Solitary Refinement

Jesus didn’t want to go into the wilderness all by himself any more than you do. He got baptized, and the Spirit drove him there (Mark 1:12). Anyway, wild beasts were out there with him, and angels, and there was even temptation. So he wasn’t really alone. You never are.

But Los Angeles: what a wonderful desert in which to be "alone" — a speck among millions of people who don’t care if you live or die. You can do almost anything, and it will make no difference. That’s freedom! Kind of scary, though. It can make you wonder who you are. People meditate, shut the door, "get away from it all," thinking they’re going to get in touch with their inner selves. But I find that I have a better idea of who I am when I’m around others, because they provide simple identities for me: customer, parent, worker, grouch, mark. Usually, I behave the way they expect me to; departing from their preconceptions causes too much tension. When I’m "alone," on the other hand, hundreds of personalities are free to pass over me like images on a screen. A TV screen: Flipping through the channels, I can sympathize with a crime victim one minute and want to kill someone the next. That’s a great thing about television, the way it can freeze a series of selves. But it’s only satisfying in the short term. Tearing away from it, I drift, seeking input that will provide direction. What book or music draws me? Maybe none. Do I want to call somebody? No, I want to escape people. I want control, but I want to be controlled. It’s in these moments that I find new identities.


I’m new in town, and I’m living alone in a giant warren of tiny cubicles on Santa Monica Boulevard by Wilton. The building is structured so the only views most cubicles get are of other cubicles in the wing across the way. It’s night. I look out my smog-blackened window. There’s a bright yellow light on in one of the rooms over there. No drapes. An old fat guy in a sleeveless undershirt and boxers is standing in front of a sink with a mirror. His gut is jiggling. It takes me awhile to figure out that he’s jerking off, and by then he’s finished. But not quite — he has something else to do. He fiddles around, and now he’s washing something in the sink. From the size and the beige color, it must be a rubber. He’s going to use it again later.


I’m up late, drinking beer. The refrigerator is packed with long-neck Budweisers and I’m going through them, sliding one into the freezer each time I take out a new one. I’m listening to music on headphones really loud: the Stones with "Sway" and "Midnight Mile," Aero smith with "Back in the Saddle" and "Home Tonight." Tomorrow I will be deaf, but tonight I don’t care if anyone ever speaks to me again. I twist open another Bud, and — uh-oh — I’ve left this one in the freezer too long, and it’s starting to cloud up with ice crystals. I run for a box of wooden matches and strike match after match, teasing the flame under the bottle till the ice dissipates. I lift the rim to my lips: aah, almost ice-free, just a touch of slush, and — what’s this? — a beautiful, pungent odor of pine smoke! At first I can’t pinpoint the source, then I realize my fingers are black from the match-smoke residue on the bottle. Amazing! For the rest of the night, I toast bottle after bottle. This is the way to drink beer.


I seldom do acid alone; it makes me edgy. Sometimes I do, though, and strange as it may seem, when I remember my solitary LSD experiences, I think of one


person. One night I’m driv ing around with a bunch of people, most of whom are on acid. I’m not at the wheel, I hope. A friend is host ing a radio show on KPFK, and we’re listening. Mary, I will find out later, is the show’s sound engineer, and that apparently establishes the remote acid connection with her. I meet her a year later. I don’t end up knowing her well, but we’re friendly, see each other here and there. Then another night I’m at home, on acid alone. The phone rings, and it’s Mary. It’s the first time she’s ever called me. How am I doing? Well, I’m on acid. We talk for a while. Years after, with few contacts in between, I’m doing acid alone again for the first time since that other one. The phone rings. Before I pick it up, I know who it is.


I’m a huge fan of the New York Dolls. In 1976, I go (alone) to the Dolls’ performance at the Palladium. I hang out afterward and find out they’re staying at the Holiday Inn. I go there and share a gallon jug of Sauterne that Arthur Kane is swilling, until he passes out. He gets laid if I’m not there: A quite attractive 35-year-old groupie is in the room, but after a while she gets disgusted by my presence and leaves, claiming she’ll return with her daughter. "Do you think she’s coming back?" Kane slurs. The following year, the Dolls have broken up. I see a poster advertising Kane’s new band, Killer Kane, will be playing at the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated a few years previous. I arrive (alone) on the appointed night, and the place is virtually deserted. After a diligent search, I discover that a basement room has been rented out to a dating agency, which is staging an event headlined by Killer Kane, supported by a band featuring one ex-member of the Fifth Dimension. The attendees are all sweaty, nervous people in polyester finery except myself (I lack the poly). The openers do an appropriate Vegas-style set. Then Killer Kane come on. They’re all in black leather, with colored lights flashing on plastic belts, and one guitarist is Blackie Lawless, soon to be the leader of WASP. They announce themselves as "the most outrageous band in the world," and thunder through a set of crude hard rock. For their finale, they generate clouds of "smoke" by stomping their 8-inch platforms on balloons filled with flour. The flour clears, and they have completely emptied the place except for me. I walk up to Kane. "Great set," I say. "Remember me?" He does not. Also, I have met no prospective dates.


My girlfriend has dumped me, so I have the apartment to myself. I’m playing sax, an instrument I’m not that proficient on, but sometimes I get on a roll, like now. I’m into some deep blues. It just keeps coming and coming, spiraling up and curling back down, no repetitions, just more and more, always changing shape. Finally I let out a long, low note and stop. The apartment is on the second floor, overlooking Argyle Avenue. It’s hot, so my windows aren’t shut. From the street, I hear a sound: handclaps — one, two, three, four, slow. I go and look down. A black limousine is parked below with its windows open. The engine starts. It pulls back and drives away.


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