Tuesday, March 29, 2005

why i am here

He was the first writer on the lineup and already I knew I was in for a long evening. In the dark, I could see Craig looking at me for signs that I was upset with him. I wasn't.

"C, I'm circling the block. Come on down and listen to my friend read at The Smell tonight."

It was early, but I was already in bed, knocked out earlier by a combination of muscle relaxants, painkillers, and Easter with my family. "It starts at seven. What time is it now? You'll like this guy. I'm in front of your building, come down." It was 7:09pm, but it felt more like midnight to me.

I could've said I was down for the count, I could've said I was nursing a hangover, I could've said anything. Instead I heard myself saying, "Give me a minute, I'll be right down." Five minutes later I was easing my aching body into his car.

We walked around, trying to find the best way into the alley without getting jacked by the predators on the street. Drunks stumbled around us as they exited the Latino bars on this piss-soaked stretch of Main Street. This is the real downtown. This is the part of downtown that the LAist isn't referring to when they say downtown is the next "it" neighborhood. Craig doesn't understand Spanish. Just as well, the drunks don't talk to Craig. They mumble things to me, but they're not brave enough to say them to my face. Drunk as they are, they can tell I've been in worse places. But under their breath, they say things. I recognize some of the words from when I was at that jail in Mexico. And that other time, as well. We find his friend Larry Fondation walking down the street, searching for others who might not know the way in through the alley. Craig introduces us and we both size each other up and nod. I've never met him, but I know him. He doesn't know me, but Craig does and that's good enough. For now. We walk into The Smell, take our seats, and it's on.

Jeez, how long has this guy been up there reading this shit? People are laughing and instantly they earn my contempt. The emperor is butt naked. They're clapping and finally it's over. Craig and I don't clap, we are conspicuous in our silence. Two more people get up to read and I am lost in my thoughts. I think of San Francisco. I think of Budapest, Prague, Kiev, and the tearful goodbye at LAX that led me to those cities. At the intermission, Craig asks how I'm doing.

"My shit is darker, funnier, and better constructed."


I don't want him to know how sad I am, so I go for the joke instead, "No, I mean the shit I wipe off my ass."

He laughs, "Yeah, they're pretty bad. And Larry is on last." He hesitates, then asks, "So you're okay with this ?"

"Oh yeah. Don't worry, this is doing me a world of good."

His relief is palpable. "Oh good, I was hoping that, well, you know. I just got the feeling that you needed something like this."

"I could've done without the last two, but yes, it's a big help."

I don't need Craig to tell me that it is worth the wait. It's funny how sometimes you just know. And I trust Craig, he is a brilliant photographer. But more importantly we speak the same language.

Craig introduces me to Larry's wife. They exchange digits and make plans to get together for dinner with their respective spouses. "What do you do?" she asks me. Years ago, I would've hesitated. Not tonight. "I'm a writer." She looks me up and down, nodding. They continue to talk and they talk about things I know nothing about. I leave them to their conversation and I open the birthday present that Craig gave me earlier. It's a photograph of a girl on the beach. I think of Guam and another little girl on another beach. Craig is a photographer with an immense gift.

We take our seats again and sit through more incredibly trite, incredibly bad prose. Then Larry. The critics are right, "he may well be the best unknown writer in America". I don't want him to stop, I wish he'd go on. I wish Bill Hicks didn't die 11 years ago, I wish cancer didn't stop him. I wish Carver were still alive and writing, I wish cancer didn't stop him. I wish I could do Prague over. I wish I could do July 10, 2004 over. But Larry finishes and I'm done wishing. We stop for a second at the makeshift table and look at Larry's latest book before we leave.

Craig drops me off in front of my building. There are a lot of people out, still hustling or just restless, like me. I don't want to interact with anyone, so I get in my car and drive around the neighborhood, watching. My friends in the suburbs ask me how I can stay here when there is so much sadness, so much misery around me. I feel more at home here with all these broken people than I do with those who are whole. Maybe if I were whole, I could leave. But for now, this is where I need to be.
Guess whether it was Celia or Daryl Hall who was blown by a groupie right before this picture was taken.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Would love the explanation of the pic with Daryl Hall...