This morning I look over my shoulder and see September 30, 1955.
This is what happened:
Sweat slowly escapes from my pores. I move away from underneath the smooth shade of three stumpy adjacent palm trees, and step right in to piercing sunlight on the sidewalk.
Eighteen years of searching for my identity had me wandering the streets of Los Angeles on this blistering morning. Youth does have its benefits, my energy and enthusiasm seek freedom as does this city of false hopes and lost dreams, and I wouldn’t let the heat stall my search.
In the seventh grade I’d decided that with respect to my parents and in consideration for my own future as an adult, the only way I could truly discover myself was to experience the Seven Wonders of the World. Los Angeles is not one of them.
The Seven Wonders stand out in history books as more than just pieces of handiwork; they epitomize human inspiration, savage idealism and the acquisition of the pleasurable aggression that ingratiates human instinct. Los Angeles doesn’t fit that paragon although it does represent savage idealism.
Hitch-hiking is a reasonable form of transportation in the L.A. basin. I usually ride the bus but today I dismiss the conventional and try the unorthodox; the socially disapproved form of getting around the city. I first thought that I would take the bus, but then I decide that I might need the ten cents for a cold coke later in the day when the desert weather starts to singe my brain.
I’m wearing my black converse high-tops, Levi jeans and a white t-shirt today, feeling out of sync with everything; the inconvenience of my parents, my senior year in high school, teachers and so-called friends, so I stick my arm out with my thumb in the air while stepping off the sidewalk. A dozen cars pass by without the drivers looking my way.
False promises to myself kept me crying inside while I waited for a ride, promises that I’d not turn out to be like my parents; affluent and dedicated to working their entire lives without sensitivity to discovering their own interest, not experiencing living to the fullest. I think they tried to do that when they were younger but they’ve apparently given up with the passage of time.
My future obligations will be different from theirs by not having to pay a mortgage, car payments, life and health insurance premiums up the yin-yang, instead, I will pay homage to history and render respect to the greater than life images from the past not forgotten.
Blinking my eyes was a warm river drifting over my sandpaper eyes. Sunlight almost blinds me from seeing the silver streak sports car. It stops by the curb at my feet, the hot reflection searing the skin right off my nose. The foreign, low topless and seamless piece of metal, smelling like oil and rubber, rests upon four black tires below me.
Am I prostituting myself? You never know about these Hollywood types. The young driver leans across the seat and opens the passenger’s door. Like a free spirit I fall onto the hard bucket seat like mounting a horse ready for the wildest ride of my life.
“Where to?” the driver asks. His southern drawl suggests that he is right out of a Roy Rogers western movie.
“The pyramids of Egypt,” I say, and then laugh.
He is looking straight ahead over the low windshield not wincing about my response, perhaps thinking to himself that he just picked up an idiot, a young boy who thinks he is so cool he doesn’t have to respond normally.
“The pyramids of Egypt,” he says, and laughs like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.
I look hard at my chauffer. The crescent lenses of his shades disguise any expression. My vision remains sensitive to sunlight but I see he is older, perhaps fifty. The slight receding blond hair off his forehead looks like it was shaven. Men are always worried about losing hair or going completely bald, just why he shaved that minuscule part of his hair is a mystery to me.
His head tilts my way, only slightly as he raises his eyes over the top of his sun glasses.
“I know a place better than the pyramids of Egypt,” he says. “Want to go?”
He accelerates the sports car before I say yes. He shifts the gears by way of a stick on the floorboard inches in front of and between the bucket seats. I’d only seen the column type of gear shift lever, not one on the floor. I decide that this is going to be a genuine adventure.
Our hair blows with the wind, our faces bask in the sun as we speed down Santa Monica Boulevard. The speedometer is different. There are twice as many numbers on it as regular American cars. We must be traveling at one hundred miles an hour.
“What’s your name?” he asks over the wind and the whining of the motor.
“Is the motor in the back of the car?” I ask, bewildered.
His laugh is childish and contagious. “That’s where the motor should be.”
“My name is James,” I say, sounding too enthusiastic. “Call me Jimmy. All my friends call me Jimmy.”
He laughs again to my surprise then looks over his sunglasses at me as if I’d intruded on his personal space. His suspiciousness wanes and he turns his eyes to the road.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Call me Jett,” he says. “Jett Rink. My name has a fascinating ring to it, don’t you think?”
I smile and look straight ahead down the Boulevard without answering him. His name is spontaneous and wealthy sounding, and too commercial.
We stop at an intersection with a red light. He shifts gears and ignores me. I reach for the door handle just as the red light turns green. Jett stomps on the gas and jettisons across the intersection leaving other cars in the wake. He shifts through the gears like a madman with a death wish. When it felt like we were about to take flight we stop at the next red light. A dozen other cars catch up and stop behind us
“Are you a race driver?” I ask.
“Temporarily,” he says, speaking as few words as possible. “You see, I have other lives that dictate my style. You’ll see, someday you’ll see and understand.”
“Where are we going?”
“From today to the past,” his voice is a whisper. “I’ll show you a few places of my own. Why the pyramids of Egypt? I mean, why go to them?”
The stoplight changes from red to green and Jett floors the accelerator. My head jumps back then I settle in as he works the gears.
“To find an explanation for my existence,” I say. “Do you know what the Seven Wonders of the World represent?” His sits silent while driving the car. “You do know what they are, don’t you?”
“Who doesn’t,” he says. “I have giant old wells in Texas taller than the pyramids.”
We exchange glances and smile. Whether he knows what the Seven Wonders of the World are remains in question.
“Pacific Palisades, have you been there?” he asks.
“I was there at night once with my parents when all the lights highlight the rides. That was a man-made sight to behold. In my lifetime I want to find the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. That was all man-made thousands of years ago.”
“Hanging Gardens of Babylon?” he says. “Have you read the Bible?”
“At my age?” my voice raises an octave.
“In Genesis,” he reveals, “God sent Adam and Eve after they had sinned, to a place east of the Garden of Eden. They must have cried to have to leave their paradise. You see, East of Eden was an emotional experience for them.”
The amusement park at Pacific Palisades is not near to my heart. Today it’s crowded and noisy. I recall the fun House as being the best feature because of its diversity in weirdness.
Jett parks his low silver car in solitude at the back of the parking lot by the entrance. I pull the door handle and step out of the small upside down bathtub. I walk around the car examining the slanted windshield no higher than one foot, headlights covered with glass eyelids, tire rims without hubcaps, the number 130 painted on the hood and doors and a name printed on the backside, Little Bastard.
I giggle to myself.
My new friend shifts his gaze downward and his face reveals angst under the shadow of his hair. He doesn’t look as old as I had thought. His forehead is without wrinkles or crowfeet beside his eyes like my parents. He hops out of his car over the door and his body moves in youthful curves. The white t-shirt and crisp blue jeans expresses rebelliousness. He grabs a red jacket from behind the seat and puts it on.
He offers me a cigarette then lights his own after my refusal. He leans against his four wheeled silver chariot, inhaling smoke. He looks like a country boy right out of Indiana, where perhaps he once fostered a life of innocence with remote ideas of success.
I scrutinize the car and don’t like what I see; a gasoline cap sitting on top of the hood, motor in the back, gasoline tank in the front. How dangerous can an automobile be?
“Motor is in the back, gasoline tank is in the front,” Jett says, like he knew my thoughts. “Never mind any of that. Come on, Ace, I’ll treat you to my favorite ride.”
He raises his cigarette overhead and flicks it away with his middle finger. His arm is around my shoulders and he’s about six inches shorter than me. He guides me across the parking lot, up to the boardwalk and over to the Ferris Wheel. Why he calls me Ace was confusing. He knows my name is Jimmy.
Our faces and hands are red from the sun underneath the crystal sky without a breeze. He pulls me along by my arm and says, “Come on, this will be fun. I rode one of these once while filming a movie.”
“Are you an actor,” I say, surprised.
He stops and fills both fists up with the neck of my t-shirt. “Acting is a sideline for life.”
We move along and stop at the ticket booth. Jett pulls a small wad of bills from a pants pocket and hands a five to the pretty girl inside. “Two please he mumbles.”
“That’s fifty cents,” the girl says.
He shrugs, looks at me and says, “Keep the change.”
We then sprint to the huge Ferris Wheel. Jett hands the operator the tickets and then he pushes me forward. We sit and the operator secures us with a metal bar across our legs. We both perspire, our t-shirts wet underneath our arms and the giant wheel rises up and stops at the top.
“Over there,” Jett says, “is Watsonville.”
“What?” I say.
“Somewhere over there, north of here is Watsonville. They grow artichokes there.”
His Texan accent disappears and he sounds like me, a Californian.
“Over there is Santa Monica,” I say.
He examines me like I am crazy and wrestles me in to a headlock.
His weirdness scares me. Our chance meeting is strange enough, and now, Watsonville. I don’t know what a Watsonville is. He leans his shoulder on mine then puts his hand on my thigh and leaves it there. I don’t ask him why he is touching me. I feel he wants company without questions, seeks acceptance from a stranger.
The wheel moves forward and down and up again on the other side. This happens for six turns of the wheel then stops. Jett jumps from the small cabin and looks at me, challenging me to follow. He darts off, running back to his car. I follow, catching up to him and he stops in the middle of the parking lot. He shuffles around behind me and steps on the backside of my shoes and shoves me to the side, pulling on my shirt sleeve. We shove and push each other like two teenage boys until he turns serious and ambles to his car.
“Get in, Ace,” he says. “I’ll take you to a place I’d once lived.”
After driving through the hazardous traffic on the streets of Los Angeles he races on the roads through the mountain canyons. He is silent for the ride yet he mumbles to himself. The engine noise keeps me from understanding what he says. I think he is internally communicating through his car, in tune with the world while navigating the sharp curves. He maneuvers into the parking lot of Griffith Observatory. It sits on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood in L.A.'s Griffith Park.
We sit and look at the Art Deco observatory for a couple minutes.
“You lived here? I ask.
“No, over there.” He says and points to a mansion somewhere down the mountainside. “I had a wife and son. We were happy there away from city life and the punks from school.”
I look away feeling uncomfortable.
“What happened? I say”
“Nothing happened, it just ended and I moved on.”
He starts the motor. This time it sounds angry like a roaring lion. Again, along the drive neither of us talk. The silent communication is a sapient façade between animals, wasting time being together. Thirty minutes later he stops next to the curb at the place where he had picked me up hitchhiking.
We sit in the sleek convertible, looking forward through the low windshield.
“The Seven Wonders of the World, what are they?” he says.
“You said you knew,” I say.
“I didn’t say I knew. I said who doesn’t know.”
We studied each other for a few seconds, Jett with his brow furrowed, me with my knowledge. “You really don’t know what they are?”
“I never thought about them,” he mumbled. “Never took the time to think about them. You know, why should I think about them? They’re not significant to my lifestyle. I’m too busy living.”
I take his question to heart, you know, why should I think about them? I have the answer. “The thirty foot statue of Zeus at Olympia is so artistic.” His eyes express genuine interest in what looks to be a remarkably boyish face, plump and alive with color. I continue. “The Great Temple of Artemis, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pharos of Alexandria, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, they’re all sensational.”
“Are there car races at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?”
His insulation surprises me. I was a young external man and he was a young internal man, and we had nothing in common.
“There are no car races there, Jett.”
He looks rejected. “That’s too bad.”
The noisy motor interrupts my thoughts. He casually turns his face away from me and stares through the windshield.
With his arm extended forward, his hand gripping the steering wheel, I touch his arm. “Who are you, Jett Rink?”
He crooks his head sideways, his eyes expressive over his shades. He whispers as a shy young child would into a microphone. “Just being myself, that’s all, just being myself.”
“Do you know the saying, Know Thyself?”
I read about the maxims of the Seven Sages. “Yeah, Know Thyself and Nothing in Excess.”
He giggles. “That’s them, the Seven Sages.”
He takes off his sunglasses and leans into my face. He’s a man not much older than me, a man composed of insecurities and self-doubt, a mangled rebel emulating something that I couldn’t grasp. I feel distress over his angst. He knows less about his own feelings as I know about my own future.
He sits up straight. “Who’s your favorite movie actor, Ace, I mean, Jimmy?”
I am surprised again by him calling me Jimmy and excited to tell him who my favorite actor is. “Without a doubt, Marlon Brando is my favorite actor. Did you see the movie The Wild One? I’m not any kind of a rebel like Brando was in that movie but I want to be like him.”
Jett carefully slid his shades back on, making sure they fit properly. “You should be like Marlon Brando, Jimmy. Don’t do anything the normal way. Everybody needs to be somebody; Marlon Brando isn’t such a bad rebel. Hey, Jimmy, I wish I could go see the Seven Wonders of the World with you but I have a race tomorrow. I’m driving up north this afternoon, do you want to come with me?
His fast driving scares me. “Where’s the race going to be?”
“Oh, up north somewhere.”
“Is it near this Watsonville?”
“Somewhere near there into the future.”
I ponder his question. My feelings are mixed. I’d just met Jett Rink, a man of secrets and surprises, filled with emptiness inside. I decide to continue my wandering around Los Angeles for the rest of the day instead of going on a wild drive with him.
“I’ll pass this one up, Jett. Thanks for asking. Maybe someday you’ll get to see the Seven Wonders of the World but not before I do.”
“Maybe, someday,” he repeats. “Have a rewarding life, Jimmy. Remember to Know Thyself and Nothing in Excess. The Seven Sages, right?”
“Yeah,” I reply, and hop over the door of the low racing car and land on the sidewalk, hoping I’d moved in youthful curves. “Is your name really Jett Rink?”
He perks up his posture and looks at me and says, “That was my character name in my last movie. My name is James Dean. Just like you, my friends call me Jimmy.”
He fondles the gearshift and puts it in first gear. The engine roars like a hollow shell and the silver streak speeds down the black asphalt, leaving me standing alone in its exhaust. How juvenile I think, accepting a ride from an insecure stranger, learning a lesson that if I didn’t take that chance ride I’d not have realized that my teenage life wasn’t half as stolen from me as I think it is.
I didn’t know if James Dean was a real actor or not, or even a real person. Something fatal trailed along behind that race car, a recklessness that pervades over everything we did and talked about. In my selfish way I decide that I’m glad the mortality sound of the whining motor pushed him instead of me. Within this young eccentric man of confusion I think I’d just experienced the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Sweat started rolling off my forehead. I thirsted for a cold coke. The day is half over, my day of discovery and not despairingly so, for I’d seen a different side of human life in that mysterious man. I still don’t want to emulate my parents and I don’t want to be like that man. Simulation doesn’t set well with trying to find oneself.
I walk up the street and stand on another corner where the bus picks up passengers. My journey has to continue for the best interest of my future and my mind turns in circles as I stand beside a groovy young woman who is waiting for the bus.
Shapely and well-endowed inside a sleeveless, sundress and flat shoes, a pink carnation dawdles from her perfectly shaped smiling lips. Her bosom rises up with each breath but doesn’t lower with exhaling.
“Hi,” I say.
She faces me and smiles. Her pink full lips pucker as if she wants to say something but can’t. Her sparkly eyes tingle and then a whisper voice jumps off her lips like she’s exhaling all the wind from her lungs. She takes the flower from her mouth and says, “Hi.”
The breathy word splashes my face with golden pleasure and I close my eyes for one second. When I open them the woman is a flourishing ghost figure floating in fog. Suddenly, background colors return and the woman looks stunning.
“My name’s James but you can call me Jimmy if you want.”
She takes my hand, lightly shakes it and retracts her hand quickly. “My name was Norma but now you can call me Marilyn.”
That’s such a pretty name for an attractive young lady.
The whispering words of James Dean come slamming into my head. Into the future, he said. With the lavish beauty of this woman and her luscious, seductive voice, I think I’d just experienced the Ninth Wonder of the World.
On September 30, 1955 at 5:45 p.m., PST, James dean was in a head-on auto accident while driving his Porsche Spyder at highway Route 466/41 junction on his way to Laguna Raceway in Salinas, California. James Dean was pronounced dead the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:30 p.m., twenty-eight miles away from the accident.
On August 5, 1962 at 4:25 a.m., PST, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom by Dr. Ralph Greenson, Monroe's psychiatrist. At the subsequent autopsy, Dr. Thomas Noguchi of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office recorded cause of death as acute barbiturate poisoning, resulting from a probable suicide.