04/29/2013 11:45 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

My Blindness Is Its Own Reward


I have made my bed in darkness -- Job 17:13

Nobody here is from here. That is what I like about LA. It is a good place to be anonymous. You can live in an apartment building in West LA. for years and none of the other tenants will ever know your name. Nobody knows my name. I enjoy that. I work alone in the dark.

Nobody here is from here. Except me. I was born in LA, a native son in the land of the exiles. I am alone in the city of my birth. I avoid the sun. Among those who seek celebrity and those who suffer celebrity, I enjoy anonymity. I will not be celebrated. I do not have a tan. I do not own a convertible. I do not own a car. I am a blind man -- partially sighted technically -- on foot in a city built for automobiles. Every thing the exiles love about Los Angeles is foreign to me.

I am going blind and my blindness is its own reward. I see best in the dark. I walk the streets in the hours after midnight when even the drunks and psychopaths are asleep. I walk down Santa Monica Boulevard at 3 a.m. and see a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of a computer software store. This store caters to the desires of those who write screenplays, whether produced, unproduced or unproduceable. A sign in the window points to a box of software, which through the magic of the computer will "transform random thoughts into winning plots."

Standing there in the dark, I wonder if I know any stories with winning plots. Maybe I do. Maybe this story has one. Maybe it doesn't.

An early morning Pepsi delivery truck rumbles down Santa Monica Boulevard toward the 7-11 near the San Diego Freeway offramp. Illegal immigrants from Central America will begin to gather there around 6 a.m. looking for work. But they are not there now. Nobody is.

An LAPD squad car slows to check me out. An officer half my age decides I am a harmless old man, and drives off to the nearby substation.

I wonder if my random thoughts could be converted into plots by a computer program more insightful than any creative human mind. This is an anti-egocentric notion, which few creative minds could bear. Egocentric as a blind man must be, since he observes so little outside himself, I certainly make no case for my creative mind. It's a mess.

I actually do write on a computer. An original Sharp laptop, an ancient machine by current standards, but it was state of the art two decades ago, which does not seem that long ago to me. I have an early version of the word processing software called WordPerfect, which is not perfect and is no longer state of the art either, but is still good enough for my purposes. I have no program to transform my random thoughts into winning plots. I just type the words as they travel from my brain to my slow arthritic fingers, which tap them out on the keyboard. In the dark I can see my words appear in bright green phosphorous letters on the blank screen. I am still not so blind that I cannot see and I am not yet as blind as I am going to be.

Back from my walk, I go about my apartment, checking out the heavy blackout curtains I ordered from a Sears catalog. I make sure they are tight enough to guard against the dawn. There is little a.m. sunlight in West LA. Due to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean, the Southern California coastal communities are often blanketed with early morning fog, clearing in the afternoon, as the weather reports say. But I must have my blackout curtains in place, to guard against the rays that occasionally do appear when the desert winds come early to drive the fog out to sea.

With the blackouts in place, I make coffee with my Mister Coffee maker and settle down to my laptop. The green cursor, blinking at me on the dark screen, waits for my stiff and swollen fingers to pick out the words. And where do my random thoughts take me? I go back to the homes I have lived in during my exile. We lived in a flat on Venice Boulevard, near downtown LA where I was born, a native son among the exiles who flocked here for the sunshine and good jobs in the defense plants after the Second World War. Young veterans and veterans' wives came to the City of Angels from Chicago and Iowa, vowing never to shovel snow off a sidewalk again. My mother was an exile from Iowa, herself, and so even though my father was born in Los Angeles, making me the rare native son of a native son, I thought I was an exile, too. I thought I belonged to that somewhere else where almost everyone else came from in their quest for good jobs and better weather.

I could not identify with my father, who as a young man played near-professional tennis on the open courts of Lincoln Park in Santa Monica. Beat a pro one day, as the family legend had it. I never played tennis. My defective eyes are congenital. I could not see a ball in flight. Even as a kid, I rarely went into the ocean, which was then polluted by the waste of millions of refugees from gloomy Midwest winters. And as I said before, I do not like the sun. Perhaps I am the only native of Southern California who does not. I like the darkness.

My grandfather, as a boy, had gone with my great grandfather to Alaska to build bars for the miners in the Gold Rush towns. My grandfather and his father went from town to town performing this signal service. It was dark all winter up there. My grandfather told me this when he was an old man waiting to die in one of the dingy flats my father owned on Venice Boulevard. I have a desire still to see Alaska in the winter darkness.

My grandfather died a long time ago, at 87 from the effects of smoking and drinking. That was the cause of death. Or so my mother believed. My father, who never smoked or drank a day in his life, died more than two decades years ago. He was 85. That's the kind of irony my mother could not grasp. But I enjoy it. From my father, I inherited a little money and slowly crippling arthritis and this near blindness, which began in childhood and has progressed like a prolonged summer sunset, until all I have is the afterglow of vision. Dim perception.

Dim perception seems appropriate for someone who loves darkness as much as I do. Dim perception seems appropriate for an exile who lives in his hometown and is not at home there and longs for a vision of Alaska that was only the childhood memory of a long-dead grandfather.

My father, when he died, crippled with arthritis overlaid with bone cancer, had no good childhood memories of Southern California. At least, there were none that he could recall for me on his deathbed in the little co-op apartment, in a community for senior citizens in Laguna Hills, California. It wasn't fair to ask about good memories. Bone cancer brings on a series of little strokes. That's what my doctor told me. During the last six months of his life, my father was slowly robbed of what little coherence he ever possessed. It was a combination of strokes and morphine that took his mind away in the end. He would say things that did not make sense and he knew that they didn't. He struggled one afternoon near the end to tell me why he was refusing to sign the papers so that my brother could sell the house my father had given him. "The land is in the land," he kept saying. It was nonsense, my mother said, and she signed the papers in his stead, using her power of attorney.

I do not know what he meant by saying. "The land is in the land." But it meant something to my father. Certainly there has been money in the land of Southern California. Money made by every Anglo who came here with enough shrewdness to buy cheap and sell dear. Crackerbox tract homes in Santa Monica, purchased with VA loans after the war, sold for small fortunes during the boom years. By the time my father died, the boom had gone bust. Soon after he was buried in an overpriced plot, my mother sold one of the houses he had purchased in Laguna Hills. He bought it for dear and she sold it cheap. Perhaps the land was no longer in the land, but my father took that notion to his grave, where he is now in the land.

He could not take his money with him, although he would have liked to and might have managed it better from beyond the grave, than my mother did on this side. My mother started out with an estate worth a small fortune by middle class standards. Then she went broke. First, she squandered money on lavish gifts of cash to my brother and myself, gifts I cynically believe were designed to keep us from questioning the way she managed the rest of what was supposed to be our living trust.

Within a year of my father's death, my mother took up with the husband of my mother's best friend. In one of those morbid coincidences of life in a retirement community, my mother's best friend died of a massive heart attack shortly after cancer killed my father. So there was my mother, without a husband or a best friend. All that was left of the two married couples who had shared a friendship for 20 years, was my mother and the husband of her best friend. With their spouses out of the way, they immediately fell in love and got married.

It was not a marriage made in heaven. My brother, a born again Christian, told me so. He had great trouble accepting it because my mother's new husband had a history. He had made big money selling earth moving equipment to the South Vietnamese government during that war nobody wants to remember. Then he gambled his bonuses away on the craps tables in Las Vegas using a system he devised for beating the odds. By the time my mother's best friend died, my mother's new husband had beat the odds in Vegas with such success that he barely had the money to bury his wife. Actually, he didn't have the money to bury his wife. He had her body burned up and then he dumped the ashes in the Pacific Ocean. He said that was what she would have wanted. She would have loved being burned up and having her ashes dropped into the ocean.

Marriage to my mother provided a financial bailout, which lasted until he decided to introduce my mother to the wonders of Las Vegas, the Liberace Museum, the Hoover Dam and, of course, the casinos. Of course. Convinced against a lifetime of evidence, that her new husband "knew a lot about odds," my mother loaned him cash from our living trust, so that he could double our money.

When my mother died of a stroke after partying until 3 a.m. on New Year's Eve in Las Vegas, there was just enough money in the living trust to buy flowers for her casket. The trust, the legacy, the nest egg, built up by my father, a man who never once pulled a lever on a slot machine, was lost in three years by a man who knew the odds.

My mother did not die instantly of that New Year's Eve stroke. It took three days. My brother picked me up in his Cadillac and drove me to the hospital in Las Vegas. She was in a ward with all the middle aged men who suffered heart attacks while celebrating the dawn of another year. When I saw my mother there, she wasn't like the people you see dying on television or in the movies. She didn't lie nice and still, looking saintly.

She writhed. For two days, she writhed in that little hospital bed. She tore at the tubes running liquids in and out of her. She grabbed at her crotch. She kicked her legs. The doctors said she knew nothing and felt nothing. Her blood pressure went up and down. Her heart beat was all over the charts. She gasped for air. Her husband the gambler said she was telling him how much she loved him. She was whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

I spent two days in her room and she never did or said anything that made any sense to me. She didn't even say that the land was in the land. She just writhed in that bed like a heavy sleeper who is on fire but cannot wake up.

After two days, the doctor told the gambler that the odds were she would never recover. The gambler executed a living will, so my mother could move more swiftly from living to dying. A nurse came in and gave her an injection. "This is morphine," the nurse said, as she pulled the needle out of my mother's vein. "She'll rest easy now."

They took out almost all the tubes. They removed the oxygen mask. They moved her to a private room, so the patient in the other bed, another stroke victim, wouldn't have to watch her roommate die.

My mother didn't beat the odds. The morphine stopped the writhing. My mother stopped her breathing. Her life was over before she could enjoy that ultimate hospital luxury. The private room.

Now I sit in darkness with only these green letters on a flat black screen to comfort me. I write this story every day. It never gets any better. It is based on random thoughts. It does not have a winning plot. It is no better than the rising sun buried under the morning fog which will burn off in the afternoon.