Forty Bucks and Dream, Stories of Los Angeles: Chapter 7: Punch Drunk
I am serializing Forty Bucks and A Dream: Stories of Los Angeles on Substack. New chapters drop Mondays. Below is the Table of Contents, with links to what’s posted before.
FORTY BUCKS AND A DREAM: Stories of Los Angeles
4: The Waxer
7: Punch Drunk
8: Us Versus Them: The code of the cop bar
9: Who She Took With Her: The husband, the son, the boyfriend… a drunk’s tale
10: Giving: the Hollywood way
11: No Exit Plan: The lies and follies of Laura Albert, a.k.a., J.T. Leroy
12: Porn for Women
13: Sanctuary: Days and nights at the King Edward Saloon
14: Why Not to Write About the Supreme Master of the Universe: A day with the disciples of Ching Hai
15: Playboy: The next generation
16: J. Lo in the House
17: The Marrying Room
18: Meet the Neighbors
19: The Pathos of Failing
20: Bite and Smile
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It is my twenty-sixth birthday. The first thing I do is drive at five in the morning to work, in Santa Monica. I usually work in West Hollywood, a mile from my house. I do this five days a week. I unlock the café and turn on NPR and preheat the oven. I am the baker. I bake blueberry-bran muffins and banana-nut muffins; I bake brown sugar biscuits that turn to rocks in a matter of hours. I bake cookies and brownies and cherry pies and date-nut bars and the famous Fred Segal Fruit Basket Cake. I make everything from scratch except this battle-ax of a cake that’s in great demand for children’s parties and wedding showers. One must preorder the eighteen-inch high, six-pound cake, stuffed and covered with fresh berries and, in what seems a gross error because their wetness corrodes the cake, slices of kiwi. The layers are filled with a dehydrated pudding that comes in industrial bags stamped Jell-O Jell-O Jell-O. This mix is yellow and grainy, flecked with crystals that look and feel like eye crumbles. Mixing the stuff is tricky: too much milk and the filling oozes from between the layers. I work to get the ratio right as I stand in the alley of kitchen, my back to the white and spring-green café, its enormous sprays of white lilies smelling of rot, a bottom note to the hundred perfumes I’ve never heard of that are sold in the adjoining perfume boutique. The boutique is in any case closed when I work. Everything is closed; I am the only person at Fred Segal except for the men in the parking lot, Latino men in waiter-type jackets hosing down awnings over window displays of baby layettes from France and designer sunglasses, and on the periphery of the lot, men without jackets trimming hedges.
Fred Segal opens at ten. The parking lot fills quickly. There are Lexuses, cream-colored or black and trimmed in gold; there are Range Rovers; there are Mercedes and BMWs, and Porsches for men in their fifties who stare over people’s heads and wear linen jackets over silky t-shirts. I don’t like seeing the outline of their nipples through these shirts. Sometimes the men hold the hands of little children or a string balloon. I don’t know if they order the cakes; usually, it’s the distracted serial shoppers, women seem to be having three conversations at once when they order the cakes and so there seems no point in interjecting that if one does not get the ratio of milk-to-Jell-O mix just right, the filling becomes a paste whose stickiness is hard to overestimate. I learn that when you hand people the box with their finished cake, they will ooh and aah and hand back $65, a veritable mint for this crap. And that no one ever talks about how the cake tastes.
I am always off the clock by eleven, when the kitchen has filled with Guatemalan and Ecuadorian and Mexican prep cooks, who surreptitiously fix the work of the chatty head cook. I have learned, during my small work overlaps with this cook, that he is careless and easily offended, which does not give me heart when a few months later he quits to become an air traffic controller.
The Fred Segal where I am working on my twenty-sixth birthday is in Santa Monica. Sometimes after my shift, I walk the concourse of shops. I watch as saleswomen arrange a scarf or this season’s boot and remember that when my parents supported me, I sometimes shopped in these kinds of stores and spent money that was not mine on things I did not need. I do not use the forty percent discount I am entitled to as a Fred Segal employee until right before I leave the job, when I am skinny due to the occasional night of coke and a home life with eleven or so other people means I get a good night’s sleep maybe forty percent of the time and thus fit into the overpriced unneeded clothes.
But I am not, on my twenty-sixth birthday, the too-slender 125 pounds I will be when I quit several months later. I am 142 pounds and cannot wear, say, the trim French blue t-shirt they sell at Fred Segal for $58, with a pair of slim white $178 jeans; I cannot slip into these items and sit on the Fred Segal patio and sip or ignore an iced tea bought for me by the bored European boys I sometimes see there.
While waiting to be 125 pounds and to meet someone who can afford to buy me an iced tea, I work. I am a good worker. I do in a four-hour shift what takes other people eight hours. I am not aware that this will lead, in a month’s time, to my being made head baker, and while this is ostensibly a promotion, it feels like someone chopping out another few inches of my leg; it will now be that much harder to run away. And when my mother visits from the East coast and wants me to pose before the glass case filled with what I have made, I do not want to. I do not want a record of this. She makes me do it anyway, and I stand there feeling as though people should be jeering, as though I should hang my head and apologize.
But that is in the future. Today is my birthday, the first I will celebrate since moving to Los Angeles, and I have plans. I will spend the day at the beach and then get a motel room on Ocean Avenue. I have done this several times since arriving four months earlier because I am under the impression that if you move to Los Angeles, you spend time at the beach. Also, the rooms are $40.
At noon, I put on my bikini in the Fred Segal employee bathroom and head to Santa Monica Beach. It is the end of October and still warm. I lay down. I read and sleep and swim. I tell myself I will stay here until five or six, but by four the breeze is too fresh. I stow my stuff in the car, parked near a bar called Chez Jay. There’s a ship’s wheel nailed to the front door. I’ve been here before. It’s a good bar.
The contrast between the sun outside and the dark of the bar makes it hard to see. The man I have always believed to be Jay eventually comes into view. He does not say hello. There is only one customer, at the far end of the bar. He begins as a pale blob and, as my eyes adjust, takes shape: a strong head of hair, a sherbet-colored jacket. I sit on a stool at the middle of the bar and order something with vodka in it.
Is there a reason to be unhappy, in a good bar, in a new city, on my birthday, with the bartender making small talk and a large man to my right staring into the side of my head? I don’t think so; I think there might be something glittering about right now. I order another drink. There is no chance, not in the history of all time, that the large man and I will not be talking soon, which we are, each of us revealing within the first five minutes what is special about our respective selves, that it is my birthday, and that he is the famous boxer Jerry Quarry. I remember my father saying that Quarry was never the Great White Hope he was billed as, but he was white, and tough, very tough. Also, that he had some brain damage from being hit in the head so many times, and so this is what I am looking for as we sit on adjacent barstools in 1986. He says he is considering another comeback. This seems to me unlikely; he is not fit, and there is something unmoored about his eyes. It’s nearly five and he’s been drinking for a while. Then it’s nearly six.
“Hey, it’s your birthday,” he says, and that if I walk with him to his car, he has a present for me. Chez Jay’s gravel parking lot has room for three cars; Quarry’s is the only car there. We stand by the car and snort some of my gift. It’s dusk, the light over the beach is purple, the air is perfect, and Quarry and I now have a lot to talk about. And we need another drink. And more coke. He hands me the bindle to take into the bathroom, where I must take more time than necessary noticing how enormous my pupils are because by the time I get back to the bar it is filled with people drinking, and the Christmas lights that rim the ceiling year-round are on, and there is music playing. It’s festive.
I look at Quarry. His skin looks like uncooked pork, as though it hasn’t been in the sun in years. How in Los Angeles can this be? I imagine he lives in a small apartment in one of those bleached expanses I drive past on the way to the beach. What does he do there? Plan his comeback? Drive to the bar at the first respectable hour? And what are we talking about? Am I telling him I want to be an actress? He tells me I am pretty enough to be. He seems to want to say something about being of assistance, but the air goes out of him. I am grateful for this. Drinking at a bar with someone one does not know is always like being on a seesaw: Who is weightier? Let’s get another drink and see. All either of us want right now is company; maybe another line, which by seven, or maybe it’s eight, we are discreetly doing at the bar. There is no question of our heading for a sexual liaison; I know we are not and if Quarry sent up any spark it fizzled. It’s an evening of running out of things to say. I sense or perhaps initiate the curtain dropping between us.
“Don’t go,” he says. “It’s your birthday.”
He walks me outside, past his small American car; he says something about getting more coke, but it’s $100, and he’s already nearly blown that tonight, and my $40 motel money is gone. I smile at Quarry. I am less than half his age. There are people walking past us, people my age looking as though they have come from real jobs. The arch over the Santa Monica pier is lit, and Jerry seems to be shrinking, not much bigger than me as he says, “Happy birthday,” kisses my cheek, and heads back into the bar.