At sixteen I thought I knew a lot. But I didn’t know much about hunger. I didn’t know what it was like to be hundreds of miles away from home without a penny in my pocket.
I didn’t know what it was like to be lost in a big city where I knew absolutely no one. And I didn’t know how hunger could motivate you to do things you normally wouldn’t dream of doing … like shoplifting a package of bologna from Safeway for dinner.
But I learned a lot about those things that day, my first as a runaway lost in LA.
As I sat on a park bench late in the afternoon biting designs into slices of bologna speckled with lard that tasted like a cold hot dog, I thought about the events of the preceding day that took me from Vallejo to Los Angeles suddenly, unexpectedly, and without any forethought whatsoever.
It had started out as a fine day … sunny, but not too hot. It was one of those days decidedly much too nice to waste in school, where there wasn’t anything special going on anyway.
So I talked my friend Jorge (pronounced George, though his real name was actually Jim … he was going through an identity crisis at the time) into taking a day trip with me to Bodega Bay, a small community on the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean, about an hour’s drive from Vallejo … a great place for exploring and goofing-off.
Jorge was tall, skinny, awkward, soft-spoken, hook-nosed and shy. He wasn’t popular, but he had a disarmingly friendly smile. Though blessed with neither good looks nor athletic ability, he did have many redeeming virtues … intelligence, affability, generosity and, not least of all, a 10 year old 1950 Plymouth Business Coupe (one of Detroit’s deservedly short-lived designs).
I wish I had a photo of the car itself, but photos wouldn’t really do it justice. It was much uglier in person. Jim’s Plymouth was snowball white. I suggested painting big red crosses on the doors, but his mom had issues with that.
Jorge didn’t drive his coupe to school that day. He and a neighbor, Jules (Julie … she was going through identity problems too) alternately shared rides. They were both part of the half dozen or so non-conformists labeled beatniks by their peers at Vallejo Senior High in 1960, one of California’s much-too-big secondary schools.
(The beatniks, a phenomenon of the nineteen-fifties Bay Area, were passionate devotees of poetry, jazz, zen, peace, nature, stimulants and hitch-hiking. Sound familiar? It ought to … the seeds they planted sprouted a decade later as hippies.)
In order to retrieve Jorge’s car, we needed to take a bus back to his house. And, as is so often the case, a small occurrence started a whole chain of events, like a long row of standing dominoes falling on each other so fast you can’t see any one of them clearly.
And that’s how it was when my dad drove by me and Jorge waiting at the bus stop on Tennessee Street’s Miracle Mile.
He made a quick u-turn, sped back, rolled down his window and growled, “Just where do you think you’re headed?”
“Uh … well you see, dad, Jim forgot his homework and I was just gonna go with him to pick it up,” I lied lamely.
“You get back to school … now! We’ll talk about this tonight!” he thundered and flipped a u-turn to head back east to wherever Tennessee Street was taking him.
“Jorge! Where are YOU going?” I yelled at Jim who was starting to walk back to school as my dad zipped off.
“Well, I guess …”
“STOP right there! HELL NO! We’re NOT going back to school. NO we’re NOT! We’re going to LA!”
Jim stood stood frozen in mid-step when he heard that, “What? Where?”
“LA! We don’t have to put up with that crap! Hell NO! We’re not kids any more! We’re getting out of here. NOW!” I proclaimed, sounding every bit a victim who’d suffered great injury.
“We are? Really? We’re going to LA? I can’t believe it! I’ve always wanted to see LA!”
Jim never was too difficult about talking into things
At this point in my life I must confess that although my dad’s threat gave me convenient cover, it wasn’t my real reason for heading south. I really just wanted an adventure! And if Bodega Bay was out, I was bound and determined to have a grand one!
Not only that, I’d heard a little about the beat scene in LA, in an area called Venice West (now known as Venice Beach). I wanted to see it for myself.
At the time I loved hanging-out with real beatniks in San Francisco’s North Beach. For a short while the scene was incomparable. Bongos and poetry and jazz on the street! And even if I was too young for the bars, there was a renaissance happening all around you. It was right there, free for the taking. It was spiritually intoxicating especially for a romantic sixteen year old.
That’s when I decided that being a beat poet was definitely the life for me!
But, in the meantime, while sitting on a cold park bench in LA, I realized I’d need to figure-out how to get something to eat, like real quick man, or like, it really wouldn’t be cool to be a starving beat poet … not cool at all daddy-o!
Where did they get the money to go to LA? When did they eat again? What did they eat? Find out in our next exciting installment of Lost in LaLaLand part 2 … THE NAVAJO, FRIED CHICKEN AND WHITE LIES
Confession: To my everlasting regret, I gave little or no thought at the time to anyone else, or how my decision would effect them. I put my parents (who never abused or neglected me, or gave me anything but unconditional love) through pure hell during the time of this adventure. It was unforgivable, and it was only my good fortune that I was raised Episcopalian that my guilt never permanently impaired me.
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