Thursday, June 28, 2018

Into The Great Wide Open Part Three: The Saint of Los Angeles

Apologize for the delay, had to work out a few things in my mind on how to approach things here, then got busy! Moving on! Check out part one of this stupid one-man odyssey right here and part two right here! In this installment, I leave the scenic stretches and California kitsch of the central coast and trade it for the ultimate concrete jungle. Along the way, I get to reconnect with some old friends that I hadn't seen in over a decade, get irrationally bummed out from a message from back home, get tailored, visit every Real Rock n' Rolla's spiritual home and start to put it all together while meditating on a beach. Let's get back on the road...

The alignment on that car had to have been pretty great
After a quick stop back in San Luis Obispo at the Firestone Grill for one of their famous Tri-Tip sandwiches, I was back on Highway 1 heading south. The road weaves in and out of its ocean view and I made one more stop in Pismo Beach, just to see what Bugs Bunny was making such a fuss about. It was kinda nice, well worth taking that right turn in Albuquerque. I blasted through Santa Maria and found myself nearing Lompoc, where Mia, O'Conner and the fellas once sprung Toretto by wrecking his prison bus and somehow didn't kill everybody aboard. There were no prison buses on the road, but traffic was starting to build, and by the time I hit Santa Barbara, it was stop-and-go time. For the next two hours I probably averaged about five miles an hour as we crawled along the 101 through Ventura. It kinda blows my mind that the beautiful vistas of the chaparral that I was "forced" to look at (along with about ten thousand tail lights) pretty much went up in smoke last Winter. Eventually, I got through whatever it was that was throttling down traffic to two lanes, split from the 1 and managed to hit the Valley just as it was getting dusky and the famous LA rush hour traffic was starting to build up. The Waze app is a godsend in places like this, and even though game 6 of the World Series was going on just adjacent to my route, I was able to find my hotel downtown without a crazy amount of trouble.

My tongue is LAVA!
After stowing my gear and a quick freshening up, I took a walk to find some dinner, stopping off for some tacos at a little place down the street. It was Halloween night and pretty busy, but there was an open seat at the bar in the rear of the place and I struck up a conversation with the bartender while he was pouring. He'd come to LA from the midwest to try and get into the film business and figured out he had it a lot easier slinging drinks and living in an apartment the size of a closet downtown. NOT STEREOTYPICAL WHATSOEVER. Still, there's something to be said about actually taking the leap when you've got nothing to lose. Now, I can't eat quite what I used to these days, so I settled on just three small tacos, (carnitas, chicken and shrimp) as well as one of the better margaritas I've had in quite some time. The carnitas and chicken were both outstanding, the shrimp had to have been one of the top-ten hottest things I've ever eaten. Just blew my already-fried palate all to hell. I'm glad I saved it for last. Just as the Dodgers were putting the finishing touches on forcing a game 7 in the World Series, I paid for my meal and walked back to the hotel. The streets were a lot more crowded both with people in costumes heading to the bars for a wild night and ecstatic local Dodger fans, with visions of a possible championship dancing in their eyes.

We're practically the same guy.
The margaritas had my brain in a fog and as my head hit the pillow just after midnight, a messenger alert snapped me back to reality. Hey! It's the mysterious girl from back home! She got my "just thinkin' about you" message! I opened the app aaaaand her blunt response made it abundantly clear that whatever feelings I had for her, weren't exactly reciprocated. Not exactly what I wanted to read on my first night in The City of Angels, or ever really. But thinking about it, shit, it's totally okay. We were in completely different places in our lives. And relationships are definitely a two-way street. I was an idiot for thinking I could rekindle something that probably wasn't really there from twenty years ago. Not the first time I've made that kind of mistake and it probably won't be the last. God knows, I'm terrible at catching a hint. But hell yeah, it hurt. But just like everybody's favorite animated doormat Butters once said on the legendary "Raisins" episode of South Park, "but at the same time I'm really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It's like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin' really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I'm feelin' is like a, beautiful sadness. I guess that sounds stupid." Still, at the time, it felt like the many highs of the past few days had just been mashed with a pair of size fifteen waffle-stompers. I hammered down a hot shot of NyQuil and I'm not sure how long it took to fall asleep, but it was a while.
Wish we had something like this here in Salt Lick.

It was a fairly restless night, but I rolled out of bed bright and early to meet an old college friend for breakfast, Jess. You might remember her from a couple cameos in some of my old Dorm Days stories, specifically when she fell asleep hiding in my closet from campus security during our huge dorm party, and when she totally brightened up my day during one of the shittiest weeks I had during that era. Good friends like her are hard to come by in this world. She suggested we meet up at the Grand Central Market, one of those big food markets that only seem to exist on Travel Network TV shows. Thankfully, the market was only about a twenty-minute walk from my hotel. In LA, driving doesn't cost a lot, PARKING costs a lot. Actually, with the cost of gas these days, driving costs a lot too.

Don't blame me. The rat peed there.
Now, there's a lot to be said for living in a clean, almost sterile city like Salt Lick, but this was an enjoyable stroll to me for a few reasons. First, people actually seemed interested in where they were going and were MOVING. And even if you bumped into somebody accidentally, they didn't give you the side-eye, they just kept on. I actually kind of liked that anonymity. Also, as gross as it sounds, there's something oddly comforting about that familiar scent of urine and pigeon shit in the air. That felt like a city that's lived in. It doesn't pressure you to conform to a certain way of living. You can do what you want, live your life the way you want to as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else, and nobody gives a rat's ass, not even the rats. That being said, it'd be nice if it was a little cheaper though, but I still dig it. Those high prices, and the fact that your house may either burn down in a brush fire or shake itself apart in the event of an earthquake are all a small price to pay for the luxury of 70 degrees and perfect every single day with a beach nearby.

After hanging around the ever-growing line at the counter of the tastefully named breakfast sandwich booth called Eggslut for about twenty minutes, from behind me I just heard a loud, "NICKAS!" and a big hug. It'd been about ten years since I'd seen her but Jess was a vision as always! I'll tell y'all what, if we have any chance whatsoever at cleaning up the literal mess this country has made of itself in terms of litter and pollution, Jess is going to be at the forefront of the solutions. She works for a waste management NPO in Southern California and was one of the main proponents of their recent plastic grocery bag bans, as well as several other major sustainable trash management initiatives. She knows more about garbage than anyone I know, and that's a good thing. She's going to have a positive impact on this earth. It was great to catch up with her, even if for just a little while as we reminisced about the Dorm Days and everything that's happened since then. After a dynamite sausage sandwich for breakfast and about eight cups of coffee, I walked her to her car and said goodbye. As she pulled away into traffic, I remembered one of the dumb goals of this trip that I had in mind when I left Salt Lick, I was going to buy a suit.

I mentioned in the last chapter of this travelogue that one of my favorite podcasts, The After Disaster, was based in Southern California. A couple months before this, they'd mentioned on one of their shows that two of them had recently purchased tailored suits from a small tailor called Al Weiss. They'd mentioned that they were so good, they practically sized you up as you walked in the door, asked you what you were interested in, and had you outfitted literally ten minutes later with something that fit perfectly, and for not a whole lot of dough. I punched in the coordinates on my phone and found that it was located only about fifteen blocks away, so I continued my march through the streets toward the fashion district. I almost walked right past it, it was so small. I walked in and it looked like it was chock-full of stuff that "fell off the back of the truck." A dude named Roman walked over and just like they said on the show, basically sized me up on everything besides neck-size, grabbed a couple things off the shelf and told me to try them on. Holy shit! This stuff looked great! I just needed the pant legs shortened by an inch. "No problem," the guy said, "take it over to Freddy's next door and they'll tailor it for you. I was in and out of Freddy's in about ten minutes and only out about five bucks for the alterations. I stopped back into Al Weiss and bought three more shirts. All told, I was out all of $250 for an Italian suit and four shirts. Insane. I then had another pleasurable walk for about fifteen blocks packing my garment bag back to my hotel. Nobody gave me a second look. Anonymity is awesome and I was already starting to feel a little bit better. Like it was time to turn a corner.
38 Minutes! It's like I run in slow motion or something, still,
it's a pretty nice view! 

After a killer workout in the surprisingly swanky hotel gym in which I set (at the time) a treadmill 5K personal best (gotta love interval training at sea level!), I met up with my television writer buddy MJ and his wife Alexia for dinner and drinks at a brewpub in Burbank. I coached MJ for a season of high school golf at Carbon High during my freshman year of college and I'd worked with his mother for quite a few years when I was first breaking into the golf business. We spent a couple hours catching up and commiserating on the depressing state of our hometown, politics and the joys of legal weed. All the while on the giant TV screen in the bar, the Dodgers were getting thoroughly destroyed in Game 7 of the series by the Astros. We seemed to be the only ones yukking it up in there, as the rest of the crowd in the bar made the place resemble a funeral parlor. Even though I can't stand the Dodgers, I was almost secretly hoping they'd pull it off (don't tell my Giant fan Dad), so I'd have the once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in a good, old fashioned sports riot! Instead, the ride back to the hotel was pretty uneventful. Out of the window of the high-rise, I heard a few sirens and some shouting, but I chalked that up to just a typical Wednesday night in downtown Los Angeles. After the shit night I had before, I slept like a baby.

Thursday, I made my way back north a bit to Ventura County. One of my comedic heroes and radio legend, Phil Hendrie, often waxed poetic about his beloved El Pacifico and the calming shores of Silver Strand beach. It wasn't too difficult to find, the weather was a beautiful 60 degrees and to my surprise, there was all of about four people on the mile wide stretch of beach. I shouldn't have been surprised, it was a Thursday at noon, in November. What kind of crazy asshole would be at the beach right now? Well, that guy and a tourist dipshit like myelf. I plopped my duffel down, laid out a couple towels and waded out into the water. Yep, it was November, JUMPIN' JEEZUS THAT'S COLD! That was okay though, I practically had the beach to myself. 

Working on the bronze, thinking about
the universe and shit.

I pulled into the big dude equivalent of a lotus position on my towel and zoned out for a minute. Now, normally I have a difficult time shutting my brain off, but something about the gentle waves rolling in and crashing ashore, the occasional seagull squeak, the sand shifting under my tucchus made all of the whirlwind of the road, the heartache from back home, the stresses about work fall away like the sand getting pulled back into the water. I learned a lot from the ocean that day. See, those waves roll in, and roll out. They crash on the beach and move back out again. And there's a rhythm to it. Over and over again. Sometimes they roll in long, and sometimes short. Sometimes the time of day rolls them further up the beach, and at certain times of day, the beach gets bigger. But they crash, over and over and over again. Those waves hit that beach eons before I got there and they'll hit that beach long after I'm gone. No outside forces can change that. Over and over again, the waves crash. I'll leave an imprint of my ass in the sand, and by tomorrow it'll be gone. The universe doesn't care, it just does what it does. The only things we can control are what we do. The way we treat others, the way we treat the planet, the way we feel about ourselves, no other person should have the power to change that about you. They can only be a catalyst, a spark, the rest is entirely up to you. We all have that choice to make.

The Strand Jetty
It's like the second noble truth of Buddhism. "Nothing is forever. Everything ends. Except the waves of the ocean. "To live, is to suffer." Suffering is inevitable for all human beings as long as they labor under the delusion that things can be permanent. When in fact, nothing is permanent. Your life is composed of a series of systems. Your culture, your relationships, your physical body, they're all systems and all systems have a few things in common. They all begin, grow, flourish, decay, and die. Everything without exception. You can be a good Christian, a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Scientologist, make all the right moves, and do all the right things. But your dog is still gonna die, your parents are still gonna die. You're gonna fuck up your marriage. Your girlfriend is still gonna cheat on you. Your kids are gonna grow up and not call you as much. And you can, sit in your nice house and not sleep for three days and cry to the cats and jack off until your dick hurts. Or you can man up, put on your boots and work towards achieving zen. Zen is when you abandon the concept of the past and the future and embrace only the moment. If you can free yourself from the events of the past, which is dead, and your expectations of the future, which is fantasy, and embrace only the moment in which you are alive by freeing yourself from the tyranny of all of those wants that you have, then you can achieve a state of zen consciousness which leads to a state of bliss. 
The golden arcs!

I snapped out of it and looked at my watch. I'd been literally staring at those waves for two and a half hours. I packed up my stuff, snagged a t-shirt at a local surf shop, and hammered down a gyro at a Greek joint adjacent to the beach. After topping off Giselle's fuel tank, I cruised back down the 101 towards the city and my hotel. Fortunately, Waze was acting kind of weird again and had me running through neighborhoods again, but it was fortuitous, and I almost crashed the car when suddenly I drove by a very famous, but very out of place movie landmark, McDowell's from Coming To America! Unfortunately, I'd missed the pop-up restaurant by a couple days, and an apparent appearance by JACKSON HEIGHTS' VERY OWN MR. RANDY WATSON, but still, just the fact that somebody did that to their restaurant was fucking funny and well worth the picture! Somebody get my formerly fat ass a Big Mick!

That night, I ventured into West Hollywood for a stop at the SINGLE GREATEST RECORD STORE IN THE HISTORY OF GODDAMN MANKIND and picked up some vinyl and shopped around a bit. Seriously, if it exists, they probably have a copy of it. After losing myself in there for a couple hours, I drove west down the world famous Sunset Strip to the world famous Rainbow Bar and Grill. I make a pilgrimage to that place every single time I'm in Southern California. There isn't rocker throughout history that hasn't thrown on a massive drunk in that place, and you can almost feel the ghosts echo through the walls. Their food is excellent too, and I went there on this trip for a couple reasons. My friend Susie walked in and sat down in the booth across from me. I hadn't seen her in almost sixteen years and like so many people I know, had somehow managed not to age as time wore on. It was great to see her doing well, she was dating one of my best friends throughout high school, so we'd hang at her house quite often back in the day. Nowadays, she was a doctor for the local department of corrections and had some wild stories to tell. Nothing I care to repeat here, but she's SEEN SOME SHIT! Stuff the makes the "Tossed Salad Man" seem like a walk in the park. But she's weathered through it with a sense of humor, and had also recently started a family. "Having kids changes everything" she said, "it's something I never thought I'd do, but it's been the most rewarding thing ever." I'm sure it really puts things in perspective, especially after dealing with the absolute dregs of society on a daily basis. "Keep that kid outta County!" I quipped. 

I also had to hit up the 'Bow to pay my respects to the late, great Lemmy Kilmister, the mastermind of heavy metal stalwarts Motorhead. I always thought that the only things that would survive our impending doom on the planet would be Keith Richards, cockroaches and Lemmy, but unfortunately seventy years of the hardest living imaginable finally did him in. I was at one of the last shows Motorhead played, here in Salt Lick, when after three songs, he walked off the stage in obviously rough shape. Probably one of the more traumatic concert experiences I've ever had. I literally thought I'd seen the man die onstage that night. His health finally gave out a few months later, and death finally came for the unkillable. 

After the epiphany I'd had earlier in the day on the beach, viewing his Memorial at the Rainbow seemed especially poignant. There weren't too many people over the years that lived "in the moment" as ferociously as Lemmy. That dude attacked life like it was something to be devoured. He toured the world blowing out eardrums, did all the drugs, drank all the booze, bed down with women worldwide and he did it every goddamn day of his life. If he wanted to do something, he made it happen. I think there's something we can all learn from that. Maybe not quite to the destructive ends he went to health-wise, but I think after we all handle our responsibilities, we owe it to ourselves to seek out and experience joy. Whatever that may be. I was never again going to let indecision and fear cloud the direction my life would take. I'm going to tackle life like a linebacker smashing a wide receiver going over the middle. It was time to make some changes, but I had one more lesson to learn on the road before I'd return to life back home...

Coming up soon -  Part Four: The Bridge to Nirvana

"I was born the King of Fools
At any other game I never lose.
But when it comes around to
Love that's when I realize
I was born the king of fools."

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