Monday, September 27, 2004

LA Stories (Part VIII)

Et Cetera continued (yep, there’s more…)
Finally, the last of my “short stories” (yeah, right).

• Pier group
As I mentioned in Part I of this series, on Friday of my SoCal trip, I traveled to Santa Monica to have dinner with fellow-blogger Michael. I got into town a couple hours early to beat the traffic (and because having already had lunch in Burbank with my old boss, I didn’t really have anything better to do in the meantime). So I took in the sights in and around the world-famous Santa Monica Pier, just a few blocks down from the restaurant where I would later meet Michael.

In a small, well-shaded park adjacent to the pier, I sat and wrote about my impressions of what had already been a fantastic week. These were the notes from which I reconstructed much of this Et Cetera portion of the series. As of the time of this writing, only one month later, I now recognize how important it is to always have some kind of notepad or other means available to record the events that go on around me, if I ever intend to write about them. About 80% of what I had written in my notepad, is now only, either fuzzy or has completely flown out of my head. So I am really glad that I did take the time to spend those two and a half free hours writing, instead of checking out bikinis (not that I would ever do something like that…right Michelle?).

Most of what I wrote were just notes that I've expanded and transcribed in this section, but for the purposes of this final anecdote I’ll tell it exactly as I wrote it, sitting on the bench.

I’m sitting here writing this at a park bench on a bluff adjacent to Santa Monica Pier. Since I sat down at 5:00PM, the adjacent portion of the bench on my left has featured two different tenants. The first was a pair of young Filipinas who sat down to cool their heels while their boyfriends went down to check out the pier for a few minutes.

I wasn’t paying too much attention to what they were saying until they began critiquing the fashion sense of the other women walking by. “Oh she is not wearing those shoes!” One of them said. Pretty funny stuff.

A few minutes after they left, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a handsome, clean-cut, but obviously over-tanned man, walking toward my bench. He looked to be in his mid-to-late thirties and carried two large, tightly stuffed duffel bags, one of which was the size (and appeared to be the weight) of a heavy punching bag. As he approached and I got a better look at him, it became apparent that he was homeless. However he seemed to have a greater wherewithal than most of the others who dotted the little beachfront park. He appeared to be in a different station than the rest. Diagonally across his back, he carried the larger duffel bag. And when he slung it off of his shoulder, it made a resounding thud on the bench next to me, indicating how heavy it actually was.

I didn’t really look up, but kept on writing. However, after a few minutes I became aware that the man was nowhere to be seen, but his bags were still sitting next to me unattended. I looked up and briefly turned, searching around to see if he was anywhere in the vicinity.

I have to admit that my initial reaction was a brief moment of panic. I flashed back to the previous Tuesday afternoon at the airport in Nashville. An unattended piece of luggage left near my flight’s gate check-in counter elicited an announcement from the attendant, asking for the owner to immediately come and claim the baggage, or it would be confiscated by airport security. And for a brief moment of stupidly unwarranted hysteria, I found myself imagining that I was sitting next to some terrorist’s bomb. It is a sad thing indeed that post-9/11 realities have done such a number on us, making us so suspicious, and replacing the healthy wariness of the unknown we should all possess with this abject distrust and paranoia that now seems to permeate our collective psyche.

Only seconds passed, but it seemed much longer. The homeless man was actually standing nearby, but out of my field of vision. He saw me looking around, and possibly sensed my concern as he rushed back over to the bench, apologizing for leaving his bags unattended.

He explained that the strap from the large bag was starting to wear a hole in his shoulder and that he just has to set it down for a few minutes. He went on to say that his two parcels weighed 45 and 85 pounds respectively. I smiled and told him that I could understand why his shoulder was hurting.

He then began engaging me in small talk about being homeless. He was very matter-of-fact about it, with no apparent tone of shame or anger in his voice.

“For someone who is homeless, I’m pretty lucky to be here (in Santa Monica),” he offered. “The shelters provide you with a place to shower and shave and the churches and city programs feed you pretty good too.

“Now I don’t plan on being this way for very much longer — I’m trying very hard to get back on my feet and get myself out of this — but if I was a person who chose to make this a way of life, this is the place I’d want to be.”

I smiled and said it’s good to have some options. He nodded and returned my smile. He never asked me for money, but he did inquire about my notepad and the scribbles that now covered three entire pages.

“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“It’s just a journal,” I replied.
“That’s a good idea,” he nodded. “I wish I’d done that.”
“Well until recently, I never had either. It’s never too late to start,” I said.
“Hmmm…guess you’re right,” he nodded again.
“It’s good to get stuff out of my head and written down…to make room for other things,” I offered lightheartedly.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I know what you mean.”

During our little exchange he was preparing to continue on his daily trek to who-knows-where-by-the-sea. He hoisted the large duffel bag from the bench beside me and pulled the carrying strap over his right shoulder so that it again lay diagonally from his right shoulder to his left side.

“Well it’s time to move on,” he said as he grabbed the other bag with his left hand.
I reached across my body to extend my right hand up to him. As we shook hands firmly, I looked him in the eye and said, “Best of luck to ya, man.” He grinned and nodded, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

“And good luck on your writing," he said as he walked away — as if he knew all along that it wasn’t really just a journal after all.

• Az
That’s Az, as in smartazz, dumbazz, and/or pain-in-the-azz. And of course, it’s not his real name, but a shortened partial sound of the name of a band he founded years ago and still dabbles with on occasion today. Az is my friend; one of my best friends, actually. And the real reason I’ve chosen to call him that is for no other reason than to make ass jokes. I think it’s funny, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.

And what’s great about Az, is that if he ever reads this (and he may very well be reading it now), he would think it’s funny too. That’s the hallmark of our friendship for me. Az laughs. He laughs his azz off, actually (sorry…couldn’t resist). Most importantly, he laughs at things that *I* say, and always has. That in of itself puts him kinda high up on my list if you know what I mean…

Az is what you might call, an uninhibited person. He knows no shame. He has a goofy sense of humor that’s identical to mine. Yet all the while he’s soft-spoken and unassuming. He carries himself with such class, it’s hard to remember that underneath that thin veneer of dignity lies the soul of a total goofball.

He is an extremely talented musician, which is the real reason we became friends. Back in the days when the band was together, I was unofficially commissioned by Az to design the album cover for their first record (an LP — this was long before CDs were around). Prior to that point, I knew him casually as another childhood friend of my former roommate, Dee. Az, like my other common friend, Bee, played in Dee’s rock band in high school. So although I knew him, and liked him, at first I still never pursued getting to know Az, because of the fact that he was “Dee’s friend.” It wasn’t a conscious avoidance, just nothing I ever really considered — until he asked me to do the album cover.

Unfortunately the record deal fell through, and the album cover never made it beyond the pencil sketch stage. But the friendship that began from it has blossomed into something much more valuable than a piece of artwork could have ever been.

Az has actually become a much closer friend since I moved to Nashville. For some reason, I just always made an effort to see him during my semi-regular business trips to SoCal throughout the 90s. We shared some difficult circumstances with our marriages for a period of time, and the conversations we had seeking to encourage one another really sealed the friendship we now enjoy.

During my first of two trips I took to California this past spring/summer, Michelle and I stayed with Az and his family for four nights (albeit not consecutively). He offered his home to us as a base of operations for our travels up and down the California coast. We had a great time getting to know his kids, who were just babies when we left for Nashville.

Az’ wife Katy and Michelle really get along well, so the friendship, while decidedly stronger between us boys, is not completely one-sided.

To make things even better for furthering our friendship, the company Az works for recently acquired a few clients who are local to the area of Greater Nashville in which we live. So on two other occasions this past year, Az has been able to come and visit in my neck o’ the woods as well.

You know, something just now occurred to me. I have for years lamented the lack of friends I’ve had locally since I left SoCal. And yet, as I’ve written my blog for the past couple months, practically all I’ve been talking about is how many great and wonderful friends I have and have had (and I still haven’t even written about my very best friend yet…sheesh!).

I’m realizing how weak my argument really is, and it’s just a matter of taking the time to really look at yourself to recognize just how rich you are.

George Bailey ain’t got nothin’ on me…

Next: Redux
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