It’s the 10.30 pm from LAX to Ghainzghou and we are already in descent when, because he’s just drawn in a sketch book and then put it away in his bag, I turn to my right and start talking to the guy next to me in seat 44 E.
‘You’re an artist?’ I ask him, and he tells me yes, he is an artist and I tell him that I too am and artist and then I ask him what kind of art he does.
‘I’m an illustrator,’ he tells me, ‘and I’ve just gone freelance,’
‘Nice,’ I say and then he asks me what kind of art I do.
‘Drawing,’ I tell him, ‘and tattoo,’
He nods and says ‘uh-huh’ and then he tells me he got sick of working for other people, designing dog clothes, and that before he really gets stuck into freelance he’s taking a break in Thailand.
‘Before I start up freelance I am taking 9 days, or like, 2 weeks in Thailand,’ he tells me.
But I’m still thinking about the dog clothes he designs and so I tell him my thoughts.
‘Dog clothes?’ I say, ‘All I can think of would be Paris Hilton when I think of dog clothes.’
‘Yeh,’ he says, laughing.
Then I ask him if I could have his contact details so I can have a look online at what he does, and I hand him over the sketch book that I am traveling with and he writes his name, Jack, and his contact details underneath.
Then we discuss the airline we are flying with, China Southern, and I tell him it has been way better than I thought it would be.
‘I thought it would be one of those airlines with mean stewards and cheap wings that fall off midair, and seats no one over 150 pounds could squeeze into,’ I say, ‘but it’s super roomy and the food has been really good.’
Jack the freelance illustrator laughs and says ‘yeh’ and then tells me that the friend he is travelling with upgraded because he’s a big guy and because the plane was full of Chinese people.
‘He goes Jack, Dude,’ Jack, tells me, ‘look at this place, I’m the only white guy on it. I’m upgrading’, so he did.’
‘It would stand to reason,’ I say, laughing, ‘that a plane from a company call China Southern destined for China would have a fair amount of Chinese people onboard.’
Jack laughs and says yes.
Then Jack asks me some questions about Australia and I tell him that it has been a very long time since I have lived there and that they currently have a right wing government that are less than kind to the gay, the refugee, the poor and the Aboriginal.
And then for a while we discuss what Australians are like, what Americans are like, what the world thinks we’re like, about the palm trees in Santa Monica and how unappealing the promenade at Venice, CA, is.
And then I say to Jack, who is wearing a big dark blue floppy wind cheater with Los Angeles writ on it in white lettering, and a pair of Adidas three-stripe track pants, ‘I hope you’re not a Republican, because these bastards running Australia are even worse than Cheney and Romney and thick-head racists and gun-worshippers.’
Jack laughs and tells me that no, he is not a Republican.
And then Jack and I talk about guns and Republicans for a while until he asks me about the dangerous things in Australia.
‘You’ve got like, deadly insects and stuff out there, right?’ he asks me, ‘like kangaroos that fight each other.’
I tell Jack, yes, we have many deadly things but no more deadly than things in the US.
‘I was in Louisiana where alligators crawl around loose in rivers and in swamps and people were carrying on about deadly spiders,’ I say, ‘and completely ignoring that about 18,000 people a year get killed by each other with guns.’
And then Jack gets serious.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘even if the second amendment had been changed, guns were still going to come in.’
And then he tells me he used to be in a gang, and that he had been shot.
‘I was shot in the shoulder,’ he tells me, and he reaches up with his left hand and wraps it around his chest to touch his right shoulder, ‘and I still have a bullet on this other side.’
He then reaches up and touches his left shoulder with his left hand.
‘Wow,’ I say, so you were in a gang.’
‘Yes,’ Jack tells me, ‘it was rough where I grew up but a teacher saw my drawings and thought it was a way out so I got a scholarship and went to art school.’
‘I am smiling at Jack now and tell him that’s great, that he got out.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘I still live in the area but it’s a lot more cleaned up now, not so rough,’
Then I ask him if he saw Obama’s State of the Union Address, and he tells me that while he usually listens to it, he hadn’t heard it this time.
‘Me and my friend Anna, who is Swedish, we were listening to it,’ I tell him, ‘and both of us agreed that it made us fall in love with America a little bit more.’
‘Yeh,’ Jack tells me, ‘It has its problems, but it’s a hard place not to love.’
I nod my head and say yes, and then until the plane lands we sit there talking about the US, guns, Australia, art, shooting, LA neighbourhoods, and various other things, until people start to get up and I say – ‘Fuck, the futility of everyone jumping up to get their bags as soon as the plane puts on the brakes.’
Jack laughs and says yeh.
Then we sit there again, not saying anything, until people start to pass in the aisle and Jack leans down and picks up the bag that has his sketch book in it and holds it in his lap, his arms wrapped around it as if it’s a calm child.
And then it’s time for us to stand up and I say – ‘I’m in no rush for my connecting flight. I’m just going to sit here and be last.’
And Jack stands up and holds out his hand to me for shaking.
’It’s good to talk to you,’ he says, ‘and when you come to LA, if there’s anything you need, let me know. I’ll do what I can to help you out.’
I smile at him and take his hand and tell him thank you.
And I tell him that those kinds of offers come from most Americans I meet.
And that’s why I love the USA.
And that I will be in touch.
It’s the 10.30 pm from LAX to Ghainzghou and we are already in descent when, because he’s just drawn in a sketch book and then put it away in his bag, I turn to my right and start talking to the guy next to me in seat 44 E.
It’s San Diego and it’s very hot and the girl who lives behind us but who often hangs out next door drinking beer and applying make up to herself, is standing on my front porch, holding on to a beach umbrella.
‘I got this beach umbrella,’ says the girl whose name is Priscilla, who is today wearing tiny pink shorts, a tiny tee gray shirt, a lot of eye make up and tied back hair, ‘you want to buy it?’
‘I don’t like the beach,’ I tell her, ‘my skin is fair and I burn and the beach is windy and I don’t like the sand,’
And for emphasis I tell her I grew up on a river, where sand doesn’t blow in the cracks of the body, and where waves don’t relentlessly bash themselves into the sand, committing noisy, disturbing liquid suicide.
‘I like going in my bikini with my daughter,’ my neighbour then says, standing there opening and demonstrating how the giant beach umbrella works.
Then, even thought I don’t want the beach umbrella, I ask her how much she wants for it.
‘Hmmm,’ she says, frowning and thinking, ‘Only 15 dollars,’
And then thinking she probably really needs 15 dollars, I almost open my mouth to buy the umbrella that I don’t want.
But I don’t.
Instead I say no thank you, and that I probably would never use it.
‘Everyone gives me things,’ she says unperturbed and folding the umbrella up into it’s closed position, ‘so if you think you need anything for your house, you let me know.’
Then I ask my neighbour if, seeing she is Mexican, she might like to teach me her language.
And that I if she teaches me I will pay her.
‘Yeh,’ she says, ‘from now on every time I see you I will speak to you in Spanish.’
‘Okay,’ I say and smile, ‘great.’
And just then her daughter rides up on her bicycle and stops in front of the house.
‘Hola,’ she says, parking in front of the steps and smiling up and waving at me.
‘Hola to you, too.’ I say, waving and smiling back down at her.
We’re in Mamou, La, and we’ve just come in through the door of Fred’s World famous Cajun Music Joint and I’m at the bar ordering a beer for Andre and a Sprite for me when I look left to see a man wearing what I am pretty sure is a ten gallon hat.
The ten gallon hat is cream colored, and the shirt the man is wearing is also cream colored and the mans silver hair blossoms out silvery from under his hat.
And sitting to the left of this man is his woman.
And the man has his arms folded on the bar, and his head is turned to the right to see the band, and the woman is turned to the right in her chair, her left hand crossing her body to rest on the mans left forearm.
And the woman is wearing a red and white checked shirt with thin stripes of blue following the squares of red, and out from behind her red bright red lipstick her teeth smile a big bright smile right at me, and the man smiles at me, too and says-‘And where are y’a’ll from?’
I smile back at the man and the woman and tell them that we are from Australia.
‘Yep,’ says the man in the ten gallon hat, nodding and smiling and holding out a hand which I take and shake, ‘I took one look at ya, and didn’t think y’all was from around here,’
Then the beer and the Sprite are put in front of me on the bar and I give the barman 20 dollars and he walks to the other side of the bar and a few moments later he’s in front of me again, holding his hand out to me, giving 15 dollars in change.
And and then he goes back across the bar and comes back with a book that that is hard-backed and dark red and looks like ledger and, without saying a word, opens it to a page where a pen lays and a list of names are written.
Next to the names are the names places where the people who have written their names have come from.
‘I’m putting Mildura.’ I tell Andre, because even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years, it feels appropriate to put the furthest and most distant place from Fred’s World Famous Cajun Music Joint that I have ever lived.
And after we’ve signed the book we say cheers to the man in the 10 gallon hat and his smiling woman and walk around the front of the bar to the back where the booths are upholstered in red vinyl and the tables covered in dark beige laminate.
And they have ashtrays on them.
And cans of empty Bud light that stand in the middle of the table looking like dilapidated cities.
And from here we can look directly at the band, who are placed in the middle of the room.
We stand around drinking and tapping our feet to the music and I look around the walls and there are photos all over the walls of people who have played at Fred’s.
And the majority of the faces in the photos are white men and they hold accordions and other instruments and smile out of these photos, their hair styles from different eras.
And Andre and I go over and sit on spindly metal chairs that look like they come from a kitchen, and their upholstery is tan and held on by pins.
And we put our chairs in front of the stage, beyond the floor where the dancers are being swung and swinging.
And Andre drinks his beer and I drink my Sprite and we smile at each other and tell each other how great this place is.
And we watch the band that with each song changes its line-up.
The drummer changes, the man that plays the pedal slide guitar while holding a cigarette between the ring and middle fingers of his right hand is changed up for someone else.
The bass player with the curly black mullet and fuzzy moustache is changed up for someone else.
And the man playing the whizz-bang jingle-jangle Cajun accordion is changed up for someone else.
And they play and sing in some high pitched French/English mix and the people on the dance floor change.
But as they dance they are always smiling and swinging.
And the more music we hear the more we smile.
And the music feels like it rings bells and fires penny wheels and my feet are slipping around the floor in my Converse.
This music is bone and nerve-ending electricity from top to bottom.
Like swallowing a sparkler on New Years Eve.
I say to Andre- ‘I’m coming here again, one day,’
And I close my eyes and think that when I do I will lie up the back in a booth and close my eyes and keep them closed.
It’s Sunday morning, at the Big Kitchen in Golden Hill, and while I wait for my friend Sonya, I am taking a photo of the wall of the cafe when a man sitting at the counter by himself says- ‘I’d offer to take that for you but I can’t see.’
‘Oh, no problem,’ I say, ‘I’ve got it.’
Then, when I sit back down the man continues talking to me.
‘I can only see shadows,’ he tells me, ‘like black and white shapes.’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘that’s a bit shit.’
The man nods his head, agreeing with me.
Then he starts to tell me about his life.
‘I was working and I just thought my glasses were wrong, so I kept changing my prescription,’ he says, ‘until one day they told me there was nothing they could do.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I say, wondering what the fuck I’d do if I went blind.
‘I put all my kids through college,’ he tells me as I move a few seats closer to him so I can more easily hear what he is saying, ‘and now my youngest daughter lives at home, she’s my carer.’
‘I like to read,’ he says, ‘so I listen to books.’
‘Do you have that thing where people come and read to you, like the newspaper?’ I ask him.
No, he tells me, he is happy with his books.
‘My daughter is studying to be a nurse and then she needs to get on with her life.’ he says.
I am looking at the man and wondering how much can see of me, and how much he can see of the omelette that is on the plate in front of him when he says, ‘Anyway, my name is John’ and I tell him my name and take his hand and he tells me it is nice to meet me.
And just then Sonya comes in and I introduced her to John.
And they shake hands.
And then Sonya and I start talking and a while later John interrupts us and says goodbye and we turn to him and say goodbye.
‘It was good to meet you,’ John says, ‘have a good rest of your day.’
We tell him thank you and as he leaves I think to myself that I will go back to the Big Kitchen and ask if he comes in regularly and come in at the same time and finish off our conversation.
Or start a new one.
It’s morning, 9.45 am, and I am in the gym, when a young man who I had said hello to in the car park, comes up to the workout equipment I’m using and says to me- ‘Are you going to that parade today? You know, the big parade?’
Because I am on that machine that you kneel on and hoist yourself up and down on by your arms to work your upper body, I have to look down at the young man to answer.
‘What parade do you mean?’ I say to him.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘the gay one.’
‘Uh, no, I don’t think so,’ I say, wondering why out of all the people in the gym he is asking me.
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I went last year but I don’t know if I am going to go.’
Then he says nothing for a moment and I keep on vertically hoisting myself and looking down at the young man.
Then the young man says – ‘Anyway, my name is Fernando,’
‘Oh,’ I say, stopping my workout so I can pay him full attention.
I tell him my name and then I say- ‘I haven’t lived here very long and…uh.’
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘where are you from?’
‘Australia,’ I say, ‘but I was living in England for a long time.’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘do you know Robert Smith?’
I tell him no, that I don’t know Robert Smith, while I’m thinking England is a big, big place, with lots of Smiths.
‘I really like the Cure,’ Fernando tells me.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘THAT Robert Smith. Nice.’
‘I saw them play once,’ he tells me, ‘and I’m going to see Paul McCartney at the stadium.’ ‘Nice,’ I say.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘I just wanna go because I’ve never seen a Beatle.’
We’re in Houston, at the McDonald’s in Main Street, opposite the Greyhound bus station, where we’ve gone to wait for my bus to Austin and Andre’s to Lafayette, and it is freezing outside, and we are looking through the window, watching people outside with blankets around them go nowhere but back and forth along the footpath.
On a corner a man sells cans of beer for a dollar, a cleaner with his fly undone washes the footpath with hot bleach, while Andre and I sit inside; him eating a banana and me drinking coffee.
I stare through the window at a man who is walking back and forth in the car park with a blanket around him, holding out his hand, asking people for something.
But everyone is shaking their head no at him.
’I bet he wants food,’ I say to Andre, ‘I’m going to see what he wants,’
I go outside and walk up to the man and as I do I see that his shoes are gigantic, like airline bags on his feet, and the blanket around his shoulders is a baby’s blanket, its once white edge is now filthy satin.
The man has a black beanie on his head against the freezing cold, and he is carrying a small soft satchel by the handle.
But the zip is broken and inside are pieces of what look like clothing and they are poking out of the bag.
I touch the man on the shoulder and he turns around very slowly, like he’s a prize on display, and his eyes are rolling around their sockets.
He looks old.
And I am impressed that he is upright.
‘Would you like some food?’ I ask the man.
And the old man replies with something too quiet for me to hear.
I ask him again, and to be sure of hearing him, I look closely into his mouth when he responds.
He has no teeth in the front of his mouth but still I hear him say ‘Cheeseburger,’
Then, as if those words have taken great effort and all his energy, he closes his eyes.
Then, as I say okay and am about to walk back inside the McDonalds, the man opens his eyes, holds out his hand, stares right at me and says ‘double’.
‘Okay, double cheeseburger,’ I say, ‘Wait here,’
Back inside the McDonald’s I tell the woman behind the counter that I want 2 double cheeseburgers.
‘I would like 2 double cheeseburgers, please,’ I say.
’Only breakfast menu on this morning, ma’am,’ she says.
I say fuck really loudly, because it’s early and people are already selling drugs in the toilet and someone has tried to sell me black market cigarettes and I feel like I am in a scene from Blade Runner so I have stopped caring if I am polite.
And I bend my head back until my neck hurts and look up at the breakfast menu, wondering what a man with no teeth on a freezing morning might like instead of 2 double cheeseburgers.
Because I find choice a chore, it take me some time to decide to get him breakfast burritos.
‘2 breakfast burritos,’ I say to the woman behind the counter and then I turn to look at Andre who is watching in the car park for the man.
‘Is he still there?’ I shout to Andre, not caring at all about shouting the across a place where people are pissing against the wheels a car in the car park that has one of its wheels missing.
And while I am shouting to Andre, the server woman comes to the counter holding a bag up high and calls out ‘2 breakfast burritos’ and I go over to and take the burritos from her and turn to leave the counter.
But before I can take a step to go outside to give the man with no teeth his food, I see that, like a wizard with time travel powers, he has manifested himself right behind me.
I touch him on the arm and hand him the bag.
‘Here’ I say, here is your food,’
He takes the bag and looks down into it.
Then he frowns.
‘It’s 2 breakfast burritos,’ I say.
And without looking at me he says ‘I don’t want burritos’ and starts to walk away from me.
I follow the man to the door trying to explain that it’s nothing but breakfast until 10.30 and it’s only 9.30 and that I didn’t think he’d want to wait.
‘So I got you some burritos,’ I say.
But the man is already going out of the door and I walk back through the McDonald’s and sit down at the table with Andre, who is laughing.
‘What a fucking ungrateful shit,’ I say to Andre.
Then Andre tells me the story of how he once gave a homeless man a bunch of bananas.
‘They were bananas,’ Tone,’ he says, ‘fucking good for you and I just thought, you know, if you’re hungry anything would be good. He fucking told me to shove em up me arse.’
And then Andre and I both start to laugh until I say to Andre that I’d be hopeless as a homeless person.
‘I’d last one night on the street. I’d die of fright.’ I tell him as we watch the disappointed man walk across the car park with his bag of breakfast burritos in his hand and a grimy baby’s blanket around his shoulders.
It’s Christmas eve in the living room of Missy Lori LeBlanc’s.
Andre is Skyping his parents, Missy Lori is drinking wine, the dogs are fighting and I am talking to a Russian tennis player who is sitting in the living room, listening to music, playing Cards Against Humanity and taking selfies with 2 other Russian tennis players.
‘So,’ I say to one of the tennis players, a girls whose name is Natalya, ‘how does a university benefit by bringing you to the United States to play tennis?’
Natalya, who has long wavy blond hair and is wearing a beige sweater and stone-wash jeans, smiles and shrugs and tells me: ‘Because I win many games for them,’
‘They pay for your education, they pay for your food and somewhere to live,’ I say, ‘ so what do they get out of it?’
‘Mmmmh,’ Natalya says, ‘they, um, you know, they get me to win many games for them.’
‘So,’ I say, ‘it’s like you get glory for the school?’
‘Yes,’ Natalya says, after I explain to her what glory means, ‘of course.’
‘And that’s important in the USA,’ I say to her, ‘glory.’
Natalya laughs and tells me that yes, she thinks glory is important in the USA.
Then she asks me a question about tattooing.
‘I would like to get a tattoo of the name of my mother on here on inside finger,’ she says and holds up her index finger and points to the inside of it, ‘but my mother said she will not have me as daughter anymore if I get tattoo.’
Then Natalya makes a face as if she is in pain and still holding up her finger, asks me- ‘And does tattoo hurt?’
I laugh and tell her yes, it does hurt and that seeing her mother will disown her if she gets one, it is probably best not to.
Natalya laughs and agrees that it is best not to get a tattoo.
And then I ask Natalya a question about Vladimir Putin.
‘What do you think of Putin?’ I say.
‘Oh,’ says Natalya, who is 21 and has been in the USA for 3 years, ‘I think he is really pretty great.’
‘Really?’ I say, ‘Because in the West he’s portrayed as a shirtless, homoerotic, horseback-riding, bear-hunting psychopath,’
Fortunately, because Missy Lori LeBlanc has the soundtrack to the film Mamma Mia playing loudly in the background, or perhaps because of the language barrier, Natalya cocks her head and frowns and doesn’t seem to understand my statement.
So I don’t repeat it.
‘You know, in the Crimea, where they don’t like Putin,’ she tells me, ‘ they are very poor, and the thing what you call, the moneys you get when you are old, it is very low and my mother works from 8 to 8 in the pharmacy for only 2000 a month.’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘that sounds terrible.’
‘Yes,’ she say, ‘and then my Dad losed his job but then my parents went back to Russia and it is better in Russia with Putin.’
We talk a little bit more about Russia, and Natalya tells me even though she was born in the Ukraine, she feels more Russian than Ukrainian.
Then we talk about her being an only child and that it was better that she was an only child because her father was already 30 when she was born.
And then we talk a bit about how she got to be so good at tennis.
‘I play with one girl who is very good now, she was number 25 in world tennis, but she got sponsor and big money, and I did not.’
And then Natalya sighs and and shakes her head and tells me that she now feels old at 21.
‘You know, when I am 16 I looked at 21 and I am thinking, oh life is finished at 21,’ she says, ‘I have so many, many things to do. And now I am 21 and my whole life is been playing tennis.’
I laugh and say- ’21 is nothing. I am going to be 50 very soon,’
‘Really?’ Natalya says.
And I tell her, yes, and that if I can make it to 50, she might have a lot of time left, too.
‘But no,’ Natalya says, and shakes her head and laughs, ‘life is so short! I have so many, many things to do.’
I’m in the Lincoln Barber shop, Lincoln Avenue, Santa Monica, and Marvin Gaye is on the radio and I am standing at the last chair in the shop, and I’m holding my phone in my hand and showing the barber a photo of me (taken a year or more ago) and I’m saying – Can you cut my hair just like that? It’s the best hair cut I ever had,’
‘Yeh,’ says the Barber, a bald guy, who is wearing a shiny blue short sleeved barber’s jacket, and who is looking down at my phone at the photo of my best ever hair cut, ‘I can do it like that,’
Then I sit down in the barber’s chair and he curls a piece of white strip paper around my neck, and I say – ‘I like it long on the top so I can swoosh it up a bit,’
And then I tug at my long side burns and tell him – ‘I like to leave these a bit long, too,’
And the barber says ‘Yeh’ again, and then he says again -‘I can do it like that’, and then he spins me to face the long mirror on the back wall of the shop, where there is a brown leather bench seat on which is laying, on his back, a young man in Clark Kent-style glasses and a baseball cap and a shiny blue short sleeved barber’s jacket .
‘What are you playing?’ I ask the young man who has a controller in his hand and is annihilating people with automatic weaponry
‘Art of War,’ he looks over at me and smile and says, ‘It’s part of the Call of Duty series,’
I tell him ‘nice’ and then, as I feel the Barber commencing the combing my hair, I start staring in the mirror in front of me, watching the his hand action for a few minutes until I feel compelled to tell him that this is the most gentle hair cut I have ever had.
‘This is the most gentle haircut I have ever had,’ I tell the Barber, ’the way you run the comb up the back of my head is like a massage,’
I see the Barber’s reflection smile and I smile and then go back to watching his hand movements again.
It’s like a tea-drinking movement of a Ladyship from an Oscar Wilde farce.
It’s like some a bonsai zen wall plasterer is on my shoulder and is flicking a comb.
He’s a conductor of hair.
And he moves back and front and to the side and spins the chair a fraction this way and that and it’s like watching a sculptor.
Or someone icing a cake.
And he is fully engaged in the job and I am engrossed in his engagement.
‘It’s nice cutting clean hair,’ the Barber tells me and he smiles minimally, ‘it’s easy for the comb to go through.
Then the Barber and I are quiet again while I wonder how dirty ‘man hair’ is.
Starchy, thick man hair, I think.
Builder’s hair full of grit and greasy mechanic hair.
And then, for a good while, the Barber and I say nothing to each other and he conducts his comb against the side and back of my head and nips at my hair with his scissors, I watch the killing on the TV.
And then while I’m being spun this-way-and-that again in the chair to get at my hair, I look at the signs on the wall.
A tiny Lakers sticker with a phone number to call the Lakers Line.
A blue arrow in metal that reads ‘Dodgers’.
A sign stuck on the mirror that says ‘Hair cut, 25 cents’.
A pinup-style ad for pomade.
And through the back door a mop bucket and cleaning product and some metal shelving.
Then, BB King is on the radio singing The Thrill is Gone, and I watch the Barber trim around my ears and then take the air compressor and blow my back, back of my head, and the front of his shiny blue short sleeved barber’s jacket.
And all during my hair cut, the Barbers are calling back and forth to each other in half Spanish and half English about transmissions, about food, about how quiet the shop is and about the game the young man in the Clark Kent glasses is lying on his back playing.
‘You want me to shave your neck,’ the Barber then says to me, and then he blows my hair again, ‘it’s included,’
I ask him what he means.
‘Just take the hair off the back of your neck,’ he tells me.
And when our reflections finish discussing the shave, from a dispenser the Barber pumps whipped up cream on to his hand and frosts my neck.
And then with a razor he tidies me and I hear a soft growl from it across my neck.
Then he holds a long handled larger mirror in front of me.
‘Champion,’ I tell him looking at the done job, ‘Perfect,’
And then he swings the chair to give me room to stand and he’s behind me again, and then when I stand up from the chair I can see through the Venetian blinds that it is dark outside, and I ask the Barber how much.
’20 dollars,’ he tells me and I take 25 from my pocket and give it to him.
‘I’m coming back from Australia on the 18th,’ I say, ‘I will need another haircut,’
And then while I look at a calendar hanging on the mirror, the Barber says yeh, come back.
‘What’s your name?’ I call from the door to the Barber.
‘Tony,’ he calls back.
‘Ah,’ I say and smile, ‘like me,’
‘You too?’ he says and smiles.
‘Yep, I’ll come back.’ I tell Tony the Barber, looking up from the calendar and smiling, ‘Because that was the most gentle hair cut I ever had.’
I’m standing on the corner of Broadway and 7th, and I’m looking back toward Downtown.
And I’m looking out for a bus with the number 2 on it; the bus that goes up from Downtown to Northpark.
And I’m standing in front of the bus stop, and I have my sunglasses on and I am sucking on my e-cigarette, when a man who looks like he might not have a fixed abode, looks up at me and says- ‘Girl, you look like you got some stress in your life,’
I look down at the man, stop sucking on my e-fag, and I smile.
I want to tell the man that I have just spent the night in hospital where I have seen and heard and felt things I do not wish to see or hear or feel again.
And I want to tell him that I am unwashed and unfed.
And I want to tell the man that although I am trying to find the start, I cannot unravel the thread.
And that, unsure of my future and confused by the past, I feel a live-wired Medusa living in my head.
But I don’t say any of this to the man.
Instead I just laugh, and say ‘Yes, I am a bit stressed’.
And then, when the man asks me for a couple of something to get himself something, I take 2 dollars of notes from my pocket and hand them to him.
And then the number 2 bus comes and I get on it, and to the driver I say- ‘I do not have the correct money,’
‘Never mind,’ the driver says to me, ‘the city needs the money for a new stadium, anyway,’
Then the driver and I laugh.
And then I pay 3 dollars for a $2.25 ticket and walk through the bus and sit down and look out of the window.
And there, in the bus stop sits the smiling man who has told me about my stress-face.
And he is still smiling at me.
And I smile back at him.
And he lifts his hand and waves at me.
And I lift mine and wave at him.
Then I give him a thumbs up.
And he gives me back a thumbs up.
And then the bus moves off, and I wave again.
And the smiling man waves and I wave and smile until I can no longer see him.
And all the way up to Golden Hill, even though I cannot see him, I smile at the smiling man in the bus stop.
I continue my smile for him.
I’m standing on Krista’s porch on E Street, San Diego, when a boy wearing long golden-mousey coloured hair, a leather biker’s jacket, black waiter-style trousers and skate shoes pulls up on a skateboard, flips the skateboard into the air with his toe, catches it and then calls out – ‘Hey, you got a cigarette by any chance?’
I look at him and say No.
‘And if I did have one,’ I tell him, ‘I would not give it you anyway, because smoking is for idiots,’
Then, Susan, who lives next door and is standing on the steps of Krista’s porch facing me, turns to the boy and tells her she has one.
‘I have one,’ she says and hands it to him, saying ‘here.’
Then, while he lights his cigarette, the boy shows us a trick with a book of matches.
‘Look,’ he says, as he opens the book of matches with one hand, ‘I have a cigarette in one hand so I can only use my other hand to light up.’
Then he does some sleight of hand looking maneuver, and lights his cigarette, the book of matches twisting away trickily in his fingers.
‘You should learn magic tricks,’ I tell him, ‘you’re a charming guy, and tricky.’
The boy laughs.
‘You could learn hypnosis, too,’ I tell him, ‘then you could go on the road.’
‘I’m an empath,’ the boy shouts from the footpath, ‘I’m hypnotising you as we speak.’
‘I’m a real hypnotist, though,’ I tell the boy, ‘so maybe I am hypnotising you!’
The boy laughs, and walks up the stairs of the house and puts his hand out.
‘My name is Daniel,’ he says, ‘but you can call me Blue.’
I say ‘hello Blue’ and then the boy shakes Susan’s hand, too.
Then the boy asks if we live around here.
Susan says she lives next door, and I say no, I am dog sitting, and that I once lived here, but not anymore.
‘I couch surf,’ says Blue, ‘and it’s kind of cool.’
Then Susan ask Blue how old he is.
How old are you, Blue,’ she says and Blue tells her he is 22.
‘And I have been couch surfing for four years,’ he tells us.
‘You educated,’ I ask him, ‘you have a job?’
Blue, who doesn’t stop moving, but flits about like an anxious comedian about to go on stage, laughs loudly which makes me laugh too.
‘I was educated at Juvi Hall,’ he tells me, and then he walks back over to the road and spits on it.
Then he comes back and stands in the footpath of Krista’s house, smoking his cigarette and leaning on the fence post, flipping at his skateboard with his right foot.
And that’s when I offer him some advice.
‘Blue,’ I say, standing up and walking closer to him, looking down at him now from the porch, ‘go back to trade school and become a plumber.’
Then Blue gets a look on his face; a distasteful look that you would have expected if I had told him I had seen his grandfather in a gay bar with a 20 year old boyfriend.
‘You won’t make dollar of being an empath,’ I tell him, ‘and couch surfing when you’re 50 is not much fun.’
‘Why a plumber?’ Blue says to me, ‘why does it have to be a plumber?’
‘It doesn’t,’ I say, ‘I don’t give a shit if you’re a plumber or not. Just get a trade.’
Blue starts laughing and tells me I have made a good joke about plumbing and shit and I tell him thanks, but it was an unintentional.
‘Blue,’ I say, holding my right hand up and rubbing my fore finger and middle finger in circular a motion with my thumb, ‘you live in a land on which money is all that matters. You better go out and get some it, because no one will look after you here if you fall through the proverbial cracks.’
Blue leans is head back and blows a pile of smoke rings into the air, then lowers his head, and looking at me frowning, he nods it.
Then Krista arrives and asks us what we are talking about.
‘I am giving this young man a lecture,’ I tell Krista, ‘we’re trying to make sure he gets a trade and saves money for when he is old in case things go tits up for him.’
At ‘tits’ up Blue starts to laugh and I have to explain to him and Susan what ‘tits up’ means.
‘It means ‘go wrong’, I tell Blue, ‘If your life goes tits up you want to have a way to support yourself, a way to make sure you don’t end up at 50, sleeping on people’s sofas, like me.’
‘Ah,’ he says, clearly beginning to be bored by my lecture, ‘I’ll think about plumbing but right now, I am kind of happy being a sociopath.’
‘You’re a sociopath?’ I call to him as he begins to skate away, his orange wheels hitting the cracks in the footpath and making a sound like a tiny distant train.
‘Woo hoo,’ shouts Blue, turning his face back to us and smiling, still smoking the cigarette as he speeds up and his hair starts to fly, ‘I don’t know what I am except for being good at cadging cigarettes.’
I’m on my bicycle, on the way to the gym, and I am stopped waiting for traffic at the corner of the streets named F and 22nd, when I hear a voice calling out to me ‘Hey, Toni. Where you been, girl?’.
I turn and look over my left shoulder and I see Roberto Della Rosa standing beside a rubbish bin, his hands full of bits and pieces of recycling, so I turn my bicycle, dismount, and walk back toward him.
And as he walks towards me he puts the recycling in his shopping trolley and I stand holding my bicycle, smiling, and because Roberta Della Rosa has dirty gloves on his hands and the first time we met he would not touch my clean hands with his filthy ones, we do a fist-bump, rather than shake.
‘Hey, girl,’ says Roberto Della Rosa, smiling at me with his row of grayscale mangled bottom teeth, ‘where have you been? Every time I go past your house I think to myself what happened to that girl?’
‘Oh,’ I say to Roberto Della Rosa, who is wearing a bright orange tee shirt with a small dancing Mickey Mouse logo, set in a round white back ground, over the chest area, ‘I don’t live over that way anymore, so I am sorry I don’t see you,’
‘Hey, no problem,’ he tells me, ‘I am just glad to see you,’
I ask Roberto Della Rosa, who I am very happy to see, how he has been and he immediately starts to tell me a story, a story about drinking and how it almost ruined a good friendship.
‘I stopped drinking,’ he tells me, ‘because, you know, one day after drinking, I wake up and I was laying with my best friend.’
‘Oh,’ I say to Roberto Della Rosa, ‘that’s…um…unusual.’
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘so I am not drinking anymore. She is my best friend, and I don’t feel like that about her, so I don’t want anymore trouble.’
I tell him it is a good call and that I don’t drink for the same kinds of reasons; I don’t want troublesome events.
‘Yeh,’ Roberto Della Rosa tells me, ‘I just don’t drink…well, maybe a little beer every now and then, but no hard liquor.’
I tell him that’s a good move, and ask him, if the friendship survived the night of drunkenness.
‘Yeh, we are okay,’ he says, ‘but you know drinking it makes me a different kind of man. Makes me horny for women, and I got other women for that. Not my best friend.’
‘Yeh,’ I tell him, ‘drinking just does not work for some people.’
And Roberta Della Rosa holds out his fist for another bump, and I bump him.
Then Roberto Della Rosa asks me why I don’t live on the other side of the 94 anymore.
‘Well,’ I tell him, ‘you know I lived with my wife and it didn’t work out so, you know, now I am staying somewhere else,’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘so you were living with a girl?’
I tell him yes, that I had been living with my wife but things had not gone as planned and that I am very sad about it.
‘Well you know what you gotta do,’ says Roberto Della Rosa, getting all serious and frowning.
‘What’s that?’ I say to Roberto Della Rosa, smiling now, and eager to hear any advice on this day when all of my hope is bent as a piece of aluminum siding that sits in Roberto Della Rosa’s shopping trolley.
‘You got to find a guy who licks pussy as well as a woman,’ Roberto Della Rosa says to me, smiling and pointing at his chest, right over the the dancing Mickey Mouse, ‘Yeh, you know girl, you gotta find a guy just like me.’
Roberto Della Rosa is moving away from me now, walking in reverse and laughing, and I am frowning and my mouth hangs open and I am hoping that hope he trips over and bangs the back of his head.
And that the force of the bang ejects his petrified teeth, popping them, just like those stupid last words he’d spoken to me, right out of his grotesque mouth and on to the footpath where I will crush them under foot, until they are like powdered, out-of-date discoloured Christmas candy cane.
I’m riding my bicycle along 17th street, San Diego, having just left Fitness First, when I see, in the middle of the road, in front of a strip of footpath where homeless people live, a garbage truck, 2 police cars and several human beings in orange shirts with a City of San Diego Sanitation Dept logo on them.
Then, I notice, right in front of me, a white van offloading humans wearing high-vis jackets, gloves, protective head gear and face masks.
I get off my bicycle and wheel it to the next corner, where I see a man with a lanyard around his neck, watching the police cars and garbage truck.
‘What’s going on?’ I say to the man, who is wearing a brown hoodie, steel rimmed glasses, soft baggy blue jeans and a horizontal striped coloured tee shirt.
‘We’re from the county,’ the man tells me, ‘and we have to clean up the streets,’
And then the man tells me the homeless people get angry, and attack them.
I look over at the piles of blankets and piles of clothing and piles of garbage bags, and shopping trolleys and I say to the man- ‘That’s people’s possessions. That stuff there is their home,’
The man shakes his head and crosses his arms and looks at the footpath and, looking sad, says- ‘I know. And we have to clean this up with respect for these people and for their possessions. But we have to do this every two weeks,’
Then, a blond woman wearing a pony tail, a high-vis jacket and a ferocious expression on her scraggy mouth, walks past, hands on her scraggy hips and shouts -‘We been here an hour and a half and we ain’t done nothin’ yet,’
When her and her putrid temperament have passed, me and the man from the county talk again.
‘This is the thing that has made me the most confused about the United States of America,’ I tell the man, ‘the amount of homeless people and the amount of riches,’
The man shakes his head and looks at his shoes again.
‘The police tell me that at night is is bad,’ he says, ‘There are children here. The people are fighting over blankets, the women are being raped,’
‘Fucking hell,’ I tell him, turning away from the cleaning and looking right into his face now, ‘it’s like a fucking jungle,’
‘That’s right,’ the says the man from the county, ‘it’s like being forced to live like animals to survive,’
Then we go quiet again and watch the further dehumanisation of people who have slightly more than nothing, until I say- ‘And you see those Republicans cutting food stamps and trying to repeal Obamacare and I wonder what how much more they need to take,’
‘That’s right,’ says the man, ‘they spend more on their leisure than it might take to feed these people for a year,’
Then the man from the county tells me that his church in Spring Valley helps.
‘We give out shoes and clothes,’ he tells me, ‘we give out pushchairs for the children. We open the doors of our church to them so they can shower,’
And then I ask him what his church is called and he tells me and I think about how good it would be to join a church but that god gets in the way, and then we quietly watch as a homeless woman walks along the footpath collecting sticks, leisurely almost, as if she is she might be on a camping holiday and collecting her evening firewood.
Then the man from the county starts talking again.
‘I’m only a pay cheque away from this,’ he tells me as he looks over at the cleaning, which is now starting, ‘and if I lost my job tomorrow and my sister or my mum or my brother couldn’t take me in, I would be on the streets. I don’t have ten thousand dollars savings, to keep me until my retirement kicks in,’
And then we stand there saying nothing, listening to the noise of the garbage truck as, with great indifference, it eats up what little these people who have so little have.
If you are in San Diego, you can go here to help out-urban-angels.com
I’m in Austin, Texas, where I have come to visit Dora, and it’s 8.15 am and I’m standing behind Franklin’s World Famous Barbecue place, waiting for my coffee from a coffee caravan and I’m holding Sparky, Dora’s Shih Tzu, by his leash and talking to a couple of missionaries who are visiting from Hounduras.
‘We’re missionaries,’ says the man who is wearing a baseball cap, large steel-rimmed glasses, a red North face jacket, has a fancy Canon SLR around his neck and the clear eyes and skin of a man familiar with Jesus, ‘and we live in Hounduras,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘how nice,’
‘Yes,’ he tells me, ‘but we are here visiting our son,’
‘Oh, nice, ‘I say again,’
‘Yes,’ says the man pointing to the young man who is making my coffee in the coffee caravan, ‘that’s our son,’
‘Oh, nice,’ I say again, disappointed at my repetitive and unimaginative niceties.
So, to compensate, I ask the man what kind of missionary work they do in Hounduras.
‘We are educators,’ says the woman who turns out to be the man’s wife, ‘and we were called by the Lord to do his work there,’
Then the missionary man tells me that at first they found the food in Hounduras difficult to stomach.
‘We found the food difficult to stomach,’ he tells me, ‘and the driving. But we are there in a little school of 35 children and we teach the orphans English. And, boy, do they ever learn well,’
‘We miss Tex-Mex,’ the missionary woman tells me.
I smile and tell the woman I feel like an abomination because I do not like Mexican food.
‘All that mashed brown bean covered in cheese and wrapped up looks like food that’s already been eaten,’ I say.
After I finish insulting their food, none of us say anything for a few tense moments until the man begins telling me he teaches soccer, also, but that there is no grass to play on, only dirt similar in texture to the dirt we are standing on here at the front of the coffee caravan.
Then, to accentuate his point about dirt, the man kicks up some dirt in front of him and I look down to see some bits of semi-frozen beige gravel fly up, and I drink some coffee and wonder at the state of the knees of the Honduran orphans as they trip and fall chasing a ball across the vicious Honduran gravel.
And then, because I am afraid to say more after the Mexican food debacle, I just say ‘oh, dear, rough’ and then pull on Sparky’s leash and tell him to sit.
Then the missionary woman, who wears her hair in a brown bob, and is covered in a nice and warm looking brown jacket, dark framed glasses and has a bold mole on her top lip, tells me that they have been in Honduras for three years, and that at first she had not been happy to go.
‘My husband said he had been called to serve, and I said I would not go,’ she tells me, and smiles, ‘But then when he told me he wouldn’t go without me, I knew I had to go,’
‘Oh,’ how lovely,’ I tell them, wondering what Hounduras must be like, wondering where in fact exactly it was.
Then the missionary couple tell me they have just travelled up from Houston to see their son, and that once their son and daughter start having their own children, they will give up the missionary life and return to the US.
Then they make some light-hearted jokes about their son’s age and his lack of children and the missionary man tells me he didn’t have his first child until he was 30.
And then the son tells us all his expectations of his parents as they age.
‘I want them here in the US to teach my children Spanish,’ says the young man in the caravan, the coffee maker whose name turns out to be Thomas, ‘I want my children to speak fluent Spanish,’
‘Oh, so you don’t speak Spanish yourself?’ I say to Thomas, who I see has symbol tattoos on his fingers and wears a brown Carhart jacket and a jaunty fedora style hat and has a goatee and moustache.
Matthew tells me no, he does not speak Spanish but that it is essential his children will and that his parents will teach them.
By the time Thomas tells me of this wish, it’s very cold at the coffee caravan and Sparky is twitching his little head so hard he’s almost pulling it out through his collar.
So I finish my coffee and ask the missionaries for the name of their mission so I can Google them.
Then I shake the missionary’s hands, tell them my name and they tell me theirs and then we say goodbye and good luck.
And, then, as the eager and restless Sparky walks me back to his home, I wonder if these missionaries foist English upon Honduran orphans as subconscious penance for their linguistic negligence.
I’m sitting at a wooden bench table in a bar in Houston with a woman called Shani and a woman called Maura, and we’re talking about Bikram yoga, where Maura works and Shani practices, and we are waiting for our food and the football is on the TV and some guy next to us is screaming about Dallas Cowboy touchdowns, so to interrupt his howling I turn to Shani and say, ‘So what was it that you used to do in the army?’
Shani, who has short semi-ginger hair, large white-framed glasses and is a hairdresser and has ordered the sea food gumbo, tells me she was in munitions.
‘I was in munitions,’ she says, ‘and I travelled all over the world, been to Iceland, but I got sick of it and decided to come back to Houston, my hometown. The town in the USA that I love most,’
Now she tells me she loves being a hairdresser and that she feels she has a vocation to encourage people.
‘I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 7 years,’ she tells me just as the food comes to the table, ‘and people keep asking me if I want to learn to teach yoga. But in all honesty, I feel my place is to just encourage others, to just lead by example,’
‘So,’ I say, putting my fork into my soupy beans and rice, ‘munitions. You must know how to fire a gun,’
She tells me yes, she knows how to fire a gun, and then, just as I am about to tell her my thrilling story about learning to fire a rifle, she trumps me with the admission that she knows how to build bombs.
‘And build bombs,’ she tells me, smiling at me and laughing, ‘I know how to fire weapons and build bombs,’
‘Shit a brick!’ I say turning to her with my fork of beans and rice half way to my mouth, ‘You know how to build bombs?’
‘Yes,’ says and smiles and laughs more, ‘I was the only woman who was trained to do it and I can build them by hand,’
I don’t really know what to say to this, never having met someone who knows how to build bombs, so I just listen with my mouth hanging open while Shani the hairdresser talks on about the assemblage of what, to all intents and purposes, are handcrafted weapons of mass destruction.
We’re in Cafe Flores, 2600 Royal Street, New Orleans, waiting for our breakfast, when a guy sitting one table over starts talking to us about where we are from.
‘You from Australia?’ asks the guy, who has a shaved head, is wearing a dark blue vest top and has Chinese symbols tattooed on his chest and arms.
We tell him yes, we are from Australia and he tells how much he would like to go there.
‘I’d really like to go there,’ he says, ‘and, you know, live off the land. I’m so sick of New Orleans. I’ve been here for 5 years’,
‘I don’t want to rain on your parade,’ I tell him, ‘but you can’t just turn up in the Australian desert and start eating lizards, or something,’
‘Nah, mate,’ Andre says the to the man, laughing, ‘some of those lizards’ll be bigger than you, mate,’
Then we talk for a bit about how the Aboriginal people had lived on the land for thousands of years and had a complex relationship with the earth and how I know a guy who got lost in Kakadu National Park and nearly died.
‘The earth there is full of food,’ I tell the man, ‘but it’s unlikely, that without education, you’ll have any luck finding it,’
After we finish destroying the mans dream of a self-sustaining lifestyle in the Australian Outback, I ask him what he does for work in New Orleans.
‘I’m a swamp man. Here, I’ll show you,’ he tells me, standing up from his chair and walking toward me while looking through his phone for a photo, ‘I dress up in a swamp man costume and walk around the streets,’
Wondering how someone decides to become a swamp man, I ask him how he got into it.
‘Did you invent the swamp man yourself?’ I ask him, looking down on to his phone to a grainy image of a green, multi-limbed creature, ‘Or did you buy the rights to the swamp man and just start wandering around town?’
‘Naw,’ he said, ‘I just thought I had to do something, so I made this, like, green swamp man,’
‘Clever,’ I say.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘it’s New Orleans, you can pretty much make life what you want,’
Then he tells me he’s been sleeping on his friend’s sofa for 5 years so he doesn’t have to pay rent.
‘I gotta get out of New Orleans, though,’ he says, ‘there’s just too much hustle. It’s all hustle, hustle, hustle.’
Later, after we have eaten our breakfasts of scrambled eggs and fried potato, and coffee, the swamp man, whose name turns out to be Chad tells us that this evening there’s free food at the Krisha’s, and that he’ll be there at 6.45.
‘They start serving at 7 pm,’ says Chad, AKA The Swamp Man who wants to get out of New Orleans, ‘but you wanna beat the line and be there at 6.45.’
We’re standing at the counter at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, 5880 HWY 1 BYPASS, Natchitoches, LA, trying to rent a compact car for a road trip to New Orleans, when, at certain point during the transaction, Andre thinks it might be a good time to announce to the staff that I am a homosexual.
‘How much is to rent a small car for 3 days?’ I say to the young man behind the counter who is, inexplicably, wearing a furry black Russian-style hat and a puffer jacket, even though it’s not cold inside the office, ‘A little car, a compact car? We want to go to New Orleans,’
‘Well, ma’am,’ says the young man as he opens up a book and runs his finger down a page checking for the price, ‘it’s 21 dollars a day.’
‘That’s not bad, eh Tone?’ says Andre, looking down at me and flick-hitting me on the shoulder with the back of his hand.
‘No,’ I say, looking up at him, ‘not bad at all.’
‘Um, I don’t have any insurance,’ I tell the young man, ‘so, how much extra is that?’
‘Well ma’am,’ says the young behind the counter, ‘that all depends on your age.’
‘I’m going to be 50 in ….shit,’ I say, ‘7 days,’
‘Well,’ ma’am,’ he says, smiling at me, ‘you sure don’t look it.’
And it’s then, just as I am about to tell the young man thank you very much for telling me I don’t look as old as I am about to be, that Andre chooses to declare my homosexuality to the staff of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, 5880 HWY 1 BYPASS, Natchitoches, LA.
‘Aw,’ shouts Andre, to no one in general but to everyone, ‘I know what this looks like. It looks like I’m a hot lookin’ 22 year old, and she’s a 50 year old sheila, but you don’t have to worry about that, there’s nothin’ going on cos she’s an old LEZA,’
I turn to Andre, who is wearing a yellow ochre-coloured suede sheepskin-lined jacket, dirty black jeans, a beard and has his long black hair in something that looks like a ball of gritty wool, and ask him if he’s fucking crazy.
‘Are you fucking crazy?’ I say to him, ‘we’re in a tiny little town in the the fucking SOUTH of the US of A and you’re telling them I’m a fucking queer!?’
‘Aw, shit Tone,’ says Andre who is looking around the office and laughing, ‘no one frikkin’ cares. And it’s not as if you don’t look like a leza!’
I turn my attention away from Andre and look back across the desk to see that what looks like every staff member of Enterprise Car Rental have gathered in the office to listen and laugh while Andre and I shout at each other.
“Arlight then,’ I say, ‘take out your mun and see if they can guess who you frikkin’ look like,’
Then, as the staff members of Enterprise gather even closer to us and the counter, Andre shakes out his long black damp curly hair and simultaneously we shout ‘JESUS’!
Even though it’s the day after Christmas and it’s a winter’s night in America, there’s a softly falling rain that isn’t cold and Miss Lori and I are standing outside Roque’s Blues Hall, Natchitoches.
And it’s the last Friday of the month which means at Roque’s Blues Hall it’s White Night.
And while Andre is inside dancing with Indigo, Miss Lori and I are out here and she is drinking beer and I’m smoking my e-cigarette, when a guy standing up on the porch over near the door turns toward me and calls- ‘So how’d a bunch of Australians end up over here in Natchitoches?’
So I call back to him an explanation of how Andre and I got to be here.
And then after I finish telling him this he asks me if I am married.
‘No,’ I tell him, and I laugh, ‘I am not married,’
Then he makes a kind of ‘yee ha’ noise and tells me how much he likes the sound of my Australian accent.
‘I like your accent, too,’ I tell him, and he then bends his knees, slaps one of them and laughs and then walks over to me and looks down at me on the grass.
‘What is it about my accent y’all like?’ he asks me.
‘Well, for a start,’ I tell him, ‘you sound like you’re in the movies,’
He laughs, then, and tells me he has seen Crocodile Dundee.
And then he leans down and shakes my hand and asks my name and I tell him and he tells me his is David Dupree.
Then, David Dupree, who is wearing a pale blue flannel shirt, blue jeans, brown cowboy boots and is smoking a cigarette, asks me if I have done much reading about Natchitoches.
‘Y’all done much readin’ on the history of Natchitoches?’ he says, blowing cigarette smoke over my head.
I tell him that I have read a bit, the tourist stuff, but not a great deal.
‘Well,’ he tells me, ‘my grandaddy was a Dupree, the last of the Creole Cowboys,’
‘Oh, really?’ I say, and then I ask him if he is a cowboy, too.
He laughs and tells me no, he is not a cowboy, and then, he tells me, standing there on the porch, his right hand holding beer, his left in his pocket, what his grandaddy used to say about horses.
‘He used to look at all those horses people kept as pats, and he’d say you keep that thing for a pat and it does nothing but eat and look pretty,’ he says, pronouncing ‘pet’ like ‘cat’, which causes Lori and I to look at each other with some confusion, ‘Like art in a field doing nothing, that’s what my granddaddy said,’
Then he looks over at Miss Lori and asks her where she is from and she tells him she is from right here.
‘I’m from right here in Natchitoches,’ she tells him.
‘Dupree was my granddaddy and I am David Dupree,’ he repeats to Miss Lori, and then Miss Lori walks the steps from the grass to the porch and they shake hands.
‘Mine’s LeBlanc,’ Miss Lori tells him and I get a little thrill because I have never been anywhere outside of France where so many people have French-sounding names like mine.
And then, maybe because her daddy was Cajun and Creole and David Dupre is Creole, Miss Lori and David Dupree start talking about prancing horses from Tennessee and places that are familiar to them, places I haven’t heard of.
And I stand there listening to them talk and watch people coming and going from the door of Roque’s Blues Hall.
And as the door opens and closes, it seems as to be allowing the music out for its own quick breath of freedom, before it calls it right back in to work again.
We’re in the Cane Break cafe when James David Wade, who is 26 and was once studying English but is now studying to be a nurse, stops in for a coffee on his way to a microbiology exam, sits down at our table and instigates a conversation on biology that begins with metabolic function and finishes up on love.
‘You want to know something really cool?’ says James David Wade, who is not very tall, wears black rimmed Ray Ban spectacles, blue jeans, striped espadrilles on his feet and reminds me of Truman Capote, ‘Common people don’t know what ATP is. You want to know what it is?
And then, without waiting for a response James David Wade smiles, claps his hands lightly in front of his chin and tell us- ‘It’s the currency of your cell, it’s what energy is. It’s how your body is able to perform metabolic functions,’
Confused as the to the form of currency, I say- ‘Do you mean like currency like money, or currency like electricity?’
‘Money,’ he says, ‘it’s like one cell says, “Here, you take this ATP and you can go off and perform a metabolic function” to another cell,’
‘Like…um…what functions?’ I say to James David Wade who is now drinking the coffee the waiter has just brought him.
‘Um,’ he says waving his hand around and looking at me and frowning, ‘I don’t know, just make something up,’
I start laughing because I have no idea of biology and wouldn’t know where to start.
Then James David Wade starts laughing because his exam is imminent and he can’t recall a metabolic function.
‘You’re going to be in trouble, and so are your patients,’ I say, ‘if you can’t recall an example of a metabolic function,’
Then James David Wade picks up his phone and tells me he his is going to look up something about ATP.
‘Look,’ he says, showing me a picture of a thing called a prokaryote.
‘See this one, this is a virus and it doesn’t have a nucleus. A virus doesn’t have any way to move around by itself. It just sits around doing nothing unless it gets coughed out or comes out in blood or spit,’
‘Fascinating,’ I tell him, staring at a line drawing of an ATP
‘And, if you didn’t have any ATP you wouldn’t have any energy,’ says James David Wade smiling and throwing his hands up slightly as if in revelation, ‘You’d just die,’
Then, on the topic of viruses, we move on to Ebola and how it must be a chore for Ebola to make it’s way from host to host when it can’t get off its own arse to go anywhere.
‘You know what viruses are called in Latin?’ asks James David Wade.
I tell him I don’t, but loving Latin, I am eager to know.
‘Bacteriophage,’ he says and I tell him that’s wonderful name.
‘Yes,’ he says smiling and drinking more of his coffee, ‘Isn’t biology just wonderful,’
‘Yes, because you know what?,’ I say, ‘From biology I have come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as ‘real love’, that it’s all just a process of the human mind trying to protect us from danger,’
‘Huh?’ says James David Wade as the smile collapses from his face, ‘you’re such a jaded old lesbian,’
‘It’s true,’ I say, ‘it’s all just infatuation. Chemicals and pheromones and our lizard brain trying to get us to breed. And then we break up we think out heart is broken but it’s just our lizard brain trying to get our ‘background object’ back and sending some vicious bitch chemicals around our bodies, making us feel sick and ‘longing’.
James David Wade looks unhappy with my summary.
‘And to top it all off, there’s this thing called a traumatic bond,’ I tell him.
‘What the hell is a traumatic bond?’ he asks, holding up his hand and frowning as if to protect himself from a missile.
‘It’s like if you step on a ducklings foot and cause it pain,’ I tell him, ‘it’ll still bond with you and think it can’t live without you,’
James David Wade is looking at me as if I have just climbed on the table and pooped on it.
‘I don’t care what you say,’ he says raising his hand in a stop signal, ‘I believe in love. I believe I’ll find my man and fall in love and be happy ever after,’
‘Well I hope you do, but before you do, let me give you some more tips. I’ve been alive almost 50 years. I have much wisdom,’
James David Wade begins to laugh and I tell him about the three stages of love that I had been reading about in a downloadable PDF I had recently bought called ‘How to Save Your Marriage’.
‘The manual came with a money back guarantee, and’ I tell James David Wade, as a chemical sadness rises from my stomach, through my chest and into my throat ‘unfortunately, I’ll be claiming it.’
It’s late afternoon in Louisiana and, feeling poorly, I’m sat up half asleep in my bed when I open my eyes up and see Oona standing in the doorway.
‘Wake up, Miss Toni, Tone, Tone, Tone. Phillip is here,’ she tells me, ‘And he’s got the guns,’
Out in the driveway Phillip stands at the back of his pick up truck, and on the open tray of his pick up truck are three guns.
‘How y’all doin’? Phillip says and I tell him fine.
‘But with ill undertones,’ I tell him as I stare down at the guns that are in varying sizes of triangular padded bags, each with a little elastic pop rivet clip that holds the bag closed.
‘This one,’ he tells me, ‘removing the second smallest gun, ‘is a .32. .32 means caliber and the caliber is the diameter of the bullet.’
Then he holds up a little gold silver-tipped bullet.
‘This one,’ he tells me, ‘when it’s fired, will kinda bounce around the inside of your body,’
‘Oh,’ I say as Phillip hands me the gun, ‘that’s nasty.’
I hold the gun in my hand and it’s like holding a big smooth personally-weighted dark sea pebble that’s been worn into the shape of death.
And I am horrified at how comfortable I am with it in my hand.
‘It’s a beautiful looking thing,’ I tell Phillip, ‘I have never ever held a real gun but I know how to do it because I’ve seen it so many times on TV and in films,’
Then, as I let the .32 hang in my hand at my side, Phillip shows me another gun.
‘This is a 380,’ he says and gives me a gun that looks high-tech and doesn’t have the revolving barrel.
‘This has a clip,’ Phillip tells me and then shows me a rectangular object in which bullets sit waiting to be rapidly fired.
‘This is a common one for the police,’ he says, ‘and for concealing,’
Then Phillip puts the little weapon in his front jean pocket.
‘See?’ he says, ‘it doesn’t leave a footprint,’
And it’s true, I cannot even see that there is a gun in Phillip’s pocket.
‘Now here in Louisiana,’ Phillip says, ‘you can carry that in your pocket, but y’all will need a concealed weapon permit. But if you want to just hang it out of your pocket or walk around with it in your hand, you don’t,’
‘Because Louisiana is an ‘open carry’ state, right?’ I say, and Phillip says yep.
‘This,’ he then says picking up another larger gun, ‘is a .45 caliber,’
I’m still holding the .32 in my right hand so with my left hand I take the .45.
Holding the .45 is as comfortable as holding a familiar hand.
So I am now holding a .45 in my left hand and a .32 in my right hand.
And I smile at Phillip.
Phillip blows smoke from his cigarette up into the air and smiles back at me.
And then I lift the .45 and hold it up so I can look at it closely.
It’s so black that it’s highlights look blue.
And then I hold both guns in both hands and I extend my hands out in front of me and point the guns at a post.
‘This .45 is even more beautiful than the .32,’ I tell Phillip, ‘Am I allowed to shoot it?’
And as I stand there pointing the weapons at a fence post, Phillip tells me that yes, I am allowed to shoot, even though I don’t have a license or a permit.
I tell Phillip that I feel slightly high, and unexpectedly thrilled, as if I might have smoked some crack cocaine and I am so much more eager than I thought I ever would be to shoot a gun.
‘See this here,’ he says holding up a longer bullet, gold on the outside with a silver tip that looks like it has been opened with a delicate can opener, ‘this is called a hollow point. And this one will do more damage,’
I put the .32 down on its holder and take the bullet in my hand and look down into it.
‘I want to shoot this bullet,’ I tell Phillip, ‘out of this .45,’
Phillip smiles and tells me that first he wants me to shoot a shotgun, and so he goes to a shed on the property to find the shotgun he wants me to shoot.
I wait at the back of Phillip’s pick up truck, squeezing gently on the rubber-coated handle of the .45, the way I might absent-mindedly squeeze a stress ball while watching TV.
And I feel a sensation of gorgeously seductive comforting power.
I feel like my feet are more connected with the earth and I start imagining myself in the woods, solo, apart from my .45, lying on my stomach, or standing on a soft layer of pine needles, shooting Coca Cola can after Coca Cola can off a large stone-wash denim-coloured rock.
And I might be smoking cigarettes.
I’ll be wearing a soft white tee shirt from GAP and my blue corduroy jeans and I’ll be grinding butt after butt of Marlboro Red under my Converse heel into the dew-moistened Louisiana pine needles.
‘This is what we, unfortunately,’ says Phillip returning from the shed with a shotgun, ‘use on the rattlesnakes,’
Then Phillip holds the shotgun up next to me and explains to me the process of firing the shotgun.
‘It’s going to kick,’ Phillip tells me, ‘and it’s going to make a hell of a noise,’
Then he puts a yellow cartridge in the open barrel and pulls the barrel up and closes it.
‘Hold it up to your shoulder,’ he says, ‘but not too tight, don’t pull it too tight into your shoulder,’
I lift the gun up and put the stock in that dip between my chest and shoulder blade, and let my left hand support the barrel.
Phillip holds my left hand with his left hand.
‘Loosen this hand off a bit,’ he says, ‘and I am going to let the safety off,’
Then Phillip lets the safety off and moves back from me and I look down over the top of the barrel of the shotgun at a Coca Cola can about 6 meters away.
I call out to Phillip that I am afraid.
‘Just pull gently on the trigger,’ he tells me, ‘and give us some notice before you fire,’
And after a few moments of slow deep breathing, the house brick of terror that weighs in my chest crumbles and I tilt my head to the right, sight up the can, and pull the trigger.
And suddenly the can is no longer there, and there’s a wide black parting between the red pine needles, and the sensation in my head reminds of times I have had fever, and there’s a sound somewhere far way, in the depths of my head, like a high pitched doorbell has been rung.
And, having destroyed the can, I am horrified and excited by my desperation to fire the gun again.
As soon as possible.
Phillip goes and gets the can and brings it back to me.
The can is full of small holes, as if a small pencil has been poked through it many times, and the top of the can is completely missing, and jagged, as if it was found in a sharks stomach.
‘So that cartridge sprays out,’ I say to Phillip, ‘little pellets,’
‘Yes,’ says Phillip, ‘look at Oona’s arm and you’ll see what it does to a human flesh,’
Oona pulls up the right sleeve of her tee shirt and, while I am still holding the gun, she shows me the scars on her upper arm.
The skin on her upper arm and shoulder is white, but the scars are whiter and some are indented and some are relief.
‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,’ says Oona, who at 18 years old was shot with a shotgun.
Because there are things Oona needs for Christmas that she can only find in Walmart, I am in there with her when, passing through the sporting goods section, I notice 2 tall glass cabinets filled with an assortment of guns.
‘I’m going to look at the guns,’ I tell Oona who is pushing her shopping cart away from me and toward the entertainment section.
‘Okay,’ says Oona, ‘knock yourself out. I’ll meet you in the film department,’
I go over and stand at the first glass cabinet, put my hands in the pockets of my hoodie, and stare in at the guns.
The cheapest gun is $175 dollars and is called The Savage.
On the barrel is a posterized-style logo of a Native American head.
I am staring at this gun when a woman wearing a blue Walmart polo shirt comes over to me and asks me if she can help me.
‘Hello, ma’am,’ she says, ‘may I help you?’
I turn my head to pay full attention to the woman.
She is small, and probably older than 60 and she is wearing lipstick and glasses and she has a lot of blue eye shadow on, and her hair, which looks like it might be soft to touch, is cut into a bob.
Unsure of what to say to the woman I say-‘Am I allowed to hold a gun?’
The woman frowns at me, a look of undisguised incredulity on her face as if I have just asked her if she might like to see my breasts.
And so, after a few moments of her not responding and us staring at each other, she asks me another question.
‘What would y’all like to purchase the weapon for?’ she says, ‘is it hunting or…?’
At this question I feel myself start to blush because I don’t have any intention of buying the gun.
I simply want to hold one.
In a Walmart.
Because somehow, in some way, holding a gun in Walmart has become in my mind a unique American experience that I have to have.
Holding a distasteful object in a distasteful setting.
Like eating a hotdog and french fries in a public urinal.
I tell the woman I don’t know what I would want to do with the gun and she looks at me and pulls a disbelieving pursed-lipped face on me, as if I have just told her Mary Magdalene was a slut.
And then she walks away.
I stand there for a bit longer, feeling obscene, staring in at some weapons that are called semi-automatic, and I wonder if the woman has gone to report me to security.
Then, to calm myself I place my right hand over my chest and take three deep breaths until I am relieved of my own tension and then I go to the counter and ask a young man there how I would go about buying a gun if I wanted to.
‘I have permanent residency in California,’ I tell him, ‘and a driver’s licence from the UK. Am I allowed to buy a gun?’
The young man, who has a whispy goatee and flimsy hair pulled back into a ponytail and a voice that sounds like it belongs reading broken heart shout-outs on late night radio, tells me he will check.
While the young man goes to check with his computer on my eligibility to buy a weapon, I stand staring into the counter in front of me at the display of hunting knives, particularly at gigantic black one that looks to be about 2 feet long and has a head like that of a bronze-age arrow and serrations all along the sides.
Mesmerised, I visualise myself slitting the throat of a gigantic hairy hog with it.
And then disemboweling it while dogs drink at its puddling blood.
I am wearing camouflage and my hair is long and blond and pulled into a ponytail and my name is Sheryl-Anne.
Just when I am thinking about having my photo taken with the hog carcass, the young man with the nice voice pulls up a map on a computer screen and shows me that California is a ‘red’ state, which means that having my residency there, I am forbidden to buy a gun in Louisiana.
‘If you were from Arkansas or Mississippi or Alabama, then you could get yourself a gun, ma’am,’ he says, smiling at me, ‘but unfortunately you are not,’
‘No,’ I say, smiling back at him, my gun-virgin hands still in the pockets of my hoodie and my mind still on my hog hunt, ‘unfortunately I am not.’
I’m in the office at the back of the Daily Scoop, my friend’s ice cream shop in South Park, and I’m on the phone to Lupita, who works at San Diegans for Better Health Care, and because she signed me up to a health care program, I am trying to find out how I make an appointment to see a doctor.
‘I would like to make an appointment to see a doctor,’ I tell her, ‘and wonder how I go about that,’
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘have you not received a letter from Covered California?’
I tell her no, and she says I will have to call another number to find out the status of my application.
After she gives me the new number, I tell her thank you and then call.
A woman answers the phone and after she asks me how I got her number, I tell her I was given the number by Lupita at San Diegans for Better Health Care and that I would like to check the status of my application and find out which doctors I can make an appointment with.
‘Oh,’ okay she says, ‘I will need to take some information and find out if you are eligible and this will take about 45 minute,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘But, I have already applied for health coverage and now I just want to know how to make an appointment,’
‘I can’t give you information on the status of your application but I can open a query into where your application is,’
‘Um, okay,’ I say, ‘and then can you tell me how I can make an appointment?’
‘Do you have a life threatening emergency?’ she asks me, and I tell her no, it is not a life-threatening emergency, it is about medication.
The woman then tells me that no, she cannot tell me that but that she can act as my representative in dealing with my application for health care coverage.
And so after some more talking she asks me some questions.
First she asks me my name, which I tell her.
Then she asks me my address, which I tell her.
Then she asks my social security number, which I tell her.
Then she asks me my income, which I can’t really tell her.
‘I am an artist, so what I earn depends on what I do,’ I say.
‘Well, what did you earn last month? she says.
After I tell her she asks me what I have earned for the whole year.
I tell her I don’t have that information with me.
‘Did you file a tax return for 2013?’ she asks me.
‘No,’ I tell her, ‘I wasn’t living here then,’
‘Do you plan to file one this year?’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I tell her, ‘I plan to file one this year,’
‘Who do you live with?’ she asks me.
‘Sorry?’ I say, ‘who do I live with?’
‘How many adults are in the house where you live?’ she says.
I tell her three.
She asks me how much rent I pay and I tell her I don’t at the moment, that I am currently staying with a friend.
Then she asks me how I support myself.
So I tell her.
‘I have some money in the bank,’ I tell her, ‘and I am an artist, so….,’
Then she asks me how much money I have in the bank.
So I tell her.
Then she asks me if I would like to ‘share’ my email address with her.
And I think why the hell not, I’ve just shared every thing apart from a kiss with her, so why would I be so coy about an email address.
Then she puts me on hold.
‘I am going to put you on hold,’ I she tells me, ‘while I speak to someone about your application,’
I tell her that’s fine, and for 5 or so minutes I sit with the phone to my ear, warming the side of my head.
‘Hello Ms Le Busque,’ she says when she comes back on the line, ‘I can tell you that because you are low income you have been approved for health care, and now I am going to connect you to a conference call, me and another person and you, and would like your permission to pass on information to a third party,’
‘Okay,’ I say, thinking that wouldn’t it be better if instead of training this woman to answer phones and ask me information I have already given, she could have been trained to be a doctor, or a nurse and put to work in a United States National Health Service.
‘Hello,’ comes a voice on the line, ‘my name is Bernadette, how can I help you Ms Le Busque?’
‘I would like to make a doctors appointment,’ I tell her, ‘I have called up simply to find out where, under the health plan I have, I go to see a doctor,’
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, Ms Le Busque,’ the woman tells me.
‘Oh,’ I say, becoming slightly irritated, ‘I really actually just want to see a doctor about some medication,’
‘Do you have life threatening emergency?’ Bernadette asks me and I tell her no, I simply want to see a doctor.
‘I just want to see a doctor,’ I say, ‘I am not sure how it works on my health plan so I am trying to find out how I see a doctor,’
Bernadette tells me that she can see that my application is in pending status but that she cannot tell me much more than this.
‘In normal times this application would be processed in thirty days,’ she says, ‘but these are not normal times,’
Then the other woman whose name I cannot recall, the woman who has organised the conference call, starts to speak to Bernadette, and they talk about things I do not understand, and while I listen I think about the old people, and really sick and poor people of the USA, who would be better served if Bernadette and the other woman had been trained to be medical staff, rather than call center operatives.
Then Bernadette comes back on the phone and begins to talk to me again and I interrupt her mid sentence.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I just want to see a doctor. I had a doctor on my spouse’s employment medical plan, but now that we are separated I no longer have that doctor, so what do I do without health insurance?’
‘Well,’ says Bernadette, ‘if it’s a life threatening emergency you can go to any emergency room and get…’
‘It’s NOT a life-threatening emergency,’ I tell her again, ‘I simply want to make a doctors appointment,’
‘Well,’ says Bernadette, ‘I cannot advise where you should go but you could go to your former doctor and work out a way to pay with them and then you could talk to them but we would not be able to reimburse you for…’
‘I will just pay to go to a doctor, can you just tell me one in the neighbourhood?’
Then Bernadette tells me no, she cannot tell me.
‘You know,’ she says, ‘normally your application would be processed in 30 days, but these are not normal times,’
I want to ask Bernadette in what ways the times are unusual.
75% of government staff have anal fissures and can’t come in to work?
Their offices have sewage leaking through the walls so everyone is working outside on the grass with pens and paper instead of computers?
But I don’t.
Instead I just sit there and sigh, the phone warming my temple, while I listen to Bernadette and the woman whose name I cannot recall discuss my case.
Then Bernadette says my name and I am reintroduced to the conversation and she asks me if she can help me with anything else today.
‘Can I help you with anything else today?’ says Bernadette.
And I want to ask her if this is a trick question, seeing she hasn’t helped me with anything yet.
Instead I just say no, and thank her, hoping I can soon get off the phone.
Then woman whose name I cannot recall comes back on the phone and asks me if I would mind being put on hold because she would like to start another conference call with another person from another section of the health care system who might be able to help.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘please do,’
Then I put my phone on speaker and lay it down on the table and lay my head down next to it and for a while I think about the NHS in England.
And I think about Nye Bevan, and the Labour Party in the UK who thought up the NHS.
And then I think about Ted Cruz and Mitch McConell in the Republican Party in the US who try to actively destroy Obamacare.
And I think about people in Kentucky dying of their teeth, of people being asked how they will pay for a brain scan when they have just been told they have cancer.
And then a third person comes on the phone and says hello Ms Le Busque and I say-
‘Hello, I don’t think I need to talk to you, I just want to make a doctors appointment so I think I will just go through the phone book and find one,’
Then the woman on the phone says something else, which I don’t really listen to and I ask her about medication.
‘So if I go to a doctor and I need medication, that’s going to be really expensive, right?’
The woman on the phone says she cannot tell me this information, that she doesn’t know and I tell her okay, that’s fine.
And then her and woman whose name I cannot recall start having a conversation and then the second woman says that she can make a note and start pushing my application for health care through more quickly.
‘Okay,’ I tell her, with not very much interest, ‘thank you, but in the meantime I will just phone a doctor,’
‘You can always go to an emergency room if it’s a medical emergency,’ she tells me.
I sigh and tell her it isn’t, and I really do appreciate her help in pushing my application through, but that I just simply want to see a doctor for some medication.
Then her and the woman whose name I cannot recall start talking again and I tune out completely and start thinking about the NHS in England again, and how the NHS looks after everyone, and how if it is turned into something like an American system then everyone but the Tories and the health care corporation and shareholders and the CEO will be unhappy.
That it will be fine for people with money to get sick.
And that it will be a return to the days of saving pennies in jars for emergencies.
But they won’t be pennies, they’ll be 50 pound notes.
That it will be people tied to jobs they hate because they provide them with health insurance.
That it will be making health insurance payments as large as car payments.
It’ll be the poor being fucked over when they’re sick.
It’ll be a minimum of care and then sent home, patched up.
And that it won’t be the duplicitous David Cameron or the nincompoop Nigel Farage worrying over medical bills at the kitchen table.
And then later that evening, when I get home, and long after the phone call is over, I find a letter waiting for me from the HMO Kaiser Permanente.
They are writing to me, they tell me, to kindly offer me their lowest and most competitive rate of health care coverage.
And I laugh out loud.
And then, when I have stopped laughing the face of Nye Bevan appears in my mind.
And I start thinking about the NHS.
And then Joni Mitchell is singing in my head: ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…’
And then the face of Nye Bevan appears in my mind, again…
‘The Rainbow Festival,’ says the young man with the intriguing teeth.
‘We don’t know,’ he says, smiling up at me, ‘maybe July, they like, text us when they’ve decided.’
‘I need to get myself to a hospital,’ he says, ‘Because, you know, really I do not belong here,’
I’m looking down at my phone, looking up train timetables, so I look up from my phone and look over at the man, who is young and dark, stubbled and handsome and wearing a pair of jeans, a dark blue tee shirt and no shoes.
‘Okay.’ I say.
‘My mother’s in the hospital,’ he says to me, this time even louder, ‘So, I need to see my mother. I need to make a phone call,’
And then he goes quiet.
And I smile to myself.
And then, the young man, very softly says to me: ‘I’m suicidal, so we’re talking suicide and maybe homicide,’
And then he screams: ‘DOESN’T ANYONE SPEAK FUCKING ENGLISH HERE? I DON’T FUCKING BELONG HERE, I DON’T BELONG HERE IN CHINATOWN!’
And, startled by this, I give a small involuntary shout and stop concentrating on my phone and look up from it and look around the Salinas Transit station.
There’s a curve of beige columns going nowhere.
There are bench seats, there is a blue sky, there are lonely parked buses casting long shadows.
I feel like I am in a painting by Giorgio de Chirico.
And though there are other people dotted about, nobody is talking.
We are all stood far apart, and everyone is looking away from me and the young man when suddenly he stands up and starts screaming about homicide and suicide and Chinatown again.
And then he takes off his dark blue tee shirt and throws it into the air, and throws his hands up in the air, as if he’s been running a race and is crossing a finishing line, victoriously
‘I’M A FUCKING CAUCASIAN MAN AND I AM LATINO,’ he screams, and then he goes down on his knees, as if he’s been felled by a bullet, and still with his hands in the air, screams out, ‘NO DRUGS, NO WEAPONS, NO BOOOOOOOOOOZE, NO GANG AFFILIATION,’
Then he stands up, walks to a rubbish bin, picks up the lid and waves it around in the air.
‘My mother is in the FUCKING HOSPITAL,’ he screams into the air, ‘I was there, with her, and I need to get out of this fucking town and see my MOTHER. I need to get out of CHINATOWN. DOESN’T ANYBODY SPEAK ENGLISH?’
And then he throws the rubbish bin lid hard onto the ground and screams ‘WE’RE TALKING SUICIDE HERE. WE’RE TALKING POTENTIAL HOMICIDE,’
Then he picks up the lid and throws it, like a frisbee, into a column.
‘I spent the night here, I don’t belong here,’ he says picking up the rubbish bin lid and bashing the concrete floor of the Salinas Transit Station with it, ‘Someone call me a fucking AMBULANCE,’
And just then a police car arrives and a policeman gets out of it.
The policeman is fat and dressed in a dark blue uniform and the top of his head would be bald if it wasn’t for a ring of hair that starts just above his ears and goes down to touch his collar.
He is wearing a moustache and glasses and when the young man sees him he puts his hands up in the air and turns and does a little jig.
And while he dances the jig, his jeans, which are tied with a piece of white rope, start slipping down his legs and while this is happening the police officer is putting on sky blue surgical gloves.
‘I know you,’ says the police officer as he goes through the pockets of the dancing man.
‘Yeh, yeh,’ says the young man who is now speaking softly, ‘you know me. No drugs, no weapons, no booze, no gang affiliation,’
‘I’ll give you a ride to the hospital,’ says the policeman to the young man.
Yes,’ says the young man, ‘because, you know I don’t belong down here in Chinatown.’
A November Monday.
And being California, the sun is shining even if it is weak.
And, having just left a cafe called Renaissance, I’m standing on the corner of Shattuck and Essex avenues with a take away decaf soy latte for me in one hand and a regular latte for Sonya in the other.
And I’m about the cross the street when a man who is wearing a white fedora, a blue pin striped waistcoat, a white shirt, a blue tie, black trousers and spats and pulling a small torn and frayed fabric suitcase on wheels, stops at the pedestrian crossing and turns to me and squeals out – ‘I really LOVE your hair,’
‘Well,’ I say, as I draw level with him at the crossing, ‘I really LOVE your hat,’
‘Ha!’ he squeals back to me, letting go of the suitcase and raising his hands to slap his own cheeks, ‘I really LOOOOOVE your accent,’
‘Well,’ I call back to him as I raise the 2 coffees slowly into the air, ‘I really LOOOOOOVE your whole look,’
‘HA!,’ laughs the mans as he starts to cross the pedestrian crossing, ‘Hah!’
And then, half way across the street, he turns and laughs and squeals out me to have a good day.
‘And, HA!’ I call to him as I pass him, ‘You too. You too!’
I’m walking from Oakland to Berkeley, along Telegraph Avenue, when I stop at a pedestrian crossing behind a man who is trying to wheel himself across the road in a wheelchair.
I stand behind him for a few moments and watch as he slides his hands back and forth across the top of the wheels of his chair, whilst at the same time pulling at the road with the soles of his shoes, trying to move himself forward.
Realising he is not going anywhere, I walk around and stand in front of him and ask him if he needs help.
‘Hey,’ I say to the man who has patchy ginger hair and ginger stubble and is wearing a matted blue fleece, filthy and ripped jeans and has the dirtiest fingernails, ‘do you need some help?’
The man looks up at me and I can see from the way he looks at me that he is either drunk or perhaps has some kind of neurological issue.
He is thin and his cheeks look as if they are made of bruised porcelain that has been pushed at hard by an impatient thumb.
‘Help me,’ the man says in a voice that is weak but carries upon it a putrid and unpleasant odour, ‘help me,’
‘Yeh,’ I say, ‘no problem, okay. Pull your feet up and I’ll push you off the road,’
I go back behind him and tell him to watch his feet and that I am going to start pushing.
‘I’m going to push you now, so watch your feet,’ I tell him and I start pushing him toward the other side of the road.
When we get there I lean down to him and say, ‘Okay? Alright now?’
The man, who I can now smell has been drinking, waves his hands about in the air drunkenly and then curls his finger in a way that indicates he wants me to hear him.
I move my face down closer so I can hear him above the traffic.
‘Can you take me to a restaurant?’ he asks me.
‘Um,’ I say, and turn from the man and look for a restaurant, ‘I can take you to get something to eat,’
‘Yes, yes,’ he says, ‘I need help,’
I start looking up and down the street while the man continues to ask me for help.
Then, a young woman pushing a stroller with what look like toddler twins in it, comes toward me.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the woman, ‘I’ve come across this fellow in the wheelchair and I wonder if you know if there’s anywhere to take him. Like a shelter or anywhere he can get help. He’s asking for help,’
‘Hmmmm,’ says the woman, ‘Um, I don’t know. I think there’s a shelter on Shattuk Avenue…but I don’t think they just take people over night,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘….okay then,’
‘Yeh,’ says the woman, ‘You know I’ve seen this guy around, he’s around here a lot. You know, he’s kind of drunk a lot,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘okay, well he seems to be hungry and ill as well as drunk, so…thanks anyway,’
Then the woman leaves and an old man comes up and stands beside the man in the wheelchair.
‘Do you know him?’ I say to the old man, ‘do you know what I should do with him?’
The man who is extremely intoxicated and can hardly stand upright, begins talking to the man, calling him brother and telling him he will look after him.
Then, after a few moments, they high-5 each other and the old man walks off.
‘Help me,’ says the man in the wheelchair again, ‘please help me,’
I walk around to the front of the wheelchair again and ask him what help he needs.
He tells me he wants 4 dollars.
‘I am taking you to Wholefoods,’ I tell him, ‘I’ll get you a sandwich and a drink,’
‘I like egg salad,’ he tells me, and I walk back behind his chair and start to push him.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I’ll get you an egg salad sandwich from Wholefoods,’
Telegraph avenue is on a slight incline so by the time I get to Wholefoods I am sweating in my arm pits and on my forehead.
‘Stop,’ says the man, ‘give me 4 dollars,’
‘No,’ I say to him, ‘I am going to buy you an egg sandwich,’
‘No, I want 5 dollars,’ he tells me and I tell him no.
‘I am getting you a sandwich,’ I tell him, because I don’t want him to buy alcohol.
‘Okay then,’ he says, as I begin to push him to the doorway of Wholefoods, ‘a sandwich,’
Then, just as we get on to the path that crosses the Wholefoods carpark, the man asks me to stop.
‘Wait,’ he says, ‘push me in here,’
I push him in behind what looks like a closed flower stand and the man, still sitting in his wheelchair, starts to take out his penis.
I turn away and watch the people coming across the Wholefoods carpark in the dusk.
They’re all dressed nicely and are carrying sacks of organic food and getting into nice cars and I can feel that I am beginning to get annoyed.
When I hear the man say ‘ready’, I pull him out from behind the flower stand and push him to the doorway of Wholefoods.
‘Okay, wait here’ I say, ‘I’ll get you an egg salad sandwich…and a drink?’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘lovely,’
In the Wholefoods I am standing with my back to the salad bar, choosing a sandwich, and I am listening to people talking on mobiles, talking about the salad, talking about quinoa and tabbouleh and everyone looks tidy and the shop sparkles like a Christmas evening and everyone looks clean while I feel myself getting angry.
After I find the egg salad sandwich I go over to the drink section and and look for some kind of drink for the man.
There is a girl there from Wholefoods, and she is pretty and young and blond and she is stocking the shelf with organic fruit juice and I say excuse me and I tell her about the man.
‘Oh, yeh,’ she says, ‘I know that guy. He’s usually drunk,’
‘Um, okay,’ I say, frowning at her, ‘regardless of him being drunk, he’s going to be hungry, too, so does Wholefoods have some kind of program where they could give leftover food to homeless people, like him. Like, you know, at the end of the day, like now, do you have anything that you could give him to take away, like some bread or something, things that haven’t sold? Something you could package up and let him take away with him for later?’
‘Um,’ says the girl, ‘hang on a second and I’ll go and ask,’
I choose the drink and then go and stand behind the girl while she talks to the guy behind the pizza counter who is looking at her with his mouth hanging open.
Then I watch as he goes to speak to someone who is adding topping to pizza, and then as he comes back and looks down at the pizza and then as he shakes his head and then as the girl turns and walks back to me.
‘Um, I guess,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘that it would have to be a no. I guess,’
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘thanks,’
But it really isn’t okay and by the time I get to the counter to pay, I am hateful.
‘Here we are,’ I say, and put the drink and sandwich in his lap.
And then the man looks up at me and says thank you.
And then he holds up both of his hands, the same hands he has previously used to take his penis out and piss behind the flower stand.
But I lean down and let him take my hand in his hands, anyway, and he shakes it and says thank you to me.
And then I stand back up again and, very loudly, I tell the man in the wheelchair to take care of himself.
‘Because, you know,’ I say, even louder and more hateful still, so that the security guard and the people coming in and out of the Wholefoods with their organic food can hear, ‘I get the feeling that no one else in this country will.’
‘We have to be careful around him, he’s very timid,’ I tell the man, ‘He was beaten when he was little so he has some issues…relating,’
‘Oh yes,’ whispers the man who has big brown eyes and is wearing a checked shirt, Caterpillar boots, a big brown beard and glasses, ‘me too,’
Then he throws up his hands and laughs.
And I laugh too and then I look at him seriously and say-‘Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh that you were beaten when you were little. That’s awful,’
‘Oh’ says the man, standing up and touching me on the arm, ‘it was a long time ago. I’m over it,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘so there’s hope for Oliver, yet,’
The man laughs and squeals out an airy yes.
Then the man looks down at me, touching me again, this time on the shoulder, and asks me what Oliver’s name is.
‘Oliver,’ I tell him.
And the man lets out another of his squeals.
‘Oh, my god,’ he says, ‘he so-o-o-o-o looks like an Oliver,’
Oliver is about calf height and blond and has a curled tail and red tips at the end of his hair.
His ears are over-sized for his body and his eyes are dark brown.
He has recently had his testicles removed and when he walks he goes on tiptoes.
‘He’s very good with my friend, Sonya,’ I tell the man as we both stand there looking down at Oliver who is now beginning to relax, ‘he rolls around on her like a cat,’
‘Aw,’ the man says, and then touches me on the shoulder again.
Then he kneels down again, holds his hand out toward Oliver, and Oliver comes toward the man’s hand, doing a one step forward, two step back tentative tango.
Then, suddenly, Oliver stops yawns and goes into a downward dog.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘that’s how dogs relieve their anxiety and stress. They do downward dog,’
And at this the man gives another thrilled squeal.
‘Oh, my god,’ he says, reaching over and touching me on the knee and looking up at me, ‘he is the cutest dog I have ever seen.’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I like your tattoos and all the colour on your legs,’
So I say thank you and stop and and am about to start talking to him about the service when Maria, who I had sat next to during the service, and who is short and has long blond hair and a lot of makeup on and is from Spain, interrupts me and starts talking to the Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi instead.
‘How you get,’ she says, looking up at the Reverend, ‘to be so happy all the time?’
At this the Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, who has grey hair and glasses and is wearing a pale blue shirt and used to be a dentist, tilts his head back and laughs.
‘I look for the good things,’ he says, looking down at Maria, ‘I try to stay focused on only the good things I have in my life,’
‘Oh,’ says Maria who is holding a small styrofoam cup of assorted grapes and a plate of chocolate chip cookies and frowning as if the Reverend has just told her a giant piece of nonsense, ‘it’s not so easy every day,’
I don’t say anything to this but I keep looking at Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, because I don’t think he has really finished saying what he wants to say, and whatever he has to say I really want to hear.
‘Well,’ says the Reverend, who is still smiling and laughing, ‘What I do is I just look for the things to say thank you to,’
And then, because the Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi is in the food line and probably wants to get some food, and I want to leave him alone so he can get it, I put my tea cup and plate down on the table, put my hand on the Reverends arm and say-‘I am thankful for you today, Reverend.’
And the Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi tilts his head back and laughs.
And I laugh, too.
And then Maria and I go back to the table and sit down.
And then, while Maria tells me about her holiday to Japan and we eat our snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies and drink our green tea, I think about what the Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi has just said and I silently list all of the things I have that I can say thank you to.
I’m in the ice cream shop, sitting in the office in the back when, seeing a man and a woman at the counter, I start walking to the front of the shop and call out hello.
And I do not laugh.
‘Hey,’ says Bruce, who has wooden Buddha beads around his neck and is wearing a pale blue Hawaiian style shirt, jeans and brown leather flip-flops, ‘it’s good do see you,’
‘Hey,’ I say back, ‘oh, it’s very good to see you, too,’
And then, because Bruce looks so happy, I tell him how happy he looks.
‘Bruce,’ I say, ‘you look so happy, you look happier than last week,’
‘I am happy,’ he tells me, ‘I’ve had a good week,’
Then, because last week when we had sat together for refreshments after the service, drinking green tea and eating rice and a Japanese salad, and Bruce had told me how much he works, I ask him some questions about his job.
‘How’s the job going?’ I say, ‘do you own the company?’
Bruce laughs and says no, he does not own the company, but he has worked there for 23 years and that he loves his job, which involves designing some kind of metal work.
‘I love my job,’ he says, ‘I love going to work, I love the work I do,’
I tell him that’s great.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘so many people complain about their jobs. I want to ask them, “Hey, if you were hiring someone to do your job, would you hire someone like you? Someone who moans and complains all the time?”‘
I start laughing and so does Bruce.
Then he tells me he loves the company he works for.
‘I’m good at my job,’ he says, ‘and I like helping my company prosper, because they have been very good to me and I have prospered,’
I tell Bruce that this is a great way to look at life and work, and then we get on to the subject of chanting.
‘I like how chanting feels,’ I tell Bruce, ‘like literally how it feels in your body,’
Bruce says he does too.
‘It’s like someone hit’s you with a big tuning fork,’ I say to Bruce while I pretend to hold a big tuning fork and hit him on the shoulder.
‘It’s exactly right,’ he says.
Then he asks me if I have a TV.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘is your show on today?’
Bruce’s company is going to be featured on ‘How It’s Made’ and I want to watch it.
‘No,’ Bruce says, ‘but there’s a show called CBS Sunday Morning and it has really great things on it. Like, this morning there was a segment on blind baseball players who use a sort of sonic ball that makes sounds,’
‘I don’t generally watch TV,’ I tell him, ‘American TV frightens me and makes me anxious,’
‘Try this show,’ he says and smiles, ‘it will make you feel good. It’s full of…goodness, really,’
I tell Bruce that I’ll try to watch next Sunday and then he asks me how my trip to Los Angeles had been and I tell him that I had done some tattooing, and spent the evening in a strip club and I tell him about the train trip that goes partly along the ocean, and that at 7am the sun was coming up on one side of the train, over the bare hills, and that on the other side I could see, through the fog, the surfers out on the Pacific ocean, waiting for their waves.
‘Ah,’ says Bruce, ‘you know that’s the only other time I get some kind of peace in my head,’
And then he holds up his hand and starts waving it in front of his forehead.
‘It’s always going on up here,’ he says, ‘but not when surfing and not when chanting,’
And then we laugh.
And then we talk about the content of the service.
And then we talk about the priest.
And then we talk about new years eve celebration at the temple.
And then, because I am going out for lunch, I tell Bruce I have to get going.
But then we stand there in the Buddhist temple car park for a bit longer, me holding my bicycle, my helmet on my head, and Bruce swinging his car keys and smiling until even though I really want hug him, I just shake his hand and tell him that I liked his ideas on prosperity and that I hope I would see him next week.
‘I hope I see you next week,’ I say to Bruce.
‘Yeh,’ says Bruce as I get on my bicycle and get ready to cycle off, ‘I hope I see you next week, too.'
‘It frikkin’ sucks,’ he says, in a southern accent of some sort, ‘it was wasting my breath,’
The he goes quiet.
Then a moment later he starts saying how ‘fucked’ something feels.
‘Yeh, man,’ he says, ‘it just feels so fucked,’
Then he goes quiet again.
Then he starts talking about something organic.
‘Yeh, so I pick it up,’ he says, ‘and the guy goes, like, yeh, it’s organic. But I’m looking on the back of it and I can’t see it so I’m like, what the fuck ever,’
Then he goes quiet again.
Then he starts talking about being pissed off about things.
‘I’m pissed off,’ he says, ‘things have gotten kind of screwed up. All the notes were, ..were…were…’
Then he goes quiet again for a few moments.
Then he starts talking again.
‘Anyway..,’ he says.
And then he goes quiet again.
The he starts speaking again.
‘Yeh, it’s not,..’ he says.
Then there’s quiet.
Then he starts again.
‘There are three levels of presentation,’ he says, ‘and it’s like…that’s…that’s…’
And then he stops talking.
The he starts talking.
‘It’s not open,’ it’s like…it’s, um…’
Then there’s another silence.
Then he starts talking about someone called Randy.
‘Randy, he’s like, Randy’s almost, like…he’s, uh…’
Then there’s silence for a few moments.
Then he laughs very loudly and says, ‘I’m watching the waves break,’
Then he shouts ‘huh?’
And then he laughs again and shouts- ‘No, I’m watching the waves break. I’m on a train and I’m watching the waves break.’