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The View From Babylon
By Donald Rawley
Warner BooksCopyright © 1999 Donald Rawley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLet us speak, briefly, of madness. On this August morning in Los Angeles there was a 3.6 aftershock at approximately 5:46 a.m. Enough to jolt me from sleep, it knocked over a small vase of flowers taken from the hospital in Sherman Oaks where my friend recuperates from viral pneumonia. Not to worry; no one here pays attention to tremors until they hit the big numbers: 4.5, 5.0. As for the pneumonia, I was told over the phone the night before that "that's what hospitals are for; they're good at that death thing."
Today it will be the hottest day in Los Angeles in the last one hundred years. Hell is being delivered to us in small increments. Over the past four years L.A. has become a confusion, a new vision of Apocalypse. Yet we still try to plot our lives by a swimming pool, talk to the right people, make correct decisions. We attempt beauty. Sometimes, in the madness, we succeed.
During the Northridge quake, my dining room collapsed, outside cement walls crumbled and windows blew apart in the early morning black. The hot January air was unusually dry, and shrouded in a stink of lemon blossoms. I grabbed a leftover red Christmas candle, lit it, and ran outside to see if my neighbors were alive. They were parked in their cars, motors running, lights and radios on. Looking up at the hills, I saw other headlights, like fireflies, dotting the shadows.
I remember candle wax had covered my arm to the elbow, and I only noticed it at dawn. I had not felt anything.
Three blocks away, an apartment building cracked in half, from the center; its two elevators were forced up through the roof like beans out of a can. I remember walking through the rubble of my house and thinking, This has to be cleaned up. I'm having a dinner party in three weeks. Later I would go into shock for several hours. In three weeks I had my dinner party. A 5.2 hit several minutes before we sat down to eat, and no one said a word. Because this is how life works in Los Angeles.
People who survive here really have to be adrenaline junkies."
This statement is made by Samantha Dunn, a freelance journalist who teaches poetry to teenagers in South Central Los Angeles. We are driving in her new Nissan Sentra on the Ventura Freeway toward Malibu. We both know in her car we can have the air-conditioning on, speak privately, and just disappear for an hour.
Samantha is a beautiful, pale-skinned young woman with thick red hair. Her eyes stare straight ahead, into the freeway grit, as she explains why her Nissan is new. During the quake her neighbor's chimney fell on her car, flattening it to the ground.
"When I saw it hit, my husband and I started laughing. Only in Los Angeles is your car going to be smashed by a metric ton of brick and you still want to go inside and fix yourself a cool drink. With ice."
"Are you an adrenaline junkie? Is that how you survive?" I ask this as a black couple in a Cadillac Eldorado in the lane next to us argue quite loudly. They see I am looking at them and they speed up, rolling up their windows as they pass. They continue arguing.
"The tension here is like a low-grade hum all the time, like static on the radio," Samantha murmurs. "When I go back to New Mexico for family visits, I feel as though I'm on another planet. It takes me days just to calm down from L.A."
The traffic begins to slow, due to an accident ahead. It is nearing sunset; soon the freeway will assume a new canvas, glittering and soulless. I switch the radio on. "Hypnotized," by Fleetwood Mac, is playing.
"I don't just survive here, I thrive," Samantha remarks quietly. "After the riots, it was a bit frightening going down to South Central to teach the kids, but I'm more frightened of being attacked, or my car stolen or house robbed, in my own neighborhood, than in South Central. With the rebuilding, it looks like Cairo down there. You don't know whether the buildings are going up or coming down."
"Or Beirut," I remark.
"I'm happy here. Los Angeles forces you to reassess who you are just about every day; this is the city where sometimes you might only have five minutes to grab what's left of your life and run. Everything that's happening here is going to happen to the rest of the world in ten years. We're the forefront."
"That's fine to say when you're young. In your twenties that kind of excitement works. But when you hit middle age, things change," I counter.
"Yeah, but right here and now, this is the most exciting city in the world. And the most dangerous, the most toxic."
Our car has stopped and the sun is setting in a crimson flush. Malibu is ten miles ahead; Topanga Canyon is to our left. We see a gasoline cargo truck on its side. There is an apparent gas leak on the highway. Two cars, a Ford and a Mercedes, are wrecked. There is an ambulance driving toward them. Much of the guardrail has been destroyed; traffic is being rerouted and police have set up emergency flares.
"What a beautiful sunset," Samantha says.
There is a firm belief here that the stranger at the door will be a killer simply by a lessening of odds. Rapists impersonate policemen, immigration officers, and doctors. Rapists sneak into backseats of unattended cars outside high schools and churches. Here rape is spiritual. Stay too long and you go home without a soul.
On Wednesday, August 10, 1994, a homeless couple living out of their station wagon, Kathyleen and Steven Giguere, were sentenced to six years in prison on felony child neglect charges in the death of their four-month-old son, Steven Jr. The infant was bitten over 110 times by a rat. Actual death occurred when the rodent's teeth struck an artery in Steven's wrist.
Steven Jr.'s corpse had air in its lungs, allowing a supposition he was screaming during the attack. Either Kathyleen was passed out from alcohol or drugs, or Steven was alone in the station wagon, which was full of garbage and roaches. It was parked in an Anaheim parking lot, where the Gigueres begged, using their welfare money and spare change to buy methamphet-amine and wine.
Disneyland was not far away. Perhaps the Gigueres panhandled in front of the theme park. Perhaps they forgot where the station wagon was, or the windows were rolled up for a reason only Kathyleen knows. Perhaps no one could be bothered to listen for a homeless baby crying as a rat chewed on its skin.
In the luridness we find our black mirror, the same mirror Truman Capote described Gauguin using at the turn of the century to relax his eyes after seeing too much color. With a black base, this instrument reduces all images to charcoals and grays, cooling the retina. Here in Southern California, at the turn of the century, we have seen too much color, and our eyes need to rest.
The studio of artist John Rose is located on Santa Fe Street in downtown Los Angeles. It is a Zenlike room, a long rectangle with bare, freshly painted white walls that seem electric when the northwestern light hits them. Six enormous cement columns divide the space, giving it the feel of an Egyptian temple. Art is stacked in corners.
From his windows John Rose can see two parking lots and the bridges over the Los Angeles River, with its midday dazzle of cement and oasis pockets of weeds and water. Beyond that he sees the rooftops of East L.A. I mention the view seems deserted.
"You're not looking close enough," Rose answers. "There are homeless camps under the bridge, drag queens luring in truck drivers at the far end of the parking lot, see? There's someone coming out from the bushes in the river with a fishing pole. The water's polluted, sewage, but he's fishing anyway. Now most of the queens are HIV positive. And most of those truckers they're blowing have a wife and kids. You figure it out."
My eyes become accustomed to the glare. Suddenly I see Rose is right. I see people in the fluid heat.
"It's like Babylon out there," Rose continues. "I've heard so many new languages I have no idea of, dialects, people I can't figure out what color, race, country. Even the homeless, particularly the mentally ill, have a new way of speaking to each other. New signals."
I notice a man about forty yards from John Rose's window sniffing from a bottle.
"The bottle is filled with gasoline," Rose notes. "This man fills it up every morning and sniffs it all day. I have never seen him so much as eat a sandwich. At dusk he begins to dance, like a dervish, in a constant circle, until he passes out. He does the same thing tomorrow, you know? I find it horrifying. But beautiful too. Almost like some sort of a shaman."
John Rose is fifty-two. He was born in Los Angeles and has lived here his entire life. For the past twenty years he has driven to his studio from an elegant house in Silver Lake.
"I like juxtaposition," Rose says. "I also love Los Angeles. L.A. is no longer an American city. It is another world entirely, the Queen of the Pacific Rim, like Miami is to the Caribbean."
I mention fear, crime. Rose shakes his head.
"No one here ever bothers to look at the past. People think the Northridge quake was the first big one! L.A. has always been violent. Look at Charles Manson. Before him, the Black Dahlia murder. There's a negative charge here, maybe the way the earth keeps shifting. It also brings creativity and excitement. My art doesn't change when an earthquake hits. I might change, but my art doesn't. That's what keeps me alive."
Overhead there is the sound of a helicopter's rotors, as though they are right above Rose's studio.
"They are," he answers. "My studio is in the direct line of police headquarters' helicopter launch pad. They fly over me day and night."
We watch two helicopters fly over us toward the Los Angeles River. They circle it for ten minutes, and people scatter; then they head toward Boyle Heights and East L.A.
"I know what you're thinking: Maybe I should find a quieter studio. I love it right here. Look at the light. The view. I'll never move."
Among the elite in Los Angeles you can never be too clean, smart, together, or rich. You must be all of the above, and more, in order to survive. If your Rolls is stolen outside a restaurant on La Cienega you immediately buy a Jeep Wagoneer; if you start to show lines in your face you begin aromatherapy, hydromassage. You elevate your mood with Prozac, or a Desyrel. If you need more sleep you take desipramine.
You make certain choices. You don't drink, because everybody in show business is in Alcoholics Anonymous. You don't smoke, because no public place will let you in Los Angeles. You admit to taking Prozac, but not to the fact that you have a vial of cocaine in your purse. If you have an affair, you are smart enough to conduct it in Honolulu or Mexico. If you get a divorce, you already have a fantastic prenuptial agreement.
You know how to play the game, and you are always covered. The game is still on in Los Angeles. In this world poverty and racism are meaningless, but the fluctuation in real estate values is not.
I am having lunch poolside with Roger Dauer, a real estate investor with a 13,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills. The estate has nine bedrooms and thirteen baths, a three-thousand-square-foot living room, three carved oak bars, a ballroom with a baby grand piano, and a mural of Hollywood in blacklight paint. Upstairs there is a screening room that seats fifty, with mauve leather chairs and stereophonic sound.
"We're all poor in the nineties," Roger says, putting down his fork. "I lost a lot of money on Beverly Hills real estate. So did everyone else. The big moment, when the bubble burst, was around June of 1990. I realized my wife and I would have to make lifestyle changes. Less bullshit, more realism. Then the quake. I'm tired of L.A., but where do you go after Beverly Hills? Think about it. Everything is a step down."
"You've always been very comfortable, Roger," I say.
"Gail and I have two beautiful daughters just about grown. Do you know anyone who wants an enormous mansion?"
"People are transferring huge assets from the Orient," I offer.
"There's been a lot of interest in this house from Hong Kong. And Macao," Roger notes, lowering his voice.
Somewhere below Sunset Boulevard I hear the faint sound of police sirens. The scent of Victorian rosebushes drapes the air, and a fountain is trickling near the pool. Roger gets up for a Diet Coke and asks if I want one. I nod my head.
"Just one calorie," Roger says, winking.
I am still thinking of Steven Giguere Jr. in the backseat of a station wagon in Anaheim, of helicopters beating over John Rose's studio. How I wake up each morning expecting a quake. Roger and I continue to chat about Pacific Rim investing and New Age music to de-stress by. Then we discuss security systems: when attack dogs and electrified fencing are absolutely necessary, how many of the major estates in Beverly Hills have 24-hour video surveillance, laser locks, whether or not household staff should carry loaded weapons.
When Roger asks me if I would like to see some new renovations in the house, I say yes, because that is, after all, a very constructive thing to do.
Beverly Hills based psychologist Dr. Lewis Cozolino has written many articles on child abuse and schizophrenia; he sees Los Angeles as typifying modern angst.
"There are no seasons in L.A., hence no logic. People are panicked about losing work, lifestyle. They work harder and make less money. The opportunity to relax is decreasing; people develop bad habits when they are under stress. Many get involved in meaningless activities. Others become obsessed with nutrition, bodybuilding, excessive exercise."
"What about disasters?" I ask.
"Add fires destroying homes a mile away, earthquakes, riots. There is a sense nothing may be here tomorrow. But there is more. L.A. is the essential narcissistic city. Because of the film business, generations of very beautiful people have moved here, bred and settled. You have three generations of incredibly beautiful people living here. And in the business, people are not selected for their intelligence, depth or compassion. It's all on looks."
I suddenly understand Cozolino. In an emotionally barren landscape, walls first have to be built before they can be electrified. You play by the rules or you don't play at all. No one in Los Angeles tells you what the rules exactly are. Because they shift, like the path of fire in a September wind. Life on the fault line tells us who will be considered beautiful, who will be cherished and who will not.
Yesterday there was a first-stage smog alert in the San Fernando Valley. Today it is canceled, as the Santa Ana winds have rolled through; but there is a fire in Santa Clarita, about a half hour from the city. Fire inspectors are worried. It is arson, because this fire was definitely set. It has already eaten away several hundred acres. No dwellings are threatened, yet. The fire marshal only says on the television, "We'll see where the wind takes it."
Excerpted from The View From Babylon by Donald Rawley Copyright © 1999 by Donald Rawley. Excerpted by permission.
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