Killer Yellow Umbrellas and the Escape from Hollywood

I don’t keep up well with Shannon. She lives across the country. We talk maybe once a year. But just after college, Shannon, Michael and I had several ‘adventures’ out on the west coast. Recently a firend of Shannon’s, asked several people that knew her to write something about her for a surprise birthday party. Below is what I wrote.  While not my best writing, I think it captures the feeling of the time well. It is a prequeal in a way to Gear and Loafing in America.

In ’91 Shannon and I slogged through the congested urban hellscape of Los Angeles in my blue Toyota hatchback looking for work. Everything in LA was an hour by car. Half of the time that car shook with stupid goofy hilarity. We made up songs. We riffed on stupid billboards, the ubiquitous neon mini-malls, and the million over gaudy symbols of a city constantly on the make. And we laughed at ourselves and our lack of marketable job skills.

The rest of the time we shouted. By our early twenties, we had discovered that the world was pretty screwed up and we were pretty pissed off about it. Los Angeles, was a polluted city with sepia air, where vulgar conspicuous consumption butted up against poverty. It gave us many exampled of what was wrong with the culture of greed and commercialism. On the radio Dr. Helen Caldecott told us that the Earth was dying and a president named Bush had just sent the nation to an unnecessary war in Iraq (Ok, compared to Iraqi Freedom, Dessert Storm seems almost holy, but it was still bullshit. For history buffs: what was the ‘peace dividend?’)

We yelled because the world was wrong and because we were in a recession. Because our degrees were less valuable than the frames they were set in. Because we had no way to do anything meaningful. Because our lives were out of balance.

We yelled and sang old songs.

We starve-look at one another – short of breath – walking proudly in our winter coats wearing smells from laboratories – facing a dying nation – of moving paper fantasy – listening for the new told lies – with supreme visions of lonely tunes

And when we could yell no more at the world, we turned on each other and yelled some more.

Shannon and I went to an employment agency. They were polite to me and allowed me to fill out an application. When they saw Shannon, they had stuck employment agency gold. They immediately sent her out on interviews for “pretty young receptionist/secretary” jobs. Shannon didn’t get the first job. She’d taken the interview seriously. She had asked intelligent questions about the business and tired to find interest in what they were doing. This had been a mistake. They had not been looking for someone intelligent and interested. They wanted a “pretty young receptionist/secretary.”

This did not at all sit well with Shannon, but she was quickly moving though her small cash reserve. She needed a paycheck. A few days later she interviewed with another company. This time she acted demur, friendly but passive. She got the job, working for two real estate loan guys in large commercial banks. She spent her time at bank finding ways subtle and overt to torture them.

Michael T. came to Los Angeles a couple of months after Shannon. Unlike Shannon and me, Michael had a degree useful in the job market (Electrical Engineering) and actual job experience programming. Like us, Michael had trouble finding a job. After hundreds of miles negotiating the smog sea for a job (and anything of value), Michael came up with the theory that it was in fact Hell. Hell, Michael theorized was not a burning pit, but a place of endless frustration and discomfort where you struggled to get ahead not realizing that on that next level just contained more frustration.

It wasn’t long, though, before we found a pattern around one of the few things we could control – food. Each Saturday we would spend hours strolling down Fairfax shopping at bakeries, delis, and independent produce markets. Each evening we spent an hour or two preparing out dinner. Our chores where time consuming but not tedious. The food was fresh. It was unprocessed. We had circumvented the system, albeit in a small way.

It was Shannon’s idea to move to Oregon. Nominally we were moving to go back to school to find something we could make a career of. In truth, we went to Oregon with a utopian vision. We were going to find intentional communities, sustainable living, and alternate economies.

We drove up to Oregon to check it out. Along Interstate about an hour outside of Los Angeles was an art installation by the conceptual artist, Christo. There were miles and miles of giant yellow umbrellas. The Los Angeles media was all a buzz about the umbrellas. Just as the LA cultured class was asking itself if it was art or not, the wind pulled on of the umbrellas loose and it killed a woman. In our small group we never asked if the umbrellas were art, to us they just more ore the careless viciousness of LA.

Shannon and I left LA sonn after than. Michael found a job, and so again he would follow us a little later. We drove up the coast and as usual we laughed and we yelled and we sang old songs.

LA is a great big freeway. Put a hundred down and buy a car. With a dream in your heart you are never alone, but dreams turn into dust and blow away. And there you are without a friend. You pack your car and drive away…

But of course were we not “without a friend.” We had our little group and we had a mission, but that is another story.

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