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Memoirs of a Bum
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, April 28, 2005.
I can’t remember where I was living that night. It may have been the Dickson Estate in South Pasadena already, but more likely it was Paul’s in Venice, Nancy’s on Sycamore, Brad’s on the lagoon in Playa del Rey or Jan and Erik’s loft beside the railroad tracks. Maybe somewhere else. But somehow, someone had found me and invited me to read my work in progress at the now-defunct Grassy Knoll Coffeehouse, at Sunset Junction, and when I arrived there a bit early I found that the event’s organizers had prepared programs with short, unauthorized biographies of each of the evening’s readers.
It was nice to see my name spelled correctly, but less nice to see, beside it, a bioblurb that included the terms transient and wanderer. Wanderer’s not bad, but transient . . . I see transient, I hear William S. Burroughs spitting the word out like spoiled milk in The Mummy Piece: “These second-class souls are relegated to third-rate transient hotels just beyond the last checkpoint, where they can smell the charnel-house disposal ovens from their skimpy balconies.”
True, I’d lived in 20 or so different places over the last eight or nine years, but it was a temporary situation. Wasn’t it?
“Transient hotels,” Burroughs repeats, over and over.
It began in the Dungeon, the first floor of Dykstra Hall at UCLA, Room 103. At the end of freshman year, my roommate, Beef, returned to San Diego, and I sublet someone’s friend’s friends’ living room somewhere on Landfair Avenue so I could take over Beef’s part-time job driving a blind fellow from Beverly Hills to the beach and back for three weeks, until one of the someones’ friend(s) returned, at which time I moved to an acquaintance’s couch on Glenrock, a few blocks away, until another friend’s friends vacated their third-floor slum on Gayley Avenue, which housed five of us for six weeks or so, until it was time to go back to the Dungeon. Room 122 this time, for nine more months of UCLA, at the end of which a friend’s father bought a two-bedroom condominium near the Nuart that four of us could share for $250 apiece. But it wasn’t ready yet, so we stayed (five of us, altogether) in a one-bedroom place on Kelton at Levering for a month or so, until the condominium was ready, and then we lived there for two years, until my friend’s father decided to sell the place, at which time I rented a room for 90 bucks in an almost-vacant frat house, then moved in with three sorority girls in a one-bedroom-plus-loft apartment on Barrington until one weekend when I drove down to my parents’ place in Garden Grove to fly as a group to my sister’s wedding in Chicago, but instead got knocked out with mononucleosis and a staph infection at the same time and ended up missing the wedding and staying down in Orange County for a month. Then back to the Barrington sorority, where the rent was being raised and so several of us were going to move into another place together, with more sorority girls, and we had a farewell party during which I accidentally had sex with one of my would-be new roommates, which made the impending move a bit awkward, so instead I found a half-built piece of shit in Palms and moved in with old roommate Beef and another old roommate, Chris, but not for long, as Guido the Landlord was forever taunting us with false promises of air conditioning and was basically, as Chris put it, “a landlord-shaped filth package.” I was then seeing a woman named Carol-Ann, and she invited me to live with her, but I was too freaked out by the idea, so Chris and Beef and I found another place in West L.A., near Bundy and Santa Monica Boulevard, and our friend John moved in with us and we stayed there until . . . until Chris was going to leave for grad school? I think? Or at any rate someone was leaving, so I moved down to my parents’ place in Garden Grove and commuted to the UCLA Housing Office daily until I found this incredible studio up in Beverly Glen for $350 a month, and stayed there for two and a half years, until I dropped out of grad school at CalArts (no money) and began my period of car-living, staying with various friends, with a suitcase in my ’79 Honda and the rest of my stuff in storage while working full-time at an art gallery in Santa Monica until my mom died (the gallery owner apparently thought I was making up my mom’s impending death, because when I asked for a week off to be with my mom in her final days, the owner granted my request, but a few days later, when I called to report that my mother was dead and that I could return to work the following Tuesday, the gallery owner had given my job to someone else, which really wasn’t very nice; as another gallery director put it when we were introduced a few months later, “Oh — you’re the one they fired because his mother died”) at which time I moved in with my dad, and that’s when things really began to blur. Nights spent at Paul’s, at Nancy’s, at Brad’s, at Jan and Erik’s, and so on.
Eventually I got a nice, stable job as a court jester on the Dickson Estate in South Pasadena. Stayed there six months, commuting to my part-time bartending gig at Igby’s Comedy Cabaret in West L.A.
And somewhere around this time — just a few weeks into my court jestership in South Pasadena, not long after my transience at the Grassy Knoll — I developed a crush on the Igby’s accountant. Her name was Julie, and she only came in once in a while, to balance the books. I worked up the courage to ask her out, but she declined, saying that while I seemed like a nice guy — funny, cute, smart — I was too unstable, too much of a dilettante, a vagrant, a bum.
“But . . . but I’m a court jester now,” I protested.
Julie was not impressed.