by Dan Johnson
Memento Mori. Such was the mantra of a post-plague Europe where the omnipresence of death reminded humans of the late Dark Ages to take stock of their mortality.
The bubonic death houses of 1348 London are seven hundred years, a continent and an ocean away from Downtown Los Angeles. Yet, we would do well embrace the fragility inherent to being alive.
Anyone who has taken part in the so-called Downtown renaissance knows that a certain morbidity lurks here. Los Angeles is a town of eternal youth. People come here to assume their place in the mantle of ageless immortality undergirded with fame and fortune.
We know otherwise. Between the slew of hundred-some year old buildings brimming with happy haunts and sour spirits and the perpetual parade of grisly and tragic endings that play out in real time in our neighborhood, Downtown requires ample appreciation of one’s limited time on this earth.
It is with that spirit of ghoulish gratitude that 8.72 strikes out on a Halloween field trip. The veil between the two worlds has lifted. The dead need not seek me out. I will find them.
First stop: Spring Street Park. Grim tidings of fatal ArtWalks past yield court mediated recognition via a plaque adorned with a child’s name. He was but an infant when an extremely unfortunate case of reckless driving cut his life short. The plaque and a discolored bit of cement on Spring St outside the El Dorado where the parking meter bent beneath the car’s weight are all that remains.
Jaunt over a block and a half and you’ll find the site of a most gruesome and controversial death mere weeks ago. A jumper (or a murder victim depending on who you talk to) fell from the Rosslyn Hotel and smashed a street lamp before collapsing in a heap on Main St. Someone posted a photo online initiating a particularly vicious tirade of accusations, judgements and morality dickering. All of which neglected the most disturbing fact of all: a jumper (or a murder victim depending on who you talk to) first broke that light with a similar fatal fall in 2011. No one seemed to remember that.
Next stop on the casualty tour is the corner of 6th St and Central Ave where a bronze relief memorial outside of the Metro office honors Olivia Gamboa, the bus driver killed in the thunderous dawn crash at 5th St on Broadway in June of 2013. This institutional altar joins similar physical requiems for LAPD officers and LAFD firefighters scattered throughout Downtown.
We’re on the move now – eastward past the sites of countless unmarked horrors punctuating untold legions of lives. Cruise with me down Whittier Blvd past Odd Fellows cemetery where President Ronald Reagan delivered a eulogy in 1985 for the mass burial of 16,433 aborted fetuses in a donated grave.
Let’s pop in at Calvary and say hello to Ferdinand Morton. Jelly Roll to his friends. He claimed to have originated Jazz and the record may just support him. He played hot New Orleans jazz at a place called the Cadillac Club on Central between 5th St and 6th St in the 1910s before heading back East to tell his secrets to Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. He eventually caught a knife and a curse and drove back to Los Angeles where he died penniless and lonely, buried in a grave which lacked a headstone for ten years.
I like to visit Jelly Roll. The plot in the “Assumption” section has a nice view of Downtown. It’s always empty and a bit sad. If you go, be sure to bring Jelly Roll something nice to sip on. Maybe something from the Baby Dodds Trio to listen to.
Haste makes waste and this Halloween is starting to fade away so let us proceed farther down Whittier Blvd to the 4900 block. Here, the Silver Dollar Bar used to help folks in this stretch of East LA wet their whistles. One day in 1970, an activist journalist from the LA Times, Ruben Salazar, was covering the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War some twenty blocks away at Laguna Park. Salazar adjourned to the Silver Dollar for a beer where a Sheriff’s Deputy saw him through the glass and put a tear gas round into Salazar’s head at close range. He died there.
Two doors down from the once and famous Silver Dollar Bar, you’ll find Little Mexico, a humble mariscos joint with import beer and cheap specials.
Death exhausts me and works up an appetite for good measure. So I sign on for the $6.59 Shrimp Tacos Dorados. The place has a warm feeling like that creeping death where you suck the marrow out of every day slowly, one Tecate at a time. Two men, one Mexican and the other Salvadoran, instigate the most polite argument in the history of those two ethnicities, by which each party goes out of his way to decry his people’s racism against the other’s.
“I don’t go for none of that small shit,” says the Mexican. “Me either,” ponders the Salvadoran, “I like to keep it positive.”
I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve dropped into a bizarre alternate dimension where black is white and up is down. Have I slipped into the land of the dead?
Yes, comes the resounding answer as my food arrives in an impossibly large serving for under eight dollars. Surely this is a joke and I’m going to get fucked on the tab. But no, this bounty totals out to $7.18.
I engorge myself on parmesan cheese dusted refried beans, vegetable fortified rice, tomato mashed cabbage, fresh avocado, salad greens, two fried shrimp tacos stuffed to the gills with cheese, two varieties of succulent salsa, a bowl of lime wedges and a slice of orange.
As I pay the tab, the TVs crank with news that Jenni Rivera is back from the dead in hologram form. The thick coat of green and black and orange and purple Halloween balloons sway their approval as spectral customers dance through the fishy air aloft on a warm breeze of congeniality.
This Halloween and Day of the Dead as we pause to honor those who have gone long before us and those who have only recently passed from this life, it is important to remember the true purpose of a holiday dedicated to death—learning to savor the rich joy of being alive while you can. Eight dollars and seventy two cents at a time.