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TODAY

Monday, September 16

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Airbags

Down on Venice Boulevard, the entire world this morning is reduced to three streams of cars. All the vehicles stop at La Brea Boulevard, forming a natural dam of bizarre behavior. To my left, an older woman with a silver crew cut, thick sunglasses and gold rope necklaces is driving a beat up minivan with an angry German shepherd in the passenger seat. 'K9 SECURITY' is written in black spray stencil on the side of the van. As people walk through the crosswalk, the dog tries to bark and snap violently through a small space in the window. The driver pays no attention.

At right, two Asian girls in a Lexus, drinking coffee and playing extra-loud rap music on the stereo. One is talking on a cellphone, the other is speaking along in time to the song. In front of me, a cargo van carrying garbage bags is filled to bursting. Its rear doors are half-open, held in place by a severed seat belt strung between the handles. The light changes and Bessie and I move along toward work. Bessie is my station wagon, so named by a friend who drove West with me almost a year and six months ago. Her color has faded from bright green to light green, under the constant attention of our number one star up above. One cylinder of her engine is misfiring. I think it needs new plugs. The little car lurches along as the lines of sleepy drivers move along.

I have a coffee cup full of loose tea perched on top of the cupholder. As I close in on the next stop, the van with the doors tied shut suddenly halts. I stop hard, spilling warm tea and specks of leaves all down my pant leg. By the time I swear out loud, he runs the yellow light. On the far right, a bike rider whizzes by, head down, pedaling furiously.

~*~

I'm currently employed as an editorial assistant at a small commercial post house. Today, one and a half months after joining the company, the executive director has invited me in for a meeting. At her request, I close the door and settle in on her comfortable blue couch. A series of black and white photographs line the wall behind my boss' desk. One photo shows a skating rink, with a pleat-skirted woman sitting on her butt on the ice. When the executive producer starts talking about how there's been no work in commercials anywhere in town and how slow things are, I can suddenly see what's about to happen.

This will be the fifth time I've lost my current employment in the last year. One was the end result of a crazy producer losing his shit in mid-project, three were layoffs when temporary projects ended. I'm getting very good at this, I think to myself. I'm ready to be fired all throughout every part of my life. I could carry a cardboard box around wherever I go, in case I get fired from shopping at the grocery store or from eating at my favorite restaurant. Wherever I happen to be when the shit hits the fan and a familiar spray pinpricks my face.

The light coming in through the window is a soft hazy afternoon light, very pretty. I keep trying to focus on the producer's eyes but she's taking way too long to do this. As I wonder how much money I have in the bank, a few of her words stick out. "Don't have any editing jobs coming in." Check. "We can't pay you to do nothing." I protest mildly. "No, I know you're not lazy, there just isn't anything for you to do here." Ah, good. Glad you're not calling me lazy. I'd much rather be unemployed than lazy and unemployed.

At last, the executive producer nods and stops talking. I glance at the sunshine and then at her. I say thanks, that I'll be happy to come back and work again in the future. Whenever things get busy. Please call me. I exhale and stand up from the bench. My mouth tightens into a smile, my head nods and my feet leave her office. I wander to the back to find a cardboard box in the assistant's room and quietly announce my departure. The intern, a pleasant woman in her early twenties, says "Oh no! No, you can't leave!" She thinks of me as the coworker of the year, just because I'm not completely fucking nutballs. Her last coworker, the assistant before me, threw things at her and shouted all the time. I begin to fill my box, thinking about how there's a good chance I'm going to get beat-down drunk tonight.

~*~

That evening, I'm sitting in a bar with a guy named Gary. Gary's a man about five years my senior, with Simon Le Bon hair and a friendly "can-do, did-do" attitude. We've been referred to each other by a mutual friend. Armed with drinks, we settle down to discuss things. He's working as a writer, I'm not. I'm very interested in how he manages to find people willing to pay for what he has to say.

The drink is very strong and bitter, good lighter fluid for a first conversation. We talk for a while. About nothing. Mostly about him and his life. It seems as though he's asking me to listen to the sound of his mind working. Here, moreso than in Chicago or any other place I've lived or visited, people feel compelled to use complete strangers as sounding boards for random and often deeply personal matters. It's easier than paying a shrink and, if the story is well-told, with a lot of articulation and gesture, it's a little like being on stage for a few minutes.

Instead of opening the door to his experiences in writing for television, Gary says, "Lemme get your opinion about this one thing..." and steers sharply into a story from his past, describing in explicit detail a threesome he had with his then-new wife and a female friend. This long backstory is followed by a shorter account of his recent trip to visit his ex-wife. He questioned her about that night in the past, told her that he'd never felt so free and happy and trusting of her. Her response was that she felt deeply uncomfortable after that night and that she'd never really gotten over it.

He looks at me, astonished with this outcome, as though he's a Renaissance painter inventing perspective or something. "She didn't get it, what I felt — it's as though we'd experienced two completely different things," he says, rubbing his chin. I have no idea how to respond to this.

"I bet that was the beginning of the end for her," I say this and then wince internally. "Maybe that was, maybe a good example of how differently two individuals can view the same event," I quickly offer. He nods and gestures, as though preparing to restate what I've just said.

"Like in Rashomon, you mean?"

"Well, um. Sort of. Not really."

"Women just don't understand, the way you and I — men, generally — know how to deal with a situation like that. It's not in their nature to be able to... I don't know. Men hold things together, even if we feel we're going to explode. We can deal with it. We keep it together."

"You'd think so, wouldn't you," I respond. A woman crosses behind me and he looks past me, watching her. "So, tell me some more about your pilot," I say, finishing my drink.

~*~

"Stop moving around," says Lizzy. She's standing behind me, cutting my hair. I look down at the patio and see my locks drifting around in the wind. The rest of the dinner guests are inside the house, chatting loudly. Creedence Clearwater Revival blares through the open windows. All around, the neighborhood of Tejunga Canyon seems to be settling in for a cool, breezy evening. Her house is only 20 highway minutes from mine, but it feels more like mountainous Colorado than California.

I had my hair cut earlier in the day but the guy wasn't really paying much attention and he accidentally gave me a mullet. Lizzy offered to correct this and now I'm listening to her scissors snip through "the party in the back." I shout out loud when she misses and cuts me.

"Whups, sorry," she says, daubing the towel against my nicked ear. "You got some big ears going on, man."

"I'd like to keep them in that condition," I say flatly. A gunshot rings out and we both look in the same direction. "You feel safe out here?"

Lizzy returns to snipping. "Pretty safe. I hear there's some heavy meth labs going on around here but the street we're on is a good street." Two big dogs come over to wander through my legs and circle around the action.

"At least you've got dogs to keep you safe." Lizzy laughs.

"Oh, they're softies. You won't stop anyone from breakin' into our house, will you, Cortez?" She reaches down to nuzzle the dog. "No, but they'll have to feed you, won't they? Won't they? Won't they? Who's a good dog? Who's good? Who, who, who? That you?"

"Those dogs are turning you into an idiot, Lizzy." She laughs again.

"Nope, that's this fuckin' city. Sucking what's left of my brain away." The dog runs off toward something in the corner of the yard, and I hear the drink posted near my feet tip over. I lower my eyes enough to see the dark stain reach out from beneath my chair.

~*~

The day breaks gently, a slow grey that crowns the empty lot outside my window. A cat wanders through the patchy grass as I look out to guess how early it is. A dirty white tail pauses slightly as it sees at my curtain moving, then drifts out of range.

When you watch television, you can to tell time by the programs. When you have a strict schedule, you learn to tell what time it is by where you suspect you're supposed to be. When you're out of work, you have no idea what day of the week it is. I speak with employed friends who reassure me that this time, the time between jobs, is the best time to get some writing done. You're the writer, they say. Go for it! Get it done! It's a great time to be a writer, really. I try, but this overcast day is too much and I end up walking around outside, staring at the blank slate above.

There must be jobs for writers just a few miles over, in Hollywood, in Santa Monica, in Manhattan Beach. I assume there are, I hear stories about poor writers stuck up to their nuts in lousy sitcoms, about directors who still loudly insist that the kid stay in the picture, regardless of the fact that it's their kid and she's registered with SAG. Certainly there must be a job for me, somewhere in this city.

I write about the only thing I have any authority on, the last few years of my life. It comes out in screenplay form and has the flavor and texture of a dry candy wrapper. The sun goes up and down like a dry bucket, marking the days and weeks until my next job, which will probably be working as an editorial assistant on a lousy sitcom. I fall asleep late and then lie awake mornings, like this one, waiting for something to happen. The marks in the ceiling above my bed, the strain of earthquakes patched and plastered over, assure me that something will happen. That something has to happen.

When I return to the apartment from my walk, my resolve is renewed — time to head to the auto parts store and buy some new spark plugs for the car. As I gather my wallet and keys, I find a short poem written late last night still sitting on my bed stand. Before leaving the house, I type the poem at the very end of this column.

There is no time
as lonely
in this city
of
twelve million
as right now
when you are
in the bathroom
trying to masturbate
while
the cat
is loudly
chewing its claws.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2004. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

Revenge of the Second City will return next week.

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