Martin Foreman
First and Fiftieth


The Stories
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   Basement
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   Foucault's Nightmare
   Homophobia, Darling
   Cold Silence
   Los Feliz
   Judy
   Ten Million Years
   The Last Saturday in May
   Angel
   First and Fiftieth
   Ben and Joe's
   Sunset



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Ben and Joe's

Older men in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles
opening paragraphs


Ben and Joe's was reasonably popular, although it was in the Valley at the far end of Van Nuys, beyond the radar of the West Hollywood crowd. Mostly locals, although visitors would come from Pasadena or Silverlake, their curiosity piqued by the anonymous entry in the free magazines. A few, no doubt, drove up to the Art Deco front with the peeling paint frozen in the glow of the streetlamps then u-turned, suspecting that
pic: estatesin90210.com
behind the tired flamingo on the door were no more than a handful of solitary middle-aged men who no longer expected their prince to come. They were wrong; most evenings the place was full with twenty- to fifty-year-olds, half of whom had found their prince and half of the rest did not have time to meet him. Typical Valley men - supermarket managers and haulage contractors, IT technicians and flight attendants, and the inevitable studio wannabees on the cusp of success - they talked, laughed, drank, flirted and went home at a reasonable hour.

Few of us on the afternoon shift saw that scene regularly. We were the older generation who strolled in an hour or so after the daily routine of lunch, shopping or, for one or two, the gym. Perched on stools around the crescent-shaped bar, we watched our favorite old films, pronounced on the failings of politicians, film stars and others in the day’s news, and encouraged Richard, the impossibly twenty-three year old barman, to invent even more outrageous cocktails. We stayed until surrounded by more strangers than acquaintances or until the door swinging open revealed that the last of the stores across the road had closed, then by ones or twos we drained our glasses and returned home to the companionship of a lover, a pet or a memory.

To outsiders we were probably peas in a pod, sharing sloth, a tan and freedom from responsibility but to each other we were very different. Peter, in his mid-fifties, once a hairdresser in New Jersey, tall and handsome with thick gray hair and a still visible waistline, sparkled with each glass of wine and only occasionally gave vent to a cruel and angry misanthropy. Roy, a little older, with tired dark eyes and unnaturally brown hair, had spent half his life in Europe, exchanging a seven-figure income for a succession of young Mediterranean men who loved him passionately but never long. Now he lived in Canoga Park, on a street where sour-faced adolescents threw balls at garage hoops while yelling children chased each other round weekly polished campers and SUVs. Steve, the youngest, claimed forty-nine, a New England lawyer with Paul Newman’s voice and smile who had moved West when his partner of twenty years died. California we could understand, but the Valley we could not, more suited as he seemed to San Francisco or Laguna Beach. A divorced sister in Azusa, he said, and fascination with Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler; we were not convinced, but the mystery was a well from which we could always drink.

Tom from Wisconsin and Fernando from Spain, dog-breeders in their early fifties; Eddie, overweight and sheepish, who stutteringly insisted there was no place finer to live than a mobile home; Jack, fifty-five, a part-time realtor who could never quite retire; Frank, on disability, with an invisible lover who ran a Kaiser Permanente ward with the authority of a Commissar; Jarrett, who dabbled in the stock market and, some said, underage boys; Keith, intense, thin, fifty-eight, whose thirty-four year old Melvin had been in prison for ten years and who, Keith prayed, would be freed in fifteen more.

There were others, but we were the core who turned to greet a friend or stare at a stranger when the door opened and the heat and light streamed in. We were solitary figures, creatures of habit who seldom wandered further than the nearest Target or shopping mall, whose idea of excitement was a monthly escort who stood bored as we ran our hands over his body. Yet we did not see ourselves as losers. We were convinced that the couples we knew who ran businesses together, vacationed in Mexico and planned their retirement in Russian River were no happier than ourselves. We were the ones whose lives had been eventful; each of us had suffered in our different ways and, because we had suffered, we had lived. Now we were free to shut out the present and the past, the noise and the dust, the freeways and the rat race, the threats of earthquakes and violence. Life may have shrunk but life was quiet and quiet was good.


Next story: Sunset




All Rights Reserved / World Copyright © Martin Foreman 2015




"Sometimes you sit, watch the trains, the sunset, the rain. Sometimes you talk. Tell your story if you've a mind to. Trouble is, memory changes things. Things you want to forget. Things you want to remember that never happened. Happens to everybody. Gets so, nobody's story's true. Not yours, not mine. But it's all we've got."

First and Fiftieth



Background & Comment

The Valley. Its roads stretch for ever, straight lines reaching to infinity. Each time my partner and I drove over the Hollywood Hills to visit friends or his family, it seemed that we were entering a different world, an endless suburbia punctuated only by malls and freeways. Street names echoed long forgotten civilisations: Topanga, Winnetka, Ventura, Saticoy, Parthenia. In summer temperatures blazed and time and movement slowed. In winter Christmas lights draped over houses like giant spiders' webs. Like a science fiction film where the surroundings are flimsy sets built by aliens to fool the humans who landed there, nothing seemed real. Nor was it hostile; just distant, untouchable.

On occasional evenings we'd go to the Valley for a drink. But it was on a bright sunny day, driving to Fry's electrical store in Burbank past windowless bars with half-open doors and two or three cars parked outside, I wondered who had the leisure and the inclination to spend a hot afternoon in the gloom of an empty saloon.From that idle thought Ben and Joe's emerged.

Ben and Joe's forms part of Californian Lives, which will receive its second production in September 2013. Details on californianlives.co.uk



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