The Big Bear Lake Geograpic - Part I

      I stayed up all night and then some thinking about moving away to the Big Bear Lake. When I fell asleep it had been light out.  When I awoke, the small, black clock radio read 5:45.  It was partially broken, and I wasn’t sure if was AM or PM.  I listened for clues to help me navigate my lunar position; any sounds coming from the other part of the Panorama City apartment would help.  I’d been living at Joanne and A.J.’s rent free for the last several months; my end was paid in sexual favors and scoring dope when asked to do such.  No matter what the time of day or night.  I was behind in keeping up my end of the bargain. I’d been cut off by most of my dealers, and Joanne was no longer interested in the little I’d to offer either.

      I slithered from beneath my bedding into the bathroom and avoided the mirror.  I grimaced at the thought of water touching my thin body.  My skin had become shallow and transparent.  I showered regardless, and walked into the kitchen where Joanne and AJ were eating dinner.  I sat down without invitation and talked Joanne into giving me a ride over to Finster’s after she and A.J finished their meal.  It would be the last favor I’d request from toothless lesbian I used to bed.    
     We drove to North Hollywood with not as much as two words and arrived at the Collins Avenue shooting gallery around 7pm.  Joanne pulled up to the curb and turned off the ignition.  The primer grey Colt knocked and coughed.  We said our farewells with the seemingly absence of emotion, and terminated our relationship like a non renewable magazine subscription that had expired.  She’d good riddance written all over her face and I couldn’t blame her.  I never got a steady job like I promised, nor did any chores like I said I would, and couldn’t stop using coke like an animal, the way I said I’d try, but knew I couldn’t.  For Joanne, the party had long since ended.  For me, it had never been a party.  But none of that mattered to me.  It was going to be my last night in town, and I was going to celebrate like it was 1999.   Celebrate was an odd choice of words to use when one is killing themselves.  

      It wouldn’t really be a celebration anyway, or party, or acknowledgment of any significant event.  Drug addicts hanging out in the deep end of dry, cracked pools don’t go to that type of trouble.  There would be no decorations.  There would be no food.  There would be no invitations, or toasts, or for-he’s-a-jolly-good-fellows.  It would be a night like most over at the Collins Avenue pin cushion.  Harold the cabby would stop by to score after dumping off a large fare at the Burbank Airport.  One legged Jimmy would be holed up in his RV parked on the street, trying to turn some petty larceny into a twenty dollar balloon of smack.  Marshall would arrive after cashing in some stolen merchandise he’d hijack from Home Depot and return without a receipt, but with an adequate story.  And Finster’s would be more than fortified.  He would be standing with a slight tilt.  The kind of posture one acquires after fixing dope more than once in a several hour period.  Finster’s cocktail hour began earlier than most.  He would find the necessity and resources to fix 20 or 25 CC’s of strong Mexican heroin more than once since rising in the mid afternoon.  By sunset, he would be sucking dry the better part of a pint of Old Grandad.  Business would be good at the converted garage-hovel just north of Circus Liquor.

     “Later Jon-boy,” Joanne said from her rolled down window.  I waved goodbye and that was that.  We had some good times, but both knew it was a flash in the pan romance.  A lesbian paired up with a straight male dope fiend cannot amount to much more.  It was around 7pm.  In one pocket I had some money, and in the other was a bag of cocaine with notable girth.  Coz was coming over when he was finished slinging margaritas and enchiladas at Casa Vega.  All the trappings of a fine evening were in place.  It would be hours before my mountain departure, just enough time to temporarily erase the memories I’d best leave behind.   
     My buddy Mark Knapp was going to pick me up around 10 the next morning.  Only God knew what the dawns early light would bring.  Marc had a small pick-up truck and agreed to move me and my belongings to my new place up in Big Bear Lake.  It wouldn’t be hard.  My worldly possessions were stashed behind Finster’s converted-garage-opium den, and amounted to little: several cardboard boxes of clothes and keepsakes and a couple of pieces of furniture.  I promised to pay Mark for gas, pack his nose with cocaine, and buy him dinner.  After all, what were friends for? 

      I took one step off the broken concrete curb, and then another, and began my way to Finster’s side door.  After the sun went down in North Hollywood, all the streets became spooky, and there I was all alone with my thoughts.  Joanne and I weren’t ever in love or anything sentimental like that, but when her red tail lights melted into the barrio fog, another part of me died.  I could hear a TV blasting through a screen door.  The portal into the lives of the anonymous was cracked open just enough to let the sound of a Mexican sitcom laugh-track and the smell of corn tortillas frying in cheap oil hit me in the face.  I was hungry.  I hadn’t eaten all day, but that wasn’t saying too much.  I’d only been out of bed for an hour or so, but hadn’t eaten the day before either.  The pang in my stomach was annoying.  I walked up the small path to Finley’s shanty and tapped on the thin curtained window that separated the world from his reenactment of Dante’s inferno.

    A thin boney hand jerked the curtain aside and Finster’s wife Jo peered out to see who was there.  She was no longer mad at me, which was surprising.  It’d had only been a week since I had put a move on her in the alley behind Oasis LiquorI didn’t know what I was thinking.  In my twisted mind, it was no big deal to hit on a good friend’s wife. 

     Finster’s and I had history.  We’d met when Babbs and I interviewed and hired him for the second chef’s position at O.C.  I’d been to his wedding, celebrated New Years Eve with him and Jo, and we drank together on numerous occasion, etcetera, etcetera. 

     “Click, click,” was the sound of the two deadbolts opening.  She opened the door and said: “Hey Buddy, John’s in the back.”  

     I stepped into the small kitchen; it was spotless.  Counter tops were clean, kitchen towels hung neatly folded, and a clock radio was on playing oldies.  An old Kenmore refrigerator was humming in the corner; it was also clean but empty.  The kitchen seemed like a soundstage set; there was no smell of home cooking, or anything cooking, or anything homey.  The only smell that loomed in the stale air was that of death and cigarettes.  It was the kind of atmosphere one might expect to find in a morgue.  One of John’s regulars, Pablo, was passed out on a chair against the wall.  His chin was glued to his chest and his right shirt sleeve was still rolled up.  His exposed arm looked worse than a fresh tattoo job done poorly.  The battlefield inside his bicep was reason enough for me to have never mainlined.  The junkies who shot up at Finster’s were poster boys for me not slamming dope.  A skin pop in my tuchus seemed safe; a little swab of alcohol and voila.  After all that’s where doctors had been giving me shots since I was an infant, but the MD’s didn’t use dirty needles, nor illicit street drugs.

     I could hear Finster’s singing something out of pitch in the rear room where he and Jo slept.  I could tell he was high and in a good mood.  Jo yelled towards his general direction: “Johnnnn, Buddy’s here.”

     Finster’s responded from the back room: “Where’s Buddy.”  His voice sounded like he gargled with glass and gravel; it was a two-packs-a-day of unfiltered Pall Mall tone.  John was educated but spoke with the resinous twang of a Pennsylvania hillbilly.  His father was a big shot with the Energy Commission and had a hand in the Three Mile Island disaster.  After much smoky, back-room discourse, John Finley Sr. had been vindicated of any wrong doing by the White House.  Finster’s was the golden son expected to follow in his father’s corporate footsteps, but managed to get into UCLA film school instead.  Finster’s pursued an art career instead of takeovers and acquisitions.  Finley Jr. ended up smuggling dope and cattle from Mexico to Arizona; another form of acquisitions and takeovers.  He eventually got busted and ended behind maximum security iron in Pelican Bay.  Most of those details remained a mystery.    

      Finley popped into the kitchen like a leprechaun on steroids.  He was dressed in a crisp, long sleeve shirt with a starched collar and creased jeans.  Vanity was all that John held onto. Anything else conforming to social convention had become futile and long since abandoned.  “What’s happening Buddy,” he asked.      
     “Hey man,” I answered. 

     “So Buddy, you’re leaving tomorrow?”

    “Yeah, Knapp’s picking me up around ten. Thanks for letting me keep my shit back there,” I said gesturing out back behind the converted garage. 

     Times were strange.  Three years prior I’d been living with Tommy Henderson and Dwanye Deyo in the two bedroom house next store.  I was working for Mannan Foods International in Beverly Hills.  I thought I was on my way somewhere but wasn’t.  I’d come home after work and look out the kitchen window and judge the couple that lived in the small converted shit hole where I was presently standing.   It was during the summer months.  The husband and wife on welfare mostly sat around on chairs outside, leaned up against what used to be a garage door, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer wrapped in small brown paper bags.  I’d watch them sitting there practically like statues, passing time like paint chipping off an old building in disrepair.  I looked down on them with no compassion.  I was better than they were.  I was making monthly car payments.  I was paying my third of the rent.  I was hanging my hat in the much nicer domicile next door.  Truth was, I worked in a nowhere job, playing step-and-fetch-it for a gang of racist Japanese who’d perfected the art of carrot dangling.  But I would never live in a converted garage.  And there I was, standing in that very space.  I’d sunk less than I’d perceived them to be; I hadn’t been in possession of a key or mailing address since I left my Whitsett apartment six months back. 

     All that was soon to change; the next day I’d be unlocking the door to my new rental up in Big Bear Lake, on Big Bear Lake Boulevard, right across the street from Big Bear Lake Middle School.  My new digs would be walking distance from Big Bear Lake’s number one ski slope “Snow Summit.”  I was retreating to the high country and taking a high-altitude cure.  Of course I would see sooner than later that that was just another self deluded hoax.   

     “What can I do ya for Buddy?”  Finster’s asked liking his lips.  Every time he copped a bindle of black Mexican tar for someone other than himself, he knew he’d be getting high.  Middle manning dope had become a full time job, a profession that paid well.  Heroin was a commodity with a high profit margin and a constant demand.  A man could live high on the hog selling skag.  Problem was, Finster’s shoveled the profits back into his arm; his was a day-to-day existence.   
    “I’ll take a twenty paper,” I answered.  That meant I’d pay twenty bucks for ten dollars worth of dope.  Whatever I spent, Finster’s always pinched half.  There weren’t many rules, but that was one chiseled in stone.  I’d known that from Jump Street.  That was just the way it was with him.  It didn’t matter if I drove him in my truck to San Fernando Road, Alvarado, or Pedro’s over on Simpson Street, he was taking half.  That was Finley’s politics of contraband, period, and end of story.

     “A twenty’s gonna get you really fucked up Buddy,” Finster’s warned me.  
     “Cool, are you holding?”

     “No, Marshall’s gonna drive me over in the van in a few minutes.  Give me the twenty now, it’ll help me make a bigger buy.”

    “When will you be back?”  I asked with concern.  More than once, a half hour turned into the next day.

     “Twenty minutes, just hang out, Woodstock’s on the Sony.”

      Finster’s had recently netted a small, Sony color TV in one of his transactions.  It was his new pride and joy.  He had it set up on a folding TV tray in the back room away from where the junkies nodded.   The Sony sat across from his broken easy chair.  The busted recliner was stuck in the open position.  That was the way he found it abandoned across the street on the sidewalk.  When he and Harold dragged it into the opium den, he was very proud.  It was as if he’d bagged some African game. 
     “You can sit in the recliner.”

     Wow, what did I owe the privilege I wondered?  No one got to sit in his chair.  It was a statute right out of “All in the Family.”

     “Thanks, but I’m gonna go down and get a burrito while you’re gone, I’ll see you when you get back.  Be cool man.” 

     Be cool meant: if there were cops parked in front, don’t go in.  Be cool meant: did you check your tail lights.  Be cool meant: try not to weave.  Be cool meant: you’re really fucked up, let Marshall drive.  Be cool meant: please don’t get popped with my twenty.  Be cool meant: don’t step on my dope.  Be cool meant: don’t get busted.  Saying:  “Be cool” was like buying a lottery ticket.  You never expected to win, but paid hard cash for the numbers anyway.  Junkies heeded no advice or cautioning; prudent or otherwise.  They’d walk through a mine field if they knew there was a score at the other end. 

     “Don’t worry Buddy, I got your back,” Finster’s barked in his drunk and stoned Pall Mall voice while he walked through the door.  I followed him out to see Marshall already in his idling van.  They sped away, and I made my way down the alley to the burrito stand. 

    The dark alley that ran parallel to Vineland Avenue ended at Burbank Boulevard.  Circus Liquor sat just over my right shoulder.  I’d been down that alley many times to visit the convenient booze one-stop which sat dutifully at the corner of Burbank and Vineland.  A larger than life neon clown sign hovered above the parking lot.  It was as always, gawking downward, casting a big, fuck you smile.  The way it smiled, it was as though all the store’s patrons were chumps.  Like, I’m a scary clown, look at me and you’ll want to drink.  It was a disturbing and ugly expression.  It was as though the big metal sculpture knew nobody liked clowns.  It was as though something was alive in the metal monolith that gave it the ability to mock those who walked beneath its shadow.  I thought it was a dreadful way to attract customers.  But men and women such as me, who were in need of constant fortification, were drawn into the liquor store below like mindless cattle.  That sign sucked in folks who needed alcohol like a light bulb attracted moths. 

       I cut through the Circus parking lot to wait for the traffic light on the corner.  There was still a fair amount of traffic on Burbank Boulevard and I was a tad weak in the knees.  I’d insufficient confidence to jay walk, and was holding contraband, so I waited for the green signal to change.   

     The signal finally changed.  I crossed, and sauntered up to the burrito-stand counter.  I had a bit of a swagger; I acted like I knew the streets.  Sure I’d cut my street teeth and had been street savvy at one time, but my addiction that rode shot gun everywhere I went, had whittled away everything I could claim as virtue.   I leaned onto the spotless metal countertop and rested both elbows atop the cold surface.  There was no line of patrons waiting to order, and no one was waiting to pick up their food.  There usually were, but not that night.
     A large Mexican man stood behind the counter.  He had thick, black hair, slicked back beneath a hair net.  His white apron was greasy and had traces of blood streaked its length, and somewhat daunting.  His face wasn’t friendly, but it wasn’t hostile either.  It was suspect.  I was dressed alright but exuded an air of looser.  Drug addiction had a tendency to tarnish ones merit badge sash.  He made eye contact with me and lifted his eye brows, but said nothing.  He continued to speak no words but his tired eyes and the lines on his forehead asked: “What do you want?” 

     “Un burrito con todo,” I offered up.  I knew I ordered the burrito with everything in correct Spanish, but guessed the words I used were a gringo’s way of speaking the language, almost offensive to a National.  The counter man leaned in closer, as though my Spanish would become more acceptable with his ears nearer to my mouth.  Flies buzzed around his head.  The small swarm was like planets in orbit around the sun.  The black buzzing pests followed him while he leaned his torso in my direction.  I repeated my order: “Yo Quiero número cinco con todo por favor.” 

    “Yo nessito un cinco,” he yelled to someone out of my sight behind a kitchen partition.  “For here or to go,” he asked in English.

    I pondered answering para ir, but said: “To go please.”  I slapped a fiver up on the countertop and he took the bill.  He handed me my change and I said: “Gracias.”  I wasn’t willing to let go of my desire to converse with a common Latino and win his acceptance. 

     I wanted to connect with the working men and women with brown skin.  They knew my oppression.  We shared the commonality of being on the business end of countless short straws.  We’d been underdogs since birth.  We’d been called last, if called at all.  We’d had our share of broken heartedness, loneliness, and ill fate.  We’d seen others getting ahead, and the unfairness of life.  We’d seen breaks and good luck going to others, and remained humble coming in last.  But there was a difference between them and I.  They indeed were hard working men and women of the earth.  I’d once been of that ilk, but had long since strayed from anything honest, work or otherwise; I only new short cuts, cheating, and trickery.  There was nothing honorable about me at all.  Maybe a thread of what may have been remained, but the tally of all my actions and deeds had grown thin; nearly invisible. 

     “Here’s your change,” he said and plopped down a buck fifty onto the counter.  I threw a quarter in the tip jar and said: Buenos noches.”

    “Good night,” he replied.  Oh well I thought, if he wants me to be a gringo, so be it.  I walked twenty yards to the signal and waited for the light to turn green.  The light changed and I stepped off the curb onto the crosswalk.  My burrito and chips were nestled in the little brown paper bag I clutched close to my torso.  It would be my first meal in over 24 hours.  Holding it close to my body rendered a feeling of security.  I’d nearly been reduced to an animal crossing Burbank Boulevard, clutching my prey.  It was sad that my prey amounted to a three dollar and fifty cent everything burrito.  A beef burrito with everything: rice, beans, cheese, onions, cilantro, tomato, and salsa; that was my prey.  I acted as though I’d bagged a twelve point deer after being in the wild on all fours, crawling in underbrush waiting for unwary game to come within the range of my bow and arrow.  But it was just a burrito, wrapped in tin foil, in a brown paper bag.

     A car honked across the street and a man shouted: “Hurry up Mac.” The abrupt noise and yelling startled me.  I finished crossing Burbank with another small chunk of my soul missing, and stepped back up on the curb.  The big Circus Liquor clown was still looking down with its ugly smile.  I walked inside and grabbed a Pineapple Crush from the cooler.  I placed it on the Formica counter.  Almost all of my food groups would be complete. 

     “89 cent please,” said the clerk.  He was from the east.  Not coast, but Far.  He had dark skin and jet black air.  His accent was the same as men who had come to our houseboat one night in Amsterdam.  They wore pajama looking cloths and spoke in hushed voices in the back room with Steve.  The clerk’s teeth were whiter than pure, expensive ivory. 

     I wondered what it was like working behind that counter with a seemingly unlimited amount of alcohol within arms distance.  The clerk’s stock was immaculate.  All the bottles were free of dust and looked well organized.  Beautiful colors and uniquely shaped bottles of half gallons, quarts, pints, half pints of medicinal liquids, all standing side by side like polished soldiers.  And soldiers they were, at least when it came to men like me.  When I drank, the distilled spirits began a direct attack on my faculties.  From my first sip I became separated from judgment, morality, and any decorum of couth.  It wouldn’t be a slow assault either.  The level of torture would be great, but the execution would always be direct and expeditious.  First I’d get a buzz, then I’d become drunk.  Blithering intoxication would be the signpost that appeared when my larcenous ideas emerged.  Soon I’d set out on a mission of self will destined for pitfalls.  Usually an undertaking that included deceit, dishonesty, petty crime, and sometimes violence; the self inflicted variety.  Alcohol and I were an all around recipe for disingenuous and disastrous behavior.  The type of behavior that typically resulted in the lowering of my self esteem and the creation of a black fog that stood between me and my Creator. 

      The long, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves of liquor were sparkling, but the rest of the store was dingy.  The floor shelves were sparsely stocked with only several units of each item; a stark contrast to the ample inventory of booze.  Much of the non-alcoholic merchandise looked old and dusty, packages faded by sunlight and age.  Many items needed to be faced.  The linoleum floor was in desperate need of a good mopping too.  The prices of the general merchandise seemed high:  99 cents for a Cup of Noodles, one that would go for about half that at a nearby super market or disposable diapers priced at $14.99 that sold for $9.99 at Vons.  It seemed like the man from the Far East was ripping off the local gentry, mostly Mexicans immigrants, who didn’t own cars and couldn’t walk the distances to larger stores.   
     I pulled a dollar out of my pocket and handed it to the man.  He handed me my change and said: “Thank you very much, please come again.”  I almost felt patronized by way of my white skin.  If he’d only known the brown skins that spoke little or no English had a significantly greater amount of integrity than I did.  Plus steady paychecks; although meager, mostly regular income nonetheless. 

“Thanks,” I responded and turned heal.  I was all set.  I had my burrito, and it was still warm. I could feel the hot cooked meat, beans and rice warming the foil in which it was wrapped.  Its heat snuck through the brown paper bag and touched the skin on my hand.  I held the cold Pineapple Crush with my other hand, and the significant bag of cocaine wrapped tight was shoved deep to the bottom of my pocket.  Soon a spoon of heroin would appear with my name on it.  All the food groups would be present.  Not bad for my last night in town.  It was early too.  Not even eight.  Knapp wasn’t coming until late morning.  That was hours away, another lifetime.  I had time and resources to become numb.  I exited Circus and headed for the alley.  If only that alley wasn’t so dark and spooky.  There was something about shadows, strewn trash, and rubbish receptacles that pushed my buttons.  I didn’t know it then, but those were images that mirrored my insides.  My sickened soul that sat deep within.