One of the qualities I value most in the writers of the Great Reads are their powers of observation. I’m a big believer in showing, not telling -- in giving those little scenes and details that make readers connect to people whose lives might seem impossibly remote from theirs.
The writer of Friday’s powerful Great Read, Raja Abdulrahim, is particularly gifted: She finds those moments when she’s directly in the line of fire in Syria.
In Friday’s story, Raja, who has made her way into rebel-held territory many times during the three-year conflict, wrote from Aleppo, where life alternates between terror and a grotesque version of normalcy.
The ending of the story movingly showed that life, in just a single scene:
“Hours later, the broken glass and concrete had been swept and the blood washed away. Children gathered around an ice cream stand, standing on tippy-toes to peer at the available flavors, and men bought produce from a fruit vendor, the color of the oranges bright against the gray of fallen concrete.”
When Raja was safely out of Syria, she emailed saying that it was raining when she arrived in Turkey – and she thought how nice it was to once again hear the sound of thunder and know that it was only thunder, not a bombardment from above. A lovely and haunting thought.
By coincidence, the song I had chosen as the soundtrack for her story had thunder imagery in it: “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning," by the Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks. The song is a sonic bombardment, full of dread and power. It knocks me out every time I hear it.
Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!
Monday’s Great Read: Sadly, it held because of breaking news.
Environmental SWAT team tests runoff to nab polluters
It's just after midnight when it starts to drizzle near downtown Los Angeles.
Lara Meeker, a short blond wearing a purple rain jacket, pulls into a fast-food parking lot a few blocks from the Los Angeles River, watches the sky and waits.
The watershed manager for Los Angeles Waterkeeper is tracking this late February storm by radar on her smartphone. Already, she has sent out a flood of text messages, maps and assignments to a small crew of environmentalists.
It's going to be a long and soggy night monitoring the murky water sloshing off metal scrap yards, auto dismantlers and waste facilities in one of the biggest storms of the season.
Meeker, who heads the environmental group's DrainWatch program, is overseeing a special corps of volunteers called Storm Water Assessment Teams — or SWAT — who fan out across the region to collect water samples in an effort to force polluters to clean up.
Whenever a storm hits and gutters start to gurgle, they pull on their parkas, headlamps and rubber boots. Working mostly after business hours or in the middle of the night, they make unannounced visits to lonely streets on the county's industrial fringes.
Their work has a black-ops feel. As they bottle up dirty water, investigators keep a low profile, look over their shoulders and eye passersby with suspicion — and not without reason. Though they collect the samples from public sidewalks or streets, they've been chased off and even threatened by hostile property owners.
Targeted businesses often contest the results or complain about “bounty hunter tactics” aimed at extracting settlement money through lawsuits. But Meeker says it's about holding them accountable.
“It's one of the few opportunities we have to demonstrate the pollution that is coming from these facilities every time it rains and going unnoticed,” Meeker says. “If we're not out there collecting samples and making a stand, then nothing will change.”
#soundtrack: “Dirty Water,” by the Standells. Goes on my list of best opening riffs in rock.
A couple's commitment to skid row doesn't waver
The draft dodger is 68. The ex-nun nears 80. But on a cold early morning in March, they have trundled to a street corner for their regular trip passing out donated pastries to men and women who sleep near the Los Angeles River and underneath its bridges.
At the corner, they are confronted by several typed sheets of paper plastered to a utility box. “Homeless guy, go away, you are not welcome here,” the sheets read. “We don't pay thousands of dollars in rent every month so that you can have a nice, safe place to squat.”
It's nothing new. Jeff Dietrich and Catherine Morris — who defied society by getting married and haven't stopped slinging arrows at the status quo since — have drawn constant criticism during their four decades of work on skid row.
“We're known as the homeless enablers,” says Dietrich, who has a distance runner's wiry frame, flowing gray hair and the kind of intense certainty that wins followers but also enemies. “Yes, we believe in enabling people living on the streets, people who've been discarded by society, so they can live with as much dignity as possible. I guess that's right, homeless enablers is what we are.”
When their journey began, the revitalization spreading beneath the downtown skyline was only a dream. But skid row was filled with the same desperation.
It was the early 1970s, and they joined the small but burgeoning Los Angeles branch of the Catholic Worker, a lay organization started in post-Depression New York by radical Catholic pacifists who sought adherence to the Gospel by living in poverty and aiding the downtrodden.
Today, from a cramped 6th Street cookery — an outpost known as the Hippie Kitchen — lines on some days stretch long down the sidewalk and the couple lead a crew doling out 5,000 plates of hot food each week.
They have plenty of critics, usually people who believe the couple are hindering downtown's progress by making life easier for the homeless. Sometimes, though, the naysayers are other activists — or even the hierarchy of their own Catholic Church. (Among their fondest memories: stopping a 1990s groundbreaking for downtown's cathedral by hijacking an earthmover that then-Archbishop Roger Mahony planned to use for the ceremony.)
“We're happy being the no-sayers,” Morris says, “running in opposition to the way things usually work.”
#soundtrack: “Common People,” by Pulp. Favorite line in a great song: “I said, pretend you’ve got no money. She just laughed and said, you’re so funny. I said, yeah? I can’t see anyone else smiling here.”
Arts blossom in a 'garage salon' in Bell
Standing on two wooden pallets covered by a floral rug, author and Chicano activist Luis Rodriguez reads a poem to more than 100 people crammed into a chilly, concrete-floored performance space.
“Here you have a way. Here you can sing victory. Here you're not a conquered race, perpetual victim — the sullen face in a thunderstorm.”
Cellphones light up as people take photos as Rodriguez speaks, occasionally causing the microphone to squeal.
Nearby, the evening's host, Eric Contreras, strokes his lower lip, nods and looks around the packed room.
Tonight, his parents' garage is a cultural center.
For the last three months, musicians, painters and poets throughout southeast Los Angeles County have traveled to Contreras' garage for an open-mic night called Alivio, the Spanish word for relief.
Contreras started the “garage salon” out of a basic need: to promote the arts for the working-class cities that line the 710 Freeway — in particular Bell, a city known more for corruption than culture.
“We always have to extract ourselves from our own neighborhoods to get any form of good entertainment,” Contreras says. “We always need to leave to Echo Park and downtown L.A., and that was a big frustration.”
Rodriguez, known for the book “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.,” says performing at the space meant a lot to him. He used to live in the southeast, and he once lived in his mother's garage.
“That's where I did my first poems, that's where I painted murals,” he says.
So when Contreras asked him to perform, he didn't hesitate.
“I had to see it for myself,” Rodriguez says. “I think I've been to open mics almost everywhere, but I've never done one inside someone's garage.”
#soundtrack: “Talent Show,” by the Replacements. My biggest must-see band at Coachella next weekend.
In Syria, a shrinking city struggles on between terrifying air raids
The family members stood shivering on a balcony in Aleppo’s Anadan suburb as midnight approached, their sleep interrupted by the nightly duty of a government helicopter pilot somewhere above them.
They followed the sound of the helicopter’s whirring blades as well as scratchy updates coming over a walkie-talkie from rebels spread throughout the area.
News came in that the helicopter had dropped two barrel bombs — oil drums filled with TNT that can level buildings — on nearby towns.
They knew that the helicopters can carry up to four of the bombs. They waited for the last two.
Below them, lights came on in basement bunkers as others sought a small measure of protection. Khansa Laila walked out onto the balcony cloaked in several layers but still shaking in the nighttime chill.
“I woke up from the sound of the alarm, so I’m still cold,” she said referring to the warning system the town’s residents installed. “Also, fear makes you cold.”
Against a starry sky, a series of red streaks from a 14.5-millimeter machine gun shot upward. But the streaks rose and fell without striking their target, their reach far less than the height of the aircraft.
Eventually the sound of the helicopter grew faint and was replaced by that of a warplane.
“We don't take the warplanes seriously anymore,” Laila said. “They launch rockets that are precise, but helicopters drop barrel bombs that can destroy dozens of homes with one barrel.”
The family went to sleep that night to the sound of machine-gun fire and the occasional rocket.
#soundtrack: “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning,” by We Were Promised Jetpacks. “Your body was black and blue.”
If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.