Leaving Los Angeles, Part 3 (The kids are not alright)

It’s been a long time since I promised I would write the third installment of my Leaving Los Angeles series. And, right now seems good a time as any, I think. So, why not? By the way, parts one, two and this one aren’t necessarily in any kind of order. They’re simply bits and pieces of some of my memorable experiences living in the City of Angels. Basically, this is just my way of saying, I miss L.A., even when I have no intentions of going back there, at all. It was a great time. It was a time of learning and growth. And even at times… bittersweet.

mid wilshire Mid-Wilshire. Eastside. A busy part of town with a blend of world culture and a Wall-Street vibe with its high-rise buildings towering above an over-crowded, traffic-jammed, smog-filled strip. Just down the street is a neighborhood that seems a bit run down and ambiguous. Lots of old apartments, old houses, overfilled $5/hr parking lots and sidewalk food trucks that sell tacos so good you’d think you’re wearing a sombrero and a big fat wavy mustache.

In a corner down 7th Street stands a building that looked like a big old house. You wouldn’t notice it’s not a residence unless you’re looking for it specifically. Actually, it’s the Children’s Institute. A place where they temporarily house children from an abusive environment. These are kids who were taken away from their parents due to their inappropriate domestic lifestyle (drugs, violence, extreme neglect, etc.). The kids are there anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year or so. Just waiting till they’re picked up by foster parents.

taco truck About a decade ago, my life had no firm direction, being single and a hippie of sorts. My life was about playing guitar at a bonfire down Venice Beach. That’s pretty much it. I thought, it might be nice to make myself useful in a way, for a change. So I volunteered my time at the Institute. Three hours, twice a week, sometimes three. For about two years. And for no apparent reason, really. You can say I had nothing better to do back then. Probably not. But the experience was one that changed me forever. It made me see how much I truly have in life. And how much I had to give even when I was broke. To be with these kids who had no parents. No home. To play with them. To eat dinner with them. To turn on the TV while they scrambled to sit on my lap. Oh yeah, to let them play with my ridiculously long hair. And to finally tuck them in bed right before I had to leave. It was my teacher. My school. And I was in for the lesson of my life.

There was a lot to do. Not a whole lot of people to help out. Most of the time, the volunteers were there to earn points in school as part of their prerequisite for graduation. Me, I was there because it was 5PM and had just gotten off from work. But it was definitely chicken soup for my soul. That’s why I did it.

There were times when the staff would schedule my visits and designate me at the infants room. They would have me carry newborns for a couple of hours at a time. Two babies per session. I remember this room vividly. It looked like in the hospital where they have the incubators. Only the babies were in little bunk beds with sidewalls to keep them separated and from falling off. I learned that they need to somehow be compensated with human contact now that their parents aren’t around to do it for them. But there’s hardly anyone available to do it. Besides, collecting drool on your shoulder isn’t necessarily a fun activity for someone to be excited about. I know, I wasn’t. I was thrown in there because someone has to do the dirty job. But you never know what happens until you’ve actually done it. It was a process of transformation, in my case. I had a profound understanding of miracles born out of sacrifices. Believe me, I had not complained about anything since. That’s right! Life is good, no matter what.

kids However, for the most part, it was definitely a lot of fun. The kids I played big brother to ranged from about 3 to 10. There were times it was a packed room. Sometimes, kids get lucky they’re out of there soon enough, and there’ll be just 4 or 5 of them left. And it gets lonely without someone willing to play with them. Heck, I got lonely myself. When you’ve been accustomed to seeing someone there for months, and one day they’re gone – or worse, you see them walk out the door with new parents – it’s a pain you seem to never get over with.

There was a special moment for me during my time at the Institute. It lasted probably about 7 or 8 months. One day, I show up and there’s this new girl I had never seen before. Jessica, a beautiful 4 year old with long blonde hair, shamelessly runs up towards me with open arms begging to be picked up like someone’s baby she’s always longed to be. Well, nice to meet you too, little one. Needless to say, we quickly became good buddies.

Jessica always carries this rag doll. It’s my baby, she said. But I’M your baby, she follows through with firm conviction. Funny little rascal, she got in trouble with the caretakers a lot for hogging me away from the other kids who needed to be played with, too. I noticed that when I try to walk around the hallway and away from her, she stops whatever she’s doing and her eyes starts to follow me, as if making sure not to lose me. I remember one night, she was standing on the couch wanting to play catch with me. She falls on her back and expects me to catch her before she hits the floor. And so, I did. And I did, and I did. After a few rounds, I got tired and said, that’s enough, and even started walking away from her with an affirming tone in my voice… Bye, Jessica. However, just to make sure, my head turns for a quick glance. And sure enough, weeeeee… she’s halfway down the floor. And so, I run back as fast as I can. And just like a split-second homerun, I dive down the floor to catch her back in the nick of time. And when I do, she looks at me with that careless grin on her face that reads… Of course you’d catch me, silly. Of course.

Have you ever felt both happiness and sadness at the same time? How about pride and disappointment, at the same exact moment? It could get confusing sometimes. Especially when you’re not able to do anything about it. One day, I was talking with the caretakers and they told me that Jessica often looks out the window waiting for me. One of them said, She loves you, I can tell. Another time I came, it was raining hard. And she was sick. I remember walking through the door, the kids were all watching TV while she lays on the couch by herself, barely responsive. No screaming in excitement. No words at all. Not much like the Jessica I know. I mean, she couldn’t even hold her arms up to let me know she wants to be held. But obviously, I know what she wanted. And so I bend down to reach for her and I pick her up. Right when her head touches my ear, she pulls out her hand from her pocket, she pushes back to touch my face and she stares at me. And with the faintest of all whispers, her voice cracks… take me home.

It’s been ten years since the last time I was at the Institute. I remember the last day I came. I even brought a friend with me to show her what my extra-curricular activities have been like the past couple of years. Besides playing in bands, that is. Well, this day was special. Sort of. It was the day Jessica was supposed to be picked up by her new foster parents. I had to be there, no doubt about it. While waiting for the family to arrive, we spent time laughing and playing hide n seek with the other kids. We had so much fun. And then, the moment finally came.

Oh, guess what? Like a father giving away her daughter in marriage, I had the honor and privilege of handing Jessica to her new family… of course, I did it with the greatest strength I could possibly muster. I was falling apart by then. From my arms to another one’s. Gosh, it just felt so cruel! She wouldn’t even look at me anymore, at that point. She walked out the door without a single glance. Not a word. I said goodbye. No goodbye back. I waved my hand. No wave back. And I thought I was in pain. I can only imagine now.

Little does she know, though, that her life is about to be so much better than before. Her new family is very nice. At least from what I’ve been told.

She’s 14 now. And I sometimes wonder what she looks like. Where she is. How’s she’s doing. I can only hope that my baby Jessica is smiling at this moment. Happy, perhaps for reasons she’s not sure about. Who cares? Who cares if she doesn’t have the slightest memory of the times we shared. As long as she’s able to sustain that joy to this day, and have that as the foundation for her journey in life, that’s all that matters to me.

Now, when I look back, I can sometimes see the smog crawling down from the sky like a cape that shrouds my life as if being hidden due to its insignificance. But if for one reason it could’ve been, in fact, significant, maybe this experience is it. Or at least, the memory of it. Or something.

Something. Just so leaving Los Angeles would not have been so bad, after all.

I ran… but the 80’s won’t leave me alone!

In respect for my good friend, Mike from the land of Tejas… I am now puttin’ on the Ritz, as well as my A Flock of Seagulls wig, in his honor, and rock back down to Electric Avenue, if you will. If only for a quick second.

This guy now a psychic on TVYes, yes, yes! As much as I now want to cover my head with a brown paper bag, I must admit that I, too, was a child of the dreaded 80’s and have shamelessly hopped in the Rubik’s Cube bandwagon on the way to the premiere of St. Elmo’s Fire. Though back then, my life was a bit more centered around music (Gee, what else is new?). When I’m not playing in a rock band, jamming on (cringes) Every Breath You Take, or worse, Rock You Like A Hurricane (takes knife and slits wrist), I’m spinning Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark records at a dance party thrown by Iceman and Maverick wannabes. And when I really, really, really had to sell (ok, pawn) my soul to the devil just to get some respect, I sang What A Fool Believes at the dingiest karaoke bars you’ll ever find. (Trivia.. I can do Michael McDonald better than Michael McDonald can do a Michael McDonald impersonation of Michael McDonald.)

So, there… I’ve come clean. I believe there is redemption through confession.

But for one last time, I am going back to the future to indulge my stuck-in-the-eighties friend by reliving some of my own memorable songs of the eighties. So, hop into my DeLorian as we cruise on down highway to the danger zone (somebody shoot me now).

Lords of the New Church Method to our Madness
The Dead Boys introduced me to punk music. Since then, I’ve been a big fan of Steve Bators and everything he did. And hearing this supegroup of sorts for the first time was kind of a happy moment for me. Their version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin was also a riot.

China Crisis You Did Cut Me
A lot of New Wave music kind of became what hair metal eventually ended up being… a fad. But there were a few that made me continue to listen. Aztec Camera, Tears For Fears, to name a couple… and these guys, of course. If Neil Peart of Rush thought China Crisis’ drummer was good, I just had to put the band on my favorite list. Besides, no wonder the musicianship is so good, Steely Dan had to interfere in the studio.

Slayer Raining Blood
As much as I enjoyed hair metal, it was all for entertainment. But when I wanted to be inspired by technicians, I listened to Slayer. If I could sing like Tom does, or play guitar as fast as Jeff, I wouldn’t be blogging right now ’cause, pardon me, I’d be away on a world tour.

XTC Respectable Street
I was slowly getting schooled on punk. Having been already soaked in 70’s rock, XTC’s Black Sea album spoke to me in an already familiar language as they seem to have the musicality of Led Zeppelin.

The Go Go’s Vacation
I’ve always been a fan of girl rock. Not only do they diversify the genre, I thought they also give what seems to be a masculine form of music such a kick in the freakin’ orchestra!

Thomas Dolby She Blinded Me With Science
I never thought how influential this song was on me until I saw him perform at a downtown warehouse club in San Francisco back in ’87. Simply brilliant.

Metallica The Thing That Should Not Be
In the 80’s, it was all about taking to extreme whatever was already there. In 1985, this was probably the heaviest song I’ve heard since Black Sabbath. You can’t just forget little moments like that.

The Stray Cats Rev It Up And Go
With all of the extreme changes in music that’s been happening, it was such a breath of fresh air to hear something that seemed to have come out of the fifties.

The Polecats Make a Circuit with Me
Another one of those New Wave-era rockabilly groups that had nice catchy tunes that I never forgot about.

The Specials A Message To You Rudy
My introduction to Ska. This song actually came out in ’79 but I was all over it during the early 80’s.

U2 I Will Follow
One of those songs I jammed with my brother in our living room. It stuck with me ever since.

Echo & the Bunnymen The Killing Moon
I like dark music with melody. That’s why I like Sabbath. And The Cure. And Echo.

Def Leppard Let it Go
These guys were fifteen and sixteen back then. On hearing High n’ Dry for the first time, I couldn’t believe little cubs could rock like lions.

REM Radio Free Europe
One of those songs they played on the radio every fifteen minutes until you’re like… Ok, ok, I like that song already. It’s great. No really, it is though.

The Police Oh My God
While everyone was humming King of Pain, I was humming this one. And everyone thought I had weird taste since they’ve never heard Casey Kasem play it once on his show.

New Order True Faith
I’m not much into dance music but New Order was one of those exceptions. Plus the video cracks me up to this day.

Umm… what else? Surely, there’s more. But, but… I don’t want my MTV no more.

So, there you go, Mike. Now, go watch Raising Arizona for the umpteenth time. I’ll forgive you. 🙂

Leaving Los Angeles, Part 1

The death of Kevin DuBrow yesterday had suddenly awakened my memories of Cali. I have been away from what I call my true home for about seven years now. And as much as I hate to admit it, I really miss the time I was there. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of In-N-Out Burgers, bohemian coffee houses, Venice beach bonfires, pink-haired neighbors, playing music and good friends. Those were fun times. Oh yeah, and the 24-hour taco stands. They’re the best!

Not that I don’t like where I am now. I love the peace and quiet that this town offers. It’s just different. I guess it was just time for a change.

But today, I miss L.A. I was reminiscing about the fun things I used to do there. Like performing at open mic nights in Santa Monica. Twice a week. For years! And playing countless gigs with several bands. Rock bands. Reggae bands. Jazz bands. Funk bands. You name it. It was a lifestyle and I’m lucky to have lived that part of my dream.

On the radio this morning, I heard an old Eagles song. I immediately thought of the acoustic group I used to be a part of in the mid 90’s. I can still hear us playing Love Will Keep Us Alive. The beautiful vocal blends on the chorus and the fantastic arpeggios on the guitars. The name of our band, though, was such a schlok. I mean… Acoustic Harmony? Come on! Just because we were playing acoustic guitars and singing harmony vocals doesn’t mean we should call ourselves just that!

Acoustic HarmonyAnyhow, here’s a little picture of us playing at a club in Hollywood. Can you tell which one is me? Clue… I play the 12-string Yamaha. It’s been at least ten years and my hair has long been cut short.

Speaking of being cut short, there were two other activities in particular that I was involved in back then. Very special activities. These, I wish could have lasted a bit longer than they actually did. Thoughts of the events have stayed with me all these years. It’s all flooding back to me just now. It’s overwhelming. They’re real heartbreakers and I think I would need to take a little breather before I’m able to start expounding on them.

You can wait, can’t you?