By March of 2016, my cousin Josh and I were practically flat broke. We’d been having an incestuous and adulterous affair, one that elevated his title to “cuzband” (he hated that term). Four years prior, our ambitions brought us to California in pursuit of riches at the height of the Green Rush. Our goal was simple: relocate to LA, find the alleged A-listers, move in next door and infiltrate their circles; all so that we could sell them bougie, top-shelf weed in shiny packaging. It sounded like a slam dunk—at least it did back in New York.
Our money came from the remnants of my florist business in New York City, which I purportedly ran long-distance but in reality, I was losing clients by the day. Josh’s job was to manage the money I siphoned out of the flower shop and limit my access to it because of my “poor financial decisions.”
A few months earlier, we stopped paying rent and lost our big house in the Hollywood Hills. Overnight, we crammed our few belongings—suitcases, remnants of a mobile office, and favorite pillows—into our shiny sports car. It was all we had left from the pile of money we’d burned through to keep up with those flashy Joneses. It turned out that we were the new millennium version of the Beverly Hillbillies.
We had no permanent address, and we hopped around L.A. a lot, staying in Airbnb’s for one month at a time. When cash was tight, we did one or two-week stays while we waited for money to come in from New York. That month we were staying in a run-down cottage in the less-than-fabulous part of Hollywood, where working actors, hookers and broke homosexuals lived. We fit in perfectly.
The thing about Hollywood is that the closer to the intersection of Sunset and Vine you get, the seedier it turns. On any given day, you’ll likely see countless rows of igloo-shaped tents with blue tarps lining the boulevards and tucked behind alleys. You’ll possibly encounter used hypodermic needles, neatly piled up in the corner of any given bus stop. I suppose those little green benches plastered with cheap-looking real estate ads also make for perfect shooting galleries. And near the tents, the trash and the bus stops, you’ll probably find an ill-fortuned man or woman, passed out or dead near said pile of needles. And you’ll definitely find a gaggle of transgender prostitutes wearing Party City-quality wigs they were convinced would help them land a John and make a quick buck on a corner. If you wait around long enough, you could absolutely/positively see a fight break out if the girls didn’t clear a corner in time before the next shift arrived. It’s never cute.
This is the rough, more raw side of Hollywood. Beyond the red carpets and glitterati, beyond the oversized sunglasses, stilettos, and Kardashian sightings. This is the Hollywood of Pretty Woman. “Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here…Some dreams come true, some don’t...” Every morning during my runs, that voice from the movie would play on loop in my head as I passed by the gold stars embedded in the terrazzo sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. It was a far cry from our life in the Hills, but for now it was home.
We were living in our third place in a little over four months. Since we bounced around a lot, I often forgot our address. Thankfully, there’s a Madonna song for every situation in life. Twice already that year, her song Vogue helped me remember where we lived:
Grace Kelly, Harlow Jean, picture of a beauty queen. That line was for our previous digs on Grace Avenue, off the 101 freeway.
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, dance on air…They had style; they had Grace. Rita Hayworth gave good face. I’d have to go through the whole rap to remember that we lived on Hayworth Avenue that March.
Springtime in L.A. is a spectacle with few parallels. Like Central Park back in New York, flowers are everywhere. The hillsides turn chartreuse and goldenrod yellow from the short rainy season. The freeways are lined with vibrant bougainvillea in coral, fuchsia, and red. The succulents and giant agave plants blossom totems of petals, defying the blowing winds and the earth that pulls them down. Everywhere you look the street medians and houses are flush with white iceberg roses, which I imagine is the official flower of Los Angeles. My favorite sight of all was the Jacaranda trees: lavender majesties that canopied over the streets, raining down on passers-by and paving the roads with purple petals. Spring wasn’t shy.
Like many humans in the neighborhood, I was a nocturnal animal. Josh would call me a man-bear or his pet goat. “I hate when you go into goat mode, Michael… You eat all our groceries in one night…” he said, although he was accustomed to me slinking out of bed in the middle of the night and disappearing to forage for sweets. Lucky for me, he was a sound sleeper, and my nocturnal rummaging didn’t bother him. What did bother him was the mess he’d wake up to the next morning and the charges on his credit cards. Although we shared all the money, I had no cards of my own. I’d just gone through a bankruptcy and didn’t have a bank account at the time. Four years of reckless behavior with lavish trips around the world, shopping sprees, and overall debauchery landed me in Chapter 7 court.
To Josh’s credit, he worried about the finances at every step. I was the bean maker. He was the bean counter. I assured him more money was on the way: “Don’t worry, it always comes. I promise,” I said to him once as we boarded a flight from LAX to Paris. Standing at the gate he insisted we save money and stay home instead. I insisted that I needed inspiration for the cannabis product line up we were developing. It was all fun and games until I was forced to break my promise. One day the money stopped pouring in, turning into a trickle—a dry arroyo like the ones all around L.A. And now, Josh resented my overconfidence and inability to count money properly. “I shoulda never gone into business with you,” he’d say when we’d fight. My biggest fear was that he’d disappear in the middle of the night, leaving a note behind.
I’ve always been a sleepwalker, talker, and occasional screamer. Sleep and I didn’t get along. I imagined the sleep god as a vengeful asshole that I’d somehow crossed in the past. The handful of pills I took every night, sometimes without water, would surely be enough to make any normal person slumber and drool all over themselves for ten hours straight, but they provided only long blinks for me. I swallowed my seven pills at 9 pm on the dot, as per doctor’s orders: one white pill—whichever one of the “pam sisters” I was on at that moment: Diazepam, Klonozepam, or Lorazepam—each used at different times to treat childhood trauma; two yellow Seroquels: to treat severe depression and induce slumber, but instead they made me feel wholly uninhibited, tapping into my most basal urges. On bad nights I’d jerk-off freely in my sleep, or while sleepwalking around the room. A couple of times, I woke up with my dick in one hand while standing in front of the open refrigerator. My other hand would be knuckle-deep in a jar of mayonnaise or peanut butter or raspberry jam. It turns out that masturbating while eating is an urge buried deep in my circuitry.
I’d do absolutely anything under the influence of Seroquel—all in the middle of the night, neither awake or asleep. Another fun side effect from the doctor prescribed orgy of substances was that danger didn’t register. Ever. More than once, I’ve “woken up” in the car, driving down winding roads on my way to Greenblatt’s on Sunset Blvd—a deli that was open until 2 am. The goat in me knew how to get there with my eyes closed—how I never crashed into a tree or drove off a cliff remains a mystery. A part of me didn’t mind if I drove off Mulholland Drive in the thick of night; it would save me a lot of trouble and there were worse ways to go out. The thought of a mixed berry tart made that idea okay. I’ve found myself navigating sharp turns, trying to follow white lines through heavy eyelids. It felt no differently than when I played Mario Kart with Josh. By the time I arrived at the parking lot, I was just lucid enough for a pants check. I tried not to fall down the steep wooden staircase leading to the glorious pastry counter where I’d stock up on cookies, cakes and tarts. I repeated the mission in my head: Get three things and disappear before anyone notices you’re a zombie. Maybe four. Once back in my car, I’d slam said items down my beak in quick succession. The bag full of goodies would never leave the parking lot. One night, I drove off a sidewalk, hit the curb and as a result, cracked the radiator.
By the time I got home, I was more awake than not. I tried to clean up my mess, but in reality, I was terrible at covering my tracks. A stomach ache was already in progress. The next day Josh encountered chocolate frosting on the steering wheel, pastry cream on the dashboard and wrappers on the floor. Even when I thought I’d cleaned it, he always found out.
An early morning argument ensued and I was reminded of how irresponsible I was. He said he was going to cut me off entirely and even threatened to leave me if I didn’t stop. He never did. I think he was more sympathetic to my predicament than he wanted to admit—until he got in the car that morning and found that the radiator was broken. I played dumb but he knew it was me.
I never fought off those chemically induced impulses but rather embraced them as a necessary side effect of my prescribed treatment. I was just a doped-up passenger along for the ride, even though I was at the wheel. In my sleep, just as in my waking hours, I trusted the melange of pills and muscle memory to guide me through the darkness.
The rest of my evening pill regimen consisted of half of a triangle of Lamictal, which purportedly regulated my bipolar mood swings—I came to appreciate this one the most as it anchored me when I felt a manic or depressive episode coming on. If I failed to take it, I’d likely pay for it with a severe depressive episode and a trip back to the Del Amo psych ward. In addition to this orgy of meds (which I refused at first, but later came to accept as allegedly necessary), I took 30 mg of melatonin, just for good measure.
To seal the deal and roll out the red carpet for Mr. Sandman, just before swallowing said pills, I’d smoke a stiff fat joint of indica to knock me out. But, rather than acting as a sledgehammer, the combination of all of these substances amounted to a tiny mallet tap, like the orange ones they use on your knees to check your reflexes. The pills didn’t zonk me; they just made me zombie-like, ravenous, and horny.
Like clockwork, right around midnight, the witching hour began. One perk of our cottage on Rita-Hayworth-gave-good-face-Avenue was its proximity to a tiny and decrepit strip mall with a 24-hour taco joint, a 7/11, and a horrifying laundromat. One night, I un-blinked with an insatiable urge for dark chocolate paired with something savory—I imagined a jar of lightly salted Planter’s peanuts. I carefully peeled off my blanket, slithering out of bed like a naked snake. I tiptoed over to Josh’s black skinny jeans that were accordioned on the floor and carefully retrieved a bank card from his wallet, and then another, just in case one had insufficient funds.
I collected my clothes and snuck out of the house, making sure I held my belt buckle tightly so it wouldn’t rattle as I got dressed on the front porch—anything to avoid waking up The Enforcer. Outside, the warm Santa Ana wind was thick with a bouquet of jasmine, honeysuckle, and mimosa. In the quiet darkness, an owl hooted, crickets chirped, and frogs croaked. It was like walking through a botanical garden in the dark.
The half-block walk to Santa Monica Boulevard led me past other shabby-not-so-chic cottages, past a sketchy alley, and into a parking lot. Along the way, I imagined a feast: maybe a Dove bar, a York peppermint patty, peanuts, maybe a strawberry Pop-Tart. I salivated with every step, half asleep, mostly stoned, entirely munchy. Turning the corner off of Rita Hayworth and onto Santa Monica Boulevard, my intoxicated vision was blinded by the severe yellow sodium lights from the parking lot and a slight strobe of blue and red lights. Silence gave way to chaotic street sounds. The night creatures were out in full force and Dollar Store regalia.
There were some flashing police lights in the distance, but I didn’t process what it meant. In the space between sleep and awake, everything is on a seven second, live feed delay. My brain buffered all the information my senses collected making every step a leap of faith. My stomach pangs demanded that I keep walking.
As the noise and lights intensified, fear began to creep in. I forgot what made me get out of bed and walk this way in the first place. My adrenaline pumped, but not enough to make me as awake as I needed to be. When I turned the corner, I saw two policemen handcuffing a screaming prostitute while two others pleaded with the cops to let her go.
“She didn’t do it, Mister Officer” one of the girls said. The one getting handcuffed was wearing jeans, hightops, and a tank top. My foggy brain managed to think about how shabby she looked. It was barely drag. Her two girlfriends wore mini-skirts and they looked like they had tried harder when getting dressed that evening. One had red boots on. They were more legit looking walkers of the night. There were also a couple of Latino dudes sitting on the stoop, laughing and pointing at Ms. Girl in cuffs. A cab driver—that poor, endangered species seldom seen in Los Angeles—sat in his vehicle shaking his head as he watched the show unfold.
One of the cops saw me stumble onto the scene. He instantly examined me: my posture, my gait, my hands, all in one look. I dodged his eyes. Can he see me? Do I look high? Do I have pants on? I could tell he was quickly evaluating if I posed a threat or not. He was all business at that moment. Because I slept naked, sleepwalking out of the house without clothes on was a real concern for me. I often worried that I’d be that guy, standing in line with a bottle of Evian and a Snickers bar while wearing a sweatshirt without pants on. So a pants-check was usually the first thing I did upon entering any establishment in the middle of the night.
The door to 7/11 was shattered in a starburst pattern. It looked like the Big Bang could have begun right there, on that tempered glass with credit card logo stickers peeling off. It was face height, and I wondered if the girl in cuffs had a matching wound on her head. Inside the joint, ghoulish-looking characters lingered about the short aisles. Near the beer fridge and next to the dehydrated hotdogs that perpetually turned round and round, I saw someone who looked a lot more fucked up than I did. He was counting the same three dollar bills over and over. Maybe he was trying to make them multiply with his will. Maybe he was just stuck in a dope-loop. A couple of kids were conspiring to ask someone to buy them a 40. At one moment I felt like all eyeballs were on me. A tragic looking lady stared at the hotdog while she scratched incessantly at her knees. I checked for pants again.
I collected my items, not being very picky about what I could gather: two bags of M&Ms, salted peanuts, a Snickers bar, some watermelon gum and a dark chocolate Dove bar. It would do just fine. I stood in line, swirling in place. My eyes probably crossed as I was trying not to tip over. The guy in front of me was arguing with the cashier. Something about a pack of cigarettes. “...But the sign says…” he said, wringing his hands. The cashier dismissed him, glancing outside at the cops. The fluorescent lights above bore deep into my pupils. Even though I wasn’t all there, I considered whether or not I was in danger and that I just didn’t know it.
When it was finally my turn, I poured my bounty onto the counter, relieved that I’d made it that far. The guy inspected my face while he beeped each item through: “It’s blah blah dollars and blah blah cents.” Reaching into my back pocket, I pulled out one of the cards and hoped it would work.
PIN the little gray box demanded.
Fuuuuck. What’s my PIN? Dammit.
I tried one combination. Denied.
I tried another one. Denied.
I knew that if I failed a third time, the card would automatically be blocked, and lights might blare “STOLEN” or “STONED” or “EMERGENCY. THIS GUY IS LOADED ON DRUGS. PLEASE DETAIN ALONG WITH MS. GIRL”
I considered whether the cashier would motion for the cops to come inside or not.
Come on, Michael. You know this.
I couldn’t remember the numbers, only the pattern: down the middle, to the right. But was it the middle right or bottom, right? It’s Josh’s birthday or something stupid like that. Why isn’t there a Madonna song for this? Fuck. Wait, Josh’s birthday is the day after Madonna’s birthday, what numbers are those?
I’m not sure how long went by while my noodle was deliberating these combinations.
“Come on, buddy…” the cashier said.
“I don’t know my PIN, sir,” I said.
“Then just press the CREDIT button.”
“Ohhhh. Right.” The screen on the machine then prompted ZIP CODE.
“God fucking dammit.” I definitely said that out loud. My vision, blurry; my balance, fading. I tried to read the name of the bank on the face of the card, which would determine the city it was linked to. My brain hurt from too much thinking. Outside the red and blue police lights were still strobing. Danger felt imminent, and I was certain that Josh was going to bitch at me in the morning. I considered if it was all worth it.
“Come on, guy. Move over. Next?!” The cashier said.
“No, no,” I mumbled. There was no way I was leaving empty handed.
This is the Chase one. It’s from New York. Aha! That means it's from the flower market! I punched in “10001” Hurray, New York!
“Receipt?” he said.
“No, thank you,” I scooped up my purchase and darted out, pushing the door open with a little too much force, startling one of the cops. Ah fuck. He glared at me, at what I was carrying, and at the speed with which I was bailing. I could read his thoughts: Did this dumb stoner just steal that?
I hid my face and squeaked away after exchanging a fist of solidarity with Ms. Girl, who was still bent over the hood of the cop car. The two dudes were still laughing. The cabbie was still looking. The two other ladies were walking away. “Don’t worry. I’ll come getchu, girl.” I could still feel the cop’s eyes on the back of my head but I was afraid to look back. The last thing I wanted was to “wake up” in the back of that patrol car next to my new bad-drag friend. I speed-walked away, turning the corner back onto my street. Rita Hayworth, gave good face!
I didn’t know how long I was away because the part of my brain that kept time, along with the “danger alert” part of it, was still sleeping, maybe even masturbating, next to Josh. But, I knew I didn't have too many steps before I’d be home. I unwrapped each item: the prizes I’d just won from traversing that shit mess obstacle course in that tragic strip mall and stuffed my face as quickly as possible. The heavy perfume of flowers in the air competed with the sugary, starchy, sodium taste of shitty chocolate and cookie in my mouth. All of which made me roll my eyes in ecstasy as I stumbled down the sidewalk, each step a blissful sensory overload that made me wonder if I was dreaming, because if I was, I didn’t want it to end. Once it was clear that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked back and saw the cop car pull away. In the distance I heard the same women cackling into the night.
I was still chewing as I entered the house, slowly closing the squeaky screen-door behind me. In the kitchen, I quietly tucked the empty wrappers under the bottom of the garbage bin, burying them as gently as I could. It wasn’t unlike Josh to go through the trash to see what I’d done the night before but I had nowhere to hide the evidence. I was too fuzzy to devise something more practical. I carefully took off my clothes, still licking my gums and molars of the remnants of goods, stripped down naked, and slithered into bed. Inch by inch, I settled on my side, aglow with satisfaction. Through the darkness, just as my eyes shut, I heard Josh say: “I know where you were. You think you’re so slick. Don’t you?”
“Good night,” I said. But he didn’t respond.