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As an alligator, he’s quite a chameleon

PATT MORRISON's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

WHAT, NO GATOR cam?

California is surveilled by surf cams, polar bear and panda cams, red-light-runner cams, the Dodger kiss cam, the MacArthur Park dope-and-fake-green-card cams, and a Los Angeles Harbor cam (“a free service for terrorism watchers, longshoremen [and] real estate investors ... ").

Yet still no gator cam surveys the placid waters of Lake Machado. No video lens pans and scans for our own Nessie, the elusive alligator mississippiensis, Reggie the wayward saurian, who got dumped into the urban lake in June and thereafter surfaced into the fleeting limelight of celebrity.

People come and cluster on the bank, behind the city’s orange plastic netting that fences off the lake’s edge. They gaze across the water, looking for a footloose reptile.

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I was looking for a scaly, six-foot Rorschach blot. He has become as much chameleon as alligator:

Reggie as Relief. After a relentless summer of Brad/Jen/Angelina, finally, we get a real celebrity face. (A blogger code-named “gatorade” noted sardonically last week, “I read today that the croc is dating Anna Nicole and the two were spotted at the Spider Club over the weekend.”)

Reggie as Profit Center. TV news directors should remember Reggie in their prayers. More people know about Reggie than would recognize Antonio Villaraigosa, Lee Baca or Bill Bratton on the street. (But not, sorry to say, Brad/Jen/Angelina.)

Reggie as Metaphor. He personifies the losing side in the war of urban versus rural. He epitomizes the age-old frisson our distant ancestors must have felt when man and slithery reptile went mano a mano in humankind’s dawn. The snake in paradise in Genesis, the dragon against St. George. Carl Sagan, in “The Dragons of Eden,” cited findings that young primates seem to be born with the fear of only three things -- falling, the dark and snakes.

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Reggie titillates our ancient brain.

We’ve had alligators on the loose before. For about half a century, an alligator farm flourished in Lincoln Heights, and tourists and locals alike adored being that close to carnivores unchanged in 2 million years. Whenever the waters of the Los Angeles River rose, a few gators escaped -- into the river, into Eastlake Park and farther afield -- and had to be rounded up, to great hoopla.

I went down to Lake Machado, a 53-acre lake in a 241-acre park, a startling oasis in the biggest park-poor city in the nation. The lake, like Reggie, is a relic. It is a leftover from the centuries before the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers were dammed and paved, back when their waters spread far, wide and shallow.

People have tried to entice Reggie out of the water with tortillas and jelly doughnuts (are urbanites really so ignorant, or so Disneyfied?). My bait was the alligator purse left to me by my great-aunt Myrtle, of blessed memory and Sarasota, Fla. Maybe Reggie would come roaring out of the water to avenge his dead forebear. But, with the purse as conversational bait, I was really angling for two-legged catch -- all the people who’d come to watch for Reggie. It worked.

Which brings me to the real Reggie as Rorschach:

The Gator as Us. Most everyone I talked to really wasn’t all that eager to see him caught. Reggie is a manifestation of our vanishing outlaw selves. There’s something that gratifies the American soul in the fact that D.B. Cooper probably got away with it. Even as our lives get more circumscribed and monitored and computer cookie-ed -- and patrolled by closed-circuit camera -- we yearn to kick over the traces and vanish into a mythic freedom.

And now here’s Reggie, the renegade. He fought the law -- the park rangers, the swaggering ‘gator rasslers in leather cowboy hats and alligator-fang necklaces -- and he won.

That’s why we stand on the muddy edges of Machado Lake, looking at a whole lot of water. Whether we lay eyes on Reggie or not, there’s something hugely satisfying in just knowing he’s in there, out there.

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It’s coming up on Labor Day. The city will be wanting a lakeside safe for children and dogs. I expect some full-court press to get Reggie caught and carted off. The park rangers will tell people that they can go visit him at the L.A. Zoo. It isn’t the same; Reggie won’t be the same. In captivity, he will diminish. He won’t be eight or 10 feet long -- like all American tall tales, he gets bigger at every recounting. He’ll be smaller and scrawnier than we have made him. Than our imaginations need him to be.


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