Los Angeles, California, August 1978
It was a typical crowded Westwood Saturday night of jammed sidewalks. The fashionable village, only a few blocks wide in either direction, was mostly made up of book stores and restaurants, clothing stores and movie theatres. Lot's of movie theatres, all of them with the old-fashioned marble floor foyers and great big swirling neon marquees.
The sidewalks were crowded with mobile groups of teenagers, all looking for each other and seeing themselves, flipping their feathered hair in the passing window reflections. The movie theatre line-ups provided a live audience for this annual weekend show.
The streets on summer weekends were packed tight with cars. Vans with airbrushed surfer scenes painted on the side, mini-trucks with CB antennas, giant 4x4's, Baja’d out V-dubs, and a few high-end, head-turning exotics. Traffic was always bumper to bumper, not really an inconvenience mind you, but because everybody wanted to drive like that. The slower they go the easier it is to see people, and the easier it is to be seen. L.A. is nothing but people watching on a massive scale.
This night I was with several friends and we prowled the streets for any kind of entertainment. On one corner a street show was going on, a threesome of jugglers with a comedic routine held a small audience at bay. The Hare-Krishnas came by, banging their bells and chanting, bopping along single file, twenty of them or so, through the gawking crowds.
Eventually we stopped in front of a book store and it was here I noticed a man standing by himself. It was odd not only because of his appearance - details to follow - but mainly because very few people ever stood by themselves on a Saturday night in Westwood.
He had the look of the road, a traveler, a man on the move, not by means but by necessity. His clothes had road wear, a few small tears, faded and thinned areas of sad fabric. His head was shaved and he had a large backpack slung over his shoulder. He was older, thirty-five, forty, maybe older, I didn’t know, but he had years on him, more than I'm sure time alone had placed. He had a pencil thin moustache and a monstrous five o'clock shadow. His beard stubble went all the way around his face, past his ears, to the top of his head. It looked like a Hollywood make-up job, like an old Dick Tracy cartoon character.
He was wearing a beat up green army jacket with various patches and insignias on the arm, buttoned right up to the top. His eyes were filled with large black pupils that busily surveyed the scene. He caught me looking at him and instantly used this to open a dialogue, stepping forward to speak.
"You ought to be careful, the man been passing here lately," he said in a heavy East Coast accent.
He was referring to the LAPD who patrolled these streets regularly on Saturday nights. I thanked him for his warning.
"Hey, thanks for the advice."
He broke a big grin which showed nice, clean, movie-star straight teeth with a large part between the front two.
"What's with the backpack?" I asked.
"I'm on the road,” he said, “left New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, I left the hospital ward, just walked out. Jesus, they probably don’t even know I’m gone!”
My friends had disappeared into the book store and I was alone with this strange guy. His hands and feet twitched, he was a mass of nervous energy.
"Where'd you say you just walked out of?" I asked.
"God damn psychiatric hospital, they think I'm in need of some sort of therapy, various kinds apparently, pleasant and unpleasant. It seems as though I've been judged by somebody else as crazy”, he giggled, “Hell, I'm crazy alright, ha, that’s a good one. I have nothing against any of them, really.”
“So are you, like, wanted or something?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I've been in these places ever since I was a kid.”
As he spoke his eyes darted about, checking everybody and everything out. These were the eyes of an animal surveying its surroundings, as if to analyze and categorize threats and non-threats, predator and prey. It was a look of survival the kids from the cozy SoCal suburbs did not possess.
"Like I said, every thirteen minutes, fifty seconds a black & white cruises by with this one cop who leans back real far so you can't really see what he's checkin' out...you know?"
"Yes, I've seen that before, standard operating procedure" I replied.
My heart was not in the conversation at this point and as I answered him I looked over his shoulder and casually around to see where my friends were.
“Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"Um...well, I dunno man," was my hesitant reply. I hated that question.
"You know that I am God, and so are you, and so are they (pointing to the many people who were walking by us) and so is the squirrel that lies flattened in that street."
I giggled nervously. Things were going in a certain direction, and I wondered where my friends were.
He went on, "God is everything and nothing...do you understand? He exists and then again He doesn’t. All this religion, all of it, all over the world, has driven us further from the truth, it’s all a mess, we've really fucked the whole thing up. It was once so simple."
He had felt injustice of some kind, this I sensed.
"You know," he said with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing pause of absolute certainty, "...there really is another side to this life."
I felt nervous. I wanted to change the subject.
“Do you have family?” I asked.
“Yes of course. I don’t know where they are, or really who they are, but I was birthed, so I have, or had a mother. I would assume she was not the Virgin Mary, so I do, or did have a father. Truth is I bounced around a lot. Don’t remember too much from the early years. I think the last I saw my mother was when I was about eight, and I was taken from her, taken to a home.”
He had stopped to fish through his backpack. He moved back and leaned against the wall of the bookstore to search for something. When I saw him grappling with his worn pack I suddenly felt sorry for him.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"I need a cigarette, I got one in here someplace."
I watched him as he fumbled around with his pack. He found what he was looking for. His hand shook has he lit up his bent but usable Marlboro. He inhaled deeply and let out a big cloud of smoke. Then he tied the top of the pack shut.
"...aaahhhhh..." he sighed. "I just like to blow out smoke, I hate the taste and loathe the death cursing side effects, but boy I like blowing out smoke."
He sat for a moment and puffed on the mangled cigarette.
“You got any kids?” I asked.
“No. No I don't. But I have loved, and I have been loved. Oh yes I have!" A smile shot across his face. "There’s a girl I know, or knew. We spent a glorious summer together. My life has never been the same.”
I felt for the guy. The poor bastard had been abandoned. Life had dropped him by the side of the road, like an old dog. Parents, family, childhood, love, sanity, they all came and went, and here he is, alone now, on a sidewalk in a strange city, far away from the places he knew or knows, starved for anything, alone in his thoughts about the troubled universe, and above all he seemed to sense the grand inequity in it all. The guy was lonely, and was only looking for somebody to talk to. I had nothing better to do and my friends were gone, somewhere, so it fell to me, at this time and place, to offer a receptive ear, a friendly face, a brief respite in an otherwise harsh, cold, world.
“So you had a girlfriend for awhile?” I asked.
“Yes, I suppose you could call her that,” he said, “we never used those terms, didn’t have to. We just hooked up by chance, wonderful chance, amazing timing, and divine luck. We walked past each other on a crowded Saturday night, and our eyes met. Through a busy crowd we just saw each other. I looked at her and she looked at me and we knew. There was no doubt and no need to talk about it. No questions asked, we knew, intuitively, we knew. There was a connection and that was final.”
“Really," I said, "I’ve heard about things like this happening, but you know, in the movies and stuff.”
“It happened, I can confirm it. We spent a few months locked into a vacuum. There was a crazy world around us at the time, drugs, alcohol, lots of destructive people, bad scenes, but in all that haze, all we could see was each other. Nothing else mattered much. The sky could have fallen and we wouldn’t have noticed.”
“Sounds like fate was kind to you.”
“You know" he said, "when I looked into her eyes everything I ever wanted from another person was there, instantly. And the look she threw back confirmed everything I thought and felt. She couldn’t hide anything. I knew all and she knew all and we floated in the clouds.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Jesus, about twenty, twenty-five years, a long time ago I guess. But I’ve never stopped thinking about her. It's not like I thought about her all the time, just some of time. But I never went too long without her memory jumping back into place. Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I see her. I see her eyes, those big bright eyes. No matter where life has taken me over the years, whatever was going on, I’d still see her in my mind's eye. You know what? I think I have spent my lifetime looking into the eyes of everybody I’ve ever met, hoping only that I'd see those eyes again.”
“What happened to her?" I asked, "where is she now?”
“Well, I got busted for something stupid, spent a 60 days in Passaic County Jail, and when I got out, she was gone. My friends told me she took off to California with some guy she met. I never blamed her. Everybody was takin’ off to California back then.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“Well I didn’t realize it until I got here, but I think so. I’ve been across America, all over the place, not really sure where I was going or why. Not even sure where I’ve been. But last week without much thought I caught a Greyhound from Fresno, and I stepped off of it in Hollywood. I walked around like most first time visitors do, checking it all out, the stars on the sidewalk, the people, all that, you know. Then I stopped in front of a phone booth. I stepped inside and picked up a phone book, and I opened right to the page, and I looked down and, there she was. First name my eyes came to. It’s funny ‘cause I hadn’t even thought about her for awhile until I was in that phone booth. Something made me step in there and pick up that phone book. Something guided my eyes to that exact spot. What are the odds of that?”
“Holy crap, is that so?”
“Yup. So I got the address and I made my way there, over in the San Fernando Valley. My heart pounded in my chest as I walked up that street. I was so nervous I thought I was going to die. I was terrified, but I had to go, I had to see her face again."
"Why were you terrified?"
"Well, first of all, I wasn't sure if was really her or not, could've been somebody with her name. And then, if it was her, maybe she's changed? Maybe what I found would destroy the myth in my mind."
"Yeah, I see...so what happened?"
"I went to the door and I knocked. I could hear footsteps and then the door opened. Holy Jesus, it was her! Even though all those years had passed, she looked exactly the same. I would have spotted her anywhere, anytime. OK, she's a little older, but god dammit she's beautiful. Oh my god! The eyes! My knees buckled. It was like stepping back in time and revisiting a precious memory. She looked healthy, and happy. We both stood and stared, no words. I felt the way I used to when she looked at me way back when and right then I knew she recognized me. Finally I said hello, and she said hello."
He was smiling, his face was bright, and his eyes were glazing over.
"It was a simple and profound greeting," he continued, "we just stared at each other and everything was communicated through our eyes. Then after a few minutes we sat down on the front step and talked for a little while. Anyway, she’s in a relationship, long term thing, living a good life.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s a hell of a story.”
“She still loves me, and I still lover her. That much is certain, and I know that will never change. It was like no time had passed. Even though innumerable lifetimes have lived and died since I last saw her, everything was exactly the same. We made plans to talk again, to see each other again”.
“So that’s good,” I said. ”Your whole trip was worth it?”
He suddenly looked away. Lines appeared on his forehead. I could see pain in the features of his face. Clearly something had affected him.
“Aren’t you happy you found her?” I asked.
“Yes, very. And happy she is happy. But I am afraid I will never see her again. I’m not sure she can manage it. I’m not sure it’s right. There seems to be so much lined up against it. Look at me, I’m a mess. She is doing well. I don’t think my place is where my heart is.”
“Affairs of the heart are seldom logical, somebody said that once, I'm not sure who.”
“No matter what happens,” he continued, “I will never forget those few moments I was able to spend with her after all that time. It was magical. It proved to me all that was once good, was good.”
I just looked at him.
“You know," he said, "I wish I could say I’m ok with all of this...”
Then he reached down picked up his backpack and threw it over his shoulder. In silence he gathered himself, gave me a parting look, and walked off into night.
(c) A.C. James