The thud of slamming car doors jolted me awake. Car doors had been slamming in the underground parking lot for what felt like the entire night, but when I pulled back the thin sheet to check my phone, I realized they’d probably only been slamming for part of the morning. It was 7:31 a.m. I’d gone to sleep just after 2:30.
I stretched my legs as far as the backseat of my truck would allow. Right outside my window, hotel guests dragged wheeled luggage toward the lobby, letting their big oblivious footsteps pound atop the pavement. One of the slammed doors set off a car alarm, and now a high-pitched squeal echoed through the parking structure like the angry call of a predatory bird. With the sheet back over my head, I squeezed my eyes tight and took a deep breath. When I awoke later, it was almost 8:15. The hotel would stop serving its complimentary breakfast in 45 minutes, and on road trips like this, I always helped myself to the complimentary breakfast.
This was my vacation. I lived in Phoenix but had driven to Tucson to see a Bay Area garage band. Countless bands were returning home from South by Southwest in Austin, and most had booked shows along the way. Since I’d missed this particular band the last time they played Phoenix, I drove the two hours south to Tucson, caught the show, slept in my truck in some chain hotel parking lot, then drove straight to Los Angeles morning before to see another band perform that night. Seven hours, 480 miles, and $90 worth of gas later, I didn’t have enough money to sleep anywhere but my truck. It wasn’t even my truck. I’d borrowed it from my dad. My dented, 15-year-old Toyota Corolla had tiny cracked tires and a grimy, rattling engine that was liable to die somewhere in the desert. Also, the Corolla wasn’t a suitable place to sleep. Dad’s pickup stood high off the ground. Its backseat was long and wide, and the windows were tinted enough to conceal its contents — factors that combined to make ideal sleeping quarters.
As strange as it sounds, I’d been sleeping in cars on road trips for 16 years, starting when I was 18. I’d car-camped alone on both extended trips and weekend excursions, had car-camped with an ex-girlfriend and car-camped with a close friend. I’d slept in the camper shell of my old Toyota pickup, in a rented Subaru station wagon, in the back of a minivan, in backseat of a sedan, and in a rented SUV, not just in my home state of Arizona, but throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and British Columbia. Many friends and family members thought the practice dangerous. “Just get a room,” they would say. “Spend the money to be safe.” They were missing the point: if I spent money on rooms every night, I couldn’t afford the trip. I only rented rooms if I needed a full-body wash and couldn’t find a free shower at a public beach or a pay one at a truck stop. I could wash my face, hair, arms, and teeth in gas station bathroom sinks — not as thorough as what’s called a “whore shower,” where you wash the important parts, but clean enough that I looked and smelled presentable in public. What little money I had went to food and gas.
Anyway, back in my 20s, sleeping in the car was part of a trip’s appeal: it was adventurous, and adventure was fun. And car-camping not only freed me the exorbitant prices at chain motels, it let me overnight in towns that were too tiny to have motels, and in landscapes too wild to contain much infrastructure. With the right car, properly equipped, I could park on old national forest logging roads, on public beaches or on residential side streets in beach towns. I could park in Walmart lots along the highway, in church lots under big oak trees, in cul-de-sacs overlooking pastures and in state parks’ developed campsites. Then, I could wake up to gorgeous views of beaches, mountains, and lakes, just lower the truck’s tailgate and be greeted by a cool breeze and the sort of scenery travelers paid big money to see from their hotel balcony. I’d cooked many breakfasts on my Coleman stove in front of such scenes. Granted, sleeping on a side street in Mission Beach or a dirt road in the Oregon backcountry posed certain threats that you had to prepare for, but if you could successfully avoid getting robbed, killed, or kicked out by security guards, then what you experienced was a pure type of freedom, an invigorating autonomy, too rare in everyday life.
Most people were too wimpy to understand this.
The upscale Residence Inn I found in Burbank was shaded and safe. It stood along I-5, a few feet from perpetually roaring traffic, on the edge of the city’s tiny downtown. If I had company, we would have split a cheap room, but none of my closest friends in Phoenix could join me on this trip. Dean had just lost his job, moved back in with his parents and was scouring the city for work. Chris had an 8-month-old baby to care for, was back in school finally earning his bachelor’s, and he and his wife were struggling to pay their mortgage. JD managed a big copy center and mostly stayed at home with his girlfriend and her kid. Alex had a kid, too, a demanding job, a mortgage, and a crazy ex-girlfriend whose joint custody gave him constant headaches. Kids, mortgages, careers — somehow all the crap we’d once dismissed as the bleak concerns of geezers had caught up with us. Well, not with me. I might not have had enough disposable income to fund many trips like this, but I hadn’t committed myself to kids or mortgages, either. I was single, self-employed, only rented apartments, and lived off taco cart tacos and ham sandwiches. Such concessions guaranteed that my time was mine to fill. I could stay up until 2 a.m. reading if I wanted to, or hike in the mountains on a whim, with no fear of abandoning or disappointing anyone else. I had no one to account for but myself. I was also at that age where you started to wonder if the life you’d fashioned in youth had lost its charm.
But this band out of San Francisco was one of my favorites — what I considered one of the best on Earth, still underground but on the verge of blowing up — and they were playing three LA shows in four days. Last night’s took place inside some guy’s apartment in an old warehouse east of downtown. Marketing types called it a “live/work space,” but it was really a long brick rectangle where the guy could fit both his VW Bug and a bed. Tonight’s show was on the UC Irvine campus, 75 freeway miles to the south, inside a trailer that doubled as a classroom. I refused to let age or finances interfere with my enjoying life. So I left everyone to their regular lives and drove west alone. It made me think of that Stooges song “No Fun,” where Iggy sings: “No fun, my babe, no fun/No fun to be around/Walking by myself/No fun to be alone/In love with nobody else.” Admittedly, Iggy was 60-something years old now, his slack, wrinkled skin draped atop his neck and ribs like a Shar Pei’s, but he still played shows, still climbed atop amps and flung around the microphone, and when he spoke, he spoke with the same intelligence and quick wit. He’d lived his life on his terms and succeeded at it — financially, personally — wrote some of the world’s most timeless songs, and seemed to have fun doing it. I envied that. In my teens I had vowed never to spend my best years enslaved to some mind-numbing office job just to earn a check, squandering my decades in a florescent-lit cubicle rather than out having fun in sun. And, here I was.
Inside the truck, trapped breath and body heat turned the cool spring air into a furnace, slicking my chest with sweat. The car alarm had finally stopped, though. Guests were no longer chattering loudly or dragging luggage. The hush made me want to go back to sleep. But I knew I needed to take advantage of that breakfast — and steal as many teabags and instant oatmeal packets as my pockets could hold — so I could put the money I saved on food into my gas fund. With a yawn I pushed off the covers, rubbed my itchy eyes, and felt around for my clothes. I’d find a place to shower later.
My clothes lay under the passenger seat. Jacket, shirt, pants — everything stunk of cigarettes and spilled beer. Keeping my head down, I dug through my backpack and pulled out a wrinkled black collared button-up and dark Levi’s, fished a pair of clean socks from the box of clothes and food on the floor. Since I wanted to sleep here again tomorrow night, I had to follow the prime directive of my time-tested car-camping rules: remain undetected. So, lying on my back, I pulled on my pants and shirt, careful not to shake the truck, and before sitting up to tie my shoes, I made sure there was no bright light source that would cast me in silhouette. Understandably, people tend to be suspicious of people in the back of parked cars.
Another car-camping technique I’d developed over the years: Be cautious when stepping out of the car in the morning. You don’t want anyone to notice that you slept in it. When you open the back door, people will be able to see in, and the more observant few might notice the pillow and blankets on the seat, and the luggage on the floor. It’s not hard to put two and two together. In addition, anyone watching will think it’s weird seeing you step out of the backseat rather than the front. To avoid this you have to climb over the armrest and exit from the driver’s door, as any normal person who parked their car would. The thing is, to anyone who’s been standing there long enough to notice that you didn’t just pull into that spot, but had been parked there for eight hours, any exit might look strange. So, if anyone has been lingering nearby long enough to notice, I always let them gather their luggage and go inside first. If there are security cameras with their lenses aimed my direction, all I can do is hope that the person watching the security footage is as oblivious as most Americans and won’t notice that I parked and never got out the entire night.
With my clothes on, I scanned the garage for cameras and onlookers, then climbed over the armrest and out the driver’s side. Blood rushed to my feet. My knees didn’t pop, though, and my neck didn’t ache. It felt good to be released from that fetal position and stand upright. I couldn’t resist prolonging the luxurious sensation of normal blood circulation, so I pulled my foot behind my back to stretch my thigh muscles, thankful that, even at age 34, I needed no medications or special sleeping conditions to get by, suffered no “health issues,” or whatever you called obesity, high cholesterol, back problems, and adult-onset diabetes brought on in middle age by lifestyle choices. I took moderately good care of myself: ate salads, drank lots of water, no longer smoked. I had friends with migraines, permanent back pain, high blood pressure, therapeutic mattresses, special shoe inserts, hair plugs, slipped discs, carpel tunnel, sciatica, insomnia, acid reflux, bad knees, and others who constantly complained: “Oh, my allergies have been killing me;” “Oh my God, I’ve had a cough all month.”
I stretched my other leg and complimented myself on being able to sleep anywhere that I needed to. When I was 22, I’d slept under a chair for three nights on the ferry between Washington state and Alaska. I still could do that if necessary. It made me proud that I was old yet didn’t act like it. Then I wondered if it was the other way around: Maybe I was old and needed to act my age.
While the fog started to lift from my fatigued head, I noticed a white metal sign hanging on a cement column beside my truck:
for Hotel Guests
Please See Front
It was pitiful to think that, on my current budget, the amount of money many 30-somethings dropped on two drinks was what I tried to spend over the course of two days. The show last night was five bucks. Tonight’s would likely be the same. If I parceled my resources correctly, I could spend $15 on food over the course of two days — a few bucks at local taco shops, a $5-bowl of phō in Chinatown — but not all at once, and not for parking.
Instead of making me feel savvy and industrious, this all made me question my lifestyle: no girlfriend, no money, no health insurance or desire to have children. Were music and fun all I wanted out of life? I leaned into the side mirror to fix what was left of my hair. It was thin up top, thick around the sides. I flattened a few rogue strands in back and studied my tired eyes — red slits ringed by dark bags. I rubbed them and stood up straight. Then I started walking toward the lobby.
Counter to the usual progression of things, the older I got, the deeper my musical appreciations grew. I got into blues in my late-20s, got into late-’50s/early-’60s hard bop jazz soon after. I went through a classical music period in which I listened to Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos so frequently that a friend asked if I was going to start wearing white shirts with ruffles. Recently I’d seen 1950s jazz legends perform in New York, and octogenarian bluesmen tear through fierce sets in nondescript bars, men who used canes and had suffered strokes and still smoked. Although my tastes kept expanding, music had always been one of my central preoccupations.
My dad got me into it. When I was a kid, we played a game. While he drove me to elementary school, we would listen to jazz or country on the radio, and I had to guess the musician. “Who’s that?” Dad would ask.
I’d tilt my ear toward the speaker. “Duke Ellington.”
Then, during the next song, Dad would smile and glance at me sideways. “Who’s that?”
“Sachmo,” I’d say. And Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Bennie Goodman, Bing Crosby, Bob Wills, Buck Owens. After a few years, I could name scores of them.
Most kids in middle and high school had their favorite bands: the Cure, Pixies, Guns N’ Roses. I had mine, too. Like most teenagers, my attachment to music was fierce and obsessive.
When I was 14, some friends and I camped in front of a department store box office at the mall to get concert tickets. This was before the Internet. Tickets sometimes sold out so quickly that in order to secure them, you had to physically stake your claim. We did this multiple times. We would have our parents drop us off on the edge of the mall parking lot, where no one could see this embarrassing transaction. Then we would ignore their heartfelt goodbyes as we carried our blankets and pillows up the stairs to the store’s outdoor entrance. Other kids usually beat us to the best spot right against the door: a bird-like boy with dyed-black hair and smeared mascara; two goth girls lounging on their backs, smoking cloves. My friends and I would lay our bedding down on the cement and try to make the next 13 tedious hours as bearable as possible. This was before iPods or good portable video games. We had to talk to pass the time.
As the night wore on, other kids would show up. They’d lie atop their sleeping bags, open bags of chips and chatter about the band: I love the guitarist; I love this album; I saw them play in Albuquerque; I’ve wanted to see them for years. Despite the fear of losing our place in line, my friends and I would sometimes walk to a nearby convenience store and get candy and giant 44-ounce sodas — anything to kill an hour. When the rising sun would start to brighten the eastern horizon, everyone would get excited, not just about the tickets, but about the impending release from our boring task. The sky is glowing orange! It must be nearing 9 a.m.! Then we’d look at our watches: no, only 7. We ate more chips and sucked soda, and when an employee finally unlocked the doors she would warn us, “No running,” and everyone would run like gazelles toward the box office, weaving through the home furnishings department, past displays of coffee makers and silver saucepan sets, frenzied fans treating each other like enemies on a battlefield rather than kindred spirits who had just spent the night in bed together sharing our deepest musical obsessions while trying to hide the big zit above our lip.
By the time my friends and I turned 16, few shows required these extreme measures. The bands we liked played small clubs that sold tickets through local record stores, stores that also sold zines and 7-inch records and books on tattooed pinup girls, all of which made us feel part of an elite group of insiders privy to a shadow universe that existed under the surface of the larger, dumber, consumer-droid culture.
Punk, surf, rockabilly, psychedelic — throughout our teens and 20s we saw hundreds of shows, from Bad Brains to the Mermen to The Cramps. We saw bands that were nobodies and later became legendary, saw bands that were legendary and whose members are now dead. I stored all of the tickets in a box in my closet. If no tickets were issued, then I kept the flyer.
More than a decade later, friends and I still talked about certain moments. “Remember when the sax player in the Nixon mask blew fire over our heads?” “Remember when they pushed their amps over and left mid-set?” “Remember when the drummer nodded out and his cigarette fell and lit the set list on fire?” These excited reminiscences were often followed by the refrain: “That’s still one of my favorite shows ever.
Even now, at age 34, I craved those rogue exhibitions, the wildness and spontaneity. What I also craved was the comradery: being sandwiched between hundreds of sweaty strangers in a crowd right up against the stage, your shoulders unnaturally bent, stomach pressed against someone’s pudgy back while someone else’s forearm pressed against your ass, all that flesh squished together in a bizarre, malodorous union, and how, for that one hour of music, that brief moment in your otherwise routine life, you were all family. You weren’t cutting each other off on the freeway, weren’t vying for the last parking spot or grumbling to yourself in the grocery store line about how long they took to swipe their credit card and step aside, because really, my God, how fucking hard was it to turn the card’s magnetic strip in the direction shown on the keypad and move on already? No. You were kin. Brothers and sisters united in a bloodline of shared passion: to hear loud music and collectively unhinge. Cups of beer whizzed past your face. Elbows occasionally speared your temple. But if someone fell down in the crowd, you picked him up. If someone turned pale green, you asked if he wanted out. If he said yes, you lifted him up and gently passed him to guards over the security partition. And when you danced, all your bodies moved together.
I could never carry on without these moments. People who didn’t enjoy live music confounded me, the same way certain asymmetrical sea creatures who moved through water without fins or visible appendages confounded me. Life was visceral experience, not just the pursuit of security and avoidance of discomfort. As I texted Chris after last night’s warehouse show: “I’d sleep in 20 gutters to see that again.” I’d told him about this band months ago. “You have to hear them,” I said. Within weeks he was playing their songs as compulsively as I was.
Chris was my age. We’d known each other for 18 years, when he was thin and I wasn’t half bald. He was the last friend in our group of guys who remained equally consumed by music: always up on new bands, constantly suggesting records to check out. Most of the best shows we’d seen as kids, we’d seen together. And for the past few years — while everyone else went to bed early, or stayed home watching TV, complaining how loud guitars hurt their ears — he and I still went to shows, weekends and weekdays, no matter how late. But things had changed.
Where previously we would email with news that so-and-so was playing next Thursday, Chris’ common response to such emails now was: “Sorry, can’t go. It’s my turn to feed the baby.” Feeding time was 5 a.m. He and his wife Sasha took turns. They were trying to get their 8-month-old daughter Liv on a set sleep schedule, but she still woke up crying in the middle of the night. He got up four times one night last week. The average number was three. Chris and Sasha also took turns getting up to check on her at night. When we did go to shows, he asked Sasha for what he half-jokingly called “permission” — permission to stay out late, permission to drink too much beer. It really wasn’t a request so much as a pre-apology for how tired, hungover, and useless he was going to be the next day. Sasha didn’t make him ask permission. She didn’t guilt him about wanting to go out, and she loathed the term “permission” for all that it implied about the balance of power and the nature of married life. He just felt guilty about making her carry all the weight.
Chris and Sasha traded feeding morning duties when she could, and he would text her from the show: “How’s Liv? You two okay? Love you.” But when work or fatigue meant Sasha couldn’t trade, Chris ended up on his couch at home trying not to pout, and I ended up standing in the audience alone, milling around between sets like a loser and sending him texts: “Man, you would’ve loved this.” I wasn’t trying to rub it in. I was just excited, and he was one of the few people who understood why. What I couldn’t tell him (and what I hope he didn’t sense in my messages) was that I preferred this to parenting, preferred it to almost anything really – to “date nights” spent watching movies on couches with cute but poorly matched women, to waking up early to have breakfast with my parents, to the comforts and security of a good job, and increasingly, it seemed, to adulthood itself.
Unlike regular life, live music was never dull or predictable. It also elevated my existence without committing me to the sort of job required to finance the 18-year-plus task of parenting. I felt self-absorbed thinking this, even immature. So many of my friends who had kids constantly extolled parenting’s virtues: “You can’t imagine how much joy kids bring you,” they’d say, “that you could love another human being so deeply.” Baby’s first steps, baby’s first day of school, the quiet moments at home alone when they looked up at you and said, I love you, Dad — “It’s so rewarding. I would throw myself in front of a car for that kid.” I believed them, yet these were the same people who admitted: “I’m always tired.”
“I’m buried in chores.”
“I have no time to myself.”
“I worry I’m doing it all wrong; sometimes I can’t breathe.”
“I’m stuck at my job at least until she starts middle school.”
“I wish I could just jump in the car and drive to the beach and talk to no one.”
At night they drank too much wine to cope, or smoked occasional cigarettes even though they’d officially quit. And they warned me to be careful on this trip, to rent a motel room or not go at all, all while insisting that “Fun doesn’t end once you have a kid.” Maybe my thoughts on parenting would change. “Once you meet the right person,” Sasha told me, “you’ll feel different.” Their baby Liv was a grinning, crawling, gurgling bundle of chubby pinchable dough, and I turned mushy every time I saw her: got on the ground to play, showed her how to pet the cat, lapsed into a ridiculous goo-goo voice. But between the fatigue, bills, and lack of free time, I doubted I would ever see the appeal. Right now, things were exciting.
The history of music is marked by a few, fleeting, magical moments: 1957 in New York jazz, 1962 in Liverpool, 1967 in San Francisco, 1970 in Detroit, the mid-’70s at CBGB ,1990 in Seattle. Stars had aligned to produce so-called local “scenes” whose underground bands ended up transforming music the world over. Whatever caused such things, that mysterious convergence of talent, timing, and personalities, it was happening again right now on the West Coast, and somehow — by good luck and staying up on new music — I’d found out about it.
If the musical eras that Chris and I had experienced in our teens were any indication of future patterns of history, then I knew that this moment would pass as quickly as the rest. The underground bands would one day be discovered by the larger culture. They’d start playing big cavernous venues with higher ticket prices and higher percentages of meatheads in the crowd. They’d tour constantly to spread the word, put out numerous singles and albums to feed the furnace of popular demand while it was hot, and as the musicians aged and tired of the road, they’d likely tire of their own musical ideas, abandon their previous style, and their song-writing would change — suffer, possibly. And as they played the same songs over and over for years and years and things became routine, more like a job, their shows would lose the power and purity that once made them so monumental. This is often the way, as any book on music history explains. But right now, these particular West Coast bands were young and energetic, their music fresh and unprecedented, their shows still intimate and overlooked enough to feel like a dirty little secret, like when you don’t wear underwear to dinner and your lover touches you under the table. Future fans would look back on this year in awe and wish they could have experienced it. And we, the informed obsessive few, would know that we did experience it — that we were there — not to brag or feel superior, but to relish the fullness that comes from devouring something of substance, be it food, foreign lands, or a whole era at the height of its artistic potency. It was rare that you were aware that something culturally significant was happening while it was happening — usually such appreciations occurred in hindsight — but I was aware of it. Chris was, too.
He had a different life now, but I wasn’t going to miss it.
I arrived at the venue around 5:30 last night to scope it out. The band’s website listed no start time, no place name, only an address followed by the letters “LA.” It was seductively cryptic. I figured the location was either an art gallery or some crumbling bungalow where people drank beer on the dead lawn and the band set up in the living room; either would be sufficiently intimate and rowdy.
Before I found a safe hotel lot where I could sleep, I wanted to find the venue and make sure I had the right place so I wouldn’t miss any of the music. Yesterday I drove straight through the desert from Tucson, past all the interchangeable towns along the I-10 between San Bernardino and L.A., then got off at Alameda Avenue, and turned right onto Sixth Street. I Googled the address while in Tucson and drew myself a map. The place was in the old warehouse district, a gritty industrial section ringed by freeways, southeast of downtown, where the city’s famous Art Deco bridges crossed the empty, cement channel of the Los Angeles River. My friends and I had passed this area countless times as teenagers while driving to the beach. It appeared solely as a sea of shabby roofs on the other side of the elevated freeway. Having watched movies like Repo Man and Boyz n the Hood, I imagined the world down there as a post-apocalyptic no man’s land where the homeless cannibalized each other, gang members carjacked you, and every fence was barbed and covered in shredded plastic bags. Turns out, the area wasn’t so bad.
West of Alameda ran a number of streets where trash tumbled past parking meters that no cars parked in front of, and where people built cardboard shanties and sat on the curb drinking from bottles. But on the other side of Alameda, the area had been repackaged as the Downtown L.A. Arts District, and many of the old warehouses were being transformed into fancy lofts marketed to people for whom the term “urban living” meant “living urbane.” There was a gun club in one, a sound stage in another. One was being repainted, another torn down. Some of the old buildings were still skuzzy, though, like the off-white one at the end of Sixth that had a sign painted on it: “Global Farms Enterprises, Inc. Garlic & Ginger Wholesale Distributors.” And the one that I assumed was the venue.
A large banner ad stretched across the front. “Downtown Artist Spae .com,” it said, misspelled:
Fabrication Creation Location
I parked and studied the row of metal security grates that ran along its pale gray front, a shade as lifeless as old bologna. A young guy in jeans and a white tank-top shuffled into one of the units. It was the only unit whose open door wasn’t covered by a grate. I got out of the truck and approached it. A white, late-’60s VW Bug sat parked in the opening. Beyond that stretched a long rectangular corridor. The floor was cracked cement, the walls exposed brick, painted white in places, tan in others. A few pipes ran up the sides alongside some wires. “Hey,” I said. “This where the show is tonight?”
The kid in the wife-beater sat in a chair against the wall. “Yeah,” he said.
“How much is it?”
“I think five.” He scratched his shaved head and yelled “Troy!” to a guy at the other end of the unit. “He’ll know. He lives here.”
The other guy dropped the huge rug he was dragging and looked up. He was over 6 feet tall and wore the same outfit as the first guy: tight blue jeans, heavy black work boots, a white tank top and suspenders hanging from his waistband. They looked like skinheads, but I figured no Nazi punks would be listening to the sort of psychedelic garage bands that were playing tonight.
“Is this your work space?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, stepping beside me. “I mean, I live here, too. It’s live/work.” He said he was a musician. Then he stopped talking and stared at me, suspicious of my presence, probably contemplating my motives. I complimented his place to disarm him and said I’d driven all the way from Phoenix for the show. “Whoa,” he said. “Phoenix?”
I didn’t mention Tucson. For some reason, standing there with these strangers, all the clothes and bedding stuffed in my car, my enthusiasm for music suddenly embarrassed me. All I said was, “I just love this band. They’re like no other.” It was the truth, but there was the detailed truth, and then there was the simple truth you told people.
He offered his hand. “Troy.”
“Nice to meet you. Aaron.”
The other guy stood up and shook my hand. “I’m Robbie.” He lived in a unit a few doors down.
I asked when the show started, and Troy ran his hand across his head, wagging it side to side. “Well, I dunno, 9? 8? There’s four bands. My band opens.”
A young brunette woman emerged from the rear. To Troy she said, “You want me to work the door?” He shrugged. She sat down on a stool and started texting.
When the phone in Robbie’s hand rang, he checked the number and handed it to Troy. “Excuse me a second,” Troy said, holding it to his hear. “Hey, what’s up. Yeah.” I gave him a wave, told Robbie that I’d see him tonight. Then I drove past downtown and up the I-5 in search of a place to sleep. The Residence Inn was the first nice hotel I saw from the freeway, and when I exited to investigate, I spotted the underground lot, with its many parking spaces, all sheltered from the sun, and knew immediately that it was the one.
Once, on a road trip when I was 21, I woke up in my truck’s camper shell in the middle of the night and thought I was in a grave. I was lying on my back. Everything was black. Something pinned my arms against my sides and pressed my legs together. The voice in my head said: I think I’m dead.
Filled with terror, I sat up and drew a breath and tried to get my bearings. I wiggled free of what turned out to be a sleeping bag and rubbed condensation off the window with a dirty sock. I peered through the glass. No shapes emerged, no images. Where was I? When I opened the back hatch the familiar smell of forest rushed in: rich soil, moist air, bright chlorophyll-laced plant life. As my eyes adjusted, the shapes of sword ferns came into focus, a deep blue light backlit trunks of trees. Then I remembered: I was in the coastal Redwoods. Alone, on vacation.
When I lay back down I was relieved, but I kept thinking That’s what it’s like to be buried alive. You can’t breathe underground.
I made one quick circle through the underground lot, confident that I would have no trouble parking there undiscovered after the show let out. I got dinner spent some time in a bookstore. Then I drove back to the warehouse district and parked on Sixth near the bridge.
The street was empty. A few stars broke the sky’s luminous vacancy. Cars passed somewhere nearby, but no headlights shone. This wasn’t the frenzied, traffic-choked L.A. I was used to. It felt peaceful, like a tiny desert town, comfortably decaying and happily forsaken.
When I reached Troy’s place, two white wooden boards filled the entryway. They had been spray-painted with the words “Happy birthday” in black. This was a cover, Troy later explained, to throw off police and dampen the sound. I slipped inside, paid my five bucks, and cut through the crowd to the side of the apartment that was functioning as the stage. People mingled all around. Men wearing dark sunglasses leaned against walls, chatting up women. Women in dark skirts and tight T-shirts sipped cans of Pabst. Nearby, the headlining band’s bassist smoked and laughed at someone’s joke. This felt more like a house party than a show. They’d even turned Troy’s kitchen into a bar. A cloth screen enclosed one side of it, and had a hole cut for drink orders. A hand-written sign said, “$4 vodka, $4 whiskey, $1 beer.” I looked around. Somehow, in a metro area of some 16 million people, only about 60 were here.
I missed Troy’s band but caught the next two openers. The first was high energy, so good that I bought the cassette they had for sale. The second tore through a fuzzed-out set of dark ’60s pop that had the crowd transfixed and swaying into each other. But when the music stopped, the crowd dispersed and left me exposed. I felt like an idiot standing by myself, killing time between sets with no one to talk to. There were only so many times you could look at your phone. As the band dismantled their equipment, I got some water at the bar. Most everyone around me was young and chic-looking. The way they held their beers, the way they leaned in to each other, hands in their pockets, flirting, laughing. I took a sip of water then slipped outside.
The spring air relaxed me. Across the street stood an enormous warehouse where 18-wheelers filled their cargo trailers with produce by day. East down Sixth lay a quiet darkness. The road stretched outward, blank and flat until it reared in an arc like the back of a hissing cat into the bridge over the river. The street, skeleton warehouses, the dry riverbed — the world was halted and austere, a hollow carapace of unfulfilled potential, not unlike how I felt out there.
I leaned against the wall and thought of Iggy Pop singing to an imagined woman: “No fun, my babe, no fun. No fun to be alone. Hang on, don’t let me go. No fun to be alone. Said be alone.” I twirled my phone and looked frequently at the time. I didn’t want to go back inside until the headliners started. It was easier to just hide, catch the show, then split, even though I knew it only drew my aimlessness into sharper relief.
Two members of one opening band stumbled outside to smoke. They were drunk, fumbling with a lighter. An empty beer bottle fell from the guitarist’s hand and nearly shattered on the cement. He looked down at it in shock, then up at me, his mouth swollen in a huge O. “That was close,” he said snickering.
I debated texting Chris. I wanted to at least tell him the basics, that the bands were stellar, the venue an apartment. I didn’t want to make him feel bad about missing it, but I was so excited I had to tell someone, and I wanted him here.
An airplane passed overhead, its wingtips blinking like some sort of beacon to the lost. I listened to the hum of excited chatter indoors. “Happy birthday” said the words on the board. Happy, happy, happy. After a few more minutes, I slipped the phone in my pocket and went back inside.
A crowd had gathered in the far end of the apartment. The headliners were setting up. I weaved between people to the front. The four members adjusted knobs on amps, plugged in guitar pedals, checked mics with a tap. The lead singer pulled a worn green electric guitar from a case and spun it around by its neck twice, then rapidly spun it back in the opposite direction before draping it across his tattooed chest in one swift movement. A guy next to me to whispered to his friend, “That motherfucker is bad ass and all coked up.” The singer took a long pull from a beer and set the can on his amp. The audience watched in silence. Smoke from a joint streamed into the rafters.
In a spray of words as rapid as a hummingbird’s heart, the singer spoke into the microphone: “Hey hey, we’re the Terrierists from San Francisco. Thanks for coming out tonight, and thanks to Troy for having us.” He hit a note on his guitar, sending a wave of distortion rumbling through the building, and with the words “One, two, three, four,” the bass and drums kicked in, and the crowd flew into a frenzy.
Bodies jumped up and down. Bobbed side to side. Swung their heads and arms and hair like amphetamine windmills. Sweaty skin slid against mine, soaking my clothes as the crowd jerked and swayed with the jittery volatility of kelp in a tidal surge. There was no separation between audience and band. When the guitarist screamed into the microphone, his face hung inches from ours. I stood beside the second vocalist. Her keyboard’s plastic edge poked my leg. As much as everyone tried, it was hard not to bump her, let alone to stay upright. Kids kept getting thrown onto the drum set. One knocked over a cymbal. Most fell atop the bass drum, barely laying there a second before another dancer picked them up.
While tearing through a bunch of my favorite songs, the singer hopped in place, spit into the air, and dragged the tip of his guitar across the rug while soloing, as if to gather sound from the static. Veins bulged in his neck. He tapped pedals that sent warped, cosmic echoes searing through the air, and he and the keyboardist harmonized over them. When someone knocked over his microphone, he popped the stand upright with a flick of his shoe and gripped the tip in his teeth to steer it towards him.
Seconds passed between songs. One, two, three, then the next one. One, two, three, then another fast one, all fast ones.
Beer splashed my face. Empties crushed underfoot. At one point the crowd surged and knocked the keyboardist to the ground. Arms went out and lifted her, and when she righted her mic, she sang her lines right on time.
This band is going to be huge soon, I kept thinking. Completely explosively huge.
Despite all our frantic tossing, one short, chubby punk rock girl and I kept bumping into each other. She wore a jean jacket and dark pants, blond bobbed hair and red lipstick. When her beer got bumped from her hand, it soaked my pant leg. She smiled and mouthed, “Sorry,” and we waved our arms in sync for a moment until the crowd shifted and threw her sidelong. I caught her on her way down and stood her back up.
And then, as quickly as it started, the show ended. “Thank you, warehouse,” the singer said. Sweat poured from his chin.
The audience stood still. People wiped their faces. Eyes darted around, filled with energy and anxious for an encore. When the band started packing up, the crowd dispersed. I stood there and texted Chris: “I’d sleep in 20 gutters to see that again.” He didn’t text back.
As people streamed out the front door, others stood around talking, finishing their beers. I spotted a guy by the merchandise table. He was slipping a digital recorder and microphone into his pocket. He wore a dark jean jacket, roomy jeans, and black Converse All Stars. An older guy, his hair was white; like me, he was alone. “Hey,” I said. “Is there any chance I could get a copy of that recording?”
“Of course,” he said. I fished a pen from my pocket so I could give him my email address. Neither of us had any paper, so he tore a piece off the brown paper bag that held the many records he’d just bought. “That was amazing, wasn’t it?” he said.
“Seriously unreal.” I leaned the paper against the flimsy particleboard wall and scribbled my information. “I’ve seen a lot of shows, and that was no doubt one of the all-time best.” He agreed. I handed him the scrap. “I’m Aaron, by the way.”
“Mark.” We shook hands.
Upon closer inspection, his clothes revealed more about him than he probably would have liked. Where other kids wore tight Levi’s jean jackets, bright flannels, and worn Vans, Mark’s jacket had a Nightmare Before Christmas logo above the front pocket. It appeared to be some sort a free promotional item, something people gave you at a premier, or that you mailed away for using proof-of-purchase codes. His Converse were too clean to be anything but brand new, or maybe he only wore them when he went out. I felt guilty scrutinizing him — shallow thinking about clothes — especially since he’d offered to send me a CD-R of his recording for free. But something about his demeanor made me self-conscious and uncomfortable.
He tucked the records under his arm. “Where do you live?”
“Phoenix. I drove out just to see them play.”
“Wow,” he said. “Phoenix. That’s a long drive.” I considered mentioning Tucson but stopped short. He sensed some hesitation and smiled; then he stole the words from my mouth: “But worth it.”
“Worth every second.”
The band had only played for 50 minutes.
“You going to the show at UC Irvine tomorrow?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “And the third show after that. That’s why I came.”
“Where are you staying?” Mark asked. My eyes darted to the side and I paused before answering. When I car-camped in my 20s, I announced it to everyone as if it were a badge of honor. I was proud of my resourcefulness, pleased with my ability to fashion a cheap vacation from the leftovers of an opulent leisure culture, proud to embody the punk rock spirit of snubbing convention. Now the words wouldn’t come.
I looked up at Mark. “At a friend’s in Santa Monica,” I said. He nodded. His expression suggested that he didn’t entirely believe me.
I did have friends in L.A. The one in Santa Monica was getting ready to move to San Diego with his wife. The other two — one in the Valley, one near Venice — always insisted I call when I was in town. “You always have a bed,” they said, and they meant it. But I was busy battling the encroaching blandness of middle-age, chasing the diminishing rush of departed adolescence, the same fading dream, so I didn’t call.
“How about you,” I said. “You live nearby?”
“Redlands,” he said. Even though my eyes registered no judgment, once the words left his mouth, he seemed anxious to take them back. I knew Redlands. It was a landlocked town of shaggy palms and toxic smog some 50 miles east of downtown L.A. “It’s really not so bad,” he said. “Maybe 50 or 60 minutes.” He smiled dismissively, as if a 50-mile drive after 1 a.m. was no big deal, but I suspected the drive took longer. He had to go back tonight, he explained. He’d left his teenage daughter alone at home, and he had to work in the morning. After all, it was a Thursday night.
Through the thin veil of our public deceptions, I could see the truth: like me, he was trying to disguise the consumptive intensity of his musical attachments, trying to look like less of a freak and avoid being typecast as the old guy who refused to “grow up.” And despite the differences in our clothing and the gray of his hair, there was no denying what he was: not only a kindred spirit, but precisely the person I might one day be if I kept living the way I was living.
I still couldn’t tell if that was a bad thing or not.
In the awkward silence he held up a red 12-inch record. “Have you seen have this?” A flying dragon graced the front, its sinuous body drawn in a thin, black line. “It’s a 10-minute song. It takes up both sides of the record.”
I hadn’t seen it. It sounded awesome. “If I have any money left by Sunday, I’ll have to get a copy.”
We smiled again, nodded. Looked away. Then I said, “Alright, I’ll see you in Irvine, then.”
I got in line to use the bathroom and spotted a soiled, homeless-looking man pulling empty beer cans from the trash. His skin was leathery and brown. Dark swatches of dirt stained the entirety of his jeans. With people all around him, he put the cans in a huge, swollen garbage bag and dragged it through the apartment and out the front door. Before I could figure out what I’d just witnessed, I heard “Oh my god!” It was the chubby punk girl.
She threw her arm around me and squealed, “My dancing partner!” I threw my arm around her shoulder and leaned into her. “You totally caught me when I fell. And you totally shook your shit. You and me —” she said as she pointed a finger at me and then herself “ — friends for life. You know.” With that she bumped her big hip into my butt, so I spun her around like a country waltzer and bumped my hip back into hers. She held up her beer and went, “Ha ha ha.” Her breath reeked of booze.
“How much fun was that show?” I said.
She giggled. “Too much. And not enough.” One of the pins on her jean jacket fell off, and when she went to pick it up, her beer spilled on the ground. Her friend appeared in the entryway and waved her over. “I have to go,” she said, and gazed up at me with a disarming earnestness. Strands of wet hair stuck to her temples. I felt the overwhelming need to ask her for her phone number, not to try to sleep with her, but to stay in touch and somehow be friends, maybe long distance email buddies who occasionally met at shows. We’d shared something tonight that seemed too personal, too powerful, to just part ways and never see each other again.
Her green drunken eyes swam in their whites. Then she high-fived me and slipped out the door.
Ah, fuck it, I thought. I ducked into the dirty bathroom and suppressed my regrets.
Troy was standing by a pickup truck when I went outside, talking to a brunette and a young bearded guy, so I stopped to say goodbye. “Troy, that was unreal. Thanks a ton for having me.”
We slapped hands and he said, “My pleasure, Phoenix. I’m from Texas, originally. We do it big.” He had a big dip in his mouth, a can of Copenhagen in his hand, and a huge, tan, 10-gallon hat on his head.
“I like that homemade bar, by the way. Bet you guys cleaned up.”
He leaned over and peered into my eyes. “You sure you’re not a cop?”
I stared back and felt the corner of my lip tilt up in a grin. “Troy, I couldn’t be further from it, man.”
Troy’s neighbor Robbie stood in front of us, shadowboxing with the homeless man I’d seen inside. They were squared off on the sidewalk, laughing, smacking each other’s ears and throwing jabs. The guy snickered and flicked Robbie’s forehead, then Robbie dove and wrapped his arms around his dirty waist, twirling him around. “Robbie’s going to town,” I said.
“That’s Pepper,” the bearded guy said. “He’s a local guy, lived on the street for years. He’s his and Robbie’s friend.”
Troy nodded. “We let him work the door, you know, do security and collect the empties.” Pepper laughed as he tried to wiggle out of Robbie’s grip.
With that the Terrierists’ lead singer darted out of the apartment and strutted towards us, coolly, with just the tips of his fingers sunk into his black pants pockets. Pepper and Robbie were in a headlock, banging into the wall. As the singer approached, they reared up in front of him. He calmly tilted his hips and lifted one leg, letting them shoot by uninterrupted, missing them by inches. He never even took his eyes off of Troy, just strutted forward, smiling the whole time. He stopped beside us. Troy nodded at him. He nodded back. The bearded guy nodded, too.
“Great show,” I told the singer. I didn’t mention Phoenix or Tucson or the coming shows. I only nodded and said, “You killed it.”
He smiled. “Thanks, man. Thanks for coming.” Then he looked back at Troy. “OK. Let’s talk.” With a twirl of his finger, Troy stepped alongside him, and the two walked east down Sixth and slipped between buildings to divide the night’s earnings.
Speeding up I-5 toward Burbank, I lowered all the windows and hung my arm outside. The wind cooled my face. Cars raced beside me in neighboring lanes, more cars than I expected for 2:00 in the morning. We swerved and weaved past each other as the eastern edge of the Santa Monica mountains opened before us, spreading their green offerings to anyone willing to try to scrape the cream from the top of its rich body. Dreamers, immigrants, millionaires, freaks — all welcome. A carload of teenagers darted by. All I could see was a bunch of heads silhouetted in the backseat, a cigarette ember glowing inside the cabin. The sight made me wish I had someone to share this with, to savor the post-coital peace, but even alone, I was glad I had come, and I wondered why I had ever questioned my enthusiasm, all the while knowing that I would question myself again the next time.
Muddy Waters once said that the daily life of a touring musician amounted to one hour of ecstasy and 23 hours of misery. I wasn’t a musician, but I did understand what he meant.
The next morning I walked through the parking garage toward the hotel lobby. My hair was greasy, my armpits damp. Beyond the sliding glass doors, the concierge clerk stood behind the front desk. The sight of his clean white collared shirt made my heart race a little, made me hope my time-tested technique worked as well as it used to.
The theory was simple: Project confidence; look like you belong there. Don’t avoid everyone’s eyes, but don’t try to make eye contact with everyone, either. You want to look neither eager nor guilty. Oblivious was best, so I always looked straight ahead and walked in like I’d been there a thousand times.
The glass doors slid open and I strolled in. The clerk looked up at me, and I nodded as I walked by. From the corner of my eye I quickly assessed the layout: lobby in front, food to my right, bathroom to my left. Without missing a step, I turned left toward the men’s room and stepped to the sink to quickly rinse my oily face. I stared in the mirror for a moment: eyes still red and puffy, ringed in black. I splashed my face with water and patted it dry with paper towel. They had nice paper towels, as thick and soft as cotton cloth. Everything here was nice: faux marble countertops, potted plants beside each sink, the wicker basket of towels. I took another towel and shoved it in my pocket for later, then followed the scent of bacon and eggs down the hall.
A large crowd filled the dining room. Business people, mostly, Indian or Pakistani, in their early 30s, all chattered about some vague ongoing conference or seminar. The men wore dark slacks and shiny collared shirts. The women also wore dark slacks and reflective, solid-colored button ups. They carried leather attachés and canvas computer bags; shoveled waffles, toast, and sausage into their mouths; and guzzled coffee, lots of coffee.
I sauntered across the cushioned carpet, past a sign warning that breakfast was reserved for guests and that no one else was “allowed past this point,” and stepped into the small, U-shaped room crowded with steam trays and tubs of cereal. Fellow diners swarmed around me as I filled a Styrofoam bowl with oatmeal and sprinkled it with crushed walnuts and cinnamon. I piled fluffy scrambled eggs, skillet potatoes, and a few strips of bacon on a plate, a greasy monument to American abundance and the ongoing feast of our good fortune. When no one was looking, I stuffed five bags of mint tea into my pants pocket, along with four packets of instant oatmeal, and I filled a cup of coffee for later. I was going to fill up on everything, fill up then blow up.
I sat at a small window table behind a young woman with a baby in a highchair. The baby smacked its hands on her table. The woman took bites of a muffin then spooned applesauce into her child’s mouth. The baby’s mouth was ringed with food. Muffin littered the floor.
Friends frequently said to me, “You sure you don’t want kids? Why not? You’d be a great father.” There was no flattering way to put it: because I wanted to keep things simple and live it up, just fun and travel and me, me, me, all the time. I knew myself too well. Despite the subtle persuasions of our libidinous biology, I didn’t believe that I was put on this Earth to raise children. I was put on this Earth to explore the Earth, to wander and follow my whims. I didn’t mean this as some sweeping philosophical statement about human nature or a critique of other peoples’ lives. It was just what my gut told me was right for me. There were enough people procreating. I wanted to play. If I had kids, I would only resent the obligation.
Then again, I was no longer 100 percent sure whether that was how I truly felt, or if I was simply repeating the same lines I’d uttered since I was 18. Mine was an invigorating autonomy, but also, a tiresome one.
A teenage boy with obtrusive bangs walked by drinking orange juice. He sat down, brushed his bangs from his eyes, then tilted his head so the bangs flopped back in place. When I’d had long hair, I used to do the same thing. Now my head was colonized by the wispy sort of fuzz that ended up laying all over your bathroom sink instead of blocking your vision.
Maybe it wasn’t parenting that bothered me so much as the mundane. Too much of life was just so earthly. If you broke down the activities that composed our daily existence, it didn’t amount to much: Which size garbage bag should I get? What’s the difference between spearmint and wintermint? Did the cashier actually give me my 10 percent discount? Always scrub the counter so food particles don’t stick. I needed something transcendent to counteract the blandness, even if it only lasted a few minutes. Which was the problem: It only lasted a few minutes. Then it was back to Is fluoride healthier than fluoride-free? Back to this.
A flat-screen TV on the wall was airing CNN. The President was in Afghanistan, making a surprise visit to Karzai. Below the screen, five older men conducted some sort of meeting. They spoke in low, solemn tones, and when they spoke, they often looked at the ceiling, as if there were important bits of information to gather there; maybe they were just looking for release. One had a yellow legal pad that he never wrote on. He just rubbed his palm across it, slowly moving it side to side.
Business people filled all the neighboring tables. My ears still rang from last night, but not enough to drown out their discussions of the days’ events: “Yes, his lecture was very interesting.”
“This conference should be interesting.”
“I think Bill’s vision for the company is very interesting.”
Uch. It all sounded so uninteresting, whatever they were talking about.
Even if they weren’t rich, I assumed these were the sort of people who others would characterize as “successful,” the type of hard-workers who climbed ranks and made enough money to afford a loft in some urban center and a room at this hotel, and one day, if they kept working hard enough, an expense account and personal assistant. Surrounded by their chattering throngs, it seemed appropriate for me to wonder whether I needed to make some major changes in life. Half of these people were immigrants or foreign travelers, industrious people with accents who were wisely reaping the benefits of this land of opportunity. Was I, a native son, letting these riches go to waste?
But I didn’t wonder that. I didn’t think, Oooh, maybe it was time to get a normal job with a steady income, 401K, and health insurance. I didn’t chew my eggs and envy my friends who contributed monthly to a retirement fund, or who owned a house in San Jose or Silver Lake, or blew tons of money on lavish meals every day. No. I sat there thinking: Hahaha, I’m eating stolen eggs and going to see a show tonight, one in a trailer of all things, and it’ll probably end up being as incredible as last night’s, which was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I admired the thick-cut oats in my bowl and thought, What a great scam I have going.
On numerous occasions, my 70-year-old father had told me that a person was never too young to start saving for retirement. “The sooner you start,” he said, “the better.” On my last birthday he said: “You’re 33. Now double your age: you’re 67, almost my age. Think about that.” I had thought about that, and I still didn’t care. It worried me that I didn’t care, but not enough to make me care. I knew this lack of foresight would eventually screw me, leaving me old and out of the work force with no nest egg to live off of, but that spring morning in Burbank, alone among strangers, I knew that I would rather die at age 67 with no money than be figuratively dead right now while I was still young and able. It was a reckless attitude, self-destructive even, but my priorities reset each time I rejected my other options: be bored in Phoenix. Loath work but love checks. Watch TV. Change dirty diapers. Watch more TV.
Then, without warning, adrenaline surged through me. I didn’t understand why. I’d done this exact thing countless times before, had even stolen hotels’ newspapers and read them by their pools. When I was younger, I was so cocky that I would spend 20 minutes showering in a gas station bathroom. Paying customers would knock on the door, rattling the doorknob and getting impatient, and I’d wipe the water off the floor and put my toothbrush away and eventually strut out past them, carrying a small towel and toiletries bag, unaffected by their stares. But as I looked at my oatmeal my heart raced and I thought, At market value, this stuff costs nothing, but if I get caught, it will be the most expensive starch I have ever eaten. Rooms were $150 a night here. If the clerk came over and asked what room I was in, would I just make up a number? What if I did and he said, “There is no 237 here, sir,” and called the cops? I could bolt. I could get to my truck and onto the freeway before police arrived. But what if he summoned them without first confronting me? What would I say? “Oh, I’m just traveling on a budget, officer. Sorry.” “You know better,” a police officer would say. “You’re old enough to have kids. Act your age.” And I would tell them: “Yes, I am.”
Silverware clanked against plates. The din of adjacent conversations rose above the chatter in my mind. Slowly, I looked up. The businessman conducted their meeting. The teenager flicked his bangs. No one paid me any attention. On TV, the President stepped out of a helicopter and waved, and somewhere near Redlands, Mark was doing whatever it was he did for a living, and likely passing his day thinking about tonight’s show in Irvine. Maybe he was wondering whether I would make it as I’d said I would. Maybe he was wondering whether to leave his daughter at home alone again or to bring her with him. He was probably thinking about the distance, calculating mileage, the drive time, and plotting the best route to take to avoid peak freeway traffic, all the while comparing the real story to the fake story he would tell to anyone who asked where he lived. I had already done my calculation.
It was 75 miles from here to Irvine, a short drive if I went right now, a two-hour drive during Friday rush hour traffic, which is what I would contend with because I wasn’t going right now. I was going to walk out that door with my cup of coffee, and after I stored my stolen provisions in the cardboard box in the backseat of my truck, I was going to find a gas station bathroom to shower in, spend a few relaxing hours in a bookstore, maybe go to the beach or find a sunny park bench to lounge on and eat a decadent slice of coconut cream from Los Feliz’s famous House of Pies, then drive those 75 miles, traffic, high gas prices, and appearances be damned. • 21 October 2011