"Ooh! Get me away from here I'm dying/Play me a song to set me free/Nobody writes them like they used to/So it may as well be me/Here on my own now after hours/Here on my own now on a bus/Think of it this way/You could either be successful or be us/With our winning smiles, and us/With our catchy tunes and words/Now we're photogenic/You know, we don't stand a chance"
-Belle and Sebastian
Standing on the corner of India and Date Streets in downtown San Diego last Friday, I was waiting for my friend Alex to pick me up. I hadn't seen Alex in over a decade and I was a bit jittery as I enjoyed the sunny southern California evening sky. Alex had recommended that I stay in the La Pensione motel in Little Italy and after checking in I was glad she did. The motel was quite quaint- and my room had a tiny balcony overlooking the many independent restaurants and businesses in the vicinity. The smell of fresh brewed Italian coffee filled my nostrils.
I was downstairs standing right outside the lobby people watching when it occurred to me that I didn't know what kind of car Alex was driving and since I hadn't seen her in quite some time I wasn't even sure exactly what she would look like these days. I found myself peeping into the windows of all passing cars and trucks. I thought to myself that I could probably elminate pickup trucks because that type of vehicle simply wasn't Alex.
A couple of weeks back when I called her she seemed excited that I was coming out. She had to cut our conversation short however since she was off to ballet class. It didn't surprise me one bit that she was taking ballet- it just seemed like something the Alex I knew would dive into. Just as I was getting lost in my thoughts a Honda pulled up slowly through the intersection. Inside was the smile that I knew or tried to know so well. I opened the door and she said she recognized me because I was wearing a hat- a trademark of mine back in the days fifteen years ago when Alex and I worked in the same office.
"After all this time so many disagree to turn off the lights, or pull down the shades, don't be afraid, after all this time/After all this time I'm glad that you can see. After all this time I'm not the man I want to be. Strong as your love, free as the wind, each day we begin after all this time..."
I spent all of January 1987 visiting my sister in Los Angeles. It was the spring of my senior year of college and I was in mental place where most people shouldn't spend a lot of time if they want to get out alive. Academically I was in L.A. for a senior assignment of trying to get on a game show. The closest I got was a painful tryout for The Dating Game but I struck out.
I spent the bulk of my time exploring the city, walking along the beach, trying to get as far away from this other place as I possibly could. I spent one day in San Diego and the city left quite the impression on me. "I could live here," I thought, but I knew I had to finish my degree up first. It was the first time it occurred to me that my life didn't have to start and end in Minnesota. The city was just like Los Angeles only without all the people. My impression may have been a bit skewed however since I spent the day at Sea World and the San Diego Zoo where much of the population was by definition not of the homosapien variety.
Four years later I was working for the state and the job wasn't much of a job so I ended up taking some vacation time and taking another trip out west. This time when I got back I met Alex and we had a few memorable times together. One day after a nothing day at work we were driving out to our softball game and Alex said to me, "Some day we'll be having dinner at a fancy restaurant, you in your suit and me in my dress and we'll look back at these days and laugh at how far we've come." At this point I was grasping at straws, just so tired of losing everything important to me so I almost asked Alex to sign some sort of a contract binding her to her vision because I was glad she could foresee a future with me included.
Alex left town shortly after for much better things. We were able to get together in 1994 when she was interning at the White House (pre Monica) and it was nice catching up after a few years.
Ten years later this after even more time since we saw each other last catching up time was equally as wonderful. Alex proved to be wrong with her past vision in one aspect, as we stood out on the deck of The Fish Market, a fine seafood restaurant, waiting for a table and overlooking the sunset over the ocean we were both wearing casual clothing. We had sushi and I loved gazing in her still twinkling eyes again. She was worried she was using her chopsticks incorrectly and had me show her the way that I thought was right. I told her you hold the bottom one just like you hold a pencil and you don't let it move- the top stick does the moving as your thumb and forefinger act as a fulcrum. Our conversation was enlightening. We both have changed over the years, both have been through a lot that neither one of us knows about the other yet still as I listened to her and tried to share some things, it was the same Alex I grew so fond of all those years ago. If ours is to be a friendship where we only see each once every ten years so be it, she'll always remain someone I have a great deal of affection and admiration for. It's quite impressive what Alex has made out of her life but our friendship is also a great barometer how far I've come after all these years. Who would have thought that I would ever reach the point where I would own my own house, have three quirky kitties, and drive my own scooter? Not only that but also have a job where I could afford all that?
Alex has been a city planner in San Diego essentially since she got her masters degree from the University of North Carolina. She proudly gave me a tour of the city's incredibly renovated downtown. Seemingly the city has had one major development project after another and its vibrancy was eye opening. San Diego currently has around 27,000 people living downtown in apartments and condos (which average $480,000 in price) and they expect that by the year 2030 there will be over 89,000 people living downtown.
But equally impressive to me was Alex's own home improvement project. She had bought a rundown house and has poured her sweat and love into whipping it into something quite beautiful. We talked about haunted houses- one of the four units to her personal complex is haunted she has been told by two different tenants. It was great catching up with her and it melted my heart to see how happy she got when she counted the quarters from the washing machine and dryer she had put in for her tenants and came up with $18 in one week.
I spent most of Saturday just wandering around downtown and taking it all in and it occurred to me of course that nearly 20 years ago I had done something similar with little hope that I'd be around to make a return visit. I guess that's one of the things that makes life so intriguing. Little Italy is somewhat symbolic of what is happening to downtown San Diego. It's an area that was once dying as rapidly as the tuna industry was dying. But the community decided they needed to revive the area and so they worked with the city and others and came up with a plan to attract new residents and businesses while still maintaining the history of what had been.
Sunday morning I took a long walk along the pier. I stopped and took a tour of the carrier Midway and was astounded at how big the ship is. I committed my biggest gaffe of the weekend though. Like I do most mornings I just grabbed a T-shirt to wear without giving it a second thought. The shirt I had grabbed however was one Al had given to me featuring a quote from Joseph Stalin saying that the people who cast the votes decide nothing, the people who count the votes decide everything. To wear a quote from Stalin on my chest garnered several nasty looks from the people working on the ship. I thought the girl in the gift shop was going to claw out my eyes.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring downtown again. I found an outdoor mall near the NBC building where Alex works and inside the mall was a Sam Goody Superstore that had two levels- one for new product and the other for used product. The used level even had a toy section that featured collectibles (mostly Simpsons memorabilia). I asked the girl behind the register how much they paid for used CDs. She was non-responsive until I pressed the issue and she told me usually between 75 cents and three bucks (although they do give in-store credits as well). Most of the staff I saw were hunched over the counters reading magazines.
Alex had left me with the lasting impression of my time in San Diego. As we were looking at various new construction she told me the ones she liked and the ones she didn't like. "It's all about windows," she said. It was something I might have said for all together different reasons. She wasn't talking about their transparency or reflective qualities but rather their appearance. Did I mention it was great seeing her once again?
Monday morning I was again standing on the corner of India and Date waiting for my friend Michelle to pick me up to drive us to our conference in Los Angeles. Again I didn't know what vehicle to expect since Michelle's cousin-in-law, Joe, was giving us a ride to a rental car facility. I pulled out my iPod and instead of selecting Sinatra that one might expect from one standing in the heart of Little Italy I dialed up Bob Dylan's ode to the Italian mobster Joey Gallo. It's one of my least favorite Dylan songs (way too long) and yet I was quite happy it was blaring in my ears. Michelle and her cousin-in-law pulled up in pickup truck.
"I was born here and I'll die here, against my will/I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still/Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can't even remember what I came here to get away from..."
Say you're a Japanese American and you're visiting the Japanese American Museum in downtown Los Angeles for the first time. What'dya think you'd think? Do ya think you might think about your Dad's family's experience in being locked up by the government it had trusted during World War II? Or might you think about the depth of feeling both joy and despair captured by a Japanese American potter whose art was on full display and whose pots had the unique quality of being sealed at the top? Or maybe yet perhaps what got you most were the pictures of those mistrusted and interned having a deep love of the game of baseball? Or how local newspapers were of particular importance to those in the community and there was a quote from a Japanese American who observed that if four people got together one of them was bound to start a newspaper? Probably it was at the end of the taiko drum exhibit where a Super Nintendo game (your Mom was the Nintendo playing grandma after all) allowed you to try to drum along with American pop tunes with your hidden taiko drum talents.
Nope. What really was on your mind was a quote in the free lefty weekly newspaper The LA Weekly in a piece about two local twenty-something girls who offered the following bit of wisdom: "No matter where you travel, there you are..." That about sums it up and you realize that as you rapidly approach the twinkling age where you aren't exactly a kid anymore, that much of what you have learned and continue to learn comes strangely from twenty something members of the opposite sex. Most people travel for two stated reasons, business or pleasure. Then there are those of us who travel either to get away from something or to try to get to something. Find something that's not at home.
Perhaps transparently I was thus in a sad but reflective mood. It struck me while I was shopping at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles, a place that our Cheapo stores are trying to be, in amongst a tremendous selection with so much I wanted to buy but didn't dare try to lug home to Minnesota, that for good or bad my life started all over when I was lucky enough to get a job at Cheapo in the fall (pun intended) of 1987. Music was what was keeping me going at that point having just got back from the coast. As long as I could find that next song, as long as there was a song that existed that somehow could stop time and make it all make some sense to me, I would be all right. But who knew if that could continue to be? Faith in the unknown, as embedded as it is in our cultural way of thinking, wasn't much of a comfort to me anymore.
My thoughts were interrupted when my sister told me to try out the listening stations at Amoeba and she was right, they were so cool. Not only did they allow the scanning of barcodes of just about any CD to sample the music some obscure artist had dared to get down, but they allowed you to stand at the back of the store and listen to the whole CD if you cared to do so. I loved that. The sound quality was crisp and eventually the experience influenced what I eventually purchased.
Later I was walking down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills after having checked into the Beverly Hills Hilton where every room comes complete with a 42" flat screen plasma TV and I couldn't help but wonder how the hell I got from here to there. I was surrounded by friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators about to be awarded with proof of graduating from this is where you are program, and yet if I could one time in my life turn back the clock I most certainly would have. There were men older than I sleazily hugging younger women and braless younger women enjoying free food (but paid for booze) doing the network thing. I saw the skyline of downtown L.A. from the top of the pricy hotel and the thoughts of jumping were only tempered by the notion that such thoughts, as common as they often are, are akin to spitting into the wind and what is the point to all that?
"I put down my robe, picked up my diploma/Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive/Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota/Sure was glad to get out of there alive/And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill/Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody/And the locusts sang with a high whinin' trill/Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me"
For the past couple of years I've been participating in the only election administration certification program in the country. The 12 classes are taught by faculty from Auburn University and the classes are held in various parts of the country giving me plenty of time to get away from home. It was nice that the year I finished up the classes the graduating ceremony was being held in Beverly Hills so that it gave me time to see my sister Donna in Los Angeles and finally get to see the nifty little house she bought last year in San Gabriel. Several other Minnesota friends in the election business made the trip out to attend the annual conference so my graduation was well attended by family and friends. The ceremony was held in the room they hold the Golden Globe awards. They had us stand in the back of the room and one by one us twenty some graduates were called down as a brief intro was read highlighting our careers. The bright lights blinded me as I sauntered towards the stage. My heart beat like one of them wind up monkeys banging on a drum. Part of me was hoping I'd stumble on my way- it would have been quite symbolically appropriate. But I didn't. I took my plaque and the corresponding handshakes with the aplomb of someone that has either come a long way over the years or has fallen a long way along the way.