I moved back to California around two months ago. What brought me back home after fifteen years? Well, a few things. Personal things. Some things not so personal. In the end, I was feeling a bit tapped out in Vegas. The bones weren’t tumbling like they used to and I was almost at the point where I didn’t give a shit either way.

I weighed my options. Perhaps, a stint in Phoenix? Washington? One thing I knew for sure: I was staying on the West Coast. That’s what I knew. I didn’t care if it was a dinky little town in the green of Oregon or the pale hard concrete of L.A.

I lived on the East Coast. In Charlotte. Right in the middle of the Bible Belt, blatant racism, and heavy unapologetic ignorance. The experience crippled me. Life became less romantic overnight. When I moved back to Vegas a year and a half ago I returned a different person.

“Come to California,” a friend told me over the phone.

Maybe it was the way she said it. Maybe it was because thoughts of quaint rustic coffee shops and rolling foothills filled my head. Maybe it was because of who was saying it. I packed up in the middle of the night and headed for the California state line.

On my way to Sacramento I pulled over at a gas station just outside of Bakersfield. I took out my notebook to jot down some notes and came across some jumbled song lyrics that had a line that said: “So, what’s wrong with California?”

I found the line fitting.

So, what was wrong with California?

The long gold beaches?

The weather?

The culture?

Its politics?

Paris Hilton?

I got into Sacramento in the afternoon, rubbernecking the city from off of I-5. It was a beautiful day, a light blue sky stretched from side to side. Deep-green pine trees lined the freeway. Cars with white license plates that said CALIFORNIA (One reading CBlondie. No shit.) in fancy handwriting passed by me. Sure, it wasn’t home as in Southern California, but it was home nonetheless.

To celebrate, I found a bar and pulled over. It was a dark little thing loaded with neon signs and good beer. A couple was in the corner in conversation. There was a guy sitting at the end of the bar reading Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith.

Nice, I thought. A secular man. A fellow homeboy. I was on the West Coast indeed.

I looked bad. My face was drawn from the 10-hour drive. My clothes were wrinkled. My hair was sticky and dreading up. My baseball cap was on backward. The bartender carded me.

“That’s you?” she asked, raising her plucked eyebrows, looking at my ID and then at me. “Wow, you look real young for your age. Vegas, huh? I love that place. Just got back a few weeks ago. I want to move there.”

“Give her a try,” I said, my mind flashing over the Strip, the little condo in Henderson. ”You can take my place. She’s a good city.”

It’s funny when people want what the other has. What’s an old story to you is new one to someone else. She wanted out of California. I wanted in. She wanted my old city. I decided to let that city go.

I wondered what it was that made her want to move to Vegas. Did she fall for its hot neon lights like so many have before her? – like I did back in ‘95 with some electric guitars and a head full of craziness. Was she captured by the slow silence in the parched desert that surrounds her glow?

Or was it something else? Not so much with Vegas, but with California. Did she hate her boss? Her apartment? Did those quaint rustic coffee shops brew nothing but bitter memory?

So, what’s wrong with California?

The traffic?

Happy Hour?

Hollywood?

A friend took me to “the City” a few weeks back. “The City” is San Francisco to the locals. I haven’t seen San Francisco in years. What a sight. Blue-gray water. Blue sea skies. The skyline, bold and jagged and bursting at the seams.

That night we saw Patton Oswalt in concert at the Masonic Theater on Nob Hill. The crowd was in full force. The comedy crowd. Beanies and Buddy Holly glasses. Tight button shirts and mischievous faces. I’ve been a fan of Oswalt’s for years. Sarcastic. Sharp. Always in a state of shock by what he sees and hears. We busted up. He killed. 

“Thank you very much,” he said, before he left the stage. “Your city kicks fucking ass.”

After the show we walked in a biting wind to find something to eat. After a long haul that took us by some big-cash retailers and dozens of closed Chinese restaurants we found a worn down diner with slow service. While we waited for our food we talked about San Francisco, its kaleidoscope delivery, and watched the blurry show from inside the restaurant.

Artists and business folk walking side by side. Homeless people moving about in smudged footsteps. Taxis squeezing in between cars and bodies. And the wind: Sweeping around stop lights, faces, and gutters.

I thought to myself: I could live here. Forever.

So, what’s wrong with California?

The trees?

The Bees?

The blondes?

Arnold Schwarzenegger?

I found the move to California inspiring. Having somewhat of an idea of who I am, I figured this move would provide me with some new material. And sure enough I knocked out a few poems, took a couple of swipes at some fiction.

But the guitar took over and I started banging out songs. One song. Two songs. One night I woke up in the middle of the night after dreaming of some guy singing to me: “Been ninety days since I’ve seen her Spain.” I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my notebook and scribbled some lyrics, some chords, and passed out right there on the floor.

In the morning I had a skeleton of a song. By the time the day was done the song was done. It’s now a tune called “Bleed.” Five chords. In the key of A.

Hit the road under a sheet of stars/Headlights on in a rolling car/What was up ahead/Could drown her bed

Then more songs came:

Could Be Better.

All I Want.

These Horses.

Walk.

The black in me/How she comes then wants to leave/The girl’s alive/Dressed herself and walked on by/Now she’s sweet as apple pie/If I ate you once, I ate you twice

It’s been a good run and as I write this I know it’s not over. The last couple of days I’ve been walking around humming this tune. I don’t have my guitar with me so I’ll just have to continue walking around humming this melody until I get my guitar in my hands.

It’s in E minor. I know that.

The other day a friend asked me how long I was going to be in California as if it was an experiment of sorts.

(Hell, maybe it is.)

“I don’t know,” I said.

That was the truth. I don’t know. Could be six months. Could be six years. Maybe longer. Maybe not. But what I do know is that I’m here. I’m not in Vegas. Or Washington. Or L.A. Or some dinky little town in the green of Oregon.

But here.

In Northern California.

Or Nor Cal.

Riding down its streets.

Feeling its heat.

Writing songs, sipping coffee.

Eating it’s politics, it’s culture.

Living.

So, what’s wrong with California?

I don’t know.

Dude, I’ve Seen Your Balls

I called an old high school buddy to give him my new phone number. It was a business call. In and out. I wasn’t in the talking mood.  

His wife answered the phone. Tammy’s a good woman. Thoughtful. Funny. Pretty good pool player. I met her for the first time last year and we got ripped on margaritas. 

“What are you doing?” I asked her. 

“Oh, drinking a beer. You?” 

“Nothing. Hey, this is my new number. Tell your man if he wants to talk to me then he’ll have to dial those numbers.” 

“Hah. You’re an ass. Do you want to talk to him?” 

“I guess.” 

Musso got on the phone with his usual what-do-you-want tone.

“What’s up?” I asked. 

“Drinking a beer.” 

“You guys getting drunk?” 

“How do I know, dude?” he snapped. Just opened the first one.” 

“Great. Well, this is my new number. Scratch that other one. All right, I’m out. If you get lucky tonight think about me.” 

“Why would I do that?” he said. “I’ve seen your balls. It’ll fuck up the moment.” 

I paused for a moment. It’s not often a man tells you he’s seen your nuts. In fact, no dude has ever said that to me until now. I gave a nervous laugh. What the fuck is he talking about?  Then it came to me. 

“That’s right,” I said, remembering that day.  

Spring Break. Somewhere in the late 80s. San Clemente. Two girls. Musso and I. Strangers holed up in a small RV with a large bag of good weed and bottles of booze.  

One of them was named Stephanie. Blue eyes. Real cute. I can’t remember the other girl’s name, but I remember she had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on her ankle. They were local girls, going to SDSU. We were sitting having beers at our campsite when they walked by. They sat down and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Stinky weed.  

Jim Beam. 

Vodka. 

Beach babies. 

Sex. 

A letter showed up in my mailbox around a week later.

“I can’t believe what we did,” Stephanie wrote. “I never did that before. I hope you don’t think bad of me.”

I didn’t think bad of her. I don’t think Musso did either.

“It’s funny,” I told him. “We lie all the time. About everything. But the truth is the truth. And the truth is that really happened. I can’t lie. Guilty.” 

He took a drink of his beer.

“Guilty,” he said.  

 

What the Hell?

I’m a pretty good neighbor. I keep up my yard. I don’t have broken appliances or cars sitting on blocks on the side of the house. I don’t wave guns around or light off fireworks just because I had too many Bud Lights.

I say hello. I smile. I keep my amp at a pleasant hum. I’m boring.

The day I moved in my neighbor was under the hood of his car. I looked at him and nodded. There was something about him I didn’t like. It was in his face, his shoes. And it was in my gut. And my gut said he was some emotional wreck, a drama king. 

A couple of days later he introduced himself to Cookie (my aunt), and asked how she was doing. 

“Fine,” she said. “And you?” 

He took a deep breath and dropped his head in tortured reflection. 

“Doing a lot better than I deserve to be,” he said.  

She told me what he said. 

“What?” I said, as his response tumbled around in my head. I started fuming. “Huh? What does that mean ‘better than I deserve to be’? Why would you tell a complete stranger something weird like that? Don’t say another word to that asshole.” 

Around a week later, I was writing yet another horrible poem when I heard yelling coming from outside. From my window it sounded like it was coming from my other neighbor. The one on my right. Not the crestfallen martyr on my left. 

“…better than I deserve to be.”

Oh, for chrissakes. 

What the hell? 

Then the yelling got louder. Then I heard glass breaking. I got up right as Cookie was coming down the hall. 

“The neighbors,” she said. “They’re arguing.” 

I looked out the screen door. He was standing in his yard wringing his hands. His hair was standing on end like a porcupine. He gathered himself and then started hurling insults at his girlfriend. Ugly names. He took a small break and then started up again and then stormed down the street. 

“I told you he was an asshole,” I said to Cookie, feeling good because my first impression of him was right on. 

Soon after the fuzz showed up. It was a two-cruiser hassle. They whipped out their flashlights (it was night time) and scanned the property, looking behind the shed, in the bushes. They flashed up in the trees.

It reminded me of a news article I read years ago where some guy who just robbed a liquor store climbed a tree to hide from the cops.  

The cops thought they had the dude pinned down when he suddenly disappeared. Then one of the cops flashed his light in some trees and there was the dude, stiff as a branch, holding a handful of loot and a plastic gun.

As of this writing, there haven’t been any more hassles from Mr. I Say Weird Things. No screaming. No cops. No hauling down the street pissed off as a motherfucker. No nothing. And, it seems to me, he fixed his car. Haven’t seen him under the hood.

It’s all good.  

 

The Mormon in Me

The economy is in the crapper. Bailouts are stacked high. Jobs are few. People stopped going to the mall. But it seems to me that the Mormon Church is doing just fine despite the hard times. Their bike riders are everywhere. Their Word is hitting all corners and all spaces in between. 

God business is good business. 

I moved to the California desert in my junior high years. That’s when I was first introduced to the Mormon Church and its bike riders who I saw riding down my street one day.  

“Those are Mormons,” a friend told me later. “My dad hates them.” 

The bike riders are the messengers of the church. They go around peddling through neighborhoods talking God. Last week, I counted between ten and fifteen of them cruising my neighborhood. It was the usual scene: Nice bikes. White shirts with black ties. Helmets. Slacks. Backpacks. White faces.  

I’ve been watching these fuckers for the better part of my life. Hell, they’re a part of my life, my landscape. 

I lived in the South for a few years and didn’t see one rider. Not one Mormon. I found this a little sad. Not many Mormons in the South, I guess. Right after I moved back to Vegas I saw a few riders sweeping through the streets doing their business. Clean shoes. Sunglasses. Salvation. 

It was a welcomed sight. 

My experience with Mormon folk has been a good one. Went to school with them. I’ve sat at their dinner table. Worked along side by side with them. Befriended their sons. Got to know some of their daughters. 

I was amazed at all the fuss that was made about Mitt Romney being a Mormon. Where’s the story? I wondered. Mormonism? That’s the story? I’m no fan of the Mormon Church or any church for that matter. But they’re just people. Just as kind and messed up as any Protestant, Baptist, or—God forbid—atheist I’ve ever met. 

Anyhow. 

The riders. 

They’re out in full force in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a lot of sadness and despair where I live. There’s a need here. The Devil has us doing and thinking horrible things. He’s overrun the land and it stinks like shit. 

So God has sent in his troops, his dawgs, to clean up the mess. 

The other day I saw a couple of them at the house across the street. Their heads tilted and nodded in thought. Their hands flipped through the air in reassurance. They reached in their backpacks and handed out literature. 

I wondered if my neighbors were listening to the things they were saying. I wondered if they were in the market for God or were they just being polite?  

I wondered if they were curious how these young men were so knowledgeable, so well-versed in all things God. So much that they were put in the position to give God to others. 

That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

A miracle if you will. 

Hell, these guys are more than mere bike riders with nicely ironed shirts and heavy church agenda. These guys are angels. In the flesh. 

Right?

Who’s to say they’re not? 

Sam Harris?

Tom Cruise?

(Now, don’t be glib, Tom. Dickhead.)

George Foreman? 

I don’t know.

I don’t have the credentials.