By the time I turned twenty-five I had spent the better part of three maddening years living in a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of my small, claustrophobic town in Northern Idaho. My evening ritual often devolved into downing a couple of tallboys while reading some inscrutable work on Sufism or Brothers Karamazov for the umpteenth time. I had not spoken to my family in almost a year though they lived just a few miles away. Why my folks chose rural Idaho to raise us all those years ago is maybe a tale to tell another time since they were Muslim immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent. Regardless, the weird vinyl walls of my dingy trailer were closing in on me fast. I had to get out. I packed up my old Toyota 4×4 pickup, cut through various states of regret and made my escape to California.
I managed to land a gig at a café in a pretty nice, affluent part of Los Angeles. I often showed up to work early so I could read at the neighboring bookstore for a spell. I was too poor at the time to buy any odd book I fancied so I would hunker down in the aisles of this giant Barnes and Noble and treat it like a makeshift library.
At the time I was obsessed with Stephen Mitchell’s translation of arguably Germany’s greatest poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (Yes, I know, Goethe would like a word). Specifically, I found myself entranced by his Duino Elegies. Rilke somehow managed to make the darkness and longing in our lives enchanted and full of possibility. Rather than offer up hackneyed clichés about light and hope, he presented the dark as a profound invitation toward the bigger Truths:
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’
Anyway, I got to work early per usual one afternoon with about forty-five minutes to spare. I dropped my backpack off in the backroom and was about to go immerse myself in Rilke’s fourth or fifth elegy when Steve, my manager, came in the backroom pissed and frustrated.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Just some asshole threatening an old couple on the patio. Maybe I should 911 it,” He responded.
“That bad? You know how the folks around here tend to overreact.”
“Yeah, maybe. He’s still outside though and they seem pretty scared.”
I shrugged. I’d only been in LA for about a year, but had already witnessed a lot of people in this part of town freaking out over any odd thing outside their carefully manicured lives. Sometimes they could be downright mean. I once overheard a homeless lady ask this soccer mom for some change because she said she had to feed her kids. Maybe it was yarn, I don’t know, but the soccer mom simply brushed past her and said, “You should have kept your legs closed.”
“I’ll check it out. I’m going to go read before this long ass shift anyway,” I told Steve.
“I’m sure it’s fine.” I casually waved him off as I headed out the backroom.
I walked past the elderly couple in the lobby. They were definitely scared. The wife clutched her husband’s hands and kept looking out the large windows of the café toward the sidewalk patio.
A man stood outside smoking a cigarette while glaring at the few of us inside the café. He was clean-shaven, of average build, maybe in his mid-to-late 30’s and overall pretty unassuming from the looks of it. Dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, he could have been an accountant for all I knew. A large travel bag next to him should have clued me in that maybe he was a drifter fresh out of LA County or even a psych ward.
Desperate to find some refuge in some poetry before slogging away at my menial job I decided to take my chances and went outside into the bright heat of a Los Angeles afternoon. The man immediately stamped his cigarette out and approached me.
“So you’re the tough guy, huh?” he said.
Now I’d boxed for about two years at a ramshackle gym in my hometown in Idaho, but definitely did not consider myself tough – headstrong perhaps erring toward foolishly obstinate, but not tough in any traditional sense of the word (My spirit animal was and still is the American badger). Most of the rounds I’d spent boxing amounted to me getting punched in the face a lot. My gym was trash for lack of a better word. Sparring often devolved into chaos. Brawls frequently broke out. It was trial by fire more often than not. My coach was skilled, but could never maintain any order. There was this Golden Gloves kid named Julian who would show up just to take potshots at the rest of us. My point is it sucked and I pretty much hated boxing about six months in, but stuck with it because I felt compelled to have some reasonable way to defend myself. I guess growing up an hour South of the largest white separatist compound in the country at the time will do that to a brown kid.
I may not have been tough, but I didn’t scare too easily either. I’d encountered moose and other critters including cougars and black bears during countless forays deep into the forests of Idaho. I’d even written a hilarious essay my freshman year at the University of Idaho on Sasquatch with the help of Grover Krantz, the foremost expert on Bigfoot in the world at the time (It’s real. Trust me. My tinfoil hat theory is epic). I also attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia from 2nd Grade to 5th Grade where the teachers routinely beat us with rulers and backhands. Most importantly, I also had quite the wild hair up my ass growing up in a very conservative and very dysfunctional Pakistani home up in the panhandle of Idaho of all fucking places.
So I turned to this seemingly unhinged individual with a certain amount of confused confidence and told him, “No, man, I’m not trying to be a tough guy, but it’s probably best if you leave. The cops will be here any minute.”
His eyes were glazed over and angry. The smell of alcohol diffused out of his mouth like some derelict censer as he continued to walk toward me. A maniacal grin spread across his face.
“I’m going to rip your eyes and throat out,” he told me.
It was a crazy threat and as random as it was kind of comical. I was glad he was talking though. My boxing coach may not have been Cus D’Amato, but he had a good amount of experience. He always said that if someone’s running their mouth it’s a good sign they don’t really want to fight. It’s the quiet ones that ought to send your Spidey senses spinning he insisted. I reminded myself of that as this guy continued to yammer away at me with idle threats.
“That’s great and all, but, really just leave,” I replied. I still had some distance on him and remained calm. I turned to look inside the café and saw a handful people just staring at us. No one else was coming outside to help me. My manager was on the phone, presumably with the cops. I suddenly realized I was all alone.
He stepped closer toward me so I backed away to maintain distance. He stepped again and I realized I was trapped between the large restaurant window and an empty patio table. I tried to keep my composure.
He suddenly shoved me hard with his left hand as his right hand reached behind his back. “Oh shit, he’s reaching for a weapon,” I thought. Fear and adrenaline surged inside of me. “I have to throw and throw now,” I told myself.
I stepped toward him and fired a hard jab followed immediately by a panicked right hand. I swung fast and for the fences. Both connected. I felt the disgusting crunch as my right hand hit him square. He crumpled to the ground. His hands were empty. There was no weapon. It was a bluff. He was bleeding from his ear in a daze lying on the ground. I didn’t feel victorious at all. I felt gross. I felt dumb.
He wobbled back up to his feet and with murderous contempt.
“I’m going to come back and shoot you!” he shouted at me still woozy from the hit.
“Just get lost, man. Jesus Christ.” I had no fight left in me and was already exhausted as all the adrenaline coursing through me dissipated into a soft breeze.
Now a disheveled mess, he attempted to tuck his shirt back in, grabbed his bag and stumbled off down the boulevard. The cops were still nowhere to be found.
I sheepishly walked back into the restaurant to an odd smattering of applause. I few patrons gave me a wary look. I suddenly felt like some post-9/11 stereotype of an angry, brown man prone to violence, but was too tired to explain myself at all. I really just wanted to read some Rilke before work. I had no desire to fight. Maybe I was naïve to go out there, I don’t know. If anything, I was most surprised that no one offered to help me. Back in my hometown almost everyone would have tried to help, but this was LA, one of the major cities of the world. For all the sunshine here it is often a cold place.
While Steve and I continued to wait for the cops to show up I turned to him finally and said, “I guess I’m fired, yeah?”
He thought for a moment then turned and winked at me.
“Why did something happen that I should know about?”
Thankfully, the dude never showed up again to shoot me though I did look over my shoulder for a couple of weeks. I ended up buying Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. The final line of Rilke’s poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo, would echo around me for the better part of a decade as I survived off menial jobs, battled the volatility of the surrounding city and the mountains of despair growing deep inside of me:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
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