Dear Dirty America


Get To The Corner! Chris Rock From A Parallel Universe

May 08
22:15 2013
Los Angeles

photo by planetc1

The same grungy black dude strolls up to Tierra Mia coffee on Spring Street every time I’m there. The bottoms of his dark jeans are torn. His black t-shirt is tattered. He’s always got a wild look in his eyes. Dangerously playful.

He moves fast, which makes people nervous. I don’t know his name. I’m not sure he knows it. Every time I’m at the coffee shop, this man bounds over to the outside chairs and tables and sits against the shop’s windowsill. If there’s a chair in the way, he yanks it from his path and leans against his perch.

From there he hollers or laughs. It’s a booming sound that ricochets against the buildings and sidewalk. The noise sticks in my ears for a few seconds after he’s finished making it. When people walk past the coffee shop, he launches into a tirade, but his words are not usually distinguishable. They sound like a series of barks and yaps, yips and howls.

Today, he laughed and laughed. How can anybody’s voice be that loud? It is only drowned out when the bus stops. When that orange box roars away, the man is still laughing. He leans forward and takes a peek down the street. His mouth looks like Chris Rock’s mouth. Big, pearly white teeth. Thin black mustache. Full lips that, when opened, unleash a torrent of sound.

photo by
David Shankbone

In fact, the man could be Chris Rock in a parallel universe, where he suffered a few twists of bad luck and ended up entertaining audiences in his mind instead of in big city theaters throughout the world. On this plane, there’s only room for one Chris Rock, and once one of them makes it, the rest must perish.

I remember a professor of mine telling me that California lets the crazy people loose. Ever since Reagan was in office. What state has money to rehabilitate people? “They give them a few days of medication and turn them loose on the streets. They’re the ones who aren’t harmless. Or at least they aren’t perceived to be harmless.”

What if this guy cuts loose one day? He always seems two minutes from coming unglued. What if he starts swinging his fists? Or overturns tables like Christ in the tabernacle? Or picks up the flattened squirrel laying in the gutter and hurls it at the nearest table of friendly folks sipping coffee? What’s to stop him? For most of us, it’s a paycheck and a social reputation. We can’t act like we truly feel. But what incentive does he have in life to keep from going ballistic?

“Get your ass to the corner,” a gruff voice calls from behind me. My cup of gourmet coffee cools in the breeze. It’s called the Mexico Cup of Excellence coffee. The man hops off the windowsill and says, “Aaaaaahhhh.” It’s partly a growl. Partly the beginning of a word. Again, it sounds like Chris Rock. There’s a childish quality to it. But this order is not coming from the man’s mother. Two policemen stroll by, watching the man hop and skip to the corner. They have guns, batons, Tasers, pepper spray, and handcuffs.

The black dude is gone. Around the corner. Somewhere else. Suddenly, I’m no longer irritated with him. Why can’t he sit there? He wasn’t hurting anyone. He’s just a little bothersome. But where else is he supposed to go? Where do people who don’t have any money go? Pershing Square? To sit with all the other non-people who don’t have money to spend. Relegated to the homeless park, where most people have loosened mental filters.

I don’t blame the policemen. They know the black guy. They’ve dealt with him before. It’s obvious by how quickly he reacts to their command. Not only do I feel bad for the crazy man, I’m also slightly relieved the police are making the rounds. Like I said, what would we do if that guy started going bonkers? I wouldn’t want to jump on him. I wouldn’t want to put his face into the cement and say to him, in my John Wayne voice, “You’d better settle down, son.”

But the man is not a monster, I don’t think. So he unleashes occasional bursts of sound out of his mouth. He’s the Spring Street canary, except with an alarming howl instead of a tweetie-tweet.

There are businesses everywhere along the streets. Eateries. Bars. Coffee shops. Bookstores. Wine shops. Marketplaces. Electronics stores. Clothing outfitters.

A person without money isn’t welcome in front of any of them. A homeless person isn’t welcome anywhere, really. That’s why they keep moving. Walking around the block. Trudging tirelessly through the neighborhood in their floppy boots, ripped sneakers, or bare feet. All the public spaces are bought up. The commons are gone. Nobody wants a lean bum with a scavenger’s face stalking out front. Lunch tastes better without realizing there are more hungry people within that one square mile of downtown Los Angeles than you could possibly feed. Indulging in a good cup of coffee is soured when you’re reminded every few seconds of the basic, unsolved problems of poverty in this society.

The police officers had cornered another man across the street. I read my book. Donald O’Donovan’s Night Train. A great novel about Los Angeles and the disenfranchised folks with their big grins and even bigger dreams, all the while fighting addictions or other setbacks that keep them wading through the dirty streets of the giant city.

A few minutes later a voice calls, “Hey brother,” from behind me. I know instantly that the person is talking to me. Having long blonde hair in Los Angeles is like being a rare building with a turret capped in gold in a city of buildings that are mostly flat and square on top. It’s forever, “Hey, bro”, “Hey, dude”, and then, “You gotta light? You got bud? You got a cigarette? You got a couple bucks for a homie?”

It’s like there’s an affinity between my long hair and the notion that I’ll be willing to help out in any way I can. There’s also the assumption that I do drugs, carry them on me, and pass out cigarettes.

“You’re an intellectual,” the man says. For one second I think it’s the crazy guy the police scared away just minutes ago, but it’s not. This one is much calmer. His eyes are deep brown and sparkling. He speaks softly, fluently. His pinky and pointer fingers are bent dramatically at the middle knuckle. How had he broken them? Or who had broken them?

He’s wearing a hoodie and a long black knitted scarf wrapped around his neck three times. He sees my smartphone on the table. “Don’t be using that thing,” he says. “The Illuminati can listen in. They’re always listening. Through the phones and computers and cameras and everything else,” he says.

I know it, I say. It’s no use avoiding that now. We’re trapped in this world.

Of course, the man wants some money. He’s young, good looking. It seems he could easily be a college student, a half back on a football team, or even an actor. But instead he’s just looking for a few quarters so he can get on the bus.

I don’t have any cash, I tell him. But I’ll buy you a coffee with my card.

We go inside and everybody looks at us. He slides his crooked finger down the miniature paper menu in front of the cash register and asks me, “What’s good? What’s good here?”

I get the straight black coffee, I say, but what are you in the mood for?

He settles on a chocolate mocha latte. He pronounces it “latt-ee”. The girl behind the counter says the total, and I hand her my card.

The young man, who tells me his name is Frank, looks closely at me. I get nervous. What if he goes ballistic? What if he’s a nutcase with a peaceful countenance, and in the blink of an eye he’s got me on the floor and stabbing me with an old pocketknife he carries in his hoodie’s pouch? There would be that embarrassing LATimes headline: Little Known Blogger Gets Decapitated In Downtown Cafe, Witnesses Say He Hardly Struggled.

“You’re an angel,” he finally says. I realize he looks like a mix between a young man I worked with in Davis, California, and a Los Angeles musician friend of mine, mentioned in this article.

No, I say, I’m just German and Norwegian. I’m very simple. I only enjoy a few things in life. I don’t understand much. I try to learn what I can. I sleep on an air mattress because it seems fitting for a person like me. I read a few books. I try to write about my experiences. I can repeat a few smart phrases I’ve memorized from books, but I rarely have an original idea.

The barista hands Frank his latte and I ask him how it is. He sticks out his tongue and licks the foam off his upper lip. He nods and gives me a look that suggests it’s very good.

Outside, Frank asks me what my astrological sign is. Scorpio, I say. He tells me he’s a Cancer. Well, that’s why we get along so well, I tell him. “There’s a pleasant draw of energy between us,” he says. “A smooth back and forth.”

Frank asks me to wish him luck as he walks to Miracle Hill. “Throw out a good wish for me,” he says.

I do.


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