Finding the Right Notes Can Reveal a City's Soul


L.A. is an open book. The finished pages are in the skyscrapers and freeways, where the names change, but the high jinks stay the same. The first drafts, the discarded pages, the cross-outs--they're in gutters and on sidewalks, under juniper bushes, crumpled beside trash cans, tattooed by muddy tire tracks, and otherwise at your feet.

Call them L.A.'s footnotes. . . .

Footnote No. 1: A white slip of paper that had fluttered right into a spider web by a curb outside an elementary school. It was a Valentine, homemade. A rare commodity these days. There were three felt-pen depictions of what were either lipsticked lips or footballs (I couldn't tell) and the childishly scrawled words, "From Talia to Steve . . . Happy Valentine [sic] Day." Evidently, Steve had not been impressed. Either that, or he was so giddy with romance that he'd accidentally dropped the memento on his way home.

Footnote No. 2: A business card-sized ticket reading "HUG COUPON," surrounded by the word "free" in big red letters, on a Sherman Oaks sidewalk. There was a little cartoon in the middle, showing two smiling, hugging people. "Good for one hug, redeemable from any participating human being," it said. I looked around. A young woman with pierced eyebrow, naval, lip, ears and probably other things sucked on a cigarette. A guy with dreadlocks was selling incense. A woman in a blue business suit and sunglasses blew right by me, shark-like. Nope, no participating human beings around--and nobody I remotely wanted to hug anyway.

Footnote No. 3: A piece of notebook paper on the lawn outside a nearby apartment building, reading in clumsy lettering, "Josh Your [sic] So CUTE! Call me! Do you like ME? I AM at MY sponsor every day at 3:30" and a phone number. I figured the author to be about 13 and in some sort of special program for troubled kids, judging by the word "sponsor." Perhaps Josh did not reciprocate the interest, seeing as the note was discarded. I considered feeling sorry for the rejected girl but reconsidered. Any kid that aggressive will probably do all right in this world.

Footnote No. 4: A little brochure, beneath a Mid-Wilshire bus bench, proclaiming "News!" and underneath, "News about the New World Order!" "News about the 'Mark of the Beast!' " "News about the progress of '666!' " "News about New World Order 'thought police!' " Inside was a ton of information about how the government and the Vatican and Motorola and probably McDonald's are conspiring to destroy all individuality and creative thought. I had to laugh--hasn't TV already done that? The pamphlet also claimed that Jesus Christ said in Leviticus 19:28, "Do not cut your flesh. Let there be no tattooing." I found myself vaguely hoping that if Christ does return, he steer clear of Hollywood.

Footnote No. 5: a queen of spades. No other cards. Face-up on a sidewalk in Santa Monica one sunny afternoon. And, a couple hours later, another queen of spades, face up on a sidewalk in Encino. No doubt numerologists and fortune tellers would find this odd coincidence highly significant. Either doom or great fortune probably awaited me, depending on which seer I might consult. I had no interpretation. I thought only of the Grateful Dead song "Dire Wolf," a verse of which goes, "I cut my deck to the queen of spades, but the cards were all the same. . . ." Maybe a disenfranchised Deadhead was scattering them in his or her wake, playing a cosmic joke on the likes of me.

Footnote No. 6: The "E.T. Grammy Awards Sweepstakes" entry form, left blank. The original owner, apparently, had as much optimism as I did about winning tickets to the Grammys and a '96 Volkswagen Jetta. Well, maybe a little less. I went ahead and filled it out.

Footnote No. 7: An order form for "Classic Barbie Ornaments" found, perhaps symbolically, on a stretch of grass particularly frequented by canines marking territory. For "two easy payments" of $19.45, I could order my first set of three hand-painted miniature Barbies--including the "original 1959 Swimsuit Barbie." I mused briefly about the wealth in this country and how the "Classic Barbie Ornament" order form might be received in, say, Bosnia or Uganda. I put it back in dog territory and moved on.

Footnote No. 8: A little kid's drawing on a piece of notebook paper under some bushes. At the top were the penciled words, "energizer it keps [sic] going and going," obviously inspired by the commercial for the Energizer battery bunny. At the bottom, the kid had attempted to draw the bunny, but had used as his model Binky from Matt Groening's fine "Life in Hell" comic strip. I wondered about the things inspiring child artists these days--things like battery commercials. I used to draw Superman and Popeye's spinach cans.

Footnote No. 9: Half of a greeting card, run over by traffic, punctured and otherwise mutilated, on Ventura Boulevard in the Valley. The front displayed floating clouds on a yellow background and the words, "Wander through your dreams today . . . dust them off, tell them you care."

The other side contained half of a letter. It was addressed, in pen, to "Sheila." The "e" and "i" had first been written in the wrong order, then corrected by writing over them heavily several times. A tiny note next to the mistake read, "Sorry, it's late and I'm very tired." The letter was from a law student to a homeless person.

"Well, it's now less than 26 days before I'm done with law school. I don't know if I told you but I started my education from scratch in 1988 (I enrolled as a freshman at Valley College), with the goal/dream of going to law school. Here it is, 7 1/2 years later and I'm actually shocked! Not in my wildest imagination did I think I'd actually make it!! So, it's never too late to dream about the future and to set goals. I truly hope that you haven't given up on that. Can we spend some time together when I'm done? A few hours or an afternoon . . . go to lunch, or a movie or a walk? I think of you so often. I hope you've gotten an apartment by now. I hate to think of you sleeping out when it's turning so cold. Please, try to stay in touch. I feel so helpless. . . ."

I thought about trains passing each other on opposite tracks and how you can sometimes catch a glimpse of a face in the opposite blur. Sometimes the face stays with you for a while. Sometimes you wonder who in the hell owns that face, where he or she is going, and you realize you'll never, ever know the answers. It seemed to me that Sheila and her correspondent were opposite trains, and I held in my hand the glimpse between them.

And I felt kind of helpless too.

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