Breaking the Fourth wall

By Mel Yiasemide

I wanted to belong, so I drove around looking for a crowd.

The Hollywood Bowl didn’t want me — I wasn’t rich, or organized, or popular enough to be a $149-a-seat party of four at July 4 fireworks with the Dodgers.

I drove around, like I said, listening to the boom of distant warfare and doing what I do every year I've lived in this country: downplaying the significance of American Independence Day to a Londoner in L.A.

In a previous millennium, my ex–father-in-law made a yearly joke about how my side lost. He had three chances to make that joke with me and it wasn’t funny the first time, but I loved his Brooklyn accent.

Bang, bang, bang, I heard, as I filled up at a Los Feliz gas station, while fireworks shot up behind the houses. Good night for a gangbanger to pop someone and slink away.

The smell of gunpowder in the dark will always remind me of one thing: Guy Fawkes Night in London. The sparklers, the aftermath of smoke, the chill in the air that makes the memory whole.

I drove past the Silverlake Lounge. The door was open, a couple of people were outside. Like Robert Redford and the lady in that hotel room in that movie, I would not be alone tonight.

I parked and went inside.

There she was, in her ill-fitting dress, ’80s wedge haircut and flesh-tone pantyhose thicker than flesh itself. She was lip-synching to an American ’50s pop song, turning the v’s into b’s. I could tell she didn’t know what she was singing.

“Karaoke?” I asked the bartender after I ordered my drink. I decided to stay.

“Drag night.”

I looked again. Unlit bulbs above the stage spelled SALVATION, and the disco ball was still, as if waiting for the good times to start before rolling.

The normal-looking crowd was fucking with my shit. They looked like my family. A group of women filled the table in front of me. Out of shape, no makeup, neurosis-free, they were enjoying the show.

That middle-aged Hispanic guy with the paunch and the cowboy hat, what was he doing here? And the guy next to him, the same but taller, chatting and watching with him like it was no big thing.

Flesh-tone Pantyhose disappeared behind the cheap red-velvet curtain and was replaced by a Benny Hill–looking motherfucker with a bad blond wig, spiked silver heels and a lisp you could hear when she was just mouthing the words. (I say motherfucker in a good way, with all the respect.)

Turns out Paunch Cowboy and his friend know some things about longevity that I have yet to master. Benny Hill said something about quattro anni anniversario and the two men joined her onstage for tequila shots.

We were all clapping by now. Nobody was hitting on me, nobody was acting like I’d walked into the wrong bar, even though it was really Spindrift I was heading to see at the Echo, two blocks down. I just didn’t drive that far.

To my right, the type of guy who’d bother me at the same club on a different night was being caressed by a man in a backless red-velvet dress that looked like the good part of the curtain.

To my left, a short man with a shaved head and beige shorts kept going up to Benny Hill, kissing her and whispering something in her ear. He took longer each time. And each time, he’d return to the bar to put his arm around his boyfriend.

I didn’t get it till I saw the dollar bills sticking out of Benny’s bad décolletage. I still didn’t get it until I realized the guy’s hands weren’t showing and it wasn’t the quality of the whispered sentiments that inspired the shit-eating grins he flashed at his boyfriend on his returns.

On a different night, decades ago, I could see The Band or Maria McKee on this stage. Tonight, a small, bowlegged man in a mini and stilettos whose laces crisscrossed his bandy calves bounced past me on her way to the men’s room.

Ain’t that America, I realized, as I got it again about tonight.

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