Living in a city too long can keep you tethered to memories and make the world make less sense than if you had forgotten whole years. The blur of time can be your friend. Sometimes when you have the flu or some other painful condition that puts you in bed but keeps you conscious, just the littlest memory of the way the light came in a window at some place you used to frequent is enough to deaden the physical pain for a minute or two. You can go somewhere else and wonder what might have happened and where you might be now if you had stayed a little longer at the bar or ordered another round or gone to that party you heard about while you were drinking there. And you know the story now of how it all turned out, or at least most of it, so the memories of places in the city at the start of your movie are vivid and magical. And your memories of the people in your life when you encountered them at these places are sometimes the only things that don’t blur in your recollection.
So you drive past a storefront and you recall the time you met some famous person right there or maybe it is the spot where some girl who never called you promised to call you or it might be the square of sidewalk where something so private occurred that you would never tell a soul and a tear forms in the corner of your eye as you hope the light ahead turns red so you can wipe it away and wipe the whole recollection away.
But some tiny corners of the city take longer to die. You go there and you go back there and you live a little there and maybe you even live it up there but instead of a blurry memory as you are looking for parking two decades later, there it is. And you might go there less often and the adventures you have there might be nowhere near as fantastic years on as they were when the opening credits of your adulthood had just rolled, but the fact that it is still there, that it kind of looks the same, that the echo of all the laughter still bounces around and reminds you of people from the past, people you cannot name and people you might name your children after, that person you hated, you pined for and that one you thought was your friend.
The ownership might change and they could even add a patio or lower the lighting, and definitely change the menu every few months, but if some things stay the same then it is still the same moment in time as the time your hand was on a thigh of someone you never thought would allow it there and the people who went on to die years ago are still walking and drinking and giving you the seductive glance to join the widening circle of self destruction and you take the menu from the waiter’s hand realizing that you might not have been good at much in life but you were great at avoiding the complete obliteration that they had found so smoothly and the relief of not having met with the bad luck seems like a blessing until the thought that the bad luck could be a day away intrudes - but you have to tell the server what you want to drink and then you forget what you were thinking about and you call the mood you are suddenly in wistfulness as you stare into space at the person across the table from you who has no idea that the poison of the city has seeped deep into your tissue and pinched your every tendon with regret. You are with this person, in fact, to dilute that regret in a pleasant present and ever-hopeful future. It is just that you wanted to get a drink and dinner and now you are fighting for a breath of fresh optimism.
Nothing about it strengthens you. No matter how much you have gone on to win, earn, be given, stolen or lucked upon, when you are back there, there are parts of you that are still nobody, still vulnerable and still unsettled despite all the time and and all your wisdom. And if you have a shred of regret, a wondering of what might have been, a furious agony over losing that opportunity, that decade, that perfect companion, the toxic nostalgia of these time capsules buried in the city and open to the public unaware of the pain they cause after a decade’s use can be fatal to the soul, the spirit; walking in the door can alone kill any reason that you have for going on.
And yet, for whatever reason, on whatever whim and usually out of a lost habit and terrible suggestion, you end up back at “this place”, and if you are really stuck in a rut of the town you never left “these places”. Almost the worst case scenario is that the menu or waiter has not changed. The same waitress means you really are in a movie and your agent can get the bit player a buyout if she cramps your Oscar chances. The worst case scenario is that someone from back then is there. Back then should really stay “back then” and there are scores of literary efforts and court cases backing me up here. And the person from your past cannot do anything to make it better. If he or she runs up and genuflects and reminisces about that conversation you two had twenty years ago that changed a life for the better and that your brilliance has created a superior reality for the small segment of the world he or she has subsequently touched, you will still feel robbed for having gone twenty years wondering how to make sense of this world and of course, might feel slightly uncompensated for the great achievement you bequeathed to humanity. But you know that this terrible best-case-scenario is not going to happen. You will see someone form back then and be reminded of a low level misery in the person of this person and the only cure is to not walk through the door. But you did, you are seated, your drink is here, your date might be wondering if he or she did something to make you a little flustered and if you are generally not prone to melancholy you are about to look quite irritable.
A person from your past should only be encountered on neutral ground. On the internet. At a convention with lots of foot traffic. In a casino on the Las Vegas strip near the exits. When you are back in the same old place and this person is there too, it is a terrible combination. Neither of you will believe it is a coincidence and will likely stumble to address some unfinished business or relive some past glory, tragedy or incident involving a crime neither of you could have ever committed. You might try to win an old argument and this person might remind you about the insulted honor of someone you disregarded. What good can come from any of this? What temporary warm feeling will not last more than a moment before a cold pall of contempt appears? You are not on your own turf and neither is this person. You are both on a remnant of fate’s turf called “what might have been”. Your date likes the drink, do you?
I drank and ate at this one place many times. It was just pricey enough that I didn’t go there often and just great enough that I had to go there often. The food was never bad, the bar was a mirrored altar to leaving this world behind for a friday night buzz to the heavens and there were the people. Three deep at the bar every night in 1988 and waiting an hour to get a table, sauced on two cocktails when they ordered the appetizer, getting two-thirds of their pasta wrapped because four cocktails could have been split between sixteen people and brought each a nice quick high. And the cancerous romance of the cigarette smoke until that was banned, taken outside for an elite that truly was there to announce that they were risking it all. I took almost every second date I had there and held off heading off to there when I knew I could only afford two drinks. That time Maria and I found your wallet in the gutter with $180 in it we both looked at each other and knew there was only one place to go. Cocola. They later changed the name to 410 Boyd but in 1987 it was Cocola and you couldn’t eavesdrop on any other booth as the thunder of conversation created a slapping sound against the minimal white concrete and glass and black slate decor. And the first time you heard about it you wondered why anyone would drink anywhere downtown besides Al’s Bar and the girl who was just out of your league would talk about her love for White Russians and Al’s Bar was a beer bar and two nights later you were showered and wearing something that you thought was mildly stylish but would look hilarious in a stack of polaroids in a shoebox that you know some coked-up goofball was taking of the LA nightlife back then. And if you bought the girl the white russian you never got what you might have dreamed it would get you and it got her a little more used to getting what she wanted.
People who haven’t done a damn thing with their lives will throw around words like “important” and “historic”. Josef Stalin made history. Not many other people have. These civic historians get whiny when you tell the story of one of these poisonous memory vacuums and you leave out telling their story. Well too bad, I have my own stupid stories about dodging responsibility and your stupid story ends up with some illusion of you as a hero and a stud and you are neither and the proof is that you believe in restaurants being important and planting your ass there every night for six months being history. The tequila sunrise that they never charged you for because the bartender forgot after he had to run out after the three guys getting into the limo because they hadn’t paid the bill is not history. It is your own magical moment that made you cope with your mortality a little easier. And you never felt guilty about not paying for that drink but you always wondered if he or someone was going to chase you out of the bar and demand you pay for it. By the middle of 1993 nobody was going anywhere Downtown and there were no distractions and you paid for every drink and there was no hot girl mooching white russians off of any guy in any bar east of Hollywood, I am not going to get into the LA debate of where the westside starts. For me it started at the 110 freeway. I moved near Downtown in 1986 and I refuse to romance its rubble but it beats anywhere else.
But after 1993 or so, you went there a lot less. And I went there even less than you did. But a year didn’t go by where I didn’t go there. Somewhere along the line the idea that the sleek minimal decor had to have art hanging up occurred to someone. Actually there was always a little art moving thru the place. Someone would put up some pictures for a month or two. When they were building what they called Library Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles, the eighty-plus story white thing that was once the First Interstate Building but now I am not even going to waste my time googling what they call it, some artist had some pleinair landscape oils of the skyline with that thing rising, half constructed, cranes painted on, three quarters finished in a sunset, steel beam skeleton in a sunrise, it was kinda neat. I was an idiot pontificating against extending Impressionism to whatever poor soul would listen and Maria would smoke and listen and years later someone else would put up with whatever rant I would muster against whatever was on the walls there and anywhere else. But late in the 90s they officially defiled the cement walls and tried to have official art shows with pretensions to gallery traditions and artists promoting their shows and there I would be taking pictures of everyone who had gone there years ago going there once again. I have pictures of people there and then pictures of them there five years later and ten years later. People drinking, smoking, laughing, making faces, holding a lover tight, looking suspiciously at the lens of the camera, making a kissy face. There is one picture from not too long ago (unless you weren’t born then) and in this picture are only people who are now dead. There are plenty of dead relationships in their prime and a few where the relationship is dying right in front of the camera.
And so the people might always be there and as my hearing leaves a little bit more each year the place only gets louder no matter if they are not even one deep at the bar. The art on the walls doesn’t muffle anything and never looks good and even if it sells it could have just gone out of the artist’s studio for a hundred percent profit, there was no enjoyment of the pictures like there was of the steaks and the drinks and the green apple tart and the tiramisu and the ahi salad because your date is trying to eat healthy as she excuses herself for a cigarette outside and the art is no match for the girls, were we ever really that young and did we really do all that shit to our bodies that we are paying for so dearly for now? It got so bad that I could never go to the bathroom there. I had a really bad trip there and those hexagonal tiles in the men’s bathroom flew past me and underneath them there was nothingness, real nothingness. Oh it was a bad trip, a real bad trip, a trip to make me only drink and I went back to just drinking after that, drinking heavily, and went back even after I quit drinking and I couldn’t do it, I could not go into the bathroom and then Emmeric painted a mural in there, a distinctive mural of his expressionistic madness and I went in to see it, to see the art, and had to look up up up at the ceiling and see it with the bottom thirty percent of my retinas because seriously, I was laying on that floor when they dragged me out of there back in the summer of 1988, they carried me out the door and three steps into the parking lot and the tall bartender with the ponytail and the girl’s glasses he just pushed me a little in the direction of San Pedro and my little trip went off to Little Tokyo.
So even Emmeric couldn’t save me from those tiles and then I had to piss one time, and this was three liters of gatorade from the late afternoon in there, I had to piss so bad and I peaked into the bathroom and those tiles were waiting to unleash the emptiest nihilism-inducing black hole unreality of nonexistent nothingness and it wasn’t a flashback it was like a memory of a bad dream that had happened, way badder than the $8.50 1987 White Russians that girl downed and then wouldn’t even talk to me. But it was 2002 and I had to piss and they had televisions in there which they did not have in 1988 when Scott the pot dealer actually brought in a TV set to watch his A’s beat the Dodgers until they didn’t and everyone told me people threw food at him after the Kirk Gibson homerun. I was at Seafood Bay on Soto Street with my parents that night. That is long gone too. So I went outside and thought about pissing in the parking lot and that was not going to happen and it was skid row beyond the lot, the 410 Boyd bubble of upper middle class civilization was a tiny bubble and I walked fast down the sidewalk and closer to the cardboard box homes of the crack addicts, the tents with luggage outside and I pissed against a wall. And if it had been a movie a cop would have pulled up and flashed a light on me and hilarity would have ensued. And if it had been a television show I would have met a homeless guy and found a deeper part of my existence and still managed to keep colonial consciousness in place. But the movie in your life doesn’t really happen when you are almost forty and are going back to some old haunt because some friends had an art show there. So nobody saw me piss, I got back into my booth at 410 Boyd before the dessert arrived and avoided the hexagon devil of my mind.
You see, every visit became a chore of fighting the past. But the food was always good or even very good and once in a while it was even great. And even if I didn’t drink my dates were always down for a glass of wine or a cocktail and this place impressed them and there is nothing like living in the now and watching her smile after the second sip and it is hindered by that idiot waddling over, putting his hand on my shoulder and slurring some crack about the time they threw food at Steve the pot dealer and I don’t correct him that it was Scott and every dollar I spent here suddenly mocks me for not investing in Apple stock and staying home and drinking Lowenbrau which wasn’t even really Lowenbrau, and I did plenty of that, I didn’t go to Cocola every night, I didn’t go to the Boyd every night, I stayed home and passed out with the sixth Lowenbrau half-drank many times and this idiot chuckling thru his own buzz with his own delusions that necessitate squeezing my shoulder is making me regret ever having had any fun in my life. Is this what being German at an Anselm Keifer exhibit is like?
I went to Cocola after I went to the first MOCA press preview I ever crashed, it was for that awful show A FOREST OF SIGNS and there I was, drinking with art people, talking about art, and someone buying drinks and in a way I was kind of born that night. And I could tell you who was there and what was said and how the interesting mix of gossip about the people in the show and at the museum merged with the analysis of the art, how it all just turned me on, made me feel that new level of being alive, how the worst moment of my life, the hexagons, the tiles, the fucking tiles, was two hundred feet away from the greatest moment of my life up to that point, being in a real conversation about art with real art people and being accepted as someone because they had seen me at the press preview and I could make jokes about people who ordered Lowenbrau and expected the real European version of the beer.
And that was all five years after I had first set foot in the place. There was a lot more in life ahead and every time I went there I would encounter what was and the more I changed the more it stayed the same and the haunting din of the dead, the subsequently fattened, the grown old-bitter-ugly, the moved-on, the-still-there-and-now-too-judgmental, the drama that possessed people to fight old battles and play outdated games that inspired long-solved riddles. And one night I told this sober guy we should go there for a bite, could he handle being around the booze and he said “yeah” and he had a wife and I had a girlfriend and we could have gone to the Pantry and we went there instead and two kind of hot girls just ran up and hit on us and the waiter said the kitchen was closed and he looked at me and I looked at him and we drove off to the Pantry. How come that never happened in the 1980s? The curse of Cocola. The curse was that Cocola always dangled something there I couldn’t have, the center of the scene when I was broke, a hub of culture when I was stoned, a wild party when I was sober, a nostalgia trip when I was actually doing my own thing and a brothel when I was monogamous.
So today, 2012, we got a restaurant recommendation from Scott, not Scott the Pot Dealer, to try the new place that is there. Alright, it had been a while, a long while, despite all the ghosts, the cement walls glowing white and the long bar beckoned with a glimmer of connecting with the magic of the past. And free parking on Sundays. Opening the door was like attending the happiest funeral one could imagine. The afternoon light that had set up many a bizarre drinking story was blocked out. The white walls had wood paneling. WOOD grain? If there is anything that is the opposite of cold minimal glass and black slate tabletops and concrete walls with or without lifeless art, it is wood, recently alive in a forest and got the annual ring to show it. Wood. The whole establishment is wood. Wood floors, wood walls, wood table tops, wood bar, wood bar stools, would wall ornamentation behind the bar. A few hints of the old place are there, the mirror on the back of the bar is still there, yes I know that it replaced the big yellow Bob Zoell painting that replaced the massive John Chamberlain wall piece (and again, this is my story, not yours, so I am not going to get into the lore surrounding how that masterpiece was absconded with, but will admit that it would make a great “New Yorker” article that Anthony Haden Guest could write, get rejected and slip in as a chapter to some book about the art world that is actually cobbled together rejected “New Yorker” articles, oh wait he already did that). The booths still have that pleasant width separating them so you never feel some stranger elbowing you from behind and so some old friend or foe from the past can set his or her drink down but not set it down on your table when the interruption arrives. The black concrete ceiling is still the same and the exposed aluminum air-conditioner vents abound, but the soft wood dulling the conversation and the menu basically existing as a hipster Denny’s is about as far from that Nicoise salad and creme brulee that American cuisine allows for. The bar is the bar, I didn’t go snooping to see if they had the same bottle of Chambord that that short blonde manager with the broken nose hid a bottle of pills behind. Try a Gin and Chambord with soda. That is what Maria and I had with the $180 bucks that was still in your wallet, sorry. Leigh ordered something with tequila called a Diablo today and said it was great. The place is called “The Hideout” now. The theme is self-aware Western. It is dark, cozy and a tick or two above quiet. The infamously long bar is intact. But it is not the same and nobody form the 80s or 90s was there. Can we assign Cocola to the history pile yet?
Yes we can. Because, best of all, the hexagon tiles have been removed from the bathroom. I took a piss today standing on cold concrete and knew that the past was an hallucination I could finally lay to rest.