Michael J. Wilson
The Liberator Magazine 9.1 #24, 2010 & 10.1 #25, 2011
(artwork: Illene Byers)
It was a spectacular Saturday evening when we decided to go get drunk and get ourselves into the club -- Sauce or Shed I think it was called. As was unusual for such a night though, I managed to work my way out of having to drive anybody so I'd get the chance to really chug the jug without much worry about cops and tickets and the general confusion of drinking and driving.
So, Breon's there to pick me up from my house around 9:30, and we bend the corner to the nearest liquor store and start working: Two-fifths of Seagram's Gin would get things started for the two of us and we'd still have some for later when Mark and Brian meet us in Hollywood. I'm admiring Breon's economically intelligent choice of investing in the old screwy Nissan Sentra -- maybe a '94 or '95 -- to ride in (his other car's a hot van they'd been trying to repossess ever since I first slid the doors open to hide cans of beer under its back seat a year, or so, ago).
"Yeah nigga, this shit cool. How much it run you for?"
"Got it for a thousand."
We yank the corner of Figueroa and Manchester, pass under the sexy L.A. gloomy underpass, go 'round the old roundabout and come on the Interstate 110 doing a simple 70 mph straight across to the diamond lane. With each mile I'm growing more dedicated to the bottle. Coupled with my new-found passengerhood, I'm smiling out the window into the swarming, teeming L.A. traffic and darkness. No need for chasers; just me and the old bottle kissing one another after every glance around to make sure none of those wretched cops are peeking into the windows. I look over and see Breon's strategy: I always laugh to see the fellas drink and drive with a little Styrofoam cup between their legs. So simple, so convenient. Now Breon's stepping on that gas and telling me to refill his cup for him. I do, but only after the mandatory tax of a chug before pouring, and a sip from his cup thereafter. He doesn't mind though, he knows just as well as I do that we've got fat pockets tonight and plenty of gas -- we'd go to Oakland, drunk the whole way, if only someone said it'd be a good idea.
We swerve out of the diamond lane pretty smoothly. The gin doesn't even seem to be affecting Breon as much as it's got me. I'm now drunk, staring at the circus of downtown lights as we go swinging around to the 101 (my favorite freeway in all of America). I always end up on it at night, but actually fell in love with it in spring after leaving the frozen east coast and getting back to L.A. only to see a city eternally green. The way Palm trees would lean lazily behind overpasses, just to the left and right. And the way the blue sky would end behind the Hills of Hollywood. I always wound up on the 101 when adventure was waiting for me; took it to go see new girls (and old ones), took it to go out for the night and just sit watching Highland pulse with energy ... maybe off to a wedding.
We end up spurting out the off-ramp into the strip malls and sagging movie-houses of East Hollywood. Breon prowled the back streets for parking and we found it in 10 minutes. We park, crack on the radio and guzzle more gin as we sit shooting the shit and waiting for Mark (the greatest drinking man I've ever known) who is somewhere back in the confusion of freeways, racing and weaving through cars with a little Styrofoam cup between his legs.
We're just about to toss an empty bottle of gin out the window when Mark hits me on the hip.
"Guess what nigga," his voice is being drowned out by a wash of sedans and trucks driving all around him, "I got a motherfucking flat!"
"Damn ... where you at?"
Breon's eyes widen while holding the cup up to his lips. He can hear the worry in my voice and see it spreading over my face as it sort of sobers me up for a moment.
"I'm by this park, ah ... a street called ... hold on, let me walk up to the ... ah ... Bellevue, and it's a park right over here, kind of by the freeway..."
I immediately sift through the maps in my mind recalling that the only park between Breon and I and home, near a street called "Bellevue," would have to be Echo Park, my second favorite in the city after good 'ol Griffith. Back in high school, my gym classes met there for jogging. There's a long lake with fountain jets and paddleboats by day, though unfortunately shrouded by a tacky collection of earthquake-scarred bungalows latched onto low hillsides. I also recalled the mosquitoes that surrounded that haven for junkies and the homeless by night. Still, the park retained a sort of bygone L.A. charm, bringing to mind old-time paparazzi cameras with flashbulbs that popped and Negro nannies rushing after the pale shoulders of toddlers with umbrellas.
Breon, smart driver-wheelman Breon sucks his teeth at losing our gorgeous and convenient parking spot and slips back onto the 101 for maybe four or five exits. We exit and sure enough see Mark standing outside his white Chevy Monte Carlo, bedecked in some fashionable club attire although his stranded condition gives him the look of a runaway groom confused as to where he will go to blend in. We pull up and laugh and pass him the bottle because he needs it to tell his story.
After two, maybe three, healthy swigs he wipes his lips and bares his teeth like a wolf before pouncing. He hates light liquor but with it being a recession, he refrains from any sort of complaining and instead motions us to the trunk of his car where he produces his own cheap bottle of cognac. We all have a swig and I'm just as happy as ever to see Mark, who already has made maybe 12 good jokes or sly remarks since we pulled up on him.
"So what the fuck happened?" I finally blurt out, and with a wide, exhaling grin and his hands on his hips, he goes into how the passenger side tire just exploded somewhere after the 110. He beckons us to have a look at the poor shredded tire. Breon scratches his head followed by, "How you gone get it home?" This does present an obstacle but if I know Mark he won't let a simple flat tire stop him from a night out with the boys -- no girlfriend drama plus a virtually endless supply of drinks. In fact, he already formulated the new plan, probably just after he heard the tire pop on the freeway. That's his style: real witty and quick-minded; can't allow anyone to see him in a bind looking hopeless. And I've seen him in many a bind and handle them with the quickest and greatest deal of ease.
Once, we all got pulled over with a load of marijuana and ecstasy pills under the driver's seat, plus several high, irrationally spooked people in the car. Mark was driving and somehow managed to get the cops to play a joke on Breon by claiming that he had a warrant (he really did have one!). The cops said, "Just kidding!" and forgot all about the drugs. How he managed to orchestrate this is something relegated to the secret archives of the hidden library in his brain. The whole way home after that we had to sit for a well-deserved skewering, on behalf of Mark, for being such "pussies." He was driving 80 mph with another little cup between his knees and just casually turning around and laughing at whomever it was he was calling a "bitch." Of course we didn't mind -- couldn't mind -- because he was right. It's just flat out unacceptable (regardless of how difficult) for ALL of us to simultaneously lose our cools and panic in front of the police.
So, like a great guru of driving and drinking he lovingly berated us then cheered us up by passing us the bottle. Of course, I knew Mark was just as nervous as anyone else in the beginning -- he was on probation for a narcotics charge -- but he would have been betraying a long-revered code of ethics if he had shown it. Plus, he's the oldest, so he takes his rank quite seriously.
And now the plan: Mark's got the brilliant idea to simply leave his car where it is. Fortunately, it's parked in a location where street cleaning doesn't happen for a couple days and is free of charge until the next morning at 11. He decides it's best for the three of us to pile into Breon's compact Sentra (with me in the back!) and continue our night as planned. And let's not waste anymore time because he's sure that pretty little parking spot we left is still there waiting for our return. On the way back he explains how he'll get SOMEONE to drive him back early the next morning and call AAA. Again, the day is saved.
So, for the third time in one night, we end up on the 101 once again, this time with me crunched into the backseat not really minding because there's at least enough room for me and that bottle of cognac that Mark keeps passing back to me to ensure that I'm not upset with being in the back seat 'cause he's 5'2" and I'm 6'1". Sweet, old, considerate wiseman Mark.
But before we make our grand return to the parking spot, Breon hollers out something about being hungry.
"Well, we gotta do that shit quick," Mark quickly responds, as if he had predicted such an outburst occurring (probably when the tire exploded on the 110), "or else we'll be looking for another spot all damn night!"
So they go at it, working out the logistics and concessions necessary to obtaining the correct snacks, and now also, a chaser for what Breon claims is Mark's "nasty ass" cognac.
They quickly come to an agreement to stop at a CVS not far away from the parking spot and we get there and every beautiful dream about the perfection of our night suddenly seems on the brink of shattering with the sight of two officers seated in their police car and parked in the lot not far from where we've stopped. It being impossible to make a U-turn in from of them, I settle on the thoughts that, thankfully, I'm not driving and that Mark is probably already solving our dilemma.
"Black, open that backseat and put all the bottles and cups in the trunk! Hurry up nigga!"
So I get to it, doing my best not to panic and drop an open bottle on the floor, or forget a cup, and all the while trying to gulp down the contents of my own. Breon can't possibly be past the legal limit and just for good measure, Mark silently volunteers to kill Breon's cup for him. Essentially then, the next few minutes are all in my hands. I'm suddenly found holding the reigns of our futures, hampered both by a detached and scattered focus on the surroundings and the general chaos in Breon's back seat of old shoes, clothes, papers, small boxes and a child's car seat -- all of which seem to have been placed with the greatest deal of care in order to prevent my finding the latch and lowering the seat. Amid that circus of stuff lay three or four tiny Styrofoam cups and a couple of bottles that have probably already leaked out onto the carpet. I'm sweating. One jittery side of me knows the police can see past the tinted windows at my pathetic scramble and that, in a moment they'll be on either side of the car tapping the windows with those heavy black flashlights ...
Just as these fears seem on the verge of overwhelming me, I think back to the practical joke episode with the police. For all I know, these cops in the parking lot may be Malcolm's henchmen getting into place in order to make me look like a fool again. It's a stretch, but I use the idea to calm my nerves, place all indicators of alcohol in the trunk, close the seat and jump out of the car behind Ben and Malcolm. "Stop acting like a bitch ass nigga!" I say to myself.
We make it inside the drugstore with no problem; I doubt the police even looked our way. The fact that I was able to get all of the cups and bottles into the trunk without a problem saves me from having to hear anything -- I did good. Ben is going down the aisle straight for his can of beer. I hear him smack his teeth as he discovers they don't sell 211 in this Hollywood drugstore. Malcolm's going for chips. The lights in the store are bright and the clear plastic on the candy bars, deodorant and paper towels make them seem even brighter. I simply say and do nothing until they've paid for their snacks and we file out of the sliding doors back into the Hollywood night.
Malcolm has his short-legged long stride going and Ben is already pulling the driver seat forward so I can hop in the backseat. We notice, all at once, that the police are pulling out of the lot with their lights on, off to chase someone else.
"Fuckum!" Malcolm says as he reaches back toward me, signaling for a bottle and a cup to be reproduced from the backseat.
Ben got his beer as he single-handedly whips out of the parking lot. My phone rings. It's Eddie:
1. He's at a parking space at the club.
2. He's paid to park on their lot.
3. It's only six dollars.
4. He'll pay for us if we (pretend we) don't have the money to do the same.
I relay these messages to the boys who throw their heads back and huff until I get to the part where Eddie speaks about covering our valet. Then they grin.
"Shiiit, if he paying then ..."
When we get to the club we see Eddie standing like an air traffic controller directing us to a spot directly next to his. The euphoria really begins to settle in because what started out as a bland conversation about Nissan has progressed into a grand reunion wherein we've arrived with enough drinks for everybody so that our pockets won't take a hit in the club (we are responsible in the recession). We also have Eddie's change of clothes which he changes into inside of his car. Next, he joins us in the Nissan and begins advertising about the club.
"Black, nigga -- man, this shit is guaranteed to crack! Don't you see all these females up in line?"
Ben jumps in. "Nigga, I already know. Last time we came through, I got like 10 numbers -- this shit do crack."
With those words and a view of what looks to be about a hundred women all dressed in short skirts, tight-fitting stretch pants, high heels, midriff shirts exposing smooth brown flashes of stomach, short dresses and white shorts that end just after covering the cheeks, we drain our cups and head toward the line behind four girls who are looking back at us and smiling.
A number of factors went into the establishment of this now perfect Saturday night of nights. I knew all along that it would lead up to this after the day gave way to me hopping out of the shower into that initially silent and peaceful evening. As I ironed my shirt I knew that all over nighttime California, other men were pressing their button-downs and getting angry at the water that leaked from their cheap irons. I knew too that women were putting on eyeliner and applying body sprays to mask the odors of school and workweek. People were stocking up on breath mints or gum or cigarettes or all three. Orders had been placed with various weed-men -- some folks splurging and purchasing an ounce while others settled for a dime bag -- and gallons of alcohol were flying off of store shelves and being consumed by drivers and passengers. Radios were blaring pre-party music filling so many heads with expectations, millions of text messages and phone calls were bouncing back and forth in efforts to coordinate pick-ups, meet-ups and drop-offs. He was stopping for gas, she was lying to her boyfriend about tonight's plans, they were using toothbrushes in last minute attempts to remove the scuffs from sneakers and we were in a block-long line asking to borrow a lighter from four girls who smoked, even though we knew we had our own.
Malcolm took the lead here once again and convinced the girls to give us that lighter which led to us all holding some conversation over cigarettes and Black ‘n Milds concerning the matter of the line not moving. In Hollywood, the line tends to serve two purposes: To humiliate the people standing in it by making them aware of the fact that they are either too broke or too unknown by the club owners to walk straight up to the door or, more importantly, to give the impression that the club is filled to capacity when in all reality less than 10 people are actually inside.
Passersby see the line and opt to join it believing the club is cracking, not realizing that by the time they get to the front of the line, the entry fee has skyrocketed from "free before 10:30 p.m." to "$25 for dudes." This ploy works every weekend.
When we made it to the front door it must have been 11:15 p.m. and sure enough the bouncer announced, "$25 for dudes." The four us of looked at one another confusedly before Eddie ventured, "Aye, but we know Buddha. He always let us in for $10."
"That's what's up. I'm not Buddha. Twenty-five for dudes," the bouncer says calmly.
Malcolm makes one last desperate appeal to no avail. The longer we stand there, the more pathetic we look; so the stone-faced bouncer does us the favor of unhooking the velvet rope so that we can head back to the parking lot.
"See man, fuck that," Malcolm erupts. "They gave that gorilla-ass nigga a little job at the front and now he think he the shit. This why I can't stand coming to Hollywood in the first place. Nigga acting brand new when he ain't shit. Broke ass nigga!"
"It's all good though, I know about another spot in Long Beach that's always poppin' and it ain't never more than $10 to get in!" Eddie says.
"Long Beach?" we all say.
Long Beach is a strong 45 minute drive from Hollywood. What's more, the Long Beach Police Department holds a reputation for being notoriously insensitive to its own niggas, not to mention a batch of L.A. niggas who see Long Beach as an inferior and parasitic "town" too far away from anything to truly matter. I'd heard stories about black folks getting thrown in jail for jaywalking in Long Beach. Just the same, we were all drunk and amped about the night and the club Eddie was talking about really was cheap (because nobody likes going to Long Beach). So, this meant that the knights had to hold court and make a decision.
Ben cast his vote first, "Nigga, I'm down for whatever. It's hoes in Long Beach!"
"I mean, I ain't driving so it really don't matter to me, but ya'll know Long Beach, the police is shady out there and we gone be three deep in the car," I say not wanting to sound too worried. "We already got a bunch of bottles in the car and you saw how we almost got yanked up at the store ..."
"Black, ain't nothing gone happen ‘less you keep speaking it into existence!" Malcolm interrupts. "We already out, a nigga got on his church shoes and shit, I'm loaded, nigga let's go to Long Beach!"
It was all settled then. I climbed back inside the car and took another shot from the bottle, as did everyone else. It was after midnight when we left the parking lot and headed back onto the freeway …
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