Content warning: Some strong language
It had stopped raining by the time I left the house. I would have preferred walking in the rain, but walking in the just-after-rain would suffice. The sky was still cold, full of clouds, and the temperature was still gray. So long as it stayed this way, I would be happy.
I set off on the same route I'd been taking for the last three years or so: Down to Colorado Boulevard, left on Townsend, right on Yosemite. On the way, a man sat at the bus stop on my block. He was more well-kempt than the usual bus rider.
I wonder if I'll ever walk this route again after I graduate. If it isn't sick of me by now, it definitely will be by then. I walked past the school and through the rec center to reach the start of the climb. I used my umbrella as a hiking stick. If it wasn't raining, it may as well serve some purpose.
The air was unusually clean at the top of the first hill, perhaps a combination of rain and wind had washed away all of its impurities. I took it all in as if I hadn't done so ever before. The highway was over there, along those mountains. Downtown was the other way. I looked for Glendale, Burbank, and Eagle Rock Boulevard. There was a cheering noise coming from the other side of the hill. At the second hill, an old man stood on top flying a kite. I followed the string into the sky, and could just barely make out a microscopic speck at its end.
After a short break, I made it through the final stretch to the second hill. The old man turned to look at me.
"Isn't this amazing? Look how far it goes!" he said to me. "I've been going up to this hill ever since I was a little kid. This kite has six thousand feet of string on it. Yeah. That's over a mile! I've never got it out this far. Here, why don't you hold it for a bit?"
I took hold of the base of the kite. It was sturdy, made of metal. When it came to kites, this guy knew what he was doing.
"Look, you can barely see it anymore! And it's not even halfway done."
He was right. I looked up, and the string disappeared into the fog.
"I've lived here my whole life,” he said. "I've been coming up here ever since I was a little kid. Yeah. We used to live right over there." He pointed to a house across the street from the school. "One time, when we were kids, we were staying out here late. Of course, we didn't have any sort of phones back then. Yeah. So my mom wants to get us back inside, guess what she does? She takes a flashlight and a mirror, and shines it right up here at us. It went right in my eyes. Yeah. How about it?"
His voice was just the slightest bit off-kilter. Every time he said "yeah", he did it with an inflection as if I had doubted what he said before, and he wanted to reassure me it was really true. He had no hair on his face, and a beanie covered up what would probably have been no hair on his head either. He dressed similar to me, just a basic black bomber jacket and cargo pants.
"Did you go to school here?" I asked him.
"Eagle Rock High School? Yeah. I've lived here my whole life. Yeah. I wasn't a great student. I was focused on sports. I joined the cross-country team, I didn't care about my grades. I took French 1 for all four years of high school. I would get swatted. They ever swat kids now? They used to do that as a punishment. They took a racket and hit you in the behind with it. The racket had holes in it. Made it hurt more. Normally, when you hit something like that, there's a bit of an air cushion between the two things that are colliding. But with the holes in the racket, all of the air went through. Made it hurt more. Yeah. You can't do that kind of stuff now. They don't do that now. You couldn't get away with it." The kite handle kept rolling in my arms, spewing more and more string into the cloudy abyss, The wind showed no signs of stopping. "Yeah", I told him, "they don't do that anymore. What did you do after high school? Did you go to college?"
"At first I went to Glendale Community College. I wanted to join the running team, but I didn't have the right credits. It wasn't for me anyway. I dropped out and worked for my dad. He worked in construction. So I worked in construction. What's it like in high school now? I bet it's different. You can't do stuff like swatting these days. What grade are you?"
I tried to reflect. "Well, I'm a senior this year. Let's see, I write for the paper."
"The Eagle's Scream, right? I used to write for it too. Yeah. Published some really controversial articles. They didn't like me. Yeah. But anyway, more about you. Do you get good grades?"
"That's great. Do you smoke?"
"No. Not at all."
"Really? That's great. Alcohol?"
"Nope. Not in my life."
"Wow. That's great. That's great, man. I mean, you gotta at least do marijuana or something, right?"
"No. I don't do any drugs."
"That's great, man. Really? There's no way. That's a great man. How do you do it? I mean doesn't everyone do drugs? We were all smoking when I was in high school."
"I don't know. I guess… I just don't feel the need. I like my life as it is. I like being completely conscious of what's going on."
"Man, that's great. That's great, man. I mean, you don't need that shit. You don't need it. Life is so precious. You don't need that shit. I mean, why would you want to throw away something so precious like that? People do it, you know, cause they feel like they have nothing to do. Nowhere to go. You know, they did this experiment. With rats, and they had some rats that had nothing in their cage but food and cocaine. And they started eating the cocaine, they got addicted. Yeah. But the other cage, it also had cocaine, but they had other things to do. They had wheels, and more space to run around and do stuff. And they didn't touch the cocaine. I mean, people only do this stuff 'cause they feel like there's nothing else to do. You gotta give people more things to do. Life is so precious. Don't throw it away."
The wind was as strong as ever. The string kept unwinding, as more and more of it became lost to the fog. I looked down at my hands.
"I think the knuckle on my thumb started bleeding a bit. I think the handle must have kept brushing past it. It's fine though, it doesn't hurt or anything."
"Oh no." The man's emotional complexion changed; his voice and face became expressions of sympathy. "But, I mean, it was already like that before, right? Like it didn't just start bleeding, right?"
"No, it definitely started just now. Because of the kite. It's fine though, really, it doesn't hurt or anything. I can wash it out when I get home."
"No, the kite couldn't do that. It had to have been like that before."
"It definitely did. Like, it was spinning so fast, you know. Again. It's fine. It really doesn't hurt. I'm alright."
"It was like that before. What are your parents like? My parents were crazy, man. They were crazy. They were really strict. One time, me and my dad were driving over to Highland Park. Townsend didn't use to go over that hill there, you see Townsend there? We used to have to take a different street.”
"Anyway, my dad was driving me. I was maybe about eleven or twelve. I was talking; I said the word 'hell' while I was talking to him. The minute my dad hears this, he stops the car. He gets out of the car to go around and beat me. Yeah. They were crazy, man. So I just had to get out of the car and run. So I'm running, I run all the way down to York Boulevard. He's chasing me this whole way, I don't know where to go, I keep running down York. At some point I pass the Sparklettes factory, you can see it over there."
He pointed to the factory. I looked at it. It stared back at me.
"Anyway, at this point, I think I lost him. What do I do now, though? I can't go back. So I'm thinking what I should do, it's getting dark by now. I remember that my friend lives nearby, on Eagle Rock Boulevard. But I can't go inside, his parents might find out and send me home. I can't risk that. So I crawl under his house, there's a spot to crawl under it around the back. There's a mattress under there, and for a second I get excited. But it's covered in bugs. Like all over. They're just everywhere. I can't stand it, I've got to find somewhere else. I don't know where to go, so I just start running. I run up Eagle Rock Boulevard towards Colorado, I get to Hill Drive and I run across it. It's dark, it's just me, when I look back, I ask myself 'what on Earth was I doing?' At the time I didn't question it. I couldn't. What else can I do?”
"So I run down Hill Drive, to where it meets back with Colorado Boulevard, and I keep running all the way to Pasadena. I get all the way to the Rose Bowl. By now, it must be eleven o'clock, or midnight, and I'm a little kid so I've never been up this late. I'm at the Rose Bowl, by myself. It's midnight. Where can I go? I'm looking around, eventually I get to the ticket stands. You know, the stands, where they collect your ticket. And I sleep there for the night. I get up in the morning, and I realize I've got to go back at some point. What can I do? So I walk back to my house, and when I get there both my parents are waiting there. They don't say a word. Not for my whole life."
I wasn't sure what to make of his story. "I… I'm sorry your dad treated you like that. That's crazy." The way he looked back at me, it almost seemed as if he didn't understand why I would apologize for something like that. As if the fact that such a thing could be harmful never crossed his mind.
The kite was really out there by now. "Wow, look how far it is," he said. "The wind never lasts this long. Today might finally be the day. Seventy-two years, and I've never got it all the way out. I graduated in 1970, you know. Yeah. Wow, that was a while ago. Do I seem like an old man? My daughter says I'm a creepy old man. That no one wants to talk to me. I don't seem like an old man, right? I mean, I'm old, but I don't have that old kind of brain. But look how far out the kite is! Really, I've never gotten it out this far. There's over a mile of string on there. Yeah. You know, I calculated it, it goes all the way out to the freeway out there. If you stood over there on the freeway, it would be above you."
"Wow. That's crazy." I lacked a more sophisticated way to express my amazement.
"Yeah. Today might be the day. It might get all the way out there."
The clouds kept rolling across the sky, coating the air in fluff like the fur of a lamb. The string unwound and unwound, the handle rotating at lightning speeds in my hands. Every now and then, I would have to slow it down for a bit because the sheer speed of the spinning was enough to burn.
"It's going to be insane when it gets all the way out there. I wish my friend was here to see it, man. We would always do this together. He was my best friend, man. We would always go up here, since we were kids. He always told me that one day we would get it all the way out there. He believed more than me. He was brighter. Went to a good college, studied civil engineering. He had a real passion for it. He was good at it too, and he was doing great in college. He was gonna get an internship, and get a better job, and go from there, you know? Had a strong future lined up for himself. But shit happens, you know? It's crazy, man. I mean we all thought he had it made. But no matter how well you're doing, shit can happen. There's no reason for it. While he's preparing for a great future, I'm dicking around in Glendale. Working for my dad. Of course, I'm the only one that makes it to this age. Shit happens, man. I've been coming up here ever since, telling him that one day I'm gonna do it. For him, but for myself, you know? For both of us. Today is the day it happens. That's why I gave you the kite. I want you to experience it, you seem like a good kid. I want you to share this. Not everyone does this. I've lived here my whole life, but I don't get bored of it. I've moved a lot. It's not like there's nothing to do here. It's Los Angeles, god damn it. I mean, we live in fucking California, for God's sake. Come on. Some people think it's sad that I've lived here the whole time. But even now, I don't know the place. No one can. Look, the kite is almost all the way out."
The wind was strong, and the string kept going, up until the end. There was only one layer of sting left. The edges just started coming off, revealing the silver metal beneath the white string. And just like that, it all unraveled. All six thousand feet of it was out there. I was holding it, just me, and a kite, six thousand feet between us, and this old guy I just met.
On the way back, I frantically opened the notes app on my phone in an attempt to remember everything that happened. When I tell it to my friends, they say it sounds like a dream. I can't blame them, because a lot of it felt surreal. By now, I don't remember all of the details. So I've made some up.
I walked back with my head in my phone the entire way, looking like another one of the teenagers of today's generation that the old people always complain about. I didn't care. As I reached my block, I noticed that there was a man waiting at the bus stop, the same one who had been there when I left. He'd been waiting there for at least an hour and a half.