After a summer without a sighting, I found Rebecca tonight in the scrubland behind the 405.
A woman was sitting on the Metrolink tracks, lacing up her shoes, bellowing incoherently into the ailanthus: Whag-gle! Whah-gul! It took me a moment to realize she was trying to say “White Eagle”. I walked through the bushes in the direction the woman was shouting and found Rebecca dragging her cart across the dirt.
She’d lost a little weight since May. It hadn’t been going well. The Valley was pretty well picked for scrap. The battalions of the white favela had seen to that. A weeks work of scrapping net a little over 20 pounds of copper coil. A steady drop in metal prices meant the Raymer street yard was paying $1.60/lb. Her old man was drinking it away in front of the 7-11 at Roscoe and Sepulveda. They had been living on Orion for awhile but had recently gotten bounced by local merchants. Before that, The Narrows. Before that, Saticoy.
Someone had stolen her tent while she was at the recyclers. She had no money for a new one. She was on the move.
For the time being, they were sleeping behind Jack in the Box until they figured it out it.
The first time I met White Eagle he was emerging from an abandoned warehouse with a shopping cart heaped with salvaged electrical wires. He was wearing leather pants and earrings, and looked like he played guitar in a glam rock band. For a guy living on the street, which he claimed to be doing for 13 years, and down to his last five teeth, he was oddly, unexpectedly attractive. He was on his way to the recycling center with his plunder, and his rapid-fire tweaker talk was so animated it arced across the space between us and I felt like I just did a bump myself.
After the murder in the favela last year, I kept an eye out for him, but he proved hard to find.
Tonight I finally met him again by the railroad, dragging a cart. He was wearing short-shorts and boots, and had an American flag hanging from his back pocket like a bandana. From a distance, he looked like the hot chick he had been working toward becoming for some time. Withgreat pins, as the cigar-chomping talent managers of yesteryear would say. Give us a spin, darling…
We recognized each other right off. “White Eagle”, I called out. “How are you?”
“Rebecca”, she corrected me. “I don’t go by White Eagle anymore.”
On that note, I shift pro-nouns.
She told me she was from Rocky Boy, Montana and was half-Cheyenne, one quarter Lakota, one quarter Irish. She was married, to a woman, for 13 years. She was in the Marine Corps for 16 years. How and why these chapters in her life overlapped, then ended, she didn’t elaborate, nor did I pry. For now, no longer was she living on the back side of the 405 or in the Narrows but down off Sherman Way on ‘a trail all to herself.’ There was a downside to operating outside the favela. People tried to steal her belongings all the time.
As we spoke, I wondered what Mapplethorpe would do with her face. It was from the Civil War. It was from Studio 54. It strode the catwalk of history, yet spoke of the ravages of meth. It was carved from onyx. Self-destruction and great genetics had fought here to a draw. I longed for Andrew’s Fuji X camera, but had to make do with an iPhone.
She had some kind of falsies inserted into a bra under her shirt. Trucks pull over for her all the time on Sepulveda.
“Get in,” they order her. She doesn’t do that, she assures me, but they insist. Then she rolls up her sleeve and shows them her Marine tattoo.
She doesn’t take money from people, she wanted me to know, and never handouts. She no longer gets checks from the VA, just medical, and earns $50/day off recycling. She walks ten miles, pulling the cart. It can be lonely.
As we parted, I remembered it was Memorial Day. I thanked her for her service.
All the street people rusticating in the Valley seem to have one denominator in common: they each have a bike. Even the saddest blue tarp shanty has a wheel poking out somewhere.
I’m old enough to remember when a bike was an expensive proposition. Now you can cook one from parts. You don’t have to worry about theft with a bike like that, which is part of the DIY appeal. The basic life problem of movement from location A to location B is resolved. The street bike empowers, even as it simplifies.
There’s a great movie line from Neil McCauley in Heat: “never keep anything in your life you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner.” As a personal code, it works in the white favela. For a man with a wife, a dog, a cat, and a mortgage, not so much.
But a bike, even if for only an hour or so, can put you one step closer to your earlier, pre-Cambrian self. It can unleash the Id. It can peel layers. Cranking pedals across the Valley, you can be the child who was the father of the man you are today. The First You, the one before all your Choices made you.
“Come down to the Kitchen, and let’s build you a road bike,” said Marcus, over the phone.. Off I went, like Homer Simpson in pursuit of Truck-a-Saurus.
And we cooked a bike…
Then we went back to his teacup bungalow in Echo Park and made comfort food, and drank craft beer and vaporized product and listened to Led Zeppelin on vinyl, through a tube amp, shedding adulthood like dandruff.
Back to the primordial ooze…
After a long afternoon, I staggered back to my car, bike in tow, and passed this house:
Two small bedrooms downstairs, and a view of the Autozone parking lot on Glendale Blvd. $900,000. Seriously.
Nobody who is tied to a paycheck, even a large one, would pay this. Yet there are people who are paying it, all over town. Trustafarians. Speculators. Chinese investors, phoning in blind bids from Chengdu, all cash, the better to park their money far away from the Hang Seng index.
And they love bikes in Echo Park.
Los Angeles is becoming a city of million dollar shacks and people living under tarps, with mobile phones, feeding off government handouts. We are becoming poorer in a cave of wonders. Wealthier in smaller spaces. The bicycle may be the last thing we all have in common.
The white favela, having been forcibly dispersed from its redoubt along Cabrito Road two months ago, re-established itself in small clusters around Van Nuys. The largest of these was adjacent to the Smart and Final, which was, in a hat tip to the Law of Unintended Consequences, a mere hundred feet from the old favela, but ten times as visible from Van Nuys Blvd, or to anyone coming out the Home Depot parking lot. I was there yesterday buying beer for my coolies my friend Marcus, who was helping me terrace the front yard with native succulents. This is was what we saw when we pulled into the parking lot. The cashier told us business had been off 30% in recent weeks. Smart and Final was suing the city and there was a hearing scheduled for the 29th.
This morning we returned to the Depot for more soil, and lo, the blue tarps were gone. The street swept bare of all traces of the encampment. A few police cars were parked at the end of the block. A city vehicle was collecting debris. It was the 28th.
Gone, baby, gone.
But not really. All over Van Nuys, the favela was on the move.
Their barrows heaped with shoddy, temporarily abandoned here and there, while they went back for the rest.
They will circumnavigate the un-policed areas of the Valley until they gather in such numbers as to be a recognized nuisance again. And by recognized, I mean the next time the City receives a notice of legal action on a corporate letterhead.
*An unfinished version of this post was published accidentally an hour ago. I apologize if it ended up in your inbox.
The first time I met White Eagle he was emerging from an abandoned warehouse with a shopping cart heaped with electrical wires. He was wearing leather pants and earrings, and looked like he played guitar in a glam rock band. For a guy living on the street, which he claimed to be doing for 13 years, and down to his last five teeth, he was oddly, unexpectedly attractive. He was on his way to the recycling center with his plunder, and his rapid-fire tweaker talk was so animated it arced across the space between us and I felt like I just did a bump myself.
From time to time I would see him while I was out walking the dogs, and there were these little nods of recognition, bum and homeowner. Usually he was coming or going from Raymer Street, bearing his loads of scrap and offered short, effervescent bursts of conversation which I politely nodded along with but could make no sense of a minute later as I replayed them in my head.
Once I found him in a reflective mood. I asked how he was doing. He professed loneliness.
“I’m homeless veteran and I’m gay. I’m a one-man leper colony out here.”
Four Mexicans had recently tried to beat him up, he said. For being a faggot. Even after he did them a solid by pointing pursuing police in the wrong direction. He put a stop to that quick. He wasn’t in the Navy Seals for 12 years for nothing. Or was it the Green Berets? His story evolved with different tellings. Sometimes he was on the street for 12 years, sometimes in the military. Sometimes both.
Earlier in the summer he was staying in The Narrows, a concrete channel behind Target. It was going to be dry down there for awhile, and they were going to make the most of it. They had tarp shade overhead and lights and a cookstove and a generator. The police told them they could stay as long as they didn’t make too much noise or bother the neighbors. Or so he said.
After the murder in the favela last week, I went looking for White Eagle, to see what I could learn. When I went to the Narrows, they professed no knowledge of him. When I went to the favela, they told he lived up at the 405.
“He never comes down here. That’s where he belongs.”
I went to the 405. Everyone was gone.
I mean everybody. Normally dozens of people live here. It was like the Rapture had come.
Next time you exit the 405 in the Valley and you wonder what’s going on down in the shrubbery, this is it. Urban hobbits have built a shire. Where they’ve gone now, and for how long, I don’t know. Maybe when I see White Eagle again, he’ll tell me.
You can feel it out there on the street now. Twenty years of sound public policy going up in smoke.
Along the Metrolink tracks, where I once saw two or three parolees and drug addicts during a single walk, I now see twenty.
At the North Hollywood Metro station, I step out of the car and a grown man on a child’s bike starts circling me as I cross the parking lot, making a whoop-whoop sound, circling tighter and tighter, till he’s almost clipping my knees, muttering incomprehensibly. A radio hangs from his neck on a string, blasting pointless static. The Sheriff’s deputies who monitor the plaza entrance don’t lift a finger as he moves on to the next unsuspecting commuter.
On the train I meet two men with prison-issue telephone scars. Two, in five minutes.
At home I turn on the TV and the mayor of Baltimore is granting “those who wished to destroy, the space to do that as well,” to a backdrop of burning liquor stores and pharmacies. The district attorney follows up by indicting six police officers for murder for failing to secure a prisoner with a seat belt. In the ensuing month Baltimore records it highest murder rate in 40 years. Seemingly sober people appear on cable panel shows scratching their chins, wondering if cause and effect could be related.
The distance between those who effect policy and shape our discussion of it (The Clerisy, to use a term of art), and the rest of us has become unsustainably wide. There is a particular species of American who waxes sanctimonious about Social Justice but would never tolerate Section 8 tenants on his block for five minutes. They love chewing on phrases like mass incarceration, comfortable in the knowledge the parolees are headed for Van Nuys. Such people are ascendant now.