On the Beach: What Happened at Tower 53

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

SUNSET, DOCKWEILER BEACH, THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER. THE AIR IS STILL warm, and achingly clear and gold. The place is packed: If you want to light a fire and hang on the sand, these fire pits just south of Playa del Rey are about the only place to go. Everybody's here -- teenagers, kids, old people, black, white, Latino, sprawled on blankets and camp chairs arranged around huge ice chests, and feeling loose and good. Someone must be having a birthday; tied balloons bounce and bob in the breeze.

Then, around 8 o'clock, something starts happening near Tower 53. Four lifeguard trucks pull up, lights flashing, too many for it to be illicit beer or an oversize fire. A crowd forms, word spreads: A teenage boy's been swept out, he's missing in the water. We shiver, look. The surf is murky, all current and irregular chop. He was with his family. Someone points to a Latino man and two boys, maybe 12 and 14. They were up to their waists. They were trying to get back in. Waves hit them, and he went down. I hear he can't swim.

Five or six lifeguards hurry into the water. They form a line, dive in formation, come up again. Nothing. The father, in blue trunks, wrapped in a towel, watches, beating his thighs with his fists and tearing at his hair. Another dive. Nothing. The crowd is quiet. Some people seem on the verge of tears. A group of 30 gathers into a circle. Holding hands, they start to pray.

Another dive. Nothing. Two lifeguard boats arrive, each with a diver. Still nothing, and for someone who can't swim it's going on way too long. I'm holding on to my 9-year-old daughter and her best friend, and I can't stop looking at the father. The sun is down now -- will the search be called off? Will he have to spend the night knowing his boy is still out there, in the cold water, in the dark? Paramedics, then police, pull into the parking lot. The boy's brothers are running back and forth, one clutching a cell phone. Two rescue choppers arrive, sweeping low, shining their searchlights on the waves. The ocean looks too vast and black for anyone to spot one kid.

Suddenly everyone starts running south. Incredibly, the lifeguards have found the boy -- only 30 yards from where he vanished, floating beneath the surface in just four feet of water. They carry him to a truck, which crosses the sand to the waiting ambulance. I can see his legs hanging over the edge of the truck bed, limp. The ambulance takes off for Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, where at 8:50 p.m., Ricardo Daniel Esteves, who was 17 and from Lawndale, will officially be pronounced dead. He was right there, witnesses will tell the lifeguards. He was there, then he was gone.

The choppers and boats take off. The lifeguards pack away their gear, calling out as they divvy up flashlights. The crowd drifts away, and soon the fires are roaring again, and there's the sound of laughter and techno's hypnotic beat. Someone sets off fireworks, which fill the sky with silver and blue. In our group, the kids are burying each other in the sand, what they've just seen forgotten. I grab my daughter for the few seconds she'll tolerate. "Love the ocean," my husband and I tell her fiercely, "but never, ever let down your guard."

Here on the beach, the party goes on, but somewhere inland Ricardo Esteves' father must be weeping in pain and recrimination, his life changed in a way I don't even want to imagine. It had been a hot day, and such a beautiful night. It must have seemed the perfect time to take his family for a quick dip in the sea.

--Carol Mithers

Journeys: Cross-Country Training

LAST WEEK I RODE AMTRAK'S SUNSET Limited line -- the greatest money-losing route per passenger in the nation (hemorrhaging $340 per rider, says the Kansas City Star). My journey had the added drama of a threat from Amtrak's feisty new president, David Gunn, to stop the trains in their tracks -- perhaps that very week -- if the government didn't cough up $200 million in operating funds. The threat was somewhat overstated given how the train stopped in its tracks anyway -- several times over the two-and-a-half-day journey, waiting at sidings until freight trains passed in the opposite direction. This is because Union Pacific, not Amtrak, owns the tracks. Stopped outside El Paso for 90 minutes, I called my sister to tell her we were now running five and a half hours late and still had to cross the entire state of Texas.  

In the lounge car, everyone was talking about the potential shutdown.

"Oh yeah, they've been threatening that for 20 years," said George, who could be Nostradamus posing as the snack-bar attendant. "They keep giving us just enough to keep us dragging on for another couple of months." Four days later, just as George predicted, the government would announce a $170 million "final" bailout package to keep the trains on track through the summer.

But until that announcement was made, my train was news. Press photographers trailed us in Arizona. And across America, people actually came out of their homes to wave at the embattled train. The train was cheered when it pulled into Sanderson, Texas. But unlike Amtrak, I'm getting ahead of schedule.

ON JUNE 21, AT THE 10:30 P.M. DEPARture time, I'm in my coach-car window seat at a Union Station siding. At 10:35, after a small tug, the train grinds and squeaks north, and I'm treated to the barbed-wired vista of L.A. County Jail. There, we stop for more than half an hour. I don't know why. At about 11:10, the train rolls again -- but backward -- returning to the station for a hundred yards or so before stopping for yet another half-hour, this time on a bridge over Vignes Street. Shortly before midnight, we're finally moving with what might be called confidence, swaying, creaking and clacking across the Los Angeles River, making a wide U-turn southeast. The downtown skyline and lights of Dodger Stadium recede as the Sunset Limited hugs the 10 freeway, past Cal State L.A. and out toward Pomona. About 2 a.m., near the banks of the Salton Sea, I pop a Sominex, turn off my reading light and recline into oblivion.

You must surrender any concern for punctuality in order to maintain sanity on this train. The difference between those who cherish riding the rails across the country and those who hate it is the difference between those who can let go of time, and those who can't. For the Sunset Limited is not about getting there, it's about getting there, about the conversations with strangers in the dining car or the observation car (a special carriage with swiveling seats and windows across the roof). It's about the San Gabriel Mission or a ghost town flashing by, about watching the Mojave Desert's expanses of gnarled buckthorn and greasewood chaparral yield to New Mexico's red sands and tundra-like pepper trees.

June 22, dusk: Conductor Miller points out the Rio Grande snaking to our left. After we cross over the river, he explains, we'll be in Texas. Behind a looming fence to the right lies Juarez, Mexico: unpaved roads and homes of cardboard and tin, people barefoot in rags. On a mountain of dirt, a young couple sits holding each other, watching America pass before their eyes.

June 23, 3 a.m.: A pair of burly Border Patrol agents in dark-blue uniforms and cowboy hats beam flashlights across the sleeping passengers.

5 a.m.: Two boys, their parents AWOL, giggle, run and toss a rubber ball, which careens into my pillow. Grubby hands retrieve it, scraping my face. Bleary, I see one of them, who looks about 11, on his hands and knees in the center aisle. A rolling thunder of flatulence blows out of the child for about 10 seconds, curdling for its finale. The kid stands up and screams with delight, "I farted!"

A groggy young woman staggers down the aisle clutching a blanket. She glares at me with fury, pointing at the boys: "Are these yours?"

I shake my head no. She gives them a stern lecture about the train belonging to everyone who purchased a ticket, some of whom are trying to sleep. Chastened, they settle into their seats.

3 p.m.: A man who boarded in San Antonio fumes that the train, due to depart at 6 a.m., didn't even arrive until the afternoon. "First and last time I'm ever riding Amtrak," he bristles.

A man behind him lays back in his seat, blissful as the train rocks to and fro; his stomach bulges and jiggles beneath a tropical shirt. "I luuuhv the train myself," he answers in a Louisiana drawl, sucking his teeth. "Don't really care about the taahm . . . of course, I am retaahrred."

5 p.m.: A willowy blond woman flirts with a taciturn Latino guy -- half man, half boy, straining to be cool. Says he's 16.

"I never drink," she insists, when he offers her a slug of Jack Daniel's, tucked into his sweat jacket. In the blur of conversation, she says she's 19 and wouldn't sleep with any guy until after she's known him at least two months. "I'm gonna go to my friends in the next car," she says. "Come by and get me if I don't come back."ä  

"Okay," he says.

5:23 p.m.: She returns. "Why didn't you come get me?" she chirps. He shrugs. They talk.

7:15 p.m.: She takes her third slug of his Jack Daniel's. She makes a call on her cell phone.

7:17 p.m.: He shows her his tattoo just below his left nipple.

7:18 p.m.: She shows him her tattoo just below her navel.

7:30 p.m.: They're snuggling and whispering to each other. They kiss, on and off, for the next 45 minutes.

8:30 p.m.: An inebriated cowboy pleads with the conductor not to have him arrested in Houston for abusing the train staff.

9:30 p.m.: Houston Station, 10 and a half hours late. The conductor apologizes in what must be a memorized speech. My sister's waiting at the platform with her 2-year-old daughter perched on her shoulders.

"So how was it?" she asks.

--Steven Leigh Morris

Fashion Tales: Just Snub Me

THE THEME OF THE PARTY WAS "girly ambrosia: designer pants and pedicures." The purpose: to introduce Los Angeles to Rebecca Winn and Stacey Bendet, whose Just Pants by Alice + Olivia -- named after their mothers -- was created because the two UPenn grads, according to Fashion Wire Daily, were "tired of constantly having to tailor their clothes just so they would fit." I showed up, I admit, for the promise of mojitos on the rooftop of the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, discount prices on the Just Pants and a free pedicure, to boot.

Of course, after five years in Hollywood, I should know by now, unless you're Tiffani Thiessen, or that sexy brunette girl from That '70s Show or, at the very least, an assistant to such a person, nobody wants to sell you designer pants. And no one wants to touch your feet.

Minutes after the party started, the rooftop was crowded with tall, thin women, some of whom were already wearing Just Pants. I couldn't get near any of the remaining Just Pants for sale. They kept getting snatched out of my hands by women my friend described collectively as Body by Tae Bo.

The pants were $150 each. Some had Just Stripes. Some had Just Little Pineapples. There were handbags selling for $90.

In the pedicure room, I was No. 6 on the wait list -- not bad. Until I learned that there was actually a second list; and that nobody on the first list could get a pedicure unless the people on the second list didn't show up.

The second list held spots for Tiffani Thiessen and that sexy brunette girl from That '70s Show. Neither were anywhere to be seen.

Back at the designer sale, I told the rack girl that I liked the Just Pineapples. I asked, "Don't you have any short-girl, big-butt sizes?"

"It's called a tailor," the salesgirl said. "I'm sure you've heard of it."

Hmm, maybe she doesn't read Fashion Wire Daily.

I headed for the food -- they were serving brownies, pistachio cookies and rum, none of which was going to help anybody get into the Just Pants. Finally, I just left. I went home and gave myself a pedicure. I think the stuff was Revlon. It costs $2.99 at the drugstore. I'm sure you've heard of that.

--Leslie Gornstein

WARCHALKING IN L.A.: Wibos in Weho

AS ANYONE WHO HAS ROAMED THE streets of a major urban area with a wireless-enabled laptop can tell you, the ether is abuzz with data. This is no less true in Los Angeles than it is in San Francisco, where the tradition of "warwalking" for Internet access has been fostered by people who believe bandwidth should be free and are willing to configure their WiFis accordingly. ("WiFi" stands for "wireless fidelity," and is the nickname for wireless Ethernet networks based on the 1997 Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers' 802.11 standard.)

Warwalking, though, has never quite caught on in greater Los Angeles, in part because the Southland is short on the sort of digital Robin Hoods who beam their signals to the masses, and also because of the city's horizontal sprawl. In some areas, such as West Hollywood, a wireless connection hums every few blocks, but an open node, from which any old bystander with an 802.11b card can browse the Web, is harder to find. You could walk five miles in Los Angeles before coming across an open node, only to find your generous host has neglected to provide a comfortable bench where you can sit and read your e-mail.  

Which is why, when I read about Matt Jones' idea of marking up walls and sidewalks with chalk to alert passersby to the presence of wireless networks, I thought Los Angeles could use it. Jones, who works as an information architect for the BBC in London, stumbled one day upon a group of architectural students working their WiFi-capable laptops on the sidewalk, their office space rendered in chalk around them. When he later mentioned the scene over lunch, a friend told him how American hobos in the 1930s had devised a hieroglyphic system to help each other stay fed and safe -- a big "V" for A-OK, a "V" followed by three small triangles for free food. "That was the moment of convergence," Jones told me over the phone from London. "We needed to invent a hobo language to let people know they can get the Internet outside." Last week, Jones posted the specifications for "warchalking" to his Web log, now at www.warchalking.org, complete with a printable wallet card of the three basic symbols: Two back-to-back half-circles for an open node, a circle for a closed node, and a circle with a W inside to indicate an encrypted network. He left it open to embellishment, he said, "to watch the community collaborate on the design." He encouraged people to warchalk the world, and asked for pictures.

Our effort to warchalk Los Angeles necessarily began with a Sunday afternoon's wardriving -- scanning the boulevards at low-rider speeds for a hot spot, fishing for a signal: "Oh, uh, got one -- uh . . . oh . . . lost it," Peter would say as we cruised through a WiFi field hanging our little blue 802.11b radio out of the Jeep. When we stumbled upon a strong signal, I'd veer to the curb while he searched for some phrase on Google. If he got one, it meant the node was an open pathway to the Internet, and I'd run out on the sidewalk with our 99-cent-store marble chalk and draw half-circles big enough for drivers to spot, Peter snapping photos for Jones. Wireless networks are identified by something called a Service Set Identifier, or SSID for short, which some home networkers never bother to personalize, leaving their networks named as "WLAN" or "default." Other networks have such descriptive SSIDs that scanning the airwaves reveals a hidden layer of geography: In the hills we intercepted "doghouse"; in West Hollywood we cruised through "Jason's Air Pool." MGM sends a strong signal through the north end of Hollywood; Trader Joe's TJALL echoes all around the intersection of Third and La Brea. Not surprisingly, all are closed and secure.

Knowing that even networks deliberately left open are not without controversy, I debated whether to expose networks left open by people who didn't know better. I chalked up the sidewalks of "101" and "FransCherie" and even "fiber," unaware of their owners' intentions, but one house had a network named for its address: 615 on a certain Hollywood street. It was open, and it ripped, and we were sure they didn't know. We sat for a long time surfing -- the driveway was full of cars, the sun was shining -- and eventually drove away. Later, I came back to warchalk under cover of darkness.

I asked Jones what he thought about the 615 house. "Lots of people have been e-mailing me about what happens in that situation," he said, "and I tell them it's not up to me. But look at it this way -- if you were an evil hacker, would you leave your Zorro mark on the sidewalk? No. And you can imagine that when the 615 guy comes out in the morning, if he figures it out at all, he could either say, 'Oh cool! I meant it to be open,' or say, 'Oh shit! I've got an open network node and I've got to close it down.' Or he might discover what it's all about and say, 'Maybe I'll look in to setting up a community wireless node.'

"It's a white hacker thing to do," Jones assured me. "On the other hand, I haven't really thought through this. It's a tiny little idea that's gone crazy."

Jones' "naive hope," he said, is that warchalking will popularize free wireless Internet access. Jones' original set of symbols can be expanded to include marks indicating paid wireless and official networks. It's also art: "I see it as a filigree of symbols all over the city, draped over a map, like those little signs workmen leave behind, showing where to dig or drill," said Jones. Plus, "It's fun to be part of a club, to have a secret decoder ring. And it's much better than putting up a sign in your window saying 'Free Wireless Network Here!'"  

--Judith Lewis


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