4 – Town Without Pity

My sluggish red and white Bel-Air pulled half-heartedly onto Third Street. I slurped coffee from a plastic cup, hoping the caffeine would kick-start my worried mind. At the light I reached down and put seven forty-five records upside down into my newly installed mobile record player. My favorite, “Surfer Bird” by the Trashmen, kicked in and its parody of the Motown lyric and the surfing driving beat brought a faint smile to my lips.

I stopped my car at another red light as early morning workers scrambled to their different duties, some with plastic lunch pails, others with paper sacks.

When “Surfer Bird” finished, the next record dropped and jammed. The needle went SSSKKKKK across the record causing me to flinch. Suddenly, I slammed the player with my right hand in anger.

“Shit, does anything work in my life anymore?” I yelled.

An engine’s loud revving roared to my left as I waited at the signal. I slugged more coffee and thought sarcastically, Just what I need, some speed-o ho-dad racer wants to flex his ego in his car. So much for the hospitality welcome wagon bit.

“I don’t need this shit,” I moaned to myself and glanced over at the challenger. There, dressed to the nines and topped with a shit-eating grin, sat Eddie Olmos in his red 1961 Chevy.

“Hey, dude!” Olmos yelled across his front seat and out the open window. “How you doing?”

“Hey, Eddie! What are you doing down here?”

Eddie roared with laughter. “What am I doing down here? No, the question is what are you doing down here?”

The remark caught me just right and I busted up with laughter, getting exactly what he meant. What’s a white boy doing in the heart of Latino-land in East Los Angeles at seven in the morning?

“I thought you lived over in Monterey Park?” Eddie asked.

“Up until last week I did, man. My parents sold our house and split to Orange County. Joey Zagarino was dragged back east and the Upsets broke up.”

“I heard. Sorry,” Eddie returned.

“Thanks.”

We were both darting our eyes up to the signal and back at each another, ready to spring from the line when it changed.

“My sister lives back there,” I continued, pointing over my left shoulder, “at Indian and Third with her husband and kids. I’m renting a room to finish school here.”

Just then the signal light turned green and we had to roll. Two blocks further, we continued our conversation at the next red light.

I yelled through my window, “I thought you lived in Montebello over there close to Greenleaf off Telegraph.”

“I did…ah…I do…Well, it’s a long story,” Eddie said. “I’m actually staying with my father right now just off Brooklyn Avenue and then sometimes at my mom’s. She lives in Montebello. They’re divorced.”

Damn. Had the shit hit the fan for everybody? “What a drag,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, so am I. It makes it hard sometimes on the family. But anyway, dude.”

He glanced at the light, carefully balancing his throttle and clutch pedals. The cars resembled race horses at the starting gate, rolling back and forth, anxious to run.

“Hey, well, we’re neighbors now, thrown together by life’s little tragedies. We should meet every day on the corner and cruise to school together.”

“Cool, okay,” I said, almost shouting to be heard over the revving engines.

“I live two blocks from you. Wanna race?” Eddie yelled while turning up “So Fine” by The Fiestas on his radio.

“Yeah,” I mocked. “I can get this bucket of bolts up to about forty now.”

We immediately pretended like we were driving with our cars still standing still at the red light, racing their engines loudly while steering our wheels like lunatics.

Eddie had been the first person to get me to smile since my world collapsed. I saw in Eddie’s personality that same over-the-top energy that I loved in Joey—fearlessness and the ability to quickly get everyone laughing.

The light turned green and we acted out wild race car gestures while gunning our engines furiously. I quickly turned my radio to find the same station Eddie was listening to. It could only be one of two choices: The extremely popular KRLA with Sam Riddle in the mornings or KFWB with “Emperor” Bob Hudson. I turned to KRLA and found “So Fine.” Now my friend’s car and my own pounded with the same driving music as we cruised in tandem, both of us forgetting our personal tribulations.

We began playing an impromptu game of car tag now, speeding up and slowing down next to each other. Eddie suddenly sang at the top of his lungs across his front seat, “Well, I know…She loves me so…Oh…Oh!”

During the bridge of the song, we made even wilder gestures. We egged each other on in some strange, exhilarating, cast-your-fate-to-the-wind dance on wheels.

“Go! Go! Go!” Eddie yelled as we tried to keep our eyes on the road and still perform for each other. Eddie, putting on the complete act now, grabbed a small black comb from his pocket and started combing his pompadour-styled hair.

I immediately did the same thing.

An old, beat up 1948 Chevy truck had stopped suddenly in Eddie’s lane. I saw that he wasn’t looking, so I screamed, “EDDIE, LOOK OUT!” Eddie came out of his hair combing dance, shot a look in my direction, and darted a look straight ahead. His face contorted into horrifying fear. His lips curled back and his eyes widened like spot lights as he screamed “SHIIITTT!”

The cars met in a bending metal rage as my car sped by in the right lane.

“Damn!” I yelled, slamming my clenched fists down on the Bel-Air’s black steering wheel. I quickly pulled my car into a U-turn and returned to the scene.

Eddie had gotten out of his red Chevy and was busy examining the damage with the other driver when I pulled up and parked against the curb.

“Everyone all right?” I yelled.

“I think so,” Eddie responded, a little dazed but none the worse for wear.

The driver of the other car didn’t speak English and Eddie was busy speaking in Spanish. He asked him if he was hurt and if he needed anything.

“You better call the police, Rusty. Looks like I did some damage to this poor man’s truck.”

“Is he all right?” I asked Eddie.

“Yeah, he is, but he doesn’t have insurance and I do. We’ll figure something out. I just think we should have a police report because I’m on my father’s insurance policy and I want to cover all the bases.”

“Sure,” I agreed. “I’ll call the police from that gas station over there. See if you can get the cars off the road.”

I walked across the street to call the police. I related the details and approximate address. I then called Bette, a girl I’d been dating and was picking up for school, to tell her that he’d be “a little late.”

After the police left and the driver was on his way, Eddie and I leaned against Eddie’s crashed car.

“Looks like your luck is catching up to mine,” I said.

“Actually, things are great. I’ll just be without a car for a while,” Eddie explained.

“Here’s an idea,” I offered. “Call your insurance right now, find out where you should take it and I’ll follow you. Since we’re neighbors now, I can drive you to school. I could use the company since I’m living all the way over here now.”

“Thanks, man. That’d be great.”

Lunch was in progress by the time we made it back to school. When we entered the crowded cafeteria, applause broke out from different sections, accompanied by voices imitating cars and crashing sounds. Shouts of “Congratulations!” and “Wanna borrow my car?” flew through the air liberally.

“News travels fast, I see,” Eddie cracked.

“They know something we don’t?” I said laughing.

“Looks like they know it all,” Eddie said.

Our girlfriends Bette and Irene, both lovely trim brunettes with bangs for days, casually strolled over. Bette resembled an eighteen year old Angie Dickenson and Irene’s statuesque figure and soft brown eyes melted hearts on a regular basis.

I had tried settling into a normal routine with Bette after Joey left and I wasn’t allowed to see Adele anymore.

“Well,” Irene smiled. “It’s Crash Corrigan and his trusty side kick, Rusty.”

Bette laughed so hard she was wiping moist tears from her eyes as I gave her a hug. “God! You guys really know how to get attention, don’t you? Just a couple of show-offs looking for an audience.”

I turned and smiled. “Well, it seems to me, Betty Boop, you’re the only one I called to tell what happened. How’d the whole school find out? Huh?”

“You must be big important guys,” she said. “I only told first period when I was calling roll. Had to say something ‘cause you weren’t there, big boy.”

Eddie pulled open a bag of corn nuts with his teeth and interjected, “Anyway…My new neighbor, Rusty here—”

“Neighbor?” Irene said with surprise. “I thought you lived in Monterey Park, Rusty.”

“It’s a long story,” I said. “Clue you in later.”

“Yeah,” Eddie continued, “Rusty’s offered to drive me to school while the Chevy’s in the shop.”

“I guess somebody’s going to have to drive your ass around,” I quipped. “You sure as shit can’t drive yourself.”

For the next two weeks, I would pull my Bel-Air in front of Eddie’s house on Cheese Borough Lane at 7:00 a.m. and honk twice. I’d bust up laughing as Eddie leaped from the front porch and dashed to the car as if trying to set an Olympic record. The half hour drive to Montebello High School was ample time for us to hash over the problems we’d been facing: Eddie’s parents divorcing and my conflicts with losing the Upsets; Joey being taken away; the kaput record label interest; my relationship with Adele; and then—as if that weren’t enough—my parents selling the house I grew up in and moving two hours away to Yorba Linda.

“I’m not usually a depressed person, but after the work we put into the Upsets, when it folded I thought I’d go bonkers. Then, I see the letter from the record company that they were interested five minutes after Joey’s family hauled his ass to Jersey. Then my parents sell our house from under me.”

“My band is getting tons of gigs these days,” Eddie said. “I’ve renamed it The Left Hand.”

“Boss,” I said. “I’ve got to start something new now that the Upsets are gone-zo.”

“I got a brainstorm!” Eddie said. “It will get your mind off what’s happened to you lately and help me with the new band. Why don’t you come jam with my band tonight? As just a singer, I mean. We already have a drummer. And besides, I think you’d do better out front with your singing voice.”

My eyes widened. I turned to look at Eddie, but before I could get a word out, Eddie grabbed my arm for enthusiasm as if he were magically transmitting some mystical power to me. It was a comical, friendly gesture, but just the same, this boy wasn’t afraid to make his point.

“We could do a Righteous Brothers thing,” Eddie carried on like a politician needing votes. “We could be a team! Of course, you can drum anytime you like, or play whatever. It gives us both a lot of freedom to roam around the stage, singing and dancing.”

“Out in front, huh?” I considered this, smiling to myself. “Sure,” I said. “Where?”

Eddie turned his algebra book over and placed a piece of paper on it. “Ah…Oh, wait, I don’t need to give you directions, we…ah…have to go together ’cause my car’s still in the shop. Remember?”

In the garage that night, everyone was wailing with friendly laughter. Someone had even sneaked in a beer. After meeting everyone, I said, “Eddie, let’s get funky like the monkey.”

“Let’s kick out ‘Mustang Sally,’ you guys!” Coach Olmos yelled at the band.

“Key of C,” I said pointing to the band, getting an image of myself as Bobby Darin doing my band gig number.

Eddie counted it off. “Ah…one…two…”

The music started and we approached the microphones. Eddie’s cool, James Brown-styled movement was hypnotically compelling. He closed his eyes and gripped the microphone as if it were his passport to another world. He sang the first verse and then motioned to me to sing the second verse.

We sang all the choruses together.

“Ride, Sally, ride!”

“Let’s swap verses on ‘The House Of The Rising Sun,’” I suggested, and we did. Eddie and I sang and played for another hour and a half before ending the evening.

After rehearsal, we found ourselves walking around Monterey Park for the next hour, talking about this new idea.

“I think it works, Johnson,” Eddie began. “What do you think?”

I took a second, thinking about the challenge of being in front all the time. “I love being in front, Eddie. And you’re a very cool head to be working with. I’m not weighed down by the drum set. I can really concentrate on my singing and not have to worry about driving the band all the time.”

An empty Bubble Up bottle lay on the lawn of a house we passed. Eddie tapped it with his Kinney’s loafer.

I continued, “Are you sure you want to share the front of the band with me? I mean, you’re great on your own.”

Eddie smiled. “You’ve been at this some time now. You have a good reputation and can really sing. I’m just a James Brown-type singer.”

“And a shaker,” I said, making the point with my finger. “You are the Edward Olmos, man.”

“Thanks. Because our voices are so different, we can do more kinds of material. I really listened tonight on how we blended on the high-energy stuff and it mixes well. I think we could make something happen, get to the Hollywood circuit, you know, do the Whiskey, Gazzarri’s, the London Fog, the Galaxy, and the Sea Witch. We could do a few dates around here, then start the auditioning process in Hollywood. I know we could make it work. I felt really bad for you when I found out Joey went to New Jersey. But I started thinking it’d be so cool if you sang lead in my band with me. You know, make the best of a bad situation.”

“Isn’t that a blues song?” I asked.

Eddie started singing, “Gotta make the best of a bad sitchu-a-tion!”

“I’m in if you want me, daddy-o.”

“Great, I think we can climb mountains together,” Eddie said in his deep, gravelly voice.

After school each day, Eddie and I went back to work with our new band. I often found myself thinking about Joey. Many times over the past few months as I was uplifted by Eddie’s boundless enthusiasm, I felt grateful I had found a new friend. I knew how deeply Joey had been wounded and I worried that he would not find a friend like Eddie.

“I told the band to be here at three,” Eddie said.

Strong gusts of wind pounded at our backs as Eddie and I walked up the steps of the East Los Angeles College Auditorium. We pushed the bar handles of the double doors and walked in. Our eyes fell over the five hundred empty seats. It was widely known around the campus of E.L.A. Junior College that Eddie Olmos had been performing with his band around town. Someone on the committee of the Junior College approached Eddie about bringing his new band to the campus for a performance. Eddie gratefully accepted the opportunity, knowing it would be a great way to premier his idea of two front singers.

We strolled up the side entrance, through the wings, and out onto the main portion of the stage.

“Man,” I said, “there’s enough room up here to have five bands.”

Eddie walked to the front of the stage and looked down into the orchestra pit. “Hey, look at this, Rusty.”

I walked to the front of the stage and we both stood there as if gazing down from a giant cliff.

“Damn,” I gasped, “there’s a rising stage where the orchestra pit should be. Hmmm….”

I slyly looked over at Eddie, who was smiling and seeing if I had received the same thought he had.

“Wait a friggin’ minute here, moon-doggie!”

I darted back to the wings where the lighting board was located. I ran to it and looked up and down at all of the knobs, levers, and switches.

“Holy moly!” I yelled. “There’s a button here that says ‘Rising Orchestra Pit Stage.’”

Eddie yelled, “Don’t just stand there, Fabian, throw the damned thing and see if we shoot to the moon!”

I leaped into the air. I came down on the floor while hitting the switch with my hand and yelling, “Sputnik away!”

From the depths of the theater, a sound began to emanate as if a dying dinosaur were saddled with a hangover and the Asian flu. I ran back to the front of the stage where Eddie was now looking down in amazement.

“It moves and there’s a door down there!” Eddie yelled. “That means we can put the band on it, and—”

I cut him off. “We casually stroll out from both sides of the wings looking like Frank Sinatra and Elvis the Pelvis, pick up our microphones, and start singing!”

The side door opened. It was the band.

The crowd began filtering in as we helped the band set up on the rising orchestra pit stage in its down position. We did a sound check as the guitars were tuned and the drums were hit. I noticed how excited Eddie was getting during all the preparation and I related one thousand percent. He loved the excitement of getting everything together for the show as he checked this and ran over cues for that. The tension of pulling off a show fed something in him he couldn’t get enough of. He parted the curtain and became bug-eyed about how packed it was getting.

“Show time!” Eddie yelled for the performers and the stage crew.

The band took their positions downstairs on the rising stage.

“Good luck, partner,” Eddie said, hugging me enthusiastically.

“You too, Zorro. We’re gonna rip this joint apart.”

Eddie went stage right and I stage left.

The East L.A. Junior College auditorium was packed to capacity. Since it was now standing room only, the back of the theater looked like a lineup at a police station. The energy emanating from the five hundred teenagers and young college students burst through the curtains and slapped Eddie and I like a scorned girlfriend. The excitement had now built to a fever pitch. Eddie’s body twitched as he danced in place. Cat calls and whistles came from the already noisy crowd. Finally, the announcer for the event approached the backstage microphone after giving Eddie and I the thumbs up.

“Please welcome Eddie Olmos and Rusty Johnson with their band—THE LEFT HAND!”

Charged with enthusiasm and a free ticket to scream our heads off, we took full advantage of the situation. The audience was made up of every friend, relative, and school chum that we’d had ever known in our suburban lives.

The screaming—yelling—cheering—and stamping of their feet sent shock waves through the auditorium and for a moment, it felt as if the San Andreas fault had given way. The excitement made us dance in circles as we felt the sea of emotion and were about to dive in.

Eddie signaled the band to start the song and the stage manager threw the switch. The rising stage started moving to meet the main stage as the band started the introduction to “Slow Down” by the Beatles.

The music filled the large room bouncing between the walls and generating the rock and roll that got the crowd to its feet. I looked across the stage at Eddie and watched him dancing and jogging in place waiting for the band to reach our position.

The anticipation peaked in our minds. The audience was perfect. The band was perfect. The mood was perfect.

Our emotions were working in perfect harmony. We both glanced down at the rising stage, knowing it would arrive within a few seconds.

Then, without warning, the moving stage started shaking before it came into view of the audience. It groaned with a dying scream as if it were a giant oil tanker turning on it’s side.

And it stopped!

With the music going and the audience pumped, the rising stage was S…T…U…C…K!

The orchestra pit stage, fully loaded with all the musicians, had broken a good ten feet from the main stage. It would not rise into position to be level with the main stage.

The audience could hear music but had absolutely no idea were it was coming from, for they could not yet see the rising orchestra pit with the musicians on it.

Eddie ran across the stage and slugged me, bringing me out of my shock.

“Snap out of it! We’ve got time! We can fix it! They’ll just keep playing the introduction.”

He leaped seemingly five feet off the ground, turned in mid-flight, and ran over to the dazed stage manager. Eddie and the stage manager were busy at the stage controls throwing the levers back and forth. The stage manager was frantically looking down at the rising stage, seeing if each time he threw the lever, it moved. It didn’t.

The band kept playing the introduction again and again.

The audience members were looking back and forth at one another, perplexed. All the audience saw was four black heads of Beatle hair sticking up over the lip of the front of the orchestra pit going nowhere—while their ears told them, Shouldn’t the singing have started by now?

“Can’t you fix it? We’re dying here!” Eddie yelled over the music.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” the stage manager yelled back, frantically throwing more switches. “This has never happened in the nine years I’ve been here.”

The band is stuck and we can’t get to them.

Perfect, I thought.

“Rusty!” Eddie screamed. “I’ll signal the boys to start playing a solo to stall for more time.”

He ran to the corner of the stage wing in full view of the audience. Their applause was dying down, but erupted again when they saw him. Eddie yelled down to the band, “Do solos! We’re trying to fix it.”

“Signal to them to jump up and down on it,” the stage manager yelled. “Maybe that will jar it loose.”

Eddie yelled down to the band again. “ALL YOU GUYS JUMP UP AND DOWN!” He jumped up and down to show them how in case they couldn’t hear him. He looked out to the audience while jumping, then he mugged for them. They pounded on the back of their seats, stamped their feet, and screamed “Go, Eddie! Go!” He couldn’t do anything wrong. Eddie had saved the day by turning the new Righteous Brothers into a carnival act.

The band jumped while playing the same introduction over and over.

The stage manager screamed, “HARDER! MAKE THEM JUMP HARDER!” He threw more levers to no avail.

Eddie and I, still jumping like we were on pogo-sticks, yelled from the side,

“HARDER, YOU GUYS. JUMP HARDER!”

I glanced up to see members of the audience follow suit with the new dance being created before their eyes: The Olmos Hop.

Eddie turned to me, “We gotta jump, Johnson. It’s the only way out. Our landing on it will jolt it loose.”

I glanced down into the black hole.

“That’s ten feet, daddy-o. Let’s go!” he screamed over the music and laughter.

Like Japanese Kamikaze pilots, we ran hollering and screaming. “Oh, shiiiiiiitttt!”

We leaped up and out into the air. The band looked up over their heads to see two descending butts with legs pumping like they were riding bikes coming straight at them. We landed on the stuck stage “Ka-Boom.” We quickly put our hands on the floor of the stage to see if our Tarzan act succeeded.

“There it goes! It’s moving!” Eddie yelled triumphantly.

The audience sprang to their feet for our aerobatics with thunderous applause. The stage came into view and the energy was so acute that you could hold it in your hand.

We sang the first verse of a Beatle’s song: “Well come on, pretty baby…”

Crossing in front of each other, we worked both sides of the room, ducking down low, smiling and mugging, pointing and gesturing with outstretched arms.

When the song ended, the pandemonium was ear shattering.

“Thank you very much,” Eddie said.

“What I’m afraid of,” I said in the microphone, “is this could have set the tone for the rest of our career together.”

The audience howled and applauded.

“Anyway,” Eddie summed up, “Rusty and I and the band want to thank you all for coming.”

I made a giant gesture with my left hand and pointed to Eddie as he yelled into the microphone, “All right, people. Let me hear you say yeah!”

The audience screamed, “Yeah!”

“This is a man who almost literally broke his butt to entertain you tonight.”

The audience burst out in laughter, rose to their feet again, and went wild. We each put one arm each around one another, bent at the waist, and immersed ourselves in the addictive emotion.

Eddie turned to the band. “‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’! Ah-one, two, ah-one, two, three, four…!”

And we were off again. All I knew was that I loved singing with Eddie.

I was in heaven.