Conversations at a Party
December 29, 2011
Recently I went to a friend’s housewarming party. He told me his new place was a loft located in an artist-in-residence community. I asked him what that meant and he told me it was a space where artists could live, work and share ideas. I shouldn’t have asked such a question to such an obvious answer, but I was struck with excitement over the idea that such a place could exist and that I would get a chance to be a part of it, at least for one night.
When I drove up to the complex, it appeared to be an assemblage of concrete and brick buildings dispersed throughout a grid encompassing a city block. Each building was formed of unequal length and design. Some had intricate fire escapes beginning on one side of a structure and then snaking their way to another; others had barges that supported a network of rafters between two and even three buildings; and while some buildings had no flourish except the pale grayness of their walls, others had rich brick veneers and skylights illuminating light outwards towards the blue night air.
Instead of entering into an enclosed unit structured by hallways and easily recognizably numbered doors, this place expanded as if it were a city within a city. There were no entrances on the outside perimeter. I found a glass door, but it was locked and with a view of an empty space in what seemed to be an abandoned office. My other option was to venture through the spacious parking spots planted around the fissures in-between buildings.
I knew my friend lived in number 223 and he had given me a map, which I downloaded to my phone, but the abstract layout came to be of little help. There were the 600 buildings, the 500, the 200 and the lettered numbered buildings. I found myself across number 600, which on the map told me the adjacent building had a clump of 200 lofts inside. I entered through a backdoor and climbed a flight of narrow stairs to a 200 level, but the numbers only went so far as 205. I went back down and tried the 600 building instead, thinking that perhaps I had misread the map and saw it backwards. But as I went up the stairway to the 200 level I only found numbers 213-18.
I began to feel a mixed sense of frustration and curious pleasure as I began to lose myself in these barren cloisters of a hallway. I was beginning to fear with joy that all the apartment halls would have the same non-descript features to them, the only thing distinguishing one from another being the non-linear order of numbers and the sometimes-opened doors into unknown apartments. Some of which had clusters of people talking amongst one another, some with a single man or woman working to put together some un-yet defined piece of art. And then there were the doors that opened into darkness. They were like entrances that opened to a vacuum where light faded into black. I stopped by one where a red glow diminished like vapor. I wanted to enter through that door into that red room, curious to see what I might find while excited by the fear of not knowing what to expect.
Instead I went outside to the enclave between buildings and called my friend. As the phone was ringing I heard my named called out from a rooftop. It was Jason and he was directing me to go up towards the entrance through a truck-loading zone. I walked up another flight of stairs and met him on a balcony where he was waiting with some friends. Once there I took a secret moment to catch my breath and peek at the city. From this view, the whole opened up and I could see not only downtown, but also the L.A. riverbed like a porcelain faucet seeping a veiny brook towards the west, the shipping yard waiting tensely like a block set anticipating the morning when little children would come play with it, and the 5 freeway circling behind it all. All I could say was “amazing” as I found myself in a new, majestic opening beholding the towers of the city I longed to enter. So close were we to the bright lights of the skyscrapers that it felt as if we were in the city as well as watching it from afar.
I followed Jason into his loft and got a little tour before settling down with a Bud Light on the couch while everyone socialized. I found myself not knowing many of Jason’s new friends, and realized I would have to introduce myself to each cluster in order to participate and not awkwardly stand out against the couch by the wall; I didn’t want to give the impression that I was disinterested being there by sitting alone with beer in hand and maybe my cell-phone pulled out in order to give an appearance of distraction.
. . .
I made my way over to Art’s side. “Hey, My name is Jose, how do you know Jason?”
“I met Jason at his old apartment,” He responded. “I’m friends with his old roommate. How about you?”
“Oh uh, I used to work with Jason at Starbucks a long time ago. Ohm, we met there and just stayed good friends. Actually I still work at Starbucks.” I added.
Art nodded with acceptance, “that’s cool, I used to work there a long time ago too.”
“Really, what do you do now?” I asked eagerly.
Art told me he was a CGI artist. “I make environments, landscapes; things like buildings or houses in backgrounds.”
“That’s awesome.” I said, not really understanding what that involved, but interested to learn what it meant. “How did you end up doing that?”
“Well, I went to school and studied drafting and then got a job working for a production company as an office assistant. I remember seeing all the artists work on programs and create parts of worlds they included into the whole of others, and me asking them if they would teach me how to do that. They told me ‘why don’t you consider this an apprenticeship’ and I did that for three years. Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
“That’s really cool man, I don’t think many people get those opportunities.” I remarked.
“No, that’s right. A lot of the guys who taught me went to expensive art schools where they came out with massive loads of debt. All my school got paid by Cal grants and financial aid because I went to a public university. And these guys taught me; I guess I got my education for free.”
“You’re lucky, man.” I said, inspired by his story. He seemed to have found a way in. “So, where are you working now?”
“Actually, I’m between jobs. Environments aren’t in demand at the moment. If you can create dynamics then you’re in demand.” Dynamics, Art explained, “Were anything with fire, imagine buildings crumbling to the ground, or a huge tsunami surging through a city block. Anything that involved dynamics, you get me.”
“I get it,” I said, “destruction’s in demand, not creation.”
That interrupted the conversation, and I felt as if I had said something carelessly, but then he continued it again and asked me what I wanted to do in my career.
“Me, oh, well, I’m studying English at the moment, but man! Your story really inspired me. You know what I really want to do; I want to write. I would love to write for television or make skits or something. I have another semester in my program, but I think I would like to find a job where I can write, closer to the city.” The city of industry, I thought to myself.
“Man, stay diligent, you will make something happen.” Art said encouragingly. I smiled and looked down, relieved. We talked some more about his life and I discovered how he met his wife, and from there I gathered that he knew more about beer than I ever would. I then went to the kitchen and clicked open another Bud Light.
. . .
I made my way back up to the balcony. Jason was there, smoking a cigarette. “What are you doing up here?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m lost, where’s the bathroom?” I asked back.
“Downstairs, come on, let me introduce you to some friends I want you to meet.” We walked back down and Jason kept telling everyone I was a writer the whole way. “Hey Dylan, David, I want you to meet Jose, he’s a writer too. Dylan and David have their own production company.”
“Hey, how you guys doin?” I said as I shook their hands, “I’m not a writer, don’t listen to Jason,” I said embarrassed, “I just take some English classes and now Jason is spreading this rumor.”
Jason was already walking away before I could ask him to support me. So I was left with the uncomfortable silence of what I had said.
“Well you must write for your English classes?” Dylan said
“Well yeah, I do, but I can’t sell English papers. I don’t write for money, so I don’t think I can honestly call myself a writer.” I said, less than what I felt.
“Do you want to write?” David asked before taking a sip of his beer.
“Yeah, I guess, I don’t know. You guys are writers. How’d you start your production company?” I asked.
Dylan answered first, “I studied film criticism in school—”
“I know a little about that,” I exclaimed, “I took some film classes as an undergrad. Yeah, things like perspectives and third cinema, right?”
“Yeah, things like that” Dylan said in consent, “After school, I started writing spec scripts for competitions networks like ABC held.”
“Really, ABC has competitions for that?”
“Oh yeah, every year. I sent one in for Modern Family but it takes a really long time for them to get back at you and I got tired of waiting for them to say ‘thanks, this is great but not what we are looking for,’ so me and David just decided to start our own production company.”
“That’s awesome, and now you guys have been running it for a year, right? What kind of things do you guys do?”
David responded this time, “anything; we write scripts, we create ideas for commercials, we film, we cast actors; really the whole process.”
Enthusiastic from their response, I asked them what their favorite part of the process was with my concealed excitement.
“The best part,” Dylan responded, “has got to be coming up with ideas. Sometimes you have these really great ideas for projects but the budget can’t afford it, and it sucks, but you find ways to make things work with the amount of money you have. I just wish sometimes I had more money to spend on ideas. But it’s all fun; everything is always a creative search for some solution in order to produce an even bigger idea.”
David nodded. “We always have to search for something under budget, but, hey, it’s what we like to do.” He continued, “and if anything, I have my day job.”
“Do you really have another job?” I asked, impressed that he could do this as well as work somewhere else.
“Yeah,” David said, “I work as a site coordinator for another production company. I find out where I can get permits in order to shot locations. It’s a pain, I swear, it’s never ‘can I shot here,’ ‘oh yeah, sure.’ instead it’s always ‘I want this in exchange for that,’ ‘Okay, but I want this included as well then,’ and then back and forth and I’m the middle man between the production company and the owners of where we want to shot.”
“Sounds frustrating,” I said.
“It is most of the time, but it’s a good job. So what do you do?”
“Me? I’m in school right now . . . Ohm; I’m also taking acting classes. I guess that is another passion I have.” I continued on with a new thought in mind, “You know, I think I want to be an actor.” I said. I thought to myself, where did this come from? I had taken an acting class last semester and was enrolled to take another the next, and I was really interested in acting as an art, but why share this with Dylan and David? They looked at me surprised as much as I was by my answer. “I have fun when I do it,” I said. “But I’m still in school, so I have some time to decide.”
They smiled but didn’t comment to my response. I knew why: I hadn’t given them a real answer yet. I had neither committed to being a writer nor an actor. Instead I had only expressed interest in both, and with such sudden transition in thought that my story was losing its plausibility. What would I say to myself with the answer I gave? I felt foolish, but what could I say, I was improvising on the spot and had to follow the direction the story was taking. Before I had more time to think about it, Dylan and David’s friends joined them and we talked about more general topics. Once again I felt relieved as the attention was drawing away from me and I was becoming part of the ambiance again. I then went back to the kitchen and clicked open another Bud Light.
. . .
I found Jason again by the Kitchen island and cheered with him as we took a pumpkin flavored shot. One of Jason’s friends who I had not yet met had just finished making a whole pitcher full of this pumpkin drink in order to celebrate the occasion that the party was between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were now distributing the pitcher into shot glasses and lining the bleached brown milk towards the edge of the counter. We all toasted to the festive ambiance of the party, and as I tasted the sweet-spiced cream I took a moment to look at the shot glass and enjoy the novelty of the drink. That is all it was, the novelty of a moment and I felt caught up in it.
Kristin joined us. Jason introduced her as his date, and I congratulated the young couple before I began my prying questions into how they met.
Jason smirked at Kristin, “You handle this one,” and left to greet some new friends who just came in.
“I met Jason at a wedding reception. I actually wasn’t allowed to talk to him. I was with my brother and he can be really overprotective, but Jason kept insisting on talking with me, so I gave him my number, and we started hanging out.”
“Cool, and how long you guy’s been dating?”
“Oh, about three months now.” She said sincerely.
We chattered about the apartment and how cold it could get at night among other things in order to establish a basis for more earnest conversation. I asked her where she worked.
“I work for a wine distributor as a scheduler. I handle setting up all their events and promotions. It’s really fun but I’m thinking about going back to school.”
“Really, what do you want to study?”
“Well, I either want to go back and get a Masters in Communications or Marketing, but I don’t know which I want to pursue more. Sometimes I like one more then the other, but then it changes, you know.”
“I can relate,” I said.
“What do you do?” She asked interested in my response.
“Well I’m actually in school at the moment. I am getting my Masters in English and I work part-time at Starbucks and part-time for this program for the Long Beach Unified School district that helps high school students learn pre-employment skills. I teach lessons one-on-one, with groups, and even to a classroom once. It’s really fun and I like the work.”
“So do you want to become a teacher?”
“Yeah, my plan is when I complete this program to enroll into a single-subject teaching credential and teach English. But you know what I really want to do? I would love to work at a community college, I don’t care what I teach, but somehow I feel I would like working at that level.”
“Oh yeah, and that’s where many students need the most support. I remember it was my professors who really helped me and guided me along the way in what I wanted to do. That is part of the reason I’m torn between Communications and Marketing. Some of my favorite teachers who gave me the most encouragement came from my Communications courses, but I also like Marketing as well from what I do at my job.”
“So what are you gonna do?” I asked for both of us.
“You know, I don’t know, but things have always worked out for me. I used to work at Ritz Cameras and that was my only job I ever had before this one. And when I graduated from school I didn’t have much of a plan, I just went to the school’s job link resource and found this job. It just came easily and now I’m here.”
“Yeah, I agree.” I smiled back. Maybe things would just work out for me too, I thought. But ‘maybe’ was an uncertainty; ‘maybe’ was a doubt. I needed to believe in something, specifically in one thing and follow it through.
We talked more about teaching and then digressed into the trivia of the night. Someone was changing the record to a song I had never heard; Art was swigging some IPA I had never seen; Dylan and David where laughing to some comment I would never know; and my Bud light was empty.
. . .
I pissed away half my buzz in the bathroom and came downstairs. People were still talking. New people were coming in and the room was becoming livelier, but I felt momentarily out of the festive mood that everyone seemed to enjoy. As much as I would like to get to know these new people I didn’t want to explain another story about myself that was still untrue. I looked across at all the wonderful people whose stories I did not know, but was tired for tonight of sharing my own stories in exchange for theirs.
Besides, every time I talked about myself I would share the same details, but the direction of every story would take new turns and I’d end up surprised at the destination I found myself at. Who I said I was to Art was not who I was to Dylan and David nor was it the same person who was talking to Kristin. Each voice resembled me and inhabited the same body, but the disconcerting thing about them all was who the real me was. A terrible suspicion entered that I was nothing more than a bunch of lyrics playing their melodies to a distracted room.
I knew those were, in part, stories I told to establish some sort of relationship between others and myself. But they were more than stories because I believed in each of them; they were all a part of me—separate yet united by their common bond to my hopes—but they were still fictions that rested on some future realization of them. They were, for this moment, unrealized desires playing to the sympathies of my audiences.
Each story brought a whole new excitement as a door opening into a new space where we all felt a new discovery emerging out of the chaos of an impromptu moment. But the excitement was tiring me out, and I felt content with telling three stories I believed, so I made my way through the people I met and prepared to leave on a good note.
I said my goodbyes and walked outside to a crisp clear night. I could find myself now in the apartments and I had no trouble getting to my car. My tipsiness was returning as well, to my delight, as if it had lane dormant briefly and kicked back at the excitement of a new surrounding.
I drove home with that mildest of excitement that came from my drinking commingled with my diverse thoughts. As I left the 5 and entered into the 605, I bellowed a heavy yawn that made my eyes close a second too long to make me swerve a little in the lane, but I regained my flow and laughed so quietly I could still hear my thoughts, “oh, the stories we tell,” I told myself.