Have Guts, Will Travel- A Forward

“And what do you do?” she asked.

She was a petite girl, vibrant green eyes hid behind geek-chic spectacles, pale face framed by low-cut bangs.  Her hair was red, possibly dyed, complemented by a an elegant black sheath dress, possibly American Apparel.  Definitely my type.  She told me her name was Alison and that she worked as a make-up artist for the movies.  Polishing up stars, aging effects, creature prosthetics, you name it, she did it.  Few things fired up my engine like a creative spirit, and the vodka-cranberry juice mix I held in my hand rippled as my mind nervously buffered a response that might earn me some measure of social capital.  In past weeks I had privately rehearsed my lines for such an occasion but when the lights raised and I was required to perform all I could do was stutter:

“Well, uh, I’m currently unemployed.  I just graduated college and I’m new around here.  But I don’t really want to do anything in my field of study and I’m not quite sure what I want to do, but, um, y’know, things will work out, I think”.

Belly flop.  Nice pitch, Don Draper.  I stumbled my way through a description of my ambitions, how I had been researching opportunities to counsel autistic children, or train as an EMT, or maybe even find a job in the therapeutic field  (“But what I‘d really like to do is write!”).  All the while Alison’s eyes darted periodically to the side, the unmistakable tell of someone itching for an opportunity to hit the eject button.  Such a chance arose when the arrival of a friend relieved her of any further indulgence of my company.  I swallowed the rest of my drink, along with my pride, and resumed drifting among the tide of party guests.

The house in Echo Park that was holding the event was three stories tall, each one host to flocks of artisans, trendsetters, dilettantes, and fashionistas.  If someone wasn’t a filmmaker or an actor, they were a graphic artist or fashion designer.  They had a card, an agent, and multiple hyphens to their job description.  The whole occasion was decidedly “bouge” as my roommate, Charlotte, would say.  She had dragged me along in the hopes that I might make some new friends, but I found little appeal in such a large-scale gathering with hardly a pretense for conversation.

With my dubious street credentials and serviceable wardrobe, I felt like fresh meat for the flannelled mafia.  After what seemed like an hour of forced banter and sentences punctuated by “WHAT?”, the white noise of the crowd had scrambled my senses beyond use.  I bushwacked my way past the beer pong table, across the DJ, up the patio, through the general forest of pretentiousness and found a nice corner where I could disappear.  Charlotte found me in my hiding spot guzzling down beers.

“Ugh,” she groaned, “You’re being awkward.  Let’s go.”  She didn’t ask if I was fit to drive (I wasn‘t) and so we had no choice but to sit it out in the car while I detoxified.  I offered to go back inside for awhile, but Charlotte had already said her good-byes and we couldn’t very well back-track on those.  God, how did I not know these things?  There, in a drunken haze, I resumed pondering a question that had been lingering my mind for the last few days, one which had only become more prominent in suffering the night’s festivities: Had I made the right choice?

Two months had passed since I had graduated from Cal State Northridge, earning a degree that I’m still not entirely sure is useful for.  I had thrown my cap in the air and with it a lifetime that had been charted by checklists, curriculums, and merit badges, now faced with the exciting and terrifying prospect of a life that was suddenly very multiple-choice.

For better or for worse, it was to be a bold new direction for The Dan Barron Show, full of new cast members, exciting storylines, and a different setting, with perhaps a few guest appearances by old regulars.  Because one thing was for certain, I sure as hell wasn’t sticking around in the San Fernando Valley.

While the past six years had supplied me with many treasured friendships and fond memories, life in the area had always seemed so….functional.  I had always regarded the Valley as a cultural vacuum absent of any psychic nourishment, just row after factory-pressed row of strip malls and chain restaurants.   A kind of TV dinner Americana.  Unless you really, really like watching strangers have sex for money, so much that you need these people to be your neighbors, I have little to recommend about the area.  Six years as a southern California resident and still I could scarcely refer to myself as an Angeleno, not when so much of its landscape lay unexplored.

Like a lot of aspects of my life, I sort of wandered into the current stage of my development.  One May afternoon, in the parking garage of my apartment building, I happened upon my neighbor loading up her car with her belongings.  She griped that she was fed up with the building management and said she was moving into a friend’s house in Silver Lake.  I had spent one memorable day in the town, years ago, and voiced my envy that she was migrating to such a hub of arts and culture.  She told me that she knew of an apartment for rent that I could look into and from that throwaway suggestion arrived one of the great turning points in my life.

Ah, Silver Lake!  As a perpetual man without a country its myth as a haven for quirky culture addicts like myself was seductive.  It was a place with texture, the palpable sense that it had been made with human hands.  It had a kind of small town charm that was hard to find in southern California.  Hell, the average coffee shop seemed to exude more life and personality than a given block in Northridge.  Academia was finally in my rear-view mirror so what was left to tie me down?  With hardly a backward glance I boxed up my life and set out on the road so that my bohemian rhapsody could begin.

Suffice it to say, my initial impressions were a wee bit unreflective of the movie in my mind.  Rather than being greeted with open arms, I was thrust into a cannibalistic rat race to be the most stylish, connected, name-droppingest person in town.  It was high school but with nicer clothes.  At least, that was how it appeared my shy, jobless, beardless ass. It can be tough meeting people in a new setting, and doubly so in terrain as spread out as Los Angeles, where people hardly ever seem to leave their cars.  There becomes something symbolic about the long stretches of highway that link each town, the constipated roads that breed resentment.  Objects in space separated by walls of glass and steel.  You flick on your signal lights, look another driver in the eye and think:  Do you see me?  Are you going to let me in?

This circles back to that night in July, hammered in the car with my roommate, with the question hovering over my head that I carried with me all the way home and for months after that.  Was this town that felt so Member’s Only the place for me?  Loathe as I was to admit it, my sojourn among the hipsterati felt like a near-bust.  So when I should have been dining on the sights and sounds of central Los Angeles and its surrounding territories, such as the art galleries, the comedy performances, the music venues, the festivals, etc., I found myself seeking refuge in the spotless Neverland of nostalgia.  Good lord, I actually looked for excuses to return to the Valley.  How fast-acting and potent an anesthetic time can be.  In mere months, the vanilla burg I had so staunchly derided was awash in sepia-tones, compelling me towards a simpler era that had familiar faces and rules that made sense.  When I wasn’t manufacturing reasons to take shelter in the past, I was holed up in my apartment as if preparing for an imminent nuclear holocaust.  Over time the days and nights without incident began to smear together.

“You know, I used to feel sorry for you, Dan, but now I‘m over with that.  You don‘t even try to go out anymore,” Charlotte told me one night as she was polishing herself up for another big party.  Her routinely castrating remarks had become grating, yet I possessed enough presence of mind to know that this time there was a kernel of truth in her words.  Almost out of protest I put on my jacket and climbed behind the wheel of my car.  I took a drive around Echo Park and Silver Lake just to feel the electricity of human existence again.

This was LA, there had to be something going on.  After over an hour of meditatively patrolling the streets without purchase, I resigned myself to another melancholic Friday night sedated in front of the tube and pulled into the driveway of a liquor store.  As I left the establishment with my date for the evening (all six of them), four high school students asked if I could buy them some alcohol.   They told me that they had heard some kind of a gathering was going down in the parking lot in back of a vintage shop.  For lack of a better idea, I decided to join them.

The orange glow of torch lights carved through the blackness of the night sky, illuminating the parking lot from afar and drawing droves of people to it like moths to a lantern.  As my new companions and I drew closer, the rhythmic rumblings of drum beats increased in pitch, stirring my blood in bracing anticipation.

We rounded the corner and what I saw then gave me an instant contact high.  All around rows of multi-colored tents had been erected, and with them what had to have been nearly fifty people.  The crowd was a diverse mix of punks rockers, fashion mavens, geeks, and scene kids.  Canvases had been propped along the fences and street artists were going to work on them as if there were something criminal about the color white.  The air was bathed in a thick grey mist and the acrid blend of aerosol, charcoal, and cigarette smoke flared my nostrils.  I had suddenly found myself in the middle of a genuine LA happening, spontaneous, inebriating, and crackling with anarchic energy.  A “brown bag social” they called it.

Then came out two fire dancers.  To the sonic shredding of local metal band Power Axe they swung their gasoline-soaked chains in a golden cyclone of medieval fury.  The act culminated in their signature move the Ring of Fire, wherein they singed the earth around them, irradiating them like angry gods.  Attendees stomped the cracked pavement as if united some tribal ritual.

“Don’t you ever hurt yourself doing that?” I asked one of the dancers following performance.  I had gathered inside the shop with the two of them and one of the artists.

“Oh, of course I do,” he said, proudly displaying his battle scars, “But when I’m out there doing my thing people worship me!  And it totally makes girls drop their panties.”  Class act, that guy.
What had spurred such a gathering?  It wasn’t about money, because nothing was being sold, or publicity, because far I could tell no journalists were around.  No, through sheer passionate force of will this small pocket of town had been transformed into a howling paean to the invulnerability of youth.

This was why I moved to Los Angeles.

There was a lesson to be learned from the whole experience.  Actually, three.  The first one is that it really pays to buy booze for underage youth.  Not only will you look cool in their eyes, but they may open you up to new experiences.

The second message I extracted from the evening was to open myself to the possibility of surprise.  The wonderful thing about Los Angeles is that there is something going on at any given moment.  One only needs to start lifting up rocks and seeing what they find underneath.

I’ll get to the last and most substantial lesson in a moment, but first I want to talk about my feelings immediately following the event.  I hit the mattress positively vibrating with inspiration.  The thrill of the night had massaged my inner-Kerouac, jolting me from a half-awake existence.  In a reflective moment, I thought back on my life, the wilderness years where I firewalked through fear and doubt.  I thought back on the months since I had tried to establish a new life, where I allowed myself to be held hostage by my anxieties and denied myself from feeling the pulse of my surroundings.

It seemed like there were a hundred stories in that parking lot, alone, from the various bands, to the creepy store owner who organized the event, to the fire dancers, to the two fashion designers who smoked me out.  Suddenly I was invigorated with an insatiable hunger to know more and a need to record my findings.  Never mind that my journalistic experience is limited to a community college course and a year-long stint on my high school newspaper.  I come equipped with an enduring love of the English language, an incurable sense of curiosity, high threshold for weirdness, and faith in the concept that most people really love talking about themselves.

What I internalized in the weeks following that fateful night was that greatness, or at the least the will to claim it, is a conscious decision.  It isn’t preordained or a green light to be bestowed upon by the arbiters of cool.  It all starts with you.

So here it is, the progeny of years of labor pains and a stroke of inspiration.  Screaming, covered in mucus and amniotic fluid, ready to greet the world.  Throughout its lifespan I hope to cover a broad range of subjects, from high culture to fringe culture.  The less comfortable the better.  No story is too big or too small.  With enough panache even the most mundane occurrences can achieve a kind of truthful transcendence.  I have big plans for this site that I hope to roll out over the next year, but more than a forum for my own purposes, I would like for this to evolve into a vehicle of expression for many other unique voices.

Consider this a mission statement, a call-to-arms, a flare-shot to any and all ready and willing.  Photo essays, short stories, interviews, profiles, podcasts, web comics, artwork, video content.  All are welcome under the umbrella that is YAY! LA.

Together we can collect and retell the tales contained within of the City of Angels.  A city of a thousand shades, of limitless stories.  A place that everyone seems to have a love/hate relationship with, and yet those who grow up in it never seem to want to leave it.  My city.

– Daniel A. Barron,

Coming soon YayLABlog.com

The great Dan’s travails of travels across town.

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