My Eggs and Orange Juice Expire in Two Days.
I sit in the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard. I don’t want a drink, haven’t had one in nineteen years. I want to sit at a bar at 5 PM like I used to whenever things went south. Hunch over a drink. Listen to music. Smile at slack jawed faces. Look at the green caricatures on the wall.
Have I missed something? Have I not done something I should have? For weeks, I have been breaking out in a sweat at 3 AM as I watch over my patient. He sleeps quietly, smiles when I wake him to change his diaper.
I think back to the nights the bartender poured lighter fluid into the inset of the bar and dropped a lit match on it. Everyone screamed, smiled and drank. I look around for a friendly face. There isn’t one. The faces are tanked and tattered. I have not been here in almost two decades. The floor is dirty, its dull black plastic tiles covered with peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers. It couldn’t have been like this when I hung out here.
The iced Calistoga water I drink makes me want to pee, but the peanuts are good. And free. I look at the caricatures coated with dust, maybe one of them will talk to me. If she said “Hello,” I could tell the contorted face of Tallulah Bankhead that two days ago, at 10 AM, I was fourth in line at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood.
Under a dark overcast sky, I wait for a bag of food, the breath of rain hovers in the cold air.
“Sit down here,” a man with urine stained pants says after opening the church’s locked courtyard gate for me. “Don’t trip out, they’ll give you something.”
Women with swollen ankles and heels in need of a Ped Egg speak Spanish. An elderly woman with a portable oxygen tank in her shopping cart smiles and nods her head “No” when I ask if she wants my seat. I sit and read “Tomorrow They Will Kiss,” a novel suggested to me by a Joe in my writing group.
“You should submit your stories to his agent,” he said. “Your styles are similar.”
No, don’t think so. Reading about how the gringos are the enemy doesn’t work for me, never did. I should have brought “The New York Times.”
A red faced, massively overweight woman in green stretch pants arrives to open the door and let us in. The faces around me whisper she is late. Eyes look up to heaven, feet in cheap shoes shift weight from side to side as several languages are spoken. All mouths smile when Stretch Pants picks out who she will see next. I stare at the bank of the 101 freeway across the street, trying to remember what my style is or what it was.
Stretch Pants takes me next to last.
“You make too much money to get food,” she says.
“My patient has been hospitalized and I haven’t worked in two weeks. I have no money for food.”
“Is his name Tom?”
“No, he’s a child, born prematurely eight years ago.”
“I’ll give you a bag for now. If you’re still out of work next month, come back.”
I buy a breakfast donut for a buck, taken from the five I have until…
Until I don’t know when.
I carry the heavy grocery bag home and, not wanting Stretch Pants to see my purchase, keep my head down as I walk along Franklin Avenue. She will not be hard to spot, her blonde hair is a literal bird’s nest.
My apartment is quiet and still at noon. It is cold, no sun today to stream in and warm it. I unload my goods. A dozen eggs and a large can of orange juice, both due to expire in two days. Small Crest toothpaste. Two significantly tiny sample jars of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. Two cans of green beans. A rusted can of black eyed peas. A bag of brown rice. A box of Thai Delight loosely covered in cellophane. Three green tomatoes, determined to turn red any day now.
My mouth hurts.
I call Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office to speak with his intern. I had asked the downtown courthouse to excuse me from jury duty due to financial hardship. No go. I do not meet their criteria for hardship. A day on jury duty means no money for food, gas and a bill or two. More than a day will eat into my rent money. Hopefully, the intern can help me. Yesterday, she was at lunch, then on a break and when I made my last call of the day, she had stepped away from her desk. Today, she’s called in sick. I used to have sick days. I went on vacations. I had a substantial savings account.
The tips of my fingers make small indentations on the bag of rice as I wait for the sun to come out and warm my hands.
Tallulah refuses to look my way.
I drink my second Calistoga water and, so as to not wake up the pain, carefully chew a few peanuts as if they held tiny cyanide capsules in their cores. My jaw holds my stress. Or did the dental student assigned to my case at UCLA mess it up?
The dental student, whose go-to line is: “You’ve let so many dentists work on your mouth, you’ve like developed serious mandibular problems.”
He repeats this whenever I say the word pain, none of his way cool babbling having anything to do with the fact that, a few months ago, he pried my mouth open for four hours to work on, as he calls them: “Your totally difficult teeth.”
My jaw has never been the same since. The pain, when not acute and nausea inducing, lies tapping at the roots of my rear molars. At my appointment this afternoon, I explained to the dental student how difficult it has been to concentrate, to care for my patient or to write and rehearse my monologues once the throbbing starts.
“I feel for you, bro. I’m on break starting tomorrow. I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
When the dental student thought a drop of my saliva had splashed in his eye, he, the supervising dentist and the clinic’s receptionist demanded I get an HIV test.
As we were waiting to have our blood drawn, the dental student said: “I’m not too worried. I’m sure you’re clean.”
“Yeah, my mouth is promiscuous. I’ve let my teeth be worked on my so many dentists.”
I should have said that. I didn’t, my twisted gut telling me it would slow the dental student down and he already works like he eats two Extra Strength Vicodins every four hours. His skin is so white any mention of a slutty mouth would not only turn it translucent, it would put a wrench in his attempts to carry out the treatment plan he had come up with for me, which called for replacing three crowns and doing five fillings. For that, my dentist on Wilshire Boulevard wanted more than three thousand dollars over what my insurance covered. UCLA charges less than half of what my dentist does. Eighteen months later, after the weekly three hour, if I’m lucky, round trip bus ride, taken to escape the $9.00 UCLA parking fee, the dental student still has to do the final filling, replace the last planned crown and get to work on a crown which cracked the week before.
“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes said a few hours ago as he removed the last crown, its underlying tooth suddenly beyond repair and in need of either a bridge or any number of 2K at a pop implants.
I look into his spinning eyes and ask: “Do you think if we’d looked at this tooth a year and a half ago we could have saved it?”
“Did you know that we get less patients now?” he answers. “Even with our discounted rates, they can’t afford it. I’m blessed. I can ride the recession out going to school.”
The dental student opens my mouth again and pushes my jaw to the left for three hours. I try to go over plot problems in my novel.
Lucky man that I have always been, the novocaine kills the pain of the money I owe and the money I need until I get off the bus for home at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. My cowboy boots’ silver tips having seen me through better days, their worn down soles take over, pulling me to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, where I foolishly spend half of my ten dollar emergency money on carbonated water.
“Hungry, darling?” the theatrical arch of Tallulah’s eyebrows snickers as I leave the Frolic Room.
In my drinking days, after closing a dump like the Frolic Room, I would come to in the AM and order a pizza, down a few liters of Diet Cherry Pepsi. Tomorrow, I will drink tap water and bite into a hopefully ripe tomato.
I head up Hollywood Boulevard to home with the same distracted gait Gena Rowlands walked it thirty-five years ago, she a woman under the influence, me a once lucky man whose jaw belts him a good one for spending his emergency money on water which allegedly sparkles in even the gloomiest of bars.
The much handled bag of brown rice Stretch Pants gave me resembling one of Pamela Anderson’s implants after a heavy date, my cold hands touch the goodies sitting on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves. Rusted can thrown into the trash, I take my own Extra Strength Vicodin to numb my whore of a mouth. Drifting in and out of sleep on my couch, I watch Michelle Obama walk the CNN, MSNBC and Fox red carpet. One of her J. Crew dresses could pay for groceries for a month. Her Jason Wu ensemble would cover my rent for a few months. If I could just have a month or two for myself, I could finish my novel. I put my pitchfork down and sleep through until the next day’s outing to the SOVA food pantry, recommended to me by a raspy voiced social worker at Jewish Family Services.
I awake to a Vicodin hangover, my eyelids unable to blink, my pupils, hypnotized by the emptiness in my belly, stare at the clear glass of the tiny Grey Poupon jars.
Five years ago, I worked fewer hours at one job and made twice as much as I do today working a full-time and a part-time job.
A heavy duty shot of novocaine and the dental student’s Vicodin regime can not touch that pain.