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Thursday, April 29, 2010

“…getting back on the horse is usually a pain in the ass…” me-ism…2010

Stephen King says that if you’re going to write, then write! If you’re serious about writing then write everyday. Make a date with yourself, schedule a time and stick to the schedule. Be adamant about this time, about this obligation to you. If you can’t do this then you can’t write. It’s that simple. Good advice, I think I’ll take it!

Here is chapter one in a project I left half done while I was grousing about never having time to write. It’s the first in my private eye series that I’m calling The Gumshoe Diaries.

Chapter One:
“Fortune Cookies Always Lie”

( ”tell me why, why, why, why you cried, and why you lied, lied, lied to me”…Lennon & McCartney)

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles California, 12:30pm

Her name was Sally November. At least that’s what the mailbox said. Truth be told her given name was Mai Li Tang, that’s what the INS downtown said when I checked her out on the way over here this morning. Such a beautiful name I thought, almost lyrical. You know, I’ve lived around the Asian community in this city for better than twenty years, and the practice of choosing English names for their children has always perplexed me, I don’t get it. I suppose it’s one way to fit into the neighborhood, who knows? It was a shame though; Mai Li probably fit this girl much better. Actually, this whole thing was going to be a double shame, because now I had to go back and tell her Uncle Lu that I had found his missing niece. It was going to crush him, I knew that for a fact; as I have listened to him go on and on about her for years, ever since she was a tyke.

Lu Rong, his life partner Jay Lai, and I go way back. All the way back, to when I carried a gold shield as one of LA’s finest. They were more friends than associates, I mean really, how useful are snitches named Rong and Lai anyway (pronounced ‘wrong’ and ‘lie’)? Think about it, it’ll come to you. They are a pleasant little homo couple though. They run a Jewish Delicatessen, yes, I said Jewish, in the financial district on Wilshire, you know the white collar side of town. It had a catchy little name too, ‘Sho-M-U-Lyke-M’ I know what you’re thinking, cops and queers, strange bedfellows, right? Well don’t be too quick to judge. Go shake your own family tree first, you may be surprised!

Anyway, Lou had asked me to see what I could see after his niece was a no-show at LAX a while back. She was supposed to be a passenger on an inbound Boeing 747 from Taiwan, and in fact the manifest confirmed that she had boarded the plane in Taipei. But when Uncles Lu and Jay arrived to pick her up, guess what, no Mai Li? Lu and Jay had bankrolled her trip to the States where she was supposed to attend USC majoring in business administration with a minor in finance. That was six months ago and now here she was, at the Biltmore Hotel, a run down bastion of yesteryear, quite literally across the street and down the block from my own digs at the Hotel Alexandria. That doesn’t put my skills as an investigator in a very good light, but in my defense all I had was an old photograph and unconfirmed starting place to work with. For all I knew she never actually got on that plane in Taiwan. Nevertheless, here she was, and she was dead.

From the looks of things she had traded USC for the school of hard knocks, and decided to go into business for herself using her tuition money as venture capital, courtesy good old Uncle Lu. As businesses go, her choice proved to be an ominous one that included some pretty serious risks, and I’m not talking about the fiscal kind. Sally was young, twenty-five years old, or so her dossier read, and she had big dreams according to Uncle Lu. He said that she had come to the US from Taipei to pursue a career in advertising. Well, she was advertising all right, and her clientele was apparently on the dangerous side.

Her skin was olive colored, smooth and flawless, a veritable walking billboard for the cosmetics industry. She was runway model perfect, a classic beauty. I shook my head with a tsk tsk tsk look on my face as I stared at her corpse. She was dressed in pair of pink silk jammies, well, the bottom part anyway. Her shoulder length hair was pulled back stylishly into a ponytail that started high on her scalp and arched downward, just skimming the nape of her neck. She was drop dead gorgeous, no pun intended, a real China doll, with a look of childlike innocence that immediately squelched any impure thoughts I might have associated with her chosen ‘profession.’ I could feel tears welling up as I studied her with the eyes of a father, an uncle, or a brother. Except for the long silk tie wrapped tightly around her neck, she appeared to be only napping, as if she’d wake up startled by my presence at any moment. But of course, she wasn’t sleeping, she was dead, and that turned my heart to mush, like it would anyone witnessing a mess like this.

“What are you doing here Whitey?” asked the uniformed officer entering the living room from the kitchen.

I knelt down beside the body, ignoring him, and fussed with the pink silk tie, careful not to touch anything, using my fountain pen as a sterile probe.

“Hey! Roode! I’m talking to you jack!” the officer hissed in a low anxious tone.

I put the pen back into coat my pocket, blew the Sally a kiss and stood up.

“No need to get testy Copper, I hear you loud and clear.” I replied.

“Come on man, Lt. Celaya will be here any second!” the agitated officer pleaded.

I looked at him knowingly and gave him wink, tipping the old and weathered Fedora I always wore high up onto my forehead. I folded my arms and added, “I guess that explains the whispering,” I whispered back. I ran my tongue over my teeth to remove some remnants of my breakfast, my usual Pantry special, ham and eggs with an English muffin and coffee.

“It would probably be bad if he caught me here, might look like I’m one upping him.” I said with a grin.

“You’re not on the job anymore Whitey, you can’t just barge into a crime scene like you own the place! Besides, as we all know, Pena hates your guts! So save me a lot of paperwork and beat it before he finds you here and makes me arrest your ass…again!”

I nodded, fitting my hat back into its proper place on my skull, and started to leave. Officer Cooper interjected quickly, “Not that way Whitey, go out the back, why take chances, right?”

“Natch, thanks paley,” I replied, tapping my temple with my pointing finger.

I did an about face and passed my friend in the blue uniform on the way to the kitchen, where I would make my Batman like exit via an open window out onto the fire escape. Copper’s partner, Patrolman Lewis tapped me on the arm as I went by. “Wait a sec, what do you know about this?” he asked, knowing that I always did my homework.

“What do you know?” I replied, stopping to face him. Lewis looked at me suspiciously and then answered, “The neighbor says she’s a working girl.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” I replied sarcastically.
“Well, the skinny is that she had some interesting playmates.”
“Do tell.” I said smugly
“Yep, more than interesting, if this fella isn’t bullshitting us that is.”
“The neighbor huh, the one next door?”
“Yeah, that’s the one, right next door. Stay clear of him, if you know what’s good for you Whitey,” advised young Officer Lewis.

“Probably good advice, thanks,” I said, turning to walk away.
“Hey man, it’s your turn, tit for tat ass-wipe, what about you, what’ve you got?” shouted the irritated patrolman.

I stopped in the doorway and answered without looking back, “Oh yeah, her name’s not Sally.” I said, walking through the kitchen quickly and out the window, onto the sunlit fire escape.

I paused there for a second or two just to get a lay of the land. I glanced over at the empty fire escape next door, and made a mental note. Sooner or later I would be worming my way into the nosey neighbor’s life, just as soon as the LAPD was finished with him of course. That would have to wait until I finished telling my old pal the sad news. That part of the job is the worst. Bringing a mean dose of reality to someone, especially a friend, always sucks. I hopped down from the fire escape ladder and hit the pavement at a trot. I decided to stop by one of my watering holes for a short one before walking the six blocks to Lu and Jay’s deli. Delivering bad news was always easier when sauced.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

“…riding on the City of New Orleans…Arlo Guthrie / Steve Goodman…”

This line above is from a song I heard as a kid. Penned by Steve Goodman while on a train ride to visit his in-laws, and years later performed by the son of famed singer / songwriter Woody Guthrie it pays homage to the mystical call of the American Railroad experience. Of course that’s how I describe the tune today, as an adult, but back then I would have just said it was neat. I think that I may have actually taken one train ride as a small boy, two if you count the choo-choo at Disneyland, so I really couldn’t relate to Steve and Arlo’s reminiscing back in 1972.

But the melody was so soulfully beguiling that even though I didn’t quite get the message about the disappearing American railroad, it was nonetheless etched into my memory. The words and music were laced together seamlessly and Arlo’s Guthrie’s performance was subtlety powerful and had an effect not unlike that of a mother holding a child’s face in her hands, comforting him with a “trust me” look.

I didn’t get it then, but I do now. Forty years later I find myself commuting on the AMTRAK and remembering this song; and for the first time I am relating to this tune. I understand Steve’s inspiration, and have no trouble picturing him pen in hand and scribbling down these words. By the way, riding the rail to visit his wife’s family is a true story.

A train ride is an easy place to lose yourself inside of yourself. It’s a veritable breeding ground for daydreams, as peaceful as a walk in the forest or a stroll along the beach. With very little effort you can be totally alone even while surrounded by a crowd. Isolated within your own thoughts, you watch America whiz by through the window you’re staring out of. Nameless faces of total strangers busily and not so busily going about the business of day to day life.

This is where the fun begins for me as I allow my mind to wander, and let my imagination run free. The gentle rocking of the boxcars riding along the track hypnotizes me better than any lullaby and I dream dreams unencumbered by rules or logic. I can place myself into any scene flying by me. Each framed for a nanosecond before replaced by the next one down the line. It is a panoramic view of life in America, diverse in nature and interrupted only by Station arrivals and departures. It’s not hard to jump into any frame, not for me anyway. I get off on being in control of my wild imaginings. I enjoy being producer, writer, director, and star of the one hour and twenty-four minute movie that is my daily commute.

There aren’t any Pullman cars or sleepers on this run, but that’s not to say they do not still exist. You can still go cross country by rail, but in today’s world, who has the time? Or, more correctly, who takes the time? Fast cars and faster airplanes have replaced the railroad we once knew. Sometimes the cost of innovation is higher than we anticipated. We humans are too often allured by what we’re gaining to realize what we’re giving up. Sometimes progress costs more than just time and money, it costs traditions and changes the course of a nation.

Whether you’re riding from one of the Yankee states to the deep-south and the city of New Orleans like Steve did, or you’re commuting from San Diego to Los Angeles five days a week like I do, a daydream is a daydream. Whether your view is “the Mississippi Delta running down to the sea” or the shoreline from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano, an inspiration is an inspiration. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming or going, you always end up where you belong for the moment.

Today I watched the early morning surfers float atop the swells waiting for the next set to roll in. I imagined myself among them, stretched out on my 9’2” Dewey Webber. When we rolled into San Juan Capistrano I noticed the quaint little beach cottages and bungalows and I imagined sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, enjoying the peace and solitude of a new morning as the gray clouds overhead kept the air cool and nippy. And when we left SJC Station headed for my final destination and the start of my work day, I smiled past the anxiety and looked forward to the ride back with the new set of daydreams that would come with it, and the return to the waiting arms of my wife, my family, my life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

“…one of the longest trips you’ll ever make is back to normal…”

A favorite saying of my mother’s is “it takes all kinds,” it's her “go to” phrase whenever she is confused, amazed, or frustrated by how someone (often times me) deals with a situation. I have heard her say this literally a thousand times over the years. I can see her watching me fumble through an issue, listening to me explain an action, or watching it unfold before her eyes. I can hear her uttering “tsk tsk tsk” before she rolls her eyes and says to me, “well, it takes all kinds!”

Unfortunately trips back to normal all begin on the heels of a bad or sad experience. Bad news and sad news are always unwelcome. If these occurrences were people it would suck to be either one of these guys, always shunned and avoided. However, in the grand scheme of things, within the circle of life, they are inevitable. Sooner or later they surface; in fact they do so throughout our lives. Each of us deals with this reality in our own way. Hence the significance of my mother’s utterance, “it takes all kinds.”

These guys (for lack of a better term) arrive in many ways. Often they come suddenly, unexpectedly expected, a message tied to a brick and tossed through your kitchen window that hits you right between the eyes! Sometimes they sneak up on you, “like a thief in the night” to coin a Bible verse, and tap you on the shoulder, making you shudder. And then there are the times when you see them coming, when you’ve been forewarned, yet you’re powerless to avoid them. You cannot run fast enough or far enough to escape them. To my mind that is the worst way. I had one of those days last month. The last way, the 'in your face here I come' way, it sucked. It was a day I shared with many others, family, friends, and total strangers. It sucked for everyone. Bad news and sad news, I hate those guys!

There is no need to share details, they would be from my perspective anyway and besides, are not germane to the theme of this post. Suffice to say that as bad as bad news gets, and as sad as sad news is, there is always a lesson to be learned. As I’ve said in previous writings, we are never in control of what life brings us; we are only in control of how we deal with it.

I believe that these two guys, Mr. Bad and Mr. Sad are important members of God’s team, on the Boss’ executive staff. They are tools in His hand used for His purpose to shape our hearts and our souls. I have heard it said that one cannot laugh until one has first cried. After all, life begins with fears and tears. Turns out it ends that way as well.

My bad day, my sad day brought me these lessons. Until that day “love at first sight” was a fantasy, something written about in fairy tales. Until that day unconditional love was a divine concept to me, impossible for mere human beings to fathom much less realize. Until that day I believed that my heart was strong enough to endure anything, unbreakable. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

On that day I learned about true heartache and felt its sting, a sharp piercing sting that I have felt everyday since. On that day I learned that unconditional love is divine, but that God shares that gift with very special, very gentle souls, and He scatters them around us to inspire us to love likewise. Shamefully, we are usually too busy to notice and only look back in quiet reflection after He takes His sweet gift back, and we grieve and mourn when that happens. On that day I learned that you can be thunderstruck by a pure heart. That you can fall in love in a heartbeat, brought on by a smile, a glance, a giggle, a laugh, a tear, a gentle voice, or a shout. And once so struck, your heart so captured, the way you look at life changes forever.

I do not think fondly of that day. However, I do remember with a happy heart every day that came before it. Every moment spent in the company of that precious gift God shared with me, and with so many others. And because I carry those memories deep inside my heart of hearts, inside my beating heart, every day that I live until the end of my own days I will do my best to share the fruit of these lessons. I will do my best to open my heart and offer it often, just like an angel did once for me.

Her smile will live forever in the smiles I see on the faces of those she loved and those who loved her. My life is rich beyond measure because of the lessons of that day. I am a better man because of them, because of her, because of God’s divine purpose of which I’ll accept without question, whatever that may be.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

“…real courage humbles everyone…”

I originally wrote this back on February 22nd but could not bring myself to post it then. The ending was not what I wanted it to be, it didn’t fit with my “it’s always too soon to quit” attitude. I actually rewrote the ending three times trying to make it fit my hopes and stubborn expectations. As it turned out, the original version became an unwelcome reality. Sadly, here it is…

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

I had a bad dream tonight. It wasn’t a cold sweat nightmare, but it definitely had a bad feel, sad and ominous. It did not involve demons or monsters, but something equally if not more frightening. The scary part of the dream was the feeling of utter and complete helplessness. Tuyet and I had stayed up later than we should have, chatting and watching a movie together while KaSandra slept in the bed beside us. We had been in the Village at the City of Hope for the past three weeks while KK recovered from round four of chemo. She was scheduled to begin the next round in the morning and I was heading out to New York on business. We all had a busy week ahead of us. I wasn’t keen on making this trip, but if I had to travel, going while KK and Tuyet were in the hospital was the best time as there would be plenty of help.

So, now for the dream, I should premise this retelling with the fact that I am not exactly sure where consciousness and unconsciousness overlap. I have recollections of speaking to Tuyet at certain times but those conversations could have been part of the dream as well?

Sometime during the wee hours, well before the alarm was set to go off, I was awakened by a soft rhythmic noise. It was KaSandra’s feeding pump called a Joey. The sound came in sets of three, and it sounded like this; whirr…whirr…whirr. The three soft and sleepy tones arrived in ten minute intervals. The sound they made was better than counting sheep, and I had fallen asleep to them many times over the past nine or ten months. This night I was awakened by them.

I was facing the wall, my back to Tuyet and KK when I opened my eyes. The Joey began its next set of three tones, only this time I saw them as well as heard them. As I stared at the wall a word appeared with each tone:




That was weird? Obviously I’m dreaming I rationalized, and I closed my eyes. I was asleep again in nanoseconds. Time passed, I don’t know how much, seconds maybe, minutes, perhaps an hour? The Joey played its tones again, whirr…whirr…whirr. This time I kept my eyes closed, just in case I wasn’t dreaming. Time passed, I don’t know how much, seconds, minutes, perhaps an hour? The Joey sang again and this time I couldn’t resist the temptation to peek:




What the…this was really starting to bug me! Now I’m no stranger to dreaming, I do it often, so much so that I sleep with a stenographer’s notepad on the nightstand beside my bed. Of course, I wasn’t at home this time so whatever I was experiencing would have to be burned to memory. Turning onto my back I rubbed at my eyes. Maybe if I stayed awake this would end and I could get some rest. Funny how I was more concerned with sleep deprivation than why words were appearing out of nowhere? I managed to stay wide awake for a second or two. Time passed, I don’t know how much, seconds, minutes, perhaps an hour. The Joey sent another message. Still on my back I opened my eyes:




This time was very different because there up on the ceiling, these three words were written in every language on Earth. And as amazing as that was, even more amazing was the fact that I was able to read each and every one of them. I sat upright quickly and shook Tuyet, or at least I think I did? I think that I asked in a loud whisper if she saw what I was seeing. I think she rolled over scolding me and told me to go back to sleep and to leave her alone. I say I think because it may have just been part of the dream. I laid my head back onto the pillow and stared at the ceiling for a while longer, waiting for sleep to come again. It didn’t.

The Joey continued to sing every ten minutes or so. Once, twice, three times, then four. For nearly an hour the pump purred the same three monotone notes. Each time the words on the ceiling became bolder and bolder, and try as I might, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I glanced at the small digital clock on the dresser near the foot of the bed. The large red numbers read 3:16, curiously familiar? Once more the Joey sang to me:




And in that moment the words on the ceiling slowly faded away. The room was eerily quiet, devoid of all sound, not even the sound of the three of us breathing. Time passed, I don’t know how much, seconds, minutes, perhaps an hour. The silence was suddenly broken by a familiar tapping sound. It was KaSandra rapping the bracelet that Grandma had given her on the metal rail of her hospital bed. I turned toward her and rose up onto my elbow. She was looking directly at me through the railing of her bed. Her eyes were open and clear, as they typically were so long after her chemo treatment. And she was smiling at me; at least I thought she was? Truthfully I didn’t think she could see that far, especially in the dimly lit room. I thought she was getting ready to call out to me with her usual greeting, Nickelodeon. But she didn’t.

The Joey sang once more:




And in a strong and clear voice, one that I hadn’t heard for many weeks, KaSandra replied still staring at me through the railing of her bed;




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