“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature.” – Edvard Munch
It’s 90 degrees at 8:30 am. I’m in Burbank.
I drop off eight year old Julian at the Lycee International de Los Angeles. Not cool that he’s unaccompanied, but he’s a sweet faced little French dude. Super polite. Didn’t spill his juice box. He two-hands the door closed, smiles and waves goodbye.
“Bonne Journee, Jonathan!” I can’t help but smile back.
“You fucked me, Julian!” (The window was rolled up.) I drive away.
Full disclosure: A driver cannot see your destination until we start the ride. In the beginning, when fare prices were high enough (still 50% of a taxi), we didn’t need to. We’re not taxis trying to gouge you. We’re folks helping each other out. You were like:
“Sorry, I’m not going very far.” And we were like:
“That’s totally fine!” You were all:
“Wow. We’re really sharing this ride!” And we were all:
“You bet.” Smile. Smile.
“I love you, driver.”
“I love you, rider!”
::fistpound blows up::
Two price cuts later (now 20% of a taxi), we have “surge maps” and the direction of a morning ride means the difference between “owning property” on Park Place or Baltic Avenue (Monopoly trolls with alternate theories on St. James Place, return to your Reddit Forum.) Starting from Los Feliz during rush hour, South or West is good, North or East is bad.
Burbank (Spanish for: Baltic Avenue) is North and East. I’m missing the highest surge of the day and the entire Google Map is red. It will take forever to get back over the hill.
The larger issue:
I’m in the Valley.
Now, I’m not the usual, “oh god, the Valley” douchebag. I’m here all the time, but the feeling never changes:
It’s really pretty. It’s all the same. It’s really hot. I wanna kill myself.
Ten minutes on any avenue and I start sweating and questioning my existence. Distinguishing factors like my name, sense of self, concept of reality melt into an expressionist sea of train tracks, warehouses, jiffy lubes and 7-Elevens. My thoughts begin to rabbit hole until:
Originally titled: “1bd in Encino off Vanowen”
It shouldn’t feel this way. The Valley is gorgeous. Picturesque family neighborhoods where chirpy nightingales escort you home under bright moonlight after bars close. Kids trick or treat without checking the candy for poison (I’m from Manhattan – that’s just crazy.) The best Sushi. You can always park. Parking’s big. And the sunsets. Oh my god, Valley sunsets are AMAZING. The buttery sunsets almost convince me. Then that sun comes back up and it’s warmer at 7:00 am than it should be anywhere there aren’t White Supremacists and I’m like, “get me the f*ck out of the—”
“You Have a Ride!”
Tom D. 8472 N. Kenneth Blvd.
Dammit – should’ve turned the app off. I don’t wanna get stuck out here, but the “I love you too” part of me can’t cancel a ride. Tom’s gonna help me escape. I know it. The address isn’t visible when I pull up, so I park near the corner and text him.
“Uber is here.” Four minutes, thirty seconds later…
“On my way.”
Ten minutes later. Smog particles hang in the air, like the bullets in “The Matrix.” The door opens and a tallish guy, shaggy grey hair, gets in. A gust of warm particles follow him.
“Thanks for waiting, man.”
Tom’s probably 50’s. Sweaty concert T-shirt, sleeves cut off by Tom himself, or whomever donated it to “Out of the Closet.” I make out “The Grateful Dead” in wavy-gravy letters circling the lightning skull, then stop reading. Stoner calligraphy bugs me. Probably ‘cause I’m super jealous of anyone who still enjoys being stoned, as opposed to me, who feels euphoric for the first half hour, then:
Interesting…I never put those two experiences together...
I like The Dead. It’s happy music that reminds me of freshman year at Boston University, where they opened for Talking Heads (yes, they did.) I had no idea what to make of all the flannel shirts, peace signs, wavy-wiggle dancing. I judged them. They won, because they were just happy. We all danced to “Psycho Killer” and —
“Noho Hardware. One-one-eight-four-seven, Ventura.” says Tom. I enter the address.
“If there’s a way you’d like to go let me know, otherwise I’ll follow Waze.”
“It’s all good, man. I trust you.”
He says, wiping the sweat off his brow and leaning his head on the air conditioned back window.
“You might not think about this in the process of your Uber-ing. I was in my backyard and I bend over. I was doing some gardening and I discovered these two tiny sacs of spider eggs. And I got worried, so I went to grab a spatula and I put on a hockey mask, like that’s going to do any good, but it made me feel more macho and I grab some WD-40 which isn’t really a pesticide, but I figured it would to do something and I sprayed the eggs all over. I have a new ring tone for my phone that’s the opening to “Breathe” by Pink Floyd. It starts with this heartbeat boom-boom, boom-boom and then the cash register and a typewriter, then someone says, “I’ve always been bad, like I know I’ve been bad,” then these screams and baaahhh-BAHHHHHH! So I take the spatula and I scoop up the two soggy sacs and just as I am about to put them in the bin my phone goes off “baaahhhh – BAHHHHHH” and I drop them onto the ground and they open up and I see 1 million tiny little spider ball sacks and it was you, the UBER call”
Why would I ever be thinking about this?
“Why didn’t I just squish them? He blurts. "I probably should have, but at that moment I thought back to my house in Brooklyn in 1975. I was holding a ladder for my stepdad in my mom’s kitchen while he fixed a light socket. I was holding the ladder in a non-special way I wasn’t really doing anything, just standing there and my mom said, “look, there’s a spider!” My stepdad, he looks down and takes the light socket he’s holding by a cord and drops it down, “boom!” He squishes the spider and a million little spiders explode out and run all over my mothers kitchen! I guess it was a pregnant fighter spider or something and so, I thought back to that moment. Really shook me up, man. Whew.”
“You know Dark Side of the Moon?”
“Sure, but I don’t I know that song.” I say.
Pink Floyd were part of this whole group of music I stayed away from when i was in High School. Floyd, The Doors, Rush. That was for the druggies. The lazy, long hair, confident kids. I was the insecure, straight, chubby kid. If I got high, I was certain that I’d completely spin out of control (see above.)
“Great Album man, really visionary. Their previous music was all over the place, big instrumentals, but this was clear and direct. Each of the songs dealt with stages of life and trying to stay sane, cuz like Syd Barrett was losing his mind which is why he left, I think. Anyway, there’s the screaming hawk or something and then baaahhh-BAHHHHHH!”
He drums on the back of the passenger seat.
“Brrrrrrrrrrrr-dddddd-aaaaaa bang! Dum-dum-pow-breathe, breathe in the air-r-r-pow-ba-dum-ba-dum-pow”
“Why…is that your ringtone?” I ask, coming back to reality.
“Calms me down, man.” Wow.
I pull over in front of Noho Hardware. The blood red sky and blue black fjords, swirling around me. I see those two figures in black garb behind me on the bridge.
“Um, what happened to the spiders?”
“The eggs” He corrects me. “I scooped ‘em up and put em outside. All gone.”
“You didn’t kill them?” I say as he gets out.
“Circle of Life, brother!“ He smiles and double taps the roof as I drive away.
The contact high off that exchange leads me to Laurel Canyon, never a good play and now I’m inch-worming over the hill. I crest over Mulholland and on the driver’s side, a hand-written sign stapled to a telephone pole says, “Breathe.” I find “Dark side of the Moon” on Spotify search and hit play. There’s the typewriter...the cash register... the voices and the screaming bird - baaahhh-BAHHHHHH! My name’s coming back to me, as my car fills with Gilmore’s twangy guitar.
Breathe, breathe in the air.
Don’t be afraid to care.
Leave don’t leave me.
Choose your own ground…
A picture unfolds in front of me: Tom, air drumming with a kitchen full of wiggle dancing spiders. I bust out laughing. Like, serious, ugly-cry laughing. I’m screaming and banging my fists on the steering wheel to catch my breath, then crack up all over again.
Everyone’s looking at me through their car windows thinking…