Essays

SCOT SOTHERN: “Lowlife” (1990)

By The ASX Team on March 15, 2010

“I know a place not far from here where I can take your picture. I can give you twenty bucks.”


By Scot Sothern, 1990

The fried-egg platter at Denny’s looked just like the laminated photos on the menu. I cleaned my plate with a corner of toast and washed it down with coffee. At two AM the clubs on Sunset turned out the lights and disgorged a cadre of metalheaded rockers who headed for downscale eateries to refuel and dig the ambiance. They, and I, had settled for home cooking served up by a cheerful Denny’s waitress. I took a bottle of acetaminophen from my army-surplus backpack, pushed and twisted the child-proof cap and ingested five tabs with a fresh cup of coffee. I lit a smoke and sucked it dry. The person on the stool next to mine spoke to me. He said, “You got extra one of those?”

He had a bushel of hair and the story of his life tattooed up one arm and down the
other. He eyeballed my pack of Kool Filter Kings on the counter.

I tapped out a smoke which he took and lit with a Bic. “Thanks, Dude.”

“You’re welcome.”

He glanced at my cane, which I’d hooked over my right knee, then back up at me. He said, “Bad leg?”

I’d purchased the cane only the week before. I’d always been light on my feet, then, last week, I needed a cane. I said, “Yeah, sort of.”

“I wheeled my Camaro out of Denny’s onto Sunset Boulevard and headed east. I drove with my right hand. A few days ago my left arm had gone to sleep and had yet to awaken; under the skin a frenzy of needles and pins.”

He said, “That’s fucked up, Dude. Get better.”

I told him, “Thanks, I’ll see what I can do.”

He rotated his back to the counter, put a snarl his lips and picked up an unplugged electric guitar. He began to serenade the throng of lace and leather cuties, strolling up the catwalk to the ladies’ room. The girls paid him homage with sly winks and sultry smiles. No one noticed me. I was just some guy.

I wheeled my Camaro out of Denny’s onto Sunset Boulevard and headed east. I drove with my right hand. A few days ago my left arm had gone to sleep and had yet to awaken; under the skin a frenzy of needles and pins. I bit off a little chunk from the inside of my cheeks and looked at the scenery.

A woman in baggy pants and camouflage jacket walked the sidewalk taking sneak peeks over her shoulder, attempting to catch the eye of some guy like me. I pulled into an empty parking lot, turned the car around, and tooted the horn. She walked to the car and climbed in. She was small and brown with a wasp’s nest of henna hair and a whisper of facial fuzz. She was probably pre-op; probably still had boy parts hanging around, waiting for the guillotine.

Her voice had the shakes. “I just got out of jail. I haven’t had nothin to eat in a long time.”

“There’s a 7-Eleven a couple of blocks from here. I’ll stop and we can get you something.”

“I doan have no money.”

“That’s okay, my treat.”

“Whyr you gonna do that?”

I throttled back onto the boulevard and continued east. “I like to take pictures,” I
explained. “I thought maybe we could take some of you.”

“I turned right and gunned it down Virgil. I watched the street that went between the Vista Theater and the porn shop disappear in the rearview mirror. Pocahontas slurped Slurpee and asked me a question.”

“Oh…Okay.”

Her face was angular and pretty, like Pocahontas, the cartoon, not the person.

“How’d you get in jail?”

She sat up straight, put her hands on the dash and hissed through grinding teeth,
“Cops er fuckin’ assholes. Took me to jail for doin nothin.”

“Yeah, they can be that way.”

I pulled into the 7-Eleven and parked. I locked up and we went in together. I left
my cane in the car, pretending I didn’t need it, but I was unable to fake it, my
equilibrium was at full tilt. I shuffled forward, stiff-legged and dragging my right foot, like Frankenstein’s monster. I’d walked with a cocky bounce for most of my forty years.

Two weeks ago I could jump and click my boot-heels, three times, and land gracefully
with a smile and a wink. Three times. Click, click, click. Two weeks, maybe less.
Pocahontas selected a Hostess Apple Pie with a sixteen oz. Cherry Slurpee. At the counter, while she drifted around the store, I added a pack of Kool-box to the merchandise. A generic clerk rang up the sale and made change from a twenty. We lugged our supplies to the car.

I said, “Pick a direction, which way do you want to go?”

She opened the apple pie with her teeth and threw the wrapper on the floor. She took a bite and pointed east. I picked up the trash, put it into the litter bag between the seats and in the process triggered a surge of electrical pain streaking from the back of my neck to the fingertips of my left hand. I ate the pain with a covert grunt.

Following her point, I turned right, back onto Sunset.

I said, “I know a place not far from here where I can take your picture. I can give you twenty bucks.”

She said, “You get high?”

“Sometimes. Why?”

“We get a rock an go ta my place I can give ya whatever ya want, all night long.”

“I don’t know, maybe. How far is your place?”

“Real close. We can stop an get a rock. Real close, not far.”

I stopped for a red light at the six-way intersection where Hollywood Boulevard
becomes Sunset.

“Turn on this street here,” she said, indicating Virgil Street going south.

Two blocks northeast, up the street between the Vista Theater and the porn shop,
was Carol’s little courtyard bungalow. I’d moved in three months ago and we had set
up to play house, to live happily ever after. Carol would be sleeping now, warm, soft
and naked, between soft, clean sheets. She would have the covers on my side turned
down, waiting for me to undress, climb in and snuggle up. Only two blocks away. True
love.

Sitting on a bus stop bench, at the southwest corner, a displaced white woman, dressed in a green Hefty Lawn and Garden Bag, howled garbled curses at the man in
the moon.

“You don’t have to wait on red. You can go.”

“Oh…Uh, yeah.”

I turned right and gunned it down Virgil. I watched the street that went between the Vista Theater and the porn shop disappear in the rearview mirror. Pocahontas slurped Slurpee and asked me a question.

“You like apple wine?”

“I guess so. I don’t know. How come?”

“I dug out my wallet and gave her two fives. “I’ll give you another ten after we take your picture.”

“Cause I stole some.” She took a green pint bottle of applejack from her jacket and held it up like a merit badge.

“Way to go,” I cheered her. “None for me, thanks. It’s all yours.”

She poured half of the pint into her Slurpee and stirred the magic potion with a straw.

Virgil came to a halt at Wilshire and I braked for a red light. Across Wilshire on the right, the old Bullocks-Wilshire building, silver and night-shaded, doffed a green copper derby to a glamorous past. The full moon was low and to the left. For a moment or two I was Phillip Marlow, Robert Mitchum, then, for a moment or two, I was the writer I was always meant to be and this was my story. I was the knight errant and romance and adventure was just around the corner. Then the light changed and Pocahontas told me to make a left turn. A few blocks later, at Park View Street, she told me to make another left turn.”

I made the turns and drove into McArthur Park. I pointed a finger at nothing in particular and said, “Hey look, someone left the cake out in the rain.”

She pointed and said, “Stop over there.”

I pulled across three nose-in parking spots and stopped next to the curb. A hundred yards across a grass slope, a small Greek theater reflected moonlight. Four sets of ten rows of green benches embedded in a concrete slab sat in front of a bright white clamshell stage. In the forties and fifties string quartets sat in the open-air shell and played Chopin and Strauss. In the sixties and seventies flower-children and groovy dudes like me dropped acid and sang about changing times from the stage.

Now, no one was singing.

Between the open-air theater and the car, a flock of terminally damaged guys and gals stumbled, gray and spectral, in nowhere circles, seeking a higher plane.

“I slept here once,” I told Pocahontas. “A long time ago.”

“You got some money? I can get us a rock here.”

“Yeah. Okay.” I dug out my wallet and gave her two fives. “I’ll give you another ten after we take your picture.”

She absorbed the cash. “Give it now an I can get enough for both a us.”

“Ten will buy enough for both of us. You want the other ten you gotta come back and let me take your picture.”

“Okay. You stay here. Doan get outta the car. Nobody doan know you.”

“Yeah, alright. Just do it and get back.”

She opened her door, climbed out and said, “You should lock the door behind me.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.”

She got out, strode on wet grass and dissolved into the mishmash. I sat in the car with the motor running. The radio was tuned to K-EARTH, oldies. I knew all the words
to all the songs. Oldies and I were the same age.

A gathering of ghosts were holding a zombie jamboree in the beacon of my headlights. A damaged biped crumbled from the cake and came over to welcome me to the neighborhood. He was dressed in purple and grey checkered double-knit. He flattened his arms across the roof of the car, leaned down and put his face next to the open driver-side window. His forehead was iced with coagulated blood. He grinned a sardonic ear to ear and mumbled a string of incoherent words with a question mark at the end. His breath triggered my gag reflex.

I gave him the change from my pants’ pocket and told him to have a nice day. He told me thank you or maybe he said fuck you and then he went away.

My neck was tight, stuck in place, so I put my head in a wrestling hold and wrenched until my cervical spine popped four times. The relief was temporary but for the moment it was almost as good as an intravenous drug rush. In my ears an alarm droned loud and long without taking a breath. I hadn’t been sleeping and felt like I was on the down side of a speed binge. I lit a smoke and inhaled carcinogens. I opened the door and exhaled smog. I stood up on the floorboard, leaned my elbows on the top of the car and watched the theater crowd. Within the acoustical bowl, shopping-cart bundles spilled recycled keepsakes to the stage floor. Numbed-out castaways flitted aimlessly about, like slow motion bumper cars, crashing noiselessly into empty space.

Crack-pipe fireflies luminesced on intake, then died like shooting stars. On the radio James Brown took the stage and screamed into the microphone, It’s a man’s world but it wouldn’t be nothin nothin without a woman or a girl. I reached in and turned it up.

An L.A.P.D. patrol car going west on sixth turned south on Park View and drove slowly to the center of the block. The lone cop behind the wheel pulled up even with
the Camaro and braked to a stop. We looked at each other.

“You don’t need to be here,” he said through the open window. “Let’s move it
along.”

“Yeah, alright, I’m going.”

He watched me as I got back in the car and sat with the motor running, not going
anywhere. His presence made me nervous. My left leg started fibrillating, slowly at
first, then faster and faster and out of control, kicking the floorboards. I couldn’t make it stop. My toes involuntarily curled up, fisting my feet. I tried to communicate to my body, relax, relax. Please, don’t do this. Give me back my control, my swagger, my self.

I saw Pocahontas trudging through the war zone back to the car. I opened the
passenger side door. The cop was losing patience. He turned on his spotlight and lit
up my head. I took deep breaths and zenned my leg still, slowly like an unwinding toy, chattering teeth. Pocahontas plopped onto the bucket seat and closed the door.

I smiled at the cop, dropped it into drive and went one way while he went the other.
She got to her knees on the seat and turned around to watch him through the rear
window.

“I drove a couple of blocks. On the left side of the street a row of ancient hotels huddled together like dying old people.”

“What if he comes back?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “He’s done with us.”

“Cops er assholes.”

“Yeah. Sometimes they’re assholes. Sometimes they’re all right.”

“Took me to jail for not doin nothing. Turn right up here.”

I took a right on Sixth.

“Couple more blocks, hotel on the other side.”

I drove a couple of blocks. On the left side of the street a row of ancient hotels huddled together like dying old people.

“One of those?”

“Uh huh. The white one.”

I u-turned at Bonnie Brae and idled back the way I had come. I passed two other hotels, then pulled to the curb and parked in front of the white one. Art Deco wings sprouted from the front entrance way. Cryptic paint-can sprays of territorial piss accented the stone and brick.

All along the sidewalk the local folk displayed their arts and crafts. A boom-box, cranked to capacity, blew out profane rhymes to a toe-tapping thump. Pocahontas said, “Doan leave nothin in your car. Lock it up an stay close to me.”

I grabbed my backpack and got out of the car. I had yet to regain control of my left leg and so I brought my cane along. We walked through the swarm and into the hive. It was dim inside. A dying jazz-era chandelier flickered the few bulbs not broken. Tendrils of tall window drapes hung like Spanish moss. The bloated ceiling was held upward on the shoulders of crumbling pillars. The floor was strewn with litter. In the center of the back wall a black cage door next to a black cage window kept out the riffraff.

Pocahontas stopped, and for a long moment, looked at my cane then she looked at me and took me by the hand. “Come on,” she said. “Stay with me.”

On the other side of the cage window a balding fat guy sat working a TV Guide crossword puzzle. He looked at us, recognized her, but leaned forward to check me out.

“Where you goin?”

“With her. Upstairs, I guess.”

“What’s in the bag?”

“Some stuff and some things.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He shrugged and pushed a buzzer. The door clinked opened like a jailhouse antechamber.

I followed Pocahontas, over mildewed and threadbare carpeting, up three warped flights. I took the stairs slowly, watching my feet, concentrating on my balance like a baby taking his first steps, one step at a time, like an old man. On the third floor we went to the third door on the left.

“When we go in, doan say nothing. Okay? Jus doan say nothin.”

“And to whom am I saying nothing to?”

She knuckled the door and said, “My mom. She’s cool. Jus doan say nothing.”

Mom opened the door. She looked like her offspring, only older and sadder. Her
eyes fell, for a moment, on her child, then she walked, trance-like, to a double-bed on box springs. She sat on the mattress next to the recumbent body of a long thin ugly guy of indiscriminate origin.

The lingo changed to south-of-the-border, leaving me alone in my monolinguistic
world. In soft tones the two women worked out the logistics. Everyone was looking at
me. I smiled cordially and leaned on the door frame.

“Cmon,” Mom said to her roommate. They climbed up from the bed and walked out of the room into the hallway. As he passed by the guy stopped, moved his face in a little too close and said, “Ten minutes.”

I said, “No problem,” and ushered him out. A jet stream of cigarettes, wine, and
body odor trailed him and hung in the air like humidity. I closed and locked the door.

“Alone at last,” I said, attempting to lighten the mood.

Pocahontas was already occupied in creating a mood of her own. From a pile of junk standing in a corner, she took a homemade aluminum-foil pipe and a stuffed teddy
bear with a bemused expression. The two of them moved to the bed where she began loading the pipe with crack cocaine. It was party time.

I said, “I know that you wanna get high, but as soon as you get a couple of good hits, I’d like to take your picture.”

She had a hit lit. The drug crackled like static and smelled like cotton candy and
hospital corridors. She spoke at chipmunk pitch, holding in illicit smoke. “You want
some?”

“Not right now, thanks.” I set down my backpack and walked over to the bed. “I’m
going to take a pinch and save it for later.”

She put a flaming kitchen match to the pipe and stoked up residue. I picked up the
magic-rock and thumb-nailed a couple of chunks onto a dollar bill from my wallet,
folded it into a drug-stash origami and returned it to my pants’ pocket. She blew out
second-hand smoke, then reached up and began feeling her face, checking for spider
webs.

She sat quietly, allowing the buzz to infiltrate her being, leaned over close to me
and whispered out loud, “You want me to suck your cock?”

“She stripped down to her panties. She had sinewy boy muscles and a flat chest. I turned on the flash and focused the camera.”

“Uh, not really. Let’s take your picture instead.”

I took the camera and flash from my bag. She picked up the stuffed bear and gave
it a hug. “This’s Madonna Bear. She’s my best friend. Can she be in the picture?”
“Yeah. That’d be great.”

She stripped down to her panties. She had sinewy boy muscles and a flat chest. I turned on the flash and focused the camera. Without warning, an sharp icicle jabbed an open nerve in my neck. My body clenched and my left leg kicked at the air. I sat down on the bed and ground my teeth.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine, just give me a second.” I took my second, pulled myself back to my feet
and aimed my Nikon. “Just stay there. Hold Madonna Bear if you want to. You look
great. Look at me.”

She didn’t look at me. She started looking around the bed instead. “Where’d the
rock go? Wanna get high first.”

“You already did.”

“Jus a little bit. I wanna do it again. I can’t find the rock.” She ran her hands over the bedspread like a blind person, speed reading, escalating toward hysteria.

I walked back to the bed and found the evil drug sleeping in a fold of covers with
the pipe. I set it and the pipe next to a bag of Cheetos on the night table. “Here it is.

Let’s go ahead and take a quick picture.”

She climbed back onto the bed, held her stuffed bear tight, and struck a pose. I
focused and took a picture. She put the bear aside and went into a cheesecake pose.
She threw back her head and laughed at nothing. I got a couple of good shots.

“Thanks, that was great. You’re very pretty.”

I put my gear away and she got high again. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched as she hyperventilated three hard hits in a row. She dropped the pipe and stretched prone across the bed, hugging Madonna Bear. Cotton stuffing leaked out through a tear between Madonna’s legs.

“I’m sorry, mister, but I don’t think I can suck your cock or nothing after all. I think you’re nice and all, you know. But I think maybe you got the, uh, you know, something really bad. The disease. And I don’t think we oughta do nothing.”

She didn’t want to say the word, didn’t want to pronounce a death sentence. But I
knew what she meant, I didn’t want to say the word either. I wasn’t ready to even
consider it. Wasn’t I, after all, Superman, and not susceptible to puny earthling viruses, diseases, afflictions? I was the hero of my story. I was supposed to end up better, not worse.

“That’s fine,” I told her. “There is something wrong with me and I don’t know what it
is. I’ve got a blow-out in my electrical system and I hurt a lot. I guess it could be any number of things. You’re smart to stay away. I got the pictures and that’s really all I wanted. I’m gonna go in a minute.”

“Okay. I’ll walk you down so’s nobody will bother you.”

“That’s okay, thanks. Nobody’s going to bother me.”

“You got smore money? You said you was gonna give me smore money.”

“Yeah, sure.” I took out a ten spot and showed it to her. “Here, I’m putting this in
your coat pocket along with your rock.” I picked up her jacket and placed the booty in a zippered pocket. She placed the teddy bear behind her head for a pillow and closed her eyes. Her eyelids fluttered and her fingers vibrated. She hovered above the mattress. I sat for a couple of minutes and watched her. I thought about Carol and true love and fumbled opportunities. I thought about my eight-year-old son, Dashiell, my little boy who would be lost without me. I thought about myself and wondered why I did the things I had done.

A knock on the door. I got up, unlocked and opened it. Mom stood in the doorway. She looked at her semi-naked child sprawled on the bed in a narcotic stupor. She went over and sat on my indentation in the mattress. She lit a cigarette and dropped the
spent match to the floor. The ugly guy leaned on the door frame. His face was tight.
He said, “I said ten minutes,” as though I’d been an hour. I ignored him and walked out into the hallway.

I took the stairs down holding onto the bannister with one hand and my cane with the other, carrying my weight with my arms. I stopped at the iron-barred exit. A battered-looking woman, weeping teardrop tattoos, sat on the floor, leaning against the door. She wore a thrift-store bathrobe and was looking at a resplendent pair of pink bunny slippers on her feet. She wiggled her toes and the bunnies twitched their
whiskers.

I said, “Excuse me, I need to get by.”

She was slow to respond, but eventually tore her eyes from her fuzzy feet and looked up at me. She smiled and showed me a shiny silver incisor. “Bunnies,” she said to me.

“Yeah,” I said, “Cool.”

(Text and photographs by Scot Sothern – Chapter One of Scot Sothern’s “LOWLIFE – A Memoir (1986-1990)”)

http://www.drkrm.com/lowlife.html

http://www.scotsothern.com

ASX CHANNEL: Scot Sothern

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