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TODAY

Tuesday, December 10

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Airbags

Intersections

I was drifting along Olympic Avenue last night, around 1am. I'd tackled a few strong drinks at a downtown bar and was headed to another bar, closer to Koreatown. Downtown Los Angeles is a testimony to the unrealistic grip that commerce has on this shaky desert plane. Far below the Bush Tower, the gleaming black Allstate Building, the streets blossom with tents and boxes of homeless people, all gathering around oil cans and streetlamps in the November chill.

I'm forever admiring the resourcefulness of the transient population of this city. They know how to survive! Entire city blocks of the downtown area are carefully tucked in each night with a group of temporary shelters — row after row of tents, big plastic lean-tos and so on, for blocks and blocks. It gives me some comfort, when I consider the possibilities of dementia or worse in an advanced age. At the first signs of a weak mind, I'm going to go buy a Swiss Army knife and a tent. Maybe some food as well, but definitely a tent.

I drove quickly, tapping the wheel in time to the jazz song on the radio. Then the street in front of me slid to a halt at a truck, stopped in the middle of the intersection. Assholes always getting caught in the middle of a stoplight, I thought. As I slowed at the red light, I could see that it was an empty truck. No driver, lights on, engine running. I looked into my rearview, down the perpendicular streets — no humans anywhere.

When the light changed, I drifted past the vehicle, stopping briefly in front of the headlight glare. Nobody sat up in the seat. I thought about getting out to look into the cab. Then my cellphone rang and Jack asked me where the hell I was. I told him that I'd be there when I got there and closed the cellphone. The date on the front display was November 18, two years from when I first arrived in the city.

I slowly pressed the gas and looked around for any of the homeless people. Nobody was there. Whoever had abandoned the truck in the middle of nowhere had left the keys behind. Maybe someone would sleep inside it tonight. Hell, I would have. Trucks are warm. Even though it was a high of 86° today.

~*~

I pulled my coat closer around me as the baby was being pushed ahead of the crowd of family and friends. Auden. What a name for a baby. I protested at the outset, so the blame was on Marc and Keri's hands now. We all trundled down Broadway in Lakeview. I was feeling my blood move faster than it had in Los Angeles. It was a few weeks before I'd return back to find the truck in the intersection. I was back in Chicago for the film festival that I run with my good friend Atom.

And I had some time to kill before the actual event. I'd spent the last few days drinking like a fish on fire, traveling up to Wisconsin to see my family, then back to Chicago for the festival. Now I was walking along like part of a clumpy train behind a streamlined blue stroller. Marc, the new father, waved at me and stepped back through the group of moving people to say hello. Today was the first time I'd seen him since the birth. He put his arm on my shoulder and smiled at me with tired red eyes.

"Good you're back, man!" he said.

"Look what happens when I leave you on your own," I mockingly groused.

"I know! I bring this lovely little piece of myself into the world! I'm a genius!"

"Of life," I added.

"Yes!" He was hopping up and down of the balls of his feet, hands pushed deep into his hooded sweatshirt pockets.

"Do you want to stop for something to drink?" Keri called back from the stroller. Marc turned as he hopped and bounded back up to where she was in front of the group. After a few minutes, he announced that we'd all be stopping for tea.

The trees lining the sidewalk were bare, down to the few last leaves. Leafless trees represent so much of my understanding of life, from my days in growing up in the country. A crisp leaf on the ground meant snow not far behind, and the whole drab world would transform into a glowing playground. Now, many years later and miles away from the country life, all the trees that lined Barry watched our little parade. The thin dark lines sheltered us from a slate sky above.

In a few hours, I would be meeting up with someone, hopefully. Drinking in a bar, swearing, smoking, celebrating adulthood in some way or another. Now I was stuck celebrating new life, as our train turned and slowly steamed into the tea shop. A wave of chamomile scent met us as we passed Marc, who was holding the door. The licks of the warmth from the shop felt good on my face. Inside my coat pockets, I searched absently as I stared at the drinks and thought about what to get. I recognized a book of matches with my fingertips. In a very secret way, I suddenly felt as though I was really back home, back in the cold. I picked the book open, folded it shut again and again. Finally decided to take a chance on a drink that would, in a few short minutes, almost make me vomit like a tommy gun.

~*~

Atom and I were at the restaurant supply store, buying large bags of lettuce and giant cans of beans for his coffee shop in Ukrainian Village. We pushed at the large platform cart, pulling hard to stop it in front of a shelf of vegetable oil. Other restaurant workers clunked carts through the maze of food service supplies.

"This is a crazy store," I said to Atom.

"Yeah. They got everything you need in one place. But that makes it a pretty big place." He checked his list and reached up for a giant plastic tub of mayonnaise.

"Are you excited about Spain?" I asked. "I'd be excited about Spain, if I were you. Señoritas. Dancing. First time out of the country! Ever!"

He set the jar on the cart and rubbed his nose with one of his square-tipped fingers.

"Well, there was Puerto Vallarta, but it was... 1998? And my mom was there. That doesn't count." He looked at me and then back at the list. "I'm — just going to have a good time. No señoritas."

"Oh, come on." I said. I started to push the cart again.

Atom stared at the list blankly. "Unless I get a call that the store burned down, then I'm gonna say fuck it and just stay there."

"In Spain?" I asked.

"In Spain. I'll paint. Or I can earn a living pretending to be Picasso. Zombie Picasso."

"Zombiecasso." Far down the aisle in front of us, a Mexican guy reached too late for a large bag of rice that slipped off his stacked cart and slapped to the floor. Two men talking briskly in some European language walked past him, gesturing to the air around them. They carefully stepped around the bag and kept talking, heading into the coffee and soda aisle.

~*~

"Look, ducks!" I pointed with my head at the ducks that were paddling away in the river. It was getting cold. Very cold. Atom and I were walking away from the restaurant supply store. We'd left all his groceries in his truck after realizing that it was completely out of gas. Running out of gas is a little like I imagine dying to be — you can't believe that it's happening when it's happening. You start to question everything. The whole trip to the store flashes before your eyes. You feel foolish and a little too old to be so inexperienced, whether you're breathing your last or just watching your breath, sitting next to your best friend in a cold vehicle as the engine turns over a final time.

The Chicago River was a dark streak beneath the Division street bridge. Down the other side, a line-art downtown skyline looked pretty and vacantly bright. We hoofed it over the bridge as the tires of passing cars made a loud buzzing noise on the bridge metal. At the end of the block, up ahead of us, there was a gas station.

"Stupid gasoline power!" said Atom. I pulled a hand out of my jacket and pointed up to the Cabrini Green projects ahead of us.

"See the fire?" I asked. In the night lit by streetlamps, the largest of the projects was a giant tombstone rising out of a parking lot. On one side of the building, a fire at a low level window had scorched up the entire side of the building. A long black streak staggered almost to the roof, covering all the white building and windows above it.

"Man, that's bad." Atom slowed and we stopped at the crosswalk. We both stared at the burn marks. Cab after cab streamed past us, headed toward Chicago Avenue and downtown. Finally the light changed and we crossed. "Need a whole lot of buckets to put that thing out."

We bought a gas can, filled it with gasoline and headed back to his truck. When we got there, he spent a few minutes playing around with the nozzle on the can, reversing it and then screwing it on wrong. Finally, the fuel went dook-dook-dook down into the engine and we sat down inside. Before he switched the keys, I wondered if it was the lack of gasoline.

"What if it's not the gas? What if it's the engine itself?" I couldn't help asking. Atom laughed a little.

"Then we leave it for dead." He slid the keys into the ignition and turned.

~*~

I was back in Los Angeles. I was at the car park near the airport, feeling flush with anger.

"I'm still going to have to pay full price? Is that what you're saying?" I almost shouted at the stone-faced man behind the counter. I had arrived back to find that my car wouldn't start. It was last seen before I left LA, being taken off by a carpark attendant who had driven it away into a field of cars. Now the engine wouldn't start and I was stranded outside the LAX, many miles from home.

Actually many batteries died over the course of the trip to Chicago. First there was the cellphone battery, which was finally charged after a day of waiting to get into my friend Julia's apartment. Then the laptop battery died and I had to wait until the next day to charge it. The charge on the electric razor went dead halfway through my beard and the digital camera was flashing the red light that means you can no longer point and shoot. The only battery to continue working while I was home was the battery in my grandfather's backup pacemaker, which kicked in and saved his life as he slept.

"Why are you going to charge me full price when the attendants can't even bring me my car?!" My neck was hot and I knew that throwing a tantrum was the only way to solve this problem. Knowing this didn't make me feel like less of an asshole. I personally hate disagreeable customers, even when they're right. I wanted to pay full price and have this entire problem solved.

After a half-hour of back and forth arguments where I tried to haggle and wend my way to a cheaper price, the equally stone-faced owner severely whispered to his counter man and they refunded $10 off the price of the ticket. The car pulled up as I handed over my credit card a second time.

"Thanks, I will never come back here again." My voice was thick with apologetic anger. Outside, the door was being held open by another attendant and I sat into my weathered station wagon and pulled it closed. A group of workers sat in a row, watching me silently as the car rolled away.

There was nothing to do but drive away from the uncomfortable scene. I spun the wheel toward the 405 north and settled in behind the red square of a big truck's taillights. The rearview was bright, making streaks from the dirty rear window dance along the dashboard.

I turned fully to look back at the empty truck in the intersection, several weeks later. At the next stoplight, I remembered the way to the bar and took a right. Far behind, the vehicle slipped from view. Third Street was peppered with people walking in random directions, marching behind shopping carts. An oil drum burned up ahead and my car momentarily kept pace with a woman chasing a man through an intersection, shouting about something. The homeless and transient were all out, picking their feet up, putting them down. I felt like pulling over and telling someone about the ghost truck a few blocks behind. Would anyone have bothered to go and try and take it?

Up ahead, a man pushing a cart full of wooden palettes slowly moved along the sidewalk. You can turn the palettes in for money, Atom had told me once. They're sturdy flat wooden platforms, left over from moving heavy loads in big rig trucks. I stopped at another light. The pushing man slowed at the crosswalk and the stack on the cart shifted as he dipped down from the sidewalk to the street. Palettes leaned forward and he stopped walking. I waited for the crunch, the clatter.

Instead, he pulled back and braced himself. The tower gently, gently, gently swayed back into a tall straight line. Then he carefully resumed his movement, drifting over to the other side of the street. When I passed him, he was up on the other sidewalk, pushing faster again, directing a night's worth of gathering along the mostly empty dark corridor. The sidewalks down that way were spotted with tents and loose papers and cups drifting everywhere, everything unreadable and lost, moving down streets and up streets and then resting, waiting for a new light, another turn at the warmth of the never-ending sun.

My cell phone rang — it was Jack. We'd missed last call at the bar.

"They're kicking everyone out," he said.

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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.

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