From time to time, as a mental exercise or as a torch to ignite the bonfires of creativity, I sit down with a pen and notebook, let my mind go blank and just write. No plan, merely open the flood gates and let the stream of consciousness flow wherever it will, write down whatever comes to mind. I use pen and notebook because I could never type fast enough to keep up with my brain in overdrive.
Maybe John Lennon had the right idea, as he so often did.
From Tomorrow Never Knows: ‘Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream…’
And from Across The Universe: ‘Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box. They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe…’
With most people those ‘tumbling thoughts’ can quickly crash into a wall and expire. The stream of consciousness might dry up faster than the L.A. River in an August drought. But with a novelist used to turning out manuscripts that can run to more than 100,000 words, a daydream believer blessed with a vivid imagination and a passion for language, that stream of consciousness can easily turn into a swelling tsunami. The dam bursts, the doors of perception fly open and the page is suddenly filled with words. Sometimes the exercise doesn’t amount to much more than cute and clever wordplay or unusable gibberish.
At other times, however, the meandering thoughts coalesce into something else altogether and entire small worlds are created in the process. These three unconventional short stories—“At The Scorpion Motel”, “Sunset & Alvarado” and “Down By The River On Sunday Night”—grew out of that process: just write and see where the journey takes you. Go free form and full improv, like Coltrane, Mingus or Jaco. Occasionally it leads to pretty strange places; places like the Scorpion Motel in the Mojave Desert, the seedy Hotel Deveroux in Los Angeles or the Paradyce Club down by the river.
I’ve been asked: where do the places and people in these stories come from? How do you conjure them up? Who knows? Creativity is a mysterious and magical process, probably influenced subconsciously by everything from life experience, memory and cultural iconography to TV, music and literature and in my case by a long-held fascination with photography and cinematography. I visualize these places and characters in my mind and subsequently they appear on the page, like film negatives developed in a darkroom, scenes gradually coming into clear focus. Writing fiction of any kind is akin to a factory operation: raw materials come in from all over, are processed and synthesized, and finished product is created and exported. The pay isn’t very good but you can’t beat the benefits.
So dive into the stream, and try to keep your head above water…
The sun sets over Los Angeles, from El Sereno to the El Monte Busway, from Northridge to Playa del Rey. A vertical wipe as another day fades from sight, slow-dissolves into night, from Palisades to Palms, Western Avenue to West Adams. A coin toss and a taste for tacos take us to the east side of town, where no one resides of note or renown, for why would they anyway unless:
It was to worship at the bare and dirty feet of the preacher known as Cheez-Us at El Pollo Loco. Long hair, beard, long white robes. Beads and bracelets and piercings on both lobes.
“I thought I had paid my dues, had suffered more than enough. Even did that stretch at Folsom when things got a bit rough. Not quite so, my father informed me. ‘Here are your marching orders, son, and your one lonely option: night shift at the drive-thru or join your cousin Luke in the fires down below, and is the Mojave Desert really a place where any of us want to go?’
“I chose the flame-broiled and served up legs and thighs to the huddled yearning masses, the slings and arrows of outraged misfortune directed at me when the horchata first tasted like molasses and then ran out. The besieged manager, the slovenly Garcia, pleads thusly: ‘If you can turn water into wine, Senor Cheez-Us, why not turn Dr. Pepper into horchata?’
“Sacrilege and disrespect, and what else can a savior expect? But I fulfilled his pitiful request.” The Miracle of El Pollo Loco, endlessly debated. Dr. Pepper transformed into horchata, disaster negated. Was it magic trick, sleight of hand or movie special effect? A mystery upon which so many continue to reflect.
Cheez-Us appears at a strip mall in Van Nuys, home to The Head Shop, salon of his stylist friend Johnni Baptiste. They catch the Uber piloted by Doubting Tomas, a skeptic at first of the Miracle of El Pollo Loco, until he saw Chez-Us walk on water—the L.A. River at Frogtown—and Tomas came around, now a believer if not quite a zealot. They pick up Mary McMaggs and her close friend Maryjane. Mary once a strumpet if not a slattern, her sad life following a familiar pattern. But she found Cheez-Us and saw the light, glimpsed a future darker than any moonless night. Embraced her potential and moved forward with pride, no need now to ingest the cyanide.
The trio dines on loaves and fishes and then heads to Echo Park: swan boats on the lake…lotus flowers in bloom…blessings to the homeless, the rising of the moon. Dying sun over downtown…uncork a bottle of merlot and let’s chill, here in the amniotic warmth of a California twilight.
Baptiste has gone full hipster with a vape pen, Dodgers cap and sipping an iced Americano; organic of course, with a dollop of caramel and a smattering of cream. He starts the gossip about Chew-Dis once again but Cheez-Us raises a hand. “Chew-Dis spotted drunk at The Echo, tossing peanuts at the band? Seen at Zuma with the gay porn star, canoodling in the sand? Larger issues confront me, brother: the parting of the waters, the podcast with Garcia’s two awful daughters.”
Mary McMaggs says, “You got me jonesing for some ice cream, Cheez. My virtue for a banana split? Make it happen if you please.” Cheez-Us distracted by a power pole on a strangled hillside that looks just like a rugged cross, evoking bad memories of yet another hill: memories of tragedy and loss that haunt the preacher still.
In the shade of palm trees short and fat the Vietnam veteran named Spratt reminisces about this and that: honky-tonkin’ down by the Gulf of Tonkin with girls called Mai Ling and Soo Soo. The jukebox played Sam Cooke and the Company spook with eyepatch and hook smuggled heroin back to the States in the coffins of dead grunts. Spratt says: “The present is so-so, the future bleak. But memories keep us alive and fuel our delusions: what was, what could have been, what was never to be…” Spratt fondly if selectively recalling those halcyon days on the South China Sea, memories erased and replaced, the mental script heavily rewritten, as is so often the case…
Sunset Boulevard is one thing, Alvarado Street quite another. But they come together in love and war, rich and pour, just like your father and mother. Sunset is fabled, Alvarado not, but take a stroll ‘neath the neons, under the carnivale lights, and assess what you need and what you’ve already got. Watch that man Moses undertake his mission in life: to walk from the taco truck to the dive bar and back again, making sure he gets it right. Then it’s home to the Hotel Deveroux for a nightcap and a handful of licorice-filled mints, gargle with the mouthwash and don’t forget to rinse.
Drink up with the mouse you’ve named Quint and the girl from down the hall. She hails from Ohio and calls herself ‘Loose Eel Ball’. Her grip on reality tenuous at best but she’ll fit in with all the rest. Henry Fjord and Gap Toothed Gus, the old lady once run over by a bus. Sweaty Freddy and Yosemite Sam, the former tight end for the Los Angeles Rams. Dubious Lee and Modesto Mike and the Dutch girl that put her finger in the dyke. Denizens of the Deveroux and what a smarmy bunch, quite a few of them out to lunch never to return.
Alt, indie, white girls named Cindy with boy’s haircuts, grandma’s clothes and cigarettes that smell like cloves. Name your pleasure, name your poison, name your price. And understand why there are bars on the windows and why we can’t have anything nice. It’s the fourth floor of the Hotel Deveroux, managed by Mavis for 29 years. What a beauty it was in 1928 when Art Deco was all the rage and Herbert Hoover took the stage, blissfully unaware of the calamity to come.
Mavis followed her own trail of tears west from Missouri to Manhattan Beach but her surfer girl dream crashed like a tsunami, frustrating and out of reach. She was no Sally Field, no Deborah Walley, turned down even for a porn shoot in the Valley. Her Santa Monica peers put her on a bus to Sunset & Alvarado, where dreams come not to die but to be reborn and refined, resurrected like Cheez-Us at El Pollo Loco.
Her first job waitressing at the 321, the cock-tale lounge of the French joint on the corner where lonely men tethered to the bar tittered at her topsy and her turvy. She thought about the girl she used to be but had no time to mourn her. Too many frog legs, too much guff; one fine day she’d had enough. Hired at the Deveroux, night clerk to start. Worked her way up the ladder, being capable and smart.
Stray dogs wag tongues and tails, grateful for any garbage, leftovers the Holy Grail. A pat on the head and roll on your back, exposing your belly. The modus operandi as well of the twins, Rosalie and Kelli.
Schlessinger and Savage slow cruise by in the LAPD black and white. The illegals melt out of sight, practice for when the ICE-men cometh. The siren song of the Third World echoes through the alleys of Echo Park, redolent of ripe fruit and sweaty couplings, where the Mexicans play Chinese checkers, the Salvadorans French-kiss in doorways and the Koreans favor watches of Swiss origin. An urgent complacency and a complex complicity hang in the air like dust motes down among the boxcars and bougainvillea.
Music spills and stumbles from an open club door. It’s open mic night and Wendy Waif and Pansexual Pandemic sing about love and angst and daddy issues, their cohort about to break out the tissues. Zevon’s ghost chit-chats at Burrito King with a mixed bag of sycophants and the unrealistic expectations that they bring.
Debutantes, divas and damsels in distress. The newly woke and the walking dead. Taco benders, bean counters and rice burners too. Guatemalan girls bursting at the seams, all dancing through a minefield of dreamers and their dreams. Chicanos, Anglos, biracial mixed; sex workers up to their usual tricks. Women with big feet and men with tiny hands, sopoforic members of multiple bands. Enablers, belaborers and fugitives with a bounty. A group of rubes down from Stanislaus County. The rubes spot Cheez-Us gliding above the lake and in their religious fervor undertake a pilgrimage up the street to gape at the Angelus Temple, legacy of Aimee McPherson, formerly Mrs. Semple.
Nothing is as complex as it is simple: gentrification moves in and rents shoot up, like a junkie tying one on and nodding off. Say goodbye to residents and businesses both, say hello to thousand dollar bikes, sandalwood candles and better quality dope. That iconic carwash on the southeast corner is nothing but an eyesore, to be replaced by a puppy-grooming salon and a gourmet cheese store.
Loose Eel Ball was a Homecoming Queen in a previous life, Mavis’s ‘friend’ Martha is actually her wife. Let’s all drink to that: we’ll have a beer and maybe two, a sip of Irish wish-key and how do you do. Slip into bed with Loose Eel Ball and share her Linus-blanket. Call yourself ‘Dizzy Arness’; a giggle, a caress and away we go. For we all need a cuddle or two, though sometimes a mere cuddle just won’t do. It’s a slow afternoon, nowhere to be, nowhere to go. So grab your equipment, dodge the smoke and tend to the fires down below. The light is too bright, the vibes on the street not quite right. So pull up the covers and hide, until that sun flares out and sinks down and Cheez and His crew come around. Let the night roll on, let the fun begin. With Chez-Us on our side we needn’t fret about sin.
Mavis is now fifty-one. Panic sets in when she considers: half my life is done and what have I done, really, but marry Martha and babysit the deplorables of the Deveroux? A wedding with cigar rings in the basement? Utter debasement, and why couldn’t they be hitched in sunlight like Jack and Jill, like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and send Daddy the bill. “But,” Cheez-Us tells her, “we all have our own hill to climb, carrying that ole’ rugged cross. So shine your shoes and polish the dentures and set off on today’s adventure. Banish the past and savor a repast of the finest that life has to offer.”
Yes, pack your cares in the cardboard suitcase, friends, and drop that deja vu in the jar. Leave the door unlocked and ajar, for when opportunity knocks as it will. Step outside and step lively, imbibe, ingest and inhale, pour the beer into a pail and ladle it out to the needy.
Join the parade, the human cavalcade. Sign up for the cattle call—we’re all extras in the comic drama, not so far from Hollywood if a world removed. We’ll dance and sing past midnight, all along the sidewalks, all the way to Sunset & Alvarado…