Carter Harris, now 66 years old had arrived at Union Station in L.A on the Southwest Chief needing a smoke badly. He tottered down the grip strut aluminum steps from the shelter of tinted glass windows into the blinding California Sun. Rummaging unsteadily with one hand through the pockets of a threadbare jacket dragging along the shambles of an old airline bag across the quay walking towards the the bank of doors leading to the depot’s movie set styled lobby. He longed to pull out the whole pack holding his last three smoke-able butts but some security types seemed to be constantly eyeballing him so he picked up his pace and hoped for less attention out front. This was L.A., the ‘New‘ modern L.A.! One he hadn’t seen since the mid-seventies when he had driven up Route 5 in a rental car up the from from Pendleton to LAX. He was then on his way home then to Peoria to try pick up what little bit of an abandoned life that still remained there after three tours in Nam. He had come back in late Fall of ’74 just before Gerald Ford had abandoned Phuc Long province to the Cong and the whole thing had collapsed around the interim president’s ears. Maybe that is why he kept having seizures tumbling down the steps of Airforce One? America pulled out of the South China seas holding its ass and kissing fifty thousand of his buddies goodbye writing them off as just another milestone of soon to be forgotten history being simply collateral damage paid for opening a new era with China.
When he got back home and found that everyone else had moved on without him. That’s when he started really drinking heavy taking up residence on the waterfront with Kelleher’s Pub as his official residence when he found that he couldn’t be kept on at Caterpillar plant. He moved up north just south of Chicago for better prospects. Acme Steel and Coke just south of Chicago had him as a reliable fixture after Wisconsin Steel when belly up at Southworks in 1980. The next twenty years were a blur of blue collar factory jobs descending steadily to odd handyman gigs as he found himself increasingly ending up at Hines V.A. for treatment of ever more frequent alcoholic binges. Now he had found out that he had worn out his welcome with his body as well as anyone who had long ago once known him as he was given a prognosis of six to twelve months live due to Diabetes leveraged over an aggressive cancer of the rectum. As nothing was left to lose and he had decided that Los Angeles was a good a place as any to waste away under sunny skies and cheap booze.
The scene just outside the terminal looked like a suburban parking lot with non-descriptive looking combinations of anonymous looking block-like structures with a tall incongruous building barely poking up over the chaotic assembly far in the distance. Vaguely familiar, he recalled that it had been the focus of a more spectacular scene in a movie that he had viewed some Saturday morning in late childhood. Something about aliens from Mars attacking earth with a flying saucer and blowing the top of the structure clean off with a laser beam or something. Looking over the cold landscape it had obviously survived both the aliens and the land developers. The last battery of doors from the museum-like interior of the station now behind him beyond the tall palm trees he looked around for a bus stop or something like that. He had been told by a guy at the V.A. that he could find a cheap flop just south if he followed Alameda boulevard down to Seventh street and headed east towards downtown. His budget didn’t allow for a cab as this month’s SSI was already lighter by almost half to pay for that one way train ticket out here. He crossed the street just opposite station’s tall palm forest on parade and at attention and started down on the sidewalk his old suitcase trolley wheels protesting noisily behind him.
The scenery above and below was all poured concrete with car filled roadways snarking across and underneath betwixt stretches of mute windowless warehouses that were occasionally interrupted by a ten story office tower here and there. The sun beat down unmercifully cheerful upon the vapidly vacant space built by human society but completely emptied of their presence. Another buddy who claimed he was originally born out here had warned him to be on the lookout for that L.A. County cops that would hassle you if they saw you just walking along on foot instead of driving a Mercedes or waiting with some Indio-Mexicans at a bus stop. Luckily, the local pricks in blue were off on a coffee break this afternoon as he didn’t see any passing squad cars sauntering past his own slow progress down one of the two otherwise the abandoned concrete side walks. He hadn’t had a taste of liquid relief since he had broken out that last 200 ml. flask of Canadian Mist stiff and barely awake on the hard bench seat as the Southwest Chief neared the California Arizona border. The meticulously emptied bottle had been left under the seat. It seemed like it was beginning to get hot and his two edema prone legs were aching a little as they slowly began to filled up. “Did he still have that bottle with a couple of Diamox’s“, he thought? It didn’t matter as he couldn’t see choking them down dry without at least a beer back. A couple of eggs and some bacon or something similar along the way sounded about right as well.
He continued to hobble down the concrete ribbon along the whoosh of cars for what seemed a little over a mile or so. A red colored trolley was passing on an elevated concrete roadbed and descending to a city rail transit station up ahead. But as he walked down a little further to its entrance it was obvious that it abruptly turned back east far away from his desired destination. He kept on South with everything around him defaulting to a one story tall structure or two like they were a flock of ugly ducklings keeping their heads down low to allow the view of even more clear sky California sunshine to bounce through. He continued the constant baby step rhythm of of unsteady legs slowly past a small seemingly deserted shopping center announcing an Office Depot as its primary lesee. Alameda transformed into the modern strip mall approximation of an Asian district. He made a mental note as he hadn’t eaten any real authentic Vietnamese food since he been out in Washington state to see a dying aunt in Seattle twenty years back. The shade trees and restaurants quickly defaulted into more block long totalitarian windowless warehouses again as he continued his slow but measure pace. His own ‘dogs’ were beginning to bark really bad as he caught sight of a Mickie D’s at the crossroads of Seventh and Alameda. The first leg of his trek completed he hobbled over to the other side of Alameda to get cup of coffee and some fries to tide him over until he got to a hotel. The place was immaculate inside as if it had just been built. While he was chowing down after getting his order from one of the counter mannequins he tried starting up a conversation with one of the other customers at a nearby table where he could find some cheap hotels? After a moment of irritable hesitation he was told that he could catch a bus going west down seventh.
He flagged down a bus down at the stop but the driver wouldn’t take cash saying that he had to have a transit card so he started off down Seventh on foot once more some skyscrapers poking up into the sky as guide posts far up ahead. Even with the recent introduction coffee, is tongue and mouth were getting as dry as lizard skin and his whole body was beginning to ache all over from the long morning’s lack of a liquid ‘pick-me-upper’. The slog down 7th seemed equally as long as it had been from the station up to the intersection. The neighborhood architecture was descending into a more dated type of older urban blight that occasioned long three story apartment buildings with mostly vacant storefronts boarded up below. The sight of milk and juice bottles balancing on ledges just outside second and third story windows suggesting the tenants residing within were tilting towards an ever lower scale of income. The entrance to one thirties vintage domicile had an old restored neon sign design proclaiming the hotel’s glowering legend upon it. He walked into its small dankly air conditioned lobby to see what the room rates might be. It turned out that it was one of the many local L.A. county low cost housing city initiative program sites. The sort of well-monitored one room barracks that you had to sign up for after establishing permanent residency. Two hours freshly arrived from the Midwest didn’t cut it. The desk clerk told him to just keep heading down 7th West and he would run into a hotel district about five minutes further on by car. The quip struck him as funny thing since he was on foot. But his L.A. born buddy had told him that the native born out here talked in minutes and not miles so he blew off the comment and continued on back outside and on his way.
More small fleabag hotels started popping up about two blocks further down. He even found one with a little Mexican food store located on street level. But entering it he found that it didn’t sell spirits and though no one seemed to speak English he was able to get another cheap pack of cigarettes. There was no reason to check room availability at this out of the way dive. He kept on walking as the afternoon sun started really working on his head. More and more little hotels with high security jail-like bars clad upon all the intervening doors and the windows. Though this might have been a good sign in terms of the level of monthly rent demanded the none to friendly looking ‘spics and spooks‘ hanging out in the vicinity silently spoke ill of bad omens that said, “Pass on by!” Every sign from here on out seemed to be in poorly translated English from ‘south of the border’ Spanish and interspersed with forests of “For Lease” and “For Rent” signs. Definitely not his cup of tea. Bunches of ‘down-and-outers‘ started showing up every couple blocks. Their junk heaps of possessions piled up on curbs and swept against bare building walls. He wanted a cheap ‘flop’ but he didn’t relish the company of these two ‘bedbugs’ hobbling about the dark outside if he had to go searching for a bottle his first night in town. He kept trudging on towards the skyscrapers despite a growing dizziness. The steel barred two-story warehouse blocks supporting the flotsam of over-filled shopping carts began to give way to more occasional ten and twenty story office buildings looming up ahead. Like a knight on a quest for a castle keep his exhaustion subsided a bit as he picked up his pace in anticipation.
The intersection of Main and Seventh was reached with a pretty good case of the shakes coming on. He scanned the cross street at the intersection for the oasis of a nearby drinking establishment to take the cure of a good stiff drink. Three stores down just north next to a twenty story hotel was an answer to his prayers. He walked into the darkness of a Tiki themed bar left over from the early Sixties. The elder layers of Troy barely evident in years of periodic unprofessionally executed remodeling. He hitched his squeaky two wheeled pony between two empty bar stools and ordered a shot of rye with a water back. He was probably dehydrated from all that sun. The price was right at two bucks a shot so he followed the first with a second. He sat there on the stool in the cool humidity of the air conditioner vent stoking the air just above him feeling the impact of now being permanently marooned in a small town. After a few minutes of repose he asked the bartender where were some cheap but clean joints to rent. The young kid of some forty-five years with a slightly faded suntan replied that he was situated next to a significantly large old 700 room hotel with pretty affordable monthly and weekly rates as was advertised some fifteen stories directly above this establishment. There was a good supply of small eateries on the corner and the general area. His own brief transit assured him that the immediate area didn’t seem as fully encased in prison bars and forested in signs primarily in Spanish as had the last mile or two had been. This seemed as good a place as any to start the rest of his dwindling existence. That was, of course, as long as they weren’t asking an arm and a leg per month. He still would have to find a nearby bank and wait a week or two to get his direct deposit with the government going for his monthly checks to arrive.