THE MYTHING LINK : Despite Its Riots and Quakes, L.A. Falls Short in the Tall Tale Department

<i> With this column, Times staff writer Patt Morrison joins Jonathan Gold and Wanda Coleman as a regular contributor to this space. </i>

You’ll never hear this from the visitors bureau, but there is a lot this city lacks. It doesn’t have its own water--except by the glass. It doesn’t have a decent twilight. And it doesn’t have any good urban stories.

Fables give shape and scale to our fears and fantasies. All the more reason that, in this mad, flabby megalopolis, monster riots and a pair of Armageddon-grade earthquakes should have produced something by now. But no. Like many of us and most of our water, our best urban tales are imports.

The one about alligators in the sewers? Belongs strictly to New York, where everybody’s grandma went to Florida for two weeks in the winter and brought the little reptiles back.

Black widow spiders in beehive hairdos? Borrowed from the Midwest, where my mom wrapped her bouffant in toilet paper at night to preserve its shape, but I thought it was to keep the spiders at bay.

The top-secret Ford sedan that got 150 miles per gallon on distilled water? Right out of Motown, where it somehow slipped out of the lab and was sold to Joe Tirekicker, who clued the world in to this corporate conspiracy.


Such tales serve to enhance reality, but maybe our reality is already too damned enhanced. Like the riots: There really was a guy who had won $3 million in the lottery and got arrested for stashing looted goods for his brother. A miscreant of tender age was spotted beating it out of a store with a Thighmaster under each arm.

You see the problem: All our best material is too true to be good. An editor of mine says it’s because we have no New Yorky tabloids to shove fact over the cliff into myth. He says that the best we have come up with was the Night Stalker, who briefly had a death grip on our fluttering urban hearts. Me, I think Hollywood siphons off our folk-tale essence. Nobody talks for free in this town, and free talk is what storytelling is all about.

Now that we have Rebuild L.A., it’s time for Retell L.A. A world-class city needs world-class Homeric traditions. It might be built on something you overhear in line at the automatic teller machine or at El Pollo Loco. Here are a few samples to prime your pumps:

A mother and father are at Disneyland when their little boy vanishes. Distraught, they call security, which can’t find him. One parent stakes out the exit and at last spots the boy--drugged, hair cropped, wearing different clothes--in the arms of the kidnaper. The parent recognizes the child only because the villain hadn’t changed the boy’s shoes.

A reporter friend tracked that story to find the source. It went back to a sister’s baby-sitter, then to the baby-sitter’s neighbor, then to the neighbor’s gardener and finally to the disappearing horizon of truth. It’s a local spin on a creepy old standard, but it also could have happened in Orlando or Tivoli.

Timesman Steve Harvey noted another. Nobody saw it, but everyone swears it’s been on TV, which is enough to pass for dead solid fact in these parts.

An airline employee surnamed Gay is flying for free but finds that his assigned seat is taken. He moves. The plane is overbooked, and non-paying passengers are asked to leave. An attendant stops at the seat assigned to Gay and asks the occupant, “Are you Gay?” When the startled man nods, the agent says, “Then you’ll have to get off the plane.” Seeing all this, Gay interjects, no, he is Gay and will exit. At which point a young man seated nearby jumps to his feet and angrily says, “I’m gay, too! They can’t kick us all off!”

Here’s mine: It’s the 1970s. The diamond lanes open for business--car poolers only. Drivers are ticketed for cheating. A pregnant woman argues that she is commuting for two. One man, a woman passenger beside him in the front seat, drives in lawful serenity down the diamond lane every day for a week. Until a California Highway Patrol guy pulls him over.

Turns out the passenger is not a woman but a store mannequin. How did you know? everyone asks the CHP guy. The student of human nature smiles. It was wearing the same dress every day, he says. No real woman would do that.