My gluts are killing me.
It’s Monday morning. While everyone else in the world is working and grumbling about going to work, I sit in front of a computer, goldfish crackers on the right of me and half a bag of beef jerky to my left, still sore from walking twenty miles last Saturday.
Two years ago, when I made my first walk, I did about twelve miles just for the sake of doing it. Initially I only wanted to go to Ventura Blvd from my apartment in Canoga Park, just to see if I could make it. Instead, I ended up in Sherman Oaks nearly on the edge of Studio City. I met people, took pictures and all in all had a great time and became much more self-aware. As one friend put it, it became a pilgrimage.
Every year I made some discovery about myself. This year was different.
I left the house late for starters. With all good intentions to leave at eight in the morning I didn’t make my first steps until nine. As I walked listening to my iPhone music, rhythm in my step, I texted my friend Donella who’s son Miles made his first marathon. She remarked that I was on what is known as a Volksmarch (a term she picked up from a German neighbor from Biloxi). Volksmarch. I can do that.
And so, I dubbed thee, Volksmarch 2015.
The first encounter was this little old lady with curly red Lucy style hair (sorry it was 1980’s Life with Lucy, not classic I Love Lucy – I did mention she was older). The thing that was blog-worthy of this little old lady was her walk. She had more sass and soul in her step than the average seventy-something year old. Then she paused for a moment, looked to her right and stopped me and said, “I don’t have anyone else to tell, so I thought I’d share this with you.” She then pointed at this little wooden house with nothing but a “See that house over there?” I nodded and she went on to say, “That was the first house I ever smelled weed from.”
Okay, wow. I wasn’t expecting that.
She then told me this story about how when she was getting tutored for AP English in high school, the tutor lived at that house, and she as well as a few other girls came over and could smell marijuana coming from her teacher’s house. Right about that time I interjected saying, “I have to tell you, I saw you coming up on the sidewalk and thought, that lady has some serious swag in her walk.” That’s when she let me listen to her earphones.
It was, as she put it, ‘her girl, Aretha’ singing, “Think.”
Well that explained a lot, and I don’t think my iPhone playing the Steve Miller Band would have cut it to return the favor. That’s one of those moments you quickly hit the skip this button on your iPhone hoping to get some Motown.
But I laughed, thanked her, and walked away with her saying, “Yup, first time I ever smelled weed… and it wouldn’t’ be the last time.”
Yep. Pretty much.
So on I went, with my iPhone and earbuds and doubled-up insoles. I hit Ventura and Tampa by noon all the while keeping my promise to Ingrid to post where I was every half hour to the hour.
(That’s what you do when you’re now a couple – one person goes for a twenty mile trek while the other holds the fort on standby, in case the other who’s doing treks suddenly does collapse and gets eaten by a band of urban-ready coyotes sporting Starbucks gift cards and iPods nanos.)
The first thing I saw was a kid’s party at a local park. I’m not one to crash kid’s parties; weddings, Good Luck at the new job, Frank’ parties, yes. Not eight year olds’ birthdays. I kept walking. So far, I had done a good eight miles and still had about five to go until I hit the 405 and Sherman Oaks. I figured it would take me a couple of hours give or take a break or two. I knew I needed to stop soon for lunch and the granola bars wouldn’t hold. It was about then I found a small restaurant. On the outside it looked like a modest, sidewalk restaurant that only a few people knew about, what with its “lunch special sandwich board outside. So dirty and sweaty old me wouldn’t stand out. The second I walked in, and I saw those folded cloth napkins and polished silverware, I quickly regretted my decision the moment the concierge saw me and asked can I help you. He rushed to the door with the smile the quickly faded the moment he saw my dusty shirt and backpack. No offense to his prejudice, he probably even mistook me for a vagrant. It was the one time I actually hoped he’d say no to my next question.
“Um, are you guys serving lunch right now?”
He gave me a quick glance over and swallowed hard before uttering a small winded, “No, sorry.” I knew he was lying but I also knew judging by the menus and tablecloths that this wasn’t a place I could stop in and expect to pay under ten bucks. Needless to say, I wasn’t anywhere near offended and nodded, “no worries, have a good one.”
I paused a minute, straddling my backpack and wondering if I should have been insulted by that. If anything, I was thinking, “Dude, it’s okay. I’m dirty, you’re not. I get it. I’d send the customers running like the beginning of a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.” All the while as I headed down the sidewalk, I thought to myself would I have done the same thing? Turned away a paying customer judging by his looks?
Not long after did I come across an Armenian deli, literally not long after. I mean like three seconds, they were next door to each other. Admittedly I never had a Basturma wrap but the second I saw the cooler in the back stocked with crème sodas and Earth Wind and Fire playing “September” on the radio, this was a place I could sit and have a pita, and I gotta say, I loved my basturma.
Once my phone was charged, I headed back out into a balmy eighty-five degree day with no clouds save for the fumes of gray soot emanating from the Cadillac Escalades and BMW parade that rolled down the Tarzana boulevard, blowing their horns at pedestrians and drivers that actually obeyed the street laws. It was about that time I noticed that just about every shop in the district had a similar theme, and I don’t mean animal or safari themes (though considering it’s Tarzana, that would have been appropriate – someone should look into that). No I’m talking about a theme of feed me, clothe me, pretty me. There were enough restaurants and salons that could make a Bravo TV Housewife fat and happy for days. What dismayed me was that there were so few studios, no art galleries, and forget finding a book store. I know they were there once upon a time, but by this day and age, it was sad to say I couldn’t spot one. Even the public library had no sign out front to announce its presence, except for the “Used Book Sale” poster on its window.
An hour or two later, I made it into mile twelve of my Volksmarch, had a homemade ice cream cone and watched as a little three year old in a pink dress danced to the Larry Williams Band playing Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” That actually made me feel a bit better and distracted me from the menagerie of merchandising and narcissism that went up and down the boulevard. (Too harsh? Probably)
Now somehow, and I can’t say how I did it, but I made it to Sherman Oaks in record time, an hour earlier than I made it a year ago, and that’s AFTER starting out an hour later. With that little bit of inspiration, I walked harder, pushing myself to go on and go faster. By four o’clock I was on the edge of Studio City, sweating at Fatburger’s (a place I only heard of on Sanford and Son prior to my move to L.A. ten years ago), with a pink lemonade and searching for a spot to charge my cell.
Nary a Starbucks in sight.
My feet hurt, my back ached and I couldn’t feel my pinky toe. So I texted Ingrid to let her know I was thinking of calling it a day and heading home. But she replied, “It’s only a few more miles…”
Well damn, as if it were that easy.
But I hesitated, because right after she said that, she said this.
I pushed on, not because I felt I should because I did the year before. Not because I was documenting everything on Facebook and I’d have to eat virtual crow the next day for not honoring my own request. But because there was a woman at home who had my back. I was her warrior. So I fought whatever temptation I had even down to the little elf that lived inside of my foot and attacked my ankles with a pickaxe, I pushed on.
It was only five-thirty by the time I found a Coffee Bean coffee house and stopped inside to charge the phone (nay, it was not a Starbucks of legend, but they had air conditioning and power outlets, so beggars can’t be choosers). Sitting there, watching the people come and go… well sitting was all I could do at that point, I finally got the strength to stand. The girl smiled, I said “hi how are you,” which for a brief moment took her by surprise when she could actually respond with a “I’m actually doing alright for a Saturday afternoon, how are you?” And I replied, “Not bad for a guy who walked from Chatsworth.”
She crinkled her eyes at me, “Walked?”
“…walked.” She echoed this as an answer, as if trying to make sense of it in her head.
“You do know there are cars now,” she chuckled.
I laughed, “It’s a yearly thing I do. I walk across San Fernando Valley.”
“Really? I bet you meet interesting people.”
“Every time, then I write their stories down, and when I’m done, I call my girlfriend and she drives me home.”
“That’s awesome! I bet you want something cold to drink then.”
I shrugged my shoulders, with no idea except, “Do you have sweet tea by any chance.”
She gave me a sweet tea with orange and I paid and took my seat. Not long after did a lady turn to me and she pointed with a smile, “Nice shirt.” I looked down forgetting I was wearing my old retro Star Wars shirt. “Thanks!”
“My husband has the exact same one,” she said, and it was just then when her little girl tugged at her blouse, “Mommy! Daddy has that same shirt!” The mom pointed down, and nodded as if to say, ‘See? I’m not BSing you.’
I left there with a better outlook. The day wasn’t wasted. I made three connections – not to mention the senior at Target who called me a gentleman for letting her through the entrance before me. So far, I had proven chivalry wasn’t dead, older ladies dig Aretha Franklin, sweet tea exists west of the Mississippi, and George Lucas or Disney owes me some residuals for carrying their logo across the SFV.
It was six thirty. I was at mile marker eighteen (AKA Jinya Ramen Bar) and according to my map, I had only a mile or two to go. I was way ahead of schedule. That time last year, I had barely passed Art’s Deli in Studio City, now I was on the edge of Burbank. My feet weren’t as tired as before. My back didn’t hurt so much, I thought to myself, I could go further, maybe even into North Hollywood. But I looked up, saw the sun was starting to hang a little lower as it barely glinted off the Comcast Universal building… yeah. The Universal Building.
I rounded the corner, apparently without even realizing it, I made my destination… with surprising ease. My Volksmarch was complete… and over much faster than I’d wanted.
Somewhat anticlimactic actually.
So I texted Ingrid to let her know I would take the bus and she could pick me up at the bus stop. As I rode down the same path I walked, I sat there feeling a little dismayed. I watched as the journey shrunk miles into minutes, episodes into moments. And I realized something.
Just about every single person I came into contact with smiled at me. They were friendly. They were polite, and I guess the reason for that was that I greeted them with a smile and a hello. From the senior I let enter the doorway before me, the Lucy haired marijuana memory, and even the Coffee Bean barista.
A smile. It’s what connects us. Joy is a very powerful weapon.
Everybody on that boulevard was in a pleasant spirit. They all greeted each other with a warm smile. I remembered the dad and two uncles taking a toddler still in the stroller, holding the entire carriage while making their way down a few steps. I remembered the mom run through sprinklers with her two-year-old son outside of temple. I remembered the one little girl on laying on her belly outside in a tire swing in the morning.
Chivalry still existed.
So did playtime, innocence and Saturday mornings.
The world didn’t get more cynical, I did.
I sat with that for a moment as we got closer to our stop. I wanted to gain some insight about myself and walk away with something good. Please tell me this wasn’t it.
But then I realized while thinking back on all of this, people still approached me with their stories without my asking for them. I could still see the good in people, the children’s birthday parties, the cake and ice cream among the graffiti and nail salons – the sun was still shining through the clouds. I couldn’t be that bad off.
The main thing I wanted was that burning bush moment at the end, to hear God say, “Here’s what I need you to do.” Instead what I got was, “You already have everything you need, you already know what you have to do, and you’re doing it.”
Perhaps what I needed to see was already there, I just needed confirmation.
Connection and confirmation.
Sometimes it takes a long walk through your own home to see what’s right in front of you. The forest through the trees, the whole sha-bang.