Chapter 5- Dumpster Diner
A scrawny gray cat scratched at something mostly hidden under a dumpster. Chuck watched dazedly as the cat tugged to free a meaty chunk from beneath the battered metal wheel. It slipped loose, and she bounded away with her reward.
If he didn't know better, he would have sworn it was a perfectly tanned human toe with an impeccable pedicure. He rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to clear his head. "You know Rub, people in Hollywood throw away the weirdest stuff. I guess they can afford it."
They silently stared up the street to pass time. After awhile, or maybe it was sooner. Chuck spotted a living Hollywood landmark. She was a walking advertisement for politicians, products, and ideas simple enough to express in a sentence or two. She was thin, even birdlike, and her gait didn't belie her appearance. From head to shoes, she wore little buttons, similar to the campaign pins that pop up every November.
Chuck nudged Rubby and pointed. "Here comes the button lady...Hey Pearlie, how's life treating you today?"
"It ain't treatin' me at all. I just take it as it comes," she answered cryptically with her semi-toothed smile.
"Come on, sit down and join us for a minute," Chuck invited.
"Well, okay you handsome devil, but no hanky-panky. I gotta get down to the post office and see if Uncle Sam sent me my check yet." She loved to flirt playfully with the younger man, although Chuck never knew whether she was serious or not.
Pearl arranged her long shawl so she could sit on the low brick wall without damage to her buttons or her derriere. As she eased into place next to Chuck, she started bragging. "I got a couple new buttons today. You're the first person who's been lucky enough to see "em. How about this one. No Viet Nam in Central America."
Chuck cringed but sat quietly.
"Some kid gave it to me this morning. You know me, I don't censor 'em. Everybody gets an equal opportunity to express his or her own views with Pearlie the Button Lady."
She must have had hundreds of badges pinned and sewn to her clothing. Everything from a boldly lettered I Like Ike! to a patch that proclaimed her membership in the United Federation of Planets - Star fleet Academy.
One that always caught Chuck's eye was stuck to the side of her burnoose. It was a red, white and blue picture of Uncle Sam's bearded face with the simple statement, Fuck You.
"Where'd you get that one anyway?" he asked, pointing.
"Oh Hell, I don't remember anymore. People come up to me and give 'em to me on the street. Sometimes it's tourists, but mostly it's the locals."
"Would you consider letting me have it? You've got lots of badges anyway," he hoped aloud.
"C'mon Chuckie, I like you, but you oughta know better than to ask me that. These buttons are what makes me famous. There's people who say they come up to Hollywood sometimes just to see me. It's my duty to them to preserve these buttons."
"Well, yeah, okay. It's just that I really like that one badge for some reason. It talks to me."
"Hell son," Rubby piped up, "If you think little badges are talkin' to you, maybe you'd better have a pull on this." He was waving a fresh-bagged bottle of isopropyl. "Sometimes when I go too long without a drink, I start hearin' voices from all kinds of strange places."
The line gave Chuck a good laugh, but it made the Button Lady nervous.
Chuck tried to put her at ease with a little small talk. "So what do you hear from the respectable folks these days, Pearlie?"
"Well, it seems they're startin to get upset about people like you and ol' Rub. They don't know whether to try to help you or run you out of town. Some of 'em say they've almost stopped comin' to Hollywood to see me 'cause you scare 'em."
"Who, me and Rubby? Hey, we're just trying stay alive like everybody else. We don't hurt anybody. We've gotta live somewhere don't we? Where do they want us to go?"
"Most of them just want you to go away; anywhere. They don't care where you end up, just as long as it ain't around here. Now me, I try to tell 'em you can't afford to go anywhere else, but then they start actin' like maybe I'm one of you too. Let's face it, the only reason I'm better off than you boys is because I had the good sense to get a career with my button collection."
Her words ruffled Rubby a bit, but Chuck smiled wryly as he spoke. "I guess you should talk to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and get a subsidy or something. If they started advertising you, maybe the tourists would start coming back here and we'd all make a better living. You could keep a cut of the action."
The Button Lady seemed intrigued by the idea. "Maybe you've got something there, Chuckle. But I gotta get over to the post office now and see if my check's here." She got up and jangled off down the sidewalk.
"Someday, somebody's gonna choke that woman," Rubby observed.
"Well, if they do, I've got first dibs on her Uncle Sam button." Both men chuckled as they watched the Button Lady disappear up the grim gray street. Neither man noticed the disembodied, but perfectly tanned penis that had been discarded in the bushes behind them.
A few tourists dazedly wandered the sidewalks. Tourists are easy to spot. They usually wear Hawaiian shirts, short pants, sneakers and cameras. No matter how cold it is, they dress for the legendary tropical Hollywood. A few of them probably die from exposure each year, right there with their hands in some star's concrete imprints.
The tourists don't understand that it can be dangerous for them as they wander the boulevards or Vine Street with the stars in their eyes. The stars are part of the sidewalk, the Walk of Fame. Every other frame of sidewalk boasts the metal outline of a five pointed star, 1935 in all. About a quarter of them are still empty, patiently waiting for a new hero to immortalize. Here and there, some fool has used a felt marker or stick-on letters to add his own name to one of the blanks.
The real stars have their names written in metal letters. Beneath the name is an ancient movie camera, a television, a radio microphone, a phonograph record, or the masks of comedy and tragedy; icons that idealize a fabled, faded era.
The more observant locals can almost mouth the words of the tourists as they read the names. "Wow, here's Mickey Mouse," or, "Who the hell is Cecil B. DeMille?"
Most boulevard veterans have forgotten their first time on the Walk of Fame, when each excitedly looked down excitedly at the names in the stars. Few are honest enough to show that awe anymore. They just try to look bored as they step on their favorite stars on the way to a hamburger joint or a drug deal.
Rubby remembered his first visit to the walk, and he was still mad about it. "Somethin' just ain't right when a man like Randolph Scott gets treated like that. There's his star, big as life, like he deserves. But why'd they have to put it in that awful place?"
"What are you talkin' about Rub?" Chuck queried. "It's right there by Pantage's Theater. That's gotta be better than Liz Taylor's spot in front of the underwear store."
"That's not what I mean. Every time I walk past it, I look at it. It's always wet and it smells like somebody peed on it. What kind of way is that to treat a hero like Randolph Scott?"
"I really don't know Rubby, but it reminds me of our old buddy, Bear."
"Bear? How in creation does Bear remind you of Randolph Scott?"
"Not Randolph Scott, just his star. Let's face it, Bear's always wet and he smells like somebody peed on him."
"Son, you are purely an evil man," Rubby cackled, "That's probably why I like ya'."
As the pair gabbed in the hot summer sun, a motorcycle cop cruised up, then pulled a U-turn. He flipped his flashers on and burped the siren once or twice. Chuck and Rubby scanned the streets to figure out what the police wanted this time.
The prematurely blonde runaway worked her usual spot next to the alley as a couple of white punks on dope eyeballed the stereo in somebody else's Lexus; and the creepy kid with an attitude was selling crack from the pay phone as usual. It was just too close to call this time, so they waited and watched.
That's when the cop barked into his PA at the matronly black woman crossing the street. "Stop right there m'am. Don't you know that it's both dangerous and illegal to cross the street between two traffic lights. It's called jaywalking, and I'm citing you under the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
"Damn it, a trick ending," Chuck lamented, "If I'd seen the jaywalker, my money would have been on her right from the start."
"What jaywalker," Rubby whined. "I don't see any jaywalker."
"Mr. Johnson, if you don't stop drinkin' that rubbing alcohol, you're not going be able to see far enough to find your own eyelids."
Rubby scowled back at him through his coke bottle eyewear. "I see just fine. I just wasn't lookin' in the right place, that's all."
As the cop dutifully cited the lady for illegal walking, the punks broke out the passenger window of the Lexus and made off with the sound system. The runaway watched the street drama until a nervous, somewhat paunchy business type walked up and negotiated a fair price for her product. That's when the drug dealer's phone rang. Wrong number. Some fool trying to order a pizza. The word 'pizza' sounded the dinner bell in Chuck's stomach.
"Whatta you say we find out what's on the lunch menu, Rubby?"
Both men knew it was another no host buffet day. Chuck relied solely on whatever handouts he could line up, while Rubby's Social Security checks never stretched this far into the month.
"I do believe it's your turn to choose where we eat today, Charles," said Rubby in his best fake British movie accent.
Chuck joined in the game. "In that case, may I suggest something a bit moah uppah crust than our usual selections. Shall we be off to Starliners? I am led to understand that they have begun to make a bit of a name for themselves."
"Well, okay, if you want to." Rubby suddenly lost his playfulness and bad accent. "Me, I wish we could go to the Brown Derby. That ol' place was history. A lot of movie stars used to eat there. They mentioned it in a lot of films and TV shows."
"Aw, come on Rubby," chided Chuck, slipping back into his normal patter. "The Brown Derby's a memory. It's gone like the tinsel and glitter. Hollywood belongs to the suits and people like us now. The stars live in Malibu and up in the mountains these days. Get with it, the forties are dead. Do you wanna eat, or do you wanna reminisce?"
"All right, just hold your horses. There's nothin' wrong with an old man rememberin' better times is there? Maybe someday the stars will come back home to Hollywood. Maybe someday they'll bring back the Brown Derby. And we'll be here to see it all. Don't ya' ever dream, or are ya' Mr. Grim Reality all the time?"
A part of Chuck wanted to see stars roam the sidewalks again; to witness those elegant premiere nights with the lights in the sky and a mile of limousines lined up at the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Vogue, Wamer's, and all the other grand old theaters up and down the boulevards and the cross streets. He'd never actually been there when it happened, but his mind could see every bit of it, gleaned from a thousand great old movies and newsreels. But his battered shoes were currently headed east to Vine Street and Chuck decided to try to keep up with them.
Both men stopped a few steps from their destination. "I kinda' got mixed feelings about them tearin' down the old buildin' that used to be here, Chuck."
"Yeah, me too. After they closed it up, it was a good place to sleep at night. Too bad it caught fire."
"I'll miss that, but it sure makes it easier to get into this alley, now that there's a parkin' lot here 'stead of them brick walls. I'm gettin' a little old to keep climbin' that fence"
As they neared the restaurant's back door. Chuck spotted a potential threat. A group of young Latinos in aprons milled about, smoking.
"It's break time at the restaurant. I don't know any of these guys Rub, do you?"
"Not me, and these caballeros don't look like the friendly kind either. I've had to kick a few butts before, but they've got us outnumbered. Let's not try to find out if these boys want us to teach 'em a lesson."
Chuck and Rubby both knew they'd never win a fight with the men, but the tough talk made them both feel better.
"Okay, we can find another spot to kill time until they leave." The two rummaged a safer dumpster nearby as they waited for the kitchen staff to go back indoors.
"Well hello there! Look what I discovered. There's an entire birthday party stashed in here," Chuck proudly proclaimed. Rubby joined his old friend as they carefully removed debris that covered the find.
Sure enough, there was square pink box snuggled in the trash bin. It protected half of a German chocolate birthday cake whose top had been impaled by two dozen partially spent candles. Next to the cake box was a trash bag stuffed with used party hats, paper plates, napkins and semi-inflated balloons. Each item was a girlish pink with Happy Birthday Melissa emblazoned across it.
The pink balloons were custom lettered on two sides for maximum effect. But that effect was diminished by the fact that the helium had already shrunk out into space through the rubber pores. This left the inflatable spheres rather tiny and no longer able to fly.
Rubby dragged out the bag of party favors while Chuck extracted the cake from the steel garbage vault. As they eased into a comfortable squat, Rubby pulled a pointy party hat onto his head and tossed a pink plastic derby to his friend.
"This is as close as we're gonna get to any Brown Derby today," mused Chuck as his head slipped into the pink plastic headgear. "Hand me some of those plates and napkins. We should act real refined for this party."
The younger man ripped off a couple of nice chunks of cake and plopped each onto its own pink paper plate. "Your cake, sir," Chuck politely announced. "And your napkin. And if I may be of any further help, please ask, sir."
"Thank you, sir. Now please hand me one a' those fine napkins so I can wipe the crumbs offa' my expensive new tuxedo." Rubby looked pensive for a moment, coughed, then started back up. "You know, I don't think I've ever been to a real birthday party in my whole life. When I was a boy, my family was busy stayin' alive. We didn't worry too much about the fancy things. Do you know anything about birthday parties?"
"Sure Rub, my folks made a big deal out of birthdays. Sometimes I'd even get to invite my friends over and we'd have a big party. We didn't have hats or fancy plates with my name on 'em, but there was always a big cake. My mom made the cake fresh too, any kind I wanted. And there'd be presents for me; always wrapped in pretty paper. Mom got upset when I ripped the paper instead of taking it off at the tape so as not to tear it. But before I could open my gifts, everybody had to sing Happy Birthday first. I always thought listening to that song was the price I had to pay to get my hands on the presents."
"What do ya say we have a party for Melissa then?" Rubby wheezed. "She doesn't have to be here, and we can still have a good time. I never been to a birthday party before, and it's somethin' I always wondered about."
Chuck mulled over the idea for a second and brightened up. "Yeah, let's just party. If Melissa doesn't show up before it's over, I'll personally dedicate it to you instead. First thing, though, we've gotta light these candles. I think I've got a pack of matches on me somewhere.
The younger man dug through his pockets and pulled out sundry strange items. Out slid a pocket knife, a couple of wadded dollar bills and some loose change. He even had a ring of keys with a little whistle on it, though God only knew why he still held onto it.
"OK, here's some matches. Now let's get these things lit before I burn my fingers off."
One by one, the pre-owned candles came to life. "Now, we've gotta sing Happy Birthday to Melissa before the short ones bum out. 1 2-3..." Rubby piped right in with his rich, soulful style. Chuck matched the key and beat the best he could. Melissa would have loved it, if only she'd been there.
Without the guest of honor, Rubby blew out the candles in her place. He gasped for breath and made a secret wish of his own. Both men gleefully tooted their party horns just like a couple of oversized kids.
"This is where you and Melissa would open your presents, if there were any," Chuck noted.
"Let me go to where they keep the gifts and see what Melissa's gonna get," Rubby cheerfully offered. "If it's supposed to be a surprise, then we're doin' it right, cause I don't know what's in this here dumpster."
The old man excitedly crawled through the open lid of the big steel cubicle and searched through the mass of refuse. He ripped at big black plastic bags and checked out their contents. There were lots of old papers, broken office accessories and used tissues mixed in with crushed boxes, smashed plastic and empty cans.
Chuck munched the birthday cake as Rubby rummaged. Occasionally, he picked a crumb or sticky piece of frosting from his full, brown beard. A faint glow of a happier past tried to warm Chuck's street weary soul. The continual rustling from the dumpster made him wonder if the old man could see well enough to find anything of value.
A glorious whoop sounded from Rubby. "Chuck, I think I found that birthday gift. Somebody threw out one of those big ol' baby dolls. Come on over and help me get at it. It's under a bunch of junk."
"No kidding?" Chuck queried as he climbed to his feet. "What kind is it anyway, a Cabbage Patch Kid?"
"How should I know, it's dark in here. I don't keep up on that kind of thing anyway."
"It's not that dark in here," groused Chuck, climbing into the dumpster. As he pulled out bags of trash he noted just how realistic the discarded doll actually was. It was the right size and shape. Pretty good coloration, although a bit pale. As he pulled off the last layer of trash, the doll lolled to one side.
"Dear sweet Jesus," Chuck whispered. "Rubby get out of here right now and don't ask any questions."
The older man recognized Chuck's businesslike tone and scrambled out of the dumpster. He didn't know why, but he was pretty sure that this alley was no longer a nice place for Melissa's birthday party.
The doll looked much too real to Chuck. He didn't like the way the skin folded when pressed by the surrounding garbage. Not even the softest plastic was that malleable. Those eyes weren't glass or plastic, they were flesh and blood.
Someone had discarded a newbom baby like a bag of empty beer cans or dirty kitty litter. The umbilical cord was still attached to her tiny tummy.
Maybe the baby was alive when she was thrown in with the trash. Most likely she was already dead. In either case, her mother apparently couldn't afford anything better.
Chuck had seen too many dead babies. The vile picture constantly played in his head, no matter how happy or drunk he got. He leaped out of the dumpster reflexively, but before he could take another step, he doubled over and retched on the broken pavement. As he straightened up, he silently looked into Rubby's terrified eyes and gave an unconscious signal. Both men quickly walked quietly and invisibly out of the alley.
They spent the rest of the afternoon together. Neither spoke a word.
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