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Man Kills Self as City Watches

Network prime time is still more than four hours away, but rush hour has its own prime time, and on the last day of April this man is its star.

Out in Brentwood, Monica Lewinsky is leaving her parents’ home. Over in Bellflower, the Fire Department is using air bags to lift a camper off a man stuck beneath it. But on the soaring connector between two urban freeways, this man now commands the stage that is the city of Los Angeles.

We can divine that he is angry, but he has a plan, for he has stage-managed his televised appearance, up to a point.

He has stopped his dark gray truck, and so stopped traffic, on the top level of the loops and ribbons of the freeway interchange, the very best place for the helicopters with their cameras to get the clearest, sunlit view of him.

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The man steps from his truck, holds up a videotape, wraps it protectively in something soft and white--a T-shirt, perhaps--stuffs it into a gym bag and tosses it over the edge of the freeway.

He unfurls a square sign, hand-printed in white on blue, and he bends down to smooth it out on the ribbed freeway concrete. He takes a pail and weights down one corner against the spring breeze and the more robust wind from the helicopter rotors. One helicopter pirouettes to show the sign right side up: “HMO’s are in it for the money!!” it reads, and in smaller letters, “Live free, love safe or die.”

Then he gets back into his truck. For almost 10 minutes he sits. We can see him moving; he is petting his dog. He is, we are told, talking on a cell phone to the cops.

The TV helicopters get antsy; 10 minutes is a long time to watch a motionless truck. One camera pulls back, surveys the broad empty arcs of freeway and, beyond, the homebound traffic mired in itself.

“Hopefully this is gonna come to a resolution soon,” says one TV helicopter news pilot. “It’s gonna make the commute a nightmare and ruin a lot of days here.” (It is only afterward that I wonder: How many days had this man had ruined to bring him to this?)

The camera, drifting across the freeway panorama, jerks back to center stage; the dark truck is a cartoon flash of sudden flame. The man leaps out, hopping, sitting, yanking off his smoking pants, his flaming shoe. His leg looks scorched. His bare buttocks to the camera, he steps up on the low wall at the freeway’s edge, wavers. We hold our breath. He steps down, walks back to the smoking, seared truck.

He picks up his shotgun, carries it to the other side of the road. He shakes his burned hands briskly, like someone pulling a hot pan from an oven. He seizes the gun again, braces its butt against the low freeway median wall, bends down to it and pulls its trigger. From one frame to the next he is dead, on the freeway, on television.

And I am thinking: But the dog is still in the truck; the dog is dead. That is how I can make it real. You never see dogs getting killed on TV. People get killed all the time on TV shows. I had to think of the dog to make it real, and then work backward to the real man, the contents of his ravaged head still emptying themselves across two freeway lanes, and whatever was in his head to bring him to this most public finale, his pain and his exegesis, emptying with it.

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Ten times a week, on average, someone in this vast county kills himself with a gun. I say he because a gun is more often a man’s suicide tool of choice. If not a silent act, it is most often a private one, with only the neighbors to witness the aftermath, the covered body on the gurney jolting down the walkway and into the coroner’s ambulance.

This man chose the only public stage and shared forum we have: the freeway. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. We have the interstate. Babies are born on freeways. The graffiti vandals deface them. The aggrieved hang banners across them to make their point. It’s a guaranteed audience share. Go, Juice, go. Now this man has brought his disordered pain to this city’s stage, and invited us to watch it. He may even have left us a sequel, whatever the contents of that videotape tossed over the freeway’s edge.

Who was his target audience? A doctor, a nurse, a boss? Gov. Wilson, who by coincidence signed a pro-patient HMO law today? Some anonymous medical claims processor sitting oblivious at a desk, or maybe, with Dostoevskian incongruity, stuck in the very traffic mess this man created?

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I live in L.A.; of course, I think of a movie. It is “To Die For,” Buck Henry’s darkly brilliant satire of television, in which his rapaciously ambitious weather girl says this: “You’re not anybody in America if you’re not on TV. What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching?”

Patt Morrison’s e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com


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