DTLA Road maps and vinyl letters on paper. 2016. 18 x 24".
I head out at sundown, hands in my jacket pockets and pass the Zankou Chicken. Obscure figures wait at the bus stop. Head lights turn on. Sunset Boulevard, jejune. Unembellished strip malls continue on the smog check, gas stations, the low-slung houses with painted iron gates and concrete lawns, abrupt and incidental. Trenchant shadows of the hospitals bleed into dusk. The certainty of architecture gives way to a presence. The Scientology electric billboard. The gay free HIV test clinic in Spanish.
10 minutes for the next train at Vermont Ave. Pacing down the aisle I decide to stand. Empty seats and huddled commuters, hoods up. We depart and I sway. Toward downtown the car begins to fill and two women board laughing, about my age. The one in the aisle seat, with bold winged eyeliner and earrings, tousled black hair that is wild, turns to me and holds the handrail. “I like your dinosaur patch” she says, making eye contact. Brown eyes. I reply “Thanks” and look down while raising the left pocket flap. My girlfriend’s jacket. “Yeah, I’m not sure where it came from.” The moment lingers. I pretend a smile that betrays a smirk. She turns back to her friend and they giggle, a gleam of curiosity thwarted. I stare straight ahead, thrust my hip against the motion of the train and compose my body of angles.
The stairway to 7th St. smells of piss and a kind of human grease cakes the tile. A homeless man asks for change with a mouth relieved by furrows. Plastic cover lights, the bulbs dead, line an edifice wall. The sky, night, a pale black, the intimation of dawn, alludes to a depth from the tops of buildings. Here is the city I’ve longed for. I pull out the map I’ve drawn on paper but must’ve made a wrong turn. I call her and it goes to voicemail. I think I’m on Spring. Last time I was here was with the flowers, the office building on Figueroa. The boss showed up late afternoon and said it looked like three people planted them. That’s how it was, too cheap to buy enough flats, a wave of purple breaking across the soil. Almost all of us were white and I still felt like a Mexican. Like I knew what that meant now. I was fired a week later. Check for $799.50.
I try her again and she answers. “Hey, I’m looking for parking. Let me call you back.” I guess I’ll stand here, beneath another building light, this one humming. I strain my neck both ways. The street is forlorn, the danger of Downtown not yet manifest. The jaundiced light, the unknowingness makes me giddy. She’s found parking. “Where are you?” “I think I’m on Spring.” She gives me new directions. I flip my map upside down and search for a street sign. There’s a Walgreens opposite the apartment. I was only a few blocks away to begin with.
In the crosswalk I see her on the phone at the entrance. Her friends. They’ll be down in a few. But they’re being facetious and with a flummoxed humor she ends the call while slowly pulling the phone from her ear. “Hi nini” she says, using our pet name. A trace of smoke in her tangled hair. Long day. Presently several people shove out the door and pronounce hellos on the steps, a theatrical greeting. The canvassers of the Westside, mercenaries of good causes. I introduce myself and instantly forget their names. “I’m bad with names” I say, though their banter’s resumed. She’s asking who all is there. I’m distracted by the marble floor. Another century ago. We take the elevator and in the hall hesitate between identical doors.
It’s a studio. A lofted bed of 2 x 4s and records and lamps underneath to the left. Sink and stove along the same wall toward the windows with a long sill. Bathroom to the right. I’ve never been in a studio. Though I’ve been wanting to live in one. The host treats the friends with put-on indifference — “Who’s there? Oh you again.” — before welcoming the two of us affably. I shake his hand. Interrupted only by a tank top strap, tattoos traverse his arm in a patchwork, up to his neck, gauges and shorn frizzes. The unrestraint I don’t have. He tells me to grab a beer and I sip the Modelo in the middle of room, feeling obtrusive. She motions to me and pats the stove. A relation to space. Then returns to her work gossip.
A few people arrive without knocking. The woman from the train. So her and the host are together. I look to my girlfriend but she’s engrossed. I get up to use the bathroom and encounter the woman as she’s exiting. Knowing the answer, “Hey, weren’t you on the train?” Her wings aren’t tapered but truncated. Like an elliptical vernacular. “Yeah” she says. “That was awkward.” I smile sheepishly. “I know” I admit, which in turn dispels a vague humiliation about myself. We share the momentfleetingly. As I cross the threshold she complains to her friend how she meant to clean the litter. And all the incense is burned on the cistern lid. Now they’re discussing their signs. Saturn in the 1st House. My girlfriend’s memorized her chart and chimes in. Doesn’t get along with Aries. “But Frank is a Sagittarius” she says, trying to include me. No one really knows what day I was born though. The nurses didn’t mark the time till after midnight. It always bothers her. She rolls her eyes. I attain a small glee at being relevant.
I tag along to the Walgreens where we pick up some cases, divvying a jumble of cash. We give our change to the homeless man by the sliding door. Back in the studio the music is louder. Tongues are looser, laughter more vivacious. More people have showed up. I shuffle between conversations and take my spot at the stove. Someone is rolling a joint on his binder, sitting cross-legged, soliciting nugs. The windows are hoisted open. The cigarettes come out. I cast a dramatic frown at her as she lights one. “What” she says. “Don’t judge me.” I flip my hand aside to say that I don’t care. Her dismissive gesture that means whatever. Her eyes flicker and she ignores me. Everyone is imitating each other, describing their personalities. Yet I think the jest is lost.
A little buzzed I fumble another beer out the case and wander over to the records. He’s chatting with a friend, the host. I squat and remain poised. Some metal, some bands I’ve never heard of, The Stooges. The Residents on the vinyl player. He slaps his friend on the back who goes off somewhere. Leaning his arm on the crossbeam, “How ya’ doin’?” he says, amiably interested. I tellhim I don’t know too many people who listen to The Residents. “You into punk?” I say, probing. “Yeah man” he says. “Check it out. I got this when I was 13.” He brings down his arm. On the inside of his right wrist, the leviathan canceling the cross. CRASS. We both stopped going to church at that age. Only his parents were Seventh-Day Adventists. In South Central. They’d go every Saturday. He started running away from home, sleeping on friend’s couches, the streets of Los Angeles. The freedom of poverty. “If you can even believe that shit” he says, “I’m still a vegan!” A black ex-Christian vegan punk. In a culminationof memory he catches his tongue on his upper lip and gradually his mouth broadens, beaming. I get it. Jesus died for his own sins, not mine.
The night begins to wind down. Rounds of goodbyes, the refrain of “Let’s hang out soon.” A couple has passed out on the lofted bed, softly outlined bythe covers. But a whimsical type, animated and loud, decides to play The Fugs. “D’you like The Fugs?” he points at me. “You don’t know The Fugs? Then you already like The Fugs.” In a snatch I recall my old dorm room, talking about women with Will with the lights out. She lays her head on my shoulder. The olive green jacket with the dinosaur patch. I let her know I had a good time. “That’s good nini” she says, feigning rest. She checks her phone and in a few minutes announces that we have to go. “I have the mid-shift tomorrow” I add. “Ha!” the host retorts. “I gotta’ be at work at 8 AM. Got you beat!”
Outside some friends are tarrying at the foot of the steps, the last delay before dispersing to their neighborhoods. She consults with one about locations and schedules. To my right another friend, a Latino man is hunched on the frame of his bike. White knee-high socks, white fixie. As though spotlit, the overhead entrance light, his face a play of vividness and shade. Wrinkleless like a bust, eyes squinted dazedly. He moves to mount the saddle and inscribed on the down tube are the letters: D T L A. Imagined out of nothing. The perception of nothing. Sans serif capitals, unabashed.