El Niño, Downtown Los Angeles 1966 - age 3.

El Niño, Downtown Los Angeles 1966 - age 3.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Number 9 Looks Just Like You - My Last Days with John.

Number 9 Looks Just Like You - My Last Days with John

a short story by Gianpiero F. Leone

Sonny Torrino was a skinny 17 year old teenager, 129 pounds with awkwardly large biceps for his frame.

“Look out mister!” yelled Sonny.

A long haired man stood by the sliding doors of the supermarket on Los Feliz Blvd and Central Ave. He had shoulder length brown hair, a thin pinched nose, and a set of round spectacles that could make him eerily stick out in a crowd. He looked about 30 years of age, with a semi-muscular build behind a long blue corduroy jacket. He turned around and glanced at Sonny. Not an intimating glance, but merely acknowledging the teenager at the bottom of the ramp that led to the automatic sliding doors of the store.

“Hey man, the stage is all yours” said the stranger with the spectacles.

Sonny looked up from behind the twenty supermarket shopping carts that he had gathered in the parking lot. They were perfectly inserted into each other making a kind of giant steel centipede that needed to be captured and put on display at the LA Zoo.

“Just watch out and stay clear,” said Sonny. His biceps bulged as he grabbed the handles of the first cart and lifted it slightly up from its rear wheels and then started to push the centipede of carts up the ramp, through the front doors and into a corral just beyond the entrance of the store. The carts rattled as they entered the store where several agitated shoppers were waiting for a cart to start their shopping.

“Less chatting in the parking lot young man, you have several of us waiting” said an elderly man wearing a brown ratty sweater. He grabbed a cart and stared at Sonny as he pushed it away. A young Hispanic woman with two small children grabbed the next cart, followed by a woman wearing a nurse’s uniform and finally a tall woman with long black hair, high heels and mirrored sunglasses took another cart and pushed it straight to the liquor section.

“Tell them all to blow off, you’ll get the carts when you get the carts,” said the man with spectacles, a big grin on his face. Sonny just looked at him strangely and said “Ok.”

Sonny had just started his after school job at the local supermarket where the city of Glendale and the suburb of Atwater, Los Angeles unhappily met in a matrimony of urban zones and zip codes. Sonny wore a bright orange company vest, a short sleeve white shirt with one of his father’s ties, brown Levi corduroy pants and a name tag with a missing “n” from his name. The name tag read “Sony”. He had shoulder length hair and a sparse mustache that was separated under his nose from lack of growth and another separation above the left side of his lip, where a catcher’s mask from little league brawl had once split that area open, leaving a small scar as the only trophy from that summer.

The man with the round spectacles took a cart and disappeared into the produce department, while Sonny made his way over to a checkstand to bag groceries on a busy Tuesday evening. Tiny boxes of Jell-O, rolls of paper towels, cat food, cans of Spam, deodorant, salad dressing and bunches of grapes made their way into paper bags, one customer after another. Suddenly, Sonny looked up and the man with the round spectacles and the pinched nose was the next customer in line. He had a few items in his cart, toilet paper, two oranges and a greeting card. He laid them on the rubber conveyor belt where the items made their way to Maria the cashier, the greeting card almost getting swallowed up by the conveyor belt along the way. Sonny put the items into a brown paper bag. The stranger with the spectacles paid his bill and took the bag from Sonny.

“Thanks man,” he said. Sonny just nodded.

He walked out of the supermarket and Sonny followed to get another round of shopping carts. The teenager showed interest in the bespectacled stranger and stared at him as he walked out the front door. As the man walked passed the phone booths and the coin operated children’s ride in front of the supermarket, Sonny walked faster and caught up to him as they both met by a stray cart.

He asked nervously, “Anyone ever tell you that you look like John Lennon?”

The man knew that question would eventually come. He smiled gracefully and said “Come Together” as he held out a peace sign with his free hand as the other clutched the paper bag that was held close to his torso. Sonny was amused with the man’s answer, a reference to the Beatles song voiced by John Lennon himself.

“What’s your name?” asked Sonny.

“John,” said the man with round spectacles.

Sonny laughed and said, “Hey, say you want a revolution you know?”

John rolled his eyes and said, “Have a good night my friend, see you tomorrow”.

The mirror image for John Lennon walked along the front of the store and made a right at the end of the building, walking down the long driveway where the delivery trucks would unload boxes of produce and dry goods. The driveway was dark, with the last delivery truck departing hours ago. Sonny pushed the stray cart over to the edge of the building and looked to where John had disappeared into the night. It was a Tuesday night, Nov 25, 1980.

The next night, Sonny was working the evening shift and John arrived on a chilly Southern California night wearing his long corduroy jacket. Sonny watched him enter through the automatic doors and pass through the turnstiles at the mouth of the supermarket.

“What’s up brother?” said John

“The usual, too many customers and not enough shopping carts” said Sonny.

“That’s a drag, but I don’t need one so don’t worry about me needing four rusty wheels” replied John.

With a comfortable expression on his face Sonny replied, “Did you walk here from Abbey Road then?”

John smiled, his pinched nose expanded and overwhelmed his face. Before he could reply, Sonny said, “Is it all right if I call you JL, for John Lennon?”

“Hey, whatever works for you is cool with me, I have heard them all” replied John, giving Sonny a peace sign with his fingers along the way. John disappeared into the supermarket as Sonny took his break and headed off to the pay phones in front of the store to call his girlfriend. After a few minutes on the phone, he saw John exit the store carrying a big brown paper bag.

He waved to Sonny and said “Good Night”.

“See you later man….. I mean later JL!” yelled Sonny.

John walked off into the night disappearing at the edge of the building and into the darkness once again. Sonny turned his head back to the phone‘s receiver and said to his girlfriend, “There's this guy who comes into the store, looks just like John Lennon from the Beatles, it is totally weird.”

Carlos, the assistant manager, poked his head out from the store, looked left and then right and spotted Sonny. “Torrino!, break over, get back inside we have lines ten customers deep!” yelled Carlos. Sonny quickly hung up the phone and headed into the store passing Carlos on the way. Carlos was about 30 years old, wore his pants a size too small and was a little overzealous about his career in the supermarket business. The lines of customers buying canned yams, frozen turkeys, instant stuffing mix and Turkey TV diners slowly leveled down and the store closed at 10pm. Sonny headed outside, unknotted his tie and unlocked the door to his Chevy Camaro, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen blasted from the speakers as the engine fired up. Sonny turned right out of the parking lot and headed West into Atwater. It was Wednesday Nov 26, 1980, the night before Thanksgiving and the supermarket would be closed the next day.

Sonny did not run into John again until Sunday afternoon at the supermarket. It was a warm afternoon, the store was crowded and Christmas elevator music played throughout the building. Sonny was bagging groceries when he saw John from across the store, wearing his familiar long corduroy jacket; he made eye contact with Sonny and smiled. Sonny could swear that the “Let It Be” version of John Lennon was buying navel oranges in the store. John arrived at Maria’s check stand and purchased two oranges for eighty eight cents.

“This is good weather, back in Milwaukee it’s about 10 degrees,” said John. John took the 12 cents change from the dollar he gave Maria and put the two pennies and one dime into the front pocket of his corduroy jacket, a white round stick button with the number “9” in red adorned his lapel. John was in full character today, committed to the person he naturally mirrored so well. Only the American accent and the fact that he was shopping at a supermarket in Glendale, California was the giveaway.

Sonny and Maria just gazed at John, and said nothing.

He awoke from his slight trance and said, “Oh yeah, Milwaukee, is that where you are from?”

John said, “Maybe.” with a suspicious but playful undertone to his voice.

Maria suddenly interrupted and added, “I saw the Beatles at Dodger Stadium once in 1966!”

John acknowledged Maria with a smile and then exited the store. Sonny followed to retrieve the lonely supermarket carts abandoned in the parking lot and John turned to Sonny and said, “Hey that dude Carlos is a real drag, he follows me around the store every time I am shopping, what’s his problem ?”

Sonny smiled and said, “Maybe he wants your autograph!”

John laughed out loud, his head went back a bit, his eyes, clearly visible through his round glasses, closed for a quick second and then opened again when his head came back forward. His front teeth were slightly crooked. Perhaps he could have used braces when he was younger thought Sonny to himself.

“See you tomorrow my man,” said John. He extended his hand out and Sonny shook it. Sonny pushed 14 carts back into the store. His biceps were getting bigger and bulging from his short sleeve white shirt. It was Sunday November 30, 1980.

John walked into the supermarket almost every night during the first week of December. He would emerge from the checkout stand with nothing more than an orange or two, a can of baked beans, a tube of toothpaste or some half-priced ground beef. He always requested a large paper bag even though his orders were small. He now had a little bit of a cult following as the cashiers, clerks and even the customers would whisper to each other, “Here comes that John Lennon Beatle guy”, when he would enter the supermarket. John was a little shy but very comfortable with whom he was and did not try and conceal the fact that he looked like the famous musician that once changed the world. He would hold out a peace sign to whoever requested it and be on his way. Sonny would follow him outside after he shopped and they would chat for several minutes, mostly about music, girls or a squeaky wheel on one of the shopping carts. Sonny and John started to bond with each meeting in the parking lot and Sonny would look forward to seeing the mysterious man with the round glasses and the pinched nose enter the store night after night.

David greeted Sonny as he pulled his Camaro into the store parking lot.

“Hey, your friend is looking for you,” said David.

“Who, which friend?” replied Sonny.

“The Beatle, he’s in the store and asked if you were working today," said David.

David was 22 years old and was born and raised in Lincoln Heights. He drove a well traveled Ford Pinto with a jagged and shredded front fender that would cut your thigh open or at least rip your pants if you brushed up against it in the parking lot. Sonny had just arrived to start his 9am shift. It was Saturday morning, December 6, 1980.

“Thanks Dave,” said Sonny.

“Get me an autograph Carnal!” yelled Dave as Sonny got out of his car and briskly walked into the store.

John emerged from one of the shopping aisles, got into a checkout line, put a half gallon of milk and an orange on the conveyor belt and greeted the cashier as Sonny put the items into a paper sack.

“How’s it going JL?” said Sonny

“Good, gotta love this sunshine,” said John.

Sonny and Alice the cashier both stared in silence.

“What time is your lunch break?” said John.

“About 1pm usually,” replied Sonny.

“Let me buy you a cheeseburger over at Andy’s,” asked John.

“Hey that would be cool, I will meet you there!“ said Sonny.

By this time, Sonny’s name tag had been replaced with one that had the correct spelling of his name, “Hello, my name is Sonny, here to serve you”.

Sonny met John at Andy’s Diner on the corner of Los Feliz Blvd and San Fernando Road, located right next to the parking lot of the supermarket. Andy’s was a fast food place run by a Greek family that lived in Encino. Harry, one of the older sons of the owner, was working the grill that day. He would often dash into the supermarket to buy burger buns when the diner would run out or bags of ice when their ice machine would break down. John paid for the order of two cheeseburgers, two fries, a coke and an ice tea and then took the tray over to a table by the window. Over the course of 45 minutes Sonny and John talked while other customers would walk in and recognized Sonny from the supermarket or would do a double take when they saw John. Among the familiar sounds of the Pac-Man machine that was stationed in the corner and the teenagers that were huddled around it, he found out that John was an army brat born in Germany, and then lived most of his teenage years with his mother in the Mid-West. He came to Los Angeles recently looking for work and eventually got work as an extra in the movies but his familiar profile, his round glasses and his long hair became a distraction on most of the movie sets, so he quit and was unemployed and living in a depressing brownstone building on Central Ave. When he was a teenager, he played guitar in a band but once again his familiar mug proved too much of a distraction so he quit the band and never picked up his guitar again.

“Everyone expected me to sound like John Lennon, I just wanted to be myself and got fed up,” he said.

Sonny listened attentively and nodded as John continued to talk about himself.

“I have been wearing round glasses since I was a five years old, and was not about to change who I am, so here I am today… The Smart One, living on unemployment wages,” chuckled John.

Sonny just listened and avoided speaking in “Beatles song titles” like he had been doing since he had met him. John asked questions of Sonny’s school, family and his girlfriend of which Sonny was delighted to answer. Sonny mentioned to John that he had wanted to learn how to play guitar and was saving up for a Fender Telecaster.

“When you get the guitar, I will teach you how to play, I think I can still wrestle out some chords from my fingers, it’s kinda’ like riding a bike, you know,” said John.

That would be very cool!” replied Sonny.

The square Coca-Cola clock on the wall of the diner read 1:56 PM.

Sonny said, “I gotta’ get back to the store or Carlos will give me hell, thanks for lunch JL!”

“I will see you later man,” replied John.

Sonny grabbed his orange supermarket vest from the chair and left the diner, the sounds of the teenagers and the Pac-Man machine slowly muffled as the door closed behind him. Sonny entered the parking lot and headed towards the store. He looked back at the diner and saw John light up a cigarette through the window where they had been sitting. “Wow, I just had a cheeseburger with John Lennon, go figure” said Sonny to himself.

He did not see John at the supermarket on Sunday December 7th, perhaps Sonny’s early shift missed John’s later arrival to buy his daily navel orange. It was Pearl Harbor Day and a few WWII veterans from the neighborhood came into the supermarket dressed in full military uniforms. One of them was Mr. West, a regular customer in the store and a graduate of Glendale High School class of 1942. He enlisted right after graduation that summer and had never left Glendale upon his return from service in 1945. Mr. West usually got plenty of attention from the older female shoppers; he was a rock star himself it seemed.

Sonny went to school the next day at John Marshall High School and then began his shift at the supermarket at 4pm. It was Monday, December 8, 1980. The store was cold inside and the elevator version of “Jingle Bells” played over the speakers of the store. David Luna had gone home while Maria, Carol, Mark and Sonny worked the late shift at the store while a chubby moody Chinese guy named Tom stacked apples in the produce department.

Sonny took his break at 7pm and called his girlfriend from the pay phone in front of the store. She seemed distant on the phone and cut the call short. He walked over to the side of the building where the dark abyss of the loading ramp was located. The driveway leading to the back street was littered with lonely shopping carts. He ignored them all, and the carts returned the favor and ignored him. He walked around the block, eating up the last few minutes of this break. Sonny dragged throughout the night, going from checkstand to checkstand bagging items one by one for faceless customers. Shopping carts were rapidly accumulating in the parking lot and around 9:20pm, he went out to get them as he knew he could not go home until they were all inside the supermarket. The parking lot was dark and illuminated only by the neon orange sign of the supermarket, while Sonny began the task of putting together a giant steel centipede of carts once again. He constructed one consisting of twenty carts at the far end of the parking lot and then looked up at the supermarket’s doors to start the foreboding task of pushing them inside. When he looked up, he saw John at the pay phones in front of the store. His back was to the parking lot and he wore his familiar long jacket. John turned around as he was speaking into the receiver, his familiar profile glowed under the neon sign. He hung up the phone and stood there for a moment with an uneasy look on his face and then spotted Sonny in the darkness and walked over to him. John had both hands inserted into his pants pockets as he walked while his long jacket blew open in the breeze. He did not have a brown paper bag in his hands and it seemed as if he had made the trip to the store specifically to use the pay phones.

John stopped a couple feet in front of Sonny and with a blank look on his face said, “John Lennon was killed in New York City tonight.” Sonny was tired, agitated and not very focused and for the first time was not excited about seeing his famous friend.

“Huh?” replied Sonny.

“He was shot and killed tonight in New York, John Lennon is dead,” said John loudly.

John waited for a reaction from Sonny but he did not reply. He thought John was trying to be funny, so he ignored him and pushed the carts right by him and across the parking lot, his biceps were bulging and his polyester necktie was loose. When he got the carts into the store, he turned right around and looked outside to see if John was still there but he had vanished into the night as he normally did after shopping. The supermarket closed and Sonny left at 10pm and headed home. When he got home, his parents were sleeping in their bedroom and the television was still on in the living room, serving out the local news to an empty couch. He hit the power button on the Zenith console television and headed towards his bedroom. From the kitchen, Bambino the pet parakeet, let out a loud chirp from his cage as Sonny slammed his bedroom door.

The next morning, Sonny got up and got ready for school, choosing to walk the several concrete blocks to the school rather than drive them. It was Tuesday, December 9, 1980. He came down the steps of his house that was perched high up on a slight incline and walked passed his neighbor’s house, a Russian family that had been in the neighborhood long before Sonny‘s parents had moved in. As he walked by their driveway, he noticed the newspaper folded and sitting a step or two away. He veered to the left and knelt down to look at it.

The front headline read “Beatle John Lennon Slain”.

Sonny picked up the paper and held it close to his eyes as if he was misreading the newsprint.

“JL was telling the truth last night,” he whispered out loud to himself.

He let out a thick sigh from deep within his chest. Tears that had shot up from his chest, suddenly coagulated on the way up, getting stuck at his throat and never emerging from his eyes. Sonny was wearing a black t-shirt underneath a blue zipper jacket with “The Who“ stenciled on the front. He felt cold and confused. When he arrived at the main building of his school, students were talking about John Lennon but when the bell rang, everyone entered the classrooms. By 2pm, the car radios from an assortment of Ford Mustangs, lowered Toyota Celicas and VW Beetles from the student body were playing “Imagine” and “Strawberry Fields” as they roared away from the school with John Lennon’s voice slowly fading down Tracy and St. George Streets. Teachers and students went home at the end of the day, the drill team held their daily practice on the football field and the janitors made their way down the school hallways, buckets and mops in hand. Sonny lingered around the school to see if he could find someone to talk to but everyone had gone home. Sonny was not scheduled to work that day at the supermarket, but made his way down to the corner of Los Feliz and Central Avenue in search of John.

He saw Dave in the parking lot and asked, “Has JL been here today?”

“Who?” replied Dave.

“My friend John the Beatle guy,” said Sonny.

“No way, not today carnal,” replied Dave.

He went inside the store and asked every cashier the same question. “Have you seen my friend here today, the guy with the round glasses, his looks like John Lennon?” Each of the cashiers solemnly answered in succession, “sorry, have not seen him today”, with the exception of Mary, an older cashier who seemed confused and asked, “Who is John Lennon?”

Sonny hung out around the store, made phone calls from the pay phone to his girlfriend and then went to Andy’s to get something to eat. He kept his eyes on the front door to see if John would show up. Andy’s was quiet, the Pac-Man machine had a hand written, “BROKEN” sign on it. By 10pm, Sonny went home. The parking lot was dark.

Sonny spent the next two weeks working at the store or spending his entire evenings off there, waiting to see if John would show up. By Monday, December 22, John still not had been seen by anyone at the store. Sonny finally decided to go looking for him and walked up Central Ave searching out the brownstone building that matched the vivid details described to him at Andy’s Diner that afternoon. Five blocks up on the west side of the street, there was a lone three story brownstone with a wrought iron fence around it. It was the only brownstone as far as his eyes could see. He approached the front and saw two Hispanic men in white t-shirts standing in front smoking Marlboros, and asked them “Do you know John that lives here?” The two men just shook their heads as if they did not understand or care. “He has round glasses and long hair, es un Gringo,” added Sonny.

The two men turned around walked into the building. Sonny followed them inside. Inside the building was just as John had described, the halls smelled of fried cooking, the carpet was soiled, several babies could be heard crying in stereo off in the distance and a water weary plant stood guard in front of the mailboxes. An old white woman was walking down the stairs, clutching a weathered handbag. Sonny recognized her as a customer from the supermarket.

“Do you know John, he is this tall guy with round glasses and long hair, he lives here right?” asked John.

The tiny woman looked up at Sonny through her thick glasses and squinted. It took a few seconds before her thoughts could catch up to her vocal chords. She had on cakey red lipstick that looked as if it had been applied in total darkness while sitting at the vanity of her small studio apartment.

“I do know that gentleman, but I have not seen him here in a while, usually I see him in the back eating an orange," she said.

Sonny darted down the long hallway that was lit only by a bare bulb on the ceiling. The light fixture long ago broken and never replaced. The back area of the building was littered with garbage and old cars, cats roamed the pavement and neither John nor a trace of any discarded orange peels could be found. An odd looking man wearing a bowtie, a dirty white shirt, high waist wool pants, and bedroom slippers entered the backyard from the building.

He stood very authoritative and said, “I am the manager, can I help you with something ?” He looked as if he was once an old cabaret singer from the 1930s, now spending his last years tending to clogged toilets, late rent payments and hosing down cats in heat as the screeched in the middle of the night.

“I’m looking for my friend John, tall white guy, round glasses; he lives here, doesn’t he?” asked Sonny.

“He did, left here last week, paid what he owed and took off,” said the manager.

Sonny raised his eyebrows in disbelief, and asked, “But where?”

“Not sure, just said he was going back home, wherever that is, I already rented out his old studio, #9 on the second floor,“ replied the manager.

Sonny stood silent for a few moments and then walked back through the building, the sounds of the crying children was now replaced by a blasting television set. The cabaret singer followed him inside and then entered his apartment and shut the door behind him as the plastic Christmas wreath on his door fell to the ground. Sonny headed back to the supermarket. The parking lot was once again loaded with empty shopping carts waiting to be gathered, like sailors from a shipwreck bobbing in the ocean waiting to be rescued. He entered silently through the automatic doors of the store. The belligerent old man from a few days ago was standing with his arms folded waiting for a shopping cart. Sonny ignored him and headed to the produce department and looked for the biggest navel orange he could find and then got in line to pay for it. While he waited silently alone in line, he noticed the new issue of People Magazine on display in front of the checkstand. The cover was a photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and it was titled, “John Lennon 1940 -1980 A Tribute“. It had a 95 cent price tag on it. He took a copy and handed Maria a five dollar bill for the orange and the magazine and left the store without saying a word to anyone. He did not wait for his change.

Copyright © 2010 Gianpiero F. Leone

The Music and Life of John Lennon lives on everyday for me, I will never forget where I was that day, December 8, 1980.

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