By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But good graffiti. Giant post-psychedelic letters visible only to us boaters -- SLICES, BOOZM, "EROKI HAS DYE BUT LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHIN"; the truly evil blue head of a monkey 6 feet high and 6 feet across, a monkey with steel teeth (why spray-paint steel or chrome teeth on a monkey?), a raspberry beret, bad junkie eyes, giant human skulls done in cobalt blue and black and racing-trim silver, dancing.
This was spooky shit. I doubted the artists had heard of New York's Basquiat. Onward we paddled, under the bridges of Macy, Broadway, Fourth Street -- eerily out-of-place Beaux Arts creations designed by Merrill Butler, L.A.'s engineer of bridges and structures in the 1920s.
At Sixth Street, I thought I recognized the storm drain where the giant atomic-mutated ants hid away in the epic science-fiction film Them. Those ants snatched two children, and took them inside their streamside nest, to eat. The Army declared martial law, moved into the riverbed with jeeps and flamethrowers. I saw no ants today, small or mutated. There was nobody and nothing here, except a distant homeless person perched on a horizontal man-hole, across the stream, first human we'd seen for miles. The silence was beginning to get to me. It was as though, over the rim, the city of Los Angeles had been taken out by Rod Serling. This might be the center of recreational boating for the Year 3000.
Just after the first Firestone bridge,the birds began to appear. It was the most depressing part of the float. Hot glistening sweet-smelling chemical Alar-air. They were sea gulls, at first, some of them feasting on other, dead sea gulls lying upturned on the apron of concrete that flanks the center channel in a speckled mess of drying and liquid scat. Then came flocks of skimmers, or stilts, hundreds and hundreds of them, tall, orange legs, white breasts, beaky pointed sandpiper bills, rising off the shallow channel, banking as a flock. They seemed angry that we were invading their territory (though for all I know they give off with the same grating screams when they mate).
Atlantic Avenue. Downey. The surface shimmered. I covered a story here long ago, where chemical workers had been â sterilized by the pesticide DBCP. DBCP killed more than nematodes. I started a novel about it, got depressed and quit.
Maybe we should have stopped at Atlantic Avenue. Play it safe. That was Rick's advice. But I thought we could make Bell before nightfall.
It was getting dark. I saw figures on the concrete bank, up ahead, a pack of boys. They saw us and grinned, jumping like coyotes. From behind them ran a tall kid with a shaved head and black T-shirt. I could see now that he had a piece of timber in his hands, what looked like a 4-by-4. He could kill us with that thing.
"Hey, howzit going?" I shouted, all smarmy and scared shitless, as we paddled by.
They said nothing. We stroked as fast as I've ever paddled in my life. The kids seemed momentarily to be staying where they were, but in seconds they were loping like wolves after us. We were really pumping, however, and we outdistanced them. The bastard with the 4-by-4 couldn't keep up.
"I can't understand what they're shouting, Denis, can you?"
"'Fuck you,'" said Denis. "They're shouting, 'Fuck you.'"
Day 3 -- Triumph
Day 3 dawned as if nothing hadhappened. The vampires had gone to bed. Today, we were back in our original sea kayaks. Mine was yellow, Denis' green. It was more cheerful in kayaks. I was laughing already. The river was running fast, contained in a slip about 12 feet wide, and dropping. Strangely, the L.A. drops more in its three-score miles than the Mississippi does in 1,500.
At Long Beach Boulevard and beyond, cement trucks drowned out the skimmers with their warning beeps. This was the Los Angeles County Drainage Area (LACDA Project), currently working to raise the river's rim. Though the scale seems immense, it's the same as building up a garden wall, higher and higher. The DPW is worried that the lower river can no longer contain the floodwaters of winter.
"The San Fernando Valley was once mostly citrus," Carl Blum, deputy director for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, explained later, "and now it is almost all homes, with streets. There is much less area for water to settle. Critics forget that in two floods in 1934 and 1938, more than 150 people were drowned. That's what drove engineers -- and I have a lot of respect for this and the last generation of engineers -- who built the river. People sit here now and say the engineers should have done it differently, but these people have been protected from flooding all these years."
But to river environmentalists, the LACDA Project is a self-fulfilling prophecy. "This is like pouring good concrete after bad," says Winter. "If we had not paved over paradise, if we thought of the L.A. basin as a catchment system, the ground could take the rains. Instead, the DPW has spent a good part of the last decade propagandizing the midcities, the industrial cities, the poor cities, that a higher wall of concrete will protect them. We suggested the whole range of macro-solutions . . . but we were branded as a pro-flood lobby from the Westside."