About, maybe, 112: Palm Desert in the middle of July on a good day. I had my bag full of heavy books and pens and folders blended together into a hot, sweaty mess in my bag. It was the summer of 1998 and I was taking some classes hoping to one day make it out of the frustrations that I had become so accustomed to. I remember that day clearly, walking to the Student Center as you walked toward me. You were just walking somewhere, maybe aimlessly or maybe with a purpose. I just remember it was a chance encounter at College of the Desert and I was happy to see you. I was happy because I liked you as a friend. You had a mellow disposition and a quiet way about yourself – not excitable, just very thoughtful. I felt comfortable talking to you: it never mattered how different our backgrounds were. When we saw each other that day, I know exactly what we said. I know because it was practically our greeting: “Did you get any new records?” We loved the same kinds of music and had the same musical group affiliation, “Allied Elements”. It was as if everyone, everything was peripheral – we talked about music and would connect over a song or sound we liked, even though we had not been born when some of that music was first introduced. We would concoct plans to go out shopping for records although that never materialized. I wish I could have been there for you that fateful day when we lost you to a car crash.
We just ended up in front of Home Depot one day in Indio and out of the blue, there you were. I was with Brince and a couple of other friends doing who knows what but I do remember that we saw you. You looked restless and weary and there was talk about you trying to get a job or having a job at Home Depot. It was a whirlwind day. One of those days where we just ended up places, commiserating over one thing or another. The weather was likely warm. We were probably pretty broke. We always had enough for a little bit of beer and a little bit of food. We all hung together, always having somebody to talk to and something to laugh about. We would walk into places and guys were ready to fight. We had that effect on people although we were young and we probably just wanted to eat, or watch a movie, or talk about music and girls. People were ready to take us down although we were pretty relaxed about life as a collective of friends and didn’t pursue fights. We used to take over the park in Rancho Mirage with turntables, loud microphones, and break dancing. We barely received any credit for it unless it was the police shutting us down. We didn’t do it for acclaim: we did it for freedom! I wish I could have been there for you that fateful day when we lost you to a car crash.
There was like thirty people at Brince’s Mom’s house in Bermuda Dunes every time his birthday would come around. I remember seeing you there because you provided us the music that we would listen to. When you had your head phones on, it looked like the music was personally talking to you. It was as if it was telling you profound secrets about the way we all were supposed to feel at that particular moment. I never thought that there was anything special about how we were – we just took over places with music, and beats pounding, people talking and being together. I used to be so shy I kept to myself in a little corner. Most people knew me but I just didn’t feel at ease with all the other strangers coming around. I wanted to be in a quiet place reading books. The social scene made me want to vanish into myself and the couple of beers that I was drinking. I look fondly to this period however and wish it could still be here no matter how much I have progressed in my life. I am sad today because you will never have that chance again: to make progress, or to fall back, or to think excitedly about what could be. I wish I could have been there for you that fateful day when we lost you to a car crash.
It was this big nightclub and Brince, Sean and Eugene were performing for a pretty large crowd. I remember being so excited that day setting up the sound system and doing the mic check. I ran around like a headless chicken spouting out every burning desire I was feeling. I just wanted to be somewhere else in a better place - a place I’ve only reached as I continue to live out my thirties, finally at peace with myself. I remember you walked in and we were hanging out in a group of like 15. You flashed your smile so warm and easy. Your eyes lit up as you saw me and you pulled a cassette from your pocket. “Here you go, Selim. This is the Anti-92.7 tape of some shit I mixed”. That tape was on continuous repeat every time I drove around town in my dad’s Jeep before I owned a car or much of anything. I had just graduated from UCLA in Anthropology in 2002. I was pleased with my accomplishment but deathly afraid of myself: my depression, my desire to find myself, my prospects of making it in this harsh world. I wish I could tell you I made it and ask you how your life was before it came to a tragic end. Did you fall in love? Did you have dreams to have a family of your own? Did you even have a family of your own? Did you like driving really fast with the windows down? Did you like any Football teams? Did you ever travel? Did you want to travel and learn languages and learn how to cook and learn how to play the drums? Who was your favorite comedian? Did you have a favorite song? What were your guilty pleasures? You told me once about your football days, about growing up in Indio, and I am friends with your little brother Larry so we’ve talked a couple times about life, work, and whatever else was on our mind. I understand that your life wasn’t easy until the very end. I wish I could have been there for you that fateful day when we lost you to a car crash.
I’m going to keep looking for you though as I still believe there will be a chance encounter. I’ll start here in Moreno Valley where I’m writing this as the rain pounds outside. You would be impressed by this rain. It would make you think about how California seems always the same like clockwork until out of the blue the skies open up for an hour and drop buckets. I will look for you everywhere I go and in every country I travel. I want to be on an airplane again where I can’t understand a single word that is being said until all I can hear is you, telling me to keep on going, keep believing in good, keep thinking that there will be a time where all of our friends will come together, with two turntables, and a sound system. One day, we will all be talking until it drowns out the absence that you’ve left for us to ponder. I will move quickly down every alley waiting for you to stop me and direct me home. I will walk down the grocery aisle looking for Orange Juice thinking you will be around the corner. Maybe I will turn on the radio and you’ll be doing a set, talking about the weather, and entertaining us with some tunes. Maybe I’ll be walking out of a party and you’ll ask me for a ride. Maybe I will be walking to the store and I’ll have a feeling that you will be there checking out girls or looking for a cigar. Maybe we will meet again by a pristine sunrise outside the new L.A. Fitness on Moreno Beach. But I will sigh every time because there will never be a chance encounter. I can walk every square inch of this earth for every second for one hundred years and I will never find you. I wish I could have been there for you that fateful day when we lost you to a dramatic car crash.
"They're in meetings too," I would say that to Langston. "The world is as you left it: perfectly untidy".
I'm reading Langston Hughes and imagining how a conversation between him and I would go if he were alive today and some how in front of me, face-to-face. This is a conversation about people and not things. I will not get carried away by the idea that new technologies, movies, and music have been introduced. This is an exercise in humanity.
"It's funny," I would tell him, "the world is so small and yet I hardly ever see my own family". "Well, naturally," I would respond, "I'm busy getting stuck in meetings". "I do this because I love it and it allows me to take care of my family". "What's that?" "I do want to be with my family - and even if I had the time, they wouldn't have the time". "That's funny, Langston, you say it's basically the same as when you were running around for years and then just dropped dead". "Life is funny - it seems so short and yet meetings never run short, dragging on like a slowly rotting carcass". "I mean, meetings drag on mercilessly, ravenously with an appetite that engulfs everything in it's way". "Yeah, you see, not exactly my favorite thing". "What would I rather do?" "Have us all hang out with little drinks in our hand, playing Coltrane, and talking about all of the critical matters while some one dutifully records and takes notes later".
"I wouldn't want to speak for you". "There have been numerous wars since 1967, naturally". "War is the thing we do when we need things, Langston". "There is only so much power in the world and naturally that power should only exist in the hands of a few people." "Of course!" "There is nothing to gain with many people eating and sleeping in comfortable beds." "We need big, comfy beds for us to think about when we are sleeping on another comfy bed". "That's about it, you know." "There should be a way to count all of our money when we're busy at meetings". "These are inventions that we constantly think of so that we can ease our discomfort with the messy business that we're going to die one day". "Exactly! "We die and somebody else gets all of our stuff". "Well, there's not much else to say but the accumulation of wealth is a lifelong pursuit and if you were still here you would be going after it too". "It's what we do."
"What is it I do for a living that requires so many meetings". "I'm in the business of building roads to get me to work and home and to my family's places." "You see, sometime in the 1950s, someone had the wonderful idea that cars were great and they should drive them everywhere". "Yes, your assumption is right, Langston." "We haven't stopped driving". "That's why I love my work". "I get to sell multi-million dollar roads so that cities could have smooth, black roads to drive on". "There's just something so freeing about driving on an empty road, cranking your music really loud". "It's about as close that I get to being able to fly". "I want to give people that opportunity". " America?" "Oh, she's still moving and turning and yelling and complaining - just like you left her." "We need cars to remind us that we have places to go, people to see and buses are just painfully slow".
"Oh, that's a good question." "I live my life everyday as if the world will one day write extensive books about me about all of the wonderful things I have done or written". "I know, this is a bit ambitious." "Yes, it must happen. I wouldn't want to be here for any other reason, Langston". "I implore you to listen." "Someone dragged my ass over here to live and make a family, so I demand that books be written about me!" "I'm sorry, I'm losing my cool but you touched a nerve". "I demand for people to know that I existed and that I count too." "I'm a pretty nice person." "I mean, I try to make jokes when I'm in a good mood to make people smile". "Oh, I see, you don't think that that would make for an interesting book".
"I knew you would ask about it." "You shouldn't ask because you already know." "Everything is exactly how you left it: untidy". "If you bring up race, you're really bringing up the race card as if a game is about to be played in a parlor". "No one wants to admit that we're in the same race, and that's to feed ourselves or our loved ones". "Oh, people hate when I tell them that." "They want us to be different". "All the same stuff". "Clothes, language, music." "Well, people are just different." "Men work on their masculine traits while women work on their feminine traits unless you enjoy messing with those black-and-white lines which confuses the shit out of everyone."
"I pretty much covered everything you were wondering about". "Thank you, sir. I hope that one day there is a heaven where we can meet and chat face-to-face". "For now, thank you for the things you've left for me to think about and read." "You are a formidable man with a formidable mind and I would have never thought about writing if it wasn't for you".
Lord, I come to you because so many swear to your existence and majesty, although I'm not a believer. I can't lie to you as I bow down and pray for Syria. These lips have cursed your name for years. It is not your fault I don't believe. I stopped believing because I know that humans were never created - especially created in the image of God. They grew through years and years of evolution and biological tinkering. They're organisms which were once simple life forms evolved to ever complex beings. People do good, oh lord, they do. They are capable of great things. However, there is nothing more insidious than the evil that fuels us to exercise power over other people. Lord, many blame the Devil for this evil, but I tell you it exists in every person's heart. This saddens me to no end, my lord.
Lord, I would scream if my neighbors can bear the sound of blood curdling. Lord, I would run through the streets and scream at everyone to do something, almost anything but what they're doing. Yes, I know, I too am lost in this world of routines and momentary pleasures. I type these words in comfort while humans lay in heaps somewhere in Syria today. They say over 100,000 have died since the Civil War began a few years ago. Lord, will this ever end and be swept into the corners of our minds. Syria is suffocating tonight from chemicals sprung out of a mad man's lab. This man is said to believe in God. Lord, please tell me this is not true. I always wanted to believe in good. That being good is not being naive. I believed that people wanted for you to exist even if they knew you were too good to be true. Why do we care about a man who died thousands of years ago on some old cross while so many are dying today? Lord, please tell me, why should I care about you? Should I end this prayer in protest or should I believe?
Lord, I am back, bowing my head in supplication, asking for peace. Lord, why would I come to you? The answer is simple. I want to believe in a greater good that exists beyond matter. I want to believe all the horrors that exist in this world can be seen from above and dealt with finally. All the murderous rage that acted as the groundwork for so many injustices, lord, I hope is dealt with in the spiritual world. Lord, I understand that the law can't keep up with the murderers that exist among us. Lord, I just want to bring someone into this world without thinking that they will have to suffer through another war. Lord, why can't we just stop hurting each other?
Lord, thank you for the time you have given me to write this and regroup. Please let me explain to you what I see. I will watch a few videos and tell you what I feel about the madness in Syria. That is all I could do from my comfortable perch. And then I will utter a simple prayer for Peace. Lord, this is how I want to express to you my faith. Simply, I have faith in liberation - that humans can shake off the hurt and pain to heal. Here it is, my lord, the images that I see. A devastated place where people go though the mundane aspects of war. A man repeating in Arabic that "God is Great!" A man taking cover and shooting his rifle from a hole in the wall. Several tanks patrolling and cruising through the streets. Why is struggle so human as the soldiers cling to their routines and tools? Lord, I am a pacifist, but I believe in the struggle. Why my lord? Because otherwise we would be inert. Lord, I don't want to be violent but there it is, my lord, the banality of evil.
I pray, my good lord, for Syria this morning. Lord, forgive the men, women and children who must give in to their basest emotions. Some enjoy the freedom that wars bring. Lord, please forgive all these people. Their leader is just another power-hungry man in a world full of power hunger. Lord, this hunger is like our collected heritage. We are weaned on these stories - from school rooms to backyards; from executive boardrooms to the gang lands of Chicago. Lord, there is no way to escape this lesson - to be someone is to be powerful, to be weak is to be no one. Lord, this is all of the wisdom that I've collected through the years. Lord, I would ask that what happens in Syria will never happen to the people here in the United States. However, as I write this, my good lord, someone has been shot in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, and the list goes on in perpetuity. Lord, how do we stop this violence. Lord, we can't just outlaw guns because being passive is subject to the lust for power of others. Lord, I haven't yet said my prayer for Syria, so I will concentrate, my lord.
Lord, please bring peace to Syria today. Please, my lord, bring justice to the perpetrators of evil that have left many thousands dead. Lord, I ask that a woman will get to know her husband, a child will be able to express their love to their parents in Syria today. Lord, I ask that a little boy can write his first love letter to his love interest in Syria today. Lord, I pray that a young lady can hold her lover's hand in Syria today. Lord, I pray that someone can play music and let it blare through the speakers. Lord, they have been listening to prayers, and shouts, and commands, and detrimental decrees for much too long. Let them hear the sound of silence, peace, and life all around them. I pray for Syria tonight.
The following is a poem I wrote in 2006. I believe it was about myself and some of the people I've met who do not live at a rushed pace. I forgot I even wrote it. I've lost most of my earlier writing. Alas, I hope you like it.
A Person Walking Slowly
A hobbled hopscotch over crossword steps
And puzzles are left blank-
Distracted models, motors-
His is picking up a slack pace
Around soft earth and scoffed touch
Clutching those thin handles doubled up
Like dumbbells weighing his steps downward
Dressing up darkness with pressed smiles
Quickly he peaks, speaks in hushed tones: gentle man
"Stare not too enviously at this calloused castle world"
This guarded thing that trounces
That cheapens precious thoughts, meaning...
That leaps out at your dear eyes, wheezing...
Don't hold your breath its not you whom it smothers
You are just a person
Walking slowly, pausing
Watching the shadows thin and stretch
The length of never-
Being there means being everywhere
Your every all in a slight pinch of
Todays look like yesterdays.
To us all it does, in some way or another,
This man has senseless care
Slowly walking through the thicket path.
Shoe soles brush the floor, whirling cars buzz by, as I lumber my way up to the Coffee Bean on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Westwood. I spot the restroom entrance in the corner with a sign posted limiting access to patrons. The line at the counter is short. The person ahead of me asks only to make change. I order my coffee and step to the fixing area. A middle-aged man, short of stature and broad-shouldered, with black thinning hair, stirs his drink hypnotically. I start to wait behind him as I tend to do when someone is ahead of me at these stations. I decide not to defer to him and find that there is ample room on the other side of the station to sweeten my coffee. The man continues to stir, to obsessively tinker with his treat as if an alchemist shaping gold. I reach over for the half-and-half, my arm stretching across the man’s line of sight. He is absolutely transfixed on his drink. I move deftly and economically while the man stands in place, gesturing, and twisting his arms like a maestro to make his drink perfect.
I find a table outside. A good sized crowd has turned out, and the place is abuzz with chatter. The patrons press closely together, chattering, crackling, and going back-and-forth as the din engulfs my ears. Thumbing through Anthony Shadid’s book, straining over the metal table, sitting quietly with my eyes fixed straight ahead. Two observations take up my attention—the lady seated ahead of me and the gentleman speaking to the side of me. I glance but do not want to stare. I listen to his incessant, intelligent pleadings but can only make out some of his words and not the ideas behind these words. I mostly remember that he alone in his group was speaking. He spoke without pause, not even to take a breath or to invite others into his conversation.
I walk into the swallowing crowd. It makes me. I wander. I become one of the hundreds. I walk across the street. This may be my last walk through a crowd and I'm not lost. I walk until I'm gathering up steam with purpose. Somewhere in my future I will be walking somewhere. Not today. Today, I'm among the multitudes of people trying to enjoy the afternoon Sun. It shines on all of us for the day until the universe hides us from its glaring majesty. We are all at it's mercy - the crowd, the sun, the society we live in. The crowd is sometimes the only permissible rule. Our bodies fall in line behind one person or one object or anything. We are all bodies when we are in a crowd. Nothing special. I walk away with the crowd whispering into my ear.
The neighbors were cold and then they were warm. My childhood home can be described in this way, pure and simply. Our first next-door neighbors were outright mean and adversarial. They moved. The family who moved in their stead happened to be the warmest people I’ve ever encountered. It felt like a home away from home. The home that I yearned for. A taste of comfort in a swallowing abyss of nonsense as Los Angeles struggled through the 1980s. There was food, comfort, togetherness, fellowship, laughter—these necessary elements of human existence—that were found here in abundance. This family struggled and discussed their struggles to me allowing me into their world that I didn’t quite understand. There were parties, fights, and jokes flying around like a speeding jet. I couldn’t quite keep up with the news in my neighborhood—Pinney Street, Arleta, California.
After I moved to Palm Desert in 1993, I used to drop by the neighborhood—sometimes as planned, and sometimes unannounced because I wanted to know how these people were doing. I cared about all of these people. I felt like I was a part of their community. I think I’ve gone through every shade of emotion trying to connect with this community. And there seemed to always be a birthday being celebrated, or a story to be rehashed, or a show or game to be watched in unison with a bunch of people who grew up in and around this neighborhood. I used to watch with amusement as the older generations commiserated as if they were still High School buddies, living out their glory days. They experienced their youth in the 1970s and 1980s when most my generation was busy being born. I always wonder what unresolved issue was being brought up way past the point of time that it actually happened and mattered.
The last time I went back to the neighborhood was in 2007 before turning 28 years old. At that point, I decided I must leave the neighborhood altogether—everyone, every character, every love interest, every unresolved question—everything. I was enrolled at UCLA for Graduate School hoping to make it through a stressful time in my life. In Graduate School, I learned that the world will not wait for you to finish up and start something of yourself—Bill Collectors need to make a living too, and my empty pockets were their business. I learned how to persevere, locking myself up almost literally in the Young Research Library trying to make sense of my classes and the books I was reading. I stopped working and was lucky to have my dad invite me back into his home.
To describe Pinney Street is to describe the playground for every impression I first had in this world. I remember the two trees in front of our house that would be our favorite hangout and hiding place for Hide-and-Go-Seek. We used to etch our nicknames on their poor trunks. We used to watch the leaves fall and grow as the seasons progressed. It seemed like my Dad would have his latest bad investment parked out in front of these trees in perpetuity. There was always something odd growing out of my house like the great outdoors. There was just so much going on. The neighborhood would smile at us if they knew we made it. Our end of Pinney Street was a small cul-de-sac filled with quiet, sleepy homes. We played Baseball out front on summer afternoons, launching Tennis Balls into people’s pools until we ran out for the day. I fashioned myself to be a crafty pitcher without any hitting prowess. I was never a great athlete because I’m uncoordinated and become easily lost in my mind. Pinney Street will always exist in my heart.
I see myself there, quietly folding my arms, standing outside. It was never too cold but the memories seem icy cool. I walked through the passages, askew and wandering, leading to the schoolyard. Our school was located in a redbrick Korean church building in Van Nuys across from the courthouse. Although I can only slightly remember specific school lessons, I remember vividly the schoolyard—the pouring of students onto the asphalt, the complete lack of grass, the conversations that reached fever-pitch, the nudging into lines that impatiently stirred as we readied for classes to begin.
The rooms were ghostly and empty, dank and eerie. There were four stories in the main building and the higher you traveled and went, the scarier it felt, the more ominous and lonely the hallways and rooms felt. Are all others’ childhood memories flecked with these images of haunted places? Was my fear—my being afraid of the dark and of ghost stories—mirrored onto the rooms and halls of this school building? On the occasions that I would be left alone upstairs, I remember sprinting away with goose bumps crawling all over my skin, running to the masses in the schoolyard. This is ironic for me: there aren’t too many times in my life that I would find solace in being surrounded by crowds of people.
And yet my childhood never seemed lonely - nothing close to the loneliness I would feel as an adult. There were my three brothers constantly pushing some thing or some idea into my face. My sister would talk to me when I was there even though she too was fed up with being helpless and wondering what life was. The classroom sizes were tiny. We all knew each other. Everything was the exact same until we hit puberty and became more and more familiar with our neighborhoods and the neighborhood kids they harbored. There was a window that would open up to the school yard which was actually a barren parking lot with basketball rims. Here, we would get our sugary snacks if we had some change. The older kids manned the registers. I never thought I would get that old. Time is an endless riddle to me. I'm thirty-four years old but I still feel like that boy who would never hit his teenage years only to be here asking father time to be a bit gentler. These stairs still harbor frightful, lonesome chills.
The backyard patio was a gorgeous site for a barbecue. Several generations sit around a table talking by the grill off to the side. Children play with animated glee as the older child broods over a video game, but seeming happy to be there nonetheless. In that instance, I knew that these people would become very familiar and I would get used to these faces. Nothing in that moment will change. Future scenes will also be similar except the time and circumstances will change. The scene was the same but the only thing that changed was tinkered together by perspective—in how that evening was perceived by each participant. The thing about family is that they’re a lifetime commitment. What stands out to me in that event was that everything in that moment was moving—conversations, food, lips, feet, kids playing with frolic and ease. Abigail and her twin sister born a couple months ago attended what most likely was their first barbecue.
Yesterday, I held baby Abigail. Yesterday, I held baby Abigail and I felt like thirty four years of wonder, of fear, of chaos, of investigation were put to rest. She held me as I held her—still to the disquiet, to the comings and goings, the constant change that has been haunting me for years. I sometimes wish I could stay still with every easy routine, every simple care and thought and meal. It’s like everything I’ve ever done has been interrupted constantly. And I held baby Abigail and I was still like a domino standing. All I could think of was how time flies but here I am still and Abigail will be a baby tomorrow and the next day until she too is running and conversing like the children around me. Babies take time to grow, to be nurtured, and to be fully capable of taking on this world. All parents can do is one day let go.
She felt like the softest fabric lost in the gentle wind. My finger spanned her whole hand. “One day you will be twirling people around those little fingers”, I think now, looking back at the occasion. She was the size of two footballs and gushed out songs with her crying shouts. She wanted everyone to know the size of her lungs, so tiny but so vocal. She had her hair pointed up with a pink hair clip like her sister’s. Her hair was soft and short. One day her hair will be flowing and unkempt and teased and crimped and knotted into endless shapes. Not today: her hair was short, soft and done up in a tiny point at the end of her head. Her eyes will one day be able to discern all the activity around her but not today. She’s being cared for. Her brown eyes gently peer out at the world which awes in amazement. She makes people melt into pools of wonder. She will one day be her own, independent person but today the little world fits nicely into that little palm.
Sometimes I yearn for silence but am stirred awake by voices yelling, fighting for every sense to awaken. I walked to the key shop on the corner of Orange Show Road and “E” Street by the Target. The window slid open and the place reeked of cigarette smoke. The person asks with her eyes what the purpose of my visit was. I replied, business as usual. And so the business of her body captured in a hut no bigger than a closet came to my mind. All these keys hanging on the walls sporadically aligned. Her face was lined and slender expressing 40 to 50 years of saying hello under her breath, now belabored by cigarette smoke. Her muted tone of surrender echoed through my mind. She watched as I spread the key on my finger stretching it past the key chain. “You can keep it there”, she said, saving me the trouble of taking off what’s perfectly fine. She didn’t smile or seem to miss company. She was alone.
Alone from day to day until a head pops up by her window asking for a copy of some office or house key. What if I can make her smile? Would the sky open up and collapse under the poetry of the moment? I caress the idea like a feline dripping with sleep. How many days has she been stuck behind those keyed walls counting the slow minutes dry up like a raisin baking in the hot San Bernardino sun. I wonder what her answer was when as a little girl she was asked what she wants to be when she grows up. She probably saw visions of dancing with princes with Cinderella slippers turn into grey, grey clouds. She took the key from the machine, split it against the brush apparatus, and rang up my purchase for a buck and some change. I pulled the five from my wallet which I stared at intently like my wallet would open up and tell me my future like a fortune reader. I laughed at the idea that I knew where tomorrow would lead. She locked up the window and shut herself away from the madness calling outside.
“I want to sketch everyone I hear and see with these words crawling through my mind so that I can say we are all beautiful!” I felt like shouting as I drove away. So I drove about five hundred linear feet away to buy household products to make my place clean and to make my life sane. I saved a couple bucks with a Red Card. I went back to work. I made myself some food. I worked for a few more hours only to break because I wanted to tell her story as she spends those minutes locked away, so happily away.