May 20, 2010

Ode to Van Nuys

We're All Sherman Oaks Adjacent, Now
Last night, I waited much longer than usual to walk the dog. When I finally went out, it was dark.

I don't generally care about that sort of thing. I lived happily in Harlem, and now I live in the similarly regarded Van Nuys. Luckily, I don't believe the local news represents the world, and neither do cop shows, so I've never acquired any appreciable fear of city streets or dark alleyways. Instead, I've found for myself that “bad” neighborhoods are full of nice people.

No, it's the well-off places that you gotta worry about. Those people are monsters.

My particular sliver of Van Nuys is a little, densely-populated cityscape hemmed in by post-industrial-wasteland sprawl to the north, and suburbanized-hipster-family sprawl to the south. I'm right on the border of Sherman Oaks, which used to be the southern part of Van Nuys, until the brown people started moving in, which encouraged the white people to flee. They hit up against the south hills and changed the area's name to Sherman Oaks. This doubled their property values.

Let's hear it  for the wisdom of the marketplace!

The point is, I live on a street with beautiful palm trees, nicely tended sidewalks, lawns with sprinklers and flowers. There are restaurants and civic buildings within walking distance. There's a bakery and a dojo and a dance studio. There's public transit and a bike path that leads to a beautiful lake and a vast park with vast ducks. And you can usually find parking.

It's suburban splendor in an urban arrangement.

But there are also some pure urban nightmare elements, like the proliferation of bail-bondsmen, the medical marijuana dispensaries in every cardinal direction, the unnecessarily massive number of auto-body repair shops, and those two creepy unmarked corrugated steel buildings, outside of which, at odd hours, one can find million-dollar sport-cars and battered white utility vans parked side-by-side. They're either mafia hideaways, or porn studios. Or both.

Speaking of which, there are also several “adult” boutiques in my wing of Van Nuys. Beezie and I like the one on Oxnard. The gentleman inside is from New Jersey, and the selection is very good, including costumes. It's about a two minute drive from my door, on the left just before you reach the hardware store. Can't miss it.

But there's another porn store within walking distance, right beside the no-brand gas-station. You can get there by heading to the Chinese restaurant, then going southerly down the alleyway, toward the VW dealership...

Which was where I was walking my dog last night.

The Service Sector
I was passing behind the no-name gas-station, waiting for Bacon to poo, when I encountered a young man coming toward me.

He was shorter than I, which, for this region, is statistically too short. He looked vaguely Hispanic, but had a Vin Diesel thing going for him, which means he could have played any number of ethnicities. Unlike Vin, he had hair. He wore a white shirt and a backpack. He had the shoulders-back, slightly-stocky look of someone who worked out, but not too much, a look that comes across profoundly goofy on a short dude. Despite his relaxed demeanor, he looked a bit petulant, like you'd imagine Napoleon might look, were he cast in West Side Story.

In fact, he was trying too hard to be relaxed... Oh shit, he's making eye-contact. Oh shit, he's going to talk to me. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. Don't talk to me!

Let's be clear, now: my panic had nothing to do with his appearance, or with the dark, barbed-wire lined alleyway, far from witnesses. This stranger could have been a beautiful woman... could have been a beautiful woman wearing no clothes... could have been a beautiful woman wearing no clothes on except for a hat made of thousand-dollar bills... could have been any of those things, and still, I would have dreaded that this stranger might try to strike up a conversation.

But, before he spoke, he held his hand up to me, and he made a gesture. It was a “getting ready to roll dice” kind of gesture. You know, kind of a “shaking up a small can of spray paint” gesture. You know -

“You want me to jerk you off for five dollars?”

That kind of gesture.

Because that's exactly what he asked me. “You want me to jerk you off for five dollars?”

“No, uh... I'm good. Thank you,” I responded.

He did not laugh. He was serious. He stopped a few feet away.

And that's when Bacon decided it was time to poop. It was a perfect time to poop!

Time to Poop, Everyone!
Let me tell you something about my beloved dog, whom I absolutely hate. He wants an audience. He loves to shit in front of strangers. That's his thing. He waits for it. And he can wait. Oh, he can wait.

And another thing about Bacon: once this dog begins his business, once he squats, he could anchor a battleship. He could tether a shuttle launch. He is not moving. He is part of the Earth's crust.

So. That was an uncomfortable moment.

I pulled a neon green biodegradable baggie from the dispenser, and watched the dog slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, produce some poops. The stranger stood a few feet away, gazing idly around himself, sensing it is unseemly for a stranger to study the process by which another man's dog creates doody.

Then, the stranger noticed there was another man, a man hanging in the shadows behind the porn store. It was a big black man in a bright yellow tee-shirt, and he was scowling at us all, arms crossed high on his chest.

The stranger asked the other man, “Oh, sorry – are you working here?”

Bacon finished. I grabbed it, turned the bag inside out, and started off. I was being amazingly nonchalant, you should note.

“I said, you working here, man?”

The other man nodded. “Yeah.”

“Oh, okay, yeah. Right,” the stranger said. I passed him.

He was behind me now. Behind me, and following. In deference for the other man's post, I suppose, he was following me out to the street.

He caught up. Walked beside me.

“How about for two dollars?”

In case you were wondering – he said that. Not me.

“Um... It's not really about the money,” I said. I was now getting pretty comfortable with the fact that, while walking my dog and holding a baggie of warm droppings, I was being propositioned by a male prostitute. Where would we put the dog? Where would we put the baggie?

“Okay,” he said. He considered this. “How about for a dollar? One dollar?”

We reached the street. I told him the truth. “I don't have a dollar.”

He stared for a moment. Did he think I was trying to negotiate down to pocket change? An I.O.U. perhaps? Was he going to offer to accept a credit card?

“Yeah, all right,” he said. His voice had a tone of, “Your loss man. That was a good price. You're not gonna get a deal like that back at home.”


Deep Philosophical Handjob Thoughts
After that, the dog and I walked the rest of our mile alone. I reflected on what had transpired. Should I have been afraid? Should I have been disappointed? Disgusted? Should I have felt guilty for having to refuse the fellow's extremely generous offer? Because that one I kind of did feel.

You tell me. Are these the sorts of events that drive people away from lovely places like Van Nuys? Are these the moments that make people pay exorbitant rents, scream for more police officers, hide in their condos after the sun goes down? Am I the abnormal one that it doesn't bother me much? That, in fact, it amuses and delights me? Do I belong amongst these people?

When I got back, I told my roommate, Alli, what had happened.

Her reaction was a little more jealous than I'd call healthy.