Monday, January 26, 2009

Take a picture here. Take a souvenir

Here is a picture of me and my friend Patrick from 1985 or 1986. I'm on the right. Not sure of the year but I believe it was January 2nd. I was visiting Patrick in New Jersey. I was living in Minnesota at the time. It’s clearly winter (snow on the ground). If it was January 2nd, then I do believe it was one of the happiest days of my life. Note the fence behind us. If my memory is correct, that was the fence adjacent to the famed public basketball court (vacant on that cold wet day) on 4th St. in Greenwich Village. Basketball was important to me then.

Still I don’t remember much of that day. I remember much more clearly another trip to a faraway place the following year. 1986. I was on a summer vacation trip to L.A. with Patrick. We had flown in on separate flights, from the east, arriving at LAX 20 minutes apart. I was coming from Minnesota, Patrick from New Jersey. We rented a car from an out-of-the-way off-airport car rental place that I know for a fact stopped existing long ago. We were staying at my aunt's house in the city of Orange. Later in the trip we took a trip down to San Diego and then Tijuana. We went to Sea World and Disneyland. At Sea World we connected with a couple of my friends from Minnesota who were also vacationing in California at the time - Annie and Xan, neither of whom I have spoken to in years.

But I won't speak of theme parks today. I'm remembering one particular night of the trip. On this night we would be getting together with another old friend of mine, also from Minnesota. Chirstopher had moved to Orange Drive in Hollywood the year before. We had worked together at a movie theater. It was my second job ever. It was where I had found most of the friends I had then. Today if you look at my “friends” list on Facebook, you'll only see one of these people (John). Patrick’s on the list of course.

Christopher had agreed to meet us at Carl’s Jr. on Western, just south of our hotel, down the street from a classic porno theater that’s now a shoe store. Christopher said he would bike over from Orange Drive and we would drive down from the motel though we could have easily walked. From there, it would be off to a movie or dinner or both, three old friends (two of whom - Patrick and Chris - didn’t know each other) catching up, just like the adults we barely were.

Chris didn’t show up at the Carl’s Jr., though. We waited an hour and by the time we had finished our charbroiled burgers and onion rings and Cokes and shakes, we pretty much gave up. But the time we spent there was memorable for two reasons:

One, it was the first place either Patrick or I had experienced free refills (a primary reason for my late 80s/early 90s weight gain, I believe).

Two, the only other people in the place seemed to be part of a slightly different race of humans – i.e., they were old, shabbily dressed, down-on-their-luck former movie stars. At least that’s what I imagined in my tourist’s mind. The men all had perfect hair and mottled skin. The woman smelled like ladies room flowers, infused with medicine and bread. I imagined they all had reached their peak as movie stars in the late 50s and early 60s, that they continued to have sporadic work on hour-long TV series through the 70s and early 80s. But now, in 1986, they were living on fixed incomes in a nearby retirement home (years later, I discovered that there were/are several such homes). Yes, I imagined them all being from the same home.

I took a picture of Patrick back then, a photo I can’t seem to find now but I wish I could. There were four of the fixed income ex-movie stars in the background as Patrick held up his vanilla shake to the disposable camera. Though I don’t have the photo, I can still picture them all. I can give them names. And backstories.
Lloyd. Worked in westerns in the fifties and sixties, still owns a gun and a horse though they’re both tended to by his son Bart up in Ojai, was briefly blacklisted because he worked in a non-union film in ’73, was un-blacklisted when it was clear that he meant no harm (I had a son to feed!), lives on social security and a meager SAG pension, eats a Big Star and large fries, drinks a big ass Coke (despite the free refills). Lloyd.

Brenda. Worked her way up from occasional extra work in low- to mid-budget films to some guest work on sixties and seventies TV, has a slight overbite that worked in her favor during the “New Sincerity” phase of early seventies television, once had a lover named Melle, now has a dog named Melle, lives on social security and an even more meager SAG pension, eats a Big Star and small fries, drinks a small Diet Coke. Brenda.

The Doctor. Played a doctor on a (very) short-lived sixties TV series, worked in commercials for the most part, loves his dead wife dearly though he cheated on her on an almost-weekly basis during ’72 and ’73, has a mole above his lip, owns three VCRs, fathered an orphan, is usually called Doc, eats a salad with grilled chicken, drinks a Sprite (can’t remember the size). The Doctor.

Sunny. Was a child star after the war (WW2), eats fig newtons daily, worked for the most part as a film extra and a little bit in TV guest spots, just played somebody’s grandmother on “one of them shows on that new Fox network,” has a sunny disposition, eats a grilled chicken sandwich, a fig newton, and onion rings, drinks a small coke (Sunny is the only one who fully grasps the then-new concept of free refills. Maybe it’s her quick-on-the-fly intelligence that keeps her working).

(Full disclosure: I made up those stories about Lloyd, Brenda, The Doctor, and Sunny years ago, for a short story that never went anywhere. I should acknowledge the historical inaccuracy that’s hanging like an icicle on the warming eaves: the Fox network did not yet exist in 1986.)

Patrick and I left Carl’s Jr. (which remained open for another 22 years, closing just last summer, its shell still a decaying fixture next to the CVS where I used to get my prescriptions until I couldn’t take it anymore.) We drove up Western and turned left on Hollywood and headed west to Orange Drive. We would knock on Christopher’s door. We past a street called Cahuenga, which we serenaded with R.E.M.’s then-new song Cuyahoga (they sounded similar to our young minds.) The title of this post comes from that song.

Christopher did not answer the door. Though he was obviously home. His white bicycle (he did not own a car) was locked on the porch. His lights were on.

I realized at that moment that I had lost a friend. I had eight friends, not nine.

Patrick and I decided to forget about Christopher and go see Stand By Me at a big majestic movie theater down the street. I was angry and a little sad at a friend not showing up for a planned event. I had flown 2000 miles and driven another 47 to see Christopher. And his decision to not show up and not answer the door irked me.

As we stood in front of the theater, waiting on a long slow ticket line, taking in the ugly part of the beautiful city, I saw Christopher speeding by on his white bicycle. Another guy was speeding behind him. They were heading east (towards the Carl’s Jr.) but Patrick and I instinctively knew they were going somewhere else entirely. Because I think Christopher saw us. And I think he looked away, panicked. I would never see him again. I heard later - through his friend Ann - that Christopher was experiencing a big personal problem that day and was sorry he missed us.

We saw Stand By Me and enjoyed it, more than we should have in retrospect. Later on that trip we bought Paul Simon’s Graceland on cassette, drove to Mexico in a rental car that was not insured out of the country. We went to an Angels game in which they scored 8 runs in the ninth inning to beat the Tigers (the last 4 runs coming from Dick Scofield’s grand slam). We went to the aforementioned theme parks. We had a great time.

Eventually, Patrick and I flew to Minnesota. He would stay there a few days longer before heading back to New Jersey. We went to the Minnesota State Fair where saw the Bangles in concert. Great show. It was my frist time at the fair but I would return several memorable times in the late 90s and early 00s.

It's odd that those long rambling vacations seem a thing of my past. These days I tend to cut short my trips. Everything seems more planned, more tightly wound. It could be that the great California vacation of the summer of '86 wasn't as free and delightfully unwieldy as I remember. Still, I wish I could experience some of those feelings again.

Two years later I moved to California. I'm still here. The trip made an impression on me. Yes, there were seven years or so when I left the state. But I keep coming back.

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