L.A.: Life that art can’t imitate


So Reggie the alligator already has escaped once from his cell at the Los Angeles Zoo. Mark my words: No prison will hold him. He will escape again and steal a Ferrari Enzo.

This is what makes writing wild fiction about Los Angeles so hard. L.A. just won’t be outdone. This city feeds on phantasmagoria. It mocks magic-realism and one-ups even the most florid fabulation. This city conjures car chases, for instance, that send Jerry Bruckheimer quivering to his stunt coordinator in despair. It’s as though L.A. is a hoary old vaudevillian who refuses to be upstaged.

After park rangers first discovered Reggie two years ago -- some kids were trying to coax the thing out of the water with tortillas -- wranglers, wrestlers and problem-drinkers from across the country waded in to confront Lake Machado’s dark prince. They all walked away empty-handed, all except Thomas “T-Bone” Quinn, a mouthy guy in a Crocodile Dundee hat. Turned out he was a wanted fugitive, so Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies booked him on his warrant.


Reggie remained at large, perhaps feeding on the child molesters and sub-prime mortgage lenders who wandered too close to the water’s edge. Eventually, in May, some city workers lassoed him and duct-taped him up. Which was for the best. Let’s face it: Reggie is 7 1/2 feet long and 120 pounds, and he makes a lot of furtive movements. If it had been LAPD guys taking Reggie down, there would have been a video.

Reggie had his own noir back story worthy of a Warren Zevon song. The gator allegedly was dumped in the lake by an ex-L.A. cop. When the LAPD raided this dude’s pad, officers found six marijuana plants, three more alligators, a rattlesnake and piranhas.

Piranhas. I’m not kidding. The police department now has set procedures for piranha encounters, but if I let them nibble someone in my next book, people will tell me it’s just not realistic.

In my first novel, one of the bad guys keeps a trained jaguar in his Hollywood mansion. A lot of people -- friends, critics, my editor -- said the jaguar was over the top. But as I was writing it, sheriff’s deputies took down a Siberian tiger that was wandering the suburbs. The 350-pound cat allegedly had escaped the home of a Moorpark couple, but it might as well have materialized from a Vedic dream, like sacred perfumes coalescing into solid form. But how could I write a tiger into Simi Valley without sounding like Gabriel Garcia Marquez on angel dust?

Ditto a scene I stumbled on shortly after the Griffith Park fire. I was driving up Los Feliz Boulevard just before dawn. As I passed the Mulholland Fountain, a dozen coyotes with their forepaws braced on the rim solemnly dipped their muzzles to drink from it. The decorative lights had turned the water blood-red, and the scene had this air of ritual, like the coyotes were taking Mulholland’s communion.

At least the coyotes remember William Mulholland. We live on his stolen water, and we’ve punished our Prometheus by letting Robert Towne render him a pedophile in “Chinatown.” Maybe it’s Mulholland’s slandered ghost who’s placed this curse on L.A.’s fiction writers.

Michael Mann must’ve awakened it in 1995. In his movie “Heat,” a ruthless crew of bank robbers hold the entire LAPD at bay with automatic weapons in one of the most spectacular shootouts in cinema history. It was an audacious set-piece that strained audiences’ suspension of disbelief. Two years later, a ruthless crew of bank robbers held the LAPD at bay with automatic weapons in North Hollywood. The bank robbers supposedly had studied Mann’s film in preparation for their heist, but I suspect that there was more at work than life imitating art. I think the city’s alive, preening and jealous, and would not be outdone by an action movie.

Then there was the gruesome story that came out of a wildlife sanctuary just outside of town -- a kind of retirement home for movie monkeys. St. James Davis and his wife, LaDonna, were there throwing a birthday party for Moe, a chimp they’d raised to wear children’s clothes and eat breakfast cereal. But they’d been forced to place Moe in this sanctuary after he’d blown a gasket, run amok in their neighborhood and bitten a cop. Civil rights attorney Gloria Allred represented the long-suffering Davises in an unsuccessful suit to free Moe.

At some point during the party -- there was cake, maybe little hats too -- a couple of Moe’s cellmates got loose and attacked St. James and LaDonna. The chimps ripped off St. James’ nose, plucked out his right eye and gnawed off his fingers and part of his foot. (There were heartbreaking rumors that one of the attackers was Bear from “B.J. and the Bear.”) Consider that for a moment: This guy had his face eaten off at a birthday party he threw for his incarcerated pet chimp. Now, if I put that in a novel, you’d say it was preposterous and gratuitously grisly.

Living in L.A., being a cop and a writer here, is something like being with a dominatrix. She calls you names, walks on your fingers with spike heels and you think, what part of this was supposed to be fun again? Then she kisses you.

I was at a homicide scene once when a flock of wild green parrots alighted in the jacarandas over the body. The little birds shook loose a wafting purple storm, anointing the dead gangster with jacaranda blossoms. I remember thinking the blossoms would mess up the crime scene. I also remember thinking: My God, I have to write about this.