Florence and Normandie
Doc Martin was a terrible DJ name.
Enough to put me off going to see him in my own backyard, never mind travelling the equivalent of Manchester to Liverpool to do so.
The car’s four other occupant’s enthusiasm didn’t fool me either.
“There’s loads going tonight,” said our driver, Adam but couldn’t confirm exactly who.
The dark blue Nissan, swayed under the weight of a full load as we turned up the ramp for Interstate 405 at Venice, then the I-10 for a full forty miles, still ending up in the same city as when we set out.
Our intended destination was downtown Los Angeles, home of the giant skyscrapers and a place I’d been told on arrival six months ago, to avoid at night.
It was easy to end up in the wrong part of town.
The OJ Simpson preliminary court hearing was being shown live during the day on TV,
and I’d watched ‘The Trial Before The Trial’, for a short while before realising it wasn’t that easy to switch off; the tensions it stoked were outside my front door, stretching all across the city.
George’s huge frame took up more than his share of the back seat, meaning any movement had to be verbally negotiated beforehand.
His eyes rolled as ‘Rock to The Beat’ by Reese & Santonio, shimmered from the car’s cassette player.
“I like that…Turn it up!”, said Steve, reaching forward giving respite from the crush, making sure the front seat dwellers didn’t miss out on his usual line at hearing a tune he liked, even though it wasn’t his, or as funny as it was five years ago.
The tape was from a 1989 Thunderdome all-nighter and could remember every tune, every whistle, every cry.
The ‘Dome’s uncontainable euphoria left an imprint on anyone lucky enough to have experienced a night in the former Miles Platting bingo hall, leaving those who knew, in the position of looking back for the rest of their lives.
Nothing would ever compare.
“Doc’s a legend round here mate,” replied George in soft Glaswegian tones, unpenetrated from his seven year stint in LA.
The sun edged behind the San Gabriel mountains as the imposing monoliths of downtown LA lit up the approach from the freeway.
The sight would always impress and intimidate, serving as a reminder of where we were and that we had no right to be there.
“That’s beautiful man,’‘ said Rob looking out from the passenger seat window, with the nasal drawl of a Little Hulton Alan Rickman.
He’d outgrown the skateboarding scene he originally came to California for, embracing the US’s own version of acid house warehouse parties, imported from the very place he’d left five years ago.
“Can you feel yours yet?”, he said.
“A bit,” replied Steve, continuing to nod long after he’d spoken.
I could too, but was in denial of the ordeal I was about to put my body through, and swore I wouldn’t ever again.
It felt like I was about to receive life-changing news but couldn’t make out if it would be good or bad.
“I’ll be a couple of hours tops,” said Adam.
He’d made it clear he’d be dropping us off before doing a round trip to Manhattan Beach to see his girlfriend.
“Two hours? You’d better come back mate”, I said.
He shook his head, distracted from following the handwritten directions sitting in his lap.
On exiting the I-10, a street sign for ‘Normandie‘ swung from the arched stop light.
“Where we going, Ads?” asked Steve, quickly remembering the intersection with ‘Florence’ was ground zero for the ’92 riots.
“32nd and Trinity,” he mumbled looking upwards, swinging the car at the next right turn as the bulbus summit of the gigantic U.S. Bank Tower guided us closer to our destination,
“I won’t be long, stop panicking”.
A small group gathered in front of a corrugated steel shutter, pulled open sideways as a grey-haired black guy in a high vis vest ushered the entrants through the steel curtain, into the bowels of a disused storage warehouse.
“You’re kidding me?”, I said as the car came to a slow and final stop outside the venue.
Adam squeezed my arm,
“Go and enjoy yourself. You’re in LA.”
I didn’t want him to let go and felt distraught watching him turn out of sight, at the end of 32nd Street.
Inside, potholes dotted across the concrete floor in between a forest of parallel steel girders, with cable-tied signs stating ‘Fork lift truck area’, randomly hung at eye level.
Light came from the DJ’s set up, where three-quarters of a square opposite had been lined with coloured floor lights, as if someone had realised mid-way through that a lit-up dance area was a bad idea.
A twin turntable perched on top of a bed sheet draped down to cover the underside with the word ‘Doc’ painted across in blue emulsion.
A towering, static figure stood behind.
Flabby arms bulged from a black t-shirt emblazoned with a faded Mercedes-benz logo, and a black baseball cap was pulled tight across his face.
“Is that him?”, asked Steve.
George, nodded back reassuringly with his bottom lip extending downward.
The music was barbed and brutal, with no mercy or melody as my heart chased behind in an attempt to keep up with the relentless drilling beat.
Loud enough to make the concrete floor shudder and my eyes vibrate in their sockets.
We located as a four opposite the DJ in the middle of the square facing Doc Martin, who stood motionless as our guardian and tormentor.
“I can well feel that now,” mouthed Rob, his curtains style haircut drawn stuck to his cheeks.
The life changing news arrived.
Waves of rushes flowed through my stomach at quickening intervals as did a fear this was only happening to me.
“Are you ok Rob?” I asked .
He nodded back, with startled eyes locked open,
“Yes, are you?”
“I’m all right, why you asking me?”
“It’s your eyes”, said Rob, “they look massive”.
My hair felt like every strand was standing on end and gently tapped the top of my head to check.
“Does my hair look all right?” I asked.
Rob stared for several long seconds,
“Do you mean it needs cutting?”,
before scraping his back into a ponytail, then letting it fall away.
My stomach felt it was about to burst with each new contraction, as if a beautiful creation was fighting to escape from deep inside and take me with it.
I was Michael Landon about to release all God’s love into the world through a portal in a warehouse in downtown LA.
I urgently needed a shit.
The toilet light stung my eyes as did the fumes of pungent stale piss steaming from the steel urinal trough.
Two Spanish-speaking voices conferred as they strained together in line, turning in unison on my entry. They stayed fixed on me, as I went into the cubicle, and seized the last three sheets of tissue paper perched on top of the empty toilet roll dispenser.
The world seemed a better place than before pressing to flush for a second time, feeling like I’d been there hours but the same two were still pissing as when I came in.
I wanted to tell them both I’d just had the best shit of my life, but opted instead for a parting nod.
I checked the mirror on exit, and gazed in wonder at the panda-eyed creature gorping back, grateful at least my hair wasn’t standing on end anymore.
The place started to fill.
Groups of hispanic males gathered in clusters, lining the surrounding walls like a John Carpenter version of West Side Story. Members moved individually from one to another like messenger ravens, occasionally turning as one to check out the dance area, curious as to what drew the white boys into their part of town.
A figure stood observing Doc, blocking him from view.
He wore a blue and white vertically striped Ralph Lauren jacket with the word ‘Polo’ blazed across the shoulders in large orange letters.
Gang members of 1994 didn’t dress like in the film ‘Colours’.
Much as we had, they’d discovered Ross Dress For Less outlet store with its cheap designer gear so would more likely be wearing a Ralph shirt or Adidas tracky than a red or blue bandana.
Rob nodded towards him and tugged my sleeve,
“Ask him where the nearest Tesco is,” he whispered loudly, cupping his hand to his mouth,
“His jacket - It looks like a Tesco bag”.
Rob had been away so long that the Tesco bag reference was tragically out of date.
“Ask him where the nearest…”
I put Rob out of his misery and patted his shoulder in acknowledgement.
He was pleased with his gag but wasn’t capable of laughter, only able to nod back as if explaining to a foreign waiter he was enjoying his food.
Tesco man glared at Doc before surveying the groups dotted around the dance area.
He turned to exit as if hearing a shout from across the room before
walking straight into me, causing the music to feel it’d slowed down for a second.
“Sorry mate,” I said extending out a hand to shake as his remained fixed to his side.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away, but for the curiosity that something hit my foot in the minor collision.
At a Thunderdome all-nighter, I was once convinced that the bang on my head had been the drugs playing mind-tricks, only to see a broken roof tile laid across the floor as the lights came on in the early hours.
The black palm grip of a silver revolver lay between my feet and immediately reached down to check it wasn’t some drug-induced mirage.
I instinctively picked it up, causing an uneasy shift in Tesco man’s expressionless stance.
Remembering the correct way to give someone a pair of scissors, I held the barrell, politely passing it back handle first.
“Careful with that mate”, I advised, with a fatherly squeeze him on his arm.
With a bemused head shake, he took the handle and stowed it back down the front of his jeans.
“Eres un maricón”, he said, to which I reassuringly winked back in reply.
“Do you know him?”, asked Steve as Tesco man was swallowed up in the darkness.
“He used to work on the cig counter at Walkden Tesco’s ”, I replied.
“Don’t be like that,” he said, “I thought he said your name”.
Steve had more urgent business to deal with, and soberly instructed,
“You need to show us where the bog is”.
A cold laughter rang out as we approached the toilet where four hispanic men, looking too old to be there, gathered like bandits at the entrance, enthralled by the tale one was deep into relaying, only to stop suddenly on our passing.
His audience turned as one following his eyes to see what had distracted him.
He spoke quietly to his crowd whilst staring at the pair of us, increasing in volume to let out a cry of,
“Umbro!”, at which the four of them howled like hyenas.
We walked in the toilet as Butch and Sundance surrounded by the Bolivian army.
Steve made a run for the first cubicle, then the second before finishing up in the third, locking the door behind him.
I could hear deep breaths over the deathly beat as he whimpered in relief.
Steve eventually emerged, with the colour drained from his face as if he’d just been present at an autopsy.
“It’s your top", I said, "The Umbro thing”.
Steve’s bright yellow Umbro tshirt was the cause of their amusement, due to the huge black logo across the shoulders.
I held him back as we was about to walk back out,
“For a moment there, I thought we was in trouble".
He stared at me blankly causing me to expand,
“It’s a line from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid”.
He shook his head and shrugged, as the reference still didn’t register.
“When they’re surrounded at the end”, I said,
“Before they get shot”.
Steve’s eyes flashed with fear.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”, he said,
“I didn’t come in here thinking we might get shot on the way out, but now I sort of am”.
Sensing panic, I tried to put him at ease,
“Anyway, there’s a theory they both survived”.
“Like fuck they did”, Steve replied, shoving me in the back, out through the toilet door in front of him.
As we headed back past the banditos,
I turned to see Steve glaring at the group nodding his head upwards, mouthing the word ‘Yeah’ repeatedly, forcing me to grab his arm and pull him away.
The lead bandito shouted after us in Spanish, before loudly growling,
as his followers again fell into cackles of angry laughter.
Hours of exposure to Doc’s satanic set had pounded the four of us into submission.
Steve, leaned over,
“I’ve known you for twenty years. You know what I think of you don't you?”
His confessional offload was building momentum.
“Don’t start with all that”, I replied,
“I already know mate”, grabbing him in a brief embrace to save him from doing what we took the piss out of many others for.
Rob waved me over, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“I think you’re a sound lad, you know”, he said, as a flash hit the corner of my eye coming from the steel shutter door.
Rob, Steve, and George simultaneously turned to look.
“Did you hear that?”, asked Rob.
Something had prompted the surrounding walls to empty of faces and vacate en masse, as if the plug had been pulled from a bathtub.
I noticed the skylights above for the first time. The LA night sky was never black, always having a tinge of optimism, reminding its inhabitants this is only temporary.
The incessant beats wilted as if realising the battle against time would inevitably be lost and there would be an end.
Doc looked up to survey his crowd.
A familiar palm muted guitar riff rang out, piercing through to my brain.
Rob’s face attempted a smile and George raised his giant hands into the air, turning to the rest of the warehouse in a show of union, as Steve looked to the skylight as Andy Dufresne emerging from his tunnel of shit.
The intro to ‘Could You Be Loved’ by Bob Marley hit like a downpour after a biblical drought, realising it wasn’t some obscene techno sample.
“Don't let em try to fool ya”,
We bounced across the floor in euphoric steps, chanting the words we knew out loud to our four and to anyone else in proximity.
“Or even try to school ya”,
We ventured beyond the floor-lights like a Benidorm stag do, war dancing to Bob Marley’s cries of,
“Could you be loved”.
As the music stopped, the lights came on and George made for Doc indulging in an animated confessional across the decks, never repeating what was discussed.
I hoped it was to tell him he was shit.
The blue Nissan was parked across 32nd street by a meter, seeing the soles of two feet pressed up against the windscreen.
“They wouldn’t let us in,” said Adam on opening the passenger door,
“The Police were outside when I got here. Some lad got took away by Paramedics. Some gang thing by the look of it”.
I didn’t care if he’d come back late, and mentally forgave him for all the times he’d pissed me off lately.
The streets started to cook as the sun rose, reminding us we were in one of the only cars in LA not to have air conditioning.
George quickly nabbed the front seat and issued his itinerary,
“Take us to 7-Eleven, Ads, then back to ours”.
Steve crossed his legs in the back seat to unintentionally reveal a missing left sock.
I tapped him on the shoulder pointing out the bare ankle,
“Please tell me you didn’t”.
“I had to,” he replied, “What else could I do?”