I met Marsha at a fundraiser for New Directions for Economic Opportunity and Affordable Housing in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that aimed to do exactly what its name suggested. I knew the fellow who helped organize the fundraiser. He was a writer who worked part-time at New Directions. It wasn’t their annual Angelenos for All awards dinner, which honored leaders creating a better future for the city, where tickets ranged from $400 to $100,000, where patrons could buy a table for $4,000. It was a smaller event at a club in West Hollywood. That was Marsha’s idea. She thought it would be helpful to host fundraisers for young people like herself, fundraisers that didn’t cost much but where New Directions could raise money and, also, more importantly, perhaps, get the word out about their work to young adults in the City of Angels. The executive leadership agreed, and Marsha and my friend Troy, the writer, organized fundraising events three times a year: winter, spring, and fall. They took the summers off. There was music, there were drinks, there were people. A twenty-five-dollar donation got you in the door, and after that, the conversations and dancing began. That’s where I met Marsha, at a club called The Open Space, and we clicked instantly.
I had just started my teaching credential program at CSUN. I was also waiting tables and playing music on the side. That’s another long story. When I first came to Los Angeles, I wanted to make it as a singer-songwriter. I was a minor celebrity at the liberal arts college I went to in eastern Pennsylvania. Singing at the student center. Singing at the coffee houses and less rowdy bars off campus. I played basketball there, too, on an athletic scholarship, but I won’t delve too deeply into that distant college history now, except to say that I also majored in history. Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and PBS history documentaries had something to do with that. I grew up watching those. And I liked reading popular books about history, books written by real historians who could tell an interesting story. History was a natural choice as a major. And, as I said, I played music and basketball. Even though I knew I would never become a pro basketball player, I believed I could be a professional musician and a singer-songwriter. Again, like I said, I was a minor celebrity in college. People dug my stuff and encouraged me to pursue it.
I had a college friend who had become a video editor and lived in Burbank. He said I could move there and stay with him if I wanted, sleep on his couch until I got settled.
That’s what I did.
Me, my guitar, and everything else I could carry moved out to Burbank to stay with Frank.
Eventually I found a place to live in Santa Monica. It was a big white house that rented rooms to young adults like me. A perfect fit. Lucky. And I found a job as a waiter in downtown Santa Monica. I was a good waiter. I had good hands. I was fast. And I liked meeting people and talking with customers. Entertaining them, really. It was new, but I liked it. I was far from home, but I wasn’t homesick. It was different from eastern Pennsylvania, I’ll tell you that, but that’s part of the reason why I loved it so much. Not that I don’t love eastern Pennsylvania. I do. But that walk through Palisades Park overlooking the Santa Monica Pier, the beach, and the volleyball courts on the sand, seeing the Pacific Coast Highway and the California coast itself curve north toward Malibu and south toward Venice.
To have all of that in your backyard?
That was cool.
So, there I was, in southern California, living the life.
I bought a used red Toyota Tacoma and drove around in that.
To the shiny bars, darkly lit clubs, and noisy restaurants of the extending neighborhoods, by which I mean primarily, at first, to the Lodestar Bar in East Hollywood, the Epoch Club in Echo Park, and the silver restaurants in Santa Monica for brunch and late dinners. Then out on the city streets to visit friends who lived on 25th near Douglas Park or Pico Boulevard near Santa Monica College. I’d drive up the coast to the sandy stretch of Zuma Beach, to the curved seclusion of Paradise Cove in Malibu, or to Santa Barbara via the northern lanes for enchiladas on State Street and to Encinitas via the southern for walks at the Yogananda hermitage. I’d stream through the ravines of Malibu Canyon or down upon the more deeply curving and shadowy two-lane highway through Topanga Canyon. Sometimes, I’d travel over to Griffith Park for a hike up the dusty trail to the top of Mount Hollywood. Later, I’d step out of my truck and onto the white sidewalks and then under the banners at LACMA and into the museum itself for glimpses of a sculpture portraying Parvati, a portrait by Hockney, or an enigmatic canvas of Jasper Johns, then taste the hot brewed coffee at C+M, the LACMA café. I’d drive my red truck under the green traffic lights to the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards where stood the Hammer Museum, solidly built, seemingly built out of thick lines – cake layers, really – of black and white stone, for a weekend cultural event. Departing from another parking lot, I’d take the tram uphill to the terraced garden at the Getty Museum, to the multiplex of its galleries, and then walk across the stoned patios that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. I’d breeze across town to Third Street for breakfast at Joan’s on Third or to Soquel for sushi in the evening, looking out at the people on the street through the big windows inside. In my red truck I would go west on San Vicente Boulevard hypnotized by the grassy green median all the way to Palisades Park. I’d follow the sunlight to Venice during an early morning hour on Saturday to stroll the boardwalk and contemplate the rollerbladers gliding by. On any day of the week, I’d make quick trips to Ralphs supermarket, to Walgreens drugstore, and to Starbucks coffee.
And, especially, I’d drive to my music gigs.
I played open mics, but I also arranged for paying gigs at one nearby wine bar and more at local saloons, taverns, pubs, lounges, whatever you want to call them. I played my guitar and sang on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade and on the Santa Monica Pier. Signing the permit application for those performances was the first legal document I signed regarding my musical career. Finding public performance spaces in Santa Monica is more difficult than you would think. There are even lotteries to assign spaces. I played for the Songwriter Series at the Silverlake Lounge. I started hanging out at the Hotel Café.
Like I said, I was living the life.
I was working as a waiter in my dress black pants, dress white shirt, spotless white server apron, and shiny black shoes, playing guitar and singing, getting around and seeing the sights. I walked around town and, sometimes, used public transportation, but usually I drove my red Toyota truck.
It was Los Angeles, after all.
The city that made automobile traffic famous.
It is also the city where I discovered that I was absolutely average.
Have you ever been to Washington Square Park in New York City? Near the fountain? In Greenwich Village? Have you ever watched the people there? People stream into that square from all corners all day long. From morning to night. Thousands of them. It never stops.
That’s what Los Angeles is like, in terms of musical and artistic talent.
There’s enough musical and artistic talent in Los Angeles to populate a whole new city.
I’m not saying I wasn’t talented, but when it came to being talented in Los Angeles, I was one among thousands. I started to see that. Talent is one thing, but success is another. A thousand things have to come together to become a successful singer-songwriter. It’s show business after all. Behind every successful musician there is a special kind of power. I mean, real power. The kind of power people talk about when they talk about God. I’m not kidding. I mean, you can call it God or the Divine or the Infinite Source or the Creative Spirit, but whatever you call it, it’s there, and some people channel it. ‘Channel’ isn’t the right word. Some people are at one with it. It flows through them. They have to be faithful to it, they have to work with it, in an incredibly determined and energetic way, but real musical success is not one person’s doing. It’s part of a divine, creative flow that, ultimately, you can only be grateful for. And it involves other human beings and, nowadays, scientific technologies. You’ve got to be equipped for it.
All of it.
I started to see I could be at one with the minor currents of the great creative flow in this earthly world, but I wasn’t going to be a star, if you know what I mean. So, I decided to cash in my chips and begin a new direction. That’s when I applied to the teaching credential program at CSUN. I thought I could be a high school history teacher, maybe coach basketball, and continue to play music on the side, as they say. I didn’t want to go back to Pennsylvania. I loved southern California. So, that’s what I did. When I started at CSUN, I entered a new chapter of my life, and that’s when I met Marsha. I was still waiting tables to make money and still living in Santa Monica.
She was working at New Directions and living in East Hollywood.
That’s where we were in our lives when we met at The Open Space.
Physical attraction counts for a lot. I was attracted to her and she was attracted to me. She was tall, dark-haired, and lean, and had a bright smile and a feminine voice that could be both soothing and enthusiastic. At least to me, anyway. She often tilted her head slightly when I talked to her, looked up at me pensively with her dark eyes, listening intently. I loved that about her. I listened to her, too. I had never dated a political activist before, and I wanted to hear what she said. I had studied history and was going to be history teacher. History is political. She had never dated a musician or, at least, someone who had my kind of musical life. We were intrigued with each other, and we started living our lives together. We went to shows, from small clubs to the Hollywood Bowl. She introduced me to her political activist friends, and I began to become more interested in reading the newspapers and magazines she read.
Marsha had gone to CSUN, too. She grew up in Santa Clarita. Her parents still lived there. She graduated with a degree in political science and was especially interested in political economy. She won an award for writing the best undergraduate paper in the Political Science Department, and, after she graduated, she started working at New Directions. When I got my teaching credential and, then, also got my job at Harrison High, she got her new job with the city councilmember. It happened around the same time. I was still living in Santa Monica and commuting to the Valley. She was living in East Hollywood and commuting to the Valley. We decided to combine forces and move in together in Encino at the Vista Apartments.
It seemed meant to be.
That’s when my relationship with Marsha took off.
That’s when we began to accumulate some real experiences.
We started doing things again we had done before like going to the Hollywood Bowl and Zuma and all of that, things like hiking through Griffith Park and Topanga Canyon, but we also started exploring new things. Especially during the summer. Trips to La Jolla, Encinitas, San Diego, Cambria, Big Sur, and Carmel. We stayed at the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco, drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, traveled further north to Sonoma and Napa and Point Reyes.
We took one trip to New York City.
Another to Vancouver.
One more to Mexico City.
We got along so well in so many ways. We were a perfect match for each other physically, too, young, strong, and willing. Marsha was raven-haired and ravenous, and I, too, had a great appetite for life. For her. We were a perfect match for each other when it came to wrestling together in the name of love, shedding our clothes on the comfortable mattresses and luxurious sheets up and down the state of California, in bed and breakfasts, hotels and motels, or in sleeping bags on the forest grounds of Yosemite or the sandy beaches out by Point Reyes, not to mention in our one-bedroom apartment in Encino. In the early days, and even in the later days, moving in tandem in bodily motion and feeling one another’s smooth skin and sweat were never more beautiful and glistening and meaningful to me than when I was with Marsha. The gleam in those dark eyes, the smile on her lips, the touch of her hair and skin. That was all something to see. And feel. The flame never went out as far as I was concerned.
But, as I might have implied, our relationship consisted mostly in accumulating experiences and then processing them through conversations. The experiences and the conversations were great, I’m not saying they weren’t, but I’m not sure the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, if you know what I mean. We were experiencing things and talking about them, but I’m not sure if we ourselves were creating something larger. And then the whole thing started to implode. The experiences became less meaningful. So did the conversations.
I think both of us knew that there had to be something more to love and life than what we had, that there had to be, in fact, a higher love and a higher life, and that maybe the one last truly meaningful experience we were meant to have – before we could get on with the rest of our lives – was to break up.
Which is what we did.
It took a little while for that to happen, though.
Christopher Mahon has published fiction, journalism, essays, and poetry in a number of magazines and newspapers, including The Chrysalis Review; The Merton Seasonal; War, Literature & the Arts; and the San Jose Mercury News.