Before I moved to my secluded cabin up here in the Verdugo Mountains I lived down in the valley, off the main drag, in the part of town where the human refuse of Los Angeles piles up like litter at the end of a wind-blown alleyway. I liked it there. That was back when I was still teaching and trying to write.
I would sit on the second store balcony of my apartment, reading the paper, and blasting off with some fantastic smoke. How I enjoyed looking out over the street scene on Foothill Blvd.— the people walking aimlessly on the street, the searchers of sundries, the fat little women pushing strollers, the exhaust fumes quivering in the air. There was no finer enjoyment than being up on that balcony, in the sun. Far up in the old oak tree in the front yard of the apartment complex a squirrel skittered up the bark with some unknown treasure in his mouth. I made my vision blur so the street scene dropped away and all I could see was that squirrel, jumping around with idiotic glee. Nice little fellow.
Like I said, I had the local newspaper in my lap (in this town there was still a newspaper at the time) and had just read a story proclaiming that, despite the awful state of the economy, crime in the city was at its lowest level since the 1960s. I was feeling hopeful about things. I lit up the one-hitter and continued reading and suddenly I was hit in the forehead like a bolt-shot cattle: on the second page was a throw-away bit of page filler about that small continent of plastic bags floating out there somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a mass of refuse roughly the size of Texas.
I’ve had anxiety about this for some time. Somehow, some way, all of our plastic grocery bags have ended up out there. It’s a disturbing image—a Sargasso sea of refuse from Vons and King Soopers and Krogers and Safeway and HEB and Publix and 7-11 and all the rest. I imagined freighter ships caught in a soup of cheap white plastic, bags caught in the propellers, bags lapping up against the side of the hull, the sea a murky shade of off-white as far as the eye can see…
How did they find each other? Did they merely follow prevailing ocean currents to reach, after a long and harrowing journey, their destination? Or is it possible the bags possess an intelligence we do not yet understand? What the hell is going on out there?
And just like that, the good vibes fell away. I was bumming out. I have nightmares about the ocean. It’s been a problem since I was a youngster. So when I saw this story, it shook me.
A couple of hours went by out on the balcony and then I found myself in front of the TV, watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The jokes bounced harmlessly off of my face, little meaningless plastic-tipped darts of nothingness.
Someone knocked on the front door.
Tammy walked in. I’m still not sure if she was my girlfriend or what.I told her to go away and she would keep showing up. She had a kid somewhere, was divorced. She’s dead now.
“I brought you dinner,” she said.
“I don’t know that I can eat, but I’ll give it a shot.”
When weed loses its ability to take the edge off of things there’s a sort of panic that sets in, a panic unmitigated by a well-lighted room or your favorite TV show or anything at all. And when weed doesn’t do anything for your appetite either, forget it. It’s wrist-slitting time. I sat there in front of the television: silly, helpless, idiotic.
“You seem depressed,” said Tammy. “Did you smoke pot all day again?”
“Not all day.”
“Did you write anything?”
“Sure,” I lied. “That new novel is going real well.”
“The one about the gay-bashing vampire?”
“When are you going to let me read it?”
“When it’s finished…”
We ate and went to bed. I got on top of Tammy, her breasts staring at me with their moronic areola eyes. I stuck it in and when she got hers I pulled out and dribbled grayish semen on her leg. For that second, the fear and the self-loathing dropped away. But then I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Night returned.
I thought about my writing and what I fool I was to think of myself as an artist. Art meant anxiety. The writer’s life lacks structure, and sometimes that’s a problem for a depressive case. Two days a week I taught Asian Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College—that is to say, I would go in and drool over the twenty-year-old Armenian girls, and play “educational” movies for the class, and watch the clock. I was probably the worst teacher who ever lived, truth be told.
Another day in the books, another day come to a close, fittingly, with a thwarted act of creation.
That night I found myself plagued by strange nightmares: of swimming in the sea, the water juicy green and lapping warm against my face as I fought to stay afloat and looked all around to find myself nowhere near land. I spit out the impossibly salty water and tried not to panic, tried not to think about the immensity of it all around me. Then my fingers brushed against something. It swirled, full of weight, like a water-soaked bridal veil. Then another and another and another—on my arms, on my legs, wrapping themselves like wet hair over my body, tendrils of plastic wrapping around my limbs, pulling me down into the indifferent and noiseless dark…
I woke with a start. The pillow was clammy with sweat. Tammy was gone. I looked over to my left at the empty spot where she had been, the sheets still smooth from her body. In another year she would be dead.
I got up, walked into the bathroom and shat, a real good one. Then I took a shower. The water coursing down on my head was tepid, just the way I like it. I like everything lukewarm: my food and my showers and my coffee. I stood there in the shower and looked down at myself: at the swollen middle-aged belly, at the disturbing sponge of pubic hair, at the thousands of freckles on my arms from a sunburnt summer outing so many years ago. I looked at the freckles and thought about skin cancer, how a day on the beach in 1985 can kill you decades later. So many things can get you. The water coursed down over my head and the feeling of unease from the dream returned. Christ. I turned the water off and dried off.
In the kitchen the cats were waiting. I filled their food bowls and they commenced their usual mode of behavior: eating. Later on they would shit. Then they would sleep.
I ate some eggs and toast, drank a couple of Diet Cokes, and went out on the balcony with the one-hitter and the little baggie of weed. More of the street scene, the squirrel; then I opened the sliding glass door and walked inside and sat at the old Gateway for awhile, waiting.
That night Tammy came over again with a big cast iron pot and a cloth bag full of vegetables and a roasting chicken.
“Everything okay? You seem a little out of it. Even more than usual.”
“I’m all right. What did you bring?”
“I’m going to make you a nice chicken dish. Here—open a bottle of wine.”
I uncorked the bottle and poured a couple of glasses while she took all the stuff out of the bag and set it on the counter.
“Shit!” she said.
“Yeah, this wine’s not the greatest.”
“It’s not that. I left a bunch of stuff at home. I need fresh thyme…mushrooms…heavy cream…”
“Don’t sweat it. I’ll run over to Jons and pick that stuff up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. I could stand to get a little fresh air.”
“Okay, let me make you a list…”
While she wrote the list I put on my windbreaker and sunglasses and baseball cap. My usual outfit. I looked like I was about to rob a bank.
“When you go to the store? Don’t forget to use these.”
She handed me two little bundles—little balls of hot pink nylon drawn tight with string. “What the hell are these?”
“Are they for carrying hubcaps?”
“Racist jokes as usual…no, take a look.”
With one deft move she unfolded one of the pink balls. It became a bag, a big one. Then with another flick of the wrist she folded the thing back into itself. The thing could fit in one’s pocket. Nifty.
“See? There’s no need to use those horrible plastic bags.”
“I know. They are destroying our world.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. It’s a small thing, but it’s important to me. Is it really too much for you to use the Chico Bags?”
“Not at all. Except that they’re hot pink. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“Don’t tell me your manhood is threatened by your carrying a pink bag.”
“Something like that. Forget it.”
I walked up Foothill Boulevard, past the bums passed out in doorways and the gangs of balding Armenian men smoking and the dillapidated Laundromat and the Salvadoran joint that serves greasy plantain burritos and then into the grocery store, Chico Bags nestled in my pocket, my hand resting on the cool surface of the nylon, comforted somehow by the feel of it on my fingertips.
This place on Foothill is one of the last major grocers in town with a full-service butcher. The air reeks of stale blood and old dust. The place could stand a good cleaning, frankly, and I wouldn’t shop there at all if it weren’t for the ridiculously cheap produce: avocados 4 for a dollar, bell peppers 99 cents a pound. Sure, you’ve got to scrub the stuff with a wire brush to remove all the fecal residue—but who can resist those kinds of prices?
I looked through the tomatoes for one without a bruise and wondered for the hundredth time about the low prices. Surely the Peruvian government has political prisoners working in a burning deathfield for 18 hours a day yanking radish bunches from the verdant shitfields that serve double-duty as dumping grounds for the town sewage. Surely there is a reason why I, an American, have been blessed with privilege and cheap prices.
I touched the fabric of the Chico Bag again and told myself everything would be all right and walked over to the cash register with the shortest line.
The woman at the cash register glanced up, unwilling to meet my gaze. She was a small woman, probably of Slavic descent, big busted and squat. I wanted badly for her to look into my eyes, to acknowledge me. I wanted her to know that I’m not like the others, the arrogant ones, the ones who think their shit doesn’t stink. You know who I mean: the beard-boys, the salad-eaters. I wanted to be liked by the woman, and the irrationality of the desire irked me.
I pulled the Chico Bag out of my pocket and handed it to the bagboy. He looked at it for a couple of seconds with his mouth hanging open, the adam’s apple on his scrawny unshaven neck bobbing up and down. He looked at me, looked again at the Chico Bag, and then talked to the woman at the cash register with the guttural clipped tones of some eastern European tongue. She chattered back for a minute and then they laughed. The bagboy wouldn’t meet my gaze and neither would she. He opened the Chico Bag and loaded it up with all the items I’d bought. Finally I paid and he handed me the Chico Bags full of groceries and I walked towards the exit at the front of the store. I looked back at them. The bag-boy pantomimed a limp-wristed gesture and they laughed again.
Son of a bitch!
I walked across the parking lot, red-faced with shame. A shiny gray Cadillac rolled by. The horn honked and I looked over to see a big Refrigerator Perry look-alike laughing and nodding at me.
I walked out of the parking lot and crossed Victory Boulevard, pink Chico Bags in hand. Traffic was backed up all along the boulevard. An accident? A number of police cars were parked along Coldwater Canyon Avenue. I scanned the scene and then I saw them. In a recessed doorway of a building they had a bum backed up against the wall.
Two of the cops had their guns trained on him, the third yelling into a walkie-talkie.
“We’re gonna need backup here,” he said.
The bum wore a poncho made from a plastic garbage bag. His hands were somewhere under the plastic poncho. Maybe they were in his pockets and maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were doing something else. The movements under the bag were furtive. The hands would stop and start again. He had dirty looking dreadlocks and pockmarked skin and his eyes were somehow both wild and drugged at the same time.
I’d walked into the middle of the conversation.
“I don’t give a FUCK about that,” said the first cop. “Show us your goddamned hands.”
“I jes’ want to take my bottles and cans to the recycle. I didn’t do nothing.”
Laid out against the wall were at least a dozen plastic bags full of bottles and cans, knotted up in neat little bundles. Plastic bags. Not Chico Bags. I suddenly wanted to get out of there, get high…
“TAKE YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS.”
“You gone shoot me?”
“TAKE YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS.”
“I doan want you to shoot me.”
“I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU AGAIN. SHOW ME YOUR HANDS, GODDAMMIT!”
The cop was young, pudgy, babyfaced. He looked more like a mall security guard than a cop. He was a real cop, though: the gun in his hand was real enough. He held it steady, pointed at the man’s face, just like you see in the movies. I watched, fascinated, waiting for him to blow the bum’s brains out all over the dirty stucco wall behind him. I decided I didn’t want to see that. I had my food and Chico bags and that was enough, would be enough for anyone under most circumstances. I walked away. There were shots. I turned the corner and walked back up to the apartment building without looking back.
I walked through the front door and into the kitchen and I put the Chico Bags on the kitchen table. The cats stared at me. Soon they would eat. Later they would shit. Then they would sleep. I kissed the back of Tammy’s neck as she browned the chicken. I walked over to the Gateway and sat down and got back to work on the vampire novel. He’s pissed off because one of his victims gave him the HIV virus. But don’t vampires live forever? So why would he care?
I sighed and stopped thinking and started hitting the keys. In these times of instant death, of anxiety and formlessness, there is something to be said for tip-tapping these keys, the sound lost in the void. Something.