Saturday, June 10 2006
setting: Woodland Hills, California
After working most of the morning I cut out in the early afternoon and walked down to Fallbrook Center, my favorite anonymous shopping megaplex. There I did my usual Starbucks disconnected laptop writing routine. The Fallbrooks Starbucks is a freakshow if you don't allow yourself to be lulled into observational laziness by the relentless drumbeat of soccer moms and their Frappacinos. Interspersed among them are an abundant supply of obvious porn industry employees (both cast and crew; past, present, and future), aging no-name rockstars, eye-avertingly-fat fat women, old guys festooned with abandoned melanoma strip mines, and patched-up car crash survivors. What one doesn't see very often is a black person.
The plan for the day was to meet up with my old buddy Al Sm!th, who worked with me at the ill-fated CollegeClub.com back before my inevitable firing and its inevitable bankruptcy. While I've moved on to such places as Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Hurley, Al has remained behind in San Diego, working (and sometimes not working) in its go-go tech industry through boom and bust. Today he'd be driving up from San Diego and then we'd continue on to Pasadena and have Mike give us a tour of the fun places to get drunk and act stupid.
As I waited for Al to meet me at the Starbucks I thought it might be fun to subvert the stimulants-only experience by discreetly drinking one of those Sierra Nevadas I'd bought the night before (I'd brought one with me). So I went off into the parking lot in hopes of finding a place I could conceal myself among the cars. But the human activity was just too high. From a distance it looked like the parking lot was a sterile, human-free world. But when you're actually there you realize you're never more than a dozen feet away from someone, though they're usually in a vehicle. So I went off to a fringe area of the complex near the Home Depot, where I could conceal myself in a hedgerow and even find a human artifact capable of opening the bottle. Unfortunately, though, my clear ice coffee cup full of foamy microbrew looked nothing like a Starbucks drink, so I ended up slugging down the whole thing on the walk back.
Al showed up while I was outside the Starbucks in the smokers' ghetto. There was a time when I could tolerate second hand smoke and it was no big deal, but something has changed in the past few years. Possibly it's just that I'm not used to cigarette smoke the way I used to be; since it was banned even in Upstate New York restaurants it's been in very few of the places I go.
On the drive out to Pasadena Al was telling me about his job these days as the creative director of a firm that makes applications for cell phones. Unlike the bad old days of working for an immature dotcom run, he finds himself working reasonable hours and liking his projects. It's a complete coincidence that Al is doing cellphone application work even as Mike and I work on websites for cellphone application companies. Mike actually once floated the idea of him and me taking on a BREW-based cellphone development project, but when I mentioned this today to Al his response was, "Well, good luck!" The world of cellphones is orders of magnitude more fragmented than the world of web browsers, and this reality has created an effectively unscalable barrier to entry for would-be cellphone developers. Later, when we were eating lunch with Mike in Pasadena, Al floated the idea that the way to really get rich in the world of cellphones would be to develop and sell applications streamlining development.
Amid such shop talk Al asked me to tell him about my recent trip to the Middle East and so I ended up relating the various tepid levels of Islamic fanaticism in both Jordan and Turkey. Regarding Turkey, I said that it is such a deliberately secular place that women aren't even permitted to wear head scarves at school and in most professions, but that I found this unfortunate because I think Turkish ladies look sexy in head scarves. "There're your fetishes again," said Mike, adding, "You like your women oppressed." Later on, when I would be somewhat drunk and very stoned, I would be further articulating to Mike and Al the disconnect between the respective levels of feminism present in my id vs. my superego. Though it wasn't all like this by any exaggeration, it's good to have male friends where talk about chicks can be conducted with such nuance. Yeah, I'd do Nuance.
Downtown Pasadena is upscale and ethnically very Asian. Just like Northampton Massachusetts, it has a traffic light in the middle of town that briefly closes the entire intersection down to vehicles and allows pedestrians to cross from any of the four corners of the intersection to anywhere they like. Also like Northampton, I managed to get separated from my digital camera at some point today, though this time it isn't gone for good. Al doesn't have these sorts of problems because his cellphone contains the functionality of all three discrete gadgets that bulge from within my pockets (he is, after all, something of cellphone expert). In an effort to lighten my load, I decided to put my camera and MP3 player in the back of Al's truck and they inevitably found their way back to San Diego. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
One of us had brought a substance called "medical marijuana," which, given a prescription from a doctor, can be openly dispensed under California state law. In this case a prescription had been written for marijuana as a treatment for "insomnia." Medical marijuana comes in a little baggie, distributed from storefronts that are smart enough to keep their member databases and financial records offsite should the feds kick down the door (which they occasionally do; remember when Republicans were all about "states' rahts?"). With your prescription you get a little ID card that you can show a State Trooper should he find your stash. It's all as above board as these things can be, especially in a climate that looks unkindly on an FBI that persecutes the relievers of suffering while spacing out on the protection of Long Beach from the dirty bomb we all know is coming.
I was among those who smoked this medical marijuana, and at that point a state law definitely was broken because no on is supposed to use it except the person with the prescription. But Hollywood is a particularly lawless place in a fairly lawless city, and smoking medical marijuana in front of one of the many Craftsman-style houses on a sidestreet seemed completely ordinary.
Mike led us to a bar called Ye Olde Rustic Inn. Once past the scrawny, pock-marked security guard it took awhile to adjust to the depth of the blackness inside. All the bartenders, and there seemed like there were three or four, were youngish trashy women. The darkness and the nature of the bartenders led Al to wonder if perhaps it wasn't strickly a bar but a little something else as well. But no, for us (at least) it was just a bar. The jukebox was blaring retro cock rock, the most recent of which was the stadium-packing me-too grunge stylings found in "Everything Zen" by Bush. The bartenders sang along, devoid of irony.
It was all very cartoonish given the unexpected strength of that medical marijuana. After we arrived I realized I needed to make use of the bathroom and in the toilet stall I found two fecal smears, which is about the number I expected. Skater punk parties are measured by the number of skateboards leaned against the wall out front, and dive bars are measured by their fecal smears.
One of the bartenders tried to make smalltalk with us about sports, obviously having learned this winning conversational formula from legions of baseball capped gentlemen who had come before. Ours was a fairly nerdy booth, though, and we didn't have all that much interest in discussing sports, especially when it was just an excuse for conversation. Somehow the World Cup came up, since it's suddenly a big deal even (sort of) in the Home of the Brave, and it's a natural direction for sports talk to take when a dopey waitress initiates it and then a table of devoid of meatheads returns the serve. At this point, though, there was an instant of social miscalculation, when Mike thought he could get away with a snide rhetorical question about the waitress even knowing what the World Cup is. She overhear him and was momentarily furious, though this manifested playfully, with a flung coaster that missed Mike and hit me instead.
Later one of the bartenders accused me of playing something cheesy on the jukebox and this made me want to stack it with something to cut the 80s cock rock - even Britney Spears' Toxic would have done - but either the queue is long or the jukebox doesn't actually work because nothing I selected ever actually got around to being played.
I was still so stoned on medical marijuana that I couldn't really speak, so Al did most of the talking. At some point we had a very unsatisfying conversation about the uselessness of String Theory. "I've never had it satisfactorily explained to me." I declared. Then Al said he'd heard it explained and that basically it comes down to everything being made out of vibrating strings. "Yeah, I've heard that too. But that doesn't mean anything!" I protested. "It's like saying this glass is made out of tiny rabbits! What the fuck does that tell you?" Nobody in our booth seemed to know, and it seemed unlikely that consulting the bartender wenches was going to get us anywhere either.
Some coked-out dude got up in Al's face in a friendly way to talk about the Wilco shirt he was wearing. This was just the first of several tee-shirt-based encounters Al would have tonight. Al knows about such things; just before we left he was at the bar speaking a little Spanish with some dude and that was all it took for the guy to offer to buy us a round of drinks. But we were already on our way to the next stoplight on the drunkard's highway.
That was the Dresden Lounge, most famous for being the setting for a scene in the movie Swingers. Tonight there would be a little lite piano, bass and vocal performance. The main thing that happened to us there was being accosted by a couple of young women at the bar. I don't know what was happening down where Mike was, but at my end Al was dealing with the least attractive of the two women. He really had only himself to blame as he tried to untangle himself from her intentions; right at the start he had said something flirtatious to her when he could have easily said nothing. Now she was not only buying him drinks, she was buying me drinks as well (this was the first time I'd ever had drinks bought for me by a girl who was trying to pick up someone else). In the end when she indicated it was time to go and Al didn't take the bait, she asked him if he was gay.
Finally we went to see a performance of the Constantines at Spaceland in Silverlake. For those who don't remember, my last interaction with that place was a doomed affair I had with their promotions manager, whose name I have forgotten ("'Cause that's how you roll," Mike is quick to add). It's LA, years have passed, and all trace of her have left the building. But some things never change; Spaceland remains a hip place for the deliberately-scruffy to bob their heads to the lush sounds of indy pop music. I wasn't too familiar with the Constantines and found it extremely simple music, with no actual songs or even dynamics. Instead, it was mostly a showcase for their amazing talent at keeping to exotic time signatures, particularly things like 7/4, 13/4, and possibly 17/4. Name a prime number larger than four and put a four in the denominator, and the Constantines can probably point you to a "song" they've written in it. Though it wasn't great stuff, it was nevertheless great fun to dance to. You could pick some repeating piston in the machinery of the music and choose to lurch to it every time it came around, or every third time it came around, or whatever. It was you getting to compose on top of them, all in real time in a high-speed version of, well, let's say astrology. Meanwhile some hot indy chick with dark tussled hair and form-fitting plaid pants keeps checking you out over her shoulder, unable to discern your crows feet in the half light. Unfortunately, Al and Mike didn't seem to be enjoying the Constantines as much as I was, so we only stayed about ten or fifteen minutes.
Our last activity was at some no-name ghetto burrito joint, where we sat at outdoor counters and wolfed down enormous rupturing "trashcan burritos" - the delicious messy kind that contain things you don't really want to know about. The hallmark of a great trashcan burrito is the impossibility of eating one in public without suffering public humiliation. [There's a picture of me on Al's website taken with his camera phone illustrating what I mean.]
Somehow Al successfully drove all the way back to San Diego after that, leaving Mike and me in Pasadena. I slept on Mike's couch, which, like everything else in Mike's house, is in the mid-century Modernist style. Couches in this style typically have square vinyl-covered cushions and are not comfortable for anything more protracted than sitting through an episode of the Colbert Report. In the winter they are like ice cubes and in the summer they are like sticky frying pans.
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