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Dancing Days

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 2019


Photograph by David UlinWest Eighth Street. It’s Sunday morning in September and I’m walking Eighth Street when I see it: spray of words in green and pink, framed in the middle of the pavement as if an illustration of some kind. In the middle of the pavement? In the middle of the lanes of traffic, although there is no traffic, not on a Sunday morning in the shadow of Miracle Mile. I am walking, as I have done in this neighborhood since I first moved to Los Angeles, a span of more than twenty-five years. And yet, in the last few months, my walks have also grown more programmatic (doctor says I need to exercise). So I am out before 9 a.m. on a Sunday, in cargo shorts and a ratty T-shirt, walking fast, as if on a mission, facing (as usual) the ground. I want to say that this is so I will not stumble, but the truth is that my head is perennially downcast. I don’t want to make eye contact, don’t want to think of anything but the movement of one foot and, after it, the other, street passing like so many mile segments (four per hour), sweat breaking in a slow sheen across my back. Still, this street scrawl, it pulls at me because of how it hints at what exists below its surface, the machine inside—beneath the street, in other words, a subterranean mechanism not unlike a memory. Yes, and now memory asserts itself: the cover of an old Sesame Street book I used to read to my children when they were young. I can almost see it in that admonition—please do not open—the warning that we can’t resist, that pulls us in.  It is not a memento so much as a…what? A reminder? Yes, a reminder that we all have a machine inside us, always ticking, always winding down. This is what attracts me to walking, that it offers signs I can’t decipher, that it hints at layers, at machineries, I can’t quite see.


Photograph by David UlinSouth Cochran Avenue. On a Saturday morning in November, I walk my way into the detritus of Friday night. Two pair of women’s sandals—strappy, red, and open-toed—on the strip between curb and sidewalk, in the shadow of a neighborhood church. I like this church, the rounded dome of its bell tower. I walk past it every chance I get. It is like a portal into something, a bridge between landscapes; I feel the atmosphere change when I turn the corner where it stands at Cochran and continue east on Packard, as if air had shifted in a tire. This, I should add, has nothing to do with the community, but rather with the machine inside me, which notches up a gear as I pass this point. I am fifteen minutes from home, a mile into today’s loop—one of several I take to keep from slipping into inertia, boredom—and it is always here, on this gentle upslope, that I feel my chest open and my breath expand. I give myself, in other words, to the movement, as if I have slipped beyond the initial steps of the dance. Those shoes: They remind me of dancing also, although maybe more the last steps than the first. Perhaps the owners (friends? lovers? siblings? rivals?) stripped them off at the end of a long evening, blisters rising on their heels like fever spots. Perhaps they are left over from a street sale, the only items no one bought. It’s tempting to read into their arrangement, symmetrical and ordered, as if the expression a conscious display of some kind. Or is it just the order of disorder? And yet, display of what? I leave the question behind.



Photograph by David Ulin

South La Jolla Avenue. Another Sunday, an afternoon in January, winter weekend of heavy rain. By the time I step outside, the storm has finished, leaving behind a steely clarity, clouds scudding in high clusters, puddles marking the ground in ragged spills like blood. I love the rain in Southern California, love how it upends everything, turns it inside out. I love how it rewires the clichés of the place—eviscerating the relentless sunshine—to expose the complex systems underneath. Or above, as is the case today, although it is also true that I am not looking up. On La Jolla, the polarities of earth and air (yes, even of water) reveal themselves as if via a rending of elements. Step to the right; the perspective shifts and the angles change. There is something here, not reflection so much as a set of hieroglyphics. Today, this water is deep enough that the sky appears solid—grounded—within it; although if you look closely enough you can just make out the asphalt’s seam. Like a glimmer, like an echo, like a reminder of everything behind the scenes. Peel back the layers…although the next time I pass by here, these layers will have evaporated, leaving only memory as a trace.

This dispatch is from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.


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