There was some kind of festival in the streets when I returned. The pedestrian mall was a thick gauntlet of people wearing assorted costumes, some obviously homemade, others more authentic and elaborate, and none of them with any discernible unified pattern or theme. There were live bands strategically placed across the walkway playing all types of music, there were jugglers and fire-breathers, cowboy contortionists and dancing Saint Nicks, the throng thick and fluid and jovial in the midday sun. There were women dressed as brides and holding giant margarita-filled glasses, a crowd of policewomen in short shorts, a huge marijuana smoking koala bear, a man on stilts wearing nothing but an inflatable donut, women in bikinis, tanned college girls in lingerie, an Eskimo, The Beatles, two or three different men dressed up as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, all of them holding some type of drink, most of them in plastic cups of assorted colors and sizes. I asked a fireman if he was a real fireman or a fake fireman and he said, Are you a real triathlete or a fake triathlete, and I didn’t know what he meant so I said, What’s going on here, man, what’s the occasion for this party? He looked around and pushed his fire hat back on his head and said, I’ve got no idea. He handed me a cup of beer and I took it, riding slowly down the walkway. The smell of grilled meat and spices floated about my head and a roaring cheer burst up from the walkway a block down. I made my way over there, past the old women bumblebees, through the arching balloons, a cover band playing a tune from the Zombies, past Ichabod Crane dancing the tango with Margaret Thatcher, past the cast of Reservoir Dogs playing cards at a folding table, I walked through a choking-thick cloud of marijuana smoke that brought me immediately back to the shadows beneath the Santa Monica pier and I shuddered so violently the cup of beer fell from my hand. Down toward the other end of the mall people were assembled in a giant circle cheering on a wizard and a David Hasselhoff look-a-like break dancing in the middle. The band up on the nearby stage was dressed up as the Jimi Hendrix Experience but they were playing Fight For Your Right by the Beastie Boys and I felt very happy but very confused. I noticed a man standing in the doorway of a deli, smoking a cigarette and watching the phenomenon in the walkway and I walked my bicycle toward him. What’s going on here? I asked him. A festival, or something?
This ain’t no festival, he said indignantly. This type a shit happens all the time. Then he threw the cigarette butt past me and walked into his shop and closed the door. The band stopped playing and the people cheered. A man wearing a brown colonial wig and a Denver Broncos jersey said very loudly: Everybody listen up!
He handed out yellow pamphlets at random, to anyone who would take one. I reached out for one but the man was too far away. He turned and said something to the members of the band and soon he was up on the stage with the microphone in his hand. This ain’t your momma’s America, my friends, he said, his voice booming from the speakers. A few people cheered, others booed, someone next to me said, Now who the fuck is this guy? Someone in front yelled for the man to shut up but still everyone began to listen to what he was about to say, their eyes down in their pamphlets, the speaker’s face scanning the crowd in front of him.
This should be a party for homeless people, he said. They’re all around you. Go ahead, take a look.
The crowd grew quiet.
Or maybe it should be a party for Mexicans. They’re not hard to find, either. Tell em, say, thank you, sir, or thank you, ma’am. Go ahead, you know you want to. Deep down, you know you really want to.
Whispers. A few boos. A handful of cheers.
I’m not talking about these gang bangers with broken English, rags on their heads, shooting up restaurants and killing cops. No sir. No way. I’m not talking about the guys who get drunk and drive their pickups onto the sidewalks, killing children. They’re not contributing anything to society except fear and regret. No sir. I’m not talking about the rapists, the sex offenders looking at every chick that walks by, the perverts dressed in their cheap black threads, no sir. No way. I’m talking about our friends, the real, the worthy Mexican immigrants, the workers, the proletariat—
Shut the fuck up, someone yelled.
—the people in the shadows, the invisibles that make this white utopia of privilege possible.
Then everyone was listening. The salsa dancers and 1980’s revivalists, the homeless men and women huddled in the alleyway and dressed as themselves, the musicians and street performers, the real police situated thin and random throughout the crowd. Everyone stopped talking and laughing, everyone except the college boys dressed up as disco kings or pimps or 1970’s basketball players, shouting, Yeeeaahh!, because to them everything is a party, everything has to be a party, and the man said:
Many of you think you’re oppressed, many of you think you can feel the weight of power burying you deep into your featherbeds, your comfort zones, the things you work hard for and earn, the things you were handed, whatever. Your things. You’re feeling buried by the power structures, the elite, the unmentionable dangers your leftist teachers warned you about.
Shouts for the man to get off the stage, for the band to start playing music again.
They’ve rendered your weapons innocuous. Government, media, corporate greed. Your lives no longer take live ammunition; they only spit plastic darts.
Shouts for the crowd to overtake him, shouts from the college boys.
Plastic darts. You know what a plastic dart is? It’s freedom-proof, that’s what. Just like the ones they supply at the university up the street.
People chuckled. Someone threw a ball of white yarn up onto the stage and the band’s guitar player picked it up and threw it back into the crowd. I set down the bike and moved my way closer to the stage and reached out for one of the yellow pamphlets.
Don’t listen to a word I’m saying, he said. Don’t listen to me, no sir. No way. Just look in the mirror. Look hard, like you’re trying to look past it.
More people shouted for him to get off the stage and the college boys told him to go fuck himself, which only seemed to make the man more confident, give him more presence. A few people walked away, clowns and a princess, a tiger and a human lighthouse. Scattered boos growing thicker, more prominent.
Your so-called education leaves you feeling fully locked and loaded, doesn’t it, he said into the microphone. You feel like you’ve developed an arsenal of weapons in your mind, like you’ve got something other than plastic darts to shoot. But let me tell you something, my friends. You’ve got nothing. No-thing. Plastic, fucking, darts. Because if you really looked in the mirror you’d see that you were the oppressor, not the oppressed. Thinking you’re oppressed, held down, obstructed, impeded, this gives you an excuse as to why you’re not productive, why you’re not doing anything with your lives.
—Fuck you, man!
—Let’ get some music, I came here to dance!
—What is this guy even talking about?
—Holy shit, something’s in my eye. Is there something in my eye? Oh my god, oh my god.
A few people clapped. I stood there motionless. Something was about to happen, I could feel it in the air, growing hot with the sun angled slightly toward the mountains in the cloudless blue. I looked around for the police and didn’t even see any fake ones.
You gave all your weapons away and now they’re using em against you. You gave them to your enemies, for them to use against you—
—Somebody get him off—
—and now you’ve got nothing but third and fourth generation rifles tucked under your arm and they don’t even fire, they’ve been stripped from the captives, the indigenous, and used to beat their owners, you, the lucky and sun-splashed oppressors, the horde chosen to annihilate the true chosen ones, the African-Americans, the American Indians, the Mexican-Americans, the Vietnamese-Americans, all of us, you and me, the recycled dead—
—I’m gonna kick your fuckin hippie ass, said a college kid close to the stage.
Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker said. Look at this sad young man. He pointed at the college kid just below him. One of their cowardly hit men! In the flesh!
The crowd around the college kid thickened and he got up on the stage with the speaker. He was taller and much bigger but the speaker didn’t appear to be intimidated at all, he was actually more calm and also more willing to agitate the young man, who, according to the estimation of the speaker, had already made two mistakes: the first was saying anything to the speaker at all, and the second was climbing up on the stage, because now a physical confrontation was inevitable and it wasn’t just between himself and the speaker, he was confronting the speaker and the entire crowd, who would invariably second-guess his every decision, his every gesture and expression, they would mock and ridicule him if (when) he made the wrong move, the incorrect decision, and the speaker was prepared to face the college kid’s barrage of fists and kicks to the face, he was prepared to get thrown off the stage because, to him, this would justify his message, it would solidify his place in the party’s lore, in the history of this town and his cause, it would render his little personal and unprepared speech true, even if he wasn’t sure what he was talking about, and the college boy knew all of these things as he stepped toward the speaker with adrenaline coursing jagged through his system, he knew all of these things and more, including that this situation could not end well for him, it would not end well for him, it was impossible, because somehow he had surrendered power and control to this hippie asshole and now he was forced to react either with force or humor, the latter being almost entirely impracticable, as his body was primed for physical confrontation more than anything else, and then he thought he could simply walk away and risk being derided, booed by the bloodthirsty onlookers, fodder for the jackass with the pamphlets, and the college kid said, Who the fuck do you think you are?, which was the entirely wrong move despite the young man’s conviction that it was right, it was the only move, and in a flash he no longer cared he was on a moving billboard, bullet train to nowhere, his front-row seat with a prime view of the carnage.
I’m your friend, man, the speaker said into the microphone, and reached out to put his hand gently on the college kid’s shoulder, and the young man slapped the speaker’s hand away and the speaker raised his hand with the microphone in it and the young man head-butted the speaker, knocking him backward a few steps, blood spraying outward from the speaker’s face in a fine mist, and for a brief second a few of the spectators thought it was all a joke, the speech, the confrontation, all of it a ruse, because these two were actually friends, classmates in the drama school, and they were nearing the end of this charade, where, with a hug and a bow, they would exit the stage one after the other to the applause and amazement of the crowd, but what actually happened was far less fortunate, for the college kid charged the speaker, wounded and dazed still by the head butt, and swung a ferocious right haymaker into the face of the speaker, who, if he weren’t knocked immediately unconscious, would have experienced a full two seconds of total weightlessness as he flew backwards off the stage and into the crowd, his sleeping body bouncing abruptly on the concrete, and the pamphlets swung up into the air, hundreds of folded yellow papers raining down upon the city block stunned into silence save for the sharp inhalation of disbelievers and the razor-electric hum of microphone feedback, and it was almost celebratory how the pamphlets floated and flipped back down to earth in slow motion, atop the concrete and the heads of onlookers watching rapt and excited and yet disappointed that cooler heads couldn’t have prevailed, some spectators walking away from the scene to refill their cups, smiling or indifferent, others swearing under their breath at the irreverence of the human condition, the young man’s friends cheering him, praising his actions. A woman dressed as a witch kneeled down to soothe the speaker back toward consciousness, back toward the light from whence he came, and he woke slowly, bloodily, with a grimace as if from some painful nightmare that was not physical nor at all dreamlike, and the college kid stood watching from the stage with fire in his eyes despite the flood of regret seeping into him, and nobody stopped him from jumping from the stage and running from the scene, the block, our lives, the sun ducking for relief behind the clouds.
To read this chapter in its entirety, you’ll have to wait for the novel to be published