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Believe it or not

Photo by Issa SharpSHE TOLD ME TO PUT MY HANDS OUT, PALMS UP, and I did that. Then she blinked a thoughtful blink and said, "The $5 special, right?" I said yes, and she told me to drop one hand.

"You will live a long time," she said, not looking at my palm but into my eyes, or what she could see of them through the bifocal shades I wear. I had a big decision to make in a few weeks, she said, and I shouldn't listen to anyone since I had all the information I needed already. I was honest, she said, or tried to be . . . So far, so generic, but what could you expect for 5 bucks? The tarot cards were scattered on a nearby table and I wondered if I'd have gotten a different life out of them, and I wondered if the felt-tip pen marks on one hand would tip something, screw up the reading. Half listening, I wondered this and I wondered that. She was a woman somewhere in middle age, hard to read herself because of a certain wary tiredness. I'd already asked too many questions, such as how long she'd been in this little Hollywood Boulevard storefront (two days, she said) and where she was from (North Carolina). "I'm an American Indian," she said. What tribe? "Cherokee," she said, and, "Say, you want your palm read or you want to ask me questions?"

I'm good at that -- asking people questions so they won't ask me any. (I'd cleverly worked this on a couple of shrinks.) She said I had a younger friend who was jealous of me not because of accomplishments or appearance or whatever but because of my "goodness." She asked me what I did and I told her and she asked if I were famous and I said no and she said I would be, and I was starting to warm to this lady -- both famous and good. Then she zinged me, saying that while I had a smile on my face I was really very sad inside, which seemed to me to be getting just a bit . . . personal. I had as it happened separated from a woman a few months before but this had quite truthfully seemed to be a great boon to both of us at the time. Did the palmist know something I didn't, really?

Still looking into my eyes (I could have had the scaly paw of a monitor lizard and it wouldn't have mattered), she said that I believed in God but didn't pray much. Wrong on the first, right on the second. She predicted a few other things, such as a new woman in my life, and then said that I had a major spiritual breakthrough coming up -- which I already knew about since Rob Brezny had said the same thing that week in his Real Astrology column.

It was a grim and nasty day on the Boulevard, shiny and cold under a light spring rain. The street seemed nearly closed up, with many of its sidewalks buckled and stacked like Kosovo after a NATO mistake in order to complete the subway and other big-deal construction projects, all intended to save the Boulevard from its usual state of perverse disarray. Coming out of the reading, I started to add up the hits and misses. I liked the goodness and the fame, but she missed a couple of biggies on my plate that particular day, including $4,000 in phone bills (as far as I could remember I hadn't actually talked to someone in Honduras for four hours), and what about my damned knee? What about that? I had ripped it doing some sprinting I shouldn't have been doing and the injury was seriously interfering with what I had always called, only half in jest, "my religion." As for the "spiritual breakthrough" . . . This was going to be tough. I seem to have the stoically pragmatic sensibility of, well, a dog. Put the word "spiritual" in front of my nose and I sniff it and can't really identify it. It's a word that seems to take its meaning from the imagination of the person speaking it. Most, if cornered, will offer a definition involving some sort of unusual, exalted state -- anything from an out-of-body experience to good sex, good wine, some sort of emotional transcendence of the ordinary.

"Get them while they're young" is the old saw about one's religious affiliations or lack of them. No one got me, and I've always been a sort of browser at the religious buffet and not a very ardent one. I find that in the many periods of my checkered life when (what, again?) I discover myself dead-ass broke without a dime on the horizon I can become a quite decent de facto Buddhist. When you're trying to make "nothing" palatable, it seems to me Buddhism is definitely the way to go. I also believe the essential truth of endemic "suffering" to be a universal component of life on Earth, caused most often, as the Buddhists suggest, by "craving" whatever we don't have. Yet in the land of everything you could possibly want just beyond your fingertips I'm not sure Buddhism is actually an option, except as a kind of ideal embraced in our worst times and more or less put back under the bed when things pick up.

 

My own last very casual church affiliation was 15 years ago or so in Bolinas, north of San Francisco (then as now the last great outpost of permanent 1967), at a tiny A-frame presided over by a charming Welshman, a defrocked Episcopalian priest (who'd gotten into trouble with a lady parishioner in New Mexico, as I recall). His modest flock included town dogs getting out of the sun and assorted riffraff seeking Bolinas-style asylum from the sheriff who'd seen dope growing in their front yards.

But that was then, and I only mention it now to suggest that as I moved off down the Boulevard in search of this "breakthrough" I was, you could say, fresh meat.

FOR MANY IN THE SALVATION TRADE, HOLLYWOOD Boulevard is the designated Gomorrah (even if most of the hookers have left, the idea lingers), a contemporary variation on 17th-century scold John Bunyan's City of Destruction, just the place to shove off in search of the Celestial City. Here, salted among the Tattooz, the wig emporiums and the many Frederick's wannabes -- their windows festooned with miniature Madonnas wrapped in purple spandex, feathery wings sprouting from their shoulders -- were the Scientologists offering to save me from "Relationship Problems," "Lack of Self-Confidence," even "Lifelong Ruin," while appearing temporarily in the Henry Fonda Theater the Church of Religious Science assured that, happily enough, "Nothing Is Too Good To Be True," "Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Happen" and "Nothing Is Too Good To Last" (especially good to hear if your series is threatened with cancellation). Meanwhile, not far away in the old Ritz movie theater, evangelically apocalyptic Iglesia Universal -- fretting as it did about "Año 2000, Fin del Mundo?" -- promised to "Pare de Sufrir" (stop my suffering), and the steadfast and dependable Holy Alamo Ministry was still sending its van each day to the corner of Hollywood and Highland, giving the chance of food and salvation out at its Canyon Country boonies headquarters.

The sense of imminent revelation on the Boulevard is by no means limited to the official venues. Many voices seem to rise out of the place itself, spontaneously. Outside the Christian Science Reading Room one midspring morning was one of the Boulevard's many lay preachers, a thickly built black man with graying hair. "Do you know what death is?" he asked. I told him I would like to know. "It's life without form," the preacher explained. Inside the Reading Room itself -- an oasis of tasteful quiet on the Boulevard -- Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, insisted in Science and Health from 1875 Boston that "Death [is] an illusion, the lie of life in matter; the unreal, the untrue; the opposite of Life . . . Any material evidence of death is false, for it contradicts the spiritual facts of being."

A block away at Gifts From India, the proprietor keeps a radio going most of the time, letting it blare its miscellaneous wisdom out to passersby through a speaker placed among canisters of incense lined up outside the store, with labels like "Eternity," "Money" and "Escape." This day I heard a slice of the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee's evangelical offering from far-off Pasadena. McGee used a straight man to pass along questions listeners wrote in with, the way Groucho Marx used to use George Fenneman. "A man from San Diego would like to know why with so many religions in the world -- many of them pre-Christian -- why you know yours to be the true one?" The question brought a disgusted sigh from McGee, who said he was sorry for the listener who was so pathetically ig-nrant and uninformed to ask such a question (McGee had one of those molasses-thick Southern cracker accents, the kind you might have heard from a Mississippi farmer talking from behind his plow in 1928). "The man has not read â his Bible," said McGee. "If he had he wouldn't have to ask such ig-nrant questions. A big part of the problem," McGee went on to say, "are all the foreigners pouring into Southern California and bringing with them their damnable pagan religions."

 

Of course.

Having decided on both "Money" and "Eternity," I moved on and soon ran into one of the most comprehensively miscellaneous stores the grandly eclectic Boulevard has to offer. Where else on this planet, after all, could you find under a single roof a fine broad selection of seashells, wigs, four-for-$10 T-shirts and a 1982 Playgirl with Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers on the cover? Also, piles of books and cardboard boxes filled with assorted printed material in which I found an abundance of the sort of spiritual, occult, quasi-religious esoterica that has bloomed so richly in Southern California for the last hundred years: stapled pamphlets in shades of blue and green that only occur in such works as "Aryan Sun Myths, the Origin of Religions" (1889). Not to mention Dr. Rocine's "Mind Training" (1905) and "Questions and Answers by the Royal Order of Tibet" (1930) as reported by no less than professor George Adamski, the very same man who 20 years later would write the seminal UFO work Flying Saucers Have Landed.

Voices of competing enlightenment seem to rise randomly out of the Boulevard mise en scène, as one did late one night in the fabulous Frolic Room bar . . . pool balls clashing, video games boinging, while there on one of the TV monitors, emerging during an inexplicable break in the usual NBA fare, was Alan Arkin holding forth on the Odyssey channel.

Asked by an interviewer about his own personal "belief system," Arkin, the most cerebral of actors, often in the comic mode but not always, was saying how he had gotten away from "belief systems that made people angry" (who among us, after all, likes having his belief systems challenged?). Anyway, here's Arkin saying he thinks of God as a "matrix of living thought" (a matrix of living thought? did I hear that right?), that the scientists had discovered this thing about matter that goes out to become antimatter and comes back as . . . information.

This matter-antimatter journey, for the very thoughtful and deeply depressed-looking Alan Arkin, was . . . God.

Okay.

Of course for many, such brilliant intellectual abstractions do not offer the guidance, the solace of traditional religion. Even S. Freud, renowned Viennese soothsayer and no friend to religion -- he called it "infantile" -- grudgingly conceded, "One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system." Though of course which one you might subscribe to has to do with who you are (or think you are, or pretend to be).

I COULDN'T HELP BUT BE DISTRACTED BY A LANKY 40-ish blond lady in a motorcycle jacket in the row in front of me. Every time she got up to sing or participate in a part of the service (the Declaration of Principle, the Treatment, the Responses) she'd sneak in a couple of those almost compulsive mini trunk-twisters the constantly exercised do: a twitch here, and an ever so slight revolution to the left -- once, twice. Yet still she was on the money with her "So be its" and she knew the words to the songs ("Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be").

Down a few seats from her a young man in one of those multicolored Muslim caps sneaked an occasional swig from his bottle of SoBe. Clearly this service of the Church of Religious Science was different, combining humor with an easy-to-take brevity (the whole thing, first to last, took only an hour). The theme -- scrubbing negativity from your consciousness -- was obvious from the moment you entered the lobby of the Henry Fonda Theater and passed several long tables heaped with good-vibe books like Dare To Prosper and Prospering Power of Love and even The Secret of Ultimate Prosperity. The small crowd this rainy day was all over the map agewise, but had a decided upbeat buzz about it. God, here, was not your usual sourpuss scorekeeper but a sort of positive universal presence at hand to help out if only we'd let him. ("I believe that the Kingdom of God is within, and that we experience this Kingdom to the degree that we become conscious of it," went a stanza in the Declaration of Principle, to which the parishioners said, "So be it.")

Onstage was a little spinet piano at the left, a lectern in the middle and a 4-foot eruption of churchly flora at the right. A woman in black warmed up the crowd with a Stephen Sondheim medley and then Dr. Marian Moon came out to fill in for the church's main man -- Dr. David Walker, who was in Atlanta this day. Whether it was the rain or the absence of Walker that kept the crowd down to a few hundred was hard to say, but Dr. Moon held her own with a talk that used "process" as its mantra (she defined it as "change that leads to positive results"). "Many times," Dr. Moon said, "we do not know what it's like to have power at hand." She said that negative energy produces negative action. She said that "process" would eventually find its fulfillment, but why wait? She said that everything in the universe is there for us and finished with, "What are you waiting for? Enjoy the process."

 

It was certainly a cheerful enough message, though â when I thought about it I truly wasn't that convinced that the universe was mine, obviously a negative thought, which I did my best to flush out. In any case, Dr. Walker would be back the next week with a talk titled "Don't Give Up," and I decided to come back then.

IF SELF-DEFEATING NEGATIVITY ISN'T YOUR PROBLEM, which is to suggest perhaps that you suffer from unrealistic optimism (I'd say I'm in that camp), the competing service at the other end of the Boulevard might be your thing, though as it is conducted in Spanish it would help if you knew the language.

Perhaps 10 years ago the Ritz Theater, sandwiched between Red's hot-dog stand and Souvenir City near Cherokee, was a lower-echelon second-run grindhouse showing kung fu triple bills. For the last several years, though, it has been the home of La Iglesia del Reino de Dios, one of some 20 associated evangelical churches in Southern California. The sandwich board parked at the entrance that once might have carried the pictures of Bruce Lee and Lee Van Cleef now announces the essential assumptions and promises of the church within. Next to a red heart with a dove in the middle, it invites you to come in gratis and receive "un milagro en su vida" -- the miracle of your life.

There was no assumption of imminent riches -- here one was promised only salvation, a cessation of pain. The service was already in progress, with most of the 150 or so in attendance (uniformly Hispanic with one sore-thumb Anglo) crowded around the stage with their arms in the air. Onstage were three or four short-haired ministers, each in white shirt and tie. Also onstage, a wooden cross from which a blue light emanated. The lead minister was facing the cross, his back to the assembled, and saying something about Jesucristo being "el Señor," which he then repeated over and over, growing ever more excited as the crowd became more and more agitated. One man became so worked up he started slapping himself on top of his head, while small children roamed the aisles. The rhythm of the service went from high excitement to solemn quiet, with the minister controlling the congregation's emotions like an orchestra leader. With my B-minus high school Spanish much went right by me, and I asked a woman next to me what it was the minister was talking about in one very dramatic oration and she said it had to do with "casting out demons."

Clearly neither my phone bill nor my bum knee qualified for the milagros offered here and I did not go forward, though I did accept a small bag of incense passed around by one of the associate ministers. It was attached to a card that alluded to the 141st Psalm. This contains the line "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." The Psalm has the sort of happy ending of which the folks down at the Church of Religious Science might approve: "Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape."

"MODERN ATTITUDES ON LIFE ARE NOT HEALTHY," the man says, "and organizations built up by unhealthy people cannot be normal. Commercialism has attacked every plane of society. It has entered into all the walks of life. Our race is money-mad. It is insane on the subject of personal gain. It will give nothing to serve others, but will give everything to gain the knowledge which will make it possible for the mediocre to become a commercial power overnight. The struggle inseparable from the ethics of competition is largely responsible for this condition. Graft has appeared in almost every walk of life. Nearly every existing institution is overrun by some mild form of moral dishonesty, and if every walk of life is commercialized and perverted, we cannot expect religion to escape."

 

So who's talking here -- some neo-socialist loon throwing bombs from the political fringes, or maybe that frizzy-haired character you saw the cops hustling away from the roadside as the pope passed in his Popemobile?

Actually, it's another from the old Boulevard pamphlet box -- this one in shades of faded beige -- written in 1930 by Theosophist Manly P. Hall. Concludes Hall in his essay on "What the Ancient Wisdom Expects of Its Disciples": "In the name of the Great Work, it is wise to admit that all we have of virtue we owe to the Masters and their instructions, while for our vices we are indebted to our own lower natures. This attitude will serve the Great Work far better than you will ever know."

IT IS THE NATURE OF RELIGION TO ESTABLISH ABSOLUTES as opposed to ambiguous "maybes." Out of this comes dogma. I have a problem with dogma.

One night on the Boulevard I wandered into the Scientology bookstore on the south side of the street near Wilcox. This is the fine old brick structure that was, years ago, the Christy Hotel. Outside on the sidewalk a man asked if I wanted to be tested and I said no. Scientology has a long, well-documented and for the most part unapologized-for history of intimidating journalists, and I had no interest in getting into its computer. Still, apart from the usually very expensive path to becoming a superior version of yourself offered here, a less well known aspect of Scientology is involved in physical healing, and I went into the store and bought a $5 pamphlet titled "Assists for Illnesses and Injuries."

It's a truly odd little work, riddled with legal caution ("There are no medical recommendations or claims for the processes given in this booklet") while implying that no â healing can take place without the theories contained within, e.g., "Every single physical illness stems from a failure of the being to communicate with the thing or area that is ill. Prolongation of a chronic injury occurs in the absence of physical communication with the affected area . . ."

Every single illness? Physical communication?

"Hey, knee, you slacker creep, you torn-meniscus fake. Listen up here, I'm on to you."

I don't think so.

On the other hand, a few years ago, after surviving (barely) the New York Marathon, I found myself semidelirious, staggering about the finish area in Central Park not quite sure what planet I was on, and a Scientologist working the panting, bleeding, vomiting crowd gave me a "locational assist," the same thing they use on drunks. This consists of bringing you to the place on Earth you happen to be:

"See that? What is it?"

"A tree."

"Right. And that there -- what is that?"

"A bush."

"Right."

And so on, and it actually worked, brought me back to Earth.

"WE COME TOGETHER TO KNOW THERE is only one mind . . . that of God," Dr. Walker began. He said something about God moving through each of us and said that regardless of what's going on in our lives we should be joyous, and in unison the crowd said, "So be it."

This was my second Sunday at the Church of Religious Science (which has since returned to the Wilshire Theater), and quite a bit different from the first. For one thing the spinet had been replaced by a grand piano left over from the Rufus Wainwright concert the Friday before (once again, the Universe had provided), and for another the theater was about three-quarters filled. I thought for a minute it must be the sunshine that had finally chased the rain but soon realized it was probably the man himself, looking a bit like a tall Alfred Hitchcock -- that shiny bald head with the dignified gray fringe -- but trimmer and dressed in a formal dark suit. He proved an excellent speaker, earning himself a number of big laughs as he ministered to the assembled anxieties before him. Again the theme was accentuating the positive: "The Science of Mind teaches us that the mind is the only thing that moves," he said. He said the mind deceives us and that one should "expunge thoughts that do not lead to constructive action."

I don't know how many in the theater were actually show-biz-connected, though Walker was very much the entertainer himself ("I haven't so much lost my hair, I've gained more face") and the thrust of his talk seemed to address the usual roller coaster of ups and downs in the entertainment world. "How easy," he said, "to withdraw, to fade away when things go wrong" (like when your show is canceled, like maybe you didn't get the show in the first place). "When you start thinking of life as something to be endured . . . we create a consciousness of withdrawal," he said. "If we don't value our existence we withdraw."

 

A folk singer from NoCal sang an upbeat ditty about a Special Olympics he had seen in 1987 ("Seven Gold Medals"). After that Walker got to the main course, a section of the program called "The Lesson." Today's centered on an image out of cartoons: One character hands another a fizzing bomb. The problem, said Walker, wasn't the bomb, it was the "holding on to the bomb." (Boom!)

His "bomb" was a bit like L. Ron Hubbard's "reactive mind" and Freudian mind probes into youthful trauma, but Walker's version was more self-inflicted -- the skulking mind trying to do us in. He had a list of bombs that included "the set judgments we make on ourselves -- 'I expect too much' or 'I'm too much of a perfectionist' or 'I'm not good at learning new things' or 'You've got a wonderful life . . . I'm chopped liver' or 'I don't have enough money, I'm trapped' . . .

"But," said Walker, "if we could hear the call of the universe, you can have it all because you're all there is."

He had a rolling rhythmic cadence to his speech, steady and confident. He looked out at us and said that if we were working on a "project" (a script perhaps?) we shouldn't give up. We all listened, we all believed. "I say to you this morning, don't give up. Not because you're smarter or better or taller or shorter . . . don't give up because you're the very power of the universe. You don't have the right to give up on your dreams, your hopes. They come from a universal place. There is something in you that can accomplish what you want, and that person is God."

Afterward the crowd streamed out to the sunny sidewalk chattering, passing the expanses of self-help books -- each containing the same message of how wonderful we were and, even better, how ever more wonderful we could become. Outside, our self-regard brushed to a high shine, we passed a lady handing out brochures from the First Baptist Church just off the Boulevard. In it were ideas I somehow doubted any of us completely okay people were likely to embrace. "All People Are Sinners," it said in a column headed "What We Believe." Also: "The Penalty for Our Sins Is Death" and "No Good Works We May Do Will Cleanse Us of That Sin" and "Only Believing in Jesus Christ and What He Did Can Save Us."

Clearly it was our tough luck if we couldn't. â

LATE THAT SAME DAY I DROPPED IN on a youth service put on by the Urban School of Evangelism in the Oasis Club on Ivar. There was a stage inside where three or four white-T-shirted musicians rehearsed the evening's service, the words to be projected on a screen above.

"Millions of people are lured to this city every year," a provided booklet said. "Their dreams die quickly in the face of harsh reality. Hunger pains, slum-like conditions in some apartment buildings, racial strife and poverty all contribute to create a great need in this famous city."

The club was quiet this night, however. Perhaps it was the competition of a rock show at the Palladium close by, which already had a line two blocks long. The Oasis service had been scheduled for 6 o'clock, and by 6:30 no one had come.

I REMEMBERED THE BUS FROM THE OLD days, the big red, white and blue churchly beast lumbering about the streets of Hollywood, arriving here at Highland at 6:30 each evening (and at 1:30 Sunday afternoons as well). It still does, only now it's devolved into an old blue Dodge van with room for eight or so, depending on the heft of the "guests," ready as ever to spirit you to the old restaurant turned church under the oak trees somewhere in a surviving patch of country north of Saugus. Ministry founder Tony Alamo, a.k.a. Bernie LaZar Hoffman, onetime Hollywood promoter turned evangelist, won't be there, of course. He's back at church headquarters in Alma, Arkansas, not long out of prison after serving a six-year tax rap in Texas.

One thing seemed true: Whatever money Alamo had accumulated from his various churches (Arkansas, Chicago, New York, Texas at different times), most of it, he said, snatched by the IRS, little had made it to the California outpost of the Holy Alamo Ministry. The tappets tapped loudly on the old Dodge van as we headed out the 405 one Sunday afternoon and the roof seemed to breathe -- up and down, up and down, popping as it did. I was the only guest, that is the only newbie harvested from the Boulevard, although there were four or five others in the van who were already church members. One studious middle-aged fellow with thinning dark hair sat next to me reading his Bible. In the seat in front was a heavy young woman gathered from a crumbling apartment house beyond Western, a regular, discussing her problems with the driver. He had introduced himself as Lee and told me he'd worked for the Alamo ministries for 29 years -- not all of it here, but in different places at different times. He had the lean build and carefully coifed gray hair of a TV gospel singer, and it would turn out that singing was indeed one of his talents. What would stick with me most about this outing was the sheer perseverance of the Alamo faithful . . . 29 years!

 

I was reading a dense six-page tract subtitled "A Case Study: IRS Abuse of Pastor Tony Alamo," which came with the other ministry literature. In it Alamo tells his story of duplicitous ex-wives (two are mentioned), false friends and confiscation of church property, ultimately blaming much of his downfall on the Cult Awareness Network, which has in turn been brought down by the Scientologists. I leaned forward and asked the taciturn Lee whether Alamo ever came to church out here and he said, "He's thinking about it."

Not far beyond where the 14 freeway splits off the 5, just beyond Magic Mountain, and then beyond the tidy new tracts and after a jog or two, we arrived at a shady bend in the old Sierra Highway, once the main road to Vegas from these parts. The van pulled up at a low-slung building overhung by oaks. Though it had been a church for 30 years, it wasn't hard to imagine the building in its previous incarnation as Wilson's Restaurant, which was popular here in the '40s and '50s. It retains a stubborn suggestion of its original self, with the four big windows overlooking the parking lot on one side and the two takeout windows, boarded up, on the other side.

Inside there's a big floor-to-ceiling sandstone fireplace next to the old dining room, now implanted with 10 or so church pews. Perhaps 15 adults were in attendance, and seven or eight small children. At least half the service was singing, with Lee on the electric guitar and Greg -- a carpenter and father of four of the children -- on acoustic. They sang "Washed by the blood of the lamb" and "I see a mansion on the hill where you never grow old." It was about as rainbow a group as you could get. (A children's choir, which sang "Kumbaya," consisted of two Hispanics, two African-Americans and two Anglos.)

There's a window at the far right-hand corner, and after the songs, when the testifying began and the oak tree outside the window moved with the afternoon breeze, the mood was hypnotic and sleepy and timeless. One after another of the adults reported on his or her path to Jesus through the Alamo ministry, out of heroin addiction and alcoholism and other dead ends. But there were others too who spoke and fit no stereotype. One man had grown up Jewish in Boston and found the church when he was 17. Now here he was at 45 in the old restaurant on the Sierra Highway, under the oak tree throwing its moving patches of shade.

After the service we all trooped down the hill to a streamside picnic area for hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad and soft drinks poured from two-liter plastic bottles. Greg, the carpenter, told me that the barbecue grill down here, set in a sturdy sandstone base, was a leftover from the restaurant days and had been virtually submerged in dirt like some old Mayan ruin until he came down here last year and dug it out with a Bobcat.

All in all quite low-key and not terribly culty as far as I could see. The man from â Boston had come back to where I sat in church toward the end of the service and asked if I wanted to come forward and be saved, which the wise guy in me might have answered, "In what sense?" Instead I said as politely as someone turning down a second cup of coffee, "Not today, thank you." Other than that there was no special pressure. (The money basket had such a complete lack of contributions that I did pitch in my all-time largest offering -- $5 -- out of voyeuristic guilt as much as anything.)

 

Of course the idea was to save souls, and on the way back in the van the pitch became fairly intense. I was toward the rear next to one parishioner reading from the Book of Isaiah, and a colleague began grilling me on my belief in God, Jesus, evolution and a literal hell. He wore shades and his dark hair was slicked straight back. Turning around to face me from the seat in front, he said he'd come to Los Angeles to write film scripts. "I could be sitting on some island with a mai tai," he said, "but I find this work much more satisfying." What seemed to burn especially bright with him was the absolute knowledge of a literal hell from which he wanted to save people like me. "I'm only telling you this," he said, "because we care about you, Mike." He mentioned the possibility of me getting off the van and getting hit by a bus and then heading toward a very unpleasant eternity. I'd had these conversations before, and discovered the best thing is to say as little as possible, though in truth the idea of some Ultimate Moral Accountant waiting to see if Fessier had or had not walked up the aisle of a certain former restaurant on the Sierra Highway to pronounce himself "saved" or, alternately, at just that last desperate moment, had confessed that yes, he had seen the light in the blue van barreling along the Hollywood Freeway -- and if he had not, then flinging the poor guy down in the Big Barbecue, well . . . this comes from a sensibility more foreign to me than anything George Lucas could dream up. Trying to get them off my case, I asked if they had any thoughts on the spiritual fate of their Boulevard competitor L. Ron Hubbard, and Shades said with complete confidence, as he said everything, "I imagine he's learning his lesson right now." He said this was also true for those false gods embedded in the Hollywood sidewalk, or at least the dead ones.

I saw the Vineland sign and knew Highland was imminent and that my time on the grill was coming to a blessed end. But the truth was they had already written me off. We were late back this Sunday afternoon and there would only be about 15 minutes before they'd be heading back to Canyon Country. This was not much time to gather up potential saves, but Shades still felt there was time and asked his friend for two large stacks of tracts from the back of the van -- half in English and half in Spanish. And with a stack in either hand he began to tense as we approached the Boulevard. He was like a paratrooper ready to get into battle. "Let's go save some souls," he said.

A FEW NIGHTS LATER I HAVE SET MYSELF up at the bar at Musso & Frank on the Boulevard, quite content for the moment with the next day's Racing Form, a magazine and a Bass ale in front of me. It is early and the only other patron is a guy talking baseball with the bartender, five stools away. Things feel okay at this instant. A few things have sorted themselves out, as they tend to do -- the knee is better, and with excessive amounts of ibuprofen I am able to run again. The phone company has graciously written off most of the $4,000 in phone bills run up by the calling-card-number thieves, and just as the palm reader said (it happened almost on the day she predicted it would), I've made my "big decision" and, as she said, done it on my own, listening to no one. (I've bought a car -- not an ultrareliable econobox -- against the pushy advice of my practical-minded two sons who do not believe in the necessity of being able to put the top down.)

As for the "spiritual breakthrough," I'm still not sure what it will be or if I'll recognize it when it happens. Mulling some of this along with the ninth at Hollywood Park, I notice I have company -- a woman has taken the stool next to me, spreading her own reading matter on the bar in front of her as she settles, saying to the approaching bartender, "A margarita, no ice."

My instinct in such a situation is to go into a mode of uninterested cool, suddenly very intent in my reading. I really haven't seen her but catch a flash of blond hair in the mirror before us and see out of the corner of my eye the zippered sleeve of a motorcycle jacket, much like the one the lady in front of me at the Church of Religious Science wore. Could it be the same woman?

 

She has some sort of brochure in front of her and I wonder what it is -- travel or computers or maybe something convention-connected? A quick glance tells me nothing.

"What are you reading?" I rehearse in my head, and "So what's so interesting?" -- each line lamer than the last.

As an ideal I like the Zen maxim "No trace: When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."

A neat trick indeed, but I am really more calculated than that. Not knowing exactly what instinct is -- other than, I suppose, an accumulation of life experience -- I wait for the message to come through, the appropriate action, what I should do.

"So what's so interesting?" I say.


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