I once chased a girl to Bermuda. Her name was Karen and we met ten years ago, by accident, shortly after she moved to Los Angeles. At the time I was twenty-three and living with too many friends in Echo Park. Our apartment resembled a Moorish castle. We were on the top floor, overlooking a courtyard that sparkled with empty beer cans. Ravens nested in the lemon tree and each morning I awoke in the shadow of a minaret. Plus, we had cheap cable. My room was one half of the living room and my mattress was a single, a mighty single, floating on a sea of thin brown carpet, among neat stacks of records and magazines. My rent, including utilities, was $180 a month. None of us was overly employed. I had a great part-time job doing deliveries for Meals On Wheels, which meant I got to drive around the city, listening to the radio and knocking on strange doors. The cripples were always stoned and paranoid, but some of the more chipper octogenarians invited me in and told me stories; some even gave me gifts, bizarre gifts, sad gifts—my favorite, a dulcimer, hand-carved by an Armenian man who lived in a North Hollywood motel. He whistled strange melodies and had tufts of knotty gray hair in his ears. One day I knocked on his door and he didn't answer. I asked the clerk where he was and learned that he'd left a few days earlier, without paying his bill. This kind of thing happened all the time. People disappeared. There was nothing I could do but cross him off my list.
My verminous roommates included the Brothers Rincon, Javier and Gilbert, who chose to paint houses a couple times a week with their uncle, even though the trustees of Cal State, Los Angeles, had seen fit to confer on each of them a bachelor's degree in computer science. The New Economy was still new and the brothers contributed in their own way by destroying each other nightly in marathon games of GoldenEye. After 2 a.m., when I retired to my mattress behind the partition, aqueous shadows flickered on the ceiling above me and I fell asleep to the clicks and taps of their heroic thumbing. Nathan worked as a bellhop at the Chateau Marmont. He was better-looking than the rest of us and made good money on tips, which he spent entirely on himself. Mark, in contrast, was short and bald and extremely generous. After a brief, dishonorable stint in the navy, he'd returned to Los Angeles with crabs and a deeper understanding of commerce. He scalped Dodger tickets, hung around pawnshops, and though he didn't really sell weed, he knew enough people who did that he somehow got himself administratively involved; also, in a kind of feudal arrangement, every tenant of the castle paid him ten bucks a month for the cable he'd spliced from the apartment complex next door. Other people came and went—friends, girlfriends, friends who became girlfriends, and the other way around—sleeping on the couch, playing Nintendo, listening to records, leaving dishes in the sink. The dishes. For a while I always did the dishes. If I asked my roommates to help, they accused me of being a martyr. Ultimately, I just let their dishes pile up and they were happy with this arrangement. Their squalor was carefree and strategic. The bong-water stains on the carpet, the mangled torchieres in the corner, the crumpled bags of Del Taco—all these elements helped them appear frail, lovable, and human, when in fact they were members of a band. They owned expensive vintage gear—most of it acquired by Mark—and they called themselves the Map. I didn't think of them as artists, a distinction that belonged, in my mind, to musicians who lost themselves in the creation of sound, rather than in some gilded vision of what they might look like onstage. Nothing inspires obsession like a reclusive virtuoso—my pop heroes were Harry Nilsson and Arthur Lee—and nothing is more annoying to struggling amateurs than invoking such names. The Map accused me of being a snob. "I know," I said, sitting cross-legged on my slim mattress, squirting Del Scorcho sauce on my quesadilla. The Map wanted to be entertainers, which isn't a sin. Nathan could actually write a decent hook and I marveled at their evolution. Just three years before, they'd been a righteous hardcore band, playing weeknight shows at Jabberjaw and declaring in their lyrics a grim and lasting solidarity with revolutionary groups throughout the Americas. Eventually, they mellowed out and learned to play their instruments. Weed and acid brought a new appreciation for melody and soon their set list consisted entirely of spacey love songs. Because I had no musical ability, or any other kind of ability, they let me load and unload their amps.
It was a happy time and I couldn’t wait for it to end.
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