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BARBARA

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.

Red.

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.

Chastity

Grace

Liberty

Faith

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.

I TURN FANTASTIES INTO REALITIES is a T-shirt for Barbara.

A.

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.’

No.

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.

‘What?’

‘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.

 THE DARKER SIDE OF HOLLYWOOD is a T-shirt for A.

IBRAHIMA

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.

Whoosh!

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!’

Nothing.

‘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

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 

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.

 YOU MIGHT BE THE ONLY PERSON WHO SEES THIS is a T-shirt for Albert.

THE AMERICA JOURNEY BACKWARDS (READ UP FROM HERE, THIS IS THE START)

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.

LOS ANGELES

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.

Metaphorically.

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?

‘Um…yes’

‘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.’

‘Really?’

‘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.

‘What?’

‘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.

‘Ulysses.’

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?’

Ah.

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.

A PIT STOP

Before we go any further, there are a few things I need to tell you about my system of travel, which for reasons that will become outstandingly obvious soon, I call ‘a shamble’

I use no map. I have no plan that on X date I need to be in X place. Instead, the people I make T-shirts for always give me the name of a person I should meet next. That’s my compass. Along the way, I follow signs – not your usual non-negotiable road kind – but intuition, coincidence, conversations with strangers and other things I’m superstitious about.

The sign doesn’t necessarily say ‘go here’ but feels more like a nod that I’m where I’m meant to be.

Especially, when it concerns the following.

When my father disappeared, I was just over two years old. A few months after, I went on vacation with my grandparents to France. One night while my grandmother was looking after me, she told me a letter had arrived for me. ‘It’s from a wolf,’ she said – one that shared remarkably similar handwriting to her own.

She told me that his name was Pijacques and that he’d seen me that day in the village and wanted to say hello. The tone of the letter was the kind you’d expect in a welcome note from a neighbor, when you’d just moved somewhere new.

And if he hadn’t been a wolf, he probably would have invited me round for muffins.

I came back to England and began to spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place – an old smuggler’s inn set back from the coast in ancient woodland.

Centuries ago, smugglers would land their boats at night, creep through the woods and if they saw a light on in the inn – a symbol of safety – they’d rest there with their contraband.

One night, another letter arrived. ‘It’s from the wolf again,’ my grandmother told me, and then the news that he’d followed me here to these woods. ‘You can’t see him,’ she said, ‘because a lot of people in the world don’t feel like we do about wolves, so he eats nettles which make him invisible. But wherever you go, the wolf is always with you. Understand? Pijaques, he has your back.’

Sometimes, in my childhood, I’d swear I could almost feel the bristle of his fur against my leg – a sensation, which faded over the years, and then to nothing in adolescence, when my friends marched ten paces in front of their parents down the street out of embarrassment, and I too left the wolf behind.

Then a couple of years ago I started to remember Pijaques.

I told my grandmother how pleased I was that I’d come from a family who hadn’t sent me to a shrink to deal with a tragedy, but, instead, like those smugglers years before, had taken something so brutal and exotic in everyday life – the sudden disappearance of a father – and like elephant ivory or crocodile’s skin, remolded it into something tame and moderately civilized – the arrival of a letter-writing wolf.

‘Hmmm…’ said my grandmother, in a way that didn’t ever admit that the wolf might not ever exist. ‘Why do you think Pijaques started writing to you?’ Because something happened, I told her, that threw even nature off guard, so it needed to restore the balance with the friendship of a savage animal and a little girl.

‘Yes, that’s it,’ she said.

Last year, in a moment of heartbreak, my grandmother telephoned me. Grandparents never call. They telephone.

‘Darling what do you want for your birthday?’ she said. ‘I think I need another letter from that wolf,’ I told her, ‘if you see him, can you tell him.’ A few days later, in a now doddery scrawl, a letter arrived from Pijaques, now, I feared as blind as my grandmother.

The winter, the letter said, had been tough for him too. He’d got so hungry he’d decided to steal a couple of pork chops from the local butcher’s. The trouble was, the moths had also been peckish, and had eaten holes through his invisible suit. The butcher had seen him commit the crime, and now the whole village was after him.

‘Could I possibly come and stay with you?’ he wrote. I sent word back of ‘yes.’ But like most characters you suspect are fictional, the wolf failed to materialize. So this June, a friend got me a ticket howling with real life wolves.

‘Now on the count of three’ said the wolf wrangler, ‘ I want you to all howl up at the sky – and if you’re lucky the wolves will howl back.’  And I looked at the wild animals, scattered around the countryside and then back at the twenty people huddled together, as straight as the commuters on my train – and had that fear, where you’re sure the conversation is about to dry up.

Then this howl came. Not from them. Us. So loud, I could see people looking down their noses at their mouths, thinking ‘is this noise coming from me?’ In that howl all manner of honest subjects felt like they were covered…I’m too fat… I need to pay my phone bill… Then we all fell quiet and waited.

And we heard it. A howl from the wolves at the bottom of the hill, rolling up the slope, gathering orchestral force, until it reached two wolves in front of us, who looked at us and threw their heads back, and howled.

Right then, I understood something – in life, love and especially creativity you have to put your howl out into the universe and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear a howl back who recognizes you.

The next week, I go to New York to work on my day job in advertising. Suddenly, I become aware that my howl at the moment is ending on a slightly warped note…

Awwww…  Buy one get one free.

Awwww… Super sale on Sunday.

Then, in a thought, that comes, as wildly, but as naturally, as a flash in a wolf’s eye – I decide to go off on a T-shirt making journey – one last howl – that hopefully my dad will hear, but if not, maybe just one person who’ll understand all this stuff.

So this is a really long way of explaining that I follow anything to do with wolves. Anything. And the wolf, as you’ll see along this shamble, tends to follow me.

A couple of nights after I arrive in Los Angeles in July, I see a guy walking down Sunset Boulevard with a wolf – now before you go ‘wow,’ I should tell you that there are a lot of people walking around LA with wolves.

A few days later I tell Steve about the guy and he says ‘you need to make a T-shirt for him’. Five minutes later, I walk out the door and the guy is walking right past there and then with his wolf. He stops and stares at me weirdly, though his version, I’m sure, is that there was a woman staring very weirdly at him. See, even though the animal is on his leash, it’s here that I realize that I’m meant to be in LA, because once again, the wolf is with me.

I’m With The Wolf is a T-shirt for me.

LOS ANGELES

The real beginning of this story isn’t Vegas but LA. It’s also a chunk of the middle and probably the end, because if you’re a dreamer, this is where you go to get refueled.

It’s not that dreams are more likely to happen here, but more that enough sprinklers and believers have created the perfect climate to think that anything is possible. No skyscrapers loom over LA streets, just low buildings, which squat down as far as they can go, to guarantee a clear sky and room for infinite dream space.

Tell somebody in another city, that you’re turning strangers’ stories into T-shirts and looking for something called ‘Boxie,’ and the set response would be, ‘um, okay.’

In LA, it’s ‘Oh my god, fucking awesome! Good for you!’

This is what worries me.

That, out here, the line between the dream and madness is paper thin – with both enthused over, in case a crazy idea turns out to be an epic dream.

Go anywhere else and somebody in a waiter’s uniform telling you that ‘no, no’ they are in fact, ‘a movie director,’ while explaining the chicken palliard special would be a reason to call a doctor, but in LA, where a whole city lies in waiting to be something else, this is the most regular conversation you can ever have.

Neither do you cringe while listening – because, here, even the audience plays along.  Go to a favorite bar and see that your usual bartender is missing, and your heart leaps with ‘They got a show!’ and not the most rational explanation…

a)     They’re not working tonight.
b)    They’re in the bathroom.

Because just for that glimmer, if their dream can happen so can yours.

See, more than any gas, LA runs on the intoxicating fumes of grand fantasy, self-belief and unremitting passion – conditions that could equally be written on a psychiatrist’s pad. And while you need a certain dose of those to believe that your dream will make it, hopefully the godly hand of success will pluck you from the brink and install you safely up in the hills, before the same plummets you into madness.

Even then, it’s hard to tell the difference. A lost man mumbling around Sunset with wild hair could easily be a movie star going through his big beard/’who am I’ phase. And though there is an epic difference between a supermarket trolley and a mansion – buried away in each, you’ll find the thing they both came here with.

The dream.

I arrive in LA with mine in July. This isn’t the first time I’ve come here with hopes of Boxie and though I know I got close five years ago, any hint of repetition worries me.

For a few days, I enjoy the opposite – I eat three meals a day and do outstanding parallel parking with the zest of someone who is in fact here to participate in a national competition on conventional behavior.

In this city that makes you an outsider. And also pretty bored. I give in and call the first person I always call when I’m in LA and when you need to start a dream.

Albert Berger.

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Albert’s son Henry dreams of working in the movies. He has a past that makes any worry I have over mine, look tame.