Welcome to Costa Mesa, Young Man

I wouldn’t even stop to piss—I just went into a big plastic jug while I drove and nearly filled the sloshing thing. As I reached Los Angeles, I poured it into a public toilet, but not before acquiring a most attractive stain across the front of the taupe grey cut offs that I was wearing. Didn’t matter. After eight weeks of living like a refugee, I was heading back to familiar landscape and didn’t want to take my time getting there. I stayed in Costa Mesa with my mother and step dad while I found my feet, and within days had a full-time job in the office of a staffing agency. I drove around town on my lunch hour, stopping at houses and apartments, and before long I met a middle-aged house-painter with a beer gut, bare feet and stuffed animal carcasses strewn everywhere around him. One of the first things Russ wanted to make sure I understood was that he didn’t care—about anything.

“FUCK IT,” he would exclaim over the gentle racket of a football game. Then he’d guzzle an entire beer, his Adam’s Apple sprinkled with silver stubble. There were empty cans in a pile on the rug next to an end table—the table upon which his unopened mail sat. I pointed down at a credit card statement as a way of making conversation.

“Not bad interest, that one.”

“Yeah, but I don’t like bills.”

As if on cue, his ex-wife called. The two argued a bit about their daughter, before Russ reminded her that he was the one in charge. If she didn’t like it she knew just what she could do. She’d already hung up. All the while, he was relaxing and drinking. He interviewed me lounging in that same recliner. I stood across, observing the collection of trinkets on every flat surface.

“Southwestern…Indian…shit,” he informed me between gulps.

I didn’t know what to say to the man, except that I have a good job and I’m never home. Oh, and that Southwestern Indian shit sure seems nice…and you have dogs too. I looked to the back patio and noticed several excited mutts watching me intently, tongues hanging.

“Yeah, but they might as well have come with the goddamn house, the good they’re for, always yappin’. I never have time to pet ‘em or anything, so they just yap.” This was the most candid that Russ ever was with me. Then again, he was nearly sober. He had to impress a potential new roommate.

I examined the man and my wristwatch, while he ignored everything but the television. The ambience of his living room struck me as that of a cave, the curtains drawn so as not to allow the action on the screen to be interrupted. With the volume quite low, I could just make out the play by play over the sound of him munching great wads of Spanish peanuts, washed down with brew.

“Well…I guess you can have the place,” Russ said as a colony of colorful commercials collided with and stuck to his television screen. He motioned toward the tiny room down the hall, across from his. There was a ceiling fan and a tiny bed against the wall. When he’d shown it to me during the previous commercial interlude, I bounced on it, smiling at the possibility of chucking my sleeping bag, even though my feet came off the end of the bed about a foot when I lay down.

“Asshole left that.”

I thanked him and drove around another hour that evening, seeking out ‘For Rent’ signs somewhere nicer; somewhere without an enormous mound of dirt in the driveway. Russ lived on the West side of town, the slightly worn-down side. This was the side where the roads were always under construction, where the winged pests with whom Stanley had been on intimate terms enjoyed the taste of Raid and where one could fit their entire car into a pothole. It was also cheaper on this side: I moved in the following weekend.

My new landlord / housemate was typically drunk. And when he wasn’t off painting someone’s home he was embedded deep in his recliner, carrying on like the malevolent uncle of Tom Waits, with a pair of color spattered shorts, a spotty and stretched blue polo work shirt, lifeless grey hair and a regulation NASCAR moustache under a pink nose. I never saw him in any other outfit. With the volume on the TV up, his pets whined at him through the sliding glass door off of the cluttered, unused dining room, salivating, starving. Russ would address each of them lovingly over his shoulder.

“Fuck you, dog!”

If I were home and anywhere near that part of the house, I would be in the kitchen. They saw me and wagged their tails.

“Don’t smile at him! I’m the one who shells out forty bucks a month on your food, ungrateful sonsabitches.”

They liked the attention and took turns barking.

“SHUT UP.” He turned the game up.

And if football wasn’t on just yet, he might flip through the channels and eventually stop at some smart-ass pricks in suits talking across a table. I passed behind him.

“I got the answer,” Russ called out with an inventory of his most useful advice for the men on the screen: “Bomb it, nuke it, turn it into dog food so I can make these dogs SHUT UP. ‘Guys act like they know everything—I’ll bet somebody else does everything for you. Sit on your ass and tell me what this country should do—how ‘bout I tell you for a change?” I set a dish on the counter and the man had already forgotten that he wasn’t alone. Maybe it was the infamous beer and snack thieves of West Side Costa Mesa, come to relieve him of his Bud Light, pork rinds and jar of giant pickles. Or maybe it was the ex-wife.

“Just me, Russ.” I finished making my sandwich and scurried back to my bedroom. It was easy staying out of his way. I had a life and an excuse not to be home.

I stayed busy working during the day and rehearsing with different bands every night, getting cassette demos in the mail and spending my free time practicing on a rubber drum set in my bedroom. I switched off and played on a pillow to improve my wrist strength; and then I would take off the headphones to hear the phone. Most of the calls were about my ‘Drummer Available’ ads. A couple of minutes after the ads went up the telephone began to ring.

“Yeah, you had the ad…drummer?”

After hanging up it rang again.

When Neil and I were particularly broke we became telemarketers. They hired us to sit in what looked a community college classroom with thirty other schmucks, sipping tepid coffee and waiting for voices on our headsets. In another room a computer system randomly dialed numbers and sent the calls to various desks. Reading from a laminated script in bold font, we earned a meager commission conning the unsuspecting. And in three weeks we received a pittance for our powers of persuasion. A daring masochist, I worked for a newspaper later, selling subscriptions the same way. I should have borrowed one of those headsets. It would have come in handy in Costa Mesa.

 “Yeah…I’m, uh, like, calling about your ad?”

Russ’ mailbox began to swell with demo tapes and discs and letters. There was the “pop-punk” act in Hollywood who had a big record contract—their manager sent along a copy of their debut cd. “Memorize three or four songs and we’ll see how you fit with us,” the singer told me before we hung up. But he was more than an hour late. We went ahead without him, but the rest of the group must have hired session musicians for their CD  they had a great deal of trouble playing their own material. In communion with unseen forces persuading him not to listen to the rest of us, Strangler, their lead guitarist, boldly entered the waters last visited by Nigel Tufnel in the cinematic send-up of heavy metal. We tried “Black Diamond” by Kiss, and his marathon of a guitar solo maintained its erratic course toward Phantom Island long after the others had stopped playing and were cracking their knuckles. He could have been Chad’s twin, with the faces he made and the scale of his ineptitude. At least Chad had the excuse of being in high school. Strangler’s amplifier was feeding back in protest as his cohorts continued to miss the accents and breaks in their own songs. How could they have just come off a three-week tour and I knew their music better than they did? When Strangler finally broke a string, we took a break and I scanned the Musician Wanted ads in the lobby. Two songs later he broke another and we called it a night. The singer, having arrived somewhere between seven and ten seconds prior to us pulling the plug, raised his eyebrows.

“We’ll talk about whether or not you fit and call you tomorrow.”

I drove back to Orange County with one eye on my watch as the potential for even a partial night’s sleep dwindled. Pulling alongside Russ’ house around Midnight, I stowed my drums, jumped in the shower, fixed a bowl of soup and endeavored to will myself to sleep after I re-read a portion of The Rachel Papers. Rehearsing or playing shows was never unlike an invitation to an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. It always took ages for me to come back down, land in bed and calm my inner vibrations.

Squad 51 were to perform on a cable access television show in Buena Park called “Rock Talk”. I wasn’t quite familiar with their material just yet, unhandily miming my antecedent’s prerecorded parts, playing with mouse pads covering the surface of my drums so we could hear the music. And I winced whenever I saw the red light on top of a camera pointed in my direction. Mondo, who had replaced me in Mulch, was our singer. That night we played a converted restaurant in the city of Orange and the next evening a club in Fullerton. The following morning, I found myself in Montclair trying out for somebody else. When I came home, Russ was passed out on the recliner with his mouth wide open. I crept to my bedroom and was about to pick up the phone when it rang.

At a record shop putting out more flyers, I bumped into Ron Martinez from Final Conflict, a legendary hardcore outfit from the eighties. I gushed about how much they meant to me, and I mentioned Squad 51 rehearsing next door at Milano Music.

“You’re the ones with the awesome drummer!”

The telephone awakened me again in the morning. Jerry played guitar in a surf group called the Wedge. I was planning on getting together with them the following week, but he figured it made as much sense to learn the songs on the spot. So I drove to the Huntington Beach Surf Museum to play four hour-long sets with them. When we finished, I rehearsed with my brothers in Scum Bernardino in preparation for Steve-Next-Door’s wedding. Then I came home and collapsed.

Before playing a nightclub in Anaheim with Squad 51, Dave from a group called The Chemical People gave me directions to his place in Beverly Hills. And Ron from Final Conflict phoned with plans for me to meet them at a show in Corona before I auditioned for them as well. Their current drummer also had a few other irons in the fire, but I told Ron specifically that I wanted to concentrate on one—I just needed to find it. As I hung up the phone rang again and I made arrangements to record a demo with Aaron’s band, which included my other brother Patrick on guitar. Aaron was thirteen, Patrick eleven. Man Will Surrender put my test run on hold since they were leaving for a road trip with the Deftones. Someone from another group on the same tour was filling in for them.

That summer, I was practicing and playing shows with five different bands and trying to get enough sleep to function at my full-time day job. The fact that each lived in a different city and some were in different counties, meant that if I was awake and not playing the drums or answering the telephone in an office, I was en route to do either.

Steve and I talked a bit one evening and it was great to hear his voice again. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since our very last high school band, Musical Warfare split up and he joined the military. A two-man orchestra with keyboards, percussion and vocals, we started Musical Warfare the same week that I was kicked out of Lunacy. Back from Germany now, Steve and a friend wanted me to record the drum tracks for a new demo that they were working on.

I rehearsed with Final Conflict after wearing out a tape they gave me of new songs (I already knew the older material by heart). And after not having a single day off in well over a month I decided to do nothing, just laundry. The Wedge was playing four hours at a bar in Huntington after I got home from work the next evening. I needed to somehow recharge. A label rep from Polydor Records got Squad 51 a show in Hollywood, and I had more than thirty responses to my ads over the weekend. The newest batch were a bit more precise, so I hoped I wouldn’t be talking to any heavy metal guys. But that’s just what I got. Call waiting beeped, I would put them on hold and leave them there.

And I began thinking that if I weren’t in what I considered a “real band” by my birthday next year I’d move again—this time much further away. I wasn’t sure what else to do, but figured that Orange County was not going to be long-term for me. This hornet’s nest of purblind, reactionary, right-wing sympathies notwithstanding, I couldn’t cope with so much uninterrupted, sunlight. Portland sounded promising. And I knew that the impending summer was going to remind me of just how little I liked Southern California anyway. I loved Oregon; I loved the way the air smelled; I loved being able to look outside my bedroom window and see nothing but trees. A five minute walk to the beach, stepping over giant slugs, and getting pricked by blackberry vines that seemed to have grown a few inches in the middle of the night and partly blocked the tunnel leading from my grandparents’ neighborhood; the white sand, devoid of syringes and cigarette butts, tin cans and condoms; the water so inviting, but too stormy and cold for swimming. I used to walk to the beach in the early evenings, the wind pushing me halfway there, to peer at the sea through the blanket of fog. One could get trapped inside of it and hear nothing but the sound of their own thoughts. A great place to make decisions. I sat on a piece of driftwood as a child and imagined living with my grandparents, escaping Scum Bernardino just as they did. And Newport was only a couple of hours south of Portland; I could move easily enough. I told myself that I’ve got seven more months to think about it. But I figured that they’d go by in a flash, just as the first half of the year already had.

I stirred my coffee in the kitchen one Saturday morning and I weighed the need that Russ might have for his collection of trophies. Could they have been meant to inspire conversation? Might they serve to remind him of his past life as a hero, a stalwart protecting the unsuspecting from the dangers of the sylvan thicket (the despiteous deer, the savage quail or the others, whose sleeping corpses bedecked his walls)? For some reason, a bobcat was imprisoned in a glass case, resting on a kitchen counter, just north of the cutlery drawer and west of the sink; its glass eyes and sharp teeth laying false emphasis on the spirit of the untamed, moments before Russ snuck up on the animal, shot it to death, removed its internal organs, and went to work with a bone saw, a cartilage knife, scalpel, a pair of forceps, a skin scraper, chisel and a ball of linen sewing twine. In the museum of my dreams was my landlord, the rigor mortis working well to preserve his air of insouciance as he lay across a scruffy Yale blue sofa with the freeze-frame reflection of a muscle-bound specimen wearing nothing but a football helmet posed on a television screen a few feet away. An alternate piece showed the man on his knees, frozen in the act, scratching at a screen door as dogs standing upright on the other side took turns to laugh and point at his puny, shriveled testicles.

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to Costa Mesa, Young Man

  1. Very entertaining and funny. Because the story is true, it is even more laughable. The life of a struggling musician is tough enough. Add a landlord like Russ you have to engage every day and night after trying, and it makes for more for the soul of the artist to describe in his days of pain and toil. Life is not boring with Jason still writing.
    Excellent piece.

  2. I’ve been a fan for years. Jason’s writings evoke a spirit of youthful humor and the energy of a young man seeking his own way in a crazy world in a crazy business.

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