Edendale: Chapter 12

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November 1, 2011 · Posted in Edendale by Phyl M. Noir 

What the L.A. River Looks Like When It's On A Rampage

 North Alvarado Street on Red Hill

By Phyl M. Noir

Wind rattled the windows of my house and pea sized hail hit the windows and struck the chimes hanging from one of the big eucalyptus trees.  The marmalade-colored cat sat on the stairs to the backyard inhaling the scents in her venue: pepper, eucalyptus, ladybugs, succulents with a little water lying in their scooped bellies, skunk, and lemon.   The wind blew the cat’s fur into an aureole.

I opened the windows and breathed salty air.  Wind drew struggling gulls in a spiral towards rain clouds.

Below the clouds shone the gold-leaf dome of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  Beyond the dome was Bohemian Hill — one of the Silver Lake hills — and beyond it white letters spelling Hollywood rose above chaparral growing on one of the smaller of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The mountains stood highest near the ocean and curved in decrements to the last hill in Griffith Park but the Santa Monica Mountain’s brutal coccyx was really the sharp hill near the confluence at the beginning of the Glendale Strait and below it Broadway ran downtown.

Walt Disney built his first major studio down on Hyperion on the other side of Bohemian Hill.   In the 1930s animators walked from the studio carrying big pads of paper in their arms to turn mock Tudor rental cottages with decorative half beams, hipped roofs and diamond patterned leadlight windows into cartoons of the Seven Dwarfs’ cottages.

The character Betty Elms lay dead and dreaming of alternate lives in one of those cottages in David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive – waiting not for the Prince’s kiss to wake her but for oblivion.

Charley Manson ended the Age of Aquarius when he instructed his followers to creep through the La Bianca family’s home on Waverly to kill them.   From then on hippies became associated in the public mind with insanity, violence and the macabre even though Manson’s madness had grown from childhood neglect and severe sexual abuse.

The river flowed or trickled or raged depending on the season.  The City crossed the river with bridges and freeways tore through Frogtown, Elysian Park, The Avenues and Lincoln Heights.

My side of the river is the Edendale District.   Its boundaries are the river, Reservoir Street, Hoover and Los Feliz Boulevard and the heart of it is on Glendale Boulevard, the part of the street the 2 Freeway later blighted and the streets are also rivers: actual rivers when it rains because of the miles of impermeable surfaces but also they are our commons — conduits that carry trucks loaded with freight and oil and automobiles with passengers driving through time.

North Alvarado at the top of Red Hill where it meets with Fat Hill is the headwaters of the Alvarado river that flows down towards the Los Angeles River on one side and down into Sunset and down into McArthur Park past Wilshire into places that were once elite and that are now places you can buy methamphetamine. It reaches its confluence with Venice Boulevard near the West Adams district before it disappears into the sands but Venice Boulevard empties into the Pacific Ocean.

If I walk up the long wood municipal stairs up Cove Street from Glendale Boulevard the Santa Ana wind makes me feel as if there may be a piano in one of the houses, a glossy black piano behind which sits my ex-wife Jade Yee playing Chopin with extraordinary subtlety.  I reach the top of the stairs near Fargo.

Nights I look down and see a sky of city lights: Edendale and Hollywood out to Sunset to the ocean and Santa Monica. Beyond them are the black ocean and the supple night and straight ahead is Ozymandias’s kingdom set up on Bunker Hill. Below on the other side lies the valley full of houses most of which have barking dogs in the front and in the backyards.

I closed the windows. I gathered a file from the dining room table and put it in my briefcase, closed the front door behind me and faced the Bunker Hill skyline that emerges for a brief moment each morning to remind us in great ugly bloody chords of the remorselessness of consciousness but sublimely re-submerges as you drive towards it.

I drove in rain down the hill to Sunset, which becomes Cesar Chavez Boulevard, and passed Olvera Street and Union Station.  I turned off at Vignes once a street full of vineyards with purple grapes so sweet they made your fingers stick together as if glued and after that a winery and now the jail complex: the twin towers, the central jail, a parking lot, a parking structure and the parole hearing office.

My witness waited for me outside the parole hearing office.  She wore a vibrant red and orange floral rayon print dress only an African American woman could wear well.   The skin of black women is satin.   My first kiss was with a little black girl when we lived on Curacao.

I introduced myself to my witness and went over her testimony.   She assured me that her son Erik had been with her during the time his girl friend said he was breaking into her car.

A white deputy with a crew cut removed his gun from a holster snapped to his belt and placed it in a locked metal drawer in a bank of drawers.  He wore a bow tie and a white shirt.  His trousers were too long and his shoes were large and flat.

Two men attorneys in plaid suits spoke loudly to the senior deputy.  One suit was orange and black with a purple tramline and the other was purple and black with an orange tramline.  Both suits were too snug and creased at the waist.

“We have to fight Iraq and after that we’ll fight Iran,” Orange suit said.  He spoke English adequately but you could tell he was from somewhere else.  “We have to show them.  Like Stalin. Like Hitler.  It is what men do.  I served in the army in Azerbaijan.”

The deputy told them he was going to retire in three years and two months and that he and his wife were going to find someplace for them to live without any people around them maybe the Mojave.

“You probably like public housing!” The orange plaid lawyer shouted.  “You like people on welfare!  All day long, they have nothing to do, so they take drugs.  We come here with nothing!  My friend and I had nothing!  Now we have Mercedes and big houses in the Valley!  It is America!  America must rule the world!  It is wonderful!”

The deputy said, “Perhaps Alberta.  It’s cold but we’ll get used to it.”

“Forty below!  I love it!  Crisp!” Said one of the attorneys.

Concrete bench seats incised with the words “Honor Rancho” stood near the wall of the hearing office.  An electricity transmission pylon stood ahead of us and several patches of grass grew between sidewalks.  I smelled wet concrete.

Crime as we know it today first flowed into Los Angeles from about the third wavelet of American immigration on.    In 1871 white men lynched, stabbed and/or shot to death 23 Chinese men in La Calle de los Negros, which is now Los Angeles Street, the part of it that leads into Union Station.   Because it was illegal for Chinese people to testify in court the assassins went free.

The commissioner arrived at the parole revocation hearing.  He was an older black man and he had once been a policeman.  We went into a hearing room and I sat next to him.  A deputy brought in Erik, a young black man with green eyes. The parole agent sat next to him.  The police officer that had arrested my client hadn’t come to the hearing although he had been under subpoena.

The agent read the police report out loud and submitted a letter from the complaining witness who had also been under subpoena and who also did not come to the hearing.   The prisoner bowed his head over his hands when he heard what the woman he loved said about him in her letter.    All he had wanted to do was to see their little boy.

The commissioner dismissed the charge for lack of evidence.  If the cop who wrote the report had witnessed anything, the case would have gone the other way.

I went to Phillipe’s on North Alameda for lunch.  The restaurant is in a small nineteenth century building surrounded by the new Chinatown.  Old Chinatown used to be where Union Station built in the 1930s is now.

The plaid lawyers sat down at my table.  Orange plaid lowered his voice to a whisper.  He said, “We had no country.  We are Christians and we live in Azerbaijan.  We apply to Armenia.  Armenia will not take us.  We have a cousin in Moscow so we went to Moscow.  We got to the American Consulate. We say we have no country.  They give us green cards and send us to New York and we go to language school.  The first English words we learn are ‘ice cream cone.’  We get on welfare and live in public housing.”

“Pthah,” said the other lawyer.  “We were surrounded by scum.”

“It was terrible.  We were not used to such people.  We applied to the government to go to law school.”

“The University of Florida,” the other lawyer said.  “The United States government paid for us to go to law school.”

The men finished their sandwiches and wiped their mouths with paper napkins.

After lunch I stopped at the central jail.  I gave up my driver’s license and my California State Bar card to the guard seated in the booth in the entry and I stood in front of a metal gate.  The gate opened and I waited in a chamber for five minutes until the interior gate opened. Inside the visitor’s room a sign warned not to touch a prisoner.  I sat at a bank of tables.

The plaid lawyers sat in an adjacent table and one of them said to a psychotic man in an orange jump suit who had Frogtown tattooed on his neck. “No one had wanted to live in Siberia so Stalin found these murderers and instead of putting them in prison to suffer he sent them to the Gulag!  It was wonderful!  No small confining space but instead, the great tundra and fresh air!”  Frogtown strained against his chains.

Erik and his guard emerged from a door.  I raised my hand, and the guard brought the young man over to my table. He sat across from me and told me he hadn’t done anything.  Behind him Frogtown got me to look at him and mouthed the words,  “Get help.”

I stood in the chamber again.  The guard pressed a button on a panel inside her glass cage and opened the door.  I came out and she returned my license and Bar card.   In the hallway a woman said to a woman officer that even in Bulgaria there were no places like this.

I stepped through the jail’s glass doors and stood outside.  The plaid lawyers came through the door after me.  One of them had learned that a man had offered his soul for sale on eBay.   I drove through Chinatown and up Alpine at the base of Elysian Park.  The woman I had seen at the jail stood at a corner.  I reached over and opened my car door and said I’d give her a lift.

She got in and said she wanted to see skyscrapers.  I drove up Grand and parked on a side street.

As I got out of the car I saw flurry on the Chinatown hill that took me a moment to interpret.    Mrs. Garfield stood in the street holding a rifle.  She yelled about someone who drank up all the milk.

December had started with hot days.  Only a few yellow leaves remained on the branches of deciduous trees.  Their branches were like white arms.  I am always lonely except for when I write.

The Bulgarian woman wore a short-sleeved white shirt, a beige knee-length skirt, beige pumps with nylon stockings and a light sweater with the arms folded neatly over her breasts.  Everything she wore was ironed. Who irons anymore?  She dressed like an associate in a 1975 S&L.  I imagined her pulling down an ironing board every morning after she showered and the hot smell of the iron striking polyester.

“In summer,” she said, “I do not wear hands.”   I thought for just a moment that Bulgarians take off their hands in summer.  I said, “Sleeves.  You don’t wear sleeves.”

We walked to the high-rise buildings and she looked up at them. We walked between the tall buildings.  She said, “Ah!  Ah! I feel funny!”

We descended stairs to the main branch of the library. We went up the escalators and looked into each room.    She told me angrily there were not so many books in Bulgaria as if I were at fault.

“You show me subway?”  She said.

I asked the guard at the library entrance if he knew where the subway entrance was.  He didn’t.

We left and walked through Pershing Square. It used to be planted with banana and rubber trees. Crowds had once moved through it.  A woman with unevenly applied red lipstick scowled.  A thin man tipped a bottle contained in a paper bag to his lips.  He looked up at us through senescent eyes.

“I’m sorry.  There’s no one here I’d like to ask.” I said to the Bulgarian woman.

“I see what you mean.  I feel same.”

“That’s the jewelry center over there.” I said and pointed across the street.  “The whole building, every floor, has people working on jewelry, selling jewelry, fixing jewelry.”

“You have whole building like that?  Maybe other countries have buildings like that.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“Maybe Paris and London.”

“Do you want to look in the windows?  There are beautiful stones.”

“I don’t like such things.

“I like walking like this.  I have husband but he very fat and won’t walk.”  She said “fat” as if the word had three syllables so that fat the word was extra fat possibly spectacularly fat.   Her husband was so fat he was pheuyt.    “He doesn’t correct my English.  I think I speak English well but maybe not.  Bulgarian has many complex rules.  There are no rules in English: it is all exemptions.”

”Exceptions,” I said.

“Like sweeter.”  She said.

“Sweeter?”

“There is difference in Bulgarian.  A sweeter is someone you love.  A boyfriend is you have an agreement.”

“ You mean suitor,” I said.
I left her at Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria on Broadway to meet her sweeter.

I stayed in the car and looked at the street.  It led towards the San Gabriel Mountains. Ugly modern buildings shattered the pure perspective.

As if time had not intervened I saw that street when our family first arrived in Los Angeles from Holland when I did not yet speak English.   The children at Ivanhoe Elementary at first thought I was mute.  I could walk on my hands so the other children accepted me.

In one memory I hold my mother’s hand.  We descend from the trolley.    The sidewalk isn’t cracked.  There are no stores selling cheap toys and cheaper clothing, no shops selling formal emerald and ruby dresses for proms and white dresses for fiesta de quince.  There are movie theaters on both sides of the street, which are full of people.  We go to The Broadway, Bullock’s and J.W. Robinson’s. Women’s high heels click on the pavement. There is no obstruction to our view of the towering mountains.

I drove towards Chinatown and then up Sunset. A yellow and red sign on the store next to my car’s windows claimed the store sold Comida Yucetaca, cabeza, lingua and papusas: food from the Yucatan, head and tongue.  Papusa is neither a part of an octopus nor a papoose.   Most of the people who crossed the street in front of my car were heavy little South of the Border Indians with long braids down their backs and they looked bewildered. Within a few years of living in Los Angeles they would have tinnitus: an incessant low sound like the hum of electricity over wire; this would mean their hearts beat too fast.

Echo Park district starts at Angeleno Heights near the Echo Park Lake and crosses Sunset.  The hills rise from Glendale Boulevard and continue to the end of Elysian Park.

I parked on the street in front of my house.  I got out of the car looked at the skyscrapers that looked like sinking cathedrals as I walked uphill.  Above them a jet flew in the late afternoon sky toward the airport and two police helicopters approached Echo Park.  I turned and went to my house.

On each side of the door to my house stood blue ceramic pots containing gardenia plants.  The scent of the flowers came into the house with me.

On my fireplace mantel stood a Royal Dalton ceramic character jug.   My jug’s character was “The Barrister,” and he had a mind without illusions His lips curled derisively.  My brother Ronald gave me the jug when I graduated from high school.   We were called The Barristers because the school was named after the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.   At football games we recited,  “To Marshall High we sing our praises, our Alma Mater dear we love. The memories here will last forever. The tower of truth stands high above: a guide to right and high endeavor.  A mighty symbol in the sky — around it, comrades, gather, loyal sons of Marshall High.”

I went down the stairs along the side of my house into my garden.  The fiercely edged agaves grew down the slopes descending from my neighbors’ yard.  Agaves have puppies and the old ones flower once with large stems their centers and then they die.  Ferns grew in the shade of blue-purple jacarandas. The jacarandas’ leaves looked like ferns.  I had planted rosemary bushes, coyote brush and a century plant around my vegetable boxes.

When I first moved to this house my mother drove up here in her Impala convertible with pots of rose bushes in the back seat.  She had worn a jaunty pink scarf around her neck and dark glasses over her eyes and white gloves on her hands that were exactly like my hands only small and a dress like one of Doris Day’s with a white collar and a little bow at the neck.  She had become American by then.   She memorized baseball scores.

Together we had planted roses that gave off puffs of chrome like the sunset and blue like the sky at midnight in Paris.

Philip Glass’s monotonous declensions played on the radio.    I made a cup of green tea. On the front panel of a box of brown sugar a painted green parrot perched on the words “A la Perroquet.”  Behind the bird grew painted palm trees.  In the background a schooner obscured an orange sun and the ship sailed through water that was tinted yellow and orange.

A church bell tolled eighteen times.  I had heard a church bell toll the moment my mother died.  She was an atheist; perhaps secretly a theist, and she would not have thought there was meaning in the bell’s toll of hours.

A train horn sounded from the tracks below Elysian Park.   The rain stopped.  Streetlights and residential lights went on.  Los Angeles turned emerald.

I remembered when Jade and I began to fall in love.   We had known each other most of our lives.   We walked to Ivanhoe elementary school together after my family moved to Los Angeles.   We had every class but homeroom together at King Middle School; that was when the school began to grade us like produce and separated the gifted from everyone else as if we were lepers after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

One day Jade and I were drawn to each other.   One day we shared a secret.

I felt light-headed.  I locked the front door and went to my room and lay on my bed.

I swam through lacunae of fatigue.  I couldn’t move any part of my body without becoming frightened. The back of my head hurt.  Lamplight from the living room made me nauseous.  Parrots in splendid colors superseded peacocks.  Red pain moved in snakes on each side of my head.  During the night my head grew larger than my body.   I descended into a gray hole.   This is death I thought.  I’m not ready.

In the morning I gathered the newspaper from my driveway and took the paper inside and read that a twenty-two year old homeless man drowned in the river near the Fletcher Bridge.   The police said the boy must have fallen.

I drove down to Glendale Boulevard and followed it to Fletcher Drive.    Snow gleamed on the San Gabriel Mountains ahead of me.   I parked on Ripple Street and went through the Great Heron gate to Rattlesnake Park.   Early blossoms grew on the branches of California redbud. Bright blades of grass grew on the bank of the path that went along the river.

The water in the river bottom was shallow and it ran fast.  Wind straggled the river’s surface.  The water must have been higher the day before.  The concrete embankment would have been slippery.

I passed a tent covered with an aluminum-colored tarpaulin.   An old quilt hung on the fence that separated the bicycle path from the freeway, and gray clothes hung on bushes to dry.   Three shopping carts containing empty bottles were pushed together in front of the tent.    A coaster brake bicycle leaned against a pylon.

I looked inside the tent but didn’t see anyone. I walked a distance and turned around and saw the downtown skyline.  The skyscrapers on Bunker Hill looked as if they were made of silver.  A woman ran towards me.   She was young, perhaps twenty.  Her skin was sunburned.

A man with black hair and a black beard came out of a floodwater egress painted to look like the face of Felix the Cat in the side of the concrete embankment.   The black-haired man saw us.  He looked out into the trees that grew in the middle of the river where egrets nested.

The blonde kneeled on the ground in front of me.  Her open blouse revealed a white lacy brassiere.

“What’s the matter?  Can I help?”  I asked.

“My baby!  I don’t know where my baby is.”

“Is your baby here?” I said.

“I don’t know!”

I looked in the river channel and into the trees growing at its bottom.   The concrete at the bottom had never dried enough to harden. Palms with dead fronds like hula skirts, cottonwood trees and corn grew in an island. The brush was dense and dark green.   Skeins of dirty plastic stuck to the branches and leaves.  A white egret released his neck from its Talmudic repose and stretched it until his little head was much higher than it had been.  Cars on the freeway drove by the river like predator animals drive prey into a place from which they could not escape.

A woman my age crawled out of the tent I had passed earlier.   Her face was serene.  She wore sunglasses.  She rested a moment on her hands and knees and then she got to her feet.  She looked familiar.

“Close your blouse, Cassandra,” she said to the young woman.  Cassandra looked down at her breasts.  The woman buttoned Cassandra’s blouse as if I had been staring at her breasts.

“She says there’s a baby,” I said.

The woman bent and lifted Cassandra by her arms and made her stand.

“Will money help?”  I said.  I took five dollars from my jeans pocket and gave it to Cassandra.  She took it.

“She said there’s a baby,” I said again.  “I’m going down to look.” “There’s no baby.”  The older woman said.

The two women walked away and the young woman put her arm around the older one as if she were her mother.

I walked down the embankment to the river bottom and looked for a baby.    I don’t know how all that crap gets down there  — toilets, bags full of dog shit, Swanson’s TV dinner aluminum plates, car engines, plastic grocery bags like shrouds caught on the palms that grow on islands in the river, panties, bras, shoes, shopping carts festooned with rotting fabric, mattresses, soda cans, a photograph of Ptomaine Tommy’s when it was a hut surrounded by Studebakers down on Beverly and Rampart. There was no baby.

I wiped my hands on my jeans and walked up the embankment and went between the bars of the fence that bordered it.   The older woman sat at the edge of the bicycle path.

“I told the boy who drowned there was no baby.   He didn’t believe me, either.”  She removed her sunglasses to reveal eyes so light they looked like ice.  I recognized her.

She came home with me.  The cat and the dog sat — the cat in volute and the dog like hippocampus – on the acanthus patterned carpet on which Cyd’s feet rested.   She said that her Papa Bissell had hung X-rays of human heads around his office and that the skulls had gleamed white in the black film.  She smelled like the river.

I told her about Curacao and the Nazi grandmother.

Flames silently beat outside of the windows.   Birds – all sorts of birds, red cobalt jungle green, some with silver beaks – rose screaming from her mouth.  I breathed into her heart.

When I woke the gardenia scent still hung in the air.  I got out of bed and turned off the lamp in the living room.   Light made me feel queasy but the pain in my head had lessened.

I looked at the Barrister on the mantel and behind the reflection of my face in the mirror was the crescent moon hung upside down over the black hills and the city lights in the dark air outside my windows.  Wind blew through the wind chimes, which hung from a tree in my backyard.

The phone rang, and I thought that I had a reprieve: that it was my mother was calling me.  She was still alive.  “Marnix,” she would say, “Why haven’t you called?  It’s been fifteen years.”

 


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