yearzerowriters

Fante in Koreatown [Issue 2]

                                        Fante     kept      in      Koreatown

      There was a writer a few years (In fact, almost a century) back now, who wrote wonderfully about poverty and immigrants who drifted aimlessly up and down the lonely streets of Los Angeles. A quartet of books about a character named Arturo Bandini, who existed in areas that had neither attention nor publicity. This character, his tales and woes and mistakes, and this brutally honest writer were going to bring fame to a part of the city that no other writer had seen. Only, they didn’t. Success didn’t come and those books disappeared. No-one asked about the writer after the words stopped being written, no-one noticed when he did pop his head up in Hollywood writing hack work for the studios in the 50’s. It took another writer, drunken pugilist Charles Bukowski, to bring him back into the spotlight. And he did come back, as did his novels and his vital, electrifying Bandini, but, once again, there was no impact on the city of Los Angeles. There was a film from the writer of Chinatown, but it wasn’t good enough, and now he’s beginning to fade again. The man who revealed so much of the city of Los Angeles, before Chandler really got his claws into it, is going to be forgotten permanently.

      …That’s one way. It gives background on Fante but-…is there enough on the city? It’s supposed to be a critique of Los Angeles but everything’s focused on Fante. Who gives a shit about John Fante? Isn’t that the problem? There must be a better way to introduce this. I can’t write two introductions, can I? 

      How can a city forget part of its soul? Would London ever give up Dickens or Paris Victor Hugo? Not a chance, they pride themselves on the associations, and they preserve what little artifacts and paraphernalia they have. If only Los Angeles had this kind of sentiment or respect towards its alumni instead of the capitalist view of ‘non-performing, non-movie, non-merchandisable product’. There is no protection offered to any of the creators of its fictional landscape. There’s no museum for Chandler, there’s no promoted guided tour of all the dark places Ellroy detailed in his works. It is a city that turns its back on anything that doesn’t sell anymore. If you’re lucky, you might come across one of the privately funded and organized late night bus tours that happen every now and again in honor of Chandler, or a tour of the bars Bukowski crowned with his ebullient Henry Chinaski, but the rest of them can just walk the streets themselves, just like the other nuts on the shabby side of Hollywood Boulevard. As I discovered when I arrived in Los Angeles, determined to find as many locations from John Fante’s books as I could, culture that wasn’t ‘pop’ had lost its place in front of the lens.

      …two introductions? I don’t know, I don’t think it’s working. The start is always the hardest. It’s when the reader gives up. It’s when they put you down and decide that you can’t write, that you’re not good enough. There must be a point where you step above being an amateur. Can I reach that point? What am I doing here? I can’t do beginnings, I could never do them. I’m terrible, an amateur. There must be someone better who’s doing the same thing as me, in some room for capable writers somewhere, and his words are evocative, effective, imaginative. Shit, I can’t write descriptions. I don’t like adjectives and I don’t like page-long descriptions. I can’t describe the streets or the city. Why am I doing this?

      The subway that stopped near Koreatown gave me the first warning. It looked like primary schoolers had won a competition to design it, with plastic, cafeteria seat caps and bland blue and grey tones on the wall the sum total to look at. Off the train, up the stairs, through the “honesty” ticket gate that trusted you to buy your ticket or get abundantly fined if you were the one in a city population who managed to get caught ticketless, and out into the open air, I searched immediately, hopefully for Fante’s Koreatown. Could there still be traces of it after eighty-odd years of redevelopment? There was a signpost and a map bang in front of the exit but I noticed that no-one was looking at it, which either meant there were no tourists or there were incredibly well-informed tourists. So, more likely, there were no tourists, and it was easy to see why. Looking around and seeing the two, large intersecting boulevards nonchalantly crossing each other (and I mean nonchalant in the sense that most roads create some kind of character from the activity that happens on and along them), and the heavily glassed and uniformly erect office buildings on either side, I tried to forget how regular it all was. Surely Fante had walked past a more vibrant Koreatown than this? Surely the whole area hadn’t had its entire personality homogenized out of it? Surely…

      I walked over to the map and studied it, accepting my status as the ignorant tourist twat of the day, although, as I ignored glances from the pedestrians around me, I closetly referred to myself as the only John Fante Enthusiast of the day, and that by the time the Sun got bored and went elsewhere I would know this city a lot better than its own residents. I mean, imagine not knowing that you were walking (or lived even!) in and around the same area as one of the great American writers of the last Century. It was unforgivable, even for those without any kind of literary bent.

      My mind gave even more of an audience to these thoughts as I realized that the signpost in front of me gave only the two boulevard names, and the map told where City Hall was and nothing more. Where was the marker for Fante’s house? I fumed at the cartographer. The man was either under the orders of philistines or he was a hack, I decided, then pulled out my own map and notepad which told me the street name and number of the house I was looking for. It wasn’t far, only a couple of blocks down and another couple across. I jabbed the ‘please wait’ button and glared at a couple of suits who passed in front of me. It was them who had funded the map, it was them who had coerced the cartographer into bastardizing it. It was them who-…it was just them.

      …there isn’t a rule that says people have to be nice to you. Not every face will smile. Why can’t I look them in the eye and say “fuck you” to all of them? Isn’t that confidence? I feel undeserving of all this. I shouldn’t be the one doing this, it’s too big for me, it’s too grand, isn’t it? Walking around and entering any environment without fear is the source of confidence. How can they do that? How can they not feel anxiety? Distraction is the key, and comfort. Distract yourself and hope that you don’t recognize any problems. I do have problems though, and they’re big, they’re too big, it’s all going to be exposed. Fuck them for looking at me!

      As I waited and glared, I remembered an hour earlier when I had found myself frustrated in my search for another literary landmark; the ‘crack in the ground’ that Bandini had fallen close to in the fourth novel of the quartet, ‘Dreams from Bunker Hill’. Pershing Square was the name given to the place and hope had grown in me as I had asked a few faces for directions and they had nodded and been aware of the place, which suggested in my eyes that they knew of the fame behind the location, and were possibly also insulted by the neglect the city had paid one of its most creatively productive sons. They had probably been there themselves, I thought out of caprice, and laid down over the crack in fond memory of Bandini, in the same way that those tourists lay down on those tacky stars over on Hollywood. That was the shame of the city, it really was; the idea that movies were more of a sell than the words of Fante. If only they would give him more of a push then people would come.

      I got to the ‘crack’ and found it surrounded by four homeless guys who were probably there more out of desperate routine than adulation of Mr. Fante. I enquired with them anyway, hoping that one of them had chanced across one of his books and knew the significance of the square, but they shook their heads and said, “Alas, no, we know not a thing.” Actually, they told me to fuck off, but it was the same result nonetheless. Everyone, even the downtrodden descendants of his background characters, had forgotten.

      Back at the intersection, the white man came up and told me to cross. Great, I crossed with all the others; me, the only one going anywhere with any cultural importance, them, going to the nearest fucking seven-eleven.

      I left them and continued on down the next couple of blocks. It was still early in the afternoon as I walked, yet a grey husk was already crawling over the roofs ahead of me. There weren’t many people walking past, and no-one who could take me in a fight, I thought, but there was something sinister about the lights going dim all of a sudden. A gang leader next to a switch that controlled the Koreatown sky popped into my head. I reached into my pocket and gripped my keys in one hand, just in case. It wouldn’t happen, but just in case. And keep your eyes on the environment around you, I told myself. Doorways, open windows, slow-moving cars. Was there anything pernicious about this place? I rotated a full circle and took in everything. Well, it wasn’t wearing gang colours. The buildings I passed had obviously just been put there and left to their own schemes as they all looked the same, showing no signs of design, not even by the primary schoolers. The one expansive thought I managed was that there were no other tourists around, not even backpackers, and more glances would most likely be coming my way as I got further into the homogenous jungle.

      When I made it to the end of the third block, the sense of danger had eroded slightly, and my hand was off the key and out of my pocket to check the map again. Apparently, it was time to turn. I looked at the street ahead and felt depressed. The impression I had was someone picking up and flipping the previous street to a ninety-degree angle and saying “ta-daa! there’s a new fucking street for you!” It was practically identical and it was with heavy flip-flops that I proceeded down it. As I walked, I remembered Pershing Square again…

      Those same homeless guys hadn’t gone anywhere as I returned from a circuit of the square, and after my map told me again and again that Angel’s Flight wasn’t there, I decided to risk another “fuck off” and asked them. Angel’s Flight, as anyone who actually knew the cultural history of Los Angeles would be able to tell you, was the steps which Bandini, and in reality Fante, had flighted up and down in awe of his own genius, and sometimes in despair of his own failure.

      Well, the despair was now mine and the failure was the city council’s, as one of the homeless guys told me that there was no such place and that they had been “run down years ago…decades ago,” he amended after a few labored seconds of thought. I asked why and he told me he didn’t know, and then he asked if I had a few dollars I could spare. I did and gave them to him. I recalled the ‘crack’ again and the scene in the book where Bandini played chess with the other immigrants. Was the spirit of that game, the camaraderie, still existent in this square, in this moment, between myself and the guy in bobble hat and rags? Did Los Angeles still have a soul? The rag-man shuffled off and sat back down on the wall with his friends, obviously aware that I had been on the verge of asking him a ludicrous question.

      Back on the street template for all the streets in Koreatown, and possibly the whole city, my drooping figure (still lost in memories of the ‘crack’ an hour earlier) passed four youths who were wearing jeans so baggy it was impossible to tell if there were actually bodies underneath. Krist, I couldn’t even outline their legs, they were just hanging there. One of them stopped beside me and said something, but I was too zoned out to hear it properly and he continued on with his other baggy friends. I said, “huh, what?” a few seconds later but it was too late, they had gone too far. As I looked at them shuffling away I thought that I might’ve been in some kind of danger, but the thought passed quickly and, frankly, the tedium of the area had made me apathetic. The grey sky was no longer an alarm bell and the doorways were no longer potential danger spots. I just wanted to find his house, that was all.

      After about five blocks, though it could’ve been more, I found a Seven-Eleven that, according to my map, marked the turn off for Fante’s street. It had a few trees lining the sidewalk, but that was the only concession to normalcy. The rest of it was a fucking mess, with fences high and intimidating, graffiti scrawls coating them, and not even good, satirical graffiti. The road itself looked capable, but nothing was moving up or down it. This was it, a ghost street, Fante’s neighbourhood sucked dry. Perhaps he wasn’t alone either. There were other houses that looked out of shape down there. Perhaps all of them had belonged to writers or artists…betrayed writers and artists like Fante.

      I crossed over and shielded my eyes from the Seven-Eleven beckoning me to come closer. If it had featured in one of Fante’s novels then maybe it would be worthy of some attention, but, as it was, it was no different to any of those other replicas lining every fucking street of the world. Mr. Seven and Mr. Eleven had killed culture and, wherever they were at that moment (and it wasn’t on the Angel’s Flight as that had been murdered too!), they should’ve been ashamed of themselves. About a dozen teens came out of the store and passed through and around me, one of them asking if I was “fucking lost?” and another ramming my shoulder.

      The sudden anxiety that hit me was spectacular, and to calm my heart beat down I reassured myself that none of them had a knife. Not that I could see anyway. A couple of them slowed down and stared at me until they accepted that I wasn’t going to stare back, then walked away, too bored to do anything more. My heart beat slowed as they crossed the main road and I feigned a yawn so I could breathe out all the tension.

      …I feel terrible. My mind is killing me. I’m not trapped, I’m not trapped. What the fuck is happening to me? This is worse than anything I’ve ever faced before. It’s the street, there are open spaces everywhere. Calm down, calm down, calm down.  But they cover it all!  I don’t like all these people walking around me. Why did I come here? Why did I listen to that fat whale?

      It was the seventh house down and it had boards covering the windows and the front door. Outside, on the sidewalk, there was a couch with a man sitting on it. His t-shirt was brand-less, his jeans were loose, and his hair had clearly been left to its own design. I asked him if this was the right place, if it was the residence of the writer John Fante, and unsurprisingly he didn’t know. He couldn’t even reply. I tried to guess his ethnicity. He looked Hispanic, but this was Koreatown so maybe he was mixed Korean. I asked him if there was anyone living inside the house and he got up and walked up to the next house. If Bandini were still around, he might’ve naturalized the young man and sold him the benefits and joy of speaking English. But, I reminded myself, no-one knows Bandini anymore.

      I went up to the front door and prodded at the wooden board, hoping that it would just fall away, but it was stubborn and held firm. I went over to what I assumed was the living room window and tried with a bit more force and application to move the board fixed there. My heels dug into the garden dirt where grass had once grown and my body shot more strength into my arms, but the board wouldn’t budge. Jesus fu-…damn wood! Who would go to the trouble of boarding this place up with superior wood, but not consider cleaning it up a little? I shrugged off the frustration and stood there for a while longer, running through different strategies in my head. Then I poked my face back out through the fence and saw the Mexican-Korean sitting back on the couch. I asked him if there was a way in round the back of the house and then left before he could shrug his shoulders in response.

      There was an alley that ran down the back of the street but there were boards there too, and a fence. I would have to climb up and over and then I’d be left with the same problem anyway: How to get one of those boards off the windows. I supposed that they would all be equally resolute, and even if I did get in, what would I find inside?

      …I can’t take much more of this. Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I do it? I’m built the same as everyone else, why can they do it and I can’t? If there’s a story to tell, then I can’t tell it unless I’ve lived it, otherwise I’m fraudulent. I hate writing, I fucking despise it. Why can’t I do it?

      I tucked the tip of my shoe into one of the fence-wires and pulled myself up and over into the garden. The grass had died out on this side too, leaving only dirt. On the ground, I went to the back door and pushed at it. It opened, slightly. I waited again for a few minutes. If someone were inside, they would hear the noise and come and investigate. If there was no one after two minutes, that meant it was safe to enter. I glanced over at the two neighboring houses and saw that they didn’t share the wooden boards. People were living in those houses, but Fante’s was condemned. That was the cultural illogic of the city of Los Angeles, again. Who could exist in a place like this, I wondered as I tapped my knuckles against the chipped skins of paint flaking off the doorframe. Two minutes passed and no-one came, so I squeezed quickly through the gap and into the house.

      Ahead of me, there was a corridor leading to the front and two rooms on the right hand side that had been cleared. There was literally nothing in those rooms to see. I walked quickly past, knowing that Fante had resided on the second floor, not on the ground. I reached the stairs, already losing myself to fantasy again, imagining a time-warp that would turn the furnishings back to how they were eighty years earlier, and as I crept up each step I expected to see someone of that era appear at the top and ask me what I was up to.

      I reached the top and the walls were defiantly ordinary. More paint had been chipped, marks had been left, splinters hung off the banister, and instead of an old-fashioned landlady hovering at the end of the corridor, I saw a zombie. Still a dream then, wasn’t it? The zombie swayed and lifted its hand. Krist, it was no dream. This zombie had motor skills. My legs wanted to instinctively take a step back but a further instinct warned me that a step back would send me falling down the stairs, like the detective in that madman movie from the 60’s. My eyes blinked without me and the zombie became clearer, and then, abruptly, wasn’t really a zombie anymore. It was just a very tired, very gaunt looking man.

      He came towards me and I saw something hanging off his fingers. “You got some dollars, man? You got some?” it asked me, and then the hand raised itself higher and showed a needle pointing its tip my way. Shit, a junkie. He took another two, slow steps. Shit, shit, a junkie. I apologized and told him I had given my last four dollars to a homeless man in Pershing Square earlier, but that there was a man outside who might have some dollars. I was thinking of the Mexican-Korean guy on the couch, and I wasn’t sure why. Any words are acceptable when you think you’re going to die.

      …there’s no way out, no exit. It’s gonna end in this house, in his house. That’s not so bad, is it? Yes, Krist, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die. Exit, Exit, Exit! I don’t wanna trip and fall down the stairs. He’ll follow me down and stab me at the bottom. Why did I come in here? Why do I always have to make an impression? When this is over, if this is over and I’m still alive, I’m going to live on a beach and do nothing. I’m going to float in the sea everyday and avoid Wars and Newspapers and People and anything else that tries to bring me back. People can impress themselves for once. I don’t want to die like this, not with a needle. It’s gonna hurt. Krist, it’s really gonna hurt.

 

      The junkie stopped and mumbled something that I couldn’t hear. In a controlled voice that was very close to trembling, I asked him if he knew which room had belonged to John Fante, and then told him that I was there to see the living quarters of the greatest writer of the last century. “Huh, you ‘sleep?” he said cryptically, “you tryin-a take these boards away, man?” I told him that I wasn’t tryin-a take the boards away and that to enter the house I had only moved the board shielding the back door, and only very slightly. “There is nothing to stop you repositioning it,” I promised. He scratched his head and looked back at the room he had come from. The room that I now realized was Fante’s. The baton had been passed from a literary great to a literal dreg. Thank you, City of Los Angeles, for your kindness. Letting drug addicts sleep in the same room as-…Krist, words just wouldn’t come. It was too obscene. And-…forget it, you’re still trapped with a nut, and he’s got a needle, I reminded myself.

      My leg took an initial step backwards, preparing for more, preparing to run. The junkie scratched his head again, this time with the tip of the needle. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. “What dangerous?” he replied. “What’s that name, man? Fante? You said Fante, man. I know that guy. I know him.” This was surprising news. My legs stopped and relaxed a little. Perhaps I had been too hard on him; perhaps the drugs had preserved a sense of culture in him. Some of the great beat writers were junkies, after all. This man could be the next William S. Burroughs if someone were kind enough to give him a pen.

      “Fuck man, give me some dollars,” he said in a whiny voice and came forward again, the needle active. The danger seeped back into my mind and my legs re-engaged themselves. I told him that the guy sitting on the couch outside had all my dollars. I turned and took the steps down two by two, hearing him stumbling after me, shouting, “two fucking dollars, man.” I turned at the bottom of the stairs and looked up to see him trying to fling himself over the banister, probably thinking he could land on top of me and take those two dollars himself, but he couldn’t quite get his leg fully over. His idea was sound, but his body just wasn’t capable. I slowed down a little, calmed by the ludicrous pursuit and pitying the man, a prospective Burroughs, who had been left to die by the city. I took out two dollars and put it down on the floor by my feet, nodding to him as I left. It wasn’t much but it was what he had asked for.

      Around the front of the house, the ethnically vague guy was still sitting on the couch. He saw me coming and stood up in response. He didn’t want to field any more questions from me. Perhaps I had made him nervous. Perhaps he wasn’t supposed to be there. Either way I didn’t ask him anything. I stood looking at the house that was slowly being eaten away, and raised my camera. I ignored most of the house in favour of the window high on the left side, as that’s where he had looked out at the world. That’s where he had written those words that had helped me beat my depression. Fante had saved my life from that window and no-one in this city gave a shit.

      …a window with a wooden board, that’s what I took pictures of. But just call it a window, I dare you. Ask me what the fuck I was doing. Why did you take a picture of that? I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you. This will impress you, I promise you. You won’t understand it though, and I hope you don’t. I want you to laugh at it. This is mine, and I want you to call me strange. Krist, why should I tell them anything?

      I took the picture and thought of how I would describe it to my friends back home. This has historicity, I would say, and then tell them the history of it. It would go something like this: “Have you ever read ‘The man in the high castle’? It was by Philip K. Dick, another writer neglected. Have you ever read ‘Flow my tears…’? No, never heard of it? Then you won’t know that the only things that mean anything are the things with history attached. The only thing that means anything in that novel is the vase, and the only thing that means anything in this damned city is this house.”

      I put my camera away and closed the bag up, almost violently. The city had failed to protect Fante, and worse, the public had failed to remember him. Was that the fault of the people or the city? Who had stopped giving a shit first? There wasn’t anyone around here trying to tear these wooden boards off the windows or replant the grass in the garden. Instead, it had been left to rot, distinct against the rest of the street simply because it was condemned and the others weren’t.

      The guy who had been standing guard outside the house came back and sat down on the couch, seemingly conquering his fear of me. “Fuck you,” he was saying within himself. “I belong here more than you do.” And that’s when it came to me. Suddenly, I knew why Fante had been let go.

      I walked back up the street towards the seven-eleven and looked at every ordinary window of every prefab house I passed. They hadn’t just forgotten that house; they’d forgotten the whole area, hadn’t they?

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