Dad’s high school graduation photo.
My eldest daughter attends UCLA and takes the commuter bus to Westwood. At the junction of the Southbound 405 and the 5, she passes the Van Norman Reservoir, an earthen dam now nearly empty of water – a peaceful man-made refuge for birds and small animals. It has not always been so. During the Sylmar quake of 1971 the full dam had, in fact, begun to breech, cracking along its face. The concern was that it would fail, sending a twenty foot high wall of water through the center of the San Fernando Valley with the same energy and single mindedness of a Parrot Head who goes directly from work to a Jimmy Buffet concert looking for the guy selling loose joints. [Dear everyone: I apologize for the repeated Jimmy Buffet references in Tales. – MB] It was decided to build a second dam further up the channel, and also to use the emergency sirens left throughout the Valley from the Cold War as a warning system, testing them on the last Sunday of every month.
Six years later, in 1977, I moved to California and to my first apartment in Van Nuys. It was at Sepulveda Boulevard and Cohasset Street, a block south of Saticoy and almost directly downstream from the Van Norman Reservoir. I lived alone because I’d had a roommate once before. The first four weeks went well – I was practically the only resident on my side of the building, the apartment below me empty and my one neighbor on the third floor a middle aged Asian man who was only at home sporadically during the work week at lunch time, in the company of his secretary. I had noticed a platform with a bunch of electronics and a dish of some sort about the height of my bedroom window thirty feet away across Cohasset Street, and wondered what it was. When the sirens went off on the last Sunday of the month at 8 a.m. at about 140 decibels I wondered no longer, and finally realized why I had gotten such a deal on the rent.
The sound literally blew me out of bed. I knocked on my landlady’s door at noon, taking the intervening four hours to try to get my hearing back. She handed me a copy of the lease with the fine print highlighted showing it wasn’t her problem, and I should complain to the city, and, as she put it, good luck with that. I adjusted to it, as one does; the rent was low, and not likely to go higher any time soon. The only other problem was the thumping on the other side of the wall from the next door neighbor waking me at noon (I was working second shift), but that’s when I had to get up to be ready for work anyway, so I considered that sort of even. Other than those two sources of noise pollution, it was a good place to call home.
I didn’t have a car yet, but there was an Italian chain restaurant across the street, the Alpha Beta supermarket, and BofA I used were ten minutes easy walk down Sepulveda and half way to the both of them was Trail’s End. This was an old western beer bar, and it had been there for a long time before the “Yeah, I’m a cowboy” costume that every wannabe Shit Kicker poseur had adopted after Urban Cowboy aired. I’d stopped on the way home from Alpha Beta one day, and walked through the swinging doors (yes, really) and asked Pops, the ancient bartender and owner, if he would mind if I set my bag of groceries on the bar while I had a beer before continuing home. This gave him something to think about for a minute, but then he shrugged and just asked me, “What’ll you have?” and served up a draft pint as requested. I knew by asking a question first, and having him have to come up with an answer, that I would be deflecting the first question all good bartenders are trained to ask, which is, “May I see some I.D?” I had in fact just turned 20 the month before, and was in the bar underaged. He never asked, so I didn’t have to lie, and I made it a point to stop in once or twice a week, just to have a beer and pass the time of day with him.
Pops was about five and a half feet tall and piccolo-thin, but that didn’t stop him from throwing anyone he didn’t like out of his bar for any reason. I once saw him order six bikers out the door, simply by pointing a hand and intoning “out.” They didn’t say a word, just left. He did not work so much on the weekends, so I mostly stayed away to avoid age inquiries from other bartenders until something happened that changed that too.
One morning at 8, I was drinking a beer after working a double shift when Pops got a phone call. The person on the other end was asking him for a ride somewhere, and he asked me if I wouldn’t mind watching the bar for about a half hour. I didn’t mind at all, and he told me to have a beer on him and he’d be right back. The half hour turned into an hour, then two, and when he came back, he seemed like he’d had a few somewhere else. He was in an expansive mood, and happy with the way I’d taken care of his bar, so he asked me if I wanted to work the weekends, as one of his bartenders had just quit. Business at my regular job, a printing shop, had slowed down and I would have been willing to take the job just for the free beer, but because he was offering money and tips, and under the table to boot, I jumped at it. Bartending came in very handy a month later, when I had a disagreement with one of the pressman and quit, being just 21 and thinking it would be easy to get another job. I didn’t know at the time that most print shop managers knew each other, and that I couldn’t count on my last one for any kind of reference.
Fortune smiled in my direction, though. I was in Trail’s End one Thursday afternoon when a group of guys came in with the smell of press ink on their clothes. I didn’t know it, but they were a press crew from a small web and sheet-fed house a few miles away and came in pretty regularly every payday. We got to talking over pitchers, and it came about they were looking for another second pressman because they were going to start running their web two shifts. They spoke to the boss, and I started about a month later. I never actually brought up I was working at the bar at the time, because I thought they might start asking for free beer.
Eventually I stopped working at Trail’s End, and a few years later it closed its doors. I think Pops passed on, and the next people to take the lease ran an Al-Anon out of the building. I thought it was nice that most of the people who went there didn’t have to go to someplace new, and it must have felt very comforting to them.
I just returned to a parched Los Angeles from a few days in New Hampshire. Zooming through Concord on the 93, my aunt Kathy commented, “The Trailways station is busy today!” “Trailways?” I asked, thinking, “the one Dad said was closed…Dad!” The beauty of memory quickly won out over fact checking…that’s the great thing about Dad’s stories – they are Dad’s. They are his truth. And I think it’s important to remember that peoples’ stories are their own. The Truth is occasionally only tangentially relevant. It’s more like a guideline. In any case, I got a real kick out of the fact that Dad got here thanks to Trailways and ended up at a place dubbed Trail’s End (which thankfully wasn’t the exact end of his trail, but it’s still poetically convenient).
When I got in the car at LAX, briefly shedding mini-tears for the familiarity of asphalt and car fumes (how sad is it that was comforting after New Hampshire’s dense forests and little rivers?), Dad had the radio tuned to K-EARTH 101. Obscure 80’s jams eked out as we were forcibly shunted onto the wrong freeway out of the terminal. Probably anyone who has departed from the United Airlines terminal at LAX during rush hour knows what I’m talking about. In the time I’d been gone, Dad’s beloved 1986 Saab had died (it has since roared back to life thanks to a barrage of mechanical band aids for what must be the 90th time). He picked me up in a rental car with volume control on the steering wheel allowing for swift musical judgment – a 21st century perk he was clearly enjoying. Not much made it past his authoritative thumb, but Billy Idol sneering out “Dancing With Myself” sent us both for the volume control, and soon I was exaggeratedly bopping along nearly at the 405 and the 5, which was a parking lot as per usz.
The song nagged at me over the next day and I realized it was “THE” song– the one I had sangria-ginned to at a bizarre hotel’s 80’s Dance Night in a small village in Catalonia the October before. Trying to remember this song had pushed me and my roommate to the edge – hot texts would occasionally be sent one to the other, “Was it THIS ONE?!” every few weeks. And finally, it had been rediscovered by some fluke. At Hotel Bruc, it had raised me and my roommate from our sweaty stupors and rocketed us back to the dance floor, which we quickly accidentally cleared with our swan song. In a sloppy embodiment of nothing to lose and nothing to prove, we embraced the absurd spectacle we were creating and I fell spinning at one point and dragged her down with me. We’d connected over the Aristophanes myth of eight-limbed folks like big rolling kegs, so if I was dancing with another 4 limbs in addition to my own, I was sure as hell falling with them, too.