President Bush looks gaunt and pale, facing the camera in the White House. He is frozen in position, staring ahead, waiting for the signal to begin delivering his address on Iraq. An American flag hangs to his right. A globe of the world sits on a credenza in the background. The image on the television screen is oddly over-developed, as if bleached out. The President wears a black suit. The jacket has a sheen that reflects like ribbon laid over his shoulders. He speaks flatly, straining. I know what he is saying. Earlier, I read the press release of the talk.
My wife, E, walks in our television room, thinking I am watching FoodNetwork's Alton Brown. She hears the President's voice and walks out, muttering. She thought the invasion of Iraq was a mistake from the beginning. The Arabs are tribal. Remove their dictator and they will turn to killing each other. That's what she said. She hasn't been able to talk about it since. My hope can't persuade her cynicism. I think, the President has laid out the true situation. Iraq can't be isolated, can't be treated separately from the disorganization of the Middle East brought on by modernization. The social change created the Islamist opposition to modernization that launched Bin Laden who declared war on us. Modernization was inevitable given the petroleum riches stored in the region. It's all inter-related. It's our destiny to fix it; we can only restore order through consensual government. Iraq is where we start. It's dinner time.
After eating, I suggest we go out for coffee. I want to take our dog with us. And my wife's mother, J. It's an expedition. We go to Coffee Depot, because it has outside seating, where we can bring our Labrador, Bear. It's eight-thirty. The sunset has just ended. Next to the Coffee Depot, a crowd of young people accumulates at the door to Club Sevilla, girls in short dancing dresses, guys standing next to them, shifting from foot to foot like accessories. The green neon sign for the club illuminates the tightly packed, inadequate parking lot. The young couples are excited. We hear laughter.
Coffee Depot. (Click on image for a 600 pixel wide photo in pop-up.)
It's open mike night on the Coffee Depot stage. Perhaps eighty musicians, audience, and coffee patrons sit in the little theater, that was once the Union Pacific station's baggage storage, on couches in the lounge, on wrought iron chairs at wrought iron tables outside, on car hoods and fenders, some listening, some talking, some practicing with acoustic guitars. In the small patio, one guitarist plays with an amplifier. He sings without a microphone, so we hear his voice only occasionally, when the strumming, riffs, picks, and thumping on the guitar unexpectedly drop in volume.
We take seats and listen. My eighty-one year old mother-in-law is thrilled. She is always up for a party. She smiles broadly, her eyes glisten, her faces glows. "He must be professional," J says. Whatever he is, I think, he's loud. My wife returns from the order bar with three coffees. Mine, decaffeinated, sugarless, hot; J's, mocha, with extra caffeine, iced; E, decaf something, hot. E smiles. She puts her feet up on a chair. Bear, with her leash wound around her chair, settles by her side, hoping for food or a lick of the coffee. We can't really converse, the amplified guitar is too loud; but the music is enjoyable and we decide to listen.
Sante Fe Station. (Beside which double mainline tracks run. The rehabed, former station is now used for offices. Click on image for 600 pixel wide photo in pop-up.)
A hundred yards away, trains continually roar over double tracks. The Amtrak Super Chief out of LA bound for Chicago speeds by, blowing its whistle as it passes through several nearby sets of double-gated railroad street crossings. Then the freights. In both directions, on the Union Pacific tracks and the Burlington Sante Fe tracks. Four engines each, eighty or a hundred freight and container cars. We feel the rumbling of the heavy cars in our feet. The diesel engine noise, steel wheels clacking over breaks in the steel rails, and incessant warning horns flood the air around us.
Stebler-Parker Factory Building. (The rehabed, former manufacturing plant, forerunner of FMC, is now occupied by offices. Viewed from Coffee Depot. Click on image for 600 pixel wide photo in pop-up.)
In the corner of the patio sits a drunk old man with a short, gray beard. He is asleep. He sits slumped in his white, wrought iron chair. His hair is long, down to his shoulders, stringy, glistening with grease and dirt in the parking lot lights, reflecting the green of the dance club's neon sign. His clothes are disheveled, loose, and so crusted with filth they seem almost brittle. As the acoustic guitar revs up, he seems to hear the music, he stirs himself, sits up. Without opening his eyes, he reaches for a large bottle of whiskey sitting next to him on the patio's concrete floor. He brings the bottle to his lips, covering the label on the bottle with his hand, almost as if he were enacting a movie scene and didn't want to advertise the whiskey maker. He tilts his head back, draws in a large gulp of whiskey, swallows silently, then puts the bottle down. By the chair, he has a black backpack, his world stuffed into canvas. J looks over at him, then turns toward me, and makes a sad face of sympathy for him. The drunk man falls back asleep in his chair. He looks homeless. No one cares for him.
I watch him. I watch the couples lined up at the club door. I watch the cars enter and depart the small parking lot. Inside the Coffee Depot, I see college kids with laptops, talking to one another, drinking their coffee, touching each other, looking at their laptop screens, touching the screens, conferring, laughing. The black, moonless night is illuminated with lights. Yellow from the shop, white of car beams and street lights, red from railroad crossing signs and backing cars. Blue lights illuminate the underside of the decorative tent covering the dance floor on the Club Sevilla roof top. My wife is tired, she closes her eyes. I watch her. She briefly dozes off, then wakes. I watch J. I look down and watch my dog. I feel euphoria swell within me. I try to identify the emotion. It's forgiveness, glowing in the Southern California evening. For whom?
The performer, practicing for his slot on the open mike, plays Ray Charles tunes. My wife and mother-in-law look knowledgeably toward each other in enjoyment. J tries to say something to me, but I can't hear her. In a brief break between songs, my wife shouts out a song title for him to sing. He says he's sung that so often he's sick of it. Then J asks him to "haul out some of those old blues." He laughs and obliges. To a Ray Charles interpretation, he plays "Over the Rainbow" and sings the lyrics. J looks at me. "What's he singing?" "Over-the-rainbow," I shout, leaning close to her ear. She laughs.
The drunk lurches up. "My son does that," he says, not to anybody. He falls back asleep. The musician, sitting now astride a table, with the amplifier on a chair, begins to strum a Bob Dylan tune. The drunk wakes up again. He says something. We look over to him. He rouses himself out of his chair. He is short, perhaps five feet five inches. He wears shoes too large for his feet. They are untied. His dirty shirt hangs over his pants. He lifts his pack. He stumbles forward. We think he wants to walk up to the musician. He passes by our table and says something again. We can't understand him. He shuffles up to the musician and stands there, weaving slightly out of rhythm. My wife leans forward. "He's on meth," she says. "And whiskey," I add. Some combination.
Standing next to the musician, the drunk turns slightly toward us. He wants our audience. Suddenly, he begins to sing. "Knockin' at Heaven's Door." The Dylan song. He sings clearly. He sings like Dylan, a passable imitation. We watch and listen, fascinated. My mother-in-law's face nearly bursts with joy. As the drunk sings, a young college student with an acoustic guitar comes over and joins the performing duo.
My euphoria surges in me. We're all forgiven, I think. It's all okay. The evening is okay. Everything is okay at the Coffee Depot tonight. Knockin' at heaven's door.