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ESSAY / Time to Go, Grasshopper / Leah Mueller


Holistic expos tend to look pretty much the same. Clusters of people wander the aisles, snatching fliers and business cards from practitioners' tables—literature that usually lands in the trash a few days after the expo is over. The booths overflow with new age items—crystals, singing bowls (whose droning, high-pitched whine I despise), pendulums, etc. These items are marketed to an upper middle-class, predominantly white clientele of spiritual weekend warriors.

The real draw of a metaphysical event is the intuitive reader section. This area of the expo is highly competitive, but carefully designed to appear less so by the prevalence of colorful scarves and statues of Buddha. The readers sit at their appointed stations, looking up from tables to smile radiantly at passersby. They divine fairgoers' futures, using an endless supply of tools—tarot cards, astrological charts, palmistry, aura photography.

I'm hip to the scene because I'm an astrologer and tarot card reader. I tone down the woo-woo aspect of my craft with underpinnings of Jungian psychology. I don't claim to speak with dead relatives or channel sinister, growling entities from 2,000 years ago. Instead, I refer to myself as an “intuitive counselor.” I don't make as much money as the woo-woo folks, but I can sleep at night, knowing I'm not too much of a fraud.

In 2009, the LA Conscious Life Expo was the largest metaphysical fair on the west coast, hosted by the enormous LAX Hilton. For three days, the cavernous halls swelled with spiritual seekers and self-styled gurus. Lecture topics ranged from chakra tune-ups to foot reflexology. Tanned southern Californians clutched yoga mats and paper programs as they drifted through conference rooms, trying one gambit after another. 

I sat patiently in my booth, ready to offer insight to folks who made ten times more money than I did. Their questions were urgent and specific: should they write that screenplay, or stay with their lucrative corporate gig? How about that upcoming family trip to Australia? Would enlightenment be waiting, or would the presence of their mother-in-law be a deterrent? Would their child be accepted into a prestigious university?

Despite the perks of wealth, problems are universal. Parents get old and die. Baffling health problems refuse to go away despite medical intervention. Kids turn out to be slackers and end up living in the basement, spending endless hours on X-boxes. Bosses are assholes, demanding long hours of slavish loyalty. And no one can ever find their soulmates.

Each expo has superstars, people lucky enough to have made fortunes as new age sages. Some of these folks are friendly and outgoing, while others sport the surly, unapproachable demeanor of rock royalty, barely speaking with the rabble after their lectures have ended. The most renowned speakers are highlighted on the programs. Attendees talk about these masters in hushed whispers as they peer anxiously down hallways, hoping to catch a glimpse of them.

This year, the star attraction was none other than David Carradine. David was scheduled to perform Saturday night with his band, Soul Dogs. I hadn't realized he was a musician, though I knew his brother Keith had enjoyed a short-lived career as a singer/songwriter. Like many women who came of age in the 70s, I'd been impressed by Keith's looks, but found his guitar playing mediocre. Keith's soulful crooning in “I'm Easy” stood in humorous opposition to his role in the movie “Nashville.” The lyrics expressed vulnerability and longing, yet Keith's character was a cad. He performed the song in nightclubs, so he could get laid. I figured David was the more sensitive of the two brothers.

Folks either remember David in “Kung Fu” as Kwai Chang Caine, a wandering ex-monk who executed devastating martial maneuvers against a Wild West backdrop, or as Bill, the sinister character in Tarantino's “Kill Bill” movies. I was in the first camp, having spent many adolescent evenings in front of my television, watching David snatch pebbles while his blind master uttered platitudes like “Pleasure and pain are two bells. When one rings, it causes a tremor in the other.”

I had a huge crush on Caine, and by extension, Carradine himself. After leaving the monastery under shadowy circumstances—something to do with an emperor—Caine fled to the US and wandered endlessly across the desert. He was misunderstood by the locals, and often had to kick ass. Still, he never lost sight of his Buddhist roots.

My crush ended abruptly when I was fifteen. I discovered that David, high on an unspecified drug cocktail, had torn somebody's house to bits. This forced me into a meditation about the glaring disparity between art and life. With sadness and resignation, I cast Carradine from my heart forever.

Yet here he was, at the Conscious Life Expo. I weighed the practicality of closing my booth early so I could catch his performance. Though I could leave the hall any time I wished, my work ethic prohibited early departures. I'd paid $600 for my table, and nothing pained me more than coming up short at the end of a busy weekend. 

A few minutes after 9:00, I shut down my booth and wandered into the bar. It was a typical, bland hotel establishment, with beige Formica tables and uncomfortable low-backed stools. A few expo stragglers mingled, cocktails in hand. I looked around anxiously, and finally spotted a friend at one end of the bar. She grinned and waved me over. 

Danielle was a fellow Midwestern expatriate who had migrated to the west coast several years beforehand. Unlike me, she had settled in Los Angeles, a town that fit her like a tutu fit a gorilla. Danielle had lost none of her edgy Chicago loquaciousness. “How'd you do today?” she demanded.

“Oh, okay,” I replied. “I mean, same old shit.” I ordered a pint of beer and settled in for the long haul. “You know what Zappa said about psychics. You can make more money as a butcher.”

“Ain't THAT the truth,” Danielle agreed, laughing. My beer arrived, and I slid my debit card towards the bartender. As I raised my glass, a tall, angular man wandered into the room. Something about his gait was familiar. He drew nearer, and I shuddered involuntarily. My mind was playing tricks after ten hours in the psychic salt mines. There was no way Carradine would do something as pedestrian as ordering a drink at an airport hotel bar. 

I swiveled in my chair and gaped at the shadowy figure. Sure enough, it was my old idol, Kwai Chang Caine. He stood so close I could feel his breath on my right shoulder, though his gaze was fixed on the far wall. My voice burst from my chest before I could stop myself. “Hi David,” I said. “How was the concert?” 

Carradine glared at me with an expression of contempt. “Fine,” he snarled. He jerked his head sideways to avoid my gaze and took a couple of steps rightward to distance himself further. Unfortunately, his progress was blocked by the adjacent barstool. Escape was futile. David was stuck beside me, at least until he managed to order a drink.

“Well, fuck you,” I said. Danielle snickered. I stared at Carradine and waited for a response, but he refused to take the bait. Instead, he calmly accepted a glass of water from the bartender and wandered away, seeking refuge in a far corner. 

“You said 'fuck you' to Kill Bill,” Danielle laughed. 

“He had it coming.” I glanced at Carradine out of the corner of one eye.

If my words had upset him, he gave no indication. His handsome features were permanently marred by pain and rage, emotions which had absolutely nothing to do with me. Hollywood had destroyed David, to the point where civility was impossible. He possessed the ravaged face of a man who had gone completely without love.

I watched Carradine for several minutes, but his expression never changed. The glory of his “Kill Bill” days had faded. There was nothing left for him now except humiliating gigs at fifth-rate expos. In a way, the two of us weren't so different, except he was much better compensated.

Carradine drained his glass, set it on a table, and strode from the bar. I wondered why he'd bothered to come inside, since he could have enjoyed a glass of water in his hotel room, far from scrutinizing eyes. Perhaps some part of him needed a semblance of companionship, however superficial and fleeting. My anger evaporated, and I felt sadness for him.

Three months later, David hung himself while in the throes of a bizarre masturbation ritual. Obviously, he was experimenting with the pleasure/pain connection, and it was time for him to go. None of the psychics foresaw this, but he never bothered to ask us. In his next life, I hope he reincarnates as a real monk, instead of an overpaid hack. The poor guy already did his time in Hollywood.

Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Tacoma, Washington. Her most recent book, a memoir entitled "Bastard of a Poet" was published in 2018 by Alien Buddha Press. Leah's work appears in Blunderbuss, The Spectacle, Outlook Springs, Crack the Spine, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and many other magazines and anthologies.