The Cars Drive so Fast HereThe cars drive so close to one another here you would think accidents happen more often than they already do. I forgot how much of a car city Los Angeles is and my friends drive wildly. Their swerving, speed and cursing at other drivers make me nervous and force me to slam the break that doesn’t exist on the floor by the passenger seat. Every driver has either a gadget or a wire dangling from their ear allowing them to talk to people on their way to work or the gym or while they’re stuck in traffic. I truly forgot how much one needs a car here. I’ve been out of LA for more than three years and part of me can’t believe that I used to live here for two. I too had done the same as everyone else; driving, talking, swerving. But by how I react to my friends’ driving you’d think I’ve never been here at all.
I sat at the Starbucks on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Blvd., just a few blocks north of where I used to live and sipped an iced coffee while I watched the cars zoom by. Every time a car would fly through the intersection I would startle and tense up because they were just missing, by mere inches, the cars on the other side waiting their left turn. I couldn’t believe the speed of some of these drivers. Everyone seemed so busy, speeding terribly and half talking on their “no-hands” gadgets. I forgot too, how expensive and new looking so many cars were and that also left me puzzled about the drivers’ seemingly desperate need to speed. Wouldn’t they want to be more careful? Wouldn’t they want to slow down, just a bit, to ensure the safety and condition of their cars? After all, it’s just a matter of inches between safety and collision. Four inches making all the difference between smooth sailing or a body flying through the windshield. Inches. Just inches and seconds. Life and death. Everybody’s got to go somewhere, sometime, I guessed.
The intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. is just on the edge of gay-town West Hollywood. That said, the fence sectioning off the outdoor patio of Starbucks where I was sitting was painted rainbow. A blue SUV with 3 men in their mid-twenties stopped at the light and snickered, pointing at the rainbow colored fence. Maybe it was the traffic, the sound of the cars driving by or maybe even because of the book I was reading but I drifted off into a terror-fantasy world, thinking that if these men wanted, they could pack their car full of explosives and detonate it right here at the edge of the fence. The impact would obliterate me in milliseconds and everything would be over. There would be nothing left. I would be dead. Finished. Gone. All of it happening before the smoke even had a chance to clear.
The fantasy reminded me of the time Eric-the-Roommate and I were driving down Beverly Blvd. and talking about terrorism.
“Really, the bombs are all for show,” he said driving west past the Beverly Center, a huge urban mega-plex of a mall. “Terrorism can exist in any form. The bombs are just sudden and impactful but really anyone can stick an Uzi in each hand and walk into a place like the Beverly Center and just mow people down.”
The light turned green outside of Starbucks and the blue SUV drove past pulling me out of my memories. I sat in the sun for a while, thumbing the pages of my book but not wanting to open it. It was too noisy, the sun just a little too hot and I was distracted.
An elderly woman walked across Santa Monica Blvd. and without ordering a drink or even stepping inside pulled up a chair at the table next to me. Earlier a homeless woman with stringy blond hair and pants falling below her waist had bummed a smoke from a seated customer so I assumed this was a frequent sit-and-rest for the wayward and destitute. The elderly woman took a few breaths and popped open an umbrella to shield herself from the sun. I studied her briefly. At first I thought she was a bag lady but after further scrutiny realized she was simply an old lady with an arsenal of shopping bags and a pushcart. The elderly were frequent in this neighborhood. This neighborhood is one of the rare walkable areas of LA and so it was littered with old age homes and retirement centers. She noticed me noticing her and smiled through decaying teeth to say hello. I said hello and turned my head back to the street. I felt her studying me.
“What book are you reading? Are you enjoying it,” she asked. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk with anyone, especially an off-the-street crazy, but I smiled and said, “I don’t know if enjoying would be the right word but yes it’s very good. It’s called Afterlife by Paul Monette.”
“Oh is that something you’re interested in – the afterlife?”
“I suppose, but the book isn’t about that after life. It’s more about the lives of people after someone close to them dies.” I just went for it. “The book is about the 1980’s, set right here in West Hollywood, actually and everyone is dying of AIDS.”
“Oh yes,” she replied quickly, “I remember those times. They were very tough. I remember asking, “how long is this going to last?” I was surprised at her response. How she had said everything so casually as if the time period and the subject matter of the book was something that was just yesterday for her. Maybe she too had lost a friend, read the newspapers or was in someway affected. Despite her verge of bag-lady appearance it was clear she had more of a mind than I assumed.
“I just lost my husband a few years ago and oh, the grief is so hard! It takes forever to get over. Sometimes you just don’t think it will end. I had no idea what I was going to do without him. But time goes by and slowly things get better. Life writes itself. But the loss, the loss is never filled. That’s the part that stays with you.”
I absorbed what she was saying. She closed her umbrella and began to get up to leave. “You just make sure you live every day to its fullest. You appreciate what you have.”
“I always do,” I said, “I have shoes on my feet and water when I want it and a roof over my head which is more than I can say for millions of people on this planet. I should only be so lucky to have a problem, right? Life’s too short so I appreciate it very much."
“That’s right, my dear.” She smiled and left.
As I watched her leave I thought about grief. About how I dip into and out of it like a familiar friend I choose to hang with from time to time. I know this feeling. This comfortable sense of loss, of mourning. Holding the book in my hand and staring out at the cars I couldn’t decipher which I grieve more. The dent in our community caused by AIDS, the deaths of all those men and the havoc I wasn’t able to experience. Or is that indescribable black heavy pit of our community’s nonchalance toward those times that were, how we seemed to have learned nothing and in some ways are denying AIDS’ very existence.
I thought about the first sentence of the book: “If everyone hadn’t died at the same time, none of this would have happened” and, later on, “he knew they were laying in comas all over the city.” I swirled in my grief. Hello friend. How have you been? Is it that loss, that unforgettable unfilled crater or is it where we are now?
Just the other night at The Eagle’s wet underwear contest while the contestants were doing the Q&A portion of the show someone from the audience yelled out, “Bareback or condoms?” The MC ignored the catcall by casually giggling. But the man who had yelled the question was hoping that one, if not all four contestants, would say bareback as if in today’s world this revolution against the condom, against the very thing that protects our well being, should be celebrated as something cool or edgy or fringe. This is where we are now - our bright hopeful future.
I felt the buzz of my cell phone in my pocket. Bret was finished with the gym and he was ready to pick me up. He pulled up to the corner of the intersection and I climbed into the car. He flew through the intersection like the other cars I had seen and as we drove home I felt my fingernails digging into the rubber door handles.