Three old men governed the Bar That Cannot Be Named. Three old Japanese men, wise and drunk, with chests full of tar and decades upon decades of trouble. These men I called the Warlords of Little Tokyo. They called me James Dean Sad Eyes because I was young and I was white and they were fascinated with postwar fifties Americana. Mostly, they called me James Dean Sad Eyes because I had nothing to lose.
“Oh, nobody smile, Doctor Dean is in.”
“Ahso, the whiskey priest has come ’gain nighttime to roost.”
“Ah, Dean, so young and so sad his woman is gone.”
In Los Angeles in the year 2000, there was a trapezoid of space just east of where Little Tokyo intersects with the downtown Arts District, a trapezoid of space slammed against the concrete cliffs of the railroad trenches and ominous banks of the pathetic Los Angeles River in an exacting loneliness. A space deserted, a vortex of slowed time, a wasteland mostly leveled to rubble running east to west from Vignes to Alameda and south to north from East Third to East First, a geometry of isolation suited to cavernous exiles noosing themselves from the rest of the city. Nobody bothered you, everyone was a potential ghost—the First Street Bridge, the arched leviathan, a wanting hanging tree, where since its construction in 1929 the disenchanted have made pilgrimage to take the long walk. A good-enough place to ride out the consideration of slow suicide or fast recklessness without having to worry about cops or even friends.
Standing atop the First Street Bridge, facing west, one could see over all four city blocks to where Little Tokyo glowed in a slice of expat mysticism so wrung with nightly intrigue that the less-than-one-square-mile neighborhood’s moons were the foggiest in all the city for those of us with the right eyes for it, fog eclipsing the twenty miles farther west to the Pacific Ocean where it all rolls in, the wetting whistle of our otherwise dry cunt City of Angels. And it is only here, now on this page, that I finally consider an association of the word Pacific to the word pacify and the larger embodiment of hush. In that Anno Domini 2000, I spent the cruelest and most exquisite year in this liminal trap.
The trapezoid of land still stands in 2011, but it is of course filled with development, condominiums, and fabricated lofts spread like STDs—ugly but real and unavoidable—and a new public railway line. I do not know if the area has a name, if it had a name before the transition, but a decade ago I called it the Golden Trapezoid. Roaming bums and eccentric, acid-damaged fine artists exchanged nods and plotted their murders quietly among the vacant lots, the few warehouses and factories either abandoned or clandestinely in use, and the shrugging, graffiti-soaked, out-of- service rail depots. Anyone could live or die in the Golden Trap. Red stains and no questions asked. Where packs of wild dogs dragged the rotting, skinned heads of pig and steer carcasses from back-alley cut shops as far away as the Grand Central Market and Chinatown for a safe haven to gnaw, and where, too, other wolves of esoteric passion found safe haven to shoot up in broad daylight.
I lived in a warehouse at the corner of Vignes and First, and down in my hollow you could still buy the company of a Mexican T-girl at Little Pedro’s, one of the only businesses in the GT, for $40. The Little Pedro’s building still stands, but its guts have long since departed. I am mentioning all of this because if I stepped out—I took what little food I ate and much of my grog in Little Tokyo—all the decrepit solitude and fragmented suffering of the Golden Trap went with me, every footstep to pavement, glass to lips, mist to mouth. The dim, explicit, and inescapable hollow bore deep in my sad, beautiful green eyes. I broke hearts with a single glance.
These eyes of mine, this hollow, these were things the Warlords of Little Tokyo understood. I wound up living in the GT and in bottomless despair because I had lost a woman of major influence and was unable to look positively on any subsequent days without her. Simply but impenetrably put, those days and this story are the result of not being able to be with the person I loved most and the long road out from the pain. So let us raise a glass even tonight to the potency of simplicity, for anguish is simple in its exactness, love the lone god of it all.
When I lived in the GT, I drank. I drank at Saloon Cosmos on First Street in the heart of Little Tokyo, and I drank even more in its unnamed sister bar a few doors down—yes, gone now, Bar That Cannot Be Named—little more than a cave in the wall beneath an old thirties hotel turned rooming house. Old fashioneds were the standard, and the karaoke was taken—was sung—with the seriousness of a seppuku ritual, an emotional disembowelment that oft ended in heaps of tears for those men who surrendered their hearts to horrible love and their howling lungs to the night. Stoic, dead-eyed Japanese businessmen so alive with unimpeachable despair, here. Though I never sang karaoke—mine was a mostly silent alcoholic misery—and though we never spoke a word to each other, I counted the singers among my countrymen in a land ruled by love lost. Bar That Cannot Be Named was small, a five-stool wood with one corner table and two couches in the back for the balladry. The place was lit with electric tea lights. The Warlords held court. Sometimes they called me “doctor.”
“Oh, hide your cigarettes. Here come the doctor, Doctor Dean.”
“Ahso, whiskey priest on the perch.”
“Ah, James Dean Sad Eyes, he’ll meet his woman up in heaven, so he hopes.”
I sat in that bar with the Warlords of Little Tokyo in reckless abandon and drank my savings away in such a manner that courted minor legend so far as subheroic liver and kidneys are concerned. I was a tragic protagonist of the highest comedic order to these Warlords of this Bar That Cannot Be Named, which was not called by anybody but me Bar That Cannot Be Named (contemporarily samurai-cum-noir enough—let us create our legends accordingly), and they jovially warmed to me as an oracle to the weary antihero, as archangels to the damned. They, for all the world was worth, had seen it all, and I was their little rat, running through the maze anew.
The barkeep at Cannot Be Named was a boss Japanese gangster cowboy who wore elaborately embroidered Nudie knockoffs unbuttoned down to his navel with an obligatory bandanna tied loose around his neck and a gold dope spoon dangling from a gold chain necklace that rattled against the loose snaps of his shirt as he hustled the bar. His name was Ken. He wore starched Levi’s double cuffed over metal-tipped rattlesnake kuso kickers. Ken had a five-finger pompadour and chain smoked so consistently that flecks of ash were a regular cocktail garnish.
“Old fashioned, Ken, and hold everything but the whiskey,” I’d say. I’d drink a dozen straight whiskeys and then finish it all off with an old fashioned replete before wandering back to my wormhole in the GT.
All of the men smoked. I smoked, too, sometimes. The old men smoked Lucky Strikes. I was rolling my own, which fascinated and repulsed them to no end. You could cut the air with a sushi knife. Usually, there was at least enough respect for absurdity still left in my emotional landscape to crack wise with the old Japanese crags, and their nightly homilies were among the only beacons of light I can recall from that time, their buoyant ball-busting holy among days of blood and breath negated and all sorts of self-medicating.
I’d first wandered into the clandestine speakeasy looking for a place to piss one graceless night—the joint had no markers whatsoever, no signs, no windows, it was merely behind a white door that looked like it led to an apartment complex’s foyer. Instantly sobered by the surprise, I stomached my guts, sat down, and ordered one as if I’d known the place had been there all along. Ken ignored me for a good forty minutes that first night, but I stuck it out. I called for a whiskey about a dozen times—“Whiskey, sir,” deadpan—and finally he gave me a Kirin, a drift I was supposed to catch, maybe, or a test of wills. I came back every night for six straight days, and on each of these nights I was not served. On the seventh day Ken and the Warlords acknowledged my presence, and I was for all spiritual intents allowed to stay. I was given my drink.
The Warlords were old enough to have lived through American internment camps during World War II, and without so much as a single word about it, I somehow knew each was a walking historical artifact. They’d all given themselves—or were appointed—American names: Bobby, Johnny, and Willy. Ken was Ken, never Kenny, and I heard one of the patrons call him Kenji. While Kenji, or Ken, remained a rock ’n’ roll animal, the Y men wore black suits with pressed, white shirts, three-quarter sleeved, cuffs-up, and Sperry Top-Siders. Willy wore an eye patch over his left socket, Johnny had a cataractous eye gone to blue in his right, and Bobby employed a hearing aid he’d turn down during the karaoke—not because it annoyed him, rather it touched him too deeply. The communicable heartache of the balladeers seemed to remind him too much of a tantamount love of his own forever lost. These compromises of the senses were the only thing that really made the men distinguishable, although Willy had the air of a self-appointed ringleader.
Because my soul was old, because I was ruination incarnate—or perhaps by default—I became the patron whiskey saint of the Bar That Cannot Be Named. The Warlords of Little Tokyo took a shine to me and appointed me their tyro. And, like true masters on their apprentice, the old men put me to task when I finally hit bottom.
A Yellow Coincidence
Feb 16, 04:11 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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