Everthing Must Go
By George Lee
I have a new job, but this Saturday I'm
on the bum. I don't receive my first paycheck until next Friday and I can't
wait any longer for the freelance writing money to arrive in the mail. I need
money to survive this week. This minor problem requires that I sell my conga
drum at a West Hollywood pawnshop.
"How much do you want for it?" the pawnbroker asks. He's a young Russian guy with short blonde hair, a Lakers jersey and flip-flop sandals.
"Make me an offer," I say. "I do all my drum recording on my computer now. It's not that I need the money."
His blue eyes show no reaction. "How much did you pay for it?"
"At least $200 or probably more." I lean on the glass counter, looking at the fake Gucci watches.
He walks to the back of the store to talk with an older woman seated at a desk. They speak in Russian while flipping through the pages of instrument appraisal books. Meanwhile, a young junkie is pacing around the store with his CD Walkman, sniffling and averting his eyes from mine. He's singing along with his headphones. It sounds like "Big Girls Don't Cry" by The Four Seasons. I notice the headphones he's wearing are not connected to the Walkman. He tries to leave the shop but the security cage doors are locked. He doesn't say anything as he stands in front of the door. He stares into the street, hums and waits.
"This guy wants to leave," I say to the owner, who hits the door buzzer.
The junkie kid exits the pawnshop and disappears around a corner.
I sit in a plastic chair in front of a wall of television sets. They're all tuned to a golf game but without any sound. The store is crammed with TVs, VCRs, stereos, cameras, coats, bikes, and assorted pieces of other people's history, lives and memories. Sunlight streams through the windows in slants. The smell of burnt coffee mixes with mothballs. I hear pages being turned and Russian words. On the television screen animated M&M's dance in silence with smiles and extended arms. Personified food products convince consumers that they are non-threatening and delicious.
"Forty dollars," he says.
I meet him at the counter. "Forty dollars? I paid $200 for it."
"The book says that these bongo drums come in a pair for two hundred. Fifty dollars we can do."
I nod to him as he goes to get the paperwork. I look up and see my electric guitar and mandolin hanging from the ceiling. Maybe he remembers me coming in here a half a year ago to pawn these instruments. All he needs now is one of my basses to complete the set. It's sad looking at my old instruments collecting dust in a pawnshop. In this world of materials and memories, everything is transient. One moment I'm making great money and eating like a prince, the next I'm on the bum and cooking rice and beans. Nothing is forever.
With fifty dollars I walk back to my car in the hot noon sun. Shiny European sedans roll down the street as I feel like a fuck up. An honors degree from a prestigious New England college, years of hard work and experience -- all of this doesn't mean shit in this world of illusions. I'm selling my beloved conga drum so I can have gas and food money. A measly fifty dollars to help pay some debts and get by. I'm not looking for sympathy or empathy. It's just my current situation. I feel guilty for selling the drum. The conga drum I played in our funk combo, the drum of late night jams, the drum of camping trips, the drum I bought with my first paycheck from my news wire reporter job. Drum of my dreams. My drum. The drum now for sale in a pawn store.
I'm complaining in the sun. I'm complaining in $160 shoes. It's just a minor problem of getting back on my feet again. And now I have a little money. After running four miles this morning, a light breakfast of oatmeal and grapefruit, and selling my shit for some cash, I'm hungry.
I drive around Los Angeles dreaming of all the culinary options. I know I should go home and cook something healthy, but I want to treat myself. There is Pho in Chinatown. There are taquitos in Olvera Street. There is kimchi chi-gae on Western. There is pizza at Palermo's. There is sushi in Santa Monica. Suddenly, it flashes in mind: Burbank. I can shop on my favorite block, eat Italian at Monte Carlo then buy some food in the deli. I point my car towards Burbank and hit the pedal.
At a stoplight I see a transvestite prostitute sitting at a bus stop. She's petting a fury purse in her lap. I look closer and see it's really a sleeping cat. The prostitute, high and with half-opened eyes, is nodding off. Her lipstick is smeared and she's wearing a black dress. From my car window I hear her mumble to her cat.
"We'll give you a real funeral, baby. You'll be happier where you're going," she says to the cat. I realize that the cat is not sleeping. It's dead. Her long purple painted nails graze over the dead cat's fur as her head dips and falls in a drowsy motion.
The car behind me honks. The light is green and I drive away.
At the thrift store I try on a dead man's sweater. It's too small on me and not in the best condition. I pass. When I die, my clothes will be here for people to try on. I wonder who will try on my sweaters and pass on them.
I buy an old 1953 National Geographic at the bookstore for the cut ups and collage research. The storeowner, a sweet lady with a high voice and long gray-blonde hair, displays her pro-Bush propaganda behind her counter. A man in a white shirt and blue tie sits on the floor. He furiously writes in a notebook while a large book is open on his lap. I get a quick peek at the cover. It's a book about hypnosis.
I head inside a drugstore to get back my film from a recent trip to San Francisco. I'm excited about the all the pictures of my friends up North. I can organize the photos in my albums; they'll be tangible memories and images for me to refer to later. I hand the photo clerk the receipt but he informs me that none of my pictures came out. There is a leak in the camera and the film was unable to be processed. No charge either way, he says. As I leave the store I promise myself to remember things about the trip. But like the surplus Fourth of July items on sale in the drugstore, some of the memories will be pushed away for upcoming seasons.
At the Monte Carlo restaurant I order lasagna, garlic bread, spinach salad, Calamata olives, and a soda.
"A lot olives?" the guy serving me asks. He doesn't know what Calamata olives are.
"The black olives please," I tell him.
I take my tray to the back dining room called the Pinocchio room. It feels like I'm eating in the basement of a recreation center and the plastic trays remind me of cafeteria food. It's a large room with fold out tables, red booths, and metal chairs. I sit at a table and start eating my lunch. The ambience of the room is beautiful and surreal. Where else can you eat bland Americanized Italian food with large paintings of Pinocchio surrounding you? The paintings are from different scenes of the tale. The one in front of me shows Pinocchio drinking wine from a jug. I don't remember that scene from the story. I know Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. We share the same struggle. I think of pawning the drum, feel guilty and grab some garlic bread.
"I'm sure he only got twenty-five bucks for pawning that in," a man says a few tables behind me.
I freeze with a piece of garlic bread stuffed in my mouth.
"With an instrument like that, he should have restored it and it would have been worth a whole hell of lot more," another man says.
I don't dare to turn around. From their voices they sound like rednecks. I continue eating and act like I'm too absorbed in my food. I don't want them to know that I'm listening. Were they following me? Why did they think I got only twenty-five dollars for the drum?
"I told him that a guitar like that, with its pearl inlay, is an absolute classic. They don't make guitars like that anymore, you know," the first man says.
I'm relieved that they're not talking about me. Coincidentally, they're on the subject of pawning musical instruments.
A crooning swing song, "Downtown Strutters Ball," blares through the speakers. I recognize the song because I own the single. I even had to learn the song for a gig I played in college. I wonder if I still remember the changes.
"You can play this song, right?" the man asks.
"Yeah," I instantly mumble with my mouthful of lasagna. Thankfully, they didn't hear me. I listen to the men talk about guitars, pawnshops and upcoming gigs. They talk about a new bass player and how he's got "chops" that will cut down anybody else.
Finally, I glance over my shoulder to check them out. Seated at a booth across the room from me are two identical twins. They look to be in their late 30s. Both have curly mullets, faded tattoos and are wearing black t-shirts. One has a mustache, the other doesn't. Both are eating sandwiches. They look like either country or rock musicians. Maybe they're country-rock musicians. The painting above their booth shows Gepetto in the belly of the whale, writing by candlelight. I'm blessed by this weird scene.
"I wish we could get the old band back together," one of them says.
"Too bad he moved away when things got all messed up."
"Yeah, things change."
I finish my meal and leave as inconspicuously as possible. While passing their table, I hear one of them whisper, "I think that Chinese dude recognizes us from one of the gigs."
"Should we give him a flyer for the next show?" the other asks.
I step up my pace. I pass through another dining room but instead of Pinocchio paintings, the walls are made of cork. There is a young couple passed out in their booth. The girl leans into her boyfriend's shoulder. Both of them have their eyes shut. There is a mountain of plates and wineglasses on their table. I want to tell them to enjoy today's feast because tomorrow it might be famine.
In the deli great large wheels of cheese and salamis hang from the ceilings. I eye the prosciutto, sopressata, cappicola, and other cured meats. There's different pasta, breads, wines, poma d'oro all over the place. I weigh a jar of anchovies fillets imported from Sicily. I have to buy food that will last so I put the jar back on the shelf. I purchase a salami from Molinari.
Just outside there is an attractive young woman wearing sunglasses and speaking into her cell phone. "I'm going to pick up some supplies then I'll meet you later," she says. A few moments later I realize that she's a famous television actress. Her show is about a girl who uses her karate skills to kill assorted ghouls. I turn around but like a specter, she's not there anymore.
I think about my drum, the transvestite and her dead cat, the lost photos, the identical twins, the Pinocchio paintings, TV stars, salamis, sweaters, and the old National Geographic issues. It's a strange, beautiful and sad world. Everything and nothing. I feel like going home because I have to do something, but I don't know what it is. I can't even remember what I did yesterday. What will happen to tomorrow? I want to go home and take a nap or get drunk.
Around the corner and near my car I see an old lady tape a flyer to a telephone pole. Some yellow colored papers fall to the ground and I pick them up for her. She thanks me. I hold one of the flyers against the wood while she carefully pulls a sliver of scotch tape. She tells me that she's holding a moving sale. A moment of Satori as I read the old lady's flyer. The woman stops and asks me what's wrong. I point to her flyer. The words under "Moving Sale" says it all: Come Today -- Everything Must Go.