I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my life; some things I regret and some things that were just plain idiotic. I’m not proud of them, but they all happened. They keep me up at night, cringing, alone in the dark. Some decisions, once made, cannot be unmade and we have to learn to live with the consequences. Most of the time, they don’t leave any permanent damage and give us some pretty good stories, but only in hindsight. One such story of mine has come to be known as The Montebello Incident.
It all started at a friend’s party. It was a pretty good party with lots of people in a celebratory mood. So, when a pickup truck drove by, asking if we wanted to go to a party in the middle of nowhere, thereby leaving the nice, safe comfort of my friend’s abode, well, it made my positive response seem all the more idiotic. However, I was not alone in my idiocy. A chorus of three replies rang out; one from myself and two from some of my crazier friends. By crazy, I mean most likely scoring high marks in one or more quantifiable categories of metal illness (in a good way), but also brilliant, caustic, creative, funny, unexpected, unpredictable and downright awesome friends. They are the type of friends that make my face light up when I know they will be somewhere because something entertaining and interesting is just bound to happen in their presence. It always does. So, when these two friends of mine said they might like to go on a little adventure, it seemed like a reasonable course of action.
The three of us, already more than half soused from the party at hand, hobbled into the back of the pickup truck with a bottle of booze. At this point, I’m not sure if we discussed whether any of us knew the people in the front of the truck or not, but they were certainly strangers to me. We lay under the night sky, gently blanketed by the stars and a tarp, staring up with a bum’s eye view at the metropolis of Los Angeles.
I had ridden covertly in the back of a pickup truck like that before, many moons ago, in the city of Detroit. It has always been one of my favorite ways to see a city. In my inebriated state, I derived much joy and sentimentality from witnessing a city from the bed of a truck once again.
We three passed the bottle around, surreptitiously propping ourselves up on an elbow to drink so as not to be discovered by passing vehicles. Then we snuggled back under the tarp to enjoy the view; our noggins intermittently banging against steel when our unknown abductors drove over one of the many potholes. I could have easily gone to sleep in the bed of the truck, lulled by the sound of the wheels and the engine, but somewhere in the back of my sentient brain, which had mainly been occluded by my drunken brain, came a niggling, little voice saying, “Get out. Get out now. You’re in the back of a truck. You can’t see where you are going. You don’t know these people. Run!” I ignored that voice and rightly so. It didn’t want me to have an adventure at all. Phooey.
We reached our destination and were told to climb out of the truck. Wait a minute, this wasn’t a party. This was a house; just a regular, ordinary house with no lights on, no music and no party. How disappointing. Oh, we’re just switching vehicles so that we can take even more people to the party with us? OK, then. Wooo! Party!
Our new vehicle was a white carpool van. It was very long and full of stadium seating. It had windows all around it. My friends and I climbed into the very back seat; the seat where the dog would sit if there was a dog, but there wasn’t a dog, there was only us. There were maybe eight to ten other people in the van with us. I did not know a single one of them. The driver of the van was so far away that I couldn’t clearly make him out.
Away we went. After an hour or so of driving, some of it highway, some of it on surface streets, we stopped at a Circle K convenience store/gas station to get supplies. In southern California, you know you’re in the boonies when you see a Circle K instead of a 7-11. We all climbed out of the van like some sort of demented tour group. My friends and I were past drunk at this point, and more importantly, we were out of alcohol. We were anxious to get inside and resupply.
I used the pit stop as an opportunity to observe the van people, to whom I was now bound through circumstance, from the front rather than just as backs of heads. They all looked like regular folk. They were kind of people with whom I might chat in line somewhere, but not the kind to whom I would trust my life. It was too late now. They had my life in their hands. All of a sudden, I was very grateful for our back row seating. From our distant vantage point, if the driver (who was busy buying an ungodly amount of beer and chugging one in the store) saw fit to crash us into a tree, I might not tense up with fear until it was already too late.
I don’t remember what I purchased to drink, but I surmise that it was probably alcoholic and I know that it came equipped with a plastic Circle K bag. I am certain of this fact because, later, I used that bag as a vomit receptacle when our captors refused to pull over to let me hurl with dignity. Before I threw up, I was making out with one of my friends. I put my index finger up in the “hang on a minute” gesture, deposited the contents of my stomach into the doggie bag, tied it off, tossed it behind me, swallowed a breath mint and continued where I left off. Classy.
We drove and drove and drove, passing Circle K’s everywhere. At the third or fourth Circle K, I realized that this unknown region of southern California was not, in fact, overrun with Circle K’s on every corner, but that it was the very same Circle K that we had visited on our way.
I asked someone in the seat in front of me why we were doing laps around the Circle K. They, in turn, asked someone in the seat in front of them and so on, until minutes later, the reply came back that we were lost. I already knew that, but apparently, the pilot of our ship was now lost as well, and the navigator wasn’t helping. This inhospitable landscape in which we found ourselves grew even more hostile. The recurring light of the Circle K was the only sign of civilization around. Oh well, let’s make out some more.
Eventually, the van pulled up to the house where our journey to nowhere had started. I recognized the pickup truck in the driveway. Some people said their goodbyes and went home straightaway, while others piled into the house. We stood in the back yard for a bit, at a loss as to what to do since we had no means of getting home straightaway, or at all, actually. In fact, we didn’t even know where we were. Even if our innards weren’t swirling with alcohol, even if we hadn’t ridden blind in the back of the pickup truck to this unknown house at which we found ourselves, all those laps around the Circle K certainly didn’t clarify matters. We assumed that we were still in California somewhere, but where exactly? We decided to go inside to find out.
We followed the others through the backdoor of the house into a very large kitchen. On the right were regular, kitchen-like effects: refrigerator, cupboards and a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. On the left, there was a stove. On top of the stove was a single saucepan, mostly full of cloudy water, with three, bloated hot dogs floating in it. It looked like it had been there for a while and didn’t bode well for the three people entering the kitchen. We took it as an omen. Beyond the long dead, floating hot dogs, in the corner, lay a bare mattress. It was odd to find a mattress in a kitchen, but who were we to judge? Straight ahead, there was a doorway with light coming through, and the sound of a television and voices.
We three mice hesitantly approached the light. Inside the doorway, was a living room. It had wood paneling on the walls, several tables and table lamps, a native American dream catcher displayed prominently on the facing wall, an old console television, a couch and two recliners.
On the furniture sat four or five people watching some incredibly innocuous television show, each of them with afghans–not blankets, but afghans; the kind grandmothers knit–over their knees and TV trays in front of them. It would have all seemed so incongruously domestic, like we had just walked into a living room stuck in the 1970’s, if not for the guns in their hands; real, live guns that can kill you. Apparently, when they couldn’t find the party in the middle of nowhere and with all that spare booze to drink, they decided that it would be a proper and fitting time to clean their weaponry.
When the three of us–abreast, none of us wanting to be the first to enter–approached the doorway, the man closest to the door in the recliner with the afghan and the gun, held his weapon aloft and pointed it at us. “BANG!” he said and pulled the trigger. Click. They all laughed. “I’m kidding! It’s not loaded.” We didn’t find it all that funny.
We sheepishly asked if one of them could give us a ride home. The funny man, who happened to be the driver on our ridiculous outing and in whose home we seemed to be squatting, said that they were all too drunk at present (although, it didn’t seem to stop him before). If we could wait a few hours, they’d be only too happy to oblige. In the meantime, we were more than welcome to make the best of their hospitality by crashing on the bare mattress in the kitchen.
We left the doorway–the sound of laughter and lubricated metal clicking on metal in the background. We looked at the floating hot dogs and the mattress, but what were we to do? It was only a few hours after all. Like weary prisoners returning from a hard day’s labor, we quickly shrugged off any apprehension regarding what might be contained in or on or around that mattress, and laid our tired bones down to sleep. The three of us, spooning, holding onto each other for dear life and for warmth, actually managed to drift off to sleep for an hour or two. We dreamt of horrible things like hot dogs floating in cloudy water.
When we awoke, the first signs of morning were coming through the dusty, stained curtains in the kitchen. It all looked a hundred times more horrible in the light of day. Daylight brought courage though and we stormed the living room to find our gracious hosts all passed out in the places we had left them, still holding their guns. Fearful that they were now loaded, we gingerly awakened the funny man. The hand holding the gun shot into the air with a reflex and he sat staring at us, blinking, transfixed as if he’d never laid eyes on us before. We asked him for a ride like he had promised and recognition slowly flooded his face. Still holding the gun, he said that he couldn’t possibly comply with our request. He had important things to do now, like sleep, and we’d have to find our own way. In fact, he was kicking us out of the nest. As he was herding us towards the door, we asked him where we were since we didn’t even have that much information to go on. He laughed again as the kitchen door slammed in our faces. We heard the click of the lock, forever barring our way into the floating hot dog world again.
We stood in the backyard for a minute discussing our options and taking in the horror of the situation. We had exactly four cigarettes, three sets of keys and nine dollars between us. Well, there was no sense in standing around there lest the funny man discover our tardy departure and decide to show us his gun again.
We headed down the driveway, surveying our surroundings; it was a regular residential house on a regular residential block, much like any other residential neighborhood anywhere in southern California. At least with the palm trees and the familiar urban sprawl, we were fairly certain that we were still in Los Angeles county, but where? Which direction should we go? On a whim, we chose left. On the way down the driveway, I keyed the entire side of the pickup truck with keys that I hoped to use for more domestic type activities in the near future, like opening my own front door. As we passed the carpool van, I smiled thinking of the present I had left there in a Circle K bag.
The sun was blinding as we walked down an unknown sidewalk on an unknown street in an unknown city, but with every step, we were getting farther away from that infernal house. Halfway down the block, we spied something encouraging; it was a manhole cover. We raced to see what it said. Big metal letters stamped on its impressive façade clearly and neatly stated, as if this manhole cover’s sole purpose in life was to tell us where we were, “CITY OF MONTEBELLO.” That long-suffering manhole cover had done its job and could retire in peace. We did a celebratory dance.
We know where we are! Hurray! …but did we? As it turns out, none of us actually knew where Montebello was in relation to where we needed to be, but any information, at this point, was good information. We knew more than we did when we left the house. We smiled at the manhole cover, momentarily turned back towards where we had come, gave them the finger and continued our journey.
We were hung over as hell, starving and dying of thirst. It seemed like we had walked forever. If we didn’t find something soon, we’d be found passed out on the sidewalk. We slowly made our way out to what looked like a major street and spied a gas station in the distance. DELIVERANCE! Gas stations have people in them who might actually know where we were and how to get to where we needed to be. They also have snacks!
We ran to the gas station as a parched man runs to an oasis. We held hands and skipped across the intersection when the little, white, electric man told us it was safe to walk. We stumbled into the gas station, overcome with joy, grabbing snacks and beverages at random, and shoveling sustenance into our mouths. When we were sated, serious now, we turned to the clearly nonplussed gas station attendant and got to work. We gasped the words “Los Angeles?” at her. She handed us a bus schedule written in Sanskrit. “Los Angeles?’ we implored again. She pointed across the street to where we had just come at a bus stop. Fortunately, I had my bank card on me. She charged us for all the sundry products we had just consumed and even gave us exact change for bus fares so that we might mount our trusty steed when it arrived without worry. She looked relieved as we made our way out and skipped, arm in arm, across the street again.
We stood in the little bus cubicle, the outdoor waiting room, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the bus appeared on the horizon, wiggling in the haze of the morning sun like a mirage. We did another celebratory dance in anticipation, which was much like jumping up and down. We still had no idea where this bus would take us, but at least it was in the general direction of away from there and closer to the city. We hoped.
On the bus were all sorts of regular workaday folk with bundles and packages and bags, who were more familiar with the bus than we were and probably knew exactly where it would go. They greeted us with inquisitive and disapproving looks, most likely, since we were not dressed in standard morning attire, but in party apparel from the night before. It was obvious that we were outsiders in their world.
We sat scanning outside the windows, hoping that any second we would recognize something, anything, which would tell us that the gas station lady could be trusted. We were clinging to each other; scared, tired and hopeful that this adventure would some day end. And then, suddenly, things started looking a little familiar to me: here a building, there a restaurant, a familiar street name. Not wanting to get my hopes up too high, I kept silent. Then, on the next block, I would recognize something else. I spied a street sign for the street on which we were traveling as we crossed an intersection. It wasn’t a dream.
At the time, I lived in downtown Los Angeles, right next to the Fourth Street Bridge. Of the countless possible routes that ran through and around the city, we had somehow managed to get on a bus that ran right down Fourth Street in front of my building. We could not have planned it any better. I told my friends where we were and where this bus would let us off. They stared at me, wild-eyed, grasping my hands until they went white. Giddy with excitement, I convinced them it was true.
Unaccustomed to bus etiquette, we didn’t know whether the bus would stop where we wanted it to or not. But, having seen some movies in our day, we knew that there was a rope or a button or something, which could be pulled or pushed or something, to alert the driver that we wanted to get off. We found the apparatus and prepared well in advance for our debarkation. A block and a half away from my building, forever in bus time, we were already standing at the ready with joined arms to sound the alarm.
Like clockwork, as if that’s the way things are always done, we yanked the cord and the driver came to a stop precisely where we wanted to be. We alighted to find ourselves standing out in the blinding sun again directly in front of my building. My car was there. Figuring that we had all already been treated to far too much insanity for one lifetime, I gave them a ride home in my car, my own familiar car in which I knew where everything was. I put the key in the ignition, half expecting that it wouldn’t fit, that this was still some crazy dream, but the car started up with a purr. I pulled my sunglasses out of the space above the rearview and hopped on the 101 freeway to find it packed with bumper to bumper traffic, but it didn’t matter. We were home.