April 27, 2009

Charnel knowledge, L.A.’s forgotten underground

…let’s get away from it all

Los Angeles may be a lonelier town than most if you don’t know anyone here, but it’s no introvert’s paradise either. When you are reeling from a breakup or coping with a 7.0 hangover and don’t want to run into familiar faces, the city suddenly seems as sheltering as an Iraqi highway. When the Garbo mood hits, I retreat to the inner-city sanctum of our cemeteries. Strolling along these necropolitan fairways, you discover your sudden power over time: you can stand still all afternoon or you can feel lucky to be alive and leave immediately.

Many years ago, I worked at Paramount Studios. In my exploratory wanderings, I discovered that magic door in the wall that led to an adjacent, neglected cemetery. A favorite filming location, since it had acquired the look of an interesting garden. The cemetery was like an aging movie star, a little worn at the edges, but fascinating and able to tell some wonderful stories. The stories came from the stones and from Hollywood old timers who spent quiet afternoons there. Founded in 1899 by I.N. Van Nuys and Colonel Isaac Lankershim, it is the burial spot for many Hollywood luminaries. Since then, the cemetery has been re-discovered and as a result lost all its charm, but the stories remain.

East L.A. cemeteries are my favorite: old places huddled inside a city that does not allow itself to age; quiet oases nestled within the freeway roar and gangland din. Larger than most urban parks, they promise a shimmering calm that will never be rezoned into swap meets or strip malls. Moreover, if one of East L.A.’s biggest ironies is the scarcity of Spanish street names, the macabre twist is that it’s home to some of L.A.’s largest Caucasian neighborhoods, of sorts. Decades after the first waves of white flight rolled Valley ward, the parents and grandparents of today’s suburbanites remain here in their horizontal vigils, covered by two yards of Boyle Heights. The names chiseled into granite blocks speak of deserted ancestors, of relatives abandoned on the east bank of the river. “Et in Arcadia Ego” takes on an entirely new meaning in L.A. County.

On Third and Humphreys is the Serbian Cemetery. Minuscule and well tented across the street from St. Sava’s Church, both established in 1909. Closed now, except for special celebrations. The Serbs lit out for San Gabriel some time ago, leaving their ancestors here between the Long Beach and Pomona freeways. Like other Eastern Europeans, the Serbs are big into memorial cameos. The severe faces look reproachful, almost angry, as though they had been staring into the mug-shot camera of some Hapsburg cop long ago. On most cemetery hikes, you fall into the habit of comparing death dates of spouses. Take, for example, the stone of the Malakhovs. Lydia (b. 2-15-06) died 7-14-90, while husband Petr (b. 1-9-98) is down as 8-3-90. A difference of three weeks. How had Petr died? From a broken heart? Suicide? Where is Edgar Lee Masters when we need him?

Whereas the carefully manicured Serbian grounds resemble the Grim Reaper’s putting green, the dinky Molokan’s tract across the street is leaf strewn and weed choked, the inscriptions on its simple wooden markers worn away long ago. Wandering about this melancholy acre, you can’t help but feel the righteous denial and rejection of its ascetic believers seething below. The Molokans (Russian roughly, for “milk drinkers”- they allow themselves to imbibe the liquid during Lent), you see, are down on worldly vanities and pleasures. My corpse would literally bounce out of the ground if lowered into this place.

Is the old Chinese Cemetery, two blocks away on Eastern Avenue any cheerier? No, it is not. Sadly, it too is a dreary Boot Hill, with its gravestones packed tightly together.

Evergreen Cemetery, founded in 1877, on Evergreen between Lorena and Brooklyn, is a huge, nondenominational spread and was an early guarantor of plots for minority corpses. Multiculturalism even then! It has been said that black families who could not afford a hearse could be seen carrying their encoffined loved ones with them on the Red Car to Evergreen. There is a large Japanese section, with graves huddled around a tall war memorial dedicated to fallen Japanese-Americans in the services. Evergreen is also notable for its patch of Civil War veterans; the Union Dead can be found on the ‘southern flank’ of the cemetery, I kid you not. A large Chinese section with altars for incense burning is adjacent to the Civil War veterans.

The charm of Boyle Heights graves lies in their splendid isolation: unshadowed by high-rises and empty of visitors, they whisper stories about a long-vanished Los Angeles, a foolish, impetuous town that would one day become a neurotic, vain city. Comforting are the simple headstones. It is to these places of cool silence that I go when in need to get lost. I wander and wonder about their lives and the grave new world they went to.

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April 10, 2009


Yesterday I thought of you all day.
I thought of spending afternoons with you,
sunk into pleasure.
Your name followed me to sleep.
Last night, I dreamed of you…

…not a bad dream.

April 09, 2009

Jerusalem a trinity of faith

No city has ever been so loved as Jerusalem, nor excited such passion, nor caused so much blood to flow even though Yerushalavim in ancient Hebrew means "city of peace. " From the time when animals were sacrificed on the altar of the Jewish temple, to the day of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and later still, with the many ordinary soldiers who have died manning the ramparts and defending the city, Jerusalem has lived through 4,000 years of pain and suffering. Sacred for half a billion Christians, Jews and Muslims, its stones bear the scars of its holiness and the memory of crimes committed in the name of religion. David and the Pharaoh, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, Herod and Ptolemy, Titus, Geoffrey de Bouillon and Tamerlane, the Saracens under Saladin, the Turks, the British under Allenby, the Bedouin warriors of the Arab Legion, Haganah volunteers, Israeli paratroopers and El Fatah guerrillas ... all have fought, pillaged, burned and killed there. And all have been ready to die for Jerusalem.

Yet it survived them, seemingly immortal, ever more beautiful, ever more inspiring, beneath the changing light of its skies. Against the gold and mauve of the tall, desolate hills, it suddenly springs to life: a hive of cubes, capped with domes, minarets and bell towers. Today Jews, Muslims and Christians try to coexist amid its ancient stones and live with a past which still has a vital influence on the present.

Nowhere is the universal mission of the city more striking than when the shuffling crowds of its different creeds mingle together, and then converge on the temples of their particular faith. In the heart of the city, contained within the splendid crenellated ramparts, lie the three holy places that constitute both the city's glory and its misfortune.

Glistening, golden, its base blackened by the foreheads, lips and hands which have rubbed against it down the centuries this is the Wailing Wall, Judaism's most holy place. The single solid wall has, since time immemorial, withstood all the disasters, which have assailed Jerusalem. It is towards this wall, all that remains of Solomon's temple, that the Jewish people has turned for twenty centuries to bewail its dispersal. Several hundred yards further on, two stone domes and a Romanesque bell tower cap the dark, sweet-smelling sanctuary of another of humanity's focal points. This is the most sacred site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was built on the supposed site of the agony and death of Christ. To defend it, the faithful in their thousands threw themselves into the Crusades.

At the other end of the city, in the centre of a vast esplanade, a magnificent mosque testifies to the importance Muslims attach to Jerusalem: the Kubbat as Sakhra, the mosque of the Dome of the Rock. Beneath the mosaics of the dome, in which green and gold meld together and set off the graceful inscriptions to the glory of Allah, appears a dark rocky mass. This is the peak of Mount Moriah, an important site in antiquity. Islamic tradition has it that a slight mark on the wall was made by the hand of the angel Gabriel as he held back the rock on the night that the prophet Mahomet ascended to heaven on his white mare, "El Bourak," or flash of lightning.

Ringing out with equal fervor above the rooftops, the pealing church bells, the piercing cries of the muezzin from their minarets and the solemn wailing of shofars in the synagogues mark the rhythm of Jerusalem's life and constantly invite the faithful to prayer. They remind one, too, that over and above political differences, Jerusalem is only a stage on the mystical journey whose final destination is a deep ravine on the edge of the city. There, between the ramparts and the Mount of Olives, is the Biblical valley of Jehosophat to which the trumpets of the Last Judgment will recall all the souls of humanity at the end of the world.

With this event continually in perspective, Jerusalem has always been a city to which people came to die as much as to live. Generations of Christians, Jews and Muslims lie packed together beneath the white stones of this valley, finding in death the one thing they had always been unable to find in life: reconciliation.

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April 01, 2009

a stroll in Griffith Park

There is my neighbor’s dog, a high-strung nervous whippet. Well, the owner has gone away and left her in my care. These past smiling days we have walked together in Griffith Park cantering gracefully through spring’s glory. ‘Missy’ is a bit of a prima donna; she wants adulation from man and beast alike. She spotted a randy looking coyote and thought to herself ‘oh, a bit of rough stuff’, and started to strain at the lead. The coyote was sizing her up with an eye more for lunch and dinner, his instant gratification. She sensed the danger, turned around quickly pulling in the opposite direction.

So, gentle reader, there is a dark side to parks. Not every day, but once in a while. Indeed, there are several dark sides, particularly after dark. For today, let us talk of lighter things, like spring blooms and love.

One popular image of life in the park is that young lovers strolling hand in hand in a dreamland of green. This may have been true in the past. Today young people simply ‘doss straight down’ on the grass and investigate each other. Bless ‘em all. Here lies an argument in favor of the ubiquitous guitar. It is difficult to smooch and plonk at the same time. If music be the food of love, play on.

Meanwhile, nannies, dads, moms, tramps, old people, young people and very young people wheel, limp, stroll, stride, toddle, and drive about. There are occasional men and women in orange suits spiking litter with sharp sticks. There are children bouncing around on ponies. There are lissome geezers in golf carts lonely long distancing. There are birds above and worms below. There is life.

Approach Los Angeles by air, and you will see this wonderful stretch of wild landscape smack in the middle of urban sprawl. There are many wonderful parks around the world, but for us overpopulated cement dwellers this ‘bit of wild’ native California is a heaven sent on a glorious spring day.

But, all parks have one thing in common. This involves one of my private dreams. No, I don’t mean the naughty dream. I am thinking of a Dream House. All parks have little isolated houses. In them live Keepers and Rangers and suchlike persons. Sequestered, they nestle in the green. They look sleepy-but do they sleep? No doubt they have their troubles. Ghosts, burglars, witches? Could one get a good night’s sleep? I wonder. After all, a coyote might just breeze in.

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