Thanks to this post about failed parking meters I found on Atwater Village Newbie’s blog, this otherwise unrelated piece of parking meter nostalgia fell out of my mental archives so I just thought I’d take us back to the mid-1980s and share it.

Back then I worked for a company in Hollywood as a courier and one of my jobs was to go pick up the mail in the morning at its box in the post office on Wilcox south of Hollywood Boulevard.

It was a cool post office in part because there was always a chance you’d be in the line to get packages with a celeb of some sort. Once it was actor Dennis Franz who was familiar to me from his role on “Hill Street Blues.” Once it was the entirety of Guns ‘N Roses before they’d hit it big.

But the point isn’t that the place was a focal point for recognizables so much as it was for the area’s invisibles.

Most of the homeless would do the standard panhandling, but there was this one conniving and clever fellow who set up something of a cottage industry manning the parking meters out in front of the place. I got to know his con pretty well seeing as I saw him in action practically on a daily basis.


I heard the news via an unlikely source on January 28, 1986. I was in my Mazda GLC going from my apartment in Van Nuys to my job in the small business complex behind the gas station Barham Boulevard deadends into in the Cahuenga Pass. I was traveling on the gridlocked southbound 170 Freeway approaching the 134 interchange it passes under to become the 101. I was probably late.

I was listening to Rick Dees on KIIS-FM as I usually did, and coming back from a commercial break instead of launching into more of his usual shenanigans he spoke in a tone that was part solemn and part disbelieving in telling his listeners that the Challenger space shuttle had apparently exploded shortly after lift-off a few minutes earlier, reportedly killing all seven astronauts on-board.

To this day I’m not sure why the news hit me so hard, but I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach by it. Overcome with sorrow I burst into tears, and sobbed as I crept my car along with the slow flow of vehicles while Dees and his on-air cohorts discussed what they knew and what they didn’t.

Eventually they ran out of things to say and put on a melancholy, reflective song that was a hit back then. It was “Life In A Northern Town,” by The Dream Academy. And just as my waterworks started to dry up, the song got to the last stanza of lyrics that close like this:

And though he never would wave goodbye,
You could see it written in his eyes,
As the train rolled out of sight,

I didn’t know who or what the song had been written about. All I knew was that those last few lines spoke of someone’s death, and for me from that point on they became about the Challenger crew never getting a chance to wave goodbye, of the space shuttle rolling out of sight and the sad and slow byyyyyyyyyyyyye byyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye reflecting mine and the country’s heartbreak and loss.

I can hear this song today without so much as choking up, but it never fails to transport me back to that moment of profound tragedy.

Later that evening President Ronald Reagan was to give his State of the Union address, but postponed it and instead spoke to the nation about the disaster, closing with:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”

They were: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

ballona(click for the bigger picture)

The long afternoon’s worth of rain had passed before nightfall, and when I left work near 7 p.m. I was eager to see what increase there might be to Ballona Creek’s water level.  The good news is it wasn’t enough to warrant the locking of the bikeway entrance gates. The bad news is it wasn’t enough to warrant the locking of the bikeway entrance gates. But the creek was still up and moving with a swift intensity, and that was enough to warrant me stopping in fascination just to listen to and watch the rushing water, and get the above 15-second exposure.

You have to understand, as a native of Los Angeles with its channelized river no one talked about much less paid attention to unless a dead body turned up in it, I grew up in absolute awe of moving water wherever I could find it. During or after a rain I would often occupy my afternoon hours in the gutters on the streets I lived on, either just watching the water or launching paper boats I’d made and chasing them downstream until they either got snagged on debris or got too close for comfort to the sewer entrance waiting to swallow them up.

The first time I saw a real river, I was 7, staying with my aunt and uncle and cousins for the summer. It was the Tennessee as it curves through Chattanooga. It was full and flowing through the city and entirely blew my tiny mind.

I remember one time, maybe I was 8 or 9. It was a Saturday and it had been raining hard all Friday. So my friend Danny Lindell and I spent the better part of the morning hammering and glueing together these ridiculous flat-bottomed boats out of some junked wood pieces that we found in a nearby alley with the intent of sailing them along the small rivulet of a creek that used to run through the park behind LACMA, only a few blocks east from where we lived on Tower Drive south of Wilshire on the literal eastern edge of the slums of Beverly Hills. The 90212.

Once we were finished we marched over there, thrilled to find the tiny waterway much more full thanks to the storm. Of course, our boats were way too big and heavy to float — and on top of that being so close to the La Brea Tar Pits there was tar everywhere that Danny and I succeeded in getting all over our hands and shoes and clothes. And the boats, which we threw in the trash.

Was the excursion a failure? As shipbuilders, totally. And boy did our moms think so when we got home soaked and tar-caoted. But to me, not at all. Because of the water. The moving water.

So that’s why, 40 years later I still seek it out when I can. I still stop alongside it. I close my eyes and listen to it. I’m fascinated by it. I get out my camera and try to balance it still on fence posts in attempts to capture it. Because in LA it’ll be gone tomorrow and who knows when it’ll be back.

For the 16th consecutive time — albeit with increased solemnity given the horrors happening in Haiti — it’s that day of year when I realize this is the anniversary of the Northridge Quake, and dutifully trot out the link to my 2004 recollection of what a nightmare it was:

It was late 1986. I worked as a courier for a company that obtained travel visas for clients. I attended L.A. Valley College part time. I drove a Mazda GLC hatchback. “GLC stood for “Great Little Car.” I was 22. I was living in my first apartment. A second-floor single in Van Nuys. On Fulton — 6205 I believe, a couple blocks south of Victory. I don’t remember the apartment number.

I do remember how broke I was at the time. So strapped for cash I was forced to raid my savings, which was kept in a five-gallon glass water bottle and consisted of whatever spare change I’d spent seven years dropping into it.

On a Sunday afternoon, I could’ve put on a mask and gone down to the corner 7-11 to rob it, or I could’ve driven over to my mom’s and asked for her financial assistance. But instead I stayed home and poured the mass of coins out of the bottle clinkily tinkily onto the apartment’s carpeting to begin the time-consuming task of sorting them and then putting them into correspondening sleeves that I’d picked up from my branch of Gibralter Savings in Sherman Oaks a few days earlier.

“How many do you need?” The teller asked.

“A lot!”

It literally took all day to do and in the end my fingers the metallic smell of copper was stationed in my nostrils smelling vaguely blood-like.  I counted several paper and a paltry $53 in rolls of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters stacked up on my livingroom floor. Mostly pennies. But it was $53 I hadn’t had the day before, so I wasn’t complaining. There would be groceries. And cigarettes. And gas.

The next day I loaded all the rolls into a trashbag and shlepped them off to the bank, where of course I generated sideways glances from the security guard and customers when I walked into the place with a heavy Hefty bag slung over my shoulder. At the teller, rather than slip them a few at a time through the slot in the highly fortified window, I was directed to hand them over through the side door where a few random rolls were opened to make sure they were legitimatley filled with coins.

I watched this trying to imagine the cheap desperate bastard who would try to pass off two pennies sandwiching sand or slugs in order to make a profit of 48.

When eventually the teller was satisfied I wasn’t that petty I was told that I didn’t have to go through all the trouble of stuffing the coins. They had a coin counter that could have done the job in an hour.

And I said it would have been nice when I picked up all the empty coin sleeves if that nugget of enlightenment had been passed down to me.

“Well, for next time then,” the teller said, laying out two twenties, a ten and three ones before me.

I took the money and shook my head vigorously. “Oh there won’t be a next time.”

I knew what was going to happen the moment after the middle-aged cyclist pushed off eastbound from the curb into the La Cienega Boulevard crosswalk from the northwest corner of La Cienega and Venice Boulevard. His immediate destination was the northeast corner of the intersection, but he went to the hospital instead.

I noted how good it was of him to smile and wave a friendly thank you at the southbound drivers on his left who were stopped as he crossed in front of them. But I also noted right away how bad it was that he hadn’t noticed the Don’t Walk sign across the street or me next to it on my bike waving frantically and yelling for him to stop because he also hadn’t noticed the two left turn lanes of traffic on Venice on his right that got their green arrow and had started flowing in an arc from eastbound Venice to northbound La Cienega.

Two cars in a stereotypical hurry in the No. 1 turn lane, managed to zip clear of the oncoming cyclist before he arrived, as did the lead car in the No. 2 lane. But by the time the second car in the No. 2 lane — a Toyota Prius, blessedly traveling slower and safer — entered the crosswalk, the entirely oblivious cyclist literally didn’t know what hit him as he put himself fully in the Prius’ path. The look of surprise on his face was terrifying, and in a split-second 25-feet away from me came the crunch of the collision, which drove the cyclist hard onto the Toyota’s hood, dislodging his City of Los Angeles baseball cap that fell to the ground beside the stopped car while he rebounded off it flying through the air a few feet and landing even harder on the asphalt where he rolled several times until coming to a stop about 10 feet away from the front bumber of the Prius where it had stopped, approximately 20-25 feet away from the point of impact.

In the next moment I was off my bike yelling “goddammit!” and rushing to the side of the downed rider who while obviously in pain and distress, was remarkably and thankfully free from any visible bleeding.

Kneeling beside him, he was coherent and communicative, but in Spanish, so I held his hand and urged him to stay still and not move. As the driver and passenger of the the Prius arrived and tried to keep him calm, others also gathered around I asked if someone could call 911. Someone did.

Paramedics arrived within a few minutes and police shortly thereafter, and after identifying myself as a witness to the senior officer and giving him my contact information, it was good to see that firefighters were able to help the injured man to his feet where he limped over with their help to a waiting stretcher for transport to the hospital.

Needless to say the rest of the ride to work was a safe but somber and sad one and I’m here now at my desk a little unsettled but both thankful that the occupants of the Prius were so concerned and helpful and hopeful that the cyclist’s injuries are minor ones.

During my last visit to Costco a couple weeks ago, I got stuck in a traffic jam created by some non compus mentoid who stopped her cart smack dammit in the center of her careless world, which to us unfortunates on the outside equates to the middle of an aisle whereupon the idiot adjourned to the book section to flip through a few pages of the latest Glen Beck masterpiece.

Pretty much every other cart had no choice but to come to a halt, with me at the lead of a line on one side and a procession of three elderly ladies on the other. Seeing as my momma raised me right, I opted not to do any of the following:

A) Scream “Yo wingnut! Move your fucking basket!”

B) Clear the aisle by shoving the hazard out of the way, which would mean up hard against her butt.

Instead, I stood there in resigned serenity until the first of the women coming toward me could slowly work her cumbersome cart around the roadblocker, followed by the second. When the third one passed me, she caught me by surprise in telling me “You have the patience of a saint!”

Embarrassed, I just chuckled and shook my head dismissively as I got a move on because no… I’m really not patient. At all. Or if I am the credit has to go to my bicyclingz.

Case in point: This morning I was stopped at the red light heading westbound on Venice Boulevard at La Cienega. If you’re familiar with that intersection you know there are two left turn lanes to go from eastbound Venice to northbound La Cienega, and during rush hour things can often get backed-up from the nearby 10 Freeway to the north with left-turners pulling out into the intersection where they then get stuck blocking the westbounders.

And that’s exactly what happened today — exacerbated by a monster jet-black motorhome, apparently named “Ellie May” because that’s what was written in large red letters near the front of the passenger side.

Boy howdy: You should have heard the horns and the cursing and the indignant and righteous and crude gesticulating emanating from vehicles in front, beside and behind me that immediately crescendoed and did not let up until the hapless RV driver was finally able to inch his way clear just in time for my greenlight to turn yellow and leave me waiting another long light cycle.

In the midst of it all the hyper madness I just sheepishly shook my head at the stupidity of it all while failing in my attempts to telepathically urge everyone to just chill the fuck out.

Sure, being on a bike I could have shucked and jived and hugged tight around the front or backside of the vehicle at the height of its barricading standstill and been on my way — and it’s certainly something I’ve done many times before. But in that particular moment surrounded by such a cringe-worthy and useless display of unmitigated brimstone and gall, to my surprise instead of making an escape it somehow became more important for me to stay put and represent the micro percentage of us who can display some semblance of calm in the midst of such a storm of frustration.

The facts of the roadways is that delays long or short are as inevitable as the selfish tendencies of our fellow travels who may leave us stuck at a second red light. We may end up a few minutes later getting to our destination, but in the end we all get where we’re going.

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