By Lionel Rolfe
I’m beginning this piece by chipping away at a giant writer’s block.
That big ugly monolith plunked itself down in front of me the other day when the boyfriend of my ex-wife discovered I was still texting and phoning and even meeting her for nice dinners on rare occasions. She didn’t even tell me in person. She texted me that she was cutting me off. I even think that was the word she used. I was indeed cut.
Suddenly, all the insights I thought I had gained during my seven decades on this earth slipped away. My ability, even my desire to write disappeared. A river of mundanity flooded my floundering ship. In that mood, I walked down to the corner liquor store for a friend of mine who wanted a small bottle of scotch. I peered down at the sidewalk which I check out much more carefully nowadays because of my age. I didn’t want to slip and fall.
It’s been more than half a century since I was a student at Los Angeles City College and lived in the Echo Park and Silver Lake area. I wouldn’t have thought about it further, except for a great universal fart that occurred, tearing me loose from my moorings. Something was missing. It took me a moment to realize what was missing was the majority of my life. The blinding revelation came right after I had missed a particularly large hole in the sidewalk and avoided stumbling and falling. I realized too I had never really left the old hood. It was as if I had never gone to the Thracian Valley or the Black Sea coast or London or Canada or Baja California or Jerusalem or Melbourne. Whatever wisdom I gained on those voyages was no longer a part of me. I had simply never left here.
When I was a student living in Echo Park, I knew I would devote my life to making the world a better place. I was excited by the things that could be. My earliest mentor in all this had been Jacque Fresco, a futurist who is nearly 100 years old today, and at last word was still living in Florida where he’s yet building the city of the future. In those days he had his laboratory on Riverside Drive, a bit south of Los Feliz Boulevard, closer to Toontown than Silver Lake.
Jacque excited me about the future, but that’s when I wasn’t even a teenager. Now, at a venerable age, I’m struck hardest by the reality of the fact that today’s sidewalks are the same aged, buckling, piss-ridden thoroughfares they had always been even though the stores are all fo-foo and wildly trendy. Still, I think it’s a fair question to ask–if the sidewalks have grown so much worse in 50 years, how can we talk about any future?
Some of the catalyst behind the slipping cog may have simply been that it was summer — never my favorite time in the ol’ hood. The sun that falls in Los Angeles in the summer is hot, smoggy, intense, profoundly dreary and intensely mundane. It is flat, with no spring or autumn sparkle.
And I now have to closely watch where I put my foot so I won’t take a fall from an unexpected fissure created by a protruding tree through the sidewalk.
As I said, I nearly fell. I was happy I hadn’t. But I also realized that It was probably inevitable that one day I will fall on these mundane and dreary sidewalks and die there.
It was a big deal when I left the old neighborhood. I was 19, and my pregnant wife and I moved to Pismo Beach, a couple of hundred miles up on the coast, so I could take a newspaper job. The world travels would come much later, for I intended to tell the various tales that seemed so important to tell. Now I’m probably done traveling. And I’m home, still walking the stifling hot summer streets of the old neighborhood. I’m seeing the same old sidewalks and streets, and I no longer believe we can make this a better earth. We only seem to be able to make it worse. I’m sorry to be so sour but the facts leave me no choice.
I so badly want to make sense of it all. Where did the years go? What the hell was it all about? Very soon after that fateful trip to the liquor store, I needed someone to talk to. I have interviewed many brilliant people over the years, even some great ones — politicians, philosophers, scientists, musicians and the like. I guess it would be interesting to take a trip to Florida to see what my old mentor Jacque Fresco is doing and saying. But I am afraid even if I could go, it would be a disappointment. I’m afraid even if I could somehow sit down in a room with some of my heroes like Mark Twain or Jack London or Beethoven, I would come away disappointed. People are nothing if not human, and that’s a problem.
So, I’ll go hang out with a friend who lives in Angelino Heights, one of the oldest residential areas close to downtown. His name is John Owen. He used to be a pretty important bureaucrat in Los Angeles City Hall. He’s a somewhat philosophical fellow. He had a droll way of telling stories of how corruption works in city hall. He also was a dedicated fighter of nuclear weapons and the like, going to jail for his pacifism many times. These days his activism is mostly relegated to helping the homeless as best he can. He’s aligned, at least politically and spiritually, with what’s left of the old Dorothy Day Catholic Worker movement. His two life-partners died on him. He’s resigned to that. He says he’s entirely asexual these days. He’s created a wondrous back yard for himself and his friends. It is full of odd trees and bushes he brought in over the years. The place looks like a jungle, yet, it’s little more than stone’s throw from downtown. It’s a surrealistic perch even in Los Angeles, which has a number of wonderfully surrealistic perches hidden in various corners here and there.
I confess my doubts and fears to him. He introduces me to a friend, Barry Qualls, who describes himself as a songster from Lincoln Heights. Barry has spent his whole life seeking stardom in rock ‘n’ roll, and apparently never quite made it. But it’s all good to him. Each day he wakes up is a blessing.
When John does his version of waxing rhapsodically he talks about how “the body of man puts out more light than it takes in,” which is what stars do. He concludes we already are stars.
Owen came to his view because “there was an event in my life. I lost my mind. I was in the process of losing my mind, and then it happened,” he says happily–and not really looking to me like he really had lost his mind.
From that event he came to realize that “Everything is connected, it’s far more beautiful than we can tell. Everything is a star, everything is shining and we are the viewing station of the planet. Our consciousness is the consciousness of the plant. This whole earth is one animal, one organism. But then, I always get I was never born and hence cannot die. And that’s the way it is.”
Was this something like what had happened to me?
Sounds kind of like hippie babble, I say to him, but not in an unfriendly way. So, dear reader, do you have a better answer? I’d still be happier if my ex-came home, but knowing that isn’t going to happen, I’ll just go with the flow, man.
I am from LA, after all.