Friday, August 11, 2006

Santa Monica, California, 2006

With my old Trek mountain bike propped between my legs, I stand with my feet planted flat on the bike path that divides the neon crush of LA from the calm roughness of sand and sea. It is dark except for the ferris wheel spinning at the end of the Santa Monica Pier. I face the sea and can still hear Salif Keita's singing on the pier to the stringed sound of the kora, and the low beat of African drums.

The last time I heard Salif Keita I was on a bus cutting through the edge of the Sahara, and Tuaregs in indigo turbans held tight to their camel's saddles as they galloped past. The air was dry and desert sand particles blew and blew, gently blurring the speedy camels.

I am in southern California now, and I am not sure if it was more unreal to be on a bus crossing ancient salt caravan routes, or if that was gritty and real as grains of sand between my teeth, and this LA salty sea breeze in my face tonight, grown men pedalling fantastic six-foot tall bicycles, the ferris wheel spinning green and red sparks, is but a dream, albeit an American one.

I stand in the moonlight at the west edge of the continental United States of America, watching green and red lights spin on the ferris wheel on the end of the Santa Monica Pier. There's a giant green circle of lights with just a narrow strip of blinking red, and then the lights switch and the circles change to straight red lines shooting toward the sky, with just a flash of green on their ends.

As the moon rises higher, the pier begins to melt away except for flashes of a spinning green circle, the beach is all soft darts of flashlights gently probing dark mounds of hidden lovers, and gradually I begin to be aware of only the shadowy mountains jutting out into the Pacific, the swelling breathing greenness LA had once been, punctuated by the smell of citrus.

I hold my breath in the presence of this continent.

Then I pedal and pedal, onto the dark boardwalk of the night. I am whizzing next to the six-foot tall bicycles, and grown men perch on top like tiny children or trained circus monkeys. I laugh in childish glee for a moment, panting to keep up, and then without thinking ask the cyclist nearest me: how do you get down from that bike?

He tilts his head in slow motion toward me and I see his eyes are merely hollows. He just looks at me as if does not comprehend my words, as if there's some social norm I've violated, as if he has pedalled so quickly his soul got left behind and spins endlessly, stop-and-go, in the ferris wheel.

Together, we pass a man slouched with a hand in his jacket pocket, as if he is packing a pistol, and I try not to go too fast, I don't swerve to avoid him. I ride so close, and he is wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt. I am not sure if I am smelling the sea or his sweat.

The six-foot tall bicycles pedal faster and faster, and I won't let them speed away, I chase them so they don't leave me behind, I am going to smile or wave to them as they remind me of when I was small. I keep up with them, close enough to finally hear hollow-eyes speak to the other, yes he has a gun, so matter-of-factly and with no surprise, so ready for darkness. My circus glee roars away in a sudden wind, and I see that they are grown men, and their faces are flat and cold against the sea breeze. Their faces are closed and lined like old men who have not lived the life they wanted.

I turn left, off the boardwalk, back toward the streets of LA.

(With all due respect and acknowledgement to F. Scott Fitzgerald)