Purgatory is an Eastbound Plane: Part 1 — California
The plane dropped out of the sky. The woman next to me let out a scream. I looked over and saw a couple gripping onto their armrests for dear life, praying that the worst was over. The seat belt sign flashed on and the flight attendants hurriedly carted the snacks down the aisle to the rear of the plane. The sound of the engine accelerating in search of smoother air did little to ease my mind — my heart was racing in an effort to match the speed of the plane.
Meanwhile, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro argued over their roles in the Vegas underworld. It was my first time watching “Casino” so I was torn between fearing for my life and missing crucial plot points due to the lackluster nature of airline-provided headphones.
“If I die, at least I’ll have made it past the halfway point,” I thought to myself.
I debated sending a message to my friends and family: “Hey, so the plane seems to be having a bittttt of trouble staying in the air.” I decided against it, finding reassurance in the pilot’s stoic voice that implied I would not end up as a minor detail in a CNN report. Instead, I just raised the volume and slunk back into my chair.
“And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.”
— Ray (Colin Farrell), “In Bruges” (2008)
A few minutes after the bartender chastised me for eating far slower than my friend, the floor fell out from under me — I was high. I began fighting my own brain in a losing battle for lucidity, something I would repeat multiple times to my friend in the few moments of the night I managed to fight off the effects of the THC that had taken hold of my brain.
I was in Los Angeles, California. This was my first visit to the state of California itself. It was something I had pushed off for years due to a combination of not having the money to travel to the opposite side of the country and a general lack of interest for the territory itself. I grew up on Long Island, about as far away a place as you can get from California while still in this purple mountain nation of ours.
Prior to my overindulgence in marijuana and my arrival in California, I had woken up at 2 a.m. EST to make my 7 a.m. flight out of JFK. I called a cab so as to avoid the joy that is the subway system in the early city morning. Immediately upon entering my cab, I was complimented for my outfit by my cabbie who in turn shook my hand. He guessed I was 31 years old and was stunned when I revealed I was only 26. He was 22.
He was an immigrant from the Middle East and was living with family members in the city. Our conversation — ranging from the nature of our respective lines of work and his appreciation for escorts of the Indian and Russian persuasion — made the ride seem instantaneous. I made sure to leave a glowing review on the app and wished him the best — anyone willing to drive a cab at 4 a.m. deserves only the best life has to offer.
As the plane ascended, the towering colossi of the Manhattan skyline faded into the clouds.
Made up my mind to make a new start,
Going to California with an aching in my heart…
— “Going to California”, Led Zeppelin
My concept of California was shaped mainly by the movies, television, and music about it. In Mad Men, my favorite television show, California serves as something of a fantastical, hedonistic land of escape for the city-slicker Don Draper. In the music of The Doors, a favorite of my youth, Jim Morrison’s acid vision of the city painted a sleazy metropolis of vice, danger, and free love. Movies like Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” paid tribute to Hollywood’s influence on the “City of Angels”, both the positives and negatives.
The movie that shaped my thoughts on Los Angeles most prominently was Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” starring Jack Nicholson as jaded private detective and ex-cop Jake Gittes. What begins as a standard case of tailing the cheating husband morphs into a conspiracy that exposes the corruption that defined America’s big cities as they grew into the behemoth we grapple with today. The end of the film, one of the most tragic ever projected onto a silver screen, ends with the famed quote and verbal gut punch “Forget it Jake — it’s Chinatown.”
In the context of the movie, this refers to the confusing nature of the crimes within the named ethnic enclave to the white police officers responsible for enforcing the law in it. On a larger scale, it serves as a reminder that the forces that impact our lives are not always readily apparent, nor easily understood.
To some degree or another, we are all living in Chinatown. I decided to escape mine for a bit — I went to California.
California, in contrast to New York, truly seemed other-worldly. Mountains surround the city of Los Angeles, still snowcapped as a result of the unusual storms that had plagued the area prior to my arrival. As I flew closer to the city, I passed over sprawling deserts, snowy mountains, and lush tropical vegetation in the span of just minutes.
“Comin’ into Los Angeles
Bringin’ in a couple of keys
Don’t touch my bags if you please, mister customs man…”
— “Coming Into Los Angeles”, Arlo Guthrie
The flight passed quickly with the assistance of Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and the beloved screwball comedy “It Happened One Night”. Sporting a navy blazer, white oxford shirt, khakis, and a yellow sweater, I made my way to the bus that would take me to the Van Nuys Airport — a closer pickup location for my friend who refused to make the trek to LAX. I quickly understood why as the bus carved it’s way through the city and adjacent mountains. Los Angeles, to all intents and purposes, is a logistical nightmare.
Sprawling does not even begin to define it. Manhattan has the dubious benefit of being sequestered to an island with pre-determined boundaries. The other boroughs, excluding Staten Island, are less naturally restricted but still manage to contain themselves to a more consistent layout. Los Angeles, in contrast, feels as though 1,000 separate communities developed independently before one day deciding to incorporate together as a city.
My friend had been living in this Picasso of a city since 2015 after arriving to attend USC for film studies. Finally, I had come to see him on his adopted-home’s turf. We had booked tickets for a studio tour at Paramount Pictures so we left his apartment shortly after I had freed myself from the weight of my luggage.
After entering two incorrect entrances on the lot, we finally made it to the tour gate and indulged ourselves in the usual rituals of the millions of tourists who visit Los Angeles every year. The guide snapped a photo of us holding the Oscar awarded to 1953’s “War of the Worlds” for special effects, in front of Paramount’s Bronson Gate, and in front of two doors — one large, one small — used to make small actors appear large and vice versa. The doors were on the “New York” lot at Paramount — even on vacation I seem incapable of escaping the Big Apple.
To cap off the first day, we purchased tickets to see Tiffany Haddish and Arsenio Hall at The Improv comedy club. After finding parking we made a quick pit-stop to a pot shop across the street. Recreational marijuana is now legal in New York but I figured I would treat myself while visiting those who had paved the way for the legalization of nature’s bounty. When in Los Angeles, do as the Angels do.
After gathering far too large of a haul, I took a 10 milligram gummy and a few swigs of a non-alcoholic, THC-infused Mai Tai. We decided to grab dinner at the bar of the club. Unsatisfied with their entree offerings, I sided with a side of fries and a non-alcoholic beer. All was well until the floor fell out from under me.
For those unfamiliar, the feeling that arises when one has overstepped their tolerance for THC is extremely disorienting and it arrives in the blink of any eye. In one moment, I was completely lucid and engaging actively in conversation with my friend. A few minutes later, I was absolutely terrified at the very concept of a human face.
“Why the fuck does a nose look like that? Why are we engineered to find this comforting and familiar? Eyes are terrifying, why is everyone just looking at each other? Why is everyone looking at me?”
I couldn’t hear the conversation my friend was having with a stranger who was standing at his side. At times, I thought it was turning hostile and my fight or flight response began to kick in. Was I going to have to fight someone the first night of my vacation? My friend later revealed that there was no hostility, the man was simply a bit awkward.
When we were ushered into the venue I was likely at the peak of my high. The very act of finding a seat was terrifying and I don’t actually recall making our way over to it. When the show began, I managed to at least outwardly appear to be watching and understanding the show, laughing when appropriate and responding to my pal’s side comments. In reality, I had no idea what was happening and to this moment cannot recall a single joke that was said over the course of the 5 or so comedians taking the stage.
Arsenio apparently killed, my friend had nothing but the utmost praise for the set. Following the conclusion of a blonde comedian’s set, the show was abruptly announced to be over and that we would need to clear out for the next show. Tiffany Haddish, advertised as the headliner, had not made her appearance! Not willing to protest, we made our way out of the club and headed to a grocery stuff to secure provisions and munchies.
The next morning I realized I had purchased far too much pot and would need to indulge more than I am accustomed to in order to compensate for the surplus supply. I have always preferred joints and had purchased a case of 5 pre-rolled sativa strains. For the majority of my time in California, I was cruising at a moderately high altitude. This day was mainly spent recovering, with a few stops at thrift shops for good measure.
Two other friends happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time — one for work and the other to visit another friend from college and work on some projects. The latter, combined with my Californian friend, makes up 3/4ths of a foursome that I usually refer to as my “core four” to others. We have been close friends since high school and I am not ashamed to admit that I love these boys dearly. We are all absolute jackasses and there is no greater joy than braying alongside them.
The three of us visited USC. It was the first time my friend had visited his Alma Mater for a few years. While he was experiencing a wave of nostalgia as we made our way across the sun-drenched campus, I was imagining what a more traditional college experience must’ve been like — a private college at that.
I felt that tinge of regret I usually experience when thinking about my collegiate experience. I transferred twice. My first choice was more or less a spur of the moment decision with little forethought — I wasn’t even sure I intended to go to college until my senior year of high school.
During my youthful hippie days, I fantasized about running away from home and heading to California. At one point, I was genuinely planning to do just that. I was absolutely miserable at home and thought that San Francisco would still resemble its golden age of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love.
Thank Christ I didn’t do that — I’ll take angry Irish-Italians over Silicon Valley yuppies any day of the week.
There was a moment where we all sat down near a fountain near the center of campus. I imagined an alternate reality where we had attended school together, one where I did get to experience that “traditional” time in college. It was a pleasent thought but the reality is it was important for us to seperate and go our own ways. There’s no other way to grow.
Did we still message our group chat every single day while in college? Of course. In our modern world, there is no need to separate completely.
Our other friend, a college friend of the missing Beatle and now our friend as well, was sent by his job over to the West Coast for two weeks to assist their understaffed Los Angeles branch. He found a vintage bowling alley, Highland Bowl, and the four of us spent an evening impersonating Fred Flintstone to varying degrees of success.
I had somewhat recently discovered a talent for bowling, even managing to secure a turkey during a work outing about a year back. Unfortunately, though I managed to get a strike on the first frame of the two games we played, I did not manage to maintain that degree of talent in Los Angeles — gutterballs galore.
Part of me feels that the joy my absolutely abysmal performance brought to my pals was far too great of an incentive to perform otherwise — I don’t mind filling the role of clown from time to time.
Even though I found LA to be a bit perplexing (with the same applying to the Angelenos themselves), I must begrudgingly admit I was enjoying myself. Though, to be fair, Ms. Mary Jane was undeniably assisting on that front.
My friend lived in North Hollywood, the Valley. This trip was something of a medical necessity for me, I have been dealing with an intense bout of depression. Something about the winter can drive a man crazy. I have rarely felt as isolated and troubled as I did this past season. The arrival of Spring would likely be enough to temper me but getting out of the city and seeing friends would ensure it.
Did you know that some studies have found people, especially younger men, have far fewer genuine friendships than in the past? No wonder the general state of mental health seems so precarious. It goes without saying that we are still recovering from the effects of quarantine and all the troubles that wrought. For some, these are the most difficult times they have ever endured.
Vonnegut’s novel “Slapstick”, or “Lonesome No More!” deposits the idea that a sense of community and genuine connections between people can serve as the cure to all that ails society. I am partial to this belief as well. Then again, it is foolish to search for a silver bullet for anything. There are times were I’ve been among friends and surrounded by love — all the while hating every aspect of myself and the very concept of life. And, at other times, I can be found smiling like a doofus with absolutely no one’s company but yours truly.
If one has no friends, one must make do with themselves I suppose. My problem is that I have far too many friends, I simply can’t keep up with them all.
“There is no peace, I’m sorry to say. We find it. We lose it. We find it again. We lose it again.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
3/4ths of the Fab Four made their way north through the mountains of Los Angeles county. We decided to take a roundabout way to the Pacific Coast Highway, a scenic route alongside that titular ocean. I had never seen the Pacific. As a child who aspired to be a Beach Boy, this was going to be something of a dream come true. While making our way, we spied a sign informing us that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was merely an exit away.
Opting to listen to our lesser instincts, we decided to take a detour. My only regret is that I did not engage in some recreational pot prior to our arrival — just to take something of a victory lap over one of the “War on Drugs” most fervent warmongers.
And when I say “over” I mean it quite literally — Reagan is buried there, alongside Nancy. Perhaps some may think it crass to mock a former President and silver-screen cowboy in this manner. Personally, I hold no reverence for those who enabled and even took pleasure in the deaths of thousands due to their own bigotry and hatred — the very same hatred that is kills people every day here and across the world.
We meandered around the grounds, weaving around the school groups being shepherded by devotees of “The Great Communicator”. We unsuccessfully tried to visit the Air Force One located on the premises but it was located in an area only accessible by a paid tour. We bid Dutch and Nancy a fond adieu and continued on our mountain journey.
Mountains, unfamiliar to a boy who grew up on the relatively flat Long Island, still manage to leave me in a stunned state of awe. I was blown away by the vistas in front of and surrounding us as we navigated the Santa Monica range in my friends Hyundai — still sober.
Once we reached the ocean, and my dream of seeing the Pacfic was realized, I smoked a joint. Back in the car and heading to Santa Monica, I begged my friend to play The Beach Boys as we continued to coast alongside the coast. This request was granted and I will forever be grateful.
I think I could pull off blonde hair. Surfing? Not so sure.
Unlike me, my friends have a strong preference for modern music. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of newer music, I just tend to skew older overall. Ever since I was a kid I was called an “old soul”. I never really liked that label, it was usually said by older generations who often have a problematic nostalgia for the past.
For whatever reason, I just found a very strong connection with a lot of music from the past. This also applies to style and other forms of media. Regardless, I would never want to live in any other time period, or make the present more reflective of the past for what I hope are very obvious reasons.
Past that, all my friends are here now — why would I want to hangout with a bunch of boomers?
“Every time I get the inspiration,
To go change things around,
No one wants to help me look for places,
Where new things might be found,
Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out,
What’s it all about…”
— “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, The Beach Boys
The Santa Monica Pier felt like familiar territory. It brought me back to the summer of 2015 at the Jersey Shore, celebrating my freedom from the Hauppauge Public School system alongside friends in alcohol-fueled debauchery. That very same debauchery that would land me in the hospital and leave a scar on the back of my head.
We did not engage in anything amounting to debauchery, just the opposite in fact. We stood at the end of the pier, looking out into the vast expanse of the Pacific. This was the furthest west I had ever been. A few men chose this particular spot to cast out their lines, ignoring the multitudes of tourists who occupied the same, small plot of the pier.
The last time I went fishing was with my dad and siblings, likely more than a decade ago at this point.
The pier was crowded. It had been a while since we had eaten so I decided to spend a few bucks on a churro. While waiting on line, I noticed the vendor was playing the entirety of The Rolling Stone’s 1972 classic “Exile on Main Street”. It was fitting — vacation always feels like a consensual state of exile to me.
For The Stones, it was for tax evasion. For myself, it was to breathe.
“Wadin’ through the waste stormy winter
And there’s not a friend to help you through
Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs
Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues
“Thank you for your wine, California
Thank you for your sweet and bitter fruits
Yes I got the desert in my toenail
And I hid the speed inside my shoe…”
— “Sweet Virginia”, The Rolling Stones
We dropped our friend off to get some work done with his college pal after paying the customary visit to an In-N-Out Burger. I would see him back in New York City. The Angeleno and I then grabbed our other friend and headed to Burbank where the former was getting a haircut. While waiting, the latter and myself enjoyed some more thrifting.
That evening, we decided to see what LA’s nightlife had to offer. After finding a spot that seemed promising, we booked an Uber and headed to Chinatown.
“Forget it Jake…”
It took a bit to convince our host to make the journey. He admits that he doesn’t go out as often as he should and has left a large part of the city unexplored. We decided to enjoy some Chinese fare at the Yang Chow Restaurant. Being a New Yorker, I am admittedly a fiend for good Chinese food. This spot did not disappoint. Being on vacation, I decided to treat myself to a half duck and pork fried rice — the 3 of us split fried wantons.
After dinner, we walked down the street to the venue we had settled on. It unfortunately turned out to be a dud, though it might have just been a bit early in the night. We walked around the nearby Chinatown Shanghai Plaza while waiting for our car that would take us to our second choice. It looked like something out of EPCOT’s “World Showcase”. Family trips to Disney now seemed so quaint — adulthood means trading Cinderella’s Castle for Hoovervilles.
Los Angeles is home to countless Hoovervilles and camp cities. The forgotten men and women of this nation find solace in the Californian weather and the warmth of the western sun that shows no contempt for those basking in it. In the city where America’s dreams are pumped out of studios with a Ford-like efficiency, the American reality exposes itself daily. This is no paradise, only a hedonistic playground for the lucky few.
“A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
— Matthew, 5;14
In an effort to forget about that aforementioned reality, we found ourselves waiting on-line for nearly an hour to gain entry into the “Let’s Go! Disco & Cocktail Club”. Groups of beautiful women were allowed to jump the line in order to balance the male to female ratio within the club. The three of us giggled to ourselves, mocking the insanity that dominated the news, specifically the first ever indictment of an American President. I had left New York at just the right time — the circus was in town.
We danced ourselves into a sweaty stupor for about an hour and change, opting to leave shortly before the club closed. A club closing at 1 a.m. on a Friday night made little sense to me as a New Yorker who has closed down many a venue at 4 a.m. and caught the first rays of sunlight from the steps of a subway station. There was an arcade across the street that was open until 2 a.m., so we decided to spend the remainder of the night there.
Embracing the care-free attitude of youth, we funneled countless quarters into a shooting game as unispiring music bounced over our heads. Following the arrival of 2 a.m., and the absurd cost of a ride back to the Valley, our friend offered his hotel room to us. I slept in a daybed that was placed in the window, taking note of Hollywood Boulevard below as I drifted to sleep.
I was scheduled to leave Saturday evening but my flight had been cancelled that morning with no explanation. This turned out to be something of a happy accident as my favorite NYC DJ happened to be in Los Angeles and was hosting an event that very same night.
We decided to explore a bit more during the day before going out later. First up was Mulholland Drive and the Hollywood Reservoir, a favorite spot of my friend. On the way, we both instantly agreed to a detour the second we laid eyes upon an estate sale sign in what was a very wealthy neighborhood. The house appeared to belong to a former ballerina of Russian decent. Her house was decorated with a variety of decor with a preference towards Asian art. Old books, likely going years untouched, were now being sold for a few bucks.
I imagined what my estate sale would look like: “Yeah, my father was a Brooks Brothers fanatic. Yes, I know a lot of these shirts look identical, but if you look at the width of the stripes-”
We didn’t find anything worth a purchase so we headed back to his car that was parked at a 90 degree angle on the hilly street. Making our way up the rest of the mountain, we came across a child selling lemonade in front of his house as his mother, with a newborn baby wrapped around her chest, watched on.
Being the passenger, I stepped out to grab us some lemonade and a cookie that my friend requested. I made pleasant conversation with the mother as the kid played shop, pouring the lemonade with enthusiasm to the point a little bit spilled out over the top — a habit shared by my favorite type of bartender back in the day. Recalling my days of hawking golf balls back to the bastards who hit them over my childhood home’s fence, I gave the kid a $20 and walked away before the mother could properly protest. The kid waved alongside his mother as we continued on.
My friend pointed out that they likely weren’t hurting for cash. Regardless, I wanted the kid to know that I appreciated the hustle. Just wait a few years, inflation will make $20 seem cheap.
The reservoir provided a beautiful view of the famed Hollywood sign. I smoked a joint and appreciated the warm weather that seemed absent for the majority of my time there.
Afterwards, we stopped by one of his USC friend’s birthday party at a brewery. After some light conversation and ski-ball we decided to head back to The Valley to conserve energy for the event later. We sat and bullshitted with his roommate for a bit until another one of their friends arrived to pick up their dog that they had left there while on set for work. I sold her the pitch for the night — Rock N’ Soul courtesy of New York’s best DJ. She was in, as was my pal’s roommate.
Just prior to us leaving, my friend started saying he was tired and didn’t have the energy to swing it. Knowing that he would have a great time — and that he was likely going through what I’ve also been going through mentally — I kept up the pressure until we all found ourselves piled into a cab.
The venue, Zebulon in Atwater Village, made me feel right at home. It was packed, both inside and out, and the vinyl offerings of the DJ let me show off to Los Angeles the dancing that has made me a force of nature back on the East Coast.
To those who I have not had the pleasure of dancing with, I am a very good dancer. This same DJ hosts an event called “The Soul Clap & Dance Off”. A few years back, I came in 2nd. Two years ago, I won the $100 grand prize. I’m still in the process of writing more about that particular aspect of my life, so for now just know that I was positively dominating the dance floor.
More importantly, my friend and his USC crew were also having a blast. My friend came up to me a few times throughout the night, only slightly lubricated, and said he was having an amazing time. I could see this was true, he was beaming. As was I, how could I not be?
“Funk not only moves, it can re-move, dig?”
— “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”, Parliament
The following morning was easy going. I started my laundry prior to packing but his dryer was unable to get the job done in time. I stuck my wet clothes in a laundry bag I brought with me and prayed my friend at my next destination would have a functioning dryer.
After some early morning errands with the previous night’s crew, we rushed out of the apartment and left the Valley. Los Angeles’ infamous traffic quickly reminded me why the stereotype of the dad who drags his family to the airport 4 hours before their flight exists. We listened to a variety of music and shot the shit in an effort to keep my blood pressure low.
What is a vacation without a healthy dose of a stress?
Arriving at LAX, my friend thanked me once again for a lovely week that we both clearly needed. I was tempted to miss my flight and stay but I had another friend waiting for me due South. I will see that Angeleno in July, and will likely still call him every week.
And we still have our group chat of course. Another reason I’m content living in this dystopian present of ours instead of the rose-tinted past — at least it’s easier to stay connected, regardless if 3,000 miles separate us.
I plopped myself down into my window seat in a slightly dramatic fashion, letting out an exhausted grunt. A fellow traveler next to me inquired as to my state of affairs.
That’s the thing with these Westerners — they’re friendly. Yuck.
He was a temporary resident of the city I was heading to: Austin, Texas. We struck up friendly conversation in advance of the plane taking off. He worked in commercials, specifically the filming of them. I explained that I was out West to visit friends on their home turf and knock out more of the 50 States I aim to visit over the course of my life. He said he might end up moving to New York at some point, Austin was growing stale for him. I managed to avoid letting my New York elitism slip out and simply encouraged him to do so and hoped that he would find it to be a suitable home.
That’s my philosophy about this city — anyone can be a New Yorker. The only thing I can’t stand is those who move here and still act like they’re above it. Those who like the concept of New York but not the reality of it. Those who want New York to be like their poster of the skyline — static and unimposing. It’s a different beast looking up from the street, mingling with the people who run it.
When I was a kid I was terrified of looking up at the skyscrapers. It made me feel sick to my stomach, made my heart race. Now, I have to stop myself from admiring them, lest I look like a tourist.
Just before selecting my in-flight movie, I felt my phone buzz. Laughing, I turned the screen to my travel companion. “Whoops, just missed me,” I said, pointing out the Tinder notification on my home screen.
The plane took off and the great Pacific slipped away behind the clouds.
“There will be peace in the valley for me, some day
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me…”
— “There’ll Be Peace in the Valley for Me”, Thomas A. Dorsey
CONTINUED IN PART 2 (Coming soon)