All Along the Watts Towers

It’s been two years since I heard Serape scream. It was early in the morning, and I was tired from having worked late the night before. I remember looking out my loft window and seeing her car. The door was ajar, but I couldn’t see her. I didn’t see anything else, so I tried to get back to sleep. Three minutes later I heard sirens. I looked out my window again and saw the gumball lights of a paramedic bus flashing. It was parked at an angle, next to Serape’s car. I was certain something was wrong. I jumped into my jeans and went downstairs. By the time I got to the parking lot, the paramedics were pulling off.

I know Felix, a Watts Towers security guard. We usually debrief each other in the morning; I let him know everything that happens on the graveyard watch so that he doesn’t walk into a blind game on the day watch. I went over to the security house and got the news.

“Some guy rode up here on a bike,” he said. “He robbed Serape, hit her in the mouth, knocked her teeth out. They couldn’t stop the bleeding. They took her to Martin Luther King.”

I listened to his words. But I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Zulema Aguirre started working at the Watts Towers, a National Historic Landmark, in 1986. She is from El Salvador. She got a job as a curator involved in the renovation of the structures, which were damaged during the Northridge earthquake. Along with her boss, Bud Goldstone, who in 1959 hooked up a 10,000-pound load to the Towers to prove to the city that they were safe, Zulema supervises all of the masonry, tile and mortar restoration.

Zulema’s last name is hard for me to pronounce. Since she wore a serape, that’s the name I used. And it stuck. I really got to know Serape when I had cause to remove a huge root growing behind the fireplace wall on the north end of the Towers. The root was undermining the fireplace structure. Serape decided that the root had to go, so one sunrise, pick and shovel in hand, I went over there and got it out. It took me all day to dislodge it. It was really hot that day. I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. For a while I thought I might dig up Sam Rodia’s old car. (There was a rumor circulating in the neighborhood that Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant who single-handedly built the Towers over a 33-year period, had buried it under the site to throw immigration officials off his trail.)

Serape took a picture of the root and me. I told her I wanted a copy. She remembered and saved the photo. She gave it to me some time later. We’ve been friends ever since.

I called Officer Phil Thompson to tell him about the assault. “It’s a damn shame,” he said.

“I begged them, Phil. But they wouldn’t listen,” I said, referring to Mark Greenfield, then director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, and his colleagues. “They need two guards working here every shift for this very reason. The perimeter is compromised.”

“What did they say?”

“Ah, they crying broke as usual. But that’s not the reason. The real reason is because it’s coming from me. And a lot of the Big Juice downtown don’t like me ’cause I require social equality in my dealings with folks, and I won’t keep my mouth shut about it.”

“Over 25,000 people from all over the world visit these towers every year,” Phil said. “They got some really nice people live in this neighborhood.”

“Serape doesn’t bother anybody, either.”

“Well, that security house needs an upstairs,” Phil added.

“Not just that,” I said. “They need cameras. They already had a guard killed over here.”

“Who knows,” Phil said, trying to sound encouraging. “They may do something to change it.”

“Sure. Just as soon as one of those tourists steps off a bus into the middle of a running gun battle.”

Serape still works at the Towers. I saw her recently. She said she had to go back for her third surgery the following week, and that she will never again be able to chew properly. She smiled. But I could see it in her eyes.

“Something is broken inside of her, Phil. She will never be the same.”

—J. Eric Priestley

Too Fast, Not Furious

I was driving home on the 101 last week with the radio up loud, when I noticed the flashing lights in the mirror. I changed lanes, thinking the CHP patrol car was after somebody else, but the flashing lights changed lanes with me. I changed lanes again. So did the police car. Yep, it was me. Great. I remembered the letter I’d just received informing me that I owed a Pomona court


a lot of money for illegally crossing out of a slow carpool lane and then forgetting to pay the ticket. I moved my car over to the shoulder. A voice from a loudspeaker barked at me to get off the freeway. I exited and pulled to the offramp’s shoulder. The bullhorn barked at me again, this time with sarcasm, to get off the ramp. I pulled around the corner.

The smallish, blond officer came up to the passenger-side window. I had my registration and license out.

“Why don’t you have your sticker on your plates?” the woman asked, noticing the 2005 sticker still attached to my registration slip.

“I do — they just sent me two for some reason.”

“Do you have insurance?”

“Yes,” I said, fumbling in my glove compartment.

“Who is it with?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You don’t know?”

“We’ll both know in a second.”

She shined her flashlight around my interior, looking for something suspicious. All I had to offer was a Subway footlong tuna on a honey-oat bun.

“Do you know how fast you were going, Mr. Donnelly?”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t know how fast you were going?”

I didn’t.

“If you tell me how fast you were going, I’ll tell you what the speed limit is.”

“I’m sorry. I really don’t know how fast I was going.”

She paused a beat. “How fast do you think you were going?”

I wished I knew. I felt like she wanted to talk about it, or about something, but I wasn’t much help.

“I wasn’t aware that I was going that much faster than the rest of the traffic,” I finally said sheepishly. “I had the radio up pretty loud.”

“You were going 70.”


“Yeah, 70. Do you know what the speed limit is here?”

I wasn’t looking for the correct answer so much as the right one.

“Mmm . . . 60?”

“No, it’s 55.”

“I see.”

“I’m feeling like being nice right now, so I’m going to let you go . . . We just buried one of our own today.”

Caught up in my own workday and life, I had forgotten about the services for Officer Thomas Steiner earlier in the day. Steiner was shot point-blank outside a Pomona courthouse by a teenager described as having gang aspirations. Steiner was the 201st CHP officer killed in the line of duty in the agency’s 75 years. Cops killed in the line of duty have been in the news lately. The suspect in last November’s shooting death of Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka had pleaded not guilty the same day Steiner was buried. In February, LAPD Officer Ricardo Lizarraga was killed in South Los Angeles. Suspects in those cases have also been described as gang-affiliated. During Steiner’s funeral services, police vowed revenge on gang members that target police. “Their day of reckoning is coming,” said CHP Commissioner “Spike” Helmick.

It felt like the dumbest of luck to

benefit from magnanimity spun from such tragedy. I almost asked her to write me the ticket, or if she wanted to get a cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” I said, weakly. “I’m sorry.”

“Be careful. It’s easy to go too fast in that section.”

The next morning I noticed a citation from the parking patrol tucked under my wiper blade. My dumb luck had run out.

—Joe Donnelly

Tryin’ To Get the Feeling

Because we’re in the process of moving out of L.A., and currently without a local home, my daughter and I have been living in a hotel. The Hollywood Renaissance is the swank high-rise on the north side of the mall at Hollywood and Highland. The last thing I see through our corner suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows before falling asleep each night is a 50-foot billboard of the Rock in Walking Tall, flanked by the mall’s northernmost edifice, with its quasi-Egyptian figures, one of which appears to carry a purse.

Every day at noon, cheers rise from the base of this wall, specifically from an oversized chaise, on which fans of Ryan Seacrest loll and scream on-cue, during the taping of his live show, On-Air. Seacrest’s peppy, promotional chatter is usually interspersed with pop music and, once, with a woman explaining the hazards of misapplied lipliner. I had never been tempted to watch from any closer than the 14th floor.


All this changed the Thursday before last when I heard Barry Manilow singing “Copacabana” over the sound system at 10 a.m. Anyone who watches American Idol, as I do, knows Manilow was that week’s celebrity judge of contestants singing from his catalog.

“Did you hear that kid sing ‘Mandy’?” one middle-aged lawyer asked another in the hotel’s elevator the morning after the show aired. “He was flat.”

“‘Mandy‚’ is supposed to be flat,” his friend said.

Now, “Mandy” was my favorite song for a month back in 1974; I’d wager it was most 12-year-old girls’ favorite song at that time. I hadn’t given Manilow much thought since, but the “Copacabana” floating up to my room was pretty catchy.

I headed down, past the doormen, past a line of pastel-clad tourists hoping to snag a spot on Seacrest’s chaise, and up to the stage, where the song was being belted not by Manilow, but a 30-something sound-alike before a full orchestra. Manilow himself would be out at noon.

I decided to wait.

The crowd gathered slowly. One woman held up a watercolor done by her 13-year-old daughter. (“That’s Lola,” she said, pointing to a showgirl with a dress cut down to there.) Others wore “Barry Fanilow” shirts. But many in the audience were simply people on the move who, upon learning Manilow was about to take the stage, looked off into the middle distance and decided to stay.

Why I stayed had less to do with nostalgia for the past than the present. Leaving Los Angeles had paradoxically landed me in the city’s epicenter, for an event I never would have left my house for. Things like this have been happening for months.

“You’re going to be on camera,” the fluffer told the audience, “so if something is funny, laugh!”

He told us to applaud, and then Manilow, with a face like a cosmetically enhanced mouse, but a pretty one, was at the piano, singing a medley that began with a version of “Mandy” that made my throat swell.

Yeah, the song got me, but not as much as watching the spontaneous rush of moths to flame, of pure pop production, of people holding cell phones overhead so the folks back home could hear. This was an essence of Hollywood that in a few weeks I will not be at liberty to sample or ignore. I can’t imagine finding myself again by chance at Hollywood and Highland, crying over a song I liked 30 years ago.

Two punkettes next to me, one with a wad of bumper stickers for the band Shiragirl, did not appear similarly moved. But then the horn section went “dah-Dah-DAH,” and Manilow blasted into “Copacabana,” pantomiming the tale of passion and loss with such verve that the crowd began to cha-cha. And the Shiragirls, who weren’t even born when the song came out, started to head-bop, and then, to sing.

—Nancy Rommelmann


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