This ain’t no disco
Ain’t no country club either
“This is LA.” My interviewer sits down at her desk and hands my portfolio back to me. “I’m sorry, Ms. Beesly,” she adds when she sees the crestfallen look on my face.
I stifle a heavy sigh and just take the folder from her, my life’s work feeling unusually heavy in my hands.
The interviewer purses her lips and thinks for a moment, as though she’s deciding how much to tell me. “I’m not saying this is all bad,” she says, gesturing to my portfolio. “But it’s not what we’re looking for.”
I thank her and leave as quickly as I can. There are tears stinging my eyes and the roof of my mouth is hurting from trying to hold it in. I don’t need strangers in an elevator watching me cry.
The first interview I had today for a small advertising agency was almost worse than this. The guy interviewing me was on the phone for the first ten minutes while I waited on the other side of the desk, and then he opened my portfolio, took one glance, and said, “Sorry, babe, that ain’t gonna cut it.”
It hurt, but truth be told, I wasn’t really interested in the job, and I took it as a sign that I could do something more creative and more soulful than commercial work. So I went to this second interview feeling hopeful, thinking a mural in inner city LA would be right up my alley. I guess I was wrong.
I took the day off from my job waitressing at a Chili’s near my apartment so I could focus on my two interviews, but now it’s mid-morning and I’m aimless, restless, the hot California sun reminding me just how much empty day I have left.
The logical thing to do would be drive back to my studio apartment, have a good cry, and work on something new. But instead, (after having a good cry in the parking lot) I drive a few miles west to this hole-in-the-wall bar I discovered when I first moved here. It’s close enough to the beach that you could walk to the ocean if you really wanted to, but it’s not so close that the prices go up unnecessarily. I come here because it makes me feel like a local, although I leave my apartment infrequently enough that I’m basically still a tourist. But at least the bartender knows me by now. That makes me a local, right?
“How’s it goin’, kid?” he drawls as I walk in the door.
“Hey, Creed,” I say. I plunk myself down at one of the shorter ends of the area surrounding the bartending station. “It’s… well, it’s going.”
“What’ll it be?” he asks.
“Just a Bud Lite.”
I take a swig and immediately start picking at the label, my gaze falling to the window across the room. The bar is directly across the street from a giant car wash, but there’s enough of a gap between buildings that I can see the ocean if I look in the right place. The car wash looks nice enough that I can tell it’s not very old, and I wonder what my view would be if it were gone, and there was nothing but air and sky between here and the shore. I’ve dreamt of views like that.
My dreams started with a house overlooking the ocean, something clean and modern yet still cozy and old-fashioned in its layout, something with a balcony where I could work and wave to neighbors or families taking their kids to play in the sand. I now know that houses like that are so expensive that they’re rarely owned by individual people, instead being passed down from generation to generation or immortalized as a hub for fancy business meetings. So I let that dream go.
These days, I’m in a dinky studio apartment with popcorn ceiling and a microwave and toaster oven that can’t both be on at the same time. I can look out the window and see graffiti-adorned bus stops and a 7-Eleven proudly displaying a Camel cigarettes advertisement.
And at this point, I don’t know what I’m working towards anymore.
I’m so tired of not knowing what I’m doing. Making a living as an artist is one of the riskiest things I can imagine, and lately I’ve been wondering if I’m even passionate enough about art to pursue it as a career. Maybe I’m better off just moving back home, going back to school. At least my parents would approve.
“Just one day, you know?”
A man’s voice from somewhere else in the bar pulls me back to reality, back to the poorly air-conditioned bar and the shady beach town and the Bud Lite label shredded in my hand.
I look up over to the long part of the bar, and I find the source of the sound immediately. I mean, there’s only one other person here. Well, besides Creed. The man tosses his lit-up pager on the counter and runs his fingers through his hair, the sleeve on his jacket riding up as he bends his elbow. He’s wearing a nice gray suit with a white shirt and a royal blue tie, and I’m feeling unnecessarily self-conscious about my own thrift-store blazer and floral dress combo, even though there’s absolutely no reason for that.
“I’m James,” he says as we make eye contact, holding up his hand in a brief wave.
My eyebrows go up before I can reign them in. James? No way that’s his name. I’m sure it’s Jim or Jimmy or Junior or something like that. Some casual J name like that. But I just give him a little smile and reply, “Hi, I’m Pam.”
“How’s it going, Pam?” he says, with that upward nod that guys do. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes, though.
“Rough day?” I ask.
“Did the eleven o’clock beer or the look of despair on my face give you that impression?”
I let out a chuckle before I can take a sip of my own bottle. “Uh, the beer, I guess. But hey, it takes one to know one.”
He cranes his head to look at the label on my bottle. “C’mon, lite beer? That’s not real alcohol.” He turns to Creed. “Can I get two Americanos over here?”
“Sure thing, Skip,” Creed says.
“Thanks,” I say to James, smiling sheepishly. I still don’t know how to act when someone buys me a drink, especially when it’s a stranger, and especially when it’s a cute stranger like this one. Okay, a really cute stranger.
“Don’t mention it,” he replies.
Creed sets down our drinks, and then it’s silent for a long moment. Normally I like the quiet, but right now I’m feeling like any gap in conversation is time my brain wants to linger on my botched interviews.
“So what happened?” I finally ask James.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know why I’m at a bar in the middle of the morning; what brings you here? You look like you have better places to be.”
He chuckles humorlessly. “Yeah, you would think.” He takes another sip of his drink and swirls it lightly in the glass, the ice clinking against the sides. “Uh, I just blew a sale. Kind of a big one. And it was the main reason for the trip out here, so….” He finishes with a shrug. “It was either this or stay in my hotel room and beat myself up until my flight home.”
“I mean, it’s not like there’s a shortage of things to do here. You could go to Disneyland,” I offer with a playful smile.
He chuckles again and this time I see his eyes light up, just a little bit. “A thirty-year-old guy at Disneyland by himself would be a little weird.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I reply.
“What about you?”
“Oh, I failed two interviews.”
“Nice. Both this morning?”
“That’s rough. I’m sorry,” he says sincerely. I offer a shrug and a half-smile. “What do you do?”
I hesitate briefly before answering. “I’m an artist.”
“Oh, that’s awesome!”
“Well, right now it isn’t,” I say, making us both laugh. “But thank you.”
“What kind of art?”
“Mostly painting and mostly watercolor, but I worked on one mural a few months ago. That’s been literally the only professional job that I’ve gotten out here, and it’s actually how I found this bar, but that’s another story.”
“Well, you’re not getting out of that one so easily because I love a good bar story." His pager buzzes abruptly against the counter, and James sighs and slides off his barstool. “You got a phone I can borrow?” he asks Creed.
“In the bathroom,” Creed says, pointing to the hallway with his thumb.
James looks at me and raises his eyebrows before disappearing down the hall. I take the last sip of my drink and note that his glass is empty too. Well, I guess that’s the end of that, I think.
While he’s gone, a rather loud group of construction workers ambles in, and they take up almost every seat at the bar, leaving only the one next to me. Yup, that’s definitely the end of that.
I’m starting to think about getting out of here, give myself a little time for the effects of the alcohol to settle down first, when James finally reappears from the hallway. He’s ditched his jacket and is now carrying it in his arms with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and even though the bar was warm to begin with, I’m blushing. He takes one look at his now filled seat, and sits down next to me as though that’s where he’s been sitting this whole time.
“Hey,” he says casually. “Looks like the place got popular all of a sudden.” He scoots the seat over slightly, not to distance himself, but to make room for me. Which I need because the construction worker on my right is looking a little too friendly.
James reaches over and takes a few pretzels from the bowl in front of him, delicately holding them between two long fingers. I don’t think he touched any of the ones still in the bowl. Anyway.
“My dad always said that pretzels were invented by a bartender so people would get thirsty and want to drink more.”
I cringe at my lame story, but James just smiles through his mouthful. “I mean, I’m sure they were.”
I make a mental note to let him initiate the conversation from this point forward, even though I know I won’t stick to that resolve. Silence is just making me anxious, and I’m liking not being alone right now. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.
The first surge of lunchtime carwashes is happening across the street. We get a show of all the nine-to-five workers hosing off their four-doors in suits and pumps and loafers, before driving back to the furniture stores or phone companies or wherever they work.
They chat and pick at their lunches while they wait their turn, occasionally getting a little too close to the spray of the hose. They let out a brief exclamation that turns into an apology and a joke about the situation. They check their reflection in the car windows to fix their hair and adjust their collars, then settle back into conversation, probably griping about the workday or their commute or their boss.
These are good people.
But they’re nothing like Jimmy and me.