Damn, man, I forgot.
I was gonna pass by Raymond Chandler’s place in Silverlake. Just drive by it. Slowly. Pass by slowly and think that Raymond Chandler used to live there. It’s was his birthday. He’d have been 125. People don’t get to be 125 years old. Not yet. And certainly not writers. Too many vices. Too little money. Too much truth, and lies. A lotta lies. But if you’re good no one can tell you’re lying.
He lived on Redesdale, on the eastside slope of Micheltorena Hill, maybe a third of the way down. The streets are like switchbacks there, the way they wind, and they send you back and forth, never really getting anywhere. You can get stoned and be lost forever up there, wending your way this way and that, at random. If you get to the top of Micheltorena Hill you can pull over. It’s dark there, with a view that goes all the way to Japan almost. The lights are intoxicating, scattered across the city’s plain, over that vast flat expanse of one story houses all the way to the beach. There would have been less lights in Raymond Chandler’s time. Less houses then. Less trees. Less cars. Less people, too. But the ones there were, what a lode of characters they must have been.
I started this a long time ago. I was gonna write about Raymond Chandler’s procrastination. But I waited so long I can’t remember just what I was going to write about. So now I’m never going to finish it. They call that irony. Like those pretty orchids reeking of corruption. Me, I like orchids. But I don’t write hungover.
The wife drew open the drapes and the sun is pouring in through the windows. There’s ten feet of window across, I think, another six feet high. You could see the whole city all the way to the ocean but for that ridge in the way. Because of it the rest of the world besides our hill and that hill and the little valley in between appears cut off from the rest of the city, the state, the planet. There’s just us and it, that ridge. It’s steep and green and cluttered with houses that go back to the late thirties and through the war years. We breathe art deco around here, scarcely notice it. The slightest little shop is deco, the fronts of houses, even an old gas station they just tore down and left an empty lot. Famous architects went nuts around the lake, building crazy wild modern homes for the moneyed hipsters of the day. A lot of movie star money here once, long ago, a lot of industry people. A couple guys–now dead–told me about the old days. The castle across the way–it has multiple floors and a turret, and while it looks like a house from the front over there, it looks like a castle to us over here–would throw huge parties, with orchestras, and Judy Garland would sing into the wee hours, echoing everywhere, keeping people awake. Drove them nuts.
Raymond Chandler was gone by then, dead, unfinished. A little forgotten. Drunken writers, I mean the truly sodden, generally have to wait a generation to be discovered again. The people that knew them die, the fumes dispel, the sad later years are forgotten. Kids read the books, the wonderful classic books, and try to figure out what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep (I’ve watched it a dozen times, easy, and still I’m lost by the time he leaves the bookstore) and they marvel at just how good a writer Raymond Chandler was, and how he shaped in many ways who we are. You don’t live in Hollywood and thereabouts and not have your Philip Marlowe moments. The dame wraps her stems around the barstool and no way you’re not gonna answer her look, buy her a drink, take her up on the smoke. You might not even smoke cigarettes but there you are, looking cool, smoke wreathed around your head, thinking of detective novels and jazz and sex. I told a little prick off once, he was being an asshole to a couple dames next to me at the bar. He scuttled off, scared. I let him go. He gave me the eye. I laughed. The women laughed. He stumbled backward, fell. I reached out and helped him to his feet. Careful fella, you can break a leg that way. He laughed nervously and thanked me and came back to the bar. Scene ended. Just one of those things. Phil Marlowe wouldn’t have handled it that way at all. Phil Marlowe would have socked him one, the little wop, and the punch would catch him straight on the chin, knock him out cold. Glass jaw. The barroom beef would drag his crumpled form out and dump him on the sidewalk. The cops would pick him up. He’d come to, spluttering, say the wrong thing, get the hell beaten out of him. Thirty days. Later he and his paisans would come looking for revenge. Vendetta A rough town this place used to be. Nothing hippie about it then. Men were men. Women women. They’d fight and fuck and cheat and fall in love. That took care of everything by the end of the book or the closing credits. The sad divorce tales were a generation in the future. Lana Turner. Mrs Robinson. One word: Plastics. But for now, two words: It’s Chinatown.
Raymond Chandler didn’t write Chinatown, of course. Getting way off track. Free associating made up stories. They didn’t free associate in Raymond Chandler’s L.A. That was far in the future. Things were too tough to wander off into random connections. Stories needed structure, narrative, had to make some sense. Even The Big Sleep‘s screenplay pretends to follow a narrative. Bogart pulls it off. The breathless pace that allows it to work. Had they stopped still for a couple scenes, the unconnected dots would stand out, drive you nuts, ruin the movie. But they don’t. You blow through that like Illinois Jacquet blowing through Flying Home in 1946, the Basie band a great roaring machine behind him, unstoppable. That’s Bogie in The Big Sleep. Unstoppable. But you couldn’t fool Raymond Chandler. He sat in his upstairs studio office, smoking, pouring rye after rye, wondering if he could ever write a good story again. The secretary walked in, said something, walked out. He watched the seams disappear up the back of her legs. She swished, each step perfectly placed, like choreography. He wondered if her lipstick tasted like apple or strawberry. He wondered, wandered, stared out the window, and a story disappeared, forever.