Thursday, May 26, 2011

Veteran Humming Birds


Years ago Radical sent Borut and I, among others, to LA for the Electronic Entertainment Expo to support the Scarface: The World is Yours invite only open kimono sweat box booth. E3 is a post for another day, what I wanted to talk about is the journey Borut and I took one fine, sunny afternoon that lead to our being stranded for about an hour and a half outside a VA hospital in the relative middle of nowhere, where Shel Silverstein’s sidewalks actually ends, or at least the Los Angeles metropolitan bus transit system.

We had one free afternoon to explore and play, and we elected to try to reach Santa Monica, an utterly attainable goal of a daytrip destination according to the tourist map Borut acquired in the lobby of our hotel. All we had to do was hop a city bus and ride it through a variety of visually invigorating LA neighborhoods and suburban sprawls until eventually we’d reach the coast and Santa Monica. True, LA sits on the coast, just a different part, with more Hollywood hopefuls slathering up for tans before their shifts start waiting tables or answering 900 numbers.

We located the target bus easily enough, and climbed aboard to find it relatively empty. Our short lived solitude soon yielded like a farmer’s daughter to every errand weary traveler able to reach a bus stop along the route. We suspected some people were just riding the bus to enjoy the air conditioning, or the sleepy whippet fugue high of the carbon monoxide exhaust vapors drifting in through the high widescreen windows open to keep the air conditioning working for a living. More passengers than a Siouxsie Sioux anthology clambered aboard, the suspension whimpered and the shocks gasped defeat. Morning traffic formed a glittering asphalt aquarium show of colors and creeping fishtail lane changes as we moseyed along, generally pointed towards our intended destination.

After a while the crowd on the bus thinned until eventually only Borut and I remained each with our own row in the back end of the bus vaguely over where the wheel wells were for all the best bump bounces. We occasionally waved at one another and grinned at the scenery like we’d never seen anything by fields of grain, corn, or tobacco previously. Any minute now we anticipated we’d see signs indicating welcoming entry into Santa Monica, a nice change from the signs listing Santa Monica last followed by large mile numbers.

As we rode along, we noticed the buildings thin out, become few and farther between. We began seeing actual green space, or the southern California version, a rare and exotic seeming sight to see at any rate after all the circuit board uber-urban development we’d seen so far from the landing plane and airport shuttle to the hotel. Just Borut casually observed that we hadn’t seen Santa Monica mentioned on a traffic sign in a while, the bus pulled off the main road and up a slight slope into a bus queue. The bus pulled over and the engine shut off. The driver stood and turned to us while digging cigarettes from his vest. “OK, boys, last stop.” He appeared a little bemused at the surprised looks blooming on our faces. “Far as this route goes.”

Borut had always been quicker to process than me, a Commodore 64 to my TRS 80. He stood and followed the driver off the bus, while I scurried out of my seat to catch up. He asked about how to get the rest of the way to Santa Monica, and got some vague directions that point us towards a massive, eerily windowless government building, and beyond that, supposedly, a place to catch another bus that would take us the rest of the way to Santa Monica.

We walked down the bus queue lane and followed the sidewalk beneath an overpass with some beautiful Mexican style tile murals underneath, a strange amount of effort to go through for a space very few people would ever see as we were, on foot, after our bus dumped up in what amount to the middle of nowhere on the edge of well watered government land that we both suspected was mined. We stuck to the sidewalks.

We followed the walk as it curled around expansive, golf course manicured grounds trimmed with low hedgerows and concrete walls until we saw signage and strange iconography that confirmed our growing suspicions that the windowless megalith housed government offices, perhaps sat atop a massive underground complex where zombies and giant robots were built and vat cured. The sign did little to help us, and we couldn’t see any lobby doors to approach to ask for use of a phone. Like a bad horror film, neither of our cell phones worked, Nokia fail in the era pre-4G national coverage.

Getting past the megalith, Borut pointed as though spotting land from a life raft after a week adrift surviving on croutons and wilted lettuce from a McDonald’s healthy option procured from the golden arches kiosk just before the Disney sea hotel epicenter got up to the wrong sort of goofy. I followed his aim and spot a long drive that wound through the shade of drowsy palms towards an island of sun bleached concrete and glowing polarized glass windows, perhaps a hotel, though too minimalistic, maybe a hospital? Surrounded by trees and bracketed by hedge frocked parking lots, looked like a place Catch 22 invalids might be sent to convalesce.

Instinctual reactions proved true, as we approached we passed a sign declaring the place a veteran’s hospital. The closer we got, the more the Fantasy Island tropical retreat paled, saddened, and went from prospective paradise to Paradise Lost. Despite the trees, flower gardens, lush landscaping and gardens, nothing could soften the rigid death mask the front facing fa├žade of this building presented. The glass double doors that formed a sort of agape mouth slide open to release a curling breath of antiseptic and floor wax. 

We walked up to the mouth of the place, pace slowing, looking to one another as though daring or willing the other to take point, or volunteer to brave entry into this place that could easily accommodate a psychological, Jennifer 8 sort of thriller film crew as a chief location. I idly speculate whether perhaps One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been filmed there. If it had, there hadn’t been any plaques in the lobby. No staff either as far as we could discern when we walked in together, shoulders close as though ready to cover one another’s back should shit go down.

Want to gauge how many scary movies a geek has seen in their lifetime? Leave them alone in the lobby of a hospital for a few minutes and watch their flinching faces flush and their darting eyes bulge.

We located a beige Bakelite looking phone receiver with no dial resting in a cradle hook on the wall near the restrooms, as you might find in elevators or old apartment buildings, a direct line to the manager’s office. The faded printed sign with hand written addendums hung in a clear plastic sleeve with duct-taped corners declared this phone a hotline directly to the nearest cab company. The added notations said what company, the current one at the tail end of several crossed out ones.

Borut tried first, spoke to someone on the other end, and said where we were and where we intended to go. He hung the receiver up after doing some affirmative grunting and nodding the person on the line probably couldn’t see. “be about twenty minutes.” He said with a big, what can you do sort of shrug. He walked back outside to enjoy the sunshine, I braved the john, found it locked, and walked outside wondering who the restroom door had been locked to keep out. Not like this location had to worry about junkies or homeless drifters.
 I wander outside and spot a few viable trees I could pee behind, yet also feel a need to hold it. Somehow the idea of pissing on VA hospital grounds seems poor form, insulting, disrespectful. I’d been in the military, however the people interned here were actual combat veterans, or at least, active forces, and their lives likely sucked enough without some asshat taking a flagrant wiz on their fragrant flowers.

Minutes flow by like hours as we wait for our taxi to come. After a half hour I take a turn with the taxi phone. First I’m told a cab came by, saw no one, and left. I ask if the dispatcher knows where we are, has ever stopped by to see a loved one? No? The view is amazing, you can see for miles. Were we outside? Oh yes, we definitely were outside. In the bathroom? Lady, the bathrooms are locked. Oh, I’ll send another cab right away. That would be much appreciated, since the first one never bothered to show up.

Twenty minutes later Borut tried again, this time pointing out that we weren’t residents there, that we’d ridden the bus as far as it would go, that we just, for the love of games, wanted to go to Santa Monica before the day turned into night and we were forced to set fire to something.

As Borut made the third call, aka the one that worked, I finally saw the first signs of life around the place since we’d arrived. Precisely two signs; first a legless old man in a wheelchair rolling out by his own hand to park just outside the door and have a smoke. He had a tube coming out of his throat and another from his arm going to a bag tucked next to his incomplete lap. He asked me for a light, I still smoked then and could oblige. He nodded thanks and looked away into the middle distance. I walked a few steps away to the far edge of the patio, over to the edge of the structural shade, over next to the trees and tall flowers in the strip of flowerbed landscaped around that part of the receiving area. 

I heard the tiny flutter zip past me before I saw it, a hummingbird, small, agile, brilliantly colored, and absolutely not worried about being close enough I could have pet it. Suddenly I forgot all about how long we’d waited, or the pressure mounting in my bladder. The old man and bird appeared together, and with the a gentle breeze began to play through and tussle the fronds of the palm trees, dry a bit of the perspiration on my skin and sweat soaking into the armpits of my shirt. Life had appeared, and I must have unconsciously taken that coincidental collusion as a sign of hope, I relaxed finally, tension flowing out of me, becoming one with the moment enough to hear, smell, and feel everything around, and to forget that we were stranded at a place people go to disappear, the forgotten, old soldiers fading away.

I remembered I had a camera and managed to capture a couple pictures of the bird before it remembered that it needed to keep a low profile after that whole witness protection kerfuffle. Borut emerged to state he felt confident this third time would work, and to describe his call. His instincts were spot on, and fifteen minutes later we were in the back of a cab bound for scenic Santa Monica.

Getting stranded had never been a part of the plan, given a choice, likely would have passed on the excursion. Still, a word very apt for that place, still, I am begrudging grateful we did. After all the noise and hustle of the E3 event we’d been working, to discover yourself in a predicament and place so alien, so grim, and yet so strangely beautiful when you just finally let go, let yourself relax and just breath, is pretty amazing, humbling even. 

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