Mining the States of City Minds: 5

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 fifth 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 traced this suspect's continued journey, and his securing of temporary sanctuary. In the fourth I tracked this person's escape from this place to the beach where he met several residents who occupied a camp. Here I record his continuing experiences on the beach where he is detained by some of these residents.

Beach Warriors

Wyatt shuffles across the Boardwalk, closer to the pagoda, looking up and down the strip. As he approaches it he feels more confident; his steps become more measured. He looks briefly back toward the café, as if to get a firm picture in his mind, then waves like he's saying goodbye to a close friend and passes the pagoda. He keeps walking until he sees shapes emerge a few hundred feet ahead, three or four that begin separating from each other and move toward him. He stops briefly and turns north, parallel with the water, freezing in his tracks at the sound of a voice from the group.

"Hey, what's your business? Who are you?"

Wyatt's tempted to turn around and head back to the Boardwalk. The voice is unnerving. The shapes move closer toward him, so he decides to face them.

"Just looking for a friend who came out here a while ago, and need..."

"...sure officer, we can help you...we'll cooperate fully with the law!" another voice bellows. "Your pals were just here a while ago."

"No, gotta be I avoid them all the time, don't know anyone who's a cop, honest."

They stop about fifty feet away as he finishes, like they're the cops and following procedure to apprehend a suspect.

"Don't move another step," the original voice commands, "just get down on all fours and be still."

Wyatt obeys while continuing to protest. "You're making a mistake...been hanging inland for a long time but...don't you know me?"

The shapes congeal and surround Wyatt as he keeps muttering. He loses it as one of them, apparently the leader, begins to frisk him.

"What're you doing? I ain't got nothing to...who you looking for?"

The frisker finishes a once-over and looks deceived, then smirks. He dittos the process more persistently with the same results.

"Proves you a cop! Where's your stuff?"

"No way! I've been storing it over on Lincoln at a friend's place. I never carry ID."

"Well, what're you doing out here anyway? We've never seen you before. The heat's been all over here in the past few hours, something about somebody getting it on the other side of Main. They swept through and picked up a bunch of folks along the sand."

"Like I said, just looking for a friend and, well, need to get away...think the cops will be back?"

"What are you worried about? Your eyes say you're hiding something...why you wanna be down here?"

Wyatt's at a loss as to how he could be suspected. "Your eyes say you're everybody figured before you even give them a chance!"

"Give him a break...we can handle him if we have to," a shape behind him answers the leader.

Wyatt accepts this as the best he'll get from any welcoming committee. He turns around to inspect the source of the comment, but by then it's shifted location and he's not sure who it was, especially since now other shapes come closer to form a circle around him. The only one he can identify for sure is the leader.

"Yeah, we all got something to hide boss, especially you!" a voice from the periphery punctures the momentary ceasefire, revealing conflict in the group.

The leader remains silent, eyes fixed on Wyatt and undaunted by the comment. It's the eyes that Wyatt notices most, brown ovals that seem to change shape with the inflection of his sentences. And they look intensely at him, like he's focused on the backside of his brain. This surprises him. Most everyone on the street had poor eye contact, like they lacked the energy to stay at it. Their glances fidgeted over the visual field like they were starved hypes, finding mostly fuzzy figures. Their eyeballs were covered with an oily filament that forced away gazes from even the stubbornly gregarious.

Wyatt rocks nervously back and forth, baby-stepping away from the group.

"Just what I thought, you're hiding something!"

"I got nothing to hide from you guys. Why are you keeping me here?"

The leader pulls away confident, and suggests they bring Wyatt to their camp down the beach. The rest of the band falls into line and escorts Wyatt, who suspects he's their prisoner and prepares for another round of tests.

The leader seems to have a power over the rest that's based in respect. He takes charge naturally, as if he's expressing their wishes. Wyatt notices that his movements are quicker. Perhaps he's pumped by his position and has more energy. Otherwise he appears to be mostly like the rest.

They wear a ragtag blend of styles taken from chic boutiques or display tables along the beach or the better thrift stores, or lifted from the dumpsters near them, or bartered from the underground recycler network where many of these objects end up, wherever they can get what they need for whatever. Some are adorned in military paraphernalia from this or that war, fatigue shirts and pants, medals, hats, helmets, etc. A few are vets but they can forget which war they were in, at times boasting of actions in one they weren't in, or even a made up one. Not many are from a jungle war like Nam. Those are often too burned out from years of struggle and end up flushed into the inland street jungle, catatonic civilians doting on their imaginary pensions in private. It's mostly those from the desert conflicts that stick it out, finding the stormy sand strip a convenient and natural habitat.

The leader looks like a very curious kind of warrior to Wyatt, not one easily transposed to any of the existing hotspots around the globe he knows of. He's wearing a green beret that seems fairly new and unsoiled, along with a bandana, or at least what passes for one. It looks like an extra-wide brown paisley tie that surfaced from a trunk in grandma's attic. It's wrapped around his head unevenly, dipping slightly on the left side. He's covered by an oversize down coat, dark and soiled, which has hand-drawn stripes on the shoulders. Underneath the coat are what seems like a pajama top and gray flannel exercise bottoms. He's wearing two different cowboy boots, one black and fairly new; the other abstracted and smudged, once a snake-leather pattern, which lacks a heel. Wyatt decides that his habitat could only be some unknown, covert theater since he seems to lack the machinic mannerisms of a military type, though perhaps they're buried beneath layers of street chaos where rank is a whimsical reward and friends and enemies shift allegiances faster than low-cloud burn-off in August. Maybe they never existed. The word is he's hush-hush about his past, but rumors flare. One is that he'd been a mime artist who performed on the beach for spare change and over time became proficient at disguises. His getup does seem a bit contrived.

"Seen you somewhere before...sure you ain't a cop?" one of the guards says to Wyatt as they cross over the lip of the sand and down toward water's edge. He seems suspicious but also like he's making an effort to bridge the distance. "I'll remember in a minute," he continues.

"Let's crash it for the night," interrupts the leader. "We aren't going to get anything from him anyway." The guard stares at him and gestures toward Wyatt as if he's ready to spring at him. He backs off slowly.

"I can git it!" says the guard.

The group continues moving south along the water with Wyatt. Down a hundred feet or so there's an alcove, a miniature rocky bay with a mound set above it at its eastern edge. It's roughly ten feet above the water. Along the coast of the bay below is the equivalent of jagged cliffs. The wall of soil and sand is embedded with boulders, and gives the impression of being recently formed from the tide's ferocity, leaving the innards of the earth exposed, another strip crumbling into the sea, perhaps a stark visual hint of society's fragility. It's a perfect habitat for burrowing into its foundations, and hiding out for a while. Between some boulders are spaces where caves have been dug out. Others are natural survivals of the collapse that have been reclaimed for use. With a little imagination it could be a crude miniature replica of one of those prehistoric cities built out of a rocky mountainside in the Southwest.

There aren't many "residents" in evidence, likely because of the earlier sweeps. A few shapes rustle here and there. An occasional pair of eyeballs surfaces from the shifting moonlight, becoming quickly shadowed in the next shift. Along the shore are a couple of ambulatory shapes looking around who acknowledge the group's return. Above on the mound, partially shielded by two medium-sized eucalyptus trees, are two stationary shapes. One looks inland, and the other observes the area down below.

The leader gives a signal to everyone with his arm, a kind of sweeping gesture that seems to say that everything's under control.

"Let's put him in Engy's place," a woman says, the only female present who so far has remained stationery and stoic. "She won't be back for at least a few days."

"Well, that might work, but we should probably put him nearer to telling what some of the others will do who don't know who he is, especially after last night."

Her physical appearance blends in with the others. It's only a slight variation on their eclectic tribal uniform. But her voice betrays an amicable tone. It's not necessarily a female voice, but is soothingly different from the others. He's surprised to hear it since the stories he'd heard about the beach strip rarely mention women. He'd once been fascinated with the idea, from a Sociology class in college, that women are less prone to aggression and violence and therefore more sensitive guides. He now feels hopeful that he might not be a prisoner.

A guard steps toward Wyatt and urges him to the wall, causing him to recoil. He looks toward the woman but she has faded into the shadows.

"Here's your motel room, you're not ready for this, are you!" blurts the guard, as if he's trying to mentally challenge Wyatt's physical resistance.

The guard leads Wyatt to his lodgings. It's a fairly wide and shallow space, and not far above the sand. Inside there's a chaotic mess of items, like the occupier threw them in hastily before making a quick exit, perhaps using the space for storage. But there's a bedroll inside that's in fairly good shape, giving the space a lived-in feeling. It garnishes a heap of crushed paper, files and newspaper clippings, what appear to be legal documents, a few torn photos, and several candles of variable lengths. On the very fringe, set off on a plateau of compacted sand, are an ornate crucifix and a long series of books that the owner has carefully arranged. The picture is somewhat incongruous, suggesting that more than one type of person occupies the space. Wyatt tries to read the book titles but there isn't enough light, and fatigue rushes him. He buries himself in the bedroll like he's trying to erase his conscious existence and trip back to the womb.

He awakes abruptly, his eyes open unnaturally wide like he never really took the fatigue-plunge, but
so acutely aware of the potential danger from hovering on the edge of consciousness. He doesn't know how long he has been under, though it seems like a very short time. But the area outside the cave, especially the inlet, seems to have changed. The shadows cast by the moonlight are different, as if the night's coming closer to its end. The waves are noticeably calm, and except for a few cawing seagulls there are virtually no sounds. It's that sensation he knew so well from being out and about on the streets in the darkest wee hours, when he could think and see better without the clutter of persons and things. The guards are no longer patrolling the shore. He looks up to the mound and sees no one, takes a deep breath and holds it for several seconds, letting it out slowly. He feels he sees everything clearly before him now and bolts toward the water, walking upright into the weak waves...

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). He has a book of short stories forthcoming in 2017.