Saturday, February 26, 2011
The Hearth Bit, Eh?
A night at home, eh? For my man Magrady, the protagonist in The Underbelly, he’s a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet living on and off the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and elsewhere. When we first come to him in the novella, he’s been eight months sober and is bunking in the garage of an Army buddy. His possessions are an old-fashioned clock radio -- you know the kind, the ones that used to flip the little plastic panel over it its window as the time changed, second by second -- a hot plate, a reading light, mini-fridge, a few assorted boxes, and two pieces of luggage; a Gladstone bag and soft-sided equipment bag containing his clothes.
He no longer has a car, indeed he used to have a life, but that’s gone too. He’s estranged from his grown children and my guy takes the bus everywhere if he can’t bum a ride. He officially receives $719.32 a month for his Veterans Administration disability check, and earns cash doing handyman tasks.
Magrady in the course of looking for a disabled friend who has disappeared from Skid Row, spends time thinking about that and where to lay his head at night once he’s asked to leave the garage by his friend. His friend didn’t want to do it, but he’s doing bootleg body and fender work in his backyard without the proper permits or set-up, and see there’s this police captain who has a history with Magrady, and he puts pressure on the friend. The contrast in the book is of a downtown Los Angeles in the midst of gentrification, where former buildings housing toy importers or sweat shop have been converted into tony lofts. But it’s also a downtown where the working stiffs are getting priced out and the homeless get shuffled and stacked, but there’s no real viable plan on what to do with them.
At one point Magrady takes up with an old flame, one Angie Baine who lives in a modest single-room occupancy, an SRO as they say, residency hotel. Angie had been a “B” actress beauty. Her backstory is she starred in such epics as the Bran Invaders and did guest starring roles on TV shows like the Big Valley and the original Fugitive. While I didn’t have this in the book, I could imagine a night in for these two where they sit in a couple of chairs obtained at Goodwill, she sipping her Jack Daniels, Magrady, fizzy water (maintaining his sobriety), a police chopper swooping back and forth overhead while they listened to Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins or some Bartók as Angie is something of a classical music enthusiast. There is a scene in the book where Magrady has to sleep out in the open again, under a bridge with other homeless folks so he knows not to get too complacent.
Magrady has been down a long, hard road but has a few miles left in him. Home and family mean something to him. Unlike say Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, who for him his West L.A. apartment was just some place to change his shirt and fry up an egg, Magrady’s not only looking for answers, but looking to put his life back together. Sure enough he knows, it’s nice to have some place to go to at night and be able to close the door and, if only for those few precious hours, lock out the demands of your life and circumstances and recharge.
Because tomorrow always comes way too soon.