A few nights ago, I came back to Los Angeles. Ever since I was twenty-one, I have been coming back to this city.
It is not my home.
Nor do I have family here.
There is no history that connects. I am not descended from a people who centuries ago dwelled in this area, passing down a genetic compass point stuck on west.
I’m not even an American.
Neither is there the permanent glue of a green card in my passport and instead the inky spattering of tens of temporary visas, which, resemble more those ambiguous, smudged drawings that are used in psychiatric tests.
‘And what word comes to mind when you see this?’
I have no vacation home here – usually depending on the goodwill of local boyfriends – the length of which hopefully times in perfectly with a three-month visa, though not always.
And, I haven’t yet tapped into a past life that existed here and draws me back – which, if I really was a Los Angeleno, I would have at least several of.
Los Angeles is more the place I come to at that moment, which I can only compare to that dark day most of us endure in our twenties (at least several times) when the dream shot hasn’t worked out and you return to your parent’s house, asking for a few months’ shelter, while muttering a reluctant prayer to your newly adopted religion of a ‘proper job.’ Though with a crucial difference…
LA, for me, is where I go to admit that that path – the conventional life – didn’t work out. Again.
I have admitted this on more occasions than I can remember. These days, each attempt no longer concludes with frustration, but just a sigh of ‘ah yeah, that’s right.’
Though this is the longest time I have been away from Los Angeles.
See, last year, the city of dreams turned into the scene of a breakup – unfolding in a Mexican restaurant, which until then had sweetly hosted so many nights of margarita stupors and wild conversation, that usually skirted crazy business ideas and not, ‘it’s over,’ a far more outlandish truth, served up as easily as the basket of tortilla chips.
The evening ended in a moment, which had I watched happen to anyone else would have been quite fantastic. I was standing on Sunset Boulevard, in a red dress, drunk crying, swerving from one hysteria to another, when a transvestite came up to me…
‘Honey, are you gonna let a man do this to you? Are you really gonna let that happen? Look at you in your red dress! Are you gonna let him to do that to you?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered, completely without shame back to her.
I fled to Lafayette a week later to the kindness of strangers and, if I’m honest to an LA that with two extra syllables – ‘fay’ and ‘ette’ – might possibly not be over yet.
By the time, I got to New Orleans a few days later to the greatest of friends, I knew it was. But as I drove into the city, which floats on pools of water, like tear ducts about to swell up and brim over at any moment, I was thankful for a town which showed more compassion than LA, where the weather had been unsympathetically awesome.
‘God damn, I love a woman in a red dress!’ A stranger said to me on my last night there and instantly, I professed a new allegiance to a place that was kind to women wearing such garments.
I came home to my friend’s and made a T-shirt, taking the nickname of New Orleans – NOLA – to mean something far more prophetic to me at that moment.
I returned, just for a day, to get my things. Sunset Boulevard was drizzling with rain – a grey mood I didn’t regard as a newly found tact, but that the city, in this instance, was relieved to discard its sunny wig and take a break from playing the dream-maker.
I couldn’t let it do that, not just yet, so as I drove along, I whispered a trick I know…
‘Let me see some magic…’
You can try this too – it’s worked for me a million times, not just in L.A., all over, and is a means of summoning the local gods to bring fairy dust to sad or banal days.
‘Let me see some magic…’
Now, quite possibly, you might see something very ordinary next, but because you’ve asked for the other, it will still seem pretty amazing.
‘Oh my god! There’s a bus!’
‘Let me some magic,’ I implored. ‘Let me see… ‘
Now at that exact moment – and I mean exact – my eyes landed on the one person out of the two hundred tees I’d made on my journey that summer, who’d been the first person I’d ever wanted to make a tee for, but who’d so far escaped me.
His name is Kevin Lee Light, though anybody who trawls Sunset Boulevard also knows him as Jesus. I’d tried to meet him all summer but had badly conveyed my T-shirt making intentions. My heart soared…
Of all the plastic tables! In all the Coffee Beans and Tealeaf stores!
I approached his table and everything that had ever happened dissolved to a pure start.
I made him a tee…
Then we had a three-hour epic conversation. I’ll tell you his story another time, but on both sides, it was a grand relief to meet someone who was living how we do.
‘Why do you do this?’ he asked me.
‘I like telling people’s stories.’
‘But why do you do it like this? You go around from one stranger to the next, hearing stories, making tees then you move onto another – why?’
It suddenly seemed like the most obvious question and yet, he was the first person who’d asked it.
And here I admitted something I hadn’t ever to anybody, though didn’t bother to say aloud, because maybe it was just the outfit, but it seemed like he was a telepathic sort of soul…
That this time in LA, an adventure I had billed as my greatest freedom run ever with the masterful support acts of quitting my job, abandoning my apartment and leaving my technical home country, to travel America on a T-shirt making journey…
That actually, actually…
I’d had another dream on the backburner. A night job dream to the day job dream…
See, even though I was bouncing around T-shirt land, I was pretty sure that none of the strangers knew that after goodbye, I’d return to an apartment with beige walls, which on this occasion I didn’t mind at all, because right in the middle of them, there was a guy I liked a lot and the possibility of another journey.
Until now strictly prohibited in my Los Angeles.
In between T-shirt making, I’d go grocery shopping, attempt to clean, badly, make dinner and do laundry – performing an inept mimicry of what I imagined a predecessor had done before me, though with as much panache as a badly trained circus seal.
This wasn’t how we’d started – that had been an adventure.
Though now, I became a perverse hybrid of Jack Kerouac and Martha Stewart. Or in Los Angeleno speak, ‘severely unaligned.’
Back in the Coffee Bean & The Tea Leaf, I gave Kevin/Jesus the only answer I could find…
“This is a moment…’ I told him, ‘you and me right now, are we agreed, that this is a moment?’
‘Yes! It’s a moment.’
‘And that’s what you do. You walk around, and anyone who encounters you has a moment – they might just see you, honk their horn, talk to you, laugh, cry, tell you something they’ve never told anyone, shout ‘hey Jesus!’ – always take a picture – even snigger, but no matter what, when they come home that night, they’ll say, ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me today…’ And you gave them that. You gave them something out of ordinary. You gave them a moment. ‘
‘Well, I’m in the same business – the moment business – no way as good as you. But I can walk up to anyone, hear their story, understand them entirely within that conversation – which is a moment – and then leave behind a T shirt which marks that particular moment. I am amazing at moments. I can only say that because I am terrible at hours, I am appalling at months and don’t even get me started on years.
‘And I suppose why I do this is because I’m hoping people will only remember those moments – that a collection of moments can make a life and no one will ever know about the stuff in between – the relationships I can’t make work, the day to day chaos, my inadequacy at playing normal, because I’m no good at that stuff. I don’t know how to do it. And sometimes that’s the only thing I really want to do.’
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’re talking to the choir here.’
We both burst into tears, declared a firm friendship and said goodbye.
As he left, I forgot to tell him not to wash the tee. Recently, I’d been having severe doubts over the permanence of the markers I’d been using and worried profoundly that all the moments I had made this summer wouldn’t in fact survive a hot wash.
I was too frightened to even test it myself in case I witnessed a snappy one liner returning from the laundry, a lobotomized blank.
I got on a plane back to England the next day, a decision made out on a country road in Lafayette, as a full tank of gas, humming with the only Fleetwood Mac song you can listen to in this situation, made for an exhilarating feeling…
Yes! I have no boyfriend.
I have no apartment.
I have no city.
I have no job.
I am free! Free! Free!
Oh fuck. Bit too free.
I returned to my mother’s house, muttering that the proper job/conventional life masquerading as the non-proper/unconventional job life, hadn’t quite worked out, leaving us both entirely confused as to what I should do next.
I woke up that first Monday morning with a vague memory of a former life, and just how Jason Bourne can’t recall who he is and only that he can stab someone with a biro, so I remembered that I could rather less impressively, write a few lines with the same implement. I stumbled my way back to an advertising agency…
‘Hey, would you work on a pitch for margarine with me.’ My old boss said, in a way that sounded as upbeat and enticing as, ‘hey, do you want to take a boat out to the Caribbean and go fishing?’
‘You know what,’ I said, ‘I think I really would.’
I embraced the self-christened ‘yellow fats’ world with more passion than it had ever known – a stodgy, sensible rebound from my fleeting T-shirt summer.
Now, in advertising, you’ll spend months, sometimes years, honing one tiny message, but really, most of them just come down to an offering of some kind of permanence.
Eat this margarine with less saturated fats and live a little longer.
Use these newly designed teas bags and savor the flavor even more.
Sign up to this dating website and find love that can last forever.
The news we bring to you each time is that our product now does something stronger, longer, and quite suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to lend a touch of permanence to all those tees and moments that had happened that summer.
I remembered the conversation I’d had with Kevin/Jesus…
‘All these things that happen to you,’ I asked him, ‘are you writing them down or filming them?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘I like the idea that you have to be part of it to see it.’
‘But this is a great story and you need to tell it.’
‘Yeah, but if the philosopher is cleaning his house, who is doing the philosophizing?’
In London, last October, for the first time in my life, I was hit with an unusual inclination to clean my house, although the next word is vital.
I spent the year that followed, writing down exactly what had happened on my T-shirt adventure. I began with the tale of my dad – it’s more complicated than the explanation up on your left, and at the same time, sadly, more simple.
Then I wrote down all the T-shirt tales I’d heard that summer and before and the life and the dreams that went on in between – an alchemy that turned the vapor of a memory into a sheet of whisper thin paper, but still something that you could touch.
I remembered something that had happened right at the beginning of the journey…
I’d rocked up at the house of a magic man/shaman living east of Hollywood, in Eagle Rock, confessing only to him that I was unable to start my journey – stalling, like I told you, in between Jack and Martha and sometimes veering off into Betty Ford.
‘Maybe I don’t want to do this journey.’
‘You have to,’ he said.
‘But what direction should I go in?’ I asked him.
‘Just do what you always do.’
‘Keep going in circles. Take loops out of LA, but always, always come back to LA.’
I was privately delighted. Here, now, finally, a system of travel that most had regarded as entirely inept was validated and encouraged, though in London, that winter, I realized that if all this really was just a circle…
Then, as inevitable as my arrival that summer had been my eventual departure.
And that maybe, after such a staggering fail of the biggest Hollywood dream – happily ever after – and the most blissful notion of permanence, I wasn’t meant to go back. I was done, cashed out of LA reincarnations and now exiled to a celestial outer ring that existed of memories only. ‘Back in LA’ all my stories would begin, and eventually people would stop being polite and go ‘you told us this one!’
As I consigned my old dreams to paperwork only, I gave life to another stack…
Now, all my administration has always been conducted under a name I never use – a birth name – Alexandra Markova. My bank account, my passport, my driving license is all registered to this name, which sometimes is competent enough to contribute to a pension scheme. As identities go, it is utterly straight-laced, because it exists on paper only – though this time, I took it out for a real world test drive.
I got a fancy apartment in town under this name. ‘You’ll be very happy here, Alexandra!’ said the realtor. I went to dynamic Pilates three times a week. ‘Mean gets lean, Alexandra!’ said the trainer. And I went shopping. ‘Alexandra, I will not let you leave this store without that dress! It is the dress that belongs to a woman!’
This identity was successful, low key and sober. And by recent accounts, me.
Then, one Sunday at the beginning of this summer, I called up the phone company.
‘Wow…’ said the man at the help desk, ‘are you really Alexandra Markova?
‘Oh. My. God.’
‘Listen, I swear I’m going to set up a monthly direct debit this time so I can…’
‘No, no, no, forget that. Are you familiar with the game Death Con Magnitude Part IV?’ Because there’s this character in it – Alexandra Markova – and I’m telling you, oh my god, you’re the coolest.’
‘Yeah, you’re the best fighter.’
I put down my Sunday morning gluten-muffin, a spate of which had recently been purchased by Alexandra Markova, a recent convert to a wheat-free way.
‘Oh yeah, I mean I’ve fought you loads of times and every time I have huge respect for you – not like the other characters. Seriously, when I just saw your name on my screen, I almost fell off my seat. Oh my god! I am worshipping you from afar.’
‘Yes! In the game we’re sworn enemies, but let me tell you, I have nothing but respect for you.’
‘Thank you so much.’
‘You’re a superhero.’
‘That’s so nice of you.’
‘And when I clock off work and tell my son that I have met Alexandra Markova from Death Con Magnitude Part IV – he won’t believe it.’
‘Well, you tell him that I said hello?’
‘He will be thrilled!’
It was shortly after that phone call, that I wondered whether this Alexandra Markova was in fact ballsy enough to go back to Los Angeles.
For now, I bought a wheat sandwich.
Then a few nights after that, a friend came over to my apartment.
He saw a black and white photo on my table of me when I was 23 that I’d found. It’s exactly the kind of picture you want taken of you at that age – before you have to rewrite the story of your youth, into a responsible-looking resume. I was smoking a great cigarette and standing on the balcony of my hotel room at the Tropicana in Vegas.
My friend asked the story behind it…
I told him that I’d been driving across America. We’d just spend a few nights in New Orleans, when a guy I’d fallen in love with back in California called. He’d told me he was heading to Vegas for a party, and that it would be awesome if we met him there.
I convinced my two friends in the car that driving twenty-four hours straight to Vegas to meet a group of guys was a great idea. A third friend needed no convincing.
Then, suddenly, on the way of out of Louisiana, on a four-lane freeway, doing eighty, the tire blew. The car span out of control, doing pirouettes across each lane – a prima donna ballerina, eager to take the whole stage. Somehow we skidded off the road and dipped into a small ditch.
We stumbled out of a cloud of dust…
‘Oh my god!’ a couple screamed as they ran out of their car towards us, waving a video camera, ‘we thought the car was going to flip! We thought you were all going to die!’ Then they paused and put the cap back on their camera, a little disappointed.
‘Who was driving this car?’ said the kindest truck driver who’d stopped to help us. ‘I was,’ I whispered from the roadside, pretty sure that I had almost just killed my friends and that this guy was about to give me an epic telling off.
He punched my arm.
‘Good job. Ok ladies, I gotta get four hundred tons of beef jerky to Albuquerque. I’ll get your tire fixed then I can lead you some of the way. Where you heading?
‘Dallas,’ said one of the half of the car.
‘Vegas,’ said the other.
‘What!? We almost died,’ said Team Dallas, ‘We can’t drive anymore.’
‘But that that’s exactly why we’re going,’ said me and the friend who still needed no convincing, ‘we are alive, alive! Don’t you see? We have to head west and have one of the great nights of our lives.’
I bought a twenty-five dollar red dress on the way, which matched the color of the sunset as we hit the strip twenty-four hours later, where the gods threw us a night and we took it.
In the morning, I walked back to the Tropicana and lay down on a sun lounger, in my red dress. I basked in all the possibilities of the future, which, it seemed, had started right then in that happy moment.
‘What happened to that guy?’ my friend asked back in the apartment.
‘Well did you go out with him for long or…’
‘No, no, don’t you get it?’ I said, though until I told him the story, I don’t think I ever had.
‘It wasn’t the guy. It was the direction.’
I booked a ticket the next day.
The night before I left, I had a drink with a friend from work. There was no reason for him to be the last person I saw – we haven’t had a drink in years. My excuse was that he was leaving his job and I wouldn’t see him when I got back. But I can admit to you now, that I had an ulterior motive.
See, this guy’s last name was West. And I thought just in case I needed some pep, I’d make him a tee that would apply mostly to him quitting his job, but a little to me.
I didn’t need any encouragement.
As soon as I landed, I ran past the clusters of hugs and kisses, to embrace the city. I stood on the curb, breathing in the worst airport fumes ever with an ‘ahhhh’ as if I was in a field of roses. I wanted to see it all – even the city’s bad habits.
‘Traffic! Give me some fucking traffic. God I want to be stuck for two, three, four hours!’ Leaf blowers! I love you! Let me hear a chorus of ten thousand right now!’
I rode a different road in this time, past Hollywood – my usual ground – to Pasadena, where I took a sunset walk, with the city, my companion. As we strolled along, I remembered LA, like one of those people in your life, that only when you see, do you realize that you’ve never quite gotten over them. Its smell, its sound, the hills…
I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt and it struck me that you only see people wearing tees about places they’ve been – colleges, vacations – or places they want to go. T-shirts are either nostalgic or dreamy. They are never about the places we’re in.
But this guy was exactly where he was meant to be.
I stopped for a fish taco.
The moment really didn’t need it, but I said it for old time’s sake.
‘Let me see some magic…’
Twenty seconds later, an old man with white hair wandered up to me and asked if he could draw my picture. I told him I had no cash on me.
‘No, no it’s free.’
‘Well, can I buy you dinner?’
‘The gift of your company is enough. What’s your name?’
‘Alexandra’ I told him for the hell of it, though, really for the last time.
‘That’s weird,’ he said, ‘I’ve just been hanging with my friend Alexander the mechanic.
‘What’s your name?’ I’d delivered mine pretty dramatically and really didn’t expect him to come up with the same goods.
He told me that he was born in Columbia and had become a national championship winning prize-fighter. He’d come to America to fight.
‘Have you ever been married?’ I asked him.
He held up every finger on his right hand and winced, as if remembering an old injury, when I checked, ‘five times?’
‘How many kids do you have?’
‘I don’t know, Alexandra, and I don’t want to know.’
After he’d retired from fighting, he made a later career as a sign painter…
Though during a prison stint, he’d had a great idea for a T-shirt company. Then, there was always the lottery. He asked me to kiss his ticket – I did and placed a magic blessing on it, that we got excited about, even though I had no idea how to do magic blessings.
‘What will you do when you win?’ I asked him.
‘I’ll paint everybody’s signs in the city for free,’ he said.
Then I thought about the T-shirts and how that’s the same kind of deal.
A few days before I’d left for LA, I’d started to write to my old friends and T-shirt buddies out here – voices I’d had to shut off for a year – so much easier to imagine a LA as a mythical childhood home, that had now turned to dust, along with some of my favorite characters.
‘I was just wearing your T-shirt’ a couple of them wrote back.
‘You mean it didn’t wash off?’ I asked. ‘It actually stayed?’
Ulysses finished the picture and gave it to me.
‘You’ve just done the nicest thing for me,’ I said to him. ‘I asked the city for a sign that I was meant to be here and you – a sign painter – just made me one.
‘You’re a winner, lady’ he said.
‘What’s your idea of a winner?’
‘Someone who’s nice to strangers.’
As I walked back home, I had a different feeling in the city. Now usually my line of communication with it – and by that, I mean the point in any city that you direct the plea, ‘give me a break’ to – goes from me up to whatever is on top of those hills, who then either offer me something out of my reach, or glower down disappointed.
Though, tonight, as the sun dipped, it held me, at a sleepy, honest eye level.
‘You’re not supposed to go grocery shopping in LA,’ it said. ‘You are a wandering T-shirt maker and if you pull that shit again, you’ll get dumped in an even better dress.’
The next day I went to see my shaman/magic man in Eagle Rock.
‘You know, this year has been hard,’ I told him, ‘but I’m cool now and I get it. You gave me this great piece of advice last year about going in circles, and I’m fine with it – I don’t need to change who I am, I’m just going to get really good at doing the circle and telling the story.’
‘You can go on a different circle.’
‘Sure! I didn’t mean just keep going on the same one.’
‘I just meant you always come back to the same place. LA. But you can go a different way. You don’t have to keep doing the same thing. Oh no! Is that what you thought I meant?’
I made him a tee and headed back to Hollywood, via a completely different circle through Arizona.
The story of the greatest T-shirt journey that the world almost never knew about will be here later this week.