To Aaron and Lauren Johnston, who show us that magic can be funny and hopeful—a light in the darkness, conjured out of love
The old man was walking along the side of the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, gripping a fistful of plastic grocery bags. His salt-and-pepper hair was filthy and hanging in that sagging parody of a Rastafarian hairdo that most homeless men seem to get, white or black. He wore a once-khaki jacket stained with oil and dirt and grass and faded with sunlight. His hands were covered with gardening gloves.
Byron shuddered, though he didn't know why. He looked the other way, to the right, across the lanes of fast-moving cars that were speeding up to get on the 10 and head east into Los Angeles.
Normally Byron would be among them, heading home to Baldwin Hills from his day of classes and meetings at Pepperdine.
But tonight he had promised Nadine that he'd bring home dinner from I Cugini. That's the kind of thing you had to do when you married a black woman who thought she was Italian. Could have been worse. Could have married a black woman who thought she was a redneck. Then they'd have to vacation in Daytona every year and listen to country music and eat possum and potato-chip-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread.
Or he could be married to a biker like the woman still revving her engine in the other left-turn lane. He could just imagine getting dragged into biker bars, where, as an African-American professor of literature specializing in the romantic poets, he would naturally fit right in. He tried to imagine himself taking on a half-dozen drunken bikers with chains and pipes. Of course, if he were with that biker woman, he wouldn't have to fight them. She looked like she could take them on herself and win—a big, strong woman who wouldn't put up with nonsense from anybody.
That was a lot to know about a woman without seeing her face, but her body, her posture, her choice of costume and bike, and above all that challenging roar from her bike—the message was clear. Don't get in front of me, buddy, cause I'm coming through.
He only gradually realized that he was staring right at the homeless man with the handfuls of grocery bags. The man was stopped at the edge of the roadway, facing him, staring back at him.
Now that Byron could see his face, he realized that the man wasn't faking his rasta do—he was entitled to it, being a black man. A filthy, shabby, rheumy-eyed, chin-stubbled, grey-bearded, slack-lipped old bum of a black man. But the hair was authentic.
Authentic. Thinking of the word made Byron cringe. Every year there was at least one student in one of his classes who'd mutter something—or say it boldly—about how the very fact that he was teaching courses in nineteenth-century white men's literature made him less authentic as a black man.
Or that being a black man made him less authentic as a teacher of English literature. As if all a black man ought to aspire to teach was African studies or black history or Swahili.
The old man winked at him.
And suddenly Byron's annoyance drained away and he felt a little giddy. What was he brooding about? Students gave crap to their teachers whenever they thought they could get away with it. They learned soon enough that in Byron's classes, the students who cared would become the kind of people who were fit to understand Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Grey, and—of course—Lord Byron himself. That's what his good students sometimes called him—Lord Byron. Not to his face, because he always gave them his withering glare until they apologized. But he reveled in the knowledge that they called him that behind his back. And if he ever let anyone see his poetry, perhaps they'd discover that it was a name he deserved.
Into my chariot, whispered the sun god.
Here beside me, Love, crossing the sky.
Leave the dusty road on which you plod: Behind these fiery horses come and fly.
No matter how fast we go, how far, how high, I'll never let you fall.
All your life On earth you've crept and climbed and clawed—
Now, Mortal Beauty, be my wife, And of your dreams of light, I'll grant you all.
The bag man's lips parted into a snaggle-toothed grin, and he stepped out into the traffic, heading straight for Byron's car.
For a moment Byron was sure the man would be killed. But no. The light had changed, and the cars came to a stop as he passed in front of them. In only a few moments, he set his hand to the handle of Byron's passenger door.
It was locked. Byron pushed the button to open it.
"Don't mind if I do," said the bag man. "Mind if I put my bags in your back seat?"
"Be my guest," said Byron.
The old man opened the back door and carefully arranged his bags on the floor and back seat.
Byron wondered what was in them. Whatever it was, it couldn't be clean, and the bags probably had fleas or lice or ants or other annoying creatures all over them. Byron always kept this car spotless—the kids knew the rules, and never dared to eat anything inside this car, lest a crumb fall and they get a lecture from their dad. Sorry if that annoyed them, but it was good for children to learn to take care of nice things and treat them with respect.
And yet, even though he knew that letting those bags sit in the back seat would require him to vacuum and wash and shampoo until it was clean again, he didn't mind. Those bags belonged there.
As the old man belonged in the front seat beside him.
Behind him, cars started honking.
The old man took his time getting into the front seat, and then he just sat there, not closing his door. Nor had he closed the back door, either.
No matter. To a chorus of honks and a few curses shouted out of open car windows, Byron got out and walked around to the other side of the Lincoln. He closed the back door, then reached in and fastened the old man's seat belt before he closed that door, too.
"Oh, you don't need to do that," murmured the old man as Byron fastened the belt.
"Safety first," said Byron. "Nobody dies in my car."
"No matter how fast we go, how far, how high," answered the old man.
Byron grinned. It felt good, to have someone know his poem so well he could quote it back to him.
By the time he got back to the driver's door, the cars behind him were whipping out into the leftmost turn lane to get around him, honking and screaming and flipping him off as they passed. But they couldn't spoil his good mood. They were jealous, that's all, because the old man had chosen to ride in his car and not theirs.
Byron sat down, closed his door, fastened his seat belt, and prepared to wait for the next green light.
"Ain't you gonna go?" asked the old man.
Byron looked up. Incredibly, the left arrow was still green.
"Why not," he said. He pulled forward at a stately pace.
To his surprise, the light at the top of the hill was still green, and the next light, too.
"Hope you don't mind," said Byron. "Got to stop and pick up dinner."
"A man's got to keep his woman happy," said the old man. "Nothing more important in life.
Except teaching your kids to be right with God."
That made Byron feel a little pang of guilt. Neither he nor Nadine were much for going to church. When his mother came to visit, they all went to church together, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. But they called it Grandma's church, even though she only attended it when she came to LA.
Byron turned left on Broadway and pulled up in the valet parking lane in front of I Cugini. The valet headed toward his car as Byron got out.
"Pay after," said the valet.
"No, don't park the car, I'm just picking up a takeout order."
The man looked at him in bafflement. Apparently he hadn't been here long enough to understand English that wasn't exactly what he expected to hear.
So Byron spoke to him in Spanish. "Hace el favor de no mover mi carro, si? Volvere en dos minutos."
The man grinned and sat down in the driver's seat.
"No," said Byron, "no mueva el auto, por favor!"
The old man leaned over. "Don't worry, son," he said. "He don't want to move the car. He just wants to talk to me."
Of course, thought Byron. This old man must be familiar to all the valets. When you spend hours a day at the curb in Santa Monica, you're going to get to know all the homeless people.
Only when he was waiting at the counter for the girl to process his credit card did it occur to Byron that he spoke Italian and French, and could read Greek, but had never spoken or studied Spanish in his life.
Well, you learn a couple of romance languages, apparently you know them all.
The food was ready to go, and the card went right through on the first try. They didn't even ask him for i.d.
And when he got back outside, there was his car at the curb, and the valet was inside, kissing the old man's hands. By the time Byron got around to the driver's side and opened the back door, the valet was out of the car. Byron put the takeout bags on the floor, stood up, and closed the back door.
The valet was already walking away.
"Wait a minute!" called Byron. "Your tip!"
The valet turned and waved his hand. "No problem!" he called in heavily accented English.
"Thank you very much sir!"
Byron got in and sat down. "Never heard of a valet turning down a tip," he said.
"He only wanted to talk to me," said the old man. "He worries about his family back in Mexico.
His little boy, he been sick. But I told him that boy be fine, and now he's happy."
Byron was happy, too. "Well, friend, where can I take you?"
"Oh, it'll get cold no matter what we do," said Byron. "At six o'clock, doesn't matter if I take Olympic or the 10, traffic just takes time."
"Take the ten," said the old man. "Got a feeling we zip right along."
The old man was right. Even at the junction with the 405, the left lanes were moving faster than the speed limit and they made good time.
Byron thought of lots of things he wanted to say to the man. Lots of questions to ask. How did you know the valet's son was going to be okay? Why did you pick my car to ride in? Where will you go from Baldwin Hills, and why don't you want me to take you there? Did you make it so I could speak Spanish? Did you speak Spanish to the valet?
But whenever he was about to speak, he felt such a glow of peace and happiness that he couldn't bring himself to break the mood with the jarring sound of speech.
So the old man was the one who spoke. "You can call me Bag Man," he said. "That's a good name, and it's true. It's good to tell the truth sometimes, don't you think?"
Byron grinned and nodded. "Be good to tell the truth all the time."
"Oh, no," said Bag Man. "That just hurts people's feelings. Lying's the way to go, most times. It's kinder. And how often does truth really matter? Once a month? Once a year?"
Byron laughed in delight. "Never thought of it that way."
Bag Man smiled. "I don't mind if you use that in a poem, you go ahead."
"Oh, I'm not a poet," said Byron.
"There you go," said the old man. "Lying. Never show those poems, never admit they even exist, and nobody can say, This is all too old-fashioned, you're not a real poet."
Byron felt the hot blood in his face. "I said it first."
Bag Man laughed. "Like I said!" Then he turned serious again. "Want to know how good you is?"
Byron shook his head.
"Every bit as good as you hope," said Bag Man.
Relief washed over Byron and brought tears to his eyes. "But you've never read anything of mine."
"How could I?" said Bag Man. "Can't read."
"I may lie, but I never joke."
"Were you lying just now? What you said about my poetry?"
"What about right then, when you said you weren't lying?"
"That was a lie, of course," said Bag Man. "But don't let logic spoil things for you."
Byron was aware of a strange feeling in his stomach. Nausea? No, not really. Oh, yes. It was anger. A kind of distant, faraway anger. But he couldn't think why he might be angry. Everything was wonderful. This was a great day. Not a speck of traffic. Not a light against them.
Coming down La Cienega he noticed See's Candies. Still open. But he mustn't stop. Dinner hot in the back seat.
He got out of the car and went inside and got a one-pound box of milk patties, those little disks of chocolate-covered caramel. It took forever for the woman to fill each little crinkled-paper cup.
And when he got back to the car, he was really pleased to see how delighted Bag Man was to receive it.
"For me?" he said. "Oh, you just too nice, my man." Bag Man tore open the paper and put two patties in his mouth at once. "I never get this down in Santa Monica."
"They have a Godiva's in the mall at the bottom of the Promenade," said Byron.
"Godiva's? They too rich for my pockets."
There was something wrong with the logic of that, but Byron couldn't think what it was.
Byron drove through the flat part of Baldwin Hills. Modest homes, some of them a little tatty, some very nicely kept—an ordinary neighborhood. But as they started up Cloverdale, the money started showing up. Byron wasn't rich and neither was Nadine. But together they did well enough to afford this neighborhood. They could have afforded Hancock Park, but that would be like surrendering, to move into a white neighborhood. For a black man in LA, it was Baldwin Hills that said you had made it without selling out.
"This magic street," said the old man.
"I said, this is Magic Street," he repeated. "Can't you feel it? Like standing in a waterfall, it's so thick here."
"Pull up right here," said Bag Man.
They were at number 3968, an elegant white house with a tile roof and a triple garage. It was the last house before the hairpin turn, where no houses stood.
Instead, there was a grassy green valley that stretched about a hundred yards before it ran into the thick woods at the base of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Not that anybody did any recreating there. It was kept clear because when it stormed, all the runoff from the whole park was funneled down a concrete drainage system to collect in this valley, forming a lake. And right in the deepest part was a rusted tube sticking straight up out of the ground. Must be two feet across, or so it seemed to Byron, and eight feet high. It was perforated at about shoulder height, so water could drain into it when the lake got deep enough.
That's what it was for. But what it looked like was a smokestack sticking straight up from hell.
That's what Nadine said when she first saw it. "Wouldn't you know it, up in the park it's all so beautiful, but down here is the anus of the drainage system and where do they put it? Right in the nicest part of the nicest black neighborhood in the city. Just in case we forget our place, I suppose."
"It's better than letting the rainwater run right down the streets and wash everybody out," Byron told her.
That earned him a narrow-eyed glare and a silent mouthing of the word "Tom."
"I wasn't defending the establishment, I was just saying that not everything is racism. The city puts up ugly stuff in white neighborhoods, too."
"If it was a white neighborhood they'd make a playground and that pipe would be brightly painted."