Small Change ...
… got rained on with his own .38, intoned Mr. Waits over the dark, smoky saxophone as I sat in the garden room, ordering and reordering my photos as I tried making sense of the events that brought me back to the East Coast. The familiar growl, snarling out the story of a small-time hood getting hoisted by his own petard was a harsh echo of Los Angeles in the bright yellow flowered enclosed terrace I now inhabited, reminding me of what I had left behind in LA. I had walked away from a scene I wish I had never seen in the darkest recesses of LA’s underworld, hustled off to suburban New Jersey for my own protection, and here I was, shuffling through old family pics to keep myself sane while the feds sat in a car across the street keeping their eyes on me so that I didn’t talk to anyone who didn’t belong there, and keeping whoever didn’t belong out of this bucolic, leafy borough. I was, after all, their prize witness, and they could ill afford to have anyone related to Small Change’s untimely demise come looking for me at the Jersey Shore.
I was in Downtown LA one night, exiting Bar 107 on Fourth Street and making my way back to where I parked. LA, Downtown LA, is a sketchy place, teeming in the daytime, all but shuttered at night. There were a few signs of a resurgence of nightlife, with the Golden Gopher and Bar 107 among them, but for the most part, the spaces between the bars were empty and closed until 9:00 the next morning. And it was in one of those spaces that I happened upon the scene of a small-time gangster, not a “gangsta” but a white-guy mob hood, getting wasted with his own gun. It was execution-style, but the guy pulling the trigger was hidden behind some posts, and after Small Change dropped to the floor with his head crumbled in, the trigger man tossed the gun on the dead man’s inert body and disappeared into the shadows. It all happened so fast, and I kept walking … I found my car, got in, circled the block a few times to make sure I wasn’t being watched or followed, and once I was sure I was free, I turned right onto Pico Blvd and headed west, back to my ‘hood. Home safe, in my apartment on Beverly Drive, I locked the door with both locks and shut off all the lights, then went to bed. And I slept, strangely enough, with no dreams or recollections of a man being wasted by an anonymous assailant in a downtown garage. Maybe it was all a figment of my imagination. But no. I got up the next morning and went about my usual business getting ready to go to work, when at about 8:00 in the morning there was a knock at my front door. I looked through the peephole and saw two Men In Black staring back at me. I yelled “Who is it?” and I got the reply, “Federal agents.” “Show me,” I yelled back. The men flashed their gold badges and I opened the door. They stepped inside and served me with a subpoena, and told me I had an hour to pack what I needed because I was now a protected witness. What could I pack in an hour? Clothes, toiletries, books, and all my artistic output and projects I was working on. As long as it didn’t involve a computer, they told me. They confiscated my laptop and told me that I would not be allowed Internet access where I was going. But where was I going? I wanted to know. They’ll let me know. Well, sure enough, they took me for a ride. They taped up my front door with a yellow crime-scene-investigation tape, hustled me into an unmarked van, and drove me to a private airfield somewhere in the Valley, where I boarded a Lear jet that took off and flew east. I had just woken up a little more than an hour earlier, and here I was, on my way to an unknown destination with a new name and an anonymous identity.
And this is how I ended up in unobtrusive, upper-middle-class Interlaken, New Jersey, in the garden room of a big old house, poking around with my photos, not allowed contact with the wider world, with a dark blue, unmarked, unwindowed van parked a discreet distance from the house, its two occupants keeping eyes and ears on me and my house, making sure nobody comes to visit or I don't make any unexpected phone calls. I was told that if I had any trouble, I am to call on my land line and press # # #, and the agents will come to investigate. OK. Protected, indeed. I live a mile away from the beach; I’m allowed to step out and go, just like I go grocery shopping and whatever else, but I’m told not to talk to anyone other than clerks and such, and avoid anything public like make my great art and try to sell it to the masses … until they find the guy who wasted Small Change.