Hollywoodland

hollywoodland

While I walked the streets of Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I automatically pictured myself living there and wondered what it might be like. I learned major lessons about myself when I moved to Seattle briefly, the primary lesson being that me in another place is still just me, just in another place. I think people romanticize ideas about themselves with fresh starts, that if they were in a different home, a different job, a different situation, that with just the right opportunity they would thrive, be happy, find love, be powerful, have success.

And as far as opportunity goes, Los Angeles has it in spades. Entire companies looking for writers and actors and producers and cameramen. Start-up companies, production studios, agents in every direction. And literally millions of people seeking to make successes of themselves. The city must be rampant with ego and heartbreak, rejection and depression, a never-ending thirst to find the next best thing, and constant compromises to sacrifice some ideas for others in order to find new chances and hopes.

I pictured myself seizing my own opportunity, my own ego and desire for success, and transplanting myself here. I pictured getting some room in a crowded place and filling it with cheap furniture, knowing I would swiftly tire of my roommates. I pictured myself finding some day job to support myself while I waited for my social work license to activate in California so I could do therapy on some corner, subletting from someone. I pictured myself getting a lot of date requests initially, being new blood in town, but not being able to ever go out because child support and living expenses and daily bills, and then those interest levels dying down after I had been in town a few weeks. I pictured myself finding local coffee shops to write in, streets to walk, parks to read in. I pictured myself finding a new routine, a gym, a grocery store, a favorite divey restaurant.

I pictured myself traveling back to Salt Lake City every month, at no small expense, renting cars and finding hotels or friends to stay with while I spent powerful moments with my sons, my lights and life. I pictured sunlight and beaches and palm trees and lots of thinking. I pictured writing and writing and writing as I watched the people and had new experiences, and then talking to others over and over about how I want to do so much with my life, write a book, have my blog and my LGBT Snapshots Channel on YouTube be incredible successes. I pictured moving to a new apartment, then another, trying to find my feet as I made new friends.

I pictured the seasons passing quickly. Valentines Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then a New Year, all while my sons age and grow and me in daily contact but not there with them. I pictured that new year, my energies still pooling toward shifting ideas of success but just not quite grasping it on my terms, and having to make the inevitable decision of trying to keep knocking on doors for more and more opportunity, or changing my very idea of success itself.

I pictured waking up and looking at that famous Hollywood sign on the hill, longing somehow for the days when it said Hollywoodland, and then realizing one day that it was just big letters on a big hill.

All these thoughts in my head, I sat down on a bus stop bench and felt the sunlight soak into my skin. A young black teenager with saggy jeans and a hoodie, scruffy facial hair and sunglasses, sat next to me and struck up a conversation.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I play you one of my tracks?”

I turned, not surprised somehow, though I should have been. “I would love that.”

He pulled a discman out of his backpack and set it on the bench, then began to play a remixed Reggae soundtrack, explaining how he was trying to find a new and unique sound, telling me how he loved music, especially Electronica, and how he just wanted people to hear how he heard. I told him I loved the music and asked him how old he was, and he smiled, a big bright full smile, and told me he was 16.

I told him he was an amazing talent, and to keep it up. He vowed he would.

Then he asked me, “What are your talents, man?”

Again, somehow unsurprised, I tilted my head slightly, thinking about my answer.

“Well, I have a lot I’m bad at, but a few things I’m great at.”

He laughed, “I know how that is!”

“I’m good at helping people. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I love the human story. But more than all of that, I’m a dad.”

The young man nodded a few times. “I can respect that.” And then his bus came, and he shook my hand and boarded.

I looked back at the Hollywood sign, thinking of ambition and dreams and the ground beneath my feet, then I called my sons.

the coexistence of Christianity and homosexuality

I didn’t expect this, not at all.

It is my last day in Los Angeles and I want an adventure, but a quiet one. I’ve been walking the streets, reading, thinking. The biggest thing I needed from this trip was just the opportunity to be anonymous, to be lost in a sea of people. I didn’t need dancing and adrenaline, fancy food or beaches. I needed fresh air and a sea full of people to quiet my brain and balance my spirit. I have been walking streets and following the directions of my heart strings for a few days. My feet are blistered and my shoulders knotted, but I feel wonderful and quiet and at peace. And now I have one day left.

And so I considered my options and chose the Getty. After a long bus ride (well over an hour to go just 10 miles or so), I rode a long shuttle up to the top of a hill and a collection of ornate white buildings and gardens form the J. Paul Getty Museum, an art gallery that is free to the public. Set up in 1954, it has houses variable galleries for people to walk through.

I step away from the crowd’s direction off the shuttle, wanting to be alone with my thoughts. I walk over a cactus garden, look at outdoor sculptures, and get a cup of coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor vending station. It is a picture perfect April day in California, with hills rolling in every direction, dotted with large and opulent homes, and the busy cluster of Los Angeles far in the distance.

After a time, I make my way inside. There are people everywhere. I see college students, families with young children, mothers and daughters, grandparents, gay couples, straight couples, lesbian couples, people from varying ethnicities many not speaking English. They move through the Getty at varying speeds, some stopping to talk in the center of rooms, some staring for ten minutes at one painting, some taking a photo of everything they pass, some speeding through and never looking up from their phones, some asking the staff detailed questions about the works of art.

I spend a long time in a series of galleries devoted to art work from the 1400s through the 1600s, most of it dedicated to the life of Christ. Many of the paintings are extremely explicit. The virgin Mary holds the Christ child with one hand and squirts milk out of her exposed breast into his mouth with the other hand. The devil stands over a group of humans who are engaged in a full on orgy, complete with exposed genetalia. A man slides a hand under a woman’s robe as it falls off of her, baby cherubs flying in the sky. Christ lies on the cross with open wounds, blood draining from his hands and side and head and feet as a group of women sob beneath him.

8679cd32dcda00895b588372c9312085.jpg

I spend two hours in this first gallery, contemplating history, and wondering on the impact of Christianity on the lives and societies of humans, forming churches, pressing morals, setting trends, and influencing governments. I look at this detailed art, its rich and beautiful history, the textures and talents of it all, and feel overwhelmed.

I move into the next bustling gallery, full of photographs in black and white. It’s a startling shift. The images are beautiful. A powerful black male in profile. A stunning naked woman, arms stretched to the sky. A close-up on a drifting sheen of smoke. The photographs hang in every direction, and I wonder about their origins.

I find a sign that tells me all about the photographers/artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. It tells of their origins, their art and photography, their careers. They were lovers in New York City, it says, until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 65, and then Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42.

robert-mapplethorpe-ajitto.jpg

My mind was spinning. I turned back around and saw the gallery with new eyes, the black and white stills framed in every direction. The same people buzzed through every which way. Couples, straight and gay. Grandparents, adults, children. They gave the gallery every bit the attention that the did the Christian arts and the gardens. My ears perked up, trained to be ready for people muttering about a gay couple getting their own gallery, about the immorality of it all. I wait for someone to be disgusted. And no one is.

What has Utah done to me, I wonder. I remember seeing a ballet just a few weeks ago with two women kissing in the number, and many in the audience turning away, scoffing in disgust, refusing to clap. I remember walking around town holding hands with a guy I was dating and people averting their eyes or giving looks of shock and disgust.

And then I stand here in this spot, in between the arts of Christianity and still photographs. Both galleries have nudity. Both are considered art. Both tell the stories of their painters. These two worlds that Utah tries to balance, art and art, Christianity with homosexuality, and yet here families and children walk through comfortably without notice.

I breathe in deeply, my heart full, and feel a few small tears in my eyes. This is what I needed, a chance to see life here, like this.

It is a feeling I will carry with me when I return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big man in Little Armenia

little-armenia-sign

I know nothing of Armenia.

While I consider myself a relatively well-educated person, constantly seeking to learn more, I have very little knowledge of the overall world outside my small spheres of influence.

So, when I took an impromptu four day vacation to Los Angeles, I booked a small Airbnb in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crashing on a stranger’s couch so I could have some adventures in a new city. And I wound up in a small section of LA proper, just off of Hollywood Boulevard, near a confluence of other sections of the city. Little Armenia.

Cities have a strange way of breaking up into little sections. Safe and unsafe spaces. Spots to congregate. Businesses pile up here, artists there, tourist traps in another spot. There are hidden gems in any area of any little city. And Little Armenia didn’t disappoint.

One city block was vibrant with new businesses, in a strip mall format. Asian noodles on the corner, a barbershop and nail salon next door, a “Thai massage” spot one over from there, and a cute Asian bistro next to that. I stumbled on this block my first day in the city, exploring the area, and I thought, well, why not.

I entered the haircut salon first. A middle-aged woman named Nona greeted me with a wink and a smile. With few words, she sat me in a barber’s chair and got out her scissors, prepared to give me one of the most inefficient haircuts I’ve ever received. Nona had her hair bobbed up, short and sort of curled outward, like something from America’s past. She made a few cuts, surveyed me in the mirror, and nodded. “You are a very handsome American white boy,” she said in a thick Middle Eastern¬†accent.

As Nona cut my hair, she told scattered stories, not related to each other. I barely spoke, happy to just listen and enjoy the experience. She kvetched about her adult daughter, always wanting to use the car, and beamed about her daughter in high school, successful and going places with her future. She talked to another woman in the parlor, wondering if some of their favorite clients would be coming in today. She wondered if she had made enough dinner.

I looked up at the wall, seeing a map of Armenia, a small country whose shape reminded me of a bird, wedged tightly between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. I intuited that there were likely wars there, women’s rights issues, as exist in so many countries in that region. I looked up at Nona and wondered what she had experienced to get here. I wondered if she missed home. I wondered about her family and her life in America. She looked happy. I could have asked a hundred questions, but instead I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a five dollar tip (she called me handsome, after all).

I walked next door with my new bad haircut and found a seat at a hardwood table. A single fresh flower stood in a small glass filled with water, its petals a light purple, and I started at it, contemplating its origins, as the waiter put in my order of crispy pork over glass noodles. The meal was simple and spicy and delicious, and during it, I remained within myself. I didn’t listen to other conversations or even look around the place. I just wanted to be there, me and my food, in Little Armenia.

I planned to keep walking after that, and to think and contemplate my space in life, but as I walked by the massage parlor, a gorgeous Armenian woman stepped outside. She was small, petite, with long shiny black hair down her back. “You want a massage? I offer discount.” She was grinning. I looked inside the place and assessed it wasn’t some seedy back parlor joint with threats of police raids and extra services offered for tips. It was actually quite beautiful. “I’m Mari. You want massage? $40 for one hour.”

I nodded, smiling, and entered the parlor. That’s a great price, and who am I to turn down fate on vacation? Soon I was in a back room with a massage table. I slipped on a pair of shorts made from a material that felt like gauze, and tied a cord around my waist to fasten it since three of me would fit in the shorts. I laid down on the table and soon Mari entered.

The massage was fantastic. Relaxing and soothing at times, deep and abiding at others, with sharp shocking slaps on large muscles to release tension. When Mari climbed on my back (no really, she climbed on my back) and used her knees and elbows to work different spots, it was heaven. Toward the end, I flipped over on my back and she worked on my feet. I felt my head drop back and I fell into an immediate sleep, awakened only by my own sharp, dehydrated snores a few minutes later.

Just minutes later, I stood on a street corner, under a large palm tree. The sun was perfect, warm but through a light breeze of ocean air mixed with city air, 70 degrees out. I closed my eyes. I could smell the massage oil on my skin, the sweet spice of the nearby noodle shop, and they mixed poorly with the concrete and urine smells of the city streets. There were almost too many sounds to individually distinguish them. Buzzing of electricity, motors and horns from the nearby freeway, busses and voices, loud loud loud.

And then I looked inward. Shoulders relaxed, stomach nurtured, feet sore with blisters, breeze on my skin and in my ears, lungs full, heart steady, head clear. I felt a patch of sun on my back, and I turned toward it.

This moment right here, this moment and any moment after, this was what I needed here.