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Darlene is a three hundred pound black woman begging by the roadside in Death Valley. She’s been here for five hours already today – in a heat, that most would not be able to stand for ten minutes.

The sign she holds already tells her story more effectively than any T-shirt.

Homeless. Need Work. Living In My Car.

But there are bigger details that don’t make any sense, the choice of car – a convertible SAAB and why anyone is standing out here in this heat.

Five half filled plastic bottles of water are lined up on the trunk of her car, as if somebody else is out here, lining up a gun, and about to start using them as target practice – though it sounds like his/her attention has been on Darlene for a while.

Six months ago, she was fully employed, had a place to live, a car where she didn’t have to live, and an altogether different life in Colorado. Then the job went, and two skipped salary checks later, the rest followed. She fled town, the car playing Clyde to her Bonnie, also now on the run from its lease payments.

I imagine the SAAB – possibly the most inappropriate car a lady her size and all her possessions could be holed up in every night – was once purchased with the prospect of weekend jaunts to the vineyard or the coast.

‘Boy, when you put that roof down, will you feel the breeze of freedom,’ the salesman would have said, as much as if it was a built in feature. Then he would have used words like ‘nifty’ and ‘responsibility-free.’

And, in some ways, a one-way trip through Death Valley, with the cops quite possibly chasing for a little bit of the way, is the ultimate of that…

Though not the journey that either Darlene or the salesman had ever planned.

This afternoon, she’s stopped here to raise enough money for a long dinner at Denny’s on the corner, slow munching her way through an appetizer, main course and desert, whilst using the internet. And hopefully saving enough dollars for gas.

‘The plan is California,’ she says in a way that I recognize – as if she has just woken up from an awesome dream and this is the only word she can remember.

‘You know I used to do what you guys do,’ she says.

In Colorado, she explains, her job was creative and she’d worked for various magazines.

‘I loved drawing, creating, taking photos – doing all those things’ and it almost seems like in the absence of all that paraphernalia, to stand here in this heat, with that sign is the most arresting image that Darlene, for now, can make.

‘I need this T-shirt to be positive,’ she says, while my pen hovers over her blank tee, trying to distill that most subtle nuance.

‘I need to believe this is part of god’s plan for me – I need to know he is thinking of me and that all this hardship is just his path for me – this is intended. What I’m going through at the moment, god wants that…’

And it seems strange that it makes it easier to believe someone is behind the suffering.

Still, I imagine a god – the finger-puller of all that target practice on this poor woman -  ‘no no, Darlene, I only ever wanted you to be hard up in Colorado… It’s a better climate!’ But to put herself in worse conditions than even he intended is to show him that she’s in.

GOD HAS ME WHERE HE WANTS ME TO BE is a T-shirt for Darlene.


Barry is a friend of Albert Berger’s.

When I asked Albert what kind of story he thought Barry would tell, he said, ‘oh boy’ in that way which should be accompanied by the sound of a geyser exploding with the pressure of too many good tales.

Barry grew up in white Chicago in the fifties. As a teenager, he’d stay up late listening to the radio then one night, he went right to the end of the dial…

‘Alright,’ said the voice, as if it had been expecting him. ‘We’re going to take a walk down into the basement now and you’re gonna turn on a blue light.’

Then a song began to play. Though less than the notes and chords that Barry, as an already deft musician knew, but what sounded like a spell, pulling him in.

The Blues.

After a few weeks of listening to the show – Jam With Sam – the spell got so strong, it called for Barry and his friends to do what no white kids in this neighborhood had ever done before – to cross the railroad tracks into the ghettos of Chicago…

There, deep in the underbelly of the city, they found the living legends who’d called out to them every night…

Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf…

And now they begged them to teach them what they knew. So these musical heroes, who sat lopsided on the pedestals, which these kids had placed them on, slouched with alcoholism and genius despair, passed down the secret of how to play the blues.

‘I’m just so upset…’ Barry says today.

A line which seems to fit perfectly into the general category and I expect the rest of Chicago story to mop along behind it, which is that Barry became a great blues piano player, and in turn, helped bring those legends out of the ghetto and onto the world stage.

‘Something just happened to Sunny The Bear.’

Sunny The Bear? I rack my minimal blues knowledge. Wasn’t he a saxophonist that once played with Phelonius Monk?

‘She was only two,’ sighs Barry.

I think about those kids who can play violin aged three. Was it possible a two year old could play the blues?

Probably not…

Then Barry tells a completely different tale.

This one unfolds in Lake Tahoe, where Barry and his wife, Gail, go every summer for the epic scenery and also for the bears. ‘I got this thing about bears,’ says Barry, ‘it may sound strange, but I sort of feel like I am one.’

And at that precise moment, a last shimmer of afternoon sun reaches into this house – the same fading light you find in those old bars, which can cast a blues musician as a howlin’ wolf or even a bear.

Over the years, they’d become friends with Anne, a lady who ran a group, protecting the local bears and last summer, they were sitting on Anne’s porch, when a tiny little bear, barely a cub, rolled out of the forest and sloped towards them.

‘That’s Sunny,’ said Anne – the name that had been given to the animal on account of its sweet disposition – reaffirmed that afternoon with the Goldbergs, as she accepted the gifts of copious stroking and a couple of oranges before loping away.

Over the last few months, Barry had called Anne a number of times, always asking, at some point in the conversation, ‘how’s Sunny?’ and delighting at the updates.

Then a few days ago, Anne called Barry with the news.

Sunny the Bear had been killed.

In a scene that belonged more to an early trauma-inducing Disney movie, where you shout ‘don’t’, Sunny had wandered onto the edge of a hunter’s garden. She wasn’t provocative or aggressive and when the local authorities asked him why he shot her dead, he had no reason except ‘I have a right to use my guns.’

‘I’m just so devastated about it,’ says Barry, ‘I’m going to get a petition and lawsuit against this guy. I’m going to get all my musician friends fighting about this…

Then he slumps in the same position I imagine those old guys were in, when those kids found them.

‘The thing is, nobody’s ever going to remember that bear, you know, there’s nothing to say a special soul like that ever existed.’

And I think about Barry as a kid bringing those blues players out of the shadows and how this might be the same kind of story after all.

HER NAME WAS SUNNY is a T-shirt for Barry.


‘Oh I’m addicted to them,’ Jorge tells me in The Commissary, a coffee house on Fairfax, where everyone wears a hat – an anonymity perfect for such confessions.

‘To what?’ I ask, trying to muster excitement, because in this city such an admission is as ubiquitous as ‘have a nice day’ with the answer leap-frogging between the serious and the not so with equal amounts of drama. I predict three possibilities…

Prescription drugs.

Potato chips.

And, perhaps because the whole commissary crowd are effectively going incognito at their tables, and so everyone here is indulging in something they shouldn’t…

Full fat lattes.

‘Strong women’ Jorge whispers, as if one might take off her hat at a nearby table, shake out her glorious hair and then kick the shit out of him for exposing their secret.

‘I was only recently that I realized she was the start of all of it,’ he says, then he clears his throat and pronounces the name of his grandmother, ‘Abuelita Zheneyda,’ as beautifully as if were a child again, who’d copiously rehearsed the name, so they could perfectly enunciate every note to the owner.

‘My very first memory is of watching her getting ready for work,’ Jorge says. ‘She’d do her lips, blush, then paint on her eyebrows.’

Mrs Zheneyda would head off to the office, returning to make lunch for her family.

Then, after a siesta with her husband, she’d go through exactly the same hair and make up process before heading back to work. This time, with one crucial difference. A new dress…

‘Can you imagine? My grandmother had two costume changes a day,’ says Jorge, ‘and she was just a secretary.’

The pair played more casual on the weekends, with Jorge lying in the hammock at his grandmother’s place, while she rocked him back and forth with fairytales of places she’d never been – Paris, New York – worlds, which it seemed, that second outfit of the day had belonged more to.

‘I loved my grandfather,’ says Jorge, ‘but my grandmother was something else. She had star quality. They all did…’




Jorge spent his childhood ricocheting from one fantastic woman to another, each one, it seemed, nurturing him as much as the wolf which suckled Remus & Romulus, for one specific destiny – to work for the most powerful woman in America, so powerful he doesn’t even have to say her name, though the next day, he sends me a picture.

‘I really loved her,’ says Jorge, who signed up for her army straight after school, though after fifteen years of being a lynchpin in her world, it was time for a change.

‘That was a hard moment,’ he says, ‘I knew I needed to move on with my life, but who do you work for after her?’

Luckily, a most obvious choice soon appeared – Cristina Saralegui – the biggest talk show host in Hispanic America, nicknamed the ‘The Spanish Oprah.’

‘But didn’t you ever feel pushed around by these women?’ I ask.

‘Oh no!’ he says, ‘I love their strength. It’s always felt…well, like I’m coming home.’

I picture Jorge, aged five, watching his grandmother get ready for work and twenty years later, doing the same in Oprah’s dressing room – irrefutable evidence that we are preset on our path from such an early age.

Though these days Jorge is helping to carry out the dreams of these women in a way a kid for his grandmother never could.

I ask him what his next plan is.

‘Well, there’s a third woman I really want to work for,’ he says, ‘Susana Giménez, she’s the biggest talk show host in Argentina. Isn’t that weird? That the most successful way of communicating with the masses on this continent – the talk show – is effectively controlled by three women?’

‘That is weird,’ I say.

‘You want to know what’s even weirder?’ He says, lowering his voice, in a way that suggests we probably need to borrow hats from The Commissary crowd to continue this now hushed conversation.

‘All of them – Oprah, Cristina and Susana are born on the same day. January 20th.’

I wait for the speakers playing The XXX to interrupt with the ‘ahh ahh ahh’ destiny noise.

‘Now you tell me,’ says Jorge, ‘what the hell a guy from a small town in Ecuador has got to do with any of it?’

THE MAN BEHIND THE DIVA is a T-shirt for Jorge.


As I head east along Sunset, I try to remember a time that I’ve seen Barbara in the day before – sun rays are as forbidden in the place she works as beer guzzling frat boys, disrupting the grace of shadows, like belches from the outside world.

Dark boxes like these are all over Los Angeles – cinemas, churches, dive bars – a disconnected constant night village running on their own time zones. Here, hours can pass with the lightness of minutes, especially in the kind with bar stools.

‘What do you mean I’ve been here twenty five years?! I thought it was an hour…’

And when eventually you get up to go, a decision you always regret, the day seems to punish you even harder with a slap of bright white as soon as you open the door, as if it has been waiting outside for you this entire time, fuming with jealousy.

Though a regular night has nothing to be green about because this permanent kind has evolved to be something else.


It’s the kind of light you get in a dark room – a crimson haze, that in dive bars offers the same safe exposure to delicate dreams. Especially here…

The usual man is by the door today.

He’s always here. Perched on a stool, dragging on a cigarette – the tip of the smoke cloud continuing into the white quiff of his hair as he guards the entrance to what the sign above him grandly announces is ‘Jumbo’s Clown Rooms.’

Not the circus…

But East Hollywood’s most famous bikini bar where Barbara is a waitress.

And though it perhaps seems obvious that the red light is here to nurture a most basic exposure, Jumbos has always felt like it had something more subtle going on.

Years ago, that couldn’t be said. Someone told me that they’d once seen a Korean stripper smoke a cigar in a place of presidential fame on stage here. Then at the turn of the millennium, the local government’s pursuit of a ‘cleaner Hollywood’ created a new moral maze in which the previous sleaziness now got lost.

They decided that what you saw – physiologically-speaking – in strip bars should be determined by what you drank.

You could see breasts if you were just drinking beer.

You couldn’t see breasts if you were drinking liquor.

Though quite possibly, if you drunk enough, you could in fact see anything.

On the verge of retiring, Mr. Jumbo’s bowed out of navigating this new splurge of red tape and instead, gave the whole business to his only heir – a daughter.

She imposed her own rules…

The girls would never expose anything.

They’d dance in their underwear.

And they would choose their own music.

And though these might sound like additions to the new puritanical laws, they were in fact the cornerstones of why I’d come to regard Jumbos a temple of female power – a place that rather than obeying or disobeying the local government had in fact created its own separate fiefdom, so fragile, it could only exist in this red light.

It wasn’t like any other strip bar.

What usually hits about those is the performer/audience power imbalance. See, in regular shows – the Broadway kind – the former is in charge, but in places with near naked girls on stage, an unhealthy amount of dominion belongs to the audience, contorting the girls with approving sleazy gazes into more and more seductive moves like voodoo dolls.

Jumbo girls, on the other hand, didn’t seem to give a damn about the pool of ravenous men and women at their feet.

They danced in mismatched underwear to Pixie songs without once looking down at the pit – a performance which seemed more like a dance you do in your bedroom while no one is around, though here it had the added bonus of cash.

That was the only degrading thing  – the moment when after the dance, the girl would get down on her knees and pick up the dollar bills that had been thrown at her.

Then, she’d disappear into a back room, where a chalkboard hanging next to it listed the names of the girls performing that night – though they could easily be mistaken for  a girl scout-style list of virtues, necessary for entry into that room.





The door would shut as quickly as it opened, suggesting somehow that this was the real place of exposure – an inner sanctum, where the rest of us were forbidden to go.

‘Who are the clowns?’ I’d asked Barbara on my second visit.

‘Look around you,’ she said in a German accent that even after twenty years in America still refused to loosen its grip on the homeland, ‘you are all the clowns.’

And when I glanced again at that back room, I imagined all the girls inside counting their cash and laughing about what a joke the whole thing was.

It was empowering. And Barbara and I became friends, meeting every so often at weird German restaurants to drink vodka. One night, she even told me that I had the legs to be a dancer at Jumbos and I was thrilled that she might have actually glimpsed the potential of some inner power.

Perhaps, subconsciously because of that I have turned up today at audition hour.

‘I chose this song for her,’ says Barbara, who is watching a new girl called Giselle dance to Nina Simone.

‘Isn’t it perfect? She’s from Moscow.’

Then, as if interpreting the meaning of the dance, she explains…

‘That’s what I always loved about the idea of coming to America – that you could be what you were on the inside on the outside.’

She looks at Giselle and then me.

‘You know as a woman you have great sensuality and power…’

We both nod at the advice on how to make our moves better.

‘Those are your weapons. They make you dream about being something more than you are…’

She pauses grandly and I can almost hear the key turning to that backroom, the door gently pushing open with a whisper of ‘come in.’

‘But it’s hard, we all have the same problem – we’re not understood by our men. A lot of the girls at Jumbo’s are crying because their men don’t understand them.’

Oh god, seriously? Was that really what was happening in the backroom at Jumbo’s?

‘It’s funny,’ Barbara says, ‘men go to strip bars and watch strange girls take off their clothes. But a lot of them have a woman at home who wants to strip. Twice in my life I’ve done it for the man I was in love with –  but they couldn’t go there with me…They don’t want their woman to be like that at home.’

‘But what about the Japanese?’ I ask.

‘The Japanese’ is Barbara’s boyfriend who she always refers to by that name. If ever you went to her house, he was always in another room, resting and you had to be quiet so you didn’t wake him – all of which had given him the same kind of reputation as an expensive and rather difficult house cat.

‘Oh, he’s my man,’ she says,  ‘and I love him and it’s really nice to have someone I can sit on a couch with and watch TV but…’

Her sigh falls perfectly off the back of the fading Nina Simone song.

‘Bravo!’ Barbara applauds as Giselle takes a bow, unfamiliar on this stage.

‘Now we just need to find her another song,’ says Barbara.

‘But what’s wrong with that one?’

She laughs, as if I have just said the stupidest thing in the world.

‘Jumbo customers don’t want to listen to Nina Simone and…’ she warns Giselle, ‘they’re going to need more eye contact.’

Then Giselle disappears into the backroom – the previous mystery of it now bleached with the truth – two dollar feather boas, polystyrene cups used as ashtrays and a waste paper basket full of tissues with dry stripper tears.

Though, an empty Jumbos with just me and Barbara and a red bulb, suddenly transforms into something else – a true sanctum of exposure, where Barbara now looks straight at me.

‘To be with somebody who knows what you are, you have to be what you are and that’s scary.’

And I realize that the kind of stripping she’s talking about has nothing to do with clothes.



A is an actor.

We met years ago on the set of a movie where he was playing a bad guy, though the kind which had as much depth as a cardboard Darth Vader on a Walmart aisle – a two dimensional note, which A seemed to hit again in life, though in the opposite realm.

He was a good guy, more than any other description that you could throw at him. Raised it seemed only to be so with goodness, I imagined, being the most vital nutritional ingredient in anything his parents gave him.

The goodness of green vegetables.

The goodness of study.

The goodness of making plans.

And now here was the proof that all that goodness really worked – a twenty-three year old man who came to work everyday on time, with a childhood sweetheart on his arm and such perfect manners, that if you mentioned his name to anybody on that set, they’d go ‘ahhhh’ as much as if the director had insisted on it.

We spoke a little, but mostly just waved across the trailer park of the movie like neighbors, with one side – the obvious – quite envious of the other.

When they wrapped the movie I missed our final wave, but later, somebody handed me a green envelope with my name on it. Inside was a matching colored card and in neat handwriting, that stuck obediently to an invisible line, A had penned…

‘I know you’re going to be okay in your life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. And, I love you!’

It was the sweetest note that anybody had ever written to me and though five minutes later I saw similar green cards shooting out of envelopes all over the set, with the generator-operator welling up with tears, and the guy who made the sandwiches having to sit down and contemplate the piece of paper in his hands, it didn’t matter.

These were the perfect last words.

A had left his contact details, but I didn’t need them. What was there left to add?

Sometimes, though, I wondered what he would say if he knew that I‘d carried that note in my wallet for years – a sheet of comforting kryptonite, which hummed under the rage of any argument, where somebody close would be yelling for the opposite.

‘Well, only if you say so,’ I’d think later staring at that green card.

Keep doing what you’re doing.

It was the greatest get out of jail card free ever.

Then, much later, I was watching the first episode of a surreal show leading the charge of the new wave of American television, when the credits listed A. He was so different, I hadn’t even recognized him and it was obvious his career was now taking a more interesting turn.

I decided that this would be the moment to return the precious words to their sender.

‘Saw the show,’ my email went, ‘It was great. Keep doing what you’re doing.’

It had been so long, I honestly thought I wouldn’t hear a response though within just a few seconds a reply pinged back, which in retrospect, would have preferred to have made an animal noise.

He didn’t even start with a hello…

‘All summer I’ve been planning my wedding to my childhood sweetheart,’ A wrote, ‘we sent out the invitations, rented the marquees, asked our friends to DJ…’

For a minute, I wondered if he’d sent me his wedding to-do list by mistake.

‘I even bought the Mexican cake toppers, but I couldn’t do it. Oh god! I’ve just left her!’

His email yelped so frantically, I pictured him writing it hiding under a table in the vestibule, while mood-wise the opposite of a Mexican wave crept from the best man to the priest, then row after row, with the news that this wasn’t happening anymore.

‘Now,’ he concluded, ‘I’m on the run into the big, dangerous world!’

You couldn’t help it…

As much as you felt bad for the bride, A’s tone was exhilarating with a non malicious innocence to it, as if he were a kid at summer camp – his first trip away from home, writing to his parents about all the exciting new things available for him to try.

‘Toasted marshmallows last night!! Learning how to canoe tomorrow!!’

And while the surreal TV show got cancelled for being too far out, A began sending me regular episodes from an equally enthralling show that knew no such limits.

His new life.

By the second email, he was sleeping in his car in LA. Though, that had been abandoned in the next, as he headed down to South America on the railroads…

There, he reached the peak of the ruins at Machu Picchu where he took mescaline and tried to hallucinate that whatever had been here in Mayan times was still here, but there was nothing. So he sat down and wept for days, while the now giant-sized Mexican cake toppers stroked his head gently, whispering, ‘it’s okay, son, it’s okay.’

The fourth email came from Buenos Aires, where there was big news.

‘I’ve just had a ménage a cinque,’ wrote A, ‘both beautiful and ugly! But now one of the lesbians has decided she is in love with me. Help! What do I do?’

I loved him for thinking that I was the kind of person who might have an answer and for a second, I wondered if I should repeat that famous phrase…

‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’


The season finale came from Korea Town, where A. had moved on his return to America. On his first night there, a man was shot on his doorstep.

‘By his own brother!’ A wrote.

And six thousand miles away, I swore I could hear that police helicopter – its propeller whirring like the amplified shutter of a camera, while a spotlight shone down on A’s bloody steps – the death of a man a most fitting end to the dynamic story of another who had completely walked out of his former life.

After such an energetic first season, we took a break from correspondence – A, I was certain, was all out of story lines for now.  And to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could handle a second season.

Then a year later, I switched on the TV and there he was, though again I didn’t recognize him.

This A had perfect hair, unfamiliar with the humid fuzz of Argentinean nights. He wore great suits to a great job, was in a committed relationship and checked a gold watch for the time in a world which was split – with great fervor – into three minute sequences of film cut to emotive pieces of music. The montage.

Falling in love was of course a montage. But, in this show, the device was like an IKEA piece of storage that any life event could fit into.

Un-falling in love was a montage.

And moving house.

And even scrambling eggs.

Eventually, the producers even took on death with a ‘final goodbye’ montage followed by a ‘grief’ montage – an emotional journey which lasted the length of Clocks by Coldplay.

But if somebody’s grief went beyond the final note on the ‘funeral wake’ montage, then there would be a ‘we’re worried about them’ montage followed by a confrontational ‘don’t you think you should be getting over this by now’ montage climaxing in a ‘it’s okay, I’m finally coming to terms with it,’ montage.

Essentially, if you threw enough montages at any situation – no matter how traumatic – eventually it would resolve itself.

And after the montage had spoken/sung, that was it. This particular era of your life was as neatly faded out as those last notes and you were on to an all-new phase, although certainly not the kind where a Fifth Confused Lesbian would ever figure.

Still, I found it exciting to watch – especially when one day, I picked up a gossip magazine and saw that A was dating one of the other characters in real life, in a shot that looked like it had been cut straight out of a scene in the show.

Laughing together over a coffee montage.

And just how the greatest of actors are lauded for their ability to transform so convincingly from one role to another, so I thought A should be appreciated for the same feats in life.

‘I know a place that’s really healthy,’ he emails today in perfect banal character, as we back and forth on where to meet, agreeing on a spot just south of Sunset on Highland, where actors on breaks from auditions let their headshots graze between trays of wheatgrass.

‘Look at you!’ we exclaim in the line as A. arrives as handsome and polished as if he’s just stepped out the show. Then we gasp over how long it’s been in between reading aloud various entries on the chalkboard menu, as if also long-lost friends who’ve just suddenly turned up, ‘Nicoise! Oh my god! Quinoa Surprise!’

And generally, trying to fill the embarrassing silence that comes when two people who have been corresponding with great frankness for years are now face to face and unable to operate with the same.

For the first time in my life, I long for a Mumford & Sons song to come on the speakers, so we can wrap up the awkwardness in a neat ‘choosing a salad’ montage.

‘The radishes are here are just excellent,’ A says in its place – a line so boring and far from Buenos Aires, it reassures that even without music, it is possible to move on.  And I’m just relieved that after my poor example in front of Ibrahima, here is someone who has so formidably left his old world, he can only be an inspiration.

A pushes his tray of greens away and sighs.

‘You want a blondie?’ he says.


‘Fuck the salad. It’s a white chocolate brownie made with peanut butter and toffee sauce.

‘I know what it is.’

‘Yeah, well I’m going to get one of those.’

He orders two – a duo of awesome cholesterol which after just a bite, begin to double as formidable truth telling drugs.

‘I’m done with the show,’ whispers A, ‘I fell in love, got married, four times, survived the fire, delivered our triplets myself, worked through her affair with Miguel, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world ever …’

And as incredible as it may sound, in the space of a few montages, all that was very possible.

‘But I’m done with it,’ he says.

‘I thought you were dating someone in the show?’

‘It’s over. I can’t do it anymore. This isn’t the life I want…’

The sugar rush from the blondie soars with the exhilaration of the moment – A is going to walk again! And this time, I’m in the room to see it!

‘I want something else,’ he murmurs, ‘something not so perfect.’ He pauses as if detecting it in the mouthful of peanut butter.

‘Grit….you know, like before.’

The soar in mid-rocket up, like a pinball aiming for the highest heights, now hits a ceiling – a slap warning it not to go any further – and so with even greater speed, it retreats straight back down to exactly where it was before.

‘You mean like Korea Town?’

He nods.

‘I think I’m in love with a stripper.’

We change locations to a more suitable dive bar and order a couple of beers, over which, A asks what the T shirt will be about.

I don’t say that it won’t be as predicted – about an inspirational hero who constantly shakes off the past as he moves in one direction – forward. Instead, I quietly recast him as an amnesiac, damned with a short term memory who keeps forgetting where he’s been.

The mantra, ‘keep doing what you’re doing,’ in fact, his biggest curse.

And so, he needs to keep making notes – on himself, on anything – about all the places he’s been so he’ll know not to go back or that actually, that’s where he truly belongs.



Ibrahima was a taxi driver who’d given me a ride several years ago.

We’d had one of those epic conversations – barely stuck in chit chat, before we sped down the main street of marriage and kids, took the freeway of everything we were going to do with our lives, then cruised out into the open pastures of fix the world talk.

He had the gentlest of solutions…

‘We just need to be nicer to each other,’ he’d say.

‘But what about genocide in Africa? Or war in the Middle East?’ I’d counter, recycling the morning’s headlines as impossible to solve equations.

‘If you’re cool to somebody, they’ll be cool back.’

It was the kind of basic arithmetic that belongs more to a child to whom you’d usually reply ‘it’s a little more complicated than that’ – without ever saying why, as if the explanation is stuck in a bank account, kept off limits until they turn eighteen.

At which point, they shriek, ‘oh my god, life is so complicated!’

Though in that beat just after the kid’s observation, before you too remember your own unlimited wealth of complications, you wonder if they have a point.

When we got to goodbye, we made plans to meet again. I’d come over for lunch with him and his wife or we’d meet for coffee or just go for another drive.

We never did – I can’t say why – though over the years, I’d rather possessively hoped that he’d never picked up the thread of our talk with another passenger, ‘ah yes, the meaning of life, where were we?’ Or, worse, just forgotten.

‘Of course I remember!’ he bellows down the phone today and I feel the relief that comes when you know for sure that the weight of a good memory isn’t lopsided.

Then we hatch a plan for tomorrow, our voices climbing with excitement at the prospect of a catch up, undeterred by the fact that it’s Ramadan and the Diallio family are fasting, so it can’t be over food, though just before goodbye Ibrahima drops an unfamiliar sigh.

‘Listen,’ he says, ‘this neighborhood… It’s not a safe one – you’ll need be careful.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ I say, a polite translation of ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ – a standard response I developed to warnings like these during my first trips to this city when white LA would dispense neurotic tourist tips.

‘Listen, if you’re driving past South Central/Compton/Inglewood/Crenshaw and you get a flat tire, just keep driving, understand, keep driving and don’t ever stop.’

I always wondered how far they would take this…

‘Listen, if you’re driving past South Central/Compton/Inglewood/Crenshaw and your car explodes, just try to keep driving.’

Their tone was so overweight with gravitas, it tipped the scales into sounding silly and was more suited, I bet, to the days of somebody saying…

‘Listen, as soon as we past those pillars of salt, just don’t look back.’

But fifteen hours later, as I turn into Ibrahima’s street, his warning suddenly hotboxes with paranoia, swelling into a overriding computer voice screeching ‘abort, this mission abort!’ I grab my cell phone, as if specially installed for such emergencies and doubling as a means of oxygen.

‘Can you come and pick me up?’ I gasp into the mouthpiece.

‘Of course, where are you?’ Ibrahima says.

‘Outside your house.’

‘You want me to come and pick you up from the sidewalk?’

‘Sure,’ I say, as if this is his wild suggestion, which I – out of politeness – am willing to go along with.

Then, I lock the doors of my car and wait, pretty certain that he made that suggestion too.

‘Hey Ibrahima, over here!’ I yell as soon as I see him – a move I hope he’ll read as the gesture of a long-lost buddy and not of someone who is hiding from something-evil-trying-to-get-them and has just laid eyes on the rescue party.

And as crazy as that sounds, I am quite sure of it.

Past the sprinklers.

And the neatly trimmed lawns.

And the people who’ve walked by without giving me a hint of a bad look.

Something is out there…

A malevolent mood, hiding behind the curtains of this neighborhood, like a sniper rifle, staring right at me.

‘Come in, come in,’ says Ibrahima’s wife a few seconds later, bundling me into the house so strongly, that I’m sure she knows it’s out there too.

I wait for her to lock the dead bolts and then slide the chain.

Instead she leaves the front door wide open.

‘He told me you were such a nice lady,’ she beams.

And just as quickly as Mrs Diallio turns on the light, my dark thoughts which have one foot over this threshold, now mumble an apology. They have mistaken this house for a less-welcoming, more suspicious one – ‘please excuse us!’ – and skulk out.

I wince with shame at dragging along such out of place guests and try to find something in common with the last, and it seems, more innocent time that we met.

‘Hey, I didn’t see the taxi cab outside,’ I say.

‘Oh! It’s gone,’ Ibrahima says, taking a seat on the couch –  a move that triggers a switch, sprouting an invisible set of wheels, which roll even faster than the taxi’s, because within a second, we’re back on that freeway of everything we were going to do with our lives.


The breeze strips away the dark thoughts down to the bare rush of unstoppable movement, which we enjoy like a pair of dogs with our heads out of the car window, as Ibrahima takes me flying by all his news.

There goes the office where Ibrahima has a new job in marketing.

And the university where he got the necessary degree.

Whoosh! Whoosh!

And the school where his daughter now goes to and soon, the latest addition.

‘You had a second kid?’ I ask.

‘Yup,’ he laughs, and picks up a toddler from the carpet – her feet wriggling as if she has come from the opposite direction and is about to meet land for the first time.

‘So, what about you,’ he says, ‘tell me everything that’s happened since.’

‘Oh, wow,’ I laugh, not sure how to cram it all in, but I give it a shot, taking the wheel of the conversation and putting Ibrahima in the role of one of those driving instructors, who has a set of pedals on their side too. If I go too fast with all my news, he can slam the brakes.

‘Well, after we met that day, I got this big job in advertising…’

‘That’s great!’

‘Yup, but I just quit that, because I’m going off on this whole big T-shirt journey.’

I pause to hear the thud of the brakes or a yelp of ‘too fast!’


‘Wait,’ he says, ‘weren’t you talking about this last time?’

I think back to our phone call yesterday, pretty sure I hadn’t mentioned it so I could impress him with the news today.

Then Ibrahima recites an ambition, which sounds so far out delivered in a Ghanese accent, that for a second I don’t recognize it as mine.

‘You said you were going to go across the country, remember? Hear stories, remember? And make T-shirts for people, remember?’

The third ‘remember’ recants every molecular sensation of advancement made like a magic spell, and sends me back to the taxi, where, he was right, I had said it first.

Five years ago.

It’s my turn to squeeze the brakes, though apparently, they’ve been on for quite some time.

I glance over at Ibrahima’s side of the ‘everything we were going to’ freeway – a bustling, rapidly developing new town, and reluctantly back at mine…

An empty, tumbleweed field – its only sign of life, an idea still stood out in front,  hitching for a ride in exactly the same place as it had last time.

‘It’s so great you’re doing it,’ says Ibrahima, too kind to insert the word ‘finally’ or to notice that I am now rather desperately scouring the carpet for an infant, who I can pick up and claim as my own, waving it in the air – a fleshy flag bearing testament to my progress.

‘How about some tea?’ he asks, disappearing into the kitchen, ‘I got some advice too if you want it,’ he adds, the only thing to chew on in Ramadan times.

‘Just be really nice to people and they’re going to be really nice back to you. People are on the whole 90% cool.’

What a great statistic.

Though somewhere in the room, I hear a sigh.

‘I don’t know why he told you this was a bad neighborhood,’ whispers Mrs Diallio, ‘it’s not like that at all. This is a good place with good people.’

‘I don’t know why either,’ I tell her, relieved for a second that even though I’m in the same place as last time, the fact that a taxi driver never knew about it, makes a difference.

THE NICE SIDE OF INGLEWOOD is a T-shirt from Ibrahima.


Henry is Albert’s son. He’s just turned thirteen.

‘I bet you get up to a lot of stuff,’ I say.

‘Not as much as I used to. When I was younger…’ he takes a deep breath, maybe he shouldn’t get into it.

‘How much younger?’

‘When I was three years old, maybe four…’

‘You mean when you were a …. ?’

‘Toddler, yeah. It got pretty wild. Once I bit someone’s ear. Twice, I hid so well, my parents thought they’d lost me and they had to call the cops.’

Then he sighs with the relief of an adolescent who’s clearly been through the worse.

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I WAS CRAZY is a T-shirt for Henry.


Albert Berger is a producer. We’ve been friends for years and have lunch a lot.

As a kid, he got obsessed by movies and when he was eighteen, he bought a movie theatre in Chicago, which played obscure European films. So obscure, the mafia took advantage of the small audience/no witnesses to do shady deals during screenings.

Since then, Albert has become one of the most revered independent producers, along with his business partner Ron, making movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Election.

‘It’s getting tougher,’ he says over lunch today, ‘everything is ruled by the box office and the need for a big audience. The easiest way to get a movie made is to cast a star.’

I hold back from telling him that I’ve just had a phone call from a friend, who’s returned from the latest Hollywood exercise class – Transcendental Spin Class In The Dark with the news that Jonah Hill, also in attendance, somehow saw the I Love Boxie T-shirt she was wearing and told her he wanted one.

Now I am ashamedly harassing her to get him in one of my T-shirts, sure that it will garner a moment of commercial success for my as yet, undeveloped T-shirt journey.

Albert tells me about the films he’s developing, ‘Nebraska,’ shooting in black and white, ‘tricky for the box office,’ he says and ‘Lowdown,’ which tells the story of the jazz pianist, Joe Albany and his daughter, who lived in the back street motels of sixties Hollywood while he battled with a heroin addiction.

‘Also tricky,’ he sighs.

Then, as usual over these lunches, he tells me the other tales that don’t stand a chance of getting made but, burn brightly here, for just an hour or two.



Yup, it’s back. Click here to buy the tee that tells a million stories… (only available for sale until 23/8/14)

(‘The Hey’ T-shirt, worn here with black satin tuxedo pants, YSL sandals and a recoverable heart.)

Dear Friends of Boxie,

It’s been a while since we’ve been in touch. We’ve been on an epic journey since we last spoke, in fact, we’re still on it and have many wild stories to tell you about the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been. We’ll get to that later…

But judging by the amount of requests we’ve been getting to start selling ‘The Hey’ tee again, your love stories are reaching even wilder heights.

Click here if you want to purchase this  tee or, if not, we have some stories to tell and would love an audience.

The tales are about a trip we’ve been taking across America, where we meet strangers and turn their stories onto a line on a tee. We’ve been in LA (of course), Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, New Orleans, Mississippi, Nebraska, Chicago and have made over two hundred T-shirts for people from all different parts of life.

I want to tell you, though, about a story, that I just can’t shake.

It happened yesterday in Death Valley in a small town of twenty people called Tecopa.

At sunset, we found a blue couch in the middle of nowhere with a woman sitting on it with two kittens. She told us her name was Theresa and that she also had a puppy, who’d run off that morning into the desert. She was now terrified the coyotes would get him.

She explained that she was in Tecopa selling her mother’s motorhomes. Her mother had had a serious illness for six years, during which Theresa had cared for her permanently. Then in April, Theresa had taken her to the hospital, where the doctors informed that her mother had less than twelve hours to live.

She didn’t tell her mother that she was going to die, but put her in the car and said they were going on a drive to see friends. Theresa held her hand and drove. Six hours later, she finally stopped at the coroner’s.

Despite the physical evidence of a grave, and the terrible weight of grief that has physically rendered itself on Theresa, she just knows her mother is still on this journey with her…

The next day after we met, she ran out of gas and it looked, for a moment, like she might not get out of Death Valley. But the sheriff kindly fuelled up her RV.

And then, the puppy came back.

Death Is Not The End Of The Road is a T-shirt for Theresa.

More stories are to come…Stay tuned and keep having those love affairs.

ps never work with T-shirts and water.


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?’

‘Um, unsettled…’

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. ‘

‘Thank you.’

‘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.’

‘What’s that?’

‘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.

‘I am?’

‘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.’

‘You are?’

‘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 awesome.’

‘I’m overwhelmed.’

‘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.’

‘I can?’

‘Sure! I didn’t mean just keep going on the same one.’

‘You didn’t?’

‘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.