Mining the States of City Minds: 4

In "Mining the States of City Minds," a recent blog, I introduced my approach to experiencing the texture of city life in Venice, California and writing up the resulting stories with a type of literary journalism. This kind of writing, with roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s, captures these stories as they happen in the streets and other sites of everyday life through scenes that are faithful to the action and events they emerged from. It lets characters speak for themselves, which gives the writing the feel of a fictional short story but also a more truthful approximation of the surfacing event through their differing perspectives or points of view. Like a Surrealist flaneur I amble through the city trolling for stories and find their potential elements in various clusters of activity, sometimes homeless camps, where these voices dramatize their challenging existences. They present the evidence that might lead to a larger story waiting to be told. My resulting scenes mix direct and indirect (playing undercover detective on occasion) observations and the reorganization of conversations. This is the fourth in my series. In the first I captured the chaos ensuing from a crime in the streets, and especially the actions and impressions of one person suspected of committing it as he escapes into the bowels of the city. In the second I captured another scene in a park at night where a few residents from the previous one are present along with others, including the suspect. In the third I trace this suspect's continued journey, and his securing of temporary sanctuary. Here I trace this person's escape from this place to the beach where he meets several residents who occupy a camp.

Guardians of the Sand

Wyatt's first reaction is to run north on Speedway, since the source of the lights is the Dudley intersection near the front of Desiree's place. But he puts the brakes on as a copter appears over the trees from the east and begins to feverishly illuminate the area. He notices that the car is still parked at alley's edge, but as he gets closer it's clear that no one's inside. He hears loud door-knocking in the distance along with voices

"Is that the cops?" he whispers, while looking toward the intersection. His question is answered as his eyes meet those of a female officer. At least he thinks they meet. She doesn't seem to see him. He must be shadowed by the edge of the building. But she makes no effort to try a better angle. He remains motionless. She turns to a fellow officer and says something, and he takes the cue, ducking behind the building, waiting for a sign that this is over. He's surprised that no one approaches him. The voices continue. He remembers the female officer. She used to be very friendly, even show sympathy for his situation.

"She must've not seen me," he whispers. "But I'm not gonna hang around and find out!"

He tiptoes north across the adjacent parking lot and crawls under a Bentley parked behind a new condo. From his experience the cops usually search places that street folks are associated with or known to frequent, those where they would certainly not want to be, under or between or astride the objects considered discards by most everyone else. He stretches out under the belly of the Bentley and breathes deep. It's a curious smell, not one he expects, like fresh fertilizer, or perhaps damp leaves. He holds his nose while taking a deep breath and smells what seems like perfime, but suspects it's an illusion, like when a slamming door, or backfiring car, can suggest a gun shot. No grit and grease, what he remembers from working under his old Beamer back in college when he could almost feel the layers of history from its previous owners, see the evidence of their journeys. Perhaps the car passed through some vegetation. But the whole underside is relatively spotless. It's fairly new, but who would take such pains to clean the underside of their car? What kind of a person might they be? He tries to visualize the person. Maybe he'd seen him or her before, strutting along the Boardwalk. Maybe he or she is one of those who want him and the others off the streets.

He nearly forgets where he is and what's happening, like he's suddenly passed to a parallel universe. Still supine, he looks around and sees no one, hears nothing. Perhaps the cops left the area while he's been lost in his thoughts. He slides to the left, out from under the car's frame, and gets up slowly, peeking over the top of the car toward the Dudley intersection. There's no activity. The only sign of life is a flutter of pigeons facing off with their shadows on the nearby wall.

He wants to go back to Desiree, but hesitates. "Get it together," he whispers. "You can't go there now!"

A car slows down at the stop sign on Rose, and turns on Speedway toward him. He ducks behind the Bentley and waits until it passes. He thinks he recognizes the driver, Courtney, who lives in a penthouse on the beach at Sunset. Probably just back from the Hollywood party scene. He lunges toward the car, breaking into a sprint, but stops in his tracks. He can't believe he did this. He hears a sound off in the distance, perhaps from the beach, and abruptly reverses course toward Rose, cutting through a vacant lot to the Boardwalk.

He hesitates, sitting on a chair left from the day's business at the café next door. No one is on the Boardwalk. The only signs of life are a few errant seagulls, and shapes moving toward the water. Even the pagoda appears abandoned. This is a covered gathering place rimmed in benches where by day mothers strolling their babies stop and chat, senior citizens trade memory morsels, and locals bask in their shared disdain of the tourists who mostly return the sentiment chattering among the tablecloths on the east side. But by the time twilight threatens, these residents give way to a smattering of street folks, RV residents from the adjacent parking lot and a few petty dealers. The day crowd despises them, and frequently verbal assaults, and sometimes fisticuffs, flare up during the changeover. But they form a relatively functional family among themselves, a sort of in-group that's fairly aware of their situations, a few of whom had decent lives before and are trying to transition back. Wyatt knew some of them who made it over to Indiana on occasion.

As the twilight seasons and flips into darkness, the self-appointed guardians of the sand lie in wait to reclaim their turf. This changeover is more complicated. For one thing, the divide between this group and the previous one is more permeable. There's a one drop rule at work. Whereas the day crowd rigidly refuses the twilight transitioners, hence the flare-ups, because they're tainted with street life, the night crowd reverses the code. They know what it's like to be refuse. Once tainted, always tainted, could be their motto. Some take pride in their markings, even strive to get more, seeing them as merit badges earned from double-dipping in the detritus produced by others, or resume-lines for gaining a better position in their society.

So the twilighters feel like they might have a better chance of fitting into it, as opposed to the normal one, which builds up pretty rigid prejudices. Respectable normals see street folks who gorge in subterranean lifestyles like felons who are forever fingered.

Once the changeover is nearly complete, and the timid have made it back across the Boardwalk, sentries usually arrive at the pagoda. They seem like regular street folks, but with ample badges. Their purpose is to repel outsiders, spot and divert the heat, and screen for members. They're weaponless and often accompanied by a few pitbulls, cerbera ready to escort initiates and expel deviates.

Wyatt's surprised that no one appears to be in the pagoda area at this hour. A security breach? The aftereffects of a successful raid? Had its regular stakeholders vanished because of the activity on Dudley? They were usually more brazen and grizzled, like special ops vets not easily deterred by police action. He walks across the Boardwalk to the pagoda, unsure whether he should push further. He'd heard rumors recently that Emil, who'd been on and off the streets for several years, crossed over looking for someone who had information he needed to get some of his property back. And he never returned. Some said it was because he snuffed it at high tide, sick of the rat race, others that he found it to be not all that different from inland, and yet others that he'd finally found the place he'd always been homesick for where he could fulfill his potential and be all that he can be.

He flashes on a moment several months earlier when he crossed over briefly in the wee hours almost by accident looking for a friend. His queries only produced stares and mumbles, but he didn't feel threatened so much as embarrassed. He'd heard some grueling stories since though about what goes on here, and harbored a secret desire to return.

He was intrigued by the idea of living next to the water anyway, the sensation of being at the edge. It all stops here! This had to do something to those who had a desire to live better, the rush from the smell and sight, the vastness and immensity before you. It had to wake you up, give you better insight. That's why he went to the beach whenever he could. But the times were limited in the day. They had to be before or after the beautiful people arrived, in the morning or late afternoon and early evening. But ironically he learned that these were the good times anyway, when the first streams of light appeared, giving everything in their paths a different look, making you do double-takes. And when they began slipping away, withdrawing from the people and objects, making you feel sort of sad, you also felt refreshed since you knew, or at least hoped, that it would all start over the next day...

John O'Kane has published over a hundred stories, essays and poems in a variety of venues, blogs regularly on Huffingtonpost, and edits and publishes AMASS Magazine. His most recent book is, A People's Manifesto (2015).