If you head north along the Los Angeles coastline, you can find a once posh neighborhood that slid into the sea back in the 1930s. On the way, you’ll see a lot of loading cranes on the horizon, just like the ones Oakland pridesters like to wear on their hoodies and t-shirts. In fact, there are many more of these cranes in the Los Angeles harbor than there are in Oakland, where I used to live. Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, they’re either symbols of dirty transoceanic shipping that can be found in almost any port city, or they’re symbols of George Lucas’s frenzied imagination of imperial military might. Either way, it’s hard to see where pride or geographic specificity figure into it.
After the cranes, and at the end of Fermin Park, is a tall fenced gate and barricade. Past the fence, the road continues to an abrupt end, and well below that is the so-called sunken city of Los Angeles. Between a dozen and two dozen homes were destroyed in quakes and ongoing slides as the cliff here gave way. A manhole cover sits two inches from the edge of a cliff. Between several improbable palm trees, tall grass, blooming fennel and wildflowers overtake broken, wildly angled and heavily graffiti’d roads, pipes and curbs.
I read an article recently about the rise of Detroit ruin porn that pointed out how the well-documented fetish many people have for decay and industrial ruins can actually create a “brand” of ruin, furthering the perception of a place as dead when in fact many people still live, work and struggle there. In the case of Detroit, I can see how reveling in wreckage is a bit antisocial, perhaps even cruel, and yet the very idea of inevitable death, carrying with it the manifest folly of human concerns, is at the core of ruin porn fetish. Memento mori: You and everyone you know will die and become wreckage plowed under and renewed, because that’s they way of all things. Fight it and be terrified; accept it and know peace. Live accordingly.
The day before, I’d visited the old Los Angeles Zoo, now partially in ruins, and found it disturbing to think about the animals and their experience of the place. Standing in the nicely overgrown rubble of a former human neighborhood, I felt only peace. I watched in vain for the whales known to travel in the sea close to this point, on their way north in May, and kept darting my eyes to catch the last bit of disappearing gophers and lizards. Rookeries of large pelicans floated slowly by.
Several teenagers, one playing a ukelele, moved past speaking in low voices, en route to a secluded low-tide beach. Years ago, I embarrassed my mother when I joked about her desire to learn the ukelele. “Mom, the ukelele is like Gilligan’s Island or something,” I said. “Why not just learn the guitar?” I apparently put her off the idea, and felt remorse about it. And now, all the cool kids are playing the ukelele: Merrill Garbus/Tune-Yards, Eddie Vedder and 8000 others on YouTube are all crazy for their ukeleles.
* * *
When I spotted my dopplegänger, he was at the edge of a cliff. He was my height, of similar build, wore a black t-shirt and pants like mine, and was standing meditatively next to a bicycle, arms at his sides, facing the sea.
I took my time in the ruins and wondered what my double was doing here. When I drew close, I noted how thick and corded his forearms were as he turned and said, clear-eyed: “I’ve been waiting for you. I dreamed that something was going to happen.”
“Yeah?” I said.
Because I felt at peace with the place, and with the presentiment of death and decay, I didn’t find any of this ominous. And my threshold for weird was fairly high. The day before, en route to a trip through the ruins of the old L.A. Zoo, hoping for news of an old friend who makes me fear the worst, I’d knocked on a large wooden door in West Hollywood and had a conversation through a keyhole with a talented and deeply eccentric violinist that ended cryptically with “you’re still young; go and enjoy life.” People can disappear. It happens every day.
“What else did you dream?” I asked.
“Fukushima, man, I dreamed Fukushima, and I knew something was going to happen.” As he spoke, he rocked back and forth through his tightly bunched shoulders, and made only oblique eye contact. Pelicans kept drifting by.
I said it was terrible, Fukushima, and asked him what he was doing here. He told me he came here all the time. I asked him how he’d ridden his bike down and he told me he hadn’t, that he’d carried it down.
He told me his name was Darren, and then told me a story of how things can fall apart. It wasn’t self-pitying so much as it was a way of getting at why he was standing in this spot, today. After he told me the story of his family’s bad fortunes, he moved on to a redemptive story about this place.
“I used to go down, over there, to this low-tide beach. I got hung up one day, the water just took me off the rocks, and back. Scraped me into coral pretty good, but I climbed, and these guys were shouting and yelling from up the cliff while the water kept pounding. And I just knew to let go, to just let go, and the next wave took me right back where I got hold and climbed out. The guys couldn’t believe it. The Coast Guard said people died there all the time, but I knew. Right down there. So I come here now to just breathe and feel the ocean.”
I thought about the times I’d come close to dying, and we talked for a while longer and had communion over hardship, nature, and the everything & the nothing. It was good to be alive on a warm sunny day, feeling the ocean and standing in a place where a deeper and more purposeful order is evident. Memento mori.
“Be careful of grassy spots,” Darren said as I turned to leave. “They may look solid, but there are deep holes around here.”
POSTSCRIPT: Visiting ruins and walking away from them can be uplifting. You may be standing in wreckage, but usually it’s easy to witness the inevitable assertion of a more natural, and often far more beautiful order in “ruined” places. If flowers, grasses, moss, birds, spiders, squirrels and lizards can all come make homes in ruins and make new good from them, then why can’t we? And as for long odds, well, a story dear to my heart is told by Finns when describing a quality they’ll tell you is core to their national character, sisu.
Two Finnish soldiers are fleeing the Russian army on skis. At one point, they duck behind an embankment, and one soldier turns to the other and says “Look over and tell me what we’re facing.”
The other soldier pokes his head up, scans for a minute, then slumps back down.
“There must be two hundred of them,” he moans.
“Dammit!,” says the other. “It will take weeks to bury them all!”