MacArthur Park 1990
The Grand Slam special at Denny's looked just like the laminated photos on the menu: two eggs, two buttermilk pancakes, two strips of bacon, and two sausage links. Using the last bite, a triangle of hotcake, I painted a yokey sunset across the oval platter, a maple syrup lake, a sprig of parsley for trees.
At two am the Hollywood clubs turned out the lights and disgorged a cadre of metal-headed rockers headed for downscale eateries. They, like me, had settled for home cooking served up by a cheerful Denny's waitress. From my backpack I retrieved a bottle of acetaminophen and downed five with a wash of ice water. I clinked my Zippo and lit a smoke. The guy on the neighboring stool at the counter spoke to me. "You got an extra one of those?"
He had a bushel of hair, a hungry rock-and-roll face, and the chapters of his young life tattooed up one arm and down the other. He eyeballed my box of Kool Kings on the counter.
I tapped out a smoke which he took and lit with a Bic. "Thanks, Dude."
He glanced at my cane, which I'd hooked over my right knee, then back to my eyes. "Bad leg?"
"Yeah, sort of."
"That's fucked-up, Dude. Get better."
"Thanks, I'll see what I can do."
He rotated his back to the counter, put an Elvis snarl on his lips, picked up an unplugged electric guitar, and improvised a steel-heavy mating call. A chorus of lace-and-leather late-night cuties sashayed up the catwalk to the ladies' room, giving the metal-minstrel sly winks and sultry smiles. They checked me out as well, though not with the same intensity.
Outside, in the parking lot, I could smell wood smoke from the annual wildfires, warm September Santa Ana winds stoking the flames and sucking the moisture from the air. I took a red and blue tube of Blistex lip ointment from my shirt pocket, squeezed an oily white plop on a digit, and lubed my lips. It was a cheap addiction since elementary school; withdrawal was chapped lips. The moon was filtered, dim and yellow like a darkroom safelight. Inside my Camaro, I turned on the air and wheeled out of Denny's onto Van Ness Avenue facing South at Sunset Boulevard. Westward past the KTLA television tower through miles of glitz Sunset went all the way to the Pacific. Eastward it curled downtown to Skid Row.
I turned left over the Hollywood Freeway viaduct. Red taillights and white headlights rolling up and down the 101 flared into streamers across the windshield. I was steering with my right hand. Three days ago my left arm had gone to sleep, wrapped in a force field of vibrating pins, and had yet to awaken. I bit a chunk from the inside of my cheeks and watched the final traces of Hollywood go by like a chorus line.
On the sidewalk, a streetwalker in baggy pants and camouflage jacket kept her back to the traffic while taking sneak peeks over her shoulder, attempting to catch the eye of some guy like me. Pulling into an empty parking lot, I turned the car around, and tooted the horn. She walked to the car and climbed in. She was small with smooth skin the color of sandstone, a wavy nest of henna hair. She was a transvestite, probably pre-op; probably still had boy parts hanging around, waiting for the guillotine.
Her voice was wobbly. "I just got out of jail. I haven't had nothing to eat in a long time."
"There's a 7-Eleven a couple of blocks from here. I'll stop and we can get you something."
"I don't have no money."
"I'll take care of it."
"What do you want from me?"
I throttled back onto Sunset. "I like to take pictures."
She was angular and pretty, like Pocahontas, the cartoon, not the person.
"How'd you get in jail?"
She sat up straight, put her hands on the dash and hissed through grinding teeth, "Cops er fuckin assholes. Took me to jail for not doing nothing."
"Yeah, they can be that way."
At the 7-Eleven I parked and got out without my cane, as though I didn't need it. Despite my best efforts, my right foot dragged a step behind, and I walked stiff-legged with my arms out for balance. I'd always had a cocky bounce to my step. I could jump and click my boot-heels, three times, and land gracefully with the tipping of an imaginary hat, all cute and sexy. Three times. Click, click, click.
Inside, Pocahontas got a Hostess Apple Pie with a sixteen oz. Cherry Slurpee. At the counter, while she drifted around, I added a pack of Kool-box to the merchandise. A clerk rang up the sale and made change from a twenty, and we lugged our supplies to the car.
"Pick a direction, which way do you want to go?"
She opened the apple pie with her teeth and threw the wrapper on the floor; took a bite and pointed east. I picked up the trash, put it in the litter bag, then followed her point back onto Sunset, leaving behind a squeak of rubber.
"I know a place not far from here where we can take some pictures," I told her.
"You get high?"
"We get a rock an go to my place I can give you whatever you want, all night long."
"I don't know, maybe. How far is your place?"
"Real close. We can stop an get a rock. Real close, not far."
Stopping for a red light, at the five-way intersection where Hollywood Boulevard becomes Sunset, she told me I should turn on this street here, indicating Virgil Street going south.
On the northeast corner the seventy year-old Vista Theater looked like the Alamo with a marquee and ticket booth. Across the way the garish orange porn shop looked like the red-light section of Tijuana. Between them and a few blocks up was Carol's little courtyard bungalow. I'd moved in two weeks ago, and we had both made firm commitments to our lasting love. I had connected a Nintendo game-player to the television for the custodial weekends with my seven-year-old son, Dashiell, my other firm commitment and everlasting love. I could see the three of us pajama-clad and smiley-faced, watching Saturday morning cartoons. Sound of mind; healthy.
Carol would be sleeping now, warm, soft, and naked, between clean sheets. She would have the covers on my side turned down, waiting for me to undress, climb in, and snuggle up. Only two blocks away. True love. Salvation.
"You don't have to wait on red. You can go."
"Yeah, alright." I turned right and gunned it down Virgil, watching the street that went between the Vista Theater and the porn shop disappear in the rearview mirror.
Pocahontas slurped Slurpee and asked me a question. "You like apple wine?"
"I guess so. I don't know. How come?"
"Cause I jacked a bottle." She took a green bottle of Applejack from her jacket and held it up like a gold metal.
"Good for you," I said. "None for me, thanks. My cocktail hour doesn’t start for a while yet."
She poured half of the wine into her Slurpee and stirred it, round and round, with a red straw.
Virgil came to a halt at Wilshire and I braked for a red light. Catty-corner, on the right, the old Bullocks-Wilshire building, silver and night-shaded with a green-copper tower, a deco rocket through time. Film noir tough-guys in sleek, dirigible-sized cars. Feral shadows; cats, rats, and Tommy guns. The light changed and Pocahontas directed me east.
A few blocks later, at Park View Street, we took another left and drove into MacArthur Park.
Pocahontas pointed and said, "Stop over there."
I pulled across three nose-in parking spots and stopped next to the curb. A hundred yards across, a grass slope and a small Greek theater reflected the dirty yellow light from the street lamps. Four sets of ten rows of green benches embedded in a concrete slab sat in front of a bright white clamshell stage. In the sixties, flower-children and groovy dudes like me dropped acid and sang, from the stage, about changing times. In the seventies this was the setting for Joseph Wambaugh's Choirboys and then later, John Rechy's sexual outlaws. Now, crack cocaine was all the rage, and MacArthur Park was a zombie graveyard.
Between the car and the stage, a flock of terminal crack-heads, guys and gals, stumbled, gray and spectral, in nowhere circles, seeking a higher plane and a cheap fix.
"You got some money? I can get us a rock here."
"Yeah. Okay." I dug out my wallet and gave her two fives. "I'll give you another ten after we take your picture."
She absorbed the cash. "Give it now an I can get enough for both a us."
"Ten will buy enough for both of us. You want the other ten you gotta come back and let me take your picture."
"Okay. You stay here. Don't get outta the car. Nobody don't know you."
"Yeah, alright. Just do it and get back."
She climbed out and said, "You should lock the door behind me."
"Don't worry about it. I'm comfortable here."
Pocahontas walked off into the jungle while I sat in the car, with the motor running and the radio on, listening to oldies. I knew all the words to all the songs. Oldies and I were the same age.
In the beacon of my headlights, a friendly biped came over to welcome me to the neighborhood. He was dressed in purple and grey-checkered double-knit. He flattened his arms across the roof of the car, leaned down and put his face next to the open driver-side window. His forehead was iced with coagulated blood. He grinned a sardonic ear to ear and mumbled a string of incoherent words with a question mark at the end. His breath triggered my gag reflex.
I gave him the change from my pants' pocket and told him have a nice day.
He told me thank you or maybe he said fuck you and then he went away.
My neck was stuck in place, so I put my head in a wrestling hold and wrenched until my cervical spine popped, like pink plastic pop-beads, three times. The relief was temporary but, for the moment, it was like intravenous morphine. I lit a smoke and inhaled carcinogens, opened the door and exhaled smog. I stood up on the floorboard, leaned my elbows on the top of the car, and watched the theater crowd.
In the acoustical bowl, shopping-cart bundles spilled recycled keepsakes to the stage floor. Numbed-out castaways flitted aimlessly about like slow motion bumper cars, crashing noiselessly into empty space. Crack-pipe fireflies illuminated on intake, then died like shooting stars.
On the radio James Brown took the stage and screamed into the microphone, It's a man's world but it wouldn't be nothing nothing without a woman or a girl. I turned it up.
An LAPD patrol car going west on Sixth turned south on Park View and drove slowly to the center of the block. The lone cop behind the wheel pulled up even with the Camaro and braked to a stop.
"You don't need to be here," he said through the open window. "Let's move it along."
He was wrong, I did need to be here.
"Yeah, alright, I'm going."
He watched me as I got back in the car and sat with the motor running, ignoring him. After a long minute or so, Pocahontas came into my sights, trudging through the war zone back to the car. She opened the passenger side door and plopped onto the bucket seat. The cop threw his spotlight around and hit me in the eyes.
I dropped into drive and went one way while he went the other. She got to her knees on the seat and turned around to watch him through the rear window. "What if he comes back?"
"Don't worry," I told her. "He's done with us."
"Cops er assholes."
"Yeah. They certainly can be."
"Took me to jail for not doing nothing. Turn right up here. Couple more blocks, hotel on the other side.”
On the left side of the street, taking up half a block, an old barbell tenement, twelve floors high, huddled between liquor stores like a sick drunk.
"Is that it?"
I U-turned at Bonnie Brae and idled back the way I had come. I pulled to the curb and parked in a loading zone. Hieroglyphic graffiti had been sprayed-gunned across the stone façade like territorial piss. All along the sidewalk, a gypsy carnival of commerce in the grainy and lurid hues of pulp nonfiction. Nocturnal men and women, old and young, brown and black, hanging around, making deals and concessions, making the most of their lives. A boom-box, cranked to capacity; megalomanic rhymes thump-thumping like an elevated heartbeat. Pocahontas said, "Don't leave nothing in your car. Lock it up an stay close to me."
Grabbing my backpack and cane, I came out of the car like a guy having a good time. We walked through the swarm and into the hive. It was dim inside. The light fixtures flickered like smoky torches on the walls of a mummy's tomb. Tendrils of tall window drapes hung like Spanish moss. The bloated ceiling was held upward on shaky concrete pillars, fingers poking a fat stomach. The floor was strewn with litter.
Pocahontas stopped and for a long moment looked at my cane; then she took me by the hand. "Come on," she said. "Stay with me."
At the back of the lobby, next to an out-of-order elevator, a black cage door next to a caged-in window manned by a long, thin, bewhiskered guy. He sat below a blue LA Dodgers hat, watching a portable TV. He looked at us, recognized her, but leaned forward to check me out. "Where you goin?"
"With her. Upstairs, I guess."
"What's in the bag?"
"Some stuff and some things."
"Yeah, okay, fine." He pushed a buzzer and the door opened.
I followed Pocahontas over mildewed and threadbare carpeting, up three warped flights. I took the stairs slowly, holding the rail, watching my feet, concentrating on my balance like a baby taking his first steps, or an old man taking his last. On the third floor we went to the third door.
"When we go in, don't say nothing. Okay? Jus don't say nothing."
"To whom am I saying nothing to?"
She knuckled the door and said, "My mom. She's good, she takes good care of me. Jus don't say nothing."
Her mother opened the door. She looked like Pocohontas, only older and sadder. Her eyes fell for a moment on her child, then she walked, slow and heavy, to a double-bed on box springs. She sat on the mattress next to the recumbent body of a big redheaded guy with a face like a bag of potatoes. The room had four walls, a window with the steel silhouette of a fire escape, a door to a small bathroom with a whistling toilet. In the far corner, a mattress pad, home sweet home for Pocahontas.
They spoke Spanish, leaving me lonesome. The girls worked out the logistics and everyone looked at me, smiling like a idiot, leaning on the door frame.
"C'mon," Mom said to her roommate. They climbed up from the bed and walked out of the room into the hallway. As he passed by, the guy stopped, moved his face in a little too close and said, "Ten minutes. Scumbag."
"Yeah, sure thing,” I said. “See you later," A jet stream of cigarettes, wine, and body odor trailed him like a gas leak. I closed and locked the door.
Pocahontas went quickly to a corner space where she picked up an aluminum-foil pipe and a pink disposal lighter. She moved to the bed, sat next to a fuzzy, yellow teddy bear, and loaded the pipe with crack cocaine. She wanted to get high as soon as possible and I didn’t mind. I could hang out for a little bit, take some pictures, and then go somewhere else.
She set fire to the rock and it crackled like static; smelled like cotton candy and hospital corridors. She spoke at chipmunk pitch, holding in illicit smoke. "You want some?"
"Not right now, thanks." I set down my backpack and walked over to the bed. "I'm going to take a pinch and save it for later."
She put a flaming kitchen match to the pipe and stoked up residue. I picked up the rock and thumb-nailed a pebble onto a dollar bill from my wallet, folded it into a drug-stash origami and returned it to my pants' pocket. She blew out second-hand smoke, then sitting quietly, hugging herself, allowing the buzz to infiltrate her being, she leaned over close to me and whispered out loud, "You want me to suck your dick?"
"Uh, not really. Let's take your picture instead."
I took the camera and flash from my bag. She picked up the stuffed bear and gave it a hug. "This's Madonna Bear. She's my best friend. Can she be in the picture?"
"Yeah. That'd be great."
She stripped down to her panties; she had sinewy boy muscles and pointy palm-sized breasts.
I turned on the flash and was setting the aperture and shutter speeds when, without warning, a bolt of ice struck an open nerve in my cervical spine and vibrated my fingers and toes. I clenched and my left leg kicked at the air, and I sat down on the bed, grinding my teeth.
"I'm fine, just give me a second." I pulled myself back to my feet and shook it off like a tough guy; pretended nothing was wrong.
I picked up my Nikon, looked through the viewfinder, and told Pocahontas just stay there. “Hold Madonna Bear if you want to. You look great. Look at me.”
She didn't look at me. She started looking around the bed instead. "Where'd the rock go? Wanna get high first."
"You already did."
"Just a little bit. I wanna do it again. I can't find the rock." She ran her hands over the bedspread like a blind person speed-reading, escalating toward hysteria.
I walked back to the bed and found the evil drug sleeping in a fold with the pipe, then set it, along with the pipe, next to a bag of Cheetos on the night table. "Here it is. Let's go ahead and take a quick picture."
She climbed back onto the bed, held her stuffed bear tight, and struck a pose while I focused and took a picture. She put the bear aside and went into a sexy cheesecake pose, throwing back her head and laughing at nothing. Her eyelashes were inked black and thick, her dark eyes were dilated and suggestive, like the glance of a veiled bedouin girl. My Nikon click-clacked and the portable flash splashed white light on the neutral grey scene. "Thanks, that was great. You're really pretty and you're pretty sexy."
I put my gear away and Pocahontas got high again, hyperventilating three hard hits in a row. She dropped the pipe and stretched prone across the bed, hugging Madonna Bear. Cotton stuffing leaked out through a rip in the seams below Madonna's fluffy tail. “You sure you don’t wanna do nothing to me?”
"No, thanks." I told her. “I’m trying to quit. I got the pictures and that's all I really wanted. I'm gonna go in a minute."
"Okay. I'll walk you down so's nobody will bother you."
"That's okay, thanks. Nobody's going to bother me."
"You got s'more money? You said you was gonna give me s'more money."
"Yeah, sure." I took out a ten and showed it to her. "Here, I'm putting this in your coat pocket along with your rock." From my backpack I took out a ladder of tin-foil wrapped condoms. "I'm also giving you some rubbers." I picked up her jacket and placed the booty in a zippered pocket. She placed the teddy bear behind her head for a pillow and closed her eyes. Her eyelids fluttered and her fingers vibrated. She hovered above the mattress. She said, "Fuckin cops put me in the cage with the men, just 'cause they thought it was funny. Cops are assholes, I didn't do nothing."
I sat on the edge of the bed watching Pocahontas levitate. A warm wind flew in from the open window, along with the kinetic urban drone from sea-level, three floors below. "I'm an asshole," I said.
Pocahontas opened her eyes, looked at me, and smiled like a happy person. "You been nice to me."
"Yeah, well. I'm glad you think so."
Somebody knocked on the door so I got up, unlocked it, and pulled it open. Momma Pocahontas stood in the doorway. She looked at her semi-naked child, sprawled on the bed in narcotic stupor, then went over and sat on my indentation in the mattress. She lit a cigarette and dropped the spent match to the floor.
As we crossed paths, the redheaded guy said, "Don't come back, asshole."
Taking the stairs down, holding onto the banister with one hand and my cane with the other, carrying my weight with my arms, I stopped at the second-floor landing. A battered-looking woman in a tatty bathrobe was sitting on the floor looking at her feet. She was wearing a pair of fluffy pink bunny-slippers and when she wiggled her toes the bunnies twitched their whiskers.
I said, "Excuse me, I need to get by."
She was slow to respond, but eventually tore her eyes from her fuzzy feet and looked up at me. Teardrop tattoos wept from her eyes. She smiled and showed me a shiny silver incisor. "Bunnies," she said to me.
"Yeah," I said. "Cool."
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