Downtown memories: A legless old guy in a wheelchair selling crack in front of the LAPD station on Skid Row. I think it was on Wall. This was back in the early 90’s, in the middle of the afternoon. There is no circadian rhythm on crack; night time, day time, it’s all one hustle. When the traffic light turned red all the walking skeleton crackheads rushed up to the car with the filthy bags of crack they’d hold in their mouths, and he came wheeling up with them, spitting the bag into his hand and holding it up to the car window. His bloodshot eyes were frantic, pleading. I politely declined. A police car rolled by and all the crack baggies disappeared back into their mouths and the crackheads began spare changing. A guy behind me dropped a dollar into a hand sticky with saliva. The crackheads converged on him like it was Night of the Living Dead but the light changed and he zoomed way. In my rear view mirror I caught a final glimpse of the guy in the wheelchair looking hopefully at the oncoming traffic. There was a pathos there that seemed to elevate him above the garden variety skid row crack head. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad shtick after all, selling crack with no legs. After all, I remember him all these years later, remember his face, his eyes, his humanity, while the others seemed no more alive than zombies in a horror movie.
It’s very nice down there now.
So the landlady, a few weeks ago, said how about we switch this ancient stove of yours (from the 1980’s) for a newer one sitting in the garage. Gnarly beast, a beautiful black (clashes dreadfully with the white tea kettle) and burners that would shatter your toes should you decide to drop one. Hip electronic controls, big billowing blue flames, it was obviously state of the art a decade ago. Certainly the newest stove we have ever had. We’ve always lived in ancient East Hollywood or Silverlake places, funky cool and archaic, with nearly but not quite antique appliances and the kind of kitchen cupboards and doorknobs you see in 1930’s movies. I like to pretend that Carole Lombard opened my closet door and giggled. One place even had a Murphy bed that kept the neighbors awake all night. We have a new fridge, tho’, the old one died and none of my desperate YouTube inspired repairs worked. Had to buy the damn thing. It’s white and clashes dreadfully with the stove but the freezer is so cold our ice trays have shattered in my big dumb gorilla hands. Only three feet from the ice age hell of the freezer is the oven. This oven is hot. Incredibly hot. I took out some leftover pizza from the freezer and the slices were hard as rocks, like carefully painted concrete models of pizza. I put them in a pan, frozen solid. Turned on the oven. Slipped them in. Twenty minutes later I smelled the acrid bouquet of cindered pizza dough. Pulled open the oven and there were two slices of pizza, hot as hell, beautifully blackened. Now, our last oven would have taken an hour to take pizza from absolute zero to a zillion degrees. Maybe an hour and a half. This took fifteen minutes. I had no idea the goddamn thing was nuclear. We ate the pizza anyway. I like burned stuff. As I singed my fingers on the plate that had turned molten from the pizza sitting on it I looked at the latest junk mail from the Neptune Society. For a few grand they’ll burn my corpse to a crisp, much like this pizza, then pour the ashes in an urn and pay for a pedal boat on Echo Park lake for you all to scatter me about during the Lotus Festival fireworks. Five thousand bucks. I have to pay that, not you, and I won’t even be there in corporeal form. I don’t mind paying for the party, but five grand is a lot of dough. Dough. I looked at it on the plate before me, thoroughly cremated. Our oven is certainly hot as Hades, hot as anything the Neptune Society has. We have lots of vases, too, all kinds, some decidedly urn-like. And think of how much beer you can get with five thousand bucks. That is a beer run. So the hell with the Neptune Society. I mean for five thousand bucks I can donate my body to the Mars Society and Elon Musk will name the first Martian shopping mall after me. And then there’s the Uranus Society, but damn if I can think of a joke.
When I was a kid in Maine as soon as the snow melted in March or April the asphalt in front of our ancient school was covered in crudely chalked circles around which bunches of kids crouched over with intense concentration. Marble season. Everyone brought out their pouches–some leather, some knitted, many passed on from their parents or grandparents–full of their prized marbles. Clearies. Cats eyes. Boulders. Some new. Some antique. The hustling was fierce. I was nearly cleaned out my first week. Us out of staters were at a real disadvantage around the downstaters. They played for keeps. Keepsies. But I got better and ended up spring with more marbles than I’d begun. I even won some antique marbles, from the 1800’s. I remember they made a more musical tink when struck by a good, hard shot. It took a while to master such a shot. It was all in the thumb, it had to flick like a spring, quick and hard. Come May and warmer weather the marbles were put away by unspoken agreement and we all went running off in all directions, exploring the woods, picking blueberries, getting into trouble. Come the cold weather, stuck inside again, I practiced my shot. Practiced all the long, long winter. I was gonna be ready for my second marble season. I was going to be as good as any Mainer. Come spring I was going to be a terror on the playground. Instead, just after our second Maine Christmas we moved to New Jersey. I don’t remember anyone playing marbles in New Jersey. Instead there were riots. Just blocks away Camden was burnt out. I figured when we moved back to Maine I’d pull out the marble pouch again. Instead we moved to Massachusetts, out on the outskirts of a small town, with no sidewalks or driveway or anywhere to do any serious marble shooting. It was a long, cold Massachusetts autumn. The moving truck showed up when Dad was at work and mom was at the store. I asked if they could come back when my parents were home. I remember how surprised my folks were that we were moving, the company had forgot to tell us. An early freeze had left the ground rock hard, entombing toys. We moved before the ground thawed and headed back to California. They played marbles in California, played all year long, but not with the feverish intensity there’d been in Maine. All these Maine kids stuck inside all winter suddenly outside basking in fifty degree warmth, playing marbles as if it were life itself. I’ve never again witnessed anything so desperately in earnest. Never experienced anything quite like that competitive fever of marble playing that consumed me for a few weeks in Maine. Every kid in school outside at recess on their knees in the chill spring wind concentrating with an absolute intensity on two tiny little glass spheres, their’s and the one they want so badly to own. A flick of the thumb, the snap of hardened glass striking glass, the cheers and curses–shucks, darn, heck, hell. You’d pick up your hard won marble and hold it up to the light and a little galaxy of blue or pink or green or yellow revealed itself in swirls of cosmic dust and air bubbles like planets. Every marble was like a cosmos. We were hip to the cosmos in Maine. Small towns with a zillion stars overhead. Moonless nights of near total darkness, and on special occasions the northern lights flit across the evening sky like magic. Coming home after dark by the light of fireflies.
I love twenty-somethings. I like the energy. I like how everything is new to them. I like the fact that they drive people my age nuts, even though they are a helluva lot more pleasant than we ever were. I love thirty-somethings. They’re not jaded yet. Forty-somethings can be irritating the way forty-somethings are always irritating–that’s the age when people are at their most bitter and depressed and are still under the illusion that they are hipper than thirty-somethings. People my own age can be pretty obnoxious but then we were obnoxious when we were twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings, too. What was rebellion then is just orneriness now. And hip seventy- and eighty-somethings are cool beyond words, a delight, and the hip among them long got over worrying about the threat of twenty-somethings. Wisdom comes with all those decades behind you. Then poof, you’re gone and it’s gone. That’s life, the man said, that’s what all the people say.
For several years I used to have my record collection–maybe a thousand albums–in random order. Anarchy, I figured. It would drive people nuts at parties. Where’s the Stones? Oh they’re in there somewhere. Though they weren’t, I’d hidden them. And the Ramones. Was sick to death of hearing them at parties. But it was fun to watch the wasted party goers flipping past all these obscure LPs trying to find them. We had parties every week back then, loud obnoxious parties–I would hate living next door to that me now–and every week there was some poor sucker crouched over in a leather jacket looking for the Ramones. Finally I put the Stones and Ramones way at the back in the corner behind hundreds of other records and if anyone had patience enough to paw through the whole pile they’d find them. No one did for weeks. Not even The Panther, who loved the Stones more than life itself and hated Robin Trower (but that’s another story). Then one day while I was chatting up Pat Todd’s girlfriend someone yanked something weird and irritating I had playing off the turntable with a terrible screech. There was dead air for just a few seconds, and then duh duh, duh duh duh da. Brown Sugar. Egad. The whole roomed moaned and The Panther turned and smiled.
My wife made me alphabetize the records soon afterward. The punks were pleased. Anarchy is best left a theory, apparently.
Getting new carpeting in the bedroom tomorrow and moving out the loose objects lying about. Found the book I took with me when we drove Fyl to the hospital about 2 am on August 8, 2008. A highly regarded novel by a Glen Duncan called Death of An Ordinary Man. I had gotten up to the tenth page when she died. I looked on in stunned silence. Her lips were a vivid blue. Her eyes stared. Her skin a pallid white. They managed to revive her after a few minutes, a whole century’s worth of a few minutes, and her lips turned red, her eyes closed, her skin flushed crimson with fever. I remember sitting down again after an hour or so and opening the book. They’d had Lois cremated, the paragraph began. I distinctly remember thinking that I couldn’t read this just then, put the book aside and never did reopen it. Until just now, nearly a decade later, when I found it in a stack of books on the nightstand. I flipped it open to the bookmarked page, read that they’d had Lois cremated and closed the book again. Maybe later. Now I sit here staring at the words I’d just written, trying to forget.
I once got paid to write slogans for funny buttons. This was decades ago. Those stupid funny buttons you used to see? This company made most of them. A bunch of them had my funny sayings on them. Somewhere there’s a list of maybe a hundred one liners I dashed off and mailed to them, each ten words or less. They picked a bunch of them. The only one I can remember was all those shitty movies and he still gets a stamp? Their focus group (seriously, a funny button focus group) loved that one. I rolled my eyes. Sometime later I was at a club talking to a lady. She was gorgeous. A nerdy little guy walked by wearing that button. It was dayglo green and the line looked even dumber on a button than it did on paper. That’s so stupid, the lady said. I decided not to tell her I had written it. Still, the pay was $25 a button (nearly $50 in today’s money) which means, per word, it was the best paying writing gig I ever had.