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The house on Etiwanda never gets finished past the structure itself: no walls with family photographs, no fireplace, no windows with a view, no more than a roof if it rains or shines, never a place even remotely called home. It is not until we move into the apartment on Vanowen Street that we feel homey anywhere. A ground floor unit at the corner of the building, it has bars on the large terrace. After all, this is West Van Nuys, CA, one so-so family area. Vanowen is a busy street, you can count noise in the cons department, yet we like it here. The first Halloween is a blast; we walk among the single houses behind the apartments and further down this friendly neighbourhood, tree-lined, quiet, almost traffic free. We are under the watchful eye of Harmonia, Goddess of Suburbia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, and it feels warm inside with ice cream on top. All kids being alike, Miro and Macie love ice cream. Having an antithetic experience, I wear Mona Lisa enigma in lieu of a mask while Eileen identifies herself with kids. This balmy lukewarm evening goes a long stretch down our family’s memory lane: it is after all our inaugural Halloween, definitely one for the books. Families are passing by with greetings, flashlights beam around, it’s a surreal scene from the days of early Christianity, the traditional Paschal Crucession by Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church in Guslitsa, the processions of the Thesmophoria, or Spring, a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. No smell of incense to be detected, a slight aroma of cinnamomum camphora hangs low in the air, mixed with a touch of myrrh for good measure. Macie’s and Miro’s eyes gleam as the night settles on us all, falling an octave by octave lower, but we keep on walking, keep on chatting, pointing around in this timeless setting where moves get committed to memory in sequels. We can fondle future Halloweens under our palms’ anticipation, costume making and paraphernalia, growing thick tension mixed with ever-changing October light over the neighbourhood’s terrestrial ingredients of dinner exuding its rustic smell, accompanied with denizens’ avidity to sit down and dine, picking pink cherries full of juice under their translucent skins for dessert.
It is full night now, with echoes of colours scattered in the cloudless sky just an hour ago. Under our soft steps the black asphalt radiates warmth, its way of narrating how the day passing might reappear tomorrow and tell another story, which is fine with us, yet the Halloween is tonight, when we transform into characters with powerful personalities, having just enough courage to power-live them for one day a year: I, I will be King, and you, you will be Queen, though nothing will drive them away, we can be heroes just for one day, we can be us just for one day.
There is invariably the morning after, waving its two-edged sword above our muzzy heads, channelling our day before the virgin thought leaves the pale blue 600-thread-count cotton sheets, the ancient puzzle of two doors leading to heaven and hell with freedom of choice forced upon us at the Glock point. I have enough juice to handle any given morning these days, as I jump in my car and drive away in the particular direction of Ardwin Freight trucking company, where I jump in my white Freightliner cabover with Cummins engine, number 59, and pull out of their dirt yard in Sun Valley, where pimps talk the talk and hookers walk the walk, watching the numerous rear view mirrors so I don’t knock the chicken fence unconscious in the dust; life is good, I’m ready for a lucrative load going behind the far horizons, Houston perhaps or Pittsburgh, PA, somewhere I can return from fast and see my family soon. I am so powered by homesickness that fly up the I-15 toward Barstow and I-40 so I could be back from a two-week absence in a jiffy, which makes no sense to you but you are not driving my truck and your family enjoys the benefits of this vast country much longer than mine, not to mention all the grandmas, grandpas, aunties, and friends eager to jump in and help if needed, and financial security as well, and god knows what more I cannot think of since I’m grinding the Cajon Pass with a heavy load of flour picked up in Ontario, CA, trying to reach Kingman, AZ, before taking a nap after a draining day of waiting to get loaded, weighing the truck and trailer, fuelling, beating the traffic, so I could drive the rest of the night and deep into the morning before stopping again, in Shamrock, TX, right past the border of New Mexico, and having a snack at Dairy Queen’s, now seriously worn out, yet I jump in the Freightliner with no time to waste since my family is waiting for me to return, they are waiting for me going to school, coming home from school, going to bed, I cannot let them down, I plan to arrive to Little Rock around midnight, have a sensible dinner and pass out for four hours, before roaring again and hopefully making to Atlanta before 5pm when receiving closes for the day, and night closes its tired eyes. I’m driving with at least two logbooks, sometimes three, only a single one being legal, shivering slightly every time I pass through a weigh station: they can pull me over for extra axle weight, for technical inspection, paperwork check, logbook examination (where were you on the night of the 3rd?), sobriety test (I wish I have Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle’s nose, one easy to touch), pros and cons are out of balance here, and by the time I’m beating Atlanta rush hour I’m sick of motion and have a maniacal desire to jump out of my beloved Freightliner since singing from the bottom of my lungs doesn’t do the trick anymore, classic rock too, hitting the nose neither, but I make it in time, unload – and can’t fall asleep until the wee hours next morning.
Rushing back to Los Angeles three weeks later, they pull me over on I-40 in Arizona, near Crookton out of all the places: “How many?”
Are they asking me about my logbooks? I can’t think straight, I can’t even think sideways,
“Only one?” good answer Georgie, “Just one beer, I don’t think so.”
“What beer, I don’t drink.”
The cop laughs, “We are after you for the past twenty minutes, sonny, so you know, and you were meandering left and right within your lane – one beer!”
So I walk the line and I walk straight, I touch my de Gaulle, and before I can touch anything down lower, they let me go, ordering me to the next rest area for the remainder of the night; sure, an hour later I’m heading home.
It is April 29, 1992, I deliver watermelons from Nogales, AZ, in downtown Los Angeles, stop to have them rinse the trailer, and leisurely leave around 2pm, thirty minutes or so before the famous Rodney King Los Angeles riots open their ugly mouth and swallow both me and my truck, as it happened to a few other truckers. Unaware of anything, I get loaded, go to Phoenix, where I hear the flaming news and immediately start rushing back. Deprived of sleep for the past two days I still reach Los Angeles, but cannot drive any longer, cannot stop either in the middle of the Hollywood Freeway; yet, I briefly pull over blocking half the lane, and take a power nap without being ticketed due to the concentration of police force where desperately needed. I get to our neighbourhood, it’s all quiet on the western front, stop at the light, and can’t figure out how to find our place: I’m aware of the street I’m on, aware of the cross street, can’t dig further.
Life in Southern California is, you guessed it right, same as life anywhere else: you focus, say on crime, and it’s all over the place; you read about it you watch about it you talk about. You choose beauty, and it’s all around: you breathe ocean mist at Malibu, shop at South Coast Plaza in Orange County, OC for friends and the wild housewives of Henry VIII, you visit Yosemite national park and have no idea what hit you; and so on and so off. You worry about money, and it evaporates in front of your eyes as you worry; you know you have plenty and you have much more – life is stunning, simple, serene, before our agendas start stampeding in.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, assimilation is the process whereby a minority group gradually adapts to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture – it doesn’t get simpler. Our life through assimilation in San Fernando Valley unfolds quite smoothly, it flows in sync with our emotions, until January 17, 1994, at 04:31AM Pacific Standard Time, when the second part of his teachings – you can’t swim in the same river twice – kicks in with a bang of the infamous Los Angeles Northridge earthquake. The earthquake has a strong moment magnitude of 6.7, but the ground acceleration is one of the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America. We’re sleeping just a few miles from its epicentre, it’s still pitch dark – assimilate to this!
The wooden structure of the apartment building is all over the place and above our bleary heads, a framed Monet replica, Eileen’s favourite, falls on my head for a soft landing, goes unscathed, it is only 29 minutes before my alarm clock rings and I still have a hard time putting moving ends together, Eileen is up and fairly calm, I grab sleeping Macie and storm through the lightless hall, a kingdom for a flashlight, drywall boards wherever I step, our German shepherd Alfie is by my side, luckily we live three doors down from the exit, we are first out of the screeching castle of wooden cards, voices inside are picking up, where’s Eileen with Miro? Here they come, not even The Big One can wake up Miro rounding his sheep, we’re safe.
The corner of the apartment building, matched by the corner of our apartment, moves some three feet down the street on its way to 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes, so later on I sneak through the opening – against all the orders we receive, so it’s fun as well – to grab necessities while trying to avoid larger aftershocks going on every five minutes, the community pool is in pieces, but the building holds its slippery ground and stays in one chunk, otherwise…
Later on the same day they open the entrance of the building for the inspection purposes: Miller-Light-icy sweat slides down my spine upon seeing drywall covering the floor, those double two-inch needles sticking out sky high – how in the world we manage not to step on one of these crocodiles in waiting beats me to this day, and it’s most likely to be continued. Thank God and St. George we have two cars already, a silver Audi 100 and Eileen’s first, pine green Ford Tempo with vivid burgundy interior, so we move to some cul-de-sac two miles away, and for the next seven days we sleep there. Kids love it, it’s so cool, at least the first night; subsequently their bildungsroman gets a fresh page in an antithesis practice. This earth shattering event broadens the assimilation concept even beyond its already gregarious connotations by adding a pinch of dry lavender flowers of survival to this peppery soup for a floral and mildly sweet flavour.
It’s early 1997, we are already the U.S. citizens, we wave those Catalina blue passports that create magic around the globe, kids are just fine, I’m still at Ardwin Freight, now inside the office with a meaningless title of the operations manager, have two trucks of my own working for the company. In the elongated meantime, my crown hurts badly from hitting the glass ceiling over and over again, the pressure tips into a boiling point – I get fired. I sincerely thank Ed Sahakian, the owner, for firing me, walk out, walk across the busy San Fernando Road with its commercial trucks and pickups flying on the northern edge of San Fernando Valley in a certain hurry to get somewhere where allegedly matters, walk across the railroad tracks and into the Freightliner dealership – where I buy four trucks on the spot.
Where anybody in his sane mind sees the business opportunity of a lifetime – with my six- truck fleet, accumulated multi-angle knowledge of this vibrant industry, the right connections with freight providers, a strong pool of drivers – I espy a mental aphrodisiac pleasing to the eye as a robin’s egg, invariably shooting up the waterfall and into another literature-altering paradigm shift: only an idiot will even think of writing a novel while actuality crumbles around him. Why not?
Sure, the small business is well known for taking care of itself while owner is on hiatus. My double life and my split mind buys a ticket for a festival of daily misery. I’m still beaming my signature triangular grin that might eventually pay bills, flaring with confidence: after all, I’m revolving thousands of dollars a week like a Smith and Wesson six-gun, leaving nothing to me but a powerful feeling of chutzpah: the cogency of the conviction is irrefutable. Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.
The real sphincter-squeezer comes dashing faster than Pheidippides running to Athens with news of the victory, my trucks develop an unusual ability to vanish into thin financial air– maybe an idea I can sell to David Copperfield for a tidy little fortune. Miro and I drive around the corner to pick up my belongings from the last Freightliner rolling, and the truck is not there: just an empty parking space once belonging to the Japanese Auto Repair shop, gone itself as well, a large oil stain, a bolt, and a pinch of dust.