09 May 2014

Star.

It's June. She stands on her deck staring out at the Hollywood hills, freckled in orange stars expanding into galaxies in the flatlands. Her mascara is perfect, though her eyes are wet. She fumbles with the cellophane on her Marlboros and then again trying to pull a cigarette from the box, lacking a true smoker's dexterity.

Some nights make you want to smoke, even if you've never really had the habit; even if you know the pack will sit in the bottom of your purse, crushed and smelling of coins and chewing gum, until the next bad night, the next night when you want to cry but don't want to give the world the satisfaction, even if no one's around to see you. 

The matches won't light and when they do, the snapping winds swallow the flame before she can hold it to her lipstick stained cigarette. Nothing is going right today, not even this attempt at something as simple as smoking. She can smell the acrid fruit smell of the neighbor's marijuana in the air and the irony isn't funny. It's frustrating. 

It's midnight. That means it's 3am back home. If she calls anyone, they'll pick up in a groggy panic. If she doesn't, she'll scroll through her phone all night until she falls asleep or gives up or, more likely, digs deep into self-pity that refuses to admit itself the occasionally necessary indulgence of self-pity and exhaust herself to sleep with anxiety and loneliness and missing.

The moon is a sliver, but even the north star is dimmer than any plane leaving Burbank or LAX. The night is nothing like it was when she was a girl; when her father told her stories about the seven sisters and Aphrodite and the hunter in the sky. 

She turns and looks at the rows of gold statuettes inside, housed casually around her cavernous marble and oak and glass cage and wonders what it is she's won in this place so high above the city; so far from the nearest star. 



05 May 2014

Fast food

Sometimes I walk to the Jack in the Box on Sunset and Ivar, usually when it's fairly late. I don't know what time they close, or even if they close at all. Their carnival red sign never seems to dim, even after Amoeba's neon goes gray and the noise in Hollywood changes key from exuberant to scary. I don't go because I have any fascination with fast food. It's never satisfying. I always feel slightly worse both physically and as a global citizen for having eaten it. I don't go for the food, even though I always buy it.

I go because even in Hollywood where there's always a 5150 on the verge of punching a scabby hand through the soda machine or a junkie girl with dirty arms in a clean shirt, it feels friendly to me. It's the rehearsed overcompensating fake friendliness, I'm sure. I worked in various counter food service environments and I know that 99% of it is forced: mandated by little "reminder" stickers, secret shopper surveys, chats about the guest "experience" and the constant threat of termination. It's friendliness enforced by fear. The people who work there undoubtedly need their jobs more than, say, Leonard Comma, who, at 43, makes an estimated $2.6 million as CEO. I have no idea if Mr. Comma has ever stood behind the counter at one of his restaurants with aching feet, stinking of restaurant grease, scared shitless about whether or not the last customer who got the Ultimate Cheeseburger with mayo instead of without it was "shopping" the store or not, and smiling as brightly as possible to the tweakers who come in for refills on soda cups they bought a week ago, but that's not for me to speculate on.

The last time I was in Jack in the Box, the fellow at the counter was apologizing to people for "the wait." I don't know if anyone besides the tweakers was in any kind of hurry, but this guy was really anxious about anyone having to endure "the wait." It took me a few minutes, but I figured it out. He had just replaced someone behind the counter who had miskeyed an order, causing a minor backlog, which was then exacerbated by some Stereotypical Hollywood Jerkoff who rewrote the entire menu so as to please his companions (who were not present) who apparently had very particular tastes when it comes to food from the home of two tacos for 99 cents. Long story short, he was flustered. The cooks were probably getting pissed off. There were more customers milling about than usual. He was probably worried that things were going to get worse, so he attempted to compensate by being really friendly...in the form of being preemptively apologetic. No one was complaining. Why complain in Jack in the Box at 11:30 pm on a Thursday? No good can possibly come of it.

I got to the counter feeling really rather sympathetic. I had been writing all day and night and my characters were having a tough time of it, so when I got up there for my "Sourdough Jack, no mayo, sandwich only, to-go please," I felt bad for this guy in a purple shirt.  I thought of all the really awful jobs I had through my teens and early twenties and how rare it was to come across anyone who was just nice; who knew that I probably hated my job and who aimed to make it a little less awful.

I'm sure he had no interest in my sympathy, or even my forgiveness, when he issued his automatic and rehearsed "sorry for the wait," but I don't think he was quite ready for my reply.

"It's just fast food, man. Take your time. Don't worry about it. It's fine." He paused a second, then regained his footing, and went on to the next customer.

I waited. My number was shouted over the crowd and I walked up and to claim my bag. "Sorry for the wait," he said again. But this time he did something he hadn't done with his last ten apologies. He handed me a cup. I hadn't ordered a cup and, for some reason, I backed away in surprise before I realized he was offering me a cup.

"Oh, thank you. That's not necessary, but it's very kind."

"Are you sure? It's on me. I mean...you waited."

"Yes, I'm sure. But thank you. That's good of you." I left and I worried if I had accidentally insulted him by refusing his offered gift. Then I realized that he had probably already forgotten it, even though I was still thinking about it the next day.

Sometimes even in the rush of rehearsed and scripted niceness, there's a tiny bit of the real stuff that comes through, almost accidentally, as the result of someone being--or at least trying to be--understanding without being condescending or phony.

It happens on both sides of the counter.

It's not necessary, but it's very kind. 

26 April 2014

Songs of innocence and experience. And drinking and heartbreak and...

Back in October, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Sebastian Bach on some lyrics for songs on his new album, "Give 'Em Hell." That was released in the U.S. on 22 April 2014. The songs are:

"Hell Inside My Head," "Had Enough," "Gun to a Knife Fight," and "Disengaged."

The rest of the songs are pretty good too, ha ha. Check it out. Link at bottom. Also available on iTunes.



http://www.amazon.com/Give-Em-Hell-Sebastian-Bach/dp/B00HJ7IO0A/

25 April 2014

A Certain Kind of Hope.

There is a certain kind of hope that comes with sitting alone in a café with a book. You don't really find it in bars. The disinhibition that comes with alcohol leaves no room to create an illusion of solitude, though I have known drinkers--myself included--who can go into a bar and drink and not talk to anyone. To sit alone in a café, though, is to hope.

What I have hoped for in cafés is invariably the same thing: the unexpected company of someone who miraculously gets me. The book has to provide what the hoped-for company might provide, but it's also a prop: an excuse, an invitation. There's a certain snob appeal to reading Flaubert or Balzac or Proust in a café: a kind of self-conscious attempt at sophistication that people mock but that all people engage in on some level or another. The public exhibition of personal taste is often the exhibition of personal loneliness; of private longing. Any writer who has scribbled on a bar napkin has hoped for the right person to ask what he or she is writing. Anyone who has sighed and re-read their favorite paragraph or poem has hoped to look up and see someone smiling.

The hope is never for just anyone. It's a hope for the perfect stranger, who, of course, will be attractive and confident while being humble and kind; intelligent and soft-spoken while being passionate and erudite. The perfect stranger isn't carved from marble or painted on canvas because that perfect stranger would then be perfect for everyone and therefore not perfect. What makes this a hope is that we're searching for the stranger who will be perfect for us; who will recognize in us--by our taste in coffee or tea or pastries, by our refined taste in 19th century French authors or rare jazz recordings from the 1930s--a kindred spirit, a soulmate.

Of course, we can never be too obvious. This is why we must sit alone. We need the illusion of solitude in order to really give ourselves over to this hope. How could the stranger know that we're waiting for them if we're with some tedious person with whom we grudgingly pass the time and who laughs too loudly, argues too rabidly, and slurps their cappuccino? I hold that we are most ourselves when we are alone and hoping, our dogeared paperbacks and battered notebooks stained with coffee and marginalia.

If not that, then we are certainly our best selves: the selves we present when we're doing something as careless and as cautious as falling in love, confession by confession, secret by secret, second by second. One cup, one page, one hope at a time with those who have looked at us and miraculously found us to be perfect strangers. 

22 April 2014

Sweet Impossibilities.

"The best women," I once wrote, "leave at three in the morning." I didn't mean to sound crass, though I wouldn't blame anyone for reading arrogance into it. I wrote it just after 3am one morning; just after a woman left me alone with a half empty bottle of '98 Duval-Leroy half-afloat in a bucket of melted ice. I had waited for her that night, unsure if she'd come and see me. And she did. Out into the cold night, wearing jeans and a sweater.

She was wounded by a breakup. I was bruised by an embarrassing misreading of the pulse of a fling, the sharp sting of rejection. She made me promise that if I ever wrote about her, I would call her Ophelia.

We took refuge in a friendship that blossomed after summer. Eventually, it gave way to curiosity, affection, and the first glimpse of newness. Then 3am came and I knew she was still hurt; still thinking of someone else's touch. I realized that Ophelia could not kiss me, not then, and be lost in the same place I was. And so she left, leaving no trace, not even a taste left on a glass, a reminder of the bittersweet impossibility.

When I met her for coffee the next morning, I felt a profound sadness. I was in love and she was saying goodbye. Or perhaps I only thought I was in love. Perhaps I wanted to be in love with someone who could not possibly love me so as to not have to deal with the reality of having to love someone or something possible. It is easy to love the impossible because the impossible can never disappoint you...and you can never disappoint it.

I never went back to where we met. It will always be the city where she left me at 3 am, the city of a wobbly table and her hands and the end of fall. I leave it there, untouched, in an eternal November, an eternal impossibility. She left a few months later. I cannot imagine that there is anything there that reminds her of me.

We lived in the same city for a few years, but never spoke, never saw each other. We never met for drinks. We never texted. I never ran into her by chance coming out of the deli or buying a bottle of wine for an apartment warming party. I emailed an apology once, just in case I had done something wrong. Sometimes I think we apologize simply because silence becomes unbearable. Should I never have kissed her? Should I have asked her to stay? Should we have had another martini at dinner or not had martinis at dinner? She replied in the gentle, even, archaically agreeable way that she had always replied to my emails and she did her best to thin whatever residual shame I had in losing a friend in an attempt to find something more where nothing more could exist. It had nothing to do with me, she wrote. After that, I never heard from her again.

I think of her now only because, in a way, I am where I am because of her. The day she said goodbye, I sat at a desk in the hotel and I wrote "Engaged," an essay that, to this day, people have told me is the best thing they have ever read; that people ask whether or not is true. 

In it, I ponder the impossibilities that we face and how time blurs things. Were her eyes blue or brown? Did she actually care for me? Who will she be with? Does she remember me? Will she? 

Those aren't just questions we ask in the past tense. They flood our minds in the present tense when things are new, when things are beginning...and when they are ending. What will happen? What is possible? Who is this person who feels so natural? Why can't I commit to this night, these kisses, drink this mouth like a Lethean well and forget?

The answers come weighted with the impossible. Those last kisses at 2:45 am murmur the end of everything possible and the beginning of everything that cannot be.

You know this because you hold her still, but mostly you know it because you cannot hold her and you will not hold her again.

But not yet, not yet. Those things will be, but not now.

Put them away, then, and feel her fingers circling yours.

And kiss her again. You have no time.

No one ever really leaves. They persist as sweet impossibilities: always there, always out of reach. They shine light on the things that are possible, the loves that we must suffer for, the hearts that we hope still beat for us and that call us into our eternal Novembers at three in the morning.