Dance With the Leopards in the Madman’s House

Her large, sagging breasts were being held tightly against her body with one arm, while the other was preoccupied picking up coins falling out of her cleavage. For every coin that she picked up off the floor, four more came rushing out. A coin in the bosom was worth four on the floor. She was like a walking slot machine. The assorted coins dropping out of her clutched breasts chimed loudly. They jingled off the ground, waterfalling uncontrollably. For a brief moment, the clatter of coins clashing on the rubber-lined floors disrupted the smartphone consumption of some riders; others went unfazed.

The real gold was falling out of her fleshy lips. Whatever she was on granted her the ability to dig deep into her vocabulary for profanity that could easily proliferate within the bus’s physical space. With the force of a tornado, her words hit the ears of the riders, most of which began to dig through their purses and backpacks for earbuds, to drown away with music what she couldn’t with drugs. The threats she was making consisted of popping you in the mouth and demanding that you pay her 20 dollars. Like an actor reciting a well rehearsed Shakespeare soliloquy, she let out an eloquent and uninterrupted stream of “punk-ass bitches” and “I’m gonna kill that mothafucka.”

She was wearing a royal-blue sundress, with big sky-blue Hawaiian plumeria flowers printed all over it. It was concealing the lower half of her body, just below her bloated navel. Her voluptuousness was part of the reason why the dress hadn’t slid all the way off, down to her ankles. Her hair was dyed blonde and buzzed cut. Her make-up seemed to have been applied haphazardly and looked clownish at best. It did little to hide her age or the unfortunate experiences she had faced. Her expression was that of an angry, snarling bulldog trying to escape the rough petting of children.

After successfully gathering all of the wayward coins off the floor and under other patrons’ seats, she went back to the heap of bags she had placed near the rear exit. As she moved toward her large canvas bag, she released her breasts from their restraint. They descended like wet socks thrown over and teetering on a clothesline— bouncing up and down, swinging back and forth, side to side— restrained by a single clothespin. They were long and flat, like twin turbines on a fighter jet. Get too close and she would’ve knocked your head clean off.

“Don’t fucking touch me,” she yelled. Nobody was within a 3-foot radius from her. “I kick your mothafucking ass, mothafucka.” She was peering her head forward and pointing out the double Plexiglas doors. It almost looked as though she was arguing with her reflection, chasing her own shadow like a lost boy from Neverland. She was yet another victim of LA, the land of never-gonna-happen, where you can easily La-La your life away. The bystanders treat people like this bosomy lady as a mere inconvenience, a bump on the road. Other people don’t help because they can’t even help themselves. There we were, me on the road home and she on the road to perdition.

When I saw her large nipples making eye contact with me, I had to do a double take just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. My instinctive reaction was to look away and then sneak a look. Back and forth. Don’t look, then look. I was like a prudish maiden hiding her curiosity behind a delicately crocheted white lace fan. I couldn’t stop looking. I wanted to analyze her body and figure out where all of her scars and bruises had come from. When did all of the neglect that she and the citizens of the city inflicted on her begin to happen? When she noticed that I was admiring her large chest, she smiled and threw a penny at me. It was her way of saying “I see you looking at my titties. I’m glad you like them.” I was compelled to pick it up and return the coin she had so laboriously worked to collect a few moments ago, but I was apprehensive to do so due to her mercurial temper which could have turned on a dime from coy to destroy. From coquettishly rubbing her nipple to scrubbing the floor with me.

Using the same disruptive and imposing will with which she had thrusted herself into the bus’s rear exit, she now demanded the driver to stop the goddamned bus.

“Let me out, let me out,” she yelled. “Let me the fuck out.” She pulled up her dress and tucked her gelatinous breasts into it one by one. As she swung the cluster of bags onto her back, a dirty piece of cardboard fell out from one of them, like a dirty little secret. She exited the bus yelling at the top of her lungs, “Good morning, Beverly Hills.” It was 10:37 p.m., and we were in Hollywood. This elicited a “Shut the fuck up” from another patron who had slept through the whole debacle. He appeared to be a hybrid of the Snow White dwarves Sleepy and Grumpy. By the scent emanating from his direction, he could have also been Stinky, if ever the group of little men decided to incorporate an eighth member.

The sign left behind read:

“HOMELESS
CHANGE
THANK YOU.”

Succinct. To the point. Twitter friendly.

The word “CHANGE” wasn’t followed by a question mark. Why bother? Did she even have a choice? Did we? She didn’t want to complicate her message or go over the character limit. It simply wasn’t in her character. I picked it up and took it with me when I exited the bus. I placed it on a bus bench. Maybe someone else would find it useful or inspiring. It definitely inspired me. That night, I lay in bed— wide awake— with the image of that woman’s sadness on my mind.

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Where I Hide With My Loneliness [Drawing]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.

 

The Sweet Scent Of Garmonbozia

A Strangely Isolated Place

In Mexico, it is an honor to be the firstborn male of the family. It is an even greater honor to bear your father’s name. It is also a good way of killing two birds with one stone: honoring an ancestor and naming your kid. This ancient practice keeps cacophonous names in rotation for longer than they should be. It is a lesser crime against humanity, a misdemeanor at best. A branding. A form of physical, living, breathing graffiti.
*          *          *          *

The heist was all planned out. We knew what we needed to do and what we needed to take. My brother and I were own our way to Sacramento, California with one thing on our minds. Our mission was to take as many toys as we could carry. It was the strategy that we had devised while sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to my Uncle Venus’ house. My cousin Jose and his brothers had troves of action figures— more toys than any eight-year-old could ever want. All of the ones that my brother and I drooled over while perusing the toy aisles at department stores. All of the ones that would elicit a firm ear-pull from our mom after begging her for them unsuccessfully.

We had already stolen some smaller items, like weapons and Happy-Meal-sized toys, but this was the big sting. The one that, if caught, could get us a leather-belt-on-bare-butt-cheeks spanking. This operation required pockets larger than those equipped on a pair of standard jeans. We needed to bring in the big guns. Taking a full-sized action figure would require a garment with additional cargo room. That was why we decided to bring our bulky winter jackets. These would aid our effort of concealing and carrying the contraband.

My cousins were very generous with their toys, which gave my brother and me a perfect in. As we played in their room, my brother and I would take turns slipping a toy into one of our many pockets. At first, my cousins were none the wiser to our slimy scheme. But soon my cousin Jose noticed that I was sliding something into my jacket. He was a smart kid and soon let out a loud yelp that brought our parents into the room. He told my uncle that I was stealing his toys. Our dads looked at each other and started to laugh. Some sort of brotherly inside joke. My uncle yelled at Jose to stop crying, that there was no harm done. I was pulled aside by my dad and told that he was going to kick my ass when we got home. I could already hear the sound of finely-crafted Mexican leather making contact with tightly squeezed flesh. That night, my brother and I came away with pockets full of threats. Enough to keep our kleptomania at bay. Well, until it was time for my cousin Jose and his brothers to visit us down in LA.

*          *          *          *

When you come from a culture where the scrotums are potent and the wombs fertile, you don’t simply get one person named ‘Little Bastard Jr.’ or ‘the III,’ you get a swath of ‘Little Bastards’ named after the grand master bastard— the grandfather that can never remember who you are. It defeats the whole purpose of even having a name. “Hey, you!” becomes a more comprehensive way of distinguishing you from the rest of your similarly named cousins. Any certified arborist would take one look at our family tree and deem its long branches ripe for firewood and demand that the rest of it be chopped down and interned in an insane asylum.

*          *          *          *

His hair was long and silky, dark and lustrous. It draped down between his shoulder blades to his mid-lower back even as he wore it in a ponytail. The light mustache and goatee on his upper lip and chin, along with the sharp cheek bones still bore vestiges of his boyish face. Since I last saw him— ten years ago— it had blossomed into that of a handsome young man. I remembered the times when he used to curse out my other cousins and their mothers with anger in his eyes. Now those eyes, interlocking with mine, were deep and soulful. He had a timid smile and quiet grace. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he instantly remembered me. I didn’t really know how to approach him without looking weak or coming off as slightly gay. I wanted to mirror his calm and collected energy. I had to repress my feelings of admiration and longing for a cousin who, for all I knew, could have been dead this whole time. I was mourning my inability to express my true emotions in words. I wanted to tell him that I missed him and find out about what he had been up to.

The occasion for our meeting was the wedding of our youngest aunt in Tijuana, Mexico. My cousin and I were 22 and 21-years-old. She was two years younger. He was wearing a form-fitting suit that added to the elegance in his demeanor. Since we last saw each other, my dad had been imprisoned and we had moved a couple of times. His dad remarried and had a couple of kids with his new wife; Uncle Venus used to pick us up from school from time to time, maybe because he felt he owed it to my dad to take care of us while he was locked up. I think my siblings and I saw my uncle more often than Jose did. I didn’t want to make the same mistake of going years without hearing from my cousin, so I gave him my address. I figured that we could open up an avenue of communication by writing to one another. After a few letters back and forth, the silence between us began to set in once again.

*          *          *          *

The tradition of genealogical nomenclature is meant to bring the family closer together. By having various reminders of the patriarch peppered in each of the extended family units, the children of the elder attempt to create an immortal bond. A man is not his song and his name should end when he does. It should be remembered only if he himself did something worth remembering; summoned by memory when his presence is craved for and not thrusted upon his descendants by means of filial guilt.

*          *          *          *

Jose invited me to a local pastrami place in Seattle. It had been yet another long serendipitous 10 years since I had last seen him. As I was making my way there, I didn’t know what to expect. Was he the indomitable, incorrigible kid who used to nosh on bright red radishes as we fought and lusted over a young Sofia Vergara— bouncing around on the beach— kissing the warm, bulbous television screen? Or, was he the elegantly poised young man with whom I had a brief, dreamlike conversation about nothing in particular?

The closer I got to the pastrami shop, I kept looking around to see if I could spot him. Did he even wear his hair in a ponytail anymore? Nervousness began to set in. The thoughts in my head were barraging me with an infinity of questions. They were reeling a movie in which I once again was playing a character too cowardly to express his true emotions. Part of me wanted to turn around and run away from the situation. Maybe it was better that we didn’t meet. There was a reason why we hadn’t in the past decade. And out of nowhere, there he was, standing right in front of me. My cousin Jose. I could see in him the boy and the young man I met on two separate occasions, two lifetimes ago. He waved me down from the entrance of the place as I crossed the street. We instinctively embraced as if not a single day had passed since the time we saw each other last. As if we were no longer 32 and 31-years-old, but 9 and 8 again.

As we were ordering our meal and even as we sat side by side, few words were exchanged. I asked him about his dad, and he said that he hadn’t really heard from him in years. I told him that I was in the same situation with mine. The silence could be cut thicker than the sliced meat on our paper plates. It was the loss of words that came from the meeting of two lost souls. It wasn’t our fault that this deep and wide valley had developed between us. We were like two falling leaves, helpless in the air, ripped and flung by the torrential winds of our parents’ shortcomings.

My eyes were full of curiosity, but I kept filling my mouth with cured meat and bread. Sitting there with him, listening to him tell me about his wife and three children, I made the decision of breaking with family tradition. The age-old stipulation that our fathers needed to be around in order for us to have a relationship, as family or friends. I wanted to eschew all of that firstborn-namesake bullshit and reach out my hand to my cousin and be a family. I wanted to welcome my cousin back into my life. Our relationship— as children and teenagers— suffered, but that didn’t mean that we had to continue suffering. Before we departed from another brief encounter, I invited him to visit me in LA sometime. I felt that it was time to take charge of my relationship with my cousin.

My brother Jose.

 

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). The Sweet Scent of Garmonbozia[Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.

God Isn't In A Pill

God Isn’t In A Pill

A phrase that I have heard more than a few times is that “Highland Park is the Portland of LA.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If these cities were friends, Highland Park would be the girl who had recently gotten her first kiss from a boy and Portland the girl who was already giving blowjobs. Portland has the infrastructure of a small city that’s ready to go through urban puberty, waiting for its budding population and housing to grow with anticipation. On the other hand, Highland Park is still potty training, cleaning up gang related shit, making its longtime residents crawl out of it in all fours and being babysat by a man who is out of touch with his constituents and the area he is supposed to be tending to.

Both cities bear a striking resemblance. They both go overboard in the amount of coffee made readily available to its citizens. For casual drinkers, this can pose a dilemma. But for coffee lovers, this is a big fucking deal. It’s coffee overload. It’s like that one scene in 1983’s “Scarface” in which Al Pacino’s Tony Montana dips his face into a mountain of cocaine on his desk. These establishments are no longer called “coffee shops,” they prefer to be called “coffee roasters.” As a consumer, you’re forced to choose between them like a maiden choosing a suitor. You’ve got your dark, tall and strong or light, short and sweet.

Similar to Portland, Highland Park is going through a dramatic makeover. Buildings–residential and commercial–are being erected all across the Northeast LA neighborhood, raising rents, displacing people of all colors and economic classes; including the disappearing middle class. It is this group that is simultaneously summoning and suffering the effects of gentrification. It seems as though this buzzword only poses a problem when it affects the middle class, not the working immigrant class. The middle class enjoys the quaintness of the boho chic coffee shops and restaurants, but it despises the drug paraphernalia adorning the sidewalks.

Highland Park wants to be more than it can be and pretends to be more than it should. It prides itself in its decrepitude and its lack of variety and quality. Portland is what Highland Park wants to be when it grows up. They both have that underlying punk-rock-blue-collar-DIY mentality, but Portland balances its rough exterior with its smooth cohesiveness. A Portland cashier will provide excellent service with a middle finger raised at you behind her back. In Highland Park, you’ll just get the middle finger in your face as you wait for someone to even acknowledge you.

A recent Vogue article painted Highland Park as having pristine streets, friendly people and a blemish-free history. It was a letter written by someone who had just fallen in love with the subject. The author made sweeping generalizations that swept the town’s social deficiencies under the rug and threw the older businesses and residents under the bus. An LA-based news website, LAist.com, quickly fired back with a spiteful and sassy article that deconstructed the aforementioned one, point by point. Instead of using the runway and limelight to bring up real issues like rampant homelessness and muggings, it was an appeal to “keep Highland Park weird.” Both articles–in their positivity and negativity–peddled a pastoral narrative where the residents of Highland Park were satisfied with what little they had.

Portlanders have plenty of unifying agents like a shared history, sports teams, national parks and a zoo. People from all over the country and the world are welcomed, more or less, by the residents. The newcomers enthusiastically adopt the practices and customs of the locals. In Highland Park, the opposite is true. People that move there don’t want anything to do with the people that were already there. The locals share that same disdain. Each party believes that the other is out to ruin whatever they have going on. There is no “Highland Park Pride,” gay or straight. For the most part, the locals give off a feeling of mistrust and the newcomers give them the silent treatment.

New residents resent the long-time residents for having neglected the neighborhood, plummeting it into an uncontrollable downward spiral of crime and neglect. This has empowered incompetent elected officials to coast through their terms without lifting a finger to improve conditions and are guaranteed reelection. The locals resent the new residents for viewing their long-time homes as “fixer-uppers” and changing all of the old businesses to new ones that they don’t feel welcomed to.

What it comes down to is the citizens of each city. Those from Portland run their city towards something better. Their counterparts in Highland Park have run it to the ground. The sex that Portland citizens have with their city is consensual. It is lovemaking on a bed softly lit by candlelight, to the tune of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” On the other hand, Highland Park gets fucked by its citizens in a dark alley, against a rusty chain link fence, lit by the piercing headlights of an old Chevy truck, to the tune of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.

All I can hope for Highland Park is that its citizens start to see one another a bit more like neighbors and less like enemies. I hope that in banding together, they elect officials who actually support their hopes for a better community. One that gives a restless, disenfranchised brown and black youth a place to gather at that isn’t defaced by graffiti. As well as provide a burgeoning white and Asian infancy with open-air spaces for them to play in. I hope that its streets get cleaner and its buses continue to take hard-working Americans of all ethnicities to work. My ultimate hope is that the residents of Highland Park work and fight towards building a place deserving of them.

But until that day, Highland Park residents will have to swallow the placebo of blissful ignorance, and continue to allow old couches to be dumped on their sidewalks and give their change and leftovers to the junkies sleeping on them. This medicine has managed to quell the pangs of a community forging and birthing its identity.

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Standing Underneath Two Sisters [Drawing]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.

Cory Bilicko

Don’t Thank Me

Colors have deep, subconscious and subversive significance. The rods and cones in our eyes process them incessantly. They look for their presence even when they are absent. They crave them. There are colors and shades that take a few moments longer to process. Those found on a person’s face. Long Beach resident Cory Bilicko has such a face. One that is clad with a warm, colorful smile. It is more than a mere gesture of gaiety manifested by his lips. You can also see it in his eyes, in the way he waves his hands as he speaks and in the way his legs cross under his perked-up torso. He smiles with his whole body.

I feel his smile in every word he utters, in every concept he meticulously dissects and in every piece of art he creates. The artist’s easygoing personality is transmitted onto the canvas. It is present in every brushstroke. There’s a hedonistic undertone to everything that he does and chooses not to do. It invites you. It envelops you. It enraptures you. His paintings have the same effect. They don’t look like photographs or lifelike representations. They are alive, like an illusory face that our eyes carve out on the trunk of a tree, harkening to a world of childhood fables in which animals speak and trolls live under bridges. His paintings allow your imagination to be feral and run free with the apparitions in your mind.

Complex at first sight, his paintings don’t reveal themselves right away. You really need to look at them. You’re lured in by their beautiful distortion of reality. You become transfixed by the imagery. With every blink of your eyes, the image becomes sharper. His paintings have a fresco texture, mixed with the grittiness of eastern Orthodox art and the northern Renaissance. “With representational paintings, I think my way through them, but with abstract art, it’s about choosing colors that feel right,” Bilicko said. He associates certain feelings with certain colors and textures. “It’s not about choosing the right color, but the right amount,” he added. It is his belief that with a more limited color palette, paintings seem to have a more sophisticated look. Even as he searches for perfection in his pieces, the artist wants to show the imperfection and work that went into them, like the brushstrokes created by the painter’s hand.

His inspiration comes from a variety of places. “It comes from my fears, uncomfortable situations that have happened and nightmares,” Bilicko said. These are the things that get him into a certain headspace. “I think that’s what it is. I kind of have to get myself into a strange place where I don’t really know what’s up. That’s when I can be creative.” Placing himself in a different reality that he can exist in, to feel safe and comfortable. That’s really what his art is about. It’s about feeling. “This has become my artistic point of view. To take disturbing shit that I’ve experienced or that I’ve envisioned and doing something with it, to control it, to try to make it beautiful. Palatable,” Bilicko said.

Bilicko’s art is approachable. It is palpable. Palliative. It looks like something you can understand. Something you yourself could’ve made. “The word visionary comes to mind. Most of us have ideas, but what’s the difference between a person who has visions, creativity, imagination and someone who has those things but can then physicalize it, manifest it in a form that other people can experience. That’s an artist,” Bilicko stated. An artist is like a shaman having the capability to follow through and present his visions to others. In the end, he believes that it doesn’t matter whether society or he himself views himself as an artist. “I’ve never been like that. I just don’t give a fuck,” Bilicko said. “You know, if I take a shit on a canvas and call it art, many people aren’t going to like that.”

The titles that he chooses for his pieces range from literal or descriptive to more abstract and up for interpretations. “I never try to think of a title before I finish a piece or while I’m working on it. It’s always after,” Bilicko said. “They’re always an afterthought.” They usually come to him from a feeling he’s holding on to while he’s creating the work. It always goes back to the feeling. He likes to come up with titles after he has lived with the pieces for a while and has gotten to know them a little better. It’s a more natural fit. He feels for his paintings. He suffers for them. They are an extension of him. His children. Then and only then does the title become a more significant part of the piece as a whole. It engages the beholder; it makes them a part of the process as they have to do some of the work to figure it out. “People notice things about my art, and I love that,” Bilicko said, “I learn a lot about my pieces through what people tell me that they see.” The Long Beach artist enjoys it when people make up their own narratives for his art. Often when people ask him to explain the meaning of a piece, his reply will usually be, “I don’t know. You tell me,” Bilicko said bursting into laughter. “You tell me what you see, because I don’t know.” The art lends itself to any kind of interpretation. It is art that is meant to be interacted with, meant to be touched and touched by. “I do hope that my art, in general, helps people and also that my story helps people,” he added.

Bilicko’s paintings have a narrative that places the viewer in the middle of the action. They are narratives that you can look at, ingest, digest and then profess to someone else. They are oral histories. Like cave paintings that existed before language itself. His art allows you to think about it while at the same time not overthink and simply immerse yourself completely in it. “My art is about feeling good,” he said as he cued Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ on his playlist. “It’s about making myself feel better.”

He paints as a way of digesting a feeling. “It’s part of the cathartic process, the physical nature of creating,” Bilicko said. In abstract art there are no rules. It is more random. “My abstract art is an expression of my emotions whereas my representational art is an expression of my thoughts,” he added. His art is an exploration, a journey through the subconscious.

“I don’t make art to impress people. I’m not trying to create a masterpiece. I’m just trying to deal with my shit and survive and be happy,” Bilicko said. “It’s very simple.” He almost sounds like a missionary delivering the gospel of art to the masses. “It saves me. It gives me a respite from all the crazy shit in our world,” he said. A lot of people can benefit from his message. He doesn’t really care about leaving behind a legacy, “It’s more about what I can do for people now, which is to help them understand that art has a truly transformative, therapeutic value to it. If that message continues beyond my current existence, then that’s great,” he added.

Any type of art form is meant to make you think, to make you feel. It’s supposed to make you want to interpret it. Art isn’t utilitarian. Its purpose is to inspire, to transcend, and in transcending, make your mind transcend along with it. In an age when everyone with a phone is a photographer, with photo-editing cloudware an artist and with a blog a writer, it’s difficult to distinguish between those who do it for art’s sake and those who put “art” in “farting around.” Those with a message from those with none. Both kinds are enjoyable to consume; however, as humans we search for meaning in everything that we do. We search for feeling. Deep down, Cory Bilicko is not a painter. He is a storyteller, one whose craft utilizes images and colors, nightmares and beauty, painful realities and distorted lullabies in order to affect the popular narrative of humanity. He is the Sharpie that draws a big smile on a nuclear warhead while giving the middle finger to the establishment. He and his art are enemies of the ordinary.

To see Cory Bilicko’s art and his upcoming shows, check out his website: www.corybilicko.com

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017, July 13). Il Pittore [Photograph]. Silhouettes, StripSearchLA, Los Angeles.

Low Flying Panic Attack

A fiery yellow and orange light nestled itself gently up against a misty rose blue sky around 4:37 a.m. The sunrise awoke me in the same manner that an eager 4-year-old who has been up all night, too excited to sleep, wakes her parents. This capricious light lit my way and led me to a deserted bus stop. My main goal that day was to explore Downtown Vancouver. Little by little, people began to gather around the stop, forming a small, then larger crowd. A woman with a broom swept the trash by people’s feet, not to draw it into the trash can, rather to draw attention to herself. To her deplorable state.

“Excuse me,” she yelled at a young woman thumbing her phone. Her tone was accompanied by a level of annoyance that comes from not being appreciated. As she jumped out of the way, a muffled “thank you” drooped out of the downward facing sweeper. She continued to sweep hunched over with her tiny broom until she arrived at the ledge of the sidewalk, between the people and the road.

“Hello! Hello, people waiting for the bus,” she proclaimed, using the cleaning instrument as a baton, “my name is Alana and I sweep the streets every day.” She swapped the broom from her right hand to her left and outstretched it to the crowd. “Would you like to make a donation today?” Most people ignored her vulnerability, her cry for help. They had all heard that one before. Like a true artist, she kept going even as her performance fell onto deaf ears. Tough crowd.

After not having any luck with mass appeal, Alana tried a more personalized approach. She went up to a woman and asked her for a “humble donation.” The woman was talking to a man and didn’t seem to appreciate Alana’s humble interruption.

“Well, you’re humble psychologically, but you’re a fucking bitch,” the woman yelled as Alana walked away from her.

“Thank you,” Alana said as she wove through the crowd of people, continuing to ask for donations.

“Thank you? Thank yourself, fucking bitch.” At first sight, I would’ve judged things all wrong. Based on each woman’s physical appearance–Alana disheveled and the other dressed in a suit–I would’ve painted Alana as completely deranged and the other woman as completely sane. Truly I tell you, as my eyes and ears bore witness, the opposite was true. Even though Alana was missing a couple of teeth, it was the other woman that was missing a couple of marbles. However, these are necessary illusions. Necessary to keep up the charade, the bizarre parade that we call “normal.”

Later that day, after having had a nice meal, I walked out of the restaurant and a young man, who looked like he’d been dragged all across town and thrashed by the pleasures of drug use, looked at me indignantly.

“What is your wetback ass lookin’ at?” he squawked. His question, although begging for an answer, seemed to be rhetorical. Well, what was my “wetback ass” looking at, indeed? I was looking at a broken man with a broken heart trying to piece his life back together by smoking pieces of meth, trying to find a method in his madness. That’s what my wetback ass was looking at. I guess that would’ve been too long of an answer to a drive-by question. The irony of it all was that he himself was Hispanic. It has been my experience that people of our own race make the best racists. Call it introspective loathing.

One of my favorite parts of traveling to different cities is checking out the local public transit. It’s an arena ripe for people watching. If extraterrestrial beings ever wanted to see true human nature, their search would only be a half hour bus ride away. On the bus, in Vancouver as in LA, people find it uncomfortable making eye or physical contact with other strangers of any kind; accidentally or deliberately. The ripe scent of armpit sweat and sweaty ass are forces that even a decent deodorant and soap cannot combat. However, I really do like people. I like looking at them. At their quirks. At the things that they themselves would find repulsive while looking in a mirror. Most look away, but I want to walk through the looking glass. I like to take a big whiff of whatever olfactory cocktail the bus has shaken for me. Allow it to stir in my lungs. It’s the scent of life. A scene from the everyday. A sense of comfort in knowing that everything around me that is happening will bring me no harm. The sound of peace. I am surrounded by my kind. My people. It’s about feeling the good in the good people of Canada. Of the world.

Bilicko, C. (2014). Interment 4 [Painting]. Acrylic on canvas, Long Beach, CA.

Heaven Send Hell Away

A couple of weeks after Chris Cornell died, I stumbled upon a YouTube video of him covering Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U“. His performance was angelic, prophetic, haunting. I had heard it sung before by Sinéad O’Connor and by The Artist himself, but the emotions transmitted by Cornell’s raspy raunchy baritone voice, were visceral and raw. They denuded him, stripped away his rock star pretension, leaving behind his voice and guitar. He may have been a pop icon, he may have been a sex symbol, he may have been dead for under a month, but it wasn’t until I heard him sing “It’s been so lonely without you here, like a bird without a song, nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling,” that the weight of his absence truly made my heart and tear ducts heavy with blood and tears.

I don’t react to these kinds of things immediately. It took me months to process my grandparents’ passing. The only two people I have lost. I’m slow at feeling the feelings I’m supposed to feel. It’s not emotional numbness; it’s more like emotional dumbness. Sometimes I don’t know how to feel. I just sit there, through experiences, taking in the life-altering stimulus, not knowing what to do with it.

I first heard of the news via a Twitter hashtag (#ChrisCornell). As soon as I saw it, I feared the worst. My life started to flash before my eyes. At least the parts in which the music of Cornell played in the background. I thought of childhood summers in Tijuana, Mexico, running around in my grandmother’s asymmetrical lopsided house. My uncles, then angsty teenagers, blasted grunge music through loud speakers, whose sound made every window in the house shake to a point just below shattering.

I remembered the countless times I spent hanging out at my cousin Melly’s house, watching music videos on MTV. Melly and I were very close; she was like an older sister. I don’t know if it was because she debriefed me before I began my first year of middle school or because we used to make out with each other when we were younger. In any case, the week before school started, her kissing mentorship reached its point of culmination.

“If a girl asks you if you want to scam, you always say ‘Yes’,” she advised.

“What if I don’t like her?” I asked.

“You still want to do it. If you don’t, then people will think you’re gay.” That made sense. In the same way that I saw her as an older sibling, she saw me as her little brother, and at times, her little sister.

“Why are you putting make up on me?” I asked her as she applied eyeliner à la Brandon Lee circa “The Crow.”

“‘Cause it makes guys look really hot,” she answered emphatically. Her enthusiasm and intrepid application were good enough reasons for me. “Besides, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain both do it too.” I smiled with the unabashed smile of a blind man. I was obsessed with Cornell’s band, Soundgarden and their latest single at the time, “Black Hole Sun.” Both the song and the music video haunted me like nothing before. It felt emotionally heavy, yet it was as easy to listen to as a lullaby. It sounded familiar, like a Beatles or Led Zeppelin song and at the same time like nothing else I had ever heard.

I had a pretty refined ear when it came to rock music, having been raised by my mom’s brothers on a diet that consisted of classic rock. Soundgarden and Cornell’s voice fit in seamlessly into my frame of reference like my ass did into my cousin’s Levi’s 501 jeans.

Mourning Chris Cornell’s death was, in part, the mourning of a death that had taken place long before his. That of my relationship with Melly. Of a time when I used to look up to people, like Cornell, and not down at their most deplorable flaws. His death reminded me of Melly, how she was always there for me and how she didn’t care about my fucked up family situation. Partly because she was so cool and partly because hers was as fucked up as mine. Our mothers were sisters, after all.

I felt disappointed in myself because I let both of my friends slip away. I abandoned them. I never went to see Chris Cornell perform live when he toured LA. I didn’t even try. I took him for granted. It’s been a while since I’ve reached out to my cousin and her daughters, the oldest now the same age we were in the nineties, back when we were wearing eyeliner and trying to be cool. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.

In my mind’s ear, nothing will ever compare to Chris Cornell’s powerful soulful singing, one that hooked me from the first listen. A voice that had been an invisible playmate in our sororal gatherings. The sun will wash away the rain, but never the raindrops falling from my eye. The tears for a man that took the sunshine with him and left behind a black hole.

Heart in a Brown Paper Bag

Someone once told me that Portland is a combination of San Francisco and Seattle. Having been to San Francisco twice before and spent a few days in Portland, my excitement to experience Seattle came as no surprise. It was like meeting someone’s mom and younger sister and imagining how that person would look like based on how attractive those two people were. On the long four-hour train ride there, I started to get a jittery feeling in my stomach the closer we got to the downtown station. I could hardly wait to get there and see it.

Visiting other cities—in the US or elsewhere—brings up the question of “Could I live here if the opportunity presented itself?” I’ve discovered that a city, while you’re vacationing there, behaves similar to a person on a really good first date. Seattle, Washington was no different. Everything you say is funny, every quirk is adorable and nothing about them can be considered negative. Even their curt assholeness is seen as assertive, as charming. Seeing another city? That’s totally fine with Seattle, because it will do things that the city you’ve got at home will not. Seattle will be a slut for you. You know your home city too well. There are no surprises, no fireworks.

Seattle didn’t care to know why I was considering leaving LA, and I really wasn’t concerned with its past either, or its crime and homelessness. The grime on and under its streets or the time I’ll have to waste on its trafficked highways and crowded public transit. Seattle and I wanted to start something fresh.

I booked a small room for four days in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Each day was an opportunity to get to know this place a little better, like going on back-to-back dates. I wanted to spend all day and night getting to know Seattle’s streets and shops and explore its seductive and supple body of water. To take in its beautiful Sound. There was this intense creative energy in the air. One that made me feel at home.

Like most annoying qualities in a person, most are not apparent at first, even though they have always been there, in plain sight. Maybe we choose to ignore them, or the person we like does a great job at suppressing them. In any case, when these qualities do reveal their ugly heads, they do so with an unperceptive slowness. The things that were once cute about them soon become unbearable. Initially, I really enjoyed having mini conversations with coffee-shop employees. They were courteous and took the time to shoot the shit. But after a few days, it started to become a chore, an obligation. Sometimes, I just wanted to order coffee, pay for it and leave. That’s it. Their shit-shooting also started to distract me. Their deconstruction of how faithful the adaptation of Captain America from its comic-book source material to the cinema screen was piercing through my every thought.

“You just have a bunch of ripped dudes running around,” a bearded beanie-wearing barista ranted, “fighting each other and they pay no attention to what the characters really stand for.” The other barista and customers at the counter agreed, anxiously awaiting their turn to get on a soapbox of their own.

This sense of urgency coursing through me is probably something that rubbed off on me from LA. It’s a quality that Seattleites don’t really appreciate and one that I myself hate in other people. It seemed strange to think that in just a matter of days I could already fantasize about living here. I’m only human. Besides, LA and I haven’t made anything official. I haven’t bought a home there yet. She’s making it really difficult to do so. I can barely stay in my apartment, with a few measly things to call my own. In Seattle, I felt as if I could live a better life.

It was love at first sight and as such, it was over in the blink of an eye. As I folded the shirtsleeves on which my heart was worn, I could see myself loving my life and work in Seattle. The new habits I would form there, the new paths I would walk and the stuff I would get used to. LA still has my home, my heart. I couldn’t just leave her. There’s too much baggage. I missed her. Her smoggy breath, urinous perfume, sultry weather and asphalt forests. I will miss Seattle like one misses a past lover, continuing to fantasize about it while still inside of LA. However, even after I visit other cities in distant lands and relocate there permanently, I will always go to California with an aching in my heart.

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Tazza di Caffè [Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.