkling lights.

He says it's like a circuit board, and it is, charged at a billion volts by all those beating hearts, dreaming as hard as they can, just shimmering in the distance. Down there, the old-fashioned pumpjacks are churning, the traffic is flowing, the buzz of millions of conversations is as constant as a 60 hertz hum in the wiring.

When I look hard, I can see searchlights everywhere down there, casting their beams into the sky from points all over the city, and it is something like seeing the whole world from heaven, looking back at the people who just might be looking for us, looking for hope against the gloom, and I watch Terry in the half-light rising from the landscape and he might as well be an angel, even with a cigarette hanging off his lip.

In the same light, I might just be one, too.

For one brilliant moment, I can almost see us borne upwards on those rising, sweeping, searching columns of light, lifted up, bodily, into the stars, broken angels caught in the glare, carried aloft just long enough to remember what it's all about. I rub my eyes, let the feeling of that moment wash over me, and wrap an arm around Terry, just for a second, just so I can be sure he's really there, too.


Tonight, I scan the perfect sky and let my mind wander in the recollection of joy.

It is enough, for now.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
She looked up at me, all suspicious-like, from her morning's raid on the neighborhood trashcans, and she still looks so familiar. I've been chasing her all week, stalking her around the side streets of West Adams as if I'd know what to do if I caught her. She's a little like my own dog, the same color and kind of fur with bright flashes of cream on her shoulders, but she's been out here for a while. There are so many lost dogs on the streets of Los Angeles, at least few regulars just in the several blocks around Terry's place, finding their own way through the world.

I gave up on her a couple days ago, after managing to back her into a closed-in alleyway. She snarled at me, pawed the ground, and darted off into the midst of heavy traffic on Normandie. I followed on my bike and chewed my nails while she sashayed through the honking hordes, causing lane changes and screeching tires all the way.

I might kill her, just by trying to catch her.

It's all too much, all these lost dogs, and still I'm haunted by the moments of discovery, when floppy-eared refugees look up at me with narrowed eyes and that cagey, unsettled body language. I don't know how people live with this, accepting the unacceptable and balancing compassion against pragmatism. She looked up at me and I could see something in her eyes that reminds me of Terry's dog, Eddie, another refugee of these wild streets who found a home after his own long sojourn. Eddie is sweet and conniving, a dangerously clever animal who seems to constantly want to leap into my lap without warning.

"Get off me, dummy. I'm not bonding with you," I say, sitting on my hands. "Don't expect me to pet you, just because you're there, looking at me like that. I'm not gonna do it."

I'm not bonding with that damn dog, even if I already have, sort of. I'm not letting him in. I'm not chasing that little tan dog, either. Fuck 'em. This is the law of the jungle, people. Life's hard for everyone. Can't make me do the "right" thing—can't make me.

So I climb on my absurd pastel green So-Cal old-skool mountain bike and race through the surface streets in search of the sights and sounds of a strange land, and they're everywhere. They're everywhere, watching me, avoiding me, trotting along with tails held half-high, half-furled, just getting by, or not, left in matted lumps of fur on the side of the road. The hounds of love live up to their reputation, and I almost fall into a chant, trying to hold them all at bay.

I'm not going to rescue you, you damn stray. You're not my problem.

Is it my fault that you're out here? No, it is
not my problem.

And the thing is, really, that they're not my problem, and it's not my fault, and sometimes you just can't do anything but acknowledge that the world is so much bigger than you and let it all go, even when you remember their faces, looking up at you as you find them, years and years later, and wonder how things went for them since you left them behind. It's all too much, but it's life, and that's the balance that you can't help but seek out, even when it leaves you feeling cold and awful and unsettled, with your heart racing at the reflection.

In the end, you have to reconcile the unthinkable, over and over, as you live out your life, and make impossible things work and ignore easy fixes that could make things right. All the easy fixes add up to being overwhelmed, eventually, if you can't draw lines and boundaries. It's raw and ugly and absolutely essential to survival, to live like this, unless you want to end up in a yard full of neglected dogs you found along the way, giving them an even lousier life than they'd have made for themselves.

It's just the reconciliation. It burns.

"C'mon, get the hell away from me, you stupid asshole," I snap at Eddie as he jumps up on my lap while I'm packing my things to head home. Terry stands there, and purses his lips, setting his silly and oddly handsome mustache at a rakish tilt like a guy from a silent movie.

"He loves you," he says, and I think maybe he does. Maybe it's mutual, and a sign.

Doesn't matter. I have to go now, and the reconciliation of things is just too much.

All the lost dogs in the world, roaming these endless streets.

All of us roaming, lost, hearts on fire.

Doesn't matter. Shouldn't matter. Can't matter.

"Get off me, dumb dog. C'mon."

I gotta go home now, okay?
joebelknapwall: (Default)
It was on this trip that I realized that I'm becoming a reporter, needing to scrawl out cryptic notes as I fall forward through the world so I'll be able to remember the things that I encounter along the way. Before I learned how to open my eyes, the details just kept their own places, and the stories I found on my way just stayed with me, but these days, the pace of discovery is accelerating, the images flickering by faster and faster until I'm lit up in the strobing pulse of truth truth truth, until I'm hanging on the edge of a seizure all the time.

On this trip, I filled my pockets with scrawled notes, stopping to write down "tiny xmas tree, pelican, arc of trolley, did I like it?, I dream I dream I dream, pacific, pier, endless beach, staggering down Electric Avenue" in a paroxysm of self-documentation that all means something, somewhere, even if it's only in my head.

Life is only in our heads.

I got ahead of myself in my first entry on LA, carried downstream on a whirling narrative thread, and left out a whole day, and not an unimportant one, either.

Because this is my journal and my life, I reserve the right to be my own Stalin and revise.

Let's step back for a moment.

I wake up at 3:40 again, and it is the morning after Christmas, a cool and quiet Sunday morning, and Terry snores quietly beside me, making the gentle buzz saw that's my favorite of his snores, and I'm tempted to just lie there and watch the blades of the ceiling fan beating overhead in the fuzzy electric flicker of the TV, but I'm already getting crazy from lack of exercise after just two days in this place. I edge over, slide quietly out of the bed, retrieve my towel from the bathroom, and tiptoe to the back door and the pocket paradise of Ricky's back yard, where the silhouettes of unlikely trees and strange, shrubby succulents surround me. I lift the bulky, insulated cover of the hot tub, folding it away to the side, press the dome of the touch buttons for the lights and motors, and stand there for a moment, watching the foam churning in a cauldron of theatrical blue light, listening to the symphony of sounds of the moment, the hum and rumble and soaring fizz of a thousand recently-opened cans of ginger ale.

In the darkness, I strip, fold my clothes and leave them in a fussy square stack instead of just casting them onto a chair, climb over the rim of the tub, and descend into the blue. This morning, it does not soothe me as it should, and I find that I'm feeling agitated and anxious, just floating there in the wash and thinking too much, processing too many new things and too many old ones, too. In time, I give up, climb back out, clean myself up, and dress for a walk.

I head east on Venice Boulevard, heading for the ocean, except I'm really heading west, heading for where the ocean lies in this place, in the direction of those perfectly magical sunsets. Orienting myself is a continuous issue for me here, even with the mountains to guide me, and I stroll the empty sidewalk with an assurance borne of bravado and the bolstered feeling of importance that comes from having my ears plugged with the cords from my iPod and the comfort and security of all my familiar musical landscapes. The walk seems endless, though it is so in the very best way, and I walk in the blackness with my eyes open wide, scanning the windows for the lights and activities of another me, another soldier of the early morning, but no one seems to be awake. The 33 bus passes me and its passengers pose in the blue-white fluorescent lighted windows like portraits of the tedium of servitude. I came to California wanting to ride the bus, and was informed by every quizzical person I told that only Guatemalan maids ride the bus.

Looking at the faces in the windows, I suspect that that supposition is true.


There are a thousand little apartment buildings along my way, an unbroken path of stucco sculpted into lo-fi deco birthday cakes, and I step up to the front doors of a few, where I see signs advertising apartments, alternately shocked by the high and low prices spelled out in inkjet-printed Arial, and I wonder why I'm so curious, what possible reason I'd have for making such notes. On Christmas morning, I'd gone on my first long walk, but I'd followed the wrong mountains and the wrong instincts, veering off course until I was in a whole other part of town , skirting the searing blue flanks of the block-long fabric store with a story to tell, one more story about Billy in a narrative landscape where he is the bedrock underneath it all, or was, and the houses were all just houses, little cottages like they are back home. On Venice Boulevard, the story architects tell is far more linear, a tale of beach town rental living that just goes and goes and goes on, and I cannot decide if I am inspired or appalled. Everything here looks as if it leaks in the rain.

I pass a strange, half-finished park with no entrances and then the library and the sight of the library makes me feel warm, makes me feel like I feel when I'm curled up in my corner in my library, breathing in the smell of books and old carpet and everything just like I have as long as I can remember, and something in my head is looking, looking at the shape of the place and wondering if there's a corner there, too.

No one is out here, out on the sidewalk with me.

How can I be the only one awake?

I pass the first of a series of strangely-appended vehicles, trucks and buses and trailers encrusted with homemade additions and hand-painted signs, where shopping carts cling to the flanks of retired inner city express buses living insane new lives like see-through chrome piglets, suckling at the teats of a fading hippie dream world. As I pass by the biggest bus, a huge old veteran of the years before I was even born, I wonder if there's anyone sleeping inside, and how a bus with Canadian license plates and sitting on four flat tires can be allowed to stay there. Back home, it'd be crawling with tickets, but in this place, the absurd sleeps with the expected, and I wonder if one notices the other snoring, or if it's all just below the threshold of awareness for all these people.

I reach the end of the road, and the gatehouse of a sprawling parking lot tells me its time to turn northward, to follow the route of all the beachgoers who come here to dream under the impossible sky. As I head up the pavement, I suddenly realize something I'd noticed the last few times I'd been to the beach here in the previous days.

No one was flying a kite, even though the wind was perfect.


Like a good little lemming, I find a distant point of reference to pull me along.

The lights of the Santa Monica Pier sparkle in the hazy distance, the pinwheel of the big Ferris wheel there shining like a flickering badge of hypnotic light, and I decide that I will see it up close before I stop walking. The whole world here is eerily deserted, and I should wonder why those lights are all out there, blinking out a dozen messages in a code that I only kind of understand, but I know better than to ask such questions.

It is far better to dream that the whole world is the way it is for some kind of reason, that every sign means something, even if I know perfectly well that it's all just the machinery of heaven churning away like it always does, and always will, a million years after we're gone.

The Ferris wheel calls me, and I heed its call.

By the time I will reach it, I will have been walking for eighty-three minutes and still not have passed another soul on my way.

This is how much of my life is played out.

The deserted boardwalk is oddly calming, an arcade of locked-up shops and shut-down venues, and I drift by the signs and symbols of the city's cinematic alter ego while they're static, sets on a studio back lot, and it's easy enough to imagine that it'll all coming roaring back to life with the flick of a single switch, the denizens of the place just boiling out of thin air to set up their stands on the sidewalks, the performers and musicians just coming into being in a curl of brass as their saxophones twist out of nonbeing and unfurl like golden flowers, sprouting dreadlock-wearing leaves that tootle out the standards and nod expectantly at upturned hats that twirl out the cracks in the sidewalk like weeds. I walk at a brisk pace, halfway between my fantasies and the reality that I'm entirely alone in an empty land, and I wonder if there's street crime here in the wee hours, something wrong to break the spell.

In time, I clear the main stretch of the boardwalk and emerge into a string of in-between spaces that are just as I love them, just endlessly full of the kind of nothingness that's the geography of my dreams when I'm feeling uncertain, and the beach is just impossibly deep to one side, a completely different morphology to the rolling, interrupted dunes of our east coast barrier island seascapes. There's no one to see me, so I walk in time to my music, letting my fingers spell out the twitchy sign language of the little mechanical flourishes in the hyperkinetic electronica I'm listening to, and it's joyous, to be able to surrender to those instincts. The lights fade, I realize I'm in the midst of a vast empty stretch, and the Pacific calls me.

I shuffle through the sand, looking up and down the beach for anyone, still wondering how I can possibly be the only person in Los Angeles with the need to be here in this blue hour, and I stand there, just watching the whitecaps in the thin pre-dawn light and letting the world slip into the background noise of the surf. I unplug from my iPod, roll up my earphones, and listen.

The instinct comes, the reminder that life is short, and opportunities few, and I respond.

I slip off my shoes, tucking my socks into the open mouths, peel off my jacket, shirt, skivvies, and shorts, leave everything in a neatly folded pile with my iPod resting on top, and run screaming into the surf.

The Pacific in December is cold, but not like the Atlantic in May. I am comfortable.

I swim out, just enough, just until I cannot stand on the bottom, and I can hardly catch my breath, and I wonder why I'm here, treading water in this dark and unfamiliar sea, but it's all just one more puzzle to be solved, so I just paddle lazily until it feels like I've done it, like I've successfully passed one more test. A rolling wave catches me by surprise and almost churns me under, but the genes I inherited from my mother hold sway and my hair stays dry. I think of my clothes on the beach and what a ridiculous picture they paint of spontaneity and fussiness, and what people would think if the rip tide catches me and drags me out into the open sea. I hear myself laughing and something brushes my calf, something that could be seaweed or something else.

I beat a hasty retreat from the ocean, gather up my clothes, and walk at the edge of the surf, surrounded by the scurrying hordes of sandpipers, until I'm dry enough to get dressed again, enjoying the surreal pleasure of being the only naked fat guy on the beach.

The Pier is disappointing, though it's mainly so because it's so familiar, so much like the pier in Ocean City, and I'm irritated to feel so easily at home here. I stand on the end of the pier for a long, long time, just letting my thoughts flow, looking down into the dark water that beats at the pilings and thinking about how many millions of people have been here, how many footsteps the ocean washed away before it washed away mine.

As I stagger off the pier, my legs starting to cramp from the walk, I pass the first person I'd seen, a shady figure who passes me by with his head down.

"Good morning," I say, but he does not answer.

My feet hurt from the walk, so I return by way of the beach, walking barefoot at the edge of the surf, with the rails and sandpipers running away from me as I head southward. The sky lightens, the people I expected to see start congealing out of thin air, and I arrive in the built-up part of Venice with sparse groups all around me, all looking at me with tilted heads as I walk by barefoot, as if it's a ridiculous thing to do, and maybe it is, if you're from here. To me, it's gorgeously temperate, preposterous in December, so I bear the stares with an eastern sort of smugness.

The joggers I'd expected to see finally appear, thundering by in groups of identically-attired athletes, and I can't help but wonder if its some sort of cult. Another group does sloppy Tai Chi under the weird sculptural assemblage of palm trees that make me think of the big W from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, and I almost want to slip into the periphery of the group, put my hands out, and follow along.

I find my way home without a problem, which is a relief.

On my previous attempt to find the beach, I'd wound up on the other side of the complex I took to calling Auschwitz Junior High, a mile-wide compound of tall, impenetrable chainlink that protected more baseball fields and handball courts than I've ever seen in one place, and I skirted the fence in a panic, wondering how to get from one side to the other without the exhausting chore of circumnavigation.

Things are big here, sometimes, in contrast to the things that seem so much smaller, and maybe that's how it all balances out, all coming together in the law of averages.

I reached Ricky's place, slipped in quietly, and headed straight for the yard and the hot tub, stripping as I went.

That night, still sore, I'm delivered in the hands of my old friend Allen, who lives in Long Beach, for the night and the next day.

I walk a gimpy walk, having realized too late that I shouldn't have taken such a long journey just before going somewhere else where I will have to walk. Allen does not have a car in California, one more way in which he is a quiet rebel.

"I hope you've got your walking shoes," he says, leading me up the stairs to his apartment.

I groan and mount the steps in a silly, bowlegged way, cursing myself.

We meet Allen's friend Dennis and ride in his glossy gold special edition PT Cruiser to the side of town where there are people and places to go. Long Beach looks oddly familiar in places, oddly like places I've known, but somehow, subtly, off. There's a train that runs down the main drag here and I smile as it flanks us, enjoying the proximity. I love the sound of trains, the mournful cry they make as they're coming or going, and there are no distant horns in Los Angeles, no reminders of the ages of industry, and I don't hear them in Long Beach, either, but the light rail is close enough, close enough to settle the part of me that's always listening for points of reference. The train rumbles by and I smile.

We have Thai, and it is good Thai, too.

The conversation is easy and aimless, and Dennis is easily provoked into gales of high-pitched laughter, while Allen gives me his old familiar smirk. It's been so long since we were friends, so long since he was an everyday presence in my life, and I listen to him speaking and ask him questions about the directions his life's followed since he fled Maryland.

Sometimes, we have friends where it seems like years can go by and still, you meet up and it's just like you last left each other a day earlier, like the time was nothing, and that is a joyous thing. I sit with Allen and his friend, and it's not like that at all. I can feel the passage of time like the effects of continental drift, and I feel sad that I don't know him like I did, that so many stories have come and gone that there's no catching up, no going back to the rapport that used to be there. He's still Allen, though, just a dislocated Allen, run through a fast-forward to these disorienting days.

Somewhere in the conversation, the topic of my cabin in West Virginia is raised, and Dennis takes the mention of West Virginia and runs with it, rambling on in one more predictable recycled string of jokes about sibling marriage and missing teeth, and I look at him and see the face of the great gay city of Long Beach, which supposedly has the second largest gay pride parade in California each year.

I used to think I had some toehold in whatever the hell they called "gay culture," and when I was a kid, trying to figure things out, it was a glorious thing, but now it's just as ugly and insular as suburban life, just as ignorant as the "hillbillies" of my beloved third state of West Virginia, and I have to try hard not to scowl at the irony of being so cruelly ignorant when you're someone who suffers from society's cruel ignorance. The suggestion is made to take me to a gay bar, but I refuse, not wanting to see one more gay bar in one more gay district. In the end, they're all the same, just one fuckin' endless bar hovering in hyperspace, connected to all the cities in the world by a million interdimensional doorways. As we drive through town, heading for a coffeehouse, I watch the endless displays of rainbow neon and think that maybe organized queers are a cybernetic gestalt being, taking over the world with social machines powered by neon.

We pass a store alarmingly dubbed "The Lubery," and I decide I need to beat up a fag on this trip.

The Lubery. A whole fucking store that sells condoms and lube.


That night, we bid Dennis goodbye, smoke a little grass, and sit around talking until I start to drift off in Allen's gorgeously-overdone bed, which protrudes from an open archway in a mantle of velvet curtains. The sounds of the street are loud and nearby, voices and overbuilt motorscooters and traffic, and I slip into sleep lulled by the songs of another new place.

The next morning, we meet Dennis again, have a decent breakfast at a little corner diner, and pile into the golden PT Cruiser for an extended tour. Dennis originally intends to show us a few things in town before leaving us to our day, but we rope him into being our tour guide and driver, and he is a game and friendly face in that role.

All along the coast, there are islands, covered with strangely-decorative structures.

"What's that—a night club or resort?" I ask, pointing out one especially ornate island.

"Oil drilling platform," says Dennis, and I'm floored by the idea of being in a place where there's raw material underground, just waiting to be pumped out. All over town, the whirling sculptures of pumps and other such things churn up the primordial ooze, pumping oil in schoolyards and church cemeteries, and it's almost as novel to me as all the stick trees. I start mumbling "oil, oil, oil," as we go. I tend towards obsessive thoughts, it seems.

There's a lot to see here, and the dual running narration tracks start to blur as the novelty overwhelms me as it will often overwhelm me in California, and I just smile and nod and try to take as many mental notes as I can. After a while, I beg a piece of paper off Dennis, and a pen, and start scrawling little words as we go. He says something about a fallen city, and it has the quality of something I'd love to see, so we head onto the highways, pointing our golden nose to San Pedro.

I can see the Queen Mary as we go, and she is beautiful, just as majestic as I imagined. In Los Angeles, my two destinations have been the Queen Mary and Watts Towers, not because they're the only things I want to see, but rather because they're the only stories I know by heart.

We ramble through San Pedro, and suddenly we find ourselves at the edge of the sea, in exactly the place we're meant to be, and it's a moment that's just right. I climb out of the car, just in front of the endless fence there, and stuff my crumpled paper and pen into my pocket.

We ready ourselves to enter the fallen city.

Dennis is unclear as to the origin of this place, whether it's something formed in a day, by an earthquake, or something that just sort of unfolded gradually, but the quiet neighborhood roads lead into the chain link fence, and then suddenly start sloping insanely downward, into a jumbled canyon of sunken ground that drops all the way to the ocean below. I stand there, waiting as Allen and Dennis lock up the car, and it's just amazing, the kind of place I always dreamed of living near.

Just on the other side of the fence, right where the broken pavement of the road starts to bend downwards, a tiny Christmas tree stands, a little monument to someone or someplace, and it's a poignant reminder that life's full of such places, places where the whole world fell apart, only they're just not as literal as this one. We climb through the ragged hole where a section of the fence has been cut away, and step into the fallen city.

As you get farther in, it just starts to unfold in an unbelievable way, just revealing more impossible detail with each step, and we step out onto the slabs of the old road, which lie in crazily-tilted blocks along its old track as if trying to stay at their original elevation. From the side, the road is like a layer cake, with old road on older road on even older road, until you find a pair of trolley tracks that lie slung across the gaping gaps like rope. Every piece of asphalt and concrete has been a canvas for a million graffiti artists, and the surreal landscape is bright with color and swirling lines and little fragments of language that lie in broken lines that mirror the broken landscape.

I step from slab to slab, making my way further in, noting how the driveways reach out over thirty-foot earthen cliffs until their breaking points, and the concrete just continues on, thirty feet below, to the broken blocks of old foundations, where terra cotta sewer pipes jut out like open mouths, calling out to their other halves, which hang out of the clay and stone of the cliff faces. I cannot help but wonder if this place came into being in a Atlantean tragedy or a sadder, slower one, where everything just sort of gradually slid down the cliffs, giving everyone a grand view of their own loss. Like a kid, I hop from stone to stone, even as my calves still burn and cramp from the endless walk I took to Santa Monica.

I take a different route from Allen and Dennis, looking for a little solitude in this perfect ruin, and the columns and crevasses just take my breath away. On an upturned section of road, still connected to a low curbstone, the graffiti goes into lush handwriting, spelling out "KILLER DREAMERS DREAM FEARLESSLY" in letters rendered in stylized flames, and I just stand there in quiet observance like a congregant in an impossible cathedral, wondering if I'm about to cry, or if I'm just standing there, dreaming fearlessly, dreaming of the life I've had for the last seven years, where I've had to make a home in my own broken landscape, dreaming of where I'm going next.

The last year has been a year of constant earthquakes.

I am a killer dreamer, or I will be.

Allen and Dennis head down the sculptured channels that lead ever downward, all the way to the black stones of the beach, and I take a moment to try to climb to the highest slab of painted asphalt. With my whole body still sore, it is hard, but I mount the highest peak there, standing to look out to sea, where all the ships are coming and going. A foghorn on a buoy calls out constantly, every ten seconds or so, just moaning a plaintive call for all the fearless dreamers, saying "watch the rocks."

Watch the rocks.

In the wind, a huge pelican cruises by, just a dozen feet from me, and I throw my arms open to embrace the wind as it gets stronger and stronger, until the pelican is just suspended there, right in front of me, hanging in space over the calamitous drop of the cliff, and I just stare, overwhelmed by the majestic wonder of the bird and how it takes the wind and shapes it with the slightest movements and muscular adjustments until it becomes magic, until it is the repudiation for all the forces in the world that just yank us downward, out of our daydreams and onto the jagged rocks below.

Right then, I know it's one of those moments that will be hardwired into my brain.

I scrabble down the chimneys of clay and rock, following the downward trails of low garden walls that once stood fifty feet farther up, and land on the shiny black stones of the beach, where my friends follow the shoreline and talk quietly to each other. I find a few polished stones and two pieces of beach glass and pocket them, stumbling around for the rest of the time with my pockets clattering.

In time, we climb the cliffs, heading nearly straight up a different path than the one we'd descended and coming up on the other side of the sunken neighborhood, and that route puts us where we can stand on a section of road that once took people in and out of that place. I stand on the painted lines down the center of the road and marvel at the clean break on that end, where the road just goes to the precipice and disappears. In one way, I wish I had brought my camera, but I'd never have caught the feeling of the land, never with just pictures. Even in words, it's impossible, just impossible.

We follow a path back to our car that skirts the cliff, and it's all there below us, the polychromatic artworks of reclaimed asphalt and the outlines of once-loved homes and the ridiculous accidental topography of subsidence, and I can barely catch my breath every time I look down, as I'm overwhelmed by so many things at once, by strangeness and danger and the perverse logic of it all there, in the place where the sun goes to sleep every night, where killer dreamers dream fearlessly.

As we follow a meandering route out of San Pedro, we pass a huge, open field with a few lonesome buildings standing in the midst of the scrub, and Dennis points it out as a former internment camp for Japanese Americans, and I am rendered completely speechless by that last insane detail.

Out here, so far from home, I wonder if I've always been like one of those slow-moving fish living in the deepest parts of the ocean, struggling for sustenance in a nutrient-starved world, just finding the best and most beautiful things in every place because that's what I had to do, and it's a good question to ask who I'd have been if I'd grown up here, if I'd had this million mile landscape of the strange and glorious to explore.

Would I have still been me?

Would the richness of all that's to be found here have fed my soul or suffocated it?

I sit in the car and watch it all going by and feel overcome by everything, and as we climb into the sky again on the huge green bridge that slices through the sky over the endless beds of heavy industry, I dream and dream and dream and try my best to be fearless in the face of an impossible world.

Read Part 3
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I packed my well-worn copy of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem as we waited for the car service to pick us up and take us to the airport, and Terry looked over and just rolled his eyes, saying "you're taking Joan Didion to read on the plane?"

Maybe it's too obvious.

Maybe I'm trying too hard.

It's hard to say, really.

The jet took off with the thumps and jarring, rumbling roaring that most air travelers just let slip into the background noise of their busy lives, but I sat there, peering out the window, wondering, as I always do, what it would feel like if we ended up cartwheeling down the runway in flames. We cleared the runway and the clouds and, soon enough, we were in the air, sailing over the landscape in cinematic slow motion, halfway between the earth and the stars.

I sat and watched the huge blue jet engine shudder and vibrate in the currents and winds of impossible altitudes and everything in the world was more or less just fine, just endless, just everything, all it ever is, just five miles away.

Sometimes I feel like I'm always in flight, always five miles away from the world I'm watching, just looking down on it all from somewhere else.

The sky in Los Angeles is blue, perfectly clear and recklessly open, a halcyon backdrop to the surreal skyline of all those absurd palm trees, and I ride along in the rental car and say "stick tree, stick tree, stick tree" at nearly every one I see, flush with the novelty of being someplace where such things grow.

This is not a green place, not a lush landscape by far, but there's life everywhere—preposterous imported trees with tufts like Dr. Seuss at play, shaggy Australian trees with foliage like impressionist paintings and bark that peels off in papery sheafs of soft fiber, and rubbery succulents that stand in every yard like props from 1920s cartoons.

I ride along, a passenger on the trip, and can't help but point out the ubiquitous palm trees, as if I were the only one in the world noticing how strange they seem, as if I was the only one who could see them at all.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

I think Terry is tiring of the announcement, so I keep it in my head.

Stick tree

Nothing seems to rust here, but everything is bleached by the sun.

The sun is endless, a friendly face in December.

Our host, Ricky, is a fanatical devotee of Martha Stewart, down to the most microscopic details, and I'm completely irritated by how beautiful his house is, which casts my jaundiced view of the woman into a revealing light. Everything is almost perfect, and even the almost is perfect, making the place seem just human enough, just natural and effortless enough in its arrangement to be real. I squint around, looking for something to get my teeth into, but there's nothing. It's all just right.

We unpack our bags and settle in.

Terry heads to Rose Hills, and Ricky takes me to the beach, to walk the broad concrete boardwalk in Venice, where the perfect weather is just coaxing the first crowds out of their complacency. I have seen this landscape a million times before, in a million movies and TV shows, and it's surreal to see it without the mitigation of a screen. The people are different than I expect, less perfect, less like characters written into the land, but still they are not like the people I am used to seeing.

I am singularly obsessed with a fact I was given, that rats live in the palm trees, and I spend far too much time looking up, hoping to see a rat scurrying through the hula skirts of fading leaves. Ricky humors me.

The ocean here is not endless. It's bounded on either end by mountains, the ragged pointy kind we don't have on the east coast. Our mountains are the oldest in the world, but they're relaxed, reclining, comfortable mountains. In Venice, the arms of the mountains wrap around us and make everything seem safe and comfortable, and give a shape to the place, and to the sky, which does seem endless and perfect, cut with the trails of jet exhaust and nothing else.

A steady stream of jets takes the sky from the airport, down to the south, and the tiny glittering pods of airplanes make me think of an uninterrupted chain of seed pods, heading off into the world full of American dreams. In the clear sky, you can make out the planes when they're a million miles away, and it just makes the world seem impossibly large and open and inviting.

Ricky points out Terry's former apartments on the beach as we go, and the numbers mount. By the end of the trip, I will have seen dozens, all those places where his life took place before I was ever aware that he even existed. The architecture of Venice is odd, a mixture of the old and shabby and the new and appalling, all punctuated by those insane trees.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

The phrase becomes a mantra through endless internal repetition, almost, a tool by which I remind myself this is not where I come from, this is not where I come from, this is not where I come from, as if I'm afraid of being drawn in, just like everyone here was drawn to come and seek out something more than they knew.

The place is magical.

I will not see a single rat in the trees over the course of the next eight days, but I am not disappointed, except in a different way entirely.

Terry gives me the tracking number for the gifts he'd shipped before leaving.

I look it up and UPS says that the package was shipped at 1:23 that afternoon.

Terry spends much of the rest of the day on the phone, and eventually, the UPS driver shows up to point out where he was supposed to have left the package. Later, the mailman says he saw it there on his rounds, but we never see it.

Somewhere in Venice, a disappointed thief is stuck with a box of gifts with great sentimental value and little obvious commercial worth. As the gloom settles in, I try to tell Terry that I, at least, am not disappointed, because I know I would have loved and cherished the signed first edition of William S. Burroughs' Queer he got for me, but I'm getting something even better.

I'm most frustrated that the wind chimes Terry and I found in Ocean City, the ones with the wooden anchor and square tubular metal chimes that had an impossibly harmonious tone, were lost with everything else. They'd have sounded perfect hanging in the tree over Billy's memorial bench, just perfect.

I stand by and do what I can, but it's all out of our hands.

In the morning, I will go looking.

I succumb to the lure of the hot tub.

Ricky's is a large, comfortable, incredibly comprehensive model that rests in the bamboo and reed surroundings of a little coveredtiki hut in his back yard. I have always been suspicious of hot tubs, finding them overbearing and unpleasant, but I decide that, while in California, I ought to explore. Something of that attitude just seems appropriate to the mood of the place.

I find Ricky in the tub, strip, and climb in myself, wondering if I should have gone in in my drawers. In the grip of travel madness, I go commando. It seems an almost perfectly Californian thing to do, but I wonder as I climb over the wall of the tub.

The air is cool, the breeze is constant, and the experience is far, far better than I remember.

I will be in that hot tub three or four times a day for the rest of the trip.

All around me, I can see the trees, those tropical trees.

I wake at 3:40 in the morning, and do so throughout the trip.

Ricky complains, somewhat later on, that he's waking up at 3:40 each morning, too, and it's a coincidence that makes me think, that makes me remember. There are strange things in the air out there, a compelling vibe that I think I recognize.

I sit in the hot tub for an hour, just lost in the pale blue light filtering up from the bottom of that churning pool, feeling like I'm being boiled alive in the most wonderful way, and I climb out, naked and steaming, and stand in the threshold of the tiki hut, cooling down in the soft winter breeze. It seems wrong, somehow, to be naked in an unfamiliar back yard, but I cast my doubts into the wind.

I spend the next several hours criss-crossing the alleys and back streets of Ricky's neighborhood, thinking that maybe the thief who stole Terry's package will have opened the box, pulled out the few items which seem obviously valuable, and ditched the rest. All the alleys are the same, and I walk until my feet are sore, but never find a thing.

When I return, I climb right back into the hot tub.

It is becoming a problem.

Christmas Eve is low key, a quiet day tempered by Terry's frustration over the lost gifts. He is generous to a fault and selected his gifts with the childlike glee that is so much a part of his being, in spite of everything, and the loss just adds to the feeling of suspension in the air, the feeling that so many good things have gone so wrong in this beautiful place. Ricky is lost in it, too, in his first Christmas since his lover, Tommy, announced that he was in love with someone else and left, and he tells Terry that he can hardly bear not to be with his baby on Christmas, to be apart from him after all that time, and it is a bond between them, almost, something to find new understanding in. Ricky is muscular and handsome and charming in the best southern manner, an Alabama gentleman in this place where everything comes from somewhere else.

Ricky and I talk about the plants and trees that all seem so strange to me, and we stand in the street as he points out what each thing is and where it comes from. Australia, he says, pointing out a low, bristly shrub across the street, and Hawaii, pointing out a flowering vine. The street is lined with huge, rough-trunked trees with pointed little leaves that blend together at a distance, making them look soft and beautiful and much like all those aging movie stars whose contracts insisted on gobs of vaseline for the lens. Up close, they are glorious and shabby, shedding spongy, fibrous bark that makes them look and feel like books left out in the rain. There is an alienness to everything here, and yet I feel totally comfortable in the midst of all of it, like I've been here before, and not just by way of the movies. The movies I've seen have represented an entirely different California than I am seeing, and I'm delighted to have been so completely misled.

We drive in aimless loops, or rather, in carefully-directed loops that follow an order that is unfamiliar to me, and I see the sights of the obvious Hollywood mixed in with the unknown splendors. Everywhere, there are apartments where Terry's lived, and it makes my own early displacements seem mild by comparison. His friend Mickey is his counterpoint, a sarcastic and playfully vicious wellspring of playground bully epithets that punctuate every one of his announcements with something mean, critical, or cruel.

I adore her.

On the Hollywood walk of fame, I'm disappointed by the stars, which are just stars, just names rendered in brass as if we're supposed to walk along, reading each one and clasping our hands together in midwestern glee as each one invokes the memory of a favorite figure from the worlds of the various media. Still, I stop when Jack Benny's star appears, and I keep an eye open for Ray Milland's star, which is the one star pictured in my trusty sightseeing guidebook to LA, printed in 1959. I keep asking when we're going to see the Brown Derby, or the site of the future Los Angeles International Jetport, with it's luxurious space-age arch, but I'm answered with rolling eyes. I've seen the airport, but I nag anyway. In Hollywood, I think I need schtick.

In time, my ass becomes my schtick, as Mickey and Terry team up and goad me into mooning things for Terry's video camera. I pull my pants down in the middle of the sparse crowd of tourists at Graumann's Chinese Theater, which the entire group refuses to acknowledge as "Mann's" Chinese Theater in protest of the passage of time, and I kneel with Ricky with my hands in Jane Russell's handprints as he kneels beside me with his hands in Marilyn Monroe's handprints at the Gentlemen Prefer Blonds square on the walk, and the scene is curiously charged with the slightest hint of outlaw sexuality. Terry tries to push me to moon Jack Benny's footprints, but instead, I just stand there, in quiet awe, my feet filling footprints surrounded by Jack's scrawl "My ♥ belongs to Mary, but my feet belong to Graumann's," and reflect. I am such an alien in my own time, sometimes, but I grew up listening to Jack Benny, and it is amazing to stand in his footsteps.

The Chinese Theater plaza is much smaller than I expected, and most things here are, in fact, far smaller and far more real than they seem when they're lighted and lensed and framed in film. Having grown up outside of D.C., I know the sensation well, and refuse to take people to see the Lincoln Memorial for precisely that reason. Some things are best left in the mind.

We stop and eat at a hamburger place that the entire group loves, and the food is good, the dessert is impossibly large, and I get to meet Terry's ex, Russell, who is an industrialist of sorts, having founded a musical equipment manufacturing company that is featured prominently in my stage rig. I have heard many, many things about him, and I've heard things that have made me angry, and made me want to dislike the man, but when he arrives, I am adrift in the conversation, with nothing of interest to say, just the guy in the corner, fiddling with the video camera, and all the conversations I've imagined having over the last year just evaporate in my head.

Like so many things here, he seems smaller than I expected.

The day is tense, at times, and Terry is frustrated, inconsolable, and I've have come to know better than to try to break the spell. Sometimes, we can only accept things as what they are, and be frustrated and lonely and sad right along with those we love, because there's just no salve, no saving graces, and so I try to stay back, to resist the impulse to comfort him even as it makes my stomach churn to seem him hurting.

I leave him with Ricky and spend much of the evening with Mickey, who works in television and lives in a nice house off Venice Boulevard with a handsome, but troublesome, roommate and a dozen VCRs. We watch Willy Wonka, a favorite film of mine and possibly her favorite of all time, and it's illuminating to see how much the two of us love this gloriously mean-spirited, jarring film. We snack on a beef summer sausage given to her by her boyfriend, and I playfully antagonize her by pointing out that the boyfriend in question bears more than a passing resemblance to Alan Hale. We go on to watch Bad Santa, a tedious film that we saved by judicious application of mutual distraction, and Terry shows up to watch the last half of the movie and drive me home.

Terry is feeling low, and by the time we climb into bed, he is clearly elsewhere, lost in a downward spiral, and I leap into the morass in spite of my more subtle instincts, trying to blunt the razors he so often turns on himself. Like so many times before, the conversation turns ugly and endless, one more joint recitation of all the things that are wrong between us.

In the end, I curl up at the edge of the bed, so angry and frustrated that I will barely sleep.

When I wake, at 3:40, I climb out of bed, peel off all my clothes, and stagger through the cool darkness in Ricky's back yard, heading for the churning blue pool of the hot tub and that quiet place under the palm trees.

The breeze blows and sets the wind chimes ringing, and I soak until the sky grows brighter.

Christmas is a day for Jewish food and emotional distraction, and the four of us convene for breakfast at Jerry's Famous Deli. The conversation is fast and fluid and I toy with my blintzes and applesauce and keep up as best I can. There's a quality to it all, sometimes, that could easily leave me on the outside, but I hold my own.

Mickey leaves us to be with her family, and Ricky heads to the gym.

Terry senses that I'm out of sorts, and asks me what's wrong, but I will not tell him, not as long as it's Christmas. This is not my holiday, and it's not my place to add one more layer to all the things he's processing. I think about the ugly conversation all day, though, and it just keeps going around and around in my head like so many things do, powered by the neverending sources of doubt and frustration.

Later, he says, with resignation, "I hope those guys are enjoying their first edition of Queer," and I just hug him and listen to the sound of his irritated breathing for a moment. I want to tell him that he's already given me what may well be the best Christmas present I've ever received, but I can't.

I can't say a word.

Terry and his compatriots all have names rendered in the diminutive, all capped with a Y.

There's Terry, Mickey, Ricky, Jimmy, and Tommy, and then there's Joe.

Billy was one of the Y set, too, but his Y is a very different one now.

These dreamers of the golden dream are always younger than they'd be anywhere else.

I do my best to preserve my cynicism, but I can't help but wonder if I'm starting to dream it, too.

In midday, we make a trip that I know will be a hard one, out to Terry's home in Venice where Ricky's recent ex, Tommy, is renting the place from Terry in one of those tricky little accidents of fate that either go very well or very badly. I do my best to steel myself for the trip, but there's no route through the minefield, no map to get us through it without tears.

His house does not show a proud face to the street like so many of the other houses in the neighborhood. It's shy, and modest, concealed behind a thicket of green, and as we step up the front porch, it seems familiar for so many reasons I can't even begin to cover them all. On the most superficial level, it reminds me of so many of the houses in Georgia where my father's family comes from, but that's just the start. I have known this house for nearly two years, but in the abstract.

In reality, it's small and cozy and almost perfectly formed.

We step inside, and all the stories I've heard and all the tiny photographs I've seen and all the things I've imagined of what the place will be like just coming rushing together like the tide rolling in, and I'm there, standing in a kitchen I'd often wondered if I'd ever see, and that feeling is that one that is exactly as I imagined it.

It's hard for Terry to be there, almost as hard as it is for him to spend his days so very, very far away, and he drifts in an out of tears as the memories come. The previous tenants did bad things here, slathering black enamel almost at random over the door frames, ravaging the quiet comfort of this place, and Tommy's done a beautiful job of making it home again, erasing the horrors of slapdash indifference, but still, it's not right, it's not right. For Terry, it won't be right again, not ever, and I see that in his eyes as he wanders the rooms in a kind of daze and I feel my stomach knotting out of a kind of frustration that is painful and beyond succor, even as I wish for hopeless things.

As we tour the landscapes of damage and repair, the contractors Terry'd hired to work on the place live up to my lowest expectation of the breed, of the filthy little animals that people defer to out of fear and the uncertainty of their skills that is generated by the contractors themselves. The woman hired to work on Terry's place was an old, old friend, someone he trusted to do right, and to understand, but she is just another contractor, and things are ruined and destroyed, left dangling even as the money flowed. Before the week is out, I will use the expression, "You should sue the fucking cunt," far too many times, spitting out angry words of raging misogyny when my real fantasy is to meet her in an alley with a rusty icepick. I don't understand how people can be so wrong, sometimes, how they can live with themselves. In all of it, I imagine myself spending my time there, fixing the things that have gone wrong, carefully attending to the woodwork and plumbing and everything else, and it is not a thought that takes me in happy directions.

Terry finds himself overwhelmed, and so it is time for us to leave, leaving Tommy behind to complain that we've not spent enough time catering to his needs, and so we head back out again, out into the quiet of Christmas.

Terry asks me if I liked his house, and I don't know how to answer the question, except with an irritated "yes."

The tour never stops, and it is often my favorite kind of tour, the kind of accidental tour of the truest stories, the moments spent in-between, where everyone just points out the landmarks of their own lives as the scenery rolls by and tells the little tales of their real lives without the framework of irony or bigger intentions. I listen and smile and hope that they will continue to fail to find the particular cross street or junction point that they're all arguing about, so that we can just stay lost for a while longer, wandering aimlessly under the impassive Hollywood sign.

Everything I've ever found that's of value has come from that sort of travel.

I get in the car and ride along the endless highways with Terry and Ricky, and I stare out the windows as we go, noticing the perfect way the landscape unfurls outside the car, so differently from the way I know. I watch the trees rush by and they're a blur, passing too quickly to announce individually. As I watch, I notice strange green cannisters strapped to trees along the way, green cylinders with shiny metal bands at each end, and I try to point them out, but they're always lost in the blur.

Terry and Ricky make fun of my predilection for such absurd details, and I have to smile right along with them, even as I scan the side of the road ahead of us, looking for my proof. In time, the moment comes, and Ricky sees one, and having seen one, sees all of them, just like I'm seeing them.

We wonder aloud what they might be, until Ricky makes the connections in his head.

"I think they're rat traps, Joe," he says, and I think of the rats in the stick trees, in the stick trees, in the stick trees, and I am ridiculously happy to know that they're there, that something I've imagined to be true really is true. This is a trip where such things start to happen, it seems.

The land around us turns to concrete and steel and the trees thin out, enough to make my mantra possible again.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

Stick tree.

It is like old times again, or maybe not.

Not exactly.

That's where the discomfort lies.

Right now, I am finishing this entry in an unfamiliar living room in a gorgeously-Southern house in Clemson, South Carolina, where [ profile] kudzublossom has generously put us up on our way, and I'm listening to the sound of nearby trains and remembering how there are no trains in LA, no distant industrial songs to sing along to, except in one very particular place, and it's odd to write about one curious and magical place when you're immersed in another, but there's nothing to do but manage that lag as best one can and just keep on telling all these endless stories that go nowhere, that just spin in space, circling around between the stars.

By the time I tell this story, I'll be somewhere else all over again.

I fear this endless dislocation, but it feeds me.

It feeds me.

Read Part 2


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January 2013

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