I’VE TAUGHT CREATIVE writing for seventeen years and I tend to give a lot of advice not unlike a lot of my collegues. One of these is the classic “don’t expect to make a living at this. If you do—great. But don’t plan on it.”
People win the lottery, sure. But it’s not exactly a career plan. Asteroids, after all, crash through people’s roofs and crush them to smithereens in their bathrooms, but you can’t plan your life around such events. The other advice I have I didn’t really see coming. Nor was it, like the above, something any professors mentioned to me in grad school. And that one is: don’t drive and write.
It was maybe 2002. I was driving on the 405, already close to being late for work. It was around 7pm and–as was nearly always the case when stuck late in traffic on my way to UCLA (which, in rush hour traffic, you had to leave 2 hours from Long Beach to be safe…going home? 35 minutes)–I was tense about being late and filled with tons of coffee and praying I could make it to campus and a bathroom and then to class on time.
Then I got an idea. A first line. An opening paragraph. What passes for important shit to a writer. I flopped open my bag full of teaching shit…student stories/handouts/books I’d be quoting from…pretty much what my teaching a workshop bag has in it. So I flipped through shit, knocking stuff around, everything fell to the messy floor of the passenger side. Looking up/looking down…breaking…getting beeped at…moving/breaking…digging in the bag. And I found my notebook and started madly writing in it, without looking up very much. I looked down and it was gibberish, even by my standards. So, I tried to make it more legible, which meant paying even less attention to the road. I was getting really late and still had an increasing need for a bathroom, but I didn’t know any of my student’s cell numbers, so I just hoped most of them stayed and I tried to focus on this story that was really going pretty well (it’d moved beyond the opening paragraph), all things considered and I felt a tiny, tiny, tiny bump on the pickup truck in front of me. My wife Gayle had just gotten a new(er) Subaru, so I was driving her old Toyota which was a stick (a nightmare in Southern California traffic), and it had no AC, and every week I was drenched by the time I got to class.
So, I hit this pickup in front of me SO fucking lightly, I did not for a second figure it was an issue. I mean, at first I wasn’t sure if I’d tapped it, or if I’d just been a little sharp on the breaks.
But this kid starts to pull over into the breakdown lane…which was fucking maddening because we were about 100 yards from where I could have cut into said breakdown lane and gotten off on Sunset and taken a back way to UCLA and—hoorah—have made it to campus in time to save both my bladder and my job. But, no. The kid pulled over. So I, knowing at least this much, did the same. That’s what people do. I’ve seen them on the side of the road. They pull over when they hit each other. And I figure, we’ll both get out, he’ll see there’s no damage (there couldn’t possibly have been any. I swear, you’ve been bumped harder standing next to a stranger on the subway than how hard I “hit” his truck).
He came up to the car, yelling at me, and I told him to calm the fuck down and could he wait a minute because I have to get this sentence down and then I’ll deal with you…and so on…he’s yelling and I finally do say “will you please shut the fuck up? I’m coming, ok!”
I got my note down. I swore to myself that I would never write while driving again. I got out. He was a young Latino kid. The ethnicity of who I hit would not be of any note in most cases, but this is Southern California and if there is one stereotype about Latino men in the early 20’s that is very rarely broken or challenged, it’s that they have an unnatural and nearly sexual bond with their automobiles. Our young man was no exception. I was barely out of our shit-basket Toyota (which used to be blue, but was a sun-faded gray at that point…the driver’s side door didn’t always open. Thankfully it did that day. But often, you had to risk the parking brake ripping your pants as you tried to get to the other side and flop out of the car). I was just out of my car, and he led me toward his chrome bumper, taking a step toward it, looking back to make sure I was following, taking another step, looking back, the way our cat Clancy tries to lead me to her tuna bowl every night. Like I’m an idiot and can’t be trusted to follow this clear desire.
So, we got to his bumper.
Now…shit, I’ve forgotten to say I speak very little Spanish. I’ve gotten better by this point. But still, not so good. Enough to make peace with my gang-banger neighbors and to tell the nice Tamale lady I don’t eat meat. And enough to order one Mango-on-a-stick every day from my Mango-on-a-stick guy Ramon who has an illegal food cart—literally a stolen grocery cart filled with mangoes, sticks and a machete he uses to cut up the mango as beautiful as a radish rose (it’s impressive and a little frightening). Me and the Mango-on-a-stick guy Ramon get along famously. Some days, I get two. I tip more than the price of the mango. Gayle tells me that on days I am not there, he honks his Harpo Marx horn forlornly in front of our house, thinking, perhaps, that I have slept in, or am in the back office or my garden. She says she feels awful, but doesn’t really like talking to strangers, so she waits out his sad honking without walking by the front door and having him see that she’s sort of ignoring him/not buying his mangoes.
I always used to go for coffee on Thursday mornings to meet a few writers and photographers from the Long Beach newspaper. Nice guys. We sit around and crack each other up and I feel a little less lonely in my writing life. When I get home, Gayle says:
“The Mango-on-a-stick guy was honking out there for fifteen minutes.”
“Ramon was here?” I say.
“It was so sad.”
I don’t know exactly what to say. So I repeat that I am sorry, though I’m not sure what exactly I am sorry for, other than that Ramon needs and counts on my money.
Gayle says, “You need to let Ramon know you’re not here on Thursdays.”
“How do I do that?”
“I only know how to order a Mango-on-a-stick from him,” I say. “And most of that is pantomime.”
She looks at me. “I don’t want to hide in my own house.”
“You don’t have to hide,” I say.
“Well, I don’t want to make him feel bad.”
“Just go out on the porch and say I’m not here. Say, ‘No Roberto’ and ‘Mañana’. And that should do it.”
She just looks at me.
“What do you want me to do?” I say.
She tells me that she would feel a lot better and a lot less guilty if I could tell Ramon. So, I ask the Tamale Lady’s grandson Jorge, who is bi-lingual (which makes me feel like an idiot since he’s, like eight or something and I’m a grown man who only recently confused the Spanish words for “name” and “number” and asked a kid “what’s your number” several times at Halloween until he shook his head, baffled, started crying and left without candy) to help me. The Tamale Lady’s name is Mrs. Molina, but everyone in the neighborhood knows her as the Tamale Lady –so named because she too has an illegal food cart from which she sells what I understand are incredibly good tamales, but which I cannot eat because, while she knows that I do not eat meat, she cannot understand why on earth someone would not eat meat and will not make tamales without meat, even when I try to ask for them. Apparently because it’s just wrong, or something.
My neighbor Juan tells me he gets cheese tamales from her all the time, but that’s because he also buys meat and chicken ones. He tells me he’s sure that Mrs. Molina would sell me cheese tamales if I would buy some meat and/or chickens ones first.
“I don’t want to pay some meat tax,” I say to Juan. He looks at me, and squints, not seeming to understand my position. He doesn’t seem to know what to say and he and I stand awkwardly with the drone of leaf blowers down the alley. He nods and walks back to his house.
Seeking comfort and support, I later tell Gayle that, as nice as Mrs. Molina is, I do not intend to pay her Meat Tax just to get her no doubt delicious cheese tamales. Gayle is, understandably, only half-listening as I complain about the micro-politics of the neighborhood illegal food vending world. She says, “Meat tax? What the fuck are you talking about?”
Mrs. Molina also cannot understand why Gayle and I have no children. We tried to tell her we didn’t want children, but that seemed to her as ludicrous as not eating meat. Frequently she says to me, sadly, No bambino? And I shake my head or shrug and later learn that Mrs. Molina has decided that Gayle or I must be barren and cursed by the lord we don’t tell her we don’t believe in because we don’t want to hurt her feelings (and, of course, that we can’t tell her much of anything even if we wanted to) and Jorge tells me she now prays every day at church that Gayle and I will, against what seem to be fierce odds, be blessed with a child.
So, I learn from Jorge how to tell Ramon that I’m not here on Thursdays. And I figure I will tell him the next time I see him and get my incredible Mango-on-a-stick that has become such a wonderful part of my writing day.
And then he never comes back.
I later learn that some guy a block south of us was making fucking cheese in his bathtub. Of course, he too had an illegal food cart from which he sold cheese. Not telling anyone it was (ug) fucking bathtub cheese. Am I glad I never ventured beyond Ramon with the neighborhood food cart options.
But some neighbor has complained about the bathtub cheese guy. At first, I cheer this on, thinking it doesn’t affect me and shit yeah nobody should be buying bathtub cheese.
But, the ensuing illegal food cart crack down ends Ramon and his Mango-on-a-stick business.
The point being that I speak very little Spanish—though I have gotten better and no longer ask children what their number is. But, the guy whose pickup I’d tapped spoke little more English that I spoke Spanish. So, we were having our problems. Though we did make our way though some simple, if—on his part—very angry communication. On my part, as I said, it was just another example of me being clueless to the general ways of the world.
But/and, he kept gesturing madly to this one dinky spot on his shiny chrome bumper. He pointed. Looked back at me. I didn’t see anything. He pointed again. I looked closer. I honestly didn’t see a thing.
I said, “I really have to get to work.”
He jumped up and down and said to look at his car.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“It’s right here!” he screamed and pointed to the same spot he’d been pointing to for a while.
“Look,” I said. “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but there’s nothing wrong with your car.”
“Your car is a piece of shit,” he screamed.
I looked back at our car. He was clearly right, but I didn’t see the point. I must’ve looked really confused, because he screamed again:
“YOUR CAR IS A PIECE OF SHIT.”
“I KNOW!” I yelled back.
He looked really pissed. “Give me your insurance.”
And—this is where my cluelessness about the ways of the world started really coming out. I know how to write and how to teach writing and very little else. “Fuck you. I’m not giving you my insurance.”
He looked at me like I was crazy and said again that he wanted my insurance information.
“Fuck you,” I said. “There’s nothing even wrong with your car.”
Which was the wrong fucking thing to say, as it made him start screaming and pointing wildly to that spot where there was nothing wrong on his bumper.
He said, “We will call the cops.”
I said, “That’s fucking crazy.”
We stood there. Cars crawled by us. A few people were really pissed we were in the breakdown lane that leads to Sunset. I told him again I had to get to work.
He told me he needed money.
And this is where a very sad fact about my writing life comes in. I had just gotten my very first royalty/payment for this anthology of LA writers I’d been in. It was, to that point, my 2nd highest payday, and my very first check for anything with an ISBN. And, yes, it’s totally fucking dorky…I feel stupid saying this…But I had this check that I was like a dork going to make a copy of and frame. Because it was the first check I’d ever gotten for a book-type publication.
I told him I had $40 in cash or a $90 check made out to me that I’d sign over to him. I just needed to get to fucking work, ok?
He said, “A check?”
“You can take the cash,” I said.
Then, he screamed at me again about the massive fucking damage I’d done to his truck. Damage that I still honestly could not for the life of me see.
People were blowing their horns at us…screaming “fuck yous!” and the like. One guy was stuck in such slow traffic that he rolled down his passenger side window and said:
“You two are such fucking assholes I should get out of my fucking car and kick both your asses!”
I just looked at him. He kept starting at me.
“Both your fucking asses!” he said and rolled up his window.
I shook my head. I needed to piss. I thought about the side of the freeway, but I had a pal who’d pissed in public in LA country and the cop nailed him for showing his cock where kids could see him and for that he got labeled a sex offender. I decided it was a universe better to piss my pants and skip class.
I told him he had to make a choice or I was just going to get back in the fucking traffic and leave.
“Is the check good?”
“Honestly I have no fucking idea.”
So, I signed over my first anthology check ever to this kid on the 405. And finally, I was back on my way to class.
I parked, got to a bathroom, got to class where, of course, I told this whole ridiculous story about what’d just happened on the 405 and how they should never, take it from me, try to write a story while driving.
After I told the story, this lawyer in my class—a nice guy, as far as I can remember—said, “You didn’t give him your insurance?”
“No,” I said. “Why the fuck should I do that?”
“Because that’s what you do when you get into an accident.”
“Really?” I said.
“Are you sure?”
Everyone in class backed him up. Yes, they were sure. You’re supposed to exchange insurance info.
“It’s a law,” he said.
“No,” I said. Though I thought I’ve broken real laws. This can’t be so bad.
The room nodded together.
My Intro to Fiction class learned they wouldn’t ever make much money writing. And it was a bad idea to write and drive. And I learned, not for the first time, that I was utterly clueless on the way the world outside of my given profession worked.