Sky island

Got to our pals’ Lincoln Heights hilltop eastside estate about 2 pm yesterday. We were there for party prep. Apparently we have a reputation for that skill set. The neighbors have guard chihuahuas, a whole herd of them. They yammer and woof and charge the fence like scary little tribbles, and their racket sets off that perfect eastside chorus of chihuahuas and pit bulls that echoed up and down the endless stairs on the way up. A lot of stairs. The hills of old LA are full of them. There’s some that lead to the top of our own hill even. People used to walk in the old days. Every neighborhood had Laurels and Hardys and pianos back then. You trudge up these long stairways, the street far, far below, and suddenly you’re in a sky island full of your friends, like those forests that sit atop mountains in the middle of the desert, lush and green and full of birds and rare trees. You walk into your friends’ little sky island and settle in and the city is all around you yet seems so far away. You feel one with all the other sky islands you can see, the hills in Echo Park and Silver Lake and Mount Washington and even Dodger Stadium looming across the river atop its own hill. There is the teeming city below and the sky islands above it, each one full of rare species and entire herds of chihuahuas.

The first guests arrived about four. They came in all night a handful at a time, went out to the deck, drank and ate and partook. Everything was perfect, the chatter continuous. The last of us left at four. Though it was actually 3, as the clocks had all magically jumped forward an hour at 1 a.m. So the twelve hour party was actually an 11 hour party and we can all pretend we blacked out in there somewhere and lost sixty minutes. There was a covered deck in the back yard, brought piece by piece up those zillion stairs, like Gold Rush saloons that were carried by mule and man power up mountain trails and reassembled in their Edwardian glory at the top of some Sierra peak. The bar here was limitless, endless tequilas in crazy eastside bottles–Aztec skulls, lovely hearts, tall thin phallic shapes, everything. Other boozes too, and beer and wine up the wazoo, but I stuck with tequila, though on ice, please don’t tell anyone. And this crowd had all kinds of glaucoma and arthritis and back strains–guitars are heavy–and was thoroughly medicated. Someone put on the Grateful Dead (Europe ’72) and I knew every goddam song without every having owned it or any Dead LP. There was a price to paid for living in California in the 70’s-The Dead. Well, the Dead and the Beach Boys. Sometimes even now you’ll be at a party somewhere and be surrounded by obsessives of both, the people on one side talking about Jerry, the people on the other about Brian–we have no last names here in California–and you just want to scream but don’t because screaming would bum the Deadheads’ long strange trips as the Beach Boys fans bolted for the nearest sand box. Anyway, that Europe ’72 is peak Dead, as our former Russian ambassador said (he did, I saw it on Twitter, he was a Deadhead. Imagine a Deadhead dealing with Vladimir Putin who, shirtless, looks a bit like Ted Nugent), and its stony acid hippie groove atop the hilltop sounded good, with Los Angeles spilling out in all directions in front of us. The music had a mellower vibe all afternoon–Jack Black, getting his inner Nashville on, spun a few times, and Faces (Oh La La), and that mellow live Velvet Underground album (1969, which was also perfect hilltop listening) and back to the Dead. Rambling Rose. The grass ain’t greener/the wine ain’t sweeter/either side of the hill, sang Jerry. And maybe that’s true. But up here on top of the hill, listening to his mournful solo, everything actually was greener and sweeter. Everything was just fine.

Night fell slowly, squeezing every last bit out color out if the horizon, fading out in a mellow tangerine and the night sky, at first an inky Russian blue, became black, starlit, only a tinge chilly. The lights flickered on one by one till at last LA was tiny splashes of light, and the endless geometry of street lights, and signage in red, blue, green, golden arch yellow. Sonically things took on a harder edge with the pre-Minutemen Reactionaries (a great CD), and MIA sounded good, and Antibalas was a dream up there on the sky island, the city everywhere before us and crazy West African rhythms swirling polyrhythmically about our heads. We sat round a fire that took the hint of cold out of the breeze, and drank and partook and munched and yammered and laughed and told stories and gazed out across Los Angeles and fell madly in love with the place again as you do every time you see it by night from a hilltop. Occasionally sirens rent the scene, but there were no gunshots, no visible police action, no nothing but people long in bed as we still sat up there in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth hour of this endless party. This city has calmed down from a couple decades ago, when nighttime hilltop views brought a vista of flashing lights and police helicopters as far as you could see. Now it sleeps. At last, fearing dawn before we even got home, we said our goodbyes. No one was driving, we all called Lyft to take us home. We weaved down those endless steps amid that vast orchestra of chihuahuas and pitbulls making its crazy music at the sound of our voices, and the friend with us took my wife’s arm and escorted her down the steps in the dark. I watched from fifty feet back their silhouettes stepping with a shaky grace, till they hit flat ground again and parted with a thank you. The dogs all settled down, our car showed up and we sped away though the winding hillside streets in the dark.

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