Canoga Park 1985: sweatpants and broken dreams

Canoga Park, 1985

Oh mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside a Mobile with the Memphis blues again…

Bob Dylan

The neon light above the store on the corner down the block was on the blink.
I put the two big bottles of budget merlot on the counter.
“How are you, my friend?” asked the skinny Lebanese owner, his close-set eyes twinkling above his long aquiline nose. With his eternal five o’clock shadow, he looked like central casting’s version of an Arab liquor store owner in a cop show. He knew me well.
“Fine, fine, “I said. “Shokran.” See, I even knew some Arabic.
I smiled my bloated north-of-Ventura-Boulevard smile and pushed out into the parking lot. Heavy traffic on Vanowen: Vans, low riders, Beamers, and pickups with four-foot ground clearance, exhaust flap covers flapping and clanking as they gunned their sex-substitute engines, spewing out grey filth into the hot Valley smog. Grandmas, pachucos, blacks, Asians, and ancient, trembling white couples staring with frightened eyes at the vanished Valley of their youthful dreams stood at street crossings, watching the dizzy world whizz by at astonishing speed. Latino families, mamas holding the hands of beautiful white-shirted little boys and bright-faced, dark-eyed girls in school uniforms waited for the little flashing green man with the bad back to signal it was momentarily safe to cross the supercharged automotive artery. Tossed butts and blown papers rolled and rattled in the tail-pipe wind gutter. The horizon was orange, brown, purple. The smog made nice sky colors.
No one could see me once I was in my kelly green Chevette, I thought. I pulled the door shut and turned the key. Click. Click. Click. Nothing. Come on, dammit! Click. Click. I hit the steering wheel. Fuck! The starter caught. On. Thank you, you fucking piece of shit Chevette.

I backed out and turned up the side street and made my way home through the alleys. Fewer cops. I couldn’t get caught again. The reckless driving charge was a lucky break. The next time I’d be in the slammer for more than just a few hours.

The night in jail—with seventeen poker-playing Mexicans and assorted gang-bangers and other regular drunks like me—had been humiliating, but I’d walked away with only a four hundred dollar fine for the crime of reckless driving. An everyday deal between defense attorney and prosecutor, standard shit in those years before all the brouhaha about DUI. Good thing I hadn’t made it to my coke dealer before I got popped. That would have been bad.
My little boy was playing in the living room. I slid the cork out extra quietly in the kitchen and filled a wine glass, and put it behind a row of cookbooks on the counter for later. Drained my other glass, then refilled. I went out the kitchen side door into the alley by the garbage can and fired up a smoke. I pulled the can away from the wall, exposing dozens of violet-red palmetto-bug cockroaches, who scurried momentarily away from the light before brazenly stalking back.

The moon was rising, dull and orange, over the lemon trees. Other people had avocados or oranges, but we had lousy lemon trees. You can only make so much lemonade. There was my garden as well. Ungodly tomato hornworms had destroyed this year’s crop of Big Boys. I’d thrown both hornworms and Big Boys over the cinder-block wall into the alley.

The alley was part of the endless grid of streets, alleys, and houses that filled everything. Sometimes I climbed up on the roof to try to get a view of the distant mountains, the red Santa Susanna rocks to the north, which reminded me of Sedona. But Sedona was of another age of the earth, of my life. It was hard to believe I had ever been there.

My Buddha’s Childhood Kingdom was a misty, half-remembered Shangri-la. I’d left it but hadn’t found enlightenment; I’d found my own limitations and my own and other people’s excrement. Who knows? Maybe enlightenment was just another piece of cheap and easy nonsense: a Disney movie with talking monkeys and animatronic spiritual teachers who nodded endlessly and mouthed a reverby OM, while some crappy, lush synth song played over and over.

Over the high-priced hills, the Jewish Alps, there was the vast Pacific Ocean, but here it was a sea of ranch house rooftops and palm trees, all laid out over old orchards of the forties and fifties, bedded down with seething masses of people from everywhere who came to consume and regurgitate America. To the south, Woodland Hills and Tarzana shimmered; the houses across Ventura Boulevard, the houses of the rich and famous, Mercedes driven by awesome women wearing Gucci sunglasses. They passed me by, dentist’s wives and their tauntingly cruel, beautiful daughters, incapable of even seeing me as I stood at the corner of Ventura and Winnetka, wearing my sweatpants, waiting for the lights and my life to change.

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