It’s been years since I’ve lived in Echo Park. I lived there before the dilapidated boathouse was refurbished and the lake dredged. Before the homeless were kicked out of the park. Before they put an end to the food vendors that filled the lake grounds on the weekends. Before the guns, shopping cart, telephone booth, and wagon wheel were found in the layers of mud under the lake. The wagon wheel was from one of the surrounding ranches from the 1800’s that no longer exist. Every morning I’d walk around the lake three times, pulling birdseed out of my pockets and throwing it into the air. But sometimes I had to be careful about feeding the birds because they would surround me with their sheer numbers. When I ran out of food I’d start to back away from the flock but they would swarm in on me, some pecking at my flesh and jabbing at my eyes. I’d walk home on Sunset Boulevard through two crumbling sandstone cliffs called “The Cut.” It always made me think of the land being blasted and chiseled to build the railroad route that once took customers from downtown Los Angeles to an ostrich farm in Griffith Park.
Sometimes when I’d walk the streets of Echo Park I could feel the forces that wanted to claim the land. It wasn’t just the moneyed people driven by greed and investments that had made their way in. The gangs that were already there would leave their hieroglyphics on the hundred-year-old walls around the houses of the neighborhood. Coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and the occasional mountain lion lurked in the hills and in our backyards at night. The incantations of the lunatic gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson preaching salvation still whispered from the Angelus Temple. And everywhere there were signs that Scientology was steadily oozing into every crevice of Los Angeles. There was an earthquake one day while I was in La Guadalupana Market. Groceries flew off the shelves and landed with a crash on the floor. Mothers pushing strollers, trailed by screaming children ran out into the street in a panic. There was also a series of fires that burned in the hills for several days, and from my room I watched them with binoculars. The cinders fell from the sky like snowflakes in the 101-degree weather.
Los Angeles is a city with amnesia. I had been one of those Angelinos who didn’t know or care what came before them. But Echo Park awakened something in me. I started to pay attention to my city. I would walk through the historic district of Angelino Heights and when I’d come upon a particularly spectacular or Victorian house I would jot down the address and look up the history of it on my computer when I got home. I found out where Buster Keaton, The Keystone Kops, and Laurel and Hardy filmed their silent movies, and where one of Mack Sennett’s studios had been. I became enamored of the rich history of the area; Hispanics comprising the majority of the population, Asians, Whites, and Blacks following them. Like most free-lance writers, my life was centered around going to the mailbox and looking for a check. So when a national magazine finally called me back and gave me the green light to go ahead and write an article I had pitched to them about the history of Echo Park, I was elated. I cranked up the music on my stereo and jumped up and down in the air, dancing around my room. Constantly short of money, I wanted to collect the $2,000 check they were to pay me, as soon as possible, so I told them I would have the article finished in five days. I worked at a brisk pace the first two days, but I realized that I needed to take a different approach if I was to make the article stand out. There was something missing from the story, but I hadn’t quite figured out just what that was yet.
I lived in a carriage house behind my landlady’s old Victorian on Kellam Avenue. A registered historical monument, it was built in 1880 to house horses and carriages during the pre-auto era. Though it was renovated, it had no heating system or air conditioner. During the summer the temperature inside my room could rise to 108 degrees. I dubbed it “The Elegant Inferno.”
It was during a heat wave on the day before my article was due that I went to a party on Carroll Avenue. I had been sitting at the counter at The Brite Spot eating a vegetable omelet when a girl next to me asked me if I wanted to go to a party that afternoon. I almost said no, but then I thought, why not? I can’t just stay inside the house and write every waking hour. I’ve got to get out once in awhile. But as soon as I got there I started to think it was a mistake. Not knowing anyone and being an essentially shy person made me feel awkward and out of my element. So I busied myself consuming a bowl of spinach dip and three beers. The girl from The Brite Spot brushed by me and said, “Hey, I’m glad you made it! Easy on that dip though, it’s potent!” I heard her giggling as she rejoined her group. I was starting to feel a little light-headed. I looked around at some of the partygoers. They were an organic group of vegan groovsters who had embraced a seventies retro look. Some were smoking weed, others were hanging out by the BBQ, and others were going skinny-dipping in the pool. I grabbed another beer and ate some more of the spinach dip. My head was really starting to swirl when I heard a girl say, “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s ALL take our clothes off! Come on, let’s get NAKED!” I watched her undo her bra and let her breasts bounce out. She took her tie-dye skirt off. She was not wearing underwear. Her full black bush was the major attraction of the group at that moment. I saw it grow at least a foot until it looked like she was sporting an enormous Afro on her crotch. Then two nude men come up behind her. They started to engage in a threesome. I’m not a prude or anything, but the whole scene was happening way too fast, and my head was spinning, and I had an article due the next day. A guy dressed in a train conductor uniform came up to me and told me that if I didn’t take my clothes off at the next stop he’d write me up a citation. I mumbled that I had to go home and left the party on horseback. I turned around before I left and saw about three hundred naked people engaged in sex acts. Some of them were up in the trees, on the fence, and on the roof.
It was only a five-block walk back to the carriage house. On the way home I had the horse take a dirt trail that followed a stream where native women were dipping jugs into the water and carrying them on their heads. Children were bathing in the stream, splashing and laughing. I wanted to join them, but there was a saber-toothed tiger stalking me (its incisors were a foot long) so I galloped at full speed all the way home. When I opened the door of the carriage house the hot air smelled of hay. I could hear the neigh of horses and their hooves clomping on the wooden floorboards. I tied my horse to the post. I heard the hammering of horseshoes and heavy work boots walking toward me. A male voice spoke to the horses, but I looked around and nobody was there. I went upstairs, turned on all the fans, opened the windows, and turned on the computer to finish my article. I sat there feeling the room sway as if I were being rocked by waves in the ocean. I looked at my hands. They were turning into bird claws. I looked in the mirror. I had transformed into an eagle.I felt myself flying around the room. I could see my wings flapping. I looked down at my bed from the ceiling and I saw how small I was sitting at my desk typing at my computer. I was only a tiny dot. A voice spoke to me. It told me to escape from Echo Park. I flew out the hay door and soared above the houses and the hills. I passed over Echo Park Lake, swooped down, and grabbed a rattlesnake in my talon. I ripped its head off with my beak and ate it. I headed toward the La Brea Tar Pits, making a crash landing in the marsh. I smelled the methane gas and felt myself being dragged under the bubbling crude oil. I was dragged through layers of primordial muck going back to the ice age. I surfaced in a vat of moonshine in an underground speakeasy in downtown Los Angeles. Drunk from the liquor, I flew through a series of subterranean tunnels, banging my head several times until I found a portal to the sky. It was the bluest sky I had ever seen. In the distance I saw acres and acres of orange trees and strawberry fields. I flew up past the clouds beyond Earth’s atmosphere and looked down at Echo Park, and saw miles of lush, green land and reservoirs. I flew up higher into space. There were stars twinkling in the darkness as far as the eye could see. Up ahead a gigantic neon billboard flashed the name, EDENDALE. It promised pure air and a temperate, healthful climate. Colossal houses rose from the nearby stars like cathedrals. A separate planet was covered with crops, livestock, and massive bodies of water. A family was floating in the darkness, holding hands, and looking wistfully off into the solar system.
Wendy Rainey’s works have appeared in Chiron Review, Carnival Literary Magazine, and many other journals. She is the founding poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, one of three poetry editors on Chiron Review, and is a four time Pushcart Prize nominee.