Trade For Print
a short story
By Andrew B. Hurvitz
An unscrupulous photographer lures a postal worker into fraud by offering young love for sale.
There was a photographer who lived and worked at the Tri-Pines Manor apartment on Chandler Bl. in North Hollywood.
After leaving work at the post office I’d see him, in the late afternoon, from the windows of my moving bus. He stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring out somewhere, camera around his neck.
He had short gray hair and a handsome tan. He favored dark, cuffed jeans, and black lace shoes worn sockless. And, white t-shirts with sleeves rolled up, in pre-determined casualness, around muscular arms.
If my bus stopped at the red light at Colfax, I might get to see him shooting a young, fit person leaning against a decrepit, shabby apartment building.
Seeing him work with sparkling young people was a vicarious pleasure for me, neither erotic nor spiritual; but uplifting, like a bubbly, lemony gin and tonic.
The Woman at the Counter
Once a week, on Friday mornings, Luisa Lopez visited the post office. She was old and proper. Her silver hair was tied in a bun. She always wore a wooden cross around her neck, a belted cotton dress and black safety shoes.
She brought packages for her son, Sr. Guillermo Calderon Lopez, who lived at the Hotel De Mendoza on the Calle Venustiano Carranza in Guadalajara, Mexico.
One day, for no particular reason, I put one of her un-mailed packages into my backpack, waited until my 4:45pm release and left work with it.
Something dark and imperceptibly wrong propelled me to act badly. I have no other explanation.
Dina, my ex-girlfriend, who still works at the North Hollywood Post Office, told me I was a mediocre man who never did well at anything. She said my joy was watching other people fail.
For an excuse I offered my childhood in celebrity-saturated Studio City. I grew up with gorgeous parents all around me: blonde mothers who booked shampoo commercials and drove convertibles in dark sunglasses. They were married to heroic fathers who coached Little League and squinted into the sun like Clint Eastwood. My own family compared unfavorably to these perfect nuclear units.
My parents were not good looking. They ran a lock and key shop on Sherman Way. Later on they expanded to sell fireproof safes and burglar alarms.
In pursuit of not failing and not succeeding I went through North Hollywood High School, Valley College, a stint at Ralph’s Market, a four-year sojourn living in Idaho working at Walmart, then back to North Hollywood. I took a civil service exam and got into the Post Office before thirty.
I also had a secret routine at work involving my breaks.
I would go outside into my blue, vinyl upholstered Chevy Nova, turn on the air-conditioning, open the glove compartment, take out and swig some Old Smuggler Blended Scotch Whiskey. I’d stay there for ten minutes and go back into work.
Buzzed, selling stamps, sorting mail, pushing carts full of packages, the clock moved quickly, the day was over and I had completed my tasks.
Accomplished nothing but earned money.
There was a kitchen in the back of our workplace, adjacent to the loading dock, where they had industrial strength coffee and those powdered packets to flavor it.
On Fridays, we ordered pizza from Little Toni’s. Dina was there too. Unfortunately.
She wore a frumpy blue uniform to compliment her bleached streaked hair and goldfish shaped brown eyes.
One day she accused me of grabbing the last greasy slice of cheese and sausage.
“You’re a lonely, self-centered drunk. So I wouldn’t expect you to think about common courtesy,” she said.
“I’m glad you think I’m selfish, lonely and drunk. Now I can be like everyone else,” I said.
Her summing up against me felt good, for now I mattered again.
After that I had to blow off some steam. So I walked home on the sidewalk, under the shade trees, beside the Busway, along Chandler Blvd.
As I reached the red light at Colfax, I passed the two-story tall Tri-Pines Manor Apartments. It had no pines, no plants, no grass, no charm.
The photographer was outside, smoking a cigarette, talking on his mobile phone, gesticulating, arguing in Hebrew, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.
I had empathy for his angst. I thought, maybe, he was screaming at a woman.
I stopped, smiled at him and waited for the light. He looked back at me, nodded and walked over.
“The only people who are worse than the Jews are the Armenians! And I’m a Jew so I can say that! My landlady won’t let me back in my apartment and she lives next door!”
“Are you locked out?” I asked.
“Of course I am! Ani is angry because a few times a week I lock myself out. I come outside to smoke, so I don’t dirty the apartment, make the carpet smell, turn the walls yellow. I do it out of consideration for her! And now she is making me wait out here. To punish me!”
He threw his butt over a frayed rope fence enclosing a drought-murdered dirt yard. It landed in a yellow porcelain toilet next to the sidewalk. “I have to call her and she lives next door!”
“Now she comes,” he said motioning to the landlady on the second floor. “Ok. See you later Mr. Postman.” He ran upstairs into his unit.
He must have recognized me from the post office.
On Saturday’s, my half-day at work, there was a North Hollywood Farmer’s Market set up on Bakman Avenue near the post office. Stalls of produce, along with unbearably ugly crafts, jockeyed for dollars.
Well-meaning people were always there under tents peddling brochures for CPR training, massage therapy, welding internships, immigration services, pre-natal care, and nighttime biking outings for the transgendered.
It was an attempt, along with a recently constructed subway train, to hobble together a real town and a real place amidst the wasteful, sprawling discordance of the San Fernando Valley.
South of Sunrise Ford, there was an imaginatively named “Arts District”, without much art, but plenty of bars. In Los Angeles, some people believe that imaginary names, like Little Tehran or Little Tokyo, create actual places resembling their antecedents.
I had come to the outdoor market with my recyclable bag to load up on provisions, such as turnip greens, parsnips and jicama, foods whose preparations were beyond my abilities.
But I didn’t go there just for food. I had placed myself where gorgeous people gathered. My homely invisibility allowed me to watch, without being watched.
After buying some yellow tomatoes, I sat under a shaded canopy on the steps of SGI Buddhist Center.
A lean, tall, young Asian man in white t-shirt and 1950s rolled-up Levi’s approached me. He had extraordinarily wide-set eyes set symmetrically into a high cheek-boned face. His black hair was pomaded back, brushed high, and parted straight. His cinematic handsomeness reminded me of an old Kinoshita directed melodrama.
“Are you waiting to get in?” he asked, holding his head inquisitively. He spoke with a Japanese accent.
“No. Just sitting,” I answered.
“I am waiting to go into the center. Do you want to come inside with me when the doors open?” he asked.
His manner, so gentle, so caressing, traversed some strange territory of inquiry I could not ascertain. Was he hitting on me? Was he being kind? What were his motives?
He extended a hand to introduce himself.
“My name is Sora Kumo. And yours?”
“Al Stephenson,” I said.
“You must come in Mr. Al. Join us in chanting. We are a very special place. We are a community. We welcome all people. You will like it. We will surround you in love.” He spoke mechanically, like Siri on iphone.
He chop-sticked two long fingers into his wallet and slid out a card, handing it to me.
It said, “Chant the words Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo every day and you will find bliss and harmony and a place without worry.”
He leaned his wiry frame along an angled steel bannister beckoning me to follow. He continued to look into me as if he were trying to pull truth out.
“Sometimes I am lost in the grip of sadness. You see my mother in Japan died last year. She wore wooden shoes and had beautiful feet. She fell down on the rocks near the sea. And I was very sad. I cried because she was gone so young. I was only 25. Now I have no mother. Chanting gives me serenity,” he said.
My induction into the cult was stalled by a new arrival. The photographer.
“Mr. Postman. Are you shopping for fresh foods?”
He carried a camera hung around his neck and a backpack.
“I see you and Sora are friends. Hello Sora,” he said.
“Hello Amir. Good to see you again,” said Sora.
A woman inside the center unlocked the doors to the Buddhist facility. Sora made his way up the steps.
“Please come in Al,” he said and then turned icily towards Amir. “You reject our community so I won’t ask you.”
“Nice meeting you Sora,” I said, declining an invitation into a world of magical transformation.
After Sora left, the photographer smiled at me and shook his head. “He was a big model a few years ago. I shot a campaign with him for Levi’s. Then he got into this place. And all he talks about is chanting. Praying to what? I don’t know. And he doesn’t even want to model now. I got out of Israel because I couldn’t stand all the religion. And in LA you have it even worse. They pull in all the weak people. Tell them lies and they believe it,” he said.
He spoke in muscular, sweeping pronouncements, delivered in a guttural, militaristic, unsentimental way. He verged on steely obnoxiousness, but it was tempered by a kind of fatherly kindness, and weary wisdom. He seemed accepting and tolerant. When he spoke of all the weak people I felt he understood me.
“On the day I met you I stole something from work. I have been torn up and destroying myself over my misdeed. I guess I’m weak too,” I said.
“Do you still have the stolen item?” he asked.
“Yes. I didn’t open it. I put it under my bed,” I said.
“So go home and take it back to work. Mail it out. If you don’t interfere with the delivery you are fine. Everyone knows the mail is slow,” he said.
“Yeah but why would I steal in the first place?” I asked.
He lit a cigarette, inhaled, and slowly, intentionally, exhaled.
“Don’t ask why. We don’t live long enough to know,” he said. I had no response.
We sat silently, lost in the torrid, heavy air of Los Angeles, marooned in wordless speech.
That hot afternoon, the sky was full of wispy cirrus clouds so feathery, so brushed, in streaks of cream on blue flying by fast on desert winds; powerful winds that assaulted the ground and bent the palm trees into frightened old men and blew street trash out of town.
“You want to get a beer?” Amir asked. And I agreed.
We walked to The Federal Bar, a brown-brick, former bank building restored in stylish dilapidation. Inside were many craft beers on tap, and many stools and chairs occupied by pretty people who examined everyone who entered, except me.
We sat down on green velvet sofas, away from the crowds, in a wood paneled, grimy windowed, dark back room. We drank, for two hours, chasing obliteration before sundown.
We left the bar at dusk and walked down Wellington, stopping to chat at an empty lot. He took out a pack of Marlboro’s.
“Do you mind?” he asked.
“No. Go ahead. I grew up with cigarettes. When I’m in their haze I feel like a kid again,” I said.
“Tell me. Are you satisfied?” he asked.
“Not really,” I answered.
“What’s missing?” he asked.
“Sex. I make enough money to get by but I really want sex. I’m lonely, starving,” I said.
As we talked, three teen-aged girls walked by.
“Like them?” he asked.
“Who wouldn’t? I haven’t kissed a 16-year-old girl since I was 17. I try to stay innocent,” I said.
“You Americans are guilty of too much innocence!” he said.
“And you? What is your angle?” I asked.
“I photograph young women. They’re school kids walking from high school past my apartment. I get them right in the door,” he said, as if he were recounting the capture of fireflies in a glass jar.
“I tell them I’ll make them famous. 9 out of 10 do it for free. I call it “trade for print,” he explained.
“Do you have a website?” I asked, intensely curious to see his work.
“I never use the internet. I shoot film. I print up magazines. I have subscribers around the world who subscribe to Junior Pussy. It’s the name of the publication. It costs $110 a year, it’s published quarterly and I have 16,000 subscribers,” he said.
His journals were sent out internationally the old fashioned way, through the mail.
I asked him if he were afraid of getting caught.
He was sanguine in his response.
“My work is artistic. I’m contributing to the self-confidence of young people. Some of the girls are very sophisticated. They are sexually promiscuous. They take money for sex. Not for modeling. I never pay them to model. That would be wrong.”
He made an offer to me. He said he would pay me a few hundred dollars a month if I would help mail his items to international destinations by officially falsifying the contents.
“What do I get out of it besides money? I’m pretty satisfied with my income,” I told him.
“If I showed you a few girls who are open to meeting you, I mean really gorgeous, precious, soft, kissable, hot young things, you would melt and get down on your knees and thank me. They are like manna from heaven,” he said.
“I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Sorry Bud,” I said.
His smile turned acrid. He now looked at me with derision and disgust.
“You’re a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bald spot and an average face. I’m offering you opportunities you can only dream of,” he said poking my gut. “Look at you. What woman would consider you? I’m giving you a free pass to ecstasy.”
“Thanks. But insulting me isn’t winning me over,” I said. He was not dissuaded.
“You told me something today you shouldn’t have. If I wanted to I could contact your supervisor and get you fired. Or worse,” he said.
He was referring to my earlier admission of mail fraud. And now he made me an offer to commit more of it.
“I’m only human. I told you something because I trusted you. Why do you want to hold that over me?” I asked.
He told me that financially and sexually he was helping me in two ways. Why would I stand in the way when there was so much mutual benefit?
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and gave me a friendly, thumbing massage.
“Relax. Don’t try to be so human. It will destroy your life,” he said. We crossed Bakman and passed the SGI Buddhist Center where we again sat down on the steps.
“Keep repeating nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” he said.
He had co-opted that sacred chant for nefarious purposes.
I began to repeat it to calm myself. Words to soothe my guilt over future crimes. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
In our postal cafeteria, tacked to a corkboard, was the following notice:
“Section 1470 of Title 18, United States Code, prohibits any individual from knowingly transferring or attempting to transfer obscene matter using the U.S. mail or any means or facility of interstate or foreign commerce to a minor under 16 years of age. Convicted offenders face fines and imprisonment for up to 10 years.
In addition, Section 1466A of Title 18, United State Code, makes it illegal for any person to knowingly produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to transfer or distribute visual representations, such as drawings, cartoons, or paintings that appear to depict minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and are deemed obscene.”
On lunch break, drinking my usual pint of chocolate milk, I’d stand near the vending machine and review the US Federal Obscenity Laws, taped to a wall, while casually and quickly denying any of them applied to me. Often a milk mustache would walk out of the cafeteria with me indicating my carelessness and disregard for detail.
I wasn’t sending obscene materials to minors. I certainly wasn’t sending illustrations such as drawings, cartoons or paintings. My reading of the law was selective.
So I continued my arrangements with Amir.
I walked over to his apartment, a couple times a week, and went upstairs, into stale smoke, trampled shag carpeting, and yellow curtains, pulled shut against invasive, blinding afternoon sun.
In his living room, he set up a soft-box light, camera on tripod, and sheets pinned to the walls and the ceiling. The young and pretty students came, undressed, and sat on the sofa, naked, under our gaze. Amir directed them to curl up, spread out and seduce.
After the shoot, he’d hand some of them two-hundred bills and guide the girls into another room, a bedroom, where they would climb under a white comforter, pulled up to their naked necks, and wait for me to enter.
Every week I had a new, young delight. After exhausting myself in sexual intercourse I’d marvel that I had somehow stepped into a world of fantasy that few middle-aged men experience.
After the client had left, I’d hang around Amir’s apartment. He handed me dozens of brown, soft packages, ready to mail to Dubai, Russia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Greece, Sweden and Israel.
I sent out his subscription magazines at work. He became my second employer, turning me into a shadow broker of sorts between him and the US Postal Service.
One day Amir asked me to go by myself to meet a new client, 18-year-old Renata Lopez. After work, I walked over to North Hollywood High School, wearing a red cap as an identifier. I was there to bring her to a hair stylist for a pre-shoot blowout.
At 5pm she walked out of the school, down the steps, and shyly said hello. She was short, with brownish reddish hair, deep brown eyes and pouty lips that curled into a sardonic smile. She effused wholesomeness in a petite blue cardigan and pleated gray skirt. I introduced myself and we crossed Colfax over to Rita’s Salon.
Rita, a stout Vaca Negra about 40, with cherry red lips and linear eyebrows, ushered Rita into a chair. I sat down on a bench amidst old copies of Men’s Journal, Esquire and dog-eared National Enquirers.
I watched as Rita enrobed Renata in a white cotton smock. Its angelic countenance flattered her dark, brooding beauty. Adjectives danced around inside my head.
The procedure began with washing, then blow dryer and brushing, more blowing; and then the combing, the fluffing and the drying. The hot air lifted the young woman’s hair up, like the windy, fluttering tail on a galloping horse.
The shop got hot. Rita turned on a tall, metal floor fan. It blew out chemical, childish, adult scents of baby powder, peroxide and hair spray.
I had placed the LA Times sports page over my crotch, covering a growing erection. I was quite ready to explode.
And then the blowout ended.
Renata was un-buttoned, brushed all over. She sauntered over to the register. I paid $40 plus $5 tip. We walked out and proceeded to Amir’s apartment.
The Fruit Cart
At Chandler and Colfax, Cesar operated his snack cart. Renata and I stopped there. She ordered fresh fruits seasoned with red chili powder.
“Hola Cesar! Me gustaría melón, pepino, melón, sandía, plátano, piña, aguacate y un poco de chile en polvo y cal por favor,” she said. And then turning to me, “Would you like one too Al?” I declined but watched her partake.
Wistfully observing this Latina, I thought of how I grew up in this state, thinking my ethnicity the norm, only to find myself living in another country.
We white, monolingual fools who were born, work and live in [I wrote this down on a slip of paper] “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”, who are we but Anglo aliens in Latino heaven? We are wandering, plastic, pale, dumb, blank-faced, insensate orphans of language, faith and culture. We are lost, dreadfully marooned, and insignificant in a sea of Spanish.
The young, beautiful girl next to me spoke it and I didn’t. She knew something deeper, felt it, and consumed it. Something I could not. I realized all this at Cesar’s Fruit Cart.
We walked up to Amir’s apartment and knocked on the door. I also rang the doorbell to no affect. I texted him, and called him. No answer.
“I can’t wait too long. My grandma is cooking dinner. I have to leave by 6:30,” Renata said.
“This is strange. He told me to go meet you, to take you to the hair salon, and then walk over here,” I said, attempting to stall her.
She sat down on the steps and I tried his number again. It was a strange evening of events, of actions undertook under weird directions, and I was here, with an underage girl, waiting for an appointment from a man I did not trust.
“It’s raining,” Renata said. She held out her hand to catch the first few raindrops. I was in disbelief not imagining it was real.
“I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for the rain since March,” she said.
“I’ve been waiting for 25 years,” I answered.
Under the building overhang, we waited and we watched the trickling rain. We heard the car tires on Chandler as they slushed through puddles and slid. We were periodically deafened by the timed regularity of planes landing at Burbank Airport, their acoustics amplified by mountains and clouds.
For now we stayed still, but all around us, on road and sky, movement.
I wanted more of a hard, cleansing rain, but it never came. And that begrudging, stingy deity who reigns over Los Angeles withheld his baptizing showers, again.
Renata said good-bye and we both left Tri-Pines.
A strange interlude of silence, a malignant calm, descended upon my life.
I went to work as usual, riding the bus to the post office. I processed packages, pushed baskets of mail on the floor, waited on familiar faces. Reliably, assuredly, I stayed inside of my routine, unaware of impending events.
I stopped at Amir’s place and bumped into Ani, the building manager. She told me her tenant had cut out of town and moved back to Tel Aviv. “He has a lot of money. He owes me three months of rent. I bet he screwed you too,” she said.
Back at work, on Friday, Luisa Lopez came in. She walked up to my counter, but she had no package in her hand. Her face was full of sorrow and grief.
“My friend I come to tell you that my dear, sweet, wonderful granddaughter was killed. Crossing the street in front of the bus. Just like that. She is no more. So I have no reason to come here. Her father, my son, has come back from Mexico and is staying with me. I am in such pain you can’t know. I hope you don’t suffer as I am suffering,” she said.
I reached for some quick words to comfort her, but I was lost and blindsided by self-pity.
“What can I possibly do?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just nothing. I did not want you to worry. Now you know why I don’t come here any more. Please go to the church or wherever you worship, and say a prayer,” she said. And she elbowed out of the building, through the old wood and glass doors, a black shawl draped around her shoulders.
Under the Bed/Beyond the Window
That night I went back to my apartment, dug deep under the bed and pulled out the taped package stolen from Luisa. I sliced it open with a steak knife.
I found printed photographs of a young woman, 4 x 6 snapshots paper clipped together. And a cheery looking letter, in Spanish, hand written on yellow stationary decorated with white daisies.
I perused each picture. I saw a young woman at Disneyland, then she was on the beach, then sitting at a picnic bench surrounded by family, in another holding a small white dog.
All this was useless to me. What did I care?
Then I looked closer at the girl in the photos.
It was Renata Lopez.
The next morning on my way to work, I followed the return address on the envelope and found myself on Lemp Avenue, a street of pleasant homes next to the Hollywood Freeway. I held the package with the photos inside and walked up the street, feeling as if I were falsely impersonating a postman.
As I neared a small 1940s ranch house, there was Luisa, corn broom in hand, cleaning her driveway. Lost in grief, she was assured in her chores. Leaves were swept aside, a reassertion of woman over nature. How many times in history have brooms assisted in the rebuilding of ravaged lives?
“My goodness. Now you deliver the mail too!” she said.
“Actually I came to give you your package which ended up in our lost and found. I apologize for this,” I said.
She took the package from me and examined it in frank heartbreak. Her eyes swelled up again. Her frail hands pried open the tape. She removed the photos, cautiously, for they were irreplaceable. Yet she did not look at them.
“God bless you. You are the one who brought me something beyond words. This is holy. This is sacred. This is my Renata and here she is alive. She is young and full of hope. This is whom I lost. Such love and innocence. When she walked in the house the first thing she would say is, “Hola mi querida abuela estoy en casa!”
Mi querida abuela.
My dear grandma.
Heard no more.
After my scene with Luisa, I walked down Chandler, past the park, past the fire station, and into the post office parking lot. A small world taken for granted, mine enjoyed in liberty.
Outside of the back entrance were four men and a woman, officials from the Office of the Inspector General. I walked past all of them standing mutely, emitting their static electricity of suspicion.
Dina stood in the doorway, arms folded, almost blocking it.
She looked at me and shook her head. “These people are here for you,” she said. I turned around and saw law enforcement walk up the stairs, onto the loading dock and surround me.
A navy shirted woman, armed, with badge, approached me. She informed me that I was under arrest on suspicion of fraud and intentional misuse and violation of international mails, of sending indecent materials related to child pornography.
You have the right to remain silent, to consult an attorney. It all rushed past my ears like wind.
I was handcuffed. Then Dina came out and stood in front of me. “I knew you would get it bad. I just didn’t know how or when or why,” she said.
I could sink no lower. Her newest appraisal of me now rested on empiricism not emotion. But nothing she said mattered really. I was, admittedly, loathsome.
They led me into a vehicle and I was taken downtown. And that is how I will end this part of my story.