Several times a week, Elinor Aurthur places fresh flowers among the wilted blooms and rain-streaked notes at the rail of the Lincoln Boulevard overpass on the Santa Monica Freeway. "This little altar," she calls it, a shrine to her son, Charley, who jumped to his death there Nov. 1.
It is one of the street shrines that are now such a familiar part of the urban landscape, appearing overnight, sometimes disappearing almost as quickly. As on pilgrimages, friends, family and strangers come to lay flowers, light candles, leave poems.
In so doing, they are both honoring the dead and, perhaps, making a silent cry for help in a society where violent, senseless death is a relentless visitor.
When three young men and a 15-year-old boy were shot to death within a few hours Sunday on East 59th Place in central Los Angeles, flowers and cards quickly marked the places where they died.
Hours after Charles "Chuck" Willard, beloved co-owner of a Silver Lake pet shop--a man who wept when a goldfish died--was gunned down Nov. 12 in a robbery attempt, a floral shrine appeared. The flowers are gone now. Taped to the door is a hand-lettered sign, "Closed due to death." With a red crayon, someone has crossed out "death" and scrawled "murder!"
On a telephone pole in the shadow of the 405 Freeway in Culver City is a photo faded beyond recognition. A big plastic bow--once red, now orange--is tied to a nearby cable, holding a trio of papier-mache doves, gray with grime. This shrine honors Jina Nakamura, killed by a drunk driver in 1995.
A most unconventional shrine appeared at Denker Avenue Recreation Center near Exposition Park in April 1993 for Dwayne Capers, a former Crip slain by rival Bloods as he sat at a picnic bench. His shrine: flowers in 800 malt liquor bottle "vases" and a paper plate of fried chicken, a symbolic last meal.
A shrine at Norton and Sweetzer avenues in West Hollywood was for a time a local landmark, a tribute to actor Mauricio Bassa, 33, who was shot and killed in an apparent robbery while walking home, hand in hand, with his lover, Gari Casella, 29, from the Gold Coast bar in May 1993. One visitor left this note: "I don't know you but I miss you. You will not be forgotten."
The street shrine, which has roots in the roadside shrines found in Catholic countries, is not unique to Southern California. There were shrines at the Brookline, Mass., abortion clinics where two employees were slain in 1994. As many as 900 visitors a week, bearing teddy bears and crosses, have flocked to the Union, S.C., lake where Susan Smith drowned her two young sons that year.
Over time, most shrines disintegrate and disappear. But a few remain faithfully tended. At the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 14th Street in Santa Monica is one honoring four young people killed by a drunk driver in June 1992.
Once a week--early in the morning, "when it's very peaceful and very quiet"--Don Cash, 52, a movie makeup artist and father of victim Robert Cash, 24, brings fresh flowers to the site, which is three blocks from his home. He pauses to collect his thoughts and seek comfort before going to work.
From time to time, he replaces the composite photo of Robert and his friends--Christopher Baker, 26; Julie Dicks, 23; and Lucille Morgan, 25--with a clean photocopy or ties a new Mothers Against Drunk Driving ribbon around the traffic pole.
Now is an especially emotional time. "The thing that bothers all of us at the moment," he says, is that Dariosh Sariri, 28, serving time for vehicular manslaughter, will soon be up for parole.
Young Cash had just returned from Berlin, where he'd completed studies for graduation from the Vermont-based School for International Training. His father asks: "Who knows what he might be doing now?"
In a moment of reflection, he tells of writing a teen suicide-themed movie script, "Too Young to Say Goodbye," while a student at USC. Robert was then 5 and Cash, "out of superstition," put it away. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what would I ever do if I lost one of my children?' "
To give purpose to his pain, he's tried unsuccessfully to get the city of Santa Monica to erect a permanent marker at the crash site--a reminder that drinking and driving is a lethal combination.
What do street shrines say about us? Gerald Larue, who lectures on death and dying as emeritus professor of religion and adjunct professor of gerontology at USC, says that we as a nation--men in particular--"have difficulty making public statements about tragic deaths. This fulfills a social need, an emotional need, perhaps even a religious need.
"In some countries, the wailing is very, very vocal, very public, but we don't like the idea of public spectacles where people tear their hair and cry out in agony. This is a public statement that is acceptable."
He thinks the shrines provide a public service, reminding people of a dangerous corner or of societal violence.
Coincidentally, Robert Cash died only a block from where Charley Aurthur then lived with his father, Jonathan, a publishing house proofreader / copy editor. The noise of the crash was awful, Jonathan said. "Charley went over and saw the bodies."
All too soon, Charley--only 23--would have his own shrine.
To his parents, it is more than a memorial. That stretch of Lincoln Boulevard, with its auto body shops, fast-food stops and relentless traffic is, to Jonathan, a metaphor for all that's mean and ugly. "The ugliest place in the entire known universe," he says. "If you have any thought of killing yourself, if you go to that place, there's no doubt."
He wants to remind those whizzing past of all the Charleys crying for help. Says Elinor: "If you just had some kid jump off the bridge and nobody did anything about it, it would be unbearable."
Charley's story is that of a talented but mentally fragile young man, a musician and linguist whose life deteriorated into a series of hospitalizations and suicide attempts.
Through it all, his parents, who separated when he was 10, fought to keep him alive until he was able to keep himself alive.
As a child, he was unfocused, reckless. "We used to call him Emergency Room Charley," Jonathan says. But he seemed OK, did well in high school and went on to Reed College in Portland, Ore., in the fall of 1990.
On a family camping trip after his freshman year, he had his first psychotic episode. In the night, he came in from the woods, shaking, and told Elinor he'd just had a mystical conversation with the moon and trees.
"The beginning of the end of his life," says Elinor, an urban planner under contract to Culver City. He was to become progressively more anxious, disconnected and depressed. There was never a firm diagnosis. Was he manic-depressive? Schizophrenic? Both?
By fall 1993, he was able to return to Reed, but by spring was clearly worsening. That summer, he stabbed himself in the heart with a Swiss army knife, making a 3/4-inch gash repaired by open heart surgery.
Back in Los Angeles, between hospitalizations, he had cafe jobs, but never for long. Jonathan's health insurance depleted, Charley's psychiatric care was dictated largely by Medi-Cal's economic restraints.
"He'd run into street people he'd met in the hospital and worry that he'd end up like them," Elinor says. "He saw his friends getting older and moving on." Adds Jonathan: "He just did not see a way out, only a downward spiral of institutionalizations."
Halloween night, he was volunteering at the Westside Food Bank, helping director Bruce Rankin pick up barrels of food collected by a UCLA group. Charley was very "antsy, extremely agitated" and had to leave early, Rankin says. "I'm sure he felt badly about signing up for something that he didn't see through." Still, he says, Charley was a terrific worker, and he planned to call him again.
"My take on it is that he had an appointment the next day."
That night, Charley told his mother he was "so ashamed" about flubbing the job. In the morning, she awoke early in the Venice bungalow she shared with Charley. After a smoke outside, he joined her for a cup of tea, as he often did. Later, showering, Elinor heard him take his red Peugeot bike from the utility room.
He never said goodbye.
On Nov. 10, Elinor read an original third-person narrative at her only son's memorial service: "The woman sits in her garden under her geraniums and listens to the cars . . . on Lincoln Boulevard and thinks about that awful day. She cries, great heaves from her chest, her face old like her grandmother's. . . ."
She recreates Charley's last journey--past McDonald's, past Thomas' Coffee Shop, where they used to have huevos rancheros. And she wonders, could she have stopped him?
Several days after Charley died, friends began placing flowers on the overpass. Elinor brought the floral tributes from his service, deciding it was the right thing to do: "It was such a potent site. The horror of it all would be brought home."
She taped her narrative there among the offerings, which included a tiny plastic angel and, one day, a Jack Daniel's bottle that she removed, put back, then removed again.
She finds comfort at the shrine, "going to him at his most painful point." For now, she'll maintain it. She wants "to make people think and feel and to disturb them a little bit" as they drive past, windows up, doors locked.
Elinor and Jonathan hope a permanent memorial may someday replace it. He suggests a wayfarers' bench, something that says, "This city is still for people," not just for cars.
For fleeting moments, these street shrines help us explain the unthinkable, says USC's Larue, and remind us of the oneness of the human family: "I'm with you in your mourning. A life that could have been very, very significant is gone. Something of me is gone, something of my community."