Tag Archives: hardship

Too Far

It was the most abhorred sound to the ear:  A combination of pain and anguish, layered on top of a man’s hysteria.  It seemed to have come from down below, from the streets.  Perhaps, not unusual for the streets of Manhattan, but it’s been years since I had left.  I had wanted space — and space I had received.  Miles of it, with dozens of different cities crammed into one.  And the distance between each other was at times too significant to mend with compassion.

“Fucking spoilt!  Some people don’t have anything… (mumble, mumble, hmmmm).  Why are you like this…”  (Here, I thought he called her by her name.)   “YEAH!  YEAH, YOU ARE!  SO FUCKING SPOILT!”

I looked out of the window.  The end of spring hadn’t yet burnt off the green from the hills.  I studied the bits of lawns, visible in between the rooftops of my street.  The next street over had a more monochromatic look to it, with a row of two-storied, eggshell-colored buildings with those thin metallic windowpanes, painted white, only strong enough to withstand the climate of Southern Cal.  The screens of bathroom widows were narrow and dusty.  An Armenian looking woman, with a hairnet stretched over her auburn perm, was unloading the trunk of her son’s SUV, in the uncovered parking spot of the building below.  The son, with one leg on the ground, the other — still under the steering wheel — was staring at the screen of his mobile phone.

“YOU!  YOU!  YOU took all of it!…  (mumble, mumble, pain).  And now, I don’t have a savings account!”  (He must’ve said her name, again).  “I’ve sacrificed everything!  FOR WHAT?!”

The voice of the screaming man appeared to have no effect on the son or the mother, both consumed by their business in the parking lot.  I unlatched the sliding doors of my patio.  The accumulated dust had discolored the doormat underneath my feet.  It felt grainy.  The rains of this past winter had marked the pink, uneven floor with circular stains, with jagged edges.  I should really make a habit of sitting out here more.  But the work!  The work.  It consumed every bit of presence in a day; until half a day’s sunlight passed and my desire to find myself amidst other humans — completely burnt away.  And the slowness of an aware mind would be gone, gone, gone, into the daze of exhaustion.

The man by now was screaming.  Just screaming:

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH.  (Inhale.)   AAAAAGGGGHHHH.  AAAAAGGGGHHHH.”

Angst.  One uninterrupted, unidentifiable sound, leaving a mouth crooked with pain so immense, I imagined, it had to seem impossible to survive.  But he would land on the other end of it, most likely.  Because even if one reached the edge, the threshold, the limit — too far, unthinkable for a human heart — one would have to go on living.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH…”

The mother, who had begun hanging the beige plastic bags onto her bent forearm, like unshapely lanterns, looked up.  She’d heard it too.

“You said, I don’t fucking love you anymore!  YOU!  YOU SAID THAT!  This, morning… (Mumble.  Moan.  Name?)  And then you went to work!”  (A squeeze of empathy made me brace myself.  I had begun disliking detours from my earned tranquility, even if it disguised itself as apathy.)  “Now, you have to live with that!  You said that!  YES!  YES, YOU DID.  And now, you live with it!”

The mother had to have said something to her son; because now, he too looked up.  Unready to confront humanity, I scurried off inside.  Quickly, I slid the door.  It thumped against the frame, too loudly.

I walked along the outer edges of my place.  I learned my ear against each of the four walls.  One of the walls vibrated with another, “AAAAGGGGHHH!”  The sound was happening next door, and I could now make out the words.

“Go try it, Lena!  Go!  Go see for yourself how other people live!”  He looked so young the last time I saw him.  In time, such loss shaves off years.  With most people though — it compiles them.  “But if you think I’m going to walk away in silence…”  His voice cracked then.  He stopped.  I think he broke down.

I stood against the wall.   In a short while, it was a woman that began speaking.  She had been silent until now.  “Mumble, mumble,” I could hear.  “Mumble, mumble, mumble, hmmmm.”

I could remember her:  A tall Russian girl with that particular face that looked majestic in photographs but slightly off in person.  Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and slightly timid, she suffered from an awkwardness in how she moved her body.  I’d met her in the lobby once.  We shared a giggle in an uncomfortable closeness while getting our mail, from our neighboring mailboxes.

“I hearrd,” she finally spoke, “zat you verre Rrussian to.”  Her accent stumped me.  After two decades of living here, I had acquired the arrogance of a native.  She waited for my answer, locked her mailbox and leaned her back against the wall.  Her legs outstretched in front of her, for meters and meters, as it seemed.  And when she saw my sizing up the distances before her, she pulled them back.  Her face blushed with a sheepish smile.

“Yes,” I spoke looking at her lips.  I wanted to decipher how she spoke.  “Yes.  It’s been years though.”

“Oh,” she ran her fingers through the hair behind her ear.  “Verre… um… you frrom?”

This would’ve been the perfect time to switch to our native tongue.

“I am from the West Coast,” I said in my second tongue, catching myself pronouncing things slower, directly to her mouth.  Something was off there, definitely, besides the accent.  I thought it could’ve been the structure of her jaw.

“Oh,” she said again.  “I sought you verre frrom Moscow.  Zat’s verre I’m from.”

“Go, Lena…  Go back home, if you want…”  The man was sobbing now.  Un-peeling myself from the wall, I stood deciding how much space this tragedy demanded.  Too many witnesses increase the shame.

I wondered how many days it would take each of them to find their way back.  Or had they lost the sight of it for good?  When bearings are lost along the way, it’s harder to recover.  I looked out of the window again.  The mother was gone.  So was her son’s SUV.  I sat back down and returned to work.

“Those Were the Days, My Friend…”

Back in those days, we would rise early — to get the fields on time.

It would always happen in the fall:

“Time of harvest,” they would tell us.

We didn’t know any different:  We weren’t supposed to.  We were children, still. Besides, to us — it would be just another adventure.

Most of us (if not all) had seen our parents working on land for their entire lives, tending to the whims of nature just so they could have a little extra to live on during the winter.  It didn’t matter if you were a villager or one of those city people who thought they were better than the rest:  Everyone worked, in those days.

The villagers had it a little harder, especially in terms of prejudice.  They were the simpler people, with more obvious needs and uncomplicated vices.  Most of their children would never finish their education either due to their parents’ alcoholism or because of being bullied, brutally, in school.  Those kids wore poorer clothes than us and carried lice in their overgrown hair.  They smelled of manure, tobacco and liquor:  They smelled — of hard life.

For as long as they could tolerate their young lives’ injustices, they would become outcasts; our plebeian jokers.  Soon enough, though, they would give way to their shame, drop out of school — and grow up way too early.  And the hard life continued to loom, above our unknowing heads.  But the ones that lived by land knew it earlier than the rest.  

In any city apartment, one could find a tiny garden on a balcony.  Radishes and tomatoes were planted in flower beds, upfront.  And in the spring, after the soil would thaw out just enough, our grownups would begin to leave the city, for the weekends.  They would take the trains into the suburbs — and they would return to their land.

Of course, somebody always had to be paid off along the way:  Such was the Russian tradition.  And we didn’t see any malice in that, or any particular injustice.  So, we bribed the city officials to get the better patches of land.  With the owners of live stock, we bartered in exchange for cow dung.  The drivers of tractors were paid off in vodka.  To each — his own.  

Summers seemed a bit easier:  Even if the money was tight, there was always at least some food in the home.  The early months were spent on gathering; and for the entire length of August and September, each woman busied herself with making preserves for the winter.  So, they would work — our mothers — rising early, tending to land; then, spending the rest of their days on mere survival.

But we, the young ones, would always turn it into a game.  In groups, we walked each other home; and as we climbed the stairs of our apartment buildings, we sniffed the doors on every flight:

“Ooh.  Strawberry jam!  Most certainly, strawberry!” we’d smell the lusty sweetness of slowly simmering fruit, then say goodbye to the comrade heading in, into that doorway.

“This one — is pickling cabbage.”

“She is always pickling cabbage!” the disappointed child would grumble and knock on the door of his forever disappointing mother.

We were all just trying to survive.  Although, for a while there, we didn’t know how difficult it was, for our mothers:  We didn’t have to — we were children. And to us, everything — was an adventure, just for a little while longer.

My doorway always gave off aromas much more complex than our young palettes could’ve known:  Green tomato jam, prune compote with red currants, garlic-stuffed cucumbers.  Motha — was always a bit of a witch, at the stove; and I couldn’t hide my thrill at her being so different.  And I couldn’t wait to find her in the kitchen:  What could she’ve possibly come up with, that time?

She would rise early, back in those days.  And by mid-day, several cauldrons would be boiling, simmering, stewing on the stove.

“Here!  Try this!” the woman with curlers in her hair and sweat on her upper lip would order me while shoving a tiny saucer with pink or purple jam foam into my dirty hands.  She wouldn’t even say hello.

Despite the occasional sand on my teeth, “MMMM,” I’d mutter.

“Good! Watch the pots!  I’m going out!”

Motha would depart into the bathroom and emerge in five minutes doused in perfume and sparkles.  I didn’t mind her departure.

In the fall, after the first month back in school, there would be field trips — to the fields.  Normally, they would happen on a Saturday; and we would have to rise early, showing up to the already busy school yard in our best peasant attire.

Most of the time, the children of the villagers wouldn’t show:  They had their own land to tend to.  Still, we would judge them a little, while shuffling ourselves in between the seats of a school bus, waiting to depart at sunrise.  We would be taken to the fields:  to gather freshly dug-out potatoes or to gather sugar beats, for live stock.

The labor would be hard, and we would overhear the upper class men complain about such an injustice.  But we still didn’t know any different:  We didn’t have to — we were children.  It would become much harder, soon enough.  But for just a little longer, we could be children — and life could be much simpler.

“Give Me Hope, Help Me Cope — With This Heavy Load…”

I saw him nearing the intersection, about half a block away, on foot.  At first, I watched him pass my car, along the pavement: An ordinary man, like so many others.

His hair and beard were completely white (and I’ve always found it impossible not to trust white-haired people, for they seemed so much wiser than others).  So, immediately, I thought of him not as much as handsome but somehow dignified; trust-worthy.  Surely, I thought, he knew something I didn’t.

He wore a pair of well-ironed black slacks and a white dress shirt, unbuttoned at its collar.  A pair of polished, laced-up shoes and a yellow manila envelope under his armpit:  But of course!  He had to be an important somebody!

Maybe he was someone’s tax accountant, I thought.  Or, a divorce attorney walking over the final papers to a drained, tragic face of some recently single mother.

The fact that he was passing a gas station specifically for cop cars helped my fantasy, too.  I had just noticed it the other day:  What looked like a parking lot behind a film production building was filled with the killer whales of LAPD being served by a single, rusty gas pump.  I didn’t know that the same people granting us our justice also had to pump their own gas.  It made sense, of course; but my initial assumption that they were tended to, by someone else, made the idea of my world slightly better.  Or, more just.

(That’s when I looked away:  I was waiting for the traffic light to change.  It hadn’t yet.)

I had just passed that one crowded intersection where every LA egomaniac insisted on wedging in the giant ass of his unnecessary Hummer, thinking that the yellow light would last forever — just for him!  Instead, he would get stuck there, right in the middle of the mess, blocking the rest of us with an awkward tilt of his giant ass.  Oftentimes, driven to the ends of our nerves by all the heat and strife already, we flip out, honk and scream at him, with lashing words and foaming saliva.  Aha:  Another day, in LA.

My own rage is so powerful, at times, it scares me:

What if I don’t manage to come back to the saner side again?  What if I go way too far?

They had just erected a significant palace of yoga, precisely at that one intersection, where most of us are ready to lose our minds.  (And those people granting us our justice:  Why aren’t they granting it at that specific spot in the city?!)

On the other side of the street sits an ill-used parking lot, permanently fenced in by a giant net.  Its neon orange sign reads “FENCES”.  No shit!  There is never enough parking in this city, and there is never enough space.  Or, there is too much space — and not enough humanity.

But then, again, no one ever promised this city would all make any sense.  No one ever promised for it — to be just.

And maybe, that is why it’s always so much harder to come back here, every time: Because we tread at the very end of our nerves, due to all the heat and strife, and some of us go way too far.

The white-haired man was walking slowly; and that was somewhat unusual, of course.  But then again, he was nearing that one police station in Hollywood, where quite a few of my acquainted restless souls have spent a night or two, after losing their minds a little.  Maybe he was someone’s DUI lawyer; or perhaps, he was delivering someone else’s bail.  As he neared the pedestrian walkway, with the quickly expiring countdown on the other side, he began to squint his eyes:  Eleven, ten, nine…

(And did I mention he was wearing glasses, with an elegant metallic rim?  Yep:  Definitely, an important somebody!)

“Ohhh…  Ohhh, nooo!” he suddenly began to cry, quietly, almost under his breath.  He wound up each word in a register unsuitable for a dignified, white-haired man, like him.

He stepped out onto the road and began to cross.  Seven, six, five…  He crossed right in front of my windshield.

“Ohhh, nooo!” He squinted again.  “They took my car…  Oh!”

I looked in the direction of his grief.  The curbs in front of that one police station, in Hollywood, were completely empty.  It was that time of the day when the rules demanded for us to give each other more space.

“They took my car…”  The white-haired man continued, and in the way he stumbled onto the pavement at the end of his walkway, I thought he was way too close to collapsing on his feet:  Way too close to his insanity — as he had gone way too far.  

“I can’t take this — anymore…” he wept.

It separated inside of me and dropped — some dark feeling that comes from suspecting that nothing in the world had promised to be just.  And that departure of my own hope scared me:  What’s life — without hope?

Someone honked behind me:  The light had changed, and I had to give them way.  I had to give them enough space to pass into the lives that stressed them out ahead.

 

“just make it, babe, make it…”

“We can make it!  We can make it!  C’mon, babe.  We can make it!”

For nearly six miles I was chanting this to the steering wheel of my car, yesternight.  I was caressing it, leaning my flushed cheek bones against its drying leather.  And when no one was looking, I even planted a peck onto it, with my semi-dehydrated lips:

“We can make it!”

I suspected this would happen:  I had waited till the very last moment — again! — to refill my gas tank.  And now, I was running late to a rehearsal — again! — with my gas light on:  AGAIN!

“God damn it!” I would have sworn normally as I sensed the neon yellow light on my dashboard, out of the corner of my eye.  “I should’ve done this last night!”

But that night, I was exhausted, thinking only of the sleepiness, somewhere in my calves and feet; and of trying to not run outta gas — again.

And now, I was sitting in traffic on a congested side street someone had recommended to me as a shortcut against, um, well… traffic.  But that’s what happens quite a bit:  Other people’s shortcuts — turn into my hell.  

So, I would much rather just keep taking my own routes; doing it my own way.

But then, yesternight, I was running late — again.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it!”

I had already done THE work, by then:  Five hours — GONE out of my day!  Grateful!  Of course, I was grateful — for being able to do it.  But fitting in THE work every day always required two things:  lack of sleep and brutal discipline toward the rest of my life.

And then, of course, there was the survival hustle:  Chalk up another three hours to that!   But I have long surrendered to that already, because I am the one who chose this destiny, this route.  I am the one who rejected a myriad of day jobs and hustled to get herself out of the drudgery of the restaurant business, as well.  I am the one who agreed to the chronic pain-in-the-ass-ness of a freelancer’s life.  I am the one continuously taking — and building — my own ways.  Because only then, do I have enough dignity and space — for THE work. 

And now, I was dashing across town:  To do more work.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t dashing:  I was crawling, dragging my ass through the overheated, exhausted streets of LA-LA.  I was serving my time among others with their stories of pursuits, and with exhaustion written all over their drooping faces.  And while doing so, I was resisting every urge to curse out the retirees existing in their own timezones inside their oversized Lexuses:

“Why aren’t you moving?!” I’d usually flail while studying the trail of break lights ahead of me.  Normally, there is no rhyme or reason for it:  only the collision of other people’s timezones.  And I have to remember that they too have done their work that day:  THE work.

So, I attempt to surrender:  “We can make it!”

The side street finally opened into a giant boulevard.  We flooded onto it, and the people coexisting in my timezone took over the outer lanes — and we got going.

But then:  My gas light came on.

God damn it!

I immediately remembered the poor sucker in a Porsche who got stuck in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, the night before.  I had been sitting in traffic, on a congested side street, waiting to merge.  Because that’s what happens quite a bit:  My shortcuts collide with the shortcuts of others; and we have no choice but to obey each other’s timezones.

“But why aren’t we moving?!” I kept thinking and trying to see ahead of the red trail of break lights.  Surely, there was no rhyme or reason for it!

Not until we flooded into the intersection, did I notice the Porsche owner sweating, swearing, cursing out the honking drivers, as he refilled his tank with a portable plastic canister.  A Porsche outta gas:  Times must be tough, I thought.

And we kept on crawling, yesternight.  We kept on — serving time.

Some of us had already done THE work.  Others just hustled to survive.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it, surely!  We can make it!  All of us!”

And I would make it, not just to a gas station, but to my favorite one.  I would pull up behind a tired, droopy face of a young man who stared into space above the rooftop of his vintage Volvo.  He would forget to close the flap on the side of his car, and I would honk.  He waved, pulled out masterfully and waved again.  Thank goodness, there were people coexisting in my timezone.

“We can make it, babe!” I kept chanting.

Forty on six.

Have a good night.

You too, babe.

The nearness of humanity outside the plastic bodies of our cars was beginning to soothe me.  The whiff of gas followed the short-stop pumping sound of the pipes.  I began staring ahead, above the rooftop of my car.

“Um…” I heard.

An older man with smirking eyes and crooked yellow teeth was standing next to me, while clutching a ten dollar bill.

“Could you help me out?” he said.

Behind me, he parked his ride, blocking my way:  A giant black Benz of a recent make.

“A Benz outta gas,” I thought.  “Times must be tough!”

His story would be about money.  About Vegas — and losing all of it, to the hustle.

Times must be tough, I thought.  But we can make it, babe:  All of us!

I surrendered.

Finally.

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.

“Somewhere, There Is an Ocean: Innocent and Wild.”

So, there was this one time… 

“Show me — don’t tell me,” my brother always warns me.  He, himself, is a performer and a painter; so his stories are visual.  But the recipe works though, I’ve tried it:  My storytelling works best when I paint a picture instead of lining-up some words.

So, there was this one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut…

Motha sucks at storytelling.  When younger, she was anxious to teach me how to read, so I would stop bugging her for bedtime stories.  Nowadays, she tells me stories all the time, and she tends to tell the punchline long before I can wrap my head around all the characters and their histories.

Arizona Muse

And when it comes to jokes, motha — is the absolute worst.  She cracks herself up, and it is impossible to make out a single word through her roaring and yelping laughter.  She tilts her head back, as if in the midst of some exorcism, and soon enough things around her start flying onto the floor while she flails around her arms, utterly unaware of her vanity.  And it is also impossible — not to laugh with her, in return.

So, there was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  We were living in the Soviet Union at the time…

I’ve got a lot of stories, but I suck at delivering them.  I would much rather write them down.  When writing, I can relive them.  I  can get the details out.  I can get them right; or even fix them, now that I know their endings.

But I am not really good at reliving stories in front of others.  Unless, of course, they are someone’s else stories, then I can perform them:  “show, not tell”.

Anyway.  There was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut. 

We were living in the Soviet Union at the time, and coconuts weren’t much of a typical occurrence on our dinner table.  No, it was all about potatoes instead:  Fried potatoes, boiled potatoes — with skin and without.  Roasted potatoes, potatoes in a soup.  Early spring fingerling potatoes in a salad.  Potato pancakes.  Mashes potatoes:  Those motha always insisted on mixing with bits of semi-fried onion, and I would spend more time picking it out than actually eating (which didn’t thrill my mother much).  And even when we would go camping, potatoes would appear in various formats when it was time to eat:  Potatoes baked in foil, roasted over an open fire potatoes.  Potatoes in a soup.

A serving of macaroni would spice things up a bit.  Macaroni usually meant my parents got paid, and we were living it up for a while.  But then, the macaroni would be recycled too:  Macaroni swimming in milk for breakfast — fried macaroni for dinner.

But this one time, mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  She had been trying something out, with the family:

“A Piece of an Exotic Fruit — per Month,” was the name of the program motha had come up with.

The Soviet Union was on its way out.  We didn’t know it at the time, but the country, as we knew it, was over.  The economy was in the crapshoot:  Folks not getting paid on time, the worth of pensions decreasing down to laughable proportions.  The price of bread was growing every single day; and food was being sold in rations, according to a monthly handout of coupons.  But to get that food at the market, one had to show up right after its delivery.  Because, for whatever reason, there was always fewer rations than the actual people, in town.  So, we would have to line up by the store, hours before it would open.

It helped that I was finally of the age to stand in some of these lines.  I would get there before motha, often right after school.  Later, she could take my place, and I would go home to do my homework — not to play — then, start prepping dinner.  Because I was definitely past the age of innocence:  I had long stopped bugging her for bedtime stories.

Sometimes, I would stand in line for long enough to get to the front of it.  Soon enough though, the cashier would start announcing the lowering numbers of rations.

“Citizens!” she would holler out.  Somehow, she was alway chubby and shiny; and so obviously in love with finding herself in a position of an authority.  “We only have enough for twenty of you!”

People complained, shifted on their feet uncertain if they should keep on waiting — or just go home defeated.  The frontrunners gloated in their places.  Quickly, the last of the fortunate would be counted off.  Oh, how it would suck to be standing right behind her!  (I say “her”, because most of the time, the job of standing in lines was allotted to mothers.)

Still, even then, most people would keep standing, holding their place in line.  Because hope dies last, doesn’t it?  It can even outlast despair.  

The cashier would start getting annoyed:

“I told you, citizens:  We don’t have enough produce for all of you!  So, don’t linger!”

She was obviously getting off.  But people stayed.

They stayed!  Perhaps, it took an incredibly unreasonable amount of denial to survive in such conditions.  But they chose not to hear the abusive remarks by the shiny cashier; and only the ones at the very end would start chipping off, muttering, complaining:

“What is this country coming to?!”

“Mama?” I would think at that moment, wishing she would get there and relieve me from my post.  I may have been long past the age of innocence, but I wasn’t yet ready to give up on my childhood.

So, that one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus, and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers, in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling me a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; so, she would laugh and flail her arms around, dropping things to the floor.  I would keep clutching onto the coconut.

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh with her, in return.

(To Be Continued.)

“Go Home — And Be A Better Boy! (Although, Sometimes, It’s Tricky.)”

“This is the human heart,” an actress with my name was saying in a film, last night.  “It’s light — and it’s dark.”

Well, actually, she sounded more like my motha:

“This eez ze human hearrt:  Eet eez light — and eet eez darrk.”

The actress with my name was playing a Russian prostitute, and she’s got some serious chops.  She is an East Coaster, more of a European:  One of those disciplined artists, with a compassionate heart.

In a film, she is arguing with a potential john about urban decay.  He is a landscape architect obsessed with the world’s dark corners.  She, however, lives amidst them:  In a civilization collapsing on itself like a giant snake swallowing its own tail.  And somehow, she has a better grasp on human patterns than a man studying them, for a living, while being buried up to his chin in his sterile theories.

(I used to love a man like that.  Holy fuck!  He almost took me out of the game.)

“This eez ze human hearrt:  Eet eez light — and eet eez darrk,” an actress with my name was saying in a film, last night.

But all I could think was:

“Tired today.  Is this where I burn out?”

It’s been hard, living around here.  In the beginning, there were difficulties related to the mere survival:  shelter, work, learning the geography of this place.  The fucking landscape!

I would figure it all out, in less than a year — and that would be the easy part.  Because it still wouldn’t let up.  The survival would get easier, sure; but somehow it never amounted to anything.  Every day, it felt like starting from scratch:  Paying the dues.  And every day, I would feel I could just burn out, at any moment.  But giving-up — was never really an option.  So, I just kept pushing.

For nearly an hour, I sat in traffic yesternight, to get to a hood only a mile away from my own.

“Could’ve walked this fucker faster,” I thought, while crawling behind a retiree fond of riding the breaks of his Chevy.

As soon as the one-lane street opened into a turn-lane in the middle, I zoomed around him.

“Christ,” I swore.

But then, I found myself behind an orange bus that added to the relentless heat wave with its boiling exhaust fumes.  I rolled up my windows and crawled behind it for another couple of blocks, while riding my breaks.

“Fucking hot!” I thought.  “Is this where I burn out, finally?”

But giving-up — wasn’t really an option.  So, I kept riding.

I cranked up the AC.

The houses on this stretch of Hollyweird wear that used-up look of a transient neighborhood.  They serve as temporary shelters to those who come to test their luck.  But the newcomers would figure it out, in less than a year, and move to more comforting neighborhoods; taking tiny slices of whatever was left — with them.  There are a few parks here, some dodgy playgrounds.  And I wouldn’t dare to find myself walking here, at night, through this fucking landscape.

“This eez ze human hearrt:  Eet eez light — and eet eez dark.”

Did I just say that out loud?

Don’t know.

Tired today.

And it’s fucking hot.

I rolled down the windows again.  Might as well.

The smell of the collective exhaustion entered my car immediately, and all I could hear was the screeching of occasional breaks, punctuated by distant sirens.  No human voices here.

The traffic kept crawling.

“I could’ve walked this fucker faster!” I thought.

On Vine, an ancient Nissan jumped out of a pathetic shopping center and into the lane ahead of me, as if it were driven by someone looking for his own suicide.  My breaks screeched.

“Idiot.”

Then, the urban kamikaze proceeded riding his breaks.  To avoid a suicidal thought of my own, I studied the dusty white building of an Armenian church.  On its stone fence, a security guard was talking to a working girl with enormous sparkly fake eyelashes.  Both were about to start their shift.

“This eez ze human hearrt.”

Did I just say that?

Don’t know.

Tired.

I turned into the first side street and sped up.  A lanky kid with an Afro jumped out of an alley on his skateboard.  He was beautiful.  I started riding my breaks behind him.

“Fuck it!” I thought.  “I can walk this fucker faster!”

I parked behind a Grand Cherokee with chipping red paint, no longer glossy.  A hefty, tall man walked by, on a cracked pavement, audibly talking to himself.  He saw me looking, stopped muttering.  Gave me the middle finger.

“ASK ME,” said his neon orange shirt.

“This eez ze human hearrt,” I said out loud, yanked the hand break and stepped out into traffic.

“Does Enchantment Pour Out of Every Door? No! It’s Just on The Street — Where YOU Live.”

The street on which I live:

I seem to have memorized its every nook, and every speed bump; its every crack on the road.  Lord knows I’ve had enough time for that, for I have been walking it; strutting, running, driving — surviving — on it, for nearly six years.

Six years.  Who knew I’d last here for so long?

Just a week before I first landed here, I was promising a beloved back in New York:

“I’ll be back in a year.  Don’t worry.”

He didn’t:  The beloved moved on to another love, and suddenly I had no reason to come back.  So, I stayed here — for just a bit longer.

The street on which I live:

By now I know the patterns of its residential parking by heart.  This funky red house right here collects vintage cars, taking up quarter of a block for their parking.  The Spanish style apartment building at the other end:  People are always coming and going there; and if you sit in its driveway long enough, flashing your emergency lights at the rhythm of your heartbeat, you are guaranteed to get a spot sooner or later.  You gotta be quick though:  Keep flashing the lights and come upon the decked out Hollywood dandy, reeking of cologne, or the unsuspecting Armenian girl getting in her car, for a night on the town.

Pull up, roll down the windows:

“You leaving?”

Try to smile.  After all, they don’t owe you jack shit.  And if they let you take over their spot, give ‘em room to pull out.

Then, wave:

Gratitude seems to go a long way, around here.

Whatever you do:  Don’t park in front of this abandoned structure right here.  Because it’s not abandoned:  It’ll filled to the brim with emaciated cats and a single resident the face of whom I’ve never seen, for the last six years.  At nighttime, a window always lights up in the attic.  The front door is barricaded with abandoned furniture.  The front yard looks like a field of wild weeds and overgrown bushes.

Still, whatever you do:  Don’t park there!  That unattended garden with berried trees will kill the paint on your car.  And whatever you do:  Don’t feed the cats.  The sign written in crayon on the front gate says so:

“DON’T FEED CATS.  THEIR NOT HOMELESS.”

In my second year, I finally earned an occasional parking spot inside my garage.  I had been bouncing between jobs, one more terrible than the other; and after settling for a decent night gig, I negotiated to share a spot with a neighbor:  He would work the graveyard shift as a security guard; and by the time, my club closed and I came home with blistered feet, he’d be leaving for work.

In the morning, I’d have to get up, get dressed and re-park on the street, often finding my neighbor under the berried tree, still in uniform, feeding the cats.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he’d explain to me, as if caught redhanded; and his tired face fit for a Native American shaman would make me wonder how he got these emaciated creatures to come out of the house, in the first place.

At the end of that year, I would want to move:

“Stay!” my roommate recommended.  “That’s just your second-year itch.  Everyone gets it in LA.”

Curiously, I’d drive around other neighborhoods:  funky or cheesy, some parading their wealth, others — their transient despair.  I would do that for a week, applying to a couple of New-York-like buildings.  But then, I’d come back to my street:  That was just my second-year itch.  Everyone gets it in LA.

The street on which I live:

The faces of its residents have been tattooed into my memory, even after they move on.  And many have moved on.  A couple of working girls in my building with decent night gigs:  They’d get so tired surviving on this street, and in this city, while waiting for their big break.  A few would eventually land a small acting gig — a stand-in for the big break — and they’d move to better places, better streets.  Some would leave for their boyfriends’.  Others — would go home.

That pretty blonde, who used to be a redhead in the first year of living here:  She got her first speaking role on a canceled show.

“It only took five years,” she said to me in my garage, and she scoffed with such scorn, it made me want to move on.

Her roommate, a pretty black girl with extensions and a shaggy dog, had already left.  She couldn’t wait for her big break any longer.

That pretty blonde, who used to be a redhead, would be gone within a week.

The security guard with a tired face fit for a Native American shaman would leave too.

The street on which I live:

Some of the faces seem to stay here forever.  There is the family of a jeweler — a family of good faces — that lives in a rustic house with wooden furniture.  They don’t smile much; but by now, the mother of the house has learned to nod at me, while she waters the lawn at sunset.  And the lonely old woman that always knocks on her second story window:  She would seem quite sad in her dementia, if she weren’t so childlike.  And the handful of Armenian men, selling random goods in their front yards every weekend:  They get quiet every time I walk, strut or run by; and they keep smoking their cigars.

The street on which I live:

There seems to be so much humanity here, and so much mercy.

In the gated house directly across from my building, there is supposed to be some sort of a shelter.  Another building, half a block up, serves as a home for homeless teenagers and runaways.  And than there is that abandoned structure right here:  It gives shelter to the forsaken cats.  But at least,

“THEIR NOT HOMELESS.”

And at the end of last week, someone had made a new shoefiti:  At the intersection that leads to my street, a pair of Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slipper was thrown over a telephone line.  Some say these shoes are meant to be stolen or unwanted.  And sometimes, they belong to a departed.