“We had to be sure that no one would recognize us.”
Los Angeles, California. 1940s-’50s.
Work – at least my work – is the kind of carnivorous, grasping beast that will only require more from you the more that you feed it. It’s important to sometimes neglect the thing, like a human child. Having been with my employer eight years now, I earn days off faster than I can practically use them. The company discourages the long absences necessary to really unwind, but a day now and then isn’t a problem. I recently took a Friday off and drove south to Los Angeles.
There I joined my rather impressive brother, the PhD, at a hotel in Santa Monica where he had holed up to finish a book on deadline. He lives in Atlanta but was in the area to give a keynote at a university conference. My brother was a gymnast when younger and on scholarship at Stanford when he broke his neck in competition. It was one of the big tragic-comic moments of our family life, almost a relief to him since he was ready for a more academic focus. Luckily there was no paralysis. I’ll never forget walking into the hospital room to find him with a metal halo drilled at several points into his skull, smirking the way he does. My sainted brother.
Next morning we met our sister at the airport and after an acceptable plate of huevos rancheros we walked to Venice Beach together. I’d never been, but it was quite what you’d expect. We paid five dollars apiece to see a freak show. Inside was a menagerie of live and pickled animals, two-headed, five-legged, some just skeletons. There was a girl who ate fire and bent her arms backwards. There was a sword swallower too, shirtless in an unbuttoned lab coat, with his eyebrows shaved off. For an encore he twisted a large metal hook up his nose and out of his mouth. I took a photo.
At a bookshop not far from the medical marijuana dispensary I picked up a 1952 Modern Library edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a still-pristine dust jacket. On my way out, the proprietor (who also sells jazz records and discs) encouraged me to “save the world one book at a time,” and I promised to do so. In the car next morning I listened to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and found it a perfect sonic compliment to the fever-swamp freeways, the yellow floating sun-glare, and the temblor-jumbled strata of the desert mountains that throw themselves at you while driving north.
Hours later, in the San Joaquin Valley, I saw a circling congregation of eight or ten American white pelicans, massive unearthly birds. Like warlocks stirring spells of air, they traced the shape of their invisible floating cauldron two-hundred feet overhead. Tilting at each turn, the bone-white wings would flash and vanish, flash and vanish in staggered succession like daylight fireworks visible from miles away. In the flowering orchards below, mating pairs of ravens built their nests and picked at road kill.