Justin and Tariq

In three thousand rides, I’ve never kicked anyone out of my Uber.  I carry no weapons, no pepper spray, not even a strobing LED penlight, like the bouncers use to disorient testosterone-raging patrons. I have no dash cam.

Perhaps I’m shooting dice with fate. Or just rather blessed. Or possessed of a sublimely American faith in my fellow man. But I drive bareback, and so far it has served me well.

No man has tried to grab my steering wheel while driving on the freeway, praise Jesus, on the 110, down in the luge run south of USC, at late-night velocity. Can you imagine the sphincter-clenching craziness?

Women break the rules in rideshare, not men. Because they can.  They jump over the back seat to engage you in conversation.  They shriek in the middle of chaotic intersections, posing for selfies. They demand to be taken to the Taco Bell drive-thru. They put their hand on your arm, and say “you think I’m pretty, right? Right?”  

They fall asleep with their dress hiked over their hips, and don’t respond when you tell them they’re home, leaving you to decide whether to ‘nudge’ them awake, with all the potential liability that might entail.  They grab the aux cord and volume control and play their jams.  They stand with the door open, talking with their friends, causing traffic jams in front of nightclubs. They refuse to leave the car.   They overshare. They interrogate you with intimately personal questions.

None of them have reached for the wheel, however.  Deep in the limbic brain, they know not to.

So what to make of tragic, doe-eyed, all-American Justin Lavelle cruelly ejected from a Lyft on the Harbor Freeway by swarthy, villainous Tariq Rasheed, after being pepper-sprayed (allegedly) because he grabbed the steering wheel (allegedly) while having a panic attack, which he was prone to, though there is no way of knowing he was actually having at that moment?  Justin was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the shoulder, sobbing on the phone (also allegedly) with his mother in Virginia.

Who could do such a monstrous thing?   Would I?  Perhaps I might.

A 1 am ride from WeHo to Long Beach is a big, big moneymaker for a driver.  You have distance, plus a late-night bonus of 50-60%, plus open roads. One can earn an easy $50 in half an hour, and still have time to make it back downtown for last call. Rides like that make driving profitable.

It would take an extraordinary provocation to cut it short.

“I couldn’t move the steering wheel an inch. I could have died. I had no choice but to save my life”.

Only the two of them know why this ride went south in a hurry. Justin, sitting in the passenger seat, called his boyfriend to complain the driver wanted to drop him off.  A three-way argument ensued, then Justin “held” the wheel (twice, allegedly), forcing Tariq to continue on to Long Beach, rather than taking an off-ramp.  Bad idea.   That’s how you end up walking along the freeway shoulder, wiping pepper spray out of your eyes.

This is how far he had to walk.  Stay well to the right of the white line, and you’ll be okay.  So why didn’t he?  The mystery of human behavior is revealed in danger.

David Madson, Andrew Cunanan’s second murder victim,  watched as he murder his lover, Jeffrey Trail, in his apartment. Then he rode round with him in a truck for several days.  Given a number of opportunities, he didn’t attempt to escape. Friends of David saw him with Andrew, walking the dog, but he made no outcry for help.    Perhaps he was hoping, when the moment came, he could talk his way out of it. Watching the Versace miniseries, we root for him to slip away, but we know he won’t.     He was executed in a lonely spot by a lake where he allowed his captor to take him.  Don’t Be A Victim 101 says: never let someone else remove you to a remote location. Don’t relinquish authority over your destination. Don’t let them take the wheel.  Fight or flight begins there.

The circumstances in these two cases couldn’t be more different.  Intoxicated he may have been, Justin’s desire was to get to Long Beach. Tariq’s desire was to get home to his two sons.  He had no margin for error.  There begins the tragedy.

The driver of the death car, the person who didn’t stop? Now he’s in a fight or flight with his own conscience.   That’s a longer, stickier narrative.

The Theater of Disappearance

Remember, we all must die.

Down at the Geffen Contemporary freezers run 24/7 preserving that which cannot be preserved… meat and driftwood and man’s creation, from birthday cakes to tennis shoes to bicycles, the vanity of earthly life arranged like bouquets…a memento mori for the anthropocene.    There is no heaven nor hell depicted by Adrian Villar Rojas, only the opulence of decay, and man’s fruitless quest for immortality. He is coy on the topic of the soul.  He places fish strategically, though perhaps ironically, throughout the exhibit, which is massive, 100 trucks of earthworks and salvaged pieces from prior exhibitions to form a stuffed timepiece, a man-made fossil. I suspect he doesn’t believe in divine judgment, though he trades on it.

What I really wonder is what Rojas would make of the Defenders of Boyle Heights. If they crossed the river to picket his installation, would he hand them bullhorns and cheer them on,  thereby defanging them?  Envaginating them, to employ a more proper metaphor, within his own work:

“Villar Rojas sees each project as an educational opportunity not only for those who visit the exhibition but equally so for himself. The institutions are given an opportunity, in turn, to reconsider the use of their own architectural assets, filtered or focused through the lens of Villar Rojas’s highly attuned sensitivities..this invasive dynamic allows Villar Rojas to develop an almost—in his own words—“parasitic relationship” with the institution; it is in this radical dialogue and exchange where both the artist-parasite and the institution-host explore the limits of what is possible and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not, what is negotiable and what is not. Ethics and politics, no less than agency and decision-making, are at stake in the project, opening a series of tough questions: When and where does a project actually begin?”

“Artist-parasite”…Adrian and the picketers are already speaking the same language, separated only by a million dollars in funding.

Remember, our disappearance will be theatrical.

Street preachers

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When you don’t have a steeple to stand under, rent a building.  When you can’t rent a building, go to the park. When you can’t draw an audience at the park, pick up a bullhorn and shout at the traffic, passing by, servile on grease.  Let your cri de couer ricochet off the aluminum alloy and plexiglass and ear buds and touch screens.  They may not be listening, but someone always hears.  You will have made your witness.

Christmas, Light and Dark

Christian Mennonite singers, Broadway and Sixth St
Christian Mennonite carolers, Broadway and Sixth St

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Meanwhile, not a block away, an angry group of men calling themselves the Black-Hebrew Israelites were milling about in robes, haranguing passerby and holding up signs like this one:

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I have no idea what this portends…

They seem to, however
They seem to, however. It’s awfully specific.

Crossing Alameda

Darkness invisible, Arts District
La belle époque in the Arts District

Five years ago this summer 17-year-old Lily Burk stopped at the Southwestern School of Law to pick up some papers for her mother.  It was three o’clock in the afternoon.  As she approached her parked car on a side street off Wilshire, a career criminal and crack addict named Charlie Samuel, on a day pass from a nearby drug treatment facility, persuaded/intimidated/forced his way behind the wheel and drove off with her inside.  A half hour later they were at an ATM in Little Tokyo attempting to withdraw cash.  Surveillance cameras showed Lily standing mutely next to her abductor, surrounded by passerby.  She did not cry out or attempt to flee.  She called her father, a music journalist, then her mother, a law professor, asking for instructions in withdrawing cash using a credit card. Lily gave no indication she was in danger.  Only later when she did not return did they find the calls alarming. After walking her up to several ATM’s where she failed to retrieve cash,  Charlie returned with Lily to the car and he drove to an empty lot at 458 S. Alameda St.

On the other side of Alameda
The state of nature on the other side of Alameda

At 5 pm a mounted policeman encountered Charlie a short distance away in Skid Row, publicly intoxicated.   A search revealed a crack pipe, and the keys to Lily’s Volvo. He was taken into custody for possession.  No one knew he had any connection to Lily’s disappearance.  Or even that a girl named Lily had not come home. At this point even her parents hadn’t started making calls.

At dawn, following a night of agony for her mother and father in Los Feliz, Lily was found in the passenger seat of her car, throat slashed.  She bled out a short distance from passerby, in daylight hours, probably within minutes of her last ATM stop. She had dislocated her ankle in her final struggle with her murderer.

Why did she get back in the car has always been the tragic riddle in the middle of a tabloid horror show. How could she be so naive? Did the parents raise her that way?  Shame on us for even thinking that. The parents’ suffering is biblical. Who are we to second-guess? 

What did the killer have to gain?  He didn’t rape her.  She was unable to provide cash.  He possibly could have slunk safely away with an apology. Left unharmed, she might not even have called the police. Though she was in rehearsals to perform onstage at the Oakwood School in The Boston Marriage, she wasn’t given to histrionics, that much he could deduce. Lily could/might have chalked it up as a lesson learned and undertaken in the future a keener sense of self-preservation and a greater vigilance for creeps.

Charlie knew where to go. Fifth and Alameda, an industrial and lightly policed DMZ between the nouveau-monied world of Urban Radish and Wurstkuche and the blunt facts of the Union Rescue Mission. Venture a few blocks north and one is neck deep in sushi restaurants. A block east and one can purchase a pair of dungarees and a handmade batik blouse for $300. But turn left into the tent city east of downtown….and one enters a state of nature.

In a normal day in in Los Angeles, these worlds overlap only in the geographical margins. One can live in Los Feliz or Santa Monica and have only the most passing interaction with the small army of service economy workers who commute in from Panorama City to tend to your daily wants, nor know their names, nor understand their cosmology.  A particular worldly and artistically inclined teenager might maintain a wide circle of social acquaintances across the city, none of whom attend public school.  Or at least the sort of public school most Angelenos attend.  One can walk Wilshire Blvd, camera in hand, and admire the landmark Art Deco edifice that is the old Bullocks Department store and feel very much the urban explorer, and yet not push in half a block deeper to the SRO hotels, methadone clinics and four-to-a-room immigrant stash houses that lurk beyond.   One can be that Right Thinking Person who votes against the Three Strikes Law, or welfare reform, or border enforcement, or quality-of-life policing, and never know the consequences of the blight one piles up in someone else’s neighborhood.  Who feels categorical judgements about Good and Evil are for the unsophisticated. Right up until the day your neighbor’s daughter is snatched like Persephone and dragged down into the underworld on Hades chariot.

There they were in the car, Charlie and Lily, in a utilitarian No Man’s Land chosen by him where neither she nor he would be recognized.  What was said?  What was left unsaid?  We know only the denouement was not like its more famous cinematic analogue…which also took place on Alameda Street:

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A walk with Matthew 7:12

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All along the watchtower, neo-Gothic angels keep the view…

An inscription beneath reads: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

But few people look up and notice.  Fewer still know that before this magnificent edifice was the Park Plaza Hotel it was the Los Angeles headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Elks.   The Elks are one of those old school American organizations which require membership based on ‘good moral character’, belief in God and explicit rejection of the Communist Party.  The landmark Lodge 99 was designed in 1925 by Claud Beelman and hosted Olympic indoor swimming events.

The Elks sold the building due to shrinking attendance.  It’s now a hotel in name only that rents out for swanky weddings and film shoots.

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Across the street, in Macarthur Park, is a monument to the Hungarian Uprising.  Few people know (and the plaque at the base of the memorial makes no mention of it) the Uprising was against a Communist regime, backed by Soviet Union.  Much of the resistance was undertaken by Christians and they were crushed without mercy.  The crackdown was supported here in America by the Worker’s World Party, which later supported the Chinese government suppression of democracy in Tiananmen Square. The WWP is known today as the ANSWER Coalition, organizer of many anti-War and Occupy Wall Street rallies and marches.

Some of which have been held in….Macarthur Park.

The Lightless portion is known as the Democratic People's Republic
The Lightless portion is known as the People’s Republic

Few today remember Douglas Macarthur was the Commander in Chief of the Pacific and would-be savior of North Korea.  Sixty years after he was relieved of command by President Truman,  North Koreans are still living in darkness, literally.  They’re three inches shorter than their brethren to the south, and possession of a Bible is punishable by hard labor. Life in a prison camp north of the 38th Parallel is….abridged, and that’s a mixed blessing.

After the war many Korean refugees came to Los Angeles and settled near Macarthur Park, namesake of their liberation.

This isn’t intended to be a political blog…but it’s remarkable how much history one can absorb in a single walk if you take pictures and read inscriptions.  In fact as I was doing so, a van promoting a North Korean rescue organization rolled past and I was reminded of my friend Henny. Specifically her father, who as a young boy was placed into an execution line by the Communists. He took a bullet to the chest, woke an hour later, gravely wounded but alive, and staggered back to his village and found his mother in the church where she had been praying continuously since he was taken. He went on to have three daughters and own several convenience stores in Downey.

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Not far off, I encountered three street preachers, busking beneath the shade trees to a small audience of derelicts. They were undeterred, and I felt regret for missing mass this morning.

The only edifice which matters at the end, the one which lasts, is the Word we carry in our hearts. Even the magnificat of Notre Dame will slowly empty of the faithful and become a way station for tourists.  The Word endures, even when the material world is reduced to a prisoner and a guard standing together in a labor camp scratching a cross in the dust with a stick.  Time and tide will sweep the labor camp away, but as long as we continue to gather in his name, if only under a tree, the Word will reach the grandchildren.