by Kevin Kaiser
Sixteen in the Hollywood scene.
Scarlet and I are making out in a bathroom stall in the men’s restroom of a Hollywood eighteen-and-up club. Her fist twists the cityscape image on my red Dismemberment Plan t-shirt, pulls my body close, as I grip the flesh of her hips exposed between the too-small black shirt, the tight black pants. Pepe doesn’t notice. We’ve crushed a tiny, round, blue pill between the numbers and letters of two credit cards, shaped the dust into three lines atop one card. Hunched over the toilet paper dispenser, Pepe snorts a line with the cut-down straw we’re sharing, the one I carry in a film canister with a couple of pills. As he turns to pass the straw, Scarlet disengages, and I stumble back against the locked door.
Adderall is a dextroamphetamine-a generic for speed-prescribed to me not for ADD but because I am “an enigma.” A psychotherapist’s analysis. This means it takes me an inordinate length of time to process information. My mother thought it would be a good idea for me to see a psychotherapist, since I routinely fail or drop out of my college classes. I still live at home, and it’s a difficult process extricating myself from my mother’s influence. And the psychotherapist was right about the information-processing; I’m often reminded by others of my awkward pauses in conversation. But what the psychotherapist and my mother both failed to note during my evaluation-what my mother still fails to note and which I’m not about to reveal-is that I don’t want to be in school. I’m only going because I don’t know what else to do with my life. I don’t know how to escape.
When I ingest it orally as prescribed, the Adderall gives me headaches. Usually I carry a bottle of water with me to diminish the impact of the pain. But Scarlet stole a handle of vodka from a supermarket-it’s 2001, and I’m the oldest at 20-and we each drank a fifth of the store brand alcohol before entering the club. Any headaches at this point I won’t be feeling until the morning after. Already loose from the vodka, the Adderall offers the energy to dance all night.
Another quote from the psychotherapist: “When you take this, every day will feel like a good day.” Somehow I don’t think this particular night is what she had in mind.
Scarlet passes me the straw, and I snort my line. My sinuses tingle. This stuff goes straight to the head.
Scenesters can be found up and down the California coast, from San Diego to San Francisco, but nowhere are they more plentiful than Los Angeles. Of all regions of Los Angeles, Hollywood is the mecca- the shrine around which scenesters congregate, pilgrims from all regions of Southern California.
Those who live outside Southern California tend to believe that Los Angeles comprises half the state. This is close to the truth: you can’t get to Mexico without driving through a series of interconnected communities. It’s not hard to imagine these coastal cities as one being one long, snaking Los Angeles. But Los Angeles is not Orange County and Orange County is not San Diego; they are simply connected via the phenomenon of urban sprawl. In contrast to Los Angeles, San Diego offers its own brand of safer, diluted culture. And while Orange County is close, both physically and culturally, it is entirely suburban.
I’m from Orange County. Cypress, to be exact. Even Orange County citizens have no idea where Cypress is. It’s in North Orange County, which is nothing like South Orange County. North Orange County is conservative, old money, homes that have been standing since the fifties. South Orange County is new money, hundred thousand dollar apartments, cities owned by corporations. Cypress is nothing like what they show on The OC or Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. The waters of the Pacific do not wash up to my backdoor; they’re a half hour away. Tonight, it took three times that long to make the trip into Los Angeles- traffic.
Los Angeles is, of course, a rambling metropolis. Unlike most other metropolises, however, Los Angeles is largely devoid of clearly defined boroughs or districts. Hollywood-a separate city until 1910 and a border-defined district as of 2006-is one of the few exceptions. In this sense, Hollywood is treated as though it were independent. It has the benefit of both belonging to the city and maintaining some form of autonomous dignity. Those who flock here seek the same comforts the district holds: community, autonomy. And my reason for being here tonight is no different from any other pilgrim’s; I’ve come to indulge in the Hollywood scene.
Saturday night, and you’re standing on the patio of the club on Santa Monica Boulevard between Sycamore and La Brea, taking a drag off a Djarum clove and blowing the smoke like a French movie star up into the sky. Streetlights and neon lights conceal all but the brightest stars from view, while the bronze-rimmed pink terrazzo stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame mark the center of each segment of sidewalk that runs before the club. A line of palm trees at sidewalk’s edge is the only plantlife in sight. Less than two blocks away is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a point the tourists rarely pass.
You lick your lips, and they taste like cherry; it’s the clove. The black acrylic scarf wrapped around your neck is pure fashion statement in the sixty-degree air. It matches your black pointed shoes, black skinny jeans, black-and-white striped shirt. Pinned to your vintage red lipstick-matching purse is a button with Michael Jackson’s face on it that reads “Beat It.” You find this ironic, although you pretend to not find it ironic, since you also pretend to really like Michael Jackson’s music more than you actually do, because you know everyone thinks you’re just being ironic when you really do like Michael Jackson’s music. To an extent. More than you obviously care to admit. In the midst of conversation, you brush your short, dyed-black hair back out of your mouth.
Although you pretend you are not pretentious, you use the word so often to describe anyone and anything that is not you it makes you sound pretentious. You listen to bands that have little musical talent just so you can act like you know about some band no one else knows about, because they only listen to that crap on the radio. The band’s singer is fuckin’ hot. In fact, you know the band personally. The band is local or British or representative of a certain non-major label. You describe their sound as twee pop or dreampop. Something pop. Which defies the true definition of pop, as it applies to music.
I’m wearing Converse high-tops, black. I’m rocking the obscure band t-shirt. I am not wearing a scarf, because it is sixty degrees outside and at least ten degrees hotter inside the club. I’ve got sideburns. I used to play keyboards in a couple bands. Although I listen to my fair share of obscure indie bands, I also listen to a lot of hip-hop and jazz, amongst other genres. The music they’re playing here is all right, but if I weren’t hanging out with these kids, Scarlet and Pepe, I probably wouldn’t listen to these subgenres of rock as much as I do. For that matter, I wouldn’t even be here tonight.
Last time I saw Scarlet she was a blond. Tonight, she’s raven-haired. She’s from Santa Monica, is half-Jewish, and judges music based on how hot the band’s singer is. The results of some gynecological exam-a paper I’ve never wanted to take a closer look at-are taped to the closet door in her bedroom at her parent’s house. I spent the night there once, in her room. She made me sneak out the window the next morning.
Pepe is of Mexican descent, and for the longest time I swore he was homosexual. He’s not. He wears scarves on occasion-tonight is one of those occasions-and takes photography classes at Santa Monica College. I speak Spanish with greater fluency than he does. He lives with his family in a rundown house off Normandie, next to the 405. Since he doesn’t drive, I am forced to make the trip up to Los Angeles if I want to see him. I don’t know how he gets by without a vehicle; it’s almost a necessity in the city.
Inside the men’s room stall, Pepe widens his eyes, exclaims, “Whoa! You guys, I’m freaking out!” Meanwhile, Scarlet makes puppy dog eyes at me, as if this is supposed to turn me on. I’m in the midst of a Robert DeNiro-in-Raging Bull punch-out routine against the stall door. I grit and grind my teeth, give the door a solid punch, unlock it, and step out. Pepe and Scarlet follow behind.
I’m surprised more people don’t stare as we head out the restroom door. Maybe I shouldn’t be.
In Orange County, there are all-ages venues for shows. A “show” is nothing more than an intimate concert, intimate because it is usually held in a former public storage warehouse or an ex-Chinese restaurant that was run out of a house. The bands are local or have what can be affectionately termed a “cult” following. Although these venues are scenester hot spots, they are not conducive to dancing, drinking, or drugs. There is even a strong distaste for the latter two amongst many Orange County scenesters. This is why a trip to a Hollywood club is necessary if one is to truly indulge.
This club is split into three rooms, each with its own musical flavor: one plays hip-hop. No one is in here. Another is dominated by 60s soul, much of it Northern soul, a distinctly British form of the genre. The room we’re in, the largest of the three, focuses on current scenester favorites from subgenres music snobs know, like Britpop (Pulp, Blur, Suede, anything British really) and electro (Ladytron, Chicks on Speed). Occasionally David Bowie or Morrissey are worked into the DJ’s set-see “anything British”-as are so-called indie bands. Currently spinning is the decidedly not very indie “Last Nite” by The Strokes; Scarlet demanded I request it. For all the music snobbery, the bands being played are far less obscure than the average scenester cares to admit to.
A silent video is projected onto the wall above the DJ. It looks like something Stan Brakhage might have filmed. Opposite the DJ is a wall of couches, where boys, girls, and the androgynous are sprawled across each other’s laps or huddled into corners. Women in brightly colored dresses go-go dance on platforms that rise from the dance floor.
Other than the go-go dancers, we’re the only ones up and dancing. After a couple songs, an androgynous kid sporting thick black glasses, a black scarf, and a t-shirt promoting some obscure band with a drawing of an owl on it approaches us. It stops before me, and I decipher that it is male. He says something to me, but with the music blaring, I only catch fragments.
“Thanks… first… dancing.”
From what I can decipher, he’s thanking us for being the first ones to dance. He mumble a “your welcome,” and it nods and wanders off.
Alcohol, Adderall. Destruction of body, enhancement of life. Depression, stimulation. Visceral vitality.
Until I began driving up to Los Angles every weekend to hang out with Pepe, Scarlet, and the other kids I’ve met up here, I never drank alcohol, never did drugs of any kind. Even before the pills were prescribed to me, the worst I’d done in Los Angeles was drink. Talk about your gateway drug. I regret nothing, blame no one. If a “why” is necessary and my failures in school, my apathy and angst, don’t seem to add up, I can always blame it on the depression I never dealt with, an untapped grief I bottled up following a drawn out break-up and the death of my grandmother, events that transpired in the span of a single week. It’s been a few months now. I’m still spiraling down. I don’t see a bottom. I can no longer see the top.
You can escape from a city, you can escape from a county, you can escape from states or provinces, from countries, from anything that can be labeled a location. But what you can’t escape, can never escape from, is the pain of living. As obvious as that is, it’s what we often spend our youth doing. Attempting to escape from the pain by finding out where we belong. Who we are.
The neon city lights, the empty dance floors, the shows in former warehouses, the two-story record stores, the vintage clothes, the mixed drinks, the clove cigarettes, the banter about sex and bands and love and drama… And the drugs. Pills, mostly. Prescribed by your psychotherapist to help you deal with the terminal existential crisis that is your life, a life that is dead to you, except in these moments when you become a scenester. Although you’d never, ever label yourself as such. No, you’re no scenester. You’re an enigma.
Scarlet runs her hands through her hair, her body sandwiched between Pepe and I. A song by the London-based Placebo is playing. “Pure Morning.” Brian Molko, the band’s bisexual singer, sneers the lines:
A friend in need’s a friend indeed
A friend who bleeds is better
And I’m bleeding. Red streams from my nose. I hurry from the dance floor-by now packed with bodies writhing-my head tilted down as I dab at my nose with my index finger, self-conscious to any eyes that glance my way.
Inside the men’s restroom, I stuff a piece of toilet paper up my nose, hearing the psychotherapist’s phrase: “Every day will feel like a good day.” It’s surprisingly empty in here; I step up to a urinal. My penis is shriveled, my piss dark orange and reeking of chemical reactions. Like the headaches, these too are side effects from the Adderall.
I flush and pull the toilet paper from my nose. Blood is encrusted around the interior edge of my nostril, dotted with what also appears to be a blue-greenish mucous. I wipe at it with the toilet paper and realize the mucous is actually congealed remnants of crushed Adderall. Staring at my vacant reflection in the mirror hanging over the sink, I clean my nose as best I can with another sheet of toilet paper, this one damp.
Music bleeds in through the walls, bass pulsing like a heartbeat. It sounds like Suede. “Beautiful Ones.”
When I was sixteen, I swallowed a handful of Vicodin in a half-hearted attempt at suicide. The Vicodin were prescribed after I’d had my wisdom teeth removed. I awoke the next morning to find I was still alive. And decided that from that point forward I would have to keep living.
A kid attired in a skinny black tie over a white fitted shirt swings open the restroom door. I slip out of the restroom as he heads into a stall and locks the door.
Back on the dance floor, I spot Scarlet and Pepe. I stand close, but they take no notice of me, oblivious to my presence. Scarlet grabs Pepe by the shirt, pulls him close, as he whips off his scarf, wraps it around Scarlet’s bare and swaying hips.
Kevin Kaiser won the Young Traveler Bronze for “Dance Cadaverous” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.