We were staying at the Custom Hotel, a boutique hotel. It was an ash colored building on Lincoln Boulevard. Our room had the double bed in the center. And there was a light that changed color according to our disposition- red, blue, green or via an interactive program into a color that spoke to our mood. At last a mood-color coded habitat.
On the 8th floor was a gallery that, unfortunately, was closed. Nextdoor was LA fitness. It was on the ground floor of a condominium that boasted a sauna and steam room, a rooftop Italian garden, etc.
Across the road were a traditional diner, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican and a Japanese. The boulevard was as broad as a landing strip, the pedestrian crossings changed in the blink of an eye as if pedestrians were just about tolerated. Well, this was America, after all. The motorcar was king.
We were having drinks at the bar. I was drinking a Chardonnay and Jan a Pinot Grigio. A cool breeze was blowing and the flags at the tops of buildings were flying. A dull haze hung over the city like a pall. This was a smoky pall from the bush fires that had been raging in south California over the past week.
The descent into LA showed a city that was flat and dusty. The earth was between grey and ash. And, there was a way that these cities that are exposed to the glare of the sun seemed somehow bleached and pale. There were trees but they seemed somehow invisible. It was probably the size of the roads, the impossible sprawling infestation of the houses, like ringworm encircling and pushing the vegetation further out into the desert.
The noise of this city was much like the noise of other cities in the New World but not in Europe. It was brash, abrasive, a congealed cooking oil of car exhaust, airplane, and sprinkled with bird noise and human chatter. Music, the blues, some jazz, soul music like fire that licked at the cooking pot to smoke out some fluidity, to liquefy the noisy sediment that coated the air like plaque on unbrushed teeth. There was an electric guitar in the background, music that seemed clawed out of the strings, an ethereal but very modern noise that marked the outdoor bar as American and genuinely so.
Venice beach was only 10 minutes away. The last time I was at Venice beach was at least 15 years before. I had gone to the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Diego, a city that had surprised me. It was the first time that I thought that I could live in the US. San Diego was beautiful and relaxed. The race relations seemed reasonable. You could see black and white walking together down the street, something that was definitely not true for the East Coast in the late 70s and early 80s. And given that my wife is English and my kids are like Obama, of mixed heritage, it seemed plain that living in America was off the cards.
That same year, elsewhere in the USA, I had experienced some of the crudest racism that America can throw at you. In Minneapolis, at the end of a two-day meeting, at the hotel, the staff were passing the luggage to their owners but subtly and without others noticing, a woman refused to assist with mine, I had to carry mine personally. This was a minor matter. I was used to carrying my own load. But it was the being treated differently that mattered. I came fully to understand the murderous instinct in black Americans. I was filled with fury. And I was thankful that I did not live in America and that my children were not being brought up there. The previous year in Washington at the Four Seasons Hotel, whilst waiting for a taxi, I was summoned and peremptorily ordered by a white American to bring his suitcase in: “Boy, bring my bags in”. He was as surprised as I was when I responded “Pardon me” in a non-American accent.
But San Diego was different. It seemed more liberal, more tolerant of difference. I hired a car with 3 others and we drove to LA, stopping at Hollywood, and doing the usual trips to the Chinese theatre, etc. it was a great and, memorable trip.
In LA I should have been thinking of Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Fearless Jones, Jackson Blue, Bonnie Shay. But no, my mind was set on Fernando Pessoa and Lisbon his home town. I should have had in mind Easy Rawlins’ statement
In West Los Angeles, when people looked at their TVs they saw themselves and what they wanted to be: James Arness and Lorne Green, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball. They had their own jokes and music and interpretations of right and wrong in the world. People in Watts saw the same shows but not their faces, their dreams, and the hard facts of their lives. In Watts, they spoke the same language in different dialects and at separate schools. For darker-skinned citizens employment was synonymous with toil.
But, I was concentrating on Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I was not far off the mark. When Easy Rawlins had a drink of Mama Jo’s potions he saw things more clearly, a phenomenon some term depressive realism. Pessoa had this in abundance
My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me – memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. I remain unmoved by the light autumnal breeze that still bears a trace of unforgotten summer and lends color to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or even an indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there in the street strewn with boxes.
It was this Pessoa that caught my attention. The tone was a sharp contrast to the brazen, unyielding light of LA. Pessoa was all time asking us to be cautious, to look beyond the obvious, to be skeptical of the façade of kindness and generosity, questioning all the time what that kindness hid, what sins lurked beneath the neat rows of housing, and the kiss and hand holding. This brutal confrontation with things as they were was fraught with risk, as Pessoa well knew
It is as if the draw-bridge over the moat around the soul’s castle had been pulled up, leaving us with but one power, that of gazing impotently out at the surrounding lands, never again to set foot there.
The loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself, the absence in thought of the non-existent stairway up which the soul steadfastly ascends towards the truth.
In LA, Pessoa without saying anything about Hollywood or even ever having been aware of it, had recognized the need for it, the urgency with which make-believe held sway, creating an unreal and unrealistic world, because the real and actual world were bleak and indescribable by comparison. For Pessoa
A marked talent for self-deception is the Statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. To see clearly is to be unable to act.
In LA I needed all of Easy Rawlins’ patience and Pessoa’s dictum
To move is to live, to express oneself is to endure. There is nothing real in life that is not more real for being beautifully described.
Photos by Jan Oyebode