Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting to Know John

Jim’s friend John resides directly under one of the airplane approach patterns at LAX. This living situation, as you can imagine, has its moments.

Shortly after our arrival from NYC, we drove our rental car over to John’s house, a typical little Southern California bungalow that shows its age with a certain unapologetic candor. In its defense, the place is under continual assault from noise and exhaust. Not to mention the earthquakes that periodically rough it up. But the little bungalow was looking quite smug and cute with all its quirky nooks and alcoves and the shades drawn for better viewing of the golf game on TV. In California, dare I say, there is almost too much light.

We called John after touching down and he said, “I know you’re here. I heard you fly over.”

Yesterday was the first day of a 10-day trip home — Southern California — for both Jim and I, and our first trip to California taken together since we began our love affair. This ‘going home’ has been long awaited but once arriving here, I see that it’s not momentous. It’s just a trip. A good trip. An anxious trip in some ways. Mostly, a trip of small revelations that I might miss should I not pause now and then for thought.

Jim made friends with his super lively friend John when they were together at the Gurdjieff Foundation in NYC. Their friendship outlasted their Foundation participation. Both rambunctious men continue on, pushing social tolerances, laughing as they go.

At Venice Beach yesterday John walked up to a black man who was not wearing a shirt. His body was, without question, the envy of anyone with a breath left in him or her. Either you want to be like him or you simply cut to the chase and want him.

“Hey man,” said John, reaching out a hand. “I used to have a body like yours.”

The man’s body was great but his social graces were not. “Well, some days, despite this,” he said making a sweeping gesture that took in the length of his magnificence, “I feel just like you.” Hilarious. This is what happens when you are shamed by a compliment and not skilled enough to just let it ride with a thank you.

Upon returning home from our Venice Beach excursion, John, who has lived in Paris and NYC and India, announced with much passion that he loves his sweet neighborhood under the planes’ shadows. They pass over every two minutes. LAX was told it had to seal the homes on this street and install air conditioners in order to prevent the toxic exhaust from ruining the health of the people living there.

“They got within three houses of mine when the recession hit,” said John. Perhaps it’s less of an issue for John anyway, as he’s still smoking half a pack a day. And his habit is enabled by the fact that cigarettes are only $5 a pack.

John’s one of the few white men in this neighborhood made up mostly of Mexican families who, among many other things, we saw pushing their babies in strollers while they held on to their toddlers’ hands and negotiated the cracked sidewalks. Yesterday we also saw one man plant flowers along the grass in the front of his house and others made our meal in a restaurant. They bend over backwards to make sure we are happy. “Are you OK?” “How’s the food?” “Do you want more coffee?” I feel like I’m home when I’m eating out.

This morning we went to a diner at 6 am and the waitress, Mexican, was cook, hostess and waitress. Her cook and manger hadn’t shown up for work. We had the most delicious home fries, full of peppers and onions, buttery eggs and grits that we may ever have eaten in a restaurant — despite of her sizable challenges. “I can do this,” she says, smiling and rushing from customer to customer with coffee and hot sauce and steaming bowls of grits.

John is friendly and upbeat too, despite his challenges, none of which I surmise other than the obvious lack of enough money.

“Are you happy?” he asks me three times during our first visit. Wow. This was the very same question I asked Jim, the question that catapulted us from friends to lovers. Jim thought my question was a boundary violation. He appreciates boundary violations and makes them himself, part impudence, part mischief, part curiosity.

John’s version of the question struck me as a groundbreaker, though certainly one most people don’t use. It was interesting to experience how it felt to have my actions played back to me. That, it turns out, was one of the techniques used at the Foundation.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m happy.” Or maybe not. I suffer a lot. Live an anxious life. Wonder about my future. Am getting old. Don’t always like what I see in the mirror. Running is harder. “Are you happy,” he asks later. “I guess so,” I say. And then I think about the difficulties publicizing a first book and what this bodes for my future as an author. And my sister, from whom I’m estranged and who is suffering from chemo treatments and who lives nearby but will receive no visit from me. And the fact that for the first time I’m going to Santa Barbara without my father because he died in November. Am I happy? “It’s complicated,” I say the third time I try to answer his question.

Last night after dinner John and I walked to Walgreens to meet Jim. When paying for our purchases, John asked the young woman how she was.

“Pretty good,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. “Pretty good is usually code for not so hot.”

I’m just as emotionally invasive as John, I guess

She said, “Well, actually, I’m tired and exhausted.”

“You’re young and beautiful. How can you be tired and exhausted,” John exclaimed.

“She’s tired and exhausted because she is young and beautiful,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

If you keep at it, if you prod relentlessly, there’s no end to the information you can pry from people. And you really don’t have to pry that forcefully. People connect as naturally as moths to light. Little neighborhoods cluster despite the difficulties, fend off the toxins, plant flowers, walk their babies and offer sincere greetings and good wishes. If you happen to extend yourself even a little, ask one impertinent question — best done smiling — you may make a new friend.

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