Stride on down.
Fat Michael moved and glowered, glowered and lunged. Heavy Michael. Creative Michael. Imaginative Michael, fat with ideas, looking for a place to bury his treasure.
He rubbed the ketchup from his fingers, smearing it evenly in streaks on his wide-cuffed trousers. But he didn't stop the striding. He stepped over shards of broken beer bottles poking out of the sand like punji sticks.
Stride on down, he hummed to himself. Move on down to the still waters and see how deep they really run.
He glanced back at the Chevy up on Pacific Coast Highway. Not certain if that was a siren he'd heard or not. It seemed too quiet for a siren not to be melting somewhere in the darkness. He stopped striding for a moment to listen.
Just a lot of imagination.
Michael bent his legs at the knee like a Cossack and continued toward the shoreline. The farther he went, the deeper he sank into the sand.
The new moon drifted behind a cloud.
There was a soft, dull glow over the Santa Monica Mountains to the south. Los Angeles was always shining, even at five o'clock in the morning. A neon halo. But the streetlights died north of Malibu, so there was no light to see by except that shed by the moon. The nearer Michael came to the water's edge, the murkier the moon glow peeking from behind its cloud.
He could hear the black surf sucking the sand into itself.
He was getting close. He stepped up his long, gliding strides. Michael's legs might be stubby and his hips as mushy as ruined cantaloupes, but he still knew how to stride on down. He concentrated on long, low paces, gritting his teeth to make the next stride the longest, the farthest reaching. He wove his bloodied fingers behind his back to make it more difficult. It heightened his sense of self-discipline. It put him more into character.
"Look ma! No hands!" he whispered into the darkness.
Stride on down.
Here was Michael Moore of the French Foreign Legion, gliding down a dune in the dark. No. Here was Michael Moore as Groucho Marx. Groucho sans cigar. He flexed his eyebrows and grinned. Striding on down.
Michael's right foot came down hard on the wet sand. He had come to the water's edge. He squinted at his foot but saw nothing. Too dark to see where it had landed. Michael sniffed at the salt air and shut his eyes. He was still a few feet from the water.
He felt the presence of the huge rock at Pt. Mugu jutting out into the ocean. A 100-foot high basalt knob thrust out from the water's edge. Like a mother's breast, thought Michael. A smile played hesitantly across his lips. Even though he couldn't clearly make it out, he could sense its bulk. He faced the rock, popped open his eyelids and delivered his Groucho best.
"I shot an elephant in my pajamas the other morning," he deadpanned. "What he was doing in my pajamas I'll never know."
It wasn't working. The timing was off. He couldn't make Groucho come to life. He fidgeted with his necktie and squished his toes inside his oversized boots.
Where was the light? He couldn't see anything.
The moon shot out from behind its fence of clouds.
Michael glanced up, caught. His mouth hung wide, as one discovered in an act of treachery. A shaft of moonlight bounced up and down the beach, exposing all that had been wrapped in the uncomfortable phosphorescent darkness a moment before. Michael looked back up towards the highway to his crimson Chevy with its door still swung open on the passenger side, as gaping and guilty as Michael's dumb mouth. Moonlight bounced off the hood.
He swung round and round, afraid that the moonlight might bring forth witnesses. There were no headlights warning of traffic from either the south or north.
He breathed easier, composed himself and turned his attention back to the immediate problem: a suitable place to bury treasure. He carefully scanned the water line, rubbing thoughtfully at his chins.
Michael saw a sand crab, wriggling into the surf. He stifled a laugh as he tiptoed near it, cornering the tiny creature. He let it bang about between his boots, panicking as it ran into leather at ever turn. As amused as a house cat, he let it scurry off a foot or two, studying its mix of fear and relief at having escaped extermination.
He crushed it beneath the heel of his boot. It struggled, working its prehistoric body into the sand, but Michael pushed down deeper, harder. He was alarmed. He knew the tiny creature was dying but had no control over his boot.
An ignoble death. A harsh death. A cruel, meaningless, cold and choking death.
He imagined the squirming crab struggling to escape. He crushed harder, clenching his teeth. The surf flowed in around his feet, gumming up the execution. The clouds skittered north while the moonlight remained, spraying down on the lone fat figure pirouetting in the ebbing tide.
But when he lifted his boot to inspect his handiwork, the crab had disappeared. Michael stared long and hard at the crustacean's empty grave. Had it escaped? No. Impossible.
He tugged nervously at his green-and-red striped tie, smudging it with human ketchup from his thumbs. He held a thumb up for inspection then sucked the stuff off with his tongue.
Michael jammed his hands into his pockets and started back to his car. He took small steps, dragging his right foot along in the sand – the same foot he'd used to murder the sand crab.
He was a criminal, a convict, dragging his ball and chain through the swamps. No, not the swamps. Through the Sahara. Dragging, dragging, trying desperately to make it back to a Moroccan outpost.
Back on Pacific Coast Highway, he paused to admire his lovely old beast. A '57 Bel Air. Great shape for a '57. Door swung open, antenna broken. He glanced up and down the road again for headlights. None.
He walked around to the passenger side and reached inside for the sack. It was heavy; heavier than he remembered. It took several tugs just to get it out of the car.
Rather than heft it down the short embankment, Michael simply rolled it over the edge. The sack bounced twice and rolled to a stop. He stared up the beach toward Mugu. The great hulking stone shined wet in the moonlight. He raised his eyebrows, trying to recapture the Groucho moment. Groucho the legionnaire, escaping from the stockade. He squinted, trying to imagine the great rock of Mugu as a ball chained to the moon by a shaft of light.
Yas, yas, yas! Great scene! Striding with one foot, dragging the other, Michael dashed down the craggy highway shoulder. He gripped the neck of the sack as though it were a chain and began the slow, tedious trek of dragging it to the shoreline.
Stride, drag. Stride, drag. Stride, drag. Strum und drang. Stop from time to time to grin and flex the eyebrows, Groucho-style.
At water's edge, he stood by the sand crab's shallow grave. He set the sack to one side and took the position of a football center. Michael began clawing sand into the sea.
Michael stopped digging and listened. A siren? Was that the sound of a siren back on the highway? He cupped an ear and breathed with a shallow silence. Nothing. Nothing but the swish, crash and retreat of the surf.
He resumed digging. He breathed hard, but paused only to flex his eyebrows. Sand flew into the ocean. It was fun at first, but soon became hot, tedious labor. He perspired profusely and his clothing stuck to his body.
He stopped two feet down to glance at his watch. Nearly 6 a.m. A pair of headlights appeared up on the highway. They slowed near the Chevy. No. Drove right by. Michael chided himself for his paranoia.
He stood back to admire his trench, gasping horrible phlegm sounds. It was a nice bit of latrine work. He opened his fly, christened it, zipped up and rolled the sack into the makeshift pit. Then he began kicking sand over it. After five minutes, he stopped to wheeze. All 300 pounds of Michael shuddered as he panted. He cleared his throat and spat a sticky missile of bronchial foam into the surf. Then he finished kicking sand until the sack was completely covered.
He turned toward the highway. The beach was gray and the horizon grew brighter by the moment as he picked his way across the Sahara.
The slopping surf translated into the din of nomads, thirsty for the blood of fat Groucho. Michael made the last few feet up the rocky shoulder to his Chevy in two leaps. In doing so, he nicked his palm on a broken Coors bottle. He tongued off the wound, but a tear of self-pity came to his eye when he saw a tiny line of blood on his palm. It was not so sweet as the other had been. He grit his teeth and turned back to the beach.
"Farewell, merciless mysterious desert!" he croaked. "Our work here is done. Now we turn to our new adventure: the taking of Sister Melba from the metropolis!"
As he clambered behind the wheel, Michael whistled the William Tell Overture. He drove south - a '57 blood clot with dual carburetors, headed straight for the heart of the city.
* * *
An hour later, dawn lit up the stretch of beach south of Mugu. The sun peaked over the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, reflecting off an empty half-gallon Gallo bottle lying like a bloodless corpse in the dry sand. Closer to the shoreline, a tiny white sand crab scurried across a slight mound where bits of burlap, still damp from the tide, had been washed up to view.
The crab stopped, almost apprehensively, when it came upon the burlap. After a tentative inspection with its ancient sensory equipment, the crab continued.
Then it stopped again. Here was a cold, wet white substance that differed from the burlap. Danger perhaps? The tiny creature circled the substance cautiously, testing it, tickling it. It did not move. There was no threat, but there was also no thrill. The crab scampered off in the opposite direction to catch something more intriguing in the next splash of plankton that the tide would bring in.
A morning beach walker and his dog were the first to find the body.
The two bloodless fingers sticking coldly out of the sand appeared to be making the sign of peace when the sunlight hit them. They did not move. They both pointed toward heaven when the saltwater sucked up around them.
The Springer spaniel paused to sniff them while his master was still a good 50 yards away. Like the sand crab, he found no threat, no thrill, but he knew a human finger when he smelled one. He barked twice and wagged his tail.
The next wave was a big one, thundering with a roar against the great rock at Pt. Mugu. The wave also washed over the two fingers of peace, exposing an entire hand when it ebbed back into the sea.
By the time the morning sun had risen over the top of the Santa Monica Mountains, the first sirens were already whining up Pacific Coast Highway.
The new day had begun.
Ralph fell from heaven and awoke with a start.
The spongy summer heat had finally dropped a few degrees. The cool, toxic grin of a new moon could be seen rising over the square edges of Little Tokyo. It hung above City Hall like a thick curl of vanilla ice cream.
"Think you're sleeping in the wrong part of town," came a voice from the man in the moon. "You should be home in bed."
The ice cream grin throbbed up in the sky. It expanded with each surge of blood that rose in Ralph's temples. He squinted in a vain effort to hold the moon steady. When he finally got it to stop twitching, he recognized the two shapes beneath the moon as people.
"Officers, actually," he muttered aloud.
One of the cops reached for his collar and easily foisted Ralph to his feet, setting off the throbbing in his head again.
"What're you doing sacking out on a doorstep, fella?" whispered the taller cop. "Aren't you scared of the Night Hawk?"
"He only nails broads, Henry." The shorter of the two cops smiled malevolently, crossing his arms and beginning an anxious toe tapping that echoed somewhere at the core of Ralph's skull. He would be the dangerous one; the one most likely to demonstrate the manly art of tap dancing on a tired old wayfarer's kidneys.
"Henry?" Ralph chuckled.
The short cop didn't alter his military pose an inch while the taller one patted Ralph down. He finally moved forward a curious inch or two as the tall cop fished around in Ralph's back pocket and found the two cracked pieces of artificial leather that passed for a wallet.
"What's wrong with Henry, Mr. Raphael?" asked the short cop, reading Ralph's name off his long-expired Kansas driver's license. "My name's Ansel. My partner's name is Henry. Is that all right with you?"
"Ansel?" Ralph stifled a bigger chuckle, but it escaped through his nose. "Henry? Ansel?"
Officer Ansel shifted uncomfortably from one high-sheen shoe to the other, fingering his Sam Browne belt buckle with both hands. Officer Henry maintained a regulation bored expression as he rifled through the wallet.
"So, Mr. Raphael," Officer Henry began wearily. "A traveler's check for $10. Three coupons for free fries at your favorite Burger King. An expired Diner's Club card. And a PTA membership card for... Denton Junior High? Where's Denton, Mr. Raphael?"
He held the yellowing card up to his nose and Ralph wavered for a moment, focusing on the faded printing.
"It's, uh, near Dallas. North of Dallas. My family was there for awhile. In Texas."
Officer Henry did a quick draw from the hip. Ralph flinched involuntarily, but it was only a flashlight. It was the long, heavy kind that can high-beam a drunk's pupils down to pinpoints while also doubling as a terrific skull buster. Officer Ansel began pulling nervously at the lip of the belt sticking out of the Sam Browne buckle.
Flicking on the flashlight, Officer Henry gave the PTA card a closer inspection.
"You've been away from Denton Junior High for quite a little while, haven't you? 1993. That the year you graduated?"
Officer Ansel snickered, flicking the end of his belt more nervously. Ralph remembered his infant son, long ago in Texas, performing the same maneuver with his penis. Ansel's sun-bleached white walrus mustache turned up at the corners and a dimple appeared in one cheek. Ralph saw jolly crinkles around the shiny black sequins of his eyes just before Officer Henry's flashlight beam blinded him.
"Hey! I can't see!"
"Don't know why. You got plenty of light," deadpanned Officer Henry.
Ralph heard Officer Ansel laugh out loud, though he couldn't see him at all. Henry seemed to be studying him with the flashlight. Ralph heard his head throbbing once more in rhythm with the man in the moon. He kept cadence with a modulated moan. Ansel stopped laughing.
"Hey, Henry. Don't you think that's enough?"
Henry snapped off the light and Ralph slowly rubbed vision back into his sockets.
"You work, Mr. Raphael?"
"How you supporting your family? You do have family, don't you?"
Ralph looked down at his shoes and said nothing.
"Don't you got a home? Some place you stay?"
"I got a car," said Ralph.
"Normally we wouldn't bother you, Mr. Raphael. It's a hot night. You're not the only one sleeping it off outside. But I'm afraid you picked the gates outside St. Vibiana's for a bed. The city don't like drunks bunking out on its church vestibules. Besides, it’s dangerous out here after dark. You should know that. Where's your car?"
"I left it in a garage in Dagget," Ralph said, still rubbing at his eyes.
Henry's lips were moving, very near Ralph's right eye. He could see them forming the syllables. The voice was coming in a loud whisper, as though Henry were afraid that a low, normal speaking voice might wake someone in the deserted downtown streets. As Henry's face came into focus, so did his neatly trimmed bronze mustache and hooked nose. He looked like he didn't believe anything Ralph said. His dark eyebrows remained stationary while the gray-black eyes darted around, blinked and went slightly wall-eyed with each threatening inflection at the end of his sentences.
"What kind?" Henry demanded.
"I dunno. Just a garage. Maybe it was a Shell station. I used to have a credit card when I still had credit,'' Ralph mumbled.
"What kind of car, asshole?" Henry persisted.
Ralph scratched through the thin material of his shirt at a scab on his elbow, pondering how far to go with Officer Henry. He shrugged.
"Ford. It was a Ford. A Ford Ansel. Just fell apart on me. Fords are like that. All shiny and new. Like that buckle holding your partner's pants up. Sturdy little cars with lots of chrome. One day, they just die. You know?"
Officer Ansel twitched his mustache.
"You mean Edsel."
"That's what I said," Ralph smiled contentedly. "My Ansel just crapped out on me one day in the desert. Probably never was worth a damn. Most Ansels aren't."
Officer Ansel moved a threatening step forward but Officer Henry intervened.
"No call to have you hauled in, uh, Mr. Raphael? No reason to run you through the computer to see if we got us the Night Hawk on our hands. We won't find us some outstanding warrants from the Denton Police Department, will we?"
Ralph shook his head and felt it registering confused pain messages. His eyes still stung and his ears prickled with the super-heated sensitivity that comes with too many nights of too many beers. In addition to his tortured nerve endings, Ralph felt his dying brain cells expanding and contracting like a saturated Nerf ball in a microwave oven.
Against such torture he pushed his luck further:
"Look, I'm sleeping with the mayor's wife, Officers Henry and Asshole. Go away and leave me alone or I'm going to have her speak with her husband about you."
Ralph was always at a loss when he attempted to explain these inadvisable bursts of insolence. On top of everything else, they were exquisitely ill timed. When he did settle down and talk about them, usually when swapping stories in one county holding tank or another, Ralph always told the story of the cat and the cockatiel.
There was a cockatiel that whistled "Dixie" all day long and half the night, Ralph would explain. And there was a cat who couldn't stand it. The cat waited for his chance. When it came, it moved in quickly for the kill and the bird just whistled "Dixie" faster. Even when the cat was moving in on the cockatiel's cage, looking for a way to knock it off its perch, break through the wire, the bird simply upped the tempo.
When the cat bared its teeth, the bird whistled furiously, shrill and loud. Up to the very moment that the cat finally snapped off the cockatiel's head, the bird's rendition of "Dixie" was frantic but unstoppable. It was so long and loud a whistle that it echoed for several moments until the headless body stopped fluttering at the bottom of the cage.
So why'd the bird keep on whistling "Dixie", they always asked him?
Because, Ralph answered with a sly smile: it was the only song he knew.
"He call me an asshole, Henry?"
Officer Henry stared at his partner in mute agreement with the drunk.
Ralph opened his mouth to whistle another line from "Dixie", but stopped when his sight suddenly returned. It was instant and miraculous and he forgot what he was about to whistle. He saw with minute clarity Ansel's jaws working. He saw lanky, clean-shaven Henry beside him, looking like a latter day Gary Cooper in dark blue uniform. Over both their shoulders, he saw an astonishing vision of the City on the Hill.
Behind the two cops were the Argus eyes of a skyscraper's windows. That would be one of the Arco Towers. Just below was a skyline of high-rise condominiums, squatting atop Bunker Hill. The appropriately out-of-place Babylonian cinderblock architecture of the old Los Angeles Public Library stood nearby with the cosmic antenna of the phone company rising like the Eiffel Tower over the spot where Googie's 24-hour restaurant once stood. The fetal skeletons of new high-rises were climbing to the ionosphere while the old, funky hotels and rooming houses that lined Broadway and Hill and Grand and Olive were waiting like cancer patients, to die beneath a wrecker's ball.
All of it twinkled in the dark, like comic book artwork come to life. The buildings loomed and the spaces between them yawned. The spectacle sucked in Ralph's imagination and all he could do was gasp at the majesty of it all.
"My God, it's beautiful," he said
The butt end of Henry's flashlight brought Ralph out of his trance. It thunked against his rib cage with contusive force. There was no crack, but Ralph would definitely have a nice, dollar-sized bruise there by daybreak. He yelped and followed it with a doubled-over moan, even though he knew the histrionics went well beyond what the pain actually called for.
"Jesus, you don't have to hit him, Henry."
"Just getting Mr. Raphael's attention. I think he'll be just fine by morning. Let's just let him go on about his business. If you want to finish your nap, I'd suggest the Square, Mr. Raphael."
"Why don't you take me in?" Ralph whined.
"Oh, you haven't done anything real serious and, besides, it's near the end of the week. All the berths are full down at county. Jail's for respectable drunks. The kind that don't leave their damn car broken down in the desert and keep coming back after being incarcerated once or twice. Know what I mean, Mr. Raphael?"
Ralph rubbed his side and tried to remember the lyrics to "Dixie". He draped his tattered sweater over his arm and walked with a pity-inducing limp off to the south, toward Pershing Square.
"We oughta take him in," Ansel stage-whispered to his partner. "Somebody's gonna roll him for sure."
He started to move after Ralph but Officer Henry advised him not to bother.
"Drunks and babies, Ansel. God looks out for drunks and babies. Besides, this guy's fucking the mayor's wife. She oughta put him up for the rest of the night."
The two cops shared a laugh. Ralph didn't look back. He just took his cue and scurried like a free range roach up Main Street. He waited until he got to the corner, a good half block away before hollering back at the retreating pair.
"I wish I were in Dixie! Away! Away!"
Ansel turned and looked back at Ralph briefly before he and his partner disappeared up Third Street.
"Away down south in Dixieland! I'll live and die in Dixie!" Ralph shouted.
Then he was alone.
"Crude. Crude bastards," he said to himself with a sudden distaste. "I never once said I fucked the mayor's wife. All I said was I slept with her."
Night Hawk. Ralph smirked. Ralph the Night Hawk. What a hoot. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and walked up Main, past the Union Rescue Mission, Gina's Burgers and the abandoned Japanese movie theater where the bums who can't find a berth in one of the flophouses usually wind up spending the night.
"Night is the hunter," he said to the moon. "You know that.” The moon smiled back at him as he made his way further downtown. “If it weren't for you, we'd all be swallowed up by the dark."
Ralph bowed a deep, bow-legged, Charlie Chaplin bow and tipped a make-believe derby to the lunar sliver with the morning star twinkling in its crescent. Somewhere to the east, a mockingbird sang.
"Sweet the coming on of grateful ev'ning mild," he recited. "Then silent night with this, her solemn bird, and this fair moon and these the gems of heaven, her starry train. Yikes!"
A fat mouse skittered out of the lobby of the abandoned Japanese theater and across Ralph's path. He jumped back. The mouse disappeared into a storm drain. Right behind it ran a black cat who missed its prey by inches. In frustration, the cat batted into the storm drain, its tail switching like a metronome.
"Hungry?" asked Ralph.
The cat looked up, guilty and defiant. Its tail switched three more times, a graceful, furry cobra. It ran back into the theater.
Ralph laughed out loud. He began whistling again. He turned right at Fourth Street and drifted toward Pershing Square, looking for a place to sleep.
* * *
Across the street from Pershing Square, an anonymous wall had been plastered over with broadsides. They were layered one above the other as high as the phantom graffitist could paste them, like a Warhol lithograph.
In the moonlight, Ralph could clearly see the repeated line, paraphrased in dripping red letters at the top of each poster:
The Word became Flesh and Dwelt among us, it read.
The small print gave a lot of detail, dwelling on the racier passages in Ezekiel and Song of Solomon. But when it came to mesmerizing, the basic message was better than a bumper sticker.
"The Word," Ralph recited.
Which word? A long word? A short one maybe. The Good Word or a sinister word? A magical one? Something along the lines of bippity-boppity-boo, shazzam or tintinnabulation?
Ralph puzzled over this fleshy mystery for some time, weaving on the curb across from the hedgerows and rye grass of Pershing Square. He squeezed the moonlight out of his eyes and concentrated on a passel of Words, speaking them aloud in mumbles like a mantra.
A hand touched Ralph' shoulder and he leaped. He had nothing to protect himself with, so he reached in his back pocket as he twirled. He menaced the apparition with his cracked wallet.
"Hey, Ralph! You act like you seen a ghost, man."
It was Don Albano, a skinny mestizo with a thin strand of longish bleached blonde hair hanging from the back of his scalp. He was well built if slightly dissipated - a scarred but sturdy man of peasant stock who, like Ralph, had survived to his early 40s. His tattooed arms were still well-muscled and his brown cheeks high with an ever-present idiot's grin.
"I scare lotsa dudes, but I don't mess with mis amigos. Hey, where's your car? You been sleeping in your car, eh?"
"It stalled on Melrose," Ralph muttered.
He was reluctant to tell the truth about himself, even to those who knew him too well to accept a lie. "It just stopped. No noise or anything. Just stopped and wouldn't start again. I went back to get it yesterday afternoon and it was gone."
They jaywalked to Pershing Square.
"Ho, you know what happened I'll bet? I'll bet it got compounded."
"Impounded. Yeah. Probably. What are those things?"
Ralph plucked one of the canary yellow flyers from beneath Albano's arm and read:
Fortunes - Predictions - Readings
Where is your Love?
Where is your Faith?
Where does your happiness lie?
Horoscopes cast while U wait!
"I got five bucks to hand 'em around, you know? Hand 'em out over there in front of the Biltmore," Albano said.
He pointed at the stately old hotel on the west side of the Square where a red carpet extended from the polished brass doors to the curb and a crimson-coated doorman stood vigil 24 hours a day.
Ralph looked skeptical.
"She told me my fortune too," Albano continued.
They huddled next to the bronze statue of Beethoven whose stare was fixed on the Biltmore half a city block away.
"You gonna go get your car?"
"I don't even know where they impound cars," Ralph answered. He let the yellow flyer flutter from his hand. It settled at Beethoven's feet. "So, what's your future hold?"
"She knew I got a lotta friends," Albano answered. "She said I ain't gonna get rich, but I gotta lot of friends. I'm a catoleech."
"Someone who gets things started, like a big party."
"Ah. Catalyst. But that's not your fortune."
"She also told me to watch out for the ladies and for sirens and don't get in no ambulance."
Ralph laughed. "Good advice."
"Yeah," said Albano. "I love to get me a little piece when I can, but bitches can fuck you up real bad. I tol' Madame Lucy that. You gotta slap them bitches down sometimes."
"I don't think," Ralph disagreed.
"You don't know," said Albano, speaking from some part of him that Ralph didn't recognize, even in the moonlight.
Ralph sat down on the grass and laid his head up against Beethoven’s concrete pedestal. "Maybe she can do me a reading and tell me where they impounded my damn Toyota," he muttered.
"It's over near Monterey Park, I think," said Albano. "That's where the yard is. I got a dama lives over there. Her boy, he hangs around the wrecking yards a lot. Gonna build him a decent car someday from his paper route. You ever have a paper route, Ralph?"
Ralph answered with silence. Instead of belaboring the point, Don Albano found his own spot on the grass. He leaned up against the concrete next to Ralph. They both stared at the Biltmore for several long moments.
"Just stuck here finally at the end of the line on the edge of the damned continent," Ralph wheezed. "Stuck here without wheels, without family, without a radio even. Without music."
Across the park, a bone-thin figure darted from the entrance to the underground parking lot at Pershing Square, carrying a briefcase in one hand. His faint high-pitched giggle raced across the park with him: "Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee!"
"What's that?" Ralph sat up straight.
"That's just Luther, man. He deals shit for the hot dog man," whispered Albano. "Don't get so tense. He ain't nobody."
Ralph relaxed and leaned back against Beethoven.
"What kind of shit?"
"Just shit, man. I bought a watch from him once."
Ralph looked at the base of the pedestal and saw a moving black line. A long stream of ants wormed around the edge of the concrete. Albano followed his stare then crawled on hands and knees to see where the line ended. He found a half eaten hot dog, still in its wrapper, but closer examination revealed no wiener. Just two partially devoured halves of a bun. The one saturated in ketchup was preferred by the ant colony. Albano tore off the other half, dry and white, and crawled back to where Ralph was sitting.
"You could go see if they impounded the car to Monterey Park. I could get my woman's boy to help you. He's a little stupid, but he does what he gets told to do. Gabriel. His name's Gabriel."
Ralph rolled the name over absently on his tongue. Gabriel. Raphael. How many knew his real name was Raphael? Thomas Jefferson Raphael. Would Albano laugh if he knew?
"I don't think so," he told Albano. "It won't start and I don't have anything left to fix it with."
Albano tore the stale bun in two and passed half to his companion. "Tomorrow, you take Gabriel and get your Toyota outta hock."
A bus passed with a 20-foot banner pasted to its side, advertising a sand and sandals Biblical epic coming to a multiplex near you.
"You ever wanna be in the movies, Albano?"
Albano's eyes smiled sympathetically.
"Sure. Everyone wants in the movies. That's why they come here."
He reached in a rear trousers pocket and produced a pint bottle of cheap cherry brandy. He washed down his crust of hot dog bun with a swallow before passing it over to Ralph. Ralph finished the bottle and set the empty between them.
For an hour they talked about bad breaks and hard times and running away. They talked about steering clear of people who try to tie you down, keep you in one place, fence you in. They spoke of women: living with them, living without them and the merits of both. They spoke of not staying in one place too long for fear of being cut down at the weakest moment and escaping, escaping.
Sometime after 6 a.m., Ralph started in telling about his son and his wife and the world he left behind, but Albano snored that the conversation was over.
A warm wind picked up and a small twister - a dust devil - whipped through the park. It hit the stack of yellow flyers lying next to Albano and blew them all over Fifth Street.
Ralph folded Albano's arms over his chest and got up. He dusted himself off, stretched and danced off silently toward Monterey Park to see about getting his car out of the desert.
Miss Melba Mae watched the morning star glitter above the downtown Los Angeles skyline. Venus hung right outside her bathroom window, off to the windward side of the moon, flashing like the Rev. Mr. James' pinky ring. It meant the new day was coming and she wouldn't have to pretend to sleep no more.
It was after 5 a.m. and, by all rights, she ought to have been tired. She tossed around. Went through the motions. Shut her eyes and said her prayers and counted lambs. They kept getting hit by a red Chevrolet, just as she was nodding off. She'd wake with a start, blink and scan the room for dead sheep.
"Get theeee be-hind me, Satan!"
In the corner, a striped gray cat roused while an auburn calico next to it snored on, undisturbed. The gray cat stood up and stretched, meowing once to show its irritation over being awakened.
"S'alright, Angel," Melba apologized. "Jus' the dream again. You go on back to sleep."
Melba thought the bad dreams might come from the money. Just before 3 a.m., she dug down deep between the mattress and the box springs and pulled most of it out. She laid the stacks of currency at the foot of the bed and stretched out to see if the bed was less lumpy.
Its absence made no difference. She lay back down and closed her eyes, but the sheep still went to slaughter, mowed down by that devil car.
She tucked the bills back beneath the mattress and went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. She could have afforded a microwave like the Korean brands they sold out of the storefronts down on Broadway. It would have been quicker and easier than using a stove.
But it wouldn't be the same as firing up the ancient gas range and setting the copper kettle just so over the blue flames. There was chamomile and rose hips, mint and jasmine. None with caffeine though. Melba was careful with the foreign substances she put in her body. She put a spoon of the rose hips into a china cup and set it on a silver tray.
She bought the silver tea service on a whim. A mercantilist who dealt from the trunk of his ancient Dodge Charger in the garment district had come into several sets a few months back. It was 12 pieces, solid sterling and only $20. He was running a special, but she would have bought it anyway. He offered to throw in an Apple wristwatch for an extra $5. She declined. At such a price, she believed it might be stolen.
Besides, she had no need to know the hour once she’d escaped the spring-loaded timetable of Chicago. She knew the hour simply by listening for the bells of St. Vibiana just two blocks away.
All she wanted was the tea service for four, she had told the man. It was an indulgence, to be sure, but a small one. It made her feel pretty. She bought it right after the second murder.
Melba recalled bringing it home and setting it up in front of the TV set on a tray, sipping her Constant Comment while the newscaster laid out the details of the latest victim.
Monica was her name. There had been two more before, laid out on the grass in Pershing Square. Three in all. Melba knew Monica though. That made it different. Closer, somehow, even though she didn't know her beyond just to nod at her going to or coming from a sermon.
She was a scared little whore with brittle yellow hair and no molars behind her bicuspids. She came to L.A. to get into TV, maybe the movies. She had harmed nobody and did no harm as near as Melba could tell. Monica came to hear Melba preach one time, maybe more, and Melba Mae remembered how sad and helpless she looked, standing at the fringes of the flock in a pale blue dress that looked as faded and worn as Monica herself. Monica used to do two johns at a time in the parking lot behind the Department of Water and Power on Figueroa Street -- all for the price of a quart of Popov and a trip through the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Clifton's Cafeteria.
Melba said a prayer for Monica. She made her congregation say a prayer for her too. She said a prayer for all of the Night Hawk’s victims, but she knew that's what whoring got you.
She frowned deep as the teapot began steaming on the stove. Then she carefully poured the water into two cups as she had taught herself to do, even though there was nobody to share it with. One of them, she told herself, was for Monica.
She sat down heavily in her rocker and sipped one cup dry. Then she shut her eyes and nodded, coming close to sleep. First, there were bloodied sheep. And then...
"Where we goin', Reverend James?" she asked
"Been too long toiling in the fields, Sister Melba. You is the hardest working of any of the young sisters and brothers. Settin' out the foldin' chairs. Fetchin' fresh buckets for the baptism. Handin' out hymnals and makin' the collections. You a rare child, Melba Mae. You got you a reward comin'."
He steered the blushing red convertible with one hand. It was power everything: power steering, power brakes, power windows, power power...
Melba was still too stunned by this privilege to speak much. Her belly tingled the way her feet did when she sat cross-legged on the front porch too long, cutting the circulation off at her ankles. The road to the edge of town was bumpy in her father's old DeSoto, but that same road was as smooth as a newborn puppy's gut in the Reverend Mr. James' ruby red 1957 Bel Air.
Dusk was just beginning to twinkle into a star-laden Kansas evening when the Reverend turned in to the Roadside Drive-in Theater for a double horror helping of "The Killer Shrews" and "The Giant Gila Monster".
Perhaps he was subtle. It was too hard to remember precisely. He may have whispered a few sweet lines into her ear. He may even have wrapped an arm about her thin shoulders and taken care to make no sudden moves until the cartoon was over.
But the Reverend Mr. James, so often a well-spoken gentleman of long, lush words and deep thoughts, became mute by the end of the newsreel. His long, supple fingers dug into her bosom and his tongue lapped at her left ear. She edged as far to the right as she could, but he followed, wordlessly. She had been kissed before - once behind a big old gum tree in the front yard where similar tactile explorations were undertaken by a gas station attendant name of Arturo – a young man of Creole origins and limited experience.
But even those clumsy advances were ingenuous by comparison.
The Rev. Mr. James breathed faster with the coming attractions and, by the time the opening credits rolled over the fangs of a killer shrew, his mouth had muffled her first tentative protests. The tips of his fingers were insect feet, scrambling over her hips and breasts and belly.
She gagged on his thick tongue, worming its way around the inside of her mouth. It seemed to cut off her breath like living gristle -- an unswallowable chunk of slightly masticated mutton. She gasped for air. Her nostrils flared with the desperate hyperventilation of a drowning distance swimmer. The tongue probed deeper, a gopher snake forcing its way down her throat. Spittle from the beast overflowed her lips, running from the corners of her mouth into puddles in the natural indentation where her upturned throat connected to her collarbone.
At the same time, the Reverend's preying mantis fingertips crawled into the quick of her loins, probing and pushing against the hot, dry jelly of her untouched privates. She squirmed and twisted and broke away for a few panting moments, but his mouth was on hers before she had taken a half dozen breaths.
When he lapped deep beyond her molars again, she bit down hard and tasted blood.
There was a pitch and timber to the yowl that reassured Melba instantly that she had not actually bitten his tongue clean off. In the days to come, he would not speak to his congregation. He would send out the broken floozy he had passed off for so many weeks as his sister and she would deliver his sermons for him. It would turn out that she was his wife and helpmate. That was how she would introduce herself.
And it would turn out that she had a deep, snarling energy to her words that belied the authorship of the Rev. Mr. James's fiery sermons. Evidently the words had always been hers and his right to usurp them in the tent meetings was as much a part of their marriage contract as his right to philander and her right to condemn. By her venom alone it was clear she was the true source of the Rev. Mr. James' brimstone.
As her mute husband's surrogate, she cast the first and last stones at young harlots who sashay and flash a nipple or a thigh at otherwise untemptable menfolk.
The Reverend himself would sit in stony silence at the rear of the tent. At first Melba thought he might be sharing her shame, but a look or two across a field of folding chairs told her otherwise. There was deadness to his glare. Zombie-like. It didn't take a third glance to determine that nothing - neither shame nor passion nor fear of reprisal - was shared between them.
It was no use hiding the bloodstains on her collar or the jagged rents in her one good cotton dress. It was futile to explain in wide-eyed terror the rape that was barely prevented. She might as well have let him go ahead and have his way, just for the raw experience of finally feeling the gluttonous member of a man inside her.
If she preserved some bewildering bit of dignity by slamming the door of that magnificent red Chevrolet on the Rev. Mr. James' thrashing right arm, it mattered little when she showed up on her front porch in tatters and tears. She was scarlet and deserved the beating her father administered. She was fallen and earned the full measure of the Rev. Mr. James' long-suffering spouse at the next Saturday evening tent session. And the Saturday after that. And the next, until it deepened to a permanent horror that streaked through her life each week until the tent came down and the Rev. Mr. James moved on to the black outskirts of another west Kansas hamlet. His tongue healed and he resumed his calling, his wife returning to the proper and submissive role.
But Melba did not heal. She was a slut. It didn't matter that she was still a virgin. It didn't matter that she’d just turned 14.
Months later, on a muggy August morning, five young men high on good Kansas grits, farm fresh milk and Bible Belt honey felt the sap rising with the morning sun. They huddled behind a chicken coop and went calling on Miss Melba Mae in her father's cornfield. Four held her down while the fifth split her like a honeydew, robbing her of the prize she fought the Rev. Mr. James so hard to preserve.
Each took his turn with Miss Melba until he could laugh and strain and sigh no more. For her part, Miss Melba screamed only once, rolling her head back and forth in the dirt while the rest of her extremities remained pinned to the earth. But after the first shot of pain, she made no further sound.
She bit her own tongue until she tasted blood.
The teacup fell from her fingers and delicately snapped in two on the wooden floor. Melba sat up in the rocker, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Thirty years had passed since she first came to know who men were and what they wanted. But it never ceased to shock her to the pit of her senses at weak moments. In the early morning hours. When she was alone.
She bent to pick up the pieces, clucking her tongue at her misfortune.
Off to the north, she heard the muffled sound of the bells of St. Vibiana's. It would be 5 a.m.
Melba Mae struggled from her rocker and picked up the other cup of tea. It was still lukewarm. She toasted heaven and began sipping its contents as she entered the bathroom.
Standing back from the mirror, she studied her image. She could have been a high-yellow princess or an ebony Amazon, fierce and proud. But she was neither. She was worse than a hybrid. She was a mutant.
A big old ugly thing that had to hide behind caftans and muumuus. There was no fancy in it. She knew and accepted it. She was that way because the good Lord wanted her that way.
He wanted her shoulders hunched because she was too tall. He made her too tall for just such a purpose. He gave her the appetite that bloated her face and body so that her breasts resembled footballs. Her arms chafed against the thick rolls around her torso when she pumped them like pistons, walking down the avenue.
Her butt was too big. She turned and lifted her pea green floor-length nightshirt to the waist, looking over her shoulder at her naked bottom. It loomed in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door like a pair of giant chestnuts.
It wasn't even smooth and soft to the touch. The good Lord saw fit to make her skin riverbank brown. He mottled it with dried mud flakes around the extremities. Mocha erosion dappled her thick, cracked lips and flat, flared nose. He might have given her straight black hair that she could pull around her too-large ears or He might have blessed her with the defiant spring of a proud Ugandan Afro.
Her crown was something in between cornrows and thorns. Her hair grew in asymmetrical patches across the top of her skull so that it always looked unkempt, regardless of what she did.
Her high forehead might have been a false sign of grace or intelligence in another. Staring at her face in the bathroom mirror, Melba Mae decided the stretch of skin between her sparse horsehair eyebrows and her wilted steel wool hairline made her look like the fishy-faced creature from the Black Lagoon. She reached between her legs and plucked a couple of hairs, comparing them closely with the stuff sprouting from her scalp.
"How you get so ugly, girl?" she asked in genuine wonder.
The image in the mirror didn't answer. It just stared right back at her with big sheep eyes. She waited. When the broad, humorless mouth remained mute, Melba answered for it.
"Because the Lord, thy God, wants it that way," she said with a nod.
She backed away and went to the tub, pulling the shower curtains shut. She’d bathed only once during the first week of her arrival in L.A. It was so tight a fit she very nearly could not hoist herself out. Since then, she took showers. She didn't want to have to depend on anyone to help her out of her own tub.
Melba hated to depend on others. It was far better to cloak her misery in a roomy blouse and a few yards of denim jeans and go to the streets to pursue her ministry.
She put joy into her mission.
She turned on the water and stood back, listening to the pipes complain. Their creaking joined the spray in a pre-dawn duet. There was rhythm to it, if not much melody. She put her hands on her hips and hummed along with the shower symphony.
That was one thing she had all along: the music. It never deserted her, even during those early days knocking around south Chicago before she accepted her calling. There was a short-lived cabaret act in which she appeared with two other large ladies as the Three Tons of Jubilation. She was younger and not so large as she was today. The other two were nearer the tonnage mark. Lately, she could see that she had caught up, maybe even surpassed them.
They sang git-down gospel and jellyroll blues. There wasn't much money, but there was supper and the sweet salve of three-part harmony. They played clubs and street corners and bordellos.
Then, one night, a revival tent went up on a vacant lot across the street from the juke joint where the Three Tons were singing. She heard the calling. She felt the pull. By the time Jubilation was ready to jump up in rapture for the first show, Three Tons had been reduced to two.
Across the street, Melba was shouting out mighty praises to the woman Jesus met at the well. The woman who was sleeping around Galilee until the only good man left in the world scolded her and told her that spreading her thighs for every fancy Dan tool whipped out of a Roman tunic was a major mortal sin.
"Jesus, da dum, met the woman, da dum, at the way-ell, da dum," Melba sang to the sound of the shower and the rattling hot water pipes. She held her arms out straight and did a little shimmy in her nightshirt. She allowed herself a smile and pulled the garment up and over her head. She moved out into the combination bedroom/living room and sat buck-naked on the edge of the Hollywood bed.
There wasn't much in the apartment yet. That was how it always was when it was time to make a new start. She pulled up stakes, took what she had and moved on. That's how it had always been. A bed. A chair. A radio. A TV set. What else did you need?
The walls were no problem. At the beginning of the TV season, Melba spotted a full color poster of Dan Scratch, Private Eye on display in a Main Street trinket and transistor shop. It portrayed a life size rotogravure Dan, naked from his tight bun Levis to the glistening ebony perm that fluffed atop his handsome skull. A single understated gold chain glistened through the thick curlicues matting his chest.
Melba paid $1.79 for that poster. Since then, she found a half dozen other poses. At first she papered the walls around her television set with nothing but Dan Scratch. But such singular hero worship tugged at her conscience. In the rear of the same Main Street emporium where she first found Dan's portrait, she fished out two dusty framed profiles of a medieval Jesus. The pair cost less than a single Scratch poster and worked miracles in terms of temporary absolution.
She positioned one of them over the headboard of her bed, just beneath Dan in a powder blue Speedo. The other framed picture rested atop the TV set.
"Jesus, da dum, met the woman, da dum...," she sang quietly to her cats.
Melba felt like belting out the gospel, but she kept her voice down. The old walls of the Broadway Residential Hotel for Ladies were good and solid, but even they couldn't hold back the full breadth of Melba's booming contralto.
Three months back, shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles and before her preaching in Pershing Square became popular knowledge, she auditioned for the all-ladies choir at the Church of the Open Door. She left them speechless.
She could sing, sure enough. It had only been a few weeks before the choir director had her stepping out in front for a solo each Sunday morning.
But she couldn't preach, she was told. There was word in the community about her Bible banging. Complaints. Authorities speaking out. Earthy language. At the weekly meeting of the Downtown Non-Denominational Ecumenical Council, a nun from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral stood and made her regular speech against it.
Only charlatans and con artists preach in Pershing Square, the Nun said. She was a tight little bitch. Squinty eyes. Pursed lips. Thin, chicken beak of a nose. And one of those self-righteous just-so costumes, with a strip of sanctimonious white muslin at the hairline. Sister Mary in Maryknoll costume, all bloated up with her fine self. She even had her cross out of her blouse, banging up against her sorry flat bosom with each snotty critique she uttered about Melba Mae's ministry.
And Melba fought back. She was right to care about the scum who wanted no help, least of all from God. She was right to pull them up with the bootstrap of the Bible's own words. She was right to speak the good words for the angry and dying, the hurt and the addled, the rummies and Monicas who could not speak them for themselves.
That's what had brought on last night's showdown with the elders. That's what twisted up Melba's jack-o-lantern face in a ball of anger, staring back at her so ugly from the bathroom mirror. That's why she roamed aimlessly through the empty downtown streets until way after midnight, clutching her Good Book to her belly and waiting on tears that never came.
There were women being raped and strangled and tossed like half-eaten apple cores onto the green grass of Pershing Square, she argued. They wouldn't be there if the Lord had gotten to them first.
She scolded the blank faces of the congregation's leaders. The elders said nothing, but their faces told Melba Mae that the Night Hawk's victims were only prostitutes. They would not speak so boldly for the world to hear. That would be neither humane nor morally acceptable. That would be un-Christian. But Melba read their thoughts from the frowns in their faces: there are men and women lost and there are men and women who are still salvageable.
"Waste not thy precious days and hours on those who will not see nor hear," Melba remembered the Rev. Mr. James hissing to his tent parish so many years before.
The Downtown Council members were no better than the Rev. Mr. James. When she finally lost her patience and hollered at them, they voted Melba Mae's expulsion.
They took her choir robe and they closed the church door when she left. Her version of the gospel was confused, contradictory, consternating, they said. Her calling was a fraud, they said. There was no ministry in Pershing Square, they said.
"Souls worth saving come into God's house instead of lying around in the grass sucking on a short dog bottle of wine," sneered Sister Maryknoll.
And she won. She finally won. The elders pronounced sentence and Miss Melba Mae was out the door and on her own.
Melba snapped her fingers.
"Jus' like that!" she shouted. Her booming voice trembled a bit. The bed trembled too. A cold snap ran down her naked spine like a trickle of Novocain. She gave an involuntary shudder that shook her whole body.
She stood off the bed, determined to shake the memory, and lumbered across the tiny room to the bathroom. By now, the windows and mirror were steamed over and all images were opaque. Her bare feet splashed on the tile floor as she sang.
"He said, `Wo-man! Wo-man! Where is thy husband?' He said, `Wo-man! Wo-man! Where is thy husband?'," she sang in her full, deep contralto.
She shut her eyes and let the water baptize her great body, humming the joyful hymn the whole while.
She was still humming five minutes later when she toweled off and moved back to the bed. She fell down hard, determined to get a little sleep before sun up. Her head hit a lump and she reached back, plucking up a two-inch stack of $50 bills, bound together by a pair of rubber bands.
"Mebbe I jus' go back down there an' buy me that church o' the closed doors an' open it up," she said, smiling to herself.
She slipped the money beneath the mattress with the other bundles. Then she stared up at the ceiling, breathing slow. She reached down and stroked herself, imagining a man. She pinched the remarkably tiny clitoris between thumb and forefinger and massaged it oh so gently until she arched up to a teeth-grinding intensity. She felt herself go wet and warm and wondered in the back of her mind why she did this when all it did was make her feel more alone.
She shut her eyes tight and prayed for someone to hold her and rock her and stroke her ugly scalp.
Then she rose and went to the refrigerator. She ate half of a double Dutch chocolate cake in three gulps, plucking up the crumbs that fell to the floor with the same thumb and forefinger that brought her halfway to orgasm.
The auburn calico moseyed up and around her ankles, purring loud.
"Whatchew lookin' for, Beelzebub?" Melba purred back.
She bent down and scratched behind her ears.
"Lookin' for a man? Lookin' for a Tom, be my guess, hmmmm?"
She held out a crumb of cake, but the cat turned its nose up. She looked quizzically at Melba Mae before padding contemptuously off to the living room to join the gray cat.
Melba's bare nipples grew hard in the icy draft from the refrigerator. She shut it and walked back into the bathroom, picking up the green nightshirt where it still lay in a clump by the full-length mirror. It was still dark outside the steamed-over bathroom window, but the first glow of dawn seemed to brighten the east, above the city skyline.
She rubbed away the moisture and looked for Venus, but a cloud had drifted over the moon.
When she swung back to the mirror, a trickle of condensation rolled down the glass. In her reflection, it looked as though a tear rolled down her big brown cheek. A man. Wouldn't it be nice to have a man? Just for a little while, anyway.
"Wo-man. Wo-man. Where is your husband?" she whispered quietly.
Melba pulled the nightshirt over her tremendous bulk and, dry-eyed, she walked slowly back to bed.
She slept soundly until the alarm went off two hours later.
[CHAPTER 2 OF "PARADISE SQUARE" POSTS AUG. 26]
After a wave of killings of homeless men in the area, police said Wednesday that they are looking for a “serious, dangerous serial killer operating in Orange County.”
Thus read the lead of a story in the Los Angeles Times, but that very same opening sentence could have run 30 years ago in the same newspaper, been just as accurate, and might have saved half a dozen lives or more in the bargain.
But that story of the search for Randy Steven Kraft did not run in the Times or any other paper, and as a result, the classic mild-mannered computer programmer with a side career of serial murder went undetected for another year. Kraft continued drugging, raping, murdering and dumping corpses of young men alongSouthern California’s vast freeway system for 17 more months, until he was arrested in the spring of 1983.
Sometime after midnight on May 14, 1983, two CHP officers pulled a late model Toyota over on the San Diego Freeway. The driver had been weaving a bit and they ordered him out of the car for a field sobriety test which he failed. When one of the officers went around to the passenger side to ask the guy sitting there if he wanted to drive his buddy’s car home, he found Terry Gambrel, a dying Marine who expired within the hour despite the best efforts of EMTs and the emergency room staff at a nearby hospital. Besides ingesting lethal doses of prescription drugs laced in a bottle of Moosehead Lager, Gambrel had also been strangled with his own belt and laces from his shoes. When the CHP officers opened the passenger door, they found his pants down around his ankles and his tortured genitals exposed. A Camp Pendleton boot who left a grieving family back in theMidwest, Gambrel would be the last of Randy’s dozens upon dozens of victims.
“A lot of people in law enforcement believe he’s the worst serial killer in U.S. history,” said Julie Haney, a career investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “There’s the Green River Killer, then Randy, and nobody else – not Ted Bundy, not Jeffrey Dahmer — nobody even comes anywhere near their numbers.”
Officially, theGreen River’s Gary Ridgeway confessed to killing 71 young women over a 16 year period after his arrest in 1998. Randy is believed to have done in at least 67 over 13 years, but he has never confessed to any of them.
Special Agent Haney maintains that Kraft’s real number is probably closer to 100. Though he has been sitting in a cell on San Quentin’s Death Row for more than two decades now, Kraft maintains that he is an innocent man railroaded by a legal system that has outrageously blamed him for the savage, sadistic thrill killings of unsuspecting young males in at least three states. The facts, a judge and jury begged to differ. Physical evidence by the boxful, including a so-called “scorecard” encrypted with 62 entries commemorating his most satisfying murders, was found in his car, his home and his office. The only baffling piece of the Randy puzzle that remains is why he is coming up on his 67th birthday this March while the family and friends of his many victims continue to grieve. In the 28 years Kraft has spent behind bars, he has atoned for nothing and seems destined to die peacefully in his sleep.
Because the story of Kraft’s killing spree became my first book (Angel of Darkness, Warner Books, 1991), I hear postscripts pretty frequently. I get from relatives of victims, friends, law enforcement emails on average around once or twice a month, all looking for answers: Why did Kraft do it? Why does he continue to deny his crimes? And, most important of all, why does he continue to live in isolated but comparative comfort at state expense despite his conviction of 16 of the many, many monstrous murders that he committed?
I try to answer as best I can, but I’m no oracle, no sage. I’m an armchair psychologist at best who undertook Angel of Darkness to try to better understand how a demon like Randy happens in the first place. And yet here I am a quarter century later with no better answer than the one I came up with then, and which Special Agent Haney repeated to me over lunch last month at a restaurant where we met in Long Beach, not far from Kraft’s old killing grounds.
“He did it because he likes it!” said Haney.
When Haney first called me the previous month, I thought it was a prank call. She identified herself as a cold case specialist for NCIS and I had always half believed that NCIS was an invention of Mark Harmon and CBS. Turns out that NCIS is real enough and Special Agent Haney has been working for them out of Camp Pendleton, El Toro and the USN bases in and around San Diego for the past 15 years. One of her duties is to find out what becomes of Marine deserters who go AWOL and are never heard from again. It was just such a case that brought her to my doorstep – one Oral Alfred Stuart, a Marine PFC who set out on a four-day liberty pass during Veteran’s Day in 1974 and was never seen again.
Never seen alive, that is….
(To be continued)
Randy Kraft at 1989 trial
A lingering Randy Kraft fallacy is that he preyed only on gays; that he killed with impunity at a time when most homosexuals remained closeted and cops didn’t care whether they lived or died.IOWA
While the second half of the premise may be accurate, the first isn’t. Randy Kraft was an equal opportunity sadist. Twelve of his known victims were as straight as the United States Marines or, as Eleanor Roosevelt once famously described them, “underpaid, oversexed teenage killers.” Oral Alfred Stuart met those qualifications when he disappeared. The blonde six-foot-one 180 pound PFC from Des Moines would have been Randy’s unlucky 13th Marine and living proof that Kraft didn’t just favor gays … living proof, that is, until the weekend of Nov. 9, 1974, when the one-time Iowa farm boy went AWOL, never to be seen alive again.
Oral Stuart wouldn’t have been the first serviceman to turn a weekend pass into a run for his life. During the Vietnam era, America’s least popular war created over 50,000 deserters –nearly as high a number as those who died in combat overseas. Stuart was deemed to be just the latest Marine to light out for parts unknown, until his body showed up some time later on a deserted highway a long way from Camp Pendleton. The local medical examiner ruled out foul play.
“How could he do that?” asked Julie Haney, the NCIS cold case investigator who has taken up Stuart’s cause more than a generation later. “He had bite marks on his neck! And ligature marks! How’d they get there?”
It was a plea from Stuart’s mother who is now in her 80s, that sent Haney to San Quentin to question Kraft. Many of his victims were military and even though Stuart was not on the original list of almost 50 kills attributed to Kraft, there was one other clue. As one of the most prolific serial murderers – if not the most prolific – in American history, Kraft kept a handwritten list in the trunk of hisToyota with 62 coded entries. Law enforcement called it his “scorecard” and matched most of the one or two-word names to tortured and maimed bodies left on display at the side of roads inCalifornia andOregon over a 13-year period.
But some entries never did find their matching corpse. One in particular stood out to Haney:
Haney became convinced that the 19-year-old kid fromDes Moines who’d been condemned as a deserter for decades was, in fact, one more entry on Randy’s tally sheet. She decided to pay Kraft a visit. What was more, it got her to thinking about the dozens of other deserters that she and her colleagues had tried tracking down over the years. Most turned up, either living or dead, but there were always a few who never did. How many hitched a ride to eternity with Kraft? How many lonely, loaded enlisted men looking for a little weekend sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll never made it back to the base courtesy of the so-called Scorecard Killer?
During the last week of November, Haney made the trip from San Diego to the moldering medieval prison at the north end of San Francisco Bay. As a visiting investigator, she was accorded some courtesies, but a maximum security fortress like San Quentin is often harder to break into in its own way than it is to break out. Death Row is even worse.
By the time Randy’s counselor guided her into a tiny, windowless conference room, she’d been waiting for awhile. Kraft was none too keen on speaking with her. He was none too keen on any official visitor.
Randy, you see, is an innocent man. Julie Haney knew what she was up against when the door finally swung open and a fit but frowning 67-year-old prisoner was escorted inside. The first thing she noticed was his eyes. There once may have been someone there behind them, but the dark shining pupils that stared straight at her were as blank as a shark’s.
“Where are you from” he demanded.
And things went downhill from there.
(To be continued)
Kraft on death row
Surviving a Serial Killer
When he was 13, Dietrich Carpio-Timmerman went to a matinee near his mother’s apartment in the L.A.suburb of Cudahy. It was February, 1980, and Disney’s Return to Witch Mountain was showing – a kid flick he wanted to see badly enough that he didn’t mind going by himself. What followed was cautionary at best, nightmarish at worst.
After Carpio-Timmerman bought his popcorn and settled in, an older guy – mustached, paunchy, shaggy – began circling, getting up, moving to another seat again and again until he was right next to Dietrich.
“There were dark circles all around his eyes, like he hadn’t slept for days,” Carpio-Timmerman recalled a quarter century later. “He looked like a sinister version of a stuffed toy raccoon I had as a child.”
The man’s whispered dialogue was classic predator. Did Dietrich have a girlfriend? Why wasn’t he at the movies with her? Why was he alone? Did he like boys instead of girls?
Carpio-Timmerman was polite, deferential and naïve with the persistent stranger. When the questions grew more insistent, more suggestive and finally, flat out lewd, Dietrich excused himself and said he had to use the restroom. He fairly ran to the lobby where he searched out the manager and told him what had happened. Shaken to the point of tears, Dietrich waited with a concession clerk while the manager did a short reconnaissance. He returned to announce that no one matching the stranger’s description was among the largely kid-only audience, but that a side exit down near the screen was wide open, and hadn’t been shortly before the film began.
After his mother picked him up outside the theater, she half-listened to her son while she hummed along to Crystal Gayle on the radio. Forget about it, she counseled. A harrowing experience perhaps, but no harm, no foul.
Flash forward to June. Dietrich and his mother are watching the nightly news when the face of a newly-arrested suspect in a string of ghastly thrill murders flashes on the TV screen. “William George Bonin” read the name beneath the mug shot. Dietrich gasped. That was the man who had tried to seduce him, he told his mother. But if he was looking for sympathy, he’d come to the wrong place. His mother lectured him on the difference between boys and girls. If it had been a bobbysoxer who’d barely escaped molesting, there might have been cause to go to the police. But Dietrich was a strapping young man who could have and should have protected himself. Besides, the last thing she needed as a single mother was to get involved in a homicide investigation.
“I cried for days when I found out more and more details of Bonin’s crimes, but in my family that was it,” recalled Carpio-Timmerman. “My mother would never speak another word about it, not that she ever really did. She even tried to make it seem like it never happened. However the fear was always there and many times I’d go into the bushes at the back of our apartment building were I had built a fort, and just cry alone so no one would know. I had two sisters, but only my older one lived inLos Angeleswith my mom and me. Neither of my sisters ever knew what had happened until I was 34 years old. Silence and deception were the keys to our family’s very foundation.”
William George Bonin would go down in L.A.infamy as The Freeway Killer
, though that turned out to be something of a misnomer. He was the chieftain of a tribe of freeway killers as it turned out. Carpio-Timmerman followed every sordid detail of the case clear to its end, though he knew better than to share his horror and fascination with his family. A few months after Bonin’s arrest, his interest ratcheted up again when it turned out that one of Bonin’s victims was a kid just slightly older than Dietrich who also happened to be the younger brother of one of Carpio-Timmerman’s teachers.
As prosecution got underway, Carpio-Timmerman took steps to face down his own demons himself. Without tipping off his mother, he climbed aboard a city bus armed with a newspaper story that identified where Bonin lived in the nearby city of Downey. He got off near Bonin’s house, appropriately located on Angell Street.
“I don’t know what I thought I would accomplish by doing this,” he recalled. “As I stared at it I began to well-up. The front door opened. I quickly began walking down the street as I saw a man emerge and get into his car. I headed back to the bus stop with my heart in my throat. The car passed me and turned down a street in the opposite direction. I cried all the way back home.”
Three more years would pass before Carpio-Timmerman and the rest of L.A. came to understand that Bonin and his deranged disciples were not the only Freeway Killers. In fact, Bonin was a distant second to the biggest predator of all. Carpio-Timmerman never went to the movies with Randy Steven Kraft, but when he met him face to face, he felt the same chill that William George Bonin gave him on that long-ago afternoon when he went to see Return to Witch Mountain.
With sinister irony, Bonin and Kraft not only came to know each other; they would eventually become Death Row bridge partners inside the walls of San Quentin with two other serial killers completing the foursome. It was in pursuit of answers that Carpio-Timmerman began writing letters to all of the bridge players. By the time he mustered the nerve to request visitation, it was too late to confront Bonin. He was executed in the gas chamber in 1996. Asked in a radio interview days before his death if he had any regrets, Bonin said without a hint of irony that he had always been a pretty good bowler in his teens and did feel some remorse that he hadn’t gone on to be a professional.
Bonin was long gone, but Carpio-Timmerman was still able to ask Kraft the same question he’d wanted to put to Bonin – the question that had haunted him for nearly 25 years. Why?
The answer he got from Kraft was no better than a bowling trophy.
“Randy was one truly deranged man,” Carpio-Timmerman recalled. “He is not only the ultimate sociopath and most psychotic human being I’ve ever had the displeasure of getting to know, but for all his sweetness, he is the scariest man I have ever met. All of this I learned quite by accident because, initially, I was only interested in what he could tell me about Bonin.”
(To be continued)
Randy Kraft on death row today
“I’m from the Navy,” began NCIS investigator Julie Haney. “I’ve just got some Navy business to talk with you about. It will only take a few minutes.”
“Can I have my attorney present please?” asked Randy Kraft.
He kibitzed a bit with his Death Row counselor while Haney fidgeted nervously, regarding the clipped but articulate words that spilled from his mouth. He looked more like the aging computer analyst that he once had been that the man regarded by many in law enforcement as the nation’s most prolific serial killer. Judging by a self-portrait he’d sketched in jail decades earlier, when he was still awaiting trial, he thought of himself as quite handsome, though his eyes then, as now, were fathomless. Following his powwow with the counselor, he remained adamant about what he would and would not say to the visitor.
“Please contact my attorney,” he said.
“You won’t give me five minutes, Randy?” asked Haney.
“No, I won’t give you any time,” he answered. “Contact my attorneys please.”
He shook his closely-cropped, balding noggin. “That’s it. That’s my answer.”
“You don’t want to help?”
“You don’t wanna help me,” he fired back. “Contact my attorneys and help them.”
“I would like to help you,” Haney pleaded.
“No you wouldn’t.”
Not true, Haney told me a few weeks later. If there were some way to help Randy Kraft step back from the abyss he’d created for himself nearly half a century ago, she would be among the first to volunteer. Atoning for multiple recreational homicides committed over a dozen years or more is not likely. But as long as a human being is still walking and talking on this side of the deathly hallows, there’s always a chance. Apparently not with Randy though.
Haney had brought a letter with her guaranteeing Randy immunity from prosecution if he would only speak with her. All she wanted was confirmation that Kraft had done in a 19-year-old Marine fromDes Moinesnamed Oral Stuart back in 1974, but she was never able to even get that far in their conversation. She wasn’t looking to add another felony to the 18 upon which he had already been convicted. In fact, she told him, he didn’t even have to talk. All he had to do was listen.
“Randy, this is about someone who we are just trying to close the file on for this 80-year-old woman, for her son,” said Haney. “There is zero criminal liability for you. I promise. I have the documentation. We’re just trying to close the Navy file. That’s all.”
“We’re just trying to close the deserter file.”
“It’s a chance for you to do something good.”
“You can do something good and call my attorneys…”
His voice rose from irritated to angry. The room was close, Spartan and painted an institutional urine yellow. While Haney and Kraft’s counselor were separated from the agitated convict by a small rectangular table, the NCIS agent still felt threatened. She wondered briefly if it might not have been a better idea to have asked the guards to cage him in the black mesh restraining apparatus at one side of the room rather than sit facing him separated only by air. His eyes, thought Haney. His eyes were dead eyes that quickened only when he snarled.
“I’d like to be nice to you,” she persisted.
“You’re the people who put me here,” said Randy in his escalating voice.
“I’m not the people who put you here,” said Haney. “I’m an American citizen, if that’s what put you here, then that’s it. The Navy had nothing to do with putting you here.”
“That’s not true.”
“I’m surprised you won’t just sit there and listen and not say anything,” said Haney.
But Haney was new to his world. All she knew was what she’d read about his years of secret sadism and the various psychological theories as to how he’d evolved from a freckle-faced kid growing up in the Orange County suburb of Westminster into an unspeakable monster.
She didn’t know Randy himself because he would never allow that to happen. The slight 66-year-old male who sat opposite her in crisp, tidy prison denim and starched chambray shirt had once sanctioned a website managed by his older sister, but beyond bucolic blogs about his youth, there was nothing to reveal how and why he became the most notorious thrill killer in the annals of California crime. Despite overwhelming evidence, he still maintains to the present day that he was framed. He keeps his waning appeals alive through the federal public defender’s office inLos Angeles and trusts no one, least of all a government agent like Julie Haney. Everyone was out to get him and he would not risk even sitting silent to listen to her plead Oral Stuart’s case.
“It’s the same as being on the stand at trial,” he snarled at her. “You can draw your own conclusions from reactions and stuff. I don’t wanna be, ‘He’s making reactions and stuff,’ you know. Then you can say, ‘Well, he did it because the eyebrows went up.’ You know, ‘He breathed heavy.’”
Less than 10 minutes after her interview began, Kraft was on his feet demanding to be escorted back to Death Row.
Had Haney been male, meek and gay, like Dietrech Timmerman-Carpio, things might have turned out differently.
Randy Kraft self portrait
Star quality can come crawling at you from out of nowhere....
Been waxing nostalgic lately, watching Casey Abrams last week expertly spew “Smells Like Teen Spirit” all over American Idol. It was like watching Patti Smith do Nirvana while wearing a beard. The animated lad who learned to crawl on our kitchen floor damn near 20 years ago really does have star quality and will be one, if he chooses, whether the creaky celebrity machinery of Idol anoints him or not. As a lifelong student of Hollywood, I guess what astonishes me the most about talent like Casey’s is that it can evolve right in front of your nose and you don’t even pay it much heed until it explodes all over the TV set. As an ambivalent “Uncle Dennis,” I’ve literally watched Casey grow up and actually been complicit in nurturing his perverse sense of humor, never once foreseeing stardom in his future.
I remember taking him and my grandkid Austin fishing for the first time when they were 12, beaming like a proud father figure as the two youngsters beat a half dozen trout to death, only to refuse to eat them once we got them cleaned, baked and backed with a nice Chardonnay. Ira and I ate while Casey and Austin played video games and discussed soft core porn up in Casey’s room.
And then there was the time I drove up Mt. San Jacinto to visit Pam and Ira
, the boy’s oddball parents and my lifelong buds, while playing a new release by the Fountains of Wayne on my CD player. It was long, long ago, perhaps even before the discovery of the iPod, and the hit single off the album was “Stacey’s Mom.” When I got to Idyllwild, Casey latched on to the CD and closeted himself in his room, playing it over and over. Because “Stacey’s Mom” is about a youngster who lusts after his girlfriend’s mother, Pam accused me of warping the boy’s morals while Ira just beamed the way I once had done when Casey and Austin pounded the crap out of the fish they’d caught.
Pam and Casey came through Memphis a couple years ago on the obligatory cross-country odyssey to determine which college to pick for her high school graduate. It warmed my heart to see how Casey had grown. His apple cheeks were whiskered and there was a fine fur beneath his nostrils, but the Seth Rogan bush was still a year or so away. He left his beloved bass fiddle back in Idyllwild, but made frequent use of my Gibson, fingering “Stacey’s Mom” (no pun intended, Pam) as well as grunge, jazz, classic rock and punk tunes I’d never heard of in addition to loads of folksongs I had. The Casey I had remembered -- trading slobber with his galumphing long-haired oaf of a dog, whining about having to shovel snow out of the driveway or weaseling permission for a sleepover at some pal’s house on a school night – was long gone. In his place was a prodigy who out-chorded Uncle Dennis the way Slash might have out-chorded Tennessee Ernie Ford. We drove by Graceland on that visit (like a Muslim to Mecca, I’ve always held that you can’t call yourself an American unless you’ve been to Graceland at least once) and spent an afternoon on Beale Street, lusting through the showroom of the Gibson Guitar Factory. We cruised through the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the following day, Pam and Casey hit the road.
It took a week to clean up the mess Casey left behind in the guest room, which means to me that he felt right at home. He should. He was. And if the next eclectic number he chooses to belt out for the Idol judges turns out to be “Stacey’s Mom,” I won’t feel the slightest bit pissy that he never gave me the CD back.
Go, Casey. Now’s your time. Don’t let it pass.
Crossroads for Lynwood High's Class of '65
The first couple I met (re-met?) during last month’s 45 year reunion of Lynwood High School
was the beauty queen and the football hero. Tim Hackworth’s varsity gridiron days as a Lynwood High Knight in the early 1960s gave way to a career in pavement engineering and municipal government while his bride, the former homecoming princess Karen Engel, traded in her tiara for a nursing degree. Still, some things remain forever the same. Karen was as effusive and Tim as taciturn as they were a generation ago. They were both affable but eager to move quickly through the crowd at the Newport Beach American Legion Hall, shaking as many hands and assessing as many lives as the evening would allow. In this hurry-up era of linking in, speed dating, and nano-networking, their haste had a certain kind of logic. The once-a-decade event may have been as broad as a ballroom and as deep as a puddle, but so what?
Getting to know anyone well is hard enough and, more often than not, simply downright impossible. We shield our deepest secrets after all, dodging the difficult questions. Make small talk. Change the subject. Freshen that drink. Excuse ourselves for a urinary pit stop. It’s God’s great practical joke that we can often spot shortcomings and über mistakes in others, but have no clue about our own. T’were some gift, a gift he gie us, to see ourselves as others see us. Maybe Robert Burns was attending his high school reunion when he wrote that.
It got me to thinking: I’ve been to most of my reunions and wonder at my peers who never show. “Who wants to waste an evening on a bunch of old geezers?” one of them emailed me last week. Others have told me that they simply see no percentage in dredging up memories of four uncomfortable years when their most awkward, humiliating, painful and occasionally tragic moments glared like supernovae. Never mind that most of their classmates instantly forgot or were so self-involved they never even noticed. For many, those moments continued to haunt, often for years afterward.
The Best Place to Live Best
I happen to think that reunions are important. I believe that old geezer Socrates who advised that unexamined lives are not worth living. And while retiring to a golf course, bridge club or monastery to fester in extended contemplation may be some folks’ idea of self-examination, I prefer the give-and-take of conversation, even if it’s just garden variety cocktail chatter. It doesn’t have to be laden with existential angst or pretentious self-loathing. A glass of pinot and a few honest recollections can produce worlds of subtext. Much can be learned about who we are based upon who we were, as seen through the eyes of those we knew then, and come to know again, even if for just an evening. Like Robert Burns, I wish I could see myself as others see me. At this late date, I’m satisfied getting a glimpse here, a snapshot there, as reflected through friends and family, because whenever I look in a mirror, all I see is a balding, porky doofus who learns a little more but knows a little less with each passing day.
The Class of ’65 can be proud of itself. It’s a mitzvah to have come this far, relatively intact; to still be able to rock out on the dance floor one more time to “Satisfaction” even if the knees are too sore to go another round. Schmoozing the night away with old acquaintances is both a comfort and a revelation. Most came of age in lily white Lynwood, a blue collar postwar housing development where alcoholism, homosexuality, Negroes, chauvinism, child molesting and spousal abuse didn’t exist. I became an Eagle Scout there and rose to the rank of Master Councilor in the Order of DeMolay. I did everything right and was on the honor roll semester after semester. Lynwood was “the best place to live best” according to the Chamber of Commerce and I was among its anointed.
Except I wasn’t. The part of me that stood on stage during the annual Lynwood High talent assembly, strumming “The Times They Are A’Changin’” knew that I wasn’t. I wrote an editorial for the Castle Courier questioning why the barbed wire atop the chain link fence that surrounded the high school seemed designed to keep students in as much as to keep malefactors out. I wasn’t sure what I was driving at, but the principal’s office sure did and I had the first of several run-ins with the administration. The day following graduation I led a half-assed sit-in at Senior Square, leading a drunken chorus of “We Shall Overcome” until some faculty member told us to vacate or else. We grumbled and burped and farted as we left, never all that certain what it was that we wanted to overcome. So much for non-violent protest.
Bye bye Miss American Pie....
Still, I knew something was happening, but until the summer following graduation, I didn’t know exactly what it was. In August of that year, Watts erupted in the worse race riot since World War II and the ‘60s were suddenly upon us. It took conscription into a felonious foreign war and the chilly reception I got upon my return from Vietnam before I fully understood that JFK had uncannily predicted my future as well as that of the so-called Greatest Generation who preceded us. All of us, parents and children, were “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace...”
The torch may have been passed to a new generation, but few of us knew what that really meant until we put on a uniform. The first casualties of the Class of ’65 came out of that stupid, useless war. I never much cared for his preening swagger during Mr. Dequine’s sixth period P.E. class, but Ron England didn’t deserve to die at 19, and neither did the 55,000 other kids that assholes like LBJ, Nixon and Henry Kissinger sent to perdition for the sake of … what? To save the world from Godless Communism or to secure Indochinese rubber plantations for Goodyear and Firestone and preserve Indonesian oil fields for Exxon and Shell Oil? If the price had not been so high, the cost-benefit analysis would be a cosmic joke. Ron England died so draft dodgers like Dick Cheney and George Bush could run the country into the ground.
After Vietnam I bought a “Question Authority” bumper sticker for my VW bug. If I knew where I could get one today, I’d buy another and put it on the back of my Lexus. Less than 5,000 returned from Iraq in body bags – a fraction of the kids who were murdered in Vietnam. I suppose some might see that as progress, but I see it the same way I saw that first colonial war 35 years ago, during my first Lynwood High reunion. Life is meant to be lived, not sacrificed to the state, and patriotism is, indeed, the last refuge of scoundrels – apparatchiks who don’t think twice about cutting short the lives of children. You didn’t see Bush on the front lines of Iraq and you won’t see Obama on the front lines of Afghanistan. My contempt for the masters of war is bipartisan and unforgiving. I trust that karma will treat them all accordingly. Hell is too good for them.
...and may we stay ....
As for all those other members of the Class of ‘65 who did not survive, they too continue to live on through those of us who did, influencing us by the way they lived and died. Bill McDowell was blasted into eternity by an angry wife. Tim Lampley didn’t make that last turn at Lion’s Drag Strip. Dennis Sheets wasted away, an early victim of the carcinogens dumped into the Willco Landfill which was then owned and operated by the president of the Lynwood Chamber of Commerce. Gary Rochholz was among the first to die of the AIDS plague that Ronald Reagan refused to recognize. Richard Bailey drank himself to death.
I was shocked and saddened to see Karen Koch listed among those who’ve left us. A statuesque beauty, Karen was nonetheless as big a misfit in high school as I was. She was too tall a girl just as I was too short a boy. Perhaps that’s why we got along. Everything eventually evened out after graduation, but in some ways it was too late. The wounds we suffer in adolescence scar over, but they never disappear.
I straddled the fence during high school, hanging out with jocks and delinquents, eggheads and wastrels. I fancied myself a rebel without a cause and counted both dropouts and honor students among my closest amigos. Some are gone now. Russell Cline simply stopped breathing one afternoon in front of his TV set. I still remember fondly the time we were busted for underage drinking and his mother refused to leave our confiscated six-pack behind with the cops when she came to bail us out. Russell quit the planet over 20 years ago and now makes his home at Rose Hills Memorial Park, but I remember him. I remember them all, and reunions bring them back to life, if only for a song or two.
That’s why reunions are important.
William Faulkner, another geezer of note, once said that the past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past. Tim Hackworth’s Letterman’s jacket may be in mothballs and Karen Engel’s tiara buried at the rear of a closet, but they survive…and I know that they remember too. So do Jaynese Scott, Tom Bachman, Pam Merwin, Judy Haarsager and all the others I had the pleasure of meeting once again at the reunion.
My favorite geezer of the moment is Bob Dylan who will turn 70 next year. When I first made his acquaintance, he was as full of strum and drang and protest as me. I was a misfit high school freshman and I followed his career for all the decades that followed. It wasn’t until ten years after the Class of ’65 crossed the threshold into the wider world that Dylan wrote what I’ve always thought of as the perfect reunion song. He supposedly penned it for his wife on the occasion of their long, painful and hugely expensive divorce, but when I played it loud on the CD player of my rented car driving home from the most recent convocation of Lynwood High’s aging Knights & Ladies, it sounded just about right.
All these people I used to know
They’re an illusion to me now,
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started.
I don’t know what they do with their lives.
But me I am still on the road
Heading for another joint.
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view.
Tangled up in blue.
So here's the first page of the first chapter of the first draft of "Things Have Changed"
"I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly."
Frank Hibbing, January, 1893
Teetering at the brink of the deepest iron ore pit mine on earth , the North Country hamlet where Robert Zimmerman evolved into Bob Dylan remains nearly as remote an American outpost today as it was when he left half a century ago. Some 250 miles north of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Hibbing was small town America writ large and in primary colors: the summer sun cut flat like a bloody red disc against a vast azure horizon, and emerald forests rising from rusting hillocks of crimson slag that still stretch for miles, decades after being exhumed -- a vibrant visual reminder of Hibbing’s past. During the long, deep winters, street lights and smoking chimneys stand vigil against five-foot high snow drifts that blow off of Lake Superior, out of the Canadian arctic. Wind howls over the immigrant population of northern Minnesota thrashing them incessantly until the suffocating winter skies finally give way to a colossal spring, completing the cycle of seasons that transform Bob Dylan’s hometown once more into as vivid and improbable a setting as any ever imagined by Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincade.
It's been awhile since I've been here...
I will try to be a little more diligent in my blogging. Waiting two years or more before returning to Mac's Journal was inexcusable and I'd horse whip myself if I had a horse or a whip or knew what to do with either of them. Seeing as how I come up short on all three counts, just let me say that a.) I'm deep into researching and writing my Dylan biography, b.) I'm still at work on "The Acid Chronicles", c.) my Vietnam novel "The Candlestickmaker" is finished and d.)I now have (gulp) THIRTEEN grandchildren! And through all of this, I continue to chase the zeitgeist, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted as much as I am able. I pledge not to wait another two years before my next post....
A little homage to one of my early influences, the journalist, raconteur, man of appetites to beat the band, Stanley Leppard...
The late, great Stan Leppard swearing off tobacco for the 43rd time. (Curt Johnson photo)
As life runs out, it's often sad
Men cling to memories
Of fame achieved, of laurels won
Of foes brought to their knees
Some may relive one childhood hour
As the petal fades and curls
But in my final ticks of time
I'll think about the girls.
The bad girls, the good girls
The really-I-doubt-that-we-should girls
The dark girls, the fair girls
The any-old-thing-for-a-dare girls
The tall girls, the short girls
The what-makes-you-think-I'm-that-sort girls
The dull girls, the bright girls
The I'll-keep-you-guessing-all-night girls
The take girls, the give girls
The hell-with-convention-let's-live girls
They're all I will want to remember then
I'll cherish the thought that I knew them when
And I'll wish I could live just to love them again --
Some will call back fleeting days
When masses hailed their name
And some may think one business coup
Worth all the ruddy game,
A few men even can recall
They once trod distant worlds
And kings may yearn for one more crown
I'll think about the girls.
The cool girls,the warm girls
The bold girls, the quiet girls
The you'll-never-know-'til-you-try girls
The sober girls, the lushy girls
The two-drinks-and-I-get-all-mushy girls
The subtle girls, the direct girls
The mink-is-the-least-I-expect girls
The racy girls, the nice girls
The not-'til-the-old-shoes-and-rice girls
They were the name of the game, my friend,
They made it worth it, right to the end
And I wish I could live just to love them again
Visiting a South Carolina plantation.
I’ve been absent for a spell and I heartily apologize. Mostly I’ve spent the past five months traveling (L.A. twice, Savannah, Paducah, Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina), working on The Acid Chronicles (new DVD trailer finished along with a narrative script), scoping out my next book project (maybe another biography, maybe a chronicle of the troubles at the Getty Museum), and rewriting my Vietnam novel (The Candlestickmaker) and screenplay (Harbor Lights). The Last Mogul has been optioned for a proposed TV series, loosely patterned after The Sopranos and Peter Jones Productions is in the final stages of readying Inventing L.A., a documentary adaptation of Privileged Son, for broadcast next year over PBS.
So, I’ve been busy. No excuse, but I have NOT been idle.
Next week I head back to California to appear on a panel during a two-day symposium at the Huntington Library on L.A. moguls of the 1920s and 30s. From there, Sharon and I stop over briefly in Sacramento to visit five grandkids then we jet on to Toronto to see Leonard Cohen in concert for the first time in 15 years. Back to Memphis mid-June, hanging with Megan and Alex who will spend a couple weeks with us, then back to California July 1 to continue work on The Acid Chronicles.
Next entry won’t be such a resume/travelogue, I promise. By then, I may have a new website: www.rosebudpublishing.com. But more on that later.
Author McDougal in ponderous mood
Two good men left the planet last week.
One was a lifelong truck driver and the other, a newspaper editor. They were also fathers and grandfathers, and while their passing was not unexpected, the news hit hard. If a single grain of sand washes away, the beach does indeed get a little more crappy. That death comes to visit during the holidays -- when ebullient 21st Century grandkids track Santa’s progress on the Internet but still rip through wads of gift wrapping on Christmas morning -- only ups the crappy quotient.
My bride and I were on the road in San Francisco when word came that her brother Michael Randolph had finally succumbed to the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease that had plagued him for several years. A lifelong smoker, Michael knew he was dying a long time back, but didn’t let it keep him from the hard but rewarding work of reconnecting with his children, his friends and his family, cutting through the pettiness that keeps us all from forgiving trespasses while we still can. I only got to know him in the last couple of years of his life, but it was pretty clear that he was a rounder in his time – a long-distance trucker of the lock-and-load variety who spent most of his productive life crisscrossing the country with a load of this or a load of that. It seemed pretty clear that there’d been alcohol-fueled trouble in his time, amped up by a short fuse and a tendency to bluster, but the COPD had tempered that and the Michael I came to know was thoughtful, warm and whimsical. Perhaps it was the disease or simply the slap in the face that was -- and is -- Time, but Michael had mellowed and lived life these last few years the way we all should: one special and delicious day at a time. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that he taught me a lot about living and dying.
Two days after Sharon and I sustained the news about Michael, I got another unwelcome phone call. My former editor at the Los Angeles Times and easily the most influential boss I’ve ever had, passed away from liver cancer. I’ve waxed on elsewhere about Irv Letofsky
who I’ve gratefully cited in every book I’ve ever written as the best editor I ever had. But Irv was also a friend and teacher – one of those few, rare folk with whom you connect at a gut level. We shared an approach/avoidance conflict toward Hollywood, spoke truth to power, followed the money, exposed greed and punctured bloated star egos at every opportunity. I owe him nothing less than my career. Whatever I have achieved or will achieve is directly attributable to his faith and forbearance in me and dozens of other angry young men and women like me. We are no longer so young, but as near as I can tell, most of us are still annoyed, if not so angry, and it is the continual lack of justice and equity in the world at large and Hollywood in particular that pisses us off – and Irv Letofsky deserves much of the blame (or credit) for keeping us from lapsing into complacency.
Both Michael and Irv deserve much longer eulogies, but what struck me as most profound in the last days of each of these very different men is how alike they were in keeping one foot in this world while quietly, and with great dignity, preparing for the next. One was a Republican Roman Catholic from Mississippi and the other a Jewish Democrat from Minneapolis, but they reveled in living while resigning slowly to the inevitable. The day before he died, Michael called me from the hospital and asked me who Al Roker’s predecessor was on “Today”. He said of all the people he knew, he was sure I’d have the answer because I’m such a fount of trivia. Willard Scott, I told him, and the satisfaction of having the answer literally seemed to help him breath easier. “Thank you, brother,” he told me, and rang off with a chuckle. Similarly, four days before Irv’s passing, I stopped by to visit him at home and he was propped up in a hospital bed, watching a Lakers game. I spoke more with his wife Brian Ann than with him, breathe not coming all that easy to him. But when I did lean in and ask him during a commercial what book project he thought I ought to try tackling next, he gave me the old sly Irv smirk and said: “Try something serious this time.”
While they would have been diametrically opposed to one another on most subjects during their lifetimes, Michael and Irv will forever be linked in my own memory because of who they'd become by the time they died. They didn't rage so much against the dying of the light as delight in a Kobe field goal or the recaptured memory of Willard Scott. They were of this world and left us with an unspoken mandate to sustain what we've got while trying hard to make it a little better. These were the kind of guys that Rudyard Kipling would have called men, and the Earth and everything that’s in it was theirs as a direct result .... all the way to the finish line.
Those who still doubt the truth of global warming need only pay a visit to the home of the Delta blues this day before Thanksgiving. Temperatures were still in the 70s, and though a cold front was promised to drop the mercury 20 degrees by the time turkey is served, most leaves still cling to the trees and winter seems a hundred years away.
Not that I’d notice. Southern California still courses through my veins despite a slow and certain weaning from the eternal traffic jam on the 405. Warm weather 365 days a year seems as normal to me as pulling fresh lemons off the backyard bush at my old Long Beach homestead.
But even an L.A. native can’t help but sense that something’s amiss with the weather. There’s a warm thunderstorm outside my office window at the moment and the soundtrack from “I’m Not There” is playing on my iTunes hard drive (50.3 gigs or 98.3 straight days of music – some things about the ever-encroaching technology that dominates our consumer lives doesn’t entirely suck). The point and counterpoint of lightning and Bob Dylan puts an apocalyptic tinge in the air. If you stay glued to the Dow Jones, watching the subprime crisis mire the economy in a septic pit of trillion dollar deficit spending and $100-a-barrel petroleum, there seems little to look forward to beyond debt and doom. And, of course, there’s always Iraq – Vietnam with sand. Great way to greet the holidays, eh?
But hope does, indeed, die last. On my most recent visit to L.A., I spent the day at Disneyland with my two-year-old grand daughter who forced me to wear her pink mouse ears during four trips around the carrousel. I turn 60 next week and if there was a bigger fool in Fantasyland that day, I’d like to meet him. Dignity, vanity and all that other good stuff that goes into any good recipe for guilt, shame and fear doesn’t wash with a toddler. They prefer fools, which should be a lesson to all of us who posture and pontificate for a living. There’s more hope in a single two-year-old than there is in a hundred old farts like me. We’ve had our chance at bat, swung, missed, swung again, and connected enough times to get us around the bases a few runs before our final inning.
Children deserve our attention, not our lip service. L.A. may yet burn to the ground or shake and bake in an 8.1 Richter reading. Gasoline may push past $5 a gallon and Iran might get the bomb. But regardless of how it rolls, we really must leave no child behind – really, truly, and not just through the convenient lie of spending cuts and standardized testing. There will always be a grandkid to set things straight for us if we just let them put those ears on the backs of our heads. They are the future. All else is folderol, fluff and folly. The earth they inherit needs our attention. That’s where I’ll be aiming my prayers on Thanksgiving Day.
All hail, O saver of the bruised coccyx!
Let us consider the Mystery of the Banana Peel.
Since Genesis, when Cain first slipped on one of them (this in the pre-Constantine version of the Bible, which got redacted in the 4th Century along with the banned Gospels of Judas, Mary Magdalene and Dilbert the Elder), the banana peel and its ability to instantly land an upright individual in a prone position has been an object of snicker and mirth.
“There’s a banana peel directly in the path of that dawdling doofus! Ho ho. I can hardly wait for the pratfall. Oh what endorphin-inducing yuks to come! Chuckle, chuckle, etc.”
Had anyone bothered to interview Shemp, E. Fudd or any of the other victims who have literally fallen victim to the banana peel over the years, they might have had a different reaction. Landing on one’s ass, as it turns out, is not replete with laughter, as Cain first tells Abel during a stroll through Abe’s banana orchard:
'And it came to pass that the first son of Adam escorted the second past his many fruited plains, not attending to the dangers that lurked within. Like the skulking viper that seduced his Mama, the sheathing of a plantain caused Cain to slide, propelling his feet high and above his head whilst his backside did fall to earth, landing hard upon the cheeks of his nether regions. So soundly did he plummet that his brother Abel howled with glee, pointing and pounding the flesh of his thighs as tears of hilarity rolled from his eyes.'
Some Biblical scholars maintain that this incident led directly to the later tragedy involving the two brothers though for poetic purposes most theologians continue to adhere to the jealousy theory. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” sounds a lot better than “You think that’s funny asshole? I’ll show you funny!”
But I digress.
Two weeks ago, I had my own slip and fall – an experience that my grand daughter Megan insists upon calling a “boot splat.” This incident did not involve a banana peel, but it did climax with a hard connecting of my bottom and the dirt outside our rear window. We’d just installed a slide on the new tree house (see journal entry below) and at Megan and Al’s urging, I tried the slide out. Turned out the slide was a little steeper and faster than I anticipated, leading to a crash landing. As with Cain, all who witnessed this unfortunate event had a great laugh at my expense and I heard about my boot splat for days thereafter.
Unfortunately, my butt didn’t see the humor. Within a day or so, that bit of bone at the bottom of the vertebrae known as the coccyx began letting me know via heretofore dormant neurotransmitters that it had been both bruised and most unhappy that I’d chosen to drop 200 pounds of me on top of it at a velocity of, oh, say 20 mph?
Which brings me to finding Nemo. After a week of Ben Gay, Aleve, hot and cold compresses and a lot more lying flat on my back than sitting at my computer, I spoke with my doctor. He refused my request for Oxycotin, medicinal marijuana or a morphine drip directly to the gluts and suggested instead that I find a donut pillow that would take the pressure off the injured tailbone. I went scouring the most likely places for said pillow and came up empty. Nothing at Rite Aid. Forget Walgreens. I was about to give up and Google one on the web (I feared what I might find in the way of merchandise at www.assthrobs.com) when I took a chance and wandered in to Toys R Us.
And there I found him: a $2 blow up ring for a wading pool featuring the happy, wide-eyed smile of Nemo. Now, you may laugh (cautionary note: so did Abel and you see where it got him) but I have been singing the Disney clown fish’s praises for going on 24 hours straight now. I couldn’t wait to get him home for a try out and blew up the ring right there in the Toys R Us parking lot. I had to lower the driver’s seat just to accommodate my new best friend. And I will now testify to this: driving TO Toys R Us was agony, particularly getting in and out of the car, but driving home FROM Toys R Us was like sitting on a cloud, and when I got out of the car – voila! No shrieking synapses from the rectal area. Just walkin’, talkin’, sittin’ and shifting from hip to happy hip as if everything were normal.
It will take a few more weeks for my boot splat to heal, according to my doctor, but in the meantime I pause every so often, look down at my donut and say a little “thank you” for finding Nemo. And, at least for the moment, I’ve banned bananas from our kitchen.
Meg & Alex supervise Uncle Fitz's work
The last day of June was the first day of the Great Treehouse Project. For the past two weeks, grandkids Megan and Alex joined forces with Devin, Maggie and Callie in a concerted planning effort which saw the domicile downsized from a three-story townhouse replete with library, den and media room to the current vision. Economics also accounted for the loss of forced air heating and cooling, the Viking kitchen and bowling alley. There will be a ladder, however and, possibly a dumb waiter to haul up Rose, the dog. Chief architect, contractor, consultant and nail-gun operator Spencer estimates a completion date of sometime within the next month or two. Megan plans a tree warming party within the next two weeks. Stay tuned for updates.
Meg, Alex & Devin hoist the rear wall with a little help from Spence and Uncle Fitz
By the first of July, the house takes shape. Thanks to the valiant efforts of Spence and Uncle Fitz, the California kids join Devin to raise high the roofbeam. By day's end, all that remains to attach is the roof. July 2: Roof's up, complete with tar paper and shingle sheeting. Satellite dish and hibachi and we're talking outdoor living at its best.
Meg waves from the front door of the new kid headquarters.
Occurs to me that a project like this would rarely get off the ground in L.A. There'd be permits, contractors, subcontractors, inspectors, assessors, quality control doofi, insurance adusters, etc. Breaks my heart that I don't have urban bureau-dorks near at hand to tell me and my grandkids what we can and cannot do. Such are the travails of returning to the land. I'd feel so much more secure inside the enforced safety of L.A.'s poisoned freeway-opoly. Suppose I'll just have to grin and bear it out here in the wilderness. Pass me the sweet tea, will y'all?
Spencer Crow, Master Builder, peaks from new roof of new house 'neath old tree.
Al & Devin put finishing touches on the interior
Dev & Meg try out the slide
Dev, Meg & Al sit it out while Spencer & Uncle Fitz finish kid headquarters.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn
I wrote my Congresswoman this morning, and here is what I said ---
This is the first line of your bio on your website -- "Marsha Blackburn is an established, conservative, results-oriented legislator who solves problems." Okay, I'll take you at your word. Solve this problem. Iraq is Vietnam with sand. Americans die there daily for the same reason that they died in Southeast Asia a generation ago: no reason at all. End this war and end it now. I am a Vietnam veteran. I watch slack-jawed every day as George W. Bush repeats the crimes of LBJ, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger with utter impunity and contempt for 70% of the American electorate. By your vote, you continue to give the President succor, comfort, and the power of the Congressional purse. Break with your party and vote your conscience, Ms. Blackburn. To do otherwise is to sanction slaughter purely to pander to a Presidential hubris that can only be described as breathtaking in its nihilism. I had no idea that at 60 I would have to repeat the entreaties of my youth to a deaf, dumb and blind government:
Stop this war, Congresswoman Blackburn. Stop it Now.
I came to understand that Marsha Blackburn was my Representative only by accident. Until today, I was under the impression that Steve Cohen -- a Democrat who voted against funding the war -- was my Congressman. Such are the vagaries of Tennessee gerrymandering that a Republican Reese Witherspoon lookalike from Nashville nearly 3 hours away from my home is my representative in the House. Who knew? When I went to the polls last November, I am certain I cast my vote for Cohen. What happened in the meantime to shift me to Blackburn territory is a mystery. But there you have it: the legacy of Tom Delay jiggers the map so effectively that even relatively cognizant voters like myself have little idea who -- or what -- represents me in Washington.
The clever machinations of a morally bankrupt, politically corrupt, cynical and compassion-free federal government leave me feeling as abandoned and alone as I did during Vietnam. Lately, the lyrics of "Ohio" keep me awake at night: We're finally on our own.
Yesterday, the gutless Democrats who voted with Republicans to continue funding the war underscored this sad turn of events. Bush and his chickenhawks triumph once more. The center does not hold. Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. Democrats lack all conviction while the Bushies remain full of passionate intensity.
The rallying cry of my generation was two words: QUESTION AUTHORITY. It became the anthem of my youth and later, the guiding force of my career as a journalist.
What happened? Where are Woodward and Bernstein when we need them? What happened to the Pentagon Papers Volume II? Why has the Los Angeles Times of Otis Chandler turned into the Pennysaver? Why do I feel like another Kent State is right around the corner?
I can only hope that some rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem because I don't expect to hear from Congresswoman Blackburn any time soon.
Caricature by artist River Sauts (Riv: the check is in the mail)
Hooray! Hooray! It’s the first of May! Outdoor …..
Well, we all know the rest, though I doubt the proliferation of poison ivy in these parts would encourage much bare-assed procreative activity except for raccoons and squirrels, of which there seem to be a bumper crop.
Beale Street Music Festival’s this weekend. Jerry Lee Lewis and Taj Mahal are on the same bill with Barenaked Ladies and Three Six Mafia. Eat your heart out, Coachella Music Festival.
I heard a Jimmy Buffet song at one of the local bistros last week – “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis” – and it got me to missing tacos. There are Taco Bells in Tennessee, naturally. Hell, there are Taco Bells in Lithuania. But tacos? That’s another matter. Chili verde and carnitas still seldom translate in the South, which seems odd given that they were invented in the deep, deep, deep South, somewhere near the Tropic of Cancer. I have yet to find a taco stand to match Patricia’s in Bixby Knolls. If I want fajitas that aren’t white bread, served up with a jolly “that be all, y’all?” I have to make them myself. C’est la vida loca, to mix and match mother tongues.
A month’s work on the Writers Guild of America story finally ends this week with the “L.A. Weekly” publication of my opus “The Check Is in the Mail.” Early reviews seem controversial, but that’s what always seems to happen when Group A takes money from Group B and doesn’t give it to Group C as promised. Stay tuned. The fallout from the foreign levies story looks as though it could finally provide the roadmap into the multinational cash laundries owned and operated by Murdoch, Redstone, Sony, Disney, General Electric and the mandarins of Time Warner.
On its face, the WGA story looks like a small potatoes quibble over the slow-or-no pay-out of a few million bucks, but the deeper and far more devastating theme lies at the very heart of the current scramble by the MPAA and the RIAA over movie and music piracy. Why do we feel little or no sympathy for the $5 billion that the MPAA claims pirates stole last year in the form of counterfeit DVDs, CDs, Internet transmissions and videotapes? Could it be that we all secretly feel that the corporate assholes and their lawyers deserve to get screwed, the way they’ve screwed over writers and artists all these years?
For decades, Hollywood studios and record companies have hogged profits, exploited artists, and cheated them out of even their rightful if pitifully tiny contractual royalties and/or residuals. Backroom rip-off artists led by Dr. Jules Stein, Lew Wasserman and Mob mouthpiece Sidney Korshak set the machinery in place half a century ago, and made Hollywood unions complicit in the theft. What avaricious Lew understood – and few grasped at the time – is now the drumbeat of the Internet Age: Content is King. It becomes more apparent every day, as technology marches on and the appetite for new material grows ever-more insatiable.
And who owns content? Copyright holders, that’s who. In the rest of the civilized world, creators hold copyright. But not in Hollywood they don’t. In Hollywood, through a combination of accepted practice and a half century of MPAA/RIAA lobbying efforts with the lazy lawmakers on Capitol Hill, copyright belongs to the studios and record companies, not to the men and women who toil over computer keyboards.
I write books. The copyright belongs to me. But my screenwriter friends own nothing. Their Guild is supposed to help counterbalance this rip-off by forcing the studios to pay them a lot of money for their copyright, and to compensate them further by seeing to it that they receive residuals, foreign levies and other revenue for their work – and to help them with health benefits and pensions in their old age.
But Hollywood’s guilds do little or none of the above. Instead, they give all to the studios.
There was great lament this past week over the passing of Jack Valenti. Similar breast beating and keening followed the passing of Lew Wasserman and Ronald Reagan upon their deaths. Great men. Great things. Never their like shall pass this way again, etc.
Wake up, Hollywood wannabes. These were the architects of copyright theft. These were the leaders of a cartel and a conspiracy designed to pick the pockets of men and women who write, direct, act, compose, create – and slap the cash into their own bank accounts. It’s too bad the WGA and the DGA and SAG fell into lockstep with them. Wouldn’t it be swell if there was actually someone in Hollywood looking out for the interests of those who make the movies?
Not likely. If any producer reading this would like to turn the foregoing into a miniseries, call my agent. I own the copyright.
In observance of the season
Put on my Sunday best – clean Hawaiian shirt, relatively clean black denims and barely passable sneakers – and prepared for an Easter feast yesterday morning. Fitz and family took us all out to Texas de Brazil, an all-you-can-eat churrascaria two blocks off of Beale where meat – leg o’ lamb, parmesan pork, garlic sirloin, filet mignon, ribs, etc. – is the meal. No rabbit however, Welsh or otherwise. It was Easter, after all. If you’re going to stage a Eucharist without gristle, best have no stringy bunny shin wedged between your molars.
Following a blast furnace beginning, spring has retreated this past week. It dropped to the 20s a couple of nights and forecast calls for rain this week. I’m past my ills – knock on Formica – but Sharon isn’t. Once our dual duels with intestinal carnage ended, she came down with something more. She rests. I kvetch.
My daughter Kate checked in late on Sunday. While both she and husband Id (he prefers the Freudian diminutive to his given name “David”) work their tushes off full time, they despair of ever having enough to afford a home. Such is the wretched purgatory that L.A. has become when tract lean-to’s go for half a million and a couple’s combined salaries have to top $150,000 just to look at a loan. Throw in the traffic nightmare that no politician seems willing or able to address, the impending drought that will throw the entire region back to a Baja desertscape, and air pollution that approaches a pack-a-day habit for every man, woman and child west of the Tehachapis and you’re pretty much talking about an average day in Moloch. L.A. has very quickly become a toilet, and while I understand how it could have happened, I had no sense that it would happen so quickly. Throw in the once-terrific school system where children get left behind every day from kindergarten to grad school, and a busted criminal justice system made all the more glaring in its “Here Come Da Judge” hilarity by leaps in gang tribal warfare that would make Marshall McLuhan flinch, and what you’ve got is a formula for chaos – the Biblical sort that should make James Dobson and the rest of his contemptuous flock of fat, preening evangelicals very pleased with their own self-righteous selves.
Ah, brave new L.A. with such creatures in it. Where’s Aimee Semple McPherson when you need her? All the City of Angels has left is Roger Mahony and his legion of pederasts. Makes you wonder if that’s how Gomorrah got such a bad rap.
Happy Bunny Day. Don’t load up on too many wafers and/or Cadbury eggs. Save some room for dessert.
Daffodils and dogwood – when each of these hardy perennials bloom, it’s a cinch that spring and/or hay fever will soon follow and thus we Left Coasters learn the ways of the Confederacy.
California is a much tougher call. There are no clear cut signs that winter’s done. Roses are so confused they often bloom year round. There are no ground hogs outside of the San Diego Zoo, so who’s going to look for shadows? Unless you have a calendar handy, the Equinox is about as easy to track as those two new planets beyond Pluto.
But out here ‘neath the Mason Dixon line, spring wells up like a dragon and clobbers all who suffer sinus drip with a vengeance. Each time I see that Pepe Le Pew bee advertising Flonase on TV, I used to wonder who the hell would brave tumors, backache, dyspepsia, erectile dysfunction, sudden cardiac arrest or any of the side effects listed in the disclaimer just to clear their sinuses? Southerners, that’s who. There’s nothing like a Tennessee spring to remind those of us who like to breathe just what pollen, spores, and wind-whipped gunk can do to a nose – or an ear, for that matter. I paid my annual visit to the doctor last week for antibiotics and ear drops to vanquish my first atmospheric bout of the year.
And yet, despite ah-choos and allergic reactions, the tradeoff seems worth it. The buds are returning to the bushes and leaves to the trees, and whatever crap I inhale has got to be less lethal than the carbon monoxide billowing off the 710 Freeway at rush hour, which seems to be 24 hours a day judging by my last visit to SoCal. By April, I expect my place here in the Memphis outback to be a green bunker, surrounded by vegetation – and I’m not talking ice plant or those sad fields of Freeway daisies that CalTrans buys by the acre. No, the green that is west Tennessee is the living kind that breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen … pollen-thick oxygen, perhaps, but oxygen nonetheless.
I spent a week in L.A. last month, driving from one appointment to another, and came away feeling all the worse about the home I left behind. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I felt like one of the last passengers to escape the Titanic. Someone recently sent me a current snapshot of the cast of “Leave It to Beaver” and besides depressing the hell out of me, it made me nostalgic. I grew up in Lynwood about a dozen miles southwest of downtown L.A., and far from the broken inner city neighborhood that it has become, in the 50s and 60s, Lynwood was a blue-collar utopia. Wally Cleaver, Eddie Haskell and the Beave could have been my next door neighbors. I had a paper route and a mongrel dog named Mopsy after a cartoon character in the comic pages that I delivered each afternoon inside the Los Angeles Daily Mirror.
Eddie, the Beave and Wally
There was a magnolia tree in front of my house, but there was little else about my childhood and adolescence that had much to do with the South. My father was from Texas and my mother, southern Illinois, and like half the population of Lynwood – or L.A., for that matter – they wanted to forget what they’d left behind. Following World War II, a place like Lynwood was an invitation to reinvigorate – to reinvent oneself and start over, a thousand miles and a couple of mountain ranges away from the hard scrabble caste system of the East. There might be a magnolia in your front yard, but that didn’t mean you were a slave or a sharecropper, a factory serf or a wage slave. California still had a halo and it hung over the City of Angels like a mantle of hope, until too many people with too many conflicting dreams paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.
Auto emissions now line L.A.’s inversion layer, and a very different sort of asthma afflicts the ever-increasing population. Each year more cars, more immigrants, more housing, more fast food outlets, more convenience stores, more crime, more mignons on the make with no end in sight and no effort on the part of public officials or private avarice to regulate, corral or control. What happened?
Just before I flew back to Memphis, I drove down the street where I grew up and the magnolia was still there, in front of my house. Only it was hardly recognizable as the place I called home for 18 years, until the day I headed off to Vietnam in 1967. The yard was neat enough and though the garish lavender is not the color I would have chosen for house paint, the place looked kept up and clean.
But it had become so much smaller than I remembered. The house where I grew up with two parents, two brothers, a sister and a dog named Mopsy couldn’t have been more than 1,000 square feet. Funny I don’t recall it being a cracker box. Funny that I remember it teeming with drive and imagination and shared motivation to taste and experience all that Southern California had to offer. In fact, the only thing about my earliest home that seemed to have gotten bigger was the magnolia, which now towers two stories above the house itself.
Here at our new home in Tennessee, we’ve got sycamores and maples, oak and alder and probably a hundred other species I wouldn’t recognize even if I owned a copy of “Botany for Dummies,” but at least on our spread, not a single magnolia. The temperature’s supposed to hit 70 today. When it does, I think I’ll head to Home Depot and buy a magnolia for the front yard. Maybe on the way back, I’ll drive through Walgreen’s and see if I can get some Flonase without a prescription.
Five Easy Decades is finished and the editing begins. It’s been nearly a week since I typed “The End” at the bottom of page 689 – that’s right, 689, which is why the editing begins.
Editing is not writing, however, and requires a whole different mind set. It’s kind of like raising cattle your whole life and suddenly being asked to package steaks: you know the process and might even be able to pull it off, but it isn’t the same behavior, even if both involve meat. Editing and writing both involve words, but that’s about it. One is not the other and switching to the butcher’s block after two years on the range is a major pain.
That said, I do feel released. I’ll hit the road next week to resume work on The Acid Chronicles and a couple of freelance assignments: a week in San Francisco/Sacramento followed by a week in L.A. I’d really like to just take a month off and catch up on my reading, but that looks like it’ll have to wait.
It’s cold here in Tennessee, but not impossible most days. The deer were back yesterday, foraging but not to the point of stripping bark from the trees. In fact, they looked well fed – not nearly so much as me, having porked up alarmingly during my sedentary year with Five Easy Decades – but certainly in good enough shape to handle the hard weather a helluva lot better than Bambi and his mom.
I had to take the car in to the dealer a couple days ago because the “check engine” light came on in the dashboard and ran into a nettling traffic jam on the way – the first I’ve had to deal with in months. By California standards, it was a joke. Fifteen minute delay because of road work on Walnut Grove Road. But it brought out the road rage in me and I flipped off the highway workers as I finally drove past, gnashing my teeth and snarling a couple of choice epithets. It wasn’t so much that I had to be somewhere and had been delayed as it was an unforeseen disruption of my predictable routine. It makes me ponder how locked in I am (we are?) to putting life into cruise control. Speed bumps make us crazy even if they’re made of gold bullion. What? Are you telling me to SLOW DOWN? Are you out of your mind?
Acceptance is the hardest imposition. “We want the world and we want it now,” said Jim Morrison, and look where it got him. He’s now the fourth-largest tourist attraction in Paris, and a big lot of good it does him. I think I don’t want to be a tourist attraction. I think I’ll leave that to Jim and Elvis, who is the first-largest in these parts. There’s a big blank spot in the upper left corner of my project board beside my desk, now that Five Easy Decades is done, and I think I’ll leave it blank for a little while. There’s plenty of other stuff to do – Paradise Square, The Candlestickmaker, Harbor Lights, maybe even a return to Professor Lyle Fields and another stab at detective fiction.
And then there are the far more important projects that don’t involve words at all. Spearheaded by Megan and Devin, my grandchildren are conspiring to force me to build a tree house out back. I haven’t done any serious research to see if this is even possible, but when the weather ratchets down (up?) to an outdoorsy temperature, I think I’ll have to scout for an oak or two that might support a floorboard. These things do take priority as tree house interest tends to wane with puberty and I’d hate to miss the window of opportunity. Words can wait.