Brian Grillo: Signs You Don’t Belong in 1970s Suburban Torrance, California, first appeared in DINOSAUR Vol 1, Issue 2, Fall 2015, “The Issue That Fell To Earth.” Part II of Brian’s First Person essay is below.
Your senior year is pretty much unbearable. You’re just going through the motions to stay in a school you hate and that hates you even more. You begin to fight rather than accept the bullying and name-calling. Other students sometimes drive by your house at night, throwing rocks and shouting insults.
One day the high school dean takes you aside, informs you that you have earned enough credits to graduate early, and says it might be a good idea for you to leave.
Around this time, you and your friend with the car are arrested on Hollywood Boulevard on your way to The Masque to watch the first Go-Go’s show. Your father picks you up at the police station and says you’ll be staying with him in Hermosa Beach from now on, because your mom has had enough. And, “NO MORE HOLLYWOOD.”
You now live in a small two-bedroom house a few blocks from the beach with your father, a freelance artist/drug dealer, plus your stepmother and older step-biker brother who are addicted to uppers, along with two “born too late for the Summer of Love” hippie friends of your father, a couple who look malnourished and frail due to fasting on nothing but wheatgrass juice, water, and marijuana for months.
You land a job in a dog-grooming parlor. The overweight owner, a grouchy queen, wears a powder blue polyester smock and listens to Muzak all day. He screams at you for switching to the rock station when he goes out for lunch. You spend your days washing the smell of angry skunks off small snapping dogs belonging to the wealthy estate owners from Palos Verdes, with its panoramic views of the ocean and the glittering lights below.
Your dog-grooming career is short-lived. You don’t like the boss, he don’t like you. You land one of what will be many “stuck behind the counter serving fast food all day” jobs, wondering if you should have stayed in school?
walking home from work,
up on the P.C.H.
out of nowhere
she looks like you,
so long, lonely days!
You strike up a conversation, and she tells you about an old church by the beach where some guys live and play in a band called Black Flag. When you’re not sleeping or working, your parents know that if they want, which they don’t, they can find you at the church.
At your dad’s house, you feel more like an uninvited guest than a son.
It all comes to a head one night when you’re chased home by a mob of angry surfers who don’t like the way you look. Your father tells you that if you can’t fit in, this is what you’ll get.
The same night, you spend hours staring at the pitch black ceiling before you fall asleep.
The next morning you give your dad back the door keys. It will be a long time before you see him again.
Your new room at the church is in the back, on the second floor. The window is always open, looking out on the fishing boats, oil tankers, and endless sea. Late at night you hear waves pound the shore and the lonesome cry of seagulls.
Black Flag practices their songs in the basement. Angry words set to the sound of loud guitars, rumbling bass guitar, pounding drums, and crashing cymbals. They give you a battered old electric guitar and teach you some barre chords. You’re reading the books you want to read, and writing down words you want to write.
The words you put down sound good with music:
There’s room to ride along.
Bright lights, big sounds.
I’m feeling better now.
There’s something magic about the excitement of heading up the 405 freeway, window rolled down, setting sun, as housing tracts slowly fade, replaced with tall buildings.
Pull up to the curb, car doors fly open, you all spill out onto the sidewalk and head into the club. Inside the air is thick and smoky. You push to the front of the stage through the darkness, and the whole room becomes one mass of jumping, slamming bodies as the first chord kicks in.
One late weeknight, standing inside an empty nightclub in the old Chinatown district, you lock eyes from across the room with the singer for The Screamers, Tomata du Plenty. He’s a dead ringer for an Egon Schiele self-portrait.
Thick spiky hair,
Fire in his eyes.
You’ve known him all your life.
You pack your stuff, quit your dead-end job, hop on a bus to Hollywood, and rent a room in a rundown building on Vine Street, “The Villa Elaine.” Small refrigerator, shower, hot plate. Looks out on an empty swimming pool, the Hollywood sign, and the Griffith Observatory.
The steel beach gray,
your coastal purgatory,
with the bright neon
of a jagged dreamland.
Tomata lives a few blocks away, so you spend many nights at his house with his roomate/fellow performers Styles and Gorilla Rose, watching old musicals and dramas on the late late show. You find out that the artist Man Ray used to live in your building, and legend has it that some of his paintings are buried in the basement.
The building manager, Honey, and her skater-for-the-L.A.-Thunderbirds roller-derby daughter, Star, have the best apartment. It looks down on Vine Street and the Hollywood Farmers Market, where Steve Allen used to film segments of his TV show.
You find another fast-food job in downtown L.A. The bus from Hollywood lets you off at Pershing Square, where the male cruising action takes place during the early 1960s in the John Rechy novel City of Night, which Tomata tells you, “You’ve gotta read!”
Besides just being your boyfriend, Tomata becomes a mentor. Long walks turn into Hollywood history lectures. “Up there is where Valentino used to teach the tango before he became a silent film star. That building over there used to be Central Casting. Will Hays the censorship czar once had an office in the same building on Hollywood and Western.”
He points out the bas-relief that adorns the building, depicting actors in different stages of undress in somewhat sadomasochistic poses.
He points out where The Garden of Allah Hotel stood before it was bulldozed and turned into a strip mall, and the Knickerbocker Hotel, where Frances Farmer was dragged out kicking and screaming when she wouldn’t cooperate with the Hollywood system.
On weekends you take the bus to Schwab’s on Sunset Boulevard for breakfast at the soda fountain counter, where so many full of stardom dreams would spend hours in hopes of being discovered. You scour the papers for gallery openings where the booze and food are free and artists like Erté, Rechy, Peter Berlin, and Tom of Finland display their art or give readings of their latest works.
You’re getting the kind of education you always wanted. Work nights you spend hours sitting at the counter with pen and paper at Johnny’s coffee shop on the boulevard, gazing out the window, watching all the characters who roam the street:
I could have been,
born to be
You buy I sell,
I paid a price,
streetwalking ghost until I die.
PART III of Brian Grillo’s First Person essay will be published soon.
PART I of “Signs You Don’t Belong” can be found here: https://dinosaurmagintl.com/music/brian-grillo-signs-you-dont-belong/
Brian Grillo, photographed by Jamie Betts, in Los Angeles. jamiebettsphoto.com