Blood and Ink

Upstairs, there’s a video of a guy shooting himself in the head.

Well, the neck, really, and then into the head. But that doesn’t kill him. It’s the LAPD bullet that hits him simultaneously in the shoulder, piercing his body armor and severing his spinal cord that does it, that does everybody a favor. At least everybody who was in North Hollywood in February 1997, when two hell-bent, ninja-looking freaks wearing ski masks and bullet-proof vests and wielding automatic weapons invaded the Bank of America. Here at the Los Angeles Police Museum and Community Educational Center, they have a whole exhibit room dedicated to the horrendous, pointless crime that left 11 wounded (nine cops, two civilians) and — amazingly and appropriately — nobody dead but the perps.

Downstairs, there’s something else going on.

People are lining up to get into the jail cells of the museum, housed in this quaint Highland Park substation. Closed down as a working law-enforcement concern in 1983, the structure is now the last of L.A.’s classic, 1920s-built cop encampments. A book has brought us here, a new collection of beautiful, wrenching, previously unseen crime-scene photographs from the LAPD archives of the last hundred years, appropriately titled Scene of the Crime. The black-and-white shots are Mathew Brady–cum–Weegee stark and striking. Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote the forward, and underworld auteur James Ellroy penned the intro.

Both are here to sign the coffee-table book, and some 300 eager crime fans are gathered to have the duo work their respective Sharpies. The line is long, so I wander around the place. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s movie Blood Work, you’ve seen where I wander. Clint’s people fixed the joint up and filmed here, returning it to its vintage, polished-wood vibe. At the front desk sits one Cal Drake. With a name like that, you’re either a porn star or a detective. He is the latter, retired now from bunco and narcotics since ’76, volunteering his time at the museum. The Eagle Rock native actually did an overnight stint behind bars here in the ’40s, for some mild teen hijinks.

"It was a kid thing," he says, chuckling, arms folded across his chest. "No big deal."

I ask what he thinks of the public’s interest in a book of crime-scene photographs.

"They like that sort of thing. Otherwise all these cop shows wouldn’t last." Not that he watches them. "Most of ’em are garbage."

Through 24 years on the force, Drake saw his share of crime scenes, gawked his share of dead bodies.

"If they’re fresh, it don’t bother me," he explains. "But you get somebody who’s been dead a week or two in a room somewhere, there’s nothing that smells like that. That’s why I never worked homicide. Don’t have the stomach for it."

He pauses, grimacing.

"Anyway, I play a lot of golf now."

Drake greets some uniformed officers who walk into the substation. Detectives mill about, too, clad in suits that vibe plain, off-the-rack authority, and even a couple apparently undercover guys with four-day beards, rumpled clothing and guns. There are lots of well-trimmed mustaches, lots of guts — the figurative kind and the kind that hang over gun belts — and lots of quiet, clubby Cop Attitude. I see a few butch female officers with severe, shaved-up-the-back hairdos, a direct fashion descendant of the civilian girl-mullet. They all seem to know each other, these men and women, and everything I overhear is exactly what I think cops would say, just like on TV. All those garbage shows. Chummy references to old assignments in various L.A. precincts — Newton, Rampart, Hollywood — talk of har-de-har-har past cases and mutual LAPD acquaintances.

In a narrow hallway, I hear a detective tell a uniform, "Hey — I got those Manson photos. Nice prints. Not too graphic."

I make my way outside and join the line under the space heaters, along with cops and citizens, most clutching the book. The man next to me offers that he’s here for Bratton, not Ellroy.

"Let’s just say I appreciate a guy who came here from New York and didn’t turn the cars blue and white." Okay. When we reach the entrance, they’re selling hot cider, coffee and cookies, a buck a pop. They’re letting in four people at a time, just like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. I breach the arched deco entrance and wend my way past wall-mounted LAPD history, including a framed copy of the August 1961 prison "Dos and Don’ts."

Among the Dos: "Inmates having a contagious disease, or vermin, must notify officers immediately."

Among the Don’ts: "Wrestling, arguing or ‘playing around’ is strictly forbidden."

My quartet moves forward. Bratton and Ellroy sit at tables in front of the old cells, signing away. The chief, laid-back in casual short-sleeve uniform. Ellroy, shaved head, wearing small, round Bertolt Brecht glasses and exhibiting random, jaw-clenching facial twitches combined with startled anemone-style lip movements. They’re taking their time, being friendly with the fans, inscribing whatever the people want. I get up to Bratton with my book, and open it to page 83, a 2/23/38 photo of a bartender who’s just taken slugs to the chest: lying on the floor, eyes open, tie askew against starched white shirt. Not gory at all, really. His wristwatch is there on his left arm resting over his stomach, apparently still ticking away, as he is no longer.

He never knew he’d end up dead like this, let alone in a coffee-table book. In 60 years, it might be you or me.

I ask the LAPD Boss Hog to write, "To Peter, a law-abiding citizen." He looks over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses at me, and doesn’t roll his eyes, though my feeling is he wants to. Then he scrawls it out, small. Wishes me happy holidays. I move on to the Demon Dog, Ellroy himself. He digs the photo, then whips his pen across the page, over the late man’s crumpled apron, speaking loudly what he writes:

"PETER — HE’S DEAD!"

Ellroy slams the book shut, looks up at me grinning and extends his hand.

"How’s that!?"

—Peter Gilstrap

Oh . . . Canada!

When I first glanced at them, it seemed like the 50-something couple sitting behind me at last Monday’s seminar on how to immigrate to Canada were in the wrong place.

After all, they weren’t gay. They weren’t dressed in the loose and crumpled duds of old-time radicals. Their demeanor did not betray the self-serious liberal anger I’d assumed brought many of these 80 or so people to the bunkerlike conference room three escalator rides beneath the Downtown Hyatt Regency to hear about . . . the Canadian Option. The man — whose austere wooden walking cane and rotund girth pushing against his crisp, white button-down signified a preference for steak dinners over alfalfa sprouts — could’ve been a senior accounting exec attending an investment tutorial with his lovely, beginning-to-gray but still open-toe-wearing, shawl-clutching wife along for the ride.

In front of a full (but not packed) room, the Canadian option started to unfold in a business-like presentation by two immigration lawyers from the Vancouver-based Embarkation Law Group (ELG). The PowerPoint proposal, the expert analysis from men in cheap ties and the clearly focused questions about opportunities and rights lent the scene a clinical air. Whatever deep passions may have been stirred by the notion of American citizens abandoning the United States for Canada in light of President Bush’s re-election remained deep below the surface. Partisan fervor was not a talking point in ELG’s sales pitch.

The pair of 50-somethings lifted my apolitical veil soon enough, quietly conspiring about "religious fanatics running this country" and how they "may be interested in meetings like this," and commenting on the television cameras that packed the back of the room, filming "America’s deserters" stories. But by that point, the unexpected demographics and the less-than-revolutionary intentions of those gathered here to learn about trading in the Stars and Stripes for the Maple Leaf were starting to become clear.

Retirees whose Social Security checks were not yet bouncing sat next to upper-middle-whatevers still basking in the tax cut, furiously scribbling notes on taking off to the Great White North. Bookish men in black turtlenecks inquiring about intricacies of skilled-worker status outnumbered hippies wondering about British Columbia’s liberal marijuana policy two-to-nil. And though you could spot potential draft dodgers and gay partners around the room, it was obvious the media-fueled propaganda about the Canadian exodus got some of the suspect sketches all wrong.

After the presentation, Joshua Sohn, the ELG partner who spearheaded the three-stop West Coast tour (immigration seminars were also held in Seattle and San Francisco), said that at every location the average age of attendees was much older than organizers expected. "That’s why I think it’s more than just post-election anger. It’s a lot of people who came of age in the ’60s who’ve grown disillusioned."

But was the disillusionment politically and socially motivated? Or did it have anything to do with underfed economic aspirations?

Before the immigration lawyers even got to the podium, a Vancouver-area RE/MAX realtor and a representative from the Customs House, a multinational foreign exchange, addressed the crowd about investment and money-market strategies. Floating among the attendees after the two-hour session, stories of real estate dilemmas were as common as disenfranchisement over the Federal Marriage Amendment or general Blue State vitriol. More often, people mixed the two. Like the 40-year-old writer from Burbank who was motivated to pursue immigration when his rental agreement of 14 years unceremoniously expired the week of November 2nd. He took it as a sign that he should relocate to where he could afford property taxes.

There was also 30-year-old Todd Erickson, who drove up from San Diego with his partner, Omar Angulo, to attend the seminar. The pair spent a couple of minutes eloquently explaining the passive notions of gay community members unwilling to struggle for their rights, before Erickson’s aside that his desire to escape might have "a lot to do with Southern California. I can start building a life in Canada where I can buy a house for $100,000 instead of $400,000."

In the lobby, Canadian expat filmmaker Mark Wiegers unwittingly reaffirmed that the pursuit of happiness was moving north. Interviewing seminargoers for the final reels of a documentary he’s making about the evolution of the American dream, Wiegers spoke of the dichotomy between the tired masses looking to immigrate to America for its opportunities, and of unquenched American citizens struggling to attain the lifestyles that have been marketed to them below the 48th parallel — lifestyles many seminar attendees clearly sought to find in Canada (with government-provided health care to boot). In the age of global economies, that may be harder to come by than an agreeable president.

—Piotr Orlov