Mining the States of City Minds: 6

In "Mining the States of City Minds," a recent blog, I introduced my approach to experiencing the texture of city life in Venice, California and writing up the resulting stories with a type of literary journalism. This kind of writing, with roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s, captures these stories as they happen in the streets and other sites of everyday life through scenes that are faithful to the action and events they emerged from. It lets characters speak for themselves, which gives the writing the feel of a fictional short story but also a more truthful approximation of the surfacing event through their differing perspectives or points of view. Like a Surrealist flaneur I amble through the city trolling for stories and find their potential elements in various clusters of activity, sometimes homeless camps, where these voices dramatize their challenging existences. They present the evidence that might lead to a larger story waiting to be told. My resulting scenes mix direct and indirect (playing undercover detective on occasion) observations and the reorganization of conversations. This is the sixth in my series. In the first I captured the chaos ensuing from a crime in the streets, and especially the actions and impressions of one person suspected of committing it as he escapes into the bowels of the city. In the second I captured another scene in a park at night where a few residents from the previous one are present along with others, including the suspect. In the third I traced this suspect's continued journey, and his securing of temporary sanctuary. In the fourth I tracked this person's escape from this place to the beach where he met several residents who occupied a camp. In the fifth I recorded his continuing experiences on the beach where he is detained by some of these residents. Here I register what happens after he escapes from them and plunges into the ocean, returning to a friend's place to get recharged before heading back to the streets, and then the Dog Park where he encounters a woman who appears to be stalking him. As she leaves the cops descend on the park.

A Stalking Apparition

Wyatt wakes brusquely from the rumblings of the waste recycling truck passing along Speedway, clueless about where he is. He looks around, seeing only two bay windows off in the distance that are both shaded and divided by a door. The light of the mid-morning barely streams through their edges, not enough to illuminate the room, and he's still sleep-logged and trying to focus. He shakes his head back and forth, like he's trying to free his locks of fallen debris, and now remembers he's at Desiree's place. She let him in after he'd escaped from the beach strip and wandered inland searching for shelter. The cops had apparently dispersed the street crowd so he headed back in her direction, soaking wet and cold from his dip in the sea.

He'd walked into the approaching waves buoyed by the adrenaline rush from his escape, and anxious to disappear. As the water gradually rose to meet him he felt increasingly soothed by the tactile sensation, and protected from his pursuers. But as he slipped below the surface he became energized and swam south to avoid capture. It was like the fatigue from the ordeals of the past few days was washing away with the grime, giving him a refreshing new outlook.

He surfaced from the water about a hundred yards down the beach, feeling confident he'd made a safe getaway, and rested on the lip of the sand, reflecting on what he'd just been through. It was still fairly dark and no one seemed to be moving along the beach, only a scattering of bodies among their belongings, so he set out to search for a place to hang.

Though there were no lights on in Desiree's place, he wisely tried the door, finding her flush with welcome.

"Thought you'd be back," she says. "Why'd you streak out of here so fast...someone chasing you?"

"Well, not...really...heard that knock at the front door and figured you might have a visitor and..."

"...it was only Rhiannon and a friend of hers. You know them...should've stayed."

"Well, but I didn't know and I...the cops are after me so I can't be too careful and...then I ran into these primitive warrior types on the beach last night who thought I was a cop and...they kept me at their camp along the water. I need to find Willow. She might be able to clear me."

"You said something before but...what's this all about?"

"Don't know where to start...let me catch my breath."

"I saw her yesterday over at Meelo's housewarming on 19th. She wants to come back up off the street to..."

"...what? What'd she say? Where's she staying?"

"Don't know...she seemed kind of distant...non-communicative."

As she finishes she reaches over and touches his shoulder, urging him to the couch along the wall. "We got some unfinished business, and we have to talk soon about what's going on with you." He quickly fades...

The room is getting brighter. He hears murmurs of conversation in front and more traffic passing along the alley. He looks up to the loft. Desiree seems dead to the world. He quietly rises and tiptoes to the bathroom in back. Finally, the chance to clean up! These opportunities have been few and far between lately. He enters the shower in a stupor of expectation, submitting to the full stream of water like he's trying to salvage every drop for future use. The exit from a state of numbing oblivion, when he isn't even sure he exists, is exhilarating. His memories filter back in new arrangements that make more sense, and he becomes more attentive to what is happening around him.

Something special is happening now. He wants to talk to Desiree but feels he shouldn't waste this moment. Life, he always felt, is really only a series of moments, and if you denied one this could upset your momentum since, somehow, each one added to the pool put the previous ones in clearer focus, even revealed a pattern at times. On the street things get sort of averaged out, flattened in a sense, and he was missing these experiences, so he decides to let Desiree sleep and get out into the open air.

He enters Speedway heading south, doing his best to blend in with the late-morning throng. A flock of pigeons sweeps by and splatters the cement, garnishing the edges of a few bedrolls on the west side, something he wouldn't usually notice. As he picks up the pace a bit he feels like he's being looked at differently too, or at least not as repelled as much as usual, the eyes lingering for a few microseconds of concern. Perhaps the extra energy flow alters their figure-ground view and even softens his fatigue and street scars. He gives a high five to a hand jutting up from a bedroll. He knows he should get a change of clothes, but just wants to amble now. It's strange to be out in the light of day.

He cowers at the sight of a policeman on horseback a couple hundred yards away and his expression tightens; his confidence flags. The beachgoers begin to seem menacing. He cuts away from the beach up Thornton Ct to evade the officer's looks, and mid-way turns right through a space between condos to Sunset. He resumes his pace and heads to Pacific, sprinting across it toward the Dog Park. It's fairly full of people and their dogs, and he finds a place to sit under a tree in the northeast corner and stretches out, staring up to the heavens. After several seconds an upside down head appears in his field of vision.

It looks other-worldly. He tries to turn it right-side up in his mind, imagine who it is, and guesses it's a woman, probably one of the many who want to get him off the streets. He feels violated and swivels his frame to get a better look but she moves away, forcing him to roll over and spring onto his haunches. He sees a woman staring at him from about twenty feet away. To his surprise it's a woman he has seen on the Boardwalk, though she looks different now, more mysterious in the glare of late morning.

Their stares lock for what seems like minutes to Wyatt, a painful moment since there's a gleam in her eyes that seems out of place, weakening his effort. She could be faintly winking, or perhaps embarrassed at seeing him. He'd learned to recognize the latter from living on the street as a subtly-aggressive gesture meant to erase him from the scene.

Wyatt gives in, lacking the energy to stay with it, looks away and notices she's still looking directly at him, as if to say she can't be shaken. He makes another go at it and she relinquishes her position gracefully.

"I've seen you before along the beach. You're always on the move. This is the first time I've been able to corner you."

He gazes at her, not sure what to say. He's attracted to her but feels she might not be what she seems. Or maybe he's just paranoid, driven to mis-perceptions by his fallow senses, and now he doesn't know how to react.

"Yeah, I think I remember you. I'm not all that hard to catch if you..."

"...I like to stroll along the beach and search for interesting faces...find out who's behind them, where they come from, what they do...catch them in moments and situations and imagine what their stories are."

"Can't imagine what you think my story might be!"

She just stares at him, eyes gleaming. He is feeling the brakes now, from his condition, his wilted confidence.

"One that you don't want many to know?"

It suddenly hits him, that she could've been following him for a while. How long? Maybe she's an undercover cop! His confidence dips further. What does she know?

"What do you mean by that? Have you been stalking me?"

He's struck by her appearance, so perfectly manicured, pristine, fashionable and refined with tautly-tanned cheeks. Her gestures are crisp and assured. Why is she here?

"I wouldn't do that! You probably just entered my space...was out one morning taking a walk by the beach and there you were curled up next to a tree staring at the waves...maybe I saw you..."

"...remember the liquor store on the Boardwalk? Didn't I see you there the other night?"

"Well, you might've...am usually...don't remember exactly where I was, but...what were you doing there?"

"Oh, nothing much, it's just that I thought I saw you...sometimes your mind plays tricks on you, especially late at night."

She moves closer to him as he speaks, and the expression on her face says she wants to change the subject. He looks around at the people lounging in the park and walking their dogs, all absorbed in their activities, and back to her. She turns slightly and he sees her from the side. The sun, which had previously been blocked by her frame, exposes her breasts clearly. The brightness seems to dissolve the already nearly-sheer material of her top. He sees her left nipple against a blue sky of fluttering seagulls, and pasted in the foreground onto a gawking face on the fringe of the park. The curl of the woman's lips says she hit the bulls-eye.

"I love it out here with you people! There's something, well...open and pure and raw about it...freedom, we're all freer, no hang-ups. We can be who we want to be...we're all members of the godhead."

He hesitates and peruses the park for a familiar face, or some sign he hasn't been beamed to a different scene. It doesn't look the same. Is it because he's anxious about being discovered?

"I want to be able to make it through the night!"

"But isn't that the excitement? And it gets us so much closer to what life is all about!"

He squirms, wanting to move from beneath her presence, partially blinded by the light streaming through her freshly-washed hair. The curl returns.

"If by excitement you mean gambling on where you'll be day by day!"

"Yes, that's it. When you're not sure you find out...necessity is the mother of invention as they say!"

"Whoever said that was in some study far removed from the streets. You ever been on the street?"

She flinches and edges slightly back from him as he tries to get up. He sees her from a different angle, and pulls back. She seems larger and ethereal.

"Yeah, sure...but I guess...not really in that way. When I was house-sitting for someone after I got back from travelling around Europe the sheriff showed up with an eviction order and, well it's a long...I've hung with lots of people who were like that, at least before I found my niche in..."

"...modeling?"

"Yeah, how did you guess? I did some posing for these art students too who lived in this huge studio and were also making this film that..."

"...you should spend a few days on the street and see what you're really missing. Your posings might start to look like cartoons from hell!"

"Maybe I'll take you up on that...but first I have to find someone who..."

"...know any cops?"

"Not really...we...we don't need them...they don't exist!" she says while strutting to the street and carefully observing the expression on his face. "See you soon!"

He watches her silhouette vanish into the shadows on Main and falls back on the ground spread-eagle, staring up at the blue sky. He's exhausted from the interchange and slips into a mild trance. As he's fading away sirens fill the air and two black-and-whites pin the corner of the park. His eyes open like he has come back from the dead. He remains motionless, sensing the swarm of officers into the park...

John O'Kane has published over a hundred stories, essays and poems in a variety of venues, blogs regularly on Huffingtonpost, and edits and publishes AMASS Magazine. His most recent book is, A People's Manifesto (2015). He has a book of short stories forthcoming in 2017.