13 December 2005

Same Old, Same Old

Ed Ruscha Symposium, Part V

After college I went back to California and took a job at a shop that made customized glassware, like brandy snifters with the names of resorts on them or champagne flutes with romantic quotations engraved around the rim. Most of the business came from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hawaii, the three capitals of west coast leisure. My job was to tape plastic stencils to the glasses, each with the logo of a hotel or casino—“The Mirage,” “The Bellagio,” “Kapalua”—or a touristic phrase like “Hang Ten in Hawaii.” The glasses were then taken into a garage, where a man in a plastic-lined booth would etch the glass by shooting a high-powered stream of sand through a pneumatic gun attached to an air compressor. The sand bounced off the plastic stencil but gradually abraded the exposed areas of the glass, leaving the text engraved into its surface. Afterwards the glasses were cleaned, boxed, and sent out to gift shops where, to judge by the number of pieces I processed in my nine-month stay at the job, they lined the shelves of liquor cabinets the world over.

The person who engraved the glasses was named William. He was fifty when I met him, short and stocky with wiry grey hair, totally gone on top but rubber-banded into a curly ponytail in the back. He wore a bandanna around his forehead, a denim vest over a collection of faded Harley Davidson t-shirts, black jeans and biker boots. He really had been a biker, before giving up everything about that lifestyle but the wardrobe. The room where I worked housed the coffee machine, and William would take refuge there from the noise, dust, and tedious solitude of the garage. By the time I left the job I’d heard most of his favorite stories.

He’d grown up in the Midwest, and he migrated to Los Angeles in the late fifties, like any young man who loved cars and movies would. He held various automotive jobs there, in factories and garages and body shops. In his spare time he worked on motorcycles. He eventually drifted north, settling in one of the villages that cropped up in the hills of Northern California after the collapse of the sixties, where hippies and bikers fleeing the escalation of bad vibes in the big cities found themselves side by side with cattle ranchers and small farmers. The subcultures came together to form functional but schizoid communities, part utopian-progressive, part proto-libertarian, part narcotics-producing, united by a mistrust of authority and a desire to be left alone. The groups eventually intertwined, politically and socially, until it was difficult to pick out who’d been to Berkeley, whose family had been raising cattle there for fifty years, and who, like William, was just looking for an easy life.

Somewhere between that golden age and the time I met him, a few hundred miles south and under reduced circumstances, came the fall: his drug problem ran its predictable course, forcing him into the quotidian world of a full-time job, child support payments, and twelve-step programs. I suspect that even in the backcountry of Northern California, bodywork on motorcycles alone didn’t pay for the lifestyle he’d enjoyed, and that in addition to taking drugs he had also been involved in production and sales. This was, after all, a region where the cottage industry of methamphetamine production was taking off like a second Silicon Valley, and small-town fire departments were kept on their toes by the frequency with which ramshackle houses on dirt roads tended to explode. But like any good storyteller and braggart, William knew when to keep quiet, and so my knowledge of his notorious past was never complete.

Like any good storyteller and braggart, he also repeated himself. He told his stories over and over, relentlessly, adding and omitting details, substituting locations, and shifting emphases. Having little else to think about during my days of stencil-taping, I became a connoisseur of the minute variations of William’s stories.

Together the narratives formed an apology. What was at stake for William was how he ended up where he did, fifty in a basement apartment with no money, two kids his ex-wife wouldn’t let him see, and a miserable job: totally and irrevocably fucked. In his reckoning there could have been no other outcome: he’d lived too large early, and that largeness had led directly to the cramped meanness of the present.

The centerpiece of his account was the story of how he realized he had a problem with drugs and alcohol. This Road to Damascus story ran as such: William had for some time been living beyond his means, racking up debt and avoiding the financial consequences of his lifestyle by using more and more speed, until finally he found himself, after an especially stressful series of events, walking around and around in a dry riverbed miles outside of town. He became suddenly aware of an overwhelming and painful light, which after an interminable span of time he was able to identify as the sun, and then he gained a gradual awareness of other details: his parched and cracked throat, his mud-caked clothes and his scratched and bloody hands, torn to shreds from staggering through the underbrush in his frantic, unconscious flight.

The beginning of the story changed from one telling to the next. Sometimes he had been avoiding angry creditors and had sensibly decided to lie low in an unlikely place; in other versions it was his fate, blind and relentless, that had driven him to the riverbed. What I liked best was the ending, which never changed. “After two days of that,” he would announce, “I realized I had to get some help.”

The rest of William’s stories focused on one or another aspect of his prowess: seducing women, making easy money, and especially building motorcycles. He also professed one major accomplishment outside his usual range of interests—he maintained that he had invented the expression same old, same old while living in Los Angeles in the early sixties. He would come into the room where I worked, loiter around until I asked him how things were going, and then answer, “Same old, same old, man.” After a pause he’d launch into the story.

“Did I tell you,” he would begin, “that I invented that? It’s true. I was living down in L.A. and I’d be walking through Watts and the black dudes would say ‘Hey, yo, William, my man. What’s happening?’ and I’d say, ‘Same old, same old, brother.’ And they’d say, ‘Man, I dig that. Same old, same old. William, you all right.’ And it just caught on. Man, I invented that.”

I never voiced my skepticism about this. Nor did I suggest that one didn’t invent expressions like that, that it would be like saying one had invented pegging jeans or wearing a bandanna. Or that I’d grant that he may have helped to popularize same old, same old, but innovation and the vernacular might have a more dialectical relationship than he would have liked to admit. We didn’t delve into William’s ideas about authorship in those moments, but I did wonder if they were an effect of the nature of his job: he stood in a garage for eight hours a day and watched his labor cause words to appear, as if by magic, on hundreds of identical objects. But regardless of what he was thinking about, those words were always I LOVE L.A.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »

  • Roger White
    • Eulogy in Esperanto

      You have never heard of Marvin Gates. But then, few people have. He is that art world myth: a painter who develops in hiding and emerges late, fully formed. More…